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Japanese, Korean, and the ISOC linguists


What’s the hardest major language for a native English speaker to learn? Some popular bets are: Albanian, Amharic, Arabic, Basque, Cantonese, Estonian, Georgian, Hungarian, Icelandic, Japanese, Korean, Navajo, and Tagalog. But there are literally thousands of other languages at least as distant from English as any of these—see the note on Nuxalk. 



Nuxalk, and “What Raven Did”


The Pacific Northwest is one of the world’s five top hotspots for language extinction, with over two hundred critically endangered languages, including Nuxalk, Kutenai, Klallam, Yakima, Snohomish, Spokane, Quileute, Siletz Dee-ni, and Straits Salish. (The other four major hotspots are Central and South America; Northern Australia, especially the Cape York Peninsula; the American Southwest; and East Siberia.) Nuxalk is spoken only in one village at the mouth of the Bella Coola river in British Columbia. Its strange phonemes, and its distaste for vowels, make it especially difficult for anyone who starts out with a European language. You can hear it spoken here.I have altered slightly the version of the Raven story I found at—a great site for learning about Native American language and culture. 


Physicists … three big theories … junk


The attempt to reconcile general relativity and quantum mechanics into a coherent theory of “quantum gravity” has already sucked up many whole careers, with no end in sight; string theory, which many thought would elegantly solve the impasse, can’t offering any testable predictions at all, according to its critics, and seems to come in up to 10500 equally plausible versions, which is about (10500)-1 too many. See for example Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics, or look up “Smolin-Susskind debate.” 



“A thousand years of human habitation”


Scientists disagree about when Polynesians from the southwest first arrived in the Hawaiian Islands; around 1000 CE is probable. 



Gilgamesh and the lion

To see the original, search “Louvre Gilgamesh.” 



“A trapdoor function … even our best computers will gag on it”


Modern cryptography (and therefore the entire Internet, the world banking system, and a whole lot else) depends on trapdoor functions, mathematical operations that are intrinsically harder to compute in one direction than another. Even simple addition is a sort of trapdoor function: you can solve “123 + 789 = x” quicker than “123 + x = 912.” But some functions are (or they become, when the numbers are large) much much much harder one way than the other.The key example is prime factors. “What’s 13 x 17?” is easy: 221. But “Here’s a number, 221; what are its two prime factors?” is significantly harder. What if, instead of two-digit primes, I start with a pair of two-hundred-digit primes? Your computer can still multiply them together in a flash. But the reverse process, finding the primes with nothing but the result to go on, isn’t merely more difficult: it’s practically impossible, even with all the computing power in the world.


This fact makes it possible to use systems in which you publish a “public key” that anyone can use to encode a message to you; only you own, and never need to transmit, the “private key” capable of decoding those messages.The idea of public keys based on trapdoor functions was the biggest advance in cryptography since hiding things under rocks, and goes back to publications by Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman in 1976. (A mathematician at Britain’s GCHQ had worked it out slightly earlier, but his work was classified and its implications ignored.)A rumor going the rounds now (2016) is that the National Security Agency has in effect hacked this kind of “unhackable” Diffie-Hellman encryption—and not by being super-smart, or having super-incredible technology, but by having pretty-serious technology and one modest insight into human frailty and laziness. In brief, Diffie-Hellman probably is beyond even the NSA’s reach if it’s properly implemented. But there appears to be a flaw in the way most such encryption was set up: because it’s easier, nearly every major system is using the same few numbers as public keys. The NSA realized this, and—so the rumors claim—built a giant specialized computer to prime-factorize just those numbers. It could be true.In ways I only vaguely understand, the ultimate security of public-key systems is related to “P = NP,” often described as the most fundamental problem in computer science. Look it up and enjoy the headache. 





See my note on him in The Fire Seekers. The newest research makes a good case that the Antikythera Mechanism was manufactured in about 205 BCE, which makes it slightly too recent for Archimedes—he had his terminal encounter with a Roman soldier during the sacking of Syracuse in 211 BCE—but it could have been based on his design. (See Christián C. Carman and James Evans, “On the epoch of the Antikythera mechanism and its eclipse predictor,” Archive for History of Exact Sciences, Nov 2014.) 



