Deep history and the robot future


I reviewed four new science books for The New York Times. They span millions of years, beginning with the birth of humanity and ending with a serious look at AI. 

Neandertal FoxP2, human too

It was announced today that Neandertals had the same version of the FoxP2 gene that humans do. Because it's thought that our particular version of FoxP2 is involved in speech and language, it may be that Neandertals also had these skills. It'll be interesting to see if Neandertals get an upgrade accordingly, or if the significance of FoxP2 is now downgraded because it turns out to not be so uniquely human after all. National Geographic, Current Biology,

Weather didn't kill off Neandertals

Of the many possible explanations for the demise of the Neandertals (competition with humans, sex with humans and being folded into our genome, infection from humans, climate), researchers say in this week's Nature that climate can now be ruled out. A massive project at The University of Leeds examined three possible extinction dates for our sister species. They compared the dates with a deep-sea core drilled from the Cariaco Basin in Venezuela and found that in two cases there was no change in the weather, and in the last case, an encroaching cold change was 1000 years in the making--not the kind of cataclysmic event that would extinguish a species overnight.

Neandertal genome project hits snag

Over the last year, two separate groups of researchers have been trying to sequence the Neandertal genome using DNA from the same fossil. An independent team assessed both group's analyses and announced this week that there were worrying inconsistencies between the two sets of findings. It's possible that at least one of the samples has been contaminated by modern human DNA. PLoS Genetics, Science.

Accidental beauty

The difference between the hulking heads of our Neanderthal cousins and our more graceful selves is merely a matter of chance, say scientists in the Journal of Human Evolution. The difference between our skulls and theirs probably results from genetic drift--meaning that our head shape was not selected by nature or in any sense 'intended' but only accidentally came to be. At least we got the nice skulls... the authors of the study say, "Neandertal and modern human crania may simply represent two outcomes from a vast space of random evolutionary possibilities.", Science Direct/Journal of Human Evolution.

Did they or didn't they?

Did Neandertals and humans interbreed? Every couple of years this question cycles through the press, generally instigated by a scientific article presenting new evidence either way. Erik Trinkaus, who compares the bones of ancient humans and Neandertals, is the best known for arguing that they did. Most recently, Spencer Wells of the Genographic Project, told Wired magazine there was no evidence in the human genome that Neandertals and their European human contemporaries produced any children.
Trinkaus in PNAS.