Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Clive Finlayson - The Humans Who Went Extinct, Why Neanderthals died out and we survived

Why the world is dominated by us and not Neanderthals, is a surprisingly complex question. Traditionally, we've been given an image of Neanderthals as lumbering idiots, not capable of withstanding the superior brain power and agility of our own ancestors. The reality is of course, far more complex.

The fossil records doesn't show any evidence that Neanderthals were ruthlessly displaced by our ancestors. What it does show, is that Neanderthal society was surprisingly complex, lasted (in the case of a small group in Gibraltar) as recently as 28,000 years ago. These were tool makers and hunters, not the stupid brutes portrayed in countless cartoons.

This is a fascinating look at our own peculiar history - how we developed, how tools transformed our ability to survive, but also occasionally limited our ability to adapt. The surprising role of climate change in getting us to were we are now is clearly explained.

Finlayson looks at why the Neanderthals went extinct and we didn't. There is every evidence that our ancestors and Neanderthals lived close together at the same time, though no evidence that they interbreed. Certainly they would have encountered each other while hunting or moving to different scavenging grounds.

So what happened to the Neanderthals? At a time of extremely primitive technology, environmental changes would have forced great changes upon human societies. In particular, the favoured hunting grounds of the Neanderthals, where areas where small tree coverage allowed for "ambush hunting". A colder climate forced the trees back, reducing areas available for hunting.

Alternate periods of warming and cooling would repeatedly isolate and then reunite populations. Obviously, some populations might not survive the changes, and the process would gradually reduce the overall population.

Luck has played a great hand in our own evolution. While some populations of our ancestors would have died out, a combination of luck, further developed bodies and the development of better technologies, as well as a wider global spread helped us survive.

Ruminating further on what survival means, Finlayson sees worrying parallels with today's changing planet. However he also points out, that it is all too easy to think that we are were we are today, because we are the product of "successful genes". Our genes are successful, only in the sense that we have made it to this point. "There were many highly successful lineages that went extinct because their luck ran out - the Neanderthals and other populations of proto-Ancestors among them".

More of the branches of our ancestral tree vanished than survived. It is only a small fraction of human existence on the planet since the development of agriculture, the point that fundamentally changed us. In that time, Finlayson argues we've lost contact with our biological heritage. There is a mismatch he argues, between our current methods of organising our lives, and the biology that evolved over millions of years.

In a sense I agree. This is close to the argument that Marxists put about a "metabolic rift" - that we have become alienated from the natural world that we are utterly dependent on. But there is a danger with Finlayson's argument - that we are simply the products of our biology. We have a unique ability to transform the world around us. At the moment, the present society we have created threatens to undermine the very ecology that is the basis for life on this planet. But we do also have in our power to transform our way of organising society and avoiding the fate of the Neanderthals.

Related Reviews

Mithen - After the Ice, A Global Human History

Buy it here.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Francis Pryor - Britain AD: A Quest for Arthur, England and the Anglo-Saxons

In the simplistic view of British History, there was a brief period around 2000 years ago of stability, civilisation and prosperity with the arrival of the Romans. Either side of these few centuries was chaos, poverty and war.

In particular, the departure of the Roman's we are led to believe led to the collapse of civilisation followed by the brutal arrival of the Anglo Saxons. These Saxon's pushed aside the natives and established themselves as the new British. From such noble stock are the current denizens of this island descended.

Francis Pryor's book, which might loosely form the middle part of a trilogy, sets out to argue that this view of history is nonsense. Partly his argument is common sense. Why, with the departure of the Roman's would people simply abandon the towns and cities they had lived in, and disappear back into an earlier mode of existence?

Instead, Pryor argues persuasively that reality was very different. Firstly he explains that the Roman invasion actually impacted very little on the vast bulk of the population. Most people continued to farm as they had done, with perhaps better goods or more variety of items being available in the local market. This is explained in terms of the archaeological record by the continuity that the remains show. There aren't a series of breaks as the Roman's arrive and then leave in most places. Even in the new towns, there is often continuity between pre-Roman and Roman buildings.

A similar process takes place as the Roman's leave. Most places are left relatively undisturbed with minor changes - in particular coins vanish as the Roman market disappears. Bartering would have returned. The most common archaeological remains - pots - revert to simpler and local designs.

It should be pointed out that these aren't just Francis Pryor's ideas. He quotes numerous other archaeologists to back up his case and builds an extensive case. Here he summarises a fellow archaeologist, Dr. Richard Reece;

"He [Reece] sees no evidence for chaos or social collapse, because communities were resuming a pattern of life that had not died out and that was already well-established prior to the Roman interlude."

Following the Roman departure, there simply wasn't an Anglo-Saxon invasion. Certainly there was an Anglo-Saxon influence. But this wasn't out of the ordinary. There must have been trading networks, as well as other contacts between people living on the British Islands and the Continent for thousands of years. Pryor shows that the evidence for an Anglo-Saxon invasion is more in the minds of chroniclers and their more modern followers, than in the archaeological record.

