Yes, Plan to Write a Memoir

We, the living, have won the history jackpot. As centuries go, the 20th century ranks as exceptional, a hard to fathom whirlwind. (The apocalyptic way Stalin and Hitler mass-murdered side-by-side.) But as the 20th century came to a close, the 1990s seemed too comfortable, like a pair of beige Keds worn with khaki pants, and an over-sized navy Gap sweater. As Chuck Palahniuk wrote in the nineties-defining novel Fight Club, “We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression.” Not anymore. One day, future historians will obsess over us.


Obvious to everyone, we’re at a major turning point in the world right now. Global economic crisis. Irrefutable signs of global warming. America hasn’t been this divided since the Civil War. We’re seeing the difficult re-election campaign of the first African American president. Technology continues to disrupt and evolve industries. Steve Jobs, who passed away almost a year ago, left behind a legacy of evening out the playing field for independent artists—a massive boon for culture. (Technology may even replace journalists.) And there’s been a wave of gun violence across America. As always, science is supplying the much-needed optimism with the Mars rover landing and the discovery of the Higgs Boson. At the turn of the 21st century, Tyler Durden of Fight Club should have his fill of "historical adrenaline."

So we here, standing on the edge of “something’s gotta give,” cannot take our thoughts and feelings for granted. Our voices are needed to capture this extreme time. Write a memoir. Primary sources, like memoirs, are invaluable to historians. Memoirs will not only make this time come alive for them, but they will provide crucial microscopes. Historians want to know, how did this person, living in this corner of the world, think, feel, get by or thrive.

Writing a memoir isn't reserved for the Churchills of the world; it is an invaluable gift to one’s family. Jerry Waxler, of the Memory Writers Network, explains:

“When I was a child, the prevailing opinion seemed to be that it wasn’t appropriate for adults to tell about their early lives. However, according to research by child-psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, parents who don’t tell their stories contribute to their children’s limited understanding of their role in the world. It certainly appears to have been the case for me. The way my parents and grandparents presented themselves, it felt like they dropped from the sky.”

Jerry and I connected over my grandfather’s Soviet memoir, which my grandfather Olexji wrote shortly before he passed away. His memoir has led me on an adventure through the Ukraine and Russia, to the offices of Oscar Award-winning producers, to a road trip through Wales, to giving talks in museums in Chicago and New York, and to meeting fascinating people I wouldn’t have met otherwise. While my grandfather wasn’t a writer by training, he wrote down the most compelling memories of his life which created vivid scenes for the reader. His stories of being a political prisoner tortured by the KGB in Ukraine bend time and space and make me feel as though I’m there, in his calming prayers to God from a hellish prison. My life would have been completely different without his memoir.

Looking back on our lives, we often see the experiences that, at the time, fell below our expectations were some of the most enriching and full of opportunity. It is one of those painful lessons of maturity to realize this, and to learn to appreciate the journey. Similarly, one should never take for granted that writing a memoir could change and enhance the lives of others in unimaginable ways.

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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.