Posts Tagged ‘human evolution’

SERMON: “History in the Making” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

My late dad, born in 1914.

I once talked to my father about the changes he had witnessed in his lifetime.  He remembered when electricity first came to his family home (in the 1920’s).  The first aircraft he saw were a World War One vintage “Jenny” and a U.S. Navy airship.  His father had been witness to the Johnstown Flood of 1889.   My mother recalls being a 12-year old girl walking her grandfather across town, noticing his distinctive limp from the wound he received at the battle of Chicamauga during the American Civil War.  As a child listening to the stories of our parents, history is always the thing that happened to the generations that came before.

This makes sense, as it takes some time for current events to become “history” — years must pass before we can see our own times in any sort of of context.

It is probably a sign of my own advancing age that I now reflect on the history that I have been witness to.  As a boy the long shadow of World War 2 reached into my imagination.  My dad was a veteran of that war, and my mother had lost many childhood friends to it.  What in my youthful experience could compare to a national and global event of that kind?  Vietnam?  Hardly.  The pollution of the planet that became a signal issue of my teens?  Maybe…  But perhaps I’ve looked in the wrong places for the wrong kinds of historical events.

If anything marks our age it is the growth of our technology.  The hints of it were there in my father’s boyhood home (that had gas for lighting and cooking and heat, but no electricity).  But by the time my father was born, electricity was already on its way and would soon arrive in nearly every home.  With electricity came the radio, and from the radio came the television.  Then, in my lifetime, came the personal computer and the silicon chip, which seems to have multiplied every other invention of humankind:  the computer became something that we shake like salt into our diet of technology, from a telephone in my pocket to the jet streaking across the sky.

And the computer has helped propel scientific discovery: we can see deeper into space and deeper into ourselves.  And this is where the stunning discoveries that have occurred in my fifty-plus years living are thrown into relief.

I remember as a school boy hearing that the theory of “continental drift”, once popular, had fallen into disrepute.  I looked with fascination at the depiction in National Geographic of the brutish Neanderthal, and the charts that showed a steady, linear progression of ancient ape to man.  And I sat with my schoolmates in the cafeteria to watch, together, the flickering image on a single, small television screen, of a man walking on the moon for the first time.

But a lot has changed since I was 10 or 11 or 12.  We now know that “continental drift” is really “plate tectonics”, which is now understood as the primary force behind the creation and renewal of the earth’s crust.  We have grown in our understanding of Neanderthals, realizing that they were not our ancestors after all, but only the last of who-knows-how-many evolutionary dead-ends on our ever-branching hominid evolutionary tree.  And, though I didn’t realize the significance of it at the time, the moon landing answered the most basic unanswered questions about where our grey cosmic companion had come from.  (Before we brought those moon rocks home we did not know, truly, that the moon had been blown out of a young earth by a cosmic collision).

But there is more.  In my lifetime scientists have arrived at startling conclusions about our universe:  For one, they figured out that the universe was still expanding and accelerating, and this knowledge led to establishing the age of our universe (something that had not been firmly established before); we began to understand that dinosaurs were not quite as we’d imagined them, but some could have been warm-blooded and covered in protofeathers.

Continued discoveries and analysis has given us a much deeper appreciation for both the majesty and complexity of our evolution.  The mapping of the genomes of living creatures (including humans) has opened up an indisputable window into the relatedness of all living things.  Theories that have guided scientific exploration for centuries have been tested, refined, discarded or dramatically proven.  Our knowledge of just how much “we know that we don’t know” has exploded in exponential ways.  We stand before creation better informed than any previous generation of humans, and yet even more deeply awed at what we see and who we are.  Well, at least some of us do.

I find myself impatient with my fellow humans, particularly those who continue to actively resist the knowledge of science.  I see tribalism, fear, and a retreat into mysticism that can be frightening to behold.  We humans appear to be a mix of the most modern minds and the most ancient atavistic reflexes against anything new or novel.  But taking a wider view, it is hardly surprising that everyone is not on board with science.  The pace of discoveries has been so fast — as fast, it seems, as the advances in our technology  — that it is perhaps asking too much to expect the average person (who must still see to his or her own survival, if only in economic — not animal — terms) to keep up with it all.

By the incredible good fortune of being born into a literate and affluent society, I am able to choose to devote a certain part of my time and energy to increasing my understanding of reality.  And for this I rely a great deal on a steady stream of well-written books and articles on science and my own observations.  This information is available to anyone who wants it, yet it penetrates only so far into our culture at large.  Some of that is due to economic and educational factors, but among all of those who have the same access and resources that I have, I have to recognize that I am an individual that has made certain adjustments to his brain: I have worked to “reboot” my perceptual software beyond a system of religious belief and into a more scientific framework.  I find that this change brings me closer to a view of the world that I can rely on, even as it infuses me with an awareness of the limitations of my own cognitive and perceptive tool kit.  But this sort of awareness would appear to be that of a minority of my fellow humans.

It seems to come down to this:  those that see science as a threat to their beliefs, and those that see it as an antidote to them.  Clearly, I am happy to be rid of the virus of irrational belief (which is what I consider most religious belief to be).  Or, I should say, free from most of the debilitating effects of this most natural of diseases.  Because I will always carry the tendency toward belief that has been hard-wired into my cognitive functions by evolution and natural selection.   I will never transcend this natural condition of the human mind.  (But even here I must thank science for giving me the awareness that I am a purely physical, bio-mechanical being).

That being said, we have also discovered that aspects of our physical being are plastic — meaning that we can affect our physical condition through specific actions.  And nowhere is this more true than in the cognitive functions of our brain.  We now understand that the terrible problem of addiction comes about because of the way in which brain chemistry adapts to the hyper-stimulation of drug use (to use that example).  Our brain chemistry and behavior actually change because of our feeding it something refined and potent.  Because of the brains plasticity we can alter our responses to other stimuli, and find ways to moderate our dramatic animal responses in ways that make our lives (as social animals living together in modern, interdependent communities) more pleasant for all involved.

But, perhaps oddly, the more interconnected we have become by technology the greater the implications of our personal responsibility.  Suddenly each individual is expected to be a sort of mini-specialist in their own behavioral psychology, the physiology of their digestion, immune system, and overall physical health (as examples) — each of us a sort of an amateur self-contained scientist.

To a large extent, we have managed to absorb a vast amount of data from science.  Even the most religious will cite science as support for their ideas about how one should live (even if they deny the science that says, for example, that the earth wasn’t created ten-thousand years ago).  We manage to steer the complex machinery that is a car or motorcycle at high speeds down narrow strips of road.  We figure out every new machine or device that comes into our hands, and we consume loads of news from every corner of the world every day.

