Wednesday, May 15, 2013

We crossed the red line and no one noticed

We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.
(Martin Luther King, April 4, 1967)

The Earth will end when God declares it to be over.
(John Shimkus, Republican congressman, Illinois, chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy))

For the sake of our planet, we need to start eating lower down on the food chain and we need to do it fairly soon.
(David George Gordon, science writer)

A story in need of an ending

In case you haven't heard and most likely many haven't, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere of planet Earth has now risen to 400 parts per million. It's been something like 3 million years since so much carbon dioxide has been hanging over the planet.

The “little-bit” of good news is that 400 ppm is part of a scientific model, a very complex model with a lot of complex parts and poorly understood by most people, which is comforting news to many politicians across the globe. Models of course can be changed, modified or discarded. Unlike the politicians, the scientists could be wrong about a lot or a little and, as some people know, science tries hard to be proven wrong.

The actual “good” news is that we have some idea how to mitigate many of the effects of climate change. For example, in terms of things like deforestation, feed production and animal waste, the
livestock industry produces between 18-51 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The industry as well uses a lot of fossil fuels and water.

Could you imagine eating a little less meat? What if you could be persuaded that the future of future generations would quite probably be bleak, unless significant changes were made starting right now? For that matter, the present is feeling a little less certain; we may not need vivid imaginations. For more on this subject see “Additional Reading.”

Genes made me do it—or not

Genetics has come a long way since Gregor Mendel, in the 19th century, showed how the inheritance of certain traits in pea plants followed particular patterns. Today, with the mapping of the human genome and the ever increasing power of supercomputers, we have arrived at a new scientific Frontier-land. What we do with it is a story searching for a good ending.

I once worked with someone a number of years ago that believed humankind was “d-evolving,” as though the expanding universe showed signs of slowing down and reversing itself. Interestingly, Gerald Crabtree, Professor of Pathology and Developmental Biology at Stamford University, has a fairly controversial view on human intelligence. It's declining, according to Crabtree.

He has said that, “A hunter-gatherer who did not correctly conceive a solution to providing food and shelter probably died, along with his or her progeny, whereas a modern Wall Street executive that made a similar conceptual mistake would receive a substantial bonus and be a more attractive mate.”

Crabtree has suggested that the approximately 5,000 genes, which he believes are the basis for human intelligence, have mutated over the years and modern man is not as intelligent as his ancestors. The professor thinks we may have peaked about 7,000 years ago! At the same time, Crabtree has said that science and technology have allowed us to rise above the “dumbing down.”

Regardless of Professor's Crabtree's thought-provoking ideas, what we know about genes at the present time is quite remarkable. It's not an either or—genetics or environment—it's more like a blending, a mixing and sometimes one is more influential than the other. The answer is frequently that … it depends.

When we're young, environment has a tendency to be more important but when we get older and more independent, genes seem to play a larger role. Certain behaviors, such as criminality, are heritable but only as side effects of genes that affect personality traits. You don't for example have genes for addiction, but you do have genes for impetuosity and risk taking which, under the right environmental circumstances, might lead to addiction.

Neurobiologists have found out that there is a structure in our limbic brain called the amygdala, which causes the feeling of unease. Research has shown that people with larger emotional responses to threats are more likely to have right-wing opinions. There is now a field called Genopolitics, which accepts that political views most likely have a genetic component.

Finally, a little bit of good news to consider. Yes, sex and organisms are healthy, because they release oxytocin, sometimes called the “cuddle hormone.” This particular hormone has the ability to lower amygdala response, which can then increase such traits as generosity and trust. David Buss, a professor of psychology, conducted a “sexual preference study a number of years ago.” He learned that the top two qualities in a mate for both men and women were kindness and intelligence, outweighing things such as money and physical appearance.

Thinking good thought

In summary, how we think, make decisions and frame discussions needs to be understood a lot better. We know now that there is both a genetic and environmental component in decision making, and our survival as a species probably depends on how effectively we can increase the size of who we think belongs in our group. The “clan” is bigger than we think.

Additional Reading:

what to consider

worth reading

political hack with a degree in biology

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Remembering uncle Sah

In the beginning

My uncle was different from the others although I was never able to put my finger on it exactly. Sure, he was smarter than most and in some ways he didn't look like everyone else I suppose. Now his eyes, the way he looked at you, as though he knew something you didn't. It was a little spooky at times, but I knew my uncle liked me a lot.

Memories however grow dim, especially after some 7 million years. My uncle's full name is Sahelanthropus (sa-ha-lan-throw-pus) Tchadensis (cha-den-sis), but I've always called him Sah. Scientists, at least for the present, believe he's the best candidate for our last common ancestor with the chimpanzee.

Sah lived in Chad, Africa. Seven million years ago, give or take, was when we diverged from the chimp. We went our separate ways. This is difficult for a lot of humans to accept, how we're all related to Uncle Sah that is.

The big family

“Family is everything,” many of us like to glibly proclaim but it seems more like lip service than anything else, at least a lot of the time. We know now that all life shares a common ancestor, where our DNA ultimately came from. Our family literally includes the humpback whale, the bald eagle and the fruit fly. It's loud, boisterous, sometime bizarre and certainly diverse. Yes, family is everything.

