Sunday, October 11, 2015

Plei-ing One’s Trade

Buster Keaton, Margaret Leahy, and Wallace Beery in "Three Ages"

Book notes: Past and future people.

Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson

Evolutionary psychologists rely on the Savanna Principle, which states that “our hominid ancestors spent 99.9 percent of their evolutionary history as hunter gatherers” and that “the basic functioning of the brain has not changed much in the last ten thousand years” (Alan S Miller/Satoshi Kanazawa). Our Pleistocene brains are not always well suited to postindustrial civilization. While there is plenty of blog material in that, on this occasion I’ll employ the principle just to explain the persistent appeal of a sub-genre of sci-fi: tales set in prehistoric times, sometimes dubbed paleo-fiction or plei-fi. (I’ve dabbled in them myself a couple of times: see Neander Valley Girl and Modern Times at my short story site.) Our brains are very suited to these stories, at least when they are well written. 

Nebula and Hugo award winner Kim Stanley Robinson, best known for his hard-sci-fi Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars & Blue Mars), writes very well. Some readers complained that his Mars books read too much like terraforming manuals, but most appreciated the results of his meticulous research, which didn’t completely overwhelm the human stories. In the case of Robinson’s plei-fi novel Shaman, his attention to detail is an unmitigated positive. We meet the central character Loon at age 12 on his “wander,” a rite of passage for an apprentice shaman, and soon are immersed in an ice-age world of clans, hunts, gathers, festivals, rituals, cave painting, pairings, and raids. It all feels so very much like “home.” The hopes, desires, and fears of the characters are completely relatable, as is the ultimate pathos of their human state that is with us still: the threat that death will extinguish not just us personally but our legacy.

A big Thumbs Up.


Hominid by John C. Boland

John C. Boland has written a taut little thriller, now available in paperback. Faced with the title Hominid, a reader might be forgiven for expecting another example of paleo-fiction. What the reader gets instead in a present-day setting is part murder mystery, part adventure, and part sci-fi. The science in the novel is pretty good. In present-day Maryland, archeologist David Isaac encounters his mentor and an old flame as he joins a dig on a remote Chesapeake Bay island on which there has been significant inbreeding for more than four centuries. They encounter evidence of speciation: a new hominid may be in town.

In truth, there isn’t much risk of a new species of human turning up unless one is deliberately engineered – something beyond our current capabilities but conceivable at some time in the future. As noted above, the past 10,000 years has not been long enough to alter the human species fundamentally. To be sure, superficial adaptations have cropped up here and there in that time span, e.g. adult lactose tolerance in Northern Europe and parts of Africa, high altitude resistance in the Himalayas, and somewhat smaller brains everywhere. (Domesticated people, like domesticated animals, generally are not as bright as their wild ancestors: See The Incredible Shrinking Brain.) Though bought at the expense of large past die-offs that favored minor adaptations, none of these traits were enough to indicate the beginnings of a new species anywhere. With an interconnected global population of 7 billion, splitting off a new branch of humanity is less likely than ever.

What are the conditions that would make speciation possible? In the deliberate improvement of farm animals, this is achieved by a mix of inbreeding and culling. Inbreeding emphasizes desired specific traits while culling reduces the negative consequences. Inbreeding harms a stock only without a cull. The same methods (accidentally achieved if at all, one hopes) will work for humans, and no place is better for a significant mutation to spread than in an isolated colony. It’s called the Founder Effect. The chances of creating a new species this way, while negligible, are not impossible, and Boland spins a good yarn out of the “not impossible.”

Another Thumbs Up, though personally I’m not much worried about speciation. We’ll have AI robots long before that happens. The robots can worry about it.

Jimmy Castor Bunch: Troglodyte (Cave Man) charted in 1972


  1. Ha, Troglodyte! From my younger years I used to love all those dinosaur movies like One Million Years B.C., Journey to the Center of the Earth, King Kong, Godzilla, Reptilicus, Clan of the Cave Bear, Iceman, and so forth. I really wish someone would make something like that now, but I guess there's always the Jurassic Park movies. But I'd like to see more well made movies in this genre.

    The books you reviewed sound interesting & I added them to my list. I have one around here that I haven't read yet called Raptor Red that I found at a book sale. I'll have to keep your book recommendations in mind when I go to a book sale that they're having in a week or so locally here. By the way thanks for including the links to your stories too. I'll try and read them. One of these days I want to get a i tablet, that would be great for such things.

    I was in the kitchen the other day and was listening to TEDtalks on NPR, which coincides with this, check it out:

    1. Thanks for the link. I like that Louise Leakey is following in the family business.

      I still love those kind of movies. Naturally I'm fond of the originals but the some of the better remakes at least make it possible to share them with friends, many of whom are intolerant of old-style effects, not to mention B&W. The 2005 King Kong was one. I managed to get my guests to watch the cliff sequence in the '33 film just long enough to demonstrate just how much the '05 owes to the original, right down to Naomi Watts' wardrobe.

      I looked up Raptor Red and see it was written by Robert Bakker of all people. That should be fun.