On birds watching.

On birds watching.

In jail recently, we were talking about birds.

“Yeah, my grandfather had something like a thousand chickens, had them running all through the yard,” somebody said.  “And there was this one chicken, he was a mean one.  I was kind of afraid of it, strutting around like he owned the place.  So my grandfather, he told me to kick it.”

“Well, I did, but that only made things worse.  I didn’t make him scared, I just made that chicken hate me.  So after that, anytime we went to visit my grandfather’s place, that chicken would be there, waiting for me.”

“My parents, my brothers and sisters, everybody would get out of the car, but the chicken wouldn’t bother them.  He’d be sitting there, staring, just waiting for me.  And when I finally got out I had to run, every time, sprinting to my grandfather’s front door before that chicken got me.”

“They live a long time, too!  I had, like, five or six years of that!  And still to this day, anytime my mom sees a video or a picture of somebody running from a chicken on Facebook, she’ll tag me in it.  Like, ha ha ha, remember that?”

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“Maybe you didn’t kick him hard enough,” somebody suggested.  “Cause we used to have chickens, and I had to go into the coop sometimes, and the roof of it was real low to the ground, so I had to crouch in there like this, and one chicken would always strut up to me like it was going to start something.”

“Well, it did that every time for a few months, till one day it got in my face and I just went BOOM, and I wrestled that little fucker to the ground.  And that chicken never messed with me again.”

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Birds can recognize individual humans. 

Biologist John Marzluff noticed that crows became wary of particular researchers after the crows had been captured and tagged.  In an experiment where researchers captured a half dozen crows while wearing a caveman mask, they found that the whole flock learned to respond to that mask as a threat.  Several years later, even crows who hadn’t seen the caveman’s initial misbehavior would shriek a warning when they saw that mask.  They’d been trained by their flockmates.

The caveman mask is on the left. On the right: a control mask.

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Between their intelligence and acute eyesight, birds can serve as passable oncologists.  Pigeons were trained with a set of slides from biopsies – a pigeon had to inspect each image and then choose a button for “cancer” or “not cancer”.  If the pigeon chose correctly, the computer would dispense a pellet of food.

(Human medical students are often mistreated during their training, forced to work grueling hours with few breaks.  The pigeon trainees were also mistreated – to ensure that they valued each food pellet, the pigeons were starved during the experiment.  I’m 6 feet tall and about 150 pounds, but if I were participating in this study, I’d be kept at 127 pounds – eighty-five percent of my “free feeding” weight.)

Pigeons learned to diagnose biopsies with 80% accuracy.  A team of eight pigeons voting together could diagnose biopsies with 99% accuracy

The team of pigeons was just as good as a human oncologist, and far better than computerized image analysis.

You can buy 50 pounds of pigeon pellets for under $10.  That’d give you enough rewards for a flock of half-starved pigeons to diagnose thousands of patients.

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We used to think that an entire class of vertebrates had gone extinct – the dinosaurs.  But we now know that birds are dinosaurs. 

Several species of dinosaurs/birds are gone – millions of years have passed since tyrannosaurs or velociraptors roamed the earth.  But their lineage has continued.

When I was growing up, people often remarked that dinosaurs were clearly dim-witted creatures because they have such small cranial cavities.  There was not much room for brains in their skulls! 

But contemporary dinosaurs/birds have small brains, too, and many are extremely intelligent.  They can chase kids who’ve crossed them.  They can diagnose cancer.  They can make tools, solve logic puzzles, and guess what other animals are thinking.

All with minuscule brains!

When biologist Suzana Herculano-Houzel investigated the brains of various species, she found that the number of neurons in a brain typically correlates with cognitive capacity.  More neurons makes for a smarter critter!

The physical size of a brain doesn’t tell you how many neurons will be in a brain, though.  A bigger brain might just have bigger neurons

As it happens, birds’ brains are constructed better than our own.  Crows and parrots pack neurons into a brain more densely than we do, like the difference between old IBM mainframes and modern telephones.  Pigeon brains are better than ours at parallel computing, like the difference between a hypothetical quantum computer and your current laptop.

We can outsmart crows, parrots, and pigeons, but only because our raw neuron counts are so high that we’ve not been surpassed by their superior designs.

We don’t know when dinosaurs/birds evolved their high neuron densities – well-designed brains might be recent innovations, or they might be millions of years old.  Ancient dinosaurs may have been far more intelligent than we thought.

Yes, they still went extinct, but you can’t blame them for succumbing to climate change.  And it’s not like they caused the climate change that killed them.

Future archaeologists might judge humans to be more foolish than any stegosaurus.

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We humans have huge numbers of neurons in our cerebral cortex.  We are blisteringly clever.  We’ve made all variety of tools, languages, and complex social structures.  Yes, crows also have tools, language, and complex social structures, but in each category, human achievements are even more complex.

A crow tool is typically a hooked piece of stick.  We built telephones.

Well, humans collectively built telephones.  I couldn’t sit down and build one from scratch.  If I were to make a tool while out hiking, it’d probably be a hooked piece of stick.

Still, our best achievements are pretty incredible. 

But we’ve also brought our species to the brink of extinction.  Through overpopulation and excessive exploitation of the planet’s trapped resources, we’re making our world less habitable. 

Tyrannosaurus ruled this planet for a few million years.  Humans have been a dominant species for only a hundred thousand years – a few percent of T-Rex’s reign.  With the current pace of climate change, scientists soberly discuss the possibility that we’ll reap apocalypse within a hundred more years.

Measured by reign, we might prove 20-fold less successful than those giant birds.

On social norms.

On social norms.

I assume that you, personally, have never clear-cut and burned a patch of the Amazon rain forest.  Neither have I.  The number of people who have done the actual cutting is vanishingly small compared to the world’s population.

I also assume that you enjoy living in a world where the Amazon rain forest exists — certainly more than you’d enjoy living in a world where it had all been slashed and burned.  If we lose the Amazon rain forest, climate change might spiral out of control, flooding coastal cities worldwide and causing desertification in much of the interior United States.  If we lose the Amazon rain forest, huge numbers of species will go extinct, including a wide variety of medicinal plants that we’ve only begun to investigate.

