2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke (1968)

Origins

It all started with a short story Clarke wrote for a BBC competition in 1948 when he was just 21, and titled The Sentinel. It was eventually published in 1951 under the title Sentinel of Eternity.

13 years later, after completing Dr. Strangelove in 1964, American movie director Stanley Kubrick turned his thoughts to making a film with a science fiction subject. Someone suggested Clarke as a source and collaborator, and when they met, later in 1964, they got on well and formed a good working relationship.

Neither of them could have predicted that it would take them four long years of brainstorming, viewing and reading hundreds of sci-fi movies and stories, and then honing and refining the narrative, to develop the screenplay which became the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968 and one of the most influential movies of all time.

The original plan had been to develop the story as a novel first, then turn it into a screenplay, then into the film, but the process ended up being more complex than that. The novel ended up being written mostly by Clarke, while Kubrick’s screenplay departed from it in significant ways.

The most obvious difference is that the book is full of Clarke’s sensible, down-to-earth, practical explanations of all or most of the science involved. It explains things. From the kick-start given to human evolution by the mysterious monolith through to Bowman’s journey through the Star Gate, Clarke explains and contextualises.

This is all in stark contrast with the film which Kubrick made as cryptic as possible by reducing dialogue to an absolute minimum, and eliminating all explanation. Kubrick is quoted as saying that the film was ‘basically a visual, nonverbal experience’, something which a novel, by definition, can not be.

The novel

The novel is divided into 47 short snappy chapters, themselves grouped into six sections.

1. Primeval Night

The basic storyline is reasonably clear. A million years ago an alien artefact appears on earth, materialising in Africa, in the territory of a small group of proto-human man-apes. Clarke describes their wretched condition in the hot parched Africa of the time, permanently bordering on starvation, watered only by a muddy streamlet, dying of malnutrition and weakness or of old age at 30, completely at the mercy of predators like a local leopard.

The object – 15 feet high and a yard wide – appears from nowhere. When the ape-men lumber past it on the way to their foraging ground, it becomes active and literally puts ideas into their heads. It takes possession of members of the group in turn and forces them to tie knots in grass, to touch their fingers together, to perform basic physical IQ tests. Then, crucially, it patiently shows them how to use stones and the bones of dead animals as tools.

The result is that they a) kill and eat a wild pig, the first meat ever eaten by the ape-men b) surround and kill the leopard that’s been menacing the tribe c) use these skills to bludgeon the leader of ‘the Others’, a smaller weaker tribe on the other side of the stream. In other words, the alien artefact has intervened decisively in the course of evolution to set man on his course to becoming a planet-wide animal killer and tool maker.

In the kind of fast-forward review section which books can do and movies can’t, Clarke then skates over the hundreds of thousands of years of evolution which follow, during which human’s teeth became smaller, their snouts less prominent, giving them the ability to make more precise sounds through their vocal cords – the beginnings of speech – how ice ages swept over the world killing most human species but leaving the survivors tougher, more flexible, more intelligent, and then the discovery of fire, of cooking, a widening of diet and survival strategies. And then to the recent past, to the Stone, Iron and Bronze ages, and sweeping right past the present to the near future and the age of space travel.

Compare and contrast the movie where all this is conveyed by the famous cut from a bone thrown into the air by an ape-man which is half way through its parabola when it turns into a space ship in orbit round earth. Prose describes, film dazzles.

2. T.M.A.-1

It is 2001. Humanity has built space stations in orbit around the earth, and a sizeable base on the moon. Dr Heywood Floyd, retired astrophysicist, is taking the journey from the American launch base in Florida, to dock with the orbiting space station, and then on to the moon base.

Clarke in his thorough, some might say pedantic, way, leaves no aspect of the trip undescribed and unexplained. How the rocket launcher works, how to prepare for blast-off, how the space station maintains a sort of gravity by rotating slowly, the precise workings of its space toilets (yes), the transfer to the shuttle down to the moon: Clarke loses no opportunity to mansplain every element of the journey, including some favourite facts familiar from the other stories I’ve read: the difference between weight and mass; how centrifugal spin creates increased gravity the further you are from the axis of spin; ‘the moon’s strangely close horizon’ (p.74); how damaging an alien artifact would be the work of a ‘barbarian’ (a thought repeated several times in Rama).

Two other features emerge. Clarke’s protagonists are always men, and they are almost always married men, keen to keep in touch with their wives, using videophones. In other words they’re not valiant young bucks as per space operas. It’s another element in the practical, level-headed approach of Clarke’s worldview.

Secondly, Clarke is a great one for meetingsChildhood’s End‘s middle sections rotate around the Secretary General of the United Nations who has a busy schedule of meetings, from his weekly conference with the Overlords to his meetings with the head of the Freedom league, and his discussion of issues arising with his number two.

A Fall of Moondust features hurried conferences between the top officials on the moon. The narrative of Rendezvous with Rama is punctuated all the way through by meetings of the committee made up of with representatives from the inhabited planets, who discuss the issues arising but also get on each other’s nerves, bicker and argue, grandstand, storm out and so on. His fondness for the set meeting, with a secretary taking notes and a chairman struggling to bring everyone into line, is another of the features which makes Clarke’s narratives seem so reassuringly mundane and rooted in reality.

Same here. Floyd is flying to the moon to take part in a top secret, high-level meeting of moon officials. He opens the meeting by conveying the President’s greetings and thanks (as people so often do in sci-fi thrillers like this).

In brief: a routine survey of the moon has turned up a magnetic anomaly in the huge crater named Tycho. (The anomaly has been prosaically named Tycho Magnetic Anomaly One – hence the section title T.M.A.-1.) When the surveyors dug down they revealed an object, perfectly smooth and perfectly black, eleven foot high, five foot wide and one and a quarter foot deep. Elementary geology has shown that the object was buried there three million years ago.

After a briefing with the moon team Floyd goes out by lunar tractor to the excavation site where digging has now fully revealed the artifact. Floyd and some others go down into the excavation and walk round the strange object which seems to absorb light. The sun is rising (the moon turns on its axis once in fourteen days) and as its light falls onto the artifact – for probably the first time in millions of years – Floyd and the others are almost deafened by five intense burst of screeching sound which cut through their radio communications.

Millions of miles away in space, deep space monitors, orbiters round Mars, a probe launched to Pluto – all record and measure an unusual burst of energy streaking across the solar system… Cut to:

3. Between Planets

David Bowman is captain of the spaceship Discovery. It was built to transport two live passengers (himself and Frank Poole) and three others in suspended animation, to Jupiter. But two years into the project the TMA-1 discovery was made and plans were changed. Now the ship is intending to use the gravity of Jupiter as a sling to propel it on towards Saturn. When they enter Saturn’s orbit the three sleeping crew members (nicknamed ‘hibernauts’) will be woken and the full team of five will have 100 days to study the super-massive gas giant, before all the crew re-enter hibernation, and wait to be picked up by Discovery II, still under construction.

Clarke is characteristically thorough in describing just about every aspect of deep space travel you could imagine, the weightlessness, the scientific reality of hibernation, the food, what the earth looks like seen from several million miles away. He gives an hour by hour rundown of Bowman and Poole’s 24-hour schedule, which is every bit as boring as the thing itself. He describes in minute astronomical detail the experience of flying through the asteroid belt and on among the moons of Jupiter, watching the sun ‘set’ behind it and other strange and haunting astronomical phenomena which no one has seen.

