Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The Inheritors and The Grisly Folk: H.G. Wells and William Golding on Neanderthals

Some time ago I posted about The Grisly Folk by H.G. Wells, an essay on Neanderthals and their encounters with modern humans. See also The Neanderthal Problem, about the potential resurrection of early hominids via genomic technology, and the associated ethical problems. 

The Grisly Folk: ... Many and obstinate were the duels and battles these two sorts of men fought for this world in that bleak age of the windy steppes, thirty or forty thousand years ago. The two races were intolerable to each other. They both wanted the eaves and the banks by the rivers where the big flints were got. They fought over the dead mammoths that had been bogged in the marshes, and over the reindeer stags that had been killed in the rutting season. When a human tribe found signs of the grisly folk near their cave and squatting place, they had perforce to track them down and kill them; their own safety and the safety of their little ones was only to be secured by that killing. The Neandertalers thought the little children of men fair game and pleasant eating. ...

William Golding was inspired by Wells to write The Inheritors (his second book, after Lord of the Flies), which is rendered mostly (until the end, at which point the perspective is reversed) from the Neanderthal point of view. Both Wells and Golding assume that Neanderthals were not as cognitively capable as modern humans, but Golding's primitives are peaceful quasi-vegetarians, quite unlike the Grisly Folk of Wells.

The Inheritors 
Golding considered this his finest novel and it is a beautifully realised tale about the last days of the Neanderthal people and our fear of the ‘other’ and the unfamiliar. The action is revealed through the eyes of the Neanderthals whose peaceful world is threatened by the emergence of Homo sapiens. 
The struggle between the simple Neanderthals and the malevolent modern humans ends in helpless despair ... 
From the book jacket: "When the spring came the people - what was left of them - moved back by the old paths from the sea. But this year strange things were happening, terrifying things that had never happened before. Inexplicable sounds and smells; new, unimaginable creatures half glimpsed through the leaves. What the people didn't, and perhaps never would, know, was that the day of their people was already over."

See this episode of the podcast Backlisted for an excellent discussion of the book. 

I am particularly interested in how Golding captures the perspective of pre-humans with limited cognitive abilities. He conveys the strangeness and incomprehensibility of modern humans as perceived by Neanderthals. In this sense, the book is a type of Science Fiction: it describes a first encounter with Aliens of superior capability.

We are approaching the day when modern humans will encounter a new and quasi-alien intelligence: it may be AI, or it may be genetically enhanced versions of ourselves.

On a scientific note, can someone provide an update to this 2013 work: "... high quality genome sequence obtained from the toe of a female Neanderthal who lived in the Altai mountains in Siberia. Interestingly, copy number variation at 16p11.2 is one of the structural variants identified in a recent deCODE study as related to IQ depression"? Here is an interesting follow up paper: Nature 2016 Aug 11; 536(7615): 205–209.



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