Saturday, September 29, 2012

Step Lively, You Gorillas

Photo: tom2001
BBC 9/29/12
“Great apes, such as gorillas, chimps and bonobos, are running out of places to live, say scientists.
“They have recorded a dramatic decline in the amount of habitat suitable for great apes, according to the first such survey across the African continent.”
Oh come on, how can that be? Why should declining habitat bother them? I have it from very good sources that when ones habitat disappears, one adapts to the new situation. We did that when the forest dried up from under us, we learned to walk to the next patch of berries. That’s what the paleoanthropologists tell you. If it was easy enough for us, how come it’s so difficult for gorillas? How come they don’t just learn to walk away like we did? Dumb gorillas.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Going to Pot

Prohibition is a capitalist plot. As soon as Prohibition was enforced, society lost control of the booze market. It opened the flood gates; now anyone could buy alcohol: men, women, and children. Children? Why not? Who’s watching? Enormous splurge in the market. For the first time, women began going regularly to bars; changed their whole design (the bars, not the women), they had to add bathrooms.

Not to mention no taxes. Pure profit, through and through. Free market economy at its best, a capitalist’s dream. And they made it big, ask the Kennedys. Really big. Of course, because booze was illegal, all those capitalists making huge profits on its sale were, unfortunately (ask the Kennedys) labeled “criminals.” Oh sure, sometimes someone ended up with a horse’s head in their bed, but that’s all part of doing business. Nothing stopping one of those criminals’ kids from becoming President, now is there? This is America, after all, the Land of Opportunity and Redemption.

But I digress.

It does make me wonder, though, about the Sheriff of Umatilla County. He showed up with one of the more creative oppositions to legalization that I’ve heard: “Legalization will open the field to criminal operations. When there’s nothing left to stop them, they’ll set up shop all over Oregon.”

Is it just me, or is that ass-backwards? Who does he think currently grows marijuana in Oregon, a several billion dollar a year market? Am I interpreting the law wrong, or aren’t all those growers currently criminals? And if it’s legal, how can a grower be a criminal?

The Sheriff does, though, point to the future in a significant way. There is no doubt that marijuana is one of the top income crops in America. Given its illegality, the futures market on marijuana is not tracked, but, trust me, it’s bullish. It is, at the same time, completely untaxed and unregulated. It’s Prohibition all over again except that people are dying in Mexico because of it, not just Chicago. The money is uncountable. Or, more properly, no one’s counting it.

We should.

Need I say more? Any fool can do the math. Any fool can see the consequences. Any fool.

While we’re diddling around saying we shouldn’t legalize pot because the medical marijuana program is broken—a non sequitur if there ever was one—the opportunity to cash in on the market is dwindling away. Rather than fighting legalization, we should be gearing up for it. It’s going to come one day soon enough, and those places ready to cash in when it comes will be far ahead of the game. Oregon is perfectly placed to capture a major share of that emerging market. But we have to act fast. Washington and Colorado are also on the way to establishing brands. California won’t be far behind. We already have an excellent culinary reputation; we can do the same with cannabis, I guarantee it.

We need a Tilth for the marijuana trade. We need someone certifying growers and product. We need state quality assurance. We need to get a control on the market before it races past us.

The Sheriff should take note of what happened when Prohibition was repealed. Sales shrank, the market constricted for a brief while, anyway. One reason? Kids couldn’t buy booze anymore, the underground market totally dried up. And suddenly the government raked in a bundle of taxes. Wouldn’t that be nice? (Or is that a little too socialistic? Redistribution of the wealth, and all? Why pick on one of the last bastions of free enterprise?)

“Acme Buds: From High in the Mountains of Oregon.” We have to be quick or we’ll be left behind. I know that’s hard for a bunch of pot smokers—to be quick—but it’ll pay off big time.

Get off your duff and vote!
Thanks to sheriffdan10

Monday, September 24, 2012

A Hunting We Will Go

Bad day at the office.
Well, there you go. I didn’t even know there was controversy about humans hunting. Why else would we stand up? Today’s (9/24/12) headline in The Guardian: “Humans hunted for meat 2 million years ago. Evidence from ancient butchery site in Tanzania shows early man was capable of ambushing herds up to 1.6 million years earlier than previously thought.”

But wait, wait. We’ve been shaping tools for 2.5 million years. What did they think we were using those tools for? Making boats?

Scavengers? Humans? You’ve got to be kidding, right? Why would the top predator in the world be a scavenger? Not that they’d turn down luck, but if you’re trying to make it by chasing down road kill, I don’t think you’re going to make it to the top of the food chain. Are the chimps scavengers? No. Who came up with that scenario?

