Click on the cover to link to OUP's e-catalogue then turn to the biology section.

Interview Podcast with George Miller

Interview Podcast with George Miller
Click on the pic to link to the NOT A CHIMP podcast on Blackwell's Website

Preface to "Not A Chimp: The Hunt For The Genes That Make Us Human"

In many ways, this book is born out of frustration for a professional career in popular science television where ideas about comparative primate cognition, and the similarities and differences between us and our primate relatives, have continually circled me but constantly evaded my grasp in terms of the opportunity to transform them into science documentary. On the plus side, keeping a watching brief for over a quarter of a century on subjects like comparative animal cognition and evolution allows you to watch a great deal of water flow under the bridge. Fashions come and fashions go - specifically, perspectives on the similarity - or otherwise - of human and ape minds.

I remember the first Horizon science documentary about the chimpanzee Washoe, the great ape communicator, using American Sign Language to bridge the species barrier. And, later, Kanzi the bonobo jabbing his lexicon. These were the apes, as Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has put it, that were "on the brink of the human mind".

I remember when the pre-print of Machiavellian Intelligence, by Andrew Whiten and Dick Byrne, plopped onto the doormat of the BBC Antenna science series office in 1988. Suddenly primatology had become a great deal more exciting. Could primates, and especially higher primates like chimpanzees, really be as full of guile, as dastardly, as cunning, and as manipulative as the eponymous Florentine politician? Could they really reach deep into the minds of other individuals to see what they believed and what they wanted, and turn that information into deception?

I remember discussing primate cognition with a young Danny Povinelli, as we sat finger-feeding ourselves shrimp gumbo and new potatoes out of plastic Tupperware containers in a Lafayette restaurant surrounded by an alligator-infested moat, before returning to his kingdom - the New Iberia Research Centre - where the University of Louisiana had lured him back to his native deep South by turning a chimpanzee breeding centre for medical laboratory fodder into a primate cognition laboratory with one of the largest groups of captive chimpanzees in the country. He looked like a kid who had just been thrown the keys to the tuck shop.

In those days Povinelli shared the zeitgeist - spread by Whiten's and Byrne's work, and started by Nick Humphrey and Alison Jolly before them - that, since the most exacting and potentially treacherous environment faced by chimpanzees and other primates was not physical, but the social environment of their peers, they had evolved a form of social cognition very much like our own, in order to deal with it. This was further elaborated into a full-blown "social brain" hypothesis by Robin Dunbar, who related brain neocortex size to social group size throughout the primates and up to man. Povinelli's early work reflects this optimism for the mental life of apes, but both ape-language and ape-cognition research was subjected to a cold douche of searching criticism during the 1990s, and misgivings set in regarding the effectiveness of the experiments that had been constructed to guage ape cognition. Now the worm has turned again, with a number of research groups emerging with bolder and bolder claims for the Machiavellian machinations of primate minds, only to be powerfully countered by the curmudgeonly skepticism, chiefly by Povinelli, that these researchers are merely projecting their mental life onto that of their subjects; that, rather in the frustrating manner of Zeno's arrow that could never quite reach its target because it continually halved its distance to it, no experiment constructed thus far can actually get inside the mind of a chimp and show us exactly what it does and doesn't know, or how much, about the minds of others or the way the physical world works. One influential part of the world of comparative animal cognition talks of a continuum between ape and human minds and shrinks the cognitive distance between us and chimps to almost negligible proportions, while another returns us to the unfashionable idea that human cognition is unique, among the primates, after all.

When I began writing this book the working title was "The 1.6% that makes us human". My aim had always been to scrutinize the impression put about in the popular science media that humans and chimps differ by a mere 1.6% in our genetic code - or even less - and that it therefore makes complete sense that this minuscule genetic difference translates into equally small differences in cognition and behaviour between apes and man. However, contemporary genome science and technology, over the last few years, have dramatically advanced the power and resolution with which scientists can investigate genomes, eclipsing the earlier days of genomic investigation that gave rise to the "1.6% mantra".

