Neanderthal genome unveiling to coincide with Darwin's birthday

February 12th — keep this date in mind and prepare your browser on automatic refresh because the Neanderthal genome is to be unveiled. And just to make it extra special, the date on which we’ll dip into the three billion base pairs of our extinct relative is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin‘s birth. Here’s a little extract from the Nature article just to peak your interest:

Comparisons with the human genome may uncover evidence of interbreeding between Neanderthals and humans, the genomes of which overlap by more than 99%. They certainly had enough time for fraternization — Homo sapiens emerged as a separate species by about 400,000 years ago, and Neanderthals became extinct just 30,000 years ago. Their last common ancestor lived about 660,000 years ago, give or take 140,000 years.

I can’t think why we wouldn’t have interbred with Neanderthals. Language of course is one possible reason, acting as a symbolic marker of group boundaries to such an extent that even cultural differences within humans would minimise gene flow (assuming language, or even a protolanguage, was around then). That said, even contemporary humans are quite willing to fuck goats (and god knows what else). So why not the Neanderthals?

N.B. If you’re not familiar with they dynamics surrounding the possibility of Neanderthals having contributed some genes to modern humans, then I strongly suggest you read John Hawks’ Neanderthal FAQ. Also, check out his sections on adaptive introgression.

Current Issues in Language Evolution

As part of my assessment this term I’m to write four mock peer-reviewed items for a module called Current Issues in Language Evolution. It’s a great module run by Simon Kirby, examining some of the best food for thought in the field. Alone this is an interesting endeavour, after all we’re right in the middle of a language evolution renaissance, however, even cooler are the lectures, where students get to do their own presentations on a particular paper. I already did my presentation at the start of this term, on Dediu and Ladd’s paper, which went rather well, even if one of my slip ups did not go unnoticed (hint: always label the graphs). So, over the next few weeks, in amongst additional posts covering some of the presentations in class, I’ll hopefully be writing articles on these four five papers:

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ASPM, Microcephalin and Tone

ResearchBlogging.orgDisclaimer: I know this post is on a paper released over a year ago; however, I’m still going to write about it for three reasons: 1) I did a presentation about it earlier this week (20/01/08); 2) I think it relates to a recent buzz around gene-culture co-evolution; and, 3) It’s a bloody awesome paper.

So, what is the paper called? Okay, once you read this title, do not yawn, go to another website or… Linguistic tone is related to the population frequency of the adaptive haplogroups of the two brain size genes, ASPM and Mircocephalin. See, now we’ve got the hard part out of the way, I can begin to discuss exactly what the authors, Dan Dediu and Robert ‘Bob’ Ladd, found and why it’s important to our understanding of linguistics, genetics and evolution. It’s really interesting, honestly.
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Swarm Intelligence

I just finished watching this great BBC documentary about swarm intelligence. Ignoring the presenter’s attempt to inspire fear in us mere humans, with ominous suggestions of a great red fire ant invasion, swarm intelligence is basically the notion that swarms of creatures (such as the aforementioned ant) work as a collective consciousness. It makes intuitive sense: more minds = more processing power. Of course, these species have been shaped by natural selection to function in this eusocial manner, although whether or not we’re discussing inclusive fitness, superorganisms or something else remains outside the programme’s scope. In fact, the term swarm intelligence doesn’t seem to be a conventional term amongst biologists; too many anthropomorphic connotations no doubt.

Sadly, it is was only available on the BBC until 21.39 GMT, today! yesterday. So get watching. Instead, I’ll leave you with the first youtube video I could find about swarm intelligence, which is actually nothing to do with animals and more to do with computing, networks and information management:

Orangutans – probably more interesting than you

ResearchBlogging.orgIn the past few years there has been a recent spate of articles concerning orangutan intelligence. So, as I’m fairly bored, and in need of a break from university work, I’ve decided to write a bit of an essay on some of these finds.

Orangutans… They’re orange, right?

Correct; but Pongo pygmaeus abelii are so much more than just some arboreal orange ape that eats a lot of fruit. In fact, these great apes, the last surviving members of the genus Pongo, are highly resourceful and intelligent creatures, as evident in their ability to make and use tools, perform calculated reciprocity and even whistle a tune.

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Schizophrenia and brain evolution (plus bold adjectives)

ResearchBlogging.org When exploring the etiology of schizophrenia, a feat that has mostly eluded understanding for over 100 years, a common denominator emerges in that associated deficiencies are rooted in cognitively demanding tasks. One suggestion is that, where schizophrenic individuals are involved, disorganised thoughts, abnormal speech, auditory hallucinations and paranoid delusions are symptomatic consequences of our haphazardly evolved brains. It might not seem revelatory, nor is it a particularly new thought on the matter, yet this disorder clearly has ties with human-specific, recently evolved behaviours, such as language and social relationships. And it is here in which our problem emerges: we don’t even know how language or social relationships evolved. In fact, the evolution of the human brain is still very much an enigma, despite the whole host of literature having you believe otherwise. As Darwin put it: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge[…]”.

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Happy New Year (and get ready to die)

If you’re part of science blogging community, then you’ll probably know that my festive title relates to the Yellowstone Caldera; and how it’s going to cause our impending doom (date tbc). Basically, earthquake activity around Yellowstone has increased, as you can see for yourself, which may or may not be indicative of your death. After all, if we’re to believe the BBC docudrama of the aforementioned caldera, dramatically dubbed a supervolcano, things won’t be so rosy if the lava starts flowing and the dust begins to rise. Still, it would be slightly ironic, and even poetic, if there are still some of us around to appreciate things, that our end comes from something unrelated to greedy bankers and global warming.

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