Planet Of The Humans

“Just because some of us can read and write and do a little math, that doesn’t mean we deserve to conquer the Universe” – Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus 1990

In 1940 in Lascaux, France, four schoolchildren accidentally stumbled upon the hidden entrance of a cave system when, apocryphally, their dog got stuck in a hole. These children became the first humans in 17,000 years to set eyes upon the cave paintings that were discovered within, depicting prehistoric beasts and hunting frescos. The paintings, it is estimated, had been produced sometime between 13,000 – 15,000 BC. This, I probably don’t need to emphasise, is a very long time ago.

The paintings had survived so long because the caves had provided a perfectly balanced natural conservation area. The local council decided the caves could be opened to the public as a tourist attraction, and it was thought more modern conservation methods might be necessary if they were to accommodate the change in environment the visitors would cause. The walls of the cave were treated with modern chemicals manufactured to kill fungi.

Twenty years later it was observed that the colour of the frescos had began to visibly alter, and moss begun to grow there. So in 1963 the caves were closed to the public, and only scientists were allowed access from then on. In 1968 a state of the art air conditioning system was installed. To continue the tourist trade, a replica of the frescos was installed nearby.

After closing the caves to the public, the frescos continued to deteriorate further. In 2001, soon after installation of an updated air-conditioning system, scientists reported a ‘snow’ of white mould on the floor and walls. It was originally claimed that it was the increased carbon dioxide levels caused by the visitors that was damaging the walls, but it has since become apparent that it was the scientists that had caused the most damage, not the public.

It seemed the fungi suppressing chemicals applied in the name of conservation had seriously unbalanced the ecosystem. They had successfully killed off weaker fungi, but in doing so they had created an environment which was more accommodating to the most robust varieties of fungi, which could now dominate the environment and thrive.

Drawings that had been conserved by natural means for 20,000 years had been destroyed in less than 40 by a few meddling ‘conservationists’. It was a mundane, but colossal, cock-up of science, rooted in the misassumption that modern science could improve on nature’s methods.


Humankind (yes I’m talking about YOU) has a serious arrogance issue. We really think we’ve conquered the natural world, that we’re smarter, more resourceful and more deserving that the rest of the inhabitants of our planet. We think we’re pretty damn special. It is not enough for us to obey the same rules as the rest of the biosphere; we are the masters of our environment. We’ve tamed it. It is ours.

It’s not of course. It only takes a hurricane, epidemic or any other type of “natural disaster’ to prove that. If you live in Britain you’ll know it often only takes is a light snowfall to bring us all to our knees.

I despair at the sheer arrogance of Man and his scientific theories. But you also have to laugh at a self-delusion of this magnitude (what else can you do?). So, for your delight, here are the top three most arrogant Man-made theories of all time (in reverse order):

3. The Book Of Genesis

In the beginning God created the world and everything in it, then created Mankind and ordered us to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

In short, God made everything, and then he made us to be the boss of it all. So, by divine order, we can do whatever we damn-well please to our environment because we’ve got more right to be here than everything else on the planet. This is all fine, because God says so.

This proved an immensely popular theory for a few thousand years. Not surprising, because it’s a brilliant bit of logic – we invented God, so he could invent everything, and then give it to us. Thanks God.

2. The Geocentric Model

Later, we invented the telescope and the science of astronomy and in doing so discovered a magnificent universe, infinite in its wonder, 45 billion years old. Obviously, faced with such a phenomenon, we decided it was only logical that the whole thing revolved around us.

This was another hugely popular theory. Galileo spent the last days of him life in prison for daring to suggest otherwise. Fortunately this theory has been satisfactorily disproved now and Galileo got an apology from the Pope, in … um … 1992. Unfortunately he’d been dead 350 years.

1. Natural Selection

So how do you top Genesis for a human-centric explanation for life? How about the current most popular theory of creation. Imagine a system whereby all the species on earth have been in competition with each other for 4.5 billion years, where a process of ‘survival of the fittest’ has wheedled out all the lesser, weaker species, leaving only the finest specimens, the most perfectly adapted. And who is the pinnacle of this billion year long process of incremental perfection? Who are the most perfectly adapted creatures at the end of this esteemed lineage?

Oh, that’d be us.

Top that.

tags: bad science, evolution, creationism, lascaux caves

posted March 24th, 2007

« »
Comments are closed. But you can still hurl abuse at me on twitter if it makes you happy.

Generative Art book cover Generative Art: A Practical Guide (Manning 2011)

The complete beginners guide to the philosophy and practice of using a programming language as an artistic tool. Foreword by Marius Watz.

Novelty Waves book cover Novelty Waves: A Short Book About Digital Art (Leanpub 2014)

Five long articles and two short stories exploring the current state of digital art. Foreword by Jeff Noon.

Name your own price.