Five Million Years of Human History

Colin Tudge

London, 1995.

There is perhaps more here about how the world works climatically and otherwise than in Diamond, which has more to say about language in human history. The two works are complementary, as are Wills and Bowler, taken all together.

On climate, Tudge imagines a very alarming scenario where Victorian factories churned out vast quantities of chlorofluorocarbons, at a time when no-one knew about the ozone layer and its vulnerability.

"The people of the twentieth century would just have stood by and watched each other die, along with all the plants and other terrestrial creatures." (p.58)

A very striking model is discussed in connection with global warming (and cooling). Maureen Raymo of MIT has proposed that,

"The Tibetan plateau... has been big and active enough to scrub much of the CO2 from the atmosphere of the whole world. This in turn has subjected the entire planet to an anti-greenhouse effect - an 'icebox effect'." (p.64)

Tudge makes various comparisons between ourselves and other species to help situate us in the scheme of things, one in particular going, as he says, unremarked:

"without the mobility of the shoulder - and of the wrist, with the convenient standard elbow in between - we could not make proper use of our hands. If a horse had hands and all the nerves and brain to go with them it still could not thread a needle, because its to-and-fro forelimbs would not allow it to bring those hands into appropriate juxtaposition." (p.168)

The chapter on farming is called "The End of Eden", and considers the strange fact that agriculture is a far more gruelling business than hunting and gathering, yet it has won out as the established mode of food production. Tudge explains this in terms of the incremental advantage produced by the increased food supply (despite dietary restrictions in many cases) which contributes to a positive feedback loop involving increased population and decreasing options for hunting and gathering.

"They may not enjoy it. But that is not the point. Darwinian selection is not concerned with enjoyment, any more than with dignity. Survival is the game." (p.281)

However, in our recent history, other factors obtain:

"in general, agricultural systems throughout the twentieth century have been designed primarily to fit in with prevailing economic norms, or to justify some political conceit or other... If the prime concern of the human species was [sic] to feed people, then we would do things very differently." (p.340)

Finally, Tudge makes a very good point about the so-called "pro-life" lobby, who deplore contraception as being in some way anti-human. A reasonable enough calculation (which I won't repeat here) leads him to conclude that,

"if we exercise restraint then the total number of human beings who will have trodden this Earth could be at least five times greater than it would be if we allowed populations to run away with us." (p.333)



Paul Taylor 2001