Origins

The din of politics is (rightly) dominating most of the attention market right now. But outside of the crumbling of our democratic norms, there is an absolutely fascinating story unraveling in the realm of archeology that is going largely overlooked relative to its consequences for our understanding of the origin of our species.

The standard model of the origin of homo sapiens that you probably learned in school is that we evolved in the “cradle of humanity” somewhere in East Africa, likely around modern Kenya/Ethiopia, about 200,000 years ago. Then we basically stayed there for about 130,000 years, until, sometime about 70,000 years ago, one or two small groups ventured northward, across the Sinai and into the rest of the world. People eventually spread to Australia about 50,000 years ago, and North America about 15,000 (Bering Strait land bridge, ice age, etc.). This single migration of just one group is why, so goes the theory, all other ethnic groups throughout the world have a remarkable level of genetic similarity relative to those of African descent. The level of genetic diversity within African populations today, and their descendants, is much, much greater than that between, say, modern Chinese, Indians, Europeans and Inuit. All of those subsequent groups basically descended from this very small population that left Africa in the first place. Put another way: Zimbabweans and Senegalese have much less in common genetically than a white American does with a Polynesian. This much is proven fact.

But a bunch of recent discoveries have challenged this origin model.

  • We know that the Neanderthals and Denisovans probably descended from a common ancestor with homo sapiens. Recent genetic research has shown that they interbred not only with each other much earlier (like, ~500,000 years ago, outside Africa), but also with modern homo sapiens. The weird thing is that we find evidence of this interbreeding with homo sapiens about 270,000 years ago, not 70,000, and in Europe. So… at least some homo sapiens were in Europe two hundred thousand years earlier than we’d thought.
    • Fun fact: the average modern non-African carries around 2.5% Neanderthal DNA. (Mine is perhaps a bit higher, according to a genetic ancestry test I took. My wife is not surprised.) The average modern African carries 0%.
  • Next: we’ve now also found fossils of ancient homo sapiens… in Morocco, not East Africa, that are over 300,000 years old. That’s ~100,000 years older than the earliest we’d previously found (in Ethiopia), and really far away. This really re-writes the whole theory. Homo sapiens would have to have evolved and then spread widely throughout Africa.

It’s becoming clear that, even if early modern humans did evolve primarily in East Africa, they didn’t just stay there. Different groups moved. We surely don’t even know the half of it yet.

Then, you get to the really crazy stuff.

  • Good evidence has now been found in Australia indicating human settlement 65,000 years ago, far longer than earlier thought. That time frame also indicates tens of thousand of years of human co-existence with Australian megafauna like the Diprotodon (the giant wombat), contrary to the standard assumption that humans quickly hunted giant creatures like this to extinction.
  • If you’re into really crazy stuff, try this: there’s evidence, albeit controversial, of settlement in North America about 130,000 years ago, which would put it well before modern humans are even supposed to have left Africa. The evidence of this theory is still thin, but worthy of consideration. (Basically, they found mastodon bones that had been smashed, marked and distributed in ways distinctive of stone tools.) If humans, or even proto-humans, were in North America that long ago, it changes a lot. The next-oldest hard evidence of settlement is over 100,000 years later, in Clovis culture sites in the Southwest.

It’s becoming very clear that we still don’t really know that much about the origins of our species. It’s possible we’ll never know the full truth. But the gradual uncovering of evidence is showing that humans (and Neanderthals, and Denisovans) were older, smarter and way more resourceful and resilient than the “cavemen” joke goes.

One of the themes I explore in The Second Transit is the slow process of an entire species discovering the exogenous forces that have defined its development. Something that fascinates me is how creatures of biological time (like us) grapple with and understand forces that act on geological or universal timescales. We can’t really do it, right? Creatures that only live and understand ~75 year lifespans can barely conceive of the lifespan of your average rock, let alone a species like the alligator, which has been around a lot longer than humans have. In “Second Transit,” the challenge the characters have is dealing with, and transmitting meaningful knowledge of, this asteroid that only shows up every 2,000+ years. How do you pass meaningful knowledge on to descendants hundreds of generations subsequent to you? Ozymandias would like to know.

A lot of people don’t care where or when humans came from, and I get it. It’s not very practical knowledge, I guess. Yet understanding our origins is central to understanding who we are as people and as a species. That understanding expresses itself in a vast number of ways (cue, the absurdist theories of race propounded by racist know-nothings). It’s the kind of foundational knowledge that provides the critical context for everything else you know. And it seems to me that knowledge like that is some of the most valuable you can learn.

