Neanderthals: a love story

Squat, hairy, broad shoulders, a big nose, beetle-browed with a low forehead. As Blind Willie McTell wrote in his classic song, Statesboro Blues, “I know ain’t good lookin’, but I swear I’m some sweet woman’s angel child.” That line might have been written for early Neanderthal cousins. First described as dim-witted and brutish, our more recent assessment of them is far less critical, especially of their tool-making and culture.

But even the most complimentary of modern descriptions still make them out to be rather lumpish, heavyset characters. Barrel-chested. Robust, we call them today. Big brains, though, and better eyesight than we have. Nice personalities, too, I bet.

And it seems some of our own ancestors loved them for it. You never know what makes the heart strings sing, after all.

Humans and Neanderthals had sex. But was it for love? That’s the title of a recent article on Vox by Brian Resnick. It addresses the complexities behind human-Neanderthal coupling.

And couple they did. The results of which are bound within us, wrapped into our DNA even now: between one and four percent of our genetic strands are from Neanderthal sources.* And they had about 97% of their DNA in common with ours. Who’s your daddy now?

(That Neanderthal DNA is most likely responsible for our plucky immune system, by the way…)

Resnick asks, And asks, “Could a human and a Neanderthal fall in love?” And I reply, “Why not?”
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Evolutionary Dead-Ends

Some people seem genetically inclined – perhaps I should write doomed? – to believe in nonsense: believe in conspiracy theories, in myths, legends, superstitions and supernatural, in magic, in pseudoscience and pseudomedicine. Nothing – no amount of fact, truth, education, reason or contrary evidence will change their minds. The harder you try to correct them, the more firmly they believe.

Watch, if you can, this painfully dim woman trying to dismiss paleontology and evolution as she blunders through Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History’s exhibit on the evolving Earth and comments on the displays. It’s a tough video to view for anyone with an IQ bigger than your shoe size. Within seconds you’ll be wincing and asking yourself “Can anyone really be this stupid or it is a joke?”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=32mxZxv3dYM#t=746]

Yes, they can be that stupid. I couldn’t make it all the way through in one sitting. I had to stop and clear my head. Shake it, drink wine. Who is this woman, you ask? According to Patheos, she is a public nuisance who is also a

…self-described “homeschooling, Tea Partying, conservative mother”

Okay, I have a low opinion of all of those categories even without the head-shaking, face-palm-encouraging video.

Dragons? She really believes dragons were dinosaurs and humans walked around the planet with them? Cave paintings of dinosaurs? (This has been long debunked by better minds than mine). She believes in a global evolutionist conspiracy theory trying to hide this stuff?

Maybe this critique will be easier to follow and less painful to watch:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oNGAtFDm7OY]

or this one:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9v0RjhAEUU]

or even this condensed version.

One even has to have some sympathy for the museum staff who suffer such fools among their visitors. It almost makes me wish there were a higher power who could ensure such wingnuts don’t reproduce. Just a prod with that magic finger and *zap* they’re out of the evolutionary game. Damn, too late for this one…

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Gangs of Feathered T-Rex

Packs of tyrannosaurs
Imagine, if you will, an early morning scene in the late Cretaceous. The air is quiet as the day warms. At the edge of a large forest a plain of ferns ripples in the light breeze (grass would not evolve for another 20 or so million years). Under the canopy of the ancient beeches and maples, there is movement. Nothing fast, just a hint. A flash of mottled colour against the background. A glint of light off an eye. A soft snuffling. A feather falls silently to the forest floor.

Among the nearby ferns, a pack of ceratopsians grazes, adults watching the woods carefully, nervously, herding the young towards the safety of the pack’s centre with prods of their heads, honking to get the young ones’ attention. They eat the flowers that dot the plain among the ferns and cycads, chew the horsetails that grow at the edge of the ponds and streams. A youngster sees a tasty patch of moss and, unnoticed, slips out between the elders to get it.

Suddenly the forest explodes. Leaves scatter and branches snap as the muscular forms crash through the cover and converge on the young triceratops, separated from the horned protection of the pack. Two large adults, a teenager and two younger tyrannosaurs running a well-coordinated hunt as they have done many times int he past. Their speed makes them a blur against the trees.

The ceratopsians bellow in fear and rage, and quickly form a circle, heads out, protecting the oldest and youngest within the centre. The pack of tyrannosaurs’ charge sounds like thunder, and they screech in anticipation as they race to surround the doomed youngster. They circle rapidly, darting to avoid the feeble attempts at defence from the surrounded dinosaur.

