a new find of humans at higher elevations and a deep biological root

I have found another new report of ancient humans living at higher elevations, 11,000 feet, 47,000 years ago:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/08/science/humans-high-altitude-ethiopia.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage&section=Science.

This report adds to some others that I have posted about, e.g. high life in the Andes 12,000 years ago and the Denisovans wandering from the steppes of central Russia to the Himalayas 160,000 years ago, bringing their genes with them, especially the ones that specified a hemoglobin more adapted to the thin air of higher elevations.  Whether it’s highlands, lowlands, hot, cold, tropical, dry, humans have sought to live there and exercising thereby our wondrously flexible adaptive abilities.

I want to focus on one idea Carl Zimmer, the NYT science writer from above, reported.  That is that paleoanthropologists have assumed that humans did not settle at higher elevations until more recently because, I can only guess, of the thin air, sparse vegetation and wildlife for food, severe weather, etc.  This new discovery of early humans at 11,000 feet was made because the researchers ignored those assumptions and looked there. Now they think more efforts will find other sites situated up high—they need only to look.

Davis and Panksepp emphasize in The Emotional Foundations of Personalitythat the 6 basic emotional subcortical systems are ancient with some appearing with the earliest nervous systems and then culminating in their current forms with the evolution of mammals.  These 6 are seeking, play/joy, caring/nurturance (all positive valence) and rage/anger, fear/anxiety, panic/sadness (all negative valence), and the most ancient of these is seeking.

Seeking would seem to me to be a manifestation of a basic life function. If you have followed this blog you may remember that I see 2 such functions that I call Solving the World Problem (SWP) and Conspecific Relations (CR).  SWP involves finding the necessary resources for life to continue, but more than that, it involves exploiting opportunities (that arise from actions or from chance) and mitigating exigencies (that arise from, you know, just trying to stay alive in a blooming, buzzing, chaotic and at times dangerous world). It makes sense, then, that early nervous systems helped the organism to find its way through to survival, i.e., seeking.

 

Our SEEKING (in all caps following Panksepp’s labeling of major subcortical systems) is a remarkable and powerful system that bears fruit as dopamine flows up to innervate cortical systems and energize activity in intellectual domains.  Jaak Panksepp gives an amazingly detailed, data driven description in chapter 8 of his fabulous text, Affective Neuroscience(I learn more every time I re-read portions—you gotta read this amazing book).  Consider some of his introductory statements:

  • Now we know that ascending DA [dopamine] tracts lie at the heart of powerful, affectively valenced neural systems that allow people and animals to operate smoothly and efficiently in all of their day-to-day pursuits.
  • [DA is] a major contributor to our feelings of engagement and excitement as we seek the material resources . . . . and when we pursue the cognitive interests that bring positive existential meanings into our lives.
  • Without DA human aspirations remain frozen, as it were, in an endless winter of discontent

Ah, but with a healthy flow of DA we human animals seek out opportunities, tried and true & novel, in our thinking and in our world. Again, after the systems controlling arousal the SEEKING system is the most ancient, and I think that throughout our evolution and during individual development this system has developed into new structures fueled by the flow of dopamine.  These higher structures serve increasingly cognitive functions infusing them with curiosity and an appetite for novelty.

If certain paleoanthropologists had read Panksepp’s Affective Neuroscience, they would have assumed that humans diversified into every environment because meeting the challenges of seeking resources, internal and external, is a basic instinct, i.e., a deep biological root of our humanity, that finds new expression and fulfillment in human intellect.  That is good news and I will rest here for a moment rather than travel on.

 

 

Forensic science finds ancient crimes, but solving the mystery?

My wife is a big fan of Lin Anderson’s detective novels featuring Rhona MacCleod, forensic scientist; she likes the gritty details of Rhona’s investigations (otherwise she does not like blood or crime or anything like that) and the insight the writer shows into human motivations, behaviors, and relationships.   Now archeologists are using the tools of forensic science to investigate the ancient times.  A report came out a while back that forensic science figured out Otzi, the stone age man whose body was mummified in ice found in the Italian alps 10 years ago, was killed by an arrow in the back 5000 years ago.  His clothes had the blood from 4 other individuals on them and he had other wounds some partially healed and some at time of death. The researchers put together a plausible narrative wherein he had a fight and won, took off to the mountains to escape retribution, and was shot in the back because his assailants did not want to face him again in a fight.  Even then Otzi rolled over and tried to pull the arrow out, a futile task because of the fatal damage done.  It also appears that his enemies ended his life quickly then with some blows. Sounds like a good plot for a novel or script for a movie, eh?

