Archive for the ‘Human evolution’ Category

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People have an irrational fear of snakes.

Fear of snakes is one of the most common phobias, and depending upon the poll, it is often the number one animal phobia.

Because of how common this fear of snakes is, it has been suggested that this fear has been the result of evolutionary selection pressures. Nonhuman primates have been found to have very adverse reactions to snakes.  When a real snake entered an enclosure for Rhesus macaques at the Davis Primate Center, all the macaques started mobbing it and producing alarm calls. Every one of these macaques had been born in captivity, and they would have no real world experience with snakes.

This finding led anthropologist Lynne Isbell to postulate that certain primates may have evolved their superior eyesight as a way of avoiding snakes.  Our human lineage derives from African primates, which spent millions of years suffering from snake predation. Isbell thinks that venomous snakes were a major worry for these primates. And they may have been. But it seems to me that the large constrictors would have been much more of a concern, especially as primates evolved into somewhat larger animals and began to regularly forage on the ground.

A study of the Agta Negritos of the Philippines found that pythons are an occupational hazard for these hunter-gatherers. Over a quarter of these hunter-gathers had suffered a severe python attack, and nearly all of them had scars resulting from python bites.  Python fatalities are not uncommon among these people.  It is estimated that there was a fatal python attack among the Agta every two or three years between 1934 and 1973.

Much of human evolution occurred in areas where large constrictors are relatively common.  It is very likely that our ancestors had to worry a lot about pythons, and if interactions between ancestral humans and pythons had been anything like what the Agta experience, there would definitely have been some selection pressure in favor of humans fearing snakes.

Humans have been playing golf since only the fifteenth century. It was a game that was originally confined to Scotland, and it didn’t become popular in the United Kingdom until everything Scottish became a national obsession in the mid-nineteenth century, thanks to Queen Victoria and Sir Walter Scott.  Americans imitated the British, and the British Empire spread the game throughout the world.

The amount of time that golf has been widespread is so short that there hasn’t been enough time for humans to evolve any kind of fear of golf balls.

The number of fatalities from golf balls is so infinitesimal that humans will never evolve a genetic tendency to fear golf balls.

However, because human evolved from ancestors that suffered quite a bit of snake predation, we still retain the genetic tendency to fear snakes– even if the fatalities that result from snakes are even smaller than those that result from golf balls.

Of course, I don’t know what it is to be that afraid of snakes.  I was catching small ring-necked snakes from the time I was a small child, and my grandpa once brought me some small garter snakes. He gave them to me when I was playing in the front yard. My mother came out on the front porch to see what I was playing with, and she got so freaked out that she accidentally shoved her knee into one of the slats on the guardrail. She became stuck, and it took some time– and the assistance of my dad and grandpa– to get her loose.

I didn’t see what all the fuss was about.

I used to have a bit of a fear of spiders, but this has waned over the years.

After walking through thousands of spider webs and not receiving a single bite, I don’t think there is a good reason to hate them.

But I’m still very much afraid of heights. I will not be getting on any ladders for any reason.

I’d much rather be around snakes than climbing anything!

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I have often wondered what it would be like to live in the same area as another species of the same genus as mine (Homo). It would be even more interesting if this other species were chemically interfetile with mine, but we rarely hybridize for various reasons (perhaps the women are too ugly.)

Most North America and virtually all Central American dogs know what this is like. Coyotes are generally chemically interfertile with dogs, but not all coydogs are able to reproduce. However, they are more likely to be fertile than other hybrids.  Hybridization is actually not that common between dogs and coyotes, but there is evidence of dog genes entering the wild coyote population. It is not enough to say that many coyotes are hybrids. It is more accurate to say that there are coyotes that have dog genes in the same way that many modern humans of non-African decent have some Neanderthal genes. That does not make these non-Africans modern human/Neanderthal hybrids.  It just means that there was a hybrid somewhere in the ancestry.

It is often said that coydogs are rare because of the breeding cycles of coyotes is very fixed, and dog and coyote hybrids tend to diverge from the normal coyote breeding season. That may have something to do with it, but I think there is a bigger reason:  Most dogs hate coyotes.

Even the friendliest and most social dogs– the ones that readily play with other dogs– often view coyotes are the lowest form of canine existence. Miley hates coyotes but loves other dogs. I was actually surprised at her reaction to coyotes as she matured. I have no idea what causes dogs to hate coyote so much. Miley has had no bad experiences with them, so it must be something intrinsic to coyotes that brings out her antipathy.

