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Saturday, December 15, 2012

58. The Pyrocultural Energy Regime



In Part 56 I told you about the various energy revolutions and energy regimes that followed the emergence of life on Earth. Here is a recap:

                           Thermophilic regime
~3.8 billion years ago     |     Photo-energy revolution
               Phototrophic regime
~2.1 billion years ago     |     Oxo-energy revolution
               Aerobic regime
~0.5 million years ago    |     Pyro-energy revolution
               Pyrocultural regime
~12000 years ago        |     Agro-energy revolution
                           Agrocultural regime
~400 years ago                     |     Carbo-energy revolution
               Carbocultural regime

Humans are 'thinking reeds'. Their emergence on the scene (cf. Part 57) had a societal and cultural aspect, which impacted very strongly what would otherwise have been purely raw, blind-forces-of-Nature evolution.

Humans have been instrumental in the creation of an ‘anthroposphere’, comprising of the following four 'anthroposystems' (Niele 2005):

Human knowing (leading to discovery, or new observation).

Human capacity (leading to invention, or new creation).

Human action (leading to innovation, or new practice).

Human living (leading to diffusion, or new way of living).

The anthroposphere emerged ~2.5 million years ago, near the end of the aerobic energy regime. Early humans observed the hardness of stones and the sharpness of some shapes of stones. This was ‘discovery’ or earth wisdom (the first of the four anthroposystems listed above).

The next stage was ‘invention’, namely the creation of tools (axes, cleavers, picks) by striking stone against stone (stone technology).

Innovation followed invention. The invented tools or artefacts were used for procuring and processing food (foraging and scavenging).

All this changed the way of living; an example was the emergence of the practice of cave dwelling.

Man the toolmaker and cave dweller could survive and thrive through his earth wisdom or comprehension of his surroundings. The dominance of the human species triggered the pyro-energy revolution, resulting in the pyrocultural energy regime.

The aerobic regime had changed the face of the Earth. The new-look planet got ~20% oxygen in the atmosphere, and supported plants and animals. Niele (2005) has pointed out another important fallout of the aerobic regime, namely the appearance of wild fire on the scene. A new energy gradient had emerged, with wood plus oxygen serving as the energy source. The energy sink for this gradient was carbon dioxide plus water.

In due course, humans acquired mastery over fire. This was a development with far-reaching consequences. Anthropogenic fire can be said to have marked the beginning of the human civilization. It engendered the beginning of the pyrocultural energy regime. The new energy-dissipating structure (based on wood-burning) was societal in nature. Fire mastery meant several things: Heating; lighting; roasting of food; scaring away animals, and most significantly, the emergent social intercourse around the fireplace.


The societal aspect of the pyrocultural energy regime had ever-spiralling fallouts. The ever-increasing energy dissipation (through burning of wood) took the System Earth farther away from equilibrium, leading to the emergence of new kinds of complexity. Since the fire economy was a societal dissipative structure, the emergent phenomena were cultural by nature (Niele 2005). As people tended to assemble around the fireplace, emergent phenomena like coordination, communication, spoken languages, symbolic thinking, etc. were the result.

Evolution of complexity in an energy-dissipating system involves a driving force and a shaping force. The driving force here, of course, was solar energy trapped in wood. The shaping force was human ingenuity.

Thus, for the pyrocultural energy regime:

Energy source: Wood plus oxygen for creating controlled fire.

Energy sink: Carbon dioxide plus water.

Energy-dissipating pathway: Societal structure around the fireplace.

Chief drivers: Humans.

The key phrases for the four anthroposystems characterizing the pyrocultural regime are:

Symbolic thinking (discovery);
fire technology (invention);
hunting and cooking (innovation); and
nomadic bands (new way of living).

Humans had observed wild fires and the burning of wood, and also experienced the heat of the fire. They soon learnt how to create and sustain this fire in a controlled manner. The fireplace became a daily practice, making cave dwelling more attractive. This had a major influence on the life style of people. They could not only hunt with their tools, they could also cook the food.

There is a new (2011) book Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, by Nathan Myhrvold et al. Among other things it explains in an appetising manner how cooking made humans smarter. Cooked food is akin to pre-digested food in certain ways. Therefore it takes the load off the intestines, thus making extra energy available for the brain. This was one of the factors leading to an increased brain size of humans, compared to the apes.

Since humans cook their food, they spend just 5% of the day eating. Uncooked food is hard and stringy, requiring hours of chewing and still not giving the same level of nourishment. The extra time available to early humans enabled them, among other things, to look for new kinds of food, gather fruits, or lie in wait of animals for hunting.



The fireside not only resulted in the emergence of nomadic culture, it also provided the right milieu for the development of symbolic thinking. The fireside became the hub of social evolution, and its most important fallout was the uniquely human trait of symbolic thinking. This led to the development of language, as also an increasingly sophisticated way of looking at Nature. The coevolution of brainpower and technology, or 'memes' and artefacts, accelerated. [As I shall discuss in a future post, memes are the social equivalent of genes.] Humans even created ‘nonuseful’ artefacts like jewellery and musical instruments.


Emergence of symbolic ‘doings’ like these has been viewed by Niele (2005) as a Symbolisational Signal, which triggered the agro-energy revolution, and the consequent agrocultural energy regime. More on that next time.