Of Darwin, dinosaurs, and Denisovians

I expect to leave the recovery-suite of the hotel at the end of this week and eturn home, though I’ll be returning to Birmingham every two weeks for checkups for the next few months. During this multiweek siesta, I’ve mostly occupied myself with IT classes on Coursera, watching Star Trek, and reading. Some of that reading has been science.

Most recently, I read Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death, and Art, an appraisal of contemporary Neanderthal research that argues Neanderthals were far closer to us in their behavior than previously appreciated. Their range was broader, for instance, with Neanderthal remains found in every climate but wetlands, and their tool-making abilities were still sophisticated (making use of composites), if not up to Sapiens standards. I was personally amazed by how intricate some of the science involved here was, allowing researchers to read the history of a given community through recovered teeth, for instance, or rebuilding the layout of Neanderthal camps through studying the soil. The writing is often exquisite, far more poetic than one would expect from a book on archaeology. A sample:

“Time is devious. It flees frighteningly fast, or oozes so slowly we feel it as a burden, measured in heartbeats. Each human life is marbled with memories and infused by imaginings, even a”s we exist in a continuously flowing stream of ‘now’. We are beings swept along in time, but to emerge and view the whole coursing river defeats us.”

Shortly before Kindred, I read through Lisa Randall’s Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs, an impressively ambitious work that spans disciplines from cosmology to geology. After first explaining to the reader what dark matter is and why it ‘s important to understanding the universe, Randall shifts to a history of our local solar system and argues that fluctuations in the Milky Way’s own cloud of dark matter periodically send space debris into our neighborhood, leading to events like the destruction of the dinosaurs. We mammals owe part of our existence, then, to something which doesn’t interact with light. The cosmology was a bit over my head, though admittedly trying to read it in the hospital probably didn’t help.

Lastly, Darwin Comes to Town was my favorite among this lot. While we tend to think of cities as something apart from nature, that’s wrong on two levels: first, the human built environment is no less natural than the termite-built environment, or the beaver-built environment, at least in principle. All three involve the building species in question using and altering the natural environment to better suit their needs, and all three result in an altered ecosystem that alters the gameplan for other species. Secondly, our cities are saturated with nature, and are increasingly more diverse than the countryside immediately outside them, marked as that area is by farms reliant on monocultures. Cities aren’t patchwork quilts of ecosystems: they’re far more intricate than that, being fragmented mosaics of thousands of micro-ecosystems: every back yard in a given neighborhood has its own array of species, to say nothing of the variety of mini-environments that cities offer to animals looking for new opportunities. There are often similarities between the environments animals’ genes are conditioned for them to thrive in, and the environments they find themselves working : some birds are as perfectly happy flitting around bike racks as they would be around shrubs, or using window ledges and rooftops as the cliffaces of their ancestors. The book reviews ways in which living in the human environment is pushing evolution, creating subspecies that are perfectly adapted to the new environment: there are subspecies of mosquitoes, for instance, that live only in London subway tunnels! I finished this one shortly before going into the hospital and it will remain one of my favorite science books for the year, I think.

Coming up: hospitals, insects, and C.S. Lewis.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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6 Responses to Of Darwin, dinosaurs, and Denisovians

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    Just finished a book on Scottish DNA which (oddly) talks about Neanderthals a bit. ‘Darwin Comes to Town’ is on my Amazon Wish List. From your review I think I’ll be bumping it up the ‘buy soon’ list. [grin]

    Good to see you still on ‘the mend’. LONG may it continue!

  2. Marian says:

    Ooh… I can’t remember if you mentioned this before in a book review, but I’m curious as to your take on the evolution vs Creation worldviews, reconciliation of the two (if you subscribe to a middle approach) and how/if your reading has impacted it, e.g. with this book on Neanderthals. Obviously a hot topic so only if you’re willing to share. 🙂

    • I find the Genesis story useful for understanding man as a spiritual creature, and the scientific narrative useful for understanding him as a natural creature. I regard humanity in full as being a composite of the two. As a literal truth, I can’t give credence to all of humanity springing from two individuals, but I do believe in the brokenness of humanity. I emphatically reject the social application of evolutionary thinking, in regarding our story as one of unlimited potential and growth. Evolution is not progress — it is merely the change of something over time in response to pressure. Sometimes that means a creaturtariae becomes more than it was, but sometimes that means it becomes less so. There’s a degree of compartmentalization involved in navigating both worldivews, I will admit, just as my libertarian and communitarian/traditionalist sympathies are frequently conflicting with one another. I rather like the approach of the Episcopal church’s “Eucharistic Prayer C”:

      “Eucharistic Prayer C (BCP)
      At your command all things came to be: the vast expanse of
      interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses,
      and this fragile earth, our island home.
      By your will they were created and have their being.

      From the primal elements you brought forth the human race,
      and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill. You made us
      the rulers of creation. But we turned against you, and betrayed
      your trust; and we turned against one another.
      Have mercy, Lord, for we are sinners in your sight.

      Again and again, you called us to return. Through prophets
      and sages you revealed your righteous Law. And in the
      fullness of time you sent your only Son, born of a woman, to
      fulfill your Law, to open for us the way of freedom and peace.”

      • Cyberkitten says:

        I always wondered about how you reconcile any religious beliefs (something else I’ve never asked about!) with your scientific reading but didn’t like to ask (here such things are considered private and asking questions [unprompted] is considered rude). I like the fact that such reconciliation is unnecessary from my viewpoint. I’m guessing/understand that the cognitive dissonance in some cases can be quite severe.

      • Marian says:

        I appreciate you explaining that, Stephen! And what a beautiful prayer.
        I’m in a similar boat… while I take Genesis a bit more literally than you, I trust Creation and the evidence for evolution are reconcilable. I don’t think we have all the information right now as to *how* that is the case, but if I take evolution sans a progression from apes to humans, I can imagine perhaps part of God’s plan was to allow nature to change over time from the starting point He created.

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