And making tools. All we know is that by 2.5 mya people were shaping rocks into scrapers and blades and hand-axes. The question becomes, of course, how long had they been using stones as tools before they hit upon shaping them? Not to mention, did they even begin with stone tools? Chimps go after their game with spears they fashion themselves out of wood. It’s reasonable to think that, when we split from the chimps, we were doing the same. It’s reasonable to think that we kept on making wooden spears until we figured out how to make and affix stone points to them.

It’s not unreasonable to think that, perhaps, what caused the split between us and the chimps was a predilection for hunting on our part. It’s not difficult to see that a shift from occasional hunting (chimps) to habitual hunting (us) could lead to obligate bipedalism (us). We know we were using tools when we split from the chimps. We were probably better at it than they were. At the very least, human tool use goes back six million years. Has to be.

Anyone who says otherwise is itching for a fight.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Objective Morality

Who is this guy and why is he smiling?
Daniel Craig seems to make a living challenging atheists to debates. I saw him debate Sam Harris. Now, you wouldn't want to try and light a Christmas tree with this guy, he's not the brightest bulb in the box, but he's pushy.

His argument goes like this: Only God can provide objective morality. He doesn’t say it outright (well, he does elsewhere, but not in the debate I saw), but what he means is that his Christian God is the only god that can provide objective morality; but even were he to broaden it to any old god, it still merits closer inspection.

The reason it has to be his Christian god is that, if it’s simply god alone somewhere out there in space, there’s no way for that god’s will to be known. Enter The Bible. Look, we conveniently have the word of God, right here.

The problem with that is that, even if you and I know The Bible to be God’s own truth, a lot of the great unwashed pray to false gods. We all know that. And that’s not counting the heathens, pagans, anti-Christs, and miscreants. So, when we all get together to hammer out rules of conduct between ourselves, we don’t have any one set of rules that we all agree upon; hence we’re forced to make agreements amongst ourselves following what we think is right and wrong, not by what a theoretical creature may or may not have said, but by what we truly feel. That’s how we do make agreements in a pluralistic society. Even should there be a god, we don’t make use of it; we’re forced to make agreements with each other based on mutually accepted codes of behavior. Such as, if you don’t bomb me, I won’t bomb you. There may well be a god, but we certainly don’t need and don’t use one to devise codes of conduct.

Objective morality? No such thing.

There, I’ve said it.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Are Written on the Subway Walls

“No one has a right to not be offended.”
    Salman Rushdie

But what does Salman know? Just because they want to kill him for being offensive, why should we listen to him? What does Desmond Tutu say, he’s an inoffensive guy? 

Today (9/17/12) it was announced that some Muslim group is calling for an international law protecting the three Judeo-Christian-Muslim religions from defamation. Make it an international offense to flick your finger at the mosque, church, or synagog. If you have a Baha’i temple, tuff shit. Buddhists, bend over. I hope I can say without fear of mistake that such a proposal will go nowhere. Not that it won’t have its advocates, but that too many big nations—like China, India, or Japan, say—will take exception.

But, Jesus, what a distasteful proposal. Who do they think they are? Okay, we know who they think they are, but still… Can’t they go back to tending sheep? Must the world still suffer Muslims roaring out of the desert? Does the sand get in their eyes?

We aren’t going to begin to get a grip on the situation, though, until we get realistic about the root causes of the violence and stop passing it off as the work of extremists or terrorists. It’s certainly true that strapping bombs to oneself and setting them off in crowded marketplaces is both extreme and engenders terror; but if that’s as far as you’re going in understanding what’s happening, you’ll never come to deal with it. What’s causing the violence in the Middle East, what’s causing the rift between Israel and its neighbors, what’s dividing America down the middle, is all the same thing: religion. Plain, old, everyday religion. Just like the people you know practice. Maybe you yourself.

Someday, folks, we’ve got to start talking about it. Religion. What it does to people. How it affects government. This schtick with the Muslims isn’t going to be over anytime soon. We can’t keep our collective heads in the desert sands forever.


