British Isles circa 820 [1076x1127]
I know its ridiculous to even think of Pictland as being a unified polity, but this sure is a pretty lookin’ map…
Predictions of perpetual peace are the highlight of any history of hubris. Chamberlain is classic and quotable. The various Paxes (from Austrialana in New Guinea to Romana in Europe) are inevitably followed by a decline and fall. Francis Fukuyama famously prophesized the end of history and the triumph of a pacific liberalism – only for his tower to topple with the return of ideological violence in the form of 9/11.
Steven Pinker, however, is clever than that. The Harvard professor – psycholinguist by training, public intellectual by trade – is careful to avoid playing the futurist. The Better Angels Of Our Nature finds it surprises in the past instead, with Pinker working hard to prove to us that violence has in fact declined, using some three score graphs and hundreds of pages of analysis. Marshalling together the datasets of obscure criminologists and military historians, he ably demonstrates that homicide rates, battle casualty rates, execution rates, abuse rates and hate crime rates have all fallen over the last millennium.
Pinker believes we have been conditioned to believe that these are indeed the worst of times – school history consists of little more than World War Two and the Holocaust; TV shows like Law & Order meet rapists and serial killers every week; and the news media obsesses over civil wars and psychopaths. But was the 20th century really the most violent in history? The absolute figures speak of 50 million deaths in WW2, including six million victims of Nazi genocide. Nonetheless for Pinker – a secular Jew – this body count is too simplistic an analysis. The numbers may horrify but what do they really say about how violent the century was?
The thesis of the book depends on using proportions rather than plain figures. For instance, archaeology and anthropology have revealed that pre-state societies often kill up to 15% of their people in war, while the figure for the entire 20th century is just 3%! The decline is very real: for homicide, we have up to 300 deaths per 100,000 in pastoral tribes, then 50 per 100,000 in medieval England, and 8 per 100,000 for the planet today, which to falls to just 1 per 100,000 in Europe. By using rates instead of absolute numbers we get a nice figure for how likely it is a particular person will die a violent death in a given society.
Yet from a God’s eye perspective six million deaths is clearly worse than six. It seems crass and offensive, for example, to suggest the Holocaust is a lesser tragedy than a raid in New Guinea. But compare six million murders in a population of one billion to six in a population of a hundred. From my perspective, I’m ten times as likely to die in the second society – I’d have a better chance of surviving the genocide than the raid!
And so it begins. For years, evolutionary biologists have predicted that new human species would start popping up in Asia as we begin to look closely at fossilised bones found there. A new analysis of bones from south-west China suggests there’s truth to the forecast.
The distinctive skull (pictured, right) was unearthed in 1979 in Longlin cave, Guangxi Province, but has only now been fully analysed. It has thick bones, prominent brow ridges, a short flat face and lacks a typically human chin. “In short, it is anatomically unique among all members of the human evolutionary tree,” says Darren Curnoe at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.
The skull, he says, presents an unusual mosaic of primitive features like those seen in our ancestors hundreds of thousands of years ago, with some modern traits similar to living people.
What’s more, Curnoe and Ji Xueping of Yunnan University, China, have found more evidence of the new hominin at a second site – Malu cave in Yunnan Province. Curnoe has dubbed the new group the Red Deer Cave people because of their penchant for venison. “There is evidence that they cooked large deer in Malu cave,” he says.
Exactly where the Red Deer Cave people belong in our family tree is unclear. Curnoe says they could be related to some of the earliest members of our species (Homo sapiens), which evolved in Africa around 200,000 years ago and then spread across Asia to reach China. He prefers the idea that they represent a new evolutionary line that evolved in East Asia in parallel with our species, just as Neanderthals did – primarily because they look very different to early African hominins.
There are other possible interpretations. Chris Stringer at the Natural History Museum in London, says their distinctive primitive features might suggest they are related to the enigmatic Denisovan people, known from a 30,000 to 50,000-year-old finger bone and tooth found in a Siberian cave.
We know that the Denisovans were living in East Asia, and from a DNA analysis, that they mated with our direct ancestors. The Red Deer Cave people, says Stringer, could even be the product of that mating.
Although we still do not know exactly where they came from, we do know that the Red Deer Cave people survived until relatively recently. Some of the newly described fossils are just 11,500 years old, suggesting that unlike Neanderthals they made it through the height of the last ice age.
They might not have been the only ancient humans to survive so late, saysMichael Petraglia at the University of Oxford. We already know of human skeletons with unusual archaic features in south Asia and India that are just 8000 years old.
The next step is to analyse DNA extracted from the Red Deer Cave bones, which will tell us more about their owner’s evolutionary history – whether they mated with any other hominins, for instance, and if they are truly a new species that evolved entirely in East Asia, as Curnoe believes, or are off-shoots of the Denisovan people.
Curnoe says an initial attempt to extract good DNA from the fossils failed. “We are doing more work now involving three of the world’s major ancient DNA laboratories,” he says. “We’ll just have to wait and see if we’re successful.”
Get to know your Tumblr-er
I usually think these things are just plain vain, but, being as its Friday night, why not indulge me?!
What is your middle name? I have a double-barrelled name so Iain might count?
What are you passionate about? Science, and history, and language. (oh and Gaidhlig)
Zebra or leopard print? Zebra.
Do you have any fears? Heights
Silver or gold? Gold. We should always strive to do our best.
Top three places to visit. Tikopia, Anuta and (the cliche) Rapa Nui.
How many siblings do you have? Two brothers.
Where are you from? A tiny little island at the edge of nowhere called Eriskay.
First career you wanted as a child. Comic book artist.
What’s your sign? Gemini.
Future names of your children. I’m determined to call one Darwin.
What are you listening to right now? Your Latest Trick (live) - Dire Straits
Do you believe in fate/destiny? No.
What are your career goals? I want to work at a university as a research scientist. I’m highly impractical, however, so I see myself more as a Maths and Ideas-man. I would like to contribute to Developmental Neuroscience, especially with regards to language. I’d like to work on Evolutionary Theory at some point too, with respect to biology, morals, and language.
What is your favorite colour? I’m colourblind.
What is your favorite flower? Daisy.
What was the first concert/show you attended? A Celtic music festival whose name I can’t quite remember.
Something you are working on right now. Besides schoolwork, I’m trying to get my ideas on Moral Evolution in readable form for a comp by the British Humanist Society.
Have you ever had a near-death experience? I was horrendously ill in 2009 and hospitalized for months.
Are you a procrastinator or do you get things done early? I procrastinate if I find something dull. If I find it interesting I get obsessed very easily and spend every waking moment engaged in it.
Left or right handed? Right.
TV Shows and anime you watch regularly. I don’t watch television.
Halloween costume idea for this year? Charles Darwin.
What is your relationship status? In a relationship
Last movie you just watched. I watched two episodes of Supernatural today in the common room. Does that count?
Your best friend’s name. Rachael. (oh and I ought to say Joseph is a close second)
A song that’s been stuck in your head. I currently have no songs stuck in my head.
A book you want to read/have recently read. A book I want to read is Engineering Animals by Mark Denny exploring the physics behind biological systems, but I just don’t have the time right now. A book I’ve recently read is Empires of the Word by Nicholas Ostler, a wonderful and scholarly work on the history of the world thru the lens of its languages.
(Source: iwillbringhealthandhealing, via themargatron)