And the rain forest is beautiful.  Future generations would feel an ache of want – likely compounded with a mix of jealousy and anger – if they saw photographs of the Amazon rain forest after it were gone.

When I was in elementary school, my third grade class sponsored a patch of the Amazon rain forest.  In retrospect, I’m not sure what this entailed.  We raised money and sent it off in an envelope.  I don’t remember whether we ever saw photographs of “our” forest, whether the arrangement was supposedly akin to a rental or purchase of those trees. 

I have no idea who received our sponsorship money, but the general idea that money should be sent from the U.S. to Brazil is actually correct.  Many of the world’s problems would be easier to address if we used a global wealth tax to fund a guaranteed basic income for everyone.  At the very least, if there are natural resources that benefit all of humanity, then countries that are currently wealthy because they ravaged their environments should pay to encourage other nations not to accrue wealth through extractive industries.

Some people in Brazil would be wealthier if the Amazon rain forest were destroyed.  Everyone in the world would suffer as a result.  If we – everyone outside Brazil – would prefer that the rain forest not be destroyed, we should compensate Brazilians for the foregone short-term economic benefits.

Unless you are fantastically wealthy, you personally will be unable to enact this policy on your own.  If I decided to split my family’s entire annual income among the people of Brazil, each would get 2% of a penny … and my family would be left with nothing.

A guaranteed basic income is the right policy, but it’s not something that I can accomplish as an individual.

In We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer discusses how each one of us can help preserve the Amazon rain forest today.  We as a people should strive for political solutions to the world’s problems, but we as individuals shouldn’t make choices that exacerbate those very problems.  It would seem hypocritical to lobby for fines against littering if we continued to blithely toss candy bar wrappers onto the ground.

Foer describes how painful it feels to recognize this hypocrisy in himself.  This sensation grows more intense as he watches his children grow in a world that is becoming increasingly dangerous.

But what kind of father prioritizes feeling good over doing good?

Foer knows that he could choose to help.  Each day, he could act in a way that makes his children’s world safer.

He often doesn’t.

There is a far more pernicious form of science denial than Trump’s: the form that parades as acceptance.  Those of us who know what is happening but do far too little about it are more deserving of the anger.  We should be terrified of ourselves.  We are the ones we have to defy.  I am the person endangering my children.

As you read this, the Amazon rain forest is being destroyed.  Why?  To clear space for cows to graze.

Photo by Joelle Hernandez on Flickr, whose caption from this 2007 photograph reads, “On a few occasions Brazilians told me that ‘People thousands of miles away are contributing to our deforestation.'”

Even if the meat or cheese you eat was not imported from Brazil, by choosing to eat it, you are reinforcing the social norm that is causing the Amazon rain forest to be destroyed. 

Eating meat is pleasurable.  A good cheese pizza can be divine.  Humans evolved as omnivores, and the tastes of meat and cheese are particularly delicious.  Choosing not to eat these foods would be a sacrifice.

Foer has tried to be a vegetarian for decades.  He has previously written about the animal welfare arguments against eating meat; now he’s written about the environmental arguments.  He knows that eating meat is immoral – the cow suffered to produce it, and Foer’s own children will suffer a worse climate as a consequence.

But this knowledge isn’t enough.  He still surreptitiously buys cheeseburgers.

So why hasn’t vegetarianism become any easier after thirty years?  Why has it become harder?  I crave meat more now than I have at any point since I became a vegetarian.

Foer wishes that there were a social norm to eat only foods made from plants. 

Eating meat is pleasurable.  Eating cheese is pleasurable. 

Injecting heroin is pleasurable too.  Driving a car while drunk is pleasurable.  Heck, even cruising down the road while everybody else pulls aside for the ambulance behind you would be pleasurable.

In our culture, there’s a social norm to pull aside for ambulances.  Even though it would be more pleasurable to keep driving, most people don’t.

Meats and cheeses are responsible for somewhere between 20% and 50% of all climate-change-causing emissions. 

(There’s a wide range in that estimate because, although it’s incontestable that it takes more land to produce meats and cheeses than it does to make equivalent foods from plants, it’s debatable what would be done with all that extra land if people changed their diets.  If the extra space would be used to restore forests, then animal agriculture is responsible for 50% of climate change.  If the extra space would be kept as grass – setting aside the curious question of why – then animal agriculture causes only 20% of climate change.  Only 20%.  By way of comparison, all the world’s cars, trucks, and airplanes together cause less than 15% of climate change.  You can look at the appendix to We Are the Weather for an explanation of these numbers, or even glance at Donald Trump’s EPA website for some pie charts with identical information.)

The current administration has gutted the EPA, and compelled their staff scientists to restate their findings in the weakest ways possible … and these are the numbers still posted on their website.

If every gasoline-powered car was replaced with a hybrid vehicle – instantly, world-wide – greenhouse gas emissions would be about 96% of what they are currently.  If that was the only change we made, our planet would be toast.

If we all followed a social norm to eat food made from plants, greenhouse gas emissions could be 50% of what they are currently.  With no other changes, humanity would survive.  Our planet would remain habitable for our children, and our grandchildren.

Pleasure matters.  I’m an atheist, and I’m well aware that the eventual heat death of the universe means humanity will go extinct eventually.  I don’t believe you can make a viable philosophical argument for existence based on helpfulness or social connections alone – your life needs to be pleasurable, too.

Your life can be pleasurable without meat or cheese.  I support responsible hedonism.  Good food is a joy, but you can eat well while making only choices that protect our planet.  Most people think that sex is great fun, but we have a social norm that you should enjoy your sexuality only with other consenting adults.  Groping a beautiful stranger might be more fun than eating cheese – in our culture, a social norm restrains us. 

Well, most of us.

Foer wishes that we, as a people, could choose better.  He’s been struggling to eat food made from plants.  But he doesn’t struggle to restrain himself from murder, or theft, or groping his students.  In those instances, our social norms make it easy to do the right thing.