There are numerous examples. Perhaps the most interesting is that from a farming point of view there is a great continuation of farming methods from before Roman times to more recent eras. A series of invasions by a new people, that displaced the earlier inhabitants, would have led to a change in the pollen records. Instead, either any invaders immediately learnt traditional methods of crop growing, or they didn't exist.

Pryor's is a easy to follow account. Despite the book's subtitle, there is little in here about King Arthur. The evidence for this individual is very limited. More likely King Arthur was a propaganda figure, invented for the interests of a particular elite - elements of his story tie in with much longer established myths and traditions and it's not uncommon for those trying to establish legitimacy to add existing legends to their own newer tales.

Francis Pryor's version of British history is less exciting that the one that we are used too. There are less invasions and populations often stay in one place, quietly farming for dozens of generations. Yet it is clearly a more believable history - one which puts ordinary people at the heart of things for the last two thousand years.

Related Reviews

Pryor - Britain BC
Pryor - Britain in the Middle Ages

Thursday, October 15, 2009

John Bellamy Foster - The Ecological Revolution, Making Peace with the Planet

No one has done more than John Bellamy Foster over recent years to reassert an ecological aspect to Karl Marx's thought. In a series of books, Foster has explored the ecological core of Marx's thought and used this to develop a devastating critique of capitalism and its relationship to the natural world.

In an earlier work Marx's Ecology, Foster explored the origins of Marx's materialism to argue that Marxism had far more to offer the ecological movement than many would give credit for. Further books, The Vulnerable Planet and Ecology Against Capitalism have developed these arguments further.

This latest book, is perhaps best seen as the coming together of much of Foster's previous work. It summarises much of his earlier work and adds some new material. Foster shows how both Marx and Engels were enthused by leading scientists of the day, in particular, the German soil chemist, Justus von Liebig, who were developing a critique of industrial agriculture.

At the time there was a growing crisis in agriculture, due to the removal of essential nutrients as food was taken to the towns and cities. Marx took this starting point and using the concept of species metabolism, came up the theory of "metabolic rift". For Marx, human metabolism was human Labour. Hence Capitalism, by increasingly separats human society from nature, through a process of production that alienates and isolates the worker. This creates a "rift" between society and what helps make us human - our ability to shape the natural world. This rift, could only be healed by creating a new world based on a sustainable relationship with the environment.

This idea that capitalism, through it's methods of organising production, it's short term, irrational, un-planned nature, is what is destroying the planet is a thread that runs through the book. For Foster, what is important is that this understanding can help shape the types of movement that can create and alternative to capitalism.

There are some problems. The book's origin in other works means that it needed better editing. Several quotations are repeated verbatim, as are several key ideas (notably the explanation of Liebig's importance to Marx, which we read about at least five times).

This is minor though, a more important criticism, is that Foster ignores the opportunity to present a more rounded argument about what a democratically planned economy might look like. In the face of those who argue planning isn't possible, or can only end up like the bureaucratic East European states, it is a major opposition.

Foster instead offers us some isolated "islands of hope" - localised practices in Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia which he suggests show the potential for sustainable society. He himself recognises that these islands exist in a hostile sea - a capitalist world that only organises production for profit. So in a way this argument is undermined by the rest of the book.

These criticisms aside, Foster's reassertion of the centrality of revolutionary change in order to save the planet is one that must not be lost on a new generation of socialist activists, engaging and building an environmental movement for the 21st Century.

Related Reviews

Foster - Ecology Against Capitalism
Foster - The Vulnerable Planet
Monthly Review - Ecology, Moment of Truth

Further resources

There is an audio file of John Bellamy Foster discussing the 21st Century Environmental Revolution at Marxism 2008 available here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Antoine de Saint Exupéry - Wind, Sand and Stars

This memoir by one of France's most important writers recounts a series of disjointed episodes from his life as an aviator. Flying mail across the Andes and the Sahara, he discusses comradeship, fear and excitement and ruminates on what makes us human.

It's a beautiful poetic work. Pick it up at random and there will be the most elegant description or piece of philosophical prose. Here's a paragraph that jumped out at me for instance

"To be a man is, precisely, to be responsible. It is to know shame at the sight of poverty which is not of our making. It is to be proud of a victory won by our comrades. It is to feel, as we place our stone, that we are contributing to the building of the world."

The climax of the book, is the story of a plane crash that he and his co-pilot survive in the Sahara and their miraculous escape. It's mirrored by an earlier story of the crash in the Andes of one of his closest friends. In both stories, indeed, running through the whole work is the concept of comradeship. Clearly for this writer, as demonstrated in the quote above, what makes us human is our bonds with others.

Antoine de Saint Exupéry was writing at a time when to be a pilot was to be an adventurer. When aeroplanes still made people stand and stare. When the opening up of mail routes transformed continents.

To fly then was to rely utterly on a few close comrades and your own internal strength. This experience wasn't just an adventure for the author, it was a life-affirming action, something that shaped his life. The book reflects this passion, making it a powerful and emotional read.