Coyotes do have a different odor than domestic dogs, but that alone wouldn’t account for the behavior. If you put lots of doggy cologne on a normal dog, most other dogs won’t respond aggressively toward him.

I think it may have something to do with the coyote body language, which is very different from dogs.  Coyotes regularly use a threat gape, which is very different from the dog’s snarl. It is likely that they have other body language differences that just set dogs off.

Perhaps this was the case with early modern humans and Neanderthals. The two species may have been able to interbreed, but they rarely did so.  Of course, no one would ever suggest that coyotes and dogs were the same species, but it is possible that humans and Neanderthals were the same species– just very different subspecies. If we recognize only one species of wolf that includes the dog and the dingo, then we can see how one could possibly see the Neanderthal as a specialized Pleistocene member of our same species. Such classification has been rejected in the scientific journals, but we clearly recognize species that have as much diversity in appearance and genetics as existed between early modern humans and Neanderthals.

I’m still going to call Neanderthals a separate species, but I still think these questions have not been answered. Humans and Neanderthals aren’t much different than dogs are from the specialized big game hunting wolves from northern Eurasia and North America.  Of course, there has been more of a gene flow between those wolves and dogs than there was between humans and Neanderthals– and because both wolves and dogs still exist, the gene flow continues today.

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Why does he walk upright?

So he can carry things.

Which is the same reason why many scientists think our ancestors evolved bipedalism.

Bipedalism frees up the ape’s hands and allow the ape the ability to craft tools.

Our ancestors would have had to have had a major selection pressure for tool use and for the ability to carry things long distance for this form of locomotion to have evolved in our species. It is a very inefficient way of moving. We can’t run all that fast, and as we age, we have joint and muscle issues. We are not a very “well-designed” animal at all.

But if we weren’t upright walkers, we couldn’t carry things very well.


By the way, Ambam is not the first captive ape to adopt bipedalism. A chimp named Oliver became famous for his upright walking, and it was claimed that he was a humanzee, a hybrid between a human and chimp. When his DNA results came back, he was found to be fully chimp.


Humans and chimps probably can produce hybrid offspring, but to create such an animal would have major ethical ramifications.

The Soviet Union under Stalin funded a program to produce human/ape hybrids. In the West, this often gets reported that Stalin wanted to create a force of super-human soldiers to unleash upon the world.  They could really “spread the revolution” with an army of genetically engineered soldiers– so the story goes.

In reality, Stalin didn’t much care for the experiments, which were actually designed to prove Darwin’s theory of evolution to the still quite religious peoples of the Soviet Union. Of course, Stalin eventually backed Lysenkoism, a type  of Lamarckian theory of inheritance, and without Mendelian genetics, Darwin was negated. Followers of Mendelian genetics lost their jobs, and some were imprisoned and even killed for refusing to accept Lysenkoism. (Among these Mendelians who lost their prominent positions was Dmitri Belyaev. You know, the fox farm guy.)

But that story isn’t nearly as cool as the legend that Stalin had plan to bring about the real planet of the apes.

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Human are apes. Apes are Old World Monkeys. That’s what cladistic classification says we are:


Yes. That’s controversial.

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Basically, the gorillas are descended from the ancient African apes that became cows, eating little else but vegetation and breeding in harems.

Humans are derived from that ancient African apes that became wolves, hunting large prey species with our refined tools (the result of our unusually large brains) and (usually) breeding in social units that were based upon a pair bond.

Both gorilla species (Eastern and Western) are quite threatened with extinction. The mountain gorilla subspecies of the Eastern gorilla is critically endangered.

Humans have taken over the world, and we like to think that our technology removes us from nature. And it does to certain extent. But we are still part of nature. It is a mere delusion of technological advancement that we have removed ourselves from it entirely.

As an aside: Isn’t it hard to deny evolution when you look at a gorilla’s eyes?

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My ancestry is non-African, so I got some New Man Valley People in me. “Thal” is valley in German. Neander, comes from the protestant theologian and hymn writer Joachim Neander, who was born Joachim Neumann (which is “New Man” in English). He changed it to the Greek “Neander” (which also meas “New Man”). It just so happens that the Neander Valley is where the first remains of these hominids were discovered, and they became known as Neanderthals.

