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Some 400 million years ago, humanity’s ancient sea-dwelling ancestors made a giant leap to land, sprouting weight-bearing fins that would eventually carry us out of the water forever. So what precipitated this evolutionarily pivotal change of terrain? According to recent research led by Malcolm MacIver, a computational neuroscientist and engineer at Northwestern University in Illinois, the jump to solid ground might have more to do with vertebrates’ eyes than limbs. Testing their theory that exponentially clearer views of bountiful prey above water led our ancestors to select for eyes atop the head, with primitive limbs coming long after, MacIver and colleagues ran extensive fossil-data simulations. They concluded that above-water sight did indeed provide an ‘informational zip line’ out of the water – what they call the buena vista (or ‘good view’) hypothesis. Moreover, they believe that those above-water views would eventually lead our land-dwelling ancestors to select for prospective cognition – the ability to mentally place oneself in the future – while fish were left in the muck of the moment.
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