The Great Incognitum

This is an essay that’s been buried in my files since 2004.  It is quite long and, unless you are interested in the future welfare of your great grandchildren, you may choose not to read it.  However, at a time when Ontario has handed itself over to a limited-vision, low-tax, bottom-line, resource-hungry government and when the Federal government has committed itself to Big Fossil Fuel expansion, I feel moved to post it. 


The Great Incognitum

An essay on Mastodon, Man and Armageddon*

by Munroe Scott

We will soon be asphyxiated in our own fumes and suffocated in our own garbage, the nations of the world are rehearsing for Armageddon in the Middle East, and I find myself thinking about Mastodons!  Unlikely as it may seem, there is a connection.  In a book about elephants, The Dynasty of Abu (Cassell 1963), by zoologist Ivan T. Sanderson, there is a reference to a drastic occurrence following the last Ice Age:

“… This was a widespread if not a universal extinction of a great part of the larger mammalian fauna and particularly of the Abu (the elephant family) throughout the Americas and Eurasia. … Was there a single world-wide or hemispheric catastrophe, or was there a series of them of such monumental proportions as to have not merely decimated but totally eliminated the major part of the fauna, and particularly their larger members?”

I emphasis the word “larger” to draw the eye away from speculation about natural disaster. The idea of natural disaster of cosmic proportions is so strangely appealing that it sidetracks us from more mundane explanations related to growth, specialization and garbage.  But the most appalling disaster our human species can face, namely extinction, is related not to chaos in the cosmos but to growth in the organism, and a model example of such was the American Mastodon.

What appeals to me about the Mastodon is the mystery of his demise.  Vast tracts of North America were once inhabited by both the Woolly Mammoth and the Mastodon. They survived for a million years.  Put those years on a 24 hour clock and in the last few microseconds those giant species actually overlapped with Man.  If some cosmic natural disasters wiped them out, how come puny Man survived?

There is, of course, the theory that club wielding, spear throwing Man was the disaster. This theory appeals to the guilt syndrome in 21st century Man but is also an amazingly egotistical theory.  Man may have been the microbe that pushed debilitated species over the edge into extinction but it requires a rather large and self-centred vision for him to imagine himself in his primitive years as the primary agent of destruction.

I find myself specifically pondering the demise of the American Mastodon because I live in an area that may have been its last habitat — southern Ontario on the edge of the rock-bound heavily forested Precambrian Shield.  My pondering leads me to disturbing reflections about Modern Man.  Although it may insult Man’s ego to be compared to an ancient cousin of the elephant it appears that Man is following, and suddenly, the same evolutionary path taken by the Mastodon.  (In the context of these speculations I use the politically incorrect term of “Man” in the expectation that womankind won’t object to being given an excuse to sidestep the implications.)

The Mastodon was a probiscidean, or trunked animal, with tusks almost identical to those of a present day elephant.  He was not a true elephant, although with his six ton weight, his stump like legs, his domed head and his ten foot shoulder height I doubt that any early Indian tried to stem an earth quaking charge with a disparaging cry, “You’re not a true elephant!”

Mastodon remains were first discovered early in the 18th century and the magnificent animal was given a seemingly silly name based on the Greek “mastos” and “odontis” and variously translated as either “nipple-tooth” or “breast-tooth”.  At first glance such a name, describing the pinnacles on a mastodon tooth, appears to tell us more about the naming scientist than about the animal but in all fairness one must admit that the teeth give a clue to the whole creature — they give us an idea of its size and tell us what it was equipped to eat which in turn tells us a great deal about its habitat and its habits.

The earliest printed account of the discovery of mastodon remains appeared in The Boston News Letter of July 30th, 1705. The account was dated from New York, July 23rd:

“There is a prodigous (sic) Tooth brought here, supposed by the shape of it to be one of the four great Teeth of a man; It weighs four pounds and three quarters, the top of it as sound and white as a Tooth can be, but the Root is much decayed, yet one of the fangs of it holds half a pint of liquor.”

Another tooth was discovered the following year and the Governor of Massachusetts stated in a letter that the tooth undoubtedly belonged to one of the giants mentioned in the Old Testament as having been drowned in the Flood.

An eye witness described the unearthing of a mastodon jawbone in 1801 and described the animal as: “The Great American Incognitum, an Extinct, Immense, Carnivorous Animal.” The writer was incorrect only in the carnivorous bit and with his “Great Incognitum” — his Great Unknown — showed more verbal flair than did the naming scientist with his breast fixation.

By the 19th century mastodon hunting in the States had become an industry and Man finally realized he was unearthing another creature’s remains. He did not realize that he was unearthing symbols of his own evolutionary future.

