Georgia On My Mind

Bad news for the objectively anti-Neanderthal and anti-Denisovan bigots and others concerned about genetic variation among populations in the deep south of Georgia: some early hominid "species" may not be different species after all:

Early, diverse fossils — those currently recognized as coming from distinct species like Homo habilis, Homo erectus and others — may actually represent variation among members of a single, evolving lineage. In other words: just as people look different from one another today, so did early hominids look different from one another, and the dissimilarity of the bones they left behind may have fooled scientists into thinking they came from different species. (source: NYTimes)

The idea is that Homo habilisHomo rudolfensis and Homo erectus are not branches but variation within the single trunk. Further, the degree of variation among the skulls from Georgia– all evidently from a single population– is similar to, or greater than, the degree of variation among skulls from Africa. This suggests that speciation has been overprojected for Africa, too. Finally, the differences between the Georgian and African fossils are similar to the differences among the Georgian fossils. So speciation relative to migration may have been overprojected:

Naturally, some scholars affirm and some dissent. A lot of bones to pick!

[Fred Spoor from University College London] added that the very specific characteristics that had been used to define H.erectus, H.habilis and H.rudolfensis "were not captured by the landmarks that they used".

"They did not consider that the thick and protruding brow ridges, the angular back of the braincase and some details of the base of the cranium are derived features for H.erectus, and not present in H.habilisand H.rudolfensis."

Chris Stringer at the Natural History Museum in London said that the team had made an excellent case "that this remarkable new skull, with its huge jawbone", was part of the natural variation of the Dmanisi population.

But he said he was doubtful that all of the early Homo fossils can be "lumped into an evolving H.erectus lineage".

So the dispute is over which features different among the samples are sufficient to assert speciation, and which count as natural variation within a single species. Seems like we'll need more fossils before that issue can be resolved definitively. The site in Dmanisi may well provide them!

Update: interesting, slightly different coverage from WSJ:

You say you want a convolution

Why bother with artificial intelligence when we're still pretty incompetent with natural intelligence? And yet the fact that a venture is ill advised has never stopped us before.

We aspire to control others without being able to control ourselves.

We judge others more harshly than we judge ourselves.

We take more readily than we give.

Let's talk for a moment about our brain. No, not "our brain" as in us, the crosier of Popehat. (Some blogs have a staff; we have a crosier.) I mean "our brain" as in us, the species homo sapiens somewhat laughably sapiens.

What I want to say is this: we're certainly not going to let the fact that we're baffled by our real brains impede us from trying to build fake ones, right? Perhaps aiming for artifice in matters brainial will help us grasp things actually intracranial.

Of course, if we really knew how to exercise the natural contents of our collective brainboxen, then faced with the prospect of artificial intelligence, we'd all be running around screaming, "No! Stop! Skynet! Nexus!" (Of course, some of us would be doing it with the intonations of Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka, but hey.) We'd all recognize that if we can so easily rationalize our own hypocrisy, then even if we had an anthrobotic system that was tweaked to honor the n laws of robotics, someone somewhere would hack hypocrisy and rationalization right into it. Next stop, SHODAN.

Anyhow, we are blissfully oblivious to risks. And thanks to functional MRI and kindred advances in technology, such as electron microscopy and laser-scanning light microscopy, we (as a species) now stand at the threshold of understanding the brain's architecture and adaptability. We have begun to recognize that "neural circuits tell activity how to propagate, and neural activity tells circuits how to change". It's a great time to be alive, if only for the advent of much better sci-fi.

So what would a computer program based on the way our brains actually work be like? Not one inspired by cheesy 1980s intuitions about fuzzy logic, but a rigorous adaptation of principles actually embedded in our wetware?

Happily, thanks to Jeff Hawkins (the dude who founded Palm and Handspring) we can now begin to understand the answer to that question.

Well, I Guess if God Promised..

One of the candidates for the chairperson of the House Energy Committee believes that global warming is not a problem, because God promised he wouldn't destroy the earth. He goes on to quote the Bible as if it were some sort of scientific record, and not the made up scribblings of someone telling us what some invisible allmighty being told them.

Does anyone think that using the Bible (which has had more ghost writing done to it over the ages than an athlete's "autobiography") as any sort of factual record is a good idea? The Bible is only slightly more historically accurate than the Book of Mormon (which I remind posits that a really lost tribe of Jews was in South America, despite any archaeological evidence to the contrary) or anything from Scientology.

Can I enter Ragnarok into the Congressional record, since it is as well sourced and historically likely as anything God said? We are so screwed.

This Can't Be Good

Scientists have found a jellyfish that is functionally immortal. Using the same basic principle that Salamanders use to regenerate a limb, this jellyfish can alter every cell in it's body to roll back aging.

The jellyfish can move back and forth from polyp to adult repeatedly, altering it's entire cellular structure. That is pretty darn cool. Although, I'd say immortality is somewhat mitigated by spending it as a jellyfish. That can't be too exciting a life.

Pardon Me, Which Way To The Unicorn Enclosure? (Updated)

Maybe I'm biased, but I've always thought of a zoo as being kind of, you know,sciencey and stuff. You'd have to maintain a certain amount of scientific literacy to keep the animals healthy, I'd think. And then there's the whole giving tours, accurately describing the animals and their habitats and habits and diets, and so on. A lot of zoos are connected to educational institutions, or provide classes themselves. Take the Cincinnati Zoo, for instance:

Part of the public school system in Cincinnati since 1975, the Zoo hosts a four-year college prepatory program – Zoo Academy. The Cincinnati Zoo is proud to serve as the leading non-formal science educator in Southwest Ohio. Over 300,000 students participate in the Zoo’s educational programs annually.

Wow. That's sciencey, all right.

So explain to me — why is the Cincinnati Zoo selling combo tickets with the creation museum?

You remember the Creation Museum.

Now, granted, the Zoo specifies that it's only a "non-formal science educator," and doesn't know how to spell preparatory, so maybe we should have seen this coming. But, really? A zoo, an institution of science, partnering with an institution that maintains that T-Rex was a vegan?

Isn't that kind of like your local planetarium giving you discounts for a reading at a local astrologer's shop?

UPDATE: The Zoo thinks better of it. More here.

That's at 12:00 p.m. LST (Legendary Standard Time)

Via John Scalzi's feed, I see that scientists claim to have pinned down exactly when Odysseus got home — roughly noon on April 16, 1178 B.C.:

Now scientists have pinned down his return to April 16, 1178 B.C., close to noon local time, according to astronomical references in the epic poem that seem to pinpoint the total eclipse of the sun on the day that Odysseus supposedly returned on.

. . . .

The scientists then searched for potential dates that satisfied all these astronomical references close to the fall of Troy, which has over the centuries been estimated to have occurred between roughly 1250 to 1115 B.C. From these 135 years, they found just one date satisfied all the references — April 16, 1178 B.C., the same date as the proposed eclipse.

Penelope's suitors were all dead by 12:01.

Read the whole thing, as they say.

The Fiendish Fluoridators Are Nothing Compared To the Vicious Vaccinators

I've blogged several times previously about Kathleen Seidel, author of the Neurodiversity weblog, who was hit with a harassing subpoena by asshat anti-vaccine lawyer Clifford Shoemaker in evident retaliation for criticizing Shoemaker and his client Lisa Sykes. Seidel triumphed, succeeding in getting Shoemaker's subpoena quashed (a real feat for a non-attorney filing a pro se motion), and Shoemaker is now awaiting (anxiously, I hope) the judge's ruling on whether he should be sanctioned. So Kathleen Seidel — who explains a wide array of scientific issues in terms that even a big dummy like me can understand — is all that.

[Read more…]

Boys and Girls, Learning Together?

I've heard a lot of claims that gender-segregated classrooms are more effective based on a variety of theories. I've rarely seen actual science on the subject. Millard Fillmore's Bathtub has a good roundup on the issue.

I don't see anything strongly supporting gender segregation. Other forms of segregation may be appropriate. For instance, segregation into highly disciplined Swiss boarding schools.

(Sorry. Bad morning.)