It seems to have been all doominess on here lately, so I'm grateful to Anthony for reminding me of a more hopeful story. Maybe you heard about Owen the baby hippo, orphaned in the tsunami disaster of December 2004, who was adopted by an ancient giant tortoise.
As soon as he was placed in his enclosure, the orphaned youngster immediately ran to the giant tortoise also housed in that space. The tortoise, named Mzee (Swahili for "old man") and estimated to be between 100 and 130 years old, was not immediately taken with the brash newcomer — he turned and hissed, forcing the hippo to back away. Yet Owen persisted in following the tortoise around the park (and even into a pool), and within days the pair had forged a friendship, eating and sleeping together. Owen has even been seen to lick the tortoise, whom he regards as his new mother.
What stuck with me was a report one year on that the pair had developed a way of communicating. "We discovered that somebody was making a sound in the pen, we'd never heard it before, not even from other hippos. And then we realised it was coming from both Owen and Mzee... It's just very unusual."
Set against the devastation of the tsunami disaster, you might write this story off as a piece of kitsch. But I think it matters more than that, and here's why. We are always hearing stories about how our behaviour is shaped by our genetic code. Bookshop shelves heave under titles explaining our everyday actions as the replaying of scripts laid down by the survival needs of our cave-dwelling ancestors.
Now, I'm all for seeking a deeper understanding of the many ways in which the past plays itself out through the present, but this kind of pop science often has the opposite effect. By projecting today's supermarket or nightclub behaviour onto the almost blank canvas of prehistory, it masks the strangeness of the past. In my experience, it is by becoming familiar with that strangeness, with how differently people have lived in other times and places, that we can begin to become aware of how strange our current ways of living are.
When, as in much popular science and media coverage, the focus is all on the role of evolution in shaping our behaviour, the effect is to eternalise the present and make it seem inevitable - simply a more "developed" version of the way people have always lived. With such a perspective, there is little point in challenging anything, because it's just "human nature".
What I love about the story of Owen and Mzee is that it illustrates how much room for manoeuvre nature leaves us. If a hippo and a tortoise can learn to talk to one another, how wide a range of possibilities there are besides the ones we take for granted.