Ecological competition began as slow arms races. Predators evolved to hunt; prey evolved to defend themselves. Each improvement was small, barely shifting the odds of survival, nature remained in equilibrium until the dawn of humanity. When our ancestors developed the unique ability to think up new devices and behaviors, humanity became able to overcome nature’s defenses far more quickly than natural selection could respond.
Today, this formidable inventive genius of our species, now growing to overwhelming and all-conquering proportions, is threatening to make the earth unlivable, even for ourselves. Baz Edmeades was trained as a lawyer, however, his secret life as an anthropologist, big-game ecologist and recorder of African natural history, gradually overtook his legal activities.
We’re thrilled today to welcome Baz to Author Hour.
This is Author Hour, I’m your host Benji Block and today, I’m honored to be joined by Baz Edmeades. He has just authored a brand-new book titled, Megafauna: First Victims of the Ongoing Human-Caused Extinction. Baz, we are so glad to have you here on Author Hour today.
Baz Edmeades: Yeah, thanks for the welcome, Benji.
Benji Block: Absolutely. For listeners, Baz, who are new to you and your work, can you talk a little bit about your background and what led you to writing this book?
Baz Edmeades: Well, my background is that I have actually two law degrees and in a midlife episode in which I kind of lost interest in legal matters— I’ve always been a nature freak— I met a professor of actually, palynology and anthropology at the University of Arizona called Paul Schultz Martin. Now, he’s not as well-known as some, but it’s my opinion that he’s made an enormous contribution to anthropology and zoology.
Benji Block: Wow.
Baz Edmeades: Paul and I became friends because I met him at a conference which I attended, and he encouraged me to get involved in this research. [He] gave me a long reading list and eventually, he and I became very good friends. If you look at the back of the book, which you don’t have in front of you yet because it hasn’t gone live, there is a very complimentary description of the book, an assessment of the book by Paul.
Benji Block: For you as you say you’re a self-described nature freak. Where did that start? Because going from lawyer into where you are now and even writing this book, it’s quite the trajectory and I love hearing that in the middle of your life, you said, “You know what? I’ve been in law for a certain amount of time, and I just feel my interest shifting.” I’d love to hear a little bit more about that.
Baz Edmeades: I think Charles Darwin’s dad got annoyed with him at one point and I can’t quote exactly but he accused him of being, “You’re interested in nothing but shooting and catching rats and it’s time you got serious about your career.” I mean, I started off being very interested in fishing and I’m not the kind of fisherman that is only interested in big fish, but I’m interested in their families and their distribution and that’s the kind of background I have.
I remember that I went fishing in a fishing lodge in northern Canada one time. I devised a very small hook and caught a minnows around the dock and the owner of the lodge said, “You know, many people have caught bigger fish than you, but I don’t think anybody’s caught more species, more kinds of fish than you have.”
Benji Block: That’s awesome.
Baz Edmeades: We got the big ones, or the big kind, and then we got all these different interesting little minnows. That’s how I am about fishing, and I’m also interested in big beasts. I grew up in South Africa and ever since I was a small boy, my parents took us to the Kruger National Park, which is a large conservation area in the northeast of the country. It’s roughly the size of Israel.
I was fascinated by these big beasts. Yeah, that’s about how my interest in nature began.
Benji Block: One more question before we jump into the actual content of the book; as you were working on writing this, who is your ideal reader? Is it someone with common passions to yours? Who are you imagining as you were working on this project?
Baz Edmeades: Well Benji, it’s like walking a tight rope because you want it to be readable. You want it to be not a book for zoological or anthropological specialists.
Benji Block: Right.
Baz Edmeades: At the same time, you want to explain to the reader some, I suppose, rather unfamiliar and difficult concepts. I felt all the while that I was walking a tight rope. I was trying to write a popular and understandable book, understandable that is outside the area of specialists. At the same time, to share some of the difficult and little-known concepts of this topic.
What is Megafauna?
Benji Block: Yeah. I have to admit, before picking up your book, I had never heard of Megafauna and so, I think there will be those listening to this that will be intrigued as you start to dive into what you’re talking about in this book. It really is broken up into two parts; we have “A Long Time Ago With Big Beasts” and then we have “What Does It Mean For Us” maybe here and today and extinctions and everything.
We’re going to talk about both but maybe the clear path to where we should start is, can you give us a definition of what is Megafauna and what sparked your interest there?
