What Makes Humans Human?


The recent efforts to map various genetic characteristics of humans are beginning to yield insights into what makes us Homo sapiens at the most basic levels. John Hawks draws attention to a paper published this week in PNAS. The paper uses statistical analysis of the distributions of linkage disequilibria in single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) to detect genes under recent selection pressure, and finds that at least 10% of human genes have been under such selection. (The percentage is an under-estimate because the coverage of SNPs is skewed to higher frequencies.) Many genes under recent selection cluster into four main groupings: “host-pathogen interactions, reproduction, protein metabolism, and neuronal function”. That last, of course, is real interesting! They offer some tentative explanations for the groupings:

We outline several predominant biological themes among genes detected with this strategy and suggest that selection for alleles in these categories accompanied the major “out of Africa” population expansion of humankind and/or the radical shift from hunter–gatherer to agricultural societies .

See Hawks’ blog entry for a more discussion and the paper itself, which is free online.



As it is Christmas Day the answer is manifest as in Christ we see God the Creator made human, it is that which makes us human more than anything else.

Scientifically I find it hard to say what makes us human but after church I must take my good companion for a walk - a Border Collie

Happy Christmas, but no seasons greetings!!!

No Michael. The answer is “Body Thetans.”

Careful about treading on religious ground.…

Using the term “out of Africa” coupled with human evolution is likely to remind people of the dark old days when evolution was used as a lame excuse for racism. (And, OK, that still goes on, but it was really bad in the first half of the 20th century.) It’s really easy to misinterpret that to mean that “those who have ancestors only from Africa are less evolved than those who have ancestors from Europe”, which of course is not what the findings are saying. (Never mind the fact that being less evolved doesn’t *necessarily* mean better in any particular characteristic; evolution isn’t “good”, it just is what it is, and will sometimes produce things that our system of morals and ethics isn’t compeltely happy with. Like, say, the fact that the most succesful humans in almost all walks of life are the arrogant bastards; that was probably an evolutionarily produced trait.)

The danger is that those who see the scientific wording as even potentially providing fuel for the racists will attack the science iteslf. Evolution is already under steady attack from the ideologues on the right; we don’t want it also under steady attack from the ideologues on the left. (See “The Blank Slate” by Steven Pinker for an example of science being under attack by ideologues on “both” sides (given our annoying left/right political classification scheme).)

The key is to recognize that nature is what nature is, and as we learn about it not all of us will always really like what we learn. (As is already clear from the creationists!). However, we can choose a system of ethics that may not be 100% in line with what nature would produce. What’s more, the other key is to recognize that the cultural and historical systematic effectss in our society are HUGE, so there’s no way that any evolutionary or genetic difference between sexes or races (whatever they may be, positive or negative in any direction) is going to show up in how “well” different races or sexes do in society or in any line of work. There’s more than enough shameful racism and sexism in society to more than explain all of that. And, finally, we should be a little careful in how we present things so that everybody understands that we know about the systematic effects and aren’t trying to be the next president of Harvard.


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This page contains a single entry by Richard B. Hoppe published on December 25, 2005 1:00 AM.

Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t. was the previous entry in this blog.

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