The Better Angels of Our Nature and an Evolutionary Response to Extremist Reactionaries

Lest we muddle the matter further, let us define precisely what we mean by the term “Armageddon” because for some, the preposterous has become credulous. It is not in the Christian sense, that is, the coming of apocalyptic destruction of an evil world to be followed by the messiah and his reign over the “kingdom of heaven.” God will not send a monstrous flood to wash away the evil in this world and leave planet Earth to the chosen people (whoever they are, or believe themselves to be,) nor will the “meek inherit the earth.” It is also not what “ancient alien astronaut theorists” claim in their literalist expositions of advanced humanoids returning to the Earth from their home in the cosmos to reconfigure and reconstruct the human genome and further civilization’s progress. We refer here, too, to the UFOlogists and their lore which is coeval with Christian theology and the “ancient astronaut theory.” It is neither the formation, by a “master race” of humans, of a “new world order” nor the return of demi-gods or aliens to re-create an illusory utopia from the ancient past. Philosophers from Plato to Nietzsche have grappled unsuccessfully with notions of utopia (Atlantis lost) and of the rise of the godless superman (Zarathustra.) All of these phenomena may be classified under the general rubric of “millennialism” which seems to come in various forms: messiahs forming kingdoms on earth after destruction of the wicked earthlings; aliens returning from the stars to guide and shape human advancement; rise of the herrenmensch; identification of a lost utopian antediluvian civilization or the rise of a future techno-utopia, indeed, the kingdom of heaven in other guises. The millenialist complex so described is a constellation of feeling tones, images, and thoughts which coalesce in the oppressed mind to produce an exaggerated energetic phenomenon. This results in the large aggregation of the like-minded into dangerous parasitic ideological groups rather than the more humane and natural organic extended kinship groups of remote antiquity: humanity’s primordial, small, and personal kin-based systems of social interaction within their environment of evolutionary adaptedness. Humanity is not so easily divorced from its primeval environment: human-environment interaction is a holistically integrated biosocial evolved adaptive organism in, and of, itself. A reductionist regime would fracture nature’s cohesive ontogenetically recapitulated phylogeny of our species.

The great Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung would have considered the millennialist complex an illness of the mind akin to a neurosis and, in its most extreme form, a psychosis; to put it another way, it is an “oppression religion” whether secular (i.e., national-socialism, communism, hyper-capitalism, “philosophy,” freemasonry, etc.,) or religious (eastern or “of the book,”) in its manifestation. The virulence of the neurosis/psychosis is dependent on how powerful the complex expresses and manifests itself in the mundane world: messianic pronouncements; a new world order; the rise of the master race or “brotherhood of man;” the arrival of the long lost builders of civilization from somewhere in the Milky Way; the revelation of a lost world-wide and “highly advanced” Stone Age civilization hidden in the mists of time (which would, of course, have been utterly impossible during glacial conditions,) or a presumed future techno-utopia. In the ideology of the millenialist complex there is always something to look forward to, to anticipate, to discover, or to aspire to in some undefined and murky future time which is better than the current state of affairs. Perhaps then “Armageddon” should be viewed from a more eastern or psychological viewpoint where this “world” of the ego is supplanted (i.e., destroyed) by the attainment of enlightenment or psychological wholeness in a “worldly” and unpleasant society. However, this too largely hearkens back to the millenialist complex of the current oppression religions which first arose more than 2,500 years ago (and possibly even further back in time if Hinduism falls into this category.) That the complex is alive and well with millions of believers in the present is proof positive of the oppressed mind in the “modern” world. But a kernel of truth can be plucked here from the east and the psychologists – that of reconnecting the conscious mind with humanity’s genetic memory. This enterprise has been the goal of many in the “civilized” world who realize something is wrong in “modern” societies; a disconnect or disjunction of the mind. The proper question to ask then is: are there people who have always had this faculty and never lost it through time, and therefore do not need to “rediscover” it? A careful inspection of the spirituality of hunter-gatherers (“shamanism” in the broadest sense) provides a window into the true nature of humanity’s primordial “religiosity” and its purpose in the Darwinian calculus of survival. Only the temporal arrogance of the agro-industrial civilizations frowns upon these alleged “primitive” or “savage” societies, which persist, relatively unchanged in their basics, to a more human heritage visible to the astute observer. “Traditional” societies exist in the present in spite of agro-industrialist civilized incursions. They, too, are a modern adaptation to living in current environments. A re-introduction to humankind’s environment of evolutionary adaptedness is therefore a necessary correlation to a fundamental understanding of society; and of necessity to jettison 19th century notions of social progress. Thus, it is time to dispense with “modern” agro-industrial civilized religious and secular oppression beliefs and understand what the term “Armageddon” means from the more appropriate perspectives of climate change, ecology, and evolution.