That we are, in fact, pushed by all of this data into a near constant state of cognitive semi-overload is rarely discussed.  Because of technology, science, and population growth, life has just plain sped up a lot over the last couple hundred years.  We don’t realize how fast we are going because the acceleration has not been from a dead stop: each of us joins the rat race already in motion.

In a funny way, it seems like it could be this mixture of the acceleration of the demands on our primate brains — and the physical limitations of those brains — that could bring things to a screeching halt.  I wonder how much of this we can really take?  I wonder if we will all become aware of the “wall” before we smack our foreheads into it?  Science, of course, studies such things closely.  So do designers.  After all, what is the use of one more amazing function in a fighter jet if the best and brightest young pilot is too overwhelmed with inputs and alarms and distractions to utilize it effectively?

Most of us are not cognitively challenged to the level of a fighter pilot.  But compared to our Cro-magnon ancestors, we might as well be fighter pilots.  True — our cave-dwelling ancestors faced a daily threat of death in many toothy and tusked forms that do not trouble most of us in a modern society.  But I would argue that their brains were more accurately tuned to the environment that challenged them every day.  We modern humans are actively testing the limits of our brains in ways no other generation has in this, the largest human experiment ever conducted.

Interesting times, interesting times.

I wish that humankind as a whole would just sort of get with the program and at least agree to a common understanding that science is the best thing we’ve got for understanding reality.  But humankind is not much different than a microbial mat clinging to a seashore: a collection of individual life forms that is ever renewing itself — a spectrum of the very young, the mature, and the dying that will never be all of one mind at one time.

This is the tug at the heart that is an awareness of history.  History is the shape that the entirety of human experience takes in a given time frame, but it is mainly a conception — a way of thinking about our place in the endless parade that is that history.  It’s likely that earlier “change” epochs challenged the human brain and forced its evolution from lizard to mammal.  Perhaps our time is just the latest dramatic punctuation of the Ice Age equilibrium that has carried us until now.  I know I that feel challenged.  In thought, at least, if not in my ability to avoid the gnashing fangs of a sabre-tooth in the brush.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Why I Preach!” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, August 5th, 2012

Why I preach.

If I criticize religious belief as irrational (which I clearly do), it is for two reasons.  For one, I see little good that can come from believing things that are not true (especially when there is so much that is verifiably true to ponder with awe).  For another, I think that there is a genuine benefit to us both as individuals and as a society in seeing ourselves for the rather surprising (and challenged) evolved animals that we now know ourselves (through science) to be.  One of those benefits includes releasing ourselves from unreasonable expectations that can flow from the notion that we are striving for a God-created “perfection” (which also releases us from the false burden of “Eden’s” legacy of irreparable damage: that we were “perfect” before we screwed things up).  Though it can be a frightening and difficult transition to move from belief to such an “acceptance”, I would not propose such if I had not done it myself, having found, on the other side, a whole new world that is rich, satisfying and, well, real.

But here I have to be honest about that “other world”.  Because it is “real” it can leave one feeling a bit, well, exposed.  To borrow one popular metaphor, it leaves one without a familiar “backstop”.  (Well, at least the sort of “backstop” most of us have been used to).  But in the larger scheme of things what we are talking about is the loss of something that never was in the first place (so we lose, in fact, nothing).  We only thought it was there: a god in the sky — in some form or other — watching over us.  What we hoped for in moments of desperation was that there was someone with more strength and power out there who would nevertheless look kindly upon us and lend us a hand once in a while.  (What can be most unsettling is the realization of just how dependent we social primates are upon each other, and the sense of vulnerability that comes with such a realization.  This was the most unexpected surprise in my journey of discoveries).

I should also make clear the distinction that when I use the term “irrational” I don’t mean that it is crazy or idiotic to believe (or want to believe) in such things.  By irrational I mean any belief that is unsupported by (or denies strong contradictory) evidence.  Personally, I understand the urge to believe.  I think it’s almost impossible to be a conscious human being and not understand this.  When I heard the bone in my foot break last December, I felt an instant and instinctual urge to ask any thing that might be listening to turn back time just a couple of minutes (really, now, is that so much to ask?).  But even in that moment, I recognized that such a plea arose from deep in my animal psyche (that part of my consciousness that recognized that I was suddenly a deeply injured animal that could not run from danger if he had to).  But that deep animal part of our brains speaks in wordless bursts that are thrust up through the cognitive strata of our middle and higher brain that must then turn animal terror into actual thoughts, words and concepts.

It is this ancient animal mind that is, I think, is the deeper wellspring of our religious beliefs.

You and I are no longer the “lizards” for whom we name this deep, survival part of our brain.  But it is good that we have such concepts in our “modern” world to remind us that though we have left our lizard (or fish, or shrew or monkey) lives far in our past, we yet carry a deep and present legacy of the brains we began with.  In a very real (anatomical and cognitive) way, we are fish riding bicycles, lizards driving cars and monkeys at typewriters clacking out Hemingway novels.

So where (and why, and how) did “religion” enter the picture?  Like so many things in our prehistoric past, we can never know when a particular cultural moment occurred.  We can only guess when the first human had the first spiritual thought.  And by spiritual, I mean the first moment that we had an experience of something like ourselves existing, invisibly, outside of our physical selves.  (The “like ourselves” part is a crucial clue to the source of our divine beings, by the way).  But knowing what I do about how our brains work (and having the sense I now have of the continuum of biological life) it is not difficult at all to imagine a moment when our first ancestors began to use their first words to describe their world.  No, this is not where religion began, for an animal does not need to have verbal language to act as if there are mysterious forces at work around them (again, I return to Hannah Holmes’ example dog barking at the vacuum cleaner as an example of an animal version of believing in “god”).  We humans are different only in that we have an added layer of processing brain that has filtered these animal “beliefs” into coherent concepts that can be shared between ourselves.

And that is the key to belief: a story must be made of an experience, as a sort of “vehicle” for the transmission (and maintenance) of any belief.  This is perhaps why Richard Dawkins refers to such universally-transmittable ideas as “memes” that can move through us (and evolve and adapt) in a manner that is very similar to that of a virus.  And as far as that goes, it matters surprisingly little whether the story is true (just as it matters naught if a virus is “good” for us), it only matters that enough of us agree on the plausibility of the story to keep it in circulation.

It is, in fact, this form of human agreement that is the glue that holds us social animals together: we tend to clump together with those who have chosen to believe the same stories we do.  I think this even goes down to the level of couples who create a story of their own relationship.  At this level, who can say what is “true” or not — what matters most is the agreement.  When our stories diverge, so can our connections to others around us.  (Look what happens when an evangelical preacher starts to declare that there is no hell, or a politician stands up for an opponent who is being unfairly accused — suddenly they are ostracized as outsiders by those who only a moment before would have defended them to extreme ends).

