Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Neanderthal stone tools

Research by UK and American scientists has struck another blow to the theory that Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) became extinct because they were less intelligent than our ancestors (Homo sapiens). The research team has shown that early stone tool technologies developed by our species, Homo sapiens, were no more efficient than those used by Neanderthals.

The team from the University of Exeter, Southern Methodist University, Texas State University, and the Think Computer Corporation, spent three years flintknapping (producing stone tools). They recreated stone tools known as ‘flakes,’ which were wider tools originally used by both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, and ‘blades,’ a narrower stone tool later adopted by Homo sapiens. Archaeologists often use the development of stone blades and their assumed efficiency as proof of Homo sapiens’ superior intellect. To test this, the team analysed the data to compare the number of tools produced, how much cutting-edge was created, the efficiency in consuming raw material and how long tools lasted.

Blades were first produced by Homo sapiens during their colonization of Europe from Africa approximately 40,000 years ago. This has traditionally been thought to be a dramatic technological advance, helping Homo sapiens out-compete, and eventually eradicate, their Stone Age cousins. Yet when the research team analysed their data there was no statistical difference between the efficiency of the two technologies. In fact, their findings showed that in some respects the flakes favoured by Neanderthals were more efficient than the blades adopted by Homo sapiens.

Read more here.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Trichoplax adhaerens

From Science magazine 21/08/08:

The flat marine organism Trichoplax adhaerens barely qualifies as an animal, yet the 98 million DNA base pairs of its genome include many of the genes responsible for guiding the development of other animals' complex shapes and organs, researchers report this week.

I think it is fascinating that this mini-beast has within its DNA a collection of genes that will play pivotal roles in the development of very complex organisms, yet their potential is not fully harnessed in this creature.

These genes have not formed out of nowhere within this creature. They have arisen in many different organisms at many different times in the past. Rather they have assembled here - brought together by many random acts of sexual reproduction between many different simpler creatures. This creature has passed its natural selection test: it has survived and passed this assembly of genes onto creatures that were able to exploit the potential of these genes to develop new levels of complexity. The useful gene combinations are held securely in place on chromosomes, so none of them will be lost along the way.

This little beast has swum in the centre of the river of life. Only now is it yielding its secrets: it is a facilitator
of the next step in evolution. Richard Howey is a real fan of Trichoplax and will be happy to show you more.

Monday, 18 August 2008

The last Neanderthal was more advanced than the first Homo sapiens

From Scientific blogging

'An archaeological excavation at a site near Pulborough, West Sussex, has thrown remarkable new light on the life of northern Europe's last Neanderthals. It provides a snapshot of a thriving, developing population, rather than communities on the verge of extinction.

The team, led by Dr Matthew Pope of Archaeology South East based at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, is undertaking the first modern, scientific investigation of the site since its original discovery in 1900. During the construction of a monumental house known as 'Beedings' some 2,300 perfectly preserved stone tools were removed from fissures encountered in the foundation trenches.

"The tools we've found at the site are technologically advanced and potentially older than tools in Britain belonging to our own species, Homo sapiens," says Pope. "It's exciting to think that there's a real possibility these were left by some of the last Neanderthal hunting groups to occupy northern Europe. The impression they give is of a population in complete command of both landscape and natural raw materials with a flourishing technology - not a people on the edge of extinction."'

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Darwin's dreamers

As a child, I was taught that science makes mankind stronger by creating a golden future that will be infinitely better than the primitive past. This was a modern myth, of course, a necessary illusion, a ‘Technicolor’ distraction from the Cold War for children of the age of Aquarius. Our awareness of the past is heavily coloured by such pre-conceptions.

Look at the picture of the two Neanderthal men.

They were drawn to look slow, dim-witted and incapable of sharing thought. Perhaps these are myths, too. Ideas that we need to believe. But are they true?

My children expect new technology to arrive every year like ripening fruit on a tree. Yet, theirs is the generation that is bombarded continuously with images of an uncertain, globally-warmed future built upon unsustainable growth. They respond to this double bind by retreating with their friends into a world of cyberspace, on-line messaging and electronic fun.

Perhaps these also are myths. Ideas that we need to believe. But are they true?

What would Neanderthal people think of contemporary life and what challenges would modern people face when encountering the powerful forces that shaped the Neanderthal world?

These are the premises of my novel ‘Echoland’. Whilst ‘Echoland’ partly treads a familiar landscape popularised by Jean Auel, it maintains a contemporary edge.

So, why use the title ‘Darwin’s dreamers’ to title this blog?

In a changing environment, evolution becomes the ruling principle shaping the future direction of life. We have never been able to escape the pressures of natural selection,and, with global warming accelerating, we never will. These, too, are modern myths.

We believe that our human ability to turn dreams into actions has made us the dominant species on this planet. This ability arose in the Neanderthal world, where its flickering power
was experienced for the first time. It was not enough to save the Neanderthals from extinction.

It was strengthened in the successors to the Neanderthals and is developing further in the minds of those who share their dreams in cyberspace.