Neanderthal is very near Westphalia, so if anyone has Neanderthal blood in them, it would have to be me.

But if you’re non-African in ancestry, in part or in whole, you have a bit of Neanderthal in you:


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This animal is a Serengeti golden jackal.

Yes. They do look like coyotes.

Not all golden jackals look like coyotes, but some really are hard to tell apart from their North American cousins.

Golden jackals are much more closely related to wolves and coyotes than to the other two species of jackal. The side-striped and black-backed jackals are very distantly related to the other members of the genus Canis.  They are found only in Africa, while the golden jackal is found in North and East Africa, a huge chunk of Asia, including the entire Middle East, and part of Europe.

During the Pleistocene, there are fossil records of what appear to be golden jackals (not coyotes) in North America, which would have been a weird situation. I’d hate to have to identify wild dogs in that particular environment!

I have never seen a verified record of a hybrid between a dog, wolf, dingo, or coyote and one of those two Africa-only jackals.

I have seen photos of dogs that supposedly are, but no one has ever performed any genetic tests of them. It’s just assumed that because certain pariah dogs in Africa have jackal features, then they must have jackal ancestors.

However, it is much more likely that the similarities are  the result of sub-Saharan African dogs evolving to live in the same environment as the black-backed and side-striped jackal.


Black-backed jackals are fierce little critters. They totally dominate the side-striped jackals. The two animals are almost never found in the same environments, because the because the black-backed bullies drive the side-striped jackals out.

However, it’s a different story where black-backed jackals and golden jackals share a range in East Africa. Black-backeds must share with the goldens.


Many years ago, I saw footage of both black-backs and goldens scavenging the same carcass.

It was really strange to watch.

Here we had the cosmopolitan golden jackal, a close relative of the wolf and coyote, eating with an animal that is the oldest extant member of its genus.

It is almost like humans sharing a meal with Lucy or maybe even Paranthropus.

The two jackals species were about the same size, but the goldens had larger heads.  The goldens also used the “threat gape” and the tucked tail and arched back posture that coyotes use as a dominance display.

The black-backeds were basically just rude guests.

They ran in and out and occasionally got into nasty fights with each other.

Because the golden jackals have bigger heads, I’m pretty sure they really damage a black-backed jackal. And I’m sure the the black-backeds knew this.

They didn’t mess with the goldens.

It was a very weird scene.

It was like watching two branches of an evolutionary family being reunited.

I wonder what these animals think of each other.

I’m sure they know they are not members of the same species, but I can conjecture that they somehow recognize some similarity.

I am reminded of the time when a three-month-old Miley came faced to face with a gray fox– an even more distant relation to her than black-backed jackals are to golden jackals.

The two animals just stared at each other for about 30 seconds. You could read both of their eyes. Both creatures were intrigued and frightened at the same time. This was the first gray fox she had encountered, and I’m sure that this was the first golden retriever puppy this gray fox had ever seen.

These animals have no knowledge of our sophisticated Darwinian theory.

But their noses, their eyes, and their ears surely spoke of some ancient commonality.

A sense that I cannot imagine, but can only catch glimpse of in my psyche.

My mind tells me that I am a primate, that I share a large percentage of my DNA with the chimpanzee and the bonobo, two species that could never safely live in my world. Yet I share my life with dogs, who fit so nicely into our culture constructs and various contrivances we call civilization.

I also am more closely related to that recently discovered titi monkey than I am to the domestic dog, a creature my species has known for tens of thousands of years.

Yet is the dog that feels like a family member.

I know more about those animals than I know about my own primate brethren.

And yet when I look at dog and I look at man, I am still confounded.

We know so much, yet know so little. We are so close, yet so far away.

We are closer than the black-backed and golden jackals feasting on carrion. We consider each other to be social partners, even family members, but the jackals have a common Canisness that I can never experience with another species.

I can’t imagine feeling as close to a chimpanzee as I do to my dog.

I am descended from the ape that became a wolf and then took over the world.

And that may be why I feel this greater commonality with the dog than I do any primate.

Maybe this is why man feels so alone among animate creation. We know no commonality with other species with which we share a close common ancestry, and the species with which we share the greatest commonality in terms of our behavior isn’t a close relative.

