Tag Archives: human intelligence

News Ireland daily BLOG by Donie

Sunday 6th July 2014

Bundestag committee claims Ireland has no plan for growth


German MPs emphasise troubling lack of concern over Dublin’s ‘shadow bank’ sector

The Bundestag committee visited Dublin last month and met Ministers Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin, officials from the Central Bank, Nama, the IMF, economists and Irish banks.

Germany’s Bundestag finance committee has warned that, beyond tax breaks for multinational concerns, Ireland has no discernible business plan to return the economy to long-term growth.

After a recent visit to Dublin the cross-party committee said there was also a troubling lack of concern about Dublin’s “Schattenbank” or “shadow bank” sector of letterbox finance firms.

The Bundestag committee, headed by Green MP Gerhard Schick, visited Dublin from June 16th to 18th and met Ministers Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin, officials from the Central Bank, Nama, the International Monetary Fund, economists and Irish banks.

In their seven-page report, the visitors wondered if Ireland’s financial sector reform had missed the wood for the trees. Regulation of the domestic financial sector has been “strengthened massively, both in quality and quantity”, they noted, “but what of the rest of the financial sector?”

‘Little awareness’

The Germans noted “little awareness” in Dublin of the potential risk in hosting hundreds of brass-plate companies with no staff or premises yet €1.7 trillion in assets – almost 11 times the State’s gross national product.

“The only admission that this could be a difficulty for such a small country came from one of the bigger insurance companies,” noted the MPs.

Other people they met assured the visitors the “shadow” financial sector “has no connection with the Irish economy”.

“That did little to soothe us because the risks could yet turn up elsewhere, for instance in Germany,” said the MPs in their report.

Turning to Ireland’s reputation as a tax haven, the German MPs went home feeling there is a will for change in Ireland but that external vigilance will be required on the follow- through.

“The Irish Minister for Finance Michael Noonan described the debate over Ireland as a tax haven as a great image problem that has to be solved to not damage Ireland,” they wrote.

ESRI economist John Fitzgerald reportedly told the visitors how the current tax regime was a loss-leader for Ireland.

Summarising his remarks, they wrote: “As the Irish State pays into the EU budget based on GDP, into which the value created by international concerns flows without generating any tax revenue for the state, Ireland is losing money every year through the current tax regime.”


In the eyes of the German politicians, Ireland’s tax regime “had failed to reach one of the goals of Irish economic promotion, namely to be less dependent on Britain”.

“Instead [Ireland] has moved from de facto full dependency on Britain to a shared dependency on Britain and the US in developing and securing employment.”

When it comes to modifying its tax code, the visitors from Berlin noted a certain reluctance for the Irish to see themselves as masters of their own fiscal fate. “The Irish insist that they have no control when inventive companies put together a Double Irish-Dutch sandwich,” said the German MPs in their report.


The cross-party committee appears to have taken on Irish concerns that long-term austerity-oriented policies would not be conducive to sustainable growth. But just as serious, “given the high unemployment, a high level of loans in default and a tax system that encourages avoidance, the Government and their international advisers have no business model” for the Irish economy.

The loudest critics of Ireland’s tax affairs can be found in Germany’s Social Democratic Party and Greens, but the volume diminishes as you head right on Germany’s political spectrum.

Improved energy from Oilseed rape straw now well advanced


Researchers at the Institute of Food Research in the UK are looking at how to turn straw from oilseed rape into biofuel. Preliminary findings are pointing at ways the process could be made more efficient, as well as how the straw itself could be improved.

Straw from crops such as wheat, barley, oats and oilseed rape is seen as a potential source of biomass for second generation biofuel production. Currently the UK produces around 12 million tonnes of straw. Although much is used for animal bedding, mushroom compost and energy generation, there still exists a vast surplus.

Straw contains a mix of sugars that could be used as a source of biofuels that do not compete with food production but instead represent a sustainable way of utilising waste. However, the sugars are in a form that makes them inaccessible to the enzymes that release them for conversion into biofuels, so pre-treatments are needed. The pre-treatments make the complex carbohydrates more accessible to enzymes that convert them to glucose, in a process called saccharification. This is then fermented by yeast into ethanol.

