Neanderthal update

I like Neanderthal stories for two reasons. First, this research shows science at it best in the development of technologies to date artifacts, the diligent search for ancient clues, and especially, the fact that our conception of who the Neanderthal were has dramatically changed as new data have come in. Since their discovery over a hundred years ago we have gone from thinking them brutes barely different from gorillas to now almost completely human like us. Changing minds through new data is to be much appreciated. The second reason is that genetic studies prove that my ancestors mated with them and I do not want to think of my people long ago mating with brutes of little intellects and no symbolic capabilities. I would hope they were more discriminating.

So the most recent update comes from this story in the NYT:

Evidently some paleoanthropologists were holding up their admission of the Neanders into full humanity because they said the evidence allowed the possibility that their use of tools and their art making were copied from Homo sapiens. That objection has now fallen as art and tools have been found and dated through new, refined technology to time periods way before modern humans entered Europe. Hmm, maybe Homo sapiens copied tools and art from them?

My latest thinking on the inception of symbolic thought, both discursive (language) and presentational (art) forms, is that our heightened empathic abilities led to a rather robust intimacy, a mind to mind connection through kinesic modalities wherein we sensed and knew the other’s subjective mental domain, coupled with the increasing power and specificity of mirroring systems serving communication (think arcuate fasciculus). This yields the view that an intimate connection of immediate sensing of another’s mind coupled with the invariant structure of surface behaviors produced the first symbols.

In this light consider why early art is so often found in caves, and not just close to the entrances but sometimes way back in there. We visited one site in France where an electric railcar took us maybe a mile back into the cave to see etchings of mammoths and other animals on the ceiling. Why? Some say that art rose in association with animist magic, that these paintings were a mystical participation with the animal spirits and communion with Gaia. Read Kim Stanley Robinson’s excellent novel Shaman to see the truth of this possibility. But magic has both public and private aspects. Yes, shaman protected their mysteries (and for good reason because sometimes they were not so mysterious once initiated) but they also performed public rituals. Indeed, magic would not be very useful if not public.

Here’s another thought: Art came about when the need arose to extend intimacy beyond the circle of familiars, art being a personal expression of some vital experience, and so the first artists were a bit shy about their productions and protected their privacy by painting deep in caves. As we learned more about art and more came to appreciate the beauty therein, we moved it out into the public domain and cultural identity took on another feature. Even today while some artists open their studios to audiences, many keep their creations private until complete, and some, like Leonardo da Vinci, keep their most precious pieces in their possession. Leonardo kept the Mona Lisa with him for 20 years, working on it a little bit now and again, and died with it in his room, never giving it to his patron. Personal, private, it was.

Anyway, I really like my hypothesis about the inception of art here; it feels fit to me, this combining empathic intimacy and mirrored communication. (You heard it here first). Time, now, to travel on.


That sapiens guy copied my bison drawing. Good grief! Did a good job though. These new kids may have some talent.

Leonardo da Vinci biography

At the top of my blog is a picture of the Vitruvian man by Leonardo da Vinci. He drew this when he was about 38 years old around 1490. He was not the first to draw such a figure trying to arrive at the correct proportions of height, arm span and leg length to fit into a circle or square but he studied such measurements with detailed diligence and his drawing skills are unsurpassed, so his is the one to remember.

I have finished a slow, pleasurable read of a Christmas gift, Walter Isaacson’s most excellent biography of the wondrous Leonardo da Vinci. I read his excellent biographies on Ben Franklin and Einstein some time ago and I very much looked forward to his work on da Vinci. Extensive historical research, close consultation with modern experts and his own keen appraisal of Leonardo’ work, all rendered in fine prose, make this book a true pleasure to read. Go get it now and wonder at the close portrait of a remarkable human, artist, scientist, engineer, dramatist, entertainer, raconteur, and the list goes on. Isaacson shows us how Leonardo’s great powers of observation and intuitive connections of phenomena and patterns over many interests and his entire life span that he recorded beautifully in thousand of pages of journal, both drawings and writing in his famous mirror script, mark him as a singular genius.


