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.

Chromosomal Inheritance

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.

 

 

Is racism OK if the group is extinct?

Along with some of my physical anthropology students, I attended a public lecture on the Neanderthal genome given by one of the men who worked on the genome.  An issue my students and I hoped the speaker would clarify is whether he considered Neanderthals a different species even though he admitted that EurAsians had some Neanderthal genes.

When one of my students asked about this, he stated that it was obvious they were a different species.  “Look at my graph! It’s obvious!”  However, it was not obvious.  His graph compared the DNA (presumably nDNA rather than mtDNA, but he was unclear on this) of three Neanderthal females from the site of Vindija, Croatia, to the DNA of multiple individuals from different 21st century populations.  There was a bit of a deviation of the Neanderthal lines from the non-Neanderthal lines, but the trend of the lines was the same. To further support his contention of different species, he said it was obvious from a comparison of the skulls of the two “species”.  He then showed a comparison of a La Ferrassie Neanderthal with a current European skull. This same student said that differences were not obvious when comparing skulls from around the same time period that belonged to Neanderthal and so-called moderns.  The speaker then began a jargon-dense explanation of a skull analysis technique that he felt proved his point.  I let this slide because of the type of audience present, but I did e-mail the speaker after the talk.  In that e-mail I noted that I’d been at conferences where one speaker using the technique he described ‘proved’ Neanderthals were a different species based on skull morphology, while the very next speaker, using the same technique and skulls, came to the conclusion that Neanderthals fell within modern human variation, and so were the same species as we are.  He didn’t respond to this.

Back at the talk, another of my students asked the speaker how he could be so sure of his conclusions when he had only three samples and they all came from the same site; and, further, had not been compared to ‘moderns’ from the same time period.  The speaker’s answer to this was not really clear, but seemed to be “Look at my graph! It’s obvious!”   I also asked him about this in my e-mail. He responded that he saw no point in comparing to “moderns.”  His comment: “We know that most of the DNA variation present within currently living humans dates back, on average, hundreds of thousands of years. Therefore, there is little to be learned from sequencing early modern humans. Nevertheless, this is being done anyway. In fact, there was a paper in Science last week
(http://www.sciencemag.org/content/336/6080/466.full) with DNA from several Neolithic humans. Unsurprisingly, they differ little from currently living humans.”

I replied that Neolithic humans lived thousands of years after Neanderthals (the time period in the article was about 5000 years ago) and were in the midst of one of the most severe selection events to affect humans due to the rise of contagious infectious disease among early agricultural populations, along with impaired nutrition due to restricted diets.  As we are still living in this changed environment of infectious disease and poor nutrition, it is not too surprising that “they differ little from currently living humans.”  Nor would it be surprising if they differed somewhat from Neanderthals, although that analysis was not done. However, the article does not really appear to support his point anyway.  Four individuals were tested: three northern European hunter/gatherers and one farmer who appeared related to southern Europeans. What this article points to is that, as with the Neanderthal genome, a tiny sample is used to make huge generalizations.

To enforce his point during his talk that Neanderthals were a different species, he implied that they were stupider than ‘moderns’ by comparing Mousterian tools of 150,000 years ago to cave art of 30,000 years ago.  In my e-mail, I reminded him of that fact that Neanderthals of 40,000 years ago were using Upper Paleolithic tools, and that the 10,000 years from 40,000 to 30,000 years ago is an extremely long time.  My comments were:

“Think how much our culture has changed in the past 10,000 years.  But even if you do not like that comparison, what about the Tasmanians who were isolated from the rest of the world for 10,000 years until found by Captain Tasman in the 1600s?  When found, their material culture was hardly more complex than is true of chimpanzees.  This, of course, says nothing about the complexity of the intangibles of their culture.  Were Tasmanians less than human because they had so little?  Certainly, many Europeans thought so since they willfully destroyed them.  But I think you will agree that racism is not a good way to judge whether a group is truly human or not.”

His response to this: “I think it’s OK to be racist against Neandertals. It’s the least of the offenses we are guilty of committing against them. In seriousness, though, they are extinct.”

My response to him: “So you think it is OK to have racist views about extinct populations?  Since the Tasmanians and Taino (among many other groups) are effectively extinct in the same sense that Neanderthals are extinct (i.e. their genes live on in current individuals, but their culture is gone), were (are) racist attitudes towards them OK?  Isn’t it racism that was key to their extinction?”  He did not respond to that e-mail.  Perhaps he realized he had gone too far.  Perhaps he was annoyed that I refused to accept his “obvious” evidence.

 

 

Contraception is a Key Women’s Right

I find it amazing and deeply disturbing that in the 21st century state legislatures in the United States are being inundated with bills (many of which have passed and been signed into law) that seek to restrict a woman’s right to control her own body and well-being.  Without these rights, women will find it very difficult to partake fully in politics and in the economy.  Perhaps that is exactly the goal of this type of legislation: to drive women back into the home where they are trapped by unwanted pregnancy and under the control of their spouse.

