Science Café at Orca Books: "Last of the Hominidae"


When: 7:00 PM, Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Where:  Orca Books (509 East 4th Avenue, Olympia, Phone 360.352.0123)

Speaker: Dr Larry Wood on "The Last of the Genus Homo"

Our species, Homo sapiens, appeared in S. Africa approximately 200,000 years ago (1). About 40,000 years ago we arrived at the southern shore of France(2), Where we were met by a distant relative, Homo Erectus, who left Africa ca 600,000 years ago, and a closer relative, H. Neanderthal, who had arrived about 200,000 years before us.

Between 2,000 and 4,000 years after our arrival, Erectus and Neanderthal were extinct. We were The Last of the Genus Homo! What happened? Why are we the last?

In his seminal book "Masters of the Planet", paleontologist Ian Tattersall asserts that "our success [is due to] to the attribute of symbolic thinking; something [provided by our enlarged frontal lobes] totally unique to our species". Recent advances in molecular genetics are finally revealing what genetic developments must have led to our enlarged frontal lobes and other physical characteristics.

Reflecting upon Tattersall's assertion, it occurred to me that two additional attributes have also contributed to our success. Our occasional, overwhelming need for sexual activity (which of course leads to reproduction), plus our expansive need to acquire and retain territory.

After explaining how the three attributes led to us, the presentation will illustrate how these attributes explain such long standing imponderables such as our seemingly irrational propensity for conflict with other members of our species while simultaneously giving our lives to save a member; our involvement in the extinction of our closest relatives, Erectus and Neanderthal, as well as the megafauna of North America and Australia; and why we were responsible.

Finally, there will be a few words regarding the implications of the discovery of Neanderthal DNA in our DNA.
(1) Sally McBreaty. Sharpening the mind, Nature, Vol. 491, 531, 532, 22 Nov. 2012
(2) T. Higham Aug. 21 2014 Nature.
Dr. Wood has a BSEE and a PhD Physics which enabled him to enjoy a reasonably successful career as an Electronic Product Development Manager. His career ended with retirement in 2000. After settling into retirement, he decided to pursue a new “career” as a science historian, something that had been a background activity during his working life.
As a science historian, he has pursued some of the more controversial areas such as evolution, publishing a book on the subject, "Evolution and the Future of Mankind". This book also contains an acclaimed history of science. He has given a number of papers at the annual meeting of the AAAS Pacific Division. His talk this evening is adapted from one of these papers.
Larry lives in the Jubilee over-55 community in Lacey with Mary, his wife of 57 years. Besides science history sleuthing, he enjoys hiking, biking, the symphony and travel. He is also working on another book, "Life’s Unending Cycle", which answers three fundamental questions: “Why am I here?” “Now that I’m here, why can’t I stay?” and “Since I can’t stay, did my life serve any purpose?”

Next Month: Why are the Sea Stars Dying?

What is science café? Science Café of Olympia meets each month on the second Tuesday. It provides an informal atmosphere where people with and without scientific background can meet to deepen their understanding of interesting topics in science and technology. After a presentation by an expert in the field, the meetings are opened for discussion. Science Cafés are found nationwide and are loosely affiliated with the U.K.-based Cafe Scientifique, an international organization promoting public engagement with science.

Event date: 
Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - 7:00pm
Event address: 
509 E 4th Ave
Olympia, WA 98501
Event Terms: