The past decade has seen astonishing discoveries about human origins that captivate the imagination. We walk on two legs, make tools, and have large brains. We solve complex problems and communicate through language and art. We express our feelings and our spirituality. How did we acquire these extraordinary qualities? Are we still evolving or are we ‘it’, the endpoint of the evolutionary story?
These questions excite the deepest levels of human curiosity about our own identity and origins, and help shape one of the most awe-inspiring areas of scientific inquiry. ‘What does it mean to be human?’ – the theme of the Human Origins Initiative of the Smithsonian Institution – reflects one of humanity’s most profound quests. The initiative’s goal is to explore the universal human story at its broadest time scale. It seeks to stimulate new research findings that deepen an understanding of what makes our species unique and how we came to be.
Archive for the 'science' Category
Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin
This is the diary entry of Charles Darwin from February 12, 1835. For those of you interested in the life of the naturalist who most thoroughly described the process of natural selection as a causative mechanism for evolution when he published the work On the Origins of the Species, one of the most interesting blogs on the internet is the daily publishing of Darwin’s diary entries from the period he was a member of the team on The Beagle. Roger is kind enough post the entries on matching days, and I have been following Darwin’s journey from the time he left England in this way.
We continued to ride through the uncleared forest; & only occassionally met an Indian on horseback, or a troop of fine mules bringing Alerce planks or corn from the Southern plains. In the afternoon one of the horses tired; we were then on the brow of a hill which commanded a fine view of the Llanos. The view of these open plains was very refreshing, after being hemmed in & buried amongst the wilderness of trees. The uniformity of a forest soon becomes very wearisome; this West coast makes me remember with pleasure the free, unbounded plains of Patagonia; yet with the true spirit of contradiction, I cannot forget how sublime is the silence of the forest. The Llanos are the most fertile & thickly peopled parts of the country: they possess the immense advantage of being nearly free from trees; before leaving the forest we crossed some flat little lawns, around which single trees were encroaching in the manner of an English park. — It is curious how generally a plain seems hostile to the growth of trees: Humboldt found much difficulty in endeavouring to account for their presence or absence in certain parts of S. America; it appears to me that the levelness of the surface very frequently determines this point; but the cause why it should do so I cannot guess. — In the case of Tierra del Fuego the deficiency is probably owing to the accumulation of too much moisture; but in Banda Oriental, to the North of Maldonado, where we have a fine undulating country, with streams of water (which are themselves fringed with wood) is to me, as I have before stated, the most inexplicable case.
What surprised me is that in this entry he makes no note of his birthday, but I also found this paragraph interesting when discussing his conversation with a local priest in a small village in South America:
I spent the evening very pleasantly, talking with the Padre. — He was exceedingly kind & hospitable; & coming from St Jago had contrived to surround himself with some few comforts. Being a man of some little education, he bitterly complained of the total want of society; — with no particular zeal for religion, no business or pursuit, how completely must this mans life be wasted.
Since this is a raw entry from a private diary it is not carefully edited for clarity and I read it a few times to try to understand what it is that Darwin is saying of the padre. Is the padre complaining of the lack of zeal for religion and then commenting that the Padre’s life being wasted for complaining of that? Or, more likely is he judging that the Padre’s life is being wasted by having no passionate pursuit for religion nor business?
I would say that if the Padre had passion and zeal for religion, his life would be wasted, but since Darwin had not yet discarded his religious beliefs in favor of a strong agnostic position I guess that Darwin is unhappy for the man that he is a Padre yet lacks the conviction of his profession and is satisfied with merely complaining. Darwin was passionate in his curiosity and I am thankful to him for that, for his devotion to methodology and the work it takes even when menial and repetitive to carry his need to know and find excitement and satisfaction while finding useful answers to big questions.
Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin!
Genetically Modified Organisms
I have to admit that I am not a geneticist, and I only have a background in the studies of genetics from a high school and early level college series of classes in biology and organic chemistry. I don’t deem myself an expert in GMO’s and so you are welcome to take what I write about them with a certain level of dismissiveness if you wish. Of course, you are welcome to take all of what I write with a certain level of dismissiveness. I am used to it.
I strongly support the concept that teaching critical thinking to all students and pupils and all citizens is critical, so that we can responsibly examine presuppositions and how we use them to address critical issues facing society. I don’t think that we should reflexively defer to scientists on questions, but we should learn how to read what they publish, how to sort the media’s interpretation of science and how to respond when it comes to the questions we pose our policy-makers.
You really should know that I am not a climatologist, but I am sufficiently convinced that the preponderance of data supports the fact that human activity has accelerated the overall global warming trend that we may or may not have been cycling through had nature been left to itself. I am sufficiently convinced that the processes of evolution account for the ongoing diversity of life and even can account for abiogenesis. I am sufficiently convinced that the sun was born from the remnants of a supernova, and that time started just “before” planck time and that we are still “in” the big bang as the universe and space continue to expand faster than the speed of light.
With all that being said, I am dismayed that the public attitude towards GMO foods and their research is largely colored by an anti-science and anti-skeptical denialism. What I need to remind people is that denialism is not a prejudicial function of conservatism. It finds its roots and home all across the political spectrum. Yes, Creationism and Climate-Science denial are largely confined to conservative protectionism of the status quo, but anti-GMO sentiment that is reflexive is largely a leftist movement. And, as a liberal I am frankly embarrassed by the approach of leftists on this issue. It is the same approach used by anti-vaccination autism and “toxin” screamers. If the product is developed by a major corporation that stands to make a profit, then it is automatically bad. Of course, I wonder if the people that rail against GMO are doing so from their Microsoft or MacIntosh machines.
