Sunday, 22 March 2009
I want to write in bright white light, to draw with free-flowing water.
I want to find sentences that formed in the cradle of speech and have been waiting ever since to be discovered. Lifted from the dead weight of discordant information; sculpted and shaped for you.
I want to to see what you see, to taste the joy of becoming free again.
Words shine, words flow; sentences living together in peace, everything in its right place, supporting the burden of precision.
Darkness flows across the land as the lights go out; dryness flows across the land as the power drains away. Where are the fires, where are the stories that will keep us alive in the evenings when the spirits ride unchecked? Where are the stories crafted with bright light and pure water?
Wednesday, 27 August 2008
Research by UK and American scientists has struck another blow to the theory that Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) became extinct because they were less intelligent than our ancestors (Homo sapiens). The research team has shown that early stone tool technologies developed by our species, Homo sapiens, were no more efficient than those used by Neanderthals.
The team from the University of Exeter, Southern Methodist University, Texas State University, and the Think Computer Corporation, spent three years flintknapping (producing stone tools). They recreated stone tools known as ‘flakes,’ which were wider tools originally used by both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, and ‘blades,’ a narrower stone tool later adopted by Homo sapiens. Archaeologists often use the development of stone blades and their assumed efficiency as proof of Homo sapiens’ superior intellect. To test this, the team analysed the data to compare the number of tools produced, how much cutting-edge was created, the efficiency in consuming raw material and how long tools lasted.
Blades were first produced by Homo sapiens during their colonization of Europe from Africa approximately 40,000 years ago. This has traditionally been thought to be a dramatic technological advance, helping Homo sapiens out-compete, and eventually eradicate, their Stone Age cousins. Yet when the research team analysed their data there was no statistical difference between the efficiency of the two technologies. In fact, their findings showed that in some respects the flakes favoured by Neanderthals were more efficient than the blades adopted by Homo sapiens.
Read more here.
Friday, 22 August 2008
The flat marine organism Trichoplax adhaerens barely qualifies as an animal, yet the 98 million DNA base pairs of its genome include many of the genes responsible for guiding the development of other animals' complex shapes and organs, researchers report this week.
I think it is fascinating that this mini-beast has within its DNA a collection of genes that will play pivotal roles in the development of very complex organisms, yet their potential is not fully harnessed in this creature.
These genes have not formed out of nowhere within this creature. They have arisen in many different organisms at many different times in the past. Rather they have assembled here - brought together by many random acts of sexual reproduction between many different simpler creatures. This creature has passed its natural selection test: it has survived and passed this assembly of genes onto creatures that were able to exploit the potential of these genes to develop new levels of complexity. The useful gene combinations are held securely in place on chromosomes, so none of them will be lost along the way.
This little beast has swum in the centre of the river of life. Only now is it yielding its secrets: it is a facilitator
of the next step in evolution. Richard Howey is a real fan of Trichoplax and will be happy to show you more.
Monday, 18 August 2008
'An archaeological excavation at a site near Pulborough, West Sussex, has thrown remarkable new light on the life of northern Europe's last Neanderthals. It provides a snapshot of a thriving, developing population, rather than communities on the verge of extinction.
The team, led by Dr Matthew Pope of Archaeology South East based at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, is undertaking the first modern, scientific investigation of the site since its original discovery in 1900. During the construction of a monumental house known as 'Beedings' some 2,300 perfectly preserved stone tools were removed from fissures encountered in the foundation trenches."The tools we've found at the site are technologically advanced and potentially older than tools in Britain belonging to our own species, Homo sapiens," says Pope. "It's exciting to think that there's a real possibility these were left by some of the last Neanderthal hunting groups to occupy northern Europe. The impression they give is of a population in complete command of both landscape and natural raw materials with a flourishing technology - not a people on the edge of extinction."'
Sunday, 17 August 2008
Saturday, 16 August 2008
Look at the picture of the two Neanderthal men.
They were drawn to look slow, dim-witted and incapable of sharing thought. Perhaps these are myths, too. Ideas that we need to believe. But are they true?
My children expect new technology to arrive every year like ripening fruit on a tree. Yet, theirs is the generation that is bombarded continuously with images of an uncertain, globally-warmed future built upon unsustainable growth. They respond to this double bind by retreating with their friends into a world of cyberspace, on-line messaging and electronic fun.
Perhaps these also are myths. Ideas that we need to believe. But are they true?
