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Book Review: "Evolution" by Stephen Baxter
Monday February 20, 2006 10:44 by James O'Brien
Life will find a way
Stephen Baxter has written a novel for the long haul – we humans are notorious for believing that our brief existence is of pressing importance, so any novel that spans 600 million years can reasonably be described as taking “the long view”
Two Stephen Baxter sites:
In 1859, with the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, science significantly advanced the naturalistic explanation of the world, and in particular our place in it. Though many people in the intervening years have recoiled from the forced retreat of religion, perceiving in that retreat an emptying both of meaning and moral values, evolution with its immensely long spans of time, suffering, ingenuity, and sheer abundance of life provides a kind of beauty of its own.
Warning: Plot Spoiler
Stephen Baxter has written a novel for the long haul – we humans are notorious for believing that our brief existence is of pressing importance, so any novel that spans 600 million years can reasonably be described as taking “the long view”.
But for a novelist this is a tricky task. Good novels generally have either mesmerizing plots or memorable characters. And these usually take place in a single lifetime or, in the case of historical novels, over the course of a few centuries. Evolution does have a memorable plot and fascinating characters, but in a unique way. Like a Shakespearean play we already know the outlines of the plot, but this only makes it all the more interesting, for we grapple to understand how, exactly, things turned out as they did.
Like others of Baxter’s novels, Evolution keeps close to actual scientific research. While some of the scenarios are ultimately speculation, it is speculation built on a thorough knowledge of research in evolutionary biology.
The book picks out key moments in primate, (roughly, ape) history, using a central character to illustrate the achievements and limitations of the ever-changing species at critical points in time. Our ancestors weren’t just apes; at one stage they were little rodent-like creatures that ventured forth at night. Yet even at this early stage, we can glimpse some enduring primate characteristics such as the strong maternal-child bond. We see the gradual evolution to animals more like ourselves, with all the violence, friendship, Machiavellian tactics, big brains and so much more that defines humanity.
Baxter starts the novel 30 years into the future with civilisation at its apex, yet simultaneously threatened by the damage it has done to the ecosystem that supports it. Then the novel shifts back to the last days of the dinosaurs.
The Democracy of Death
George Williams, one of the foremost evolutionary biologists of the late 20th century, described Natural Selection as an evil. And in the opening chapter it’s easy to see why. It’s 65 million years before the present and the dinosaurs still dominate. Though the planet’s climate has long facilitated life, the earth is overflowing with death. Every niche where an organism could make a living is filled. And that means lots and lots of predators making their living out of chasing down and savagely devouring prey.
More often than not it's a dirty messy death and Baxter prefers gritty realism in presenting it. Animals aren't quickly and painlessly killed. The are viciously wounded and then the predator may hone it's skills by playing with the agonised prey, like a cat with a mouse, before finishing the creature off.
But as long as the prey can survive long enough to reproduce, the personal annihilation that death brings is a price worth paying.
At the close of the Cretaceous era the mammals are firmly dominated by the massive variety of dinosaurs who, thanks to their efficient use of energy, are able to prevent the mammals from expanding into their niches. Just like human dominance is preventing the domination of, say, rats, dinosaurs are simply too strong for the mammals.
Baxter describes lots of the creatures thought to exist then; the detail fascinating – if you’ve an interest in natural history, perhaps exhausting if not.
And then a comet which had been orbiting the sun for 5 billion years swings in towards the inner solar system, bypassing the massive gravity well of Jupiter and Saturn and crashes into the earth, creating such devastation that upwards of 80% of life went extinct – as opposed to just dead.
While evolution is mainly about adopting to the environment, pure luck also plays its part. Neither mammals nor dinosaurs had evolved any mechanisms to cope with such massive blows because these impacts are so rare that even the long span of evolution is blind to them.
