Mark continues his attempt to make sense of the world for his grandson – and for himself. Theo has just celebrated his first birthday.
Here’s a three-question quiz for you.
Question One: Name the deadliest, most destructive animal species that our poor beleaguered planet has had the misfortune to encounter?
No prizes: because you’re not stumped, are you? Not even for a second.
The answer, of course, is us; you and me, man, Homo sapiens.
We all know the damage we are capable of, that we have done, that we continue to do. We see it around us every day; we read about every new man-made catastrophe in the newspapers; we witness apocalyptic visions in television documentaries.
War; famine; entire species hunted or driven to extinction; eco-systems destroyed; pollution; deforestation; global warming – we have much to answer for.
And, in truth, we always have.
Because, just in case you are tempted to believe that that our capacity for devastation is recent, perhaps a phenomenon of the industrial age, let me disabuse you.
The truth is, I’m afraid, that we’ve been at it for the past forty-five thousand years.
Yes, forty-five thousand years.
Throughout that time, we humans have been consistently wreaking the most terrible havoc – not only on ourselves but on very nearly every species on the planet and, of course, to the ecosystems that support them, and ultimately to the planet itself.
We may be doing it faster now – more terrifyingly efficiently, if you like – but it’s been like it pretty much from the beginning; from the time man first began his inexorable spread across the globe.
According to archaeologists, it started in Australia.
No one quite knows how we first got there, but get there we did. The theory is that over the course of thousands of years, fishing communities began to develop in the Indonesian archipelago. As they became more expert, and as their boat technology improved, they travelled ever longer distances. Finally they found their way across the ocean to Australia.
In his remarkable book, Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari has this to say about it:
‘The journey of the first humans to Australia is one of the most important events in history … The moment the first hunter-gatherer set foot on an Australian beach was the moment that Homo sapiens climbed to the top rung in the food chain on a particular landmass and thereafter became the deadliest species in the annals of planet Earth.’
Before our arrival, Australia had evolved to be an exotic land; a land of giants. A two-and-a-half ton wombat (a diprotodon) roamed the forests; flightless birds twice the size of ostriches plodded across the plains; dragon-like lizards and snakes five metres long crashed through the undergrowth. All of these wonderful lumbering giants had been co-existing more or less peaceably for two million years or more.
We soon put a stop to that.
Because within just a few thousand years of those first few men disembarking groggily from their primitive boats, we’d managed to drive them all to extinction. A large number of smaller species also disappeared. Food chains throughout the entire Australian ecosystem were broken.
The same thing happened wherever we spread.
In the settling of America, for example, we encountered mammoths, rodents the size of bears, oversized lions and – my personal favourite – giant ground sloths that weighed eight tons and reached nearly twenty feet (six metres) high.
Within a couple of thousand years, all of them had gone.
Harari again: ‘Were the Australian extinction an isolated event, we could grant humans the benefit of the doubt. But the historical record makes Homo sapiens look like an ecological serial killer.’
As it began, so it continued.
And, as we all know, we are still at it.
But that’s only half of the subject I want to address today.
So, back to the quiz.
Question Two: Name the animal species that lives, works and cooperates most successfully and harmoniously with its own kind.
‘Ants!’ I hear you cry.
No, not ants.
Let me put you out of your misery: it’s us again. Good old sapiens.
It might not feel that harmonious in a world riven by religious, political, economic and social divides. But, despite all the conflict, no other species comes near us.
We began humbly enough – living together in isolated bands of maybe a hundred or so – but we have come together over time in ever greater numbers.
In 10,000 B.C. the total population of our planet numbered no more than eight million. Now, more than eight million people live in London alone.
And in global terms, London is small beer. Some twenty-four million people live in Shanghai; almost the same number in Karachi; twenty-two million in Beijing; seventeen million in Delhi and in Lagos.
And the fact is that more we have come together like this, the more extraordinary we have become.
Living, learning, working together, we have tamed fire; we have developed agricultural systems capable of feeding an ever-expanding population; we’ve learned to communicate in the spoken and in the written word; we have created great literature, great art, great music; we’ve developed vaccines, eradicated diseases; mastered flight, created the internet, put a man on the moon, mapped the human genome.
I could go on. And on.
It truly is extraordinary.
There are problems; of course, there are.
Cities, towns – even villages – are not always safe. People living together do not always do so peacefully: there’s crime and wrong-doing. There are eruptions of violence, either from disaffected individuals or from groups of people who feel disadvantaged, excluded. But, in the great scale and scheme of things, amongst a population so vast, these are remarkably few and far between.
For the most part we manage to co-exist. We find ways of accommodating those around us; we show tolerance, concern and respect.
You only have to travel to work in a city to see examples of such cooperation in action.
Every day in that great purposeful morning rush of humanity, we somehow manage to give each other space. We wait our turn, form orderly queues. And along the way we encounter countless tiny acts of kindness – a seat being given up, a door being held open. If someone stumbles, we will check to see if they are okay. If something is dropped, a stranger will pick it up, hand it back.
Not every person acts in this way – very occasionally someone will push, shove, be aggressive. But everyone notices him (more often than not it is a ‘him’, I’m afraid) because such behaviour is so out of the ordinary. It breaks the unwritten rules of cooperation we all work to.
You will pass a thousand people in a crowded street and perhaps only one person will behave like this.
One in a thousand.
Fewer than that probably.
As for the rest, we get by; we manage. It may largely be done with grim forbearance, it might be unsmiling – after all, there is much to endure – but we do it.
Such cooperation is our greatest strength.
And it should be what gives us our greatest hope. This ability to work together, to adapt, to find solutions.
Which makes the answer to Question One all the more perplexing. Because it’s the same thing that makes us extraordinary that makes us so deadly: we are only dangerous and destructive because of our ability to cooperate.
Back in the beginning when the world was younger, alone in the wild we didn’t stand a chance. We could be ripped apart in seconds by a lion, a chimpanzee. Even my giant sloth would have merely raised a lethargic eyebrow at the approach of a single human.
But together our destructive power is almost without limit.
We can hunt in bands of hundreds. We can build armies that number tens of thousands. We can co-operate across the world to build nuclear warheads.
And, of course, it’s not just in our deliberate hostile intent that we are deadly – we are arguably even more so in the unintended consequences of our rapacious onward march. We pollute. We devastate our environment. We lay waste.
So that’s the conundrum: we are strong, creative and extraordinary because we are together and because we are together we destroy.
Which brings me to Question Three?
And it’s the hardest and the most urgent of all.
Because what we need to know is which will finally prove the stronger? Our ability to create – or our capacity to destroy?
Will we find ways of healing the wounds we inflict on other species and on the planet itself? Or will we keep going with our trail of devastation?
This is hardly a question for your first birthday, Theo. But perhaps, when you have had sixty more of them and are as old as I am now, perhaps when you have grandchildren of your own, we may be closer to an answer.
I hope we are. If not, it may just be too late.
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