Where do we come from? It’s one of the oldest questions asked, having haunted generations from eons ago, to a past not so distant. Of course, humans have always been good at attempting to answer this prickly problem, hence the advent of mythology, religion, and the creation story. But those solutions are only as solvent as the force of a believer’s faith. In ancient Egypt, the stars were believed to be milk from a heavenly cow. Eve was made from a rib. Take your pick.
Only recently have humans been able to look into the past and trace our collective origins, going off of fact, not faith. Still, all the puzzle pieces aren’t accounted for, and may never be, once again leading to the creation of an origin narrative. This is what Pat Shipman, a former anthropology professor from Penn State, attempts to do in her book The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction.
This is not a story of our evolution from plankton to people. Shipman is interested in both where we came from and how we managed to stick around for as long as we have, given our physical limitations viz our main competition 40,000 years ago. There were plenty of predators, faster, stronger, fiercer, than us, including our close hominid cousin. How is it we as a species overtook them? In a way, this extensively researched book is an origin story of how we, Homo sapiens, became the dominant species on this planet.
It’s a complex topic, filled with theories and qualifications, and backed by evidence that’s trusted and contested, oftentimes simultaneously by different experts. Given the, relative, slim size of this text, its detail is impressive, even if this represents only the iceberg’s tip. For any layman, it’s daunting. But never fear, the Rolling Stones are able to help. The author invokes the classic, kōan-like lyrics of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.
As Shipman explains: “In some ways, the immortal words of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are the best statement I know of to describe evolution. Things don’t stay the same; you can’t always get what you want; but with a little flexibility, you might get what you need to survive.” Its bits of compression and levity like this that helps The Invaders succeed. Shipman can bring the facts and figures, but she also has a deft handle on when to pull back, to reorient, and to simplify. This is indicative of her fruitful teaching career.
As the book’s title goes, this is a tale of invasion, of moving in and taking over. Shipman does an exemplary job of attempting to answer (while noting the gaps in her theory) how we moved up the food chain to become top dog: a penchant for adaptability, a fortuitous climate shift that a deleterious effect on our competitors, and the ability to domesticate animals, thereby utilizing their natural strengths, deploying them Mega Man-like when needed.
Yet, any conquest of an ecosystem comes at a cost, mainly as the loss of biodiversity. Invaders move in, kill or drive out all competitors, and multiply beyond control, despoiling the land. The author begins the book by outlining what constitutes an invasive species, pointing the reader towards a list of the most disruptive intruders (rabbits in Australia, Asian carp in the Great Lakes, etc…). “The most invasive, most environmental-altering species of all—the one that has contributed to or directly caused the extinctions of thousands of species and the alteration of almost every habitat you can think of—is not on the list.” The riddle isn’t much of one. Shipman speaks not only to where we come from but also where we are going, mapping out our current, and future, invasions against a beaten opponent. As we know, our endless conquering is having drastic and profound effects on our own future viability on this planet.
Shipman, in the aforementioned introduction, chides us, the most invasive of invaders, that “Maybe because we — we humans, Homo sapiens — are the ones writing the list and we do not want to face our culpability.
In fact, the invasion has continued. The author connects our advantages over Neanderthal, wooly mammoth, and sabertooth tiger to our current abilities to drive mass extinctions on a scale only possible through natural forces. We’re too good, perhaps, at winning. As Walt Kelly, famous for his illustrations promoting Earth Day, noted “We have met the enemy and he is us.” If we’re not careful, we’ll choke on the very fruits of our victory.