Urban Evolution and Big Brains

Life, and evolution, has been happening for quite a while. Cities are new, but the same processes happen there; with slightly different results. We’re learning how urban environments affect critters, and are piecing together more of humanity’s story.

  1. Evolution in Cities
  2. Big Brains and DNA

Reality and Faith

I occasionally run into someone who feels that religion is silly and science isn’t, or the other way around. I grew up in this country, so I recognize the ‘religion is against science’ attitude.

But I’m a Catholic; so rejecting reality, avoiding truth, isn’t part of my faith.

Faith, the Catholic version, is a willing and conscious “assent to the whole truth that God has revealed.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 142150)

Truth is important, and beautiful — whether it’s expressed in words, “the rational expression of the knowledge of created and uncreated reality;” or “the order and harmony of the cosmos;” or in other ways. (Catechism, Prologue, 27, 74, 2500, more under Truth in the index)

“Truth or truthfulness is the virtue which consists in showing oneself true in deeds and truthful in words, and guarding against duplicity, dissimulation, and hypocrisy.”
(Catechism, 2505)

We can learn a little about God by noticing God’s infinite beauty reflected in “the world’s order and beauty.” (Catechism, 3132, 341)

A thirst for truth and happiness is written into each of us. If we’re doing our job right, it’ll lead us to God. (Catechism, 27)

Using the brains God gave us is okay. Seeking the Almighty and studying this wonder-filled universe is what we’re supposed to do. (Catechism, 35, 50, 159, 22922296)

That’s one reason I like Thomas. He asked questions, and wanted evidence. That earned him the “doubting Thomas” nickname. He also knew when to accept reality.1

I enjoy understanding things, and learning how to understand more. But fully understanding God is beyond me. The Almighty is “…incomprehensible, almighty and ineffable … a mystery beyond words.” (Catechism, 202, 230)

This universe is another matter.

Secondary Causes

I see no problem with believing that God is creating a universe that’s following knowable physical laws. That’s just as well, since it’s what we’re told to believe. (Catechism, 268, 279, 299, 301, 302305)

We’ve been learning a bit about God, and this universe, over the millennia.

For starters, God really is “the Almighty.” But God’s power isn’t arbitrary in the sense of capricious. (Catechism, 270271)

Some facet of the Creator’s truth is in everything we observe. (Catechism, 300310)

Natural processes, like fire and gravity, involve secondary causes: creatures changing in knowable ways, following laws woven into this creation. (Catechism, 301308, 339)

Scientists are assuming that evolution is like fire and gravity: something that’s real, and follows knowable rules. I think they’re right.

A big difference between evolution and gravity is that we we weren’t sure that evolution was real until quite recently. And that brings me to Anaximander.

A Changing World: Not a New Idea

Folks like Anaximander and Empedocles speculated that today’s critters — humans included — had changed since the world’s beginning.

Fast-forwarding over the Roman Republic, Empire and upwards of a millennium of European history, Pierre Louis Maupertuis and Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon wrote about more-or-less-systematic change in the 1700s.

Comte de Buffon also used experimental data to estimate Earth’s age. He was wrong by several orders of magnitude: but in the 1700s it was a pretty good estimate, based on his data. (August 28, 2016)

Charles Darwin didn’t single-handedly start the idea that organisms change in a rational way: but his “On the Origin of Species” (1859) was an important contribution to evolutionary theory. It also dropped “evolution” into popular culture.

We’ve learned quite a bit since then, much of it in my lifetime: and there’s a great deal left to learn.

God, Neanderthals, and DNA

I could get upset that God didn’t take a 17th century Englishman’s beliefs into account when designing the universe, but that doesn’t make sense. Not to me.

“Our God is in heaven; whatever God wills is done.”
(Psalms 115:3)

I would much rather take reality ‘as is.’ (October 28, 2016; August 28, 2016)

Scientists still call Neanderthals, Denisovans, and Red Deer Cave people different “species” or “subspecies.”

We don’t have Red Deer Cave DNA yet, but most folks living today have some 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, 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.2

Ainu apparently aren’t genetically similar to Europeans, although I’m not clear on which Europeans Sforza, Menozzi, and Piazza, used for comparison.

The more we learn about life on Earth, the more scientists revise the old Linnaean taxonomy. And that’s another topic.

Large and In Charge

As I’ve said before, I figure God is large and in charge. Part of my job is noticing this astounding creation, and admiring the Creator’s work.

