If, like me, you generally like the Guardian's science features, then please avoid reading Tim Radford's book club discussion of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel. Ever since I noticed this book was on the Guardian's reading list, it's been an ongoing curiosity of mine as to how they will tackle the subject. Mainly because Diamond's book, along with Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, urged me to move into studying evolution. Sadly, and perhaps not very surprisingly, you get little from the discussion bar an unequivocal acceptance of Diamond's central thesis: that of environmental determinism.
Nowhere is there a mention of ideas that stand somewhat in opposition to Diamond's, such as those in the 10,000 Year Explosion. Namely, the consequences of agriculture on recent human evolution, and the growing mountain of evidence supporting the contention that different human populations have adapted to their local environments.
And just to be clear: I think Diamond's book is a well-written, scholarly account of human history, and it's influence is not to be understated. But I also think he overlooked a large portion of the argument.
The study of culture, cultural evolution, gene-culture coevolution and niche construction have all received much more attention over the last decade. So it's nice to see Nature taking on-board a fascinating review by Kevin Laland, John Odling-Smee and Sean Myles about how culture shaped the human genome: bringing genetics and the human sciences together. It's really worth reading for anyone interested in the interactions between biology and culture. In particular, I was pleased to see them put forward the notion of culture having accelerated recent evolution, contra Stephen J. Gould's claim that "there's been no biological change in humans for 40,000 or 50,000 years". Here's the abstract:
Researchers from diverse backgrounds are converging on the view that human evolution has been shaped by gene–culture interactions. Theoretical biologists have used population genetic models to demonstrate that cultural processes can have a profound effect on human evolution, and anthropologists are investigating cultural practices that modify current selection. These findings are supported by recent analyses of human genetic variation, which reveal that hundreds of genes have been subject to recent positive selection, often in response to human activities. Here, we collate these data, highlighting the considerable potential for cross-disciplinary exchange to provide novel insights into how culture has shaped the human genome.
From the regulation and reproduction in bacteria colonies (Bassler, 2002) to complex smell and taste systems of humans (Van Toller & Dodd, 1988), the ability of sensing chemical stimuli, known as chemosensation, is believed to be the most basic and ubiquitous of senses (Bhutta, 2007). One strain of thought places chemosensation as merely an evolved ability to detect dangerous and volatile substances – such as putrefied food (see Bhutta, 2007). Still, the notion that this ability to detect chemical stimuli, particularly in the domain of smell, serves a purpose in communication is not necessarily a contemporary concept (Wyatt, 2009).
Here's some stuff I've been reading over the last month or so:
Okay, so that brings you up to date with my reading from May through to July. Next round up will cover August. How fascinating :-/
The debate concerning the origin of our minds stems back to the diverging opinions of Darwin (1871) and Wallace (1870). When Charles Darwin first discussed the evolution of our seemingly unique cognitive faculties, he proposed that there is “no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties.” (Darwin, 1871, pg. 66). Conversely, Wallace was suspicious of whether natural selection alone could have shaped the human mind, writing: “[...] that the same law which appears to have sufficed for the development of animals, has been alone the cause of man’s superior mental nature, [...] will, I have no doubt, be overruled and explained away. But I venture to think they will nevertheless maintain their ground, and that they can only be met by the discovery of new facts or new laws, of a nature very different from any yet known to us.” In the intervening years, the debate surrounding the degree of continuity between animal and human minds still rages on in contemporary discussions (Bolhuis & Wynne, 2009; Penn, Holyoak & Povinelli, 2009).
...Well, 60% of the genome at least. Not much has been said yet in regards to the nitty gritty aspects of Svante and colleagues' findings. No doubt John Hawks and many others will offer their own perspectives over the next couple of days. If you're interested in the immediate gist then here's a link to the press release. Also, here is a quote from the BBC offering a succinct summary:
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: