Archive for the ‘Humans’ Category

In praise of walls

February 9, 2019

There is much rhetoric about walls these days. Usually about walls at the boundaries of nations.

But the concept of walls (along with fire and the wheel and all that they enabled) was one of the critical developments which enabled humans to differentiate themselves from all other species and enabled human civilisation to develop. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that without walls –  first around shelters and then around dwellings, settlements, places of work, and eventually around whole cities and at nation boundaries – civilisation itself would not have been possible. Human civilisation would have been still-born without the ability to create safe, protected enclosures within which to live (and work) defying the elements and any external threats. In fact, walls are integral and necessary to our lives today. We could not live without walls.

Humans control the environment they live and work in. This ability is what allows us to live anywhere in the world irrespective of the prevailing environment. From blistering deserts to the frigid reaches of Antarctica, it is walls which enable roofs and which together allow us to create volumes of controlled environments for ourselves. We not only live within walls, we travel in walled containers which provide enclosed volumes of controlled environments. Our carts, our cars our trains and boats and planes all rely on walls to create our enclosures. The walls in my home are what give me my controlled environment and my security and my sense of security.

It was always thought that cave dwelling probably preceded the building of huts and dwellings. But modern humans appeared first in areas where caves were not so numerous and primitive walls probably appeared to protect small groups spending the night on open ground. There is some suggestion that some kind of walled shelters were used by homo erectus – perhaps 500,000 years ago. (Homo erectus had the controlled use of fire as early as 1.5 million years ago). It is not implausible that the earliest walls were fences built to protect an area around a camp-fire.

BBC: Japanese archaeologists have uncovered the remains of what is believed to be the world’s oldest artificial structure, on a hillside at Chichibu, north of Tokyo. 
The shelter would have been built by an ancient ancestor of humans, Homo erectus, who is known to have used stone tools. The site has been dated to half a million years ago, according to a report in New Scientist. It consists of what appear to be 10 post holes, forming two irregular pentagons which may be the remains of two huts. Thirty stone tools were also found scattered around the site. …… Before the discovery, the oldest remains of a structure were those at Terra Amata in France, from around 200,000 to 400,000 years ago. ……. 

John Rick, an anthropologist at Stanford University, says that if the find is confirmed it will be interesting because it shows that hominids could conceive of using technology to organise things. “They had the idea of actually making a structure, a place where you might sleep. It represents a conceptual division between inside and outside.” 

There is little doubt that while city walls are at most 15-20,000 years old, even hunter gatherers from 100,000 years ago were no strangers to walls. Even those who used caves in temperate zones probably only used caves as winter quarters. In summers they would have used lightweight, temporary walls.

Aerial view of part of the Great Wall

The idea of a safe, protected, enclosure lies deep in the human psyche. Walls are existential. What would we be without our houses, buildings, dams, sea-walls, siege walls, curtain walls, walls around fields, walled enclosures, prisons or walls at nation boundaries? Walls between nations are at least 5,000 years old and probably predate even the definition of nation sates.

The EU has built 1,000km of border walls since fall of Berlin Wall

European Union states have built over 1,000km of border walls since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a new study into Fortress Europe has found.  ……  the EU has gone from just two walls in the 1990s to 15 by 2017. ……. Despite celebrations this year that the Berlin Wall had now been down for longer than it was ever up, Europe has now completed the equivalent length of six Berlin walls during the same period. 

  1. Walls work.
  2. Humans need walls.


Boozy chimps, Hanuman and the “drunken monkey” hypothesis

June 11, 2015

A new paper reports on chimpanzees in Guinea exhibiting long-term and recurrent ingestion of ethanol. The study was carried out over 17 years and found chimpanzees using leaves to drink fermented palm sap. Many consumed sufficient to produce “visible signs of inebriation”. Local humans also tap the sap of the raffia palm trees to make a palm wine.

The human trait of imbibing intentionally fermented drinks is at least as old as the oldest known archaeological records of ancient civilizations. Stone jugs for alcoholic drinks have been found which date back to at least 10,000 BCE . It is quite likely that the origin of alcoholic drinks predates the arrival of agriculture some 15,000 years ago. And that would suggest that the origin lies with the accidental (and fortuitous?) consumption of over-ripe and partially fermented fruits and berries leading eventually to an intentional fermentation. But that takes the origin back to the time before modern humans had even arrived on the scene and when their primate ancestors relied on fruits and berries for their diet.

Kimberly J Hockings, et al, Tools to tipple: ethanol ingestion by wild chimpanzees using leaf-sponges, Royal Society of Open Science

AbstractAfrican apes and humans share a genetic mutation that enables them to effectively metabolize ethanol. However, voluntary ethanol consumption in this evolutionary radiation is documented only in modern humans. Here, we report evidence of the long-term and recurrent ingestion of ethanol from the raffia palm (Raphia hookeri, Arecaceae) by wild chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) at Bossou in Guinea, West Africa, from 1995 to 2012. Chimpanzees at Bossou ingest this alcoholic beverage, often in large quantities, despite an average presence of ethanol of 3.1% alcohol by volume (ABV) and up to 6.9% ABV. Local people tap raffia palms and the sap collects in plastic containers, and chimpanzees use elementary technology—a leafy tool—to obtain this fermenting sap. These data show that ethanol does not act as a deterrent to feeding in this community of wild apes, supporting the idea that the last common ancestor of living African apes and modern humans was not averse to ingesting foods containing ethanol.

The study provides support for the “drunken monkey” hypothesis which “proposes that human attraction to ethanol may derive from dependence of the primate ancestors of Homo sapiens on ripe and fermenting fruit as a dominant food source. Ethanol naturally occurs in ripe and overripe fruit when yeasts ferment sugars, and consequently early primates (and many other fruit-eating animals) have evolved a genetically based behavioral attraction to the molecule”.

In fact there were natural selection benefits in being “drunken monkeys”. The chimpanzee paper begins:

The ‘drunken monkey hypothesis’ states that natural selection favoured those primates with an attraction to ethanol (commonly referred to as alcohol) because it was associated with proximate benefits (e.g. acting as an appetite stimulant or a cue to finding fruit, or as an unavoidable consequence of a frugivorous diet, etc.), consequently increasing caloric gains.

Hanuman chasing the Sun — image Wikipedia

It is a short mental step from monkey-ancestors to ancient civilizations and mythology. The Indian monkey-god, Hanuman was supposed to be both celibate and teetotal. But his depiction as a “monkey” is probably a later invention. Ancient texts suggest that the young Hanuman was so enamoured of red fruit that he tried to eat the Sun, thinking it was just another ripe fruit. Quite possibly his red fruit were over-ripe, partially fermented and intoxicating. The resulting disfigurement to his jaw and face (burnt and swollen) is what may have given him his appearance. There is a hint that he was of an ancient people (species), half-human and half-monkey, which has become extinct. An ancient ancestor perhaps, and one addicted to intoxicating fruit. Clearly he was put off alcohol for ever. Interestingly, mythology and ancient ayurvedic medicine agree that alcohol in moderation is medicinal and good but taken in excess is a poison and bad. Of course in the Ramayana, all the good guys are vegetarians and teetotal while all the bad guys eat meat and consume an excess of alcohol. The Mahabharata is much more equivocal. Here even the good guys are allowed to drink.

Fate? destiny? Drunken snowplow driver causes death of Total CEO

October 21, 2014

Following on from my previous post about the season of birth having some effect on temperament, this news item got me to wonder about how much of our lives is – or can be – “fixed” by our genes, our place of birth or our time of birth. How much “free will” and freedom of behaviour and freedom of action do we actually have?

Vnukovo plane crash: Snowplow driver drunk in collision with Total CEO’s aircraft

It was determined in the course of the investigation into the Moscow plane crash that killed the CEO of French oil giant Total that the driver of the snowplow which likely caused the crash was drunk.

“It has been determined that the driver of the snowplow was under the influence of alcohol,” head of Russia’s Investigative Committee Vladimir Markin told the reporters on Tuesday.

Markin added that “there is a possibility that a number of airport staff will be suspended from carrying out their duties pending criminal investigation.”

During the taxiing before take-off, at around 0:10 am Moscow time on Tuesday, the Falcon 50 business jet hit a snow-clearing machine. Although previous reports indicated otherwise, the plane did not leave ground following the collision. The CEO of France’s oil and gas giant Total, Christophe de Margerie, was the only passenger in the jet, while three crew members who were also French citizens perished as well.

Psychologists seem to find that more and more of our behaviour is due to our genes. This seems to be used increasingly often as a mitigating factor – if not as an excuse – in court cases where socially unacceptable behaviour and actions are judged. Our sexual preferences and our positions on the bi-modal gender scale are also increasingly put down to genes rather than upbringing – nature rather than nurture. Intelligence is thought to be at least 50% due to genetic factors. Our adult heights are said to be 80% genetic and 20% due to nurture. Mental and physical abilities and disabilities are increasingly said to be due to our genes. Our moods and our temperaments are said to affected by when we were born.

I have little doubt that – at some macro level – it is our genes that define the envelope of our possible behaviours. It is clearly predetermined by our genes that we cannot – however much we wanted to – behave like a whale or a bird. Our genes constrain us to behave within the narrow envelope of behaviour open to humans. To that extent we are surely “fated” or “destined” to behave within the envelope of possibilities open to us as determined by our individual genetic make-up at birth as humans. Even aspects of nurture can said to be pre-determined. The parents we are born to – pre-determined – in turn determine the education we get, our nutrition and the religions we follow. To that extent our decisions through life which we believe are a consequence of our individual characteristics and who we are and our exercise of our “free will” are already constrained and channeled by parameters fixed at birth.

