Election 2015

Archive page

(This is an old article moved from a page into this post)


Tuesday 14th April 2015


logo election 2015

Our page that covers the general election of 2015.


What’s wrong with Labour’s policy on the Arts?

The general election in 2015

News about the election (2015)

The election of 2010

Housing policy issues

This page asks the question:  what does politics mean for the arts?

As the country prepares for a general election on May 7th and as Leicester prepares to elect its constituency members of Parliament and city mayor,  we will be looking to see what the candidates are saying about their policies for the arts, heritage and culture in Leicester.

Our focus will be on the contest for the position of Mayor of Leicester. Now that the city has an elected, full-time Mayor we will be trying to find out what the candidates have to say about how they would support and develop the city’s arts.

See also:

The future of arts policy in Leicester (editorial comment)

Our coverage of the elections of 2010

News about the general election in Leicester

In 2011 we reported on a visit to Leicester of Ed Miliband


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Archived pages

This is an archive of the front page of this website as it looked on 19th November 2018, before I shorted it.

What you see below is that part of the page that was extracted.

3rd September 2018

Sunday postings come to an end.  I have given up posting on Sundays. Now I post whenever I have an article ready, to go live. Read more

Sunday 5th August 2018

book covers from FB

My novel The Streets of London reaches a new phase in its development. An explanation is given in my blog.

Sunday 15th July 2018

Firstly an apology. This website has not been available for about a week.  This was due to a technical problem with the domain name. I hope that has now been rectified.

Today’s blog post is about imagination.

Sunday, 8th July

Ways of writing a novel, is the theme of today’s blog post. Despite this debilitating heat wave, I continue to pound the typewriter keys.

Sunday 20th May 2018

Trevor Locke has adopted an unconventional approach to writing his third novel.

Today’s post explains how and why.

Sunday 13th May 2018

Head of a Young Man by Jean-Baptiste Greuze
Drawing of the head of a young man by Jean Baptiste Greuze.

In my series of Sunday blog posts, I discuss the relationship between drawing and describing scenes in creative fiction.

Sunday 6th May 2018

masks African animal mask
African mask depicting an animal form

The function and nature of masks is discussed as part of writing a novel.

Sunday 29th April 2018

In this week’s blog post I talk about planning a novel

Sunday 22nd April 2018

In another of my blog posts, I ask: Should novels have plots?

Monday 2nd April 2018

London Theatre in the 1960s

April 2nd Royal Court Theatre
Royal Court Theatre, London

Today’s blog post looks at how the theatre of the late 1960s finds its way into my third novel.

Sunday 25th March 2018

Writing about characters, in a novel

Devising characters and then bringing them to life, in a story, is far from easy.  In this week’s article, I talk about how I have gone about making the three characters who are central to my latest novel.

Writing characters

Sunday 18th March 2018

The Swinging Sixties? Was it?

Sunday 11th March 2018

I continue my blog posts by discussing the question ‘What is masculinity, anyway?

I write about my third novel – The Streets of London.

Buckingham Palace photographed bny me in 1963 cropped
Buckingham Palace in 1965

In this article I discuss the relationship between fiction and reality.

25th February 2018

In the first of my regular Sunday blog posts, I examine and discuss individuality. Considering how males become men and how they become masculine.

Read it here – Being an individual.

18th February 2018

My blog has left port. Today I published the first of my weekly pieces.

Read it here –  embarkation.

16th February 2018

I need to get going. This blog has not been updated. That will change. I have decided to have a blog section. That is a section of this website where I post weekly posts about what I am doing. The first instalment is due on Sunday 18th February.

I have made a start by putting a link, on the main menu bar, to the home page for my regular blog. Click on Blog Home above. ↑

17th November 2017

A new beginning

Now I have got my domain name, it is time to revamp the blog.

I want to give the whole site a fresher feeling; simplify it, make it easier to use and focus on the new rather than the old.

Please come back soon – lots of new writings are on the way.

Shipwreck story

The wreck of the Imperial Prince

Wreck of the Imperial Prince trawler off the coast of Scotland in 1923

by Trevor Locke

[This is an amended version of a story I wrote that was published in issue 2 of Family News, June 1992. It was later published on my family tree blog in February 2017]

On a stormy October night in 1923 a small Scottish trawler was sailing back to her home port when she was blown aground in a storm and heavy fog. The rescue attempt mounted to save her crew led to honours being bestowed by the Prince of Wales on the rescuers one of whom was my father – Leslie James Locke.

In the early morning, of October 19th 1923, a fierce southerly gale struck the coast of Scotland. The steam-powered fishing vessel Imperial Prince (129 tons) was returning to her home port of Aberdeen when she was overcome by strong winds and high seas and was washed ashore on Black Dog beach off Belhevie, four miles north of Aberdeen. Four lives were lost. The coasts around Aberdeen must have been treacherous because several ships were wrecked there in 1923 alone.

By daybreak, only her bow and stern could be seen above the waves. Imperial Prince was a steam-propelled fishing vessel built and launched in 1899 by J. T. Eltringham & Co. Ltd of South Shields, she weighed 129 Gross Registered Tonnage. Eltringham was an established ship-building company based at South Shields. By the year 1910 the twenty-sixth trawler had been delivered to what had then become the Prince Fishing Company. The shipyard closed in 1922, hit by the recession.

The trawler sank at 5.30 am and her nine crew were left clinging for their lives to the rigging. The rowing life boat was called from the fishing village of Newburgh and the big powered life boat of the Harbour Commissioners was summoned from Aberdeen; she was equipped with a rocket apparatus and this succeeded in firing a line on to the wrecked trawler and a breeches buoy was established to haul the men ashore. This took a long time in the rough seas and by the time it was ready the trawler men were so exhausted that they could hardly haul the buoy and one of the crew was drowned in the rescue attempt. The Aberdeen Lifeboat station was one of the earliest in Scotland, being established in 1802 by the Harbour Commissioners. It was the forerunner of the Aberdeen Lifeboat Station run today by the RNLI.

Before the advent of helicopters, if a lifeboat was unable to reach a stricken vessel, the only alternative means of rescue was the rocket-propelled Life-Saving Apparatus (LSA). It was invented by Cornishman Henry Trengrouse (1772 to 1854.) The LSA later became the Breeches Buoy. The apparatus provided a way of getting a line on to a ship. In 1808, Trengrouse designed a device that could deliver the line to the ship by means of a rocket. Once the line was established, a chair could be pulled across the hawser.

Villagers turn out to help

After a determined battle with the elements, the Aberdeen lifeboat was eventually swept ashore. Whilst this was happening, the Newburgh lifeboat was on its way from the fishing village seven miles further along the coast.

In 1828, Newburgh became the first port in Scotland to have a Lifeboat Station, then called the Shipwreck Institution. The RNLI, as the Institution became, based a lifeboat in Newburgh until 1961, when it moved to Peterhead.

The sea was too rough to launch it and so it had to be dragged along the soft sands by the men, women and children of the village. They reached the stricken trawler at 2 pm, eight hours after she had run aground. Eventually the Newburgh lifeboat was on its way, with Coxswain John Innes at the helm and his son James amongst the crew. They succeeded in saving two of the trawler men but a third was washed out of the buoy and drowned. One of the two men they saved was badly injured and the lifeboat crew became exhausted by their struggle with the sea they were forced to return ashore. Coxswain John Innes and his son Andrew were decorated by the Prince of Wales at Mansion House, in London, in 1924.

After a valiant effort, Coxswain Innes was forced to return ashore. The Newburgh rescuers made two further attempts to reach the trawler men but without success. A motor life boat was summoned from Peterhead, twenty-two miles away, up the coast. A message for help was sent to the Commanding Officer of the Royal Naval ships lying off Aberdeen.

Sailors to the rescue – in a fleet of taxis!

On board HMS Vampire, off-duty ratings were sprucing themselves up in readiness for a run ashore. One of these was 19 year-old Able Seaman Leslie Locke from Little Ann, near Andover, in Hampshire. On receiving the plea from the rescuers at Black Dog Beach, The commander of the Royal Naval destroyer called for volunteers from the ratings aboard Vampire and another destroyer, HMS Vendetta, lying nearby.

Eleven sailors, led by Petty Officer Essam of the Vampire, volunteered to help with the rescue and were dispatched to Black Dog Beach in the only means of transport available – a fleet of taxi cabs. The light was beginning to fade as they made their way along the windswept coastal roads to Belhevie. A soon as they arrived, a fourth attempt to reach the trawler began with the navel crew supporting the locals in the Newburgh lifeboat under Coxswain Innes, injured in his previous efforts and Petty Officer Essam.

It was nearly 7 pm and the light had gone. Although the wind had subsided there was a heavy swell breaking over the deck of the Imperial Prince. Her remaining crew had been had by now been clinging to her rigging for thirteen hours. Only her masts and the top of her funnel could be seen above the breaking waves by the light of the moon which had come out through the clearing skies.

After a long hard pull, the rowers in the Newburgh lifeboat got to windward of the wreck and threw a line to her. The boat dropped to the port side of the trawler, where she lay with her stern close in under the foremast. She rose and fell eight feet in the swell as the sailors struggled to take the remaining five trawler men from the wreck. Eventually, all the crew members were saved and the Newburgh lifeboat set off once more for the safety of the shore. The Peterhead lifeboat arrived at the scene, after struggling for 22 miles against the gale, shortly after the men has been rescued.

Prince rewards bravery

The story of the rescue of the crew of the Imperial Prince was told at the centenary meeting of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, held in London in June 1924. In the presence of His Royal Highness Prince Edward, His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London and many other dignitaries, the Deputy Secretary of the Institution accounted for the rescue of the Imperial Prince and described it as the outstanding service of 1923.

As a result of the gallant efforts of the sailors from Vampire and Vendetta. The Lords of the Admiralty showed their appreciation by promoting Petty Officer Essam in rank and each of the eleven ratings was given six months seniority of service, including Able Seaman Locke. At the centenary ceremony, Prince Edward presented the Institution’s silver medal to Coxswain John Innes and the bronze medal to his son James who was the Bowman. Petty Officer Essam, of HMS Vampire, was also awarded the Institute’s silver medal.

A special letter of thanks was sent to the women of Newburgh for their part in hauling their lifeboat seven miles along the sands. Each of the eleven naval ratings was awarded the RNLI’s certificate of thanks, inscribed on vellum and signed by the Prince of Wales.

Leslie Locke commenced his time in the Royal Navy on 10th January 1922 for a period of 12 years. He served on the Vampire, as a rating from 16th November 1922 to 5th June 1924. He was an ordinary seaman and then an Able Seaman. In February 1924 his naval record was endorsed with ‘awarded six months additional seniority in rating … for advancement purposes for rescue … of trawler Imperial Prince by men of Vampire and Vendetta …’

The Prince of Wales later became King Edward VIII, until his abdication following the constitutional crisis of 1936; he later married the American Mrs Simpson.

Sailors from HMS Vampire pictured with one of the framed RNLI certificates (left). Leslie is shown on the far right of the photo.

This article was compiled with the assistance of the rescue records Department of the RNLI in 1992 and drew on records left by the late Leslie Locke.

Find out more about the RNLI


The centenary meeting, The Lifeboat, June 1924, pp 135 – 159.


Sunday 25th February 2018

Being an individual

What does it mean to be an individual? How do people become themselves? How does a person portray his sense of being separate from everyone else? These are questions that present themselves to me as I write my third novel – The Streets of London. The novel covers the period from 1967 to 1971. A colourful, vibrant and diverse era that included the Summer of love and the Swinging Sixties. The theme of the book is masculinity – what it means to be a man in the twentieth century. And today. In thinking about this, it struck me that gender and stereotyping are all about being an individual. Some people are what they think they should be. Others want to be themselves. In this respect, the theme is also about conformity and rebelliousness. Individuality is about having a sense of self. A concept of one’s identity; a concept of one’s own subjective identity and a concept of how people see you and how you know what they see – these are discussed in this article.

How males become men

A human being is born male or female. Well, most are. As we shall see, later, there are exceptions. That condition is determined by the midwife (or doctor) who takes the baby out of the womb and immediately looks at its genitalia. She (or he) then tells the mother “It’s a boy” or “It’s a girl.” If the child is a male, he is treated like a male. He is brought up to be a male. What that is, in practice, differs from one society to another. In England, male children and brought up to be men. They are dressed as boys. When they grow up, they dress as men. They are given boys’ toys to play with. They are encouraged to do what boys normally do. They see around them a world that is pivoted on heterosexuality. So they become heterosexual. They become is what their believe their parents want them to be. They become, as adults, what they think their society wants them to be. This is has not been so true in history. It is something that characterises the twentieth century. In Victorian times, infant boys were dressed as girls.

Our society drives people to conform. It always has done. Society is a machine that manufactures conformity. It is geared to making people conform sexually and in terms of their gender. Even today, with our celebration of LGBT diversity, society presents us with a binary view of gender. Male or female. Everyone is expected to be either male or female. Males are masculine. Females are feminine. It’s all very simple. Isn’t it?

