Evolution, by Stephen Baxter (2002)

Published in 2002, Evolution is an ambitious attempt by British science-fiction writer Stephen Baxter to chart the whole of mankind’s career, from earliest primate origins to final extinction, 500 million years from now. In terms of scope at least, the work draws comparisons with Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, although Evolution concerns itself primarily with the anatomical and social development of humanity rather than the cultural and philosophical considerations of Stapledon’s classic work. The book is – in common with all Baxter’s work – firmly based on hard science and the pre-human and human primates featured are described in some detail, though Baxter points out that the work is not intended as a textbook.

Evolution draws extensively on current theories about primate social dynamics and the origins of modern human behaviour; Steven Mithen’s “cognitive fluidity” and Robin Dunbar’s “grooming and gossip” theories figure prominantly in the narrative. The book also appears to be influenced by works as diverse as Richard Fortey’s Life: An Unauthorised Biography and Brian Aldiss’s 1962 Hugo-winning novel Hothouse. Evolution comprises three parts, each made up of a series of linked short stories. The three parts, entitled Ancestors, Humans and Descendants tell the stories of pre-human primates, humans (Homo erectus, Neanderthals and modern humans), and post-humans (following the fall of Homo sapiens). Through these stories runs a narrative thread following 34-year old palaeontologist Joan Useb and her companions in the year 2031, as civilization unravels following a massive eruption of the Rabaul caldera in Papua New Guinea.

The book opens with the heavily-pregnant Joan and her colleagues en route to a biodiversity conference in Darwin, Australia. The conference is taking place against a background of concern about Rabaul, which has been causing earthquakes for the last two weeks. Following this prologue, the scene shifts back in time some 65 million years to the Chixulub impact event that brought about the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Early chapters are seen through the eyes of a mouse-sized female primate named Purga who survives the catastrophe, and of her decendents: a lineage of increasingly-sophisticated primates, including the lemur-like Notharctus. The implication is that had Purga not survived, the primate lineage would have gone extinct with the dinosaurs. This is of course dramatic licence: the evolution of the primates (and indeed all other groups) was never contingent on the success or failure of a particular individual to breed.

The narrative includes a few speculative notions: an “air whale” – a pterosaur with a hundred-metre wingspan living in the stratosphere and feeding on the aerial “plankton” of small insects swept up into the upper atmosphere; intelligent dinosaurs that briefly existed some 80 million years before the Chixulub impact; and cold-adapted dinosaurs that survived until 15 million years ago in a small shrinking strip of tundra in Antarctica. None of these creatures left any trace in the fossil record.

The final episode of Part 1 centres on an alpha male ape, with the appropriate name of Capo, who belongs to an unnamed (and as yet undiscovered) species of ape, living in a forest near the coast of North Africa 5 million years ago. They resemble chimpanzees, though the latter have yet to evolve. Capo – the progenitor of mankind – is the troop’s capo di tutti capi and lets nobody forget it. He has a habit of beginning his day by shitting on his subordinates, thereby instigating a management practice that is still widespread five million years later. Unfortunately for Capo his territory is shrinking. As the Earth continues its long-term cooling, so the forest patch occupied by his troop is slowly dying off. The change has become significant over Capo’s 40 year life, and now the forest patch has become too small to support the troop. By a leap of instinct, Capo realises he must lead the troop to a new territory. Unfortunately, it turns out that all the suitable territories are already occupied by other apes of the same species, who are in no mood to welcome newcomers. The troop faces the difficult task of trying to make a living out on the open savannah. The implication is that they succeed, leading to the split between human and chimpanzee lineages.

The main problem with this story is that it is difficult to believe that an ape, confined all his life to a single patch of forest, would be able to formulate the concept of the existence of other patches of forest beyond his own. It is one thing to be aware of the resources needed to stay alive, and where they may be found within a particular environment; entirely another to postulate the existence of similar environments elsewhere.

