Chapter One

Musings on a Rock Face

Evolution can be a very cruel thing, she reflected, as she looked down at the misshapen heap of flesh and bone lying at the bottom of the rocky crag.  He'd lost his grip, and lay defeated, exhausted from days of dragging his heavy torso over a terrain completely unsuited to his design.  Having said that, there were not, really, any habitats that this odd-looking beast could properly call home.  For he represented a mishmash of ideas borrowed from many inspirations, none optimal for its task, and ruled over by a brain that spent more of its time consumed with the past than the future, and with competition and control, rather than with context and community. So many neurons, so little understanding!   Yet the broken body lying far below was a relative of hers.

Their families were one, far in the distant past.  Of course, all of life could trace its lineage to the sea originally, for it was in the oceans that life had begun, protected from the damaging radiation of the Sun, surrounded in water and bathed in nutrients.  From the chaotic world of the amino acids, to the arrival of an ordered coding system, and from the creative power of bacterial gene-swapping syndicates through to the much more conservative domain of the Eukaryotes, the bulk of the journey had been made under water.    Dramatic changes had occurred in this watery realm.

Organisms had turned their gaze to the Sun for energy, instead of relying on hydrothermal vents.  The splitting of water to drive photosynthesis, releasing oxygen, was another huge event, in hindsight, which ushered in the protective ozone envelope around the Earth, thus opening access to the planet's surface, while catastrophically poisoning many anaerobic organisms at the same time.  Oxygen was the classic waste product, the first and greatest life-driven pollution event, and the liberator of a new direction for life all at the same time.  One anaerobic prokaryote's toxin is another aerobic prokaryote's oxidative respiration.

Their joint lineage had survived five mass extinctions, and many more minor ones.  Together they had acquired a nucleus, requisitioned a notochord, transformed their gills from feeding organs to breathing units and replaced cartilage with calcium.  They had evolved a vertebral column and crawled onto land on four limbs.  Together they had transitioned from amphibians to early reptiles, and together their ancestors developed the amniotic egg.  They had solved the problems of air breathing in different ways, each with lungs, but, of course, the bird lung was structurally and functionally far superior to the mammalian lung.

Eventually they had gone their separate ways, subtly at first, then more dramatically.  Yet because their history was shared for so long, functionally they remained very similar.  Differences in form can mask a unity of purpose, the common ground lost in a fog of shape-shifting shadows.  Both became bipedal.  While one went for hairs, another went for feathers, and while one went for beaks, initially with teeth but later toothless, another continued to explore dentition.  Yet both of them became warm-blooded, and both were crowned kings and queens of the terrestrial world.    The massive destruction at the end of the Cretaceous period, sixty-five million years ago, provided both of their lines with the opportunity to take centre stage, expanding and diversifying into the liberated ecological space cleared by this vast erasure of other lineages (Feduccia, 2003), particularly those reptiles, both flying and terrestrial.  The dramatic, climatic disruption of the Late Eocene and the onset of the Great Drying at the end of the Miocene, bringing with it the expansion of the savannas and the disappearance of shallow coastal seas, had significant impacts upon both of their evolutionary directions (Janis, 1993).

So much shared history, and yet here on the rocks of Moto Nui, a kilometre south west of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), they stare at each other in the bloody end-game for this particular pair of distant relatives.  One of her eggs is held in the grasp of his magnificent pentadactyl forelimb, with its ingenious opposable thumb that, together with his swollen cerebral cortex, represent his greatest gifts and his most deeply cutting flaws.

The ability to think in such an isolated way, to ignore all the pleading calls of the Biosphere that urge patience, compromise and non-intervention, and to single-mindedly set out on paths that inevitably lead to destruction, in combination with the hand to translate these thoughts into deeds, is a devastating combination.  The hand can rock a cradle, but that same hand can set a spear on its deadly trajectory.  This is the hand which strikes a slave, which comforts a child, which fells a forest, which plants a vineyard, which drains a wetland, which sketches a bauplan, and which poisons an entire planet.    This hand, so perfect in its engineering, so sensitive and tactile, so capable of consolation and so able to lift up the weary, has been wired into a control chamber, separated from the rest of the building, bridges burnt and all portals firmly shut.  Humans have become like a city on a hill, whose decision-making is terminally compromised by its denial of its context, like some cancerous growth, whose success in replication and expansion seems to signify achievement and progress, yet whose existence poses a significant threat to the greater whole.

