Momus

Momus

Momus aka Nick Currie is a musician, writer, and blogger, originally from Paisley, Scotland. He now lives in Osaka. See his website for the eclectic nature of his work, which is as unique, interesting, and uncommercial as any really original artist could hope for. I see him as a latter day Ivor Cutler, who is one of my heroes.

I would never have come across his work if it hadn’t been for joining KILTR, a Scottish social media platform, where someone posted the video below. Momus is a faux tour guide in the exhibition, Darwin: Art and Search for Origins. Inspired stuff, makes me want to search out his music and writing.

For comparison, here’s Ivor Cutler looking for truth with a pin.

TED Talks: Elaine Morgan says we evolved from aquatic apes

An occasional post featuring talks by innovative thinkers, sponsored by TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design). The internet is made for this – to allow challenging ideas to escape from their academic ghettos and hang out in a place where they can talk to each other.

Elaine Morgan is the most well-known proponent of the aquatic ape hypothesis, which says that our ape ancestors didn’t come down from the trees and suffer in the hot, dry savannah. Sensible beasts that they were, they headed for the beach to take advantage of the plentiful food supplies available in an aquatic environment. Hence us, hairless, intelligent, bipedal apes who have sex face to face. Most of the time, anyway. There’s a lot more to the hypothesis, obviously, and Morgan lays it out in this entertaining talk.

Thanks to the Guardian for reminding me. It has an article prompted by a major London conference next week, and the support of David Attenborough. If you’re interested in the subject, here’s Elaine Morgan giving a lecture at UCL: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4.

And here is a BBC documentary on the subject. Not great picture quality, but worth watching.

TED Talks: Pamela Meyer on how to spot a liar

A new weekly post featuring talks by innovative thinkers, sponsored by TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design). This is what the internet was made for – to allow challenging ideas to escape from their academic ghettoes and hang out in a place where they can talk to each other.

This is an entertaining, but ultimately quite troubling talk, about the way people knowingly deceive each other. We will be lied to 10 – 200 times a day, and we’re all dishing it out as well. Pamela Meyer, author of Lie-spotting, points out the “tells” and suggests truth is often better in the long run. Warning: this video could make you intensely self-conscious.

The Aquatic Ape

What would you think if, coming in sight of the beach at a seaside resort, you saw that all the deckchairs were turned toward the land?  This is the punchline of a short story by science fiction writer, Brian Aldiss, in which his character slips into an alternative universe, one that looks superficially similar but is fundamentally alien – human beings are no longer drawn towards the sea.

That was in the 1960s.  Not long after reading the story, I came across an extraordinary hypothesis by Welsh television writer and feminist, Elaine Morgan.  Reacting to what she saw as the sexist nature of the savannah hypothesis in human evolution (chaps off hunting, women sitting around at home watching day time TV), she found a reference in Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape to a period in human evolution when apes might have been forced to live in water.  Here’s his argument.

Morgan’s book, The Descent of Woman (1972), popularized the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis.  You can see why, as a feminist, she found it attractive.  There is no division of labour in an aquatic environment – males and females are equal partners in the struggle for survival.

Beyond that, it has some supporting evidence, presented by Morris in the video.  This theory supports, among other things, the evolution of bipedalism (as a means of literally keeping your head above water), frontal sex, lack of body hair, and conscious control of breathing (necessary in an aquatic environment).

Needless to say, her work was not well received in scientific circles.  I will leave you to apportion the reasons between her non-scientific background and being a woman.

Morgan followed this with The Aquatic Ape (1982), in which she made the science more rigorous, and continued to develop her theory in subsequent books.  The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis (1997), subtitled The Most Credible Theory of Human Evolution, takes the prize for sheer chutzpah.

Criticism of the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis has not diminished in the ensuing years, but it has gained a place among the family of respectable evolutionary theories.  Somewhere in the back row of the family photo, among the maiden aunts.  Morgan is still passionately defending her hypothesis.  Here she is at TED in 2009.

I like AAH as much for its scientific credentials, as for my affinity for water.  It resonates on an intuitive level, and I was appalled by Aldiss’ glimpse of a world where human beings are no longer drawn to the sea.  I’m not even sure I’d give it the bum’s rush if there was a preponderance of evidence against it.

The ancestral memory of wading through the mangrove swamps is just too strong and comforting.

Planet of the Apemen – Battle for Earth: Neanderthal (2/2)

The Good Guys

The second programme of BBC’s Planet of the Apemen docudrama series is slightly less risible than the first.  You can see my previous post on the encounter between Homo sapiens and Homo erectus here.

In this programme, the plucky sapiens encounter Neanderthals in southern France, 32,000 years ago.  Bigger, stronger, and with a larger brain capacity than sapiens, they had already been there for 500,000 years when sapiens first encountered them.  Long enough to have evolved a paler skin colour in response to the cooler northern climate.  I love it that we all came out of Africa and were once dark-skinned.  The perfect fact to irritate white supremacists.

