Book Review: The Artificial Ape

The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution by Timothy Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


A fascinating book about how using tools makes us human, and how that’s not necessarily a compliment.

The main thrust of Taylor’s argument is that we started using tools that shouldered much of the burden that we would otherwise need actual shoulders for, so the shoulders we had went a little vestigial from generations of disuse. I know that analogy sounds kind of clunky, but it’s literally what happened in the case of our 10% loss in bone density over the last few thousand years.

The perspective makes sense. Orangutans are strong enough to rip the lower jaw clean off of a crocodile, and have been observed doing it, so don’t fuck around. But that kind of power requires a lot of upkeep, at the expense of other systems. We had a common ancestor 12 million years ago. The human genetic code contains the blueprints to be that kind of jacked manimal, but instead we started throwing pointy sticks around. We didn’t need to be that strong. The strength, or lack thereof, wasn’t making that big of a dent in the gene pool anymore.

Bipedalism was our first big advantage, and we’ve been coasting on that ever since. Hands free mode let us tinker, and the clubs, spears, and baby slings (for carrying, not for throwing) let us outcompete pretty much everything else in the world at the time. Fire was our next big W, and we became so reliant on it that we lost a large portion of our intestine, which is why gorillas can get donkey brolic on nothing but nectarines and foliage while a vegan diet is a death sentence for any human outside of the 1st world. Our stomachs aren’t long enough, or multiple enough, to break down the plants into nourishment. Cooked meat was a shortcut to an unprecedented amount of easily absorbed nutrition. Why waste the biomass maintaining a massive gorilla colon for processing 40 lbs of roots and leaves a day when we’re getting everything we need in a pound of mammoth flank and a few handfuls of high-glucose berries?

What I found most interesting was the sort of fork-in-the-road that our skulls and jaws took. When you look at animals with a preposterous bite force like a gorilla (1300 PSI) or a pitbull (2000 PSI), you see the long, threatening canine incisors first. For good reason. Evolution has programmed us to steer clear of seeing those incisors pointed our way, as it often precedes getting got. In order for the canine incisors to be functional, they have to be deeply rooted into bone. A pitbull’s teeth wouldn’t be much use if they snapped off every time he clamped his big square head onto something.

But for those teeth to support that bite force, the muscles wrapping around the skull have to connect to occipital bone. That’s the big knot of bone toward the back of a dog’s skull. All the great apes have them, too, except for us. Those powerful biting muscles sort of squeeze the braincase, which requires the bone to be thicker and sturdier overall, but that’s okay. Fair trade. Most animals have much greater need for dangerous teeth than for the wasted space of extra cranial capacity.

Enter man, a scavangening omnivore who can comfortably walk a hundred miles a day, supplements his arsenal with his lethal little arts-and-crafts, and eats his prey cooked. Absolutely no need for those canine incisors anymore. No need for the muscles supporting them, either – no matter how much gristle is in the steak, it won’t compare to the 8+ hours a day spent chewing if all your food was raw. And thinner, more pliant cranial bones make for an easier escape from the birth canal.

Nature did what nature does, and as those muscles loosened as they became less necessary for survival. In conjunction with our easy nutritional intake and the burgeoning protoculture that comes from being social animals…. our brains exploded to three times their previous size, maybe? No one actually knows why that happened, but Taylor’s guess seems as good as any.

Great book. I knocked off one star because I found it dry in some parts, but that’s to be expected, the man’s an archeologist and most of them aren’t Indiana Jones. Well worth the read if you care about anything I said in this review.



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Book Review: Future Primitive and Other Essays

Future Primitive: And Other EssaysFuture Primitive: And Other Essays by John Zerzan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The issue with reading anarchist literature is that they’re laboring under the delusion that if their argument is sufficiently complex, they’ll win hearts and minds. Thing is, your reader’s heart and mind is already won, by virtue of their voluntarily choosing to read your impenetrable wall of jargon-heavy anarchist philosophical rhetoric.

It was engaging enough, for what it was, and brief. Future Primitive was the by now familiar call to abandon civilization and return to the shrub because the internet makes you stupid and alienated, which it absolutely does.

Hey. Hey, look at me. It does. It’s making you worse, right now.

The Mass Psychology of Misery is Zerzan saying all therapists are cops, and ACAB. That might be an oversimplification, but someone had better. He says psychology as we know it and psychiatry in particular is a tool for trying to make people forget their misery, and the misery itself is brought on by the absurd, abnormal conditions of data overload and treadmill consumerism that are supposed to constitute modern life. In this way, shrinks are distractions, like drugs, both street and prescription, like Netflix, to make you forget that you’re living directly counter to the nature you’ve been programmed for. He keeps trying to argue with Freud despite the fact that Freud essentially agrees that civilization took perfectly good monkeys and fucked ’em all up, hence the eponymous discontents. But Freud is on psych’s side, for better or worse, and who better to champion tribalism than an advocate for a return to the tribe?