It was no surprise that the kin of this wretched beast would one day claim that genes themselves were selfish.  The only selfish beings on this planet are those who have rejected their part in the scheme of things, who have denied their true identity, and who now suffer under the illusion that selfishness is a foundation stone for life.  You cannot be selfish unless you consider yourself as separate from the rest, and this, sadly, is a condition unique to the creature, one of whom lies, bleeding below.  Separation leads to selfishness, and selfishness leads to destabilization.

Even as the veil of death approaches, he cradles the fragile shell from the savage impact of the rocks that have ripped and crushed the rest of his body, placing the egg above his own welfare and survival.  This unfortunate creature at last finds some peace, the pain numbed by a surge of enkephalins and endorphins, as his internal pharmacy prescribes a final dose of morphine mimics.    He allows himself a smile.  The smooth ovoid trophy that he grasps allows him to release himself to the entropic universe, his battle over, his target achieved.  He was, after all, the first one to find the egg of a Manutara bird on the islet of Moto Nui.   And just before he fell, he had yelled across the one thousand metres of shark-infested sea, to the ceremonial site at the village of Orongo, perched high on the edge of the Rana Kao volcano on the main island, where most of the human population had gathered to see who would win the race.

It was the ultimate challenge of strength, agility and, it had to be said, luck, both in terms of evading the great white sharks during the twenty-five minute swim each way and in stumbling on an egg before anyone else.  Some said that ancestral spirits would lead you to the egg.  He had never really believed this.  Of course, he had not voiced this heretical thought to anyone!    No, there was a slice of luck in the whole thing.  Indeed the more he thought about it, as he often had, there was a slice of luck about almost everything in life.

Mind you, he never had won the egg race.  And he wasn't feeling all that lucky in his present state.  A dying voice in his head diffidently reminded him of this.  Maybe the spirits were needed?   So for the last two weeks, having swum out with all the others searchers to this small remnant of the great volcanic event that, millions of years ago, had created this islet, and to where the birds now had returned on their annual migration, he'd set out each day in an attempt to be the first of his cohort to find that illusive prize, the egg of the Manutara.  As he'd searched the rocky surface of this small islet, at first trying to allow the spirits to speak to him and guide him to the treasure, he reverted to a more logical, systematic search, covering the surface in a grid-like way.

And that's how he'd found the little tern, sitting on her egg, in a shallow indent in the rock.  Unlike many of the other birds who had nested on the grassy slope, this one had found a spot on the edge of the cliff face.  The white ovoid jewel peeped from under the bird.  It was neither the spirits nor luck that had taught him to look for the tell tale sign of the soft feathers scattered around the nest.  The mother bird would rid herself of the fluffy down feathers on her underside in the area of her body that would be in physical contact with her eggs.  It is known as the brood patch, allowing the heat of her blood vessels just under the skin to transfer more efficiently to the eggs.    And when you saw these feathers, you knew an egg was there.  His father had told him this family secret, and, indeed, it had been passed down through his lineage for generations.  In fact the observation had been first discovered by his great- great- grandfather, and had given his line the edge in many a hunt.  The reputation of his family was such that they were always chosen to take part in the annual event.

The screams of the thousands of birds around him slowly faded.  They had returned from the land of his ancestors, and affirmed the continuity of his lineage, reborn since that first primeval creation, returning each spring equinox to nest and lay their eggs, part of the greater picture of nature's birth, death and resurrection.

For though he had been born into a place, in time and space, where his race had damaged nature, he knew, deep down, that he was part of a much more all-embracing dance, where identity was not found in him or his species alone, but rather in the entirety of nature, and in the creed of the Cosmos.  The invisible hand, not of macro-economics, but of the wider universe, reached into each of its members, and ordered each as they should be.  He finally understood his part in all of this, and the part of all of this in him.