Where Are All the Panins?

Have you heard of the word hominin?  Even if you don’t know exactly what a hominin is, you have probably heard of it before.  Hominins are a tribe of organisms that include modern Homo sapiens as well as all species that have been apart of our lineage since we diverged from a common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos (and they have been discussed on this blog before).

What about the word panin?  Unless you are a professional biological anthropologist specializing in primatology or paleoanthropology, it is unlikely that you have heard this word.  This is because despite our ever growing knowledge of hominin evolution from fossils in eastern, southern and central Africa, we have almost no remains of panins – the tribe of organisms that includes chimpanzees, bonobos as well as all species that have been apart of their lineage since they diverged from a common ancestor with our species.

In fact, despite having collections of literally thousands of hominin bones – from Sahelanthropus tchadensis (a hominin that existed 7 million years ago) to Homo floresiensis (a hominin that existed up until approximately 17 thousand years ago), we only have two teeth from a panin.  From this fossils we know that it lived in East Africa less than a million years ago and was likely an ancestor of the modern day chimpanzee.  Although we can only know so much from a few teeth, the morphology of these fossils suggest that it was not that much different from contemporary chimpanzee populations.

However, this is a major problem for primatology and for our understanding of hominoid evolution.  Whenever fossil hominins are analyzed they are always compared against the modern day chimpanzees and analyzed for ancestral and derived traits.  This is done because it is assumed that the common ancestor that we share with chimpanzees and bonobos was more chimp and bonobo-like than human-like.  Also, in primatology, whenever a chimpanzee or bonobo engages in a behaviour or is characterized by a trait that we also do or possess, it is argued that it was present in the common ancestor.  This because it is a parsimonious answer, but also because it is ‘sexy’ (meaning the idea creates an interesting and marketable narrative for the public).  However, in both cases we cannot rule out convergent evolution.  Chimpanzees and bonobos have also evolved over the past 5-8 million years and we cannot assume that they are time machines that represent what our common ancestor with them looked like.

In my mind other anthropologists can continue to hammer this point home, but in practice the only way to stop engaging in these practices is to find more panin fossils.  Over the past 15 years our understanding of hominin evolution has improved dramatically and we are now on the verge of gaining deep perspective on when the first hominins emerged and what pressures there were that led to bipedalism and larger brain size.  However, our knowledge of panin evolution is embarrassingly impoverished.  We do not have any idea how many panin species there have been over the past 8 million years, or what environments their clade experimented within.  We have no knowledge on their distribution (other than that the only fossils discovered indicate that chimpanzees ancestors had a range that extended further east in Africa than contemporary populations do).

The discovery of more panin fossils would unleash a wave of new perspectives and hypotheses to consider and would literally force anthropologists to re-write the textbooks for hominoid evolution.  Perhaps most importantly, it will force people to conceptualize the journey to becoming human in a different way.  Frequently, I will encounter individuals who believe chimpanzee are our ancestors.  They are in fact our closest relatives, not our ancestors.  Finding panin fossils will help the public (and the scientific community) remember that chimpanzees and bonobos also have an equally long evolutionary history, which may reveal that our assumptions are correct (meaning that they have undergone very little change over the past 5-8 million years), or I think more likely, it will reveal that their clade underwent a series of changes that we are currently ignorant to.

Whatever we find, it is exciting for me to remember that there is still so much we have to learn about our evolutionary history, and part of that is attempting to understand the evolutionary history of our closest relatives – the panins.


Welcome to the South

As some of you know, I have been down in Georgia conducting research on ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) for a few weeks now.  During most of this trip I have been isolated on the St. Catherines research and conservation island near mainland Savannah.  However, occasionally I come to the mainland to get groceries and supplies for the field, and being from Canada, I always experience a little bit of culture shock when I’m in America.  Specifically while down in Georgia, I couldn’t help but notice confederate flags everywhere.  They were used as bumper stickers, flown from cars as flags and adorned on front porches.  For me, these flags are symbolic of southern racism, oppression and slavery.  In my mind having a confederate flag on your tailgate is equivalent to an “I support slavery” bumper sticker.  But I know that symbolism changes both over space and through time, and may not mean the same thing to people in 21st century Georgia that it meant to people in 19th century Georgia or to someone from southern Ontario.

So I decided to ask people from the south who were staying on the island and I got some answers that validated my own opinion about the use of confederate flags and also some deeper, more nuanced opinion about their use in the 21st century south.

