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Review by Elisabeth Carey


by Stephen Baxter

Ballantine/Del Rey, 2002, ISBN 0-345-45782-X

In the musical 1776, Col. Thomas McKean says of General Washington’s reports from the field, reporting everything that’s gone wrong since the last report, “That man could depress a hyena.” This seems to be a fair comment on many of Baxter’s books, and Evolution is no exception.

Spoilers ahead.

The frame story concerns Joan Useb, a paleontologist who, in 2031, has organized a major interdisciplinary conference with the covert goal of sparking a movement to do something effective about saving the biosphere. The only amusement to be found in the frame story are the nasty Tuckerizations of two well-known British fans, Gregory Pickersgill and Alison Scott. Pickersgill is a radical anti-globalization activist, the charismatic leader of a splinter Christian sect, the core around which the umbrella organization “Fourth World” has formed. (Or so it is believed. It turns out that Pickersgill doesn’t exist; he’s just a cover identity for someone even more extreme and unpleasant.) Alison Scott at least gets to exist; she’s a genetic engineer who sells her services to the very wealthy, to give their children advantages rather than curing disease. She’s so focussed on money and showmanship that she even uses her own offspring as walking advertisements for what she can do for your next child, if you can pay enough.

The main body of the book is better. It’s necessarily episodic, covering the evolution of primates from a rodent-like creature during and after the last days of the dinosaurs, through a monkey-like creature 500 million years from now that’s fully symbiotic with a tree. “Fully symbiotic,” in this case, means that the Tree provides a good deal more than shelter. It produces a specialized root that attaches to the bellies of these last primates, providing not just nourishment and psychotropic drugs, but genetic mixing and control of reproduction. The primates in return bring nutrients to the Tree that it can’t obtain otherwise, and carry its seeds to favorable ground. Along the way, Baxter does some interesting things, imagining plausible forms that aren’t represented in the necessarily patchy fossil record, such as an elaborate dinosaurs-and-primates ecology in Antarctica, fifty-five million years after the presumed extinction of the dinosaurs–an ecology first frozen into extinction and then ground up beyond the possibility of fossilization by the advancing icecap. This is an utterly grim extinction event, of course, with all the species dying out entirely rather than evolving into something else, but that’s Baxter for you.

As exemplified by the dinosaurs and primates in Antarctica sequence, Baxter does not confine himself solely to the direct line of descent from little Purgatorius to humans. We also get to see the hypothetical, but plausible, harrowing adventure of the monkey-like critters that get accidentally rafted across the Atlantic to become the ancestors of the monkeys of South America, and other plausible but unrecorded species.

Eventually, though, we do get to the more or less direct and recent ancestors of humans–the first ape to lead his troop ou t onto the African savannah as the forests shrink, homo erectus, neanderthals, Cro-Magnon, early civilized humans. Amongst the neanderthals, we get a story that is at once encouraging and grim: a little band of neanderthals, led by a man called Pebble, st ruggling to survive, forms an alliance with a pair of wandering almost-Cro-Magnon, Harpoon and Ko-Ko. First they trade, then they learn some of each other’s best tricks, then they combine their efforts to cross over to an island, wipe out the remnant of homo erectus living there, and seize it for themselves. Baxter does depict the two kinds as mutually fertile, which I think is currently not the opinion of scientists, but that’s a minor point, considering that opinion on that has changed more than once.

Once we get to unambiguously modern humans, though, we’re in trouble. It’s good (I think) that Baxter makes the point that primitive humans who believed they were living in harmony with nature actually did a devasting job on their prey species. There’s some amusement value in reading the description of the First Fan:

She had always been isolated, even as a child. She could not throw herself into the games of chase and wrestling and chattering that the other youngsters had indulged in, or their adolescent sexual experiments. It was always as if the others knew how to behave, what do do, how to laugh and cry–how to fit in, a mystery she could never share. Her restless inventiveness in such a conservative culture–and her habit of trying to figure out why things happened, how they worked–didn’t make her any more popular. (page 292)

Alas, this woman, Mother, who invents conscious thought as a tool for something other than social interaction, and consequently invents a variety of other useful tools (in a reversal of the old depiction of men inventing tools almost certainly invented and used by women, who did most of the foraging and gathering, Baxter has Mother inve n t the spear-thrower, something far more likely to have been invented by the men who did most of the hunting) becomes obsessively fixated on the death of her son, invents gods, religion, life after death, black magic, and human sacrifice. Baxter assigns t he whole thing to one emotionally unbalanced woman, and portrays it all in relentlessly negative terms, even while conceding that this nasty invention caught on and survived because it conveyed survival benefits to its adopters. It’s all downhill from there, as far as human character goes. On page 322, we’re told:

And just as they were able to believe that things, weapons or animals or the sky, were in some way people, it wasn’t a hard leap to make to believe that some people were no more than things. The old categories had broken down. In attacking the river folk they werent killing humans, people like themselves. The river folk, for all their technical cleverness with fire and clay, had no such belief. It was a weapon they could not match. And this small but vicious conflict set a pattern that would be repeated again and again in the long, bloody ages to come. And there it is, folks, the roots of the Holocaust right there at the dawn of civilization, with the invention of religion.

The problem with this is that Baxter has already shown us repeatedly, in earlier episodes in the Evolution of Humans, that it’s nonsense. Time and again he has shown us early hominids and pre-hominids regarding strangers of same or similar species as creatures to be killed. Over and over again the men, the boys, and sometimes even the young girls are killed, and maybe the adult or near-adult females are kept for breeding purposes. The great mental breakthrough that Pebble and Harpoon made, in the early morning of genus Homo, was the possibility of active cooperation with other bands. The great mental breakthrough Harpoon’s ancestors had made, back at the very dawn of genus Homo, was the invention of trade as a possible means of relating to humans from other bands.

And what’s striking and different about raids that Mother’s followers make on other bands, is not that they kill most of the members of the band. The thing Mother’s followers do that’s different is that first, they make peaceful contact with the band to find out what neat new technology they have, and then, when they do attack, they spare not only the adult and near-adult females, but also some of the adult males, the ones who are the experts in the most interesting bits of new technology that the tar get band has. What’s different about Mother’s followers is not that they have found a way to regard other people as things, but that they have found reasons other than sexual exploitation to forcibly add people to their band rather than kill them. For Mother’s people, other people are useful or dangerous precisely because they are people, with knowledge and skills of their own, rather than just rival animals competing for the same resources. What makes them more dangerous is not that they have new talent for dehumanizing other people (earlier varieties of hominid didn’t need to dehumanize people because it never occurred to them that hominids not members of their own band were people), but the fact that their killing technology gets a lot better.

Eventually , of course, we catch up to the frame story, and the downfall of Homo sapiens without ever having gotten humans even as far as Mars. After all, how could such a loser species do anything really grand? Post-collapse, it apparently takes only a thousand years or so for humans to completely lose the power of speech. An interesting detail from this point on is that Baxter, who never used the words “man” and “woman” to describe males and females of primate species until he got to genus Homo, does not stop using it as he describes the steadily more primitive and degraded post-Homo varieties of primate. Thus we have a primate evolved to live pretty much exactly like a naked mole rat, referred to as “mole woman,” but only after Baxter has gone to great lengths to emphasize the fact that these “mole folk” have no higher consiousness at all, and virtually no brains.

All in all, it’s a depressing, negative view of humans and evolution, and evidently intended to be. Avoid this one.