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What makes us human? The unfortunate 'rat people' of Pakistan could provide the answer.
The Telegraph (UK) ^ | August 1, 2006 | by Armand Leroi

Posted on 07/31/2006 6:59:25 PM PDT by aculeus

Travel the Grand Trunk Road between Lahore and Islamabad, and you come to the city of Gujrat. Awash in the smog and sewage produced by its million-odd inhabitants, it is an unlovely place best known for the manufacture of electrical fans. It is also the location of a shrine to a 17th-century Sufi Saint by the name of Shua Dulah. For at least 100 years, but perhaps for centuries, it has been, though is no longer, a depository for children with microcephaly.

The word "microcephaly" comes from the Greek, "small head". But in Pakistan, such children are known as chuas or "rat people". The name is uncharitable but apt, for their sloping foreheads and narrow faces do, indeed, have a rodent quality. When I visited the shrine earlier this year, I found only one chua, a 30-year-old woman called Nazia. Mentally disabled - I would judge her intelligence to be about that of a one- or two-year-old child - her nominal function is to guard the shoes that worshippers leave at its entrance, but that work seems to be mostly done by her companion, a charming hypopituitary dwarf called Nazir.

These days, most chuas are intinerant beggars. Travelling up and down the Grand Trunk Road, following a seasonal calender of religious festivals. Each chua is owned, or perhaps leased, by a minder, often a raffish, gypsy-like figure. The Chua-master looks after, and profits from, his chua rather as a peasant might a donkey; together, they may earn as much as 400 rupees per day, about £4. Most people I asked supposed that there are about 1,000 chuas in the Punjab, but no one really knows.

Where do they come from? There is, inevitably, a local myth to account for origins of the chuas. Infertile women, the story runs, come to the shrine to ask the saint to intercede on their behalf, to give them children. This he does, but only at a price: the first-born child would be a chua. That child has to be given back to the shrine where it would be raised, and live, as an acolyte. Should she fail to do so, all future children will be born chuas as well.

Nazia aside, the Pakistan government has banned microcephalics from the shrine. Yet women still go there to petition the saint. At least some of them still believe the myth. Educated Pakistanis know better. Dismissing the Curse of Shua Dulah as mere superstition, they have a better theory: that chuas aren't born, but made. Priests, chua-masters, or perhaps even parents, they say, purposefully deform healthy infants by placing pots or metal clamps on the heads of healthy infants and so retard the growth of the brain.

The Bonsai theory of microcephaly is at least 100 years old. In colonial times, British health officials fulminated against "this barbaric practice". Their concern has modern echoes. Every few years, some globetrotting reporter or public health official learns of the chuas and calls for their manufacture to be stamped out. While the sentiment may be admirable, its premise is almost certainly false.

There are several reasons for believing that microcephaly in the Punjab is not caused by clamping. The first is simply that no one, or at least no one I spoke to, seems to have actually seen it. The source of the allegation always seems to be an untraceable relation in an unreachable village. The second is that it is probably biologically impossible. The brain of an infant grows for the first nine years of life and the skull has gaps - sutures - to accommodate that growth. Should these sutures seal prematurely, as they do in certain rare genetic conditions, the result is not microcephaly but rather death, as the brain is forced through the hole at the base of the skull, so compressing the spinal cord.

But the strongest reason for dismissing the Bonsai account of microcephaly is that the disorder occurs among British Pakistanis as well. And they, it is quite clear, are not clamping their children.

In 1967, Pakistan dammed the Jhelum River that forms the frontier between Punjab and Kashmir. The resulting reservoir displaced thousands of peasants who were farming the river's flood plains. They emigrated: some went as far as Bradford and Leeds, where they formed the nucleus of one of Britain's largest Asian communities.

Microcephaly is a rare disorder in Britain. No one seems to know precisely how common it is in the Asian community of north England, but it was common enough to attract the attention of Geoff Woods, a geneticist working at Leeds University. He found that it ran in families. That implied that its cause was genetic; it was caused by a mutation. Or, more precisely, several. By the late 1990s, the disorder had been mapped to deficiencies in at least six different genes.

In the last few years, Woods and his collaborators have identified several of them. All seem to encode proteins that are needed if neuroblasts - the cells that give rise to the brain's neurons - are to divide and prosper. Should a child be born with an insufficiency of one of these proteins, the neuroblasts fail to divide. Or perhaps they divide slowly or die prematurely - the precise cellular defect is still obscure. In any event, the result is a brain that, in the extreme, grows to only one third of its normal size.

It is easy to see why peculiar theories of the origins of microcephaly have proliferated in Pakistan. To the untrained eye, the occurrence of the disorder is hard to explain. Healthy parents may have microcephalic children; microcephalic parents - there are a few - may have healthy children. To a geneticist, however, this merely speaks of recessive mutations. A child will only have microcephaly if it has inherited two copies of the mutant gene, one from each parent who are its carriers.

Disorders caused by recessive mutations are normally rather rare. But not in Lahore; nor in Leeds. That's because of the Pakistani way of marriage. Most of us marry people quite distantly related to ourselves and, as we travel ever further, our mates become ever more genetically remote.

In Pakistan, however, some 60 per cent of marriages are between first cousins; the frequency in Bradford and Leeds is thought to be comparable. The result is that clinical genetics units serving the British Pakistani community see a range and frequency of genetic disorders unknown elsewhere in the country.

The discovery of the microcephaly genes was important. It instantly told us something about how the human brain grows. But the true beauty of this work is that it has told something even more profound: how the human brain has evolved.

In the last three million or so years, the human brain has approximately trebled in size. This change, remarkable in its extent and speed, must have been caused by mutations - advantageous mutations - that swept through the populations of our ancestors as they wandered, generation after generation, across the African veldt. That such mutations must exist has long been obvious. The problem has been how to find them.

One way to do this is to compare our genome with that of our nearest relative, the chimpanzee. That's now easily done. The chimp genome was sequenced in 2005. To find the genes that matter to human evolution (the genes that make us different from an ape, that make us human) it should be just a matter of lining the two genomes up side-by-side and looking for the differences.

But genomes are vast. Chimps and humans each have about three billion nucleotides in their genomes - 99 per cent of those may be identical, but that still leaves about 30 million differences. Most of those are unimportant, the background noise of genomic evolution. But some matter: which?

Therein lies the importance of microcephaly. The discovery of genes that control the growth of the brain immediately suggested that these genes might also have changed in the last six million years since we last shared an ancestor with chimps. And so it proved: of the four microcephaly genes that have been found, three bear the hallmarks of rapid evolution. To be sure, chimps have versions of these genes, but the human version is different. So different, in fact, that their evolution must have been driven by natural selection.

It is hard to understate the beauty of this result. Ever since Aristotle, philosophers have wondered: what makes us different from the beasts? What makes us human? The answers that they have supplied: that man is a political animal, a thinking animal, a naked animal, a tool-making, tool-using animal - answers that, for all the aphoristic pleasure they provide, are essentially meaningless if not blatantly false, can now be discarded.

Now, when we ask: "What makes us human?" we can answer: this gene and that one... and that one. We can write the recipe for making a human being. Or, at least, we can begin to.

There is bittersweet irony in the discovery that the genes underlying a disorder as disabling as microcephaly should have also been responsible for the thing that we, as a species, are most proud of: our brains. Yet for all intellectual fascination of these discoveries, we should not neglect one more thing that they have given us: a way to meliorate the disease that pointed to their discovery.

Microcephaly cannot be cured. But it can now be prevented. Now that some of the mutations have been found, parents from families with a history of the disorder can have their newly conceived embryos tested. If the embryo has two copies of the mutation, it can be aborted.

Some will find this application of genetics, now routinely used in Britain to prevent many inherited disorders, repugnant. I am not among them. In Lahore, I met a middle-class family with two microcephalic children. Their mother, a woman who loved her disabled children passionately, spoke of her joy when just such a genetic test - the first in Pakistan - enabled her to give birth to a healthy girl.

