August 14, 2010

This blog is about 1% to 4% Neanderthal

That is the conclusion of a paper written by Green, Krause, Briggs et al. and provided online here. Its based on the analysis of bone tissue from Croatia of Neanderthals and a comparison of that to current human being genetic material. The authors argue that there is a common element to these genetic tissues. I'm going to issue a disclaimer here- this science is definitely beyond my pay grade and I don't know how strong the author's conclusions are, based as they are on three Neanderthal individuals and five human individuals. It may be that their work needs further support from other research before it can be accepted: I don't know and am not going to pretend to do so.

Such a finding would be interesting though. It would make the early history of human beings and their relations even more interesting than it was before. It also is a real sign of how easily an immigrant population can influence a current population: Neanderthals may account for up to a twenty fifth of the modern genome and yet the authors hypothesize this is a low proportion. Such a finding suggests that genes spread easily and quickly through populations and therefore that one of the consequences of the modern world may be an increasing genetic homogeneity within human beings.

The most fascinating area for me, given the work of people like Raymond Tallis who work on the meaning of the boundary between human and animal worlds, is what this research means for the evolution of consciousness and its current path. Tallis argues that there is a binary switch, you are conscious and a human or you are irrational and an animal, you point and are a human, you don't and are an animal. This piece of evidence though seems to me to be evidence that whatever happened to produce homo sapiens was gradual, as we had relationships with other hominids during our evolution, and that calls into question any binary division between us and the animal world. Or does it? Afterall the Neanderthals may have been on our side of the boundary.

That question arises to my mind currently because I recently heard Tallis talk: however this research points in all sorts of directions and is worth therefore analysing. I don't know if its the last word, but its an interesting debate.

August 13, 2010

St Augustine

Henry Chadwick's book on St Augustine is not really a biography in the conventional sense, it is a biographical essay. The key difference between the two genres is that whilst the first is a sprawling account that attempts to convey the whole entirity of someone's life, the latter is an attempt to draw across a couple of themes and explain how those themes made this person someone worth writing about. To write anything about St Augustine scarcely needs a justification: as an acute observer of late Antiquity and an incredibly influential force on Christianity both ancient, medieval and modern, Augustine has always attracted attention. His master pieces, the City of God, the Confessions and his sermons, have always attracted attention. In the Middle Ages he was used not merely as a theological model but also his educational treatises were mined for information, his political thought was the basis of the approach of the Church to politics and his fierce denounciations of paganism rendered it intellectually incoherent. Chadwick draws out the ways in which Augustine victored on the field of ideas and the ways in which the trophies he left on those fields map out the contours of modern Christianity.

So what are Chadwick's themes? The first is the way in which the personal position of Augustine interrelated with his ideas. We can see this in Augustine's concentration on sexuality. Augustine's prayer in the confessions is well known 'Give me chastity but not yet'. Its a prayer that sums up the temptation that the Saint faced but also his addiction to chastity as a model for the way that people ought to behave. Chastity forms a key part of Augustine's later response to the Pelagian question- whether people are free to do good or whether their 'goodness' is only present through the action of God. We can see it in other less obvious ways: Chadwick presents Augustine as a deeply conservative person, aware that in his society a slave costs less than a draught animal, but also a believer that society is evil because it always will be. THe City of God and the City of Men will never be drawn together, they are separated. This is a quietism that turns conservative very quickly. Furthermore Chadwick draws out the importance of Augustine the Bishop. When he was made Bishop of Hippo in the late 4th Century, Chadwick argues Augustine became a more mature and more interesting philosopher, his collision with reality changed him into a different thinker.

This post will be continued later tommorrow- due to a lack of battery life, I'm going to leave it there for a minute with an encouragement to read the book!