Tag Archives: Human Evolution

Best Children’s Book on Human Evolution

Aside from evolutionary theory itself, the teaching of Human evolution involves physiology and reproductive biology, behavioral biology, genetics, and the fossil record itself with details of a concomitant history.

And finally, there is a children’s book that addresses the latter, in amazing detail!

There are very few good (or even bad) children’s books about evolution, and far fewer about human evolution. And when a children’s book touches on human evolution, it is usually just about Neanderthals.

When We Became Humans: The Story of Our Evolution by Michael Bright with illustrations by Hannah Bailey is a very good book on human evolution. The book is over 60 pages long in large format, and my copy is cloth bound. The production quality of the book is outstanding. (That is generally the case with this publisher.)

I am am impressed with this title, and I strongly recommend it for anyone looking for a book for a kid of a certain age to read, or a younger kid to get read to.

What is that certain age? I’m thinking 10 plus or minus 2, depending on the kid. The publishers say 8-11. So somewhere around there. A 10 year old who absorbs the material in this book will do OK on an intro college human evolution midterm that focuses on the fossil and archaeological record. Or at least, the child will be able to effectively challenge the professor in a grade grubbing situation.

When We Became Humans: The Story of Our Evolution covers primate evolution, key moments in hominin history, bipedalism, early tools, brain evolution, the origin of fire (nice to see my research embodied as fact in an actual children’s book!), Homo erectus and Neanderthals, modern humans, foragers, early agriculture, holicene history, language, art, early burial, and other things such as hobbits.

There are only four places where I would take issue with the facts as presented here. The root hypothesis for the human-chimp split is left out, I would discuss early tools differently, the author embraces the scavenging hypothesis too kindly, and the great global diversity and overall craziness of the agricultural transition is glossed in favor (mostly) of the old Fertile Crescent story, which is not wrong, just limited. Given that this book presnets roughly 165 facts or perspectives, me disagreeing with this small number is rather remarkable.

The art is great, the typefaces well chosen, the layout is artful and foregrounds the aforementioned are and the facts.

You can preorder this book now; it will be out mid July.

The Untermassfeld Controversy

Ancient European humans and their near relatives such as late Homo erectus, “archaic” Homo sapiens, Neanderthals, and Denisovans all come from an African stock. While some of the variation we see in these late members of the genus Homo certainly arose in Eurasia, these groups all represent either African populations or stems coming off an African trunk.

There are two chronologies proposed for the early occupation of Europe, for the time before these branches are clearly visible. The “long chronology” has human relatives in Europe perhaps as far back as two million years, and the “short chronology” has these human relatives at around a half million years ago or later.

The truth is probably this: Continue reading The Untermassfeld Controversy

The Oldest Human Bones, Jebel Irhoud, Morocco

You’ve heard to story. I’m here to give you a little context.

A pretty typical early handaxe, made by a Homo erectus. This was a big flake made from a bigger rock. The big flake was subsequently flaked to make this handaxe. The word “handaxe” can be spelled about nine different ways.
But in case you haven’t heard the story, this is from the press release which is, so far, the only information generally available:

New finds of fossils and stone tools from the archaeological site of Jebel Irhoud, Morocco, push back the origins of our species by one hundred thousand years and show that by about 300 thousand years ago important changes in our biology and behaviour had taken place across most of Africa.

In order to understand the significance of this research, and it is indeed very significant, you need to have a detailed history of archaeological research in Europe, the Near East, and Africa. But since there isn’t time for that I’ll give you the following bullet points. Each of these bullet points reflects the general understanding of prehistory at a certain point in time, in order from oldest to newest.

This shows the Victoria West technique, used during the Fauersmith though this particular rock may be later). See the extra small flaking along one part of the rock? That was done to prepare the platform for the controlled detachment of a flake.

In the 70s and before, we thought this:

As humans evolved they went through stages where the morphology would change, usually involving an enlargement of the brain, along with the behavior, usually indicated by changes in stone tools. So, Homo erectus used acheulean tools (hand axes), Neanderthals used Mousterian tools (Levallois technology) with prepared platforms, and modern humans (“Cro Magnon”) used upper paleolithic technology and they had nice art too. The transition from Neanderthal times to Modern Human times happened 40,000 years ago.

The levallois technique. this involved shaping a rock to look like a turtle. Then, you shape one end of the turtle to look like the old fashioned hat of a French policeman. Then you hit the policeman on the hat just right, and a perfect flake comes off. In Africa, this was usually used to make blades and triangular points, but sometimes ovals.
In the 80s we realized that there was no association whatsoever between the various “industries” and the various “hominids” mainly because a lot of research in the Middle East kept finding Neanderthals and Modern Humans randomly associated with various technologies. This caused a disturbance in the force, so the whole idea of linking morphology (i.e, different species or subspecies) with different levels or modes of technological activity was tossed out the window.

Also in the 1980s and continuing into the early 1990s, African archaeologists realized something. Well, they realized two things. Most of us realized that at a certain point of time, which Sally McBreardy and Allison Brooks estimated to be about 250,000 years ago or a bit earlier, a “middle paleolithic” world with a lot of handaxes and some other bifaces (Sangoan-Lupemban technologies, that sort of thing) gave way to a “Middle Stone Age” technology. This MSA technology was essentially the same as but somewhat more advanced than what the Europeans called “Middle Plaeolithic” based on the Levallois technique, a prepared platform technology.

Eventually, very advanced technologies and very advanced modes of thinking, such as exemplified by this possible calendar object from the Semliki Valley in the Congo, emerged.
Notice that I keep mentioning that term … prepared platform technology. Put a pin in that.

