Apr 25

When did we become human?


Hi guys, I'm a big fan. I started listening about two months ago and I'm finally caught up after binge-listening to the podcast on my way to work. I'm really impressed by your level of analysis and I'm looking forward to many more years of podcasts (I'll get to contributing on Patreon one of these days). I was especially impressed by your episode on "The Changeling" - I think you puzzled out the religious iconography behind the story and I'm hoping you'll consider publishing your ideas in print somewhere.


I think you missed something in your latest episode of the podcast ("V.R.T. - Part VI - Discussion," from 16 April 2019) when you were discussing the length of human prehistory. You said that the numbers that V.R.T. mentioned, a million years and 10 million years, were too large. Here is the passage (Sorry, I only have the Kindle edition to hand, where it is on p. 246):


"How long was human prehistory on Mother Earth? A million years? Some would say ten million. (Bones of my fathers.)"


You noted that our species (Homo sapiens) is about 200,000 to 300,000 years old and our genus (Homo, dating back to Homo erectus) is about 2 million years old. Based on these numbers, you weren't sure why V.R.T. used a million years and 10 million years. Wolfe clearly knew something about prehistory - I am thinking particularly of the bones that Aunt Olivia, Professor Peacock, and Den find in the cave in Peace; the archaeologist in "Trip Trap;" and Wolfe's name-checking of Windmill Hill Cave, Les Eyzies, Altamira, and Lascaux in "V.R.T." So what gives?


The ages that you cited are according to our current (2019) understanding. You have to remember that ideas about human evolution were very different in the late 1960's and early 1970's when "V.R.T." was written. (Full disclosure: I'm a paleoanthropologist who studies skull evolution, so if any of this sounds overly pedantic that's because it undoubtedly is):


Evidence for a 10-million-year span for human prehistory: There was a window of time between the 1950's and mid-1970's where Ramapithecus, a 15-million-year-old species found in India and Pakistan, was thought to be the ancestor of modern humans. According to Elwyn Simons and David Pilbeam (disclosure: my advisor's advisor and his advisor), Ramapithecus had a "U-shaped" dental arch, small canine teeth, and thick enameled-molar teeth, all characteristics that we share with this species but chimpanzees and gorillas do not. Already in the early 1960's nascent genetic data seemed to show that modern humans and chimpanzees shared a unique common ancestor about 6-7 million years ago, which was the first hint that something was wrong with Ramapithecus. Most anthropologists rejected the implications of genetic data until, in 1976, David Pilbeam found a partial cranium with a more complete and undistorted palate and upper teeth close to where the initials remains of Ramapithecus were discovered. It showed that the original distorted palate was reconstructed incorrectly into the "U-shape," when it really should have had parallel tooth rows. Because of taxonomic priority, Ramapithecus has now been subsumed in the genus Sivapithecus, which is clearly related to the modern orangutan and is not a direct human ancestor. Sivapithecus does have thick molar tooth enamel (but so do orangutans) and small canine teeth (a peculiarity, for sure).


Another possibility: In the 1960's, Piltdown Man still cast a shadow over popular ideas about human evolution, and I'm wondering if this also had an effect on Wolfe's estimates for the length of human prehistory. Piltdown was an orangutan mandible (lower jaw) fit onto a modern human cranium and found in "context" with Pleistocene mammal fossils and stone artifacts. Whoever perpetrated the hoax filed the orangutan teeth down to look more like human teeth, and broke and weathered parts of both pieces so that there was no clear point of contact where similar teeth could be compared to one another. With a large (really, a human) brain, Piltdown seemed to support the idea that human brain size evolution preceded the invention of tools or even bipedal walking. New historic evidence convincingly shows that Charles Dawson, the amateur paleontologist who "discovered" Piltdown in 1932, perpetrated the hoax. What is incredible about all of this is that the scientific community built a whole framework for human evolution that held fast for 20+ years in the face of mounting evidence from Africa and Asia (in the form of Australopithecus africanus and Homo erectus, respectively) that bipedal walking and tool making evolved before big brains.


