Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Origin of Science

NOTE: To better understand the following, you might read my review of The Art of Tracking first.

Back in the 1800s, folks on the cutting edge of Western science were perplexed.  Evolution had apparently provided hunter-gatherers with essentially the same brains that we moderns have, yet they appeared to be severely retarded — no clear-cuts, mines, cities, insane asylums.  What was wrong with them?  This abnormality led Alfred Wallace to wonder if the theory of evolution was a hoax. 

At the time, he and his peers believed that science originated in ancient Greece, but none of them knew anything about the wild people of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana.  Around 1950, anthropologists began spending time with these hunter-gatherers.  Their studies noted that the hunters carried small bows, which shot poison-tipped arrows.  Poisons were made from plants, snakes, scorpions, spiders, or beetle larvae.  They took from 6 hours to 3 days to kill the animal.  Because anthropologists could see the bows and arrows, they asked questions about them. 

What they could not see was enormous — a two million year tradition, a primary reason why humans walk upright, the mother of our high-powered brains — persistence hunting.  The researchers were attuned to cozy civilized living, not running barefoot across a thorny scorching hot desert for hours at a time.  Consequently, they missed a great deal.

Persistence hunting involved doggedly chasing game for hours until the animal collapsed from heat stroke and died.  Prey could run faster than hunters, for a while, until they became exhausted, overheated, and collapsed.  Their speedy escape left tracks that the less speedy hunters could follow.  Some hunters had fantastic skills in the art of tracking.  HERE is a 7-minute BBC video of a persistence hunt.

Louis Liebenberg is a South African lad, a “citizen scientist,” not a highly paid professional scientist from a luxurious education factory.  He has spent many years learning from the trackers of the Kalahari.  Because skilled trackers utilize an impressive variety of reasoning processes, he believes that tracking could have been the birth of science.  His first book, The Art of Tracking, was published in 1990.  It provides readers with an amazing collection of ideas.  The following commentary is on his 2013 book, The Origin of Science, which focuses on the relationship between tracking and science history.

Tracking requires accumulating an immense amount of knowledge about animal behavior and their spoor (tracks and other signs), an endless lifelong learning process.  In addition, while jogging across the desert in extreme heat, trackers must rapidly process complex inputs into accurate hypotheses.  The most gifted trackers excel at remembering, attention, reasoning, intuition, and imagination.  Their ancient culture enables them to survive in a vast desert that would promptly doom suburban consumers.

These wild super-survivors are nearly naked, unschooled, illiterate, unemployed, uninsured, homeless, penniless heathens who rarely take a bath.  Yet their culture remained sustainable for 100,000 years or more.  Their way of life is possible because they know how to engage in high quality scientific reasoning.  Tracking is about creative problem solving.  All trackers use inductive-deductive reasoning — track and sign recognition.  Advanced trackers also use hypothetico-deductive reasoning — track and sign interpretation, which requires more creativity.  Modern science continues to depend on both types of reasoning today.

Liebenberg has had years of direct experience with both wild people and modern people.  Tracking encourages wild people to develop heightened abilities for intuitive thinking, because the tracks of their prey are rarely clear and complete.  Intuition helps to fill in the blanks and suggest possible conclusions.  It is fast, automatic, effortless, and often unconscious.  Intuition also enhances social relationships.  Wild people are far more sensitive to each other than are folks in the modern world, “where perceptions of others have been blunted by fragmented and shallow relationships.”

For Liebenberg, “education” is a four-letter word, because it is so authoritarian.  Inmates are forced to sit indoors, in rows of hard seats, to have their brains filled with the infallible knowledge of modern science.  Truth is based on the authority of teachers and textbooks, and students on the golden path to success know better than to question authority.

“Modern societies in general, and education in particular, does more to stifle than to encourage intuitive thinking.”  Modern science is often hierarchical, elitist, and less accessible to non-specialist commoners.  On the Kalahari, tracking science is informal and accessible to everyone.  A youth can disagree with how an experienced elder has interpreted tracks, and suggest a different conclusion.  From childhood, youths are regularly exposed to the scientific process.

Modern human brains are probably little different from those of early Homo sapiens.  Liebenberg believes that “some trackers in the past probably were, and perhaps today are, just as ingenious as the most ingenious modern mathematicians and physicists.”  At the same time, both trackers and physicists are capable of being stunningly irrational.  “Cultures may go into decline when scientific knowledge is undermined by irrational belief systems.”

