Review – Before The Dawn

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors

by Nicholas Wade, published 2006

Evolution and history are not two distinct processes, with one following another like the change between royal dynasties. Rather, evolution and history overlap, with the historical period being overlaid on a still continuing process of evolutionary change. (pg. 272)

Something I always used to wonder about when reading history was the recurring theme of barbarian invasions of “civilized” societies striking from the frontiers. Why were there separate civilized and barbarian populations? And where did all these barbarians keep coming from, given that the explanation invariably given for their invasion was that they themselves were being invaded/pressured by other barbarians on their frontier? (Was it barbarians all the way down?) I purchased Wade’s “Before the Dawn” to try to better understand the debate about “race” — which is one chapter of twelve in the book — and ended up with a much better understanding of this perennial personal historical quandary, the book having offered a framework for understanding early human history and migration patterns and the way evolution played the keyboard simultaneously.

The most descriptive word that comes to mind when I think of this book is “sweeping”, which is both its strength and its weakness. This is very much a strategic book examining large trends that took place over vast geographic expanses and long periods of time, rather than a tactical examination of the various microphenomena involved, although there’s some of that, too. Concerning itself with the evolutionary changes which led to the splitting of the human and chimpanzee genetic lines 5 million years ago, and then the ensuing genetic changes and speciation of the pre-modern human genetic lines between 5 million and 50,000 years ago and then finally sorting out the geographic expansion and social and likely genetic transformation of modern human beings from 50,000 years ago to the present, the author surveys key findings and scientific developments since Darwin’s writings that have helped to piece together the early history of humanity. And while it’s supposed to be an introduction written for the knowledgeable layman, Wade nonetheless covers so much ground, so many academic controversies, so many studies and theories and oddly-named regions and eras and behavioral developments — the world’s scientific community seems to have an unresolved dilemma when it comes to naming things — that it is sometimes hard to keep up and remain focused on the broad narrative of which these items are a part.

The book has 12 chapters, simply named, which serve as essential themes explored:

  1. Genetics & Genesis
  2. Metamorphosis
  3. First Words
  4. Eden
  5. Exodus
  6. Stasis
  7. Settlement
  8. Sociality
  9. Race
  10. Language
  11. History
  12. Evolution

It’s a testament to either the astounding volume of detail in this book, or the limits of my own cognitive abilities, or both, that having just finished this book last night after picking it up just over a week ago, I couldn’t reliably tell you which parts of the story fit in each section, so I won’t bother trying to summarize it all here. Instead, I thought I’d mention just a few pieces that I found especially interesting.

First, the “out of Africa” moment. I didn’t realize that this was not one moment, with one group of people. It happened many times with many different groups of people who, according to the historical record, went many different ways from there, some traveling around the coasts and then into the interior of Asia (and eventually outlying islands and over the land bridge to North America and South America), others migrating through Southern and Northern Europe. Wade argues that they were strong mariners due to the navigation and spread throughout the south Pacific archipelago, but why weren’t they navigating the coasts of North Africa and the Mediterranean and transiting out of Africa directly into Southern Europe? Meanwhile, numerous other pre-modern humans such as the Neanderthals (Europe) and Homo erectus (Asia) had already left Africa thousands of years before and fully populated the regions they were migrating into. But there was little discussion or exploration of how these other human species managed this, or why they might’ve been the firsts. Geologic history plays an important role here as well, and the multiple ice ages which occurred during these migration waves not only may have been drivers of evolutionary change which then led to social and migratory change, but they also dictated where various migrations could reasonably be achieved and increased the chance of tension and conflict between previous inhabitants and new arrivals in environs experiencing increased ecological scarcity.

