Lonely at the top.

July 30, 2011 § 8 Comments

Open Richard Leakey’s book, “The Sixth Extinction,” to the handful of glossy photos in the middle to find portraits of the extinct and the soon-to-be extinguished.

Without the book in hand you will have to imagine some of the images described, but imagining is one of the strengths of our species.

In the first picture is Emma Mbua, curator of hominid fossils at the National Museum, Nairobi. Standing beside her is the 1.6 million-year-old skeleton of Turkana Boy.

Emma, with her great cranial capacity, is clearly a member of the current hominid club, Homo sapiens (note her thoughtful expression and the ease with which she stands erect).

I’m afraid that Turkana Boy, with his shallow brain pan and great-apelike lower jaw can only claim membership in the less exclusive Homo erectus club. It is Emma’s kind that invented the cotton gin, slavery, envy, the rubber band. For the tribe of Turkana Boy, the rise off all fours was a big deal.

Turn the page. Here is Wiwaxia corrugata, one of the enigmatic fossil creatures of the Burgess Shale. Among the tiny phantasms, each an experimental model for future life, this inch-long bright idea turned out to be a winner. It is the ancestor of the polychete worms still found in magnificent variety in the earth’s seas.

And now for an evolutionary superstar, a fully evolved polychete, Pikaia gracilens, more widely known as the charter member of the club Chordata, the originator of the backbone. (Applause, applause).

In this shadowy two inch ribbon worm is the germ of an idea, a structural plan from which whole phyla will arise. By repeating and varying this one idea, the embroidery of evolution will produce a fish, a bird, a cat, a man.

Turn the page. Welcome to the gallery of extinction! Extinction is the background music of evolution, the final quiet notes of species unable to cope with change or the pressure of competition. And it’s not all bad. Extinction makes room for the next worm with a good idea.

Operating on its own, extinction occurs at a fairly stately pace, but there are ways for a clever species (especially one with opposable thumbs) to speed things up.

Bones and beaks displayed on velvet are all that’s left of the giant flightless bird the Moa-Nola. Until recently the demise of the Hawaiian Island biota was blamed on Europeans. Bringing with them their dogs, their sheep, their pigs, the conquerors ate and grazed the native species to death. But it seems that, at least in the case of the Moa-Nola, an even earlier race of man, the aboriginal Polynesians, are responsible.

We have been in the business of extinction for a long long time

And now, among the pictures of the soon-to-be extinct, I find my own favorite, the elephant. The hand that holds the camera is the hand of the assassin,  the guy with the big brain.

Men draw diagrams of evolution. They look like trees. One early model, from William K Gregory’s 1929 book, “Our Face From Fish To Man” places the Devonian shark at the bottom. By gradual but ambitious changes the shark becomes the Roman athlete at the top. A Horatio Alger story scrawled across millennia.

Each evolutionary tree tells a slightly different, speculative story. They agree on just one thing. The story ends with us, always. We are the goal of all that survival-of-the-fittest warfare. We are the crown of creation.

We sit on evolution’s highest branch and lop out branches below us. It’s getting lonely up here.

Our own species will one day lie down in the dust of extinction (no doubt taking most of Earth’s biological life out with us) and like the simple creatures of the Burgess Shale, we will leave a final portrait in stone.

What then?

Some upstart worm will begin again, obeying the imperative of life to rise, complicate, multiply. And what will the creature at the top of that tree look like? Probably not like us. Life, like snowflakes, seeks variety.

In some unimaginable museum of the future our bones will make a nice display.


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§ 8 Responses to Lonely at the top.

  • A., Have you seen the movie previews for the new “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”? I think our demise is imminent! That will leave the apes at the top. At least they know how to swing and should preserve the few trees we leave behind.

    Hey, are we getting just a bit morose here? Back to my Yankees game – at this moment it’s Yankees 17 Orioles 2. Yanks up at bat, one on, no outs. I think the Baltimore pitchers are hiding in the bathroom afraid to come out and face the Bronx bombers.

    Okay, I guess I’ve just left morose behind!!



    • Depends on which team you’re rooting for, doesn’t it? I’m a girl who lived within shouting distance of the Orioles old Memorial Stadium. On hot summer nights we’d walk over and pay eighty-five cents to sit in the general admission seats.

      On our street, even if you didn’t go to the game, it was traditional to sit on your porch facing the lights of the Stadium, with the portable radio on the porch rail broadcasting the game. The cheers from the crowd came through loud and clear, not just on the radio, but from the great acoustic bowl of the Stadium. Go Birds!


  • nschauer says:

    Darwin was deeply disturbed by the randomness of evolution. There is no contract that says the ‘best’ species will be at the top. Thus a possum can survive in its various forms over the eons while saber tooth tigers became extinct.
    Mass extinctions are not totally understood. Currently the bee population seems to be headed for extinction for reasons that are not understood.
    Its humbling to remember that a simple virus like the Spanish Influenza can kill off over 50 million people world wide.
    Your article is thought provoking and timely considering the display of destructive behavior going on in Washington DC.


    • The debacle in Washington has been much on my mind. Failure to adapt to the demands of the situation of the moment may not bring a species down, but it sure can cost individuals dearly. I’m afraid this one is going to cost a lot of individuals, and dearly.

      The thought of a Spanish Influenza-type disaster is humbling. There is so much we can’t control.The mess in DC is humbling as well. It is a vivid display of some of the worst traits of our species. We are capable of such avarice and stupidity. We show less talent for self-control.


  • Tgumster says:

    The irony of this post overwhelms as the most radical experiment in democracy fails after only a little more than 200 years. No doubt complacency plays an integral role in extinction for it’s hard to imagine one without the other but then imagination is what is lacking.

    Fine, fine essay, Adrian, definitely a “Pearl book” piece.


    • I guess we are all guilty of being complacent, but we did elect these officials to keep the country running. They can’t seem to get past themselves long enough to consider the greater good.


  • Sue Cronkite says:

    It’s really scary. I had a female gopher turetle coming to hmy yard for several years to lay her eggs under my house. She had lost her right front leg at the elbow and walked briskly on the stump. I was proud of her and would imagine all sorts of ways she could have lost half of her front leg. I haven’t seen her this year at all. She must have tried to cross a street and been killed.
    The reason we don’t see as many turtles on the highways as we used to is that they are being squashed by cars.
    I saw one on my way home not long ago and stopped to let it get to the other side of the street. I should have picked it up and moved it over because a man driving a big-wheeled F-100 came up behind me and held down on his horn, then sped around me to run right over the turtle. When I got out to move the turtle to the shoulder of the street, it was flat as a pancake. I cried.
    Gopher turtles will live to be hundreds of years old if left alone. We should be proud to share our space on the planet with them.


    • I think that individually we wish nature well. But the collective pressure of all of us with our machines and our insatiable needs, and our penchant for altering every landscape leaves so little room we can’t help but squish tortoises flat on our roads.

      I hate this about us.


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