Monday, April 15, 2019

Wild Free and Happy Sample 13

[Note: This is the thirteenth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 200 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.]

Modes of Communication

All forms of life, both plants and animals, seem to communicate in various ways, sending and receiving information with the life around them, via sounds, smells, chemicals, behaviors, gestures, and so on.  When I walk through a forest, I often hear warnings of my arrival being announced by noisy birds or squirrels.  On dark nights, when I quietly wander past a pond where the spring peepers are roaring in celebration, they all suddenly become silent.  In a rainforest, some calls warn of an approaching leopard, while different calls broadcast a snake alert. 

Modern humans do not perceive or understand most of the constant communication taking place in the natural world.  Jon Young learned nature awareness from his mentor, Tom Brown, and became highly attuned to bird language.  One time, he went along on a field trip with ornithology students.  He heard a call that warned of an approaching Cooper’s hawk, and mentioned this to the others.  The professor winced and hissed “that’s impossible!”  A minute later, the bird flew by.  The students were amazed.  They wondered why their highly educated professor did not understand bird language.

Clive Finlayson mentioned that hunters in Spain still use traditional technology to attract birds.  During breeding season, they blow on rabbit bone whistles that imitate the mating calls of quails.  Upon hearing the fake urgent pleas for hot romance, lust-crazed males would speed to the hunters, who could then catch them with their bare hands.

Nonhuman animals communicate about the here and now: “tiger coming.”  Without words, baboons can communicate irritation, contentment, excitement, and so on.  In addition to this basic mode, humans also have the ability to vocalize unusual sequences of grunts, clicks, gasps, and moans.  Words enable the possibility of extremely complex communication.  We can jabber about the here and now, the future, the past, events in other places, and a million other subjects.

Communication is sometimes mysteriously telepathic.  Robert Wolff was astonished by the Sng’oi people of Malaysia.  Whenever he made a rare unannounced visit, someone would be waiting for him on the trail, ready to lead him to their current camp.  How did they know he was coming?  They said that a feeling inspired them to go to the trail, be there, and respond to what happened.  Jon Young told a similar story about the Bushmen of the Kalahari.  Whenever you came to visit them, someone would be waiting.

We are the word critters.  Words bounce off our lips and tongues, zoom through the air, and plunge into the ears of others.  We learn words, speak words, hear words, think words, dream words.  Nobody knows exactly when hominins began using words, but many scholars have imaginative opinions, none of which are supported by compelling archaeological evidence.

The first words babies learn are nouns (mama, dada).  Then comes verbs, stuff to do (pee, poop, eat).  Later comes feelings (happy, sad, tired, afraid), and abstractions (good, bad, progress, capitalism).  At about 18 months, we begin assembling words into sequences.  Everything significant to us has a name — other people, species of plants and animals, rivers, hills, stone formations, stars, tools, and countless others.

Paul Shepard wrote about two scientists who raised young chimps in their home, along with their own children of similar age.  The chimps were at least as intelligent as children, until the children were three or four, learned language, and left the chimps in the dust.  If the kids had been raised by wild chimps, they would have grown up to be intelligent animals, free from the enormous burdens of our cultural baggage, much of it unwholesome and crazy making.

Complex language was certainly an asset for survival in the hunter-gatherer days.  It increased our ancestors’ ability to conjure clever new tricks and accumulate them.  Over time, the power of the word critters intensified.  At some point in the long journey, excess cleverness forced them to swerve over the line of ecological balance, and into the helter-skelter lane.  Hominins got too big for their britches in the dance of the family of life.

 Cleverness never rests.  The growing herd developed a growing ecological footprint.  Food resources became more and more scarce, forcing the transition into plant and animal domestication.  By and by, this led to a huge escalation in the power of the word critters.  They learned how to encode words into visual symbols that could be penned or painted onto papyrus, scratched into clay, chiseled into stone, cast into metal, converted into digital pixels, and so on.  Then the word symbols could be arranged into sequences that conveyed important, detailed, informative meanings (similar to the fascinating stories told to hungry San trackers by the spoor of horny warthogs).

It’s interesting that the oldest written story found so far is the Epic of Gilgamesh, the saga of a lunatic king who built the imperial city of Uruk, in what is now Iraq, in about 2700 B.C.  The story, scratched into clay tablets, describes a lecherous slime ball who worked hard to expand organic agriculture by deforesting lands along the Euphrates River, which triggered catastrophic erosion and flooding, and pissed off the gods.  By 3200 B.C., Uruk was the biggest city in the world, home to 25,000+ people.  Today, Uruk is a crude pile of brown rubble sitting amidst a desolate barren moonscape.  Its spoor has an important message for ambitious glory seekers: “Don’t live like we did.”

In a previous section, we jabbered about how the rate of technological innovation was accelerated when people lived in dense populations, and were exposed to ideas and gizmos from other cultures, via long distance exploration, trade, and conflict.  In the digital age, the flow of exotic information has shifted into warp drive.  Technology enables written words, spoken words, and images to be sent to the other side of the planet in a second, with the click of a mouse.

On my bookshelves are rows of manuscripts written by many thinkers, from different cultures, from different eras — a crowd of interesting minds and stories.  We have never before been able to store such vast amounts of information.  And we have never before lived in such a destructive manner.  This is not a coincidence.  Almost all of that information is about stuff that is unhealthy, unnecessary, and unsustainable.

Industrial civilization is already in the early stages of collapse, and this is obvious to folks who are paying close attention to reality.  Some worry that collapse will lead to a catastrophic loss of accumulated information.  Some day in the coming decades, the grid, the lights, the laptops, and the cell phones will go dark forever.  I expect that there are folks alive today who will see the last car die, and the last supermarket close.  Without ongoing maintenance, time will eventually compost our wonderful libraries.  When the oceans of modern data evaporate and fade from memory, our information will come from fireside stories, the here and now, and the ecosystem we inhabit.

Jon Young has devoted his life to helping people restore three types of severed connections — connection with others, connection with self, and connection with nature.  My generation grew up playing outdoors with the neighbor kids.  I was lucky to live close to forests, lakes, and open land.  We had no iPods, cell phones, video games, or laptops.  Our social networking was face to face, in the here and now, and preferably outdoors. 

We were at home in nature.  We built forts, climbed trees, went swimming, and caught frogs, turtles, salamanders, night crawlers, and fish.  We played until mom called us home.  Where I live now, it’s common to see tweakers, junkies, and other homeless folks camping amidst trash piles throughout the neighborhood.  It’s getting unusual to see children playing.

Most of us spend most of our lives indoors, and our visits outdoors usually take place in manmade surroundings.  Few of us spend our entire lives in the place we were born, and develop an intimate and reverent relationship with the wild ecosystem around us.  This is a most unusual situation for tropical primates, or any other animals.  We’re like the lads who walked on the moon in their silver spacesuits — lost, disconnected, homeless wanderers.

Folks in a post-collapse world are going to be devoting most of their attention to daily survival.  This will require them to actually wander out into their ecosystem, on foot, and attempt to blend into it.  When the land provides you with fish, nuts, and berries, you develop a spirit of gratitude and respect — connection.  Your life will come into communication with the family of life around you.