We believe that our industrial civilization is too smart to collapse, perpetual growth is possible, innovation will create “clean” sources of abundant energy, climate change can be reversed, eleven billion can be fed, and the best is yet to come.  He warns us that, “Political leaders who hold irrational and superstitious beliefs, and may even be anti-science, clearly may have serious negative implications for human welfare.”  (Gulp!)

The goal of this book is to argue that science began with prehistoric bipedal trackers.  I wonder if scientific processes aren’t even older than bipedal primates.  Who taught our ancestors the art of hunting — locating prey by scent, sight, sounds, tracks, and knowledge of prey behavior?  Who taught us concealment, stalking, silent movement, deception, ambush, and approaching prey from downwind?  Lions don’t sit in the grass with their mouths open, waiting for breakfast to prance in.  They survive because they have teamwork and powerful minds.  “The /Gwi believe that some species possess knowledge that transcends that of humans.”  In Alaska, the Koyukon proverb is, “Every animal knows way more than you do.”

On the Kalahari, the traditional wild culture is being driven to extinction by growing contact with you-know-who.  Herders are moving in, fencing off lands.  In the 1960s, hunters began using dogs.  Much more game was killed, but the tracking skills of the hunters declined.  More recently, horses have also been added.  The diabolical trio of hunters, horses, and dogs makes it much easier to overhunt and deplete wildlife populations.  Far less skill is needed.  Younger generations have shifted to making souvenirs for tourists, as their ancient culture is pounded against the rocks.

Liebenberg is working with Kalahari elders to encourage younger folks to learn tracking, in hopes that skilled trackers can gain employment collecting wildlife data for use in scientific research.  He has created CyberTracker, a smart phone app that can be used to collect data in the field.  The interface is icon-based, so it can be used by illiterate people.  It is now being used in research around the world, and is helpful in documenting ecological trends, like the welfare of endangered species.  It also encourages the survival and preservation of the art of tracking.

Liebenberg, Louis, The Origin of Science, CyberTracker, Cape Town, South Africa, 2013.

Free PDF downloads of Liebenberg’s books, The Art of Tracking, and The Origin of Science, are available HERE.  Amazon sells a Kindle version of The Origin of Science for $1.00.

The Art of Tracking

Right now, your eyes are following a track of squiggly scratches, and your mind is comprehending meaning from them.  This morning, my mental processes created those tracks, and they contain specific meaning for those who have learned the ability to interpret them.  The farther you are able to follow my tracks, the more you will learn.

Similarly, animals leave behind tracks and other signs as they move across the land, and folks who are skilled at reading this information can accumulate pieces of a story.  The indigenous trackers of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana can perceive a fantastic amount of information by studying spoor — footprints, urine, feces, saliva, blood, fur bits, feeding signs, smells, sounds, and so on.  Spoor provides clues about the animal’s species, gender, size, behavior, direction of travel, time of passage, and so on.

There are large regions of the Kalahari that are quite flat, an endless landscape having no notable landmarks for a white boy like me, who would quickly become hopelessly lost, and turn into cat food.  Hunter-gatherers, on the other hand, always know exactly where they are, because they orient themselves by the layout of plant communities, noting their size, shape, position, and unique features.  They know the face of their land as well as they know the faces of their family.

Louis Liebenberg is a South African lad who has spent years with Kalahari trackers, learning their art.  He calls himself a citizen scientist, not a professional, and he has special gifts for thinking outside the box.  His work has impressed famous academic heavyweights at Harvard.  In 1990, he published The Art of Tracking.

After our primate ancestors moved out of the trees, they eventually evolved for bipedal travel — walking upright on two legs.  In Tanzania, 3.6 million years ago, two bipedal ancestors left their footprints in wet volcanic ash.  In 1978, scientists discovered 70 of their fossilized footprints, in a sequence that was 88 feet long (27m).  [Image]  These ancestors were probably Australopithecus afarensis.

Today, our living primate relatives are quadrupeds, four legs.  Chimps can sprint much faster than humans, but we excel at running long distances.  Moving on two legs is more energy efficient than on four.  Evolution optimized our feet and legs for the spring-like mechanics of running, not walking.  Over time, we lost our fur coats, and developed the ability to sweat profusely, so we excelled at shedding body heat.  Standing upright gave us a better view of the surroundings.