Another important idea in the book, which for the present appears to be a hypothesis with a disputed body of evidence behind it, is that we might be able to peer deeper and more accurately into the historical record by means of the interplay between language and genetic diversification. The idea seems to be that every time a distinct genetic population splits off from an existing group, they tend to modify their language as well. Understanding where and how various language splits occurred might allow scientists to pinpoint new genetic branch timelines and vice versa, all the way back to the “original mother tongue” of the first “out of Africans”. One extremely speculative hope is that this original human language might even be reasonably reconstructed. Proto-Esperanto?

A third item I wanted to highlight isn’t interesting so much as it is entertaining, what I consider to be a bit of comical proledom. In a discussion of the relationship between last names and shared genealogy in Britain, Wade states,

Commoners acquired surnames between AD 1250 and 1350, apparently for the convenience of feudal record keepers who needed to differentiate between tenant farmers with the same first names. The surnames were not highly original. They tended to be a person’s profession (Smith, Butcher), or a patronymic (Johnson, Peterson), or derived from some landscape feature (Hill, Bush).

He goes on to give an example where it turned out that two Brits with the same last name, one a CEO and one an academic, actually did have a shared lineage originating to a common ancestor in a particular region of Northern England/Southern Scotland of whose geography the surname was descriptive, and who lived in that area according to official records. I got a chortle out of the way the elites of yore chose to humanize and differentiate amongst their tax cattle simply to aid their own tax farming, and that they didn’t bother to come up with anything more illustrious than tacking on terminology for slight changes in elevation on the land the peasants originated from, etc. It’s also interesting to think of how many people today have “commoner” last names (which group of ancestors, then, was reproductively more successful, the commoner or the elite?!) and how the market economy has allowed the sons of so many peasants to accumulate so much wealth!

A fourth item worth mentioning is the issue of “race”. It appears from this reading that “race” is a real and scientific phenomenon, though the implications of race are not well-know and are likely far different from what both “supporters” and “critics” of the concept currently think they can extrapolate from it. I’d like to learn more about race, and I think there will be more race-related scientific discoveries in the near future as this area of genetics is more thoroughly explored, but I would say I have less confidence in current race debates and their conclusions than I might have going into this book.

I’ll probably keep this one on the shelf and come back to some of the questions raised as I explore more books on the subject of genetics and evolution, pre-modern history, archaeology, economic history, etc. But I was less engaged with this book than I had hoped to be and I do hope there is a better organized, updated treatment of the subject I can read and discuss with my children in the future.

What I Remember From Journalism Classes

One of the Trump mantras in the current US presidential election cycle is that the system is “rigged.” Part of what Trump includes in the rigging allegation is the behavior of the US media in being bitterly, but not openly, partisan. The reputation of the media in American political theory is that it is a non-governmental check on official political scheming which serves the vaunted public interest in educating Americans on fact and fraud alike. Through the media, the American people, especially as an electorate, can make an informed decision as they exercise their democratic muscle.

A problem with this theory is that the “gatekeeper” role for the media introduces the same risk of regulatory capture that faces an official government agency. If X is the watchdog of Y, then Y has an incentive to exercise influence on X, up to and including implicit or covert control of X, to ensure Y has the maximum opportunity to pursue its own interest without restraint. If journalists are the watchdog of politicians, or of government and the political process as a whole, than people interested in exercising power without restraint via the political process have a strong incentive to try to control journalists.

There’s plenty of evidence, scandal and recent revelations of such influence and control that has come to light recently, mostly via alternative media “institutions” such as bloggers and not-for-profits like WikiLeaks, such that anyone interested in evaluating claims of a “rigged” system can run a simple search and make up their own mind. I don’t really want to go there with this post. Instead, I want to share some brief reflections and anecdotes from my undergraduate education, which included substantial coursework in journalism.

When I went to college, I initially thought I wanted to be a professional journalist. I later came to the conclusion that the system I would be participating in was “rigged”, and that I couldn’t find any heroes to emulate and that it’d be very unlikely for me to profitably, and safely, practice the kind of truth-telling journalism I was interested in, so I decided to abandon that ambition after completing most of the coursework necessary (I did end up completing the degree). Part of my disillusionment came through my experience in my journalism classes.

