A new prehistoric find from Dmanisi, Republic of Georgia is changing the scientific story of human evolution. Weeks ago a team of archaeologists unearthed an extremely well-preserved skull that does not seem to fit with accepted chronology. If you have seen any articles on this new discovery, you may have read descriptions like “rewriting”, “disarray”, or “throwing a wrench into evolution.” It seems as though every time there is an interesting new scientific discovery, the media plays up the information for its own entertainment purposes. Stories about this type of news often promote the misconception that science switches around all the time, and is constantly in danger of being wrong about things we all “believe” to be true. Obviously there are unreasonable people, religious fundamentalists and New-Age dissenters mostly, who actively present these cases as a sweeping indictments of science. But many people who may only have a fringe interest can unintentionally come away with the same idea due to entertainment bias. We can learn plenty from the media’s portrayal of this recent evolutionary discovery, and the way it affects the public’s thinking about science.
Surprisingly it was an article about this discovery, written by a qualified scientist, which got me thinking about the problem. Ian Sample of The Guardian, who has a PhD in bio-medical materials, described the discovery as “throwing human evolution into disarray” in the title of his news article. However, after reading his analysis and placing it into the context of evolutionary history, that verbiage seems unwarranted. I am not saying that the find is not hugely important, it is. But the word disarray implies that the study of evolution is suddenly in a crisis where everything has to be rethought. I can already see the right-wing fundamentalists crying out in vain, “See look! They don’t even know their own facts!” It seems obvious after reading the piece that Sample understands the importance of the skull, but his title does not convey that. I understand his choice of words, and the necessity of captivating your audience with a title, but the media does this all the time, often to an unfortunate end.
There was another recent example of this distortion when the team at CERN in Switzerland proved the existence of the Higgs Boson. The Higgs Particle was not revealed publically as an interesting and crucial piece of the quantum psychical model, it was headlined simply as the “God Particle” (cue dramatic music). Cut to six months later, no one remembers the discovery of poor old Peter Higgs and the scientists at CERN, besides the Nobel committee that is. I think a major reason for that is because many journalists that wrote about the discovery presented it incorrectly. They told the world that this discovery was going to unwind our perception of reality and change everything, which of course is an unfair hyperbole. If the people in charge of presenting this information had taken the time to explain its importance to how we understand matter and space, then perhaps people would still be talking about it. Instead we were just given an arbitrarily interesting title.
It seems as though this problem of sensationalist reporting is again resurfacing with the Dmanisi find. In truth, the discovery does not undo the work of an entire field of study as many have implied, but it does force a reevaluation of human ancestry.
The accepted model of human evolution (before this discovery) was based upon the understanding that different groups and species of human-like individuals (hominids) emigrated out of Africa from a common ancestor at different times and to different locations in Europe and Asia. Some of these hominids were shorter and stockier with specific teeth, while others were slight and lanky with different types of fur. The problem is that the only way we can differentiate between these species is by identifying subtly specific differences in bones from a small number of skeletons. In many cases the entire basis for a species model is based upon just a few bone specimens. This new skull means that we have a new place and time for when ancestral hominids made their way into Europe. This means that we can better understand how and why pre-humans moved out of Africa.
If we look at a one individual case, we can understand the uncertain nature of studying our prehistory. Giganthopithecus, a hominid that many people associate with Bigfoot, is only believed to have existed because of tooth and mandible fragments, nothing more. If you take the time to study these specimens based upon just their bones, you come away with an appropriately uncertain perspective of human evolution as a science. No one who understands this period in human prehistory believes that we know everything, or even that what we know is completely correct. There are gaps in the model that we haven’t filled in because there simply are no fossils, so we have to do the best we can with what we know. This is why there is still so much debate going on in the field; people disagree on what they see. Just like ideas of dark energy and dark matter are still misunderstood in the field of physics, human evolution is (pardon the wordplay) an evolving field. We don’t need to question all of the study that has been done before this find, we only have to use the information to reassess the huge number of facts that we already know. To say that the find is causing disarray is just an appeal to our desires, it misleads our perspective.
When you tell someone that this discovery is throwing a wrench into evolution, you are just playing up the information for entertainment value. I understand that we want the catching title that will make everyone think, but I don’t think we should sacrifice information in order to do it. This is part of an epidemic in modern media where all we focus on is shock-value and shallow miss-attributions that play on our desires. Science doesn’t work that way. It should not have to work that way. It’s not that this new discovery isn’t exciting and doesn’t warrant plenty of attention, it surely does — but it deserves attention along with perspective, like everything else.
There are those of us that look at the world with a welcome uncertainty. For open-minded people, the time we are gifted by the universe is a winding river that should be dove into and explored. Others among us cling to their existence like a frightened child clasps its mother. We all know people like this, they shun pleasant understanding and empathy with intentional rigor, and go about their time locking themselves deeper into a box. These are boxes that are outlined by irreproachable notions and conditioned perspectives. People who shun self-exploration and introspective experience may be a burden to progressive society, but ultimately they are harming themselves. I would like to give them an option to step outside of their box.
