The World Bank and the Health of Nations

For nearly 70 years, the World Bank has been an institution led by bankers, economists, technocrats and politicians - until now. Obama's inspired choice of Jim Yong Kim, president of Dartmouth College, as his pick to head the World Bank has the potential to change our paradigm for world economic development. While largely unknown to many inside Washington political circles, Kim was recently named as the 9th most creative thinker in business by Fast Company magazine. Even more importantly, Kim has a background in global health policy and has dedicated his life to working for the world's poor through organizations such as Partners in Health. For the first time ever, a health care expert will be at the helm of one of the world's most influential economic institutions.


The development paradigm for the past half-century has been that wealth inevitably leads to health, and that only wealthier economies are able to foster the conditions for a healthier population. Led by economists and bankers, international development efforts typically start with efforts to jump-start economic growth, with the belief that a rising economic tide will help to eradicate disease and illness. From this perspective, it's tempting to think of Kim's work in creating healthcare solutions for the poorer nations of the world as being uniquely applicable only to emerging markets.

But what if we flip the paradigm? What if health should become the starting point for international development, and that healthy populations should become the fundamental building block for healthy economies? Instead of The Wealth of Nations, what if we really should be talking about The Health of Nations?

There is, indeed, a sub-genre of economics and growth theory that makes exactly this point: that a population's individual and collective health affects a nation's economic development and performance. Kim's academic and health care credentials would suggest that he is potentially receptive to this framework. A physician and expert in tuberculosis, Kim served as Professor of Medicine and Social Medicine and Chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School. In addition, Kim helped to orchestrate many of the World Health Organization's HIV/AIDS initiatives. He has dedicated his entire career to helping the world's poor in places like Haiti and Rwanda and has been lauded by the likes of former President Clinton for his work with the Clinton Global Initiative.

Certainly, that had to be part of Obama's political calculus of appointing Jim Yong Kim as his choice to become the new head of the World Bank. Obama chose Kim over a more conservative pick, such as economist Jeffrey Sachs, who openly lobbied for the job based on his previous development work in emerging markets. The deciding variable had to be Kim's unique perspective as a healthcare expert. Writing in The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith noted that, "No society can surely be flourishing and happy of which by far the greater part of the numbers are poor and miserable." Indeed - that appears to be exactly the basis for the new World Bank paradigm, in which a physician is better able to lead a Bank than a banker. International development is a tool for world health, yes, but maybe world health is a tool for international development as well.

image: Female Doctor Holding Piggy Bank / Shutterstock

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • 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.