The very first class I took was an “ethics of journalism” class, which explored this very issue of the role of journalists in a free society, and the special status as gatekeeper assigned to the profession in American political theory. Unfortunately, most of my classes were disrupted that semester because the graduate assistants in the journalism department were on strike and my professor decided not to hold our classes on campus to avoid crossing the picket lines, a decision she made out of perceived solidarity with their plight. On one occasion, class was cancelled entirely because she decided to participate in a protest. While I doubt all journalism graduate students are on strike all the time at all universities in the US, I also would imagine this experience was not entirely unique, and certainly the ethical or political predilections of my professor at the time were not unusual. If this is the mindset and behavior of people teaching introductory ethics courses to aspiring journalists, what do you think might be the impact on journalism as a system in this country?

Another class I remember taking was something like “topics in media criticism”. I think what I imagined the course would be was something like studying news reporting and investigative journalism pieces and looking at how members of the media critically covered certain issues and people, and also how they responded to criticism from those they targeted. Instead, we ended up writing essays about pop culture media through the lenses of things like Marxism, feminism and sexuality.

Things I found memorable and descriptive about the majority of my classmates: few, if any, were double majoring in or had pursued an independent course of study in economics, so they were unfamiliar with even the most watered-down official market-lite basic instruction on the topic, thus making them unfit to cover 95% of what is newsworthy; while they weren’t ascetics, they seemed to accept that they were unlikely to have lucrative careers and seemed suspicious of people who had higher income-earning potential than they; they were definitely not the sharpest, most ambitious students in the school and were closer to being art students than business school students if you could set those things up as two opposite characteristic poles; they were animated by “social justice” issues and assignments, rather than questioning their premises or the validity of that approach; for those who had double majors, they were typically in subjects such as political science, sociology, psychology and occasionally history (ie, philosophically wishy-washy, non-concrete and dominated by Marxist leftover academics); in physical appearance they were often sickly or weak looking, had more body piercings than average and were often disheveled looking, as if they didn’t much care about how they looked to other people; few if any came from true poverty backgrounds, and few came from any wealth, they all seemed “securely” lower-middle class in background.

Putting these three pieces together, a picture emerges. These journalism students were being instructed on their special ethical status and duties while learning from the example of a person whose behavior and loyalties were compromised; they were receiving explicit ideological instruction in their coursework under the guise of some kind of creative criticism curriculum; finally, their personal backgrounds, interest, capabilities and knowledge probably made them unsuitable, on average, for thinking very deeply about key “public interest” issues and their personal circumstances made it potentially easy to tempt or incentivize them in various ways.

Under conditions like these, is it difficult to imagine how journalism, as a profession, might cater to the kind of people who could willfully do the bidding of special interests in a “rigged” system and either not realize how they were being manipulated, or else be eager to take part in such capers?

Of course, it didn’t work on me, but then I decided not to become a journalist!

Review – Class

Class: A Guide Through The American Status System

by Paul Fussell, published 1983

“A touchy subject”

Is class “America’s forbidden thought”? Does class bring up “unpleasing” notions? Does class exist in America?

While things may have been different in 1983 when this book was first published, for most of my life I have heard a lot about class– in literature, reading history, in the news and in conversation with friends, family, colleagues and strangers. The divisions that are most common are “upper class”, “middle class” and “working class”. Oh, and “the rich”. We don’t seem to have “lower classes”, and it isn’t always clear what the difference is between “the rich” and “upper class”, or even the well-to-do “middle class” and the “upper class”, or the barely-hanging-in-there “middle class” and the “working class.” We often hear about “the poor” but no one seems to have ever seen or spoken to one. The homeless don’t count.

These are primarily economic distinctions but, then, America’s economic identity has loomed larger than much else throughout time so that stands to reason. But Paul Fussell is more concerned with the elements of class which are connected to choice, call it taste, and so am I. Class is a confusing and complex subject and I don’t think Fussell manages to precisely and objectively define the term before launching into his observations, yet somehow this doesn’t prevent him from hitting his mark.

