Thursday, July 29, 2010

Life Without Man?

A recent issue of Scientific American told us how early Homo sapiens almost became extinct long time ago, due to a very hostile climate. Only a small number of humans survived in the caves of Southern Africa, around Pinnacle Point on the coastline. We are supposedly all descendants of these few hundred early people, who managed by eating clams and other seafood, provided to them by an ocean rich in nutrients. They also dug up the bulbs of many plants that are unique to the region, getting their carbohydrates that way. On the SciAm website there is also an interactive feature shedding light to the research.

As we may be heading toward another period of intolerable climate change, it is a good time to wonder what would have happened if humans hadn’t survived. It is possible that another subspecies of Homo might have been better protected against the hot, arid climate or survived in the Arctic regions. Other apes or advanced monkeys might have developed an intelligence similar to ours, or life would have moved to the seas and oceans. There are plenty of animals with very complex brains living even at present, although we have done a remarkable job in destroying them to the point of near extinction. It is an interesting quality in the human nature to make sure that no other life form with advanced brains is allowed to succeed and multiply in peace. Only with a large pool of such animals would mutations favoring superior intelligence be allowed to happen.

Whales and dolphins possess large brains and are amazing in many ways. However, the largest animal of all, Balaenoptera musculus or the blue whale is so few in numbers that it is lucky if it can find a mate. Yes, its super-Wagnerian singing can carry truly long distances in water, but remembering how vast the oceans are, the calls often go unheard. Only the Japanese and some native people eat whale meat and we certainly do not depend on oil from whales which at some point might have been an important source for light and heat. These krill-eaters were once common in all the oceans. Today’s blue whale population, estimated between five and twelve thousand, is a small fraction of pre-whaling numbers of 200-300,000. Dolphins are seldom caught for food except in the Faroe Islands in Northern Atlantic and part of Japan. However, humans pose the greatest threat to them, partially because of fishing nets. We have all seen cans of tuna being advertised as dolphin-safe, yet the animals continue to die in high numbers. Being on top of the food chain as predators, these playful mammals also ingest unhealthy amounts of human-origin heavy metals.

Intelligence does not belong to mammals alone. Many species of octopus have more complicated brains than us humans. That is required to change their coloring to match that of the sea bottom in an instant. Their behavior is also remarkable: they are often very playful and even flirtatious with people studying them. One named Paul became a celebrity in a German aquarium during this summers World Cup in soccer as it correctly managed to pick Germany as the winner in all the games until the final round when it correctly chose Spain as the gold medalist. This, of course, was not a show of intelligence as the octopus didn’t watch the games, but many Germans felt it managed to jinx the final game and became very angry, wanting to grill it an a punishment. About ten years ago a new species was found in Indonesia: the two-foot long Mimic Octopus is not only able to change its color but also its shape in a split second, turning into the worst nightmare for the predator that sees a meal in it, resembling a sea snake or a poisonous fish or another very dangerous creature.

What animals do with their intelligence is different from us humans. But is our variety really the best kind? A gigantic blue whale doesn’t hurt anyone, yet is able to dive to great depths and back with one gulp of air and no dangerous bubbles in its blood stream. It is far too big to have any natural enemies (stories of orcas attacking it do exist) other than we the people. If a dolphin is able to entertain us with its circus tricks, there must thousands of complicated things it is capable of accomplishing which we are not aware of. Make a waterproof computer and teach an octopus what it can do and those eight tentacles just might go to work. In return it might teach us how to change our appearance, for instance automatically turning bright red when lying.

For many decades we have made one of our ancestors, the Neanderthal man, the butt of jokes for his alleged stupidity and looks. Hitler’s propaganda machine had its artists draw caricatures of Jewish people with features resembling the cave man. Those who suggested that the “modern” human and the Neanderthal co-existed and even interbred were ridiculed until very recently. Actually the “primitive” cousin had a very large brain and possessed many traits that made him succeed in the less than hospitable world of that day. The latest studies show that all of us have a small inheritance from that gene pool; we are all part Neanderthal, other than the native people of the African continent. Since the world’s greatest thinkers are not usually pure African, it must be assumed that the mixture wasn’t for the worse. At least this writer is proud of his “cave man” past.

Last weekend went to a beach in nearby Discovery Park with my wife and youngest daughter. We go to an area which is almost private as very few want to make a 45 minutes hike and climb 400 feet down and up. There we were enjoying the sunshine that has been in short supply here this summer. While the rest of Northern Hemisphere is suffering from the hottest summer in recorded history, Seattle has been unusually cool. Back in my native Finland today an all-time new record of 99°F (37.2°C) was reached; here it is the afternoon but we are barely at 56°F (13°C). Anyway, that day was heavenly and we enjoyed the beautiful combination of nature, water and sun. It made me realize that even if the human race would not have survived, the place would look exactly the same, other than all the boats and ships of varying sizes in the distance or the nearby lighthouse. Yes, life would have gone on without us. Another species might have become a dominating one, or probably there would have been a nice balance which we have done our best to upset. The world’s problems would be quite different. There would be plenty of cruelty among the animals but no one can be as cruel as a human. A wolf will attack a deer, usually in a pack, but the death is swift and the victim will help the predators to survive. Often the killed would be the old or sick and thus they were saved from unnecessary suffering. No beast will make plans to make another one’s life miserable and there are no Bernie Madoffs among the bears.

Nature is the most fabulous sculptor and designer. She can also produce glorious music, be it bird or whale songs, waves crashing onto a shore or wind howling. That is one symphony truly worth hearing. I don’t know if saving those few hundred lives long ago was such a good idea, after all. Perhaps we will have to withdraw to our caves one day again. Obviously it won’t be all the billions on us; future of mankind may be in the hands of a few one more time.
in photos: blue whale, mimic octopus (Thaumoctopus mimicus)