Friday, September 11, 2015

Big Eyes, Bonobo Squeaks

Neanderthals apparently had bigger eyes than folks living today. One scientist says that means they didn't play well with others.

Bonobos, chimps living south of the Congo River, squeak. The squeaks are the same, whether they're happy, sad, or angry — and may tell us something about how language developed.
  1. Neanderthals: Big Eyes, Big Brains, and Being Social
  2. Squeaking Bonobos
I think accepting God's universe 'as is' makes sense, so I'll ramble on about hubris, movies, and St. Thomas Aquinas, before discussing Neanderthals and squeaking bonobos.

Hubris and the Man With the X-Ray Eyes

Hubris, self-confidence above and beyond the call of reason, makes dialog like this possible:
"Dr. James Xavier: I'm blind to all but a tenth of the universe.

"Dr. Sam Brant: My dear friend, only the gods see everything.

"Dr. James Xavier: My dear doctor, I'm closing in on the gods."
("X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes" (1963), via
Maybe hubris contributed to hoaxes like Piltdown Man and archaeoraptor; and atrocities like the Auschwitz, Dachau, Tuskegee, and Willowbrook State School experiments. (March 27, 2015; August 8, 2014)

Cautionary tales like Marlowe's Faustus, the legend of Daedalus and Icarus, and 'mad scientist' movies, can teach useful ideas: like 'trying to do the impossible is a bad idea;' or 'drinking and driving don't mix.'

But I wonder if movies like "Island of Lost Souls," "The Fly," and "The Brain That Wouldn't Die," teach that curiosity is bad: particularly when it's scientific curiosity. (August 8, 2014)

Science and technology, studying this universe and developing new tech, is part of being human. Using the brains God gave us does not offend the Almighty. Ethics apply, as they do with everything we do. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159, 2292-2296)

This isn't a new idea. One of the Genesis creation stories has Adam, not God, naming critters:
"So the LORD God formed out of the ground various wild animals and various birds of the air, and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them; whatever the man called each of them would be its name."
(Genesis 2:19)
Putting anything — pleasure, family, power, science — anything, or anyone, above God on the priority list is a very bad idea. 'It's for science' is not an excuse for hurting folks. (Catechism, 2112-2114)

Truth and Secondary Causes

I could be a Christian and believe that we live on a plate, and that stars are on a dome between us and the cosmic ocean.

But my faith doesn't require ignorance of what we've learned in the last couple dozen centuries. (March 29, 2015)

We're told that truth is important: in relations with each other, and with God. (Psalms 15:2-3; Ephesians 4:15; Catechism, 144, 150, 153-160, 2464-2503)

We're also told that truth about creation and the universe is important. (Catechism, 287-305)

That does not mean that Catholics must believe that Earth is flat, and only a few thousand years old.

The universe is a place of order and beauty, and scientific discoveries are invitations " even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator...." (Catechism, 32, 283, 341)

I don't have to believe that physical realities exist or that God exists. Everything we observe reflects some facet of the Creator's truth, according to its nature. (Catechism, 301-308)

All natural processes involve secondary causes: creatures changing in knowable ways, following laws woven into this creation. (Catechism, 306-308)

Believing that God creates, and knowing that a fire's light and heat involve electron transitions, doesn't threaten an informed faith.
"...methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God...."
(Catechism, 159)

Humility, Science, and Being Reasonable

Humility, Catholic style, is accepting reality:
"HUMILITY: The virtue by which a Christian acknowledges that God is the author of all good. Humility avoids inordinate ambition or pride, and provides the foundation for turning to God in prayer (2559). Voluntary humility can be described as 'poverty of spirit' (2546)."
(Catechism, Glossary, H)
Pride, in the Catholic sense, is pretty close to hubris in ancient Greek tragedies: "excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods, leading to nemesis." (Oxford Dictionaries)

Sin is being unreasonable. Getting personal preferences and eternal principles mixed up is a bad idea, and I've been over this before. (April 26, 2015; September 7, 2014)
"PRIDE: One of the seven capital sins. Pride is undue self–esteem or self–love, which seeks attention and honor and sets oneself in competition with God (1866)."
(Catechism, Glossary, P)

"SIN: An offense against God as well as a fault against reason, truth, and right conscience. Sin is a deliberate thought, word, deed, or omission contrary to the eternal law of God. In judging the gravity of sin, it is customary to distinguish between mortal and venial sins (1849, 1853, 1854)."
(Catechism, Glossary, S)
St. Thomas Aquinas explained why boasting is a bad idea. Basically, it's an offense against reason and truth: and God. It's a really bad idea.
"...The sin of boasting may be considered in two ways. First, with regard to the species of the act, and thus it is opposed to truth; as stated (in the body of the article and Question [110], Article [2]). Secondly, with regard to its cause, from which more frequently though not always it arises: and thus it proceeds from pride as its inwardly moving and impelling cause...."
("The Summa Theologica," Question 112, St. Thomas Aquinas)

"...Humility restrains the appetite from aiming at great things against right reason: while magnanimity urges the mind to great things in accord with right reason. Hence it is clear that magnanimity is not opposed to humility: indeed they concur in this, that each is according to right reason...."
"The Summa Theologica," Question 161, St. Thomas Aquinas)

"...'A man is said to be proud, because he wishes to appear above (super) what he really is'; for he who wishes to overstep beyond what he is, is proud. Now right reason requires that every man's will should tend to that which is proportionate to him. Therefore it is evident that pride denotes something opposed to right reason...."
("The Summa Theologica," Question 162, St. Thomas Aquinas)
(translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province (Benziger Bros. edition, 1947))
We're called to holiness, not delusion, so I figure pretending I'm more or less than what I am is imprudent.