Socrates and knowing how ignorant you are


The point was also made by the great Chinese sage Lao-tsu, or Laozi. Speaking of ignorance, I’ve always thought it fascinating that Socrates and Lao had so many things in common, and were near-contemporaries, but had no idea that each other’s entire civilizations existed. 


The Voynich Manuscript


The Voynich is easily the oddest and most beautiful of all the great “mystery” texts, in my opinion—take a look at the many pages reproduced online. It is, contrary to my fictional history, still in the Beinecke Library at Yale. “Solutions” to the mystery are legion; good luck. 



“Let there be light”: what’s involved in creating a universe?


If you don’t know it, listen to the first part of Joseph Haydn’s oratorio Die Shöpfung (The Creation), with the volume turned way, way up. The C-major chord on the word “light” is a real spine-tingler. In the English version, the crucial words are “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light”—which suggests to me a chain of three events: He decided that light would be a good idea, He reached for the switch, and the light came on as a result of His action. The German text seems to do a better job of hinting at a less ordinary, more appropriate idea. “Und Gott sprach: ‘Es werde Licht!’ Und es ward Licht”: literally, “And God said it would be light—and that was the light.” On this view, more broadly, God doesn’t cause the universe to exist, because His idea of the universe is the universe. So we exist in the mind of God. (I’m grateful to Henry Newell for introducing me to both the oratorio and this insight about the text, many years ago.)See the note on Hegel—and, if you’re interested in a grand intellectual detour, look up “the Simulation Argument,” a more recent and perhaps rather creepier take on the idea that we, and the universe, might be nothing more that someone else’s idea. 



Religion, immortality, and equating consciousness with the soul that survives death


Balakrishnan is giving a very simplified view here, and one that sounds much more like Christianity (or perhaps Islam) than religion in general. The Greeks seem to have a very ambivalent view of whether or in what sense the dead survive; so does Judaism; Buddhism and Hinduism perhaps even more so, since they think of survival after death in term of reincarnation—and they think of reincarnation as something to be escaped. 



Einstein … “the theory has to be right


Though Einstein’s two great theories were published in 1905 and 1915, it was in 1919 that he became world-famous. That was when Arthur Eddington used a total solar eclipse to show that the sun’s gravity “bends” starlight just as general relativity predicts. Einstein joked that it would have been a pity if the experiment had gone the other way—not because that would have disproved his theory, but because it was “correct anyway.” That’s not arrogance; it expresses the perfectly sound idea that even a new theory needs more than one contrary “fact” to defeat it, especially if it’s profoundly convincing in other ways. Science works through a balance of evidence about what to believe overall, and theories guide what it makes sense to believe just as much as facts do. (See also the note on “Infinitely many consistent theories.”) Daniel Kennefick has a good article on the Eddington experiment —serious and detailed, but very readable —at 



Descartes’s ghost


The great French mathematician and philosopher René Descartes outlined his version of mind-body dualism in The Passions of the Soul, 1649. According to his view (or, arguably, an unfair simplification of it), the body is analogous to a mechanical device—a robot, we might say—controlled or piloted by an immaterial and immortal substance that resides within it. Descartes believed the world was made up of two fundamentally different kinds of stuff, matter and thought. (Or three, really: matter, thought, and God.) Matter is res extensa—‘extended stuff,’ or, literally, stuff that takes up space. Thinking stuff, res cogitans, has no extension in space. But we human beings are uniquely dual: physical objects that think.The uneasy idea of these two things cohabiting was a popular theme in the seventeenth century. It was put into clever, comical form in Andrew Marvell’s poem A Dialogue Between the Soul and the Body, in which each complains that it is imprisoned by the other. The soul begins:


O who shall, from this dungeon, raise

A soul enslav’d so many ways?

With bolts of bones, that fetter’d stands

In feet, and manacled in hands;

Here blinded with an eye, and there

Deaf with the drumming of an ear;

A soul hung up, as ‘twere, in chains

Of nerves, and arteries, and veins;

Tortur’d, besides each other part,

In a vain head, and double heart.


