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A SKEW IN EVOLUTION


EVOLUTION

This is not a book about answers, it is a book about questions. It is less about facts and figures than it is about conjecture and  speculation.  

It is a view of Man as a species from a new and radical  perspective. 

As well as being a consideration of the spectacular career of this particular ape and its place in the world or lack of it, along the way it takes in the history of the universe from the ‘Bang to the present and beyond and has a sideways look at life, evolution, science,   religion and much more. 

You will not agree with everything in this book – you may not agree with any of it – but the book is not intended to tell you what to think but simply to get you thinking and to give you a few things to think about. 

In Store Price: $AU23.95 
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AMAZON

ISBN: 978-1-921919-12-1 
Format: Paperback
Number of pages: 141
Genre: Non Fiction
 

 

 

 


Author: David Howells
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published: 2012
Language: English

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Author Biography. 

 

David Howells was born in 1953 in Bedford, UK but grew up mostly in Bristol. He studied languages at Birmingham University but somehow ended up working as a systems analyst.  

He moved to Australia in 1981 and now regards himself as Australian in everything but cricket (forever English) and rugby union (proudly Welsh). He lives with his wife and daughter on the Central Coast of New South Wales. This is his first book.

 

INTRODUCTION 

When you consider nature, it is hard not to be impressed by its intricacy and its harmony.  

Insects rely on flowers for food and flowers rely on insects for pollination. Some birds rely on trees for a meal of fruit, but the trees equally rely on the birds as agents to distribute their seeds in their droppings. Water evaporating from the oceans forms the clouds which fall as rain on the mountains and flow into the rivers which water the plains and thence back to the sea. The energy of the sun is synthesised by the grass of the plains that feeds the gnu and the zebra that provide a meal for the lion and the leopard and the hyena and the vulture who provide fertiliser that feeds the grass. There is a delicate balance between foodstuff, predator and prey. There is indeed a ‘circle of life’ in which every plant and animal has its place. 

Every animal except one. 

Ever since Darwin proposed that Man evolved from an ape-like ancestor, there has been debate as to whether Man is simply a rather sophisticated animal or is something more: this is a question of philosophy rather than of science. Darwin was convinced that ‘the difference in mind between man and the higher animal, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind’[1]. I disagree. In a nutshell, my argument is that Man is an aberration, a skew in evolution. He is so far outside the mainstream that he can be regarded as unique. He is a brave experiment, the success or failure of which it is too early to judge.  

Man dominates the globe from pole to pole and from sunrise to sunrise. He is by far the most numerous and is generally regarded as the most successful species on the planet today. But perhaps he is not. Somewhere in the transition to humanity, something was lost – that harmony with the environment that is intrinsic to the rest of the animal world. 

Man is different from all other animals. There is a real and obvious distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘man-made’. This is not because Man is not natural – he is not some cosmic interloper or a child of the gods – he developed from what came before the same as any other animal. But somewhere along the way Man went off on his own tangent. He became ‘intelligent’, and with intelligence came profound changes.  

Man does not fit as well into the world as, say, an earthworm. He does not live within its limits and constraints. If it is too cold he heats it up, if it is too hot he cools it down. No other animal does this or could do this.  

Man’s ingenuity has allowed him to take over the whole planet and treat it as his own and he has done so ruthlessly. If he wants something he takes it. If something gets in his way he eliminates it. The result is what you see around you today. We dominate the globe but we are rapidly using up its resources, polluting its atmosphere, raping the land and slaughtering the animals. We have weapons enough to destroy the world several times over. The long-prophesied global warming now seems to be an imminent reality. Population continues to expand and push back the boundaries of wilderness. We are a species of seemingly infinite greed on a planet of finite resources. 

Compared to other animals, Man has no ‘nature’. A bird builds a nest by its nature as a bird – a crow will build a nest like a crow and a weaver bird will build a nest like a weaver bird. Each crow’s nest is unique yet similar. If a human builds a house it may be anything from a shanty to a palace, a yurt to an igloo, a mud hut to a Manhattan penthouse. There is no instinctive, natural way to build a house.  