There’s so much to the idea of class and yet what has always fascinated me is the behavioral aspect of it. How a person of a certain class will tend to behave whatever his economic standing, whatever his occupation or role, whatever his level of education or wherever he grew up. Is there something genetic to class? It may be.

Segmenting the classes

Fussell identifies nine primary American classes despite the typical sociologists system of five:

  1. Top out-of-sight
  2. Upper
  3. Upper middle
  4. Middle
  5. High proletarian
  6. Mid-proletarian
  7. Low proletarian
  8. Destitute
  9. Bottom out-of-sight

The first three constitute a group, the next four constitute a second group and the last two constitute the final group. There are several interesting things to note about this arrangement. First, Fussell sees many similarities in behavior between the absolute top and the absolute bottom which is why they are similarly named (for modern, statistically-inclined socialists, read “top 1%” and “bottom 1%”). Second, the arrangement of classes 2-4 highlight the tendency of those closer to the top to see themselves as more average while acknowledging the penchant of those closer to the middle to identify more closely with the top out of aspiration-exasperation and paranoia.

Third, there is a glaring emphasis on crude commonality and the reality that much of the American populace looks, lives and behaves in a peasant-like fashion. While the proletarians were historically disenfranchised, undifferentiated masses providing cheap labor in industrialized urban environments, the truth is these people were and always will be peasants at heart and Fussell, joyously, acknowledges this in his class distinctions. The lack of buffer between destitution and proletarianism also shows how, whether they’re aware of it or not, those who look “down” on them from “above” can rarely tell the difference between a stable prole and a lost one.

While he comes up with 9 categories, in reality Fussell spends an inordinate amount of his time discussing the habits and tastes of proles, another, smaller fraction typifying the “uppers” and the remaining moments pointing out how anxious the few middle class people are between these two poles.

Class safari

Through an exploration of appearance, living space, consumption habits, intellectual pursuits and speech Fussell tries to narrow in on specific details that can help us see class clearly. As you read through this material, two things happen: one, you become retrospectively more observant of the behavior of others you’ve witnessed without special note and two, you flinch each time you realize you’ve done something prole yourself.

This might be a good place to collect some of my favorite observations and append my comments.

Our former lower-middle class, the new high proles, now head “the masses”… they are identifiable as people things are done to. They are in bondage to monetary policy, rip-off advertising, crazes and delusions, mass low culture, fast foods, consumer schlock.

To that I’d add food pyramids (government nutritional diktat), public education and (increasingly related) a lifestyle of indebtedness. And “social engineering” broadly understood.

Imagine being under the constant eye of the foreman, a figure who has absolutely no counterpart in middle-class society [and] being required to bring a doctor’s note if they are absent a day…the degree to which your work is overseen by a superior suggests your real class more accurately than the amount you take home from it.

Interpreting class as a choice, I think it is even truer to observe whether one’s supervisor feels the need to ask you for that note or not, for example. The truly lower class person is held in check and formally “made honest” by the routine of the doctor’s note (even if he’s making one up or paying the GP off to scribble out a stack of notes for his use). The low-skilled worker who is nonetheless classy at heart never raises this suspicion from his supervisors and would probably find the exercise offensive and detrimental to the trust he has in his managers.

This idea of a spectrum of supervision is an interesting one. We can see the self-made entrepreneur at one end of the band and the on-the-job-transient at the other. Curiously, major corporate executives probably belong close to the transient, being supervised closely by the regulatory-legal apparatus and, nominally, by a board of directors and shareholders… some “kings of the world” they are! Elite politicians are clearly upper class in this sense, inhabiting a space close to the entrepreneur, but perhaps even further for those who have truly made it– the Clintons, Roosevelts and Al Sauds and others who are beyond scrutiny and control.

