I've been thinking a lot this week about assumptions. Especially when it comes to trying to study bold, complicated and human constructs like love, empathy and creativity in the brain.
It started a few weeks ago. I was talking with a neuroscientist about various brain states linked to the creative process. He told me simply, "This is a place where we would benefit from asking more concrete questions."
Later, when our conversation moved on to my background, DIRTY MINDS and the research I highlighted into the neuroscience of love and sex, I quipped, "This is another place where scientists might benefit from asking more concrete questions."
Let me explain. I don't say this to discount any of the fantastic research done so far. We all have to start somewhere--and many of the studies into these complex topics are both elegant and thought-provoking. But even if we ignore the whole notion of what a brain scan can really tell us and whether fMRI set-ups provide any ecological validity, there remains an assumption--a rather big assumption--that these paradigms are actually measuring the things we think they are measuring. We have to take a leap of faith that looking at a photo of your partner constitutes "love," that asking someone to riff a bit on a piece of music amounts to "creativity."
Take a study that was flying around the Internet this week on altruism. Headlines proclaimed things like, "Brain Scientists Locate Home of Altruism." Even the press release for the actual study said that they were first to discover a link between brain anatomy and altruistic behavior.
In the study itself, researchers Ernst Fehr and Yosuke Morishima asked participants to divide money between themselves and an anonymous other person. They suggest that if the person was willing to sacrifice some of that money for the other person, they were acting altruistically. While it is interesting to note that some people always share money (and others never do), and that is linked to more gray matter, is divvying up a few Euros really the practice of "unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others?" And then, in the context of that assumption, can we really say that the brain differences observed show us the neural substrates of something as complicated as altruism?
Like creativity and love, altruism has been something that has been studied extensively using softer, social science measures in the past. Many of the conclusions drawn from those studies have stuck with us, become a sort of "truth," and now color how scientists design today's neurobiological and neuroimaging studies. So the more I read about the seats of love, lust, altruism, empathy and the like, I think of my initial conversation with that neuroscientist and wonder what we might find if we were a little less ambitious and focused on more concrete questions.
What do you think?
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Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.
- 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.
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