A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Posts Tagged ‘human beings

[LINK] “Real Paleo Diet: Early Hominids Ate Just About Everything”

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At IFL Science, Ken Sayers notes that, far from cleaving to the paleo diet in vogue now, early hominids have a diverse omnivorous diet.

Reconstructions of human evolution are prone to simple, overly-tidy scenarios. Our ancestors, for example, stood on two legs to look over tall grass, or began to speak because, well, they finally had something to say. Like much of our understanding of early hominid behavior, the imagined diet of our ancestors has also been over-simplified.

Take the trendy Paleo Diet which draws inspiration from how people lived during the Paleolithic or Stone Age that ran from roughly 2.6 million to 10,000 years ago. It encourages practitioners to give up the fruits of modern culinary progress – such as dairy, agricultural products and processed foods – and start living a pseudo-hunter-gatherer lifestyle, something like Lon Chaney Jr. in the film One Million BC. Adherents recommend a very specific “ancestral” menu, replete with certain percentages of energy from carbohydrates, proteins and fats, and suggested levels of physical activity. These prescriptions are drawn mainly from observations of modern humans who live at least a partial hunter-gatherer existence.

But from a scientific standpoint, these kinds of simple characterizations of our ancestors’ behavior generally don’t add up. Recently, fellow anthropologist C. Owen Lovejoy and I took a close look at this crucial question in human behavioral evolution: the origins of hominid diet. We focused on the earliest phase of hominid evolution from roughly 6 to 1.6 million years ago, both before and after the first use of modified stone tools. This time frame includes, in order of appearance, the hominids Ardipithecus and Australopithecus, and the earliest members of our own genus, the comparatively brainy Homo. None of these were modern humans, which appeared much later, but rather our distant forerunners.

We examined the fossil, chemical and archaeological evidence, and also closely considered the foraging behavior of living animals. Why is this crucial? Observing animals in nature for even an hour will provide a ready answer: almost all of what an organism does on a daily basis is simply related to staying alive; that includes activities such as feeding, avoiding predators and setting itself up to reproduce. That’s the evolutionary way.

[. . .]

Researchers Tom Hatley and John Kappelman noted in 1980 that hominids have bunodont – low, with rounded cusps – back teeth that show much in common with bears and pigs. If you’ve watched these animals forage, you know they’ll eat just about anything: tubers, fruits, leafy materials and twigs, invertebrates, honey and vertebrate animals, whether scavenged or hunted. The percentage contribution of each food type to the diet will depend (you guessed it) on the energetic value of specific foods in specific habitats, at specific times of year. Evidence from the entirety of human evolution suggests that our ancestors, and even we as modern humans, are just as omnivorous.

Written by Randy McDonald

March 2, 2015 at 10:18 pm

[BLOG] Some Tuesday links

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  • blogTO notes that loads of new streetcars should arrive this year for the TTC.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze links to one paper examining the impact of colliding stellar winds in a close binary on habitable planets, links to another examining how habitable planets gets their water, and wonders about the insights provided by the HR 8799 planetary system into water delivery.
  • The Dragon’s Tales links to a paper arguing that Enceladus’ subsurface ocean is made of alkaline soda water.
  • Joe. My. God. notes a claim by some British scientists that it may be possible, with foreseeable genetic engineering, to create children with two same-sex parents.
  • Languages of the World’s Asya Perelstvaig looks into what Broca’s area of the brain actually means for human language.
  • Marginal Revolution notes that the woman-dominated area of health care is a growth area for middle-class employment in the United States.
  • Otto Pohl notes that yesterday was the 71st anniversary of the deportation of the Chechens and the Ingush.
  • pollotenchegg maps industrial production in Ukraine.
  • Will Baird argues at The Power and the Money that the Minsk Accord is crumbling and examines the reasons for Chinese support of Russia.
  • Spacing Toronto’s John Lorinc worries about corporate sponsorship of ice rinks.
  • Torontoist notes that Massey Hall has begun its renovations.
  • Towleroad notes a Texan legislator who wants to make it illegal for trans people to use public washrooms.
  • Transit Toronto observes that the Union-Pearson Express is undergoing test runs.
  • Window on Eurasia worries about the potential for a minority of Russians in Latvia’s eastern Latgale province to start trouble.

