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Civilisation and the fall

Image: Archway Andres

Relating the Ricky Gervais story about the punishment of the snake in the Biblical story of The Fall recently got me thinking about the origins of the punishments handed down to the people.  In the Bible, Eve persuades Adam to partake of the forbidden fruit (possibly an apple or a fig) which causes them to lose their innocence.  In retribution, God casts them out of the Garden of Eden.  Specifically, he curses all men forever to labour in the fields and curses all women to suffer pain in childbirth.

Given the likely folk tales and folk memories that came to be wrapped up in what became the Bible – itself derived from much earlier religious texts – there must have been a time when men did not have to labour in the fields and women did not have to endure pain in childbirth.  Otherwise, like the snake in the Ricky Gervais anecdote, they were being “punished” by being made to do what they already did.

But this is at odds with the received wisdom around pain in childbirth.  In 1960, anthropologist Sherwood Washburn documented the “obstetrical dilemma” – the view that human gestation is a compromise between the need to develop our big brains and the need to overcome a distorted birth canal that resulted from our evolution to walk upright.  According to Washburn, human babies have to be born in an underdeveloped state compared to other animals in order to prevent injury or even death during childbirth.  Pain, however, is the inevitable consequence of this compromise.

Except, it turns out, that human babies are not born in an underdeveloped state.  Compared to other apes (for whom childbirth is less onerous) human babies remain in the womb longer than they ought to.  Indeed, human babies are born with bigger brains than the obstetric dilemma theory predicts.

There is another flaw in the received wisdom too.  There is enough natural variation in female human pelvis size – and thus birth canal dimensions – for evolution to have selected the offspring of women with more short, straight and wide birth canals.  That this has not occurred suggests that the change – and the accompanying pain – was much more recent than when our earliest ancestors stopped walking on their knuckles.

Energy rather than brain size may determine the human gestation period.  There is plenty of room in the birth canal for a fully developed baby to pass through.  What prevents it remaining in the womb any longer is that it reaches a point where continuing to feed the baby via the placenta is too much of a strain on the mother.  Like a parasite that has evolved to sustain itself without killing its host, the human baby is born just prior to the point where the host would be damaged.

In its way, energy – or at least the way we obtain it – is responsible for the pain too.  Archaeologists excavating hunter-gatherer remains find relatively few baby skeletons compared to those found in farming civilisations.  One reason for this could be the easier spread of disease between larger and more concentrated populations in early civilisations.  However, at least as important is the change in human physiology as our ancestors became farmers.  Poor nutrition caused from overeating carbohydrates at the expense of meat and vegetables resulted in human skeletons being noticeably smaller.  There is a link between a woman’s height and size and the shape of her pelvis.  In addition, the high carbohydrate diet is likely to have caused foetuses to be larger and fatter.  It is this, rather than walking upright, that explains the development of pain in childbirth.

Take away the religious fairy tales and there may be something to the story of Adam and Eve after all.  For the Garden of Eden, read the hunter-gatherer way of life.  A time in human development when – while not exactly fed by manna from Heaven – people were free to reach out and gather whatever food happened to be around; a time when women probably didn’t experience pain in child birth.

The Neolithic revolution and the shift to farm-based civilisations may have been a step forward for humanity as a whole, but for most of the people it must have been experienced as a punishment – a time when food was no longer free (and taking it was considered theft) and women went through agony to give birth.  Only the snakes, it seems, continued to crawl around on their bellies just as they had evolved to do.

For all of our supposed progress, humanity remained in broadly the same state for much of recorded history.  Aside from those who got to own the land and the food and the other fruits of people’s labour, the mass of the population remained stunted and deformed.  Indeed, were someone of my age to travel back just 100 years, people would find my height (6’0”) remarkable and would be astonished that I still have teeth.

The big change for modern humans is that we discovered how to utilise fossil carbon on an industrial scale (steam engines, electricity turbines and internal combustion engines).  The automation of agriculture, selective breeding and the use of chemical (fossil carbon) fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides provided the nutritional abundance (in the developed countries) for us to begin, temporarily, to develop the kind of physiology last seen in the age of hunter gatherers (when there were as few as 1 million of us on the planet).

The good news is that there is more than enough oil, gas and coal (if we use it wisely) to sustain food production at 1960s levels.  The bad news is that there are twice as many of us today as there were in 1960 – and there is nowhere near enough accessible fossil carbon to feed us all.  And even if there was, the damage done to our environment will reduce the human population to more sustainable levels in the most unpleasant ways imaginable.  Maybe we, too, are about to be cast out of our version of the Garden of Eden.

As you made it to the end…

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