Kyoto Mountaineering Club

In July, I attended the 30th Annual Meeting of the Japan Primate Society, and the meetings of the Primate and Wildlife Society. This year is the 50th anniversary of research at Mahale Mountains, the 55th anniversary of research at Gombe.

Japanese primatology started in 1948, with a trip by Kinji Imanishi to Koshima Island, where he intended to study feral horses but ended up studying Japanese monkeys instead.

Starting in the 1950s, Japanese primatologists embarked on expeditions into remote areas of Africa to study gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos. They founded long-term research sites and documented the behavior and ecology of African apes.

Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa talked about his years in the Mountaineering Club at Kyoto University. He used the club as a way to recruit potential field workers: people who liked being outdoors, who weren’t afraid of physical challenges, people with a pioneering spirit.

Matsuzawa and other speakers showed slides of the early days of Japanese primatology in Africa: teams of tough, wiry-looking men ready to endure hardship for the sake of knowledge. Matsuzawa noted that in the Primate and Wildlife Sciences program, of the 21 students, the majority of the students were female, and most students were from countries other than Japan. The “foreign ladies” are willing to undergo the risks and hardships of fieldwork, whereas so few Japanese men are willing to do this that he called them a “critically endangered species.”

Why are so few Japanese men interested in doing primate fieldwork? I suspect that in this respect, Japanese men are the vanguard of a more general problem, not limited to men, or to any particular country. It is my impression that as life has become more comfortable, and communications technology has improved, it has become more difficult for young people to undertake long stretches of time in remote areas with limited electricity, email and Internet access.

This question brought to mind one possible solution to the Fermi Paradox.

Enrico Fermi, a physicist and one of the key scientists on the Manhattan Project, raised this question: given that intelligent life evolved at least once (here on Earth), intelligent life should have evolved on other planets in other star systems as well. And yet we don’t see any evidence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. As far as we know, we haven’t been visited by space aliens.

(Though in response to Fermi’s question, Leo Szilard answered “They are among us,” – he said, – “but they call themselves Hungarians.” John von Neumann and several other key scientists working on the Manhattan Project were Hungarian immigrants, and were of such exceptional intelligence that they were jokingly suspected of being extraterrestrials.)

If intelligent life can evolve at least once (as we know it has on Earth), then intelligent life should be able to evolve multiple times. In a galaxy with hundreds of millions of stars, even extremely rare events should occur repeatedly, provided they are possible. And we know that intelligent life forms can do things that make their presence known across interstellar space; we have done this by broadcasting television and radio signals. So if intelligent life has evolved somewhere in our not too distant neighborhood, we should see some evidence of it. And yet we don’t see any such evidence.

When Fermi first proposed his paradox, astronomers had no evidence of planets orbiting other stars. We didn’t know whether planets were rare or common, and whether planets like ours (small and rocky rather than big and gassy, not too close to the sun and not too far from it) were common or rare. Now, thanks to the Kepler planetary search program, astronomers have located thousands of planets around other stars. It looks like nearly every star has at least one planet, and many stars have multiple planets.

Carl Sagan worried that one explanation for the Fermi paradox was that advanced civilizations regularly self-destruct. They learn how to unleash nuclear energy, for example, and destroy their civilizations in nuclear war.

As a college student reading William Gibson’s cyberpunk novels in the 1980s, I wondered whether the explanation might not be nuclear war, but virtual reality. Any sufficiently advanced civilization should develop the tools to simulate reality (as our own society seemed on the verge of doing). Perhaps once virtual realities get good enough, they become so fascinating and absorbing that no one bothers with physical realities any more. Maybe the space aliens aren’t visiting other worlds because they have completely disappeared into their own virtual worlds and simply aren’t interested in anything outside of that?

Virtual reality came into being faster than I imagined it would. It turns out you don’t need high-resolution video plugged into your optic nerves to achieve a sufficiently distracting simulation of reality. Social media, Wi-Fi and smart phones have enabled us to create virtual worlds that become completely absorbing, even though they are mainly text and still images.

Field primatology is much less demanding than interstellar travel. But it requires a pioneering spirit, a willingness to go far from the herd, leave the hive mind, and endure physical challenges: hunger, thirst, sun, rain, insect bites, long days of hiking, and no cell phone connectivity.

Life in rich places like Japan, the US and Europe makes us increasingly ill-adapted for fieldwork. We expect three full meals per day, with frequent snacking opportunities. We expect clean toilets and hot showers. We expect air temperature to be kept within a narrow window: not too hot, not too cold. We expect comfort, personal space and privacy. We expect a life of leisure, depending on machines for much of our transportation.

Giving up these comforts to do fieldwork is challenging. But psychologically, leaving the hive mind may be even more difficult for people who have grown up connected.

When I first went to Kenya to study baboons in 1992, there was no Internet, no email, no cell phones, no faxes. The only way to communicate with folks back home was by mail, which was slow, or by telephone, which was expensive and rarely possible (the nearest pay phone was 40 km from my field site). My little sister tells me that during a long gap between letters from me, my family watched a nature documentary about African wildlife. When a baboon on the show yawned, showing off its long canine teeth, Mom started crying. She had all sorts of worries for me in Africa, but hadn’t thought to worry about baboons until she saw their teeth.

It was hard to be so far away from everyone back home, with so little communication. But for people who grew up plugged in, the prospect of being away from Facebook, Twitter, email and all the rest for months at a time may simply be too horrifying to contemplate.

Whether we have enough people to keep field primatology going is, in the grand scheme of things, a small problem. But it relates to a more general problem: decreasing interest in spending any time outside, away from the comforts of home. When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time vegetating in front of the TV, or reading books in my room. But I also spent a lot of time outside: climbing trees, playing with friends, riding my bike further and further from home, exploring our little town and its parks and the surrounding countryside. Kids these days don’t seem to do quite as much of that. The Internet and social media are so absorbing that there hardly seems any need to go outside.

In many ways, Japan feels like the future. Not a dystopic Bladerunner, cyberpunk or Hunger Games future, and not quite utopia either, but a future imagined by someone with an eye on current trends and a generally optimistic disposition. It is crowded, yet clean and orderly. People live long lives and have few children, resulting in an aging and shrinking population. And perhaps as a result, society overall is a bit less dynamic, a bit more conservative, a bit less risk-tolerant.

Japan is a densely populated country. On the train from Tokyo to Kyoto, the urban sprawl seems nearly continuous, with only scattered rice fields and green, forested mountains rising above the densely packed houses, shopping centers and factories. It seems as if every flat bit of land is settled. Even the forested mountains are, to a large extent, a human modified landscape, being covered mainly by plantations of cedar and other trees, rather than natural forests.

Perhaps as Japan’s population declines, nature will reclaim some land now covered in towns, cities and farms. Forest cover is increasing in North America and Europe, and species like wolves are returning to parts of their former range, like France. Nature has taken back parts of declining cities like Detroit.

The planet needs wild places. If large animals like elephants, lions, wolves and chimpanzees are going to survive, they need open space and natural areas. But if people don’t go outside, and don’t go exploring into natural areas, hunting and fishing and hiking and camping, then who will care if those natural areas are converted to other uses: cleared of timber, planted in crops, dug out for mines, covered in strip malls and parking lots?

Despite such worries, though, I’ve met many young people eager to do fieldwork and embrace the challenges of life away from comforts and the hive mind. And perhaps as the world becomes more wired, connectivity will no longer be an issue, even at the remotest sites. (I’m posting this from Gombe, where the research offices have WiFi.) But it seems wise to ensure the continuation of groups like the Kyoto Mountaineering Club, to encourage people with a pioneering spirit.