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

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