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Festival of Books: Homo sapiens, capitalize on those family connections

May 1, 2011 |  8:01 am

How water will shape our future.

How “survival of the fittest” gets it wrong.

How Homo sapiens triumphed over the Neanderthals.

All of these threads are connected — at least, that was idea behind Saturday’s panel "Essential Ecosystems" where journalist Steven Solomon, scientist Tim Flannery and archaeologist Brian Fagan brought their respective disciplines to the table to grapple with the problems of our planet.

Los Angeles Times environmental editor Geoffrey Mohan moderated the hour-long panel in which all of the planet’s problems weren’t solved, though it was agreed that the solution lies less in science and  more in society, in our organizational structures and interpersonal relationships. 

“A human smile is a human smile,” said Flannery, author of “Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet.” “And we are utterly interdependent in this world.”

Flannery is the one who calls “survival of the fittest” one of the most misunderstood phrases in science. (And if anyone is going to take on Darwinism, it’s Flannery; the native Aussie is said, according to Mohan, to have discovered more species than Darwin.) Flannery doesn’t disagree that natural selection is a driving force in ecosystems. "Evolution’s mechanism is ruthless, cruel and amoral. But the legacy of evolution … is a story of intricate interdependencies,” he said.

IMG_1538 This interdependence is manifest not only in the bacteria that thrives on our skin and keeps us healthy, but also in macro movements that affect societies. It can often be observed -- Libya's revolt, rising oil prices -- but this connection is about to get much more obvious, said Solomon, author of “Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization.” 

Water is replacing oil as the world’s most critical resource, he said. Demand is far outpacing supply, especially in emerging countries that want “middle class diets” -- and food requires water. Water is the muscle behind our food, our gadgets, and our infrastructure. “You should think of these goods as ‘virtual water,’ ” he said. But, he added, “the problems of water are often presented locally,” and we need to “look at water in a holistic way,” as a system of supply and demand that extends across the world.

Meanwhile, in response to a question regarding his most recent book, “Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans,” Brian Fagan got to his feet to demonstrate that, although Neanderthals could hunt and kill large game with only spears -- “I could kill you, sir,” he said, lancing an imaginary spear across the room -- because Homo sapiens could construct complex social structures, they were the species that thrived. “How groups and individuals behave in the face of [our] problems is the key to the future,” he said. “Our social mechanisms will save us.”

Thus, the connectedness of it all.

-- Megan Kimble

Top photo: From left, Brian Fagan, Geoff Mohan, Tim Flannery and Steven Solomon. Bottom photo: Brian Fagan. Photo credits: Megan Kimble