the new ussr illustrated

welcome to the Urbane Society for Skeptical Romantics, where pretentiousness is as common as muck

night flight to Dubai

leave a comment »

imageIf you’ve come here looking for Bondesque hijinks click off now. The plane was a Boeing 777, with I think 10 passengers abreast, 3x4x3 with 2 aisles. I take this from Dr Google as much as from unreliable memory, there are apparently many ways of fitting out a 777. Our seating was on the left side facing forward, my TC had the aisle seat, I took the centre, and the window seat was taken up by a late-comer, who thus dashed our hopes of moving up one and gazing into the outer dark. This gangly young Englishman’s trials in clambering over and around us to get to his seat were a promise of discomfort to come.

It was a 14-hour flight to Dubai, starting at around 2200 but due to time zones and date-lines etc we’d be arriving at 0530 the next morning. As mentioned, I’ve had plenty of advice about pills or treatments for whatever might ail me on the flight but in truth I prefer remaining unmedicated as far as possible, and in my sixtieth year I’m pretty well drug-free, if you except life’s absolutely necessary pleasures, caffeine and alcohol, and I’m ever alarmed by and resistant to the collections of meds many of my peers feel forced to take against Alzheimer’s, anaemia, angina, anxiety, apnoeia, arthritis and let’s not get started on the rest of the alphabet. So all I took was some nasal spray and chewing gum as a defence against ‘plane brain’, aka aerosinusitis, and this worked a treat.

I didn’t sleep a wink in those 14 hours, though my reliable but argumentative TC insisted I had some winks, possibly as many as 40. Of course I was wide awake as I could possibly be for the take-off, but I mustn’t exaggerate my terror, it was nothing compared to the Mad Mouse. What made sleep impossible was the discomfort, the novelty and the anticipation, a mèlange of unbeatable distractions. My window-side neighbour was asleep within minutes of take-off, which didn’t stop him jabbing and kicking me when he shifted positions. There was a dearth of space between me and the seats in front and I felt timid about leaning my seat back too far. As time went by I became obsessed with my legs, which didn’t have room to straighten. I tried pushing my arse right back in the seat, I raised it up awkwardly, but just couldn’t get my angles right. My TC on seeing me squirm suggested I take some exercise in the aisle, as per the advice of all experts, but I perversely refused such an easy solution, and didn’t leave my seat until just before touch-down. Which turned out to be one of the highlights of the flight – possibly the longest pee in my peeing career.

Of course it’s hard to look back over so many years of peeing and pick out some, or any, of the great ones, and in any case peeing is such a subjective thing. For example, we’ve all experienced the agony of desperately needing a pee but being nowhere near a publicly sanctioned pee-place. In such circs your distressed state will disable you from conducting pee-stream studies of any kind; the last thing on your mind will be your PB in this activity. I’d go so far as to say that the physical release, the sense of near-weightless joy caused by these outpourings has been probably my most spiritual/religious experience. A true feeling of Salvation, as far from mere bean- or pee-counting as can be had.

Anyway what was intriguing about this mighty slash after 13 hours or so of being plied – necessarily, given the arid aircraft atmosphere – with coffee, fruit juice, and more pure unadulterated water (my least fave drink) than I usually consume in a month, was that, until my legs finally communicated to me that they really had to be stretched, I felt no great urge to relieve myself. Even after several minutes of quite exhilarating straightening and muscle-rubbing in the aisle, my loo visit seemed more after-thoughtful than necessary, so I was in a kind of neutral, clear-headed state when I observed my pee go on and on, leading me to thoughts of PBs and such. If it wasn’t my longest ever, was it in my top 10 (or top 5 if it was in the top half of the 10)? How could I tell? Clearly there is one pee I’ve had in my life that is my longest. Is this in any sense important? Well, maybe. Interesting, certainly. Though on reflection it isn’t so much the longest but the largest by volume that’s important* (or merely interesting) for presumably sometimes the pee runs more feebly than at others; the valve, so to speak, being plus ou moins open – constricted or dilated due to the vagaries of the weather, state of health, age perhaps or even just state of mind. Maybe one day scientists will hatch a device to be implanted in the midriff to measure the highs and lows of pee-flow. Maybe they already have, it wouldn’t suprise me, the utility of such is clear. But it would also allow some champion to claim the Biggest Pee, another entry to add to the Guiness Book of Perhaps Not so Pointless Records. And as I sat back in my now more comfy seat readying myself for Dubai, I thought of another perhaps not so pointless PB that I might just have broken, in that at some point during this flight I may have reached a higher distance above sea-level than ever before. Now how could that be monitored in our monitor-loving age? But then again, sea levels rise and fall, so….

Dubai lights. We watched the perfect landing on the screen before us. The airport was pale in the breaking dawn and glittering with artificial light. There were planes everywhere. Already it was 28 degrees outside.


*Just as the Nile is the longest river but the Amazon is by far the largest by volume. The Amazon wins.


– The food was plentiful, varied and delicious IMHO, and the service was excellent, under sometimes difficult conditions.

– You need to see things from a baby’s perspective. As they’ve not yet developed sophisticated means of either conveying or receiving info, their instinct is to make as much noise as possible to make absolutely sure that others know they’re suffering horrendous agonies or experiencing the most frabjous joy. So nature has furnished them with the most impressive noise-making equipment for this purpose. It’s highly adaptive, another fine example of evolution at work. Ear plugs next time, though simple perspective taking can be sufficient.

– Not having a tech-savvy 13-y-o as my TC it took most of the flight to work out the functioning of the on-board entertainment (the first 2 hours just to get the headphones plugged in and operational). The movies were mostly boorish but I found one, Carol, based on a Patricia Highsmith novel I actually read some 20 years ago, a book/film about longing, desire and hope, regardless of sexual preference really, very much the sort of thing I’m drawn to. Reminds me of my fave Jane Austen novel, Persuasion. Highly recommended – I got teary. Fine performances by Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Also recalls to my mind my fave line from the KJ Bible, perhaps my fave line in all litt: ‘Hope deferred makes the heart sick’.

Couldn’t settle to anything else much, though I did find a silly thriller very much starring Olga Kurylenko, the Most Beautiful Woman Who Has Ever Lived according to my ever-changing judgment (OK is always more than OK, I like to say), but not even her loveliness and her formidable ball-breaking superhero role could force me to see the shamefully silly shenanigans to the end. Better to watch L’Annulaire again, and again.

– Aerosinusitis. I did feel a painful buid-up after take-off but then came a sudden but sort of slow uncorking and brightening of sound, rather pleasurable, and I had no further problems on the outbound flights.


Une presence francaise at Dubai airport

Une presence francaise at Dubai airport



Written by stewart henderson

May 2, 2016 at 12:13 pm

final remarks preliminary to a voyage, part 2

leave a comment »

This photo anticipates, but it intoduces my illustrious Travelling Companion, who hardly needs any introduction,  here at Dubai Airport

This photo anticipates, but it intoduces my illustrious Travelling Companion, who hardly needs any introduction, here at Dubai Airport

We arrived at the airport unfashionably but sensibly early, driven by a kindly friend of my TC, who has many kind friends quite prepared to let me tag along as my TC’s friend.

It wasn’t busy. En fait, as airports go, plus ou moins vide. Which was nice, frankly. We could check in our baggage before time came when we’d actually have to queue.

As mentioned our flight was with Emirates, in association with Qantas. I feel unnerved by these Middle-Eastern-Arabic cultures with their male superiority BS and their nonalcoholic antifun holier-than-thouness, and I had imaginings of semi-veiled, infantilised, under-the-pump air stewards failing to perform their modest duties, all of which I knew was molto-ridiculous, having taught a few feisty Iraqi and Arabic mothers in my time. I also had visions of Dubai airport, our stopover, as awash with tall white-robed mullahs disdainfully observing our decadence from under their sanctified headgear. Strange, smug, scared phantasies….