But how does society manufacture masculinity? That is what my novel is partly about. It tries to dig down into the mechanics of how masculinity is manufactured. It presents a view of the world in which society drives people to be one thing or the other. To be simple. To be clear. Not to fudge the issues. Not to be confusing. Especially when it comes to gender. Society manufactures masculinity; its systems and processes produce expectations and outcomes. Both for society as a whole and for the individuals that comprise it. Social processes make attitudes, beliefs, values, stereotypes, rituals, pressures, forces and a multitude of forms and fashions that mould and shape people. Manufacturing of social outcomes is a mass process. Masculinity is not a uniform cultural idea; not even in a single society. The wide spectrum of differences we find amongst men who are considered to be masculine, is the product of how each man or boy interprets social expectations, for himself. Family groups and communities vary in the extent to which they regard being masculine as important and their interpretations of social and cultural expectations differ too. Various social institutions are involved in the manufacture of masculinity; the foremost of these being the army and the school system and, in particular, the public school system. Sport is also important as a factor producing types of masculine behaviour and attitudes. Several writers have considered these – the military, schools and sport – as being systems used in the manufacture of conformity in general and in the process of configuring masculinity, in particular.


Society expects males to become men and females to become women. Both communities and families foster such expectations. Both church and state reinforce expected outcomes. Gender is not something that we are permitted to individualise. Society expects each of us to behave in a certain way. But how do individuals realise what these social and familial expectations are? What are the mechanics of making expectations work? Why do we internalise the social norms of being masculine or feminine? How does that happen?

Parents expect their children to grow up to be like them. They expect sons to become like their father. They expect daughters to become like their mother. Schools do the same kind of thing. Schools know what parents expect; they know what society expects. Boys have to be masculine. Girls have to be feminine. It is the way the world works. Schools reprocess social expectations, as much as they are created by them. Education is a process that involves adapting to conformity. Liberal educationists try to help students with this process of adaptation. Progressive teachers help their students to understand that his happens and how to react to it.

The social order is based on expectations. Society has a strong belief that people should be how it wants them to be. To behave, to dress, to act, to think… in socially recognised ways. Society expects that people will behave in a certain way. Expectations are defined for almost all aspects of human behaviour. Expectation means wanting something to happen in a certain way. Wanting something to be the case. Expectations are about beliefs. Values. Rituals. Expectations are about the future. And also about the present. OK. So social expectations change over time. What society expected of young men in the 1970s is not greatly different from those of today. But neither is it completely the same.

People internalise expectations because they want to be the same as everyone else. They see the world in the same way as everyone else sees it. Shared views of the world are what binds it together. Shared expectations are what binds people together into a society. The machinery of creating expectations works in many ways. One of them is the sharing of norms and values. If a group of people share something in common with each other, then they can teach children how to grow up and adults can regulate behaviour. Rituals are mechanisms through which norms and values are celebrated and inculcated. Rituals are the foundation blocks of culture. Rituals shape daily life and everyday social interactions. There are rituals that configure gender and sexuality. These are rituals through which the social order of male and female is maintained and reinforced. Rituals mould people into having sex in a particular way. Courtship is a process that prepares people for having sex with each other and it involves many ritualised routines. One of these is dating. In my novel, I look at dating in the sixties and how people conformed to rituals in the preliminary stages of mate selection and intercourse. Dating was portrayed as one of the foundations of the process of conformity. As the novel shows, there were whole groups and communities that disowned the standard normalities of dating. These groups replaced the standard rituals that led up to sex, with their own individual values and customs.

Expected to be a man

How do individuals internalise social expectations? Do straight men internalise expectations about maleness in the same way as do gay men? Are there differences between straight men and gay men that affect the extent to which they internalise social expectations and conform to them? These questions are touchstones, litmus tests, that unravel the nature of conformity and individuality.

It could be argued that homosexual men have failed to internalise – and to conform to – social expectations. After all, if they are homosexual then they have clearly failed to conform to social expectations about their sexuality, through becoming heterosexual. Hence, they might also fail to internalise expectations about masculinity. It could be argued. Is that because they are gay? Is there something in homosexuality that makes an individual inherently less likely to conform to expectations about masculinity? It’s a chicken and egg conundrum. Are they gay because they are not conforming; or are they not conforming because they are gay? A man is gay if he has failed to internalise social expectations about his sexuality. Society expects all men to be heterosexual. Being gay means that a man has found ways of avoiding the pressures to internalise expectations about sexuality. But, even when a man accepts that he is gay, pressures to conform still apply. He is expected to behave like a gay person. He is expected to be a certain kind of gay person. Pressures from the gay community compel him to be gay in a certain way.

Most gay men – those who live in a gay community – conform to the social expectations of the gay scene. Insofar as they understand and accept them. This affects where they live, what kind of restaurants they patronise, which bars they go to, what kind of films they watch, how they dress, how they should decorate their homes, what kind of pets they keep, et cetera. Being gay permeates all aspects of life. It is a lifestyle choice and hence it stylises life from top to bottom. And yet there is, in the gay community, a widely held belief that people should be themselves. A belief that clashes with the pressures in the gay scene to conform to fashions and commercial exploitations. But then, this is not a highly organised process; it has not been thought-through before it gets to work on people. As with a lot of other communities, it just happens. It is the end result of historical processes.

Bringing the world inside you

What is internalisation? It is a process of bringing inside you what you see on the outside. By ‘see’ I mean understand, conceptualise, know, believe. Making your inner world match your view of the world outside. You no longer see things as being outside; they are what you think and feel inside. People have imported the (or a) view of the world into themselves – the world that they see outside of them, the view as they understand it. Does that mean, therefore, that a gay man has failed to see the world around him? Has he failed to see the view of the world in which a man should be heterosexual? No. The evidence is that a gay man knows only too well what he is supposed to be. He is well aware of the heterosexual view that he should internalise. It is not a failure to internalise social norms. Growing up to be gay involves a different set of processes. Gay people are painfully aware that society expects them to be heterosexual. They reject that pressure. They avoid it. They escape it. They accept that they are homosexual. They probably think they have failed to become heterosexual. They get over it. That is quite different from thinking that you have successfully become a gay man. Coming out as gay is a process that involves a man accepting his gayness and asking those around him to also accept it. Coming out as gay has become an established feature of British society. Many famous people have come out and most people would be able to name at least one celebrity who is gay. A search on the Internet, made today, suggests that gay men do not necessarily look different from straight men. You cannot tell a man is gay just by looking at his face. Or the way he is dressed. From the 1970s onwards, gay men’s fashions influenced men generally; their taste in music had a massive effect on musical popularity generally. Gay men’s style choices about personal grooming began to filter out into the straight world and men started to take more care of their personal appearance and to use cosmetic products. This gave rise to the metrosexual.

In my novel, one of the characters challenges a friend to say how became a heterosexual. As the friend says, he did not have to become a heterosexual; there was no point in his life when he had to ‘come out’ as straight. Being a heterosexual is the norm. It is not something that anyone must achieve; it just happens. The binaryism of straight and gay gives us insights into how the world inculcates us into conformity. Our society presents the social world of human beings in black and white terms. Our lives become an endless round of dichotomies. You have to be thing or the other. You are not allowed to choose. You have to be what the world wants you to be – whether that is the world of your community, your family or your faith.

Each individual has a private persona and a public persona. By persona, I mean identity, self, image, character – in the social sense. A persona is like a mask – you wear it in order to say who you are. There are circumstances in which these two things collide. Two senses of self clash. Recent research studies have looked at men who identify, publicly, as straight but who told researchers they sometimes had sex with other men. Such men might have a private persona of being bisexual – one that they might not disclose to even legitimate researchers. That is speculative.

What the research reveals is that men with heterosexual credentials – those that are not open to doubt – do sometimes have sex with other men, for a variety of reasons. The subjects of the research were men who identified as heterosexual to their family, friends, work colleagues and to the public generally. Judging from the research report, they were having sex with other men in a clandestine way. They were selected from a sample of men who used online apps to find other men, for sex. They maintained their identities as straight and the fact they occasionally had homosexual experiences did not alter their perceptions of themselves as straight. Many of the male subjects interviewed for the research were in stable relationships with women. The research suggested that many of these men had same-sex encounters only infrequently. The term ‘heteroflexible’ has been coined to describe these men. The difference between one’s public persona and how one sees oneself internally, the notion of a private persona, is long-established in sociology and psychology. What interests researchers are the rationales for these dissonances and how men justify presenting themselves as straight even though they are having same-sex encounters. These were men who had sex but without there being any emotional or romantic engagements; they did it purely for sexual reasons or gratifications. They said they were not attracted to men’s bodies and did not find them handsome. Many of them said they were interested only in the penis and not the person as a whole. These were men who were not exclusively heterosexual. Socially they presented themselves as straight guys. Most did not publicly identify as bisexual. They would have strenuously denied they were gay and pointed to their girlfriends or wives as evidence for their heterosexuality. They could not be said to be homosexually oriented. They had a heterosexual orientation but dabbled in homosex now and then. They chose to do this. It was not due to circumstances, as would be the case with prison inmates or male sex workers. They would choose to do this or not to do this, at will.
Sex is often a way of penetrating into the mechanisms by which individuals assert their separateness from the social world in which they live. In discussing individuality, sex and gender are often good topics to reveal and expose how people overcome pressures to conform. This happens because someone has a strong sense of being a separate individual. They are not ants in a colony. They exist separately from the society around them. They have refused to be configured by it; or they have failed to conform to its expectations.

Being an individual

Some people are conformists. Others are individualists. I use the term individualist simply to mean oriented to self or self-defining; as opposed to adhering to a set of beliefs about individualism. This is a notion, a concept, that any one person is either a conformist – they live up to social expectations – or an individualist – one who chooses whether to accept social expectations or to refuse them. But some people are individuals who reject convention. A man can either internalise social expectations about masculinity or he can make up his own mind. People who think about the outside world and then decide for themselves what they want to be, or to do, are individualists. It is not that they feel antagonistic to the outside world. Not necessarily. They have a strong sense of their own self. A person who decides to be what he wants to be – rather than what people on the outside want him to be – must have a strong sense of self. It takes guts to be different.

Being an individual is not easy. People apply pressure to conform to accepted norms, beliefs, values and customs. Today’s obsession with texting and commenting on social media is the new way of pressuring people to conform. People bully other people, online, to compel them conform to their own view of the world. That can lead an individual to be depressed, unhappy, even suicidal. The individualist is less affected by what other’s think of him. He wants to be self-determining. It is much easier to go with the flow; to do what other people expect you to do. If you want to be your own man, you have to be very strong mentally. Parents apply a lot of pressure on their children to grow up to be like themselves. Parents bring up their children to be like themselves, to behave as they do, to dress as they do, to have their beliefs, to have their ambitions (if they have any ambitions) and to be little models of themselves. With most families this process is successful. There are always a few who reject that outcome, both when they are young and when they become adults. There are individuals who are not anything like their parents. They are not the person their parents wanted them to be. They have forged their own identity. They have created themselves in their own image – not in the image of their parents.

Having the guts to be different is about self-confidence. A belief that what one thinks (about oneself) is right (if only for oneself.) Conformists often have a low sense of self-esteem and low self-confidence. This leads people to doubt themselves; to be uncertain about who they are and what they are becoming. Self-confidence is about having the strength to believe in one’s own values and priorities. It is also about having the strength to respect others. To value what other people think without always agreeing with them. To value the right of others to decide for themselves just as you decide for yourself. Conformity is a like a suit of armour. It protects, but it also imprisons. Conformists think that, if they follow social expectations, their lives will be easier. They are more likely to be accepted by others. They are more likely to agree with the values of the world around them. They are more likely to be deferential to authority figures.

Individualists have to protect themselves against the intrusions of the outside world. An individualist has to inoculate himself against internalising too many of those external expectations that clash with his own personal values and beliefs. Once someone has realised (or decided) that they are an individualist, they have to find ways to escape the pressures being applied to them by the outside world. Let us take, for example, the case of a man who wants to have his own take on gender. Some men become transvestites. Not the ones who seek gender reassignment (transsexuals.) Rather, those who want to dress as a woman for part of their lives. They have to be strong-minded individuals. Unless they are going to pursue these activities only in private, in secret. A man who wants to be a woman, at least to feel as though he is a woman, for part of the time, has to have a strong sense of his own self and his own identity. To him, gender is a game played by two sides. He knows how to switch sides and play for the other team. Many male actors have to dress up in women’s clothes and act a role. Doing that has no effect on their sense of identity. They remain actors doing a job. Acting the part of a woman might open up insights into womanhood if they play the role sincerely enough. But after the day’s work, they put on their male clothing and go back to being a man. Transvestites also do that. Very few are fortunate to have jobs where they can dress as women. They have to go back to being a man, when they go back to work. Being a woman is something they do only when they have the opportunity, when circumstances permit.

Earlier on, I argued that society was a machine that creates expectations about how men should behave and what they should do and be. In many societies, there is, in fact, a slot for the transvestite male. According to the rules of the machine, you can be a transvestite if you join a certain profession, occupation or religious group or engage in certain recognised rituals. Social machines can allow these exceptions. Today’s social machine allows some men to be gay. The machine manufacturers standard products but it can also turn out specialised components. Hijras are officially recognized as a third gender in South Asian countries; they are considered neither completely male nor female. Many Hijras live in well-defined and organised all-hijra communities. In India, some Hijras do not define themselves by a specific sexual orientation, but rather by renouncing sex altogether. Sexual energy is transformed into sacred powers. Seeing themselves to be neither men nor women, Hijras practice rituals for and on behalf of both men and women; they belong to a special caste. They may be devotees of certain gods or goddesses. There are other examples, in other countries, of male persons who adopt a trans-gender role for either religious reasons or because they become sex workers.

Transvestites and homosexuals are examples of people who have to escape from the clutches of social expectation. They have to find ways of being self-determining in a world which pressures them to be conformists. Some achieve this through religion; some through political ideologies. Some simply construct reasons and justifications of their own for why should not conform. Many are subject to discrimination, hate and social rejection. They might find solace and companionship in like-minded groups but they also have to be mentally strong enough to withstand the negative consequences of their status, if they are to survive (which not all of them do.)

