Love your inner Neaderthal…

neanderthal_skull_big

 

Science keeps telling us little bits more about the origin of the beautiful creature…

A news story the other day took me back to Genesis chapter 4;

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. 3 In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. 4 And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, 5 but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

6 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? 7 If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

8 Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.”[d] While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The story in question concerned the latest research about our genome;

Most people living outside Africa can trace up to 4% of their DNA to a Neanderthal origin, a consequence of interbreeding between the two groups after the great migration from the contintent.

 

Anthropologists have long speculated that early humans may have mated with Neanderthals, but the latest study provides the strongest evidence so far, suggesting that such encounters took place around 60,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East.

 

Small, pioneering groups of modern humans began to leave Africa 80,000 years ago and reached land occupied by the Neanderthals as they spread into Eurasia. The two may have lived alongside each other in small groups until the Neanderthals died out 30,000 years ago.

 

Scientists led by Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig took four years to sequence the whole Neanderthal genome from powdered bone fragments taken from three females who lived in Europe 40,000 years ago.

How are the two related?

My suggestion is that both are part of our continued attempt to make sense of what we are and where we have come from.

The passages in Genesis hinted at how our process of becoming was not just a process of rational logical progress, but that our history is shadowed by darkness, conquest, fratricide. It suggests that way back at the start of the humanity project we were capable of terrible things on a petty whim.

The science tells us that people contain within us the history of our becoming in genetic code. Including the overwhelming of our Neanderthal brothers and sisters, by violence of by sexual submission. Cain kills Abel.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not seeking to make the Bible some kind of code for history, more suggesting that the meaning of one informs our understanding of the other.

Jim Crow- another letter!

Western ferries passing jim crow

Here I go again. I keep thinking that I will stop talking about this rock, and then I get sucked in again. This time I am responding to another letter in the local paper suggesting the rock can not be racist in origin or association for a whole set of reasons that seem to me to be at best questionable.

History is never value free- it tells the story we want it to tell, despite the best efforts of historical research methods. It serves our own world view.This was demonstrated most clearly recently by Michael Gove, our rather dreadful Education Secretary, who had a go at ‘left wing’ historians who described the first world war as an unnecessary slaughter in which lions where led by upper class fools. Gove suggested the first world war was in fact a ‘Just War’ in which Britain and her Allies responded heroically to German imperial expansionism. The reality of course is far more nuanced and complicated than can be painted by narrow dogmatic historical interpretations.

What story am I wanting my history to tell? Am I too captured up in a Marxist approach that sees history a struggle by the weak against the powers of empire?

Perhaps I am- but at the same time, I think that a history skewed towards an appreciation of the poor and disenfranchised is needed more now than ever. We live in a time of recession. We know that in such times there is a tendency to scapegoat, to caricature, to blame. For a brief while it was all the fault of the bankers. Now it is the fault of the benefits scroungers.

So every time I leave my front door and see the rock above, I find myself thinking of these images;

doll2

Picaniny

…and I end up composing another letter to the paper. The last one, honest!

Dear Editor

 

Thanks once again to John A Stirling for his detailed and helpful reply to my previous letter suggesting an information board next to Jim Crow rock. He makes several statements about the rock, which I would like to examine further. I do this with some reluctance as my original suggestion was an attempt to bring together polarised opinion, not engage in more sectarian opinionising.

A lot of our discussion has been about the origin of the name given to the rock, and whether the words ‘Jim Crow’ were understood at that time to represent a racist stereotype. John feels that this cannot be the case as 1) the rock was so named prior to possible American slave connections (as early as 1726) and 2) back in 1726 there were no houses in the area so the rock was unlikely to attract the attention of local residents.  There are some leaps of logic in these statements that you must judge for yourself, but the truth is we are unlikely to ever know for sure.

John also mentions an often repeated local belief that the name of the stone relates to a local builders yard. One of my friends researched this possibility as part of an educational dissertation- spending time digging into records, bother locally and in Lochgilphead. He was unable to find any evidence for the existence of any such business. Again, this is not to say it did not exist, more that we are unlikely ever to know for sure.

Next John mentions the possibility of the word ‘Crow’ being derived from ‘Croadh’- Gaelic for cattle and perhaps related to old Drover’s routes. However it seems to me unlikely as the rock is well away from known Drover’s routes (the nearest one being a crossing at Ardentinny.) However, once again, we are unlikely to ever know for sure.

John pointed us also to the apparent change in how the rock has been decorated- which appears to have become ever closer to what we understand as a ‘Golliwog’. Early photographs (1905) do indeed show the rock decorated with something more primitive, and with teeth. Could this have actually been meant to represent a crow? If so, why not with a yellow beak and with no teeth? Interestingly, there are other ‘Blackface’ stereotypes that include exaggerated teeth. However no one reading the words ‘Jim Crow’ in the 19th Century is likely to have missed the association with black people. Therefore it is perfectly possible that an existing local land mark was co-opted to a new racist purpose. Once again however, we are unlikely to ever know for sure.