So we hold onto dogs to remind us of that one time when we part of something else, when we were not separate from the rest. The dog is our connection to the other creatures, not the chimpanzee.

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On my last evening at the beach last week, I went out to the pond to feed the turtles and a big Asian carp that essentially made a living out of begging food from people.

As I tossed out the first pieces of bread, I heard a quacking sound from the other side of the pond.

And then I saw six brownish forms motoring across the pond in my direction.

I recognized that I was about to enjoy the company of a few mallard ducks.

I have always been a bit of a duck lover. I had a pet Muscovy hen named Chester, who was so named under the assumption that she was a male. When she laid an egg, she remained Chester. I just couldn’t come up with something else.

I also have a soft place for wood ducks. Every spring, a pair of these ducks check out our pond. With all of those trees growing around it, the pond appears to be an ideal place for these tree nesting ducks. It’s only when they discover that there are no hollow trees in which to make a nest that they move on to more suitable lodgings.  I have often wonder what would happen if we put a nest box in one of the trees. Maybe they would stay. Maybe.

But my mind was not on those birds this evening. My mind had been on turtles, gulls, and scallop shells. It was only from that quacking that my mind began to consider ducks.

My mallard company continued to advance in my direction. I could tell that this was a mother mallard and her five nearly grown offspring. Her orangish bill announced her adult status, as did her quacking and her position in the rear of the swimming phalanx. Her five nearly grown ducklings still peeps as if they were still little down-covered things.

As I tossed the bread into the water for the ducks, it became clear that feeding in the water was not what they had in mind.  They ignored the pieces of bread in the water and kept advancing. As soon as they reached the bank where I was standing, they leaped out and surrounded me.

I dropped a few crumbs for them. Some of these fell at my feet. The ducks ran around at the edges of my toes and gobbled down the bread.

Then, for some inexplicable reason, I knelt down. Perhaps I was just moved at the boldness of these wild ducks. Perhaps I had some primal urge to want to commune with them. I don’t know.

But I got on the ducks’ level. I was looking into their soft brown eyes.

And they were looking into mind.

I made sure that I tossed a little bread to the hen, who stood a few feet behind her charges. She was covering their backs.

Two of the ducklings were quite bold, and it did not bother them in the least to take food from my hand. They seemed to enjoy this behavior.  It may have given them an advantage over their siblings, who were busy squabbling over tossed aside crumbs. From my hand, they were guaranteed a big piece and no competition. They just had to be bold enough to take the bread from my hand.

Twice the bold ducklings’ bills missed the bread and grazed my fingers. I could feel the serrated plates on the inside of their bills gently scrape my hand. I first felt this sensation when I was a young boy at West Virginia state park. I remember being so scared by it that I know that I cried when ” the duck bit me.”

Yet when I felt this sensation from these ducklings, I felt connected. The duckling and I were one for a brief second. I could feel its sensations. I could fully appreciate its essence.

It brought out something instinctive in me that I can’t quite comprehend or fully articulate. It is this deep desire to connect with other living things that suddenly was awakened.

I’m sure that this desire is deep within all of us. That is why we want to feed wild animals. Even if we know that feeding many wild animals makes them more dangerous than the would be otherwise, we still want to. We want to feed the raccoons, the opossums, the skunks, the bears, the deer, and the alligators.

Such a desire probably made us better hunters and trappers, so one can see that it has some evolutionary advantages. Being able to catch small, cute animals also probably helped men win favor with women. Later on, anyone would could domesticate animals would have certain advantages in maintaining as constant source of protein.

But beyond that, I think we just like to connect with non-human beings. We have to put on so many different shells when we deal with others of our species. With animals, we can allow ourselves to be more open.

That’s the main purpose of dogs and cats and other companion animals. They allow us to be ourselves with another being that has a pulse but no ability to make harsh judgments about who we are.

The cheeky ducklings took me back.  No, they didn’t necessarily take me back to my somewhat duck-crazed childhood. They took me into a deeper past.

A past we all share as Homo sapiens, whoever we are or where ever we live. It is the same past we share with domestic dogs. It is the past that existed when we lived as part of the ecosystem and not above it.

It is a past that we will never regain.

But for a few seconds, we can catch glimpses of it. The vestiges that come through when we walk in the woods with our dogs or when we feel the bill plates of a duck gently scraping our skin.

And the trick is learning how to appreciate the glimpses, however brief they may be.

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