We know that the best way for women and children to escape poverty is for the women to have control of their reproduction. Being able to decide if and when she has children provides a woman with the opportunity for education, which allows her to find better-paying work.  Wherever women have control of their reproduction, the birth rate has declined and economic well-being has improved.  Why would legislatures in the United States wish to reverse this trend?  The only reason I can think of is fear.  Fear that women will gain too much power.  Fear that men (particularly white men), will have less of a say in the future.  Fear that they will lose control. Fear is repressive and destructive.

As a counterpoint to fear, Melinda Gates gave a great TED talk this month about the need for contraception.  Granted, her talk primarily dealt with women in developing nations.  But it is clear that what she says also relates to the current political climate in the United States.  It will be quite ironic if NGOs such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are able to bring reproductive freedom to women in other nations while here in the United States those same freedoms are being whittled away.

Plundering the Deep

As I discussed previously, we humans are who we are in part because of a fish/shellfish diet that allowed for advanced brain development.  Without these items in our diet, I think it is doubtful that our hominin ancestors would have advanced much beyond the bonobos/chimps.  What will happen if we no longer have access to these food sources?

Given that we live on an ocean planet, this fear would seem pointless.  The world ocean is vast and immensely deep.  And yet, we are destroying its productivity at frightening speed.  The 1990s saw the total collapse of what had been one of the most productive fisheries on Earth: the cod fishery of the Georges Bank off Newfoundland.  Almost overnight, families who’d produced fishermen for generations were suddenly out of work.  A great book on the story of cod is Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky.  Cod were once so large and numerous that they could be scooped from the sea with buckets.  Now they are so scarce and tiny, that fishing for them is under extremely strict regulation and management.  Without such management, cod have little chance of rebuilding a healthy, sustainable population.

But it isn’t just cod.  Factory ships are scraping the seabed clean of everything, whether they want it or not.  Unwanted sea life is dumped overboard becoming sea death.  These ships are devastating the seas and the livelihoods of traditional fishing groups, and destroying the life of the seabed.  They are also threatening the survival of seabirds who rely on these same sea food sources the factory ships are harvesting or destroying with abandon.  More information on the problems associated with overfishing can be found at Oceana.org.

Tuna and salmon are especially problematic fish whether wild caught or farmed.  Farmed salmon develop lice that spread to wild salmon.  Catching wild tuna and salmon with factory ships has all the problems mentioned above.  The best thing to do is to quit eating tuna and salmon.   Switch to sardines.   Get all the brain and health benefits of eating fatty fish without the problems associated with tuna and salmon.  The Monterey Bay Aquarium has developed Seafood Watch which gives guidance on the best fish and seafood to eat and which should be avoided in order to preserve ocean productivity.

We still have so much to discover about the world ocean.  How can we continue to support activities that will destroy it before we are truly able to explore the Deep in all its glory?

 

 

 

 

Focusing on Differences Can Lead to Mistakes

Anyone who has studied the concept of Natural Selection knows that one of the requirements is a variable population.  Adaptation to a changing environment cannot occur if every individual in the population is very similar.  So, variability is a given.  However, when scientists look at fossil material, many of them seem to forget this important tenet.  Any differences they find in fossil material are given, minimally, a new species name, and frequently, a new genus name.  That fossil then becomes the type specimen of a new species, and any other material found in that region that looks different will be given yet another new species name instead of considering whether, in fact, it is just a new individual in a variable population.

Or, in the case of dinosaurs, a juvenile rather than a small adult of a different species.  Jack Horner’s TED talk on this topic is both amusing and enlightening. Paleontologists who focused on differences created many dinosaur species which had no juvenile forms.  Horner felt that this was not only odd, but clearly impossible.  By carefully analyzing the skeletons, he discovered that many species of dinosaurs were just the juvenile forms of other species.  The focus on differences was a mistake.

Focusing on differences and assigning new species names to every new find is also common among many paleoanthropologists who study primate/human origins.  Natural selection and population variability are thrown out the door.  If we treated present human diversity the way we treat past diversity, every different population of humans would be a different species.  We know this is not the case since all humans can potentially mate with each other.

There are two major groups of paleoanthropologists: those who operate from a population viewpoint and those who operate from an essentialist viewpoint.  For instance, populationists view Neanderthals as a population of modern humans, while essentialists view Neanderthals as a different species.  Why does this matter to the average person?  It matters because the underlying viewpoints affect how we view each other.  Essentialists view anyone who differs from their idea of the ‘norm’ (generally someone like themselves, i.e. of European ancestry) as deeply biologically distinct from themselves.  In effect, that there are distinct races of humans that are somehow quite different from each other.  Populationists, on the other hand, expect there to be many people who differ from themselves because that is what a successful, adaptable population requires.  They do not view these differences as creating deep distinctions.  That is, they do not view humans as being divided into distinct racial groups.  Rather, humans form varying, over-lapping, constantly mixing populations.  They also hold that this has been true since the beginning of the Homo genus.

