Human Evolution Autumn Almanac – Meeting John Hawks at Birmingham 2011

I met John Hawks at his Birmingham talk (not “wham-bam…”, the real Brum (-: ). He embodies a certain style of talking that I’m beginning to see as a modern US type, now becoming established amongst academics. It’s drifted such a long way from, say, the loathsome John Wayne, that it appears it might no longer be necessary there for one’s talking style to intimate any degree of thuggery at all. It’s a sort of merry twittering. Bill Gates has it, but he of course adds a disconcerting aspergic drone. Without that, it can be rather pleasant, and it avoids the implication that it’s even necessary to include the absurd hint that you base your identity on a readiness to start brawling at the drop of a hat. (Absurd partly because whatever your voice, it still might be true! Remember the bit in “And Quiet flows the Don” where the girlish-voiced warlord sabres someone’s hand off in mid-conversation!)

And it’s a ‘waveband’ that can carry plenty of rhythm and tone information. Tom Holtz was the first, apart from Gates, whom I noticed with it, but I thought that was just him. I have to say that I tend towards the London version myself where possible, but I used to put that down to ‘family personality’. You can only really do it with a topic you’ve been happily immersed in for some time, since your mouth will need to be supplied by both sides of your brain on a broadband basis. And there’s no time for anything but honesty, at least as you see it (well maybe some very well rehearsed untruths) so it’s unsuitable for politicians.

It’s also important to remember that many strongly disapprove of this low-macho, high-geek style of talking when they fear it questions their own social norms. The style tends to suggest therefore, involvement, at least early on, with mostly academic environs or people. Another social cue I think it tends to carry is a childish whine, shown by Gates, Holtz, myself and also Henry Gee (though whom I wouldn’t put in the ‘American Academic Twittering’ category because of his bull-dozing presumptuous menacing pseudo-cheerful tone). This to me suggests higher than average ratio of parental to peer contact early on. But going back to the Youtube video of some of Hawks’ talk to check for whine, I didn’t really notice any…well, maybe just a bit. (I did however notice his joke where he has a Neanderthal in an advert saying “I used to be like this – before I tried Evo Lotion”. You don’t hear me laughing since I’d seen it before, and from my seat I was stuck trying to read the writing, but perhaps this applied to others since no-one else laughed either, which surprises me, and presumably surprised John. I did laugh this time though when a few seconds later he told the audience his job was to bring the dead back to life.)

John Hawks at Birmingham Uni Sept 22nd 2011. Grabbed from Youtube with permission from Mark Pallen. The mysterious circular thing apparently in John's right hand but casting no shadow is a clock suspended from the speaker bracket.

But a couple more significant things abut AAT: in the past we’ve all become familiar with scientists talking enthusiastically, and sometimes fast, who seem perfectly happy with their style and all, but who maybe don’t expect to be accepted as part of the social norm except as a geeky eccentric. I might mention Magnus Pyke; I might mention Patrick Moore. AAT speakers however seem to expect to be accepted as totally “cool”. They also assume emotional landscape – ‘relief’ in the sense of hills and vales – is now fine for science. The standard has been, say, the quite pleasant Susan Watts of BBC Newsnight, whence nary a smile slips out for fear of ruining one’s scientific integrity; but it’s been widely believed for decades now that intellect requires emotion. (In humans, probably, but not necessarily in principle, though a reasonable amount is of course really useful for speaking effectively.)

I learned at the lecture that as well as being master of his subject, Hawks is a presentation supremo. His slides are structured in a kind of 2-D layout like goodies on a picnic spread. He can zoom out to see the whole lot, and then zoom back in to select one. [Update: it’s Prezi.] He fully expects to roam freely around his material, and he’s clearly au fait with computing technology for all aspects of his job (though his blog-followers knew that already). He sometimes allows himself the conceit of hiding his computer controller in his fist with his arms folded and appearing to change slides by pure mind control (as I’ve always intended to do when I’ve got the tech. working!). I’d like to know how he implements the picnic method. For him, as we learned even more last week, the medium, and indeed blasting out a message, are large parts of the message.