The big problem for dualism—closely related to Bill Calder’s skepticism about the very idea of “the supernatural”—seems to be this: How can we make sense of the idea that the mind/soul and matter interact? There has never been a good answer to that question, and in The Concept of Mind (published exactly three centuries after The Passions of the Soul, in 1949), English philosopher Gilbert Ryle dismissed “Cartesian dualism” as the “ghost in the machine” theory. Ryle’s work ushered in an era in which few philosophers took dualism seriously; instead, various forms of physicalism or naturalism or materialism, which might collectively be called “all machine, no ghost” theories, reigned supreme. They still do, despite the fact that purely materialist theories are also beset by deep problems.


One problem is causation: some philosophers have argued that the idea of causation, as in “the hammer caused the damage,” is every bit as mysterious and difficult to make sense of in materialist theories as in dualist ones. Evidence can only ever describe events (like hammers moving and damage appearing), not the spooky (immaterial?) causing that supposedly sits between them. If that’s right, “How can thoughts cause actions, or events cause thoughts?” may be a genuine problem for dualists—but isn’t a special reason for preferring materialism.But a second problem for materialist theories is more important, at least in the context of this trilogy. If matter is all there is, as Bill Calder and Mayo both think, how can we make sense of the idea that mind or soul or consciousness (the reality of which we experience directly every moment of our waking lives) even exists?


The question has driven some philosophers, such as Daniel Dennett, to propose in all seriousness the apparently self-contradictory “eliminative materialist” doctrine that consciousness itself is an illusion. By way of illustrating how deep the trouble is, another philosopher, Galen Strawson, has memorably described this as “the silliest view that anyone has held in the whole history of humanity.”See also the note on Turing, and on “Our biology is a barrier to our nature, because matter is evolving into mind.”


Of course, there may be another option. Patience, grasshopper.

Haole … buried him at sea

The word haole implies pale-skinned, and it’s now used in the sense of a white person from the mainland, but that’s not what it originally meant. Probably (no one seems sure) it meant “without breath,” and this had to do with Europeans not following Hawaiian customs involving breathing. One theory is that Hawaiians traditionally greeted one another by touching noses and in effect intermingling their breaths, and Europeans failed to do that.

Middle-Eastern street … hijabs … abayas

Those of us who aren’t Muslim should at least get the terminology right—and I certainly couldn’t have done until I looked it up. A burqa is the fullest garment: it covers the whole body, with a mesh screen for the eyes. Chadors and abayas are full-body hooded cloaks, worn over other clothes; the chador is often worn open, whereas the abaya is usually pinned closed across the front. A niqab is a veil for the face only, usually with a slit for the eyes. A hijab is basically a scarf that covers the hair but not the face, and is often worn with what is otherwise Western-style clothing. In some countries—as imagined here by Morag—they are made from colorful and elaborately decorated cloth. Actually Morag is guilty of cliché, as she suspects: Jordan is one of the most liberal Islamic countries, and many women there, especially in the cities, wear either the hijab or no head covering at all.

Astronomer-friendly street lights

Light pollution is a big and interesting issue: tragically, our cities produce so much “stray” light that most people alive to day have essentially never seen the sky that thrilled and awed our ancestors. (A lone light bulb, ten miles away, is as bright as the brightest star.) Because of the Mauna Kea telescopes, Hawaii has always been at the cutting edge of the issue; low-pressure sodium lights were mandated in Kona back in the 1980s, and have since been replaced by directional LEDs. Still, a night at a remote site with excellent “seeing” should be on everyone’s bucket list. I camped high on Mauna Kea one spring, and the southern Milky Way was so dense with stars that the meaning of the name was immediately obvious: it looked as if someone had spilled milk on the sky.

Giant mines (and a short polemic on the relationship between wealth, government, colonialism, racism, and terrorism)

The island of New Guinea is rich in minerals; the open-pit mines at Ok Tedi and Porgera in Papua New Guinea, and the Freeport mine at Grasberg on the Indonesian side of the border, are among the largest man-made holes on Earth. (Use Google Earth to look up Puncak Jaya, the tallest peak in New Guinea. The Grasberg mine is the set of concentric rings clearly visible just to the west of it.) It’s a classic example of what economists call the “resource curse,” in which poor, vulnerable people have their lives made immeasurably worse, rather than better, by the discovery of mineral wealth on their own land. Almost none of the vast profits from these mines have gone to indigenous groups, mine tailings have poisoned once-pristine major rivers like the Strickland and Fly, and violence has blossomed in the jungles like a big new crop.

