Wednesday, 29 September 2010

You couldn't make it up - but rail companies can!

In the last month, there have been two cases where rail passengers have been fined because they got off the train BEFORE the right stop.

Couple fined £114 for getting off train before their final stop - 6 September 2010

Getting off train early costs Durham professor £155 - 27 September 2010

You don't have to be Mr Spock to see that this is a totally illogical state of affairs. In fact it is barking mad and the words "you couldn't make it up" spring to mind. Unfortunately rail companies can and do, being run by people whose brains operate on wavelengths different to those used by the majority of humans since Upper Palaeolithic times.

The arguement employed by the rail companies is that "it is against the terms and conditions" to get off at an earlier stop if buying a discounted-rate ticket, contrary to something known as "common sense" (admittedly in short supply at rail companies). But it is more than contrary to common sense, I would argue that it is also contrary to law.

A train company can force a passenger to leave a train or penalise them for remaing aboard without a valid ticket. What it cannot do is when a train has made a scheduled stop to force or coerce somebody to remain aboard against their will, or penalise them for failing to remain aboard. I would argue that to do so is not only stark staring mad, it is false imprisonment, a serious offence in common law.

If so then the terms and conditions are irrelevant and unenforceble, because common law takes priority. For example, if the terms and conditions said "If you leave the train before your stop, you will be shot", it is extremely unlikely that anybody trying to implement this policy would escape a lengthy jail sentence. I strongly doubt if the argument "I was only enforcing the terms and conditions" would cut much ice in court.

False imprisonment is a less serious offence, but it is still an offence. If somebody did sucessfully argue in a court of law that preventing somebody from leaving a train early did constitute false imprisonment, then railway companies would be in trouble. Which is why I suspect they backed down in the case of Professor Evans, albeit hiding behind the face-saver of "good will". If the London couple had refused to pay, I suspect the outcome would have been the same.

If this argument is ever successfully tested in a court of law, it will hopefully force and end to this ridiculous policy and it will be a massive victory for common sense.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

70th Anniversary of the discovery of the Lascaux Cave paintings

On 12 September 1940, less than three months after the fall of France, four teenage boys and a small dog named Robot made one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the last century. The group were walking through the sloping woods above Lascaux Manor, near the town of Montignac, which lies on the Vézère River, Dordogne. They were investigating a local legend about an old tunnel, said to connect Lascaux Manor to the ruined Château de Montignac on the other side of the river. Robot was running on ahead of the boys and was attracted to a deep hole in the ground. Covered with overgrowth, it had been exposed by the falling of a tree.

Accounts vary as to what happened next. According to some versions, the little dog fell into the hole and had to be rescued; others claim the boys used their penknives to enlarge the hole, cutting away earth and removing stones; others suggest that the boys first equipped themselves with picks, shovels and lighting before returning to investigate further. Whichever version is correct, they enlarged the hole and at length they were able to slide through feet-first, one by one, along a semi-vertical shaft embedded with stalagmites, finally reaching a dark underground chamber. There, in the flickering glow of their oil-lamp, they saw prehistoric paintings of horses, cattle and herds of deer, brilliantly multicoloured in reds, blacks, browns and ochres, unseen by human eyes for at least 18,000 years.

Despite the unhappy times, news of the discovery spread rapidly. Villagers flocked to the caves and they soon drew visitors from further afield. Among these was the Catholic priest and archaeologist Abbé Henri Breuil, who was able to attest to the great antiquity of the caves and described them as “The Sistine Chapel of Prehistory”. Another early visitor was Pablo Picasso, who on emerging from the cave, is said to have remarked in reference to modern art “We have invented nothing”.

In 1948, the site’s landowners opened the caves as a tourist attraction, and soon they were attracting a quarter of a million visitors annually. Unfortunately, by 1955 it became clear that CO2 exhaled by the large numbers of visitors was promoting the growth of algae, causing significant damage to the paintings. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to ameliorate the problem, the caves were eventually taken over by the French Ministry of Cultural Affairs and closed to the public in 1963. Only five people a day are now admitted and scholars wishing to visit the caves for research purposes face a lengthy wait for a twenty-minute slot. Ordinary visitors have to make do with Lascaux II, a facsimile of the original which opened in 1983.

