How We Became So Beautiful and Bright: Deep History and Evolutionary Anthropology

If we one day will know that some freak mutation made the human insanity and exploration thing possible, it will be amazing to think that it was this little inversion on this chromosome that made all this happen and changed the whole ecosystem of the planet and made us dominate everything.

—Svante Pääbo to Elizabeth Kolbert[1]

In the spring of 2011, I had occasion to interrogate a visiting houseguest, an evolutionary anthropologist who was preparing (at her laptop computer) several PowerPoint presentations dealing with the art and artifacts of early hominins.[2] I was doing my own work across the room, now and then stepping over to inspect one or more of the images she was planning to use in her talks, among them familiar stylized drawings of brute-like bent-over australopithecine types, our precursors of three, four, maybe five million years ago. From my own readings over the past few years I was intrigued and puzzled by our long-term transformation from those craggy, hairy, apelike apes into us, the refined and beautiful Homo sapiens apes of today. She happened to have on hand one of Robert G. Bednarik’s thousand or so scholarly articles related to paleoanthropology, some of which discussed the physicality of robustness vs. gracility, terms I was only dimly aware of. My interest was piqued. When she reported that Bednarik’s magnum opus, The Human Condition, was on the verge of publication, I got a copy as soon as it appeared. To complicate matters—but ultimately to enrich them—the announcement of Daniel E. Lieberman’s book on the human head could not have been more well-timed, given all he has to say about robusts and graciles. And with yet another timely and relevant book, this one on “deep history” just off the presses, the next half-year of my life was bespoke.

But there’s trouble here, starting with my title about beauty. And as for the epigraph, one could well ask who are “we,” evolutionarily speaking? “Beautiful” according to whom or what? Do dogs find us beautiful? Or is it just other dogs with whom they are willy-nilly drawn to mate by a genomic pull unbeknownst to them (or, in our case, to us)? Is what we call beauty a transcendent fact, like the sun? Or is it in reality what Darwin and his expounders call an instrument of “sexual selection,” the je ne sais quoi that draws us to mate with certain people rather than others in the interest of “selfish” genes? And after we’ve done our reproductive bit, we start to lose our beauty because of our devalued sexual currency, even though we may still look not so bad according to other criteria afforded by culture and medical technology. When we see artists’ renderings of what our earliest hominin precursors are presumed to have looked like, are we turned on by the australopithecine face, head, and body of several million years ago? Or do we recoil from their putative crudeness? During the course of millions of years of evolution, as hominin bodies and brains changed from Australopithecus to Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis, and “finally” to Homo sapiens so beautiful and bright, our precursors managed, of course, to find each other beautiful enough to mate with while they were “ugly” according to our own wired program and before God was reported to have said “Be fruitful and multiply.” Today a noseless australopithecine lookalike with a flattened snout and a heavy brow thrust forward wouldn’t be so likely to be sexually selected by anybody of our species. Our shapely-nosed round-headedness was not part of a program of sacred works embedded in the Big Bang to transform us from australopithecine to sapient. Our own present beauty is in truth only a statistical fact, a transient “normality,” merely a stage on some route from the primal mud that we hardly understand, given that natural selection has no plans, no ideas, no intelligence, no blueprint in mind. If our distant descendants turn out to have six digits per hand and foot and three eyes (one behind their heads), won’t we be looked back upon merely as unevolved freaks en route to them, who will find each other irresistible? What can we make of all the beauty terms and norms that we so confidently assume to go without saying?

The time indeed seems ripe for the emergence of what looks to be called “deep history,” a phenomenon starting to pervade not only the sciences, as we would expect, but the more advanced cadres of the resistant humanities as well. A sign of the accelerating pace was the serendipitous appearance of the three books I mention above, exploring different ramifications of the enlarged perspectives provided by anthropology, archaeology, philosophy, and the hard sciences. As I read these books I began to collect corroborating articles from current periodicals that related to their pervasive themes. In a period of only a few months, the pile of pages torn from Science, Nature, National Geographic, the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books stacked up dauntingly on my desk, not to mention vast hoards from specialized scholarly journals that I could only glance at online. The first of these three books is actually called Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present, a collection (commissioned by the editors, Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail) of interrelated essays by various experts who huddled together to produce a coherent volume.[3]

