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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting book., July 20, 2011
This review is from: Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans (Paperback)
"Cro-Magnon" is an interesting book by Brian Fagan, whose primary approach to archaeology and pre-history is generally speaking that of the paleoclimatologist. Here, though he again examines the effects of extreme climate on human populations, he is primarily interested in the question of Neanderthal and early Sapiens and their cultural responses to the environment, especially in respect to the extinction of the former and the spread of the latter. He paints a rather more different picture of the two than the usual, since he almost sees the Neanderthal as simply moving away from extreme climate while the Cro-Magnon embraces it. I'm not certain I agree with that, since the earlier species spread and flourished for several thousands of years in a climate of widely swinging temperature domains before the arrival of Cro-Magnon and seemed to exhibit a suite of cultural traits that enhanced that survival.

Even though the presence of two populations of humans placing demands on limited resources was bound to produce a differential in survival, I'm more inclined to agree with Clive Finlayson (The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived) who suggests that chance played a greater part in the process. Both Dr. Fagan and Dr. Finlayson note that both types of human ended up disbursed among various residual domains of habitability during climatic downturns, some with less interconnectivity than others. Dr. Finlayson, however, places a greater emphasises on the resulting isolation and its pronounced effect on genetic variability and overall decline in species viability. The cul-de-sac into which Neanderthals found themselves during the last glacial maximum may simply have reduced a stressed breeding population beyond its capacity to survive, with or without the pressures of a rival species in the environment.

Observations on evolutionary tracks and other phenomena, where events of different magnitudes are possible and can have major effects on outcomes, have been made by a number of researchers in other fields under the rubrics of "self organizing criticality" (Stuart Kaufman and the Sante Fe Institute, The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution and Per Bak (how nature works: the science of self-organized criticality) and "complexity or ubiquity theory" (Mark Buchanan (Used & New from: $7.00 Ubiquity: The Science of History . . . or Why the World Is Simpler Than We Think]) and [[ASIN:0609809989 Ubiquity: Why Catastrophes Happen) and the resulting concepts suggest that chance occurrences can indeed have exactly this type of effect on natural systems, including species survival. When it comes down to which species made it through to modern times, it may have been as much a matter of "shear dumb luck" as it was of increased cultural complexity and changes in mental outlook. In fact even our understanding of the differences and similarities which may have existed between the cultures and mental realities of the two populations is as much the outcome of a differential in chance survival of artifactual remains as it is of actual quantifiable differences in the two species of human.

Our sense of superiority, not only to extinct species of our own genus but to our existing distant cousins the great apes, may only be an illusion in the long run of things. I think it's very telling that most genera have more than one species, and that genera that don't are usually those that have undergone or are undergoing serious stress of some kind. Our uniqueness as a species in the world may not be such a good sign.
Nature doesn't care about our ego or our technological successes; it only cares about numbers and sustainability. Our short run of success may ultimately be leading to our final demise as our numbers bring pressure to bear on sustainability and lead to collapse.

Interesting book.
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