From what is presently known, Homo sapiens—the modern form of man—has existed on earth for approximately a hundred thousand years in numbers large enough to constitute a population. Barring catastrophic accidents, it can be expected that man will continue living on earth for many millions of years. Using a somewhat fanciful kind of arithmetic, it can be calculated from these figures that the present age of humanity corresponds to very early childhood in the life of a human being. Pursuing still further the same far-fetched comparison, reading and writing were invented a year ago; Plato, the Parthenon, Christ, date from but a few months; experimental science is just a few weeks old, and electricity a few days; mankind will not reach puberty for another hundred thousand years. In this perspective, it is natural that so far mankind should have been chiefly concerned with becoming aware of the world of matter, listening to fairy tales, and fighting for pleasure or out of anger. The meaning of life, the problems of man and of society, become dominant preoccupations only later during development. As mankind outgrows childhood, the proper use of science may come to be not only to store food, build mechanical toys, and record allegories, myths, and fairy tales, but to understand, as well as possible, the nature of life and of man in order to give more meaning and value to human existence.

(René Dubos,The Torch of Life)

I'm not sure if this is the right place to ask, but I took this excerpt from an introductory philosophy book. What is this fanciful arithmetic? Why would one consider mankind at it's childhood and what would be an adult mankind?

2 Answers 2


What is this fanciful arithmetic?

It is described in the quote you give us, just before the passage you emphasized.

Mankind has existed for approximately 100,000 years. It is expected that mankind will continue living on earth for many millions of years. 100,000 years is to many million years as childhood is to a full life.

  • I thought it had also to do with something beyond time.
    – Red Banana
    Aug 26, 2012 at 13:54
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    What leads to you think that? It seems to me that the comparison is being made very explicit. Aug 26, 2012 at 14:56
  • I usually think that adultness is not only the time you spent alive - it has also to do with something else. I just dunno if I'm right.
    – Red Banana
    Aug 28, 2012 at 15:23
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    It has to do with maturity, but that is a function of age in this metaphor. I suspect that you are overanalyzing this; the point he is making is not a difficult one. Aug 28, 2012 at 15:28
  • Yes. I admit that I do this (overanalyzing) several times. I don't know if someone asked this before on PhSE but, Is there a book on what should be understood while reading philosophy texts? Since my teenager years I used to think that there's something secret behind everything I see/think. Argh.
    – Red Banana
    Aug 28, 2012 at 15:35

The base of this question is the legitimacy of comparing human ontogeny with human phylogeny. 2 obvious questions are: what would the same comparison look like with tool-using chimpanzees? where does the millions of years figure come from?

For a good entry point into this area I suggest soviet era psychologist/philosopher Lev Vygotsky. One title that relates to your question is:

L. S. Vygotsky and A. R. Luria: "Studies on the History of Behavior: Ape, Primitive, and Child".

Based on examining the phylogenetic, historical, and ontogenetic development of human behavior and cognition.

Interesting secondary source.

Why would one consider mankind at it's childhood and what would be an adult mankind?

I cite these because the more these two phenomena are investigated, the more it seems making inferences about phylogenetic developments from analogies with ontogenetic developments is only possible if an unwarranted degree of simplicity is assumed.

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