Southgate Tube Station

One of the most notable of the many tube stations designed for the London Underground by Charles Holden, Southgate Tube Station opened in 1933. It is now a Grade II listed building and retains much of its original appearance.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

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Alexandra Palace transmission mast

The BBC began transmitting from Alexandra Palace in 1936. Transmissions were interrupted by the war with the closedown occurring in the middle of a Mickey Mouse cartoon. During the war, the transmitter was used to jam the radio navigation system used by the Luftwaffe (a forerunner of GPS). TV transmissions resumed after the war and continued until 1956, when operations were relocated to Crystal Palace. The transmitter is still used for local analogue television transmission, local commercial radio and DAB broadcasts.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

White Heat Cold Logic: British Computer Art 1960-1980

The period from 1960 to 1980 was underlain by Harold Wilson’s Utopian vision of a Britain “forged from the white heat of technology”. In an era before computers became just another domestic appliance and IT staff were banished to the basements of large companies, computing was seen as a glamour industry with a key role to play in the contemporary arts.

White Heat Cold Logic is aimed at recounting the history of digital and computer-based arts in the United Kingdom from their origins in the 1960s up to the advent of personal computing and graphical user interfaces around 1980.

The editors of this much-needed book argue forcefully against the woeful neglect by contemporary art galleries of British computer art from this heroic period, when artists needed to build their own machines, collaborate with computer scientists and learn complex computer languages rather than simply boot up their Mac or PC. Aside from their relevance to the then-contemporary art scene, the academic papers that make up this attractive illustrated volume will appeal to anybody with an interest in the social and political history of that time.

(A shorter version of this book review appeared in Art World Magazine www.artworldmagazine.com Issue 11 June/July 2009.)

© Christopher Seddon 2009

High and Over, Amersham

High and Over is a Grade I listed building in Amersham, Bucks. Designed by Amyas Connell and built in the late 1920s, the Y-shaped country house and the smaller Sun Houses nearby were controversial at the time, but are now admired as fine examples of the Modernist style. Originally a single dwelling, High and Over was divided into two units in the 1960s. Local legend has it that the building had to be camouflaged during World War II because enemy bombers were using it as a landmark to help them find their targets.



© Christopher Seddon 2009

Empress State Building, Earls Court







Named for the Empress Theatre which formerly stood on the site in Lillie Road, the Empress State Building was constructed in 1961. Originally intended as a hotel, it has thoughout its existence been used as an office building. People of a certain age (including myself!) will recall exterior shots of the building featuring in the ‘Sixties SF series Space Patrol. After it became vacant in 1997, plans were put forward for its use as a hotel, and thought was given to its demolition. Fortunately refurbishment turned out to be a cheaper option and this was carried out between 2001-03, with extra floors being added at the top. However it continued to be used as office space and currently the building is occupied by Metropolitan Police and Transport for London.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

The Singing Neanderthals (2005), by Steven Mithen

Steven Mithen, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading, is a leading figure in the field of cognitive archaeology and a Fellow of British Academy. In 1996, drawing together many diverse strands, he described the possible evolutionary origins of the human mind in his seminal The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Science and Religion, in which he proposed that full consciousness only arose when the previously-separate cognitive domains that make up the mind became integrated by a process he described as “cognitive fluidity” (Mithen, 1996). Subsequent archaeological discoveries in Africa forced Mithen to revise some of his timescales without affecting the validity or otherwise of his theory (McBrearty & Brooks, 2000). However Mithen, who is himself a lover of music, felt that its role in the development of language had largely been dismissed as “auditory cheesecake”, as Steven Pinker had described it.

Mithen pleaded guilty to himself failing to consider music in his 1996 work. Accordingly, in The Singing Neanderthals, he set out to redress the balance. He begins by considering language.

