Farming invented twice in Middle East, genomes study reveals

wheat

Nature reports: Two Middle Eastern populations independently developed farming and then spread the technology to Europe, Africa and Asia, according to the genomes of 44 people who lived thousands of years ago in present-day Armenia, Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Iran.

Posted on 17 June on the bioRxiv preprint server1, the research supports archaeological evidence about the multiple origins of farming, and represents the first detailed look at the ancestry of the individuals behind one of the most important periods in human history — the Neolithic revolution.

Some 11,000 years ago, humans living in the ancient Middle East region called the Fertile Crescent shifted from a nomadic existence, based on hunting game and gathering wild plants, to a more sedentary lifestyle that would later give rise to permanent settlements. Over thousands of years, these early farmers domesticated the first crops and transformed sheep, wild boars and other creatures into domestic animals.

Dozens of studies have examined the genetics of the first European farmers, who emigrated from the Middle East beginning some 8,000 years ago, but the hot climes of the Fertile Crescent had made it difficult to obtain ancient DNA from remains found there. Advances in extracting DNA from a tiny ear bone called the petrous allowed a team led by Iosif Lazaridis and David Reich, population geneticists at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, to analyse the genomes of the 44 Middle Eastern individuals, who lived between 14,000 and 3,500 years ago. [Continue reading…]

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Should chimps be considered people under the law?

Jay Schwartz writes: In late 2013, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) filed a first-ever lawsuit to free a pet chimpanzee named Tommy from the inadequate conditions provided by his owner. The NhRP, a legal group focused on animal protection, argued that Tommy is an autonomous being who is held against his will and that he is entitled to a common-law writ of habeas corpus, a legal means of determining the legality of imprisonment. Granting habeas corpus to a chimpanzee would mean viewing chimpanzees as legal persons with rights, rather than as mere things, so this case was rather controversial.

The Tommy case came to a close on December 4, 2014, as the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court’s five-judge panel ruled against the NhRP. (The state’s highest court is the Court of Appeals.) Justice Karen K. Peters, the presiding judge, wrote: “Needless to say, unlike human beings, chimpanzees cannot bear any legal duties, submit to societal responsibilities or be held legally accountable for their actions. In our view, it is this incapability to bear any legal responsibilities and societal duties that renders it inappropriate to confer upon chimpanzees the legal rights … that have been afforded to human beings.” [Continue reading…]

A lot of people will regard the effort to confer legal rights to non-humans as being driven by anthropomorphism. But consider the court’s argument. Could not the exact same line of reasoning be used to argue that small children or adults with developmental disabilities be deprived of legal rights? Of course, such an argument would rightly be decried as inhuman and barbaric.

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Earliest evidence of fire making by prehumans in Europe found

Science News reports: Prehumans living around 800,000 years ago in what’s now southeastern Spain were, literally, trailblazers. They lit small, controlled blazes in a cave, a new study finds.

Discoveries in the cave provide the oldest evidence of fire making in Europe and support proposals that members of the human genus, Homo, regularly ignited fires starting at least 1 million years ago, say paleontologist Michael Walker of the University of Murcia in Spain and his colleagues. Fire making started in Africa (SN: 5/5/12, p. 18) and then moved north to the Middle East (SN: 5/1/04, p. 276) and Europe, the researchers conclude in the June Antiquity.

If the age estimate for the Spain find holds up, the new report adds to a “surprising number” of sites from deep in the Stone Age that retain evidence of small, intentionally lit fires, says archaeologist John Gowlett of the University of Liverpool in England.

Excavations conducted since 2011 at the Spanish cave, Cueva Negra del Estrecho del Río Quípar, have uncovered more than 165 stones and stone artifacts that had been heated, as well as about 2,300 animal-bone fragments displaying signs of heating and charring. Microscopic and chemical analyses indicate that these finds had been heated to between 400° and 600° Celsius, consistent with having been burned in a fire. [Continue reading…]

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How Neanderthal DNA helps humanity

Emily Singer writes: Early human history was a promiscuous affair. As modern humans began to spread out of Africa roughly 50,000 years ago, they encountered other species that looked remarkably like them — the Neanderthals and Denisovans, two groups of archaic humans that shared an ancestor with us roughly 600,000 years earlier. This motley mix of humans coexisted in Europe for at least 2,500 years, and we now know that they interbred, leaving a lasting legacy in our DNA. The DNA of non-Africans is made up of roughly 1 to 2 percent Neanderthal DNA, and some Asian and Oceanic island populations have as much as 6 percent Denisovan DNA.

