Ecce homo!

Two Pittsburgh authors explore the remarkable human capacity to survive and forge a future
iStockphoto Ecce homo!
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Feeling discouraged? Lacking self esteem? Skip the self-​help books and read “Last Ape Standing” instead. Subtitled “The Seven-​Million-​Year Story of How and Why We Survived,” this engaging précis of recent developments in paleoanthropology is imbued with enough enthusiasm for evolution to cheer and inspire even the most miserable Homo sapiens.

Author Chip Walter, a Pittsburgh native and veteran science journalist, has devoted his career to the discovery and celebration of what makes people tick, for good or ill. More pithy than professorial, his contributions to popular science include 2006’s well-​received “Thumbs, Toes and Tears,” which spotlights the characteristics that distinguish humans from other creatures. This time the focus is on modern man as the only extant species of the genus Homo, and the accidents, upsets and mutations that have allowed our kind to adapt, endure and thrive when at least 26 other prehistoric human species identified to date have passed away.

Experts in this field are notoriously contentious, yet they now mostly agree that multiple human species once existed simultaneously, possibly even side by side, rather than following each other in an orderly progression from chimp to Chip, thus raising the question at the center of Walter’s work: Why us? “What events, what forces, twists and evolutionary legerdemain made creatures like you and me and the seven billion others of us who currently walk the earth possible?” he asks, even as he notes that “no one really knows” the answer. Evidence of early man is “too sparse and too random” to be conclusive, and the prevailing hypotheses involve a “lot of guesswork.” No matter. The author, using all the imaginative resources of a highly evolved brain, provides plenty of oohs and aahs to compensate for absent ahas, and manages to spin a tale of remarkable excitement out of scant evidence and conflicting theories.

Particularly evocative is his brief but powerful description of the imagined drama of one proposed scenario in which a few hundred Ice Age humans, the last vestige of their breed, were pushed by the punishing climate to the tip of South Africa — the literal end of the earth. There, one catastrophe from oblivion, they clung to survival; a “tiny enclave of humanity twisting precariously at the end of an evolutionary thread, rubbing elbows with extinction.” Equally moving is his contemplation of the final hours of the last Neanderthal, that anthropological also – ran whose unrecorded passing marked the end of an entire species “shaped and hammered in evolution’s crucible for hundreds of thousands of years.”

Aside from these two sobering incidents of reflection, however, the overwhelming tone of the book is effusively positive, conveyed in a chummy, you-​and-​me manner that allows readers to feel personally responsible for the miracle of mankind’s success. Exuberant adjectives, combined with feel-​good references to phenomena such as “the marvelous creativity of natural selection” and the “molecular magic” by which brains develop, make it easy to overlook the lack of scientific proof and lose oneself in appreciation for our ancestors and ourselves. Seen through Walter’s eyes, it’s all so irresistibly cool.

Indeed, the author’s sense of childlike wonder does much to lend credence to the concept of neoteny as a driving evolutionary force; an idea that receives much attention in “Last Ape Standing.” According to this interpretation (defined as the retention of juvenile features into adulthood), humans are born prematurely in relation to their primate relatives, so that processes that were prenatal in ancient hominids became postnatal in their human descendants. This early arrival provided us with a means of “stretching youth farther into life” by postponing reproduction in favor of an extended exploratory phase of development that we call childhood, which provided the opportunity to grow a “remarkably flexible brain.” Thus “the birth of human childhood… began a trend that has… made children of all of us the entire course of our lives, neurologically nimble enough that we can keep learning [and] changing,” remaining always in a state of development.

Enamored of this notion, the author (who is himself maddeningly youthful in appearance as well as outlook) expands upon it by incorporating psychological and sociological literature to discuss our contemporary “looks-​based society.” He cites the “species-​wide predilection for youthfulness,” as well as the “penchant for inventiveness” that prompts people to alter and adapt both their appearances and personalities to increase attractiveness. He goes so far as to stretch the concept to fit the current mania for high-​tech gadgetry, which he calls “manufactured fitness indicators” for sexual selection. In so doing, he oversteps the bounds of a reporter to engage in conjecture, but in the intoxicating context of hominid supremacy, he will certainly be forgiven by appreciative readers beaming with pride in their own humanity.

* * *

Chris Berdik, another science journalist from this region, shares Chip Walter’s fascination with humanity, specifically the power and potential of those great big, flexible brains. His book, “Mind Over Mind: The Surprising Power of Expectations,” examines the ways in which human intelligence is constantly creating assumptions and perceptions that have a direct effect on outcomes. “We spend very little of our mental lives completely in the here and now,” he explains, since our minds are constantly storing biases based on experience while peering into the future to craft new ones in the form of expectations. By addressing the challenges, anxieties, comforts, excitements and opportunities for personal growth afforded by these expectations, Berdik illustrates how they skew our decisions and, to a great extent, determine our realities.

From Franz Mesmer, whose theory and practice of “animal magnetism” challenged the arrogance of rationalism in Enlightenment Europe, to the mania of a gambler in contemporary Connecticut, Berdik provides a range of interesting examples of the correlation between expectations and outcomes. We all know of the effects of placebos in medical experiments but seldom think of the same forces at work in surgical recovery, sports training, compulsions, wine tasting, virtual eating and behavior modification. According to one study addressed by the author, participants in a confidence-​building exercise assumed a powerful, superhero-​like stance for a period of time until subconscious mechanisms of self-​perception effected biochemical and endocrine changes affecting cognition, and then behavior. In other words, the fake-​it-​till-​you-​make-​it practice actually produced the result of increased confidence and perceived power.

Perhaps the most intriguing illustration of both individual and societal expectations involves the work of artist J.S.G. Boggs, who in the 1980s created a patently artificial currency in order to “shine a light on how our minds conjure value.” Boggs would offer his “Boggs bills” to cab drivers, waiters and salesclerks in lieu of legal tender. If they refused his art, he would pay in cash. If they accepted the challenge, Boggs would demand a receipt, which he would then sell to an art collector. The collector in turn was encouraged to seek out the original bill, for which he or she would pay an inflated price to purchase it back. Once framed and annotated, a complete transaction could fetch thousands of dollars at a gallery or auction. Boggs thereby made both a profit and his point, demonstrating the value of the art, based on subjective tastes and desires, as well as the collective value of his false currency, based on the expectation of future exchange. (He was arrested nonetheless on counterfeiting charges in 1986.)

On the strength of these examples, the author closes with an invitation to readers to consider the power of their expectations, and harness it in order to make positive changes in their lives, summoning the energy for a marathon’s final mile, or giving us the ability to resist unhealthy temptations. After all, if life is mostly what we imagine it to be, who wouldn’t want to create the expectation of success? Perhaps great expectations explain the evolutionary endurance of our species… It’s something to think about.

Sandra Levis

Sandra is the literary editor of Pittsburgh Quarterly. Before entering magazine work, she was employed as an architectural historian for the Los Angeles Conservancy and a photographic historian for the Smithsonian Institution. She reads and writes at her home in Point Breeze.

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