As with comparative cognitive studies, conclusions on chimp-human similarity and difference in genome research depend crucially on perspective. To look at the complete set of human chromosomes, side by side with chimpanzee chromosomes, at the level of resolution of a powerful light microscope, for instance, is to be overwhelmed by the similarity between them. Overwhelmed with a sense of how close our kinship is with the other great apes. True, our chromosome 2 is a combination of two chimp chromosomes - giving humans a complement of 23 chromosome pairs to 24 in chimps, gorillas and orang-utans - but even here you can see exactly where the two chimp chromosomes have fused to produce one. The banding patterns you visualize by staining the chromosomes match up with astonishing similarity - and that banding similarity extends to many of the other chromosomes in the two genomes. However, look at a recent map of the chromosomes of chimps and humans, aligned side by side, produced by researchers who have mapped all inversions - end-on-end flips of large chunks of DNA - and the chromosomes are all but blotted out by a blizzard of red lines denoting inverted sequence. Now you become overwhelmed by how much structural change has occurred between the two genomes in just 6 million years. True, not all inversions result in changes in the working of genes - but many do - and inversions might even have been responsible for the initial divergence of chimp ancestor from human ancestor.

The extent to which you estimate the difference between chimp and human genomes depends entirely on where you look and how deeply. Modern genomics technology has led us deep into the mine that is the genome and has uncovered an extraordinary range of genetic mechanisms, many of which have one thing in common. They operate to promote variability - they amplify differences between individuals in one species. We now know, for instance, that each human is less genetically identical to anyone else than we thought only three years ago. When we compare human genomes to chimpanzee genomes these mechanisms magnify genetic distance still further. I have tried, in this book, to follow in the footsteps of these genome scientists as they dig deeper and deeper into the "Aladdin's Cave" of the genome. At times the going gets difficult. Scientists, like any explorers, are prone to taking wrong turnings, getting trapped in thickets, and covering hard ground, before breaking through into new insights. I hope that those of you who recoil from genetics with all the visceral horror with which many regard the sport of pot-holing will steel yourselves and follow me as far as I have dared to go into Aladdin's Cave. For only then will you see the riches within and begin to appreciate, as I have, just how limited popular accounts of human-chimpanzee genetic difference really are. Let me try and persuade you that this is a journey, if a little arduous at times, that is well worth taking.

There are a number of scientists around the world who have the breadth and the vision to have begun the task of rolling genetics, comparative animal cognition, and neuroscience into a comprehensive new approach to the study of human nature and this is part, at least, of their story. They strive to describe the nature of humans in terms of the extent to which we are genuinely different to chimpanzees and the other great apes. Somehow, over 6 million years, we humans evolved from something that probably resembled a chimpanzee (though we cannot yet be entirely sure) and the answer to our evolution has to lie in a growing number of structural changes in our genome, versus that of the chimpanzee, that have led to the evolution of a large number of genes that have, effectively, re-designed our brains and led to our advanced and peculiar human cognition.

If you don't believe me, hand this book to your nearest friendly chimpanzee and see what he makes of it!

Friday, 30 December 2011

I know something you don’t know – and I will tell you!

The battle in comparative cognitive psychology has raged for years about what chimpanzees, and other species, do and don't know about the minds of other con-specifics. In NOT A CHIMP I took a dismal view of a chimp's ability to "mind-read" but evidence continues to be offered which is much more optimistic about the contents of a chimpanzee's mind and its ability to get some inkling of the state of mind of others - that their knowledge or ignorance of a situation, for instance, may differ from their own. In this report, from 30-odd chimps in the wild, researchers from the University of St. Andrews and Leipzig present evidence that chimps who know about a potential source of danger - a snake in the grass for instance - will preferentially warning-call to other chimps in the immediate neighbourhood if they think they are ignorant of the presence of the danger.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Crows show advanced learning abilities

In the chapter CLEVER CORVIDS in NOT A CHIMP I detail cognitive psychology research on crows and other corvid birds which showed they have extraordinary powers of tool manufacture and use; understanding of deception; and planning for the future - otherwise known as mental time travel. After publication, Nathan Emery added to the list of corvid mental attributes by showing that ravens could solve the Aesop problem of water displacement to recover floating food. Here New Zealand researchers Hunt and Taylor team up with Emery and Clayton to demonstrate the same skill in New Caledonian crows who, without prior learning, seem to realize that dropping big stones into containers of water containing food will cause the food to rise until it can be retrieved using the beak. The paper is in the open access PLoS 1:

More information: Taylor AH, Elliffe DM, Hunt GR, Emery NJ, Clayton NS, et al. (2011) New Caledonian Crows Learn the Functional Properties of Novel Tool Types. PLoS ONE 6(12): e26887. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0026887

Thursday, 1 December 2011

'Look at that!' -- ravens use gestures, too

In NOT A CHIMP I mention the research of Thomas Bugnyar and various colleagues, using ravens. Here he breaks down another species barrier by demonstrating that ravens are capable of meaningful gestures to and with objects in order to get the attention of the other member of the pair.