What we do know however is that this area owes much of its early prosperity to the slave trade- from well before 1726. We know that in the great age of Clyde Steamers people promenaded the sea front and visited a many places of entertainment. We know that one of the most popular forms of entertainment were the Minstrel Shows. We know that racism has done terrible damage to millions of people the world over, and that one of the means by which this was perpetuated within popular culture was through the remarkably persistent Blackface stereotypes.

We can also be pretty sure that in anywhere else in the world, if the words ‘Jim Crow’ were emblazoned on a rock next to a Golliwog painting people would assume (rightly or wrongly) that it was making a racist statement. They might expect some kind of explanation as to why local residents allow such a thing to remain unexamined, unexplained, unchallenged.

So, we have a choice as to how we respond to this. We can accuse/deny, or we can display our uncertainty in a way that shows to others that we understand it, and have learnt something from the last few hundred years of local and international history.

Which brings us back to my suggestion of an information board.

God’s awkward squad; dissenting and the life of the Spirit…

History is littered with awkward difficult people who refused to conform. Their lives are often surrounded by conflict, particularly when their convictions confront the people in power. Think of all those Old Testament prophets.

What fuels this kind of dissent? It is often painted (by the after-the-event supporters of the dissenters at least) as a matter of conviction colliding with circumstance. I wonder however whether dissenters also are gifted/cursed with a particular kind of personality- a skew towards a simplistic world view, an arrogance even.

We can all think of people like this- they tend to be difficult to be around. Others shrink from the force of their opinion in groups, or retreat wounded from their harsh words and deeds. People I know who fit this category have often been an almost destructive force in the workplaces and groups I have been part of. They can often be far more focused on ‘the task’ than those whose task it is.

But, these people, for good and ill, are often those who we remember. They make milestones in our personal histories, and also in the history of mankind…

250px-John_Lilburne

I came across one such man recently when I was doing some reading about those dark times of the reformation (see this post on the Covenanters for example.) I say ‘dark’ because despite the tradition I come from celebrating this as a kind of glorious outpouring of freedom and enlightenment, it often took place in the context of much pain, bloodshed and heartbreak. The question I find myself asking over and over again is whether we can regard something as ‘good’ when so much evil is done in the name of Jesus. Can the ends ever justify the means?

I offer you this story by way of example (If you want to know more of the historical context that he lived in check out the aforementioned post);

John Lilburne aka ‘Freeborn John,’ 1614 – 29 August 1657

John was from a line of dissenters. His father was the last man in England to demand to be allowed to settle a legal dispute via trial by combat. By the 1630′s John was apprenticed to radical opponents of the religious times and already forced to flee to Holland because of his involvement in radical pamphlets.

He was a man whose bravery verged on lunacy. Whilst being whipped, pillaried and imprisoned, he continued unabated in writing, arguing and protesting what he called his ‘Freeborn rights‘. His writings about these were so powerful that he is credited by being a major influence on the fifth amendment of the American Constitution.

The English Civil War saw John become a soldier, rising to the rank of Colonel, a fiend of Oliver Cromwell. However, dissenters do not do well in terms of military discipline and he fell out with his superiors, and then, in April 1645, He resigned from the Army, because he refused to sign the Presbyterian Solemn League and Covenant, on the grounds that the covenant deprived those who might swear it of freedom of religion. In a time of religious extremism, John argued that he had been fighting for this Liberty among others, and would have no part of it.

Alongside such principled stands, John continued falling out with everyone around him- fighting vindictive public spats against former friends and allies.

He then redoubled his efforts to campaign for the freeborn rights of men. His views grew out of the radical movement known as ‘the Levellers‘, but John was more of a leaver than a joiner, so he refused to describe himself in this way.  He spent time in and out of prison, not just for his radical views, but also for his pursuit of former colleagues who he continued to attack in print.

And this became John’s life- fighting enemies to the left and right, raising high moral causes, in and out of jail, in and out of exile.

John began life as a Puritan, but ended it a Quaker. After all that violence, he had done with fighting, and came under the influence of a man of peace.

One epitaph written after his death was this one;

Is John departed, and is Lilburne gone!

Farewell to Lilburne, and farewell to John…

But lay John here, lay Lilburne here about,

For if they ever meet they will fall out.

Was this a great life? Certainly John did some great things but he seemed to be cast in the role of a stone-in-shoe for most of his life.

I am left pondering still the power of passion, faith and ideas, mediated through the mess that is humanity.

Thank God for dissenters.

And God save us from dissenters.

The measure of followers of Jesus, despite the context we are in, has to be the example that he set. He too was a dissenter, a table over-turner, a man who made no compromises to unjust ways of being.

But he was also a man who subordinated all things to love.

RIP Eric Hobsbawm…

Historian, marixist commentator and intellectual Eric Hobsbawm has died aged 95.