And you can still be a hedonist while eating plants!  If you’re ever in Chicago, you should stop by my dear friend Auntie Ferret’s vegan deep-dish pizza restaurant, or use Happy Cow to find a decadent plant-based restaurant near you.

Deep dish pizza, mac and cheese, nachos and more — all vegan at Kitchen 17.

Feature image by Neil Palmer / CIFOR on Flickr.

On the celebration of Neanderthals.

On the celebration of Neanderthals.

I am descended from the oppressors.  My ancestors ventured from their homeland with colonial aspirations and genocidal results.

It wasn’t my fault.  I wasn’t born yet!  But, having inherited vast privilege, some measure of responsibility from the misdeeds of my people surely falls upon my shoulders.

A hundred thousand years ago, several species of humans shared our planet.  My ancestors, who would give rise to contemporary Homo sapiens, mostly lived in Africa.  They differed from other primates in that their brains were larger, their posture more upright, their epidermis darker in hue, their verbal communication more nuanced.

During a period of climate change, my ancestors left their home.  The planet was warming; glaciers receded; Homo sapiens ventured north. 

One still-popular model for how Homo sapiens spread. Image by Altaileopard on Wikimedia Commons.

Europe was already populated by humans, people who had weathered the bitter cold through the waning ice age.  But my ancestors were undeterred.  They did not respect the old territorial boundaries.  Soon they supplanted the native peoples.  Every last one of the natives died.  Their people disappeared from the face of the earth, extinct.

Every time my ancestors ventured to a new land, the old inhabitants were killed.  Nearly all of our planet’s large animals are gone now; megafauna extinction is directly correlated with human migration

Image by Uweka on Wikimedia Commons.

If it’s any consolation, Homo sapiens were not the only perpetrators of these atrocities.  Every other human species – including those whom my ancestors harried to extinction – wrought similar devastation on their environments.

In this case, no reparations are possible.  The victims are dead; their families curtailed.  My ancestors’ misdeeds against them ceased, but only because there was no one left to harm.

But I can atone through remembrance.

And so, as a descendant of the oppressors, I felt a special sympathy toward the Neanderthal.  When I was in school, these humans were consistently described as brutish, uncouth, and unintelligent.  But I recognized that sort of language.  My people have almost always maligned supposed “others” – until we took the time to learn how smart they are, all non-human animals were imagined to be unthinking automata.  Pale-skinned Europeans claimed that intelligence – or even humanity itself – was inversely correlated with epidermal melanin concentration (by which measure Pan troglodytes would be more human than any Englishman). 

Forty years ago, medical doctors implied that men who felt a sexual attraction to men differed from their peers on a cellular level, as though the human immunodeficiency virus was sensitive to a psychological preference.  Even now, many medical doctors believe that people with higher amounts of epidermal melanin experience pain differently.

My people’s negative assessment of the Neanderthal, I figured, was probably not true.  Indeed, in recent years we’ve discovered that Neanderthals made art, that they probably had spoken languages … that they were like us.  Enough so that many humans living today carry Neanderthal DNA sequences in their genomes.

A Neanderthal model at Zagros Paleolithic Museum, Kermanshah.
Photograph by ICHTO on Wikimedia Commons.

Inspired by Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, a first-person perspective of the apocalypse wrought upon 11th century England, I began working on a story narrated by the last of the Neanderthal.

Stray scientific findings have revealed surprising details about Neanderthal life.  Young women often left their family tribe.  All people collaborated on hunts, regardless of gender.  Homo sapiens males would fool around with either Homo sapiens or Neanderthals; Neanderthal males rarely sired children with Homo sapiens.  After Homo sapiens arrived in Europe, they ate a lot of squirrels, but the Neanderthal declined to eat rodents.

These details seemed sufficient to evoke a world.

I was still working on this story during the 2016 presidential election.  But with our 45th openly praising white supremacists, I felt suddenly less inspired to celebrate the Neanderthal.  Many of the hate mongers were extolling the virtues of humans descended from northern Europeans, and, as it happens, these are the people who have the most abundant remnants of Neanderthal DNA in their genomes.

Genetics isn’t destiny.  And there haven’t been any correlations between Neanderthal DNA and intelligence; indeed, most of the genetic sequences that have been proposed to modulate intelligence are probably false.  Neanderthal DNA has been found to correlate only with an increased risk of depression and an increased susceptibility to allergies.

I began working on my Neanderthal story as an apology to the dispossessed, but I couldn’t bring myself to finish it in an environment where some individuals might tout their Neanderthal heritage as a mark of superiority.  As though their blood conferred the right to mistreat people from other backgrounds, or the right to so thoroughly ravage our planet’s atmosphere that other people’s homes are scorched or submerged beneath the sea.

Which seems shocking to me.  Quite recently, the Neanderthal were thoroughly impugned.  As though we could declare their kind to be undeserving of existence and thereby spare ourselves a reckoning for having killed them.

Now the contemporary oppressors herald the Neanderthal as a source of greatness.  Light-skinned warrior folk, beset by dark-skinned immigrants from the south.

Who would have thought?

Then again, I would not have expected Odin or Thor to become patron deities of U.S. white supremacists.  Nor that they might switch from beer to chugging milk as a display of inner fortitude.

Hate works in mysterious ways.

Someday, perhaps, in a kinder, gentler world, I’ll feel safe to write more stories featuring the Neanderthal. For now, I’ve set my draft aside.

Image by Chapendra on Flickr.

Featured image: the National Museum of Natural History. Image by Eden, Janine and Jim on Flickr.

On perspective.

On perspective.

In fantasy novels, trees walk upon their roots and battle with their limbs.  That makes sense to me.  If I think about two trees interacting, I consider the branches; the taller tree shades the other, limiting its competitor’s growth.

But my perspective is upside down.  Trees are standing on the sky, reaching for one another through the earth.  They listen underground.  They communicate down there, passing messages to one another, or even meals.

Picture from “The Wood Wide Web” on New Zealand Geographic.

Perhaps their branches grope for sunlight in the unconscious way that my kids’s feet seek warmth like homing missiles while they sleep.  I try to roll over only to find somebody’s toes wedged under my back.

