I am watching the Science Channel right now; it’s a special on Neanderthals (particularly interesting considering I’m reading Galapagos).
It’s now believed that, contrary to past assumptions, Neanderthals were not the slow-witted brutes they are usually portrayed as. On the contrary, their brains were probably larger than ours, not smaller, although their bodies were stockier and built for power, not speed. They ate a lot of meat, and hunted in close proximity to their prey, using thick, heavy spears to track animals in forested areas.
As the planet warmed up, the forests became thinner and a new species emerged: modern man. We were built different from Neanderthals; our bodies were lighter, more agile, and better suited for hunting on the plains. We had smaller brains but lighter, swifter tools - projectile spears that flew farther and faster than Neanderthal's clumsy weapons.
The Neanderthals could have watched modern man, even adopted their weapons and hunting strategies, but in the end, they would have faced a dismal truth: they were simply not built for survival in this brave new world. They had evolved themselves into a corner, and “as their habitat collapsed around them, so did they.”
It was not the superiority of modern man that wiped out a brutish, lesser animal. The environment changed, and the Neanderthals were incapable of adapting to change with it.
After watching this episode, I am struck by its relevance to our current state of affairs. Many articles have said, with a kind of pity, “It will be the Third World that suffers most from climate change and oil depletion,” as if it is they who are the Neanderthals, not us. In fact, I think it is the First World that will find it difficult to adapt to a new way of life.
Our tools - our Hummers, our fast-food diet, our addiction to plastic - these are the clumsy, heavy spears that will evolve us into a corner. The Third World - so accustomed to surviving without these “modern conveniences” - may be disappointed to hear that the riches promised by the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions are an empty harvest, but they will survive long after the First World has drained the last drop of petroleum from the last well on Earth.
In this brave new world, we must see the bigger picture if we want to ensure our long-term survival. We cannot stubbornly rely on unsustainable technologies, ignoring the laws of Nature. The Earth is, as Bucky Fuller so aptly put it, like a spaceship, and it behooves us to pay attention to the direction we’re headed on it.