The second thing we all knew about but not every body liked was an idea by Peter Beaumont, which is that a certain technology had emerged earlier than the Acheulean-MSA transition of 250K, which was called Fauersmith. This was a … wait for it … prepared platform technology of sorts.

Classically, the handaxe based technology of the early stone age was replaced with the prepared platform technology. This meant throwing the handaxes one last time and moving on to blades and points made with the levallois technique. But in the Fauersmith, an industry found mainly in the Cape Province of South Africa and nearby areas (I think I’ve seen it in Namibia), uses … wait for it … prepared platform technology to make handaxes! This industry is thought to be just older than the MSA, so just older than 250K, going back maybe to 350K, or maybe 400K or even 500K, no one is sure.

The Africanists also realized that the Europeans were pretty messed up in their thinking. The species/subspecies link to technology never went away in Africa. While such a thing is never expected to be perfect, it seemed to hold there. The reason the Europeans were confused is this: When it comes to new species and new technologies, Africa is the donor and Eurasia the occasional recipient.

I liken it to figuring out the chronology and technology of trade beads, those little glass beads, still in use, that were carried by Dutch and English (and other) ships around the world mainly in the early 17th century, to trade with the locals and buy things like, say, Manhattan Island. If you look at the trade beads found here and there on colonial sites around the world, and I’ve personally done this, you can figure out a chronology of style and design of those beads that we assume reflects realty in the two or three places they were consistently made. But only by going to the factory neighborhoods in the Netherlands and Italy, and South Asia, can you actually figure out what was going on.

Putting it another way, trying to describe human evolution, substantively, by observing only Europe and West Asia and ignoring Africa is like, oh hell, I don’t know what the heck, why would you ever do that?

Anyway, here’s what many of us have been thinking all along, following the insights of folks like Peter Beaumont and Alison Brooks. Once upon a time there were these Homo erectus doods, and they have some moderate game in the brain department but were definitely not humans. They may have lacked some serious human mind tricks, though they were capable of making and using fire, and their handaxes were very nice, when they wanted them to be. They were also very tough and strong and probably somewhat dangerous. Oddly, the most common cause of death, when we can estimate cause of death, is that they ate something that killed them. So, there is some kind of deficit or something behind that.

Then, some time after about a half million years ago, a subset of these guys, and I know where they lived because I have sat on the exact rock chairs they themselves sat on while making their tools, added something to their hand ax technology. They had probably added other things to their culture, and/or their brains, and this hand ax technology thing merely reflected this, but it also opened the opportunity for developing this technology further, and that may have been actually contributory to the subsequent evolutionary process. Anyway, they added this thing where instead of just whacking a flake off a big rock, with the intention of then flaking that big flake into a handaxe, they would make a few smaller specially and carefully done flakes on the big rock, literally a giant piece of bedrock in some cases, that made the prot-handaxe flake they were about to produce more predictable (and, actually, larger in many cases, I think).

The prepared platform. It made making hand axes better. But, taken to the next step, which seems to have happened in this region probably before the Great Transition in 250K, it actually allowed the production of stone tool doohickies never before seen, never before possible. this eventually developed into the full on prepared platform technique that eventually became common all across Africa, Europe and West Asia.

Now, let me tell you a little story you won’t hear, likely, from somewhere else. I was once visiting my friend Peter Beaumont, and he showed me a skull, that was unfortunately unprovenienced, i.e., no one could be sure of where it came from, that looks a lot like the Jebe Irhoud skull and others of that general form and age range. He did have it dated using a technique that, without knowing more about the context of the skull (it has been collected in antiquity by a farmer, supposedly, in the region) could not be fully reliable, but the date was somewhere between 300K and 400K, closer to the latter, if I recall correctly.

For completeness, this is a modern South African cell phone tower.
Here’s the thing. Assume for a minute, and this is a major oversimplification but I’ll defend it if necessary, that there is some sort of reasonable association between species or subspecies and technology. I’ve already described, just now, how that is messy. The late Homo erectus of the Cape, if I’ve got my story right, were using MSA technology before they were “early modern humans” for example. But that is expected. Just assume that there is a general correlation, for the purpose of a though experiment.

Now, go out in that thought experiment landscape and imagine looking for both artifacts and diagnostic skull bits, so you can put the story together of a few different hominins over time, one evolving into the other, and their material culture, especially their stone tool technology.

You will figure out the boundaries in time and space of the technologies long before you verify the species or subspecies by the remains of their actual heads. the reason for that should be obvious, but if it isn’t, just go around the city and look at all the litter you find. Look carefully at all the litter. Call me as soon as one of the pieces of litter is a human head. Actually, call 911 first, then me.

This new find is a head butting, perhaps, against the early time range for this species, previously expected from the Fauersmith theory.

I fully expect the key points in the article to be ignored and for Sub Saharan Africa to be broken off from the rest of Africa so that this find can be European/West Asian in stead of Africa, but to address that I’ll quickly tell you this; The Sahara may not have even existed then, so there may not have been a Sub Saharan Africa. Just an Africa. Where modern humans arose.

Aquatic Ape Theory: Another nail in the coffin

I just want to say that my son is pretty bad at swimming.

I quickly add, for a 3 year old human, he’s pretty darn good at it. Amanda’s family is very aquatic, as tends to happen when everyone spends several weeks per year (or longer) on the edge of a lake. They can all ski really well, they can all swim really well, etc. etc. So, very soon after my son was born, his grandfather started to bring him to age-appropriate swimming lessons. He is now 37 months old and has been to a swimming lesson almost every week. In addition to to that, Amanda brings him to the pool pretty close to once a week, often more. In addition to that, during the summer, he has spent several days at the lake and gone in once or twice almost every day the conditions allowed. In short, he should be about as good a swimmer as any 3 year old.

