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richard morgan
Posted on Sunday, June 24, 2007 - 08:51 am:   

This is a thread about the science, such as it is, in Black Man/Thirteen.

Steph Swainston had some queries about the plausibility of variant thirteen and its early human derivation. Below is a quick edited summary of what we talked about so far, over on her "The Modern World" thread. I'm setting up here instead because the Modern World thread is about - you guessed it - her novel The Modern World, and it seems a bit unfair to camp out so extensively on another novel's personal space.

Meanwhile, the discussion is on-going, in the expectation that I may learn something - Steph, for those who didn't know, used to do archaeology for a living, so she knows to some pretty extensive depth what she's talking about. I did some popular science speed reading on human genetics and made the rest up, so I don't really....

Feel free to join in......

By richard morgan on Sunday, May 27, 2007 - 05:06 pm: Edit

Steph - Something to help wash down the Black Man tenet, if it's sticking: you could look at it like this:

what the Variant Thirteen programmes actually go ahead and produce in vitro is *conceptually* intended to resemble a more extremely violent early human - but it doesn't necessarily have an actual basis in the historical and evolutionary record. It's not like a Jurassic Park thing, where they actually find the DNA and extract it - these guys in the Thirteen programmes just extrapolate a genetic modification based on theory, and tweak it to fit their rather unpleasant purposes. After that, the mythology, both state sponsored and street level home-grown, would set in of its own accord. People - including some of the thirteens themselves - end up *believing* that these guys are a returned form of early human, because it suits their prejudices/love of tabloid simplicity/visceral tendency/sense of self. But none of these beliefs necessarily make it so.

Hope that aids digestion

In truth, if Richard Wrangham's theories about reducing area thirteen in humans are right, (and Matt Ridley makes a persuasive if abbreviated case in that direction) then the individuals he's talking about probably wouldn't, for example, have had the high levels of intelligence I envisaged in the novel - in a basic environment, if you're bigger and tougher than everyone else, you tend not to need to be smarter as well. That's why I covered my ass so carefully in the acknowledgments. But one way or another, however far you take it, it is a lovely theory.

By Steph Swainston on Wednesday, June 20, 2007 - 02:49 pm:

Well, given that I can’t argue. There can’t be a genetically modified human that’s the same as an original early human ‘resurrected’. Check. But prejudices will lead to such names being used. Fair enough.

While reading, I was wondering what sort of hominids thirteens were supposed to be. I remember a female character (Carmen?) saying: ‘you can’t turn the clock back 20,000 years’. Well, I would have made it 50K or even more… But if it’s just background, it doesn’t really matter.

By richard morgan on Wednesday, June 20, 2007 - 05:02 pm:

Yeah, the times are pretty vague - sort of a speed-read, bluff, stab and hope approach to the science, which is, I have to confess, pretty standard for me.

The shrinkage of brain size seems to have taken place, as you say, over about the last 50,000 years (mesolithic to now), though some of that apparently has to do with changes in body size as well. Ridley talks (presumably on Wrangham's behalf) about a steep decline in brain capacity over the last 15,000 years and indexes this to the arrival of denser, more "civilised" human settlements. So we're talking modern humans by this stage - nothing that would look too out of place dressed in black at the ICA.

In fact, my previous general understanding was that crop-based societies only really showed up about 7 to 10k ago, but I don't know if that's still the state-of-the-art arch/anth picture. I guess in any case you'd have a more gradual slide from hunter gathering to mixed subsistence and then to a more purely agricultural base, with the increasingly dense settlement tendency Ridley talks about coming as corollary. End result, I figure if we go back about 20k, we're safely past the earliest dense settlements and Ridley's 15k marker, thus definitely into "not-yet-bred-out-for-safety" times.

What I remember very clearly from previous reading is an account of skeletons found on one of these early agriculture sites, whose poor condition and relative youth at time of death suggested that this brave new agricultural age must have been pretty hellish by comparison to the hunter gatherer paradise before (echoes of the Eden story, eh???). I have this vision in my mind of the original thirteens, the guys like Marsalis, picking up their flints and spears, saying "fuck this for a game of skittles" and marching off into a sunset of life, liberty and the pursuit of largeish edible animals.....
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Tim Akers
Posted on Monday, June 25, 2007 - 06:35 am:   

I'll join in once Thirteen becomes available in the US, which is...tuesday, I think. And after I've read it, of course. Thursday, I think.
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Steph Swainston
Posted on Monday, June 25, 2007 - 12:48 pm:   


Check your inbox, I’ve sent you an email to elaborate on this a bit but it’s mainly about sources and would make this post otherwise overlong.

