On hubris and climate change.

On hubris and climate change.

Recently, a local science teacher sent me an essay written by a climate change skeptic.

Well, okay. I figured that I could skim the essay, look over the data, and briefly explain what the author’s errors were. After all, it’s really important to help teachers understand this topic, because they’re training our next generation of citizens.

And I thought to myself, how hard can this be? After all, I’m a scientist. I felt unconcerned that I’ve never read research papers about climate science before, and that it’s been years since I’ve worked through the sort of differential equations you need for even basic fluid mechanics calculations, and that I’ve never run any simulations on oceanic heat transfer or glacier melting.


Since then, I’ve read a fair bit about climate science. I’ll be honest: I didn’t go through the math. All I did was read the papers and look over the processed data.

This is lazy, I know. I’m sorry. But my kids are at home. At the moment, this is the best I’ve got.


Prominent climate change skeptic Richard Lindzen, an emeritus professor of meteorology, recently delivered a lecture to the Global Warming Policy Foundation. I wholeheartedly agreed with Lindzen when he stressed that the science behind climate change is really, really complicated.

Former senator and Secretary of State John F. Kerry is typical when he stated, with reference to greenhouse warming, ‘I know sometimes I can remember from when I was in high school and college, some aspects of chemistry or physics can be tough. But this is not tough. This is simple. Kids at the earliest age can understand this.’

As you have seen, the greenhouse effect is not all that simple. Only remarkably brilliant kids would understand it. Given Kerry’s subsequent description of climate and its underlying physics, it was clear that he was not up to the task.


Climate science is tricky. In a moment, I’ll try to explain why it’s so tricky.

When people make predictions about what’s going to happen if the average global temperature rises by half a degree – or one degree, or two – their predictions are probably incorrect.

My assumption that I could skim through somebody’s essay and breezily explain away the errors was incredibly arrogant. I was a fool, I tell you! A fool!

But my arrogance pales in comparison to the hubris of climate change skeptics. Once I started learning about climate science, I realized how maddeningly difficult it is.

Lindzen, who should know better, has instead made brash claims:

So there you have it. An implausible conjecture backed by false evidence and repeated incessantly has become politically correct ‘knowledge,’ and is used to promote the overturn of industrial civilization. What we will be leaving our grandchildren is not a planet damaged by industrial progress, but a record of unfathomable silliness as well as a landscape degraded by rusting wind farms and decaying solar panel arrays.

There is at least one positive aspect to the present situation. None of the proposed policies will have much impact on greenhouse gases. Thus we will continue to benefit from the one thing that can be clearly attributed to elevated carbon dioxide: namely, its effective role as a plant fertilizer, and reducer of the drought vulnerability of plants.

Meanwhile, the IPCC is claiming that we need to prevent another 0.5ºC of warming, although the 1ºC that has occurred so far has been accompanied by the greatest increase in human welfare in history.


So. What aspects of climate science can we understand, and what’s too hard?

Let’s start with the easy stuff. Our planet gets energy from the sun. The sun is a giant ball of thermonuclear fire, spewing electromagnetic radiation. When these photons reach Earth, they’re relatively high energy – with wavelengths mostly in the visible spectrum – and they’re all traveling in the same direction.

What we do – “we” here referring to all the inhabitants of our planet, including the rocks and plants and other animals and us – is absorb a small number of well-organized, high-energy photons, and then release a larger number of ill-organized, low-energy photons. This is favorable according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. We’re making chaos.

And here’s the greenhouse effect: if the high-energy photons from the sun can pass through our atmosphere, but then the low-energy photons that we release get absorbed, we (as a planet) will retain more of the sun’s energy. Our planet heats up.


And, in defense of former senator John Kerry, this is something that a kid can understand. My children are four and six, and this summer we’re going to build a solar oven out of a pane of glass and a cardboard box. (After all, we need stuff to do while all the camps are closed.)

If we fill our air with more carbon dioxide, which lets the sun’s high-energy photons in but then won’t let our low-energy photons out, the planet should heat up, right? What’s the hard part?

Well, the problem – the reason why climate science is too difficult for humans to predict, even with the most powerful computers at our command – is that there are many feedback loops involved.

