Man after man an anthrop.., p.1

Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future, page 1


Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future

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Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future

  MAN after MAN

  Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, once the peak of human evolution and now extinct.


  MAN after MAN



  Illustrations by Philip Hood

  St. Martin’s Press • New York

  Two creatures – a single ancestor. Each is a product of 5 million years of genetic alteration and evolutionary development. Each has gone through changes – artificial and natural – imposed from outside and from within – until neither resembles in the least the common ancestral creature. The name of the ancestral creature was Homo sapiens. It was ourselves.

  Copyright © 1990 by Dougal Dixon

  Illustrations copyright © 1990 by Philip Hood

  All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

  For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010

  Design by Ben Cracknell

  ISBN 0-312-03560-8

  First edition

  First printing

  Printed and bound in Italy

  It is probably reasonable to conclude that, had it not been for temperature-based environmental changes in the habitats of early hominids, we would still be secure in some warm hospitable forest, as in the Miocene of old, and we would still be in the trees.

  C. K. Brain

  FOREWORD by Brian Aldiss

  It has become necessary to look into the future.

  There must have been a time, long past, when animals much like apes looked up into the night sky and wondered about the stars: what those pinpoints of light were, and what they were for. Only a brief while after that, the apelike things acquired language; then stories began to be told, and fantasies woven about the stars overhead. That cluster resembled a hunter and, high above, the outlines of a great bear could be discerned. Such stories, told in the Pleistocene dark, kept the bogeyman away.

  Animals have no interest in stars. First speculations regarding the stars represented a revolution in thought. Speculations about the future, such as this book, mark another revolution.

  Future speculation is of very recent origin. Yet today no man can call himself cultured who does not occasionally look beyond his own lifetime and his children’s, if only to worry about where the cancerous growth of world population is going. Dougal Dixon’s book is an ambitious attempt to view a future as far distant from us as those ramapithecine creatures whose fragmentary remains turn up in African fossil beds.

  The ability to look into the future is a recently-acquired skill. It has, in fact, all been done by mirrors: there was no seeing into the future until we could see into the past. It is the ever-changing panorama of past time which we extrapolate into future time.

  The business of comprehending bygone ages was a hard lesson to learn. Fossils, those coinages of past life, were always of interest to mankind. They are mentioned by Greek writers, for instance, and certainly Herodotus recognized them as being the remains of once-living creatures, understanding that their presence in the mountains of Upper Egypt was evidence that those areas had previously been under water. Lucretius, too, in his wonderful De Rerum Natura, pours scorn on supernatural effects and speaks of the Earth as having ‘generated every living species and once brought forth from its womb the bodies of huge beasts’.

  The light of reason did not always shine. Huge fossil bones later gave birth (or so we may surmise) to the legend of giants walking the Earth. The perceptions of the Greeks were forgotten. Eratosthenes, some time in the third century BC, understood well that the Earth is round, and measured its circumference with remarkable accuracy, for the latitude of Alexandria. Aristarchus of Samos, in the same period, proposed that the Earth and other planets proceeded in orbit about the sun. These perceptions were overlaid by superstition.

  Greek reasoning was based on careful observation, a quality in which the Dark Ages and Middle Ages were weak. The mental world became smaller. Not until the Renaissance in the fifteenth century did learning revive. Leonardo da Vinci, for instance, studied fossils and understood their origins. He explains why leaves are found whole among rocks:

  There the mud caused by the successive inundations has covered them over, and then this mud grows into one mass together with the aforesaid paste, and becomes changed into successive layers of stone which correspond with the layers of mud.

  But Leonardo did not know the age of the Earth and, in any case, accretion of knowledge is as much subject to chance and the processes of time as the fossils themselves. Homo diluvii testis survived as a fantasy for a while, as Piltdown Man was to do later; they were, so to say, phantom fossils.

  One of the difficulties in the way of understanding the past was that for centuries the past remained obdurately and orthodoxly small. Religion got in the viewfinder. A wall rather like the walls of Jericho was built about antiquity by Archbishop Ussher, a seventeenth-century divine, who, after a careful study of the Bible, proclaimed that the world began on 26 October, 4004 BC, round about breakfast time. Precision is attractive; Ussher’s calculations became dogma.

  The ‘walls of Jericho’ begin to crumble at the beginning of the nineteenth century. What made them crumble was a tooth, retrieved from a pile of rubble in Lewes, Sussex, by a young Mrs Mantell, wife of a doctor Gideon Mantell. The Mantells took the tooth to the learned and eccentric William Buckland of Oxford, a man who ate his way through the animal kingdom and had gobbled down the heart of Richard Coeur de Lion. Buckland was a little weak on the Mantellian tooth. After some research of his own, Mantell named the erstwhile possessor of his tooth Iguanodon.

  Buckland, meanwhile, discovered another tooth near Oxford, together with other remains, and named the fossil Megalosaurus.

