How Yamnaya nomads and other herding cultures became early forces of globalization

Science News reports: Nomadic herders living on western Asia’s hilly grasslands made a couple of big moves east and west around 5,000 years ago. These were not typical, back-and-forth treks from one seasonal grazing spot to another. These people blazed new trails.

A technological revolution had transformed travel for ancient herders around that time. Of course they couldn’t make online hotel reservations. Trip planners would have searched in vain for a Steppe Depot stocked with essential tools and supplies. The closest thing to a traveler’s pit stop was a mountain stream and a decent grazing spot for cattle. Yet, unlike anyone before, these hardy people had the means to move — wheels, wagons and horses.

Here’s how the journeys may have played out: At a time when rainfall dwindled and grasslands in western Asia turned brown, oxen-pulled wagons loaded with personal belongings rolled west, following greener pastures into central and northern Europe. Other carts rumbled east as far as Siberia’s Altai Mountains, where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet today. Families of men, women and children may have piled on board. Or travelers may have been mostly men, who married women from farming villages along the way. Cattle, sheep and goats undoubtedly trailed along with whoever made these trips, under the watchful guidance of horse riders. Wagons served as mobile homes while on the move and during periodic stops to let animals graze.

These journeys, by people now known as the Yamnaya, transformed human genes and cultures across a huge swath of Europe and Asia. Yamnaya people left their mark from Ireland to China’s western border, across roughly 4,000 kilometers. [Continue reading…]

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The surprising forces influencing the complexity of the language we speak and write

Julie Sedivy writes: “[[[When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people [to dissolve the political bands [which have connected them with another]] and [to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station [to which the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them]]], a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires [that they should declare the causes [which impel them to the separation]]].”
— Declaration of Independence, opening sentence

An iconic sentence, this. But how did it ever make its way into the world? At 71 words, it is composed of eight separate clauses, each anchored by its own verb, nested within one another in various arrangements. The main clause (a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires …) hangs suspended above a 50-word subordinate clause that must first be unfurled. Like an intricate equation, the sentence exudes a mathematical sophistication, turning its face toward infinitude.

To some linguists, Noam Chomsky among them, sentences like these illustrate an essential property of human language. These scientists have argued that recursion, a technique that allows chunks of language such as sentences to be embedded inside each other (with no hard limit on the number of nestings) is a universal human ability, perhaps even the one uniquely human ability that supports language. It’s what allows us to create—literally—an infinite variety of novel sentences out of a limited inventory of words.

But that leads to a curious puzzle: Complex sentences are not ubiquitous among the world’s languages. Many languages have little use for them. They prefer to string together simple clauses. They may even lack certain words such as relative pronouns that and which or connectors like if, despite, and although—these words make it possible to link clauses together into larger sentences. Allegedly, the Pirahã language along the Maici River of Brazil lacks recursion altogether. According to linguist Dan Everett, Pirahã speakers avoid linguistic nesting of all kinds, even in structures such as John’s brother’s house. (Instead, they would say something like: Brother’s house. John has a brother. It is the same one.)

This can’t be pinned on biological evolution. All evidence suggests that humans around the world are born with more or less the same brains. Abundant childhood exposure to a language with layered sentences practically guarantees their mastery. Even adult Pirahã speakers, who have remained unusually isolated from European languages, pick up the trick of complex syntax, provided that they spend enough time interacting with speakers of Brazilian Portuguese, a language that offers an adequate diet of embedded structures.

More useful is the notion of linguistic evolution. It’s the languages themselves, rather than the brains, that have evolved along different paths. And just as different species are shaped by adaptations to specific ecological niches, certain linguistic features—like sentence complexity—survive and thrive under some circumstances, whereas other features take hold and spread within very different niches. [Continue reading…]

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Primate vocalizations are much more than gibberish

By Jay Schwartz

A chimpanzee is strolling along a trail through the lush Budongo Forest in Uganda when he spots a deadly Gaboon viper. Chimps have an alarm call for scenarios like these: a soft “hoo” grunt that alerts others to potential danger. But there’s no point in alerting his group mates if they’re already aware of the threat. So what does he do?

This is the question that Catherine Crockford, a primatologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and her colleagues were keen to answer. They are the ones who’d put the viper—a convincing model made out of wire mesh and plaster—in the chimp’s path. It sounds like a silly prank, trying to surprise a chimp with a model snake. But the researchers were trying to get at an elusive and profound question: How much of what a chimp “says” is intentional communication?

Their findings, published in 2012, along with those of a 2013 follow-up study by University of York psychologist Katie Slocombe and colleagues, challenged long-held assumptions about what makes humans unique among our primate relatives.

Researchers have spent decades endeavoring to unravel the depth of communication that nonhuman primates can achieve. Do they have words as we would think of them? Do they have grammar? Since language is so integral to our identity as humans, these questions get to the heart of what it means to be human. While the public tends to imbue every cat meow and dog bark with meaning, scientists have traditionally taken a much more conservative approach, favoring the least cognitive explanations and assuming that animal vocalizations are involuntary and emotional. “Conservatism is essential if animal cognition work is to be taken seriously,” says Slocombe.

We can’t see inside primate brains (at least not without a lot of practical and ethical difficulty), or ask primates what they mean or why they vocalize. So primate-communication researchers have been forced to devise clever studies to work out what’s going on in their subjects’ minds.

[Read more…]

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What happens if China makes first contact?

Ross Andersen writes: Last January, the Chinese Academy of Sciences invited Liu Cixin, China’s preeminent science-fiction writer, to visit its new state-of-the-art radio dish in the country’s southwest. Almost twice as wide as the dish at America’s Arecibo Observatory, in the Puerto Rican jungle, the new Chinese dish is the largest in the world, if not the universe. Though it is sensitive enough to detect spy satellites even when they’re not broadcasting, its main uses will be scientific, including an unusual one: The dish is Earth’s first flagship observatory custom-built to listen for a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence. If such a sign comes down from the heavens during the next decade, China may well hear it first.

In some ways, it’s no surprise that Liu was invited to see the dish. He has an outsize voice on cosmic affairs in China, and the government’s aerospace agency sometimes asks him to consult on science missions. Liu is the patriarch of the country’s science-fiction scene. Other Chinese writers I met attached the honorific Da, meaning “Big,” to his surname. In years past, the academy’s engineers sent Liu illustrated updates on the dish’s construction, along with notes saying how he’d inspired their work.

But in other ways Liu is a strange choice to visit the dish. He has written a great deal about the risks of first contact. He has warned that the “appearance of this Other” might be imminent, and that it might result in our extinction. “Perhaps in ten thousand years, the starry sky that humankind gazes upon will remain empty and silent,” he writes in the postscript to one of his books. “But perhaps tomorrow we’ll wake up and find an alien spaceship the size of the Moon parked in orbit.”

In recent years, Liu has joined the ranks of the global literati. In 2015, his novel The Three-Body Problem became the first work in translation to win the Hugo Award, science fiction’s most prestigious prize. Barack Obama told The New York Times that the book—the first in a trilogy—gave him cosmic perspective during the frenzy of his presidency. Liu told me that Obama’s staff asked him for an advance copy of the third volume.

At the end of the second volume, one of the main characters lays out the trilogy’s animating philosophy. No civilization should ever announce its presence to the cosmos, he says. Any other civilization that learns of its existence will perceive it as a threat to expand—as all civilizations do, eliminating their competitors until they encounter one with superior technology and are themselves eliminated. This grim cosmic outlook is called “dark-forest theory,” because it conceives of every civilization in the universe as a hunter hiding in a moonless woodland, listening for the first rustlings of a rival. [Continue reading…]

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Consciousness began when the gods stopped speaking

Veronique Greenwood writes: Julian Jaynes was living out of a couple of suitcases in a Princeton dorm in the early 1970s. He must have been an odd sight there among the undergraduates, some of whom knew him as a lecturer who taught psychology, holding forth in a deep baritone voice. He was in his early 50s, a fairly heavy drinker, untenured, and apparently uninterested in tenure. His position was marginal. “I don’t think the university was paying him on a regular basis,” recalls Roy Baumeister, then a student at Princeton and today a professor of psychology at Florida State University. But among the youthful inhabitants of the dorm, Jaynes was working on his masterpiece, and had been for years.

From the age of 6, Jaynes had been transfixed by the singularity of conscious experience. Gazing at a yellow forsythia flower, he’d wondered how he could be sure that others saw the same yellow as he did. As a young man, serving three years in a Pennsylvania prison for declining to support the war effort, he watched a worm in the grass of the prison yard one spring, wondering what separated the unthinking earth from the worm and the worm from himself. It was the kind of question that dogged him for the rest of his life, and the book he was working on would grip a generation beginning to ask themselves similar questions.