Many game animals can move much faster than humans, for short bursts, then they must stop to cool off.  The desert is especially hot at midday.  Humans are unusual because we can run for hours in the heat of the day.  We can doggedly follow the tracks of speedy prey, not giving them a chance to rest, until heat stroke brings them down, and often kills them.  Hunters also carried spears or clubs, to finish the job, if needed.  HERE is a 7-minute video.

This is called persistence hunting, and Liebenberg was apparently the first civilized scientist to participate in this (he nearly died from heat stroke).  In other regions, this method has been used to hunt reindeer, kangaroos, deer, and pronghorn antelope.  Our ancestors have likely practiced persistence hunting for two million years or more.  It played a central role in the evolution of the person you see in the mirror.

Gorillas are vegetarians, spending long hours stuffing their faces at the salad bar.  They have evolved large guts in order to digest this bulky fibrous diet.  In addition to plant foods, chimps, bonobos, and baboons also eat meat, an excellent source of nutrients and calories.  They are good at predation, killing small animals without weapons.

In the early days, our bipedal ancestors likewise killed small critters with their bare hands.  Eventually, they became hunters.  Early hunters used pointed sticks, stones, and clubs to stun small mammals and birds.  By and by, the ancestors learned how to kill large game, via persistence hunting, javelins, spears, bows and arrows, and so on.  Meat maybe provided forty percent of their calories.

In addition to predation and hunting, our ancestors also acquired meat by scavenging.  Large carnivores often kill large game, devour as much as possible, and then abandon a partially eaten carcass.  On the Kalahari, hunters always note vultures circling in the distance.  They indicate the location of a dying animal, or a yummy carcass.  With luck, our ancestors’ running abilities sometimes enabled them to beat the hyenas to lunch.  Hyenas are not as good at shedding heat.  They periodically need to stop and pant to cool off.

Because game animals can move faster than humans, for limited distances, the success of persistence hunting largely depended on tracking skills — following the spoor of their chosen prey who might be out of sight.  Kalahari people had exceptional tracking skills.  Women were as good as men, or better, at interpreting spoor.  Everyone in a band, both men and women, could observe human tracks, and accurately identify the individual person who made them.

One time, Liebenberg asked some trackers if they could actually recognize the spoor of an individual antelope.  “They found it very amusing that I should ask them such a stupid question.  To them it is difficult to understand that some people can not do it.”  Liebenberg described three levels of tracking strategies.

(1) Simple tracking is just following the prey’s footprints, under ideal conditions, when the prints are clear and easy to follow.

(2) Systematic tracking is used when the spoor trail is less than complete.  Using reasoning and deduction (inductive-deductive reasoning), the tracker can then develop a hypothesis of what the prey was doing, and the most likely direction of its escape route.  This is solely based on real evidence.  Then, the hunter proceeds in the prey’s probable direction, in hope of picking up the track again. 

(3) Speculative tracking is the most advanced and creative.  “Anticipating the animal’s movements, by looking at the terrain ahead and identifying themselves with the animal on the basis of their knowledge of the animal’s behavior, the trackers may follow an imaginary route, saving much time by only looking for signs where they expect to find them (hypothetico-deductive reasoning).  By predicting where the animal may have been going, the trackers can leave the spoor, take a shortcut, and look for the spoor further ahead.”

Like vervets, baboons, jackals, and most other species, our ancestors learned ways of communicating with each other, via sounds and gestures.  Some birds make one warning call for lions, and a different one for snakes.  Many species, including humans, pay careful attention to the vocalizations of other species.  It’s good to know when a lion is approaching, long before it can be seen.

At some point, nobody knows when, the ancestors developed complex language.  As social animals, they lived in small bands.  Each member collected and shared information, and the group developed a body of wisdom.  Language made it easier for them to relay accumulated wisdom to the next generation.

Biological evolution (genes) moves at a snail’s pace, but cultural evolution (knowledge) can boogie like gazelles on meth.  With spears and javelins, the ancestors didn’t need to spend hundreds of thousands years evolving claws and fangs.

