Review of “Relic”

My first novel, “Relic”, has been reviewed in the February 2017 edition of QST magazine. A reprint of the review is shown below.

For those of you  unfamiliar with this publication, QST is a magazine for amateur radio enthusiasts, published by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL). It is a membership journal that is included with membership in the ARRL. The publisher claims that circulation of QST in the United States is higher than all other amateur radio-related publications in the United States combined. Although an exact number for circulation is not published by the American Radio Relay League, the organization claimed 154,627 members at the end of 2008, almost all of whom receive the magazine monthly, in addition to issues delivered to libraries and newsstands.

relic-review-in-qst

The Whites of Their Eyes!

 

the-invaders“Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes!”

It was more than just a Revolutionary War cry at the battle of Bunker Hill. The white part of human’s eyes, the sclera, may have had an important part in the extinction of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens dominance of Europe (and the world) 40,000 years ago.

According to Professor Pat Shipman of Pennsylvania State University, early dogs, bred from wolves, played a critical role in the modern human’s takeover of Europe when we vanquished the Neanderthal locals.

Most scientists argue that modern humans – armed with superior skills and weapons – were responsible for forcing Neanderthals into oblivion. Professor Shipman adds a twist. We had an accomplice: the wolf.

Professor Shipman’s book, “The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction“, delves into the symbiotic relationship that early man and wolves forged.

Professor Shipman’s hypothesis is that early modern humans, also known as Cro-Magnon, formed alliances with wolves soon after they entered Europe. These early humans tamed and domesticated some wild wolves, and the dogs bred from them were then used to chase prey and to drive off rival carnivores, including leopards and other large predator cats, that tried to steal the meat from the Cro-Magnon kill.

One key feature of Homo sapiens, alone among other primates, and presumably Neanderthals, is that we have white eyes. “The main advantage of having white sclera is that it is very easy to work out what another person is gazing at,” added Shipman. “It provides a very useful form of non-verbal communication and would have been of immense help to early hunters. They would been able to communicate silently but very effectively.”

Thus the mutation conferring white sclera could have become increasingly common among modern humans 40,000 years ago and would have conferred an advantage on those who were hunting with dogs.

By contrast, there is no evidence of any kind that Neanderthals had any relationship with dogs and instead they appear to have continued to hunt mammoths and elks on their own, a punishing method for acquiring food. Already stressed by the arrival of modern humans in Europe, our alliance with wolves would have been the final straw for Neanderthals.

Professor Shipman’s theory about white sclerae is intriguing. I haven’t yet learned of any genetic data suggesting whether Neanderthals had white sclerae. Certainly, it would have been a disadvantage to Neanderthals if their attempts to domesticate or cooperate with wild dogs were hindered by this anatomical difference.

I wonder if there is any connection with the development of white sclerae and other behavioral characteristics that are related to Mirror Neuron theories? A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. Mirror neurons have been said to have the potential to provide a mechanism for action-understanding, imitation-learning, and the simulation of other people’s behavior. I did reference mirror neurons in my novel “Relic”; in the story, the military found that Neanderthals had a “mirror neuron deficit” which would become a hindrance when trying to get a platoon of Neanderthals cooperating while on a mission. They couldn’t read each other’s body language.

I would imagine that this sort of deficit could affect the success of a hunting group that is attempting to stealthily stalk their prey. Perhaps not as important when bringing down large game in a brute force manner (bison, mammoth). However, perhaps more important when stalking small or skittish prey. Non-verbal communication skills would also be advantageous to the younger, less strong members of a hunting group; perhaps having these superior non-verbal skill allowed younger members of a Cro-Magnon to become active members of a hunting group at an earlier age. This would have resulted in larger, more capable hunting groups. It also would have allowed younger Cro-Magnons to hunt for small game without the assistance of the larger, stronger hunters. The experienced hunters would go after big game while the younger hunters would stalk smaller game, resulting in overall larger food supply for the tribe.

I could see how cooperation with dogs could play into this. Hunting dogs would not have been as important in bringing down bison or mammoth. Certainly, finding a herd of bison would not require a dog’s hunting skills. Again, this sort of hunting would be the domain of the stronger adult hunters. However, a young Cro-Magnon child or adolescent hunter, paired with a hunting dog, would be much more productive compared to a lone Neanderthal adolescent. A larger percentage of a Cro-Magnon tribe could become productive hunters as compared to an equivalent sized tribe of Neanderthals.