Year by year, trees inch their feet toward the sun.  And their engaging social lives are hidden from me, buried underground.  My reflexive perspective gives me an inverted image of a tree’s world.

I’m surely not alone in this misunderstanding. 

We humans hold our heads high as we walk across the ground.  A major source of tension in human evolution was arranging our skeletons in such a way that we could walk upright without too many women dying in childbirth – our posture constrains the shape of the pelvis.

Although some species do exhibit dramatically different body morphs between males and females, it’s more common for evolutionary changes in one sex to diffusely alter the other.  Club-winged manakins have bones that are more dense than other birds, which makes them worse at flyingAll club-winged manakins fly poorly, male and female, even though only the males use their dense bones to produce mate-luring music.  Or consider the orgasms and nipples of Homo sapiens, which fulfill important biological purposes in one sex, and serve as a vestigial source of fun for the other.

In prehistoric times, men and women probably hunted together.  The evidence is especially compelling for human populations like the Neanderthal in southern Europe, who lived in such small groups that they would be unable to kill large prey without help from everyone in the group.  But even if prehistoric men had hunted alone, their upright stance and endurance running would have introduced an evolutionary pressure constricting the width of a human pelvis.

Our ancestors first descended from the trees to scavenge meat from lions’ kills.  Eventually, they began to hunt.  Their strategy was to exhaust and bewilder their prey, hoping to use the local geography to assist in each kill.  Mammoths were more likely to fall to their deaths than be slain by hurled spears; mounds of butchered bones accumulated at the base of particularly useful cliffs.

The high caloric density of cooked meat allowed our brains to expand … but the embrace of hunting also caused more women to die in childbirth.

And, less tragically, our upright posture distorts our understanding of the trees that once harbored our communities.  After all, we live in our heads.  It seemed sensible to us that the most interesting life of a tree would transpire in its loftiest branches.

Our biology doesn’t force us to view the world a certain way, but it dictates which perspectives are easiest to take.

Because our brains are story-generating organs, human cultures invariably see time as flowing uniformly in a single direction.  But for subatomic particles, time appears to be symmetrical; the Feynman diagram of an interaction would appear perfectly plausible progressing either forward or backward.

Only our universe’s progression toward greater entropy, i.e. randomness, seems to introduce a directionality for time’s arrow.  But there’s no a priori reason to expect a world to progress toward higher entropy.  This directionality seems to exist only because our particular universe happened to be in an unstable, low entropy state shortly after the Big Bang.

Image from ESA/Hubble.

Or so say most physicists.  From my perspective, I’m content assuming that the past is fixed but the future is mutable.  If I didn’t believe in that asymmetry – whether it’s real or not – I’d probably lapse into despair.

But, again, even if we accept that time is flowing, our perspective alters how we feel about that change.

Is the flow of time progress or decline?

Are a tree’s branches its hands or its feet?

In Indian mythology, time is cyclical, but within each cycle it flows toward corruption.  Time passes and the world grows worse.  Currently we are trapped within a Kali Age, the worst possible world, knowing that all the great heroes have passed.  We are just biding our time before the world can be destroyed and made good again.

After the sunder, time will once again cause that new world’s gleam to fade.  Nothing can stave off the encroach of rot.

In Judaism, the ancient sages lived longer than we do, and knew more, too.  At one point in time, a pair of humans were good: before long, we disobeyed the whims of God and were exiled from paradise.

In The Book of Shem, David Kishik writes that

To be original means to linger by the origin and insist on it.  The task is to avoid the progression toward a future or an end, and to stop the narrative before it develops any further.  In this sense, and in this sense only, the origin is a worthwhile goal.  Hence in Hebrew forward (kadima) is related to what is ancient (kadum), just as backward (achora) is linked to what is last (acharon).

Many humans want to reclaim the imagined glories of the past.

To make America great again, perhaps.

I personally think that many recent technological developments in our world are bad.  We’ve designed distracting, addicting telephones, and we’re putting them into the hands of children.  Our brains evolved to be extremely plastic, which let our species adapt to a wide variety of circumstances … but this neural plasticity allows exposure to fabulous, drug-like devices to dramatically alter our brains, probably for the worse.

And we’ve designed distracting, addicting advertising platforms – these siphon huge amounts of money away from productive industries, and the perverse economic incentives we’ve constructed allow these companies, alongside equally-unhelpful investment banks, to lure many of the most clever college graduates to their ranks.

But I’m certainly no Luddite, pining for a purer past.  The world was a terrible place for so many people.  Although I appreciate the thesis that Yuval Noah Harari presents in Sapiens – that the invention of agriculture made people’s lives worse than when all humans were hunters and gatherers – I see those grim millennia as akin to the hump in a chemical reaction, a transition that must be traversed in order to reach the desired products.

For generations, most people scraped out a miserable existence by subsistence farming.  Their lives were worse than their ancestors’.  But we, now, can feed so many people so easily that we could make our world into a paradise.

We’re not doing it, but we could.

At least we’re making baby steps toward a society in which people aren’t punished for their genetic background, or gender, or religious beliefs.  I mean, even in the United States we still treat women shabbily; across the country, racist police departments beleaguer Black citizens; atheists and Muslims are eyed with distrust.

But it used to be worse.

And, sure, even if we were the best of stewards, our planet would eventually be doomed.  Even if we don’t exhaust the resources here on Earth, the sun will run out of energy and bloat to engulf our world in a ball of fire.  Maybe that’s fine.  Death is a part of my life; perhaps I should look upon extinction as a natural part of humanity’s journey through time.

But it’s so cool to image people someday spreading amongst the stars.  I dream about the future.  And hope against hope – despite overpopulation, climate change, and all – that my children will find a better world than the one I’ve been living in.

Image by D Mitriy.

From my perspective, time will let us make the world better. 

Although it surely won’t happen on its own.  We will have to work to make it better.  The work might not be that hard.  Just live the way you would if the world were already the place it ought to be.

On ‘The Overstory.’

On ‘The Overstory.’

