Posts Tagged ‘Anthropology’

To be more precise, 60% of adults cease producing the enzyme lactase which is responsible for the digestion of lactose, the primary sugar in milk.

No other species has adult members capable of digesting milk, including cats. It is not advisable to feed an adult cat milk, popular images to the contrary notwithstanding. Some may tolerate the milk and merely suffer from gas, while others will get diarrhea and/or throw up. That’s one kind of hot mess you do not want running around your house.

The 40% or so of the human adult population carrying a genetic variant which continues to produce lactase into adulthood is not evenly distributed.

The numbers are often given as close to 0% of Native Americans, 5% of Asians, 25% of African and Caribbean peoples, 50% of Mediterranean peoples and 90% of northern Europeans. Sweden has one of the world’s highest percentages of lactase tolerant people.

The old theory about the origin of this unusual ability was that humans living in the colder, less sunny parts of Northern Europe had difficulty getting sufficient vitamin D and individuals who could tolerate milk into adulthood were at a great advantage.

Actually, vitamin D isn’t really a vitamin. It’s a hormone.

Here’s the new theory, published in PLoS Computational Biology:

Using data on −13,910*T allele frequency and farming arrival dates across Europe, and approximate Bayesian computation to estimate parameters of interest, we infer that the −13,910*T allele first underwent selection among dairying farmers around 7,500 years ago in a region between the central Balkans and central Europe, possibly in association with the dissemination of the Neolithic Linearbandkeramik culture over Central Europe. Furthermore, our results suggest that natural selection favouring a lactase persistence allele was not higher in northern latitudes through an increased requirement for dietary vitamin D. Our results provide a coherent and spatially explicit picture of the coevolution of lactase persistence and dairying in Europe.

In other words, the lactose tolerance began with dairy farmers in Central Europe and gradually spread outwards, rather than spontaneously appearing in Northern Europe.

The remarkable part is that the ancient Europeans were not the only ones to develop that type of mutation.

The European mutation is different from several lactase persistence genes associated with small populations of African peoples who historically have been cattle herders.

Researchers at the University of Maryland identified one such mutation among Nilo-Saharan-speaking peoples in Kenya and Tanzania. That mutation seems to have arisen between 2,700 to 6,800 years ago. Two other mutations have been found among the Beja people of northeastern Sudan and tribes of the same language family in northern Kenya.

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An article posted about “Women Are Getting More Beautiful” at Times Online which we wrote about earlier apparently misrepresented the research of Markus Jokela. (You can read his original article here [PDF].) Here’s what he has to say about it:

Having your study publicized by the media is nice. Having your study misrepresented and misinterpreted in the process is not. The media coverage of my paper on physical attractiveness and having children had a bad start and even worse follow-up. The origin of the problem: Times Online news article sexing up the finding a bit too much (I wasn’t interviewed for this article at all and heard about it only after it had been published).

He goes on to make several clarifications and corrections to the misrepresentations of his research published in the press. We will list a summary here, but the reader is encouraged to read all the details for a complete understanding of the issues.

  • The main point of the study was to see whether attractiveness predicts fertility in a contemporary American population, not whether people are becoming more or less attractive over time. Such a slow process would be observed only over several generations, say, at least 5-10 generations to get an observable effect. In other words, the finding says nothing of comparison of people’s attractiveness in the 1950s vs. the 1970s vs. the 2000s!
  • The association between attractiveness and fertility was observed in women and men. Most stories have mentioned only women or have even claimed that there wasn’t an association in men (“Women more beautiful but men remain Neanderthal, study finds”). This is incorrect!
  • According to some news reports, my study found that attractive women were more likely to have daughters than sons. This is not true! TimesOnline presented the earlier work of Satoshi Kanazawa together with my study and it was Kanazawa’s study which found evidence for such an association. No, I am not Satoshi Kanazawa and this study was not carried out by Kanazawa.
  • Several commentators have dismissed the study because they think that the standards of beauty vary so much over time and across cultures. However, there is substantial agreement between individuals and between different cultures on some aspects of attractiveness, e.g., facial attractiveness (which was the measure of attractiveness in the present study).

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Women Are Getting More Beautiful

UPDATE: See the clarifications and corrections from Markus Jokela, the author of the original research cited in the Times Online article.

The evolutionary power behind this is straightforward: more attractive women tend to have greater numbers of children, and the most attractive are less likely to have sons.

In a study released last week, Markus Jokela, a researcher at the University of Helsinki, found beautiful women had up to 16% more children than their plainer counterparts.

One finding was that women were generally regarded by both sexes as more aesthetically appealing than men. The other was that the most attractive parents were 26% less likely to have sons.

Physical appearance is highly heritable, so it follows that the daughter of an attractive woman will have greater odds of being attractive herself and thus carry a reproductive advantage.

However, what about the men?

“For women, looks are much less important in a man than his ability to look after her when she is pregnant and nursing, periods when women are vulnerable to predators. Historically this has meant rich men tend to have more wives and many children. So the pressure is on men to be successful.”

As with many human traits, such as skin color or height, the distribution follows a bell curve. A shift in the curve as indicated by this research means that a comparison of two women who are average for their respective times, would place the more modern woman as the more attractive one.