And he is. In fact, better. He is far beyond his age to the extent that he’s skipped grades, and the people at the swimming school have to keep making adjustments in order to ensure he is always getting the next level of training rather than being held back by the other kids who are not as good as he is.

But still, this means he can drag himself underwater for several bananas (the unit of time used by swimming instructors, apparently), and he can thrash around moving his body across the surface several inches in a predetermined direction. He can get himself to the bottom of a pool as deep as he is tall and easily pick up a ring or some other object, and he can float around in various positions comfortably.

So he swims better than a new born through 1 month old hippo (they can’t swim at all, really) but he’s nowhere near as good as dolphin. But the thing is, this is after three years. Had Amanda and I been aquatic apes, my son would not have survived to this ripe old age. The diving reflex, proffered as evidence for an aquatic stage, during which we spent considerable time in (not near, in) water, happens in mammals generally and alone is not enough to count as a retained adaptation suggesting an earlier evolutionary stage. If human ancestors subsequent to the split with chimpanzees went through a significant aquatic phase (not just living near water, which is one of the backpedaled versions of the AAT) then our children would probably … not necessarily but probably … be much better at swimming than they are.

This does not disprove the Aquatic Ape Theory. Nor does a single nail secure a coffin. But it certainly does not inspire confidence in the idea.

My son tells me that he plans, someday, to teach me to swim.

The Irony of the Projectile

The evidence from palaeoanthropology suggests that in the past humans were about the stature they are now, with more sexual dimporphism than now, with similar or larger brains than they have now, and used technology at the same level of sophistication as many later humans. Scientists argue over the degree to which modern day language abilities, symbolic thinking, and artistic capacity was found in these earlier humans.

Where we see physical evidence suggesting morbidity or even mortality among those humans, which included “archaic Homo sapiens” and Neanderthals and their kin, we often see violence. Some have suggested that this violence is from close quarter combat between individuals, while others have suggested it is from a hands-on approach to hunting where animals were wrangled to the ground and dispatched. Among the technologies used by these early humans we see evidence for some hand held weapons but no good evidence for projectiles.

It is possible that projectiles became widespread at some point and that this changed everything. Many scientists have suggested something like this, and each of those ideas is different and relates to a different set of evidence. We know for sure that projectiles didn’t exist then later they did, and we know for sure that high degrees of physical robusticity existed, later replaced by physical gracility. Regardless of the details, there was a time when humans needed to get up close and personal to intimidate, wound, or kill each other placing themselves at risk at the same time, and later, it became possible for a smaller, less robust person to kill pretty much anyone (with skill and luck) without taking that immediate personal risk.

I’m oversimplifying here, but this would mean that the social dynamic involved in interpersonal conflict would be very different under these two different conditions. A thrown spear, or more effectively, a bow and arrow would bring more of this dynamic into the broader social context. One might not be as likely to get killed or seriously injured if one decides to plug an enemy with a well placed arrow, but the slain enemy’s family and friends have the same separation from immediate injury when they come for you later to even things up. One could think of the social dynamic of interpersonal violence as becoming more meta, and the most likely result of this is that day to day interpersonal violence would be significantly reduced. (Larger scale conflict including warfare is a different matter we’ll skip for the present discussion, but intergroup raiding is still pertinent.) Continue reading The Irony of the Projectile

A Tutorial in Human Behavioral Biology

If you read only one book this holiday season, make it all of the following twenty or so!

But seriously … I’d like to do something today that I’ve been meaning to do, quite literally, for years. I want to run down a selection of readings that would provide any inquisitive person with a solid grounding in Behavioral Biological theory. At the very outset you need to know that this is not about Evolutionary Psychology. Evolutionary Psychology is something different. I’ll explain some other time what the differences are. For now, we are only speaking of fairly traditional Darwinian behavioral theory as applied generally with a focus on sexually reproducing organisms, especially mammals, emphasis on humans and other primates but with lots of birds because they turn out to be important.
Continue reading A Tutorial in Human Behavioral Biology

Driving The Patriarchy: Demonic Males, Feminism, and Genetic Determinism

Behaviors are not caused by genes. There is not a gene that causes you to be good, or to be bad, or to be smart, or good at accounting, or to like bananas. There are, however, drives. “Drives” is a nicely vague term that we can all understand the meaning of. Thirst and hunger are drives we can all relate to. In fact, these drives are so basic, consistent and powerful that almost everyone has them, we share almost exact experiences in relation to them, and they can drive (as drives are wont to do) us to do extreme things when they are not met for long periods of time. While eating disorders are common enough and these affect a hunger drive, it is very rare to find a person thirst themselves to death.
Continue reading Driving The Patriarchy: Demonic Males, Feminism, and Genetic Determinism

Human Brain Size: Does it matter? And has it decreased?

ResearchBlogging.orgSometimes people walk around with only half a brain, or a large portion of their brain disconnected, or simply having never developed, or an extra large brain, and we usually take little notice. But when there is a five or ten or twenty percent difference between two groups of people we are quickly willing to use that to decide (as in the Bell Curve) that those people with the (on average) smaller brain are inferior. The fact that all the well known studies comparing groups of living people that show such differences have been shown to be bogus (i.e. made up or doctored data) is often ignored.

Anyway, the following is the abstract of a 1998 paper by M. Henneberg that is still relevant of some interest:

Continue reading Human Brain Size: Does it matter? And has it decreased?

Palaeowomaen: Barbara Isaac, Women in The Field, and The Throwing Hypothesis

The question of diversity in science, and more specifically, success for women, is often discussed in relation to bench or lab oriented fields. If you read the blogs that cover this sort of topic, they are very often written by bench scientists, for bench scientists, and about bench scientists. Which makes sense because most scientists probably are bench scientists.