We delude ourselves into thinking that the pace of life has increased in recent years.  National news is made by the minute as politicians announce their plans via live-televised pronouncement or mass-audience short text message.  Office workers carry powerful computers into their bedrooms, continuing to work until moments before sleep.

But our frenzy doesn’t match the actual pace of the world.  There’s a universe of our own creation zipping by far faster than the reaction time of any organism that relies on voltage waves propagating along its ion channels.  Fortunes are made by shortening the length of fiberoptic cable between supercomputer clusters and the stock exchange, improving response times by fractions of a second.  “Practice makes perfect,” and one reason the new chess and Go algorithms are so much better than human players is that they’ve played lifetimes of games against themselves since their creation.

640px-IFA_2010_Internationale_Funkausstellung_Berlin_18We can frantically press buttons or swipe our fingers across touch screens, but humans will never keep up with the speed of the algorithms that recommend our entertainment, curate our news, eavesdrop on our conversations, guess at our sexual predilections, condemn us to prison

And then there’s the world.  The living things that have been inhabiting our planet for billions of years – the integrated ecosystems they create, the climates they shape.  The natural world continues to march at the same stately pace as ever.  Trees siphon carbon from the air as they grasp for the sun, then fall and rot and cause the Earth itself to grow.  A single tree might live for hundreds or thousands of years.  The forests in which they are enmeshed might develop a personality over millions.

Trees do not have a neural network.  But neither do neurons.  When simple components band together and communicate, the result can be striking.  And, as our own brains clearly show, conscious.  The bees clustering beneath a branch do not seem particularly clever by most of our metrics, but the hive as a whole responds intelligently to external pressures.  Although each individual has no idea what the others are doing, they function as a unit.

Your neurons probably don’t understand what they’re doing.  But they communicate to the others, and that wide network of communication is enough.

Root_of_a_TreeTrees talk.  Their roots intertwine – they send chemical communiques through symbiotic networks of fungal mycelia akin to telephones.

Trees talk slowly, by our standards.  But we’ve already proven to ourselves that intelligence could operate over many orders of temporal magnitude – silicon-based AI is much speedier than the chemical communiques sent from neuron to neuron within our own brains.  If a forest thought on a timescale of days, months, or years, would we humans even notice?  Our concerns were bound up in the minute by minute exigencies of hunting for food, finding mates, and trying not to be mauled by lions.  Now, they’re bound up in the exigencies of making money.  Selecting which TV show to stream.  Scoping the latest developments of a congressional race that will determine whether two more years pass without the slightest attempt made to avoid global famine.

In The Overstory, Richard Powers tries to frame this timescale conflict such that we Homo sapiens might finally understand.  Early on, he presents a summary of his own book; fractal-like, this single paragraph encapsulates the entire 500 pages (or rather, thousands of years) of heartbreak.

image (2)He still binges on old-school reading.  At night, he pores over mind-bending epics that reveal the true scandals of time and matter.  Sweeping tales of generational spaceship arks.  Domed cities like giant terrariums.  Histories that split and bifurcate into countless parallel quantum worlds.  There’s a story he’s waiting for, long before he comes across it.  When he finds it at last, it stays with him forever, although he’ll never be able to find it again, in any database.  Aliens land on Earth.  They’re little runts, as alien races go.  But they metabolize like there’s no tomorrow.  They zip around like swarms of gnats, too fast to see – so fast that Earth seconds seem to them like years.  To them, humans are nothing but sculptures of immobile meat.  The foreigners try to communicate, but there’s no reply.  Finding no signs of intelligent life, they tuck into the frozen statues and start curing them like so much jerky, for the long ride home.

Several times while reading The Overstory, I felt a flush of shame at the thought of how much I personally consume.  Which means, obviously, that Powers was doing his work well – I should feel ashamed.    We are alive, brilliantly beautifully alive, here on a magnificent, temperate planet.  But most of us spend too little time feeling awe and too much feeling want.  “What if there was more?” repeated so often that we’ve approached a clear precipice of forever having less.

In Fruitful Labor, Mike Madison (whose every word – including the rueful realization that young people today can’t reasonably expect to follow in his footsteps – seems to come from a place of earned wisdom and integrity, a distinct contrast from Thoreau’s Walden, in my opinion) asks us to:

image (3)Consider the case of a foolish youth who, at age 21, inherits a fortune that he spends so recklessly that, by the age of 30, the fortune is dissipated and he finds himself destitute.  This is more or less the situation of the human species.  We have inherited great wealth in several forms: historic solar energy, either recent sunlight stored as biomass, or ancient sunlight stored as fossil fuels; the great diversity of plants and animals, organized into robust ecosystems; ancient aquifers; and the earth’s soil, which is the basis for all terrestrial life.  We might mention a fifth form of inherited wealth – antibiotics, that magic against many diseases – which we are rendering ineffective through misuse.  Of these forms of wealth that we are spending so recklessly, fossil fuels are primary, because it is their energy that drives the destruction of the other assets.

What we have purchased with the expenditure of this inheritance is an increase in the human population of the planet far above what the carrying capacity would be without the use of fossil fuels.  This level of population cannot be sustained, and so must decline.  The decline could be gradual and relatively painless, as we see in Japan, where the death rate slightly exceeds the birth rate.  Or the decline could be sudden and catastrophic, with unimaginable grief and misery.

In this context, the value of increased energy efficiency is that it delays the inevitable reckoning; that is, it buys us time.  We could use this time wisely, to decrease our populations in the Japanese style, and to conserve our soil, water, and biological resources.  A slower pace of climate change could allow biological and ecological adaptations.  At the same time we could develop and enhance our uses of geothermal, nuclear, and solar energies, and change our habits to be less materialistic.  A darker option is to use the advantages of increased energy efficiency to increase the human population even further, ensuring increasing planetary poverty and an even more grievous demise.  History does not inspire optimism; nonetheless, the ethical imperative remains to farm as efficiently as one is able.

The tragic side of this situation is not so much the fate of the humans; we are a flawed species unable to make good use of the wisdom available to us, and we have earned our unhappy destiny by our foolishness.  It is the other species on the planet, whose destinies are tied to ours, that suffer a tragic outcome.