First and foremost the general consensus was that people who celebrate the confederate flag are in fact – as I suspected – parading around the fact that they are racist and that they support what the Confederate States of America stood for back in the 1860’s.  However, there are those who see the flag as a culturally important part of southern identity and attempt to detach the flag’s symbolic connectedness to racism, oppression and slavery and instead re-create it as a symbol of southern unity, strength and distinctiveness.  I personally don’t support this because to me that would be no different than if Nazi flags were still celebrated by people in modern Germany as re-imagined symbols of German strength and determination.  People who attempt to do this with the confederate flag are ignorant of the countless citizens of Georgia who still (and will always) associate the flag with feelings of deep pain and resentment.

Almost more importantly, I learned an important aspect of the flags meaning to those people of Georgia who identify as African-American.  I wondered while I was on the streets of Georgia whether most of them thought the same thing as I did when I saw the flag, and apparently the answer is both yes and no.  From the people I spoke with it seems as though it has become generational.  For the the older generation of African-American Georgians the confederate flag is still associated with real pain, resentment, and even fear.  To many of them they grew up in a culture where if they encountered someone with a confederate flag, that was someone who hated them solely because they existed.  And many still remember that those people beat, lynched or killed their family members and friends while growing up.  To me this is heartbreaking because they have to live in a society where they can’t escape the symbolism and consequently can’t escape from the associated feelings that the confederate flag evokes.

However, for the younger generations, who have had to struggle far less with racism and oppression than the older generations of southern African-Americans, the confederate flag is now seen as a symbol of the south and part of southern culture.  I do not know exactly how I feel about this, a part of me really finds it disturbing, but a part of me feels like it is not my place to say how a new generation of southern African-Americans feels about this symbol, since I do not live here and obviously I have my own preconceived notions of what the confederate flag represents.  Of course, not all southern African-Americans see the symbol as an innocuous representation of southern identity, but the feelings do seem to have changed substantially from past generations.

I know my opinion is heavily biased, because if I had my own way, the flag would be banned – as the Nazi flag in Germany has been banned.  However, banning the Confederate flag would infringe on freedom of speech and expression, which are both corner stones of American culture and society.  And I’ll also admit, that maybe it isn’t my place to engage in this debate.  I am a visitor.  I come from a different country and have been influenced by different local and regional experiences.  But for what my opinion is worth, when I see it proudly displayed on cars, houses and shops, I see a society that is embracing a dark past instead of trying to distance themselves from it, and in the process they are implicitly (and occasionally explicitly) allowing racism and oppression to become synonymous with what it means to be southern.


Among African Apes

Among African Apes is a book edited by primatologists Martha M. Robbins and Christophe Boesch and it is a refreshing and necessary addition to the popular scientific literature.  This book attempts to help those unfamiliar with the great apes and the academics that study them by focusing on the experience of studying gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos in the wild.  Robbins and Boesch contribute extensively to this work, although they do invite other accomplished primatologists to share their stories and experiences.  Essentially this book attempts to give the reader a feel for what it would be like to be a primatologist.  It gives the reader a sense of what motivates and intrigues primatologists, and in the process it allows the reader to get a deeper insight into the methodological process employed by primatologists, and hopefully, a newfound respect for the animals they study.

You will notice in the title that this book is actually not focused on all great ape researchers and great apes, but rather an in-depth look at the researchers that study the great apes of Africa.  So for anyone that specifically wants to learn more about orangutans and the researchers that study them, this book may not be for you.  However, focusing on the African apes was done purposefully because it allowed this edited work to have a tighter conceptual focus and address the issues that specifically affect the lives of researchers in Africa and the problems facing the future survival of the apes that live there.

The main narrative of the book is meant to be subjective and colloquial, as opposed to exploring the subject with a highly technical and scientific approach (which you can read in any primatology research article).  With chapters that more closely resemble a daily journal entry than a typical research article, the authors successfully make very complex issues and research problems accessible to readers who do not necessarily need to have a background in primatology.  The book transports you to the jungles of Africa and introduces you to the animals they study as individuals with personalities.  Using this narrative approach enables them to explore the personal and moral hardships that are inevitable while studying our closest ancestors and working in African rainforests.

