World-Wide Problems? Blame It on the Romans

By Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer and Director of the Center for SETI Research

When it comes to seeing the glass half-full, you can't beat Voltaire's Professor Pangloss. According to this airtight optimist, "we live in the best of all possible worlds."


At first blush, Pangloss' sunny statement seems right. It's hard to argue that there was any previous era when your chances for happiness were better. Consider an obvious example: If you were stuck in Egyptian society 5 millennia ago, you might spend your entire life stacking up two-ton limestone blocks at the whim of a local potentate with a braided beard, eye makeup, and a wife who was also a sister. Variety, foreign travel, and health care were not part of the deal.

Today, you can choose your occupation and your spouse, stack up blocks with big machines, and visit just about any place other than the Mariana Trench. As a fillip, the smart phone in your pocket affords you access to more information than contained in the entire library at Alexandria, in case you occasionally become puzzled or bored.

Living in the present: What's not to like?

Only this. We were all born too soon.

Here's why. For most of humanity's history, it didn't matter much when you were born. The lives of those in generation 5,231 were no different than those of generation 5,230. Millennia could plod by, and our ancestors would mostly just plod along.

Of course, that began to change at the end of the last ice age, when agriculture begat what we now call civilization. But the real revolution was more recent. To appreciate the effect of what we now call "progress," consider what life was like a mere thousand years ago. Sure, if you were lucky you might get to occasionally wear chain mail, but neither you nor your neighbors had indoor plumbing, let alone deodorant.

Since then, change has become so rapid that it very much matters which generation is yours. The lifestyle of your great-grandparents is the subject of documentaries, and it frequently seems both strange and primitive. The shift has been withering: In the last hundred years, life expectancy in the U.S. has gone from 49 years to 79 years. We have cars, jets, television and the ability to sequence DNA.

But think of the things we will have a hundred years from now. Barring societal implosion, our great-grandkids will boast the cure for Alzheimer's and cancer, live actively for five score years, and enjoy vacations in orbit. That kind way of life sounds as if it might be a superior candidate for being the "best of all possible worlds."

Now what's troubling about all this is not that the future could be bright, but that we came so close to the big score and missed. We're talking about a qualitatively improved existence that's within tasting distance. Ten thousand generations of Homo sapiens, and we missed by three.

Just the luck of the draw, right? Well, personally, I'm not so easily mollified. I believe someone's to blame for this bum rap, and an obvious candidate is the Roman Empire. Or more precisely, its fall.

After the Western Empire collapsed in 476 c.e., the Europeans sat on their hands for at least 500 years. That's more than just a coffee break. Think of where we could be with 500 more years of progress. So it's tempting to argue that the widespread poverty and disease that fester and pester us today would be merely a memory if the Roman Legions had only manned up and defended their emperor.

So I've been thinking of filing a complaint somewhere. However, people more versed in history than I have suggested that my blame game is wrong. It's simply not true that all civilization took a time out for half a millennium. India, the Islamic Middle East, northern Africa and China were still doing their thing, despite the calamity that befell Rome. In addition, it's not clear that the Romans were the best society to be in the vanguard of a march to modernism anyway. Slavery, in particular, seriously dampened their incentive to invent new machinery. And they never seemed all that interested in science.

So here's another whipping boy we can indict for missing out on a better world: the asteroid belt. As every school kid knows, a six-mile-wide asteroid was apparently responsible for wiping out the dinosaurs (and most other life) 65 million years ago. That, as we know, gave mammals their big break, and eventually evolution produced us.

But the dinosaurs had been stomping and chomping for 150 million years before their dramatic demise. In fact, they were overdue for a big rock, as killer asteroids hit the Earth roughly once every 100 million years. Indeed, the probability that such an asteroid would impact within 150 million years after the dinosaurs appeared is at least 77.6870 percent.

However, here's the thing: the probability that it would hit within 149.9999 million years is hardly any different: 77.6868 percent. In other words, with only the most trivial of changes to the behavior of asteroids, we might have shaved a century off the reign of the dinos. We could be living the good life. We could be members of a more privileged generation.

It just didn't happen that way, a fact that keeps me up at night.

On the other hand, there's solace to be found. The killer asteroid impact could have easily, and slightly more probably, occurred a few hundred years later. In which case, we might still be riding horses and getting the pox.

So I'll try to be grateful for what I've got. At least there's deodorant.