Working Hard to Work Hard

Work isn't life, but it is certainly not in a company's best interest to de-prioritize itself for the sake of its workers. What's the solution?

 


The New York Times revealed last month that Amazon’s corporate environment was both unrelenting and exhausting, which has rekindled the debate over the correlation of employees’ happiness and mental health to a corporation’s overall productivity and success.

Essentially, there are three camps: The first being that it’s work; suck it up. The second being that "sucking it up" makes for inefficient and costly workplaces. And the third is that work is just a part of life and should not be employees’ lives. While the last argument seems the most sane, it is certainly not in a company's best interest to de-prioritize itself for the sake of its workers, so the argument really boils down to a gray area of best practices that drive employees yet are still good for a business’s bottom line.

The uncomfortable truth is that Americans want to have their cake and eat it too.

The data is rife in either support or denial of American employees’ overall satisfaction at work, but both sides more or less agree that wage stagnation doesn’t help the situation. Moreover, turnover is seen as either a costly byproduct of corporate bad behavior or evidence that people have the opportunity to seek out better employment elsewhere. Ultimately, the work-life balance discussion is over changing economic needs that a hundred years ago applied to low-skill workers, but today creep into the highest offices of major companies (think Yahoo CEO Marisa Mayer’s two-week maternity leave plan).

…the debate needs to shift from a data-driven numbers game about employee well-being, to a larger conversation about the relationship of human value to sustainable economic growth.

Before venturing any further into this debate, was anyone truly shocked that an online store that is attempting to offer drone delivery in 30 minutes or less would treat its employees as cogs in the Amazon machine? The uncomfortable truth is that Americans want to have their cake and eat it too. In our digital age of instant gratification, consumers expect faster and better access to goods and services; however, as human beings with personal lives who must also work to buy these goods and services, we desire a work-life balance that won’t drive us off a cliff. Essentially, we’re ensnared in the global economic ouroboros.

Given the rapidity of technological changes that are already happening to jobs (robot valet, anyone?), the debate needs to shift from a data-driven numbers game about employee well-being, to a larger conversation about the relationship of human value to sustainable economic growth. Amazon's culture is a microcosm of the current economy's demanding growth and until that system's ethical ramifications are reflected upon and retooled, more and more companies will emulate its terrifying workplace model. 

Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of Families and Work Institute, says the right work-life balance involves an individual, the boss, and the support of the people who are in their life.

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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.