Baz Edmeades: Okay. Humans left Africa, or the members of the human family, left Africa, say, a million years ago or more. But Homo sapiens and its close relatives like Neanderthals and Denisovans, these advanced humans, they left Africa about a hundred thousand years ago. As they expanded to Eurasia and they also expanded into the Americas, they didn’t need ships to get to America. They just went to the eastern end of Siberia and the sea level was much lower at the time because of the presence of glaciers.
A lot of the world’s water was caught up in ice, huge ice peaks. They just walked across the Bering Strait into Alaska and from there, all the way down to Tierra Del Fuego. Humans had essentially spread to all the big continents about 20,000 years ago. On those continents, you found what I’ll call “shorthand”. Thing is a shorthand description is, Serengeti’s: great huge collections of wild animals.
In other words, these other continents looked a lot like Africa. North America had maybe seven species of – or more actually, it’s hard to know— species of elephant. Then, there were animals that were— well, you know what a sloth is, those things that hang in trees in the South American jungle. Well, they had ground sloths in both North and South America and these were about the size of elephants.
Benji Block: Wow.
Baz Edmeades: There were numerous species of them as well. I don’t want to start a long, boring shopping list but there were enormously many more kinds of deer, many more kinds of antelopes and then of course, horses, there were a great many species and different geneses, genera of horses in both North and South America.
Now, why are these things called Megafauna? Well, because many of the ones that disappeared are just enormous. Not all of them. I mean, the other great exploration that was taking place at this time, or a little bit later, was the Polynesian people or the more accurately Austronesian people that spread across the Pacific Ocean, all the way into the Indian Ocean to Madagascar.
Some of the animals that they exterminated, some of the animals that disappeared after they reached their islands, were very small. Finches and various small birds. Not all these animals that were wiped out by humans are Megafauna, huge animals, but Megafauna tended to be much more vulnerable to human hunting than the small beasts that they encountered.
Benji Block: Now, is there any level of argument over how these animals went extinct as in, could climate change or disease have played a part, and why do you believe that the most obvious answer is human overkill?
Baz Edmeades: Well, that’s not an easy question. I believe that having researched this now, I believe that these animals were all victims of the evolution of human inventiveness; that human inventiveness is immensely powerful, gives us an immensely powerful weapon in our hands. We didn’t evolve the use of spears or fire; we invented those things.
Benji Block: Right.
Baz Edmeades: No other animal is anywhere near as inventive as we are. Yeah, there’s maybe little octopuses in the Pacific Ocean that can hide themselves in shells and then pose as mollusks or actually use coconuts and pretend that they’re just a coconut and wait for their prey that way.
There are other inventive, clever animals. Chimps are clever, ravens are very clever, crows are clever, but nobody has our degree. We’re really as much of the victim of that power as the Megafauna that was exterminated by it. We had absolutely no choice as to whether to adopt it or not.
Once we knew how to make fire, that’s an immensely powerful thing. You’re taking the energy of the sun that was put into that wood by photosynthesis and then, in the middle of the night, if you’re being threatened by aggressive hyenas, or maybe you’re in one of the African highlands that’s pretty cold— it snows in Africa, people don’t always know that, in parts of Africa.
Once you’re threatened by cold or hyenas, you’re not going to say, “Oh well, I didn’t think we’d better make a fire because our species is just far too powerful, and if this continues like this, the next thing we’re going to be using slow neutrons to break up uranium atoms and then we’re going to have nuclear—” that’s no good, you know?
Benji Block: Yup.
Baz Edmeades: Your children, your mate and yourself are in danger right there. You make a fire.
Benji Block: Right. Human inventiveness just over time leads to the next thing, the next thing, the next thing.
Baz Edmeades: The next thing and then so on. Yes, I am not, like many conservationists are, what’s the big word for this? Misanthropic? Haters of human beings. I am definitely not Misanthropic. I regard as much— I mean, I’m glad that we have this inventiveness. You know, I’m not a particularly wealthy person, I think I’ve sacrificed a bit by working on this book, but I have a hot bath every night and I sleep in relative safety, and my children and my grandchildren have a degree of security which they certainly didn’t have even a hundred or 200 years ago and certainly not back in the Pleistocene 15,000 years ago.
The Balance of Survival and Empathy
Benji Block: The question that kind of comes to my mind as we’re talking about this, is that, simultaneously we’ve evolved away. So, you take that example of using fire to maybe get hyenas to move away or whatever the scary animal would have been thousands of years ago.
Baz Edmeades: Yes.