"For two years, Simone Pika und Thomas Bugnyar investigated the non-vocal behaviour of individually marked members of a wild raven community in the Cumberland Wildpark in Grünau, Austria. They observed that ravens use their beaks similar to hands to show and offer objects such as moss, stones and twigs. These distinct gestures were predominantly aimed at partners of the opposite sex and resulted in frequent orientation of recipients to the object and the signallers. Subsequently, the ravens interacted with each other, for example, by example billing or joint manipulation of the object.

This new study shows that differentiated gestures have especially evolved in species with a high degree of collaborative abilities. "Gesture studies have too long focused on communicative skills of primates only. The mystery of the origins of human language, however, can only be solved if we look at the bigger picture and also consider the complexity of the communication systems of other animal groups" says Simone Pika from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology."

Reference: "Simone Pika & Thomas Bugnyar, The use of referential gestures in ravens (Corvus corax) in the wild, Nature Communications, November 29, 2011, 10.1038/ncomms1567

Researches find poop-throwing by chimps is a sign of intelligence

Bill Hopkins, from Emory University, Atlanta, is thew world-leader in the art and science of brain-scanning live chimpanzees. He has recently been comparing the brains of chimps that are good throwers - they are accurate and have a clear target in mind - and less adept chimps. They find that the proportion of white to grey matter is increased in the precentral gyrus - the relevant motor centre, but also in the chimp homologue to Broca's speech area in the left hemisphere. They also found that the better throwers were the better communicators. Could the brain organization that facilitated throwing have laid the foundations for the evolution of speech centres in the brain, they ask. Here's the abstract:

It has been hypothesized that neurological adaptations associated with evolutionary selection for throwing may have served as a precursor for the emergence of language and speech in early hominins. Although there are reports of individual differences in aimed throwing in wild and captive apes, to date there has not been a single study that has examined the potential neuroanatomical correlates of this very unique tool-use behaviour in non-human primates. In this study, we examined whether differences in the ratio of white (WM) to grey matter (GM) were evident in the homologue to Broca's area as well as the motor-hand area of the precentral gyrus (termed the KNOB) in chimpanzees that reliably throw compared with those that do not. We found that the proportion of WM in Broca's homologue and the KNOB was significantly higher in subjects that reliably throw compared with those that do not. We further found that asymmetries in WM within both brain regions were larger in the hemisphere contralateral to the chimpanzee's preferred throwing hand. We also found that chimpanzees that reliably throw show significantly better communication abilities than chimpanzees that do not. These results suggest that chimpanzees that have learned to throw have developed greater cortical connectivity between primary motor cortex and the Broca's area homologue. It is suggested that during hominin evolution, after the split between the lines leading to chimpanzees and humans, there was intense selection on increased motor skills associated with throwing and that this potentially formed the foundation for left hemisphere specialization associated with language and speech found in modern humans.

And for those who can access it, here's the link to the PTRS B series paper:

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Genetic study confirms: First dogs came from East Asia

In NOT A CHIMP I discuss the evidence that humans have self-domesticated. One animal model of the process is dogs. The suggestion is that, rather than humans cultivating wild wolves and domesticating them, the wolves did it themselves through a long process of commensalism around early human encampments. But where on the globe did that process begin and what type of wolf best represents the dog ancestor? There is a long-running battle, based on genetics and archaeology, between researchers who believe the Middle East was the cradle of dog domestication and those who prefer East Asia. Here, Peter Savolainen, from Sweden, presents strong genetic evidence that all dogs emanated from an area of wolf domestication in what they call the ASY region - Asia south of the Yangtze - in southern China. The article discusses no dates and does not debate the commensalism versus purposeful selection argument for how dogs acquired their domesticated traits.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