I know this sounds a bit like a sociology essay. It is me thinking through the theory before I put it into practice in writing my novel. As I lived through the sixties and seventies, I saw the world in all its polymorphic colour. I saw it changing. I saw people changing. The world in which I lived was multifaceted, complex, challenging and always impermanent. My experiences of life fifty years ago are what leavens my literary ambitions. I qualified as a sociologist. What I now need to do is to apply my social theory, as I understand it, to fiction to create a novel that will both tell a story and entertain.

Choosing to be different

Do people choose to be different? Can they decide not to conform? Is it a matter of conscious thought? Most of the time we do not realise that we are conforming to expectations. The process happens, to us, without us realising it. Most people go through life without ever thinking about themselves, who they are, how they became the people they are. Life just happens. We just happen. There is no point in thinking about it. It is only when people stray away from the set pathway that they realise that they were conforming to a set of expectations. They find themselves off piste socially. Realising that they are in some way different coincides with realising that once they conformed.

Some of these processes of becoming different happen very slowly, over a long period of time. Some people who are different cannot point to a time or an event where everything changed. It does happen. But for some people, they drift unconsciously into being different. The ordinary person is not a philosopher – one who thinks deeply about the meaning of existence. Whatever protects the average man against failure to conform – it did not do it for them. Most people do not consciously conform to social expectations. It just happens to them. They do not realise that it happens or how it happens. It just does. They are seldom conscious of the mechanisms and processes of conforming.

Those who become individualists, are more likely to have become aware of such mechanisms and processes. They had to learn how to deal with them. Avoid them or neutralise them. If you want to be rebellious you have to learn how to be a rebel. You do not just become one. You might feel rebellious. But you still have to find out how to rebel. Circumstances can turn you from a conformist into a rebel. It can happen but it is not something that happens very often. A rebel can be someone who fights; he conflicts with his detractors. But he can also be a man with a rebellious attitude. A non-conformist, by nature. These are all kernels for a good stories.

If a man is sufficiently self-aware, he may choose to be different, decide in what way he will differ, how much he will differ and over what period time he will be different. That is not what happens to everyone. Some people suffer from mental health problems; that makes them different for a while (perhaps even permanently.) They might be aware of such issues and problems. They might even come to define such differences in their own minds. They might develop survival strategies that enable them to cope with those differences. It is not clear that they have chosen to be that way; it might be that, mentally, it just happened to them, without their choice. They became mentally ill. Likewise, it is possible that a man would reject some aspect of the culture into which he was born. If he was born into a religious community, for example, he might decide, intellectually, to reject that religion in whole or in part. He might want to become a devotee of some other religion or to have no religion at all. These transformations are thought through; their consequences are known and he is mindful of the potential repercussions. Sometimes, a man might be caught between two sets of expectations. Conflicting or opposing expectations. He has to choose which side to join. Sitting on the fence is far more difficult. There is a long and rich history of religious non-conformism in this country, as much as in the rest of western Europe. Some members of the Anglican tradition have left the mainstream church and joined protestant congregations that espouse an alternative theology.

It is an open question whether we do choose to be different or whether this just happens to us. For some people, I am sure, they just drift into it because of their circumstances. I thought of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens. She was jilted at her wedding and spent the rest of her life wearing her bridal gown and living a reclusive life. Being different is not, of itself, a bad thing; there are thousands of celebrities whose difference brings them fame and notoriety but they see that positively. It becomes their trade mark. Members of the royal family are different – they are high-status individuals – but they would mostly regard their difference as being positive. They were born to be different. There are many hundreds of thousands of people who were born with a disability. Some of them are very different – physically – from the rest of the population. Some have used their condition to their advantage – such as the actors and actresses who were born with dwarfism and went on to come famous actors. Dave Rappaport for example. I was at the University of Bristol when he was an undergraduate there. Differences can be acquired or they can be adopted. Physical differences can be embraced and celebrated. Mental conditions can be a source of creative inspiration. Some of those who are bipolar become highly talented artists. Our society commands conformity in many ways. Can permit variations. It can protect diversity. In the west, we enjoy liberal, progressive versions of the state. This has not always been the case in European history.

The state machine

Society is a machine for manufacturing look-alike people – people who are similar to each other. Society works better when most people fit standard measures. Too much variation is unprofitable. The manufacturing machine expects people to behave in the way it wants them to behave. The machine comprises the state and capitalism and often the church or religious orthodoxy. Capitalism is a traditional philosophy, I know. These days it might refer to commercialism or a certain kind of economy. Modern capitalism is often seen as being corporatism. Many writers have seen the state as being organised and run by an elite; or a group of elites. Oligarchs. The ruling class. People at the top who rule those below. Top people control the country. Top means rich; or the wealthiest. They are the ones who have the most power. There is a passage in my novel, where one of the characters launches into an analysis of how the ruling class rules. He portrays thinking of the late sixties in which radicals, suckled on the paps of Marxism, saw people as being exploited by a kind of Big Brother totalitarian state. He rails against the mass media newspapers for imposing political will on the people. The will of their corporate owners. He belittles parliamentary democracy. He sees the politics of Westminster as being a ruse that deflects people away from what is really happening in the country. Journalists are told to focus on what politics say and do; in reality, he argues, this is all a smokescreen.

All of this is well-known. The state is a series of systems that wants people to be what it expects them to be; to do what it expects them to do; to not do certain things (criminal law.) Here in England, we believe that we are ruled by a parliamentary democracy. Well, some of us do. Others are not so sure. Those of a more radical bent believe that democracy is a weak force and that the real governors of our world are the corporations. Whatever the truth might be, the state is a machine that imposes itself on the population. What we fail to see are the newspaper moguls and corporate bosses who are imposing their values on the state. My character is a radical student; as a person he has chosen to become an individual – of a certain kind. No one made him become a radical. Neither did he become a radical by chance.

My concern here is with personal conformity and individualism (in the sense of self-compliance.) There are many social and political movements that are concerned with conformity. Religion is one of them. I recall the Tudor period when Henry VIII disestablished the church and attempted to convert the British to Protestantism. A large number of people became non-conformists. But many clung on to their Catholic beliefs. During a later period of English history, people divided themselves into puritans and Catholics, or later into Roundheads and Cavaliers, parliamentarians and royalists. In modern times, the Northern Irish community was (and still is) divided into republicans and loyalists. Every man, woman and child – in such situations – had to decide which side to join; on which side of the fence they would go. They had to choose which side they wished to conform to. These were situations that have parallels in today’s world.

The genetics of masculinity and the chemistry of sexuality

My novel is about masculinity and how men grow up to be masculine. The process is a complex one. And yet it appears to be simple. If you are born as a male you are brought up to be a man. The world makes you behave how a man is expected to behave. What I set out to do, in my novel, is to show that this process does not always happen successfully. I have introduced a number of gay male characters in order to explore the process of conformity and individuality as it concerns sexuality. But it goes much deeper than that. The heterosexual characters display varying modes of sexuality and levels of masculinity. I talked about people being standardised; in reality, this is far from being the case. We are all variations from (or on) the standard. Those who are conformists are not people who stick rigidly to the rules; they are people whose lives are mainly characterised by internalising expectations, most of the time and to some degree or other. But not necessarily in every respect. They can occasionally deviate from expectations. In some way. To some extent. Sometimes a person is a conformist, in a general sense, but at the same time, they can also be an individual. Conscious of their own individuality. It all depends on circumstances. We do not all lead exactly the same lives. Groups of people might be seen to lead lives that are similar. But there will always be variants.

Some people are generally conformists but have elements of individuality where they depart from the norm and defy conventions. If there is an expectation that people will dislike or reject homosexuality, some people will reject that expectation and take another view of gayness. Many people grow up in communities that hold sport in high regard and consider football to be of prime importance. A few might reject this view. That does not mean that they are all round non-conformists. They just don’t like sport or football. A man living in contemporary society, in England, might be a conformist, generally, in most aspects of life, but that compliance is tempered with attitudes, beliefs and values that are individual to him – his own preferences. Society is not so totalitarian that it requires absolute compliance with all expectations, all of the time. We have a degree of personal freedom. Some of the characters in my novel are exemplary heterosexuals but they allow themselves to deviate now and again. They occasionally dip their toes into homosexuality. That does not make them gay. It does not change their orientation. They are simply men who have sex with other men, occasionally. For them, it is a characteristic of manliness. Women might occasionally sample a bit of lesbian love. It is equally possible that a gay man might dip his toes into straight sex. I think that is less likely to happen and is rarer. My view of gay men is that, once they have come out, they are locked into that particular suit of armour, more so than their straight counterparts are locked into the armour of heterosexuality. It is one of my story lines that individuals do sometimes fail to comply, fail to conform, refuse to always be what they should be. Some men flout the rules; in doing so, they affirm the rules. As the French writer Jean Genet, once wrote: A man who fucks a man is a double man. A heterosexual man who has sex with another man is affirming his maleness. A man who occasionally dresses as a woman is affirming his masculinity – not denying it.

Let me explain one thing to do with this. Being gay is more than just about sex; gay is more than homosexuality. It is a lifestyle choice. It is a social and cultural position. I cannot say if this applies equally to males and females and there will also most certainly be ethnic differences and age differences. Gay has become something, in the twenty-first century, more than just about sex or even about partnership choices. An individual positions himself in a world that he recognises. Not necessarily consciously. And not as a one-off choice. Our lives slide into place according to the kind of work we do, the level of educational attainment we achieve, the kind of wealth we accumulate or enjoy, where we choose to live, who we choose to live with… a wide variety of factors make us what who we are. Our position changes over time; it evolves as we get older. As we marry and cease to be single. Or if we become disabled. Or mentally ill.

Another factor presses itself on my thinking. A person who lives in a family – all their lives – is more socially configured than someone who lives mainly in a solitary situation. Some live in fairly small family groups; other exist for most of their lives in extended family circles. Of all the factors that make people who and what they are, the family is the one that has the greatest influence. Small families of parents and their children might try to bring their children up to be individuals. Other families might do their utmost to make their children into replicas of the parents. Some families are based on values of liberal tolerance. In other cultures, there is stronger emphasis on conformity. The family is not always a standardised institution. Liberal societies allow families of be different. This then allows individual family members to be different.

Being a different race

A blogger called Devi Clark wrote: When I was ten, my blonde, blue-eyed best friend gave me a label. “I never thought I’d make friends with anyone brown,” she said. She was clearly embarrassed by her revelation and had summoned the courage to own up. I was dumbstruck for a moment. I never really thought of myself as brown, or indeed, as anything. I was just me. She went on to comment I still encounter many situations where people make incorrect assessments of me based on my looks. In her article, she went on to analyse the advantages of being different, seeing it as being positive characteristic. In particular, she saw being different a source of motivation and creativity. Writer Mandy Hale suggested that people should own their differences. She commented that if someone thought they were weird they should work on it. Several writers have talked about ‘being part of the herd’ and how leaving the herd can be a positive achievement. When it comes to race – based on skin colour – there has to be a point when a person realises that they are different to whatever group is around them or what kind of community they came from. Once they have accepted that they are different, they then have to work out what that implies.

We often think that black people came to the British Isles in the 1960s; this is far from the case. The very first Britons were people who were not white. Ancient ancestors who first populated what we now know as England, were brown-skinned people. Black people were brought to this country by the Romans back in the first century. They continued to live here and their presence was amplified during the time when the East India Company began to trade in slaves. Why should skin colour form the basis for racial discrimination? Some analysts of the history of slavery and of racism in this country have traced the source of discrimination back to economic status, poverty and the fact that black people were usually those who were exploited. In Britain today having a different skin colour is not in itself a disadvantage. It can be but other factors also apply. Some black people today are wealthy, hold positions of high office, are successful business people, are celebrities, Olympic athletes, distinguished sports people. Skin alone, is not a sufficient factor to explain disadvantage and discrimination. There have been many groups of people with white skins, who have become the targets and victims of hatred and intense discrimination.

A complex individual

It has been suggested, by some of the writers I have read, that a person is multi-layered. The self is not a simple, one-dimensional entity. It can have different parts. There can be more than one self; some of which the person is aware of and, in some cases, selfs of which he is not fully conscious. As babies and children grow and develop they become aware of themselves. They realise they are separate from the world around them and separate from people they see every day. A young person develops a sense of self and some degree of understanding as to what kind of self they have. Children grow to see themselves as separate individuals, persons, distinct beings or entities. During adolescence, we see ourselves, more and more, relative to people around us – in particular, our peer group. Adults can be defined or configured by their family or community. We used to talk about actuality. I think that meant ‘what we actually are.’ Allied to that, we used to use the phrase ‘self-actualising.’ Something invented by humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow. Something to do with personal growth. Fulfilling a desire for achievement, realising potential.

Are people ever completely separate? If, as I have just said, people are defined by those closest to them, can it ever be that a person is completely separate? Complete separation can happen only when an individual lives in isolation – like a hermit or someone marooned alone on an island. In normal daily life, an individual is socialised into a family or group or community. His self is, therefore, a reflection of the attitudes, values, cultures, behaviours, beliefs of those around him and is it not wholly self-defined. My idea of individuality sees a person as being positioned somewhere along a continuum from, at one extreme, complete separation through to, at the other extreme, being like an ant in a colony – having no separate existence beyond or outside the hive. Clearly, some people are conformists who are well-adjusted to the social world in which they live; others might accept most of what they are given or what is demanded of them, socially, but have peculiarities, idiosyncrasies, eccentricities, distinctions, elements of who and what they are which make them different. That is what makes people interesting. Homogeneous clones are not interesting.

