The Insight, episode 18: Lee Berger, H. naledi, and open science


On this week’s episode of The Insight (Stitcher and Google Play) we talk to Lee Berger, author of Almost Human and a  paleoanthropological revolutionary. Or, less sensationally Lee tells us his view on the practice and results of science in his field (which is literally in the field).

Like most scientists, Lee is passionate about his work, but unlike many, he’s really good at talking about it. That’s an important skill going forward because science is usually funded by the public or private foundations.

Here is the original paper on Homo naledi, Homo naledi, a new species of the genus Homo from the Dinaledi Chamber, South Africa. This small hominin had a brain 30% the size of our own, and lived until at least (and likely later than) 200,000 years ago in southern Africa. At some point they’ll get DNA out of naledi. Lee’s current opinion based on morphology seems to be that this is a highly basal lineage. That is, it separated from the one group that led to anatomically modern humans 2 million years ago!

Also, if you haven’t, please give us 5 stars on iTunes/Stitcher! I know how many readers I have, and 59 ratings aren’t the limit of reach of my audience.

The Insight, episode 17: Stuart Ritchie, intelligence and genes


On this week’s episode of The Insight (Stitcher and Google Play) we talk to Stuart Ritchie, a postdoc in Ian Deary’s lab, about recent developments in cognition and genomics. There’s a reason that Deary gets some time in She Has Her Mother’s Laugh; his group is publishing some really interesting work.

Before we get to the good stuff, Stuart gives us a quick review of general intelligence and why it matters. If you want a book-length treatment then his own book should suffice, Intelligence: All That Matters. Richard Haier’s The Neuroscience of Intelligence goes a little more into the “wet biology” aspect of the brain if that is more your style.

There are two reasons I wanted us to have Stuart on the podcast.

First, psychometrics is not a field which was hit by the replication crisis. It’s a pretty robust and reliable discipline. Companies such as the Educational Testing Service (ETS) rely on the predictive power of the constructs in the field to sell their products. And yet most well-educated people don’t really know much about intelligence testing except that it has been “debunked” by the Mismeasure of Man.

Because people don’t understand the history of intelligence testing (i.e., it enabled the meritocracy by removing the importance of “polish” and “good breeding”) it’s easy for American graduate schools to do things like removing the GRE as a criterion on admissions. Privately some academics have told me that this will mostly result in increasing the importance of undergraduate education and pedigree (because anti-GRE sentiment has become connected to “social justice” I think it’s removal is a fait accompli).

Second, the field of cognitive genomics is moving through a major turning point. A publication like this in January, A combined analysis of genetically correlated traits identifies 187 loci and a role for neurogenesis and myelination in intelligence, is going to be superseded in months. I’m not speculating. I know this as a fact, and so do many others. Where will we be in two years?

Ray Kurzweil has many ideas, some of them interesting, some kooky, and some of them wrong. But one idea he’s promoted which I think is correct is humans are not good at modeling exponential rates of growth. The field of psychometric genomics is now moving into the steep phase of ascent, as sample sizes go well above 1 million, and some researchers shift from proxy characteristics such as education and delve into raw intelligence test scores. Most people “outside of the know” are about to smash into the concrete before they even know it’s coming up at them….

Reflecting on Journey of Man 15 years later

Journey of Man, Spencer Wells’ book and documentary, came out 15 years ago. To a great extent the impact of TV is such that one can argue it introduced genetic anthropology to a whole generation.

A lot has happened since then. On this week’s The Insight we review what’s happened since then, and how Spencer, who started out a conventional academic scientist, became a documentarian.

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