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the sky proclaims its builder’s craft.
“One day to the next conveys that message; one night to the next imparts that knowledge.”
(Psalms 19:23)

“Shout with joy to the LORD, all the earth; break into song; sing praise.”
(Psalms 98:4)

“Of old you laid the earth’s foundations; the heavens are the work of your hands.
“They perish, but you remain; they all wear out like a garment; Like clothing you change them and they are changed,
“but you are the same, your years have no end.”
(Psalms 102:2628)

4 Indeed, before you the whole universe is as a grain from a balance, or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.
“But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook the sins of men that they may repent.”
(Wisdom 11:2223)

1. Evolution in Cities

(From BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“For the first time, researchers say they have identified urbanisation’s signature in evolution”
(BBC News))

Urbanisation signal detected in evolution, study shows
Mark Kinver, BBC News (January 7, 2017)

A ‘clear signal’ of urbanisation has been identified in the evolution of organisms, which has implications for sustainability and human well-being.

“In analysis of more than 1,600 cases around the globe, researchers said the changes could affect ecosystem services important to humans.

“More than half of the world’s human populations now live in urban areas, and this proportion is set to grow….

“…’We found that there is a clear urban signal of phenotypic change, and also greater phenotypic change in urbanising systems compared to natural or non-urban anthropogenic systems,’ said co-author Marina Alberti from the University of Washington’s Department of Urban Design and Planning.

“‘So urbanisation, globally, is clearly affecting things.’

“Phenotypic change refers to change in an organism’s observable traits, such as it morphology, physiology, phenology, or behaviour….”

I’m a recovering English teacher, so here’s a vocabulary review. A phenotype is how a critter looks and acts. Genotype is the genetic code in its cells. Anthropogenic is what we’ve started calling stuff that happens or exists because we’re here and acting like humans.

The researchers looked at “habitat modification, biotic interaction, heterogeneity, novel disturbance, and social interaction.”

Taking that one at a time — Habitat modification is turning a forest into a mosaic of parks, buildings, and streets; a meadow into a parking ramp; or a swamp into a housing development. That sort of thing.

Biotic or biological interaction is the effect critters have on each other. Heterogeneity is the degree to which one spot differs from another.

Novel disturbance doesn’t have anything to do with book-length fictional narratives. I gather that it’s stuff that hasn’t happened before.

Social interaction is an interesting one. Cities can bring critters together that wouldn’t have met otherwise.


(Background from NASA, 2012; data points and legend by Marina Alberti et al; used w/o permission.)

Crepis sancta, hawksbeard, looks like dandelions; and spreads its seeds the same way, on the wind. Hawksbeard in urban areas have bigger, heavier, seeds.

That most likely increases the odds that a seed will land on soil near the parent plant, instead of landing on asphalt or concrete.

I’m not particularly surprised, or upset, that many humans live in cities; that cities are growing; and that cities aren’t like wilderness. I also think learning more about how cities affect critters is a good idea.

That’s partly because I live on Earth. What happens here affects how my family and I live.

“…Prof Alberti and colleagues suggested that these changes meant that the alteration in the functions performed by the species, such as food production or the prevention of the spread of infectious diseases, would also be modified.

“‘There have been a lot of studies on individual cities but there had been no studies that considered the global picture to identify a global urbanisation influence on evolution,’ she added.

“‘We live on an urban planet already. This is a change that has implications for where we are heading in the future.

“‘We are changing the evolution of Earth and urbanisation has a role, a significant role, in that.'”
(Mark Kinver, BBC News)

Doing Our Job

(The U.S. Bank Center in Milwaukee. Peregrine falcons use part of the 41st floor.)

I remember when we were learning that DDT isn’t particularly good for humans, and downright dangerous for some birds.

I think part of the reason we’ve been a bit slow on the uptake where environmental hazards are involved has to do with our biology.

We’re not as spectacularly hard to kill as cockroaches or scorpions, but the Black Death didn’t do more than slow us down, and that’s another yet another topic. (November 6, 2016; September 30, 2016)

As I’ve said before, part of our job is managing this world. (Catechism, 339, 952, 24022405, 2456)

A half-century later, we’re more careful about pesticides; and are developing reasonable alternatives. Somewhere along the line, we noticed that peregrine falcons will nest in the artificial cliffs we’ve been building in central North America.

Since we like the birds, and don’t mind their habit of hunting urban critters that bother us, some of us have set aside parts of our taller buildings for their use. I see it as win-win situation.3

Sometimes managing this world means not feeding deer.

CWD, chronic wasting disease, a particularly nasty affliction, showed up in two more deer recently. It gets passed from deer to deer when they touch noses. That happens more often when the critters gather at feeding stations, so the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources added more counties to a feeding ban.