Tonality and the Totality was a screed in opposition of music that sounds good, as it sounds good for following a tonal pattern and the tonal pattern represents the interests of the elite. Or something adjacent to that. It sounded like a defense of bad punk music, but then he called out punk music right at the end for not being anarchist enough! There’s just no pleasing some people.

The Catastrophe of Post-Modernism is right on the money in saying postmodernists are a bunch of sketchy chameleon dickheads who play irritating language and symbol games in an effort to avoid confronting the reality of human emotion. It wasn’t hugely comprehensible, but you can’t write about postmodernism and be comprehensible, so I don’t hold that against him. He’s fighting the good fight, if only with the sticks and stones of his preferred collective.

The bits and pieces from the Nihilist’s Dictionary were a little too propagandistic for my tastes, but the effort, and any nod to Bierce, is always appreciated.

It was a good book, but the arguments felt kind of lateral, suggestive without directly suggesting anything. But then, if Zerzan was buds with Kaczynski, I guess that would make sense.

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Book Review: Civilized to Death

Civilized to Death: What Was Lost on the Way to ModernityCivilized to Death: What Was Lost on the Way to Modernity by Christopher Ryan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was a big fan of Sex at Dawn, but that was more specialized. This one is wide-ranging and deeply disappointed with the absolute state of the place.

The take home, as is usually the take home in my beloved unga bunga bullshit books, is that the more civilized we became, the further we got from ourselves, which is why the modern world is such a seething morass of anxiety and rage. Ryan draws from the left-field guesses about our origins that constitute anthropology along with modern studies of hunter-gatherer tribes to conclude that we probably enjoyed like a lot more when it was simple and we were living in accordance with the animal drives embedded with us over the millions of years it took for us to turn into hairless apes.

We’re living in overcrowded Skinner boxes. We were never meant to see this many people, let alone see them every day. We were never meant to intake this much data. We’re highly adaptable, which is why we’re still alive as a species, but this is a freshwater fish in a saltwater tank situation. The adults are miserable because they eat things that aren’t food and spend all their time doing fake things that they don’t care about. The children are doomed because they’re kept confined and medicated to oblivion if they behave like children, especially during the federally mandated eight to ten daily hours of Sitting Still and Doing Math that constitutes early education. Being forced to live so counter to our instincts causes that civilization discontent Freud was popping off about, which leads to anxiety, rage, madness, an increasingly worsening world that makes the next generation suffer all the more.

Most jarring for me was the chapter on death and dying. Ryan champions a sort of stoic, honorable acceptance of death, reflected in primitive societies where the old, feeble, useless, or potential liabilities would take it upon themselves to functionally commit suicide by nature. Horrifying for us to consider, until you take a closer look at the state of the health care industry. A full 33% of the health care budget, 33% of all money that pertains to medicine in America, goes toward the 5% of people in the health care system who are going to die that year. It’s a huge money funnel dedicated to prolonging the process of dying. CPR, ventilators, chemotherapy, all these last ditch “well, something has to work!” efforts don’t heal the sick. It’s a racket, a ritualized worship of pain that ends up bankrupting whole families for generations.

It’s hard to read books like this and hope that the end isn’t well and truly nigh, especially in light of the Corona outbreak. So many people are hyperventilating at the prospect of things “never getting back to normal!”

Why would you want things to go back to normal?

I’ll see y’all in Thunderdome.

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Book Review: How the Irish Saved Civilization

How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe  by Thomas Cahill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Copying books.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the boiled beef of the issue: Early Irish literature was essentially Conan the Barbarian with more dick jokes.

Noisiu, Irish warrior and protagonist, is rattling over the bogs when he runs across Derdrui, a certified hottie who is promised to some old king. Even the king’s druid has commented on her thiccness:

“High queens will ache with envy to see those lips of Parthian-red opening on her pearly teeth, and see her pure perfect body”.

Noisiu knows she’s pledged, and cursed, but he can’t help himself, and hits her with the oldest pickup line in the book:

“That’s a fine heifer going by.”

Take note, fellas.
Dedriu, not a swooner, fires back:
“As well it might be. The heifers grow big where there are no bulls.”

You called her a cow and she’s still game! Better seal the deal, Noisiu.
“You have the bull of this province all to yourself — the King of Ulster.”

It’s a bold strategy Cotton, let’s see if it pays off for him.
“Of the two, I’d pick a game young bull like you.”

And then they bang it out, presumably in the middle of the road.

That was the flavor of the early literature. Here’s another go around, featuring Cuchalainn, alleged to be the Irish Achilles, and Emer, the girl he’s come a-courtin’:

“May your road be blessed!” cries Emer on his approach.
“May the apple of your eye see only good,” says Cuchulainn,
presumably reciting a wood graving his mom has hanging over the front door. Then, peering down her dress: “I see a sweet country. I could rest my weapon there.”