It is possible to argue that everyone has two selfs – the social self that is defined by the people around us. And the inner self, which we ourselves determine, mould and shape. That sounds like a credible idea. I talked earlier about having a private and a public persona. The social self and the inner self. Components of our individuality. These two selfs are usually one and the same – we see ourselves as people see us. What we shape our inner self to be, is the same as the way we are seen by those in our world. But it is not always the case. It is not wholly the case. Some of us keep our inner self secret – in part, at least. We hide some of our differences from those around us. We have secret private lives.

People who are sexually different – in particular, gay people – can and do keep their sexuality firmly in the private sphere. If they are not totally out, their sexuality forms part of their inner self and one that is not disclosed to the world around them. They are not seen as being gay and therefore being a gay person is not reflected back to them. They pass as straight – by default; everyone is straight until proven otherwise. Britain has become a society where LGBT is accepted, if not celebrated. This creates a society where people can come out as gay, in most settings, most of the time, without fear of retribution. They might experience disadvantage in being openly gay, but their difference should not result in aggressively negative responses. Legally they cannot be discriminated against for being gay. They are allowed to be different. That is not the case in many other countries. Liberal progressive societies are ones where there is scope to be different without there being negative consequences. Being gay, disabled, in a minority group, makes an individual different but these are acceptable differences and they are often protected by law. Societies that protect people who are different are those that value diversity. Where there is acceptance of groups of people with specific differences (gay, disabled, transgender) there is a generally positive attitude to being different. This might have its limits (given our preoccupation with dichotomies.) But, in general, people value both being different and the freedom that permits people to be different.

Despite this widespread acceptance that being gay is OK, there are still men who experience fear and anxiety about being gay and about coming out as gay. They fear the consequences of being seen to be gay by those around them. Teenagers are especially prone to this given the endemic bullying on social media. Teenagers today lead their lives on social media apps. That was not the case when I was young. So, I cannot claim to fully understand it. What I have found, as I researched this subject, was that there are many men who fear being gay – either becoming gay – or being thought of as gay. There was evidence that some heterosexual men become obsessed with the idea that they are gay – even though they are not. Fears that they might be gay distort their sense of identity.

I briefly looked at a few novels and films that dealt with aspects of individuality and of being different. I will not deal with those now but I might well return to them later. In particular, I have started to look at Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four, the film Rebel Without A Cause and L’Étranger by Albert Camus. There are many, many more. These works provided me a method of weaving themes into a story. They reassured me that there could be a ‘genre’ for novels that dealt with themes of society and the individual.

See Introduction to my Blog.

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St. Crispin’s Day Observed

25th October 2017
St. Crispin’s day observed

Saint Crispin’s Day falls on 25 October and is the feast day of the Christian saints Crispin and Crispinian (also known as Crispinus and Crispianus, though this spelling has fallen out of favour), twins who were martyred c. 286.’ Beheaded during the reign of Diocletian; the date of their execution is given as 25 October 285 or 286.

Most people who know of such a day are familiar with it through Shakespeare. ‘It is a day most famous for the battles that occurred on it, most notably the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Because of the St. Crispin’s Day Speech in Shakespeare’s play Henry V, calling the soldiers who would fight on the day a “band of brothers”, other battles fought on Crispin’s day have been associated with Shakespeare’s words.’

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Henry V. Act IV Scene iii 18-67
Here is Kenneth Brannagh’s version of the speech.
and here is Laurence Olivier’s version (in which the speech is almost drowned out by the background music.)

Painting of Archers at The Battle of Agincourt

These lines appear to be the source for the phrase ‘band of brothers’. So should we associate St. Crispin’s day with brotherhood? Do we want to celebrate brotherhood, or is today’s world too ‘unisex’ to permit that? It is a concept that focuses on the relationships of male siblings. Beyond that, brotherhood is an icon of masculinity and the relationship between men, even if they are not related. In contemporary times, the concept of brotherhood has been transmogrified into Bromance – love between men that verges on romance and simulates brotherhood. It is a genre that is fascinating for today’s audience – of both sexes. The male name Crispin has long been a signifier of effeteness – used to characterise unmanliness and ineffectualness. It is a name associated, traditionally, with curly hair – a feature that, for some, might suggest effeminateness. One website went so far as to claim that the name Crispin denotes ‘People with this name have a deep inner desire to serve humanity and to give to others by sharing money, knowledge and experience, or creative and artistic ability. ‘ What the origins of that might be defines imagination. Might we redesignate St. Crispin as the patron of anti-sexism? A step too far for many people, I would surmise.

So, does St. Crispin’s Feast have any meaning or relevance for today’s world? Is it an emblem of leadership? Does the band of brothers idea suggest manliness and masculinity? Do we want to celebrate glory and brotherhood? How would today’s orators inspire people who are downtrodden and despairing?

Henry V’s St. Crispin’s day speech has been described as ‘…one of the best inspirational speeches in literature.’ But is the speech about misguided loyalty? Do the brothers of Agincourt give their lives and their blood for the sake of the King, for Henry, and his glory? Is this speech a moment of calculation and cruelty? They are about to give their lives to make Henry a great man – not themselves. The speech is an icon of great men and their ambitions to glory. So, Agincourt is about winning; winning for its own sake. Henry V is urging his soldiers to win the war – for him. History now views the battle as inconsequential. As writer Guy Patrick Cunningham put it: ‘Henry’s triumph at Agincourt brings no benefit to the English nation. The whole reason his force is so small is because most of his troops are needed back home to prevent a split among the English nobles from turning into a full-fledged rebellion — a split that Henry makes no effort to heal. ‘

We remember Agincourt on 25th October. ‘The Battle of Agincourt was a battle of the Hundred Years’ War that resulted in an English victory. The battle took place on 25 October 1415 in the County of Saint-Pol, Artois, some 40 km south of Calais.’ It can be recalled as the victory of the English over the French – a nation, that now, we count amongst our friends and allies. History has seen countless thousands of Frenchmen slaughtered by English soldiers; and many thousands of Englishmen killed by the French. History has also seen the English dying to free the French from tyranny. The culture of France is deeply embedded in the heritage of England. The 25th October could be a day on which we commemorate the mutability of history; the way in which international relations change dramatically over time. The day we think about how yesterday’s enemies becomes today’s friends. And vice-versa.

Painting of a Shore-maker

So what should be observe about or on St. Crispin’s day, if anything? In the third act of Die Meistersinger, Wagner has the shoemakers’ guild enter singing a song of praise to St. Crispin. For me, I choose to celebrate shoe-making. ‘Saints Crispin and Crispinian are the Christian patron saints of cobblers, curriers, tanners, and leather workers.’ My paternal ancestors were shoe-makers. For my part, I prefer to associate St. Crispin with footwear. Oh happy band of cobblers.

Character profiling

Writing a character profile for a film

18th May 2017

My character profile for Riffkid in The Trench†

Physical appearance of the protagonist

Riffkid is 18. He is somewhat short in stature. He has a mop of black hair and very bright blue eyes. His face is pretty. He dresses how he thinks rock musicians should dress. His choice of clothes portrays his identity. He is an unemployed teenager living with his parents on a deprived housing estate. He is a dreamer; he has passions and associates with the outcasts who don’t want to be like the other working class kids who have their lives mapped out for them by their parents and community. He sees punk music as his ideal and in it he sees his values. Riffkid’s strengths are his good looks and his passion for music; his weaknesses are his lack of knowledge and skills in guitar playing and his dreams that are out of kilter with reality.

Background note: Riffkid joins the music scene at a time when punk is the predominant style of rock; but rock changes rapidly and soon fans start to prefer the edgier sounds of post-punk. All this is thrown in the air by the generation of the new romantics who come in with their new sounds – the indie bands. Musical tastes are fickle and change rapidly. All the bands play at the venue called The Trench, a dismal, damp basement that traps young musicians and exploits them mercilessly. The bands are trapped in the Trench and only the best manage to escape from it.

The story

Actions taken by Riffkid (include wants and needs) [How he thinks] {affect – consequences}

Act 1.

Riffkid goes to The Trench music venue to ask if he can join The Howlers – a big and successful punk band. His mates have told him that this is the best punk band in Portsmouth. The lead singer likes him and invites him to come for an audition. (Riffkid wants to be in the band he idolises) [He thinks he has to skills to hack it.] {Riffkid goes to the audition but he fails to prepare himself for it. He fails to study the songs of the band.}

Riffkid attends the audition with The Howlers but he is torn to shreds by the musicians. He realises that the invitation was a fake. He’s been strung along. [He thought he had enough skills to do the job but they prove to him how little he knows.] {Riffkid is rejected by the band. He is devastated. His dreams have failed.}

His best mate tells Riffkid not to give up but to go back to The Trench and try to find another band to join. Riffkid is driven by his dreams; his best mate is more practical and realistic. Riffkid goes back to the venue and, by chance, meets Sean, the bassist from the post-punk band Distorted. Sean just happens to be looking for a new guitarist. [Sean thinks that Riffkid would fit in; realises he is not that good as a musician but his personality would fit and make up for his weaknesses as a guitarist.] {Sean does not bother with an audition; he takes Riffkid on and hopes for the best.}

Riffkid joins Distorted. He decides he needs to get a better guitar and people help him to do this. (He is desperate to be in a band.) [He thinks that trying to get into the much bigger band was a bad mistake) {He gladly accepts the offer to be in Distorted as the rhythm guitarist. He buys the new guitar he needs.}

Act 2

Riffkid’s new band is a great success. Everybody loves them. They enjoy considerable popularity in their home town of Portsmouth. (They want to be popular and in demand for their music.) [They think their music will attract people in large numbers.] {They get booked at all the major venues and play to big audiences.}

Two years pass. Riffkid and Distorted become a successful post-punk band. But the scene is changing and fans are beginning to like the new wave of music coming from the new romantics.

Riffkid has an argument about musical style in the band and quits. (He wants to be a success.) [He sees the band failing because it clings to outmoded post-punk songs when the fans are moving over to indie. He thinks that the world of rock is changing and the band must change with it.] {He sticks to his beliefs and leaves the band.]

Riffkid and Jennifer enrol on the music course. (They need to learn about music.) [They think that having skills and knowledge will get them where they want to be] {They are exposed to a lot of new ideas and experiences they never had before.}

Riffkid makes new friends on the music course. He also goes back to his old friends – the ones who supported him when he needed them. (He wants people around him that can help him; people he can depend on.) [He begins to realise the importance of comradeship.] {He visits his old mates from the band he was in.}

Act 3

Riffkid and Jennifer complete the music course. He now has the skills and the knowledge to become a professional musician. (He wants to make a success of himself) [He realises that music is more than just image and passion.] {They both realise that they will get nowhere if they stay in Portsmouth.}

Riffkid leaves Portsmouth with Jennifer; they go to London to start a new career in music and a new life together. They are free of The Trench at last. (Wants a new life) [Thinks about the future] {Chooses to be with Jennifer.}

† The Trench was my second novel.


This character profile was written because I was doing a course about screen-writing for films. The course was led by Michael Lengsfield of the University of East Anglia, whose article ‘Thoughts on character’ set out how to compose the profile. I chose to write about my novel The Trench. The protagonist, main character is Riffkid. This provides my choice of story for the exercises to do with script-writing.

Language and Evolution introduced

An Introduction to Language and Evolution

In this article Trevor Locke looks at how language played a key role in the evolution of human species and in determining which species became extinct and which were successful.

A topic that is of fundamental importance to both anthropology and archaeology is the relationship between language and human evolution. The evolution of mankind – a social animal – is marked by the increasing size of the brain. If the size of a brain increases we assume that mental powers also grow. This is, however, an assumption about which we must be careful, as I go on to discuss below. Many groups of animals and insects communicate, some in quite sophisticated ways, such as oceanic mammals. Birds and bees are known to use a variety of methods to communicate with each other and with the group as a whole. Where the hominin (early humans) is concerned, it is likely that communication evolved into language as various groups and species developed. That transition from simple communication (largely non-verbal) to language was very likely to have been driven by changes in climatic conditions, migration to new and more challenging environments and by increasing sophistication in the fabrication and use of tools and artefacts.

Once spoken language became established, we can speculate that writing followed as well as art and ritual. The development of culture in hominid groups required language as a way of expressing and passing on cultural forms. The problem for palaeopathologists and archaeologists is that language leaves little or no evidence in the fossil record or in deposits and strata that provide us with our understanding of early hominin lifestyles. It is only when writing developed that archaeologists were able to find artefacts that confirmed that early people could inscribe symbols and icons on to wood, stone, bone or antler. Some examples of early ‘written language’ come from paintings made in caves, symbols carved into artefacts and the first creation of icons and totems on pieces of material.

Could the very earliest hominid species ‘talk’? Scientists have analysed human bones to see if they could detect whether such remains indicated the ability to speak. In humans, most of the mechanisms used for communication are soft tissues and cartilage and these are not preserved in the fossil record. The skulls and bones of the spinal chord might suggest the size and shape and where the soft tissues of the voice box might have been and the shape of the mouth, suggested by the jaw bones, and the nasal air passages within the skull are thought to provide clues about whether speech – as we know it – was possible in these early hominids. Looking at the bones and skulls of primates might give some clues as to what kind of sounds they made but not as to what gestures they made, posturing or hand and arm movements.

