A Bunch of Incorrect Things Politicians Have Said This Week

So Alexander Downer, Australia’s foreign minister during the Howard years, has become a giant Twitter troll – and I mean this strictly in the pejorative sense of the term. I say this because while the entire world is mourning the death of Jamal Khashoggi and the corresponding implications for press freedom, Downer is spreading disinformation on the Internet masked as “questions”.

From the open source, the answer to both of these questions is “no” and “no” (or at least, “where’s the evidence before you start spouting this bullshit?”). This begs the question – what does Downer want to achieve with such trollery? For now it’s unclear – except that he appears to be going to bat for the Saudis.

Who knows if the stuff we put in our cars has anything to do with it (I don’t have any evidence to suggest it does) but to borrow from the former Foreign Minister’s conspiracy theory-mongering playbook for a moment: “is it true that Alexander Downer has close ties to the petroleum industry and is that also relevant?”

Downer’s ties to Woodside, after all, are currently being dredged up in the public discourse surrounding the Witness K sorry business.

Point is: without presenting actual evidence, asking such questions on the Twitter-machine is a pretty mean-spirited thing to do. Khashoggi, let’s remember, was just cut up into little bits and sent back to Saudi Arabia in diplomatic bags. Seems the era of #FakeNews is all-surrounding.

Elsewhere, Catherine McKenna, the Canadian Minister of Environment and Climate Change came up with this absolute ripper of an explanation for why the Stone Age came to a bronzy conclusion.

Let’s review the operative sentence again (then we can mock it): “the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. We got smarter”.

Well no, Cathy. Actually, this is extremely incorrect. Cognitively speaking, there is little difference between the mental faculties of today’s homo sapiens and the anatomically-modern humans who lived in the Stone Age. Of course, there’s a good argument to be made that groups as wholes have improved their capacity to store and transmit information (see, for example, the Internet) but this does not mean that “we” have become “smarter” – certainly not the “we” in terms of us as individuals.

One thing you come to appreciate when you spend a bit of time in the wilderness is just how smart and resourceful our ancestors were – expanding out of Africa; spreading through a multitude of inhospitable climates; using language as a tool for co-ordination during hunting.

Moreover, with all the rubbish that modern sedentary humans now put into their bodies you also have to wonder if there might be some link between the ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup in America and, say, Trumpism.

No, the Stone Age did not end because we “got smarter”. It ended because of smelting. And since the collective detritus coughed up by industry is now having a good go at destroying the planet, one could reasonably argue that on a big enough time scale smelting was a bad idea.

There’s one important thing to reflect on when reading McKenna’s little quip about our supposed intellectual superiority over the peoples of the Neolithic. Scientists need to do a better job at out-communicating a few basic and persistent misconceptions about how evolution works. Making bronze did not make humans “smarter” or “better” in the sense of moving towards a utopian superlative. It was a specific adaptation to a niche – one which historically correlates with the development of year-round agriculture (which sedentarised us) and the rise of centralized government in the form of early proto-states (which, I’m sure we agree, has had varying effects on the human condition). A niche adaptation makes an organism “fitter” in the context of its immediate environmental surroundings but when that environment changes those same adaptations may actually reduce the organism’s fitness.

If a nuclear Holocaust does occur in my lifetime, the first thing I will do is log off this blog and set to the task of learning how to be a hunter-gatherer.

Key point to note: that famous “March of Progress” image you still see posted up on the walls of high school biology labs is fundamentally wrong. Evolution is not a process of linear advance.



Elsewhere, Australia’s former Defence minister turned head of the Australian War Memorial is making a fool of himself again. Header for this video could read: “Dr Nelson: head of historical museum insists on putting himself on the wrong side of history”

Having said that, they are pretty tricky these “he said-17 others said” legal cases – so we’d all be well-advised to wait for the allegations to fully have their day in court.

But in the spirit of Downerism, I’ve just got one question for Dr Nelson: “Is it true that Kerry Stokes, owner of Channel Seven, is Chairman of the Australian War Memorial and is that also relevant? I’d like to know.

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