But before providing an overview of this indispensable reconstitution of the prehistorical past, I must give credit to Nicholas Wade’s landmark accomplishment of 2006, Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors. Wade, a rock upon which the New York Times’s science reportage is founded, opens his account with a fast chronology: “Travel back into the human past, and the historical evidence is plentiful enough for the first couple of hundred years, then rapidly diminishes. At the 5,000-year mark, written records disappear altogether, yielding to the wordless witness of archaeological sites. Going farther back, even these become increasingly rare over the next 10,000 years, fading almost to nothing by 15,000 years ago, the date of the first human settlements.” Since 2006, datings have been changing rapidly as new fossil traces push Wade’s dawn ever further back into prehistory. If we turn then to Shryock and Smail’s unsettling “Introduction,” we read that the conventional time scheme of familiar and traditional history was shaken up “by highly contingent historical trends that were triggered and amplified by the time revolution [my italics] of the 1860s, when the short chronology, which envisioned a world roughly 6,000 years old, was abandoned as a geo- logical truth, and human history began to stretch back into a limitless time before Eden.”

Almost all of human history in the West until the middle of the nineteenth century was based on a mere three thousand years of shuffled and reshuffled texts, and “texts” is the critical term here. From Homer through Plato and Aristotle, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Church Fathers, the Renaissance rediscovery of the “ancients,” and the favored documents of the Enlightenment, what counted as “reality” for us self-proclaimed “exceptional” Homo sapiens—putatively given stewardship of the world by the mythic cosmic lawgiver of Genesis—was founded on written texts. Despite the shaking of the foundations by Darwin, Lyell, and the scientists of the nineteenth century, today’s human sciences, in the view of Shryock and Smail, have become even narrower. The disciplines of history, literary study, philosophy, sociology, economics, cultural studies, ethnicity, and so forth were corralled into the departmental grids of a growing academia that creates itself from a circumscribed library of favored written texts. The prehistory now uncovered almost weekly by archaeology and evolutionary anthropology was largely ignored. Although the focus on diversity, subaltern cultures, gender and sexual minorities, social justice and similar fields would seem to give the appearance of a broadening perspective, Shryock and Smail see them as having constricted the vast historical panorama of the distant past more closely to the present parochial moment. (A visit to the annual meetings of the Modern Language Association can confirm their contentions: thousands of young graduate students and assistant professors educated by senior mentors themselves educated decades ago are still flogging the corpses of yesterday’s theorists of deconstruction, gender and ethnic studies, colonialism, even Marxist politics. Whereas the shelf life of scientific dogma is revised and updated almost weekly, in literary study the sell-by date of today’s critical orthodoxies is always a generation off, if not more.)

Still, Shryock and Smail concede there is a bright side: “Thanks in part to the biological turn, scholars in all fields are now feeling the pull of humanity’s deep past. . . . Histories can be written from every type of trace, from the memoir to the bone fragment and the blood type.” Ways of measuring the past with the aid of biology, chemistry, physics in the form of dendrochronology (tree-ring dating), radiocarbon dating, taphonomy (geo- logical burial of fossils), DNA analyses, etc., have uncovered languages without alphabets that are increasingly viewable and subject to a kind of speculative, philosophical, evolutionary interpretation grounded in evidence. You can actually see with your own eyes those cupules (cup-shaped poundings) on the rocks from two to three hundred thousand years ago.

