The Occasional Joke

Nurse: Patient's name?

Centurion: Marcus Licinius Crassus

Nurse: And his date of birth?

Centurion: 115 BC.

Nurse: All right. And what is he here for?

Centurion: Cataphract surgery.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The next big thing for politicians to be against

Genetic research is rapidly overturning a lot of preconceived notions about the human background. Three recent changes in what we think about our fellow members of genus Homo include:
  • There were two hominin contemporaries of Homo sapiens (1), not just one. H. neanderthalensis we all know about, but now there appears to be another -- species, subspecies, strain, breed, race? -- that hung out in central Asia. They're being called Denisovans, and they were contemporaries of both H. sapiens and neanderthalensis), it turns out (41,000 years ago, approximately.) They appear, from MDNA work, to be offspring of Neanderthals, not us. What's important is that their DNA shows up all over the map in our own genome; more than half of us Euro-trash have it, and 95% of south Pacific folks do. This is cool because it overturns a lot of ideas about the interaction and isolation (or not) between us and our early neighbors. Before we could do what we now can with genetics, all of what we "knew" was based on guesses from physical remains, artifacts, and proximity -- working with incredibly small samples.
  • The question on everybody's subconscious if not conscious mind (come on now, admit it, you'd wondered, haven't you?) has been, if we (H. sapiens) coexisted with other hominins, did anybody ever get it on? Apparently, the answer is a resounding "yes," given all the Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA hanging around in our mitochondria. I expect any number of 2012 candidates to come out against this sort of extra-specific horsing around, especially given the relative unlikelihood of any of them being personally outed for having sent salacious text messages to Neanderthals.
  • And finally, some work in the Mediterranean is pushing back the dates for plain old seafaring to almost mind-boggling antiquity -- that is, pre-sapiens. At 130,000 years back, somebody left stone tools on Crete (that would be an island, surrounded by the sea -- no way to get there by land.) That pre-dates Homo sapiens, neanderthalensis, and any other of our near relatives we know of, meaning that it had to have been our precursor, H. erectus. That's kind of stunning, given what we thought about their capabilities. The somewhat uncomplimentary and ungrammatical comment by one of the researchers, quoted in the article above, says: " ... these other sister species maybe weren't entirely stupid like we portray them ..." Personally, I've never portrayed members of H. erectus as entirely stupid -- I reserve that for Ron Paul and Ralph Nader voters -- but in future I'll be watching myself carefully for any form of bias of this nature.
So anyway -- three interesting developments that highlight how at least one domain is actually undergoing a revolution through technology, kind of making up for the disappointing lack of similar earth-shaking progress in, say, healthcare or political science.
<1>Leaving aside H. floresiensis, the so-called Hobbit, whose status as a separate species is still being (hotly) debated.

No comments:

Post a Comment