Here I want to do two separate but related things. I want to discuss certain aspects of the nature of fieldwork in my area in the 20th century that have had a strong effect on the way women have pursued their careers (or not). Although I characterize this as the situation of the 20th century, this does not mean that the situation has or has not changed substantially since then. Simply put, I’m not discussing the current career related situaton for women in field paleoanthropology here in this post.

The second thing I want to do is to talk about a successful female social scientist with a strong connection to fieldwork in palaeoanthropology, as well as theoretical and administrative contributions. This person is also someone who straddles the boundary between classic mid- to late-Twentieth Century patterns of professional activity (in these field sciences) and more recent patterns. I’m speaking here of Barbara Isaac.

The link between these two topics is a bit tenuous but it is also meaningful. There is nothing stereotypical about Barbara Isaac’s career, and there is nothing short of admirable about her as a person and a scholar. My intention here is to not make strong links between these two parallel topics.
Continue reading Palaeowomaen: Barbara Isaac, Women in The Field, and The Throwing Hypothesis

Understanding Michele Bachmann in the context of Human Evolution

The only thing harder to understand than Michele Bachmann is the Republican Party. Bachmann is hard to understand in this way: How can a person with her mind be an elected member of congress? The Republican party is hard to understand in this way: How can a party that is trying to become more rather than less relevant keep putting Michele Bachmann on the podium in places like the National Party Convention and, most recently, at CEPAC?

I can’t explain any of this, but I can at least redescribe the problem in reference to a theoretical construct for the evolution of the human mind. I endeavor to do this for three reasons: 1) To have a chance to briefly discuss these theoretical ideas; 2) To try to place Michele Bachmann and the Republicans (and by minor extension, by the way, Sarah Palin) in at least a descriptive, if not explanatory, context; and 3) because I get to use the word “meta” a million times throughout this essay. No, no, not really. The third reason is because I feel this nagging need to make the link between the fact that Michele Bachmann should not be in Congress with the fact that not only is she actually in Congress, but was recently re-elected to congress. Specifically, I will assert that there is not always cognitive dissonance where one thinks one sees it. Michele Bachmann was re-elected because she represents the majority of her constituents quite effectively.

There is a theory that what makes a good story is meta-osity. A story about a person and another person interacting is too simple. A story like this but where one of the people is secretly manipulating the interaction is a bit interesting. A story like this but where, unknown to the manipulator, there is a larger scale manipulation going on is a novel that might sell. And so on.

There is another theory that presumes this first theory to be essentially correct, and that the human mind is actually an evolved organ designed to manage these meta-meta-meta states. The reason for this is that much of the important stuff in life is meta-meta. Ultimately, in a human society where food- and sex-competitive apes are violating the basic tenets of competition by living side by side and cooperating and sharing within groups, reproduction and survival are socio-political meta-meta matters.

My personal “belief” (read: informed hunch) is that this is essentially true, but the proximate mechanism for the human mind being able to do this is a pretty simple (yet biologically costly) genetically mediated neuro-developmental process overlapping with and followed by a culturally and experientially mediated neuro-developmental process, with a large part of that arising during the unique (compared to other apes) human developmental phase we all “childhood.” (See The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain by Terry Deacon for a run down on this approach.)

Which leads me to Michele Bachmann, who recently said:

I just wondered that if our founders thought taxation without representation was bad, what would they think of representation WITH taxation?

Uffda. To put this in context, just spend a minute and a half reviewing this speech at CPAC:

[sorry to report, this speech seems to have disappeared from the internet]

OK, well, putting it in context didn’t help, did it? But along side the other statements made here and elsewhere by Bachmann, we are starting to see a pattern.

You know about Michel Bachmann’s other problems. The Blue Scare scenario comes to mind. Bachmann called for the investigation of all elected Democrats in the federal system for Unamerican-ness. If you don’t agree with me you must be the enemy, and I must fear you. All of us who fear you must treat you all the same and throw bricks at you, as children might do. And so on.

Now let’s talk about what all this means. Bachmann’s statement (above) about taxes is an example of not understanding even the first level of meta, the most basic nuance, of the original slogan. Bachmann’s placement of all people who disagree with her in the same category, so that enemies and colleagues of a different party are all the same, is an example of the inability to go beyond the most basic of relationships. Bachmann is unable to see that we can disagree with our colleague, but join our colleague to disagree with a third party (meta) and sometimes ally with a third party to disagree with yet another third party (meta meta) and sometimes find influence among allies in a distant third party to effect change in a colleague (meta meta meta).

(By the way, that this analysis is valid is underscored by Bachmann’s insistence that actual card-carrying Republicans who happen to disagree with her are not “real” Republicans.)

Bachmann does not get even the simplest nuance. In politics, she is just a dog barking at the shadows behind the fence, and everything is a shadow behind the fence.

We can show that many animals including dogs have this level of capacity and not much more. A meta-X level, where you have one set of complexities on top of basic relationships, is clearly a generalized primate capacity and may even be found in some social birds, but is not well developed in dogs or other carnivores.

The next level of meta … meta-meta-x … is probably exclusively human, and if Homo erectus was around today, perhaps we’d be saying “Oh, H. erectus can do that. Sort of.” (I’m guessing at that.)

