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12/11/2001

Happiness and Feathers

The 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor brought back memories of
that day and the years that followed. On December 7, 1941 I was
just three weeks shy of my 14th birthday. I clearly remember
listening to President Roosevelt''s "day of infamy" speech on our
console-size Philco radio. On the home front, we put up with
minor inconveniences such as ration stamps for butter and
gasoline. With the shortage of butter, we resorted to margarine,
which in those days was white like Crisco and came with a little
packet of yellow coloring. Mixing the coloring with the
margarine helped make it more pleasing to the eye, if not to the
palate. My father was a salesman with a territory of six counties
and qualified for a ration greater than the standard allowance. On
the outskirts of town, plots of ground were made available for
"Victory" gardens. With two such plots, we grew enough
vegetables for ourselves and for some of our neighbors.

In contrast, today, after September 11, we are urged to spend and
consume. We are told that one of the reasons we''re hated by
such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban is our freedom and our belief
in our inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness. The Winter 2001 issue of Forbes ASAP, one of
Forbes'' "Big Issues", deals with the pursuit of happiness. It
includes articles by or interviews with Presidents Carter, Ford,
Clinton and Bush (41 and 43), Donald Trump, P. J. O''Rourke,
Lance Armstrong, George Plimpton and others. The subject of
happiness and its pursuit garners a considerable variety of views
from these authors, with some endorsing and others questioning
Thomas Jefferson''s choice of happiness and its pursuit for
inclusion in the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, what it is
that constitutes happiness is open to question.

Random thoughts of happiness in my case bring to mind getting
to eat the ice cream off the paddle after turning the crank on the
ice cream freezer as a kid. Our ice cream was made from raw
eggs and the cream saved for the week from the tops of our
bottles of raw milk. Neither of these raw ingredients is
considered safe today. Happiness was also my hook shot from
the corner that swished through the basket in an interfraternity
basketball game at Dickinson College. Strangely, I can''t say that
my hole-in-one with my son in attendance stands out as one of
my happier experiences. I was so in shock that I couldn''t truly
appreciate it. The happiness came later in repeatedly telling
people, including you regular readers, about it. Regular readers
might also guess that happiness for me is walking on the beach at
Marco Island with a full moon setting just as the first rays of the
sun appear on the opposite horizon.

As you might expect, happiness is not conducive to a good
scientific definition. How do we "feel" happiness, or any other
emotion for that matter? Ian Tattersall, curator in the division of
anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History,
addresses an even broader question in an article in the December
2001 issue of Scientific American. The title of the article is
"How we came to be Human". In the article, Tattersall searches
for the fundamental reason why our "modern" human ancestors
beat out our extinct Neanderthal cousins. The Neanderthals had
about as big a brain, although the shape of the skull was flatter
than our rounder skulls.

The answer lies in "exaptation", a word unfamiliar to me or to
my spellchecker. Tattersall defines exaptation as "a useful name
for characteristics that arise in one context before being exploited
in another". The example he cites defines exaptation more
clearly. The example is birds'' feathers. You''ve probably seen
pictures of fossils or artists'' conceptions of dinosaurs with
feathers. The feathers occurred as a mutation that somehow took
hold and the feathers, being light and fluffy, apparently came to
serve as insulation to help keep the dinosaurs'' bodies at the
desirable temperature. At the time, the dinosaurs surely didn''t
use feathers to fly. However, as thousands or millions of years
passed, some dinosaurs did evolve into flying creatures. Then
the feathers proved quite helpful and being light was a distinct
advantage. So, birds came into being, utilizing the feather to its
utmost advantage.

The point is that evolution involves natural selection through
exaptation. The first feather was a mutation that occurred for no
good reason but it happened to prove helpful or beneficial and
was "selected" for survival as it was passed on to following
generations. Let''s go back to the Neanderthals and our ancestors,
the Cro-Magnon. Give a Cro-Magnon a haircut and modern
clothes and you probably wouldn''t look twice if you passed him
or her on the street. When the Cro-Magnons arrived in Europe
roughly 40,000 years ago, the Neanderthals were well
established and flourishing, in their way. However, with the
arrival of the Cro-Magnons, the Neanderthals soon dropped out
of the picture. This contrasted with the experience in the Levant
area bordering the Eastern Mediterranean Sea stretching from
Greece around to Egypt. There, the Neanderthals and modern
humans existed together for some 60,000 years over a period
starting around 100,000 years ago. My math tells me that this
means the Levant Neanderthals disappeared there at about the
same time that the Cro-Magnons took over Europe. How come
those modern humans didn''t beat out the Neanderthals in the
Levant much sooner? Was it a case of exaptation?