Language is a very complex system of communication which must have evolved gradually in a succession of ever more complex steps generally referred to as proto-language. But what was the nature of this proto-language? There are two schools of thought – “compositional” and “holistic”. The compositional theories are championed by Derek Bickerton, who believes that early human species including the Neanderthals had a relatively large lexicon of words related to mental concepts such as “meat”, “fire”, “hunt”, etc (Bickerton, 1990). These words could be strung together, but in the absence of syntax, only in a crude fashion. Mithen, however, favours the holistic view, which is championed by linguist Alison Wray. Wray believes that proto-language comprised utterances that were holistic i.e. they conveyed complete messages. Words – where the utterances were segmented into shorter utterances – only occurred later.

Mithen presents evidence that there is a neurological basis for music and that this is distinct from language. He draws on a variety of sources: studies of brain-damaged patients, individuals with congenital impairments, brain activity scans and psychological tests carried out on both children and adults.

Just as definite regions of the brain are involved with language, and that damage to these regions can selectively or totally impair linguistic skills, so is the case for music. The musical regions appear to be primarily located in the right hemisphere of the brain, in regions corresponding to the Broca’s area on the left. However there does seem to some linkage between the linguistic and musical regions.

Infant directed speech (IDS) – that is to say the way in which adults and indeed quite young children speak to infants – has a musical quality that infants respond to. Mithen believes that infants have a highly-developed musical ability, but that this is later suppressed in favour of language. For example, infants often have perfect pitch, but very few adults do. Relative pitch is better that perfect pitch for language acquisition, as the latter would result in the same word spoken by two speakers being interpreted as two different words.

This Mithen argues may give us an insight into how Early Humans, such as Homo erectus and the Neanderthals communicated with one another. He falls back on the notion that “Ontogeny recapitulates Phylogeny”, i.e. our developmental history mirrors our evolutionary history. He rejects the notions that music arose from language or that language arose from music. Instead, he argues, music and language both evolved from a single system at some stage in our primate past.

A central point of Mithen’s theory is emotion, which he believes underpin our thoughts and actions. A fear response, for example, was necessary to force a flight response from a dangerous predator. Conversely, happiness was a “reward” for successfully completing a task. There are four basic emotions – happiness, sadness, fear and anger, with more complex emotions such as shame and jealousy being composite of these four. Emotions were crucial for the development of modern human behaviour and indeed for the development of any sapient species. Beings relying solely on logic, such as Vulcans, could never have evolved.

Experiments suggest that apes and monkeys and humans – and by implication Early Humans – all share the same basic range of emotions. Now Mithen pulls together two ideas – firstly, music can be used to both express and manipulate human emotions; secondly the vocalizations of primates serve much the same function in these animals. For example vervet monkeys use predator-specific calls to warn others of their kind. Thus a human would shout “get up the nearest tree, guys, there’s a leopard coming” but a vervet would utter a single specific “holistic” call conveying the same meaning. The difference is that the human utterance is referential, referring to a specific entity and instructing a specific response – a command”. By contrast the vervet monkey is using its utterance to manipulate the emotions of its fellows – the call is associated with a specific type of danger, inducing fear. The fear achieves the caller’s desired effect by inducing its fellows to climb into the trees for safety.

Mithen believes that in Early Humans, living in groups, extended child-rearing and the increased use of gestural communications led to an extention of the “holistic and manipulative” vocalization of monkeys and other primates into a communication mode he refers to as “Hmmmmm” – Holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical and mimetic”, with dance and mime being added to the repertoire. He cites a circular arrangement of animal bones at a Middle Pleistocene Homo heidelbergensis (the common ancestor of both modern humans and the Neanderthals) site at Bilzingsleben, in Germany and claims it was a demarcated space for song and dance routines, in other words a theatre. As with the vocalizations of vervet monkeys, Hmmmmm was intended to manipulate the actions of others. It was more complex than the vocalizations of any present-day non-human primate, but less so than that of modern humans. (For another viewpoint on the role of hominin group living in language evolution, see Dunbar (1996).)