So, I think, is clinging to our notions of how the universe 'should' work: instead of learning more about the wonder-filled realities around us. (March 29, 2015; November 21, 2014)

(From Thomas Hawkins; via The Online Books Page, University of Pennsylvania; used w/o permission.)

- - - and that reminds me of H. P. Lovecraft, Yeats, and fashionable melancholia; which are different topics.

1. Neanderthals: Big Eyes, Big Brains, and Being Social

(From NHM/Alamy, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("Neanderthals (r) had bigger eyes"
(BBC News))
"The Mystery of Neanderthals' Massive Eyes"
Melissa Hogenboom, BBC News (August 6, 2015)

"Our extinct cousins had eyes much larger than ours. Were these giant peepers the reason for the Neanderthals' demise, or the secret of their success?

"We won't ever come face to face with a real-life Neanderthal. They went extinct thousands of years ago. All we can do is use their remains to reconstruct what they were like.

"In many ways they were a lot like us. In fact they were so similar, our species actually interbred with theirs.

"Nevertheless there were some differences. One stands out: they had weirdly large eyes...."
I know too much about my ancestors to let the second and third paragraphs go without comment. I'll try to keep my harangue about 'species,' 'interbreeding,' and people to a minimum this time.

From some viewpoints, I'm the result of "miscegenation," another word for "interracial marriage."

Not Missing the 'Good Old Days'

The daughter of a respectable family caught the eye of an Irishman a couple generations back — to the great dismay of her parents.

As one of my ancestors said, "he doesn't have family, he's Irish." The youngsters got married anyway, which made me possible. (October 31, 2014; July 6, 2014)

The respectable family coped, most Americans eventually accepted the Irish, miscegenation hasn't been a felony here since 1967, and I am heartily glad that the 'good old days' aren't coming back.

About Neanderthals, species, and all that — scientists still say that Neanderthals, Denisovans, and Red Deer Cave people are different "species."

We don't have Red Deer Cave DNA yet, but most folks living today have Neanderthal or Denisovan ancestors. I'm guessing that Red Deer Cave people are no less "human" than the rest of us.

I'll admit to a bias here, since my ancestors are from northwestern Europe, Neanderthal country. I don't think our profuse body hair and Neanderthal DNA make us less "human" than folks from other parts of the world. But I'm one of 'them,' so like I said: I'm biased.

Ainu apparently aren't genetically similar to Europeans, although I'm not clear on which Europeans Sforza, Menozzi, and Piazza, used for comparison — and that's almost another topic.

The more we learn about life on Earth, the more scientists revise the old Linnaean taxonomy. (May 29, 2015; November 21, 2014)

A century from now, maybe sooner, looking at Neanderthals, Denisovans, and the rest of us, as separate "species" may seem as quaint as seeing the Irish and English as separate "races" does today. (May 29, 2015; October 31, 2014; July 11, 2014)

Differences and DNA

(From Elisabeth Daynes/SPL, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("What a Neanderthal may have looked like"
(BBC News)
"...Neanderthals were around before we evolved. They first appeared around 250,000 years ago and spread throughout Europe and Asia.

"Our own species, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa about 200,000 years ago. They reached Europe around 45,000 years ago, and found it was inhabited by Neanderthals.

"We co-existed with them for 5,000 years, according to the latest estimate. But eventually they disappeared, perhaps as early as 40,000 years ago.

"In 2013, a team led by Eiluned Pearce of the University of Oxford in the UK proposed a radical explanation: their eyes were to blame...."
(Melissa Hogenboom, BBC News)
Summarizing the next 986 words in Melissa Hogenboom's article: Neanderthals almost certainly had bigger eyes than the average person living today, but that probably didn't kill them off.

Again, I don't think Homo sapiens and Neanderthals are "us" and "them."

We're learning that folks with Neanderthal traits started showing up in Eurasia some 350,000 to 600,000 years back. The anatomically modern human (AMH) model that showed up about 200,000 years ago in Africa.

Some time after that, folks whose descendants would be today's Europeans started heading into Eurasia, meeting Neanderthals and other pioneers.