A few million years of scampering through the rainforest canopy, followed by a few million years of persistence hunting and tracking, fundamentally directed the evolution of our bodies and minds.  Today, we have abandoned our ancient way of life; it’s nearly extinct.  Imagine what we’d look like after 500,000 years of sitting on couches, entranced by glowing screens, chugging sugar water.

I’ve now given you a wee whiff of this book.  When I write reviews, I usually select a few subjects that especially interest me.  This one was especially interesting from one end to the other.  It carries readers off to a sacred mountaintop, where we can get a better view of the big picture.  If we want to live sustainably for hundreds of thousands of years, simple living is the only option.  What good are all our amazing gizmos if they require an insanely unsustainable flash-in-the-pan culture?

In every way, the wild people of the Kalahari were completely in tune with their ecosystem.  In my world today, I observe the opposite — a society that could not possibly be more alienated.  Recent DNA mapping strongly suggests that the hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari are the ancestors of all humans now on Earth.  You and I carry their genes.  Liebenberg pulls back the curtains of modernity and provides readers with a mind-expanding peek into distant corners of our family tree — the ancestors we have forgotten, and would be wise to remember.

In 2013, Liebenberg published The Origin of Science, which furthers his discussion of our Kalahari relatives.  My review is HERE.  There is some subject matter overlap between the two books, and my two reviews.  Sorry!  Take your anxiety meds.

Free PDFs of two Liebenberg books can be downloaded HERE.  YouTube has many Kalahari documentaries.

Liebenberg, Louis, The Art of Tracking, David Philip Publishers, Claremont, South Africa, 1990.

Saturday, April 1, 2017


One day in 1991, a strange letter arrived at the Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco, where Joe Kane was working.  It was from members of the Huaorani tribe of Ecuador, wild folks who have lived in the Amazon rainforest for thousands of years.  Their jungle home had fantastic biodiversity, including many species that live nowhere else on Earth.

The letter said that DuPont-Conoco was planning to destroy their ecosystem and culture.  The Indians were perfectly happy with their traditional way of life, and they had no interest in being destroyed.  They just wanted to be left alone.  Help!  Kane quit his job and moved to South America.  Several years later, he published Savages, which described his exciting, chaotic, and painful adventure.

Unlike our society, Huaorani men and women really have equal status.  It is never OK to give orders, or to raise a hand against a child or woman.  Family harmony is important.  A priest was amazed by them, “They are joyful in a way that is complete and without self-consciousness.”

The Huaorani strive to be in tune with the abundance of the forest, so they will always have enough to eat.  Sharing is essential.  “There is no higher manifestation of this ideal state than unqualified generosity, and no act more generous than to give away food.”  In the days prior to contact with outsiders, most natives never encountered more than seventy or eighty people during their entire lives, most of whom they knew by name.  Imagine that — a world without strangers or loneliness.

Hunting in a dense rainforest is not easy.  Their technology included spears and blowguns.  Poison darts would kill monkeys in the branches above, requiring the hunter to climb up and retrieve them.  Over time, the feet of men who spent a lot of time in the treetops changed shape, making it easier for them to climb (see image above).  Big toes bent outward, providing a tighter grip.

Until the 1950s, the Huaorani had almost no contact with the outer world.  Then, the missionaries arrived, to save the souls of the demon worshippers.  They believed that the Indians needed to live in permanent settlements, clear the jungle, become farmers, join the cash economy, and pay taxes.  Their children needed to learn Spanish, and get a proper civilized education, so they could abandon their backward culture and language.  Maidenform brassieres were distributed to the jungle camps, so women could conceal their shameful boobs.

The missionaries were walking disease bombs, and they knew that the natives had no immunity to the pathogens they brought into the rainforest, but they were on a mission from God.  Even ordinary influenza could wipe out uncontacted people.  It was vitally important to convert the savages to the one and only genuine interpretation of Christianity, before other missionaries arrived and introduced them to one of the many false interpretations (especially Catholic), condemning their souls to the eternal fires of Hell.

The missionaries held the natives in low regard and, likewise, the natives resented the freaky aliens.  The Huaorani word for outsiders was cowode (cannibals).  In their culture, sickness, misfortune, and death were never the result of mere bad luck, they were always caused by sorcery conjured by others.  When someone died, even an infant, justice required relatives to identify the culprit and kill him or her in revenge.  While this clashes with the virtuous morals our culture has invented, it kept their numbers stable.  Their ecological ethics were far superior to those of the aliens.

