Belmont Club

Legends of the Fall

Eden’s greatest attraction is that it was a time before guilt; before hatred, greed and lust took over the world.  But as Philip Ross’s article in the International Business Times suggests, Eden must have been a long time ago. The University of Copenhagen, using DNA technology identified a group called the “Paleo-Eskimos, the ancestors of modern-day Inuit and Native Americans and the earliest people to settle the North American Arctic”. They were the last remnant of the Dorset people who disappeared without a trace. The curious thing about these recently extinguished “ancestors” of Native Americans is they shared no genetic similarities to their descendants.

Exactly who first populated the Arctic has long been debated. Scientists know three broadly grouped cultures all occupied the northernmost parts of North America in the past few thousand years. They were the Saqqaq, who occupied the region until about 2,500 years ago, followed by several Dorset culture and then the Thule, the ancestors of modern-day Inuit, from about 1,000 years ago, the BBC said.

Because the Dorsets do not share any genetic similarities with people in the Arctic today, researchers concluded the population disappeared rather suddenly. Climate change could have something to do with it, scientists say. Regional temperature shifts could have strained the Dorsets food sources — ox, seal and reindeer.

These last holdouts appeared to be hiding. They were a remnant, small in numbers and inbred.  And although we are assured they died of climate change, another, more disturbing possibility exists.

“The Dorsets were the Hobbits of the eastern Arctic — a very strange and very conservative people who we’re only just getting to know a little bit,” anthropologist William Fitzhugh, director of the Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and a co-author of the study, told the Washington Post. Because the Dorset people lacked sophisticated weaponry like bows and arrows, “they were, in a sense, sitting ducks,” he said.

Maybe the First Peoples killed them. But who knows. After all Eden was a long time ago.

Conquest has been around for a long time. One of the enduring mysteries of anthropology is the Neanderthal Extinction, “the sudden disappearance of the Neanderthals during a time when modern humans began to emerge in Eurasia.” This coincidental replacement is also explained by “climate change”.

But the other hypothesis is that our ancestors killed the Neanderthals. Indeed, the greatest genocides of human history may have been the prehistoric exterminations of indigenous peoples by other primitive cultures. War is at least 14,000 years old.

The first archaeological record of what could be a prehistoric battle is at a Mesolithic site known as Cemetery 117. It was determined to be about 14,340 to 13,140 years old and located on the Nile near the Egypt-Sudan border. It contains a large number of bodies, many with arrowheads embedded in their skeletons, which indicates that they may have been the casualties of a battle. Some question this conclusion by arguing that the bodies may have accumulated over many decades, and may even be evidence of the murder of trespassers rather than actual battles. Nearly half of the bodies are female, and this fact also causes some to question the argument for large-scale warfare.

Beginning around 12,000 BC, combat was transformed by the development of bows, maces, and slings. The bow seems to have been the most important weapon in the development of early warfare, in that it enabled attacks to be launched with far less risk to the attacker when compared to the risk involved in the use of mêlée combat weaponry. While there are no cave paintings of battles between men armed with clubs, the development of the bow is concurrent with the first known depictions of organized warfare consisting of clear illustrations of two or more groups of men attacking each other. These figures are arrayed in lines and columns with a distinctly garbed leader at the front. Some paintings even portray still-recognizable tactics like flankings and envelopments.

And if our ancestors killed the Neanderthals, then war — and genocide — goes back at least 45,000 years. The interesting thing about this narrative is it suggests that many of the conquerors were conquered in turn. Or as Glenn Reynolds puts it, what if “‘First Peoples’ were actually just the last people to wipe out whoever was there before”? The real honor, apparently belongs not to the First, but to the Last peoples. Thank Gaia we’re the last! Or are we? Elon Musk argues that we may not even see the next invaders coming.

Elon Musk, the mastermind behind SpaceX and Tesla, believes that artificial intelligence is “potentially more dangerous than nukes,” imploring all of humankind “to be super careful with AI,” unless we want the ultimate fate of humanity to closely resemble Judgment Day from Terminator. Personally I think Musk is being a little hyperbolic — after all, we’ve survived more than 60 years of the threat of thermonuclear mutually assured destruction — but still, it’s worth considering Musk’s words in greater detail … and Musk, sadly, isn’t too optimistic about humanity putting the right safeguards in place. In a second tweet, Musk says: “Hope we’re not just the biological boot loader for digital superintelligence. Unfortunately, that is increasingly probable.”

Well, we’ll see.

But if we don’t see, doubtless the robot sentiologists of the far future will find the remains of the “original ancestors” of the by-then-dominant species of artificial intelligence. They will note the lack of common silicon ancestry between the vanished race of humans but conclude “our ancestors died out due to climate change. Their reaction times were in tenths of seconds, unlike the modern billionths of a second. They were in a sense, Sitting Commodore 64s.”

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September 11 and its aftermath seemed odd in this: why should religious war be the characteristic struggle of the 21st century?  But in retrospect the conflict of civilizations is not only appropriate, but unavoidable.  The great intellectual struggle of this century will be over what man is.  Recently scientists at Harvard trialed an anti-aging compound on lab animals which can reverse aging in mere days.

Researchers injected a chemical called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide, or NAD, which reduces in the body as we age. The addition of this compound led to the radical reversal in the ageing of the mice.

“The ageing process we discovered is like a married couple: when they are young, they communicate well, but over time, living in close quarters for many years, communication breaks down,” said the UNSW professor David Sinclair, who is based at Harvard Medical School. “And just like a couple, restoring communication solved the problem.”

Dr Nigel Turner, senior research fellow at UNSW and co-author of the study, told Guardian Australia the rate of age reversal in mice was “amazingly rapid”.

“We mapped the pathway to ageing carefully, but it was a real surprise to see the markers of ageing move back so quickly in just a week,” he said.

The hitch? It will cost $50,000 a day for a human dose if it works.

And while nobody expects the Fountain of Youth sold at CVS or Walgreens any time soon, it is entirely possible that advances in medicine will extend life to 150, 200, 300. What will we do then?

Humanity is going to have to think about the meaning of life in a radically different way.  Will it be something to be rationed out by the Death Pathway mandarins, or is life altogether something greater than anything we control?  The possibility of an indefinite lifespan wouldn’t be the end of the human journey, but paradoxically, its proper beginning.  If you knew you’d live to 1,000 you’d be interested in more than selling out your friend to get a promotion — maybe.

John Buchan in Witchwood has a scene in which a young pastor buries a old wife beside her grieving shepherd husband.  As he rides away from the small house he looks behind and reflects: “Soon the shepherd of the Greenshiel would lie beside his wife; in a little, too, his own stout limbs would be a heap of dust. How small and frail seemed the life in that cottage, as contrasted with the rich pulsing world of the woods and hills and their serene continuance. But it was they that were the shadows in God’s sight. The immortal thing was the broken human heart that could say in its frailty that its Redeemer liveth.”

The idea that information  — or life as it were — is immortal is so strikingly similar to a passage in CS Lewis that I wondered whether one had copied it from the other (Witchwood was 1927).  Lewis wrote in Weight of Glory (1942) that “there are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations,  cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

And so it may prove. From the viewpoint of information the man, and not the rock is immortal.  The rock is trivial. And the 21st century may be when we realize this is true.  The present time might be remembered as when man ceased his efforts to return to Eden. And for the first time we will go out without a qualm to the lands East — as we were ordered to do — and go as far as we can go.


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