mordicai caeli (mordicai) wrote,
mordicai caeli
mordicai

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By the Power of Greyskull! (106)

Masters of the Planet by Ian Tattersall.

The Bell Curve Theory:
At the tails, Good & Evil,
but most are Neutral.

This book had me feeling like maybe I'm a half-way decent armchair archeologist! Dim recollections of undergraduate studies & the occasional non-fiction book keeping me at least conversant on the subject; Masters of the Planet isn't quite crisp enough in tone to count as "academic," but it isn't general enough "trade," either-- instead, it hits the sweet spot right in-between general & specific, between opaque & patronizing. Tattersall references a few popular modern theories, making me think that I have been keeping current on my casual anthropology-- for instance Catching Fire's arguments about fire & food & Wrangham's rather convincing caloric math (46). & then there is "power scavenging"-- outlined (for me, anyway) in Derek Bickerton's Adam's Tongue, is another example of a theory I'd embraced that has been validated by Tattersall's expertise (48, 53). Heck, I can't help but see Hrdy's Mothers & Others in the anecdote about "apes on a plane" (56). & hey, using ice core data originally obtained during the Shackleton expedition to Antarctica (150)? I guess my point is-- I like when a book makes me feel smart, not through slight of hand but by simply refusing to talk down to me.

Because the races in my roleplaying campaign Oubliette are based on hominids-- well, on the Homo genus, if you want to get specific-- so I spend a fair amount of time thinking about non-human members of Homo. Tattersall brings up Ernst Mayr, which is interesting to me, since I'd never really conciously realized how much Mayr's reductionism influenced me. Mayr shuffled all the humanoids into Homo transvaalensis (the Australopithecus), Homo erectus & Homo sapiens, with Neanderthals being shoved in there with sapiens (87). Having three prongs to consider is just tidy-- but unfortunately, it isn't really accurate. It says more about humans than it does about hominids, if you know what I mean. Always a problem when you start talking about near-humans, be they pre-human or pan-human; & I say pan-human, which I think highlights where I part company from Mister Tattersall. Neanderthals! I've always felt that even in the scientific community, the anthropocentric bias held unreasonable sway when it comes to Homo neanderthalensis. They have big brains, working mouths...but everybody seems to want to prove why they couldn't have been like humans. Tattersall, unsurprisingly, comes to the conclusion that they didn't have symbolic thought, but I'm left dubious of his arguments, especially considering the slack he's willing to give early sapiens (177-180). The evidence for early human symbolic thought with shells as jewelry is dubious, but why do they get the benefit of the doubt (200, 203)? Tattersall even acknowledges that the Cro-Magnon record is a happy accident of topography (205). I've heard the song & dance too many times, as some reason is put forward as to why Neanderthals must have been brutes because they didn't have whatever specific criteria was in vogue, only to have the fossil record contradict each theory. Broca's area, the FOXP2 gene, hyoid bones, each put forward & then quietly withdrawn (137, 209, 212). Add to that the depiction of cold-hearted Neanderthal cannibalism at El Sidrón, contrasted by the matter of fact mention of Homo sapiens cannibalism Klasies & yeah, colour me unconvinced in major qualitative difference (172, 184, 203). As Tattersall points out-- the Levantine Homo sapiens lived lives largely parallel to Homo neanderthalensis.

I should be more clear-- I don't really reject Tattersall's observations outright, but I question the underlying assumptions. I think the crux of things is the Upper Paelolithic Revolution, which I think Mister Tattersall would probably agree with. Once upon a time, anatomically humans were just the another example of clever ape. Sharpening sticks, taming fire, but at the end of the day, no different than any of the other hominids. At some point-- I usually say fifty thousand years ago, but it was probably more like sixty & probably not later than a hundred thousand-- they just started acting like people. Ian Tattersall would use the term symbolic thinking in there, but whatever you want to call it, there was a (relatively) sudden change, a switch to behavioral modernity. Why? How? Who knows! I guess my point is that the non-symbolic Neanderthal & the non-symbolic Humans seem to be coming from the same point, & saying that Neanderthals are incapable of a similar Great Leap Forward just because Homo sapiens had one first seems to be premature, especially since Homo neanderthalensis has the tools & burial traditions that seem to prefigure modernity. I am happy to see Tattersall favoring complex language as the keystone of modernity, since that is a notion I tend to favor. Talking about it is of course, tricky-- whenever anyone discusses neurology, I can't help but feeling like people in a couple of hundred years are going to look back on our science as hopelessly backward. Experiments in language & the theory of the mind are difficult-- at least, without any legitimate wolf children, that is. I for one would have liked to have seen Bickerton's ethical isolation experiment, but alas, it was not to be.
Tags: anthropology, books, haiku, tattersall
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