Category Archives: Academia

Getting along: a survival strategy

Well here’s something interesting, and in Newsweek, no less. Getting along, social bonding and using their wits are what helped our ancient ancestors to survive:

The realization that early humans were the hunted and not hunters has upended traditional ideas about what it takes for a species to thrive. For decades the reigning view had been that hunting prowess and the ability to vanquish competitors was the key to our ancestors’ evolutionary success (an idea fostered, critics now say, by the male domination of anthropology during most of the 20th century). But prey species do not owe their survival to anything of the sort, argues Sussman. Instead, they rely on their wits and, especially, social skills to survive. Being hunted brought evolutionary pressure on our ancestors to cooperate and live in cohesive groups. That, more than aggression and warfare, is our evolutionary legacy.

Both genetics and paleoneurology back that up. A hormone called oxytocin, best-known for inducing labor and lactation in women, also operates in the brain (of both sexes). There, it promotes trust during interactions with other people, and thus the cooperative behavior that lets groups of people live together for the common good.

So it was not big sticks, aggression or killing large prey that created the evolutionary success of our ancestors (in fact, there is a lot of evidence, according to the article, that our ancestors were prey, not predators), but trusting people and working together for the “common good.” Well, how about that?

This quote comes from the current cover story of Newsweek, “The Evolution Revolution.” It’s actually a good read and worth a look — lots of interesting tidbits about our deepening understanding of human evolution — we’ve got lots of extinct cousins, folks. But remember, it’s still Newsweek: the article has an almost apologetic use of God and Bible references — as if we can’t talk about evolution without refering to religion. It’s annoying.

I’m going to MIT

…well, to their OpenCourseWare site, at least.† According to a recent article in Information World Review:

The entire catalogue of information from 1,800 courses at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) will be available free online by the end of the year. Once uploaded, it will represent one of the internetís most important resources.

Seriously, though, this is quite a boon.† The site contains syllabi, lecture notes, assignments, reading lists, and sometimes even videos of lectures.† It doesn’t mean that students in Kansas can get an MIT education from a computer, but it does mean that teachers in Kenya can teach using an MIT-level curriculum and materials.

MIT started the site in 2001 as a pilot program, but at the time all the talk was about how to charge students for distance learning and restrict materials to those who paid.† Now the materials are being licensed under Creative Commons, and MIT is presenting them as a gift to be shared instead of a revenue source.

Now to find a few month-long chunks of free time in which to actually use these gifts…

More on my dear Great-Grandfather

Ghent, Belgium, is apparently considering naming a street after one of the Filipino Igarot tribe members abandoned by my great-grandfather there, circa 1913. Here’s a recent news story from the Philippines about my mother’s father’s father, Richard Schneidewind, and Timicheg, one of the tribespeople he displayed. Oh, great-grandfather Richard. Sigh.