Extinction: Evolution and the End of Man
I have just today completed Michael Boulter's book Extinction: Evolution and the End of Man (Fourth Estate, 2002). I'm trepidacious to post my take on the book anywhere as I might be classed as a nutcase! Nevertheless, the book has a challenging theme which deserves to be considered widely.
Boulter works up to his outrageous proposition over the first 184 of his 193 pages, but it still shocked me when I reached it. It is so outrageous that, when I read it, I could see why he never quite has the courage to spell it out explicitly.
From the beginning, I enjoyed the book because, as a non-mathematician, I always welcome effective popular expositions of power laws, self organization, pink noise (first time I have come across this term), etc., especially in the context of human evolution. Boulter does this well and he keeps three threads going throughout: the theory, the applications and expository tools of Bak and Kauffman and the unfolding of his own ideas.
My interest received an extra fillip when I saw that he chose 40,000 years ago as a key date. Other authors have selected 40,000 ya as a threshold, but each depicts the distinguishing features of the threshold in different terms. Boulter tells us that H. sapiens came out of Africa 42,000 ya and had thinly populated most of Europe by 40,000 ya. The chronological precision is not important; it is his choice of how he depicts 40,000 ya that intrigues me.
I also appreciated the way Boulter weaves in the relevant ideas of Aristotle, Agassiz, Lyall, Darwin, Gould & Eldridge, Dawkins, and Flannery. Changing paradigms and hegemonies have always fascinated me.
Moving on from 40,000 ya, Boulter tells us that the megafauna extinctions began at around the time that H. sapiens sapiens wiped out H. neanderthalensis some 30,000 ya and progressed through till about 15,000 ya by which time it had exterminated half the planet's megafauna species.
By now you may have guessed Boulter's proposition. It is that (a) we have been using the wrong time scale to measure the human impact on the environment. It is not since the introduction of agriculture; it is not since the Industrial Revolution; it is not since the introduction of the fossil-fuel burning motor car or since we moved into an environmental deficit in the 1970s. (b) If we go back 40,000 years we can see that the sixth great extinction began globally then - when modern humans settled beyond Africa. The destruction has been in one clear and unmistakable direction since that time: Homo sapiens sapiens is demonstrably the plague species that is part way through achieving the sixth extinction it began 30,000 ya and will destroy itself - or radically alter its ecology (as all plague species do) in the process. Boulter proposes the development of sophisticated language by H. sapiens sapiens 30,000 ya as the feature that enabled them to take on and exterminate the less linguistically able neanderthals - one of their early megafauna extinctions.
Boulter's view stands in marked contrast with those writers who have, up till now, lighted the way for me intellectually: Paul Shepard, Art De Vany and Daniel Quinn who, in their own ways, hark back to the notion that there were some predominantly admirable characteristics of human development in the late Pleistocene. Set it at 40,000 ya if you like; the year is not vital to the argument. Michael Boulter turns this on its head, putting forward the notion that it was 40,000 ya that human life began its reckless, uncontrollable hurtle towards self-destruction!
Now I should add that, although this popularly-written book has been criticized for the signs of having been rushed, this is a superficial criticism. Other reviewers complain about the absence of a common cause for the cycles he describes. That complaint could only be made by someone who has skimmed rather than read the book. However, it is also a distraction from Boulter's ideas themselves that are the big challenge. Ultimately, his big idea is not falsifiable, and this, if anything, makes it more important for us today. The book gives us what may be the ultimate challenge for our sapiens sapiens intellects. It was an eye-opener for me, giving me as it did a radically alternative perspective on the understandings I have draw upon for my comprehension of our place in the world. And for that reason alone, Boulter's thesis made a deep, paradigm-shifting impact upon me.
Michael Boulter's comments on this review
Keith - thanks for your message.
For sure, please put your comments anywhere you see fit. I'm flattered that you see fit to help put out the message. You are quite right about lots of people missing my main point, that you have grasped. Next time I must shout louder. Or, perhaps, such reality takes time to sink in. Sometimes I do feel I look like the sandwich board man in Oxford Street saying the End is Nigh.
Thanks for your interest and support.
Comments on this review
One reader wrote that: "His conclusions are nonsense. If he really mastered complexity he would be more honest and say that there is no unique cause of any of these changes. And, moreover, there is not that much known about the variety of species remaining alive or forming. The Cambrian extinction dwarfs any of these changes. Why should we saddle ourselves with guilt from past generations and guilt is not the right response anyway as it interferes with rational thinking."
A second reader wrote: "Yep, I have no trouble believing that H. sapiens drove many species to extinction. There isn't much we can do about that now. The future looks more and more promising. The wave of mass slaughter that began in the sixties with the decolonization of Africa and Asia, and the subsequent rise of socialist/totalitarian governments in most of those new countries is about over. The problem we have now is the greens, who seem to have no appreciation for the interaction of humans in the ecosystem. Since the sixties several countries have tried outlawing big game hunting. The result is always and uniformly atrocious, as the local people turn to poachers to control big animals and to replace the income they once made off of hunters. Kenya is the perfect example of a country once overflowing with big game. Poachers, well connected with the government, have reduced animals to the point that only a few remnants on the parks, carefully preserved for camera tourists, survive. Any number of people can snap a pic of the same herd of elephants, pride of lions. No need to keep any more alive!
A third reader (whose ISP bounced my acknowledgement) wrote to say that Boulter's emphasis on the inventiveness and ruthlessness of Homo sapiens demonstrates our species destiny lies in populating the moon, the planets, the universe.
Further information from other sources relevant to Boulter's thesis
William Ruddiman, interviewed for the BBC and reported on 10 December 2003, suggested that humans have been altering the Earth's climate for 10,000 years: "What should have happened with the natural climate is it should have cooled substantially. Instead humans just started adding greenhouse gases at a rate which cancelled most, but not all, of that natural cooling; and so it's a combination of a natural cooling mostly cancelled by a human warming."
The birth and development of agriculture is the key, and it substantially changed the nature of the land and its interaction with the atmosphere. Our ancestors started adding the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide principally by cutting down trees for farming. Methane concentrations - another potent greenhouse contributor - started to rise with wet farming of rice." This, of course, is a relevant consideration in the debate about the magnitude of human-induced climate change.
The following gem of a letter from Ralph deVoil, of Toowoomba, Australia, appeared in New Scientist on 24 January 2004. It is related to one of the four planks of Evfit - the psychological - and this page is presently the one in which it is most at home. 'What should we do to plan for an environmental or otherwise self-inflicted disaster that collapses our civilization, [New Scientist, p34, 20 December 2003]? What if our record of knowledge becomes lost for all time? Would this really be such a bad thing? If said records were intended to assist a future civilization to establish itself, then the best lesson that could be gained from such records would be some fairly strong clues about how not to conduct a civilization. Perhaps along with the suggested Rosetta Stone, this preface should be applied to the recorded knowledge: "This is our knowledge at this time. If you're reading this after the collapse of our civilization then it means that at least some of the methods we've used and documented here are evidently flawed. We hope you don't make the same pathetic greed-driven mistakes that some of us did. Good luck." ' There is some similarity between this position and the position of John Zerzan.
Updated 18 December 2008
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