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Corante Blogs examine, through the eyes of leading observers, analysts, thinkers, and doers, critical themes and memes in technology, business, law, science, and culture.

The Press Will Be Outsourced Before Stopped

Vin Crosbie, on the challenges, financial and otherwise, that newspaper publishers are facing: "The real problem, Mr. Newspaperman, isn't that your content isn't online or isn't online with multimedia. It's your content. Specifically, it's what you report, which stories you publish, and how you publish them to people, who, by the way, have very different individual interests. The problem is the content you're giving them, stupid; not the platform its on."
by Vin Crosbie in Rebuilding Media

Travels In Numerica Deserta

There's a problem in the drug industry that people have recognized for some years, but we're not that much closer to dealing with it than we were then. We keep coming up with these technologies and techniques which seem as if they might be able to help us with some of our nastiest problems - I'm talking about genomics in all its guises, and metabolic profiling, and naturally the various high-throughput screening platforms, and others. But whether these are helping or not (and opinions sure do vary), one thing that they all have in common is that they generate enormous heaps of data.
by Derek Lowe in In the Pipeline

Disrobing the Emperor: The online “user experience” isn't much of one

Now that the Web labor market is saturated and Web design a static profession, it's not surprising that 'user experience' designers and researchers who've spent their careers online are looking for new worlds to conquer. Some are returning to the “old media” as directors and producers. More are now doing offline consulting (service experience design, social policy design, exhibition design, and so on) under the 'user experience' aegis. They argue that the lessons they've learned on the Web can be applied to phenomena in the physical and social worlds. But there are enormous differences...
by Bob Jacobson in Total Experience

Second Life: What are the real numbers?

Clay Shirky, in deconstructing Second Life hype: "Second Life is heading towards two million users. Except it isn’t, really... I suspect Second Life is largely a 'Try Me' virus, where reports of a strange and wonderful new thing draw the masses to log in and try it, but whose ability to retain anything but a fraction of those users is limited. The pattern of a Try Me virus is a rapid spread of first time users, most of whom drop out quickly, with most of the dropouts becoming immune to later use."
by Clay Shirky in Many-to-Many

The democratisation of everything

Over the last few years we've seen old barriers to creativity coming down, one after the other. New technologies and services makes it trivial to publish text, whether by blog or by print-on-demand. Digital photography has democratised a previously expensive hobby. And we're seeing the barriers to movie-making crumble, with affordable high-quality cameras and video hosting provided by YouTube or Google Video and their ilk... Music making has long been easy for anyone to engage in, but technology has made high-quality recording possible without specialised equipment, and the internet has revolutionised distribution, drastically disintermediating the music industry... What's left? Software maybe? Or maybe not."
by Suw Charman in Strange Attractor

RNA Interference: Film at Eleven

Derek Lowe on the news that the Nobel Prize for medicine has gone to Craig Mello and Andrew Fire for their breakthrough work: "RNA interference is probably going to have a long climb before it starts curing many diseases, because many of those problems are even tougher than usual in its case. That doesn't take away from the discovery, though, any more than the complications of off-target effects take away from it when you talk about RNAi's research uses in cell culture. The fact that RNA interference is trickier than it first looked, in vivo or in vitro, is only to be expected. What breakthrough isn't?"
by Derek Lowe in In the Pipeline

PVP and the Honorable Enemy

Andrew Phelps: "Recently my WoW guild has been having a bit of a debate on the merits of Player-vs.-Player (PvP) within Azeroth. My personal opinion on this is that PvP has its merits, and can be incredible fun, but the system within WoW is horridly, horribly broken. It takes into account the concept of the battle, but battle without consequence, without emotive context, and most importantly, without honor..."

From later in the piece: "When I talk about this with people (thus far anyway) I typically get one of two responses, either 'yeah, right on!' or 'hey, it’s war, and war isn’t honorable – grow the hell up'. There is a lot to be said for that argument – but the problem is that war in the real historical world has very different constraints that are utterly absent from fantasized worlds..."
by Andrew Phelps in Got Game

Rats Rule, Right?

