Human Evolution & Climate Change

Human Evolution & Climate Change

Submitted by Gary Snider, President, Eastman Humanist Community

One of my favourite writers on the topic of human evolution is William H. Calvin, a neurophysiologist from the University Of Washington School Of Medicine in Seattle. At age 79 he still teaches, travels extensively and writes on the great questions: Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? In his 2002 book “A Brain For All Seasons – Human Evolution and Abrupt Climate Change” he tackles the first two questions and offers interesting insights into our likely futures.

One of the appealing aspects of Calvin’s writing is its accessibility. He brings the reader along on his journey to Africa, (via Darwin’s home near London and a family reunion in Germany) to see places where great breakthroughs in our understanding of human origins occurred. This is more than a science history travelogue, and Calvin is both good company and a great tour guide, pulling in insights from brain science, anthropology, atmospheric climate and oceanography. At every stop along the way the weft and weave of what makes us human is illustrated with interesting stories and a good deal of wit.

For those who might not get around to reading this book, but are nonetheless interested in human evolution, I’d like to share a few bits that I found intriguing:

  1. Perhaps the biggest question, I had coming to this book was: “Why humans?” Why didn’t other omnivores like raccoons or bears evolve into big brained, socially complex beings too? And what about all the other primates (orangutans, chimps and bonobos) – what held them back? Calvin wastes no time laying out the canvas on which our human journey began. About 5 million years ago, the hominid line moves away from chimps and bonobos and the extant bone and footprint evidence shows that Australopiths, the first hominids, by 4 million years ago got around primarily by walking upright. Calvin postulates that this ability and a change in diet, from mostly veggies to one that increasingly included meat, propelled us along a different path. So when hard times came, in the form of a changing climate (think brush fires, drought and poor foraging for berries and fruit), our ancestors learned how to successfully scavenge the kills of big predators and eventually to be predators ourselves. While our primate cousins retreated to smaller habitats, our ancestors were able to eat grass, second-hand, by eating grazers.
  2. In Africa, our human ancestors repeatedly faced bottle-neck crises when climate moved rapidly from warm/wet to cool/dry periods. These cool/dry periods were drought times and forced our ancestors to live closer to rivers and waterholes. Being bipedal had great advantages where wading and tree climbing got us closer to food and away from predators. These bottleneck events also helped to cement the most useful adaptations and at some point, they led our ancestors to something that actually modified how our brains worked…
  3. Throwing. That’s right, the location in our brain that has the biggest role in helping us coordinate our arm and hand movements is also the part of the brain that deals with language. As we hung out in our watery refuges, we learned that a branch or rock tossed in amongst a herd of grazers, tightly packed together as they came for water, would occasionally provide a big payout. With lots of time, accuracy improved, and our brains improved too, doubling in size in just 1.5 million years.  Language could very well have been a hitchhiker that came along with precision in hand and arm movement. And language, even very simple proto language, is useful for organizing a lot of activities. So, what came along as a side benefit of throwing turned out to be a lever that further pushed our evolution.
  4. The Hand Axe: What was homo erectus doing with these odd things? They are roughly tear drop shaped, relatively flat, and range in size from dessert to salad plates and are worked to a sharp edge all around. In many places in the Rift Valley of Kenya they show up by the hundreds, concentrated locally in sediments of 1 to 1.8 million years. Were they an axe, a scraping tool, a core for making smaller blades, an anvil, a killer Frisbee? Calvin thinks the latter is most likely, but they were thrown edge up, to land vertically into the grazer herds at waterholes.
  5. The glacial period that took hold 250,000 years ago ushered in a “chattering age” with sudden swings in climates. The grassy Savannah that was the Sahara dried up and this pushed our ancestors into Asia and beyond. While the dry times were disastrous for some species, they were often boom times for humans who now followed herds of grazers. Dry times replaced forests with grasslands and as herd populations boomed, so did our ancestors.
  6. One of the challenges in hunter-gatherer groups is freeloading. It’s widely held that successful hominid hunters shared meat with both kin and non-kin, similar to the meat-sharing we see in chimps today. This altruistic behavior creates stronger social bonds but also leaves the group vulnerable to freeloaders. Language complexity came to the rescue. One theory is that the categories needed for argument in syntax arose in order to track benefits given and payback received. “But you owe me!” requires the categories of actors, recipients and benefits – complex language!