Unfortunately for the people of Papua New Guinea and West Papua, the biggest problem isn’t even foreign mining (and logging) corporations, but corrupt governments that find those corporations to be an irresistible sources of cash. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton has pointed out, one of the biggest factors separating the most fortunate people in the world from the least fortunate is the matter of living under relatively stable, transparent, competent, corruption-free governments—and those of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea rank a miserable 107th and 145th out of 175 on Transparency International’s global corruption index.

Around the world, governments at this level are a lot like the bully in the school corridor: reliably stupid, but also reliably strong, selfish, pitiless, and violent. For all its failings, at least the government of Papua New Guinea is indigenous. The government of West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya), on the contrary, is one of the most brutal, most ruthless, most overtly racist exercises in colonial domination in history, comparable to the worst excesses of the European powers in Africa in the nineteenth century.

The former Dutch territory was forcibly annexed by Indonesia during a drive for independence from 1961 to 1969. As zoologist Tim Flannery drily remarked (writing in 1998, shortly after the area had been renamed “Irian Jaya” by the Indonesian government):

Surely it is a perverse twist of fate that has put a nation of mostly Muslim, mostly Javanese, people in control of a place like Irian Jaya. You could not imagine, even if you tried, two more antipathetic cultures. Muslims abhor pigs, while to a Highland Irianese they are the most highly esteemed of possessions. Javanese have a highly developed sense of modesty … for most Irianese, near-nudity is the universally respectable state … Javanese fear the forest and are happiest in towns … Irianese treat the forest as their home …”

This is a short quote from a long list of opposites, and bad things could have been predicted to flow from them. But alas “bad” is far too weak a word, as it is not really even the Indonesian government that rules West Papua, but the Indonesian military—which, after enjoying decades of generous support, supply, training, and diplomatic shielding by the United States, Australia, and even the United Nations, has one of the worst human rights records of any entity on Earth. In the fifty years since the brutally violent annexation, many tens of thousands of West Papuans (over five hundred thousand, according to the group International Parliamentarians for West Papua) have been murdered by Indonesian forces, with thousands more imprisoned, raped, tortured, and “disappeared,” in a campaign of terror that arguably amounts to genocide.

About that word “terror.” We’re encouraged to think that terrorism is a very big deal, but what is it? The US State Department recognizes more than sixty terrorist organizations around the world. It would appear that what unites the listed organizations is their willingness to pursue political goals by using violence to intimidate and kill innocent people—and they are doing so at an unprecedented rate, mainly in Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria. Currently the world’s worst example is Nigeria’s Boko Haram, an especially bloodthirsty Islamic extremist group affiliated with ISIS/ISIL. It’s on the list and in the news for murdering 6,664 people in 2014, more even that the rest of ISIS /ISIL worldwide. (Figures are from the Institute for Economics and Peace, 2015 Global Terrorism Index). But since 1963 the Indonesian military has murdered up to seventy times that many people in Irian Jaya/West Papua alone, out of a population of just 4.5 million. It continues to imprison, torture, and murder West Papuans today, making something of a specialty of pro-democracy activists, otherwise known as “rebels,” (look up, for example, the cases of Yawan Wayeni and Danny Kogoya), and farmers and children (see, but be warned of very disturbing images at, Yet Indonesia’s army doesn’t even make it onto the State Department’s terrorist list.

Possibly this is evidence that the United States government is a fan not only of our “ally,” Indonesia, but also of Lewis Carroll. For, as Humpty Dumpty famously tells Alice, “When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

You can find out more about what’s going on in West Papua in this article from The Diplomat,, and at the websites of Human Rights Watch, International Parliamentarians for West Papua, Cultural Survival, Survival International, and Amnesty International.

839 languages

The figure for PNG (from the website includes not just the eastern half of the main island of New Guinea but also the languages of New Britain, New Ireland, and hundreds of smaller islands, so the figure for the main island may be somewhat lower. But New Internationalist magazine lists 253 tribal languages for the Indonesian province of West Papua, and states that the island as a whole accounts for 15 per cent of all known languages—so that’s a total of about eight hundred to a thousand. Zoologist Tim Flannery gives a similar number; in Light at the Edge of the World anthropologist Wade Davis claims “more than 2,000 languages” for the entire island.

