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Your Very Extended Family

6 Aug

So, this is likely to be a big, vague, ‘PROFOUND’ post but I will try to pepper it with pictures and stuff so it hopefully won’t be too dull.

So for those of you who don’t know I’m a bit of a science-buff, in particular I am an evo-nerd (Yes, that is now a word… its my blog so shut up!). I’ve always been fascinated by natural selection, genes, the way in which animals and man are connected yada yada. I studied evolutionary anthropology and whilst I was no prodigy it felt like a good fit: It’s just something that always seemed hugely important, something that on some level I wanted to devote my life to. And by devoting my life I don’t mean studying evolution, I just don’t have the patience, but promoting it, teaching it and making it something fun accessible and relatable.

BUT I’ve had to ask myself does the world really need people who think evolution is cool and want to shout about it? Is that really contributing, is it useful? There are so many worthy occupations, things that the world could do with; Things like doctors and nurses, (good) politicians, teachers and environmentalists, social workers, psychiatrists, international aid workers not to mention plumbers, electricians, engineers and farmers. I’m not saying that the human race has to function like a giant ant colony, but on a personal level I need to feel like I’m doing something good and useful, I’m a bit utilitarian like that.

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So the conclusion I have come to? YES I think evolution is important and YES I think it is relevant. Why? Well here goes: I think there is one massive point you can take from evolution as a concept, something that I feel could do the world of good (pun, lol!) and it is this: We are all so very closely connected, so much more closely connected than I think most people even realise. Genetics, evolution and anthropology really helps to give us some perspective on this. Let me elaborate.

In one of my first lectures on human genetics our class was asked how closely related everyone in the room was. We all looked around at each other, we were a class of roughly 10, all of us were caucasian that much was clear. Also as it turned out all of us were of European descent; largely British but we had a Dutch guy and an Italian girl. So clearly we must be reasonably closely related. With this in mind and the little we knew about human migration and origins, we went for what we though was a reasonably short time ago relatively speaking. I think we arrived at about 40,000 years ago. Our lecturer nodded, smiled to himself, and made a note. We were then asked to estimate when we though the ancestor for EVERY living person on the planet lived. This person would connect every single living person on the planet today…

Ok FREEZEFRAME first I want you to get an idea of the sheer enormity of this question. So let me put this in perspective. Take a look at the 11 people below.

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Firstly an introduction, these people are (in no particular order) The Queen of England, Yu Yang the disqualified Chinese olympic badminton player, Nicholas Biwott the Kenyan billionaire, Kajol Mohammed a 9 year old snake charmer from Uttar Pradesh in India, Bill Gates, Angelina Jolie, the woman who served you at Starbucks last month, Terri Munro the 2008 Australian Big Brother winner, Stanzin Namgyal a Ladakhi tour operator, Andry Nirina Rajoelina the president of the high traditional authority of Madagascar, and Zeinia Zaatari the Lebanese born, feminist activist. Phew… now to add one more person into the mix. YOU.

Right, so these 12 people (that’s including you) come from almost every continent on the planet. You are a mix of men and women and you represent a host of age groups, religious backgrounds, political persuasions, ethnic classifications. Some of you are hugely rich, some incredibly poor and as far as I know none of you have ever met and probably never will. (You don’t even have any mutual facebook friends) So, with this in mind, how long ago do you think the person lived who linked all of you 12 people? …..A long time ago, am I right?

Now expand that further, massively further, to every single living man woman and child on the face of the Earth. As a class we imagined that it must be a really loooooong while ago. We had a rough idea that the human species evolved around 3 million years ago. So we predicted that the last time all of the disparate peoples of the world would be able to trace a line back to a single ancestor would be back in Africa, back when the human species was located in one place and not scattered accross the globe. Therefore the very earliest would be 50,000 years ago, around the latest time in which humans began to leave Africa.

Our lecturer made another note, smiled again, and then told us what the current estimate was…

How wrong we were…

The most recent genetic and computer modelling evidence puts the most recent ancestor for ALL living humans at just 5,000 years ago. In fact this is really a conservative estimate, the ancestor could easily have lived as recently as 2000 years ago. This is not back in the mists of Palaeolithic time, this is well within recorded history. At the most we’re talking Ancient Greece, or pre-Christian Rome.

