Category Archives: Evolution, Science


2017-11-10

Go to the Bonobo, thou Sinner, and learn how to love the stranger and be a Good Samaritan

by Neil Godfrey

H/t Rosa Rubicondior, a scientific research paper discusses experiments indicating that we humans are not the only ones who have an ethic of helping out strangers in need: Bonobos respond prosocially toward members of other groups by Jingzhi Tan, Dan Ariely and Brian Hare. It’s an amazing read. A Bonobo stops doing something that’s “fun” when it sees a complete stranger (another Bonobo from no other community it knows) who is unable to get food and not only stops play, but goes to considerable effort to get the food to that needy stranger. And there’s no reward. It appears to know the commandments of Zeus, Allah, Yahweh and Jesus Christ and obeys them out of unselfish love.

Beware, Humans. If you don’t pull your socks up God will forsake you and go to the Bonobos who are more worthy!

 

 


2017-08-18

The Origin of Large Life Forms

by Neil Godfrey

Interesting article by Diana Hayward on yesterday’s ABC Science page:

Algae explosion 650 million years ago is why we’re here today, ANU researchers say

The key section:

That climatic catastrophe was a global thawing of what Professor Brocks calls a “Snowball Earth”.

Fifty million years before the algae began to bloom the Earth’s oceans were frozen.

But a global heating event caused the glaciers to melt and as they did they released nutrients into the ocean.

“This increased phosphate fertiliser in the oceans,” Professor Brocks said.

And when the Earth cooled to more hospitable levels it created perfect conditions for algae to spread.

“It appears this huge release of nutrients after the melting of this snowball Earth event triggered the evolution of this larger algae and replaced bacteria.”

“Algae are incredibly large in comparison to bacteria. And you need large and nutritious organisms at the base of the food webs to create the burst of energy towards higher and bigger organisms,” Professor Brocks said.

So it all started with global warming and the subsequent explosion in algae.

 


2017-07-09

Crazy but Serious Theories of Consciousness

by Neil Godfrey

So is consciousness like space, time, mass, an irreducible fundamental element of the universe? If so, should we be trying to discover the laws by which it operates and integrates with the rest of reality since it is a fundamental element that cannot be explained in terms of more complex parts?

Or does everything that exists, even down to photons, contain the property of consciousness to some degree? Are higher degrees of consciousness the product of higher amounts of information inputs and processing? If so, what are the ethical questions arising?

Or is it all an illusion?

Interesting questions — I was alerted to them by the following article on abc.net.au

Philosopher David Chalmers on consciousness, the hard problem and the nature of reality

A little followup told me I am in fact quite late to this party.

Anyone who can bring me up to speed with any further developments in this field please do so. (I am referring to serious scholarly research — not wacko new age or spiritual type theories.) I see also David Chalmers has a page linking to his articles. Yet more reading (sigh)!

 

 

 


2017-05-28

Mudskippers — Today’s Thailand post

by Neil Godfrey

I got terribly distracted today while lunching at one of scores of river or canal restaurants in southern Bangkok. I was fascinated by the mudskippers just below from where I was sitting. They are common enough to the locals but to me, they set my mind imagining various ways such creatures as this could be seen as the evolutionary link between sea and land fauna.

I will have to rely upon someone else’s uploaded video for this one.

And there are some more fascinating videos following on from the one above. It was cute the way some of them would simply fall over all the time as they tried to walk on the mud. You can see that happening in the video above and in some ensuing ones. And I once let myself fall for the line that “legs” or “wings” or “eyes” etc would have to “work perfectly” the very first time or the creature would never survive. Balderdash.

And that back fin. I could not but help recalling from my childhood fascination with dinosaurs that image of the dimetrodon. For one of the first dinosaurs we know of it sure looked a rather dumb and boring thing compared with the T Rex.

 

 

 

 


2017-05-05

Crow Smarts

by Neil Godfrey

It’s been a long time since I bought a children’s book — until today. Or at least it arrived today. I heard about it on a science show, Kids book goes inside the crow’s smart bird brain, and could not resist.

Look at this:

The New Caledonian crow shapes a hooked tool to extract grubs from logs.

And this:

The damn clever thing shapes another digging tool by tapering it so that it has a thick end for holding and a pointy end for digging into crevices.

The crows here have straight beaks, not slightly curved ones, and eyes more to the front of their heads than do other species of crow. Since these traits enable a more efficient use of tools (more difficult to work them with a curved beak and harder to get the aim right with eyes further apart) it appears that tool use has favoured the evolution of these smarter crows.

