If we were to assume the role of advocate for the biosphere, we should have to concede that what evolution most requires of us now is to ignore the warnings on the current environmental package and continue to behave as we always have. Should we falter in our rate of economic and technological progress we might jeopardise the nice swift end to the human plague that is now being signalled by the soaring extinction rate and the rapid carbonisation of the atmosphere.
Unfortunately, our perspective of the road that that led us to this population precipice is hopelessly distorted by our narrow perception of time. Limited as we are by our own birth and death and the narrow span of existence that lies between, it is hard enough to imagine the passage of a thousand years, let alone a million. A billion is out of the question. It is therefore worth taking a moment or two to look at evolution and the emergence of our species against the larger perspective of geologic time, but in terms that we can more readily comprehend. The unit of time that most intimately governs our lives is the time the planet takes to complete one revolution about its polar axis—the 24-hour day. If we overlay Earth’s existence on this scale and plot the milestones of its evolution against these 24 hours, we’ll have a much better idea of the proportional time involved. For example, if we accept that Earth coalesces in the first few minutes of this day, then life’s earliest trace fossils (the North Pole stromatolites), appearing with what has been described as indecent haste, show up just before 6 a.m.. By contrast, the first multicelled organisms do not appear in the fossil record until about 9 p.m. on the scale, making it immediately obvious that the real miracle of life lies not in creation but in cooperation.
According to this 24-hour chronology, the first habitually upright apes did not begin to leave their footprints on East Africa’s dusty plains until the last minute before midnight, true humans emerged some twenty seconds later, and fully modern humans only made their appearance during the last four seconds of that final minute. It is an astonishingly brief existence for a species that, in full plague mode, now dominates the planet so completely that it has savagely eroded the environmental conditions that underpin its own survival.
So here we stand, at midnight, all 6.9 billion of us huddled together upon our small bank and shoal of time, with sea levels rising and an environmental storm gathering about us. The fate of our species hangs in the balance, and our fate will be decided within the next millisecond on our evolutionary stopwatch.
Evolution‘s Wild Card
Could we have changed anything in the past? Let’s review those last fifty-five seconds and turn the clock back to the point when our apeish primogenitor, a smallish hominid of chimpanzee stock, is trying to adapt itself to life on the drying plains of eastern Africa. A slowing of its maturation rate, and some minor modification to its brain—accompanied by rigorous Darwinian selection—is about to turn that hapless ape into an evolutionary wild card, an animal with little face value but almost limitless potential. In physical terms, however, this transformation will be bought at exorbitant cost. During those protracted evolutionary negotiations, our ancestors will be forced to surrender most of their original assets—thick body hair, long fighting teeth, and a great deal of strength and agility. These are very serious losses, only marginally offset by the retention of some useful odds and ends such as good stereoscopic vision, a pair of very mobile shoulder joints, and extraordinarily flexible hands. With an ice age looming, it is as if evolution is saying, “Come in chimp number three, your time is up.”
Even this primate’s new features appear to be little more than cosmetic. They include a more versatile vocal sac, a fully erect stance, a prolonged childhood, and a semi-continuous sex life—nothing that initially seems to contribute to ice-age survival. But concealed inside the bulging, misshapen skull of this fairly dismal package, there lies a solitary, glistening weapon, the like of which has never before been unleashed on this planet. In its general design the human brain differs little from that of the australopithecine. It is much larger, though, and the surface area is four times that of the australopithecine brain. This cortical enlargement, and the massively expanded neuronal circuitry that accompanies it, allows our predecessor to file, retrieve, and compare an astonishing volume of data. Perhaps most important, this enlargement has laid the neuronal foundations for the development of complex language, technology, and abstract thought.
In outward appearance, though, what a bizarre creature this is. Of great-ape stock, yet slow, puny, and nearly hairless, rather like an overgrown juvenile. Here is a prime candidate for the evolutionary scrap heap. And yet here also is the most dangerous animal of all—an armed fanatic. A “non-specific” species, with no external weapons or defenses, yet a creature that seems to thrive on hardship despite its physical inadequacy. Here at last is the consummate survivor, the very paragon of animals.
