The secret of our success is simple. We’re crazy



Each day that passes on this third rock from an average star in the boondocks of a commonplace galaxy brings fresh evidence of the truth about our circumstances as, very likely, the only sentient creatures in this region of the universe.

Homo sapiens sapiens (us) are certifiably nuts. This, we already know. But that our derangement may very well derive directly from our intelligence is a proposition no evolutionary biologist would ever entertain. Until now.

In a marvelous review – still more marvelously titled “Consume, screw, kill” – of environment writer Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Harper’s writer Daniel Smith explains Swedish geneticist Svante Paabo’s determination to locate and identify the “madness gene” that makes us unique among hominins (all humans, including the extinct ones).

Mr. Smith quotes a passage from Ms. Kolbert’s work, directly:

“Archaic human like Homo erectus ‘spread like many other mammals in the Old World,’ Paabo told me. ‘They never came to Madagascar, never to Australia. Neither did Neanderthals. It’s only the fully modern humans who start this thing of venturing out on the ocean where you don’t see land. Part of that is technology, of course; you have to have ships to do it. But there is also, I like to think, some madness there. You know?’”

Indeed, who does that? Go off into the wild, blue yonder without an exit strategy? Apparently, we do. And not just that.

Writes Smith about The Sixth Extinction (for which, you may have guessed, our lunatic species is solely responsible), “Kolbert begins coyly with a kind of fairy tale. ‘Maybe two hundred thousand years ago,’ a new species emerges on Earth. Compared with other species around at the time – mammoths, mastodons, armadillos the size of Smart cars  – the members of this new species aren’t very fast or very strong. But they are shrewd or reckless or both. ‘None of the usual constraints of habitat or geography seem to check them.’”

What do they do when they finally reach what we now know as Europe? Writes Kolbert: “They encounter creatures very much like themselves (Neanderthals), but stockier and probably brawnier, who have been living in the continent far longer. They interbreed with these creatures and, by one means or another, kill them off.”

How, then, do our tendencies, singular among all animals, to wander like zombies into unfamiliar and treacherous territories only to plunder the local wildlife (and nightlife) before moving along relate to our possessing uniquely big brains?

Consider the results of separate research conducted in Israel. Scientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem compared the DNA of ancient Neanderthals with that of modern humans and found them to be about 99 per cent identical, which is what they expected. But when they examined the evidence more closely, they discovered significant differences in the remaining one per cent – specifically, between those parts of the archaic and contemporary genomes that were linked to disease, especially mental disease. Suffice to say, we modern types fared rather poorly. 

“Scientists are a long way from being able to understand what this means, stressed Liran Carmel, who led the study along with Eran Meshorer and David Gokhman,” Torstar reported the other day. ‘But this raises the hypothesis that perhaps many genes in our brain have changed recently, specifically in our lineage, the lineage leading to Homo sapiens. And perhaps things like autism, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s are side-effects of these very recent changes,’ said Carmel. ‘This is an interesting suggestion, that (brain disease) is a side-effect of us being Homo sapiens and having our unique cognitive capabilities.’”

“Interesting suggestion” doesn’t even begin to cover it. 

For the first time in our lousy, rotten history, we may be at the threshold of obtaining true self-knowledge. 

Forget Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Confucius. Keep your Enlightenment thinkers to yourself. And if you think religion is going to get you out of this one, think again.

The fix was always in; the game was rigged from the get-go. To paraphrase from a tune popular during the self-obsessed “Me Decade” of the ‘70s, we’re just no good, no good, no good. . .baby, we’re no good!

Of course, this also raises a rather unsettling corollary. If cognitive capacity actually produces mental disease, does the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence amount to nothing more than a bed count at a cosmic loony bin?

Then again, at least we’ll know we’re not alone in our insanity.


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