Various human (genus Homo) species or ecotypes (a genetically distinct form that occurs in a specific habitat but which can freely interbreed with another form in an adjacent habitat) have speciated and radiated out into the Old World, and finally the New World. What concerns us here is how these human species/ecotypes operated in their habitats and adjusted (or not) to changing environmental conditions. Climate change and the resulting environmental perturbations drove human evolution in several “punctuated” events by Ice Age conditions which began with the onset of the Pleistocene Epoch some 2.5 million years ago. The earliest evidence of tool use (cut marks on bones) dates back 3.4 million years while the first lithic assemblages appear in the fossil record 2.6 million years ago (the “Oldowan” chopper industry.) At this time, however, much to Louis Leakey’s chagrin, there was no elusive “handy man” within the genus Homo who could have made these tools. The first documented human remains in the fossil record date to approximately 1.8 million years ago; though there is the reasonable presumption of the existence of an ancestral species from which these first humans are derived. This genus/species is currently unknown. However, tools had been in existence for millennia prior to this time. Moreover, chimpanzees have been found in Central Africa (The Congo) who use tools to hunt that are not recognized by archaeologists in fossil assemblages because they resemble naturefacts rather than artifacts. Recent research on these chimpanzees has allowed anthropologists at the Smithsonian and George Washington University to recreate their naturefacts using experimental archaeology based on observations of wild behavior patterns. They then went out into the field and found these same naturefacts in ancient deposits: the first recorded archaeological excavation of chimpanzee tool kits and assemblages. The lesson here is that tool use preceded the advent of the human line. If chimpanzees and humans are thoughtful tool users, then it stands to reason that their most recent common ancestor did the same about 7 million years ago. That archaeologists have not recognized naturefacts in fossil assemblages is not evidence of absence. Moreover, early hominids (probably genus Australopithecus,) though not found in association with Oldowan tools, are currently the only available candidates for their creation (A. garhi at 2.5 million years ago.) The speciation event which led to the first of human line (Homo erectus) indicates that they “inherited” or acculturated tool making and use from pre- or proto-human ancestors. This is not surprising given the recent research on the Congolese chimpanzees. The recent finds of the floresiensis diminutive hominid in Indonesia was found with an associated tool industry (and spear-hunting pygmy elephants of the genus Stegodon) and yet there seems to be debate among paleoanthropologists on where this species should be properly placed in the taxonomic record: within the genus Homo based on cranio-facial observations or Australopithecus based on post-cranial skeletal proportions and morphology. It does strain credulity to place floresiensis in Homo simply because of presumed tool use and hunting. The problem here is that the cranium, while resembling Homo erectus in morphology, is far too small to place in that species. The notion that brain expansion occurred in H. erectus to near modern human proportions and then reverted back to australopithecine levels also strains credulity. A more logical hypothesis would be that pre- or proto-human forms were tool users. Given the fact that there is no candidate for the earliest tool users belonging to Homo and recent evidence of sophisticated and deliberate tool making, use, and hunting by chimpanzees in the Congo further reinforces the notion that these behaviors long pre-existed the human (sensu stricto) line.

The other benchmark of humanity, bipedalism, also long predated the advent of the genus Homo and cannot be used as a measure of what makes us human. Sahelanthropus and Orrorin show evidence of bipedalism at 6.6 and about 5.8 million years ago, respectively, long prior to brain expansion seen in the genus Homo. The australopithecines show a morphological adaptation to walking in trees much like the modern orangutan does. This is a tropical forest adaptation, not an adaptation for traversing savanna-like environments. The fact that bipedalism later became an “exaptation” for savanna-woodland environments is the product of serendipity in the ecological record and was present in the most recent common ancestor of both humans and chimpanzees. The knuckle-walking of the chimpanzees is a later adaptation to a forest dwelling species that is largely confined to such environments by this mode of locomotion. In other words, pre- or proto-humans were pre-adapted to upright walking which they later exploited for a different purpose: from walking in trees to walking in savanna environments. Walking later became long-distance running in Homo erectus, the exploitation of an exaptation for the superior hunting abilities of that species. The increase in protein intake (meat-consumption) then saw incipient brain expansion as the new resources were utilized and maximized. By the time we reach Homo heidelbergensis some half-million years ago, we already have a large-brained and lethal human apex predator species sharing that title with hyenas, wolves, and lions. But this was long in the making – from the prey mentality of the pre- and proto-human species hundreds of thousands of years later to an apex predator mentality species. At an earlier point humans (species erectus) had gradually, through the generations, fissioned off into the uninhabited savannah-woodland habitat mosaic of the mid-latitude belt from the Iberian Peninsula all the way west to China/Korea and its southern prong down into East and South Africa. A later “out-of-Africa” fissioning movement of the Heidelbergs (H. heidelbergensis/rhodesiensis) spread those populations across the mid-latitude and southern prong savanna-woodland belt (MLB) into Europe and Asia. The next speciation events occurred in the MLB of East Africa, Europe, and Asia some 300,000 thousand years ago from the Heidelbergs to ancestral or “archaic” Homo sapiens, ancestral H. neanderthalensis, and the Denisovans (closely related to the Neanderthals,) respectively. The erectines yet survived in Asia at this time, thus we have four distinct human species at the beginning of the (African) Middle Stone Age (MSA.) It would seem appropriate to use the African timeline since the Heidelbergs arose from that region of the MLB during the MSA and expanded outward from there. The MLB provided the sites for the edge environments or habitat mosaics (ecotones) as the ebb and flow of the ice ages proceeded after 1.8 million years ago. These habitats were less desirable than the “prime real-estate” of pristine environments of evolutionary adaptedness and tougher to manage for extant human species. Thus, these peoples had to innovate much more than conservatives living in ideal or pristine environments where innovation was not necessary.

