Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Australian mud-skippers; I saw them last night on a rerun of the BBC series, “Planet Earth.” They’re slimy little fish whose eyes recede totally into their body when they blink rather than simply drag a film of flesh over them, like we do. They roll around in the mud frequently to keep their skin moist, because it’s through their moist skin that they breath; dries out and they’re goners. As the program pointed out (narrated by Oprah Winfrey), this skipper behavior is probably pretty much how the first fish exited the ocean.

What they neglected to point out was the very different motivations those two kinds of fish had for starting the scramble out of the water. According to the BBC, the mud-skippers ventured onto land for food, the microorganisms found in the mudflats. According to paleontologists, the first fish departed for protection from the perils of the deep. Regular readers of this blog (I know you’re not out there) will be aware that I’ve long argued that the first fish left for food, as well. I’ve even argued that it couldn’t be the other way around. This BBC show doesn’t validate my claims, but it sure bolsters them.

Just saying…

But it does seem one of those instances where the paleontologists make their pronouncements without a clue as to how the world currently works. Bones, blood types, and DNA will only tell one so much; eventually one has to go out and smell the roses and make sure they’re still real. My argument is that a fish out of water is a hungry fish, not a scared fish.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Reality Check

I like Jared Diamond, he has a way of irritating people. He’s currently making waves for his new book, The World Until Yesterday. I haven’t read it, but, apparently, he’s writing about tribal societies’ penchant for warfare, based—again apparently—on his field work in Papua New Guinea. Now, I know next to nothing about Papua New Guinea, most of what I do know coming from that other Matthiessen, Peter’s, book Under the Mountain Wall, which centered on the ritualized, continual warfare the people there lived under. Peter described a situation very much in line with Diamond’s examples.

Likewise, what I read about Amazonian tribes is that they’re a pretty fierce bunch also engaged in constant warfare. The same is true of the Native American tribes prior to the invasion of the Euroamericans. I know than my ancestors, the early Vikings, were continually fighting with each other. Probably not all tribal societies are warlike—I don’t hear too much about the Inuit attacking each other; but it does (or did) happen—but it looks like the only peaceful ones were ones in obscure, less desirable locations.

The Papuans, joined by other modern tribal peoples, have been vociferous in their condemnation of Diamond—even though he is a supporter, student, and advocate of them—thanks to his pointing out their past history. Tellingly, they object, not so much to his facts—they’re a little foggy on their own—but rather because Diamond doesn’t talk about the depredations of colonial governments in New Guinea; which is like complaining that a book about gold mining has nothing in it about coal mining. They are deflecting the truth about what Diamond is saying by dragging a red herring across the path. Native Americans do the same thing; rather than confront who they really are/were, they deflect the conversation to the depredation by the whites.

The issue is farmers. Those big colonial powers, they’re all farmers, successful, farmers. Successful farmers have slowly spread to cover all available land, and they’ve done it behind advancing armies or hordes. It’s true, they engage, sometimes, in brutal mass warfare and extermination, but in their wake generally comes peace. Farmers don’t like to have their crops destroyed. Certainly, it’s taken farmers themselves a long time to stop fighting among each other, and they aren’t done with it yet; but they’ve come a long way, the world has been getting safer (thanks, Steven Pinker).

Eden, unfortunately, is only a myth. There never was a peaceful, harmonious time in human history. We’re getting better, but we’ve a long way to go. I’m sorry, Papuans, the Dutch were brutal; but that has nothing to do with the reality of tribal warfare. Apples and coconuts, guys.