Shryock and Smail give us a time line that is useful but that has already been revised several times in the past year alone. Our earliest “human” precursors, the Australopiths (i.e., southern apes) date back four to five million years ago. Having themselves split off from the chimpanzee line of the Great Apes, they became precursors of “our” line, beginning with Homo habilis, then Homo erectus, then the Neanderthals, with many in-between fossils having been discovered in recent years, from a tooth here, a finger bone there, a jawbone over there, each resetting the timetable for the present-day takeover by Homo sapiens. Just a cursory look at some of the headlines from Science and the New York Times is a drama in itself. On February 13, 2009, the Times reported that the “Neanderthal Genome Hints at Language Potential but Little Human Interbreeding,” but by May 7, 2010 a Science article reflects a slightly altered stance: “The long-awaited sequence of the Neanderthal genome suggests that modern humans and Neanderthals interbred tens of thousands of years ago.” This discovery comes after years of denial combined with insistence that the Neanderthals had been “replaced” by us. But where did they disappear to? Consider also, “Skeletons Present an Exquisite Paleo-Puzzle: Partial skeletons of 2-million-year-old hominin Australopithecus sediba leave researchers impressed by their completeness but scratching their heads over the implications for our family tree” (Science, September 9, 2011). And then, “Fossil Teeth Put Humans in Europe Earlier Than Thought” (NYT, October 3, 2011). In September of 2011, the Times reported that in an African cave, an ancient “paint factory” pushed human symbolic thought far back, to a hundred thousand years ago or more, whereas until recently such complex thought was attributed to a “Human Revolution” that perhaps began thirty or forty thousand years ago.

One of the most important chapters in Deep History is on language, a profound crux in the reconstruction of prehistory. With writing going back only 5,000 years, comparative linguists involved in nineteenth-century philology were nonetheless able to posit a parent language, Indo-European, from the languages we speak and read today. But this reconstruction takes us back only ten thousand years to the period of the earliest settlements of humans into stable agricultural communities, whereas many scientists believe that language was born long, long before that time. Shryock and Smail point out that in order to produce weapons, tools, boats, buildings, hunting, gathering, meals, cooking, there was need for intelligible cooperation. “The radical increase in hominin brain size over the last 2.6 million years, the increasing size of social groups in hominin lineages ancestral to modern humans, the geographical spread of networks through which materials and people are exchanged, changing engagements with plants and animals: these trends are all contexts in which human language can be historicized.” Today, many types of laboratory games, tests, and simulations have been devised by cognitive scientists to show how readily languages can be created, even by very young children. And the fossil evidence is accumulating all the time. But before you can speak language (apart from dedicated brain functions), you need to have the right bone, tissue, tendon, and passageway equipment in your skull and a body that can carry the head in a useable plane once you’ve risen up from all fours.

With that observation, I take a turn toward Daniel E. Lieberman’s 756-page tome, The Evolution of the Human Head,[4] as an illustration of how many minutely discerned useful facts can be generalized from even the most specialized studies. While Deep History provides illuminating chapters on both food and body, these elements of anthropology loom extra large in Lieberman’s account of the human head, bringing us a few steps closer to the beauty and intelligence of my title above, even with its thus-far suppressed ironies. His seventh chapter, “You Are How You Eat: Chewing and the Head,” devotes fifty-six pages to diet aspects of the head alone. Is it really possible that hunting and gathering, vegetables, meat, jaws, and human beauty as well, could generate ultimate relationships with speech, language, religion, symbolic arts, crafts, painting, poetry, cinema, and whatnot? Although Lieberman himself does not have world enough and time to go into this in a book already too long, students in the humanities have a stake (and a steak) in it all, if only their mentors could be aroused from dogmatic slumbers.

Before opening the chapter on diet, Lieberman summarizes his previous chapter, on the brain and the skull: “Brain expansion in human evolution has come at a high price. Big brains cost more to feed, they are a challenge to keep at the right temperature, and they require special protection from injury during birth. . . . [They] have also led to many changes in the overall shape and function of the head.”