If two individuals having predetermined behaviour interact, then the envelope of possible results of that interaction are also “fated” or “destined”. It may be an intractable problem with our current state of knowledge to predict the results of such interactions, but that does not mean that the “result” is any less pre-determined. The butterfly problem is also intractable but that does not mean that it may not exist. Extending that thought leads to the conclusion that all the possible results of all our interactions – between humans and with other species and with our surrounding environment – are already largely constrained and predetermined.

I would like to think I have free will and everything is not determined in advance — but it also seems self-evident that everything that happens is caused by what happened immediately before. If not we would have to be able to explain how some event does not have to be dependent upon the preceding events. And that would require that we redefine the nature of time. What comes afterwards cannot escape what came before.

So was the death of Christophe de Margerie a random, unfortunate and “unlucky” accident, or was it fate? A “fate” already determined with his birth and the birth of the drunken snowplow driver?

Not so random animal sounds may show a stepping stone towards language

August 21, 2014

The manner in which humans came to invent gestures and sounds, then developed these into words, then into language and eventually on into writing is a critical and fascinating story from our past that will probably never be fully known or understood. No doubt for humans there is also a connection to the invention of counting, the use of abstract symbols and the evolution of numeracy and the beginnings of the languages of mathematics.The timeline of these evolutions are also in much doubt. Possibly gestures and sounds go back 300,000 years (or even further), but language was established among humans only by about 50,000 years ago. Words and their earlier sounds must have come much, much earlier and writing very much later. Cave paintings around 30,000 years ago may represent the period when abstract symbolism was taking off. It is thought that writing did not come until agriculture expanded – perhaps from about 12,000 years ago.

Now research on animal sounds suggests that for some species the sounds they make are not as random as they were originally thought to be. They exhibit levels of complexity which are suggestive of stepping-stones along the long road to grammar and language. Such steps may have assisted humans from moving from sounds and words to context-free grammars and thence to language.

The sequence in humans – I speculate – could have been:

(300KYA) gestures>> sounds>> (smiles, laughter?)>> words>> ..(unknown steps)>> simple grammar>> context-free grammar>> language>> symbols>> abstract symbols>> writing (12KYA)

Kershenbaum A, Bowles A, Freeburg T, Dezhe J, Lameira A, Bohn K. 2014. Animal vocal sequences: Not the Markov chains we thought they were. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. rspb.royalsocietypublishing.or… .1098/rspb.2014.1370

PhysOrg reports:

The study, published today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, analyzed the vocal sequences of seven different species of birds and mammals and found that the vocal sequences produced by the animals appear to be generated by complex statistical processes, more akin to human language. ….

Many species of animals produce complex vocalizations – consider the mockingbird, for example, which can mimic over 100 distinct song types of different species, or the rock hyrax, whose long string of wails, chucks and snorts signify male territory. But while the vocalizations suggest language-like characteristics, scientists have found it difficult to define and identify the complexity.

Typically, scientists have assumed that the sequence of animal calls is generated by a simple random process, called a “Markov process.” Using the Markov process to examine animal vocalization means that the sequence of variables—in this case, the vocal elements—is dependent only on a finite number of preceding vocal elements, making the process fairly random and far different from the complexity inherent in human language. ……. 

…… the study found no evidence for a Markovian process. The researchers used mathematical models to analyze the vocal sequences of chickadees, finches, bats, orangutans, killer whales, pilot whales and hyraxes, and found most of the vocal sequences were more consistent with statistical models that are more complex than Markov processes and more language-like. …… 

“Language is the biggest difference that separates humans from animals evolutionarily, but multiple studies are finding more and more stepping stones that seem to bridge this gap. Uncovering the process underlying vocal sequence generation in animals may be critical to our understanding of the origin of language,” said lead author Arik Kershenbaum, a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis.


Many animals produce vocal sequences that appear complex. Most researchers assume that these sequences are well characterized as Markov chains (i.e. that the probability of a particular vocal element can be calculated from the history of only a finite number of preceding elements). However, this assumption has never been explicitly tested. Furthermore, it is unclear how language could evolve in a single step from a Markovian origin, as is frequently assumed, as no intermediate forms have been found between animal communication and human language. Here, we assess whether animal taxa produce vocal sequences that are better described by Markov chains, or by non-Markovian dynamics such as the ‘renewal process’ (RP), characterized by a strong tendency to repeat elements. We examined vocal sequences of seven taxa: Bengalese finches Lonchura striata domestica, Carolina chickadees Poecile carolinensis, free-tailed bats Tadarida brasiliensis, rock hyraxes Procavia capensis, pilot whales Globicephala macrorhynchus, killer whales Orcinus orca and orangutans Pongo spp. The vocal systems of most of these species are more consistent with a non-Markovian RP than with the Markovian models traditionally assumed. Our data suggest that non-Markovian vocal sequences may be more common than Markov sequences, which must be taken into account when evaluating alternative hypotheses for the evolution of signalling complexity, and perhaps human language origins.