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, when it finally came out in 1976, did not look like a best-seller. But sell it did. It was reviewed in science magazines and psychology journals, Time, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. It was nominated for a National Book Award in 1978. New editions continued to come out, as Jaynes went on the lecture circuit. Jaynes died of a stroke in 1997; his book lived on. In 2000, another new edition hit the shelves. It continues to sell today.

In the beginning of the book, Jaynes asks, “This consciousness that is myself of selves, that is everything, and yet nothing at all—what is it? And where did it come from? And why?” Jaynes answers by unfurling a version of history in which humans were not fully conscious until about 3,000 years ago, instead relying on a two-part, or bicameral, mind, with one half speaking to the other in the voice of the gods with guidance whenever a difficult situation presented itself. The bicameral mind eventually collapsed as human societies became more complex, and our forebears awoke with modern self-awareness, complete with an internal narrative, which Jaynes believes has its roots in language. [Continue reading…]

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Sheep learned to recognize photos of Obama and other celebrities, neuroscientists say

Ben Guarino writes: Of the roughly 1.1 billion sheep on Earth, roughly 1.1 billion have no idea who Barack Obama is. But there are at least eight sheep who can recognize the former president by his face. After a few days of training at the University of Cambridge in England, the animals learned to select the former president’s portrait out of a collection of photos.

Recognizing Obama meant the sheep won a snack. The scientists, in turn, were rewarded with better ways to measure sheep brain function.

Sheep are about as capable of recognizing faces as monkeys or humans, University of Cambridge researchers report Tuesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science. The Cambridge flock, eight female Welsh Mountain sheep, successfully learned the faces of four celebrities in a recent experiment: Obama, British newscaster Fiona Bruce and actors Emma Watson and Jake Gyllenhaal.

“Sheep are capable of sophisticated decision making,” said study author Jenny Morton, a neurobiologist at the University of Cambridge. Seven years ago, she said, she bought these sheep out of the back of a truck on its way to a slaughterhouse. Morton, who studies Huntington’s disease, uses them as a stand-in for humans, in part because “sheep have large brains with humanlike anatomy.” [Continue reading…]

Like many other research findings, this will garner the response than animals turn out not to be as stupid as humans are inclined to believe.

This experiment, however, invites a rather obvious follow-up: a test to measure the human capacity to recognize sheep’s faces.

I predict that on this score, the human capacity is probably inferior to that of the sheep, which is to say that our anthropocentric habits have rendered us as among the least perceptive of creatures.

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Food is about far more than bodily sustenance

By Tina Moffat and Charlene Mohammed

Fatima,* a refugee from Somalia who is a newcomer to Canada, has been having trouble in her local supermarket. Back home, she was accustomed to milk fresh from the cow. “In Canada I don’t even know if it’s real milk or fake milk,” she said. “I don’t know the difference. Is there milk that has pork-related ingredients in it?”

Life for new immigrants is hard in many ways. But one thing that is rarely recognized is the dramatic shift for newcomers in what they eat. People who are used to eating freshly killed chickens and seasonal vegetables—and drinking milk from their cows—are suddenly faced with an unfamiliar selection of produce, a range of processed foods, and a plethora of nonperishable goods from the food bank (if they need them) that are in some cases so odd that they are perceived as “poison.”

Food is at the heart of culture: It is at the center of gatherings ranging from weddings to funerals, and it’s a critical part of everyday life. Not only are ingredients and recipes important but so are people’s foodways and customs. In many countries, it is common to cook a large pot of food in anticipation of uninvited guests; those who have extra food share it, and they expect to have food shared in return. Such social arrangements can increase food security in the community.

Some immigrants and refugees who settle in Western urban centers find that they do not have enough resources to meet their food needs. As defined by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), “food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” Many officials, however, approach this problem as one of “hunger” with a limited understanding of food insecurity that focuses on providing sufficient food for survival—and nothing more. Our research shows that newcomers’ experiences with food insecurity—based on the stories they share—are about much more than satisfying their physical needs; food consumption has many social and cultural dimensions as well.

[Read more…]

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The physics of life

Jeremy England writes: Living things are so impressive that they’ve earned their own branch of the natural sciences, called biology. From the perspective of a physicist, though, life isn’t different from non-life in any fundamental sense. Rocks and trees, cities and jungles, are all just collections of matter that move and change shape over time while exchanging energy with their surroundings. Does that mean physics has nothing to tell us about what life is and when it will appear? Or should we look forward to the day that an equation will finally leap off the page like a mathematical Frankenstein’s monster, and say, once and for all, that this is what it takes to make something live and breathe?

