Dr Alice Roberts: The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being

A Roberts. unlikeliness of being

About a month ago I started reading Prof Alice Roberts’ book ‘The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being’ and it certainly didn’t disappoint. I have seen many of Prof Roberts’ TV documentaries and have read one of her other books ‘The Incredible Human Journey’ and have always enjoyed their content. My own academic and personal interests include human evolution, the human body and subjects surrounding the natural sciences making Alice Roberts’ books and programmes deeply interesting.

I have meaning to read ‘The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being’ ever since I received the book last Christmas and I am very glad that I’ve finally got round to it. A large portion of the work published by Alice Roberts has surrounded the topic of human evolution and as that is the subject I studied as an undergraduate I was mostly familiar with the material and areas covered. However, her latest book goes back deeper into evolutionary history and discusses the evolutionary history of our bodies. This means looking at embryos, genes and the visible anatomy using the latest research in order to understand how we came to look like the way we do today.

Throughout the book there is amazing detail that is described in such a way that it is to understand, so even if you have a limited knowledge of anatomy you should be able to follow. There are also many illustrations, which were hand-drawn, that again assist to understand the processes and structures that are being discussed. Whilst reading this book I learnt so many things about our anatomy and our evolutionary history. Most of my knowledge surrounding evolution is focused on and around human evolution, with other primates and some other mammals for comparison but ‘The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being’ has definitely expanded my knowledge.

One thing that this book highlights for me is that we as human beings are not unique or incredibly special. We are a product of evolution and a great deal of luck that we even exist. For some this thought is terrifying and wrong – that we are special and that makes us better for it. I have totally the opposite opinion. The fact that we can see traits that give us a hint of our evolutionary history and that these traits can be seen in other organisms is amazing. However, from another point on view at a very individual level it is incredible that either you or me are here today. It is chance that a particular sperm met that particular egg to produce you and this story repeats itself at every level of our evolutionary history. The more I think about it more the mind boggles!

This is a great book that is well written and easy to both read and understand. I highly recommend it to anyone who has an interest in evolution, biology or anatomy.


Giant subfossil lemur graveyard discovered, submerged, in Madagascar

High resolution, in situ photographs of Aven subfossils. (Taken from Rosenberger et al. p. 3).

High resolution, in situ photographs of Aven subfossils. (Taken from Rosenberger et al. p. 3).

Yesterday my friend at work sent me this paper because she had heard of my interest in bones. This article features a graveyard – not of humans but of fossil lemurs and other fauna. An expedition of some flooded freshwater caves in Tsimanampetsotsa National Park, Madagascar was undertaken to investigate the paleontological potential of the caves.

On this preliminary investigation several species were identified including birds, reptiles, small mammals and large vertebrates and that this assemblage represents ‘a reasonable cross-section of the known extinct fauna found in the region of Tsimanampetsotsa National Park’ along with some species that are still living today. From this range of fauna discovered the most abundant were the giants lemurs and appears to be one of the most richest sites in Madagascar. 

As this expedition was conducted to explore the site no specific measurements or counts were made regarding the skeletal remains. However, future investigation may be able to shed light on past biodiversity in that area and the time period that they existed. I will try to keep an eye on for developments of this site in the future as it has great potential.

You can read the article here which also includes a video taken during a diving trip into the caves. 

Reference: Rosenberger, A. L. et al. Giant subfossil lemur graveyard discovered, submerged, in Madagascar. Journal of Human Evolution. [In press at time of writing].

Ancient Human Occupation of Britain – BBC Radio

A half hour program on BBC Radio 4. Professor Alice Roberts discusses the how and who inhabited ancient Britain. She talks to Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, Nick Ashton of the British Museum, Professor Danielle Schreve from the Royal Holloway and Rob Dinnis about carbon dating.

Find the episode on BBC iplayer here and to find out more about the AHOB (Ancient Human Occupation of Britain) team you can find their website here.

2013 – A Year of Discoveries and Advancing Knowledge

This past year has been an exciting one in the world of biological anthropology/paleoanthropology. New fossils have been found and there have been new insights into human evolution thanks to genetics. I think as more of these discoveries are made our way of thinking needs to expand and become more flexible.

Here’s and article from the BBC covering some of the finds from this year. The writer, Dr Clive Finlayson, also offers some points of change in our way of thinking – and I think he’s right, or at least they’re good areas to start with. I hope 2014 can bring us even more exciting a things which help us to increase our knowledge and build on our picture of human evolution.

Happy New Year everyone!

A Complete Skull from Dmanisi, Georgia, and the Evolutionary Biology of Early Homo

Dmanisi Cranium. Taken from Lordkipandze et al. (2013) p.327

Dmanisi Cranium. Taken from Lordkipandze et al. (2013) p.327

A cranium excavated in 2005 from Dmanisi, Georgia makes the most complete adult skull known for early Pleistone Homo. This cranium, along with a mandible and post-cranial remains, is of an adult hominin with a small cranial capacity, a moderate body size and a mixture of primitive and derived post-cranial features. As the cranium has not been deformed from taphonomic processes it can provide clear and accurate measurements and interpretation of features. It is found to have large zygomatic arches,with indications for big masticatory muscles and heavily worn, large lower dentition. There face appears to be wide with a large degree of prognathism providing an image of a small brained, large faced, robust individual.

As the cranium is so complete it can provide clues and insights into the degree of variation seen in these hominins found in Dmanisi. Previously the evidence for early Homo morphology was based on two adolescents and one old individual. Although these individuals help with gaining a picture of early Homo it is well-known that during adolescence some of the skeletal elements have not completely fused or grown, and as an individual ages bone degeneration occurs. This new cranium allows researchers to get a more complete and rounded view of these individuals. From this patterns of variation among and between  paleospeciesof early Homo and it has been found that the degree of variation seen within the hominins excavated from Dmanisi are comparable with patterns of variation seen in chimps and bonobos.

This is an exciting find which will help further research and knowledge into the evolution of early Homo.

Full citation for article:

Leg bone gives up oldest human DNA

BBC article that DNA from a 400,00 year old human will advance our knowledge and understanding of human ancestors.

An Online Database Providing Free Metrical Data on Human Fossil Teeth

A week or so ago I posted about an article which discussed the use of publishing skeletal data onto an online database so it is accessible to other researchers, which can be viewed here. Following from that I found a similar idea using fossil human teeth. Again, this data is free to access and includes a large data sample from the earliest hominins to modern humans. A short article which is attached to the database provides more information as well as the usefulness of sharing data online. It also discusses some problems which may be encountered when providing measurements for open access. These mainly include problems with taking and recording measurements which may differ from one source to the next.

I think that are research and interest increases in these areas the need for large and accurate datasets will be needed. However, in the field of human evolution the number of specimens that are currently available for research are small in number and scattered across the globe. The use of online databases, if regulated strictly and cited with care, could prove to be an important and useful tool for future research.

Find the online database for data on human fossil teeth here and the related article here.