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review 2017-10-13 05:57
The Dragon Factory - Jonathan Maberry
Patient Zero - Jonathan Maberry

I kind of can't even handle how ridiculously pulpy this series is so far. Patient Zero pretends to a kind of scientrism, wherein the zombie outbreak our intrepid heroes race to thwart has, like, a modicum of scientific plausibility, I guess. Baltimore cop and chiseled jaw hero Joe Ledger gets tapped by one of those shadowy X filesy governmental organizations to track down a terrorist with a name like The Jackal. The leader of said alphabet soup organization eats cookies as his ominous tic; Joe has to murder a terrorist twice in a week; international pharma phuckers are the absolute worst. Patient Zero is good fun, with lots of kickass and a fullblown zombie outbreak to salve your need for bloodshed. 


But it's The Dragon Factory which really swings for the cheap seats. There's literal Nazis, genetically engineered chimera, Neanderthals, evil albino twins with a side of incest, clones, and more, so much more. SO MUCH MORE. I kept cackling through this novel, unable to believe how fucking bonkers everything was, and just when I got a handle on it, it would get MORE BONKERS. Uff da, I haven't had as much fun with something this silly in a long time. I'm going to read the shit out every single Joe Ledger novel as long as they stay this goofy, 

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review 2013-11-24 00:00
The Singing Neanderthals
The Singing Neanderthals - Steven Mithen The Singing Neanderthals - Steven Mithen "The Singing Neanderthals" is not so much about Neanderthals as it is an exploration of the development of speech and music, starting from our distant ancestors clambering around in the tree tops to modern humans. The book discusses which areas of the brain, as well as which anatomical bits and pieces, are responsible for the evolution of speech and music. Everything from modern people with brain injuries or genetic defects, to group social functions, to primate vocalization/socialization, to the study of ancient hominid fossils, is covered in this book.

The book is fairly interesting, but some might find it overly technical and somewhat dry.
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review 2010-05-07 00:00
Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers: How Agriculture Really Began - Colin Tudge This book is a really quick read but it has lots of ideas that I really enjoyed hearing. It's not like it posits anything breathtaking or mind-boggling, it's just a short journey from the 'conventional wisdom' on agriculture, but it was well written and interesting to read!
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review 2010-03-25 00:00
The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived - Clive Finlayson I hate the cover of The Humans Who Went Extinct (THWWE). There’s an image of the savannah at sunset and superimposed in the right-hand corner is the face of a waifish Neanderthal child. Very adorable. But every time I look at it, I have visions of thuggish Cro-Magnons smashing through a sleepy Neanderthal camp bashing in this kid’s head and tossing her infant siblings up in the air to catch them on their spears.

That aside, THWWE is a fascinating interpretation of the hominid family bush, our place on it, and the places of our cousins. Finlayson doesn’t advocate a radically new perspective but he does want to reassess how much we can know based on the available genetic, fossil and archaeological evidence, and argue that we still have a long road ahead before coming to a definitive narrative (if ever).

Over the last couple of months I’ve read two other works that bear on this topic – The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind – and it’s instructive to see the different interpretations reached by these four authors. Where Jaynes saw human consciousness arising very late – within the last 3,000 years – Finlayson is of that school (of which I’m an auditing student, as well) which argues that “consciousness” to some degree is an outgrowth of a suitably complex brain. He ascribes it to earlier hominids, australopithecines, and primates in general, as well as cetaceans, octopi, elephants – basically all the higher order animals – as well as modern humans. The author argues that modern human success is the result of favorable climate and cultural factors with little contribution from biology – at least no significant contribution in the last 150,000 to 200,000 years. Which places him in clear opposition to both Jaynes and Cochran and Harpending, the latter of whom see genetic mutations as the basis for nearly every development in hominid history. Finlayson’s viewpoint isn’t completely unbalanced: We’re descended from a line of primates better adapted to the climatic conditions that prevailed over a large portion of the Eurasian-African super-continent at a particular point in history that allowed them to spread out over a wide range. But the final advantages that catapulted modern H. sapiens over Neanderthals and others were climatic and cultural.

A constant theme throughout the book is that modern humans are the product of chance. At any point in the story, a different climate, a more disease-resistant population, or any other variable could have favored a cousin species and would have produced a far different world then the one we live in today.

