There are 15 scientists running for Congress. Here's what's at stake.

Now is a good time to brush up on who's on the ballot.

  • The Midterm Elections are on November 6th. 1,200 candidates are running for 500 seats that will have an impact on every bit of your life.
  • Scientists and Doctors are running for office. Innumerable environmental issues will be decided.
  • Read up on the candidates, the issues, and then: vote.

The midterm elections are fast approaching. Early voting is underway and setting records for turnout across much of the country. Electionland is publishing reports, and you can get a sense of how voters are googling here. (A short, quick sample: voters in Massachusetts and Virginia have been googling about health care more often than not whereas voters in California and Texas have been googling more about immigration.)

And 2018 may be the year environmental voters begin to wake up. Only 21% of environmentalists voted in 2014, per The Environmental Voters Project, but the 2017 elections in Virginia saw an increase in two demographics particularly concerned about climate change. Pro-environment candidates did well in elections in Washington state and Florida.

And now there are more pro-environment candidates for voters to consider. There are 15 scientists running for office across the country, and there are a host of measures related to science on the ballot across the country as well. Here's a short guide to both.

Above: The Mississippi River

1. Randy Wadkins

Randy Watkins is a biochemistry professor at the University of Mississippi in Oxford running in the 1st district against Trent Kelley. He's spent 30 years developing anti-tumor drugs. He has an interest in repairing "the damage done to the Affordable Care Act" and making the bill better.

Voters looking at Wadkins will also have to consider how measures to repair bridges can get traction amongst local representatives, especially how — after a plan aiming at repairing bridges failed to pass the state legislature in the spring — more bridges closed.

2. Rob Davidson

Rob Davidson is an emergency room physician running in Michigan's 2nd Congressional District, running because the current representative — in Davidson's telling — does not believe healthcare is a right.

Voters taking a look at Davidson might also want to consider — if they aren't already, and even though the 2nd District isn't the 5th District — the state of the water system in the state and what can be done to alleviate the burden that has been placed upon the residents of Flint since 2014.

Above: Houston during Hurricane Harvey

3. Joseph Kopser

Joseph Kopser is a retired U.S. Army captain with an aerospace engineering degree and a career in clean-energy running to represent Texas's 21st Congressional District. He's a centrist Texas democrat, more or less — which you can see in his support for someone like the departing Texas Speaker of the House, Joe Straus — and he has claimed — that, per Ballotpedia — "Only two things will evolve my public positions: your input and verified scientific data."

Voters looking at Kopser should also keep in mind flood preparedness, as evinced by Hurricane Harvey and recent flooding across Texas that led to a temporary boil water notice in Austin and which could spell the imminent failure of a dam in Arlington, Texas.

4. Mell Hall

Mel Hall is a minister-turned-data scientist who's spent a career in the healthcare industry seeking to represent Indiana's 2nd congressional district. Voters looking at Hall should also the matter of consider coal ash deposits contaminating the water in the state. The current iteration of the EPA has announced changes to coal ash regulations, including — as the Hoosier Environmental Council notes —"Allowing operators of coal ash ponds and landfills to write their own standards for groundwater protection" and "Making cleanup of contamination optional."

5. Kim Schrier

Kim Schrier is a pediatrician running to represent Washington's 8th congressional district. She wants to stabilize the health insurance markets, amongst other priorities. Voters looking at Schrier might also want to consider Initiative 1631, a carbon tax that's expected to raise over $1 billion for the state in order to fund clean-energy programs and clean-energy development. It's also worth noting that the current estimated price of what a carbon tax could be is $220 per tonne of carbon, as was noted in 2015, and that the proposed Initiative 1631 baseline tax of $15 per tonne of carbon is a relative bargain for those who might be concerned about an impact on an industry under transition.

6. Sean Casten

Sean Casten is a biochemical engineer running in Illinois's 6th district who credits his running for office borne out of a perpetual desire to increase fuel and energy efficiency.

Voters looking at Casten might have heard Casten talk about an environmental issue that will have an impact on the voters as well: the current occupant of the White House signed an executive order in June revoking a previous executive signed by Obama that had laid down environmental protections for the Great Lakes ecosystems.

