Let Them Eat Cake. And Quarter Pounders with Cheese.

Food is becoming increasingly politicized in America.

Michelle Obama schooled us with her organic garden. And the candidates for the Republican presidential nomination schooled us by eating a stick of fried butter at the Ames Straw Poll. With so much food-symbolism getting slung around, who can keep track?

New Yorkers no longer have to, thanks to regulations from NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg. (Just after announcing the planned ban of super-sized sodas in NYC, Bloomberg draw criticism for cheerfully presiding over the famous Fourth of July hot dog eating contest at Coney Island.)

Boris Johnson, mayor of London, says he understands where Bloomberg is coming from, but does not see fit to implement similar policies in his city. But the 2012 London Olympics have their created their own food-related uproar: McDonalds, a sponsor of the Games, has use their clout to ban any other vendors from selling french fries (unless they come with fish and are referred to as "chips"). 

Meanwhile, part of the reason the landmark 5-4 decision by The Supreme Court to uphold the Affordable Care Act was so close and unpredictable was conservatives' receptive response to the "Broccoli arguments" made in the case against the ACA bill.

When and why did food news move from the health section to the politics section of the newspaper? Is this really the sort of thing we have in mind when we elect our representatives?

Without taking a full-on libertarian stand that requires commitments to other policies according to libertarian values, I think that there is good reason to tell our elected officials to get their hands off our menus and out of our refrigerators.

First of all, the attempts to make meaningful change are a bit too weak in terms of actually transforming behavior. In a land where you can, by my highly unscientific estimation, feed a family on a single appetizer of quesadillas from Ruby Tuesday, and get more pastrami on a sandwich at a New York deli than you can shake a stick of deep-fried butter at, people are going to overeat and choose fatty or processed or salty foods. Sure, banning trans fats at restaurants would afford a slight improvement to public health, but Americans eat mostly at home, and we're not even sure we're behind the restaurant ban.

The heart of the issue is this: I may want to have a president who I could have a beer with, but what do I care if its a craft brewed IPA or a Budweiser? The president may not want to have dinner with me (unless I shell out $38,500), but what does he care if I prepare organic chicken breast with hummus and a kale salad or if I pick up a KFC Double Down? "Nanny state" used to be a phrase that paranoid people screamed about seatbelt-wearing. Now, with the state actually trying to tell us not to eat junk food, it seems less than metaphorical.

It's as if legislators are saying: "Who are these people that we are trying to protect who eat candy bars and drink Big Gulps without knowing that they are bad for them?" If we aren't trying to protect people from coercion or from making decisions for themselves based on misinformation, then why are we trying to control what people put in their faces? (Hat tip to Louis C.K. for that brilliant phrasing.)

Society shouldn't be guided by the principle that the government should stay out of everything, but food is genuinely personal enough and self-governing enough that it can be left alone. If I want to drink a soda that weighs more than a newborn child, let me. If vendors at an international sports competition designed to promote peace and shared culture across the world happen to want to cut potatoes into sticks and put them in hot oil, let them. This is getting ridiculous.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock/ Richard M Lee.

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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.

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  • 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.