If like me you want to catch up with what the kids are reading and learning, check it out….


2017-03-10

Latest On Neanderthals — Aspirin, and Kissing a “Modern Human”?

by Neil Godfrey

Speaking as we are on various types of humans in the evolutionary kaleidoscope here is a new Nature article on the latest research on Neanderthals — as read on ABC’s Science News:

Ancient dental plaque shows some Neanderthals ate plants and used drugs

Mushrooms were part of their diet, and meat eating (e.g. eating woolly rhinoceros) followed vegetarianism, just like pre-Flood vegetarianism of the human race and post-Flood meat-eating (kidding — about the biblical Flood myth).

But I’m amazed at what we can learn …..

What’s more, DNA analysis of the dental plaque from the El Sidrón Neanderthal teenager showed he ate plants to treat illness.

The teenager, who had a dental abscess on his jaw and evidence of microbes that cause gastro intestinal illnesses such as diarrhoea and vomiting, ate poplar bark, which contains the active ingredient in aspirin, and Penicillium, the mould that produces penicillin.

“So it is likely he would have been trying to self-medicate,” said Dr Weyrich.

And in the midst of reading about how our technologies are being used to record our personal information and accessed for spying, it seems even geneticists can snoop on the private activities of long extinct Neanderthals:

Swapping spit with humans

Neanderthals and ancient and modern humans also shared a number of microbes that can cause dental and gum diseases — although Neanderthals did not have cavities or gum disease.

The team sequenced the draft genome of one gum disease microbe, Methanovrevibacter oralis, from the 48,000 year-old El Sidrón cave teenager.

“What we find is that it looks like [the microbe] was introduced from humans about 120,000 years ago, about the same time that humans and Neanderthals started interbreeding,” Dr Weyrich said.

She said this indicated interactions between Neanderthals and humans were much more intimate than previously thought.

 


2017-03-06

Lost Tribes of Humanity

by Neil Godfrey

Brought myself up with the latest discoveries on human origins last night with BBC doco The Lost Tribes of Humanity. It told me that everything I had been taught about Neanderthals at school was wrong, and enlightened me on how to pronounce this other type of human I’ve come across in my reading from time to time, the Denosivans, introduced me to the term “hominin”, and backed my wife’s suspicion that I probably do carry around Neanderthal DNA in my genome.

Neanderthals

  1. Neanderthals did leave artistic remains. The marks left on rocks were tested for various options such as side-products of cutting other things like skins on the rock surface and the eventual conclusion was that the marks were made as deliberate designs. (I learned they had no art.)
  2. Neanderthals adorned their bodies. Remains of certain bones indicate that wings were cut for feathers, not for meat. Feathers in abundance points to body decoration. (That was new.)
  3. Neanderthals buried their dead.
  4. They were not wiped out by the arrival of Homo Sapiens. The two types of human lived side by side for thousands of years, probably learning from one another.
  5. Modern humans interbred with Neanderthals. Most people of non-African origin have some Neanderthal DNA; about 1 to 2 percent on average of their DNA is Neanderthal. (I was taught the two could not interbreed.)
  6. The above fact indicates that modern humans interbred with Neanderthals very early in their trek out of Africa — probably when they first met Neanderthals in what today is the Middle East. This scenario would explain why modern humans across the globe contain Neanderthal DNA — with the exception of most Africans.
  7. Possibly up to 50% of all the Neanderthal DNA is still extant today, collectively, in modern humans. (We each contain around 1-2% of Neanderthal DNA but we don’t all contain the same DNA bits.)

Denisovans (D’nEESovins)

  • Races native to Australia and Papua New Guinea contain up to 5% of the Denisovan genome. Denisovan DNA is also found among the peoples of India, Himalayas and China. Up to 60 to 80% of Denisovan genome may be spread around in modern humans.

“The Hobbit” / Homo floresiensis

I was following the controversy surrounding these bones when they were first discovered in Indonesia and for a time was unsure if we would find we had a new type of human species or modern human inflicted with something like dwarfism. But the jury has apparently long been in by now and they definitely have been classified as a distinct variety of human.

Interestingly their small size was not the effect of being cut off on the island (animals so cut off tend to become smaller, presumably because less resources are therefore required to survive) but they were found to be small before their settlements were cut off by rising seas.

