Hooray Humans

by David Helton

graphic: dry riverbed, city in background

"And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." That's Genesis One, Verse 28. It comes as a mighty disappointment after Verses 1 to 25, in which God was jubilantly summoning up light and darkness and water and firmament and all the other magnificences of raw nature, and at every stage stepping back and saying, "This is good. This is good."

Take Verse 21: "And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good." He was pleased with Himself, and deservedly. whales. What an idea! He had sperm whales spouting, and humpbacks breaching and fishing with bubble- nets and singing mating songs that would reverberate through the ocean all the way from the Arctic to the Equator. And then, in another swoop, the birds - hoatzins to crows - all those different colours and feathers and all the migration routes and songs and egg shapes and mating displays; the passerines, the ratites, the galliformes, the raptors...

Or go back to 12, where He was still doing botany: "And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good." Rolling plains, scrublands, giant redwoods, kelp, mangroves, roses, rainforests . . . It was good. But, in the end, it couldn't last. By Verse 28, it was looking a little bit too good, maybe - getting out of hand, maybe - and it was time to bring something along to dominate it all, and subdue it.

After page one, the Bible is not about raw nature very much. Well, Adam does some taxonomy in the Garden of Eden, but in retrospect you can see that the trend started in Verse 26 ("And God said, Let us make man in our image...") and that by the end of Verse 28, God is not really interested in anything but humans any more. King of Creation seems to become more of a presidential office, with the actual day-to-day control handed over to a race of managers, whose mission, at all costs, is to multiply and subdue.

If you were to sit down to the full Hopi rendition of the Creation,
you could be at the campfire for a couple of days
before the first real humans pop up.

In the cosmologies of other cultures the natural history goes on a bit longer. If you were to sit down to the full Hopi rendition of the Creation, you could be at the campfire for a couple of days before the first real humans pop up. The Hopis even manage to work the dinosaurs in, or some extinct monsters very much like them, and the humans, when they do appear, are nothing special - no better than coyotes, say. In other American Indian cosmologies - Crow, Blackfoot - the humans aren't even as good as coyotes. The first human, Old Man - an arrogant, clumsy, naive late-comer to life on Earth - is constantly being tricked by Coyote and is always left looking foolish, spluttering like Elmer Fudd. Dominion? Mercy, more like it.

What we've got is a zip through the natural creation; the appearance of man and his appointment as managing director; an interlude in Eden which demonstrates, basically, that humans are too intelligent to be a mere part of nature; and the world finally getting down to business, from the starting point of Adam's new farm. Christian fundamentalists often try to put a date on Chapter One, Verse One, of Genesis and come up with figures in the region of six to ten. thousand years ago. Since anyone with even the most tenuous grasp of science knows that's ridiculous - that the Big Bang, if this is where we're going to mark the start, happened about a million times longer ago than that - it means Christian fundamentalism is largely left to people with no grasp of science or people who actively hate science and parody it byway of that conceptual gargoyle, Creationism.

photo:  wheat

But, all the same, there's something right about six to ten thousand years. It's never the time of The Beginning- not the Big Bang, not the creation of the solar system, not the creation of the Earth. It's not the beginning of life or even, an unimaginably long time later, the beginning of humanity. But 10,000 years ago, in the Middle East - in the 'Fertile Crescent', from Egypt to Mesopotamia - something extremely important to the world did happen, and that was that humans domesticated wheat.

The very first life-forms to be domesticated were probably wolves or jackals. Humans evolved as pack-hunting primates, and what started as a co-operative arrangement with pack-hunting canids could easily have ended with the more cunning partner taking the other one over - stealing its soul, in a way. The humans must have noticed that when two relatively docile wolves bred together (and docility would certainly have been a desirable trait in animals you shared your habitation with) that their puppies would grow up docile, too. And if you actually interfered, took over from nature and arranged it so that only the docile animals could get at each other, you'd eventually acquire a whole pack of docile animals - obedient ones even. Not only that - they could be stronger, larger, smaller, faster or have better smell. Anything you wanted. It was breeding, genetics, manipulation of life.

Archaeologists say that goats and sheep were the next things to be domesticated - about 11,000 years ago - and with that development came the concept of genetically nobbling your prey. You and your dogs didn't have to hunt any more. The prey animals were now in possession of a remarkable inbred stupidity: they believed that their eventual predators were their herd leaders. They had come to live in the human tribe, where the dog thugs helped boss them around and, at the same time, kept those menaces, undomesticated predators, away. And when it was time for a kill, all you had to do was walk into the middle of your loyal flock and give something a whack; by now the beasts of the field were so dominated and subdued that the others wouldn't even look up from their grazing.

This was step two to the Big Beginning: people as pastoralists. People as hunters might have been meddling around with dogs, but that was only being a bit insolent about the laws of nature. The pastoralists were actually raising their fists to nature's dictatorship. Nature is chance, cruel chance. From the time a beam of sunlight just happened to filter through a molecule of chlorophyll in a random pool full of amino acids on a planet where water just happened to exist in its universally rarest form, liquid. . . from then, on through all of evolution, until, well... until God created Adam, all was luck.

If it was a dry year out on the plains and the wildebeest didn't turn up, the humans and the lions and the hunting dogs and the hyenas lost a certain proportion of their population - the pups, the cubs and the children, mainly. If your best hunter made a bad throw and only wounded the buffalo and then was gored to death, there went your best hunter and many dinners and ultimately, perhaps, Grandmother and a couple of babies. But with pastoralism, if it doesn't rain, you up stakes and walk along with your specially brain-damaged herds until you find a place where it has rained. And if a hunter is gored, that's his own fault and it serves him right for being atavistic and macho and trying to recapture the old days - or probably just lusting after something besides mutton. But it's definitely no influence on whether or not there's dinner tonight.