They had language, but hadn’t evolved to efficiently produce sounds, so that spoken communication would not have been as complex as it was among sapiens.  And they formed family units in which the sick were cared for, and the dead were buried with wreaths of flowers.  This last point wasn’t made in the programme and perhaps should have been.  Their weapons technology was different from sapiens – thick thrusting spears as opposed to thin, light throwing spears – which was reflected in the style of hunting.  Sapiens would kill animals from a distance, while Neanderthals would charge up and knock them over, finishing them off with a thrusting spear.  Clearly a much more dangerous strategy.  And the essential difference between British and American football.

As in the first programme, the experts talked about the relative strengths of the two species, and the drama demonstrated what they talked about.  One expert in both the programmes hurled spears at, or stabbed, a dead pig to demonstrate the effects of different weapons.  I think the pig should have got a mention in the credits.

My problem with this docudrama is that we get short changed in two ways.  The documentary isn’t as interesting or complex as it could be, tied down as it is to being a gloss for the drama.  And the drama is naff.  Simplistic, politically correct, and so airbrushed that you can imagine it as an advertisement for an exotic holiday.  Just as the village at the end of Homo erectus was Club Med, the encampment in Neanderthal is an idealised version of a Native American campsite, complete with teepees.

And that’s just the props.  The actors are all thoroughly photogenic, except the ones playing Neanderthals.  Even so, the surviving Neanderthal could probably get the starring role in a Tarzan movie.

But it’s the political correctness that sticks out like a vegetarian at a Cattle Ranchers’ Association dinner.  Essentially, sapiens unwittingly move into Neanderthal terrritory, and the Neanderthals kill the heroine’s brother, thus setting off an inter-species feud that ends badly for the Neanderthals.  We’re told in the postscript that within a few thousand years their population declined disastrously and they only managed to hang on in Gibraltar, becoming extinct 24,000 years ago.

The heroine, Byana, is an stone age protofeminist, railing against the fact that only men get to hunt and not wanting to marry the man from another group that her father has chosen for her.  Byana really wants to be a hunter, to the point where she blows their chance of killing a horse by chucking her own spear at it and missing.  So she gets her brother, the one later killed by Neanderthals, to teach her.  From their practice session, it’s clear that Byana couldn’t hit the side of a woolly mammoth.  Yet when she gets her hands on a spear-thrower, suddenly she becomes a dead shot.  After the scene of Byana rejecting her traditional role as wife and mother, we get another expert waxing lyrical about the advantages of gender specialization and division of labour.  So you know this rebellion is a flash in the pan.

Byana is also the conscience of the sapiens.  While she understandably calls them “monsters” after her brother’s murder, she lets a wounded Neanderthal live.  Coincidentally, this is the Hollywood type I mentioned earlier.  When the victorious sapiens find him in the Neanderthal encampment, she pretends to kill him, and moments later you see him limping off toward extinction.  You’d think the other sapiens would have noticed the absence of a body.

But political correctness doesn’t end with Byana.  Her prospective mate is told by Byana’s father that they will be united the next day.  He is prepared to withdraw from the arrangement, saying that Byana doesn’t want to be a wife, she wants to be a hunter.  The perfect 21st century man.  Byana, however, has changed her mind.  “Together stronger,” she says, kissing the fertility symbol she carries.  “Together stronger” also echoes her father’s wish for the two sapiens groups to join forces for mutual benefit.  Presumably with Byana as familial glue.

I said at the beginning that this programme is slightly less risible than the last.  But only because the events are more plausible, without of course the 21st century attitudes embodied in the narrative.  The word “ethnocentric” doesn’t just spring to mind, it leaps into physical existence and rips chunks out of your leg.

As for the documentary aspect, its function is to pimp out a ludicrous drama.  This is a fascinating subject.  I’m deeply interested in human origins and how we might have interacted with other hominid species.  But it needs a proper, scientifically rigorous documentary to do it justice.  This one tries to be half entertainment and fails miserably.

Planet of the Apemen – Battle for Earth: Homo Erectus (1/2)

The Bad Guys

I’m a bit late in getting to this documentary series, due to the temptation to accumulate lots of programmes on iPlayer, and then not having the time to watch them.  Planet of the Apemen: Battle for Earth is an odd duck, combining the usual authoritative talking heads with a dramatic reconstruction of a hypothetical encounter between Homo sapiens and Homo erectus.  Or Us and Them.