The paintings are now believed to be between 18,000 to 19,000 years old – four times older than the Pyramids - and are associated with the Solutrean or early Magdalenian period. There are 915 animals depicted, mainly horses, deer, aurochs (wild cattle) and bison - animals which at that time roamed wild on the steppes of Ice Age Europe (Clottes, 2008). Despite their great antiquity, the Lascaux Caves are certainly not the oldest cave paintings known; that title is currently held by the Chauvet Caves near Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, Ardèche, which are almost twice as old. Considered to be of equal artistic merit with Lascaux, the oldest paintings at Chauvet are now thought to be 36,000 years old (Mellars, 2006), associated with the Aurignacian people and dating to a time when two species of human – Neanderthals and Homo sapiens – coexisted in Europe.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

God does not exist (again)

Robin Dunbar’s explanation (Dunbar, 2006) provides what is probably the most convincing explanation of religion. It is based around theory of mind (the ability to anticipate the thoughts of others) and orders of intentionality (what X might be thinking about Y’s thoughts regarding Z).

Story-telling, science and religion all require 5th order intentionality - eg, when writing Othello, Shakespeare required five orders: he intended (1) his audience his audience to understand (2) that Iago wants (3) Othello to believe (4) that Desdemona intends (5) to run away with Cassio. Probably, though, story-telling was a spinoff – from the ability to, as we would now put it, to “do science”. High-order intentionality is crucial to understanding the natural world – science – which would have been crucial to the survival of early modern humans as the left Africa and attempted to colonize novel environments. To understand seasonal migration patterns of herd animals, the correlation between moon phases, tides and fishing, etc and to share this knowledge with others, would have required equally high orders of intentionality.

The ability to tell engaging stories round the campfire would have been a useful spinoff, good for group morale; serving the same purpose as literature – and indeed cinema and theatre today. But there was another spinoff – religion.

Theory of mind is crucial to religion. To engage in religious activities, I must believe in a parallel world inhabited by beings whose intentions can be influenced by my prayers. These beings must be able to understand what I want – requiring third-order intentionality: I believe (1) in gods that can be persuaded to understand (2) what I desire (3) and will act on my behalf. In fact, more than three orders of intentionality are required in any practical religion because religion is a social activity; a shared belief system and people must share their faith with others in a community.

In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins argues that religion is a “misfiring by-product” of something else (Dawkins, 2006), though in early hunter-gatherer societies, religion would have been a powerful group bonding mechanism and not as entirely malign as Dawkins supposes. Only much later, when humans began living in far more complex societies, was religion used as a means of control by the ruling elite.

However, it is possible that it was responsible for social division as far back as the Upper Palaeolithic, manifesting itself in the cave art of that time. David Lewis-Williams has suggested that art and ritual, while contributing to social cohesion, did so by marking off groups from other groups, thus creating the potential for social tensions (Lewis-Williams, 2002); a trend which has unfortunately continued to the present day. It is probably no coincidence that some of the finest art and architecture ever produced has been religious in nature and if Lewis-Williams is right, the origins of this creativity are very ancient indeed.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Homo helmei revisited

Homo helmei is one of many human species that has failed to gain widespread recognition. Textbooks tend to either mention it only in passing, or not at all. The species was assigned to the single partial skull which was recovered in 1932 by Professor T.F. Dreyer from the depths of the hot spring at Florisbad, some 50km (30miles) from Bloemfontein, South Africa. The skull comprises the right side of the face, most of the forehead and portions of the roof and sidewalls. A single upper right wisdom tooth was also found with the skull and in 1996 two small samples of enamel from this were found to be 259,000 years old using a technique known as electron spin resonance. In 1935, Dreyer described the find as Homo helmei to mark its distinctiveness from other fossil Homo sapiens. Homo helmei is not widely accepted, largely because it is still known only from this one specimen and it is usually “lumped” into Homo heidelbergensis ("archaic Homo sapiens").

The etymology of Homo helmei is something I have yet to find listed in any textbook and it took a good deal of digging around on the internet until I eventually came across the website of the National Museum, Bloemfontein, which provided the following insight:

The town of Florisbad is named for Floris Venter, a local entrepreneur who in 1912 enlarged the pools at the spring for use as a spa. Later that year an earthquake caused a new spring to open up, revealing stone tools and fossils. During the late 1920s, zoologist Professor T.F. Dreyer and his assistant Ms. A. Lyle carried out excavations in the vicinity of the spring. These were funded by Captain R.E. Helme and produced further quantities of animal fossils. The story goes that Venter feared loss of revenue if his baths were temporarily drained and Dreyer and Ms. Lyle had to wade around in the waters and grope for bones. On one such occasion, Dreyer plunged his hand into the spring deposits underwater and – rather in the manner of Little Jack Horner – pulled out part of a human skull, with his fingers stuck between its eyes!