It is easy to see why. The care that Pakistan provides for the mentally disabled is negligible. "What," said Rubina, speaking of her microcephalic children, "will happen to them when I am gone?" "Who will look after them?" "They will become" - she could barely say the word - "chuas". She wept; we filmed her; I did not know what to say.

Information appearing on telegraph.co.uk is the copyright of Telegraph Group Limited and must not be reproduced in any medium without licence. For the full copyright statement see Copyright


TOPICS: Extended News
KEYWORDS: abortion; crevolist; dmanisi; godsgravesglyphs; health; hobbits; homoerectus; origin; origins; pakistan; personhood; welfare
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Nazia, a 30-year-old with microcephaly. She guards the shoes at the Shua Dulah shrine

1 posted on 07/31/2006 6:59:26 PM PDT by aculeus
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To: aculeus

2 posted on 07/31/2006 7:00:27 PM PDT by RightOnTheLeftCoast
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To: aculeus

3 posted on 07/31/2006 7:13:14 PM PDT by RightOnTheLeftCoast
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To: aculeus
I know it's not right to make fun of these unfortunate people, but the temptation of "DemocRat People" is irresistable.
4 posted on 07/31/2006 7:15:29 PM PDT by RightOnTheLeftCoast
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To: SunkenCiv

Hobbits?


5 posted on 07/31/2006 7:17:13 PM PDT by blam
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To: aculeus; RightOnTheLeftCoast
To aculeus: Interesting article. Thanks.

To RightOnTheLeftCoast: I beg folks to please stop posting that disgusting picture. It ruins an otherwise interesting and informative thread, and is no longer funny (post it once you're a wit; post it twice you're a half-wit; arithmetic progression from there).

6 posted on 07/31/2006 7:18:43 PM PDT by Coyoteman (I love the sound of beta decay in the morning!)
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To: Coyoteman
To RightOnTheLeftCoast: I beg folks to please stop posting that disgusting picture. It ruins an otherwise interesting and informative thread, and is no longer funny (post it once you're a wit; post it twice you're a half-wit; arithmetic progression from there).

Thanks. I hope it does some good but these "wits" tend to be a thick as boards.

7 posted on 07/31/2006 7:21:35 PM PDT by aculeus
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To: aculeus
Microcephaly cannot be cured. But it can now be prevented. Now that some of the mutations have been found, parents from families with a history of the disorder can have their newly conceived embryos tested. If the embryo has two copies of the mutation, it can be aborted.

Come now. You mean, the law will require the embryo to be aborted.

Abortion to the...rescue?

How casually we toss the term around now, in our public press. Simple solution. What else will soon be just as palatable?

8 posted on 07/31/2006 7:22:45 PM PDT by the invisib1e hand (dust off the big guns.)
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To: aculeus
"To be sure, chimps have versions of these genes, but the human version is different. So different, in fact, that their evolution must have been driven by natural selection."

Rubbish. "Natural Selection" merely eliminates an existing group/population...it doesn't change anything in a gene.

9 posted on 07/31/2006 7:25:44 PM PDT by Southack (Media Bias means that Castro won't be punished for Cuban war crimes against Black Angolans in Africa)
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To: Coyoteman

Then my wit is down by a few decimal places by now.

Sorry.

...But which picture are you talking about?


10 posted on 07/31/2006 7:27:50 PM PDT by RightOnTheLeftCoast
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To: aculeus
Microcephaly cannot be cured. But it can now be prevented. Now that some of the mutations have been found, parents from families with a history of the disorder can have their newly conceived embryos tested. If the embryo has two copies of the mutation, it can be aborted.

I have a better solution. How about not marrying your cousin.

11 posted on 07/31/2006 7:35:19 PM PDT by vbmoneyspender
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To: RightOnTheLeftCoast
...But which picture are you talking about?

I was referring to the Helen Thomas picture; I didn't notice the same person had posted both.

The second is equally disgusting, but does not show up so often, so has not become so objectionable.

But I really am tired of the Helen Thomas picture. I'm tempted to start hitting the abuse button when it shows up. Sorry to spoil your fun but that is optical abuse.

