Magazine article Insight on the News

Current Interest in Catastrophe May Arise from Primal Instinct

Magazine article Insight on the News

Current Interest in Catastrophe May Arise from Primal Instinct

Article excerpt

Twister is a big hit and Twentieth-Century Fox hopes Volcano will pack movie theaters next year. Why so much interest in disaster? Scientists now think humans evolve in response to ecological crisis.

Americans are having a love affair with catastrophe. Movies about tornadoes are blockbusters. Scientists are predicting global overheating and the death of the rain forests. Now a group of paleontologists is proposing a cataclysmic theory about the origins of human life -- how it was that the first upright, two-legged, big-brained creatures evolved into Homo sapiens.

"We were born in an ecological crisis," said Johns Hopkins University paleontologist Steven Stanley at a recent Smithsonian Institution lecture. "You might say that global change is not all bad."

The ecological catastrophe -- gauged in hundreds of thousands of years -- was precipitated by the appearance of the Isthmus of Panama about 3.5 million years ago, according to Stanley. The small neck of land, pushed up by a volcanic thrust, sealed off the Atlantic from the Pacific and stopped the warm currents that used to reach the polar region. Glaciers moved toward Africa, killing the forests and forcing apelike hominids to survive in the cooler, dryer savannahs. "Our ancestors had to be fully on the ground before we could develop a big brain," said Stanley, whose theory is expounded in his new book, Children of the Ice Age: How a Global Catastrophe Allowed Humans to Evolve.

Anthropologist Rick Potts, director of human-origins research at the Smithsonian, also emphasizes the dramatic environmental events that triggered human evolution. "Periodic reversals in environmental trends were more important" than gradual cooling of the Earth, Potts said during a lecture at the recent North American Paleontological Convention, arguing that dramatic shifts from hot to cold produced a supremely adaptable upright hominid. …

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