Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Breaking news in teratology

Courtesy of Karl:

LONDON (AFP) - The discovery of a Turkish family that walks on all fours could aid research into the evolution of humans.

Researchers believe the five brothers and sisters, who can walk naturally only on all fours, may provide new information on how humans evolved from four-legged hominids to walk upright.

Nicholas Humphrey, evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, told The Times the discovery opened "an extraordinary window on our past".

"I do not think they were designed to be quadrupeds by their genes, but their unique genetic make-up allowed them to be," he said.

"It has produced an extraordinary window on our past. It is physically possible, which noone would have guessed from the [modern] human skeleton."

The siblings, the subject of a new BBC documentary to be aired on March 17, suffer from a genetic abnormality that may prevent them from walking upright.

Instead, they use their palms like heels with their fingers sticking up from the ground.

The BBC said the documentary would contribute to fierce scientific debate and raised profound questions about what it is to be human.

Humphrey, who has contributed to the documentary, believes the style of walking may be a throwback to a form of behaviour abandoned by humans more than three million years ago.

Two sisters and one son have only ever walked on two hands and two feet, while another daughter and son occasionally walk on two feet.

All five are mentally retarded and have problems with language as a result of a form of underdevelopment of the brain known as cerebellar ataxia.

However Humphrey told the Times their behaviour may be partly the result of their parents tolerating the behaviour in childhood.

They are aged between 18 and 34 and live in southern Turkey, athough the makers of the documentary have not disclosed their exact location.

"They walk like animals and that's very disturbing at first. But we were also very moved by this family's tremendous warmth and humanity," Jemima Harrison of Passionate Productions told the Times.

Does the fact that this family, transformed into a remnant of the human past and discovered in remote Turkey, is made to tell an uplifting story about "warmth and humanity" -- by a documentary outfit named Passioante Productions, no less -- bother anyone else?


Ancrene Wiseass said...

/raises hand.

I, for one, am very disturbed. Most particularly so by the rhetoric that would cast these people as "throwbacks."

I'm no scholar of disability, really, but this sounds far, far too much like the patter of the 19th-century's most exploitative sideshows for my comfort. The built-in protest, "But oh, hey, we really RESPECT these people. They're very human and warm. That's why we want to make their disabilities available for lots of people to stare at" doesn't convince me.

In fact, it reminds me a bit of the weird, doubled perspective of the film "Freaks," which asks us to feel sympathy for sideshow performers and then portrays them taking revenge on their enemy by crawling on all fours through the mud with knives gripped in their mouths.

In fact, I'd argue that such rhetorical moves are characteristic of many 20th and 21st-century attempts to portray the lives of the sick and the disabled, many of which demonstrate a simplistic and condescending approach to their subjects.

And I haven't even mentioned how I think this works as a piece of Orientalism.

Karl Steel said...

Everything that Wiseass said I wish I said.

The bits that got me were phrases like this:

They walk like animals

I don't want to get too far into this, but I think for now it's fair game to drag in yet more stuff from the diss. I'll spare you my analysis and just give you the primary material for y'all to play with as you see fit:

An early 14th-century doctrinal and exempla collection, Ci nous dit, includes a typical set of statements on stereotypical human and animal forms:

“Les bestes vont à .IIII. piés en senefiant qu'il sunt en leur païz; et nous alons a .II. en senefiant que nous ne sonmes pas ou nostre”
[beasts go on four feet to show that they are in their country; and we go on two to show that we are not in ours];

“Et quiconques met l'amour de son cuer en terre, ainsi se fait il semblans aus bestes; maiz devons avoir tous nous desiriers ou ciel, que pour ce nous a Diex faiz”
[and whoever puts the love of his heart in the earth makes himself resemble beasts; but we ought to have all of our desire in heaven, which is what God made us for].

So far this is boilerplate stuff. But then it adds,
“cinges et pluseurs bestes soivent bien aler a .II. piès, si n'i vont pas voulentiers s'il n'en sont contraint, pour ce qu'il n'ont pas sens raisonnable”
[monkeys and several beasts often go on two feet, but they do not go so willingly if they are not compelled to, because they are not reasonable].

Some animals do get about bipedally: monkeys, kangaroos, and, most obviously, birds. Birds at least would have been well-known to our medieval commentators, and the other animals should be well-known to the stalwarts at the BBC: but it seems the link between the 'human' stature and reason remains.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Good stuff and right on target, AW and KtGM.

It is truly odd that humans on all fours are constructed as some kind of "time travel" -- as if, before evolution smacked us upright, we were simply homo sapiens who scurried.

There are SO many problems with the article, not the least of which is its credulous treatment of its source.

Karl Steel said...

There are SO many problems with the article, not the least of which is its credulous treatment of its source

You're familiar with the BBC and its problems with natural history?