Some of these are “negative feedback loops” – although atmospheric carbon dioxide causes us to absorb more energy from the sun, various mechanisms can buffer us from a rise in temperature. For example, warm air can hold more water vapor, leading to more cloud formation, which will reflect more sunlight back into space. If the sun’s high-energy photons can’t reach us, the warming stops.

And some are “positive feedback loops” – as we absorb extra energy from the sun, which causes the planet to heat up a little, various mechanisms can cause us to absorb even more energy in the future, and then the planet will heat up a lot. This may be what happened on Venus. The planet Venus may have been habitable, a long long time ago, but then runaway climate change led to the formation of a thick layer of smog, and now it’s broiling, with sulfuric acid drizzling from the sky.

On Earth, an example of a positive feedback loop would be the melting of polar ice caps. As polar ice melts, it reflects less light, so our planet absorbs more of the sun’s energy. Heat made the ice melt in the first place, but then, once the ice has melted, we heat up even more.

And it turns out that there are a huge number of different positive and negative feedback loops. After all, our planet is really big!

For instance, the essay I was sent included graphs of ice core data suggesting that, in the ancient past, changes in average global temperatures may have preceded changes in the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Frank Brown Cloud holding demo ice core.
Holding a demo ice core like my spouse uses in her classroom. The real ones drilled from glaciers are several miles long! I haven’t spent enough time at the gym to lift those.

But this is just another feedback loop. In the past, there was no mechanism for carbon dioxide to pour into our atmosphere before temperatures rose – dinosaurs didn’t invent internal combustion engines. This is the first time on Earth when carbon dioxide levels could rise before temperatures, and we don’t know yet what the effect will be.

Extra carbon dioxide will probably cause an increase in temperature, but a planet’s climate is really complicated. We have huge quantities of poorly mixed water (otherwise known as oceans). Our topography is jagged, interspersed with valleys and mountains. There are huge forests (only some of which are on fire). The air is turbulent.

We might find that temperatures are buffered more than we thought. The ocean might act like a giant heat sink.

Or then again, the ocean might warm up, accelerate polar ice loss by lapping at the undersides of glaciers, and magnify the changes.

The mathematics underlying fluid mechanics and heat transfer within an enormous, inhomogeneous system are so complex that it’s almost impossible to say. Nobody knows how much detail you’d need to put into a simulation to get accurate results – all we know for sure is that we can’t simulate the world with as much detail as actually exists. All our models are approximations. Some of them contradict each other.

With my admittedly limited understanding, I don’t think anybody knows enough to assert with confidence whether our climate will exhibit either buffered or switch-like behavior. Maybe we can muck about without hurting much. Or we might bring about our own doom with a tiny mistake.


Our planet’s climate is so complex that you could make a similar argument – we really don’t know whether we’re going to be buffered from future changes, or whether we’re at the precipice of doom – no matter what evidence we obtain.

Maybe sea levels start rising – well, perhaps that will somehow reduce the further heating of our planet. Maybe we get more horrible tropical storms – well, perhaps they’re linked to a greater density of sunlight-reflecting clouds.

Maybe things seem to be changing fast for a little while, but then we enter another stable state.

Or, insidiously, maybe it will seem like we’re in a well-buffered system – pumping large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere without seeing much harm – until, suddenly, we tip over the edge. We often see that sort of behavior from positive feedback loops. Nothing seems to happen, for a while, then everything changes at once. That’s how cooperative binding of oxygen to hemoglobin works in your body.

Another problem is that climate change will probably happen on a very different rhythm from our lives. Weather happens on timescales that we can understand. A decade of droughts. Two years of tropical storms. A few hard winters, or hot summers. But climate happens over hundreds or thousands of years. Most of the time, it changes more slowly than we’d notice.

A two degree shift in average global temperatures, spread out over a few decades? That’s bad, but it’s boring. Which was the main focus of Jonathan Safran Foer’s We Are the Weather.

History not only makes a good story in retrospect; good stories become history. With regard to the fate of our planet – which is also the fate of our species – that is a profound problem. As the marine biologist and filmmaker Randy Olson put it, “Climate is quite possibly the most boring subject the science world has ever had to present to the public.”

