Archive for the ‘Evolution on Earth’ Category

Programmed to believe

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Would you refuse to put on the jacket of a serial killer? Would you attribute inexplicable phenomena to some superior force? Redes analyses the origin of our beliefs on the supernatural. Eduardo Punset interviews Bruce Hood, Director of the Bristol Cognitive Development Centre in the Experimental Psychology Department at the University of Bristol and author of the book ‘SuperSense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable‘, whose studies seek to clarify, at the hand of neuroscience, why we are so credulous.

The brain is a haphazard construction

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The human brain appears to us to be wonderful, but don’t be tricked: it’s a botch job that lives to fool us. We believe it is the tool for getting to know the Universe, but the only function evolution has set on the brain is to try and survive dangers on the savannah.

And as evolution doesn’t follow any divine plan or design – no matter how much some may say to the contrary – the brain is far from being perfect. If we could redesign it from zero to obtain a perfect brain, many of its functions would be different. The only thing we can do is to learn to live with an organ that it more inelegantly hotchpotch than perfect. This is what the Psychologist from New York University, Gary Marcus, explains to us, who is also author of the book ‘Kluge’.

To find out more:

* ‘Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind‘, book by Gary Marcus.
* Gary Marcus’ academic website.
* ‘Language, Biology, and the Mind‘, interview with Gary Marcus on Edge.org.
* ‘Total Recall: The Woman Who Can’t Forget‘, article by Marcus in Wired.

Our killer instinct

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Are the majority of murders that occur between humans the work of psychopaths? Do we all have a killer instinct within us? Are we constantly more violent or are our societies moving towards a progressive pacification? There are currently various experts who are researching the origins and composition of homicidal impulses in humans.

One of them, David Buss, Evolutionary Psychologist at the University of Texas and author of ‘The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind Is Designed to Kill‘, coincided with Eduard Punset at the festival at “La Ciudad de las Ideas” in Puebla, Mexico. Together they talked about the latest findings and hypotheses concerning the homicidal responses of our species.

Monogamy is not natural

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Between 25 y el 50 % of western men admit to having been unfaithful to their partner at least once. And women? Are there two typos of monogamy: one social and another sexual? Eduardo Punset joined the married couple Judith Eve Lipton, Psychiatrist at the Swedish Medical Center in Washington, and David Barash, Psychologist at the University of Washington, to discover in depth the interests of each sex in their life together.

To find out more:

* ‘The Myth of Monogamy‘, book by David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton.
* ‘Polygamy Left its Mark on the Human Genome‘, news article published in New Scientist.
* ‘Monogamy Is Unnatural‘, article by David P. Barash and Judith Eve Lipton in the magazine The Stranger.
* ‘Your Cheating Heart‘, interview in the New York Times.

Innovate imitating nature

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With almost 4,000 million years of experience, planet life and organisms are an excellent model to imitate in the development of our technology. Eduardo Punset speaks with Janine Benyus, author of the book ‘Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature’, President of the Biomimicry Institute, and one of the coordinators of the “Nature’s 100 Best Technologies” project.

To find out more:

* ‘Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature‘, a book by Janine Benyus in which she presents examples of how man can direct technology to copy developments in nature and generate a more sustainable society.
* ‘Biomimetics: Design by Nature‘, article published in National Geographic.
* ‘What Do You Mean by the Term Biomimicry?‘, interview with Janine Benyus published on the Biomimicry Institute website.
* ‘Engineers Ask Nature For Design Advice‘, article in the New York Times.
* ‘Cement from CO2: A Concrete Cure for Global Warming?‘, article published in Scientific American about a new technique to convert 90% of CO2 emissions from factories into something useful: cement. The process imitates coral in reef creation.

Shall we dance?

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We like to eat because we wouldn’t survive without the energy that food gives us. We like sex because without it we wouldn’t still be here. But why do we like dancing and singing?

Eduardo Punset interviews the Neuroscientist Lawrence Parsons, who researches the relationship of human beings with music and dance. Some of the topics that are dealt with have do to with the evolutionary origin of dance and music, the relationship of dance with language, the relationship between emotions and dance, and how learning music and dance links different zones of the brain, which is good for the working memory and planning capacity.

To find out more:

* ‘So You Think You Can Dance?: PET Scans Reveal Your Brain’s Inner Choreography‘, article by Lawrence Parsons and Steven Brown in Scientific American in which they explain recent studies where complex neuronal choreographies have been discovered that support our ability to dance.
* ‘We Got Rhythm; the Mystery Is How and Why‘, article by Nicholas Wade in the New York Times.
* ‘Singing in the Brain‘, article in the San Diego Union Tribune.
* ‘Music on the Brain‘, article in the Harvard University Gazette.

So who’s in charge here?

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Without followers there are no leaders. And without leaders societies would have collapsed with insurmountable conflicts. How do we nowadays choose who will lead us? How did we used to do it?