Collapse is a strong medicine that will delete us or cure us.  It will liberate us from countless toxic addictions, behaviors, beliefs, and relationships that have led us to the brink.  So, cheer up!  Time is running out for the most insane and destructive experiment in Earth’s history.  Better days are coming.  One way or another, healing will begin.

The Smart Neanderthal

Clive Finlayson is especially fascinated by two things, Neanderthals and birds.  Since 1989, he has been excavating caves in Gibraltar, on the north shore of the Mediterranean, where Neanderthals lived from 127,000 to 32,000 years ago.  Gibraltar is the place where the last Neanderthals tearfully bid farewell to this magnificent planet.  Later, after they were gone, Homo sapiens lived in these caves, beginning maybe 30,000 years ago.  There is no evidence of them being in living contact at the Gibraltar site.

For decades, many scholars have adopted the belief that we Homo sapiens were superior to Neanderthals.  They imagine that when humans invaded Neanderthal territory, the inferior species was helplessly overwhelmed and exterminated.  This belief is known as the replacement model, which assumed that we could never meet other humans without wiping them out.  History is loaded with replacement stories.

Beliefs are based on assumptions, which are sometimes daffy balderdash.  Over time, beliefs that pass from one generation to the next can mutate into illusions that are perceived to be certain truths.  Human supremacists really annoy Finlayson, and he has written three books to spank them — Neanderthals and Modern Humans (2004), The Humans Who Went Extinct (2009), and The Smart Neanderthal (2019).  The new book is an enjoyable, well written mystery story, in which the brainy hero (Finlayson) confronts the dodgy beliefs held by many mainstream scholars.

It’s not surprising that folks who have spent more than 30 years studying Neanderthals actually accumulate a lot of experiences and insights.  They learn things that scholars in faraway college towns never do.  The myth of progress is only a few centuries old, and it perceives that all previous generations were inferior — especially our prehistoric relatives.  The human supremacists in academia have generated a list of advanced characteristics that Neanderthals lack.  In his new book, Finlayson examines this list, item by item, and presents evidence to the contrary.  He concludes that humans and Neanderthals were equally intelligent, but not equally lucky in the survival lottery.

Of all the prehistoric hominins, we know Neanderthals best, because we have discovered a number of sites where they lived in Eurasia.  In caves, evidence of days past is far less likely to be blown or washed away, and more likely to be preserved and found.  Over time, layers of stuff build up, with newer ones covering the old.  Scientists assign dates to each layer, and document the artifacts found.

What makes the book especially interesting is that he uses his love of birds to support a number of his arguments.  The caves at Gibraltar contain the remains of 160 species of birds.  The region was once a wonderland for the winged ones, but not now.  “Their world has been destroyed by civilized man in a few centuries.”

Human supremacists assert that dimwitted Neanderthals were incapable of catching speedy prey, like birds or hares.  So Finlayson visited Spain, and watched an old gent attract 300 large vultures by putting out some carrion.  They surrounded him, and happily took food from his hand.  Another time, he went to an island off the coast of Scotland, where it was the breeding season for 150,000 gannets.  None took flight as he strolled through them, instead they pecked his legs bloody.

Some birds respond to danger by flying away.  Others, like the stone curlews, have natural coloration that provides excellent camouflage.  When danger appears, they freeze, and become nearly invisible to predators.  They only take flight if the intruder makes a sudden movement.  Finlayson has calmly walked right past frozen curlews, and could have easily snatched them.  Sometimes speedy hares will freeze in the presence of danger, allowing their camouflage to render them invisible.  Finlayson has walked very close to frozen hares.

The 300,000+ year saga of Neanderthals was an era of roller coaster climate shifts.  Most of their time on Earth was colder than average.  Some climate shifts happened suddenly and sharply.  Children were sometimes born in a steppe habitat which, decades earlier, had been woodland when their grandparents lived there. 

Between the Arctic, and the Mediterranean, there were several climate zones — ice, tundra, steppe, and woodland.  When the climate plunged into frigid periods, glaciers and ice sheets expanded in the north, which compressed the zones to the south.  There were times when the ice sheet extended from Scandinavia to northern Germany, and covered most of the British Isles.  At times, large areas of France were tundra.  The Mediterranean Sea, a large body of warm water, moderated the climate of southern Europe, so the temperature swings were less intense in Gibraltar, and wild foods remained abundant.

One indicator of climate shifts is the types of bones found at various time periods in the layers of cave crud.  The layers associated with Neanderthals usually indicated warm, moist, woodland or forest.  Woodland conditions were identified by the bones of aurochs, red deer, boar, cave bear, leopard, giant deer, and temperate rhinoceros. 

It’s important to understand that the more recent sites, which are associated with humans, often indicate steppe-tundra conditions, when the land was cold, dry, open, and treeless.  Steppe-tundra conditions were identified by the bones of woolly mammoth, woolly rhinoceros, horse, musk ox, ibex, moose, Artic fox, and reindeer.

The human supremacists regularly ridicule Neanderthals for displaying little innovation.  For 300,000+ years, their primary weapon was the thrusting spear.  Obviously, a stable and functional way of life was glaring evidence of low intelligence!  But Neanderthals were woodland creatures who excelled at ambush hunting.  For them, a thrusting spear was the perfect tool.  For humans, who lived in steppe-tundra habitat, it was the opposite of excellent, because a wide open landscape had no trees or brush to conceal their presence.  Their weapon was the javelin.

The latest technology is giving archaeologists the ability to extract more information from the stuff they dig up.  For example, plant pollen.  Long ago, hyenas ravenously devoured carcasses, including their intestines, which contained pollen from the surrounding vegetation.  Fossilized hyena turds (coprolites) have preserved this pollen, allowing scientists to discover the mix of plants in the ecosystem during different time windows.  This indicated current climate conditions.

Finlayson dismisses the notion that Neanderthals were driven to extinction by humans, and wonders if they may have resisted human expansion.  He believes that an increasingly cold climate was shrinking their traditional woodland habitat, and fragmenting their population.  After surviving numerous eras of cold, the latest one pushed them a bit too hard — bad luck drove them extinct.

One point Finlayson doesn’t mention is that Neanderthals emerged 300,000+ years ago in Eurasia, where they evolved in a temperate climate.  Their bodies were stockier to give them better cold tolerance.  Humans emerged in Africa maybe 300,000 years ago.  They evolved in a tropical climate, where they developed better tolerance of heat, and became skilled at grassland hunting. 

When humans wandered into the grasslands of Eastern Europe 36,000 years ago (the “European Serengeti”), their tropical bodies were not fine-tuned for freezing weather.  At this point, their choices were to either to turn around and return to home sweet home, or innovate like crazy and struggle to survive in a hostile climate where large game was abundant.

The human supremacists shout that the humans were simply too smart to fail.  They claim that a miracle occurred 50,000 years ago, when genetic mutations caused human intelligence to skyrocket.  This was called the Great Leap Forward, or the Cognitive Revolution.  Finlayson says “Bullshit!”  Genetic research has found zero evidence of this.

