Oct 18

Neanderthal sex

just like the homos sapiens, neanderthals were non too bright

We still picture neanderthals as non too bright and non too happy

Though we have more power than ever to change our environment, we seem as confused as ever about who we are, what makes us tick, where we came from, how we fit into our world, exactly, all questions which have immense importance for how we choose to wield our power. More worryingly, we seem to have adopted a mode of thought (science) which disregards these exact questions as “unfalsifiable,” outside the scope of scientific inquiry, and hence, of no consequence. Science as we currently practice it carries the implicit assumption that we need not worry ourselves with such questions: science is always there, working on our behalf; everything scientists discover will be used for good; and if somehow something causes a problem, science will automatically remedy the situation. Clearly, this is wishful thinking, not to mention deluded, dangerous, and terrifying, and we need to address the old questions now more than ever.

The extent of our ignorance about ourselves is staggering. The way scientific inquiry works has given us the false impression that we are much more knowledgeable and much more in control than we actually are. In reality, tradition and convention mean that scientists tend to work in established fields, and build on existing ideas. Yes, the framework is in place to replace a faulty theory with one which better describes reality, but many factors work against this in practice, not least of which is the fact that we are disinclined to consider theories which seem to go against our current understanding of how things work. Or a lack of imagination. What this means in practice is that a vast amount of work in the sciences goes on in support of theories which are wrong. This gives the impression that the totality of scientific knowledge is rapidly increasing, while in reality we are often merely adding to a faulty foundation which will one day be discarded wholesale.

Where do we come from? The main reason we get it wrong when trying to imagine what early humans were like, how they lived, how they settled the world, etc., is because of our fallacious belief that we are an infinite distance removed from any other critter, a different level altogether. We maintain a condescending attitude towards them, and waste time fashioning scenarios which fit our notions of development from inept apes to Mount Olympian homo sapiens. We are primed to resist thinking of human and animal consciousness as being made of the same stuff, so to speak, in part by centuries of religious thought. Christians believe that only humans have souls, and that only souls get to go to heaven. To the extent that Christianity influences the debate, we will have a hard time understanding the nature of our consciousness and that of other animals.

We’ve always believed that we’re different from and superior to apes in specific ways, but it’s not completely clear what those ways are. Humans seem to be better at learning socially than other great apes– maybe, and better at abstract reasoning– perhaps… The only thing that’s undeniable is that we have a bug up our ass that’s gotten us to do all this stuff above and beyond the needs of bare survival, and that, having done stuff and made stuff, we’re convinced that an unbridgeable gulf separates us from “lower” animals. It seems to me that the “bug up our asses” is consciousness, and more specifically, what’s referred to as meta-consciousness, the consciousness of being conscious. This is the factor which pushed us, alone out of the animals, toward ever more abstract and complicated activities. But this isn’t as simple as having a quality that another being lacks. This kind of consciousness is rare, even among humans, and then, only at work some small portion of the time, while the rest of the time we react more or less automatically to the things life throws at us. Rather, it is more accurately conceived of as a motivator, the restless and unfulfilled state of mind which, in combination with superb analytical capabilities, could push one towards interesting new things. But this isn’t the only way in which we differ from other animals.

For a thought experiment, imagine stripping a human of not only clothes, tools and weapons, etc., but also of the 10,000 years of civilization and 3,000,000 years of chipping at stones, and leave them in the rainforest with empty hands. How much better than apes would we do? How effective is our cognitive apparatus without the knowledge our culture has gathered over the millenia? Has a human child ever been raised by apes, but grew up into a human? And if we did eventually figure out how to thrive without any culturally transmitted knowledge, what would that look like? Similar to other great apes or not? Would we have language? What kind of language?

Conversely, scientists are finding that many animals, and great apes in particular, do most everything we once thought of as unique to man. They have emotions, hold grudges for months, solve complex problems, learn language and abstract thought, and are capable of deceit, meaning they have the ability to think from the point of view of another being. The criteria for what are considered uniquely human qualities are getting increasingly complicated.

A July 2012 conference at Cambridge titled “Consciousness in Human and Nonhuman Animals” concluded: “Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.” It’s great that scientists in the field of animal cognition are recognizing that many animals have the makings of human-style consciousness, but this doesn’t mean that the work of scientists in other disciplines is going to take this into account, or that laboratory animals will cease being tortured in their colleagues’ labs. Nor that our laws will be changed to reflect this.