The exact number is beside the point. Let’s say eight hundred. By way of comparison, Ethnologue lists 166 for all of Europe and Scandinavia combined.

Australia … “not a single active volcano”

The last volcanic eruption in Australia was probably at Mount Gambier, 5-6,000 years ago—not long before Thera. But Oz does have many extinct volcanoes, plus some dormant ones in Victoria and two active ones on remote islands. Recently (2015) it was also discovered to have the longest chain of (admittedly very extinct) volcanoes anywhere in the world. The “Cosgrove chain” was created by the motion of the landmass across a hot mantle plume between 33 and 9 million years ago.

Singing dog

The New Guinea Singing Dog (Canis lupus hallstromi) is actually a shy, rare and genuinely wild relative of the Australian dingo; hunting dogs in the Highlands are descended (at any rate partly) from them.

Giant rat

He doesn’t just mean it’s a big one. The Bosavi Wooly Rat, a species discovered in 2009, is one of many “giant rat” species of the genus Muridae in New Guinea, and it may be the largest of all: it’s almost three feet long and weighs about three and a half pounds. Rats like this are a common food source for many tribes in New Guinea. The Bosavi Wooly Rat, by the way, was found living in the crater of an extinct volcano.

Lost tribes … “the Hagahai, the Fayu, the Liawep”

These are just three real New Guinea tribes that as recently as the 1980s or 1990s had had little of no contact with Westerners, and relatively little contact even with other local tribes. There’s good information on the Hagahai at; for the Fayu, see Sabine Kuegler’s memoir Child of the Jungle, and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel; for the Liawep, see Edward Marriot’s The Lost Tribe. Several other tribes with very little outside contact are described in Tim Flannery’s memoir Throwim Way Leg—including both the Miyanmin and the Atbalmin, whose territory is approximately where I’ve set the Chens encounter with the Tainu. Survival International claims there are forty such groups in West Papua alone.

Many tribes or groups referred to as “uncontacted,” in places like New Guinea and the Peruvian and Brazilian Amazon, are better characterized as having responded to contact with neighboring populations and the “outside world” by making it clear that they wish to minimize or avoid any more of it. Others may have had outside contact in the relatively distant past, and then retreated from it: according to one source, the Mashco Piro of Peru disappeared into the jungle when the rubber industry came to the Amazon more than a century ago.

Tribal people often have excellent reasons for keeping the outside world at spear’s length. But contact isn’t always a story of outside interference: the Mashco Piro recently began to initiate what we might call “re-contact,” of their own accord. And a somewhat similar case involves the “Pintupi Nine,” a family from a traditionally nomadic tribe living near Lake Mackay in Australia’s Gibson Desert. Most Pintupi were moved or “encouraged” to move from their exceptionally remote ancestral lands by Australian governments in the 1950s-1960s. But one family continued to live in the desert as their ancestors had for thousands or tens of thousands of years, and had apparently never seen any non-nomads, certainly not whites, until forced to make contact by exceptional drought conditions in 1984. They were naked except for some items woven from human hair; doctors who examined them reported that they were exceptionally fit and healthy. Two of the nine, Yukultji Napangati and Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri, have become internationally acclaimed artists..

Humans arriving in Australia/Melanesia “fifty thousand years ago”

Jimmy could be wrong. The best current evidence strongly suggests fifty thousand at least, and sixty thousand or more is quite possible. (The sea level was so much lower back then that Australia, Tasmania, and New Guinea were one land mass, known to geographers as Sahul, and the coastal areas where you’d expect to find the earliest evidence of settlement now lie under the Timor and Arafura Seas.)