Professor Keith Waldron and his team have been looking at the steps needed to unlock the sugars tied up in the tough straw structure. In particular, they have looked at the pre-treatment stage, focusing on steam explosion, which involves ‘pressure-cooking’ the biomass, to drive a number of chemical reactions. A rapid pressure-release then causes the material to be ripped open, to further improve accessibility.

They varied the temperature and duration of steam explosion and then used a variety of physical and biochemical techniques to characterise what effects varying the pre-treatments had on the different types of sugars before and after scarification.

The amount of cellulose converted to glucose increased with the severity of the pretreatment. Scarification efficiency is also associated with the loss of specific sugars, and subsequent formation of sugar breakdown products.

In a further study the scientists discovered the key factors that determine the efficiency of scarification. One particular compound, uronic acid, limited the rate at which enzymes worked. The final sugar yield was closely related to the removal of xylan, a common component of plant cell walls. The abundance of lignin, a ‘woody’ cell wall component, was positively related to the amount of available sugars.

These findings will help improve the efficiency by which straw can be converted to biofuels. For example, adding enzymes that more effectively remove xylan should improve yield. Controlling the level of lignin in the material  should also help.

It may even be possible to improve the straw itself, for example to reduce the uronic acid content in the biomass, as suggested by these findings. In the main, oilseed rape has been bred to improve oilseed yield and disease resistance, without paying much attention to the straw.

The IFR is working with colleagues at the University of York and the John Innes Centre to see whether there are ways of breeding more “biofuel-ready” varieties of oilseed rape, with the same yields of oilseed but with more amenable straw. In addition, a full understanding of the polysaccharides and other compounds made available during pretreatment may mean other valuable co-products, like platform chemicals, may be viably produced from the surplus straw.

Irish men fall on hard times for the men’s souped up sheds


Nowadays, with the growing popularity of the ‘man shed’, it’s quite likely that prying eyes will never find out exactly what’s inside the shed at the end of their own garden either.

It might not be something nasty but it could be the engine of a 1965 Austin-Healey, a clapped-out wooden boat or an orchid collection – but the garden shed has traditionally been a male retreat from domestic routine which no one is allowed to enter.

But sheds have moved on from the days when men – retired, trainspotting English men in particular – pottered about mysteriously inside. A modern shed is an extension of the house; it’s as likely to have widescreen TV and Wi-Fi as boxes of nails and bags of compost. And a usable outdoor room can add value to your home.

The cult of the ‘sheddie’ has spread from Britain to Ireland. Among the annual entrants for the UK-based Shed of the Year competition, there is always a smattering of Irish sheddies.

One of them is Peter Ellis, whose garden shed near Letterkenny, Co Donegal, is a tribute to the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian. It’s made of aluminum framed glass panes between tubular steel posts, and has a tiled roof. Coloured vinyl sheets cover the panes to form the Mondrian-style panels.

Ellis designed and built his own house, and built the shed to use up space in the garden. “I wanted to get rid of a bit of grass because I was fed up of mowing the lawn,” he says. The idea of the Mondrian homage was “a eureka moment”, he adds.

It cost next to nothing to build, being made of mostly recycled materials and whatever Ellis had to hand. The work took about six months in all.

It’s quite a big shed – about four wide by three metres long, and 3.5 metres high. And it’s in Ellis’s front garden. “As you’re driving along past the house, it’s definitely out there!” he says.

Inside is a bench and table, a bog oak sculpture and a water feature, as well as some garden tools. Ellis uses it as a place to unwind.

“I pop up there when I’m doing the gardening and have a little sit-down and a beer and relax. It’s south-facing as well so you get the sun. You can have a little quiet moment.”

The Mondrian shed was first entered in the Shed of the Year competition in 2012, and is an entrant this year again. However, the contest is sponsored by Cuprinol, which makes wood preservatives, so Ellis believes his maintenance-free metal and glass shed is unlikely to win.

Ellis runs a geodesic dome business called Atlantic Domes. Since building the Mondrian shed, he’s also put up a greenhouse and an outdoor barbecue kitchen, and there’s a geodesic dome in the works. But he says he will happily erect a Mondrian shed in other people’s gardens if they ask him to.

