A Library For Guantanamo
Give them stories. Let them read Henry James, Edith Wharton, Sherwood Anderson, Theodor Dreiser. Let them read Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald. And Styron, Roth, Didion, Bellow, Franzen. Open the treasure chest of the finest American authors, and let the prisoners at Guantanamo have access to those hearts and minds. Let them learn the diverse stories of America and, perhaps as a result, evolve any alleged perceptions of a nation of uniform thought. America is not a nation of uniform thought.
Yesterday, at the Aspen Institute Cultural Diplomacy Seminar in Washington, Virginia Representative Jim Moran spoke with former NEA Chairman (and acclaimed) poet Dana Gioia about the absence of reading options for prisoners at Guantanamo. Moran cited as, in his view, one of our past Administration’s great mistakes: the fact that these young, arguably still impressionable, men are offered only one book when they arrive—the Koran. In Moran’s view, this is a terrible mistake. Why offer them the one book with which they are likely most familiar? Why offer them something that has no chance to challenge or change the Way They See Us? Here we have, as Moran implied, an excellent potential audience for a low-cost act of cultural diplomacy: reading more about us.
Is it obvious or brilliant to conclude that the most important books we can give our prisoners are fine works of American literature, works which represent the rich diversity of our current cultural climate, and the history of literature in American life? “The way we counter negativity is with the arts,” Moran said.
Moran spoke of a dream for cultural diplomacy. In this dream, all great works of American literature would be translated into all languages. Availability would inspire access. And access might in turn inspire understanding. A compelling complement to Guns and Butter. “Hearts and minds” is a policy with rich history, but it is one that goes in and out of vogue. The time is now. If there is not a library available to all prisoners we take, whether at Guantanamo or in other security facilities across this country, are we failing to do something that, for very little additional cost, might make a difference?
Wallace Stevens; E.E. Cummings; Robert Pinsky; Mark Strand: our finest poets might have suggestions about which works they would include in this library. Books are not necessarily the solution or even the most effective tool for diplomats, but they do show something: we are not reducible to an emotion or an idea or a “party.”
Even if you hate Walt Whitman he remains connected to an idea of an essential American right: we are all interconnected, and we will fail to respect this fact at our peril. He put it better:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
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Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.
- The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
- Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
- These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.
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.
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