As a physicist, I prefer to chart a course between reductionism and defeat by thinking about the probability of matter becoming more life-like. The starting point is to see that there are many separate behaviours that seem to distinguish living things. They harvest energy from their surroundings and use it as fuel to make copies of themselves, for example. They also sense, and even predict things about the world they live in. Each of these behaviours is distinctive, yes, but also limited enough to be able to conceive of a non-living thing that accomplishes the same task. Although fire is not alive, it might be called a primitive self-replicator that ‘copies’ itself by spreading. Now the question becomes: can physics improve our understanding of these life-like behaviours? And, more intriguingly, can it tell us when and under what conditions we should expect them to emerge?

Increasingly, there’s reason to hope the answer might be yes. The theoretical research I do with my colleagues tries to comprehend a new aspect of life’s evolution by thinking of it in thermodynamic terms. When we conceive of an organism as just a bunch of molecules, which energy flows into, through and out of, we can use this information to build a probabilistic model of its behaviour. From this perspective, the extraordinary abilities of living things might turn out to be extreme outcomes of a much more widespread process going on all over the place, from turbulent fluids to vibrating crystals – a process by which dynamic, energy-consuming structures become fine-tuned or adapted to their environments. Far from being a freak event, finding something akin to evolving lifeforms might be quite likely in the kind of universe we inhabit – especially if we know how to look for it. [Continue reading…]

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Did the first people to reach the Americas arrive via a kelp highway?

Gemma Tarlach writes: The average person’s idea of how — and when — the first people arrived in the Americas needs a serious revision, say researchers: The First Americans arrived significantly earlier and via a different route than most of us learned in school. There’s something fishy about the whole thing.

Open most middle school textbooks to the chapter on how our species migrated to the Americas and you’ll likely see an image of people in furs trekking over taiga and tundra, the lost world of Beringia. The land bridge, now submerged, once linked Siberia to North America. For years the standard story was that hunter-gatherers from Siberia crossed it on foot when the glaciers retreated enough, at the end of the last ice age, to open an ice-free corridor.

And people did cover Beringia on foot when such a route opened up. But they probably weren’t First Americans. Think of them as… Second Americans, perhaps.

Thanks to a growing body of archaeological and genetic evidence, researchers publishing today in Science say it’s increasingly likely that the first humans to arrive in the Americas followed a coastal route, making the most of marine resources on a “kelp highway” that spanned the edge of the north Pacific from Asia to North America. And they made this journey well before glaciers retreated to open the traditional Beringia overland route. [Continue reading…]

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A conversation on the deep history of humans and music with Gary Tomlinson

Damon Krukowski: Something I love about A Million Years of Music is this idea of deep time. How did you move from studies of Monteverdi and opera to prehistory?

Gary Tomlinson: There are a couple of ways this happened. One is that it’s a return to my past, because, though I’ve been a musician from my childhood, I went to university thinking I was going to become a biochemist and spent my first three years working toward a biochemistry major. Then I came under the influence of a wonderful music teacher. I was playing in an orchestra and ensembles—mostly classical, with a little bit of acoustic rock and roll on the side. And suddenly I said, “Why am I in science when what I really want to be doing is thinking about music?” And so I went off to graduate school in musicology at UC Berkeley.

My interest in music history also was always anthropological in a general sense. It was the placement of music in culture, and in cultures of the past, that fascinated me, and I approached other cultures of the past in some ways like an anthropological fieldworker. And my sense of that anthropological purchase was not just to place music in a context but to understand how music helps to make the context that it’s a part of, so that there’s a real mutuality and reciprocal kind of interaction; I never saw those as separate things. The anthropological stuff took me off toward social theory and poststructuralist theory and cultural theories of various sorts. And it gradually turned toward Foucauldian work. The trajectory for me was a smooth one, in a way—even though my books seem to be on very different subjects: from Monteverdi as a part of the context of late Renaissance Italian culture, through opera as a manifestation of fundamentally shifting conceptions of the voice and its powers over four hundred years (in Metaphysical Song), to Aztec and Inca song (in The Singing of the New World)—an attempt to understand the really different ways in which cultures can come to appreciate the powers of music and voice. And the next stretch was in a way just leaping back and saying, “Well, I always was interested in evolutionary theory—how the hell did humans come to be armed with the capacities to do all these things in the first place?” So that’s the short answer. [Continue reading…]

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Western philosophy is racist

Bryan W Van Norden writes: Mainstream philosophy in the so-called West is narrow-minded, unimaginative, and even xenophobic. I know I am levelling a serious charge. But how else can we explain the fact that the rich philosophical traditions of China, India, Africa, and the Indigenous peoples of the Americas are completely ignored by almost all philosophy departments in both Europe and the English-speaking world?