2. Big Brains and DNA

(From Science Photo Library, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)

DNA clue to how humans evolved big brains
Helen Briggs, BBC News (December 7, 2016)

Humans may in part owe their big brains to a DNA ‘typo’ in their genetic code, research suggests.

“The mutation was also present in our evolutionary ‘cousins’ – the Neanderthals and Denisovans.

“However, it is not found in humans’ closest living relatives, the chimpanzees.

“As early humans evolved, they developed larger and more complex brains, which can process and store a lot of information.

“Last year, scientists pinpointed a human gene that they think was behind the expansion of a key brain region known as the neocortex.

“They believe the gene arose about five or six million years ago, after the human line had split off from chimpanzees….”

This gene’s name is ArhGAP11B, which I tend to ‘hear’ as “argap-eleven-b.” It’s a truncated version of ArhGAP11A, a gene that’s “found throughout the animal kingdom,” as Wikipedia put it.

ArhGAP11B is in every human living today, plus folks we call Neanderthals and Denisovans. Depending on who you read, those folks are two “extinct” species or subspecies of the genus Homo.

Interestingly, it’s found only in humans. A team headed by the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics’ Wieland Huttner identified it about two years back.

We’re not sure exactly how ArhGAP11B works, but it’s involved in making our neocortex fold and grow.4 I’ve talked about another human-specific ‘brain gene,’ SRGAP2, before. (September 23, 2016)

About Neanderthals and Denisovans being “extinct,” I think that’s about as accurate as saying that víkingr and the Na hÉireannaigh are “extinct.”

Guess Who Came to Dinner

We seem to be getting over the notion that Neanderthals are “cavemen,” brutish half-apes with no appreciation for afternoon tea.

I’m not surprised that we’re learning that Neanderthals “interbred” with folks who look more like me.

The term is accurate, but I don’t like it. I know too much about my more-recent ancestors. From some viewpoints, I’m the result of “miscegenation,” another word for “interracial marriage.”

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. I’ve talked about immigrants, nativism, and English Bulldogs, before. (November 29, 2016; August 5, 2016)

The respectable family coped, most Americans no longer see the Irish as a threat, miscegenation hasn’t been a felony here since 1967, and I am heartily glad that the ‘good old days’ aren’t coming back.

Being Human

(From Captain Blood at de.wikipedia, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Topographic map of Central Asia, including the Altai mountains.)

Denisovans lived in or near the Altai mountains about 41,000 years before we started playing baseball. We don’t know what they called themselves. Our name comes from where we found their remains: the Denisova Cave

We don’t know much about Denisovans yet, apart from a bit of finger bone, two teeth, and a toe bone. It’s not much to work with: but scientists found intact DNA — enough to trace Denisovan descendants among Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians.

Many or most folks in southern and southeast Asia probably have Denisovan ancestors.

I’ll grant that this might be a hoax, like Piltdown Man, the Cardiff giant, and Archaeoraptor: but I don’t think so. Too many scientists agree that Denisovan DNA is about 41,000 years old, is distinctly different, and shows up in folks living today.

Denisovans seem to have been as open-minded in one way as some of my ancestors were. About 17% the Denisovan DNA we found is from local Neanderthal populations: and some is from another variety of human we didn’t know about before.

Acting Like Humans

(From Rick Potts, Susan Antón and Leslie Aiello; via the Smithsonian, used w/o permission.)
(One of humanity’s many migrations.)

Denisovans not preserving ‘racial purity’ doesn’t surprise me. As I see it, they were people acting like humans.

We’ve moved around, a lot, over the last few million years. Each time we do, some of the newcomers’ younger generation generally takes a lively interest in local lads and lasses: to the occasional horror of ‘proper’ parents.

Given the attitude some of my ancestors had toward another set of my forebears, I’m not inclined to be upset at the thought of folks not emulating the Hapsburgs, and that’s yet again another topic. (August 5, 2016)

More, mostly about evolution using our brains:

1 After our Lord stopped being dead, Thomas wouldn’t believe what other disciples were telling him. (John 20:25)

I can’t say that I blame him.

“Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.’

17 Thomas answered and said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’

18 Jesus said to him, ‘Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.’ ”
(John 20:2729)

I didn’t demand that sort of proof. But nearly two millennia later, I had a whole lot more evidence than hearsay from a few badly-rattled folks to work with.

2 Part of my take on humanity, humility, and getting a grip:

3 Stewardship, practical and theoretical:

4 Two uniquely-human genes:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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