The other amazing example of people not getting it was much more local: the Chinese government sent a delegation from San Francisco to Corvallis, OR to pressure the mayor of that city into pressuring a local business to take down a mural promoting freedom for Tibet and Taiwan. After all these years, have they not figured out the basics of American rights? Not that I’m suggesting the Chinese officials were out on a junket, but, surely, they knew their errand was ill-fated from the conception. Surely, they must have seen it as a good excuse for a drive up north. Or however they got here. I can see wanting to get out of The City. But did they have to look silly doing it? Couldn’t they have classed-up their act somewhat?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Take Me to the Water

I found the following quote from a paper I dug up on the Net, “A paleontological perspective on the evolution of human diet, ” Peter Ungar and Mark Teaford at a symposium at the University of Arkansas,(1)  while searching for data on gorilla and chimp fossils. There were a lot of interesting papers at the conference including one by the suddenly ubiquitous Richard Wrangham. Anyway, Pete and Mark had this to say:

“Investigators have tried to relate patterns of hominid evolution with patterns of climatic change for some time (see for example Potts 1996 and Vrba 1995). The focus of recent work has been on the origin of the genus Homo. Can the dietary shifts in the earliest hominids be tied to such changes? While there is some evidence of large-scale climatic changes around the Mediterranean (Bernor, 1983) and unusual faunal turnover in parts of western Asia ( Barry 1995), there are no large-scale changes evident in sub-Saharan Africa until after the earliest hominids have come and gone (1.5 - 2.5 Ma). There is the slow and inexorable cooling and drying of the Miocene, but perhaps the crucial resultant of that is the increase in microhabitat variability. In other words, after Ardipithecus, the early hominids are almost always found in lake and river margin habitats, often in the vicinity of a mixture of woodland and bushland and even grassland. In such a land of variable opportunities, the generalized craniodental tool kit of the very earliest hominids may have had a distinct advantage.”

I’d particularly like to point out the final sentences: “…the early hominids are almost always found in lake and river margin habitats, often in the vicinity of a mixture of woodland and bushland and even grassland. In such a land of variable opportunities, the generalized craniodental tool kit of the very earliest hominids may have had a distinct advantage.”

I’ll have to take their word on craniodental tool kit, but I’d like to believe it’s true. I focus on those “lake and river margin habitats.” Those marginal habits provide, as the authors noted, “a land of variable opportunities.” That’s what I learned as the “edge effect,” fifty years ago. Glad to see it’s making a revival; the margins are where the biomass is. The edge does have, indeed, variable opportunities.

Likewise, it’s always nice to see the fluvial/lacustrine deposition of most hominin fossils being recognized; the savannistas always consider that an incidental fact. Like duck bones down at the river being incidental. Or fish, maybe. The authors didn’t comment on where one finds most fossil gorilla/chimp bones although there’s an implication that hominid bones are found in a specialized location. In any case, except for the terminology, that quote could have come from myself, were I a technical writer. (Which I’m not, or I couldn’t throw in asides like this.) All I can say is that, if you draw a line from those hominid fossil locations to our current demography, you’ll note it goes straight and solves at one fell swoop many of the mysteries of human evolution and expansion.

One last reminder:

The knot. I bring this up now and again: the ignored invention that revolutionized the world as much as capturing fire. If you haven’t thought about when the knot was invented, you might. For some reason, I’ve been unable to find any discussion of the knot in scientific circles; it doesn’t seem to be a topic that excites paleoanthropologists. The fact that you can’t find fossil knots certainly contributes to that, but that shouldn’t mean that the knot shouldn’t be considered when considering the cultural evolution of humans and their expansions. (I did run across one website that said knots were discovered, not invented, which I thought an interesting and slippery distinction. Where do discoveries stop and inventions start?) And again, the day after you figured out knots, you had rafts. Providing, of course, you were living down by the water. Which we were.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Mullah Protection Racket

One has to admire the mullah protection racket: say anything against the Big Mullah and we kill you. Now there’s a secure religion, one confident in itself. Is it just me or do the muzzle-mouths have a particularly weak self-image? It seems the whole religion is built around the fear of being known as gay. As if the whole Muslim world turns around its inability to handle sex. Does it have something to do with the desert air? What’s wrong with Arab guys that they should feel themselves A) inadequate, and B) uncontrollable? I don’t know that I’d want to admit that to the world, much less advertise it.

I don’t want to castigate the entire Muslim world for being namby-waists and fop-dolls, but those little guys running around in their nightgowns and Balishnikovs could stand a shipment of flashlights because they aren’t too bright. They’re giving a bad name to troglodytes.

Nonetheless, the current attack on the US embassy in Lybia which killed the ambassador and three other people, illustrates how far we are from addressing the problem. Ostensibly, the attack was reprisal for something derogatory said about Mohammed, not the boxer, the prophet. The response, as I hear it, falls into two camps: A) you gotta be careful tip-toeing around those Moslems, because they’re touchy; and B) those weren’t real Muslims, real Muslims don’t kill for that reason. As to “A,” it’s true, ya gotta be careful around them, they’re uncontrollable, they’ve already told you that. Whether or not that’s reasonable is an entirely separate question, but there’s no doubt they’re a weird bunch.