Sensory and evolutionary deficiencies

August 18, 2014

What shapes our bodies? We can only sense what our shapes permit but are our shapes a result of the survival advantages of what we can sense? Certainly there is much of the physical world that we cannot sense directly – but which we can sense by the instruments we have crafted.There may be many things we don’t even know about which are outside the range of our senses and our instruments (lumped together as extra-sensory things and the source of much speculation and much fraud). Our view of the world and of physical reality is totally dependent upon our senses and what we can perceive directly or through our instruments. Even what we can imagine is limited (a la Rumsfeld) to areas that we know we don’t know. But we cannot even conceive of – let alone imagine – what we don’t know we don’t know.

But why are the ranges of what can be detected by our senses limited to what they are? As hunter-gatherers surely it would have been of survival advantage to see in the dark at least as well as the big cats that were our predators. We must – before agriculture – have had the ability to track our prey. Did humans have a more acute sense of smell then, in the distant past? Did we once use smell as a communication tool as some animals apparently do? Has our sense of smell deteriorated as we have developed as an agrarian society. We can feel minute changes of heat flow on our skins but we cannot “see” thermal images with our eyes. Is there no survival advantage in seeing further into the ultra-violet or the infra-red? Why is our ability to hear high frequency sounds so much inferior even to animals we have domesticated?

There is also a fundamental difference between our ability to perceive some sensory inputs and our ability to generate such sensory signals. We can make as well as detect sounds. We can see certain wave-lengths of reflected radiation but we are not luminescent. Our olfactory sense can detect some trace chemicals but we cannot generate smells at will. Taste buds taste but cannot generate tastes.

It is now thought that humans have many more than just the five traditional “Aristotelian” senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Nowadays some recognise pressure, itch, balance, thermoception, proprioception, pain, magnetoception and perhaps even chronoception (the ability to discern passage of time) as being human senses. We can even perhaps sense the force of gravity. If our inherent senses were powerful enough and varied enough, we would not need any instruments. What we cannot detect because our senses are limited could well be called sensory deficiencies, but whether these are evolutionary deficiencies or not depends upon whether the lack of capability could have provided some survival advantage.We can measure brain waves in a fashion with our instruments but we don’t always know what they mean. The existence of an instrument to measure something is itself evidence of a sensory deficiency. But what an instrument can measure we can also imagine some organ may be able to sense.

There are some who point to the evolution of the eye as some kind of proof of Intelligent Design. But it is actually the reverse. Human eyes actually see a very small part of the spectrum available to be discerned. Compared to what it could be, vision is a key area of sensory deficiency. Electromagnetic radiation exists in the range from gamma rays having a wavelength of 0.1 Angstrom (10−11 m  corresponding to a wavelength of 1019 Hz) all the way up to long wave radiation with a wave length of about 1,000 m and a frequency of 100,000 Hz. Within this range we find radio waves (wavelength 50 cm – 10 m), microwaves and radar (between 1cm – 10 cm wavelengths), infra-red (between 1 μm and 1 mm), “visible light” (between 360 nm to 720 nm), ultra-violet (20 nm to 100 nm) and X-rays (0.2 nm to 1 nm). The gases in the Earth’s atmosphere prevents much of the electromagnetic radiation from reaching the surface. But the atmosphere is virtually transparent in 3 main bands

  1. an “optical window” including the visible spectrum along with the near uv and near ir regions,
  2. a partial infra-red window, and
  3. a radio wave window
emr windows - based on wikimedia

emr windows – based on wikimedia

There is some reason therefore for life on earth to develop senses which take advantage of these windows to detect the electromagnetic radiation that passes through the atmosphere and bombards the earth. Yet no animal can detect all radiation just in the “optical window”. Some of the infra-red radiation can be detected as warmth on the skin. Bats can both see and emit along the radar bands but not at longer radio wave-lengths. Humans are virtually blind in the top two windows.

daffodil in visible and UV light image Dr. Mccarthy

daffodil in visible and UV light image Dr. Mccarthy

Even within the optical window, the range of wave-lengths that are “visible” to humans is much narrower than the range visible to all animal-life. Pollinating creatures (bees and butterflies), for example, see well into the ultra-violet. The colours and patterns on flowers look quite different in ultra-violet light. They appear like landing lights to guide the pollinator “home”.While the picture on the right above is exclusively in uv light, an extended range of human visibility would lead to “seeing” some combination of the two pictures above. And so it would be if we could see further into the infra-red as well. We would need non-existent – but imaginable organs, to sense radiation within the other two windows.

Whether or not an extended range of vision could have helped humans better to survive, it is apparent that human vision is – compared to what is possible in the animal world – deficient. Compared to what is there to be “seen”, we see only a tiny fraction. It is highly unlikely that having an extended range of vision would have been a disadvantage in the survival stakes. It may not have provided a critical advantage but it still remains a sensory and an evolutionary deficiency!