The Hmmmmm of the large-brained Neanderthals was richer and more complex than that of earlier humans. It enabled them to survive in the harsh conditions of Ice Age Europe for 200,000 years, but their culture remained static and their scope for innovation limited by the lack of a true language which would have enabled complex ideas to be framed. Indeed, the sheer conservatism, lack of innovation, symbolic and artistic expression in the Neanderthal archaeological record is, to Mithen, proof that they lacked language. He dismisses the “problem” of the Châtelperronian culture, where there is indeed evidence of innovation and symbolic behaviour. Although the archaeological record is ambiguous with some claiming that the Châtelperronian horizon predates the Aurignacian horizon and the arrival of modern humans (Zilhão et al, 2006), Mithen believes this is incorrect and the Châtelperronian is a result of Neanderthal acculturation from modern humans. The coincidence of independent origin just before the arrival of modern humans is just too great to be believed, he states.

If Neanderthals lacked language, how did Homo sapiens acquire it? Mithen believes that language as we know it came about through the gradual segmentation of holistic utterances into smaller components. Though initially holistic, utterances could be polysyllabic, for example suppose “giveittome” was a holistic, polysyllabic utterance meaning “give it to me”. But if there was also a completely different utterance, “giveittoher”, meaning “give it to her”, then in time the “givitto” part would become a word in its own right. That two random utterances could have a common syllable or syllables that just happened to mean the same thing, and that this could happen often enough for a meaningful vocabulary to emerge strikes me as being implausible. However Mithen cites a computer simulation by Simon Kirby of Edinburgh University in support. Mithen also claims that Kirby’s work is turning Chomsky’s theory of a Universal Grammar on its head. Chomsky claimed that it was impossible for children to learn language without hard-wired linguistic abilities already being present, but Kirby’s simulations apparently suggest the task is not as daunting as Chomsky believed.

Language would have been the key to the “cognitive fluidity” proposed in Mithen’s earlier work (Mithen 1996) as the basis of modern human behaviour. Language would have enabled concepts held in one cognitive domain to be mapped into another. Derek Bickerton believes that language and the ability for complex thought processes arose as a natural consequence of the human brain acquiring the capacity for syntax and recursion (Bickerton, 1990, 2007) but if these capacities were also required for “Hmmmmm” then if the Kirby study is to believed, a changeover to full language could have occurred gradually and without any rewiring of the brain. Mithen argues that this was the case and that the first wave of modern humans to leave Africa, who established themselves in Israel 110-90,000 years ago (Lieberman & O’Shea, 1994; Oppenheimer, 2003) were still using “Hmmmmm”. By 50,000 years ago, “Hmmmmm” had given way to modern language and at this point modern humans left Africa, eventually colonising the rest of the world and replacing the Eurasian populations of archaic humans. That language was crucial to the emergence of modern human behaviour has also been suggested by Jared Diamond (Diamond, 1991).

“Hmmmmm”, for its part, did not disappear and music retains many of its features.

To sum up, this is a fascinating theory that clearly demonstrates that music is as much a part of the human condition as is language. Its main weakness as a theory is that it cannot, by definition, be falsified since all the “Hmmmmm”- using human species such as the Neanderthals are now extinct.

Another problem for me is the idea that anatomically-modern humans got by with “Hmmmmm” for at least 100,000 years and only gradually drifted into full language by the method outlined above. Given that creoles can arise from pidgins in a single generation, this seems implausible, unless we allow some change in the mental organization of modern humans occurring after then.

Mithen mentions the FOXP2 gene, which has been shown to have a crucial role in human language. One study suggested the human version of this gene emerged some time after modern humans diverged from Neanderthals (Enard et al, 2002). Supporters of a “late emergence” for modern human behaviour such as Richard Klein cited have cited this as evidence that otherwise fully-modern humans did in fact undergo some form of “mental rewiring” as late as 50,000 years ago (Klein & Edgar, 2002). However it has since been shown that the Neanderthals had the same version of the gene that we do (Krause et al, 2007), weakening the “late emergence” argument.

References:

Bickerton D (1990): “Language and Species”, University of Chicago Press, USA.

Bickerton D (2007): “Did Syntax Trigger the Human Revolution?” in Rethinking the human revolution, McDonald Institute Monographs, University of Cambridge.

