Speaker Christine Quinn: FDR Was the Greatest New Yorker of All Time

Christine Quinn hates it when people say "it is what is." As a kid she read every biography in her school library about a political leader or famous woman. "The idea in all of those books was that you could change things," she says in her recent Big Think interview, "Nothing 'is what it is'—things can always change to what we want them to be, and to be better. And as a kid that’s the idea I got out of those books."


As Speaker of the New York City Council—and arguably the second most powerful person in New York behind billionaire Mayor Mike Bloomberg—Quinn is both a political leader and a famous woman. Despite being one of the Mayor's proudest supporters, Quinn diplomatically avoided answering any questions regarding Bloomberg's ambitions to run for President in 2012 and any questions regarding her own ambitions to fill his shoes at Gracie Mansion. When asked whether New Yorkers should see the Mayor's recent reversal on term limits as hypocritical, Quinn says it would be a losing battle to tell New Yorkers how they should or shouldn't see anything. "What I can say is that, you know, I’ve never been a supporter of term limits and I’m not going to be voting in support of the referendum question next week," she adds. 

Like the rest of the country, Quinn agrees that New York is too reliant on Wall Street tax revenue. The answer to diversifying New York's  tax base, she says, is to focus on promoting growth in industries that people already associate with the Big Apple—like food. "Every other person you meet has a dream of creating a restaurant, a catering company, the next great cupcake," says Quinn, " So we are right now taking an old warehouse in East Harlem and converting it to an industrial kitchen, a place that will help and allow probably 40 or 50 start up food companies a year to be born, put people to work and get out there and
support themselves."

Speaking of supporting oneself, Quinn acknowledges that despite being known as an international melting pot and a bastion of tolerance, New York has a ways to go before becoming more inclusive and affordable. As an openly gay individual who recently participated in Dan Savage's "It Get's Better" campaign, Quinn expresses concern over a recent rise in hate crimes in New York. "We are in a place we’d rather not be at right now in 2010 where we’re seeing anti-LGBT hate crimes occurring at a much higher number than they did last year," she says. Quinn also offers up her own coming out story, which happened while riding the subway with her early boss Tom Duane, another openly gay New York City Councilman.
People tend to focus on their differences as problems, says Quinn, as opposed to using them as assets, or something that propels them to work harder and focus.

Finally, Quinn's conscience prohibits her from saying which will happen first—the next Mets World Series or the completion of the Second Avenue Subway—because her 84 year-old father claims he is not going to die until he gets to ride on the latter. In addition, Quinn says Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the greatest and most inspiring New Yorker of all time. "His wife," she adds, "was a close second."

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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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.