Western philosophy used to be more open-minded and cosmopolitan. The first major translation into a European language of the Analects, the saying of Confucius (551-479 BCE), was done by Jesuits, who had extensive exposure to the Aristotelian tradition as part of their rigorous training. They titled their translation Confucius Sinarum Philosophus, or Confucius, the Chinese Philosopher (1687).

One of the major Western philosophers who read with fascination Jesuit accounts of Chinese philosophy was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716). He was stunned by the apparent correspondence between binary arithmetic (which he invented, and which became the mathematical basis for all computers) and the I Ching, or Book of Changes, the Chinese classic that symbolically represents the structure of the Universe via sets of broken and unbroken lines, essentially 0s and 1s. (In the 20th century, the psychoanalyst Carl Jung was so impressed with the I Ching that he wrote a philosophical foreword to a translation of it.) Leibniz also said that, while the West has the advantage of having received Christian revelation, and is superior to China in the natural sciences, ‘certainly they surpass us (though it is almost shameful to confess this) in practical philosophy, that is, in the precepts of ethics and politics adapted to the present life and the use of mortals’.

The German philosopher Christian Wolff echoed Leibniz in the title of his public lecture Oratio de Sinarum Philosophia Practica, or Discourse on the Practical Philosophy of the Chinese (1721). Wolff argued that Confucius showed that it was possible to have a system of morality without basing it on either divine revelation or natural religion. Because it proposed that ethics can be completely separated from belief in God, the lecture caused a scandal among conservative Christians, who had Wolff relieved of his duties and exiled from Prussia. However, his lecture made him a hero of the German Enlightenment, and he immediately obtained a prestigious position elsewhere. In 1730, he delivered a second public lecture, De Rege Philosophante et Philosopho Regnante, or On the Philosopher King and the Ruling Philosopher, which praised the Chinese for consulting ‘philosophers’ such as Confucius and his later follower Mengzi (fourth century BCE) about important matters of state.

Chinese philosophy was also taken very seriously in France. One of the leading reformers at the court of Louis XV was François Quesnay (1694-1774). He praised Chinese governmental institutions and philosophy so lavishly in his work Despotisme de la China (1767) that he became known as ‘the Confucius of Europe’. Quesnay was one of the originators of the concept of laissez-faire economics, and he saw a model for this in the sage-king Shun, who was known for governing by wúwéi (non-interference in natural processes). The connection between the ideology of laissez-faire economics and wúwéi continues to the present day. In his State of the Union address in 1988, the US president Ronald Reagan quoted a line describing wúwéi from the Daodejing, which he interpreted as a warning against government regulation of business. (Well, I didn’t say that every Chinese philosophical idea was a good idea.)

Leibniz, Wolff and Quesnay are illustrations of what was once a common view in European philosophy. In fact, as Peter K J Park notes in Africa, Asia, and the History of Philosophy: Racism in the Formation of the Philosophical Canon (2014), the only options taken seriously by most scholars in the 18th century were that philosophy began in India, that philosophy began in Africa, or that both India and Africa gave philosophy to Greece.

So why did things change? As Park convincingly argues, Africa and Asia were excluded from the philosophical canon by the confluence of two interrelated factors. On the one hand, defenders of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) consciously rewrote the history of philosophy to make it appear that his critical idealism was the culmination toward which all earlier philosophy was groping, more or less successfully.