We are then confronted with minutely precise information on teeth, muscles, and joints, the kinematics and motor control of chewing, the evolution of the jaws, the passages in the head for swallowing, breathing, talking—and then some concluding densely informative pages on the changes to almost every part of the head as a result of meat eating—and especially cooking. (The influence here, acknowledged by Lieberman, of Richard Wrangham’s 2009 book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, can hardly be overstated.) Even before fire and cooking were discovered, the plant and then raw meat diets of hunter-gatherers required various types of processing, using “simple flaked-stone tool technology . . . dated to approximately 2.6 [million years ago].” The plant food consumed was often fibrous and tough so that the time and energy (i.e., calories expended) required to eat it were great. (Consider the diet of pandas that uses up most of their day to wring sufficient protein from such low-protein food as bamboo. The chewing itself uses up energy from the food.) But with the acquisition of meat from hunting, even more processing was needed to chew and digest it raw. Although fire may perhaps be 700,000 years in our past, cooking may not have been discovered until around 250,000 years ago, judging from the hearths and charred bones found in the remains of transient domestic settlements. The cooking of meats, Lieberman tells us, offers at least four major benefits: it breaks down tough fibers and predigests foods, releasing nutrients into the body more efficiently. It also destroys toxins, parasites, and microbes, it extends food storage time, and it makes food easier to chew. The result of all this starts us on the road to what we consider our beauty: less force required to chew, fewer chews, and lesser portions of food providing more nutrients than the time and energy consuming raw food. “One of the oddest things about modern human life is how little time and effort we spend chewing,” Lieberman writes. Since all repeated motions increase, decrease, strengthen, or weaken the muscles, tendons, and bones involved, “Mechanical processing and cooking almost certainly relate to decreases in tooth size and face size that occurred in the genus Homo. . . . There is much circumstantial evidence that jaws and faces do not grow to the same size that they used to precisely because of our softer, more processed diets.” Though this may contribute to our refined faces, it also contributes to orthodontal problems of not enough room in the mouth for all the teeth, several of which are routinely extracted in childhood. Lieberman concludes, “It is not surprising that many variations in hominin craniofacial form relate either directly or indirectly to shifts in diet.”

Summing things up (with a few hundred pages still to go), Lieberman poses some dilemmas: “When and why Homo evolved a long period of childhood, when and to what extent Homo became a carnivore, why and how species of Homo have such big brains, when language and speech capabilities evolved, and when and why hominins switched to thermoregulating predominantly by sweating.” Were our early big apelike brow ridges adaptations for sexual display? Or just by-products of large faces projecting forward from the cranial base? Is our own less protrusive face an adaptation for increasing nasal turbulence, improving the balance of the head, or facilitating articulate speech, or is it a by-product of having smaller teeth?

We have shrunk, says Lieberman, and become more gracile. His chapter on the head of Homo sapiens describes it as “different from the heads of other hominin species,” and its most salient distinctions are “facial retraction and overall neurocranial sphericity,” in other words smaller and rounder. As for our robust ancestors, their skulls were large, thick-walled, had marked cranial superstructures, bulges, projections, pronounced chin, and a spinal column set further back than ours, all consequences of chewing harder, tougher, and less processed foods and—in the case of Australopiths (some robust and others gracile)—from their emergence from a quadruped past. But in the very recent past of ten thousand years or so, our bodies have become even smaller, as have our teeth and even our brain (smaller heads have less available space). There are speculations and controversies about the causes of all this gracilization, many of which might not be attributed directly to adaptation by natural selection but rather to its by-products, to genetic drift, and especially to cognition, diet, locomotion, speech, language, social networks, creativity and other forces that fall partly into the categories of cultural and environmental. Today, this kind of interaction is referred to as “gene/culture co-evolution.”