The creature roamed in herds across most of the United States, Southern Canada including Nova Scotia and parts of Ontario, and up into the Yukon.  There is no doubt that Man hunted mastodons in North America.  The evidence is found in bones discovered along with human artifacts, bones showing signs of weapon inflicted damage, bones charred by fire, and so on.

I find it instructive to follow the Great Incognitum into my own home territory of Ontario.  Man and Mastodon both existed here at the same time but there is no proof that Man had anything to do with the “sudden” elimination of the Mastodon from Ontario. The catastrophe theory is entertaining but another theory requires that we consider the physical nature of the Mastodon itself, which in turn will lead us to speculation about the evolving nature of Man.

The Great Incognitum’s trunk and two long, slightly curved tusks were almost exactly like those of a modern elephant.  His teeth, however, were quite different.  An elephant’s teeth are enormous, flat, and ribbed, not unlike grandmother’s laundry board.  They come together not so much in a bite as in a rotary grinding motion and make it possible to masticate grass, hay, roots, leaves, branches, bark, bamboo trees, almost anything organic.  In 1944 an elephant even ate a woman.  The Mastodon’s teeth, however, those strange nippled teeth, suggest to scientists that he could not handle the same varied menu as an elephant and that he was locked off to the foliage of trees — leaves, tender bark, twigs — in fact, that his diet was the one provided exclusively by the coniferous forests that were once typical of the swamps and rolling lowlands of southern Ontario.

Speculations on the Mastodon’s dietary requirements are further supported by a theory based on the fact that a Mastodon had not two tusks, but four.  The additional two were short, varying in length from two feet to a mere seven inches.  They sprouted from the lower jaw, close together, and always have grooves worn on their inner surfaces.  The theory is that the animal would draw coniferous branches between these two lower tusks thereby stripping the branches of their edible twigs and needles.  Speculation like this, based on teeth and tusks, creates the picture not of a ground grazing animal but of a tree grazing animal, whose fodder was exclusively composed of trees like the spruce, firs and cedars of post-glacial southern Ontario.  The Mastodon had specialized.  Based on what we know of his size and of the dietary needs of modern elephants he could have consumed anywhere from 800 to 1000 pounds of food per day.

As the edge of the last ice cap retreated farther and farther north the ideal mastadonian food supply retreated with it.  The spruce trees that had dominated southern Ontario gave way to two other types of trees, the deciduous hardwoods with lower branches high off the ground and offering no foliage at all for at least half the year, and to giant white pines too massive even for a mastodonian banquet.  As the ice cap retreated ever farther north the Mastodon’s favourite, nay his only food slowly established itself among the rocks of the Canadian Shield and grows there to this day.

Bone finds indicate that the Mastodon tried to follow his food into northern Ontario but the giant’s fleshy footpads, ideal for soft, even swampy ground, were not adaptable to the barbarous rocks of the Shield.  The Mastodon found that his special requirements had surpassed the capability of the land to support or “carry” him.

Any species requires a certain minimum number to be able to sustain itself.  That number is tied to the species’ ability to reproduce and to withstand disease and predators.  The more specialized the species becomes the more vulnerable it is to a change in basic conditions.  The bigger the individual becomes the more the individual loads the carrying capacity of the land that supports him.  When that carrying capacity becomes grossly overloaded an entire species can go into a decline that requires only a minor push to put it over the brink into extinction.  In all probability, that is what happened to the Mastodon.  The push may have come from Man but that is irrelevant. A microbe would have served.

The mastadonian lesson is that extreme size and over specialization in food requirements appear to be a fatal combination.  Which brings me to Man.
Man’s migrations into North America between 25,000 and 11,000 years ago were not unlike Man’s migrations from Europe within the last few hundred years.  North America, new to the paleolithic Indians crossing the Bering land bridge, was just as “new” to the Europeans crossing the Atlantic, and the New World offered the same possibility to both — the possibility of increasing the carrying capacity of their environment simply by expanding the boundaries of that environment.

Man invading the New World had little in common with the Mastodon except that they both relied in the final analysis on the capacity of their environment to provide sufficient food, oxygen and water.  The Mastodon, however, had grown to enormous size.  Man was puny, but that was changing because Man was evolving.

He arrived in the New World as Homo Sapiens but had already become Prosthetic Man.  It had not been the result of a surgical operation but just as an artificial leg is a prosthetic device so was a club a prosthetic device. It extended the arm’s reach and leverage.  With a sling his arm could throw a stone with killing force across a forest clearing.  With a shovel his foot could cut into earth.  With a sledge hammer his arms could crack rock.  He devised the steam engine and then the internal combustion engine and in doing so Prosthetic Man added to himself devices that fantastically extended his powers.  Now he could travel faster, carry more, and dig deeper than ever before.  He could dig more iron, unearth more gold, quarry more stone than ever before.  He could cut more trees, turn more sod, reap more grain than ever before.  His prosthetic devices became bigger and more powerful.  A sub-species known as Airline Pilot could strap an airliner to his back and hurtle across the Atlantic carrying hundreds of fellow humans with him.  A Grower could strap on a combine and reap and thresh more grain in a day than an earlier tribe of men could have processed in a lifetime.