Baggage processing was a breeze. Of the Emirates-uniformed staff that ushered and dealt with us there was a dark-skinned male, probably Indian, and two females, one probably Chinese, the other possibly Scandinavian, and I saw that it was good. The women wore vestigial hijabs, bits of white cloth dangling from the backs of their Emirates caps (and later, in flight, I noticed that many of them had shed even this vestige). I look forward to many correctives over this trip, experiential reshapings of vague fantastical ideas.

So the big luggage had scarily disappeared and we rambled on with our carry-ons, browsing and buying in the airport shops and looking out for eateries. Typically, we chose to calm our (or at least my) silently screaming nerves with doses of champagne. Then, to absorb the alcohol (we argued), we ordered a bowl of ‘phat chips’. They turned out to be reasonably fat, but were they in fact phat? I went into a little language dive; maybe phat is related to fat as phantasy is to fantasy? Or phact to fact? Ph words generally do have a cachet, as in physics, phenomena and pharmacology, unlike farmer, fart and fool….

My TC pulled me out of this phrolic by adverting to the tastiness of our phrites. ‘Have you noticed how soft they are to the tooth?’ In truth, I hadn’t. ‘I think they’re made from mashed potato!’ Sure enough, they seemed so to be… unless of course it was the more cacheted smashed potato…..

I lost myself in further labyrinths of language and style, luckily enough, until it was near time to bustle aboard with the finally sizeable crowd. Not a busy busy crowd though by any means. We were of the economy class, bien entendu, and had to wait until the best and second-best classes were settled in. I noticed too, with a kind of peculiar relish, that we were herded through the established better classes to the back of the bus, like ‘people of colour’ in former times and places. We were treated very nicely though.

Written by stewart henderson

April 27, 2016 at 1:57 pm

final remarks preliminary to a voyage, part 1

leave a comment »

Where in the world? At bustling Adelaide airport, surrounded by the usual well-wishers

Where in the world? At bustling Adelaide airport, surrounded by the usual well-wishers

I’ve been incommunicado for the last longest 24 hours of my life due to marathon (but OK common as muck for some) double hemispheral flights – north-south, east-west – and traveller net-availability issues, wholly predictable but probably eminently solvable if I had that ideal 13-y-o techwiz TC at my side, and I don’t mean to thus disparage my current uncommonly wise TC. But more of that enervation in due course, let me pick up the soi-disant story from my arrival at good old Adelaide airport.

Adelaide airport has been a rare destination and even rarer point of departure for me over the years. I’ve already described my first adult plane trip here, but didn’t focus much on the airport itself, and why would I as I’m fast learning that airports are generically unmemorable. No major disquisition on airport culture here, as if I could, just some vagrant impressions.
Just a couple of weeks ago my college colleagues were jokingly comparing Adelaide to the various city airports that they, as bona fide middle-class westerners of varied ethnic provenance, have processed through. They agreed that unlike other international airports, good old Adelaide airport is never busy, and they mean never busy busy. This is supposedly a stain on dear old Adelaide, this pretty little ornamental place that’s never choked with tourists or business conventioneers. I regularly feel stabbed to wounded pride for its putative dreariness, especially come festival time when over the past no less than 40 years now I’ve overheard chitchat among Big City visitors in which bright young things are informally instructed in sneering at small-city try-hardism by their smartarse seniors. Yet, take this, I just read somewhere that Adelaide is among the five most liveable cities in the world. Probably fifth. And that’s funny, I’ve no idea who makes these random pseudo-quantative studies but whenever I hear that Adelaide is one of the 10 or 50 or whatever best cities for xx (which I often hear) I always assume that it comes in 9th or 10th or 47th or 49th or something and I don’t know whether that’s just me following the fashion of putting Dear Old Adelaide down or me being quite rational, sort of. E.g., if DOA came 3rd on a list of 10 or 50 or 100 best x’s, you wouldn’t crow about it by saying ‘up yours, we’re in the top 100 cities for women over 75 sporting dreadlocks’, say. We’d surely boast ‘hey bro, toke on that, we’re in the top 5′, or ‘we is numero trio!’ Dang right. I would say that’s a top x rule in psychological statistics, if there is such a field, and dang right there is. If your city is in the upper half of a ‘top x statistical measure’, say 23rd out of 50, you must, for the purposes of most effective preening, divide the denominator [in this case 50] by the largest whole number [in this case 2] which provides a new denominator [in this case 25] that remains larger than the numerator [in ths case 23]. Only we’re not, sensu strictissimo, talking numerators and denominatora here… Am I being too pedantic?

