Chimp-human Common Ancestor Found in Balkans?

According to an international research team led by Professor Madelaine Böhme and Professor Nikolai Spassov, the common lineage of great apes and humans likely split several hundred thousand years earlier than we originally believed. After studying two fossils of Graecopithecus freybergi, the pair concluded that the split of the human lineage probably occurred in the Eastern Mediterranean, not in Africa.

It’s relatively common knowledge that present-day chimpanzees are our closest living relatives, but where the last chimp-human common ancestor lived is a topic of hot debate. Until now, researchers have widely believed that the lineages diverged five to seven million years ago as the first pre-humans developed in Africa.

The team analyzed a lower jaw from Greece and an upper premolar from Bulgaria from the fossil hominid Graecopithecus freybergi. Using computer tomography, the team visualized the internal structures of the fossils and revealed that the roots of the premolars are widely fused.

“While great apes typically have two or three separate and diverging roots, the roots of Graecopithecus converge and are partially fused – a feature that is characteristic of modern humans, early humans and several pre-humans including Ardipithecus and Australopithecus”, said Böhme.

The lower jaw, named ‘El Graeco,’ also has additional dental root features that suggest the species could be pre-human—surprising results as humans were previously known from sub-Saharan Africa. Adding to the puzzle, Graecopithecus is several hundred thousand years older than the oldest potential pre-human from Africa.

“This dating allows us to move the human-chimpanzee split into the Mediterranean area,” Professor David Begun of the University of Toronto added.

Scientists believe the evolution of pre-humans was likely driven by dramatic environmental changes. To support this point, the team demonstrated that the North African Sahara desert originated more than seven million years ago, using an analysis of sediments in which the two fossils were found. The dusty sediment had a high content of different salts, and modeling revealed that the amount of dust coming from the Sahara to the north coast was more than tenfold what we see today.

According to phys.org:

The researchers further showed that contemporary to the development of the Sahara in North Africa, a savannah biome formed in Europe. Using a combination of new methodologies, they studied microscopic fragments of charcoal and plant silicate particles, called phytoliths. Many of the phytoliths identified derive from grasses and particularly from those that use the metabolic pathway of C4-photosynthesis, which is common in today’s tropical grasslands and savannahs. The global spread of C4-grasses began eight million years ago on the Indian subcontinent – their presence in Europe was previously unknown.

“The phytolith record provides evidence of severe droughts, and the charcoal analysis indicates recurring vegetation fires,” said Böhme. “In summary, we reconstruct a savannah, which fits with the giraffes, gazelles, antelopes, and rhinoceroses that were found together with Graecopithecus,” Spassov added.

“The incipient formation of a desert in North Africa more than seven million years ago and the spread of savannahs in Southern Europe may have played a central role in the splitting of the human and chimpanzee lineages,” said Böhme.

Source: phys.org, evolutionnews.org

Do Humans Succeed Because Of Brains or Luck?

You’ve probably heard the saying “fortune favors the brave,” but does luck favor the brainy? When it comes to our world’s innovators, it’s hard to know what came first: the genius or the success. When it comes to our own accomplishments, many of us are inclined to resist explanations that involve luck. So why don’t we do the same for others?

“Luck is not something you can mention to in the presence of self-made men,” E.B. White once wrote. And there’s truth to that statement. In fact, seeing ourselves as self-made can actually make us less generous and public-spirited, the Atlantic notes. As it turns out, chance plays a far larger role in life outcomes than most people realize—or are willing to accept.

And the luckiest of all of us are the least likely to appreciate their good fortune.

According to Pew Research Center, people in higher income brackets are more likely than those with lower incomes to say that individuals get rich primarily because they work hard. Wealthy people overwhelmingly attribute their own success to hard work rather than luck or being in the right place at the right time. Interestingly, the answer changes slightly if you ask people to reflect on their good fortune.

Psychologists use the term hindsight bias to describe our tendency to think after the fact that an event was predictable when it wasn’t. The availability heuristic is an important clue as to why many of us see our success as inevitable: we tend to estimate the likelihood of an event based on how readily we can recall similar instances. As an example, when talented, hard working people in developed countries become rich, they ascribe their success to hard work because they are significantly aware of how hard they’ve worked. But their day-to-day experience does not allow them to credit the fact they were born in American, rather than a third world country, for their success.

