Alexander The Great

June 26, 2008

Who or What is a Native American?

Filed under: Evolution,Science — alexanderthegreatest @ 9:11 pm
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Am I? It sounds like a dumb question, both the title of this post, and whether I’m a Native American. After all, my family came here from Russia. But I was born here, in California, as were my parents. (That’s not true – my father was born in Pennsylvania.) More or less by definition, I’m not only native and American, but I’m a native and not a naturalized American. The only sense I can’t properly call myself a “Native American” is the sense in which that phrase has taken on a specific meaning. One that doesn’t include me.Sitting Bull

I see three possible ways to define a Native American, and we’ve just struck one of them down.

  1. Being born in America, perhaps anywhere in the New World.
  2. Being of the line that became human in the Americas. In this sense, we’re all Native Africans, and we’re all equal.
  3. Being descended of the first (or first surviving) humans to reach the Americas.
  4. Being of the same “race” as anyone we would collectively term a Native American.

The racial definition (#4) is the one we share, and not very much unlike #3. The differences are subtle, but interesting. Most westerners would say #3 is the correct answer, and interestingly, it takes us back to silly #2. How is this possible? Let’s ask another question.

Who Were the First Americans?

This is a hotly debated topic, although much of the controversy has been settling down. There are two possible explanations (three if you accept the Mormon doctrine that the Garden of Eden was in Missouri). Either the first humans to set foot in the continents of the New World were Siberians crossing the Beringia steppe, probably in pursuit of large game, or they were Australians or Polynesians who survived a disastrous mistake and whose descendants have been driven almost to extinction in Tierra del Fuego.An mtDNA based migration map

There are uncontested artifacts from human settlements in Alaska, from about 13,000 years ago. In fact, there are many. What this means, is that nobody can doubt people really did cross Beringia, the Bering Land Bridge. But were they the first to set foot here?

In the most extreme example, a single pregnant woman with a male fetus may have survived an accidental journey to South America from Polynesia. The first use of boats must have happened around 30,000 to 50,000 years ago, by people reaching Australia from southern Asia. This wave of human expansion – the first to reach new land, never reached by our protohuman ancestors – continued to New Zealand and surrounding islands.

Many of the tribes on these islands kept in contact with their neighbors, sometimes near and far. It’s unlikely, but entirely possible, that one of these boats, aimed at a not too distant island, lost its way. Possibly in a storm – Polynesians today can read the waves and “sense” islands over the horizon the way many can read a face and see anger or anxiety. Ancient Polynesians traveling by sail and by oarThis is a finely honed skill, almost certainly not available in those ancient times. And yet, we should remember we’re talking about the world’s first sea farers. Even then, probably a large group set out, and a very small one survived the journey, if such a journey ever happened. When they landed, it was on the distant shores of a New World.

This “founder population” peopled the lands, and then was wiped out almost completely.

Most of the supposedly pre Clovis finds are in South America (Chile, Brazil, etc), as we’d expect. Monte Verde has been one of the more operatic chapters in our story, but is today widely accepted to have predated Clovis by at least 1,000 years. Humans lived in this part of Chile maybe 14,500 years ago. Among these finds are not only tools, but aloso human skeletal remains. Skulls found at many of these sites clearly resemble Australians, rather than the Mongolians who would become “Amerindians” of today. Mitochondrial DNA is ambiguous here, but modern day Tierra del Fuegans could be descended directly from the Polynesians they so closely resemble.

There are few of the coastal settlements we would expect to see on a “new” continent being populated by sea going people. Of course, this was during the last ice age, when much of the Earth’s water was locked in glaciers. The sea level was at the time much lower, so ancient coast we’d expect to find these sites near is underwater today. We need scuba divers to thoroughly explore the area!

What of the Bering Land Bridge (Beringia)?

The Bearing Sea today is about 50 miles at its narrowest point, and an average depth of 400 feet at its deepest. During ice ages, as we’ve seen, the waters retreat and lowlands rise up from the sea. The channel between Siberian Russia and Alaska opens up this way, exposing a land mass to connect the continents. This has happened countless times before mankind set foot on the bridge, and it will happen again – just not within our lifetimes.

Canada was a sheet of ice at the time, and not much else. It would be at least a millennium before our heros could cross to the south. When a corridor finally opened, running north by south across the Canadian ice sheet and letting out in the inland plains near Edminton, they found large animals with no fear of humans. These included elephants (well, mammoths, anyway), horses, giant sloths, saber tooth tigers, and more. Camels seem to have evolved here, as llamas, and crossed the same bridge, long ago under a very different climate.

At the all important Clovis site, a mammoth was found with a clearly man made spear tip in its ribs. Wherever mankind went, we managed to eradicate large game species. This is the “megafaunal crisis of the late Pleistocene” when animals that had survived millions of years died out within a few hundred. Giant lemurs, cow sized marsupial cats, and others have fallen victim around the globe, and it would be a surprise if we didn’t see it accompany the colonization of the New World. So why don’t we see this on the same scale in South America?

In any case, the Austronesian theory says the Bringia crossing was one way people came to the Americas, possibly out of many.

A time animated map of Beringia

Who Deserves to be Called Native, Then?

Personally, I’d say anyone born or raised in the Americas, but I’m probably trivializing the question. If the hypothesis is true that the New World was peopled through successive migrations, then perhaps all of their descendants should be called natives. Or none of them, since all came from somewhere else, ultimately. This is probably the wrong answer, though, because some level of evolution continued for many thousands of years, adapting people to their environments.


