Neanderthals, Again

Here is an article sent to me by a helpful blog reader and friend.

To summarize, there is apparently some kind of genetic link between cuter facial features and domesticity in animals. When foxes, for example, are bred for friendly and compliant personalities, over generations their snouts get shorter, their ears floppier, their tails shorter and curlier.

The linked article suggests there might be a similar kind of genetic linkage in humans. It relies partly on a genetic study of human beings with Williams-Beuren syndrome, “a disorder linked to cognitive impairments, smaller skulls, elfinlike facial features, and extreme friendliness.”

Extrapolating from this, and using studies of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA, the suggestion is that humans “domesticated ourselves” by preferring mates who were friendlier and less aggressive. As sexual selection decreased the aggressive tendencies in our species, so too the related genes determining facial features gradually made our features smaller and less coarse.

So, I have some thoughts. Bear with me, because I’m tapping this post out the night before it goes up, so it might not be the best organized or best-written.

  • I’m not going to question that even in humans, there might be some genetic linkage between elfin facial features and lack of natural aggressiveness. W-B syndrome, and Down Syndrome, both seem to suggest this. It may be that this linkage is so subtle and complex that it only becomes obvious in extreme cases, like with these syndromes. It’s similar to how there is evidence that people with fair or red hair are more likely to be “Highly Sensitive People,” highly sensitive to stimuli of all kinds including social stimuli, sound, and pain.
  • Both of these suggestions (I’m not going to call them findings because they are too complex) also dovetail with traditional stereotypes. The quick-tempered redhead, the fine-featured child who cries easily, and the “low-browed” criminal are all types that go way back. Stereotypes do not apply across the board, but they often tell us something about people’s observations of the world.
  • But that is also a danger. People, it turns out, have a strong tendency to judge others by their physical appearance. Ugly or unattractive people are interpreted through a grid that assumes they are stupid, aggressive, or unstable compared to more attractive people. I just finished reading an interview, here, with a person who explains from personal experience how we tend to interpret someone without sex appeal as a menace.
  • So if people did selectively marry in a way that weeded out Neanderthal facial features, it’s just as likely they were selecting for looks as for lack of aggression.
  • And obviously, making judgments about someone’s abilities and character based on their facial features and body shape is not only unjust, it’s usually likely to be mistaken. It would be great if we could tell everything we needed to know about someone just by looking at them, but we can’t. If we try to do so — and resist changing our opinion — we are going to be walking around with a lot of bad information. This strategy will not work well for us.
  • This should tell us that there is something missing from the thesis about smaller facial features being associated with less aggressive behavior.
  • What’s missing is the fact that human beings are human beings, not just two-legged animals. Our behavior is not just determined by whether we have genetic tendencies to aggression.
  • Rather, we are made in the image of God. Thus, we have language, an innate moral sense, and an innate need to be in a family and culture with other human beings. This, not our genetics, is what makes us “domestic.”
  • That’s why, as I have pointed out before, you will often meet people in modern times with features reminiscent of Neanderthals, and these people are neither stupid, nor aggressive, nor even particularly ugly. (I mean, just look at the Neanderthal reconstruction at the top of the linked article. Is he not adorable?)
  • Also, friendliness is not the only desirable trait in a human being. “Extreme friendliness,” particularly when coupled with cognitive impairments, will not equip a person to survive on their own in the world. What we need is natural aggressiveness, appropriately controlled and directed by our mind, moral sense, and culture. So, completely breeding aggressive tendencies out of our population would not be desirable, even if it were possible.
  • Ergo, if the Neanderthals and Denisovans were actually human beings (which I believe they were), we can assume that they were much like us in that they had aggressive tendencies, but they also had all the other standard human equipment that allowed them to control and direct these tendencies. We already know that they enjoyed seafood, intermarried with so-called “modern humans,” and made art.

OK, that’s it from me. I continue my campaign for Neanderthal Human Rights!

Now, go out there, club something, and eat it!

Oh, Absalom

Today I am posting a video of a song by the incomparable Jamie Soles.

A couple of warnings: I recommend you just listen to the audio. Don’t look at the screen, because the words pulse in a way that is likely to give you a seizure. I apologize; this was the only YouTube version of the song I could find.

Secondly: This song will make you bawl, particularly if you are a parent.