So what were these initial lucky breaks that has brought us to where we currently stand?

1. In general, primates have flexible joints. It made brachiating (tree climbing) easier and allowed some of them to come down to the ground and walk upright.

2. When the tropical forests that were our primatial cradle began to retreat and fragment due to climate change, our primate ancestors who lived on the margins of the range were able to adapt to a bipedal stance, among other things.

This concept of living on the margins is another important idea in Finlayson’s argument. In essence, when a species finds itself in crisis, it’s the populations on the margins of its range that do best – if they’re able to adapt at all. Time and again, our progenitors were caught at the edges and forced to adapt. As mentioned, Finlayson sees less and less direct evolutionary pressure as time goes on in this change and a greater role for culture. But the defining factor is always climate: Absent the catalyst of environmental change, there’s vanishingly little pressure for either biological or cultural change.

One more point about margins: They’re regions of ecological diversity and the species living there are adapted to exploiting a wider variety of resources to survive. This flexibility makes them “innovators” as compared to the “conservatives” – those stodgy, stay at homes who populate the heartlands of a range.

3. Among the “other things” mentioned above was an omnivorous diet. Fruits, nuts and the occasional insect may have been on the original menu but hominid digestive tracts can handle a wide variety of cuisines. Critical for our ancestors who found themselves very far from the tropical Kansas of our origins.

The first widespread expansion of the Homo genus came with H. erectus - venerable icon of paleoarchaeology textbooks and probably one of our direct ancestors. Finlayson is at pains to point out that we don’t have enough evidence to reconstruct direct connections between hominid fossils. Any claims to the contrary are provisional and can be upset by the next find. (The evidence often consist of nothing more than a few bone fragments and some teeth. The prominence given to Lucy, the australopithecine girl, is due to the completeness of the skeleton, c. 40%, which tends to make it loom larger than it deserves. Though she’s clearly on the road to Homo, Lucy is not necessarily a direct ancestor to our version.)

But back to Erectus: By about 1 million years ago (1 mya), their populations stretched from China to the Atlantic and extended down the eastern side of Africa (there’s a nice map of this on p. 60 of my edition). Then disaster struck – the cycle of ice ages and interglacials kicked into gear and hominids experienced fragmentation, decimation, recovery, and then further fragmentations, decimations and recoveries (or not) in approx. 100,000-year cycles. One of these relict populations produced H. heidelbergensis, an offshoot of which further evolved into Neanderthals. Another fragment became the proto-H. sapiens who were our direct ancestors.

One of Finlayson’s more interesting interpretations of the evidence is that the Neanderthals were the last, moribund population of the Heidelberg line. The cyclical population collapses, the disappearance of the climate zones Neanderthal had evolved in, and the more flexible cultures of H. sapiens drove them into extinction. But that doesn’t mean that Neanderthals, or Heidelberg humans, were unsuccessful as a species. They survived for half a million years or more and kept modern humans out of Europe until about 45,000 years ago. Their nemesis, according to Finlayson, was Mother Nature. Had Europe retained the forests, climate and fauna in which Heidelberg was born, early humans would have been far less successful in penetrating Europe and prevented from doing so for far longer. This points up a weakness, I think, in Finlayson’s argument: The near absence of any consideration of biological evolution. He seems to be of the view that Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon were essentially the same mentally; purely cultural and climatic factors allowed the latter to prevail. If that’s the essential difference, why weren’t Neanderthal able to adopt Cro-Magnon methods? Perhaps Finlayson avoids the subject because we don’t have sufficient evidence yet to say anything useful about the subject. Genetic assays of the Neanderthal genome is an exciting new branch of science but still in its infancy, despite its impressive achievements to date. Finlayson is perhaps wise in remaining agnostic.

Most reconstructions of prehistoric humans put the Agricultural Revolution (c. 12,000 years ago) as the decisive moment in our evolution that solidified H. sapiens’ place as the dominant hominid. Finlayson argues that the real revolution took place 30,000 years earlier among a population of humans struggling to survive on the steppes between the Black and Caspian seas. Here, some tribe discovered how to store food and cooperate at large scales. In a word, they had discovered “surpluses” and how to manage them. This new way of life was so successful that it had transformed every culture throughout Eurasia within 20,000 years – from the edges of China straight across to the Atlantic and (most significantly) in the Middle East, where there turned out to be a wealth of exploitable plants and animals to support the looming farming age.