Over the last few years, scientists have dug deeper into the Neanderthal and Denisovan sections of our genomes and come to a surprising conclusion. Certain Neanderthal and Denisovan genes seem to have swept through the modern human population — one variant, for example, is present in 70 percent of Europeans — suggesting that these genes brought great advantage to their bearers and spread rapidly.

“In some spots of our genome, we are more Neanderthal than human,” said Joshua Akey, a geneticist at the University of Washington. “It seems pretty clear that at least some of the sequences we inherited from archaic hominins were adaptive, that they helped us survive and reproduce.”

But what, exactly, do these fragments of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA do? What survival advantage did they confer on our ancestors? Scientists are starting to pick up hints. Some of these genes are tied to our immune system, to our skin and hair, and perhaps to our metabolism and tolerance for cold weather, all of which might have helped emigrating humans survive in new lands.

“What allowed us to survive came from other species,” said Rasmus Nielsen, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s not just noise, it’s a very important substantial part of who we are.” [Continue reading…]

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How philosophy came to disdain the wisdom of oral cultures

Justin E H Smith writes: A poet, somewhere in Siberia, or the Balkans, or West Africa, some time in the past 60,000 years, recites thousands of memorised lines in the course of an evening. The lines are packed with fixed epithets and clichés. The bard is not concerned with originality, but with intonation and delivery: he or she is perfectly attuned to the circumstances of the day, and to the mood and expectations of his or her listeners.

If this were happening 6,000-plus years ago, the poet’s words would in no way have been anchored in visible signs, in text. For the vast majority of the time that human beings have been on Earth, words have had no worldly reality other than the sound made when they are spoken.

As the theorist Walter J Ong pointed out in Orality and Literacy: Technologizing the Word (1982), it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, now to imagine how differently language would have been experienced in a culture of ‘primary orality’. There would be nowhere to ‘look up a word’, no authoritative source telling us the shape the word ‘actually’ takes. There would be no way to affirm the word’s existence at all except by speaking it – and this necessary condition of survival is important for understanding the relatively repetitive nature of epic poetry. Say it over and over again, or it will slip away. In the absence of fixed, textual anchors for words, there would be a sharp sense that language is charged with power, almost magic: the idea that words, when spoken, can bring about new states of affairs in the world. They do not so much describe, as invoke.

As a consequence of the development of writing, first in the ancient Near East and soon after in Greece, old habits of thought began to die out, and certain other, previously latent, mental faculties began to express themselves. Words were now anchored and, though spellings could change from one generation to another, or one region to another, there were now physical traces that endured, which could be transmitted, consulted and pointed to in settling questions about the use or authority of spoken language.

Writing rapidly turned customs into laws, agreements into contracts, genealogical lore into history. In each case, what had once been fundamentally temporal and singular was transformed into something eternal (as in, ‘outside of time’) and general. Even the simple act of making everyday lists of common objects – an act impossible in a primary oral culture – was already a triumph of abstraction and systematisation. From here it was just one small step to what we now call ‘philosophy’. [Continue reading…]

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The camaraderie of outrage

Harambe

“The killing of a gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo in order to save a child who fell in its enclosure has sparked nationwide outrage,” reports CBS News.

I share the outrage.

I happen to be among those who believe that the incarceration of wild animals for the entertainment of sightseers, cannot be justified. It does little to elevate the consciousness of the people and even less the well-being of the captives. The protection of endangered species requires first and foremost the protection of endangered habitats.

Upon seeing the news of the gorilla’s death, like many others, I also thought that if a four-year boy could even get into a situation like this, there had to be negligence on the part of parents, bystanders, and/or the zoo operators. Likewise, the decision to shoot and kill the 17-year-old gorilla, Harambe (a Swahili name which means, “all pull together”) seemed very questionable.

