Neil deGrasse Tyson on Framing Science
Neil deGrasse Tyson understands the central role of framing in communication and it's a major reason that Tyson is perhaps the most effective science popularizer of his generation. In a fascinating interview on this week's Point of Inquiry, here's how Tyson describes his philosophy and approach to reaching non-traditional audiences via the media (at about 11:40 minutes into the interview):
GROTHE Do you think that mass media, going that route, do you think it undercuts your science education agenda because you have to speak in sound bites, you have to reduce it down to the simplest terms for the widest appeal?
TYSON: That is an excellent question. I think what I have done--and invested a fair amount of social, cultural, and intellectual effort in-- is to recognize and understand the various parameters around the media I am using.
For example, if I am invited onto the Colbert Report or the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, I am going to study previous episodes of what the dynamics are between the host and the guest and I am going to see what kind of opportunity does the guest have to speak, how many words are likely to come out of my mouth before I am playfully interpreted ...because they are comedy shows of course.
So I will then package the message I want to deliver into the context of that program. That takes effort, I think most people don't do that and I think it makes for awkward moments.
I do that willingly because I am visiting them in their medium. If they are going to come to my college class, and they are going to listen to my one hour lecture, I am not going to sound bite it for them at that time. They are visiting me in my habitat.
The moment I go into their habitat, I owe the viewer, a delivery of content that fits that habitat. So my challenge then is how do I not compromise on either the principles or the content of science yet deliver it in a form commensurate with the comedic short form sound bite or the evening news sound bite which is a little different...
For any of us who are scientists there is always the temptation to dumb down our field to share it with someone who is uninitiated in the language, in the subject matter, the jargon...there is a strong urge to do that, but it is possible to resist that I have found.
But to resist it you have to know what is going on in the mind of the person. What are the tangled pathways that may interfere with what you are about to say? When you understand that, then you can shape your content in a way that does not dumb it down but that best intersects their capacity to receive it.
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Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.
- The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
- Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
- These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.
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.
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