The Tree of Life | Planet of the Half Apes Half Humans | Science Without Ethics

APRIL 17, 2019  /   SUBSCRIBE


“If I had my life to live over again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week.”

“The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognise that we ought to control our thoughts.”

– Charles Darwin



Humanity’s Small Beginnings: Archaeologists reported Wednesday the discovery of bones of a distantly-related human species that became extinct about 50,000 years ago. Specimens, named Homo luzonensis, were found in a cave on Luzon Island in the Philippines. The species is believed to have stood less than three feet tall. Researchers on the Indonesian island of Flores had previously discovered the bones of an extraordinary humanlike species about 60,000 years old that they named Homo floresiensis. The term scientists use for modern humans and other species in our lineage is hominins.

The oldest hominins fossils date back over six million years ago and have all been found in Africa. For millions of years hominins were short, small-brained bipedal apes. Homo floresiensis had some features similar to ours, but more closely resembled other hominins. For example they could make stone tools, but adults stood only three feet tall and had tiny brains. So debate began over who, exactly, were their ancestors. It had seemed human evolution was a simple march forward. But as more and more discoveries are made it now appears our lineage assumed an exuberant burst of strange forms along the way. One paleoanthropologist said: “The more fossils people pull out of the ground, the more we realize the variation that was present in the past far exceeds what we see in us today.” (NYT) Additional song: The Tree of Life – Trailer Music.

Another Missing Link In The Chain: Technological advances in DNA research are uncovering ever more mysteries about human evolution. Almost a decade ago a few fossils found in Siberia introduced the world to a new kind of ancient humans, called Denisovans after the cave in the Altai Mountains where the fossils were found. Denisovans were relatives of the Neanderthals, and actually outlived them. Denisovans are known to have inhabited Asia for tens of thousands of years, yet no fossil trace was ever found except for small bits, all from Denisova cave. But a new study just published shows that DNA from a large sampling of living southeast Asians suggests that Denisovans may be not one, but three distinct groups of human, one of which is almost as different from other Denisovans as they are from Neanderthals.

Denisovan predecessors likely split from their Neanderthal relatives at least 400,000 years ago. And while the Neanderthals fanned out across Europe and the Middle East, Denisovans spread through Asia, eventually breeding with ancestors of modern humans of Asian descent. This find joins a number of recent discoveries that continue to point to a stunning diversity of hominins in ancient Asia, including the announcement last week of a new species, Homo luzonensis, in the Philippines. (National Geographic) Additional read: Stonehenge: DNA reveals origin of builders: The ancestors of the people who built Stonehenge travelled west across the Mediterranean before reaching Britain, a study has shown. (BBC)



Polluted Airheads: Half the world’s population lives in urban environments, and according to the World Health Organization 9 out of 10 people are breathing in dangerous levels of polluted air. Each year air pollution kills an estimated seven million people. Now, emerging studies show that air pollution is linked to impaired judgment, mental health problems, poorer performance in school, and possibly higher levels of crime. Sefi Roth, a researcher at the London School of Economics performed studies in 2011 that showed air pollution had a negative effect on cognitive performance. In 2016 another study backed up Roth’s initial findings that pollution can result in reduced productivity. In 2018 Roth and his research team analyzed two years of crime date from over 600 of London’s electoral wards and found more petty crimes occurred on the most polluted days. As part of the same study, they compared very specific areas over time, as well as following levels of pollution over time. Roth explained: “We just followed this [pollution] cloud on a daily level and see what happened to crime in areas when the cloud arrives… We found that wherever it goes crime rate increases.” (BBC)

“Hungary Has Committed Suicide in Plain Sight”: A Hungarian academic details how Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is destroying Hungary’s democracy, while the EU stands idly by. Orban creates wedge issues to maintain the social divide and distract from his conduct, usually by identifying scapegoats that make it easy for his supporters to identify and express their loyalty. His government has carried out the most comprehensive, fascist-style nationwide hate campaigns since World War II. The economy is in a dire state, steadily declining since 2008; unemployment is masked by community work programs that pay half the minimum wage, and homelessness has been made a crime.

Doctors and nurses have been leaving hospitals in droves; the most recent cancer treatment medications are officially denied to people above the age of 75. The brutalization of the press and society has reached levels not seen since the 1930s. What right-wing nationalists call “bureaucrats taking away national identities” means, in practice, that Brussels continues to provide full financial support in the name of resisting interference in domestic affairs, even as mentally ill rulers dictate the destruction of entire countries. (ZEIT.DE) Additional read: Has Germany Forgotten the Lessons of the Nazis?: The country’s culture of remembrance is crumbling. (NYT, $)

Additional World News:



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Mankind’s Growing Pains: One of the least-addressed questions of aging is the apparent paradox between the optimizing drive of evolution, and the inevitable deterioration of the body. In 1952 the first evolutionary theory of aging, termed the mutation-accumulation model, relied on the fact that mutations acquired by an individual can be early acting or late-onset. Early acting mutations manifest during the period where individuals are reproductively active, so that whatever effect the mutation has will be acted on by natural selection. However, natural selection is ‘blind’ to late-onset mutations; mutations revealed later in life cannot be retroactively selected against, if reproduction has already occurred, and passed on to the next generation. Therefore, the force of selection diminishes with age and reproductive decline.

In 1977 the English biologist Thomas Kirkwood theorized the existence of an evolutionary trade-off between survival and reproduction, arguing that in an environment with limited resources, each individual must budget resources toward either survival or reproduction. The same concept of reproductive costs and risks is observed throughout nature, wherein species must weigh certain factors in their hunt for a suitable mate. And in the context of environmental constraints, the individual must effectively create trade-offs by allocating resources between reproduction, safety and long-term health. (Aeon)

A (World and) Science Without Ethics and Creating a 12 Monkeys Moment: It’s been almost a decade since Laurence Gonzales’ book “Lucy” came out. It’s about a delightful teenage girl who happens to be an entirely new hybrid species — half human, half ape — the result of an experiment in which a British scientist artificially inseminates a genetically altered female bonobo. A work of fiction of course, or is it? A transgenic animal has had the genetic material of a different species intentionally inserted into its genome. Now, scientists in southern China report they have created several transgenic macaque monkeys with extra copies of a human gene suspected of playing a role in shaping human intelligence.

Bing Su, the geneticist who led the effort, said: “This was the first attempt to understand the evolution of human cognition using a transgenic monkey model.” Several Western scientists have called Su’s experiments reckless, and questioned the ethics of genetically modifying primates. One geneticist said using “transgenic monkeys to study human genes linked to brain evolution is a very risky road to take” and a “classic slippery slope.” Research using primates is increasingly difficult in Europe and the US, but China has rushed to apply the latest high-tech DNA tools to them, and has seized a technological edge. (Technology Review) Additional read: Baby with DNA from three people born in Greece: Experimental IVF, which involves extra egg from female donor, criticised by UK experts (Guardian)Additional trailer: 12 Monkeys, Trailer.




“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

“If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”

– Charles Darwin

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Yes, I want to sound marginally more intelligent: