Monday, July 13, 2015


I’m halfway through reading “The 10,000 Year Explosion: How Civilization Accelerated Human Evolution” by Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending (both anthropologists and Cochran is also a physicist).  I’m going back and forth between,  “Well, I already knew that” and “This is amazing!”  It is -- in imitation of its subject which is the weaving of genetic variation through time and place -- a cross-breeding of disciplines from geology to genomics, arts to sciences, homo sapiens to neanderthals, Africa to Finland.  

The main message is simply that everything is a process and some of the elements are very small but with huge impact.  (Consider the needle.) This is true of the brain itself.  Over time small specialized cells like mirror cells have transformed cultures because of new capacities to understand and enlist humans into a unity or creative enterprise -- from the pyramids to the space station.  But it’s not just a new gizmo, it’s then doubled back, recycled, repurposed and so on and on in a creative reciprocity we may not even notice.  For instance, the ability to talk was accompanied by a new ability to hear, so as to pick up the tiny hisses and curls of the tongue.  Sharper hearing meant the discovery of sonar like bats. 

Some of this material comes perilously close to becoming racism.  The story begins with homo sapiens developing in northeast Africa, then they go north to Europe and not only adapt to the new environment (becoming white in order to absorb vitamin D through their skins). 

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal man confronts an unintimidated homo sapiens.

Homo sapiens, we are shocked to realize, intermarry with neanderthals which causes the intromission of whole sections of genetic code.   (You will probably need to use the glossary in this book.) If one has a head for statistics, it will be easier to understand the spread of one advantageous genetic mutation or acquisition (or dropping out) into a whole nation of people.  The neanderthal mutations that had developed over a long period of hunting and gathering are taken into a post-African genome, combining into new abilities, and then a climate change releases the practice of agriculture, which changes the nutritional status of the people and that provides a surplus that powers war, towns, religious institutions -- not just “beliefs” but organizations that self-perpetuate.  Until the next global climate change or asteroid impact.

Meanwhile, across the whole planet, the process of weeding out lame genes goes on while powerful new code begins to spread.  Whether the dominant power will be with peace or with violence still remains to be seen, but surely those who are trying to hold everything the same because it suits them so well are doomed.  The effort to enforce conformity takes so much energy and attention that even if a clued-in Roman Emperor like Hadrian builds a wall to say,  “We will only go this far -- no farther,” it won’t work.  
Hadrian's wall across Britain.

Cultures evolve or die.  Religions evolve or die.  Pull in new elements that are destructive and contagious and the whole creature will die.  Think of the gradual infestation of institutions that serve children with the craving for sexual use of them.  Think of the tenure system meant to protect professors from those who would snuff their innovative ideas which now imposes rigid and old-fashioned ideas on students.  Think of food aid, meant to solve two problems (over-production and famine), that has become a form of money, manipulated by greed.

The planet itself evolves and dies even as it creates new life forms by fitting them into niches and cross-borrowing of codes.  Recently it has been discovered that prions, which are not even as much alive as viruses but are misfolded molecules that sneak into the places where their distortion destroys life, and which are widely spread through the prairie in elk, can leave the elk through dung, be taken up by plants into leaves, and then enter the next elk, causing it to collapse and die, whereupon the beetles enter and carry the prions back out to more leaves.

Wasted elk

The very essence of being, not even living being, is a circulating system that carries both life and death.  No one knows how to control prions -- we didn’t even know they existed until recently.

This book is not as scary as my thoughts about it, but it does end the idea that “we” are the only and chosen and divinely protected people on the planet, and it gently suggests that people are not “the same smart” unless they are in the context (both cultural and physical) that they have adapted to.   It's called "FITTINGNESS."  Though there are different adaptations for the same problem in separate times and places.  The high altitude adaptation of the people in the Andes is not the same blood strategy that evolved in the people of the Himalayas.  These are Bioneer realizations.  But not everyone has the culture or resources to be a Bioneer, not that there is one privileged suitability -- or is there?

It is becoming clear from fossils that there have been many versions of human primate, some of them pretty smart and capable, who have been lost because of a virus, an inability to adapt to a change in the environment, lactose intolerance, a religious notion that they should eat the brains of their dead or the death of a body of water.  

Bioneers conference

One big overriding question has been what happened 40,000 years ago that suddenly created art, ceremony, and metaphorical elaboration -- a keystone change in the culture that some modern humans are intent on stamping out.  And then why is it that agriculture began when the last Ice Age drew back and not in the previous intervals between glaciation -- when nothing of the kind happened.  Was there a genomic readiness factor? 

It’s very hard for us to realize how recent agriculture is, how woven and dynamic it was/is in terms of the human brain and life patterns.  Maybe the terrorist fundamentalists who are out there destroying orchards, irrigation systems and fabulous statues are onto something.  Maybe we SHOULD all go back to being hunter-gatherers or at least pastoralists.  Maybe there will be no choice if industrialization, translated into cyber-technology, overwhelms the world.

A new discipline is “space weather,” which is not as silly as it sounds when you include radiations, cycles of movement, pulses, and how much they affect not just our rockets and telescopes, but also our planet.  We are only beginning to detect and predict what’s going on.
Northern Lights from the Sun

If we can find the confidence to reach out of our comfort zones, to confront our limitations and find our most earnest and idealistic selves, this can be exhilarating and salvific.  But if we resort to “forting up,” “fencing the communion,” we will be self-snuffing, on an island with the water rising.  That sounds like preaching because it is.  We cannot escape.  There is death.  But it is only transformation.

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