Last hominin standing

The Tollund Man, Denmark. Photo by Christian Kober.Corbis


(Dan Falk is a science journalist based in Toronto. His books include The Science of Shakespeare (2014) andIn Search of Time (2008). He also co-hosts BookLab, a podcast that reviews popular science books.)

Was human evolution inevitable, or do we owe our existence to a once-in-a-universe stroke of luck?

In the movie Sliding Doors (1998), a woman named Helen, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, rushes to catch a train on the London Underground, but just misses it, watching helplessly from the platform as the doors slide shut. The film explores two alternative universes, comparing the missed-train universe to a parallel reality in which she caught the train just in time. It wasn’t a cinematic masterpiece – the critics aggregated at Rotten Tomatoes give it only a 63 per cent ‘fresh’ rating – but it vividly confronts a question that many of us have asked at one time or another: if events had unfolded slightly differently, what would the world be like?

This question, applied to the history of life on our planet, has long beguiled thinkers of all stripes. Was the appearance of intelligent life an evolutionary fluke, or was it inevitable? This was one of the central themes in Stephen Jay Gould’s book, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989). If we re-played the tape of evolution, so to speak, would Homo sapiens – or something like it – arise once again, or was humanity’s emergence contingent on a highly improbable set of circumstances?

At first glance, everything that’s happened during the 3.8 billion-year history of life on our planet seems to have depended quite critically on all that came before. And Homo sapiens arrived on the scene only 200,000 years ago. The world got along just fine without us for billions of years. Gould didn’t mention chaos theory in his book, but he described it perfectly: ‘Little quirks at the outset, occurring for no particular reason, unleash cascades of consequences that make a particular future seem inevitable in retrospect,’ he wrote. ‘But the slightest early nudge contacts a different groove, and history veers into another plausible channel, diverging continually from its original pathway.’

One of the first lucky breaks in our story occurred at the dawn of biological complexity, when unicellular life evolved into multicellular. Single-cell organisms appeared relatively early in Earth’s history, around a billion years after the planet itself formed, but multicellular life is a much more recent development, requiring a further 2.5 billion years. Perhaps this step was inevitable, especially if biological complexity increases over time – but does it? Evolution, we’re told, does not have a ‘direction’, and biologists balk at any mention of ‘progress’. (The most despised image of all is the ubiquitous monkey-to-man diagram found in older textbooks – and in newer ones too, if only because the authors feel the need to denounce it.) And yet, when we look at the fossil record, we do, in fact, see, on average, a gradual increase in complexity.

But a closer look takes out some of the mystery of this progression. As Gould pointed out, life had to begin simply – which means that ‘up’ was the only direction for it to go. And indeed, a recent experiment suggests that the transition from unicellular to multicellular life was, perhaps, less of a hurdle than previously imagined. In a lab at the University of Minnesota, the evolutionary microbiologist William Ratcliff and his colleagues watched a single-celled yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) evolve into many-cell clusters in fewer than 60 days. The clusters even displayed some complex behaviours – including a kind of division of labour, with some cells dying so that others could grow and reproduce.

But even if evolution has a direction, happenstance can still intervene. Most disruptive are the mass extinctions that plague Earth’s ecosystems with alarming regularity. The most catastrophic of these, the Permian-Triassic extinction, occurred about 250 million years ago, and wiped out 96 per cent of marine species, along with 70 per cent of land-dwellers. Gould examined the winners and losers of a more ancient mass extinction, the Cambrian-Ordovician extinction, which happened 488 million years ago, and found the poster child for biological luck – an eel-like creature known as Pikaia gracilens, which might be the precursor of all vertebrates. Had it not survived, the world could well be spineless…




16 Facts About The Tremendous Financial Devastation That We Are Seeing All Over The World

Image Credits: 2bgr8 / Wiki (Base image).


As we enter the second half of 2015, financial panic has gripped most of the globe

As we enter the second half of 2015, financial panic has gripped most of the globe.

