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Evolution (2002)

by Stephen Baxter

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,0142216,842 (3.64)35
From their beginnings foraging at the feet of the dinosaurs, through the apocalypse of an asteroid strike, through countless years of the day to day life and death dramas of survival of the fittest the primate, to the rise and fall of mankind and the final destruction of earth by the expanding sun, the primates have survived. This is their story. EVOLUTION follows the ebb and flow of the fortunes of one group of creatures as they change and adapt to their world somewhere on the horn of Africa. It turns the story of Darwinian evolution into a constant drama, a daily life and death struggle, a heroic story of life¿s endurance. It is a story that transcends generations, species, mankind and, in the end, the Earth itself. In the tradition of Olaf Stapledon and HG Wells.… (more)

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I very much enjoyed this journey through time and how evolution has shaped and could potentially shape our future. ( )
  brakketh | Dec 31, 2021 |
Like his fellow Englishman Arthur C. Clarke, Stephen Baxter favors stories about the grandest scales of space and time, beginnings and ultimates. In this long novel from 2002, his theme is evolution. His protagonist is the taxonomic order Primates, or rather that subset which comprises the ancestors and descendants of modern human beings. Beginning in the Cretaceous period and ending in Earth's distant future, this story is much bigger than a novel could really convey, though Baxter does well.

In a brief prologue set in 2031 CE we meet paleontologist Joan Useb, traveling to a conference in Australia. The book's first major division, "Ancestors", then begins 65 million years before today. Purga is a member of the Purgatorius genus. She is small, shrewlike, and in constant danger from dinosaurs and starvation. Can she survive? No, wrong question; every creature dies. Rather, can she pass her genes on to subsequent generations to become one of the ancestors of humans? Without her, there'll be no us. She loses offspring and mates to her harsh world, then lives through the last day of the Cretaceous, as a giant comet causes the mass extinction that ends the reign of the dinosaurs. Baxter devotes a long, exciting chapter to that terrible day - but Purga lives to see one of her daughters reach reproductive age in the new era. She will be one of the many-times-great grandmothers of Joan Useb and every other human.

Two million years later, our next character is a squirrel-like plesiadapid, roaming the trees to feed her pups. Dinosaurs have been replaced by mammalian predators, and Plesi must make a choice between her own survival and that of one of her offspring. Most of Baxter's protagonists are female, and this choice, between existing offspring and future fertility, is one of his motifs. The primates value motherly love, but evolution doesn't care.

The book proceeds this way chapter by chapter, each one closer to our time. In each a new protagonist faces a cusp in geological history - new predators, new body plans, continental drift and climate change. Not all are our direct ancestors. At its end a short interlude brings us to Joan in 2031 again; she's concerned about climate change. Meanwhile a giant volcano is awakening on the Pacific Rim.

The book's second major division is "Humans". These are the hominims, beginning with homo erectus, and eventually, modern humans. One and a half million years before the present, the young woman named Far runs swiftly over the plains of a drying, cooling Africa. With a smaller brain than ours, she has words but not yet language. Separated from her family by mishap, she survives danger from other hominim kinds, and eventually joins a new band of her species. Baxter does the Dawn Age trope better than most authors have, although here as elsewhere in the novel there are many infodumps while Far has her adventures. The world and its animals are described at length under pressure from the environment and other creatures. Another of Baxter's motifs is that of boastful, hierarchical males contributing rather less to the groups' survival than clans of patient, cooperating females. Would be interesting to learn what modern primatologists think of this idea. A content warning is needed for several instances of another primate activity, rape.

Again the chapters march through the eras, and protagonists meet turning points in how the world works. Neanderthals meet modern humans 127,000 years before the present. In a pivotal chapter 60,000 years ago, the human called Mother invents art, shamanism, and genocide, dominating her region. This seems to squeeze rather too much into a single lifetime, but Baxter has a lot of change to cover. Humans settle Australia and drive most of its large animals to extinction. In Ice Age Europe, modern humans have a last encounter with Neanderthals. In the Middle East, agriculturalists drive out the healthier, happier, more egalitarian hunter-gatherers. In 482 CE, an aging Roman aristocrat is fascinated by the bones of extinct creatures, and misses signs of growing barbarity in his society.

The last chapter of "Humans" is set at Joan's 2031 conference, where she tries to convince her fellow academics to fight harder against climate change. Modern people have dominion over the material world, and even their own genome - but primate behavior has not gone away, and a terrorist group threatens. The chapter ends with Joan giving birth to a daughter as the giant volcano erupts, tipping Earth's balance in a new direction. The great die-back is passed over in a couple of sentences.

The final major division is "Descendants". An initial chapter has a group of 21st-century people awakening from high-tech hibernation. They find an England gone back to wilderness, populated by humans who have little technology. I found this chapter contrived and wonder why it didn't follow the earlier pattern. It at least resolutely avoids one trope - the group's only woman is not having the Eve role that one of the men wants to press on her.

In the next chapter, after 30 million years, one descendant species lives high in trees in Africa, to avoid the rodent-derived predators that have evolved to replace the ones we killed off. A woman is separated from her clan, and undergoes a tour of this strangely different world, including several human-derived species. One such lives underground in a manner like that of social insects, and another, elephantine herbivores, is herded by mouse-derived social predators. Humans have lost their brief reign as Earth's most powerful beings. Oh, and another asteroid is on its way.

These late chapters, for me, bring to mind that Baxter also references another of his English predecessors, Olaf Stapledon, who also wrote about the changes life undergoes over long stretches of time. This chapter at 30 million-years is titled "the kingdom of the rats", echoing a section of Stapledon's Darkness and the Light. Our heroine here is called Remembrance, in ironic contrast to her limited memory. Evolution has selected for other attributes. We will have many descendants, but none again will share our large brains, linguistic skills, and abstract thinking.

The final chapter is set in New Pangaea, 500 million years after today. The continents have again joined into a single, hot desert. The sun's slow brightening allows few large organisms to live. Our last protagonist, Ultimate, journeys to the shore of a dried-out sea, then turns back. The reference here is to a chapter of yet another Englishman, in H. G. Wells's The Time Machine - but Ultimate can only go back to the weird tree that shelters her and the other remaining primates. Eventually, even bacteria will die on the baking Earth. Their DNA may reach worlds forming around newborn stars.

Baxter adds an epilogue showing Joan Useb twenty years after the volcanic eruption. She and her daughter are living in the Galapagos Islands, managing their reduced world well enough. We can imagine more years of life for them - and after all, no primate lives forever.

I don't know enough about paleontology to judge how plausible Baxter's stories are. He references several advisors in an afterword, but it would be nice to have the sort of references section that Peter Watts usually has. The arc of the story convinces. I do question whether humans' large brains would disappear; they certainly have been advantageous in lots of environments until now.

Many of the earlier reviewers here at LibraryThing really hated this book. All that death and misery to get to glorious us, only for us to fail and return our descendants to evolution's terrible wheel. I found it exhilarating; the grandest of stories, well within the tradition of British SF - and tragedy is best, after all. And if evolution, the machinery of the world we live in, doesn't supply us with stories we like, we can still write our own. ( )
1 vote dukedom_enough | Jul 12, 2021 |
In the musical 1776, Col. Thomas McKean says of General Washington's reports from the field, reporting everything that's gone wrong since the last report, "That man could depress a hyena." This seems to be a fair comment on many of Baxter's books, and Evolution is no exception.

Spoilers ahead.

The frame story concerns Joan Useb, a paleontologist who, in 2031, has organized a major interdisciplinary conference with the covert goal of sparking a movement to do something effective about saving the biosphere. The only amusement to be found in the frame story are the nasty Tuckerizations of two well-known British fans, Gregory Pickersgill and Alison Scott. Pickersgill is a radical anti-globalization activist, the charismatic leader of a splinter Christian sect, the core around which the umbrella organization "Fourth World" has formed. (Or so it is believed. It turns out that Pickersgill doesn't exist; he's just a cover identity for someone even more extreme and unpleasant.) Alison Scott at least gets to exist; she's a genetic engineer who sells her services to the very wealthy, to give their children advantages rather than curing disease. She's so focussed on money and showmanship that she even uses her own offspring as walking advertisements for what she can do for your next child, if you can pay enough.

