☛ Human evolution and the role of our grandmothers

From the archives, this article from NPR sheds fascinating light on the role of our grandmothers in human evolution. For example, Dr. Kristen Hawkes at the University of Utah follows modern hunter-gatherer tribes to understand how our ancestors might have lived.

Over many extended field visits, Hawkes and her colleagues kept track of how much food a wide sample of Hadza community members were bringing home. She says that when they tracked the success rates of individual men, “they almost always failed to get a big animal.” They found that the average hunter went out pretty much every day and was successful on exactly 3.4 percent of those excursions. That meant that, in this society at least, the hunting hypothesis seemed way off the mark. If people here were depending on wild meat to survive, they would starve.

So if dad wasn’t bringing home the bacon, who was? After spending a lot of time with the women on their daily foraging trips, the researchers were surprised to discover that the women, both young and old, were providing the majority of calories to their families and group-mates.

A Hazda woman digs for tubers with a digging stick.

A Hazda woman digs for tubers with a digging stick. (copyright NPR/Nigel Pavitt/Getty Images/AWL Images).

As we learn more, we are coming to realize that our strong relations with our grandparents is not just a weird (and lucky!) quirk of our evolution, but quite necessary to our anthropological journey to our present.

For starters, not all animals have ‘grandparents’, i.e. ‘elders’ living long past their reproductive age, in the first place. Humans (and other great apes), whales and elephants are a small minority of those with societal grandparents. Even among humans, having grandparents may be a more recent development than we think.

This NPR article provides a great perspective from several researchers. We were surely hunter gatherers in our evolutionary past, but it turns out that how our hunting and gathering occurred is way more complex than the men hunted and fed their families.

If you’re following Dr. Hawkes’ work, you might be interested in this podcast that she appeared on at The Insight.


☛ Pregnant elephant tortured to death in India: it was fed a pineapple stuffed with firecrackers.

I am appalled to admit that the creatures who did this are of my same species:

An elephant that was pregnant died in Kerala, standing in water, last Wednesday, after she faced one of the most brutal forms of animal abuse. She ate a pineapple filled with firecracker, offered to her allegedly by some locals. The fruit exploded in her mouth, leading to the inevitable tragedy.

[…]

So powerful was the cracker explosion in her mouth that her tongue and mouth were badly injured. The elephant walked around in the village, in searing pain and in hunger. She was unable to eat anything because of her injuries.

I am more disturbed by this incident than I can put into words. Poor, poor elephant, expecting a minimum — the very minimum — of cross-species friendliness, and receiving not just death, not just agony, but excruciating, hours-long torture. The creatures that did this don’t deserve to share the Earth with anyone.

The elephant stands in the Velliyar River.

The elephant stood in the Velliyar river for hours, refusing help and in ‘searing pain’, until it died standing in the water. (via NDTV).

The news report was based on accounts from a forest officer on social media who went to respond to the situation, and has no mention of whether anyone has been arrested for this. The creatures that did this should face consequences at the very least according to the laws of their own species, surely. (That would be inadequate and the bare minimum, but the rest of us are, after all, bound by such things as codes of conduct, and laws, and morals.)

Anyway, this here is the relevant Indian Penal Code section:

[Section] 429. Mischief by killing or maiming cattle, etc., of any value or any animal of the value of fifty rupees.—Whoever commits mis­chief by killing, poisoning, maiming or rendering useless, any elephant, camel, horse, mule, buffalo, bull, cow or ox, whatever may be the value thereof, or any other animal of the value of fifty rupees or upwards, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both.

Whoever did this needs to be behind bars. Anyone that could have spoken up and didn’t needs to be behind bars too. 5 years, the penal code says. I think that’s too few; there’s no mention of torture in the code, and ‘mischief’ is quite inadequate to capture the extent of this monstrosity. Put them all in jail, and slap fines large enough that they spend the rest of their lives just paying them off.

Poor, poor elephant.