If lion cubs play they play like lion cubs – they pounce, they rough and tumble. Similarly foxes or chimpanzees or any other animal that plays has certain set play behaviour. Not so Man. Human children may play tag or football or computer games or dominoes or any of millions of formal and informal games. There is no ‘natural’ play behaviour. What is the nature of Man? What is his natural diet, habitat, lifestyle? The questions are meaningless. Man has moved beyond nature. 

Looking for the roots of human behaviour in the natural world is a futile search. While we have undoubtedly inherited many of the physical characteristics of our ape ancestors our brains and behaviours are for the most part, our own invention. Scientists point to the social nature of the chimpanzee or baboon lifestyle as being at the basis of human sociability. There is probably as much truth in this as in seeing the roots of human language in the alarm calls of certain monkeys. Yes, the social grouping of chimps may be a necessary precursory phase in the journey to the mega-societies of Man but Man has taken this and transformed it into something entirely new and radically different. 

We look at bird migration or at the way a salmon or eel or turtle will find its way through the ocean to the place of its birth and we are amazed. We have invented many explanations as to how animals can do such things and why. Many birds migrate naturally as do salmon, eels, turtles, gnus, monarch butterflies and many other animals. They are in tune with the world, with its rhythms, patterns and seasons and when it is time to migrate they just go where they have to go. We are out of tune and we don’t know where to go and so we have invented latitude and longitude, dead reckoning and global positioning systems. We understand things on our intellectual plane and then try to apply this intellectual understanding to nature. When we interpret nature through the distorting lens of our intelligence we are looking at things in human terms which may not be applicable to our subject. If a weaver bird ties a knot it does so naturally, instinctively. If a human ties a knot there is no nature or instinct involved, it is something learned and understood on an intellectual level. The two actions may end up with the same result but they are not really the same action and to treat them as if they are is mistaken. 

Self-consciousness is the key to the problem. If an animal is not conscious of itself as an individual then it may regard itself simply as part of a larger whole. Thus an animal may think of itself (in as much as it thinks of itself at all) as an undifferentiated part of the herd or flock or shoal or simply as a part of the environment with which it interacts. 

Man’s self-awareness is the antithesis of this. He sees himself an individual, separate and alone. He is no longer a part of the world, he is apart from it and as such he is free to exploit it as he will. He has no relationship to the other occupants of the world and no sympathy with them – they are simply other, separated, individualised objects of his consciousness.

Man is a latecomer to the world. Modern Man, Homo sapiens, has been around in his current form for only one or two hundred thousand years. This may seem like a long time but in evolutionary terms it is barely noticeable, the blink of an eye. To give some sort of perspective, the dinosaurs dominated the Earth for some 200,000,000 years – we are not even in the ballpark on that scale. In the whole history of the world, millions of species have come and gone. The average life span of a species is somewhere around four million years; for large species this drops to perhaps a million years – that’s still a good deal longer than we have been around. We have only just started. We have barely been around for as long as the Neanderthals we supplanted. 

Human evolution has been astoundingly rapid. The rate of increase in brain capacity from around 400cc to our current 1,300cc is without precedent in evolutionary terms. In this aspect too we differ from all other animals whose evolution in general follows the gentler rhythm predicted by Darwin. 

Homo sapiens has by no means proved an evolutionary success yet. Perhaps in a million years if we are still around then we can say we are successful but at the moment our fate is in the balance. Whether we will turn out to be an evolutionary success story like the dinosaurs or whether we will just be another failed experiment in evolution to briefly blaze and die, leaving no trace except an enigmatic extinction in the fossil record: this is a question for future history. At the moment we have as great a potential for spectacular failure as for success. Perhaps we are, to borrow Robert Goldschmidt’s evocative term, “hopeful monsters” but whether we are more hopeful or more monstrous is still to be seen. 