Professor Shipman’s hypothesis, coupled with mirror neuron deficit in Neanderthals, could have packed a one-two punch that ultimately led to the Neanderthals’ demise. Superior non-verbal communication skills for stealthy hunting of smaller prey, along with an alliance of younger human hunters with wolves, may have created the tipping point that drove Neanderthals into extinction.

 

Excerpt from “Relic II: Resurrection”

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Mary turned away, crossed her arms again, and thought for a moment.

He doesn’t care about our baby.

She looked at the field of corn that reached nearly up to the edge of the road.

He’s going to give her away.

She looked back at the sleeping child. Eve was secure in the car seat.

I can do this.

She took a deep breath, then grabbed the steering wheel and yanked.

 

“What the hell are you doing, Mary?” Bob shouted as he fought to keep the vehicle on the road.

“She’s not a science experiment!” she shouted. “She’s a baby.”

Despite Mary’s yanking at the wheel, Bob managed to regain control of the car. He elbowed her back into her seat. “It’s government property, Lieutenant,” he barked at her. “And we’re following orders.”

Mary screamed back at him, “The mission is over.”

“The mission was never over, Mary. It’s changed ownership.”

Mary felt the rage building inside of her. “You lied to me!” she cried out. “You told me that this child would be taken to a safe facility to be raised.”

“And it will. But it’s also too valuable to not study. The genetic advances alone will be phenomenal. Genomics science can leap years ahead, maybe even decades, based on what we can learn from this child.”

Mary grabbed the wheel again and yanked as hard as she could. The car veered to the right and careened into a corn field. They fought for control as the car plowed through the tall green stalks.

A burst of white shoved itself into Mary’s face. She wrestled it away. Her heart was pounding and her muscles tense, ready for action.

Bob was hunched forward against the steering wheel. Blood dripped from his face onto the wrinkled mess of white plastic lying in his lap. He groaned. His hands groped for something solid to push himself back into his seat.

Mary grabbed at his seat belt, wound it once around his neck, wrapped the slack around her forearm and pulled. Bob clawed at the woven belt. His eyes bulged. “Mary!” he gasped. “What are you doing?”

“I’m saving this child.” She braced a foot against the center console of the car and gave one last yank. Bob flopped forward, his face buried in the blood stained remnants of his deployed airbag.

The baby was screaming behind her. Mary unbuckled herself and kicked open her door. She moved quickly to free the child from its car seat, and held it close to her breasts. “There, there,” she whispered. “It’s going to be okay.” She coddled and rocked the screaming infant. “Shh. It’s okay. You’re okay.”

Haiku

Recently, I’ve taken to writing haiku.

Life is a struggle
We all seek some happiness
Among the ruins

I’m not exactly sure why.

Poetry is art
By imposing boundaries
All that’s left is craft

Perhaps because I find it a challenge.

Writing a poem
With seventeen syllables
Is no small effort

My engineering mind trying to solve a problem that has well-defined requirements.

The Haiku art form
Brief and concise poetry
In a straightjacket

I write haiku about all sorts of subjects.

Autumn’s breath blows cold
And all the leaves that were green
shiver and turn brown

Sometimes a song is a catalyst for my haiku.

Behind those blue eyes
An evil mind schemes and plots
Don’t trust that kind face

Other times, haiku will pop into my head while staring out the window.

Red breasted robin
Surveying my lush, green lawn
Worms crawl for cover

World events can be prompt me to write haiku.

Bullets ricochet
Along the corridor walls
Students lay bleeding

Or religion…

The Easter Season
A celebration of faith
Christ is arisen

…philosophy…

Wanting what you’ve got
And not having what you want
Leads to happiness

…or idleness.

Thinking aimlessly
Waiting for my muse to come
Paper is still blank

Whatever the reason, I enjoy the challenge.

Beautiful haiku
Seventeen short syllables
Three poetic lines

Follow my daily haiku tweets @ab1aw

 

Who’s Watching Me?

