Of Apes, Rocks, and Themes

I’m obviously not the first person to have written a novel set partially or wholly among our inhuman ancestors. One of the things that told me I was on the right track with Rose, that the book could, in fact, sell, was the number of other australopithecine stories out there–and the fact that so few of them took the science as seriously as I had. Since there are also many non-fiction books on human evolution, I realized there must be an interest in both the stories and the facts of our ancient past, and mine was the only book I could find that met both demands.

But what are these other books?

Perhaps the most famous, and certainly the first one I encountered, is 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was very fond of the story as a child, and it was influential in getting me thinking about “man-apes” in the first place.

And yet, curiously, no part of the book is actually about evolution as such. For those who haven’t read the book or don’t remember, here is a synopsis:

The story opens three million years ago in Africa, when “the drought had lasted a thousand years.” Even as a child I thought that might not actually qualify as a drought anymore. But in any case, there is a population of creatures, called “man-apes,” who are evidently some kind of australopithecine. They’re in the process of starving to death because they are vegetarians who do not eat grass–and grass is mostly what grows in their habitat.

They are saved by the sudden appearance of a strange, rectangular rock, which appears variously black, translucent, or glowing. It attracts their attention and then somehow alters their brains such that they start getting new ideas. Most importantly, they begin using simple tools to hunt. They become well-fed predators. They also start using their new skill to attack and kill members of rival groups of their own species. Mission accomplished, the odd rock vanishes.

Fast-forward millions of years–and into the future as projected by Arthur C. Clark from his perspective in the mid-1900’s–and the odd rectangular solid* has been found on the moon where it has sat for three million years underground. American astronauts dig it up, and the thing promptly sends a radio signal to Saturn. The humans realize that the rectangle-thing was obviously left there by aliens and has sent an alert to somebody that the Earthlings are now in space. So, the Americans send a spaceship to Saturn to go find out who or what the rectangular solid was trying to signal.

But, being modern American government types, they try to keep the purpose of the mission of the secret from the general public, including the crew of the space ship, who are supposed to be briefed only on arrival at Saturn. The self-aware computer, Hal, does know the secret, because he has to be able to complete the mission alone if the humans die. Unfortunately, programing the same computer to both collect accurate information and to lie creates a psychological paradox that literally drives the computer mad. He attempts to kill the human crew so that he no longer has to lie to them, but one of them escapes, shuts him down, and finishes the mission–and the ending is beautifully bizarre.

Fans of the movie version will notice some small differences.

Anyway, I was thinking about this whole story the other day, musing on the fact that while I found the man-apes interesting as a child, I find them boring as an adult (though other aspects of both movie and book still intrigue me). Why?

The basic problem, I decided, is that Clark’s man-apes do not do one of the most interesting things australopithecines really did; evolve into us by means of natural selection. 2001: A Space Odyssey  is, in fact, a creationist tale of sorts.

The premise here is that there is a fundamental difference between animals and people, and although Clark acknowledges that the one can turn into the other spontaneously, for the purposes of this story at least, he supposes that we didn’t, that we are, in fact, the deliberate creation of a Godlike being (albeit one that itself evolved out of “the warm slime of a vanished sea). I guess I don’t find that premise very interesting. It has none of the juice I like.

What is interesting is a parallel I never noticed before until this past week.

The premise of the story is that humans were a deliberate creation but that as a creation we include a serious bug–in becoming predators we also became warriors, and thus ultimately capable of destroying ourselves (the story was written during the cold war and is clearly preoccupied with nuclear threat). And curiously, the same can be said of Hal. In the books, it is made very clear that Hal is not evil, he is simply mentally ill and he is so because of how he was made. His program has a bug in it.In fact, just so the reader doesn’t miss the parallel (except I did miss it for twenty-nine years), the narration says, of Hal, “but all too soon a snake entered his electronic Eden.”

Does Hal ever triumph over his origins and resolve his psychosis? No. He is simply shut down. In a later book, humans recover and fix him. Does humanity resolve its bug? No; the beings which created us rescue us from ourselves. Neither faith nor love is required for redemption, and man and machine end up equally passive before the whims of our creators.

So, what is the story actually about? 2001: A Space Odyssey  is about original sin, and a particularly cynical version of the concept it is, too.

Interesting the things books about australopithecines can do, yes?

*The objects are usually called “monoliths,” but the unfamiliarity of the word makes it sound like an exotic, specialized term, when it really just means “big, solitary rock.”

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About Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.
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