Neanderthals, extinction, the apocalypse

After a lengthy hiatus, I’m about to kick my survey of post-apocalyptic science fiction into gear again. Before I do so, I’m reposting my original rationale for reading post-apocalyptic sci-fi:

What does the Neanderthal genome have to with post-apocalyptic science fiction? It may seem like odd inspiration, but Neanderthals have aroused my interest in one of the most venerable genres of science fiction. Last summer I was awaiting the release of The Road movie, reading a piece of classic post-nuclear sci-fi (John Wyndham’s 1955 The Chrysalids), and thinking about some recent news stories on the (then) forthcoming Neanderthal genome sequence.

I was struck by the thought that the last Neanderthals lived in what could be thought of as a post-apocalyptic world. They were going extinct. Did they notice? What kind of world did the last survivors live in?

It’s doubtful that Neanderthals had any concept of extinction, of course, at least on a continent-wide or global scale. Yet you can imagine that there may have been some sense that something had gone terribly wrong, perhaps a recognition of an unyielding process that was squeezing them out, that the world was taking a new direction without them. Extinction was gradual, taking place over generations, and therefore most likely difficult to recognize.

They were living in a post-apocalyptic world. Nature had turned against them. They were being threatened by alien invaders with new, powerful weapons. Perhaps the Neanderthals were doing each other in, resorting to cannibalism and inter-tribal violence in their desperation. Did their society begin to crumble as their numbers dwindled, or as previously predictable rhythms of nature shifted? Were there lost traditions, passed-on legends of long-gone better days? With a little imagination, it’s easy to think of the Neanderthals in a classic, end of the world sci-fi context. What is it like to be a member of a self-aware, intelligent species that is dying away? What is it like to be the very last living members of that species? …

Science is remarkable because it is an extremely successful method for understanding and controlling nature by intellectual effort. Neanderthals, and their modern human neighbors, lived in close proximity to nature, and were engaged in a constant battle for survival. Most of us encounter the struggle for survival remotely, listening to the unflappable British voice of David Attenborough as we watch kangaroo rats, lions, elephant seals, and wildebeest relentlessly pursuing food and mates in a world where small, careless errors and weaknesses are punished with casual brutality. Neanderthals and other early humans lived in that world.

Science and technology have proven the most effective means to “turn the tide” in our battle with nature (as Aldous Huxley put it, with some bitterness, in his post-nuclear novel, Ape and Essence). Science is a mediator between humans and nature. This mediating role rests on the ability science gives us to predict, control and manipulate nature. Even science done out of pure curiosity is based on control: in order to obtain scientific knowledge, we manipulate nature by doing experiments. The prime test of our scientific theories is how predictive they are, how well they enable us to manipulate nature with predictable results. From a scientific perspective, is impossible to understand nature without controlling it.

Post-apocalyptic science fiction describes situations in which our ability to predict and control fails catastrophically. Nature escapes our control, through world-wide plagues, collisions with asteroids, or invasions by alien species; or else we’re done in by our own efforts at control, by nuclear war or human-induced ecological catastrophe.

Thus End of the World science fiction is a fine setting for fiction writers to explore the relationship between science and society. To what extent does civilization depend on the ability to control nature, i.e., depend on technology? How do our relationships with each other depend on the security of scientific control? Are there dark (animal?) elements of human nature, kept normally under wraps by civilization, that surface when science fails and civilization cracks up? In other words, how much does being human depend on how we relate to nature? What are the negative side-effects of our scientific quest to render nature tame and predictable? Have we deluded ourselves into believing we have more control than we really possess? Extinction is what happens when a species loses the battle for survival, and the Neanderthals lost. Is it possible that we could lose as well?

And here’s a supporting statement from anthropologist Charles Finlayson, from The Humans Who Went Extinct:

By the time the classic Neanderthals emerged, during the last interglacial around 125 years ago, they were already a people doomed to extinction. Like the hippos, rhinos, and elephants of the eurasian forest, the Neanderthals were a population of living dead, existing on borrowed time.

Whether Finalyson’s scientific position ends up being the consensus or not (and there certainly is controversy over what the causes of Neanderthal extinction were), the Neanderthals certainly evoke post-apocalyptic thoughts.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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