All this to say that belief is something that has been with us for a long, long time.  And not just as humans, but even before.  So there is no reason to think that it will go away soon, or ever.  For the biology that created belief is our own biology, and from that we cannot escape.  However — and this is perhaps the most remarkable (and, I might argue, the most interesting) thing — it seems that we can use these brains of ours to escape irrational belief!  It’s worth a try, at least.  For though religion permeates the minds of humans all over the globe, there are entire worlds awaiting discovery that religion has never — and can never — know.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Forces of Nature: Our Quest to Conquer the Planet” by Barry A. Vann

Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

“The notion that humans are somehow killing the planet is absurd, although we can kill ourselves and some other fellow occupants.  As apex predators, we have the capacity to manipulate earth’s resources in ways that no other life-form can.  While on the one hand playing with fire may cause the player to get burned, he nevertheless must burn energy to survive.  Exploiting resources is a part of life.  It is how we use them that must be done with care because the earth is not fragile; we are.  From looking at environmental history, one fact rises equally from the volcanic ashes of great eruptions and the slippery slope of advancing glaciers: climate and weather are products of a complex energy system that neither sees nor knows us.  They have no consciousness or need for sacrifice on our part.  They cannot be bought off by repentance.  Moreover, climate is capricious and because it is that way, we face a future that is likely to change.  Perhaps the greatest challenge in facing the real prospect of climate change, which will happen with or without our assistance, is to shed ourselves of overly romantic and even geopious notions of perceiving weather and climate as anything more than mindless forces of nature.”  — Barry A. Vann in “Forces of Nature: Our Quest to Conquer the Planet”.

I often pick up a book based on whatever particular hole in my knowledge I want to plug with information that week.  I found this book (like I have many others) on my wonderful local library’s “New Non Fiction” shelf.

I was intrigued by the idea of getting an overview of just how we humans have met our environments over the generations.  But the first chapter read like a graduate thesis: dry and distant, and I wondered if I would just take this book back and find another, more readable one.  But I stuck with it for another chapter (ready to drop it an any time), and then another and then I found myself reading the parts where the author really hit his stride as, it turns out, a superlative storyteller.

If you’re like me, you’ll sort of endure the pages of arcane nomenclature the field (of geography) employs for the different human viewpoints on the forces of nature, which essentially boil down to the ways we have viewed natural disasters as actions of an angry god (or, more recently, of an angry and aggrieved planet).  Some of this early stuff is indeed dry, but it is still good stuff.  But then the author takes several long side-trips into vivid descriptions of several of the most dramatic convulsions that nature has visited upon us humans, and it is in these stories that the writing becomes beautiful, irresistible, sublime.  This writer may be an artist in scientist’s clothing.

Taken as a whole, I did get a deeply satisfying overview of the actual “why” of where humans have chosen to build their camps, villages and cities, and settled humanity’s experience of natural disasters:  In short, we like to live in places where bad things can — and do — happen (on low-lying shorelines of rivers and oceans, on beautiful islands created by volcanoes, on vast, fertile farmlands in “Tornado Alley”, etc.).  The author sees all of this through his perspective as a geographer, which means he sees worse on the horizon (as our populations in these areas continue to increase).  These are good truths to have in mind.

There is frequent reference to climate change and global warming in “Forces of Nature”, but not in the way you might expect.  The author is looking at the larger picture of just when (not if) our next ice age may come, and he seems to think that a bit of global warming now might just help forestall this much larger disaster coming down the tracks.  I’m not sure how to think of that idea.  (I guess I’ll need to find yet another book to lessen my ignorance on that particular proposition).

This is a very worthwhile book that will definitely expand your perspective on humans and their interactions with their environment.  Even if you skip the “dry” chapters, I’d hate for you to miss the description of the greatest earthquake known to strike the (populated) United State which hit, if you can believe it, the Mississippi valley in the early 1800’s.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

SERMON: “Witnessing for Darwin” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

I wondered whether it would be prudent to keep my little brass “bob bless” pin on the lapel of my sport coat as I worked my way through security at the airport.  Would that quarter-inch of pin welded on the back be seen as a potentially deadly weapon?  Apparently, I need not have been concerned (though two screeners did get a chuckle after close inspection of my solid-bronze Dimetrodon skull belt buckle).

As the jet powered up and began rolling down the runway, I was like a kid again, thinking “Whee!  I’m on a jet!”.  The pilot in me noted how long it took for the jet to rotate up into the air, and felt the dramatic clunk of the wheels coming up.  I watched the ground drop further and further below me, until I could see the random “pattern” of the distinctive clumps of mesquite bushes on the desert floor.  I wondered if someone else would look for a pattern of divine design in the obvious spacing between the plants.  What I assumed I was observing were the natural limits on proximity dictated by the features of those particular plants in that particular environment.  I made a mental note to read up on how desert plant spacing is determined.

When cloud cover obscured the ground, I returned to reading an essay on early human evolution.  And as I read about the evidence for when our hominid ancestors first began using tools (about 6 million years ago), I couldn’t help but see myself at the leading end of that ancient process that, at a certain point, really began to speed up (in this case, up to about 600 miles per hour!).

My "bob bless" pin.

It’s difficult to imagine that we were once not much better at using tools than modern chimpanzees are today (they use rocks to crack nuts, stripped twigs and spit to draw termites out of logs).  But that’s how we were.  For us humans, however, the use of tools turned out to be the beginning of a major shift in our evolutionary direction.  For at this point in our history, we began our dependence on technology that continues to this day.  The morphological implications were huge — for our reliance on tools seems to have had a great deal to do with our bipedalism.  And one thing led to another until we no longer needed the natural defense systems of apes (for instance, we lost our protruding canines as we relied more and more on defensive weapons of our own design, and as the need for massive chewing muscles went out with our increased consumption of meat and the added calories available from cooked food, our brain cases could increase in size).

Over millions of years we continued to evolve as tool-using primates until there came a point (some 300,000 years ago) when we hominids were all cooking our food over fires and hafting flaked stone points to wooden spears.  This is the point in history where our brains stopped increasing in size (having likely reached the limit of size that would still allow human mothers to deliver their big-brained babies)  and we were likely talking to each other in some form of language.  After this point, our technological and social progress took a series of dramatic turns that led to our more recent “Neolithic revolution” and then the modern industrial/technical age we now find ourselves in.