So, if apes are capable of accomplishing most everything we can, but usually don’t care (or need) to, we are forced to view early hominins as people, if somewhat scatterbrained and unambitious ones, and their activities, motivations, and ways of life become intelligible.

Did homo sapiens breed with neanderthals? Has a frat boy ever refused sex? No amount of cultural prohibitions have ever thwarted our sex drives. Our closest relatives, the bonobos, fuck to relieve tension, boredom, hunger, and just to say hello. As do we. It is a safe bet that early humans also bred with anything that walked, and that at least some of the time, some of the matings produced fertile offspring.

That being the case, the mystery of what happened to all the early hominins seems a lot less mysterious. Just like in America’s fabled melting pot, human groups disappear to interbreeding all the time. If a group is similar enough to mate with, it’s a good bet it could eventually be absorbed through interbreeding, and if it was too different to mate with, it was probably killed off. It’s worth remembering that times of crisis are the most likely times for interbreeding and absorption to happen, just as the survivors of decimated groups of Native Americans came together to form new tribes after contact with Europeans and their diseases.

Did humans migrate out of Africa once 55,000 years ago, to colonize most of the known world in one wave? Or did we leave Africa a number of times? This is, to me, a strange question. Once humans settled Europe and Asia, any additional immigrants would simply join the colonists already there. Furthermore, there is no reason for the emigrants not to visit the relatives they left back home in Africa, or even to immigrate back. That’s what people do. I’m not sure what kind of signs this would leave on our genomes for scientists to decipher. Both apes and humans can be far-ranging, and the homo sapiens who ventured out of Africa around 125,000 years ago may already have had watercraft, expediting travel. Certainly the later “waves” of migrants had boats, since they colonized Australia by 40,000 ybp at the latest. It seems to me that the only way this debate can exist is if we assume that these were animals less than capable of making decisions and executing them. Otherwise, the question seems a little academic: people just fill open niches and seek opportunities where they exist, and there were probably very few times when a group of people entered a large expanse of new land and found it yet uninhabited by hominoids.

If neanderthals disappeared as a distinct race by 24,000 bp at the latest, while humans from Africa with fewer neanderthal genes kept migrating into Europe and Asia after that, we would expect to find the proportion of neanderthal genes carried by Europeans and Asians to be ever smaller as we get closer to the present day. This seems to be the case, as Europeans carry 2% neanderthal genes today on average, but apparently had a greater proportion in the past, as archaeological finds such as the Lapedo Child in Portugal, buried 24,500 years, seem to show. Neanderthals, too, seemed to carry some proportion of sapiens genes.

Anatomically modern humans existed by 150,000 bp, but most scientist carry around a checklist of “modern” behaviors, and deny our ancestors the status of behavioral modernity until about 50,000 bp, when enough behaviors on that list appear together. Yet, at least 80,000 bp, sapiens used ochre for decoration and fished at Blombos Cave in South Africa, while neanderthals apparently did everything sapiens did, but weren’t even of our species. “Some researchers describe how anatomically modern humans could have been cognitively the same (as modern humans) and what we define as behavioral modernity is just the result of thousands of years of cultural adaptation and learning.” That makes sense. We are beneficiaries of the knowledge of our ancestors, and wouldn’t be so smart or successful if we had to figure it all out from scratch. Early sapiens brains, too, were larger than modern humans, just as wild animals’ brains are larger than their domesticated kin. Neanderthals had brains on average 20% larger than ours.

Bicameralism is a theory which says, among other things, that the development of meta-consciousness (consciousness of consciousness) as we understand it today may have happened as recently as 3000 ago. Julian Jaynes, the author of this theory, believes that prior to the rise of meta-consciousness, volition (the minds’ commands) were perceived as coming from outside of oneself, and perhaps attributed to gods. Texts composed prior to this time give no indication of self-awareness, introspection, or other cognitive meta-processes, whereas after this time, the full range of meta-cognition is present. The change falls in the middle of the old testament; unfortunately, there aren’t all that many texts written before this.