Another celebrated Irish sheddie is Conor Keatings in Kilpedder, Co Wicklow, who converted an existing garden shed into a shebeen called the Monkey Bar a couple of years ago. It doubles as a laundry room.

“It’s an old shed that was here when we moved in nine years ago. It was full of junk, but slowly I whittled all the rubbish out to turn it into a man space. But the washing machine was still in there, so I asked my mate who’s a carpenter to build something to hide the washing machine, and he built the bar. It was originally just to be a home for the washing machine and it kind of got out of hand, as two lads over a couple of pints do.”

The shed is 12 feet by eight, with a four-foot verandah at the front. It cost very little to convert, says Keatings – a maximum of €200. While cleaning it out, Keating’s found his old cuddly monkey toy, which gave the bar its name.

The ‘christening’ of the bar was the 2013 New Year’s Eve party, when all the neighbor’s came over. “There were 14 of us in it that night; it was brilliant. It’s still used for a session with all the neighbor’s every couple of months.”

Keatings also goes there to watch sport, and he and his wife Jenny sometimes go out there of an evening, put the fairy lights on and drink wine. “You can get out of the house and do something different without having to get a babysitter in.”

Keatings believes it’s “in the DNA” of men to want a space of their own. “I didn’t necessarily know it would be a bar; it just sort of happened. It can be a private domain for me as well – it does lock from the inside! But I tend not to use it like that – it’s more a social space.”

David Leech, from Mount Merrion in Dublin, built a shed to house a clay pizza oven in the winter of 2012-2013. Then he decided the shed was too good for that, so the pizza oven ended up outside.

“It’s a chalet-style shed made of timber, designed on the back of a fag packet. As I was building it, it was still being designed. It was built between December 1 and January 20 under major pressure. Then the shed was too good to be all taken up with a pizza oven, so I started building that outside – in the Irish weather.”

The shed itself – 11 feet by 14 – has a fourth wall at the front that doubles as a drop-down deck. It was built for around €2,000, The pizza oven, meanwhile, cost little or nothing.

“I dug a load of this clay out of a riverbed in Wicklow for it, which was the perfect clay that I found by accident. And the rest of it is made out of recycled materials. It took hundreds and hundreds of hours to build though. There was much pain in the poor soft office-boy hands in the building of it all.”

The oven is insulated at the bottom by 196 beer bottles on their sides. “Those beer bottles were produced in real time, while I was working out there in the middle of winter, telling the wife to drink faster because I was out of materials.”

The shed is in constant use although, as an employee of Microsoft, Leech doesn’t get much time there himself. “I leave for work and my wife and kids go and have breakfast out there. So it’s not working out all that well as a man shed I have to admit. I do have to share it with other people.”

But while the shed was once seen as a bastion of masculinity, more and more sheddies themselves are female. One Irish contender is a woman in Dingle, Co Kerry, who wanted an outside room of her own, as her husband had a garage and workshop. She built a shed with a bookcase, armchairs, and a stoop outside.

Among the multitudes of different types of sheds, there are pub and nightclub sheds, sound recording sheds, sheds on stilts, sheds with vegetable gardens on their roofs, sheds made to look like pagodas, boats, or hobbit holes, and Tardis sheds … yes, Tardis sheds – modelled on Dr Who’s time machine – are a growing subculture, and constitute a category of their own in the Shed of the Year competition.

Researchers can now predict which teenagers are likely to binge drink


In a new international study, researchers say it is possible to predict which teens will binge-drink. The findings, published in the journal Nature, show that factors such as life experience, personality, and brain structure are strong factors linked to future alcohol misuse.

For the study, data was pulled from the European IMAGEN cohort, whose purpose is to determine the biological and environmental factors that might have an influence on the mental health of teenagers.

The researchers then developed a model that incorporates 40 different risk factors of teen substance abuse, including personality, history/life events, brain physiology and structure, cognitive ability, genetics, and demographics.

“We aimed to develop a ‘gold standard’ model for predicting teenage behavior which can be used as a benchmark for the development of simpler, widely applicable prediction models,” said Professor Gunter Schumann from the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, and Coordinator of the IMAGEN project.

