Laying to rest a foundational myth

    The widely accepted “Man the Hunter” theory proposes that during human evolution, men evolved to hunt while women focused on gathering and domestic duties such as child-rearing. However, as reported in Scientific American, it turns out that recent research is challenging this view.

    Scientific studies indicate that women are physiologically better suited for endurance tasks, which is crucial for hunting. Also, although ignored for societal reasons (read: the patriarchy) archaeological records and ethnographic studies demonstrate that women have a longstanding history of participating in hunting activities.

    I’m pleased that our 12 year-old daughter inhabits a world where female footballers are allowed to compete in the same way as men in most areas of life. There is still a lot of inequality, but it helps when we dismantle these foundational myths.

    Mounting evidence from exercise science indicates that women are physiologically better suited than men to endurance efforts such as running marathons. This advantage bears on questions about hunting because a prominent hypothesis contends that early humans are thought to have pursued prey on foot over long distances until the animals were exhausted. Furthermore, the fossil and archaeological records, as well as ethnographic studies of modern-day hunter-gatherers, indicate that women have a long history of hunting game. We still have much to learn about female athletic performance and the lives of prehistoric women. Nevertheless, the data we do have signal that it is time to bury Man the Hunter for good.


    So much about female exercise physiology and the lives of prehistoric women remains to be discovered. But the idea that in the past men were hunters and women were not is absolutely unsupported by the limited evidence we have. Female physiology is optimized for exactly the kinds of endurance activities involved in procuring game animals for food. And ancient women and men appear to have engaged in the same foraging activities rather than upholding a sex-based division of labor. It was the arrival some 10,000 years ago of agriculture, with its intensive investment in land, population growth and resultant clumped resources, that led to rigid gendered roles and economic inequality.

    Now when you think of “cave people,” we hope, you will imagine a mixed-sex group of hunters encircling an errant reindeer or knapping stone tools together rather than a heavy-browed man with a club over one shoulder and a trailing bride. Hunting may have been remade as a masculine activity in recent times, but for most of human history, it belonged to everyone.

    Source: The Theory That Men Evolved to Hunt and Women Evolved to Gather Is Wrong | Scientific American

    Introducing Homo naledi

    Science is awesome. I love the way that we continue to rediscover and reinterpret what it means to be human based on archaeology and scientific theories.

    Using an unparalleled range of tests, experts are investigating whether a group of ‘ape-men’ succeeded in creating a complex human-like culture - potentially thousands of years before our own species, Homo sapiens, managed to do so.

    Adding to the mystery is the fact that the now long-extinct species behaved in several key ways like modern humans - and yet appears to have been able to do that with brains which were only a third the size of ours.

    The evidence assembled so far is beginning to suggest that these small-brained ‘ape-men’ may have been able to do seven remarkable things:

    • Envisage an afterlife (in other words, a belief that some form of existence continues beyond death).
    • Believe that an afterlife occurs in some sort of ‘underworld’, located beneath (rather than on or above) the world of the living. That implies that they may have developed some very embryonic sense of cosmology.
    • Conceive the idea of physically burying their dead - in that ‘underworld’.
    • Give grave goods to dead members of their community - an apparent act that implies that they may have believed that the dead would somehow be able to use them in an afterlife.
    • Carry out potential rituals - specifically funerary meals - inside their ‘underworld’.
    • Create rudimentary art (abstract designs) around the entrance to at least one of the burial chambers in that ‘underworld’.
    • Plan some sort of relatively complex lighting system (either a succession of small fires and/or torches) to enable them to penetrate their ‘underworld’ and take their dead there.

    “We know that what we’re discovering breaks totally new ground - and is therefore likely to be controversial. That’s why we are deploying every possible type of investigative technology to ensure that the maximum amount of additional evidence can be found,” said the leader of the Rising Star Cave investigation, National Geographic and University of Witwatersrand palaeoanthropologist, Professor Lee Berger, who with co-investigator, human evolution expert Professor John Hawks, has just published a detailed National Geographic book on the discoveries, entitled Cave of Bones.

    Source: Scientific discovery casts doubt on our understanding of human evolution | The Independent

    Mathematical models of evolution

    I have no idea if this has since been debunked, but it’s fascinating to me.

    Biologist and mathematician D’Arcy Thompson advanced a strange new idea in his 1917 book On Growth and Form: He found that if you draw the outline of an animal or plant on an ordinary Cartesian grid, and then you put the grid through some mathematical transformation (stretching it, for example, so that its squares become rhombuses), very often the resulting shape is that of a related real creature.
    Source: A Stretch - Futility Closet

    Depression as an evolutionary advantage?

    It’s been almost 15 years since I suffered from depression. Since that time, I’ve learned to look after myself mentally and physically to resist whatever natural tendency I have towards spiralling downwards.

    I found this article fascinating.

    Some psychologists... have argued that depression is not a dysfunction at all, but an evolved mechanism designed to achieve a particular set of benefits.
    The dominant popular view seems to be that there's something wrong with your brain chemistry, so exercise, antidepressants and counselling can fix it.
    Paul Andrews, an evolutionary psychologist now at McMaster University...  noted that the physical and mental symptoms of depression appeared to form an organized system. There is anhedonia, the lack of pleasure or interest in most activities. There’s an increase in rumination, the obsessing over the source of one’s pain. There’s an increase in certain types of analytical ability. And there’s an uptick in REM sleep, a time when the brain consolidates memories.
    However, for me, the fix was to get out of the terrible situation I was in, a teaching job in a very tough school.
    If something is broken in your life, you need to bear down and mend it. In this view, the disordered and extreme thinking that accompanies depression, which can leave you feeling worthless and make you catastrophize your circumstances, is needed to punch through everyday positive illusions and focus you on your problems. In a study of 61 depressed subjects, 4 out of 5 reported at least one upside to their rumination, including self-insight, problem solving, and the prevention of future mistakes.
    I suffer from migraines, which are bizarre episodes. They're difficult to explain to people as they're a whole-body response. Changing my lifestyle so I don't get migraines is a micro-version of the kind of lifestyle changes you need to make to stave off depression.
    These theories do cast some of our traditional responses to depression in a new light, however. If depression is a strategic response that we are programmed to carry out, consciously or unconsciously, does it make sense to try to suppress its symptoms through, say, the use of antidepressants? [Edward] Hagen [an anthropologist at Washington State University] describes antidepressants as painkillers, arguing that it would be unethical for a doctor to treat a broken ankle with Percocet and no cast. You need to fix the underlying problem.
    I can't imagine being on antidepressants for any more than a few weeks (as I was). They dull your mind, which allows you to cope with the world as it is, but don't (in my experience) allow you lead a flourishing human life.
    Even if depression evolved as a useful tool over the eons, that doesn’t make it useful today. We’ve evolved to crave sugar and fat, but that adaptation is mismatched with our modern environment of caloric abundance, leading to an epidemic of obesity. Depression could be a mismatched condition. Hagen concedes that for most of evolution, we lived with relatives and spent all day with people ready to intervene in our lives, so that episodes of depression might have led to quick solutions. Today, we’re isolated, and we move from city to city, engaging with people less invested in our reproductive fitness. So depressive signals may go unheeded and then compound, leading to consistent, severe dysfunction. A Finnish study found that as urbanization and modernization have increased over the last two centuries, so have suicide rates. That doesn’t mean depression is no longer functional (if indeed it ever was), just that in the modern world it may misfire more than we’d like.
    Source: Nautilus

    Is that you, Mother?


    Several studies have found that, on average, there’s some physical similarity between one’s parent and one’s partner. That is, your girlfriend might well look a little bit like your mother. This physical similarity is apparent whether you ask strangers to compare facial photos of partners and parents, or whether you assess things such as parent and partner height, hair or eye colour, ethnicity, or even body hair.
    Perhaps it's an evolutionary thing?
    A wonderful study of all known couples in Iceland across a 165-year period found that those with the most grandchildren were related at about the level of third or fourth cousin – no more, no less. So it seems there is some evolutionary advantage to finding traces of parental features attractive.
    Source: Aeon