At home in the Holiest of Holies

I’m reading archaeologist Gregory J. Wightman’s The Origins of Religion in the Paleolithic, and thinking hard about how we humans evolved over the past several million years with a “God-shaped hole” in our psyches. I haven’t found the answer yet, but Philosopher Alain de Botton suggested in a recent interview that it is culture that can serve to fill that genuine sense of void that many of us sometimes feel in our modern lives.

You only have to look at the architecture of libraries and theaters and universities that were built in the age of declining religion to understand that our ancestors sought to fill the gap by creating temples of art, temples of culture, temples of learning, where we would congregate as we had previously done in the temples of religion.

National Gallery & St. Martin-in-the-Fields

I have certainly sensed the numinous in the great museums of the world, among the graves of poets, composers, and scientists, and deep inside a Neolithic passage tomb.

Entrance stone at Newgrange

Culture and the knowledge that it’s built on — but, most importantly, the processes and methods that increase, transmit, and store that knowledge — represent all that is good and holy about our species. While museums that house our art and science are certainly worthy of reverence, for sheer density of knowledge it’s hard to find a better temple of culture than a library.

The Guardian recently published a gorgous photo essay (though I’m unable to re-share their photos) of the most beautiful libraries in America. I’m proud to say that two of these libraries are right here in Seattle. In fact, for the first three months after I started up my previous company’s new Engineering hub, my team and I met each Friday at the Seattle Central Library, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus.

Seattle library main branch overhead

I haven’t yet visited the Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington, but its Gothic Revival architecture certainly evokes European cathedrals, proving Alain de Botton’s point about 19th-century architects of secular institutions.

MK03235 University of Washington Suzzallo Library

Since appending “5 more museums to visit before I die” to my list of favorite museums back in 2009, I’ve visited several of them (the Met in New York, the Prado) and it may be time for a new list that includes museums I hadn’t anticipated loving so much (MOMA, Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid).

And the Guardian has provided a convenient list of new places for pilgrimage I hope to visit in my lifetime.

What Stephen Hawking missed about the nature of human intelligence in PBS’s “Genius”

Back in 2012, Stephen Hawking visited Seattle and I had the privilege of attending a lecture he gave titled “Brane New World.” Now, I know from a statistical standpoint that I’m above average in intelligence, and I’ve read widely and deeply in physics and cosmology — I read Einstein’s Relativity: The Special and the General Theory when I was 15. And yet, I struggled to follow pretty much anything Hawking talked about. On my own in the darkened auditorium, being a statistical “genius”[1] did not alone enable me to understand the concepts of M-theory in his lecture.

This week, PBS launched a new, six-part series titled “Genius with Stephen Hawking.” Hawking narrates, and the show follows a trio it describes as “ordinary people”[2] through a sequence of exercises and experiments in which they uncover key concepts in physics and cosmology.

Stephen Hawking

At the beginning of the first show, Hawking addresses the team as “my budding geniuses.” Over the course of the show, they successfully conclude that backwards time travel is impossible due to the fundamental laws of physics, while the rather counterintuitive forwards “time travel” (beyond our prosaic movement through the fourth dimension as we live our lives) is a very real possibility thanks to the effects of gravity on space-time. Because time itself travels more slowly the closer one is to a major gravitational source, traveling relative to such a source — toward or away — causes a desynchronization of how the traveler experiences time from the “absolute” time at the traveler’s point of origin. For example, orbiting the supermassive black hole likely at the center of our galaxy for a while without falling into the event horizon and then somehow managing to escape back out would give us the experience of leaping “forward” in time when we return. Finally, having proven that even “ordinary people” can reach the conclusions of the great scientific minds of history, Hawking ends the show with the imperative “Think like a genius.”

But there is a fundamental flaw in Stephen Hawking’s logic (well, at least the logic of the show’s writers — Hawking himself is not actually credited as a writer). Unlike my poor solitary brain in that dark theater here in Seattle, each of the teams on the shows that aired this week benefited from two of the evolutionary advantages that have enabled our species to walk, row, sail, and ultimately fly out of the confines of our ancestral homelands.

What the show fails to highlight, focused as it is on physics and cosmology rather than paleoanthropology or evolutionary biology, is that the participants are benefiting from distributed cognition and altruism — attributes innate to how the human mind works. By operating as a cooperative team, with access to the information and technology humans have built up over the past 200,000 years, they are able to arrive at the same innovative breakthroughs that individual geniuses have over the last 400 years of unbounded scientific discovery. Each team of “ordinary people” is also a diverse group, and they complement each other as they explore concepts in relativity, cosmic scale, and the probability of the existence of intelligent life beyond our solar system.

But even those singular geniuses of the past have acknowledged their debt to the work of previous thinkers. Isaac Newton famously said in 1676, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Today, Hawking stands on Einstein’s shoulders, who stood on Newton’s shoulders, who stood on Copernicus’s shoulders. It’s geniuses all the way down!