June 23, 2008

George Carlin, Rest in Peace

Filed under: Humor — alexanderthegreatest @ 7:41 pm
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What a sad loss, our first posthumous Mark Twain honoree. An entertainer who instigated social change, a master of the English language, and a man with enough courage to tell the truth in modern America, this is a severe loss to all of us. Rest in peace, George – we miss you already.

George Carlin

June 19, 2008

Bus Story

Filed under: Humor,Modern Life — alexanderthegreatest @ 10:07 pm
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There’s this woman who takes my bus in the mornings, gets on at the train station downtown. She’s about the size of John Candy, Santa Claus, and the Buddha, put together. Every time she gets on the bus, this woman barks “I need a seat!” and people scurry away like cockroaches being shot at. She needs two seats; if only one becomes available, the person in the second one gets squished against the hand rail, or just pushed off the seat if there’s no armrest. I’ve been that person before – you literally get shoved until this thing is pressing into your side and you need to pull yourself up by the bar.

So, this adult with Down’s syndrome gets on the bus a stop later. Bus pulls in, and the guy tries to hurl himself on like a handicapped version of Superman. Only, someone is coming off, so he stops, backs up to clear a space, then tries it again, but people are still getting out. A third time, nope!, then he finally manages to board. Dude has a giant smile plastered across his face, like “I made it!” He sits down across from Bertha, Destroyer of Worlds, who’s sipping on a jamba juice. Dude starts asking her about it. Keeps circling back to “that’s full of calories,” how many are there, smaller is better, all kinds of stuff, then he tells her he has a calorie counting book if she’d like it–

Right when homegirl started getting royally offended, is when we made it to my stop.

June 18, 2008

Let’s Not Make This Our Last Century

Filed under: Modern Life — alexanderthegreatest @ 11:03 pm
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“If all insects disappeared, life would vanish from Earth. If humans disappeared, all life would flourish.”

It’s only natural that we should hold our own interests above others, as a species or individuals. Nobody thinks we should resort to suicide to save the ant eaters. By comparison, life has managed to carry on for 4,000,000,000 years, give or take, without posing such a grave threat to itself. Why? It’s in our own vested interest not to wipe out life on Earth, because our grand children will need to live here, too. The insects know this. We know this, you and I – it’s only as a crowd that we lose sight. And it’s only when we become drunk on money (and oil!) that short term thinking is allowed to have a devastating impact on the long term.

Biology does everything it needs, from sonar to decalcification, with a limited subset of the periodic table. We use all of those elements, plus the toxic ones. Our effect on other life should be a wake up call to the effect we’re having on ourselves. Not only is the globe generally getting warmer, but asthma is a growing problem from air pollution, cancer from hair products and foods, etc.

We need to figure out how not to destroy ourselves (and everything else with us), because even if we have the technology in time, I don’t think very many of us will be happy trying to colonize space. Being confined to a space shuttle for years at a time can’t be that unlike prison.

June 12, 2008

Is Spam the Dominant Species?

Filed under: Evolution,Science,Software — alexanderthegreatest @ 12:09 am
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A friend told me we should round up all the spammers, and throw them off the Golden Gate Bridge, down to the sharks below. Trouble is, others will take their place. Spammers, sadly, aren’t a hereditary breed – it’s a learned behavior. (Almost Lamarckian!)

Even if you don’t agree about where spammers come from, we’ll have to agree there are too many of them. Spam is a very successful meme, a unit of cultural information that’s better than most at copying itself. In the realm of intellectual selection, spam is to be found far and wide in the meme pool. Spam is maybe a parasite working on (or against?) the get rich quick meme – if people stopped wanting a quick and easy buck, spam would vanish overnight.

What’s this rubbish about it being the “dominant species” though? We eradicated small pox, a more difficult and more important thing than going to the moon, and we’re losing the war against spam. It’s beating us. America gave fire water to the “Indians” to take their land – now, in some places, native casinos are using greed to take modern culture’s money. Spam is doing much the same thing.

Spam is a concept, an idea, that by producing a lot of useless drivel, a person can strike internet riches. It comes in a few varieties, from the email sitting in your box, selling you viagra and mortgages, to the affiliate and “search engine friendly” links in a forum and a blog. It’s PayPerPost, where a blogger can beat the 1849 gold rush by telling you how wonderful a sponge and a bank account are. It’s Digital Pointless, where you can buy other people’s Wikipedia and eBay accounts. Fine, that’s what spam is, but what are we? It’s hapless accomlices, we’re machines, some of us, that spam uses to copy itself.

All of this is Darwinian. If you have variation (spam, job, investment, invention), heredity (new spam is very much like old spam, but refined in its sales pitch or its delivery) and selection (spam filters, forum moderators, people seeing through it), you have evolution. This works in biology (genes), and it works in ideas (memes). If you have the struggle for existance among things that copy themselves, the one that’s better at making copies will come to dominate, to fill its world. Ladies and gentlemen, this is exactly what spam is doing – a digital thing filling its internet world. One of the dominant species in the meme pool.


This proves our point – bad spam, the least fit, failing in the struggle for existance.

June 7, 2008

Amazing Statistics

Filed under: Science — alexanderthegreatest @ 9:02 pm

Of course, that’s if any statistic can be called amazing?

90 % of everybody who’s been alive, has died. We should be happy that aging is the #1 cause of death, according to Nick Bostrom.

June 3, 2008

Letter to Laura Bush

Filed under: Humor — alexanderthegreatest @ 6:10 pm

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