Beyond this, the next level of meta … meta-meta-meta-x … is what most humans can do when they try and have certain experience or training, and that very smart people do a lot of, and real smart people are probably doing all the time. Most people probably achieve meta-meta-X much of the time, but probably mainly in regards to certain aspects of their life but not others. (Again, I’m guessing.) Meta-osity is a general feature of thought and thus could be conceived of as independent of empirical realities, but I don’t think this is the case. I think there is a real relationship between physicality and thought process. So a person may be meta-meta-X or even meta-meta-meta-X about the novels they read and their family relationships, but little else. A different person may be meta-meta-meta-X about their workplace relationships and the stuff they do as an engineer, or teacher, or crane operator, but be meta-X at best when it comes to politics. And I think, in fact, that this is exactly what frequently happens. It may be in the interest of certain politicians to keep the conversation at a meta-X (or lower) level.

Ideally, in careers, and especially careers that are important to other members or elements of society, we would like to see people be at least meta-meta-X, especially those in charge of important things. For example, physicians should be meta-meta-meta-X, if possible, regarding the workings of the body in relation to disease, personal behavior, treatment options, and so on.

Examples of meta-meta-meta-X thinkers in politics include Bill Clinton, Barney Frank, Newt Gingrich, Adlai Stevenson and Al Franken. One imagines Ted Kennedy, clearly a meta-meta-meta-X thinker, relaxing by sailing on Nantucket Sound, where to succeed he merely needs to achieve meta-X thinking regarding winds, currents, sails, and ropes. Meanwhile, the captain of the Nantucket Ferry, who in her job driving a modern ship rarely has to go beyond meta-X, enriching her own life by engaging in BBC style crime dramas on TV and playing chess with her buddy the Harbor Master in Harwich Port.

Examples of meta-meta-X political thinkers who did well because they were in the right place at the right time might include George Bush Senior, Harry Truman, and George Washington. Examples of meta-X thinkers who probably didn’t apply the meta to the X in their political lives might be …. Hmmm, hard to come up with too many examples of this. Most people at that level would never get far beyond student council. Let’s see, who would be a good examp…

Oh,right, how could I forget!?!? … Michele Bachmann!

Here’s the thing. The objective of a politician might be to manage the thinking of others such that you get those other people to do what you wish them to do: fund your campaign and vote in your favor. It is much much easier to do this if you keep the public level of discourse as meta-free as possible. Newt Gingrich is on my list of meta-meta-meta-X thinkers, but he was a master at engendering the populous with a penchant for non-meta reasoning. For example, Gingrich successfully gained support from the masses by promising to bring to the floor a vote on each of ten allegedly key Republican issues (the famous “Contract with America”). However, a) the House (where Gingrich promised to do this) has weak rules for bringing something to vote, and b) bringing something to vote does not equal passing it or, really, even actually voting on it. So, you see, it would be trivially easy to keep this “contract.” It was not logical to infer that the Contract with America was a meaningful political construct that would have real results, but it became an effective rallying point for the first midterm election during Clinton’s first term. The Contract with America was a dog barking at a shadow behind the fence and nothing more. (Expect this dog to be barking again in about a year from now.)

The re-casting of stakeholders in a given issue as “taxpayers” is often a de-meta-fication of the issue at hand. The conflation of 1960s radicalism with 21st century terrorism with being black, or being a democrat, or being from Chicago, or whatever, is de-meta-fication of a person’s (Obama’s) entire career and philosophy. Claiming that the fact that Soviet/Russian bombers would fly over Alaska on their way to bomb the rest of America makes the governor of Alaska a foreign policy expert is the de-meta-fication of so, so many things.

Years of training have converted much of the Republican base to a pack of dogs, chained to an ideological stake in a dusty gloomy yard, always ready to bark at the movement of shadows beyond the tall fence that surrounds them. Michele Bachmann’s congressional district is demographically as close as any district can be to this Republican ideal. This is why Bachmann can be who she is, get re-elected, and continue to be invited to speak at major Party gatherings. Michelle Bachmann is not Newt Gingrich. She does not grasp the overarching strategy. She is not a simpleton’s face hiding a brilliant political mind. She is just the simpleton. I doubt she is even taking marching orders from anyone. Michele Bachmann is merely one of the dogs, among many, barking at the shadows moving behind the fence.

Michele Bachmann is the best possible representative for her district.


Got milk (alleles)?

As you probably know, everyone should drink milk. Lots and lots and lots of milk. All your life. Or so says the American Dairy Industry, often using those sexy posters of famous people with milk smeared on their faces.

The truly amazing thing about those posters is that the people in them more often than not seem to have an ethnic identity that I, as a trained Biological Anthropologist (and thus keeper of this sort of knowledge) can easily see contraindicates milk consumption. Most of these individuals would likely be unable to break down the lactose in the milk because they have the “wild type” or “normal” allele that facilitates the shutdown of lactase production some time in early life.

Now let’s be clear about this. We humans are mammals, and as mammals, we drink mother’s milk while young. This is facilitated by the production of lactase, an enzyme that breaks down the main energy bearing molecule in milk, the sugar lactose. But your basic well adapted mammals should not bother producing the enzyme lactase after weaning normally occurs … maybe a few years after in a long-lived mammal like humans … because it is inefficient and potentially risky to produce enzymes you don’t need.

Why is it inefficient? Well, there are thousands and thousands of enzymes and if we just produced all of them all the time in all our cells, that would be really costly of raw materials and energy, both of which are required to produce them. So, evolution has shaped, via the brilliant designer of Natural Selection, our multicellular bodies to produce enzymes only in the cells they are needed in (from which they may be exuded on occasion, as is the case with lactase, a digestive enzyme). This is much more efficient. By extension, the system should be (and usually is) selected to produce specific enzymes when they are needed instead of all the time from birth to death. By doing this we save a lot of raw materials and energy.

Continue reading Got milk (alleles)?

