Where did language come from?

There is research occurring right now on the cutting-edge intersection of evolutionary biology, experimental archaeology, neuroscience, and linguistics. And it all centers around a surprisingly simple question: where does language come from?

And the latest research argues that it revolves around our ancestors’ hard-earned ability to produce complex tools.

Want to know these two ideas are related? Read more here!

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Divided by DNA: The uneasy relationship between archaeology and ancient genomics

Genetics are having a disruptive influence on humans complex past. For example:

Thirty kilometres north of Stonehenge, stands a less-famous group of Neolithic stones. Established around 3600 BC by early farming communities, the West Kennet long barrow is an earthen mound with five chambers, adorned with giant stone slabs. At first, it served as a tomb for some three dozen men, women and children. But people continued to visit for more than 1,000 years, filling the chambers with relics such as pottery and beads that have been interpreted as tributes to ancestors or gods.

The artefacts offer a view of those visitors and their relationship with the wider world. Changes in pottery styles there sometimes echoed distant trends in continental Europe, such as the appearance of bell-shaped beakers — a connection that signals the arrival of new ideas and people in Britain. But many archaeologists think these material shifts meshed into a generally stable culture that continued to follow its traditions for centuries.

But last year, reports started circulating that seemed to challenge this picture of stability. A study1 analysing genome-wide data from 170 ancient Europeans, including 100 associated with Bell Beaker-style artefacts, suggested that the people who had built the barrow and buried their dead there had all but vanished by 2000 BC. The genetic ancestry of Neolithic Britons, according to the study, was almost entirely displaced. Yet somehow the new arrivals carried on with many of the Britons’ traditions. “That didn’t fit for me,” says Carlin, who has been struggling to reconcile his research with the DNA findings.

 

So can genetic studies overturn work done by dozens of researchers over decades? Is the promise of ancient DNA too good to be true, or a whole new window into our ancestors?

Read about the ongoing struggle here.

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The Best Way to Learn German

Two scientist in Germany are trying to determine the best way to teach German to nonnative speakers.

As a nonnative speaker currently living in and trying to learn German, this study is directly relevant to me. But more importantly, Germany has had a very open policy on immigration, resulting in millions of refugees from Syria admitted to Germany within the last two years.

Germany is committed to making these people productive members of society, it’s no surprise that they are funding research to find the best way  to integrate these new members into the German landscape.

Read about it over at NPR!

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Q: What do your friends and your fourth cousins have in common?

you smell

A: Their genetic relatedness to you.

A new study out in PNAS this week suggests that you may have even more in common with your friends than you think.  In particular, you are more likely to share your sense of smell.

“People often talk about how their friends feel like family. Well, there’s some new research out that suggests there’s more to that than just a feeling. People appear to be more like their friends genetically than they are to strangers, the research found.  Some of the genes that friends were most likely to have in common involve smell. “We tend to smell things the same way that our friends do,” Fowler says. The study involved nearly 2,000 adults.”

Read (or listen) to the story at NPR (or check out the original article here for more data and less speculation).

Learn the origins of fairytales with this 1 weird trick!

Figure 4 from Tehrani 2013. The result of a network analysis among fairy tales. The large number of well spaced network connections from the East Asian group is suggestive of blending between the other two major groups.

Figure 4 from Tehrani 2013. The result of a network analysis among fairy tales. The large number of well spaced network connections from the East Asian group is suggestive of blending between the other two major groups.

In a pretty interesting example of cross fertilization between scientific disciplines, a recently published paper by Jashmid Tehrani uses phylogenetic methods borrowed from evolutionary biology to construct an “evolutionary tree” of fables related to Little Red Riding Hood.

Tales typical of Riding Hood are found mostly in Europe, but a series of stories sharing some features are found in Africa (involving an Ogre) and East Asia (The Tiger Grandmother). These have sometimes been considered to be part of the Riding Hood group, but there has been debate over whether or not they actually belong to another, closely related group found in Europe and the Middle East known as The Wolf and the Kids.

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Does science promote morality?

Almost a year ago today, I wrote my first post here at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!.  The post, titled ‘The Data on Science and Religion‘, discussed a article in Science that investigated whether analytical thinking promoted religious disbelief.  I thought it fitting that my post today would tackle a new article, just published in PLoS One that asks whether analytical thinking also makes you more moral.

The authors of the article, Christine Ma-Kellams and Jim Blascovich, used a series of four experiments to ask whether there was a link between exposure to science and moral behavior.  In the first experiment, the authors examined how previous exposure to scientific thinking influenced perceptions of moral behavior.  Participants were asked to read a short story describing a date rape situation and rate how wrong the behavior was on a scale of 1-100, where 100 is considered completely wrong.  They were then asked, on a scale of 1-7, how much they ‘believe’ in science.

To avoid confounding past experiences, the following three experiments manipulated the participants recent exposure to scientific thinking by asking them to play a word game that either contained scientific vocabulary (i.e. hypothesis, scientists, etc.) or control vocabulary (i.e. shoes, paper, etc.) and then complete one of three alternative tasks aimed to measure morality.  The second study repeated the same moral judgement scenario as their first experiment.  The third study asked participants to report the likelihood that they would engage in certain activities in the following month.  Those activities fell into two categories: (1) prosocial behaviors that benefit others, such as giving blood and (2) control activities with no benefit to others, such as going to the movies.  Finally, the forth study measured actual moral behavior by giving the participants $5 and asking them to split it (in any manner they desired) between themselves and another anonymous participant.

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Carnival of Evolution, March 2013

Carnival of Venice 2010

Welcome, readers, to the 57th Carnival of Evolution. This past month, the 204th birthday of Charles Darwin just happened to fall on Mardi Gras, a celebration of life’s exuberant excesses. So put on your most dazzling mask, and join us for an exploration of the endless forms most beautiful to be found in the living, evolving world.

Evolutionary science

In addition to Darwin Day and Mardi Gras, February is the month of Valentine’s Day. So it’s maybe appropriate that evolutionary bloggers had sex on the brain. Joachim describes new research on the specific forms of natural selection that might have supported the evolution of sexual reproduction. Right here at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!, Amy Dapper writes about one consequence of sex, among grass gobies: “sneaker” males with specialized sperm. And Jeremy Yoder (yours truly) takes a look at daisies that attract pollinators by fooling them into mating with deceptive flower petals.

Meanwhile, Hannah Waters explains why sociable weaver birds nest together—because it pays to stay home and help their parents.

While most songbird species breed before they even turn a year old, sociable weavers rarely breed before the age of two. Instead, these younger birds help raise other nestlings–their siblings as well as unrelated chicks–by gathering food and maintaining the nest’s fluffy interior chambers and external sticks and grass.

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