'Language gene' speeds learning

In NOT A CHIMP I detail the discovery of the FOXP2 gene and its role in human language and the oro-facial muscular movements required to produce intelligible speech. Scientists at the Max Planck in Leipzig have been looking ever since for the answer to precisely how it works and have recently reported work on mice that have had the human version of the FOXP2 gene "knocked into" them. They prove to be better learners of maze-negotiating tasks than normal mice. But how can this lead to language? The team seem to be suggesting that human FOXP2 allows humans to learn the complex muscular movements that form speech - but it is hard to understand this, because, as Faraneh Vargha-Khadem (the scientist who has done all the work on articulation difficulties in families with FOXP2 mutation and speech and learning difficulties) says - such muscular control is involuntary. I suspect that further work on the basal ganglia will get us closer to the answer.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

New Genes, New Brain

How many of the developments of the human brain peculiar to us, like the huge relative growth of the prefrontal cortex, are down to old genes that have existed throughout the mammals and beyond, but have become differently regulated - made to work harder - in humans, and how much is down to novel genes that have arisen only in mammals, some only in primates, and some only in the line leading to us from the common ancestor with the ancestors of chimpanzees? Until now, regulation of old conserved genes was thought to have been more important but the work reported here, from the University of Chicago, suggests otherwise. A surprising number of novel brain genes have arisen and the timing of their arrival fits very nicely with the increase in size and human-specific specialization of the human brain.

"“We were very shocked that there were that many new genes that were upregulated in this part of the brain,” said Long, who added that he was also taken aback by synchronicity of the origin of the genes and the development of novel brain structures. It seems that around the same time that the neocortex and the prefrontal cortex arose, and then expanded in humans, a large collection of genes also popped up."

Thursday, 13 October 2011

'Cute' chimps in ads may harm the species' survival

In NOT A CHIMP I despise the use of chimps in adverts - demeaning to them and us. In this paper renowned chimp researcher Brian Hare offers proof of the toxic effects of television ads using young chimps. It results in less interest in donating towards chimpanzee survival in the wild versus serious conservation messages from chimp evangelists like Jane Goodall.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Soldiers’ Amygdalae Show Scars

In NOT A CHIMP I describe work on human brains which links amygdala excitation, and the control of amygdala excitation by the anterior cingulate cortex, to social behaviour. Basically, individuals with poor regulation of the amygdala were more fearful. This exciting study reproduces this effect in a number of soldiers returning from active duty in Afghanistan. Those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) invariably exhibited the same pattern of over-active, poorly regulated amygdalae.

Insightful Problem Solving in an Asian Elephant

A short while ago I posted a note about elephants being apparently capable of that "Eureka" moment of pure invention. Here is the free full paper from PLoS.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Aha! Elephants Can Use Insight to Solve Problems

In NOT A CHIMP I challenge the use of tool-making and tool-using by chimps as evidence of their proximity to humans. I detail some of the extraordinary evidence of tool use and problem-solving in corvid birds. Here are details of the first problem-solving experiments with an elephant to suggest they, to, are capable of the eureka moment.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Is Homo floresiensis a new species or a microcephalic human?

In NOT A CHIMP I briefly mention the scientific spat over the most likely identity of the remains, LB1, originally thought to be those of a new, small, hominin, named Homo floresiensis. Some scientists at the time suggested the skull more likely resembled a severely microcephalic Homo sapiens, than a new species and Ralph Holloway and colleagues have re-visited this argument. As their abstract below says, they cannot rule out the interpretation that "The Hobbit" was a microcephalic human. Holloway is probably THE world authority on skull endocasts and thus must be taken seriously. The debate rumbles on!


The designation of Homo floresiensis as a new species derived from an ancient population is controversial, because the type specimen, LB1, might represent a pathological microcephalic modern Homo sapiens. Accordingly, two specific craniometric ratios (relative frontal breadth and cerebellar protrusion) were ascertained in 21 microcephalic infants and children by using MRI. Data on 118 age-equivalent control (normocephalic) subjects were collected for comparative purposes. In addition, the same craniometric ratios were determined on the endocasts of 10 microcephalic individuals, 79 normal controls (anatomically modern humans), and 17 Homo erectus specimens. These ratios were then compared with those of two LB1 endocasts. The findings showed that the calculated cerebral/cerebellar ratios of the LB1 endocast [Falk D, et al. (2007) Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104:2513–2518] fall outside the range of living normocephalic individuals. The ratios derived from two LB1 endocasts also fall largely outside the range of modern normal human and H. erectus endocasts and within the range of microcephalic endocasts. The findings support but do not prove the contention that LB1 represents a pathological microcephalic Homo sapiens rather than a new species, (i.e., H. floresiensis).