A recent report on PLOS (that’s the Public Library of Science) details the techniques forensic scientists use as they find evidence for interpersonal violence 30,000 years ago:  https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0216718.   This analysis was on a skull found in Romania some time ago.  The researchers examined the skull through CT scans and visual inspection, analyzing the pattern of injuries, whether they had healed or not, whether the bone was still plastic (indicating that the person was alive when injured), and other features.  They also used synthetic skulls to experimentally replicate the pattern of injuries through various means, e.g., blunt force trauma, falling, etc.  They concluded that the skull injuries occurred at the time of death, not before and not after, and that the only probable means for an injury with this pattern was blunt force trauma with a club-like weapon.

Now this person was a modern human, not a Neandertal or other variant, but who knows who killed him.  I tend to think that early tools were developed for hunting, digging, etc., but maybe the first tool was a weapon.  Our biological nature is one wherein we fight for defense and to protect resources from the others, e.g., not of our clan, though culturally this has developed to become violence in the service of aggrandizing power and thus resources, e.g., slaves, land, taxes, etc.  And another motivation, as I posted about on 3/28/19, was to appease the gods and so control the supernatural forces controlling weather and harvests. In this instance Incan priests sacrificed 140 child prisoners and 200 animals in response to, so the primary hypothesis runs, a natural disaster.  This was done around 1400 CE.  It probably did not achieve its desired end, unless that was to bring Spanish conquistadors and priests a few decades later to subjugate the indigenous peoples.  (In a cynical aside, I wonder if our efforts to mitigate climate change are any more effective, at least so far?  Maybe some alien life form will arrive to ‘help’ us?)  But I digress.

Or maybe I don’t.  In my last post on Davis and Panksepp’s Emotional Foundations of PersonalityI presented their idea that 6 basic emotional systems operating in subcortical neural structures underlay, constrain, motivate and flavor our personality structure and cognitions.  They said this succinctly towards the end of the book, “Although we humans are highly cognitive creatures, it is clear that we are not liberated from ancient emotional arousals”.  Amen.  In modern America the availability of guns, these products of our cognitive and technological precision, amplifies through tragic actions the motivations for violence, e.g., turf wars, domestic violence, and now mass murders in the service of what?  Imagined invasions and the incredibly vile and mistaken cognitive efforts to see ‘others’ as dangerous aliens when all reasoned and realistic minds understand the value of these others and cherish their presence in our country.  And even more prescient minds understand that we are all one on one planet.  And our American culture seems to worship guns in ways no other culture or nation does, or has ever done, so that our laws make sure everyone can have as many lethal weapons as they want.  These are not the clubs of 30,000 years ago, nor the arrows of 5000 years ago, nor the ritual sacrificial and horrid killings of 600 years ago, but modern tools of fatal warfare.  After each modern mass murder or once we notice a surge or pattern in individual murders, another ritualized pattern of behavior is enacted to somehow cleanse the nation’s psyche, e.g., thoughts and prayers, affirmations of resilience, etc., and then we are, I can only assume, ‘ready’ for the next instance.

I have begun reading a book recommended by Davis and Panksepp, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Themby Joshua Greene.  So far he has articulated the notion that our evolution has prepared us for resolving conflicts through moral means between an individual and others in his tribe, e.g., through reconciliation or making up, but that part of this development involves serious problems resolving conflicts between tribes.  As I have assumed and said here, we evolved with strengths in intimate and small group relationships.  These were adequate when the human population was sparsely distributed, tribes were small, and resources relatively adequate.  However, as many have noted, with a burgeoning population, large, rather artificially constructed groups called nations, and increasingly inadequate resources, especially water (you know, the basic stuff of life) our evolutionary abilities to relate peacefully and morally are being tested in new ways and are all too often falling short.  This is so even as the overall level of violence on a global scale has fallen, according to Stephen Pinker.

I will continue reading Greene’s book, hoping to learn more about our biological roots and how we can draw upon them to live better with all others.  I will continue to read fine fiction that presents the human condition in clarifying aesthetic light. While forensic tools can detect and clarify the nature of the crime; solving the mystery is another matter.  And I will advocate for the notion that our culture can act upon better impulses—cultures can and do change: gun worship is not intrinsic or necessary to who we are. We are certainly not trapped by our biology to be violent with each other; in fact human nature is just the opposite.  Time to travel on.

