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Posts Tagged ‘humans

“Homo sapiens, the only creature endowed with reason, is also the only creature to pin its existence on things unreasonable”*…

We appeared 800,000-300,000 years ago, or in the last 1.5%-5.3% of hominid history

How, Sarah Constantin asks, did we humans get so smart?

If you zoom way out and look at the history of life on Earth, humans evolved incredibly recently. The Hominidae — the family that includes orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and humans — only arose 20 million years ago, in the most recent 0.5% of evolutionary history.

Within the Hominidae, in turn, Homo sapiens is a very recent development [see image at top]. We appeared 800,000-300,000 years ago, or in the last 1.5%-5.3% of hominid history.

If you look at early hominid “technological” milestones like tool use or cooking, though, they’re a lot more spread out over time. That’s interesting.

There’s nothing to suggest that a single physical change in brains should have given us both tool use and fire, for instance; if that were the case, you’d expect to see them show up at the same time.

Purposeful problem-solving behaviors like tool use and cooking are not unique to hominids; some other mammals and birds use tools, and lots of vertebrates (including birds and fish) can learn to solve puzzles to get a food reward. The general class of “problem-solving behavior” that we see, to one degree or another, in many vertebrates, doesn’t seem to have arisen surprisingly fast compared to the existence of animals in general.

However, to the extent that Homo sapiens has unique cognitive abilities, those did show up surprisingly recently, and it makes sense to privilege the hypothesis that they have a common physical cause.

So what are these special human-unique cognitive abilities?…

Is Human Intelligence Simple? Part 1: Evolution and Archaeology,” from @s_r_constantin. Part 2 is here.

* Henri Bergson

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As we study our species, we might send self-examining birthday greetings to Giambattista Vico; he was born on this date in 1668.  A political philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and jurist, Vico was one of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers.  Best known for the Scienza Nuova (1725, often published in English as New Science), he famously criticized the expansion and development of modern rationalism and was an apologist for classical antiquity.

He was an important precursor of systemic and complexity thinking (as opposed to Cartesian analysis and other kinds of reductionism); and he can be credited with the first exposition of the fundamental aspects of social science (and so, is considered by many to be the first forerunner of cultural anthropology and ethnography), though his views did not necessarily influence the first social scientists.  Vico is often claimed to have fathered modern philosophy of history (although the term is not found in his text; Vico speaks of a “history of philosophy narrated philosophically’).  While he was not strictly speaking a historicist, interest in him has been driven by historicists (like Isaiah Berlin).

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“Human history seems to me to be one long story of people sweeping down—or up, I suppose—replacing other people in the process”*…

Max Roser argues that, if we keep each other safe – and protect ourselves from the risks that nature and we ourselves pose – we are only at the beginning of human history…

… The development of powerful technology gives us the chance to survive for much longer than a typical mammalian species.

Our planet might remain habitable for roughly a billion years. If we survive as long as the Earth stays habitable, and based on the scenario above, this would be a future in which 125 quadrillion children will be born. A quadrillion is a 1 followed by 15 zeros: 1,000,000,000,000,000.

A billion years is a thousand times longer than the million years depicted in this chart. Even very slow moving changes will entirely transform our planet over such a long stretch of time: a billion years is a timespan in which the world will go through several supercontinent cycles – the world’s continents will collide and drift apart repeatedly; new mountain ranges will form and then erode, the oceans we are familiar with will disappear and new ones open up…

… the future is big. If we keep each other safe the huge majority of humans who will ever live will live in the future.

And this requires us to be more careful and considerate than we currently are. Just as we look back to the heroes who achieved what we enjoy today, those who come after us will remember what we did for them. We will be the ancestors of a very large number of people. Let’s make sure we are good ancestors…

If we manage to avoid a large catastrophe, we are living at the early beginnings of human history: “The Future is Vast,” from @MaxCRoser @OurWorldInData.

* Alexander McCall Smith

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As we take the long view, we might recall that it was on this date in 1915 that Mary Mallon, “Typhoid Mary,” was put in quarantine on North Brother Island, in New York City, where she was isolated until she died in 1938.  She was the first person in the United States identified as an asymptomatic carrier of the pathogen associated with typhoid fever… before which, she first inadvertently, then knowingly spread typhoid for years while working as a cook in the New York area.

Mallon had previously been identified as a carrier (in 1905) and quarantined for three years, after which she was set free on the condition she changed her occupation and embraced good hygiene habits. But after working a lower paying job as a laundress, Mary changed her last name to Brown and returned to cooking… and over the next five years the infectious cycle returned, until she was identified and put back into quarantine.

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“We are a species which is naturally moved by curiosity, the only one left of a group of species (the genus Homo) made up of a dozen equally curious species”*…

… and one thing that curiosity might lead us to wonder is where evolution might take humanity from here. As Nick Longrich points out…

Discussions of human evolution are usually backward looking, as if the greatest triumphs and challenges were in the distant past. But as technology and culture enter a period of accelerating change, our genes will too. Arguably, the most interesting parts of evolution aren’t life’s origins, dinosaurs, or Neanderthals, but what’s happening right now, our present – and our future.

