[Marxism] question re Mary Leakey

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Feb 6 07:25:22 MST 2013

On 2/6/13 8:46 AM, Andrew Pollack wrote:
> Today's Google doodle says it's the centenary of Mary Leakey's birth.
> I don't know much at all about her  and when I mentioned it to a
> friend she said the Leakeys are part of a backward anthropological
> tradition.
> Anyone know details?

I guess that this is a reference to Louis Leakey's opposition to the Mau 
Mau. His son Richard ran for office in Kenya against the entrenched 
corrupt party in power. As far as I know, the label "reactionary" 
applied to them as anthropologists is a bit puzzling because most of 
their work is as archaeologists rather than anthropologists. Studying 
bones hardly strikes me as the sort of thing that might led to 
reactionary conclusions.

I do have a copy of Richard Leakey's "Sixth Extinction". Here's the sort 
of thing that he argues:


Homo sapiens is not the first living creature to have a dramatic impact 
on Earth's biota, of course. The advent of photosynthetic microorganisms 
some three billion years ago began to transform the atmosphere from one 
of low oxygen content to one of relatively high levels, reaching close 
to modern levels within the last billion years. With the change, very 
different life forms were possible, including multicellular organisms, 
and previously abundant forms that thrived in a low oxygen environment 
were consigned to marginal habitats of the Earth. But that change was 
wrought not by a single, sentient species consciously pursuing its own 
material goals, but by countless, non-sentient species, collectively and 
unconsciously operating new metabolic pathways. The reason and insight 
that emerged during our evolutionary history bestowed a behavioral 
flexibility on our species that allows us to multiply bounteously in 
virtually every environment on Earth. The evolution of human 
intelligence therefore opened a vast potential for population expansion 
and growth, so that collectively the almost six billion humans alive 
today represent the greatest proportion of protoplasm on our planet.

We suck our sustenance from the rest of nature in a way never before 
seen in the world, reducing its bounty as ours grows. We are, as Edward 
Wilson has put it, "an environmental abnormality." Abnormalities cannot 
persist forever; they eventually disappear. "It is possible that 
intelligence in the wrong kind of species was foreordained to be a fatal 
combination for the biosphere," ventures Wilson. "Perhaps a law of 
evolution is that intelligence usually extinguishes itself"' If not a 
"law," then perhaps a common consequence. Our concern is: Can such a 
fate be avoided?

When I talk about reducing nature's bounty, I'm referring to the 
extinction of species that is currently occurring as a result of human 
activities of various kinds. In chapter 10 I described the trail of 
biotic destruction humans left in their wake as they swept into new 
environments in the prehistoric and historic past: settlers of new lands 
extirpated huge numbers of species, through hunting and clearing of 
habitats. Some modern scholars argue that this was but a passing episode 
in the human career and that, despite massive population expansion 
today, talk of continued species extinction is fallacious. It should be 
obvious from the tone of the preceding few paragraphs that I am not 
among their number. I believe that human-driven extinction is continuing 
today, and accelerating to alarming levels.

In the remainder of the chapter I will develop the argument for my 
concern. In the final chapter I will ask whether or not it matters to us 
and our children that as much as 50 percent of the Earth's species may 
disappear by the end of the next century. I will also address the 
longer-term future, which puts our species in a larger geological 
context with the rest of the world's inhabitants. And I will suggest 
that the insights we have gained from the current intellectual 
revolution I formulated in the previous chapter demand that we adopt a 
certain ethical position on the impact of Homo sapiens on the 
biodiversity of which we are a part.

Humans endanger the existence of species in three principal ways. The 
first is through direct exploitation, such as hunting. From butterflies, 
to song birds, to elephants, the human appetite for collecting or eating 
parts of wild creatures puts many species at risk of extinction. Second 
is the biological havoc that is occasionally wreaked following the 
introduction of alien species to new ecosystems, whether deliberately or 
accidentally. I talked earlier about the biological convulsion 
experienced by the Hawaiian archipelago through countless species of 
birds and plants taken there by the early Polynesians and later by 
European settlers. A devastation of equal magnitude is currently under 
way in Africa's Lake Victoria, where more than two-hundred species of 
fish have disappeared within the past decade. The Boston University 
ecologist Les Kaufman, who has studied the event in great detail, calls 
it "the Hiroshima of the biological apocalypse, the demonstration, the 
warning that more is on the way.' 12 Several interacting factors are 
involved, such as overfishing and pollution, but the major culprit is 
the voracious Nile perch, which was introduced to the lake for 
commercial fishing some four decades ago.

The third, and by far the most important, mode of human-driven 
extinction is the destruction and fragmentation of habitat, especially 
the inexorable cutting of tropical rainforests. The forests, which cover 
just 7 percent of the world's land surface, are a cauldron of 
evolutionary innovation and are home to half of the world's species. The 
continued growth of human populations in all parts of the world daily 
encroaches on wild habitats, whether through the expansion of 
agricultural land, the building of towns and cities, or the transport 
infrastructure that joins them. As the habitats shrink, so too does the 
Earth's capacity to sustain its biological heritage.

The Oxford University ecologist Norman Myers was the first to call wide 
attention to the impending catastrophe of deforestation, in his 1979 
book, The Sinking Ark. If the rate of tree felling continued at its 
prevailing rate, which Myers estimated to be as much as 2 percent a 
year, the world would "lose one-quarter of all species by the year 
2000," he wrote. A further century would add a third of the remaining 
species to the death toll. The decade and a half since The Sinking Ark's 
publication has witnessed roiling debate over the reality of the 
numbers. Are the forests disappearing at the rate claimed? Even if they 
are, would 50 percent of the world's species really disappear?

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