Country Rules! (Or AMERICAN IDOL--Part 2)

I've been asked whether I should reconsider my recent praise of AMERICAN IDOL as an admirably and characteristically American mixture of wisdom and consent.

 Although I can't really speak as an authority (having missed several shows), I can see that a revision is in order. The judges—by becoming uniformly uncritical—didn't provide the requisite wisdom. And so the will of the American people wasn't as informed as it might have been. 

That's not to say I don't like the two finalists. Both Scotty and Lauren have voices beautiful and true, and they have poise and judgment far beyond their teenage years. 

I'm also sort of happy that they're both country singers. The best popular American music comes out of Nashville these days—certainly it's distinguished by its high level of professionalism and its attention to the virtues associated with family, place, country, and God. 

Scotty has become a master of projecting such a country image and of really playing to his audience. His interplay with Lady Gaga (whom I also admire for her talent and self-control) was classic. She gave him the true criticism that he should be more conscious about singing directly into the microphone, given the softness of his deep voice. She said something vaguely naughty (but not nearly as naughty as it might have been) about how he should think of the microphone. He pretended, in effect, to blush and kissed the prominent cross around his neck (I didn't realize Baptists did that sort of thing). He then went on to sing a goofy version of “Youngblood” (a song about being shamelessly on the make—the inane lyrics for that reason among many should have embarrassed him more than the Lady). Scotty's mainstream manipulations have, in fact, been pretty shameless, and the judges have allowed him to get away with one “safe choice” after another in his performances. I really don't mean to criticize this uncannily mature young man. He will certainly be a country star; maybe he'll be president. But Simon wouldn't haven't have put up with his approach to what's supposed to be a singing contest. 

Lauren actually has a better voice than Scotty. And she is what she appears to be: A very nice pretty cheerleader from a good family in semi-rural Georgia with a wonderful gift. Scotty always plays (and probably is) the perfect gentleman. Lauren hasn't been a particularly gracious winner, and she's had meltdowns at the prospect of being eliminated (although let me add that her usual southern manners are impeccable). Her performances aren't particularly innovative or cutting edge; she's not all that literate musically. Again, I'm not being critical; I'm just describing a kid. Lauren's hometown of Rossville, GA is about sixty miles from where I'm sitting, and, if I had voted, I would have been tempted to vote for her both as the local favorite and maybe the most lovable or huggable of the contestants. One more point:  She's not a kid when it comes to song choice;  she knows who she is and what she can do well.

Both Lauren and Scotty have usually sung mainstream country hits, but, as far I know, never “classic country.” Scotty, for example, hasn't turned to Hank Williams (or Hank Jr.) or Waylon or Willy or Johnny Cash or Merle Haggard etc. He didn't even sing "Ghostriders in the Sky," which would have fit his voice perfectly. That's because the best country is about sinning, suffering and redemption. And he's not seasoned enough or deprived enough to have suffered or even sinned much. He still has to grow into being a real country singer.

These two “cornpone country kids”--an unfriendly characterization I wouldn't choose myself—have astutely defeated three rock performers of arguably superior ability, imagination, and musical literacy. They are the jazzy Casey, the “give metal a chance” James, and the classic rocker Haley. Simon would have talked them up more effectively and precisely for their more able "signature" performances, and he would have challenged Scotty and Lauren to ascend to their level or be eliminated. Haley, in particular, hung on way beyond anyone's expectations—delivering memorably growly performances of three genuine classics--“Riannon,” “Benny and the Jets,” and “The House of the Rising Sun.” And she got around to showing us—with his very competent, understated guitar accompaniment on her Zeppelin extravaganza—that she got her musical sophistication from her great-guy rocker dad. Simon would have told America pretty emphatically last week to keep her around, and that might have made a difference.

Again: Let me say that I really like the two finalists, and they displayed their extraordinary merit week after week. They were models of consistency and even “authenticity.” But they weren't pushed to be, as they say, all that they can be. The judges didn't judge. For Steven Tyler, everything and everyone is beautiful. This manner of indiscriminate praising, which I thought, early on, was the mark of a gentleman, just became lame. And the other two weren't any better. 

Of course, Haley's problem might simply have been that, by going the classic rock route, she was appealing to a demographic that probably doesn't vote in big numbers early and often. One of the problems of the consent feature of the show  is that you get to vote as often as you can as long as the lines are open.  That certainly is bias in favor of the opinion of teenage girls, and that has to help "Scotty the body."

One more point: The smashing victory of COUNTRY over ROCK (even classic rock) is more evidence to defend my proposition that AMERICAN IDOL is a conservative reality show.

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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.