Sunday, 11 January 2015

In Defence of the Young

This post first appeared at Project UKYA.

One quarter of The Ghosts of Heaven takes place in pre-history, and features a young woman on the verge of making the connection between the spoken word and making a mark. When she does, she will effectively have invented writing, one of the cornerstones of human civilisation.

I’ve written before on what I believe must be the oldest story in the world, or one of the oldest, at the very least, and it’s this: our hero goes into the Dark Space, to face the unknown, and returns triumphant, or fails, tragically. This is the story of Theseus in the labyrinth, of Orpheus in the underworld, of Bilbo in Gollum’s cave, and so on and so on. All these stories are, I believe, versions of what must have been told around the fire-pit in the early days of Mankind (which is hard to be exact about). Our primitive ancestors, (and I hate using the word primitive, they must have been pretty sophisticated by the standards of the time), often used caves, for safety and shelter, perhaps for sacred purposes, certainly as places they practiced the earliest forms of art. Caves like Lascaux and Chauvet in France are witness to human practices that are possibly 30,000 years old. Blombos in South Africa shows artistic activity on an organised basis that is possibly 100,000 years old. For whatever reason, we needed to go into those caves. But what might be waiting there? Perhaps nothing, but perhaps a beast of some kind, a lion, bear or wolf? And what tales would have been told of the brave hunter who first ventured into the darkness. We have such a strong, limbic link to darkness, and I think this is why; are inner, collective memories have not forgotten the fear of voyaging into the dark unknown.

Once we had claimed a cave as safe, then we could begin to use it; the art in the caves mentioned above and many others is breathtakingly powerful. I’ve visited a few of these caves over the years, and there is still, tens of thousands of years later, a strong magic about the things depicted on the walls. What’s been revealed relatively recently is that at least some of this art was made by teenagers, and even children. Some of the commentary on this discovery is revealing in itself - it wants to place this Stone Age adolescent art in the same vein as the graffiti of modern times; testosterone-induced markings by young adults to express their clumsy urges. As so often with media representations of the teenager, we are shown the negative and reprehensible. But there’s another way of looking at our image of the teenager.

As recent research has shown, the teenage brain operates differently from that of the child and the adult. Some of the all-too-well rehearsed comments about teenager behaviour; from their sleeping endlessly, to their desire to experiment, take risks and so on, seem to be explained by this new neuroscience. The usual conclusion to this is; well, there, you see – they may be annoying but it’s not their fault they behave so badly, it’s their brain chemistry. But there’s another way to look at this.

Let’s go back to our Stone Age society again (not literally. I like toothpaste and dishwashers). The Stone Age itself is an enormous period of time. Forget the 100,000 years before the present mentioned above; that’s recent history. The Stone Age began, when our earliest ancestors began using stone tools, around two and a half million years ago. This is the time not of our own species homo sapiens, but of other human species from whom we are descended, such as homo habilis. The Stone Age lasts a VERY long time, and there are different names for different parts of it, but by and large things are more or less crawling forward (a bit of antler use here, some flaking of flints there) until we get to around a mere 80,000 years ago. From then until around 30,000 years ago, there is a sudden acceleration in what Anthropologists call “cumulative technological evolution”, resulting in what they like to call “behavioural modernity” which basically means we’re painting pictures, building homes, creating systems of belief and no longer dragging our knuckles in the dirt.

What was the life expectancy in the Stone Age? Contrary to popular belief, while the average life span was perhaps only around 18-20 years, the maximum was much higher, perhaps 60 years old – but nevertheless, this means that a large proportion of the population would have been young.

I think it’s very likely that the teenage brain is the way it is for a very good reason. Evolution doesn’t tend to keep its experiments for the sake of it; natural selection keeps those traits that prove useful to the development of the species, the others tend to die out. So could it be that the teenage brain, with all its experimentation and risk-taking, was just what our species needed to accelerate out of the Middle Stone Age and into the Late, when we began to behave in a much more recognisably modern way? Don’t forget that at this point in evolution, we are living alongside other human species; Neanderthals being the most celebrated. There is evidence that we interbred with the Neanderthal to an extent, but however it happened, homo sapiens out-evolved everyone else, became the dominant species, and the rest as they say, is history.

It’s also now believed that everyone in the world from North and South America, Asia, Australia and Europe is descended from a very small founding group from Africa, of maybe just a few hundred individuals. Times were hard; many populations must have entirely perished, ending that branch of our species for all time. If homo sapiens was to flourish, we needed as many families to survive as possible, and luckily for us, 14 distinct populations survived in Africa, and one made it out of Africa to found the rest of the world. So maybe there’s something good to say about those risk-taking, experimenting teenagers. Maybe they were the ones who invented things, such as the girl in The Ghosts of Heaven who’s on the cusp of inventing writing. Maybe they were the ones responsible for the survival of our charming, respectful, spiritual and caring species, homo sapiens. Whether that’s a good thing or not, is of course, a topic for another day.