Kane became friends with Enqueri, a smart but unreliable Huaorani lad who could speak Spanish.  In 1956, his father and friends killed five missionaries, because soon after missionaries visited, many died from ghastly diseases.  It was easy to determine the source of this sorcery and deliver rough justice.

Clever missionaries realized that two could play this game.  After deaths, they would accuse the native shamans of demonic acts, and grieving families believed them.  By 1991, most shamans had been murdered.  Kane met a shaman named Mengatohue.  “He could enter an ayahuasca trance and become a jaguar.”  Missionaries told schoolchildren that he was an agent of the devil.  Kids mocked him.

Rachel Saint was the sister of one of the speared missionaries, and she continued to pursue his work.  One of her first native converts, Toña, became a preacher.  He attempted to convince the Huaorani that their traditional culture, everything they knew, was totally wrong.  Enqueri said that Toña “brought with him an evil so strong that it killed a child.”  To avenge this misfortune, he was killed with seven spears.

In 1967, oil was discovered in Huaorani country, an estimated 216 million barrels, enough to fuel American gas-guzzlers for about thirteen days.  In 1969, Saint created a protectorate (reservation) for the Huaorani, with a school and chapel.  Before long, all 104 Indian residents had polio, 16 died, and another 16 were crippled.

The Company (oil interests) helped Saint create and operate the protectorate.  They wanted to clear the Huaorani off their traditional lands, so they could build roads, do seismic testing, drill wells, and construct pipelines without bloody resistance.  Saint was thankful for their kind assistance, but regretted their dark side, the booze, prostitution, and violence that came with the full-scale capitalist blitzkrieg.  However, she never doubted that God was smiling on her holy ethnocide.

Ecuador’s government was impressively corrupt and incompetent.  They excelled at boosting debt, stashing stolen funds in Miami banks, and driving up food prices.  Seventy-nine percent of the people lived in poverty.  Officials were desperate for income from the oil industry, and they cooperated in every possible way.  Soldiers kept journalists and activists out of oil country, and the Company was free to pollute the land to the best of their abilities.  Toxic crud was dumped anywhere, and pipelines often leaked.  Rivers turned black, fish died, birds died, caimans died, bananas died, and natives got very sick.  For natives, middle age was 25.

Ecuador was also eager to rid their crowded cities of poor people.  The government promoted the colonization of the rainforest.  When roads were built, a four-mile strip (6.5 km) on each side was dedicated for settlement by colonists.  They flooded into the wilderness, erased jungle, built flimsy shacks, and attempted to produce coffee and cattle on low quality rainforest soil that was quickly depleted.  Many became laborers for the Company, where the work was hard, and the pay meager.  No effort was made to interfere with widespread illegal logging.

Colonization was a rapidly spreading cancer that wouldn’t stop until its ecosystem host was destroyed, including the tribal people.  There was fierce conflict between the Indians and colonists, many died, and many shacks were burned, but the cancer persisted.  A wise guy once noted that the words “road” and “raid” come from the same root.  No place is safer than a vast roadless forest.

The struggle against modernity continued, on and on, with little success.  Kane liked his Huaorani friends, but he wasn’t willing to dedicate his life to their struggle.  To the powerful, he was an annoying troublemaker, so he was unlikely to die from old age.  Kane returned to California and wrote his book.  By the last page, everything was worse, a saga of endless bullshit, craziness, and tragedy.  There are millions horror stories similar to Kane’s, for every commodity utilized by industrial civilization.

José Miguel Goldáraz was a Spanish priest who had spent 20 years in South America.  By and by, he lost interest in soul saving, and became an activist.  He had no doubt that the natives would kill oil workers in defense of their land.  “When the Huaorani kill, there is a spiritual discipline to it.  Americans kill without knowing they are doing it.  You don’t want to know you are doing it.  And yet you are going to destroy an entire way of life.  So you tell me: Who are the savages?”

Chevron vs. the Amazon is a 2016 documentary on YouTube.  Abby Martin visited oil country in Ecuador to observe the current state of affairs. 

Kane, Joe, Savages, Vintage Books, New York, 1996.

Photo: “Feet” by Phil Borges.