A Metastatic World

I want to think about garbage today. Driving home from the store, I made an informal census of the garbage by the side of the road and in the green spaces in our neighborhood. The vast majority of the garbage and pollution has one cause: our newfound unwillingness or inability to eat and drink in one place, more or less designated as a place to eat or drink—a restaurant, dining room, kitchen, or café. Whatever its particular source, be it Starbucks or Dasani, the garbage comes from this one deeper wellspring. It's comprised of plastic bottles, soda cups, coffee cups, fast food wrappers, Royal Farms chicken boxes and the like.


Imagine that we were still eating and drinking water in specific eating places and at specific times—remember when people mostly drank water with meals?—and, magically, much of the urban detritus, and indigestion, disappears.

The larger predicament here is cultural metastasis. Things and activities that belong in one place and one time are creeping into other places and times where they don’t belong. Like invasive, non-native flora, they proliferate, and bring distress and trouble, along with liberty and flexibility.

This is true of dining and drinking, which are now portable, mobile activities that occur in cars, on the street, or at a desk, leaving a trail behind them.

The metastasis has so many other examples.  Cell phones and social media bring personal, intimate conversations from the private space of the home into the public spheres of the commuter train, the stores, and the streets.  Movies metastasize from the public space of the theater to the tablet; education, from colleges and schools to desktops; commerce moves from stores to devices.  I never thought I’d feel a faint nostalgic pull for the old camaraderie of… a mall.

These same technologies metastasize work from a designated place, the office, into the home.  For many professionals, work has no time and place; indeed, there is no end to it, and no form to it. In several jobs, one is never “at” work and therefore never not at work.

Of course, most of history is a story of movement and displacement of one kind or another—in ideas, people, geography, or spaces. Cities are born and die. People move from point A to point B, in mass migration; commerce shifts from downtown to the mall; residences move from urban cores to suburban developments, and the plates and fault lines of history shift accordingly.

What makes the metastasis of the 21st century so unique is that one place isn’t being replaced by a new place (a literal re-placement). Instead, one place is being replaced by no place, or placelessness. What used to have a place now has none, but is a mobile, autonomous, fluid, unbounded activity.

This creates a lifestyle miasma.  I imagine us as jellyfish—formless, without turgid boundaries and spaces to give our lives structure and rhythm. Or, maybe we’re more like snails, who transport our lives with us wherever we go, on our backs.

It may be a good thing, and a source of freedom and creativity. Maybe only weak people need places, cubicles, blocks, and houses to define them, or place-based rituals to shape their lives. There’s a tendency in the U.S. to link freedom to the obliteration of constraints or boundaries, of any kind, and to imagine it, like the mythic image of the western frontier, as a vast space of emptiness.

But as common places and experiences fracture, and even things as basic as dining and working occur with random placelessness, on what basis do we have the shared social place, experience, and ritual that knits society together.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

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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.