With questions such as these involving the increased “refinement” of our bodies, faces, and minds, Robert Bednarik’s suigeneris The Human Condition,[5] with its title from Malraux recycled for present purposes, enters to take center stage. Bednarik’s website, http://mc2.vicnet.net.au/home/auraweb/web/index. html, is quite a production, making it clear that he is something of a one-man institution, eschewing academic connections. It gives particular attention to Australian rock art but expands from there into the whole vast field of paleoanthropology and archaeology. He outlines his multiple interests, stressing inquiry into “the early origins of the human ability to create constructs of reality” as of paramount importance. The rhetoric and tone of his book are in-your-face with an aggressive Nietzschean overturning of accepted scholarly conventions by means of an all-out philosophical attack on the orthodoxies of current evo-anthropology. As a whole his book is one vast speculation about “how we as a species became ‘modern humans,’” based on widespread knowledge, much of it from hands-on research.[6] Its pervasive themes are the faultiness of the theory that Neanderthals have been totally “replaced” by us, the neglect of paleoart, the multiple signs of early symbolic intelligence outside the comparatively tiny corpus of spectacular famous cave art, and the damaging loss of robusticity as we became more gracile while human life was being transformed by farming and civil societies. There are interludes in which he lashes out at academic conformity and its attacks upon but mostly neglect of his work. But by no means does this consign him to the dumpster of crackpotism. Au contraire! It is hardly an exaggeration for Bednarik to tell us in the preface that the perspective of his book derives from “archaeology, paleoanthropology, genetics, evolutionary theory, cognitive science, neuroscience, and clinical psychiatry.” With all this erudition and wide experience, he aims to pull together the disparate and ever-changing, pointillist and fragmentary pronouncements of evolutionary anthropology into one substructure amenable to a coherent narrative that won’t be thrown into chaos with every chance tooth or finger bone found scattered over several continents.

Indeed, with its focus on bones that leave no trace of flesh or neurosystems, the putative history of our species given by evo-anthropology leaves out most of what it means to be a human person. And why has natural selection “failed to select against thousands of deleterious genetic predispositions and defects,” why have the etiologies of brain illnesses co-evolved with the same brain areas that “underwrite our advanced cognitive abilities”? Why too have “exograms”—such distinctively human skills as the ability to store symbolic information outside our brain (on rocks, walls, pots, etc., long before written texts)—been hitched by archaeologists to a past so recent as the imputed “Human Revolution” or “Big Bang of Consciousness” of the Late Pleistocene? Bednarik sees paleoart, communication, technology skills, speech, and language, as starting much further back than the current orthodox time line can credit: “It is not skeletal architecture or genetics that so much separate us from other primates, but the proliferation of our cultural and cognitive capacities.” He hurls missiles at the once-reigning notion of a Mitochondrial Eve who was the supposed great-grandmother in Africa 200,000 years ago, spawning what became us gracile moderns, who then swept suddenly into Europe to “displace” the Neanderthals even though “we” as the gracile, small-boned, smaller-statured, and smaller-brained invaders could have easily been crushed into shards by those powerful robusts, with bigger brains and bigger everything. But he doesn’t find any such early evidence of “a sharp separation between robust and gracile specimens but . . . a complex mosaic. . . . Nor was there a sudden appearance of pronounced gracility at any point in time. Europeans about 10 ka [thousand years ago] were on average 10% more robust than today. . . . That trend of the average continues further back until we arrive at typical ‘Neanderthals.’” With added information about tools, technology, fossils, robustness, and datings, Bednarik has little trouble demolishing the notion of total and sudden replacement of one species by another. (The bibliography that follows the chapter on this topic alone is stunning, not to mention the in-line references woven into the text, which I have routinely eliminated.)

In keeping with his rejection of a sudden replacement of Neanderthals by Homo sapiens, Bednarik devotes a rich chapter on all the evidence against a sudden “explosion” of human cognition in the later or “upper” Paleolithic period (circa 40,000 years ago), which he sees instead as a gradual process of both physical and mental evolution. He opens our eyes to all the evidence more subtle than that of bones and hand axes, evidence that we can readily subsume into the category of “art” as a primordial process and behavior, not just recent European high artworks.[7] “The centrality of art to the evolution of consciousness” becomes a major theme for Bednarik later in the book. Nor does evidence of symbol use go back, “as the orthodox model demands, 30 or 40 ka [thousand years ago], but at least twenty times as long.”