An Evolutionary View of Humans 5: The Opposite Sex

Efe people
Ituri Forest
Anthrophoto is an
excellent source for
anthropology stock

There have been many studies of what impresses us about members of the opposite sex, but to my knowledge these studies are largely centered on Western societies, and never of foragers. There has been consideration of this issue, but no large scale surveys. One of the reasons for this is that you can’t do large scale surveys in so-called “small scale” societies, because there are just not enough people.

But I can provide a few insights on what might be impressive to the ladies (things about men) in forager societies. Keep in mind, however, that this is strictly speculation, though informed speculation.

I had previously talked about sharing, and here I’d like to expand on one aspect of sharing, the so called “distribution and redistribution system,” and it’s meaning in relation to courting.

There is a pattern that has been observed in virtually all forager groups, whereby men divide up the spoils of the hunt in a certain, largely ritualized, way, then pass these packages of meat over to the women, who then redistribute the meat in a manner commensurate with the needs of members of the group. I’d like to describe how this works specifically with the Efe Pygmies as an exemplar for foragers in general. Many aspects of what I’m describing here are nearly universal among foragers. Moreover, I’m going to specifically talk about “group hunting” when several men are involved in one cooperative hunting episode. However, the principles involved here actually apply to other forms of hunting as well, to varying degrees.

The most common Efe group hunt is called “mota.” In this method of hunting, a number of men spread out in the forest to surround an area, with one man (the “beater”) going to the center of this area with one or more dogs. The dogs are released by the beater, sent out into this area and called back again and again. Game that is roused by the dogs are then subject to being shot at with arrows by the archers who had previously spread out. If an animal is hit, help from other hunters or from the dogs may be solicited, and the animal run to ground and dispatched.

The animals are usually carried back to near the camp (these animals are small and can be carried whole by one person) where two people (not the hunter himself) butcher the animal. The animal is cut into standard pieces: The head, each front limb and body quarter, each hind limb and body quarter, and an area of the middle of the animal including the last few ribs (this is considered to be the “special” part, possibly because it contains the backstrap/loin meat).

Sometimes the head is left with one of the forelimbs. Sometimes the back two quarters are kept together.

Each of these parts is then given to a different man depending on a set of rules that specify a link between a man’s role in obtaining this meat and a particular body part. The rules vary from place to place and presumably time to time in Pygmydom, but it may be, for instance, that the man who called and organized the hunt, usually the beater, gets the front left limb, the guy who trained/owned the dog that ran down the animal a back quarter, etc. The only really consistent thing across the different rule sets is that there is usually a key hunter (the person who first shot the animal, for instance) who gets this middle back piece.

One striking aspect of this is that efforts are made and culturally determined to ensure that a lot of people were involved in the kill of any animal, even by a lone hunter. Here are some of the rules that ensure this:

1) No man carries his own arrows. The metal tipped arrows the Pygmies use for hunting ground animals are each made by someone else. Therefore, if you shoot an animal, another man besides yourself was “involved.”

2) The dog is owned by a particular person.

3) A ritual fire is burned before the hunt by a particular person.

4) The beater is a particular person. These three — dog owner, fire burner, and beater, may be the same person, two people, or three people.

5) The animal is supposed to be butchered by individuals other than the prime hunter.

6) The animal is supposed to be butchered OUTSIDE OF CAMP (even it it runs into camp and dies there … it would be dragged outside of the camp for butchery) by TWO people. (Not one, even though that would be possible.)

7) Oh, then there is the guy who shot the animal!

All of this ensures that even if you hunt alone, multiple people will be involved.

Now, we are guessing that the ladies are concerned with the hunting, and the meat, and thus with the quality of hunters, in some way. So the first approximation is that the women measure the hunting ability of the men and take this into account during courtship. Previous studies have not supported this idea.

One idea that may work is that the ladies pay attention to the man’s package. What I mean by this, is they notice what package of meat he comes in to the camp with, which would give the woman an idea of his role in the hunt, and thus information to assess his hunting ability.

However, there is a catch to this: I have observed that the men hardly ever walk into camp with the pieces of meat that actually represents what they actually did for the hunt. If this is a signal, the men are being dishonest.

One idea that may work to get past this problem is that the men are being dishonest but the women can’t figure this out. If the men came into camp and verbally claimed a certain role in the hunt, the women (and others) could easily detect the lie. But by simply carrying this package of meat into camp and not saying anything, and handing this meat over to a particular woman (someone they are trying to impress) they are not as easily caught in the lie.

However, I don’t believe this for a second. I think the women would still be able to tell who is being honest, or at the very least, the women would understand that the whole exercise is a charade, and simply not use this as information in choosing a mate.

So this brings us to one more idea that may help understand this, and I think the explanation for what is going on.

Suppose a young man is a typical hunter, and is courting a prospective mate who is hanging around in camp (visiting her sister, perhaps). As a typical hunter, there really is not much he can do to increase his role in the hunt, other than simply showing up and doing his job. Most of the hunters are excellent shots, and although older guys do better than younger guys, how you do over a series of a few hunts is also very largely a matter of luck.

But suppose this young guy comes into camp each day for two or three days in a row with a real nice package, something that would indicate an important role in the hunt. But he did not earn this package by what he did during the hunt. Instead, his male relatives and friends give him the package, knowing that he’s interested in the woman likely to be in camp on their return.

This indicates nothing about his hunting ability to the woman. But it does indicate something much more important: It indicates that he is not a complete jerk. It indicates that he has friends, that they will give him a break, and that he is part of a coalition of cooperative foragers. That is what makes a good mate.

Indeed, if women made choices among men based hunting ability, then they would be making poor choices. First, hunting ability might be important, but many other things are important as well. Second, as noted above, most forager men are pretty good at hunting. How well someone does is more a matter of luck than ability. So, hunting is not a trait that varies meaningfully or that can be assessed accurately.