What would Neanderthal people think of contemporary life and what challenges would modern people face when encountering the powerful forces that shaped the Neanderthal world?
These are the premises of my novel ‘Echoland’. Whilst ‘Echoland’ partly treads a familiar landscape popularised by Jean Auel, it maintains a contemporary edge.
So, why use the title ‘Darwin’s dreamers’ to title this blog?
In a changing environment, evolution becomes the ruling principle shaping the future direction of life. We have never been able to escape the pressures of natural selection,and, with global warming accelerating, we never will. These, too, are modern myths.
We believe that our human ability to turn dreams into actions has made us the dominant species on this planet. This ability arose in the Neanderthal world, where its flickering power
was experienced for the first time. It was not enough to save the Neanderthals from extinction.
It was strengthened in the successors to the Neanderthals and is developing further in the minds of those who share their dreams in cyberspace.
Perhaps a new form of consciousness is evolving as humans extend their dreams into new dimensions.
Monday, 11 August 2008
That said, it seems as if the genome is distinctive and is not represented in any of the known modern human genomes. The mitochondrial DNA of modern humans is sequenced quite extensively and we have a good feel for the kind of variation found in modern humans.
The tentative conclusions drawn by the researchers are that is no evidence of interbreeding between Neanderthals and early modern humans. This is quite reasonable. Had the Neanderthal sequences been identical to the typical modern sequences, then we would have concluded that the interbreeding must have been commonplace because we found evidence of it at our first attempt at looking. This is not to say that no interbreeding occurred; it is unlikely that we can find evidence of rare events on the first attempt.
The second conclusion is that the effective population size was small; this implies high levels of inbreeding, high levels of genetic similarities within populations, but not between populations. This is not really detectable with mitochondrial DNA, which is transmitted down the female line only. Strange things happen to pools of genes in small populations.
There are other studies that do suggest some levels of interbreeding between early modern humans and Neanderthals, but they were rare events because the populations were small and probably widely dispersed through the terrain.
The mitochodrial DNA studies are not thst sensitive to picking up interbreeding. Of the four possible crosses between Neanderthals and early modern humans, only 1 in 4 will allow Neanderthal mtDNA to persist beyond the first generation cross, assuming that the Neanderthal females are rare in the population.
One fascinating twist to this wonderful story is the new question of just how did so much biochemical evolution take place in the early modern humans in such a short time following the seapration from the common ancestor. The next year promises to be fascinating for Neanderthal watchers!
Saturday, 9 August 2008
Can a novel of ideas really become a 'popular read'? Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey is a thriller based on the theories of parallel universes and quantum physics. It is literary, well-researched, energetic and funny. It is an Amazon best seller and has oodles of good reviews. But would Richard and Judy have approved? That seems to be all that matters these days.
Here is an interesting forum about the indomitable Mr Crumey.
Tuesday, 5 August 2008
The fat girl is standing by the fountain in the shopping mall; twelve years old, wearing a faded baggy shirt with 'Eye Candy' printed across her not-quite yet visible chest. This is a girl with parents who do not 'do' irony. They probably bought it in a charity shop. The girl is collecting pennies from the fountain. Deeply concentrating, leaning as far as she can towards the water without actually tumbling, she scoops up coins into her large hands. She is alone in the world with her concentration and the coins.
I watch her for ten minutes or so, as she moves around the fountain, collecting, holding on to and hoarding the treasure. People stop and watch, amused by her simple-minded actions. No one tells her to stop, so she continues. How many coins can a child hold without dropping them? How can she lean over and pick up more, without dropping her cache? She is a skillful forager; hers is an ancient primate skill from before the dawn of language.
Then an old woman arrives and notices the criminal and the theft. 'Stop', she shouts. 'Put them back right away. They are not your property'. The girl stops dead and looks bewildered. She starts to cry and suck a piglet doll she had hidden inside her jeans.
The woman has only just begun. An example has to be made. She drags the girl round the fountain telling the bored and disengaged shoppers all about 'property' and 'theft'. No one shows any sympathy for the girl or the woman. Tell a coffee-stall waiter, who looks as if he wants to flee away. To the Mall information manager, with a bluetooth earpiece and a microphone. Reporting the 'theft of charity pennies'. Now something MUST be done about this. The information manager looks scared because she has to make a decision. The decision is to report this INCIDENT to her superiors. She goes behind a potted tree to hide from the girl and she tells tales to teacher. I await the arrival of the armed response unit.
