If Romney is Thurston Howell III, then Obama is The Professor

Did I really see that last night? The debate was a bad horror movie for liberals and progressives such as myself, who support Obama. It was Attack of the 50-Foot Etch-a-Sketch, Deluxe Edition vs. “Night of the Living Dead.”

In a strange personality transplant, Obama came across visually and emotionally as the irritated, removed, imperious Chief who did not want to be interrupted, thank you very much, challenged, questioned, or, in this case, noticed, while Romney cut against the grain of his own policies, personal history, and character to seem earnest, passionate and even occasionally wry.

When he wasn’t looking irritated that Romney had shown up for the debate, piercing into the President’s face as my cats do before they move in for the kill,  Obama was buried in his books. He stood at the lectern and sought refuge in scribbling notes, seemingly oblivious that he was on a split screen the entire time.

Obama didn’t go so far as to look at his watch, as President Bush famously did in the 1992 debate, but it amounted to the same message. Get me out of here, please.

The content was worse. 

If Romney channels Thurston Howell III from Gilligan’s Island, as David Brooks sagely noted in a recent column, then Obama channels The Professor.

Eschewing all the bull’s eyes and obvious targets for retort and argument against Romney, he reverted under stress to what I believe is his most intuitive, default character: that of the academic who views the world at an insulated, safe remove.

This is the world from whence I came. Although I don't think academics make for good politicians, as I'll explain, I do like them as a group.

Like professors everywhere, Obama seemed to lack self-awareness of his own importance or presence. Humanities professors—aside from the few who become celebrities—can more or less say anything they want, as unintelligibly, incoherently, complexly, imprecisely, uncrisply, meanderingly, or ambivalently as they choose, because no one really listens, or takes them all that seriously outside of the confines of their world. Once they get tenure, even fewer people in their departments care.  

This is why university press books feel like a success if more than, say, 500 volumes are sold. The audience is small, the stakes smaller.

Professors seek insight, refuge, argument and solace in the weeds. Their great role is to view the world at an analytic remove. They are people who would, as did Obama last night, nod in apparent agreement while they were being eviscerated on-stage by an opponent’s arguments against them! What’s up with that?

Academics can mumble their way through answers to cover all the bases, with little fear that anyone will consider their comments of that much consequence.

Lest I sound critical of academicians (hah!), one of their great virtues is that they know where they stand, and they know their place in the world of ideas.

They’re not aspiring to write commercial bestsellers. They’re not giving lectures to be maximally succinct, crisp and “zinger”-like. Their lives are dedicated to “the weeds” that the rest of us would rather not have, or see, or slog through as we garden. And I'm glad that we have them.

Many humanities academics would consider the world of real politick, journalism, and non-academic publishing or media to be somewhat cheapening to their complicated ideas and conceptualizations.  

And that incredulity came through last night, too, with Obama.

He seemed almost defeated or hopelessly jaded--or, even bored???--toward the very office that he holds and aspires to keep.

Indeed, one of the most aggravating features of humanities academicians, to me, is that in the post-modern age they tend to view the quality of optimism that is the pulsing lifeblood of mainstream politics or social work to be an example of stupidity. The only intelligent stance is, of course, the ironic, and the wryly skeptical, the belief as novelist Scott Spencer describes of one character, that "the world is filled with vanity, stupidity, and darkness and even those who would want to do good" are lured into destructiveness "by their own incomplete thinking."

Obama offered “HOPE” as his very campaign slogan in 2008, but seemed to slither back into the more ironic, distanced stance in this debate. I almost get the sense that DC has disappointed Obama and left him without the reserves, whatever they may be, to crack the puzzle--even to crack the dishonorable, organized GOP resistance against him.

The bad debate performance exemplifies a frustration with this administration—the extent to which Obama hasn’t embraced politics or done the sleeves-rolled-up, Lyndon Johnsonian political work to effect change. 

And unlike true professors, last night Obama paired dithering, academic content of someone with no power with the irritated, imperious mannerism of someone with power.

It was a losing combination.

One more thing. On the list of the low-hanging fruit left hanging we can add that Obama’s commanding lead among women voters went unexploited. There was no reinforcement of this flank, of the women’s issues that have been so galvanizing in this campaign.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

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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.