Throwing Fire by Alfred W. Crosby is a history of the human use of projectiles that covers the whole spectrum, from stones to space ships. Throwing projectiles was a key skill for the survival of our species, it played an important role in shaping what we have become, but it is increasingly a threat to the survival of our species, and many others.
Long ago, in the good old days, our hominid ancestors were tree-dwellers, swinging from branch to branch, and dining on nuts, fruit, lizards, insects, and other dainty delicacies. The whole world was happy. But cooler weather arrived, shrank the jungles, and expanded the grasslands. Life in the trees had no future. We got an eviction notice, became ground-dwellers, and learned to walk upright. This was a crucial event in our history, step one on the Human Trail.
We were comically unprepared for living on the ground. We didn’t have claws, big teeth, horns, or great speed. On two legs, we couldn’t outrun a bunny, and we frequently fell down. But walking upright turned our front feet into hands. We compensated for our shortcomings by learning how to throw things, like rocks, sticks, and spears. Any human, male or female, older than eight years old can throw projectiles farther and more accurately than any other species. This ability gave us the power to effect change from a distance. Well-thrown projectiles could drive away annoying predators or kill a plump bunny for dinner.
We often forget that rocks are lethal weapons, because we have far better killing tools today. But a few hundred years ago, Europeans visiting Samoa got a painful lesson in the superb stone-throwing skills of the natives. Of the 61 men sent ashore, 12 were killed by well-thrown rocks. Later, humans invented the rock-throwing sling, which was even more deadly, especially when loaded with lumps of lead. Many of the conquistadors visiting Mexico had life-changing experiences while getting stoned by the excited sling-twirling Indians.
Throwing allowed us to become predators, and meat was another key to our success. Gorillas were herbivores, and they had to spend much of their time gathering and eating enormous amounts of modestly nutritious vegetation. Because of this, they never created a civilization. Humans were omnivores, and we could digest more nutritious foods, so we spent far less time stuffing our faces and having enormous bowel movements. Hunting encouraged us to learn an important new skill: teamwork. We discovered that a shower of rocks was more likely to crack a skull than a single one.
We also became skilled at working with fire, another unique trait. Fire provided heat, and enabled us to expand into cooler regions. It enabled cooking, which greatly expanded the number of things that we could eat and digest. It kept away insects and predators. With hands, projectiles, teamwork, and fire, we scooted farther down the Human Trail.
An important turning point occurred about 40,000 years ago. Tool-making activities shifted into fast forward. We began painting in caves, making sculptures, and wearing fashionable attire. Humans no longer behaved like ordinary animals. Previously, our culture evolved slowly, because our genes evolved slowly. But at this point, cultural evolution disconnected from genetic evolution, shifted into high gear, and sent us rocketing into the future, toward dangerous new possibilities.
We spread out across the world. With the spear-throwing atlatl, we became able to kill large animals (and got too good at it). An Incan warrior with an atlatl could send a spear completely through a conquistador wearing metal armor. Bows and arrows also evolved into excellent tools for killers.
We came to a fork in the road. Hunter-gatherers stuck with tools that could be made beside a campfire using stone, plant materials, and animal parts. They continued living in a manner that was pleasant, leisurely, stable, and relatively sustainable.
Other humans explored a dark new path. They domesticated plants and animals, built cities and civilizations, and employed military technicians to continue developing better tools for killing. When invaders became a nuisance, walled cities appeared. Then, clever invaders invented catapults and trebuchets to destroy city walls. These were replaced by cannons when we acquired gunpowder technology, and on and on… This path has become an unsustainable dead end, a global disaster.
The second half of the book describes the arms race that developed during the era of civilization — muskets, machine guns, rockets, atomic bombs, and projectiles shot to the moon with human passengers. Like other harmful technologies, advances in military technology have greatly accelerated since the Industrial Revolution. It’s a race that never ends, because the winners are more likely to survive. Whenever an enemy gets better weapons, your future is at risk. Stability is impossible.
Throughout the book, Crosby writes like a detached, objective, scientific reporter — just the facts. He sometimes emits subtle whiffs of admiration for the fascinating cleverness of humankind (the last ten pages are a hopeful dream of space travel and colonization). There are also occasional whiffs of foreboding:
“Humanity equipped with atlatl and firestick was instrumental in the elimination of scores of species of megafauna. Now, equipped with the long-range rocket and fission bomb (and in the next decade a vastly more powerful fusion bomb) man was capable of eliminating thousands upon thousands of species, including his own.”
I found this book to be illuminating, terrifying, and depressing. As I write this morning, there are many thousands of people, all around the world, working on new and more powerful weapons. We know it’s insane, but we can’t stop, because our civilization is insane.
We know that destroying the world’s soils is insane, but we can’t stop. We know that continued economic growth is insane, but we can’t stop. Population growth, recreational shopping, toxic pollution, deforestation, mining, burning fossil fuels — the list goes on forever — insane! We refuse to stop because we have absolutely no alternatives, except for sanity, healing, slowing down, reconnecting with nature, remembering what it is to be human, and living a meaningful and joyful life.
Crosby, Alfred W., Throwing Fire — Projectile Technology Through History, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2010.