But eventually the mammals did adapt. When the twenty kilometre-wide comet hit, it didn't “matter how well adapted you were, how well you evaded the predators or competed with your neighbours, for the most basic ground rules were changing. During a mass extinction it paid to be small, numerous, geographically widespread, to have somewhere to hide.”
Also it helped being used to living in marginal environments as well as being able to reproduce very quickly. The dinosaurs were vulnerable in this regard and, as there were less of them to protect their eggs, the little mammals greedily devoured dinosaur eggs thus never giving them the chance to rebound.
Although vastly different species to humans, the fate of the dinosaurs is relevant to us given both our dominance and dependence on a complex ecosystem. We are still far from understanding this dependence and are only now becoming aware, albeit dimly, of importance of this web of life.
The twenty kilometre comet delivered not only mass extinctions directly, it also indirectly brought devastation as it cut the ecosystem from under the kingpins’ feet. Given that humans are in the middle of carrying out the biggest extinction since the fall of the dinosaurs, with half of the earth’s species due for permanent oblivion within 50 years, we may well end up cutting out the ecological base that supports us.
Our very complexity detracts from our capability of surviving a catastrophe. Pretty much everybody in Europe, for example, is now wholly dependent on electricity and would be unable to survive its disappearance. How many of us, for instance, nowadays know anything about hunting and gathering or sheltering in the open, let alone how to mill or forge iron?
The novel explores the increasing social complexity of the primates as they grope out of the loneliness to which minds dedicated to pure survival condemns them and every other species on the planet. There simply isn’t the processing power in the heads of most animals to understand other points of view, that another being has thoughts and feelings unique to themselves. There are moments of sympathy that affects other animals, but ultimately, affection and love are resource hungry behaviours and dependent on a big brain to track whose is a friend, who owes you a favour and so on.
As millions of years drift by, the primates – or a few of them at least - get locked in a virtuous cycle of living in bigger groups, which puts their food supply under pressure, and so they have to become smarter to survive, which, when successful, leads to bigger groups, which in turns forces them to get smarter and so on, until today.
Living in a group was pivotal not simply because it forced primates to get smarter about getting their food, but because the most important factor in any primate’s life was her fellow primates. And the more people in the group the more processing power was required. She would have to guess what fellow members of her troop were thinking and going to do. If not she'd find herself isolated and without allies. Not a good situation for an animal that depends on others to share the toil of finding food and the burden of protecting each other against the big cats and other predators.
Figuring out what fellow apes intend required imagining that other apes had thoughts and intentions of their own, that they were more than a stimulus-response machine. The more one imagines this, and think, for example, “if I were that ape over there, I’d try to fool the dominant male that one of his subordinates is trying to get it on with his favourite female. Then he’d leave his pile of nuts and I could swipe a few”. You'd have to be able to hold not only your intention to get the nuts, fool the dominant male but also keep in your mind that he could have a false belief. Humans are masters of this deviousness and it appears that chimpanzees are good at it too, albeit in a more limited way. In any case, figuring out what trick a smart cousin is trying to pull on you necessitates a hell of a lot more intelligence than gobbling down a load of wild fruit.
In short, a sense of self gets constructed from interacting with others. From these rudimentary beginnings, Baxter conjectures that consciousness itself arose. This isn’t a wholly new idea; social thinkers like Bakunin were advancing such ideas a long time ago, but evolutionary science has managed to flesh such insights out with commanding evidence.
But it was still a very isolated form of intelligence, which flowered only in relation to other members of the same species. Similar levels of brain power had yet to applied to tool making or interacting with the natural world. This meant that an ape could be conscious while interacting with other apes but drift over to an automatic drive when using a stone to smash open a nut, kind of like adept motorists who can compute the complex information necessary to stay alive yet be on autopilot.
Over time some lines of apes – the homo line - developed these specialist modules, and eventually our particular line homo sapiens arrived at a unique arrangement where the specialist processing power of the individual modules of intelligence (e.g. social, mechanical, natural) remained but the walls between them were overcome. The information gathered in one module could now be applied in other areas. This integrated intelligence, resulting in rich human consciousness, is what we are lucky to have today.
