Peter Shelton

A Kind of Madness

Posted in Uncategorized, Watch columns by pshelton on August 18, 2011

I maybe should have turned around when I got to the place where the spruce blowdown crisscrossed the trail like a giant’s pickup sticks.

It was totally impassable, but I really wanted to see what lay beyond, so I picked up my mountain bike for the umpteenth time and trudged into the scrub, though waist-high ferns and spikey old deadfall, way out and around until I could loop back, finally, to the trail again.

The four-wheelers who made this rogue doubletrack, twisting through steep old growth on the backside of Storm King, had given up and turned around at the big blowdown. At least one of them had been out earlier this season with a chainsaw. I’d passed quite a few places where they’d sliced through downed trees to reopen the route. But the giant tangle was too much for them, and they’d given up.

It was the trail itself that made me want to explore back there. I’d stumbled on it a couple of years ago while hiking in otherwise trail-less terrain. Where did it originate? Where did it go? Did it go down to the Cimarron River, or perhaps all the way to Silver Jack Reservoir? I wanted to find out. Foot travel wasn’t going to get me far enough fast enough, so I vowed to come back someday with the bike.

I wasn’t being particularly foolhardy. Ellen knew where I was headed. I had my cell phone, though I doubted very much if there was service in there. I had my tool kit for fixing a flat tire, or a broken chain. I had water and snacks. I had a jacket in case it rained.

But I was alone many miles from anywhere. I didn’t even have a map. My otherwise very good map of the Uncompahgre National Forest, frustratingly, placed its map key box right over the area where I wanted to go.

It became clear early on that I didn’t have the technical skills to ride this trail with any kind of fluency. It was root and rock-strewn and very steep in places. I had to walk big chunks of it, or at any rate I decided to walk certain sections of it rather than risk a nasty spill. And consequently I wasn’t covering the kind of distance I had hoped. Would the trail stay high below the spine of the Cimarron, or would it drop down into the aspens? When might I get a view beyond the primal woods? What was around that next corner?

The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Kolbert wrote this week about a Swedish evolutionary geneticist named Svante Pääbo who is trying to sequence the entire Neanderthal genome. He has already discovered that humans and Neanderthals interbred for some time before these “archaic humans” became extinct 30,000 years ago. All modern, non-African humans, from the Chinese to the French to the Americas, have between one and four percent Neanderthal DNA.

But what Pääbo really wants to find out is where we diverge. Maybe by laying out the human genome and Neanderthal genome, gene by gene, base by base – all three billion pairs of them – he can an answer the question of what, exactly, it is to be human.

What is it that makes us, unique among the apes, able to build complex, technological societies? What has made us the sort of animal that could discover DNA in the first place?

Is it language? None of the other, nonhuman apes has anything like our capacity to collaborate. We don’t know whether or not Neanderthals developed a language.

Is there an art gene that gave us the capacity to create wonder in others? The Neanderthals didn’t paint caves or etch stone for any reason other than purely utilitarian tool building.

What changed in the genome that made us so fabulously successful a species, that we alone in the archeological record have caused other species’ extinctions, including in all probability, the extinction of the Neanderthals?

Will it be possible, comparing the human and Neanderthal genomes, to find the particular mutations that make us who we are?

Pääbo framed his intrigue around the example of migrations. We know that Neanderthals expanded their range over several hundred thousand years. They moved west into Spain and east as far as Siberia. But they stopped where they reached water or some other significant obstacle. This is one of the ways modern humans differ from Neanderthals, Pääbo said.

By about 45,000 years ago, modern humans had already reached Australia, a journey that, even mid-ice age, meant crossing open water. Archaic humans “spread like many other mammals in the Old World,” Pääbo said. “[But] they never came to Madagascar, never to Australia. Neither did Neanderthals. It’s only fully modern humans who start this thing of venturing out on the ocean where you don’t see land. Part of it is technology, of course; you have to have ships to do it. But there is also, I like to think or say, some madness there. You know? How many people must have sailed out and vanished on the Pacific before you found Easter Island? . . . And why do you do that? Is it for glory? For immortality? For curiosity? And now we go to Mars. We never stop . . .

“If we one day will know that some freak mutation made the human insanity and exploration thing possible, it will be amazing . . . We are crazy in some way. What drives it? That I would really like to understand. That would be really, really cool to know.”

4 Responses

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  1. Tony Siciliano said, on August 19, 2011 at 5:34 am

    Reading this reminded me of when I was nine or ten years old and we were staying up at the family cabin at the base of Little Cottonwood Canyon. The stream that formed the canyon runs through the back yard. One day I packed a lunch and headed upstream, determined to find the source. Of course, I didn’t, but spent a magical day hopping from boulder to boulder alone with the rocks, water, and trees. It’s one of my most vivid childhood memories…..

  2. Mary Ann Dismant said, on August 19, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    Fascinating. A good exercise in mind stretching. (I’ll bet Ellen was glad to see you.)

  3. Tom Wilberding said, on September 8, 2011 at 4:36 am

    Interesting and romantic notion, that homo sapiens is a crazy wanderer. But think about it: when homo sapiens got to Australia, Madagascar, or Easter Island we were not the first living thing to arrive. These places were well populated with species who made the trip before us. Perhaps all life has a strong urge to survive and thrive by seeking better conditions.

    So maybe Pääbo should be looking for the gene that made Neanderthals so madly conservative.

    • pshelton said, on September 8, 2011 at 2:12 pm

      Very good points, Tom. The mysteries of all life defy (mostly) our puny attempts at understanding. That we try to understand is very human, I think.

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