What genetic research has found is clear evidence that Neanderthals and non-African humans interbred.  East Asians have 2.3 to 2.6 percent Neanderthal DNA, and Western Eurasians have 1.8 to 2.5 percent.  Markers of these hot romances are as old as 100,000 years ago, and as recent as 37,000 years.  Today, humans of various ancestries carry different segments of Neanderthal DNA.  Thus, up to 20 percent of the Neanderthal genome might still exist, scattered throughout the vast human herd.

Supremacists assert that only humans were brilliant enough to dine on marine life.  Oddly, the Neanderthals at Gibraltar ate mollusks, seals, dolphins, herbivorous mammals, tortoises, and birds.  But, but, but… only humans were smart enough to paint caves and make ornaments.  Recent research is raising doubts (someone was apparently painting caves 64,800 years ago).  Indeed, humans likely learned many tricks from the Neanderthals. 

To make claims of cognitive superiority based on the artifacts of material culture is silly.  The writing tools I used in 1970 were extremely crude compared to the laptop I’m using now.  Has my brain become far more powerful?  Compared to my grandparents, is my brain actually better?

Uncomfortable doubts are growing, with regard to the ultimate value of intelligence.  Neanderthals lived for 300,000+ years, in a manner that had the appearance of genuine sustainability.  They have not been associated with megafauna extinctions.  Following the human colonization of Europe, there was a wave of megafauna extinctions, which occurred between 30,000 to 12,000 years ago. 

Since then, aggressive cultures of our godlike species have blindsided every ecosystem on Earth.  The supremacists leap to their feet, clapping, cheering, and celebrating the wonders of perpetual growth and progress.  Big Mama Nature laughs and laughs, as she prepares some potent surprises to rubbish our illusions of grandiosity.  Soon she’ll be serving us an all-you-can-eat banquet of humble pie.

Finlayson, Clive, The Smart Neanderthal, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2019.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Wild Free and Happy Sample 12

[Note: This is the twelfth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 199 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.]

Technological Innovation

When a hungry chimp snatches a small monkey, termite, or bird egg, all she needs to eat it are fingers and teeth.  When a hungry baboon discovers a carcass abandoned by lions, he can chew the meat and fat off the bones and hide.  It’s very different when a persistence hunter chases a large kudu until it is exhausted, and then suffocates it.  What now?  Imagine turning a road kill deer into a feast without a knife.  Have a bloody good time!

Chimps use slender sticks to fish for termites.  They use clubs and rocks to aggressively attack critters that annoy them.  Macaques use stones to smash open shellfish.  Vultures use rocks to open ostrich eggs.  Ravens use gravity to crack open the nuts they drop.  This is not complex technology.

Our ancestors began a transition from found tools to manufactured ones.  The oldest ones discovered so far, mostly simple choppers, were found in Africa, and date to about 2.5 million years ago.  A major advance emerged around 1.5 million years ago — biface knapping.  Some types of rocks, like obsidian or flint, can be carefully knapped to knock off flakes having razor sharp edges.  These were useful as scrapers, knives, and choppers.  Later, ancestors learned how to knap long sharp blades, and attach them to handles.  Still later, they became skilled at chipping flakes into delicately shaped spear points and arrowheads.

We glowing screen people arrogantly smirk at the primitive technology of our early Stone Age ancestors.  In reality, stone tools were revolutionary inventions that shifted the hominin saga onto a new, unusual, and risky path.  For the first time, folks could effectively skin and butcher large animals — an ability that greatly expanded their food resources, and provided high quality nutrients for their jumbo-sized energy-guzzling brains.  Imagine a world in which teeth were the only cutting edges for any purpose.  Civilization would be impossible, and hominins may have never evolved.

Kathy Schick and friends once successfully butchered a dead elephant with stone tools.  A mature adult’s rugged hide is about one inch thick (2.4 cm).  Scavengers like hyenas don’t even bother trying to chew into the carcass of an elephant that recently died.  They let it bake in the sun for a few days, allowing decay to soften it up.

Our ancestors used sharp cutters to remove hides, cut meat off bones, and dismember the carcass into portions easier to haul back to camp.  They used stone hammers to smash open bones, to extract the marrow, which was rich with fat.  Fat is an essential nutrient, and the meat of wild game has only one-seventh of the fat found in supermarket beef, according to Schick.  Ancestors may have scavenged elephant carcasses, but adult pachyderms may not have been prime targets for hunters.  Once you strip the meat off of the exposed side, flipping over a dead elephant is a huge challenge.  Smaller game takes less effort.

We have no idea when spear technology was first developed.  It could have been two or three million years ago.  Wooden artifacts are highly prone to decompose over time.  Spears were also revolutionary.  They made it easier to kill large game, and allowed the ancestors to be less dependent on scavenging.  Spears were also useful for discouraging attacks from man-eating predators.

Thrusting spears, or lances, were driven directly into the prey by hungry hunters, at close range.  Javelins were thrown spears that could kill from a distance, which was much safer.  Carleton Coon mentioned a tribe that could hurl long spears with deadly accuracy from up to 180 feet away (55 m).

The oldest spears found so far were discovered in a coal mine at Schöningen, Germany.  Frederick Coolidge wrote that seven spruce spears, a throwing stick, and other tools were found near ten butchered horse carcasses.  The spears were 400,000 years old, up to 6.5 feet long (2 m), scraped smooth, and pointed at both ends.  They were made by the ancestors of Neanderthals (Homo heidelbergensis).  The fact that Neanderthals could survive for hundreds of thousands of years using such simple weapons is evidence that they lived in a time when large game was abundant, and it was proof that they were not dummies.

The killing power of spears was boosted by the invention of the atlatl, a spear-throwing device that enabled the weapon to be hurled farther and faster.  Alfred Crosby noted that in Peru, an Incan warrior with an atlatl could send a short spear completely through a conquistador wearing metal armor. 

Eventually, nobody is sure when, the bow and arrow was invented.  Like the spear, this deadly technology spread around the world, and over time enabled the slaughter of countless millions of animals.  Of course, with state of the art weaponry, well fed clans grew in number, conflicts increased, and hunters increasingly had to also turn their weapons on strangers who encroached into their territory.

A bloodless alternative to conflict was migration into lands uninhabited by hominin competitors.  Many frontier regions introduced the ancestors to new species of prey, and clever folks invented specialized technology for killing them.  Joe Kane spent time with the Huaorani people of the Amazon rainforest.  Their armory included spears and blowguns.  Poison darts would kill monkeys in the branches above, requiring the hunter to climb up and retrieve them.  Over time, lads who did a lot of tree climbing developed odd-shaped feet.  Their big toes bent outward, providing a tighter grip.

Carleton Coon mentioned other tribes using different poisons that relaxed the muscles of monkeys, so they would fall from the trees.  No climbing needed.  Pygmy poisons were a potion made from ten different plants, beetle larvae, and snake venom.  They paralyzed muscles and stopped the heart.  In Japan, the Ainu built booby traps, in which deer tripped on a cord, and a bow shot a poison tipped arrow into the animal. 