Then there’s a sequence in which he imagines the pictures sent back by a probe which Bowman and Poole send down into Jupiter’s atmosphere: fantastic but completely plausible imaginings. After reporting what they see from the ship, and the images relayed by the probe, the couple have done with Jupiter and set their faces to Saturn, some three months and four hundred million miles away.

The awesomeness doesn’t come from the special effects and canny use of classical music, as per the movie, but from straightforward statement of the scientific and technical facts – such as that they are now 700 million miles from earth (p.131), travelling at a speed of over one hundred thousand miles an hour (p.114).

4. Abyss

All activities on the Discovery are run or monitored by the ship’s onboard computer, HAL 9000, ‘the brain and nervous system of the ship’ (p.97). HAL stands for Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer. It is the most advanced form of the self-teaching neural network which, Clarke predicts, will have been discovered in the 1980s.

HAL has a nervous breakdown. He predicts the failure of the unit which keeps the radio antenna pointed at earth. Poole goes out in one of the nine-foot space pods, anchors to the side of the ship, then does a short space walk in a space suit, unbolts the failing unit and replaces it.

But back inside the ship the automatic testing devices find nothing wrong with the unit. When a puzzled Bowman and Poole report all this back to earth, Mission Control come back with the possibility that the HAL 9000 unit might have made a mistake.

Poole and Bowman ponder the terrifying possibility that the computer which is running the whole mission might be failing. Mission Control send a further message saying the two HAL 9000 units they are using to replicate all aspects of the mission back home both now recommend disconnecting the HAL computer aboard the Discovery. Earth is just in the middle of starting to give details about how to disconnect HAL when the radio antenna unit really does fail and contact with earth is broken. Coincidence? Bear in mind that HAL has been monitoring all of these conversations…

After discussing the possibility that HAL was right all along about the unit and that they are being paranoid  about him, Poole goes out for another space walk and repair. He’s in the middle of installing the new unit when he sees something out the corner of his eye, looks up and sees the pod suddenly shooting straight at him. With no time to take evasive action Poole is crushed by the ten-ton pod, his space suit ruptured, he is dead in seconds. Through an observation window Bowman sees first the pod and then Bowman’s body fly past and away from the ship.

Bowman confronts Hal, who calmly regrets that there has been accident. Mission orders demand that Bowman now revive one of the three hibernators since there must always be two people active on the ship. HAL argues with Bowman, saying this won’t be necessary, by which stage Bowman realises there is something seriously wrong. He threatens to disconnect HAL at which point the computer abruptly relents. Bowman makes his way to the three hibernator pods and has just started to revive the next in line of command, Whitehead when… HAL opens both doors of the ship’s airlock and all the air starts to flood out into space. In the seconds before the ship becomes a vacuum, Bowman manages to make it to an emergency alcove, seal himself in, jets it up with oxygen and climb into the spacesuit kept there for just such emergencies.

Having calmed down from the shock, Bowman secures his suit then climbs out, makes his way through the empty, freezing, lifeless ship to the sealed room where HAL’s circuits are stored and powered and… systematically removes all the ‘higher’ functions which permit HAL to ‘think’, leaving only the circuits which control the ship’s core functions. HAL asks him not to and, exactly as in the film, reverts to his ‘childhood’, his earliest learning session, finally singing the song ‘Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do.’

Hours later Bowman makes a journey in the remaining pod to fix the radio antenna, then returns, closes the airlock doors and slowly restores atmosphere to the ship. Then contacts earth. And it is only now that Dr Floyd, summoned by Mission Control, tells him the true reason for the mission. Tells him about the artifact in Tycho crater. Tells him that it emitted some form of energy which all our monitors indicate was targeted at Saturn, specifically at one of its many moon, Japetus. That is what the Discovery has been sent to investigate.

And it is only in the book that Clarke is able to tell us why HAL went mad. It was the conflict between a) the demand to be at all times totally honest, open and supportive of his human crew and b) the command to keep the true purpose of the mission secret, which led HAL to have a nervous breakdown, and decide to remove one half of the conflict i.e. the human passengers, which would allow him to complete the second half, the mission to Saturn, in perfect peace of ‘mind’.

5. The Moons of Saturn

So now Bowman properly understands the mission, goes about fixing the Discovery, is in constant contact with earth and Clarke gives us an interesting chapter pondering the meaning of the sentinel and what it could have been saying. Was it a warning to its makers, or a message to invade? Where was the message sent? To beings which had evolved on or near Saturn (impossible, according to all the astrophysicists)? Or to somewhere beyond the solar system itself? In which case how could anything have travelled that far, if Einstein is correct and nothing can travel faster than light?

These last two chapters have vastly more factual information in than the movie. What the movie does without any dialogue, with stunning images and eerie music, Clarke does with his clear authoritative factual explanations. He gives us detailed descriptions of the rings of Saturn from close up, along with meticulously calculated information about perihelions and aphelions and the challenges of getting into orbit around Saturn.

But amid all this factuality is the stunning imaginative notion that the moon of Saturn, Japetus, bears on its surface a vast white eye shape at the centre of which stands an enormous copy of the TMA artifact, a huge jet black monolith maybe a mile high.

Which leads into a chapter describing the race which placed it there, which had evolved enough to develop planet travel, then space travel, then moved their minds into artificial machines and then into lattices of light which could spread across space and so, finally, into what humans would call spirit, free from time and space, at one with the universe.

It is this enormous artifact which Bowman now radios Mission Control he is about to go down to in the pod and explore.

6. Through the Star Gate

In the movie this section becomes a non-verbal experience of amazing visual effects. A book can’t do that. It has to describe and, being Clarke, can’t help also explaining, at length, what is going on.

Thus the book is much clearer and more comprehensible about what happens in this final section. Bowman guides his pod down towards the enormous artifact and is planning to land on its broad ‘top’ when, abruptly it turns from being an object sticking out towards him into a gate or cave or tunnel leading directly through the moon it’s situated on. He has just time to make one last comment to Mission Control before the pod is sucked through into the star gate and his adventure begins.

He travels along some faster-than-light portal, watching space bend around him and time slow down to a halt. He emerges into a place where the stars are more static and, looking back, sees a planet with a flat face pockmarked by black holes like the one he’s just come through, and what, when he looks closely, seems to be the wreck of a metal spaceship. He realises this must be a kind of terminal for spaceships between voyages, then the pod slowly is sucked back into one of the holes.

More faster than light travelling, then he emerges into a completely unknown configuration of stars, red dwarfs, sun clusters, the pod slows to a halt and comes to rest in… a hotel room.

Terrified, Bowman makes all the necessary checks, discovers it has earth gravity and atmosphere, gets out of the pod, takes off his spacesuit, has a shower and shave, dresses in one of the suits of clothes provided in a wardrobe, checks out the food in the fridge, or in tins or boxes of cereal.