Z-z-ZAMN! Emer plays hard to get by rattling off a list of obscure, murderous deeds a man would have to perform before winning her sweet country.

“No man will travel this country until he has killed a hundred men at every ford from Scenmenn ford on the river Ailbine, to Banchuing… where the frothy Brea makes Fedelm leap.”

“In that sweet country, I’ll rest my weapon,” says Cuchulainn.

“No man will travel this country until he has done the feat of the salmon-leap carrying twice his weight in gold, and struck down three groups of nine men with a single stroke, leaving the middle man of each nine unharmed.”

“In that sweet country, I’ll rest my weapon.”

“No man will travel this country who hasn’t gone sleepless from Samain (Halloween), when summer goes to its rest, until Imbolc (Candlemass/Groundhog Day), when the ewes are ilked at spring’s beginning; from Imbolc to Beltaine (Mother’s day) at the summer’s beginning and from Beltaine to Bron Trogain, earth’s sorrowing autumn.”

“It is said and done.”

Remember that old “mayor of tiddy city” sketch? The whole of the Tain cycle can be summarized with: “Long story short — dong on tiddies.”

Fabulous. Now, the Irish were functionally still barbarians at the time of this writing — shocker, I know — but they had a fledgling culture developing, characterized mostly by these outrageous pre-adolescent campfire stories about celtic Hercules (and celtic Xena, considering how many brassy female leads wound up in their stories), along with the Iron Age moral code of “generous, handsome, and brave”. What set them apart from other Iron Age hero-worshipping civilizations from Mesopotamia right up through Greece was the casual brutality and monstrous metamorphosis they loved sticking to their protagonists. Berserkergang’s Irish cousin was called the “Warp-spasm”, and when the battle rage hit the Irish they would full-on mutate into demons. The descriptions played out like something out of Spawn. Let’s have a taste:

The first warp-spasm seized Cuchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from heat to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. His body made a furious twist inside his skin, so that his feet and shins switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front … On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the nape of his neck, each mighty, immense, measureless knob as big as the head of a month-old child… he sucked one eye so deep into his head than a wild crane couldn’t probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along his cheek. His mouth weirdly distorted: his cheek peeled back from his jaws until the gullet appeared, his longs and his liver flapped in his mouth and throat, his lower jaw struck the upper a lion-killing blow, and fiery flakes large as a ram’s fleece reached his mouth from his throat… The hair of his head twisted like the tangle of a red thornbush stuck in a gap; if a royal apple tree with all its kingly fruit were shaken above him, scarce an apple would reach the ground but each would be spiked on a bristle of his hair as it stood up on his scalp with rage.”

That’s the hero of the story. That’s Irish Batman.

From there, the book follows the trajectory of the Roman empire dealing with these and other barbarians, its eventual fall, and what became of classical learning from that point.

Up until the 4th century AD, books were academic third-person affairs, even fiction. Enter our boy Augustine, virtually inventing the concept of written self-disclosure and, functionally, psychotherapeutic journaling:

“I carried inside me a cut and bleeding soul, and how to get rid of it I just didn’t know. I sought every pleasure — the countryside, sports, fooling around, the peace of a garden, friends and good company, sex, reading. My soul floundered in the void — and came back upon me. For where could my heart flee from my heart? Where could I escape from myself?”

Not only did he introduce narrative stream-of-consciousness, he blazed a trail that would be travelled by goth and emo teenagers for millenia to come. His escape would eventually come in the form of God, surprise surprise, but not before he changed the whole landscape of literature.

Meanwhile, another saint, by the name of Patrick, was becoming a particularly prominent figure in the Catholic church. He was yoinked from Britain and enslaved by the Irish for ten years, then escaped, then decided he liked the Irish more and went proselytizing all over the Emerald Isle, adopting them as his people. The Irish went absolutely bananas for this. The BALLS on this guy! Everywhere Patty went, he left a cluster of churches in his wake, with the Irish trading their arbitrary clubfights and whatever for the hoo-rah tough guy mystique of hermitage. The druids transformed seamlessly into the Green Martyrs, since nothing really changed, aside from God being brought into it.

And like every good barbarian hero in fiction, once the Irish learned about books proper, they were hooked. Irish monks in particular could not and would not stop copying every scrap of paper they could find into increasingly complex codices, which they added embellishments to in classically overdramatic Irish fashion.

Meanwhile, the world burned. Rome fell, and with it classic literature. Anything Latin was systematically destroyed, pillaged, and burned. The world screeched to a halt, then tumbled into the Dark Ages, where it stayed until the renaissance. The renaissance, as made evident by its etymology, was “REbirth” because the initial birth had been the classical age. That knowledge had been rediscovered.

It was available for rediscovery because of all the compulsively meticulous Irish monks who copied thousands upon thousands of freehand codices and passed them down through their families. The book wraps up with a report of a farmer in Cork County in the mid 1800s who was reading his own familial codex on the train.

It was an excellent and thorough, if somewhat meandering book. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

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