I stood in the aisle of the jet as we flew on into the night, heading further east, and pondered the physics that allowed me to be standing with relative ease on an assemblage of human-designed and manufactured parts, all of which (along with dozens of my fellow humans) were rocketing along some 30,000 feet above the earth.  I looked at my fellow hominids, and noted how all were focused on some task or conversation or asleep.  And I couldn’t help but think how we take all of our progress for granted, as if we have always been so insulated from the challenges of life in a natural world.

Back in Dallas, the greeter at the cafe I ate in had asked me about my “bob bless” lapel pin.  I told him about the church of bob, and he said he wasn’t very religious himself, but his girlfriend had a job at a Christian camp, and that if she were to reveal to them that she accepted anything Darwinian, she’d lose her job.  “And she really likes her job” he said.  “But how can they ignore it [the science]?”, he asked.  I gave him some encouraging words about science, and the name of the church of bob’s website, and felt like any other evangelist on the road.

Despite the similar sensations of that exchange, however, science is not — as I’ve said before — religion.  I may be an atheist, but science is not atheistic.  The religious say science is atheistic only because science will not support their system of non-evidential beliefs.  Science is attacked not because science attacks God (it is, in fact, neutral), but because it does not actively support Him.  There is a huge difference.

Creationists use examples such as a jet liner to show how such a machine infers a designer.  This is correct, of course.  But to take that idea of “design inference” and apply it to nature is another thing altogether, and it simply does not work.  All attempts to prove this sort of “intelligent design” are pure pseudo-science, and absolutely no different than astrology, reading tea leaves or alchemy.  Creationism is always an argument from ignorance, in that it takes refuge in the notion that because a phenomenon is not yet scientifically explained, it must, therefore, be divine in origin.  The key word in that sentence is “not yet scientifically explained”.

There may well be things that we will never be able to explain through science.  However, it is wise to note the many times in our recent history when it was proclaimed that we were at the end of what the sciences could reveal.  Each time, science has found a way.  (And, I would note, each time that science finds a way, at least one existing religious explanation has fallen into obscurity — hence the antipathy of religion to science as general debunker of false claims).

It’s as hard, perhaps, to accept that I’m flying at 600 miles per hour, 30,000 feet over the ground as that I am evolved up from a fish-like ancestor that couldn’t even dream of having hands that would grasp a stone-tipped spear (much less write on a laptop computer in an airport terminal, as I am right now).  But, then, how could our ancestors have imagined any of this?  I can accept that I am really in a jet because I’m actually flying on one.  In the same way I have to accept that I am an evolved species because I really do exist, and the evidence for my origins is now known to me.

The challenge for us living humans, then — at least when it comes to accepting our natural origins — is not imagining the here and now so much as trying to imagine ourselves back then.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth” by Chris Stringer

Sunday, May 6th, 2012

It’s a good question: “Why us?”  And it’s a question that’s bound to come up at a certain point in the contemplation of our natural origins.  After all, we bandy about truths such as “99% of all species that have ever lived on earth are extinct” without getting that chill up our spine that reminds us that we could very easily have been just one more extinct species.  And the unsettling truth is that there were many others of our species — or, at the least, closely related human species — that did, in fact, go extinct.

But the fact that we are still standing protects us from any sense of our true vulnerability and damn good luck in the game of evolution.  “Lone Survivors” tells us our story as we understand it today.  And today’s understanding is very different from what we knew only forty years ago.  It is a story that is continually unfolding.  But in this book we get the benefit of the first-hand experience and accumulated wisdom of Chris Stringer “one of the world’s foremost paleoanthropologists“.

This is a well written and well organized book.  I’ve read enough on the subject to sense what particular “camp” (or “school of thought”) the author is partial to, but one of the quietly wonderful parts of this book is how the author tracks the progression of his own ideas as they have been challenged by new evidence (significant parts of it from his own discoveries and research).  This is one of those uncommon (but, thankfully, not scarce) books written by the scientist actually doing the research he describes.  Add to that the detail that the scientist in question is writing from the back side of a forty-year career that seasons his conclusions and you get a fine, fine book.

The thing I notice about reading current science books is that many of them include last-minute additions, written as the books were “going to press”.  But, then, this is the inherent challenge of reporting science: authors must state what they know today, always understanding that somewhere, someone is finding out something new that will add new dimension to their current understanding of the world.  Nowhere is this more true than in the field of human evolution.  Though we had no hominid fossils at all when Darwin correctly predicted that humans had evolved in Africa, we still don’t have an exhaustive collection of our ancestry.  And so this remains an area where each new discovery has a tremendous impact on our knowledge.  But “Lone Survivors” does a tremendous job of telling our story up to now.

t.n.s.r. bob

The Rev gives is 3.5 out of 4!

SERMON: “Trimming the Family Tree” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, May 6th, 2012

Although it’s easy (and correct) to critique religious views that place humanity at the logical end of a creation timeline (whether that creation occurred in the Biblical Garden of Eden or through hundreds of millions of years of evolution), it is worth taking a step back to consider that this teleological bias infests just about every human head, be they believer or scientist.

When (as a boy) I first learned about Neandertals, they were seen (along with every other early hominid) as our direct ancestors.  At that time, all different shapes and sizes of early primates and humans were just sort of crammed into a single family tree, with explanations abounding about how one evolved into the other and, eventually, to us.

Of course, it’s fair to be kind to these ideas (that are now clearly wrong), as we haven’t had all that many ancient human fossils to examine, and the technology to truly examine them scientifically has been developing rapidly over the last forty years.

As my geo-chemist friend pointed out with regards to studying the tectonic actions of Earth “We only have one data point”.  Meaning that we’ve only found one planet (so far) that has the qualities of Earth to study.  When it comes to our early human ancestors, we have a few more “data points” than that but, still, we don’t have all that many.

When a new fossil discovery hits the press, there is always a bold proclamation about how “everything we thought we knew” is thrown out the window, or an equally confident claim of where the fossil fits in our family tree.

But it is a testament to the steady work of science that all such announcements are eventually put through the wringer, and out the other end comes a more sober evaluation of what the new discovery can reliably tell us.

And so the sequencing of Neandertal DNA (quite a story of technology and tenacity in itself) has opened up new swaths of data from bones that we thought had already told us all that they could.

The story of the story we tell of the Neandertals is enlightening.  At first thought to be our classic “caveman” ancestor, brutish and dumb, they have had a sort of re-birth as noble, red-haired, cultured savages who may have been our equals (in their time).  Both of those descriptions are turning out to be a bit overdrawn, and it seems like we are settling down to an understanding that — though necessarily based on frustratingly few pieces of evidence — seems much more likely to be accurate.

In my short monologue "Forbidden Love of the Pleistocene" I tell the story of a doomed love affair between a Cro-Magnon man and a Neandertal Babe. Hey -- it could have happened!