For the study, IMAGEN recruited over 2,000 teenagers who were 14 years old from England, Ireland, France, and Germany. Follow-ups at age 16 showed that it was indeed possible to predict future alcohol abuse just two years later.

One interesting finding was that even one-to-two instances of alcohol consumption by age 14 was enough to predict if the teenagers would binge-drink at age 16. Prior research has suggested that the odds of adult alcohol dependence can be reduced by 10 percent for each year that alcohol consumption is delayed in the teen years.

Previous studies have found that early teenage binge drinking and progression to alcohol misuse is genetically influenced and is also consistently linked to later risk for substance use disorders.

It is important to determine, however, whether environmental factors can tip the genetic risk. In this study, negative life experiences were found to be a major influence on binge drinking at age 14.

“Our goal was to better understand the relative roles of brain structure and function, personality, environmental influences, and genetics in the development of adolescent abuse of alcohol. This multidimensional risk profile of genes, brain function, and environmental influences can help in the prediction of binge drinking at age 16 years,” said lead author Dr. Robert Whelan, of University College Dublin.

The scientists would like to continue this work by evaluating the participants again at a later age. The factors used in this study will also be applied to predict other types of risk-taking behaviors, such as using drugs and smoking.

New simplified versions of the tests are being developed so that children who are at risk of alcohol misuse can be identified and given help.

Top Physicist Del Monte says machines will rule the world by 2045

And it will threaten human survival


In about 30 year’s time, the top species on Earth will no longer be humans. That is the chilling warning from physicist Louis Del Monte (left picture) who believes that new artificial intelligence (AI) technology will threaten the survival of humankind.

In a world where machines have become part of the way we live, where already artificial limbs replace our own, Del Monte believes we will become cyborgs — part human and part machine.

Our reliance on machines is increasing more than ever as they improve productivity, make breakthroughs in medical technology and improve our quality of life.

But Del Monte is concerned that the future may come down to man versus machine, when machines become more intelligent than humans, and that machines, like robots, may view humans as unpredictable and dangerous.

Speaking to Business Insider , Del Monte said: “Today there’s no legislation regarding how much intelligence a machine can have, how interconnected it can be. If that continues, look at the exponential trend. We will reach the singularity in the time frame most experts predict. From that point on you’re going to see that the top species will no longer be humans, but machines.”

Author of The Artificial Intelligence Revolution, Del Monte warns that machines will start to acquire the capabilities to protect themselves and view humans as enemies the way we view harmful insects.

He predicts that between 2040 to 2045 machines will outmatch human intelligence.

“The implication is that they’re also learning self-preservation,” Del Monte told us. “Whether or not they’re conscious is a moot point.”


News Ireland daily news BLOG by Donie

Thursday 17th October 2013

Budget farce as James Reilly doubts medical card €113m HSE savings


Plans for massive cuts to the medical card scheme have descended into farce after the health minister cast doubt over the target figure outlined in the budget and the HSE said it will have to be independently verified.

The target of €113m through medical card “probity” was foisted on Health Minister James Reilly on Sunday, without any verification or assessment of how it could be achieved.

The embattled minister told the Oireachtas health committee yesterday the figure was “allocated” by Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin.

  “I am speaking frankly and I am concerned about what can be achieved here,” said Dr Reilly. 

He said the figure was based on Mr Howlin’s “deliberations” of a consultancy report by Price Waterhouse Cooper that said €60m to €200m could be achieved through identifying waste from ineligible cards.

“That report is from 18 months ago and obviously a lot of action has been taken since then,” said Dr Reilly.

He has asked the departments of the Taoiseach and public expenditure to carry out a validation of the figure and the impact it would have on the health service.

Tony O’Brien, head of the HSE, said the executive is carrying out an “independent verification process” before the figures are included in its service plan for 2014.

He said if the savings could not be made through probity — or flushing out dud cases — then cuts will hit other health services.

Fianna Fáil has estimated that about 100,000 medical cards would have to be withdrawn in order to reach the €113m figure.