His is a name that has has stayed with me from being a student 25 years ago- someone who was prepared to look at history through the eyes of poor people. Who was prepared to analyse what have become by understanding the inequalities of power and wealth.

Emily has left school and is taking her higher/advanced higher qualifications at a Cardonald College- where she has chosen to study (much to her old dads pleasure) Sociology and Psychology. She is being exposed to all those old questions that excited me in the past (and the present.) How did we get here? Who is calling the shots? How could we be better- how could we organise ourselves so as to protect the poor and weak, and reign in the excesses of the strong and powerful?

Hobsbawm was a large part of this for me in the past. A left field calm voice who was able to speak with a quiet authority.

In praise of him, here are a few quotes (courtesy of the Guardian.)

On socialism and capitalism: “Impotence therefore faces both those who believe in what amounts to a pure, stateless, market capitalism, a sort of international bourgeois anarchism, and those who believe in a planned socialism uncontaminated by private profit-seeking. Both are bankrupt. The future, like the present and the past, belongs to mixed economies in which public and private are braided together in one way or another. But how? That is the problem for everybody today, but especially for people on the left.” 2009 Guardian article

On Tony Blair: “Labour prime ministers who glory in trying to be warlords – subordinate warlords particularly – certainly stick in my gullet.” 2002 interview

And from this essay;

…This was the way of thinking about modern industrial economies, or for that matter any economies, in terms of two mutually exclusive opposites: capitalism or socialism.

We have lived through two practical attempts to realise these in their pure form: the centrally state-planned economies of the Soviet type and the totally unrestricted and uncontrolled free-market capitalist economy. The first broke down in the 1980s, and the European communist political systems with it. The second is breaking down before our eyes in the greatest crisis of global capitalism since the 1930s. In some ways it is a greater crisis than in the 1930s, because the globalisation of the economy was not then as far advanced as it is today, and the crisis did not affect the planned economy of the Soviet Union. We don’t yet know how grave and lasting the consequences of the present world crisis will be, but they certainly mark the end of the sort of free-market capitalism that captured the world and its governments in the years since Margaret Thatcher and President Reagan…

…The test of a progressive policy is not private but public, not just rising income and consumption for individuals, but widening the opportunities and what Amartya Sen calls the “capabilities” of all through collective action. But that means, it must mean, public non-profit initiative, even if only in redistributing private accumulation. Public decisions aimed at collective social improvement from which all human lives should gain. That is the basis of progressive policy – not maximising economic growth and personal incomes. Nowhere will this be more important than in tackling the greatest problem facing us this century, the environmental crisis. Whatever ideological logo we choose for it, it will mean a major shift away from the free market and towards public action, a bigger shift than the British government has yet envisaged. And, given the acuteness of the economic crisis, probably a fairly rapid shift. Time is not on our side.

History of here…

Our house, circa 2003

We have just had a lovely couple of days with my brother Steve, his wife Kate and little Jamie. Lots of sillyness and laughter, too much food and not a lot of sleep. I only wish my sister could have been there too- but life has thrown us all into a complication of geography and distance.

This morning we intended to take a walk through Dunoon, but it was lashing down with rain, so we went to Castle House museum. I have only been once before- years ago- and we were wondering whether they would have any information about our house- who lived here previously, what it was used for etc.

Because here is where we are, and being fully here seems to me to involve an appreciation of connection- with family and friends now, but also with who has been here before us.

I discovered today that behind where we live there was an Episcopalian church- made of corrugated iron, which eventually burnt down. And a little further back into the woods is a mound that was thought to be a Roman Fort.

What we discovered about our house turned out to be a little more than we expected. Maps of the plot of land before the house was built, old land records listing the details of the person who built it, a Robert Donaldson, who seems to have been an instrument maker from Glasgow. We need to go back to dig a little deeper into the copper plate records, but another thing we discovered is that our house used to be a ‘nursing home’- not in the sense of elderly care, but rather a place where people went to give birth to babies, or to recover from illness. It was called ‘St Margaret’s nursing home’ and there are people alive today in Dunoon (and elsewhere) who were born here.

Scratch the surface, scrape back the paint and peeling paper, and there are whole lives laid out before us. The hopes, aspirations, triumphs, disappointments and tragedies of those who used to be here, but now are elsewhere.

It is humbling, but also makes me grateful.

(Not least as this week, Michaela and I have been married 21 years!)

The shadow cast- Culloden…

Ali phoned to tell me to watch this documentary tonight…

culloden

It is remarkably effective- telling the story of the fool-french prince, who thought he could take back the English throne by divine right, and by the blood of Highlanders.

And of the last land battle fought on British soil, in 1746, on a field near Inverness called Culloden.

The film tells of Highland brothers fighting on opposing sides, of how more Scots fought against the young Prince than with him, and of the terrible aftermath…

Well worth watching again- in case the version of Scottish History you subscribe to needs a to connect with the messy reality.

You can watch it again via the BBC i-player here.