Saturday, January 29, 2005



This is my web site, with a number of texts plus other links.

Acheulean Hand Axes Ought to Tell Us Something, But What?

An ultimate issue for understanding ourselves is explaining sources of cultural change and how culture is transmitted and organized between people. This makes what archeologists of pre-history say about the so-called Acheulean hand axes so interesting. (I re-developed this interest recently through reading Matt Ridley’s provocative and fascinating Nature via Nurture.) These chipped stone tools apparently were made by proto-humans for well over a million years; then more complex tool sets appeared, and the hand axe was soon no more.

A look at representative hand axes suggest that they may have been altered a bit over this tremendously long time period. But two things seem remarkable. In evolutionary time, a million years is extremely long; most species don’t last so long, and one would imagine culture by its nature (so to speak) to be more variable than biology. In fact, it does seem that quite different proto-human species continued the hand-axe culture. So the sheer survival value apparently imparted by the possession of this one simple tool must have been enormous.

And yet, if this one invention was so valuable, why were creatures who were able to develop it not able fairly soon to go further, to invent more specialized versions?
Some possible explanations:

1. The hand-axe users were not capable of the level of social cooperation that would have made more specialized tools work better.

2. The hand-axe users were very limited in their ability to learn new skills, so that in effect, to develop new tools would require giving up old ones. This seems unlikely since hand-axe users in fact seemed to flourish in a variety of different environments which would have required some specialized learning, though perhaps of a different kind than tool-making.

3. The hand-axe users had a very limited capability of passing on skills. This could have been partly due to cultural limitations, and partly due to genetic limitations. Thus a cultural limitation would simply mean that better modes of cultural transmission, while biologically feasible, simply hadn’t been invented yet. One such limitation might have been that fathers, though nearby during the raising of their offspring, had not yet gotten involved in teaching anything to them, or in effect being directly responsible at all for raising them, except possibly by offering protection and perhaps some nourishment, perhaps indirectly. (Sorry for all the qualifications, which wouldn’t be here if I had more recently in mind what our apish relatives do and what the fossil records might show. Evidently, orangutan males play little role at all in raising the young; male gorillas, from my own zoo observations, do little also, and from what I remember of Jane Goodall’s work, male chimps also do little. On the other hand, also from my own zoo observation, male siamangs seem to play a role equal to that of females in raising their young. Thus it is certainly not beyond the general ape pattern for human males to be involved in raising their young, and in so doing, to pass on culture if any, but it seems very possible that until quite late among proto-humans, this didn’t happen.

4. It is also possible that while the proto-humans in question could have invented more techniques – that is that their brains were complex enough to handle this easily — a kind of conservatism about preserving existing behaviors and not diluting them with new ones prevailed. We know that a strong degree of conservatism prevails among most humans today, and is particularly marked among children of about four(?), at least in certain matters, such as rules of games, gender roles, or eating patterns. And then again among many old people. It could be that the intermediate period of exploration and adventuresomeness was a later development for proto-humans. That would raise the question of how the hand-axe revolution happened in the first place, but one can imagine scenarios in which, for a small group, conservatism broke down, the revolution in tool-making took place, and then through contact or interbreeding with a larger group, the prevailing conservatism was re-established, but now with the hand axe as an exception.

5. But perhaps most likely is that once the hand axe was in use, further innovation would have required a denser population, to permit the necessary division of labor, on the one hand, and on the other to allow enough innovation to occur and be passed on successfully to enough “early adopters.”

I shall return in future to the question this raises about why population might have stayed below the innovation limit for so long.


A Coloring Book Theory of Modern War

New on my website "A Coloring Book Theory of Modern War" to be published in kritikos in Feb. 2005

Saturday, January 22, 2005


FREEDOM!!! (or bureacracy, or just office buildings?)

According to NPR, W said the word "freedom" 27 times in his 21-minute inaugural speech yesterday — an excellent example of misleading framing.

Even worse, he spoke again of the 9/11 attack as being an attack on "freedom." This is utterly absurd.

What was attacked were two of the world's largest office buildings, both, incidentally, built by government, not "free" enterprise. (The Pentagon is obvious, and the WTC was built by the NY Port Authority.) We are usually told the fourth plane was to be aimed at the White House or the Capitol, but for all I know one of the huge office buildings in Washington could have been the target --or maybe another side of the Pentagon was. The previous major al Qaeda attacks were also on government office buildings, at the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
The other attacks were on US military targets.

I don't know why bin Laden has it in for office buildings, but since he cut his teeth in the guerilla war against the soviets in Afghanistan, and since he has made it clear he believes he brought down the USSR through that, it's quite clear he has now focussed on the remaining "western" superpower. Would Bush say bin Laden attacked the USSR because of opposition to freedom? As for the office-building fetish, possibly bin Laden and his group did attack Soviet office buildings in Kabul or elsewhere in Afghanistan; maybe that even stuck in his mind as a source of success.

Of course 9/11 was heinous, but it was an evil attack on office buildings, not freedom. Let's reclaim that important fact.

( I have previously speculated that al Qaeda was interested in attacking the World Trade Center because they were confused by the name, and thought that, rather than being rented out with difficulty mainly as back offices for Wall Street, it was, indeed, the center of world trade. If so, this again shows that we should be careful what we name things.)

Wednesday, January 19, 2005


The 2004 election

Let’s start with the bad news, of which there is plenty:

•The Democratic Party is at a SEVENTY-year low ebb, having now lost the Presidency and both houses of Congress twice in a row.

•The country is sharply divided politically on red-blue lines that begin to look permanent,

• The smaller red states, with their disproportionate share of electoral votes and Congressional representation, suggest a long-term edge for the right.

•The Democratic Party organization hardly exists in much of the old South, and is in decay in many other places.

•Democrats used to vie with Republicans for corporate campaign funds, but now almost all go to Republicans.

•Our all-out efforts with groups like ACT and Move-on were not enough to turn things around.

•The Rumsfeld crew is still in power in the Pentagon.

•American military might has been shown to fail against new capacities for resistance, however gruesome.

•Republicans are presiding over an unprecedented dissipation of American prestige and economic strength.

•The only category of American exports that is rising is trash, scrap and waste.

Each bit of that bad news at least holds out better prospects down the road, for us progressive Democrats —— at least if we have enough vision, imagination, and courage to ride it somewhere good.

First, of course, we did come quite close, even with a lousy candidate, in unseating the slickest, dirtiest Republican machine ever, and in wartime, even after the US mainland itself was attacked for the first time in almost two centuries.

Second, the blue-red tensions keep politics exciting and visible, and make it harder for issues to fade into the background. That makes new, inventive alliances possible, a new form for our old republic.

Third, for anything that goes wrong, at home, in Iraq, or elsewhere, Republican rightists will now be obviously to blame.

Fourth, with Democrats nearly out of the picture, the media, just to remain interesting, have to start scrutinizing Republican missteps more intensely, and have already started

Fifth, without corporate funds to pander for, it will be easier for Democrats to back progressive causes and to stick with them.

Sixth, Where Democratic organizations have fallen apart, there is room for new, more progressive ones to grow up.

Seventh, ACT and Moveon etc. have kinks that need working out, but they’ve gotten off to awfully good starts. We need to help build deeper , better vote-getting strategies, to be activated in still wider regions of the land.

Eighth, while the old world of, say, 1970’s liberal dominance won’t return, as America’s exceptional status in the world diminishes, there will be new opportunities to build a politics that recognizes the humanity we share with all on earth.

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