Among the outraged voices showing up on Facebook, the most venomous attacks have been directed at Michelle Gregg, the boy’s mother.

Jan Dadaista Subert:

The crappy mother should have gotten shot instead, not the poor innocent gorilla!

Andrew Weprin:

Michelle Gregg says, “God protected my child until the authorities were able to get to him.” No, Harambe protected your child after you & God failed to stop him from climbing into the enclosure! And innocent Harambe ended up dead for his efforts, shot with a bullet that would have been better spent on you, for failing to look after your own child and being the cause of all this!

The creator of a Facebook page, Justice For Harambe (which has already received over 60,000 likes), propagated the claim that Gregg was planning to sue to zoo, and yet when asked to support this claim with some evidence simply said: “Educated guess.” The page’s stated objective is: “We wish to see charges brought against those responsible!!”

The outrage directed at Gregg has prompted a smaller wave of outrage coming from those who underline the fact that even when under the supervision of the most attentive of parents, small children do have a talent for slipping out of sight.

Meanwhile, the United Nations refugee agency announced on Sunday that at least 700 people are believed to have drowned in the Mediterranean this week as tens of thousands of refugees continue to seek safety in Europe.

The latest chapter in the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II has prompted very little outrage on this side of the Atlantic.

For observers of social media in the U.S., it’s hard to avoid concluding that the life of a gorilla is commonly regarded here as being more precious than the lives of countless human beings.

Although to some extent it’s heartening that this much concern is being shown about the premature death of a gorilla, it’s disturbing that over the last year and longer there has been such widespread indifference shown towards millions of people in desperate need.

Is there really such a compassion deficit in America, or does this reveal more about the psychology of rage?

My guess is that among those now seeking justice for Harambe, prior to this weekend many had not paid a great deal of interest in the welfare of western lowland gorillas.

The guiding emotions here were outrage at what seemed like the unnecessary loss of an innocent life, and a certain sympathy with fellow primates which all children feel and most adults have learned to sublimate.

The great apes fascinate us because on some level we recognize them as kin. We don’t just look at them; we see them with reflective awareness looking at us.

Yet why would a sense of kinship be able to extend outside our own species while falling short among other members of the human race?

What is at play here seems to have less to do with who or what we identify with than it does with the pathways that facilitate our connections.

It turns out that in the age of social media, outrage has become such a potent force because it allows strangers to bond.

Teddy Wayne writes:

A 2013 study, from Beihang University in Beijing, of Weibo, a Twitter-like site, found that anger is the emotion that spreads the most easily over social media. Joy came in a distant second. The main difference, said Ryan Martin, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, who studies anger, is that although we tend to share the happiness only of people we are close to, we are willing to join in the rage of strangers. As the study suggests, outrage is lavishly rewarded on social media, whether through supportive comments, retweets or Facebook likes. People prone to Internet outrage are looking for validation, Professor Martin said. “They want to hear that others share it,” he said, “because they feel they’re vindicated and a little less lonely and isolated in their belief.”

Harambe’s death pulled strangers together in their shared anger. The sad and stern face of a silverback resonated across a population which, struggling to find common ground through things we can affirm, finds it much more easily in our discontent.

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The unexpected sophistication of Neanderthals

Discover reports: Circular structures discovered in a French cave continue to build the case that Neanderthals were more intelligent than we give them credit for.

Deep inside the Bruniquel Cave, researchers discovered two rings of stalactites and stalagmites that appeared to have been deliberately stacked and arranged to form a structure. The site also contained charred animal bones, which may have served as torches to illuminate the dark depths of the cave or keep bears at bay. The thing is, a new dating analysis suggests these structures were built more than 170,000 years ago, long before Homo sapiens arrived in the area. That means Neanderthals were the likely architects, and we didn’t expect them to be such adept builders and cave explorers.

