Thinking Cosmically About Global Warming
Without any perspective on how the Earth has behaved over different periods when it was at those temperatures, I don’t think people really appreciate the seriousness of the issue.
How can you think cosmically about global warming? The first thing to do is appreciate how the Earth works, and that the Earth has been through many cycles of being hot and cold. The Earth has been frozen over like a solid snowball several times in the past. It’s been super-hot several times in the past, but these cycles happen very, very slowly. We’re talking over tens of hundreds of millions of years for these cycles. Because of the amount of fossil fuels we are burning, we are making this happen incredibly fast. And so when people try to confuse the issue by saying, “Oh, the Earth has already been through this, it’s just one more cycle," that’s just obfuscation. That’s really a lie.
What we’re doing today is so fast that we don’t know even how to think about the long term effects of it. So I think that if we could put in into context, if we could understand what the difference is, for example, between a one degree change, which we’ve had now -- about a one-and-a-half degree change -- and a four degree change, which we could just have in a few decades. It could be disastrous, catastrophic: huge storms, totally unpredictable weather, violent weather. That’s what four degrees means.
Without any perspective on how the Earth has behaved over different periods when it was at those temperatures, I don’t think people really appreciate the seriousness of the issue. There’s still people out there saying, "Oh, a few degrees warmer, that would feel great. You know, I live in a cold climate." That would not feel great. It’s not that the whole average just slowly moves up. It’s that there are wild swings, and if you average them all out, you get four degrees. But if you look at them day-to-day, you get terrifying weather. Not only that, but you’re going to get large numbers of refugees. I think people also don’t appreciate this. Everybody likes to live on the coasts. That’s where population density is all over the world. Those are the people who are going to get flooded out first.
Consider New York City by 2050: Lower Manhattan could be largely flooded out, permanently, or at least in the big storms. People should realize that when this happens there are going to be millions of refugees looking for a safe place to live. Where are they going to go? Are we going to have a huge military to fight against foreign refugees who try to come here? These are the issues that we have to look at. It’s not just weather, it’s all the implications, the diseases that are going to show up in the northern hemisphere. We think of them as tropical. How are we going to deal with that? What if there’s an epidemic? These are huge issues. And by describing this as four degrees, you’re just not getting the picture across to people.
So thinking cosmically is giving us perspective. Not only on what has happened, but on what could happen and on the amount of power that we have today, that if we allow these things to happen, we won’t have again.
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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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