Bioinformatics and Human Origins

08 Jun 2014 // protein

Bioinformatics has often been tarred - and rightly so - with the brush of pointless computation (see this entertaining rant). But if used properly, bioinformatics can be a suprising bringer of light.

An example.

One of my favourite reading topics is the origin of human evolution. I've read many many books on the topic over the years and there's been a dizzy array of hypotheses, counter-hypotheses and angry takedowns. Some say humans stood on two legs because they needed to hold tools. No, it's because it was hot on the savannah, and they had to lose their fur and cool down. No, it's because they needed to stay juvenile and grow a fat head. No, it's because they wanted to hunt and eat delicious flesh. No, it's because they needed to look out over the long grass.

To follow these arguments, it helps greatly if you have a dog in the fight, and mine is the aquatic ape hypothesis, probably the runt of the lot - it sure has taken a beating in the popular literature, especially since it has not been championed by any of the obvious popularizers of biology.

But honestly, the reason for this cacophany of speculation is precisely because there is no good direct evidence for any of the competing hypotheses, where debate often devolves into livid arguments over plausibility.

Or that is what I used to say. In my reading on the topic over the last few years, I've been gratified to see that a steady stream of discoveries have been made, so much so, that we can now construct a workable timeline of the evolution of human traits.

And some of the most crucial discoveries are bioinformatic in nature. These include studies of speciation between us and bonobos, speciation events of bodily parasites, and analyses of genetic sweeps in crucial human genes. The takeaway point is that when framed in the context of a well defined paelotological problem, bioinformatics provides a unique view of the distant past.

Once put in context, the timeline of the evolution of human traits places strong constraints on hypotheses, where we can now actually dismiss several hypotheses of human evolution due to its contradiction with the fossil/bioinformatic record.

Still, I've not really seen the overall timeline put up anywhere in an easy-to-index summarized form. So over the last few months, I've put together a long-form essay giving a detailed illustrated summary of the known Milestones in Human Evolution, which showcases some interactivity using my javascript library supplescroll.