Uniquely, the success or failure of Man as a species is to a great extent in our own hands. We have the intelligence to understand our situation. We have the ability to regulate ourselves. We have shown almost limitless invention to get to where we are now. Do we have the intelligence, ability, invention and, above all, the resolve to overcome our rapacity and ensure a long-term future? That is a question only time will answer. 

Scientific Truth: 

Time is a recurring theme in this book so it behooves us to consider the time scale we are talking about.  

The Earth is about four and a half billion years old, give or take half a billion years. The imprecision is deliberate. This is the current estimate and estimates tend to change.  

Up until the early nineteenth century the biblical story of Genesis was generally accepted as literally true. In 1654, theologian James Ussher calculated the age of the Earth from biblical sources, and it turns out to have been created at nine a.m. on the 23rd October 4004BC. I suppose we may assume that Man arrived six days later on the 29th. This was the accepted orthodoxy for well over a hundred years. Fossils were either taken to be bones of dragons which must have been killed in the biblical flood or were simply not recognised as being evidence of earlier life forms. The first Neanderthal skull found in the 1850s was assumed to be from a slightly degenerate but contemporary village idiot.  

With new discoveries, new techniques for aging and, most importantly, new acceptance of the great age of the Earth, the date of 4004BC is now looked on as a quaint mistake. But before dismissing Ussher it is well to remember that his figure was not just the wild guess of a misguided eccentric, it was a carefully calculated, exact figure derived from close study of the best source then available – the Bible. With no other evidence to go on, why should anyone dispute his figure? There was no carbon-dating, no way of scientifically establishing the age of the Earth. Why should anyone doubt that the world had been here forever; for thousands of years? That is a long time. Nobody thought in terms of millions of years in those days, let alone billions of years.

As scientific study and theorising went on, the biblical figure began to be questioned but it was not until the end of the eighteenth century when geologist James Hutton suggested that sedimentary rocks such as the famous White Cliffs of Dover, formed from the chalky remains of millions upon millions of tiny shells, could not possibly have formed so quickly that it was generally accepted that the world must be much, much older.  

Just how much older was a matter of debate over the next century and a half. Counting tree rings and checking evolutionary progress throughout the geological record along with calculating rates of sedimentation and estimating heat loss, yielded results ranging from about 20,000,000 years down to about 500,000 years, with most leading scientists favouring a lower figure. This was the age of the Earth from the mid-nineteen hundreds, (around the age Darwin would have assumed), right up to the early part of last century when physicist Ernest Rutherford discovered atomic disintegration. 

Atomic disintegration is the change of a more complex form (isotope) of an atom into a simpler form over time. Rutherford calculated that the energy loss in this action would account for all the heat lost from the Earth since it was created and the Earth suddenly aged considerably. The rate of this ‘isotopic decay’ is regular and measurable and is used in many cases to establish the age of fossils and rocks.  

It is only about fifty years ago that the current figure of 4,500,000,000 years old came into general acceptance. This figure has gone up or down by 500,000,000 or so since it was first postulated and it continues to oscillate with ever more discoveries and ever better aging techniques. It may yet turn out to be another quaint mistake if, for example, it is discovered that isotopes don’t always decay at a reliable rate under all circumstances.  

 

There are two reasons for the above story:  

The first is because it is only fair to say that many facts and figures given in this book are the best I have at this time but are subject to review and should not be taken as gospel – any more than should the story of Genesis. The facts and figures I use in this book – although, I must emphasise, not the opinions I express – are, to the best of my ability, an average consensus of the many different sources I have researched.  

However, the more you research in many of these areas the less consensus you find. In discussing evolution and especially the origins and nature of Man, we need to be especially careful of the phrase ‘scientific orthodoxy’. There is no absolute orthodoxy. New evidence, new techniques and new interpretations make this one area where there are almost as many theories as there are theorists. There are more anthropologists today studying more evidence in more detail than ever before. Such minutiae as microscopic scratches on millennia-old stones or chemical analysis of fossilised faeces tell the trained scientist a story of behaviour or diet or lifestyle.  

