Nature Future Conditional

Guest post by Christoph Weber: the story behind the story

Christoph Weber makes his debut in Futures this week with his story The descent of man. Based in Reno, Nevada, Christoph is an arborist and his tale has a decidedly tree-like flavour. He very kindly made some time to explain what inspired him. Warning, this blog post contains spoilers, so read the story first!

Writing The descent of man

This summer I was on a team of arborists hired to remove an enormous apple tree whose rotted, hollow trunk had become home to a honeybee colony. While preserving the colony for relocation (and avoiding anaphylaxis), I began to think about colony collapse disorder (CCD) and how we might respond to honeybee extinction.

My first thought was that we could try to de-extinct the lost honeybees. However, if attempts to address (and even identify) the causes of CCD continue to fail, it’s likely that any de-extincted bees would perish if brought back to the same environment that killed their predecessors. Barring huge leaps in robotics, that leaves us with hand-pollination. This is the current reality of apple production in part of China.

Even in China’s cheap labour economy, hand-pollination is extremely time-consuming and expensive. If it became widespread in other countries, it could make many foods unaffordable. It occurred to me that this is a scenario for which some might actually propose slavery as a solution. Hungry people, after all, are not squeamish people (source: the Donner Party).

In addition, climate projections for the coming century anticipate drought for the American southwest but increased precipitation for the north, which would make the north the heart of future agriculture. The stage is set for a geographical reversal of the American Civil War.

Since I first learned that some geneticists think it could be possible to de-extinct Neanderthals, my mind has been occupied by these mysterious fellow hominins (Neanderthals, not geneticists). This possibility raises many questions, but as they are discussed in depth elsewhere, I will mention only the one explored in this story: what kind of place would Neanderthals have in our world?

We could bring them back to be objects of study (although informed consent might be tricky). They had immune systems distinct from ours, so studying them might save lives. But we cannot just lock them in labs, can we? Could they integrate into society? On a minor level, their pre-agriculture digestive systems would have problems with modern food (hey, they could try the Palaeo diet!). They also would probably not have resistance to virulent modern diseases that developed after their extinction. We might address that problem through medicine, but the question remains: what kind of a place could our world offer them?

To be clear, I think any team attempting to de-extinct Neanderthals would do so in a way it deemed ethical. Enslavement to feed anatomically modern humans would probably not be the goal.

But this is the experimental chamber of science fiction, where we can fast-forward time and give people terrible stressors to see how they respond. What happens after Neanderthals are brought back, when climate change and CCD cause economic instability and food insecurity? I suspect that some people would suggest putting Neanderthals to work as a way to keep food prices down. They’re not our species, after all. We’ve used all manner of beasts to grow our food — why should these animals be any different?

Before you say the descent of man to such depravity is unlikely, think about how many people have made judgements about human worth based on minor variations such as skin pigmentation. Now look at a Neanderthal skull. The differences are between us and them are more than skin-deep.

But why are the Neanderthals in trees? For a few reasons. First, this story idea germinated under a giant apple tree. Second, the extant species of great apes are all more arboreal than us. By making Neanderthals ‘a bit more like the rest of Hominidae’, I think their enslavement is more believable. There were Americans, after all, who tried to justify slavery by ‘proving’ that blacks were more ‘ape-like’ than whites.

Third, the evolutionary anthropologist in me (warning: he’s an amateur known to speculate wildly) thinks it is plausible that Neanderthals really were better climbers than anatomically modern humans. They were poor endurance runners, lacked throwing weapons and had robust builds with high caloric requirements. These and additional findings have led others to suggest that they were ambush hunters. For this story I speculated on a specific method: in wooded habitats, they may have hidden in tree blinds above high-traffic game areas and descended on prey.

Although I’m not suggesting that Neanderthals brachiated from tree to tree, I am speculating that climbing may have been more important to Neanderthal survival than to the survival of anatomically modern humans. If that were true, it seems likely that Neanderthals would have been at least slightly better climbers.

I wrote the original story in an excited flurry that ballooned to 6,000 words, and this post is also starting to swell, so I’ll wrap it up. The science of de-extinction is exciting, and could be a useful complement to conservation in combating truly tragic rates of extinction. However, there are some crucial questions that should be answered before bringing back any species. The one explored in The descent of man is: do we have a place for them?

In the case of Neanderthals, I think not. But it’s not up to me. It will be the decision of many people, who I hope have been frequently engaged in dialogue about this question. And that is why I hope Neanderthals haunt you.


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