You Can Be a Vaccination Hero

SedonaAHThe United States is in the midst of a widespread flu epidemic. Every year, thousands die from the flu and flu-related complications, not to mention the millions of hours of lost productivity resulting from those who are ill from the flu.

Having lived through the Flu Pandemic of 1968-1969 (it knocked me out of school for two weeks and took many more weeks for me to fully recover; around 34,000 died in the US), I cannot understand why anyone would not get vaccinated against the flu.  Yes, it is not foolproof, but the probability is much higher that you will be able to avoid the flu if you are vaccinated than if you are not.

Last year, the CDC Report stated that “90 percent of children who died from flu this season [2013] [were] not vaccinated.”   The CDC reported that , as of January 18, 2014, 20 children had died of the flu, at least two of whom had not been vaccinated.  It is probable that the other children were not vaccinated, but that the parents were reluctant to admit that.

Perhaps many of those who do not get vaccinated are relying (consciously or not) on herd/community immunity: they hope that enough other people get vaccinated to reduce flu transmission so that they won’t get the flu.  However, herd/community immunity only works if most of the population is vaccinated.  Freeloading may get you ill or dead.  Freeloading may also mean that you cause illness (or even death) in individuals who cannot be vaccinated due to underlying health issues.  I suggest you view getting  vaccinated as something you can do to help your community.  Vaccination saves lives.   You will be a quiet hero.

The Homunculus and Personhood Laws

The other day in my Physical Anthropology class, I was showing a video on genetics that I’d shown in prior semesters, but this time one portion of it struck me in a new way.  I believe I have figured out some of the ‘reasoning’ used by those legislators who are pushing personhood bills which declare the zygote (fertilized egg) to be a person who is entitled to all the rights of an actual person.

In Medieval Christian Europe, there was little understanding of biological processes and even less effort made to rectify the situation. The views of the ancient Greeks, especially Aristotle, were taken as the ‘gospel truth’.  Unfortunately, Aristotle and other Greeks, such as the physician Galen, did not understand the mechanisms of sexual reproduction in humans.

The ancient Greeks and, therefore, the Medieval Christians, believed that the man provided everything that was needed for a new human, except for a place to grow that new human.  The woman was essentially just an incubator.  Furthermore, they believed that a tiny person, the homunculus, lived in the head of the sperm.  They knew nothing about the ovum/egg.

The man ejaculated this tiny person into the woman and about nine months later, the ‘incubator’ produced a baby.  Other than providing a womb for growth, the baby did not belong to the woman.  The baby was solely generated, and therefore owned, by the man.  Of course, women were also owned (chattel) by men, further diminishing the female contribution to the baby.

As we have seen from the comments made by many of the personhood legislators, their understanding of biology and human reproduction has not progressed beyond that of the Medieval Christians.  A belief in the homunculus, whether or not it is articulated, clearly underlies the concept of giving personhood to a zygote and the subsequent ball of cells.  Anyone who believes in the homunculus must view a zygote as a miniature person.  Following from this, their ‘logic’ leads them to wish to protect this miniature person.

Awarding full personhood rights to a zygote while ignoring the rights of the woman in whom the zygote exists also follows from the Medieval Christian view that women are just incubators who contribute nothing to the embryo/fetus.  Since a pregnant woman is an incubator, she has no rights to do anything to the zygote/embryo/fetus.  Only men can decide this for her since only men truly ‘generate’ offspring.

These same legislators want contraception/birth control outlawed because it prevents a man from generating more offspring.  In their Medieval Christian view, any sperm that is prevented from implanting in the womb results in killing a person since the head of the sperm contains the homunculus.  Life doesn’t begin at conception.  Life begins in the sperm.  Every sperm is a potential life because every sperm has a miniscule person residing in it.  This would also explain why masturbation is a sin.  Think of all the ‘lives’ that are being wasted/lost!

Since, in this Medieval Christian view, the man is the sole generator of life, and the woman merely an incubator, even rapists deserve to have rights to any resulting offspring.  If a woman becomes pregnant despite being raped, then that embryo/fetus is meant to be born.  Women (or even young girls impregnated by their fathers) must carry to term all results of sexual activity whether consensual or not.  After the birth, the woman has fewer rights over the offspring than does the genitor (man), even if that individual is a rapist.  After all, the offspring is more truly his than it is hers since her major role is as an incubator while he was the genitor.

