Quirks of fate

It seems that 70,000 years ago the global population of homo sapiens was reduced to less than 26,000. Apparently they teased out that bit of info through some genetic analysis. As humans were by then in Africa and across much of Eurasia, that means we were very sparse on the ground. All seven billion of us spring from remarkably small numbers of people. Indeed, it’s been suggested that as few as seventy individuals came across the Bering Strait land bridge to eventually people the entire western hemisphere. We’ve had more than seventy people in our pad at parties. I never thought of them as a genome before. Well, I did once and got my face slapped. But I digress.

A million or so years ago our antecessor species Homo erectus seems in the genetic analyses (if I knew how they do this I’d tell you) to have been reduced to less than a thousand individuals….and remained like that on the razor’s edge of extinction for maybe a hundred thousand years. Everything we are was dependent on a population the size of a very small town or a medium sized high school or the fans of failing rock band in a big, mostly empty concert hall. Somewhere in that tiny population was some of us, genetically. Whatever genetic factors helped members of that population survive a particularly brutal hundred thousand years of Darwinian natural selection (as other related human species went extinct) lies deep in our own genome. And when 70,000 years ago something happened globally that reduced Homo sapiens to less than 25,000 individuals, we survived while the last of Homo erectus died out, unable to survive what it had once survived for a hundred thousand years. No one ever said natural selection was fair. It’s anything but. The fossil record is full of species of humans and proto-humans no longer here. Fleshed out by talented artists, they gaze at us with all the pathos of a Rembrandt. You can sense their intelligence and emotions. Then you look at the skulls again, bare and ancient and hopelessly extinct. There but for quirks of fate, is us.

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There are a hundred trillion bacteria in your body as you read this, and a bunch of these guys in those bacteria.

The surface it is standing on would be, I assume, the interior of the exterior of a bacterium, being that bacteriophage viruses invade and then replicate within bacteria, taking proteins from the bacteria to create copies of itself. Sounds creepy, though the influenza virus does the exact same thing, using our cells instead of a single cell bacterium. From a virus’s unthinking and barely even alive POV, a cell is a cell. What matters is the proteins in the cell, without which there can be no baby viruses.

Dead owls

I suspect that the exponential increase in the pet cat population led to the exponential increase in urban and suburban coyotes which led to the decrease in the time cats spend outdoors which has caused the exponential increase in the urban and suburban brown rat population which has caused an increase in the amount of rat poison used which has dramatically increased the number of dead and dying rats which has led to the increased mortality in owls I read about today.

They did not have a flu shot in 1918

The 1918 influenza epidemic infected half a billion people out of global population of 1.8 billion. Somewhere from fifty to one hundred million of those people died. Nearly everyone killed by the flu was under 65, with most being between 20 and 40, in whom the body’s immune system’s reaction was so severe that lung tissue was reduced to a thick mass and the victims drowned in their own phlegm. A perfectly healthy young person could fall sick in the morning and be dead that night, as a strong  immune system made the disease all the more deadly.

There was no flu shot in 1918, which means people in 1918 were just as vulnerable as people who didn’t get the shot this year. Fortunately the flu this year is vastly less deadly, and will probably only kill a few tens of thousands world wide. It’s a roll of the dice every year, but at some point  a flu virus will evolve that drops people like flies. Could be next year, could be in a hundred years. If you get the shot you lessen the odds of dying a rather quick and ghastly death. It’s up to you.

Maybe someday we will speak as well as we can see

Yesterday I made the mistake of listening to the TED radio hour, and learned that because the Vietnamese language has no subjunctive, Vietnamese people can’t speculate about choices they didn’t make or the possible outcomes of decisions. The credulous host and the hooting audience offered no hint of having considered the idiotic implications of this claim.

