Major Lessons In Human Evolution

Major Transitions In Human Evolution
The Royal Society, London Major Transitions conference

I recently attended this fantastic conference on human evolution but the key question it left me thinking was: What’s the point?

Don’t get me wrong, I love the study of human evolution and have great respect for those doing it, but it just seems to me like they’re missing a trick. They seem to overlook the fact that our environment is in a state of crisis, and fail to link their work to the bigger picture in a way that could help promote environmentalist attitudes.

Improving our knowledge of the details of human evolution is necessary, but, more urgently, we need to increase engagement of the general public with the fundamental lessons this field has to offer. Currently, many people misunderstand our evolutionary past, or worse: remain unconvinced that we even evolved. So I think much work needs to be done to improve this state of affairs, so that we can effectively spread the message that humans are not special, and that we evolved just like any other creature on Earth.

Homocentric worldviews

We’ve evolved to be so homocentric that the question of our own origins is of great interest to everyone.

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We must take modesty from our shared evolutionary origins, and understand that all other species are no less important than our own!

A selection of top paleoanthropologists, archaeologists and paleoclimatologists presented their cutting edge research at the conference last week, yet they all failed to acknowledge the key lessons I think we must take from their studies. They totally ignored the immense issues facing our (and every other) species today, despite the great relevance of their research. I believe an appreciation of our humble origins and connection to the rest of life could help spark a much-needed global conservation movement.

Many messages were given to the younger generation that it’s an exciting time to be in science, urging us to continue their work in expanding the fossil record. While I’m sure it’s greatly interesting, I believe we’d be better served trying to link our understanding of evolutionary history with moral lessons for our rather pressing future. We need to promote a modest-evolutionary and pro-environmental ethic that might give our deteriorating planet and biodiversity some chance at survival.

 

This is my call to the many brilliant scientists working in the field of human evolution:

Explicitly link your work to current environmental issues by encouraging a little modesty in evaluating our position and role within life on Earth.

Sincerely,

Simon Moore
University of Cambridge

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I’m Migrating to Australia!

I’m currently travelling from West to East across Indonesia with a friend, inspired by the migration path taken more than 50,000 years ago by the ancestors of Aboriginal Australians, and many others (see map below).

 The sea was around 100 metres lower than today, as lots of water was locked up in ice, so their coastal migration route looked a little different than ours (see high-def map). It’s unlikely that any single individual crossed the entirety of Indonesia in the migration wave I’m attempting to recreate, as they would have been walking for the most part and the distance is over 5,000 kilometres!! But over many generations that’s just what they did, along with a great deal of sea crossings. However, I’ve got things to get on with in my life so I’m taking public transport to make the crossing over around 3 months, getting to Australia sometime in August (hopefully).

Keep an eye out for some geeky tales from the trip that I hope you’ll enjoy.


Sources

First map photographed by myself in Sangiran Museum of Human Evolution in Java, Indonesia.

Second map: Maximilian Dörrbecker http://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_Sunda_and_Sahul.png

The Goals of a Gene: Should We Help Our Selfish Genes?

You’ve probably heard that genes want to make copies of themselves, and try to ensure survival and reproduction of their host so they make it into the next generation. These anthropomorphic phrases are useful shorthand for biologists, as most genes act as though they selfishly wish to reproduce, and it is easier for us to think about them if we imagine that they have intentions. However, it can be misleading and warp some people’s ideas of evolution if they believe genes are literally selfish, for example.

Genes have absolutely no desires, and therefore no will to get themselves replicated. It would be just as accurate (or inaccurate) to describe genes as wanting to cease to exist and have no further copies of themselves made. In reality, the reason the genes we see today are here is because of the fact that they are good at building survival machines and reproducing. It is simply the case that those genes that were most successful in reproducing became more common and survived this far, and it now appears as though those genes actually want to continue to reproduce into the future. What appears to be purposeful design (genes that are good at replicating themselves indirectly via survival machines) is actually just the result of billions of years of cumulative evolution that has favoured the best replicators, generation after generation.

There is a big difference between genes, without any motives, and individual survival machines, which follow goal-driven patterns of behaviour in order to (ultimately) reproduce. Genes are made up of a sequence of DNA, a code which can be read and translated into functional proteins that build up and create a working organism. Without a nervous system and capacity to think, it is clear that genes cannot truly have motives or goals. However, genes programme organisms to have proximate goals such as eating, mating and surviving. Emotions as we know them are our genes motivating our minds to do (or not to do) something. But genes are given no motivation and being successful is just something that occurs if their effect is to encode a survival machine that is well suited to reproducing in its particular environment.


