"...the behaviour of most present day humans remains moderated by magical thinking-type mental processes (lack of integration between the left prefrontal cortical areas and memory), underwritten by sub-optimal cause and effect perception."

Robert G. Bednarik, An aetiology of hominin behaviour, Homo, 2012

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Human Universe with Professor Brian Cox

Apeman to Spaceman in 250,000 years

Professor Brian Cox opened his new BBC Two series by doing a great injustice to our ancestors.

His statement that human development was an "ascent" from our ape roots is both anthropocentric and Euro-centric inferring as it does that humans were somehow "chosen" for this adventure, perhaps by god? Furthermore, it fails to recognise that from a biological perspective the evolution of humans is a process of fetalization or more precisely neoteny in chordates (DeBeer, cited in Bednarik 2011). It implicitly perpetuates the idea that evolution is teleological when it is dysteleological. The biological trajectory of the human species, a process marked most recently by a transition from strong to weak, can more accurately be described as a "descent" from our ape ancestry.

As the BBC web site reveals, Professor Brian Cox presents a new theory, which I shall refer to here as the "Large Brain Hypothesis (LBH)". According to the LBH model, the earth's 400,000 year orbital wobble in combination with the precession and rapidly changing environmental conditions in the African rift valley precipitated punctuated increases in brain volume resulting in the present human condition. The examples the professor provided to illustrate his case were the brain cases of Australopithecus, Homo Erectus, Homo Heidelbergensis and Omo II perhaps unaware that Omo II was a surface find and is certainly not representative of a "modern human" skull having some very robust features. His suggestion of an accelerated development in brain volume coinciding with the events and scenario outlined are simply not supported by the meagre hominin fossil record. Further it fails to account for the average 13% decrease in brain volume from 50,000 years ago to the present day, following a steady course of expansion over a much longer period . If such investment in brain size was so central to our evolution what conditions occurred to cause natural selection to be halted and for the rapid decrease in brain size and 50% reduction in robusticity which followed? Unfortunately LBH provides no answers to this basic question, no surprises.

Instead, Professor Cox parrots the usual Pleistocene archaeological narrative that in just "10,000 generations" we can all trace our ancestry back to one point. That we are "all related to Africans from the Rift Valley". BS. His and my genealogy, as white Europeans, is very unlikely to be traceable to an African ancestry. The genetic data, both Y chromosome and mtDNA suggest that the haplogroups of African and Non-Africans split from a common ancestor of around 160,000 years ago. The origin of this common ancestor is unknown at present (Klyosov 2014).

He pinpoints the "road to civilisation" (from Africa - of course!) beginning at 60,000 years ago although why this date was chosen on this occasion by this professor is unclear citing the forging of Bedouin routes as evidence. No material evidence (for example the obsidian "spearpoints" he makes much ado of) supports this assertion. More critically, cultural evidence which is at odds with the suggestion that these 250,000 year old spear-points are a manifestation of a uniquely African/modern human trait was not presented. For instance, the finely crafted wooden spear from Clacton dated to around 400,000 years old or the javelin-like spears from Schoningen to name two of many more which contradict this mythical narrative.

But more to the point, implying that the human journey to space occurred in a matter of 250,000 years is simply incorrect. The most comparable journey is of course seafaring which probably began over a million years ago but certainly by 840,000 years ago as attested to by the evidence of hominin occupation at the island of Flores amongst others. These journeys, which by all accounts were a much more dangerous and therefore greater step for humankind, occurred without the global resources and expert scientific support that the first journey to the moon benefitted from. The journey to the moon was a precisely calculated exercise that by comparison with the first journeys across the sea was relatively safe (Bednarik 2011). These early journeys may have had failure rates in excess of 50%.

So, as Professor Brian Cox dismisses several million or so years of archaeological evidence of developing culture as irrelevant, he arrives at writing which he proposes was the next "big step" to the moon following spear-points. He suggests that it is at this moment that humans really came into their own. Whilst he may have support in indicating that "writing freed the acquisition of knowledge", contrary to his case, I would counter that the production of exograms (the externalisation of memory traces) was fundamentally more important than writing since it underpins our construction of a "shared" reality and a frame of reference from which volition arises. What he appears to be doing is conflating the culturally accumulated knowledge which allowed for space travel with the conceptual idea of a "modern mind" which empirically does not exist.