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.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Wild Free and Happy Sample 08

[Note: This is the eighth 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.] 

Domestication of Fire

Before hominins learned how create fire, they very carefully preserved the flames of a naturally caused fire by feeding it fuel.  Burning sticks could be taken to other locations and become the source of additional fires.  Folks were extremely careful to preserve the live embers because, if they ever went out, the unlucky brothers and sisters might begin to smell like cat food.

Once upon a time, in an African wilderness, we aren’t sure when, someone figured out how to conjure a dancing flame into being.  Whoa!  In the hominin saga, that first glowing ember was the equivalent of an asteroid strike — a big one.  It catapulted our ancestors outside of the family of life, and into a spooky new realm of supernatural power and danger.  It was the magic ring that gave our ancestors the ability to eventually become the dominant animal on Earth (for a while). 

Unfortunately, the powerful magic was not delivered with warning labels attached.  The gift box did not include powerful herbs and potions to inspire profound wisdom and godlike foresight.  No animal needs these abilities.  Hominins are animals.  The Great Spirit apparently had a mischievous sense of humor.

The four elements are earth, water, air, and fire.  Pyne perceived the first manmade fire to be an act of staggering ecological audacity.  Tropical primates had found the keys to the mastery of fire.  Good grief!  The event is reminiscent of the old Sorcerer’s Apprentice tale, in which a half-clever trainee recklessly conjured a hurricane of big magic that he was powerless to stop, which soon got totally out of control. 

Without domesticated fire, hominins could have remained perfectly sustainable tropical primates, like baboons.  With fire, we acquired an impossible responsibility to use it with flawless wisdom, generation after generation, wherever we went.  The ancestors of baboons effortlessly lived sustainably for several million years by simply living like baboons — brilliant!  When hominins domesticated fire, they lost the magnificent inherent stability that comes from simply being ordinary animals, like all the others.

Some scholars have speculated that if space aliens had visited Earth 100,000 years ago, our ancestors would have appeared to be nothing more than ordinary animals.  For a long time, I accepted that.  Now I don’t.  Those visiting space aliens would have noticed that one species — and only one — maintained fires in their encampments.  This practice was not the slightest bit ordinary.  Hominins were the only animals who could deliberately ignite or extinguish a fire.  By and by, when hominins go extinct, so will domesticated fire, and the monsters it conjured into existence.

Paleoanthropologists and archaeologists have endless screechy arguments about the dates when prehistoric changes happened, like the domestication of fire.  Pretty much, everyone agrees that it happened at least 400,000 years ago, and the most likely suspect was Homo erectus.  Others point to two million year old ashes in the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa.

The Swartkrans Cave near Johannesburg is a special site.  Many years of assorted stuff has built up on the floor, and the crud has been carefully excavated.  In the oldest layers, no charcoal is found.  It is an era before fire.  At this level, there are complete skeletons of big cats, and the scattered gnawed bones of the critters they ate, including more than 100 individual hominins.  In this era, cats were the top predator.  Higher up, charcoal is found in newer layers, about 1.6 million years ago, the age of fire.  Here are found complete hominin skeletons, and the scattered bones of the critters they gnawed, including big cats — hominins were now the top predator.

Today, a growing number of scientists think it’s time to announce the end of the Holocene Epoch (from 11,700 B.P. to now), and declare the arrival of the embarrassing Anthropocene Epoch.  Epochs are time periods in geologic history that leave behind a layer of residue that is unique and recognizable.  Carboniferous was the coal era.  Jurassic was the era of petroleum and natural gas.  The Anthropocene is the era when humans conquered the Earth, and unwisely initiated massive and irreversible change.

If you ever want to start a bloody fistfight at a bar full of scruffy drunken scientists, ask this: When did the Anthropocene begin?  Some say 1945, the dawn of the nuclear age.  Some say 1800, the kickoff of the Industrial Revolution.  Some say 8000 B.C., the Agricultural Revolution.  Paul Shepard thought that the game changer was the Hunting Revolution, when hominins learned how to make and use deadly stone tipped javelins and lances, hunt in packs like wolves, kill too many large animals, and feed their energy-guzzling oversized brains with highly nutritious grass fed organic meat.  Ronald Wright called this transition “the perfection of hunting,” the first progress trap (a difficult to undo “advance”).

James Scott thought that the good old days ended with the domestication of fire.  In his mind, the nightmare world we live in is the result of four domestications — fire, animals, plants, and humans.  Domesticated fire, like livestock, required breeding, feeding, and oversight to keep it from running away from its master.  Domesticated fire was as addictive as heroin, a habit impossible to willfully quit.  The habit eventually spread around the world.  Carleton Coon noted that only a few folks made it into the nineteenth century without becoming fire makers — the Tasmanians, Andaman Islanders, and the Pygmies of the Ituri forest.

Fire altered the traditional food chain.  Man-eating predators were intimidated by all-night fires and burning torches.  So, fewer hominins were violently killed and eaten.  This diminished a population check on our ancestors, which may have disturbed the stability of functional ecosystems.  Other checks include disease, starvation, conflict, accidents, and so on.  John Reader wrote that, under ideal conditions, if two humans, and their descendants, all had large families, the clan would explode to 4 billion in just 500 years.  Man-eating predators are good for us.  They weed out the sick, elderly, injured, inattentive, and unlucky.  We all feed each other. 

Fire kept our ancestors warmer.  Humans have three million sweat glands to cool us off in hot weather.  In cold weather, the body directs more warm blood to the skin.  One thing that struck Europeans about primitive people was that they seemed to be impervious to cold.  During his famous voyage, Darwin was surprised to observe natives who wore little or no clothing during bitterly cold weather in Tierra del Fuego.

On the Kalahari, night temperatures in June and July can dip below freezing.  Elizabeth Marshall Thomas was with a group of naked San people during a night when their water froze.  Their only protection was a kaross — an animal skin wrapped around their shoulders. 

Tropical people go naked, like chimps and baboons, because clothes are unnecessary, making them requires work, and pointless work is moronic.  Modern consumers waste lots of energy, because much of their sense of “cold” is merely a belief induced by cultural programming.  Also, they want to wear shorts and tee-shirts indoors, in the middle of winter.   I’ve taught myself to be far more tolerant of cooler temperatures than I was 30 years ago.  I wear more layers, and waste far less heat.

Fire enabled folks to survive in regions having extended cold weather.  So they eventually expanded into much of the northern hemisphere, previously home to wooly mammoths, sabertooth cats, and many other species of megafauna.  By making uninhabitable regions habitable, fire increased the global carrying capacity for the hominin hordes — more territory, more food, more hominins.

Fire was used on a large scale to manage landscapes for more productive hunting and foraging.  It was used to drive animals into bogs or streams, off precipices, or into locations where they could be confined and killed.  It burned off cover that concealed hidden nests or burrows.  Flame was used for optimizing grasslands to attract more game — it consumed dead vegetation and woody brush, encouraging the growth of fresh nutritious green forage.  It left behind a banquet of roasted grasshoppers.  It discouraged visits from bloodthirsty flies and mosquitoes.

Fire enabled slash-and-burn agriculture (swidden), which replaced forest with cropland.  Crops were grown for a year or so, until soil fertility was depleted, at which point another area of forest was slashed down.  The depleted fields were left to recover for ten or twenty years, when they were slashed again.  After multiple slash-and-burn cycles, the land was rubbished.  Daniel Hillel reported that in Indonesia there are more than 39.5 million acres (16 million hectares) of land that is incapable of supporting either agriculture or forest.

Fire has long been used as a weapon of mass destruction during violent conflicts.  Cities built of wood often fed the flames of horrific firestorms that claimed many lives.  Even in peacetime, structures heated with open flame fireplaces frequently went up in smoke, often igniting the rest of the village.  For many centuries, firefighting technology was an ineffective process of hauling buckets of water by hand.  Deadly fires were very common, and a great source of fear.  The Christian concept of Hell was intensified by the terror of frequent fires in early times.

Fire had a spiritual aspect in every traditional culture.  Jacob Grimm mentioned the needfire rituals that were once common in many regions of Western Europe.  Every year at the summer solstice, each home in the village let their hearth fire die out.  A new fire was kindled into existence by a spinning drill (never flint and steel), and everyone took home a bit of the needfire to light their hearth for the coming year.  Often people and livestock were passed through the glowing embers for purification and protection.  Fire was highly sacred business.  Many old pantheons had fire gods, goddesses, and myths. 

Domesticated fire is Earth-shaking super-big juju.  James Scott concluded that the accumulated ecological impacts of manmade fire on this planet overwhelm those caused by the domestication of plants and animals.


The domestication of fire kicked open the door to a revolutionary change in the hominin saga — a technology called cooking.  Cooking softened and pre-digested food.  Ancestors were able to extract more nutrients from each mouthful.  Better nutrition facilitated the development of bigger brains.  Infants could be weaned sooner when softened food became an option, so births could be spaced closer together.  The toothless elderly benefitted from access to soft food.  Chewing was less work, so hominins evolved smaller teeth compared to other primates.  Also, digestion took less processing, so our guts got smaller, and tummies flatter.

Cooking transformed some foods that had been toxic or indigestible into edible nourishment.  By increasing the variety of plant foods we could eat, and the amount of nutrients we could extract from them, it became possible for an area of land to feed more ancestors.  Thus, cooking boosted an ecosystem’s carrying capacity for hominins.

Cooking gave us the keys to industrial civilization.  Imagine the astonishment when early hominins watched some heavy rocks in the fire turn red and melt into a liquid form.  The first smelter was born.  Metallurgy gave us the ability to fill rivers with spilled blood, to reduce cities to ashes, and to ravage ecosystems in countless, devastating, and irreparable ways.

The ancestors also learned about cooking clay.  They were baking figurines in primitive kilns 25,000 years ago.  This knowledge eventually evolved into baking pottery and bricks.  Sand could be cooked into glass, limestone into cement, wood into charcoal, water into steam, crude oil into distillates (gasoline, diesel, kerosene, etc.), and on and on and on. 

Deep Adaptation

Jem Bendell, Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria, U.K., wrote a paper titled “Deep Adaptation.”  Previously, he had been involved in the standard corporate-oriented stuff — Sustainable Development™, Sustainable Growth™, and so on.  He eventually realized that these have little relationship to genuine ecological sustainability.  He also came to realize that climate change was going to cause a collapse of society during the lives of his students.

Corporate-oriented “sustainability” education teaches blind faith in technology and human genius — full strength hopium.  We can solve any problem!  For them, nothing is more inappropriate than honestly acknowledging reality.  Speaking honestly would scare students out of their wits, fill them with despair, destroy their sanity, and ruin their lives forever!

Bendell was tormented by his realization that “the evidence before us suggests that we are set for disruptive and uncontrollable levels of climate change, bringing starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war… in your own life.”  Why is it taboo to discuss this in academia?  He decided to break the taboo in his classes, and the result surprised him.  He wrote:

“In my work with mature students, I have found that inviting them to consider collapse as inevitable, catastrophe as probable, and extinction as possible, has not led to apathy or depression.  Instead, in a supportive environment, where we have enjoyed community with each other, celebrating ancestors and enjoying nature before, then looking at this information and possible framings for it, something positive happens.  I have witnessed a shedding of concern for conforming to the status quo, and a new creativity about what to focus on going forward.”

He wrote a 38-page scholarly paper that defied the taboo.  [HERE]

Drama and commentary on his paper.  [HERE]

He also created a 14 minute video.  [HERE]

His website is [HERE]

His blog is [HERE]