If necessity is the “mother of invention,” then edge environments would have been the birthplace of innovation. A major factor in the evolution of human species was the climatic impacts which caused the edge environments to develop, expand, and contract. This was no easy matter as habitat loss is a known cause of faunal extinctions. “Conservatives” will prosper in their ideal environments; however, when they are forced into edge environments they must either become “innovators” themselves or face extinction. That different human species/ecotypes, including Homo sapiens were culled and became locally extinct is a certainty. Some population levels were so low that further environmental degradation eventually led to their total extinction (H. neanderthalensis, the Denisovans, “archaic” H. sapiens/H. helmei, and H. erectus) somewhere around 25-30,000 years ago. The only human survivors were a relict population of H. sapiens sensu stricto living in the Great Rift Valley in the southern Ethiopian/Kenyan/Tanzanian corridor. All people on the planet today are descendants of this relict population of some 2-10,000 breeding individuals who survived the Toba eruption in Indonesia and the associated “genetic bottleneck.” This population must have been in the “innovator” group living in a habitat mosaic in East Africa; later fissioning out to other parts of Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Asia and finally the New World. By this time the “innovators” were the pioneers of environments outside the MLB and thrived because of their adaptive abilities. A possible example of the survival of “conservative” pre- or proto-human ancestors would be the relict floresiensis populations which survived in Indonesia’s temporate, MLB-like environments to 12,000 years ago.

Today, there are three existing edge environments or habitat mosaics/ecotones: the Arctic; the desert, and the tropical rainforest. The people living here are akin to the innovators of the MSA and Late Stone Ages. These are not backwards tribal peoples eking out a living in a marginal environment suffering on the earth’s poorest real-estate, pushed there by expanding agro-industrial civilizations. These hunter-gatherers have remained in their edge environments because they chose to be there and have successfully adapted to their habitat mosaics; the agro-industrial civilizations did not covet their land and thus displace them. It is true, however, that the agro-industrialist civilizations eventually wound up with the most desirable locations and have thus become the “conservatives” of the human race. The “innovator” hunter-gatherers could not face the growing power of the agro- and agro-industrialist civilizations; they therefore tried to evade them when possible or were left relatively unmolested in so called “undesirable” habitats. An accident of history (the Neolithic agricultural revolution) allowed the so-called “rise” of first agro-civilizations around 6,000 years ago and then agro-industrial civilizations about 200 years ago. History and pre-history has already demonstrated what happens to the “conservatives” relative to the “innovators.” That the “conservatives” are now civilizations with massive populations and cumulative technological change does not alter the fact that only the “innovators” tend to be the survivors of the major climatic shifts in glacial and inter-glacial environmental and ecological loci. “Technology” has been lost and re-invented in the fossil record: “advanced” foragers lost their technologies during major climatic events governed by the ice ages and went locally extinct. Then, technology became simple and useful for the new edge environments and then became advanced again at a later time and different locations. Although true foragers (hunter-fisher-gatherers) are now a rarity on the Earth despite 7 billion people on the planet, these are the real “innovators” remaining in their edge environments, rather than the “technologically advanced” “conservatives” of the agro-industrial civilized world. They were the former “innovators” now regulated to the status of “conservatives.” We must not confuse the cumulative technological changes of agro-industrial civilized societies with human “progress.” What, then, will happen when the Holocene inter-glacial ends and a return to glacial conditions once again blankets the planet? Here, we are not discussing “if” glacial conditions will return, but “when,” for the environmental, global, and climactic cycle we currently live in is still a period of warming within the larger timeframe and geology of the ice ages. In other words, what will happen to the agro-industrial civilizations once glacial conditions return for another extended period? The last inter-glacial period lasted for 10,000 years between 130-120,000 years ago. The current Holocene inter-glacial is now 10,000 years old.