The Human Genome Project was completed in 2003. We identified the approximately 20,000-25,000 genes in human DNA, the instruction manual for making a human. We also determined the sequence of the 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up human DNA. We have enough data now to study and analyze for the next 100 years. DNA in living cells, to the best of our knowledge, is universal and combined with the theory of evolution is a model of how life is, came to be and its origins.

Knowing what we know

Geneticists speak about “pseudo genes,” genes that once functioned in our ancestors but are no longer functioning. But of course, we haven't always been human. It appears in fact that we have not evolved that much because our evolution has been more about loss of gene function.

This is where environment has a great deal to do with who we are today. A million years ago one of our ancestors “discovered” fire and some 10,000 years ago began the Neolithic Age and the development of agriculture. Diets changed, food was cooked, cooperation and communication on a large scale became necessary and we consumed more starches.

Over a relatively long period of time we found we no longer needed such strong jaw muscles, which required a bony head that limited brain development. Our heads gradually became round, which helped increase brain size.

Both chimps and humans have the amylase gene for digesting starch but chimpanzees have two of these genes and humans have six. As farming culture developed this particular gene became more important. Interestingly, human populations that do not farm, such as the Australian aborigines, have fewer amylase genes.

Some 75 percent of our identified disease causing genes, such as Huntington, Parkinson and some types of cancers have been identified in fruit flies. As well, what is called the pax6 gene regulates eye development in flies, mice and ourselves. The fruit fly has turned out to be extremely important in analyzing certain conditions found in humans. Fruit flies respond like humans to alcohol consumption, from hyperactivity to passing out. They're used in studying insomnia and severe aggression, and altered serotonin levels in flies have resulted in a male-male sexual orientation in the mutants.

The Neanderthal, who died out some 25,000 years ago, is probably the last divergent branch of our evolutionary tree. Approximately 2.5 percent of our DNA outside of Africa comes from the Neanderthal. We likely met up somewhere in the Middle East for a brief encounter.

The FOXP2 gene, which is called the language gene, is identical in both humans and Neanderthal. It appears however that certain genes in cognitive development are different between humans and Neanderthal, possibly because Neanderthals and humans had to solve different types of problems, like anticipating prey for example or simply “life styles.”

The short and long of it

All life on this planet is intimately related. It goes way beyond “loving thy neighbor.” The “them” is us. Homo sapians, collectively, are not an especially lovable species and one could argue that the planet would be better served if we simply went away.

On the other hand, an evolutionary breakthrough could occur, a gene switched on or off and our behavior changed or modified. The extraordinary achievement of mapping the human genome (as well as other species) has the potential for amazing possibilities, both good … and bad. A good first step is understanding how large our real family is and our responsibility in protecting it. That may be the best hope for our survival.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

For Americans in particular and global enlightenment in general

If human beings are basically tradition-bound, irrational creatures, how did science ever develop in the first place? The short answer is, “With difficulty.”
(Uncommon Sense: The Heretical Nature of Science, by Alan Cromer)

A state of bliss

Buffoonery has become a pervasive condition in America, as observed on an almost daily basis, especially among the political class. The latest example is a relatively obscure Republican congressman from Texas, Representative Lamar Smith. Mr. Smith, with no scientific expertise and apparently no understanding of the basic scientific process, happens to be the Chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Representative Smith has drafted a bill that, while directed at The National Science Foundation, one of the premier scientific institutions in the world, wants to set in motion a process for all federal science agencies. His goal is to replace peer review and reduce the importance of scientific replication with some kind of “criteria” chosen by Congress, a criteria that seems to have less to do with science than it does with politics and what Mr. Lamar and some of his colleagues like or dislike.

The chairman of the committee wants to be certain that any grant given out by the NSF has “intellectual merit.” He claims to want to halt “frivolous” and “wasteful” research being funded and insure that any research that is funded be extremely important to “society at large.”

Now how could anyone be against good governance and saving taxpayer money? ( The proposed 2014 science budget is approximately 0.2 percent of the $3.77 trillion federal budget.) After all, U.S. Senator James Inhoff has made a career promoting climate change as a hoax. It's about greedy scientists wanting research grants, as Inhoff will tell anyone who will listen. For details on this dismal and ideally short-lived episode see “Additional Reading.”

The expanding universe

What we refer to as modern science began more than 300 years ago and it has met with resistance of one kind or another the same length of time. Yes, there have been some eureka moments but mostly knowledge was built on what went before. Scientists always owe a debt to those who came before them.

Over the same period of time the scientific method was developed and improved upon. It didn't matter if you didn't like the outcome of the experiment or that your familiar world view turned out to be wrong. The Earth really does go around the sun and it can be demonstrated by a lot of people. Our planet is more than 4 billion years old, and best of all it's not a closely held secret known to only a chosen few.

Scientific research, both public and private, must be robust and intellectually honest. It can be hypothesis driven (to answer a specific question) or discovery based (no specific hypothesis in mind). Above all, none of us--anywhere--can be complacent whenever the usual suspects attempt to turn science into something it's not. It is time to once again confront the usual buffoonery. Make it loud and persistent. It's in the self-interest of all of us.

Additional Reading:

National Science FoundationMerit Review (The NSF process for reviewing a grant application)

The Scientific Method: AnOverview (An explanation of the scientific method for high school and junior high school students)