For the Neanderthals now appear to be cousin to our Ice-Age “modern” human ancestors.  It also appears that (though highly evolved in their own right) they may have lacked a handful of key social and cognitive traits that many think made the difference when it came down to a question of “them or us”.

More importantly, it seems to me, we are coming to appreciate them for who and what they were, without the need to either demean or ennoble them out of our own emotional needs to feel guilt or superiority (after all, there is a chance that we played an active role in killing them off about 40,000 years ago).

So what about this “cousin” relationship?  Darwin predicted that it was Africa that was the nursery for modern humans, and he guessed this without a single ancient human fossil to go by.  Subsequent fossil finds (and modern DNA sequencing) have so far proven him right.  There are still some who hold a view that many populations of humans evolved in multiple regions on the planet, but the mainstream view now is one that we did, in fact, evolve in Africa before spreading out into the rest of the Earth.

But here’s where things have gotten interesting.  As always seems to be the case, when scientists first decided that we had, in fact, all “come out of Africa”, they looked for a single migration event that led directly to us.  It seems we can’t help but think that way.  But the science now supports a more nuanced view that, frankly, fits much better with how nature actually works.

Our current view, then, is that there have been lots of lines of humans through the millennium, most of them evolving in Africa, and occasionally migrating out of there where some groups found long-term success (the Neanderthals in the Middle East and Europe, Homo Erectus in China before we “modern” humans arrived).  There are signs in our DNA of a lot of cross-pollination between ancient humans in Africa, which makes sense when we look at other animal populations.  (The fact is that we can’t tell from fossils alone whether our ancestors had spectated to a point where they could no longer exchange genes.  It looks like they hadn’t, despite some surely dramatic morphological and cultural differences.  And, knowing humans as we do, there can’t be much doubt that we would find a way to have sex with just about anything that looked remotely like us).

The DNA evidence also seems to confirm that there was mixing of genes between the Neanderthals and the modern humans that first migrated into their areas (there is no sign of this mixing in modern African populations, nor of modern human DNA in Neanderthals), as well as some mixing going on between modern humans and Homo Erectus in Asia.

What we begin to see is the natural ebb and flow of reproduction among related species in a way that fits with what we observe in other animals.  And here is the key: it has taken us a while to really see ourselves as being “just like” the other animals.  (Even in science, we held on to an idea of our specialness, even when it kept us from properly interpreting the data of our origins).

But having at long last made that intellectual leap, we can now begin to appreciate what we think we know about our evolution.  The picture is complex and rather sobering.  For it turns out that there have, indeed, been countless groups of human varieties since we split off from our last common ancestor with modern apes (but even then, there was much cross-breeding for a very long time!).  If this is true, what happened to all of the other groups of “humans” that did not lead directly to us?  The answer is that they went extinct, in groups large and small.

But not too large, for it appears that the most critical factor in the evolutionary leap that we refer to as the Neolithic Revolution may have had almost everything to do with population size.

Modern studies of hunter-gatherer populations give us a picture of what happens to groups of humans when their numbers drop below a certain threshold: we revert to more primitive means, losing the gains in culture and technology that we achieve when we have more of our fellow humans to exchange ideas (and genes) with.  This, combined with our extended period of childhood (compared to other primates and, it is assumed, other early humans) may be what gave us the advantage over all of the other groups of our “cousins” that managed to hang on to their basic, set ways, for thousands of years but, in the end, could not adapt well (or rapidly) enough to avoid oblivion.

The nice (if we can call it that) thing about this conclusion is that it does make us feel a bit special for being, well, the ones that “won”.  On the other hand, there rests beneath this understanding the uneasy realization that we were incredibly lucky.  For the evidence also suggests that our lineage was down to just a few thousand individuals at times in our history (for more on this look up our “Mitochondrial Eve”).  It also tells us that perhaps Homo Erectus or even the Neanderthal’s might have done equally well had they ever had the right “breaks” that allowed their numbers to expand.

The other stunning part of our story is how we went from being a fairly dispersed species of low population density for pretty much all of our history to numbering in the many billions in an astonishingly short time.  That, somehow, once we got a foothold on our “modern” state of mind (and had developed the social structures and technology to support our increasing numbers) we went from one more smallish troop of naked apes to the dominant life form on the planet.

The “true” story of we modern humans is one of heartbreaking drama, and deeply humbling knowledge.  Entire species of our fellow humans went extinct at different times (the Neanderthals as recently as 38,000 years ago, Homo Florensis — the “Hobbit” — perhaps only 8,000!).  We lost our cousins (or drove them to the brink of extinction) the same as any other modern animal that stands as one of the survivors.

But we couldn’t even come to this picture of the many branches of our human family until we let go of the idea of a single-file, heroic march through time.  Only then could we see the evidence for what it could actually tell us.

This capacity: the courage to see ourselves as we really are, is a huge achievement for us as a species, and perhaps we must give most of the credit to the objectivity of science, and the scientists themselves who have had to fight the same self-centered tendency that is shared by their entire species.

As time goes on, we will continue to discover more fossils.  New technologies (and new knowledge) will wrest more information from those discoveries.  It may well be (it must be, in fact, highly likely) that there will be even more dramatic twists and turns to our human story.  But at least we are now, it seems, ready to hear the truth.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Splitting the Hairs of God” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 4th, 2012

Attempting to see the world in a materialist, scientific sort of way (which is a formal way of saying “See the world for what it actually is”) has a sort of cumulative effect on one’s perception of life.  One of the more interesting of those are the moments of rather startling clarity about former beliefs.  It is the nature of such insights that they can only come after a certain distance is put between one’s self and the spell of belief (assuming that the spell of belief has been “broken”).  This makes sense: we rarely, if ever, see things very clearly in the heat of the moment.

And so it was that I was suddenly able to see the astounding quality of fantasy that attends such notions as a creator God that has — literally — numbered the hairs on our head.  Now I can assume that this includes eyelashes and beards, but what about the some five million other hair follicles on the human body (times the bodies of some 8 billion living humans)?  And what could possibly be the point?  Such a statement of religious devotion is clearly intended to be poetic, and, like poetry, it goes straight to the heart in a warming sort of way.  That is all well and good, but both you and I know that a whole lot of our fellow humans actually believe this sort of thing on some foundational level.  Of course they don’t analyze it or dissect it — to do so would to rob the poetry of its sweetness.  So we just sort of nod in approval whenever someone repeats this chestnut, savoring the warm feeling it gives us.

And here comes another wag (me) — like that kid who pees in the pool — saying it’s all rubbish!