The conclusion of this first part of the novel is followed by a brief interlude in which Joan Useb and her companions arrive at Darwin Airport. Earthquakes from Rabaul are making themselves felt as is the presence of anti-globalization protestors. The group are bottled up in the airport, waiting for the authorities to disperse the protestors. A delegate named Ian Maughan introduces himself to Joan. They discuss a self-replicating probe nicknamed “Johnnie” (after mathematician and computer scientist John von Neumann) that has landed on Mars.

Part 2 of the novel commences with an episode set 1.5 million years ago, in Kenya. “Far” (this is the nearest thing she has to a name) is a pre-pubescent female hominid of a type that will one day be labelled Homo erectus, though Baxter suggests that what we have found is merely the tip of the iceberg and there were many different human species living all across the Old World at this time. Far enjoys running, in fact as both a sprint and middle-distance runner she could outstrip any athlete living today, male or female. She can run 100 metres in 6 or 7 seconds and a mile in three minutes. She also packs a punch that would leave a modern heavyweight on the ropes. While sheltering from a bushfire, she is attacked from behind, stunned and dragged partially conscious into forest by a hungry australopithecine, but as she is about to be carved up for dinner she revives and punches him hard enough to do considerable facial damage.

Far’s story contains an interesting take on the two major issues concerning the teardrop-shaped Acheulian stone handaxes, which first appeared about 1.65 million years ago. One major puzzle about the handaxes is that they are sometimes much too large to be useful. Also, they often appear to have been discarded soon after manufacture, with no sign of wear, suggesting that they were never used. One theory proposes that the axes were made to impress prospective mates. When a female saw a large, well-made axe, she might conclude that its maker possessed the right attributes to father successful offspring. The axe, having served its purpose (or not) would then be discarded.

Another issue with the handaxes is that while they are ubiquitous in Africa and western Eurasia, they are not found east of Northern India. This was first noted by American archaeologist Hallam Movius in 1948. The “Movius Line” has stood the test of time and two theories have been proposed to explain it. One is that the ancestors of those living east of the Movius Line left Africa before the handaxes were invented. The other possibility is that the migrants from Africa passed through a region lacking suitable materials to make the axes, and by the time they emerged from it, the tradition had been forgotten.

Baxter describes Far’s ancestors a few generations back as having originated from east of the Movius Line, but having migrated back to Africa. Far, cut off from her own people, is adopted by another group and when a male suitor named Axe presents her with a handaxe, she does not understand its significance, although she is attracted to its maker.

We then fast-forward to 127,000 years ago, remaining in Kenya, and pick up the story of Pebble (which still isn’t really a name), a male Neanderthal. That Neanderthals lived in Africa as well as Eurasia will never become known to science. As a boy, Pebble was forced to flee when outsiders invaded their settlement, killing most of the inhabitants, including Pebble’s father. Kin groups are identified by ochre makings scrawled on their faces, hands and arms. Pebble’s group wear vertical lines, the invaders wear a cross-hatch design. These body markings are the beginning of art, but also of nations and of war.

Pebble’s people then establish friendly trading relations with a group of anatomically modern humans and Pebble starts having sex with Harpoon, one of the moderns. In due course she falls pregnant and produces fertile offspring. We now know that Neanderthals and modern humans did interbreed, though this had yet to be confirmed when Evolution was written.

Though more mentally-adept than the Neanderthals, Harpoon’s people are described as not yet being behaviourally modern. In 2002, it was widely belived that the first anatomically modern humans lacked the cognitive abilities of present-day people, and that these only emerged much later as a result of a favourable mutation that somehow ‘rewired’ the human brain. Baxter describes this development as occurring 60,000 years ago, in the Sahara.

The protagonist is a 30-year-old woman referred to as Mother though she still doesn’t really yet have a name. As a result of a chance mutation, Mother has the mental organisation of a modern human, or what archaeologist Steven Mithen has described as “cognitive fluidity”. Mithen believes that the human brain originally had separate cognitive “domains” for different functions, such as social interaction, tool-making, food and resource gathering. According to Mithen, modern human behaviour came about when the barriers between these domains broke down, allowing them to interact with each other. Art, religion and language all arise from the synergistic interactions between the various domains.

