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the humans who went extinct

22 august 2012

Clive Finlayson's Humans Who Went Extinct is an all-over-the-map treatment of the state of knowledge about human evolution c2009. Figuratively all over the map, ranging across many ecosystems, climates, and geographical regions, but also at times less than tightly organized, and lacking the literal maps and diagrams that would allow a reader to visualize much of what Finlayson is talking about. But he does sound some themes in the course of his desultory overview that resonate with current environmental concerns. He's also resolutely anti-teleological. All evolutionary scientists should be, but often a narrative of fitness and adaptation comes to seem a narrative of destiny. Destiny isn't a word in Finlayson's vocabulary: for him, the results of the Darwinian struggle come from sheer chance.

Although here and there in The Humans Who Went Extinct, a moral tone about evolutionary survival can't help but creep back in. Dumb luck plays the major role, but one gets a sense that, for Finlayson as for Branch Rickey, luck is the residue of design – or if not of Design (a loaded term in these discussions, for sure), then at least the residue of an opportunistic attitude. Finlayson distinguishes between conservative populations, which play it safe in the niches they're best suited for, and risk-takers, who exploit the margins with unconventional (and frequently suboptimal) strategies. Most of the time the marginal risk-takers die out. But when the going gets tough, they get going, and survive in multiple and resourceful ways.

When it all comes tumbling down who will survive? There is enough in our story to suggest that it will not be those of us in the comfort zone, the auto-domesticated slaves of electricity, motor cars, and cyberspace, who would not last more than a few days without supporting technology. The tradition that produced the bureaucrat, the priest, and the king generated communities of specialists, which was fine as long as conditions were favorable. But when things get bad these societies of experts will become strained to their limits. The children of chance, those poor people who today must scrap for morsels each day without knowing when and where the next meal will come from, will once again be most capable at survival. (220)
Which is enough to make you want to learn to tan your own leather, mold your own bullets, and buy a secluded canyon in Montana. But it also slightly contradicts Finlayson's own theme. If he's right about the bigger picture, chance may play such an overwhelming role that the plucky survivalists are swept away in a tsunami, and the human race is regenerated from a motley crew of pet-sitters, actuaries, and fantasy-baseball enthusiasts. Prediction, at any rate, is idle.

Finlayson also delights in undercutting elaborate theories, and then reappropriating them for want of alternatives. He is fond of (and very sharp on) deriding those who would build great systems of human evolutionary history from a few scattered artifacts, or clades of the hominid family out of a bone or two. But at times he backtracks. After deflating man-the-hunter theories (which have gone around and come around cyclically in the literature), he proceeds to base a great deal of his thoughts on Ancestors and Neanderthals in terms of their hunting strategies. But as Finlayson himself points out, we may think of early man as a hunter simply because stone weapons and large mammal bones have been preserved, while baskets and fruit have not.

The current state of knowledge about human evolution changes every time you turn around; it's hardly even worth writing or reading a book about it, because everything in the book will be obsolete by the time it hits the shelves, let along gets into my reading queue. By the time (2009) that Finlayson published The Humans Who Went Extinct, for instance, the notion that a single human male ancestor lived 60,000 years ago (popularized by Spencer Wells in Deep Ancestry [2006]) had yielded to a much more distant single-male-ancestor theory, one which allows for Homo sapiens to have diversified widely across Africa after that ancestor lived 140,000 years ago, before spinning off a small founder population of Eurasian sapiens (Finlayson calls them "Ancestors") 80,000 years ago. The quick pace at which these confidently-espoused scenarios succeed one another can make your head spin and/or hurt, unless you do nothing but keep up with the paleoanthropological literature.

What Finlayson does best (when he does it) is to point to how "humility and proportion" (29) are necessary in our thinking about our species' past. He tries to imagine diverse and contingent scenarios, and things yet undreamt of in paleontological dogma. That's a good model to follow in a field where everything is continuously provisional.

Finlayson, Clive. The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals died out and we survived. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.