Mr. O’Brien insisted there would be no change to people’s entitlement or the way medical cards are assessed, as a result of the target.

“Therefore, if that €113m cannot reasonably be achieved through probity measures, then an alternative way of meeting that shortfall will have to be found.”

Sources close to Dr James Reilly said €113m was imposed “from the top down” rather than than from the “bottom up” approach of identifying the waste, and then determining what could be saved from its elimination.

They said that James Reilly was given the figure and told to find the savings within it.

The Irish Examiner can also reveal that the HSE raised concerns 18 months ago about the accuracy of the potential savings in the PWC report. A disclaimer by the report’s authors said the savings were “indicative only and cannot be relied on for any purpose other than providing a broad understanding” of the issue.

A further €25m in health savings will be reached by removing medical cards from 35,000 over-70s. The Irish Senior Citizens Parliament who are organising a protest march next Tuesday against the budget “attacks” on Irish elderly people.

Mr O’Brien also raised concerns about changes to tax reliefs for private health insurance in the budget.

The HSE depends on income provided by private patients in public hospital beds, he said. “If there were to be a significant impact on the number of insured patients, that would have a knock-on impact on the funding of the health servicesnext year,” he said.

HSE West group meets over HIQA report on death of Savita Halappanavar


A special board meeting of the HSE West/North West Hospital Group has ended after four hours of talks at Galway University Hospital.

The 12-member board considered the findings and recommendations from three reports following the death of Savita Halappanavar last October.

The findings from the inquest into her death and the recommendations that emerged from the Coroner’s Court were discussed, along with the HSE Clinical Review into the treatment she received and last week’s HIQA report into issues relating to her care at GUH.

The board is not releasing details about decisions made at the meeting until it has communicated with the staff involved tomorrow morning.

It is expected the measures to be taken will then be made public.

Mrs Halappanavar died from an infection caused by sepsis almost a week after she was admitted to hospital on 21 October 2012.

The special board meeting was called following the publication of third report into her care last week.

The master storyteller that was the great cyclist Lance Armstrong


To his millions of fans, American cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong was more than just a great sportsman, he was an inspiration. To the film-maker who documented his spectacular fall from grace, he was a master storyteller. But were his supporters too ready to believe the fairytale?

The story of the charismatic Texan cyclist who recovered from life-threatening cancer and went on to win the Tour de France a record seven successive times was one of the greatest tales in sporting history.

In 2009, Lance Armstrong attempted to write another chapter into the legend by coming out of professional retirement to compete in the Tour again at the age of 37. He granted Oscar-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney rare access to his inner circle to chronicle the comeback.

For Gibney, the experience was akin to being embedded with the military in a warzone.

“When you’re with a group of soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan you’re going to end up feeling part of their unit,” he told me.

“I don’t think that’s necessarily wrong. The trick is how to come out of that with some broader perspective – but it’s intoxicating while you’re in the middle of it.”

Gibney admits the “them and us” mentality inside Lance Armstrong’s Astana cycling team encouraged a kind of Stockholm syndrome. Anyone who questioned his repeated denials that he had used performance-enhancing drugs came to be viewed as the enemy.

“I did begin to feel that some people on the outside were a bit fanatical about the subject of whether Lance had doped,” he says. “You can’thelp but take on the vibe of the team.”

Through the media and in the courts, Armstrong aggressively pursued critics who continued to question whether he was riding clean. Alex Gibney watched as his subject attempted to maintain control over the powerful and lucrative myth he had constructed.

“I think the truth in the mind of someone who is a master storyteller does become elastic,” he suggests.

“There’s a moment in the film when Lance loses in Verbier to Alberto Contador (on stage 15 of the 2009 Tour de France) and he says to me ‘I’m sorry I screwed up your documentary.’

“I don’t think that was just banter. I think that was Lance’s way of saying ‘you came to me to deliver the fairytale that everyone’s come to believe that I can deliver and I failed. I’m not going to win. I’m not going to be first and I’m sorry.'”

Armstrong behind eventual 2009 Tour winner Alberto Contador

After Armstrong’s 2009 comeback, in which he finished third, the myth began to disintegrate.

