The Philosophical Neanderthal

HumansExtinctExtinction. It’s a depression concept, but one that nevertheless constitutes a reality in evolution’s world. When applied to members of our own species we term it genocide and declare it an evil. Our perspective—not to dispute the value judgment—is hopelessly foreshortened. Our brains have evolved to promote individual survival, not to see the longue durée. How often do we worry about the extinction of Homo erectus? Or the australopithecines? Without them we wouldn’t be here, and yet, they’re gone. The case of the Neanderthals is perhaps closer to home. We now know that Homo sapiens overlapped with Neanderthals. Some of the questions raised by Neanderthal extinction are given serious consideration by Clive Finlayson in his study, The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died out and We Survived. To get a sense of how this works out, and how it applies with our current contribution to global warming, we must be prepared to view the extreme longue durée. Duration beyond comprehension.

One thing that becomes clear from the very beginning here is that climate has driven evolution perhaps more than we often think. Species, which tend not to live through the relatively long reach of climate change timescales, adapt to the circumstances of their environment. They either do, or they go extinct. Climate, however, is a balancing act teetering toward equilibrium. Hot and cold, evening each other out. Over an even longer duration, our sun will run out of metaphorical steam and things will get quite a bit chillier out there. For the meantime, however, shifts between ice ages and periods of warming will continue to seesaw across time and our race, among many, will need to adjust to survive. Perhaps acknowledging our own role in the current global warming might be a way to start. Our species tends to be short-sighted.

There is an irony here. History and prehistory have shown that, as Finlayson points out, that those best equipped to survive radical changes are the poor. Extinctions—some of them quite dramatic—have occurred before. They will surely come again. When times get tough, it seems, the comfortable get going. Going extinct, that is. Those who climb the corporate ladder the highest have the longest distance to fall when things go bad. The poor, who have to struggle every day to survive, are the ones who know how to get along in circumstances that turn sour. I have called this an irony for what might seem obvious reasons. There is another as well; here we have science pointing again in the direction of the Bible. There it was noted long ago that the meek would inherit the earth. And that’s a bit, it seems, that should be taken literally.

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