But he discovers that the books on the coffee table have no insides, the food inside the containers is all the same blue sludge. When he lies on the bed flicking through the channels on the TV he stumbles across a soap opera which is set in this very same hotel room he is lying in. Suddenly he understands. The sentinel, after being unearthed, monitored all radio and TV signals from earth and signalled them to the Japetus relay station and on here – wherever ‘here’ is – and used them as a basis to create a ‘friendly’ environment for their human visitor.

Bowman falls asleep on the bed and while he sleeps goes back in time, recapitulating his whole life. And part of him is aware that all the information of his entire life is being stripped from his mind and transferred to a lattice of light, the same mechanism which Clarke explained earlier in the novel, was the invention of the race which created the sentinel. Back, back, back his life reels until – in a miraculous moment – the room contains a baby, which opens its mouth to utter its first cry.

The crystal monolith appears, white lights flashing and fleering within its surface, as we saw them do when it first taught the man-apes how to use tools and eat meat, all those hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Now it is probing and instructing the consciousness of Bowman, guiding him towards the next phase. The monolith disappears. The being that was Bowman understands, understands its meaning, understands how to travel through space far faster than the primitive star gate he came here by. All he needs is to focus his ‘mind’ and he is there.

For a moment he is terrified by the immensity of space and the infinity of the future, but then realises he is not alone, becomes aware of some force supporting and sustaining him, the guiders.

Using thought alone he becomes present back in the solar system he came from. Looking down he becomes aware of alarm bells ringing and flotillas of intercontinental missiles hurtling across continents to destroy each other. He has arrived just as a nuclear war was beginning. Preferring an uncluttered sky, he abolishes all the missiles with his will.

Then he waited, marshalling his thoughts and brooding over his still untested powers. For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next.

But he would think of something.

And those are the final sentences of the book.

Thoughts

Like Childhood’s End the book proceeds from fairly understandable beginnings to a mind-boggling, universe-wide ending, carrying the reader step by step through what feels almost – if you let it take control of your imagination – like a religious experience.

Eliot Fremont-Smith reviewing the book in the New York Times, commented that it was ‘a fantasy by a master who is as deft at generating accelerating, almost painful suspense as he is knowledgeable and accurate (and fascinating) about the technical and human details of space flight and exploration.’

That strikes me as being a perfect summation of Clarke’s appeal – the combination of strict technical accuracy, with surprisingly effective levels of suspense and revelation.

His concern for imagining the impact of tiny details reminds me of H.G. Wells. In the Asimov and Blish stories I’ve been reading, if there’s a detail or the protagonist notices something, it will almost certainly turn out to be important to the plot. Clarke is the direct opposite. Like Wells his stories are full of little details whose sole purpose is to give the narrative a terrific sense of verisimilitude.

To pick one from hundreds, I was struck by the way that Dr Floyd finds wearing a spacesuit on the surface of the moon reassuring. Why? Because its extra weight and stiffness counter the one sixth gravity of the moon, and so subconsciously remind him of the gravity on earth. Knowing that fact, and then deploying it in order to describe the slight but detectable impact it has on one of his characters’ moods,strikes me as typical Clarke.

Hundreds of other tiny but careful thinkings-though of the situations which his characters find themselves in, bring them home and make them real.

And as to suspense, Clarke is a great fan of the simple but straightforward technique of ending chapters with a threat of disaster. E.g. after his first space walk Poole returns to the ship confident that he has fixed the problem.

In this, however, he was sadly mistaken. (p.140)

Although this is pretty cheesy, it still works. He is a master of suspense. The three other novels I’ve read by him are all thrilling, and even though I’ve seen the movie umpteen times and so totally know the plot, reading Clarke’s book I was still scared when HAL started malfunctioning, and found Bowman’s struggle to disconnect him thrilling and moving.

As to the final section, when Bowman travels through the star gate and is transformed into a new form of life, of celestial consciousness, if you surrender to the story the experience is quite mind-boggling.

It also explains a lot – and makes much more comprehensible – what is left to implication and special effects in the movie.

Forlorn predictions

Clarke expects that by 2001:

  • there will be a permanent colony on the moon, where couples will be having and bringing up children destined never to visit the earth
  • there will also be a colony on Mars
  • there will be a ‘plasma drive’ which allows for super-fast spaceship travel to other planets

I predict there will never be a colony on the moon, let alone Mars, and no ‘plasma drive’.

On the plus side, Clarke predicts that by 2001 there will be a catastrophic six billion people on earth, which will result in starvation, and food preservation policies even in the rich West. In the event there were some 6.2 billion people alive in 2001, but although there were the usual areas of famine in the world, there wasn’t the really widespread food shortages Clarke predicted.

The future has turned out to be much more human, mundane, troubled and earth-bound than Clarke and his generation expected.

Trailer

Credit

All references are to the 2011 reprint of the 1998 Orbit paperback edition of 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke, first published by Hutchinson in 1968.


Related links

Arthur C. Clarke reviews

  • Childhood’s End (1953) a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
  • A Fall of Moondust (1961) a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
  • Rendezvous With Rama (1973) it is 2031 and when an alien object, a cylinder 15 k wide by 50 k long, enters the solar system, and Commander Norton and the crew of Endeavour are sent to explore it

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke – a thrilling tale of the Overlords who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

The Sixth Extinction by Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin (1995)

As a recent article by Tim Flannery in the New York Review of Books explains:

Ever since Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin published The Sixth Extinction in 1995, we have known that humanity is extirpating species at a rate unmatched since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Hunting, deforestation, the introduction of nonnative organisms and diseases, and now climate change have increased the rate of species loss to the point that scientists fear for the functioning of entire ecosystems…

In this pioneering book, Leakey and Lewin take us by the hand through recent (in 1995) discoveries in ecology, palaeontology, palaeoanthropology and geology, to present a whole new worldview, a new way of seeing the natural world and our place in it.

1. Human evolution is a random accident

This is that we – human beings – are NOT the product of some ineluctable force driving evolution towards higher and more sophisticated species and, ultimately, towards Mind and Consciousness. We are emphatically not the pinnacle of the universe. The reverse: we are a cosmic accident. We now know that the long fossil record of life on earth has been marked by countless disasters, accidents, extinctions, most of which have no intrinsic or logical rationale, and that we are the incredibly fortuitous outcome of these massively random events.

2. There is no balance of nature

Older naturalists held that there was a Balance of Nature whereby the complete global system of life worked together to keep things – oxygen levels, complex ecosystems – in a careful balance which favoured the optimum thriving of life forms. But the closer we look at the record, the more obvious it becomes that there is no balance of nature. The more we learn, the more we realise that nature is in fact given to chaotic  and random fluctuations. It is also much more complex than we ever suspected.

3. Fluctuation and accident are the norm

Taken together, these two ideas suggest that flux and fluctuation are an intrinsic part of the history of life on earth.

Humans long for predictability, in relation to the world of nature around us and, most particularly, in relation to our own existence and our future. But it is obvious that, in the realm of evolutionary biology and ecology, ours is an unpredictable world and our place in it an accident of history; it is a place of many possibilities that are influenced by forces beyond our control and, in some cases at least, beyond our comprehension. (p.231)

4. Extinction events

The most dramatic embodiment of this fluctuation – and of the workings of chance – are ‘extinction events’. In the 540 million years since multicellular life suddenly arose in what scientists call ‘the Cambrian Explosion’, there have been no fewer than 15 ‘extinction events’. These are relatively short periods in which – for some reason – the fossil record shows that between 15% and 40% of all species went out of existence, never to return.

