Let's now draw together the themes of this book, by tracing our rise over the last three million years, as well as our incipient reversal of all our progress more recently.
The first indications that our ancestors were in any respect unusual among animals were our extremely crude stone tools that began to appear in Africa by around two-and-a-half million years ago. The quantities of tools suggest that they were beginning to play a regular, significant role in our livelihood. Among our closest relatives, in contrast, the pygmy chimpanzee and gorilla do not use tools, while the common chimpanzee occasionally makes some rudimentary ones but hardly depends on them for its existence.
Nevertheless, those crude tools of ours did not trigger any quantum jump in our success as a species. For another million-and-a-half years, we remained confined to Africa. Around a million years ago we did manage to spread to warm areas of Europe and Asia, thereby becoming the most widespread of the three chimpanzee speries but still much less widespread than lions. Our tools progressed only at an infinitely slow rate, from extremely crude to very crude. By a hundred thousand years ago, at least the human populations of Europe and western Asia, the Neanderthals, were regularly using fire, but in other respects we continued to rate as just another species of big mammal. We had developed not a trace of art, agriculture, or high technology. It is unknown whether we had developed language, drug addiction, or our strange modern sexual habits and life-cycle, but Neanderthals rarely lived beyond the age of forty and hence may not yet have evolved female menopause.
Clear evidence of a Great Leap Forward in our behaviour appears suddenly in Europe around 40,000 years ago, coincident with the arrival of anatomically modern Homo sapiens from Africa via the Near East. At that point, we began displaying art, technology based on specialized tools, cultural differences from place to place, and cultural innovation with time. This leap in behaviour had undoubtedly been developing outside Europe, but the development must have been rapid, since the anatomically modern Homo sapiens populations living in southern Africa 100,000 years ago were still just glorified chimpanzees, judging by the debris in their cave sites. Whatever caused the leap, it must have involved only a tiny fraction of our genes, because we still differ from chimps in only 1.6 % of our genes, and most of that difference had already developed long before our leap in behaviour. The best guess I can make is that the leap was triggered by the perfection of our modern capacity for language. Although we usually think of the Cro-Magnons as the first bearers of our noblest traits, they also bore the two traits that lie at the root of our current problems: our propensities to murder each other en masse and to destroy our environment. Even before Cro-Magnon times, fossil human skulls punctured by sharp objects and cracked to extract the brains bear witness to murder and cannibalism. The suddenness with which Neanderthals disappeared after Cro-Magnons arrived provides a hint that genocide had now become efficient. Our efficiency at destroying our own resource base is suggested by the extinction of almost all large Australian animals following our colonization of Australia 50,000 years ago, and of some large Eurasian and African mammals as our hunting technology improved. If the seeds of self-destruction have been so closely linked with the rise of advanced civilizations in other solar systems as well, it becomes easy to understand why we have not been visited by any flying saucers.
At the end of the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago, the pace of our rise quickened. We occupied the Americas, coincident with a mass extinction of big mammals that we may have caused. Agriculture emerged soon thereafter. Some thousands of years later, the first written texts start to document the pace of our technical inventiveness. They also show that we were already addicted to drugs, and that genocide had become routine and admired. Habitat destruction began undermining many societies, and the first Polynesian and Malagasy settlers caused blitzkrieg-like mass exterminations of species. From 1492 AD onwards, the worldwide expansion of literate Europeans lets us trace our rise and fall in detail.
Within the last few decades we have developed the means to send radio signals to other stars, and also to blow ourselves up overnight. Even if we do not blunder into that swift end, our harnessing of much of the Earth's productivity, our exterminations of species, and our damage to our environment are accelerating at a rate that cannot be sustained for even another century. One might object that, if we look around us, we see no obvious sign that the climax of our history will come soon. In fact, the signs become obvious if one observes and then extrapolates. Starvation, pollution, and destructive technology are increasing; usable farmland, °od stocks in the sea, other natural products, and environmental apacity to absorb wastes are decreasing. As more people with more Power scramble for fewer resources, something has to give way.
So, what is likely to happen?
There are many grounds for pessimism. Even if every human now alive were to die tomorrow, the damage that we have already inflicted on our environment would ensure that its degradation will continue for decades. Innumerable species already belong to the 'living dead', with populations fallen to levels from which they cannot recover, even though not all individuals have died yet. Despite all our past self-destructive behaviour from which we could have learned, many people who should know bette.r dispute the need for limiting our population and continue to assault our environment. Others join that assault for selfish profit or out of ignorance. Even more people are too caught up in the desperate struggle for survival to be able to enjoy the luxury of weighing the consequences of their actions. All these facts suggest that the juggernaut of destruction has already reached unstoppable momentum, that we too are among the living dead, and that our future is as bleak as that of the other two chimpanzees.
This pessimistic view is captured by a cynical sentence that Arthur Wichmann, a Dutch explorer and professor, penned in another context in 1912. Wichmann had devoted a decade of his life to writing a monumental three-volume treatise on the history of New Guinea's exploration. In 1,198 pages he evaluated every source of information about New Guinea that he could find, from the earliest reports filtering through Indonesia to the great expeditions of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. He grew disillusioned as he realized that successive explorers committed the same stupidities again and again: they showed the same unwarranted pride in overstated accomplishments, refused to acknowledge disastrous oversights, ignored the experience of previous explorers, repeated previous errors, and hence blundered into unnecessary suffering and death. Looking back on this long history, Wichmann predicted that future explorers would continue to repeat the same errors. The bitter last sentence that concluded Wichmann's last volume was, 'Nothing learned, and everything forgotten!
Despite' all the grounds I have mentioned for being equally cynical about humanity's future, my view is that our situation is not hopeless. We are the only ones creating our problems, so it is completely within our power to solve them. While our language and art and agriculture are not quite unique, we really are unique among animals in our capacity to learn from the experience of others of our species living in distant places or in the distant past. Among the hopeful signs, there are many realistic, often discussed policies by which we could avoid disaster, such as limiting human population growth, preserving natural habitats, and adopting other environmental safeguards. Many governments are already doing some of these obvious things in some cases.
For example, awareness of environmental problems is spreading, and environmental movements are gaining political clout. Developers do not win all the battles, nor do short-sighted economic arguments always prevail. Many countries have lowered their rate of population growth in recent decades. While genocide has not vanished, the spread of communications technology has at least the potential for reducing our traditional xenophobia, and for making it harder to regard distant peoples as subhumans unlike ourselves. I was seven years old when the A-bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so I remember well the sense of an imminent risk of nuclear holocaust that prevailed for several decades thereafter. But nearly half a century has now passed without any further military use of nuclear weapons. The risk of a nuclear holocaust now seems more remote than at any other time since 9 August 1945.
My own outlook is conditioned by my experiences since 1979 as consultant to the Indonesian government on setting up a nature reserve system in Indonesian New Guinea (called Irian Jaya province). On the face of it, Indonesia does not seem a promising place to hope for much success in preserving our shrinking natural habitats. Instead, Indonesia exemplifies the problems of tropical Third World countries in acute form. With over 180 million inhabitants, it is the world's fifth most populous country, as well as one of the poorer ones. The population is growing rapidly; nearly half of all Indonesians are under fifteen years old. Some provinces with an inordinately high population density are exporting their population surpluses to the less populated provinces (such as Irian Jaya). There are no armies of bird-watchers, no broad-based indigenous environmental movements. The government is not a democracy in the Western sense, and corruption is viewed as pervasive. Indonesia depends on logging of its virgin rainforests, second only to exploitation of oil and natural gas, as a source of its foreign exchange.
For all these reasons, one might not expect preservation of species and habitats to be a national priority pursued seriously in Indonesia. When I first went to Irian Jaya, I was frankly doubtful that an effective conservation programme would result. Fortunately, my Wichmann-like cynicism proved wrong. Thanks to the leadership of a core of Indonesians convinced of the value of conservation, Irian Jaya now has the beginnings of a nature reserve system comprising twenty per cent of the province's area. Nor do those reserves exist just on paper. As my work proceeded, I was pleasantly surprised to come across sawmills abandoned because they conflicted with nature reserves, park guards out on patrol, and management plans being drawn up. All these measures were adopted not out of idealism, but out of a cold-blooded, correct Perception of Indonesia's national self-interest. If Indonesia can do it, so can other countries with similar obstacles to environmentalism, as well as much richer countries with broad-based environmental movements.
We do not need novel, still-to-be invented technologies to solve our problems. We just need more governments to do many more of the same obvious things that some governments are already doing in some cases. Nor is it true that the average citizen is powerless. There are many causes of extinction that citizen groups have helped throttle in recent years—for instance, commercial whaling, hunting big cats for fur coats, and importing chimpanzees caught in the wild, to mention just a few examples. In fact, this is one area where it is particularly easy for a modest donation by the average citizen to have a big impact, because all conservation organizations now have such modest budgets. For instance, the annual combined budget for all primate conservation projects that the i World Wild Fund for Nature supports throughout the world is only a few hundred thousand dollars. An extra thousand dollars means an extra project on some endangered monkey, ape, or lemur that might otherwise have been ignored. On pages 352-41 suggest some specific starting points i for interested readers.
Hence while I do see us facing serious problems with an uncertain] prognosis, I am cautiously optimistic. Even the cynical last sentence of Wichmann's book proved false: New Guinea explorers since Wichmannl really have learned from the past and avoided the disastrous stupidities of their predecessors. A motto more appropriate for our future than! Wichmann's motto comes from the memoirs of the statesman Otto vonj Bismarck. As he reflected on the world around him towards the end of his! long life, he too had reason to be cynical. Possessing a keen intellect and! working at the centre of European politics for decades, Bismarck hadf witnessed a history of unnecessarily repeated errors as gross as thosel pervading the early history of New Guinea exploration. Yet Bismarck} still considered it worthwhile to write his memoirs, to draw lessons fromj history, and to dedicate his memoirs 'to [my] children and grandchildren, towards an understanding of the past, and for guidance for the future'.
This is also the spirit in which I dedicate this book to my young sons! and their generation. If we will learn from our past that I have traced, our f own future may yet prove brighter than that of the other two chimpanzees.