I haven't had my DNA tested, but unless I'm really weird, I've got Neanderthal ancestors. As I've said before, humanity's story is complicated: and Neanderthals are arguably no more "extinct" that Gauts. (May 29, 2015; July 11, 2014)

Nifty Idea, Big Problems

We've come a long way since Marcelline Boule had an artist draw that picture of a 'primitive' Neanderthal, based on his study of an arthritic old Neanderthal's partial remains.

In fairness, your average Neanderthal would have trouble blending into most crowds today. Think someone like William "The Refrigerator" Perry on a high school's relay team.

Neanderthal adults had bigger brains than we do, on average, but they were — robust, so the brain/body ratio wasn't all that different.

The average Neanderthal brain wasn't shaped quite like the average AMH, which suggests that the wiring was a bit different.

Pearce's team says that their big eyes had to have bigger visual cortices to handle their bigger eyes: and that this meant the 'social' part of their brains was smaller.

If that was true, Folks today might mostly look like us because our ancestors were better at cooperating.

It's a nifty idea, with big problems.

For starters, as Hogenboom's article points out, the human brain is heavily interconnected. Visual processing also involves parts of the brain used for storing and processing memories and emotions.

Some of us recall and imagine images better than others, some don't, and that's yet another topic:

Eyes and Size of Social Groups

Folks at the University of Wisconsin-Madison compared 18 living primate species. They discovered that the size of their eye sockets and social groups were connected.

The big-eyed primates have larger social groups than their small-eyed counterparts — and, for the most part, bigger neocortices.

Maybe Neanderthals declined because they spent too much time playing the Pleistocene equivalent of Parcheesi. Then again, maybe not.

I'm not at all surprised that Neanderthals and folks who lived in other parts of the world didn't look exactly alike.

There isn't as much regional variation today, but folks whose ancestors have been living in Kenya, Japan, and Scandinavia don't look quite alike.

Interestingly, folks who live in upper latitudes may still have very slightly larger eyes, and marginally bigger brains, than folks who live near the equator. Since my ancestors are from the big-eyed folks, I'm not inclined to think that we're 'less evolved,' but again: I'll admit to a bias.


2. Squeaking Bonobos

(From Zanna Clay/Lui Kotale Bonobo Project, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
"Bonobo squeaks hint at earlier speech evolution"
Jonathan Webb, BBC News (August 4, 2015)

"Wild bonobos use a single high-pitched call in a variety of contexts, showing a flexibility in their communication that was thought to be uniquely human.

"That is the conclusion of a study by UK and Swiss psychologists.

"Bonobos are just as closely related to humans as chimpanzees, but their wild communication is much less studied.

"Researchers say the new findings push back the development of context-free vocal calls to our shared ancestor with bonobos, 6-10 million years ago...."
Non-human primates like chimps and bonobos, communicate with calls that indicate an emotional state. For that matter, so do we: just listen to crowd sounds during the Olympics.

This research apparently shows that functional flexibility — communicating with the same sound in different contexts — isn't uniquely human.

We start squealing and growling early, sometimes as early as three to four months after birth: leaving our parents guessing whether we're happy, sad, or just squealing and growling.

Turns out, bonobos do pretty much the same thing: except they squeak. Or maybe it's more like a peep.

The bonobo squeak or peep isn't tied to one activity or emotional state: so either the bonobos figure out what the others are saying from context — or maybe they just squeak a lot.

Analysis of recorded bonobo squeaks show that they're acoustically identical, regardless of what the bonobo is doing. The squeaks could be the start of language. I wouldn't be surprised if they're the bonobo equivalent of whistling why they work/play/whatever.

Either way: this is new information.

What it means is something I'm pretty sure we'll learn, if we keep studying bonobos. Since studying this world is part of being human,1 I think it's very likely indeed that we'll keep learning more about bonobos, how language emerged, and ourselves.

My take on newly-discovered pages from humanity's long story:
If you've been here before, you probably know why I don't fear knowledge.

1 Intense folks like the fictional Mr. Squibbs notwithstanding, science and technology aren't transgressions.

They're part of being human.

We're supposed to be curious, study this astounding universe, and develop new technology.

Ethics apply, but part of our job is taking care of this world: and that takes knowledge and tech. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2292-2296, 2402-2405, 2456)

I talk about that a lot:


Brigid said...

What? "The anatomically modern human (AMH) model that showed up about 200,000 years ago in Africa."

Extra word: "the how language emerged,"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian Gill said...

Found, fixed, and thanks, Brigid.

About the AMH model showing up in Africa, about 200,000 years back: that's the best information we have at the moment. Following the link will get you to a pretty good Wikipedia page on the topic.

My view is that the 200,000 year marker is probably accurate: that the features we call anatomically modern - like comparatively light bone structure, bulging forehead, smaller teeth - showed up then.

I remain unconvinced that there's a particularly great gap between folks living today, and our more remote ancestors.

The more we learn, the more (to me) it looks like the various "species" of us over the last few million years are more nearly like highly-distinct ethnic groups. The sort of isolation many of our groups lived in would, I think, encourage such distinctions.

But, like I keep saying, having so many ancestors 'of low type' probably biases my view. ;)

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I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.