This was the find later described as Homo helmei - it simply means "Helme's Man" and was named for Capt. Helme, whose funding had made the discovery possible.

Did Lucy use tools

A paper published today in Nature (McPherron et al, 2010) reports the discovery of 3.4 million year old bones from Dikika in the Lower Awash Valley, Ethiopia with cut marks claimed to have been made by stone tools - some 800,000 years before the oldest-known stone tools from nearby Gona. The only hominins known from the region during this time period is Australopithecus afarensis ("Lucy").

The evidence is not overwhelming - no actual tools were recovered and the marks could be due to other causes. But if hominins were butchering carcasses 3.4 million years ago and meat was a significant part of their diet a million years before the appearance of Homo habilis, it would be a problem for the "expensive tissue" hypothesis that proposes that a switch to a meat-based diet released the constraint on brain size, allowing larger-brained hominins such as Homo habilis and Homo ergaster to appear. See this entry on Prof. Hawks ever-informative blog:

Humans in the Philippines, 67,000 years ago

Mijares et al report in the Journal of Human Evolution the discovery of a 67,000 year old human 3rd metatarsal at Callao Cave on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. The bone is gracile and could be from a small-bodied modern human, like the indigenous "Negrito" people of Island Southeast Asia; or it could be from an earlier-type human - the report stated that it was within the range of Homo habilis or Homo floresiensis.

Either possibility is intriguing - if it is modern, then it implies the migrants from Africa must have left before the 65kya date widely touted, possibly before the Toba eruption - despite the most recent genetic evidence pointing to later rather than earlier dates for the migration. If on the other hand it is pre-modern, then as with Flores we are left with the question of how did archaic humans reach an island which was never connected to the mainland? I've always felt that Homo floresiensis is a downsized version of Homo erectus, descended from a small group who reached Flores by accident after being swept out to sea by a storm or tsunami - but another possibility is that Homo floresiensis was a sea-faring species that established itself on at least two islands in ISEA.

Best to reserve judgement for now.

The Artificial Ape, by Timothy Taylor

On order from Amazon. Sounds interesting and I need to read it, if only for professional reasons. Taylor apparently cites the reduction of lactose intolerance in humans as an example of technology bringing about evolutionary change. Originally, when weaned, the ability to process milk in humans was “switched off” as it was no longer needed. In other words, nearly all adults were lactose intolerant. But with the “secondary products revolution” that followed the Neolithic adoption of agriculture, milk became a useful food source; lactose intolerance became a disadvantage and was selected against.

However, one ”pet” example of such change (I DON’T know if this is in Taylor’s book) has now been shown to be dubious - the change from large ape-like guts in the australopithecines to the smaller guts of humans came about through tool use, enabling humans to butcher carcasses and switch to a meat-based diet. Smaller, less energy-expensive guts were required for this higher quality diet, opening up the way for our large, gas-guzzling brains.

But: australopithecines (not just late ones like A. garhi) may have used tools (McPherron et al, 2010), and probably didn’t have large guts (Haile Selassi, 2010). Both discoveries are very recent, but the inclusion of meat in the australopithecine diet and implied tool use has been suspected for over a decade (Sponheimer & Lee-Thorp, 1999; Teaford & Ungar, 2000).

The trouble with writing in this field is that it is VERY easy to be out of date!

A book about human prehistory

I have abandoned this blog for over six months, my efforts having been diverted to writing a book about human prehistory. This project now nearing the three-quarters stage.

The as yet untitled work describes how early ape-like hominins such as Australopithecus evolved into more human species such as Homo habilis and Homo erectus and how from these ancestors, modern humans arose and eventually left Africa and populated the rest of the world. The last, still to be written quarter of the book covers what happened when modern humans encountered their close cousins, the Neanderthals and how, at the end of the last ice age, humans adopted agriculture, began living in more complex societies - leading to state-level civilizations and ultimately the world as we now know it.

The project has been in the making for many years, but after my redundancy last year I decided that over 30 years in the IT industry was enough for one lifetime and I took early retirement in order to work on my book full time.