147 Maximum Ape

Contingency is a fundamental concept in evolution. Chance events and the vagaries of history set animals along evolutionary trajectories that are less optimal strategies, and more strategies that make the most of a bad situation.  As the immortal Christopher Hitchens so simply put:

Even with all the advantages of retrospect, and a lot of witnesses dead and gone, you can’t make your life look as if you intended it or you were consistent. All you can show is how you dealt with various hands.

We know from experience the role contingency plays in each of our lives. At times*, it can outweigh the relentless driving force of adaptive evolution. Indeed, chance events may be our best explanation for why there are so many different types of animals and plants on this planet; without contingency we would likely be looking at a much more depauperate, uniform world.

For one thing we would not have snooker. For those US readers, snooker is basically gentleman’s pool. Matches can last several days, waistcoats and bow-ties are compulsory, and a butler is present to polish the balls. Do yourself a favor and google it. I spent my undergraduate days in Sheffield, the home of world snooker. Aptly named ‘the Crucible’, Sheffield’s premier snooker hall is filled with as much drama and intrigue as any theatrical show. The city comes alive during world championship season, with the excitement on the streets reaching fever-pitch levels. Frankly, to see that many people take something so silly, so seriously, is life-affirming. I like all sport for that reason, but as an evolutionary biologist, snooker lends a special appeal to me as it is the the most perfect physical embodiment of primate evolution.

No other animals on earth could even attempt snooker. Only several key innovations, unique to the history of primates, make snooker possible. Most obviously, in order to reach the table, one must affect an upright posture. This is not trivial. Most animals require all limbs for balance. Bears and horses can rear up on their hind legs temporarily, but certainly not for the 72 hours required to make it through the grueling 35 frame final in South Yorkshire.

Not only does an upright posture allow us to see the table, it also frees up our hands to hold the cue. Incidentally, freeing up the hands is our best guess for why we stood up in the first place, although then it was for picking berries off the forest floor, rather than phenomenal break-building. Of course, being upright is necessary but not sufficient. In order to deftly sink colors and control the cue ball, one also requires precision grip. The opposable thumb is another adaptation that arose to improve our ability to manipulate food, but again we can co-opt that adaptation (very common in evolution by the way) to different purposes.

So now we have the tools to physically play the game, but we have several adaptations to go before we can actually comprehend what we are doing, i.e. be any good at the game. For instance, it would behoove us to know what balls we were aiming at, and thus color vision seems a rather important prerequisite for snooker**. Even in pool, when the balls are numbered, the issue is not circumvented because the ability to count requires the final primate adaptation we will discuss.

We are a self-aggrandizing bunch, and our species will take any opportunity to laud it over the rest of the animal kingdom with our big brains. It is true that our cognitive abilities are the primary trait that set us apart from other species, and certainly without such processing power, we would not be tearing up the pool halls anytime soon. The main power that our big brains bestow upon us is that of foresight. Very few animals can look past the here and now, to predict future outcomes, or make plans. In order to be even remotely competent at something like snooker requires being able to at least guess where the balls are going to end up after you hit them. This seems pretty easy to us, but as I say, most animals do not have such clairvoyance. In addition, as alluded to previously, big brains are required for counting to any substantial number. With 147 points available on the table at the start of a frame, mathematical skills are as important for snooker as they are for darts. The games we play…


*mass extinction events are the most obvious example

**having said this, I have fond memories of my maternal grandparents glued to the professional snooker on a black-and-white television set! Adds an extra challenge for the spectator I guess, but it didn’t make any sense to me then, and it doesn’t make any sense to me now. 

Boer-ed to Death

They tell me that our brothers over there
Are defyin’ the Man.
We don’t know for sure because the news we get
Is unreliable, man.
Well I hate it when the blood starts flowin’,
But I’m glad to see resistance growin’.
Somebody tell me what’s the word?
Tell me brother, have you heard
From Johannesburg?

South Africa was one of the first spoils of the British Empire in the scramble for Africa. Along with Egypt, this colony formed the cornerstone of Cecil Rhodes’ infamous Cape to Cairo mission*. Despite the early acquisition of South Africa by the Brits, we were not the first white people there. The Portuguese had rounded the (now seemingly ironically titled) Cape of Good Hope** back in 1488, but it was the Dutch East India Company that established the first permanent settlement at Cape Town in 1652. It was more than 150 years before the British Empire turned its gaze towards the southern tip of Africa, seizing the cape in 1795 to prevent it falling into the hands of the French. The Empire might have relinquished the colony at the end of the Napoleonic wars, were it not for discoveries of diamond and gold deposits in the unexplored hinterland, that convinced the British to stay. And so, the stage is set for a century of Anglo-Dutch conflict, predominantly over mining rights.

I always attempted to put myself in the shoes of an indigenous tribesman, perhaps Zulu or Ndebele, watching the scene unfold. Europeans fighting Europeans, over to whom your land belongs. And for some reason, they have left you out of the discussion. Bewilderment and rage in equal measure, I can only imagine. In this country, the feelings must’ve been similar for any Native American unlucky enough to witness European’s slaughtering each other over land rights in North America during the Seven Year’s War, or overhearing the ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ rhetoric being spewed by true (albeit rather new) patriots at the outset of the American Revolution. The irony is palpable.

If we fail to learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it. We are experiencing the perfect storm of ignorance and indifference; a ferocious tide that acts to maintain the ‘ordinary’ status of racism. This is nothing new, of course, but becomes increasingly difficult to swallow as we accrue more and more history that highlight the errors of our past ways. Similar despair surfaces when I contemplate the current trend of European nations towards right-wing politics. If their is one continent that should know full-well the dangers of lurching to the right politically, it is Europe. And that history is far from ancient.  The frequent recurrence of this rapid, collective amnesia is yet another hindrance that can retard the pace of change, or even result in the rolling back of previous advances.

Luckily the solution is simple: do a better job of teaching history (and critical thinking) in schools. I would wager the majority of UK schoolchildren could not tell you a single thing about the Boer War; where and when it happened, who it was between, the fact that the Brits had concentration camps long before the Nazis, etc. This failing is unacceptable, and when you consider that the failure is intentional, in order to cover up previous atrocities, the current state of our education system is almost too dire to bare. Predictions for the future trajectory of education are marred with uncertainty, but if there’s one thing for sure, it’s that progress will only come if we want it.


*I’m not sure which is more depressing, the idea that this kind of land-grabbing jingoism constituted foreign policy, or the fact that we actually pulled it off; at the height of empire, you could walk from Cape Town to Cairo without leaving British sovereignty… man oh man, the good ol’ days.

**Hope has long since left the southern peninsular of Africa. Apartheid is back in international news, Namibian separatists are fleeing a crackdown regime in their home country, creating a refugee crisis in neighboring Botswana, civil war fears have flared up in Mozambique again, and following the death of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe is experiencing yet another wave of hyperinflation; in most countries $50 million will get you a half-decent holding midfielder, but in Cecil Rhodes’ former playground, it won’t even get you half a banana.