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Falling into consciousness

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SAM PATCH

We sit on the precipice of war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq because once, many millennia ago, we realized that what we feared most was falling out of a tree.

Sound farfetched?

Not to Garrett Soden, a Pasadena-based writer who has just completed work on a new book to be published by W.W. Norton in July. It is called “Falling: How Our Greatest Fear Became Our Greatest Thrill – A History.”

Soden examines man’s evolution from tree-dwelling primates to people who seek the thrills of skydiving, bungee jumping and playing on trampolines. He takes a look at our complex relationship with gravity and how it led not only to our inventiveness, but our very sense of being. It is our self-conscious nature that sets us apart from most other species on the planet, and it is that self-conscious nature that leads us to write poetry, paint pictures, jump from planes, build computers, drink like fish, go to church and fight wars. We exist because we learned how not to fall.

“But there is another point to consider, one that gets to the core of how our dance with gravity continued to influence not just how we feel during a fall, but what we think about it,” Soden said, quoting from his book during an exclusive IM interview. “That point is how much movement through the trees was to be controlled by raw instinct and reflexes, and how much by deliberation. On this question, monkeys went one way and the great apes went another. What developed in the apes and in us, if primatologist Daniel Povinelli and physical anthropologist John Cant are right, is consciousness. …

“Povinelli came up with his theory by noticing the difference between the way monkeys and orangutans navigate the canopy. Because monkeys are small, most branches in a tree will support them. They travel by jumping, swinging, leaping, and grabbing whatever’s handy. Chances are, it will hold. If it doesn’t, something nearby on the way down will. It’s possible for a monkey to get away with this strategy because there is relatively more surface area to weight in a small animal than in a large one, and this means that air resistance is a much greater factor in slowing a small animal’s fall. …

“For a great ape, like an orangutan, which can weigh up to 180 pounds, the trees are not so sturdy, and a fall is serious business. So orangutans clamber: they walk carefully, test their holds, even judge how to bend a branch enough so that it will gently lower them to where they want to go, like an arboreal elevator. Povinelli hypothesizes that this careful movement is what the common ancestor of the great apes and humans learned, and that by doing this, it began to understand that it was an individual who could cause things to happen; that it could make plans and reap benefits. In short, it became self-conscious.”

There is more. It can all be found here.

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