Although ten times further back in history than the Egyptian Pharaohs, those first Austro-Melanesian migrants were apparently already skilled boat-builders: even in that era of lower sea levels, there was never less than 50 miles of open sea to cross from Asia. That deep water channel is the origin of “Wallace’s Line,” separating two geographically close but utterly distinct biological worlds, with possums, kangaroos, parrots, birds of paradise, and eucalyptus trees on the eastern (Sulawesi/Lombok/New Guinea) side, and orangutans, flying squirrels, leopards, and giant Dipterocarp trees just to the west in Bali, Java, and Borneo. This was one of the key pieces of biogeography that led Alfred Russell Wallace, like Darwin, to the idea of natural selection.
“Neanderthals … went extinct not much later”

At one point the Neanderthals ranged from east of the Caspian Sea to southern England and southern Spain, and recent evidence puts them at least occasionally as far east as the Altai Mountains in Siberia. By about fifty thousand years ago, their range was shrinking, and, while there’s been some apparent evidence of a remnant population hanging on in southern Europe until twenty four thousand years ago, recent research is pushing the date of final extinction back in the direction of forty thousand years.

(Shameless speculation alert. This is only a debate about the correct dating of existing finds. It doesn’t necessarily prove that no Neanderthals survived longer: who’s to say what surprises will be washed to the surface by the historic floods of 2052?)

After showing up from Africa, Homo sapiens may have lived alongside Neanderthals for tens of thousands of years, but some argue that there was little or no interaction until about forty two thousand years ago. If that’s right, and the Neanderthals really did die out forty to thirty eight thousand years ago, the overlap is suspiciously narrow. Did we bring disease to them? Slaughter them? Slaughter them and eat them? A new theory, outlined in Pat Shipman’s book The Invaders, suggests rather that we out-competed them for food resources by showing up ready-armed with a lethal new hunting technology: semi-domesticated dog-wolves. Some clever statistical research on skulls from ancient and modern Canidae (wolves and dogs) suggests that our ancestors first domesticated wolves into dogs not seven to ten thousand years ago—or fifteen thousand, which until recently was an “extreme” date—but as long as thirty five to forty thousand years ago. And dogs make hunting big game much, much easier. (See also the note “Language: a crazy thing that shouldn’t exist.”)

Homo floresiensis, and the legend of the ebu gogo

Remains of the dwarf hominin species Homo floresiensis, immediately nicknamed “the hobbit,” were discovered in 2003 in a cave on the Indonesian island of Flores, about 1,300 miles west of New Guinea. H. floresiensis reached the Flores area hundreds of thousands of years before modern humans did, and thrived, partly on a diet of now-extinct pygmy elephants, long after the Neanderthals went extinct in Eurasia. (An even more recent discovery, in 2016—stone tools well over a hundred thousand years old on the island of Sulawesi—indicates that yet other groups of early hominins also beat Homo sapiens to the area.)

Modern people on Flores tell of the “ebu gogo,” small hairy people who live in caves in the forest and comes out to steal pigs, and even children. (The names means something like “greedy granny” in the local language.) It’s a similar story to the Orang Pendek (‘short person’) legend on Sumatra. The most recent alleged sightings of ebu gogo are from the 19th century; still, if H. floresiensis was the cause of those reports, then the species hung on at least ten thousand years longer than current fossils indicate. And maybe they did—jungles are notoriously bad environments for fossil preservation. Anyway, that’s what gave me the idea for the I’iwa.

Controversy over whether the Flores “Hobbit” bones are really from a new species of hominin, or are merely (say) a child with a genetic abnormality, continues to rage. There’s a short, accessible summary by Karen L. Baab in Nature. See also Linda Goldenberg’s Little People and a Lost World, or for a more detailed account Dean Falk’s The Fossil Chronicles.


“Our biology is a barrier to our nature, because matter is evolving into mind”

That we might evolve from pure matter to pure mind—that that is the whole universe’s trajectory, in fact—is the philosopher Hegel in a nutshell. It’s a fascinating idea; too bad it’s buried in The Phenomenology of Spirit, one of the most unreadable books ever written.

(Imagine several hundred pages of this: “The psycho-organic being has at the same time the necessary aspect of a stable subsistent existence. The former must retire, qua extreme of self-existence, and have this latter as the other extreme over against it, an extreme which is then the object on which the former acts as a cause.” The philosopher Schopenhauer was left speechless with loathing by Hegel’s writing and had to fall back on quoting a phrase from Shakespeare: “Such stuff as madmen tongue and brain not.”)

But you can say this much for Hegel: at least he took the reality of ideas seriously, and accepted that the relationship between things and thoughts was a genuine and deep mystery. In the past century, most cognitive scientists and psychologists, and many philosophers, have managed to persuade themselves that it isn’t a deep mystery. Which is tragic, really: being mistaken, they’ve condemned themselves to playing in the shallows. (See also the note on “Let there be light” and the Simulation Argument.)