When marine mammals were speared, their corpses often sank into deep waters, never to be retrieved and consumed.  The solution was to carve barbed detachable harpoon heads which would not pull out of the animal’s flesh.  The embedded head was attached to a cord linked to the hunter above.  When the dead animal sank, it could then be retrieved and invited to lunch.

Innovation also led to the use of rock-throwing slings, bolas, hunting nets, traps, and on and on.  You could fill a book on this subject, and Alfred Crosby did, covering the entire spectrum from rocks to nuclear weapons.  Humans are remarkably creative when it comes to devising an endless stream of new and improved systems for killing things.  It’s been a nonstop arms race.

The wheels of innovation spin faster when populations grow, and become able to support more and more nerdy specialists.  Also, trade with other regions brings distant groups into contact, where they are exposed to the gizmos and ideas from other cultures, and this can greatly stimulate the imaginations of anxious nerds.  The velocity of change in my lifetime has been dizzying, impossible to keep up with.

Craig Dilworth described what he called the Vicious Circle Principle (VCP), a cycle in which (1) scarcity spurred technological innovation, (2) innovation increased access to more resources, (3) more resources increased consumption, (4) increased consumption fueled population growth, (5) population growth led to resource depletion, and (6) resource depletion led to scarcity once again. 

The VCP cycle keeps repeating, each time ratcheting up the impact, until it eventually slams into firm resource limits, or chokes to death on its own pollution.  Some hunter-gatherer cultures managed to survive into recent times in a low impact manner — until the radicalized VCP mob barged into their world via loggers, miners, missionaries, and so on.

Dilworth noted that, from its beginning, technological development has degraded ecological sustainability.  Should we be proud of our legendary wizardry?  Species that don’t manufacture tools, like chimps, never experience this predicament.  Our current technological utopia, swarming with billions of hominins, continues to work tirelessly to destroy the ecological basis upon which it depends, a one-way dead-end path.  How smart is that?

Evolution is brilliant!  When predators are free to perform their natural ecosystem services, their prey do not experience population outbursts.  Chimps make no effort to exterminate the big cats that prey on them, consequently there are not seven billion chimps pounding the stuffing out of the planet.  The sacred dance of predator and prey works beautifully until it gets blindsided by technological innovation.  Technology improved our abilities at offence (killing game) as well as defense (exterminating competing predators).  Balance got blown out of the water.

Dilworth mentioned that by 200 B.C. the leopards and lions of Greece, and along the coast of the Near East, were gone.  Several centuries later, tigers no longer survived in northern Persia and Mesopotamia.  Predator extermination is a standard process in cultures that enslave domesticated animals.  Today, few wild high-level predators survive in most of the civilized world.

Environmentalists tend to focus their campaigns primarily on problems related to modern technology, because they think it’s especially terrible.  Dilworth’s VCP sees all technology as dangerous and unnecessary.  Across Eurasia and the Americas, megafauna extinctions surged between 10,000 and 30,000 years ago — in the Stone Age, prior to agriculture and civilization, when fewer than ten million humans likely wandered the Earth.  It was an enormous ecological holocaust that our culture has largely swept under the rug.  Today, few consumers wake up screaming from nightmares about the bloody extermination of mastodons, saber-tooth cats, or woolly rhinos by high-tech hunters.  We are also careful not to think about the mass extinctions happening right now, as we pedal to work.

The bottom line for Dilworth is that if technological development was truly wisdom-driven, intelligent, and beneficial, it would not have transformed the planet’s healthy genuinely sustainable wild ecosystems into toxic devastated wastelands, depleted countless precious resources, and sabotaged the climate.  Why do we continue proudly teaching children about our magnificent big brains and the wonders of progress?  The good news is that the VCP cycle is unsustainable, and will eventually blink out.  What will be left when it does?

Friday, March 15, 2019

Wild Free and Happy Sample 11

[Note: This is the eleventh sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 199 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.] 

Social Structure

You and I are tropical primates, and our family tree originated in Mother Africa.  Africa played a primary role in the evolution of our bodies and minds.  Our ancestors were hunter-gatherers for at least two million years.  Because they were predators on the savannah, they could not live in large herds.  Too many hunters spoil the ecosystem.  Their ability to function as high level predators was heavily dependent on powerful technological crutches.  At the same time, they were pitifully slow, plump, juicy, walking meatballs.  They were far too vulnerable to survive as solitary predators, like tigers or bears.

The key to success was to live in small groups of maybe 15 to 30, work as a team, and move elsewhere when food got scarce.  The normal daily experience of wild hominins included constant exposure to a wide variety of other species.  In the family of life, we were a wee minority group, not the dominant animal.  Ancestors spent every day of their lives in a healthy natural habitat, not an ugly noisy stinky industrial gulag of concrete and steel.

Joe Kane spent time in the Amazon rainforest.  He noted that, prior to contact with outsiders, most Huaorani never encountered more than seventy or eighty people during their entire lives, most of whom they knew by name.  Imagine that.  Mentally, we are far more comfortable being in small groups where we are known and respected.  It’s not groovy being a stranger in a vast mob of strangers, day after day, year after year.  You might feel like a zoo animal, serving a life sentence for being born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Functioning as a wild hunting and foraging team was very different from civilized life.  Sharing was essential.  Nobody went hungry unless everyone did.  Louis Liebenberg mentioned a study of San hunters.  Of those aged 15 to 38, just 17 percent of the hunters were responsible for 70 percent of the kills, while half of the hunters killed nothing at all.  If meat was not shared, many would starve, and the community would blink out.  Cultures had different methods for distributing portions of the meat, but this task was never a job for the day’s lucky hunter, and his portion was never the largest. 

It was essential for effective teamwork to avoid personal conflicts, and to promptly resolve the ones that occurred.  Clans typically had time-proven strategies for nurturing good interpersonal relationships.  A humble and respectful demeanor encouraged warm drama-free relationships.  Self-deprecating discourse (the opposite of boasting) was common among wild people.  Peter Freuchen wrote that when an Eskimo hunter brought home a primo feast, he would shamefully apologize to the others for bringing back crappy meat that was unfit for dogs.  The people nodded and smiled.

Bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers had no tolerance for bigheads.  Whenever someone displayed the first symptoms of pride, they were mocked, teased, or shunned — whatever was needed to restore the swollen head to normal size.  Then came reconciliation and forgiveness.  Uppity males who could not be reformed might be deported to other clans.  Incurable jerks sometimes had to be euthanized.

Christopher Boehm described how an American anthropologist created an ugly scene while staying with the Utku Eskimos of northern Canada.  She behaved in an ordinary American manner, sometimes a bit moody, occasionally displaying a flash of anger when irritated.  This was totally uncool in a culture where folks spent long, dark, frigid winters in close company.  Folks were expected to smile, laugh, and joke — to display good manners. 