His portrait by his adoptive son and student, Francesco Melzi. Imagine him a younger man with curly locks, bright complexion, and athletically vigorous, who was bright and creative and very social.

I knew that Leonardo was gay, but I did not know that he was a great dandy, known for his fine clothes in pink, lavender and other such colors, that he was regarded as quite handsome, that he was arrested twice as a young man for the religious crime of sodomy but was released when proof was lacking, that he was regarded as the true life of the party for his wit, parlor tricks, and imaginative sharing of his knowledge, that he left unfinished many commissions because he lost interest, found their completion too difficult, or he kept them for himself. He worked on the Mona Lisa for decades, refusing to relinquish it to his sponsor, and carrying it with him around Italy and finally to France where he died.  He was a vegetarian and pacifist, even when he worked for the notorious  Borgia clan (he resigned after several months evidently pretty disgusted by his close up experience of internecine war).

I did not know that he was one of the great anatomists of his day and very likely ours. He dissected many pigs, horses, and humans, recording his observations in beautiful drawings and precise prose. I wondered at his gaining access to corpses because I thought that the all powerful church at that time frowned on such practices, but he seemed to escape censure there. This was probably an early facet of the Renaissance whereby curiosity about the natural world became valued over religious orthodox prohibitions. Leonardo also moved about with some serendipity. He left his native Florence to live and work in Milan for many years; during his absence Savonarola took and lost power in Florence. This religious fanatic made bonfires of the vanities famous as he organized the burning of books and artwork (remember this is Florence, one of the great centers of medieval and Renaissance art and intellect) as well as prosecuting many for prohibited sexual practices. Leonardo’s tenure in Milan ended with the defeat of his princely patron after a long time and so he returned for awhile to Florence after the Savonarola craze had ended.  Such a loss was avoided by this circumstance.

Consider this example of his diligent genius. He wondered why the heart valves of the aorta closed so as to prevent any blood from regressing into the heart once pumped out to the body. The common assumption that continued up until the 1960s was that the weight and pressure of the blood once the aorta was filled pushed the valve closed. Leonardo looked at human and pig hearts, even watching a pig heart beating and later making a glass model to observe fluid flow. He did not accept the assumption because his observations showed that the weight and pressure would only collapse the valve’s membranous flaps against the sides. Instead he thought that the turbulence caused by the flow through the valve from one space to another pulled the valve shut. Once we had the modern technology to image a working heart, we discovered that he was right. Wow!

Leonardo’s religious beliefs were not explicit; he certainly followed the church and was not in any way heretical or was not even obviously heterodoxical (ignoring here his sexuality). He wrote at one point that he would not “write or give information of those things of which the human mind is incapable and which cannot be proved by an instance of nature”, “leaving such matters to the minds of the friars, fathers of the people, who by inspiration possess the secrets.” He was one of the early modern and greatest empiricists and an artist of fertile imagination who combined art and science into a life’s work, including putting on spectacles and plays for his patrons, for which he was maybe best known in his lifetime. Go figure.

Now time to travel on.

An odd (?) and provocative (!) finding

Many members of my generation (born 1950) were the first in our families to go straight from high school to college and then to expect our children to do the same. Some of my friends quite wisely rejected college to pursue other career paths about which their parents were not keen. And some of my daughter’s generation also rejected higher education and some of them faced heightened pressure to continue on, such as hearing about the research on lifetime earnings between high school and college graduates to outright emotional rejection if they failed to carry on the college tradition. The reasons I heard then were primarily of two sorts, the preparation for a more lucrative career and the rite of passage into adulthood as college helps youth to engage with their peer group, develop a mature identity to carry them forth from the bosom of their family, etc. I rarely heard an argument for intellectual development and appreciation of the world of ideas, and then mostly when I listened to myself and other nerds.

