Archive for the 'Evolution' Category

We are all aliens!!!

For years we’ve heard the theory that life on earth may have come from space. Here’s a bit more evidence*. Building Blocks of DNA Found in Meteorites from Space.

* This is admittedly several years old, but is news to me.

The components of DNA have now been confirmed to exist in extraterrestrial meteorites, researchers announced.

A different team of scientists also discovered a number of molecules linked with a vital ancient biological process, adding weight to the idea that the earliest forms of life on Earth may have been made up in part from materials delivered to Earth the planet by from space.

Lab experiments showed that chemical reactions of ammonia and cyanide, compounds that are common in space, could generate nucleobases and nucleobase analogs very similar to those found in the carbonaceous chondrites. However, the relative abundances of these molecules between the experiments and the meteorites differed, which might be due to further chemical and thermal influences from space.

This findings reveal that meteorites may have been molecular tool kits, providing the essential building blocks for life on Earth, Cleaves said. [7 Theories on the Origin of Life]

Did we domesticate ourselves?

You’ve doubtless heard of the work of Russian geneticist Dmitry Belyaev. Belyaev is best known for his work domesticating Siberian foxes in the 1950s. He would find the friendliest foxes in a litter and breed them together. He quickly bred the aggression out of the animal. This breeding also resulted in specific physical traits – the bred foxes had floppy ears and upturned tails, like cute doggies.

In fact, this sort of process is presumed to have been what led to the domestication of dogs. When men first started living in permanent encampments (what would evolve into cities) they would leave their garbage at the outskirts. This attracted wolves, the bravest and friendliest of which would approach these cities of man and eat. They mated with similar wolves which led to friendlier and friendlier wolves which led to dogs.

But where does this all lead? Today I came across an argument that such similar breeding occurred in man! No, we’re weren’t bred for friendliness by space aliens; the theory goes, as stated in Michael Gazzaniga’s book “Who’s In Charge?”,:

Hare and Tomasello think that humans may have undergone a self-domestication process in which overly aggressive or despotic others were either ostracized or killed by the group. Thus, the gene pool was modified, which resulted in the selection of systems that controlled (that is, inhibited) emotional reactivity such as aggression… The social group constrained the behavior and eventually affected the genome.

Why are we nice? because we killed the meanies eons ago.

Of course, not everyone is nice. Psychopaths and sociopaths often play upon the trusting nature of regular folks. But the thing about psychopathy is that it’s only advantageous if the psychopaths are in the minority. If everyone is out to screw everyone else then no one trusts anyone and it becomes impossible to take advantage of people. It’s only when most people are decent that being indecent has an advantage.

Monkey fixations

Even the most sophisticated and intellectual among us (myself, for example) have picked up a copy of People magazine when stuck at an Airport with nothing to read. For some reason, staring at pictures of the beautiful and famous is a way to pass the time. It turns out monkeys are no different. They will “pay juice” to look at pictures of higher ranking monkeys.

Researches have found that monkeys will “pay” juice rewards to see images of high-ranking monkeys… They say their research technique offers a rigorous laboratory approach to studying the “social machinery” of the brain and how this machinery goes tragically awry in autism — a disease that afflicts more than a million Americans and is the fastest growing developmental disorder.

It seems, sadly, that monkeys are just as guilty as us when it comes to celebrity obsession.

Male monkeys will also pay juice to look at pictures of female monkey butts. But that seems perfectly reasonable.

Live forever!

The website io9 notes that scientists have figured out how to alter genes to extend life spans! Of, um, yeast, but what they learn could be applicable to humans.

Longo’s group put baker’s yeast on a calorie-restricted diet and knocked out two genes – RAS2 and SCH9 – that promote aging in yeast and cancer in humans.

“We got a 10-fold life span extension that is, I think, the longest one that has ever been achieved in any organism,” Longo says. Normal yeast organisms live about a week.

“I would say 10-fold is pretty significant,” says Anna McCormick, chief of the genetics and cell biology branch at the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and Longo’s program officer. The NIA funds such research in the hope of extending healthy life span in humans through the development of drugs that mimic the life-prolonging techniques used by Longo and others, McCormick adds.

Most interesting on the page are the comments which quickly point out the downsides of humans living a long time.

How would it affect the economy? Would money decrease in value if they had to make enough for so many people in effort to keep as little poverty as possible? How long would food last? Would we use it on cattle and pigs and chickens and other farm animals? What about fruits and vegetables? Where would everyone live? Would the entire planet turn into one huge city? Where would we grow our food? Would we just build up and up and up for housing developments? How many houses and cars would be made? With that many houses and cars being used, what would happen to our atmosphere?

etc. etc…

It’s clear that if human lifespan extension is possible, only a select few should be granted this gift. Only people of exceptional intellect, taste, ability and good looks.

You know who I’m thinking of.

Modern living

An intriguing thought just occurred to me. We understand that we can make the experience of life more pleasant (at least temporarily) by altering our brain chemistry with various substances – martinis, heroin, coffee etc. So why wouldn’t we be “designed” to be in this state all the time? Why not exist in a state of constant pleasure.

