Tag Archives: music

Putting’ on the Ritz

173-164 thousand years ago.

It’s fancy dress day on Logarithmic History. Between 170 and 80 thousand years ago, people started wearing clothes. We know this from recent genetic studies showing that sometime during that period, probably closer to 170 kya, pubic lice and body (=clothing) lice diverged into two separate species. This is before the major exodus of modern humans from Africa, so it may mean clothing was not just about protection from high latitude winters. Or else Neanderthals or Denisovans were wearing clothes, and we got body lice from them. (There’s an even earlier split, three million years ago, between head lice and pubic lice, that probably means human ancestors had lost their fur. And there’s another story about the ancestors of East Asians picking up a different strain of head lice from non-sapiens humans that we may cover later.)

Lice are not just disgusting, but dangerous. On later dates, we’ll have occasion to see how louse-borne diseases like typhus have affected the course of history. But for now let’s forget about lice, and celebrate clothing, with Irving Berlin’s song about fancy duds, “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” covered below by a Moscow flashmob.

Also relevant to the video is Merlin Donald’s book Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition arguing that dance is part of a mimetic mode of culture that came before language. And Barbara Ehrenreich’s book on dancing in history and prehistory Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. is worth a look.



3.21-3.04 million years ago

AL (Afar locality)-288-1 is better known as Lucy: probably the most famous individual hominin fossil. Her skeleton is particularly complete, and demonstrated the existence of a previously unknown species, Australopithecus afarensis.

When she was discovered in 1974, she pushed back the hominin fossil record by over a million years. A. afarensis looked like a plausible ancestor to all the later hominins. Things have gotten complicated since then. “The first family” (AL 333) was discovered just a year later: bones of at least 13 individuals, a mixture of adults and juveniles, maybe all victims of a flash flood. This helped to fill in knowledge of individual variation among A. afarensis. And subsequent findings have documented the species over a million year span from 4-3 million years ago. At the same time, we have seen how later discoveries have also suggested that there were likely multiple hominid species around in Lucy’s day.

Also: Her pelvis is basin-shaped, and she stood with her legs under her body, not rocking from side to side. All this is like a human, not a chimpanzee. So she was certainly bipedal, but there are arguments about just how bipedal. The initial view was that she was an efficient walker (although not much of a runner: that comes later). But another school of thought points out that she’s got very long arms, and curved finger and toe bones, suggesting she spent a lot of time in trees. Her long toes might have made her an inefficient biped (a view derided by members of the Lucy-the-proficient-walker school as the clown shoe hypothesis).

Lucy got her name from this song, played on a camp loudspeaker the day she was discovered. John Lennon, who wrote the lyrics, always denied that Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, in spite of the initials, had anything to do with LSD. He said that it was based on picture that his son Julian (then four years old) made in school, with some Lewis Carroll thrown in.

‘I could tell you my adventures—beginning from this morning,’ said Alice a little timidly; ‘but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.’

Alice in Wonderland Lewis Carroll

Leaves of grass

70.4 – 66.6 million years ago

Not as dramatic as the evolution of Triceratops or T. rex, but of more lasting consequence, is the evolution of grasses (Poaceae). We know from coprolites – fossil feces — that grass was around by the Late Cretaceous, so the coevolution of grass and grazers had already begun with dinosaurs. These early grasses were not widespread. It would take climate shifts and more evolution (toward using carbon dioxide more efficiently) to create the sort of grasslands we are familiar with.

Grasses have played a central role in human evolution and human history. Human beings evolved in tropical grasslands, and some evolutionary psychologists think we still have an instinctive affinity for this environment. The domestication of grasses (wheat, barley, oats, millet, rice, corn) was one of the great revolutions in human prehistory, and grasses provided most of the calories people ate for most of recorded history. Contact along the frontier between grasslands supporting pastoralists and grain growing lands supporting peasants is one of the great engines of historical dynamics.

Grasses grow from the base of the leaf, not the tip of the stem, which is what allows them to recover from being grazed. This makes them a recurring symbol both of the transitoriness of life (“All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is like the flower of the field,” Isaiah 40:6) and its resilience.