He reasons to some fascinating possibilities…

Humanity is the unlikely result of 4 billion years of evolution.

From self-replicating molecules in Archean seas, to eyeless fish in the Cambrian deep, to mammals scurrying from dinosaurs in the dark, and then, finally, improbably, ourselves – evolution shaped us.

Organisms reproduced imperfectly. Mistakes made when copying genes sometimes made them better fit to their environments, so those genes tended to get passed on. More reproduction followed, and more mistakes, the process repeating over billions of generations. Finally, Homo sapiens appeared. But we aren’t the end of that story. Evolution won’t stop with us, and we might even be evolving faster than ever.

It’s hard to predict the future. The world will probably change in ways we can’t imagine. But we can make educated guesses. Paradoxically, the best way to predict the future is probably looking back at the past, and assuming past trends will continue going forward. This suggests some surprising things about our future…

Meet our future selves: “Future evolution: from looks to brains and personality, how will humans change in the next 10,000 years?“– @NickLongrich in @ConversationUS.

* Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

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As we ponder the possible, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Richard Dawkins; he was born on this date in 1947. An evolutionary biologist, he made a number of important contributions to the public understanding of evolution. In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, he popularized the gene-centred view of evolution and introduced the term meme. In The Extended Phenotype (1982), he introduced the influential concept that the phenotypic effects of a gene are not necessarily limited to an organism’s body, but can stretch far into the environment. And in The Blind Watchmaker (1986), he argued against the watchmaker analogy, an argument for the existence of a supernatural creator based upon the complexity of living organisms; instead, he described evolutionary processes as analogous to a blind watchmaker, in that reproduction, mutation, and selection are unguided by any designer.

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“Human nature scares the hell out of me”*…

Henry Gee, paleontologist and senior editor of Nature, argues that we Homo sapiens are setting ourselves up for collapse. He cites population decline, a lack of genetic variation, our socioeconomic fixation on growth (and the way that that’s plundered the planet), among other factors. But he singles out one phenomenon in particular…

 The most insidious threat to humankind is something called “extinction debt.” There comes a time in the progress of any species, even ones that seem to be thriving, when extinction will be inevitable, no matter what they might do to avert it. The cause of extinction is usually a delayed reaction to habitat loss. The species most at risk are those that dominate particular habitat patches at the expense of others, who tend to migrate elsewhere, and are therefore spread more thinly. Humans occupy more or less the whole planet, and with our sequestration of a large wedge of the productivity of this planetwide habitat patch, we are dominant within it. H. sapiens might therefore already be a dead species walking.

The signs are already there for those willing to see them. When the habitat becomes degraded such that there are fewer resources to go around; when fertility starts to decline; when the birth rate sinks below the death rate; and when genetic resources are limited—the only way is down. The question is “How fast?”…

Eminently worth reading in full: “Humans Are Doomed to Go Extinct,” from @EndOfThePier in Scientific American (@sciam).

For chorus effect, see also “Headed for a sixth mass extinction? MIT geophysicist warns oceans are on the brink.”

And for a look at the (possible) aftermath, explore “The Earth After Humans.”

* Neil deGrasse Tyson

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As we remind ourselves that “hope is a discipline,” we might send expansively-creative birthday greetings to Freeman Dyson; he was born on this date in 1923. A theoretical and mathematical physicist, mathematician, and statistician, he made material contributions– both processes and concepts— in quantum field theory, astrophysics, the mathematical formulation of quantum mechanics, condensed matter physics, nuclear physics, and engineering.

He will forever be remembered by SciFi fans as the originator of the idea of (what’s called) the Dyson Sphere (or Dyson Shell): he proposed that a highly advanced technological civilization would ultimately completely surround its host star with a huge shell to capture 100% of the useful radiant energy. This Dyson Sphere would have a gigantic cluster of artificial planetoids (“Dyson cloud”) with billions of billions of inhabitants who would make use of the energy captured by the Dyson Sphere. He also made the intriguing speculation that a Dyson Sphere viewed from other galaxies would have a highly distinctive, unnatural light. He suggested astronomers search for such tell-tale colored stars, which should signify advanced, intelligent life.

Dyson was skeptical of some climate science, believing that the advantages of global warming (e.g., greater crop yields) were underweighted and that climate models were underdeveloped (and thus untrustworthy). Still he sounded the alarm (in a way resonant with Gee’s, above) as to the possibility of humanity poisoning its own future:

In the near future, we will be in possession of genetic engineering technology which allows us to move genes precisely and massively from one species to another. Careless or commercially driven use of this technology could make the concept of species meaningless, mixing up populations and mating systems so that much of the individuality of species would be lost. Cultural evolution gave us the power to do this. To preserve our wildlife as nature evolved it, the machinery of biological evolution must be protected from the homogenizing effects of cultural evolution.

