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How Prehistoric DNA Is Helping To Unlock The Secrets Of Human Evolution

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Humans all share a common African ancestry, making African history everyone’s history. Yet little is known about the genetic evolution of people living on the continent in the distant past.

Thanks to advances in genome sequencing technology, scientists are now able to compare the DNA of people alive today with DNA extracted from very old skeletons, giving us a unique snapshot of life in Africa from many thousands of years ago.

In the field of human genetics, the story of Mother Eve is a familiar one. It describes how all living humans descend from one woman who lived in Africa 200,000 to 300,000 years ago.

Evidence comes from studies of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) – a segment of genetic material found in the human cell. Amongst other things, it permits the study of relatedness in populations. Because only mothers pass it down, it reveals the direct evolutionary line between a person living today and their most distant female ancestor.

Mitochondrial Eve

But like most simple stories, the tale of mitochondrial Eve is neither entirely accurate nor complete. While scientists agree that the dawn of humans did indeed occur in Africa, Eve would have been one of many human females living at the time, and she would not have been the first.

Unfortunately, the reality is that mtDNA gives us limited insight into the timelines, or the patterns, of population spread and dispersal.

Molecular biologist Dr Mateja Hajdinjak explains the significance of this knowledge gap. “African population history has shaped the world we all live in, so until we can reconstruct the events from Africa’s past, going back thousands of years, we can’t fully understand how modern humans emerged.”

Dr Hajdinjak is the post-doctoral researcher on the ORIGIN project, an EU-funded research initiative based at the Francis Crick Institute in London, UK that is analyzing DNA from human remains found in archaeological sites in Africa.

The goal of ORIGIN is to reconstruct African prehistory using ancient DNA analysis.

The information yielded from these DNA samples is being studied alongside the findings of the project’s archaeologists, palaeontologists and museum curators.

DNA extracts

Dr Hajdinjak is among a growing number of researchers working hard to fill in the historical blanks by moving beyond analysis of mtDNA to use the latest techniques in whole genome sequencing. This allows researchers to compare the DNA of people living today with DNA extracted from very old skeletons.

“One of our basic questions is, how can we use ancient DNA to reconstruct past population migrations within Africa and between Africa and other parts of the world?” said Dr Hajdinjak.

She adds that little is known about the past genomic landscape across Africa, as much of the genetic change occurred on the continent when some groups shifted from their hunter-gatherer way of life to become agriculturalists between 3,000 and 7,000 years ago.

“By comparing past genomes, we can see how different human groups are interconnected, and how migrations happened at different times in history. Migrations allow people to mix and reproduce with new groups, which changes human biology over time.”

A lot is already known about ancient European history thanks to modern sequencing techniques, but ancient DNA studies of African samples have lagged behind. The reason for this is that DNA degrades over time, and especially in the hot and humid climates that prevail in Africa.

Genome enrichment

However, thanks to cutting-edge genome enrichment tools that allow DNA from the tiniest fragments of bone or teeth to be extracted and then amplified, scientists are starting to make good progress sequencing ancient DNA from Africa too.

By studying the data in this way, the researchers are starting to reconstruct events from the distant past and to probe the relationships that emerged between different African populations.

The aim of ORIGIN is not simply to satisfy our natural curiosity about where we came from, but also to unravel the timeline of our genetic evolution, and to use this information to predict how we might evolve into the future.

Some genetic mutations will have been instantly beneficial to our African ancestors, and will have persisted through the gene pool to this day, thousands of years after they first arose. A key example is lactase persistence – the ability to digest milk into adulthood.

Milk and milk products are a valuable source of energy, yet the default ancestral state is lactose intolerance. For adults living in early African farming communities, the ability to convert milk from their herds into glucose may have given them an evolutionary advantage over their lactose intolerant neighbors.

Sickle cell mutation

Another genetic variant that would have boosted human survival when it first emerged is the sickle cell mutation. This genetic variant confers a degree of protection against malaria.

However, the mutation is something of a double-edged sword, as it is also responsible for sickle cell disease – a serious and life-long condition that is prevalent in parts of Africa to this day.

“It would be very important to reconstruct how sickle cell mutations first appeared and spread,” said Dr Pontus Skoglund, supervisor of the ORIGIN project.

“By understanding when mutations happened and how they spread, we can better understand how humans respond to evolutionary challenges,” said Skoglund.

Genetic mixing

Researchers involved in the EU-backed AfricanNeo project are particularly intrigued by early farming practices in Africa. They are comparing samples of ancient DNA with contemporary DNA to refine their understanding of when African populations started migrating across their continent.