On the other hand, European intellectuals increasingly accepted and systematised views of white racial superiority that entailed that no non-Caucasian group could develop philosophy. [Continue reading…]

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In mathematics, ‘you cannot be lied to’

Siobhan Roberts writes: A few years back, a prospective doctoral student sought out Sylvia Serfaty with some existential questions about the apparent uselessness of pure math. Serfaty, then newly decorated with the prestigious Henri Poincaré Prize, won him over simply by being honest and nice. “She was very warm and understanding and human,” said Thomas Leblé, now an instructor at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University. “She made me feel that even if at times it might seem futile, at least it would be friendly. The intellectual and human adventure would be worth it.” For Serfaty, mathematics is about building scientific and human connections. But as Leblé recalled, Serfaty also emphasized that a mathematician has to find satisfaction in “weaving one’s own rug,” alluding to the patient, solitary work that comes first.

Born and raised in Paris, Serfaty first became intrigued by mathematics in high school. Ultimately she gravitated toward physics problems, constructing mathematical tools to forecast what should happen in physical systems. For her doctoral research in the late-1990s, she focused on the Ginzburg-Landau equations, which describe superconductors and their vortices that turn like little whirlwinds. The problem she tackled was to determine when, where and how the vortices appear in the static (time-independent) ground state. She solved this problem with increasing detail over the course of more than a decade, together with Étienne Sandier of the University of Paris-East, with whom she co-authored the book Vortices in the Magnetic Ginzburg-Landau Model.

In 1998, Serfaty discovered an irresistibly puzzling problem about how these vortices evolve in time. She decided that this was the problem she really wanted to solve. Thinking about it initially, she got stuck and abandoned it, but now and then she circled back. For years, with collaborators, she built tools that she hoped might eventually provide pathways to the desired destination. In 2015, after almost 18 years, she finally hit upon the right point of view and arrived at the solution.

“First you start from a vision that something should be true,” Serfaty said. “I think we have software, so to speak, in our brain that allows us to judge that moral quality, that truthful quality to a statement.”

And, she noted, “you cannot be cheated, you cannot be lied to. A thing is true or not true, and there is this notion of clarity on which you can base yourself.” [Continue reading…]

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Mating with Neandertals reintroduced ‘lost’ DNA into modern humans

Science News reports: Interbreeding with Neandertals restored some genetic heirlooms that modern humans left behind in the ancient exodus from Africa, new research suggests.

Those heirlooms are versions of genes, or alleles, that were present in humans’ and Neandertals’ shared ancestors. Neandertals carried many of those old alleles, passing them along generation after generation, while developing their own versions of other genes. A small number of humans left Africa around 100,000 years ago and settled in Asia and Europe. These migrants “lost” the ancestral alleles.

But when the migrants or their descendants interbred with Neandertals, Eurasians reinherited the ancestral heirlooms along with Neandertal DNA, John “Tony” Capra reported October 20 at the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics.

Present-day Europeans have more than 47,000 of these reintroduced ancestral alleles, and East Asians — who have more Neandertal ancestry than Europeans (SN Online: 2/12/15) — carry more than 56,000, said Capra, an evolutionary geneticist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. [Continue reading…]

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What is an individual in nature?

Derek J Skillings writes: When she was two years old, I took my daughter to the American Museum of Natural History for the first time. As we strolled through the displays of taxidermy animals, she would waddle towards each one, and point and ask what we were looking at. When we entered the Hall of African Mammals, she was so overwhelmed by the presence of her storybook companions that she could only manage to jump up and down on the spot while shouting a mishmash of half-formed names. Leophant! Zeepotamus! Seeing her favourite animals was the highlight of her day, but mine was reliving the excitement of discovering strange new beings, as my daughter asked, wide-eyed, over and over again: what’s that?

Most of the time the living world appears to us as manageable chunks. Even a toddler can see that. We know if we have one dog or two; at a pinch, we can probably count how many trees are growing in our backyard. Natural history museums started, in part, as embodiments of early scientific approaches to ordering and cataloguing the diversity of life. This is possible only because humans can usually intuitively pick out one organism from the next – that is, because most of the creatures we come across have pretty clear boundaries in space and time. When my daughter and I stood back and considered a herd of frozen elephants walking in a line at the museum, it was clear – even for a baby with its trunk wrapped tenderly around its mother’s – where one elephant ended and another began.

How come, then, the meaning of individuality is one of the oldest and most vexing problems in biology? For millennia, naturalists and philosophers have struggled to define the most fundamental units of living systems and to delimit the precise boundaries of the organisms that inhabit our planet. This difficulty is partly a product of the search for a singular theory that can be used to carve up all of the living world at its joints. But my view is that no such unified theory exists; there’s no single answer to the question: ‘What parts of the world are a part of you as a biological individual, and what parts are not?’ Different accounts of individuality pick out different boundaries, like an overlapping Venn diagram drawn on top of a network of biotic interactions. This isn’t because of uncertainty or a lack of information; rather, the living world just exists in such a way that we need more than one account of individuality to understand it.