We must look to prehistory to find the likely answers to this question. While the ebb and flow of the past ice ages has caused expansion and contraction of mosaic habitats/ecotones, with the concomitant expansion and contraction of human populations, “innovators” in the right place at the right time survived to the present. The “conservatives” and the unlucky “innovators” did not make it. However, this does not mean that one species or ecotype of human is intrinsically more valuable or more human than another. There was more than one way to be human. Some perfectly good models were produced by evolution. The fact that anatomically modern Homo sapiens is still around today is a serendipitous event not shared by our kindred human cousins. We were lucky 73,500 years ago when our population was probably smaller than equivalent Neanderthal populations. The surviving sapiens group eventually repopulated the planet and then overtook it in several massive population explosions (at 10,000 years ago, 200 years ago, and the 20th-21st centuries.) Humanity is now a plague on the planet, destroying everything in its way including the environment, megafauna, other faunal species, and “innovator” forager populations trying to stay out of the way of the “conservative” agro-industrialist civilizations. The fact that they are the majority with thousands of years of cumulative technological change behind them does not ipso facto make them any less deleterious to the few remaining “innovator” populations left on the planet. These new “conservatives” have domesticated themselves, along with the grasses and animals that comprise the “civilized” larder. In effect, these domesticated “conservative” human populations have reverted to the prey-species mentality of our pre- and proto-ancestors. They cannot live “in the wild,” as it were, like modern foragers. Placing domestic livestock near “wild” areas often leads to attacks by natural predators such as bears, lions, hyenas, crocodiles, wolves, and cougars facing habitat loss on the defenseless cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, cats, dogs, and people intruding on their environment. This interface environment is proof of the inability of domesticated fauna (including “civilized” humans) to interact in a meaningful way with a natural biome. An exception which proves the rule is the semi-nomadic Maasai pastoralists who have a long history with lions: the “king of the jungle” will move out of the way for the tribesmen moving through their territory to graze their cattle. The Maasai live close to their environment, and a reversion to true foraging is not out of the realm of possibility, should that adaptation be warranted; thus they may be considered as a type of “innovator” in their own right. This notion is not as outrageous as it seems: it has, in fact, already happened in the past. The Natufian foragers of the Levant had taken advantage of the plentiful wild grasses (wheat, rye, barley, etc.,) produced by the warming trend after the Last Glacial Maximum. The abundance of food in the Levant and the Fertile Crescent led to a semi-sedentary existence where wild game and plant material supported a growing population. Then, in the blink of an eye (in geological time,) the interstadial glacial conditions of the Younger Dryas event suddenly struck this burgeoning population and its agricultural precursor wild grass crops. The abundance, of wild animals and grasses was drastically reduced in the short period of time (12,800-11,600 years ago) of the cold snap. The Natufian agricultural experiment collapsed, populations were severely reduced, and the survivors reverted to the innovative practice of hunting and gathering. Habitat loss has already been shown to cause local extinctions, and if severe enough, to ultimate extinction. Populations automatically shrink when ideal “conservative” environments fail. Only the “innovators” survive and the only people currently in that category are extant hunter-gatherers living in edge environments or ecotones. What, then, will happen to mega agriculturist societies when another Younger Dryas (the “Youngest Dryas?”) event occurs, or at the onset of the next glacial maximum? The answer is another Natufian episode of loss of habitat (intensive agriculture in this case) and the resulting population density reduction. Thus, when intensive agriculture fails, so will their dependent civilizations; the Mayans are a salutary lesson in this regard – the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Humanity’s lifeboat is the current “innovator” forager societies of the world living in their edge environments and thus must be the goal of any true conservation effort for the future – not the perpetuation of, and striving for, cumulative technological change of the “conservative” mega agro-industrialist civilizations. “Armageddon” takes on a new meaning in this context. Historically the crossroads of critical trade routes in the southern Levant between the Near/Middle East and North Africa (Egypt,) “great” and presumably civilized empire building or wrecking battles were fought at this location near the ancient city of Megiddo many times, which has since become a metaphor for world (in this case mega agro-industrialist society) ending catastrophes. It is, perhaps, an irony that Megiddo is in the Levant, where the successors of the Natufians reverted to hunting and gathering after the agricultural domestication experiment failed during the Younger Dryas. The Earth will again be the province of the innovative foragers living in current edge environments long into the future. It is here where thoughtful individuals search for society and quest for a biosocial morality. For only the “civilized” world’s “Armageddon” lies on the horizon.

George is a former archaeologist and anthropologist in cultural resources management where his mission was the preservation and curation of prehistoric Native American sites and artifacts. He graduated from The American University with a Master of Arts degree in Anthropology in 2004. Current areas of interest include advocacy for Indigenous peoples and issues and rights of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. Read other articles by George, or visit George's website.