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Adversity breeds strength -- and perhaps human intelligence

It's a widely held hypothesis that ecological and climatological changes had a crucial driving role in evolution throughout history.  Now Penn State University geoscience professor Katherine Freeman and her graduate student, Clayton Magill, have put forth an intriguing study, which suggests that chaos in the ecosystem of East Africa drove mankind's ancestors to radically evolve 2 million years ago.

I. Life on the Chaotic Savanna

Mr. Magill comments, "The landscape early humans were inhabiting transitioned rapidly back and forth between a closed woodland and an open grassland about five to six times during a period of 200,000 years.  These changes happened very abruptly, with each transition occurring over hundreds to just a few thousand years."

To examine the ecological transition that coincided with this crucial phase of hominid evolution the researchers traveled to the Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania, collecting lake sediments.  Filtering the sediments of different ages, they performed biochemical analysis looking for fossilized chemical traces of grasses and trees.

Specifically, they sifted through sediments looking for leaf waxes, hardy biochemicals that tend to resist breakdown and survive, even over millions of years.  By performing gas chromatography and mass spectrometry analyses on the various waxes, the researchers were able to pinpoint both the foliage and composition to within a couple centuries.

Tanzania Gorge
Biochemical analysis of local sediments in a Tanzania gorge have offered key clues as to the evolutionary path of mankind's hominid ancestors. [Image Source: Gail Ashley]

What they discovered was that the "Great Drying", which is widely proven to have occurred in Africa around 3 million years ago, was not as much of a one-way process as was previously thought.  Rather, the sediments showed that the local ecosystem appears to have gone through a chaotic transition period in which the climate would fluctuate between wet and dry, before eventually gravitating fully to drier savanna.

To better understand the source of such strange and chaotic cycling, the researchers used statistical and mathematical models to formulate a hypothesis on the causes.  

Explains Professor Freeman, "The orbit of the Earth around the sun slowly changes with time.  These changes were tied to the local climate at Olduvai Gorge through changes in the monsoon system in Africa. Slight changes in the amount of sunshine changed the intensity of atmospheric circulation and the supply of water. The rain patterns that drive the plant patterns follow this monsoon circulation."

"We found a correlation between changes in the environment and planetary movement.  We find complementary forcing mechanisms: one is the way Earth orbits, and the other is variation in ocean temperatures surrounding Africa."

II. Adversity Breeds Evolved Intelligence

The chaos would obviously cause great stress on hominids living in the region forcing them to adapt to different food sources, different landscape, and different predators.  Mr. Magill and Professor Freeman suggest this was a key driver of the evolution of human intelligence.

Comments Mr. Magill, "Early humans went from having trees available to having only grasses available in just 10 to 100 generations, and their diets would have had to change in response.  Changes in food availability, food type, or the way you get food can trigger evolutionary mechanisms to deal with those changes." 

"The result can be increased brain size and cognition, changes in locomotion and even social changes -- how you interact with others in a group. Our data are consistent with these hypotheses. We show that the environment changed dramatically over a short time, and this variability coincides with an important period in our human evolution when the genus Homo was first established and when there was first evidence of tool use."

human intelligence
The papers suggest chaotic climate changes triggered the rise of human intelligence.
[Image Source: Pace J. Miller]

The research was published as a pair of papers [abstracts] in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  Among the other researchers working on the team was Rutgers University earth and planetary sciences professor Gail Ashley.  The research was funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant.

Sources: PNAS [1], [2]

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RE: more propaganda
By finetsky on 12/28/2012 4:21:23 AM , Rating: 2
Yeah, why those crazy scientists even bothered with the serious research based on evidence when you already know it all by hard. Your book tells you all you need to know, right? Your answers are simple. God did it. Just like Santa brings you gifts, ain't it? BTW going to scientific pages and trying to persuade people about creationism is like 1year old kid trying to teach adult how to speak. You just make yourself fool.

RE: more propaganda
By heerohawwah on 12/28/2012 3:02:56 PM , Rating: 1
Regarding Santa: An Engineers Perspective
I. There are approximately two billion children (persons under 18) in the world. However, since Santa does not visit children of Muslim, Hindu, Jewish or Buddhist religions, this reduces the workload for Christmas night to 15% of the total, or 378 million (according to the Population Reference Bureau) At an average (census) rate of 3.5 children per house hold, that comes to 108 million homes, presuming that there is at least one good child in each.

II. Santa has about 31 hours of Christmas to work with, thanks to the different time zones and the rotation of the earth, assuming he travels east to west (which seems logical). This works out to 967.7 visits per second. This is to say that for each Christian household with a good child, Santa has around 1/1000th of a second to park the sleigh, hop out, jump down the chimney, fill the stockings, distribute the remaining presents under the tree, eat whatever snacks have been left for him, get back up the chimney, jump into the sleigh and get on to the next house.
Assuming that each of these 108 million stops is evenly distributed around the earth (which, of course, we know to be false, but will accept for the purposes of our calculations), we are now talking about 0.78 miles per household; a total trip of 75.5 million miles, not counting bathroom stops or breaks. This means Santa's sleigh is moving at 650 miles per second --- 3,000 times the speed of sound. For purposes of comparison, the fastest man-made vehicle, the Ulysses space probe, moves at a poky 27.4 miles per second, and a conventional reindeer can run (at best) 15 miles per hour.

III. The payload of the sleigh adds another interesting element. Assuming that each child gets nothing more than a medium sized Lego set (two pounds), the sleigh is carrying over 500 thousand tons, not counting Santa himself. On land, a conventional reindeer can pull no more than 300 pounds. Even granting that the "flying" reindeer could pull ten times the normal amount, the job can't be done with eight or even nine of them--- Santa would need 360,000 of them. This increases the payload, not counting the weight of the sleigh, another 54,000 tons, or roughly seven times the weight of the Queen Elizabeth (the ship, not the monarch).

IV. 600,000 tons traveling at 650 miles per second creates enormous air resistance --- this would heat up the reindeer in the same fashion as a spacecraft re-entering the earth's atmosphere. The lead pair of reindeer would absorb 14.3 quintillion joules of energy per second each. In short, they would burst into flames almost instantaneously, exposing the reindeer behind them and creating deafening sonic booms in their wake.

The entire reindeer team would be vaporized within 4.26 thousandths of a second, or right about the time Santa reached the fifth house on his trip.

Not that it matters, however, since Santa, as a result of accellerating from a dead stop to 650 m.p.s. in .001 seconds, would be subjected to centrifugal forces of 17,500 g's. A 250 pound Santa (which seems ludicrously slim) would be pinned to the back of the sleigh by 4,315,015 pounds of force, instantly crushing his bones and organs and reducing him to a quivering blob of pink goo.

Therefore, if Santa did exist, he's dead now. "

If you think the math behind Santa is funny, you might want to look at the math behind evolution. It is literally a million orders of magnitude worse...quit being a religous racist.

RE: more propaganda
By Mitch101 on 12/28/2012 3:12:26 PM , Rating: 2
Lets not forget Santa is FAT and fat people aren't exactly known for their athletic speed and agility.

RE: more propaganda
By Cheesew1z69 on 12/28/2012 4:19:27 PM , Rating: 2
quit being a religous racist
Quit being a close minded moron.

RE: more propaganda
By Piiman on 12/31/2012 4:44:57 PM , Rating: 2
Santa is no more real than God. At leat no one has started a War because Santa told them to kill everyone that didn't believe in him. Stop being a Santa racist!

"Death Is Very Likely The Single Best Invention Of Life" -- Steve Jobs

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