Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Hunting Grand Transition

Grand transitions, as used in this blog, are major changes in a civilization, brought on by technology. The agricultural, industrial, genetic and neurological grand transitions are examples. Some alien transported from well before a grand transition to a time well after one would not recognize what was going on and would not know how to live in the altered civilization.

Even before the agricultural grand transition, there may have been another one, where the alien population transitioned from living on gathered foods to living on hunted organisms. There are a set of technologies needed to make such a transition, which include what is necessary to travel in such a way to track herds of huntable organisms, to trap and kill them, to butcher them and to cook parts so they would be edible.

Let’s check first the assumption that food sources for the predecessor creatures to aliens were herbivious, and that they switched to being carnivorous. In other words, they switched from being near the bottom of the food chain up to near the top of the food chain. There must be a food chain on any alien planet, as the only ample energy supply is photons from the star. That means a lower level of organisms, which use photosynthesis to transform raw materials into carbohydrates. If nothing ever evolves to consume these organisms, the entire planet remains wholly photosynthetic. But photosynthesis doesn’t provide enough energy for mobility; some way of concentrating it is necessary. That means, if the planet has intelligent life, it had to have herbivores. There is plenty of energy and resources in photosynthetic organisms, and harvesting them vastly increases the rate of energy gathered per kilogram of gathering organism.

Mobility means muscles, which are much more concentrated energy sources than photosynthetic organisms, and so it would be likely, given that evolution tries to fill all niches, that some carnivores would evolve after the population of herbivores was enough to support them. Could herbivores evolve into tool-using creatures? One postulation in this blog was that evolution does not evolve tool-using appendages before there are tools to be used. On the contrary, evolution evolves appendages that can be used for making and using tools if there are other preceding uses for them. Primitive creatures concentrate on a few functions: nutrition, reproduction, nurture, avoiding predators, and seeking shelter are the principal ones, and it is not clear why it would be any different on any alien planet. Dexterous appendages seem useful for nutrition, if there are nutrition sources, perhaps concentrated ones, that either require dexterity to reach and gather them, or to take advantage of them, such as by opening a shell or husk. Dexterous appendages also seem useful for fleeing from predators if there is a canopy of vegetation of some sort that can be used as an escape route. For lack of a better term, think of these as alien trees. Tree parts might have concentrated nutrients, for the purpose of increasing the survivability of seeds. Tree limbs might be the escape route from a predator which was not so dexterous, and had perhaps specialized in prey of a different sort.

This postulated chain of evolutionary steps means that herbivores might develop the ability to use tools, but carnivores would not necessarily. Alien tree parts are not in their diet.

Once the herbivores become dexterous, the obvious next step is for evolution to find a side use for this, which is tools. So then the question is, would a tool-capable herbivore become a carnivore? The kinds of things which could serve as initial tools might be stones, tree or other vegetation parts, bones, and perhaps some other things found in nature. Thrown stones, spears and clubs can certainly be used for hunting, but why would they start and how could the process of preparing caught prey for consumption be started up?

One avenue is play. Young creatures on Earth play with each other, and the play serves to do many things. One is to learn to use their bodies well. New creatures are unstable and capable of very little, and the type of brain we would expect aliens to have requires something like play to self-program. Throwing a rock at a sibling can be translated by this type of brain into throwing a rock against a predator or against a prey. So, tool use would be likely to be discovered over long periods. Similar processes might lead to an understanding of how to break open prey and extract the organs that were desired.

There has been a giant jump here, which just slipped in but is one of the biggest changes of the hunting transition. Genetic hardware gave way to memetic software. The knowledge of how to use commonly found objects in defense and hunting has become transmissible over generations. Knowledge exists now as a separate entity. It can be accumulated and aggregated. This probably requires some evolution in the brain as well. Possibly there was a little of this in earlier organisms, but the hunting transition is where it becomes dominant.

Thus, there are reasonable pathways from herbivore to tool-using carnivore that do not make exorbitant demands on evolutionary steps. It is also somewhat clear that there are things going on during this transition that are critical for later steps in the advancement of an alien civilization. Migration becomes a mode of life here. Some creatures might stay in one location, but large groups of herbivores are forced to move because they exhaust vegetation in one area. Hunters must follow their prey. This of course has implications, in that migration into new environments becomes possible, which means that different ways of behaving are called for. This means bigger brains.

Vegetation is a concentrated energy source because of the carbohydrates it is composed of, and these are not volatile in general. That means that when vegetation dries out, it would be flammable, here and on any alien planet. The opportunity for mastering fire should happen during the hunting grand transition, if the discovery of roasting parts of prey organisms occurs then. This is a predecessor to agriculture becoming very important, as the most efficient sources of carbohydrate vegetation energy require heat to make them edible.

All in all, the hunting grand transition is not necessarily recognized as a major change, but it is, and it is a necessary one for the later transitions. Because the tools are ridiculously simply, use of the word technology might be thought to be exaggerated. But the principle is the same with a bone club and a bronze sword. So, first on the list of grand transitions is the one that centers about the switch of food sources with organized hunting.

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