Cover image for The spirit in the gene : humanity's proud illusion and the laws of nature
The spirit in the gene : humanity's proud illusion and the laws of nature
Morrison, Reg.
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Publication Information:
Ithaca : Comstock Pub. Associates, a division of Cornell University Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
xviii, 286 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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QH457 .M67 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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From famines and deforestation to water pollution, global warming, and the rapid rate of extinction of plants and animals--the extent of the global damage wrought by humankind is staggering. Why have we allowed our environment to reach such a crisis? What produced the catastrophic population explosion that so taxes the earth's resources? Reg Morrison's search for answers led him to ponder our species' astonishing evolutionary success. His extraordinary book describes how a spiritual outlook combined with a capacity for rational thought have enabled Homo sapiens to prosper through the millennia. It convincingly depicts these traits as part of our genetic makeup--and as the likely cause of our ultimate downfall against the inexorable laws of nature. The book will change the way readers think about human evolution and the fate of our species. Small bands of apes walked erect on the dangerous plains of East Africa several million years ago. Morrison marvels that they not only survived, but migrated to all corners of the earth and established civilizations. To understand this feat, he takes us back to a critical moment when these hominids developed language and with it the unique ability to think abstractly. He shows how at this same time they began to derive increasing advantage from their growing sense of spirituality. He convincingly depicts spirituality as an evolutionary strategy that helped rescue our ancestors from extinction and drive the species toward global dominance. Morrison concludes that this genetically productive spirituality, which has influenced every aspect of our lives, has led us to overpopulate the world and to devastate our own habitats. Sobering, sometimes chilling, consistently fascinating, his book offers a startling new view of human adaptation running its natural course.

Author Notes

Reg Morrison is one of Australia's top nature photographers, and the author of several books about Australia.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Photojournalist Morrison (Australians Exposed, etc.) turns his attention to science writing in an attempt to describe and understand the world's growing ecological crisis. Though he writes with conviction and passion, he seems very much out of his depth when discussing scientific material. Morrison does an impressive job of summarizing the ways in which humans are altering the planet. He touches on the importance of biodiversity, the declining quality of agricultural lands, ozone destruction, global warming, acid precipitation and overpopulation, as well as a host of other critical issues. But the bulk of his book centers on his belief that virtually every aspect of our behavior is under strict genetic control. We are, in his terms, a plague animal, destined by our genes to reproduce abundantly and then, after destroying our environment, to endure a decimation of the species. As a metaphor, this is powerful stuff. Morrison isn't arguing metaphorically, however; rather, he contends that evolution, which he anthropomorphizes, is pushing us in this direction to protect the rest of the planet from our depredations. His conviction that genes dictate behavior lead him to political conclusions that are, by most lights, distressing. After saying that Hitler's policies arose from his lack of interest in sexual promiscuity, Morrison asserts that "national leaders who are discreetly promiscuous are merely displaying reassuring evidence of their well-balanced ambition and general genetic fitness for leadership." The kindest accurate description of this book is offered by Lynn Margulis in her very brief foreword, in which she refers to Morrison's ideas as "idiosyncratic." 49 b&w photos, 22 drawings, one map. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Australian photojournalist Morrison's book will appeal to our times. We have all heard about the decimation of the tropical rainforests, the destruction of the protective ozone layer, overpopulation, and global warming. Morrison, writing in very readable prose, vividly recounts these and other examples of how humans have changed Gaia, Mother Earth. Since Morrison is not a scientist, his extensive bibliography is largely pulled from the popular scientific press; however, his numerical data is usually culled from UN resources. After painting a very grim picture of Earth's present ecological condition, Morrison seeks to understand why humankind would so foul its nest. His reasoned conclusion is that we are merely following the evolutionary dictates of our genes--as any animal must do. He proposes that we have allowed ourselves the privilege of global manifest destiny due to our perception of ourselves as mystical, supranormal beings. According to Morrison, we are self-deluded in the belief that we are autonomous beings because we are able to transmit our sense of ourselves culturally using the uniquely human tool, language. Perhaps his aim is to spur humanity to disprove him. Morrison's biology is sound, and his interpretation of the consequences to humanity will provoke thought and discussion. General readers; undergraduates through professionals. K. A. Clark; Purdue University