It is interesting to be a human being, and ponder about our evolutionary past and its effects on our behaviour. We know that most of our actions exist to increase the spread and therefore success of our genes, but we have no qualms about thwarting them. Our genes don’t have a sense of happiness so we needn’t feel bad about doing it. But it seems inescapable to conclude that our genes created us to propagate them as much as possible. So are we somehow misbehaving or overruling them when we use birth control or adopt children?

The distinction to be made is whether we view genes as wanting to do something in future, or simply as the result of evolutionary history. Our genes did not create us so we could aid their replication. They created us because their lineage happened to be highly successful at replicating since life began on this earth! And they were successful because they had the effect of building appropriate survival machines. We needn’t try to help them, as they aren’t trying to do anything themselves. They simply exist due to the past successes of their lineage.

Genes drive our behaviour in ways that generally increase their chances of replication. However, we are not precisely motivated to replicate our genes – if we were there’d be long lines for donating to sperm banks and we wouldn’t use contraception. We’re actually motivated to find happiness by eating tasty foods, having sex with attractive partners, having friends, finding love, raising happy children and to have fun, satisfy our curiosity and find meaning in our lives. We’re programmed by our genes but we don’t seek to replicate them, we instead follow our human desires and goals wherever they may lead us.

Why Are Environmentalists A Rare Breed?

There was a time when every man, woman and child was at heart an environmentalist. Their lives directly depended on rivers for water, land for food, animals and the sea for meat, forests for fuel and building material, and so on. Our ancestors were not perfect; many overexploited resources as we do today, sometimes resulting in the collapse of entire societies, e.g. Easter Island. This is a clear example of failing to estimate the long-term effects of consuming natural resources – typical of our species on a global scale in modern times. But hunters and gatherers had and still have a closeness to the environment that meant they understood just how greatly they depended on it, unlike the majority of the world today.

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We simply couldn’t exist without a healthy environment, so shouldn’t we all be environmentalists? These kids have the right idea – plant some trees!

 

The industrialisation of agriculture has led to a fundamental disconnect between the production of essential goods like food, water and fuel, and the consumption of them. The average person no longer appreciates or even acknowledges the role of the environment in their life, since a small fraction of society produces the sustenance for everyone else. Most of us are ignorant to the intricacies of generating consumable calories from the soil, as the supermarket is our first contact with food. And we’re similarly oblivious to the chain of events leading to electrical outputs that power most of our activities. So it is no wonder that environmentalists are rare; the average person has little respect, understanding and appreciation for the natural world, which, quite literally, provides every requirement for our lives.

To put it as plainly as possible, energy comes from the sun and is harnessed by plants and microorganisms in the sea. We rely on plants to convert the sun’s energy into a form that we can eat, or we eat animals that have converted and concentrated it into more usable calories. To power our technologies and industry we burn fossilised stores of organic matter; dead trees that were buried and put under immense pressure over millions of years, turning them into coal, gas and oil. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to see the link between turning our washing machines on, driving our cars, buying meat and vegetables from a shop or heating up/cooling down our homes, and the negative environmental effects of these actions. Hence why it is so difficult for people to change their behaviour in order to lessen their impact, as they don’t clearly see or understand the relationship between what they consume and the environment.

We’ve become scarily distanced from the environment by living in our concrete urban areas and gathering dinner from shelves; food that’s biotic origins are often hard to determine. This means that great effort must be made to encourage environmentalist attitudes in current and future generations, since our present lifestyles and eating habits fail to promote a green conscience.

If we want to move forward into a greener world we need to start by teaching our kids about where food really comes from, and about the importance of complex ecosystems and forests in maintaining a healthy, liveable climate. One of the best ways to do this is to simply get them outside and enjoying what nature has to offer. The great outdoors is where our species has been educating its children for millions of years, before we started mass-destruction of the planet’s wilderness, so perhaps we’d do well to try to recreate this method of learning. There’s also good evidence that quality of life and happiness improves with increased connection to our wild, ancestral homes.

Why should we be environmentalists?
We’re threatening our planet and our only home by driving climate change, deforestation and mass species extinctions. These are all tough, pressing problems that we are responsible for and which require immediate and effective action. We’re poorly equipped to combat these problems because most of us lack the attitudes of an environmentalist – we don’t value the very thing we depend on to survive. Only by actively encouraging these attitudes do we stand a chance of saving our planet.

 

Inspiration for this post came from ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma – A Natural History of Four Meals’ by Michael Pollen, which investigates the true costs of industrial-scale agriculture on society. I highly recommend it.

Guest Blogging For SciLogs.com

My Article

I’m at it again! Here’s a new guest blog post for SciLogs.com titled ‘Insights of Evolutionary Psychology: Humans Are Not Special’.