Climate science doesn’t fit our culture. Especially not now, when the pressures of surveillance capitalism have forced even the New York Times to run like an advertising company. They earn more from news that gets clicks. Stories need to be sensational. Yes, they run stories about climate change. For these, the polar bears need to be dying, now, and there needs to be an evil villain like Exon lurking in the shadows.

Nobody wants to click on a story explaining that we, collectively, have made and are making a whole lot of small shabby decisions that will cause grizzly bears and polar bears to re-mix and de-speciate.

I got bored even typing that sentence.


Life is incredibly robust.

Our planet has swung through many extremes of temperature. At times, it’s been much hotter than it is now. At times, it was much colder. And life has marched on.

The human species is much less robust than life itself, though. Our kind has flourished for only a brief twinkling of time, during which our climate has been quite stable and mild. A small change could drive us to extinction. An even smaller change could cause our nations to collapse.

Disrupt our food supply – which could happen with just a few years of bad weather, let alone climate change – and there will be war.


So. I tried to learn about climate change, focusing on the work of skeptics. And in the end, I partly agreed with the skeptics:

I agree that climate science is too complicated for anyone to understand.

I appreciate that people are trying. I had fun learning about ice cores, atmospheric modeling, energy absorption, and the like. Well, sometimes I was having fun. I also gave myself several headaches along the way. But also, my kids were being wild. They’ve been home from school for three months now! I was probably on the precipice of headaches before I even began.

Here’s where I disagree with the skeptics, though: given that climate science is too complicated for us to understand – and given that we know that small changes in average temperature can make the world a much worse place to live – why would be blithely continue to perturb our climate in an unprecedented way?

Maybe things will be fine. Yay buffers! Or maybe we’ll reduce the carrying capacity of the planet Earth from a few billion humans to a few million, dooming most of our kind.

I know, I know – eventually our universe will dwindle into heat death, so our species is terminal anyway. We will go extinct. It’s guaranteed.

I still think it would be neat if our great-great-grandchilden were out there among the stars. At least for a little while.

Or even, if they stay here on Earth, it’s nice to imagine them living on a comfortable planet with lots of beautiful trees, and interesting animals to see.


Also, I’m biased.

After all, what are the things that you’re supposed to do if you want to reduce your carbon emissions?

Eat fewer animal products. Live in a smaller home. Drive less. Fly less. Buy less stuff.

Those are all things that I’d recommend to most Americans, for ethical and philosophical reasons, even if we weren’t concerned about climate change. So for me, personally, I don’t need to see much proof that we’ll ruin our climate unless we do these things. I think we should be doing them anyway.

Instead, I think the burden of proof should fall to the people hawking Big Macs. I’d want them to show that a world full of CAFO-raised cows won’t cause climate change, won’t propagate antibiotic resistant bacteria, won’t condemn billions of conscious beings to a torturous existence.

The world is complex. We’re going to err.

I’d rather err on the side of kindness.

On the Golden Record.

On the Golden Record.

I have yet to master the art of pillow talk.  The other night, after my spouse and I turned off our bedside reading lights — at a time when a more reasonable soul might murmur a sultry something or whisper sweet dreams — I said:

“The Golden Record was a terrible idea!”

Apropos of nothing!  Seriously, what is wrong with my brain?

Luckily, instead of sighing, or pretending to be asleep (as a normal person might have done), my spouse continued the conversation.

“What, Carl Sagan’s?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It’s terrible.”

“Well, nobody’s going to find it, but that’s not really the point.”

My spouse was alluding to the fact that our universe is really, really big.  We launched the Golden Record aboard the Voyager spacecraft in 1972, and it has traveled something like 13 billion miles since then.

13 billion miles sounds pretty impressive!  But miles are not very practical units for describing outer space.  13 billion miles is the same distance as 0.002 light years.  Our galaxy is a flat disc of stars, approximately 1,000 light years  thick and 100,000 light years across.  Compared to those distances, the Golden Record may as well still be here on Earth.