Monday, 1 August 2011

Leeds "Skeptics In The Pub" Talk

Earlier this year I was invited by Chris Worfolk and the Chris Worfolk Foundation to give a talk, based on NOT A CHIMP, to the local Leeds branch of SKEPTICS IN THE PUB. The Foundation have just released this video of my talk. The sound quality is awful because no direct microphone could drown out the hullabaloo from the bar next door - but here it is if anyone has the patience to fight their way through the background buzz!!

Friday, 8 July 2011

A gene implicated in speech regulates connectivity of the developing brain

In my chapter THE LANGUAGE GENE THAT WASN'T I detail the discovery of the transcription factor "master gene" FOXP2 and its relation to language disorder in humans, sonar in bats, and song production in birds. The researcher who discovered the role of FOXP2 - Simon Fisher - has now reported on work that has been going on ever since to discover the number of genes in the FOXP2 orchestra - the downstream genes whose activity is regulated by FOXP2. They have discovered a large number of genes many of which are involved in building up neuronal networks in the brain. I assume they are now going through the list of candidate genes they have identified to see what specific effects they have and paint in some specific links between genes and the human language faculty.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Study shows chimps capable of insightful reasoning ability

Shortly after NOT A CHIMP was published, Nathan Emery produced a finding that the corvid birds he was studying were able to solve the Archimedes principle that buoyancy is related to water displacement. They soon learned that by plopping pebbles into a container of water containing floating food, the water level, and thus the food, would rise to a level at which they could retrieve it in their beaks. Now researchers at the Max Planck in Leipzig have found chimps are capable of the same level of insight in that they learned that by using water from a nearby pitcher to add to a container in which food was floating out of reach, they could bring the water level up to the point at which they could get at the food. 1-1 chimps v. corvids!

Friday, 10 June 2011

Canine telepathy? Study explores how dogs think and learn about human behavior

Another piece of research on social cognition in dogs and wolves entirely consistent with my conclusions in NOT A CHIMP.

"Udell and team carried out two experiments comparing the performance of pet domestic dogs, shelter dogs and wolves given the oportunity to beg for food, from either an attentive person or from a person unable to see the animal. They wanted to know whether the rearing and living envi-ronment of the animal (shelter or human home), or the species itself (dog or wolf), had the greater impact on the animal's performance.

They showed, for the first time that wolves, like domestic dogs, are capable of begging successfully for food by approaching the attentive human. This demonstrates that both species - domesticated and non-domesticated - have the capacity to behave in accordance with a human's attentional state. In addition, both wolves and pet dogs were able to rapidly improve their performance with practice.

The authors also found that dogs were not sensitive to all visual cues of a human's attention in the same way. In particular, dogs from a home environment rather than a shelter were more sensitive to stimuli predicting attentive humans. Those dogs with less regular exposure to humans performed badly on the begging task.

According to the researchers, "These results suggest that dogs' ability to follow human actions stems from a willingness to accept humans as social companions, combined with conditioning to follow the limbs and actions of humans to acquire reinforcement. The type of attentional cues, the context in which the command is presented, and previous experience are all important.""

New study of crows and parrots highlights different types of intelligence

A very nice news item about recent work with two kinds of intelligent birds - New Caledonian crows and keas (a type of parrot). The news of both species' extremely intelligent approach to liberating food from a see-through box will come as no surprise to readers of NOT A CHIMP, but what is especially interesting here is that both species managed all four grades of problem to access food, but in different ways. The keas barged in and only resorted to the clever stuff once strong-beak tactics failed, whereas the crows started out smartly and dexterously but with that cautious look over the shoulder of a species that is long used to being spied upon by con-specifics.

The food was placed on a small pillar, mounted on a 45% slanting base such that any food on the pillar would roll out the front of the box if dislodged. The simplest task required the birds to tug on a string which was attached to the food through a hole in the wall of the box. The second task required the birds to push a small ball down a tube such that it fell and knocked the food off the plinth. The third task involved manipulating a stick through a narrow hole in the side of the box and the fourth task required the birds to understand that they had to lift a flap in the wall of the box by gripping a hook attached to it.