The girl's grandparents arrive on the scene and there is a queue of outraged women anxious to report the criminal tendencies of the young hooligan. Granny looks shocked; Granddad looks as if he wants to go backwards. The girl is marched away, crying with the burning tears of shame.
The ripples of the pool calm, and the predators return to their hunting grounds. England in 2008 is not a forgiving place for children.
Monday, 4 August 2008
It has taken me three years, off and on, to read Robert Irwin's 'The Arabian Nightmare'. Not because it is a bad book, but because it is quite challenging. I ended up reading it whilst I was on the edge of dreams, and I found that my mind flowed over it and under it and round it. I can recognise its humour, its brilliance and its power.
The book is a story-within-a-story dream fantasy set in old Cairo of the fifteenth century.
It is a daring book with no real sense of time or unfolding plot. Here is a key to unlock it, perhaps:
'If dreams wished themselves to be remembered, they would be remembered. If they wished to be understood, they would be understood.... [The book] has ceased to be a book about the dream and has become a dream about the book.'
This is as true about Irwin's novel as it is about the mythical book within the story. The narrator figure who connects the reader to the dream-landscape dies before the end of the book, so who is the true narrator?
Ideas bubble through the work; insignificant detail suddenly assumes a central theme only to recede into irrelevance, all within ten pages. It is like watching bubbles rise and fall in boiling water.
Powerful and a first-class read.
Monday, 31 December 2007
My novel starts with a prologue. I reproduce it below to complement the estuary photographs.
We live on the Northmarsh: this is the place where we live.
Waves of time break on the foreshore of this echoland. The salt-driven winds, funnelling through the estuary, touch our lives until they are swallowed by the hills and ridges that protect us from our enemies.
We are the spirits of Neanderthal people, overpowered by the force of the equinox tides, broken by the persistent cold. Sometimes we are summer people basking in the crisp white sunlight, but mostly we are winter people: living on the sea rim, foraging for scraps until the daylight becomes bright again.
We were alive in this place thirty thousand years ago, yet we are diminished into silence by the age of the hills. Imagine a world where a hundred years pass in a minute. We get a much better view of the place this way: things take time to develop properly.
In this world, we lived on the Northmarsh five hours ago; the hills that fed and protected us were made ten years earlier. Ten years of silence and the sounds of wind, water and animal song. In this world, we learned to sing.
Early in the morning, when the pink light touches the hills you can believe that time has stood still, but the illusion is soon broken. Stone Age people breathed only eight minutes before the present. We are far older than that: we are Neanderthal.
In this story, echoes of the past resound in the present. Ian Mason, the dreamer they call ‘Ina’, lives in the today. He and his friends are changed by the Northmarsh. They deny this, of course, but they are as touched as we are by the evening sun dipping below the waves.
Like us, they dream of riding the smooth surface of the sea. Unlike us, they dream of sailing boats, whilst we drown in the deep darkness. Like us, they pass like shadows over the landscape; unlike us they dream of a future for their children.
The sea is ever new, but has travelled the tidal currents since before our time. We bide our time and we watch the story unfold. How does Ina win the battle for life, whilst our children perished in the storms? What have they gained and what have we lost? Now we shall tell a story for ourselves.
As above, so below.
We are burned by the dreams that come at nightfall. They hold us, own us, and leave us unable to breathe. We have no words to soothe their pain, no language to share their terror. Our dreams stay in our heads. We feel, but we cannot discuss. We hurt, but we cannot share. In the icy cold on moonless nights, we burn. Are we the only people living in our heads?
Ina dreams his life in a digital age. He is burned by images that come through his computer screen. A moment’s abuse can be captured and shared for the world to see. Private moments become public property as tears of grief are turned into bits of information, and sent round the world forever.
This is his modern life: ideas, thoughts and experiences can be reduced to information objects. Saved objects live forever; unsaved objects are lost forever if their power is withdrawn. But which dreams will survive, and which will be lost? See how they compete with each other for his attention. Observe their struggle for existence: only the fittest survive.
Abracadabra: ‘the blessing and the curse’.
We are careful to conceal ourselves; the living people may glimpse us under falling leaves or out of the corners of their eyes, but never face to face. That alone is Ina's blessed gift and pitiable curse.
In this story, nothing is as it seems. We see the ice from the snowfields turn to melt water in the spring and then boil into steam on our fires. Everything flows and nothing stays. 'You cannot step twice into the same river'. For Ina and his friends this is true, but not for us. We are ghosts.
Will we tell a new story, or an old one with a different twist?
Once upon a time.
Once there was, and once there was not.
In nomine Matris,
Et Spiritus Sancti.
This is the start of our story.
A lot has happened since my last posting. I have been revising the early chapters of my novel to send to an agent. I tend to hone and hone my writing. There is a real danger in trying to over-explain things, so the reader has his/her mind made up by the author. So, a lot of this editing is losing words here or there that 'scaffold' the plot. I am trying to increase the dramatic tension, and you can't do that if you over explain or (even worse) predict and flag up the tension too far in advance.
My story is set in a place called Northmarsh. It is based on a town in Somerset UK called Clevedon that I know well. It is a Bristol Channel port with the second biggest tidal range in the world. There is something very elemental about living on an estuary, always conscious of the tidal flow. It looks as if humanity evolved close to estuaries and tidal rivers, when our diet was rich in sea food and oily fish. (This adds an interesting evolutionary twist to the Omega 3 and intelligence debate).
Limestone and tidal surges. No wonder our Victorian forebears wanted to stamp their superiority on the place by building a monumental pier!
Monday, 3 September 2007
Saturday, 25 August 2007
Maxtla turns to Thiyel and shows him a withered magnolia petal. Maxtla holds Thiyel’s arm and he falls silent, taking his hands off his genitals. She points with her other hand in the direction of the stream. Thieyel looks in that direction and a picture of a flowering tree on the streamside comes into his mind. Maxtla taps six times on Thiyel’s wrist. “Go”, she says. Thiyel grunts, rearranges his furs and steps out into the moonlight, touching Maxtla's breasts as he leaves. Will he remember what he has gone for?
Later, Thiyel returns with ten magnolia petals and the body of a small rodent that he found decaying by the stream.
Friday, 24 August 2007
William Golding wrote 'the Inheritors' in 1955 and I think it is a brilliant piece of writing. His premise was that the Neanderthals were gentle hunter-gatherers, an idea in marked contrast to the zeitgeist at the time.
He writes almost the whole book from the point of view of the Neanderthals, who do not understand the dramtic changes that are happening to them. For this reason, the plot is quite hard to follow on the first reading. A good synopsis appears here.
Golding establishes his world view from the opening lines and we can use chapter one to look at how he does his. The main protagonist is called Lok.
"Lok was running as fast as he could...Lok's feet were clever. They saw. They threw him round the displayed roots of the beeches, leapt when a puddle of water lay across the trail...Now they could hear the river that lay parallel but hidden to their left."
Golding gives Lok's feet human-like powers: they see, they hear, they guide. Further, Lok is dependent and trusts his feet to guide him. This hints at a lack of integration that I discussed previously. Instead of Lok being lord and master of his feet, Lok is subservient.
The language is enriched by close attention to the world around him (the trees were beeches, the roots were displayed, the river lay parallel), which gives a real sense that Lok is at one with his world.
Golding has his characters speak to each other in short sentences:
"The log has gone away."
"One day. Perhaps two days. Not three."
"I have a picture."
There is no use of past or future or tenses or the subjunctive mood. This is consistent with the idea that Neanderthal language was less sophisticated than our own.
This causes novelists great problems, partly because dialogue is an essential way of developing the plot. It can be a succinct alternative to pages of description.
Golding overcomes this by the use of 'pictures' which can be shared between the Neanderthal family. The pictures are visually rich and seem to convey a sense of urgency and emotional mood.
In the novel, the character Ha is praised as having 'many pictures' and Lok's leadership qualities are questioned because he does not have reliable pictures.
This is a powerful plot device, which is almost irresistable. Jean Auel seems to use it extensively in the Clan of the Cave Bear. However, is there any evidence that such an ability ever existed?
I think it unlikely. Chimpanzees seem to rely on vocalisation and imitation to convey complex information. Their hunting stategies rely on vocalisations and young animals learn from the older ones. If Neanderthal genes mixed with Cro-Magnons (and that is a big if) then we might expect to see evidence of this kind of telepathy between modern humans and within ancient tribes. I think that the evidence for this is weak. Susan Blackmore's acknowledged failed search for evidence of psi should make us nervous of accepting telepathy.
[This is not the same as saying that primitives (such as Aboriginals) do not visualise and remember their landscapes as images.]
Yet, novelists need to find a way of getting their Neanderthal characters to talk with other and convey information without boring the pants off their readers.
Back to the writing page...