Admittedly, I don’t do much with this blog or this website. I’ve not been writing much since publishing Relic II. My leisurely interests and efforts have turned elsewhere; mostly to computer science projects, amateur radio, and the morass that some folks refer to as the American political process.  Oh, and binge-watching the last season of “Downton Abbey” (yes I so need to catch-up on so many things).

who-is-watching-me

I do check the viewing statistics on this site occasionally. I’ve included a snapshot graphic here that shows the distribution of views from various countries during 2016. Much to my surprise, I’ve an international audience (such as it is). I am curious as to who these folks might be.Most interesting is the distribution of non-English speaking countries in the list. In fact, the only other English speaking country on the list is Canada, with a paltry 3 views.

Now, I don’t know anyone in many of these countries, but I am curious as to how they learned of this site.Were they specifically looking for my site, or did they simply stumble onto it while searching for something more relevant to their own lives?

The most curious are the views from Brazil; second only to those from the U.S. As Brazil is not a English speaking country I am intrigued as to what drew them to view my content.

A similar curiosity exists for the other countries on this list. The only thing I can think of, other than this being the result of random internet searches, is that there is some interest in my thoughts about Neanderthals.

I’d love to gain a bit of insight as to what and why these folks visit my site. If you do visit, leave a comment. Let me know your thoughts. Perhaps I’ll be motivated to write more often.

 

Could Nurture Trump Nature?

The debate over whether nature trumps nurture has been an ongoing debate in the scientific and philosophical communities for years, if not centuries.

Humans, but only humans, have been the subject and focus of this debate, and with good reason. It is our species alone that possess the intellectual capacity for abstract thought, conceptual language, and the written word. These are all essential tools and factors that are necessary to alter the nature of, that is, to nurture, another human being’s thought process with the intent of changing their behavior.

What if there was another “platform”, another subject, a non human subject, to test this theory? Recent advances in paleontology, genetics, and neurobiology may provide us with such an opportunity.

Science has learned that the human brain is not as “hardwired” as once thought. The plasticity of our brains, that is that ability for the neurons and synapses to grow, change, and even heal, is proving to us that certain unique capabilities for learning (e.g. language acquisition and socialization skills) that are so easily displayed by the very young are not “locked down” when we reach adulthood, but actually can be extended into old age.

Is this capability limited to humans? There are few animals with similar body-to-brain mass ratios as humans that also possess sufficient brain mass (and hence neuron count) to imply the ability of the complex neurological dance that we call consciousness. Dolphins are closest, but the vast differences in anatomy and living environment present too many barriers to studying their intellectual growth and capabilities in a manner similar to studying human development. Great apes possess the anatomy, but not the required brain mass. We have no equal as a comparison.

However, that was not always the case.

Forty thousand years ago, our biological cousins, the Neanderthals, lived side by side with us. Paleontological evidence and research has suggested that Neanderthal’s brain mass was equivalent, and perhaps larger, than humans. Recent advances in genomic research, along with the complete sequencing of the Neanderthal genome, have given as the ability to create that “platform” for truly testing whether nature indeed trumps nurture.

Cloning a Neanderthal is within the realm of possibility. Humanely studying the growth and development of one or more would provide insight into brain development, intellectual capacity, language acquisition, and many other aspects of intellect far beyond what we can do today with humans as our only point of reference. Could brain plasticity extend to other species? Is there only one way to find out?

Could Neanderthals Be Baptized?

Bio-genetic technology is advancing faster than our ability to understand the ethical issues and consequences that arise from such capabilities. With the entire Neanderthal genome mapped, it may be only a short time before some daring scientists, along with a willing surrogate, clone and give birth to a real, live Neanderthal infant; a living being with the potential for intelligent thought equivalent, and perhaps even superior, to our own mental capabilities.

What then?

How would our laws, ethics, and religions deal with the what is essentially the resurrection of an extinct human species? What rights and protections would this child have? Neither human, nor ape, would it be considered property, like any other cloned animal? Or would it be guaranteed the rights and privileges we expect for ourselves?

Andrew Brown, Zach Zorich, and Heather Pringle are among many scientists and bioethicists who have explored the multitude of issues that would arise if a healthy Neanderthal child (or two, or three) were born.

We are possibly closer to this reality than you might think. Our technology frequently exceeds our laws and ethics. Only our morals stand between us and disaster.