MEanderthal: Fun With the Past–Ice Ages Past–From the Smithsonian

Homo Neanderthalensis, Reconstructed by John Gurche, Smithsonian, Hall of Human Origins

It Has Always Been About More Information: Survival vs Extinction.

A few months ago I got a smart phone.  The name I soon learned was very appropriate for at least two reasons.  First, it can do things that even ten years ago only the most expensive PDAs (personal digital assistants) could do, and second, it really is smarter than I am.  The learning curve is pretty steep on this device, and not being of the Digital Generation; actually that’s not quite true.  The first computer I remember being introduced to was in my senior year of high school, which used computer punch cards to run formulas.  It was about the size of a large suit case, had no monitor and had to be rolled around on a heavy cart.  It was like being given the chance to examine a treasure chest full of jewels, a coup that my math teacher had pulled off to get it on loan for a few days.  It looked something like this, except without the cassette disk drive:

Early WANG 600 Computer. Credit: Computer Museum, Grongingen, NL.

I remember clearly the assignment was to decide on a formula to punch into the cards and then feed them through the machine to get an answer.  The formula I chose was E=mc².  It’s a good thing the Homeland Security hadn’t been thought of yet, or I might have gotten a late night visit from a bunch of guys driving a big black Suburban with darkened windows.  However, once they got a look at my math grades (always my nemesis), they would have undoubtedly left laughing hysterically at the very idea of my being any threat to national security whatsoever, which remains true to this very day.

Back to the Smart Phone.  I spent several months deciding which phone I would purchase.  My daughter, the brilliant young up and coming media  guru has opted for the Apple/Mac world of computing and of course, loves everything about her iPhone.  I, however, have never been responsive to Steve Job’s siren call, because throughout my career, the organizations I worked for always used PCs.  But in a moment of uncharacteristic daring, I decided to take the leap on my phone and bought a Motorala Droid™.  All right, I like it.  A lot.  Even if it is smarter than I am.

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

Now, on to the fun stuff.  The question, “What does it mean to be human?” has been asked in every generation since humans reached the point of being self-reflective sentient beings.  The question is no less important today, as the digital revolution continues to transform our lives in ways unimagined even a decade ago.

One of the most important contributions to this search for meaning has been in the area of genomics.  Unlike the racist roots of the Eugenics Movement a century ago, the development of genomics has been been a set of initiatives based on several different areas of research.  One has been researching the molecular structure of the genes that populate virtually every living cell either as DNA or RNA.  Another has been medical research to discover the causes of certain diseases and conditions (everything from diabetes to cystic fibrosis to birth defects) and attempt to develop new treatments for these debilitating and often life-shortening diseases  (Eugenics is a concern in this area, of manipulating zygote fertilization to create “desired” human offspring, or artificially designing species, among others).  What I am most interested in in this post is how the mapping of  the genome of a single species gives us an enormous storehouse of information of what happened prior to the modern form in its evolutionary development.  That leads to the tantalizing question:  What were our distant ancestors like, which hominid (or hominin, if you prefer) line did we descend from, and how far back can we read those genetic sign posts to better understand who and what humans are now?

The Human Nucleotide Molecules. Image: Public Doman

I am aware that this is an unsettling question to many people who are conservative Christians (and other faith groups, too), but I have stated in numerous posts as well as my blog on science and faith, DÎSCÎ, the Disciples Institute of Scientific and Cosmological Inquiry, that I accept the scientific evidence for cosmic, geological and biological evolution.

The Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, under the leadershop of Dr. Francis Collins, MD, who is currently serving as the head of the National Institutes of Health.  Earlier, just this year, however, the long-awaited Neanderthal Genome Project was completed.  Here from Wikipedia:

At roughly 3.2 billion base pairs,[3] the Neanderthal genome is about the size of the modern human genome. According to preliminary sequences, 99.7% of the base pairs of the modern human and Neanderthal genomes are identical, compared to humans sharing around 98.8% of base pairs with the chimpanzee.[4] The researchers recovered ancient DNA of Neanderthals by extracting the DNA from the femur bone of a 38,000-year-old male Neanderthal specimen from Vindija Cave, Croatia, and also other bones found in Spain, Russia, and Germany.[5] Only about half a gram of the bone samples was required for the sequencing, but the project faced many difficulties, including the contamination of the samples by the bacteria that had colonized the Neanderthal’s body and humans who handled the bones at the excavation site and at the laboratory.[3]

Additionally, in 2010, the announcement of the discovery and analysis of Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) from the Denisova hominin in Siberia revealed that this specimen differs from that of modern humans by 385 bases (nucleotides) in the mtDNA strand out of approximately 16,500, whereas the difference between modern humans and Neanderthals is around 202 bases. In contrast, the difference between chimpanzees and modern humans is approximately 1,462 mtDNA base pairs. Analysis of the specimen’s nuclear DNA is under way and is expected to clarify whether the find is a distinct species.[6][7] Even though the Denisova hominin’s mtDNA lineage predates the divergence of modern humans and Neanderthals, coalescent theory does not preclude a more recent divergence date for her nuclear DNA.

Although more work will be done to clarify the findings, the implications of this research will only lead to a better understanding of the lineage of the human race.

Anatomical Comparison of Modern Human and Neanderthal Skulls. Credit: Creative Commons License

With the publication of the Neanderthal Genome Project results, the Smithsonian Institution opened a new exhibit called “The Hall of Human Origins.”

Hall of Human Origins. Image: Courtesy Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Reconstructions are: Homo habilis, Homo heidelbergensis, & Homo neanderthalensis.

An exhibit with such revolutionary displays of explaining the history of the human race had to be more than set pieces with little placards explaining what this bone or other is what.  And the Smithsonian came through!  They developed an application for both Android and iPhones that would allow you to take a picture and using digital morphing, transform any face into one of several of our extinct ancestors.  Fun?  You bet!

Before you click on the links below to see me, enjoy this short YouTube video on how the app works:

Now, on with the show: David Devolving!

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