human rights politics

How old is humanity?

Here’s a little thought experiment that turns up in Alex Evans’ book The Myth Gap. It’s something Duane Elgin asks people, and it got me thinking. I thought I might try it out on you all, and then we can talk about it.

If you look at the way we treat each other, the way humanity behaves, what sort of age would we be if all of humanity was one individual?

In his book Awakening Earth, Elgin suggests that “Just as there are recognizable stages in the movement of an individual from infancy to early adulthood, so, too, do there seem to be stages of learning that describe our maturation as a species.” In his theory, there are seven stages of consciousness to progress through, and we’re about halfway along. A teenage phase, in other words.
Whether there are seven stages and what we might call them is up for debate, but it certainly seems that we have taken key steps in the past. The emergence of language shows a dawning self-awareness that sets humanity apart from the animal world. Settled farming, cities and culture suggest a identity being formed. Then comes science and the ability to build cumulative knowledge. Today we see a slowly forming sense that we need to care for others and for our world if we want to thrive in the future. That’s almost like growing up, that moment when you realise you need to make some plans and take responsibility.

These are developmental stages that take thousands of years to progress through, or they did at the beginning. Perhaps they are speeding up.

What do you think? Is thinking of humanity as a teenager a helpful analogy? Are we, in Alex Evans’ words, ready “to grow up as a species and begin to assume the responsibilities of adulthood?”


  1. What an interesting concept. I am a teacher, and I am thinking about how to connect some big “dots” (ideas) for my grade 4 students about Society, including Early Societies. (E.g. child labour in our society, dominant ideas in First Nations cultures about Nature, and caring for all living things). Conceptualizing some of these “dots” in the framework of maturation might work as a beautiful metaphor. I’m a new subscriber of this blog, but I am enjoying it very much already. So thought-provoking…

  2. I would say adult entering early middle age. The great change to industrial society is leveling off.

    Describing people as teenage, unless they are between 13 and 19 is generally intended to be derogatory. If I described environmentalists as teenagers, more concerned with how they are perceived that the actuality, you would feel I was insulting them, probably correctly.

    Same here. Society doesn’t agree with me, they are like teenagers unlike my more mature self… Very self flattering.

  3. Interesting thought. I’ve actually had sort of this idea about nations too, so I sort of always classified the U.S. as sort of an unruly teenager as well in terms of the age of a country. In the end though that’s not necessarily fair, given that the U.S. has many progressive values that put it far ahead of other countries that have been around for much longer. Some old countries are more like racist old men perhaps. I guess it all depends on how you decide what constitutes the characteristics of each age group. If we move beyond particular moral attitudes I do find the U.S. a little bit more reactive and having a little less sense of the deeper time that comes with an old country that has seen rises and falls over several cycles. They might still be backwards in certain ways but there is a certain patience that is indicative of an older person than a younger ones.

    Sorry for the digression but I wanted to perhaps talk a little bit about some of the difficulties in answering such a question. Because I said before, age often doesn’t necessarily mean you are smarter, and it doesn’t mean that you are more moral either. Studies of hunter-gatherer tribes reveal their societies to be more egalitarian than many of ours. They of course still had conflicts with other tribes, but within the tribe they figured out things that were lost with civilization. Farming changed the game completely and so I think that in answering this question I might say that we should perhaps begin with civilized history, rather than humanity as a whole. You can also find pockets of very equitable and moral societies throughout history and so it’s not as though many of the moral concepts we struggle with today weren’t deducible in the past. In my opinion the scientific method and the printing press was also a game changer in civilized history. The fact that we could educate more and that we could understand more about how things worked and how we came to be as a species has helped us, cognitively, in a way that we didn’t have before. Although such cognitive awareness of how the world works wasn’t always an impediment to positive morality, but perhaps from a probabilistic standpoint it made things harder.

    In Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond he makes an excellent argument about how the rise in civilizations had a lot to do with the luck of the draw in terms of where certain resources were located, and of course Europe tended to rise the strongest and came to dominate much of the modern world. One wonders how things might look different if a different world view from a different nation came to dominate the world today. Could be better or worse, but I certainly see such things making a difference. Right now I’d put us at about young adult 18-22. 🙂

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