Though they have left remains indicating their human-ness their brains were the size of chimp brains. Sounds bad for a human, perhaps, but then as someone else pointed out recently on another program, we now know from our technological advances that it is not the size of a computer that matters so much as how it is organized. Even “bird-brains” can be very intelligent.

Archaic Africans

This group was new to me. We know of their past existence in Central Africa entirely from DNA samples among people of African descent — beginning in a laboratory in San Francisco of all places. They split off from the earliest human line then connected again some millennia later with the line leading to us.

So we don’t even need to dig up fossils to learn of the existence of other species or tribes of humans.

Interbreeding can have been through a range of activities, including adopting orphaned babies and raiding for mates.

My science fiction fantasy: Will we one day be able to piece together all the different bits of remaining DNA from Neanderthals and Denisovans and Archaic Africans and somehow put them together again the way Humpty was sort of reassembled — not literally in laboratories, god forbid, but on paper/digital files — and get some idea what those other branches of hominin were like compared with our pre-mongrel ancestors?

 


2017-01-03

The Australian Magpies

by Neil Godfrey

I loved this program when it was first broadcast a few months ago and appreciated the ABC’s Radio National “re-releasing” it as a podcast. I always love watching magpies and so often notice fascinating behaviours. For some years many times I went outside to hang the washing out the same magpie would fly down and perch on the clothes line, looking intently at me as if to greet me and spend some time with me. In Australia we easily take their beautiful song for granted so I was pulled up with some surprise when an overseas tourist expressed amazement at the sound.

Anyone interested who hasn’t yet heard the program, do listen to

The colourful life of the Australian Magpie

The opening seconds is all you need to hear their sound.

Other details that fascinated me:

  • they are listening for the sounds of grubs etc beneath the grass
  • they recognize individual human faces
  • in the event of the loss of the male partner the female soon accepts another male replacement who continues to care and provide for her chicks
  • their black and white colour is no camouflage but functions as a highly visual signal for territorial purposes

 


2016-09-15

Trees really do need hugs

by Neil Godfrey

green-man-266953_1280I kept thinking I was listening to a madman, that the interview was a practical joke, that a highly imaginative author was discussing his ideas for a fantasy movie or children’s story. Trees really do talk to each other? have feelings? memories? recognize and teach their young? learn? please don’t tell me they have brains….!!!!!

But a brain? For there to be something we would recognize as a brain, neurological processes must be involved, and for these, in addition to chemical messages, you need electrical impulses. And these are precisely what we can measure in the tree, and we’ve been able to do so since as far back as the nineteenth century. For some years now, a heated controversy has flared up among scientists. Can plants think? Are they intelligent?

In conjunction with his colleagues, FrantiSek BaluSka from the Institute of Cellular and Molecular Botany at the University of Bonn is of the opinion that brain-like structures can be found at root tips. In addition to signaling pathways, there are also numerous systems and molecules similar to those found in animals.34 When a root feels its way forward in the ground, it is aware of stimuli. The researchers measured electrical signals that led to changes in behavior after they were processed in a “transition zone.” If the root encounters toxic substances, impenetrable stones, or saturated soil, it analyzes the situation and transmits the necessary adjustments to the growing tip. The root tip changes direction as a result of this communication and steers the growing root around the critical areas.

Peter Wohlleben

Peter Wohlleben

I just said ‘Don’t tell me that.’

Right now, the majority of plant researchers are skeptical about whether such behavior points to a repository for intelligence, the faculty of memory, and emotions.

That’s a relief.

Among other things, they get worked up about carrying over findings in similar situations with animals and, at the end of the day, about how this threatens to blur the boundary between plants and animals. And so what? What would be so awful about that? The distinction between plant and animal is, after all, arbitrary and depends on the way an organism feeds itself: the former photosynthesizes and the latter eats other living beings. Finally, the only other big difference is in the amount of time it takes to process information and translate it into action. . . . .

You can listen an interview with the author, Peter Wohlleben, at The Secret Life of Trees. Since hearing that program yesterday I found that any web search on the name Peter Wohlleben will bring up a wealth of other articles, videos, what have you. His book:

trees

 

 

 


2016-09-14

Human Languages Use Similar Sounds for Common Words

by Neil Godfrey

Amazing . . . can’t wait for further research to confirm or refute . . .

Sound–meaning association biases evidenced across thousands of languages

(or doi: 10.1073/pnas.1605782113)

Or you can read a short version on the news site where I first learned about it:

Linguistic study proves more than 6,000 languages use similar sounds for common words

Or under a title I thought most apt:

A nose by any other name would sound the same, study finds

Here’s a list of the sounds taken from the original PNAS article (symbols are described here):

signal-summary

Nor can I resist the nice map from the same article:

map

Trying to think through the significance(s) should it be confirmed. . . . .