Derek Lowe: "So, you're developing a drug candidate. You've settled on what looks like a good compound - it has the activity you want in your mouse model of the disease, it's not too hard to make, and it's not toxic. Everything looks fine. Except. . .one slight problem. Although the compound has good blood levels in the mouse and in the dog, in rats it's terrible. For some reason, it just doesn't get up there. Probably some foul metabolic pathway peculiar to rats (whose innards are adapted, after all, for dealing with every kind of garbage that comes along). So, is this a problem?.."
by Derek Lowe in In the Pipeline

Really BAD customer experience at Albertsons Market

Bob Jacobson, on shopping at his local Albertsons supermarket where he had "one of the worst customer experiences" of his life: "Say what you will about the Safeway chain or the Birkenstock billionaires who charge through the roof for Whole Foods' organic fare, they know how to create shopping environments that create a more pleasurable experience, at its best (as at Whole Foods) quite enjoyable. Even the warehouses like Costco and its smaller counterpart, Smart & Final, do just fine: they have no pretentions, but neither do they dump virtual garbage on the consumer merely to create another trivial revenue stream, all for the sake of promotions in the marketing department..."
by Strange Attractor in Total Experience

The Guardian's "Comment is Free"

Kevin Anderson: "First off, I want to say that I really admire the ambition of the Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free. It is one of the boldest statements made by any media company that participation needs to be central to a radical revamp of traditional content strategies... It is, therfore, not hugely surprising to find that Comment is Free is having a few teething troubles..."
by Kevin Anderson in strange
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

The Loom

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August 14, 2005

Meet Your Inner Mole Rat

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Posted by Carl Zimmer

Mole rat.jpgMole rats are a pretty ugly, obscure bunch of creatures. They live underground in Africa, where they use their giant teeth to gnaw at roots. Those of you who know anything about mole rats most likely know about naked mole rats, which have evolved a remarkable society that is more insect than mammalian, complete with a queen mole rat ruling over her colony. But according to a paper in press at the Journal of Human Evolution, mole rats are important for another reason. Their evolution and our own show some striking parallels that may shed light on how our ancestors diverged from other apes.

The authors of the paper, Greg Laden of the University of Minnesota and Harvard's Richard Wrangham, believe that the rise of hominids was marked by a shift in food. Reviewing the evidence from fossils and living apes, they argue that common ancestor of humans and our three closest relatives (chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas) dwelled in a rain forest. If this ancient ape was anything like living chimps and gorillas, it depended mainly on fruits. When it couldn't find fruits, it turned to other so-called "fallback foods" such as soft leaves and pith.

Judging from the fossils of plants and animals found alongside early hominid bones, it seems that hominids shifted from dense rain forests to woodlands, and much later to open, arid savannas. It would have been harder to survive on the diet of a gorilla or a chimpanzee in such places. Laden and Wrangham point out that in Gabon, gorillas that live in rainforests don't venture into the surrounding savannas, despite the fact that the savannas get a lot of rain. The problem is that outside of rainforests, there just aren't enough of their fallback foods to sustain them.

So how did hominids survive? Laden and Wrangham argue that they began to rely on a new fallback food: roots, tubers, and other "underground storage units."(To me this term sounds too much as if it came from a subterranean Ikea catalog, so I'll just use the word tubers.) The idea was first proposed in 1980 by other scientists who observed that one important difference between hominids and other apes is their teeth. Chimpanzees and gorillas have shearing edges on their teeth that help them slice up leaves. Hominids had teeth that resembled those of pigs and bears, which can chew tough, fiber-rich food. Pigs dig up tubers with their snouts, bears with their claws. Fossil discoveries suggest that hominids might have used sticks or horns. But they all chewed the tubers in much the same way.

In the new paper (posted by Laden here), Laden and Wrangham explore this idea in much more detail. They point to evidence that tubers are more diverse in savannas than in rain forests, and grow at densities that can be hundreds of times higher. This makes intuitive sense when you consider that tubers are probably adaptations to dry, unpredictable climates where plants need to store away energy underground. In the stable dampness of a rain forest, there isn't much use for a tuber. Laden and Wrangham also point out that human foragers who live where lots of tubers grow take advantage of them. They prefer other food, like ripe fruits, but in tough times they dig up their meals.

Laden and Wrangham then turn from the present to the past. If their hypothesis is right, hominids must have lived in places where they might have eaten tubers. That's a tricky question to answer directly for most sites where hominid fossils have been found, because scientists haven't found enough plant fossils associated with them.

Enter the mole rats.

Mole rats love tubers, and where you find mole rats, you generally find a lot of tubers for them to gnaw on. What's more, mole rats and humans have a taste for many of the same species that produce underground storage units. Mole rats have left a long fossil record in Africa since they first appeared some 20 million years ago--not coincidentally when tuber-rich habitats may have begun to spread through Africa.

Laden and Wrangham predicted that hominids and mole rats should tend to have left fossils in the same habitats. They looked at fossil sites from six million years ago to half a million years ago in eastern and southern Africa, where hominids lived. They then picked out sites where either hominids or mole rats had been found, or both. Of the 21 sites that had mole rats, 17 also had hominids. Less than a fifth of the sites without mole-rats had hominid fossils. The pattern suggests that mole-rats and hominids both evolved to take advantage of the rich supply of tubers in African savannas. They came at the tubers from below, we from above.