This blew my mind. Every single person on this planet could be traced back to one person just 5,000 years ago. Also, 5,000 years ago is actually the LONGEST time between any two living people. This would also mean that on average most people would in fact be far more closely related to each other. For example Europeans, yup that includes all Americans, South Africans and Australians of European descent, you all share a relative roughly 1,000-1,500 years ago. (arguably Charlemagne, the horny bugger!).

Now I don’t know about you but I think that is AMAZING!

Right, I’m sorry if this post has become woefully overblown, flabby and long-winded. Let me return to the point, why does evolution and genetics matter? Why should we all know where we came from and how closely we are related? I believe that the knowledge that every person we come across, no matter what culture or ethnic background, is actually our brother or sister of (at the very very most) 310 generations ago. That knowledge I think, if instilled at an early age, can help to bridge the gap between cultures. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that wars will end and the world will become one big happy John Lennon song BUT I think if you can start to think of every living person as a relative, as a member of our own vast extended family then maybe it can at least help.

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Maybe it will help inspire future leaders and activists to be humanists and to care a little bit more about each other. Also, going back even further, the fact that EVERY living thing shares a common ancestor means that every organism is also part of an even larger and even more extended family. So without going all ‘Ferngully’ I think teaching evolution and trying to make it something relevant and important is actually a worthwhile persuit.
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Addendum: WOW, you made it this far? That was a lot of preachy happyclappy babble! Forgive me if that came across as condescending self-justifying rubbish, but you know what… I stand by it! So now for one final cheesy statement: Hey bro, hey sis, whoever you are take care, let’s try and make our great (x 309) grandfather/grandmother proud!

Dinosaurs!!!

2 Apr

My theory for why so many kids love dinosaurs is that it’s the last time you’re allowed to believe that monsters are real. The idea that these strange and sometimes huge dragonlike creatures once owned this entire planet for around 165 million years is just fantastic no matter what your age.

The human race hasn’t a jot on them; Here’s a little example that I came up with (using a few/many sheets of paper and some rather dubious arithmetic) if the last 230 million years could be represented by the windows of the empire state building, the reign of the dinosaurs would light up 4,663 windows. So imagine the New York skyline at night with 72% of all of the windows of the empire state lit up. Now, if you try and picture the same image for the full time humankind has existed it’s really quite pathetic: Just 71 windows light up (and that’s being generous), that’s a mere 1% of the entire building. Phew, elaborate metaphors are hard work!

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So what brings me to the subject? Well it turns out Colorado is THE spot for dinosaurs! Fossil ones obviously; cloned mammoths and dinochickens are sadly still a good few decades away at least (see http://www.geekosystem.com/russian-south-korean-clone-woolly-mammoth/ and http://blog.ted.com/2011/06/07/building-a-dinosaur-from-a-chicken-jack-horner-on-ted/ ). Therefore, I have decided to use this as the perfect excuse to get nerdy and reawaken my 7-year old wannabe paleontologist. At the end of my first week I decided to go to Dinosaur Ridge, just 25 minutes drive west outside Denver with my Dinopedia in hand. Dinosaur Ridge is an area near the foothills of the Rockies where tonnes of fossils of dinosauria have been found, including the first ever Apatosaurus (formerly known as Brontosaurus) and Stegosaurus skeletons. I got such a kick out of the whole thing and couldn’t recommend it more highly; I got to touch an ornithomimus footprint and I saw the petriefied rippled shoreline of an ancient seaway that ran through prehistoric North America. It was very special and I can safely say Geology rocks! (Haha, I crack me up sometimes)

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This is of course the perfect excuse to run down my top 5 prehistoric creatures and with barely baited breath let us begin!

5. Crassigyrinus

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A Carboniferous predator, about 2 metres long and one of the stranger looking beasties with a long fishlike body and tiny little legs.

4.Cyamodus

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Like a reptilian ray, this aquatic Jurassic pseudo-turtle had a hinged shell and fed off shellfish in what is now mainland Europe.

3. Desmatosuchus

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A 5 metre long armorplated vegetarian crocodile, just awesome!

2. Liopleurodon

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One of the top predators of the Jurassic seas and at 25 metres long you can tell why. Here’s a cool video from the BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bpDqTdXfEcA&feature=relmfu

1. Deinonychus

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Having adored Jurassic park and been uniformly terrified and obsessed with raptors from the age of 7, it’s Deinonychus (not velociraptor as they are named in the film) that is number one for me. Unlike the film versions we now know that most raptors were actually feathered, having even found examples of actual dinosaur feathers in amber.

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Now on a related note here is one of my favourite scenes in cinema history: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dnRxQ3dcaQk