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See Inside Scientific American Volume 311, Issue 3

Special Evolution Issue: Humanity’s Journey

Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina introduces the September 2014 issue of Scientific American
Mariette DiChristina
Mariette DiChristina


Mariette DiChristina
Credit: Nick Higgins

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As I type, I am in the cavernlike McCarran Airport in Las Vegas. Frank Sinatra is crooning through the speakers. People are bustling along with their bags, tucking into a sandwich before boarding for their flights and, of course, foolishly dropping their hard-earned money into the ringing, glowing slot machines. I've just come from giving a keynote at the Amaz!ng Meeting, the annual gathering of evidence-based thinkers run by the James Randi Educational Foundation. The irony of the location for such a meeting is not lost on me. At. All.

Not for the first time, I'm marveling at how some seemingly unremarkable primates evolved into an ingenious species displaying a series of similarly fascinating contradictions today. We are clever and silly, poetic and crass, playful and brutal. We contemplate our mortality, selflessly share knowledge with others and consume resources even when we know it's unsustainable.

In every way, we are a remarkable species, but our rise to dominance on this planet was by no means a given. In this, our annual single-topic issue, we explore “The Human Saga” of our species' evolution. The articles probe the narrative arc of human history, from where we began to what the future may hold.

Surely one important key for our success to date is our unique ability to cooperate in large, well-organized groups—at a rate and more expansively than other animals. See “One for All,” by primatologist Frans de Waal.

Today's climate is being influenced by human activity, but perhaps it is a surprise that past rapid swings in climate may have helped shape human adaptability, advances in stone tools and our varied diet, as environmental scientist Peter B. deMenocal describes in “Climate Shocks”.

We are not done adapting. Although some believe humans are no longer subject to natural selection, “Still Evolving (After All These Years),” by anthropologist John Hawks, explains why that is not so. He details why humans actually have evolved rapidly in the past 30,000 years as we have switched from hunting and gathering to agriculture. As we look ahead, we note with no small satisfaction that the human mosaic in all likelihood will only continue to grow more colorful.


2014 Science in Action Winner
Congrats to Kenneth Shinozuka of Brooklyn, N.Y., winner of the $50,000 Scientific American Science in Action prize, part of the Google Science Fair. To protect his beloved grandfather, who suffers from Alzheimer's and is prone to wandering, he paired a wearable foot sensor with a Bluetooth-enabled wireless circuit and a smartphone app. The result can ease the anxieties of families everywhere. Kenneth, a finalist in the 15–16 age category in the Google Science Fair global competition, will join the others at the awards event on September 22 at the company's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. As chief judge since the fair's founding, I am again looking forward to seeing all the student scientists in action. —M.D.

This article was originally published with the title "Humanity's Journey."

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