When evolution launched its human prototype some 2.5 million years ago, the hominid family tree possessed three or four branches. By 1 million years ago (about 20 seconds to midnight on our twenty-four scale) only a meat-eating species, our ancestors, remained. These hominids had not merely survived, however. Living and hunting in cooperative packs of twenty to forty individuals, they had already dispersed half way around the world, swiftly establishing themselves as the top predator wherever they went. Their achievement is all the more remarkable when we remember that this venturesome hominid, Homo erectus, migrated from the drying plains of Africa into cool northern forests around 2 million years ago—just as the ice age unleashed its first major assault on the temperate zones of the world. Armed with nothing more than sticks and stones, a little cunning, and a crucial streak of mystical madness, this extraordinary species gradually learned that by hunting in well-disciplined cooperative groups they could, with the aid of careful planning and a touch of fanaticism, bring down such formidable prey as the woolly mammoth, the sabre-toothed “tiger” and the woolly rhinoceros. No wonder our genes still display the same magic blend of mysticism, cooperation, and technological competence that carried them safely through those hazardous early years. The question then arises: If those genes saved our hard-pressed Homo erectus ancestors, might they not rescue us now in much the same fashion?
I would argue that they may, but only in the sense that they will probably save us from total extinction. Unlike the first environmental assault on our species, the present one is primarily anthropogenic and represents a biospheric backlash against our overwhelming success as a species. In anthropocentric terms this assault is directly aimed at us, and so the very best technological defences we can muster may well prove much less effective than the sticks and stones of our ancestors. This time it is human technology itself that lies at the core of the problem. It gobbles too much energy. We are thereby pitted against the full weight of the world’s biospheric machinery, and to make matters worse, the carefully tailored mythologies that used to sustain us now handicap us with misconceptions that seem sure to sink us. To our peril we cling to the following beliefs:
- Humans have spiritual autonomy and are therefore accountable for their actions.
- The environment is inherently stable, and will rebound if we give it half a chance.
- Most environmental damage is the product of human ignorance, greed, and technological malpractice, and is therefore repairable.
- Human ingenuity and technology can solve most environmental problems and repair most environmental damage, if given enough time, money, education, and political will.
- We will survive, just as we always have, by drawing on our unique ingenuity, resourcefulness, and indomitable spirit.
By contrast, the facts are as follows:
- We are genetically driven just like any other animal. We have no mind other than the body, and we lack behavioral choice.
- The environment is a Chaotic system and is therefore inherently unstable and always has been. If it were not so, evolution could not have occurred. Rebound is not characteristic of the system.
- Most environmental damage is the inevitable by-product of over-population, and is a necessary part of the plague cycle.
- The environmental problems we now face do not have a technological solution. There is no such thing as a technological solution. All human activity—”good” and “bad”—adds to our environmental debt. The more technological the attempted solution, the greater our environmental debt (Impact = Population x Activity x Technology).
- The plague cycle is a vital component of the evolutionary process and an essential evolutionary escape clause in the case of a fertile, high-impact species like Homo sapiens.
Handicapped as we are by such monumental misconceptions, we are likely to discover that the endgame is rigged beyond redemption.
The Global Mousetrap
To be effective, a good mousetrap must incorporate a delay mechanism. The mouse must be given enough time to insert its body fully into the trap before the mechanism is triggered and the trap closes. There are two separate delay mechanisms operating on behalf of the global mousetrap. The primary source of delay is simply the size and complexity of most of the Earth’s biological and geochemical cycles. Having raised the volume of atmospheric carbon by a third we should not expect the carbon cycle to adjust itself for at least another century or so—even if our greenhouse gas emissions were to cease immediately. Similarly the oceans of the world, covering some 71% of the planet’s surface, contribute a massive thermal inertia that will absorb and conceal for decades most of the heat energy that is currently being retained by the carbon loaded atmosphere.
