A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

How History Is Like a Roll of Toilet Paper

louise-leakey-070513If the history of our planet were on a roll of toilet paper – unrolled across the floor or down a hill – where would we humans appear on it?

Louise Leakey, grand-daughter of the famous anthropologist Louis Leakey, rolls it out, so to speak, in this TED talk and accompanying article.

If there are 400 sheets of tissue paper in the roll, then the very first life in the oceans is seen at sheet 240. The age of the dinosaurs begins at sheet 19. Dinosaurs in their many forms and great diversity are around for 14 and a half sheets. Dinosaurs are extinct by the end of the Cretaceous, 5 squares from the end, making way for the mammals.

Our story and place on the timeline as upright walking apes begins only in the last half of the very last sheet. The human story as Homo sapiens is represented by less than 2 millimeters of this, some 200,000 years.

The Leakey family has been uncovering the origins of humankind in Africa for three generations. In 1959, Louis and Mary Leakey discovered the first early hominin fossil – almost 2 million years old. Their son, Richard, was as well-known for studying fossils as he was for becoming the head of the Kenya Wildlife Service and ordering his staff to shoot elephant poachers on sight.

While Louise compares the history of Planet Earth to a roll of toilet paper, her father, Richard, once compared it to a thousand-page book. If each page represented 4.5 million years, the age of the dinosaurs begins on page 728, and all of recorded human history fits comfortably on the last line of the last page.

While Louise spends most of her time studying the past (when she was six years old, she found a tooth from a 17-million-year-old primate), this TED talk is about the future. What kind of a future can we humans expect? Will we even be around for very long?

The question might seem strange, given that our population is currently ballooning. But that’s the point: we’re in a period of totally unsustainable growth.

It’s a good talk … and the toilet paper analogy offers a fine perspective on our place in the scheme of things. And it’s obvious that Louise knows what she’s talking about and can see that as we destroy the planet we’re totally screwing ourselves, too.

But you can see on the video that she’s struggling to find an optimistic ending to her talk:

The question that needs to be asked is if we can rise to the opportunity, to use our technology to better understand our impact, to stem the tide of extinction on land and in the oceans.

I can’t imagine Louise really believes technology is going to save the planet and all the other animals. Humans and human technology are what are destroying the planet and all the other animals! But I guess it’s not very PC to be pessimistic about humankind’s future.

Anyway, it’s an interesting talk, and a worthwhile 20 minutes. And the accompanying article is here.