David Howells was born in 1953 in
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Atomic disintegration is the
change of a more complex form (isotope) of an atom into a simpler form over
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
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.
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
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
There is a further problem
once we get to the smaller timescale of Man: the years ago/BC dilemma. In
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 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
To put things in some sort of perspective, between each chapter we will compare Man to some other phenomenon.
 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.
 I use the American billion throughout i.e. 1,000,000,000
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