Saturday, May 3, 2008

When the going gets tough, the tough think

We live in a time when we have never been so incessantly confronted by doomsday scenarios. It seems that each and every day brings us more stories of appalling acts of violence, or a new and particularly virulent disease, or yet another "hot zone". There is set against a continuous cry of how we are killing our planet, and unalterably changing the climate to the extent that the world will all too soon become uninhabitable. As these topics are ubiquitously reported and debated in the public, it is easy to conclude that, rather then living in an age of reason, we live in a time of excuses, blame, hatred, and worst of all, apathy. We cannot deny that there is increasing angst encroaching on our lives every day.

Yet there are reasons to be more optimistic. For example, we already have technologies that will reduce the dependence of the globe on fossil fuels. The only decisions that remains are ones of economic and political sway and our willingness to sacrifice. In another example: while we see a rising tide of debate about health care in the United States, we are also seeing a period of unprecedented breakthroughs in treatments of many diseases that have been our adversaries for millenia. Sadly though, politics and economics again interfere with our implementation of these breakthroughs on an widely accessible basis. Still, we might take heart in that totalitarianism, in spite of repeated efforts by those that would wield it, is dwindling world-wide. Communication and access to information is becoming more and more democratized through incredible new technologies, such as self published blogs like this one, the pooling of knowledge resources for access by all (i.e. wikipedia), instant messaging, email, and social websites like Facebook. This compares to a personal network capability that just 60 years ago was primarily limited to the sphere of family, neighborhoods, co-workers, families, churches, local schools, etc. (Some say this was better.) So vast is the capability to communicate amongst ourselves that groundbreaking network theories such as "six degrees of separation" are entering our common language. Not to trivialize all the science involved here, but it doesn't seem to me to be all that difficult to argue either a pessimistic view or an optimistic view of man's survival.

However a study undertaken by the Genographic Project (funded by the National Geographic Society) and published in the The American Journal of Human Genetics is decidedly bullish in its hictorical lesson and suggests that we should consider carefully the incredible will in us to survive the most overwhelming forces. According to the scientists, climate changes led the human population to an estimated low of just 2000, at the very edge of extinction, some 150,000 years ago. This is actually a long standing theory that is bolstered by the reasearch recently reported. However, what is newly revealed by the work is that after an initial and devestating drought, the remaining frail population of humans divided into small bands, and wandered on diverse paths within Africa. The research fills a gap in our understanding of what was happening in there before humans first left the continent.
Even more stunning, rather then these bands reverting to more atavisitic forms of existence, in the midst of the imperative to survive, there was an acceleration in the use of more advanced tools for hunting and gathering. Incredibly this is also when art and evidence of abstract thinking first appeared, far ahead of the creation of beautiful wall art found in the Lascaux Caves in France, and which is dated to about 30,000 years ago. It was previouosly thought to represent that breakthrough in thinking known as the "creative explosion" and was supportive of a euro-centric view of enlightenment.
The study's findings correlate with other recent discoveries, such as the one shown above from Blombos Caves, on the southern tip of Africa, first discovered in 2002. It is thought to be the earliest evidence of abstract thought ever found and dates to about 70-80,000 years ago.
One cannot help but feel awestruck by the sheer immensity of the calamity our earliest ancestors faced, and feel inspired by this story of survival. A story that is made even more incredible in contemplating the human condition today. How close we came. How far we've come. My surmise is that it is far too early to sell short our tenacity as a species, though I sure hope we don't wait until we are down to the last 2,000.

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