Palaeontology, hotbed of political controversy, jingoism and prejudice!
A bold statement, you might think. I mean, anthropology, yes. One can see how debates over the history and development of the various races(1) of man could be turned to a number of political ends, and generally highly undesirable ones, but go back far enough for palaeontology to take up the baton and surely the politics has turned to stone like the rest of it?
Not so, not so, for there is a conspiracy. (3)
There was a great wailing and a gnashing of teeth (4) when Darwin published that book. They cried out from the mountains that he had removed man from the centre of the universe. Let’s face facts: man had been sliding from the universe’s centre in stages: Copernicus and Galileo were only a couple of the crusaders of knowledge who had been crowbarring away at human importance. Darwin, however, dared to make the (5) point that we were, basically, apes in shoes and neckties. We were not set above the animals to use and abuse them by divine right, we were part of a continuum with them, just another species.
So far, so good, so, politics? Did they find a some fossil liberals? Well, the problem is that there is a trend, amongst people otherwise entirely scientific, to restore man to his imagined central place in the universe, or at least the (pre-)history of the earth.
It is a Foucaultian duel of ideas, really. There is a implicit belief in a lot of popular science, especially evolution, that mankind is either (a) the pinnacle of evolution (7) or (b) the inevitable result of evolution (8). This idea manifests itself in a kind of staggered apartheid of species, where anything closer to us is better, and was always bound to succeed anything further from us. Hence vertebrates were bound to “succeed” invertebrates, amphibians triumph over fish, St-George-like mammals assert their destiny over the slain corpse of the reptilian dragon, and so on. (9).
This agenda leads to some curious and unscientific behaviour. Mammal-centrists will fight to the death over the cold-bloodedness of dinosaurs, and the picture of the noble saurians as lumbering, witless, underevolved clowns is still widespread, as though they were simply keeping the mammals’ seat warm while we slept in. It takes considerable determination to overlook the fact that their tenure on the earth was around a hundred and fifty million years, and that mammals, our remote ancestors, were there in their shadow from the start. Whither inevitability? To take a more recent example, it’s hard to shake the stereotype of the poor Neanderthals as “stupid cavemen” despite the fact that they had bigger brains than we did.
And of course, to warm to my pet subject, the same goes for the poor invertebrates. The most disgraceful version of the inevitability theory, in fact, was perpetrated by none other than the BBC in its series Walking with Monsters. We are presented with evolution from the Precambrian through the Carboniferous as an arms race, between the (villainous, bullying, icky) arthropods and the (plucky, resourceful, heroic) vertebrates. We see big, clunky Anomalocaris bettered by a swarm of tiny fish-ancestors, because its hard old carapace makes it too inflexible to get them (10). We see clever early fish outwit dumb scorpions – in fact, the scorpions fall prey to other scorpions, in a peculiarly Dick-Dastardly sort of way. Mind you, this pales into insignificance before…
In the Carboniferous, apparently, the BBC found a fossilised deus ex machine. Here we see some kind of large newt (vertebrate, more like us, hooray) confront an arthropleura millipede (boo, not like us). Can it kill the large bug? Not on its own, but- look! The armoured giant falls and impales itself on a handy branch, lunchtime for our amphibious cousin. What are we to conclude? That early amphibians routinely used traps and deadfalls as standard hunting tools? Or that the world is out to get the upstart invertebrates, who don’t know their place?
Or let’s take the spider. It’s a giant killer spider (11) chasing down our poor ancestral lizard, like the cad it is. Probably it wants to tie the poor critter to some train tracks and then twirl its pedipalps a bit. All right, it gets its prey, but does it get to enjoy it? Nope, because our evil spider is punished by being struck by lightning. That’s right, directly struck by a bolt of actual lightning. This is the BBC positing actual divine vengeance as the cause of the vertebrate triumph. I understand that it is traditional for nature documentaries (12) to fiddle the events to tell a coherent story, but in this case the story is pure humanocentric propaganda.
After all, this is not the age of humanity. This is the brief space between the ape and the atom bomb in which humanity lives. Our companions from earth’s earlier eras remain with us. To declare that vertebrates “won” against arthropods just because we ended up bigger (13) is to ignore the fact that they ended up more numerous and enduring. (14)
Anyway, rant over with. Next: Back to the publishing mullarkey. I promise.
(1) Races? Pshaw. Fantasy role-playing has probably done a great deal to dispel the idea of discrimination based on the “races of mankind” by devaluing the terminology. To a gamer the word you put next to “race:” is not Caucasian or asian but ‘elf’ or ‘half-orc’ and, although one can certainly use imaginary races to explore the concept of racism (2), the average gamer would say that if it doesn’t get some solid racial modifiers, it doesn’t really count as a racial distinction. Egalitarianism by attribute scores.
(2) As, in fact, I do in Empire.
(3) This isn’t the same as the genre conspiracy I was talking about. This is an entirely different conspiracy.
(4) It is, in fact, extraordinarily difficult to both wail and gnash one’s teeth at the same time.
(5) Frankly blindingly obvious (6)
(6) But then it always is the blindingly obvious lies that people hold onto so desperately.
(7) Untenable as an idea, but it’s very, very popular. It’s not hard to find people writing about evolution as though everything is desperately striving to, in the words of the song, “be like you-oo-oo.”
(8) Arguable, in a philanthropic-principle kind of a way, but an idea I find dubious to say the least.
(9) If you want to hear about this from writers immensely more qualified and erudite than I, I recommend Gould’s Wonderful Life or Bakker’s The Dinosaur Heresies.
(10) For the world, of course, is just crammed full of examples of small animals routinely preying on large top carnivores. Piranhas aside, my main candidates for this behaviour are not vertebrates.
(11) Giant spider? It’s the size of your head. Perusing my Monster Manual that makes it a large spider at best. Pah.
(12) Yes it’s not a nature documentary, but it’s following the pattern of a nature documentary.
(13) To claim victory by being bigger than an insect is surely a wretched and beggarly triumph.
(14) And when the ants take over the world and overthrow the nation-states of humanity, I’d respectfully ask them to take all this into account when considering what to do with me.