Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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Evolution

Why did shamanism evolve in societies all around the globe?

Thomas T Hills writes: Shamanism is as varied as those who practise it. Its practitioners range from indigenous lineages who have passed down their craft over thousands of years to the modern ‘plastic shamans’, who represent no specific culture but have adapted shamanism to meet the demands of metropolitan markets. However, there is a common theme to shamanism wherever it is practised: the use of spiritual (or shamanic) trance to

A new study shows an animal’s lifespan is written in the DNA. For humans, it’s 38 years

A genetic “clock” lets scientists estimate how long extinct creatures lived. Wooly mammoths could expect around 60 years. Australian Museum By Benjamin Mayne, CSIRO Humans have a “natural” lifespan of around 38 years, according to a new method we have developed for estimating the lifespans of different species by analysing their DNA. Extrapolating from genetic studies of species with known lifespans, we found that the extinct woolly mammoth probably lived

The anatomical ability to speak evolved millions of years before the rise of Homo sapiens

Baboons make sounds, but how does it relate to human speech? Creative Wrights/Shutterstock.com By Thomas R. Sawallis, University of Alabama and Louis-Jean Boë, Université Grenoble Alpes Sound doesn’t fossilize. Language doesn’t either. Even when writing systems have developed, they’ve represented full-fledged and functional languages. Rather than preserving the first baby steps toward language, they’re fully formed, made up of words, sentences and grammar carried from one person to another by

Our imagination has access to the pre-linguistic, ancestral mind

Stephen T Asma writes: Imagination is intrinsic to our inner lives. You could even say that it makes up a ‘second universe’ inside our heads. We invent animals and events that don’t exist, we rerun history with alternative outcomes, we envision social and moral utopias, we revel in fantasy art, and we meditate both on what we could have been and on what we might become. Animators such as Hayao

Genes from bacteria helped plants move to land

Carl Zimmer writes: If you’ve ever noticed a slimy film of algae on a rock, chances are you didn’t pay it much attention. But some of these overlooked species hold clues to one of the greatest mysteries of evolution, scientists have found: how plants arrived on land. On Thursday, researchers published the genomes of two algae that are among the closest known living relatives of land plants. They already had

How conspiracy theories evolved from our drive for survival

Jan-Willem van Prooijen writes: The great fire of Notre Dame on 15 April 2019 broke the hearts of culture lovers around the world. Parisians wept in public while the flames reduced large parts of this monumental cathedral to smouldering ashes. The French president Emmanuel Macron Tweeted a sentiment that not only French people felt: ‘Je suis triste ce soir de voir brûler cette part de nous’ (‘I feel sad tonight

New bird species arises from hybrids, as scientists watch

Quanta Magazine reported (2017): It’s not every day that scientists observe a new species emerging in real time. Charles Darwin believed that speciation probably took place over hundreds if not thousands of generations, advancing far too gradually to be detected directly. The biologists who followed him have generally defaulted to a similar understanding and have relied on indirect clues, gleaned from genomes and fossils, to infer complex organisms’ evolutionary histories.

The meaning to life? A Darwinian existentialist has his answers

By Michael Ruse I was raised as a Quaker, but around the age of 20 my faith faded. It would be easiest to say that this was because I took up philosophy – my lifelong occupation as a teacher and scholar. This is not true. More accurately, I joke that having had one headmaster in this life, I’ll be damned if I want another in the next. I was convinced

Inherited learning? It happens, but how is uncertain

Viviane Callier writes: As a biological concept, the inheritance of acquired characteristics has had a wild roller coaster ride over the past two centuries. Championed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck at the beginning of the 19th century, it soared to widespread popularity as a theory of inheritance and an explanation for evolution, enduring even after Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Then experimental tests, the rise of Mendelian genetics, and

Evolution tells us we might be the only intelligent life in the universe

NASA By Nick Longrich, University of Bath Are we alone in the universe? It comes down to whether intelligence is a probable outcome of natural selection, or an improbable fluke. By definition, probable events occur frequently, improbable events occur rarely – or once. Our evolutionary history shows that many key adaptations – not just intelligence, but complex animals, complex cells, photosynthesis, and life itself – were unique, one-off events, and

Neanderthal legs and feet — suited to sprinting

By Anna Goldfield If you’re like me, you view long-distance running as a somewhat unrealistic aspiration and see those people who do it well as remarkable creatures. The truth, though, is that Homo sapiens are well-designed for loping along for long distances across open landscapes—especially when compared to Neanderthals. They had legs and feet that, recent research suggests, were better suited to sprinting, squatting, and hilly hiking than to running.

For microorganisms, cooperation rather than competition, is the key to survival

The University of Copenhagen reports: New microbial research at the Department of Biology reveals that bacteria would rather unite against external threats, such as antibiotics, rather than fight against each other. The report has just been published in the scientific publication ISME Journal. For a number of years the researchers have studied how combinations of bacteria behave together when in a confined area. After investigating many thousands of combinations it

Fast evolution explains the tiny stature of extinct ‘Hobbit’ from Flores Island

An Indonesian island was home to H. Floresiensis – but how did the dwarfed human species evolve? areza taqwim/Shutterstock.com By José Alexandre Felizola Diniz-Filho, Universidade Federal de Goias and Pasquale Raia, University of Naples Federico II It’s not every day that scientists discover a new human species. But that’s just what happened back in 2004, when archaeologists uncovered some very well-preserved fossil remains in the Liang Bua cave on Flores

Cell-bacteria mergers offer clues about how organelles evolved

Viviane Callier writes: There are few relationships in nature more intimate than those between cells and the symbiotic bacteria, or endosymbionts, that live inside them. In these partnerships, a host cell typically provides protection to its endosymbiont and gives it a way to propagate, while the endosymbiont provides key nutrients to the host. It’s a deeply cooperative arrangement, in which the genomes of the host and the endosymbiont even seem

‘We are on a genetic mission that is absolutely unacceptable’

Evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein and Jamie Wheal, the bestselling author of ‘Stealing Fire’ and founder of the Flow Genome Project, discuss the evolutionary challenges we face and we can overcome them.  

Do human beings have an instinct for engaging in warfare?

David P Barash writes: The most serious problem with [the American anthropologist Napoleon] Chagnon’s influence on our understanding of human nature [through his study of the Yanomami people of the Venezuelan/Brazilian Amazon] is one familiar to many branches of science: generalising from one data set — however intensive — to a wider universe of phenomena. Academic psychologists, for example, are still reeling from a 2010 study by the University of