/ 31 August 2018

Laziness: Lifeline or death knell?

(John McCann/M&G)
(John McCann/M&G)

Paleoanthropologists said last week that laziness led to the extinction of one of humanity’s close cousins. But now evolutionary biologists have hit back, suggesting that laziness can actually help a species survive.

And so the media are presented with a quandary. From which competing scientific hypothesis should we extrapolate a homily on laziness for our readers?

Or, should we rather manufacture a beef between the two disciplines? Either is ethically reprehensible— but the second sounds more fun, so we’ll go with that one.

Unsurprisingly, the controversy was started by a bunch of tools, in Australia.

Specifically, a story published by Australian National University about a collection of Stone Age tools found at a site in Saffaqah, in what is now Saudi Arabia, suggesting that their creators were a bunch of layabouts.

Tools are an important signifier of a capacity for problem-solving and intelligence. We can, and do, chart the development of civilisation through tool use, going from knapped stone knives all the way up to pneumatic exosuits and robots that make other robots.

Latterly, humans have discovered that we aren’t alone in using tools. Chimpanzees and crows use sticks to collect honey and insect larvae, respectively. Elephants use tree branches to swat flies. Even ants have been observed blocking entrances to their colonies with small stones.

Acheulean civilisations such as the one in Saffaqah were technically proficient at bashing things with rocks. In the hierarchy of tool users, this puts them just above sea otters, which are marvellous at bashing things with rocks — most especially crabs, sea snails and abalone.

What a pity, then, that our great-uncles and aunts over on the other side of the family tree couldn’t find it within themselves to put in the effort.

The Australian university story references a study published earlier this month in the multidisciplinary open-access journal, Plos One, which hints that a branch of Homo erectus living at the site were languorous to the point of extinction.

According to the researchers, the barely knapped stone tools found in the area showed that the hominin community living there about a million years ago were “technologically conservative, and used least-effort strategies of resource procurement and tool transport”. When the environment deteriorated, they were ill-equipped to adapt and probably died out as a result.

The study’s lead author, Dr Ceri Shipton of the Australian National University’s School of Culture, History and Language, was less circumspect about their get-up-and-go.

“They really don’t seem to have been pushing themselves,” he said in an article published on the university’s website.

“To make their stone tools they would use whatever rocks they could find lying around their camp,” he explained. “There was a big, rocky outcrop of quality stone just a short distance away, up a small hill … They knew it was there, but because they had enough adequate resources they seem to have thought, ‘Why bother?’ ”

And so they went extinct.

Death by ennui.

Very sophisticated, and yet also very much not.

But a definitive strike against laziness, one would think. Unless one were an evolutionary biologist published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B scientific journal this week.

In a paper titled “Metabolic rates, climate and macroevolution: a case study using Neogene molluscs”, biologists examined fossil records of slugs, snails and abalone that lived in the Western Atlantic in the Neogene period, which occurred between 20-million and just under three million years ago.

They worked out the metabolic rates of these molluscs by comparing the physical measurements of extinct species with those of species still living, factoring in the best current estimates of how the ocean’s temperature changed over time, and calculating how much energy they would have needed to survive.

Their conclusion was that species with more verve, vigour and voom tended to burn themselves out of existence, whereas those with a more sluggardly demeanour survived.

Curiously, the biologists inexplicably failed to mention whether this was because the more a sea snail gets out and about, the more likely it is to get its head bashed in by a marauding sea otter.

Evidently, the metabolism-based attrition came as something of a surprise to the researchers. “There wasn’t necessarily a reason to expect that the extinction of a species should be related to metabolic rate,”study co-author Luke Strotz, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Kansas, told Inverse.com, which published the story under the headline “Survival of the Laziest”.

In their case, it appears to be true that slow and steady wins the race.

But for human-shaped organisms at risk of being accused of laziness, the lesson is clearly this: Stop anthropomorphising snails and confusing basal metabolic rate with an obtuse lack of motivation.

But also get out of that hammock and get back to work, or else.