Not long ago, in a wide valley between tumbled hills, there lived a tribe of a couple dozen creatures. They walked upright on two legs, swinging their arms back and forth at their sides with each pace. They appeared mostly defenseless and harmless, without large teeth or strong jaws or sharp claws, and their forward-facing eyes flicked nervously from side to side in an unceasing vigil for food and predators. In the valley’s thickets they searched for berries, nuts, and roots, and occasionally scavenged a few strips of meat from a lion’s kill, furtively stripping the cold flesh from the bones and gulping it down with delight. At night, they huddled together for warmth in a cave near the head of the valley. They slept lightly and muttered noises to one another that held some ill-defined scrap of meaning.
One day, a healthy male of the tribe, who responded when his fellows cried out “Aba”, wandered off down a well-worn trail. The day was fair and warm, and Aba was aware, with an emotion akin to happiness, of the blood pulsing in his veins and the movement of his muscles. He walked, his head upturned to gaze at an eagle circling above the valley, and he did not notice that a sinkhole had collapsed across the path on the previous night. Aba stumbled in, landing with a grunt on his elbows and knees.
He picked himself up and stared around with alarm, crouched to fight or flee. Gradually he straightened and paced tentatively around the sinkhole’s floor. The walls were sheer but not very high; if he stretched his arms high above his head he could almost reach the rim. He jumped and grabbed, but the yellow earth crumbled beneath his fingers, and he fell back down.
He tried again, and again, until at last he tired and squatted down in the shade to rest. And slowly an image trickled into his mind, of standing higher…closer to the rim…on higher ground…a pile of earth. Yes. He looked about for a pile, and saw none. His brow furrowed in frustration. A pile! He needed a pile of dirt. The unfamiliar sensation of need for an object felt the same as hunger and lust. Angrily he picked up a handful of soil and threw it across the pit. He grabbed another handful, but then stopped, and let the earth trickle out between his fingers, to form a little heap at his feet. He repeated this. And then he recognized what he could do. He began scraping, pushing, piling the dirt beside the wall. He climbed on top of the pile, sank in a bit, and reached. Too short! Need more dirt. Bit by bit he enlarged the mound until it was as high as his waist, and by that time the sun had dipped too low to be seen from within the hole. He stood atop the pile and, with a furious effort, reached up, grabbed a rock that was sticking out at the edge of the surface, and pulled and heaved himself up, his feet scrabbling at the wall, until he threw his right foot over the rim and crawled out. Then he paused a moment, looked around, scratched the dirt from his body, and loped off to the sleeping-cave, where he forgot all of it.
Three days later, Aba went down the same path. Again, he was looking elsewhere, and did not see the sinkhole before him, so he tumbled in just as before. He sat on the bottom blinking confusedly for a little while, then his eye fell upon the pile he had made before. Rain had fallen the previous evening and washed it partially away, but Aba remembered now. He rebuilt the pile, stood atop it, clambered up the wall and was free. The danger behind him, it left his mind, and he walked off.
He fell into the sinkhole again the next day. Immediately he looked for the dirt-heap, and did not see it. He noticed, too, that the pit was deeper now; though he could not understand it, all his stomping around in it had weakened the bottom, and it had collapsed further. Aba rebuilt the pile, working hard all day long to build it as high as his head. Then he climbed it and escaped once more.
And, since he knew how to get out of the sinkhole, he fell in more and more. It became a habit whenever he would take that path, and sometimes he would even jump in, out of joy—or fear. One day he hid in the hole from a lion whose roar he heard. The hole got deeper as days passed, and parts of the bank fell in around it as Aba loosened the earth. One day, a tree fell into the hole. Aba paid it little mind and escaped as usual. But when he tumbled in a few days later, and found the hole deeper than ever before and his escape-pile gone, he looked about, wondered, and stared at the tree as thoughts rumbled sluggishly through his mind. He rose after a while and tugged the tree so that one end was propped against the side of the pit, then shimmied up its trunk to liberty. For many weeks afterward, he had a ladder. But the hole became deeper, and the tree broke down in the hot sun and rain, and soon it would not reach close enough to the edge. So Aba, after thinking for a bit, climbed up the trunk, broke off a branch, and used it to dig into the wall of the hole, forming a slope that he could crawl up on his belly. He stood on the edge, pleased.
