Birds of a Feather? The Problem with Niche Search Engines

This week's On the Media spotlights Rushmore Drive, the new search engine marketed to African Americans (audio above). As the program describes, the search engine uses a unique algorithm to find those sites that are most heavily trafficked by blacks and to return them at the top of the search results. From host Bob Garfield's interview with CEO Johnny Taylor:

JOHNNY TAYLOR: The algorithm, it's one of the few places where the black community becomes the majority for purposes of producing results. In all of the mainstream search engines, the majority's behavior is what detects how the results are ultimately delivered.

BOB GARFIELD: So you actually kind of rig the game by giving more prominence, based on ratings or whatever, to certain websites because they are identifiably black?

JOHNNY TAYLOR: There's no rigging of the game. We have created the new game. We have finally found a way to deliver something more relevant to a targeted group of people. What the algorithm attempts to do, based upon behavior of this community, is to elevate those results that mean something specifically to the audience. So, for example, typing in the word "Whitney" at a search engine may yield Whitney Houston and Whitney M. Young, two prominent African-American individuals, and in a mainstream search engine it may only yield results for Whitney College or Whitney Museum. What we do is deliver all four. So it's not a rigging of anything. It's a new way to crawl the Web and deliver a more relevant search experience.

Besides marketing and online advertising, co-founder Omar Wasow notes the possible benefits for news consumers:

OMAR WASOW: It may not be that when people are going to do searches for, you know, sort of headline news that Rushmore Drive is going to give a better perspective than Google. But, you know, when you're looking for - you know, take the stories that are dominating the headlines now - Obama and Jeremiah Wright - there's a black perspective on that that's not going to be reflected in the mainstream media.

Yet greater choice and selectivity online are not always good things, as I have noted in many posts here at Framing Science and as my undergraduate classes have debated at this blog. In a second segment (audio above), On the Media focuses on the problem of homophily or the tendency for "birds of a feather to flock together."

BOB GARFIELD: Rushmore Drive and BlackPlanet hope to capitalize on the collective interests of a particular group on the principle of "birds of a feature flock together," what social scientists call homophily.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Behaviorists say it's human nature, but Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, observes that homophily is amplified on the Net, and that ought to be cause for concern.

In an age where TV news offers more and more opinion and less and less international coverage, the Internet would seem to be the logical place to find diverse views, surprising voices and news we need. But, he says, we don't find that because we don't know where to look, and mostly because we prefer to flock.

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: I'm a little worried about homophily because I think homophily has the danger of making us stupid. And I mean that quite literally. I think that in a digital media world where we have the ability to pick and choose whatever it is that we want to look at, we've gone from a supply problem to a demand problem.

In the age of broadcast media, where we had four television networks and, you know, most cities had one or two major newspapers, you were trusting that media outlet to give you a wide view of the world, to let you know about stories you might not otherwise find, and there was a really big, strong editorial function there.

And one of my questions is how do we build an Internet that doesn't just show us what we want to see but also does a pretty good job of showing us what we need to see?

To soften the "Daily Me" problem, Zuckerman offers a novel idea for facilitating incidental exposure. Here's what he recommends:

ETHAN ZUCKERMAN: I think we're at a break point. A lot of people realize that there's something broken in the media environment. The problem is we're not yet in a position to pass the baton onto participatory media on the Internet because we haven't really thought through these issues yet.

Could we build a news portal where 80 percent of the stuff is pointed to by people like you and 20 percent pointed to by people very much unlike you? It would be interesting if we could get sort of our different echo chambers to agree to have sort of an exchange program.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.