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On the Beaches of Africa

There was a great deal of talk in the thirties about what was called “the missing link,” about what happened between the chimpanzees and ourselves. But by now that has been fairly well worked out by Sir Alister Hardy, Desmond Morris, Elaine Morgan and others. It now seems probable that we were marooned on an island in northeast Africa some ten or fifteen million years ago when the sea level was higher, when the water was warmer, and where we were forced to eat at the beach. And if we are to understand where we are now, in terms of human behavior, we will have to understand it in the light of that past, in the light of what happened to those primates at the beach. As James Burke says, “If you don't know how you got somewhere, you don't know where you are.”

 

Here I shall use the word chimps to refer to our ancestors on the beach, all the way back to the common ancestors of the chimpanzees and ourselves. Christendom has us descended from Adam and Eve. We are not descended from Adam and Eve. We are descended from those primates at the beach. Hinduism has us descended from some perfected sages who lived in the Satya Yuga (the Age of Truth). We are not descended from perfected sages who lacked the courtesy to leave us their bones. We are descended from those primates at the beach. And if we do not understand that, it is unlikely that we will understand ourselves.

 

You have to put yourself at that beach and think what would have happened to the genetic programming of a jungle‑swinging primate in the surf. When a female chimpanzee is in heat, any male can tell it by sight or by smell, and they take turns mating with her. They don't make love. They simply copulate and it usually takes about eight seconds. But we were at the beach where the sight and smell signals of a female in heat would be lost in the surf. It was there that we learned to grope and caress and to whisper in each other's ears.

 

There at that beach we learned to whisper and to talk because sights and smells and body language failed in the surf. And there at that beach we postponed the maturation of the brain and prolonged our childhood to accommodate the change. It was there on the beaches of Africa that the real change began.

 

Put yourself at that beach! What would you have eaten? There would, of course, be seaweed instead of the fruits and leaves of the jungle, but the protein would be mostly packaged in calcium carbonate shells which require to be broken open with a stone. Any chimp could see that. Almost certainly that is what led to our use of stone tools. Louis Leaky found that our early stone tools in Olduvai Gorge were made from “stream‑rounded boulders.” Why? Because we came from the beach where all the stones were rounded, and where we used them for procuring food. Even at Olduvai Gorge we lived by the water of streams and lakes. But by then, having come from the sea, we would dung in the drink. Was it cholera and the crocodile that drove us out on land?

 

Think of yourself as a primate marooned at the beach. Primates are very good at imitation. If one of us learned to swim, we could all learn to swim, and if one of us learned to break shells, we could all learn to break shells. There is evidence now that our shell‑breaking habit followed us out onto the savannah where we used it to harvest marrow from the larger bones which even the vultures and hyenas left behind. But only very slowly, in the water, would we have developed breath control and, thereby, the ability to communicate by speech. Probably it was primarily our use of tools and speech that influenced the growth of our brain. And one of the genetic mechanisms for the change was neoteny (the retaining into later life of juvenile characteristics). If you postpone the maturation of the brain, you allow the further development of the frontal lobes, and that is where our speech resides. There is evidence now that the major growth of the brain took place after we moved back to the mainland and lived on the savannah. But by then we were talkers and singers with tools and the curiosity of children. Surely it is because neoteny carried the curiosity of infancy into our later years that both science and religion were born at that beach.

 

But once we were forced to the use of tools and language, tools for breaking shells and language for communication, they became species characteristics and we selected for them in breeding. That would continue the selection for bigger brains. And once we had postponed the maturation of the brain and prolonged our childhood with its insatiable curiosity, we imposed prolonged parenting on our mothers. Motherhood is probably the most outstanding characteristic of our species. Once a mother, always a mother. Women are programmed for human relations, to keep the children and others alive. Children are programmed to cleave to their mothers. But the males, at the beach, would have been programmed for hit and run.

Because of the long period of gestation, a female primate at the beach couldn't do much better than one child per year even if she were programmed for hit and run. However, that would not be true for the males. Most of the children would have been fathered by males who were programmed for hit and run. But that allowed the females to select. That's how we got so smart. Men were invented by women, and women were invented by men. And because of the need for prolonged parental care, the females chose males who showed affection. We are not a pair‑bonding species, but prolonged, parental care has turned us a bit, in that direction. Women no longer select for hit and run husbands. They choose Romeo over Don Juan.

 

There is nothing accidental about any of this except in the sense that the whole thing is accidental. Later genetic developments are almost always superimposed on the previous genetic developments without any mechanism to remove what went before. Romeo's programming is superimposed over Don Juan's.

         

The changes which we built in at that beach were superimposed on the genetic programming of a jungle-swinging ape who was a clan animal. We are clan animals. It's the Clantons and the Earps. It's the Klingons and the Federation. It's this school against that school, this town against that town, and this country against that. When we're young, it's games; when we're older, it's politics; when we're enlisted, it's war. We're clan animals and it's not likely to go away.

          

The primitive directives of the genetic programming go much farther back. We are programmed to keep ourselves alive and to pass on the genetic code. That is, we are programmed to eat, breathe, and mate. But some of the programming comes down from so distant a past that we no longer recognize it for what it is. Our hunger and thirst and our fear of dying are programming to keep us alive. Someone once asked me, “Why does God impose this pain on us?” You can leave God out of this. Pain is simply a genetic programming to keep us from continuing on the path of self‑destruction. If it didn’t hurt to cut your fingers off with a hatchet, who knows how many fingers you’d have left. Pain and our fear of death are nothing more than genetic programming. And they have nothing to say about the nature of death.

 

If we are to understand human behavior we will have to understand it in the light of our beach‑combing past. I once attended a three day conference on Jungianism, and in three days no one mentioned genetic programming. I said to my companion, “They're going to pound the whole board before they find the nail.” In my opinion they never did find the nail. Is it possible to understand the behavior of the human mind without reference to the genetic programming which made us what we are?

 

But it is important to remember that our programming comes in steps. It's not that we're programmed to go out and have children, rather the male programming goes something like this. In the absence of females, seek females. In the presence of females, select. In the presence of a selected female start a conversation. Ask her where she's from. Ask her where she's going. Ask her out to dinner. And the rest you know. But the woman has to choose. It is also important to remember that the genetic message is simple. “If it tastes good, eat it. If it feels good, do it.” But it was put in before the invention of French pastries. It might be fatal in Paris. And finally it is important to remember that our programming comes in three main batches. Because of the prolonging of our childhood through neoteny we have a whole new batch of programming for being children. As Sri Ramakrishna said, “The ego of a child is nothing like the ego of a grown‑up man.” They both make sand castles at the beach. Then the kids run through them with their feet, but the grown‑ups take pictures. We have an older batch of programming for being adults. But, by now, we have a third batch for extended parenthood. 
 
The prime directives of the genetic programming are two-fold. First, to direct a stream of negative entropy upon ourselves and upon our children by eating, breathing, and feeding the kids, which falls mainly to the parent batch. And second, to pass on the genetic line, which falls mainly to the adult batch. But children don't follow either of the prime directives. The children are immune. And we have it in us to hang on to this immunity. We are the children of children who never grow up.

 

In the light of this genetic past it is easy to see that the continuance of the curiosity and wonder of childhood into later life is the hallmark of our species. And in the light of what happened to us on the beaches of Africa it is easy to see that monasticism is a natural extension of the immunity of childhood to the disquietude of the prime directives. Monastics neither earn their keep, nor pass on the genetic line, but continue in the wonder of childhood. And finally, it is easy to see that the curiosity of the scientist about the world in which we live, and the wonder of the saint about what lies beyond, will continue to drive us to the end.