The structures in Bruniquel were first discovered in 1990 and dated at the time to roughly 50,000 years ago based on carbon dating techniques. However, in 2013, Sophie Verheyden of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences conducted a new study, drilling into the stalactites and stalagmites to measure differences between layers of rock that accumulated before and after they were felled. Her analysis, published Wednesday in Nature, revealed an astounding age of roughly 176,500 years, more than three times the previous estimate. By contrast, the oldest known human cave art is only around 42,000 years old. [Continue reading…]

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Rules of the underworld

Katherine Hirschfeld writes: In March 2013, a drug cartel staged a grisly tableau near a central plaza in Uruapan, Mexico. Seven dead and mutilated bodies were left sitting upright in plastic chairs. Two had crudely lettered signs pinned to their chests with ice picks that read, “Warning, this is going to happen to all muggers, pickpockets, thieves of cars, homes, and walkers — as well as kidnappers, rapists, and extortionists.” Photos found their way to CNN and other media outlets in the United States and Europe. (You may view them here if you are brave.)

Those who inhabit the upper world — law-abiding citizens who enjoy the rights and protections of government — instinctively turn away from such images of horrific violence. Not only are the photos disturbing to look at, they don’t make sense. Why would a drug cartel go to such lengths to issue a proclamation against thievery? Drug cartels are not law-abiding organizations, so why arrange a display of dead bodies with ice picks and cardboard signs in order to declare rules?

The scene at Uruapan contains a message from the underworld — the subterranean organized crime groups that control much of the world’s traffic in illicit commodities. Criminal organizations often communicate through the bodies of the dead, and we should not look away just yet, because their message contains a warning for all of us.

What the bodies in Uruapan tell us is that underworld groups are law-and-order organizations, but their laws and their order are not the same as those of the upper world. We know this because the intrepid journalists, human rights activists, and forensic anthropologists who have crossed over to explore specific examples of the global underworld have brought back stories that reveal common themes. Criminal groups may be culturally or geographically distinct, but they operate with similar rules.

The primary rule of the underworld is that the cartel (or the mafia or the warlord) makes the rules, and disobedience is a capital crime. Public displays of death convey the cartel’s power to impose the kind of lethal punishment typically reserved for the state. The public setting in Uruapan symbolizes that the Mexican government no longer has jurisdiction over matters of criminal justice in this municipality. Through these practices, the cartel reanimates the dead and compels them to speak to the living one last time: “Obey, or you will end up like us.” [Continue reading…]

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New evidence that humans settled in southeastern U.S. far earlier than previously believed

Phys.org reports: The discovery of stone tools found in a Florida river show that humans settled the southeastern United States far earlier than previously believed — perhaps by as much as 1,500 years, according to a team of scientists that includes a University of Michigan paleontologist.

Michael Waters of Texas A&M University and Jessi Halligan of Florida State University led a research team that also included U-M’s Daniel Fisher and scientists from the University of Minnesota, University of Texas, University of Arizona, Stafford Research Laboratories in Colorado, Aucilla Research Institute in Florida, and Exeter and Cambridge universities in the United Kingdom.

A report on the team’s findings appears in Science Advances. [Continue reading…]

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‘Nobody knew what you would see on the other side of a mountain’

mt-tam

Carl Zimmer writes: As a boy growing up in Denmark, Eske Willerslev could not wait to leave Gentofte, his suburban hometown. As soon as he was old enough, he would strike out for the Arctic wilderness.

His twin brother, Rane, shared his obsession. On vacations, they retreated to the woods to teach themselves survival skills. Their first journey would be to Siberia, the Willerslev twins decided. They would make contact with a mysterious group of people called the Yukaghir, who supposedly lived on nothing but elk and moose.

When the Willerslev twins reached 18, they made good on their promise. They were soon paddling a canoe up remote Siberian rivers.

“Nobody knew what you would see on the other side of a mountain,” said Eske Willerslev, who is now 44. “There were villages on the maps, and you wouldn’t even see a trace of them.”

Dr. Willerslev spent much of the next four years in Siberia, hunting moose, traveling across empty tundra and meeting the Yukaghirs and other people of the region. The experience left him wondering about the history of ethnic groups, about how people spread across the planet.