The main body of the book is better. It's necessarily episodic, covering the evolution of primates from a rodent-like creature during and after the last days of the dinosaurs, through a monkey-like creature 500 million years from now that's fully symbiotic with a tree. "Fully symbiotic," in this case, means that the Tree provides a good deal more than shelter. It produces a specialized root that attaches to the bellies of these last primates, providing not just nourishment and psychotropic drugs, but genetic mixing and control of reproduction. The primates in return bring nutrients to the Tree that it can't obtain otherwise, and carry its seeds to favorable ground. Along the way, Baxter does some interesting things, imagining plausible forms that aren't represented in the necessarily patchy fossil record, such as an elaborate dinosaurs-and-primates ecology in Antarctica, fifty-five million years after the presumed extinction of the dinosaurs--an ecology first frozen into extinction and then ground up beyond the possibility of fossilization by the advancing icecap. This is an utterly grim extinction event, of course, with all the species dying out entirely rather than evolving into something else, but that's Baxter for you.

As exemplified by the dinosaurs and primates in Antarctica sequence, Baxter does not confine himself solely to the direct line of descent from little Purgatorius to humans. We also get to see the hypothetical, but plausible, harrowing adventure of the monkey-like critters that get accidentally rafted across the Atlantic to become the ancestors of the monkeys of South America, and other plausible but unrecorded species.

Eventually, though, we do get to the more or less direct and recent ancestors of humans--the first ape to lead his troop ou t onto the African savannah as the forests shrink, homo erectus, neanderthals, Cro-Magnon, early civilized humans. Amongst the neanderthals, we get a story that is at once encouraging and grim: a little band of neanderthals, led by a man called Pebble, st ruggling to survive, forms an alliance with a pair of wandering almost-Cro-Magnon, Harpoon and Ko-Ko. First they trade, then they learn some of each other's best tricks, then they combine their efforts to cross over to an island, wipe out the remnant of homo erectus living there, and seize it for themselves. Baxter does depict the two kinds as mutually fertile, which I think is currently not the opinion of scientists, but that's a minor point, considering that opinion on that has changed more than once.

Once we get to unambiguously modern humans, though, we're in trouble. It's good (I think) that Baxter makes the point that primitive humans who believed they were living in harmony with nature actually did a devasting job on their prey species. There's some amusement value in reading the description of the First Fan:

"She had always been isolated, even as a child. She could not throw herself into the games of chase and wrestling and chattering that the other youngsters had indulged in, or their adolescent sexual experiments. It was always as if the others knew how to behave, what do do, how to laugh and cry--how to fit in, a mystery she could never share. Her restless inventiveness in such a conservative culture--and her habit of trying to figure out why things happened, how they worked--didn't make her any more popular." (page 292)

Alas, this woman, Mother, who invents conscious thought as a tool for something other than social interaction, and consequently invents a variety of other useful tools (in a reversal of the old depiction of men inventing tools almost certainly invented and used by women, who did most of the foraging and gathering, Baxter has Mother invent the spear-thrower, something far more likely to have been invented by the men who did most of the hunting) becomes obsessively fixated on the death of her son, invents gods, religion, life after death, black magic, and human sacrifice. Baxter assigns the whole thing to one emotionally unbalanced woman, and portrays it all in relentlessly negative terms, even while conceding that this nasty invention caught on and survived because it conveyed survival benefits to its adopters. It's all downhill from there, as far as human character goes. On page 322, we're told:

"And just as they were able to believe that things, weapons or animals or the sky, were in some way people, it wasn't a hard leap to make to believe that some people were no more than things. The old categories had broken down. In attacking the river folk they werent killing humans, people like themselves. The river folk, for all their technical cleverness with fire and clay, had no such belief. It was a weapon they could not match. And this small but vicious conflict set a pattern that would be repeated again and again in the long, bloody ages to come. And there it is, folks, the roots of the Holocaust right there at the dawn of civilization, with the invention of religion."