12 posted on 07/31/2006 7:44:28 PM PDT by Coyoteman (I love the sound of beta decay in the morning!)
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To: aculeus
Should a child be born with an insufficiency of one of these proteins, the neuroblasts fail to divide.

DNA is the locksmith and proteins are the keys.

13 posted on 07/31/2006 7:45:30 PM PDT by Rudder
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To: RightOnTheLeftCoast

Who is that??(Post three)


14 posted on 07/31/2006 7:49:37 PM PDT by justche (If you're afraid of the future, then get out of the way, stand aside. - Ronald Reagan)
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To: vbmoneyspender
I have a better solution. How about not marrying your cousin..

Watch it there, buster. You're treading on thin multicultural ice. < /sarc>

15 posted on 07/31/2006 7:51:42 PM PDT by GATOR NAVY
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To: justche

The Great Nostrildamus, of course.


16 posted on 07/31/2006 7:53:30 PM PDT by MarineDad (Whenever mosques and JDAM's meet, civilization benefits.)
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To: aculeus

What makes us human is that we have human parents --and a soul. Is it so hard to admit that these are merely unfortunate souls?


17 posted on 07/31/2006 8:00:01 PM PDT by RobbyS ( CHIRHO)
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To: aculeus

Just grind up a few senators, suck up some stem cells from the goo, and inject 'em into these poor folks. The senatorial fat-headed genes ought to fix them right up.


18 posted on 07/31/2006 8:01:24 PM PDT by MainFrame65
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To: GATOR NAVY

You are saying that modern science has caught up with folk wisdom?


19 posted on 07/31/2006 8:01:28 PM PDT by RobbyS ( CHIRHO)
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To: justche

Congressman Henry Waxman, D-Santa Monica.

The only Congresscritter with his very own emoticon:

:8)


20 posted on 07/31/2006 8:06:32 PM PDT by RightOnTheLeftCoast
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To: RightOnTheLeftCoast; Mike Bates

Mike, was it you that was talking about appearance in politics today? What about Waxman - see post 3

Thanks ROTLC :)


21 posted on 07/31/2006 8:13:32 PM PDT by justche (If you're afraid of the future, then get out of the way, stand aside. - Ronald Reagan)
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To: aculeus
From the article:
Disorders caused by recessive mutations are normally rather rare. But not in Lahore; nor in Leeds. That's because of the Pakistani way of marriage. Most of us marry people quite distantly related to ourselves and, as we travel ever further, our mates become ever more genetically remote.

In Pakistan, however, some 60 per cent of marriages are between first cousins; the frequency in Bradford and Leeds is thought to be comparable. The result is that clinical genetics units serving the British Pakistani community see a range and frequency of genetic disorders unknown elsewhere in the country.

I wonder what else about the region this explains...
22 posted on 07/31/2006 8:14:53 PM PDT by cynwoody
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To: RobbyS; vbmoneyspender
Amazing isn't it? Most cultures somehow figured this out hundreds of generations ago.

On an aside note, was this knowledge maybe imparted when humans started domesticating and breeding animals? Or is there something deeper in our unconsciousness (or genes) that tells us it's wrong?

23 posted on 07/31/2006 8:15:44 PM PDT by GATOR NAVY
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To: cynwoody

Cousins marry cousins for another reason: women are so badly treated that they need the protection of a close male relative to the groom. Mamoud maybe won't beat his uncle's daughter: Uncle might beat on him.


24 posted on 07/31/2006 8:22:21 PM PDT by RobbyS ( CHIRHO)
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To: the invisib1e hand

Boo creepy eugenecists. Hooray BEER!


25 posted on 07/31/2006 8:25:44 PM PDT by Constantine XIII
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To: justche
Mike, was it you that was talking about appearance in politics today? What about Waxman - see post 3

Yeah, that was I. Actually, Mr. Waxman's lookin' pretty good. For a Democrat.