Stock prices are crashing in China, in Europe and in the United States.  Greece is on the verge of a historic default, and now Puerto Rico and Ukraine are both threatening to default on their debts if they do not receive concessions from their creditors.  Not since the financial crisis of 2008 has so much financial chaos been unleashed all at once.  Could it be possible that the great financial crisis of 2015 has begun?  The following are 16 facts about the tremendous financial devastation that is happening all over the world right now…

1. On Monday, the Dow fell by 350 points.  That was the biggest one day decline that we have seen in two years.

2. In Europe, stocks got absolutely smashed.  Germany’s DAX index dropped 3.6 percent, and France’s CAC 40 was down 3.7 percent.

3. After Greece, Italy is considered to be the most financially troubled nation in the eurozone, and on Monday Italian stocks were down more than 5 percent.

4. Greek stocks were down an astounding 18 percent on Monday.

5. As the week began, we witnessed the largest one day increase in European bond spreads that we have seen in seven years.

6. Chinese stocks have already met the official definition of being in a “bear market” – the Shanghai Composite is already down more than 20 percent from the high earlier this year.

7. Overall, this Chinese stock market crash is the worst that we have witnessed in 19 years.

8. On Monday, Standard & Poor’s slashed Greece’s credit rating once again and publicly stated that it believes that Greece now has a 50 percent chance of leaving the euro.

9. On Tuesday, Greece is scheduled to make a 1.6 billion euro loan repayment.  One Greek official has already stated that this is not going to happen.

10. Greek banks have been totally shut down, and a daily cash withdrawal limit of60 euros has been established.  Nobody knows when this limit will be lifted.

11. Yields on 10 year Greek government bonds have shot past 15 percent.

12. U.S. investors are far more exposed to Greece than most people realize.  The New York Timesexplains…



We Live in a World Where Everything is Connected

by Waking Times

Video If we take a closer look at what’s happening around us, we will begin to understand that there are recurring patternsin our brains, coral reefs, ant colonies – that show how everything in this world is connected.

Here, Jason Silva shares his ideas about the thoughts of Albert-László BarabásiSteven JohnsonGeoffrey West, Paul Stammetts, and Adrian Bejan.


Is our Universe a Hologram? Some physicists think so


By Joshua Krause | The Daily Sheeple

It’s strange to think that not too long ago, the idea that time is an illusion wasn’t taken seriously by the scientific community. Now it’s a widely held belief, especially among physicists. Time may indeed be nothing more than a mental construct; a mere perception. But what if other aspects of our reality are equally illusory?

What if something as fundamental “space” is also the product of our perceptions? What if what we see and feel in our everyday lives, or even what we can see under a microscope, is only scratching the surface?

Well, if you’re asking those questions, you may be in good company with some of the world’s leading physicists. Many of them think that our universe may not be the three-dimensional space our eyes make it out to be.

Some physicists actually believe that the universe we live in might be a hologram.

The idea isn’t that the universe is some sort of fake simulation out of The Matrix, but rather that even though we appear to live in a three-dimensional universe, it might only have two dimensions. It’s called the holographic principle.

The thinking goes like this: Some distant two-dimensional surface contains all the data needed to fully describe our world — and much like in a hologram, this data is projected to appear in three dimensions. Like the characters on a TV screen, we live on a flat surface that happens to look like it has depth.

It might sound absurd. But if when physicists assume it’s true in their calculations, all sorts of big physics problems — such as the nature of black holes and the reconciling of gravity and quantum mechanics — become much simpler to solve. In short, the laws of physics seem to make more sense when written in two dimensions than in three.

“It’s not considered some wild speculation among most theoretical physicists,” says Leonard Susskind, the Stanford physicist who first formally defined the idea decades ago. “It’s become a working, everyday tool to solve problems in physics.”

Of course, there isn’t really any proof of this. The idea seems to explain some of the weird stuff we see in our universe, but there isn’t any tangible evidence. Most scientists can’t even agree on the best method for proving it. However, that’s not stopping them from trying anyway.

At the moment, there’s no universally agreed-upon test that would provide firm evidence for the idea. Still, some physicists believe that the holographic principle predicts there’s a limit to how much information spacetime can contain, because our seemingly 3D spacetime is encoded by limited amounts of 2D information. As Fermilab’s Craig Hogan recently put it to Motherboard, “The basic effect is that reality has a limited amount of information, like a Netflix movie when Comcast is not giving you enough bandwidth. So things are a little blurry and jittery.”