Any individual among us could protest that “It’s not my fault!”  The Koch brothers did not invent the internal combustion engine – for all their efforts to confine us to a track toward destitution and demise, they didn’t set us off in that direction.  And it’s not as though contemporary humans are unique in reshaping our environment into an inhospitable place, pushing ourselves toward extinction.

Heck, you could argue that trees brought this upon themselves.  Plants caused climate change long before there was a glimmer of a chance that animals like us might ever exist.  The atmosphere of the Earth was like a gas chamber, stifling hot and full of carbon dioxide.  But then plants grew and filled the air with oxygen.  Animals could evolve … leading one day to our own species, which now kills most types of plants to clear space for a select few monocultures.

As Homo sapiens spread across the globe, we rapidly caused the extinction of nearly all mega-fauna on every continent we reached.  On Easter Island, humans caused their own demise by killing every tree – in Collapse, Jared Diamond writes that our species’ inability to notice long-term, gradual change made the environmental devastation possible (indeed, the same phenomenon explains why people aren’t as upset as they should be about climate change today):

image (4)We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity. 

Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site.  Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. 

Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago.  Gradually, Easter Island’s trees became fewer, smaller, and less important.  At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance.  That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. 

No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.

512px-Richard_Powers_(author)Throughout The Overstory, Powers summarizes research demonstrating all the ways that a forest is different from – more than – a collection of trees.  It’s like comparing a functioning brain with neuronal cells grown in a petri dish.  But we have cut down nearly all our world’s forests.  We can console ourselves that we still allow some trees to grow – timber crops to ensure that we’ll still have lumber for all those homes we’re building – but we’re close to losing forests without ever knowing quite what they are.

Powers is furious, and wants for you to change your life.

You’re a psychologist,” Mimi says to the recruit.  “How do we convince people that we’re right?”

The newest Cascadian [a group of environmentalists-cum-ecoterrorists / freedom fighters] takes the bait.  “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind.  The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

On the sounds of aberrant ecosystems

On the sounds of aberrant ecosystems

When I was ten years old, I read about a new card game, Magic, in the local newspaper. The article described the basic conceit of the game – you are a wizard who must conquer territory to power your spells – and a few of the cards – the article mentioned Giant Growth, which it said “is just a big rat.”

squeeI was enthralled. It took about a year of searching before I found a place to buy cards, but eventually the local hobby shop would siphon away all my babysitting money.

My favorite card was Squee – a goblin who keeps returning from the dead. Squee was pretty powerful when combined with Survival of the Fittest, which lets you trade your weak creatures for more powerful monsters, and Goblin Bombardment, which lets you fling creatures at your enemies. But I loved Squee disproportionately to his power. This little monster, swimming in his robes, is blessed with infinite renewal … just like humanity’s original misconception of nature.

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Before the industrial revolution, no single generation could change the world enough to prove this notion wrong. Humans cut down trees, but there are so many trees and more grow all the time. Humans wash their clothes or defecate in the river, but new clean water flows. Humans hunt game and catch fish, but – as long as you make a god-placating sacrifice every now and then – there will always be more animals to eat.

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Jared Diamond remarks upon our inability to notice slow changes in Collapse, his (tragically relevant) account of the factors that cause civilizations to die:

collapseI suspect that landscape amnesia provided part of the answer to my UCLA students’ question, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say as he was doing it?” We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity. Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site. Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago. Gradually, Easter Island’s trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance. That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.

It probably took several generations before trees were expunged from Easter Island. As Homo sapiens migrated into Europe, the Americas, and Australia, most large animals were driven to extinction, including all other species of humans. The Homo sapiens involved probably had no idea what they were doing. Each generation would see some decline in the abundance of an animal, but nothing to worry about. The last few deaths would occur among a people who had no idea what was lost.

Moby_Dick_p510_illustrationIn Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the narrator considers whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.

The narrator promptly dismisses this fear. Yes, buffalo were driven to extinction in America, but only because a single man could slaughter thousands. At that time, the concerted efforts of many were needed to kill each whale.

Even so, the whales seemed to be disappearing. But the narrator – so obsessed with the hunt that he hardly notices when he’s deluding himself – rejects the evidence:

10838762315_69b85f2e8a_zAnd equally fallacious seems the conceit, that because the so-called whale-bone whales no longer haunt many grounds in former years abounding with them, hence that species also is declining. For they are only being driven from promontory to cape; and if one coast is no longer enlivened with their jets, then, be sure, some other and remoter strand has been very recently startled by the unfamiliar spectacle.

Sperm whale populations plummeted. Gestation lasts over a year; mothers care for their young for a decade; males sexually mature at eighteen and aren’t fully grown until their fifties. They could not reproduce as quickly as we could kill them.

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Most whales are extremely social, and communicate in ways that humans don’t yet understand. Their songs show signs of local culture, as do their hunting strategies. Those centuries of “harvest” may have caused several dialects or languages to be lost.

Sperm whale populations have since recovered. But several other species of whale are endangered. Our discarded plastics waft through the sea. The waters are becoming sufficiently acidic to kill off coral reefs.

The ocean is not nearly so infinite as we humans once thought it to be.

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Recently, technological progress has become so fast that the world changes noticeably within single generations. For tens of thousands of years, each human’s life resembled that of the parents. Even after some humans developed an agrarian lifestyle and began curating the evolution of favored plants and animals, the world changed slowly. Over many generations, Zea mays went from a useless scruffy grass to buxom-kernaled ears of corn. But, over the course of any single farmer’s life, the corn gnawed during senescence could probably be mistaken for the corn of youth.