Everyone’s highest responsibility was to maintain the stability of the group.  In the Utku culture, except for childish outbursts, it was rude to show your emotions, because strong thoughts can kill or cause illness.  Anger was dangerous juju, highly toxic.  Eventually, the natives ran out of patience with the American drama queen, and she became a nonperson. 

A primary benefit of nomadic life was that you couldn’t have more belongings than you could carry in both hands.  This avoided all of the bad juju of hoarding, inequality, and hierarchy — the core curse of modern society.  In regions having abundant wild food, like the Pacific Northwest, tribes became sedentary, lived in permanent dwellings, and became able to hoard stuff.  Those with lots of stuff tended to look down on folks who don’t.  Inequality was a reliable cause of resentment and conflict.

Vine Deloria noted that everyone is a descendant of tribal ancestors.  In each tribal homeland, unique spiritual traditions emerged, fine-tuned to its landscape, ecology, and climate.  Every homeland had sacred places where the community participated in special ceremonies.  All members of the tribe had deep roots in the homeland, and all shared the same worldview.  A tribal person “does not live in a tribe, the tribe lives in him.”

In modern society, neighborhoods are constantly-changing swarms of occupants having highly diverse incomes, ethnicities, religious beliefs, and political views.  People may live side by side for years, yet have nothing in common, and sometimes intense differences.  Many do not know the names or faces of most folks in their neighborhood.  This is not a coherent community sharing a profound sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of their ecosystem.

Colin Turnbull wrote that in the Pygmy world, it’s hard to see a clear boundary between work and play.  The vital task of maintaining social harmony required generous amounts of singing and dancing, followed by gathering ripe fruit, or hunting, or fireside chats, or teaching the children.  They enjoyed a society harmonized by a common set of beliefs, values, and lifestyles.  Everyone was on the same channel.

Modern society is a cranky boisterous mob of numerous cultures, classes, ideologies, and religious beliefs.  We are expected to accept diversity, and even take pride in our tolerance of those who are different.  Turnbull realized that “a society that was not bound together by a single powerful belief is not a society at all.”  It was just a mob of folks kept under control by law and force.

Turnbull spoke fondly of Father Longo, a Catholic missionary.  Pygmies had no word for evil.  “In order to convert them, then, he would first have to teach them the concept of evil, and that he was not prepared to do.”  He left them unmolested.

John Gunther saw that folks in the wild animist tribes of Africa were of one mind.  When missionaries taught them Christianity, it was highly disruptive, because it taught the importance of the individual, a foreign idea.  While you might have a salvation experience, your friends and family might not.  The unity of the group could be rubbished by spiritual discord.

In modern society, everyone is an individual, and we spend our lives competing with everyone else to climb the organizational ladders, and proudly display our glittering status trinkets.  Self-centeredness is the norm.  Jay Griffiths wrote that missionaries in South America often provided the natives with mirrors, to heighten their sense of individuality.  She learned that in Peru, four Christian groups used helicopters and speedboats in their fierce competition to locate uncontacted tribes.  They fully understood that they would inevitably be sharing the diseases of civilization, but they didn’t care.  In some places, half of the natives died within two years.

Daniel Everett was sent to the Amazon to translate the Bible into the language of the illiterate Pirahã hunter-gatherers.  Eventually, overwhelmed by the absurdity, he became an atheist, abandoned the project, and lost his family.  “I would go so far as to suggest that the Pirahãs are happier, fitter, and better adjusted to their environment than any Christian or other religious person I have ever known.”

Jean Liedloff described the natives she met in South America.  The Tauripan people of Venezuela were the happiest people she had ever met.  All of their children were relaxed, joyful, cooperative, and rarely cried — they were never bored, lonely, or argumentative.  The Yequana people seemed unreal to Liedloff, because of their lack of unhappiness.  As an expedition was moving up a challenging jungle stream, she noticed that the Italians would get completely enraged at the slightest mishap, while the Yequana just laughed the struggles away.  Their daily life had a party mood to it.

Colin Turnbull spent years with the Mbuti Pygmies.  He was amazed by their joyful way of living.  They would laugh until they could no longer stand, and then sit down and laugh.  We tend to regard our childhood as a golden age of innocence and joy — before we’re shipped off to dreary schools, jobs, and nursing homes.  The Pygmies did not idolize childhood, because they spent their lives in a place of wonder, and with each passing year, the wonder of it all kept growing.

Robert Wolff described the Sng’oi people of Malaysia.  They knew each other’s unspoken thoughts, communicating telepathically.  “They had an immense inner dignity, were happy, and content, and did not want anything.”  They loved to laugh and joke.  They were often singing and smiling.  Angry voices were never heard.

Lewis Cotlow visited Eskimos in arctic Canada.  One night, he spent several hours talking to local officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  They kept repeating one idea in different ways: “The Eskimos are the happiest people in the world.”

Knud Rasmussen traveled across the arctic, from Greenland to Siberia, from 1921 to 1924.  He enjoyed the Eskimo people.  “A notable feature was their lively good humor and careless, high-spirited manner.”  The women worked very hard, but “they were always happy and contended, with a ready laugh in return for any jest or kindly word.”  Eskimos perceived whites to be uptight and coldly impersonal.

Peter Freuchen spent a lot of time with the Eskimos, and married into their culture.  He wrote that “they always enjoy life with an enviable intensity, and they believe themselves to be the happiest people on earth living in the most beautiful country there is.”  Inuit women had “perpetual smiles,” and “they seem to have more natural grace, more zest for life than their white sisters.”

Joe Kane was impressed by the fact that Huaorani men and women enjoy equal status.  It was always unacceptable to give orders, or to raise a hand against a woman or child.  Family harmony was important. 

Richard Lee spent time with the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert.  He noted that the women were quite independent from their parents and husbands.  “The many forms of sexual oppression that women experience in other societies, such as rape, wife battering, purdah, enforced chastity, and sexual double standards are absent in !Kung society.”


Friday, March 1, 2019

Wild Free and Happy Sample 10

[Note: This is the tenth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 199 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.] 

Genetic Evolution

Charles Darwin achieved fame for popularizing the knowledge of genetic evolution, a normal and natural life process.  All living things have genes, and their offspring inherit copies of them.  No other critter, living or dead, possesses genes exactly like yours.  Each of the billions of cells in your body carries a copy of your unique genes.  Cells exist for a while, then die.  New cells are created to replace them.  Every hour, your genes are duplicated countless times as your body replaces dead cells with new ones. 

The genes in every cell are incredibly complex, and it is normal and natural for boo-boos to occur in the duplication process.  The mutations are purely random, and they are called genetic drift.  It is not unusual for mutated genes to be passed from parent to offspring.  For some offspring, random mutations might be beneficial in some way.  Other offspring can be diminished by mutated genes, leading them to become less able to survive, thrive, and reproduce. 