There is something wrong with your dates. Perhaps you have read some dodgy sources… 50Ka BP (before present) is not 'Mesolithic'. It is towards the last part of the Middle Palaeolithic, when Neanderthals were the hominids in Europe, although anatomically modern humans began to arrive shortly after.

20,000 years ago was the height of the last Ice Age, and the hunter-gatherers in Europe were by then anatomically modern and with recognisably human cognition. They had very complex and quite wonderful cultures that produced artwork, jewellery, all kinds of innovations, burials showing status, ornate stone tools for 'show pieces' as well as very functional composite tools. They were no different from us in terms of looks, brain capacity or intelligence inferred from the material culture. Their skin colour may have been darker.

I have never seen evidence of 'a steep decline in brain capacity over the last 15,000 years'. .Even if it is new research in a paper I haven't read, I wonder at the size of the data set. As far as I know we do not have enough skulls from the Upper Palaeolithic to make such definitive statements. All the measurements and crania I have seen show that Neolithic/Meso/Upper Pal brain size is firmly within the range of that of humans living today.

Moreover, brain size has little to do with social or technological ability of the hominid. Things like ‘aggression’ can’t be seen or measured that way. I was taught that the main influence on brain size is body mass, influenced by factors such as climate/physical environment. So Neanderthals in their cold climate had larger brains than us, and H. floresiensis on its tiny island had tiny brains. The size does not correlate with abilities; instead it is probably the number of connections between brain cells that matters. Any genetic basis in modern humans for aggression seems to me to be a whole different kettle of red herrings. I’m not saying it doesn’t make for a good story but I’d be surprised if it was convincing science.

Agriculture: Yes, crop-based societies are c.10K-7Ka BP in the Old World. The nature of the change depends on the region, and how/why it all began in the Levant is a complicated picture (which we can go into if you like but is a digression).

You're right that the 'brave new agriculture age' must have been pretty hellish in comparison to the h-g paradise before -- although remember a cold, dry climatic blip 12.7 to 11.5Ka BP might have given the hunters some trouble and may have been a factor in the rise of agriculture. Yes, there was a marked deterioration in diet with the new farmers. I've seen it myself in skeletons from Israel: the teeth have more wear and caries than in hunter-gatherers because:
1. The sugars from the cereals
2. Stone grit from grinding grains gets into the food.
3. More limited range of subsistence foods so bad nutrition (as you said).

Also the repetitive action of kneeling and grinding cereals produces bad wear on the joints. I've seen young female skeletons from late Neolithic Spain with completely knackered joints and arthritis. Sedentism is not good for us. Note that these were young women processing grain as you might expect, so the Neolithic revolution does not bring any kind of parity in gender roles (it may well have made gender differences worse!)

I'd definitely walk away from that. In fact, I would most like to live in the Mesolithic. I always think of it as an ideal backwoods camping holiday going on thousands of years. OK, so it might rain a bit more, but it was warmer than today. Lots of seafood, healthy nuts and berries, organic meat, practical outlook, plenty of exercise and fresh air. I’m going to write a Mesolithic Revival Diet Book and sell millions ;-)
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richard morgan
Posted on Tuesday, June 26, 2007 - 03:56 am:   

Yeah - and a very short working week, apparently. I seem to remember reading somewhere (you'll notice that form of academic citation a lot with me) that the h-g working week came in at 15-20 hours or something (though of course that statistic leaves out things like child-care - funny how nothing ever changes, right)

Mesolithic - that bastard Ridley! He quotes it for the 50k marker, so yeah, dodgy sources are indeed to blame. I guess it was a proofing slip on his part. Thanks for the re-direct.

The paper that Ridley references for that steep decline in brain capacity is:

"Convergent Paedomorphism in bonobos, domesticated animals and humans: the role of selection for reduced aggression" by Wrangham, R W, Pilbeam, D and Hare, B.

However - it is listed (at the time Nature via Nurture went to print anyway) as "unpublished", which is why I had to rely on Ridley's summary.