“appreciating our position in the grand scale of evolutionary history is key to inspiring people to preserve our planet and the other species we share it with”

Hope you enjoy.

http://www.scilogs.com/guest_blog/insights-of-evolutionary-psychology-humans-are-not-special/

The Problem With Incest

Humans find the idea of incest disgusting and thus avoid mating with close relatives. Most people have a vague understanding that children born to closely related parents are likely to have physical or mental abnormalities, like the royal family of years gone by and some of that dodgy village down the road. This is known as inbreeding depression. But why does it occur? Surely it is beneficial to give children not only half of your set of genes, but also some that your sibling or parent shares with you, thus passing more than 50% of your genes to the next generation. Inbreeding ought to allow you to maximise the proportion of your genes in the next generation, the ‘goal’ of reproduction. Unfortunately, for most animals on this planet there are severe problems with inbred offspring that outweigh any benefits in terms of propagating their genes.

To understand inbreeding depression you must first have some basic knowledge of errors that occur when genes are copied or repaired incorrectly, called mutations. Every time cells divide they must copy all of their genetic material using microscopic ‘machinery’, and these are subject to the occasional error, which can result in a new version of a gene. Additionally, mutations can arise due to environmental damage through radiation, heat or chemical agents. These mutations become permanent features in the genetic lineage of a given cell, hence those that appear in the germ line (egg and sperm cells) are passed from parent to offspring eternally down the generations.

Within a single cell a mutation happens at a completely random point in the genome, effecting any of the ~25,000 genes. In most cases the mutation is not expressed, as there are two copies, called alleles, of each gene. And mutations usually result in a recessive allele, meaning it is submissive and masked by the ‘normal’, dominant allele, which works as usual. Therefore, any person with a random recessive mutation is unaffected and a ‘carrier’ for the genetic disorder associated with faults in that particular gene.

Most individuals inherit between 3-5 random recessive mutations and when they mate with an unrelated person in the population there is a very low probability that they are both carriers of the same mutation. This means that their children are pretty much guaranteed to inherit at least one healthy, working version of each gene. However, when closely related people mate they are likely to share mutations they’ve inherited from a common ancestor, meaning each of their children would have a 1 in 4 chance of receiving both faulty versions of a particular gene, giving them a genetic disorder. As most people carry multiple mutations (and these are likely to be shared by related parents) the chance that their child will have genetic abnormalities becomes seriously high.

So that is inbreeding depression: the accumulation of faulty versions of genes in descendants of closely related sexual partners, where they are shared through common ancestry.

Note: Not all mutations are harmful; most are in fact neutral, producing no effect on the protein and function of the gene. And while some mutations are harmful, a small but important subset result in improved function of a gene, and this is a crucial way in which new adaptations can arise.

Brains Online in 2030’s?

Over at the Singularity University in Silicon Valley, California (of course), some of the brightest (and richest at $29,500 per 10 week course) technology-loving futurists gather to discuss, imagine and create. Ray Kurzweil, co-founder of the ‘university’, has recently been speaking about some of his work as the Director of Engineering at Google. He describes their current mission as “reengineering the human brain” in such a way that we can eventually connect it to the internet, which he predicts will be realised in the 2030’s. As a leader in this field and proven predictor of such things as the year a computer would beat a human chess grand master and the explosion of the internet, it’s hard not to take his word for it.

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Perhaps the most shocking part of Kurzweil and Google’s work is not that they are trying to hook us up to the cloud by inserting nanobots into our brains, but the potential resulting brain power that could come from such a process. Were it done correctly, and by that I mean accurately mimicking existing brain connections and hierarchical structure, then it could create a super-intelligent network of brains. Imagine linking the neocortex of the members of a lab group, allowing them to more efficiently trade ideas, innovate and discover using a ‘multi-brainstorm’ approach. Teaching would be transformed – think Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Paige designing radical architecture while dream-sharing in the film Inception – but in danger of imposing ideas instead of just presenting them.

Picture world leaders plugged into each other’s heads discussing the future on behalf of the rest of us. Could they not easily do away with transparency, leaving the public out of the loop? Or would it allow great collaboration, democracy and openness in politics and worldwide, unified action? There is also danger that the experience of linking minds itself may be so overwhelming that any group risks an explosion of power-thirst and ambition from among its members. More likely not.

There is no shortage of volunteers to scout, pioneer, and trial new technologies, even when there are unresolved ethical dilemmas and questionable futures. The “Explorers” that bought the first Google Glass models and have been using them ever since are just one such example – cameras in contact lenses could be next. Whatever new tech is released there is always someone willing to test it, so the progression towards greater technological dependence and enhancement of humans is in some ways inevitable (if such things are mechanistically feasible, which they probably are).