Psychologists’ ethics (or lack thereof)

Remember Ted Kaczynski?  I am reading The Emotional Foundations of Personality:  A Neurobiological and Evolutionary Approachco-authored by Kenneth L. Davis and the great Jaak Panksepp, who did not live to see its completion but whose work and ideas inspired the effort.  So far it is interesting, a bit wordy and redundant as it argues for a different way of conceptualizing personality based upon the roots of our emotionality in subcortical structures.  The interesting part is when they depart from promoting their approach to actually detailing it in contrast with some previous approaches that struggle to be relevant biologically.

Being a retired clinical psychologist, I used to pay attention to personality theory. Actually, long years ago as an undergraduate English major, I read a book by Theophrastus on Characters, an early effort at understanding personality types.  Anyway, I used several instruments to assay the personalities of some patients, like the MMPI, a long, very long set of yes-no questions which has been used for decades.  The patterns of answers fit into certain personality profiles that were identified through statistical means (factor-analysis) and standardized through several iterations of the test.

Another instrument was the TAT, the Thematic Apperception Test, wherein I would show a patient a series of pictures and ask them to tell me a story about them, the assumption being that their interpretations were projections of their personality, e.g., of how they viewed their world, others in it and themselves. It was helpful.

Now I read in Emotional Foundations of Personality(written in 2018) that the TAT was created by Christiana Morgan and Henry Murray in the 1930s, and reading a note accompanying the text on my Kindle, that Murray ran a psychology study at Harvard for several years (1969-1972) that Ted Kaczynski (remember the Unabomber finally caught living the primitive life in Montana) participated in. Further, Murray’s study is now understood to have been quite unethical (and no surprise, had some funding links with the CIA).  Jumping Jehosaphat, as my hero Gabby Hayes used to exclaim, I needed to know more. Wikipedia was there for me.

From 1959 to 1962 Murray ran a study that looked at how to break down a person’s mind and control them.  Under the guise of a different experiment (thus the ethical violation of enlisting subjects without informed consent) the researchers would ask the subject about themselves, their lives, values, etc., ostensibly for a neutral purpose, but then use that information to subject them to insults, demeaning their persons, behaviors and values, to understand the effects of such psychologically sadistic behaviors (oh, another unethical behavior).

Ted Kocynski enlisted as a young 18 or 19 year old Harvard student and was subjected to over 200 hours of this ‘protocol’.  It would be enlightening to know how many subjects dropped out early in their participation.  He had been admitted to Harvard as a particularly gifted student in mathematics, described as mostly socially withdrawn, not unfriendly but not socially skilled or outgoing either.  Upon graduation he began to teach college mathematics but quit after 6 or 7 years and disappeared into the wilds of Montana, where he became increasingly alienated, critical and perhaps paranoid of modern society and government, eventually terrorizing the nation with letter bombs.  One of his biographers, drawing from family and friends’ interviews and Kaczynksi’s writings, believes his experience in Murray’s experiment had a profound impact on his mind, attitudes (his personality?) and mental stability.

I have found that psychologists have a mixed reputation amongst the population. When my wife recently told a new acquaintance that I was a retired clinical psychologist, she exclaimed that she would be afraid to talk with me.  Ah, yes, now that I focus on reading her mind, I can see why.  And of course we are not referred to as shrinks for nothing, or actually it is for nothing because ‘shrinks’ really refers to psychiatrists, but that is neither here nor there.

Consider also that two psychologists cooperated with the CIA, not having learned anything from the Henry Murray incident (maybe not knowing about it or seeing that he was not censored, went ahead anyway), to help design the CIA torture mistakenly called ‘enhanced interrogation’.  The American Psychological Association evidently also cooperated with this effort. Oh well, the two psychologists and their company were paid $81 million dollars for this work.  The rest of us received the assurance that the torture was, what?  Psychologically valid?  We know it was not reliable nor ethical nor humane.  Just ask the victims of torture and those victimized by Ted Kaczynski.

I gotta get out of this place, so I will quickly travel on.

I stumble through and bump my head

For a couple of years now I have been reading various works from Asia and pondering how Eastern thought contributes to our understanding of ourselves and our world.  This includes specific ancient texts, like the Tao te Ching and various sutras, as well as commentaries thereon, and ancient to almost modern poetry.  Lovely stuff!  I have also been going through The Gateless Gate  (an old collection of Buddhist koans—paradoxical statements meant to help one along the way to enlightenment, like “What is the sound of one hand clapping? Or one of my favorites:  What was your primal face before your parents were born?) very slowly and marveling at how Buddhists can confound linear thinking.  While I learn much from all of these texts, I also have had a nagging quibble that seems important but difficult to articulate  . . . .

. . . Until I read a statement of some hybrid beliefs involving Buddhism and Gaian theory and my quibble crystalized into a coherent structure.

More context before my quibble.  I was reading a book not about Eastern thought but one about Gregory Bateson, a very interesting fellow.  He comes from a self-described family of atheists, himself being the fourth generation of skeptics.  In Gregory’s youth they hobnobbed with some of the great thinkers of early 20thcentury England such as the Huxleys and Alfred North Whitehead.  His father was instrumental in spreading the ideas of Gregor Mendel, the monk who worked so assiduously on plant genetics, integrated with Darwinian ideas; indeed he was one of the first to call this study of heredity “genetics” and Gregory was named after the monk.  The father seems to me a prime example of being in the right place at the right time with a mind prepared to grow the opportunity.

Gregory Bateson was a mostly independent scholar who worked across many disciplines.  As a young man he married Margaret Mead and they did research together in the south Pacific islands.  He then had a long and influential career studying cybernetics, psychiatry, semantics and communication theory, as well as anthropology.  I had heard mention of him over the years without remarking upon him very much until recently, and then his ideas seemed quite relevant to mine and important in general, so I read Understanding Gregory Bateson:  Mind, Beauty and the Sacred Earthby Noel Charlton (a decent read though Mr. Charlton spends much energy evangelizing for Bateson’s ideas—they are good but this is not how change comes about.  I may get around to a more thorough review of this book later).

Bateson saw all of nature as a series of nested minds, ours being nested on some intermediate level, so that all of our ecology is actually one mind composed of many minds.  He saw that in our separating ourselves from nature, we had lost ‘grace’ and were harming our world and so also ourselves.  The way back to grace is to engage with the sacred or the unitary grandness of life on our planet (oh, I am simplifying here a great deal—read more for yourselves) through aesthetics, the beauty of nature, and human art.  If you follow my blog you can understand why I wanted to know more about his work.

In the penultimate chapter Charlton reviews how other thinkers were influenced by Bateson and how other ideas meshed with his ecological views.  One of these was Gaian theory, of course, and one of these thinkers was a Buddhist-Gaian scholar named Joanna Macy. This seems a natural confluence here, and you know I like confluences.  When I read Charlton’s rendition of Macy’s ideas, I realized what my mind had balked at as I read other ideas from the East.  Specifically I struggled to understand the notion that enlightenment involves experiencing the unity between objective and subjective or the truth that there is no self.  Yes, I do accept that in meditation such boundaries can and do dissolve but once again, anyone who experiences enlightenment is a biological creature and that entails certain corollaries.

So Charlton says this of Macy’s ideas:  “Similarly, in both Buddhism and General Systems Theory (Macy uses this term interchangeably with ‘systems cybernetics’), the self is a process that cannot be abstracted from its context in nature and society.  It is an ‘open system’ and it is impossible to distinguish self from non-self.  Any division is arbitrary; the individual self is a fiction” (p. 189). Oops!  Sure self is a process on many levels but it can and is abstracted from its context; indeed, at a very basic level anything we use words to discuss is already abstracted from the flux and phantasmagoria of experience.  My question is always about the adequacy of the abstraction, i.e., does it capture the primary structure and its history along with its inter-relationships and dependencies with its soma, its ecology and its its ancient past?

The self, like its soma, is not an ‘open system’ and can certainly be distinguished from non-self, just like the soma is understood to be a life form. These are not ‘open systems’ because a soma, a brain and its MEMBRAIN maintain their integrity through control of the membrane functions, passing information in and out, keeping information in and out. The self follows along with this pattern.  Sure the soma is a wonderful composition of different life forms—the biome is a necessary adjunct to its healthy vital operations, and the self is also a complex composition dependent upon social interaction for its derivation.  I maintain that that the basic features are an autobiographical sense of its life and a sense of its agency, but secondary features abound, e.g., roles, selves associated with those roles, an apprehension of conscious subjectivity, etc.  Again, an adequate abstraction must also include what supports these features that operate below the limen of awareness, and also what the self keeps out of its ‘self-definition’.  For example, I am myself a father and husband, which are clearly within my self’s bounds, and I know the alphabet and basic math, but those are not a part of myself. Is this a fiction?  Why yes it is as a construct in the mind, but as Dumbledore told Harry, it is still true.

