Open Thread – October 23rd, 2010

By Razib Khan | October 23, 2010 9:44 am

2843169400_3449d772dbAutumn is here. And winter is coming.

The fresco to the left is the cover jacket illustration for Why we’re all Romans, a new cultural history which attempts to argue for the unique debts of Western civilization to Rome (in particular as a mediator of the wisdom of the Greeks and Hebrews). If you’re on the culturally conservative side it might be of some interest, it sports endorsements from a Fellow at the Hoover Institute and E. Christian Kopff. The fresco is from Pompeii, explaining its good state of preservation and present day fame and ubiquity. The man’s name is Terentius Neo, a wealthy merchant or magistrate apparently. The woman is presumed to be his wife. A strange question to throw out: am the only one who thinks that he resembles Laurence Fishburne? The fresco is used a lot because of its quality and prior fame, but I always start thinking of something ludicrous like The Matrix when I see it.

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  • Razib Khan

    How to Get Unfriended on Facebook. lee siegel continues to say stupid things: “Unfriending reflects the instrumentalization and commodifying of friendship on Facebook,” said Lee Siegel, author of “Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob.” “Why unfriend someone at all? After all, in the real world, you don’t just ignore an obnoxious relative. The very act of unfriending acknowledges that the Facebook definition of friend is different from the traditional.”

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  • onur

    One doesn’t need to be Black to resemble Laurence Fishburne. Here is a photo (the big photo) of a famous male singer from Turkey:

  • Razib Khan

    well, ancestrally he’s obviously of some european ancestry. though the particular features aren’t race-coded to me anyhow.

  • Lars

    Is there any evidence for changes in faces and skulls over the last 2000 years in Europe? I think I read somewhere about eastern european skulls from the middle ages having pronounced brow ridges. I can see a difference between North American Europeans and Euro-Europeans – North Americans seem to have larger, squarer chins .. especially the further west you go.

  • Razib Khan
  • onur

    But is that (=the trend reported in the BBC article) a worldwide trend or limited to some corners of the world like Britain?

  • Georg

    Is there any evidence for changes in faces and skulls over the last 2000 years in Europe?
    Faces, I dont know. But sculls changed and are still changing in Germany and adjacent
    countries. This is called “Verrundung”. Sculls were more lengthty formerly,
    since centuries they become more circular (seen from above).
    Another thing is “Grazilisierung”, all bones become less compact
    (i. e. more “filigrane”) since end of ice age. This is seen in Europs graves
    but as well in north-east Asia. Is there something similar in the Americas?

  • Razib Khan

    all populations have gotten more gracile, on average, since the end of the ice age.

  • Insightful

    Razib, brain size has also gone down in all populations since the end of the ice age. Prof. John Hawks says that we’ve lost as much as 150 cc and that if we lose another 150 cc in the coming millenia we would be back to homo erectus brain size again! I don’t know if this is good and Prof. Hawks doesn’t say what this means either. By the way, doesn’t this kind of go against what the article from the BBC is saying? Hawks says brain size has gone down. The BBC article says our vault has gotten 20% bigger. So which is right?

  • Razib Khan

    got no insight on that #10.

  • Sandgroper

    I am informed by a student of human biology that there is something called the “obstetric dilemma” or “obstetrical dilemma”.

    Big headed baby + small birth canal = problem.

  • bioIgnoramus

    I can see it’s a problem, ‘groper, but why is it a “dilemma”?

  • Sandgroper

    bio, you are definitely asking the wrong person! :(

    I think it is a dilemma because, having become bipedal and developing smaller birth canals as a result, the only two solutions for us were either to retain small brains rather than increasingly larger ones, or for babies to be born increasingly developmentally premature, neither of which was desirable. At least two solutions, both undesirable = dilemma.

    Obviously, what occurred was the latter, Homo babies have been born increasingly developmentally premature. I assume there is some lower bound to that below which the offspring would no longer be viable. So the solution cannot be endlessly applied as our birth canals continue to become increasingly small. Anyone who has been present at a human birth and looking at the right place (or wrong place, depending on how you feel about it) knows it’s not an easy process, particularly the first time – and if the first time kills the mother, there is no second time.