The key to it all was energy. Rudimentary devices like club or spade depended upon man’s muscles for energy, but the unlocking of the earth’s supply of fossil fuels provided untold energy and all else followed.  Prosthetic Man rapidly became something more, something gigantic, a new Great Incognitum, eventually identified as Homo Colossus.

The concept of Homo Colossus was fully developed and set forth by Prof. Wm. R. Catton Jr. in a remarkable book, Overshoot (University of Illinois Press, 1980).  His thesis is worth following if one is intrigued by the trail linking Mastodon, Man, and Armageddon.
Homo Colossus can leap mountains, jump continents, swim oceans, fly to the moon and literally touch the planets.  He can strap on a power shovel standing 20 storeys high with a five inch steel cable lifting a boom 310 feet long and with one bite of the bucket can remove 325 tons of overburden.  Given a large enough bucket he could pick up three dozen Mastodons at one time — with his fingers!  All who read this are members of the species.  We flick a finger and our homes are lighted.  We turn a key and our automobile purrs to life ready to unleash power equivalent to several hundred horses.  Each one of us, Prosthetic Man become Homo Colossus,  is mightier far than ever Mastodon aspired to be.
In attempting to picture myself as one of the professor’s Colossi it becomes apparent that the core body is that of Sapiens, visible to the eye, but within an invisible, enormous, ravenous, all encompassing metaphysical envelope.  It this envelope that is all appetite, craving fuel to nourish its every need and desire.

Sapiens has become a sub-species, living within and serving Colossus.  From time to time some of the servant sub-species become unnecessary and extinct (identified by the label “Unemployed”) but individual Homo Colossi grow larger and stronger and the species grows more numerous.  Every factory that closes down and moves to greener pastures is a sign that Colossus is growing.  It is Sapiens who is left behind to struggle for sustenance.  “Profits” that rise while “unemployment” figures also rise are a sign of Colossus growing at the expense of Sapiens.  And yet the basic requirements of Colossus are still identical to those of both Sapiens and the Mastodon — fuel, water and oxygen.

Which brings up a nuisance of a problem.

In a strange, roundabout, frightening way Homo Colossus has become what early Man was — a hunter and gatherer.  Colossus hunts for and gathers energy.  He talks about oil “production” but that is a euphemism for oil “gathering”.

So far, Colossus has done exactly what the Mastodon attempted to do — he has followed his fuel supply into inhospitable territory, even to the sands of the desert, the tar sands of Alberta, and the ice fields of the Arctic.  The more Homo Colossus tries to forestall the end of his species by increasing his appetites and consuming more and more materials from the earth (activities known as “stimulating the economy”) the more he tends to overload the carrying capacity of the environment and the more he hastens his own end.  To a Colossus who is all appetite it is irrelevant that in doing this he robs the bank of resources that, husbanded wisely and used judiciously, could sustain the less avaricious Homo Sapiens for eons yet to come.

While each individual Colossus has been increasing in size and appetite the species has also multiplied mightily in numbers.  Paradoxically, Sapiens, not always as wise as he should be, has been enthusiastically mutating into Colossus to the point of gross over population.

“Population” by itself is a mere statistic.  The numbers have meaning only when related to the amount of land required to support an individual.  In some areas of the world, those we often think of as over populated, an individual Homo Sapiens can survive on just a few hundred square feet of intensively cultivated land.  Not Homo Colossus.  His appetite is so vast that the resource facilities required to sustain any one of us are almost incalculable.  It is as though each individual occupies space simultaneously in many parts of the world because he does in fact use, simultaneously, many parts of the Earth.  A simple head count of Homo Colossus tells us nothing.

But population is more than a head count.  It involves population pressure.  Population pressure is created by numbers but also by activity.  Just as pressure in a car’s tire is increased by heat, because heat makes the air molecules more active, so is population pressure among humans increased by inter-reaction.  The effects are psychological and have been studied in lesser animals.  Up to a point animals keep to their own territories and seldom molest others of the same species.  Those who travel in packs or herds tend to be co-operative.  But as population pressure increases, and particularly as their numbers begin to exceed the carrying capacity of their environment, they become unpredictable, unstable, neurotic.  They become competitive.  They fight among themselves.  They kill each other, themselves, their young, and even kill pregnant mothers.