Tattersall thinks so. In his view, since the modern humans were
anatomically like us well over 100,000 years ago, all the
ingredients were there for them to take over. In a sense, the
"feathers" were in place but something had to happen for modern
man to take flight, figuratively speaking. He proposes that it was
the invention of language that gave the modern humans the edge
over the Neanderthals. Language leads to the assignment of
names and symbols to animals, objects and ideas. Manipulation
of the surroundings follows and modern man creates art and
music and everything that follows. Somewhere along the line, I
assume modern humans came to experience happiness!

How come modern humans developed language and not the
Neanderthals? Tattersall suggests it''s the length of the pharynx.
I admit I wasn''t up on my anatomy and wasn''t familiar with the
pharynx. The basic sound is generated in the larynx, which
contains the vocal chords. Then comes the pharynx, essentially
a tube above the larynx that connects with the nasal cavity and
the oral cavity and the tongue. The sound generated in the vocal
chords is massaged in the pharynx and the cavities, helped
considerably by the tongue. Apparently, the pharynx plays a big
role in determining the variety of sounds that can be emitted. In
particular, the longer the pharynx, the more shaping of the sound
is possible.

Now compare the Neanderthal and the modern human. Sure
enough, the Neanderthal''s pharynx is considerably shorter. So,
the ability to emit the many varied sounds in the world''s
languages and music would have been very restricted for the
Neanderthals. How come those moderns and Neanderthals
shared the Levant region for 60,000 years? One answer is that,
even though the moderns had the equipment, the feathers so to
speak, they didn''t know what to do with it.

Here, we''re left in the dark with only conjecture to rely on. Did
language arise because of some minor mutation that awakened
the latent possibility of speaking? Or, perhaps more likely, did
some individual or group of individuals stumble upon the
possibility of assigning sounds as symbols to objects, then ideas?
Tattersall suggests that it might even have been children who
invented language. I would think it likely to be rebellious
teenagers or their equivalent. Consider some research the article
cites on an island inhabited by macaque monkeys. The
researchers gave the monkeys sweet potatoes to eat. When the
potatoes rolled around on the beach they became covered with
the sand and dirt from the beach. The adult macaques were quite
content to eat the potatoes, grit and all. But some of the younger
macaques decided to wash the grit off in the sea. The females
took some time but finally they followed the youngsters'' lead.
The chief honcho males were even slower to learn before they
grudgingly gave in. Could this have been the way with
language?

Whatever the origin, once some modern humans learned the
advantages accompanying speech and language, other groups of
moderns joined in. The idea must have spread like wildfire,
geologically speaking. Actually, all these modern guys and gals
had been equipped for language and speech for over half a
million years before they really got the spark that changed their
life and the world''s history forever. This case of exaptation
bigtime is a puzzling one. Why was this arrangement of larynx
and pharynx continued? The arrangement had as a consequence
the fact that humans can''t breathe and swallow at the same time,
a feature with the side effect that we can choke to death. Could it
have been that the really early moderns had some form of
rudimentary speech or sounds that were used as warnings or had
other meanings. We probably will never know.

It seems to me that one can experience happiness without
language. To me, it''s clear that a dog can experience happiness.
I''m not so sure about a cat. However, I also think that happiness
can be vastly upgraded by the use of language. In the Forbes
issue on happiness, Nobel Laureate Gerald Edelman states that
scientific happiness is "curiosity fulfilled". I can go along with
that. A couple of other statements in his article caught my
attention: "Happiness, like consciousness, depends on memory."
and "Under certain conditions, how we remember a happy event
is perhaps more important than the occasion itself." Did I ever
tell you about my hole-in-one?

Allen F. Bortrum



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-12/11/2001-      
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Dr. Bortrum

12/11/2001

Happiness and Feathers

The 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor brought back memories of
that day and the years that followed. On December 7, 1941 I was
just three weeks shy of my 14th birthday. I clearly remember
listening to President Roosevelt''s "day of infamy" speech on our
console-size Philco radio. On the home front, we put up with
minor inconveniences such as ration stamps for butter and
gasoline. With the shortage of butter, we resorted to margarine,
which in those days was white like Crisco and came with a little
packet of yellow coloring. Mixing the coloring with the
margarine helped make it more pleasing to the eye, if not to the
palate. My father was a salesman with a territory of six counties
and qualified for a ration greater than the standard allowance. On
the outskirts of town, plots of ground were made available for
"Victory" gardens. With two such plots, we grew enough
vegetables for ourselves and for some of our neighbors.

In contrast, today, after September 11, we are urged to spend and
consume. We are told that one of the reasons we''re hated by
such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban is our freedom and our belief
in our inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness. The Winter 2001 issue of Forbes ASAP, one of
Forbes'' "Big Issues", deals with the pursuit of happiness. It
includes articles by or interviews with Presidents Carter, Ford,
Clinton and Bush (41 and 43), Donald Trump, P. J. O''Rourke,
Lance Armstrong, George Plimpton and others. The subject of
happiness and its pursuit garners a considerable variety of views
from these authors, with some endorsing and others questioning
Thomas Jefferson''s choice of happiness and its pursuit for
inclusion in the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, what it is
that constitutes happiness is open to question.

Random thoughts of happiness in my case bring to mind getting
to eat the ice cream off the paddle after turning the crank on the
ice cream freezer as a kid. Our ice cream was made from raw
eggs and the cream saved for the week from the tops of our
bottles of raw milk. Neither of these raw ingredients is
considered safe today. Happiness was also my hook shot from
the corner that swished through the basket in an interfraternity
basketball game at Dickinson College. Strangely, I can''t say that
my hole-in-one with my son in attendance stands out as one of
my happier experiences. I was so in shock that I couldn''t truly
appreciate it. The happiness came later in repeatedly telling
people, including you regular readers, about it. Regular readers
might also guess that happiness for me is walking on the beach at
Marco Island with a full moon setting just as the first rays of the
sun appear on the opposite horizon.

As you might expect, happiness is not conducive to a good
scientific definition. How do we "feel" happiness, or any other
emotion for that matter? Ian Tattersall, curator in the division of
anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History,
addresses an even broader question in an article in the December
2001 issue of Scientific American. The title of the article is
"How we came to be Human". In the article, Tattersall searches
for the fundamental reason why our "modern" human ancestors
beat out our extinct Neanderthal cousins. The Neanderthals had
about as big a brain, although the shape of the skull was flatter
than our rounder skulls.

The answer lies in "exaptation", a word unfamiliar to me or to
my spellchecker. Tattersall defines exaptation as "a useful name
for characteristics that arise in one context before being exploited
in another". The example he cites defines exaptation more
clearly. The example is birds'' feathers. You''ve probably seen
pictures of fossils or artists'' conceptions of dinosaurs with
feathers. The feathers occurred as a mutation that somehow took
hold and the feathers, being light and fluffy, apparently came to
serve as insulation to help keep the dinosaurs'' bodies at the
desirable temperature. At the time, the dinosaurs surely didn''t
use feathers to fly. However, as thousands or millions of years
passed, some dinosaurs did evolve into flying creatures. Then
the feathers proved quite helpful and being light was a distinct
advantage. So, birds came into being, utilizing the feather to its
utmost advantage.

The point is that evolution involves natural selection through
exaptation. The first feather was a mutation that occurred for no
good reason but it happened to prove helpful or beneficial and
was "selected" for survival as it was passed on to following
generations. Let''s go back to the Neanderthals and our ancestors,
the Cro-Magnon. Give a Cro-Magnon a haircut and modern
clothes and you probably wouldn''t look twice if you passed him
or her on the street. When the Cro-Magnons arrived in Europe
roughly 40,000 years ago, the Neanderthals were well
established and flourishing, in their way. However, with the
arrival of the Cro-Magnons, the Neanderthals soon dropped out
of the picture. This contrasted with the experience in the Levant
area bordering the Eastern Mediterranean Sea stretching from
Greece around to Egypt. There, the Neanderthals and modern
humans existed together for some 60,000 years over a period
starting around 100,000 years ago. My math tells me that this
means the Levant Neanderthals disappeared there at about the
same time that the Cro-Magnons took over Europe. How come
those modern humans didn''t beat out the Neanderthals in the
Levant much sooner? Was it a case of exaptation?