But “B”? Naw, I’m not buying B. They were real Muslims. Just like the Christians who kill abortion doctors; they’re real Christians, too. Definitely one of the hardest concepts to get through a Christian’s head is that there is no such thing as an unreal Christian. Can’t be. Religions are made up institutions; one can’t have an unreal vision of what they are. Everyone gets to make up their own version and they are all equally Christian. Being Christian is a self-definition. If you say you’re one, you’re one. End of argument. Likewise with Muslims; you say you’re one, you’re one. End of argument.

The problem is that as a society we have yet to confront what it means to still have a majority of our population believing in fantasies. From a psychological standpoint, this is not good. Mother Terresa notwithstanding, not being able to separate reality from fantasy in an adult population portends trouble. Until we can understand the dangers which religions present us, we’ll never get a handle on controlling them. We’ll always be at the mercy of fanatics who are “touchy.”

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Hello, anybody home?

I just ran across this from April 16, 2012,

“A New Aquatic Ape Theory.” It’s the frustration of being the tree falling in the forest, that no one is hearing. The gist of the article is covering a paper published in 2009 by Richard Wrangham of Harvard where, it appears, he proposed that “shallow aquatic habitats allowed hominids to thrive in savannas, enabling our ancestors to move from tropical forests to open grasslands.

“About 2.5 million to 1.4 million years ago, when the genus Homo emerged, Africa became drier. During certain seasons, already dry savannas became even more arid, making it difficult for hominids to find adequate food. But Wrangham’s team argues that even in this inhospitable environment there were oases: wetlands and lake shores. In these aquatic habitats, water lilies, cattails, herbs and other plants would have had edible, nutritious underground parts—roots and tubers—that would have been available year-round. These ‘fallback’ foods would have gotten hominids through the lean times.”

Readers of this blog and AAT chat sites from long before that know that I proposed this theory perhaps twenty-five years ago or better. You just have to go back to early posts on this blog to see those very arguments. In fact, I’d fairly recently written an update that I wasn't going to post to the blog because I’d already said it; but because parts of it are rather fun reading, anyway, I thought that posting in light of Wrangham’s report might be worthwhile.

Wrangham, if you’re not familiar with him (I’m not), achieved notoriety recently for theories propounded in a book Catching Fire (which I have not read) that suggest that cooking was an early advancer of our physical development. It hadn’t occurred to me that there would have been any question about that, but, apparently, there was. In any event, Wrangham cemented it in people’s minds that barbecue changed our entire being, not just what we had on Saturday night. Richard, it appears, isn’t afraid to advance the obvious as the solution. I’m only hoping he came up with the idea long before 2009. Not the fire bit, the living by water bit; because only a fool—and there a lot of the out there—would deny that we already are a semiaquatic animal. Only a fool.

I never quite finished this, but it's close enough for folk music. I was rushed. Without further ado, the long, boring “Why I’m Not a Savannista Anymore.”

Confessions of a Lay Person

I am confused. I am a lay person and I don’t “do” science. I do have an avocational interest in evolution, human evolution in particular, and I try to make sense of what I glean from the popular media.

Which is okay. This is an exciting time for all science, but human evolutionary science has been thrown for a loop these past years with new discoveries and understandings appearing, like phantoms out of the jungle, at an astounding rate. It’s been fun to watch. From Ardi to the Denisovans, a lot of old paradigms have seriously cracked.

But, I gotta tell you, there are some things which don’t add up. Can I borrow your time in the hopes that someone will have an answer for me, be able to tie together these few loose ends? I’m sure that, if I’d paid more attention in Biology 101, I wouldn’t have to ask these questions.

Admittedly, garnering my information from the media warps the knowledge stream considerably, but it is what it is. Maybe it’s all a matter of poor communication.

Might as well begin by pointing out what my problems are, and then we’ll try and figure out how I got here. Let me begin by stating three positions I’ve heard:

—Fish/aquatic life moved from the sea to the land to avoid predators;

—Proto-people descended from the trees and began to walk upright in response to thinning forests;

—And a question posed recently in The New Yorker, is there an evolutionary basis for altruism?

Those are the basics; the details can get a little complex. We have to look at how I perceive what I’ve absorbed from the media.