The anti-contraception, anti-abortion, pro-personhood legislation now coursing through state legislatures can be understood if we realize that those pushing this legislation are operating under the Medieval Christian and Aristotlean view of human reproduction: the male is the genitor while the woman is the incubator.  Their ‘knowledge’ is stuck in the 11th century.  It is little wonder that those of us who live in the 21st century are shocked, amazed, and horrified by these legislators who have no understanding of human reproduction, but who are trying to control women and their reproduction.

International Human Rights Day

December 10, 2012 was the International Human Rights Day, a day that we remind ourselves that far too many individuals still lack basic human rights.  There are 27 million men, women, and children laboring in slavery.  Girls are too frequently denied an education and forced into early marriage when, instead, girls could be powerful forces of economic and political change.

International Human Rights will not be achieved until women have the same opportunities and rights as men; until we have gender equity.  Women’s Rights are Human Rights.

One day each year to remind ourselves that everyone deserves human rights is not often enough. But it is a beginning.

International Day of the Girl

On October 11, 2012, we will celebrate the 1st International Day of the Girl.  This past week (10/1/12 and 10/2/12), PBS aired a two-night, four-hour documentary entitled “Half the Sky” which highlighted the work being done to help girls in several different countries.  This help includes escaping sex slavery, dealing with rape, obtaining an education, and improving healthcare.  As stated on the Half the Sky Movement website, their goal is “Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” If you missed “Half the Sky” on PBS, you can view it online until October 8 (Part 1) and October 9 (Part 2).

Women and girls form 50% of the world’s population.  Ignoring their needs imperils the future of us all.  One of the biggest issues for girls is being forced into marriage when they are still children.  This ends their education, increases the probability that they and their children will be and will remain in poverty, and also exacerbates healthcare issues. President Bill Clinton has called child marriage a form of slavery. Another website that gets to the heart of the issue on why education for girls matters is The Girl Effect.

I hope that you will celebrate the International Day of the Girl by making sure that the girls in your lives have the full range of education and opportunities that they need to become successful women.


Pathological Science and mtEve

While reading The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean, the author discussed the concept of ‘pathological science.’  ‘Pathological science’ results from scientists who cling to their ideas even when there is plenty of evidence against them.  For instance, Kean discusses the idea that megalodon sharks might still be circling the deep oceans even though there is no evidence for this, while there is evidence that those sharks died out at least one million years ago.  Yet, some scientists are pathologically attached to the idea that the megalodon lives.

I realized that ‘pathological science’ was the perfect term to describe what happened over the past 25 years with the rise of mtEve and the demotion of Neanderthals to non-H. sapiens status.  There was/is little evidence to support mtEve as a concept, but it so excited many otherwise respectable scientists, not to mention the media and the general public, that mtEve swept away anyone who disagreed that she was the mother of all modern humans.  This was a pathological science creation event par excellence. If this non-existent entity had been named mtMable, the rush to embrace her probably would not have occurred.

The name ‘mtEve’ fed into the creation stories many scientists were raised with; even if they no longer believed the stories, the concepts still manifested at an unconscious level. For the media and the general public who did/do still believe these creation stories, mtEve provided immediate validation that humans were special.  Humans were not just another animal; not just another result of evolution.  Pathological scientists also want ‘modern’ humans to be viewed as special, distinct, better than any preceding humans who were ‘archaic’ and different, more like an animal, less intelligent.  Given the location of mtEve (Africa) and the poorly-derived date of mtEve (it varies a great deal, but many use 250,000 years ago), Neanderthals were relegated to the ‘archaic’ heap.