The research was a collaboration between Dr. Alice Auersperg of the University of Vienna, and Alex Kacelnik's lab in Oxford.

Monday, 16 May 2011

I know you, bad guy! Magpies recognize humans

For anyone who has read my chapter CLEVER CORVIDS nothing a member of the crow family can do should amaze them. Here's a nice story about magpies at the campus of Seoul National University who were able to discriminate a researcher from facial recognition, among thousands of Asian individuals, as the culprit who had "raided" their nests to record data on eggs or young for a science project.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Mutations in single gene may have shaped human cerebral cortex

In my chapter BRAIN-BUILDERS in NOT A CHIMP I discuss the research, and criticism of that research, that suggests that several genes closely involved in cell division, are inordinately responsible for the great growth, relative to other primates, of the human cerebral cortex. here is a report of a third gene that seems to have a strong effect in the same area. From an analysis of Turkish and Pakistani families with a history of very severe truncation in brain development, a gene NDE1 was found to be implicated. This is involved in the behaviour of the centrasome - where chromosomes line up to reassemble after cell division in the nucleus.

Code rage: The "warrior gene" makes me mad! (Whether I have it or not)

Here's a nice "pissed off" piece in Scientific American by John Horgan, on the total and cynical over-hyping of the discovery of weak links between a low DNA repeat allele of monoamine oxidase (MAO-L) - an enzyme involved in the metabolism of both serotonin and dopamine - and rage and violence.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Chimp, bonobo study sheds light on the social brain

It's been known for a long time that chimps are from Mars whereas their near relatives, the bonobos, are from Venus. Chimps resort to aggression to resolve arguments, bonobos use play and sex. They are more anxious and more socially tolerant. Now, Jim Rilling, from Emory University in Atlanta, has published a comparative study on chimps and bonobos that shows significant differences in the neural circuitry in their brains that we associate with social cognition. Bonobos have more developed connections in the amygdala, hypothalamus and anterior insula. Pathways connecting the amygdala with the prefrontal cortex are also more developed in the bonobo, suggesting this is the substrate for how they turn emotive signals from the outside world into appropriate empathic behavioural response.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Rapid metabolic evolution in human prefrontal cortex


Human evolution is characterized by the rapid expansion of brain size and drastic increase in cognitive capabilities. It has long been suggested that these changes were accompanied by modifications of brain metabolism. Indeed, human-specific changes on gene expression or amino acid sequence were reported for a number of metabolic genes, but actual metabolite measurements in humans and apes have remained scarce. Here, we investigate concentrations of more than 100 metabolites in the prefrontal and cerebellar cortex in 49 humans, 11 chimpanzees, and 45 rhesus macaques of different ages using gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS). We show that the brain metabolome undergoes substantial changes, both ontogenetically and evolutionarily: 88% of detected metabolites show significant concentration changes with age, whereas 77% of these metabolic changes differ significantly among species. Although overall metabolic divergence reflects phylogenetic relationships among species, we found a fourfold acceleration of metabolic changes in prefrontal cortex compared with cerebellum in the human lineage. These human-specific metabolic changes are paralleled by changes in expression patterns of the corresponding enzymes, and affect pathways involved in synaptic transmission, memory, and learning.

Friday, 11 March 2011

New View of How Humans Moved Away From Apes

A nice article in the New York Times by their science correspondent Nick Wade. He reports on recent work on hunter-gatherer societies building on 2008 insights into human social organization by Bernard Chapais. Kim Hill and colleagues point out that the previously-thought pattern of females moving away from family groups, leaving male cross-generational coalitions in charge, is not by any means the rule in hunter-gatherer societies, where just as often it is the young males that move out. They call the phenomenon bilocality. This means that social groups are far less genetically related than thought so that cooperation between non-kin, as opposed to kin selection inclusive fitness cooperation of selfish genes, is the key to how humans moved away from the ape model. here's a bit of the article:

"Anthropologists studying living hunter-gatherers have radically revised their view of how early human societies were structured, a shift that yields new insights into how humans evolved away from apes.

Early human groups, according to the new view, would have been more cooperative and willing to learn from one another than the chimpanzees from which human ancestors split about five million years ago. The advantages of cooperation and social learning then propelled the incipient human groups along a different evolutionary path.