Okay so I’ve run out of words and I’ve not even started on Adelaide airport yet (which would only take a sentence or two anyway). So at least I’ve arrived and I’m posting this from the lobby of the Mercure-Konica hotel, Budapest.

Written by stewart henderson

April 25, 2016 at 4:57 pm

More subsequent remarks preliminary to a voyage

leave a comment »

my officially incipient tache - a supposedly fun thing I'll never grow again

my officially incipient tache – a supposedly fun thing I’ll never grow again

So as flight-time draws nigh, it’s hard to describe my tangle of emotions. The first is dread that this is the end [litt ref 3.5, with apologies to the Doors]. I have a micro-fear of flying, and this’ll be the first long haul. I love embracing travellers’ lingo. We’re flying Emirates, stopping over at Dubai, but the thing is, we’re flying all night. I mean, how do the pilots see anything?

OK, I know it’s all ineffably hi-tech and the safest form of transport ever invented and night flights are pushbuttoningly routine, and Mick Jagger’s still alive and dancin after 10 zillion flights, but there have to be exceptions to prove rules perhaps, and when disasters do happen they’re always spectacular. I mean, you don’t get a dose of whiplash from a plane crash. They’re not called prangs. It’s, like, 279 dead, body parts spread over an xx-kilometre zone, so much for safety in numbers, and I’m wondering, as strangely-pathetically I often do, what will be the reaction to my passing…

But enough self-indulgence, I’ll be right on the night. Still the other emotions and stressors are pastel in comparison. In fact, actually, truthfully, the flight’s the only real issue. Money, la langue francaise, communications home, possible tensions with my TC, health concerns (not flu jabbed, tsk tsk), all mere nanothemes. I’m collecting gratis advice – take a KO dose of valium, get drunk, use nasal spray (done), chew gum (will do), sleep, get over it, enough self-indulgence.

The home I leave behind will be tenanted by a sweet young miss of whom I will say no more in the unlikely event that she reads this blog, and I must say I’ll miss the daily watched-kettle-not-boiling progress of the various building sites in my neighbourhood, with, as a neighbour pointed out, possibly lethally ambitious NYC names like the Bowery, the Beeline (or is it the Beehive?) and Park Central. Really. Cafés and R & R areas are proliferating and jackhammers and earth-pounding noise-makers are just starting to shape the projected City Square a few blocks away. How thrilling it’ll be to actually notice a difference come the end of May. I don’t feel at all cynical about it, as a relative newcomer to regular acceptable employment, a parvenu, a bourgeois – but not assez plat, to recall the slicing words of Stendhal [litt ref 4.5]. Besides, I’ve encountered a few of the occupants of the new medium density constructs sprouting around me (I mean sighted them, not met them) and mostly they look just as spivvy as myself. And the enviro-ideas shaping those buildings really are exciting, but I’m too excited – just about to be picked up and driven to the airport – to detail them now. I will survive [musical reference 1 – but then the Doors reference should really be a  musical reference not a half-litt reference – ok no more ref-mentions].