The book wraps up with Calvin warning us about where we’re likely headed.

As temperatures rise, large inflows of freshwater from the melting ice sheets atop Greenland and Antarctica have diminished and will eventually stop the sinking saline gyres in the Atlantic. These ocean currents appear to play an important regulatory role in the planet’s climate, as their presence supports the warm/wet periods (like the one that we’re enjoying now) and their absence extends the cool/dry periods (like the one that had a mile-high ice sheet on top of Manitoba). With over 7 billion people on our planet, the next bottle neck event has the very real chance of being a closing chapter for humans and our amazing evolution.

But the knowledge and creativity we’ve gained via past climate disruptions could serve and save us, even now. Calvin is ultimately hopeful that we can survive and thrive, if only we use our future predicting abilities and capacity for problem solving and planning wisely. That’s up to you and me!

There is a cure for [insert disease name here] but …

There is a cure for [insert disease name here] but …

Conspiracy theories. Despite logic and reason, they seem to live and breath and spread, infiltrating our “news” and belief systems almost like they had a life of their own. Did man really walk on the moon or was it all filmed in some Hollywood film studio? Is the earth flat? Do vaccines cause autism? Was 9/11 an inside job? Are there cures for diseases but big pharmaceuticals are suppressing them?

I recently had a debate on a Facebook Group I’m a member of where a member (quite a few members, actually) contended that there was already a cure for type 1 diabetes, but that pharmaceuticals made too much money from the treatment, so the cure would never be released. As a person with type 1 diabetes, I’ll use this as the main disease discussed in this post, but it could just as easily be any type of cancer, MS, etc.

Quotes from this specific Facebook group conversation include:

“I’m pretty sure there is a cure but it’s being suppressed.”

“I think they know cures for many things but it generates money for them so they don’t announce it :(“

“Haha haven’t any of you heard of Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA)? Anyone working for any company sits, bound by an NDA… if they speak, they can be sued for millions upon millions of dollars. Most scientists dont (sic) have to money to break an NDA. And this goes for poor researchers. Their “investors” own the findings.”

“I doubt we ever will… there’s too much money to be made. The health and pharmaceutical industry only cares about profiting off our lives and getting money in their pocket.”

For an online community with nearly 10,000 members, there were surprisingly few voices opposing this conspiracy theory!

So let’s ask some questions.

  1. One Facebook group member insinuated that it was a “well known fact” that cures would never be released. So, my question is, if that was true, and it’s well known, why are there still medical researchers and scientists? Who would enter any field of medical research knowing that it’ll be completely irrelevant? The short answer I, is no one! The long answer is nooooo onnnnnnnne! I would imagine that the scientist who discovers the cure to type 1 diabetes (or any disease) would be celebrated around the world! He or she would be win both financially and professionally. Imagine the speaking tours, job offers, books written! Imagine – a Nobel prize! That might be worth a value of approximately $1.4 million, give or take (based on 2009 value). This, I would think, would be the holy grail of the medical research world. And would the title or the money be what you’d value the most?
  2. Obviously, researchers and scientists have diseases too, as do their family members and close friends, right? So, let’s say a researcher and their team find a cure for T1 diabetes and, oops, one of them or a family member has T1 diabetes. They’ve signed that darned Non-Disclosure Agreement though! So, “sorry family member/friend. I have the cure, which I can’t even tell you about, never mind offer it to you, or I’ll get sued!” The super human ability everyone would require keeping his a secret like this, is quite frankly, impossible.
  3. Do cures come about without human trials? I don’t know this 100%, but I’m going to say no. I mean, how could you determine something to be a cure if it hasn’t been tested on humans. So, let’s say that I’m asked to be a member of trial for a potential cure for type 1 diabetes. Now, my whole family and most of my friends know that I have it. They’ve seen me give myself needles or suffer through a hypoglycemic event. They’ve seen me check my blood sugar. But, through my participation in this trial, I am cured! No more needles, no more hypoglycemia/hyperglycemia events. No more preplanning every single meal or snack, no more finger sticks to check my blood sugar levels so many times throughout the day! Yes! Let’s celebrate! Oh wait – I’ve signed an NDA too so I can’t tell anyone. What to do, what to do? I guess I could fake it for the rest of my life and pretend that I still have it in order to honour my NDA? But, wow, would that be a pain in the a$$! I’m not even sure I could sustain that act for a few decades. Maybe the pharmaceuticals would just pay off everyone I know? But then, they’d have to also pay off all the other trial participants, plus their family and friends. And don’t forget the nurses, any of all our collective family doctors, endocrinologists, the medical office staff who maintain our medical records, maybe even the pharmacists and their staff! And don’t forget the lab that takes our 3 month A1C blood tests. How much will all this cost?