Humans also lack the organs which allow bats to be radar receivers and emitters. A deficiency. We lack the organs that allow sharks to detect electric currents or birds to detect and navigate along magnetic lines of force. Our olfactory senses are far inferior to that of most animals. Dogs may be able to smell cancer cells but we can’t. Our hearing of high frequency sounds is also much inferior to that of most animals. All deficiencies. Humans do very well with low frequency sounds and perhaps only elephants and the largest of whales can generate and hear lower pitched sounds than humans can. We do not have the senses to even discern what some of our instruments measure.

For every human sense, and comparing only with the range exhibited by other life on Earth, our range of detection is deficient. There is no instance where the range of a human sense represents the entire range available within the animal world. Clearly, with a greater sensory range, humans could be much more capable – inherently – of discerning the world around them than they actually are.

Evolution of course is not about excellence. It is not even about the survival of the fittest. It is just the result of the demise of the unfit and therefore represents the minimum required to survive. Evolution is not about being “best” but only about being “good enough”. Evolution therefore sorts out individuals with sensory deficiencies when they are debilitating and prevent survival but evolution does not – except by accident – lead to an increase in a sensory range.

Natural de-selection which has dominated evolution so far is essentially without direction and is not a “selection for excellence”. Now as artificial selection comes into play, it becomes possible for humans – for the first time ever – to consider the direction to be taken for the development of future humans. This is the stuff of Frankenstein and Dr. Moreau and other evil genetic manipulators. Nevertheless I wonder which senses I would want/desire to be improved or enhanced or even created. (Though I would prefer that the deterioration of senses with age be addressed first).

Vision: I would quite like to have a much better night vision sensitivity together with some further range into the infra-red (but perhaps not much further into the uv range). I exclude Superman like X-ray vision as being too far removed from the optical window. To be able to “light-up” whatever I was looking at – say within 1 m – would require some new organ of luminescence which may be asking for too much.

Sound: A slightly larger range of hearing into the high frequency bands is, I think, to be desired. At least so I can hear what a dog hears. This would change human music and musical instruments quite drastically. I don’t think I want a more acute hearing sense (we are surrounded by enough noise as it is) but I would like to be able to hear a greater range of sounds than I can produce.

Magnetoception: It would have been a boon for explorers 500 years ago if they had had an innate sense of magnetic north. As we go out away from earth, humans will be exploring again and being able to discern lines of magnetic force without relying on instruments could well come in useful.

I have no great desire for enhancing the sense of touch or of smell. They are fine as they are and I see no clear benefits in their enhancement. But a new organ of extra-sensory perception (esp) to pick up the brain waves of others could be very handy. In its simplest form it would just detect when somebody was lying or some kind of “empathy” level being broadcast. But in its most evolved form it could be what is so beloved of science fiction writers. An organ that allowed mind-to-mind contact would lead to a profound paradigm shift in communication between humans which would rival the introduction of speech and language.

Breeding for intelligence?

August 8, 2014

I take intelligence to be a capability – a potential. For every human it is – by my definition – genetic. Knowledge, not intelligence, is what is acquired. No matter how we define it, intelligence is a composite consequence of many genes. Epigenetics suggests that some of these genes may be switched on or not depending upon nurture but the existence of the relevant genes must surely be inherited (nature). The supremely idiotic goings-on in Iraq and Syria and Gaza and Africa and in all the instances of barbarism and mayhem around the world are all consequent to a lack of intelligence. They only convince me that human intelligence is not on the increase and- clearly – is not a trait that is being selected for.

But it should be.

Though intelligence does seem to be positively correlated with survival to reproduction age, it seems that it leads to a lower reproduction rate which more than negates the effects of the increased survival. Assuming that IQ is at least a partial measure of intelligence, fertility rate seems to reduce with increasing intelligence. If the lower reproductive rate is actually a consequence of the higher intelligence, then the human race – without intervention – is doomed to remaining where it is on the scale of intelligence and its proportion of idiots. The paradox is that there is nobody who does not want to be more intelligent – but it does not seem to be an evolutionary trait.

IQ and fertility: A cross-national study

Many studies have found a small to moderate negative correlation between IQ and fertility rates. However, these studies have been limited to the United States and some European countries. The present study was a between-nation study using national IQ scores and national fertility rates. There were strong negative correlations found between national IQ and three national indicators of fertility.

“Evolution” is actually just the result of the those who failed to reproduce. So while intelligence may be a survival trait it does not seem to result in increasing reproduction and is therefore not an evolutionary trait.

Demographically then the human race – without human intervention – is condemned to a  “dumbing down”.

Is human intelligence declining?

If “intelligence” is an inherited characteristic – as it seems at least partially to be –  then it is only a matter of simple arithmetic that unless the “more intelligent” reproduce at a higher rate than those of “less intelligence” then the “average intelligence” of the population will inevitably decrease.

There is little doubt that there is a connection between intelligence and brain size. But brain size alone is not a measure of intelligence. Intelligence was probably selected for (and therefore an evolutionary trait) during the period when the size of the human brain was increasing. Possibly at some point the collateral genetic cost of increasing intelligence led to a leveling off. There could well have been trade-offs during the period when – simultaneously – food supply was more secure, human brain size was increasing, intelligence increased, language was evolving and social interaction was increasing. Quite possibly there is an optimum combination of these (and possibly other) traits for any given set of prevailing environmental conditions.