Somehow my mind likes Eastern philosophies; I find a good deal of truth and wisdom in their approach.  I think Buddhist enlightenment is a worthy goal, of sorts.  As I say in my creed, I follow an ethic of knowledge, and this leads me to explore the mystic boundaries within and beyond myself.  I find there a most agreeable landscape to wander (yes, yes, remember that not all who wander are lost).  But read the third chapter of The Gateless Gateabout Zen Master Gutei who always answered any question about Zen by raising one finger.  When he heard that his young assistant answered a question about his master’s teaching by raising his one finger, Gutei cut off the boy’s finger with a knife. The boy ran away.  Gutei called him back and raised one finger, and “the boy was suddenly enlightened”.

Somehow this enlightenment came with the experience that the self is a fiction, that his finger was part of what separated him from this realization, and that he understood that his self was a fiction and experienced reality as unitary and without conceptual distinctions—finger or no finger is a distraction.  Oops and ouch!  I have reached a mystical boundary and bumped my head in finding it.

With any religious school of thought and discipline my skepticism finds antiquated constructs, and there one is.  My ethic of knowledge keeps me grounded in my biological roots.  So enlightenment is a biological notion (maybe a rock or tree is enlightened but they, not some human being, would have to communicate that to me and I do listen out as I wander the farm.)  The self is an outgrowth or feature of life; it bears many relations to all that surrounds it now, past, and future, but a life has an onset and termination.  Some spiritual and religious traditions maintain the self is independent of those events, and I myself wonder about that, i.e., about how it could be true in my cosmology which is devoid of the supernatural. (Remember my motto: “If it is, it’s natural.  If it isn’t natural, it isn’t, except as an imaginative dream).  But the self and its soma is not an open system nor a closed system but a gated system operating to sustain the negentropic balance of energies working at the heart of life’s vitality.

How we understand life and cherish Gaia and structure our participation in this transcendent reality is important.  Bateson and many others know that we as a species are not doing a good job of this. How do we find and follow a better path? I do not know, but I think, like Bateson, that engaging with natural beauty and the vital experience artists render for us is very important.  I also think following an ethic of knowledge and seking a knowledge of ethics is important, e.g., appreciate our science and our human relationships with each other and Gaia.  As the previous post put it, “sometimes human beings are stupid”.  And sometimes we are smart.  I wonder about the cultural rhythms of wisdom and ignorance and travel on seeking a better wave.  But I cannot hold up one finger to indicate the one true way or condone mutilation in the interest of religious purity or spiritual realization.

Since human beings are frequently stupid . . .

As I read I am always on the lookout for another great book. I found in this way Pierre Boudrieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practiceand Susan Oyama’s The Ontogeny of Information among others.  Now I am reading another one, The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, touted as one of the 5 most important books on sociology last century (and there were many).  I am reading it slowly both to enjoy the ideas and to understand them as best I can.  Early on I kept saying to myself, “Is this how sociologists think about things?” because their level of analysis is so different from what I am used to (mostly psychological, biological and neuroscientific).  Social Construction is quite abstract and analyzes how we humans as a society form institutional knowledge and cultural forms almost on a step-by-step basis, beginning with dyad, then a triad, and then a larger group thereby creating and institutionalizing human culture.  It seems quite austere in its analytical and logical approach and I imagine required quite an effort to write so and supercede in the main the messiness of human biology and psychology.  This is a really good book.

Berger and Luckmann  write with insight albeit from their different perspective on many topics I have pondered. I particularly appreciated their arrival at understanding and stating oh so clearly that all of human culture is a human (and to me that means biological and organic) creation: “The origins of a symbolic universe have their roots in the constitution of man. If man in society is a world-constructor, this is made possible by his constitutionally given world-openness, which already implies the conflict between order and chaos.  Human existence is, ab initio, an ongoing externalization.  As man externalizes himself, he constructs the world intowhich he externalizes himself.  In the process of externalization, he projects his own meanings into reality.  Symbolic universes, which proclaim that allreality is humanly meaningful and call upon the entirecosmos to signify the validity of human existence, constitute the farthest reaches of this projection.”

Well said, eh?.  My perspective is that we humans have an umvelt, i.e., an inner world, filled with self generated information much more than perceptual or even remembered information, and that this umvelt has come to be dominated by culturally transmitted information, i.e., what Berger and Luckmann call a symbolic universe.  To say that we externalize this umvelt and that we project our meanings into a self-, or better, selves-created reality is, I think, quite apt.

Berger and Luckmann also discuss how we reify these creations.  A good word that, ‘reify’, meaning to make something abstract real and solid.  One example of this comes from psychology where researchers might pose a construct and then assume it is real; any number of examples exist like Freud’s ego, a vague and ill-used concept that many think is a real thing.  Another example comes from physics where theorists derive some mathematical objects that may describe reality but are not in fact manifest in reality, like quarks.  Berger and Luckmann write that we humans create and populate symbolic universes and then forgetting that they are our own selves-creations, assume that they are real, i.e., we reify our our arbitrary forms and ideas into something thought to be actual, to truly exist independently of our minds.

I see a good example of this on my drive to town.  A sign advertising a church program says that “The universe follows god’s will”, but I think it is more accurate and less reified to reverse the terms, “God follows the universe’s ‘will’.”  As a way of illustrating this, a recent wind storm blew the church sign down.  Was the universe following god’s will or vice versa, was god’s will following or mirroring in some people’s minds the universe’s particular action?  Attribution is best done, I think, carefully and without reification.

I am also thinking a good deal these days about the frailty of cultural transmission (like how is it that so many Americans accept our President’s character as healthy and his actions as just and true?  We certainly lost something somewhere in the transmission of common moral and ethical sense).  Berger and Luckmann discuss a couple of reasons for this.   One is that socialization is rarely complete.  Well, yes, as I posted recently, I rejected the socially transmitted value specifying that beatniks are bad and racial discrimination is okay (see post 5/21/19).  The glory here is that each generation generally accepts what the previous one passes on but specifically examines certain aspects that seem out of kilter with current understood realities (remembering that these realities are selves-created).  We might call these critical moments (a metaphorical reification?) inflection points, and these come about for many reasons large and small, and especially through contact with people who think differently.

Another reason is that cultural transmissions sometimes involve information of some complexity, subtlety and nuance, and this necessitates that the transmission is simplified, because, as Berger and Luckmann write, “since human beings are frequently stupid, institutional meanings tend to become simplified in the process of transmission”.  Some may not be able to understand the deeper lessons learned by our ancestors because of some intellectual or emotional lack (perhaps, say, for example, they have grown mentally lazy due to anti-intellectual attitudes or they spend too much time and energy watching sports or reality shows, or they have become too entitled to think they need to work at thinking, just for some examples). Maybe they think that their world is so different and that they are so special that old wisdom, e.g., like the truth and value of character, is garbage.  This is important because, say Berger and Luckmann, cultural progress is institutional change (institutions in a very general sense) and that is not irreversible.  So yes, fascism can return and yes, that is bad, and no, we are not powerless here because this is our own selves-creation, but we do have to pay attention to some basic principles and act and think working at intellectual integrity (remember the words Sam sings in Casablanca, “the fundamental things apply as time goes by”).  Travel on.

A cultural shift or variation? Cowboys and the Confederate flag.

On today’s edition of cultural shifts in my lifetime I want to talk first about cowboys and then the Confederate flag as we ponder whether these have been progressive cultural shifts enlivening some value, e.g., historical truth, or simply a widening cultural pool more inclusive of realistic imagery.  (While I would hope humans are getting ‘better’, I am afraid the data do not support that thesis at this time).  And personal disclaimer:  I am not a cowboy; I have ridden a horse only twice in my life.  But I have been learning about them ever since I grew up in the 50s and watched TV.  In those early days cowboys, at least those who had starring roles, were upstanding, polite gentlemen mostly in white hats, e.g., Hopalong Cassidy (his was the first TV brand lunchbox), Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Cisco Kid, etc.  I personally always preferred their sidekick, Gabby Hayes, maybe not so conventionally upstanding but authentic and honest, a gentleman in all but speech and there he may have been a mite ‘cantankerous’, and whose hat was tolerably battered and dark.  However, he was a loyal friend to our hero and he could cook.  Yes, cook, and you never saw our hero stir a pot, much less wash it.

Roy Rogers was very popular.  Again I liked Gabby or his sidekick, Pat; they were a bit off kilter.  Roy was a force for orthodoxy; consider this code for his cowboy club:

 

  1. Be neat and clean.
  2. Be courteous and polite.
  3. Always obey your parents.
  4. Protect the weak and help them.
  5. Be brave but never take chances.
  6. Study hard and learn all you can.
  7. Be kind to animals and take care of them.
  8. Eat all your food and never waste any.
  9. Love God and go to Sunday school regularly.
  10. Always respect our flag and our country.