Talking about survival

We can also look at the way that modern apes and chimpanzees communicate and that provides more pointers to how early hominids communicated. Some communication would have involved gesture (including signing), facial expression and possibly touch as well as vocal sounds. Early hominid species, such as Neanderthals – Homo neanderthalensis – appear to have limited verbal capabilities, suggested by the bones and skulls that have been found. Some scientists think that Neanderthals were capable of language but this of course not clear whether this was a mixture of complex signing and vocalisations. The language in this case could be fairly advanced (compared to previous species) and (possibly) the larger brain capacity would have made it possible for there to be a proto-language and this would have supported both increasing technological capability and extensive migration into new environments. Survival in new lands would require early peoples to be able to share effective indications about where food can be found, what is edible and what is not and to give warnings about the approach of predators. Huntings parties would need to communicate in order to track and kill prey.

Once hominids had developed the ability to use words – as opposed to simply making calls or vocal alerts – the number of ‘words’ used in a group would increase and that led to establishing rules about how individual ‘words’ should be combined to communicate understandable thoughts. This requires rudimentary grammar and syntax. Bear in mind that this process probably took thousands of years. The origins of verbal words might have lay in increasingly complex gestures. In evolutionary terms, the species that were most adept at gestures and then verbal communications tended to survive and their communities prospered. It is possible that some hominid groups became communities of speakers. Some groups might have worked up a proto-language which they used amongst themselves. The spread of languages in areas like Africa, Europe or Asia would have required large numbers of people to engage in talking as a means of communication. Using language and talking went hand in hand with the gradual development of thought and culture; as some people thought using words and sentences and gradually developed the capacity to have abstract thoughts rather than just uttering names or directions. Words have meaning; just as gestures mean something to those that see them. It was grammatical speech that allowed abstract thought to emerge.

Talking for generations

For this to happen successfully the brain had to have the capacity to recognise meaning and to retrieve it from memory. That requires members of a language community to have been together over successive generations. Once a group had developed the capacity to share words and the syntax for combining them, the capacity is handed on from one generation to the next and the ability to use language becomes both cultural and genetic. Speaking a language over many generations led to changes in the skeletal and muscular morphology of the body. Language implies the ability to store knowledge and to have collective understandings of the environment and to share things of significance between contemporary members of a group and to pass this knowledge from one generation to the next. Once groups had to the ability to talk to each other, they could transmit their collective knowledge down the generations.

Talking fluently involves speaking words – in the right order and in the right way – and emphasising them with gestures or vocal tones. Modern speakers use spoken words amplified by facial expressions and hand movements and emphasise words or phrases with intonations of the voice. This could well have been true for early hominids making the transition, from communication that was very visually mediated, to proto-language with a more extensive repertoire of calls and signs. As brain power increased, so did the ability to organise sounds and gestures into rules that would enable a more complex level of communication. Groups that shared a common system of communication could speak to each other in more varied ways and share increasingly sophisticated ideas. Giving directions, making warnings and alerts, indicating where good food supplies were located, reacting to good and bad behaviour – all these could be shared among the members of group or tribe as well as taught by adults to their children.

Words and gestures are symbols; they mean something when they are used. They can be simple signals or they can indicate more complex thoughts. One of the key factors in the development of language was very possibly the ability to ask questions. ‘Have you seen any antelopes? Where can I go to collect ripe berries?’ Being able to give detailed and specific replies to such questions requires a more complex ability to communicate than simply pointing in a general direction and giving a sign for antelopes. Migratory groups had to learn what was good to eat and what was poisonous in a new habitat. The group needed to collect, store and share knowledge of the environment in order to live in it. Those that developed enhanced language skills stood more chance of survival than those who did not.

How can we study the evolution of language? Recent advances in the analysis of DNA has thrown light on the spread and distribution of Homo sapiens in various continents. Linguists have looked at modern languages in order to trace their roots in ancient tongues. It is not until we begin to find artefacts, artworks and carved iconographs and cave paintings that we can date anything. Pre-history can only be inferred from the fossil record and remains left in datable strata. There is a growing body of knowledge from studies of DNA about how early man spread out across the world from African origins.

Palaeopathologists have mapped the dispersion of hominids from Africa into Europe and Asia. This pattern of dispersion and migration would be roughly the same for the distribution of languages. Hominid groups that talked to each other had to have some process through which older members could teach verbal skills to children. Groups that broke away from their main migratory community would have settled in a place and their language would have changed to reflect the circumstances and ecology of their new local area. Clearly, even by the bronze age, many different languages were being spoken in various parts of the world. Over many thousands of years, humans would have developed genes for language. That went in tandem with changing skeletal and muscular morphology of the skull, lungs and nervous system that aided the ability to talk. Hominids evolved into talking man.

Passing on skills

Many early hominids made tools from stone, wood, bone and antler. The skills for making these implements were passed from one generation to another. This activity of ‘training’ in skills used to make things either involved fairly elaborate communication or led to the emergence of language. Some skill transmission was simply through imitation – this occurs in modern animals that watch a parent or other adult animal doing something and then copying what they see. No communication is involved in this. The Cro-Magnons tool kit was complex, varied and innovative. This reflects intentional design and planning which are the basis of complex mental processes and can be associated with language. The physical features associated with spoken language, such as the vocal tract, the structure of the brain and the size of the spinal cord, are identical between Cro-Magnon people and humans living today. This means that Cro-Magnon people would have been capable of producing the same sounds we use in speech.¹ Some scientists use the phrase ‘proto-language’ to signify the transition from sophisticated non-verbal communication to the beginnings of language as we know it. Any enhanced verbal communication requires breathing muscles to be controlled in order to vary pitch and tone with the voice box.

It is when we find symbolic artefacts in the archaeology that we can be confident that Homo sapiens had developed language. The existence of artefacts that had no obvious use suggests that they were works of art – connected possibly with the emergence of ritual or expressions of thoughts and feelings about the natural world. ARTefacts are created when people start to think in a abstract way about death, the existence of spiritual forces that control the world, the afterlife and shared reverence for ancestors. The development of symbolism requires sophisticated mental processes and any objects found that unambiguously portray symbols or icons and have no obvious use (as tools) strongly suggests that language has been established. Evidence of art prior to 40,000 years ago is limited and solid evidence of symbolism only occurs after this time. Artefacts were part of an increasing awareness of how the world and life could be interpreted, understood and explained. Art works, physical icons and totems played a part in handing on beliefs from one generation to the next.

This calls into question the meaning of the word ‘language.’ What is the difference between non-verbal communication and speaking using a language? We know from observations of animal communication that fairly complex patterns of communication exist, in some insects, oceanic mammals and the higher apes. Some have gone so far as claim that animals have a language. So, at what point does communication become language? The transition from complex communication to a fully-formed language did not have a clear threshold; the gradual development of verbal language took thousands of years and many generations and required a continuity of community capable to allowing successive generations to hand on language, beliefs and complex ideas used in interpreting the world in which they lived.

Life, death, natural forces, afterlife and ancestors are all highly abstract concepts and require language in order to be thought. Very early man might have had some emotions and intuitions about life and death and these inchoate impressions would have led to the emergence of more sophisticated beliefs, values and concepts; in this process there would have been a mutual interaction between thought and words. As people began to use a word for death, they could then begin to build icons for death and as they began to bury or burn dead bodies, rituals grew around this activity and that led to people using sentences about these things. This suggests that a group of people shared beliefs about death in common with each other and were able to pass on those beliefs from one generation to the next; the sharing of beliefs was not just for one group at one period but was inter-generational and language allowed belief systems to be shared both by the group and its heirs and successors.

When does complex communication become language?

Studies of gorillas’ and chimpanzees’ behaviours has revealed that a variety of methods are used in their communication. One writer used the term ‘the unfolding dance’ to characterise communications in great apes.³ Monkeys use a range of visual and auditory signals to communicate with others either individually or to the group as a whole. Calls are made to warn of danger, gestures are made with hands and arms, a gorilla might beat its chest as a signal, postures and facial expressions are all part of the varied armoury of signals that the great apes can use in communicating with others. Studies of marine mammals indicate that some – such as the Orca – give out calls which are specific to an individual – they call out another animals ‘name.’ A pod of killer whales uses a complex system of communications, particularly when hunting.

Here’s an interesting thought: can we think without words? I wrote recently that most of my thinking is done with language – I hear myself talking, silently, inside my head. I guess this is common for writers who are always figuring out sentences. Poets on the other hand probably think with symbols, images, feelings that occur to them in a non-verbal way. Eventually they have to capture that in the written word but a lot of the mental activity begins non-verbally. Painters probably spend a lot of time thinking with images, colours, scenes, layouts, shapes. Musicians might spend time thinking with sounds, tunes, melodies, notes, riffs, harmonies and rhythms. Artists have to use intuition. Without non-verbal thought our minds would not be agile enough to compose art. This leads me to wonder if animals think what they are to communicate before they do the communication or is what they do – calls, gestures, facial expressions, postures – simply reactive, in response to something they get from another animal or an event in their environment. I guess that is an unanswerable question, although some research on neural activity might throw light on it. A human walking through the jungle or across the plain, would have to feel the landscape intuitively. Some archaeologists believe that early man ‘felt’ the surrounding environment and that a bronze age man would see the landscape very differently to a modern human would see it. Visual recognition works sub-verbally; if we walk through a landscape where there is no written signage – a wood, a field, a lakeside – we ‘see’ trees, grass, water, catch sight of living creatures and we need to know and react to what we are seeing intuitively. Hunter-gatherers would have to react quickly to perceived risks and opportunities in their environment; they did not have time to think verbally, they have to go for it immediately. Otherwise they go home empty handed or become a meal for predator.

Do animals think about what they are about to communicate before they communicate? I think this is unlikely. Humans, on the other hand, with their large and more sophisticated mental apparatus, can premeditate what they are about to say. Premeditation is important to being successful when it comes to survival-related language and communication; issuing warnings and alerts, giving directions to food sources, indicating what is edible and what is not, giving instructions about how to male tools, teaching how to prepare foods – all require communication to be clear and unambiguous. If someone misunderstands what is being said to them, the consequences can be disastrous. Communities that can communicate clearly are more likely to survive and prosper than those than cannot.

The other thing that fascinates me is how people in China and Japan think; these are cultures that use a different, more visual and symbolic, language and writing set, to us in the West. Do Chinese people think differently to users of English? If your written language uses pictograms, does that make you think differently? Words, pictograms, icons, hieroglyphs and other visual representations of thoughts either promote or inhibit the development of culture and belief systems; those that allow sophisticated and complex thoughts are more likely to encourage beliefs and more fluid and flexible interpretations of the world than those that are limited and simplistic. How writing influenced the evolution of technology, culture and civilisation is clearly a very interesting topic but one for another time.

Pictures tell the story

Some of the earliest cave paintings were pictograms. In very ancient times, people would paint very stylised images of themselves or animals on the walls of caves. This might have led, over thousands of years, to the earliest forms of writing, such as cuneiform and hieroglyphs. These early pictograms represented an idea; they were usually mostly used to represent or signify things in the real world. It was much later that icons were drawn to represent an abstract idea – something that did not exist in the real world. That was some 9,000 years BC. Series of symbols that were the earliest methods of writing came into existence about 5,000 years BC. Carvings found on an obelisk in southern Turkey in the city of Göbekli Tepe, are thought to be around 12,000 years old. They could be the oldest ‘written’ language yet discovered. The carvings were pictographs – a series of pictorial images rather than writings that used an alphabet. It can be argued that the use of pictographs is an early form of writing. Written language, as it is known it today, probably appeared several thousands years later; Sumerian writing is known from 3,100 BC. In its earliest phrase it was a system of pictograms; these gradually became simplified into the system of wedge-shaped characters that we know as cuneiform script. Proto-writing (which preceded fully-fledged written language) employed ideographs and symbols. These were representations of things in the real world and did not relate to spoken words. These early pictograms and pictographs could be understood but not spoken. The correlation between written symbols and spoken words developed much later.

It is not yet clear why paintings were made in caves. They were sometimes left very deep inside the caves, where very few people would have seen them. This has led some archaeologists to suggest that cave art was ritualistic, possibly related to beliefs about death, ancestors or the spirit world. Early man was very visual; our ancient ancestors needed to be acutely aware of their surroundings; their safety depended on it as did their ability to hunt. Hunter-gatherers needed to figure out why some hunting expeditions worked well and others did not. Tribes in the Amazon jungle today say prayers or make offerings before going on a hunting expedition. It is possible that our early ancestors began to think that hunting was governed by supernatural forces. The act of painting an animal or a hunting scene on the wall of the cave might have a ritualistic significance, it has been suggested. Early people would have had a much more elaborate set of images than we do; images of their surrounding habitat, images that have significance for them when they see their environment. Psychoanalysts have suggested that dreams play a part in the formation of imagery. Aboriginal people understand a ‘dream world’ that interprets the real world for them. As our ancestors evolved they developed beliefs and this came with the introduction of abstract thought. Over thousands of years beliefs and rituals became religious systems. That happened when human societies became larger and more complex and power systems grew up through which communities were organised by the few to control the activities of the many. Well, that’s one way of looking at it.