  Thus were the first two dinosaurs named. It was not until 1842 that Richard Owen defined these newly-discovered animals as a distinct group of large reptiles, and bestowed on them the label Dinosauria. A powerful new idea, a new dimension of imagination, had been born. By the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851, dinosaurs had become common property, and the notion of animals larger than elephants trundling about what became English watering places had caught the popular fancy.

  Meanwhile, conceptions of the age of the Earth were being pushed out at a great rate. It spelt the fall of the house of Ussher. Evolutionary theories were current in the eighteenth century, for instance in the proposals, many of them charmingly rhymed, of Erasmus Darwin. In his The Temple of Nature (1803), he depicts with considerable accuracy the pageant of life from its beginnings until the arrival of mankind.

  Darwin’s couplets are often neat and memorable, as he intended they should be. The formation of strata of chalk is expressed in a striking image:

  Age after age expands the peopled plain,

  The tenants perish, but their cells remain.

  Erasmus Darwin celebrated limestone mountains as ‘mighty monuments of past delight’, thus in some way looking ahead to Jim Lovelock’s Gaia theory of the totality of terrestrial life as a homeostatic organism.

  What Erasmus Darwin lacked was proof of his theories, the tooth found by Mrs Mantell and all the other evidences of remote and continuous life over millions of years which soon followed Owen’s first christening. As geology kept pushing back the age of the rocks, it was the testimony of those rocks which supported the theory of evolution presented by Erasmus’ grandson, Charles Darwin. There had to be enough time in which the whole great drama of life coul
d be staged. Palaeontology gradually won – by a long and painstaking accumulation of facts by numerous people, learned and not so learned.

  We now know that life on the planet is no less than 2500 million years old, whereas the age of the Earth is accepted as being something more than 4500 million years.

  It was my good fortune as a boy of seven to be given an imposing volume entitled The Treasury of Knowledge. There for the first time I learned of evolution and of the ages preceding ours. So enamoured was I of the story of the creation of the solar system, of the dawn of life, of the dinosaurs, and of those early men – like us, unlike us – that I gave lessons on the subject when at preparatory school, at one penny a time. Although I do not recollect ever being paid, I recall the pleasure we all had drawing brontosauruses and shaggy Neanderthal men.

  That precious book is still in my possession. It was published in about 1933 (no actual date printed). Nowhere does it give the ages of the various epochs of past history. A question mark still hung over that subject in the years before carbon-dating and an understanding of the nuclear nature of the sun. In one lifetime we have progressed from that grey area to knowing (or believing we know) how the universe itself came into being – though some doubt remains about the first few seconds of that event.

  Until we could look into the past, until the past was seen as a story of continuous development or change, with the mutability of species which that implied, the future remained blank. It gave no credible reflection. This we can see if we read romances of the future penned before evolutionary theory became a reality in human minds. Futures were like the present but more so.

  Mary Shelley’s The Last Man of 1826, for instance, is set at the end of the twenty-first century. It is a bold stroke, and some play is made with travel by air balloon and revolution in England; but the Turks are still causing trouble at the eastern end of Europe. When a plague commences to wipe out all of humanity, no attempt is made to introduce innoculation or vaccination, although that would have been a reasonable proposition in the 1820s. The novel is full of interesting reflections; but the motive power which evolution could supply is absent.

  It was not until 1895 that readers could take up the first novel to be formed by evolutionary thought, as a waffle is shaped by the pattern of the waffle iron. The Time Machine was written by a pupil of Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s great protagonist, H.G. Wells. In this marvellous narration, Wells sketches out aeons of future time. It is part of his design that – unlike the epochs in The Treasury of Knowledge – everything has a date. The date at which the time traveller eventually arrives is 802,701: not, in fact, a credible date for the end of the Earth by today’s standards, but one well designed to seem reasonable to the book’s first readers, who had enough other marvels to cope with. Indeed, it is difficult to realize now just how subversive the book must have seemed to many at that date, for a gloomy picture indeed is painted of the bifurcation of society into Morlock and Eloi to which Victorian society is depicted as heading. Evolution is shown as not working on behalf of mankind, as was then popularly imagined.

  And, of course, our species is shown as mutable, as transitory.

  As the time traveller travels through time into a distant future, he observes that ‘The whole surface of the earth seemed changed – melting and flowing under my eyes’. This is a man who has read Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. ‘I saw great and splendid architecture rising about me, more massive than any buildings of our own time, and yet, it seemed, built of glimmer and mist.’ It is not only man’s achievements, but mankind itself, which proves transitory, a thing of glimmer and mist.

  Without a fresh understanding of the past, without its decipherment, The Time Machine could not have been written; or, if written, could not have been deciphered.

  Following on from Wells, we have had many visions of the future. Whether mechanical, trivial, or profound, they all rest on the findings of the nineteenth century; all work as reflections of our understanding of the preceding millions of years.