 

Well, let’s think about the reality of some of these. Cowboys were not neat and clean by the standards of many; they lived, after all, with cows on the trail, far from baths, etc.  And they had some reputation for, shall we say, rough behavior.  I remember an old show Rawhide (where Clint Eastwood first made his name as Rowdy Yates) where all the cowboys were clean shaven, wore clean clothes, etc., yet they lived out on the trail.  And they were all on their best behavior.

I particularly took exception to number 3: always obey your parents.  Always?  Sure, I think young children should obey their parents, but cultural progress requires disobedience, as does adulthood, come to think of it.  (Remember my recent post on beatniks and think about how we achieved civil rights, e.g., female suffrage and equality under the law for Afro-American, for all in this country, against the wishes of many parents).  Of course newer manifestation of the cowboy way has been their stubborn moral independence—think about Robert Redford’s role in Electric Horseman, his respect for his horse, and his revolt against corporate immorality.  Number 8 got me in trouble because I ate all my food and became fat kid.  Number 9 ignores the truth of skepticism and number 10 asked us to be willfully ignorant of our contemporaneous immoral actions abroad in the 50s and 60s under the Dulles brothers and then our corruption in waging the Viet Nam war in addition to the reactionary forces marshaled against civil rights.

So I deemed that Roy’s cowboy way was inadequate to dealing with the complexities of reality and growing up and neglected the reality that cowboys are gritty realists.  We have had many iterations over the years, thinking about TV shows, Gunsmoke and Bonanza, and movies, High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma (the original) but eventually producers and writers began to embrace a more realistic view, so that we have the spaghetti westerns leading to Clint Eastwood’s magnificent film, Unforgiven. Cowboys were dirty, both physically and morally; not bad, mind you, just messy.  I recently learned from Wikipedia that many of these films are considered ‘revisionist westerns’; they portrayed cowboys as the complex creatures they were and are (and as we all are).  Even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid showed our heroes as on the other side of the law, as lovable as they were.

It seems that more recently the image of cowboys has become even more realistic, even rebellious, gritty and dark.  Think about the Highwaymen with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson.  Consider the novels by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men. Blood Meridianand All the Pretty Horses. Now real cowboys, not drugstore or suburban cowboys, have probably changed little over the years except as the culture in general has changed, e.g., mechanization, availability of information, etc.  They still treasure nature and life outdoors, they still prefer the solitude of wide-open spaces, and they chafe at constraints and interference.

In terms of our cultural representations, my question is whether the changes in this expansion from the sanitized visions of my childhood to the more realistic versions of today constitute a progressive shift or merely a more inclusive variation as the pool of images expands?  I tend to think the former because the naïve versions cannot be repeated, at least not without a heavy dose of irony or parody.  Consider the original TV series of The Lone Ranger and the recent movie The Lone Ranger (with Johnny Depp as a mystical jester in Tonto).  A show depicting a hero of yesteryear would be hopelessly naïve and laughable.

The cultural differences between a shift or a variation in cowboy imagery are not really a serious matter, more a literary interest than anything else, but now consider the imagery of the Confederate flag.  In a recent conversation someone uttered the old phrase that history is written by the winners and I disagreed, saying look at our Civil War, then the racist flood that wiped out Reconstruction (watch Henry Louis Gates’ wonderful 2 part documentary on PBS if you want to cry over the possibility for an equitable and just society that America threw away with the birth of Jim Crow and the Klan), and the continuing narrative even to today that the Confederacy was an heroic society and morally correct cause.  (This is currently a big deal here in southwest Virginia after the Charlottesville neo-Nazi march and the ongoing effort to keep the Rebel flag in public displays like the annual Christmas parade.  Jeez.)  The defeated South re-wrote that history in order to reinstate white supremacy bolstered by the image of their flag representing the noble people and their cause.  And for a long time that has been orthodoxy written by amoral losers, not winners. To be clear, after watching Gates’ documentary, I understand that the winners buried their moral authority under political expediency and wrapped in their own racism.  And I understand from this development that the Confederate flag was not a big deal until the period from the 1890s to 1930s when Southern leaders promoted segregation and racial injustice by erecting many monuments and flying this flag, and then the flag was again rejuvenated to combat civil rights and more recently, cultural diversity and justice.

