In the week we land a skinny Hummer on Mars, and see startlingly high resolution images of this perhaps uninhabited planet, I have felt a creeping dread. A fear for the survival of any species we might encounter out there, in the vastness of space.
In this moment of celestial celebration, I perhaps express a rather dark perception of human nature. The reason I don’t think our introduction to any extraterrestrial life form—intelligent or otherwise—will be to their benefit is that our history as a benevolent species is not great. We don’t need Lucifer, Shaytan or whoever to egg us on towards evil, all we have to do is relax a little and let our true nature run free. Before you send an exorcist to my door, consider that there is irrefutable proof of our unholy inheritance all around us, even without giving credence to the tale of Cain.
I know there are a handful of you out there who cling to the idea of Earth being divinely constructed in six days some 5,000 years ago, but most folk believe dinosaurs really did roam the planet and human evolution from our apish precursor cousins is a predetermined linear progression.
We’re all familiar with the T shirt: chimp to Boeremag prototype, right? It feeds into our sense of our “right” to be the dominant life form. The simplistic human story arc has our simian predecessors start catching and eating protein-rich animals, evolving language and figuring out to stand on our hind legs to spot danger or opportunity on the African savannah. And so we evolved through pre-humans like Homo erectus into our “final” manifestation as Homo sapiens. You know, the folk who conquered fire and then invented the soufflé and Viagra.
But then, back in Africa other pesky paleontologists recently found another African skeleton with a flat faced skull that matches a single find from the 1970s called Homo rudolfensis. (They knew his name was Rudie?) Seems this is a parallel species of human (I use this loosely) from some 2-million years ago that is outside of our lineage. And of course we had Homo habilis from the same era. So there were three lines of pre-humans existing simultaneously in Africa. At least.
So the almost deific—and heroic—story of our evolution has been dealt a mortal blow. Maybe we are just a completely random event, with a cruelly intelligent bent that enabled us to survive.
And then there are the Euro quasi humans, the Neanderthals and the Denisovans. The Neanderthals seems to have been an annoying glitch, an evolutionary dead-end that our ancestors might or might not have shagged. Talk about coyote escape tactics from the lust cave the morning after! Actually, some scientists say Neanderthals were red headed and pale skinned, so quite possibly they looked a little like those cute Scots lasses.
And they disappeared rather suddenly, last seen sunbathing outside a cave on the Iberian Riviera some 28,000 years ago.
More recently, scientists made a discovery in a collapsed Siberian cave, and suddenly there was another extinct European species or sub-species they call Denisovans.
Sadly, they managed to extract DNA samples from both of these human-ish things, and it seems that, yes, we did indeed sleep with both these species, their genes are intermingled with ours. Eurotrash takes on a whole new meaning here. But boys will be boys, hey?
Yet they disappeared. Were they badly adapted to the environment? Did they fail to deal with climactic changes? They couldn’t come up with a decent bride price? Perhaps, but I doubt it. I think they and good old rudolfensis and erectus and whoever else we dig up out there fell foul of our own fine species, Homo sapiens.
I think we called them makwerakwera or Hottentots, and whacked them; killed them off. Just like the poor Neanderthals who fled our human propensity to rape, pillage and enslave, until all they had left was a little redoubt at the southern tip of Europe. You see where I am going with this; why we have to keep inventing devils and demons and the like to blame for what is intrinsically us?
Pity those poor innocent Martians, should they ever have to deal with us face to face, however fearsome they figure themselves. DM
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Born in South Africa in 1962, Greg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative photojournalist and is co-author of The Bang Bang Club, a nonfiction book on South Africa’s transition to democracy, and Murder at Small Koppie based on his investigations into the Marikana massacre of miners by police. He is an associate editor for Daily Maverick. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 2013/14 and teaches photojournalism and visual journalism at Boston University’s Journalism school, where he also indulges a passion by leading analogue workshops on archaic film cameras.
"We spend the first year of a child's life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There's something wrong there." ~ Neil deGrasse Tyson