Humans became their own livestock.
They domesticated themselves.

Breeding is minimising chance, and going from hunter to pastoralist is like going from dice to poker- from no control to some, if you play your cards right. But what came next was like opening a savings account. Humans are omnivores. The forest monkey in our lineage gave us the ability to eat fruits, seeds and certain leaves, and the plains-ape stage added meat. Meat was necessary because the only things on the plains were animals and grass, and apes can't eat grass. Or couldn't, until someone at some point discovered that certain grass seeds could be ground up, mixed with water and fat and baked into bread. At first, grass seeds must have been gathered opportunistically, like berries, but when the science of eugenics was established in pastoralism, it was only a matter of time before it spread to plants, in particular to a certain prized species of Middle Eastern wheat. Humans now could not only eat grass, but by domesticating it, they could create their own permanent pastures - farms. Humans became their own livestock. They domesticated themselves.

We think of this as civilisation, and it's usually something that tends to be established over the dead bodies of a lot of pastoralists. When Western history was reenacted in North America, this was the stage where the squatters overcame the free-range cattlemen and put up their barbed wire (that, after the cattlemen had subdued the local hunters, the Indians). In the Bible, Cain, the agriculturalist, kills Abel, the stock man, and is condemned to a life of pastoralism: "When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength..." What a curse! Henceforth, he would never make a farmer. He had to leave the presence of the Lord and cool his heels forever in the land of Nod, which was no doubt the worst acreage in the known world.

The Bible is a chronicle of the beginnings of our civilisation. There were other people in the world at the time of Adam and Eve, but they weren't farmers and so didn't count. For example, Cain got married. When he reached Nod, he found himself a pastoralist woman and begat a long line of famous names, including Methuselah - but the clan was, says Genesis 4:20, "such as dwell in tents, and of such as have cattle." Barbarians. After all, civilisation means not living in tents; it means living in permanent houses, in permanent cities. Cities can only exist if there to support them are permanent arable farms and stock farms (which are nothing to do with nomadic pastoralism, but are just another way of converting fields of domesticated grass into edible food - ie, animals as bread).

To put it the right way around: breeding of animals begets breeding of plants begets farms begets cities. And cities have begotten lots of things - nations, politics, money, empires . . . and history, through writing. Almost everywhere in the Middle East and Europe writing seems to have started as a way of counting corn into the granary. Certainly the first written histories of our culture came straight on the heels of the domestication of grasses and the establishment of cities - Ur, Babylon, Knossos.

And once there was writing and, at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, a caste of holy men who could practise it, they obviously didn't see themselves as folklorists - they didn't go out and collect the old-fashioned, Hopi-type word-of-mouth pastoral and pre-pastoral cosmologies, which were probably full of stars and animals (maybe even dinosaurs). The fact that their history was written, not spoken, was testimony in itself to the superiority of man over nature and of civilised man over barbarian. No wildlife stuff for the Bible's writers: Man was in charge now, and man was what the book was going to be about. So they rushed through the early part - the first six or so billion years, calling it five days - quickly getting to the point where man takes over from God and, freed from natural population constraints, proceeds to be endlessly fruitful, eventually to subdue the whole planet.

...in terms of biomass, or total weight,
Homo sapiens is now the greatest species on Earth...

And now, six to ten thousand years on, we've done it. Our farming has done it. Not only has it caused the disappearance of forests and prairies and other kinds of natural landscapes, and not only has it allowed us - creatures that began as rare predators - to become as numerous as plague rats (official: in terms of biomass, or total weight, Homo sapiens is now the greatest species on Earth), it also turns out to have been something of a miscalculation. Farming doesn't work the way nature does - it doesn't create its own self-replenishing cycle. It has a fatal flaw: its very cornerstone, ploughing - by loosening the soil and exposing it to wind and water - causes erosion.

In the early days, people weren't very good at ploughing, and so it was a matter of centuries, usually, before their topsoil ran out and their lands turned into the clapped-out deserts they still are. But now, thanks to machinery and oil to drive it, we plough with such efficiency that we are getting rid of topsoil in unprecedented tonnages. In a lot of places - the US Midwest, for example - mined phosphates and nitrates maintain the illusion of fertility. But past a certain point - where there isn't enough soil left to hold water - that won't work. In fact, with the remaining rainforests coming down, we are in sight of subduing the Earth's topsoil, all of it, before the end of the next century. And then hardly any plants, any of the herb- yielding-seed or tree-yielding-fruit, will be able to grow, and we'll have achieved that objective.

In fact - finally - life on Earth is actually decreasing: in the past 50 years, for the first time in 100 million years outside an ice age, the actual amount of living material has gone down, by 4 per cent. God made all those fowl of the air and fish of the sea and great whales and beasts of the fields and herbs and fruits and creeping things, and by taking His place and manipulating genes we've turned around and subdued every damned one of them, directly and indirectly, en masse and individually. And now that we've got genetic engineering we can do it even faster and more cunningly, right up to the bitter end, which really shouldn't be long now.

God set it up, we knocked it down, We are the winners. But why aren't we saying, "This is good!"?

From BBC Wildlife Magazine, November '91.



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