Now I have a conservative Christian friend who is convinced that I am deeply angry (what is it about the archly conservative that makes perceived-anger-as-instant-argument-invaidator such a fetish with them?).  But I’m not angry.  I’m incredulous!  For how can it possibly be more believable that the God of all the Universe devotes his vast energy to keeping track of the status of, say, lower back follicle number 3,452,789 than it is to accept the vast amount of scientific evidence of the evolution of life on earth?  This doesn’t make me furious — it leaves me almost speechless.

Loads of people try to dismiss champion of evolution Richard Dawkins as "angry" and "arrogant", as if that proves that his arguments are invalid.

But of course the answer is as obvious as it is perplexing:  the notion of a loving heavenly father is far more palatable to our vulnerable psyches.  It is an idea we are already familiar with from our own experiences of having had a father (or at least a loving adult in our lives).  Belief is warm and familiar, like a teddy bear.  Science is cold and unfamiliar, and snatches our teddy bears away from us.

The progression from childhood to adult belief is generally seamless.  And little wonder, really.  What is clearly the exception are those that break away from belief (generally, but not always, due to trauma or a betrayal of some kind).  This serves to confirm my own view that we humans are natural believers, and that it takes a certain amount of effort (be it catalyzed or self-motivated) to move us beyond the believing world view.

To me the answers — or, I should say, the lack of answers (in the case of religion) — are obvious.  The scientific evidence (the only “testable” kind) is overwhelming.  So why do so many of us not just fail to accept the evidence, but actively and fervently oppose it?  This is not rational.

Ah, but it is human.

I’m beginning to realize that science is challenging to internalize because it is describing phenomenon that — though truly a “part” of us — have no sensory connection to the way in which we actually experience life.  Some scientific concepts are comprehensible through our body, such as our own weight in relation to earth’s gravity, or the feeling of the wind on our skin that can remind us that air has mass.  But no matter how hard I smack my hand against a table, it’s almost impossible to really grasp that my flesh is not actually touching wood, and that what is stopping the widely-dispersed atoms in my hand from passing right through the equally-widely-dispersed atoms in the table is a bunch of electrical bonds between those atoms.

In practical terms it is much easier to just say that my flesh is solid, but flexible, whereas the table is just plain solid.  This is how we live our lives.  And when it comes to the “why” of it all, we’d rather cast our lot with a God who numbers our hairs than a scientist who splits them.

Our brains evolved according to the iron laws of natural selection, which means that there is little room for the frivolous or unnecessary in any animal that must compete for resources.  There has never been a need for us to see life at an atomic level.  For one, we are not naturally equipped to either see it or sense it in any meaningful way.  For another, we will never find our dinner or mate “there”.  Our living happens in the world of things that we can control, avoid or domesticate.  And yet (without meaning too!) we have developed these large, complex brains and the capacity for language that have brought us science and microscopes and space telescopes that have, in turn, opened up to us a world incomprehensibly more vast than we ever thought could exist.  And, frankly, our brains aren’t up to the task.

Seriously: they aren’t!

As I continue to read popular science, I find my brain stretched to its limits to comprehend what I read.  And I can almost feel our collective minds (and even the minds of the most brilliant humans) being stretched when I read about the frontiers of current research.  Maybe it has always been this way with us (at least since the start of the Neolithic “revolution”).  After all, there was a time when no human had ever seen (much less even imagined) a wheel, and yet someone thought it up.  Everything about us and our culture and our knowledge came about in that way.

But science has always, in a way, been the work of the outsider who upsets the calm of the tribe, pissing off the witchdoctor who has held sway over the minds of his followers for generations.  But it’s not just the witchdoctor who fights knowledge (he or she out of obvious commercial self-interest), but the individuals who find themselves forced into thinking things that are, frankly, very close to impossible to understand.

And yet…evolution makes sense.  In fact, it is the only explanation for life on earth that does make sense.  It’s hard to wrap your mind around, yes, but it’s not impossible with a little time and attention.  Ideas of divine creation are far more familiar to us, to be sure, woven poetically (and through tradition) into our consciousness, but they are laughable as actual theories (despite the intellectual contortions that creationists put themselves through).

But the science of our reality will always be a challenge to internalize, as it will always suffer from the internal conflict between the precision of description that science demands and the use of imprecise metaphor that is needed to make it understandable to the non-scientist.  I think this conflict is one of the foundational reasons that believers in the divine story feel less than confident about jumping the ship of belief.  For us humans, it would appear, it’s not enough that something be true.  We need to be able to believe in it too.
t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “Our Shrinking Brains” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that we modern humans have brains about ten percent smaller than our ice-age parents.  Because that’s what science is telling us.  After millions of years of growing our huge brains, they are now moving in the opposite direction.

I can look around on any given day and find any number of current human behaviors to blame on this cranial shrinkage: bad driving, talk radio, Sarah Palin.  But in the biology of life — in the “progression” of evolution through natural selection — things are never quite so simple.

The obvious fact is that there is a reason we have been able to dispense with ten percent of our brain.  Otherwise, we’d still have it.  Conversely, if our lives had become steadily more challenging, it’s a pretty sure thing our brains would actually be growing.  But what has changed so much that has changed us so much?  For in nature, there is pretty much never an evolutionary change that is not a selection for a better-adapted trait in a changing environment: if environments aren’t changing, species won’t change.  It takes the introduction of a new variable to push animal evolution: a new and invasive species, a climate shift.

In our case the best explanation seems to be our own domestication.

Now when we think of domesticated animals, we think of cows and sheep, dogs and cats and married men.  But the reality is that we humans have been domesticating our social selves for quite a while now.  Think about it: there was no New York City in the Pleistocene.  In those days we lived mostly in blood-kin bands of hunter-gatherers.  And no matter how much we’d like to make a comparison between the violence of our modern American culture and that “brutish and short” world of our Ice-Age forebears, the fact is that we humans manage a near miraculous daily feat of living cheek to jowl with masses of our fellow creatures with an historically unprecedented lack of person-to-person violence.

The n.s.r. bob ponders our shrinking brains...

In short, as we’ve learned of the enormous (mostly economic) benefits of living together, dividing our labors and extending trust to strangers, we have been submitting our genes to the selective forces of evolution.  It may turn out that we humans turn out to be even greater domesticators then we’ve given ourselves credit for by virtue of performing that task upon ourselves.

This fact confronts — in a broader sense — our continued mass denial of the reality of the evolutionary process.  A great deal of this resistance is based in belief, with most of that religious in nature.  Such belief holds that seeing ourselves as “merely” organisms adrift in some random natural process will strip us of all human dignity, and undermine any sense of universal (and therefore enforceable) morality.

