Thursday, October 29, 2015

Lone Survivors

A million years ago, our Homo erectus ancestors consisted of maybe 20,000 breeding individuals, according to wizards who speculate on the hidden secrets of DNA.  This is similar to the current population of chimpanzees or gorillas.  The ancestors lived in scattered pockets of Africa, at a time when Earth was a paradise of abundant life.  From these ancient roots, a number of hominid species evolved, but only Homo sapiens still survives, at seven-point-something billion and growing.  The chimps and gorillas continue to live in a manner similar to their ancestors of a million years ago.  What happened to us?

Chris Stringer is one of the venerable grandfathers in the study of human evolution.  He’s read the papers, attended the conferences, examined the skulls, and had a ringside seat at the noisy catfights.  This field of knowledge is far from finished.  New specimens continue to be found, and new technology provides deeper insights.  Stringer’s book, Lone Survivors, discusses some primary issues, and the scholarly disputes surrounding them, as they stood in 2012.  He does a pretty good job of providing an overview to a huge and complex subject, but readers with little background are advised to wear life preservers.

I learned a lot about Neanderthals.  They survived 400,000 years on a climate change roller coaster.  They hung out with hippos in warm forests near Rome, and they chased wooly mammoths on frigid treeless tundras.  They had short, stocky bodies that were good for preserving heat, but which required more calories.  Males and females were about the same size, suggesting little division of labor, everyone joined in the hunt. 

The Neanderthal diet majored in the flesh of large game.  Readers who have hunted hippos with wooden thrusting spears know that his is very dangerous.  One site in Croatia contained the remains of 75 Neanderthals, and none were older than 35.  In their clans, there were probably many orphans and few grandparents.  The scarcity of elders, and the small size of their groups, sharply restricted the flow of cultural information from one generation to the next, and from clan to clan.

Some say that Neanderthals lacked shoes and close-fitting clothing.  When Darwin visited chilly Tierra del Fuego, at the bottom of South America, he was shocked to see natives wearing little or no clothing and sleeping naked in the open.  Stringer noted that modern Europeans seem to be poorly adapted to the cold, physiologically.

Cro-Magnons were the Homo sapiens that moved into Europe maybe 45,000 years ago.  European Neanderthals disappeared around 30,000 years ago.  Neanderthals went extinct in the Middle East, Siberia, Gibraltar, and Britain at different times, probably for different reasons.  This was an era of frequent climate zigzags.  When temperatures plummeted, habitable territories shrank, and fewer folks could be fed.

Cro-Magnons apparently had footwear and warm, fitted clothing.  They had better tools for hunting, so their diet was more diverse and dependable.  They were able to extract more nutrients from an ecosystem, so they could survive in places where Neanderthals could not.  They lived in larger groups, and more of them survived to middle age or old age, so more cultural information could be passed to the young.

Large populations are better at preserving cultural knowledge, acquiring new information from outsiders, and generating innovations.  More busy minds interact, exchange ideas, compete, and imagine cool ways for living even farther out of balance.  Witness the city of Los Angeles, where 14 million animals with hunter-gatherer DNA are temporarily able to survive because of a highly complex system of innovative technology.  Note that this innovation has no relationship to foresight or wisdom.  Time is running out on Los Angeles.

On the other hand, less innovation occurs in smaller simpler groups, and that’s often a blessing.  Innovators can be dangerous loose cannons, introducing risky new ideas that result in horrid unintended consequences — like cell phones, automobiles, or agriculture.  Nothing is more precious than a stable, sustainable, time-proven way of living, where the secret to success is simply imitating your ancestors, conforming to the norm, and enjoying life, like the chimps and gorillas do.

When the planet heated up 14,000 years ago, rising sea levels submerged the land link between Australia and Tasmania, terminating the exchange of people, ideas, and gadgets.  Tasmania’s traditional way of life was also squeezed as the warmer climate spurred the expansion of heavy forest.  The natives experienced a cultural meltdown.  “Tasmanians appear to have led an increasingly simplified life, forgoing apparently valuable skills and technologies, such as bone and hafted tools, nets and spears used to catch fish and small game, spear throwers and boomerangs, and anything but the simplest of skin clothing.”

Will climate change have a similar effect on industrial civilization in the coming decades?  Will it slash food production, sharply reduce population, eliminate travel between regions, pull the plug on modern technology, and erase lots of obsolete and unsustainable cultural information?  Could collapse have a silver lining?

Climate change can derail any culture, and drive species to extinction.  It can also produce beneficial conditions, like the unusually favorable climate of the last 10,000 years.  Natural selection rewards species that can adapt to change, and it deletes those that fail.  There is another important variable that is often overlooked — genetic drift — mutations that happen all the time when slight boo-boos occur during cell division.  These tiny defects can provide a barrel of surprises.

We are repeatedly taught that humans are nature’s flawless masterpiece, the glorious conclusion of three billion years of evolution.  But, if Big Mama Nature had experienced slightly different moods over the eons, we might be Neanderthals or Denisovans today (or maybe slime mold).  Climate change and genetic drift are purely random.  The fact that Homo sapiens is the lone survivor among the hominid species is not absolute proof of superiority, but it does indicate a temporary streak of good luck.

Homo heidelbergensis was an ancestor that lived 500,000 years ago.  They had brains ranging in size from 1100 to 1400 cc (modern brains average 1350 cc).  The average Neanderthal brain was 1600 cc — much bigger than ours.  Stringer noted that our brains today are ten percent smaller than our Homo sapiens ancestors of 20,000 years ago.  Is there a message here?

Without words, chimps and gorillas can express contentment, affection, irritation, excitement.  But without complex language, they are more trapped within themselves.  Language took us “into new and shared worlds that were unknown to our ancestors.”  We can talk about the here and now, the past, the future, abstract concepts, feelings, imaginary worlds, and so on.

Later, innovative geniuses invented the use of symbols.  Now we can convert words into patterns of squiggly lines, for example: “computer.”  Writing enables us to communicate with folks in faraway places.  I can read words written by Julius Caesar, and so might the generations yet-to-be-born, in theory.  Industrial civilization cannot exist without symbols — numbers, graphs, pictures, status symbols.  Progress abounds with powerful and dangerous juju.

Stringer is a mild mannered humanist.  And so, he portrays the human journey as one of admirable advancement (the chimps fall down laughing).  On the last page, he confesses a profound doubt.  “Sometimes the difference between failure and success in evolution is a narrow one, and we are certainly on a knife edge now as we confront an overpopulated planet and the prospect of global climate change on a scale that humans have never faced before.  Let’s hope our species is up to the challenge.” 

Stringer, Chris, Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth, Times Books, New York, 2012.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Abstract Wild

In 1964, plans were being discussed for the creation of the Canyonlands National Park, near Moab, Utah.  Some wanted to include the Maze in the park.  The Maze is a stunning network of desert canyons, and it was extremely inaccessible at that time.  Few living people had ever seen it.

Jack Turner and his buddy were young rock-climbing adventure hogs.  Their plan was to fly into the Maze, land the plane on a long-abandoned bulldozer scrape, take some cool photos, and sell them to National Geographic.  Both survived the botched landing.  While wandering around in the Maze, they found ancient pictographs of life-sized human images.  The paintings had a striking presence, and the lads were mesmerized.  They had walked into a different dimension, a place alive with a strong aura of spirit power.

Today, the aura has faded.  The Maze is mapped and tamed.  Visitors can drive in and hike around on happy trails.  The pictographs have become photo opportunities for intrepid ecotourists.  The sacred wildness of the place has become banal, like a museum exhibit.  For the wild painters, who lived several thousand years ago, this place “was their home in a sense we can no longer imagine,” said Turner.  “Whoever they were, they knew how to express and present something we have lost.”

Later, Turner worked as a philosophy professor in Chicago, a soul-killing bad trip.  One day, he read a deep ecology essay by Arne Naess, and had a great awakening.  He suddenly realized that he was on the wrong path.  He escaped from the nightmare, and spent many years travelling around the world climbing mountains.  This included at least 16 years as a guide at Grand Teton National Park.

Deep ecology helped him understand the crucial difference between ecocentric thinking (the entire ecosystem is sacred) and anthropocentric thinking (only human desires matter).  This echoes the huge gap between the wild Maze painters and the civilized ecotourists.  It’s essentially the difference between sustainable and unsustainable cultures.

Wandering around the world taught him another vital lesson.  He visited cultures that were similar to the Maze painters, cultures with a profound spiritual connection to the past, the future, their community, and their sacred home.  All of their needs were provided by the place they inhabited.  Consequently, they lived with great care, striving to remain in balance with the land.

