fortune or its reverse the seldom-updated blog


Recent read: Before the Dawn

I was pleasantly surprised by a recent visit to my local (suburban Buffalo) library. The new nonfiction shelf was stacked with books from my reading list. Before the Dawn by Nicholas Wade is one of the latest in the steady stream of popular science writing on human origins.

Before the Dawn is an engaging, enthusiastic presentation of some of the latest thoughts in anthropology, medicine, genetics, and several other sciences with an interest in ancient human history. In coherent, logical chapters, Wade weaves recent developments in the physical and social sciences into a fascinating overview our earliest beginnings. Part of what makes this area of research (and this particular book) so interesting is that certain debates remain feirce, and scientists from many disciplines are applying their expertise to the same questions. For example, when did humans develop language, and how did it develop? While traditional linguistic approaches have relied on comparisons of historical languages, genetic testing methods have provided insights into how the dispersion of early humans across the globe correlates with the development of language families, as well as approximate inception dates. Wade also addresses topics such as sexual behavior and mate selection, race, cultural change, cannibalism, and the domestication of plants, animals, and humans themselves.

Although Before the Dawn is popular science, it is firmly grounded in real research. Wade is astute enough to recognize meaningful debates in a range of scientific fields, and an effective writer who can present these complex topics to an interested nonspecialist audience. One minor quibble is that while Wade takes pains to discourage the "progress" metaphor for biological evolution ("humans were the ultimate, inevitable result of evolution"), he takes a strangely parochial view of "primitive" cultures and cultural evolution -- "Why haven't some Amazonian and Polynesian tribes evolved from Stone Age societies until present times?" His argument that genetic propensities are a stronger influence than, say, accidents of geography and history (as Jared Diamond argues) seems like a reach.

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Flash Mob: A singular act of female rebellion

A flash mob is a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, do something unusual for a brief period of time, and then quickly disperse. They are usually organized with the help of the Internet or other digital communications networks. The Wikipedia seems to be unaware of an earlier usage of the term.

While flipping through some old paperwork, I came across this postcard I picked up in Tasmania. I'd argue that these women have a stronger claim to the term than today's hipsters...

Update July 9: Google reveals that the image is a 2004 painting by Peter Gouldthorpe. The Flash Mob is an actual historical phenomenon -- more details about this group and Tasmania's other female convicts here.

The Rev. Robert Crooke records in his diary an occasion in 1844, when the Rev. Mr Bedford, Chaplain of the Female Factory at Cascades near Hobart Town, conducted Governor Franklin and Lady Jane Franklin around the institution. The Governor, a humane and popular man, addressed the gathering of between 300 and 400 women and was accorded a good hearing, as was Lady Franklin. But when Mr Bedford, whose hypocrisy had earned him the ridicule and contempt of his female flock, and especially that of a group of hardened offenders known to Hobart Town as `The Flash Mob,' began to address the women from the dais, "on a sudden the three hundred women turned right round and at one impulse pulled up their clothes shewing their naked posteriors which they simultaneously smacked with their hands making a loud and not very musical noise. This was the work of a moment, and although constables, warders etc. were there in plenty, yet 300 women could not well all be arrested and tried for such an offence and when all did the same act the ringleaders could not be picked out. The feeling of the Governor and her Ladyship may well be conceived..." — although it was said that her Ladyship managed to restrain her mirth until she was safely homeward bound in the viceregal carriage

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