Monday, November 29, 2004

Baxter: Evolution - Growth of Mind and Consciousness

In a sweeping story, Stephen Baxter has chosen to tell the tale of human Evolution, from our earliest mammal ancestor through present day and into a post-human future. Bringing together factual elements to paint a picture of what it might have really been like to live in these "geologically interesting" times, Baxter begins with a mass-extinction event, the comet-fall that spelled the end of the reign of dinosaurs.

By following individuals in the line ancestral to humans, he traces the rise of human thought and consciousness, the coming of religious beliefs, human societies and nations, war and extinctions. Characterizing these developing minds as actors in understandable dramas of survival helps Baxter present some deep concepts without being pompous or preachy, and set the stage for what might really come next.

For example, at the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary, ~65 million years ago [mya] and just after the comet-fall: " and there living things moved in the ash: insects like ants and cockroaches and beetles, snails, frogs, salamanders, turtles, lizards, crocodiles - creatures that had been able to hide in mud or deep water - and many, many mammals... It was as if the world ran with rats." In this time, proto-primates already have brains "large and complex enough to require self-referential cleansing...", and so they dream.

An arboreal primate in the arctic jungles of ~51 mya is threatened by his own reflection: "From inside the water two primates were looking out at him... He could not smell the male, could not tell if he was kin or stranger... [He] could recognize others of his species [but]... could not recognize himself, for his mind did not contain the ability to look inward."

About 5 mya, proto-hominid "Capo" leads his ape-troop on the coast of North Africa with guile born of nascent consciousness: "He sat under a tree, dropped his hammer stone, picked up a stick and began to work methodically to clean out the spaces between his toes. He knew if he made a dash for his palm nuts the others would get there first and pilfer them... This new ability had even made him self-aware, in a new way. The best way to model the contents of another's mind was to be able to study your own. If... I believed what she does, what would I do? It was an inward look, a reflection: the birth of consciousness. If Capo had been shown his face in a mirror, he would have known it was him..."

I enjoyed the book thoroughly, even though I do not agree with Baxter's rather grim projection beyond the present. Then again, if it isn't speculative, it just isn't science fiction!

I found this novel strongly reminiscent of Michener's The Source, in the way he uses fictional characters to make the history more approachable. Random House echoes the cover text, the reason I decided to buy this book.