(reading time: 2 mins)
No, don’t yawn. You’ll set me off…..
As infectious yawning is only found in apes and humans, the unanswered question of why we do it keeps drawing in the research dollars. Consensus seems to be settling on contagious yawning as a form of social bonding. But I wonder if our hunter-gatherer ancestry means there’s more to it than a symbol of simple social cohesion, unrelated to sleep?
(reading time: 9 mins)
What’s a long distance to run? 10,000 metres? A marathon? A 100 mile ultra-marathon in mountainous terrain, barely stopping through day and night for 20 hours?
There is a growing understanding that the human body evolved to run for several hours and cover tens of miles daily. Over long distances humans are the fastest animal on the planet because we lose heat efficiently, making us the supreme ‘persistence’ hunters, and our ancestors pursued our prey to collapse for an easy kill. Humans have only made tools for around 200,000 years, so for the first 1.8 million years of human evolution, the ability to run long distances was a probably a key factor preventing our extinction – before large brains and the ability to change our surroundings really gave us the evolutionary leg-up.
Long distances used to be shorter
In 1972 my father watched an athletics event in Edinburgh, where a mix of Olympic hopefuls and lower ranked amateurs were competing. In the 10k the slower runners came in long after the podium places had been decided, but everybody stayed and cheered the stragglers home, feeling that anyone finishing a 10,000m run was achieving something special.
At this time distance running was to the general population a bit eccentric and unnatural. It was the same for many scientists, Continue reading…
(reading time: 30 mins)
How real is your existence? Is your world constantly re-inventing itself around you? Or is human life no more mysterious than an actor playing a part on a lifeless stage set? Science is well equipped to account for all the matter and energy around us. Yet the most important tool in understanding our world, consciousness itself, is so subjective and potentially unscientific we struggle to account for it. As a consequence science lacks an account of how conscious beings, humans and other animals, can be composed of nothing more than the atoms that compose the unconscious inanimate world that surround us. A problem I am calling the “consciousness gap”.
In common with most scientists, I believe our consciousness is a direct product of matter and energy and cannot exist without them. As an atheist I agree our existence and behaviours can be largely explained by evolution, mathematical biology, chaos theory etc, all without reference to supernatural forces or an intelligent creator. Physicalism, materialism and naturalism give us the best explanation of our world to date and largely do so without mythologising human existence.
Yet science cannot bridge that consciousness gap in a way that is useful to our hunter-gatherer brains without some account of how living consciousness comes into being. Continue reading…
(reading time: 19 mins)
For the majority of western history the only mind considered worthy of examination was the human mind. This is in part because we lacked the tools to examine how other animals experienced the world. However western science also developed within a Judeo-Christian cultural heritage – religious traditions which taught that God has taken us, and only us, over that threshold of animal awareness into the realm of moral beings, because we were the only animals with souls.
Although science has largely overtaken religion as a way of explaining human existence, like religion it has historically emphasised differences between humans and other animals, rather than common ground. In recent years more detailed experiments into animal cognition show much of what has been regarded as solely human characteristics, such as the potential for language, ability for abstract thought, the capacity for emotions, jealousy and cruelty even, can be found in other species to some extent. Here I want to consider some of that evidence with some observations on how this might be interpreted.
Taking a philosophical approach to scientific research might be seen as anthropomorphizing other species. Continue reading…
(reading time: 8 mins)
I took up tennis last summer, taking lessons and joining a club, finally shifting from being an armchair expert during Wimbledon fortnight to becoming another learner mis-hitting balls at the local courts. Wimbledon on TV is one of the great markers of an English summer, and the televised sunshine on the courts of SW19 can be more inviting than actual sunshine on the garden outside. Television seems to access those day-dreamy brain waves just as fire did for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, as if our brains are preprogrammed to be hypnotised by a pool of flickering lights close by. Is TV the technological world’s camp fire, or was the Stone Age camp fire just television at the concept stage?
But as I struggled with my topspin forehand under unforgiving floodlights one blustery Winter evening, I wondered if my physiological response to the incoming ball wasn’t something else I had inherited from my hunter-gatherer ancestors? Continue reading…