Let’s Go Ape!

A while back, I posted that I had lost my reading mojo. This saddened me. However, I’m pleased to say that it is fully back now! Recently, I’ve been reading some stuff about the origins of homo sapiens. Evolution, in general, interests me as does the story of humanity. If you’re interested, the three books that I’ve read most recently were:

  • Out of Eden: The Peopling of the World (Stephen Oppenheimer)
  • The Humans Who Went Extinct (Clive Finlayson)
  • The Origin of Our Species (Chris Stringer)

All are, in their own way, instructive and thought-provoking. If you’d like to know a little more about modern theories on the beginnings of the human race they are all recommended.

One thing in particular that always strikes me when thinking about evolution is how insignificant we are as a species and how much circumstance has played a part in there being a being which is capable of attempting to make sense of the world through science, art and philosophy. We flatter ourselves that we are, in some way, the pinnacle of evolution when that’s not how evolution works. There is no design to it and (granted, my knowledge here is a little shakier) I’m given to understand that a lot of the make-up of our bodies is pretty kludge-some.  We may be successful – for now – perched atop the food chain and inhabiting every type of environment but the genus homo is a mewling child as compared to the likes of the cockroach which has survived, with little change, for millions of years. Our intelligence has just been one (and not the only or even the best) evolutionary survival strategy.

Finlayson’s book, in particular, goes to stress that our sense of uniqueness is unjustified. We shared the planet not so long ago with other similar species who had diverged from a common ancestor relatively recently. We didn’t ‘win’ because we were better than they. Circumstance merely allowed for the expansion of homo sapiens at a time when others (such as the neanderthal) found themselves in decline.

The sentences at the end of his book struck me, though (although this might be as much to do with my own politics as anything else):

“The children of chance, those poor people who today must scrap for morsels each day without knowing when and where the next meal will come from, will once again be the most capable at survival. The innovators will once again win when the rapid and powerful perturbation that will be economic and social collapse, generated by the conservatives themselves, will ironically mark their own downfall. And evolution will take another step in some as yet unknown direction.”

This idea – that those on the margins – contained the seeds of our development is trailed and argued well throughout the book. There is also a bit more to his book than this. I do, however, like that conservatism should always be rejected. But then I’m a progressive at heart.

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