There are areas where there is no agreed single scientific orthodoxy and even in those few areas where the facts are agreed, there are always details which are disputed. What is more, current theories are not forever. 

In the thirteenth century, an educated European with an interest in astronomy would probably have followed the science of the ancient Greeks. The main source of knowledge regarding the structure of the universe came from the writings of Ptolemy (actually an Egyptian) who wrote or compiled several books on the subject in the second century AD. In the Ptolemaic universe the Earth was at the centre with the sun, moon, planets and stars circling it in spheres as God had planned. 

By the nineteenth century most educated people would have believed in a Newtonian model of the universe. Our solar system had the sun at centre, the planets spinning around it in elliptical orbits and the stars were strewn across the faraway sky. This was still as God had planned.  

Today most scientists see a universe still expanding from the Big Bang in four Einsteinian dimensions of space/time. The Earth is a not especially important planet in an ordinary galaxy tucked away on the edge of the universe and God simply doesn’t rate a mention anymore.  

But before dismissing the last few thousands of years of learning as so many false trails on the slow path to the truth, it is worth remembering that the old theories lasted much longer than any current theory has and they did not die easily. The Ptolemaic model of the universe was the accepted model from about 2,500 years ago until only about 600 years ago – a span of about 1,900 years. The current Big Bang model has been the accepted model for only about 60 years and new models lurk in every corner. What will be scientific orthodoxy tomorrow or in a hundred or five hundred years time is anybody’s guess. My guess is that it will be radically different from today.  

Time: 

The second reason for the discussion of the age of the Earth above is because it introduces the problem of time scale which is a central theme of this book.  

Most people live for less than one hundred years and many for much less than this. A thousand years is longer than we can truly imagine and a million and a billion[2] become almost meaningless other than being convenient labels for ‘a long time’ and ‘an even longer time’. Even in writing there is a problem. The difference between ‘a million years’ and ‘a billion years’ is more than a single letter. The difference is in fact a billion years to an accuracy of 0.1%. Writing 1,000,000 and 1,000,000,000 gives no better impression – it is simply one and a few noughts or one and a few more noughts. In reading quickly it is very easy to confuse them. In some languages, instead of one, two, three, four etc., the numbering system goes something like one, a couple, several, many – we tend to think of time on a grand scale in the same way. 

There is a further problem once we get to the smaller timescale of Man: the years ago/BC dilemma. In Australia where I am writing this book, this year is designated 2011AD. The AD stands for Anno Domini and refers to the (presumed) date of birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Dates prior to 0AD may be referred to as BC – Before Christ. It is very easy to confuse 3,000 years ago and 3,000BC which is in fact 5,000 years ago. To avoid this I will always use ‘years ago’ unless giving a specific date. Of course in the grand scheme of things a couple of thousand years is insignificant. If the question is: when did the dinosaurs die out? It makes little difference whether you say 65,000,000 years ago or 65,000,000BC. 

To get a clearer grasp of timescales, the classic analogy is to compress the whole history of the Earth into one day. We start with the creation of the Earth at 00:00; life emerges with the dawn at around five a.m. By ten o’clock blue-green algae are common and, slowly, more complex life forms begin to develop but nothing much exciting happens until coming on for nine in the evening when there is an explosion of activity. Animals with hard body parts suddenly appear followed closely by fish and then amphibians. The dinosaurs have their reign between about ten thirty and eleven forty-five p.m. Mammals begin to dominate in the last fifteen minutes. At one minute to midnight the first hominids appear and finally Homo sapiens arrives just as the clock ticks over to midnight. This does give some idea of the relative longevity of Man – blink and you miss him – and some idea of scales. 