These migrations had a huge impact on the genetic mixing of groups, but the researchers are finding that this “expansion” was a complex series of events that cannot be encapsulated into a neat mitochondrial Eve-style narrative.

“Expansion was not uniform across the continent,” said Associate Professor Carina Schlebusch. She is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Uppsala in Sweden – and principal investigator of the project.

“Some hunter-gatherer groups were replaced by farmers,” she said, referring to the likelihood that conflict would have arisen between populations wanting to occupy the same land, and that farmers would have enjoyed a competitive edge over hunter gatherers. “Other groups interacted and exchanged genes, and others still remained isolated for far longer than you might expect.”

It’s clear why we should all care about these complex events from Africa’s distant past, according to Dr Schlebusch.

“History tends to repeat itself,” she said. “These past migratory events may well play a role in how we behave in our future. For example, climate change means there is likely to be more pressures on people who are forced to leave their homes. There is a chance there will be more conflicts between populations and that some minority groups will be replaced.”

“The more we learn about our history,” she said. “The more we can predict how things will work out in the future.”

The research in this article was funded via the EU’s European Research Council and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA). The article was originally published on Horizon, the EU Research & Innovation magazine.

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Brad Pitt’s Many Faces: Actor, Sculptor And Now, Owner Of A Cosmetic Brand

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Brad Pitt has combined two of life’s greatest pleasures – wine and skincare – in a single product. In an interview with Vogue magazine on Wednesday, the actor announced the launch of his gender-neutral skincare line, Le Domaine. Pitt joins a long list of celebrities who have started their own cosmetics brands in recent years (Lady Gaga, Selena Gomez, Harry Styles…). However, the Hollywood star’s patented product line is unique in that it is made from grapes grown in Pitt’s own vineyard in France, Château Beaucastel.

“Le Domaine is not meant to be a celebrity brand,” Pitt explained in a press release. “It is an anti-aging cosmetics range for men and women. I love the idea of a genderless line,” he added. The actor has made it clear that he is not offering the typical Hollywood-centric brand. The line features subtle products for both genders. “I don’t know if it’s just that I believe in being all-inclusive as much as possible? Or maybe it’s about us guys needing help from others in understanding how we can treat our skin better… We kept the smell very neutral, very fresh, and very, very subtle.”  Pitt also emphasized that Le Domaine is a sustainable line; products are sold in refillable bottles with caps made from wine barrels, as he explained to Vogue.

Pitt is not the first celebrity to launch a beauty line and he won’t be the last. Dozens of celebrities have put their names or faces on cosmetics brands. Some of them simply attach their image to the products, while others test the ingredients or go to the lab to check out the manufacturing process. In November, Harry Styles launched a range of gender-neutral products called Pleasing; in June 2022, Hailey Bieber introduced her Rhode Skin products; Rihanna has found success with her Fenty Beauty brand, and Selena Gomez’s Rare Beauty has prospered as well. And, of course, there’s Kim Kardashian and her sister Kylie Jenner, who expanded her cosmetics and skincare brand in 2019.

Unlike other celebrities, Pitt has decided not to be the face of Le Domaine; he won’t appear in advertising campaigns or do interviews to sell the products. In his interview with Vogue, the actor acknowledges that the beauty industry is already “saturated,” but he explains that, in the process of developing his brand’s products, he noticed a “difference” in his skin as a result of the antioxidants in the grape-derived cosmetics. His vineyard is a multimillion-dollar business that exports rosé wine all over the world, and none of the harvest goes to waste: “Anything left over or discarded becomes food for something else. This exemplary circular system is the inspiration for Le Domaine.” The new products cost between $80 and $385; they are now available for purchase on Le Domaine’s website.

Pitt has a special attachment to the vineyard and the products derived from it. In 2008, he and his then-partner Angelina Jolie acquired majority ownership of the property, and the couple got married there in 2014. Since their separation in 2016, the former couple has been engaged in an ongoing battle over the vineyard. In July 2021, the actress accused him of blocking the sale of Château Miraval, and in February 2022 Pitt sued Jolie for selling her shares of the property to Russian businessman Yuri Shefler without notice, despite their agreement not to sell shares without the other’s permission.

The actor has had a busy week. On Monday, he announced that he contributed nine works to a Finnish art exhibition. Pitt began working on the sculptures after his divorce from Angelina Jolie, with whom he shares six children; he and Jolie are still embroiled in a custody battle. At the exhibit’s opening, Pitt explained why he began sculpting. “To me it’s about self-reflection. It’s about where I have gotten it wrong in my relationships, where have I misstepped, where am I complicit…For me, it was born out of ownership of what I call a radical inventory of self, getting really brutally honest with me and taking account of those I may have hurt, moments I have just gotten wrong.”