Benji Block: But then, at the same time we also, as humans, have this compassion and empathy, right? Where we’re witnessing, we are aware of some of our shortcomings as humans and we almost want to stop causing it and that’s what causes conservation-type efforts, right? That’s what causes us to want these animals that could kill us to not go extinct. How do we balance those two things and if we have a level of empathy, that yet these animals continue to go extinct? What do we do with that?
Baz Edmeades: It’s extraordinary, isn’t it? I mean, I use an example in the book of a chap called Jonathan Kathrein. He was a teenage boy surfing in California a couple years ago— I think 20 years or so— and a great white shark grabbed him by the hip and the thigh and pulled him 15 feet underwater and shook him back and forth, you know, tenderizing him no doubt for the meal that was to follow.
Benji Block: Wow.
Baz Edmeades: He grabbed what he could. He grabbed one of the gill slits of the shark and those are very, very sensitive. I suppose it would feel like someone putting his finger up your nose or down your throat. The shark let him go, he comes back and, after years of therapy of one kind or another, he regains his ability to walk properly and he’s okay today but what does he then do? He now works for saving sharks.
Benji Block: Wow.
Baz Edmeades: Benji, can you imagine a baboon that’s fortunate enough to escape and attacked by a leopard, trying to do something to benefit leopards? Of course not.
Benji Block: Right.
Baz Edmeades: I mean, you know?
Benji Block: No way.
Baz Edmeades: We are the weirdest animal on the planet, no doubt. There is no question that we’re causing a massive extinction. There is no question at all that we’ve saved a great many animals from our own destructive powers. You have to look at Yellow Stone Park, especially in South Africa where I grew up, Kruger National Park, there were very few elephants and no rhinos there when I was a little boy.
Now, there’s two species of rhinos, thousands of elephants. Why are we doing that? It’s obviously our understanding, we understand what we’re doing. But we don’t understand, we don’t fully understand the history, our ecological history and that’s really the most fascinating part of looking at the Megafauna, is understanding our ecological history. And you asked a little while ago, does everybody agree that humans hunted these animals to extinction. Absolutely not, they find it enormously disconcerting.
Benji Block: Wow.
Baz Edmeades: The articles keep appearing, which tell us that, “Oh, humans couldn’t have done this” and if you do the research, you see that big animals are far more vulnerable to humans than smaller ones. You know, they breed slowly, they don’t have the population levels and without technology, they’re very, very vulnerable to our technology, even the kind of spears that were used in North America to kill mammoths and mastodons and all the rest of them.
They are very vulnerable to that stuff, but I saw an article the other day in which some person, I don’t know if it was an academic said, “Well, of course this never happened. Humans never hunted these animals to extinction. Look at the mammoth, very scary, a very scary animal. It would have been far better for them to hunt smaller animals. It would be much easier.” No, it would not, you know. Absolutely not.
I think people don’t want to see. It’s scary to think that we, that the universe is built this way, that we actually drifted into, evolved into an animal with this level of intelligence. I mean— and the fact that we are destroying the biosphere isn’t the only threat that our intelligence poses of course. I mean, we’ve also got the fact that we now have nuclear weapons.
Benji Block: Right.
Baz Edmeades: The delivery systems of those are improving on an annual, if not monthly basis and we have AI lurking in the wings. We have no idea exactly what threat that poses.
Benji Block: These are all technologies now that again, we could trace back and go just the evolution over time of maybe its safety. That’s our core want or desire, right? Or we have these common threads of this is what we want, and it leads to potential destruction.
Baz Edmeades: That’s an excellent point and to understand that point fully, you have to understand Darwin’s central point, which is that most animals don’t survive. A small lion has somewhere between a one and 16 chance and a one in eight chance of becoming a big lion. Antelopes die in large numbers. That’s the key to biodiversity is that nobody takes over the planet like we do, because they die. Or— either that or they’re sexually frustrated they never get a chance to breed.
We were in that same dilemma or that same— I mean, you could get all philosophical about this and you could look at say, Buddhism, which is that the suffering is the central reality of life. That is certainly the case with the traditional ecology, and we would do anything to get away from our human enemies, our other mammalian enemies, that hunger, all those things.
Benji Block: Right.
Baz Edmeades: Then on top of those survival instincts, we also need to be noticed. We need to be acknowledged. We need some degree of respect from our fellow humans. You could imagine anybody who makes a significant invention satisfies a whole lot of important needs at the same time.
