In honour of Jared Diamond’s November 17th lecture for the University of Alberta’s Festival of Ideas (which I missed) I’m posting my comments on a book I believe fits in with the title of Diamond’s discussion that evening: Why Societies Fail or Flourish.
Without even considering for a moment the idea of Intelligent Design, I proudly embrace my inner ape (some would say ‘outer’ when they see me in a bathing suit), and hereby proclaim my belief in the theory of evolution (both natural and artificial), and that humans descended from the apes that roamed the plains of Africa close to five million years ago.
As distilled from Ronald Wright’s book, A Short History of Progress, here’s a quick history of how our development into modern humans went down after the bloodlines between what was to become man (Homo erectus) and ape began to diverge close to five million years ago:
Two million years after leaving Africa, hominids begin making and using crude tools; another two million years after that Homo erectus is found in several temperate and tropical climates; jump ahead at least half a million years and we find that Homo erectus has begun to use fire; the evolution of Homo erectus begins to get a bit murky 130,000 years or so later as Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) and Cro-Magnon man (early modern humans, or Homo sapiens) come onto the scene. The author presents evidence that for brief period of time, 100,000 years ago, Cro-Magnon man and Neanderthals lived side-by-side in some areas. Living in close quarters isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, and Wright suggests that the former wiped out the latter.
Arguably, development of modern man then came on at a pretty decent clip, and was due, in large part, to the impact of culture.
“Our main difference from chimps and gorillas is that over the last 3 million years or so, we have been shaped less and less by nature, and more and more by culture”, Wright says on page 30 of the book.
He describes civilization and culture as the sum total of a society’s knowledge, beliefs, and practices.
“Culture is everything: from veganism to cannibalism; Beethoven, Botticelli, and body piercing; what you do in the bedroom, the bathroom, and the church of your choice (if your culture allows a choice); and all of the technology from split stone to the split atom. Civilizations are specific kind of culture: large, complex societies based on the domestication of plants, animals, and human beings. Civilizations vary in their makeup but typically have towns, cities, governments, social classes, and specialized professions. All civilizations are cultures, or conglomerates of cultures, but not all cultures are civilizations” (32).
In a nutshell this discussion of culture provides the backdrop for the main thesis of Wright’s book, which comprises his 2004 Massey Lecture of the same name. The essence of the book is presented in the context of the Frenchman Paul Gauguin’s painting, “D’où Venons Nous? Que Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous?
By asking ourselves these three fundamental questions: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Wright urges readers to consider the experiences of past civilizations as a blueprint for where the modern world and its desire for progress could be heading.
For the most part, we’ve answered the first two questions already. We come from the plains of Africa as distant cousins of the apes and are molded by our shared time with one another in the form of the cultures that we have developed.
As far as where we’re going, Wright then draws on the history of four civilizations, the inhabitants of Easter Island, the Sumerians, the Roman Empire, and the Mayans to illustrate how exploitation of the resources available to each of these civilizations had precipitated its downfall, and contrasts that with two of the more successful civilizations, the Egyptians and the Chinese.
The most provocative example is of Easter Island. Here, given the small size and remote location of the island, Wright describes how inhabitants would have seen with their own eyes the dwindling of resources and they would have actually witnessed the chopping down of the last tree available to them.
Bookending the Easter Islanders, the Mayans, the Romans, and the Sumerians are the Egyptians and the Chinese. Due to its location between the Tigris and the Euphrates, Egypt and its people were more inclined to live in concert with the environment as they were subject to the ebb and flow of the Nile’s cycles; whereas China benefitted from comparatively lush, fertile soil.
Clearly, the two successful cultures had something unique going for them, namely abundant resources in the form of water and fertile soil, but they must have also had foresight and understood that management of their resources was tantamount to survival.
This is provocative when viewed in the context of our current energy issues. Global Warming has been accepted as the dominant theory for everything from unseasonable temperatures and more extreme weather events to shrinking ice floes and the extinction of species; thus compelling governments to look towards another form of energy production now being touted as green because it purportedly doesn’t release greenhouse gases: nuclear fission. But until we learn how to properly dispose of radioactive waste that’s really just swapping one problem for another.
When you think about the discussions surrounding Alberta’s oil/tar sands and the possibility of using nuclear power to help extract fossil fuels you begin to see how precarious the situation has become. Our need for energy is understandable, especially when it’s minus 24 outside (as it is tonight), but our reliance on it in almost all aspects of our lives tends to put us more in line with the cultures that lacked long term viability than it does with ones that had foresight.
By ensuring advancements in technology have a commensurate advancement in environmental (and thus resource management) stewardship we might be able to squeeze a few more million years out of this rock.
Food for thought: “from the first chipped stone to the first smelted iron took nearly 3 million years; from the first iron to the first hydrogen bomb took only 3,000” (14).