Bednarik’s antennae for signs of early symbolic and aesthetic thinking are extra-keen, picking up intimations from several hundred thousand years ago: the wired cognition that enables a bird to recognize the flight silhouettes of birds of prey; “found” objects resembling faces that can be carried off and saved because of programmed interest to an animal or hominid; rocks and figurine shapes saved by hominins because they resembled people; engravings on tusks or bones; pigments used for decoration, such as the findings of iron oxides and ochre fragments from as far back as 400,000 years; and most strikingly, petroglyphs so very early that they are merely the “cupules” I mentioned earlier. These cup-shaped indentations in rock are found in early hominin dwelling sites on every continent except Antarctica, sometimes hundreds of them at one site, all quite similar and not at all the products of geology. Some even require 30,000 blows for us to replicate today. What function they served or what they meant is still baffling, but you don’t pound something 30,000 times unless you have something obsessive and “perfect” in mind. Even more intelligible patterns of anthropic engravings have been found on bones and stones of three hundred thousand years ago. And there are beads fashioned from ostrich eggshells and bones, and pendants from animal bones and teeth.

In light of how much earlier these clues of cognition and symbolization must be than the supposed explosion of forty thousand years ago, Bednarik takes the opportunity to stop his recitatives for a moment to provide one of the puissant interpretative arias that punctuate his dazzling opera: “Pleistocene archaeology is entirely at the mercy of the historical sequence in which key discoveries are made—those that guide the dominant paradigms. . . . Most key finds are made fortuitously, yet they may decide how other aspects are interpreted.” The self-serving tyrannies of academic orthodoxies, he argues, blind researchers to the taphonomic logic behind archaeology: how and when things were buried—by wind, water, sedimentation, earthquakes, volcanoes, erosion, and whatnot—determines for unwitting researchers the sequence and weight of what they find. Devastating is his observation that the sophisticated rock art at Altamira in Spain was completely rejected as Upper Paleolithic for decades because the tools that had been found earlier in the vicinity were seen as too primitive: “Yet it is obvious that if Paleolithic cave art had been discovered, reported, and accepted first, it would have been the tools that would have been rejected as being [not] contemporary.” In sum, “archaeology is adrift without a universal theory, subject to the vagaries of accidental discoveries and chasing its own hermeneutic tail.”

When it comes to the crucial subject of the origin of language, Bednarik shares some of the views of the mainstream but has unique insights and material accomplishments of his own. Perhaps the most daunting is his theoretical and physical participation in the “First Mariners Project,” a group of men who joined together to form nautical crews with the aim of totally replicating every technological skill that the earliest hominin colonizers of scattered islands and mainlands must have had in order to build rafts that could traverse rough seas to arrive there. These raft-building achievements, starting out with no help at all from modern equipment, required making stone tools for cutting and pounding, finding bamboo, palm fronds (for sails), animal skins, vines for cordage to tie things together, wood for paddles, and methods to transport drinking water and acquire food from the sea. In 2008, with technology and knowhow replicated from two million years ago, these heroic crews managed to brave weather, wind, and waves to arrive at their intended destination after several previous failures. (“We have ethnographic evidence that the failure rate of Stone Age sea crossings must have been horrific.”) The chief and most convincing speculation that Bednarik derives from these many attempts was that those so-called prehistoric hominins must have already had the ability to plan ahead, to work in groups, to have a sense of time and, most of all, to communicate precisely enough by means of a “language” that could share technical skills and tasks of labor. But behaviors such as these (and behaviors in general), he reminds us, are not what archaeology can recover. It merely invents interpretations from randomly unearthed physical traces.