This seems on the right track: a great range exists among people today in self-awareness, as well as, probably, between different groups of people. It makes sense that consciousness wouldn’t be an absolute, possessed by humans but no other being. We all have varying amounts of it. Some people seem to entirely lack the capacity for self-awareness, self-doubt, etc., and even those of us who do have it go through life largely without using it, being stricken by it only on certain occasions. Yet other people seem to be absolutely paralyzed by a constant over-abundance of it. (Too much self-awareness can make daily life impossible. The only way I can get through work is by shutting off my conscious mind as much as possible, just dealing with what’s happening on an automatic level.)

Wikipedia page on behavioral modernity says:

…bicameral mind theory argues for an additional, and cultural rather than genetic, shift from selfless to self-perceiving forms of human cognition and behavior very late in human history, in the Bronze Age. This is based on a literary analysis of Bronze Age texts which claims to show the first appearances of the concept of self around this time, replacing the voices of gods as the primary form of recorded human cognition.

But, this is not “very late in human history,” human history is, by definition, recorded history, which first arose shortly prior to this time. Anyway, it doesn’t seem important when, exactly, people added meta-consciousness into their arsenal for dealing with the world. The main thing is that it is something we in the West today have a lot of, relatively speaking, and that in the recent past it was scarce to non-existent. One could say that meta-consciousness is significantly correlated with civilization, and may be either the cause or the effect of it, if not both. The other main thing is that meta-consciousness is something which arises culturally, rather than biologically or genetically, as everyone has always assumed it did.

Oct 13

Society ended and no one noticed

freedom from empathy.  and sense.

Through Siberia by Accident
Dervla Murphy
John Murray (Publishers), London 2005
ISBN 978-0-7195-6664-6

Humans are very good at following and processing sudden shifts in their environments, but very bad at being aware of gradual changes. No one noticed that life in America has little by little turned into “just holding on,” that the fun we have, when we have it, is too little too late, that we’re never completely convinced we should keep trying at any given moment rather than watch TV or drink ourselves into a stupefied calm. These changes happened slowly, over decades and generations. To complicate things, the better conditions some time ago weren’t all good for all people, and were downright awful for many: the deterioration in the quality of life over time has been a complex process. Most people have traditionally focused on improvements in material well-being to claim that life is better now than before and getting better all the time, a dubious claim itself considering how much misery there is out there today. Perhaps it isn’t all that much more, as a proportion of the total, than at the height of the abuses of the industrial revolution, but no one with any access to accurate information should claim that we today enjoy better lifestyles than cavemen or hunting/ gathering groups. (Not only did hunter/ gatherers enjoy a more varied and nutritious diet than almost anyone who came after them, their brains were bigger than ours, paralleling the decrease in brain size which happens to domesticated animals.)

We’re not merely less happy than we’ve been at perhaps any other time in our history, and we’re not just stupider, meaner, more selfish, less interesting and interested, less empathetic, less fun, and more confused. We in the west, certainly those of us in the U.S., are no longer members of human society as its always been understood and conceived of. Society has come to an end, and no one noticed. But, how would one notice the end of society? When society peters out, people go on living, its just that they no longer live as a social species, but as something else. What “else” may be for the pundits or the sci-fi writers to figure out. Whatever we ever meant by “society,” we in the West no longer practice anything of the sort.

The words “society,” “socialized,” and “social” are problematic for what I’m trying to bring to your attention, because most people understand them as referring to things people do together, without differentiating between, for example, sharing an elevator in a tall building and singing together with a group of people, and in the latter example, between singing with others in a high school music class, or around a campfire, or at a demonstration. Social, to most people, simply means things we do together, as opposed to individual. But a collection of individuals in a place and time (and sometimes neither, i.e. social media), can be simply a collection of separate beings, or it can be something more: an experience which leaves all involved transformed for the better. Consider a group of people gathered inside a mass transit bus, and a group of people gathered around a volleyball net. Both are social events, but one makes everyone involved feel like garbage and resent the people around them, whereas the other makes everyone involved feel invigorated and connected to everyone else. For what I’m trying to describe here, the two kinds of group activity have to be carefully differentiated: there is no separate word for the kind of “social” that I am concerned with here, the kind that strengthens bonds between the participants, but this is the one we need to pay attention to. I am proposing that “society,” “culture,” and such words, describe the transformative experience of people coming together in a place and a time for a common purpose, and not the results and the record of such comings together, which may be better termed “material culture” and its accoutrements.

