Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

And while we're on the subject . . .

Inspired by Tardigrade's comment on the previous post, I will say something about today's news on the speciation of humans and chimps. The Boston Globule headline had it "Humans, chimps may have bred after split," while CBS has it "Study: Chimps, Humans Mated," and I'm sure other headlines are similar.

Of course, every visitor to this site knows that we have always maintained that living proof of human-chimpanzee hybridization is before us. However, we didn't mean it seriously. I think.

I'm afraid these sloppily written headlines are going to drive some people even deeper into denial, simply because of the yuck factor. The creatures in question were, of course, not humans and chimpanzees, but ancestors of the two species who were much more closely related than we and the president are today.* If the hypothesis of Drs. Reich and Patterson is correct, some interbreeding occurred for a period sometime after initial speciation, until about 5 1/2 million years ago. That would be no more strange than the interbreeding which occurs today between, for example, wolves and Canis domesticus, although paleontologists are finding the hypothesis a bit surprising because of the anatomical differences between the creatures in question, the direct human ancestors being fully bipedal.

Whether or not this hypothesis survives, it reminds us that one reason people reject science is because its truths are often unsatisfying, uncomfortable, or downright unpleasant. It doesn't feel good to be one among millions of species of eukaryotic organisms (not to mention probably billions of species of prokaryotes), extinct and extant, fucking and shitting and farting for barely more than an instant in a layer of slime on a dust mote in the midst of the unimaginably vast, cold dark. Or at least it apparently doesn't feel good to some people. I find the whole thing quite impressive, and fascinating, if annoyingly inexplicable (so far). But it is the unexplained that drives us on. Even though we're nothing, we're a kind of nothing that it is interesting to be.

*Sorry. My irrational Bush-hatred got the better of me.

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