I have spent the past two-plus decades fighting against this pathological science, only to see it become accepted dogma even in textbooks. This is disturbing. If scientists can be so swept away by their emotions that they totally ignore evidence, is it any wonder that respect for science is softening?  Fortunately, science is eventually self-correcting. It’s taken too long, but it is finally becoming clear that Neanderthals were no less ‘modern’ than so-called ‘moderns.’  There was no creation event 250,000 years ago in which mtEve popped into being and begat the first modern human.  For 25 years, I asked for evidence of how speciation occurred between ‘archaics’ and ‘moderns’ and was shown no evidence.  I was not surprised since there was and is no such evidence: mtEve was a creation of pathological science.

Robert G. Bednarik’s chapter, “The Expulsion of Eve” in his book The Human Condition, is a precise and detailed refutation of mtEve and the concept of ‘modern’ and ‘archaic’ humans. He slices and dices the ‘evidence’ (morphological, genetic, lithic, and cultural) until there is nothing left but hot air.  While Bednarik does not use the term ‘pathological science’, it is clear from his analysis that mtEve proponents were and are acting pathologically.  “…the Eve supporters have led the study of hominin origins on a monumental wild-goose chase.”

Material Wealth Equals Intelligence?: Part 2

In Part 1, I concluded that the relationship of >power = >possessions =>intelligence = >human leads many of those with numerous possessions and great power to view those with neither as somehow sub-human.  This attitude applies not only to the present, but to the past.

Archaeology is the study of the material culture (possessions) of past peoples. While many archaeologists are primarily interested in finding out how the average person lived, others are more concerned with the elites.  This is to be expected when one considers what the general public prefers to view in museums. Commonly, one does not wait long hours in line to see how the workers who built Tut’s tomb lived, but rather the material possessions of Tut.  One does not brave crowds to look at the few possessions of the sailors who crewed a ship that sank, but rather the cargo of that ship.  How many tourists travel to France to tour 17th century slums rather than Versailles?  In our view of the past, the wealthy are more real, more intelligent, more human because they are the ones with the most material culture to be found by archaeologists.

If material possessions carry great weight in our view of the past, then it is no surprise that the further back in time we go and the less material culture we find, the less intelligent we think our ancestors were.  Of course, this ignores the fact that much of material culture decays. Therefore, the further back into the past we delve, the less material culture there is that would be, could be, preserved. Somehow, we manage to ignore this and assume that what we find is all our ancestors had. When we travel back to the ‘dawn’ of material culture around 2.5 mya we find only stone tools and a few fossilized bones with signs of cut marks.  We think: ‘They had so little, they clearly weren’t very intelligent.  They probably couldn’t even speak.’ This ignores the fact that by this point our ancestors had been bipeds for over 2 million years and that bipedality is related to language ability.

This also ignores the fact that much of culture is immaterial, intangible.  As I said in Part 1, the focus on possessions has led many to assume and treat modern foragers who necessarily, due to their lifestyle, have few possessions, as sub-human, even as animals that can be killed with impunity.  If modern foragers are viewed this way, how much less human must our ancient ancestors be?

It seems to be a given by the general public, and even by many anthropologists, that ‘modern’ humans came into existence around 100,000 years ago.  That is, there was a speciation event.  However, I have yet to read anywhere what caused this speciation event.  There is no real evidence.  It makes no sense.  And yet, it is believed to be true. The date of 100,000 ya appears to have been chosen because the site of Klasies River Mouth in South Africa dates to about 100,000 ya and has a few skeletal pieces that some paleoanthropologists believe look ‘modern.’  By ‘modern’ they mean more gracile. Also, the Klasies people ate a lot of shellfish, which is considered a more modern behavior. However, the earliest bipeds have been found in what would have been a marshy environment, so it is probable that our ancestors have been eating shellfish for millions of years. The earliest non-lithic material culture is also found in sub-Saharan Africa and dates to about 80,000 ya.  This is viewed as more evidence of modernity. Add in other gracile skeletal material of about the right age and voila! Modern humans popped into existence. The idea that no one used bones and shells for tools and decoration until around 80,000 ya is ludicrous.  These materials will decay rapidly in most environments, so it is not surprising that they do not show up until later in human ancestry.

Now, why is the date of 100,000 years so important?  Because if ‘modern’ humans did pop into existence around that date, that would mean that Neanderthals were not human. For some reason, it is critically important to a lot of people, many anthropologists included, that Neanderthals not be ‘us.’  They would rather make the unsupported claim that a speciation event occurred and that Neanderthals are a different species than to accept the more logical deduction that there was no speciation event and that Neanderthals are simply a population of modern humans.