 

 


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Birthing babies

My wife is 34 weeks pregnant. We took a tour of our local hospital’s obstetrics wing today, as the culmination of the baby care basics ($65), breastfeeding (another $65) and Lamaze classes ($185) they offer to new parents. As a part of the tour, we got to see the different tiers of private recovery rooms available:

I can’t help but contrast this with two other experiences of bringing babies into the world that I’ve seen or been told about.

Continue reading “Birthing babies”

The Second Transit

As I posted about the other week, I recently finished a first version of my first novel. I’ve now formatted it into an ebook and put it on Amazon. You can find it here.

I don’t have any illusions about capturing a wide audience or making money on my book (which, fully formatted in ebook form, came out to 271 pages! 😵). This has led me to wonder why I bothered with spending a year and a half writing in the first place – and the truth is, I don’t exactly know. I needed to write it. It was a creative outlet, I guess. A way to stretch and focus this part of my brain that doesn’t get enough exercise in the rest of my life. Like a story I could explore for myself.

FYI: I set up a “Free” promotion on Amazon that will be active for the next couple of days.

It probably won’t be my last creative project. I don’t especially love creative writing. Sometimes I just have to get ideas on a page, you know?

Mise en oeuvre

This month marks a decade since I finished my Peace Corps service in Cameroon. I was a health and water sanitation volunteer in the rural South Province there. I learned a lot about public health in low-resource settings, French, a good deal of the local language, Bulu, and broke down and then rebuilt my whole perspective on what “international development” can or should aim to accomplish. I have a lot of thoughts about Cameroon, but the most fascinating one for me today is what’s happening in the first village where I lived, Nyabessan.

Many people have a pretty old-fashioned idea of what Peace Corps service is like. They think Peace Corps volunteers sleep in mud huts in tiny villages and are in constant danger. Almost none of that is true. Most “PCVs,” particularly in Africa, are based in small to medium-sized towns or cities. Most have power and network for cell phones that would be comparable with most parts of America. You can Skype with the vast majority of PCVs today. All live in modern structures and many even have indoor plumbing. As for the danger part, well, that’s mostly a product of dumb American fears of the developing world. Most people are at far higher risk of personal injury on an American college campus than in an African village.

That all said, Nyabessan, my first posting, was instead a more “classic” Peace Corps experience. It was a small village of less than 100 people in the middle of a giant rainforest along the Ntem River. It was six-to-eight hours, frequently on a motorcycle, on hardly more than a mud track before you got to paved road, and then two hours to electricity/phones/internet/mail. It was very isolated and very poor. I lived there for about a year before getting moved to Ambam, a much larger (but still small) town elsewhere in the province.

About two/three hours’ hike from Nyabessan are the Memve’ele waterfalls. Here’s a picture:

This was on film. I didn’t have a digital camera at that time.

They were pretty extraordinary, but also very remote. I visited a couple of times, but didn’t think too much about it. You have to understand, pretty much no one lived anywhere close. Nyabessan was the closest village, and around us were thousands of square miles of utter wilderness.

Around the time I was there, Cameroon was in talks with the China Import/Export bank for a big infrastructure “loan” to build a hydroelectric power station there. Well, those went well. China eventually “loaned” Cameroon 243 billion CFA (about the equivalent of $420M) to construct the project. Here’s what it looks like now:

I can’t stress enough how insane this is. None of what you see in this picture was even conceivable ten years ago. (Btw, I think we were standing in the upper-righthand bend in the river in the first photo.) They had to level and pave the road all the way there, import materials and people (mostly Chinese laborers, by the way) and pay off god only knows how many. The actual work was mostly done in the last few years, and the dam is partially operational today. There’s a good article about it in a recent Afrik Actuelle.

Sure, it’ll be an environmental disaster in a lot of ways, but the Memve’ele Dam also represents tangible progress in living standards in Cameroon. It represents power generation, infrastructure, jobs and opportunity for millions, and it was made possible through deliberate Chinese diplomatic and economic strategy. Most of that “loan” above will eventually be written off when China needs something.

I wish America was capable of strategy like this in the 21st century. But for Cameroon’s sake, I’m at least glad China is. On est ensembles.