Anthropologists have assumed until now that hunter-gatherer bands consist of people fairly closely related to one another, much as chimpanzee groups do, and that kinship is a main motive for cooperation within the group. Natural selection, which usually promotes only selfish behavior, can reward this kind of cooperative behavior, called kin selection, because relatives contain many of the same genes.

A team of anthropologists led by Kim S. Hill of Arizona State University and Robert S. Walker of the University of Missouri analyzed data from 32 living hunter-gatherer peoples and found that the members of a band are not highly related. Fewer than 10 percent of people in a typical band are close relatives, meaning parents, children or siblings, they report in Friday’s issue of Science.

Michael Tomasello, a psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, said the survey provided a strong foundation for the view that cooperative behavior, as distinct from the fierce aggression between chimp groups, was the turning point that shaped human evolution. If kin selection was much weaker than thought, Dr. Tomasello said, “then other factors like reciprocity and safeguarding one’s reputation have to be stronger to make cooperation work.”"

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Big brains and spineless penises How DNA deletions may have produced uniquely human traits.

In my chapter LESS IS MORE I suggest that loss, or deletion of working genes has been very important in human evolution. Good examples are the way in which deletion of a part of the CMAH gene, rendering it useless, had been an important, if drastic, defence against malaria back in the days of Homo erectus. The gene MYH16 appears to have been deleted at about the same time which may explain our more gracile head and jaw musculature. Now this team have winnowed through the human genome to discover over 500 deleted chunks of DNA from non-coding regions - regions that are not inside working genes. The thought is that these deletions are in regulatory parts of the genome - parts that control the ways genes express themselves - how much designated protein they make. Deletions in these areas would be like taking the brakes out of a car - and could have led to greater gene expression. They cite a deletion near the tumour suppressor gene GADD45G, for instance, that could have "removed the brakes from cell division and promoted the expansion of brain tissue". "A second deletion near the human androgen receptor gene correlates with the loss of sensory whiskers and penile spines which might have resulted in different copulatory behaviour in early humans.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Elephants know when they need a helping trunk in a cooperative task

In NOT A CHIMP I refute the idea that genetic proximity logically begets cognitive similarity. Convergent evolution in birds, dogs, primates and humans has resulted in remarkable cross-species abilities on social tasks that require the ability to infer something about the content of other minds, or the nature of a task from a partner's perspective, where species have diverged from one another tens or even hundreds of millions of years ago. Here Asian elephants show the same remarkable degree of convergent cognitive evolution on a task that requires cooperative pulling on ropes in order to reach a reward. It is reported by Frans de Waal and here is the abstract:

"Elephants are widely assumed to be among the most cognitively advanced animals, even though systematic evidence is lacking. This void in knowledge is mainly due to the danger and difficulty of submitting the largest land animal to behavioral experiments. In an attempt to change this situation, a classical 1930s cooperation paradigm commonly tested on monkeys and apes was modified by using a procedure originally designed for chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) to measure the reactions of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus). This paradigm explores the cognition underlying coordination toward a shared goal. What do animals know or learn about the benefits of cooperation? Can they learn critical elements of a partner's role in cooperation? Whereas observations in nature suggest such understanding in nonhuman primates, experimental results have been mixed, and little evidence exists with regards to nonprimates. Here, we show that elephants can learn to coordinate with a partner in a task requiring two individuals to simultaneously pull two ends of the same rope to obtain a reward. Not only did the elephants act together, they inhibited the pulling response for up to 45 s if the arrival of a partner was delayed. They also grasped that there was no point to pulling if the partner lacked access to the rope. Such results have been interpreted as demonstrating an understanding of cooperation. Through convergent evolution, elephants may have reached a cooperative skill level on a par with that of chimpanzees."

