Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Two books recomended by Popular Science

Surviving Armageddon
[Although] Surviving Armageddon … has all the elements of destruction, as its subtitle 'Solutions for a Threatened Planet' suggests, it spends as much if not more time on positive solutions to disaster as it does on what can go wrong.

It's not that McGuire, Professor of Geophysical Hazards (neat job title) and a volcanologist (or vulcanologist as used to be the proper English term before Mister Spock confused things) is vastly optimistic, especially about the dangers of global warming if some countries, particularly the US, don't start to act, but rather that he puts forward a spectrum of proposed solutions from sensible to downright loony, and picks out the most useful possibilities, then like the rest of us, crosses his fingers that the powers that be will get it right.
On the whole it's a very good book.
Also, (available only from Amazon.co.uk) The Eternal Child: How Evolution Has Made Children of Us All by Clive Bromhall.
People are very strange apes. Haven’t you every wondered how natural selection has led to our peculiar weakness? We’re practically hairless, we’re slow with our feeble two-legged gait (sad to say, we can be outrun by a rabbit), we have feeble teeth compared with our closest relatives, we have thin, non-protective skins and we can’t even climb trees very well because we don’t have the opposing big toe on our feet. In fact we’re predator bait – we ought to have been wiped out pretty quickly as a tasty, easy-to-catch snack.

Bromhall points out in this entertainingly written page-turner that all our apparent survival weaknesses (I’ve only highlighted a few of our oddities) are throwbacks to infancy. We are big babies. Many of the strange features we have are shared with other apes while they’re still forming, but by the time they’re mature they have grown out of them.

So why did we manage to survive with all these negative factors? Why weren’t we naturally selected out? Because, Bromhall argues, these are just side effects of the desirable part of staying infantile. Mature male chimpanzees, for example, are horrendously egotistical. They are incapable of cooperation. A group of more than a handful of chimps will self-destruct. But to survive in the savannah conditions that helped form us needed apes that could cooperate, that were relatively non-aggressive to each other. And that behaviour is another aspect of the ape before it matures. By staying baby-like we were much more likely to form a big enough group to survive against the fast and ferocious predators of the savannah.

It’s wonderful stuff – can’t be recommended more.
Presumably other childlike qualities such as intellectual flexibility also helped. Of course there are many of us who have not remained as childlike as one would hope.

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