A First Draft

Late last night, I wrote a final few paragraphs, put my computer on the coffee table, stood up and stretched. I got a piece of banana bread and looked out our window onto the Upper East Side. I’d just finished a project that I’ve been working on for a year and a half, and it was a weird feeling. Good. Great, even. But… strange.

Two years ago, I went backpacking in Zion National Park with one of my closest friends. Brian and I did the entire cross-Zion trek, from west to east sides. It was amazing/brutal. Along the way, I was inspired with an idea for a fictional narrative that I just couldn’t shake. It rattled around my brain for six months afterwards until I finally outlined what that story might look like. And then… I went and wrote some of it.

I wrote it in fits and starts for a long time – finishing pieces and then laying it aside for a while. Earlier this year, though, I committed to getting it done. Perhaps not “finished,” insofar as a piece of creative writing ever is; and perhaps not written extremely well. But written. Out of my head and onto a page. And last night, I finished the last installment to my first-draft satisfaction.


UPDATE 7/22: I’ve written a fuller description of the project here.

Tech and solution-ism

A little over a decade ago, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) idea was hoisted out of obscurity by Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab at – where else? – the WEF in Davos. He got a bunch of big, mostly techie corporations to commit to backing it, and later, at another Davos summit, the UNDP. The idea was basically this: schoolchildren in the developing world needed computer literacy to compete, yet computers (notably then) were expensive. So a non-profit effort needed to develop a basic computer that would cost <$100. This would enable massive distribution and give children in poor countries access to computers.

The program has been mired in controversy for the last decade. It’s still something of a cause célèbre in some techie do-gooder circles, while development experts have generally reserved deep skepticism. Sure enough, the American Economic Association just published a new, large-scale, randomized evaluation of the OLPC program in Peru, where it found “no evidence” that the devices contributed to math or language skills improvement.

Before I got into tech, I worked in international development, first as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon and then as a program manager for a U.S.-based development contractor implementing a bunch of USAID projects. (I’ll write about that sometime.) In 2008, I got to play with one of the “OLPCs,” as they were called. It was cute, but manifestly not a “computer.” Ironically, I had just gotten my first iPhone at that time. Like many people, I’d started to suspected that was the future of computing for most of the world; now, we know it is.

I have started writing, abandoned and then revisited a big formal Medium post on tech silver-bullet-ism many times. (I had one that was popular earlier on why Google’s balloons and Facebook’s drones are bad ideas.) It’s incredibly frustrating. Every year, millions are spent on dumb, gadget-y projects that some white person sitting in America (or Europe), who either spent a cursory amount of time in the developing world or sometimes none at all, imagines will revolutionize life there. The OLPC is just one such example. PlayPumps was another famous one. It’s an incredibly myopic, and predictably ineffectual, view on structural, contextual problems like poverty, education and healthcare. But it makes for great PR. So the reason it keeps happening should tell you why many people/companies invest in it.

OLPC’s goal was to improve education in the developing world. The best way to do that, as almost any expert on the topic agrees, is not by building a school (every “mission trip’s” favorite pastime) or handing out gadgets. Rather, it’s systemic: you start by paying teachers. (No, that doesn’t always happen.) Pay them enough, and on time, regularly. Give them respect and don’t place them in a corrupt administrative system. Provide sufficient resources for children to learn. In many contexts, comparatively small investments in providing meals and healthcare at school works wonders.

Just imagine what could’ve happened if Negroponte had pitched those ideas at Davos?

Recommended

Buddy of mine and I saw these guys in person. Sissoko is a renowned Malian kora musician, and Segal an accomplished French cellist. Unreal how good they are together. This is one of my go-tos now for background music when I put my headphones on. (They’re on Spotify too.)

How I became an optimist

One built-in limitation to human psychology is our hardwired inability to imagine new things in the future. Risk aversion is probably an evolutionary advantage, so this makes sense. Offered an uncertain choice, most people’s imaginations immediately leap to what could go wrong, what they could stand to lose, etc. After all, the positive future is defined by things that don’t even exist yet, while the negative future is defined by the lack of that which I already have here in front of me.