A factor acting as a brake on overall attractiveness is male appearance. For example, an attractive woman may have children with an attractive man but their daughter may look like the father and therefore have an unattractive, masculine appearance. Other similar scenarios are why the majority of people are neither very attractive or very ugly, but somewhere in between.

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Get Smarter

For a period of 2 million years, ending with the last ice age around 10,000 B.C., the Earth experienced a series of convulsive glacial events. This rapid-fire climate change meant that humans couldn’t rely on consistent patterns to know which animals to hunt, which plants to gather, or even which predators might be waiting around the corner. How did we cope? By getting smarter. The neuro­physi­ol­ogist William Calvin argues persuasively that modern human cognition—including sophisticated language and the capacity to plan ahead—evolved in response to the demands of this long age of turbulence.

On the scale of time used in evolution, the advancement of human intelligence happened at a breakneck pace. Sophisticated language is a uniquely human trait which no other creature on Earth possesses.

There are all sorts of doomsday scenarios for the coming century. Humanity survived until this point by being clever and we are likely so succeed in the future by using the same technique. The only difference is that we don’t need to rely on natural evolutionary processes to evolve greater intelligence. We use the tools we’ve created, such as the internet, to augment our intelligence to the next level.

There is concern that the nature of the internet has given people a sort of ADD, and that people are losing their skill to read long and in depth pieces of information.

With every technological step forward, though, has come anxiety about the possibility that technology harms our natural ability to think. These anxieties were given eloquent expression in these pages by Nicholas Carr, whose essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (July/August 2008 Atlantic) argued that the information-dense, hyperlink-rich, spastically churning Internet medium is effectively rewiring our brains, making it harder for us to engage in deep, relaxed contemplation.

Carr’s fears about the impact of wall-to-wall connectivity on the human intellect echo cyber-theorist Linda Stone’s description of “continuous partial attention,” the modern phenomenon of having multiple activities and connections under way simultaneously. We’re becoming so accustomed to interruption that we’re starting to find focusing difficult, even when we’ve achieved a bit of quiet. It’s an induced form of ADD—a “continuous partial attention-deficit disorder,” if you will.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment.

Scientists describe these skills as our “fluid intelligence”—the ability to find meaning in confusion and to solve new problems, independent of acquired knowledge. Fluid intelligence doesn’t look much like the capacity to memorize and recite facts, the skills that people have traditionally associated with brainpower. But building it up may improve the capacity to think deeply that Carr and others fear we’re losing for good.

Read the whole thing, since there’s a lot more where that came from.

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Finding reasons why evolution would favor big brains and intelligence in humans is easy. A more difficult line of inquiry is to determine if there are costs involved in having advanced intelligence, and what they may be.

“The results from our analysis suggest that humans aren’t as efficient as chimpanzees in carrying out programmed cell death. We believe this difference may have evolved as a way to increase brain size and associated cognitive ability in humans, but the cost could be an increased propensity for cancer,” said McDonald.

This particular hypothesis indicates that increased cancer rates is one significant cost.

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Before you get all grossed out and try to blame us for losing your lunch, take a moment to ponder the seriousness of this question. At some point in our evolutionary history, it made sense for us to lose body hair. The advantage in having little or no body hair has to do with the human ability of running upright. We are actually the most energy efficient runners (next to dogs) in the animal kingdom, and one way such a thing is possible is through an efficient cooling system, via sweat. Sweating works much more effectively without fur getting in the way of course.

Now, back to our original question.

Robin Weiss, a virologist at University College London, had an intimate revelation in the shower recently.

Public hair, he decided, developed as a sexual ornament. It became bushy and prominent after our ancestors split from non-human primates, he says, when we lost most of our other body hair. As it disappeared, human pubic hair acquired a new role as a prominent sexual ornament, a visual signal of sexual maturity and possibly a reservoir for sexual pheromones.

This theory is actually supported by examining the DNA of lice, both the human and gorilla versions.

Our ancestors and those of gorillas went their separate evolutionary ways at least 7 million years ago. But the lice that infect gorillas and modern humans didn’t become different species until much later – around 3.3 million years ago, as revealed through research in 2007 by David Reed of the University of Florida Natural History Museum in Gainesville.

Reed argues that gorilla lice crossed over to humans through incidental contact, such as humans sleeping in an abandoned gorilla nest. Weiss argues that the pubic hair in humans evolved to become coarser, which gave the gorilla lice something to get a grip on.

To back up his case Weiss visited zoos to peer at the groins of our closest relatives. He noticed that in other great apes, hair in the pubic region was if anything much finer and shorter than elsewhere on the body – the opposite of the human situation. It supported his argument that human pubic hair is different and probably unique, both in its evolution and in its physical appearance and purpose.

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This is a serious question.

From an evolutionary standpoint, it might make sense for women to devote their cellular efforts to reproduction instead of developing an energy-hogging brain, Ward suggested. Females of plenty of other species make this compromise, so why not humans?

The answer is that human females with larger brains had a significant fitness advantage, probably due to the complexity of human social interaction.

Developing big brains must have helped women pass on their genes, she reasoned. One possible explanation is that these larger, more connected brains helped ancestral females navigate an increasingly social world, where gaining benefits from other humans is just as important to survival as traits that improve fitness more directly, such as a strong immune system.

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