Category Archives: Evolution and Genomics

Homo naledi and the braided stream of humanity. It’s miscegenation all the way down.

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Above are reconstructions of three famous fossil hominins by paleo-artist John Gurche. From left to right: Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy), Homo erectus (Turkana boy) and recently discovered Homo naledi (paper). The Homo naledi announcement last month of fossils discovered in a cave in South Africa was a blockbuster for human origins. Even better, two more big origins papers were published in the past two weeks. The first on the oldest modern human teeth found in China, pushing the date of modern humans in Asia from ~45,000 to 80-100,000 years ago (paper). The second on the genome of a 4,500 year old Ethiopian (paper).

Continue reading Homo naledi and the braided stream of humanity. It’s miscegenation all the way down.

Homo Erectus – not so different from modern humans


Ancient Greeks believed ”whoever is not Greek is a barbarian.” Viewing other groups as subhuman is as old as humankind. In fact one way to measure historical progress is to note the expanding definition of what it means to be human, including more races, genders, cultures. Today we include every human on the planet. But let’s take this down another axis, into our evolutionary past. If we could magically resurrect our evolutionary forebears, how far back could we go before we’d have to admit these are apes, not people? It’s a thought experiment. Arguably we could call Homo Erectus close to modern, even though it’s one of the first in the genus homo.

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In favor of the Super Early Anthropocene

super city

The Anthropocene is a proposed epoch to add to the Geologic Time Scale (GTS), marking the start of human dominance of Earth’s climate and ecology. Our current Holocene epoch started 11,700 years ago and runs to present. At this point it seems likely the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which decides such things, will approve the Anthropocene epoch. But picking the start date has led to debate. The likely winner is roughly 1800, tied to the start of the industrial revolution and it’s steep rise in greenhouse gases. But William Ruddiman advocates an “Early Anthropocene”, starting around 8000 years ago when agriculture got started. For what it’s worth, I’m in the super early camp, and would argue the entire Holocene itself (from 11,700 years ago) should just be lumped in with the Anthropocene. Us humans have been wreaking havoc for a long, long time.

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Race and IQ. Can’t we all just get along?


Jason Richwine resigned from the conservative Heritage Foundation a few weeks ago because his PhD thesis titled IQ and Immigration Policy came to light with this choice media quote: “No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.” This kicked off predictable diatribes on race and IQ from both sides. So what’s new? Especially since I’ve already posted on genetics and intelligence before. Well the last major go round from 1994’s The Bell Curve was pre-twitter/early blog. So following this round live in the blogosphere gave a more nuanced view of where people are coming from. Hence the modest goal of this post is outlining the stronger arguments on race and IQ from both liberals and conservatives. Though with little expectation of changing anyone’s mind, including my own. Maybe I’m just getting old, but nowadays I’m feeling a deeper and deeper sympathy for Rodney King’s famous line pictured above.

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What are the risks of a global pandemic?


David Quammen’s latest book Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic is wonderfully written. As expected from someone the New York Times says “is not just among our best science writers but among our best writers, period.” And the Times is right, Quammen is awesome. I loved his widely praised The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction. A mashup of nature travel, science and adventure that really works.The place to start if you haven’t read Quammen. Spillover uses the same template, but is not nearly as good. It’s drags and could have been cut by a third. But worse is the alarmist take on the risks of a pandemic. Some historical and evolutionary context will explain my reaction.

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What sport are humans best evolved for?


Cheetahs are the fastest land animal. Sailfish the fastest swimmers. Pumas the highest jumpers. So which sport do humans excel at? Slate claims it’s endurance running. They made this claim as part of their coverage of the totally awesome Man versus Horse marathon, a 22 mile long annual Welsh race of humans versus horses. Now of course picking which sport we’re best evolved for is rather silly, but it’s also interesting if you think about it. Since I’ve seen this topic before, I wanted to give my pick.

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Perfect meritocracy replaces class with caste


The still above is from the movie The Time Machine based on H.G. Wells’ book. It’s the scene where the uber-Morlock meets the time traveling human, who had been hanging out with the Eloi. This dystopia came to mind as I was thinking about Razib Khan’s post “The end of environmental inequality means the rise of genetic inequality”. I want to shamelessly steal from Khan’s post to do my own version, since it’s a disturbing way to think about rising inequality. In fact the title of this post is a shortened version of Khan’s last sentence: A perfect meritocracy would replace cultural class with biological caste.

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The Genomic Tsunami. Reshaping arguments for Human Equality.


This is part 3 of a 3 part series. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

In part 1, we saw how the 10,000 fold decease in genome sequencing costs is creating a golden age for genomics biology. In part 2, we reviewed recent debates about race, genetics and intelligence. Now we can put this together and see how the genomic tsunami is reshaping existing arguments around genes, race, intelligence and human equality.

Continue reading The Genomic Tsunami. Reshaping arguments for Human Equality.

Genomics goes from trickle to flood


This is part 2 of a 3 part series. Part 1 is here. Part 3 is here.

In part 1, we saw how the 10,000 fold decrease in genome sequencing costs has ushered in a golden age for genomic biology. This onslaught of genetic data is upending a lot of old views, and in particular it’s starting to spill over into longstanding debates about genes, racism and human equality. But before going there, let’s review some history. The theme here on genes and racism is that nobody escapes looking good. No one can handle the truth, myself included.

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