What makes us human?

Sunday, 20 September 2015, 14:00, Combined Operon, EMBL Heidelberg

Programme

Chair
Anna-Lynn Wegener, EMBL
14:00-14:10 Welcome – Introduction
Halldór Stefánsson, EMBL
14:10-14:55 When did we become fully human? [Video]
Jean-Jacques Hublin, MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology
14:55-15:40 What makes us brainy humans [Video]
Alain Prochiantz, Collège de France
15:40-16:10 Coffee break
16:10-16:55 War, peace, & creativity: What Human evolution tells us about human nature(s) [Video]
Agustín Fuentes, University of Notre Dame
16:55-17:30 General discussion

Please register at:
https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/human2015

The meeting is open to all, registration is free.

Scope

Humans are distinctly different from all the other animals, in ways both good and bad. But articulating what that difference consists of remains a complex and difficult task, tackled by biologists, anthropologists and brain scientists.

We are, presumably, the only known species with a mind set on unravelling who and what we are. Today, scientists are making use of genomics to realign H. Sapiens with respect to H. neanderthalensis, hominids and apes. But what are the assumptions that are built into these research projects? And what is the nature of the evolved cognitive faculties that allow people to relate and bond to one another in our species-specific way? Are some of our behavioral responses hardwired in neural networks as a result of our evolutionary history, or does the ultimate strength of the human species lie in its apparently unlimited neurological plasticity?

And while humans seem so fabulously well equipped to relate to one another and spin intricate webs of social relations, at the same time they tirelessly invent ways and means of destroying each other in warfare. Is such behaviour to be considered a part of our human nature? Globally speaking, what role do nature, culture and our social environment play in the crafting of humans?

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Invited speakers

Jean-Jacques Hublin, MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig (MPI-EVA), TBD

When did we become fully human?

Watch the video recording of Jean Jacques Hublin's talk

Abstract
Our species is the only one that survived out of a bush of many extinct forms. About 50,000 years ago, it expanded out of Africa and eventually colonized the whole planet, modifying its environment and controlling the genome of other living beings. This spectacular adaptive success is the result of a long interaction between biology and culture.  In its course, major biological functions were complemented by technical and social adaptations, allowing us to cope with very diverse conditions in a flexible and reversible way. Noticeably, the development of our very large brain required changes in our diet and the way we grow up. These biological changes have had many implications on our cognitive plasticity and on our psychology.

Speakers

Biography
Prof. Hublin is Director at the MPI-EVA in Leipzig (Germany), where he created the Department of Human Evolution in 2004. He is also a guest professor at the University of Leiden (Netherlands) and College de France, Paris. His research mainly focuses on Neandertal evolution and the emergence of modern humans. He is best known for introducing imagery techniques for the study of fossil hominids and developing virtual paleoanthropology. He is the founder and President of the European Society for the study of Human Evolution.

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Alain Prochiantz, Collège de France

What makes us brainy humans

Watch the video recording of Alain Prochiantz's talk

Abstract
Being Darwinians, we know perfectly that we – the humans – belong to the animal kingdom. This is underscored, in particular, by the conservation, during animal evolution, of a large number of genetic circuits and molecular/cellular mechanisms that underpin brain development. But one also needs to identify what types of events have allowed the rapid and recent evolutionary innovations that have put us apart from the rest of the mammals, primates included. This lecture will present and discuss some mechanisms that have contributed to the emergence of anatomical and physiological traits specific of the human brain and at the origin of its unprecedented cognitive functions.

Biography
After a PhD thesis prepared at the Faculty of Sciences in Paris and MIT on the structure of plant messenger RNAs, Alain Prochiantz rejoined the College de France, first as a post-doc and then as junior group leader, where he developed a project on the regulation of neuronal polarity. Following a sabbatical year at NYU School of Medicine, he started a Research unit at Ecole Normale Supérieure. In this new environment, he studied the role of homeoproteins in the definition of neuronal shape. This led his laboratory to discover that homeoproteins can travel between cells. This novel signaling pathway has since received experimental confirmation in several models including the establishment of the retino-tectal map and the regulation of the critical period for binocular vision. In addition to its fundamental aspects the work of Prochiantz and colleagues has opened the field of transduction peptides and led to several biotechnological and biomedical developments. In addition to his scientific work, Alain Prochiantz has written several books and theater plays for the lay public. He is presently Professor at College de France and a member of French Academy of sciences.

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Agustín Fuentes, University of Notre Dame

War, peace, & creativity: What Human evolution tells us about human nature(s)

Watch the video recording of Agustín Fuentes's ltalk

Abstract
Over the last two million years, the human linage underwent clear morphological changes alongside less easily measurable, but significant, behavioral and cognitive shifts as it forged, and was shaped by, new niches. We went from a group of small, fangless, clawless, naked bipedal ape-like beings to the makers of stone tools, the controllers of fire and the producers of cave art and on to become the constructors of towns, cities and empires, ultimately becoming a core force in the global ecosystem. How did this happen?

Whether it was eluding predators, defeating competitors, making and sharing stone tools, controlling fire, telling stories or contending with shifts in climate, our ancestors collaborated to deal with the challenges the world threw at them. This baseline of creative cooperation, the ability to think, communicate, and collaborate with increasing prowess, transformed us into the beings that invented the technologies that support large-scale societies and ultimately states. This collaborative creativity also drove the development of religious beliefs and ethical systems, and our production of masterful artwork. It also tragically fueled and facilitated our ability to compete in more deadly ways. We apply essentially the same creativity in killing other members of our species as well as to manipulating the planet to the brink of complete devastation.

In short, the human lineage acquired a distinctive set of neurological, physiological, and social skills that enabled us to work together and think together in order to create and collaborate at increasing levels of complexity. We are neither the nastiest species nor the nicest species. We are neither entirely untethered from our biological nature nor slavishly yoked to it. It’s not the drive to reproduce, nor competition for mates, or resources, or power, nor our propensity for caring for one another that have separated us out from all other creatures. We are first and foremost the species singularly distinguished, and shaped, by collaborative creativity.

Biography
Agustín Fuentes, trained in Zoology and Anthropology, is a Professor and Chair of Anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. His research delves into the how and why of being human.  Ranging from chasing monkeys in jungles and cities, to exploring the lives of our evolutionary ancestors, to examining what people actually do across the globe, Professor Fuentes is interested in both the big questions and the small details of what makes humans and our closest relatives tick. His current research includes cooperation and community in human evolution, ethnoprimatology and multispecies anthropology, evolutionary theory, and interdisciplinary approaches to human nature(s).  Fuentes’ recent books include “Evolution of Human Behavior” (Oxford), “Biological Anthropology: concepts and connections” (McGraw-Hill), and “Race, Monogamy, and other lies they told you: busting myths about human nature” (U of California).

Please register at:
https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/human2015

The meeting is open to all, registration is free.

A free shuttle bus to EMBL will leave at 13:30 from behind the Crowne Plaza Hotel (Kurfürsten-Anlage 1, 69115 Heidelberg) and go back at 17:30.

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