And it’s not as though finding the Golden Record would be the easiest way for an extraterrestrial intelligence to learn of our existence.  The Golden Record is traveling slowly and is trapped inside a small spacecraft.  Our television and radio broadcasts move much faster, and they’ve been radiating in a ever-growing sphere for decades.

Still, I argued.

“They probably won’t find it, but isn’t it a bad idea to send a message that you are hoping won’t be found?  Either no one sees it, and so it’s a waste, or else they do find it, and that’s worse, because then we’re doomed … “


“Right?  I mean, maybe it’s silly to extrapolate from human history to predict what an alien species might do.  But in human history … in prehistory, even … it seems like every time a voyaging people found a stationary culture, it ended in disaster for the people who weren’t traveling.”

“Every time?”

Homo sapiens traveled north and found the Neanderthal.  The Neanderthal died.  We traveled east and found the Denisovians.  Denisovians died.  Chinese people displaced the native Taiwanese, Europeans wrecked havoc all through North and South America.”

Given that it was bedtime, and all our lights were off, I definitely shouldn’t have been raising my voice. 

“About the only example I can think of where the voyagers were eventually driven away was the Vikings in Greenland.  Inuits lived there before, during, and after some twenty generations of Viking occupation.  But, really, the Inuits won through luck.  The Vikings pretty much refused to eat fish.  Hmm, we’re big strong Vikings, we eat sheep!  Well, Greenland’s not for grazing, so the sheep all died, and then the Vikings starved.  Not that they had to.  They could’ve switched to eating fish, just like their neighbors.  But they were too proud.  And then dead.”

My bedtime tirade wasn’t an accurate description of the Inuit diet – a lot of their calories came from seals and whales, which are generally considered less palatable than fish, and also rather more difficult to catch.

In recent years, some archaeologists have begun to argue that it wasn’t the Vikings’ fault that they all died.  I’m sure it’s sheer coincidence that many of these contemporary Viking apologists are of vaguely Norse descent.  Their theory is the Greenland Vikings had a stable civilization but were doomed by climate change. A huge volcano erupted half the world away — the whole planet cooled. Life was miserable for everyone. Greenland’s Vikings were abandoned by the mainland, which meant they lost their major trading partner. 

These archaeologists claim that small farmers switched their diet early on, and that only the wealthiest of Greenland’s Vikings continued to raise cows and sheep until the end.

In any case, the Vikings died.  Their conquest failed.  But other times, voyagers brought devastation to stationary cultures.

The movie Independence Day had it wrong.  The encounter wouldn’t have ended with Homo sapiens celebrating.  If an extraterrestrial species was so technologically advanced that they could reach our planet, they would simply extract whatever resources they needed before moving along to harvest yet another insufficiently advanced world.

We should expect extraterrestrials to show the same forbearance toward us that a chimpanzee shows toward ants – chimpanzees are more clever than ants, and chimps use sticks to dig up anthills for food.  Homo sapiens are more clever than chimpanzees, and we’ve harried chimps to extinction, cutting down their forests because we wanted wood.

An extraterrestrial species that was able to travel to our planet within a single individual’s lifetime would be more clever than us, and if they needed to extract something from our world, we’d be powerless to stop them.

“But the Golden Record was never really about aliens,” my spouse said.  “It was about us.  Whether we would change, if we knew we might have guests.”

That makes sense – given that my spouse and I are always exhausted, our home fluctuates between live-ably messy and an absolute disaster depending on how long it’s been since we’ve had grown-up friends over. 

“If the goal is togetherness, though,” I said, “aren’t there better ways?  Especially since a lot of people don’t even know about the Golden Record.”

“I still teach about it!”

“Yeah, but I mentioned the Golden Record in jail, and nobody knew what I was talking about.  And, even then, is that the best we can do?  The tiny chance of visitors sometime in the next few billion years?  I mean, shouldn’t we be working on climate change, a global wealth tax, guaranteed basic income, wealth transfers to preserve natural wonders like the Serengeti or the Amazon Rain Forest?”

“Sure, I like having the Rain Forest.”

The Amazon rain forest. Image by the Center for International Forestry Research on Flickr.

