Strange but True: Chin up — your chin is a sign of civility


Q: Let's face it: Have you ever wondered why we humans are practically the only animal with a chin?

A: One theory has it that random genetic mutation and chance played a major role, while others argue that natural selection actually favored the chin, writes Katie-Meelel Nodjimbadem in "Smithsonian" magazine. Enter University of Florida evolutionary anthropologist James Pampush, who studied more than 100 primate species and found that "the angles that define the chin changed rapidly during recent human evolution but not elsewhere in the primate family tree." Some one hundred years ago, anthropologist T.T. Waterman had argued that the chin was part of a shrinking face, as the first modern humans evolved. Pampush's conclusion: "Natural selection must have been involved in producing that very unusual chin shape."

But why did the face shrink? Paleoanthropologist Robert Franciscus proposes it was reduced aggression and lower testosterone, "associated with more cooperation and more social tolerance."

Concludes Nodjimbadem: "So we can all keep our chins held high. It's not so much a symbol of our vulnerability (though we sometimes lead with it) or even our virility. It's a sign of something more crucial — our civility."

Q: How does hunting by humans differ from that of other land and sea predators?

A: Typically, humans hunt adult animals, while non-human carnivores hunt easier-to-catch juveniles, reports "Science" magazine. Dubbing adults "reproductive capital" and juveniles as "interest" on that capital, conservation scientist Chris Darimont and his colleagues argue that targeting adults depletes this precious capital.

Analysis of hunting and fishing data reveals some curious facts. For land animals, human hunters put roughly 10 times as much pressure on top predators (e.g. wolves) as herbivores (e.g. rabbits), perhaps due to our penchant for trophy hunting. In the sea, by contrast, roughly equal pressure is put on top predators, smaller carnivores and herbivores. Such equal-opportunity killing may be related to the fact that fishing is indiscriminate, conducted on industrial scales. But wherever it occurs, we kill at many times the rate as all non-human predators combined.

Given all of this, Darimont concludes that "humans function as an unsustainable 'super predator,' which, unless additionally constrained by managers, will continue to alter ecological and evolutionary processes globally."

Q: "It ain't just for fancy folks in top hats," writes Foster Kamer in "Mental Floss" magazine. But it costs $50-$70 for 50 grams, or about $500-$700 per pound. What is it?

A: Caviar, or unfertilized salt-cured fish eggs from different species of sturgeon. This "hoity-toity" stuff wasn't always quite the delicacy it is today, Foster says. Actually, caviar was an everyday snack and an American export in the early 20th century, with the Hudson and Delaware Rivers two of the world's biggest caviar-producers. "As Josh Russ Tupper of New York's iconic Russ & Daughters appetizing shop explains, 'Salted caviar was so prevalent, it was sitting on bars like peanuts.' (Like peanuts, the salt helped encourage drinkers to keep drinking.)" Since most caviar is harvested by killing the fish, overfishing in the U.S. severely curtailed domestic supplies and made imported caviar more expensive.

How expensive? According to the "Food Republic" website, "the most expensive caviar on record is from a 100-year-old fish Almas caviar, from the eggs of 60 to 100-year-old Iranian beluga sturgeon, clocking in at roughly $35,000 per kilo ($1,000/ounce)."

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