Alternatively, if I wrote a 100-page book on the history of the world, starting with its creation on page 1 and with equal amounts of space dedicated to equal amounts of time, life would appear on about page 25. Another 63 pages pass before the Cambrian explosion on page 88. Amphibians appear on page 93 and then we have reptiles from 94 to 99. At the end of page 99 we meet mammals for the first time and in the last paragraph are the first hominids. In this scheme, Homo sapiens is literally the last word in evolution.  

These analogies themselves highlight another common misconception: that Man is the epitome of evolution. The world has been around for a very long time. There is no reason to believe that it will not be around for a very long time to come – the current estimate is that the sun will last for about another five billion years and the Earth may last along with it. For the last three point eight billion years or so there has been life on Earth and this life has been evolving and there is no reason why life should not continue evolving in some form until near the last days of the Earth. We happen to be at a certain point in this continuum, a no more significant point than, say, one hundred million years ago when Man did not exist or one hundred million years hence, when Man is again unlikely to exist in anything like his current form. Evolution has not culminated in Man, he is not the splendid flower on the topmost branch of the evolutionary tree; he is simply one more twig on the bush of evolution. Whether that twig grows or dies and, if it grows then what it grows into are questions that only time can answer. 

Because we are here and now, we view history in a distorted perspective. Recent events tend to loom large while the distant past fades to obscurity. Also, because we can remember the past but cannot foresee see the future, it is easy to think that the present is the end of the story instead of just a point along the way.

This perspective has led to the formulation of the ‘anthropic principle’. In its weak form this states that Man could not exist if the world were any other way – bigger, smaller, closer to or further from the sun etc. This is trivially true. The strong anthropic principle conjectures that the world, the universe, indeed all of creation has been a build-up to the flowering of Man, specifically of Man’s intelligence. The argument is basically that there are many, many circumstances which had to be just so for Man to have developed and for Man to have developed intelligence. What’s more there are certain highly unlikely cosmic coincidences which seem to be waiting for Man to discover them. The combination of all these circumstances is so extremely unlikely that there must be some guiding principle behind them.  

I have never been able to decide whether this strong anthropic principle is serious or tongue in cheek. If it is serious, I disagree. Exactly the same arguments could be used by a dog to prove that the universe was created just so that dogs exist. What is more, the same arguments apply to all denizens of all worlds at all times. 

It has been said that creation myths tell us how a society sees itself in relation to the rest of creation. The story of this book is a contemporary creation myth. We may think we have abandoned gods and magic for science but in reality we have only swapped one type of magic for another. When scientists talk of the Big Bang or black holes or curved space-time they are modern shamans reciting the holy mantras.  

This book is largely the story of the last second of our earthly day. It is based on today’s scientific truth. This may or may not turn out to be better than yesterday’s truth and it will almost certainly be superseded by tomorrow’s. But be that as it may, we are here and we are now and so we must accept today’s truth and hope that tomorrow does not make too great fools of us.

Man Versus… 

Man has had an undeniable impact on this planet. He has changed the environment radically. But he is not the first force to do this nor will he be the last. There have been events in the past which have caused huge perturbations in the grand scheme of life. The very first living organisms irrevocably changed the Earth’s atmosphere. This created an environment where life could take-off and no other life form could be created. A few billion years later, a large meteor hit the Earth – bang go the dinosaurs, welcome the mammals. There have been Ice Ages and heat waves before, far more extreme than the global warming we are experiencing so far. There has been volcanism beyond anything Man has ever seen; massive rises and falls in sea level; droughts and floods beyond imagination. And through it all, life has continued and continued evolving. 

To put things in some sort of perspective, between each chapter we will compare Man to some other phenomenon.



[1] The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.

In general I will not use footnotes, I will simply digress in the text if I consider it justified. Most references mentioned in the text can be found on the internet and the information available will usually be more comprehensive and up to date than anything I can quote. I have included a bibliography containing some of the texts used in the compilation of this work.

 

[2] I use the American billion throughout i.e. 1,000,000,000

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