“The idea that life is absurd bothers him”

Reading Life As Told by a Sapiens to a Neanderthal by Juan José Millás and Juan Luis Arsuaga for the Telegraph, 27 July 2022

In 2013 the oldest known human DNA was discovered, in a complex of caves in the Sierra de Atapuerca in northern Spain. It belongs to an early hominid, Homo heidelbergensis, who lived 400,000 years ago, and to whom we owe the invention of the fireplace.

Arsuaga has built an illustrious career around excavations in Atapuerca, a site humans have occupied continuously for a million years, from the dawn of Homo sapiens to the bronze age. He knows a lot about how humans evolved, and he is an eloquent communicator. “As he talked,” the novelist Juan José Millás recalls, “I realised what a great sense of the theatrical Arsuaga had. He was a master of oral storytelling. He knew when he had his audience, and when he was running the risk of losing them. He endeared himself by combining intellectual precision with a kind of helplessness.”

It’s Aruaga’s eloquence that first persuaded Millás that the two of them should collaborate on a book — a Boswellian confection in which Millás (humble, curious, a klutz, and frequently brow-beaten) follows Arsuaga around with a dictaphone capturing the great man’s observations. “In Spain,” he remarks, early on, “there are two principal periods: the first runs from the Neolithic to 1958, at which point the social planning by the Opus Dei technocrats comes in. Until then, the countryside was a place full of people, full of voices, life here was not a sad thing, there were children running around. It would be like walking down the street. By 1970, the countryside was empty, there was nobody left.”

Millás casts Arsuaga as the representative of Homo sapiens: articulate, eclectic, self-aware and tragical. Millás casts himself as Homo neanderthalis, not quite as quick on the uptake as his more successful cousin. Neanderthals are a species not exactly lost to history (Sapiens and Neanderthals interbred, after all) but no longer active in it, either.

The idea is that Arsuaga the high-brow leads our beetle-browed narrator hither and thither across northern Spain, on foot or in his trusty Nissan Juke, up lost valleys (to understand the evolution of hunting) and through deserted playgrounds (to grasp the mechanics of bipedalism), past market stalls (to grasp the historical significance of diet) and into a sex shop (to discuss the relative size of primate testicles) and building, bit by bit, a dazzling picture of the continuities that exist between our ancient and contemporary selves.

For many, the devil will be in the detail. Take, for example, Millás’s Neanderthals. He is not exactly wrong in what he says about them, but he is writing, in the most general and allusive terms, into a field that is developing frighteningly fast. It‘s hard, then, for us to know how literally to take the author’s showier gestures. Millás says, about that famous interbreeding, that “The Sapiens, being the smart ones, did it out of vice, while the Neanderthals, who were more naïve, did it out of love.” With Neanderthal intelligence and sociality a topic of so much fierce debate, such statements as this may be met with more scepticism than appreciation.

This is as much a buddy story as it is a virtuosic work of popular science. In unpacking our evolutionary past, Millas also brings his human subject to light. Arsuaga holds to the tragic view of life espoused by the fin de siecle Spanish essayist Miguel de Unamuno. Millás, a more common-or-garden depressive, finds Arsuaga’s combination of high spirits and annoyance hard to read. Deposited on the outskirts of Madrid, and half suspecting he’s been actually thrown out of Arsuaga’s Nissan, Millás realises that the palaeontologist “experiences sudden bursts of sadness that he sometimes conceals beneath an ironic demeanour, and sometimes beneath passing bad moods. I think the idea that life is absurd bothers him.”

Aruaga’s tragic sense entends to the species. We are the self-domesticating species: “To the Neanderthal,” he says, “the Sapiens must have seemed like a teddy bear.” We have evolved social complexity by shedding the adult seriousness we observe in less social mammals. (“I’ve been to Rwanda, looking at old gorillas,” says Aruaga, “and I can assure you they don’t play at all, they don’t laugh at anything.”) Over evolutionary time, we have become more playful, more infantile, more docile, and we have done this by executing, imprisoning and marginalising those who exhibit an ever-expending list of what we consider anti-social traits. So inanity will one day conquer all.