Mother understands the concept of cause and effect, and is capable of abstract thought. This enables her to invent the spear-thrower (atlatl) – a crucial invention because her people are starving to death. But Mother’s enhanced mental powers come at a cost; many of her ideas come to her when she is having crippling migraine attacks. These do, however, form the basis of shamanistic rituals and hence the world’s first religion. That cave art may be associated with such practices was first proposed by eminent French prehistorian Jean Clottes and South African anthropologist David Lewis-Williams. The latter also suggested that some African rock art may be derived from migraine aura.

Unfortunately Mother begins to suffer from paranoid schizophrenia following the death of her son, and after murdering her aunt in the irrational belief that she killed her son, she instigates the practice of human sacrifice to bring rain. Fortunately only two sacrificial victims are required before the rains come; she was quite prepared to work her way through the entire tribe. Other influences are more benign: her cognitive skills gradually work their way through the tribe and the first true syntax-rich language develops.

Some years later, Mother develops cancer. Her condition rapidly worsens and she is eventually smothered by one of her acolytes, Sapling, in the world’s first mercy killing. Sapling calls her Ja-ahn – “Mother” in the new language; thus Mother becomes the first person in human history to have an actual name.

The next few stories, set between 52,000 and 47,000 years ago, describe the discovery and eventual colonisation of Australia by modern humans. We meet a series of Ja-ahn’s descendants, all bearing mutated versions of her name (the ultimate implication, though, that this is the origin of the name “Joan” is a little suspect). Following these events, the scene shifts to Ice Age Europe and the unhappy co-existence between modern humans and Neanderthals, as seen through the eyes of Jahna – another of Ja-ahn’s descendants.

The action of the final chapter to be set in prehistoric times takes place in Anatolia, Turkey, 9,600 years ago and describes the interaction between Mesolithic hunter-gatherers and Neolithic farmers. The story is based around Colin Renfrew’s theory that the Indo-European languages (Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and their descendants) were spread by farmers, originally living in Anatolia, who spread across Eurasia taking their language with them. The story focuses on Juna – the latest incumbent of the “Ja-ahn” name – a young woman living with a group of hunter-gatherers. Much of the action takes place in the towns of Keer and the much larger Cata Huuk, two of the earliest towns in the world. Cata Huuk society is hierarchical, and ruled by a potentate known as the Potus (a humorous play on the acronym POTUS for President of the United States). Again, there is a certain amount of dramatic licence: Cata Huuk is presumably based on the Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük, but Çatalhöyük society is believed to have been fairly egalitarian. There is no evidence of a civic centre at Çatalhöyük or of the settlement hierarchy one would expect to find in the type of society described. At the time of the events described, the stratified societies we know so well today were still some millennia in the future.

The last actual chapter of Part 2 is set in Rome in AD 482, and deals with intrigue in the years after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. Athalaric and his mentor, the elderly Honorius, are what would later become known as antiquarians. They are shown dinosaur bones and the skulls of Homo erectus and a Neanderthal. They speculate quite accurately on what these remains might mean. But Honorius is murdered after turning down the opportunity to become Pope, and such investigations would have to wait for another 1,300 years.

Part 2 ends as we once again pick up the story of Joan Useb and her companions. The conference goes ahead, but is hijacked by terrorists. Just as police storm the building, Joan goes into labour and simultaneously Rabaul blows up. The eruption is sufficient to push Earth’s already-stressed eco-system over the edge, although it isn’t even the biggest eruption in human history. Wars break out across the globe. Humanity’s complex civilization collapses completely and utterly.