  • Tour de France victories: 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005 (22 individual stage wins)
  • Battle with cancer: Diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1996. The disease spreads through his body. Launches Lance Armstrong Foundation for Cancer. Declared cancer-free in 1997 after brain surgery and chemotherapy
  • Retirement: Announces he will retire after the 2005 Tour de France. Angered by drug allegations against him, he returns to professional cycling in 2009. He finishes third. His accident-filled 2010 Tour is his last

Former teammates went public with allegations of drug use. The US Anti-Doping Agency accused Armstrong of running the most sophisticated and extensive doping scheme in professional sports history.

He finally came clean in an interview with talk show host Oprah Winfrey last January, in which he admitted taking banned substances and undergoing prohibited blood transfusions during all of his victorious Tour de France campaigns.

In earlier films such as Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side and Mea Maxima Culpa, Alex Gibney has explored the abuse of power by big businesses, the military and the Catholic Church.

In his latest film, it’s Armstrong’s rewriting of his own personal life story, a story that inspired and gave hope to cancer patients around the world, that Gibney finds particularly difficult to accept.

“It’s an abuse of storytelling power,” he says. “He told a story that everyone wanted to believe in too much. He knew how much everybody wanted to believe in it.

“He made the lie so enormous, so all-encompassing, that he couldn’t dial it back. His only choice was to go forward and make it even bigger.” So he carried on cheating, winning Tour after Tour.

Armstrong was engaged to musician Sheryl Crow and travelled by private jet

Stripped of those seven titles, pursued by lawyers seeking to reclaim prize and sponsorship money, Lance Armstrong’s reputation as a sportsman is now in ruins. He has been banned from competitive cycling for life.

Alex Gibney, director of The Armstrong Lie

For Alex Gibney, Lance Armstrong’s epic downfall should serve as a cautionary tale. Even heroes, he argues, need to accept their flaws. “There can be inspirational stories that are messy,” he says.

“Spiderman to me is a more intriguing tale than Superman because you reckon with Peter Parker’s dark past and to some extent his deep-seated anger rather than the pure hero that Superman is.

“When we’re told stories that seem too good to be true we should say to ourselves, ‘Hey, maybe this is too good to be true.'”

Life style changes for humans can save millions from diabetes


MILLIONS of people at risk of developing diabetes could avoid the disease with simple lifestyle changes, say researchers diabetes is preventable with simple lifestyle changes.

A major review of scientific evidence concluded that diet and exercise are vital for staving off the illness, which affects 3.8 million people in Britain.

  Combined with stopping smoking and regular checks on blood pressure and glucose levels, Type 2 diabetes can be prevented altogether, the team from the University of Alberta, Canada, said.

Last month, Diabetes UK said losing weight, eating more fruit and vegetables and taking regular exercise is all people need to do to significantly slash their chance of developing Type 2.

It’s particularly important for people who are already at high risk to talk to their GP to make the diet and lifestyle changes that can help

Dr Matthew Hobbs, Diabetes UK’s head of research

But chief executive Barbara Young said people were not taking the risks seriously and that the country was “sleepwalking towards a public health disaster”.

Dr Matthew Hobbs, the charity’s head of research, said of the findings: “This shows again that it’s particularly important for people who are already at high risk to talk to their GP to make the diet and lifestyle changes that can help.”

Children are drawn to our colourful cigarette packets, A study shows


Children find colourful cigarette packets appealing but are repelled by products that have plain packaging.

The Irish Cancer Society studied pupils from third class in Scoil Aonghusa primary school in Tallaght, Dublin, who were shown branded cigarette packs and asked what they thought of them.

“The children found the packs appealing and were particularly positive about the bright colours and rainbow-coloured effects used on some packs,” it found.

“They felt that the pink slimline packs would appeal to young girls. They also liked the ‘fancy writing’ used on the packs.”

The findings are featured on a new video on YouTube from the Irish Cancer Society.

“Young people are a key target market for the tobacco industry, which needs to recruit 50 new smokers a day to replace those who have either died or quit, in order to keep making profits. Most of these new smokers are children.

“Around 80pc of smokers start before the age of 18 and children in Ireland began smoking at an earlier age than in any other country in Europe,” said a spokeswoman.

