Category Archives: Evolution, Science

To be decided

The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End….

Kyle Harper

I’ve finally caught up with a radio/online interview with the author of The Fate of Rome: climate, disease and the end of an empire, Kyle Harper, on Late Night Live.

Advances in studies of genetics and climate history have opened new vistas of understanding what was happening in our past.

Some horrific data emerges: life expectancy at birth was somewhere in the 20s. One third of newborns died in their first year. Upper classes were not much better off overall though they had more pleasant surroundings while surviving.

Nutrition was not the problem so much as disease. There was no concept of germs, of course.

Public toilets did little for public health. They were not covered and acted more like storm culverts than healthy waste disposal systems. Without toilet paper a sponge on a stick was the common tool of all members of a household. And then there was all the animal waste.

I learned in high school that the average Roman was quite short compared with us. That in some ways sounded almost cute back then. Kyle Harper tells us that people in the Roman empire were shorter than both their pre-empire ancestors and post-empire descendants. Roads and cities were disease bearers.

And then the climate changed seriously. Volcanic eruptions were so frequent that the planet cooled significantly but then reduced solar output compounded the cooling. Diseases like Ebola were carried in from the Tibetan region.

I’m reminded of another work I read a few years ago, Justinian’s Flea, by William Rosen. That flea carries a large measure of responsibility for the collapse of the Byzantine empire before the onslaught of Persian and Arab “conquests”. I use inverted commas because there is very little to “conquer” when a population is so drastically reduced in so short a time.

I have now begun reading Kyle Harper’s book since listening to the author’s discussion on Late Night Live with Philip Adams. So far it is presenting an even more horrific picture of “life” in Roman times. Sobering.

 

 

Why I Am (Still) Against Nuclear Power

People on the Internet who like to style themselves as rational, worldly, and clever members of the intelligentsia enjoy poking fun at people for their irrational beliefs. The usual targets of their (our) jabs are fish in a barrel: creationism (young Earth and old Earth), homeopathy, climate-change denial, and so on.

We see, for example, groups of people dedicated to poking fun at those who are supposedly afraid of chemicals by calling water by its unfamiliar sciency name: dihydrogen monoxide. I’m not necessarily opposed to poking fun at people for their ignorance, but I can’t really support the DHMO thing, because it’s a one-joke wonder that’s too clever and far too satisfied with itself.

Punching down

There’s a sociological reason why it provokes a smug smile, but not actual laughter. It breaks one of the few rules of comedy — punching up is funny; punching down is not. We should try not to make fun of people who cannot understand science (the dumb) while we’re justifiably ridiculing those who refuse to understand science (the deliberately ignorant) or who exploit the ignorance of others for their own gain (the malicious).

Atomic Energy Town

On social media rational people enjoy posting on subjects like the anti-vaccine movement and the rejection of anthropogenic global warming. And that’s good; these are threats to human survival. However, I’ve noticed a trend in the past few years in which the proponents of the nuclear power industry have successfully made supporting “green nuclear energy” one of our merit badges.

A recent USA Today article (“People trust science. So why don’t they believe it?“) demonstrates a now-mainstream tactic: namely, juxtaposing AGW-denial with the supposed AGW solution, nuclear power.

Many conservatives reject the science of man-made climate change, just as many liberals reject the science that shows nuclear energy can safely combat it. The views we express signal which political group we belong to. The gap between what science shows and what people believe, sociologists say, is about our identity.

Do some liberals oppose nuclear power for unscientific, political reasons? Probably. Ignorance exists in all quarters. Some social liberals believe in healing crystals. Others may fear vaccines. Conservatives and liberals have irrational beliefs.

Is it safe?

The key word in the excerpt above, I suppose, is “safely.” People, we are told, have an irrational fear of nuclear power because they think it isn’t safe, which, we are further told, is ridiculous, because it’s extremely safe. And if you don’t think it’s safe, you must be a nut job. As Richard Carrier writes: read more »

The Young Earth creationist argumentative strategy is also used by Old Earth creationists?

Mano Singham has posted an interesting piece, Young Earth creationist argumentative strategy. Mano is pointing to an ex-creationist post explaining how creationists were trained to argue against evolution: How to Argue for Young Earth Creationism.

The fundamental point is that it’s easy to be calm and confident when you “know” you are right. As I was reading (both Mano’s extracts and the original) I found myself thinking that the same techniques are used by others who are in positions of authority or prestige, although these groups may not always consciously think of what they are doing as a “method” they need practice to apply. If some of those in authority find themselves addressing an idea that is potentially threatening to all they have invested in, it is probably a good idea not to take the challengers’ arguments too seriously. Simply extracting a few points at a superficial level will do, and then have fun with them.

That is, play with logic. Let the underdog get flustered, impatient, angry, that you are not being serious or are distorting what they are trying to express.

The real audience is not the person argued with but onlookers, your fans, your public in whose eyes you are the esteemed authority. Let the minor party lose patience with you and you’ve scored a great victory. You have demonstrated you are the rational one and the challenger is a fool.

On top of that, we were trained to always be calm, cool, and collected. There was a dialectic, after all, and there were bystanders. If we were arguing with someone, we had the obligation to be dispassionate and stereotypically “scientific”. Let the people we were arguing with get upset. Let the people we were arguing with display how attached they are to their narrative. Let them rage and rant. It is our job to stand there and be calm and have tons of facts at our fingertips. It was their job to say “I don’t know” and get frustrated.

