Saturday, 17 October 2009

Would we put another human person in a zoo?

When I believed in a God I looked forward to a time, after my death, when I could see the world as it was in the olden-times. Homo sapiens (modern humans, like us) are unusual because we’re the only living representatives of our taxon left. I wanted to witness an era when there were several human species alive all at the same time.

I had a fond hope that He (if He resembled anyone in my anticipatory imaginings He looks a bit like David Attenborough) would have a special screening room where I could watch the planet at any given point in history. With eternity to play with I’d happily watch all eons.
'Where's Kim?'
'In the screening room watching the Pre-Cambrian on fast-forward.'
'Oh yes.'
But to begin with I’d choose to view a time around 90,000 years ago. A time when modern humans were still mostly based in Africa, H erectus (go on, have a good laugh, get it out of the way… Are you done? Sure?) Right. Erectus lived in Indonesia, H neanderthalensis ruled Europe and the dwarf human species, H floresiensis occupied parts of East Asia.

I don’t believe in the supernatural anymore and it makes me sad to realise I’ll never see that scratchy video replay.

Floresiensis has been nicknamed The Hobbit. I will not refer to Floresiensis as The Hobbit. That is to trivialise the human who lived and breathed and made a living - and it’s not particularly fair on Bilbo either. That will be my last mention of The Hobbit in this post.

I recently attended a weekend conference on human evolution in Oxford. Here are some astonishing things I learned at the conference:

Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives; we share 99% of our DNA.

Chimps are as evolved as Sapiens but we've developed along separate trajectories for over five million years. Less than two million years of evolution separates Sapiens from Floresiensis and less than 700,000 years of evolution separates Sapiens and Neanderthalensis.

We are more closely related to chimps than a horse is to a zebra, and a horse and zebra can interbreed.

Neanderthals lived between 250,000 and 30,000 years ago. They were top predators and consummate hunters; more carnivorous than lions or hyenas. Neanderthals are our evolutionary cousins but definitely not our ancestors. They were a bit like us; they made complicated stone tools, cared for their sick and buried their dead. And they were a bit unlike us; in their anatomy and in their cognitive organisation - they had bigger brains than many modern humans but probably less elaborate powers of abstraction.

We (modern humans) evolved in Africa between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago; we were the first human species to colonise Australia - over 60,000 years ago. In human history Australia has never been visible from Indonesia and the journey to Australia always entailed a treacherous sea crossing. When we first set out on that peril filled trip we had no idea where we were going to end up (Indonesia is tectonically volatile and it may be that those first Australians made a choice between Vulcan and the deep blue).

We (modern humans) were established in Europe by 45,000 years ago.

The dwarf human species, Floresiensis, survived on the island of Flores until 18,000 years ago. Their ancestors were also competent seafarers.

And here is some sad stuff that those astonishing things made me think about:

The conference was about hominin evolution. From six million years ago until the extinction of Neanderthals 30,000 years ago. Most of the other people at the conference were thoughtful and clever; interested dilettantes like myself - keen to learn more. A few were Eurocentric xenophobes.

When, as happens a lot, someone tells me society is deteriorating I think about the enforced labour that buttressed great civilisations; Egypt, Greece; the Roman Empire. I think about Africans packed in slave ships and about exhausted Victorian seven year olds strapped to mill machinery, strapped to machinery - and I respond that we’ve been capable of the unthinkable for a long time, (yes, I am very popular on the Clapham Omnibus).

At the conference, I didn’t need to reflect on slave ships or seven year olds to wonder what we’re capable of doing to our closest relatives. I only had to sit in the lecture theatre and listen to queries from the floor. Questions raised by some of the delegates showed that they'd spectacularly missed the point of the whole event.

After one lecture an elderly lady with a very posh voice asked.
‘If modern humans arrived in Europe 45,000 years ago, why did they take so long to become civilised?’
I squirmed in my seat; embarrassed for her; embarrassed that she was airing her chauvinistic assumption - that sedentary classical culture represents the pinnacle of human achievement.

At university a lecturer told me it was impossible for him to understand or express the complexity of indigenous Australian tradition because it wasn’t a matter of merely describing a belief system or a material culture. It was impossible for him to describe Aboriginal systems because Australians don’t just do things differently from people with a western mindset, they think things differently too. He likened their cognition to an ability to think and see around corners.

During coffee, another posh lady assured me that, despite what we'd learned about genetic and anthropological evidence to the contrary, she still thought Australians were from far more primitive stock than Europeans.