From left to right, Australian singer Nick Cave, British sculptor Thomas Houseago and American actor Brad Pitt present a joint exhibition at The Sara Hilden Art Museum in Tampere, Finland, on September 19, 2022.
From left to right, Australian singer Nick Cave, British sculptor Thomas Houseago and American actor Brad Pitt present a joint exhibition at The Sara Hilden Art Museum in Tampere, Finland, on September 19, 2022.JUSSI KOIVUNEN (AFP)
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Did The Nazis Invent Modern Management Culture?

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Is there a link between how modern companies are managed… and Nazi Germany? In his groundbreaking essay, Free to obey, historian Johann Chapoutot – professor of Contemporary History at the Sorbonne – describes how Hitler’s regime launched a model of hierarchical organization based on individual initiative and the delegation of responsibilities.

According to Chapoutot, the Nazis defended a non-authoritarian conception of work, where the worker was no longer a subordinate, but rather a “collaborator” – a notion that may seem to contradict the illiberal character of the Third Reich.

This strategy of assigning tasks and defining competencies – opposed to the verticality of British or French capitalism at the end of the 19th century – was at the service of the German war economy and the extermination of millions of people. However, it ended up surviving the end of the conflict in 1945 and was left as an inheritance to post-war Europe.

The essay caused astonishment and some controversy when it was published in France in 2020, where it became a small publishing phenomenon.

“I discovered the similarities between the Nazi and neoliberal models by studying the work of German jurists, who theorized about a new normative framework for the regime: they needed a new moral law, a new right that would authorize them to exterminate part of the population,” explains Chapoutot in a restaurant attached to the Sorbonne. Among these theorists was Reinhard Höhn, who, after World War II, became the father of modern management in Germany.

Höhn believed that the state should disappear and give way to new government agencies that were less bureaucratic and more dynamic, in which autonomous and happy workers would thrive. For Chapoutot, studying the labor organization of the Nazi regime allows us to delve into another even more thorny question: that of the historical status of Nazism in Europe.

“The Nazis are fully integrated into Western history. Hitler’s legacy is inscribed in our modernity. In reality, the Nazis did not invent anything. They [simply] took logics that existed before their rise to power and took them to the extreme… they then remained after the disappearance of the regime.”

The essay dismantles many myths about Nazism. For instance, Hitler was actually opposed to the idea of a strong state – revered in Prussian times – as he considered it to be a catastrophe for the German race. In 1934, he declared, “it is not the state that gives us orders, but we who give orders to the state.”

In opposition to Marxism, the Nazis promoted a kind of voluntary alienation of the worker. “They promoted a new concept of subordination that would be accepted by the subordinate himself. Nazism’s projects were gigantic: they had to produce, expand, reproduce and prepare for war in record time. Repression did not work. It was necessary to obtain the consent, or even the enthusiasm of those subjected,” Chapoutot points out. This ambition gave rise to an organization of work that highlighted its pleasant character, ventilation and hygiene measures, ergonomics and leisure activities.

 The historian Johann Chapoutot, author of Free to obey, in Paris, September 2022
The historian Johann Chapoutot, author of Free to obey, in Paris, September 2022Bruno Arbesú

In Nazi Germany, the phrase “strength through joy” was popularized by the Ministry of Propaganda, with the rulers convinced that production could only be sustained through an illusory sense of joy and well-being. The state organized vacations for workers, concerts in factories, sports activities, special diets and courses to manage stressful workloads. The parallels to the “happiness managers” that have emerged in Silicon Valley – offering yoga courses and installing foosball tables for employees – are eerie.

The goal of Hitler and Propaganda Minister Goebbels – as they made clear in two speeches delivered on May 1, 1933 – was to end the class struggle and eliminate conflict in the workplace, so as not to harm productivity.

“In contrast to what they labeled as ‘Jewish Marxism’ – which opposed work and capital – Nazi propaganda launched another image: the engineer and the worker shaking hands. In the First World War, they had fought together in the trenches, because they were part of the same nation and the same race. Marxism threatened to destroy that unity,” explains Chapoutot. “Hitler told the workers that he was one of them.”

Above all, the Nazis advocated social Darwinism: a society of winners and losers where the latter could only blame themselves for their failure. To be an acceptable citizen, you had to not only belong to the right race, but also produce beyond your means.