Years of effort and reams of paper have been devoted to ‘proving’ that Neanderthals were subhuman.  One of the methods used was to point out that Neanderthals had a very limited material culture compared to so-called ‘modern’ humans.  But, surprise!  More and more research is showing that Neanderthal material culture and ‘modern’ material culture were very similar.  In fact, it may turn out that Neanderthals were the first European artists, not the ‘moderns.’

Will we finally admit that Neanderthals were fully as modern as any other group alive at that time?  Does it take clear evidence of plenty of material culture to admit a population to full humanity?  Or could we at last realize that material culture is only one limited aspect of being human, and one that is easily lost to time. Having more possessions does not make a person more intelligent or more human.




Material Wealth Equals Intelligence? Part 1.5

After I published Part 1 of this essay, I heard from a friend who thought I was being too harsh in my treatment of the wealthy.  She also stated that the best way for those in poverty to have a chance to demonstrate their abilities and intelligence, and to achieve monetary success, was for them to obtain a quality education.  While this was not the point of Part 1, I do agree with her that a quality education is a key to ending poverty. Since the poor are unable to provide themselves with a quality education, the funds to provide this education must come from elsewhere.  I see two options: philanthropy and/or taxes. Both options rely on the wealthy (or at least those who have incomes well above poverty levels).  Therefore, if the relationship [>power = >possessions = >intelligence = >human] I describe is invalid, all of those with the most power and possessions would not consider the poor to be less worthy, less human, than themselves and would willingly provide the funds, whether via philanthropy or taxes, so that the poor could obtain the quality education they need to achieve monetary success.

As with every relationship, there are exceptions.  As I mentioned to my friend, Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of the Virgin Group, does invest his money to improve the lives of the poor.  In addition, Branson is working to ensure that his businesses operate in a sustainable manner in order to lessen the burden to Earth’s biosphere.  If all of those with great power and possessions/money would follow Branson’s lead, the relationship I describe would be invalid.  But I suspect I will be waiting a long time.

PS.  Happy Birthday Sir Richard and President Mandela!  (July 18, 2012)

Material Wealth Equals Intelligence? Part 1

Recently, a supporter of Mitt Romney at one of his fundraisers equated poverty with poor education and, by implication, lower intelligence.  “I just think if you’re lower income — one, you’re not as educated, two, they don’t understand how it works, they don’t understand how the systems work, they don’t understand the impact.”  It seems pretty clear that this woman believes that her station in life, which is due to her wealth and the privileges her wealth can buy, makes her superior in all ways, including intelligence, to those without great wealth.  Although this egregious attitude appears to be pretty typical of the 1%, they are not alone in equating material possessions/wealth to intelligence. This relationship, >material possesions = >intelligence, has been in effect for at least 5000 years, perhaps much longer.

For millions of years, our ancestors were foragers moving around their territory hunting animals and gathering other foodstuffs with which to sustain life.  Since they were constantly on the move, minimizing material possessions was a necessity.  Particularly rich foraging environments, such as along the Northwest Coast of North America, did allow foraging groups to settle down and accumulate some possessions, but large settlements did not begin to become widespread until after the domestication of plants and animals.

Once a group settled down, it was easy to accumulate possessions.  The number of possessions increased when craft specialties developed.  Each family no longer had to make everything it needed.  Families could trade what they made for something different someone else made.  Increasing population size and craft specialization led to the development of class structure and governing hierarchies.  Those at the top now had the resources to obtain even more possessions that became status symbols.  The ancient “1%” not only had the highest status and the most possessions, they had all the power. We can modify the relationship to read >power = >possessions = >intelligence.  The belief in this relationship still holds sway many millenia later.