Brahms used another verse about grass in the second movement of his German Requiem “For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away,” 1 Peter1:24. (Here is the German text and English translation.)

And the most famous poem about grass, by Walt Whitman, perhaps strikes the right elegiac note for the dinosaurs, who meet their doom tomorrow:

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me
with full hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it
is any more than he.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe
of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the
same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths
for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and

My name is LUCA. I live on the ocean floor.

4.01-3.80 billion years ago

How life began on Earth is still not well understood. The “RNA world” is one popular theory. In modern organisms, nucleic acids, DNA and RNA, store and transfer information, but proteins do the actual work of catalyzing chemical reactions. But RNA can act as a catalyst, so maybe the first replicating systems involved RNA catalyzing its own replication. However, RNA doesn’t spontaneously form very easily, so it’s not clear how the RNA world would have gotten started. Borate minerals might help but it’s not clear they were around that early.

A different approach to the topic is to work backward from living organisms, to reconstruct the biochemistry of LUCA, the Last Universal Common Ancestor (not quite the same as the first living thing). Recent research on these lines implies that LUCA was a heat-loving microbe that relied on hydrogen as its energy source, suggesting an undersea volcano as a habitat.

However the first organisms got established on Earth, it happened very quickly. Here’s a review from last year of the current state of play on theories of early Earth and early Earth life. Just about as soon as the planet could support life we find chemical evidence for it, from Isua, Greenland (but no fossils yet). This suggests that the origin of life is pretty easy (unless we want to go with panspermia). Mars may have been a more habitable place early in its history, and perhaps Mars exploration will one day solve the mystery of the origin of life in our Solar System.

Sun, Earth, Moon, Earthrise, “Terra”

4.56 billion years ago

The Hadean eon begins with the origin of the Earth 4.56 Gya.

Take a look at the Moon tonight. It’s waxing, one day from full; you can cover it with your thumb. 4.56 billion years ago the new moon was ruddy with volcanic activity even on its far side. The Moon seen from Earth was 16 times wider, covering 250 times more sky, and 250 times brighter when full. That is what you would have seen just after Earth acquired a surface you could stand on, although you would have needed an oxygen mask. And watch out for massive meteorites, still falling frequently, and volcanism.

Chance events late in the history of planet formation played a huge role in shaping the solar system, including the collision with the planet Theia (named after the Greek goddess of the Moon) that gave Earth her outsized satellite. We’ve known about Theia for a while; the latest theory is that the collision resulted in the formation of a synestia, a donut of vaporized rock, which condensed to form Moon and Earth. Life might have developed very differently – there might be no intelligent life — without the Moon’s influence on tides and on Earth’s axis.

Here’s a movie from NASA showing the whole moon, including her far side, as seen by the Lunar Reconnaisance Orbiter. And here’s the famous picture of Earthrise, taken December 24, 1968, by William Anders abroad Apollo 8.earthrise copy

In 1969, the Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso was imprisoned by Brazil’s military dictatorship. He was expelled from the country and lived in exile until 1972. In prison he saw a picture of the Earth from space and wrote this song, “Terra” (Earth).


Quando eu me encontrava preso, na cela de uma cadeia 
Foi que eu vi pela primeira vez, as tais fotografias 
Em que apareces inteira, porém lá não estava nua 
E sim coberta de nuvens
Terra, terra, Por mais distante o errante navegante Quem jamais te esqueceria?

Ninguém supõe a morena, dentro da estrela azulada
. Na vertigem do cinema, mando um abraço pra ti 
Pequenina como se eu fosse o saudoso poeta 
E fosses a Paraíba
Terra, terra, 
Por mais distânte o errante navegante Quem jamais te esqueceria

Eu estou apaixonado, por uma menina terra,
 Signo de elemento terra. Do mar se diz terra à vista 
Terra para o pé firmeza, terra para a mão carícia
 Outros astros lhe são guia
Terra, terra,
 Por mais distânte o errante navegante Quem jamais te esqueceria

Eu sou um leão de fogo, sem ti me consumiria
 A mim mesmo eternamente, e de nada valeria 
Acontecer de eu ser gente. e gente é outra alegria 
Diferente das estrelas
Terra, terra,
 Por mais distânte o errante navegante Quem jamais te esqueceria

De onde nem tempo e nem espaço, que a força te de coragem
 Pra gente te dar carinho, durante toda a viagem 
Que realizas do nada, através do qual carregas 
O nome da tua carne
Terra, terra, 
Por mais distânte o errante navegante Quem jamais te esqueceria
Terra, terra, 
Por mais distânte o errante navegante Quem jamais te esqueceria
Terra, terra,
 Por mais distânte o errante navegante Quem jamais te esqueceria?

Na sacadas do sobrado, Da eterna São Salvador 
Há lembranças de donzelas, do tempo do Imperador
 Tudo, tudo na Bahia faz a gente querer bem
A Bahia tem um jeito
Terra, terra,
 Por mais distante o errante navegante 
Quem jamais te esqueceria. Terra


When I found myself arrested
 In a prison cell
, That’s when I first saw
 Those famous pictures
 In which you appear entire, 
However you were not naked 
But covered by clouds.
Earth! Earth!
 However distant 
The wandering navigator 
Who could ever forget you?

Nobody thinks of the brunette
 Inside the bluish star. 
In the vertigo of the movie
 I send you an embrace, 
Little one – as if I were
 the homesick poet 
And you were the Paraíba
Earth! Earth!
 However distant 
The wandering navigator 
Who could ever forget you?

I’m just in love 
With an earth girl, 
Sign of the element “Earth.” 
From the sea is said “Land in sight.” 
Earth to the foot: solidity. 
Earth to the hand: a caress.
 Other stars are guides for you
Earth! Earth! 
However distant 
The wandering navigator 
Who could ever forget you?

I am a lion of fire
 Without you 
I would burn myself up eternally 
And it would be worth nothing, 
The fact of my being human. 
And human is another joy 
Different than the stars’
Earth! Earth! 
However distant 
The wandering navigator 
Who could ever forget you?

From where there’s neither time nor space 
May the force send courage 
For us to treat you tenderly
 During all the journey 
That you carry out through nothing
 Through which you bear
 The name of your flesh
Earth! Earth!
 However distant 
The wandering navigator 
Who could ever forget you?
Earth! Earth! 
However distant
 The wandering navigator
 Who could ever forget you?
Earth! Earth! 
However distant
 The wandering navigator
Who could ever forget you?

In the townhouses’ terraces 
Of eternal Salvador 
There are reminders of maidens 
From the time of the Emperor 
Everything, everything in Bahia
 Makes us fond 
Bahia has such a way.
Earth! Earth! 
However distant
 The wandering navigator
 Who could ever forget you? 

My nights were sour, spent with Schopenhauer

April 1998 – April 2000

In December 1998, Bill Clinton is impeached by the House of Representatives, only the second US President to be impeached, after Andrew Johnson in 1868. The charges are perjury and obstruction of justice. Clinton has a long record of philandering going back to his days as governor of Arkansas and continuing to the White House. His attempts to cover this up give Republicans in the House an opening for impeachment. Clinton also pays a $90,000 fine for lying about his relations with Paula Jones, an Arkansan who accused him of sexual harassment. He eventually settles out of court with Jones for $850,000.

In 2000, the Presidential campaign of Al Gore keeps its distance from Clinton. In polls, an exceptionally high percentage of potential voters list “moral character” as an important issue in the election, and these voters mostly favor Gore’s opponent, George W. Bush. Gore believes that the Clinton scandals cost him the election.