Species decline is also slow to begin, difficult to measure, and impossible to stop. The removal of one or two key species in a fragile environment may lead to the extinction of a large number of dependent species, and those losses in turn trigger other extinctions, producing a cascade of losses that may continue for centuries. Neither are the losses confined to the biological kingdom in which they began, but may cross from plants to animals and back again, perhaps many times.
The second delay mechanism lies buried in our own brains. It is genetically based and resides first in our tribal nature and second in the seductive power of language. In the unkindest cut of all, Broca’s area that plays Brutus to our Caesar, distracting us with fantasies while the fatal thrust of evolutionary retribution finds its mark. One need only read the daily papers and watch the television newscasts to see the form this lethal diversion takes. What most readily claims our attention and occupies our minds is the behavior of other human beings, not the loss of species, the carbonisation of the atmosphere or the galloping degradation of the world’s most productive land. We prefer our threats to be mystical and our monsters two-faced.
Meanwhile the trap itself is on a hair trigger. The mechanism is microbial and very well concealed. It is constructed from the shadowy second arm of the bacterial tree of life, the archaebacteria. These organisms commonly discharge methane, the most potent of the main greenhouse gases and they tend to flourish in oxygen-free environments such as tropical swamps, peat bogs, and the permafrost of northern tundra regions. Should global temperatures continue to rise, the massive reserves of tundra methane will be unleashed and monsoon rains and rising sea levels will turn the world’s tropical lowlands into methane-loaded swamps. The environmental repercussions that would follow would solve the population problem in just a decade or two. Frozen lakes in Siberia are even now releasing methane that has been locked in their icy muds for the past 27,000 years. 
We will remain oblivious to these threats, however, and like the other great apes continue to pursue the same old pastimes that have always preoccupied us: sex, crime, war, sport, and politics. Besides, even the gaudiest of fantasies may now be realised thanks to the wonders of digitised imaging, and all documentary images are consequently suspect and devalued.
Mystics of all kinds are now free to run amok on a global scale and the coming environmental backlash will provide all the ‘proof’ they need.
Scaling the Peak
The obsessive urge to mysticise many of our perceptions is a mechanism that is eminently suited to its final function. All it must do is ensure that we continue with our political, and spiritual enterprises, in which case we will pass the population peak and slip into uncontrolled collapse before we even know it. As the naive mythologies of economic rationalism tighten their grip on Western political thought and a tidal wave of industrialisation sweeps through the populous nations of eastern Asia, the prospect of a global consumer culture based on technology and rampant consumption looms ever nearer. Thus virtually guaranteeing that the human plague will continue uninterrupted until it reaches its natural climax in the middle of the twenty first century.
According to the demographics of other plague-prone mammals, the rate of population collapse customarily matches the explosive growth that produced it. The biosphere is an impartial arbiter, and physically maladapted as we are, there is certainly no reason for us to expect special dispensation. If our plague does indeed match the traditional plague graph, our decline will mirror our explosive growth, and the population will halve itself twice in less than a century. Under such circumstances the body count in the over-populated countries of the third world will make the genocidal efforts of Hitler, Stalin, and Chairman Mao seem like the work of half-hearted amateurs.
Whether the mechanism that orchestrates our collapse will be a human version of Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS), or whether it will be a fatal dose of environmental retribution is anybody’s guess. The rodent version of GAS includes such physiological responses as glandular malfunction, inhibited sexual maturation, diminished ovulation and implantation, inadequate lactation, increased susceptibility to disease and a sharp rise in infant mortality. The social aspects of rodent GAS include increased aggression, infanticide and cannibalism, curtailed reproduction, abandonment of unweaned infants, and a rising incidence of abnormal and unproductive sexual behavior, especially homosexuality and pedophilia. The reader can decide whether there is an analogy to be drawn. Levels of infant mortality are not rising and cannibalism has not appeared, but some of our current health problems, especially those linked to the subtle chemistries of the body’s immune system, the autonomic nervous system and the reproductive system, seem to be increasing, especially in developed nations. Many of these problems are commonly attributed, directly or indirectly, to chemical pollutants and are therefore considered to be symptoms of environmental degradation rather than innate physiological phenomena. Studies of other mammals, however, suggests that most plagues collapse in response to a combination of internal and external factors.