On to the material – and he does claim each presentation contains new news. We won’t be surprised to hear he’s had his genome scanned, and checked it himself. We’ve known for a year of two now that non-Africans have some Neanderthal ancestry, and John was able to announce that the androgen receptor (it’s on the X chromsome) he carries, is the Neanderthal version. He said he wondered if this had anything to do with hair loss, but anyone who remembers the admittedly razor-assisted Tee Hee from the Live and Let Die film will doubt whether Neanderthals are totally to blame for baldness.

Paydirt: The extended family cannibalised at El Sidrón NW Spain (50kya, so not our fault 🙂 ) had closely related males but the females seemed less closely related [JJ: squaring with some results from elsewhere suggesting modern human females can disperse faster than males].

They grew a bit faster than us, but then 2/3 of males died before 30. The many different fractures they survived [they must have used splints] uncannily resembled the frequencies shown by rodeo riders. [JJ: This is from Berger & Trinkaus (95) but still interesting. Neanderthals mainly differed in having more broken legs, presumably because when you fall off something you you’re less likely to break your leg than when it charges you with its head down. I guess they must have used splints but none of them appear to have survived a snap through the middle of the femur, which 80% (including my great-grandfather after his encounter with a taxi on New Year’s Eve 1914) died from prior to the invention of traction splints a couple of years later.] They sometimes cut the big feathers off big birds of prey, as we used to, and presumably for the same purpose (hats rather than writing!). They also seemed to have used things that looked to me very much like bone needles but without holes: long thin T-shaped slivers of bone/antler.

According to mitochondria, Neanderthals diverged 460kya, and Denisovans 1mya. (I don’t always take mitochondrial results at face value, and this is an example of why. The full genome carries a very different message.)

Neanderthals have blood group type A and O. Their hyoid (throat) bone indicated talking, but throat simulations suggested highish pitch. Some Neanderthal tool/trinket material had been transported hundreds of miles.

On average 3% of modern people’s DNA if they’re outside Africa is Neanderthal, and an extra 5% of New Guinea and North Australian DNA is Denisovan. East African pygmies have 5% of their DNA from ancient ancestry of yet another origin as yet unidentified [JJ: and which perhaps never will be pinned to DNA from an ancient skeleton since DNA of e.g. Denisovan age might not survive well in African heat.] The average temperature in the Denisovan cave today is 0ºC, and the rock strata there is fairly vertical so there are few caves in the area. [JJ: That area is to be found by going to the place where Russia, China, Kazakhstan and Mongolia all nearly meet. You know the place I’m talking about I’m sure (-: . Then travel approximately the same distance and direction as London to Glasgow. Or alternatively, follow the great circle from Lake Erie to London, and then continue along the same distance again.]

John’s host was Prof. Mark Pallen, who has a great Youtube talk etc on recent Neanderthal/Denisovan etc. stuff found via his blog page.

At the end there was only time for one question. I waited to see if anyone else wanted to say anything – for about 1.2 seconds – and then put my hand up. On the trip up I had prepared a tricky Socratic sequence to highlight one of the errors I’d spotted in John’s blog entries… but in the event I just asked him if he really thought the pert little nose he’d given the Neanderthal boy on his blog banner was realistic. I’d seen a TV programme reconstructing an iron age or early Roman lady’s face, the top of whose nose bone, just before it vanished into cartilage, was practically horizontal. In the reconstruction she ended up with a nose like a woodpecker. If that nasal bone angle indicated a projecting nose as those reconstructers clearly thought, and the nose hole indicated bulk, then I’d have expected something a bit more out of the ordinary for any Neanderthal. John’s answer was a lot longer and more complicated than I’d expected, and basically said there’s lots we don’t know about how heat exchange happens within the nose. But I wasn’t convinced (-: .

I’ve had enough experience with internet communication to convince myself that academic communication works better by email etc. As I shook hands on meeting him I felt he was too pleasant for us to have any really useful discussions face to face. I also knew from his reaction, or lack of it, that he has yet to appreciate the full impact of the sciencepolice-14 rules. Watch this space (or the space just above!).

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