The result is that those in power, those having the most complex material culture (i.e. possessions) believe that this relationship is evidence that they are more intelligent than those lacking in possessions and power.  Those at the bottom of the social hierarchy in agricultural or pastoral societies who possessed the least knew they were considered inferior in all ways to those at the top of the hierarchy.  Enculturation in this society probably led them to believe this relationship of possessions and power to intelligence was true.  However, there were others who possessed even less than they did: the foragers.  The result was a disdain for the foraging lifestyle and a belief that foragers were inferior in intelligence to those who were not foragers.  Foraging was deemed to be too similar to how animals lived.  Foragers began to be seen by non-foragers as subhuman.  Therefore, as with other animals, foragers could be killed with impunity and their territories taken by the ‘real’ humans to use more ‘productively’.  This continues to happen in the Amazon, the forests of Southeast Asia, and anywhere else foraging populations struggle to survive.

If foragers, who have almost no possessions, are considered subhuman, then the poor, who have hardly more possessions, are themselves considered barely human.  Only true humans can be considered intelligent, so foragers are unintelligent and the poor are at the lowest levels of human intelligence; if they were truly intelligent, they would have many possessions.  Certainly, that is what the Romney supporter mentioned above appears to believe.  We can modify again the relationship to read >power = >possessions = >intelligence = >human.

Perhaps that particular Romney supporter does not consciously think of herself as more human than those who are poorer than she is, but her statements and behavior, and that of those like her, implies that subconsciously, she does believe that those in the lower economic echelons are less human.  Given a belief in the relationship of >power = >possessions =>intelligence = >human, it is not too surprising that those with that mindset do not want to pay more taxes that might go to government programs that would help lower-income individuals and families.  Only true humans, those like themselves, are worthy of support.


NOTE: Read Part 1.5 and Part 2.


DNA and Race

I just finished reading DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America by Bryan Sykes.  This is a very odd book.  I was expecting to read a major genetic analysis of population diversity in the US.  Instead, it is more a travel log of Sykes’ tour of American landmarks with a few, essentially random, meetings with individuals where their DNA was collected for analysis. This analysis is discussed in one, relatively brief, concluding chapter. The topic of the book was more genealogical than genetic.

It seems that Sykes may have been hoping to write a book about the US similar to those Bill Bryson has written about Britain and Australia.  DNA USA somewhat resembles Bryson’s book on Australia: In a Sunburned Country, but Sykes does not have Bryson’s comedic flare nor verbal virtuosity.

Having said that, once I got past the fact that the book was not what I expected, I did enjoy reading it, perhaps because I have been to most of the places Sykes visited. In addition, I am interested in the ways in which genetics can inform, but also misinform (or, more precisely, under-inform) genealogy.

Sykes is a geneticist who uses mtDNA (passed through the maternal line) and Y chromosome (passed through the paternal line) to tie genetic information to the past. Soon after he began this research, he began to be inundated with requests from the general public to have their DNA analyzed.  Sykes made the decision to create a business, Oxford Ancestors, designed to meet this need. A similar business model, African Ancestry, was set up in the US by Rick Kittles and Gina Paige.

While some interesting genetic information can be obtained from these methods, vast amounts of information are unavailable.  To simplify this, think about a woman who has one or more sons, but no daughters.  Her mtDNA will not show up in her grandchildren since the only material passed from the sperm to the egg is the nuclear DNA (nDNA), not any mtDNA.  If her granddaughter has her mtDNA analyzed, the granddaughter will learn about her mother’s genetic line, but nothing about her paternal grandmother’s line.  The grandson can learn about his paternal grandfather’s line (along with his maternal line), but, again, nothing about his paternal grandmother’s line.  A huge chunk of genetic knowledge is unavailable by these methods. Not to mention that the actual amount of genetic information in mtDNA and the Y chromosome is extremely tiny compared to nDNA. Making broad statements about anyone’s ancestry when so much information is missing is, at the least, highly problematic.  Yet, that is exactly what genetics researchers using these two methods claim.  These claims even extend to human origins. I don’t wish to get into that topic more deeply in this blog post.  However, given what I’ve just written, I hope readers will apply great caution towards accepting claims about human origins made on such limited mtDNA and Y chromosome data.