Our astonishing ascent from evolutionary obscurity to world domination has for the most part been slow and painful. From the impassioned howl of the primeval hunter to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphopny, from the persuasive grunts of a stone-age paramour to the spare elegance of a Japanese haiku, from the painted caves of Ardeche and the rock shelters of Kakadu to the ceramic sails of the Sydney Opera House—these are milestones in an evolutionary journey which has no counterpart in the animal world and for which we have no adequate measure. Viewed from here, amid the glitzy clutter of Western techno-culture, the traumatic birth of our species seems as remote as the stars; yet in an evolutionary sense it occurred only a moment ago and haunts us still. The shadow of a human hand stencilled on a cave wall was every bit as meaningful to our ancestors as the glowing computer screen is to us. And our most sophisticated laser-guided weapon is essentially no more than a space-age spear. We have merely traded the economy and elegance of the original for a bit more punch at the business end.
Meanwhile, the genes of our nomadic ancestors live on inside us, inviolate within the massive reservoir of human DNA. The evidence is everywhere, especially on weekends. Our tribal skirmishes might now be professionally conducted on carefully groomed playing fields, but the roar of the fans is bloody and primal, and any Australian park ranger will tell you how hard it is to prevent the urban warriors from drawing on the rocks, slaughtering the animals, and leaving the landscape in smoking ruins every summer weekend.
The very powerful gun lobbies of the United States and Australia are another eloquent expression of our ancient warrior genes. We may no longer live in the shadow of the sabre-toothed cats, yet many of us still feel an indefinable attraction to the weapons that would best protect us if we did. Even Australia, a nation never overtly seduced by the gun culture that now bedevils the United States, waited until 54 people were shot, 34 of them fatally, by a solitary dysfunctional youth with a semi-automatic rifle before passing legislation prohibiting the ownership of such weapons. Even after the tragic shooting that occurred in Port Arthur, Tasmania, the law’s passage was not easy, and despite the difficulties of logic faced by the gun lobby, its members succeeded in generating the largest public demonstrations (overwhelmingly male) since the anti-Vietnam war rallies of the early 1970s.
The highly emotional nature of the gun lobbyists’ response could not have signalled its genetic origins more clearly. In hunter-gatherer societies of old, a warrior’s favorite weapon was as personal as his penis and cherished accordingly. It is just the same for the urban warrior. Faced with a dearth of argument capable of justifying their genetic outrage, Australian gun-enthusiasts, like their US counterparts, were inevitably reduced to the last resort of all beleaguered genes: the conspiracy theory. This legislation, they said, was a poorly-disguised attempt by power-hungry politicians to disarm the populace, especially those free and independent gun-toting spirits who would be first to resist a blatant assault on democracy and individual freedom.
Fortunately, however, the weapons lobby is generally out-voted in the finely-balanced parliament of genetic imperatives that regulates our daily lives. And so it was in Australia’s parliaments, although not without one brief but spectacular display of warrior petulance in Tasmania. There, the male-dominated upper house introduced some unique amendments of their own to the State’s new gun legislation, amendments that lowered the legal age for firearm use to 12 years, and decreed that it was acceptable for licensed firearm owners to use their guns while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Far from signalling an epidemic of senile dementia among members of the legislature, these bizarre amendments merely affirmed that their ancient warrior genes were still eminently capable of snatching the reins from the rational cortex whenever warrior pride was at stake.
The bloody slaughter in Port Arthur, and the long chain of social repercussions that followed poignantly underscore the inability of a mere 10,000 years of agro-urban culture to override our 2-million-year-old human genes. The human brain remains a piece of stone-age machinery, however you look at it, and no amount of culture can make it otherwise. Nor are any evolutionary improvements likely to tip the balance. Genetically speaking we are a finished product, not a prototype. What you see is what you’ll get—there will be no bright utopian future, just more of the same.