Among these 15 were five really big extinction events, ‘the Big Five’, in each of which over 60% of all species went extinct. And king of the Big Five is one real monster, the extinction event at the end of the Permian Era, 250 million years ago, when an estimated 95% of all terrestrial species on earth were wiped out!

The more we learn about the extinction events, the more obvious it becomes that we are the lucky survivors of the lucky survivors of the lucky survivors of a whole series of catastrophes, not through any intrinsic merit in our forebears (who, if you go back far enough, were worms) but from sheer dumb luck.

5. Darwin’s theory of evolution is over-ridden by extinction events

Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection is undoubtedly the mechanism by which new species come into being and by which all life forms are continually competing with all others. But in Leakey’s view, Darwin’s theory is only relevant in the relatively stable periods between these global catastrophes. These periods have lasted tens, sometimes hundreds of millions of years – but the history of life on earth is certainly not the slow, steady evolution of more and more sophisticated life forms, as portrayed in older evolutionary theory.

Instead Darwin’s process has been overshadowed time and again – in terms of impact of the history of life on earth – by extinction, catastrophe and random events. In other words, by the accidents and arbitrariness of History.

6. Humans are the most destructive species on the planet

This new emphasis on the importance of destruction, of the really breath-taking mass extinction of life forms, in the long story of life on earth, dovetails with other, recent discoveries about man’s role in nature. For a variety of sources now suggest that Homo sapiens is and always has been, immensely destructive of the ecosystems around him.

  1. For a long time Europeans have thought that when European explorers and colonisers encountered native peoples in places like America, the Pacific islands, Australia and so on, those peoples were living in a blessed ‘harmony’ with nature. Only in recent decades have scientists realised that the supposedly ‘pristine’ environments of all these places had in fact been severely damaged by the arrival of those peoples. One of the most dramatic examples is Hawaii, which looks like a tropical paradise to tourists, but where we have now discovered evidence that the hunter-gatherers who arrived there 1,500 years ago proceeded to burn down much of the rainforest and wipe out most of the larger species, including a majority of the bright songbirds.
  2. This pattern has been replicated wherever humans appeared, most notably in the Americas, where the arrival of the first hunter-gatherers around 12,000 years ago across the then-existing land-bridge from Asia, and their slow spread southwards, coincides exactly with the extermination of the continent’s megafauna i.e. all its large mammals. There is debate about whether other factors were involved as well but the case of New Zealand presents the case with brutal clarity. The Maori only arrived there 1,000 years ago, and promptly cleared much of the rainforest and hunted all the species of flightless birds and large mammals to extinction. So the native peoples which European explorers encountered in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were far from living in harmony with nature; they were living amid the ecological devastation their ancestors had wreaked wherever they – wherever humans – went.
  3. In the 1990s (this book was published in 1995) everybody knew that tropical rainforests around the world, especially in the vast Amazon basin, were being destroyed at an unprecedented rate (an acre a minute is one calculation), each acre home to millions of species. Since then the news about endangered species or about the rainforests has been overshadowed by the growing sense of crisis about man-made global warming. This has distracted attention away from the story on the ground, which is the alarming rate at which we are continuing to exterminate species throughout the world by the incessant demands of an ever-growing population. When Leakey wrote this book there were 6 billion people in the world. Now that number is 7.5 billion and climbing. The pressure to destroy natural habitat to convert it to farm or grazing land, along with the relentless polluting of the seas, the rivers and the air, can only escalate.

7. Humans are responsible for the sixth mass extinction event in global history

Having given a thorough account of modern understanding of the 20 or so extinction events which punctuate the fossil record – and especially of the Big Five in which 60%-plus of species went extinct – Leakey’s last chapters introduce us to the final conclusion of their long survey – the idea that we, Homo sapiens, are now having such a destructive impact on the natural world that many if not most environmentalists think we are living through the Sixth Mass Extinction of life on earth.

This is an event so momentous that many geologists and evolutionary scientists think it deserves to be defined as a distinct geological era – the Anthropocene Era – the era in which we human beings are irreversibly destroying the vast majority of life forms on the planet we share with them, on a scale only comparable with the devastation caused by the Big Five extinction events.

We are destroying the world.


Leakey and Lewin

Richard Leakey (b.1944) is a paleoanthropologist and ecologist, born and bred in Kenya, where he made significant discoveries of fossils of early humans, before going on to run the country’s national museums and then become its overall Director of the Wildlife Services.

Roger Lewin (b.1944) is a British prize-winning science writer, a staff member of New Scientist for nine years before going to America to become News Editor for Science. He’s written about 20 books, including three in collaboration with Leakey.

The first two of their collaborations are about Leakey’s work into the origins of the human species, in and around Lake Turkana in the north of Kenya, part of the enormous Rift Valley. Due to the fact that hominids need water, and the mud around rivers and lakes preserves footprints and the bones of dead animals better than the harsh savannah or bare rock, Lake Turkana has been a goldmine for fossil hunters looking for relics of our earliest ancestors. In his early explorations, Leakey’s team discovered Turkana Boy, the most complete early human skeleton ever found, believed to be between 1.5 and 1.6 million years old.

In the late 1980s Leakey’s interest shifted away from paleoanthropology towards wildlife conservation and ecology. This book – itself now quite dated – combines his two areas of expertise to give a thorough and quite academic history of the evolution of life on earth and to situate the evolution of hominids and Homo sapiens within it, before going on to present its Big Issue.

Key dates

  • Age of the universe – 13.772 billion years
  • Age of the solar system – 5 billion years
  • Age of planet earth – 4.6 billion years
  • Simplest life forms – prokaryotes, single-celled organisms which lack a nucleus -3.5 billion years ago
  • Eukaryotic organisms, whose cells contain a nucleus – 1.8 billion years ago
  • 530 million year ago – the Cambrian Explosion, when suddenly a huge diversity of multi-celled life forms and body shapes and sizes emerges in the fossil record
  • The Cretaceous Period, the last and longest segment of the Mesozoic Era, lasted approximately 79 million years, from the minor extinction event that closed the Jurassic Period about 145.5 million years ago to the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction event dated at 65.5 million years ago. Period when ‘dinosaurs ruled the earth’.
  • 7 million years ago, approximate parting of the line which led to humans from the lines which led to the great apes
  • 150,000 years ago, evolution of the new species, Homo sapiens
  • 13,000 years ago – end of the last Ice Age triggers the invention of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, which slowly spreads around the globe and with it the arrival of what we like to call human ‘civilisation’

It’s from the Cambrian Explosion – 530 million years ago – that everything most of us think of as life forms – fish and dinosaurs, plants and trees, then later we mammals – derive. Most of the epochs and periods we hear about – Jurassic, Triassic etc – occur during that 530 million period, most fossils of life forms derive from that period.

The sixth extinction

The central premise of the book, which gives it its title, is that, over the half-billion-year history of multi-celled life on earth, there have been a number of ‘moments’ in the geological record when a significant percentage of the flora and fauna of a certain era seem to have died out very suddenly (in geological terms) – known as ‘mass extinction events’. Having explained the background and possible reasons for them, the book then goes on to point out that we are living through a sixth mass extinction event, in which huge numbers of species are being driven to extinction. There is no doubt at all what is causing it: it is us – humans. Human beings are wiping out the earth’s ecosystems and wildlife.