In two and a half million years, we have not improved our way of choosing leaders. They are necessary, as are the followers, to take a society forwards without it disintegrating through conflicts. Eduardo Punset discusses the evolutionary criteria in the selection of a good leader with the Social Psychologist Mark van Vugt, Researcher at the University of Kent.

To find out more:

* ‘Follow me: The origins of leadership‘, articles (for subscribers) written by Mark van Vugt in the New Scientist. (On van Vugt ‘s website you can download the article in PDF format.)

Playing with genes in the living room

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Imagine a world in which organisms exchange genes amongst themselves, like the first inhabitants of the Earth used to almost 4 billion years ago. Eduard Punset tackles synthetic biology and bioengineering with the aid of the Nobel Prize winner, Hamilton Smith, Molecular Biologist and close collaborator with Craig Venter, one of the gurus from the era of discoveries on the genome.

On 24th January 2008, science published on its website an article that marked a division in the field of synthetic biology: a team at the Craig Venter Institute, led by Hamilton Smith, had succeeded in creating the complete genome of a bacteria, stringing together its chemical components. It was, according to Craig Venter, the second step in the three necessary to create synthetic life (the third is integrating that artificial genome into a bacteria and making it function).

As Chris Voigt, a Synthetic Biologist at the University of California has been quoted by Wired as saying, “At the Craig Venter Institute you’ll soon be able to take a file from the computer and, through chemical synthesis, transform this information into life”. It shouldn’t therefore appear to us to be that preposterous when we hear top-notch scientists such as Venter himself and others imagining a not-very-distant future where children will be playing with genes in their living room, editing them on their computer just as they edit images today in Photoshop.

Although obviously, the entertainment of children of the future is not the ultimate objective of this scientific-technological development. The creation and design of artificial life will have much broader applications according to explanations given in the interview by Hamilton Smith to Punset: “To manufacture pharmaceutical products, or organic chemical products, or biofuel, etc.”

To find out more:

* ‘Researchers Take Step Toward Synthetic Life‘, news article in the New York Times about the creation of the first synthetic genome of a bacteria by the Craig Venter Institute.
* ‘Researchers Say They Created a ‘Synthetic Cell’‘, news article in the New York Times about Craig Venter synthesizing an entire bacterial genome and using it to take over a cell.
* ‘LIFE: WHAT A CONCEPT!‘, transcription of the discussion at Edge.org amongst various scientists on their ideas on life in which, amongst other topics, they examine synthetic biology.
* ‘Synthetic Biology, Life 2.0′, article in The Economist (paying and non-paying version).
* The Craig Venter Institute website.

Learning to cook made us human

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The human species is the only one that cooks its food, a practice that has been key in the great development of our brain and our intelligence. But it is also the animal species, together with chimpanzees, in which the greatest cruelty and violence towards others exists.

Eduard Punset speaks with the Anthropologist Richard Wrangham, from Harvard University, in search of the origins of our intelligence and the most human forms of behaviour. With a comic touch, the sitcom “Homos and women” aims to highlight the key concepts described by Wrangham.

For more information on Richard Wrangham:

* ‘Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human‘, by Richard Wrangham.
* ‘Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence‘, by Richard Wrangham.
* ‘The Evolution of Cooking‘, interview between John Brockman and Wrangham.
* ‘The Human Recipe‘, answer by Wrangham to Edge.org’s yearly question (‘What have you changed your mind about?’).
* ‘Cooking Up Bigger Brains‘, article in Scientific American on Wrangham’s idea that the human brain was able to develop thanks to the cooking of food.
* ‘Evolving Bigger Brains through Cooking‘, interview with Wrangham in Scientific American.
* ‘Early Chefs Left Indelible Mark on Human Evolution‘, article in New Scientist (paying).
* ‘Did Cooked Tubers Spur the Evolution of Big Brains?‘, article in Science magazine.

The battle of the sexes

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Once it got going, 800 million years ago, the differentiation between the sexes marked the evolution of two tendencies, two ways of facing the world. Today, we are still trying to establish up to what point this division has influenced the fundamentals of our social conduct.

At the London School of Economics, Helena Cronin, specialist in Darwinism and human evolution and author of the book ‘The Ant and the Peacock’, has studied in depth the differences in the behaviour and capabilities of men and women. Whilst writing a book drawing on her latest conclusions, Punset wanted to talk with her about the keys that Darwinism gives us to understanding a good part of our reactions, desires and ways of living.

As well as including Cronin’s ideas, we have also consulted Arcadi Navarro, Evolutionary Biologist at the Pompeu Fabra University, who explains to us what genetic sexual differences are, although he believes that genetic determination is not definitive owing to interaction with the environment. María Jayme, Doctor in Differential Psychology of Sexes and Gender at the University of Barcelona, talks to us about experiments that demonstrate how, at 18 months of age, innate differences manifest themselves between boys and girls.

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