Stephen Carter's Palace Council Dredges Up Memories of Paradise Lost

While I was out of town last week I got a lot of reading done. One of the books I picked up was the paperback version of Palace Council by Stephen L. Carter, the Yale law professor who burst onto the fiction scene a few years ago with The Emperor Of Ocean Park . This fiction debut was a thriller situated in an Ivy League setting whose black protagonist roamed through the lives and loves of upper crust African Americans as he searched for his father’s killer.

Carter works at the opposite end of the spectrum from Walter Mosley, who wrote one of the other books I read last week, a detective story called The Long Fall. Mosley’s book was a little long in the tooth, with too many digressions and too many generalizations about race, but it whet my appetite for another thriller with an African American protagonist.

Mr. Carter did not disappoint.

He began back in the fifties, with a cast of black characters who seemed like they had risen straight out of a Carl Van Vechten picture book, still wearing the furs and jewelry and the snobbish attitudes that had drawn Van Vechten to them in the first place. After reading Mosley, Carter’s prose seemed surgically precise, if a little pedantic at times. He weaved biblical excerpts, actual historical facts and abstract legal concepts into his plot with a soothing rhythm, developing a distinct but predictable tempo in each chapter.

Until he got fancy, and threw Milton’s Paradise Lost into the mix.

That one addition blew the whole fictional world Professor Carter had been so painstakingly constructing for my enjoyment all to bits.

I had been reading in public, and now I was talking out loud, as if Stephen Carter could hear me. “Paradise Lost is a f***ing clue? Are you serious?”

I was flabbergasted, partly because I was one of the few brave souls who has read Paradise Lost in the last hundred years, but mostly because seeing the name of the book dredged up memories of how it came to be that a sixteen year old high school student ended up doing a major research paper on John Milton’s famously difficult epic poem.

I had gone from being a kind of nerdy guy with Coke bottle lenses in my glasses as a freshman to a kind of nerdy guy with Coke bottle lenses in my glasses who was now a member of a bunch of student run organizations as a junior. So the semester research paper deadlines were easily overlooked. The day before we had to make our selections, I was in the school’s library, running late for a meeting, trying to pick out a book to research from the list of acceptable choices the teacher had given us.

I showed up in class later that day, still no closer to making a decision on which book to chose, when I saw the name Paradise Lost on the approved book list. I will never forget the way the teacher peered over her glasses at me when I answered “Paradise Lost” after she had called my name to ask what book I’d chosen.

I don’t think I’ve ever studied as hard as I did when I found out, a couple of weeks later, with my rough draft deadline looming, that this was a several hundred year old book, a major poem whose Cliff’s Notes ended up only being a preliminary guide to the shelves full of critiques that centered around this one little book.

Indeed, the widowed Aurelia Garland, one of the book’s main characters, was portrayed as a scholar with a doctorate in literature who had never read anything by Milton.

Aurelia studied the yellowy pages of the book. Her dissertation topic had been the response of European writers to Negro abolitionists, with a special focus on Martin Delany and his novel, Blake. She had never read Milton. An undergraduate degree in English, a doctorate in literature, and she had never read Milton

From Palace Council by Stephen Carter  

If you were to base your observations about this particular clue in Palace Council and the author’s choice to use it on the knowledge modern day people would have of the works of John Milton, the way I did all the way through the rest of the book, you would think the author had gone too far. It didn’t come to me until I was halfway through writing this piece that my parents and their friends all know who John Milton was, and most of them have at least a rudimentary understanding of the book’s storyline.

 Maybe it is a sign of the times, where the app store has replaced the library, GPS has taken away the sense of place one gets from reading a physical map, and text messages and social media have reduced the chances of developing deep, wide ranging conversations. Where most of the classics that are studied in school these days comes from nineteenth and twentieth century literature.  

In spite of the lingering images of piles of notecards sprawled across a library table, and the searing memory of the four or five other books critiquing this poem that I had to  read in order to understand it, I got to the end of Palace Council. Although it was more sprawling and less intimate than The Emperor of Ocean Park, with too much time spent during the second half of the book explaining why the newer black characters were as important as the original lineup, it was still an enjoyable read.

I should be fully recovered from my Paradise Lost flashback by the end of the week.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.