Monday, September 30, 2013

Humans are probably not failed chimps

You can sequence genes on a computer, email them to a lab and a week later, for $100, receive a vial of DNA.
(Ellen Jorgensen, molecular biologist)

The approaching brick wall

Paleogenomics is a relatively new field, whereby small bits of DNA can be extracted from small fragments of bones, providing additional data about the history of human evolution. The Neanderthal genome was generated from 3 small bones and later a toe bone. But, to digress for a moment.

Three stories appeared recently about the “human condition,” that reminded me that the last divergent branch of the evolutionary “bush” was likely Neanderthal. While evolution itself is slow, what is different today is that for the first time in human history evolutionary change has the potential to move much faster because of the extraordinary discoveries in genetics.

This of course is hardly a reason to be uncritically optimistic about the future of our species. These stories, however, also raise the question about nature and nurture and the role that both environment and genes play in “who we are.”

The first story is about a National Rifle Association (NRA) lobbyist  and the killing of an elephant in Botswana. What this particular individual did was not illegal—but will be in 2014. In fact, as the human population increases and we more and more encroach on animal habitats, it is the animal that invariably loses. Authorized “hunts” serve to reduce animal populations and provide funding (hunting fees) to support wildlife reserves, at least this is part of the rationale offered for the killings.

This particular story generated a fair amount of criticism directed at the hunter. In response, this N.R.A. lobbyist called his critics “animal Nazis” and claimed that he was a “hunter” and hunters kill animals. No, he's not a hunter, just someone with a high-powered rifle with too much time on his hands. See the video below and read NRA lobbyist shoots elephantin the face and then celebrates with champagne.

The second story is entitled, Teamof contract killers led by ex-soldier 'Rambo' busted, prosecutorssay. Finally, the last story was produced by documentary film-maker Mariah Wilson. This is a clip from Revealing Hate.

These stories could be replicated across the globe, yet they offer some examples, it seems to me, of a particular sub-species of humankind, an anachronism perhaps, a “throwback” to our past that began over a million years ago. How in fact do we go about increasing such qualities as generosity, trust and empathy in our species. How do we go about “repairing” a poorly functioning cingulate cortex, that part of our brain essential for self-awareness?

The story of the gun lobbyist killing the elephant is largely a story about that minority of privileged human across the globe with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement and obtuseness ... yet, what environmental factors, if any, create the mentality of these primitive death eaters? The other two stories speak for themselves.

Our Neanderthal connection

What is significant about sequencing the Neanderthal genome is that the Neanderthal died out only some 25,000 years ago; we're not trying to find comparisons that go back millions of years. Approximately 2.5 percent of our DNA, outside of Africa, came from Neanderthal. Our two species most probably met between 65,000 and 95,000 years ago. After that there was no more interbreeding.

Scientist do not know for certain what caused the extinction of Neanderthal but a “popular” hypothesis is that humans out-competed them because of more advanced language skills. We know that the FOXP2 gene, the instinct for speech and grammar, is identical in Neanderthal, but genes in cognitive development are different in humans and Neanderthal,quite possibly to have solved different sets of problems, anticipating prey for example.

Will a certain percentage of humans go extinct or will we manage to destroy our species completely, ideally without bringing misery to all life on the planet?

Additional Reading:

On Extinction

How Your Brain Works

Humans and Lions Sharing Space

No comments: