ANTHROPOLOGY NOW: Quantifying the size of our massive brains!

TUESDAY, JULY 24, 2018

Part 2—Our massive brains misfire:
Everywhere Franklin D. Roosevelt looked, he saw "a great nation, upon a great continent, blessed with a great wealth of natural resources."

He also saw "one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." He described this during his second inaugural, in 1937.

Everywhere we look these days, we seem to see something different. Everywhere we look, we see "massive brains" misfiring.

We saw that on last evening's Last Word, when Lawrence offered a bizarre account of Trump's approval rating. (Transcript below.) We saw that in the headline of this new Atlantic essay, where some headline writer seems to say that the New York City Public Schools is "the most segregated school system in the country."

(It's clear in paragraph 2 of the essay that its author has made no such claim. Still, we liberals love the claim, and so, once again, there it is.)

We saw that in today's Washington Post, where David Kris gives a misleading account of those meetings Carter Page is said to have held with those two Russian officials. We saw it on last night's Maddow Show, whose host was again conducting utterly pointless public readings from utterly pointless court transcripts. (After wasting time in this way, she finally mentioned those separated immigrant families at 9:57 PM.)

Granted, we watch a fair amount of cable news. That said, it seems to us that our massive brains are misfiring a great deal of the time, even aside from what you see at the White House or over at Fox.

Just how big are our massive brains? Early on, Harari traffics in quantification. This is what he says:
HARARI (page 8): Despite their many differences, all human species share several defining characteristics. Most notably, humans have extraordinarily large brains compared to other animals. Mammals weighing 130 pounds have an average brain size of 12 cubic inches. The earliest men and women, 2.5 million years ago, had brains of about 36 cubic inches. Modern Sapiens sport a brain averaging 73-83 cubic inches. Neanderthal brains were even bigger.
We've got those mammals whipped! At any rate, based upon observations of cable news, we'd draw a basic conclusion from that passage:

Brains of 73-83 cubic inches may function quite well in certain respects while misfiring wildly in others.

In that passage, Harari can't resist citing the Neanderthal brain, which was even larger than ours. As we showed you yesterday, the gentleman plays the same mean trick just a few pages later:
HARARI (page 14): [W]hen Sapiens reached the Middle East and Europe, they encountered the Neanderthals. These humans were more muscular than Sapiens, had larger brains, and were better adapted to cold climes. They used tools and fire, were good hunters, and apparently took care of their sick and infirm...Neanderthals are often depicted in caricatures as the archetypical brutish and stupid ‘cave people’, but recent evidence has changed their image.
How many times does he have to say it? On page 13, Harari says that the earliest members of Homo sapiens had brains as large as our own—and that the Neanderthals of that same period had larger brains than that! This may help explain why those massive brains misfire so often on cable.

Having reviewed the numbers, let's return to yesterday's question. If Neanderthal brains were bigger than ours; if Neanderthals were more muscular than us; then why did Homo sapiens rid the earth of Neanderthals? Why did our species survive?

Harari gives a provisional answer, though we won't get there today. For today, let's describe the lay of the land when our species, Homo sapiens, first arose in East Africa.

Harari says the magic began something like 200,000 years ago. Other human species had existed for well over two million years at that point. But our own species, Homo sapiens, finally appeared at this date.

We were the new kids on the block; other human species were already well established. For today, let's review who those species were. That includes the Neanderthals, who we somehow drove from the Earth.

"We are used to thinking about ourselves as the only humans," Harari writes, "because for the last 10,000 years, our species has indeed been the only human species around. Yet the real meaning of the word human is 'an animal belonging to the genus Homo', and there used to be many other species of this genus besides Homo sapiens."

Harari says we've been the sole humans for only the last ten thousand years. We'd have to say that doesn't take us all that far back!

Jesus Christ lived two thousand years ago; Plato "withdrew from the wickedness of the times" four hundred years before that! If there actually was a Trojan War, it may have happened in the twelfth century B.C. The start of the Bronze Age takes us half way back to the time when, Harari says, our (presumably) misfiring ancestors weren't ""the only human species around."