Written by stewart henderson

April 23, 2016 at 6:00 pm

remarks subsequent to my preliminary remarks preliminary to a voyage

with one comment

the modest vessel we may be travelling on - specially designed to resemble passing buildings

the modest vessel we may be travelling on – specially designed to resemble passing buildings

As might’ve been guessed, I’ll be maxing out on prétention française in this blog series, as soon I’ll be desecrating French soil for the première fois since gaining a degree in French Lang & Litt, aged 32, more than a standard generation ago. Just the other day I reached the end of my French duolingo app. I was horror-shocked, I thought it just lingoed on forever, but no they have no more to teach (BS really) and the only next step is immersion, supposedly.

The problem is, l have enough trouble speaking to people in my first language. I wouldn’t be surprised if l’ve spoken to myself (aloud) more than to the whole rest of humanity. The best conversations, selon Chekhov [literary ref 1]. My vocab’s pretty extensive, my reading’s well fluent but I have trouble stringing a speaking sentence together even in my head (l’m referring to French by the way), so l’m looking forward/not looking forward to the challenge of Paris.

But before that lies the riverboat cruise, and I’m prepping for it by rereading David Foster Wallace’s ‘a supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again’ [litt ref 2], which l first read when it came out 20 years ago and found almost inexplicably exciting, comparing it (in conversation with myself, aloud) to Shakespeare himself [litt ref 3] in its lingual liveliness.

‘a supposedly fun thing…’ was a piece of journalism Wallace wrote for Harper’s, reflections on a 7-day Carribean cruise in one of those floating wedding-cake-type vessels passengered almost entirely by obese middle-aged-to-elderly Americans and mainly owned-and-operated by those seafarers of long standing, Greeks and Scandinavians. I thought that rereading it now would happily reinforce my cynicism about such pleasure cruises, and also provide a rich scatter of points of comparison. What I’ve found is a darker side to his observations I hadn’t fully noted on first reading, but which Wallace’s suicide in 2008 has naturally primed my attention to. Here’s the clearest example:

There is something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive in its causes and simple in its effect: on board the Nadir – especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased – I felt despair. The word’s overused and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture – a weird yearning for death combined with the crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It’s maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling  of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.

These dark remarks, out of a clear Carribean sky, made for an unexpected turn in the narrative, but they forced my focus onto the saturnine aspects of the whole. Was the staff’s hierarchy really so aggressive? The pampering so relentless? The passengers so grotesque or pathetic? The cruise in general so despair-engendering?

Anyhow, Travel Marvel, the cruise company we’ll be sailing (deliciously al fresco word) with, is Australian-owned, a marvel in itself, so l’ll be expecting a more laid-back perfection. And though l may lack Wallace’s prose luminosity l may also lack his lugubriosity, for better or worse. Encore, on verra.

Silly postscript: While writing this and getting tired, I baulked at having to copy out the longish quote from Wallace (I type horribly), so I tried Siri, the not-so-hot Apple voice-recognition thingy. It did mostly OK with the occasional mangle, to be expected with oddities like ‘banalised’ and ‘gaiety-noise’, but there was one cackle-inducing clanger – ‘with the crushing sense of my own small nose’. Poor D F Wallace, rest in peace with no more crushing burdens large or small.

Written by stewart henderson

April 21, 2016 at 11:39 pm

preliminary remarks preliminary to a voyage

leave a comment »

follow the thick blue line

follow the thick blue line

I’ve been working desultorily on a number of blog pieces which I’m struggling to finish, partly because they’re hard work but also because the excitement and stress is building for my maiden voyage overseas, not counting my barely-brain-developed boat-trip to Australia from Southampton aged 5 – memories include a camel train on the banks of the Suez, being rescued from drowning in the ship’s pool, and being befriended by an older kid which mainly involved being chased around the decks a lot. So from this day forth I’m devoting this blog to the trip, lots of short sharp and shiny shite, around 500 words daily, though I’m unlikely to keep to that limit, seriously.