The final part of the book is set in the distant future, long after the fall of Mankind. Homo sapiens is almost – but in the first chapter – not quite extinct. Royal Navy flyer Lt. Robert Wayne Snow – “Snowy” – awakes from suspended animation to see the face of senior pilot Ahmed supervising his revivification. There is no sign of his CO, Robert “Barking” Madd, telling Snowy at once that something has gone wrong. Snowy and his colleagues have been placed in a suspended animation chamber known as the Pit, and buried at an undisclosed location. They are part of a UN Protection Force, the idea being that if the UK or its allies are invaded, they will be thawed out and spring out of the ground, ready to fight. But the Pit appears to be leaning at an angle from the vertical, and much of the instrumentation is dead. Worse still, it soon turns out that all but five of the twenty-strong contingent is dead. Other than Snowy and Ahmed, the only survivors are the group’s resident genius Sidewise, a young pilot called Bonner and the only surviving woman, Moon (whose actual name is June – the final descendant of Ja-ahn). There has been no “tally” or wake-up call, no orders, no clue as to what is going on. The Pit’s clock only goes up to fifty years, and its hands have jammed against the end of their dials.

As the senior ranking survivor, Ahmed takes charge. They emerge from the Pit to find themselves in the middle of a forest. Maps, supposedly stored outside the Pit, are nowhere to be found. Taking weapons and equipment from the Pit, they strike off north. After some hours, they get clear of the forest, only to discover the last pitiful remnants of human civilization – the crumbled remains of a dam, a ruined church, the dimly-recognisable street layout of a town, with nothing surviving above waist height. We never learn how long the group were in suspended animation, or even where they are, but Sidewise guesses that at least a thousand years have passed.

Looking at the night sky, Sidewise locates Jupiter, Saturn and Venus, but he can’t find Mars and speculates something has happened to it. He is correct – it has been dismantled by the von Neumann machines, the robotic descendants of humanity.

As the weeks pass, the morale of the group deteriorates. The fauna appears drastically changed, with rodents the size of wolves in the ascendant. Snowy and Sidewise eventually discover a colony of small, hairy ape-like people who lack the power of speech, descended in all probability from feral children who lived in sewers during the collapse of civilization. Without culture and learning, the power of speech was soon lost. With no need for energy-expensive big brains, these too were lost.

This chapter does have some dubious plot-devices. Putting a group of military personnel into suspended animation is a good way of getting them into the future, but makes little sense from a military point of view. Scattered groups armed only with semi-automatic pistols would be a pretty ineffective deterrent against invasion – and why on earth leave the maps outside? That the Pit’s clock would only be good for fifty years seems implausible. Even a Casio G-Shock’s calendar will run up to AD 2100, and it would have been trivial to provide a digital calendar that could record the passage of time for millennia. When Sidewise cannot find Mars in the night sky, he correctly surmises that it has been destroyed. But at any given time it is unusual for more than one or two naked-eye planets to be on view. Typically at least one will be below the horizon. Even to be able to see Venus, Jupiter and Saturn at the same time is actually quite uncommon.

It seems doubtful that language would be lost, even if civilization collapsed. Any group of humans capable of surviving for 1000 years would need language. Long before the rise of civilisation, primates gained a survival advantage by having ever bigger brains. The primate strategy was to be smarter than the competition, and this would not change in a world after civilisation had collapsed. Humans living in a post-apocalyptic world would need all their wits to survive. Possibly Baxter intends a metaphor in this and subsequent chapters – a social commentary on “dumbing down” (The effete Eloi and brutish Morlochs from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine were also intended as social commentary).

In the penultimate chapter, set 30 million years from now, some post-humans have become subservient to rodents, and others have returned to the trees. In the final chapter, clearly influenced by Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse, the latter live in a symbiotic relationship with trees some 500 million years from now. The Sun is beginning to leave the main sequence and Earth is now a desert of salt and sandstone. Eventually, as the Sun heats up, bacteria inhabiting rock hurled into space by meteorite impacts is all that remains of life on Earth. Some of these bacteria will eventually reach other planets, where life begins anew.

Evolution concludes with an epilogue, set 18 years after the Rabaul eruption. Joan Useb and her daughter Lucy are living on Bartolome Island in the Galopagos, looking after feral children left behind when the islands were evacuated during the post-Rabaul wars. She realises, though, that Homo sapiens’ day is done….

(A longer version of this review appeared on my blog http://www.christopherseddon.com on 7 October 2008)

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