An example of this integrated intelligence is when we curse our stupid computer for being slow. We are anthropomorphizing, that is treating the machine as if had a social intelligence of its own. A computer or dishwasher isn't silly or stubborn or cute. But such symbolic thinking, while it may appear to be merely a simple curiosity, contains within it the germs of science, art, and religion.
The Arrival Of Humans
From 150,000 to 60,000 years ago, modern anatomy was in place, but the explosive culture that is so part of human life was absent. The cave paintings of southern France were still a long way off. Something was missing...
In one of the most fascinating, if speculative, chapters of the book, set 60,000 years ago, Baxter outlines the final transition to humanity. We already looked human and the people very nearly thought as humans do. All the foundations have been laid, the walls perfectly constructed; all that is left is a little...rewiring.
The lead character, known as Mother, a word to become a universal across thousands of cultures, is oddly disturbed.
“The difference between Mother's brain and those of the people around her was tiny, the result of a minor mutation, a small change in the chemistry of the fat in her skull, a slight rewiring of the neuronal circuitry that underpinned her consciousness. But that was enough to give her a new flexibility, a breaking-through between the different compartments of her intelligence – and hugely different perception. But the rewiring of so immensely complicated an organic computer inevitably had side-effects, not all of the desirable.”
She suffers from migraines and a kind of schizophrenia. Humans are smart enough to be insane. But insanity can be adaptive.
Mother has a talent for seeing patterns and connections, networks of causes and effects that intrigued and baffled her. She is able to apply the intelligence available to all humans in social situations to the natural world. Why have the clouds stayed away, causing drought? The very question is revolutionary. There is a cause. It is no longer a brute fact. It something to be thought about.
Thinking about patterns in nature resulted in the invention of religion, itself a primitive form of science in that at this point religion still attempted to understand the world. What does cause the clouds to stay away?
Mother hypothesises that the rain stays away because the earth and the sky are angry. She is applying her social intelligence to the natural world. Yes she is getting the wrong answer. But she is beginning to ask the right question. There is a cause. “The drought had a cause; of course it did. Behind every cause there was an intention, a mind, whether you could see it or not. And if there was a mind, you could negotiate with it.”
But if the sky is angry, what is at angry at? Conveniently enough, those who do not support Mother's approach. A blood sacrifice is needed to appease the dry Earth. An opponent of Mother is chosen. Nothing happens, the rain stays away. Clearly one sacrifice is not enough. There is another. The rain arrives. Mother and her supporters perceive it as confirmation of her beliefs. Religion is born. And right from the start it is permeated with considerations of political power. That ridding oneself of troublesome opponents just happens to coincide with one's deeper beliefs has long been a happy coincidence throughout human history.
The ramifications are great. A human now had the ability to think abstractly about causes. Did the spear cause the death of that man? Yes, but so did the person who threw it. And the person who constructed the spear helped as well. The ability to comprehend causes results in an ability to construct better technology. You can imagine the future consequences of your actions. Of the actions of your technology. But of course once one group of humans get better technology, if only slightly, than their neighbours they will happily use it to overwhelm them. Overwhelm in this case means either slaughtering them or integrating them. Or as is often the case right up to modern times a mixture of slaughtering the males and keeping the child-bearing females.
Religion becomes not merely a consequence of abstract thinking but also a cause itself. From the beginning it is associated with the most intense emotions. Loyalty to your friends, hatred to your enemies. Longstanding primate traits anyway. Religions gives them an extra ferocity. What does it matter if you fall in battle with the neighbouring tribe? You will live again in the afterlife. The combination of superior understanding of causation and the sheer intensity of religion proves to be a winning combination. There aren't that many humans in the world. All are in Africa. All are annihilated or integrated. All subsequent humans are descendants of the religious proto-scientists, and all will carry the traits that made them so successful.