So I’m not yet packed and wondering about the Aus$ which they say is rising and that’s good for OS travel. I’ve been described – though only by one person, my travelling companion – as a Scottish mothpurse and my main stressor is definitely $$$$ – sadly I don’t have the symbol for euros on my keyboard. I think the recent rise means cheapie flights but ours was paid-for long ago. The current Aus$ buys .68 in euros and I’ve no idea whether that’s good or bad or better than it was, whenever was was. Anyhow nothing to be done so let’s change the subject to my moustache. I thought it’d be a fine frivolity to grow one for the trip, something Frenchy and chic and daft, but after about four days’ growth it’s looking more Hitler than Charles Boyer, who was too chic to sport a tache anyway, and besides I’ve never liked them. At least my hair’s grown salt’n pepper with age, and seriously short on pepper, so it’ll be prominent as frost on a silver dust bush, and a change is as good as a haircut so I’ll leave it growing for now.

I’m at the frantically seeking advice stage. Got my first-ever passport – had to become an Australian citizen, which made me feel like a fraud come congratulations time – money-belt, international connector thingy. Downloaded Skype for myself and my travelling companion (though I won’t be using it, having no friends and family), had it explained to me that Messenger through Facebook is the cheapest form of communication – would desperately love to have an extra TC, aged about 13, to keep me straight on smartphone technostuff etc. Told to wear stockings on the flight, against DVT, which I may not, and have found hopefully the right advice against aerosynusitis, aka plane brain, which had me folded over my seatbelt on a recent flight to Melbourne. Still have to photocopy my passport, do some house-cleaning and catfood-buying for my house-sitter, and other things I can’t remember. My mind’s blanking out unpredictably so I’m sure to stuff something majorly up, but my TC’s coming over tomorrow to help with the packing and share the stress.

Okay the itinerary. A 14-day cruise or thereabouts down the Danube-Main-Rhine from Budapest to Amsterdam, after which a two-night stopover and then a train to Paris for a week’s stay on the île Saint-Louis, the walls of our cosy pied-à-terre lapped by the Seine, plus ou moins. Then down the tunnel and two nights in once-swinging London, and then, hurly-burly done, back to the serenity and quiet contemplation of home. On verra.

Written by stewart henderson

April 21, 2016 at 7:44 am

Posted in blogging, curiosity, Europe, technology, writing

Tagged with

why are our brains shrinking?

leave a comment »

my own brain, squeezed of alcohol

my own brain, squeezed of alcohol

Jacinta: So you know that the average human brain mass, or is it volume, has reduced by  – is it 15%, I can’t remember – over the past 20,000 years or so, right? And there’s this theory that it’s somehow related to domestication, because the same thing has happened to domesticated animals…

Canto: How so..?

Jacinta: Well, we don’t know how so, we just know it’s happened.

Canto: How do we know this? Who says?

Jacinta: Well I’ve heard about it from a few sources but most recently from Bruce Hood, the well-known psychologist and skeptic who was talking on the SGU about a recent book of his, The Domesticated Brain. 

Canto: So the idea is that humans have somehow domesticated themselves, in the same way that they’ve domesticated other species, with a corresponding decrease in brain mass in all these species, which signifies – what?

Jacinta: Well it raises questions, dunnit? What’s going on?

Canto: It doesn’t signify dumbing down though – I read in Pinker’s big book about our better angels that our average IQ is rising in quite regular and exemplary fashion.

Jacinta: Yes, the Flynn effect. Though of course what IQ measures has always been controversial. And they do reckon size isn’t the main thing. I mean look at all those small critters that display so many smarts. For example, rats, octopuses and corvids (that’s to say crows, ravens and some magpies). They all seem to be fast learners, within their limited spheres, and very adaptable. But getting back to the human brain, it seems to be something known mainly to palaeontologists, who have a variety of theories about it, including the ‘we’re getting dumber’ theory, but I’m not convinced by that one. It seems more likely that our brains are getting more organised, requiring less mass.