The diversity of authors and perspectives always keeps the book interesting and engaging.  There are several stories throughout the book that explore ‘first encounters’ with chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas that have never been studied by humans before and have possibly never encountered humans before.  Clive Hicks documents his experience attempting to find the Bili chimps, a population of chimpanzees that had been rumoured to hunt leopards, not fear humans and hybridize with gorillas; Gottfried Hohmann and Barbara Fruth explore the psychological dimensions of observing bonobos for the first time and re-conceptualizing this species after realizing the inaccuracy and simplicity of the stereotypes perpetuated about them by primatologists and the popular press a-like; Josephine Head dissects her psychological evolution as a researcher as she observed intercommunity ‘tribal war’ and infanticide in chimpanzees; Martha Robbins reveals the differences between successful male gorillas who acquire harems and unsuccessful male gorillas who spend years in isolation; Christophe Boesch focuses on the moral dimensions of being a primatologist and understanding the risks the great apes face from disease transmission, hunting and deforestation.  Several other primatologists discuss the habituation process and reveal their thoughts in the field as they made some of the most extraordinary discoveries about our closest relatives.

Each author also introduces a major subject area within primatology, which is sectioned off within the middle of the journal-like main narrative.  These areas are always conceptually related to the main theme of the journal narrative.  For example, Boesch focuses on disease transmission and hunting, Hicks describes population census methodology, Crickette Sanz and David Morgan explain cultural traditions, Chloe Cipolletta investigates the habituation process.  Throughout the book these are exceptionally useful sections that conveniently summarize some of the most interesting and useful facts about the subject and why they are important to understand in relation to the narrative of their entry.

Among African Apes is a phenomenal and succinct book that introduces our closest ancestors and the researchers who conduct their research with both passion and professionalism.  For anyone who has always been fascinated in primatology or is interested in getting involved in primate field studies this is a wonderful introduction to the research world.  It can provide you with a better understanding of what primatologists do in the field and how they collect data and learn about elusive, critically endangered, social animals that are infinitely complex and face a myriad of problems.

A Good or Bad Exchange?

In a recent video, The Columbian Exchange: Crash Course World History #23, by the amazing YouTube channel Crash Course (which I have promoted in the past on The Advanced Apes website – here – go now!), John Green finishes the video by basically asking the viewer to consider whether the Columbian exchange was good or bad.  He first acknowledges that the historian Alfred Crosby, who wrote the famous book The Columbian Exchange believed that it was one of the worst thing to happen in the history of humanity:

“Columbian exchange has included man, and he has changed the old and new worlds sometimes inadvertently, sometimes intentionally, often brutally.  It is possible that he and the plants and animals that he brings with him have caused the extinction of more species of life forms in the last four hundred years than the usual processes of evolution might kill off in a million.  The columbian exchange has left us with not a richer but a more impoverished genetic pool.  We, all of the life on the planet, are the less for Columbus, and the impoverishment with increase.”

John Green then leaves us with these important questions:

Do you agree with Crosby?  Are longer and healthier lives for more humans worth the sacrifice of an impoverished biosphere?  And most importantly how will your conclusions about those questions shape the way that live your life?

Alfred Crosby obviously makes some extremely thought provoking and valid points.  And John Green asks some incredibly difficult questions.  Can my seemingly endless optimism for humanity’s long term development (see: herehere and here) counter these points?  I’ll certainly try my best.

I do not agree with Crosby

Alfred Crosby is correct in asserting that our species has single handedly altered the biosphere in a way that may rightfully be compared to the five previous mass extinction epochs in the natural history of our planet.  However, he is wrong to conclude that that is A) an inherently bad thing and B) something that we cannot learn from and change in the future.

I am not arguing that impoverishing the genetic pool is bad (in fact I actively work to preserve genetic diversity in our closest relatives), but the fact is that massive global genetic bottlenecks have been a part of life history from the dawn of multicellular organisms, and life ALWAYS rebounds and diversifies in even more spectacular forms than before.  Take the example of the Triassic-Jurassic (T-J) extinction event that happened 199.6 million years ago.  During this extinction event almost all crurotarsans, therapsides and amphibians were completely wiped out, as well as a significant percentage of marine life.  Although this extinction event was devastated many early megafauna genera, the clade of Dinosauria survived, diversified and dominated for 150 million years.  Life rebounded.

Also, consider the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) extinction event.  The asteroid that struck earth 65 million years ago led to the destruction of all members of the Dinosauria clade that had thrived after the T-J extinction event.  That was a tremendous set back for life on our planet and certainly impoverished the biosphere.  As stated above, the clade Dinosauria had been the most dominant form of life on our planet for over 150 million years, and within the span of a couple thousand years (at the most), they ceased to exist.

But life rebounded, AGAIN (and gave rise to the class Mammalia of which we are a part).

