Sunday, December 16, 2007

Evidence leads to human ancestor for the apes

Do we really need to consider turning everything upside down by considering the existence of a human ancestor for the apes? This suggestion definitely has the quality of blasphemy against religious doctrine. It just feels wrong and goes against our deeply held beliefs and understanding of the world. However, this is exactly where the evidence leads.
Overall, I don’t expect that the entire anthropology community will suddenly abandon everything that has been taught for decades. However, my point is the following...
What defines a “human?” I have taken the position that it is a body plan (bauplan). Most of us have accepted that early Australopithecines whose brains and skulls were chimp-like, should be considered human and not ape. When you find a fossil such as Sahelanthropus that has a “chimp-like” skull from the point of view of its face and brain, but has the skull base of a human (and presumably upright bipedal post-cranial anatomy) - how can you tell from the fossil if it’s an ape or a human?
The Hennigian cladistic approach lets us say that the isolation point between the chimp and human lineages - where hybridization became impossible - is the origin point of humans. However this means that the definition is arbitrary since ape and human would pretty much look identical at that time.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Interventions at every age from infancy to college can reduce racial gaps in both I.Q. and academic achievement

All Brains Are the Same Color Richard E. Nisbett NYT: December 9, 2007
Important recent psychological research helps to pinpoint just what factors shape differences in I.Q. scores. Joseph Fagan of Case Western Reserve University and Cynthia Holland of Cuyahoga Community College tested blacks and whites on their knowledge of, and their ability to learn and reason with, words and concepts. The whites had substantially more knowledge of the various words and concepts, but when participants were tested on their ability to learn new words, either from dictionary definitions or by learning their meaning in context, the blacks did just as well as the whites.
Whites showed better comprehension of sayings, better ability to recognize similarities and better facility with analogies — when solutions required knowledge of words and concepts that were more likely to be known to whites than to blacks. But when these kinds of reasoning were tested with words and concepts known equally well to blacks and whites, there were no differences. Within each race, prior knowledge predicted learning and reasoning, but between the races it was prior knowledge only that differed.
What do we know about the effects of environment?
That environment can markedly influence I.Q. is demonstrated by the so-called Flynn Effect. James Flynn, a philosopher and I.Q. researcher in New Zealand, has established that in the Western world as a whole, I.Q. increased markedly from 1947 to 2002. In the United States alone, it went up by 18 points. Our genes could not have changed enough over such a brief period to account for the shift; it must have been the result of powerful social factors. And if such factors could produce changes over time for the population as a whole, they could also produce big differences between subpopulations at any given time.
In fact, we know that the I.Q. difference between black and white 12-year-olds has dropped to 9.5 points from 15 points in the last 30 years — a period that was more favorable for blacks in many ways than the preceding era. Black progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows equivalent gains. Reading and math improvement has been modest for whites but substantial for blacks.
Most important, we know that interventions at every age from infancy to college can reduce racial gaps in both I.Q. and academic achievement, sometimes by substantial amounts in surprisingly little time. This mutability is further evidence that the I.Q. difference has environmental, not genetic, causes. And it should encourage us, as a society, to see that all children receive ample opportunity to develop their minds. Richard E. Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, is the author of “The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently and Why.”

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Spain and Portugal divided the globe between them in 1494

Map that named America is a puzzle for researchers
By David Alexander Home > News > U.S.
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The only surviving copy of the 500-year-old map that first used the name America goes on permanent display this month at the Library of Congress, but even as it prepares for its debut, the 1507 Waldseemuller map remains a puzzle for researchers.
  • Why did the mapmaker name the territory America and then change his mind later?
  • How was he able to draw South America so accurately?
  • Why did he put a huge ocean west of America years before European explorers discovered the Pacific?

"That's the kind of conundrum, the question, that is still out there," said John Hebert, chief of the geography and map division of the Library of Congress.
The 12 sheets that make up the map, purchased from German Prince Johannes Waldburg-Wolfegg for $10 million in 2003, were mounted on Monday in a huge 6-foot by 9.5-foot (1.85 meter by 2.95 meter) display case machined from a single block of aluminum...

