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Monday, July 20, 2015

Universal Exceptionalism

As recently as ten years ago, the single-origin and multiregional theories of modern human evolution were neck and neck, with perhaps more supporters for the latter theory, which postulates that very old (approximately 2.5 million years ago) archaic humans spread throughout the world, and humans living in different regions evolved separately into their current state. The fact that there is so much similarity among humans of different regions may be due to interbreeding throughout the history.

It was not until the rapid democratization of genomic analysis tools that the evidence firmly settles the argument in favor of the recent single-origin theory. This theory says that a single tribe/family was the only ancestors of all modern humans living today. Small groups of the tribe left East Africa and spread all over the world with astonishing speed and efficiency to become Homo sapiens. The exodus occurred as recently as 60,000 years ago, probably after a climate-related bottleneck (eg, the Ice Age) that cut their size down to a small number of blood relatives.

As these early humans migrate to northern Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, Europe, northern Asia, and the Americas; and to Indian Ocean, southern India, and then the South Pacific, they replaced many other human species who had left Africa much earlier and inhabited these regions. It sounds incredible, doesn't it? The earlier human species took hundreds of thousands of years just to carve out a place for themselves in the world. They coexisted in relative balance but geographically separate from each other. And here came a few new cousins. Within 50,000 years, all other humanoid species were wiped out. Gone. Extinct. Homo sapiens alone dominate the world. The phenomenon is so extraordinary and out of proportion with previous history, no wonder it did not gain popularity until recently. It seemed more sensible if humans evolved on the time scale of a million years or so, as the fossils of other primates and humanoids suggest.

But the genomic evidence cannot be helped. Homo sapiens exploded onto the world with an exponential speed. Their routes of migration are illustrated on the National Geographic site The Human Journey.

Last weekend, my friend Helen made a profound observation about this subject: How did we not see this? Why couldn't we see that humans all over the world are absurdly alike, until the truth is forced on us? Looking back, the common traits are unmistakable. We all think abstractly and take to our symbols. We all have language. We organize society in nearly the same way. Despite cultural and historical differences, we instinctively understand each other like no other species. In "The World Until Yesterday," Jared Diamond described how remote islanders who had lived all their lives in primitive tribes could adapt to life in the 21st century within a just few years. And yet, we are naturally drawn to the theory that we separately evolved in multiple regions. Many Chinese academics still believe that the Chinese descended from Homo erectus pekinensis, whose fossils are dated to 500,000 years ago. Sorry to burst their bubbles, but the poor Homo erecus pekinensis were likely victims replaced by the ancestors of modern Chinese.

Why haven't humans preserved the history of leaving their original tribe behind or separating from their brothers and sisters and cousins? Without this tribal memory, when we encounter our long-lost cousins from another part of the world, all we want to do is to make war with them, rather than recognizing our shared lineage and hug each other. One possible explanation is that any history transmitted purely orally (before the invention of writing and means of recording writing) is fragile and prone to loss. But I think there may be something deeply embedded in human nature that drives us to believe in our own uniqueness. Funny how we are exactly the same in our narcissism and exceptionalism, which further supports the single origin theory. It is like what GK Chesterton pointed out, the two sides are in complete agreement, and therefore they go to war with each other.

Also ironic as hell is how we feel so lonely in this world that we set up massive telescopes and send out spacecrafts trying to find intelligent beings like us on other planets, even though we in fact lived alongside our cousins once upon a time and probably killed them all off. Perhaps all of these phenomena are manifestation of the same underlying trait --- we want to believe that we/I/our people are unique; we are perhaps the most aggressive and ruthless branch in archaic human species; when we encounter someone like us, we want to kill them or at least outcompete them rather than making friends; and last but not least, we are now the only human species left. We may not be inclined to the truth, but our bias may confer some kind of advantage. That is why truth is often hard to accept, even when it's right under our nose. 

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Re-reading A Dance With Dragons, Final Chapter


The last chapter before the epilogue in ADWD was one of my favorite chapters in the entire series, if only for the beautiful imagery of flying over the Dothraki sea. It's a "quiet" chapter in which hardly any action happens except Daenerys' wandering thoughts. Upon re-reading it I realize that it is full of hints for future events. It's an excellent example of George RR Martin's subtle writing and the game he plays.

There are mini-arcs within the chapter itself. Like episodic television, some plots begin and resolve within an episode. For example, within the first few pages (on my Kindle), Daenerys' thoughts go back to her past as the bride to Khal Drogo, in the paragraph starting with "Daenerys Targaryen was no stranger to the Dothraki sea." Her pregnancy and loss of the unborn son are mentioned. We are reminded of Mirri Maz Duur's curse. This strand later concludes with her miscarriage at the end of the chapter, which some have pointed out signals the fulfillment of the curse. Daenerys is fertile again.

The implication of this is not necessarily that Daenerys can bear children again, although it should not be dismissed, either. The curse says,
When your womb quickens again ... Then he will return, and not before. 
Here the "he" refers to Drogo. The Citadel believes that her next child will be named Drogo and therefore become this return. I think it might be more metaphorical (also it's difficult to imagine Daenerys laid up with a pregnancy in the next two books involving lots of battles and action). Perhaps it is simply the return of Drogon the black dragon (named after Drogo), or the return of her khalasar, which is all but certain with the arrival of Khal Jhaqo at the end of the chapter.