Then there is the simple fact that events that work to our disadvantage are easier to recall than those that affect us positively.

“When you’re running or bicycling into the wind, you’re very aware of it,” Tom Gilovich wrote. “You just can’t wait till the course turns around and you’ve got the wind at your back. When that happens, you feel great. But then you forget about it very quickly—you’re just not aware of the wind at your back. And that’s just a fundamental feature of how our minds, and how the world works. We’re just going to be more aware of those barriers than of the things that boost us along.”

Of course, none of this suggests that we should undermine our own responsibility in our successes. But it is important to note that being prompted to recognize luck can help to encourage generosity.

Take this example from The Atlantic:

For example, Yuezhou Huo, a former research assistant of mine, designed an experiment in which she promised subjects a cash prize in exchange for completing a survey about a positive thing that had recently happened to them. She asked one group of participants to list factors beyond their control that contributed to the event, a second group to list personal qualities and actions that contributed to it, and a control group to simply explain why the good thing had happened. After completing the survey, subjects were given an opportunity to donate some or all of their reward to charity. Those who had been prompted to credit external causes—many mentioned luck, as well as factors such as supportive spouses, thoughtful teachers, and financial aid—donated 25 percent more than those who’d been asked to credit personal qualities or choices. Donations from the control group fell roughly midway between those from the other two groups.

To dive a little deeper, let’s take a look at the dictionary’s definition of skill as “the ability to use one’s knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance.” That definition implies a certain talent you were born with and can utilize—the type of skill-sets that ultimately differentiate the athletes from the mathletes.

Here’s how luck and skill play together, according to Michael Mauboussin, a Chief Investment Strategist at Legg Mason Capital Management:

I think this is a cool analysis. I learned from Tom Tango, a respected sabermetrician, and in statistics, it’s called “true score theory.” It can be expressed with a simple equation:

Observed outcome = skill + luck

Here’s the intuition behind it. Say you take a test in math. You’ll get a grade that reflects your true skill — how much of the material you actually know — plus some error that reflects the questions the teacher put on the test. Some days you do better than your skill because the teacher happens to test you only on the material you studied. And some days you do worse than your skill because the teacher happened to include problems you didn’t study. So you grade will reflect your true skill plus some luck.

Of course, we know one of the terms of our equation — the observed outcome — and we can estimate luck. Estimating luck for a sports team is pretty simple. You assume that each game the team plays is settled by a coin toss. The distribution of win-loss records of the teams in the league follows a binomial distribution. So with these two terms pinned down, we can estimate skill and the relative contribution of skill.

To be more technical, we look at the variance of these terms, but the intuition is that you subtract luck from what happened and are left with skill. This, in turn, lets you assess the relative contribution of the two.

Interestingly, Maubossin also attributes some of our cognitive dissonances when it comes to our own successes to the structure of our brain:

I’d like to add one more point that is not analytical but rather psychological. There is a part of the left hemisphere of your brain that is dedicated to sorting out causality. It takes in information and creates a cohesive narrative. It is so good at this function that neuroscientists call it the “interpreter.”

Now no one has a problem with the suggestion that future outcomes combine skill and luck. But once something has occurred, our minds quickly and naturally create a narrative to explain the outcome. Since the interpreter is about finding causality, it doesn’t do a good job of recognizing luck. Once something has occurred, our minds start to believe it was inevitable. This leads to what psychologists call “creeping determinism” – the sense that we knew all along what was going to happen. So while the single most important concept is knowing where you are on the luck-skill continuum, a related point is that your mind will not do a good job of recognizing luck for what it is.

Source: The Atlantic, Wired

Is a Third Grader “SMARTER” Than a Neanderthal?

Anthropologists are now proposing that complex interbreeding and assimilation is likely responsible for Neanderthal disappearance 40,000 years ago, not the “superiority of their human contemporaries.” Neanderthal brains simply had more capacity devoted to vision and body control, with less left over for social interactions and complex cognition.

Neanderthals lived in a large chunk of Europe and Asia between 350,000 and 40,000 years ago, but disappeared after modern humans crossed into the area. In that past, anthropologists have explained this mysterious demise by suggesting that they were less advanced than their modern human contemporaries.