Diamond J (1991): “The Third Chimpanzee”, Radius, London.

Dunbar R (1996): “Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language”, Faber and Faber, London Boston.

Wolfgang Enard, Molly Przeworski, Simon E. Fisher, Cecilia S. L. Lai,
Victor Wiebe, Takashi Kitano, Anthony P. Monaco & Svante Paabo (2002): Molecular evolution of FOXP2, a gene involved in speech and language, Nature, Vol. 418 22 August 2002.

Klein R & Edgar B (2002): “The Dawn of Human Culture”, John Wiley & Sons Inc., New York.

J. Krause, C. Lalueza-Fox, L. Orlando, W. Enard, R. Green, H. Burbano, J. Hublin, C. Hänni, J. Fortea, M. de la Rasilla (2007): The Derived FOXP2 Variant of Modern Humans Was Shared with Neandertals, Current Biology, Volume 17, Issue 21, Pages 1908-1912.

Daniel E. Lieberman and John J. Shea (1994): Behavioral Differences between Archaic and Modern Humans in the Levantine Mousterian, American Anthropological Association.

McBrearty S & Brooks A (2000): “The revolution that wasn’t: a new
interpretation of the origin of modern human behaviour”, Journal of Human Evolution (2000) 39, 453–563.

Mithen S (1996): “The Prehistory of the Mind”, Thames & Hudson.

Mithen S (2005): “The Singing Neanderthal”, Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

Mithen S (2007): “Music and the Origin of Modern Humans”, in Rethinking the human revolution, McDonald Institute Monographs, University of Cambridge.

Oppenheimer S (2003): “Out of Eden”, Constable.

João Zilhão, Francesco d’Errico, Jean-Guillaume Bordes, Arnaud Lenoble, Jean-Pierre Texier and Jean-Philippe Rigaud (2006): Analysis of Aurignacian interstratification at the Châtelperronian -type site and implications for the behavioral modernity of Neandertals, PNAS August 15, 2006 vol. 103 no. 33.

© Christopher Seddon 2009

Ida

Unveiled on 19 May 2009 in a blaze of publicity by Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg at the American Museum of Natural History, “Ida” is the 47 million year old fossil remains of an Eocene primate.

Named for the six-year-old daughter of Norwegian palaeontologist Jørn Hurum, “Ida” is being touted as “the eighth wonder of the world”, “the missing link in human evolution”, “the lost Ark of archaeology” and “the scientific equivalent Holy Grail”. It is claimed that “Ida” will “be in all textbooks for the next hundred years” and it will affect palaeontology “like an asteroid falling to earth” (ironic because there is already an asteroid named Ida).

Others have said that the find “confirms” Darwin’s theory of evolution. Technically this is correct, but no more so than my dropping an apple and seeing it hit the ground would “confirm” Newton’s theory of gravity. I’d also like to know how something that has been found can be described as a “missing link”.

Shunning more prestigious publications such as Nature, Hurum and his collaborators published on 19 May 2009 in PLoS ONE, the open access journal of the Public Library of Science. “Ida” received the systematic name of Darwinius massilae (Darwin’s creature from the Messel pit), to celebrate the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth. The paper was immediately available over the internet for download, and was accompanied by a TV documentary entitled Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestor: The Link.

So what exactly is “Ida”, why has she caused so much excitement and is it justified?

The fossil was recovered in 1983 by a private fossil hunter at the Messel Pit, a disused quarry 35 kilometres from Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany. The fossil was split into two parts, which were sold separately. One part was sold to Dr. Burghard Pohl of the Wyoming Dinosaur Center at Thermopolis, Wyoming; the other part to a private collector. In 2007 the latter became available for sale and was purchased for a substantial price by the Natural History Museum of the University of Oslo (Norway). The two pieces were subsequently re-assembled and are in an astonishingly good state of preservation, 95% complete and missing only the left rear leg. Such is the state of preservation that the outline of the soft body and the contents of the digestive system are clearly discernable.

