No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

Singing Neanderthals and Poetic Cockroaches

One of the dead-tree newspapers I walked past on my lunch strut had a headling: "Dieting on a Budget" I was thinking that some enterprising Ethiopian or Bangladeshi could make a lot of money writing a diet book for the current economy. "My people have thousands of years of real-world experience at losing weight during lean financial times. I will unveil our time-honored secrets that will help you lose more while spending less." Maybe a catchy name, like the Marasmus Diet (The Marasmus Diet is a lot more supermodel-esque than, say, the Kwashiorkor Diet).

The Singing Neaderthals was a bit of a disappointment. I was hoping for more about the origins of music, but the book is primarily about the anthropology of early man; certainly with a focus on language and communication. But since sounds doesn't fossilize well, there's not much to go by. So there's a great deal of stuff that could be accurately described as evolutionary just-so stories. They may be plausible; they may even be right, but this is still not as meaty as I'd hoped. Also, any book entitled the Singing Neanderthals in which Neanderthals don't show up until p.221 (of 278) is a bit of a let-down. Oh, and endnotes? Just stop that.
My other main beef with the book is that it reads very much like an academic squabble being carried out in scholarship (or popular scholarship). Steven Pinker disparaged music as "auditory cheesecake" (pleasurable because it coopts structures evolved for other purposes, but not really inherently good for you (in the evolutionary sense)). Mithen uses this book to reply to that. There also seems to be an acrimonious debate on the origin of language -- whether it came about from simple words being strung together from the bottom up, or whether it emerged from more holistic utterances (not composed of words) that ultimately gave rise to words from the top down. For instance, when a holwer monkey goes "MOOP-MOOP", the received message is not really "hawk-hawk" but "get under cover and look up in the sky for a death-bird someone noted".
Anyway, here are some interesting bits of research. Researchers have studied the difference between IDS (infant-directed speech) and PDS (pet-directed speech). Although there are similarities between IDS and PDS (e.g. sing-songiness in prosody, as compared to adult-directed speech), there was one notable difference. In IDS, people tend to hyperarticulate their vowels, but they do not do this when speaking to pets. It may be that some of the prosodic changes are meant to influence emotion or behavior (and can be used on both infants and pets), but vowel hyperarticulation is intended only to teach language (and we intuitively know this would be wasted on pets). Further research disclosed no noticable differences between dog-directed speech and cat-directed speech.
The other neat thing I recall was the sexy handaxe theory. Handaxes are certainly nice stone tools, and evidently some have been found of such a size that their utility as tools is questionable. Also early hominids and homos made a freaking bunch of these things, and many are found with minimal use. This suggests that they may have been analogues of peacock tails or red sports cars. When the BCE 154,642 model-year handaxes are in, you can't be seen with a BCE 154,643 model-year handaxe. (There is also an open question about whether males or females or both manufactured handaxes)

I also rereread the poems of archy, as discovered by his 'boss', Don Marquis. Archy the cockroach would laboriously hurl himself against the keys of the Remington to compose his poetry. Sadly, the insect was unable to work the shift lever with any facility, and generally dispensed with punctuation. It's also interesting that many of the illustrations were done by George Herriman, creator of Krazy Kat. Anyway, it's charming stuff and modern in an 80 years ago sort of way. A little of archy for you:

the longer i live the more i
realize that everything is
relative even morality is
relative things you would not do
sometimes you would do other
times for instance i would not consider
it honorable in me as a
righteous cockroach to crawl into a
near sighted man s soup that
man would not have a sporting chance but
with a man with ordinarily good eye
sight i should say it was
up to him to watch his soup himself and
yet if i was very tired and hungry
i would crawl into even a near
sighted man s soup knowing all the
time it was wrong and my necessity would
keep me from reproaching myself too
bitterly afterwards ...

A longer selection, though (if you ask me) you can stop at the lovely phrase "the haunted woodland of my midriff": The Robin and the Worm
(more here)
Tags: book, music, news, poetry

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