The answer, I think, is that the pleasure state is worthless when one is trying to survive in a world of survival of the fittest. In our normal state, if we see a approaching tiger we say, “Holy Fuckburger! A tiger! Run!” But after a martini we might say, “Awww… look at the nice, widdle puddy cat. C’mere kitty I’llsh give you a tickle.” The martini laden version of ourselves wouldn’t likely live long enough to pass on his/her genes.

So the martini or drug soaked brain does not last long in the savage world. What brain does? The anxious, fear laden brain most of us are stuck with. Nature does not reward sensations of joy, peace, calm, but rewards paranoia, phobias, hatred.

Merry Christmas!

The monkey gland craze

I’ve just started reading a book I’ve been very curious about: “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” by Robert Sapolsky. It’s a breakdown of the various physiological processes that occur when we undergo stress, and what their evolutionary advantage was (and, often, what their disadvantage is in modern times.)

The book has a number of interesting anecdotes. For instance, in the early 1900s, it was presumed that men lost their sex drive as they aged because of declining “male factors” in the testes. As a result…

Soon, aged, money gentlemen were checking into impeccable Swiss sanitariums and getting injected daily in their rears with testicular extracts from dogs, from roosters, from monkeys. You could even go to the stockyards of the sanitarium and pick out the goat of your choice — just like picking lobsters in a restaurant… this soon led to an offshoot of such “rejuvenation therapy,” namely, “organotherapy” — the grafting of little bits of testes themselves. Thus was born the “monkey gland” craze, the term gland being used because journalists were forbid to print the racy word testes. Captains of industry, heads of state, at least one pope — all signed up.

It’s a good thing I wasn’t around back then. People would doubtless observe my awesome manliness and demand — perhaps by force of law — that I contribute my impressive “male factors” to inferior specimens of man.

Rape and pregnancy

It’s rare you see interesting science involved in political kerfuffles. Thus, I was intrigued at the controversial statements by Republican Todd Akin that rape victims are unlikely to have successful pregnancies. His statement was…

“From what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare,” said the U.S. Senate candidate in response to a question about whether abortion should be legal in cases of rape. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down.”

Is this actually true? After a few days of not seeing anything in the media addressing what would seem to be a key question, I came across this article. Experts: Rape does not lower odds of pregnancy The crux of the article:

[The experts] conclusion contradicts a statement made last weekend by Rep. Todd Akin, R-Missouri, who suggested in an interview with CNN affiliate KTVI that rape rarely results in pregnancy.

However, there’s an interesting side note here. This article, discussing a kind of spontaneous abortion called preeclampsia notes that post conception, the female body can “shut the whole thing down,” and does so with increased occurrence after rape. Some select quotes from the article…

More often than not, preeclampsia is the result of a hostile immunological maternal response to the paternal genome in the developing conceptus. In other words, the mother’s body is unwittingly terminating a pregnancy that has arisen with a man for whom she has an incompatible biochemistry.

By the early 1980s, scientists had started to notice that preeclampsia was more likely to occur in pregnancies resulting from “one-night stands,” artificial insemination and rape than in pregnancies that were the product of long-term sexual cohabitation.

Now why would this be? Scientists have a theory.

“It may be useful to think about preeclampsia not simply as a medical anomaly,” reason the authors, “but as an adaptation that may have evolved to terminate pregnancies where future paternal investment was questionable or unlikely.” [WF: such as rape] Their argument, which is admittedly speculative, is predicated on the basic parental investment theory in evolutionary biology. While males could impregnate a potentially limitless number of females and spread their genes far and wide without any cost but a euphoric 90-second time investment, ancestral women’s genetic interests were compromised by having sex with a man who had no intention of helping her to raise any resulting offspring. Yet, if she did, and conceived as a consequence of that intercourse, preeclampsia was a second line of adaptive defence that would terminate this “costly” pregnancy—a sort of Darwinian morning after pill, as Gallup explained it to me.

The whole article is fascinating and really worth reading.

Now, essentially both articles are correct. Rape does not seem to be a factor in whether a woman becomes pregnant. But rape does seem to be a factor as to whether she “keeps” that pregnancy. (I’d be interested in knowing how much of a factor, but haven’t seen any data yet.)

Groove on my elephant brothers

I’m on the final chunk of the book “Music, Language, and the Brain” and it’s revealing its treasures faster than a French whore undressing in your hotel room. The final section of the book discusses the human ability to perceive a beat e.g. our ability to tap in time with a song. This is so innate that we probably don’t think about it much, but it’s a skill lost on most animals. The book argues that this skill might have developed from a more generic skill called “temporal anticipation.” A good example of temporal anticipation is this: I throw you a ball. You have to position your hands in the right place at the right time in order to catch it. Basically, you have to anticipate when the ball will be at a certain coordinate in three dimensional space. Similarly, with beat perception we anticipate when the next beat will fall based on what we hear as a pattern. In both cases we are predicting an event in time. Beat perception may have evolved out of temporal anticipation.