The ‘Big Five’ mass extinctions

The Big Five are defined as extinction events in which at least 65% of species were obliterated. The end-Permian is the biggest, in which an estimated 95% of species on earth were wiped out.

  • at the end of the Ordovician Period – 440 million years ago
  • the Late Devonian 365 million years ago
  • the end-Permian 225 million years ago
  • the end-Triassic 210 million years ago
  • the end-Cretaceous 65 million years ago

There is huge debate about the possible causes of these great ‘dying outs’. Climate change? The conglomeration of all the continents through continental drift into one mega-continent? The most dramatic suggestion, first mooted in the 1970s by a team led by Luis Alvarez, is that it was asteroids. They found thin layers of iridium at the archaeological line marking the end of the Cretaceous period, an element which is extremely rare on earth but is found in asteroids. This discovery has been replicated at other end-Cretaceous sites, and then a candidate for the giant crater caused by a monster asteroid was discovered on the coast of Mexico. The idea is simple: monster asteroid hits earth with the power of a million hydrogen bombs, throws up vast amounts of dirt and dust into the air which blocks out the sun, as well as triggering widespread volcanic activity. Result: mass extinctions of life.

There’s a lot of evidence for it, but archaeologists and biologists are an argumentative lot, as this book amply demonstrates, and other scientists have piled in to claim that asteroids might have put only the finishing touches to what other causes – climate change, sea level rises, environmental or atmospheric fluctuations and so on – had started. Others – David Raup and Jack Sepkoski – have pointed out that there have been over twenty extinction events over that half billion year span, of which the Big Five are only the most notable (p.56), and which occur at roughly 26 million year intervals. Only the recurrent arrival of a shower of asteroids could explain this regularity, although more recently doubt has been cast on the evidence for this neat pattern. But there’s no doubting, now, that externally-prompted mass extinctions have been a recurrent feature of terrestrial evolution.

Which gives rise to an immense debate about the deep meaning of the theory of evolution, which can be summarised in the phrase ‘bad genes or bad luck’. Is there an inevitability in the way life has evolved? If we ran the tape of evolution again, would life forms turn out much as we see them around us? Is there a kind of deep logic to the way things would have evolved, to fit the available niches?

Or has the evolution of life on earth been subject to mind-boggling accidents and contingency? Could things easily have turned out wildly differently? Was it the merest luck which led to the various mass extinctions, to the death of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, to the rise of the mammals and then, right at the end of this string of improbable accidents – to us, reading these words?

These and many related questions are tackled – with the help of quite technical diagrams and explanations – in the first half of the book. It takes a few rereadings to get the timelines clear in your head, and then more rereading to understand what the numerous debates are about.

For example, uniformitarianism is the idea that evolution takes place gradually and slowly over vast periods of time. Darwin had to arrive at his theory by battling essentially religious ideas that species were suddenly created by a Creator God, so he and his followers were vehement uniformitarianists. However, from the birth of geology as a science in the early 19th century, geologists recognised sudden abrupt changes in the record – catastrophic changes in the fossil record which the extinction events seem to support. Broadly this view of evolution is called catastrophism. The American paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould developed his own version of catastrophism, which he called punctuated equilibrium – long periods of stasis interrupted by abrupt changes in earth’s biota, or life systems. Modern thinking about the importance of mass extinction events has led to what some call ‘neo-catastrophism’ i.e. Darwin’s laws work most of the time, except when some external force steps in to overshadow them – be it drastic climate change, asteroids, volcanic activity, sea level changes or whatever.

Man the destroyer

We are but one of millions of species here on earth, products of half a billion years of life’s flow, lucky survivors of at least twenty biotic crises, including the catastrophic Big Five. (p.71)

But these and various other theories and debates about the detail of historical evolution are really just the background, the introduction to the meat of the book, which is a lament for man’s destruction of the natural world. Leakey uses numerous examples to show how modern science has revealed just how much life there is, all around us.

He reports Danish scientists who investigated one square metre of tropical rainforest and discovered 46,000 earthworms, 12 million roundworms and 46,000 insects. Just one gram of this soil contained more than a million bacteria, 100,000 yeast cells and 50,000 fragments of fungi (p.136).

The rape and destruction of the earth which we are causing is mind-blowing. It is estimated that ‘we are losing upwards of 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest daily, and significantly degrading another 80,000 acres every day on top of that. Along with this loss and degradation, we are losing some 135 plant, animal and insect species every day – or some 50,000 species a year.’ (Scientific American)

But all that’s new is the scale: man has always been a destroyer. Between 12,000 and 10,000 years ago 50 or so large mammal species went extinct in North America. The extinctions coincided with the arrival of the first peoples from Asia (across the land bridge across what is now the Bering Straits) and their slow fanning out across the continent. Although some paleontologists prefer climate change or disease as the cause, many think these first human settlers of the Americas hunted its large mammals to extinction. This theory is called the Overkill hypothesis. The case is even clearer in New Zealand, which Maori colonised about 1,000 years ago and where they hunted the large flightless birds to extinction, while the rats they’d brought from Australia wiped out whole systems of ground-roosting birds and other fauna.

‘The notion of man-the-exterminator is secure in New Zealand.’ (p.186)

Same on Hawaii (pp.188-190).

Numbers

How many species are there on earth? Nobody knows. Leakey quotes an early estimate from the 1960s of 3 million. Terry Irwin, in 1982, estimated there may be 30 million species of insects alone in the rainforest canopy. Elsewhere, Leakey quotes estimates of the total number of species as 50 million, and then references Robert May’s speculation from the 1990s that there may be as many as 100 million species. These appear to be the end points, which is why later articles refer to ‘anywhere between 3 and 100 million’.

More recently, a 2011 estimate using a new methodology gives the total number of species in the world as 8.7 million – 6.45 million on land, 2.2 million in the sea. According to this calculation, 86% of all species on land and 91% of those in the seas have yet to be discovered, described and catalogued. But googling the subject, though, one comes across a bang up-to-date estimate from 2016 which says there might be as many as 1 trillion species on earth!

In other words, despite E.O. Wilson’s calls for governments to invest more in finding out how many species we share the world with – a plea from the 1990s quoted in this book (p.123) – we still haven’t a clue how many there are. What we can be confident about is that we are wiping out most of the species we share the earth with before we ever get to discover, identify, record or analyse any of them.

In fact, we don’t even know precisely how many species have been identified and catalogued. It appears to be about 1.25 million species – roughly 1 million on land and 250,000 in the oceans – but as many as 700,000 more are thought to have been described by local scientists which have yet to reach the central databases and so be included in global counts…

Value in diversity

How do we preserve nature? Well, in our demystified, instrumental, capitalist world, we have to give it a value, the only thing most people understand. Leakey identifies three types of value:

  1. Tangible benefits we can extract from the environment, such as food, raw materials, medicine.
  2. Maintenance of the environment: we need the full web of life to continue its circulation of gases, chemicals and moisture in order to make the world inhabitable by humans.
  3. Psychological health: most people with the money, prefer to live in the country, people like to visit and roam in the country, patients in hospital with a bed by a window in a green space have better recovery rates than patients in a windowless room. The presence of greenery and nature keeps us psychologically healthy – and that greenery doesn’t exist in the abstract – it is made up of incalculably complex webs of organisms. E.O. Wilson has named this sense ‘biophilia’.

