Charles Darwin, Human Genome and Marilyn’s Dress

Marilyn Monroe dress sells for $4.6m

Marilyn Monroe’s dress from The Seven Year Itch. Debbie Reynolds acquired the item when she bought Monroe’s wardrobe. Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext/20 Century Fox

The literature on human civilization is filled with differences on when and where true civilization began; of course, there is much disagreement over the origin of true humans, when language began and what connection if any our race had with neanderthals – and those are just a few of the disagreements.  Oft times advances in technology and science bring as many new questions as answers to old questions.   One of my favorites is the knowledge and technology that came from sequencing the human genome.  Using DNA to trace the movement of human populations has helped trace the path of some of the first humans to leave Africa and wander across the face of the globe; and one day, scientist may find a way to isolate the genes of speach and find a place and a time for the beginning of language – but we are not there yet.

The current theories about that when and where for language, while more advanced than previous ones still leave bigger questions.  Partly because more than one discipline can and does study language development.  If we use linguistics, and not genetics, as our primary discipline we have some pretty good data on how long it takes for one language to evolve into another, how sounds and meanings change and some of the factors that cause it.   We do know in the beginning of our lineage of modern humans, there were no people except in Africa and that those people in Africa spoke a limited number of languages and that probably evolved from one or two “first” languages. And we know some of those people left and at some point reached every point on the globe and spoke maybe as many as 15,000 to 20,000 languages,  less than 10,000 remain.

Language is just one measure of civilization – language was necessary for  “civilization” to begin, but would not have caused it directly – something else was that catalyst.   Agriculture is often cited as the key element.  However, one dates the beginning of civilization or its immediate cause,  there is one key element – excess.   As long as a group can produce only enough to feed itself it has a limited potential.  Any group which can produce enough food to feed all of members of the group and leave some members of the group free from that labor to do other things, it has the potential to develop a civilization; priests, rulers, building laborers and soldiers were probably the first of the other professions.

The last year or so I have been reading about evolution and some basic science trying to make up for all of the things I did not learn in my youth.  The technical aspects of science aside, I have been dumbfounded by the dedication and focus of some people.  One can make an argument that Darwin was really the first of the modern scientists, there are other candidates, but he makes a good model.  Charles Darwin’s little theory can be studied in a month or so without greatly challenging a person’s resources; all of his written works can be read, and for the most part easily understood, in that same time.  However, it took a life-time for him to develop and articulate that simple theory.  He worked at it his entire adult life and except when he was sick, he worked at it every day, all day every day; he did detailed experiments and observations and then carefully recorded everything that he found; it was more than a vocation, it was his life.

All advances in science take the same commitment – not always by one man, but somewhere every minute of every day there are people thinking about our world.  They use the latest tools, technology, mathematics and “common knowledge” (that is the knowledge that is common to society and not the province of one person) to move the common knowledge forward one tiny step at a time.  Lately, I have been thinking about physicists; every university has one or a bunch – they teach, they do research and they write – day after day, year after year armies of scientists work away in obscure laboratories on obscure problems.  Have you ever wonder just how much that costs the society? We debate constantly the cost of social services, military defense, foreign aid and such – but not often does science come up in those debates.  The Human Genome Project – the one that allows us to trace early human movement – took 15 years, cost billions of dollars and involved thousands of scientist.  That is really the true measure of civilization – not what its statues or cities are like, but the number of people it can support whose only job is thinking and then telling the rest of us what they thought.

There are other ways to see our civilization in action besides the paid thinkers.   As a world civilization we also  produce enough excess sustenance to free up some people for many other things.  Besides the freedom to do something besides produce food, our civilization also allows some people to accumulate “wealth.”  The way that wealth is spent provides much of the entertainment of our daily lives.

This week, Marilyn’s famous dress sold for $4.6 million, Tiger Woods is said to have made $110 million a year until the women took him down and last year a man in India paid a billion dollars for a house; who would have thought 10,000 or 15,000 or possibly even 20,000 years ago when some group of human beings settle in one place and cultivated crops?  I did love that dress with breeze from subway famously exposing her legs, but both the dress and the woman have lost their luster for me.  As much as I wonder about the cost of society’s thinkers, I think that money is better spent than what we spend on dresses, athletes and ostentatious displays of wealth.  However, one of the benefits of a civilization is it allows for  choice; I can choose the way I earn my daily bread and the way spend that which is left over; still that is a lot to pay for a dress no one will ever wear again.


1 Response to “Charles Darwin, Human Genome and Marilyn’s Dress”

  1. 1 lynne rosner June 19, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    I didn’t know that the lineage of all human beings began only in Africa and spread to the rest of the planet.

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