Learmont began a blog on this page with the best of intentions, but achieved only three posts. And he has given social media a wide berth, for fear that his tweets would be revealed in their utter banality, when compared with the sparkling epigrams of the loquacious sophisticates who shower the twittersphere with their hourly verbal tinsel. But Learmont posts comments on the Guardian books site when he feels he has something to say, under the name of Tom Rymour. It’s not exactly a blog, but it’s the nearest he’ll ever get to offering an online two-happenceworth. For the curious, here’s the link.

1 June 2012
The power women hold over men comes from a phenomenon called neoteny. The word was coined a century or so ago, when scientists discovered that a baby chimp’s skeleton looked almost like a miniaturised version of adult human bones. Neoteny means the persistence of childlike characteristics into adulthood. Homo sapiens is a neotenous ape.

And the human female is highly neotenous compared to the male.
Women retain many more youthful qualities into adulthood. Their voices don’t break. The female of Homo Sapiens sapiens tends to have a delicate, elegant skull and a gracile, lightly-muscled, smoothly-padded frame. The eyes tend to dominate a woman’s face — the so-called “baby look”.

A species can be prodded into rapid evolution by a fast-changing environment, or by sexual selection, when animals choose mates on the basis of ornaments which have nothing to do with survival. The peacock survives despite being slowed down by a dragging tail, and the stag bears the weight of encumbering antlers. This is because their female ancestors preferred to mate with a fellow who stood out from the crowd. The females remained drab as nuns; they had no need for such glorious adornments.

Assuming that runaway sexual selection prolonged the human female’s youthful appearance into maturity, when did the crunch come for our female forebears? It may have been at a point in our remote history when both sexually mature females and immature specimens began to look equally youthful. I theorise that nature’s answer to the problem might have been a new phase of runaway sexual selection that kept our female ancestors highly neotenous, but left males in no doubt about sexual maturity.

I refer to the parts men stare at — the northern and southern hemispheres, anterior and posterior. These inviting protuberances certainly do the evolutionary trick, assisted by the hourglass effect they give to a woman’s waist. So much so that a tiny waist can have the same provocative effect, even if the lady in question is not overendowed with what killjoy Calvinist bible punchers used to call “the Devil’s Dumplings.”

Ladies, your corporeal endowments put you in the same category as the stag and the peacock. Strictly speaking, you don’t actually need the wobbly bits for survival of the species. Your primate cousins are skinny, hairy, flat-chested chimpanzettes who breast feed healthy chimplings and swing through the trees without any need for a good sports bra. Neither do they have curvaceous hindquarters.

Let me confess. I would hate it if women were not neotenous. I am content to worship feminine beauty, because evolution and sexual selection have made me the way I am. But for his own safety, a wise man will never address the object of his intentions as “Babe”, no matter how breathtakingly neotenous she may be.

1 March 2012

I can clearly recall the first time the sense of wonder came over me. It happened when I awoke to find myself on the dry, mossy bed of what had once been an ancient, shallow Martian sea. I had been transported to Mars with John Carter.

But it was only my mind which had been projected across the gulf of space – my eight-year-old body was snugly curled up on Earth for an undercover, after-bedtime read. My only light was a wartime invention: a tin warming pan with an enclosed 60-watt bulb, used to provide heat, not light. Before bedtime, it made flannel sheets toasty, and my mother would unplug the pan before she tucked me in.

As soon as she was downstairs, I used to switch on the UFO-shaped device and take it under the blankets with me. A tiny beam of light escaped from a chink where its two halves met, enough to illuminate only part of one printed line. But that was enough for me to discern the most beautiful words my young soul had yet encountered: Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium. Crouched in my tented bed, I went on reading despite the scorching pan, the stifling heat under the blankets – and having to guide each line of type past my miniature searchlight.

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs was the 1912 planetary romance which sparked my overheated imagination. Confederate officer John Carter sees the red planet rise in 1866, and “thinks” his way there. Soon he’s involved with a green, four-armed warrior, a Thark named Tars Tarkas. And then it’s swordplay all the way over the deserts and ancient ruined cities of Mars.

John falls for the bewitching Dejah Thoris, despite compatibility issues. She’s red-skinned. And, like Leda, Queen of Sparta, she’s oviparous. But love triumphs. Carter, (although lacking in Yeatsian feathered glory) provokes enough shudder to quicken the loins of Dejah Thoris. She lays an egg and deposits it in a crystal incubator. Then the blissful couple wait for hatchling Carthoris to come out of his shell.

Since 1947, I have never reopened A Princess of Mars. I’m too scared to try, in case the “sensawunda” has curdled in the light of later reading. Maybe the likes of Poldy Bloom and Charles Kinbote have taken the shine off the Princess of Helium for me – but I don’t intend to find out. I shall preserve my wondrous childhood moment.

That’s why I’m unlikely to see John Carter, the 3D movie version by Disney, which came out a century after the original tale. Carter is played by a young man with the inauspicious name of Taylor Kitsch. Being ignorant of the human reproductive systems at the age of eight, I took the whole egg-laying business in my stride. But would the US movie audience? I imagine that the 3D Dejah will be an ostentatiously mammalian Caucasian beauty. Having seen a trailer by accident, I suspect that the magic of Mars may have been disneyfied into a CGI spectacular of four-armed green Tharks indulging in large-scale violence. Thanks, but no Tharks…

1 February 2012

My “sensawunda” was recently aroused by my New York grandson Jonah. He was learning to ride a bike in a small Tribeca park with an asphalt path around the perimeter. The method was as follows: Jonah sat on a lowered saddle so that he could propel himself with his feet on the ground, like an 18th century German sportsman astride a laufmaschine hobby-horse without pedals. He tried time and again on a slight downward gradient, his rubber soles scraping the tarmac. The theory was that when he had achieved balance, he could lift his feet and roll while he slowly got the feel of staying upright on two moving wheels.

It was a struggle all the way. Sometimes he turned the bars too much, or looked at the ground instead of the horizon. Twice he invaded a flower bed and fell off. And so it went on for twenty minutes. I told my son-in law Sven not to worry, because the click was coming.

“After the click,” said I, “he’ll be a cyclist for life and he’ll never forget how to ride a bike.”

A few minutes later, Jonah clicked. But he didn’t hold his feet off the ground as we had imagined, then coast to a stop. Instead he put his feet on the pedals and went tearing off, leaning into the first corner, steering with his body. He completed a whole lap of the park. After that it was difficult to keep him off the bike, and he would happily ride laps for an hour.

Watching Jonah’s click put me in mind of a documentary I had seen, of baby birds leaving the nest and instinctively knowing how to fly. This prompted some reflections about evolution. It strikes me that Jonah’s species, Homo Sapiens sapiens, is pre-adapted to cycling. Just as the baby birds were pre-adapted to flight by tiny changes in the species over millions of years and generations.

But where did the ancestors of a young primate like Jonah evolve the complex responses and coordination needed to control that most improbable of all inventions – the velocipede?

It’s almost as if natural selection started training the human race for the Tour de France – back in the Eocene! For millions of years we were pre-adapted to a machine that didn’t exist and might never have been invented.

I found a possible clue when I remembered my visit to the Joburg Zoo — doing research for Light Across Time. I had admired two stylish ruffed lemurs who were having a mad half hour, playing sillibuggers in the tree that fills most of their enclosure. Slim branches yielded and bounced back under the arboreal acrobats as they raced in three dimensions. The balance was perfect, the reflexes razor-sharp.

So maybe that’s where our own species was pre-adapted for the bicycle, in the forests of deep time.

And now I’m wondering what other pre-adaptations we might possess – to inventions which are yet to be imagined.