Food and drugs are the obvious ones. The world is dangerously dependent on monocultural varieties of a handful of food crops. If a pest devastated the world’s wheat or rice crops, billions would starve. Wild varieties contain genes we haven’t identified or analysed which would provide important genetic variations which could help develop new varieties, if the worst ever happened.

Similarly, important worldwide medicines have been sourced from wholly unexpected wild plants and flora. Aspirin and penicillin are the two obvious examples, which changed the world and saved hundreds of millions of lives. Who knows what cures for cancer or AIDS may be lurking undiscovered in some of the 250,000 species of plants? And in species we are merrily burning to extinction every day?

Theories and ideas

Even twenty years ago when this book was published, all educated people should have known about the destruction of the rainforests and endangered species. That aspect shouldn’t be news to anyone. I think the real revelation of this book is the extraordinary complexity and difficulty of ecological and biological and archaeological science – the range of areas and levels and expertises which are now brought to bear on the natural world, the complexity of computer models and the plethora of rival theories.

Leakey’s book is in many places quite dauntingly technical. Plenty of paragraphs contain numbered points or aspects or theories which we need to learn and bear in mind. For example, we learn about:

  • Allopatric speciation – or geographic speciation is speciation that occurs when biological populations of the same species become vicariant, or isolated from each other to an extent that prevents or interferes with genetic interchange.
  • Cambrian Explosion – ‘the relatively short evolutionary event, beginning around 541 million years ago in the Cambrian period, during which most major animal phyla appeared, as indicated by the fossil record’ (Wikipedia)
  • Chaos theory as it applies to ecosystems i.e. modern understanding has undermined the notion of a ‘balance of nature’ to reveal that all systems, even without any external influence, tend to boom and bust and be subject to other ‘internal’ pressures which create fluctuations. I.e. every ecosystem, and nature as a whole, is much more chaotic and unstable than had been appreciated.
  • The ‘protective network‘ of an ecosystem which places an ‘activation barrier‘ around it to prevent new species intruding (p.162-3).
  • The rivet-popper hypothesis and the redundancy hypothesis of how ecosystems are degraded. Rivet-popper = each species in a system is like the rivets in a ship – you can remove one or two without noticing but the more you remove the more you weaken the system until it reaches collapse. Redundancy = most species are passengers on a system held together by a few lynchpin systems: you can remove most with no change; but remove the lynchpins and the system collapses. (pp.140-141)

The relative importance of ‘history’ and evolution

One of the big points Leakey makes is that in his time older ideas like ‘the balance of nature’ and even the primacy of natural selection, have been thrown in doubt. Nature now appears to be much more chaotic than previously suspected. And he explains recent work which suggests that the world we see around us is radically contingent. Archaeologists examined the fossil record of animals off the North Atlantic coast over the past 60 million years, a huge duration during which sea levels rose and fell six times. They discovered that mature ecosystems repopulated the dry land once it was reflooded – but each time it was repopulated by a different combination of species. I.e. the reappearance of life was ‘inevitable’ – but which specific species fill all the niches and grow into a tangled web of an ecosystem – it can be different each time. There is nothing intrinsic or inevitable about the flourishing of particular species or combinations of species in ecosystems. Shake the dice and you get a different set.

As Leakey puts it, History matters. Life there will be, but what forms of life and how they combine, even in the same environment, can vary hugely depending on chance factors. Thus Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection still gives the best account of how species evolve over time – but in seeking an explanation for the natural world as we see it, the theory of evolution is dwarfed by the random events of what we call ‘history’.

Insights into human history

Obviously Leakey’s main concern is with nature and ecology but for someone like me who knows more about history than I do about biology or ecology, the multiple insights a scholarly book like this gives the reader into the natural world can also shed tremendous light on the deeper meaning of human history.

I’ve just finished Alan Taylor’s epic account of the colonisation of America. In it he emphasises that it wasn’t just European humans who arrived in the New World, but that they brought from the Old World , in order of importance – their devastating new diseases, new plants and new livestock. These spread like wildfire across the virgin continent, the diseases wiping out up to 95% of the native inhabitants of the Americas, while new plants spread like weeds, and livestock drove American rivals extinct.

Quite apart from its ostensible purpose as a warning and a plea, a book like Leakey’s can immeasurably increase our understanding of human history by giving us a deep sense of the mind-boggling complexity of the natural world which human beings have been blundering around, reshaping and destroying, burning and deforesting and planting and mixing up, for centuries – the process we refer to as ‘history’.

It makes us realise what was at stake back then, as well as now. It makes us realise the depth of the damage we have been doing, and for centuries.

Attitude

Obviously the planet is indifferent to individual human opinions, attitudes and stands. Clicking ‘like’ on facebook to a photo of a polar bear or the rainforest isn’t going to change anything. Only a wholesale and comprehensive change to all of our lifestyles, combined with drastic attempts to control and reduce human population, will have any real, practical impact on the problem.

On a personal level, this knowledge does suggest a truer, more accurate understanding of human nature (destructive) and our place in the natural world (destructive) which should have a chastening effect on everything we think and do. It transforms our understanding and it should transform our behaviour.

From time to time Leakey mentions, or quotes other ecologists criticising, humanity’s ‘narcissism’ or ‘arrogance’, each of us infested with thoughts and feelings and desires which a) are ultimately trivial b) obscure to ourselves our fundamental role as destroyers of the environment.

A correct attitude, the accurate honest attitude to the devastation we cause, would be one of modesty, shame and penance.

In a way, understanding these issues better should lead us to a kind of attitude and – ideally – lifestyle, characterised by simplicity and humility. All of us need to consume less, vastly less, than our arrogance and ignorance and selfishness prompt us to.

A proper understanding of our place in the world should lead to the virtues praised by monks and nuns of all religious orders: shun the world, shun consumption, shun exploitation, work in humility and honesty to supply our bare needs. Only then, maybe, despite all the evidence to the contrary, might there be a slight possibility of hope that we do not exterminate most life forms on the planet including, of course, many that we depend and rely on for our own existence.

In order to know ourselves as a species and to understand our place in the universe of things, we have to distance ourselves from our own experience, both in space and time. It is not easily done but it is essential if we are truly to see a larger reality. (p.6)


Related links

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Psychology

The Origin of Our Species by Chris Stringer (2011)

This is a very demanding and scholarly book. In the last thirty years major leaps forward in DNA science, the technology of dating fossils, our ability to CT scan and analyse old bones and skulls right down to atomic level and other impressive techniques, as well as a steady stream of new finds of the remains of our prehistoric ancestors, have hugely deepened and complicated our knowledge of human ancestry, of the lineage which stretches back 6 million years to when our ancestors split from the ancestors of modern apes. It’s a massive, complicated and ever-changing field of knowledge.

As the blurb on the back points out, Chris Stringer has been closely involved in much of the crucial research into the origins of humankind and sets out in this book to explain all the latest research, techniques, discoveries and theories in the area, which he does comprehensively and thoroughly.

