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The human brain doubled in power, very suddenly, 200,000 years ago. Why?
A long-ridiculed theory about humankind's early leap of consciousness is revived.
- Terence McKenna first proposed psychedelic mushrooms as the trigger for our rapid cognitive evolution.
- McKenna's theory was called the "Stoned Ape Hypothesis."
- The hypothesis is being revisited as a possible answer to a vexxing evolutionary riddle.
There seems to have been a profound difference in cognitive abilities between early Homo sapiens and our immediate predecessor, Homo erectus. Sure, erectus stood upright — a big, um, step forward — but with the emergence of Homo sapiens, we see traces of art, pictography, and tool usage, and we believe humankind made its first forays into language.
In the early 1990s, psychedelic advocate and ethnobotanist Terence McKenna published his book Food of the Gods in which he surmised that homo sapiens' cognitive leap forward was due to their discovery of magic mushrooms. The scientific community never took McKenna's theory very seriously, considering it mostly trippy speculation — these days, his ideas have largely been relegated to the spacier corners of Reddit. Now, however, the idea has acquired a new advocate, psilocybin mycologist Paul Stamets, who's suggesting McKenna was right all along.
The stoned ape
Terence McKenna. Image source: Jon Hanna/Wikimedia
In McKenna's Stoned Ape hypothesis," he posited that as humans began to migrate to new areas, at some point they came upon psychedelic mushrooms growing in cow droppings, as is their wont, and then ate them. After ingesting them, and more specifically the psilocybin they contained, their brains kicked into overdrive, acquiring new information-processing capabilities, and a mind-blowing expansion of our imaginations in the bargain. Many modern users of psychedelics claim the world never looks the same again after such an experience. As McKenna put it, "Homo sapiens ate our way to a higher consciousness," and, "It was at this time that religious ritual, calendar making, and natural magic came into their own."
The return of the stoned ape
Image source: Chris Moody / Shutterstock / Big Think
Regarding this theory, Stamets presented "Psilocybin Mushrooms and the Mycology of Consciousness" at Psychedelic Science 2017. In his talk he sought to rehabilitate McKenna's hypothesis as a totally plausible answer to a longstanding evolutionary riddle. "What is really important for you to understand," he said, "is that there was a sudden doubling of the human brain 200,000 years ago. From an evolutionary point of view, that's an extraordinary expansion. And there is no explanation for this sudden increase in the human brain."
Why not mushrooms? Stamets portrayed a group of early humans making their way through the savannah and happening across "the largest psilocybin mushroom in the world growing bodaciously out of dung of the animals." It needn't have been unusually large to have its effect, of course. In any event, he invited the crowd to suspend their disbelief and admit that McKenna's idea constitutes a "very, very plausible hypothesis for the sudden evolution of Homo sapiens from our primate relatives," even if it's an unprovable one.
The audience's response was reportedly enthusiastic, though it's fair to note that these were people attending a conference on psychedelic science, and thus pre-disposed toward such chemicals' importance.
Image source: Apple2499 / Shutterstock
Certainly, there's general agreement on the mystery Stamets cited, if not so much on timing details. And consciousness, the "hard problem" even in its modern form, is an area rife with unanswered questions. What is consciousness, anyway? Is it a simple enough thing that it could have a single root cause as McKenna and Stamets say? Many experts suspect our brains gained new capabilities as the result of early community ties and the requirements of social interaction, but when?
Anthropologist Ian Tattersall tells Inverse that the where seems obvious enough: Africa, "For it is in this continent that we find the first glimmerings of 'modern behaviors'. . . But the moment of transformation still eludes us and may well do so almost indefinitely."
There are other researchers who've studied early humanity's use of drug plants but who are skeptical of the stoned ape notiion. Elisa Guerra-Doce, an expert in the field, considers the idea too simplistic, potentially a reduction of a complex evolutionary process into a single "aha" — or maybe "oh, wow" — moment. She's also troubled by there being little evidence of such a pivotal moment, or of drug use at all, so early in the archeological record.
Amanda Feilding of the psychedelic think tank Beckley Foundation says, however, that the stoned ape theory is at the very least a valid reminder that humans have always been drawn to and fascinated by mind-altering substances: "The imagery that comes with the psychedelic experience is a theme that runs through ancient art, so I'm sure that psychedelic experience and other techniques, like dancing and music, were used by our early ancestors to enhance consciousness, which then facilitated spirituality, art, and medicine."
Just how early our love affair with hallucinogenic states began may have something to say about the plausibility of McKenna's hypothesis, but, alas, we don't know when that would have been. And, as the saying about the 1960s goes, even if any of these people were still around to ask, anyone who was really there wouldn't be able to remember.
- Primate study: Bigger brains equal more complex hand movements - Big Think ›
- Our ancestors first developed humanlike brains 1.7 million years ago - Big Think ›
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
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The potential of CRISPR technology is incredible, but the threats are too serious to ignore.
- CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a revolutionary technology that gives scientists the ability to alter DNA. On the one hand, this tool could mean the elimination of certain diseases. On the other, there are concerns (both ethical and practical) about its misuse and the yet-unknown consequences of such experimentation.
- "The technique could be misused in horrible ways," says counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke. Clarke lists biological weapons as one of the potential threats, "Threats for which we don't have any known antidote." CRISPR co-inventor, biochemist Jennifer Doudna, echos the concern, recounting a nightmare involving the technology, eugenics, and a meeting with Adolf Hitler.
- Should this kind of tool even exist? Do the positives outweigh the potential dangers? How could something like this ever be regulated, and should it be? These questions and more are considered by Doudna, Clarke, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, psychologist Steven Pinker, and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.