[BRIEF NOTE] On how a new Maunder Minimum will not save Earth from global warming

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Sitting in a pizzeria in the Annex this evening, as I ate my slice I read a complimentary copy of today’s Toronto Sun. My attention was caught by Lorne Gunter’s QMI Agency column arguing that global warming will be a thing of the past, that the sunspot cycle of our local star is heading towards a new Maunder Minimum that will lead to global cooling.

Forget global warming, it’s more likely we’re on the cusp of another Little Ice Age than of a warming Armageddon. The brutal winter that has hammered the U.S. Northeast, Atlantic Canada, Ontario and Quebec could become the norm in the Northern Hemisphere for the next 30 years if a growing number of solar physicists are right.

Our sun goes through very predictable 11-year cycles. The current one began in 2008 and is expected to produce among the fewest sunspots and most diminished solar radiation of any of the 24 cycles that have been carefully recorded by scientists going back nearly three centuries.

And Cycle 25, which will “peak” in 2022, is expected to be the weakest cycle since the 17th century, when the Earth last encountered such a feeble sun, our planet was plunged into the depths of what has become known as the Little Ice Age.

The sun-climate connection makes perfect sense; far more sense than the theory that a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is trapping solar radiation close to the Earth’s surface and dangerously warming the planet and changing our climate.

This is especially true because even according to the most devoted global-warming believers, a buildup of CO2 is not enough to trigger dangerous warming. Some other “forcing” factor is needed to push worldwide temperatures higher. But so far, no one knows with certainty what that factor might be. And given that global temperatures have not risen appreciably in 17 years, no forcing seems to be occurring.

This actually is not a bad argument. The middle of the Little Ice Age, a time when the Thames River froze solid to the benefit of skaters, did in fact coincide with the Maunder Minimum. Brian Koberlein’s October 2014 phys.org article “Is the sun at Maunder minimum?” does agree that somewhat decreased luminosity will lead to some global cooling, specifically to colder winters in the Northern Hemisphere. How can it not? Assigning a very substantial amount of responsiblity for global climate change to the sun only makes sense. If it gives the world a respite, so much the better.

This is not the same thing as saying that the sun has sole responsibility for global climate. Heightened volcanic activity also led to the Little Ice Age, as did the Earth’s changing orbit around the Sun, as did changing patterns in ocean circulation. Critically for our purposes, the depopulation of the Americas after Columbus–the disappearance of carbon dioxide-producing populations and their industries across the Western Hemisphere and the rewilding of lands once home to tens of millions–also played a role. Human activity may not play a dominant role, but is there any reason to think it would play no role when it clearly can? Increased carbon dioxide is increased carbon dioxide regardless of the source.

(It’s worth noting that Wei-Hock Soon, a climate scientist who has assigned most responsibility for global climate change to solar output and little to human activity, has just this weekend been revealed to have accepted more than a million dollars from fossil-fuel companies without revealing it in his papers.)

In any case, even if a new Maunder Minimum did happily counterbalance the effects of human industry and more–ignoring, for the moment, effects like the acidification of the oceans–what would happen when the Maunder Minimum ended? Wouldn’t an acceleration of global warming be potentially catastrophic? A new Maunder Minimum could give us precious extra time, decades within which we could try to geoengineer away as much of our carbon dioxide as possible. Assuming this temporary phenomenon would exempt us indefinitely from our issues would be foolish.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 24, 2015 at 3:02 am