The herd can’t save it, and they move away, quickly, the outer ring still shuffling backwards to keep their ferocious, horned heads facing the danger. The tyrannosaur pack ignores the herd as it feeds, tearing off chunks of the living flesh as the youngster’s screams get fainter.

Their hunger slaked for the moment, the pack would soon retire to the forest to look for another easy target that might venture close by.

Triceratops vs tyrannosaur

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Confused Science

Confused In his book, The World in Six Songs, Daniel Levitin posutlates the ability to make or participate in music may have conferred an evolutionary advantage to early humans. It’s a reasonable hypothesis based on both archeological and anthropological evidence. And some paleontological finds, too.

We know from remains of bone flutes and other instruments, that humans made music at least 40,000 years ago. What that music was like, what role it played in primitive culture and society, what ceremonial or bonding purposes it had, will always be speculation (although we do know they likely used the pentatonic scale). We can only infer music’s roles from its uses in historic – i.e. since the invention of writing – civilizations, but we can never be sure what happened – and why – before the historical record.

When humans started singing, drumming, or making instruments to accompany themselves is simply something we will never know. Anything to suggest when is mere speculation. And even suggesting why is, too. We’re using post hoc analysis to infer purpose and reason.

We do know that group singing and dancing involves the release of certain neurochemicals like oxytocin, that can have powerful social-bonding effects on individuals, but we don’t know whether the particular chemistry is recent, ancient or even had the same effect on earlier cultures. However, given the relatively common and similar effects observed today, it’s another reasonable speculation that they occurred earlier within our evolution and helped humans bond, cooperate and accomplish group tasks.

And we do know that non-literate or non-technological societies – what few remain, such as those rare Amazonian tribes – use music and singing in social and cultural activities and rituals. Music and singing are as powerful in their cultures, in their daily lives, as sex and magic.*

(The co-development of music and civilization is fascinating, but apparently fragile. Music was mostly a communal activity, much more participatory, before the post-WWI development of communication technology. Today, thanks to the internet, digitalization and newer technologies, music is less a shared, bonding activity than it is a passive experience. Musicians – the people who create the experience – still create and shape public opinion and taste, but like alchemists and shamans, they are on the fringe of society.

There is a glimmer of hope that music may be returning to its communal, social roots with the recent growth in popularity of the ukulele and the resurgence of communal ukulele groups…)

Levitin – as brilliant as he is about neuroscience and music – seems confused about evolution and natural selection. And a few other sciences, as I’ll explain below.

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Seeing evolution in action

Peter and Rosemary GrantThe pop-science notion is that evolution takes a long time. Millennia, many millennia; even millions of years. But is that always true? Can one actually see and measure evolution in action? Can it happen in such a short time as to be recorded?

Peter and Rosemary Grant say they have. And it’s the subject of a new book they co-authored based on their research.

Their story was reported in the April 23 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. It’s a terrific read if for nothing more than their 40-year tale of dedication, science and adventure on the isolated Daphne Major Island, one of the smaller islands of the Galapagos chain.

Forty years studying finches together, away from human company, away from the comforts of civilization. The small birds that first gave Charles Darwin insight into the mechanics of natural selection were their focus. And the Grants report they have seen that mechanism in action on the island.

Scientists previously had reported seeing the processes of natural selection among bacteria, honeycreepers, cichlid fish, and fruit flies. As Peter Grant puts it, “Until we began, it was well understood that agricultural pests and bacteria could evolve rapidly, but I doubt that many people thought that about big, vertebrate animals.”

The Grants believe that hybridization is an important force in the rise of new species, and think this applies, too, to human evolution. For a long time, for example, paleontologists believed that Neanderthals and “modern homo sapiens” did not interbreed when they came into contact in prehistoric times, but recent research indicates that about 20 percent of Neanderthal genes have been preserved in our species. “It’s almost been a hobbyhorse of ours,” Peter says. “We were saying, ‘I bet there has been gene exchange between the lineages of homo sapiens throughout their evolution.’”

The Grants’ new book is targeted at both lay readers and scientists familiar with their work, and broadly discusses their findings about natural selection, hybridization, population variation (why do some populations of birds vary more dramatically in beak size?), the potential vanishing of a species through interbreeding, and, of course, the potential origin of a new species — the Big Bird lineage. They also touch on global warming and its possible effect on Darwin’s finches. Most of all, the book is an affirmation of the importance of long-term fieldwork as a way of capturing the true dynamism of evolution.

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