Canto: So this has happened only in the last 20,000 years?

Jacinta: Or perhaps even less – between 10 and 20 thousand.

Canto: Isn’t that a phenomenally short time for such a substantial change?

Jacinta: I really don’t know. They say it might be partly related to a decrease in overall body size, so that the brain to body ratio remains much the same.

Canto: A decrease in body size? What about the obesity epidemic? And I remember way back when I was a kid reading about how we’d been getting taller with each generation since the Great Depression – or was it the Industrial Revolution? Anyway our improved diet, our era of relative abundance, has led to a change in height, and presumably in mass, in only a few generations.

Jacinta: So now you’re saying that substantial changes can occur in a few generations, let alone 10,000 years?

Canto: Uhhh, yeah, okay, but I wasn’t talking about brain size.

Jacinta: Well why not brain size? Anyway, although there have been those recent changes, at least in the west, the story goes that the planet has warmed since the last ice age, favouring less bulky bodies, less fat storage, more gracile frames.

Canto: So what about domestication, why has this led to decreased brain sizes?

Jacinta: Well this is very complex of course…

Canto: I can think of a reason, though it might not be called domestication, more like socialisation, and outsourcing. You can see it in very recent times, with smart phones – it’s even become an already-stale joke, you know phones are getting smarter so we’re getting dumber. But then we always tend to exaggerate the short-term and the present against the longer view. And yet…. I was on the tram the other night, sitting across from this couple, locked into their phone screens, I mean really locked in, earplugs attached, heads bent, utterly fixated on their little screens, completely oblivious, of each other as well as of the outside world. I was reading a book myself, but I became distracted by my irritation with these characters, while wondering why I should be irritated. It just went on so long, this locked-in state. I leaned forward. I waved my hand in front of their bowed heads. I wanted to tell them that the tram had rattled past all the stations and was heading out to sea…

Jacinta: There are some problems with the whole argument. How do we know that domesticated animals have smaller brains? Domesticated cats have a wide range of brain sizes no doubt, but what wild cats are you comparing them with? Even more so with dogs and their immense varieties. Okay they’re descended from wolves so you compare a wolf brain with its modern doggy-wolfy counterpart, but who’s going to agree on type specimens?

Canto: So you brought the subject up just to dismiss it as a load of rubbish?

Jacinta: Well if we shelve the domestication hypothesis for the moment – I’m not dismissing it entirely – we might consider other reasons why human brains are shrinking – if they are.

Canto: So you’re not convinced that they are?

Jacinta: Well let’s be sceptical until we find some solid evidence. In this Scientific American site, from November 2014, palaeontologist Chris Stringer states that ‘skeletal evidence from every inhabited continent’ suggests – only suggests – that our brains have become smaller in the past 10 to 20 thousand years. No references are given, but the article assumes this is a fact. This piece from Discovery channel or something, which dates back to 2010, relies in part on the work of another palaeontologist, John Hawks, whose website we link to here. Hawks also talks about a bucketload of evidence, but again no references. The original research papers would likely be behind a paywall anyway, and barely intelligible to my dilettante brain….

Canto: Your diminishing brain.

Jacinta: Okay I’m prepared to believe Hawks about our incredible shrinking brains, but is domestication the cause, and what exactly is domestication anyway? Hawks doesn’t go with the domestication hypothesis. In fact the Discovery article usefully covers a number of alternative hypotheses, and of course the shrinking may be due to a combo. In fact that’s more than likely.

Canto: So what’s Hawks’ hypothesis, since we’re supposedly admirers of his?

Jacinta: Well Hawks decided to look more closely at this brain contraction – which is interesting because I was thinking along the same lines as he was, i.e. has it been a uniform contraction, or was there a sudden, quick development, followed by a stagnant period, as you would expect?

