Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Allen Curnow and evolutionary biology

The famous last words of Allen Curnow’s 1943 poem “The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch” are:
Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year,
Will learn the trick of standing upright here.
The Economist reports on new developments in evolutionary biology, specifically the question of why our primate ancestors did learn the trick of standing upright. What was, in management-speak, the key driver going forward? Quote unquote:
Africa’s great grasslands are one of that continent’s most famous features. They are also reckoned by many to have been crucial to human evolution. This school of thought holds that people walk upright because their ancestors could thus see farther on an open plain. Forest primates do not need to be bipedal, the argument continues, because the trees limit their vision anyway.
Sarah Feakins, of the University of Southern California, says it ain’t necessarily so.


helenalex said...

I've hated that poem ever since I was made to analyse it in the School C English exam. Because of course a 15 year old born in 1979 is going to go 'of course, this must be about how literary Pakeha in the 1940s felt they didn't really "belong" in NZ, despite having lived here all their lives".

There's also the fact that moa weren't an 'interesting failure to adapt on islands' - they were very well adapted to large islands with no land predators, ie the ones they lived on. (It also doesn't work if Curnow is talking about himself, since the British Isles are islands too.)

Stephen Stratford said...

Golly, is one allowed to say stuff like that? But I totally agree. Everything in/about that poem is wrong. The moas - jesus, they were perfectly adapted to their ecological niche. That is why they were so big. As for the Pakehas, my grandfather Bert was born in Canvastown in 1890something and he walked upright here. He was a farmer in Craill Bay, when he wasn't fighting in WWI, and totally belonged here. His father was a farmer in the Sounds too, so Bert would never have thought of England as "Home". If poets - apart from you, of course - are or could ever be the legislators of the world, then heaven help us all.