Now I gather from a NYT story that scientists are searching for a genetic influence (of course) in who goes for further education: This began evidently a decade or so ago and the results have not been very elucidating, but recently a group of researchers looked at the genomes of parents to see if some clue could be found there as to whose children pursued more education, and voila, there was. I really like this research effort with its odd and provocative results, and I also have to wonder about the relative contributions of class, wealth and other family traditions that are, of course, also genetically influenced. I still remember my first team meeting at an internship in clinical psychology at a teaching hospital and learning that 6 of the 7 psychiatry residents were the children of physicians, a couple of them 3rd or 4th generation. Almost a caste or hereditary guild system there.

So the genes in their families helped impel these scions to further education? Maybe. The theoretical basis for this, I think, comes from Richard Dawkins and his concept of the extended phenotype. (I hope I have understood this correctly and can explain it properly). Basically idea of the extended phenotype is that genes act beyond their synthesis of proteins, etc. in their own soma, i.e., body, to affect other somas and the environment and that this extended action also promotes the continuation of select genes. Dawkins marshals considerable evidence for this hypothesis, so it is quite natural to think that parental genes affect offspring’s behaviors not just through the progeny’s genetic inheritance, say for intelligence, but also through parental behaviors that influence the next generation’s adaptation. Indeed, to me this is exactly the genius of our mammalian heritage; attachment and bonding, mirroring and social learning, cultural transmission, etc. are all biological actions carried from soma to soma (you know, our humanity’s biological roots in empathy and symbolization).

I have a younger friend here in the mountains of SW Virginia who comes from an eminently practical and mechanical family; they can build and fix almost everything. The uncles and cousins all live in houses they built together by pooling their talents. My generation in this family all finished high school reluctantly and went on to successful careers in industry, rising through the ranks because of their mechanical intelligence, good sense and work ethic. My younger friend recently shared that his 5 yo son does not want to start school because he would rather accompany his father on his job working with machines. The father is proud of that and don’t most fathers want sons to follow somehow in their footsteps; I think this might be a fairly invariant feature of human culture, at least in recent civilized history where trades and professions have become more clearly specialized and defined. My own father insisted futilely that I follow him in the military.

But is there some genetic basis for not insisting that your child follow after you in a trade but rather pursues more education? Is part of genetic ‘success’ and human evolution the tendency of some parents to promote their children’s going further or in a different direction? I would think that the human path from prehistoric to ancient to modern intellectual culture, progressing from animism and magic to science and engineering, over the long slog of history would have required such a genetic flow and current, even if it is a result of chaotic, random mutations building upon the genetic roots of our beings. And now this research may provide an entry into exploring how such progress was served by the extended phenotype in which parents promote greater intellectual understanding in their children through further education and not just following along with traditional ways, content with the orthodoxy of old.

Consider the past half million years or so as our ancestors developed a human habitus and conserved the old ways by resisting much of the new. I have read much history and fiction which show historically that children used to follow almost religiously their family tradition in work, class, etc.; indeed in many cultures and periods they had (& have) little choice. This notion may seem alien today, at least in the USA and western world where the ‘dream’ is of a better, richer, more technologically advanced way of life (and this, by the bye, is being challenged with the rise of other countries from the ashes of our imperialism), as we think progress is inevitable because of the increasing power of our science and technology. I believe that is, oh, so wrong. Balance is important in all matters, especially between material gains and social justice, and devolution waits just around the corner. Ask the survivors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima; watch as our democracy now faces a severe test because of anti-scientific bias, impoverished critical thinking, and neglect of fairness in economic rewards. (I will not bring up a catastrophic loss of electricity due to meteors or other calamities). Consider our own (American) falling rankings on measures of happiness, health, education (especially STEM subjects), gap between rich and poor, etc. We may indeed have genes for helping our children to appreciate further education, even ones for promoting their curiosity and progress in discovering new and better ways that have helped power our evolution for thousands of years or genes that led to greater intellectual progress. These genes would seem to help us accept, even insist that our children cherish an ethic of knowledge and the new understanding it brings and question our knowledge of ethics to seek a more just world. At least I hope later generations feel this benefit.

A good study, then, with odd and provocative results; such findings are sometimes our best hope for knowing ourselves in a changing world. Travel on.