Thursday, 2 May 2013

Paleofantasies

Too early this morning, before I was properly awake, I became aware of the voice of an American lady on the radio - I now know her to be Marlene Zuk, author of a book called Paleofantasy: you can read about it here. She was discussing her ideas with the ubiquitous Steve Jones, who seemed to broadly agree with her view that we've really gone crazy on the savannah phase in our prehistory, using it to explain - or justify - everything about the way we are now (Jones called it 'the universal alibi'). Zuk spoke tellingly of our fantasy of a 'fall from grace' after the Edenic savannah times when all was well and we were healthy and happy, with none of today's ills to plague us. Yet more spilt religion masquerading as science, though she didn't use that phrase.
  I suppose it's an attractive myth, helped by the fact that the savannah habitat survives to this day and seems rather agreeable, so long as you dodge the predators (or hunt them to extinction) - and of course it was the home of that African woman, 'Eve', who was, we are told, the ancestor of us all... For myself, I've always had a soft spot for the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, with its restful imagery of families lounging around lakeside, opening the odd clam from time to time. But for those of us who were impressionable lads in 1966, no paleofantasy will ever top Raquel Welch in a fur bikini, battling with dinosaurs - though the scientific accuracy of this has, I believe, been questioned by some sticklers.

18 comments:

  1. Don't forget the Yard's caveman diet...

    I share your scepticism about evolutionary psychology, but can't follow why you're implying a scoff about the concept of a Mitochondrial 'Eve'. Unless you don't think humans are all the same species, then whatever account you give of human history, religious or scientific, at some point there has to be a most recent ancestor common to everyone, doesn't there?

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  2. Scoff - me? It's just the co-opting of the name Eve, and the absurdity of identifying and naming a notional individual (indeed putting her on the cover of Time, if memory serves). Not to mention the difficulties that arise when pursuing the African origin line too literally (as when that Alice Roberts took that 'journey' on a TV series a couple of yrs ago). I suspect that we know a lot less than we think we do. All the fossil evidence of the origins of man would, I believe, fit in one large trunk - we've inferred an awful lot from rather little, and each new find can turn the whole picture upside down...

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  3. I spent the past few weeks in Kenya's Great Rift Valley, candidate terrain for the 'cradle of mankind'. The Masai who live there subsist on what would seem to be the paleo-fantasists' ideal diet: a liter per day of mixed cow's milk and blood, along with a little meat. While cardiovascular disease is rare, gout and inflammatory arthritis are ubiquitous, exactly as one would expect from a diet rich in protein and saturated fats. The lesson is clear: humans are omnivores, suited to eating a little of this and a little of that. Diets that aim to eliminate entire classes of food do more harm than good. (By the way, I didn't much enjoy the Masai beverage --- perhaps because it was prepared by a man whose lower front teeth had been removed to enable sipping during a recent bout of lockjaw.)

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  4. Yes, the quasi-mystical interpretation of the African Eve is daft (the whole point of Mitochondrial Eve is that there was nothing special about her), as is the 'we're all brothers and sisters' interpretation. Eddie Izzard also did a bit of this when he stretched the 'Who do you think you are?' family tree concept back thousands of generations to the savannah: hey, we're all related, isn't that just groovy, etc etc.

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  5. I heard theory 35yrs ago that Homo Erectus/Sapiens, us, were lolling about the savannah, working out how best to peel a grape to pop into a clam...mmm...when the rain came, The Flood, and we were decimated! The smartest, the strongest, the Ragged Survivors, thought "bugger this", and headed straight for the U.K! I thought it a beautiful theory, and is not Beauty Truth?

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  6. The "expulsion" from the savannah (if it was so Edenic, why did none of them turn around and go back?)isn't the only parallel with Genesis. One of the classic just-so stories about adaptive trade-offs holds that humans became bipedal so they could peer over the tall grass, accelerate faster and have other hunting advantages. The downside was narrower hips and birth canals, which made childbirth more painful and dangerous. Why women had to evolve in parallel with men nobody has ever told me, but is this not close to a Darwinian "In sorrow shalt thou bring forth children"? In any event, it certainly gives a literal historical resonance to Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man".

    As to Mitochondrial Eve, why did our common ancestor have to be a human? Why not a slimy slug or even an amoeba? If evolution is a process of constant transition both within and between species, why must there have been one original human, and if I'm am wrong, wouldn't that mean there had to be a common original ancestor for each and every species (Mitochondrial Tabby?)? What about adaptations within? Does this mean all blue-eyed humans can trace their lineage back to one original blue-eyed doxy. Was she blond?

    Is a puzzlement!

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  7. Deja vu.

    Mitochondrial Eve is the most recent matrilineal common ancestor to all living humans. Her mother was also a common matrilineal ancestor to all living humans, but one generation less recent.

    This excellent bit of wikipediary clears up your misconceptions.

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  8. Heh, I love having my virtual ears boxed by Darwinists. "Look, Dumkins, how many times do we have to tell you? She's not our common ancestor, she's our most recent matrilineal common ancestor! Really, it's rather obvious."

    My apologies to Mitochondrial Eve, may she rest in peace. To her mother, too.

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  9. Parthenogenesis...those were the days! The self-love of an amœba...

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  10. Leaving blogmanship aside for a moment, Peter, I don't see why this has to get dragged into the dawkins vs religion eternal yawnsville battle. It's really about the 'maths' of genealogy and family trees on a massive scale and I think it's v interesting, often mind-boggling (and philosophically compatible with both darwinism and numerous brands of god-bothering). Good book on the subject is 'Mapping Human History' by Steve Olson.

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  11. Yes, yes, Brit, but I took Nige's post to be a poke at scientism/Darwinism's propensity to offer detailed and precise accounts of a very murky past. It's the counterpart of those scriptural literalists who claim the Bible is offers a comprehensive and detailed alternative natural history. I would have thought a Dabblerite would appreciate the value of just having some fun.

    I know your critical faculties are well-grounded on this subject, but I must smile at one who thinks religion vs. Darwinism (always guaranteed to break records in blog commentary) is "yawnsville" while "the maths of geneology and family trees on a massive scale" are mind-bogglingly interesting. Nerd! :-)

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  12. It's ok Nige, Peter and I have been blogmanning each other for years without emnity.

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  13. Indeed. Nige might be surprised to learn we once argued Darwinism using limericks. Great fun. Of course I won.

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  14. Humans didn’t descend from aquatic apes, of course, although our ancestors were too slow & heavy for regular running over open plains as some anthropologists still believe.
    Instead, Pleistocene Homo populations simply followed the coasts & rivers in Africa & Eurasia: 800,000 years ago, they even reached Flores more than 18 km overseas.
    - google “econiche Homo”
    - eBook “Was Man more aquatic in the past?” introd.Phillip Tobias http://www.benthamscience.com/ebooks/9781608052448/index.htm
    - guest post at Greg Laden’s blog http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/2013/01/30/common-misconceptions-and-unproven-assumptions-about-the-aquatic-ape-theory
    - http://greencomet.org/2013/05/26/aquatic-ape-the-theory-evolves/

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