Unfortunately, the first of our two tasks, the nurture of a brotherhood of man, has been made possible only by the dominant role of cultural evolution in recent centuries. The cultural evolution that damages and endangers natural diversity is the same force that drives human brotherhood through the mutual understanding of diverse societies. Wells’s vision of human history as an accumulation of cultures, Dawkins’s vision of memes bringing us together by sharing our arts and sciences, Pääbo’s vision of our cousins in the cave sharing our language and our genes, show us how cultural evolution has made us what we are. Cultural evolution will be the main force driving our future…

Biological and Cultural Evolution– Six Characters in Search of an Author

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“The Earth is what we all have in common”*…

Ancient Gateway, Angkor, Cambodia

There’s a pervasive notion in our society that nature is something outside, over there, other, from what we are as humans. From religious texts teaching that God provided humans with dominion over Earth, to futuristic literature pitching nature as our past and human ingenuity and technology as our future, the narrative that humans are beyond – or even superior to – nature is deeply entrenched.

This separation, this othering of nature, has arguably enabled our rampant destruction of the rest of the living world, and even led some to claim that our human nature is incompatible with nature itself.

Now a huge international study involving geography, archeology, ecology, and conservation adds to the wealth of sciences that exposes this idea as the lie it is.

Researchers found that for most of our history, humanity has lived in equilibrium with our world, despite us having altered most of Earth’s terrestrial surface far sooner than we realized. “Societies used their landscapes in ways that sustained most of their native biodiversity and even increased their biodiversity, productivity, and resilience,” said University of Maryland environmental systems scientist Erle Ellis.

Analyzing reconstructions of historic global land use by humans and comparing this to global patterns of biodiversity, the researchers found that by 10000 BCE humans had transformed nearly three-quarters of Earth’s land surface – you can view an interactive map of their findings here.

This upends previous models that suggested most land was still uninhabited as recently as 1500 CE. “Lands now characterized as ‘natural’, ‘intact’, and ‘wild’ generally exhibit long histories of human use,” University of Queensland conservation scientist James Watson explained.

“There’s a paradigm among natural scientists, conservationists, and policymakers that human transformation of terrestrial nature is mostly recent and inherently destructive,” said Watson.

In recent times, it’s certainly appeared that way, but clearly this hasn’t always been the case – humanity’s presence hasn’t always caused the life around us to wither away. The researchers note that in many areas, mosaics of diverse landscapes managed by people were sustained for millennia.

They used strategies like planting, animal domestication, and managing the ecosystems in a way that made the landscape not just more productive for us, but helping to support high species richness too. “Our study found a close correlation between areas of high biodiversity and areas long occupied by Indigenous and traditional peoples,” said Max Planck Institute archeologist Nicole Boivin.

“The problem is not human use per se, the problem is the kind of land use we see in industrialized societies – characterized by unsustainable agricultural practices and unmitigated extraction and appropriation.”

“We need to recognize that some types of human activity – particularly more traditional land management practices that we see in the archaeological record or practiced today by many Indigenous peoples – are actually really supportive of biodiversity. We need to promote and empower that,” said Bovin.

University of Maine anthropologist Darren Ranco noted that while indigenous people manage around 5 percent of the world’s lands that currently contain 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, they have been excluded from management and access in protected areas like the US National Parks.

These findings make it clear that we need to empower Indigenous, traditional, and local peoples who know their lands in ways science is only just beginning to understand, explained Ellis. While no one is suggesting we revert to technology-less societies of our past, the idea is to learn from different ways of living that have proven track records of longevity.

From there, we can find new and better ways forward with the help of our advanced technologies, and a big part of this is recognizing that we are part of nature just as nature is a part of us.

Learning from our ancestors: “Humans Shaped Life on Earth For 12,000 Years, And It Wasn’t All Doom And Destruction.” Read the research in full at PNAS.

By way of an illustration of the issue, “Climate crisis has shifted the Earth’s axis, study shows“:

In the past, only natural factors such as ocean currents and the convection of hot rock in the deep Earth contributed to the drifting position of the poles. But the new research shows that since the 1990s, the loss of hundreds of billions of tonnes of ice a year into the oceans resulting from the climate crisis has caused the poles to move in new directions.

Indeed, we’ve moved the poles 4 meters since 1980…

And for a look at just how much the earth has changed, “Google Earth Now Shows You The Consequences of Climate Change For The Past 37 Years.”

[TotH to the ever-illuminating “Nothing Here“]

* Wendell Berry

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As we find balance, we might spare a thought for Jean Nicot de Villemain; he died on this date in 1604. A diplomat and scholar, he introduced tobacco to the French court (and thus, into wide usage in Europe). In 1560, while serving as ambassador in Portugal, he was shown a tobacco plant in the garden of Lisbon botanist Damião de Goes, who claimed it had healing properties. Nicot applied it to his nose and forehead and found it relieved his headaches.

Nicot sent home seeds and leaves of tobacco, recommending its marvelous therapeutic value. He then sent snuff to Catherine de Medici, the Queen of France to treat her migraine headaches. She was impressed with its results, and became an advocate.

The tobacco plant, Nicotiana tabacum, and its active substance, nicotine, derive their names from his.

Nicot also compiled one of the first French dictionaries, Thresor de la langue françoyse (1606).

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