Saturday, May 31, 2014


Mulling over our Species, in History
An author today on Science Friday talking about everything to do with the concept of Self, confessed that for clarification she had resorted to William James, even though a century old.  More than a year ago I had done the same (I think it was in the series of posts that had begun with Hamlin Garland).  When it comes to really good thinking, Henry's older brother is hard to beat, and it does us good to realize yet again that human minds can think straight and radically with very little technology.  Not that they always do, and not that we needn't keep in mind that, say, in archaeology it is important to remember what hadn't been discovered yet and that then, as now, there were fantasy governed or otherwise limited minds.  I mean, Werner Jaeger is not merely anti-Platonic; in many respects he may be right.  Anyone read Paideia recently?  Don't worry; I'd have to read it again if I were to discuss it.  But I've been mulling over a question that is very hard to frame and that may be inane anyway.

What seems to have gotten me started was Memorial Day's statistics of huge numbers of war dead; of all the litanies of lost generation, of the holocaust and Hiroshima accounts in David Remnick's wonderful anthology of The New Yorker in the 1940s; of seemingly unlimited varieties of moths in my friend Bill's blog, Naturally.  

But what about homo sapiens?  How much of a die off or plague has been needed to modify us?  Appalling as the 20th century cemeteries from D-Day or those "In Flanders Field" are, as dreadful quantitatively as well as morally the European harvest from ethnic cleansing, as difficult even to count the dead of Hiroshima, is the consequence of such lost generations genetically sufficient to alter nations affected?  They aren't as numerous as many migrations have been, as of Irish or Mexicans in the 20th century.  That is, was even the loss of Jewry in Europe as large a fraction of their numbers as of Hispanics from South to North America?  The former are as large a proportion of promising lives that never reached full adulthood as I can think of.  Perhaps the remnants of the Confederate armies after 1865?

There are all sorts of difficult questions that come to mind.  Does it in fact matter a great deal if the British lost generation included so large a proportion of educated idealists as the literature tells us?  And the young artists in France and Germany?  And, in Europe, the influenza  epidemic (not that it wasn't bad in America as well).?  What about the famous Black Death of the 14th century?  Not surprisingly, it is the literate who write history, and they can only properly record what they know.  I was thinking that it is very hard (and regarding calculations with some skepticism) to know what fraction of a population perished by great natural or man-made disasters so as to leave a permanent mark on the population.  And how noticeable a mark?  Arguably, the potato famine affected the peopling of the USA more than any wars that we have fought.  How terrible do things have to have been to be noticeable a couple of centuries later?  How important is population explosion today?

I'm not talking about for good or for ill.  If the Old World could populate the New World with its leftovers, it must be said that the result is not by any means so bad as might have been guessed.  I'll vote for the minds and beauty of African-Americans any day.  Also, I'm not sure that we aren't seeing epigenetic changes among them with the North American diet and climate.  If brown bears are much bigger in Katmai State Park than the same-species grizzlies of Yosemite….?

Also, what about miscegenation?  If the ancient world had a much smaller population, it also could not mix so freely as we do.  What about the ancients' inability to count much beyond 10,000 (myrioi) and even so, we often suspect, with only a vague realization of the number?  I first understood the long-term consequences of a lost navy, a lost war, reading Thucydides on Syracuse.  But I understood the loss to have been more societal than genetic.

And yet, I bet our Last Ice Age ancestors may have been a little less identical to us than their bones suggest.  After all, we ARE regular mammals just as the Katmai brown bears are.

OK, perhaps this is inane.  Certainly, there are no ways of getting answers that I could regard as reliable.  But it's hardly as if we could all look just like Masaccio's Adam and Eve, and even less likely that their originals, from the land of Sumer in perhaps the 4th millennium BCE, looked like them.  No harm in wondering.