A quarter of a century later, Dr. Willerslev is still asking those questions, but now he’s getting some eye-opening answers.

As the director of the Center for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, Dr. Willerslev uses ancient DNA to reconstruct the past 50,000 years of human history. The findings have enriched our understanding of prehistory, shedding light on human development with evidence that can’t be found in pottery shards or studies of living cultures. [Continue reading…]

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Animals are us

elephant

Tania Lombrozo writes: Researchers have studied how people think about humans in relation to the natural world, and how the way we reason about humans and other animals changes over the course of development and as a function of education and culture.

The findings from this body of work suggest that by age 5, Western children growing up in urban environments are anomalous in the extent to which they regard humans as central to the biological world. Much of the rest of the world — including 3-year-olds, 5-year-olds in rural environments and adults from indigenous populations in South America — are more inclined to think about humans as one animal species among others, at least when it comes to reasoning about the properties that human and non-human animals are likely to possess.

To illustrate, consider a study by Patricia Herrmann, Sandra Waxman and Douglas Medin published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2010. In one experiment, 64 urban children, aged 3 or 5, were asked a series of questions that assessed their willingness to generalize an unknown property from one object to another. For instance, they might be told that people “have andro inside,” and would then have to guess whether it’s right or wrong to say that dogs “have andro inside.”

The findings with 5-year-olds replicated classic work in developmental psychology and suggested a strong “anthropocentric” bias: The children were more likely to generalize from humans to non-humans than the other way around, consistent with a privileged place for humans in the biological world. The 3-year-olds, by contrast, showed no signs of this bias: They generalized from humans to non-humans and from non-humans to humans in just the same way. These findings suggest that an anthropocentric perspective isn’t a necessary starting point for human reasoning about the biological world, but rather a perspective we acquire through experience.

So what happens between the ages of 3 and 5 to induce an anthropocentric bias?

Perhaps surprisingly, one influence seems to be anthropomorphism in storybooks. [Continue reading…]

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Half of your friends probably don’t think of you as a friend — but don’t be sad

Cari Romm writes: Here’s a fun exercise: Take a minute and count up all your friends. Not just the close ones, or the ones you’ve seen recently — I mean every single person on this Earth that you consider a pal.

Got a number in your mind? Good. Now cut it in half.

Okay, yes, “fun” may have been a bit of a reach there. But this new, smaller number may actually be more accurate. As it turns out, we can be pretty terrible at knowing who our friends are: In what may be among the saddest pieces of social-psychology research published in quite some time, a study in the journal PLoS One recently made the case that as many as half the people we consider our friends don’t feel the same way. [Continue reading…]

Let’s suspend any questions about the validity of this research finding (even though a lot of scientific papers these days do seem more geared towards grabbing social media attention than the advance of knowledge) and let’s consider instead whether this should indeed be a cause of sadness.

If it turns out that most of us have half as many friends as we imagine, that sounds like a strong reason for an unwelcome boost in self-doubt and insecurity.

If our friends are the people we trust, does this mean that a lot of our trust is misplaced?

Maybe — but that’s not as bad as it sounds.

Trust is a gamble. If we actually had no doubt and could reliably know who was a friend and who was not, there would be no need for trust.

Trust is a relationship with the unknown, and since it’s inevitably going to extend too far or not far enough, it seems that human beings as social creatures are built to trust more rather than less.

So this proclivity to imagine our net of friendships extends further than it really does, is probably less a reason for sadness than reason to be glad that for most people, trust is stronger than fear.

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Humans paid for bigger brains with energy-hungry bodies

Ed Yong writes: Evolution works on a strict energy budget. Each adaptation burns through a certain number of calories, and each individual can only acquire so many calories in the course of a day. You can’t have flapping wings and a huge body and venom and fast legs and a big brain. If you want to expand some departments, you need to make cuts in others. That’s why, for example, animals that reproduce faster tend to die earlier. They divert energy towards making new bodies, and away from maintaining their own.

But humans, on the face of it, are exceptional. Compared to other apes, we reproduce more often (or, at least, those of us in traditional societies do) and our babies are bigger when they’re born and we live longer. And, as if to show off, our brains are much larger, and these huge organs sap some 20 percent of our total energy.