The back story goes as follows. The relationship between King David and his adult son Absalom had deteriorated badly. The story of that is also tragic, but too long to tell here. It’s in 2 Samuel 13 – 14. Eventually Absalom, having lost all respect for David, stages a coup (2 Sam. 15). David actually has to flee Jerusalem. Eventually, his men fight Absalom’s in a bloody battle in the forest. 20,000 men die (2 Sam. 18). Absalom, as he rides his mule through the woods, gets his head (possibly his long, luxuriant hair?) caught in the branches of an oak tree. His mule runs off and Absalom is left dangling there. David’s bloodthirsty general, Joab, finds him, stabs him in the heart with three javelins, and buries him unceremoniously in a pit. (2 Sam. 18:6 – 17) This even though David, who at first had wanted to go out himself into the battle, had instructed his generals, “Deal gently with the young man Absalom for my sake.”

Word comes to David that Absalom is dead before his victorious army returns to the city. When they come back, they can hear David in the small room over the city gate (the “judgment seat”), weeply loudly and saying over and over again, “Oh, Absalom, my son, my son, if only I had died instead of you!” The army sneaks into the city in shame, like defeated men.

Joab goes up into the room and berates David for not honoring his soldiers. “You love those who hate you and hate those who love you. You have made it clear today that … you would be pleased if Absalom were alive today and all of us were dead.” (2 Sam. 19:6)

This is not true, of course. No way this situation could have gone would have made David happy. But Joab just doesn’t get it.

I kind of hate that this story is in the Bible, because I wish the whole thing had never happened. It’s one of those slo-mo tragedies where, just when you think that every single thing has already gone wrong, the situation unspools some dismaying new tentacle of horror.

On the other hand, given that it did happen, I am glad this story is in the Bible. Clearly, this is not some slappy-happy, naive, “everything-will-be-great-if-we-all-just-believe-in-our-hearts” kind of document. This document was written by and for people who live in the actual world, where each of us, by the time we are adults, has witnessed or experienced this very kind of thing: complicated, tragic, stupid, seems like it could have been prevented at any point along the way. God is aware of these situations and of how stupid and futile and tragic they are. He is a God for people who find themselves in those situations.

Ahem. OK, sermon over. I guess I got carried away. Here’s the song.

Time-Words in Fiction

Photo by Kris Schulze on Pexels.com

How do you handle expresssions of time when writing about a preindustrial culture that does not use our time divisons?

Not that Preindusrial People Are Unaware of Time …

I’m not meaning to imply that people in preindustrial cultures take no notice of time. This is a notion, sometimes asserted, that goes with the romantic “noble savage” idea that because hunter-gatherers live closer to the earth, they necessarily live a “simpler” life, comparatively free from worries, cares, and conflict. See The Gods Must Be Crazy, the Wild Yam Question, and many others.

In fact, the earth is trying to kill you, so people who live close to the earth have plenty of survival-related worries (besides the usual human sin problem that did not first arise with industrialization). Farmers have to pay detailed attention to months and seasons, as do hunters, who also have to be concerned with times of day. So, no, there are no “time-free” people. In fact, there have been many ancient cultures that were very, very concerned with calendars. See Stonehenge, above, which was apparently a computer for predicting eclipses, and the Maya, who could be fairly said to be obsessed with dates.

But, Seriously, How Do You Deal with Time?

But, of course, it makes no sense to have a hunter-gatherer culture going around talking about the months by the names we give them. Let alone the days of the week, although if you follow Genesis, people have always known that days come in sevens and one day is for rest. Talk of seconds and minutes is even more of an atmosphere killer when it comes to verisimilitude.

Sci-fi writers can make up their own time divisions or draw on terms from sci-fi convention: clicks, parsecs, light-years, cycles, and no, I don’t know what most of these words mean really. They are fun, though. Perhaps in the comments you can enlighten me.

Anyway, here is how I deal with time. I didn’t spend a lot of … you-know-what … thinking about this when I first started drafting. I became more aware of it as my characters moved more into a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. You will still occasionally see the word, for example, “hours” crop up in my books. But when it would not take too much rewriting to get rid of modern time-words, here is what I use:

  • I don’t talk about specific months by name. Rather, I talk about seasons. (Early spring, midwinter, etc.) (However, if you are interested, my character Ikash’s birthday is in April and Hyuna’s birthday is right around Christmas.)
  • I do sometimes mention months in a generic sense, because everyone is aware of lunar months. I don’t say “moons,” because that sounds … well, I just feel like saying “moons” is a minefield.
  • It has never been necessary for me to mention weeks, either.
  • For “minute,” I try to use “moment,” which is less specific and technical sounding.
  • I use “a few beats” instead of “a few seconds.”
  • Nanoseconds, for some reason, have never come up.

Oh, That Diamond

“Just grocery?” [said retired Navajo cop Joe Leaphorn to store owner McGinnis.] “They take anything else?”