To the first point, there is no “merely” about the evolutionary process.  And neither is anything at all about our biology “simple” or “base”.  I would argue that it is only ignorance that allows us to regard reductionist bronze age mysticism as a superior intellectual stance in the face of the actual wonder and mystery of life in the universe.

As to the argument for human dignity, the presupposition is that animal life is somehow worthy of disdain in any form other than human.  So the problem is not that we debase ourselves if we abandon our “special status” as divinely-created superbeings, but that we have constructed a false hierarchy for purely egotistical reasons.  For how does it truly lower us to recognize that we are walking, talking ecosystems of bacteria, viruses and cells whose chemical and electrical processes are facilitated by the metals and minerals that were born in the births and deaths of ancient stars?  (The writers of ancient holy books would have peed their pants were they to have had any inkling of such ideas to incorporate into their cosmology!)

And what of morality?  This is the big one.  The religious insist that our sense of right and wrong is divinely given.  Of course it’s not.  It’s clear from nature that morality exists in all social species.  And that is the key here: we are a social species.  Which means that if God were to vanish tomorrow (and with Him, all religious belief) there would indeed be many who would feel a certain freedom to pursue their hedonistic fantasies without restraint.  They would, however, immediately run up against the true barrier to dissipation: other humans.  The genuine control on human behavior is our own social natures: our desire — nay, our need — to be part of the group.

(The only humans truly free of this need are the psycho- or sociopath — and this is a genetic disorder, leaving those humans devoid of certain critical wiring that would normally make them give a shit about what their fellow humans think of them).

In short, were we to lose religion tomorrow, nothing at all about human morality would change.  Every single one of our human-to-human transactions would still require the same negation it does now.  Say hello to the new boss, same as the old boss.

Another unanswered question about evolution in our time is the effect of sexual selection on the species — now that women have had access to both better education and more control over their reproductive lives.  We already surmise that women are the most likely force behind producing the human male that has a larger penis (by body size) than any other primate.  And there is surely no difference between the human selection process for attractiveness or fitness and that of the bower bird or the peacock.  And now that technology is progressing at an ever more incredible rate, there is no reason to think that it, too, will not soon add its own selective pressures on the species.

Obesity is another evolutionary issue.  For there is nothing about our evolutionary past that endowed our entire species with the tools for resisting the brain-altering cravings that unlimited sugars trigger (the same parts of the brain hijacked by alcohol and other addictions).  To the end that we may be experiencing a rather dramatic selection process where a great many humans (that are prone to obesity under our modern industrialized diet) may soon be selected “out” of the gene pool.  There’s no reason not to expect that a mutation (or series of mutations) that give one a capacity for functioning well on the crap we now eat may soon spread through the population, giving those individuals that slightly-higher-than-average success rate that translates into thriving young.

All of this gets back to something I said in my very first sermon on Charles Darwin’s birthday: “Because of Darwin, life on earth makes sense”.  The theory of evolution has proven to be the best means of making sense of life on both a global and personal level.  And though it can be impossible to observe in an individual life, we have now accumulated enough data and insight to see evolution in action.  In scientific terms, we call it a theory.  The religious read that to mean “a man-made idea that’s not really true”.  What it means to scientists is a description of reality that has yet to be proven false.  Quite a difference, that.

The religious like to trot out the old aphorism that “Just because you don’t believe in God doesn’t mean He doesn’t exist”.  But the same can be said of evolution and natural selection.  The difference between the two, of course, is that evolution is the description of reality that is actually based in reality and evidence, and therefore does not deserve to be compared on equal terms with belief-based explanations for life.

But then, after these last twenty-thousand years of evolution the belief centers of our brain seem not to have diminished by even that (above-mentioned) ten percent.  But then, it may be that our capacity for religious belief was one of the traits that helped in our domestication.  Maybe it’s a cognitive leftover of evolution, like my tailbone, or my appendix, or that weak spot in my lower back that still isn’t quite used to walking upright.  And maybe I’ll just have to keep using the ninety-percent of brain I still have left to work around it.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “The Sweet Baby Llama of Heaven” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, September 11th, 2011

The "rev" having a "mountain top" experience!

After a Sunday morning hike part way up Tortugas Mountain, I sat on a jagged boulder under a cloudy, early Fall sky.  The wind was rising and falling in that blustery kind of way that marks a shift in the seasons.  I watched the cars pass below me on the paved road that snaked around the base of the mountain, and heard their distant hiss.  I looked at the Organ Mountains to my east, and the Mesilla Valley to the west.

I began to think of the many times in my life when I went outdoors to pray.  I spoke out loud the names I had prayed to before, to see how they felt in my mouth (and to check if they had any residual charge in my psyche): “Heavenly Father”, I said, “Lord Jesus”.   Then I said: “Speak to me Holy Spirit: show me that you’re real”.  At that moment, a wind came up, whistling past me.

It was just the kind of coincidence that had helped — in the past — convince a young believer (me) that God was real.  It was perfect.

My rational brain politely intervened, reminding me again of the power of confirmation bias when it came to our natural cognitive tendency to connect two random and unrelated events into a uniform narrative.  I decided to conduct an experiment.

“Oh Holy Hamster” I said.

Nothing.  Not a whisper of a breeze.  (Obviously the wrong deity).

I tried another: “Oh Sweet Baby Llama — speak to me”.

There was only the whisper of a breeze.  But I knew what to do.

“Oh Sweet Baby Llama, you whisper so quietly that I can barely hear you.  Speak to me, oh Baby Llama, oh sweet Baby Llama.”

And the Sweet Baby Llama answered me in a blast of wind that surely could have come from no other place than the divine breath of the creator (llama).

Except of course the wind had not come from the Sweet Baby Llama of Heaven.  It was a local random (meaning non-intentional) weather phenomenon with completely natural causes that we understand because we live in an age of science.

But setting that aside for the moment, these are the kind of thought/action/belief experiments that give us chills as children and adults: The first time you get up the courage to ask a Ouija board a question; ask Jesus for a “sign”; sit down in front of a palm reader at a psychic fair; or ask the wind to answer.

C.S. Lewis described the terror of this kind of moment where one suddenly is confronted by a force one was chasing without really ever expecting to catch up with:

“There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (“Man’s search for God!”) suddenly draw back. Supposing we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?” — “Miracles” C. S. Lewis

But this time I did this “test” without that twist in the base of my esophagus.  It was a rather playful interaction between my conscious, formerly-believing mind and the world that is so random as to be almost always cooperative with our whims.  Combine that randomness with an evolved brain hell-bent on making sense out of EVERYTHING and, voila, you’ve got the Sweet Holy Baby Llama speaking to one of his (or her?) believing children through a seasonal cold front moving across the face of the planet.