Evidence for a 1-million-year span for human prehistory: In the late '60's/early '70's, the dominant idea about how evolution occurred during the Pleistocene was that Homo erectus gradually evolved into Homo sapiens, maintaining a sufficient degree of gene flow to keep the whole thing together in one species or, at worst, one evolving lineage, through anagenetic change. This ideas was referred to as multiregional evolution. The other idea, more widely-accepted nowadays, is that modern humans evolved in Africa 200-300,000 years ago and migrated out more recently, replacing archaic peoples living in Asia (like H. erectus) and Europe (like Neanderthals). This idea has been referred to as the 'Garden of Eden hypothesis,' the 'Single Origin Model' (SOM), 'Recent African Origin,' or simply as the 'Out of Africa hypothesis.' Recent (last 10-15 years) genetic data shows that, while the SOM is largely correct, there was some degree of interbreeding between modern H. sapiens and archaic peoples like Neanderthals in the Near East and Denisovans and another one or two hominin lineages in Southeast Asia. All the above is to say that a commonly-cited "starting point" for the multiregional evolution of modern humans in the late 1960's was 1 million years, the value that Wolfe used in the above quote.


I guess all of the above is to say that Gene Wolfe knew what he was talking about, human prehistory-wise. Ideas have just changed drastically since he wrote "V.R.T." in the late '60's/early 70's.


Finally, I'd like to quibble a little with something you said about only H. sapiens being "human," and what we refer to as "human" generally. Because of my job this is something I think about quite a lot. As you noted in your podcast many times, this is something that Gene Wolfe contended with in his work, but instead of the word "human" he often used the word "people," as in this quote:


"They weren't really people you know, just animals shaped like people." ("V.R.T.")


I think you'd both agree that there is a case to be made (and Wolfe makes that case) that the abos are people because they behave like people - that is, human behavior is what makes people "people." One of the main themes in Wolfe's work is that robots, aliens, human-like animals, etc. can be "people" ("human"). Now the truly pedantic part: I wouldn't restrict the term "human" to just Homo sapiens. Does that mean that Neanderthals weren't "human." I started with an easy one, since Neanderthals are so like us, and most of us carry some of their genetic material. How about Homo erectus? Homo habilis? Australopithecus afarensis? Ardipithecus ramidus? Even I have to start double-guessing myself by the end of this short list because it is hard to pin down what characteristics make us "human." This is a question that a lot of scientists struggle with, and there are no definite answers. There is a Society of Catholic Scientists conference June 7-9 at University of Notre Dame, for example, where the theme is "What does it mean to be human?" (I'll be there, presenting a poster that includes some of what is in the above paragraph).


Keep up the good work! I'll try to keep future epistles to a more reasonable length.


- Rob McCarthy

Apr 25

Really interesting comments, Rob - thanks!

Apr 25Edited: Apr 25

Fantastic insight into what VRT talks about.


And this statement as to what makes us human resonates so much, because although the abos are not descended from adam & eve as David points out, but in A Story the Hill people still seem more humane to me than the marsh abos.

Rob, welcome to the forum and thanks for this awesome post. Absolutely, the main reason for this scene must be that Wolfe wants us to understand that V.R.T. is contemplating what makes a human a human. What attributes and characteristics are necessary to say that one primate is a person and the other is not, just as he's been thinking about what differentiates a person from an animal more broadly. I'm embarrassed that I missed this.


Your point about limiting the label "human" to homo sapiens is also well taken. Over on our Star Trek forums, I've taken some heat for defining cannibalism too loosely as we see members of one sentient species consuming members of another. Here perhaps I'm being too strict.


Next spring I'll get to teach the methods course in my history department, and it will be my first time doing it. Something I've noticed about our students is that even after they've taken that course they aren't really sure what distinguishes history from other disciplines that study the human past and so I'm going to make that a major component of my class. I haven't yet decided which other disciplines to compare history to, so I would love to read a history of the discipline of paleoanthropology if you can recommend one -- especially one that I could then assign to undergrads.


Thanks again for this awesome post and have a great time at Notre Dame.