When you stop to think about it, the problem of individuality is (ironically enough) actually composed of two problems: identity and individuation. The problem of identity asks: ‘What does it mean for a thing to remain the same thing if it changes over time?’ or ‘What makes two entities the same kind of thing?’ The problem of individuation asks: ‘How do we tell things apart?’ or ‘What are the boundaries of an object?’ Identity is fundamentally about the nature of sameness and continuity; individuation is about differences and breaks. [Continue reading…]

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Volcanic eruptions in Alaska could have impacted lives of ancient Egyptians

The Washington Post reports: Did volcanoes in Russia, Greenland and Alaska affect the lives of ancient Egyptians?

It may sound improbable, but according to a new study, the answer is yes.

In a paper published in Nature Communications, a team of researchers shows that volcanic eruptions in high northern latitudes of the globe can affect the Nile watershed, causing the flow of one of the world’s mightiest rivers to slow.

This, in turn, could keep the lower Nile from flooding in the late summer months — a regular occurrence on which ancient Egyptians relied to irrigate their crops.

No Nile flooding meant no irrigation, which meant a bad year in the fields, low food supplies and, ultimately, civic unrest, researchers say.

“It’s a bizarre concept that Alaskan volcanoes were screwing up the Nile, but in fact that’s what happened,” said Joseph Manning, a historian at Yale University who worked on the study. [Continue reading…]

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A giant insect ecosystem is collapsing due to humans. It’s a catastrophe

Michael McCarthy writes: Thirty-five years ago an American biologist Terry Erwin conducted an experiment to count insect species. Using an insecticide “fog”, he managed to extract all the small living things in the canopies of 19 individuals of one species of tropical tree, Luehea seemannii, in the rainforest of Panama. He recorded about 1,200 separate species, nearly all of them coleoptera (beetles) and many new to science; and he estimated that 163 of these would be found on Luehea seemannii only.

He calculated that as there are about 50,000 species of tropical tree, if that figure of 163 was typical for all the other trees, there would be more than eight million species, just of beetles, in the tropical rainforest canopy; and as beetles make up about 40% of all the arthropods, the grouping that contains the insects and the other creepy-crawlies from spiders to millipedes, the total number of such species in the canopy might be 20 million; and as he estimated the canopy fauna to be separate from, and twice as rich as, the forest floor, for the tropical forest as a whole the number of species might be 30 million.

Yes, 30 million. It was one of those extraordinary calculations, like Edwin Hubble’s of the true size of the universe, which sometimes stop us in our tracks.

Erwin reported that he was shocked by his conclusions and entomologists have argued over them ever since. But about insects, his findings make two things indisputably clear. One is that there are many, many more types than the million or so hitherto described by science, and probably many more than the 10m species sometimes postulated as an uppermost figure; and the second is that this is far and away the most successful group of creatures the Earth has ever seen.

They are multitudinous almost beyond our imagining. They thrive in soil, water, and air; they have triumphed for hundreds of millions of years in every continent bar Antarctica, in every habitat but the ocean. And it is their success – staggering, unparalleled and seemingly endless – which makes all the more alarming the great truth now dawning upon us: insects as a group are in terrible trouble and the remorselessly expanding human enterprise has become too much, even for them.

Does it matter? Oh yes. Most of our fruit crops are insect-pollinated, as are the vast majority of our wild plants
The astonishing report highlighted in the Guardian, that the biomass of flying insects in Germany has dropped by three quarters since 1989, threatening an “ecological Armageddon”, is the starkest warning yet; but it is only the latest in a series of studies which in the last five years have finally brought to public attention the real scale of the problem. [Continue reading…]

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Trump plans to release JFK assassination documents despite concerns from federal agencies

The Washington Post reports: President Trump announced Saturday morning that he planned to release the tens of thousands of never-before-seen documents left in the files related to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination held by the National Archives and Records Administration.

“Subject to the receipt of further information, I will be allowing, as President, the long blocked and classified JFK FILES to be opened,” Trump tweeted early Saturday.

Experts have been speculating for weeks about whether Trump would disclose the documents. The 1992 Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act required that the millions of pages, many of them contained in CIA and FBI documents, be published in 25 years — by Thursday. Over the years, the National Archives has released most of the documents, either in full or partially redacted.