Homo erectus was an extraordinarily successful hominid species, which thrived for 1.8 million years and died out in India about 75,000 years ago.  It survived in Asia for another 45,000 years.  We should be so lucky.  They walked upright, were champion runners (all the better for hunting down prey), used stone tools and fire, and had rudimentary speech.  Like us, they formed close family units and cared for the sick.  The difference lay in our bigger brains, ability to think more imaginatively, and better developed speech faculties.  So we could make plans for the future and communicate them to others.  But we weren’t as fast or strong as Homo erectus.

The Toba volcanic eruption in Indonesia, 75,000 years ago, spewed ash over much of India, destroying vegetation and creating a volcanic winter.  The documentary suggests that it caused the extinction of Homo erectus in the subcontinent.  At the same time, Homo sapiens was spreading out of Africa and into India.  So, clash of species and a battle for scarce food resources.

The docudrama presents a plucky, good-looking sapiens family migrating through India and coming up against an erectus family.  There’s Mum and Dad, and their teenage Son.  Mum drinks tainted water, a byproduct of the eruption, and is temporarily hors de combat.  Dad is captured, killed, and eaten by the erectus family.  Son is left in charge of sick Mum, as they hide in a cave from the erecti, hungry and dying of thirst.  Until the Wise Old Stranger Woman (WOSW) shows up in their cave with water in a handy dandy canteen made out of an ostrich egg.  She, it seems, has had her family wiped out by the erecti.  The sapiens family and WOSW do have names, but I spaced out on which one belongs to who.  Never was good with names.  In contrast, only one of the erectus family is named, and there’s no clear familial connection spelled out between them.

You see the problem?  This is pure Hollywood.  And it’s not even very good Hollywood.  The title of the documentary shouts out the provenance of this wholesome family drama, as they battle against the odds to reach safety and a chance of propagating their genes.  True, there are clips of various professorial types explaining the science behind the drama, interspersed between the scenes.  Like advertising slots in a soap opera.  But no amount of fair-minded talk about how admirable Homo erectus was makes up for seeing one of them smash Dad’s head in with a stone.  And later eat him, although we only see the bones, what they left on the plate as it were.  More than that, the treatment of the sapiens family is eye-wateringly, toe-curlingly politically correct.

Anyway, WOSW suggests leaving for a place where she knows there’s food and water, but sneaks out in the middle of the night after hearing Son talk about stealing her water.  So  Mum and Son try to get away by themselves the next day, taking in the erectus family cave en route, where they discover the leftovers of Dad.  Son, however, is basically a good boy.  He tries to give water to the sick erectus they find there, who attempts to whack him with a rock.  So we know they’re a bad lot and it’s alright to kill them.

Discovered in the cave, they make their escape helped by WOSW, who really has a forgiving nature.  In order to demonstrate how sapiens were able to think ahead, she throws her canteen between the two erecti trying to kill the captured Son.  He gets away while one erectus kills the other for its possession.  Thereby also demonstrating that erectus was stupid as well as bad (tick appropriate box).  And so the sapiens continue their quest for food and water, pursued by a couple of erecti.

Trouble is, there’s a bloody great desert in the way.  And a sandstorm, which buries one pursuing erectus and shows us how clever sapiens are in making a tent for shelter.  Cue long vistas of sand dunes and much trudging, with absolutely zero narrative tension because you know they’re going to make it to the other side.

And so they do, splashing into the waves like holidaymakers on their first day at the seaside.  Ah, but wait, what about the other erectus?  Dang!  There he is charging at them.  Until Son remembers how Mum taught him to use a sling shot.  The last erectus in India falls, pole-axed, into the waves of the Arabian Sea.

There’s more.  Mum notices a shell on the beach that looks like the one on WOSW’s necklace.  WOSW has found her home!  And there it is, just down the beach!  The perfect little Club Arabia village for upwardly mobile Homo sapiens.

The End.

Well, not quite.  There’s still the extinction of the Neanderthals in the next episode.  I can see I’m going to have some problems with that one, since I’m very fond of the Neanderthals.

Bananas

I haven’t posted for a while.  A black dog came visiting – in fact it’s still here, but I can now push past it to get to the blog.  The phrase is really an insult to black dogs in particular and animals in general, since they are blameless and it’s a human thing to find no pleasure or purpose in life.  This blog is something of a lifeline, by which I hope to climb back onto my twig.  Difficult for a bear in hibernation mode.

So what better subject than bananas, which have just the right aura of absurdity to bring a smile back to my face.  This is Ray Comfort, the Christian evangelist, extolling the humble fruit as an aid to understanding Intelligent Design.  A fine reductio ad absurdum argument with Pythonesque overtones, though clearly not intended to produce that effect.  I bet Cleese & Co. wish they’d thought of it first.

Should you actually be convinced by the video that the banana is the Work of God, here’s a video explaining why it’s not.

Not nearly so entertaining.  To make amends, here’s Ray Comfort’s voice with some completely different footage.

On the other hand, what if I’m wrong?  Here’s the real atheist nightmare.