If Humans Don’t Make it, Perhaps Others Will

March 26, 2004

IN their intense concentration on the descent of man, anthropologists have virtually ignored the fact that evolution, which brought us from Pithecanthropus to Homo the Sap, also continued to work on other species.

Some years ago, I was privileged to visit the home of the Hranci Hogs in a remote corner of the Peruvian jungle that had escaped the developers. They look like a small capybara, but with a disproportionately large head and huge soulful eyes.

Somehow they had contrived to make, or more likely steal, the gene set for   articulate speech, and were communicating in what turned out to be a very primitive form of Quechua. Which of course suggests that at some time in the past they must have had intercourse with Amerindians, though who taught whom how to speak must remain a mystery.

ALTHOUGH they live in ground burrows, they have developed a range of philosophies to which they frequently allude, much as humans used to quote Shakespeare or the Bible to support a shaky argument. I was particularly impressed by one elder who, in answer to my suggestion that they should now invent the wheel, replied, “We are lovers of the beautiful, yet simple in our tastes, and are not ashamed to cultivate the mind.”

That was an almost direct quotation from Thucydides, who flourished in Greece around 450 BC. Explain that if you can.

Their forepaws have an opposable thumb, enabling them to construct primitive agricultural implements, though in line with their peaceful philosophy they have absolutely forsworn weapons, so they are necessarily vegetarian.

They believe in life after death, though so far as I could understand with my limited Quechua, their anticipated afterlife was so similar to their present dispensation as to constitute a belief in reincarnation. Indeed, they frequently spoke of events that must have occurred hundreds, if not thousands of years ago.

NOW, I wouldn’t be bothering you with all these details were it not obvious that the human race will become extinct within the next few hundred years. Lethal mutations in our genome are multiplying unchecked as our physicians strive to keep us alive when natural selection would have killed off the bad apples long before they had a chance to breed. But if a corrupt inheritance doesn’t do it, failure of nerve, that destroyer of empires, will win in the end. I just want you to know that we have admirable successors who, living underground, will likely escape a nuclear Armageddon and have the brains to enjoy life without blowing each other up or fouling the environment.

Of course, the Hranci are the only potential successors I have personally met, but doubtless there are many other candidates, such as the porpoise, or the Bonobo monkeys who share 98 percent of their genome with us. And there are many others who will be delighted to replace us, and may well make a better job of it if they can recapture the record of our mistakes.

HAVING now learnt about the Hraci, you will doubtless want to bomb them, cut down their forests and poison their rivers, but don’t bother to do it in Peru; I wouldn’t reveal their true location for all the gold in FortKnox.

 

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