Monday, April 14, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: Beyond Biracial

So, yesterday was weird in various ways too tedious to relate, and tomorrow is Tax Day so be sure to get your estimated payment in, and the garage sale opens off schedule but that's the breaks, what're we gonna put out for sale today? Wait, there was a news story yesterday - ah, yes, here we go: Neanderthals and humans definitely interbred, and the offspring were not mules, because we're still carrying their DNA, it's absolutely positively true this time, we're sure this time.

One thing this means is, that Neanderthals were a race of humans, not a species; or, more biologically accurately, I suppose, homo sapiens and Neanderthals were both subspecies. Which is like a race except that it has an actual biological meaning, unlike "race," which is a categorization fiction which people take far too seriously and turn into a social reality to justify doing terrible things to each other.

And you're way ahead of me, picturing the ways this can be used to write allegories and satires and fables projecting modern racial prejudice into the past and tell stories about racial tension while not having to deal with any race that isn't white, and isn't that a relief? (Pulls self back from precipice of a rant.)

But let's stop a minute and really think about it. If humans and Neanderthals interbred sufficiently often that 20% of of the modern human genome is descended from Neanderthals, then that implies either a large area of overlap geographically and socially - perhaps (since there weren't any towns yet) mixed clans, or Neanderthal/cishuman networks - or a few Neanderthal/cishuman couples with large, successful families.

So, if we ask ourselves my favorite story generation question - what would really happen? - we do not necessarily come up with anything that looks like the familiar outcast/socially marginalized/fighting for justice miscegenation narrative.

Maybe the populations we would call Neanderthal and human would not recognize themselves as distinct in any significant way?

Maybe Neanderthal/human marriages were deliberate sociopolitical arrangements intended to create a caste of special people - shamans, perhaps; long-distance traders; mediators between populations, assumed to be able to bridge differences by carrying the representative features of each?

Maybe certain clans of humans specialized in long-distance trading and casually bred with all the populations within their trading territories?

Maybe the intermarriage occurred in areas where both Neanderthals and modern humans were so thin on the ground that they were beginning to suffer the effects of inbreeding, and the hybrid vigor of the bispecies children revitalized both groups, or made a third, distinct group that outcompeted both sets of their cousins?

Ultimately, the stories we modern humans tell must, if they are to achieve any currency in the marketplace of the mind, relate to Us, to modern humans and the ways we interact with the world and ourselves. But this doesn't have to mean projecting our bitterest problems all the way into our prehistory. Because how productive is that? Doesn't that confirm these things as inevitable, condemn us to resigning ourselves to the Way Things Are because if they've been around since the beginning we can't possibly hope to solve them now?

It can mean projecting different ways of organizing our world so as to reimagine them without our bitterest problems? To do an end run around them? To imagine different human possibilities, and sets of problems?

To free ourselves up to recategorize ourselves, and get down to the real universals?

This is all airy-fairy theme stuff, I'm afraid. But anybody who knuckles down and does the research, consciously unlatching the well-worn paths of thought as they learn more and more and more about Ice Age Europe and the world where two human subspecies came together, and made babies, will, I think, find plenty of specifics to work with to make a new, rich world.

Because reality is like that, and will expand your fiction (rather than limiting it) if you let it.

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