You may now say “But wait… those past extinction events may have occurred suddenly on a geological scale and caused mass impoverishment of the biosphere, but they were caused by natural processes, not by one incredibly destructive species (i.e. Homo sapiens sapiens)”.

That may be true (and again I’m not defending our species for decreasing genetic diversity and causing mass extinction within the biosphere), I am simply making the point that life is resilient.  Life is like a snake that grows two heads if you cut one off.  If you cause the extinction of one branch of the evolutionary tree of life, two or three more will end up occupying the niche that has been left vacant.  And even though we are not like a destructive asteroid event because we are an ever present and persistent force that all other life must deal with – as opposed to a transient force – I believe that the more experience we have as a global species, the better we will become at sustainably managing the biosphere.  During the Columbian exchange we were a young species with no experience, or capacity to organize ourselves on a global scale.  We had no understanding of the evolutionary forces that would cause biological impoverishment on continental scales.

Where Crosby condemns our species for unknowingly impoverishing the biosphere, I give our species a pass.  We did not know any better.

Today, I am less forgiving.

Fifteenth century conquistadors should not be blamed for things they had no idea were happening on a global scale and our species should not have to de-globalize as a penalty for their medieval mistakes.

A good exchange

So my answer to John Green is that the Columbian exchange was worth it.  By globalizing, even though we made mistakes along the way, we increased life expectancy and the quality of life for our species as whole.  This process continues today (see previous blog posts: here and here).  And my thoughts on these questions lead me to advocate for continued progress and development, however this progress and development should always lead to improved life expectancy and quality of life for our species AND must not cause damage to major ecosystems or cause significant reduction to biodiversity.  I am against anything that would lead to the destruction of our planet and the biosphere.

We should be advancing past the stage in our development where that is acceptable.

I want us to learn from our mistakes and improve both morally and technologically.  There is no reason why those two elements of improvement must be mutually exclusive (even if they often have been in the past).


The Decline of Violence

In The Better Angels of Our Nature psychologist Steven Pinker attempts to convince us that violence in all forms has declined remarkably throughout human history and that our modern world is more peaceful and stable than at any other time period.  Pinker claims that “the decline of violence [is] the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species.”  Although I personally believe that the most significant and least appreciated fact of human history is the improvement of our species standard of living throughout history, I definitely agree with the author that most people today fail to comprehend just how violent a world our ancestors lived in and how much progress our species has made.  To support this, Pinker provides the reader with an overwhelming amount of well-researched demographic data revealing the unquestionable trends in declining homicide (in all forms), war, genocide, torture, slavery, lynching, and intolerance and abuse (in all forms and against all categories of people).  Pinker also gives detailed and well thought out explanations as to why this has occurred, while at the same time acknowledging what limitations this study has and what correlations are difficult to substantiate.

A foreign country

An important analogy employed throughout The Better Angels of Our Nature is the idea that the past is like a foreign country.  This is a useful analogy because several lines of evidence regarding our pre-historic and ancient past suggests that all societies were not only extremely violent, but also morally reprehensible by contemporary standards.  These conclusions are convincingly supported using archaeological records, ancient writings (usually philosophical, religious or political), and comparisons to modern state and non-state societies.  The ancients frequently practiced and actively endorsed practices that we find barbaric today.  Rape, genocide, wars of conquest and slavery were a very common and inextricable part of every ancient society.  Pinker also points out that homicide rates were astronomically high.  The most convincing line of evidence that illustrates this fact is a comparison made between homicide and war death rates in modern non-state and state societies.  Almost without exception, state societies have rates of homicide and war deaths orders of magnitude lower than non-state societies (Fig.1).

The civilizing process, the humanitarian revolution and the rights revolution

If proving The Better Angels of Our Nature’s main thesis has a flaw it is in the fact that reliable data before the 20th century is not only hard to come by in many cases, but simply does not exist in most situations and largely only comes from the western world.  Therefore, Pinker’s focus and narrative throughout much of the book remains in Europe and North America.  In my opinion this is not a detriment because the epicenter of ‘the civilizing process’, ‘the humanitarian revolution’ and the ‘rights revolution’ all occurred in the western world during the past 1000 years and spread via colonization, globalization and international development during the modern era.

These three social phenomena occurred at different times, transformed society at different paces and revolutionized the modern world in different ways.  The civilizing process explains the decrease in homicide throughout western Europe in between 1200-2000 C.E.  In the year 1200 countries like England, Italy, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands all experienced homicide at an approximate rate of 75-100 per year for every 100,000 individuals.  Throughout the next 800 years all of these countries experienced a steady and rapid decline in homicide and today all western European countries experience a homicide rate of 1 per year for every 100,000 individuals.  This is a remarkable trend, which becomes even more astounding when you consider the estimated average homicide rate in ancient and modern non-state societies (1,000 per year for every 100,000 individuals).