The epilog – “Children of Chance” – summarizes Finlayson’s views. In the course of 1.5 to 2 million years a succession of hominids were in the right places at the right time with the right adaptive abilities to exploit and survive climatic changes and displace older, less flexible populations. The author’s outlook for human life, as a species, is optimistic – hominids have a few more chapters to write – but, in the short term, he sees a period of disruption and displacement that will alter how H. sapiens lives in ways at least as fundamental as the discoveries of surpluses and farming. He believes the survivors of the coming crunch will be those living, as usual, on the margins. As he puts it, “Taming the future is the essence of the human story. Recall that the successful populations that ultimately led to us were always those living on the edge of others who monopolized the good-quality territory. We were born from the poor and feeble that had to spend every ounce of energy searching for the scraps that kept them alive. This may seem a little undignified for those of us who see ourselves at the pinnacle of evolution but that is the sobering reality of our story. Every step of the way in the unpredictable story that led us was marked by populations of innovators living on the periphery” (p. 214).

I have no illusions about where I live – I’m a product of the heartlands, that “good-quality territory” that’s rapidly becoming untenable. I can only hope that the real crunch holds off until I’m safely dead or near enough that it doesn’t matter :-)

More seriously, I highly recommend this book. It’s very well and clearly written, and it packs an amazing amount of information into its 220 pages. As a plus, the endnotes provide some useful guides to further reading.
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review 2008-11-30 00:00
Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers: How Agriculture Really Began - Colin Tudge This is a short monograph (50 pages) that synopsizes Colin Tudge's argument that pre-Neolithic Revolution humans (and, indeed, hominids in general) have been modifying their environment for hundreds of millennia, and this includes "farming," of which Tudge identifies three types:

1. Horticulture: Or, more prosaically, "gardening."
2. Arable farming: The stereotypical image of the wheat or rice farmer toiling in a field.
3. Pastoral farming: Which mixes arable and/or horticultural farming with stock raising.

Arable farming is not the unmitigated blessing that mythology makes it out to be - it involves backbreaking labor, leads to malnutrition because it narrows the varieties of food in the diet, and it increases disease amongst both human and domesticated animal populations. Despite these, the advantages of increased population, an ensured food supply and greater return on investment made arablist cultures more successful than horticulturalists or pastoralists.

The last point about the return on investment refers to the fact that a hunter can invest ten hours or two to hunting and, in the long run, won't get any more food out of it. That's why predator species and hunter/gatherers look like no-good layabouts - there's no percentage in exerting themselves. Arablists, on the other hand, do get more for more effort. Their food supply increases when more labor is expended in its production.

Tudge characterizes arable farming as a vicious circle: Greater food supply means a greater population that can only be sustained with further arable farming. Once embarked on the arablist path, a culture is locked in - it can't affort to go back to the Edenic existence of its past. (Tudge makes this explicit with reference to the Cain/Abel myth in Genesis, where Cain - the arablist - murders Abel - the pastoralist - and is cursed. Further, God casts Adam and Eve out of Eden to specifically farm:

Cursed is the ground for your sake;
In toil you shall eat of it
All the days of your life....
In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
Till you return to the ground.... (Genesis 3:17-19, NKJV))

Tudge also ties proto-(arable) farming to the Pleistocene overkill, when large numbers of megafauna genera went extinct around the same time humans moved into the vicinity, and to the end of the Neanderthal, who simply couldn't adjust to the more efficient use of the environment modern humans were capable of.

As to the "why" of arable farming, Tudge believes the catalyst was climate change. With the end of the last Ice Age, food supplies were threatened in the Middle East and previously periodic arable farming became the norm, locking cultures into the arablist cycle and allowing the development of urban cultures like Sumer, Mohenjo-Daro and Shang China.

In 50 pages, of course, none of these propositions can be adequately argued but Tudge and others have written numerous works on the subject. A few recommendations from my own reading would include:

Tudge's own The Time Before History: 5 Million Years of Human Impact
Charles Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Ian Wilson's Before the Flood: The Biblical Flood as a Real Event and How It Changed the Course of Civilization
Steve Mithen's After the Ice: A Global Human History 20 000-5000 BC

Among many others.
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