Learning from the past

In this week's New Scientist magazine, there's a section in the Letters page discussing the recent article on Mankind's exploration of Mars. One of the letters is from me:

In your article on colonising Mars (Issue 3021, 16th May 2015, pg39), the writer Rhawn Joseph states that 'our cosmic biological destiny is to go forth and multiply'. This isn't a scientific idea but a religious one, originating in the Bible (Genesis 9:7) as part of God's covenant with Noah. It's also woefully short-sighted. The destiny of a dominant, tool-using species that multiplies unchecked in its environment is ecological collapse, something we're now seeing here on Earth. We need a new cosmic destiny for the next four thousand years, one where we don't run away from our problems. How about 'stay, stabilise and save'?

I wrote the letter because I was unhappy that a 'ultimate fact' was being placed in the article that was not only non-scientific but non-sensical. 'Go forth and multiply' makes sense if you've just had your population decimated by a cataclysm and you need to restore healthy numbers, but it doesn't make any sense once your numbers start to overwhelm your environment. Strangely enough, the story of the origins of 'go forth and multiply' includes both problems…

There's a lot of evidence that much of the Book of Genesis in the Bible is based on much earlier, Mesopotamian stories. In the early first millennium BC, Jews from the Kingdom of Jerusalem and other Semitic tribes of the Holy Land were captured and enslaved on multiple occasions by Empires from Mesopotamia, including the Babylonians and the Assyrians. During their time in captivity, there is evidence that the Jews absorbed myths, legends, stories and historical records originating from Mesopotamia and in particular, its oldest civilisation, Sumer. When they returned to Jerusalem, they placed these stories in their holy books, that later became the source of the Christian Old Testament. One book in the Old Testament in particular seems to be heavily influenced by Sumerian stories/historical records; its first book, Genesis.

One of the important stories from Sumer is the Legend of Atrahasis. This is very similar to the early chapters of Genesis, particularly the story of Noah and the Flood. In the legend of Atrahasis, the lower-tier gods of Sumer (the Igigi) are sick of doing the manual labour for the upper-tier gods (the Anunna). They protest and the Annuna agree to create mankind so they'll do the work instead. The gods make mankind from clay and a sort of god-flesh-body template. Once mankind is created, they're put to work and all the gods are happy… until mankind multiplies too much. At this point, the Anunna get fed up with all the human people running around everywhere, making noises, and try and kill them, repeatedly (by famine etc). Mankind only survives these privations because Enki, the nice, water god, keeps helping them out. Finally, Enlil, the autocratic, angry god, decides to flood the world and kill humanity once and for all. Enki hears about this plan and lets one human, Atrahasis, know about what's going to happen. Atrahasis takes Enki's advice, builds an Ark and fills it full of animals. The rain and flood comes and all the humans die except for Atrahasis and his Ark. Enlil is very angry that a human survived, but Enki says he's duty-bound to preserve life.

This is where things get ironic, because the version of the story that a billion people in the last two millennia have been taking guidance from is the version without the key element that it was mankind's overpopulation - excessive multiplying - that caused the Elder Gods to kill nearly all of them with famine and flood in the first place! Instead, we just get God telling Noah to go forth and multiply. Not only that, but God says:

“Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth. The fear and dread of you will fall on all the beasts of the earth, and on all the birds in the sky, on every creature that moves along the ground, and on all the fish in the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you."

In other words, 'go off and be monsters'. There's no doubt that a lot of mankind has, by and large, followed that instruction, but what a dumb strategy! Now we've got seven billion people, ecological armageddon and rampant climate change. D'oh!

Would things have been different if we'd been given the Sumerian version of the story in school, or in church for the last two-thousand years? It might have helped. Tragically, it looks as if we'll be getting famine and flood all over again, if we don't make some drastic changes soon. It's just as George Santayana said:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.