Category Archives: Evolution

Tool Use, Technology and the Evolution of the Human Mind

We “behaviorally modern humans” likely emerged more than 100,000 years ago in Africa, spread across that continent and eventually all over the planet, effectively replacing all closely related potentially competitive species. Among many possible explanations, was the co-evolution of the human mind with tool use and technology – ranging all the way from simple stone tools millions of years ago, to computers today.

Speakers in this series addresses this important process at all levels, from molecules to brain imaging, beginning with the potential link between early stone tool use and the parallel expansion of the human brain, to the control of fire and the invention of projectile weapons, all the way through reading and writing to current day technologies such as computers and 3D reality–perhaps with a look to the potential future of the human mind.

Browse more programs in CARTA: Impact of Tool Use and Technology on the Evolution of the Human Mind


What Happened When Modern Humans Met Neanderthals?

In short, they interbred, according to Svante Pääbo, a Swedish biologist and pioneer of paleogenetics, the study of preserved genetic material from the remains of ancient organisms, including ancient human DNA. He has served as director of the Department of Evolutionary Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, since 1997.

He explains in this lecture that Neanderthals and Denisovans have a common ancestor in Africa. About half a million years ago, these species of humans came out of Africa and evolved into what we call Neanderthals in Western Eurasia and Denisovans in Eastern Eurasia. Much later modern humans appeared in Africa and then spread, initially to the Middle East, then to Eurasia where they encountered Neanderthals and Denisovans. Eventually, those earlier species became extinct, replaced by modern humans.

Pääbo’s lab famously retrieved and sequenced ancient Neanderthal DNA and produced a high-quality genome sequence that allowed for the reconstruction of the recent evolutionary history of our species. Once the genome was sequenced and studied it became apparent that ancient and modern humans interbred. In fact, most present-day humans have some Neanderthal DNA.

Svante Pääbo’s was selected by Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the UC San Diego as the recipient of the 2018 Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest. He gave this fascinating lecture on that occasion.

Watch A Neanderthal Perspective on Human Origins with Svante Pääbo – 2018 Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest


Evolution and Creationism as Science and Myth

Myths symbolize ideas, values, history and other issues that are important to a people. They may be true or false, mundane or fantastic; their significance is their meaning, not their narrative content.

Science is a way of knowing about the natural world. Its conclusions tentatively may be true or false, but its significance is its explanatory power: one has confidence in the process of science, even though some explanations change over time.

Myth and science thus seem very different, but each has been utilized by proponents of both sides of the Christian creationism and evolution controversy. Understanding this role is essential in comprehending (much less mediating) this persistent conflict.

Eugenie C. Scott served as the executive director of the National Center for Science Education, an organization that works to keep publicly (though not scientifically) controversial topics like evolution and climate change in the public schools. Her work has involved a mixture of science, communication, religion, education, law, and community activism.

Watch Evolution and Creationism as Science and Myth


Cancer from an Evolutionary Perspective

Humans have a relatively high risk of developing cancer in their lifetimes. But cancer is not unique to humans. Across the tree of life, we can trace cancer vulnerabilities back to the origins of multicellularity. Cancer is observed in almost all multicellular phyla, including lineages leading to plants, fungi, and animals.

However, species vary remarkably in their susceptibility to cancer. And some organisms are much better at killing problem cells. Amy Boddy discusses how this variation is characterized by life history trade-offs, especially longevity. Interestingly, different species have evolved different ways to fight cell mutations that cause cancer. This may lead to a better understanding of cancer susceptibility across human populations.

Amy Boddy is an Assistant Professor in the Integrated Anthropological Sciences Unit and a Research Associate in the Broom Center for Demography at UC Santa Barbara. Boddy completed her PhD in molecular biology and genetics at the Wayne State University – School of Medicine in 2013. Her work uses applications from evolution and ecology to understand human health and disease. She uses a combination of genomics, computational biology and evolutionary theory to understand life history trade-offs between survival and reproduction across different levels of biological organization. One component of her research program examines how environmental cues, such as high extrinsic mortality, may guide resource allocations to cancer defenses and reproduction. Current cancer research topics include comparative oncology, intragenomic conflict, cellular life history trade-offs, and early life adversity and cancer outcomes later in life. In addition to her cancer research, she studies maternal/fetal conflict theory and the consequences of fetal microchimeric cells in maternal health and disease.

Watch Cancer Across the Tree of Life: New Insights into an Ancient Disease