It's clear from the title at least that Wrangham and Co are coming at this from the inside first - reduced area thirteen in the brains of bonobos, humans and some domesticated animals (Ridley mentions foxes and dogs) - and then looking to the archaeological record for some corroboration. They may be making some leaps based on a very incomplete set of skulls, but you'd think they'd have at least *some* solid basis for their assumption (although that lack of publication does make you wonder.....)
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Steph Swainston
Posted on Tuesday, July 17, 2007 - 02:03 pm:   

I’ve read a lot by Pilbeam in the past, which I liked. If I ever get a spare minute I’ll track this down.

If Ridley is talking about Africa then 50,000 is OK for the Middle Stone Age (MSA). But he shouldn’t translate MSA as ‘Mesolithic’. They couldn't be more different.

You said: "The h-g working week came in at 15-20 hours or something"

Yes, that’s about right – it’s from Marshall Sahlins in Lee and Devore 1968 ‘Man the Hunter’. In 1966 a conference of that name was held in Chicago that began to look seriously into h-g lifestyles. They turned most of the assumptions (that h-g life was ‘nasty, brutish and short’) upside down and replaced them with soundbites like: ‘The Original Affluent Society’. I wonder how much of the hippie mood at the time contributed to such a change in tune.

A 15-20 hour working week has been criticised of course. The figures are from Richard Lee’s studies among the !Kung (East Africa) and another in Australia. The problem is you can’t equate modern h-g entirely with stone age ones, for many reasons including:

1. The modern h-g are in different environments, not Ice Age landscapes which of course have no parallel today. Interestingly, the modern h-g are usually in more difficult environments for their way of life because herders and farmers have pushed them out of the plush areas. So in some ways modern h-g have to work harder.

2. The modern h-g are hunting smaller animals and smaller herd sizes. Again this means they have to work harder. If you can organise your group to chase a load of mammoths and woolly rhino off a cliff you have enough meat for months! – As the Neanderthals did at La Cotte, Jersey.

3. It’s balanced by the fact that modern h-g are not stupid, they tend to use modern equipment, new techniques and trade with commercial/non hunter-gatherers. Binford’s classic studies among the Nunamiut were criticised for this. Binford lived with Eskimos and noted their techniques and the remains they left so the patterns could be applied to Palaeolithic cultures. But the Nunamiut would leave their village houses, travel by plane or snowmobile to distant hunting grounds and shoot caribou with high-powered rifles. Still Binford’s notes of the litter they left do seem relevant to many sites.

4. The percentage of how much hunting to how much gathering depends on the environment. Back in the days of the ‘Man the Hunter’ conference the data were so scanty they were applying modern African models to European Ice Age cultures where there wasn’t much to ‘gather’ at all.

Work in h-g societies varies also depending on the season. It can be very intense at some times of the year. The Innu hunters (northern Quebec, 19th century) would spear caribou at a river crossing or corral them and shoot them. They could take 300 at a time. The women then processed the food all day every day for a week while the men, having enjoyed their hunting ‘game’, just sat around. When the meat was preserved they don’t have to do much at all for whole seasons. They trade, have feasts and ceremonies instead, and try to predict the caribou’s return. Hunter-gatherer societies based around reliable blooms of food like that can be sedentary – eg. Tlingit (Northwest Coast Indians) who just wait for a massive salmon run every autumn that lasts them most of the year. And boy, could the Tlingit feast. Hunter-gatherers can be sedentary too if they can provision a central main habitation from many sources – eg. in Late Mesolithic Denmark. So it’s not cut and dried that hunter-gatherers move around but agriculturalists are sedentary.

Times can be hard too. During that cold snap I mentioned in the last post Britain was depopulated. There weren’t any large mammals left to prey on and small mammals like hares probably didn’t yield enough fat to be a staple foodstuff (it’s fat, not meat, that’s important). Before the starving hunters left or died out you can see they turned to cannibalism (Gough’s Cave, Somerset). And for the Innu, if the caribou didn’t turn up, they were screwed.

I had a vague impression that you thought the European Mesolithic hunter-gatherers turn to farming. It’s just my inference from what you said. No, largely they did walk away from agriculture – it was the farmers themselves who moved and proliferated, pushing the hunters into more and more marginal environments and eventually their way of life becomes extinct. Which in my opinion is a damn shame. There are far too many humans now.

I don’t equate hunting animals with interpersonal aggression. Hunting is a cultural means of procuring food... I always believed that if you taught a Neanderthal to use a microwave oven, he would thank you forever.

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