But this unhappy story has less dismal footnote. As journalist Steve Meacham pointed out, although the Port Arthur killer was male, as is usually the case, five of his male victims died trying to shield their wives, and at least one mother did the same for her children. “In leaping into the path of a gunman’s bullet they must have acted spontaneously, obeying some primal selfless urge to risk themselves so that those they loved the most might live,” wrote Meacham. “… in the split seconds their fate was cast, their reactions were based on reflex rather than reflection.” There was indeed no room for rational thought on that tragic afternoon, only good, honest, animal behavior. The heroism of those six could not have been more explicitly genetic.
Evolution‘s Street Kids
We have an identity problem. By genetic definition we are hunter-gatherer chimpanzees, yet we no longer live in a social or physical environment that suits this time-honoured role. By hunter-gatherer standards we have become evolution’s street kids, rootless, aimless and living by our wits. We have survived very well in that role—too well in fact. But the law of life on a small planet has finally caught up with us, and the standard sentence has been passed.
The glittering array of industrial and medical technology in which we take such pride and on which we have come to depend, is proving to be merely a cunning extension of evolution’s plague machinery, providing the very mechanism that locks us into the trap. Lower infant mortality and better public health means more people to be fed; higher standards of living and better education means increased consumption of goods and resources and higher levels of waste and pollution. As standards of living improve and birth rates begin to decline, people buy more cars, houses, and television sets and consume more energy and raw materials to build and run them. By this means they multiply their impact on the biosphere to the point that they more than nullify any advantages gained by the declining birth rates. As a result, even though our global fertility rate may gradually decrease, our energy consumption will escalate as before, ensuring that our total impact will continue to fit the standard plague graph with a precision that lies well beyond the realms of mere coincidence.
More than one third of the world’s people are crammed into India and China alone. India is about to launch a massive car manufacturing industry aimed at the 200 million prospective buyers among its middle classes, and China has begun to follow suit. Some 80% of Chinese families already possess a television set, and home-shopping programs are very popular. Few can yet afford to buy what they see, but as their affluence increases and the demand for products grows, the environmental impact of their consumerism promises to far outweigh the effects of family planning, better education, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Already deforested, overpopulated, and blanketed with polluted air, these two nations now face social and environmental problems that dwarf those confronting the western world. The only sources of energy capable of delivering the vast quantity of cheap electricity required to power their cultural leap into the twenty first century are sulphur-rich coals, hydro-electric energy, and nuclear power. Nuclear power stations are expensive to build and maintain, have a short life and consequently small harvest factor (the ratio between the total value of the energy and materials outlaid and the value of the power produced during the entire life of the installation). By comparison, non-nuclear power stations are cheap to build, economical to run, and have a long life; so they are the natural choice. But both water-power and coal power entail disastrous environmental consequences.
A Dam Shame
It has always been easy to sell the concept of hydro-electricity to governments and their electors on the grounds that above all it delivers “clean” energy, with no embarrassing by-products—other than during construction. Once the plant is fully operational, running costs are minimal and it appears to contribute almost nothing to greenhouse emissions. In public and political mythology it is a zero-emission technology.
If only these fantasies were true. When a dam is built and a valley floods, the decay of the drowned vegetation and the accumulation of methane-producing mud on the valley floor can have at least the same greenhouse impact as a coal-burning power station of similar capacity. Philip Fearnside, an ecologist at Brazil’s National Research Institute for Amazonia, analysed the carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) emissions from Brazil’s Balbina reservoir and found that it was delivering roughly 16 times the greenhouse impact of a fossil-fuel power station of similar capacity. What was worse, he said, in the first year of operation (1987) it would have produced about 10 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide and 150,000 metric tonnes of methane—roughly four times the emissions he measured in 1996. While Fearnside conceded that the reservoir’s emissions of carbon-dioxide and methane would continue to diminish over time, he maintained that since a large tree trunk can take up to 500 years to decay in anoxic (oxygen free) water, the Balbina reservoir would continue to be more environmentally expensive than a fossil-fuel station with similar capacity for at least 50 years, and perhaps indefinitely. 
