Tuesday, January 17, 2017

"Peeking Out" (occasioned by Jon Mooallem's New York Times Magazine essay, "Us and Them"

peeking out

Jon Mooallem, “Us and Them,” published in The New York Times Magazine, January 16, 2017

Last Sunday, January 16, 2017 The New York Times Magazine carried an article by Jon Mooallem titled “Us and Them,” a work about the differences and similarities between the Eurasia-living Neanderthals and the “out of Africa” Homo sapiens which we represent.

Summarizing the first discovery of the now-dead species in valley outside Düsseldorf, Germany, where the 17th-century Calvinist theologist Joachim Neander often took walks, and was later named after him, Mooallem reiterates  many of the hundreds of mistaken theories about the Neanderthals, and how long scientists and other theorists felt the Homo sapiens to be far superior. 
     In fact, he shows us, through a trip to Gibraltar caves where Neanderthal artifacts have been and continue to be unearthed, the two simply represented side-by-side evolutionary versions of human species, who like the “out of Africa” branch, lived in families and communities, fashioned weapons and eating utensils, wore feathers, painted on and carved in rock, and buried their dead. As Mooallem reports, we should perhaps stop imagining “separate species of human evolution altogether: not an Us and a Them, but one enormous ‘metapopulation’ composed of shifting clusters of essentially human-ish things that periodically coincided in time and space.”
      Still, until very recently, many if not most paleontologists presumed the superiority of our kind and argued that it was because of that superiority that we killed off them. Although others had long debated that both versions of humans were in most ways equivalent, it was not until 2010, when a group of evolutionary anthropologists at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig finished sequencing a Neanderthal genome, that it became apparent that before the Neanderthals disappeared, the two groups had often mated, and most human beings still carry up to 1 to 2 percent of Neanderthal DNA. Suddenly the “us and them” paradigm became quite meaningless. 
       The Neanderthal’s died out not because we killed them off or won out on the available resources, but because from the very beginning there were simply fewer of them, and, like vanishing animal species, today, they simply could not keep a high enough birthrate to survive. At their highest density, some scientists estimate, their population might not have filled a NFL stadium. The last Neanderthals, some of them living in the milder climate of Gibraltar, were already a ghost race, a species on the brink.
        The importance of this article, it seems to me, is not simply its fascinating story of who the Neanderthals were, but its expression of how the “us and them” battle delimits our logical thinking. If there are always barbarians at the gate, frightful beings that we feel are inferior to us, we will have difficulty not only in perceiving and reacting to what is inside the gate, but will lose touch with any new possibilities of understanding and comprehension that might lie outside the gate. A wall, symbolic or real, locks “us” up as much as much it might keep “them” out. And a prison, we should recall, does not always provide the best opportunities to learn and grow. 
      Yet, not only in the US, but all over the world, countries and communities seem to be separating the us from the them, refusing to allow the others to cross borders, to come live beside us like some Neanderthals did with Homo sapiens.
      Russia, Poland, China, Turkey, The Philippines, Hungary, and other countries are increasingly being controlled by dictatorial autocrats, who are determined to separate from others and close borders. Even France, Germany, and other forward looking democracies have large populations that would like to close off their borders and pull away from European cooperation. England, as we know, has already voted for such a “pulling out,” which our President-elect Trump openly supports. 
     Compassion and understanding for others, even slightly different for ourselves seems to be fast disappearing. For me, empathy, attempting to feel what another being feels, is a necessary tool in discovering that compassion and comprehension of the “other.” But for some, such as Paul Bloom, whose book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion was recently published, along with an article in today’s Los Angeles Times, argues against that. He represents empathy as a kind of “spotlight” that insufficiently illuminates only those upon whom we focus, and, accordingly, often delimits compassion for larger communities outside of our tribal limitations.   
     Frankly, I think this is a narrow definition of what empathy truly is. If nothing else, practicing empathy, even with close friends, certainly helps us to turn a localized spotlight into a far larger searchlight on those outside our community or tribe. And, yes, it often feels good to empathize and just as often really hurts; but, more importantly, it opens one up to the feelings for and compression of the existence of others—and not just of our kind, but of others “out there,” beyond the wall, beyond that next valley who don’t even look like us or speak another language, worship other visions of god, eat other foods, and participate in different cultural rituals. Empathy helps us to comprehend not just how other Homo sapiens might feel but how animals who, like the Neanderthals, are now dying out, might be saved, how our environment is a planetary not just a local concern. 
       Someday, having built such walls, whether real or symbolic, when we dare to again peek out, might we discover another human type of species, thinking it too is far superior to us, has already taken our place? 
       Near the end of Mooallem’s beautiful essay, he travels to the Netherlands to meet identical twin brothers, Adrie and Alfons Kennis, whose major activity is creating sculptural representations of Neanderthal men, women, and children for worldwide museums. He presents them as almost comical enthusiasts of difference, men, who from childhood on, impulsively drew pictures of Neanderthals, trying to out-do one another. They are also utterly fascinated by all the differences of human types. Observing their computer-saved archives of anthropological films, stills, and photographs of different Homo sapien types, he observes that the brothers cannot pull their eyes away from them, that the two twins—who have lived a life of “self-evident sameness” and who almost finish one another’s sentences—are utterly awed by the vast variety of differences that exist and have existed on this planet throughout the ages: “’All this variation! It’s beautiful!’ shouted Adrie.” 
       “Us and them,” worlds of separation and exclusion, don’t necessarily make for a better or safer society; they merely create a more meager and unimaginative one.

Los Angeles, January 17, 2017