Study Claims No Single Birthplace for Humanity

As reported by The Guardian, an international multidisciplinary team led by Oxford archaeologist Dr. Eleanor Scerri has claimed that a comprehensive survey of fossil, archaeological and genetic evidence shows humans “mosaic-like across different populations spanning the entire African continent”. Thus, modern humans did not come from a specific area — namely East Africa, where the oldest confirmed Homo Sapiens fossils have been found — but are the end result of millennia of interbreeding and cultural exchange between semi-isolated groups.

The telltale characteristics of a modern human – globular brain case, a chin, a more delicate brow and a small face – seem to first appear in different places at different times. Previously, this has either been explained as evidence of a single, large population trekking around the continent en masse or by dismissing certain fossils as side-branches of the modern human lineage that just happened to have developed certain anatomical similarities.

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The latest analysis suggests that this patchwork emergence of human traits can be explained by the existence of multiple populations that were periodically separated for millennia by rivers, deserts, forests and mountains before coming into contact again due to shifts in the climate. “These barriers created migration and contact opportunities for groups that may previously have been separated, and later fluctuation might have meant populations that mixed for a short while became isolated again,” said Scerri.

The trend towards more sophisticated stone tools, jewellery and cooking implements also supports the theory, according to the paper in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution.

Scerri assembled a multidisciplinary group to examine the archaeological, fossil, genetic and climate data together, with the aim of eliminating biases and assumptions. Previously, she said, scientific objectivity had been clouded by fierce competition between research groups each wanting their own discoveries to be given a prominent place on a linear evolutionary ladder leading to the present day. Disputes between rival teams working in South Africa and east Africa had become entrenched, she said.

“Someone finds a skull somewhere and that’s the source of humanity. Someone finds some tools somewhere, that’s the source of humanity,” she said, describing the latest approach as: “‘Let’s be inclusive and construct a model based on all the data we have available.”

Like any study, the claims will need to be confirmed, but from my layman’s perspective, it makes sense. What are your thoughts? (Especially if you have a background in this area.)

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The World Cup’s Classiest Countries

Senegal and Japan would seem as far apart culturally as they are geographically: the West African nation of 15 million is poor, highly diverse ethnically and linguistically, and predominately Muslim; the East Asian island nation of 125 million is among the wealthiest and most homogeneous societies in the world, and is heavily influenced by Buddhist and Confucian thought.

Yet this year’s World Cup brought to light one unlikely but endearing similarity: both cultures share an appreciation for cleanliness and etiquette, even amid the highly competitive (and often very messy) environment of federation football.  Continue reading

The Bloodland of Belarus

Belarus, a former Soviet republic of about 10 million, is said to have the highest per capita number of World War II films in the world. Many of them are considered to be some of the finest war movies in history, most notably the 1985 film Come and See, which tells the story of a young teenager who joins the Belarusian resistance and witnesses horrific atrocities.

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The Soviet theatrical poster for Come and See.

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Louis Brandeis

On this day in 1916, Louis Brandeis became the first Jewish person to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he would serve until 1939.

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Born to immigrants fleeing antisemitism from what was then the Austrian Empire, he graduated Harvard Law at only 20 years old, with what is rumored to be the highest GPA in the school’s history.

As early as 1890, he helped develop the concept of a “right to privacy” and rallied against big banks, powerful corporations, monopolies, political corruption, and mass consumerism, all of which he felt were anathema to American values. As an attorney, he devoted most of his time to public causes, earning the moniker of the “People’s Lawyer” for his insistence on working pro bono in order to take on the most important issues of the day. He was also dubbed the “Robin Hood of the law” for his fight against railroad monopolies, defense of workers’ rights, and the conceptualization of the newly created Federal Trade Commission, which protected consumers from unfair business practices. He was also recognized for developing the “Brandeis Brief,” which relied on expert testimony from people in other professions to support his case, setting a new precedent in evidence presentation.

Brandeis’ nomination to the Court was so fraught that, for the first time in its history, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on it. According to fellow Justice William O. Douglas, it was controversial because Brandeis was a “militant crusader for social justice whoever his opponent might be. He was dangerous not only because of his brilliance, his arithmetic, his courage. He was dangerous because he was incorruptible… [and] the fears of the Establishment were greater because Brandeis was the first Jew to be named to the Court.” Indeed, opponents regarded him as an anti business “radical” and “agitator” who lacked the “dispassionate temperament” needed to be a judge. Blatant anti semitism was, of course, also a factor. But enough people came to his defense that he won the nomination 47 to 22.

Ultimately, Brandeis became one of the most influential figures ever to serve on the Court, his opinions recognized by legal scholars as some of the “greatest defenses” of freedom of speech and the right to privacy ever written by a Justice. Throughout my first year of law school, I came across many of his brilliant opinions, many of them lonely dissents in the face of familiar uphill battles against privacy violations — see his prescient dissenting opinion in Olmstead v. United States (1928):

The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man’s spiritual nature, of his feelings and of his intellect. They knew that only part of the pain, pleasure and satisfactions of life are to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred against the government, the right to be let alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.

Scandinavians Are the World’s Happiest People

When I visited Scandinavia via a cruise with my fiance last summer, we were both struck by the pleasantness of the Nordic people and how beautiful and well organized the country seemed to be. While we only spent a day or so in each country, it corresponded with everything I had read about their high rankings in all sorts of international metrics, from quality of life to good governance.

Thus, I wasn’t too surprised when the New York Times reported that Norway was recently found to be the world’s happiest country last year, followed closely by its Nordic neighbors. Continue reading

The Hungarian Doctor Who Pioneered Handwashing

Handwashing is easy to take for granted. It is one of the earliest and most basic forms of etiquette and hygiene we that we learn, not to mention a major pillar of our individual and collective health.

But like so many other “givens” in modern medicine and public health, hand washing was not always so accepted, even among health professionals. In fact, it practically came down to one person to discover and advocate the importance of washing one’s hands: NPR tells the story of Hungarian medical underdog Ignaz Semmelweis and his semi-successful attempts to improve the lives of millions through this deceptively simple practice.

Semmelweis was a man of his time, according to Justin Lessler, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

It was a time Lessler describes as “the start of the golden age of the physician scientist,” when physicians were expected to have scientific training.

So doctors like Semmelweis were no longer thinking of illness as an imbalance caused by bad air or evil spirits. They looked instead to anatomy. Autopsies became more common, and doctors got interested in numbers and collecting data.

The young Dr. Semmelweis was no exception. When he showed up for his new job in the maternity clinic at the General Hospital in Vienna, he started collecting some data of his own. Semmelweis wanted to figure out why so many women in maternity wards were dying frompuerperal fever — commonly known as childbed fever.

He studied two maternity wards in the hospital. One was staffed by all male doctors and medical students, and the other was staffed by female midwives. And he counted the number of deaths on each ward.

When Semmelweis crunched the numbers, he discovered that women in the clinic staffed by doctors and medical students died at a rate nearly five times higher than women in the midwives’ clinic.

But why?

Like any rational, scientifically-minded individual, Semmelweis carefully assessed the data and sought out some empirical basis for this pattern.

“What Semmelweis had discovered is something that still holds true today: Hand-washing is one of the most important tools in public health. It can keep kids from getting the flu, prevent the spread of disease and keep infections at bay.

Semmelweis kept trying to convince doctors in other parts of Europe to wash with chlorine, but no one would listen to him.

Even today, convincing health care providers to take hand-washing seriously is a challenge. Hundreds of thousands of hospital patients get infections each year, infections that can be deadly and hard to treat. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says hand hygiene is one of the most important ways to prevent these infections.

Over the years, Semmelweis got angrier and eventually even strange. There’s been speculation he developed a mental condition brought on by possibly syphilis or even Alzheimer’s. And in 1865, when he was only 47 years old, Ignaz Semmelweis was committed to a mental asylum.

The sad end to the story is that Semmelweis was probably beaten in the asylum and eventually died of sepsis, a potentially fatal complication of an infection in the bloodstream — basically, it’s the same disease Semmelweis fought so hard to prevent in those women who died from childbed fever.”

An ignoble and cruelly ironic end to a man whose findings are now the bedrock of public health and sanitation worldwide. Semmelweis was ridiculed, marginalized, and ultimately forgotten because his observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time; indeed, many doctors took offense at the idea that they should wash their hands — at the cost of their patients’ lives.

It was only two decades after his sad death that Semmelweis’s recommendations gained widespread acceptance: Louis Pasteur’s confirmation of the germ theory of disease, followed by Joseph Lister’s use of hygienic methods during surgery both validated the Hungarian doctor, who lacked the scientific means to explain his findings.

But given his dedication to the well being of patients, I would like to imagine Semmelweis would be pleased to see his ideas become conventional wisdom. He might also be amused that his name is used for the eponymous “Semmelweis reflex” or “Semmelweis effect”, which describes a tendency for new evidence or knowledge to be viscerally rejected because it contradicts established norms, beliefs, or paradigms.

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Torture Doesn’t Work

As recounted in Scientific Americanas early as 1631, with the publication of Cautio Criminalis by Jesuit scholar Friedrich Spee, it was discovered that torturing criminal suspects did not work. Spee came to this conclusion in the most salient way possible:

The Duke of Brunswick in Germany invited two Jesuit scholars to oversee the Inquisition’s use of torture to extract information from accused witches. “The Inquisitors are doing their duty. They are arresting only people who have been implicated by the confession of other witches,” the Jesuits reported. The duke was skeptical. Suspecting that people will say anything to stop the pain, he invited the Jesuits to join him at the local dungeon to witness a woman being stretched on a rack. “Now, woman, you are a confessed witch,” he began. “I suspect these two men of being warlocks. What do you say? Another turn of the rack, executioners.” The Jesuits couldn’t believe what they heard next. “No, no!” the woman groaned. “You are quite right. I have often seen them at the Sabbat. They can turn themselves into goats, wolves and other animals…. Several witches have had children by them. One woman even had eight children whom these men fathered. The children had heads like toads and legs like spiders.” Turning to the flabbergasted Jesuits, the duke inquired, “Shall I put you to the torture until you confess?”

Having been put in the shoes of the many innocent people maimed and executed solely on the desperate “confessions” of the tortured, Spee was roused into writing the book that helped put an end to centuries of torture as standard law enforcement practice. Hence why all Western countries — including the U.S. via its Eighth Amendment against “cruel and unusual punishment” — recognizing torture as having neither a moral nor practical place in their society. Continue reading

Khassan Baiev

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Khassan Baiev is a Russian-born doctor, now living in the U.S., who risked his life to indiscriminately help those in need in the midst of a bloody warzone. As a sickly and frail Chechen youth growing up in the Soviet Union, he spent years building up his mind and body, eventually becoming both a pro athlete and a surgeon (at around fifty years old, I recall him looking more fit than some people my age). He held strongly to the ideals of humanism, altruism, and the Hippocratic oath. As a Muslim and non-Russian, he faced discrimination along the way, but ultimately made a promising career in Moscow.

In 1994, when Chechnya attempted to break from the Russian Federation, the response was horrific. The Russian Army leveled almost every building in the capital, Grozny, and was virtually indiscriminate about the places it bombed and shelled. Perhaps 200,000 were killed in the course of the conflict, and many more psychologically and physically disabled. Dr. Baiev left the safety of distant Russian capital and went where he was needed; he was perhaps the only surgeon in the entire region. At great risk to his life, he adhered to his duty as a doctor and treated everyone and anyone he could, including Chechen militants and Russian soldiers. He explained how his Hippocratic oath, as a doctor, adhered him to helping whoever needed it, regardless of their allegiances.

It was enough dealing with hundreds of patients in the middle of a war zone, but given the circumstances, Dr. Baiev was soon forced to make due with few resources. When his hospital in Grozny was destroyed by Russian shelling, he moved his operations to an abandoned clinic in his hometown of Alkan Kala, restoring it with the help of locals and his own funds. Anesthesia was handmade; running water, electricity, and gas were typically unavailable. Wounds had to be dressed with sour cream or egg yolks. Baiev relied on household tools for his procedures, including a power drill for brain surgery and a hacksaw for amputations; he did 67 amputations and eight brain procedures in the span of just three days. He and his nurses, some of whom were killed, even donated their own blood for patients. This went on for six years of almost constant warfare.

Given the overwhelming demand for his services, Baiev would go days without sleeping, taking in an average of 40 to 50 patients. He never asked questions of those in need — he simply did his job and moved on to the next patient. He and the village elders kept the peace between the soldiers on both sides, who were sometimes in the same hospital, giving them equal medical treatment. But his willingness to help anyone put him on bad terms with both sides of the war, each of whom regarded him as a traitor. Bounties and arrests were put on his head. He was kidnapped several times and almost killed several more. He remained to do his job anyway, and only after an official warrant for his arrest did he reluctantly leave to America for the sake of his family.

He has returned to Chechnya several times since the war, even organizing a group dedicated to providing affordable medical care and to raising awareness of the brutality of the conflict. He had all his procedures recorded as evidence of Russian atrocities, which the Russian government denied (allegedly going so far as to kill some of his patients as a cover up). I saw some of the horrific footage myself; I still can’t imagine how someone could take all that trauma daily for several years.

Unfortunately, there is still much for him to do, as rates of birth defects, psychological trauma, and cancer remain high from the effects of the war. As I speak he still goes to his native republic to help despite occasional threats on his life.

I subsequently purchased his book, The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire, and had the honor of having him autograph it. When I saw him up close, I was struck by how large and strong he looked; the man was in damn good shape. Yet he had a really somber and weathered look to him, and I could feel that presence as well. He had a firm handshake and a force of personality, but at the same time maintained a quiet and humble demeanor, fitting for a man who risked certain death for simply doing his job without any want of attention or money. He is exactly the kind of man I hope to be, and exactly the sort of person who stays with you years later, inspiring you to be the best damn person you can be.

Americans Have Less Free Time Than Medieval Peasants

It probably goes without saying that we Americans have a lot more going for us nowadays than our ancestors did several centuries ago: public health and sanitation, plentiful food and water (for the most part), democracy and free press (of a sort). But this article from Business Insider points out one big area in which we resoundingly (and perhaps surprisingly) lose out: vacation time. Continue reading