“So we should pay for it!  But, right, I think those plans would do more than launching a recording of laughter.  And none of those plans has the risk that we’d lure the cause of our own extinction.”

My spouse sighed.  “Don’t we have a rule about not talking about human extinction at bedtime?”

“Do we?  I thought it was just that I couldn’t talk about thermodynamic heat death of the universe.”

“No, it was more than that.  No collapse of civilization as we know it, no heat death, nothing about the lifespan of our star.  Not right when I’m trying to fall asleep.”


“It’s okay.  I still love you.  I just wish you hadn’t said all that at bedtime.”

“Well, I wish they hadn’t launched the Golden Record.”

It’s true that the risk is low.  But why risk the Earth’s destruction at all when there are better plans available?

That’s what I was thinking while I fell asleep.  As it happens, I wound up answering my own question.  One virtue of the Golden Record is that it invites us to imagine Earth being destroyed – marauding aliens could learn our address and then come to stamp us out.

That’s a sad thought.  So perhaps we should do what we can to protect the Earth.  And not just from those unlikely marauders – maybe we should protect Earth from ourselves.

Otherwise we, as an entire species, will seem far more foolish than Greenland’s Vikings.  Hmm, we’re big strong Americans, we eat sheep!  We fly airplane, we buy new big screen TV, we stream video from satellite!

What can you say about a people who refuse to change their culture in the face of absolute calamity?

On Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘We Are the Weather.’

On Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘We Are the Weather.’

The choices we’re making might cause everyone to die.

That’s kind of sad.  I like being alive, and I like the thought that other humans might be alive even after I am gone. 

Some people – the original Millennials, for instance – prefer to imagine that the world would end when their world ends.  But for those of us who feel that helping others adds to the meaning of our lives, it’s more satisfying to imagine humanity’s continued existence.  Each good deed is like a wave, rippling outward, causing people to be a little kinder to others in turn. 

These waves of kindness can’t last forever – our universe began with a finite quantity of order, which we use up in order to live – but they could persist for a very long time.  Humans could have many billions of years with which to colonize the stars.

Unless we go extinct sooner.  Which we might.  We’re destabilizing the climate of the only habitable planet we know.

Venus used to be habitable.  We humans could’ve flown there and set up a colony.  But a blip of excess greenhouse gas triggered runaway climate change.  Now Venus has no liquid water.  Instead, the planet is covered in thick smog.  Sulfuric acid rains from the sky.

I would rather we not doom Earth to the same fate.

There are things you can do to help.  In We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer lists the (abundant!) evidence that animal agriculture is the leading cause of climate change.

You should still turn off the lights when you leave a room.  If you can walk to the park instead of driving, do it!  Every effort you make to waste less energy is worthwhile!

But it helps to take stock of the numbers.  If everyone with a conventional automobile could suddenly exchange it for a hybrid vehicle, we’d still be emitting 96% as much greenhouse gas.  If everyone decided to eliminate animal products from their diet, we’d be emitting 50% as much.

Switching to hybrid vehicles wouldn’t save us.  Deciding to eat plant-based foods would.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to make this switch.  Not least because the peril we’ve placed ourselves in doesn’t feel compelling.  It’s like the difference between venus flytraps and pitcher plants.  With a venus flytrap, you can see the exact moment that a bug is doomed.  Those spikey mandibles close and that’s the end!  When a bug lands on a pitcher plant, though, its fate is sealed well before the moment when it finally topples into the digestive water.  The lip of a pitcher plant is sloped and slippery; the actual boundary between life and death is unnoticeable.

Because climate change will be exacerbated by so many feedback loops, by the time we see the precipice it’ll be too late.

In Foer’s words,

The chief threat to human life – the overlapping emergencies of ever-stronger superstorms and rising seas, more severe droughts and declining water supplies, increasingly large ocean dead zones, massive noxious-insect outbreaks, and the daily disappearance of forests and species – is, for most people, not a good story. 

When the planetary crisis matters to us at all, it has the quality of a war being fought over there.  We are aware of the existential stakes and the urgency, but even when we know that a war for our survival is raging, we don’t feel immersed in it.  That distance between awareness and feeling can make it very difficult for even thoughtful and politically engaged people – people who want to act – to act.