However, the patchiness of the evidence, the changing results given by evolving techniques, the legacy of sharply conflicting theories and interpretations etc, take a lot of explaining and putting into context. As well as the actual finds and the science we use to interpret them, the book slowly opens up a jungle of differences and debate between archaeologists, paleo-anthropologists, psychologists, DNA researchers, ancient historians and so on, at numerous levels, from large-scale over-arching theories to the interpretation of almost every single find and specimen.

Chapter by chapter, Stringer introduces us to all the evidence and all the techniques and all the controversies – but it is a lot to take in. It doesn’t help that the same theories, techniques and finds recur in different chapters, but in the context of different approaches or discussion of different theories or ideas. You need your wits about you. It’s a book to be read at least twice.

Two theories of human origins

In 1988 Stringer co-wrote an article titled Genetic and Fossil Evidence for the Origin of Modern Humans. This sketched out the two main theories about human origins: Recent African Origin (RAO) and Multiregional Evolution.

1. The multi-regional theory dates from the 1930s and believes that Homo erectus (himself descended from Homo habilis and a distinct species by about 2 million years ago) spread out from Africa over 1 million years ago, settling across Eurasia and Africa, and it was these scattered populations who all transitioned to modern man, Homo sapiens, although with variations which explain the different appearance of modern ‘races’.

2. Recent African Origin (also known as the ‘Out of Africa’ theory) agrees that Homo erectus spread across Eurasia by around 1 million years ago (the original or ‘Out of Africa 1’ scenario), but then postulates the separate development of ‘modern’ man (Homo sapiens) around 100,000 years ago, probably in East Africa. These modern humans also spread out beyond Africa (in so-called ‘Out of Africa 2’), superseding (overwhelming, conquering, killing?) their more primitive cousins wherever the two came into contact.

But a) there are numerous other theories which conflict with both the above, starting with an ‘Assimilationist’ theory, e.g. that Homo sapiens bred with Homo erectus rather than wiping them out; and b) almost every year brings new discoveries which throw up new puzzles and complicate the picture. Also c) Homo sapiens himself seems to have undergone a sudden burst of technological, cultural and social complexity around 50,000 years ago, when better tools, cave art, necklaces etc suddenly appear in the fossil record. It was this new, improved Homo sapiens who appears in Europe from 35,000 years ago. How does that fit into the timeline?

Neanderthal Man In Europe a distinct branch of humans was named Neanderthal Man (after the first specimen whose skull and bones were found in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856). Neanderthal bodies were bigger, more muscly than ours, they had significantly larger brain cases (as Stringer humorously points out, in brains as with other things, size is not everything) but their most notable feature was really thick, heavy, threatening brow ridges over the eye sockets. Neanderthals are generally considered a distinct species, Homo neanderthalensis, and are thought to be descended from a more primitive species, Homo heidelbergensis, itself a branch of Homo erectus. Nenaderthal man became distinct from Heidelberg man around 600,000 years ago. (Typically, some paleoanthropologists disagree with the whole notion of defining these different specimens as distinct species, and consider Neanderthals and all the other ‘types’ which have been found in the past 150 years to be subspecies of Homo sapiens – thus Neanderthals would be Homo sapiens neanderthalensis).

One of the most intriguing questions remains what it was when I was a boy: We have evidence that modern man (often called Cro-Magnon Man in his European incarnation, after the cave in south-west France where the first specimen was found in 1868) and Neanderthal man both inhabited Europe at the same period, around 40,000 years ago (the Neanderthals having been around in Europe for hundreds of thousands of years, modern man being a new thing, fresh out of Africa). Shortly after the arrival of modern man, records of Neanderthals come to an end; there are no specimens more recent than 30,000 years ago.

So, did we wipe Neanderthals out? Archaeologist Nicolas Teyssandier has noted the period of overlap of the last Neanderthals and the first Moderns is characterised by a profusion of different types of spear tip – was there a stone age arms race? Or did ‘we’ interbreed with Neanderthals to become a cross-breed, Neanderthal records stopping because they had been ‘assimilated’ into our line – so that each of us has a little Neanderthal blood in us? Or did Neanderthals die out due to climate or other changes which they were too dim to adapt to, but which we with our super-smart brains managed to survive? The theories have become more intricate as new DNA evidence has emerged – but to this day, no-one knows.

Homo sapiens (left) Homo neanderthalensis (right)

Homo sapiens (left) Homo neanderthalensis (right)

Homo heidelbergensis This is another distinct form of human, that lived in Africa, Europe and western Asia between 600,000 and 200,000 years ago (and named after the first specimen, discovered in 1907 near the German town of Heidelberg). Some paleoanthropologists think that a population of heidelbergensis migrated into Europe and western Asia between 400,000 and 300,000 years ago and evolved into Neanderthal man. A later branch of the same family had evolved into Homo sapiens in Africa by around 130,000 years ago and then also spread into south-west Asia and Europe where, for 100,000 years, both related species lived alongside each other.

Periods

The Pleistocene period is said to date from 2.5 million years ago (Ma) to 12,000 years ago.

The Stone Age or Paleolithic period period lasted roughly 3.4 million years and ended between 8700 BC and 2000 BC, with the advent of metalworking (the date varying according to location, since different human groups developed metal work at different dates).

The Lower Paleolithic Period is 2,500,000 to 200,000 years ago. The Middle Paleolithic is the era during which the Neanderthals lived in Europe and the Near East, c. 300,000–28,000 years ago. The Upper Paleolithic dates from 50,000 to 10,000 years ago in Europe, ending with the end of the Pleistocene Era and onset of the Holocene Era at the end of the last ice age.

The Holocene Era is marked by the end of the ice ages around 13,000 years ago, followed swiftly (in the Fertile Crescent of modern Iraq) by the birth of agriculture, in what Jared Diamond calls ‘the Neolithic Revolution’. This saw humans transition from a life of hunting and gathering to one of agriculture and settlement, a transition whose causes and implicatoins Diamond deals with at length in his classic book, Guns, Germs and Steel.

Dating technologies

The modern technology used to date fossils and ancient remains is now bewilderingly complex and dauntingly sophisticated. Here are some terms; if you’re interested, you’ll have to google them for full accounts.

  • ABOX Acid Base Oxidation-Stepped Combustion pretreatment methods for dating charcoal thought to be over 30,000 years old
  • AMS accelerator mass spectrometry – a technique for measuring long-lived radionuclides that occur naturally in our environment
  • CT computerised tomography X-ray scan
  • ESR electronic spin resonance, method of dating
  • OSL – optically stimulated luminescence
  • TL thermoluminscence dating technique

New words and acronyms

I’m a humanities graduate, not a scientist; I get pleasure from new words and from new concepts (even ones I don’t fully understand).