Brain size does not seem to have increased for anatomically modern humans (AMH) and that means for around 100,000 years – perhaps 200,000. But during this time the physical differences between the various “races” of humans have evolved. Possibly these physical changes have occurred fastest during the last 20,000 years since the end of the last glacial period. But even coping with this massive change of environmental surroundings has not led to the further development of brain size and – apparently – intelligence. There is some suggestion that intelligence peaked with the hunter-gatherers. Intelligence has not been a decisive factor for survival and subsequent reproduction. Perhaps human intelligence cannot increase unless the conditions first exist which lead to an increase of brain size? Or perhaps brain size increases only as a consequence of intelligence being selected for?

The question is whether we should now explicitly be trying to increase the intelligence of humankind?

We are now within a paradigm where “natural selection” by the prevailing environment has been decoupled from survival and subsequent reproduction. Natural selection is apparently obsolete and of no great value for the further development of humankind.  Social factors rather than the surrounding environment control fertility. The welfare state has seen to it that physical disabilities after birth generally do not act as a de-selector. “Artificial selection” does not yet dominate but is of increasing importance in determining who survives to subsequently reproduce. Abortion (25 -30% of all conceptions) de-selects for some serious, detectable, physical disabilities but is also often for the social convenience of the mother.  Surrogacy and IVF are driven by social needs and are providing the possibility of selecting for specific characteristics – though the “selection” is still largely hit-and-miss. I am not sure that IQ is necessarily the best measure of intelligence, but it seems ridiculous that where we do use “artificial selection”, intelligence is not also a criterion for selection.

Humans have learned to overcome the limitations of the surrounding “natural” environment. We cannot predict – let alone control – earthquakes and volcanoes, but we do build houses which make the vagaries of most weather irrelevant. We breed other species to suit our needs. We overturn the natural order of things by protecting the weak and healing the sick and caring for the old.  Modern living is fundamentally “unnatural” in that it is dominated by human intervention to mitigate “natural” effects. The many deficiencies we still have – poverty and gratuitous violence and famine and rape and genocide and intolerance and religious insanities – can all be put down to insufficiency of intelligence.

There is nothing wrong with eugenics. It is the methods by which it is applied which can be ethical or unethical.It is inevitable that we try and achieve a growth of intelligence. And perhaps it has already started – in China.

iO9: Chinese parents will be able to engage in what’s called preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) in order to select the most “intelligent” babies. It’s not genetic engineering — instead, doctors look at the DNA of several zygotes and choose the most promising one for implantation. Put this reproductive technology in the hands of enough parents, and the next generation of Chinese citizens could start to exhibit rates of intelligence five to 15 IQ points higher than what’s typically seen today.

China passed its so-called “Eugenics Law” in 1994, what it formally calls the “Maternal and Infant Health Care Law”:

This law regulates support for maternal and child health and also requires physicians to recommend a postponement of marriage if either member of a couple has an infectious, contagious disease or an active mental disorder. If one member of a couple has a serious hereditary disease, the couple may only marry if they agree to use longterm contraception or to undergo sterilization. If prenatal tests reveal that a fetus has a serious hereditary disease or serious deformity, the physician must advise the pregnant woman to have an abortion, and the law states that the pregnant woman “should” follow this recommendation.

The introduction of novel biotechnologies could allow the communist government to take its eugenic-like policies to the next level (though it’s not clear at this time if China will insist that PGD be enforced in this way). But rather than just screen for a “serious deformity,” the Chinese may eventually designate any kind of “deleterious” trait — like low IQ — as something that can and should be eliminated from the gene pool (with “low” IQ being a potentially normative and scalable characteristic).

Put that together with the Chinese Genetic Program:

Vice: At BGI Shenzhen, scientists have collected DNA samples from 2,000 of the world’s smartest people and are sequencing their entire genomes in an attempt to identify the alleles which determine human intelligence. Apparently they’re not far from finding them, and when they do, embryo screening will allow parents to pick their brightest zygote and potentially bump up every generation’s intelligence by five to 15 IQ points. 

Related: On birth rates, abortions and “eugenics by default”

Adapting to climate change requires the further development and use of fossil fuels

July 31, 2014

The single thing that differentiates the human species from every other known species on earth has been the control and use of fire.The step change then from primitive to modern humans has been due not least to the control and development of the combustion process and the utilisation of fossil fuels. This in turn has multiplied many times the intensity of energy available to be harnessed by man. I would suggest that the human capability of handling change is largely a function of the power intensity available.

power intensity

power intensity

Fossil fuels have been demonised (by association with carbon dioxide emissions) for the last 30 years. In spite of that most  of the growth in the developing world has been – and continues to be – powered by fossil fuels. Fortunately the lack of evidence of any significant linkage between man-made carbon dioxide and global warming  (which is still the politically correct ideology) is beginning to be realised. The unnecessary, misplaced and ineffective increase of electricity prices in countries which have curtailed their use of fossil fuels has prolonged the recession and has cost many millions of jobs.