How words are made

When I was at Manchester University I did a course in ethnomethodology. What I remember about that course was the way they broke words down into pieces – I think they called them phonemes – the units of sound that words are made from. The way phonemes are made depends on the shape of the mouth, lips, tongue and larynx and vary from one language to another. Language requires speakers to learn phonemes in order to make words; then it is a question of how to arrange words into phrases. When we listen to someone speaking we hear the phonemes and these allow us to distinguish one word from another. There are 44 phonemes in English. The are 26 letters in the alphabet and so some letters have to be combined together to form a sound – ‘ch’ for example. However, ‘ch’ can be spoken in different ways to make different sounds depending on which word is used. Chef, Choir and Cheese all contain ‘ch’ but are said differently. English can be a difficult language to learn because the way it is spoken and the way it is written do not always marry up. The way words are spelt is not always phonetic. English has it roots in many early European languages including Latin, French, Danish, German and now even Asiatic languages. In the Xhosa language of South Africa, a variety of sounds are made with the mouth, that do not occur in European languages, such as click consonants and different meanings that flow from using rising or falling intonation. The clicks are known as dental clicks, lateral clicks and post-alveolar clicks (made with the tip of the tongue at the roof of the mouth, and sound somewhat like a cork pulled from a bottle.)

Despite the many complexities in the way that English is spoken, it is possible for people to understand what each other is saying even if they come from widely different areas of the country. Providing they use standard English (and not regional dialect words) someone from Cornwall should be understand someone from Glasgow speaking in English. Not always the case of course. Almost every language has its regional dialects. There are however some phonemes that occur in other languages that are not present at all in English. Modern standard Arabic has 28 consonant phonemes and 6 vowel phonemes. Moreover, the way that these are pronounced can change in meaning. Some syllables can be given stress that would make them different in meaning those from that are not given stress but then that is true of many European languages. If we learn Latin we have to know how to emphasise or put stress on a syllable – we have to know if the last, penultimate or third to last syllable is stressed in order to speak a language correctly. Some speakers are clear in the way they pronounce words – they are articulate. Others have more sloppy and lazy approach to speaking, using words that are slurred or truncated. This is true of some dialects. English has changed a lot since it was first spoken. When I was doing my A-Level in English Literature I had to learn to speak middle English in order to read the works of Chaucer aloud in class. The English of Chaucer sounded very different to modern English but you could just make out some of it in the written text.

To make sense of the way that spoken language influences human evolution we need to use techniques such as phonemics and the tools provided by ethnomethodology. The way in which a language is spoken changes over time in response to cultural, political and religious trends and the variations in power between different indigenous and migrant groups. Changes in spoken language can itself lead to changes in power relationships and cause conflict within communities of speakers. It is not difficult to observe that process happening in medieval Britain; it might therefore be to safe to assume that similar processes went on in early ancestral tribal societies.

Brain size and hominin language development

As part of my course in the study of Homo floresiensis (human fossils discovered on the island of Flores in Indonesia), I posed this question:

A big, unanswered question is “how big was the brain of the hominin that founded the Flores colony?” We don’t really know what happened but with 700,000 year old tools we urgently need an early skull. This would help us to know how much the brain “shrunk” over a period of over half a million years. The point is that if the brain shrunk over a period of well over half a million years how did the nature of the stone tools vary over the same period. Were later tool-makers with smaller brains better tool-makers than their bigger brained ancestors? It raises an interesting question of the relationship between brain size and intelligence in hominins.

In response to this, a fellow student contributed his own thoughts on the matter; my reply to him was

I liked Christopher’s point until I came to the word ‘intelligence’. I am not convinced that brain size = enhanced intelligence. Because (a) I am not clear what is meant by ‘intelligence’ and (b) there are a lot of other mental activities going on inside the brain other than the kind of things measured by intelligence. The key question for me is whether there is any co-relation between brain size and the development of any kind of language. So far, I have not seen anything on this course which suggests that H.f. had developed language (as we know it.) There is no evidence of ritual or rudimentary religion, two things that go hand in hand with the emergence of language in early hominids.

My fellow student responded by adding:

Perhaps I should have put the word intelligence in quotes, as I quite often do. It is easiest to think in terms of a basic brain functionality, which we have in common with animals at a biological level, and cultural information which is exchanged between individuals. A number of animals apart from human share some cultural information (the great apes, orca, elephants) but we differ in that we use language to “speed learn” cultural information. I think all early hominins had a primitive language to handle social interactions, which developed very slowly over millions of years. There was a critical tipping point (perhaps about 150,000 years ago) when one group discovered how to use language to speed up the teaching of how to make better tools – and significantly you could use language to teach your children how to use language – and the cultural knowledge explosion began with no biological modifications being needed. While H.f. almost certainly did not use language as we know it, if it was alive today I suspect that we could teach it to use language!

This dialogue raises the interesting issue of the relationship between brain size and intelligence (if by that we mean mental capacities including reasoning and abstract thought.) The fossil record shows changes in the size of human brains as evidenced by the skulls that have been found. Simply increasing the size of the brain – as evidence by the capacity of the cranium – does not allow us to infer that the owner’s were smarter. There is no convincing evidence that there is a direct correlation between the total size of a brain and its capacity to think; too many other variables are at play.

My fellow course member went to say

I believe some early hominins developed a highly vocal communication language for use in hunting. It then started to be used to discuss the results of the hunt round the camp fire and young children started to learn about hunting without being put at risk. The language then morphed into a “speed-learning” tool for passing information rapidly from generation to generation. The more efficient the language became the more that could be taught … and human knowledge started to expand exponentially.

Imaginative thinking but it does pose challenging and important questions for palaeoanthropology. It suggests that language developed from life-style, from what early people needed to do to survive in their habitat and what they needed to do in order to survive and meet the challenges of the new environments into which they were migrating. Those species that did not die out and become extinct, were successful in coping with changes in climate, the need to settle in new locations and the demands brought about by slowly moving into new territories that were markedly different from where they had been living before. This process of adaption requires high levels of communication and communal co-operation. Human communication had to become more complex in order to meet the challenges facing the early humans as they migrated into new regions.

I concluded the dialogue by saying

‘we now know the modern humans were migrating through South-east Asia on their way to Australia ‘ Interesting enough but evidence that modern humans settled in Flores would be more important in conjecturing about possible interaction between H.f. and other humans. I speculate that prolonged interaction between species has consequences for both groups and that would leave behind evidence in the strata. Two things would stand out for me (1) evidence of transfer of skills in making artefacts and (2) cultural influences particularly those relating to language. Such evidence already exists from cross-fertilisation discoveries in other parts of the world for pre-historic communities. One last thing is whether species interaction spreads disease. We known from modern interaction between people from different continents that disease has catastrophic consequences for isolated tribal groups. Evidence of disease should be available from bone samples and teeth.

What are the timescales for all this?

By the time we get to the early bronze-age we get the picture of man (Homo sapiens) that indicates the existence of fully-fledged language. Bronze-age people disposed of their dead in a way that suggests they had symbolic concepts of life and death and practised rituals around the remains of the dead. People at this time had developed attitudes to death and attitudes are cultural and that means they must have had language. Intentional burial of human remains appears to have started in the Middle Palaeolithic period (250,000 to 40,000 years ago). Excavations indicate burial practices in Neanderthal and modern humans. In the Upper Palaeolithic period, Cro-Magnons were interring their dead sometimes also placing in the grave objects such as animal bones or ochre powder, tools and jewellery such as bracelets.² By the Bronze age, man had developed a full capability for spoken language, the fabrication of sophisticated tools and jewellery, had started to make clothing, had a variety of cooking methods and had developed conceptual thought to the extent that they could dispose of their dead using ritual, ceremony and the beginnings of religious belief.

People gradually changed from the lifestyle of hunter-gatherers to a settled way of life that permitted farming and agriculture. Human settlements took on long-term timescales in their activities and we see the emergence of buildings and other forms of construction that required high levels of co-operation and crowd endeavour. The construction of monuments and henges required the collaboration of hundreds of people over a long period of time. Art and craft became increasingly sophisticated and we see the emergence of trading, warfare, culture and religion. There is evidence that early communities had a knowledge of astronomy and could tell that changes would occur in the seasons, tides and the weather by observations of the moon. That required abstract thought.

That picture is the end point of the evolutionary process from very early hominids to modern Homo sapiens.

Evolution revisited.

If we look at the work of Charles Darwen and others writing at the time, we get some basic concepts about human evolution. One of the most widely known concepts in early theories of evolution is ‘survival of the fittest.’ Darwen did not have access to the vast array of scientific discoveries of the 20th and 21st centuries that have thrown light on our early ancestors. Our knowledge of the evolution of human species in pre-history has created much more evidence as to why some species became extinct and other survived. If the notion that the fittest humans survived if valid, then we have to ask why we mean by ‘fittest.’ Darwen’s writings focus on the evidence that he could observe, that of physical survival in the world of predators and the ability to hunt or to access natural resources. Those that were successful could multiply; those that failed to protect themselves or to eat well became extinct. Being fit to inhabit an environment, being able to transmit knowledge from one generation to the next, being able to interpret the landscape – these are all skills that relate to survival in early hominid communities. Changes in climate, the intrusion of immigrant groups, the disappearance of food sources, changing sea levels, territories becoming drier and arid, rivers drying up – are all changes that would kill off some communities but which could be survived by those that were adaptable. The capacity to adapt to fundamental change can be seen as being closely related to language, culture and the ability to modify belief systems.

The approach of this article is to try to work out the role played by language in the process of human evolution. I have considered what language is in order to begin to analyse the part it could have played in evolution. Not an easy task; we are dealing with something that does not survive in the fossil record and clues are few until we get to artefacts that represent linguistic behaviour. Much of this is guesswork and assumption. Trying to imagine how language shaped human behaviour is useful in as much as it gives some direction to how remains may be analysed. By looking at artefacts we can arrive at some understanding of the emergence of belief systems, culture and religion. If we make assumptions (in the absence of hard evidence) then they must be credible, accurate and verifiable by observations and data that are available.

Language gave early man the ability to communicate ideas and this aided survival and gave him an advantage over other species that were limited to complex but non-verbal communication. Being able to work with a toolkit of words increased early man’s conceptual powers. He began to think more clearly, use abstract ideas and employ a wider and more sophisticated battery of mental processes.

Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (1896 to 1934) was a Soviet psychologist, the founder of a theory of human cultural and bio-social development commonly referred to as cultural-historical psychology, and leader of the Vygotsky Circle. Vygotsky worked on the relationship between language and thought; that is what I know him for most of all. His books – such as Thought and language, Mind in society, Thinking and speech – establishes the explicit and profound connection between speech (both silent inner speech and oral language), and the development of mental concepts and cognitive awareness. Since Vygotsky, many have worked on the relationship between language and evolution. As new and fresh findings have become available from archaeology and the fossil record, from studies plotting DNA dispersion from Africa, results from linguistics showing how modern language might relate to those of our ancestors, and many other sources, we are becoming aware of how much has been discovered and how much more remains to be discovered about this challenging relationship.

Feeding bigger brains

Life before the bronze age saw people living in small groups that moved around the landscape searching for food. For early man, life was an endless round of finding food, shelter and safety. The development of language gave people the ability to communicate knowledge of their environment and aided the process of passing on skills in the fabrication of tools and artefacts. At some point early man learned how to harness fire and the main use to which he put this was cooking. When our ancestors learned how to make fire and to cook food they gained a further advantage which took them another step up the evolutionary ladder. Being able to eat cooked food improved diet and nutrition and, some have claimed, aided the growth of the brain.

The evidence suggests that as our species learnt to make fire, rather than to just escape from it, we gradually ate more and more food that we had cooked. Over hundreds of thousands of year, the digestive system of Homo sapiens adapted so that it became efficient at extracting energy from food that had been cooked, more so than from food which was raw. Scientific papers have suggested that cooked food provides a higher level of energy, when digested, and this aided the evolution of a larger brain. As an organ, the brain and its activities uses high levels of energy. It was only through the development of cooked food that such large brains could evolve.

There is no evidence, as far as I know, of any other animal species using fire. Several species use tools of various kinds but it is only our species that had learnt how to start fires and then use them. Cooking food using fire goes back many thousands of years in the archaeological record. The remains of cooking appear in nearly all excavations of human settlements in modern times and also occur widely in the fossil record for early hominins. Having more energy meant that early man could think more and that aided the develop of both language and of conceptual capacity. Man being to have abstract thoughts. That led to the construction of ritual and religion to the creation of culture and art. By the time we get to the bronze age we see how far this whole process had come.

It could be said that what characterises modern humans is their ability to cook food before eating it. No other species can do that. The implications are profound. Recent studies found that people who chose to eat only raw food, either meats or vegetables, had a lower body mass than those who lived on a normal (cooked) diet and often became malnourished. Our digestive systems have adapted over tens of thousands of years to eating cooked food. A consequence of this is that we are more able to turn food into energy by cooking it and this provides an ample supply of energy to our brains. Cooking is such a fundamentally important aspect of archaeology and history. We cannot fully understand the lifestyles of human communities without making reference to the way they get their food – either by hunting, scavenging or by farming – and the way they prepared it before eating it. Food preparation gives rise to many cultural characteristics and in some cases to religious rituals. Whether we are studying the fossil record or digging in the period of recorded history, looking at farming, agriculture, food distribution and cooking is completely necessary to understanding the life of any community.