Thursday, 23 August 2007
I think that clues to Neanderthal thinking must be found in contemporary people whose brains are 'less integrated' than usual. For example, synesthetes, whose sensory experiences of taste, sound and colour get blurred.
'Maxtla stares into the cold flames of the fire and tastes her heartbeats...Her heartbeats taste as wet earth on tired bones.'
Well, its a start, but I think the blending could and should go further.
One symptom of schizophrenia is visual, auditory or olfactory (smell) hallucinations, thought to be caused by reduced activity of the pre-frontal cortex.
This moves the experience on one stop further down the tube line to the primitive. The voices - become personified - and are experienced 'out there' (in the 'real world') rather than 'in here' (in the unreal world of my head).
I remember reading Jung saying that the hallucinations of schizophrenics were not random rubbish, but revealed 'truths' that the schizophrenics could never have learned. This was evidence of the collective unconscious. In his book Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Jung describes encounters with unconscious objects in his mind, that read like ghostly projections.
A dark shadow, the aura of a raven’s wing, drifts across her eyes, blocking her view of the flames.
This is the most difficult passage in the writing, yet the most compelling. Where was the shadow? Was it on the outside of her eye (between the flames and the eye), within the eye (like a detached retina) or within the brain - in which case how could it 'block the view of the flames'?
There was a woman called 'Ruth' in the 1980's who was reputed to hallucinate solid objects. She was studied by Richard Gregory. She was apparently able to hallucinate the image of her daughter on her lap, and the amount of light entering her eyes was allegedly reduced in proportion. Gregory concluded that there was some evidence of this:
'the supposed hallucinations acted like coloured filters held over the eye.'
So, perhaps there is a continuum between 'in here' and 'out there', which the novelist could explore.
I was desperate to use the ideas of an inner (or third) eye, or chakra, but these are metaphysical or religious concepts, not physiological ones. Is the pineal gland the inner eye? I do not know. Aura has two meanings: the spiritualist one of a force field of psychic energy and also a medical one, the disturbance of vision (often a shadow) before an epileptic fit. I quite like the ambiguity of both meanings here.
Jung was very wary of the dissociation of the soul, which was greatly feared by primitive tribes.
We . . . can become dissociated and lose our identity. We can be possessed . . . by moods, or become unreasonable, so that people ask: "What the devil has got into you?" We talk about . . . "control", but self-control is a rare and remarkable virtue. (Jung, Man and his symbols).
Perhaps this lack of integration is the same as 'losing self-control', and was common in Neanderthal people.
Wednesday, 22 August 2007
So, what kind of mind would we have without the single dominating internal dialogue? Who is speaking in my thoughts and who is the audience? Experiments with split-brains show that the right side of the brain has a limited language function, but it gets 'shouted' down by the dominant left hemisphere language centre. The right hemisphere has awareness of nouns, but limited ability at using grammar. What would our thinking be like if each centre competed with each other for our attention. Could we develop independent personalities?
Neanderthal humans became extinct in Europe about 30 000 years ago. Modern humans are not now thought to be related to the Neanderthals.
Who knows how Neanderthal humans thought or how they communicated with each other? Modern thinking suggests that that their brains were as developed as ours, but were not as well integrated.
But perhaps we can use this to find some clues to Neanderthal thinking:
Maxtla stares into the cold flames of the fire and tastes her heartbeats. A dark shadow, the aura of a raven’s wing, drifts across her eyes, blocking her view of the flames. Her heartbeats taste as wet earth on tired bones. Her breathing deepens and her heartbeats slow: the shadow lifts and takes the taste away. She knows that something is about to happen. A headache forms deep in the nape of her neck as the muscles tighten.
The scent of burning fat rises from the fire. Maxtla stirs as a memory of a warmer day floats into the air. She looks into the flames and sees an older woman holding a leg bone that was once her father. ‘Moon’, a voice screeches in the back of her head. ‘Watch for the moon’, says the wise woman who listens to the screeching crone. Her mother moves the leg bone higher and passes through the flames. She starts to chant phrases from her past.
‘Tonight, Maxtla,’ she commands. ‘It must be tonight. Look at the moon.’ Maxtla looks up and the clouds clear to show the face of the full moon. A shaft of white light illuminates the flame as the mother illusion fades. The old crone jabbers ‘Now’, and the wise woman advises, ‘be ready’. Images from her girlhood drift across the fire, she now knows how the work will grow tonight. Her legs shoot pain upwards and tell her to move. She rises and bows her head to the spirit of flames.