An evolutionary paradox
Perhaps the hardest to accept of all Darwin’s truths is that human beings are not the goal of evolution but its accidental and transient result. In Homo Urbanus Jelle Reumer takes that as his starting point for a remorseless analysis of the fate of man. He zooms in on the repercussions of our temporality and elegantly demonstrates how life is made possible by a process of decay, death and extinction. ‘Decay keeps individuals going, death ensures that species continue to exist and extinction allows the earth’s biosphere to survive and flourish.’
The appeal of Reumer’s biological view of the world lies in his determination to go beyond the dry observation that man is not evolution’s crowning glory. He concentrates on weird and wonderful aspects of the hard facts, until the reader finds himself in the grip of a fascinating paradox: if we are but a tiny link in a far larger reality, why do we regard our species as so important, indeed indispensable?
Such thought experiments are typical of Reumer. They seem innocent jokes, but when taken to their logical conclusion they illustrate the absurdity of human existence. No one who has read Homo Urbanus will have much difficulty seeing himself as an ant on an ant heap, part of a superorganism, especially since Reumer does not ask the reader to abandon his conviction that we operate as individual members of the crowd, with full control over our thoughts, acts and decisions. Homo Urbanus has a great deal to teach us about evolution, but Reumer’s paradox also throws fresh light on the individualism of our own time. Are we steadily and voluntarily withdrawing into private domains, or are we simply adapting to an existence as links in a superbrain which, with its hidden glass fibres, combines the brains of all those connected to it?
In his search for an answer, the palaeontologist Reumer examines the history of evolution, but he also has a surprising vision of the future of our species, one that is neither far-fetched nor apocalyptic, since once again he bases his arguments on the simple facts that have governed life throughout evolution. The man of the future seems surprisingly familiar: a hardworking creature, in exclusively urban surroundings. All that will distinguish this new Homo urbanus from contemporary humanity is that he will live without sex. Impossible as that may seem, Reumer makes it entirely credible.
- Reumer’s graceful biology never leads to crude reductionism but instead to astonishment at reality.
- With inventive curiosity, Reumer guides the reader through the events of evolution and on beyond today’s individualism.
- There are several writer- biologists who could make an impressive story out of evolution, but Reumer makes evolution the beating heart of our time, and indeed of our future.