What does it mean to be human? That question is the theme behind two events this week at the National Museum of Natural History. On Dec. 20 from noon to 2 p.m., the museum will host a Q&A with John Yellen, the program director for archaeology at the National Science Foundation. Yellen is known for his fieldwork in the Kalahari Desert studying Kung Bushman hunter-gatherers and excavations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Kenya. He will answer questions and discuss his work, which focuses on the emergence of modern human behavior. On Dec. 21 from 3 to 4 p.m., the museum will hold an informal discussion on “hot topics in human origins,” which organizers say will include elements of science and religion. Both events are free and open to the public at the Hall of Human Origins. For more information, visit humanorigins.si.edu.
The Devil’s Hole pupfish, which has survived for millennia, is finding itself in hot water — literally. After thousands of years in a warm aquifer in a corner of the Mojave Desert, the pupfish now can’t survive anywhere else. No bigger than a pinkie, only 75 of them are left, all requiring 90-degree waters and low oxygen levels. The species could be saved by crossing it with the Ash Meadows Amargosa pupfish, which lives in a nearby spring, but the prospect of “saving” a species by reengineering its DNA is creating a philosophical dilemma for ecologists. The December issue of Wired magazine examines the issue of how much human intervention in pursuit of conservation is too much. There are plenty of nature-made hybrids, such as the pizzly bear (polar bear plus grizzly bear) and an unnamed American crocodile/Cuban crocodile mix. Even some humans are likely part Neanderthal. But man-made hybrids, such as the beefalo, are controversial, and for now the future of the pupfish remains unclear.