The Pace Gathers
Biological evolution has been overtaken by cultural evolution, which although based on similar, though not identical, principles motors along at a much faster, and ever-increasing, pace. A pace with which the biosphere finds impossible to keep up.
The book sweeps through human history: the entrance into Australia 50,000 years and the devastating effect on the mega-fauna there. All mammals bigger than humans go extinct within a couple of millennia. The mammals outside of Africa hadn't evolved alongside humans and are suddenly faced with an unprecedented enemy. There wasn't enough time to evolve a proper sense of fear of the new killing machines. Giant kangaroos get the chop. Only animals small enough and fast enough to dodge the smart humans get to survive. The pattern repeats itself in Asia and America. Despite surviving hundreds of large fluctuations in the climate due to the coming and going of the ice ages, mammoths and all giant mammals succumb to rapid encroachment of humans. The period of mass extinctions has begun. It hasn't ended.
Other human species meet their fate. It's extinction. Neanderthals, cousins to humans from a branching off around 500,000 years ago, are unable to generate enough symbolic logic to compete with the physically inferior humans. At one stage on Earth there were a dozen or species of homo. Soon there is one.
Crisis is opportunity in evolution. Failure leads to success. For some. If the individuals of a species are succeeding nicely then natural selection will not be able to sculpt any of the mutations sufficiently to generate a change in direction. So it is only when a crisis hits that natural selection can quickly make the far reaching changes. Our ancestors didn't leave the security of the African forests because they felt up to the challenge of the big cats on the savannah. They left because they were getting out-competed by similar species or, more likely, individuals of the same species for ever decreasing resources in the forests.
And probably, we didn't take up agriculture because we liked slaving in the fields instead of leisurely plucking fruit from the trees. The big game had been hunted to extinction. The available flora was poor and required some degree of human cultivation. Agriculture wasn't pleasant, but for some it wasn't a choice. And from there more consequences flow: surplus food leads to extra population, which leads to more men to overwhelm neighbouring hunter-gathers. The surplus leads to the creation of institutionalised hierarchies which siphon off resources and which they use to buy loyalty and power. It leads to cities, to learning, to mass war, to writing, to computers.
With chapters on the last of the Neanderthals, the coming of agriculture and the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Baxter captures the sadness of established cultures meeting their end. The fall of the Roman Empire, which despite its rapacity kept a modicum of civilisation afloat, presages a fate that could befall a world as interconnected – and as rapacious - as ours.
Baxter doesn't stop at the present. He makes stunning conjectures about the future, which for risk of totally spoiling the book won't be detailed here. It is wildly speculative, but plausibly so all the same.
Evolution is the designer of all life on earth, and until recently, of all complex entities whatsoever. But it is blind, it has no foresight. Hence the great cost in suffering that George Williams abhorred.
Humans have been isolated to most of the effects, certainly profound ones, of natural selection for millennia. But its relatives haven't gone away. Our modern system of social organisation, which for want of a better description we'll call state-capitalism, shares the same blindness. What matters is short term success, not the well-being of all, either now or in the future. And for many humans and their corporations, if they don't exploit the resources and opportunities, whether it's oil or a selling opportunity, or an invasion of a third world country, then somebody else will. And the opposition will get ahead, while defeat and extinction beckons for the restrained loser. Such is the nightmare scenario. The other guy winning. Such is evolution.
But alone of all the species that, to the best of our knowledge, have ever lived on earth, humans have the capacity of foresight. And of wide-ranging close co-operation. The ruthlessness of natural selection has paradoxically meant that co-operation is often a winning strategy. It makes the co-operators stronger than the robbers. It can make everybody modest winners rather than dividing the world into big winners and pathetic losers. Whether humanity emphatically follows that road is another question. Evolution is a novel. It is there to be enjoyed. But one also to take heed of.
There is grandeur in this view of life...that...from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Charles Darwin: Origin of the Species
Second Cover of 'Evolution'