I wish Millás was a less precious writer. Very early on the pair arrive at a waterfall. “What had we come here for?” Millás writes: “in principle, to see the waterfall, and perhaps so the waterfall could see us, too.” Such unredeemable LRBisms are, I suppose, a form of protective coloration, necessary for a novelist and poet of some reputation: an earnest of his devotion to propah lirtritchah.

It’s when Millás forgets himself, and erases the distance he meant to maintain between boffins and scribblers, that Life becomes a very special book indeed: a passionate, sympathetic portrait of one life scientist’s world view.

Tally of a lost world

Reading Delicious: The evolution of flavor and how it made us human by Rob Dunn and Monica Sanchez for New Scientist, 31 March 2021

Dolphins need only hunger and a mental image of what food looks like. Their taste receptors broke long ago, and they no longer taste sweet, salty or even umami, thriving on hunger and satisfaction alone.

Omnivores and herbivores have a more various diet, and more chances of getting things badly wrong, so they are guided by much more highly developed senses (related, even intertwined, but not at all the same) of flavour (how something tastes) and aroma (how something smells).

Evolutionary biologist Robb Dunn and anthropologist Monica Sanchez weave together what chefs now know about the experience of food, what ecologists know about the needs of animals, and what evolutionary biologists know about how our senses evolved, to tell the story of how we have been led by our noses through evolutionary history, and turned from chimpanzee-like primate precursor to modern, dinner-obsessed Homo sapiens.

Much of the work described here dovetails neatly with work described in biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham’s 2009 book Catching Fire: How cooking made us human. Wrangham argued that releasing the calories bound up in raw food by cooking it led to a cognitive explosion in Homo sapiens, around 1.9 million years ago.

As Dunn and Sanchez rightly point out, Wrangham’s book was not short of a speculation or two: there is, after all, no evidence of fire-making this far back. Still, they incline very much to Wrangham’s hypothesis. There’s no firm evidence of hominins fermenting food at this time, either — indeed, it’s hard to imagine what such evidence would even look like. Nonetheless, the authors are convinced it took place.

Where Wrangham focused on fire, Dunn and Sanchez are more interested in other forms of basic food processing: cutting, pounding and especially fermenting. The authors make a convincing, closely argued case for their perhaps rather surprising contention that “fermenting a mastodon, mammoth, or a horse so that it remains edible and is not deadly appears to be less challenging than making fire.”

“Flavor is our new hammer,” the authors admit, “and so we are probably whacking some shiny things here that aren’t nails.” It would be all too easy, out of a surfeit of enthusiasm, for them distort their reader’s impressions of a new and exciting field, tracing the evolution of flavour. Happily, Dunn and Sanchez are thoroughly scrupulous in the way they present their evidence and their arguments.

As primates, our experience of aroma and flavour is unusual, in that we experience retronasal aromas — the aromas that rise up from our mouths into the backs of our noses. This is because we have lost a long bone, called the transverse lamina, that helps to separate the mouth from the nose. This loss had huge consequences for olfaction, enabling humans to search out convoluted tastes and aromas so complex, we have to associate them with memories in order to individually categorise them all.

The story of how Homo sapiens developed such a sophisticated palette is also, of course, the story of how it contributed to the extinction of hundreds of the largest, most unusual animals on the planet. (Delicious is a charming book, but it does have its melancholy side.)

To take one dizzying example, the Clovis peoples of North America — direct ancestors of roughly 80 per cent of all living native populations in North and South America — definitely ate mammoths, mastodons, gomphotheres, bison and giant horses; they may also have eaten Jefferson’s ground sloths, giant camels, dire wolves, short-faced bears, flat-headed peccaries, long-headed peccaries, tapirs, giant llamas, giant bison, stag moose, shrub-ox, and Harlan’s Muskox.

“The Clovis menu,” the authors write, “if written on a chalkboard, would be a tally of a lost world.”