[BLOG] Some Monday links

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  • blogTO notes that the cash-strapped CBC may be forced to sell its iconic downtown Toronto headquarters.
  • James Bow reflects on winter in Kitchener-Waterloo.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze links to a paper studying the relationship between exoplanets and circumstellar dust discs.
  • The Dragon’s Tales links to a simulation of the polar atmosphere of Venus and notes concerns that India’s Hindustan Aeronautics might not be able to manufacture French Rafale fighters under contract.
  • Far Outliers notes Madeleine Albright’s incomprehension of Cambodia’s late 1990s struggles and looks at the way the country lags its neighbours.
  • The Frailest Thing notes how human traffic errors reveal we’re not quite up to some of the tasks we’d like.
  • Joe. My. God. notes that Finland’s president has signed a marriage bill into existence.
  • Languages of the World notes the problem of where the homeland of the Indo-Europeans was located.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money notes the often-ignored pattern of lynching Mexicans in the United States.
  • Marginal Revolution notes (1, 2) the problems of human beings with algorithmic, computer-driven planning.
  • Otto Pohl notes how Germans in Kyrgyzstan were forced into labour battalions.
  • pollotenchegg looks at demographic indicators in Ukraine over the past year, noting a collapse in the east.
  • The Power and the Money’s Noel Maurer looks at deep history, looking at the involvement of war in state-building in Africa and noting the historically recent rise of inequality in Latin America.
  • Window on Eurasia looks at one Russian’s proposal to give a Ukrainian church self-government, notes Russia’s inability to serve as a mentor to China, and looks at rural depopulation in the North Caucasus and South Russia.

[LINK] “How to Survive Winter in Antarctica”

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The Atlantic‘s Peter Sopher describe how the two hundred people at the United States’ South Pole station survive the gruelling Antarctic winter.

The final flight out of the South Pole was Friday, February 13—the last chance to leave until mid-November. Those 40 or so people staying the winter will have no way out of Antarctica for around nine months. They won’t even be able to venture more than a mile or two off the base, because all the facilities are in a condensed area, and there’s no point in sightseeing during the four months of darkness and two more of twilight.

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is the southern-most of the three U.S. research stations down in Earth’s basement. It is located about a hundred meters from the pole itself. It houses around 150 people during the summer and 50 during the winter. The other stations are McMurdo Station, located on Ross Island, and Palmer Station, on Anvers Island. McMurdo is the most populous of the bunch, with 800 to 900 people residing there in the summer and nearly 150 during the winter. Winter on Antarctica’s Ross Island is slightly shorter than at the South Pole. This winter, planes will fly intermittently out of McMurdo, where winter begins on February 28, and the station’s summer crowd arrives on October 1.

The U.S. Antarctic Program doesn’t fly over Antarctica during the winter, even between bases, because temperatures get below -50 degrees Fahrenheit, the point at which gasoline freezes. In the depths of winter, around the beginning of July, temperatures can drop below -100 degrees Farenheit. Compounding the cold is the altitude—the South Pole station is nearly 10,000 feet above sea level. In such conditions, even breathing can be painful. Many who attempt to join the 300 Club—a group that endures a 300-degree temperature change by heating themselves in a 200-degree sauna and then streaking naked to the pole and back in sub-negative-100-degree weather—will often wear a scarf, if nothing else.
In the depths of winter, temperatures can drop below -100 degrees Farenheit, and even breathing can be painful.

One of the most disorienting parts of living at the pole is that the sun neither rises nor sets. If a full day is the time between two sunrises, a full day in the South Pole lasts approximately 8,760 hours (24 hours multiplied by 365). This is because, at the pole, the sun rises just once a year and sets many months later. During the summer there are 24 hours of sunlight, and, during the winter, 24 hours of darkness.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 17, 2015 at 11:09 pm

[LINK] “The Intriguing New Science That Could Change Your Mind About Rats”

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Brandon Keim’s Wired article argues that in a wide variety of ways, rats and human beings are fundamentally the same, at least in being smart social mammals. Provocative, long read.

[W]e still have much to learn about rats, and from them. Yes, there’s volume upon volume of rat research—but most of it focuses on traditional questions of basic physiology and drug responses and so forth. Few researchers have asked what rats think and feel, or how they’ve adapted to environments so very different from their ancestral home in southern Mongolia.