I realize this definition leaves much to be desired, but I am hoping I can be understood anyway, and maybe helped in this project, for which I am surely woefully inadequately equipped. If I’d seen it tackled by anyone else, I would, I promise you, have the sense to bark up the right trees only. But, the ongoing end of human society seems to be well off everyone’s radar, even though everyone senses that something is very wrong. I attribute it, mostly, to a lack of a vantage point from which the whole trajectory of society can be observed.

I wouldn’t have become aware of this alarming development if I hadn’t had the experience of being born in the Soviet Union, and the privileged position being an immigrant affords to someone observing people and their ways. Obviously, the subject of differences between ethnic groups has remained a favorite from the day the first Neanderthal met the first Homo Sapiens, but I’ve recently begun to think that I may be observing something more profound than variations in ethnic color, namely, the struggle of some people to hold on to a socialized existence, and of others to deal with an existence lacking in socialization altogether.

Everyone knows that people in other parts of the world are profoundly different from Americans. When describing the difference we see in these others, we use words like, “hospitable,” “quaint,” “warm,” etc. We lack the words to describe these differences because we mostly lack the concepts for them. What we see as local color, that quaint hospitality some people in remote places across the world show us, is what people living in properly socialized environments are like. I think it’s funny that we see such people as dupes or quaint at best, and fail to see all the things which allow them to be generous, hospitable, and warm, things we lack: extended families to teach us when young, support and help us when we need it, and learn from us in turn when we’re old; a stable home rooted in a specific place to discover, love, and protect; a simple life free of the anxiety of media phantoms parading all the things we supposedly lack before us all day; a simple life dedicated to real pleasures and real goals, where you can actually be whatever you want to be, certain of the support of your loved ones, instead of having unattainable, sociopathic goals. These things comprise the social dimension of life. When we think of society, we usually think instead of the infrastructure our civilization has built to keep itself going, the different classes of people, the professions, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, etc. All those things are relevant, to be sure, but they aren’t what makes humans properly socialized, and in fact, often serve to distract us from the fact that we’re alone, miserable and confused.

Elsewhere, people still live lives socialized to various degrees. Though tearing at the seams and strained to the max almost everywhere, society is still a part of many people’s lives outside of the West. Russian people’s lives are in many cases still highly socialized. I was reminded of what Russians are like by Dervla Murphy’s Through Siberia by Accident, a great book by a great author. Murphy took her trip through Siberia in 2002, when the Russian people were finally far enough removed from the “market reforms,” which dispossessed them in the mid-1990s, to observe the effects western culture was having on their lives with some clarity.

Throughout Siberia, Murphy met plenty of people who viewed Russia as only getting better with increasing western influence, and plenty of others who saw western culture as intrinsically at odds with indigenous culture, and ultimately displacing it to everyone’s detriment. Opinions split, unsurprisingly, along economic lines: those who were making money hand over fist in the “New Russia” were inclined to see it as improved by westernization, while many of those approaching the changes with more caution came from the public sector–teachers, architects, and the like. According to Murphy, many Russians are worried about the dissolution of their society as the result of the free flow of western values. Murphy quotes a Siberian acquaintance: “For ten years we have democracy and all are free, no one telling children what to do and when, no one organizing anything for them. And what are they doing with their freedom? How can they be expected to organize themselves? The intelligentsia can use freedom but not the rest.” (p.57) Western values consider freedom unequivocally good, for anyone, in any circumstance. I know young American parents who wouldn’t think to thwart the freedom and development of their child in any way– before they can talk, they are allowed to pursue anything that catches their fancy in any way. That’s fine, but kids have no concept of freedom, and need, above all, a stable, loving environment, adult role-models, a good home in a good community. These aren’t things that the parents can provide their children on their own, but without them, kids will grow up improperly socialized to various degrees, and eventually, unhappy.