I have been subscribing to Change.org’s e-mail updates to find what sort of activism I can endorse and participate in that I believe will make our country a better place. I also subscribe through my google reader to Truthout.org to get news from non-mainstream media. Both sources have a tendency to provide reliable journalism and reporting from a liberal (meaning reality-based) outlook. But they have been sending me action points related to fighting the development of GMO foods, crops and pest-resistant plants.
There is a great potential benefit to moving from traditional forms of hybridizing plants towards inserting genes into existing species of food crops. There are also potential dangers which must be scientifically tested, and confirmed to be safe.
The problem is that GMO denialists are absolutely opposed to any research into the development of what they refer to as “Franken Foods.” Two quick links, because I must leave for work, for you to use to identify what I am referring to. The take home message from my post is not that all GMO should be accepted uncritically. No, they should be studied methodically because the potential benefits of moving towards GMO based agricultural and tied in with organics can go a long way towards mitigating the oncoming droughts and continued desecration of the planet.
And a new study — which had to resort to analyzing data sets produced by studies conducted by Monsanto and another biotech firm, Covance Laboratories, and submitted to European governments because researchers couldn’t get seeds — has found that Monsanto corn impairs rats’ kidneys and livers. The “data strongly suggests” that after just 90 days of eating GM corn, rats experienced kidney toxicity and showed effects to their hearts, adrenal glands, spleen and blood cells. (The study was published in the International Journal of Biological Sciences.)
And a response at David Tribe’s GMO Pundit to the faulty attributes of the study quoted:
The picture shows only one test result, but it shows it very well, telling the story of Seralini making far too much out of random variation in rat biology that occurs in all animal feeding trials.
Yes there is a difference in average relative kidney size between rats fed the GM corn and those fed its comparator variety in this feeding trial, but when the range kidney sizes of values of rats fed a variety of (non-GM) corn varieties is included, it becomes clear that this difference is within the range of normal variation.
Learn how this science stuff works, people. PLEASE!
Evolution in Action
The idea of species as fixed groupings of individual living beings is a slippery one, and species are not easily defined nor delineated. This is one reason the creationists claim that they accept micro- but not macro-evolution in defense of their holding on to their belief in separate creations for all kinds, or baraminology. Wilkins, the Modern, explains briefly how the concept of species itself evolves:
Some years ago, I published an idea that I think might be the resolution to this (2003) in which I argued that species is like any other property of organisms, something that has evolved in its own way. The reason there is no universal notion of species for the same reason there is no universal notion of leg: species, like legs, are the outcome of evolution. In other words, these kinds themselves evolve. This applies also to other apparently universal aspects of biology: genes, or rather replicators, cells, individuals, and so on. It is not the case that, as Dupré thinks, that anything goes, but that there are evolved modalities, as I called them – ways of being whatever it is that we are trying to understand. This applies not only to the organisms and their traits, but to the kinds of organisms, and even to the kinds of kinds. Taxa, units, ranks, entities, systems – all these are evolved, and so to understand what it means to be, say, a bird species or a eukaryote gene, you need to understand the evolutionary relations of that group.
If You Can’t Win With the Facts
From a Comment I Left at Jason Rosenhouse’s Evolution
If it is true that underlying the religion/science debate is political, we can also examine whether or not there is a economics component. For one thing, “truth” is a scarce resource and perhaps the scarcest of all. The idea that ethics and morals can only be derived from an absolutist basis, gives the moral absolutists the tightest control over access to such knowledge. They “know” and the rest of the world guesses, and because of this they wield such power to get the rest of us in line. In science, we see no absolutes anywhere in nature except as concepts. Even Absolute Zero is a concept that is physically unobtainable because of the nature of energy. It is approachable and physicists have come very close to it, but still can never come more than a nano-hair’s whisker from it.
From PLoS One
I’ll read this a few times and try to get a better understanding, but this is a fascinating attempt to get at the neuronal relationship to the “me” that conscious entities experience. The authors use the description “personal relevance.”
The attribution of personal relevance, i.e. relating internal and external stimuli to establish a sense of belonging, is a common phenomenon in daily life. Although previous research demonstrated a relationship between reward and personal relevance, their exact neuronal relationship including the impact of personality traits remains unclear.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we applied an experimental paradigm that allowed us to explore the neural response evoked by reward and the attribution of personal relevance separately. We observed different brain regions previously reported to be active during reward and personal relevance, including the bilateral caudate nucleus and the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex (PACC). Additional analysis revealed activations in the right and left insula specific for the attribution of personal relevance. Furthermore, our results demonstrate a negative correlation between signal changes in both the PACC and the left anterior insula during the attribution of low personal relevance and the personality dimension novelty seeking.
While a set of subcortical and cortical regions including the PACC is commonly involved in reward and personal relevance, other regions like the bilateral anterior insula were recruited specifically during personal relevance. Based on our correlation between novelty seeking and signal changes in both regions during personal relevance, we assume that the neuronal response to personally relevant stimuli is dependent on the personality trait novelty seeking.
Neuroscience may someday be able to answer the questions that metaphysics have been struggling over for millenia.
Enzi B, de Greck M, Prösch U, Tempelmann C, Northoff G, 2009 Is Our Self Nothing but Reward? Neuronal Overlap and Distinction between Reward and Personal Relevance and Its Relation to Human Personality. PLoS ONE 4(12): e8429. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0008429