First, a universal grammar. . . . now this?

 


2016-09-12

Bayes, Schizophrenia, Autism and Brain Chemistry

by Neil Godfrey

A fascinating essay, even if speculative, by Scott Alexander on the brain chemistry behind Bayesian, deductive and inductive reasoning, and light it possibly sheds on conditions like schizophrenia, autism, and being stoned.

It’s Bayes All The Way Up


2016-06-07

Male and Female and Shemale created He them

by Neil Godfrey

bearded dragonWhat on earth was God thinking?

When is a female a female? And when is a male a male? These are the questions that scientists continue to ponder after the latest research on an Australian lizard that reverses its sex when exposed to high incubation temperatures.

The study shows central bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps) that are born with male chromosomes, but can lay eggs, have other strange characteristics.

Super-female bearded dragons are ‘more male than male’

“A bearded dragon can have male sex chromosomes but be a functioning female. Yet it can be more male-like in the way it looks, in its temperature and in its behaviour. They are more male-like than the actual males,” Professor Shine said.

 


2016-01-25

What Is Euhemerism?

by Tim Widowfield
chromolithograph Caricature of Thomas Henry Hu...

Chromolithograph Caricature of Thomas Henry Huxley. Caption read “A great Med’cine-Man among the Inquiring Redskins”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Note: This post reflects my perspective. Neil is not responsible for any of the following content. –Tim]

We have Thomas Huxley to thank for the word Darwinism, which he coined in 1860 in a review of On the Origin of Species. In modern times, of course, creationists have misused the term, applying it to any theory of natural evolution, and even to the study of abiogenesis. They continue to embrace the “ism” since bolsters their assertion that evolution is a kind of belief system, just as irrational as religion.

What is Darwinism? 

Simply stated, Darwinism is the theory of biological evolution by means of natural selection. Technically, the terms Darwinism and biological evolution are not entirely synonymous, since theories of evolution existed before Charles Darwin. I recall being taken aback when I first read that Charles’ grandfather Erasmus had written a poem suggesting all forms of life were interrelated and had evolved to their present state. And well before Charles published his book, Jean-Baptiste Larmarck had proposed a theory of evolution based on the idea that organisms acquire traits during their lives, and later pass them on (somehow) to their offspring.

Darwinism differs from other competing theories of evolution in its mechanism for change. It makes no sense, then, to apply the term to other theories that posit some process other than gradual modification through natural selection.

Nor is it technically correct to call today’s modern synthesis “Darwinism,” since it embraces two other important foundational concepts, namely mutation theory and Mendelian genetics. So those who would today call an evolutionary biologist a Darwinist betray their ignorance of evolution, Darwin, and biology in general.

A less familiar term, euhemerism, from time to time suffers similar misuse. How should we define this word? We might explain it, following Dr. Richard Carrier, as “doing what Euhemerus did.

But then we have to ask, “Well, what was that?”

read more »


2015-04-18

The Oldest Oral Traditions in the World

by Neil Godfrey
280px-Palm_Valley_NT

Palm Valley — Wikipedia

How old can an oral tradition be? How long can a social memory exist?

Surely much depends on the stability of the social organizations that sustain them. But can we imagine a story surviving through generations over 7,000 or even 30,000 years?

Scientists studying certain species of palm trees curiously surviving in Central Australia may have coincidentally confirmed Aboriginal stories that must date back at least 7000 years.

It had until recently been thought that palm trees in Central Australia were survivors from Gondwanaland, from before the time Australia split off from what is now Antarctica, South America and Africa, and a time when Australia was covered in rainforest.

Months of genetic testing by University of Tasmania ecologist David Bowman and a Japanese team eventually confirmed that trees that had long been thought to date from Gondwana ancestors are not nearly so old at all. They in fact date from the time humans inhabited the continent.

The results led him to conclude the seeds were carried to the Central Desert by humans up to 30,000 years ago.

Professor Bowman read an Aboriginal legend recorded in 1894 by pioneering German anthropologist and missionary Carl Strehlow, which was only recently translated, describing the “gods from the north” bringing the seeds to Palm Valley.

Professor Bowman said he was amazed.

“We’re talking about a verbal tradition which had been transmitted through generations possibly for over 7,000, possibly 30,000 years,” he said. read more »