Perhaps a new form of consciousness is evolving as humans extend their dreams into new dimensions.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Neanderthal genome

The announcement of the sequencing of the Neanderthal mitochondion genome is a major technological and cultural advance. The feeling in the scientific press is that the sequence published is reliable because it has been replicated over thirty times. The excitement about the results has to be tempered with slight caution, since only one bone has been studied, a bone that represents a late Neanderthal human.

That said, it seems as if the genome is distinctive and is not represented in any of the known modern human genomes. The mitochondrial DNA of modern humans is sequenced quite extensively and we have a good feel for the kind of variation found in modern humans.

The tentative conclusions drawn by the researchers are that is no evidence of interbreeding between Neanderthals and early modern humans. This is quite reasonable. Had the Neanderthal sequences been identical to the typical modern sequences, then we would have concluded that the interbreeding must have been commonplace because we found evidence of it at our first attempt at looking. This is not to say that no interbreeding occurred; it is unlikely that we can find evidence of rare events on the first attempt.

The second conclusion is that the effective population size was small; this implies high levels of inbreeding, high levels of genetic similarities within populations, but not between populations. This is not really detectable with mitochondrial DNA, which is transmitted down the female line only. Strange things happen to pools of genes in small populations.

There are other studies that do suggest some levels of interbreeding between early modern humans and Neanderthals, but they were rare events because the populations were small and probably widely dispersed through the terrain.

The mitochodrial DNA studies are not thst sensitive to picking up interbreeding. Of the four possible crosses between Neanderthals and early modern humans, only 1 in 4 will allow Neanderthal mtDNA to persist beyond the first generation cross, assuming that the Neanderthal females are rare in the population.

One fascinating twist to this wonderful story is the new question of just how did so much biochemical evolution take place in the early modern humans in such a short time following the seapration from the common ancestor. The next year promises to be fascinating for Neanderthal watchers!

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Mobius Dick

Can a novel of ideas really become a 'popular read'? Mobius Dick by Andrew Crumey is a thriller based on the theories of parallel universes and quantum physics. It is literary, well-researched, energetic and funny. It is an Amazon best seller and has oodles of good reviews. But would Richard and Judy have approved? That seems to be all that matters these days.

Here is an interesting forum about the indomitable Mr Crumey.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

The fountain

The fat girl is standing by the fountain in the shopping mall; twelve years old, wearing a faded baggy shirt with 'Eye Candy' printed across her not-quite yet visible chest. This is a girl with parents who do not 'do' irony. They probably bought it in a charity shop. The girl is collecting pennies from the fountain. Deeply concentrating, leaning as far as she can towards the water without actually tumbling, she scoops up coins into her large hands. She is alone in the world with her concentration and the coins.

I watch her for ten minutes or so, as she moves around the fountain, collecting, holding on to and hoarding the treasure. People stop and watch, amused by her simple-minded actions. No one tells her to stop, so she continues. How many coins can a child hold without dropping them? How can she lean over and pick up more, without dropping her cache? She is a skillful forager; hers is an ancient primate skill from before the dawn of language.

Then an old woman arrives and notices the criminal and the theft. 'Stop', she shouts. 'Put them back right away. They are not your property'. The girl stops dead and looks bewildered. She starts to cry and suck a piglet doll she had hidden inside her jeans.

The woman has only just begun. An example has to be made. She drags the girl round the fountain telling the bored and disengaged shoppers all about 'property' and 'theft'. No one shows any sympathy for the girl or the woman. Tell a coffee-stall waiter, who looks as if he wants to flee away. To the Mall information manager, with a bluetooth earpiece and a microphone. Reporting the 'theft of charity pennies'. Now something MUST be done about this. The information manager looks scared because she has to make a decision. The decision is to report this INCIDENT to her superiors. She goes behind a potted tree to hide from the girl and she tells tales to teacher. I await the arrival of the armed response unit.

The girl's grandparents arrive on the scene and there is a queue of outraged women anxious to report the criminal tendencies of the young hooligan. Granny looks shocked; Granddad looks as if he wants to go backwards. The girl is marched away, crying with the burning tears of shame.

The ripples of the pool calm, and the predators return to their hunting grounds. England in 2008 is not a forgiving place for children.

Monday, 4 August 2008

The Arabian nightmare

I'm back again, with a new resolve to keep this blog going with little noodles of thoughtful ideas. On a brand new Acer notebook PC, too.

It has taken me three years, off and on, to read Robert Irwin's 'The Arabian Nightmare'. Not because it is a bad book, but because it is quite challenging. I ended up reading it whilst I was on the edge of dreams, and I found that my mind flowed over it and under it and round it. I can recognise its humour, its brilliance and its power.

The book is a story-within-a-story dream fantasy set in old Cairo of the fifteenth century.

It is a daring book with no real sense of time or unfolding plot. Here is a key to unlock it, perhaps:

'If dreams wished themselves to be remembered, they would be remembered. If they wished to be understood, they would be understood.... [The book] has ceased to be a book about the dream and has become a dream about the book.'

This is as true about Irwin's novel as it is about the mythical book within the story. The narrator figure who connects the reader to the dream-landscape dies before the end of the book, so who is the true narrator?

Ideas bubble through the work; insignificant detail suddenly assumes a central theme only to recede into irrelevance, all within ten pages. It is like watching bubbles rise and fall in boiling water.

Powerful and a first-class read.