Canto: Anyway isn’t brain organisation more important than brain mass? Sorry to interrupt, but haven’t we already established that?

Jacinta: We haven’t established anything, we’re just effing dilettantes remember. Hawks started looking at more recent data, over the past 4000 years or so, to see if he could detect any difference in the encephalisation quotient (EQ) – the ratio of brain volume to body mass – over that time. He found that indeed there has. The picture is complicated, but overall there has been a reduction in the brain compared to the body. His explanation for this though is quite different. He reckons that a series of mutations over recent history have resulted in the brain producing more out of less…

Canto: Right, just as a series of modifications have allowed us to produce smaller but more powerful and fuel-efficient cars.

Jacinta: Uhh, yeah, something like that.

Canto: But we know what those modifications were, we can name them. Can we name the mutations?

Jacinta: Clever question, but we know about cars, we built them and they’ve only been around for a bit more than a century. We know vastly less about the brain and we’re still getting our heads around natural selection, give us a break. Hawks points out that it’s a rule about population genetics well-known in principle to Darwin, that the larger the population the more numerous the mutations, and there was a surge in the human population back when agriculture was developed and large settlements began to form. So a number of brain-related mutations led to streamlining and, as you suggest, fuel efficiency.

Canto: But isn’t this compatible with the domestication hypothesis? I imagine that, if there really is a brain reduction for domesticated animals, it’s because they don’t have to rely on their brains so much for survival, and we don’t either, the collective has sort of magically taken care of it through farming and infrastructure and supermarkets.

Jacinta: Yes but they all have their own complicated networks and issues we have to wrap our brains around. The domestication hypothesis is really about aggression apparently. The argument goes that all animals under domestication become more varied in size, coloration and general build, with a tendency to become more gracile over all. Selection against aggression, according to the primatologist Richard Wrangham, favours a slowly developing brain – one that is, in a sense, in a perpetually juvenile state (think of cute cat and dog videos). Of course, all this assumes that juvenile brains are less aggressive than adult brains, which some might see as a dubious assumption.

Canto: Yes, think of school bullying, Lord of the Flies, youth gangs, the adolescent tendency to extremes…

Jacinta: Well, both Wrangham and Hood offer a particularly interesting example of ‘super-fast’ domestication to illustrate their hypothesis:

In 1958 the Russian geneticist Dmitri Belyaev started raising silver foxes in captivity, initially selecting to breed only the animals that were the slowest to snarl when a human approached their cage. After about 12 generations, the animals evidenced the first appearance of physical traits associated with domestication, notably a white patch on the forehead. Their tameness increased over time, and a few generations later they were much more like domesticated dogs. They had developed smaller skeletons, white spots on their fur, floppy ears, and curlier tails; their craniums had also changed shape, resulting in less sexual dimorphism, and they had lower levels of aggression overall.

Now, how does this relate to juvenilism? Well, in the wild, offspring grow up quickly and have to fend for themselves, which requires a certain ruthless degree of aggression. Cats and dogs, yes, they abandon their offspring soon enough, but those offspring continue to be tutored, tamed, domesticated under their human owners. We hear a lot about school bullying and gangs of youths, but they’re actually the exception rather than the rule, or a last ditch rebellion against the domestication pressure that’s exerted by the whole of society, and they’ll either succumb to that pressure or end up in jail, or worse. It’s a bit like the Freudian concept of sublimation, you channel your aggressive energies into creativity, competitive problem-solving, sports achievements and the like.

Canto: So you’re in favour of the domestication hypothesis?

Jacinta: Well, I’m not against it. It sounds plausible to me. Human domestication, or self-domestication if you want to call it that, is a social-contract sort of thing. You agree to outsource and comply with certain arrangements – laws, government, taxation and so forth, in return for certain benefits in terms of security and resources. So you don’t have to fend for yourself. And that affects the brain, obviously. Though it might not be the whole story.

Written by stewart henderson

April 15, 2016 at 8:42 am


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 229 other followers