Monday, November 21, 2016


Neil Shubin

As it turns out, reconciling the discoveries explained in “Your Inner Fish” by Neil Shubin with one’s own body physiology is much easier and more rewarding that reconciling traditional psychoanalysis with the new neurology discoveries.  It helps to have such a cheerful and humorous guide as Shubin.  But also, all along the way I was having insights about practical medical things as well as deep philosophical issues, which others have also loved.

PBS did a video version of this information, but I couldn’t find more than clips without paying money.  At least one can see Neil Shubin who turns out to be as appealing on vid as in print.  (I grow increasingly impatient with what was supposed to be public education as it gets more commodified, but the future doesn’t hold much hope for it to develop as I would like.  The evolution of media follows money.  The evolution of life follows food.)

But the evolution of life begins with water, makes a jump when oxygen provides the energy to climb to land (if you count mud), and begins a long journey by mutating a few limb bones into a four-part formula:  one big bone, two smaller bones capable of turning around each other, lotsa little bones, and five digits (usually).  This becomes the basic pattern unfolding from flat-headed fishes with necks (a major step of evolution from cone-heads with no-necks) whose cumulative changes over millennia finally resulted in humans who can crawl around in arctic stone rubble with a magnifying lens, their noses two-inches from the ground, and deduce the little mud skippers who started it all.

As it happens, I was/am also reading Farley Mowat’s “People of the Deer” about the tribe called “Ihalmiut,” a small group of Inuit people who had learned how to survive by eating caribou that swept through the area in huge numbers during migration.  The wonders of technology, industry, and science in this case meant the reduction of the caribou in just the same way as the bison herds on the prairie, seeming impossibly unending, were wiped out by modern guns, railroads, and racism.  In the case of the far north this was blamed on wolves.  Farley Mowat was there for two years as a witness and concluded that this theory was demonizing fantasy.  Thus his testimony in “Never Cry Wolf.”

Richard Harrington, an extraordinary Canadian photographer, arrived in time to document the last days of the Ihalmiut as the Fifties began.  Americans might know Harrington for his work in “The Family of Man,” and for “People” magazine.  His lens did not reveal tiny fossils but rather people who had found a way to live in the most extreme circumstances this side of outer space.  It was not just the loss of the caribou that wiped them out, but also the penetration of the ways and material cultures of the outside world.  Their successful existence depended upon a culture evolved just like a physical body, preserving any small advantage and destroying whatever didn’t contribute, all of it fitted together as one whole.  

Harrington’s photos in particular show what it is to live in snow: the light, the effect of being always against white as though it were a sheet of paper.  This photo of mother and child rubbing noses, which so captured the imagination of people who like to kiss, was made in 1950 when the people were starving.  We don't know whether either one of them survived.  The Canadian government moved them closer to surviving caribou herds and provided canned food, but that was only stalling the inevitable.

The photo was in "The Family of Man"

The old woman in the next photo was so near death that she could no longer draw on her pipe.  Harrington had packed and lit it, even put it in her mouth in hopes of comforting her, but he watched her die as he took his photo.

This is the culture that teaches its people that the old should accept death because it means more food for the young.

These girls are not dead but merely sleeping, nestled together for body warmth.  The photos are from the third book I'm reading, "Richard Harrington, Canadian Photographer."  I know about them because of Paul Seseequasis' photo project on Twitter, which is recovering so many of the old faces.

What conclusion can I draw from pondering these three books about fish, caribou and humans?  Of course they tell us that famine is always in the shadows and those who didn't escape have disappeared into the deep past.  But also they left traces that we can search for knowledge.  Life is a torrent of interlocking small bits that form swirls and currents, some we call species and some we call tribes, some so divided that they will never meet again, and some still like enough to rejoin.  We had no idea there were several hundred variations on the theme of hominin, and were shocked to discover mergers between today's humans (which we privilege as unique and "better") and yesterday's Neanderthals (knuckle draggers).

They say that both Inuit and Navajo make good mechanics because they care about how things fit together and because they never discard any pieces, no matter how small and insignificant they may seem.  In fact, it may be their very smallness that makes them valuable, as Shubin explains that the gill arches of the fish became the tiny mechanisms of our hearing, deep in our heads.

How is it then that we can so carelessly discard people we don't much care about.  Is it because they compete with us for food?  How do we know whether they might be the only ones who could survive in the future?  Will it be dream analysis as in psychoanalysis or neurological brain structures as in empathy studies that show us the way?  I think it will be both.

1 comment:

northern nick said...

Well done.