In some ways, that’s true. Neanderthals never invented a written language, developed agriculture, or significantly progressed past the Stone Age. But at the same time, their brains were just as big in volume as ours are today. Now, scientists suspect a greater portion of their brain was devoted to physical achievements, leaving less ‘mental real estate’ for higher thinking.

In a study, the research team led by Eiluned Pearce reached the conclusion after comparing the skulls of 13 Neanderthals to 32 human skulls from the same area.

“The evidence for cognitive inferiority is simply not there. What we are saying is that the conventional view of Neanderthal is not true,” Dr. Poala Villa from the University of Colorado at Boulder notes.

Instead, one of the easiest differences to quantify in the brain was the size of the visual cortex, the part of the brain responsible for interpreting visual information. As it turns out, Neanderthals had much larger eyes than ancient humans. They also had significantly larger bodies, wider shoulders, and thicker bones. In primates, we know the amount of brain capacity devoted to body control is also proportionate to body size, so scientists were able to calculate how much of our ancestors’ brains were assigned to this task.

The research team ultimately found that the amount of brain volume left over for other tasks was significantly smaller for Neanderthals than H. sapiens. It’s this “divergence in mental capacity for higher cognition and social networking” that could have led to very different fates.

“Having less brain available to manage the social world has profound implications for the Neanderthals’ ability to maintain extended trading networks,” Robin Dunbar, one of the co-authors, said. They “are likely also to have resulted in less well-developed material culture—which, between them, may have left them more exposed than modern humans when facing the ecological challenges of the Ice Ages.”

Source: Smithsonian Magazine, sci-news.com

Will Social “Bots” Used For “Propaganda” Destroy Social Media?

It’s hardly surprising to learn that governments and other political groups have been using social network bots to control the way we see our information. What is shocking, however, is just how prevalent they truly are. In fact, depending on where you live, they could control the entire social media landscape.

Recently, Oxford University researchers published a study showing that “computational propaganda” is remarkably common. In Russia, for example, 45 percent of Twitter activity stems from “highly automated” accounts. Ukrainian nationalist and civil society groups are also using digital propaganda systems to sway public opinion.

China has also made headlines for using a mix of bots and human-guided social attacks on Taiwan’s president. In Brazil, bots have attacked political figures and even rallied protests—an effort that began after the 2014 presidential election. And in Poland, a handful of right-wing social accounts represent 20 percent of all political discussions throughout the country.

Researchers confirmed that 29 countries are using social networks to skew opinions both at home and internationally. And the United States made that list.

Twitter bots reportedly achieved “highly influential network positions” during the 2016 presidential election. And though these bots aren’t inherently bad, it is difficult to determine when digital propaganda has gone too far. Perhaps the most important thing is understanding their existence.

“Bots are algorithms acting in social media networks,” Forbes notes. “But to the outside world, they look like a real user. They can come in all shapes and sizes….Some of them are very simple. And there are loads of services that will offer you bots, ranging from bots who will like whatever you post and fake followers to much more.”

One study showed that 30% of users can be deceived by a bot, and well-constructed bots are even designed to gain your trust. That’s a problem when 1 in 5 of us accepts unknown friend requests.

Source: engadget.com, aimblog.uoregon.edu

What Exactly Make “Rageaholics” So Manic? The Inside “Dope!”

Samuel Jackson may be our favorite: RAGEAHOLIC On the surface it sounds kind of crazy — why would anyone enjoy getting angry? Even the Incredible Hulk feels guilty about his epic rages…but scientists have shown that people are capable of developing an anger addiction. And it could all come down to the wonder drug that we manufacture naturally: dopamine. In fact, this is where the term “dope” comes from.

A “rageaholic” is a person who gets excited by expressing rage, or a person prone to extreme anger with little or no provocation.[1] While “rageaholic” is not a formal medical diagnosis, it has been developed as a lay psychology term by counselors and anger-management groups seeking to help people who are chronically angry and who compulsively express fits of rage. There are also 12-step programs for dealing with rageaholics, such as Rageaholics Anonymous in Los Angeles, California, United States (US).[2]

Anger stems from impulsive thoughts and behaviors that result from the more slowly developing frontal lobe of the brain. Think of any kid having a temper tantrum—impulse control is hard, and takes a long time to develop. By the time our frontal lobe has matured, around our mid-20s, we’ve already developed some ingrained habits based on that immature lobe that can send us over the edge into a rage, even when we should know better.