“When this was not the case, the individual became a dead weight for society, which opened the door to their extermination. The Nazis represent a kind of dehumanization that is still valid today. We are no longer people, but human material… an omnipresent expression in the language of the Nazi regime, which was later renamed ‘human resources.’ “

Chapoutot thinks that the massive layoffs taking place in the post-industrial era are tied to the dehumanization pushed in the 1930s and 40s. He recalls the privatization of France Télécom, which resulted in 35 worker suicides in 2009.

“Two years earlier, its CEO had stated that the 22,000 laid off employees – useless for a public company in the process of privatization – should leave ‘by the door or by the window.’ And that’s what happened,” the historian laments.

He admits that his essay has a deeply political dimension. “With respect to the current climate, [we need] to remember where that dangerous vocabulary comes from.”

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Italy Elections: How Divisions On The Left Have Benefited The Right

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Italy’s elections on Sunday could lead to a right-wing government in the fascist tradition coming to power. If so, it would be the first time since World War II that such a government has been elected in either Italy or Europe. However, this is not so much the right’s victory as it is the left’s defeat. In fact, the overall percentages of support for the center-right and center-left have not changed much in recent months. However, the internal composition of the different coalitions has changed. On the center-right, Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, which came from the post-fascist Social Movement party, has surged, while Matteo Salvini’s La Liga has fallen in support. On the center-left, the Five Star Movement was declining as the Democratic Party (PD) made gains. Those positions have now been reversed: support for PD has fallen, while Five Star Movement has seen a boost. But the degree of unity or disunity among the different groups is what matters.

The center-right enters Sunday’s elections united, despite previous divisions between the government and the opposition. Giorgia Meloni deftly remained on the sidelines of Mario Draghi’s government, which has allowed her to tap into social discontent. But remaining aloof from the government didn’t stop her from forming a coalition with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Salvini’s La Liga. The center-right learned a long time ago how to sharply distinguish its own positions for maximum political effect – while sometimes engaging in internal disputes – to then form alliances with those they’d bitterly disagreed with in the past. On the center-left, however, the Five Stars Movement and PD are running separately in these elections even though both formed part of the government. That division will have a significant impact on the outcome of Sunday’s elections. The Rosatellum electoral system – named after former PD politician Ettore Rosato and Renzi who drafted the electoral law – greatly rewards coalitions. That means that, despite having more votes overall, the divided center-left will not have enough to win a majority of seats.

That division is not just a tactical issue. It’s a structural condition that reflects the chasm between the different classes and social categories that the different parties represent. The Democratic Party was supposed to be the party of social democracy and represent workers. After all, it is the heir to the Italian Communist Party (PSI) and left-wing Christian Democracy. But today it is the most bourgeois party; its highly educated electorate is concentrated in large urban centers and has white-collar, professional and managerial occupations. Workers who used to vote for the PCI and Italian Socialist Party (PSI) are now pensioners who vote for the PD, while their children tend to have middle-class professions and occupy a position of relative wealth. At the same time, the PD has left the working-class electorate – those who work for very low wages and those who live in abject poverty – a group concentrated in southern Italy. The Five Star Movement appeals to those very people, and it offers them measures like citizens’ income, a social welfare system that is similar to universal basic income. In other words, the Five Star Movement has gone after an electorate that normally would have voted for a social democratic option, but now there is none.

During the electoral campaign, Giuseppe Conte, the former prime minister and current leader of the Five Star Movement, emphasized the social aspect of his party. He made his campaign slogan “on the right side,” harshly attacked politicians – like Matteo Renzi – who want to eliminate the citizens’ income, and adopted buzzwords reminiscent of US Democrat Bernie Sanders and the UK Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn. Conte’s rallies have packed plazas with supporters, especially in southern Italy, where the economic conditions are the harshest. The Five Star Movement has surged at the polls and now threatens to overtake the Democratic Party. This situation has forced the PD’s Enrico Letta, who initially pursued a centrist strategy, to switch to more progressive promises, such as public sector hiring and protecting public services. But that strategy has seemed indecisive and insincere, especially because Letta had presented himself at the beginning of the campaign as the candidate who would support a new Draghi government to maintain stability and the system. Thus, the Italian situation reflects a realignment of center-left forces that isn’t unique to Italy; it’s happening all around the world. Old social-democratic forces have become middle-class ones; they are now in danger of losing working-class support. They are also being pressured from the left, or rather “from below,” by new populist forces that present themselves as the true defenders of the people’s interests. The risk of reshaping the center-left is that the right will win, which is likely to happen in Italy on Sunday.

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