I’ll add my own thoughts here. Perceiving beats is one of the more satisfying aspects of listening to music. Who doesn’t love pumping their fists in the air in time with AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and feeling Satan’s power coursing through your veins? I’d argue that when we correctly perceive a temporal event (say, the fall of a drum hit, or catching a ball in space) we probably get a little neurotransmitter “reward” – perhaps a mild blast of dopamine or serotonin – that gives us a sense of pleasure. Thus we enjoy musical grooves and going to AC/DC concerts (and catching balls.)

I’ll add a further level to this. Scientists have theorized about the existence of what are called mirror neurons – brain neurons that fire both when we perform an activity and when we watch someone else perform an activity. Thus when we seen a drummer nail a drum hit, or a ball player catch a ball, we get a little thrill because our mirror neurons are firing with the performer’s.

I’m reminded of my time in Olympia Washington at the height of the punk rock, riot grrl movement in the early 90′s. The level of musicianship in that town, especially in the dominant musical scene, was simply atrocious, mainly because these pseudo-egalitarian commie socialists felt that judging a person’s ability by any standards was a notion derived from the loathed, dominant patriarchal hierarchy (or some similar nonsense.) Thus there was an attitude of “Play drums in time? Why would I do that when I can express my non-comformity by banging away on the drums like a fucking retarded monkey??!” I can recall watching bands and being perplexed by the horrible rhythm I was hearing. I wanted to pump my fist in time, but when I hit the beat the drums weren’t there to support me. These idiots thought they were violating the laws of “society” (the particular law being “play drums in time”) but I would argue they were violating a much older law encoded into the human brain. If some four-foot tribal caveman from the past visited Olympia back then he probably would have said, “Man, you fuckers suck!!” If there was any justice he would have thrown his feces at them.

Anyway, the book mentions another interesting tidbit. A few other animal species can create a steady beat, including elephants. There’s even an elephant orchestra in Thailand. Check this out:

Of quails and chickens

I’m finishing up this tome “Music, Language, and the Brain.” It’s been one of the more difficult books I’ve ever read primarily because its excessive use of academic terminology, but worth plowing through because occasionally you stumble across really fascinating nuggets of science. For instance, at one point the author is describing an experiment involving baby chickens and quails. As eggs, the embryonic birds were housed in isolation so that they could not hear the sounds of their parents. When they were hatched, the chicks showed a preference for the sound of chickens, and quails showed a preference for the sound of quails. This would seem to indicate that we have a genetic, inborn preference for the “talk” of members of our species.

But here’s where it gets weird. Check this out…

A decade after this original study, Long performed an impressive experiment that probed the neural basis for this preference. Using surgical techniques pioneered by Balaban, the researchers cut small holes in the eggs and operated on the embryos, transplanting different portions of the developing neural tube of quails into chicks. They then sealed up the eggs and housed them in incubators isolated from adult bird sounds. After hatching, they tested these chimera birds for their perceptual preferences using the methods of Park and Balaban. They found that when the transplant was in a specific region of the developing midbrain, the chimeras showed a preference for the quail maternal call.

It seems insane that they can even perform such surgeries, and even crazier that it actually worked: the chunk of brain responsible for responding to quail sounds happily set up shop in the chicken brain.

One must wonder if these mutant birds grew to gigantic proportions and developed an unceasing hunger for human flesh. The book doesn’t mention this, but that would be somewhat off-topic.

E.O. Wilson and modern-day tribalism

In the past, I’ve commented on my belief that people’s tendency to group together in social units and eagerly defend their compatriots while damning their foes probably goes back to our tens of thousands of years evolving in tribal groups. In this blog post about political division, I wrote…

The general view from the left seems to be that you can’t just disagree with conservatives, you must hate them with every fiber of your being, and the inverse is true from the right. People go to great lengths to segregate themselves from people who don’t think like they do.

[This] might make some sense from an evolutionary perspective. When we existed in small tribes, the rest of the world really was out to destroy you, so it was pretty easy to assign the worst motivations to the “them” in “us and them.”

The biologist E.O. Wilson has a new book out exploring this very concept. This article of his summarizes parts of it. One interesting point: once people have joined their group (whether it be fans of certain sports team, people with like-minded politics or people with the same skin color) they’re willing to believe the worst about others.

Experiments conducted over many years by social psychologists have revealed how swiftly and decisively people divide into groups and then discriminate in favor of the one to which they belong. Even when the experimenters created the groups arbitrarily (italics mine), prejudice quickly established itself. Whether groups played for pennies or were divided by their preference for some abstract painter over another, the participants always ranked the out-group below the in-group. They judged their “opponents” to be less likable, less fair, less trustworthy, less competent. The prejudices asserted themselves even when the subjects were told the in-groups and out-groups had been chosen arbitrarily.

I think we’ve all felt this, especially as teenagers. You get arbitrarily assigned to some group (maybe “people whose last name starts with the same first letter is yours”) and you feel a certain bonding for your fellow members and a certain derision for members of all their groups. (“Those people whose last name begins with ‘P’… they’re scum.”) Soon you’re casting taunts at these “others,” then throwing rocks at them. Then you are raiding their villages, killing their men, raping their women, and heartlessly slaying their children before them.

Come on, admit it, we’ve all done it.