Chapter One A Prattling Prodigy Words, words, words ... --Hamlet, act II, scene ii There is a slight bulge on the left side of my brain that has a lot to answer for. Not only does it regularly make an ass of me by causing me to talk aloud to myself, but it is also responsible for some rather more worrying phenomena, such as Africa's famines, both world wars, the AIDS epidemic, and even global warming! I hasten to add that this is not an expression of neurotic guilt on my part, for my bulge is no mere personal defect. It is, instead, a kind of neuronal heirloom that has been in my family--and yours--ever since the first humans roamed the drying plains of East Africa some 2.5 million years ago. Indeed, that small bulge is probably the only credential that really matters in our claim to membership in the species Homo sapiens .     Viewed in this light, that little emblem of humanity suddenly assumes monumental proportions. In the last 10,000 years alone, we humans, acting under its spell, have succeeded in reworking most of the face of this planet and have utterly changed the course of all future evolution. Yet without that small bulge you and I would be grunting cave dwellers. The secret of its power? "Words, words, words": that faint bulge is the midwife of all human language.     We generally prefer to credit humanity's astonishing array of cultural and technological achievements to three other characteristics: our peculiar manual dexterity, our capacity for deductive reasoning, and our unbridled imagination. But it was the development of language that first gave imagination its wings and then allowed our ancestors to preserve and pass on each hard-won cultural and technological advance so that succeeding generations might benefit from them. Language provides the glue that holds society together--and on occasion manufactures the bombshells that tear it apart. Words even have a life of their own at times, appearing in the brain unbidden by any conscious thought process and rolling off the tongue despite our better judgment. And although language is used primarily for communication between people, the lack of a listener is no impediment; most of us will mutter happily to ourselves. Until the age of seven, children talk to themselves 20% to 60% of the time. According to research in both Russia and the United States, talking to oneself is not only normal but necessary for healthy mental development.     We humans are compulsive communicators, with brains that seem to be hardwired with a few basic rules of grammar. These rules are applicable to all forms of language, whether spoken, written, or sign language. We know roughly where in the brain this complex process occurs, but we don't yet know how. The region of the brain that puts it all together for us is an ill-defined, neuron-packed swelling that lies just above and behind the left eye. To those who specialize in things cerebral, this language factory is known as Broca's area, after the French surgeon and pioneer anthropologist Paul Broca, who first identified its peculiar function in 1861. Broca's Language Factory While many other animals have a generalized communication area within the brain, no other has a highly specialized language center like ours. Even our own evolutionary sibling, the chimpanzee, although equipped with a generally similar brain structure and a communication center localized in the left frontal lobe, shows little sign of Broca's area. Our Evolutionary Siblings Chimpanzee brains are considerably smaller than ours, with about a quarter of the surface area of a human brain (see figure 1). They consequently possess much less gray matter, or cerebral cortex, where most thinking occurs. Such measurements were once regularly quoted as scientific evidence not only for our superior intelligence but also for the proposition that we had been either separately created or divinely set apart from the rest of the animal world. It was accepted that of all the world's species we alone were logical, imaginative, and sentient. The misconception lingers on. More rigorous and objective research shows that brain size is a very unreliable guide to intelligence. Many other animals are capable of rudimentary logic and relatively complex communication. Even more startling is the discovery that chimps, gorillas, and orangutans are capable of using formalized sign language (since speech is anatomically unavailable to them) to express a limited range of imaginative desires and feelings to their human companions.     The revelation of these disturbing streaks of humanity in the other great apes generated academic controversy around the world during the 1970s and 1980s. It should not have. Genetically we are barely distinguishable from chimpanzees. Rather it is the marked physical difference between our species that should surprise us. It is often said that we humans share about 98.4% of our total DNA with chimpanzees. But at least 95% of this is "nonsense" DNA, vast stretches of repetitive gobbledygook that remains unexpressed in either animal. More illuminating is the comparison between the active components of DNA, the genes. These protein-coding sequences show a 99.6% match. Of the two extant species of chimp, the bonobo, or pygmy chimpanzee ( Pan paniscus ), appears both morphologically and behaviorally to be most closely related to humans. The tiny 0.4% genetic difference guarantees us a seat beside them on the primate family tree. Despite a superficial similarity, chimps and gorillas are mere cousins by comparison, sharing only 98.2% of their total DNA. Orangutans, on the other hand, branched off on their own some 15 million years ago and, sharing only 96.7% of their DNA, are distant cousins.     Judging by the molecular evidence, therefore, our generic classification is unequivocal: chimpanzee. Either we should be cataloged as Pan sapiens , the third chimpanzee, or more properly all three species of chimp ought to be reclassified under our present generic label, Homo , the term originally assigned to chimpanzees by the founder of modern taxonomy, Carolus Linnaeus. Linnaeus subsequently invented a taxonomic distinction between humans (Hominidae) and chimpanzees (Pongidae) at the family level, but only out of a well-founded fear that if he didn't he would outrage not only the Swedish Lutheran Church but the whole of society, religious and secular.     