Russians are different from Americans in specific ways. Traits having to do with strengthening social bonds such as thoughtfulness, politeness, accommodation, are held up for praise in Russian society. Dervla Murphy, in her 60s when visiting Siberia, could always count on a seat when riding crowded mass transit: young men or women invariably stand up and offers their seat to an older person should there be nowhere to sit. These qualities are, by contrast, very rare in America, where instead traits focusing on the individual are held in esteem. It is a rare home I’ve visited in Milwaukee, WI– a quaint city by many standards– where the host offered their guests so much as a glass of water. This is, for many people the world over, treatment one wouldn’t give to one’s enemies. Yet, these aren’t bad people, they are just clueless that another way of living exists because they weren’t raised with any other way. They see their crappy, lonely lives as normal, and stoically blow their brains out, as well as, increasingly, the brains of others’ who may happen to be in the way, when their ludicrous dreams prove unattainable and no deus ex machina is at hand. These are two different breeds of men, but only one is capable of replicating human society– the other can only recreate the pyramid scheme which got them where they are.

What would a society that’s dissolved look and feel like to the people forced to inhabit its’ ruins? I think the most important benchmark of a functioning society is the empathy its members experience towards one another. Empathy is both a prerequisite and a consequence of human society. Ours is perhaps the first civilization in human history to have a serious enough problem with individuals lacking in empathy to create a word and a concept for it, “sociopath.” But the breakdown in empathy between members of a group is not always due to an individual pathology. Some people are unable to experience empathy, some don’t experience it because they haven’t been taught to experience it to the appropriate extent in childhood, and some might simply not want to, for any number of reasons. It seems to me that when the levels of empathy fall below a certain threshold, you may no longer be dealing with a society deserving of the name. Again, empathy is not so much a metaphysical way of getting inside other people’s heads, and more about the way people who live together, spend time together, share values, habits, dreams, and so on, just know what the other members of their group experience. Naturally, this faculty is diminished when you live a life largely removed from others, or in a belief that everyone is so “individual” the things we have in common don’t matter, or both.

But it is important to remember that a bunch of people will keep on going about their things, buying, selling, fighting, fucking, and the sort, long after any meaningful social component has been taken out of their way of life. Instead of the common good, they will serve laws written by people they chose to represent them far away. Mostly, they’ll have no clue why they value the things they value, because people they’ve never seen will dictate their tastes to them, common taste for conformists and rare tastes for the rebels. Civilization doesn’t end because everyone becomes a petty Napoleon, convinced that their expansion is limitless until checked by another in a never-ending war of all against all. It doesn’t even slow down. It just becomes unbearable for everyone involved.

Can it be fixed? I think there’s nothing simpler. Empathy isn’t a complicated, hard to understand quality– it’s simply the way people who share in a human society interact. All that needs to happen for empathy to be restored is for people to go back to living in a more mutually-dependent, mutually-assisted, way. Anyone incapable of seeing the world through the eyes of their fellow man will probably not be able to live closely with others. Empathy is simply that adaptation to close-quartered life, which carries the additional benefit of keeping us sane. That is to say, we can’t be fulfilled and probably not even retain our sanity without having the benefit of others’ empathy and being empathetic ourselves: our nature as human beings is to live with others of our own kind.

So, I hope I’ve been able to communicate something of what’s been occupying my mind for a long while. Society, obviously, didn’t end in so far as most people think of society as the machinery and ideology of our system of life, in all its glorious, inhuman complexity. But something did end– namely, that component of our lives which allows us to be happy, the social component. No one’s ever paid much attention to it because no one’s ever had any reason to imagine a life without it. No matter how bad things have previously gotten for men, slavery, Auschwitz, famine, we always had each other to make it through the bad times. For the first time, this is no longer the case. We’re finding that not only are we unable to get through the bad times alone, but we can’t make it through the good times, either– we can’t accomplish anything alone at all. Any task one might pursue requires an army of supporting characters, from the day you’re born to the present moment, and all the way back to the dawn of history if you want to be really thorough.

It’s fascinating that all these years, the conventional wisdom has insisted that if you’re unhappy, you’re not pursuing your dreams– the answer is, more freedom, more individualism. The conventional social roles we are forced to act out against our will are stifling us and making us miserable. Our goal is to “find ourselves” and tap into our individual-ness. Was it really the opposite the entire time? How could so many get things so wrong for so long? This isn’t the first time human nature has been completely misunderstood, and yet… Perhaps no one should be surprised that the idea that what’s making us all miserable is a lack of individual freedom has been as influential for as long as it has: it fits all too neatly into the longer-term project to destroy local human communities in order to advance the goals of international capitalism.