According to Harari, "it’s a common fallacy to envision [the various human] species as arranged in a straight line of descent," with each earlier human species evolving into the next.

No such thing, Harari says. Various species were all alive at the same time. He calls the roll like this:
HARARI (page 5): Humans first evolved in East Africa about 2.5 million years ago from an earlier genus of apes called Australopithecus, which means ‘Southern Ape’. About 2 million years ago, some of these archaic men and women left their homeland to journey through and settle vast areas of North Africa, Europe and Asia...

Humans in Europe and western Asia evolved into Homo neanderthalensis (‘Man from the Neander Valley), popularly referred to simply as ‘Neanderthals’. Neanderthals, bulkier and more muscular than us Sapiens, were well adapted to the cold climate of Ice Age western Eurasia. The more eastern regions of Asia were populated by Homo erectus, ‘Upright Man’, who survived there for close to 2 million years, making it the most durable human species ever...

On the island of Java, in Indonesia, lived Homo soloensis, ‘Man from the Solo Valley’, who was suited to life in the tropics. On another Indonesian island–the small island of Flores–archaic humans underwent a process of dwarfing...This unique species, known by scientists as Homo floresiensis, reached a maximum height of only 3.5 feet and weighed no more than fifty-five pounds.
According to Harari, remains of another human species, Homo denisova, were found in Siberia in 2010. Also this:
HARARI: While these humans were evolving in Europe and Asia, evolution in East Africa did not stop. The cradle of humanity continued to nurture numerous new species, such as Homo rudolfensis, ‘Man from Lake Rudolf’, Homo ergaster, ‘Working Man’, and eventually our own species, which we’ve immodestly named Homo sapiens, ‘Wise Man’.
Immodesty is us!

History is written by the victors; so are the names of species. At various points, Harari pokes fun at our kind for the way we stress our wisdom and intellectual brilliance. That said, for better or worse, little brilliance was on display on "cable news" last night.

When our species arose from the mist, other human species were already long established. Neanderthals had bigger brains. They also had larger muscles.

In a process Harari describes, semi-jokingly, as perhaps the first "ethnic cleansing," all these other species ceased to exist, Neanderthals included. Given that it's all anthropology now, how did our species outlast them?

Tomorrow: A chance mutation, he says

What Lawrence said: Lawrence was speaking with the ubiquitous John Heilemann. The gentlemen managed to fashion this account of the new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, in which Trump's approval rating actually stands at 45 percent:
O'DONNELL (7/23/18): And, John, a new poll, NBC/Wall Street Journal, shows that the president's approval rating is far below a majority. But 88 percent of Republicans say they support the president. And unfortunately, in most of the media, they never do the math on what that actually means, since only 26 percent of voters are Republicans.

HEILEMANN: Here we go.

O'DONNELL: Eighty-eight percent of 26 percent is something like 23 percent of voters support Donald Trump.

HEILEMANN: Yes. The Republican Party is shrinking. Man, you talk about getting abused by Fox News. I'm going to get abused for saying that. The Republican Party is shrinking. The Republican coalition—

O'DONNELL: That's just a numerical fact.

HEILEMANN: It's just a numerical fact, right? So, we have, we spent—this will be the third time that they have said this. We spend a lot of time focused on the Trump voter. We spend a lot of time focused on Trump's base.

I don't think it's wrong that we focus because it is the way to try to understand what Trump is doing, shoring up that base, it explains a lot of his tactical maneuvers and his long-term plan to try to survive the onslaught that he is facing right now on a variety of legal fronts. But in the end, the country is not with Donald Trump.


HEILEMANN: And we normally, in every election I have ever covered, going back to 1988, we focus on independent voters, moderate voters, swing voters. We focus on all kinds of voters who make that difference in elections. Now, we don't talk about that anymore.