Whereas my grandmother’s cellphone / camera / computer combo looks radically different from any of the bulky, ineffectual devices available when she was young. And my parents’ generation – whose lives spanned the development of modern agricultural practices – has seen a precipitous fall in all non-human animal life. In The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy describes this decline:

The_Moth_Snowstorm_for_web_df271fb2-a6f7-4703-9f9a-23ea2dbb7f70_1024x1024It had been the most powerful of all the manifestations of abundance, this blizzard of insects in the headlights of cars, this curious side effect of technology, this revelatory view of the natural world which was only made possible with the invention of the motor vehicle. It was extraordinary; yet even more extraordinary was the fact that it had ceased to exist. Its disappearance spoke unchallengeably of a completely unregarded but catastrophic crash in Britain of the invertebrate life which is at the basis of so much else. South Korea may have destroyed Saemangeum, and China may have destroyed its dolphin, but my own country has wrecked a destruction which is just as egregious; in my lifetime, in a process that began in the year I was born, in this great and merciless thinning, it has obliterated half its living things, even though the national consciousness does not register it yet. That has been my fate as a baby boomer: not just to belong to the most privileged generation which ever walked the earth, but, as we can at last see now, to have my life parallel the destruction of the wondrous abundance of nature that still persisted in my childhood, the abundance which sang like nothing else of the force and energy of life and could be witnessed in so many ways, but most strikingly of all in the astonishing summer night display in the headlight beams, which is no more.

Cleaning splattered bugs off a windshield doesn’t sound like fun; drivers rarely have to do this anymore. But … we now have only a tenth as many insects as we did during the 1980s. Which means a tenth as much food for birds: their populations are falling too. Birds breed more slowly now, for lack of food, and many are killed off because our world sports unnaturally high population densities of predatory cats.

And that’s just the decline since 1989. Over the course of McCarthy’s life, insect populations may have fallen by 95% or more. And, because of the “landscape amnesia” described by Diamond above, it’s difficult for anyone born later to even realize what’s been lost. We assume that whatever world we’ve been born into is normal.

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Last night, Uncle Max woke me to go outside at 3 a.m. Afterward, I lay in bed listening to the birds singing.

Fewer birds sang at night when I was growing up. But they are adapting to our world. Our streetlights shine all the time, and our cities, during the day, are so loud that their songs cannot be heard. Humanity’s persistent racket is infiltrating even the most secluded corners of the world.

From Ula Chrobak’s article on noise pollution:

noiseSome plants need silence for seed dispersal—revving cars can scare away rodents that might otherwise do the job. Animals need silence to hear predators approaching or to communicate with their mates: A bird whose song would normally travel 100 meters would, with a 10-fold increase in noise, have its melody stifled to a 10-meter radius. “In so many landscapes, both people and other organisms are living in shrunken perceptual worlds,” says [ecologist] Clinton Francis.

In The Songs of Trees, David Haskell describes the way our forests should sound – the natural world has its own rhythms, its own music. In the following passage he listens in the Amazon:

songsoftreesA tinamou sings the forest’s vespers. Although this turkey-size relative of the emu is seldom seen, its melodies accent every dusk. The sound is the work of a silversmith, pure tones that the artist melts and crafts into ornament. The inflections and timbre of the Andean quena flute are surely inspired by the songs of these birds. In the understory the dark is comprehensive, but here in the ceibo crown, dusk lingers another thirty minutes, the orange gray western light of sunset reaching us unobstructed as we hear the tinamou’s song.

As the light drains, bromeliad frogs spasm chuckles and grunts from aerial ponds. They call for five or more minutes, then cut to silence. Any sound will set them off again: a stray frog call, a human voice, the bleat of a roosting bird trodden by a companion. Three species of owl join the frogs. Crested owls punch regular groans from below, keeping in touch with mates, neighbors, and the youngster that the pair have hidden in the low branches of an Inga tree. The spectacled owl’s repeated low, rubbery calls wobble around their crooked axis like a badly aligned tire. A distant tawny screech owl sings a high to-to-to-to, an endless, jabbing ellipsis. Insects pulse high drills, clear, sweeping chirps, saws, and tinkles. Monkeys and parrots whose sounds dominate the day have dozed away. The upper leaves of the ceibo chuff in the sharp gusts that accompany the sunset, then the wind eases and stillness comes to the tree.

But these forests, too, are threatened. The ancient trees are cut down and the music wanes. One after another, pockets of nature are forgetting how to speak. Again from Haskell:

In the center of town, Quichua men in suits work with and within the local government. The central, national government hurts and kills the ceibo mother tree, cutting her away piece by piece. Even conservation programs encourage people to cut away the trees. We lose our medicines and hunting. State-driven conservation erodes the indigenous community. Without intact territory, owned and managed by the indigenous community, the forest falls into incoherence, the community dies.

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The evidence of harm is all around us. Our world sounds wrong, tastes wrong, smells wrong. We’re scraping too few bugs off our windshields after long drives.

And, if we don’t act, our children won’t feel that they need to. A hot, loud planet will feel just as normal to them as the planet we inherited felt to us.

On post-apocalyptic historical fiction (and Neanderthals).

On post-apocalyptic historical fiction (and Neanderthals).

At 9 p.m. on a chilly night in January 2016, I pulled on my winter coat, asked K once more whether she thought my plan was too foolish, then trundled out to the front yard to sleep in the grass.  I pulled my arms close and lay there for several hours, uncomfortable and shivering, but failed to fall asleep.  A few college students walked by; I don’t think they noticed me.  Cars passed, blitzing my eyes with headlights.

Around midnight, I gave up.  I stiffly rose, limped inside, sloughed off my coat and clothes, then crawled into a warm, soft bed in our dark, quiet, safe room.  I quickly fell asleep.

I’d learned, again, that I am very blessed to have a home.  Sleeping shelter-less in wintertime is awful.  And a whole lot of people have to do it.

But that’s not why I was outside.  I was writing a short story about one of the last Neanderthals and wanted to know more about what my protagonist’s nights might have been like.  She lived in Europe approximately 40,000 years ago, a time when Europe was much chillier than it is now.  She might not have felt so shivery at night – Neanderthals were perfectly capable of building campfires – but much of her life would’ve been marked by cold.

Fewer blinding headlights, though.

ice_age_fauna_of_northern_spain_-_mauricio_anton

And more megafauna, creatures like mammoths, bears, lions, and wolves.  More birds.  More trees, sometimes – the Neanderthal clung to a tenuous existence, both individually and as a species, because of climate instability.  During that era, Europe fluctuated between woodlands and plains as temperatures rose or plunged.

