Nobel Pursuits

Already it’s October, when the leaves turn red and fall from the trees, the nights grow longer and the days colder, and the Nobel prizes are awarded.

The Nobel committee for lit does tend to go leftfield when possible. One is therefore required to read into their decisions, a little like ancient haruspices reading the entrails of chickens or 20th century Kremlinologists interpreting the gnomic actions of the politburo.

How then should we read the decision to anoint the sparse, harsh and uncompromising pseudo-autobiographical work of Annie Ernaux?

To me it seems like a commentary upon Michel Houellebecq and Karl Ove Knausgård. All three are known for writing their big books of me, but perhaps the men are better known than Mme Ernaux internationally. Equally, both Houellebecq and Knausgård have been heavily criticised, among other things, for their misogyny. Awarding Ernaux seems to me to be a reaction to their popularity and the fact that both have been tipped for this prize previously. Your mileage may vary.

(Full disclosure: I’ve never read Knausgård or Ernaux and have at best a passing familiarity with Houellebecq, who I found to be a very rude interviewee at the Dublin Impac Award in a previous millennium.)

Also elevated to laureate this year was Svante Pääbo, the man who proved that ancient hominid species such as Neanderthals did not entirely die out but in fact persist to this day within non-African human genomes. In fact, I likely owe some Neanderthal ancestor the gene which oversees my melanocortin-1 receptor proteins, which gave me my once russet beard.

What’s intriguing personally for me about this year’s Nobels for medicine and literature isn’t that I’d not previously heard of the literature recipient, nor that I had previously heard of the medicine recipient, but the fact that both these things occurred in the same year. I guess my interests have shifted over the decades away from solely literary pursuits, and towards scientific interests, especially in early hominids. This year’s prizes have brought that home to me, and congratulations to the winners.

I’ve long criticised the Nobel Prize for Peace, because the Norwegian parliament committee which awards it has a knack for often choosing inappropriate recipients. Hello Henry Kissinger, Aung San Suu Kyi, Barack Obama, UN “peace-keeping” forces, etc.

Nevertheless, I’d argue they got it right this year. The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to human rights advocate Ales Bialiatski from Belarus, the Russian human rights organisation Memorial and the Ukrainian human rights organisation Center for Civil Liberties. Congratulations to them too.

POST-SCRIPT: The newest Nobel physics laureates have also been announced and their award is for proving that reality, as we understand it currently, is not real in the ways we think it is. Not awarded, though clearly the forefather of all of this research (which aimed to prove his hypotheses) is my compatriot John Stewart Bell, who alas died in 1990 while the experiments proving him correct were still in process.

John Stewart Bell

Congratulations to Alain Aspect, John F. Clauser and Anton Zeilinger for proving once again that the universe is not only stranger than we think, but most likely as Heisenberg noted, stranger than we can think.

Whose civilisation is it, really?

I carry Neanderthal DNA in my body. I am one of the modern humans, homo sapiens sapiens, who are descended from hybrid cross-hominid fertilisation that likely occurred somewhen during the overlap of populations in paelolithic Europe.

Of course, that side of the family died out a long time ago, leaving my sapiens ancestors to colonise Europe and indeed everywhere else on the planet.

Neanderthal DNA Can Affect Skin Tone And Hair Color : Shots - Health News :  NPR

I often wonder what we lost when we lost our hominid relatives – the Neanderthals, the Denisovans, the hobbit-like Homo Floriensis and so on. What might a world of multiple hominid species be like? How might we have accommodated our stronger, carnivorous and less gracile Neanderthal population? What might our tiny cousin with grapefruit-sized heads, the Floriensis hobbits, have contributed to our world?

Anyhow, the more I ponder the roads not taken, the less impressed I have become with our own boastful claims and achievements. Not simply because human achievement increasingly has come at the expense of all other species (initially the large mammals, then our fellow hominids, and now basically everything else). But also because even those achievements, it seems to me, may not really be ours to claim.

Air flight, modern medicine, computers? For sure. We made those. But let’s go back upstream to the origins of civilisation to see whose civilisation is it really?

Neanderthals used fire. Indeed, probably homo erectus, the ur-granddaddy of hominids used fire. Fire is a major issue. No other animal uses it. Most run terrified from it. But hominids tamed it, and found ways to use it for cooking and heat. If there’s one development which most explains why hairless apes like us and not, say, the gorillas or big cats rule this world, it is probably the taming of fire.

Neanderthals also buried their dead. This is a sobering thought really. In some senses so do elephants, and other species also demonstrate evidence of mourning, loss and grief. We may feel that grief is one of the things which makes us human, but it’s not an exclusively human sentiment. Even taking it to the point of ritual behaviour – burial – is not exclusive to us.

But what of the other foundational components of human culture and society? What about clothing, art, science, religion?

Well, Neanderthals made jewellery from seashells and animal teeth. Neanderthals created artwork on cave walls. Neanderthals invented musical instruments, specifically bone flutes. We can presume they knew how to beat on drums or rocks rhythmically too. After all, they also had hand axes, which would have been made and used with such rhythmical hitting. Neanderthals built stone shrines, and where there are shrines, it is highly likely that ritualistic behaviour took place.

Neanderthals used lissoirs, and hence invented hide preparation, and hence clothing. They invented glue and string and throwing spears which they used to hunt large game. These hunts required collective action and collaboration. Recent evidence suggests that Neanderthals may even have learnt to count and actually recorded their counting by notching scratches on bones.

So perhaps this isn’t OUR civilisation at all, when you think about it. Perhaps we are thieves living in someone else’s house, whom we murdered, looking at their achievements and claiming them as our own.