But one final batch remains, and only the president has the authority to extend the papers’ secrecy past the deadline. [Continue reading...]

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Insectageddon: Farming is more catastrophic than climate breakdown

George Monbiot writes: Which of these would you name as the world’s most pressing environmental issue? Climate breakdown, air pollution, water loss, plastic waste or urban expansion? My answer is none of the above. Almost incredibly, I believe that climate breakdown takes third place, behind two issues that receive only a fraction of the attention.

This is not to downgrade the danger presented by global heating – on the contrary, it presents an existential threat. It is simply that I have come to realise that two other issues have such huge and immediate impacts that they push even this great predicament into third place.

One is industrial fishing, which, all over the blue planet, is now causing systemic ecological collapse. The other is the erasure of non-human life from the land by farming.

And perhaps not only non-human life. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, at current rates of soil loss, driven largely by poor farming practice, we have just 60 years of harvests left. And this is before the Global Land Outlook report, published in September, found that productivity is already declining on 20% of the world’s cropland.

The impact on wildlife of changes in farming practice (and the expansion of the farmed area) is so rapid and severe that it is hard to get your head round the scale of what is happening. A study published this week in the journal Plos One reveals that flying insects surveyed on nature reserves in Germany have declined by 76% in 27 years. The most likely cause of this Insectageddon is that the land surrounding those reserves has become hostile to them: the volume of pesticides and the destruction of habitat have turned farmland into a wildlife desert.

It is remarkable that we need to rely on a study in Germany to see what is likely to have been happening worldwide: long-term surveys of this kind simply do not exist elsewhere. This failure reflects distorted priorities in the funding of science. There is no end of grants for research on how to kill insects, but hardly any money for discovering what the impacts of this killing might be. Instead, the work has been left – as in the German case – to recordings by amateur naturalists.

But anyone of my generation (ie in the second bloom of youth) can see and feel the change. We remember the “moth snowstorm” that filled the headlight beams of our parents’ cars on summer nights (memorialised in Michael McCarthy’s lovely book of that name). Every year I collected dozens of species of caterpillars and watched them grow and pupate and hatch. This year I tried to find some caterpillars for my children to raise. I spent the whole summer looking and, aside from the cabbage whites on our broccoli plants, found nothing in the wild but one garden tiger larva. Yes, one caterpillar in one year. I could scarcely believe what I was seeing – or rather, not seeing.

Insects, of course, are critical to the survival of the rest of the living world. Knowing what we now know, there is nothing surprising about the calamitous decline of insect-eating birds. Those flying insects – not just bees and hoverflies but species of many different families – are the pollinators without which a vast tract of the plant kingdom, both wild and cultivated, cannot survive. The wonders of the living planet are vanishing before our eyes. [Continue reading…]

Out of sight, out of mind — the issue here is not just generational in the sense experienced by those of us old enough to remember insects, birds, and other creatures in greater numbers. The issue is above all one that springs from the physical separation between humans and nature in a world where humans experience life predominantly inside cities and predominantly as the seemingly most commonplace species.

I happen to live in a town where squirrels undoubtedly outnumber humans and where bears can show up in the most unexpected places and yet even here, for most people most of the time, nature remains in the background of human affairs.

While the rapid demise of flying insects should provoke alarm in anyone with even just a rudimentary understanding of the interdependence of species, a more commonplace response is likely to be that this loss signifies a welcome reduction in unwanted pests — fewer mosquitoes, fewer flies, and less irritants to complain about.

When it comes to human appreciation for non-human forms of life, insects get short shrift.

Butterflies are admired and yet most people would be hard pressed to name a single species, let alone recognize and appreciate any species in its larval form.

Bees are appreciated as productive, yet potentially dangerous and to most people indistinguishable from wasps.

Ants are lauded in the abstract as exemplars of industry and complex social organization and yet bound to suffer swift extermination when they turn up where they’re unwelcome.

Even so, the objective truth that insects would grasp if they had the cognitive capacities to do so is that the most prolific forms of life that have lived sustainably on this planet for hundreds of millions of years are now at risk from the life-threatening effects of human infestation.

No, this isn’t an argument for the elimination of humans, but as the late-comers on the stage of life, we have to do a hell of a lot better learning how to harmoniously co-exist with the creatures around us. Not only do their lives depend on this, but so do ours.

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