Everything on Earth, and all beings in the family of life, are constantly changing.  Food resources can increase or decrease.  Drought can be washed away by deluge.  Parasites, viruses, volcanoes, fires, floods, invasives… the wheels of change keep spinning.  Glaciers become tundra, tundra becomes grassland, grassland becomes forest, and then the parade reverses.  Stability is a temporary state, change is the long-term norm.  Evolution helps the family of life adapt and survive.  Species unable to adapt to change disappear from the stage.

In the animal world, if predators get too good at hunting, they deplete their prey, go to bed hungry, and maybe starve.  If prey get too good at escape, the growing herd will decimate the vegetation, and maybe create a desert, so everyone starves.  If the predators gradually become one percent faster, the prey gradually become one percent faster, not two.  Balance requires predators to be slightly better at their sacred obligation — limiting the herd — but not too good. 

The speed of genetic evolution varies.  Species with slow rates of reproduction, like elephants, can take many generations or millennia to adapt beneficial new features.  Evolution proceeds much faster in species with brief lifespans.  This is why pathogenic bacteria can quickly develop resistance to antibiotics, and insects to insecticides.  Some plants develop resistance to a new herbicide in as few as four years.  Some fungi can develop resistance to a new fungicide in just three years. 

We try so hard to control everything.  Big Mama Nature just howls with laughter, gushing tears, at our comical experiments in playing fake god, silly efforts that regularly bite us on the ass.  She has no use for two-legged stewards, or managers, or sustainable growth maniacs.  She gets along best with animals that are wild, free, and happy.  It’s survival of the fit-ins.  Ecological loose cannons need not apply.

Today, we’re living in an especially exciting time!  The treacherous sorcerers of innovation and progress have conjured a colossal curse on the family of life.  The curse has overloaded the atmosphere with crud, which is destabilizing the climate to a degree that seems certain to turbulently blindside life as we know it.  Thanks to genetic evolution, the surviving species will eventually adapt to wrecked ecosystems, and a heavily scarred family of life can continue on its sacred journey.

And now, dear reader, we need to stop here for a moment, sit down, take a deep breath, and have an extremely embarrassing birds-and-bees discussion on the difference between genetic evolution (yum!) and cultural evolution (danger!). 

Cultural Evolution

Genetic evolution is billions of years old, as old as life on Earth.  Its realm is the metamorphosis of genetic information over time.  Cultural evolution is the realm of learned information — beliefs, ideas, knowledge, and so on.  It has emerged recently, in the last few million years.  It’s essentially a hominin fad, a spooky quirk of swollen brains.  Innovation and progress are two of its monster children.  These children are as unpredictable as two year olds with a box of hand grenades.

In hominins, genetic evolution proceeds at a snail’s pace, but cultural evolution can boogie like a herd of gazelles on meth.  It might have taken our ancestors a million years to genetically evolve vicious claws and fangs, and we may have blinked out before succeeding.  Instead, cultural evolution inspired our ancestors to invent lances and javelins — fake claws and fangs. 

When someone’s leg is amputated, they can be fitted with a prosthetic leg, so they can walk again.  Dentures are prosthetic teeth.  Warm clothing is prosthetic fur.  Heated dwellings provide a prosthetic tropical climate, so tropical primates can survive far from their normal habitat.  Prosthetic claws and fangs eventually made the ancestors capable of killing critters bigger than themselves, bringing home more meat at the end of the day, and feeding more bambinos.

Chimps don’t do this.  They snatch insects and lizards with their hands.  Their small scale hunting is far less likely to rock the ecological boat.  This is why there are not seven billion pudgy chimps staring at cell phones while driving.  Indeed, their million year track record with this effective strategy has to be categorized as genuinely sustainable.  Chimps set an excellent example for the last surviving hominins — humans — who are beginning to swirl the drain.  Alas, we have been bedeviled by a compulsive obsession with every type of prosthetic device that greedy capitalists can imagine.  Zombie consumers endure mindless jobs in order to acquire and proudly display as many of this season’s trendy status symbols as possible.

Anyway, our ancestors got totally addicted to cultural evolution.  They shifted from chimp-type hunting, to stones and clubs, then scavenging, persistence hunting, thrusting spears, projectile javelins, bows and arrows, nets, snares, harpoons, horses, guns, and on and on.  Like junkies, prosthetic addiction requires shooting up bigger and bigger doses to continue experiencing the beautiful soaring flights of euphoria.  Like junkies, cold turkey withdrawal from prosthetic addiction is excruciatingly painful.  Imagine your president, and her husband, stumbling around naked in the Congo, gobbling termites, slugs, bird eggs, berries, and lizards.

Cultural evolution in weaponry enabled our ancestors to extract more food resources from the ecosystem, so the land’s carrying capacity for humans increased, for a while, as long as overhunting didn’t deplete the prey, and chill out the feast.  Each advance in hunting technology temporarily increased the food resources available for hungry hominins, encouraging their numbers to grow.  Inevitably, the ecological boat began to rock, and sometimes overturn. 

As you can see, innovation is risky.  It often has unintended consequences.  Chimps are conservative, and teach us that innovation is unnecessary for enjoying a million years of healthy sustainable living.  The humans that are currently decimating the chimps’ forest, and the entire planet, present a different, and very important lesson.

Chimps have almost no understanding of the human-caused Earth Crisis.  Their knowledgebase is modest, limited to local affairs, in the here and now.  They learn by observing and imitating their elders.  They lack the cultural information needed to destabilize the planet’s climate systems, acidify the oceans, eliminate forests, and generally behave like insane idiots.  They learn exactly enough to live sustainably from birth to death.  Perfect!

When I was a young lad, I was forced to spend years institutionalized in a series of educational penitentiaries.  Like an assembly line, students had their brains filled with cultural information.  I was taught about history, numbers, reading, writing, human supremacy, the daffy pursuit of status, and the sacred principles of unsustainable living.  Our mission in life was to get a job, work hard, accumulate status trinkets, and spend our lives moving as much stuff as possible from nature to landfills — a remarkably toxic game.  I shudder at the amount of stuff that has passed through my life.

Americans, British, and other colonizers created boarding schools for the children of the wild aboriginal people they conquered.  Kids were snatched away from their families, communities, and cultures.  They were forbidden to speak their own language, or sing their songs.  They had their brains filled with the cultural information of industrial civilization.  The kids suffered tremendous emotional damage from this brutal process, and many were seriously wounded for the rest of their days.

Priests used to boast: “Give me your child for his first seven years, and I will have him for life.”  The cultural information you are imprinted with in childhood usually solidifies like concrete, and those beliefs are carried until your final breath.  This works perfectly in sustainable wild cultures, where kids learn time-proven knowledge.  It sucks in super-toxic cultures, where everyone is taught to be mindless eco-terrorists.  Derrick Jensen once noted that unquestioned beliefs are the most dangerous and destructive things in the world.

Humans are not in serious trouble because of crappy genes.  Genes did not get us into this mess, culture did.  Every human that squirts out of the womb is a wild animal, ready to spend a lifetime in a healthy tropical ecosystem.  We don’t become batshit crazy critters until we are trained by a batshit crazy family and society.  If you had been born into a wild, free, and happy tribe in the Amazon rainforest, you would have grown up in a sane culture, and you would be living in a low impact mode that has respect and reverence for the natural world (until the maniacs on bulldozers arrive to introduce you to progress).

