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6 Weird Theories on Early Human Intelligence

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Through thousands of years of knowledge and learning, we’ve developed extremely advanced intelligence as a species, especially when compared to other animals. But what made us unique? What evolutionary paths did we take that others did not?

That, of course, is one of the million dollar questions of early human development. There’s no concrete way for us to know for sure (at least until we build time machines), but we can make some educated guesses, and they get pretty weird... 

1. It All Came From One Human

In evolution, there are two separate paths that changes can take. One is microevolution: Small changes over a long time. The other is macroevolution: Large, abrupt changes that completely change a species. 

To date, scientists have multiple theories on how the two interact, but one of the older theories that’s starting to make a comeback is what's known as macromutation, aka the "hopeful monster." Basically, it's a genetic aberration that is so different from its relatives that it's essentially a whole new species.  (Think of the mutants in X-Men.)

A neurobiologist from Oxford University, Colin Blakemore, believes this very thing happened to humans. Some ancestor, somewhere (he posits it might even be Mitochondrial Eve) was born with a severe genetic defect that made him or her way smarter than other early humans. It was a total accident that just happened to be highly beneficial from a survival perspective, and this person (who could presumably still mate with other humans) passed on this mutation to his or her offspring.

2. It’s Because of a DNA Glitch

Scientists going over the results from the Human Genome Project found that humans have something completely unique: A duplicated gene named SRGAP2. Don’t worry about the weird name; just know that it’s responsible for brain development. No other primates (or animals at all, for that matter) have it. This could pretty much only occur as a “glitch” at some point in human history. It's not a natural evolutionary development, and duplicate genes happen all the time, except they’re almost always benign.

As a matter of fact, we have a few benign copies of SRGAP2 ourselves. They’re called SRGAP2B and SRGAP2D, and they’re just some of the random genetic junk that makes up a large portion of our DNA. SRGAP2C, however, is a fully functional (and enhanced) copy of SRGAP2.

That doesn't just mean we have double the brain development power, though, because SRGAP2C actually supersedes the original gene. When implanted in mice, SRGAP2C turns off the original gene and actually kind of supercharges their brains. If you think of it like computer software, SRGAP2C is brain development version 2.0 and it has to uninstall version 1.0 to work properly.

3. It’s an Accident Caused by Walking Upright

One of the unique things about humans is that our skulls aren't fused when we're born. Baby skulls don't solidify until the age of two because otherwise it'd be way harder to push them out of the birth canal. No other primate has this, but that's because they're not bipedal and so they  have wider birth canals, so it’s not an issue for them. 

Recently, scientists studying the well-preserved cranium of an Australopithecus child discovered that the genus, one of our first ancestors to walk bipedally, had larger brains than expected and also started out with the soft skulls that we have today. It was originally thought that we didn't develop non-fused skulls until much later in human development. 

Scientists had always assumed that we developed bipedal locomotion as a result of our intelligence, since it's more efficient. Now it looks like the exact opposite may be true—we became bipedal on our own, which necessitated a reconfiguration of the birth canal, which led to the evolution of soft skulls in babies, and that accidentally led to us growing bigger brains, since the brain could now continue to grow until two years of age.

4. Our Human Ancestors Used a Lot of Drugs

One highly controversial (and definitely strange) theory about early human brains comes from Terence McKenna, an American philosopher, ecologist, and drug advocate. In the early 1990s, McKenna developed a theory popularly referred to as the “Stoned Ape” theory.

According to McKenna, early man, upon leaving the jungle and moving into the grasslands of north Africa, saw mushrooms growing on cow dung (something they hadn’t seen in the jungle) and decided to give them a try. He points out that modern apes will frequently eat dung beetles, so it’s not completely unheard of for primates to eat things typically found on or around excrement.

McKenna believes that those mushrooms, ancestors of today's “magic” mushrooms, probably increased visual ability at low doses (much like modern mushrooms), making them biologically useful. Further, at moderate doses, those same mushrooms are sexual stimulants, also handy for a burgeoning species. Lastly, large doses would promote conscious thinking and possibly assist brain growth. Thus, it was evolutionarily beneficial for humans to consume these mushrooms.

Don’t get too excited, though. McKenna’s theory has never been taken seriously by scientists or heavily studied, so there’s currently no real evidence to support it.  

5. Meat and Fire Made Our Brains Grow

While it’s obvious that fire and meat-eating were a large part of everyday life for our ancestors, it appears likely that cooked meat may have also played a huge role in our brain development. Harvard University Biological Anthropologist Richard Wrangham has developed a theory that he thinks explains exactly how it worked.

Because brains like ours use up as much as 20 percent of our caloric intake, they require high-calorie foods to keep working. Since Twinkies weren’t around yet, cooked meat was the next best thing for early man. Cooking meat releases more calories, making it even better than raw meat, which we were probably already eating (judging from our appendixes).

Cooking also makes meat faster to eat and easier to digest. Our primate cousins, meanwhile, spent significantly more time eating fewer calories by consuming fruits and veggies. Those extra calories helped grow our brains.

But even an argument as straightforward as this one is contentious—science has yet to discover evidence that humans were capable of controlling fire at the time period specified by Wrangham’s theory.

6. Early Humans Were Schizophrenic

Back in the 1970s, psychologist Julian Jaynes was fascinated by the idea of consciousness and how it came to exist, and why human beings seem to have a much more advanced self-awareness than other animals.

The theory he developed in his 1976 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, was, to put it mildly, controversial. Jaynes’ Bicameral Mind Theory (as it came to be known) claimed that ancient humans actually weren’t self-aware at all. Instead, man’s brain operated sort of like two separate organs. The left brain was responsible for everyday actions, while the right brain supplied memories and problem-solving derived from experience.

The only problem with this system is that, unlike modern humans, Jaynes thought there was no direct link between the two hemispheres, and thus no consciousness or reflection was available to our ancestors. Instead, the right half communicated to the left through a now-vestigial portion of the language center in the brain, which expressed as auditory hallucinations.

Jaynes believed that early humans may have treated these hallucinations as the voices of their ancestors or even the gods. He used two famous ancient books as examples: The Iliad and the Old Testament of the Bible. Both refer frequently to hearing voices (of the Muses and God, respectively) while their follow-ups, The Odyssey (which was probably not actually written by the same person as The Iliad) and the New Testament, reference much fewer instances of this. This led Jaynes to believe that the change in our brains must have occurred very recently in human history, probably a few centuries after we formed complex societies and consciousness became more beneficial.

Jaynes didn’t just pull this theory out of thin air, either. His specialty as a psychologist was working with schizophrenic patients, and he based Bicameralism on the way that a schizophrenic’s mind works. That aforementioned vestigial language center in the brain appears to be fully-functional in sufferers of schizophrenia. Most interesting of all is that recent advances in neuroimaging seem to support Jaynes’s theory.

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Every New Movie, TV Series, and Special Coming to Netflix in May
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Netflix

Netflix is making way for loads of laughs in its library in May, with a handful of original comedy specials (Steve Martin, Martin Short, Carol Burnett, Tig Notaro, and John Mulvaney will all be there), plus the long-awaited return of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Here’s every new movie, TV series, and special making its way to Netflix in May.

MAY 1

27: Gone Too Soon

A Life of Its Own: The Truth About Medical Marijuana

Amelie

Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures: Season 1

Beautiful Girls

Darc

God's Own Country

Hachi: A Dog's Tale

Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

High School Musical 3: Senior Year

John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous Live at Radio City

Mr. Woodcock

My Perfect Romance

Pocoyo & Cars

Pocoyo & The Space Circus

Queens of Comedy: Season 1

Reasonable Doubt

Red Dragon

Scream 2

Shrek

Simon: Season 1

Sliding Doors

Sometimes

The Bourne Ultimatum

The Carter Effect

The Clapper

The Reaping

The Strange Name Movie

Yu-Gi-Oh! Arc-V: Season 2

MAY 2

Jailbreak

MAY 4

A Little Help with Carol Burnett

Anon

Busted!: Season 1

Dear White People: Volume 2

End Game

Forgive Us Our Debts

Kong: King of the Apes: Season 2

Manhunt

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman: Tina Fey

No Estoy Loca

The Rain: Season 1

MAY 5

Faces Places

MAY 6

The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale

MAY 8

Desolation

Hari Kondabolu: Warn Your Relatives

MAY 9

Dirty Girl

MAY 11

Bill Nye Saves the World: Season 3

Evil Genius: the True Story of America's Most Diabolical Bank Heist

Spirit Riding Free: Season 5

The Kissing Booth

The Who Was? Show: Season 1

MAY 13

Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife

MAY 14

The Phantom of the Opera

MAY 15

Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce: Season 4

Grand Designs: Seasons 13 - 14

Only God Forgives

The Game 365: Seasons 15 - 16

MAY 16

89

Mamma Mia!

The 40-Year-Old Virgin

The Kingdom

Wanted

MAY 18

Cargo

Catching Feelings

Inspector Gadget: Season 4

MAY 19

Bridge to Terabithia

Disney’s Scandal: Season 7

Small Town Crime

MAY 20

Some Kind of Beautiful

MAY 21

Señora Acero: Season 4

MAY 22

Mob Psycho 100: Season 1

Shooter: Season 2

Terrace House: Opening New Doors: Part 2

Tig Notaro Happy To Be Here

MAY 23

Explained

MAY 24

Fauda: Season 2

Survivors Guide to Prison

MAY 25

Ibiza

Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life

The Toys That Made Us: Season 2

Trollhunters: Part 3

MAY 26

Sara's Notebook

MAY 27

The Break with Michelle Wolf

MAY 29

Disney·Pixar's Coco

MAY 30

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 4

MAY 31

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman: Howard Stern

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20 Best Docuseries You Can Stream Right Now
A scene from Wild Wild Country (2018)
A scene from Wild Wild Country (2018)
Netflix

If your main interests are true crime and cooking, you’re in the middle of a Renaissance Age. The Michelangelos of nonfiction are consistently bringing stellar storytelling to twisty tales of murder and mayhem as well as luxurious shots of food prepared by the most creative culinary minds.

But these aren’t the only genres that documentary series are tackling. There’s a host of history, arts, travel, and more at your streaming fingertips. When you want to take a break from puzzling out who’s been wrongfully imprisoned, that is.

Here are the 20 best docuseries to watch right now, so start streaming.

1. WILD WILD COUNTRY (2018)

What happens when an Indian guru with thousands of American followers sets up shop near a small town in Oregon with the intent to create a commune? Incredibly sourced, this documentary that touches on every major civic issue—from religious liberty to voting rights—should be your new obsession. When you choose a side, be prepared to switch. Multiple times.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. FLINT TOWN (2018)

If your heart is broken by what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, be prepared to have that pain magnified and complicated. The filmmakers behind this provocative series were embedded with police in Flint to offer us a glimpse at the area’s local struggles and national attention from November 2015 through early 2017.

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. MAKERS: WOMEN WHO MAKE AMERICA (2013)

Narrated by Meryl Streep, this three-part series covers a half-century of American experience from the earliest days of second-wave feminism through Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination in the 1990s. Ellen DeGeneres, Condoleezza Rice, Sally Ride, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and more are featured, and the series got six more episodes in a second season.

Where to watch it: Makers.com

4. THE JINX (2015)

After the massive success of Serial in 2014, a one-two punch of true crime docuseries landed the following year. One was the immensely captivating study of power, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which chronicled the bizarre, tangled web of the real estate mogul who was suspected of several murders. The show, which could be measured in jaw-drops per hour, both registered real life and uniquely affected it.

Where to watch it: HBO

5. MAKING A MURDERER (2015)

The second major true crime phenom of 2015 was 10 years in the making. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos uncovered the unthinkable story of Steven Avery, a man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault who was later convicted of murdering a different woman, Teresa Halbach. Not just a magnifying glass on the justice system and a potential small town conspiracy, it’s also a display of how stories can successfully get our blood boiling.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. WORMWOOD (2017)

Speaking of good conspiracies: documentary titan Errol Morris turns his keen eye to a CIA project that’s as famous as it is unknown—MKUltra. A Cold War-era mind control experiment. LSD and hypnosis. The mysterious death of a scientist. His son’s 60-year search for answers. Morris brings his incisive eye to the hunt.

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. FIVE CAME BACK (2017)

Based on Mark Harris’s superlative book, this historical doc features filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro discussing the WWII-era work of predecessors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. Also narrated by Meryl Streep, it looks at how the war shaped the directors and how they shaped the war. As a bonus, Netflix has the war-time documentaries featured in the film available to stream.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. THE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY (2011)

If you can’t afford film school, and your local college won’t let you audit any more courses, Mark Cousins’s 915-minute history is the next best thing. Unrivaled in its scope, watching it is like having a charming encyclopedia discuss its favorite movies. Yes, at 15-episodes it’s sprawling, so, yes, you should watch it all in one go. Carve out a weekend and be ready to take notes on all the movies you want to watch afterward.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

9. UGLY DELICIOUS (2018)

David Chang, the host of the first season of The Mind of a Chef, has returned with a cultural mash-up disguised as a foodie show. What does it mean for pizza to be “authentic”? What do Korea and the American South have in common? With his casual charm in tow, Chang and a variety of special guests explore people through the food we love to eat as an artifact that brings us all together.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. JAZZ (2000)

A legend of nonfiction, Ken Burns has more than a few docuseries available to stream, including long-form explorations of the Civil War and baseball. His 10-episode series on jazz exhaustively tracks nearly a century of the formation and evolution of the musical style across the United States. You’ll wanna mark off a big section of the calendar and crank up the volume.

Where to watch it: Amazon

11. THE STAIRCASE (2004)

In 2001, author Michael Peterson reported to police that his wife had died after falling down a set of stairs, but police didn’t buy the story and charged him with her murder. Before the current true crime boom, before Serial and all the rest, there was Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Peabody Award-winning docuseries following Peterson’s winding court case. The mystery at the heart of the trial and the unparalleled access Lestrade had to Peterson’s defense make this a must-see. (Netflix just announced that it will be releasing three new episodes of the series this summer.)

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

12. PLANET EARTH II (2016)

The sequel to the 2006 original is a real stunner. Narrated (naturally) by Sir David Attenborough, featuring music from Hans Zimmer, and boasting gorgeous photography of our immeasurably fascinating planet, this follow-up takes us through different terrains to see the life contained within. There are snow leopards in the mountains, a swimming sloth in the islands, and even langurs in our own urban jungle. Open your eyes wide to learn a lot or put it on in the background to zen out.

Where to watch it: Netflix

13. THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA (2009)

The cheapest way to visit Yosemite, Yellowstone, Muir Woods, and more. This Emmy-winning, six-part series is both a travelogue and a history lesson in conservation that takes up the argument of why these beautiful places should be preserved: to quote President Roosevelt, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Where to watch it: Amazon

14. CONFLICT (2015)

Experience the too-often-untold stories of conflict zones through the lenses of world class photographers like Nicole Tung, Donna Ferraro, and João Silva. This heart-testing, bias-obliterating series is unique in its views into dark places and eye toward hope.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. LAST CHANCE U (2016)

Far more than a sports documentary, the story of the players at East Mississippi Community College will have you rooting for personal victories as much as the points on the scoreboard. Many of the outstanding players on the squad lost spots at Division I schools because of disciplinary infractions or failing academics, so they’re seeking redemption in a program that wants them to return to the big-name schools. There are two full seasons to binge and a third on the way.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. VICE (2013)

Currently in its sixth season, the series is known for asking tough questions that need immediate answers and giving viewers a street-level view of everything from killing cancer to juvenile justice reform. Its confrontational style of gonzo provocation won’t be everyone’s cup of spiked tea, but it’s filling an important gap that used to be filled by major network investigative journalists. When they let their subjects—from child soldiers suffering PTSD after fighting for ISIS to coal miners in Appalachia—tell their stories, nonfiction magic happens.

Where to watch it: HBO

17. CHEF’S TABLE (2015)

From David Gelb, the documentarian behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this doc series is a backstage pass to the kitchens of the world’s most elite chefs. The teams at Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Pujol, and more open their doors to share their process, culinary creativity, and, of course, dozens of delicious courses. No shame in licking your screen.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. NOBU’S JAPAN (2014)

For those looking to learn more about culture while chowing down, world-renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa guides guest chefs to different regions of Japan to ingest the sights, sounds, and spirits of the area before crafting a dish inspired by the journey. History is the main course, with a healthy dash of culinary invention that honors tradition.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

19. THE SYSTEM (2014)

Should a jury decide if a child is sentenced to life in jail without parole? How can you go to jail for 20 years for shooting your gun inside your own home to deter thieves? These are just two of the questions examined by this knockout series about the conflicts, outdated methods, and biases lurking in America’s criminal justice system. Insightful and infuriating, it makes a strong companion to Ava DuVernay’s 13th.

Where to watch it: Al Jazeera and Sundance Now

20. BOBBY KENNEDY FOR PRESIDENT (2018)

It won’t be available until April 27 (so close!), but it’s well worth adding to your queue. This four-part series utilizes a wealth of footage, including unseen personal videos, to share the tragic story of Robert F. Kennedy’s run for president in the context of an era riven by racial strife. Watching this socio-political memorial told by many who were there (including Marian Wright and Congressman John Lewis), it will be impossible not to draw connections to the current day and wonder: What if?

Where to watch it: Netflix

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