I know this seems silly.  But many a believer has done this trick on themselves, and walked away from it encouraged by a seeming confirmation of their beliefs.  The famous scientist Francis Collins had just such an experience where he came across a waterfall on a walk that had frozen into three distinct streams.  In that tableau he saw the holy trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Clearly none of us humans is completely immune.

What’s unfortunate is how easily we take these things seriously.  There are figures on the national stage right now (who think they should be President) who see messages from God in hurricanes and earthquakes.  We may as well determine national policy based on the reading of goat entrails and the casting of runes.  There is no practical difference (though there is clearly a huge social difference as a majority of Americans are much more sympathetic to theism than voodoo).

The thing I’m not telling you about my “prayer” to the Sweet Baby Llama is that I had years of training in how to make something as innocuous as a breeze into the voice of God.  I attended many a prayer meeting where I learned to speak in tongues, where I learned that familiar cadence of spoken prayer that includes a lot of space fillers, so that one can basically create an endless prayer that can carry you until SOMETHING happens that can be taken as a sign.

It’s hard to admit to ourselves that we are trained and duped so easily.  One comfort to our acceptance of our bald credulity is the fact that it happens to almost all of us.  Belief is truly natural to our brains.  Even some of the writers of the Bible recognized this, using it as a proof of the existence of God:

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

Ecclesiastes 3:11 (New International Version.  Copyright 1984.  Emphasis mine)

We do have a sort of “eternity” in our hearts.  We understand the passage of time and our the mortality of all physical life.  So why should it be surprising that a living being, once conscious of his existence, should not wonder whether or not that existence could (or should) continue outside of the physical world it inhabits?

It’s hard not to see the thread of human longing that is woven through all of our belief systems.  In this way the battle of ideas that was the war between the heathen Vikings and the Christian Kings of Europe was not a triumph of truth over falsehood, but a displacement of one model of belief by another, seemingly more “modern” one.  This process continues unabated.  For those to whom the God of the Bible is a bit too archaic, they can simply transfer their desire for transcendent beings to Aliens or benevolent spirits in a universe that desires our good.

Even people who assent to the reality that mind and spirit are purely products of the human brain are loathe to abandon more spiritual conceptions of life.  So deep is this need for belief that believers are rated higher in happiness than non-believers.  The hard, cold reality of life is that the hard, cold reality of life is easier for us to take when we can believe that there is an intelligence behind it all that is kindly disposed towards us.  But in the words of Michael Shermer:  “I conclude that I’m a skeptic not because I do not want to believe but because I want to know.”

There is no denying that staring the void in the face is discomfiting.  So is the contemplation of our own eventual death.  Yet somehow we humans — cursed as we seem to be above all other life on this planet with a conscious awareness of our own mortality — somehow manage to go about the business of living, wresting pleasure, accomplishment and satisfaction from our lives.  There is a certain wonder in this.  The life of an individual ant seems meaningless to us, but would we feel the same if that ant was building an opera house, or conducting genetic research to find cures for diseases that were attacking her fellow ants?  Probably not.  We’d think her noble.

And so we humans, believing or not, soldier on.  Helped and comforted by God, the Sweet Baby Llama of Heaven, a general sense of agency in the universe or the appreciation of our capacity to courageously accept our lot as evolved living organisms on a spinning planet of rare life in a vast universe.

t.n.s.r. bob

REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “The Invisible Sex: Uncovering the True Roles of Women in Prehistory” By J.M. Adovasio, Olga Soffer and Jake Page.

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

From the publisher’s website:

“J. M. Adovasio, Ph.D., is the founder and director of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute in Erie, Pennsylvania. He is the author of The First Americans (with Jake Page).

Olga Soffer, formerly a fashion industry insider, is a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Jake Page was the founding editor of Doubleday’s Natural History Press and subsequently its publisher, as well as editorial director of Natural History magazine and science editor of Smithsonian magazine. He has written or coauthored 43 books on the natural sciences, zoological topics, and Native American affairs, most recently Do Dogs Laugh? and Do Cats Hear with Their Feet? He and his wife live in northern Colorado.”

In the late 80’s, I read a book called “The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth” by (Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor).  It was very, very, very thick book.  But I was deeply interested in what these women had to say (I had just entered my post-Christian years, and was becoming aware of voices like Joseph Campbell as I attempted to connect with my own pre-Christian tribal mythology).  After I finished the book, I had the distinct feeling that it could have been about one-quarter the length it was.  I also had this thought: “Man, in another twenty years, the research in this field is going to be really good, and a much better book on this subject will be written”.  Turns out, I was right.

“The Invisible Sex” is basically the story of the evolution of modern humans based on the best evidence we now have.  But it is also a re-examination of not only the role of “women” in prehistoric human society, but also of the assumptions scholars have made about those roles over the last couple hundred years.  At long last, the thin scholarship of a book such as “The Great Cosmic Mother” has matured into the thoughtful prose of “The Invisible Sex”.

This book surveys all of the evidence we have about the varied roles of men and women, including both archeological material and ethnographic studies of modern hunter-gatherer societies.  But the authors take this a step further, offering a critique of the prevalent attitudes of different researchers and cultures through time, and follow the genesis of popular and pervasive myths such as that of “man the hunter”.

The picture that emerges is a nuanced and, ultimately, believable one.  For the fact of the matter is that we don’t know a lot about our early prehistoric ancestors (they were, after all, living their lives before any written evidence).  There are some things we can infer from the artefactual evidence and the behaviors of modern tribal people, but there are also a lot of other things that we cannot.  This book lays them all out.

Written by a trio of scholars, the writing breezes along with a sense of bold clarity that I really enjoyed.  There is even one enjoyable passage where one of the trio expresses his dissenting opinion on a subtle (but clearly important to him) distinction.  Plus (in stark contrast to several books I have read over the last year), I noted a complete lack of typographic errors in this book (being a Smithsonian publication perhaps has something to do with this).  One wrong word (maybe two) snuck in there, but that’s it.

You may be struck as you read (as I was) that this book is, in a way, mistitled.  For it is much more about prehistoric human development in general than the gender roles of women per se.  But, then, that may be part of the point of this book: the roles of men and women are not easy to discern in prehistory, but then neither are they so easy to define on a global scale even in our modern world.  Men and women have been negotiating their roles from the beginning of time, clearly, even after the point in history in which we developed a conscious concept of gender.

So although this book will do equal damage to the myth of “man the hunter” as it does to the Goddess notions of a book such as “The Great Cosmic Mother”, in doing so it offers us all a much more realistic and believable picture of the no-longer “invisible” women of human prehistory.

This is a quality book that I wholeheartedly recommend.

t.n.s.r. bob