☛ Wriddhiman Saha shines as India wicketkeeper

This makes me so happy. :-)

India wicketkeeper Wriddhiman Saha was at the very top of his game during India’s second Test cricket match against South Africa. Usually, wicket keepers are invisible when they do their job well—they’re just there to catch or stump the batsman out thanks to the bowlers’ efforts. This time, though, Saha’s brilliance was plainly evident even on the highlight reel.

Saha dives!

Saha’s keeping is a thing of beauty (via cricketaddictor.com).

Saha has been India’s best pure wicketkeeper for a while now. For the majority of his career he was in the shadow of the great MS Dhoni; more recently, Saha’s injury has allowed the precocious but evidently still raw Rishabh Pant a sniff at the top job. It’s good to finally see Saha back in action. Saha may not be as exuberant as Pant, but he can certainly bat. After this latest Test and in comparison with Pant’s work in the past year, there should be no debate at all regarding Saha’s place as India’s first choice keeper.

Welcome back, Wriddhiman! Having him behind the stumps adds beauty to the game.


☛ Celebrating babies’ first laugh

There are several references to this on the internet, but this is the reference that I first came across, so this is what I’m linking to. From Ingrid Fetell Lee:

Did you know that the Navajo (Diné) people have a specific tradition around celebrating a baby’s first laugh? Around three months, they watch the baby closely for that first real giggle. The person who has the good fortune of eliciting that first laugh is then responsible for throwing a party, with the baby technically playing the role of host. Of course, a baby can’t host a party, so the relative or friend who coaxed out that first laugh hands out rock salt, candy, and gifts on the baby’s behalf.

I love this tradition, if for nothing else then for the cuteness factor alone. There are more reasons to celebrate this event, though: laughter is a baby’s first form of communication with its surroundings and with other humans. From this great Ted.com article referencing psychology researcher Caspar Addyman:

The need to communicate with laughter may have deep roots in our development as a species, speculates Addyman. Evolutionary biology suggests it’s a way for humans to share with other humans — and thus, to belong. While he is still teasing out why children needed to signal their enjoyment of the cartoon to whoever was there, he thinks it has to do with the idea, raised by Oxford University anthropologist and primatologist Robin Dunbar, that laughter could be a replacement for the earlier primate behavior of grooming. “Grooming was a one-on-one, unfakeable investment of time in somebody else,” explains Addyman, and it created trust among group members as well as a sense of community.

We have several different baby-event celebrations; this should be one of them!


☛ The climate change that helped the dinosaurs

The Atlantic has an excellent piece on a drastic climate change event about 230 million years ago, when vast quantities of carbon dioxide gas erupted from undersea volcanoes. We’ve all heard the story of how the dinosaurs disappeared; well, this one is a different story.

But perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the Carnian Pluvial Episode was not the crisis itself, but the world that came after. Until then, dinosaurs had been a puny and obscure lineage confined to the furthest southern reaches of Pangaea. But by the time the crisis was over, they had spread all over the world—perhaps using the oddly humid pulse to hopscotch across the previously arid wastelands of Pangaea—and rapidly diversified, using the extinction of their competitors to experiment with new lifestyles. The planet would never be the same.

Speaking of climate change, living in the US makes it pretty clear that some of us haven’t yet gotten our head around the whys, the hows, and really, the necessity, of caring about climate change. This is the part that we must keep reminding ourselves: it’s not that climate change destroys the Earth; far from it. The Earth was, is and will be fine. It’s just that the species that inhabit the Earth has and will change with drastic climate change.

If we, humankind, as a species are destined to have the same fate as the dinosaurs, well, so be it. But hey, if there’s one thing us humans have done better than any other species, that’s to change our environment to suit ourselves. Let’s use that to keep Earth’s climate as we like it! A huge chunk of our civilization is based on proximity to water, including oceans; a huge chunk of us are used to certain weather patterns. We won’t like it if either of those factors change. We won’t; the Earth won’t care.

(Hopefully we won’t end up like the dinosaurs. Hopefully, we will (a) keep Earth’s climate under control, and (b) inhabit other planets, at least, by the time the Sun makes Earth uninhabitable.)

Anyway, go read this great article. This kind of story about the paths of life and evolution on Earth is always fascinating to read.