Newsweek Article on Human Evolution

There’s an excellent piece on human evolution in Newsweek, written for those of us who are not scientists. I think there are a couple of unclear points, but for the most part it’s a good update on the state of science. I did notice that things that have been around for some years seem to be considered brand new and exciting–exciting they certainly are, but the simple “begat” idea of human evolution has been weakening for a long time.

In any case, this is an article worth reading. I’ve seen the various pieces on more scientific blogs, but as an overview for the non-scientist, this one is good.

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  1. Henry, this is an interesting article. But just yesterday I was reading an article in New Scientist (which I don’t usually read) which seems to conflict with this to some extent, in that it gave evidence that some human genes come not from the group which left Africa around 100,000 years ago, but from Neanderthal Man and from Homo Erectus. I forget the details, and I can’t access the article online now, but the suggestion was that evidence had been found for “modern” humans interbreeding with both of these other species and picking up genetic material from them. One gene variant found largely in modern humans of oriental origin was shown to have split off from the commoner variant as long ago as the original split between Homo Erectus and our main ancestors. The other gene mentioned was that for microcephalin, mentioned in the Newsweek article; there is a variant now found in the majority of Europeans, but not so common in other peoples, and the split between them goes back to the time when the Neanderthals branched off the human tree. As in general Neanderthal DNA is very rare, the commonness of this variant means that it must have conveyed an evolutionary advantage, probably somewhere in the area of cognition. We are used to thinking of Neanderthals as stupid and brutish. But could it in fact be that the advances in European thinking, such as by the ancient Greeks, and indeed the way in which peoples of European origin dominate so much of the world even today, can be traced back to a cognition-related gene inherited from Neanderthals?

  2. I had read something about that myself, though I can’t recall where now. I read a number of science blogs, but I don’t really regard myself as qualified to comment on the finer details, so often I just read and go on.

    In this case, I think the article made clear that the details of human evolution are in considerable flux, something that I think is an indication of healthy science going on. The fun part, if I read it right, is that different methods are producing some different results, and scientists are having some difficulty establishing how the precise details tie together. I will continue to watch with fascination.

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