Saturday, 5 March 2011

Development of Gaze Following Abilities in Wolves (Canis Lupus)

The ability to understand that someone's gaze direction is a clue to the possible presence of something of joint interest is thought to be a major cognitive stepping stone to theory of mind, and, until recently, thought to be the exclusive province of higher primates, humans and corvid birds. But dogs can also do this, and, as this PLoS article shows, so can hand-reared wolves. Here is the abstract:

"The ability to coordinate with others' head and eye orientation to look in the same direction is considered a key step towards an understanding of others mental states like attention and intention. Here, we investigated the ontogeny and habituation patterns of gaze following into distant space and behind barriers in nine hand-raised wolves. We found that these wolves could use conspecific as well as human gaze cues even in the barrier task, which is thought to be more cognitively advanced than gazing into distant space. Moreover, while gaze following into distant space was already present at the age of 14 weeks and subjects did not habituate to repeated cues, gazing around a barrier developed considerably later and animals quickly habituated, supporting the hypothesis that different cognitive mechanisms may underlie the two gaze following modalities. More importantly, this study demonstrated that following another individuals' gaze around a barrier is not restricted to primates and corvids but is also present in canines, with remarkable between-group similarities in the ontogeny of this behaviour. This sheds new light on the evolutionary origins of and selective pressures on gaze following abilities as well as on the sensitivity of domestic dogs towards human communicative cues."

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Scientists discover gene regulation mechanism unique to primates

In the chapter THE RIDDLE VOF THE 1.6% in my book NOT A CHIMP I detail the important discovery that the regulation of protein production by a gene - called gene expression - was a more important factor in divergence of chimps from humans than changes to the actual DNA sequence of the genes. Here two researchers have documented how widespread and unique among the primates is a form of gene regulation that depends on a combination of small transposable junk elements of DNA in all our genomes - Alu elements - and a form of messenger RNA. It will be interesting if further research demonstrates different patterns of this form of gene expression regulation between primate species, and also interesting if they find out that a failure in this form of regulation could lead to forms of undisciplined cell behaviour like cancer.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Are brains shrinking to make us smarter?

In NOT A CHIMP I argue, quoting John Hawks and others, that there is plenty of evidence - including brain size - to show that, if anything, human evolution has speeded up these last 30,000 years or so, not ceased altogether. This article backs that view up. Domestication is clearly involved and, with it, the retention of juvenile characters - neoteny. Here is the key piece of the article:

"Geary and his colleagues used population density as a measure of social complexity, with the hypothesis that the more humans are living closer together, the greater the exchanges between group, the division of labor and the rich and varied interactions between people. They found that brain size decreased as population density increased......But the downsizing does not mean modern humans are dumber than their ancestors -- rather, they simply developed different, more sophisticated forms of intelligence, said Brian Hare, an assistant professor of anthropology at Duke University.

He noted that the same phenomenon can be observed in domestic animals compared to their wild counterparts.

So while huskies may have smaller brains than wolves, they are smarter and more sophisticated because they can understand human communicative gestures, behaving similarly to human children.

"Even though the chimps have a larger brain (than the bonobo, the closest extant relative to humans), and even though a wolf has a much larger brain than dogs, dogs are far more sophisticated, intelligent and flexible, so intelligence is not very well linked to brain size," Hare explained."

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

The amygdala: inside and out

Here's a very good review of what we now know about the explicit and implicit role of the amygdala in judging trustworthiness in faces, and in supporting empathic, socially appropriate behaviour. Changes in structure and function of the amygdala are associated with social intelligence pathologies like sociopathy.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Was The Fox Man's First Best friend?

In NOT A CHIMP I deal at some length with the domestication of wolf-like species into the domestic dog, and the earliest archaeological evidence for the importance of dogs to humans comes from opened Natufian tombs dating back well over 10,000 years. However, this article suggests, from a comparative finding of fox and human remains originally buried together, that the fox pre-dated the dog as a favoured, and important, companion - even if it might have been a short-lived relationship. This is interesting because the evidence from Siberia - noted in my book - is that Arctic foxes can be rapidly selected for tameness - and then behave just like dogs.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

If You Knew Susie...The First Orang-Utan Genome Sequenced

In tomorrow's NATURE this consortium will publish their research to sequence the orang-utan genome. It is to be hoped they offer more insights to human evolution than this publicity blurb.....

Friday, 7 January 2011

Border Collie Comprehends over 1000 Object Names as Verbal Referents

Here's an absolutely fascinating article about research with a Border Collie called Chaser, who can recognize the noun names for 1022 objects. The researchers only stopped at 1022 because of time constraints, not because they had reached the limit of Chaser's cognition. Much more importantly, tests revealed that Chaser understood the nouns as proper referents to each of her toys and did not mis-interpret them as commands. She showed an ability to combine toy names with a range of commands - and behaved accordingly. She was also capable of grouping her 1022 toys according to categories.