Communion Of Dreams

Clever monkeys, part II.

OK, this was kicking around in the back of my head when I wrote the post the other day, because I have had a page from the June 6th Economist sitting on my bench for the last several weeks, waiting for me to get around to writing about it.

About what? Us clever monkeys. Well, more accurately, our genes, but for purposes of discussion here I will say the two are functionally the same over the time span I wish to address. (Which, when you think about it, is a rather profound notion. No, this is not my idea.)

The idea discussed in the article is this: that the development of modern human culture was dependent not on intelligence, but on something more basic – survival. Specifically, on population density:

In their model, Dr Thomas and his colleagues divided a simulated world into regions with different densities of human groups. Individuals in these groups had certain “skills”, each with an associated degree of complexity. Such skills could be passed on, more or less faithfully, thus yielding an average level of skills that could vary over time. The groups could also exchange skills.

The model suggested that once more than about 50 groups were in contact with one another, the complexity of skills that could be maintained did not increase as the number of groups increased. Rather, it was population density that turned out to be the key to cultural sophistication. The more people there were, the more exchange there was between groups and the richer the culture of each group became.

Dr Thomas therefore suggests that the reason there is so little sign of culture until 90,000 years ago is that there were not enough people to support it. It is at this point that a couple of places in Africa—one in the southernmost tip of the continent and one in eastern Congo—yield signs of jewellery, art and modern weapons. But then they go away again. That, Dr Thomas suggests, corresponds with a period when human numbers shrank. Climate data provides evidence this shrinkage did happen.

Now, this is a fairly old trope in Science Fiction: that some cataclysm can result in the complete collapse of society, to the extent that most if not all knowledge and technology is lost. Just look at The Time Machine to see how far back this idea goes – and it has been used countless times since. I play off this trope for Communion of Dreams in a couple of ways, of course, using it as both back story for the novel and for the eventual revelation at the end of the book.

It is interesting to see this intuitive idea borne out by some science (though it sounds to me like there’s still a fair amount of work to be done to establish that the theory is correct). And not just because it addresses some curious discontinuities in the archeological record. Rather, it says that intelligence has considerable staying power, at least in our species. Sure, it may not be a sufficient factor in supporting true civilization, but knowing that at least in our case it can last some 100,000 years gives one hope for it lasting for a while elsewhere, even if those civilizations do not.

Jim Downey

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