According to Anger Mentor Am Tadas, “As with drugs, an angerholic will in turn crave a larger release of dopamine to feel the same ‘high’ and the only way to achieve this is to up the rage and act out more; either verbally or violently. This is how anger addiction is born.”

And just as with other addictions, angerholics may experience deep regret in the aftermath of a rage-out; but it’s that dopamine high that will cause them to experience it again and again.

Tadas lists 3 key ways that rage actually induces feelings of pleasure caused by the release of dopamine:

1. It is all about the “rush” – that surge of adrenaline in conjunction with increased heart rate and blood pressure can actually feel quite good, even euphoric. A physical manifestation of anger, like slamming your fist on the table or smashing a porcelain plate against the wall will cause your body to release dopamine, creating an even greater sense of excitement. The trap here is that using rage produced adrenaline to feel ‘high’ is like drinking tequila to have less inhibitions on the dance floor – its short lived and is followed by a nasty hangover.

2. Releasing stored up feelings can feel great. When addicts need their daily “fix” but can’t get it they become antsy and irritable. They feel mental tension and discomfort in various parts of their body. When they finally satisfy their craving they experience a wonderful feeling of relief. Anger addiction is no different. Pent up negative emotions manifest in a very uncomfortable way and their release by screaming or punching something brings about a feeling of relief and satisfaction. This latest study explains that a feeling of anger and revenge may activate neural reward centres, aka your pleasure centers in the brain.  The problem is that it’s a vicious cycle – the more the brain is wired to experience pleasure from disturbing emotions, the more the anger and addiction grow together as friends.

3. Being in control feels good. When something or someone robs you of control it feels bad. Somebody offends you, a driver cuts you off, you are denied access to your routine cigarette brake, you name it… You lose power, get angry and decide to use force to regain power so you do something to insult or hurt another being to “re-gain” power. This in turn gives one an illusory boost in power and status. Kicking someone’s ass (verbally or physically) in vengeance can feel awesome. Of course, this is exactly the type of behavior that sparks conflicts and pours more fuel into the fire as a result.  This is why the most famous sage – Gautama Buddha – skillfully describes anger’s attributes as a “honeyed tip with a poison root.”

If you or someone you love may be a rageaholic, the first step is recognizing the symptoms and admitting the problem. Then it may be a long slow road to recovery; but recognizing that the problem stems from a chemical addiction of sorts can help.

Source: Anger Mentor

Humans Have Become Allergic to Facts…And It Has Experts On Edge!

In the 1950s, Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger described a famous case study in psychology by commenting that “a man with a conviction is a hard man to change.” His comment was made after he, along with several of his colleagues, infiltrated the Seekers, a small Chicago-area cult whose members thought they were communicating with aliens.

Through the group’s leader, Dorothy Martin, the aliens have a date of an “Earth-rendering cataclysm”: December 21, 1954. Some of Martin’s followers quit their jobs, ready to be rescued by a flying saucer. When the prophecy failed, Festinger and his team were present. The psychologist was determined to see how people so emotionally invested in the belief system would react when the date came and went.

After a few moments of confusion, the team began rationalizing. A new message arrived that noted they had all been spared at the last minute.

“The little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction,” Festinger wrote.

And from that day forward, the Seekers started to proselytize—losing their jobs and credibility in the process.
While that seems like an extreme example, it does illustrate the idea, “that our preexisting beliefs, far more than any new facts, can skew our thoughts and even color what we consider our most dispassionate and logical conclusions.”

“This tendency toward so-called ‘motivated reasoning’ helps explain why we find groups so polarized over matters where the evidence is so unequivocal: climate change, vaccines, ‘death panels,’ the birthplace and religion of the president, and much else,” Mother Jones writes. “It would seem that expecting people to be convinced by the facts flies in the face of, you know, the facts.”

The idea stems from the idea that reasoning is actually suffused with emotion—they are inseparable. In fact, or positive or negative feelings about peoples or ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts. Essentially, we push threatening information away and hold close to ‘friendly’ information. Reasoning comes later, but our quick-fire emotions can quickly put us on a path that is highly biased—especially if it’s something they feel strongly about.

“They retrieve thoughts that are consistent with their previous beliefs, and that will lead them to build an argument and challenge what they’re hearing,” says political scientist Charles Taber of Stony Brook University. Essentially, when people are ‘reasoning’ they are actually collecting evidence that bolsters their own beliefs.