The children who were shown examples of what plain packaging may look like responded negatively and called them “disgusting and gross”.

“One of the boys remarked that he did not know how people could buy the cigarettes in plain packs. They felt that plain packs show what it (smoking) does to you and were shocked by the images of the health effects of smoking used on the plain packs.”

Health Minister James Reilly has secured the agreement of the Cabinet to introduce standardised packaging for tobacco products in Ireland, and he welcomed the video.

Drought in East Africa dictated how the brain changed the evolution of human intelligence


Scientists show shifts from dry to wet and back in East Africa’s Rift Valley caused the development of the human brain

Humans evolved their very large brains in response to the dramatic shifts in the climate of East Africa, the cradle of humanity where man’s ancestors are thought to have originated about two million years ago, a study has suggested.

Scientists have matched exceptionally wet periods and very dry periods in the East African Rift Valley to sudden spurts in the evolution of the hominid ancestors of Homo sapiens, which resulted in the evolution of the modern human brain.

Academics have long argued about what led to the unusually large brain of humans with its capacity for language, abstract thought and consciousness. The latest theory suggests it was triggered by the need to adapt to dramatic changes in the local environment of early man.

“It seems modern humans were born from climate change, as they had to deal with rapid switching from famine to feast – and back again – which drove the appearance of new species with bigger brains and also pushed them out of East Africa into Eurasia and South Africa,” said Professor Mark Maslin of University College London, the co-author of the study published in the on-line journal Plos-One.

The Rift Valley is an extensive geological fault marked by mountains, lakes and fertile valleys. Many of the most important fossil remains of early humans have been unearthed in the region, leading to suggestions that it was the most important place for the early origins of man.

The study looked at climate change over the past 5 million years, where there have been large fluctuations between wet periods where lakes were far higher than they are today and dry periods where sand dunes formed in former lake beds.

The scientists found that there were relatively short periods lasting about 200,000 years when East Africa became very sensitive to the cyclical changes in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun – known as Milankovitch cycles – which lead to global-scale changes to the climate, such as ice ages.

In East Africa, these orbital changes to the Earth led to rapid shifts between very dry and very wet periods of about 20,000 years, when typically the lake valleys repeatedly filled up with freshwater and then dried out several times, forcing the human inhabitants to move north or south.

“Due to these changes in orbit, the climate of East Africa seems to go through extreme oscillations from having huge deep freshwater lakes surrounded by rich, lush vegetation to extremely arid conditions, like today, with sand dunes in the floor of the Rift Valley,” Professor Maslin said.

“These changes resulted in the evolution of a new species with bigger brains, and also forced early humans to disperse out of East Africa,” he said.

The study found that there were three time periods in particular when this kind of climate change corresponded to important stages in human evolution.

The first occurred about 2.6 million years ago when the Rift Valley dwellers were pushed into southern Africa and a new species called Homo habilis emerged. The second happened about 1.9 million years ago when an important species called Homo erectus emerged from Africa to colonise much of Asia, while the third occurred about 1 million years ago when Homo heidelbergensis emerged.

Professor Maslin said that the technique is not accurate enough to deal with the past 150,000 years, when Homo sapiens first evolved, but that it nevertheless could explain the earlier evolutionary transition leading to Homo erectus, which is the first large-brained hominid with truly human-like skeleton showing a distinctive adolescent growth-spurt.

Susanne Shultz of Manchester University, the co-author of the study, said that climate change can be linked directly to the evolution of this important human species at a time when there were several species occupying the same geographic region at about the same time.

“We found that around 1.9 million years ago a number of new species appeared, which we believe is directly related to new ecological conditions in the East African Rift Valley, in particular the appearance of deep freshwater lakes,” Professor Shultz said.

“Among these species was early Homo erectus with a brain 80 per cent bigger than its predecessor,” she added.

The present-day lakes of the Rift Valley are much smaller than they would have been at the height of a wet period. Lake Logipi at the northern end of the Kenyan rift valley, for instance, once occupied the entire Suguta Valley, which is presently littered in sand dunes, and was about 300 metres deeper than it is today.