To wrap up, the entire notion that cures exist but are not being made available to the public is just pure rubbish. There is money to be made in cures. And if, just if, this whole conspiracy were true, it would be tantamount to medical genocide. I don’t buy any of it. I’m sure I’m not alone.

Heather Murray

Would We be Better Off if we Could Go Back in History?

Would We be Better Off if we Could Go Back in History?

This is a tiny snippet from Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature where he addresses this question.

We hear people complaining about the decline of morality in society and the increase of violence. Often the idea is that if only we could go back in time to when we didn’t have the technology we have today, when people believed in the traditional way of life and in God, when people were much kinder, more peaceable, and moral than they are today.

The question is, is there truth to this idea? Has humanity become more violent, less moral?

Stephen Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature describes this perfectly in the last pages of the last chapter in this 2000 (and some) page book. Below is what he wrote.

Quoted directly from The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker (beginning page 1564).

“A loathing of modernity is one of the great constants of contemporary social criticism. Whether the nostalgia is for small-town intimacy, ecological sustainability, communitarian solidarity, family values, religious faith, primitive communism, or harmony with the rhythms of nature, everyone longs to turn back the clock. What has technology given us, they say, but alienation, despoliation, social pathology, the loss of meaning, and a consumer culture that is destroying the planet to give us McMansions, SUVs, and reality television?

Lamentations of a fall from Eden have a long history in intellectual life, as the historian Arthur Herman has shown in The Idea of Decline in Western History. And ever since the 1970s, when romantic nostalgia became the conventional wisdom, statisticians and historians have marshaled facts against it. The titles of their books tell the story: The Good News Is the Bad News Is Wrong, It’s Getting Better All the Time, The Good Old Days – They Were Terrible!, The Case for Rational Optimism, The Improving State of the World, The Progress Paradox, and most recently, Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist and Charles Kenny’s Getting Better. (Note: I included this paragraph in case somebody wants to look up/purchase the books listed here by Steven Pinker.)

These defenses of modernity recount the trials of daily living before the advent of affluence and technology. Our ancestors, they remind us, were infested with lice and parasites and lived above cellars heaped with their own feces. Food was bland, monotonous, and intermittent. Health care consisted of the doctor’s saw and the dentist’s pliers. Both sexes labored from sunrise to sundown whereupon they were plunged into darkness. Winter meant months of hunger, boredom, and gnawing loneliness in snowbound farmhouses.

But it was not just mundane physical comforts that our recent ancestors did without. It was also the higher and nobler things in life, such as knowledge, beauty, and human connection. Until recently most people never traveled more than a few miles from their place of birth. Everyone was ignorant of the vastness of the cosmos, the prehistory of civilization, the genealogy of living things, the genetic code, the microscopic world, and the constituents of matter and life. Musical recordings, affordable books, instant news of the world, reproductions of great art, and filmed dramas were inconceivable, let alone available in a tool that can fit in a shirt pocket. When children emigrated, their parents might never see them again, or hear their voices, or meet their grandchildren. And then there are modernity’s gifts of life itself: the additional decades of existence, the mothers who live to see their newborns, the children who survive their first years on earth. When I stroll through old New England graveyards, I am always struck by the abundance of tiny plots and poignant epitaphs. “Elvina Maria, died July 12, 1945; aged 4 years, and 9 months. Forgive this tear, a parent weeps. ‘Tis here, the faded floweret sleeps.”