The map was created by the German monk Martin Waldseemuller. Thirteen years after Christopher Columbus first landed in the Western Hemisphere, the Duke of Lorraine brought Waldseemuller and a group of scholars together at a monastery in Saint-Die in France to create a new map of the world. The result, published two years later, is stunningly accurate and surprisingly modern. Continued...
The mapmakers say they based it on the 1,300-year-old works of the Egyptian geographer Ptolemy as well as letters Florentine navigator Amerigo Vespucci wrote describing his voyages to the new world. But Hebert said there must have been something more.
"From the writings of Vespucci you couldn't have prepared the map," Hebert said. "There had to be something cartographic with it."
Waldseemuller made it clear he was naming the new land after Vespucci, describing how he came up with the name America based on the navigator's first name.
But he soon had misgivings about what he had done. An atlas Waldseemuller produced six years later shows only part of the east coast of the Americas, and refers to it as Terra Incognita -- unknown land.
"America has gone out of his lexicon," Hebert said. "(No) place in the atlas -- in the text or in the maps -- does the name America appear."...
He speculated that power politics played a role. Spain and Portugal divided the globe between them in 1494, two years after Columbus, with territory to the east going to Portugal and land to the west to Spain...
"It is possible one could say the 1507 map is influenced strongly by Portuguese sources and conceivably the 1516 map may be influenced more by Spanish sources," he said.
Although the map conceals many mysteries, one thing is clear: it represents a revolutionary shift in the way Europe viewed the world.
"This is ... essentially the beginning or first map of the modern age, and it's one that everything builds on from that point forward," Hebert said. "It becomes a keystone map." (Editing by Eddie Evans) © Reuters2007 All rights reserved

Could bacteria also influence our emotional state?

The authors show that infection with certain bacteria can cause more anxious or cautious like behavior in mice, perhaps causing the infected agent to avoid predators.

The presence of certain bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract influences behavior and brain function. For example, challenge with live Campylobacter jejuni (C. jejuni), a common food-born pathogen, reduces exploration of open arms of the plus maze, consistent with anxiety-like behavior, and activates brain regions associated with autonomic function, likely via a vagal pathway.

Could bacteria also influence our emotional state? If verified in humans this could offer insights into conditions like Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome and perhaps into fears such as agoraphobia. Long time readers will know that this study is not alone in suggesting that parasites can influence our emotions. Ever wonder why you like cats? Hat tip to Monique van Hoek and Faculty of 1000.

The question of the origin of water on Earth has not been clarified

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia Main article: Origin of water on Earth
Much of the universe's water may be produced as a byproduct of star formation. When stars are born, their birth is accompanied by a strong outward wind of gas and dust. When this outflow of material eventually impacts the surrounding gas, the shock waves that are created compress and heat the gas. The water observed is quickly produced in this warm dense gas.[6]

Solar distance and Earth gravity
The existence of liquid water, and to a lesser extent its gaseous and solid forms, on Earth is vital to the existence of life on Earth as we know it. The Earth is located in the habitable zone of the solar system; if it were slightly closer to or further from the Sun (about 5%, or 8 million kilometers or so), the conditions which allow the three forms to be present simultaneously would be far less likely to exist.[7]
Earth's mass allows gravity to hold an atmosphere. Water vapor and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere provide a greenhouse effect which helps maintain a relatively steady surface temperature. If Earth were smaller, a thinner atmosphere would cause temperature extremes preventing the accumulation of water except in polar ice caps (as on Mars).
It has been proposed that life itself may maintain the conditions that have allowed its continued existence. The surface temperature of Earth has been relatively constant through geologic time despite varying levels of incoming solar radiation (insolation), indicating that a dynamic process governs Earth's temperature via a combination of greenhouse gases and surface or atmospheric albedo. This proposal is known as the Gaia hypothesis.
The state of water also depends on a planet's gravity. If a planet is sufficiently massive, the water on it may be solid even at high temperatures, because of the high pressure caused by gravity.[1]