At the bottom of the working class, the low prole is identifiable by the gross uncertainty of his employment.

What I think Fussell is referring to here are people like construction workers, whose only hope of holding steady work is that the bubble of the day keep on inflating. When it pops, these types usually experience grave setbacks and may even take up or return to a life of petty crime to get by.

But what I think many (middle class? high proles?) would think of here is the crude characterization of the cold workings of a competitive market place, where the poor working stiff minds his own business and then loses his job in a sudden, mass layoff. Or where the boss just doesn’t like you, because you talk back or look at him funny or remind him of someone he hated in high school, so he fires you.

This doesn’t really happen in real life. Assuming a company is a viable going concern and not a fraud or otherwise mismanaged (in which case ALL staff jobs are at risk, prole and management alike), most prole occupations are secure with good behavior and dedication to the cause. While the bogeyman of job security is trotted out now and again, implicitly or explicitly, either in the case of a significant behavioral breach or as a means of putting the piss into the team and reminding them who is in charge, it’s all in “good fun.” Most employers aren’t that capricious because competition goes both ways and they can quickly lose much more than a staff member if they treat people like crap all the time.

a cheap way to achieve a kind of distinction is to be thin… flaunting obesity is a prole sign, as if the object were to offer maximum aesthetic offense to the higher classes and thus exact a form of revenge.

One flight across the country nowadays is all you need to remind you what class you’re in. If you can comfortably sit in an economy airline seat for 5 hours, there’s an excellent chance you are middle class at least.

legibility of their dress is another sign… T-shirts or caps with messages on them you’re supposed to read and admire… When proles assemble to enjoy leisure, they seldom appear in clothing without words on it.

Another example is the way proles turn unhealthy lifestyles into faux-pride brands, such as “Big Dog”. And the penultimate in legible clothing is the wearing of sports jerseys in public, conspicuously and most frequently outside of sporting events and arenas or as a form of semi-formal dress wear. In fact, I was rather dismayed to see Fussell miss this one, but then a correspondent reminded me: “Sports jerseys as casual wear were unthinkable at  the time of ‘Class’. If there were to be a new edition, one would have to assess virtually the entire country as prole.”

So true.

On baseball caps:

The little strap at the rear is the significant prole feature because it demeans the buyer and the user, making him do the work formerly thought the obligation of the seller, who used to have to stock numerous sizes.

This was such a quaint observation looking back. Gone are the days of the plastic adjusto-strap. “Lids” nowadays are characterized by a bowl cut with a sewn in elastic band thus making them all “one-size-fits-all” which looks as believable as a one-size-fits-all dress shirt would. The funny thing is that some proles have adopted the perpetual wearing of the merchandising stickers as a sign of pride, as if to suggest this “lid” just came off the shelf (or better– was just sneakily removed from it without the vendors notice). Many other proles have graduated on to capless attire, headwear having degenerated so much amongst the lower classes that you can now spot a prole by his lack of cranial adornment (typically with an odd, early-balding molting pattern on the dome signifying poor diet and careless lifestyle choices) and similarly you can spot an ambitious member of the lower middle class by his decision to wear a simple, out-dated hat for the look and thrill of wearing it rather than because it is considered respectable or polite to cover one’s bird’s nest.

And for the she-prole, there is nothing that shouts “I am sexy and interesting” at a party or while walking a yippie, twerp man-repellent dog around the neighborhood like the fluorescent trucker hat which could only be complete, of course, with the throwback old-school plastic prole adjusto-strap.

you could probably draw a trustworthy class line based wholly on the amount of sugar consumed by the family

And thus, one of the most important and yet overlooked motivations of the “paleo diet” movement beyond health. In a society experiencing high prole drift, it seems only natural that those with class would take a stand anywhere they can in drawing clear class boundaries.

This is such a great book with so many things to quote and comment on, I simply don’t have the time. Maybe I will follow this post up eventually with another round of “Class” wits but for now the media above should suffice.