I'm one of those strange people who loves thinking about theoretical science. One of my favorite sciences is astronomy, and although it is one of the "hard" sciences, I seldom pay enough attention to the exact numbers and specific facts. I don't find them all that interesting. I prefer to think about the "maybes". Therefore, I'm afraid, the following short essays will be largely speculative, and, from time to time, will be based on facts that may not have every detail. And yet, for nearly my entire adult life, I've been an avid follower of the developments and findings in this field. Regardless, then, I'd like to share these speculations with you. I've divided them into four parts, organized, astronomically speaking, from the very small (our own planet), to the very, very large (the universe).
PART I: The Planet Earth
This section will rely heavily on Jared Diamond's astonishing book "Guns, Germs, and Steel", in which he attempts to explain how and why our western civilization grew and flourished, while other civilizations throughout history did not.
In order to more fully understand Mr. Diamond's ideas, a short review of man's evolution and history is needed. The fossil evidence overwhelmingly supports the idea that the ancestors of humans evolved in Africa. Eventually, bands of hunter-gatherers found their way to the Eurasian continent. In time, our Neanderthal cousins became extinct, while our direct ancestors, the Cro-Magnons, quickly spread throughout the continent. Agriculture and animal domestication began in the fertile crescent (modern day Iraq) around, if memory serves, twenty thousand years ago. In fact, according to Diamond, there is strong evidence to suggest that at approximately the same time, this discovery was being made in the Orient as well.
It is frequently inferred, since western civilization quickly spread throughout a vast amount of the Eurasian continent, that somehow, our civilization is superior to other civilizations that we have overwhelmed or pushed aside, or that Caucasians are therefore more intelligent than the aboriginal inhabitants of Africa, Australia, or the Pacific islands. Nothing could be further from the truth. The phrase, "being at the right place at the right time", would be much closer. In his book, Diamond notes three phenomena that greatly aided the people of the fertile crescent to develop a civilization, and to rapidly expand. Those phenomena are the availability of domesticable larger animals, the availability of a sufficient number of plants that could be used in the development of agriculture, and the orientation of the continent itself. By orientation, what is meant is whether the continent is primarily north-south, or east-west. As most people are aware, our planet has climate zones that run east-west. So, for example, a fledgling agricultural civilization in the temperate zone of South America, in order to find another similar temperate zone in the Americas that their crops could grow in, and where their domesticated animals could thrive, would have to travel thousands of miles north into the unknown, cross many hundreds of miles of jungle, then many hundreds of miles of arid desert, to reach the temperate zone of North America. That didn't happen because they would have found it nearly impossible to feed themselves on their long journey; they would have found themselves in unfamiliar climates where their crops would not grow, and where their animals would starve. The same can be said about a journey across the north-south orientated African continent, with the exception of the small area north of the Sahara, that had an east-west orientation.
The Eurasian continent, however, was completely different. Here was a continent that was primarily temperate, and as you traveled either east or west, stayed that way. In comparison, it was much more likely that your crops would grow in your new found home, and your cattle or sheep or pigs would thrive. Relatively speaking, the people of the fertile crescent spread like wild fire, because every circumstance was in their favor. If the continent had been orientated north-south, and Africa east-west, it is very likely a completely different civilization would have thrived, all because of the ease of being able to feed themselves while they traveled to a new place to live. We owe our success, then, to a set of circumstances that any other people in the world could have just as easily taken advantage of. We were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.