Genetic information is passed from one generation to the next via reproduction.  Cultural information is passed via words, images, and demonstration.  We acquire it from TV, websites, books, classrooms, conversations, and so on.  We absorb a knowledgebase that has accumulated over many generations.  Each new generation has no need to spend decades reinventing the wheel, clothing, or the fire drill. 

Paul Ehrlich once spent time among the Inuit of Hudson Bay, Canada.  He was surprised to discover that the entire knowledgebase of their cultural information was known by everyone — how to hunt seals, tan pelts, weave a net, sew a coat, and so on.  In Ehrlich’s own culture, nobody knows even a millionth of our cultural information.  It’s impossible to learn it all, and the knowledgebase is constantly growing, faster and faster.  Folks can get a PhD from Stanford without ever learning a single thing about science.  The survival of humankind is dependent on ecological sustainability, but most PhDs know nothing about it, nor do our political leaders.

Here’s a half-happy idea: William E. Rees reminded us that cultural evolution is also subject to something like natural selection.  Maladaptive cultural mutations, like the belief in perpetual growth, limitless resources, or utopia-bound progress will eventually push the civilization off the cliff, into the compost bin.  Stuff like motorized transport, industrial manufacturing, and agriculture will inevitably go extinct because depletion of resources will pull the plug on them.

The more daunting challenge has to do with wisely and deliberately tossing overboard the maladaptive hallucinations that infest our throbbing thinkers — hierarchy, patriarchy, human supremacy, materialism, disconnection from nature, and so on.  Our culture never stops pushing us to run at full speed to the cliff.  We are completely unprepared to proceed with a healthy, cleansing, cultural evolution enema.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Wild Free and Happy Sample 09

[Note: This is the ninth sample from my rough draft of a far from finished new book, Wild, Free, & Happy.  I don’t plan on reviewing more books for a while.  My blog is home to reviews of 199 books, and you are very welcome to explore them.  The Search field on the right side will find words in the full contents of all rants and reviews, if you are interested in specific authors, titles, or subjects.] 

The Dance of Hominin Evolution

Experts have endless lively disputes about many aspects of hominin evolution.  There were many predecessors to Homo sapiens, but an accurate lineage of the hominin family tree does not exist, and probably never will.  The physical evidence discovered so far is extremely incomplete.  It’s like a million piece jigsaw puzzle where more than 99 percent of the pieces are missing, and most of these have disintegrated over time.

Evolution does not resemble automobile assembly plants, where production of 2018 models completely ends on a fixed date, and the process of building new and improved 2019 models begins.  The transition from one species to the next is a blurry process that can take hundreds of thousands of years, and isolated groups of the same species can evolve in significantly different ways. 

In addition to arguments over the branches of the family tree, the dates assigned to specific events are also controversial and inconsistent.  Technology for dating specimens has advanced over the years, and different technologies often produce very different dates for the same bone or artifact.  Also, ongoing field work continues to make new discoveries.  So, did Homo sapiens emerge 190,000 years ago, or 300,000?  Did they arrive in Europe 50,000 years ago or 36,000?  And so on.  Numbers are slippery.

If we step back a bit, and disregard numeric dates, there is general agreement on a number of big picture trends.  Homo erectus is much older than Neanderthal, and both are older than Homo sapiens.  Homo sapiens evolved in Africa, and Neanderthals did not.  Erectus and Neanderthals are not associated with megafauna extinctions, but our species certainly is.  For the purposes of this book, the trajectory of trends is important — event A preceded event B.  All numeric dates presented here are controversial.

Although the Earth Crisis has roots much older than Homo sapiens, our species is playing a starring role in this catastrophic tragedy.  For this reason, the following chapters will primarily focus on humans, and the emergence and expansion of some highly destructive cultures.  But first, a few comments on two notable cousins.

Erectus and Neanderthal

Homo erectus emerged maybe 1.9 million years ago, and eventually spread across some of the warmer regions of Africa, Asia, and Europe.  They may have been an early ancestor of modern humans.  Erectus hunted, gathered, and used stone tools.  They were the first hominins to evolve a larger than average brain, and they may have been the first to domesticate fire.  Erectus maybe walked off the stage somewhere between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago.  Their long era of existence does not correspond to extinction spasms or serious ecological injuries.  Erectus apparently lived on Earth much longer than Neanderthals did.

Neanderthals probably evolved north of the Mediterranean, not in Africa.  Their remains have been found in Siberia, the Middle East, and Europe.  The earliest discoveries date to maybe 350,000 years ago.  We share up to 99.9 percent of our DNA with them.  Because they lived in non-tropical regions, they evolved thick bodies with large bones that provided greater strength and better cold tolerance.  Elizabeth Kolbert noted that modern humans have up to four percent Neanderthal DNA. 

Erectus, on average, had 1,000 cc brains.  Neanderthals were the brainiest hominins, at 1,600 cc.  Sapiens averages a modest 1,350 cc.  Could our smaller brains be the result of having access to cutting edge new technology (javelins, harpoons, bows and arrows, etc.)? 

Kathleen McAuliffe reported on research finding that human brains have shrunk about 10 percent in the last 20,000 years.  The Homo sapiens with the biggest brains lived in Europe 20,000 to 30,000 years ago.  They were the Cro-Magnons, who had to overcome the many new challenges of surviving in snowy ecosystems, while fending off hungry cave lions, cave hyenas, and saber-tooth cats.  The shrinking brain trend has been found in China, Europe, Africa, and even Australia, which remained Stone Age until 1788.  Why?  Perplexed experts propose some theories, but they don’t know for sure. 

One study found that brains get smaller as population density increases.  Tim Flannery suggests that modern consumers live like cattle on a feedlot, all our needs conveniently provided.  We no longer have the skills or knowledge to survive in the wild.  Thirty species of animals have been domesticated, and for every one of them their brain volume was 10 to 15 percent smaller than their wild ancestors.  Some think that humans domesticated themselves.

Anyway, the trademark Neanderthal weapon was a heavy thrusting lance.  Hunters had to slowly, silently, and very skillfully approach the prey undetected, then suddenly charge the animal, firmly gripping the spear with both hands, and ram it deep into its flesh.  Readers who have hunted hippos with wooden thrusting spears know that this can be very dangerous.  One site in Croatia contained the remains of 75 Neanderthals, and none were older than 35.  Many of their bones had healed fractures, suggesting painful accidents or encounters with fierce animals.  Dying of old age was unlikely.

The climate of the Neanderthal era was like a roller coaster.  In Europe, they were pounded by an era of extreme cold maybe 70,000 years ago.  From maybe 50,000 to 30,000 years ago, the climate was a spastic freak show.  Clive Finlayson noted that the climate often flip-flopped between warm periods and intensely frigid.  Radical shifts could arrive suddenly, and last hundreds or thousands of years, all across Eurasia.  Youngsters might grow up in a chilly steppe ecosystem that used to be a comfortable forest in the days of their grandparents.