It’s my understanding that all life on Earth issues from a primitive, self-replicating molecule or string of molecules that had to have come with an equally primitive set of operating instructions including how to find and recognize building (eating) materials and how to reproduce. That’s at the very minimum. Those operating instructions would be the precursors to DNA. How those operating instructions could have grown into long strands of DNA is, as yet, unanswered; or if it has been answered, I haven’t seen it. Once again, the precarious nature of the popular press.

Regardless of how they got there, it’s my understanding that DNA can only change through mutations, which are caused regularly but randomly throughout the chain by exterior forces. That may be a false presumption, but it’s the one I’ve been given. Ask me not about combinatorial DNA.

At that, then, I have a creature who can find food, knows how to reproduce, and whose instructions can only be changed arbitrarily. One would have to presume that any change in instructions would be most likely disastrous, if not neutral, and that ones that were beneficial would be few and far between. On the other hand, those with the beneficial mutation would eventually replace those without. Math alone will do that.

This, of course, is predicated on the assumption that, if nothing else, life wants to live. Wherever that drive comes from, once it’s established, it apparently goes to any lengths to perpetuate itself. That seems to be the basic set of instructions that all life has: go forth and multiply. Nothing more; nothing less. My understanding is that’s it. There are no more instructions; from then on everything is left to chance. And has been since the beginning.

And that’s where the trouble lies. That’s where I lose my way.

Here’s how I see chance. A man goes to the casino. He hits the jackpot; he wins a million dollars. He needed that million dollars; his home was about to be foreclosed and the bank wanted their car back. Did he win the million dollars because he was lucky, or because he needed the money? My understanding is that he was lucky. I mean, the result was great: he got what he needed, the weight was lifted off his back. But did his need for money help him win the jackpot? When you, look at someone who has won the jackpot, do you think, gee, he/she sure must have needed that money?

Let’s go back to that fish wanting to get onshore. If a fish were to move onshore to avoid predators, how would that happen? How many evolutionary steps would it take for a fish to evolve into a land animal? How many mutations? Just to escape that predator? How would moving out of the water a little bit and then a little bit more over hundreds-of-thousands, if not millions of years, ever escape one from a predator? If there weren’t any use in being just a little bit out of the water, how would that trait be passed on? Would it be waiting for a multiplier mutation to allow the fish to pop out of the water even further? But if the popping out were useless at that point, would multipliers keep piling up randomly until one day the fish could walk out of the water and survive the predators? If that were the case, wouldn’t it happen to all aquatic life, predators too? I’m having trouble picturing all this. A waiting for Godot fish, waiting till it can miraculously walk on land and escape the nemesis of the deep. It seems that the odds of that randomly happening would be zilch.

It seems much more likely to me that a shore-dwelling fish might find that the land vegetation growing near the shore provided good food, a vegetarian fish. Let’s say that fish really became dependent on the abundant land vegetation that happened to droop or fall into the stream. Let’s presume that any little mutation that helped that fish acquire more of that plant would be spread throughout the species. Let’s presume that staying out of the water as long as possible meant getting the most food. Let’s presume that any mutation that allowed the fish to stay out of the water longer would be passed on to the entire species. In that way, little by little a fish could find itself out of the water happily munching on ferns or lichens or small English crumpets. Of course, being out of the water would have its side benefits, no more predators; but that would probably be balanced by having to get used to the weather. The tipping point, I think, wouldn’t be safety, it would be food.

Follow me this far? Because the implication is that, if mutations are ruled by chance, then evolution is ruled by chance. If evolution is ruled by chance, then there’s no march, no direction to evolution. It means that evolution is governed by opportunity, not by the result. The fish evolved out of the water because it could find better food, there was an opportunity to evolve in that direction should the chance arise. Even though at first the fish slowly moving out of the water wouldn’t be any safer from any predators, so that wouldn’t have provided any incentive; but the increased food supply would incrementally keep getting better and provide enough value to the species that such traits would be saved. The fish didn’t evolve to live outside the water because it was safer, even though that was the result. After an extinction event we don’t get an explosion of species because there are all those niches needing to be filled (or that it would be a good idea to fill); we get the explosion because all those niches are empty.

It seems to me that’s the same problem with the second position: that people took to the ground because the trees were thinning. Once again, I have trouble seeing how that would work. If the previous paragraph is true and evolution is governed by opportunity, not by the result, then we have to ask what opportunities enticed the forest dwellers onto the land? Not forced them, enticed them?

Moreover, where did they get the time? Remember that at this time, 2 1/2 million years or so ago, our ancestors were little more than chimpanzees; we’d made the split, but we hadn’t progressed very far. We had no “culture” to protect us at that time; we suffered the same natural laws as any other animal. That’s where the time comes in.

