Skip to main content

Standing Up Meant Humans Could Talk

I am a big fan of The Royal Institution where I've been a member for about 30 years. Their most interesting activities are their Friday Evening Discourses which last exactly one hour and feature august speakers from somewhere in the wide world of science - usually academics. The audience comprises RI members and their guests who broadly enjoy learning about leading edge science presented in an entertaining and, usually, easy to understand way. The RI was in fact founded by Michael Faraday and Humphrey Davy to promote science to the glitterati of London society. Today it's a bit of an anachronism overtaken to some extent by TV documentaries, the internet and social goliaths like TED. But I personally get a great deal out of membership if for no other reason that it gives me a good excuse to start the weekend with a Friday night out in London preceded by a stimulating topic of conversation for the West End dinner which follows.

Last Friday I went to a particularly interesting lecture about the science of laughter given by Professor Sophie Scott (from my alma mater UCL). It seems very little is understood about both why and how we laugh. But the lecturer gave us a canter through what we do know about the physiology of how we laugh (sadly rather less about why). Apparently, how we make sounds using our vocal chords, including laughter, is extremely complex. Basically speech and other sounds we make require extraordinary control of the diaphragm and other rib-cage musculature - which at the same time prevents us from taking a breath. Uncontrollable, ie involuntary laughter, is apparently trying to kill us. Helpless with laughter means just that - you're body is about to make you black out or worse.

The obvious question therefore is 'what is the evolutionary benefit of laughter if it hinders both fight and flight'? Well it would seem its all about socialising and confirming you're not only a nice friendly person, but also that you like the other person you're laughing with (but not laughing at). It's about putting people at ease in an infectious way. Passifying the people around you. Lots we still don't understand about this intriguing and apparently rarely researched topic. Do watch out for the lecture on the RIGB website if and when it eventually gets published.

The point to all of this is an interesting observation that Prof Scott made about the complexity of speech and the delicate control we need to have of our ribcage and diaphragm to achieve speech. Apparently we simply couldn't achieve this if we had continued to walk on all fours. It was only by taking the weight off our upper body that we gained the opportunity to develop extremely subtle control of all the upper body muscles, previously used to help us walk, run, climb etc, to enable us to manage delicate airflow between our vocal chords, while at the same time stopping us breathing. What we therefore sacrificed to some extent in agility and stamina, we gained in socialising which evolved into civilisation.

So arguably the single biggest step (sorry) change in our evolutionary history was when we learned how to stand and walk on two feet - itself a quite remarkable neurological skill we had to develop (subsconsciously too). And this suggests another intriguing evolutionary idea. Presuming therefore that only rudimentary vocal communication skills were possible while we were quadrupedal, the first primates who stood on two legs were taking a risk (slower, couldn't climb trees as easily etc). And since not everyone stopped standing on four feet at the same time, complex communication couldn't evolve for some time. So when the first primate did stand up, why did he (and she presumably) survive and pass on their behaviour to their offspring who ended up dominating the planet? What was it about standing up for these early humans that provided them with instant survival benefit/s?

There might have been at least two advantages to bipedal behaviour. The first is frequently cited by evolutionists - seeing predators and prey from greater distances, especially in long grass. This would have been particularly valuable since the front limbs had also been liberated to hold tools and weapons. But a benefit idea I have not heard suggested for those first bipedal experimenters might have been the ability they discovered of controlling their vocal chords more delicately in order to better imitate and therefore catch their prey = better fed ancestors. They could also better warn each other more precisely about dangers.

Who might have guessed that apes learning to stand on two feet would a million years later result in obesity, porn websites and religious fundamentalists? Maybe we haven't evolved all that much after all.


Popular posts from this blog

Phillips screws - yes I'm angry about them too

Don't get me wrong. They're a brilliant invention to assist automation and prevent screwdrivers from slipping off screw heads - damaging furniture, paintwork and fingers in the process. Interestingly they weren't invented by Mr Phillips at all, but by a John P Thompson who sold Mr P the idea after failing to commercialise it. Mr P, on the otherhand, quickly succeeded where Mr T had failed. Incredible isn't it. You don't just need a good idea, you need a great salesman and, more importantly, perfect timing to make a success out of something new. Actually, it would seem, he did two clever things (apart from buying the rights). He gave the invention to GM to trial. No-brainer #1. After it was adopted by the great GM, instead of trying to become their sole supplier of Phillips screws, he sold licenses to every other screw manufacturer in the world. A little of a lot is worth a great deal more than a lot of a little + vulnerability (watch out Apple!). My gromble is abo

Norman's Autobiography

The following is an unfinished autobiography written by my father who passed away earlier this week at the age of 93. Cheerbye Dad (you were the only person I knew to use this expression). You were a huge influence on my life. Thanks for taking the time to record so much that I never knew about your own life and those of our immigrant ancestors. Dad's the one in the middle ;-) The HorBraJacSac Saga by Norman Horwood  9th June 1926 (or possibly earlier!) - 27th June 2019 The Families' Backgrounds. We have four families; Abrahams/Horowitz/Horwood; Bralofsky/Braley; Jacobs and Tchaikofsky/Sacof. Taking my pair, the (Abrahams) Horowitzs/Horwood and the (Bralofskys) Braleys. They escaped from different parts of "Mittel Europe" at different times. Abraham and Rachel Abrahams, nee Gess, (Horowitz), had been in England longer than the Bralofskys, having come here from Lithuania in about 1897 as a married couple without children. It is certain that Abraham

Prepare for Alien Contact

I've not gone barking mad or joined some weird religious cult (aren't they all?). But I do predict that we will make contact with intelligences from other planets soon. Here's my reasoning: There are approximately 100,000,000,000 stars in our galaxy (easy way to remember this order of magnitude is it's one hundred, thousand, million). Usefully there are also approximately the same number of galaxies in the universe. And assuming every star has about the same number of planets orbiting it as our Sun, and that the Milky Way is an average size of galaxy, that means there are around 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 planets in the universe. A lot. Scientists have long debated the probability of life, as we would recognise it - reproducing, eating, etc - existing outside Earth. Most agree mathematically that it's a certainty. What they did was take all the components they believed were required for life to have evolved on Earth and then extrapolate what they know about