Open Thread: Getting Settled

Well, I've been on Big Think for about two weeks now, and I'm starting to get used to the place. It's a different experience from my old site, no doubt about that, so this post is to follow up on some of the complaints and suggestions from the earlier open thread.


The biggest annoyance, still, is the paginated posts. Big Think's programmers have at least provided a single-page viewing option, so I hope that's an improvement, but I want it to be the default and will keep pressing them. As was mentioned in the comments, there's also the Readability browser plugin.

I know that people have complained about the threading and the annoying option to show "popular" comments first, rather than new ones. At the moment, I'm not certain if these settings can be changed without affecting every site on Big Think. I'm waiting to hear back from the programmers on that one as well.

Also, there's been a rare problem with comments disappearing. This is not of my doing; I've seen two or three vanish for no apparent reason. No one other than me is moderating this site, so I'm assuming it's a glitch in Disqus. This is still under investigation and I'll update if I find out anything more. I have an e-mail record of every comment, even if it disappears, so if your comment is lost, send me an e-mail and I'll see that it's reposted.

Even once these things are fixed, I know more improvements are needed. What I'd like to have is a recent-comments widget on the sidebar, a comment count listed along with the permalink for each post on the front page, and maybe a better monthly archive. Most likely, these will have to be longer-term projects.

And finally, I realize that the overall tone of the comments has changed. As I commented in an e-mail, if the old site was more like a house in a quiet residential neighborhood, the new one is more like a storefront in a crowded shopping mall. There are a lot more strangers wandering in, and yes, some of them come weighed down with the usual misconceptions about atheists and atheism. I won't deny that this is exasperating, but in a different way, I'm pleased as well. I want my site to be a safe and friendly space for atheists, but I also want to take the atheist viewpoint to people who haven't heard it before. In that respect, this site is ideal - it's a target-rich environment!

To those who've been readers since before the move, I hope you'll bear with me through these changes. (If you've seen other bugs I haven't mentioned, feel free to point them out in the comments.) Every big change takes some getting used to, and this is no exception. But great things are coming!

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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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.