“Took the blanket I had hanging on a rack in there, and some ketchup, and …” he frowned, straining to remember. “I believe I was missing a box of thirty-eight ammunition. But mostly food.”

“None of it ever recovered?”

McGinnis laughed. “‘Course not,” he said. “If the burglar didn’t eat it, you cops would have done that if you caught him.”

“You didn’t mention a diamond. How about that?”

“Diamond?”

“Diamond worth about ten thousand dollars.”

McGinnis frowned. Took another tiny sip. Looked up at Leaphorn.

“Oh,” McGinnis said. “That diamond.”

Skeleton Man by Tony Hillerman, p.45

I Am in Love with this Masculine Sea Chantey

Listen to those Irish tenors! *swoons*

Now, the mystery deepens. I first learned about this song, this month, not from a Irishman nor from a sailor, but from a biography of Harriet Tubman.

When you look at the following page, keep in mind that although Harriet was short and slight, she had a surprising deep, resonant voice as a result of a “lung fever” (pneumonia?) that she got as a child.

“The Underground Abuductor,” p. 85

Bibliography

Hale, Nathan, artist, The Underground Abductor. Amulet Books, 2015.

Lawton, Wendy, Courage to Run: A story based on the life of Harriet Tubman. Moody, 2009. Lung fever and lower voice described in Chapter 6, pp. 59 – 68.

Warning Labels

Some books need warning labels. Especially history books. Heck, history needs a warning label! Heck, this entire world needs one! It should read something like: Fallen World. Danger, Difficulty, Death.

For all these reasons, the brilliant graphic artist Nathan Hale puts warning labels on the the brilliant historical books he produces for children. The labels are tailored to each individual story. For example:

This is from the back of Big Bad Ironclad.

Note the delightfully specific terrors promised, such as “underwater toilets” and “Swedish swearing.” (And yes, the book delivers those very things. It makes sense in context. So does the bomb on a stick.)

This is from the back of The Underground Abductor, about the life of Harriet Tubman.

Besides the horrors and heroics that we all know her life contained, we get “supernatural visions” (Harriet’s and, before her, Nat Turner’s); “massacre” (led by Nat Turner); “muskrat trapping” (more of a hardship than it sounds); and, of course the “drugged babies” are so that the escapees would not be caught.

Now, I write fiction, and it’s pretty dramatic and everything, but nothing I or anyone else will write can compare to the drama and poignancy of Harriet Tubman’s life.

With that disclaimer, here — and you can tell that I worked really hard on this — is a warning label of my own, done in the style of graphic artist Nathan Hale, applied to my book The Long Guest.

In the comments, please post a goofy warning label of your own about your own book or a favorite book.

GKC Quote on Cave People

To-day all our novels and newspapers will be found swarming with allusions to a popular character called a Cave-Man. So far as I can understand, his chief occupation in life was knocking his wife about …

In fact, people have been interested in everything about the cave-man except what he did in the cave. Now there does happen to be some real evidence of what he did in the cave. What was found in the cave was not the horrible, gory club notched with the number of women it had knocked on the head. [It was] drawings or paintings of animals; and they were drawn or painted not only by a man but by an artist. They showed the experimental and adventurous spirit of the artist, the spirit that does not avoid but attempts difficult things; as where the draughtsman had represented the action of the stag when he swings his head clean round and noses towards his tail. In this and twenty other details it is clear that the artist had watched animals with a certain interest and presumably a certain pleasure. [I]t would seem that he was not only an artist but a naturalist.

When novelists and educationists and psychologists of all sorts talk about the cave-man, they never conceive him in connection with anything that is really in the cave. When the realist of the sex novel writes, ‘Red sparks danced in Dagmar Doubledick’s brain; he felt the spirit of the cave-man rising within him,’ the novelist’s readers would be very much disappointed if Dagmar only went off and drew large pictures of cows on the drawing-room wall.

G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (orig. ed. published 1925), pp. 27 – 30

Ways to Say “There Is”

It might seem like a boring phrase, but it’s absolutely essential for every language. And, when you start learning a language, it’s often among the first phrases you learn.

  • English: There is. In some dialects, It’s as in “It’s an accident on I-90.”
  • German: Es gibt. Literally, “It gives.”
  • French: Il y a. Literally, “He yuh ah.”
  • Spanish: Hay. Pronounced “ay.”
  • Latin: Est. Literally, “is.” And now, for some island Southeast Asian languages …
  • Indonesian: Ada.
  • Ngaju language: Tege.
  • Siang language: Oko.

There, wasn’t that interesting, actually? Those are all the ones I know. Do you know any more? Leave them in the comments.