Again, I’m no scientist and I don’t know how these things work; I’ve got to trust that I can winnow through what I read and hear. I hear a lot about global warming. I hear a lot about species going extinct. By the thousands. All over the world because their habitats are disappearing. I hear some habitats are merely shifting and that some animals/plants can accommodate the move. They arrive earlier in the year or don’t migrate anymore. Mostly, though, I hear the habitats are destroyed or there’s no corridor between remaining remnants. Then I hear that species die. Funny, you’d think I’d hear of species adapting. That’s what we’re to believe proto-people did. If those folks could learn how to walk upright out on the savannah, why can’t the polar bear head into the woods? Why can one species adapt and the others fail? What made us unique?

For every other species, they appear to go extinct rather than adapt because environmental conditions change much more rapidly than evolutionary adaptation. The general rule seems to be that, if a habitat disappears from underneath a species, that species will disappear. If someone could point to a bunch of species contradicting that rule, let me know. Heck, even one would be interesting.

Perhaps people are the one.

Perhaps they’re not.

There are alternative scenarios. People could have been drawn out of the trees. There may have been opportunities presented to them which rewarded standing up on two feet, regardless of what the forest was doing. It’s another case of not looking at the results but, instead, look for the cause, look for the opportunity. The assumption is that people were forced out of the trees (but the chimps weren’t?) and then learned to adapt to their new surroundings by learning to walk upright. One can only surmise that, after the thinning of the forest but before the adaptation of upright walking, when they were still only adapted to climbing trees, they must have been easy pickings. Unless, of course, it didn’t happen that way.

Truthfully, this is where I get stuck. If it didn’t happen that way, how could it have happened? And if it did happen that way, where’s the evidence?

Lacking evidence, I’ve made up my own scenario. I don’t think anyone left the trees because they had to. I think they left the trees because they found more/better food while standing up. Once again, I’m relying on the understanding that any successful mutation has to benefit the entire species, and that it would take innumerable mutations to change from a tree-dwelling to a terrestrial creature, and that each mutation along the way would have to be immediately beneficial else it would disappear or remain neutral. It’s like the fish and the food, each step towards upright walking would have to be beneficial, not just the end result (as if there were an “end result” beyond the current status). Something beneficial is going to have to happen each step of the way towards bipedalism; one can’t keep slowly standing up in hopes there will be a payoff when you get up straight; there has to be benefit in each mutation. And benefit, we remember from the beginning of those self-replicating molecules, can only be in one of two forms: it either helps with food gathering or reproduction; nothing else matters.

I figure it’s not sex. I doubt that people stood up because sex was better that way or that we had more kids that way; on the contrary, it appears that standing up made birth more difficult. There had to have been some powerful incentive to stand up if it made reproduction so difficult. The only other permissible incentive is food. (With the usual caveat that, if you can think of another incentive, give me a shake.) For some reason, standing up allowed us to eat better. Whatever the reason, it pretty much has to be related to our ability to find food. It probably had nothing to do with a thinning forest. Evolution doesn’t go away from anything, it only goes towards something, right? A species can only evolve in the direction chance and opportunity permit.

So, what would entice an ape out of the trees to permanently hang out on the ground? What food would have been available to us as bipeds that wasn’t available to us as knuckle walkers? The chimps and gorillas seem to survive just fine living in both worlds. Why did we give up the trees, they didn’t? We were lucky, eventually our posture allowed us to take over the entire world, but, surely, that’s not why we stood up. We could only have stood up to eat better; taking over the world was pure luck.

How, though, would bipedalism help us eat better?

I’ve heard theories. I’ve heard that, perhaps, standing up offered a smaller target to the sun so we didn’t overheat while out on the savannah hunting. Hmm? I have visions of hunters trekking across the plains, leaning towards the sun so that it only shines on the tops of their heads. As the day stretches on, they become almost parallel to the ground. I don’t think so. Nope.

I’ve heard that, maybe, we stood up to see over the tall grasses either to spot game or predators. Maybe. And at the same time we were willing to give up any ability to run fast or climb out of harm’s way? How did we ever survive? How come no other animal successfully did this? How come every other animal learned to stand up, check out the surroundings, and then get down on all fours and run like hell? How come we were willing to give up our chance to escape just to peak above the grass? How come there’s not a race of bipedal prairie dogs?