Death – finding the right words

As human species developed, towards the bronze age, their life styles became increasingly complex. Their technologies were becoming ever more sophisticated and varied, they had an increasing awareness of their environment and they began to treat death differently. By the time of the bronze age, people were burying their dead and placing ritual objects in the graves. It is likely therefore, I would argue, that they developed words and thoughts that represented how they felt and thought about the processes of funerals and how the present generation of people related to those who had gone before. Language was being more sophisticated and that created a further element in the advance of their evolution. Funerary arrangements had become increasingly complex by the bronze age and the practice of mummification had become established in Egypt and the British Isles. [Mike Parker Pearson, 2005]

The technology of making bronze would have required new words, I think. It was an activity that had few parallels in anything else that people were doing at the time. Being able to extract ore, smelt it and work it into tools is a fairly complex process and this suggests, I would argue, that people had language and could talk to each other about this process. It would have been very much harder, if not impossible, had they not had language. This would have been between 2150 BC and 1700 BC. [Stockhammer, 2015]

The ability to start and use fire was a major factor in the evolution of early man and is seen as a major adaptive advantage to people in the late neolithic period. [Wrangham, 2010] Newspaper reports on the discovery of a bronze age settlement near Peterborough

Almost 3,000 years after being destroyed by fire, the astonishingly well preserved remains of two bronze age houses and their contents have been discovered at a quarry site in Peterborough. The artefacts include a collection of everyday domestic objects unprecedented from any site in Britain, including jewellery, spears, daggers, giant food storage jars and delicate drinking cups, glass beads, textiles and a copper spindle with thread still wound around it. [Kennedy, 2016]

The site was in use 3,000 years ago. Excavations of the site produced examples of cooking pots and well-preserved metal artefacts. By this time the evidence suggests that these people were farmers. I have already argued that the life style of hunting and gathering required knowledge of the habitats that people moved in. The transition to the kind of settled existence required for farming demanded increasing knowledge, skills and technology and that would have led to a larger number of words and increasingly sophisticated language.
Notes and references

¹ The description of a Neanderthal hyoid from Kebara Cave (Israel) in 1989 fuelled scientific debate on the evolution of speech and complex language. Gross anatomy of the Kebara 2 hyoid differs little from that of modern humans. However, whether Homo neanderthalensis could use speech or complex language remains controversial. Similarity in overall shape does not necessarily demonstrate that the Kebara 2 hyoid was used in the same way as that of Homo sapiens. The mechanical performance of whole bones is partly controlled by internal trabecular geometries, regulated by bone-remodelling in response to the forces applied. Here we show that the Neanderthal and modern human hyoids also present very similar internal architectures and micro-biomechanical behaviours. Our study incorporates detailed analysis of histology, meticulous reconstruction of musculature, and computational biomechanical analysis with models incorporating internal micro-geometry. Because internal architecture reflects the loadings to which a bone is routinely subjected, our findings are consistent with a capacity for speech in the Neanderthals. [from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0082261%5D

² Mesolithic (10,000-6000 years ago). At this period, there was still a hunter-gatherer culture, but a change in technology can be seen in the archaeological record. A different tool kit was now in use compared with that of the later Palaeolithic. For example, the bow and arrow were increasingly used. This is related to a change in the environment to a more temperate climate with increased woodland and disappearance of large grazing herds. Increases in the exploitation of aquatic resources and small game are also evident. Seasonal camp sites such as Star Carr (NE England) and Kelling Heath (Norfolk) have been excavated. Local adaptations to climate can be seen. Burial in the Mesolithic is characterized by a shift from single or small groups of burials to larger cemeteries in the open. No British examples of Mesolithic burials have been identified, with one possible exception. A disarticulated burial in a partially burnt log boat found at St. Albans has been dated to c.4,700 BC, so this could be late Mesolithic or Early Neolithic. … Burial practices in this period, although in open air flat cemeteries rather than caves, seem to continue the later Palaeolithic traditions of burial with the apparent importance of red ochre, ornaments of shell and teeth, and provision of tools and food. Does this mean that spiritual traditions also remained unchanged despite a change of lifestyle? [From http://www.spoilheap.co.uk/burial.htm%5D

³ Alan Fogel referred to in The Dynamic Dance: nonvocal communication in African great apes By Barbara J. KING, Harvard University Press, 30 Jun 2009


Mike Parker Pearson, Andrew Chamberlain, Oliver Craig, Peter Marshall, Jacqui Mulville, Helen Smith, Carolyn Chenery, Matthew Collins, Gordon Cook, Geoffrey Craig, Jane Evans, Jen Hiller, Janet Montgomery, Jean-Luc Schwenninger, Gillian Taylor and Timothy Wess (2005). Evidence for mummification in Bronze Age Britain. Antiquity, 79, pp 529-546.
Stockhammer PW, Massy K, Knipper C, Friedrich R, Kromer B, Lindauer S, et al. (2015) Rewriting the Central European Early Bronze Age Chronology: Evidence from Large-Scale Radiocarbon Dating.

Wrangham, R. & Carmody, R. Human adaptation to the control of fire. Evol. Anthropol. 19(5), 187–199 (2010).

Maev Kennedy, The Guardian,  A bronze age Pompeii’: archaeologists hail discovery of Peterborough site, 12th January 2016.

John Novembre, Nature 522, 164–165 (11 June 2015), Human evolution: Ancient DNA steps into the language debate.

Kendra Lechtenberg (2014) writing in Stanford Neurosciences Institute, https://neuroscience.stanford.edu/news/ask-neuroscientist-does-bigger-brain-make-you-smarter

Alexandra Horowitz, 2013, Smithsonian Magazine, Why Brain Size Doesn’t Correlate With Intelligence – We can nurture growth, but never really control it. [from: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-brain-size-doesnt-correlate-with-intelligence-180947627/#KbJqgMbq8G7W60cK.99

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, 2015, Is There an Association Between Brain Size and Intelligence?  from http://brainblogger.com/2015/11/22/is-there-an-association-between-brain-size-and-intelligence/

Christopher Bergland, June 2016, Superfluidity: Fluid Intelligence Goes Beyond Brain Size  – Fluid intelligence has two facets that rely on brain size and energy production –  Psychology Today. From https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201606/superfluidity-fluid-intelligence-goes-beyond-brain-size

See William S-Y Wang, Language and the Evolution of Modern Humans, City University of Hong Kong,  from  http://www.ee.cuhk.edu.hk/~wsywang/publications/lang_evo_mhuman.pdf

Transport planning

11th October 2016

Transport and car use

by Trevor Locke

Going to the shops. Something that most adults need to do regularly; some on a daily basis. Back in the 80s there were two cars in our household and we did groceries shopping monthly. We drove to a supermarket and brought home enough produce to feed our family for about four weeks. The supermarket was about four miles away from the house. Petrol was cheap and I had a company car which was provided free of charge by my employer. How times have changed, Now I do not have a car. I take the bus into town to go to the big supermarket; if I need a bottle of milk or a loaf of bread I walk to the local shop. How we shop and where we go to do our shopping raises a number of key issues about how we plan our towns and our urban environments.

Going to the shops

Even when I do what I call a ‘main shop’ I walk around the supermarket with a basket rather than pushing a trolley. Because I have to carry it all home on the bus, I do not purchase more than I can carry – hence the basket. When the basket gets really heavy I stop buying. It’s simple but mainly because I have only myself to feed rather than getting in food for an entire family. And a cat. Apparently there are still many people who get into their car and drive to a shop they could perfectly easily walk to. So I have read. Why? Fear of being on the streets? Idleness? Habit? Who knows; have any surveys ever been done to uncover the facts about this? Which is more pressing as an issue: transport congestion or obesity? Are the British becoming a nation of fat, lazy people? If you agree with that, and many would not, we are lagging far behind the Americans on that score. Walking to the shops is good; it’s a healthy thing to do. It’s an economically healthy thing to do as well. Local shops sustain communities. Someone commented recently that ‘The corner shop has been replaced by the out of town hypermarket and a car became necessary to shop there.’ Prices are higher in local shops than in supermarkets. I know that; I have to take the bus into town to buy food because my local branch (of the same supermarket) charges more for the same products than does its city centre,  bigger branch of the same supermarket chain. Incidentally, I do not pay to use buses; I have a pass that gives me free travel so I do not have to factor in the cost of the bus fare (it would still save money to shop in town even if I did need to pay to get there.)

We all need to get around; whether this is for work, education, shopping, entertainment or visiting people, our choices of how to travel are based on time, money and convenience. Do town planners really see in that way?

What about trams?

In 2015 our local newspaper ran a story about trams. ‘The Big Question: Should Leicester have a tram system?’ reported on a design for a tram network for Leicester. Not the first time this idea has surfaced. As the article pointed out, Leicester had a tram network that closed in 1949. But then there are trams and trams. Today’s trams, like the ones that run in Nottingham, provide clean, comfortable, convenient transport. Great if your destination is near to a tram stop. A poll on the page of the same article indicated that 75% of those who voted said ‘yes’ to having a tram system. The article did not review the case in favour of trams – it just reported that a route map has been designed. Not that anyone was actually planning to start a tram network; it was all hypothetical. The response of the Leicester Mayor – Peter Soulsby – seemed to pour cold water in the idea. The bus service is Leicester is generally quite good; it depends on routes and what time you want to travel but by and large buses run almost everywhere and bus lanes play their part in keeping them moving. They do however burn diesel. That is not good. They can be expensive, in pence per mile compared to alternative forms of transport. Leicester does not suffer from the kind of inner city traffic congestion that we see in many other English cities. I can’t say how they achieve this but we do not see traffic jams much even during peak hours. There are some technical issues with fixed-line transport. Bus lanes and cycle lanes might well have something to do with the difficulty of trying to create the tracks for trams on roads that have for decades been designed for cars. Leicester’s arterial roads tend to be narrower than their equivalents in other cities. This might have something to do with the fact that traffic moves more freely. Single or two lane motorways might allow traffic to move more quickly than three or four lane motorways. It’s a strange thing about road traffic – it does not always work the way you think it would or should.

Centres and suburbs

Leicester is one of the country’s free-standing cities; as the capital of the county of Leicestershire, it is surrounded on all sides by green fields. Not even Nottingham can boast of that. Leicester is a city that sits inside a catchment area of about two million people. That is a statistic of immense importance to the economy of our city. As a key economic and social area within the East Midlands, Leicester depends on the transport infrastructure for the easy movement of people. Our city has various outlying estates and suburbs that house the majority of the resident population. People need access to the city for jobs, entertainment, sport, shopping and culture. They not only have to be able to get into the city but they have to be able to get home again after their visit. As someone who is dependent on buses, I am painfully aware of the importance of a good bus service to the prosperity of the city. With our ageing population, people are increasingly dependent on bus and train services. It’s not just the cost per mile of transport, it is also about the availability of the public transport services. The population of the UK is growing and the older segment of it is increasing, a fact that has important implications for local transport policies and provisions.

One area that has come in for much comment and debate in recent times is the availability of late night buses and trains. Like a lot of cites, Leicester depends on its night-time economy. As a city we have a very vibrant and pluralistic night-time offering, including music, entertainment, sport and culture.

The transport systems do not serve that economy well. As any bus user in this city will tell you, it is easy enough to get into the city during the day but getting home after a show or a festival or a gig is fraught with problems. Buses to outlying suburbs, villages and neighbourhoods often stop at ridiculously early times, making it impossible, for some people, to get into the city and back again. It is one thing to have a catchment area of two million people, it is quite another to make it possible for the majority of that population to make use of Leicester as a destination for entertainment or even for jobs.

Jobs and cars

As the pattern of employment changes, more and more people are becoming dependent on public transport to access employment. The jobs market is offering work but more and more of it is shift work, with the higher-paid jobs being in the evening and overnight. More will need to work beyond the current retirement age and this will increase demand for social transport. Older people may well find it increasingly difficult to run private cars and will become dependent on public transport. The rate of car ownership has been increasing with more families owning more than one car; this has been fuelled by the growth in employment for women and the need to have two cars to be able to cope with both journeys to work and to school.

Congestion is a disease

Trams might well prove to me a positive innovation for Leicester but I doubt we will see them again in my generation’s time. Meanwhile, we have to wrestle with the problem of increasing traffic on the roads for people trying to get into Leicester and those trying to get from it to other parts of the country. Road traffic in England is increasing; it has been going up over the past four years. This, according to the Government, reflects growth in the UK economy and possibly lower fuel prices. Car traffic has been going up. Light goods vehicle traffic has also been increasing; probably, I would guess, due to the increasing use of online purchasing and its consequential need for road delivery.

Over the last twenty years traffic has increased by 17/19% for all vehicle types and for cars has gone up by 12.6% and 70% for light goods vehicles, according to the Government website. Meanwhile, the use of bus services has been going down in the long trend; passenger kilometres have declined by 0.6% since it peaked in 2007. By comparison passenger journeys on light rail systems, such as trams, has reached its higher ever recorded level. The use of buses and coaches has been going down since 2010. In the same time period, the use of cars and taxis has varied by has begun to increase dramatically in recent years.

Living near transport

Access to public transport also affects housing; with the policy of demanding more and more housing in the green belt, provision of adequate transport is of considerable importance. Building housing in the green belt places more pressure on private transport if the provision of buses, trams and commuter trains is not planned to increase. Building houses and flats away from the main employment destinations, inhibits the ability of residents to either walk or cycle to work.

Where city centres have concentrations of work opportunities – particular in retail and hospitality – it make more sense to develop urban accommodation than to hope that people will be able to access affordable housing in the out-lying areas and be still able to get into the city centres to find work.

It is easy for planners and policy-makers to assume that everyone drives their own car and that public transport is just for the poor and disadvantaged. That is a widely held myth, in my experience. Policy-makers want to see a shift away from the car to other forms of transport such as walking and cycling, for environmental reasons. Leicester has pockets of poverty and one that is bound to ensure that they remain is transport poverty.