Then Homo sapiens migrated north and the Neanderthal went extinct.  Murdered, starved of resources, passively outbred… we’re not sure.  Even the least violent extinction would’ve felt heartbreaking to the final victims, though.
I began work on this story because I’d read Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake and kept thinking that he’d struck upon a fascinating genre: post-apocalyptic historical fiction.

Donald Trump Trump Alzheimers Warning DementiaOur civilization might fall.  So many countries have nuclear weapons; an erratic narcissist has access to our button.  A few degrees of warming and our food crops might die.  Many of those crops are grown as single species across wide swaths of land: a particularly virulent insect or virus might wipe them out instead.  Humans live so densely now, and travel so often: a virus might wipe us out, too.  Or a bacterium resistant to our squandered antibiotics.

These horrors are grimly fascinating to read and think about: I enjoyed Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Jose Saramago’s Blindness.  When we fall, we might fall hard.

CaptureOther cultures have.  The Mayans, the Easter Islanders, the Roman empire, the pre-Norman Invasion English.

And, of course, the Neanderthals.  Their language, and religion, and entire species was swept into extinction.

But there has been a recent boom in our understanding of Neanderthals.  I assume you know about Moore’s law, the rapid rate of doubling in the number of transistors that can be added to a computer chip, which has resulted in a massive drop in the cost of processing power.  What you may not know about – you’d have no reason to unless you work in bioscience or diagnostic medicine – is that even Moore’s law is dwarfed by the astronomical rate of change in the number of DNA nucleobases that can be sequenced per dollar.  Experiments that would have been exorbitantly expensive a few years ago are now routine.

It astounds me that archaeologists can recover any Neanderthal DNA from their dig sites.  But they can.  From tiny scrapings, they can sequence genomes.  And so we’ve learned, for instance, that males probably stayed in their tribe as they aged but the female children would depart.  This gave me an incentive to write about a female protagonist – she would’ve been away from her family, searching for a new tribe – which is a fun twist on the post-apocalyptic genre.

sapiens_neanderthal_comparison

Post-apocalyptic fiction typically features male protagonists because female characters evoke the possibility of rebirth (one of the few exceptions I know is David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress; Markson toys with this idea by having his protagonist make repeated reference to menstruation), but in the case of Neanderthals I think a female hero is appropriate.  Neanderthals lost the world, but before departing interbred with Homo sapiens enough times that many modern humans still carry vestiges of Neanderthal genome in their DNA.

Comparisons between Neanderthal DNA sequenced from archaeological scrapings and the genomes of contemporary humans reveal that we occasionally interbred.  Many different species of humans mated from time to time in the ancient world; some contemporary Homo sapiens still carry genes from each.

nytmag
This was a great recent read.

People who carry a hypoxia transcription factor from the now-extinct Denisovans seem better suited for life at high altitudes.  People who carry a spritzing of Neanderthal genes seem especially susceptible to allergies and depression.  Perhaps Neanderthal DNA conferred some benefits, too.  Neanderthals seem to have been stronger, and had better eyesight, than Homo sapiens, but it’s not clear if genes for these traits remain.

The most speculative element of my story is the religion I gave to the Neanderthal protagonist.  We’ve found no compelling evidence of Neanderthal writing or art, but this isn’t terribly surprising.  After all, we’ve found very little artwork made by Homo sapiens during that time period, and they (we?) were some ten-fold more abundant.  So I’d say that it’s reasonable to suspect that Neanderthal had language, and other “symbolic” behavior like religious belief, even though we have no evidence.

Of course, that same lack of evidence makes it impossible to know what they would’ve believed in.  But that’s okay.  Scientists cleave to the truth; writers get to make things up.

The religion I gave my protagonist does fit the scanty evidence we have, though.  For instance, some Neanderthal practiced cannibalism.  Knife marks on the bones show that they butchered the corpses of their own kind in the same manner as other oft-eaten animals.

We also know that, although both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens consumed a mix of meats and vegetables, Homo sapiens ate many small species.  Squirrels, rats, and the like.  Neanderthals, however, seem to have eaten exclusively large animals.  This is particularly striking because Homo sapiens often obtained more calories from the meat of small animals than large game.  The Neanderthal, with their superior eyesight, would’ve been better at spotting these critters than Homo sapiens were.

hvalsey_churchSo I imagined a religious taboo.  Religious food taboos are prevalent among modern human cultures, even in cases where the taboo seems highly detrimental to health.  Perhaps the best-known example is the religious proscription against eating fish among the Norse who settled Greenland.  Excluding fish from their diet made a large contribution to their culture’s demise, whereas the fish-eating Inuit living nearby survived.

It’s probably very easy to believe in spirits during an ice age, since you’d see your own manifest in wisps with every exhalation.  And so I let my Neanderthal protagonist believe that these spirits lived on in her own self.  In her mind, a clamor of souls takes up residence within her body, burgeoning whenever she eats meat.

If eating also meant ingesting a soul, a Neanderthal might consume only those strong, powerful creatures she wished to emulate.  She might eat her own fallen friends, hoping to keep them forever near.

squirrel_posingAt times she’d surely espy Homo sapiens eating squirrels, but the Neanderthal might conclude that these pusillanimous dietary choices contributed to the scrawny physiques and skittish behavior (always living in such large tribes!  And, throwing spears from a fearful distance!) of those interlopers.

But we will never know… because, around the time those Homo sapiens interlopers arrived, the Neanderthals all died.

The Neanderthal extinction may not have been their (our) fault.  After all, the climate was changing.  Other large species went extinct or vanished from these regions during the same period.  Or, even if the Neanderthal extinction was caused by Homo sapiens, it might not have meant outright war, murder with rocks and spears.  Perhaps competition for food or safe shelter drove the Neanderthal to death…

But that’s not how we humans have usually treated ancestral inhabitants when we embark on a new frontier.  The historical record is replete with examples of methodical, knowing slaughter.  There is only so much world to go around, and natural selection has no reason to favor those who share.

And yet.  We purport to be thinking, reasoning creatures.  We can be better than our genes.