And Drogon certainly returns. The taming of Drogon began in the previous chapter, in the fighting pit of Meereen when she cracked her whip and made him sit, and then jumped on him and flew. Here, Drogon is unresponsive to her at the start of the chapter. She rides him every day but cannot make him go back to Meereen. The whip and words no longer direct him. So she leaves him and walks for two days and two nights toward Meereen. But throughout the journey he follows her. On the second day, she sees him in the sky at least three times. Clearly he is her mount now and they can never be separated again, but Martin remains coy until the end of the chapter to complete this mini-arc. After seeing the Dothraki scout, she "called until her voice was hoarse ... and Drogon came, snorting plumes of smoke." She jumps on him and they follow the scout to find Jhaqo's khalasar. By now she doesn't even need the whip any more. The ending may sound like Jhaqo has come to her, but it is the other way around. She has commanded Drogon to meet the khalasar rather than fly back to Meereen. She is now in control of the biggest, most bad-ass dragon in the world, so why would she be afraid of a horse lord?

Yet another mini-arc here is in character development. At the beginning of the chapter Daenerys mutters the mantra that has sustained her until now, "If I look back I am lost." So she keeps walking, on and on, always forward. Quaithe's prophecy is revisited,
To go north you must go south. To reach the west you must go east. To go forward you must go back, and to touch the light you must pass beneath the shadow. 
Both Daenerys and most readers interpret this as circling around the globe (?) to reach Westeros, passing through Asshai. Well, I'm not convinced it's so literal, although her journey to the east since A Game of Thrones has been literal so far. Near the end of the chapter, in the same paragraph of calling back Drogon.
"To go forward I must go back," she said. Her bare legs tightened around the dragon's back. 
She then flies to meet the khalasar. On some level, she is already retracing her steps from Meereen to Vaes Dothrak (now that her womb has quickened again and "he" has returned).

A curious symbol in the chapter is that she calls the hill on which Drogon has been living as Dragonstone. Dragonstone is the springboard where Aegon the Conqueror took off to conquer Westeros with fire and blood. On and near her Dragonstone, Daenerys has not only tamed Drogon and regained her fertility (and possibly her khalasar), but also comes to the important psychological turning point --- Rather than always charging ahead (If I look back I am lost), she is now looking back toward where she has been (To go forward I must go back). Before the Slaver's Bay, she was in the Dothraki Sea. Before that she was in Pentos and Braavos. And before that she was on Dragonstone.

The need of looking back is also a spiritual growth of some kind, considering that GRRM is a historian at heart and has a deep understanding of what lies behind the present world. If Meereen is an analogy for US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan (which it is, but that's for another discussion), he is begging us to look back toward the forgotten lessons of the Vietnam War and all the other failed attempts at Imperialism. Daenerys has learned her lesson. We haven't.

There is much symbolism and foreshadowing throughout the chapter that serves both as Dany's backward gaze and forward outlook, such as her dream of Viserys and her imaginary conversation with Jorah Mormont. This time if Jorah makes it back to her (after having been punished for his history in slave trade), she will not banish him again. And mentioning Viserys might be a reminder of Ilyrio of Pentos?

In the middle of the chapter, before Daenerys falls asleep, there is a line that made me laugh out loud, "Off in the distance, a wolf howled." As far as he has spread the story, GRRM does try to connect the separate locations and strands with this kind of hints and imagery. If one reads closely A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, one would see the traces of invisible links. And immediately the mention of wolf brings about another more substantive link to the other side of the world.

On the second morning of her journey, Daenerys wakes up and discovers that ants have crawled all over her. She brushes them off her and crushes some with her fingers. She has slept by some crumbling stone wall in the grass the night before.
It turned out that their anthill was on the other side of her wall. She wondered how the ants had managed to climb over it and find her. To them these tumbledown stones must loom as huge as the Wall of Westeros ... 
Well, I don't know how much more explicit he could make it. This seemingly pointless segment is obviously a foretelling of the fall of the Wall in the North and a scene of the Others and their wights (I call them ice zombies) climbing over it, pouring into Westeros like the ants all over Dany. The Wall may have already fallen with Jon Snow's assassination (that's for another day), so the invasion is imminent.

My friend Ellyn once astutely noted that reading ASOIAF is labor intensive because Martin has buried many clues and hints of future events in current text, but he is particularly skillful at hiding them among a sea of details that seem to do with only the present events. One never knows which details will become echos of the future or a trigger for major events. This is why I am particularly drawn to the "slower" books (A Clash of Kings, AFFC, ADWD) where nothing seems to happen. I find them much more fascinating precisely because of their demand on my attention and my intellect. They are puzzles where only the patient reader can dig out and piece together the shape of the world. It is a game he plays with readers. AGOT and A Storm of Swords are more like payoffs, in which we are given the answers in the back of the puzzle book, which is not nearly as fun.

Beyond the above-mentioned clues and puzzle pieces, this chapter is also centered around the theme of "The human heart in conflict with itself" within Dany. She is torn between the wish to be a young girl and sense of duty as a queen and leader. As sprawling as the series have become, it is slowly dawning on me that GRRM is not a wasteful writer. There is a purpose to every chapter and every segment within each chapter. It's not always clear what the purpose is until much later. It is a very complicated puzzle that rewards the patient reader. The joy is in the journey, not the end. I think this point has been amply proven by the by-now failed attempt to "condense" the books into TV adaptation.

There is a lot more I can say about this chapter and the overall Meereen story line in ADWD. But I will leave it here. BTW, I don't think either Daario or Jorah Mormont will live very long in the next installment, but I have nothing to support this outlook.

Timon of Athens

During the intermission of Timon of Athens at Folger, I eavesdropped on a discussion among the 3 persons (who looked like a mother with t...

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