Hi Rob,


This is absolutely fantastic. I'm so glad you decided to join the forum discussion and add your expertise to the conversation. There is so much ground to cover in Wolfe's writing because he is so widely read. Your comments definitely add a new level to my understanding of V.R.T. I'll be looking forward to reading your contributions in the future!

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  • Damn that was a good story. I last read it in the 1970’s before I went to medical school (I am now an internist and geriatrician). It didn’t make much of an impression on me then, but it sure does now! I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but am looking forward to doing so. I will share my thoughts about the medical aspects of the story. There are some spoilers, so read the story first. Medical schools are adding close reading of literature and patient narratives to their curricula. (1) This would be an excellent source for that. I’ll show how that might be done. Page numbers are from the 1st Orb edition of The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories. Page 80 - ‘a stubble of brown hair threatened to erase the marks of the sutures; with dilated eyes…he paused’ The boy has had head trauma and/or brain surgery. A drug or toxin is likely responsible for both eyes being dilated. A unilateral dilated eye would indicate acute brain damage. Page 86 - ‘his head swaying from side to side as he walked, like the sensor of a mine detector.’ He probably has a visual field defect, possibly related to the brain surgery/trauma. Page 86 - “I set fires to things.” Could the surgery have been a lobotomy to control his behavior? Page 88 - “and cut all the way through my corpus callosum.” Nick’s brain surgery was a corpus callosotomy. (2) This surgery is usually done in patients with difficult to control seizures. The main side effect is problems with speech and alien hand syndrome—control of the non-dominant hand. (3) Nowadays, newer medications and other neurosurgical procedures have mostly supplanted callosotomy. Page 88 - “I only see what is on the right of what I’m looking at, and the other side…only the left.” This is known as a hemianopsia (4) and is a result of the callosotomy. The ‘I’ is the speaking half of Nick—the left side of his brain -or- “left-brain Nick.” Page 89 - “He had uncontrollable seizures.” “Did you?” the girl asked. “I had visions.” We find out the reason for Nick’s callosotomy. He had visual auras before the seizures when he would “see things.” Nick seemed to enjoy these auras and was probably upset when they ended. Page 91 - “there’s something you ought to know about Diane, she gets confused sometimes, we’ve had her to doctors, she’s been in the hospital…try not to get her excited.” Diane has some major Issues. The most likely conditions to cause a 19 year old to be hospitalized would be major depression, a debilitating anxiety disorder like OCD, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Although Diane is skinny, anorexia nervosa is unlikely because the treatment certainly wouldn’t be stranding her on an island with no food! Page 92 - Diane said, “I feel better when it rains.” “That should help you to understand yourself.” Is Dr. Island using cognitive behavioral therapy? (5) Although this is a rather expensive way of doing it! Page 94-95 - “Sickness is…relative” “Diane was not functioning…you were not functioning either.” This is a major motif of the story; illness, specifically mental illness, is defined by society. In our society, a schizophrenic person may take a night job at the post office working alone, then go home to their one bedroom apartment and pull the shades to keep out the world. They would watch TV, eat dinner, go to sleep. They are content and even happy with this routine. They are contributing to society. Are they mentally ill? Page 96 - “We have treatment for disturbed persons…but we have no treatment for disturbing persons.” “Disturbing persons” - people with personality disorders? The best you can do is place limits on people with personality disorders and teach their families/friends how to cope with them. If they become unmanageable, societies tend to place them in prison. Could Dr. Island be a prison? Page 97 - ‘He noticed…that she was looking at him oddly, then realized that his left hand had risen to touch her right breast.’ Alien Hand Syndrome! (3) “Right-brain Nick” is acting inappropriately. Page 98 - “They kept me locked up because I kept burning stuff…I bite people.” Again, “right-brain Nick” is causing all these problems. Page 98 - “Then they stuck me full of Tranquil-C.” That is why Nick’s eyes were dilated. Page 98 - “I still think you’re angry somewhere, deep down.” Taking away Nick’s auras (visions) could be the root of his anger. Perhaps the visions occurred in “right-brain Nick” and that’s why he burns things? Or is "right-brain Nick" just frustrated at his lack of control? Page 101 - “My knees are rough…when I came here they were still smooth…I used to put a certain lotion on them. Because my Dad would feel them…Mum wouldn’t say anything but she would be cross after.” I don’t know Diane’s diagnosis yet, but we have a good idea what may have caused her decompensation. Page 104 - ‘There was no reply. The girl sat staring at the ground in front of her…she did not move when he touched her. “She’s catatonic isn’t she,” he said. “Catatonic schizophrenia.” We now know Diane’s problem; she has schizophrenia. Catatonia is no longer consider a subtype of schizophrenia and is more a part of the symptomatology. (6) Schizophrenia affects young adults and is a chronic condition. Some do well, but many others have major disabilities and suffer from problems with functioning and socializing. It seems that Diane is quite disabled and has a poor prognosis. It is possible that her decompensation was caused by an abusive father. Page 104 - ‘The doctor had been a therapy robot, but a human doctor gave more status. Robots’ patients sat in doorless booths…and talked to something that appeared to be a small, friendly, food freezer.’ I have never heard of Amana being involved in cognitive behavioral therapy. Page 104 - “What is the cause? I mean for her?” “I don’t know.” “And what’s the treatment?” “You are seeing it.” “Will it help her?” “Probably not.” With all their space bending technology, it seems that the prognosis for schizophrenia hasn’t changed much in the Wolfe-ian future. Page 113 - “Your record shows no auditory hallucinations, but haven’t you ever known someone who had them?” “I knew a girl once…she twisted noises.” Auditory hallucinations are very common in schizophrenia. Ambient background noises are screened out by the normal brain. People with schizophrenia are unable to ignore them and experience the noise as voices saying bad things to/about them. The voices could also be internally produced by the brain.(7) Page 115 - “Let Ignacio tell you a story…” After unpacking Ignacio’s tale, it seems that he is a feral child. Unlike other feral children, he was taught language and self-care skills. His only lack was human contact and learning how to interact with others. Feral children have a lot of problems becoming socialized and integrating back into society. They usually aren’t homicidal. (8) Perhaps being a “high-tech” feral made him violent to others. Page 119 - “Did I tell you about the bird, Nicholas?” She had been not-listening again. “What bird?” “I have a bird. Inside…She sits in here. She has tangled a nest in my entrails, where she sits and tears at my breath with her beak. I look healthy to you, don’t I? But inside I’m hollow and rotten and turning brown, dirt and old feathers, oozing away. Her beak will break through soon.” Okaaay, as Nick would say. This dispels any doubts that Diane has schizophrenia. She has a somatic delusion, which, while not as common as paranoid delusions, are frequent in schizophrenia. “Usually the false belief is that the body is somehow diseased, abnormal or changed.” (9) Page 119 - “I have been trying to drink water to drown (the bird.) I think I have swallowed so much, I couldn’t stand up if I tried…” Diane has psychogenic polydipsia, which is common in schizophrenia. They can drink gallons every day—so much so that they disrupt their electrolyte balance and develop very low serum sodium levels. (10) Page 125 - “About 100 years ago, Dr. Harlow experimented with monkey’s who had been raised in complete isolation.” Harry Harlow is a real person who did indeed perform these experiments as Dr. Island has carefully outlined. Harlow was a Professor of Psychology at University of Wisconsin-Madison. (11) Many of those experiments are now considered an unethical treatment of animals. I suspect that the inspiration for The Island of Dr. Death came about when Wolfe read about Harlow’s research. You might consider Dr. Death to be a 2150 version of Harlow. ================Major Spoilers================== Page 129 - “Nicholas, you are upset now because Diane is dead—” “But you could have saved her!” “—but by dying she made someone else—someone very important—well. Her prognosis was bad; she really only wanted death, and this is the death I chose for her.” This is the death I chose for her. Those words are the core of the story; did Dr. Island have the right to sacrifice an individual for the greater good? In medical ethics, this encapsulates the conflict and tension between the ethical models of deontology and utilitarianism. (12) It seems that Dr. Island is a firm believer in the later. This is why The Death of Dr. Island would be a great source for a close reading of literature. It is a natural jumping-off-point for a spirited discussion of medical ethics. Page 130 - “Nicholas, who was the right side of your body, the left side of your brain, I have forced into catatonia.” Dr Island has essentially killed “left-brain Nick,” the person who has been our view point for the entire story. This is the death Dr. Island has chosen for Nick. Did he have the right to do so? REFERENCES 1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4721945/ 2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corpus_callosotomy 3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alien_hand_syndrome 4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemianopsia 5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_behavioral_therapy 6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schizophrenia 7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auditory_hallucination 8. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feral_child 9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delusion 10. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primary_polydipsia 11. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Harlow 12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4778182/
  • My wife and I listened to this episode on the long drive back from a music festival this weekend. The podcast caused great discussion in the car, making the miles go that much faster. Jessica thinks that Wolfe didn't have the new messiah being born to one of Zozz's people because it would have overly complicated and lengthened the story. I agree. It got me to thinking about what Wolfe's inspiration might have been. Then I remembered that National Lampoon had an infamous cover of an alien crucifixion done by Frank Frazetta. The question is, when did it appear? A little research showed that it it was probably on the streets in May 1972. La Befana appeared in the January 1973 issue of Galaxy; probably too soon after the Nat Lamp issue for it to have been an inspiration--unless Frazetta let Wolfe see it before publication. Nah. Here is the National Lampoon cover.
  • Hello, from indecisively sunny Tasmania! This is my first post, so I'd just like to say first and foremost that I am really enjoying the Wolfe podcast, which I started listening to after The Fifth Head of Cerberus enraptured me (It's quickly become one of my favourite books), and which I'm now darting in and out of as I read his Book of Days . Anywho, I can't fully recall the episodes on 'A Story by John V. Marsch', so forgive me if you mentioned it and this is a redundant post. But I was just paging through Jack Vance's Dying Earth , which is a known inspiration for BotNS, and noticed that in the chapter on 'Mazirian the Magician' the title character spends some time trifling with 'Thrang the Ghoul-Bear', and it struck me as intensely likely that this inspired the creature in the aforementioned novella, not just for the name but a particular sentence within the passage he appears. The passage reads thusly, though of course this spoils the Ghoul-Bear in that story, not that he plays a large role: "Thrang's lair was an alcove in the rock, where a fetid pile of grass and skins served him for a couch. He had built a rude pen to cage three women, these wearing many bruises on their bodies and the effects of much horror on their faces. Thrang had taken them from the tribe that dwelt in silk-hung barges along the lake-shore . Now they watched as he struggled to subdue the woman he had just captured. His round gray man's face was contorted and he tore away her jerkin with his human hands. But she held away the great sweating body with an amazing dexterity. Mazirian's eyes narrowed. Magic, Magic! So he stood watching, considering how to destroy Thrang with no harm to the woman. But she spied him over Thrang's shoulder. "See," she panted, "Mazirian as come to kill you." Thrang twisted about. He saw Marizian and came charging on all fours, venting roars of wild passion. Mazirian later wondered if the ghoul had cast some sort of spell, for a strange paralysis strove to bind his brain. Perhaps the spell lay in the sight of Thrang's raging gray-white face, the great arms thrust out to grasp. Mazirian shook off the spell, if such it were, and uttered a spell of his own, and all the valley was lit by streaming darts of fire, lashing in from all directions to split Thrang's blundering body in a thousand places. This was the Excellent Prismatic Spray-many-colored stabbing lines. Thrang was dead almost at once, purple blood flowing from countless holes where the radiant rain had pierced him." I personally think Thrang comfortably shares the same attributes as Wolfe's Ghoul-Bear: huge, thick-limbed, and stinking (sweat rarely smells pleasant). Maybe I'm reading too deeply, but a tribe that dwells in silk-hung barges along a lake shore sounds at least superficially similar to the Marshmen. Further, the specific lake they dwell next to is called 'Sanra Water, the Lake of Dreams', which you could perhaps posit has something in common with the plan to kill Sandwalker and have his soul flow into the sea and out to the stars. I'm no literary buff, but I think there's enough textual evidence to cite a clear connection between the two, especially as Jack Vance so influenced Wolfe's later work. In any event it made me feel very big-brained.

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