Monday, September 30, 2013

Humans are probably not failed chimps

You can sequence genes on a computer, email them to a lab and a week later, for $100, receive a vial of DNA.
(Ellen Jorgensen, molecular biologist)

The approaching brick wall

Paleogenomics is a relatively new field, whereby small bits of DNA can be extracted from small fragments of bones, providing additional data about the history of human evolution. The Neanderthal genome was generated from 3 small bones and later a toe bone. But, to digress for a moment.

Three stories appeared recently about the “human condition,” that reminded me that the last divergent branch of the evolutionary “bush” was likely Neanderthal. While evolution itself is slow, what is different today is that for the first time in human history evolutionary change has the potential to move much faster because of the extraordinary discoveries in genetics.

This of course is hardly a reason to be uncritically optimistic about the future of our species. These stories, however, also raise the question about nature and nurture and the role that both environment and genes play in “who we are.”

The first story is about a National Rifle Association (NRA) lobbyist  and the killing of an elephant in Botswana. What this particular individual did was not illegal—but will be in 2014. In fact, as the human population increases and we more and more encroach on animal habitats, it is the animal that invariably loses. Authorized “hunts” serve to reduce animal populations and provide funding (hunting fees) to support wildlife reserves, at least this is part of the rationale offered for the killings.

This particular story generated a fair amount of criticism directed at the hunter. In response, this N.R.A. lobbyist called his critics “animal Nazis” and claimed that he was a “hunter” and hunters kill animals. No, he's not a hunter, just someone with a high-powered rifle with too much time on his hands. See the video below and read NRA lobbyist shoots elephantin the face and then celebrates with champagne.

The second story is entitled, Teamof contract killers led by ex-soldier 'Rambo' busted, prosecutorssay. Finally, the last story was produced by documentary film-maker Mariah Wilson. This is a clip from Revealing Hate.

These stories could be replicated across the globe, yet they offer some examples, it seems to me, of a particular sub-species of humankind, an anachronism perhaps, a “throwback” to our past that began over a million years ago. How in fact do we go about increasing such qualities as generosity, trust and empathy in our species. How do we go about “repairing” a poorly functioning cingulate cortex, that part of our brain essential for self-awareness?

The story of the gun lobbyist killing the elephant is largely a story about that minority of privileged human across the globe with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement and obtuseness ... yet, what environmental factors, if any, create the mentality of these primitive death eaters? The other two stories speak for themselves.

Our Neanderthal connection

What is significant about sequencing the Neanderthal genome is that the Neanderthal died out only some 25,000 years ago; we're not trying to find comparisons that go back millions of years. Approximately 2.5 percent of our DNA, outside of Africa, came from Neanderthal. Our two species most probably met between 65,000 and 95,000 years ago. After that there was no more interbreeding.

Scientist do not know for certain what caused the extinction of Neanderthal but a “popular” hypothesis is that humans out-competed them because of more advanced language skills. We know that the FOXP2 gene, the instinct for speech and grammar, is identical in Neanderthal, but genes in cognitive development are different in humans and Neanderthal,quite possibly to have solved different sets of problems, anticipating prey for example.

Will a certain percentage of humans go extinct or will we manage to destroy our species completely, ideally without bringing misery to all life on the planet?

Additional Reading:

On Extinction

How Your Brain Works

Humans and Lions Sharing Space

Friday, September 20, 2013

My Amygdala Made Me Do It

The conditions that sustain humanity are not natural and never have been.
(Erle C. Ellis, associate professor of geography and environmental systems, University of Maryland)

An Anthropocentric world

Professor Ellis, quoted above, appears to be an outspoken optimist regarding humanity's future. Earth's environment is going to be pretty much what Homo sapiens decide to do with it. Ellis' point is that from the very beginnings of human existence, we have “used,” various technologies and engineered ecosystems to sustain ourselves well beyond what the “natural” world could have done.

According to Professor Ellis, Earth's carrying capacity, at best, is probably no more than a few billion people living at a subsistence level. Today of course we're on our way to reach some 9 billion by 2050. Stewart Brand, editor of the Whole Earth Catalog and founder of several environmental related organization, said some forty years ago that, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” Hm-m. So is this what being a god is like? See Ellis' article in the NYT entitled Overpopulation Is Notthe Problem.

The limbic brain and Genopolitics

Professor Ellis at the end of his article in the New York Times states that only our imaginations and our social systems will prevent us from reaching that “proud” future. Imaginations and social systems, however, might be large caveats.

Possibly some of the most fascinating work in science today is being done in biology, specifically in neuroscience, epigenetics (how genes are both agents of nature and nurture) and synthetic biology, which utilizes engineering principles to life science. In simple terms it means breaking down nature into spare parts so we can rebuild it however we please. We will likely have to make some very serious choices in the not too distant future, choices that will impact our “imaginations and social systems.”

Neuroscience has come up with five classes of personality traits: (1) openness, (2) conscientiousness, (3) extroversion, (4) agreeableness and (5) neuroticism. About 50 percent of these traits are genetic and about fifty percent, on average, are environmental. Interestingly, when we're young, environment tends to have a greater impact on how we behave, but as we get older and more independent our genes play a larger role.

The response to threats is a structure in our limbic brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is what causes those all too familiar feelings of unease most of us get at one time or another. The amygdala is connected to the cingulate cortex, an area absolutely critical to self-awareness. While, for example, the amygdala may be perceiving something as a threat, the cingulate cortex analyzes the amygdala's response and decides if it's a real threat or not.

Needless to say it begins to get complicated when we start talking about neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine being two, and the connection to the cingulate cortex, but suffice it to say that the release of hormones like oxytocin, cortisol or testosterone—and their levels—affect behavior and how we react to a great many thing. This has led to a relatively new field called Genopolitics.

Neurobiologists have discovered that the amygdala acts in different ways in liberals and conservatives. Yes, it appears that political views have a genetic component. Research has shown that people with larger emotional responses to threats are more likely to have more conservative opinions. Brain scans have shown that when stressed the cortex and the amygdala light up differently and depending on a number of factors, the connection between these two areas may be strong or weak. For example, oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone,” which is released in sex and organism, is thought to be the hormone smothering the amygdala, thus increasing generosity, trust, etc. Conversely, when the amygdala response is lowered, a threat from real danger may not be perceived.

The brave new world

Yes, it is possible we may be able to imagine a totally new future along with the development of improved social systems. On the other hand we humans could discover we are as “godlike” as the rock at our feet.

Geo-engineering might be able to reverse the negative effects of climate change. The assumption here of course is that the majority of the inhabitants on the planet will have a basic understanding what climate change is. It's also possible that synthetic biology will eliminate human shortsightedness and predation. Possibly the growing middle class in China will come to realize that bringing the elephant to extinction because they must have the “bling” of ivory is not the action of a “higher” species.

Some demographers believe that the planet could maintain a population of 13 billion humans. Of course, significant changes would have to be made. Who's willing to never eat meat again? How high could we build our vertical structures?

A short while ago I saw a photograph of four hunters from somewhere in the southern United States. They were standing proudly beside a dead crocodile suspended in the air by chains, said to be one of the largest ever killed. The picture elicited in me revulsion and disgust … directed at the four humans. For what reason was this animal killed? For the briefest of moments I imagined myself standing beside four hunters suspended on meat hooks. I must raise my serotonin levels in order to meet the future with optimism.

Additional Reading: