[Note: This is the fourteenth 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.]
Expansion and Limits
William Rees noted that every species has two traits. (1) They will expand to all locations that are accessible to them, if conditions allow their survival. On the other hand, negative feedback can discourage new expansion, or encourage retreats. The climate might be hostile. Food or water resources might be scarce. Powerful predators or hostile people might live there. So might disease agents, like tsetse flies, malarial mosquitoes, or parasitic worms.
For walking critters, the area accessible for expansion has limits. People with domesticated horses or camels have greater potential for long distance expansion. The same is true for folks having watercraft that can travel on rivers, or move across seas and oceans. Also, folks with flying machines, or driving machines. Critters that know how to make fire and sew warm clothing can expand into snow country, far beyond the normal and appropriate habitats for tropical primates.
(2) When critters expand into new habitat, they will utilize all available resources — until they smack into limits, and have to back off. This is no big deal for animals that live as they naturally evolved to live — without complex tools. When a resource becomes scarce, they can switch to a substitute, if any, or they can move elsewhere, or they can turn into cat food.
Technology can expand what resources are available. A mammoth is not a resource that an empty handed hominin can utilize, but a hominin with a thrusting spear, stone blade, and fire drill can. Fishing with a hand net is one thing, a motorized trawler is another. Hunter-gatherers did not mine and smelt ores, fabricate machines, drill oil wells, or replace wilderness with mega farms growing millions of tons of corn — but industrial civilizations do.
As you can see here, there are limits to expansion. Innovation and technology can push back narrow limits, sometimes to a huge degree. For example, 10,000 years ago, the human population was maybe 10 million. Today, it’s seven-point-something billion, thanks our ability to cleverly bypass countless limits, our feeble ability to foresee the unintended consequences, and our reluctance to question reality when we’re enjoying regular meals.
This artificially swollen carrying capacity can only be temporary, because it is fantastically unsustainable. Modern folks, the most educated generation ever, have a fervent blind faith in the ridiculous idea that we have no limits. They’ve been angrily pissing on Thomas Malthus for almost 200 years for suggesting the logical and rational ‘heresy’ that unlimited growth is impossible.
Technological innovation is the fruit of diabolically clever genius. But… it seems that genius and wisdom rarely, if ever, meet. Wisdom is almost invisible in our culture, a ghost, a will-o-wisp. All the spotlights are on geeky genius, as it enthusiastically tap-dances across the stage, like a whirlwind of nerve gas.
Genius designs and builds 440 nuclear power plants — before giving any serious consideration to the enormous challenge of how to permanently store countless tons of radioactive wastes that can remain highly toxic for a million years. Wisdom cries. Wisdom recommends turning off the lights, turning on your thinker, converting your Mercedes into a chicken coop, and discovering the evolutionary purpose of those mysterious five-toed thingees at the ends of your legs.
Genius, the hyper-ambitious idiot savant, gives us automobiles, cell phones, hydrogen bombs, plastic diapers, landfills, and a severely rubbished ecosystem. The bottom line is that healthy, sustainable, ordinary animals like chimps have zero need for wisdom, or genius, or foresight, or technological innovation. They live in the manner for which they evolved, period. Imagine that.
Unlike wild chimps, we are not free. Industrial civilization keeps us in cages. Miles Olson pointed out that we are essentially enslaved by the powers that control the technology we are addicted to for survival — corporations that provide energy, transportation, food production, and so on. Chimps would not notice if all of these corporations went bankrupt next week.
Anyway, hominins emerged in Mother Africa, and eventually expanded around the world. This was not unique. Long before hominins appeared, many “ordinary” animals travelled widely — mammoths, horses, wolves, salmon, bears, bison, migratory birds, and so on. These species did so gradually, allowing evolution to fine tune them for new conditions — with zero dependence on technological crutches.
Much later in the hominin saga, Homo sapiens emerged, maybe 300,000 years ago. In Africa, this era is sort of a black hole in the archaeological record. Minimal evidence has been found. Paul Jordan wrote that the geologic chemistry of African caves was lousy for preserving bones, while the limestone caves of Europe were excellent.
By and by, our human ancestors wandered out of Africa, and entered the Middle East somewhere around 130,000 and 100,000 years ago. Clive Finlayson suggested that this was not an exodus to escape problems, and it was not purposeful — brave pioneers eager to explore the unknown. Folks just gradually moved into new regions over the span of many generations, like roaming herds of bison, going where their stomachs led them.
The early pilgrims were probably small groups, and there were likely multiple expeditions over the centuries. They wandered eastward, across tropical regions of Asia, and arrived in Australia maybe 50,000 years ago. Humans began migrating into Eastern Europe about 36,000 years ago, and arrived in Portugal 2,000 years later. Finally, we wandered into the Americas maybe 13,000 years ago.
Moving through the tropical regions of Asia was not a daunting challenge for critters that evolved in tropical Africa. They didn’t need clothing or warm shelters. Meat and plant-based foods were available year round. They may have left some African pathogens behind, and they may have discovered some new pathogens in Asia. Tropical ecosystems are home to high biodiversity, including pathogens.
In Asia, as well as Africa, they remained vulnerable to man-eating predators that were big, strong, fast, smart, and armed with sharp teeth and claws. In both continents, our ancestors were at a distinct disadvantage — smaller, weaker, slower, and wimpy in the teeth and claws department. Back then, the notion that we would someday become the dominant animal on Earth seemed hilarious.
Self-defense was a primary challenge. Folks likely kept a fire burning all night, with someone staying awake on guard duty. They used spears, clubs, rocks, and impolite suggestions to discourage unwelcome visits from their hungry carnivorous neighbors. In those days, being a plump juicy walking meatball 24 hours a day inspired folks to constantly pay acute attention to the sights, sounds, smells, and patterns of the surrounding reality (unlike today’s cell phone zombies). Like all other animals, it was not common for humans to die from old age. The other primary challenge was regularly acquiring food. Cold turkey withdrawal from a serious addiction to food is unpleasant, often fatal.
OK, now pretend that it is 75,000 years ago, and you are a huge, powerful, ass-whooping aurochs munching on the greenery along a river in tropical India. One fine day, a few strange animals appear in the meadow — brown, hairy, stinky, fairly small, oddly walking on two legs, and carrying long sticks. What the <bleep> are those? You sense no danger and continue grazing. Healthy mature aurochs fear no other animals. Large carnivores prefer to attack game that is less likely to tear them to bloody shreds. Suddenly, the gang of alien critters charge and ram their sticks into you. Game over.
Thanks to predator control programs run by the U.S. government, wolves ceased living in the Tetons for a while. By and by, new generations of elk and moose lost their memory of wolves. Later, some wolves from Yellowstone began drifting back in. They were delightfully surprised to discover herds of delicious animals that had absolutely no instinctive fear of them. William Stolzenburg wrote that wolves could simply stroll into a herd and snatch away their calves. Eventually, animals realized that wolves were dangerous predators, and promptly rewrote their survival manuals.
Back in Mother Africa, no critters ever forgot that lions, leopards, hyenas, and humans were vicious serial killers. Life on the savannah was an endless crime wave, the bloody sacred dance of life. When human pioneers wandered away from their original African home, into the great unknown, they regularly encountered (and ate) a wide variety of animals that had no fear of them — at first.
In 1921, Knud Rasmussen’s arctic expedition made a winter camp on Danish Island. Out on a walk, “we encountered a hare so amazingly tame that we were tempted actually to essay his capture with our bare hands. Soon afterward, we spied a lonely caribou who at once was all curiosity and came running toward us to investigate these strange visitors. Never before had I encountered from animals such a friendly greeting.”
Tim Flannery wrote about the elephant seals that lived on Tasmania’s King Island. Some weighed up to four tons. When hunters found them, the seals calmly watched as the animals around them were killed. It was a surreal experience. The hunters felt like gods. In 1802, when European explorers arrived at Kangaroo Island, off the south coast of Australia, the fearless kangaroos could be calmly approached and shot in the eye, or smacked with a club.
In 1805, when the Lewis and Clark expedition was crossing into Montana, Lewis wrote, “The buffalo, elk, and antelope are so gentle that we pass near them while feeding, without appearing to excite any alarm among them, and when we attract their attention, they frequently approach us more nearly to discover what we are, and in some instances pursue us a considerable distance apparently with that view.”
On numerous islands, the first explorers found that the wildlife was incredibly tame. Birds could be killed with a stick, and many islands were home to enormous bird communities. Thriving colonies of fish knew nothing about hooks or nets. When legions of sea turtles came to nest, they were sitting ducks. For a while, newcomers to islands enjoyed an easy life of feasting —until limits began raining on the party.
Sometimes hungry predators kill more prey than they need, and abandon what they can’t use. Often surplus carcasses are simply abandoned, tasty offerings for the local scavengers. Surplus killing is common with many species including badgers, wolves, red foxes, leopards, lions, spotted hyenas, bears, coyotes, lynx, feral dogs, house cats, and humans.
A pack of 19 spotted hyenas once attacked a herd of Thompson’s gazelles, killing 82, and severely injuring 27. Only 16 percent of them were eaten.
During a severe Minnesota winter, when the snow was very deep, the deer had a hard time moving. Wolves killed every one they found, leaving many uneaten.
Sometimes surplus killing is deliberate and purposeful. Weasels kill voles as winter approaches, and leave them in burrows for later dining. In Alaska, a wolf pack killed 17 caribou in early February. Over the next three months, they returned, dug up carcasses, and continued dining on them.
Barry Lopez spent time with native Alaskan hunters, and wrote a book about wolves. When a wolf chases and confronts a caribou or moose, their eyes meet, and their spirits communicate, in what Lopez calls the conversation of death. The prey can chose to resist, which sometimes works, or they can attempt to flee, which sometimes works. A sick or elderly prey might indicate surrender — take me, let my healthy comrades live. Or, the wolves might suddenly end the confrontation and walk away. If there is to be a death, both predator and prey choose this outcome during their spirit-to-spirit ceremony, wrote Lopez.
Wolves and moose have coevolved for a very long time, and both comprehend the sacred power of the life and death encounter. They are fully aware of what is happening. Wolves know that a strong, healthy, mature moose can splatter their skulls with a swift kick. When wolves are desperately hungry, the risk of injury is secondary to the risk of starvation.
Domesticated animals are a different story. Many have had their wild intelligence bred out of them, rendering them passive and infantile. So, when the hungry predator confronts them, and it’s time for the conversation of death, the wild spirit of the prey is absent — the lights are out, nobody is home, a truly pathetic situation.
In South Africa, one leopard killed 51 sheep in a single attack. There are a number of stories of wolves killing 20 or 30 sheep and just eating 2 or 3. If a herd of prey makes no effort to flee, or are helplessly trapped, predators sometimes keep killing them. In the family of life, predators evolved to be natural born killers. Their sacred mission is to discourage population outbursts in prey species, and the consequent ecosystem impacts. They help maintain balance.
It’s daunting to contemplate the ongoing expansion of highly skilled human hunters into new regions outside of Mother Africa, where they certainly encountered fearless prey. Did the human hunters instinctively treat fearless critters the way hungry wolves treat clueless sheep? As humans entered Australasia, Eurasia, and the Americas, large animal extinctions followed. They were the most desired prey, and they had not coevolved with heavily armed tropical primates.