Matthew Pope spoke about Neanderthal adaptations to Ice Age conditions. At the end of his lecture the lady in the seat next to mine puts her hand up. She’s a perfectly nice posh-spoken lady and we chatted amiably before the talk started. I smile and nod at her encouragingly as she makes to ask her question. I should know better…
‘Has anyone commented on the similarities between Eskimos and Neanderthals?’
What? What?! Because they can cope with inclement weather and they eat a lot of protein?
I swivel with my knees facing away from the lady, in a cowardly attempt to disassociate myself from her views. Matthew Pope is silent for a moment; dumbstruck I assume. My flattened hands are clamped between my knees; I hope beyond hope that no one will think I’m with this lady; think that she’s my friend, or my mother, or my sister.
Matthew clears his throat.
‘Eskimos - the Inuit - are modern humans.’
My knees are crushing my knuckles; my shoulders hunched, my eyes squeezed tight closed - and something is emitting a tiny high-pitch humming sound, I think it’s me.
‘Yes, but has anyone properly done any research…?’
Stop! You can't talk like...
I don’t know what else was said. I might have blacked out.

Another speaker, Chris Stringer, wondered aloud how we would behave if Floresiensis were alive today. He suspected, Badly, and I concur.

The small-brained humans were still going about their Flores-business 18,000 years ago; that’s yesterday in evolutionary terms. If I’d timed my birth and arranged my geography a bit better I could easily have met Floresiensis and not had to hang about for the post-mortem Betamax screening (I imagine Heaven to be like a green-painted church hall; to be a little bit old fashioned and a little bit out of step with the rest of… erm, the Cosmos).

And if Floresiensis had clung on in Indonesia for another few thousand years, what would have happened to them? If civilised Egyptians got hold of the little folk first they could’ve been set to work on the fiddly bits of pyramid construction, down those long shafts that were sealed after completion. Floresiensis would have slotted very nicely into plantation jobs and they’d have been just the right size for mill and mine duties. If eco-friendly Westerners found a colony of Floresiensis today, I think we'd put them in a conservation zoo along with our other closest living relatives. In an Indonesian enclosure maybe, with a concrete wave pool so they could keep their hand in, launching rafts (the posh conference ladies might be persuaded to donate funds for an Outback enclosure and an Arctic enclosure if approached).

This time last year I was doing The Poet’s poetry module. As my other reader knows, I never really got the hang of poetry but I did develop a taste for writing pantoums; I’m a bad finisher and with a pantoum if you’ve got your first line you got your final line. I wrote a pantoum about how it would feel to see another kind of human being. When I was small and very ill I was treated by an Indian doctor; that was the first time I’d ever seen anyone who wasn’t white and European; I wondered if it would feel like I felt when I saw him. I was concerned that a reader of the pantoum would consider my poem to be racist but the sentiments in the piece tie in with this post so I’ve (very tentatively) put that poem on my other blog, Another Human Being.

Ranty, blethery, blathery, rant. What on earth am I trying to say? I’m trying to say that I was shocked by the casual racism and I suppose, speciesism, shown by my sophisticated colleagues. That I don’t think civilisation is all that civilised. And that I worry about my own craven responses – in Oxford I was more concerned to disassociate myself from misguided posh ladies than I was to make an effort to change their views. I worry at the contradiction that I think it’s dubious to keep fellow creatures in captivity but that if there was a Floresiensis to see in a wild life park (see below) I’d be there with my camera, like a shot. I’m saying that if David Attenborough could organise for me to look into the eyes of another kind of human person before I die, I’d be very grateful. And I am saying that I tried to write a poem about similar thoughts this time last year.

The drawings are by James Fraser; thanks yet again, James. I saw some captive meerkats at the Bowland Wild Boar Park. I felt sad for them because they belong in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana - but they were lively and enchanting and I watched them for ages; they really do take turns at keeping watch.

The Bowland Wild Boar Park is great, by the way. A proper farm with no use for nancy gaffer tape or No More Nails (because baler-twine is the farm-mender stuff of choice for everything). This is my youngest grandson on the recycled oil-drum ride; yes he is being chased by the tractor – fabulous!

I usually end a blog post with a cohesive upbeaty quip but it seems out of place in this instance. My youngest grandson is seven; the same age as the exhausted Victorian mill workers I think about sometimes.


Sandy Calico said...

I've already told you a few times how good this post is, but I thought I'd leave a comment here too. Brilliant piece of writing x

kim mcgowan said...

Thanks, Chuck

(know what you're doing and I'm really grateful) x

Benjamin Judge said...

I've always felt that at the end of readings, lectures, etc, someone should say "Right; we are just about to enter the question and answer section of the night so if anyone would like to leave, so as to avoid dying of embarassment at any stage, now is your chance."

kim mcgowan said...

It would be a plan - but I'm sure those ladies believed their queries were perfectly sensible...