    The reference to John Hawks’ observation that modern human brains have been getting smaller again, which I had also seen, and Razib’s observation that we have become more gracile since the end of the last glaciation, got me idly pondering about whether this process of gracilization has created selection pressure for smaller brains – some tipping point has been reached, the old solution no longer works because the babies couldn’t survive, and so a new solution has to be found, which is for the brains to get smaller again.

    But I am definitely not the right person to try to think that through or identify evidence to support it, and my resident advisor on human biology has no interest in discussing it with me, as she informs me it is “outside the rubric” (in other words, my idle uneducated crackpot musings are not worth dicussing in the absence of evidence, because they won’t score her any marks in exams – I take her point.)

    Anyway, it was just a stray thought I had while I was reading the comments, and my stray thoughts on this subject are essentially worthless.

  • Sandgroper

    #10, I don’t think there’s a conflict – Neanderthals had lower vaults but larger brains than anatomically modern humans.

    Plus John Hawks was talking about brain size reduction over 10,000 years, the BBC article was about difference in skull shape over the past 650 years – not the same thing, and not the same time scale. The quote from the orthodontist about increasing mental capacity seemed like a bit of a throw-away line.

  • Insightful

    Sandgroper, so basically our skulls were not similar to but closer to Neanderthals. They used to be wider and lower but now they are narrower, and we made up for it (somewhat) by our vaults rising higher, though not enough of a rise because we still lost 150 cc of brain size since the ice age?..

  • Sandgroper

    Razib, I saw that frescoe recently, and what struck me was how unreal the people look. The portraits appear to be stylized in some way (e.g. over-large eyes), and not too flattering.There is some slight resemblance to Fishburne, but if you hadn’t mentioned it I would never have noticed.

    One thing that struck me about the body casts was that the people were short and gracile. They were a small, slim people.

  • Sandgroper

    Insightful – Yes, as far as I can see, our skulls could have become shorter (front to back), higher and rounder (viewed from above).

    But please don’t take my word for it, I have never measured a skull in my life. You really need to ellicit a comment from John Hawks, or a forensic anthropologist. It’s rumoured that John responds to emails, although I have never tried myself.

  • Sandgroper

    Meanwhile, as this is an open thread, how’s this for a 13 year old kid?

  • Insightful

    Dr. Spencer Wells says in ‘Pandora’s Seed The Unforseen Cost Of Civilization’ that humans were actually taller (like we are today) prior to the Neolithic farming revolution. But unlike today we had less cavities in our teeth. The hunter gatherer way of life was actually very healthy for us. However, farming was addictive because one could feed more people on a smaller plot of land, and more people meant more hands for farming and on and on. As hunter gatherers we utilized well over 100 species of plants and with farming this wittled down to around 8 specialized crops. Our meat diet was also more varied. It should be noted that when we took on livestock (herding, etc) new diseases were introduced into humanity because living with the animals they jumped the species barrier. These included small pox from cattle, chicken pox from chicken–the list goes on and on all the way to today’s swine flu. So we were probably at our best. Strong, rugged, tall, good teeth, varied diet, bigger brain, lifespan from 50-60 yrs. (note that lifespan was actually less during the neolithic farming period all the way to the 20th century. So we had a lot going for us before we new how to farm and became civilized.

  • Razib Khan

    However, farming was addictive because one could feed more people on a smaller plot of land, and more people meant more hands for farming and on and on.

    i think the main thing to note is that farming can squeeze more people out of land. that’s going to dominate just by numbers. even if group A realizes HG is a better deal and starts to shift back, if group B doesn’t, it will dominate. history doesn’t work to maximize individual median physiological fitness.

  • Mary

    The hunter gatherer life style was called ‘Eden’. That life lived in folk memory and was immortalized in Genesis. The good old days, or as some say, goldenageism.

    A great show on crows tonight on Nature. Clever birds!

  • Tomek R.

    There are two possible reasons for big brains in hunter gatherers. One is a need for visual memory plus spacial processing – necessary for hunting. Visual association in brain takes up to 10 times more neurons than verbal association. The other is resistance to mechanical damage during fighting or hunting. Big brain means working brain even after being hit to the head.

  • Brian Too

    Totally looks like Laurence. The familiar face is all the more striking because the female figure is quite unfamiliar.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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