History of the World: BBC Version

Survival: History of the World Episode 1

BBC (2018)

Film Review

This informative eight-episode BBC series is framed as a history of the species Homo sapiens. In reality, it’s a gruesome history of Western imperialism, but I didn’t figure this out until Episode 7. Obviously aimed at a millenial audience, the melodramatic reenactments are too long and a bit nauseating (especially the really gory scenes depicting human sacrifice and torture).

Part 1 begins 70,000 years ago with the 1,000 fully evolved members of the homo sapiens species leaving Africa by crossing the Red Sea to the Arabian peninsula. At this point in their development, they possess both language and weapons. Following the trails created by migrating herds, they head east towards India and South East Asia and north towards Europe. Some would reach Australia by 50,000 BC, Europe by 45,000 BC and North America (via the Bering Strait) by 15,000 BC (other non-BBC sources suggest they reached North America by 30,000 – 40,000 BC and were well in place by 15,000 BC).

In Europe, homo sapiens encounter Neanderthals, a second species of human apes which migrated there (from Africa presumably?) around 150,000 BC. Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalis coexisted in Europe (and according to modern DNA analysis interbred) for between 5,000 – 10,000 years. The Neanderthals become extinct, around 30,000 BC, possibly because tools and language help Homo sapiens compete more successfully for limited game.

During the 27,000 – 16,000 BC ice age, most of Europe is covered with vast sheets of ice. As the climate begins to warm, homo sapiens hunter gatherers in the fertile crescent region of the Middle East learn how to domesticate plants and animals. This knowledge spreads north to Europe over the next 1,000 years. A parallel agricultural revolution also occurs in China, India and South America.

This new found ability to produce their own food leads nomadic hunter gatherers to begin settling in permanent towns and villages.

In cataloguing the earliest evidence of “civilized” society, the filmmakers start with 4,000 BC China, which had a population of about 2 million. Next they highlight the Minoan civilization in Crete around 3,700 BC. Estimated to number approximately 100,000, the Minoans produce aqueducts, multistory architecture, and bronze weapons and jewelry. They also engage in human sacrifice to appease gods who inflict earthquakes and volcanoes on them.

In 3,200 BC Egyptian civilization develops the first written language, which enables them to develop a legal system and the first recorded history.

Oldest UK Human Remains 400,000 Years Old

The World of Stonehenge: Episode 1 The Age of Ice

BBC (2018)

Film Review

In this documentary, Scottish archeologist Neil Oliver explores the archeological evidence for the earliest human settlement of the UK.

The oldest remains he presents are those of Boxgrove Man (or Woman), whose relatives left thousands of tools (mainly hand axes). Carbon dating reveals the remains (and tools) to be 400,000 years old. Genetic testing reveals that Boxgrove Man/Woman was distinct from Homo sapiens, the human species that evolved in Africa. He/she may or may not be related to the Neanderthals.

The next oldest human remains are 33,000 years old and are genetically identical to Homo sapiens (ie modern man). Homo sapiens hunters migrated to Europe from African around 40,000 years ago. These 33,000 year-old remains, which predate the last Ice Age, stem from a period during which Britain was still a peninsula attached to the European mainland and 20,000 to 30,000 Homo sapiens hunters populated all of Europe.

According to Oliver, the last Ice Age began 30,000 years ago and reached its peak 18,000 years ago. However by 12,000 BC, the ice sheets retreated sufficiently for a few human hunters to return to the UK. Archeologists have discovered human artifacts and cave art dating from 14,000 years ago.

A second Big Freeze engulfed all of Europe between 13,000 and 11,000 years ago. Geological evidence reveals Britain, which was still a peninsula, was repopulated with hunters around 10,000 years ago and has been continuously populated ever since.

Around 4,000 BC years ago, one of the largest tsunamis ever recorded with set off by a giant landslide in Norway. Creating ten meter high waves, it traveled 40 kilometers inland, killing all human settlers on the west coast of Britain. It also created the English Channel, which presently separates the UK from Western Europe.

 

Chasing the Super-Y Chromosome

adam's curseAdam’s Curse: A Future Without Men

by Bryan Sykes

Book Review

Adam’s Curse is a book about the Y chromosome, which carries the genes determining the sex of mammals. The title is misleading. There’s only a brief discussion in the final chapter regarding the instability of the Y chromosome (due to mutations), which Sykes predicts will lead to its eventual distinction in 5,000 generations (125,000 years). Most of the book concerns the history and evolutionary function of sex differentiation, the use of the Y chromosome and maternal DNA (carried on the mitochondria*) to trace historic migrations, the phenomenon of “group selection” (whereby individuals are genetically programmed to sacrifice themselves for their species) and the genetic basis of patriarchy and homosexuality.

Because neither maternal DNA nor the Y chromosome undergo recombination** at the time of cell division, both remain highly stable over thousands of generations. This feature been invaluable in tracing the prehistoric migration of Neanderthals, Polynesians, Vikings, Native Americans, Australian aborigines and other population groups. Sykes subscribes to the “selfish gene” theory, which asserts that most of human behavior is directed towards the survival of our unique genetic material, ie our genes drive behavior that favors their survival.

The study of thousands of Y chromosomes reveals that “super-Y” chromosomes occur much more frequently than others. In most cases they’re derived from testosterone-driven warriors (eg Vikings and Mongol warriors like Genghis Khan) who used their aptitude for violence, ruthlessness and wealth acquisition to spread their Y chromosome to a disproportionate number of women.

According to Sykes this “crazed ambition of the Y chromosome” to “multiply without limit” leads to endless wars, land annexation and enslavement of women. As he points out in his introduction, it’s quite rare for women to commitment violent crimes, become tyrants or start wars. He also has grave concerns that this unholy alliance between “super Y chromosomes” and an unchecked drive for wealth and power is leading to imminent planetary destruction.

A British financial analyst recently made the observation that the global economy would still be intact if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters. Recent studies show women make better financial traders because they’re more risk adverse.

The chapter I found most interesting concerns the genetic origin of sexual reproduction, ie the exchange of genetic material during reproduction, and male and female sexual identity. I was particularly fascinated to learn that organelles like chloroplasts (plants only) and mitochondria were originally bacteria, with their own DNA, that were captured by larger cells. This modification enabled the larger cells to produce much more energy, which allowed them to specialize and become multi-celled organisms.

My second favorite chapter concerns research into the genetic basis of homosexuality. Geneticists have identified an SRY gene on the Y chromosome that switches on testosterone production when the embryo is six weeks of age. Embryos exposed to testosterone develop male sexual organs. Those that aren’t are automatically programmed to become female.

There’s also a brain structure called the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BST) which determines a child’s gender identity and sexual orientation. Testosterone exposure during embryonic development causes it to be larger. It’s much smaller in women, homosexuals and transsexuals. Especially after the birth of one or more sons, women develop antibodies to the H-Y antigen on the Y chromosome. These antibodies, in turn, act to lower fetal testosterone levels, resulting in a smaller BST.


*A mitochondria is an organelle found in large numbers in each cell responsible for respiration and energy production.
**DNA recombination involves the exchange of genetic material between different chromosomes or between different regions on the same chromosomes.