Hogan and others are using an instrument called a Holomoter to look for this sort of blurriness. It relies on powerful lasers to see whether — at super-small, submicroscopic levels — there’s a fundamental limit in the amount of information present in spacetime itself. If there is, they say, it could be evidence that we’re living in a hologram.

Pretty wild eh? If the theory is proven, it will have some pretty heavy implications for the nature of reality. How would we reconcile the fact that perhaps, nothing we’re seeing is real? Nothing would change for us in our everyday lives. We’re still seeing and feeling the world in the same way we always have, but in the back of our minds we would always know that we’re taking our perceptions for granted.

– See more at:



This is How the Matrix Invades Your Body, Mind and Soul

by Sigmund Fraud, Staff Writer, Waking Times

Stress is a genuine pandemic, a full spectrum attack on the nervous and immune systems that greatly contributes to the unhealthiness and unease in our world. Few would disagree that modern life is far more stressful than it should be, and when you consider its main sources, it appears to be a built in feature of contemporary society that targets us, the masses, in order to create disharmony, debilitation, agitation, apathy and dependency.

It comes at us from every angle in the matrix, and at its root is our enslavement to an economic system that guarantees eternal collective debt to a cartel of private bankers and money masters. To support this phony economy we are groomed to be good consumers and diligent workers, bred to value economic growth and material prosperity above and beyond human interests and common sense. For this we take on work we dislike and commit ourselves to being busy all the time in order to ‘make ends meet,’ all the while the fiat currencies we toil for are further debased and true prosperity stretches further out of reach.

Modern life is often and aptly called the rat race, and at every turn we are bombarded with lifestyle marketing that suggests to us what we are supposed to be, what we are supposed to wear, what we are supposed to drive, what kind of friends we should have, and even whom we should look down on and hate. Invading our bodies with toxic crap sold to us as food, invading our minds with constant propaganda and fear-programming from corporate behemoths and war-mongers, it is difficult to escape the message that life is a fearful struggle that warrants our constant vigilance and diligence. We must always fight or flight.

Attacking first the nervous system, stress causes us to lose sleep and to lose our ability to recognize that we need rest, then to forget that we also need silence and quietude. In this state our physical and emotional immune systems then give in and we fall victim to disease, unease and depression. We begin to doubt ourselves and our inherent power as human beings to rise above adversity, and we hunker down in a daily struggle, giving up on the things we really want in life, forever doomed to spin on the hamster wheel of the matrix.

Triggered and re-triggered by the talking heads that now appear on televisions in every public space, by insane militant cops who stalk us in police cars with darkly tinted windows, and by a government that creates global threats in order to frighten us into accepting their protection racquet, stress is the most effective way of keeping us on the sidelines and out of the game.

So, we turn to anti-depressants and alcohol, to distraction and entertainment, and then those few hours of life we get outside of work each work are spent in an increasing frenzy of over-stimulation and consumption in order to make ourselves believe that this kind of life is worth living. Yet the deeper our commitment to this technological prison becomes, the further disconnected from spirit and soul we become. Then the spiritual immune system also gives way and we are easily corrupted morally and ethically, and evermore beholden to the matrix for survival…



Are You an Illusion?

identity illusion

Why today’s neuroscientists could do with a little more philosophical training.

Mary Midgley | Moral philosopher, author of Beast and Man and Wickedness

Mary Midgley, a moral philosopher and author, has been described as “the UK’s foremost scourge of scientific pretension”. At the venerable age of 94, she has published a new book, Are You an Illusion?, which examines contemporary approaches to the question of consciousness. As in previous books, such as Science as Salvation and The Solitary Self, Midgley seeks to challenge what she sees as the materialist dogmatism that dominates much of modern scientific thinking.

Here, Midgley explains the popularity of Richard Dawkins, why genes aren’t selfish after all, and how today’s scientists could do with a little more philosophical training.

What does it mean to say that science is a form of metaphysics?

I take it that `science’ here means `physical science’, not just systematic thinking in general? If so, then saying that it is a “a form of metaphysics” seems to be just a mistake. The speaker’s idea is probably that `science’ on its own can supply its own conceptual background – the set of assumptions needed for its work – so that no philosophical thinking is needed here.

This can’t be true, since concepts – structural ideas such as mind and body, force, time, life and causal necessity – are not physical items.