Having said that, among the Efe, there is a form of hunting that is done by only some men, and that produces on its own about the same amount of meat as all the other hunting efforts combined, on an annual basis. This is the killing of an elephant. It is hard to do, far more dangerous than other forms of hunting, and highly productive. I suspect a lot of women would not be interested in such a mate. The guy must be crazy, after all. But some are. It is very rare to find Efe men with more than one wife (it is allowed but very uncommon). An Efe man does not usually have more than one wife, but when he does, it is often because he is an elephant hunter.

An Evolutionary View of Humans 1: Introduction
An Evolutionary View of Humans 2: Sleep
An Evolutionary View of Humans 3: Remembering Names
An Evolutionary View of Humans 4: Sharing
An Evolutionary View of Humans 5: The Opposite Sex

An Evolutionary View of Humans 4: Sharing

Efe people
Ituri Forest
Anthrophoto is an
excellent source for
anthropology stock

One of the biggest differences between our nearest living relatives (The common chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes) and humans is our unique sense of the importance of a social contract. We have a concept of ownership, possession, exclusivity of access, etc. when it comes to material goods such as tools or resources, and of course, sexual relationships. It has been argued that this is a feature that can be found in primates. In a classic series of experiments done by Kummer with baboons, he showed that one male baboon perceived an ongoing sexual liaison between another male and a particular female. As long as the paired male was in sight, the focal baboon would not make sexual advances towards the paired female even though she was in a state of sexual receptivity. This was the case even when the focal male and the paired female were enclosed in a cage together, with the paired female enclosed in a different cage a safe distance away. Similar observations have been made in other primates including chimpanzees in captivity and in the wild.

However the presence of a vague ability to perceive danger — that you will likely be severely attacked by a large male under certain circumstances — is expected in social primates. What Kummer’s experiment may really demonstrate is that baboons don’t “get” cages.

The evolution of a sophisticated mechanism or set of mechanisms in hominids (humans and their upright ancestors) that elaborates on this capacity is what we would expect from an evolutionary perspective. We are upright using our hind limbs mainly for locomotion, and thus different from other apes, but at the same time the nature of our uprightedness (that we can also use overhead bars and straps on a bus or subway for stability, for instance) is a feature of our positional behavior that relates directly to the fact that apes tend to suspend below branches rather than walk atop them (as to Old World monkeys).

In other words, I don’t think that a trait observed in one species is not unique and not the result of adaptive evolution just because a mild form of the trait is observed in other closely related form. Such a situation — total uniqueness — is simply not expected most of the time.

Tropical and subtropical human forager groups all exhibit what we call a “sharing ethic.” Typically, this is manifest as social rules whereby if one person asks another for a particular thing, it is simply given. Both stinginess and gloating (over possession of something) are culturally proscribed. A person is judged by others on the basis of many things, but near the top of the list is a strong sharing ethic. It is even likely that people show off by trying to be the better sharer, and in some cases, the better not-shower-offer.

From a biological perspective it is thought that sharing is necessary in foraging societies because the nature of foraging is such that no one individual can maintain a sufficiently consistent food supply over medium to long term on the basis of their own efforts. Only by division of labor (often by sex) and sharing, whereby one person with a surplus distributes that surplus one day, and in return benefits from the largess of others on other days, can an individual avoid periods of starvation that would sometimes last days or weeks (and thus possibly be fatal).

This argument, however, is weak on its own, because most (all?) tropical and subtropical foragers do have access most of the time to resources that are consistent over long periods. In most of these groups, females are able to obtain in a given day sufficient food for their immediate needs and the needs of their offspring. Males, on the other hand, tend to forage for resources that result in occasional abundance dispersed among days of an inadequate supply. Were humans to stop sharing in these groups, this could work out as long as everybody (males included) foraged in the female style.

However, the resources that males tend to obtain from the wild (mainly meat from hunting), despite their irregularity, may serve a critically important role – or more than one role. For example, basic cellular function, especially as related to growth and the immune system, require the synthesis of many proteins that are built from amino acids. Some of these amino acids are synthesized in one’s own cells, others are not and must be ingested … typically in the form of proteins in a variety of plant foods as well as animal foods. The amino acids are not interchangeable. Almost all proteins are made from a list of 20 amino acids that occur in varying degrees of abundance in various plant foods. If you eat only plant foods, there will always be one amino acid that is the rarest of those needed, so you must ingest a larger than optimal quantity of foods. But if you eat meat, you are ingesting a perfectly balanced set of amino acids. In other words, a very efficient way of growing and in certain ways maintaining your body is to eat other animal bodies.

So, it may turn out that the highly variable sources of “balanced” proteins … mainly meat from hunting … are a critical resource for this (and other) reasons. So while day to day energy needs cannot be met among these forager groups from hunting (that comes mainly from the plant foods), the needs of growth and immune system function and general cellular processes can be met with this variable food supply. But only if it is shared.

The problem this presents is actually psychological (or maybe I should just say neurological … brain based). Apes don’t share much. When chimpanzees forage — and they typically forage for relatively rare, high quality foods — they benefit by foraging alone because this reduces competition with other chimpanzees. They do not bring the food they find to any other place than where they found it in order to consume it.

In contrast, human foragers do two critically important things. First, they bring much of the food they forage to a central place — the forager “camp” as we call it. Since all the foragers in a given group (by definition) live in the same camp, they are therefore bringing this food into direct competition with other foragers. If they were chimps, the dominant chimps would just take the food from the lower ranked chimps, or small coalitions of cooperating individuals (usually males) would take any of the food they wanted from any of the other chimps.

The second thing foragers do is to process much of this food. This processing is often essential to make these food items edible. In other words, human foragers are finding items (plant parts) that are not edible by humans, and thus constitute a kind of VERY low quality food (zero or near zero caloric value) and by processing — including cooking with fire — turn this stuff into medium or high quality food.

The only way to do this second thing (turning the inedible into the edible) is to do the first thing, to have a central place foraging style. And the only way to do this is to have a social ethic that manages the concepts of possession, ownership, sharing, and so on.

How does this ethic emerge in an individual? A little introspection and reference to experience can help answer that question. Sharing, being fair (the opposite of “cheating”), a capacity to learn and live by certain social ethics and so on, emerge over several years in children with the continuous, time consuming, and energetically costly efforts of adults.

What are the social mechanisms that are at work in this aspect of childrearing?

Are there ways in which adults, who are at a stage in their lives when they are looking for possible mates, evaluate each other with respect to these behavioral qualities? Are there aspects of the human dating/mating/marriage rituals and patterns that demonstrate this?

Are there ways in which adults demonstrate these qualities, and if so, how do others ascertain if these demonstrations are false vs. honest indicators of a sharing ethic?

How does this play out in social relationships other than mating/marriage?

Are there conditions in which sharing is the inappropriate behavior? If so, how do individuals or subsets of society balance a sharing ethic and what might be called a selfish ethic?

Do the manifestation of these behaviors vary across age and gender, or social class?

Humans are different from chimps in these critical aspects of behavior, and these differences are manifest in both ecological and reproductive aspects of human culture and society. Modern foragers demonstrate the human condition, and the way in which these problems have been solved through adaptive behaviors. What kinds of problems emerge in other kinds of human societies that have emerged only recently in human prehistory, such as agricultural societies where the value of land on which food is grown, or the efforts put into crop tending, create a new kind of resource — immobile, big, and vulnerable? What kinds of problems emerge in pastoral (i.e., cattle-keeping societies) in which the key resource is potentially VERY mobile, but still big and vulnerable? What are the resources that Western Industrial societies rely on and how is that managed? In other words, what would a list of evolutionary discordances — differences between the normal foraging way of life and other ways of life — look like?

An Evolutionary View of Humans 1: Introduction
An Evolutionary View of Humans 2: Sleep
An Evolutionary View of Humans 3: Remembering Names
An Evolutionary View of Humans 4: Sharing
An Evolutionary View of Humans 5: The Opposite Sex

An Evolutionary View of Humans 3: Remembering Names

Efe people
Ituri Forest
Anthrophoto is an
excellent source for
anthropology stock

How good are you at remembering names? If you are really good … if you can hear someone’s name once and always remember it … you have a calling as a politician. If you would otherwise suck as a politician, but are good at explaining things, maybe a job as a teacher (but that requires other skills as well). In any event, you are a rare bird.

Humans have typically lived in small groups. This is especially true of foragers. Not only are these groups fairly small, but they are also fairly stable. The movement that does occur between groups is typically restricted to a larger “meta-group” consisting of a few different small groups. In other words, if you are a forager sitting around with the people you live with … the people in your “residence group” as we call it … the person sitting across from you is most likely someone whom you’ve known all your life (or visa versa, depending on your relative age).

Just as importantly, the total number of people you will know during your entire life well may stay in the hundreds. That’s total. Compare that to your own “Western” experience. Count the people in each neighborhood you’ve ever lived in (whom you knew), the people in all the different grades of school you’ve been in, and the people at all the different workplaces you’ve worked in. That is probably a large number. If it is a small number, then you don’t’ get out enough. You should get out more. At least go see a movie or something…

The point of this is that remembering names is something we have not evolved to do well for at least two reasons: 1) Everybody you run into is someone you already know (most of the time) and 2) Everybody you know is someone you’ve known for a long time, so you get a long time to remember their names.

There may be another aspect of this as well, but I simply do not know how broadly this applies across forager societies. In at least some societies, it is typical to use personal names only rarely. The day to day conversation among people in many camps and villages of which I am aware makes reference to people by kinship or other generic terms, not names. During my research in the Ituri, I participated in a long term project (as a trained helper) in which we collected demographic and physical data from a large sample of people. This was something all participants in the project agreed to do in order to maintain and grow a large and important data base. As part of this a couple of us would show up in some camp (of Efe) or village (of the horticultural Lese people in the same area) and run down the list, checking off who was still in the village, getting a body weight, a few other bits of information, etc.

There were times when I would ask, say, Joe, who that person over there was (to avoid the embarrassment of not knowing) and Joe would say “oh, that’s my sister.” Then I would say “what’s her name, you have two sisters” and Joe would yell across the compound “Hey dad, what’s my older sister’s name…”


This would be partly because Joe would normally refer to his sister as “my sister” rather than by her name, and partly because nine years ago, Joe’s sister had a baby boy named, say, Frank, and has been since known as “mother of Frank.”

(There are of course other occasions, well known in anthropological circles, where a person cannot say a certain other person’s name. Maybe your culture prohibits you from naming an inlaw, for instance. I am not talking about this situation here.)

The point is that the Western concept of personal names and how they are used is fairly culturally specific. What seems like a common deficit, the general difficulty we have in remembering names when we first hear them, is actually quite expected.

There reason you can’t remember anyone’s name is because there are too many names to remember and you haven’t had a chance yet. And evolution. Not your fault.

An Evolutionary View of Humans 1: Introduction
An Evolutionary View of Humans 2: Sleep
An Evolutionary View of Humans 3: Remembering Names
An Evolutionary View of Humans 4: Sharing
An Evolutionary View of Humans 5: The Opposite Sex