So consider the cultural evolution (manipulation?) of the Confederate flag, progressive shift or expanding variable pool? For a brief time recently I thought that the flag and its accouterments were being relegated to historical museums. The old argument that the Civil War was over states’ rights had finally been clearly debunked through excellent historical research and the morally repulsive reality of slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, etc. was finally being broadcast in the light of day (see my post about The Half Has Never Been Toldon 7/31/17 & 11/23/18). However, now with the resurgence of a racist nationalism here and in Europe, I have to wonder if we have only expanded the cultural pool to include more realistic narratives and the old distorted narratives continue to thrive albeit in mutated form.  Racism is like the measles; it lives on and will spread dangerously unless many of us are inoculated against it.

Earlier I said that we could not go back to the days of naïve cowboy imagery; The Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy can only ride again in satire.  I had trouble thinking of analogous renderings of Confederacy and white racism but my wife reminded me of Spike Lee’s excellent film, BlacKkKlansmanand then I remembered the treatment of the Klan in the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?   Read, if you haven’t already, the surreal satire by Paul Beatty, The Sellout.  A bit later I went further back in time to remember Mel Brooks’ wonderful and early satire, Blazing Saddles.

My final point here is that I will be certain we have made progress regarding the Confederate flag when fictional narratives about that facet of American life and history can only be carried forth in parody and satire, when we can no longer take seriously, only satirically, the claims embodied in the Confederate flag, and along with this, the violence by its proponents disappears under the heavy, heavy weight of moral condemnation.  You say I am a dreamer?  Well, I am not the only one, as my friend John used to say.  Or as Captain Picard said so well, “Make it so”. Travel on.

Post script to our wandering cousins (and their genetic streams)

Shortly after I posted about our wandering cousins, intrepid NYT science reporter Carl Zimmer posted story about a newly identified population called Ancient Paleo-Siberians:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/05/science/native-americans-genetics-siberia.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage&section=Science.  The story is a lengthy one and I do not have the time to render it clearly here, but the gist is that geneticists looking at different populations in Siberia and in North America have found a complex story of migration, populations mixing, populations disappearing, etc.  By and large the current Siberians have little genetics in common with Siberians of the long past or with native Americans today.  Geneticists have found a group from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago that seem to have played some role in peopling the Americas called the Ancient Paleo-Siberians.  Current native Americans derive about 75% of their DNA from this group who have largely disappeared.

The geneticists and anthropologists and paleontologists are working on different explanations and wondering how to gather more data to resolve their differences. Very difficult to find fossils in that area, especially since after the last ice age the land bridge between Asia and North American is underwater and the rest is frozen.  But given the recent news stories I began to ponder the facts of populations arising and subsiding through multiple migrations back and forth.

In prehistoric times we are talking about changes over thousands of years; in modern times we are talking about days, months and a year or two.  The prejudices against breeding between groups may have lessened in some places but continues on in others, and I suspect that much of the reaction against migrants and refugees is more about sexual mixing than economic realities.   Immigrants contribute to social and economic vitality in short order, even making important contributions on many levels, so the complaints about them using resources etc. must be a smokescreen for other concerns, e.g., group racial identity.

Only problem there is that group racial identity is more a political instrument for gaining and consolidating power than a valid concern over any genetic differences which are at most miniscule.  So I wonder if Ancient Paleo-Siberians, Neandertals, Denisovans, Ancient North Siberians, Inuits and Mayans back in the day before their cultures established political structures and functions showed concerns over the influx of a new group.  Siberia to us seems rather forbidding but back in prehistoric times was a resource rich environment.  Plus there were just not that many people back then; the overcrowding we experience as normal was not known.  So long as hunting grounds were separate or even shared like the Native Americans did in our own valley here in SW Virginia, I doubt that many problems erupted.

Another pondering:  The story of Romeo and Juliet is iconic for the triumph and tragedy of love between groups. As our species evolved, when did emotional bonds and attachment surmount sexual attraction to become a dominant force in which the love between two people erased their concerns about group differences?  I think that was a great day in our history, even if different problems then arose.

One of the tropes characterizing modern times is the speed with which cultural change takes place, and I think that also applies to group mixing, whether ethnic or racial or cultural.  Groups adhere together only so long, whether it is a decade or a millennium, and then boundaries begin to blur and break down as they mix with another group. That seems to me a basic fact of life on Gaia.  Only physical isolation stops this process and even then not for long.

So when the nationalist cretins march to promote their own group’s solidarity (as they did in Charlottesville) and, by implication at least, superiority, I know that they are doomed to in-breeding catastrophes.  Indeed, they are already in-breeding catastrophes of the cultural sort.  Our hope is that humans continue as they have done since the dawn of our kind, wandering and meeting new people, learning and developing new ideas, and sharing the planet as best we can (which is better than we are doing now).  As always, travel on.