Not all reservoirs are that damaging, however, and the volume of their greenhouse emissions depends to a great extent on the nature of the site. (The thickly vegetated Balbina Valley is so shallow that most of the reservoir is less that 4 metres deep, and the power station has failed to produce the volume of electricity originally proposed.) Latitude and temperature, on the other hand, have little or no effect on the outcome. A research team led by John Rudd from the Canada’s Freshwater Research Institute in Winnipeg similarly investigated several hydro-electricity sites in northern Manitoba and found large amounts of methane dissolved in the surface layers of the water. At one site the team recorded 7 grams of methane for every square metre of lake surface, while at another site—a flooded peat bog—they found up to 30 grams of methane and between 450 and 1,800 grams of carbon dioxide per square metre. In a similar study conducted at the big Cedar Lake reservoir (1,200 square kilometres or 460 square miles), also in northern Manitoba, Rudd and his team found greenhouse emissions that were almost identical to those from a comparable coal-fired power station. 
Once again technology provides no solutions. No matter how clean a technology might appear, energy is inherently expensive. The more we take, the more we must pay, one way or another.
Japan offers another spectacular example of this rule. Beset by smog problems and urged on by the construction industry, the Japanese government has consistently chosen the supposedly clean alternative, hydro-electricity. In the past four decades alone Japan has built 1,000 dams and has another 500 on the drawing boards. Water-filtering wetlands have disappeared, and floods no longer flush the river systems. As cheap electricity became available everywhere, industry blossomed in its wake. Consequently, all of Japan’s rivers and most of the nation’s coastal waters are now thoroughly polluted. Worse, in view of Fearnside and Rudd’s work, is that Japan’s greenhouse emissions are probably no less than they would have been had they powered their industrial explosion by fossil fuels. Moreover, the massive volume of cement required to build the dams and hydro-electricity plants represents yet another major injection of carbon into the atmosphere.
Cement production releases carbon dioxide in two ways: as part of the chemical reaction that occurs during the conversion of calcium carbonate to calcium oxide in the kilns, and through the burning of large quantities of fossil fuels to heat the kilns to the 1450°C required for the chemical reaction to take place. Cement manufacturers now produce 7% of the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions, and global production figures show a growth rate of 5% a year. Cement production is still well behind power generation and vehicle exhausts as a contributor to global warming, but exceeds the contribution made by all the worlds aircraft. 
Again technology merely lures us deeper into the environmental trap. Meanwhile our myth-based techno-culture keeps us thoroughly bedazzled, entertained, and unable to comprehend the magnitude of our blunder until all the exits are blocked and the consequences are unavoidable.
The denouement of our two-million-year play will not dawn on us until very late, however. We will have to wait until climatic disorder, rising sea levels, rampant famine, social disintegration, and a growing list of pandemics finally bring the human plague to a halt for the full gravity of our predicament to sink in.
 L.A. Frakes, “Climates Throughout Geological Time”, (1979) 1980, p.236.
 “Lake gas”, New Scientist, 16 August 1997, p.21. The carbon isotopes in methane allow it to be carbon dated.
 Sydney Morning Herald, 3 May 1996, p.13.
 Fred Pearce, “Trouble bubbles for hydropower.” New Scientist, 4 May 1996, pp.28-31. The thickly vegetated Balbina valley is so shallow that most of the reservoir is less than four metres deep, and the power station has failed to produce the volume of electricity originally proposed.
 Fred Pearce, “Land of the Rising Concrete.” New Scientist, 11 January 1997, p.43.
PLEASE NOTE: This text is an edited extract from the final chapter of
The Spirit in the Gene, published by Cornell University Press in 1999.