“We tend to have our cake and eat it too,” says Herman Pontzer from Hunter College. “These traits that make us human are all energetically costly. And until now, we didn’t really understand how we were fueling them.” [Continue reading…]

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What I learned from tickling apes

chimp

Frans de Waal writes: Tickling a juvenile chimpanzee is a lot like tickling a child. The ape has the same sensitive spots: under the armpits, on the side, in the belly. He opens his mouth wide, lips relaxed, panting audibly in the same “huh-huh-huh” rhythm of inhalation and exhalation as human laughter. The similarity makes it hard not to giggle yourself.

The ape also shows the same ambivalence as a child. He pushes your tickling fingers away and tries to escape, but as soon as you stop he comes back for more, putting his belly right in front of you. At this point, you need only to point to a tickling spot, not even touching it, and he will throw another fit of laughter.

Laughter? Now wait a minute! A real scientist should avoid any and all anthropomorphism, which is why hard-nosed colleagues often ask us to change our terminology. Why not call the ape’s reaction something neutral, like, say, vocalized panting? That way we avoid confusion between the human and the animal.

The term anthropomorphism, which means “human form,” comes from the Greek philosopher Xenophanes, who protested in the fifth century B.C. against Homer’s poetry because it described the gods as though they looked human. Xenophanes mocked this assumption, reportedly saying that if horses had hands they would “draw their gods like horses.” Nowadays the term has a broader meaning. It is typically used to censure the attribution of humanlike traits and experiences to other species. Animals don’t have “sex,” but engage in breeding behavior. They don’t have “friends,” but favorite affiliation partners.

Given how partial our species is to intellectual distinctions, we apply such linguistic castrations even more vigorously in the cognitive domain. By explaining the smartness of animals either as a product of instinct or simple learning, we have kept human cognition on its pedestal under the guise of being scientific. [Continue reading…]

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In order for our minds to go beyond syntax to semantics, we need feelings

tufted-capuchin-monkey

Stephen T Asma writes: After you spend time with wild animals in the primal ecosystem where our big brains first grew, you have to chuckle a bit at the reigning view of the mind as a computer. Most cognitive scientists, from the logician Alan Turing to the psychologist James Lloyd McClelland, have been narrowly focused on linguistic thought, ignoring the whole embodied organism. They see the mind as a Boolean algebra binary system of 1 or 0, ‘on’ or ‘off’. This has been methodologically useful, and certainly productive for the artifical intelligence we use in our digital technology, but it merely mimics the biological mind. Computer ‘intelligence’ might be impressive, but it is an impersonation of biological intelligence. The ‘wet’ biological mind is embodied in the squishy, organic machinery of our emotional systems — where action-patterns are triggered when chemical cascades cross volumetric tipping points.

Neuroscience has begun to correct the computational model by showing how our rational, linguistic mind depends on the ancient limbic brain, where emotions hold sway and social skills dominate. In fact, the cognitive mind works only when emotions preferentially tilt our deliberations. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio worked with patients who had damage in the communication system between the cognitive and emotional brain. The subjects could compute all the informational aspects of a decision in detail, but they couldn’t actually commit to anything. Without clear limbic values (that is, feelings), Damasio’s patients couldn’t decide their own social calendars, prioritise jobs at work, or even make decisions in their own best interest. Our rational mind is truly embodied, and without this emotional embodiment we have no preferences. In order for our minds to go beyond syntax to semantics, we need feelings. And our ancestral minds were rich in feelings before they were adept in computations.

Our neo-cortex mushroomed to its current size less than one million years ago. That’s a very recent development when we remember that the human clade or group broke off from the great apes in Africa 7 million years ago. That future-looking, tool-wielding, symbol-juggling cortex grew on top of the limbic system. Older still is the reptile brain — the storehouse of innate motivational instincts such as pain-avoidance, exploration, hunger, lust, aggression and so on. Walking around (very carefully) on the Serengeti is like visiting the nursery of our own mind. [Continue reading…]

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