Dribs and drabs of this hypothesis have trickled out over the past six years. In a 1999 paper in the journal Current Anthropology, Laden and Wrangham and their colleagues suggested that tubers were important to hominids and then became really important about 1.9 million years ago. At that time, hominids began emerging who were much taller and bigger-brained than their ancestors, and who also had smaller teeth. Laden and Wrangham argued that hominids at this time must have discovered fire, which would have allowed them to cook down tubers, liberating much of the nutrition in them. In this 2002 article Natalie Angier offers a nice summary of their thinking at the time—along with the skeptical reaction it drew from some experts. One big problem is that the oldest good evidence for fire is only a few hundred thousand years old, not almost two million.

The new paper doesn't address the skepticism about this later part of their scenario. Instead, it looks back at the first four million years of our life with tubers. Laden and Wrangham propose testing their hypothesis by looking at the trace elements and isotopes in tubers to see if the patterns are reflected in the composition of hominid fossils. I also wonder about how they got hold of the tubers. Were the earliest hominids able to fashion digging sticks, or were they merely using their hands, the way savanna baboons do today? How exactly, I wonder, did we get to be the upright mole rats?

(Update: 8/15 10 am: Thanks to Hoopman for pointing out some new findings that may show evidence of fire 1.5 million years ago. Here's a BBC article with some details. As far as I can tell, though, the results have only been presented at a conference. They haven't been published in a journal.)

Comments (7) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Evolution


1. Daniel Newby on August 15, 2005 01:35 AM writes...

It would be informative to consider vitamin C in the context of this theory. If it is correct, then the underground vegetables probably supply substantial dietary vitamin C, because humans cannot synthesize their own. However that means that mole rats are also dietarily well-supplied with vitamin C and have been for millions of years, so one would expect that they too would have lost the ability to synthesize the vitamin. Alas, a quick search did not turn up any useful citations.

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2. Hoopman on August 15, 2005 10:23 AM writes...

See this article for evidence of Homo Erectus using fire to cook food (possibly) at 1.5 million years. This starts creeping back reasonably close to the point Laden/Wrangham suggest.

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3. John A. Davison on August 15, 2005 02:49 PM writes...

Has Homo sapiens undergone any morphological modifications in the hundred thousand years or so that he can be documented to have existed? I am interested in any such information as it is my present and published view that the environment has played no role in organic evolution beyond that of releasing latent endogenous prescribed potentials, a perspective anticipated by both Leo Berg and Otto Schindewolf.

I refer you to: A Prescribed Evolutionary Hypothesis, Rivista di Biologia 98: 155-166, 2005

To give original credit where it is due, in referring to both ontogeny and phylogeny:

"Neither in the one nor in the other is there room for chance."
Leo Berg, Nomogenesis, page 134

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4. Gone with the wind on August 15, 2005 07:05 PM writes...

With the famous lines, "As God is my witness, I will never be hungry again!", Scarlett O'Hara digs out a turnip and eats it. Fallback food with evolutionary echoes, and pwoerful drama. A coincidence?

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5. Tom on August 16, 2005 09:03 AM writes...

Or maybe we just ate the mole rats?

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6. Todd Moody on August 16, 2005 09:07 AM writes...

Aiello and Wheeler's "expensive tissue hypothesis" requires only that hominids were differentiated from apes by a progressively higher ratio of brain to gut tissue, which in turn reflects a need for higher density foods. Craig Stevens (see _The Hunting Ape_) and others argue that that food was probably meat, initially scavenged, then hunted. For Wrangham, it's tubers. Seems to me it was very likely both. The level of technology needed for cracking bones to get at marrow and scraping flesh off them is about the same as for digging tubers out of the ground.

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7. Eliot Glick on August 17, 2005 02:18 AM writes...

As the article states at the outset, tubers were crucial fall-back foods. What really made hominids new and exciting was our unique evolutionary gifts for hunting big game. This put us squarely on top of the food chain and was concurrent with our need for a much higher fat and higher protein diet than the apes' largely fibre-based diet. Humans began to obtain calories from fat as opposed to sugars from starches, though the sugars were, as the authors suggest, important fall-backs. This is the how and why our stomachs got smaller as our brains got bigger, we just didn't need all that fibre any more. And recent research in the field of paleo-dentistry strongly supports the authors' contention that we've been using fire for cookery for about two million years.

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