Picking up on various inchoate aperçus already spinning in the academic anthropological cosmos, Bednarik launches into one of the most gripping sections of his book with speculations about the connections between sexual selection, culture, and gracilization. Bednarik argues that Homo sapiens shrank in body, brain, and muscle strength over a fairly short and recent period while not becoming less intelligent. As Homo sapiens was gradually drawn from hunting and gathering into farming and settled communities, cultural imperatives gained power over natural imperatives, entailing new social constructs of sexual attractiveness in which “natural selection is replaced by breeding, or artificial selection, resulting in domestication.” Just as we have mated wolves into dogs and then transformed them into the astonishing variety of breeds by means of artificial selection, cultural mating choices have redirected gene flow in humans. When the newly born of apes are compared with those of humans, what becomes apparent as they grow older is that the body parts of all other (non-human) apes lose their neotenous and fetal characteristics as they quickly become sexually and physically mature, but humans, with their delayed sexual maturity, retain them: “Human hands and feet resemble those of embryonic apes closely, but differ significantly from both hands and feet of mature apes.” And this is the case with facial characteristics as well: “In neoteny, sexual maturity is attained before full somatic development, and juvenile characteristics are retained for life.” In the past ten thousand years or so, human females first lost their robustness and became gracile, followed by males (and the size differential between them decreased). This fetalization, as it’s called, entails smooth skin, youthful faces, smaller and more refined features, a less rugged, less coarse, and less hairy appearance—like a fetus! With life in settled cultures, social influences on mating became a form of artificial selection, the more gracile becoming more sexually alluring. (Evolutionary biology and psychology have focused mainly on earlier hunter-gatherer periods with very high mortality rates in which females chose males for the presumed robustness that would perhaps increase fecundity and the survival chances of their offspring.) Thus, according to Bednarik, “anatomically modern humans are the outcome of their own domestication” [emphasis in original] and of a neotenous sexual desirability less bound to mere reproduction and more beholden to culture. Mates were more and more chosen for their gracile facial beauty, gradually altering the gene pool to produce more and more gracile types. Can anyone who watches TV advertising doubt this is more the case than ever, if vast sections of the population want mates resembling Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and screaming pubescent girls are aroused by an über-neotenized Justin Bieber?

The final chapter of Bednarik’s radically philosophical treatise is aptly titled “Advanced Human Cognition: A Faustian Deal,” with special emphasis on art, intelligence, language, and the longue durée (so badly slighted by anthropological orthodoxies) of what makes us not just Homo sapiens but Homo sapiens sapiens (the official top of the heap—because we love ourselves best and most beautiful of all). As if the pages of this relatively brief book have not shot forth sparks and explosions enough, Bednarik whips out his knowledge of neuroscience to conclude that our brain, still the largest—despite our shrinkage—of any other species’ in relation to overall body size, has probably cost us more than we realize: “Extant non-human primates appear to be largely free of the neurodegenerative diseases as well as numerous genetic defects that are so prominent among modern man. . . . A review of the relevant brain illnesses also suggests that they largely involve the very same areas of the brain that are the phylogenetically most recent, in that they differ most from those of other extant primates.” Bednarik provides a list of some of these maladies, such as autism, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, antisocial personality disorders, Down syndrome, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and many others. His analytic report on many of these disorders concludes that the brain regions affected are those related to our so-called higher functions. He asks a question that can’t be answered but offers food for thought: “Did our ancestors during early parts of the Pleistocene suffer from the neurodegenerative curse?” And why did evolution not select against these disorders? He also offers, however, a general explanation that needs to be quoted at length:

This book on The Human Condition . . . not only provides a realistic and logical explanation for this evolutionary puzzle, but also explains why it has for so long remained unsolved. By promoting the replacement hypothesis as aggressively as Pleistocene archaeologists have done over recent decades, neuroscientists had to conduct their deliberations within a false paradigm, i.e., the notion that today’s humans are a distinctive species and their characteristics are attributable to natural selection. Within that framework, the selection in favor of numerous deleterious traits is indeed an unsolvable paradox. Within my domestication hypothesis, by contrast, it is not only readily explained, but also entirely predictable and logical. Domestication promotes unfavorable alleles [i.e., recessive traits] . . . and it can even account for other unexplained features, such as the abolition of estrus in females. . . .

Although I have alluded only in passing to Bednarik’s hypothesis of early hominin obsession with “perfection,” he concludes that “obsessive and neurotic behavior is the price we pay for our rapid cognitive evolution.” His support of this hypothesis is too detailed to deal with here, but his summary observation is that “Just as evolutionary determinants could not prevent the deleterious changes from robust to gracile forms, because they were overruled by cultural determinants [think of smoking, for example, as a suicidal cultural determinant], the mental diseases arising from burgeoning prefrontal cortex complexity may have escaped natural selection in much the same way.” Extreme recent gracilization was, he repeats, not an evolutionary process but an instance of cultural selection via domestication. Pounding it in as hard as he can, he withdraws another cudgel from his armament-filled satchel: “Needless to say, the proposition that we are a neotenous ape susceptible to numerous genetic disorders, a creature obsessed by perfection but itself genetically very imperfect, is not going to be very popular. Humans are also vain, and veracity is not the purpose of their anthropocentric humanism.” And his attack on conventional archaeology’s unreliable generalizations from hit-or-miss discoveries of fossil and settlement traces of the past continues apace to the very end of the book with pungent observations such as, “The contents of an American garbage disposal site will in a few millennia offer no evidence that the society in question was capable of placing humans on the Moon.”

The moon landing was one instance of many of what I call humankind’s vertical (or cosmic) emancipation from the constraints of Old Testament mythologies. This verticality, powerfully launched by Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, has been pretty well acculturated and naturalized in the twentieth and twenty-first. The extra-planetary infinitudes of space have been drawn increasingly into the constitution of human knowledge. Not even the most stupid of today’s politicians seems to believe in geocentrism or a flat earth off which you fall if you venture too far. (They have new stupidities, related, among other things, to creationism and denial of global warming.) The revolution initiated by Darwin, which I call a horizontal emancipation from ancient constraints, remains within our own planet but now looks back 14 billion years to a Big Bang whose cosmic dust eventually coalesced into Earth and us. It has taken until well into the twentieth century for Darwinian evolution and Mendelian genetics to launch the variously transformed, increasingly evolutionary, sciences of anthropology and biology that now need to infiltrate the human sciences and arts. Not long after Copernicus, John Donne, in the early seventeenth century, was already writing poems about the New Science that had called everything in doubt, and Francis Bacon was already establishing “falsifiable” foundations for empiricism instead of metaphysics based on faith and mere speculation. But even as late as today, the horizontal revolution may be more difficult to naturalize than the vertical one. Though it may have been a blow to learn that mankind was not the center of a universe created just for us as we had been assured for a few thousand years, we are seeing how difficult it is for so many of us “images of God” to acquiesce to the idea that we are apes.

Still, younger generations of novelists, poets, and even academics in the human sciences and the arts are writing more and more about the implications of our ancient origins and the structures of our brains. We can see from the three outstanding books I have discussed above that though the majority population may feel, like Donne in 1610, that “’Tis all in peeces, all cohaerence gone,” the truth of the matter is that things now seem more coherent than ever before, as the myths thrown into the machinery of knowledge by anthropocentrism are being extracted like rotting teeth, one by one, by the rapid developments of the sciences. If Bednarik turns out to be on the right track, maybe someday we will even come to accept that far from the Neanderthals having been “replaced” by us, in reality the Neanderthals may be us!

[1] Elizabeth Kolbert, “Sleeping with the Enemy: What happened between the Neanderthals and us?,” The New Yorker, August 15 & 22, 2011.

[2] From the Australian Museum’s website: “Hominid—the group consisting of all modern and extinct Great Apes (that is, modern humans, chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans plus all their immediate ancestors). Hominin—the group consisting of modern humans, extinct human species and all our immediate ancestors (including members of the genera Homo, Australopithecus, Paranthropus and Ardipithecus).”

[3] DEEP HISTORY: The Architecture of Past and Present, ed. by Andrew Shryock and Daniel Lord Smail. University of California Press. $29.95. Smail’s previous book, On Deep History and the Brain, was published in 2008, also by UC Press.

[4] THE EVOLUTION OF THE HUMAN HEAD, by Daniel E. Lieberman. HarvardUniversity Press. $39.95.

[5] THE HUMAN CONDITION, by Robert G. Bednarik. Springer. $129.00.

[6] On his website, Bednarik reports on his “field research in various thematic and geographical areas: especially in central, northern, eastern, western and southern Europe; Siberia, India, China, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Canada, U.S.A., Mexico, Caribbean, various South American countries, southern Africa, Morocco, all regions of Australia.”

[7] This is the concept of art promoted by Ellen Dissanayake’s books and articles to the effect that art is a process and a behavior. Dissanayake deprecates our tendency to think of art as just recent European high artworks. Her website gives a good sense of the pioneering work she has done: http://www.ellendissanayake.com/.