In things like color, if you are from a culture that does not have, say, pink, you can stare at pink all day and not see it as pink but as just a shade of red. We just have blue, the Russians have three blues. Not shades of blue but different colors, just as we have a purple, a blue and a red. There are all sorts of things that you we will not be aware of even if looking right at them because the concept does not exist in our brain. This even extends to numbers. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has been revived somewhat, backed up by neurology, just not the absurd claims about it that were made before. But it is true that there are things we do not see because we do not know they are there. Making sweeping TED Talk pronouncements about the subjective are absurd, of course, but if you’ve ever seen the endless list of tenses, aspects, moods (and evidentiality and mirativity) found in human languages it begins to dawn on you that depending on which language you are raised in, you are going to experience things in slightly different ways, or at least describe them in different ways, so that when someone else is hearing your experience you will describe it in a way that fits into the grammar of the language you speak. That is where reality is changed by language, in the retelling and second hand experience of it. People around the world will see pretty much the same thing, but when they go to describe it to those who did not experience it first hand, it gets squeezed into the very limited capabilities of an individual language to describe it, and that is where you will not see a ship even though you are not looking at it, not first hand but second hand. That is not by direct observation but by indirect observation. Reality winds up being shaped by the language it is being described in, if there are literally hundreds of tenses, aspects and moods to express reality, each of us is only allowed a few each, because no language can contain all of them. So we wind to trying to describe something we saw in impossibly limited terms. Language can only adequately describe an infinitesimal amount of what our brain’s occipital lobe is capable of seeing (and even less able to describe the other senses), which means that inevitably we can describe something in a way that leaves out almost everything we saw (heard, smelled, felt), and depending on what that language is capable of conveying, that is what we will hear or read second hand. So even if a polyglot bunch all saw the same thing at the same time, we would be unable to convey equally what we had seen in our respective language, but only what our lexicon and grammar enable us to say. A second hand account in one language would differ slightly or more than slightly from one in another language. An account written in English would differ dramatically from one recited in Tok Pidgin. And yet it is those second hand accounts that become reality in a culture, whether in history or in tales told round the fire. Language doesn’t have much impact on direct experience (as little of what we experience goes anywhere near the language parts of our brain anyway), but it has a vast impact on the retelling of that experience. When a guy says that the Viet Namese people, with no subjunctive, can’t speculate about choices they didn’t make it seems ridiculous. But not having a subjunctive will affect how a story gets told in Viet Namese, because the facts will have to be written or told in such a way to make up for the fact that they have no subjunctive. It can be a subtle difference, though sometimes it can be a huge difference. Every language is affected this way. Language is this vast, extraordinary thing that, alas, each of us is allowed to use only a tiny bit of. Such a shame. Perhaps as we evolve as a species we’ll be able to use more and more of the wealth of languages, and instead of the handful of tenses and moods and aspects each grammar has, we’ll be able to use all of them, interchangeably, and be understood. Maybe someday we will speak as well as we can see.

Hominin hominin hominin

Many years ago I was reading Donald Johanson’s Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind and watching The Honeymooners at the same time. Bad idea. This one note bit popped into my head and I have not been able to shake it since. Three decades later I asked myself what would Richard Dawkins do? So I meme the thing.

Why so excited Ralphie boy, what did you find there, the jaw of a baboon?
N-N-N-Norton, I found a homina homina homina.
Calm down, Ralph, it looks like the jaw of a Pliocene baboon to me.
Homina homina homina.
But let me take a closer look.
Homina homina homina.
You’re right, Ralph, it’s not a baboon, not with these incisors.
Homina homina homina.
Good lord, Ralph, you’ve found a homina homina homina.
Homina homina homina.
Hi Ed, Hi Ralph, Alice home? Just what are you two so excited about?
Homina homina homina.
Homina homina homina.
Let me see that jaw. Why it’s, it’s a homina homina homina.
Homina homina homina.
Homina homina homina.
Hi Ralph, Hi Ed, Hi Trixie, what are you three babbling about?
Homina homina homina.
Homina homina homina.
Homina homina homina.
Let me see then. Why it’s a hominin!
Hominin hominin hominin.
Hominin hominin hominin.
Hominin hominin hominin.
I’ll call it Lucy.
Ralph!
I’ll call it Alice then.