The inescapable corollary of the close relationship between chimps and humans is that shared characteristics represent genetic factors inherited from a common ancestor. The streak of humanity that we see in each of the other great apes is, in reality, a suite of ancestral characteristics now shared by all of its descendants, including us. Anthropocentric Myths Until Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859, most people had been able to ignore these obvious but embarrassing family connections. Subsequent research has now amassed such overwhelming physical, chemical, and genetic evidence of the evolutionary link between the species that Darwin's original detractors now seem absurd. Nevertheless, among well-educated people, even among those who freely concede this evolutionary link, the assumption remains that there is a vast gulf between humans and apes. Bedazzled by the ancient myth of anthropocentrism, many still fail to comprehend that the evolutionary gulf that appears to separate human beings from the other great apes is largely a cultural construct, with profound consequences, that has little to do with fact.     Many outward differences distinguish Pan from Homo : our upright carriage, facial structure, and relative lack of body hair. But since all breeds of dogs are, by genetic definition, members of the same species, appearance is an untrustworthy measure of species distinction. Is behavior a better guide?     Predominant among the behavioral features that separate us from our chimpish relatives is our facility with language. The urge to communicate and at least some of the mental structures that enable language are common to all the primates and to the apes especially. Our peculiar ability to comprehend and maintain grammatical structure, the trait that allows us to distinguish instantly the crucial difference between "Can you see the leopard?" and "The leopard can see you," is limited to humans. Grammatically structured communication enables us to string together a related sequence of thoughts like beads on a necklace. Change the order of the verbal beads and you may dramatically change the meaning.     This peculiar talent resides first in the brain's language production center, Broca's area, and second in an adjacent decoding, department known as Wernicke's area. The development of these linked communication centers in close proximity to the neighboring motor control area seems to have underwritten our astonishing evolutionary success. Communication by commonly understood sounds is certainly not unique to us, but grammar allows us to communicate even complex information with passable precision. All the other great apes--gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees--can learn the rudiments of human language, yet none have achieved more than the simplest kind of communication. If Kanzi, a sharp-witted bonobo, wished to express contrition or sadness via the computer-generated symbols taught to him by primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, he could make the sign for "Kanzi" followed by the sign for "sorry." Had he wished to elaborate, however, his only option would have been to repeat the two signs. We have no such limitations. O! that this too too solid flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew; Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! O God! How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable Seem to me all the uses of this world. Fie on't! O fie! ( Hamlet , act I, scene ii)     Precisely what it is in genetic or neuronal terms that allows human beings to express anguish on this scale and at this level of complexity we may never fully comprehend, but we should look back in awe, for here lies the gulf that most effectively separates our species from all others.     It was the flexibility of grammatically structured language that enabled our forebears to cooperate more effectively in hunting and gathering their food, to divide and share it more readily, and to teach their children to do the same. Similarly, precision of speech enabled them to disseminate and store within their tribes vital environmental information, hunting skills, and craft techniques. More important, it enabled tribal elders to pass this accumulating reservoir of knowledge to their children, giving them a head start in the struggle for survival. By such means, these talking primates not only clawed their way to the top of the food chain but eventually spread far beyond tropical Africa, even to the most inhospitable regions of the planet. Earth's Prattling Prodigy We would seem to be without peer: earth's prattling prodigy. Yet as we approach the end of the twentieth century, a century in which we consolidated our communications around the planet, ventured into space, and even placed a shaky hand on the molecular levers of life itself, ominous signs emerge of a massive global backlash. No longer confined to a few trouble spots, the indications of environmental disturbance now extend to the fringes of the biosphere.     Today's scenario engenders bitter confrontations between conservationists and their detractors, and acrimonious debates rage around the world. Traditional villains, both individual and corporate, are denounced almost daily in the media. But are there villains to blame, or are more complex forces at work? If our growing environmental problems are truly attributable to human activity, do certain individuals or groups deserve our special condemnation, or have we all behaved badly? Is it possible that this successful species of ours also embodies one or two heritable flaws against which we have no defense, flaws embedded in the wiring of our brains, or hidden in the coils of our massive DNA?     Answers to these questions will provide the keys to both our past and our future, and in some respects, the future course of evolution on this planet. Copyright © 1999 Cornell University. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Lynn Margulis
Forewordp. vii
Prefacep. xi
Acknowledgmentsp. xvii
Part I Problems
1. A Prattling Prodigyp. 3
2. Turn of the Tidep. 11
Part II Origins
3. Our Genetic Originsp. 57
4. The Agrarian Transitionp. 91
5. Evolution's Answer to Biological Wastep. 102
6. Correcting Imbalancesp. 119
7. The Terminatorsp. 144
Part III Solutions
8. The Spirit in the Genep. 159
9. Excalibur!p. 193
10. Midnight Prognosisp. 233
Notesp. 261
Bibliographyp. 273
Indexp. 281