Even with all these reasons why no romantic would really step into a time machine, the nostalgic have always been able to pull out one moral card: the profusion of modern violence. At least, they say, our ancestors did not have to worry about muggings, school shootings, terrorist attacks, holocausts, world wars, killing fields, napalm, gulags, and nuclear annihilation. Surely no Boeing 747, no antibiotic, no iPod is worth the suffering that modern societies and their technologies can wreak.

And here is where unsentimental history and statistical literacy can change our view of modernity. For they show that nostalgia for a peaceable past is the biggest delusion of all. We now know that native peoples, whose lives are so romanticized in today’s children’s books, had rates of death from warfare that were greater than those of our world wars. The romantic visions of medieval Europe omit the exquisitely crafted instruments of torture and are innocent of the thirty-fold greater risk of murder in those times. The centuries for which people are nostalgic were times in which the wife of an adulterer could have her nose cut off, children as young as eight could be hanged for property crimes, a prisoner’s family could be charged for easement of irons, a witch could be sawn in half, and a sailor could be flogged to a pulp. The moral commonplaces of our age, such as that slavery, war, and torture are wrong, would have been seen as saccharine sentimentality, and our notion of universal human rights almost incoherent. Genocide and war crimes were absent from the historical record only because no one at the time thought they were a big deal. From the vantage point of almost seven decades after the world wars and genocides of the first half of the 20th century, we see that they were not harbingers of worse to come, nor a new normal to which the world would grow inured, but a local high from which it would bumpily descend. And the ideologies behind them were not woven into modernity but atavisms that ended up in the dustbin of history.

The forces of modernity – reason, science, humanism, individual rights – have not, of course, pushed steadily in one direction; nor will they ever bring about a utopia or end the frictions and hurts that come with being human. But on top of all the benefits that modernity has brought us in health, experience, and knowledge, we can add its role in the reduction of violence.”

Helen Friesen

Natural Beauty

I’ve been thinking a lot about the beauty and complexity of nature and it’s processes and how I feel as though I was let down by my Christian education growing up. So I’ve decided to read through Bill Bryson’s “A Short History Of Nearly Everything” again and write a bit of it down. Hopefully my ramblings will be somewhat coherent and not too dull.

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” -Carl Sagan (or Sharon Begley)

The atoms, that make you up, have been around since before our solar system began. And with great luck your lineage has survived all of earth’s great extinctions.

  1. End Ordovician, 444 million years ago, 86% of species lost
  2. Late Devonian, 375 million years ago, 75% of species lost
  3. End Permian, 251 million years ago, 96% of species lost
  4. End Triassic, 200 million years ago, 80% of species lost
  5. End Cretaceous, 66 million years ago, 76% of all species lost

Never mind the complexity of finding a mate and being fit enough to eat, evade predators, and reproduce. You should congratulate yourself for making it as far as you have.

How do we know all of this? 

As far as we know, we started off as a dot. All matter and energy in the universe was in that one dimensional dot smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. Something happened, we have no idea what, but the dot exploded. After about a second our universe was a million billion miles across and billions of degrees hot. As it cooled and expanded nearly all of matter in the universe was created in just a few minutes. There is a great deal we don’t know. And what we do know, we haven’t known for very long. The big bang theory has been around for less than 100 years, about the same amount of time as we’ve known that galaxies exist.

Right now we guess we’re about 13.7 billion years old. But if you turn on an old tv, the static that you see is partly made from photons (now microwaves) created back at the beginning of time. A snapshot, if you will, of the beginning of the universe called cosmic background radiation. And we’ve used this snapshot since the 1970’s, when we first discovered it, to determine our age.

When Pat Morrow and I spoke to a group of high school students earlier this year, just under half of the class were young earth creationists. I feel that their education is failing them in the same way as it did me.

~ Jordan Kroeker