2015 - 2016
Fossil, archaeological, and genetic evidence are united in supporting a recent African origin of modern humans and dispersal out of Africa within the past 60,000-80,000 years. However, given that archaic humans (such as Neandertals) preceded the exodus of modern humans out of Africa by several hundred thousand years, the question then arises as to the nature of the interactions between modern and archaic humans. In particular, did archaic humans contribute any genes to modern humans, or is all of our ancestry derived from the recent origin in Africa? This question proved remarkably diffi cult to answer, until genome sequences from archaic humans recently became available. These archaic genome sequences have provided a number of important insights into the history of our own species, and I shall present the latest of these.
Mark Stoneking supervises the Human Population History Group at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and is also an Honorary Professor of Biological Anthropology at the University of Leipzig. His research interests involve using molecular genetic methods to address questions of anthropological interest concerning the origins, migrations, and relationships of human
populations, and the infl uence of selection during human evolution. He was part of the team that provided the fi rst compelling genetic evidence for the origin of modern humans in Africa 100-200,000 years ago.
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People are just a bunch of molecules doing complicated things. How does that make you feel? Do you accept that science can describe the way everything in the universe works, including human beings? Or do you think that there must be "something else"? I will make a case for materialism in four fields of science that are relevant to research at the Origins Institute: Biophysics, Evolutionary Biology, Origin of Life, and Neuroscience. I will use this as a means to consider how certain we are about what we know. It is important not to stray into "scientism", i.e. making a dogmatic argument that denies other points of view. On the other hand, it is important for scientists to stand up for what they know and to challenge nonsense when they hear it. Some people feel science does not address the important things that make us human, like emotions, morals, and falling in love. But I say processes happening in our minds and our bodies are part of the way the real world works and are addressable by science. Scientists are human after all.
Paul Higgs has been a professor in Biophysics at McMaster since 2002. He became director of the Origins Institute in 2015. His PhD is in Polymer Physics from Cambridge, UK. He has worked on RNA molecules from many different angles, including folding and structure prediction, molecular evolution and phylogenetics. Currently he is studying the way self-replicating RNAs could have emerged at the time of the Origin of Life.
Apr 11, 2016 08:00 PM
Apr 12, 2016 10:00 PM
|Where||Council Chambers, Gilmour Hall G111|
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Download the official lecture poster (PDF)
There is no satisfying explanation for how the earliest forms of cellular life first emerged on Earth at least 3.5 billion years ago. Although everyone recognizes the importance of the Origin of Life as a fundamental question in science, there may be a perception that it is too distant to investigate experimentally. However, our panel today will make the case that there are ways to tackle the problem in a concrete way in the laboratory. Understanding the Origin of Life boils down to solving two practical chemistry problems. How were the molecules required by life synthesized? How is a replicating molecular process initiated? The newly funded Origins of Life Laboratory at McMaster will test and challenge the hypothesis of how the first life on Earth has evolved and under which conditions Earth-like life on different planets or asteroids could have originated. We will have three short presentations from our panel members intended to encourage questions from the audience about how the origin of life could have occurred and how we can study it today.
Telescopes are time-machines. They allow us to see into the distant past. Our deepest images show the Universe not as it is today, but as it was just 400,000 years after the Big Bang. At that time there were no galaxies, no stars, no planets, no people, no familiar elements other than hydrogen and helium. The cosmos contained nothing but weak sound waves in a near-uniform fog. Supercomputers can compress thirteen billion years of cosmic evolution into a few months of calculation to show how these sound waves developed into the rich structure we see around us today. A study of their harmonic content gives clues to their origin. They appear to be an echo of quantum zero-point fluctuations occurring a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang. Thus our entire world may be a consequence of the nature of this early vacuum. In a very real sense, everything may have come from nothing.