History not only makes a good story in retrospect; good stories become history.  With regard to the fate of our planet – which is also the fate of our species – that is a profound problem.  As the marine biologist and filmmaker Randy Olson put it, “Climate is quite possibly the most boring subject the science world has ever had to present to the public.”

I like that Foer tries to wring empathy from this dull story.  He writes about his personal struggles to be good.  If it were necessary to blow hot air from a hairdryer into a small child’s face each time we bought a cheeseburger, few people would buy them.  But it’s more difficult to restrain ourselves when we instead know vaguely – rationally, unemotionally – that each cheeseburger we buy will exacerbate the hot air – and floods, and droughts, and malaria – that children will one day have to bear.

Our brains are good at understanding cause and effect when they are closely linked in time and space.  Push a button, hear a sound!  Even babies understand how to work a toy piano.  Even my ill behaved dogs know better than to misbehave in front of me (chew the pillow, get shut in bathroom).

My dogs struggle when an effect comes long after the initial cause.  Furtively chew a pillow, get shut in bathroom several days later, once the human finally discovers evidence?  That’s not compelling for my dogs.  The punishment is too long delayed to dissuade them from mastication.

Buy a cheeseburger today – make our children’s children’s children go hungry from global crop failure.  That’s not compelling.  Our brains can’t easily process that story.

We can understand it, but we can’t feel it.

And that’s the message of Foer’s book.  How can we – collaboratively – create a world in which it’s easy to do the right thing?  How can we make cheeseburgers feel bad?

An intellectual understanding – cheeseburgers requires farms with cows, cows emit methane, cows take space, farmers destroy forests to make space, cheeseburgers cause climate change – isn’t enough to create that feeling.  Climate change is too dull a story.

Even worse, climate change isn’t even the most boring story to tell about our extinction.  In We Are the Weather – an entire book in which Foer castigates himself for contributing to harms that will befall his descendants some 100 to 200 years in the future (because that’s when climate change will get really bad) – Foer doesn’t even mention that he’s also causing harms that will befall his descendants 30 to 60 years in the future.

Even though these nearer term harms are equally calamitous.  Even though these nearer term harms are just as definitively known to be caused by cheeseburgers.

Climate change is dull.  Antibiotic resistance is even more dull.

It’s pretty bad when something is more boring than talking about the weather.

Most farmed animals are constantly given low doses of antibiotics. As it happens, this is exactly the protocol you’d use for a directed evolution experiment if you were trying to make antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

There’s an old story about a king, Mithridates, whose father was assassinated with poison.  Mithridates trained his body with exposure to low doses of poison so that he would be able to survive higher doses. 

It was a clever strategy.  We’re helping bacteria do the same thing.

Our world will be nightmarishly different once antibiotics stop working.  My own children are three and five years old.  They’ve gotten infections that we needed to treat with antibiotics about a dozen times.  Two weeks of taking the pink stuff and my kids got better.

In a world with antibiotic resistant bacteria – which we are creating through animal agriculture – any of those dozen infections could have killed my kids. 

You should watch the New York Times video about antibiotic resistance.  By 2050, it’s likely that more people will die from antibiotic resistant bacterial infections than from cancer.

Click the image to head to the NYT movie — well worth it.

Huge quantities of money are being spent to develop new anti-cancer drugs – new ways for elderly people to stave off time.  Meanwhile, it’s not just that we spend so little developing antibiotics.  We are actively making these drugs worse.

Antibiotic resistance isn’t a compelling story, though.  To feel a connection between a cheeseburger and your someday grandkid dying in bed, feverish and septic, you’d have to understand the biochemistry of lateral gene transfer, DNA replication, mutation, drug metabolism.  You’d need to be able to see in your mind’s eye the conditions that farmed animals are raised in.

And, honestly?  People who can vividly picture a concentrated animal feeding operation or slaughterhouse probably aren’t the ones buying cheeseburgers.

But if the world doesn’t change, their grandkids will die too.



Featured image: Everglades National Park by B. Call.

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 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.


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.


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.

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.