Kieran, Please Come Over For Gay Sex
Excellent summary of recent discoveries in human evolution by John Lanchester in the LRB1. Lucid writing. When I worked on the evolution of skin and hair colour, I was always puzzled about the way a single find of skeletal remains could pivot a whole narrative of how we got here. N-of-1s, are tricky. In recent years many remains have been discovered and, amazingly (because it is amazing), using DNA we can literally spy on the past, not quite in real time, but in a way that when I was a medical student would have seemed like science fiction.
Another thing that I never understood was why these remains were often found in caves. Is that where the action was? John Lanchester put me right — to an extent.
In the case of the Neanderthals, the sense of distance and the sense of strangeness are stronger; empathy seems both more necessary and more remote, harder to access. I have stood at the site of a Neanderthal shelter at Buoux in the South of France and been hit by an overwhelmingly strong feeling of remoteness, the idea that these people, these similar-but-different humans, were so far from anywhere human and place-like that they must have been hiding from something. Their very existence — we now know there were only a few tens of thousands of Neanderthals alive at any one time — seems contingent and marginal. What were they trying to get away from?
But that’s bollocks. That sense of remoteness, of distance from and hiddenness, are a side effect of humanity’s planetary domination: the only places where traces of the deep past remain are places we haven’t built over or crushed underfoot. There could be Neanderthal remains all around where I’m writing this, but I live in London and those traces, if they ever existed, are long and permanently lost. We find evidence mainly in caves because they’re the only places where remains haven’t been washed away by time and the human present. This is the same reason the far past continues to make news: we are constructing knowledge from scraps and fragments, and big new discoveries have the potential to rewrite the story.
Bollocks, as he says. As for my title, well, the best mnemonics at medical school tended to be rude. Lanchester writes
If you’re having trouble remembering the sequence of kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species, I can recommend the mnemonic ‘Kieran, Please Come Over For Gay Sex.
In truth, mnemonics never did much for me.
‘Fellatio, Masochism, Politics and Love’. And Hwyl…
The above was the title of a book by Leo Abse, the Labour MP for Pontypool when I was growing up in Cardiff. I do remember my parents mentioning his name, although I am not certain what their views of him were. As the Economist writes.
A little after 10pm on Monday July 3rd 1967, just as most sensible Britons were turning in for the night, the member for Pontypool was warming up. Leo Abse (pronounced Ab-zee) had been working the tea rooms of the House of Commons all day, charming and cajoling his fellow MPs in his rococo tones—a little flattery here, a white lie there. Now he slipped into the chamber, turning heads as always in spite of his short frame. Settling in his usual perch on the Labour government’s benches, his mischievous eyes darted about the place, searching out both his “stout fellows” and his foes. If his bill were ever to get through, tonight was surely the night.
His bill, printed on the green pages each MP clutched, was plain enough: that, in England and Wales, “a homosexual act in private shall not be an offence provided that the parties consent thereto and have attained the age of twenty-one years”
Abse what a colourful character in all sorts of ways. His WikiP entry gives you some flavour. His second marriage was to Ania Czepulkowska, in 2000, when Abse was 83, and she fifty years younger. A bust of him was unveiled in 2009 at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, but his nomination for a seat in the House of Lords had been vetoed by Margaret Thatcher. What would you expect?
- The title of the article is Twenty Types of Human: Among the Neanderthals and he is reviewing Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art by Rebecca Wragg Sykes. Bloomsbury, 400 pp., £20, August, 978 1 4729 3749 0 ↩