WS: Do you think that we are in a race against time here? Do you think there are major questions to be answered?Good for whom?
SW: I do. The diversity of humanity is being subsumed into this global monoculture, if you will. Within the next few generations the genes will still be there, but they will be all mixed up and they will have no context. Socially, I think it's possibly a very good thing. But it just means that we're going to have erased who we are genetically, these patterns of variation that are relatively recent in the grand scheme of things.
In reality, within the "next few generations" anyway, there is no chance of any significant fraction of the projected two billion sub-saharan Africans or billions of Asians looking "much more like Tiger Woods". Only the West is threatened in this experiment. And even in the West, Wells' outcome is hardly inevitable.
WS: In your book, you couldn't avoid a note of wistfulness. That's something that I've encountered in other people that write and think deeply about prehistory, a wistfulness about the hunter-gatherer period, about the late Paleolithic.
SW: Oh, absolutely, yes. Noble savages. That's actually the subject of my next book.
WS: Is it?
SW: Yeah, it's all about the changes that have happened since the development of agriculture and how, even from the very beginning, they seemed to be bad for us. Anyone who has spent time with hunter-gatherers—have you ever spent time with the San Bushmen, or any of these other groups?[. . .]
WS: This hand axe is a beautiful piece of work to me in terms of its adaptation. There are some theorists of the Paleolithic who view these other hominid species as being more technically expert than we perhaps might imagine. I wonder about their demise in that sense—and I suppose it wouldn't be called genocide, but perhaps specicide, in this context.
SW: Call it genocide if you want. But I don't think it was something that we set out to do, in the case of the Neanderthals. It's just that they were perhaps better adapted to forested countryside, which is what Europe was until the worst part of the last Ice Age when the grasslands really came in and the tundra moved south. We were better adapted to living in open country and we had larger group sizes and better hunting techniques that had probably been developed on the steppes of central Asia, among other places. We just out‑competed them.
WS: There was a strong inclination towards speciation among humans, but we now have to reassert our connection with nature and the environment at the end of millennia and millennia of doing exactly the opposite. Those Neanderthals have nothing to do with us.
SW: Well it's a generalized xenophobia, to recognize things that are like us, and are, therefore, to be trusted. It's scary to think that might have been something that we've been adapting to do, for hundreds of thousands of years, and now suddenly, it's not a good thing. How do you get past that in this modern world?
WS: But it is a paradox, isn't it, if we're going to be attracted to the other to the extent that it's no longer the other? With the level of miscegenation that we have at the moment, the other isn't going to look like the other anymore.
SW: Eventually, we will all look much more like Tiger Woods, perhaps.
WS: Yeah, then these key markers of who we once were will be eradicated.
SW: Then we'll develop new ones.
WS: It seems to me that humanness has been a question of refinement.
SW: That's the way evolution works. You don't typically have a revolution, you have slow changes, and evolution tinkers with what you have available.
One wonders how Wells reconciles his belief that miscegenation is "possibly a very good thing" socially with his acknowledgment that new group identifiers will always arise. Why not accept human nature now and structure society accordingly?
Yes, Spencer, it really is that simple.
WS: I think one of the things that inspired me to write Great Apes was the imminent extinction of the chimpanzee in the wild, which I think will be one of the most philosophically queasy moments. But I don't think people have reckoned on it at all.
SW: Any extinction, but particularly chimpanzees.
WS: Particularly the chimp, surely.
SW: It's the finality of it and the notion that, "These are our cousins, and we're the ones who caused their demise."
WS: Isn't it also like kicking out the ladder beneath us? The connection is then gone between us and the rest of the natural world in a really profound way.
SW: Yes, but we've done that before—we did it with Neanderthals.
WS: Yes, we've done it before.
SW: We seem to have no qualms about doing things like that. We're very good destroyers, as well as creators.
WS: I think, I can't remember the figure, but there are something like only 150,000 chimpanzees left in the wild?
SW: And fewer orangutans.
WS: And fewer mountain gorillas. But if they were allowed to get on with it now, they would be fine.
SW: If we set aside the territory, yeah. It's really that simple. It's just like hunter-gatherer human populations. All they need is to be left alone with enough territory and they will be fine.