Tuesday, September 25, 2007


From the Archives

(April 2005) Just finished half an order of tom kar gai and half an order of Bangkok duck and am now kicked back on my sofa in my batman pants and wienie woman T-shirt watching the National Geographic channel/relaxing.

This channel gets on my nerves sometimes because they sensationalize topics much as Fox does: Then, disaster struck! And one species was nearly lost . . . forEEEEEver! or Then, in the midst of their celebration, the big cat struck! and you see a fallen bicycle with one wheel still spinning and the child’s shoe, lying there in the dirt.

Still, this is my favorite channel of late and their shows about plate tectonics and anthropological or archeological studies and Alaskan bays and wild foxes and bear cubs are interesting. The station’s attempts to show viewers the ways that humans can coexist with other species are really interesting too. And they occasionally air a show in which my friend Hakon, several other anthropologists, and the girlfriend of the lead anthropologist who got the grant build a bamboo raft using an ancient design and attempt to travel down the Amazon on it.

My pal Hakon is an absolute joy and one of the most intellectually curious people I’ve ever met. He really does see the earth as one giant place to explore (and plays a mean game of basketball too).

Late in the show, Hakon et al. hit a patch of roaring white water and their entire raft comes apart underneath them, dumping them and all of their gear into a rapid.

But back to the present. Tonight’s show is about evolution, which no doubt will provide National Geographic with some interesting mail. The show explores why, at some point 70,000 years ago, we homo sapiens almost became extinct (mostly likely from a global catastrophe, and probably from a deadly volcano) and what allowed us to survive while other species did not.

Back to that in a minute but what caught my attention first was the life-like model of the remains of a giant species the scientists refer to as Goliath. They built this model to try to understand why Goliath evolved into a smaller species the same scientists refer to as a hobbit.

Adaptability. Or, as they say so well on the show, Goliath had a big-engine, little-radiator flaw. He was massive, but didn’t have enough skin surface to stay cool in a hot climate. So Goliath adapted in order to stay cool.

Since I’m always hot when people around me are cold, I plan to co-opt this explanation and refer to myself as Medea of the big engine, little radiator species. (-:

So. Why did homo sapiens survive while other species became extinct? Let’s jump ahead a few centuries to when cave-dwellers first began making things with an eye for beauty as well as function.

Homo sapiens alone have a sense of pride or beauty that drives our work, the scientists report. And our ancestors must have had a little extra time on their hands because it didn’t take them long to carve fancy arrowheads and intricate stones and to string shell jewelry.

You don’t wear jewelry unless you care what other people think about you, and that character trait is part of what makes us who we are. (Vain?)

So think about it. Creativity is a huge evolutionary leap. I mean, ten thousand years ago, everyone was making jewelry; eighty thousand years ago, no one was. What a leap to make!

Why did we emerge alone from the crowded field of apes?

Well, creativity generates multiple ideas. Yo. And chimps never could control the bullies within their own communities.

Compared to the chimps, we are surprisingly nonviolent. We tend to be peaceful and cooperative and we work well together (sometimes), building on each other’s inventions.

Go-it-alone erectus had but one tool to solve every problem, but we use our creativity to create new tools to solve specific problems. And our grain is an infinite toolkit.

Language, however, is what really allowed the weak among our ancestors to team up against the bullies and create a “coalition of the timid.” (Nice phrase.) Eliminating the bullies that threatened the whole with their unbridled aggression improved the odds of our species surviving.

There. That’s what I learned while lying on my ass in my batman pants: Language and creativity generate species-saving solutions—or, creativity is the ultimate survival tool.

Gotta love it.

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