Your appendix and your eyes

That little time-bomb inside us, and morals for the advancement of science.

This week there has been press about new research suggesting that our appendix might actually have a purpose. It is unclear why this was ever in doubt: if the role of the appendix was only to occasionally rupture and put its host at lethal risk, then it surely would have been strongly selected against long ago. There almost surely is a good reason for it, something worth the risk of carrying this toxic bomb inside us. Current conjectures suggest that it is a holding cell for certain useful bacteria.


Our appendix is by no means the only part of our bodies we have been slow to discover a function for. Organs have the uncooperative tendency of not displaying their functions on their sleeves. Although reductionistic science is good at disassembling our hunks of meat, in order to understand the mechanisms of an organ one must understand what those mechanisms are *trying* to do. And comprehending the "why" of biology and brain -- why a biological structure is there -- doesn't get nearly as much attention as it should. In addition to reductionistically understanding the genome and the detailed anatomy and physiology of our brain, what we really need is gobs of attention paid to the opposite end of science. To the "phenome", or the set of functions the biology and brain manages to carry out. This will be orders of magnitude more difficult than finding the "genome" level details.

For example, my research described in THE VISION REVOLUTION (Benbella, 2009) has provided evidence that our eyes have functions nobody had yet noticed. Color is well optimized for sensing skin color modulations, for the purpose of sensing socio-sexual signals -- color is an "empathic" sense. Our forward-facing eyes are not for three-dimensional stereo vision, but for seeing efficiently in leafy habitats. And the illusions we have all seen are not an unfortunate error in rendering geometrical stimuli, but a consequence of mental software designed to foresee the near future, so that by the time the perception occurs it is of the present.

My point is that fundamental functions of our visual system are only recently coming to light. My suspicion is that MOST of our powers (i.e., functions our body is capable of) have not yet been noticed. ...because few scientists are looking for them, focusing instead on the mechanisms.

The appendix was long relegated to the appendices of science. But no more. And the appendix had something going for it: we could at least see that it was an organ. Many of our powers are carried out by meat with no easy-to-see boundary, and, worse than being buried in the appendices of science, have not even found their way into the book. That's what we need to change.

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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.