Pinker also does a convincing job of explaining two key revolutions that are responsible for producing the relatively peaceful modern world: the humanitarian revolution and the rights revolution.  The humanitarian revolution occurred during the Enlightenment and led to a significant reduction in practices that seem alien and barbaric to contemporary society.  Throughout this period there was the removal of a ‘culture of cruelty’, which accepted the most mind-bogglingly bloodthirsty and callous torture (e.g., Cat’s paw, impalement) that make water boarding seem mild and humane.  During this period there was also the systematic removal of slavery, a steep decline in superstitious and religious killings, and the near eradication of capital punishment.

The rights revolution was an event that Pinker argues can be seen as an extension of the humanitarian revolution.  Post World War II revulsion of things that killed millions and thousands of people at a time (war and genocide), were extended to revulsion of things that killed hundreds, tens and single digits of people at a time (rioting, lynching, hate crimes, as well as rape, assault, battering and intimidation).  Previously disenfranchised individuals like racial minorities, women, children, homosexuals and animals were granted ‘rights’ in a meaningful way for the first time in human history.  Pinker shows that these acquired rights over the past half-century have led to the near elimination of hate crimes, the acceptance of affirmative action policies, increased and unprecedented racial and religious tolerance, improved attitudes towards women’s liberation, decline in the incidence of rape, spousal abuse, infanticide, physical and sexual abuse of children, increased tolerance of gays and decreased acceptance of animal cruelty.  This revolution, although real and significant, is by no means complete, but rather distributed on a gradient in the following order from most progressive to least progressive: Western Europe, blue American states, red American states, democracies of Latin America and Asia and finally the authoritarian states of Africa and the Islamic world.  My only major disagreement with Pinker’s analysis of the rights revolution is the idea that there has been decreased animal cruelty.  From my perspective animal rights activists have successfully pushed animal cruelty out of the public sphere in the west, however practices in factory farms remain as cruel and higher than ever in scale.  Although I definitely give credence to his idea that our 22nd century descendants may be as horrified with us that we ate meat as we are with our 19th century ancestors that they kept slaves.

What about violence in the 20th century?

What about World War I and II?  What about the Holocaust, the Cultural Revolution and the Soviet Gulags?  Pinker is aware that many people frequently use these iconic events to argue that our species is only becoming more violent with increasing technological ability to destroy.  However he takes an entire chapter to dismiss this idea.  He does a great job of explaining the fact that although the 20th century was the most violent in terms of absolute death, when you control for population size the 20th century was characterized by rapidly declining violence globally and record lows of violent activity (Fig. 2).  This gives way to one of the most stunning and overlooked succession of statistics I have ever read, which Pinker claims represent ‘the long peace’ (Fig. 3).  Since 1945 there have been zero nuclear weapons used, zero great powers directly at war, zero interstate conflicts in Europe, zero interstate conflicts between developed countries, zero territorial expansions by developed countries via conquest and zero recognized states that have ceased to exist due to conquest.  At no other time in human history has our species enjoyed such peace on a global scale.


Pinker doesn’t just document declining violence throughout history but also attempts to explain what factors can explain this decline.  For the civilizing process and the humanitarian revolution Pinker credits the transition to statehood, increasing prevalence and acceptance of democratic institutions, economic improvement and increased reliance on secular thinking created by a new marketplace of ideas during the Renaissance and Enlightenment spawned by more books, more reading and more highly educated individuals.  The rights revolution on the other hand is more difficult to correlate with any set of causes but may also be tied to the intellectual revolution of the late 20th century which has been characterized by an even more powerful and pervasive spread of ideas and people.

The Better Angels of Our Nature

The Better Angels of Our Nature is a massive tour de force that debunks any romanticized notions about our species history and accurately reveals a clear, unwavering and ultimately optimistic trend of declining violence out of a copious amount of data drawn from multiple lines of scientific inquiry.  Pinker explains our biological and social nature as a gradient of complexity, as opposed to conceptualizing it as polarized and absolute good vs. evil.  By utilizing an interdisciplinary approach drawn from knowledge in anthropology, biology, psychology and history he illustrates that human history is not just “one bloody thing after another”.  History is a series of events that can be made sense of and can expose global and universal patterns that may shed light on the future direction of our planetary civilization.