26 posted on 07/31/2006 8:27:20 PM PDT by Mike Bates (Irish Alzheimer's victim: I only remember the grudges.)
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To: aculeus

27 posted on 07/31/2006 8:38:31 PM PDT by Porterville (Hispanic Republican American Bush Supporter)
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To: aculeus
In the last three million or so years, the human brain has approximately trebled in size. This change, remarkable in its extent and speed, must have been caused by mutations - advantageous mutations - that swept through the populations of our ancestors as they wandered, generation after generation, across the African veldt.That such mutations must exist has long been obvious. The problem has been how to find them.

No fossil record - all those generations and NO FOSSIL record. Zip, nada, zero follil evidence exist anywhere -- almost makes a person doubt Darwin...

28 posted on 07/31/2006 8:41:19 PM PDT by GOPJ
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To: aculeus

29 posted on 07/31/2006 8:43:35 PM PDT by Alouette (Psalms of the Day: 35-38)
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To: aculeus

"In Pakistan, however, some 60 per cent of marriages are between first cousins; the frequency in Bradford and Leeds is thought to be comparable. The result is that clinical genetics units serving the British Pakistani community see a range and frequency of genetic disorders unknown elsewhere in the country. ... "

Cause: Victims of excessive inbreeding.


30 posted on 07/31/2006 8:58:05 PM PDT by WOSG
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To: GOPJ

Huh? Plenty of homo erectus, other hominids and homo sapiens between 3 million years ago and now ...

http://www.berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2002/03/20_daka.html

Anyway, its fascinating that a severe disorder is helping us trace genes for brain development.

might get us back to believing that IQ is genetic, eh?


31 posted on 07/31/2006 9:01:30 PM PDT by WOSG
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To: blam
Hobbits?
Just bring out the cold chicken and pickles. Oops, I mean, well put. :') I don't think I'll ping it, but let's add it to the catalog.

To all -- please ping me to other topics which are appropriate for the GGG list. Thanks.
Please FREEPMAIL me if you want on or off the
"Gods, Graves, Glyphs" PING list or GGG weekly digest
-- Archaeology/Anthropology/Ancient Cultures/Artifacts/Antiquities, etc.
Gods, Graves, Glyphs (alpha order)

32 posted on 07/31/2006 9:36:16 PM PDT by SunkenCiv (updated my FR profile on Thursday, July 27, 2006. https://secure.freerepublic.com/donate/)
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To: aculeus

Interesting article. Thanks for posting.


33 posted on 07/31/2006 9:48:39 PM PDT by Lorianne
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To: aculeus
Interesting article indeed. I can't cast off the notion that there may be a spiritual component to genetic defects, or has that old testament idea that genetic defects were a punishment for sin notion been jettisoned for good?

These things seem to start out as clusters and spread or there is always a first mutation, case or cause.

I certainly wouldn't argue the science of it, don't like the idea of using genetic testing that results in the choice of abortion, but a child is doomed to an awful life, much of which it would not comprehend in an impoverished country such as Pakistan, harder on loved ones dealing with it.

What tends to negate the notion that mutations are a punishment for sins is what happened at Chernobyl and environmental disasters causing defects, many in our country like Three Mile Island, Agent Orange, and so on. It makes no sense now.

It will be very interesting if they can regress the gene studies to a time before the phenomenon began. Some seem to have been with us for a very long time, but some seem rather new.

34 posted on 07/31/2006 10:24:14 PM PDT by Aliska
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To: WOSG

hasidic jews often marry cousins and have you ever noticed that almost all their kids need eyeglasses at an early age?it could be that nearsightnedness is inherited in those cases as well as Tay-Sachs disease.-this can apply to any group that is isolated either by geography or cultural exclusivity when it comes to marriage-my son and daughter are jewish-honduran-puerto rican and my grandaughter adds black and american indian to the mix-guess what-no eyeglasses!


35 posted on 08/01/2006 5:38:06 AM PDT by steamroller
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To: Lorianne
Interesting article. Thanks for posting.

My pleasure.

Leroi wrote an interesting book on a related subject which was very popular in the UK but which went nowhere here.

