Opinion » John Rember

Toba or Not Toba

When surviving's nothing to shout about

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Seventy-four-thousand years ago, Mount Toba in Indonesia exploded, putting 700 cubic miles of volcanic ash into Earth's atmosphere. A worldwide winter resulted, mostly because 6 billion tons of sunlight-reflecting sulphur dioxide gas accompanied the ash eruption. Within three years, global temperatures plunged 15 degrees Centigrade (27 degrees Fahrenheit).

Around that time, according to evolutionary geneticists, the human population fell to an estimated 3,000 breeding pairs. Studies of human mitochondria indicate we're all descended from this suburb-sized group of ancestors. You, me, Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Larry Craig, Miley Cyrus, Marilyn Manson, Pope Francis, the homeless man you drove by on your way to work today--we're all part of the same close family, if you go back an instant in geological time.

Logicians tell us that correlation does not imply causation, but common sense tells us the two events are connected. A supervolcano goes off. The skies turn black. It gets really hot, then really cold. Everything roasts or freezes to death. Mount Toba is as good an explanation as any for humanity's near-extinction, H-bombs and weaponized smallpox having yet to be invented at the time.

Anyway, it makes for good copy. A small group of people surviving darkness and destruction to prosper in a new world? We've heard that tale before, in the guises of Noah's Ark and the Old Norse tale of Ragnarok and, more recently, the chronicles of Mormons fleeing the lynch mobs of Illinois. These are the newest versions of a story passed down through 3,000 generations, changing in details but never in essence.

"We are the survivors," the story tells us. "We are the favored ones, the good ones, the ones the gods allowed to live."

Except maybe we're not. In May 1902, Mount Pele, a volcano on the Caribbean island of Martinique, sent a cloud of fire down its slopes, burying the nearby port city of Saint Pierre in glowing ash. Although the eruption was insignificant by Toba standards, only one person in the city of 26,000 survived. He was Louis-Auguste Cyparis, a prisoner in an underground dungeon, waiting to be hanged for murder in some stories, serving time for drunkenness and assault in others. Poor ventilation and stone walls insulated him from the superheated ash that killed the more virtuous citizens of Saint Pierre.

I thought of Mount Toba and Louis-Auguste Cyparis a few days ago when I learned that the 85 richest people in the world control as much wealth as the poorest 3.5 billion. It's a statistic that's hard to comprehend, because these 85 people have way more than they need, but putting Bill Gates and Warren Buffet aside, they don't display much generosity toward their poor relations. I suspect they didn't play well with others in kindergarten. They stole all the toys in the sandbox and rented them out to other children. In high school, they were bullies. In college, they traded rides in their luxury cars for sexual favors. As young adults, they constructed economic structures that allow wealth to flow from poor to rich. As elders, they commissioned philosophies which bless a murderous inequality.

Yet these 85 people share our blood. As did Louis-Auguste, the drunken murderer, the murderous drunk.

When I look at the survivors of Mount Toba and the unjust and violent world that their descendants have set up, I think that pre-Toba civilizations must have recognized that they had some terribly selfish and vicious people--psychopaths--in their midst. Acting in self-defense, they must have confined them to Stone Age prisons, probably in deep caves. The strategy might have worked if Mount Toba had not exploded.

When the hungry and thoroughly pissed-off psychopaths finally emerged from the caves, they found a world emptied of prison guards and everyone else. They wandered in the light of a dust-obscured sun, through a landscape of ashes and death. The plants were frozen and edible animals few. If they encountered other bands of criminal survivors, they no doubt followed their deepest ethical inclinations and killed and ate them, or were killed and eaten themselves. Humanity, such as it was, barely escaped devouring itself in the millennia before the invention of agriculture and the long patch of benign weather we call the Holocene.

Now here we are, all 7 billion of us, all children of the conscience-deficient bad guys of an earlier age, bad guys who happened to be underground when a supervolcano erupted.

That's my theory and I'm sticking to it. How else to explain the Rwandan genocide or the Syrian civil war, or 9/11, or North Korean politics or Drone America's kill lists and vaporized wedding parties? How else to account for the deliberate destruction of social safety nets, or sending young men to fight and die for oil profits? What else could engender the soulless hunger for more and yet more that possesses our mean cousins Vlad Putin, Rupert Murdoch and Dick Cheney?

Every few years, I dig out an article I used to give to undergraduates as an essay prompt. It's titled, "Why Psychopaths Don't Rule the World," and it suggests that psychopaths are too greedy and too impatient to be successful in civilized society. It's getting to be an ironic document, because it's harder and harder for me not to think that psychopaths do rule the world, because all of us carry psychopathic genes switched on by wealth and power.

I wouldn't hand the article out to classes now, because contemporary undergrads have enough irony in their lives. They know that greed and impatience have survival value in an uncivilized society, as the 85 richest people in our world demonstrate in their being, and the rest of us understand in our genes.