Above: Charleston, South Carolina

7. Joe Cunningham

Joe Cunningham is an ocean engineer who became an environmental lawyer who is running to represent South Carolina's 1st Congressional District. He is campaigning to push for a ban on offshore drilling, as newspaper endorsement notes, amongst many other issues. Voters taking a look at Joe Cunningham should also take a look at any and all programs related to climate change, as the 1st Congressional District contains Charleston and a decent chunk of the state's shore.

8. Hiral Tipirneni

Hiral Tipirneni is an emergency room physician and cancer research advocate running to represent Arizona's 8th District who wishes to expand Medicare, fight off any age-related health care tax that might be levied on older adults, and more. Voters taking a looking at Tipirneni might also want to take a look at Proposition 127, a measure requiring energy companies to get a certain percentage of their energy sources from renewable sources, and — if the measure fails, as it might — think about how best to implement similar measures in the future.

red wolf watching deer

Above: a red wolf hiding in grass.

9. Martin Olsen

Marty Olsen is an Ob/Gyn physician running to represent Tennessee's 1st Congressional District because the current representative voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, amongst other reasons. Voters taking a look at Olsen might also want to take a look at issues related to water pollution as well, as the lowering of runoff standards for construction projects — along with other issues — has had an impact on the state's water quality.

10. Kyle Horton

Dr. Kyle Horton is a Doctor of internal medicine running to represent North Carolina's 7th Congressional District with an interest in protecting health care and the quality of water in the state, amongst other concerns. Voters taking a look at Horton should also consider arsenic and lead seeping into waterways, the legacy of coal ash, and what it might take to protect red wolves from extinction.

It's also worth noting that if either Horton, Tipirneni, or Schrier are elected, they will represent the first female doctor ever elected to Congress.

Above: a sunset in Michigan.

11. Lauren Underwood

Lauren Underwood is a registered nurse and health policy expert running to represent Illinois's 14th Congressional District. She's interested in tackling mental health care and — per Ballotpedia — is interested in pursuing "a fully funded and appropriately staffed Environmental Protection Agency with authority to regulate, monitor and enforce standards associated with the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and other safeguards to promote health, safety and our environment."

Voters taking a look at Underwood might also want to take a look at how 'green' something like the Illinois Research and Development Corridor happens to be.

12. Matt Longjohn

Matt Longjohn — a physician — is running to represent Michigan's 6th District after someone told him at an event to avoid telling folks that physical exercise was good for your health. He believes that — per WMUK — "health should be part of policies such transportation, infrastructure and taxes, in order to bend the cost curve on health care." This is a position someone might have if you take the time to take a holistic account of the health of a region, as the city of Boston did a few years ago (a topic which was mentioned passingly here.)

In addition to considering the state of Michigan's water, voters looking at Longjohn also might want to take into consideration the fact that his opponent is a climate change denier.

Above: a Montana landscape

13. Jeff van Drew

Jeff van Drew is a dentist running to represent New Jersey's 2nd Congressional District. He is interested in pursuing common ground and making college more affordable, amongst other items of interest.

Voters taking a look at van Drew might also be interested in taking a look at climate change, given that the 2nd Congressional District has a shoreline, and it might want to take a look at storm runoff, given the fact that there is more concrete in New Jersey than anywhere else in the country.

14. Kathleen Williams

Kathleen Williams — who has worked previously for the Environmental Quality Council (you can get a sense of some of their work here, courtesy of MTPR) and Montana's Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks — is running to represent Montana's At-Large Congressional District. She gives an impression of being particularly amenable to details, telling Buzzfeed in a lengthy profile, "When you've helped someone with their water rights, it's like you've helped raise their children."

Voters taking a look at Williams might also want to take a look at land use, where Williams's opponent has introduced a bill that would open up 690,000 acres to logging and mining.

15. Steve Ferrara

Steve Ferrara is lone Republican on this list. He's running in Arizona's 9th district. He has a background as an endovascular surgeon and is the former Chief Medical Officer of the U.S. Navy. He's mindful of the gap between the importance of healthcare in someone's life and the fact that there are only ten physicians currently in the House of Representatives.

Arizona voters looking at Ferrara will also have to consider how their representatives will vote on a drought contingency plan that could come up in January.

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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.