I’ve heard that it’s possible we took to standing up to carry food to our families. Again, us and nobody else? Look around you, don’t most of the larger animals carry food to their young? Such as, virtually all of them? Mammals, indeed, have it built in; but even after the young have stopped suckling, the parents generally spend a long time bringing solid food to their offspring. None has seen it advisable to stand up to do so. None. Does that not give you pause to wonder how it could have happened to humans? Did we/do we spend so much time carting food around that it was worthwhile to stand up and do it permanently? Doesn’t seem like it.

Other reasons? Wading around after clams and seaweed? All day? Not likely. We may well have taken to scavenging the shoreline and the swamps, but I doubt we’d have given up the safety of the trees just to do it.

Well, what then?

A change in diet?

A change in diet? How on earth could a change in diet make one want to stand up? There is the fruit-picking theory, that we stood up to gather fruit and nuts. But, really, if you’re going after fruit and nuts, wouldn’t it be better to stay in the trees? How would standing up help one gain access to more/better fruit? You’d give up climbing the trees for standing on the ground and throwing sticks? Really? I don’t think it was fruit and nuts that got us standing up. I don’t.

I think it was meat.

Let’s step back a minute and delve more into popular science: hello NOVA. In the past decades we’ve learned that humans are not the only tool users. Not even the only primate tool users. In fact, all apes are known to use tools of one sort or another. The chimpanzees, we’ve learned, not only go fishing for termites with long twigs, they’re perfectly capable of sharpening a stick with their teeth and going after bush babies, a lesser primate, using the stick as a thrusting spear. That was a shock. Furthermore, they’re not above heaving rocks at an enemy, albeit, underhand.

It could be that chimps acquired this habit after the split with humans, but it’s more likely that the progenitor of both species was already using such tools better than six million years ago. Fast forward to the first known shaped-stone tool use among humans, something like 2 1/2 million years ago. That gives humans 3 1/3 million years to progress from tooth-sharpened sticks and tossed rocks to hand-axes. (If these numbers aren’t exactly to your liking, fill in those of your choice; you have the basic concept.)

Why, you may ask, did this pre-split chimp-human (chuman?) take up sharpening sticks in the first place? You might as well ask, why weren’t they satisfied with termites and bananas? What’s so special about meat? Other than it’s concentrated food. Have you ever noticed how much more time a zebra spends eating than a lion does? I have. Out here on the veldt (not really) I notice the lions spend most of the day lazing around while the zebras are eating every chance they get. Such as when they’re not being chased by lions. It’s the meat. Vegetarians simply have to spend a lot more time crunching away just to get the same food energy that a carnivore does. A lot more.

I’ll tell you what I think happened. I think the split between us and the chimps happened because we really got into meat eating. I think that, before the split, like chimps today, we only used tools occasionally. When we decided to go after bush babies, we would find a stick, sharpen it, and go after them, only to abandon the stick after the hunt. Next hunt, new stick.

But one chimp developed a habit, it sharpened a sick and held on to it. No particular reason, he just liked to sharpen sticks and hold onto them. As a side effect, when a bush baby hole popped into view, he was at the ready; consequently, he ate better than his neighbors. He passed that spear-holding trait onto his kids and his grandkids and they ate and prospered better than any of the others in their tribe. Eventually, everybody was sharpening and hanging onto sticks. Suddenly, the whole tribe was eating better than anyone else in the forest. Eventually, holding a spear at the ready became habitual; those who did it more, prospered more. Slowly, those who were better at handling their spears prospered more than those who were clumsy. Likewise, those who became better at throwing stones were also able to eat better, and, if they had a few stones always at hand, so much the better. The drift towards habitually carrying tools had begun. We were separating from the chimps. That’s how I see it, anyway.

Eventually, of course, successfully carrying tools (i.e. weapons) at all times meant that we inexorably switched from habitual to obligatory bipedalism. There was no way back; we were upright.

Huh? How does that sound? Doesn’t that make more sense than peeping over the grass or carrying rodents back to the kids, not to mention lessening the chance of sunstroke. Could it have taken us 3 1/2 million years to stand up and shape hand tools? Seems fast to me, but could be, we were clever. We do know that something got us to stand up and make hand axes by 2 1/2 million years ago, and we know it had to do with food, and we’re pretty sure it didn’t have to do with pancakes. I’d go with meat and weapons.

If that theory is correct, that habitual tool-carrying led to obligate bipedalism, it throws new light on the ability of our ancestors to expand their hunting range. They might still camp in the forest, but they could now contemplate ranging out after bigger game. Twenty or thirty Australopithecines armed with rocks and spears would be formidable even for a pride of lions. Fifty or sixty together could take over about anything.

That’s it. That how I see we came down out of the trees. Admittedly, it’s a wild guess, but it sounds good, no?