What is involved here is not just a tribal dispute between two sets of academics. Reflection about these background assumptions is philosophical work whoever does it. The many great scientists, from Newton to Einstein, who have always dealt with philosophical questions have known this well. It is only lately that scientific training has become so one-sided that the crucial function of philosophy within it has been forgotten.

This close link between science and philosophy is not exceptional. Every discipline – history, mathematics, language, whatever – raises philosophical problems whenever the discussions within it become very general…

Is science ill-equipped to approach the question of the self and human consciousness?

Again, if `science’ means `physical science’, it can’t deal with questions about the self and human consciousness, since these are not physical items. The central questions here are not about empirical facts. They are questions about how best to think about our lives. It is no deprivation to science not to deal with them, science has plenty of subject-matter of its own.

How have we come to place so much faith in science when it comes to understanding the self?

The physical sciences have been so extraordinarily successful in their own sphere of late that people tend now to expect them to be applicable everywhere. Enlightenment thinking has built up a general optimism about human capacities which centres at present on what is called `the scientific method’ – a grossly simplified notion about how scientists work, one which almost treats them as omnipotent.

Brain science, in particular, has been greeted with a credulous rapture which is quite out of proportion to any light that it has actually thrown on the rest of life. In fact, at present the sort of wild credulity which used to be associated chiefly with religious movements seems to flow most naturally towards scientific developments.

All this distracts people from older ways of thinking – not just from religious thinking, but from all sorts of instinctive and traditional social approaches by which human life has habitually been guided, and which are probably necessary to it. In this area, isolated experimental results are really not a substitute for the accumulated experience of history…



Nomads and Neoliberal Society


Can the nomadic lifestyle resist neoliberal consumer values, or merely extend them?

by Marcel Theroux | Screenwriter, broadcaster and award-winning novelist

Do you think that the nomad is an occidental myth invented by Romantic philosophers?

I think we have to be a bit careful because people mean different things when they use the word “nomad”. It’s come to mean something like “rootless wanderer”, with connotations of freedom and rebellion and living outside society.

But to an anthropologist, or a historian, nomadism describes a particular way of life: the way of life of people who have no settled home. Historically, nomads moved around to follow migrating animals, or because they lived in areas where the soil was too poor to support settled agriculture.

In northern Siberia, for instance, the Even people were nomads right into the 20th century. They followed herds of migrating reindeer which provided them with their food supply and much of their clothing. It was a tough, cold, collective endeavour to stay alive up there on the edge of the Arctic circle. That’s a real nomad.

What are the values motivating nomadic life?

Nomadic life – as lived by the Even, for example – isn’t motivated by values. It’s motivated by needs: food, shelter, physical security. There is, of course, a spiritual dimension to traditional nomadism. Generalising hugely, nomadism is connected to animism, the worship of spirits in nature and the principle of the interconnectedness of things.

It is often claimed that being a nomad is a consequence of post-modernism. Are nomadic practices transgressive – because they reject rules and authority – or, on the contrary, submissive to neoliberalism? Are stability and security anachronistic values?

I’m very sceptical that anyone is capable of living a truly nomadic, rootless life in 2014. Can you show me one? Where are they planning to get old and die? Where does their credit card bill get sent? Where do they turn for healthcare? Where are their kids going to go to school?

Is the aim of neoliberalism to require flexible individuals and impose its rule on our lives?

For some reason, your question reminds me of an advert that was on TV in the 1980s in which a rather smarmy young businessman got a call from his boss saying he had to be on a plane in an hour. In the ad, the young man takes one look at his American Express card and says, “I’m packed”.

Is that a kind of nomad? Someone who’s got so much money that they no longer have to deal with the drudgery of washing underpants and buying toothpaste.

I believe that the dominant ideology of our times is Morestuffism, which is the belief that the good life is achieved by having more and better stuff. I think the ideology of Morestuffism is served very well by this fantasy yuppie nomad for whom money is no object and who can buy everything he needs.

On the other hand, a traditional nomad is basically a nuisance to the modern economy. They make everything they need. They don’t buy stuff. We can’t make any money out of them! Plus, the traditional land they insist on roaming around in probably holds valuable minerals (in the case of the Even), or gold (as with Native Americans)…