Paleolithic evolution and “idiots” not cooking their food

A trifle harsh, but it’s easy to see where Morag’s impatience is coming from. A lot of pop science gives the impression that we evolved into modern human beings one Wednesday afternoon on the African savannah a hundred thousand years ago—as if some magical change made us anatomically and biologically what we are, now, right then. But evolution is continuous, and while some people claim we’ve evolved little since the mid-Paleolithic, the most recent evidence suggests the opposite: epochal revolutions like the domestication of cattle, the invention of agriculture, mass migration, and industrialization have probably accelerated the pace of human genetic change. One line of recent research indicates huge genetic shifts in the European population just in the eye-blink since farming began, 8,500 years ago; among other things, those changes account for pale skin, the ability to digest milk, and the ability to survive on high-wheat diets, which are poor in the amino acid ergothioneine. Another line of research indicated that factors like antibiotics, public sanitation, and a massive increase in our consumption of simple carbohydrates, have radically altered our gut biome in just the past century. (Even if, as some claim, hunter-gatherer diets were healthier than modern ones, our ancestors were all hunter-gatherers 9,000 years ago, and most of them were still foraging much more recently than that.) So there’s little reason to think that what was normal or natural for our ancestors a hundred thousand years ago is an especially good guide to what’s best for us now. As for cooking dinner: our bodies became adapted to this vastly more efficient way of getting calories at least three hundred and fifty thousand years ago, and possibly two million years ago. In either case, that’s long before Homo sapiens even evolved.

“I make of you nice fat kebab”

That might sound odd, coming from a Russian, but kebabs, or shashlik, have been a popular fast food in Russia ever since they were introduced from Central Asia over a century ago.

Time for Gödel

Gödel was one of the most important mathematicians of the twentieth century, and one of the most important logicians since Aristotle. Like Iona, he was a mathematical Platonist: he believed mathematical objects existed in an independent reality outside the mind, and had to be discovered; they were not mere inventions. His own work contributed strong new reasons for believing so.

Modern physics seems to agree with him on the unreality of time. Einstein called it “a stubbornly persistent illusion.” And when John Wheeler and Bryce DeWitt tried to combine general relativity with quantum mechanics by giving a quantum-mechanical description of the universe as a whole, they found that “time” dropped out of the picture. Look up “Wheeler-DeWitt equation” for more on this.

Iona’s “crazy as a loon” comment is a reference to the fact that Gödel was paranoid about being poisoned and would only eat food that had been prepared for him by his wife. When she became too ill to do this, he stopped eating and essentially starved himself to death. He died in 1978.

The underground city at Derinkuyu

In case you think the I’iwa’s home too fanciful, look this up. Derinkuyu once held thousands of people and their cattle, and it’s just one of several dozen underground settlements in Cappadocia, carved out by the Hittites and/or Phrygians. I visited the area many years ago; I was already writing about the I’iwa before I realized it was those interiors populating my mind’s eye. The earliest written reference to the Cappadocian rock settlements is already familiar to readers of The Fire Seekers: Xenophon visited them during his campaigns with Cyrus the Great, and mentions them in Anabasis.

Lascaux, Altamira, and Chauvet

These are the three best-known sites for early cave art. At Altamira, in Spain, the paintings discovered in 1879 were originally dated at twelve to fifteen thousand years old, which seemed astonishing enough, but Lascaux in France was discovered in 1940, with apparently older images, and some of those at Chauvet in France (discovered 1994) were clearly older still. Subsequent research has shown that most of these sites were occupied in waves, over tens of thousands of years; at Chauvet, and also another Spanish cave, El Castillo, the oldest images are now believed to be as much as 37,000 to 40,000 years old. That puts them near the time when H. sapiens arrived in Europe and the Neanderthals vanished.

The most amazing aspect of the cave paintings isn’t their age but their staggering skill, beauty, and power. When Altamira was discovered, the images were dismissed as fakes on the grounds that “primitive” people could not possibly have produced such things. Funny, but understandable—some of the animals, in particular, take your breath away. For a private tour of Chauvet, see Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Soc in Eden
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