Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Mike Resnick: Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge

And never was there a race so different from all his fellows as Man. He was extinct barely seventeen millennia after he strode boldly out into the galaxy from this, the planet of his birth—but during that brief interval he wrote a chapter in galactic history that will last forever. He claimed the stars for his own, colonized a million worlds, ruled his empire with an iron will. He gave no quarter during his primacy, and he asked for none during his decline and fall. Even now, some forty-eight centuries after his extinction, his accomplishments and his failures still excite the imagination.

Which is why we are on Earth, at the very spot that was said to be Man’s true birthplace, the rocky gorge where he first crossed over the evolutionary barrier, saw the stars with fresh eyes, and vowed that they would someday be his.
The Summer 2008 issue of Subterranean magazine has the first part of a serialization of Mike Resnick's 1994 Nebula and Hugo Award-winning novella "Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge". The first part story looks back more than three million years, to a time when our intelligent - and violent - distant ancestors were mere "hairless monkeys". The second part looks to the more recent period of the Arab slave trade. The view of human history is one of recurring violence and brutality.

In an appreciation of Resnick in the same issue, Nancy Kress talks about the controversy when it was first published:
When the 1994 story “Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge” was first published, I remember a fellow writer stating on-line that if that story’s view of humanity were correct, she’d want to shoot herself. But it is correct. We evolved via violence; Darwin didn’t call it “the survival of the fittest” for nothing. Back on the African savannah, “fittest” often meant “most able to trounce the other guy.” We’ve kept that violent genetic heritage. And if we ever do have to start over, it will probably also be through violence. We may not like that view, but the evidence is there. And Mike respects evidence.
So that's not quite right. In biology "fitness" is a measure of the ability to reproduce, so "survival of the fittest"* refers to spreading of genes in the population. As John Wilkins explains:
Fitness has little directly to do with violent behaviour, or strength. A behaviour can reduce fitness if the damage done in a fight or the energetic cost of being strong makes the organism less likely to survive in hard or combative times. Whether or not violence is fit depends on the nature of the organism, its populational neighbors, the times and climes, and so on. Criticisms such as that of philosopher David Stove that if Darwinism were true we'd see fights on the streets by humans and by dogs shows a profound ignorance of evolutionary theory.
So there is no biological requirement that our distant ancestors were more violent than the other primates of the savannah, and whether they were primarily scavengers or hunters is still unknown. But we Homo sapiens are indeed a violent species, as are our close cousins the chimpanzees. I don't think it's unreasonable to speculate that our distant ancestors were as well.

Read "Seven Views of Olduvai Gorge" part 1 & 2 for free online .

* "Survival of the fittest" was a phrase used to describe Darwin's concept of natural selection, but not a terminology used by Darwin himself.

Image: 1.5 million year old chopping tools from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, in the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.

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