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Your expressive face tells the story of human evolution — conveying emotion was essential

There are reasons you look the way you do.

  • A panel of eight experts in the evolution of the human face have collaborated on a new summary of how we've changed.
  • Their paper promotes the importance of social interaction as a factor in the structure of our visages.
  • We can visually express more than 20 categories of emotion. Early humans not so much.

Your face is not yours alone — written there are traces of your parents, grandparents, and ancestors. Now a paper published in Nature Ecology and Evolution makes an even broader case. Your face, that so-familiar visage you see in the mirror each day, contains a living, breathing history in its features of humankind's evolution from the earliest African hominids to, well, you. What's revealed, its authors say, is that the ability to communicate and thus thrive in social contexts deserves to be given more credit as a key factor in the evolution of our appearance.

A gathering of face experts

Image source: Rodrigo Lacruz

The new paper is the work of eight of the world's foremost experts in the evolution of the human face. At its heart is an attempt to answer a very basic question: Why do we look so different from other, extinct hominins, as well as our primate cousins such as chimpanzees and bonobos? Our faces have gotten smaller over time. The question is why? "We know that other factors such as diet, respiratory physiology, and climate have contributed to the shape of the modern human face," says Paul O'Higgins of the University of York, one of the experts involved, "but to interpret its evolution solely in terms of these factors would be an oversimplification."

University of Arizona's William Kimbell, also involved in the study, puts it this way: "We are a product of our past. Understanding the process by which we became human entitles us to look at our own anatomy with wonder and to ask what different parts of our anatomy tell us about the historical pathway to modernity."

The shrinking human jaw

Our changing diet is thought to be the primary factor in the reduction in size of our jaws that began as we started cooking and cutting-up our foods about 10,000 years ago. We no longer needed such crushing mandibles to make our way through our omnivorous diet, and the benefit of strong chewing capabilities became less of a factor in natural selection. It's likely no coincidence that the trend toward a smaller chin accelerated with advent of the beginning of the agriculture.

Fitting in

Image source: Joseph Anson / Unsplash

As far as other areas of the face, the story is even more interesting. It seems that our transition to community living mandated a greater ability to communicate well. While the scientists hypothesize that the strong brows of Homo erectus and the Neanderthals were effective for communicating aggression, strength, and domination — as we see in the great apes — these signals were no longer as beneficial to humans as we began to gather into communities.

"We can now use our faces to signal more than 20 different categories of emotion via the contraction or relaxation of muscles", O'Higgins says. "It's unlikely that our early human ancestors had the same facial dexterity, as the overall shape of the face and the positions of the muscles were different."

The changes to our physiology have endowed us with the ability to communicate far more effectively in groups, and it's easy to imagine how getting along with others led to a greater chance of reproducing. Before the arrival of language, in particular, the ability to facially communicate friendliness, sympathy, and other feelings was critical in gaining others' acceptance.

Are we there yet?

O'Higgins looks back, and forward. Image source: University of York

According to O'Higgins, most likely we're not done evolving. "There are limits on how much the human face can change, however. For example, breathing requires a sufficiently large nasal cavity. However, within these limits, the evolution of the human face is likely to continue as long as our species survives, migrates and encounters new environmental, social and cultural conditions."

So, that face. Your face. It's part of a long, ongoing story starring your ancestors and their ancestors. It's an interesting way to see that person looking back at you from the mirror.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

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Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
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A recent study gives new meaning to the saying "fake it 'til you make it."

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  • Results consistently showed that high-class people tend to overestimate their abilities.
  • However, this overconfidence was misinterpreted as genuine competence in one study, suggesting overestimating your abilities can have social advantages.
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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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Mother bonobos, too, pressure their sons to have grandchildren

If you thought your mother was pushy in her pursuit of grandchildren, wait until you learn about bonobo mothers.

Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • Mother bonobos have been observed to help their sons find and copulate with mates.
  • The mothers accomplish this by leading sons to mates, interfering with other males trying to copulate with females, and helping sons rise in the social hierarchy of the group.
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