On this front, rats are guides to emerging questions of evolution and cognition: how cities shape the brains and behaviors of the animals within them, and whether aspects of consciousness once considered exceptional might in fact be quite common.

Foremost among these is empathy, widely considered a defining human characteristic. Yet rats may possess it too. An especially fascinating line of research, the latest installment of which was published last year in the journal eLife, suggests rats treat each other in an empathic manner. Such thoughtfulness underscores the possibility that rats are far more complicated than we’re accustomed to thinking—and that much of what’s considered sophisticated human behavior may in fact be quite simple.

This idea runs contrary to notions of human exceptionality. Yet evolution teaches us that humans and other creatures share not only bodies, but brains. In that light, why wouldn’t rats care about each other? The idea also challenges us to see rats anew: Not just as vermin, or as anonymous laboratory models of some biological process, but as fellow animals.

As neurobiologist Peggy Mason, a pioneer in rat empathy research put it, “I’m perfectly happy thinking of myself as a rat with a fancy neocortex.”

Written by Randy McDonald

February 13, 2015 at 11:02 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] On how social safety nets can encourage entrepreneurialism

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Bloomberg View’s Noah Smith had an interesting article, “Does the Social Safety Net Make Us Lazy?”, which links to research suggesting that a social safety net does not necessarily discourage entrepreneurialism. Debates of this kind connect interestingly to discussions of a guaranteed minimum income, which, as the Mincome experiment in the Manitoba town of Dauphin conducted during the 1970s strongly suggests, can actually substantially increase the productivity and overall health of human beings by relieving them of existential concerns related to poverty. I’m personally inclined to think that social safety nets can be tuned much more finely, the better to maximize human potential. Institutions and policies like these may become increasingly necessary as globalization and technological advance limit the potential for employment across the board. What do you think?

[E]conomists Johan Hombert, an economist at HEC Paris, Antoinette Schoar of MIT, and David Sraer at the University of Califorina, Berkeley, recently found evidence that broadly fits the alternative story. The authors take advantage of a 2002 French government reform that gave extended jobless benefits to unemployed people who started their own companies. Not only would this let unemployed people keep their benefits while launching companies, but if the companies failed, the benefits would extend even further in time. Basically, the French government decided to treat entrepreneurship like any other job, with respect to benefits. In doing so, the government offered a backstop to unemployed entrepreneurs, offering them a safety net should they fail.

Hombert et al. find that the rate of entrepreneurship increased by about 10 percent, across all industries. More importantly, they found that the businesses created by people who were helped by the new law were just as high-quality as other new businesses, in terms of job creation, growth and survival rates. Actually, the entrepreneurs helped by the new policy reported higher levels of ambitiousness than other entrepreneurs — a measure that sounds hokey, but is typically correlated with future business growth.

So in this case, a more “cuddly” form of capitalism didn’t reduce the incentive for entrepreneurship — it increased it. That hints that, in France at least, the main constraint on entrepreneurial activity isn’t lack of effort, but too much risk. The theory of Acemoglu et al., in other words, might just not describe what’s going on in France.

What about the U.S.? Harvard Business School professor Gareth Olds has found evidence that is strikingly similar to Hombert et al. In a 2014 study, he found that food-stamp assistance makes people significantly more likely to start businesses. Again, the data supports the hypothesis that “cuddly capitalism” boosts risk-taking, rather than discouraging it.

This suggests a way for us to attack the entrepreneurship deficit. In his 2008 book, “The Great Risk Shift,” Jacob Hacker documents how Americans have been forced to take on more and more personal risk — medical bankruptcies, unemployment and retirement finances all loom larger than they used to. Maybe this is scaring Americans away from entrepreneurship — forcing them to forgo big dreams because the financial danger of failure is too great. Perhaps if the government did more to limit these risks, we would see the entrepreneurship decline reverse itself.

Written by Randy McDonald

February 9, 2015 at 11:38 pm


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