A bonus point is that, if our ancestors still liked to hang around trees even after they learned to walk; it makes it easier to imagine that a branch of that family, us, liked to hang around, not only the woods, but down by the water. We were the guys who learned how to sail and eat seafood. We prospered. We now live all over the world, provided it has potable water and is close to navigable water. Even the farmers and the herders live near water; we’ve never gotten over that.

Now, about that altruism. The New Yorker asks if its an inheritable trait? They meant it in a good way.

A problem I have with altruism being an inheritable trait is that altruism is a value judgement, not a scientific measurement. It’s akin to asking, is being a good farmer an inheritable trait? Is there a genetic basis for good farming?

Intellectually, altruism assumes free will, something for which we don’t have clear evidence. The core definition of “altruism,” if I have it right, is doing good for another at personal cost to oneself. This presumes we’re in  control of our thoughts and actions, another case of something that might or might not be true. It’s not clear that consciousness, no matter how advanced, is anything more than a monitoring and transmission station. It’s very fast and it gives us the illusion we’re doing the thinking for operational purposes, but I’m not sure we know how that’s done. My guess is that thinking is done at the cellular level or below and is primarily a matter of counting switches, yeses and nos. It’s why we can ponder some problems forever without making up our minds or why we can “instinctively” jump in front of a train to save someone. In neither case is our consciousness making the decision, it’s only transmitting data. I think if we had to think about thinking, we’d be frozen in our tracks.

Let’s go back, then, to that pre-cellular creature and its mutations. We’ve already determined two things: one, that mutations can only be adopted if they improve either feeding or reproduction; and two, successful mutations have to benefit the entire species in order to survive. The process, it would appear, means that the operating package that each member of a species gets gives instructions that propel the organism one way or another simply by checking the situation against its given template. If the monitoring station sends the propitious signals, go for it. No thinking necessary, just compare to the template. That system would work all the way up to us. We never really think, we just do what our sub-engine—oh heck, let’s just call it a subconscious—decides.

Oh Please

Photo: AP
This from Fergus Walsh of the BBC, Sept. 6, 2012, in an online article, “Detailed map of genome function”:

“They have found 80% of our genome is performing a specific function. Up to now, most attention has been focused on protein-coding genes, which make up just 2% of the genome.…

“The Encode team analysed the vast area of the genome sometimes called ‘junk DNA’ because it seemed to have little function and was poorly understood. Dr Ewan Birney, of the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, who led the analysis, told me: ‘The term junk DNA must now be junked. ‘It's clear from this research that a far bigger part of the genome is biologically active than was previously thought.’"

I heard those estimates, too: 98% junk material; 90% junk. Whatever, a big percentage. Big number. Heard that a long time ago.

First time I heard it, I said, whoa, what are the chances of that being true? Zilch. Plain zilch. I was immediately brought back to statements made when I was a kid (okay, so that was a while ago): “only 10% of the brain is used; the other 90% is extra baggage, waiting to be used.” Even back then I was saying, holy crap, that doesn’t sound possible. A brain isn’t a vestigial organ, like, say, the appendix. And I couldn’t see evolution creating a big brain, hoping that it would get used some day. I couldn’t/can’t see evolution anticipating needs.

Nowadays, of course, nobody imagines there’s a non-functioning, anticipatory part of the brain. How silly.

So, when I heard similar numbers being tossed around about the human genome, my reaction was the same: bull-pucky. Couldn’t be. Couldn’t be that the operating manual for life was primarily a vestigial organ. Couldn’t be. Just couldn’t be. Did they really think that protein production was it? That all DNA had to do was to transfer protein instructions? How in the hell is the monarch butterfly’s route to Mexico encoded in protein manufacturing instructions? Didn’t they really think there was more to it than that? Didn’t anyone have an historical memory? I’m not that old. What sort of logic led them to that conclusion?

Which makes me disappointed that the discovery of 80% of the genome being active gets coverage. It’s the equivalent of 2+2=4 getting big press. Heck, I’m disappointed that they’re still implying that there’s a 20% waste. What do they think that 20% is doing, encoding the rules for card games?

It’s okay that they don’t know what the 20% is doing. It was okay that they didn’t know what the 80% was doing. Think of it, it was only a little while ago that we knew there was DNA, at all; so, that we don’t know all that it does is not surprising. It just seems arrogant to say, when one doesn’t know the function of something, to proclaim it useless. Especially something as important as the code of life. Wouldn’t it be more modest to at least feign ignorance rather than assuming that, if you can’t figure it out, it must have no purpose?