How Cooking Made Us Human

March 21, 2019

I just finished reading Catching Fore: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham. It makes an interesting case that food — and the cooking of food — helped drive the evolution of human beings.

Following a detailed energy analysis comparing raw and cooked food, Wrangham, Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard, posits that homo erectus evolved out of autralopithecines around 1.8 million years ago primarily as a result of the introduction of cooking.  The softness of processed food drove the visible changes between the species in jaw and tooth structure and gut size, while the increase of energy imparted to the food by cooking helped accelerate the massive growth in cranial capacity in erectus.

He also suggests that the evolution of homo erectus to homo heielbergensis (a precursor to homo sapiens) around 700,000 years ago is contemporaneous with evidence showing a more complete control of fire.  Moreover, he argues that the societal and cultural changes introduced through the security of fire and the sharing of cooked food are implicated in the emergence of the big-brained homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago.  These are big claims which he backs up with considerable evidence from both the paleo-archaeologcal record and studies of modern hunter-gatherers.

I enjoyed the book thoroughly and I learned a great deal.  However, Catching Fire was published in 2009.  In the decade since, there have been enormous strides taken in our knowledge of the human family tree. In that time we have discovered the Denisovans, re-evaluated the Neanderthals, and added homo naledi and homo floriensis to the list of our forebears, along with much else.  I’ll need to see how Wrangham’s arguments stack up against the new discoveries.

Whatever the result of that comparison, Catching Fire is well worth the read for anyone interested in the origins of humanity and food.

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The Mother Elephant

March 16, 2019

Image: Will Burrard-Lucas

There are some extraordinarily glorious shots of this magnificent animal in an article in Hyperallergic featuring images by Will Burrard-Lucas.

Well worth the look.


Remembering A Lost Opportunity

February 13, 2019

It is with immense sadness that we contemplate the death of the Mars rover Opportunity.

Sent to the red planet in January 2004 with an anticipated lifetime of just 90 days, Opportunity found ways to survive, to keep moving, and to keep sending us vital scientific information until last summer.  In the course of its life, it traversed more than 28 miles of the planet’s surface.

In June 2018, the rover was covered by a massive dust storm, clogging her solar panels, and cutting her off from communication with earth. NASA engineers have tried to contact the rover but, finally, have had to give up the attempt.

Opportunity has given us more than a decade of extraordinary learning; she will be missed.


Pandora’s Seed Fails To Blossom

December 13, 2018

I spent a week reading “Pandora’s Seed: The Unforseen Cost of Civilization” by the National Geographic Society’s Explorer-in-Residence Spencer Wells, and I was thoroughly disappointed.

I’m guessing that if it was a reader’s very first introduction to the disasters caused by the Neolithic Revolution — hierarchy, stress, planet destruction — then perhaps some of the chapters would be of value. But for the many who have studied this topic for a long time, including a couple of mentions on this blog, this was little more than a recap.

There was too much of the Sunday supplement style of writing, describing flights to exotic locales, cab journeys, and the minutia of other scientists’ looks.  I sometimes thought I was reading the lead-in to a People profile. He did have the occasional good line; perhaps the best of which correctly describes agriculture as “a virus, expanding in influence despite its negative effects on human health.”

But this was generally too shallow a dive for me.


William Smith and the Discovery of Geology

December 9, 2018

A review of “The Map That Changed The World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology” by Simon Winchester.

Winchester is an extraordinarily prolific writer with at least 18 full-length titles to his name, most of which have been very well received, and scores of magazine and TV articles. I have previously read his “The Professor and the Madman” (about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary) and “Krakatoa.”  He has developed a non-fiction style that is eminently readable while packing in an immensity of well-researched material.

William_Smith_(geologist)His story of William Smith, the low-born farmer’s son who first understood the stratification of geological layers and, more importantly, the value of the specific fossils found in each layer, is brilliantly told.  Smith’s trials and tribulations, including a period in debtors’ prison — many of which were a direct result of the English class system in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are described in detail, as is his ultimate triumph and celebration as an old man.

In between this very human story, Winchester weaves a clear portrait of the science that Smith discovered — the lie of the ancient rocks across England — and the great hand-coloured Geological Map that he finally published in 1815.  An item of particular interest was the use of his discoveries by those — the majority — who still believed that the earth was just 4,000 years old, while many scientists quietly, secretly, realized that Smith had shown the earth to be a far more ancient object.

A very good read.


A Whole New Kingdom Of Life

November 16, 2018

When we try to classify the myriad forms of life on earth, the most fundamental breakdowns are at the Kingdom level:  we have the Kingdoms of Animals, of Plants, of Bacteria, of Fungi. All life as we knew it fit into one of the Kingdoms and could be classified and linked as such.

Except, that is, for the few hemimastigotes that were then known.

In a lucky find, as reported by CBC, Canadian researchers identified two more species of these rare creatures. More importantly, perhaps, they captured the genomic information.  From that analysis, they are happy to announce that hemimastigotes are so different from all other life that they form a brand new fifth Kingdom all of their own..

It is so rare an event that the Tree of Life is reorganized so radically, that we need at least to report it.


Whales and Their Odd Sleep

November 13, 2018

What is it that we don’t already know about whales? They have been the planet’s favourite cause for many years now. Well, it seems that they don’t need very much sleep; and the sleep they do get may only be in half their brain at any one time. So suggests some research from 2008.

Sperm whales literally drift to sleep, but it’s a snooze like no other, according to a recent study that found whales perform slow, rhythmic dives as they slumber. Because these drift dives keep the whales in constant motion as they rest, scientists now think the seafaring mammals sleep with one side of their brain at a time. The two sides alternate until both are rested …

whale sleeping

The scientists observed two types of drift dives. The first, head-up drift dives, happen when a whale’s rear end slowly sinks into the water from a horizontal posture. During the second type, head-down, the whale descends slowly with its head directed toward the ocean floor. It travels downward about one or two body lengths in depth before flipping back upward toward the water’s surface. The researchers think the whale’s internal buoyancy causes this natural upward motion, similar to how a sinking apple eventually bobs back to the surface …

“Their bodies have found a way to cope, offering evidence that sleep isn’t necessary for development, and raising the question of whether humans and other mammals have untapped physiological potential for coping without sleep,” said Jerome Siegel, director of the Center for Sleep Research at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Interesting research. There was more detail in the original story from Discover News, but the link now fails,