A year passed. In the summer, he lusted after a young female of his tribe, and followed her down the path he knew so well. She stopped near the edge of the pit, coyly looking up at him. He surprised her utterly by grabbing her shoulders and hurling her in, then jumping down himself. And after his genes had been passed on, Aba showed her how to climb out by the dead tree and the ramp he had dug. He pushed her in a few more times after that, then she too became unconcerned by being in the sinkhole, and would go down of her own free will. The two passed the night within the hole more than once. On one occasion, a lion followed them down, but Aba took his digging stick, drove the beast into a corner, and then—wonder of wonders—killed it. He hauled the carcass out of the pit and set it up as a warning to other predators.
The female eventually found her pregnancy too much to bear when climbing out of the pit, so she stayed within, and Aba brought food to her from above. A few berry-bushes had sprouted in more stable regions of the sinkhole floor, and she could gather fruit there. She gave birth one evening in the shade of the dead tree’s limbs, and the newborn’s cry echoed against the walls of the pit.
The pit sheltered the first steps of the young creature, and when his siblings came, they played with their mother and father within its earthen embrace, and rarely saw the outside until they were old enough to climb up on their own. The dead tree at last succumbed to time and decay and collapsed, trapping the family within. Aba worked manically to free himself from the pit, digging away at its walls, climbing precariously from stone to stone, until he was out and had disappeared into the world beyond. The female and her children sat anxiously. When Aba returned, he had not brought food; instead he came exhausted and dripping sweat, having hauled a great fallen tree from several hundred paces away. He slid it down into the sinkhole, carefully resting its end at the hole’s edge.
Aba and his mate did not go back to the cave anymore. Several years later, a pestilence fell upon their old tribe. The handful who survived came back to the cave one day to find that a lion had made it its home. Unwilling to risk themselves in evicting it, and fearful of sleeping in the open, they walked down to Aba’s pit. He let them climb down and spend the night. Soon they too dwelt permanently within it, and birthed and raised their children there.
The hole deepened and widened as its inhabitants climbed and dug and ran about. They left the pit less and less often, for plants were growing within it now, and animals strayed into it every once in a while. There was plenty of food, and safety, and clean water collected from a little pond formed by a seepage in the wall. The children grew and chose mates and had children of their own. Aba and his mate grew old; their hair turned grey and their muscles shrank into wiry filaments beneath rough, wrinkled skin. One morning, the dwellers within the hole found Aba’s body lying cold and vacant in his sleeping-spot. Their grief was more than usual; something stirring within them knew that this man had been different. Unwilling to cast his corpse aside as they always had before, they dug out a pit at one end of the pit and placed his body within it. They set his favorite flat-ended digging stick beside him, then covered him up with the dirt he had shown them how to move. His mate died soon thereafter, and was buried beside him.
Years passed within the pit. Babies were born, grew into adults, had babies of their own, grew old, and passed away and were buried. The population of the little tribe expanded, and they chiseled into the walls of the sinkhole to make room for them. They started to make containers out of dried mud, and learned to weave plant fibers. From fibers and animal skins they created mats and rugs to sit on, and then started to wear these to stay warm in the cold and cool in the heat. They made tools of wood and stone, and when lightning started a fire within the pit one day, they noticed the flames’ ability to char meat and hollow out wood. Years later, a young woman noticed the shiny drops of metal that oozed out of a hot rock amid the glowing coals.
Someone noticed that a seed could grow into a plant, and so they began to scatter seeds on the ground, instead of eating all that they gathered. Several goats that had fallen into the pit and survived were tamed, and the people started to drink their milk and eat their meat. One young couple, lacking enough shade for comfort in the hot summer months, built an oval wall of mud and covered the enclosure with sticks, rushes, and leaves, then sheltered within during the sun’s zenith. Soon many others copied the idea, and a little huddle of houses appeared next to the spring. And people bustled among the houses and gardens and goat-pens, working on getting food and making tools. It took more work to survive down in the sinkhole than it did above in the wide world, but few of them knew this, and the people were generally content. But life was more complicated, and their minds grew to deal with this. They no longer grunted uncertainly like Aba; there were words now, and people had mysteriously found a consensus about how to use them.
The vague assortments of huts grew into villages and towns. There were little fields now, and pastures for goats and cattle, and irrigation channels. The sinkhole, too, had grown. The activity within it strained its weak foundations continually, and it sank deeper, while swaths of adjacent land fell in to join it. Only a few of the oldest noticed this and spoke vaguely of a time when life had been simpler and less bustling, and one could climb up out of the pit more easily to sojourn in the outside world. But time moved on, the pit deepened, and a day came when no one made the difficult and exhausting climb to look upon a land without walls. Stories of ancestors were enlarged and peopled with misplacements and imaginings, and tales were told of the gods who lived beyond the pit, and who had shaped the first man out of the yellow dirt. Some men took up the task of communicating with these gods, and interpreting their doings and signs. Others chose the business of ruling mankind, for the complexity and confusion of life created disputes to be settled profitably.
Generations passed. The pit grew crowded; men fought little wars and conquests in it, and they grew better at governing and dominating. Others sought out the reasons why things acted the way they did, and philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians appeared in the streets of the towns. The role of the gods in human affairs was earnestly debated, as was the place of the pit in the cosmos. Some denied that there was anything beyond the pit, declaring that it was all of creation—and who of the masses seething within its depths could deny them? Most cared little and gave no attention to such ideas. The pit was their world, and all that truly mattered in their lives. There were plenty of tools to make life in the pit easier, faster, and more pleasant, and the tools were always improving. Iron shovels replaced wooden spades. Iron shoes were placed on horses, and iron helmets on soldiers.
A scientist down at the eastern end of the pit, while trying to make gold, had inadvertently and disastrously created a powder that exploded at the touch of a spark. Someone stuffed it in a heavy iron tube, and had the idea of using it to throw things across the pit at dangerous velocities. This became popular among those of vengeful or rapacious temperament. A little later, a man observed steam rising from an iron kettle, and experimented with using steam to push things around instead of men and cattle. Another man placed his steam-engine on a cart, and chugged across the pit on steel rails.
Some looked upon the steam-engines and exploding powders with aversion. “Life was better before all this,” they muttered in consternation. They were ignored. And to many, the steam-engines were an improvement. The pit was crowded, and efficiency was deemed important to ensure that as many people as possible lived in comfort.
“Then why don’t we leave the pit?” said a few, who were visionaries and rebels from accepted knowledge.
“Leave the pit!” came the constant, derisive response. “That’s insane. The pit is home. We’ve always been in the pit. There might not be anything but the pit, and anyways, we could never know. We can’t prove that anyone has ever been out of the pit. Old myths are no evidence. A better proposal is to make the pit larger. The new steam-engines can drill into the Pit-Wall like nothing you’ve ever seen!” A few among them murmured, with excited gleams in their eyes, that they might discover other pits beyond their own. The more imaginative ones debated what sorts of other creatures might inhabit those unknown pits. Sounding devices were created that could peer deep through the walls of the home pit looking for distant cavities, and massive digging machines were designed to bridge the intervening earth and rock. And within the pit, the quickening beat of Progress promised wonders to all who would listen.
* * *
Here the parable must pause. The story that Aba began is our story, and we have followed it to the present. What comes next in the plot is being determined, at this very moment, by seven billion minds and pairs of hands.
To me, the future of humanity is the most interesting subject imaginable, because of its complexity and relevance. Today, our species is advancing scientifically, technologically, and socially at unprecedented rates. The forces behind this advance, how we and our world will change in response, and any other evolutionary paths we might take will be the subjects of my musings and writings on this blog. Through fiction, fact, and things in-between, I will explore the intersections of technology, science, society, mathematics, culture, and the human spirit, as they create the world we inhabit.
The pit of Aba’s destiny could be many things: our planet, our universe, or the boundaries of human intellect and behavior. Whatever its meaning, it is the grand scene for humanity’s existence. So join me, as I examine all within the pit—from the minutiae of individual objects and acts, to the mighty waves and tides of human behavior. Here, we can sit in a high place, elevated above the pit’s hubbub, so that we may see it clearly. I do not know what we will observe, but I promise that it will be a fascinating journey. And perhaps, if we squint a little, we can see past the choking dust that fills the air, to discern the edge of the pit, and a hint of reality beyond.