36 posted on 08/01/2006 1:06:23 PM PDT by aculeus
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To: Aliska

I meant to address #36 to you too.


37 posted on 08/01/2006 1:08:02 PM PDT by aculeus
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To: PatrickHenry

Ping.


38 posted on 08/01/2006 1:09:05 PM PDT by Junior (Identical fecal matter, alternate diurnal period)
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To: Junior; b_sharp; Ichneumon; longshadow; CarolinaGuitarman; Thatcherite; Coyoteman; js1138; ...
Darn good article. It takes a while to get to the meat, but still, quite good.

Pinging "The Few"

39 posted on 08/01/2006 1:18:41 PM PDT by PatrickHenry (The Enlightenment gave us individual rights, free enterprise, and the theory of evolution.)
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To: PatrickHenry
Rat people!


40 posted on 08/01/2006 1:25:03 PM PDT by js1138 (Well I say there are some things we don't want to know! Important things!")
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To: RightOnTheLeftCoast

41 posted on 08/01/2006 1:27:41 PM PDT by Tokra (I think I'll retire to Bedlam.)
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To: GOPJ
No fossil record - all those generations and NO FOSSIL record. Zip, nada, zero follil evidence exist anywhere -- almost makes a person doubt Darwin...

All these fossils and thousands more. Almost makes a person doubt you.


Figure 1.4.4. Fossil hominid skulls. Some of the figures have been modified for ease of comparison (only left-right mirroring or removal of a jawbone). (Images © 2000 Smithsonian Institution.)


42 posted on 08/01/2006 2:29:04 PM PDT by Coyoteman (I love the sound of beta decay in the morning!)
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To: aculeus

43 posted on 08/01/2006 2:35:26 PM PDT by theFIRMbss
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To: WOSG
might get us back to believing that IQ is genetic, eh?

Believed it before The Bell Curve and believe it still...

44 posted on 08/01/2006 2:58:01 PM PDT by GOPJ
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To: Coyoteman
In the last three million or so years, the human brain has approximately trebled in size. This change, remarkable in its extent and speed, must have been caused by mutations - advantageous mutations - that swept through the populations of our ancestors as they wandered, generation after generation, across the African veldt.That such mutations must exist has long been obvious. The problem has been how to find them.

I was commenting on the article - it says "such mutations must exist ... the problem has been how to find them".

45 posted on 08/01/2006 3:02:11 PM PDT by GOPJ
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To: aculeus

I wonder if this is where they got the idea that they can come back as rats. (Just kidding). Pretty sad. India is such a lost, lost place.


46 posted on 08/01/2006 3:03:30 PM PDT by Paved Paradise
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To: GOPJ
No fossil record - all those generations and NO FOSSIL record. Zip, nada, zero follil evidence exist anywhere -- almost makes a person doubt Darwin...

http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1650016/posts?page=33#33

And so forth. Why do you antiscience wizards post such patently, absurdly false claims?

47 posted on 08/01/2006 3:13:24 PM PDT by VadeRetro (Faster than a speeding building; able to leap tall bullets at a single bound!)
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To: Coyoteman

Wa! wa! wah!

You're just jealous that she likes PH better.


48 posted on 08/01/2006 4:14:57 PM PDT by b_sharp (Why bother with a tagline? Even they eventually wear out! (Second Law of Taglines))
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To: RobbyS
"What makes us human is that we have human parents --and a soul. Is it so hard to admit that these are merely unfortunate souls?"

Random 'soul'ature?

Who'd a guessed.

49 posted on 08/01/2006 4:18:48 PM PDT by b_sharp (Why bother with a tagline? Even they eventually wear out! (Second Law of Taglines))
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To: WOSG
"might get us back to believing that IQ is genetic, eh?"

IQ is to a certain extent genetic. It it also to a certain extent environmental. Its plasticity, the ability to be modified by the environment, is genetic in nature.

It is still an awful poor indicator of 'race' which is itself poorly defined.

50 posted on 08/01/2006 4:28:52 PM PDT by b_sharp (Why bother with a tagline? Even they eventually wear out! (Second Law of Taglines))
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