For all intents and purposes, the psychedelic experience is the archenemy of the constricted self. Whether you achieve this perspective by meditation, lucid dreaming, yoga, or entheogens, it comes with the intention of releasing you from rigidly enforced perspectives. That sounds enlightening to many of us, but the unfortunate truth is that it is genuinely terrifying. People should take steps towards this kind of de-filtering incrementally, because it can be pernicious. A recent experience of my own has prompted me with an important segway into this experience, especially for people who actively or subconsciously restrain themselves from an uninhibited perspective. It was during my most recent lucid dream that I began to think about what self-exploration really means, and how we can go about it.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with lucid dreaming, it is exactly what it sounds like. You are in a dream, and sometimes an occurrence will prompt you with the understanding of your state, but this is difficult to do, and dreams are obviously difficult to remember. Many people are able to do this on their own, for others it takes sincere amounts of practice. My experience with lucid dreaming has been a mixed bag of both success and futility. The LD state comes and goes, sometimes strong and sometimes fleeting. But on my most recent journey, the psychedelic nature of lucid dreaming really hit me hard. Upon entering the LD, I looked around my house, and decided to try some meditation. I scanned the area and performed some impossible jumps and flips to make sure that I was dreaming, and then sat down calmly and began to chant. Focusing my vision on my hand, I let a slow wave of “Ram-Ram-Ram” flow from my mouth. Immediately the experience struck me as something profound, something that I had never understood.
Here I was, sitting in an identical psychological reconstruction of my house, meditating while my physical body lies asleep. Everything around me seems entirely real, I can feel the vibrations of my voice so viscerally that after awaking I have to ask someone if I was actually talking in my sleep…how could I not be? My profound realization was in the totality of the experience. My mind, all of our minds in fact, have the capability of completely reproducing our environments and experiences while placing us inside of them. Dreams are so fleeting and impossible to remember that the ridiculousness of this fact rarely hits some of us, but it is very different when you understand completely what is happening with a waking mind. I think that if people were able to feel what I felt, even for just a few seconds, they would be irrevocably changed. It doesn’t make any sense to judge people, get angry about trivialities, and resent the world around you after spending time walking around in your own head while you are sleeping. The fact that this type of an introspective trip is even possible means that humanity can move forward. Our minds are capable of far more than we know, or possibly even can know. I for one would like to dig a little deeper.
In Riverside County California lies the “Gold Base” compound of the Church of Scientology. It is believed that on this compound a dark and shady building exists known only as “The Hole,” where dozens of high-ranking Scientology executives have been imprisoned against their will. Executives were sent to “The Hole” at the request of church leader David Miscavige when they reportedly, “fell out of his favor.” Debbie Cook, who testified under oath to these events, remembers being forcefully taken against her will while on the phone with Miscavige. Her account of “The Hole” was quickly dismissed by church officials as nonsense, but the dark mark still exists on the face of an already questionable religion.
“The Hole” is described by Cook to be a dark, dingy, hot, and filthy building where those imprisoned were forced into an odd display of public confessions. Cook remembers her own experience where she recalls being forced to stand in a trash can while being verbally, physically, and emotionally abused into confessing to being a homosexual. This type of cross-examination was commonplace for “The Hole,” and verbal confrontations often turned physical. Religious fervor has always existed, and has been the driving force for countless violent outbreaks in history. This is not to say that Scientology is laying the foundation for a proverbial “witch-hunt,” but they seem to aggressively pursue any of their own members Miscavige has deemed a threat. In 2009, several ex-members of the church who were held in ”The Hole” spoke with members of the human trafficking and abuse department of the FBI. The case had numerous sworn testimonies yet died relatively quickly in 2010. The church continues to deny that any investigation took place.
This past weekend I took to my local tavern for a few fall pints, some stale popcorn, and obligatory college football. It was here that I was privileged to meet a recently retired U.S. Marine who had served in both of our well-known foreign conflicts as well as several other operations scarcely reported. If you have shared a similar experience, you may know it is not easy to broach the topic of a combat veteran’s past, but a few beers often make some of us courageous (or foolish) enough to ask. My unnamed companion skirted the serious details, but mentioned a topic I had seen recently—the United States usage, and repeated denial, of depleted uranium rounds in both Afghanistan and Iraq. As our conflict with Iraq was started under the guise of hunting for supposed weapons of mass destruction, it seems rather hypocritical for the US to be using weapons that are so cruel.
Even those without an in depth understanding of the Iraq War might recognize the hotly contested city of Fallujah. It was here that the United States heavily used depleted uranium rounds against armored vehicles, tanks, and enemy occupied structures. The devastation to the city was immense, and the subsequent clean up effort exposed several failures by the US military. After the fighting ceased, the rubble was bulldozed into the nearby Euphrates river—an important source of drinking water and resources for the inhabitants there. It wasn’t until some years later that the detrimental effects of this practice surfaced in hospitals and infant wards. A BBC correspondent reported, “children born with multiple heads; others, paralyzed, seriously brain damaged, missing limbs, and with extra fingers and toes.” The sheer number of deformities grew so high that health officials in Fallujah specifically told women not to have children. The consequences of our weapon decisions echo that of Agent Orange in Vietnam and atomic bombs in Japan—and represent another dark stain on the military efforts of the United States. With our continued denial of the after effects of our involvement, the resentment for US troops becomes more evident. We are growing exceedingly hypocritical of our condemnation of weapons of mass destruction, as the lifelong consequences of our own weapons is just coming to light.