For Election Week, Many MEPs Still 1.0

Meet my two new friends on Facebook, incumbent MEPs Paschal Mooney of Ireland and Metin Kazak of Bulgaria. Out of the dozen or so requests I sent out to European politicians this week--in the final days leading up to the European Parliamentary elections--these were the only two to friend me.

After Barack Obama redefined the role of technology in electoral politics by using social media tools like Facebook, it's interesting to see how politicians both near and abroad have taken to the Internet.


As their constituents move rapidly ahead of the learning curve, politicians in European Parliament are getting left behind. Several large European countries have anemic representation on Facebook, a site many international politicians turn to first when building their online campaigns. 

After a perusal of Facebook pages for incumbent MEPs, the most tech-savvy ones showed to be from Ireland, Italy and France. Eighty-five percent of Irish MEPs, 71 percent of Italian MEPs and 69 percent of French MEPs are active on the site. Less present were Germany and the U.K.--both with 39 percent--and Spain with 17 percent.

"In countries like France and Italy, there is just a culture around connection and conversation, more so than other cultures," Facebook's EMEA Director Colm Long told me. "It's been interesting to see how they are using it as a gathering place for organizing offline activities and events."

Italy, Spain and France were three of Facebook's fastest growing audiences last year, and now more than 10 percent of both countries use the site.  

Since Obama's victory, an online footprint for American politicians has been obligatory.

Micah Sifry, co-founder of techPresident said Facebook and MySpace now automatically create official account pages for the 435 active members of Congress, 143 of whom are tweeting and two-thirds of whom have a YouTube channel.

Despite Ireland's impressive Facebook presence, Morgan McKeagney, CEO of iQ Content, a leading European web usability agency, told me that Irish politicians' strategic use of the internet is still inadequate.

"Their new media has been embarrassing to say the least. I can't even think of any exceptions to be honest."

How this will play out in this week's elections is unclear, but it's safe to assume that the impact will be moderate at best.

The rate of Facebook's penetration in Europe most likely includes a large percentage of the non-voting population who are either too young or too apathetic to vote.

But those who get involved in the online conversation now, while the movement is still nascent, are certainly better positioned to take advantage. For them, Sifry has advice: 

"Don't think of the web as another one-way media tool, like TV or radio or direct mail. Think of it as enabling a much richer, multi-way conversation with voters. Don't be half-committed to it-- if you say you're using the Internet to 'listen' to you constituents, then really show that you are listening. Invite people to reinvent the process with you."

Geoffrey Decker is an editor for the social media start-up whereIstand.com

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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.