Through education and technology, each of us benefits from the giants whose shoulders we stand on. This is no less true with my college degree and iPhone today than it was 43,000 years ago when our ancestors taught their children how to carve musical instruments from animal bones. Because we all benefit from the accumulated culture of our species, we are indeed able to be geniuses.

So Stephen Hawking tells us, “Think like a genius.”

Due to the ambiguity of plurality in the second person in English grammar, Hawking leaves it open to us to interpret whether he is speaking to each of us individually, or all of us collectively. I prefer to believe that he means the latter. We are all stronger, better, and ultimately smarter together. Human intelligence exists not merely at an individual level, but as a result of the tools, artifacts, information, and meaning that we carry with us from one generation to the next.

Yes, Professor Hawking, thanks to the brilliance of all those who’ve gone before, we will indeed think like one monumental, collective genius.

[1] What this means is that there are about 700 million people smarter than me in the world today. That’s a lot of people. I find the concept of individual genius essentially meaningless.

[2] C’mon, PBS, you just mean “non-scientists.”


A Paleolithic typology joke

François Bordes on how to tell the difference between a Mousterian point and a convergent scraper:

The best way to decide is to haft the piece and try to kill a bear with it. If the result is successful, then it is a point; if not, then it should be considered a convergent scraper. One of the problems with this approach is that it can quickly exhaust the available supply of bears or typologists

– As paraphrased by André Debénath and Harold L. Dibble in Handbook of Paleolithic Typology: Lower and Middle Paleolithic of Europe (1994)


Grizzly by “Life as Art” on Flickr

The detritus of hominid existence

Debénath & Dibble on the sheer scale of what lies beneath:

Handaxe by John FrereImagine … that during the time of the Acheulian in Europe, which lasted for at least 500,000 years, there was a constant population of 5,000 active tool makers. Imagine also that each of these flintknappers made only ten bifaces per year and perhaps 100 flake tools. Even with such conservative parameters…, this would have resulted in the production of 25,000,000,000 bifaces and 250,000,000,000 flake tools, of which only a minuscule proportion has been collected during the history of Paleolithic research.

– André Debénath and Harold L. Dibble in Handbook of Paleolithic Typology: Lower and Middle Paleolithic of Europe (1994)

Of mammoths past and mammoths future

In the entrance hall of the Historical Museum of Hokkaido stand two enormous skeletons — a mammoth and a Naumann’s elephant, another type of woolly, Pleistocene proboscidean native to Japan. By the time I visited the museum at age three or four, I had seen living elephants at the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo and the Maruyama Zoo in Sapporo. The enormous curved tusks arched over my head, and I knew instantly that I was in the presence of something altogether different and wonderful.

Historical Museum of Hokkaido ticket

An artifact: My mother saved the entrance ticket to the museum

We walked past cases of Jomon pottery and through the dark halls of ethnographic dioramas depicting Ainu lifeways. The museum opened just a few years earlier, in 1971, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Western-style colonization of Hokkaido by ethnic Japanese people following the Meiji Restoration. Hokkaido today is full of beautiful Victorian buildings that would be at home in any of the nicer neighborhoods of San Francisco, Chicago, or Seattle. As is typical the world over, the process of colonization did not go well for the aboriginal peoples. But I’ll save a discussion of the complexities of modern Japan as a multiethnic society for another day…

I got scared of the strange, dimly lit mannequins with their beards and furs, so my mother took me outside to walk around on the museum grounds, where we encountered a rock wall of hand stencils like the ones I’d see when I grew older, a motif that ties together Paleolithic cultures the world over.

Despite my fear, from that moment on, I became fascinated with humanity’s shared past. I needed to understand those other people who lived in a time when mammoths and aurochs roamed the open steppe. By the time I was 5 had learned that people who studied deep human history were called archaeologists, and the people who dug up mammoths were called paleontologists. As awed as I was by that mammoth, it was the people who intrigued me. Following the invariable fireman phase and a brief flirtation with wanting to be a ballerina (after seeing the Bolshoi Ballet perform Swan Lake), I knew I wanted to become an archaeologist.

When adults asked me, I would inform them of this fact, to which most would say, “So you want to dig up dinosaurs? That sounds like fun!”

“No,” I would reply, “That’s a paleontologist, like Louis Leakey in Africa. I want to become an archaeologist.”

By the mid-80’s, adults would then follow with “Oh, of course, like Indiana Jones!”

I’d sigh and say, “No, not like him. Indiana Jones is just a grave robber. I want to be like Heinrich Schliemann. He discovered Troy.”

Large proportions of my education having consisted of back issues of National Geographic and old sets of Encyclopædia Britannica, I was, in hindsight, rather insufferable.

There really are moments in the course of your life when it shifts to a new direction. In the years since, I’ve collected Jomon potsherds from carrot fields in Yokohama, participated in digs (the Tategahana Paleolithic site at Lake Nojiri and Tall al-`Umayri in Jordan), held Neanderthal tools in my hand, and pondered axial precession under Newgrange.

And yet, nothing will ever compare to my first sight of a mammoth skeleton that day back in Hokkaido. Some day, perhaps I’ll see one in the flesh…