Daily Archives: February 12, 2009

The Bible as Ethnography ~ 02 ~ In The Beginning…


Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 (5 – 25) are distinctly different and contradictory origin stories. The biblical origin story represented in this text has long been known to resemble a set of Sumerian stories that mainly deal with a multitude of gods interacting (some of these gods are converted to humans in the biblical version). What is consistent about all of these stories is the relationship between status and labor, in the context of a labor-intensive agricultural system.

Genesis 1 is very systematic, resembling a post-hoc construction of events, and its main practical purpose may be to justify the sabbath. Genesis 2 gives some meaty ethnographic details, including specific geographical reference points (though reconstruction based on this is probably beyond the realm of possibility), reference to irrigation as a practice, and reference to sex. Both of these texts make reference to “seeds” and “fruit” as key features of plants, to an ocean and to whales, and to a variety of other animals. The second text makes specific reference to cattle.
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Two chimps walked into a bar …

… and made a real mess of the place when one of them spotted the jar of pickles on the counter. They fought over it until one of them had almost all the pickles and the other one had a number of bruises and a tiny fragment of one pickle that the other chimp dropped by accident.

That would be the way it would happen if two chimps walked into a bar. Or imagine two chimps, and each finds a nice juicy bit of fruit out in the forest. And instead of eating the fruit, because they are not hungry, they carry it around for a while (this would never happen, but pretend) and then accidentally run into each other. What would happen? Same thing. Event though neither chimp actually needed the fruit and each chimp had its own fruit, the dominant chimp (between the two) would end up with both pieces of fruit.

This is why chimps could not possibly cooperate in any effort to scour the forest for various edible items, bring them all back to a central place, share and then cooperatively process the food items, and ultimately produce a meal that is eaten by all of the chimps on an as needed basis. Humans do that but chimps can’t. Explain this and you explain one of the major features of human evolution…
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Pagel on Darwin

ResearchBlogging.orgMark Pagel, evolutionary theorist extraordinaire, has published an Insight piece in Nature on Natural selection 150 years on. Pagel, well known for myriad projects in natural selecition theory and adaptation, and for developing with Harvey the widely used statistical phylogenetic method (and for being a reader of my thesis) wishes Charles Darwin a happy 200th birthday, and assesses this question:

How has Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection fared over the last 150 years, and what needs to be done to bring this theoretical approach to bear as we increasingly examine complex systems, including human society?
Continue reading Pagel on Darwin

Great Moments in Human Evolution: The Invention of Chipped Stone Tools

Or not.

Much is made of the early use of stone tools by human ancestors. Darwin saw the freeing of the hands ad co-evolving with the use of the hands to make and use tools which co-evolved with the big brain. And that would make the initial appearance of stone tools in the archaeological record a great and momentous thing. However, things did not work out that way.
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Elephants and Horses

In 1833, Darwin spent a fair amount of time on the East Coast of South America, including in the Pampas, where he had access to abundant fossil material. Here I’d like to examine his writings about some of the megafauna, including Toxodon, Mastodon, and horses, and his further considerations of biogeography and evolution.

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How diverse were early hominoids?

And hominids.

We know the fossil record underestimates diversity at least a little, and we know that forested environments in Africa tend to be underrepresented. Given this, the diversity of Miocene apes may have been rather impressive, because there is a fairly high diversity in what we can assume is a biased record.

But I’d like to make the argument from another angle, that of modern ecological analogues. Let us assume that the greater apparent diversity of apes in the middle and late Miocene compared today can be accurately translated as a modern reduction in ape diversity. Not counting the relatively diverse lesser apes, there are five species (2 chimps, gorilla, human, orang) which can be further divided into 10 subspecies, across the entire old world.

Now look at the size range of all of the living apes. Gibbons are the smallest and gorillas the largest. When a family or subfamily of land mammal is diverse in a particular region (a biome or something larger than a biome) we tend to see that diversity played out along a spectrum of size, and against size we can find additional diversity derived from dietary or subhabitat differences and geography. It seems to me that there is room in the size spectrum between gibbons and chimps, and orangs and gorillas, and there is certainly room above the gorilla size as indicated by the existence in the fossil record of very large Asian forms.

We know that some of the later Miocene apes were bipedal, and it is starting to look like bipedalism or something like bipedalism is showing up among other apes in the Miocene as well. So perhaps there is a spectrum of locomotory pattern along which diversity may be spread.

This gives us a the following size classes: gibbon, siamang, [something in between], chimp, orang, [something in between], goriilla, [something bigger], or at total (a minimum?) of eight size classes across which apes might exist in a world in which apes are divers. Like the Miocene. If we add to this a more arboral form and a more bipedal form, perhaps we double the number, or perhaps we add about five new classes (I’m guessing that a Mighty Joe Young size ape would not have been bipedal!). This gives us about a dozen, conservatively estimated, niches when we divvy up size and so-called positional behavior.

To this we can add geography. It is probably reasonable to assume that a wetter, more forested middle and late Miocene Africa could be divided into at least four or regions, between the West/Central divide that modern biogeogrpahy tells us was effective at least in the Late Miocene, the Congo River divide, North/Central Africa, East Africa and Southern Africa. Let’s conservatively assume four, and let’s assume that only half (six) of the hypothesized ape species are divided among these areas. That means that 24 species are endemic to varoius regions, and six additional species are more widely spread for a conservative estimate of 30 species.

Among these species there may have been several bipedal forms, but only one of them (plus or minus a little hybridization hanky panky here and there) would have been the human ancestor. Of course, no one at the time suspected that …. (Or they probably would have done something about it.)

This is not an outrageous suggestion. The idea that if you went back in time to a more ape-rich time (and we know it was more ape-rich) and got a current copy of the Guide to the Mammals of Africa, the ape section would have a few dozen species, just like the monkey section or the antelope section today has a few dozen species.

Go apes!