It would be illogical to think that Homo Colossus, the largest, most ravenous of all animals is immune to the psychological phenomena associated with increasing population pressure.  Do we not see symptoms of neuroses, globally, almost daily? Uprisings?  Bombings?  Mass murders?  Stonings?  Beheadings?  Invasions?  Hostility to the old, children, and the unborn?  Do we not see irrationality burgeoning like the buds in spring?  Nerve gas, multi-megaton warheads, MX missiles, talk of surviving a nuclear war, talk not of humans surviving but of missiles surviving, jargon in which fratricide comes to mean not brother killing brother but missile killing missile.  Even the current bickerings over waste in my Ontario are, in a way, neurotic. We have individuals and communities locked in verbal and legal warfare over the disposal of mountains of waste that are nothing more or less than the ordure from that most gigantic of all creatures, Homo Colossus.  Even the Mastodon, for all his size, never fought over the disposal of his own feces.

Let us not leap to the conclusion that in talking of Homo Colossus we are merely describing the principle denizen of the capitalistic western world.  Homo Colossus mutated out of Europe’s Industrial Revolution and migrated to burst into full growth in North America but the genes have spread into Eurasia and Asia.  Homo Colossus has been breeding in Russia, too, and Communism was merely another way in which the species organized itself to exploit the environment with the result that, in parts of eastern Europe, Colossus is now standing bewildered in the midst of self created wastelands.  Elsewhere, in the Third World, Colossus has already grown past puberty as his European and Western parents encourage him to “develop”.

The signs are all there that Homo Colossus is exhausting his environment’s capacity to feed his appetite for energy and to absorb his waste and that he is already suffering from population pressure and is becoming deranged.  He is on his way out as surely as was the other Great Incognitum, the Mastodon.  (In all fairness to the Mastodon, he simply outgrew his food supply and dwindled to extinction. There is no evidence he became deranged.)

It is possible that when Homo Colossus can no longer supply his gigantic need for energy and materials, vast numbers of the species will die off and the survivors will dwindle back to more modest Homo Sapiens.  No, never again plain Homo Sapiens.  In such a scenario he would have to become Homo Plus Sapiens, “Wiser Man”. One hopes much wiser.  This scenario, even though it involves massive famines and dying off of great numbers, is a very optimistic scenario.

It is much more likely that Homo Colossus, already becoming irrational, will end his reign on earth by pushing the fatal button.  Whether that button releases atomic explosive, chemical gases, or biological plague, it would provide a quaint parallel to the theory of a cosmic catastrophe exterminating the Mastodon, but as a theory it would no longer be of interest to Homo Colossus.  Whether the environment after such a catastrophe could support either Homo Sapiens or Homo Plus Sapiens is a matter for conjecture.

I agree with Teilhard de Chardin, the wise Jesuit paleontologist who felt that Man’s evolutionary path must lie along spiritual lines and no longer along mere physical growth. And yet I see Man, become Homo Colossus, accelerating along the physical, and moving not onto spiritual planes but onto the neurotic planes of madness where pre-emptive warfare and environmental degradation are being adopted as tools for Colossus’s survival. However, I also believe that we are still at a fortunate stage in evolutionary history where Homo Sapiens cannot yet be counted out.

I take comfort from the optimistic challenge issued by Prof. Catton as he wrote his book early in the fourth quarter of the last century:

“We should commit ourselves to becoming less colossal with all possible speed. Once we have set that course for ourselves, we will find ourselves committed to more extensive social and cultural change than has ever been achieved, or perhaps even really sought, by past revolutionary movements…
History will record the period of global dominance by Homo Colossus as a brief interlude. Our most urgent task is to develop policies designed not to prolong that dominance, but to ensure that the successor to Homo Colossus will be, after all, Homo Sapiens.”


Note: This essay was originally written for a private, non-academic,  non-commercial oral presentation and unfortunately I did not preserve all the research references.  Apologies.  But apart from the two books referenced I do remember probing quite extensively into  Royal Ontario Museum documents.

* The Great Incognitum © copyright Munroe Scott



About Munroe Scott

Munroe Scott is a veteran of the freelance writing world.
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2 Responses to The Great Incognitum

  1. Mark W Finnan says:

    A timely repeat. In spite of the all too materialist mindset, evident in many aspects of our political, economic and social affairs, that has taken us ever closer to being unable to sustain human life on this planet, I do see hope in the fact that many not only share but have acted on de Chardin’s vision of our need to bring a more spiritual perspective to our understanding of human life, to our interaction with each other, and to our relationship with the natural world. However, it is not unlikely that having created our present dire circumstances ( there are prophecies, indigenous and otherwise) that we will experience a destructive event of such proportions that we will be forced to rethink and reform our ‘Darwinian’ ways.

    • Munroe Scott says:

      Thank you Mark. Although I tend to be an optimist I feel Homo Colossus is such a self aggrandizing and self perpetuating monster that I share your concern about “a destructive event of such proportions….et.c”. Let’s hope Sapiens survives in order to carry out the necessary rethink..

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