Here’s a quote from the great pessimistic philosopher Schopenhauer (my translation):

Sexual love … next to the love of life … shows itself as the strongest and most active of motives, and constantly lays claim to half the powers and thoughts of the younger portion of mankind. It is the ultimate goal of almost all human effort. It exerts an unfavorable influence on the most important affairs, interrupts every hour the most serious occupations, and sometimes confuses for a while even the greatest minds. It does not hesitate to intrude with its trash, interfering with the negotiations of statesmen and the investigations of the learned … It devises daily the most entangled and the worst actions, destroys the most valuable relationships, breaks the strongest bonds, demands the sacrifice sometimes of life or health, sometimes of wealth, rank and happiness. Indeed, it destroys the conscience of the otherwise honest, makes traitors of the once loyal … One is forced to cry: Why all this noise? Why the strain, turmoil worry and effort? … Why should such a trifle pay so important a part, and constantly introduce disturbance and confusion into the well-regulated life of man? But to the earnest investigator the spirit of truth gradually reveals the answer: it is no trifle that is in question here; on the contrary, the importance of the matter is quite proportionate to the seriousness and ardor of the effort. The ultimate aim of all love affairs … is actually more important than all other aims in human life, and is therefore quite worthy of the profound seriousness with which everyone pursues it. What is decided by it is nothing less than the composition of the next generation … This is the key to the problem.

Schopenhauer actually anticipated a lot of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection – for example, how differences in men’s and women’s sexuality derive from differences in potential rates of reproduction. However he got there with the help of a lot of high-flown Germanic idealist talk about the Will to Live, rather than with scientific arguments.

Schopenhauer’s greatest disciple is Richard Wagner. If most of Mozart’s operas are about the triumph of monogamy in the face of obstacles, then most of Wagner’s operas are about the destructive antisocial nature of sexual love.

When the Berlin Wall fell

9 November 1989

I’m not sure of the age range of readers here, but I’m old enough to have been in Berlin, and East Germany, just months after the Berlin Wall fell. I’ve still got an expired passport with a DDR (German Democratic Republic = East Germany) stamp in it. I visited with my wife, who knows Germany, East and West, better than I do. West and East Germans mingled throughout the streets of Berlin, but you could easily tell the latter by their shabby clothing. We ate in a Cuban restaurant in East Berlin – the tacky socialist bloc version of tacky Polynesian restaurants in the United States. Most of the people we talked to were still in a state of euphoria about the Wende (the change) – I still remember the beatific smile our waitress gave us when we asked her – although we also ran into those who had had modest security under communism, and who worried about how they would fare under capitalism.

According to one story, Schiller’s Ode to Joy, set by Beethoven in his Ninth Symphony, was originally an Ode to Freedom; Prussian censors forced Schiller to change the words. Leonard Bernstein turned it back it an Ode to Freedom in a concert in Berlin in December, 1989.

Germans took a long time to go from writing music about freedom and cherishing their inner freedom, to being politically free. Here’s a student song going back to the nineteenth century

Die Gedanken sind frei, wer kann sie erraten,
sie fliegen vorbei wie nächtliche Schatten.
Kein Mensch kann sie wissen, kein Jäger erschießen
mit Pulver und Blei: Die Gedanken sind frei! 

Ich denke was ich will und was mich beglücket,
doch alles in der Still’, und wie es sich schicket.
Mein Wunsch, mein Begehren kann niemand verwehren,
es bleibet dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!


Ich liebe den Wein, mein Mädchen vor allen,
sie tut mir allein am besten gefallen.
Ich sitz nicht alleine bei meinem Glas Weine,
mein Mädchen dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!

Und sperrt man mich ein im finsteren Kerker,
das alles sind rein vergebliche Werke.
Denn meine Gedanken zerreißen die Schranken
und Mauern entzwei. Die Gedanken sind frei!

Thoughts are free, who can guess them?
They fly by like nocturnal shadows.
No man can know them, no hunter can shoot them
with powder and lead: Thoughts are free! 

I think what I want, and what pleases me,
all in silence, and as it should be.
My wish and desire, no one can deny me
and so it will always be: Thoughts are free!


I love wine, and my girl above all,
Only her I like best of all.
I’m not alone with my glass of wine,
my girl is with me: Thoughts are free!

And if I am thrown into the darkest dungeon,
all these are futile works,
because my thoughts tear all gates
and walls in two. Thoughts are free!