Over and over again, it was reiterated to us that it wasn’t just about the person with whom we were arguing. There would be people watching and it was our job to present identically to how stereotypical scientists: calm, cool, collected, tons of information at our immediate recall, and the ability to withstand some angry person yelling about how they were told something different by people they trusted implicitly. . . .

We were not only communicating with the person we were arguing with. We were communicating with the audience.

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

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!

 

 

So Language Did Not Originate for Communication?

This video clip of part of a Chomsky talk on language and its origins has to be one of the most fascinating discussions that I have heard. Warning: one must be alert to keep up with the argument; it’s not for drowsy late-time listening.

He is saying that latest research indicates language did not originate as a tool for communication but communication was a by-product of a problem-solving ability. That makes me feel a bit better when I find myself unable to articulate something I think I understand; but then I’m reminded that Chomsky once said (relying upon my faulty memory here) we don’t know what we are really thinking until we express it.

Does anyone know when and where the talk was originally given? The upload date is August 17 but I doubt that’s the date of the talk itself. I was alerted to it because it supposedly had something shocking to say about blacks, but found out there was much, much more to the half-hour segment.

You’ll need to rewind the video back to start….

The Origin of Large Life Forms

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.

 

More DNA testing: Ancient Greeks are still among Modern Greeks

We saw recently that the DNA of ancient Canaanites is found among modern Syrians; we now have further evidence that the DNA of the ancient Mycenaeans is found among modern Greeks, too. It’s in the Nature journal:

Genetic origins of the Minoans and Mycenaeans

Here we show that Minoans and Mycenaeans were genetically similar, having at least three-quarters of their ancestry from the first Neolithic farmers of western Anatolia and the Aegean, and most of the remainder from ancient populations related to those of the Caucasus and Iran. However, the Mycenaeans differed from Minoans in deriving additional ancestry from an ultimate source related to the hunter–gatherers of eastern Europe and Siberia, introduced via a proximal source related to the inhabitants of either the Eurasian steppe or Armenia. Modern Greeks resemble the Mycenaeans, but with some additional dilution of the Early Neolithic ancestry. 

That abstract knocks out what I was taught at school about the Minoans being a distinct race from the Mycenaeans. The research overturns a few alternative theories about the origins of both peoples that have been floated over the decades.

What I find fascinating is just how many people do tend to “stay put and carry on” throughout all the historical migrations and conquerings and resettlements that we read about.

Who has the courage to test and publish the DNA research of Palestinian/West Bank bones throughout the millennia against the various populations in those regions today?

Ancient Canaanites Survive Today in Modern Lebanon’s Population

Skeleton of an adult whose DNA was sampled for the study (Supplied: Dr. Claude Doumet-Serhal) — the ABC site

Through the ABC news article, Canaanites survived Biblical ‘slaughter’, ancient DNA shows I was led to The American Journal of Human Genetics open access article, Continuity and Admixture in the Last Five Millennia of Levantine History from Ancient Canaanite and Present-Day Lebanese Genome Sequences, to read that the modern population of Lebanon contains the DNA of the ancient Canaanites.

The ABC article sums up for the TL;DR folk:

  • DNA reveals that modern Lebanese are direct descendants of ancient Canaanites
  • Despite tumultuous history, there has been substantial genetic continuity in the Near East across the past 3,000 to 4,000 years
  • European additions to Lebanese ancestry occurred around 3,750-2,170 years ago
  • Study also provides clues about ancient Phoenicians

Immediately I recalled Keith Whitelam’s book, Rhythms of Time, and I would suggest that the above DNA research does add support to his thesis that I discussed in 2015 at The Rhythms of Palestine’s History. (See also The Dark Resurgence of Biblical History.)

Here’s the abstract from the open access article:

The Canaanites inhabited the Levant region during the Bronze Age and established a culture that became influential in the Near East and beyond. However, the Canaanites, unlike most other ancient Near Easterners of this period, left few surviving textual records and thus their origin and relationship to ancient and present-day populations remain unclear. In this study, we sequenced five whole genomes from ∼3,700-year-old individuals from the city of Sidon, a major Canaanite city-state on the Eastern Mediterranean coast. We also sequenced the genomes of 99 individuals from present-day Lebanon to catalog modern Levantine genetic diversity. We find that a Bronze Age Canaanite-related ancestry was widespread in the region, shared among urban populations inhabiting the coast (Sidon) and inland populations (Jordan) who likely lived in farming societies or were pastoral nomads. This Canaanite-related ancestry derived from mixture between local Neolithic populations and eastern migrants genetically related to Chalcolithic Iranians. We estimate, using linkage-disequilibrium decay patterns, that admixture occurred 6,600–3,550 years ago, coinciding with recorded massive population movements in Mesopotamia during the mid-Holocene. We show that present-day Lebanese derive most of their ancestry from a Canaanite-related population, which therefore implies substantial genetic continuity in the Levant since at least the Bronze Age. In addition, we find Eurasian ancestry in the Lebanese not present in Bronze Age or earlier Levantines. We estimate that this Eurasian ancestry arrived in the Levant around 3,750–2,170 years ago during a period of successive conquests by distant populations. (The bolding is mine.)

Oh the implications, the questions……

 

 

Crazy but Serious Theories of Consciousness

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)!

 

 

 

Mudskippers — Today’s Thailand post

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.

 

 

 

 

Crow Smarts

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….

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

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.

 

Lost Tribes of Humanity

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.

From http://www.nature.com/nrg/journal/v15/n3/abs/nrg3625.html

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?

 

The Australian Magpies

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