We have now had almost 20 years with the highest level ever of fossil fuel utilisation but “global temperature” has remained stubbornly static. In the last decade global temperatures have declined slightly. The hypothesised link between man-made carbon dioxide (which constitutes only about 3% of carbon dioxide emissions) and global temperature is well and truly broken. All the various climate computer models – which build on this link being amplified – have failed miserably.

The indicators of a global cooling cycle having started are piling up.

  1. There is more ice in the antarctic than has ever been measured
  2. There is more ice in the arctic than about a decade ago
  3. Total ice cover is higher now than has ever been measured
  4. Ice cover on the Great Lakes reached levels not seen for over 50 years and has persisted into the spring (even summer) later than has been observed for at least 40 years.
  5. The expected super El Nino forecast for this year has been dampened by a cooling Pacific and only a mild El Nino event – if at all – is now to be expected
  6. Sea level rises are no different to the long term average for sea level recovery since the last glacial minimum and may even have slowed.
  7. The deep oceans are cooling and are no repository of “hidden heat”
  8. The net cooling effect of clouds has been underestimated in nearly all models and cloud cover over the world is increasing (slightly).
  9. Man made water vapour is of greater significance than man made carbon dioxide for climate effects. But man made water vapour is almost insignificant compared to the water vapour flux due to evaporation and respiration.
  10. Solar effects are virtually ignored by all climate models but the sun does not much care for models and is reaching a low level of activity comparable to the Dalton or Maunder Minima.

Crying wolf about global warming has been the politically correct thing to do for 3 decades. Before that it was politically correct to be alarmist about the coming ice age. No doubt all the old fears about an ice age can be dusted off and recycled.

Climate change has been the most powerful force which has shaped human evolution and expansion. Sea level changes and patterns of precipitation and desertification have driven both evolution and migrations. Sea level during an ice age is about 120 m lower than it is today. More land is exposed in equatorial and tropical regions during a glacial period while land is rendered uninhabitable by the ice sheets of the north. But even primitive humanity survived during the glacials.

It is the global cooling cycles and not global warming cycles which will place the greatest demands on farming and energy. The greatest sea level change that humanity has had to – and will have to – adapt to  is the 120 m difference between glacial and interglacial conditions. During an ice age precipitation will drop sharply and river water flows will decline. Hydro power will all but dry up. It is the inevitable coming of the next ice age that will pose the real challenge – not the 1 m sea level rise that may come with another warming cycle. And when the ice age comes again it will be fossil fuels which will keep the home fires burning. It is the further exploitation of nuclear energy and fossil fuels in all its forms – coal, oil, natural gas, shale gas, gas from methane hydrates – that will be needed. It is the availability of power at the intensities provided by nuclear power and fossil fuel combustion which is what will provide humans with the wherewithal to cope with climate change, whether warming or cooling, but especially when the next ice age begins.

Whatever the alarmists would have us do in the short term, reality will eventually bite. The use of fossil fuels will – thankfully – continue as will the exploration for new sources of gas. The next generation of nuclear power plant will be developed – even though nuclear alarmism has led to a dearth of nuclear engineers. No doubt some market niches will be filled by wind and solar power but that will not be very significant in the large picture.


The “original” Out of Africa event

July 6, 2014

Homo Out of Africa 1.9 million years ago

Homo Out of Africa

A “right” to be remembered

July 6, 2014

We shall all die and we shall all be forgotten. And if our works have not been captured on tablets of stone or our images as cave paintings then the “forgetting” will not take very long. While stone tablets and cave walls have a life of tens of thousands of years, the life of parchment is at most about two thousand and paper is unlikely to survive more than a thousand years. Media for the storage of electronic data can live for probably no more than a few decades – at best. And with the internet the medium is getting ever more ephemeral.

History does not change. But the historical record depends on who recorded it and with how much bias, on what medium and who rewrote it before the medium died. Data corruption and plagiarism were not of great concern in the days of stone tablets. The ease of corrupting data has increased with the ease of recording data and the lifetime of the recording media have decreased.

David Mitchell writes in The Observer:

These days thousands are campaigning for “the right to die” and “the right to be forgotten as if they’re genuinely worried it might otherwise not happen.

What will our descendants think of it? “Bloody hell, those guys were a bit glass-half-empty! What else did they want? ‘The right to self-harm’? ‘The right to feel humiliated’? ‘The right to decompose’? ‘The right to have someone you hate turn up at your funeral and claim you liked them’?” Historians of future ages could be forgiven for concluding that this whole era was clinically depressed. ……… 

The only thing I ever liked about the internet was that I thought it would help historians – that, assuming there wasn’t an all-data-destroying power surge, millions of searchable written sources would be left to posterity. Without that, it’s all just grooming and bookshop closures and mind-blowing opportunities for fraud. So this news that Ozymandias can apply to have records of his works suppressed in case they invoke too much despair in the Mighty – ie prospective employers – is a real blow.