Today, the ecosystem is being hammered.  Typically, the designated villains include capitalism, greedy corporations, corrupt politicians, the evil enemy-of-the-day, and so on.  Turner rejected this.  The planet is being pummeled by a culture that is infested with absurd abstract ideas — more is better, get rich quick, grow or die.  This culture has reduced the natural world to an abstraction, a machine that must be controlled — a jumbo cookie jar for the amusement of infantile organisms.

So, Turner’s enemies are not the designated villains.  His enemies are abstractions, like the hallucinations that perceive a sacred old growth forest to be a calculable quantity of board feet, worth a calculable quantity of dollars.  Abstractions are the foundation of the madness, and they are formidable opponents.  They can make clear thinking impossible, and inspire remarkable achievements in foolishness.

In his book, The Abstract Wild, Turner describes why he has become a “belligerent ecological fundamentalist,” and why he stands on the side of the grizzly bears and mountain lions.  “Abstraction” is a word meaning mental separation, not a concrete object.  Wildness is “the relation of free, self-willed, and self-determinate ‘things’ with the harmonious order of the cosmos.”

There are eight essays in the book.  One examines wilderness management, a hotbed of professional control freaks.  This work is done under the banner of Science, a way of knowing that can understand processes and predict their activities.  What a joke!  We don’t understand friends or lovers.  We don’t understand ourselves.  Ecosystems are vastly more complex and chaotic.

Wildlife biologists have a history of making wildly incorrect predictions, often leading to embarrassing disasters.  Their clumsy conjuring is no more “science” than is astrology.  Humans should always avoid fooling around with DNA, atoms, or wilderness management.  “We are not that wise, nor can we be.”  Instead of trying to control nature by using a strategy based on hope, wishes, incomplete data, and misunderstanding, Turner recommends that we should get out of the way and leave the job to Big Mama Nature, who has a billion years of experience.  (The experts howl!)

Another essay snaps, snarls, and spits with rage.  Civilization has been brutally molesting the planet for 10,000 years, at an ever-increasing rate.  Over the centuries, we have responded to these assaults on wildness by forgiving and forgetting.  We’re now moving into the end game.  Despite being blasted by a fire hose of depressing news, we remain pathetically timid, helpless victims.  We accept a wrecked planet as normal, and refuse to utter a peep of protest.

Turner screams.  Enough forgiving and forgetting!  It’s time for some healthy rage.  It’s time to raise hell against the senseless destruction.  This is spiritual business, so it takes precedence over society’s laws.  Nature is sacred, and must be defended.  Destroying the planet is evil and unacceptable, even if it’s perfectly legal and great for the economy.

There are thousands of eco-books, and most tend to focus their attention on symptoms — climate change, deforestation, mass extinction, overpopulation, and so on.  To control these symptoms, they suggest a variety of treatments, including new government policies, techno miracles, lifestyle changes, and rebellion.  Turner has lived much of his life out of doors, and he feels a profound reverence and respect for wildness.  His book is rare for presenting this perspective, which is getting dimmer with every decade.

This perspective can help us move toward healing.  “We only value what we know and love, and we no longer know and love the wild,” he says.  “What we need now is a culture that deeply loves the wild earth.”  But the inmates of modernity have little intimate experience with wild nature, and almost no comprehension of what has been lost.  Wildness is something seen on TV.

We must rejoin the natural world.  This is still possible.  Turner succeeded.  Cool books, nature documentaries, and ecotourism cannot provide us with all we need to recover our wildness.  What’s needed is direct experience with a place, over time, complete immersion — observing the bird migrations, animal mating, leafing of trees, climate patterns, and so on.  A week in the mountains is never enough.

In the end, Turner presents us with a tantalizing bittersweet enigma.  He reveals to us the one and only silver bullet solution that can actually heal us, and guide us back home to the family of life.  But this solution is impossible, as long as there are so many people, living so hard.  The shamans have much work to do, to redirect our hearts toward healthy paths.  It’s time for the clans of creative folks to seize their power, work to exorcise our culture’s terrible demons, and rekindle forgotten love.

Turner, Jack, The Abstract Wild, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 1996.

The book’s first chapter, the Maze story, is online.  Click on “Read Excerpt” beneath the book cover HERE.

To view a 100-minute video of Turner, click HERE.