Tattersall thinks so. In his view, since the modern humans were
anatomically like us well over 100,000 years ago, all the
ingredients were there for them to take over. In a sense, the
"feathers" were in place but something had to happen for modern
man to take flight, figuratively speaking. He proposes that it was
the invention of language that gave the modern humans the edge
over the Neanderthals. Language leads to the assignment of
names and symbols to animals, objects and ideas. Manipulation
of the surroundings follows and modern man creates art and
music and everything that follows. Somewhere along the line, I
assume modern humans came to experience happiness!

How come modern humans developed language and not the
Neanderthals? Tattersall suggests it''s the length of the pharynx.
I admit I wasn''t up on my anatomy and wasn''t familiar with the
pharynx. The basic sound is generated in the larynx, which
contains the vocal chords. Then comes the pharynx, essentially
a tube above the larynx that connects with the nasal cavity and
the oral cavity and the tongue. The sound generated in the vocal
chords is massaged in the pharynx and the cavities, helped
considerably by the tongue. Apparently, the pharynx plays a big
role in determining the variety of sounds that can be emitted. In
particular, the longer the pharynx, the more shaping of the sound
is possible.

Now compare the Neanderthal and the modern human. Sure
enough, the Neanderthal''s pharynx is considerably shorter. So,
the ability to emit the many varied sounds in the world''s
languages and music would have been very restricted for the
Neanderthals. How come those moderns and Neanderthals
shared the Levant region for 60,000 years? One answer is that,
even though the moderns had the equipment, the feathers so to
speak, they didn''t know what to do with it.

Here, we''re left in the dark with only conjecture to rely on. Did
language arise because of some minor mutation that awakened
the latent possibility of speaking? Or, perhaps more likely, did
some individual or group of individuals stumble upon the
possibility of assigning sounds as symbols to objects, then ideas?
Tattersall suggests that it might even have been children who
invented language. I would think it likely to be rebellious
teenagers or their equivalent. Consider some research the article
cites on an island inhabited by macaque monkeys. The
researchers gave the monkeys sweet potatoes to eat. When the
potatoes rolled around on the beach they became covered with
the sand and dirt from the beach. The adult macaques were quite
content to eat the potatoes, grit and all. But some of the younger
macaques decided to wash the grit off in the sea. The females
took some time but finally they followed the youngsters'' lead.
The chief honcho males were even slower to learn before they
grudgingly gave in. Could this have been the way with
language?

Whatever the origin, once some modern humans learned the
advantages accompanying speech and language, other groups of
moderns joined in. The idea must have spread like wildfire,
geologically speaking. Actually, all these modern guys and gals
had been equipped for language and speech for over half a
million years before they really got the spark that changed their
life and the world''s history forever. This case of exaptation
bigtime is a puzzling one. Why was this arrangement of larynx
and pharynx continued? The arrangement had as a consequence
the fact that humans can''t breathe and swallow at the same time,
a feature with the side effect that we can choke to death. Could it
have been that the really early moderns had some form of
rudimentary speech or sounds that were used as warnings or had
other meanings. We probably will never know.

It seems to me that one can experience happiness without
language. To me, it''s clear that a dog can experience happiness.
I''m not so sure about a cat. However, I also think that happiness
can be vastly upgraded by the use of language. In the Forbes
issue on happiness, Nobel Laureate Gerald Edelman states that
scientific happiness is "curiosity fulfilled". I can go along with
that. A couple of other statements in his article caught my
attention: "Happiness, like consciousness, depends on memory."
and "Under certain conditions, how we remember a happy event
is perhaps more important than the occasion itself." Did I ever
tell you about my hole-in-one?

Allen F. Bortrum