For his American odyssey, Sykes decided to use a new, more informative genetic analysis developed by the company 23andMe. As described by Sykes, 23andMe uses nDNA and creates a colored portrait of an individual’s 22 autosomal chromosomes.  Prior nDNA researchers who analyzed the DNA of individuals from many different countries found genetic variants that are associated with particular groups.  For ease of analysis, these variants were lumped into three continental groups: Asian, European, and African.  For the purposes of analysis in the US, Asian is a proxy for Native American since genetic research has shown that these groups have a common origin. This method accesses information from both parents while also giving information on specific genes that have been identified on each chromosome.  In these respects, tying genetics to genealogy is more effective and complete than is the case with mtDNA or Y chromosome analyses. However, it is still incomplete.

The image below shows the process of genetic recombination during meiosis.  The orange and green represent one chromosome pair from the man while the pink and blue represent the same chromosome pair from the woman.  During meiosis, the chromosomes make a copy of themselves.  These copies line up close enough that chunks of DNA can be exchanged between the chromosomes.  Upon completion of meiosis, one chromosome each ends up in the sperm and egg.  These chromosomes passed on to their child represent only a small fraction of the DNA diversity in the parents.  As this process occurs in each generation, huge amounts of genetic information are lost over the generations.  If solid-color chromosomes were the ones in the egg and sperm, all genetic information for that chromosome from one paternal and one maternal grandparent would be lost in the child. Therefore, while nDNA is better for analyzing genetic history, it is by no means a complete picture of an individual’s genealogy.

Given these caveats, the method used by 23andMe does provide a great deal of useful information that is presented in the visually appealing format of chromosome painting. It is in the final chapter describing the genetic ‘portraits’ of the few individuals from whom Sykes obtained DNA that he makes observations that are particularly relevant to the subject of whether or not race is biological.  You might think that Sykes would support the idea of biological races given that these genetic methods divide the world into three groups: Asian/Native American, European, and African.  But Sykes recognizes that these are over-simplifications of actual diversity and views them more as geographical, rather than biological entities.

Americans are especially revealing in that most of them display genetic diversity rather than uniformity.  The only individuals Sykes analyzed that did not display diversity were the members of a genealogical society in Boston who could trace their ancestry in America back to the 17th and 18th centuries.  He found this quite surprising and concluded that any of their ancestors who inter-married with Native Americans became part of those cultural groups rather than the European-descent cultural group.  This is supported by the genetic analysis of individuals of Northeast Native American ancestry whose chromosome analyses show their genes to be almost entirely European derived.  European Americans with Southern ancestry showed some genetic evidence of African ancestry, while all African Americans showed European and Native American ancestry, although the percentages differed widely.  Sykes concluded that “…many whites with deep roots in the South have some black ancestors.” (p.313)  He mentions that he would like to have analyzed the DNA of a Ku Klux Klan member because he is pretty sure it would have sections indicating genes with African ancestry.  It would have been interesting to find out how that individual reacted to this knowledge.

Sykes notes that assuming because of someone’s appearance and/or culture that you can draw any conclusions about their genetics and health concerns demonstrates a lack of knowledge of the complexity of genetic inheritance.  As an example, Sykes points out that he has African ancestry for the tip of chromosome 11 while one of the African-American men he analyzed has European ancestry for that same region.  As this region includes the genes for beta-globin, Sykes states, contrary to what most physicians would conclude, that he, Sykes, could be a carrier for sickle cell anemia while the other man could not.

Another gene that showed diversity was P450 cytochromes found on chromosome 10.  This gene produces proteins which help to clear drugs and toxins from the liver.  Medical researchers have found that an African-derived form of the gene is less effective.  This led to different, lower dosing recommendations of drugs such as beta-blockers for African Americans.  However, since Americans have diverse genetic ancestry, simply assuming an individual African American should have a lower dose than an individual European American can lead to major errors.  Sykes states, “…that of my nine African American volunteers, only three have both copies of their P450 gene from African ancestors, three have one European and one African copy, and the genes of the remaining three are completely European.”  On the other hand, one of his southern European-American volunteers had the African form of the gene.  Racially categorizing these individuals would lead to medical errors.

The conclusion I draw from this book is one I have long held. Racial categories have little meaning whether they are assumed to be cultural or biological because genetics and culture have no necessary overlap.



Adapting to Change in the 21st Century