“Ida” is a juvenile female, retaining some of her deciduous teeth. Her sex is implied from the lack of a baculum, or penis bone. It is believed that she was about 9-10 old at the time of her death. She had a healed fracture of the distal end of her right forearm. This would have hampered her movements and possibly contributed to her death. Her climbing abilities would have been impaired. Unable to drink from water trapped by tree leaves, she would have had to venture down to the lake to drink. This would have been her undoing – in the Eocene the region was tectonically active and large quantities of carbon dioxide were sporadically released. This would have immediately suffocated anything in and around the water. “Ida” would then have fallen into the water and been preserved in the sediment deep at the bottom.

Her unusual state of preservation does give us considerable insight into the anatomy of an Eocene primate, but Hurum and his collaborators are claiming that “the skeleton’s features clarify morphologies that have been given critical weight in primate phylogeny, and call into question accepted wisdom about the origin of higher primates.”

Although genetic and other evidence now suggests that primates first evolved as long ago as 85 million years, primates of the modern aspect (i.e. possessing all the features of modern primates such as nails rather than claws) are more recent and first appeared around 55 million years ago. Traditionally the primates are divided into two groups, the prosimians (lemurs, lorises, bush-babies, aye-ayes and tarsiers) and simians or anthropoids (monkeys, apes and humans). However it is now believed that tarsiers are more closely related to the anthropoids than they are to the other prosimians. Accordingly most authorities now divide the primates into two suborders, the Strepsirrhini (“wet nosed”) and Haplorrhini (“dry nosed”) based on the defining feature of a rhinarium, the wet, naked surface around the nostrils of most mammals (e.g. cats and dogs). The Strepsirrhini possess this feature, but it is absent in the Haplorrhini. Among the living primates, the Strepsirrhini comprise the prosimians minus the tarsiers; the Haplorrhini comprise the tarsiers, monkeys, apes and humans.

In addition, fossil primates of the modern aspect are all believed to belong to one group or the other. 47 million years ago, there were two main primate groups in existence – the tarsier-like omomyoids and the larger lemur-like adapoids. The former are often claimed to be ancestral to the haplorrhines and the latter to the strepsirrhines. However it should be noted that these relationships are not universally accepted and attempts to resolve the issue have been stymied by the lack of conclusive fossil evidence.

Hurum and his collaborators are claiming that conclusive evidence now exists, and that it overturns the orthodox position. Darwinius massilae is claimed to be an adapoid, but it is also linked to the haplorrhines – and by implication, to humans – on the basis that it lacks a “grooming claw” and a “tooth comb” of lower incisors and canines, two features that are characteristic of strepsirrhines. By implication, the adapoids are haplorrhines, not strepsirrhines; and thus they rather than the omamyoids could be ancestral to the later anthropoids, including humans.

My view is that this is certainly interesting, but it is hardly earth-shattering to the man in the street. Furthermore the evidence is hardly conclusive – the fact that Darwinius massilae lacks two features characteristic of strepsirrhines doesn’t automatically make it a haplorrhine.

In short, “Ida” is a spectacular fossil of considerable interest to palaeontology, but she has been massively oversold. She is not another Lucy, Homo floresiensis, Taung Child or Turkana boy. This kind of hype is just “bad science” – once the hoo-hah has died down, people will say “what was all that about”, with the worry that discoveries of considerably greater significance could be ignored by the general public in the future. This has happened in the past. In 1973, the long-period comet Kohoutek was hyped as “the comet of the century”. Comets are notoriously unpredictable and in the event, Kohoutek failed to live up to public expectation, though it was observed from the Skylab space station – the first comet ever to be observed from space. Less than three years later though, a genuinely great comet did appear, Comet West. But the media, having got its fingers burned once, ignored it and as a result, very few people saw it.

Reference:

Jens L. Franzen, Philip D. Gingerich, Jorg Habersetzer, Jørn H. Hurum, Wighart von Koenigswald, B. Holly Smith (2009): Complete Primate Skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: Morphology and Paleobiology, PLoS One.

© Christopher Seddon 2009