Saturday, August 21, 2010

Evolution in Brief

An excerpted and compressed narrative history:

A whirlwind tour of human history on all the continents. For millions of years, from our origins as a species until 13,000 years ago.

Our closest living relatives are three surviving species of great ape: the gorilla, the common chimpanzee, and pygmy chimpanzee (also known as bonobo). Their confinement to Africa, along with abundant fossil evidence, indicates that the earliest stages of human evolution were also played out in Africa.

Human history, as something separate from the history of animals began there about 7 million years ago (estimates range from 5 to 9 million years ago). Around that time, a population of African apes broke up into several populations, of which one evolved into modern gorillas, a second into the two modern chimps, and the third into humans. The gorilla line apparently split off slightly before the split between the chimp and the human lines.

Fossils indicate that the evolutionary line leading to us had achieved a substantially upright posture by around 4 million years ago, then began to increase in body size and in relative brain size around 2.5 million years ago. Those protohumans are generally known as Australopithecus africanus, Homo habilis, and Homo erectus, which apparently evolved into each other in that sequence. Although Homo erectus, the stage reached around 1.7 million years ago, was close to us modern humans in body size, its brain size was still barely half of ours.

Stone tools became common around 2.5 million years ago, but they were merely the crudest of flaked or battered stones. In zoological significance and distinctiveness, Homo erectus was more than an ape, but still much less than a modern human. All of that human history, for the first 5 or 6 million years after our origins about 7 million years ago, remained confined to Africa.

The first human ancestors to spread beyond Africa was Homo erectus, as is attested by fossils discovered on the Southeast Asian island of Java and conventionally known as Java man. The oldest Java "man" fossils -- of course, they may actually have belonged to a Java woman -- have usually been assumed to date from about a million years ago. However, it has recently been argued that they actually date from 1.8 million years ago. ...

By about half a million years ago, human fossils had diverged from older Homo erectus skeletons in their enlarged, rounder, and less angular skulls. African and European skulls of half a million years ago were sufficiently similar to skulls of us moderns that they are classified in our species, Homo sapiens, instead of in Homo erectus. This distinction is arbitrary, since Homo erectus evolved into Homo sapiens. However, these early Homo sapiens still differed from us in skeletal details, had brains significantly smaller than ours, and were grossly different from us in their artifacts and behavior.

The only other significant addition to our ancestors' cultural repertoire that can be documented with confidence around that time is the use of fire. After half a million years ago, the human populations of Africa and western Eurasia diverged from each other and from East Asian populations in skeletal details. The population of Europe and western Asia between 130,000 and 40,000 years ago is represented by especially many skeletons, known as Neanderthals and sometimes classified as a separate species, Homo neanderthalensis. ... The few preserved African skeletal fragments contemporary with the Neanderthals are more similar to our modern skeletons than to Neanderthals skeletons. ... Although those Africans of 100,000 years ago had more modern skeletons than did their Neanderthal contemporaries, they made essentially the same crude stone tools as Neanderthals, still lacking standardized shapes. They had no preserved art. ... They and their Neanderthal contemporaries still rank as less than fully human.

Human history at last took off around 50,000 years ago, at the time of what I have termed our Great Leap Forward. The earliest definite signs of that leap come from East African sites with standardized stone tools and the first preserved jewelry (ostrich-shell beads). Similar developments soon appear in the Near East and in southeastern Europe, then (some 40,000 years ago) in southwest Europe, where abundant artifacts are associated with fully modern skeletons of people termed Cro-Magnons [named after the 1868 discovery of fossil skeletons at Cro-Magnon in SW France]. Thereafter, the garbage preserved at archaeological sites rapidly becomes more and more interesting and leaves no doubt that we are dealing with biologically and behaviorally modern humans. ... Of the Cro-Magnons' products that have been preserved, the best known are their artworks: their magnificent cave paintings, statues, and musical instruments, which we still appreciate as art today. ... Obviously, some momentous change took place in our ancestors' capabilities between about 100,000 and 50,000 years ago. The Great Leap Forward coincides with the first proven major extension of human geographic range since our ancestors' colonization of Eurasia. that extension consisted of the occupation of Australia and New Guinea, joined at that time into a single continent. ... With the settlement of Australia / New Guinea, humans now occupied three of the five habitable continents. ... between about 14,000 and 35,000 years ago, the Americas were first colonized. The oldest unquestioned human remains in the Americas are at sites in Alaska dated around 12,000 B.C., followed by a profusion of sites in the United States south of the Canadian border and in Mexico in the centuries just before 11,000 B.C. The latter sites are called Clovis sites, named after the type site near the town of Clovis, New Mexico, where their characteristic large stone spearpoints were first recognized. ... Unquestioned evidence of human presence appears soon thereafter in Amazonia and in Patagonia" (Diamond 1997:36-52).

J. Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel. The Fates of Human Societies (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997).
C.B. Stringer, "Evolution of early humans," The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Evolution (eds. S. Jones, R. Martin and D. Pilbeam; Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992), 241-51.
B.A. Wood, "Evolution of australopithecines," The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Evolution (eds. S. Jones, R. Martin and D. Pilbeam; Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992), 231-40.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

June 16 Bloomsday

June 16 is Bloomsday, the day when the action takes place in James Joyce's novel Ulysses in 1904. Leopold Bloom the main character doesn't have much work to do so he spends most of his day wandering around Dublin doing errands. He leaves his house on Eccles Street, walks south across the river Liffey, picks up a letter, buys a bar of soap and goes to the funeral of a man he did not know very well. In the afternoon he has a cheese sandwich, feeds the gulls on the river, helps a blind man cross the street and visits a couple of pubs. He thinks about his job, his wife, his daughter and his stillborn son. He muses about life, death and reincarnation. He knows his wife Molly is going to cheat on him that afternoon at his house. In the evening he wanders around the red light district of Dublin and meets up with a young writer Stephen Dedalus who is drunk. Leopold Bloom takes Stephen to his home and offers to let him spend the night. They stand outside looking at the stars for a while and then Bloom goes inside and climbs into bed with his wife. It is one of the best novels ever written in the English language.

One reason Ulysses was banned from coming into the US was Molly Bloom's soliloquy (or interior monologue) at the end of the book. It consists of eight enormous "sentences," with only two marks of punctuation. Molly accepts Leopold into her bed, frets about his health, then reminisces about their first meeting and about when she knew she was in love with him. The final words of Molly's reverie, and the very last words of the book, are:

"...I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. "

Joyce noted in a 1921 letter to Frank Budgen that "[t]he last word (human, all too human) is left to Penelope." (Molly Bloom is modeled on Ulysses Penelope) The episode both begins and ends with "yes," a word that Joyce described as "the female word" and that he said indicated "acquiescence and the end of all resistance."

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Invictus by William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Trails Plowed Under

A Few Words About Myself
by Charles Russell

The papers have been kind to me - many times more kind than true. Although I worked for many years on the range, I am not what the people think a cowboy should be. I was neither a good roper nor rider. I was a night wrangler. How good I was, I'll leave it for the people I worked for to say - there are a few of them living. In the spring I wrangled horses, in the fall I herded beef. I worked for the big outfits and always held my job.

I have many friends among cowmen and cowpunchers. I have always been what is called a good mixer - I had friends when I had nothing else. My friends were not always within the law, but I haven't said how law-abiding I was myself. I haven't been too bad nor too good to get along with.

Life has never been to serious with me - I lived to play and I'm playing yet. Laughs and good judgment have saved me many a black eye, but I don't laugh at others tears. I was a wild young man but age has made me gentle. I drank but never alone, and when I drank it was no secret. I am still friendly with drinking men.

My friends are mixed - preachers, priests and sinners. I belong to no church, but am friendly toward and respect all of them. I have always liked horses and since I was eight years have always owned a few.

I am old fashioned and peculiar in my dress. I am eccentric (that is a polite way of saying you're crazy). I believe in luck and have had lots of it.

To have talent is no credit to its owner; what man can't help he should get neither credit nor blame for - it's not his fault. I am an illustrator. There are lots better ones, but some worse. Any man that can make a living doing what he likes is lucky, and I'm that. Any time I cash in now, I win.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


"Warning: If you are reading this then this warning is for you. Every word you read of this useless fine print is another second off your life. Don’t you have other things to do? Is your life so empty that you honestly can’t think of a better way to spend these moments? Or are you so impressed with authority that you give respect and credence to all that claim it? Do you read everything you’re supposed to read? Do you think every thing you’re supposed to think? Buy what you’re told to want? Get out of your apartment. Meet a member of the opposite sex. Stop the excessive shopping and masturbation. Quit your job. Start a fight. Prove you’re alive. If you don’t claim your humanity you will become a statistic. You have been warned." -Tyler, Fight Club

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Road Not Taken - Robert Frost

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.