There are three most common cognitive biases among people:

Confirmation Bias
This is the “tendency to look for or interpret information that confirms your preconceptions.” Whether you do this by visiting political websites that hold the same opinions or surrounding yourself with friends who share your own beliefs, your brain is helping you confirm that you have made the ‘correct’ choice.

Priming
Priming is “an implicit memory effect in which exposure to one stimulus influences a response to another stimulus.” It is exposure to something that affects your behavior in some way, without you being aware of the earlier influence. An example would be craving Italian food after watching ‘The Godfather.’

Framing Effect
The Framing Effect is “reacting to a particular choice in different ways depending on whether it is presented as a loss or a gain.” This is when you come to different conclusions about the same problem, depending on how the information is presented. Language plays a crucial role in framing and can evoke completely different reactions.
Source: Mother Jones, Pick The Brain

“Altamura Man’s” Bad Luck Gave Scientists OLDEST Neanderthal DNA Ever Discovered

About 150,000 years ago, one of our ancestors fell deep into a well. Now, he’s making science history and breaking the record for the oldest Neanderthal to have his DNA extracted by researchers. Scientists in southern Italy have known about the Altamura Man since 1993 when a pair of unsuspecting spelunkers spotted his skull staring back at them in Lamalunga cave, but it took more than two decades to get around to analyzing his remains.

“The Altamura man represents the most complete skeleton of a single non-modern human ever found,” study co-author Fabio Di Vincenzo, a paleoanthropologist at Sapienza University of Rome, told reporters at Live Science. “Almost all the bony elements are preserved and undamaged.”

The Altamura Man’s intact skull and piles of ancient bones were wedged deep into stalactites and globules that had been deposited by water dripping for tens of thousands of years. Researchers were fearful they would shatter in the extraction process, so they left them deep in the cave. Analysis of calcite buried in the Neanderthal’s eye sockets, nose bone, and upper jaw have shown the bones to be between 128,000 and 187,000 years old.

Recently, researchers took a chip from the Altamura Man’s shoulder blade, confirming that he was a Homo neanderthalensis.

The rest of his body remains a forever caveman, “in the corner of a small cavity situated between the ground and the back wall.” But he will not be forgotten. Scientists hope they will be able to sequence his DNA and uncover more answers about the evolution of all hominids. The Altamura Man could yield the most complete picture yet of Neanderthal life to date.

“We have a nearly complete human fossil skeleton to describe and study in detail. It is a dream,” Di Vincenzo said. “His morphology offers a rare glimpse on the earliest phase of the evolutionary history of Neanderthals and on one of the most crucial events in human evolution. He can help us better understand when — and, in particular, how — Neanderthals evolved.”

Scientists have already started piecing together clues. Using photogrammetry and laser scanning of the encrusted skeleton, combined with data from the DNA analysis, researchers were able to create a hyper-realistic model of his face and body. The model offered new insights into the skeleton. It emerged that while the body has the typical Neanderthal features, the skull is more peculiar, showing a morphological bridge between the previous human species such as Homo hedelbergensis and the Neanderthals.

Sources: CNN, Live Science, Daily Mail UK, NewsYac

Is The World’s Largest Supervolcano Waking Up?

The world’s largest supervolcano erupted some time between 69,000 and 77,000 years ago, in one of the Earth’s largest eruptions ever. The eruption changed the weather dramatically, causing a 6 – 10 year winter, and possibly even leading to a 1000 year long cooling period. The shift in weather was enough to cause the human population of Earth to decline dramatically. danau_toba

The volcano is located at Lake Toba on the island of Sumatra, in Indonesia.  Its big blow was even bigger than the giant Yellowstone eruption 2.2 million years ago, and threw 2,800 cubic kilometres of volcanic ash and lava into the atmosphere. In today’s world, Indonesia is a very densely populated country, and 50 million people live in Toba’s shadow. These people would be immediately affected by another eruption, and in addition, Toba is located only 40 kilometers from the Indian Ocean, very close to where the catastrophic 2004 tsunami was generated to then spread across the world.

In recent months there have been reports in the Indonesian press of volcanic gases and heating of the ground surface, which has led to speculation that the Lake Toba super volcano might be getting ready to blow its top again. Stay tuned!

 

Via: Merdeka, IFLS, Wikipedia