All we talk about is the Trump base, the Trump voters, how Republicans in a shrinking Republican coalition are with them. Instead of focusing on the fact that the ABC News poll today said 75 percent of the American people are against him attacking the intelligence agencies. Two thirds of the American people are against the—disprove of how he handled the Helsinki. The vast majority of American is against Trump on these major issues.

And, again, I think we have to focus on his supporters because it's so important to what he's doing in the White House. But we also have to focus on the bigger picture, which is that the country, on the important issues, and this has huge political salience for these midterms and for his reelection if he gets that far, the vast majority of the country is not with him.
In the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Trump's approval rating stood at 45 percent. Unless you listen to Lawrence's massive brain, in which case you may believe that "something like 23 percent of voters support Donald Trump."

It's far below a majority! Unfortunately, in most of the media, they never do the math! (The ABC poll to which Heileman refers didn't provide an overall hob approval rating.)

Our assessment? Two massive egos were functioning well. Massive brains possibly not!

For Drum's account of Trump's "steadily rising job approval rating," you can just click here. Drum presents the discouraging data. Anthropologically speaking, you can't go on cable with that!


  1. I gotta go to the toilet partner, be back later to respond to this NONSENSE!!!!

    1. Beat him by seven minutes today, impressive!!

    2. Gallup has Trump approval/disapproval at 42/54, down from last week. Down indicates a loss of support.

      Trump's approval numbers continue to be historically low, his bump from the North Korea summit has faded, but he gets an increasing approval number for the economy. Democratics are doing a poor job of explaining how the current economic situation is a continuation of a trend that started with Obama's administration and policies.

      Trump takes credit for the good economy. Here’s what economists say


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  2. "Unless you listen to Lawrence's massive brain, in which case you may believe that "something like 23 percent of voters support Donald Trump." "

    Zombies don't have brains, massive or otherwise.

    45% or 23% - dontcha worry, Bob, for you and your lib-zombie death-cult it's all the same: same amount of hatred, xenophobia, and paranoia...

    1. I'll smack ya in the lip.

    2. Mao's denunciation of hatred, xenophobia, and paranoia, combined with his support for open borders is a game-changer.
      Here comes that Left-wing coalition we were promised.

    3. Trump is a liar and a thief.
      And Putin's bitch.

  3. Mr Trump is very concerned: Russia will support the Democrats, because he's been so hard on Russia.

  4. Here we see Somerby very concerned about the horse race aspects of Trump's presidency and not at all concerned about what Trump has been doing.

    Today Trump mentions those children taken from their parents, but only to disparage Maddow. No evidence Trump cares about those kids, or about our environment, or about any other issue.

    He only talks about Harari because he likes disparaging our massive brains -- a phrase Harari never wrote so that Somerby or anyone else could disparage modern humanity.

    If you think about the technology that supports the presentation of talking heads on cable, viewed on screens around the country, if not the world, it is an amazing accomplishment for a puny species like ours. Our massive brains did that. But Somerby wants to judge us only by a few unfortunate people's fleeting opinions about equally fleeting events. Who cares how many people support Trump today? He is no less awful because the number is higher today than yesterday.

    Did Somerby read Harari's book for any other purpose? What did he find out? My massive brain wants to know, even though my species may be superseded by one better suited to warm climates.

  5. Typo: 2nd paragraph should say Somerby mentions, not Trump mentions, and Somerby cares, not Trump cares. Sorry.

    1. The mixup is understandable.

  6. Here is how you quantify the size of a massive brain:

    1. Hollow out the skull.
    2. Fill the skull with beans
    3. Count the number of beans needed to fill it

    Better than your method of counting the number of words spoken about certain topics.

  7. A lengthy, intellectually weighty setup about Neanderthals vs Homo Sapiens, just to tell us that Lawrence O'Donnell made a mistake.

  8. After wasting time in this way, she finally mentioned those separated immigrant families at 9:57 PM.

    Invaders, you mean. Invader families.

    1. Like Isaac and Mary Allerton and children Bartholemew, Remember, and Mary;

      William and Mary Brewster and children Truelove and Wrestling;

      Mr and Mrs James Chilton and daughter Mary

      Et al

      Those invaders?

  9. Are these the same pollsters that showed Hillary Clinton winning?

  10. According to 538, Trump's approval rating tanked a while back, and is now approximately back to its pre-tanking level. Not exactly an overall gain in support.

  11. Actually, MSNBC talking heads mention Trump’s depressing good numbers all the time, and Bob knows it.
    The jump from FDR’s idealism and Bob hatred of O”Donnell starts us of weak and we go downhill from there.

  12. Bob, I've been racking my "yuge" brain and came up with two reasons to support Trump:
    1) Racism & bigotry
    2) Stupidity
    Make that three:
    3) Their delicate feelings were hurt by Rachel Maddow when they were children.
    Suggest additional reasons, if you can.

  13. At one time there was a belief that some dinosaurs had two separate sets of brains. This belief gave rise to the amusing poem: "Behold the Mighty Dinosaur".
    Whenever Bob talks about "lizard brains" I think of this poem.

  14. DinC and Mao,
    I just read that "white nationalists" and "neo-nazis" are planning rallies in DC and Charlottesville in August to petition the government for "white civil rights" and to commemorate their get together last year.
    Start making your plans now, if you have to travel.
    Bob doesn't have to plan. Baltimore is only 30 minutes from DC by train.

    1. David in Cal and Mao Cheng Ji are not serious commenters. They are only here to stroke their fragile egos via a strategy of stifling discourse. Responding to them does nothing but prop up their delicate sense of themselves.

      Ignore them and they will go away.

    2. No they wont go away. They have found a hidey-hole here to spit out their racism.
      And Somerby is complicit in his daily rationalization and defense of Trump's behavior. My chore is to call them out.

      Parse your ass off, Bob.

    3. AnonymousJuly 24, 2018 at 7:19 PM

      They will go away. Calling them out does nothing but spur them on.

    4. They both have been liars and racists for years right here.
      Not to be argumentative, but why do you think they will disappear?

    5. Bob has asserted that some liberals get a charge out of calling other people racists. It was kind of these four anonymous commenters to illustrate Bob's thesis.

    6. If the cap fits, wear it.

  15. As far as the species goes, I’m reminded of a quote from Vonnegut, which I can’t find online. I gotta go to work tomorrow. I can’t even remember which book it came from. He said about the white version of humanity, “our success comes from being most ruthless, pitiless people who have ever lived.” That’s massively paraphrased, but you get the spirit.

    Perhaps that was why Sapiens wiped out the Neanderthals, though looking that far back, it’s hard to say if we were really responsible. Both variants were surely dark-skinned at that point – but maybe not. It does seem that the European (white if you will) version of our species is responsible for global reigns of terror, colonialism and subjugation far in excess of what darker-skinned variants have achieved over the last 500 centuries. But I could be wrong about that too. I only know what’s going on today, which is that nearly every evil in this world is backed by the good old US of A in the name of capitalism. And boy, is that covenant a white one.



    1. You don't know what you're talking about. Neanderthals were in Europe, for one thing. Sapiens were in Africa. Vonnegut wrote fiction.

  16. The comments I have noticed on social media more and more is that Trump is keeping his promises, unlike most politicians. The potential consequences of his actions don’t matter nearly as much to supporters of the Trump administration as they do to the critics. Does Homo sap. look far into the future for negative consequences of things that apparently benefit him now? Some do. Most don’t. In fact, most avoid thinking and talking about bad outcomes. “Bite your tongue.” “Think positive thoughts.” “I’m glad I don’t have such a sick view of the future as you.” As immediate catastrophes don’t occur, the administration looks better and better.
    A frog will jump out of the hot water, but it has to get very hot first. Will Homo sap. jump soon enough? History says no.

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