Would Neanderthals have become the modern global primate if Homo sapiens had blinked out in Africa?  I sometimes wonder if real estate was a significant limiting factor.  Caves were luxurious addresses during glacial centuries, compared to hide-covered teepees or huts.  The primo caves were south (sun) facing, and ideally overlooked the seasonal migration routes of animal herds.  But there was a limited number of caves, and many were not vacant.  Neanderthals were always welcome dinner guests when they stumbled into caverns inhabited by hungry, jumbo-sized cave lions, cave hyenas, and cave bears.

In warmer and wetter periods, glaciers retreated, and tundra transformed into forest and grassland, habitat for critters like red deer, horses, and moose.  In colder and drier periods, glaciers advanced, forest retreated, and tundra returned, as did mammoths, woolly rhinos, and reindeer.  Neanderthals listened to their growling tummies, and went where the meat was.  They migrated northward in warmer eras, and retreated south when blast freezers returned.  The last Neanderthals died on the sunny shores of the Mediterranean, in Gibraltar, maybe 40,000 to 28,000 years ago.  This was definitely after the arrival of humans in Western Europe, and before the spasm of megafauna extinctions on the continent.

Our human supremacist culture routinely preaches that Neanderthals were pathetic dullards.  During their long vacation in Europe, maybe 270,000 years, Neanderthal technology didn’t change much.  From the supremacist perspective, Neanderthals’ 350,000 year era of stable, low impact, ecological sustainability was indisputable proof of low intelligence. 

Elizabeth Kolbert absolutely disagreed.  Neanderthals lived in Europe for a very long time while affecting their ecosystem no more than any other large mammals.  Flannery noted that, for hundreds of thousands of years, Neanderthals coexisted with straight-tusked elephants, mammoths, and woodland rhinos — without driving them extinct.  If humans had never wandered in from the Middle East, Europe might still be a wild, free, and happy celebration of Neanderthals, Irish elk, saber-tooth cats, straight tusk elephants, and aurochs.  What’s wrong with that?

Everything!  The supremacists leap to their feet, jump up and down, spitting, shouting, smashing bottles.  Humans are blessed by incredible intelligence, brilliant innovation, complex hunting weapons, sophisticated language skills, artistic creativity, decorative ornaments, and the powerful ability to invent totally irrational beliefs, accept them as absolute truth, and exterminate large numbers of nonbelievers.  Ancient mystical stories invented by Homo sapiens proudly assert that Homo sapiens is the absolute Crown of Creation, and the rest of the family of life was provided for our sustenance, amusement, and assorted perversions.

OK.  Stop right here.  Reread the list of human blessings in the previous paragraph.  For the most part, these are not characteristics of species that managed to live sustainably for more than a million years, like the chimps, baboons, lions, horses, and on and on — “ordinary animals” in other words.  In the big picture, it’s not irrational to conclude that the unusual intelligence we have acquired is powerful, dangerously irrational and destructive, and has become the primary threat to our continued existence.

For 150+ years, it has been a normal and respectable tradition for scholars and theologians to line up and urinate on the stupid Neanderthals.  European intellectuals were quite sure that the Garden of Eden was located rather close to London.  They were stunned and bewildered by the growing evidence that the ancestors of all hominins trace back to Mother Africa.  All Homo sapiens living 50,000 years ago had beautiful dark skins.   Oh my God!  It can’t be true!  Horror!

In 2014, Paola Villa and Wil Roebroeks reexamined the traditional beliefs in Neanderthal inferiority, to see if the latest archaeological research still supported them.  They did not find compelling data.  They also pointed out that the traditional beliefs of human superiority in language, symbolic communication, cognitive abilities, and abstract thinking were impossible to prove via archaeological data.  These were the biased opinions of supremacist imaginations.  Science is not required to be rational, and very often isn’t.

Sustainability Doesn’t Suck

Anyway, Neanderthals demonstrated that bipedal primates with huge brains can live sustainably for several hundred thousand years, in extremely challenging conditions, without agriculture, metal making, animal enslavement, fish mining, deforestation, or writing.  In fact, stability is not a problem or flaw.  Stability sounds like a fun and healthy alternative to mindless perpetual growth, fanatical eco-destruction, and devastating hurricanes of irrational illusions.

Clive Finlayson reminded us that no animal species can foretell the future.  When life is comfortable, and the ecosystem is not being ravaged, the safe and intelligent option is to be conservative, and remain on the well-worn time-proven path.  But when the <bleep> hits the fan, and traditions totally fail, innovation might be a less dangerous option.  The path of innovation is risky, often leading to unintended consequences and bloody surprises.  In worst case scenarios, innovation can backfire spectacularly, as 7+ billion people are now painfully discovering.  Yikes!

Chris Stringer reminded us that the myth of progress is a new idea.  The notion of utopia-bound continuous improvement is a bit over 200 years old.  Civilization was imagined to be an upward spiral. 

But in earlier civilizations, mobs of loonies were furiously mowing down ancient forests, triggering landslides, flash floods, and harbors choked with silt.  Each new generation inherited an ecosystem that was obviously in worse condition.  The passage of time was seen as a downward spiral of decay and decline, an inevitable one-way descent into social and ecological Armageddon. 

Hesiod, an ancient Greek thinker, described the glorious days of his venerable ancestors as the Golden Age, when men were pure and lived like gods.  It was followed by a descent into the Silver Age, the Copper Age, the Bronze Age, and finally the Iron Age, when men were violent, foul-mouthed, and fascinated by every form of evil.

Stringer noted that the wizards of modern society are possessed by an overwhelming and irrational blind faith in progress and perpetual growth.  We are far more advanced than Neanderthals, and they were better than Erectus.  You and I are lucky to enjoy the amazing pinnacle of billions of years of evolution.  Stringer does not see this as proof of divine destiny.  He believes that the fact that Neanderthals blinked out, and we didn’t, was largely a result of chance.  We survivors were assisted by the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time.

For example, about 70,000 to 75,000 years ago, the Mount Toba super volcano erupted on the island of Sumatra, spreading enormous amounts of ash.  In some regions of India, up to 19 feet (6 m) of ash accumulated.  Much incoming sunlight was blocked, and global temperatures may have dropped by 3° to 5°C for several years.  Others imagine an intense thousand year instant ice age.  Still others suspect far less global impact.  One theory, presented by geneticists, asserts that the human population plunged to 5,000 to 10,000 individuals — implying that we nearly went extinct.  Others point out that there is no evidence of extinction spasms among mammals at this time.  It’s not easy being an expert on days long past.

Anyway, Stringer suggests that if a similar eruption had happened closer to Africa, instead of Sumatra, it could have been game over for our species, but maybe not Neanderthals, who resided north of Africa.  Or, today might look very different if the rollercoaster of ice ages had occurred in a slightly different pattern over the last 200,000 years.  The outcome could have easily been quite different.  Chance is powerful juju.  Stringer is not a member of the progress cult.  He believes that our long-term future is entirely unpredictable.   I agree.