  • Allen’s Law – animals in cold climates have low surface-to-volume ratios; animals in hot climates, the reverse.
  • atlatl – a spear thrower.
  • Biological Species Concept – the notion that species are defined as groups which can interbreed
  • burins – engraving tools.
  • CI Campanian Ignimbrite – debris from a huge volcanic explosion which took place in Campania, central Italy, 39,000 years ago.
  • Doggerland – the area of land that connected Britain to mainland Europe during and after the last Ice Age until it was flooded by rising sea levels around 6,500–6,200 BC.
  • Dunbar’s Number – after researching primate brain size against the size of their social groups British anthropologist Robin Dunbar estimated that humans can only form meaningful relationships with a maximum of 148 (generally rounded up to 150) other individuals.
  • EQ – encephalisation quotient, the ratio of brain volume to body mass.
  • glottology – the history or science of language.
  • Heinrich Event – brief but severe cold events when icebergs break off from northern ice caps and float south chilling the ocean and surrounding lands (pp.93-94)
  • microtephra – dust from a volcanic explosion which is invisible to the eye.
  • morphometrics – measuring shapes.
  • sapropels – dark layers of sediment laid down where the Nile reaches the Mediterranean.
  • survivorship – the proportion of a population surviving to a given age.
  • tang – edge or shoulder of a triangular stone point used to mount it as a projectile on a wooden handle.
  • varves – annually deposited layers in the bottom of deep lakes.

Snippets

  • Anthropologist Grover Krantz strapped on a fake thick protruding ‘brow ridge’ from a Homo erectus skull, and wore it for months (!) to see what advantages it brought. He discovered that it kept his hair out of his eyes, shielded his eyes from the sun – and scared the daylights out of people he met on dark nights. Stringer takes this last point seriously, saying the heavy brows of our ancestors possibly accentuated their stare, giving them an aggressive attitude which helped them intimidate other males and woo females, in the struggle for existence. (p.32)
  • Apparently, there are rumours in the paleoanthropology world that either the Americans or the Russians or both, in the 1940s and 50s, experimented by injecting human sperm into female chimps, bringing the resulting creatures to birth and experimenting on them. (p.33)
  • Male baboons gently fondle each other’s scrotums as a sign of friendship and trust – a defeated chimpanzee makes submissive noises and holds out its hand to the victor – if accepted the victor will embrace and kiss the supplicant, if rejected, he’ll bite it. (p.131)
  • Fire dates to around 1.6 million years ago in Africa, 800,000 years ago in Israel, 400,000 years ago in Britain. (p.140)
  • The Grandmother Hypothesis developed by James O’Connell and Kristen Hawkes proposes that human evolution favoured older women who lived on after the menopause (something which doesn’t happen in primates) who can help their daughters with child-rearing and food-gathering. (p.141)

Conclusion

The ninth and final chapter presents a conclusion of sorts – which is that, having extensively reviewed the current evidence, Stringer has modified his lifelong adherence to the Recent African Origin thesis in several ways:

  1. The one that surprised me the most has to do with the size of the communities we’re talking about. Up-to-date genetic evidence suggests that the groups which left Africa and moved out to populate Arabia and around the Indian coast, might have numbered in the hundreds. Even within Africa the various species may at any one time have only numbered in the thousands. (‘The long-term effective size of the ancestral population for modern humans might have been only about 10,000 breeding individuals’, p.175, whereas the number of breeding Neanderthal females in Europe might have been as little as 3,500). Given these numbers, the extinction of the Neanderthals is changed from being some kind of war of extermination (as it is sometimes painted) into the dwindling and going defunct of already tiny scattered communities (and the most attractive interpretation Stringer gives for this is the notion that Neanderthals were just bigger, heavier and needed more food than the lighter, nimbler Home sapiens – maybe in the unstable climatic situation in Europe 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, small and clever was simply more adaptable).
  2. The last two chapters bring together evidence which Stringer says can be interpreted, in light of these small numbers, to suggest a new hypothesis – that there were, at any given time, multiple human species living in Africa (he repeats several times that modern-day Africans show vastly more genetic diversity than any other continent – modern DNA evidence suggesting that the populations of Asia, the Far East, the Americas, Australia derive from very small bands of ancestors populations with the genetic diversity of modern populations dropping the further you go from the African source). In other words, the linear model of one species evolving into another species has been replaced by a much more complex scene of multiple species or sub-species flourishing in different places at different times. ‘100,000 years ago Africa may have comprised a collection of separate sub-groups’ (p.244). The evidence now suggests ‘that Africa contained archaic-looking people in some areas when, and even long after, the first modern-looking humans had appeared’ (p.255). In other words, the multiregion theory could be true within Africa, where multiple species, sub-species, varieties and groups of humans evolved along separate lines, developing widely different levels of tools, some isolated, some inter-breeding and leaving behind a patchwork of random relics to puzzle and confuse 21st century paleoanthropologists trying to create one continuous narrative.
  3. A recurrent problem in this new, more complex picture is that ‘superior’ technologies or skills seem sometimes, in some areas, to be replaced by inferior ones. Stringer uses the analogy of fires or beacons flaring up in the immense darkness of Africa for a millennium or so, then going out. Why? The brief answer, as with so much paleoanthropology, is that no-one knows. Climate change? Genetic drift? Drought, famine, conflict? But the stops and starts certainly fit with the newish idea of much greater diversity, variation, and contingency in our evolution than had previously been suspected.
  4. All of which brings Stringer to modify his initial RAO thesis: maybe there wasn’t one, but multiple out-of-Africa events. To me, as a layman, this doesn’t seem that surprising. Pre-human species didn’t have maps: they didn’t know they were ‘leaving’ Africa; they were just roaming, hunting and gathering wherever food could be found. It makes more sense to think there would have been multiple ‘exits’ from Africa. If our theories only posited two until recently, that could be because the archaeological record is so thin and patchy as not to spot the others – or it could be that numerous other ‘exit’ populations went extinct leaving no fossil or genetic trace. We think the exit event which led to us is important because it led to us; but it might have been just one among many, and its survival down to pure chance.
  5. And this leads to perhaps the most unsettling thought, which is all these theories tend to undermine our specialness. Even within scientific communities there has been a consensus that Homo sapiens is special because ‘we’ ended up inventing agriculture, cities, religion, states, navies, trains, rockets and all the rest of it – and therefore a tendency to try and identify the reason for that specialness and the moment when that specialness took hold. (Stringer thinks something happened around 50,000 years ago to change human behaviour, nudging it towards greater inventiveness – climate, size of social groups, who knows; but there are scores of other theories – he mentions the ‘Broad Spectrum Revolution’ theory proposed by Lewis Binford and Kent Flannery, a coming-together of climate, population size and innovation which they date to 20,000 years ago). But what if we’re not that special. What if Neanderthal man or some of the more obscure relics, such as Homo floriensis (the so-called ‘Hobbit’, a short version of modern humans found only in East Asia) or other sub-species and hominins as yet undiscovered, had just as much potential to develop and ‘succeed’ – but existed in such small populations that fairly limited events (drought, volcanic eruption, sudden chilling in an ice age) wiped them out and happened, just happened, to leave the field open to us? What if ‘we’ are only here by the merest luck or fluke but – with the arrogance typical of our species – have taken this as giving us an entirely spurious specialness, giving us the right to lord it over the earth and all the other species, when in fact our lucky ancestors just happened to be in the right place at the right time, or not to be in the wrong place at the wrong time…

Credit

The Origin of Our Species by Chris Stringer was published by Allen Lane in 2011. All quotes and references are to the 2012 Penguin paperback edition.

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