You may say that Ozymandias is dead – or rather fictional but, even in the fiction, dead – so couldn’t apply to have his virtual trunkless legs buried in the unsearchable sand (I will retain control of this metaphor). The internet can still be accurate about the deceased, you might think. I don’t. They’re the very people you can say anything about, true or false, because they cannot be libelled. Only the living have legal recourse to ensure accuracy, but why would anyone bother to get things corrected if they can effectively just delete anything written about them that they’re not keen on?

People’s right to suppress unpleasant lies which are publicly told is being extended to unpleasant truths – until they die when it’s suddenly open season on slander. The internet will become constructed entirely of two different sorts of untruth: contemporaneous unalloyed praise and posthumous defamatory hearsay.

We are 7 billion today and all the humans who ever lived (as Anatomically Modern Humans since about 200,000 years ago) probably number around 110 billion. Being forgotten is is the norm.

I want the “right” to be remembered – but not for those things I don’t want to be remembered for! But I will be long gone, long forgotten, and will have little interest in any “rights” by then.

Vegetarians more susceptible to allergies, cancer, heart disease and depression

March 31, 2014

A new study from the University of Graz contradicts the politically correct advantages usually attributed to vegetarianism. “… our results showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with poorer health (higher incidences of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders), a higher need for health care, and poorer quality of life”. 

It would seem that vegetarianism is “more about an ideological message that suggests false promises”.

Nutrition and Health – The Association between Eating Behavior and Various Health Parameters: A Matched Sample Study by Nathalie T. Burkert, Johanna Muckenhuber, Franziska Großschädl, Eva Rasky, Wolfgang Freidl, PLOS One, February 2014, Volume9, Issue 2.

DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0088278

Abstract: Population-based studies have consistently shown that our diet has an influence on health. Therefore, the aim of our study was to analyze differences between different dietary habit groups in terms of health-related variables. The sample used for this cross-sectional study was taken from the Austrian Health Interview Survey AT-HIS 2006/07. In a first step, subjects were matched according to their age, sex, and socioeconomic status (SES). After matching, the total number of subjects included in the analysis was 1320 (N = 330 for each form of diet – vegetarian, carnivorous diet rich in fruits and vegetables, carnivorous diet less rich in meat, and carnivorous diet rich in meat). Analyses of variance were conducted controlling for lifestyle factors in the following domains: health (self-assessed health, impairment, number of chronic conditions, vascular risk), health care (medical treatment, vaccinations, preventive check-ups), and quality of life. In addition, differences concerning the presence of 18 chronic conditions were analyzed by means of Chi-square tests. Overall, 76.4% of all subjects were female. 40.0% of the individuals were younger than 30 years, 35.4% between 30 and 49 years, and 24.0% older than 50 years. 30.3% of the subjects had a low SES, 48.8% a middle one, and 20.9% had a high SES. Our results revealed that a vegetarian diet is related to a lower BMI and less frequent alcohol consumption. Moreover, our results showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with poorer health (higher incidences of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders), a higher need for health care, and poorer quality of life. Therefore, public health programs are needed in order to reduce the health risk due to nutritional factors.

Press Release (in German)

NoTricksZone summarises the findings:

The scientists examined a total of 1320 persons who were divided up into 4 groups of 330 persons each. All groups were comparable with respect to gender, age, and socio-economic status. The study also accounted for smoking and physical activity. Also the BMI was within the normal range for all four groups (22.9 – 24.9). The only thing that really was different among the four groups was the diet. The four groups were: 1) vegetarians, 2) meat-eaters with lots of fruit and veggies, 3) little meat-eaters and 4) big meat-eaters. More than three quarters of the participants were women (76.4%).

..the results contradict the common cliché that meat-free diets are healthier. Vegetarians have twice as many allergies as big meat-eaters do (30.6% to 16.7%) and they showed 166% higher cancer rates (4.8% to 1.8%). Moreover the scientists found that vegans had a 150% higher rate of heart attacks (1.5% to 0.6%). In total the scientists looked at 18 different chronic illnesses. Compared to the big meat-eaters, vegetarians were hit harder in 14 of the 18 illnesses (78%) which included asthma, diabetes, migraines and osteoporosis .

The Medical University of Graz confirms findings by the University of Hildesheim: More frequent psychological disorders among vegetarians, the press release writes.

…. the University of Graz found that vegetarians were also twice as likely to suffer for anxiety or depressions than big meat eaters (9.4% to 4.5%). That result was confirmed by the University of Hildesheim, which found that vegetarians suffered significantly more from depressions, anxiety, psychosomatic complaints and eating disorders [2]. The U of Graz scientists also found that vegetarians are impacted more by ilnessses and visit the doctor more frequently …….

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