  As much is true of Dougal Dixon’s book. Yet it impresses me as being startlingly original, perhaps the progenitor of a new breed, future-faction. It eschews the trappings of fiction upon which Wells seized. It presents itself as a straight record of the future, the future over the next 5 million years. It is Darwin, Lyell and Wells rolled into one. They would like this book, and be horrified by it: for we have, after all, travelled a long way since their day, and supped on horrors beyond their resources. We have lived through an age (well, men felt much the same in 1000AD, though for different reasons) when we have almost daily expected the world to be terminated.

  So here is the mutability, with human flesh a thing of glimmer and mist. Man After Man is a drama of the oncotic pressure of time on tissue. Dixon does not tell us of the things his caravanserai of creatures believes and thinks; it is enough that we know what they eat. For one of the revelations brought home by evolutionary theory is that we are a part of the food chain, along with pigs, broiler fowls and the tasty locust.

  Of course the prospect is melancholy as well as fascinating. This is one of the characteristics of futurology. After all, we are looking at a period long after our own insignificant individual deaths. Everything we are asked to consider here reinforces the fact that our world and all we cherish in it is gone. We are one with Tutankhamun and Archbishop Ussher. Other beings possess the field.

  Consider Knut who, Dixon tells us, lives a mere 500 years from now. Knut’s seems a lonely life. He lives in a wilderness of tundra. He subsists on a diet of mosses, lichens, heathers, and coarse grasses. He has been adapted, so he finds his diet palatable and nourishing. But the question arises in our minds: do we not find a little frightening and alien this inheritor of our world – and where did all the toast and marmalade go?

  We ourselves like – need – a coarse mental diet. We pass for human, but perhaps only among ourselves. Part of us is sane but, at times of crisis, and not only then, an instinctive drive takes over. We seek to set aside the human aspect by use of drink, drugs and other means of escape, as if being human was as yet too much for us. We have a hearty appetite for apocalypse, as the history of the twentieth century shows.

  With this appetite goes an obsession with the future. The futures we visualize are generally dystopian. Dixon’s is science-based, but proves distinctly ahuman. Sombre, I would call it. And sombre was also a word that occurred to Thomas Hardy when he considered the change in taste of our modern age. Hardy was a pall-bearer at Darwin’s funeral, and his writings are steeped in evolutionary thought, from A Pair of Blue Eyes to The Dynasts, the great supernatural drama he wrote in the early years of this century. In The Return of the Native, he reflects on such matters:

  Men have oftener suffered from the mockery of a place too smiling for their reason than from the oppression of surroundings oversadly tinged. Haggard Egdon appealed to a subtler and scarcer instinct, to a more recently learnt emotion, than that which responds to the sort of beauty called charming and fair.

  Indeed, it is a question if the exclusive reign of this orthodox beauty is not approaching its last quarter.... Human souls may find themselves in harmony closer and closer with external things wearing a sombreness distasteful to our race when it was young. The time seems near, if it has not actually arrived, when the chastened sublimity of a moor, a sea, or a mountain will be all of nature that is absolutely in keeping with the moods of the more thinking among mankind.

  Hardy there shows his prophetic sense. We might go on to say that chronicles of change which impress on us the transitory nature of our lives and our civilization are also in keeping with the mood of the present. The current obsession with the future may also pass away in time; but for now – just for now – Dougal Dixon has the right idea.


  Evolution is the process that brought us to where we are today.

  It started about 3500 million years ago, when the first living thing, probably a single co
mplex organic molecule in the form of a long chain, began to reproduce itself. It did this by latching onto simpler molecules dissolved in the water around it, until it built up a mirror image of itself. The two parts then split apart to become two identical complex molecules. Each of these had the same power of attracting simpler molecules and building up a mirror image – similar to the way in which viruses reproduce themselves.

  The building up and the splitting took place untold millions of times. Inevitably on occasion the mirror image so produced was not accurate. As a result the new molecule had slightly different properties from the old, and may not have been so efficient at reproducing itself. In this case the changed molecule – the mutation – stopped reproducing and died out.

  However, the occasional mutation arose that actually helped the molecule to reproduce itself. The mirror images – the offspring – of this mutation then survived. This is the basis of the process that we call evolution.

  After millions of beneficial chance mutations the single molecule became more and more complex, if complexity ensured a more efficient reproductive process. The molecule changed from a virus-like entity to a living cell, in which the reproductive molecule or molecules were encased and protected by an outer membrane. This resembled one of our modern bacteria.

  The chemical reactions that enabled early molecules to reproduce themselves may have been insufficient to power the reproduction of more advanced creatures, and other energy sources developed that allowed the absorption of energy from sunlight and the use of this energy to build up raw materials for reproduction. The first single-celled plants had evolved.

  Other mutated cells did not use the sun’s energy. Instead they digested the cells that did, and so used the energy already stored. These were the first animals.

  Eventually creatures evolved that consisted of more than just a single cell. This came about either by cells reproducing themselves and then failing to split, or by several cells coming together. Whichever it was, if the multi-celled creature were more efficient, then it survived and reproduced in its multi-cellular form.

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