Benji Block: I would love to walk through maybe one of the examples that you pose in the book of one of these Megafauna, and some of the evidence that we now have, and you talk about Africa’s giant tortoises. Would you mind talking a little bit about the giant tortoise and then what we’ve seen a little bit in the findings as far as how we may have contributed?
Baz Edmeades: Well yeah. I could speak about the giant tortoises. I would say that that is a speculation on my part. Let’s just start at the very latest of the extinct Megafauna that I can think of, which is the— and then we go back to the tortoises.
The latest one that I can think of is Vitus Bering. He was a Dane in service of the Russians, exploring the Bering Strait and finally he came upon an island right at the end of the Aleutian chain near to Kamchatka. They stepped off the ship, and this young naturalist that was working for him called Georg Steller, he stepped ashore and saw cormorants with undeveloped wings that weren’t at all afraid of people.
You could walk up to them and kick them over and he said, “Oops.” He says, “We’ve landed on an island where no human has ever been before.” In the waters around the island were enormous sea cows. They’re related to the dugongs and manatees, which still exists on the planet, but they are the size of an orca.
Benji Block: Oh wow.
Baz Edmeades: They would be the size of a large elephant. Eventually, the starving crew who was just getting very sick and tired of the fishy taste of these cormorants managed to kill one and they all went – they said, “This is like the best beef in the world and their fat is like the best butter in the world” and they thought, “This is going to be a great resource for the people of Siberia” and they spread the word and within 27, I think, years after they discovered that island, the Commander Island, in 27, these animals were gone.
Benji Block: Wow.
Baz Edmeades: I mean now, if you go all the way back to— I’ve got a little chapter, a speculative chapter on what’s the first animal we might have exterminated. The weird thing is that the giant tortoises live all over the world. They still live on the Galapagos, they still live on the Mascarene Islands. Most of them have gone, certainly in all the continents had giant – they’re not an island thing.
All the continents had giant tortoises when humans arrived there but what about Africa, where humans themselves evolved? Well, the weird thing is that giant tortoises became extinct about two million years ago. That’s a very long time before Homo sapiens evolved. Even the animal that looked a lot like Homo sapiens— our sort of immediate predecessor, which is Homo erectus, the first large human— and that got to be five and a half, six feet tall, it’s before those ones.
The only kind of humans that existed two million years ago were so-called Australopithecines, which are small humans, in some ways quite ape-like but walking on two feet. They were already using tools two million years ago, so that’s when these giant tortoises disappeared. I’m not going to expand a lot of time telling you why I think that the humans exterminated them but that’s my guess for the first victims of the human-caused extinction.
Benji Block: Well, as we start to wrap up, Baz, the book covers so much from all the way, like we mentioned, way back when until now and sort of what the repercussions of some of our decisions have been. But I wonder, when someone finishes reading your book, what do you hope their main takeaway is? What do you hope that they walk away from the book with?
Baz Edmeades: I am pessimistic about the future of humanity because I think that this is a very big challenge we face. Our intelligence poses an enormous challenge for us, but my hope for us is centered on the same feature that caused the human-caused extinction in the first place, which is human intelligence. The evolution of this inordinate level of intelligence, which we have. And my hope for ending the human-caused extinction is, actually ironically, centered on the same phenomenon, human-caused extinction. There is no reason, unlikely as it may sound, why we can’t figure out a way to stop this.
Benji Block: Yeah.
Baz Edmeades: A lot of the animals will be gone, and a lot of the ecosystems will be degraded by that time, but we may well be able to do so. But you can’t do that without knowing the true facts of the ecological history of our species. There’s no chance you can— you won’t know what is really going on until you know the ecological history of our species, and it is my humble desire to contribute to the general knowledge, the acceptance of our true ecological history to give us a chance to get our teeth into this problem and start maybe working on it for real.
Benji Block: Well, that’s amazing and thank you for your work around this. For those that want to connect with you further, Baz, where can they do that maybe online or a way to reach out?
Baz Edmeades: You can go through my Facebook page, which is called, Megafauna, on Facebook. If you search my name and Megafauna on Facebook, just Megafauna will probably get you there. You can write to me, I’m at [email protected]. Yeah, that’s about all I can suggest, yeah.
Benji Block: Amazing. Well, it’s been an honor to discuss the book with you. Fantastic work and just thank you for taking time to talk with us here on Author Hour today. Again, the book is, Megafauna: First Victims of the Ongoing Human-Caused Extinction. It’s on Amazon now and I believe it’s going to be a great book for many who will pick it up, so thank you for being on the show today, Baz.
Baz Edmeades: Thanks very much for your perceptive questions.