There are any number of examples of this. Doomsday predictions – financial, political, environmental, social, etc. – are reliably popular, while more optimistic ones are trashed. You observe this all the time. Pessimistic predictions are frequently given weighty consideration, and the predictors gain a penumbra of wise skepticism; while optimistic ones are dismissed as unrealistic, pollyannaish whimsy. So grounds for optimism are often ignored. Who, in 1990, predicted that global poverty would be cut by more than half in 25 years? How many predicted that the iPhone would be such a transformational product? You can find tons of examples of the same.

Recognizing this limitation of human psychology and correcting for it can be a huge “hack.” It gives you a greater sense of control over your own life and can make you a lot happier.

Nevertheless, I think about this a lot when hearing people complain that, to become more successful, this political party or that one needs to invent a new “positive message for the future.” Do people really believe in, let alone vote for, optimism? I’m not so sure. I think people vote for personalities and brands and the feelings they represent (and, often, which people project onto them). “Make America Great Again” resonated with a lot of people because it appealed to nostalgia, however misplaced; Trump also ran against a historically weak opponent, plus Russia, etc etc.¹ But the Trump campaign was also markedly negative in its outlook on America. Obama in 2008, Clinton in 1992 or Reagan in 1980 are often referred to as campaigns of “optimism,” but each, gifted and charismatic communicators all, also ran against weak opponents who misread the electorate. No one remembers all the block-and-tackling of those campaigns – just the warm and fuzzies of “Morning in America” and “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.” “Optimistic” is simply what we wind up calling most campaigns that win.

So I guess this is to say that I don’t believe all the hand-wringing about how Democrats need to invent some new, positive spin to win back [insert your pet constituency here]. Likeable, charismatic candidates, smart comms strategy, campaign organizing fundamentals, media and tech savvy and electorate trends are where victory lies, no matter your party.

 

¹ – This isn’t a partisan post per se, but it’s worth noting that Trump lost the popular vote by a convincing margin, so his “win” here is meant in the technical sense. Clinton’s campaign was not a fundamentally “optimistic” one either, though.

Saccharin and food beliefs

I’m a southerner and thus am addicted to sweet tea. (This means iced tea, obviously.) During the hot months, I brew my own at home in 1.5 gallon jugs. I probably go ~2 jugs a week.

… yeah.

“Real” sweet tea is made with sugar, but I use Sweet ‘N Low – saccharin. I buy it in bulk packs. When I tell people about this, some recoil – surely that can’t be good for you, right? Doesn’t saccharin cause cancer?

Saccharin does not cause cancer. Those tiny warnings everyone remembers – “this product has been shown to cause cancer in rats,” etc. – has been gone since 2000, since the FDA and the EPA reviewed those studies, which dated from the early ’70s, and concluded they were mostly bad science. But earlier controversies over artificial sweeteners, combined with modern-day paranoia about additives, have conspired to probably permanently stigmatize saccharin. Natural sugar (refined or not) is much worse for you on almost every level: it rots your teeth, fries your nervous system, is full of calories and more. None of that is true for saccharin. But the “cancer” smear has sort of set.

People’s food beliefs are strongly linked to their disgust reflexes, which are set early in life and extremely difficult to change thereafter, and are rarely rational. We Americans have our own culturally constructed mythology about what makes food “clean.” You can get a piece of six-month old, hormone-fed, antibiotic-bathed piece of chicken breast fried in day-old peanut oil, but as long as it is wrapped in shiny foil and never touched by an ungloved human hand, it is considered “clean.” Meanwhile, many European consumers find the notion of a genetically modified ear of corn, picked fresh from the farm, utterly, viscerally revolting. A lot of Africans I know relish a nice stick of boiled manioc wrapped in banana leaf, but are a little repulsed by the level of sweetness in a lot of American foods.

Once you start realizing how utterly arbitrary our food mythologies are, your world of food sort of opens up, but also collapses around you at the same time.

Markets in everything – Gwyneth Paltrow edition

The next time you have an idea, but then think “surely no one would possibly buy that,” remember that Gwyneth Paltrow is selling packs of stickers – yes, stickers – that she says “promote healing” for $60 a pop for packs of 10. Everyone’s favorite homeopathic shuckster invokes science to claim that her $6/a sticker scam is based on tech:

https://www.shopbodyvibes.com/science-technology/

Vox busted them on claiming it was based on NASA technology, too.

Last I looked, their inventory was sold out. People buy this stuff. Whether you see that as exploiting easily-mislead simpletons or cashing in on homeopathic faddism is up to you. But it means that your idea probably isn’t stupid, either.