The problem with this is that Baxter has already shown us repeatedly, in earlier episodes in the Evolution of Humans, that it's nonsense. Time and again he has shown us early hominids and pre-hominids regarding strangers of same or similar species as creatures to be killed. Over and over again the men, the boys, and sometimes even the young girls are killed, and maybe the adult or near-adult females are kept for breeding purposes. The great mental breakthrough that Pebble and Harpoon made, in the early morning of genus Homo, was the possibility of active cooperation with other bands. The great mental breakthrough Harpoon's ancestors had made, back at the very dawn of genus Homo, was the invention of trade as a possible means of relating to humans from other bands.

And what's striking and different about raids that Mother's followers make on other bands, is not that they kill most of the members of the band. The thing Mother's followers do that's different is that first, they make peaceful contact with the band to find out what neat new technology they have, and then, when they do attack, they spare not only the adult and near-adult females, but also some of the adult males, the ones who are the experts in the most interesting bits of new technology that the target band has. What's different about Mother's followers is not that they have found a way to regard other people as things, but that they have found reasons other than sexual exploitation to forcibly add people to their band rather than kill them. For Mother's people, other people are useful or dangerous precisely because they are people, with knowledge and skills of their own, rather than just rival animals competing for the same resources. What makes them more dangerous is not that they have new talent for dehumanizing other people (earlier varieties of hominid didn't need to dehumanize people because it never occurred to them that hominids not members of their own band were people), but the fact that their killing technology gets a lot better.

Eventually , of course, we catch up to the frame story, and the downfall of Homo sapiens without ever having gotten humans even as far as Mars. After all, how could such a loser species do anything really grand? Post-collapse, it apparently takes only a thousand years or so for humans to completely lose the power of speech. An interesting detail from this point on is that Baxter, who never used the words "man" and "woman" to describe males and females of primate species until he got to genus Homo, does not stop using it as he describes the steadily more primitive and degraded post-Homo varieties of primate. Thus we have a primate evolved to live pretty much exactly like a naked mole rat, referred to as "mole woman," but only after Baxter has gone to great lengths to emphasize the fact that these "mole folk" have no higher consiousness at all, and virtually no brains.

All in all, it's a depressing, negative view of humans and evolution, and evidently intended to be. Avoid this one.
( )
  LisCarey | Sep 19, 2018 |
Fun speculation about the evolution of humanity, individual and mind and the question of who is the crown of creation. The answer: there is none. Baxter's outlook is pretty depressing when is comes to mankind; degeneration is what expects us, new species will take over as the environment will change. ( )
  DeusXMachina | Aug 28, 2017 |
Interesting in its scope, but I don't much care for his style. It's a little too direct in places. ( )
  ndpmcIntosh | Mar 21, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 20 (next | show all)
To say that Baxter's reach exceeds his grasp is to state the obvious. What is astonishing is how successfully he brings to life a wide range of facts and conjectures, and how entertaining as well as informative this book -- an episodic novel with evolution as its protagonist -- manages to be.

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Judging from the past, we may safely infer that not one living species will transmit its unaltered likeness to a distant futurity. And of the species now living very few will transmit progeny of any kind to a far distant futurity.

- Charles Darwin
On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (1859)
To Sandra, again,
and to the rest of us, in hope of long perspectives
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As the plane descended toward Darwin it ran into a cloud of billowing black smoke.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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From their beginnings foraging at the feet of the dinosaurs, through the apocalypse of an asteroid strike, through countless years of the day to day life and death dramas of survival of the fittest the primate, to the rise and fall of mankind and the final destruction of earth by the expanding sun, the primates have survived. This is their story. EVOLUTION follows the ebb and flow of the fortunes of one group of creatures as they change and adapt to their world somewhere on the horn of Africa. It turns the story of Darwinian evolution into a constant drama, a daily life and death struggle, a heroic story of life¿s endurance. It is a story that transcends generations, species, mankind and, in the end, the Earth itself. In the tradition of Olaf Stapledon and HG Wells.

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