Transporting the public

Over the next decade and beyond, more people will become dependent on public transport. It is no use providing affordable housing if we fail to provide affordable transport to go with it. Car ownership is not only about being able to afford to buy and car and run it. The cost of owning a house often forces people to stop having their own transport. More and more younger aged people are continuing to live with their parents because it takes them so long to save enough money to afford the deposit for a mortgage. What limit’s their ability to save is owning a car and the costs of having to pay for a car in order to get to work or indeed to get out to do the shopping. So many supermarkets (where the best prices can be had) are situated where only car owners can get to them. Having a transport policy that meets the real needs of urban and outer-urban dwellers must be a key issue for governmental policy-makers and planners. Public transportation needs to address both the availability of buses, trams and taxis and also the fares that are charged. Short distance fares are often more expensive that long-distance ones even where flat-fare tickets are available. One reason why transport issues concerns me is the close connection between the importance of the late-night economy and the availability of transport. The strategy for developing buses services cannot pivot solely on the need for night-time travel but putting this specific issue in a broader context is, in my view, essential.

Planning Leicester

Much of what Leicester is grappling with at present, when it comes to planning and transport policies, is to do with the city centre and, to some extent, the balance of outer-urban and inner-city economics. Our city centre is fairly busy and has managed to avoid some of the problems seen in comparable cities with businesses closing down and high streets shop voids. The shopping area of our city centre is fairly small and compact; it is especially good for pedestrians with its traffic free streets. The distribution of car parking in the centre is probably fairly good – but I am not the best person to know about that because, as I say, I do not drive. If shopping in Leicester’s centre lacks anything it is variety; it is less than good when it comes to the mix of shops and range of goods that are available. Many shoppers, who are looking for something out of the ordinary, travel to other town, such as Nottingham, because they can not find what they are looking for in Leicester. The mix of retail outlets on High Streets is dwindling across the whole country. That goes some way to explaining why so many people are taking to on-line shopping to secure the items they want – small, specialist shops are just not available locally.

Brain Size

Size does not matter

it’s what you do with it that counts

Brain size, language and evolution

This article forms part of a large work on which I am currently engaged (August 2016). ‘Language and  Evolution’ is a subject that flowed from a course I took that studied the discovery of the remains of an extinct hominid called Homo floresiensis, in the Ling Bua cave on the island of Flores in Indonesia.  I tried to discover if this species could talk using a language. It is not possible to know from the archaeological evidence. I will be posting more from my studies of the development of human language through evolution, as sections are completed.

Scientific studies of early hominid skulls and other skeletal parts have provided some understanding of the sizes of brains of early humans, compared to those of modern people and some animals, including modern great apes.

What we do not yet understand, I would say, is the relationship between brain size and capabilities.  The brain governs what animals can do, how they can do it and how much they can learn in order to ‘know’ what to do. The brain is the repository of behavioural characteristics. Just having a small brain does not always indicate lack of behavioural characteristics. Species with smaller brains could still make some tools. Complex communication skills might also have been possible in hominids with relatively smaller brains. The skeletal remains can reveal quite a lot but not what the brain inside the bones could do. It seems fairly reasonable to conclude that Homo sapiens had a large brain, comparatively, and that he also could talk in a language.

Neanderthals left very little in the way of artistic artefacts and this suggests that symbolic thought was limited to a few individuals and not widespread in the species. Scientific work on how Neanderthals spoke suggests a more limited range of voiced sounds that we find in modern man.¹ The size of a brain is not the most important indicator of intelligence. The functionality of a brain comes from various elements including the spinal cord and brain stem; it also involves the nervous system and the extent to which the animal can see, hear and sense its surroundings (its cognitive abilities.) The behaviour of an animal will reflect its ability to learn from experience; the survival of a species, it can be said, is a function of its ability to learn quickly and to adapt to changes in its environment. I will discuss (below) how the acquisition of language increases the functionality of the brain and enhances a range of behaviours that stem from the brain’s capabilities.

But be careful –  brain size it not what you think.  Kendra Lechtenberg makes this point

The relationship between brain size and intelligence, both amongst humans and between different species, has never been particularly well-defined. Humans like to believe that our exceptional cognitive abilities must indicate that we are the kings of the animal kingdom in terms of brain size, or at least that we have the largest brains relative to our body size. As nature would have it, both of these common assumptions are incorrect. Whales and elephants have much bigger brains than humans, and we have about the same brain-to-body mass ratio as mice. Since it would be against human nature to admit defeat, scientists have crafted a third measure of brain size called the encephalization quotient, which is the ratio of actual brain mass relative to the predicted brain mass for an animal’s size (based off the assumption that larger animals require slightly less brain matter relative to their size compared to very small animals). By this metric, at least, humans come out on top, with an EQ of 7.5 far surpassing the dolphin’s 5.3 and the mouse’s measly 0.5.

As Kendra goes on to say ‘there is more to intelligence than brain size.’  The concept of intelligence is difficult; it is both controversial and troublesome. Many have challenged the credibility and accuracy of testing to provide a ‘intelligence quotient.’ What intelligence test measure is not the be all and end all of cognitive ability. When we are trying to analyse and discover how the brain has affected human evolution, we need to look at the whole picture of human functioning. Measuring the internal capacity of a cranium in litres is not really going to tell us all that much. As Alexandra Horowitz pointed out (Alexandra Horowitz, 2013) some animals appear to be smarter because they live in human environments but this is not always the case. As babies grow to adulthood, the size of their brain increases. But this does not give the whole picture; growth and development involve processes going on inside the brain with the growth of synapses. She writes

Consider, though, the strange case of that growing child. Every infant’s brain develops through a period of synaptogenesis—wanton proliferation of synapses, which are the connections between neurons—in the first year or so of life. But one could argue that it is when this intense brain growth ends that the real growth of the child qua individual begins. The next phase of brain development occurs in large part through an increase in synaptic pruning: paring of those connections that are not useful for perceiving, considering or understanding the world the child is facing. In this sense, it’s by downsizing that an individual’s brain is born.

It is possible to compare the mass of a brain with the mass of a body and to see if, on average, some animals – including humans – have a higher score than others. This itself does not answer the question about whether larger brain size co-relates with effective functioning. Many other factors come into play, not least, culture, social integration and knowledge. The intelligence of an individual is a product of how the brain cells work, how neural pathways are connected and many other factors that affect the level of function of the mind. If we want to consider how social groups function, mentally, we have to look at sociocultural factors alongside any analysis of the neurological functioning of the brain and its associated nervous system and cognitive behaviour. The individual Homo floresiensis might have had a comparatively small skull but we cannot conclude from that they were unintelligent. Simply measuring the capacity of its cranium is not going to tell us much. Viatcheslav Wlassoff (2015) commented

There are no doubts that the size of the human brain has increased tremendously in the last couple of million years, from around 600 cm3 in Homo habilis to an average of 1200 cm3 in Homo sapiens. The rise of our intelligence was most certainly linked with this increase of brain size… It is of great interest that the brain size of Neanderthals (1600 cm3) was much larger than in modern humans. We don’t know how Neanderthals would have performed in the IQ test, but we know that they were out-competed by Homo sapiens, even though Neanderthals were physically superior to our ancestors. It is quite likely that our higher level of intelligence played some role in this event.

A new insight into thinking (rather than just brains) comes from Christopher Bergland, (June 2016) who wrote

Fluid intelligence is the ability to think creatively, adapt to new situations, and solve problems you’ve often never encountered before in novel situations. Fluid intelligence generally involves the ability to use critical thinking—along with explicit and implicit knowledge—to identify patterns and connect-the-dots in a personal and original way. As Albert Szent-Györgyi once said, “Thus, the task is not to see what nobody has seen, but to think what nobody has thought, about what everybody sees.”

When it comes to the survival of the fittest and the evolution of human species, this idea of ‘fluid intelligence’ does seem to suggest how some individuals stepped up the ladder and became innovators and then made an impact on the life chances of the group as a whole. To take that iconic example, it was the man who discovered how to make fire that changed the course of human evolution.

This subject is also discussed in my feature article on Language and Evolution.

Notes and references

¹ The description of a Neanderthal hyoid from Kebara Cave (Israel) in 1989 fuelled scientific debate on the evolution of speech and complex language. Gross anatomy of the Kebara 2 hyoid differs little from that of modern humans. However, whether Homo neanderthalensis could use speech or complex language remains controversial. Similarity in overall shape does not necessarily demonstrate that the Kebara 2 hyoid was used in the same way as that of Homo sapiens. The mechanical performance of whole bones is partly controlled by internal trabecular geometries, regulated by bone-remodelling in response to the forces applied. Here we show that the Neanderthal and modern human hyoids also present very similar internal architectures and micro-biomechanical behaviours. Our study incorporates detailed analysis of histology, meticulous reconstruction of musculature, and computational biomechanical analysis with models incorporating internal micro-geometry. Because internal architecture reflects the loadings to which a bone is routinely subjected, our findings are consistent with a capacity for speech in the Neanderthals. [from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0082261%5D


It is possible to work out how Neanderthals may have spoken by reconstructing their vocal tracts and then comparing them with those of modern apes and modern humans.

The vocal tract’s structure is revealed in the base of the skull. Modern apes, such as chimpanzees, have a flat skull base and a high larynx whereas modern humans have an arched skull base and a low larynx. Our low larynx allows room for an extended pharynx and this structure enables us to produce the wide range of sounds we use in speech. Neanderthal skull bases appear to be less arched than those of modern humans but more arched than those of modern apes. This suggests that the Neanderthals would have been capable of some speech but probably not the complete range of sounds that modern humans produce.


Researchers studying Neanderthal genes discovered that they shared the same version of a gene FOXP2 with modern humans. FOXP2 is the only gene known so far that plays a key role in language. When mutated, it primarily affects language without affecting other
abilities. This gene appears in different forms in other vertebrates where it performs a slightly different function. This suggests the gene mutated not long before the split between the Neanderthals and modern human lines. However, there are plenty of genes involved in language so it takes more than the FOXP2 gene to prove a language ability.


The 90,000 year-old double burial from Jebel Qafzeh, Israel is one of the earliest that shows careful placement of the deceased. Burials of modern humans become increasingly complex over time, and Cro-Magnon burials usually include grave goods and other evidence of ritual activity. This pattern of behaviour is also seen at burial sites of other modern human cultures throughout the world.

[from Fran Dorey , Exhibition Project Coordinator]

² Mesolithic (10,000-6000 years ago). At this period, there was still a hunter-gatherer culture, but a change in technology can be seen in the archaeological record. A different tool kit was now in use compared with that of the later Palaeolithic. For example, the bow and arrow were increasingly used. This is related to a change in the environment to a more temperate climate with increased woodland and disappearance of large grazing herds. Increases in the exploitation of aquatic resources and small game are also evident. Seasonal camp sites such as Star Carr (NE England) and Kelling Heath (Norfolk) have been excavated. Local adaptations to climate can be seen. Burial in the Mesolithic is characterized by a shift from single or small groups of burials to larger cemeteries in the open. No British examples of Mesolithic burials have been identified, with one possible exception. A disarticulated burial in a partially burnt log boat found at St. Albans has been dated to c.4,700 BC, so this could be late Mesolithic or Early Neolithic. … Burial practices in this period, although in open air flat cemeteries rather than caves, seem to continue the later Palaeolithic traditions of burial with the apparent importance of red ochre, ornaments of shell and teeth, and provision of tools and food. Does this mean that spiritual traditions also remained unchanged despite a change of lifestyle? [From http://www.spoilheap.co.uk/burial.htm%5D

³ Alan Fogel referred to in The Dynamic Dance: nonvocal communication in African great apes By Barbara J. KING, Barbara J King.


Mike Parker Pearson, Andrew Chamberlain, Oliver Craig, Peter Marshall, Jacqui Mulville, Helen Smith, Carolyn Chenery, Matthew Collins, Gordon Cook, Geoffrey Craig, Jane Evans, Jen Hiller, Janet Montgomery, Jean-Luc Schwenninger, Gillian Taylor and Timothy Wess (2005). Evidence for mummification in Bronze Age Britain. Antiquity, 79, pp 529-546.

Stockhammer PW, Massy K, Knipper C, Friedrich R, Kromer B, Lindauer S, et al. (2015) Rewriting the Central European Early Bronze Age Chronology: Evidence from Large-Scale Radiocarbon Dating.

Wrangham, R. & Carmody, R. Human adaptation to the control of fire. Evol. Anthropol. 19(5), 187–199 (2010).

Maev Kennedy, The Guardian, ‘A bronze age Pompeii’: archaeologists hail discovery of Peterborough site, 12th January 2016.

John Novembre, Nature 522, 164–165 (11 June 2015), Human evolution: Ancient DNA steps into the language debate.

Kendra Lechtenberg (2014) writing in Stanford Neurosciences Institute, https://neuroscience.stanford.edu/news/ask-neuroscientist-does-bigger-brain-make-you-smarter

Alexandra Horowitz, 2013, Smithsonian Magazine, Why Brain Size Doesn’t Correlate With Intelligence – We can nurture growth, but never really control it. [from:  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-brain-size-doesnt-correlate-with-intelligence-180947627/#KbJqgMbq8G7W60cK.99

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, 2015, Is There an Association Between Brain Size and Intelligence? from http://brainblogger.com/2015/11/22/is-there-an-association-between-brain-size-and-intelligence/

Christopher Bergland, June 2016, Superfluidity: Fluid Intelligence Goes Beyond Brain Size, Psychology Today.  From https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201606/superfluidity-fluid-intelligence-goes-beyond-brain-size