In Darkness We Shall

Over the last ten days Oli and I have been traveling around Costa Rica, periodically having our bank accounts drained by the tourist traps that litter the landscape. Our first stop was Quepos, a town just round the corner from Manuel Antonio national park, a land-marine reserve that harbours a spectactular variety of animals and plants within a small vicinity. Making our way along the trail, the rangers stopped every minute or so to point out animals they had “spotted” in a manner which seemed as if they had placed them out on the trail early that morning. Packed full of animals would be an understatement. Sloths lingered in the bitterwood tree-tops, howler monkeys rattled the forest with their calls, hermit crabs skittered away to then hunker down in dark safety, successive humans repeatedly turned a broken tap to the joke of being yet another that tried, raccoons scoured the litter in search of scraps, capuchin monkeys rough housed amongst the low-lying branches on the beach, an agouti strolled with intent on what it was sniffing out, a turtle scrambled upstream fumbling over the rubble, all the while we downed copious amounts of water to keep hydrated from the stifling heat and humidity.

Looking down a palm tree from a tree-top lookout

Onwards to the Caribbean! On this coast we laxed out in a little town down towards Panama called Puerto Viejo. A realisation hit me while I was here, the kind you get only upon encountering something that you have learnt about but never grasped or held up to reality. To get there let’s go on a round-about tangent that should make sense once we arrive.

Pacific gem through the trees

Our research question regarding soil and log invertebrates is an interesting one. Another interesting question to ask is how Oli and I can venture half-way around the world and not have a high expectation of being killed by strangers. As Peter Turchin opens similarly in a recent book “Ultrasociety,” what has forged and propelled human society towards greater and greater cooperation from spending tens of thousands of human hours building cathedrals in northern France near the beginning of the second millennium to spending billions of human hours from multiple countries constructing, launching, and maintaining the international space station. For 90-95% of Homo sapiens sapiens natural history we were hunter-gatherers and extremely territorial, so much so as to not trust and even kill strangers. The data appears to point towards an unexpected theory for our recent ability to cooperate beyond kin-ship circles, not the hydrological theory in which history has been directed by the ever-increasing need to control and secure water, nor was it the great expansion of intellectual and free thought of the enlightenment, nor was it the establishment of human rights, egalitarian movements, and the western revolutions. It appears the leading contestant is war.

An agouti, picture from

The study of warfare requires one to blur the lines between human and natural systems, observing war as a natural byproduct and natural disturbance. Just as we research bird migration patterns, amphibian breeding behaviours, or fish prey-predation dynamics, war should be viewed through a similar lens of Homo sapiens sapiens evolutionary behaviour. There are many definitions for war but a simple foundation to start with is lethal group-on-group violence, a process not unique unto humans as others like chimps and wolves also partake in it.

There are extensive data sets that validate the violent and warlike nature of pre-agricultural humans. Violence and war are high risk means of supporting the evolutionary goals of survival and reproduction. My kiwi readers will be reassured to hear the “Maori warrior gene” is a myth, but disconcerted to hear genes and hormones are universal human predispositions that interact with the environment and other genes to periodically produce warlike tendencies.

Not only is war fascinating in the extremes of the human condition but it is also interesting in that it is not an agricultural construct. The rise of the noble savage in the 1940s through 70s downplayed the natural propensity of human warfare before the neolithic and instead created a state-based and agricultural basis for warfare. This train of thought no longer coincides with what the violent data tells us in fields like zoology, archaeology, psychology, sociology, history and anthropology. The emerging field that intertwines all these disciplines, cultural evolution, is one that uses mathematical models and tests them empirically against vast data sets that have been amassed over the recent decade from the explosion of collaborative and technological capabilities. One of the compelling results from recent research shows that competition amongst groups is a destructive force whereas competition between groups is a creative and productive force, a result businesses should take to heart and reflect on in the cases where they promote and facilitate competition amongst their employees. The cooperation reached by societies, wrenched upwards by war, can then be secured by a variety of social institutions which can be all too easily unraveled like was the case for Afghanistan post 1970s.

Black-sandy beaches on the northern reaches of Puerto Viejo

Theories about the emergence of cooperation aside, I brought it up for when I was wandering the beaches of Puerto Viejo I kept being reminded about the certainty that oceanographers have about the speed that sea level is rising, a speed expected to increase in pace due to the many positive feedback mechanisms that are modeled to kick into action serially. Next to a beach-side resort lay many middle-aged men and women soaking up the sun, dunking their feet in the waves that came wafting in under their lounges to stop on the brink of the jungle. After the initial beach-side dune, the land drops away and most shops, houses, accommodation, and farms lie on this low flat plain. Scary.

Arthrostemma ciliatum

Scary as it is an extremely difficult situation to find, develop, manage, and implement a response to. As I was discussing previously, the scientific endeavour is one fraught with uncertainty, yet to make any clear decisions and responses communities need to come to a consensus about how many resources are going to be delayed for their short-term benefits and invested in their long-term resilience. This is not simply a scientific question with a quantifiable answer but one where cooperation beyond the kin, beyond the town, beyond the city, beyond the state, to our brethren across borders and overseas is going to play a critical role.

An iridescent bee that landed on the laptop

Just like any challenge we face, there are things both under our control and out of our control. Crossing the river to bath under a waterfall the other day, Fredie, Lou, and I had control over our route, over our successive steps, but did not control the flow of the river, the placement of the rocks, or the temperature of the water. The same applies for the strategy we decide to employ to foster resilience against the approaching climatic chaos.


2 thoughts on “In Darkness We Shall

  1. Looks like an awesome adventure man!

    I agree that factions of people are often objectively better off through cooperating. I think another benefit worth considering is the sense of purpose, security, and unity that is felt between people when they come together for a shared goal, however difficult it may be. I just wanted to add my U.S. perspective – lacking this vision of unity and shared goals can engender a scary state of mind.


    1. Indeed, your comment reminds me of one of the stories I listened to the other day about this guy reminiscing his childhood during the Apollo missions and how it has been 45 years since the last man walked on the moon. Whatever the reasons were for going to the moon, it sure did unite and intrigue a whole generation and country for some time.


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