Genes flow, drift, mutate, select, and adapt as the individuals carrying those genes meet, mate, and adapt.  For the past two million years our ancestors have been meeting,mating, mixing, and adapting to differing environments as one unified, but variable species.  Just as the lack of juvenile dinosaurs was an artifact of paleontologists who operated from an essentialist mindset, the many “species” of human ancestors are an artifact of paleoanthropologists who operate from an essentialist mindset.  The juvenile dinos were there all along.  The necessary variability of the human population that allows it to adapt to the vast array of environments on our planet has been there all along, too.  The essentialist’s mistake has been to divide that variability into different species or races.

 

Half the Sky

We ignore women, their needs, their rights, their abilities, at the peril of our future.  Their issues are not ‘women’s issues’, they are humanity’s issues. The attempts to marginalize and/or ignore women may well be major factors in why the world is in such trouble economically and politically.  Gayle Tzemach Lemmon in her recent TED talk points out that women are marginalized in financing: they get micro-loans rather than entrepreneurial loans.  Granted, a micro-loan is better than no loan, but her point is that when a woman creates a business it is viewed as less important and less economically valuable than when a man creates one.  Treating women as ‘less than’ negatively affects all aspects of not only their lives, but their children’s lives, and, although the men generally do not recognize it, the lives of men, too.  Simple reasoning makes this obvious: women make up half of humanity; or, as in the Chinese proverb that provided the title for Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky, “Women hold up half the sky.”

As I write this, it is reported in the news that an Afghani women was strangled by her mother-in-law because she gave birth to a third daughter and not a son.  Her husband also appears to have been involved in her murder.  Sons are valued so much more than daughters that failure to give birth to one can lead to a woman’s death.  A woman can destroy her family’s honor by being raped.  The ‘solution’ is for her to marry her rapist, or to be put to death.  Being jailed for being raped actually protects the woman from abuse and/or death.  The girl’s hymen is no longer intact, so she no longer has value and has thus dishonored her family. As Kristof and WuDunn state, “The paradox of honor killings is that societies with the most rigid moral codes end up sanctioning behavior that is supremely immoral: murder.” (p. 82)

Young girls are ‘sold’ into marriages where they become virtual slaves.  Choosing your own boyfriend can result in your death. These examples all involve Afghanis, but any culture that does not value woman equally with men will find ways to demean, mistreat, and abuse women.  For instance, a judge in Canada (and he is not alone in this, as similar views have been expressed by judges in the United States) gave a mild (no jail time) sentence to a rapist because he, the judge, felt the woman had asked for it. These actions are done to keep women in their place, a place that is well below that of men.

Kristof and WuDunn have written a moving book highlighting the many, many ways women suffer from oppression throughout the world.  But they have also written about the women who have fought back against oppression and who are making better lives for themselves and other women.  For this to happen, the women must see themselves as valuable and as equal to men.  Education is the key.  Cultures that oppress women seek to deny girls access to education.  But cultures can change.  This is something that is too often ignored.  Simply because it has ‘always’ been done this way does not mean that it always will be done that way.  Holding back girls and women results in holding back the future.  Clinging to the culture of the past not only marginalizes women, but marginalizes that culture in an interconnected and globalized world.  Cultures can and do change.  Education is the first, vital step.

Education gives girls knowledge and with knowledge they begin to realize that they should have a voice in their lives; a say in what happens to them. With knowledge comes the power to fight back against injustice.  The first girls and women in their communities to come to this realization are very courageous.  They frequently must endure great abuse and hardship.  But they and their stories, as told by Kristof and WuDunn, serve as examples to other women and girls that change is possible, and change begins to happen.

Enmeshed with education are the healthcare needs of girls and women.  Girls who do manage to attend grade school often disappear from school when they begin to menstruate because the schools lack the facilities the girls need during their period.  A husband and brother in India realized just obtaining pads for menstruating girls and women was a problem, so he set out to solve this.  Girls are also often forced into marriage at that time, which also ends their education.  They need a way to manage their menstrual cycle and to obtain birth control so that they can continue their education.  Denying birth control to girls and women because of religious reasons (as has been done with US foreign aid) in effect denies them a future of their own choice.

When a large percentage of women in a particular country are educated and enfranchised, their political power is harder to ignore.  Issues that had been ignored, such as public health and children’s health, move to the political mainstream.  When women become the majority in the government, massive cultural change is certain.  In 1994, Rwanda was the scene of a bloody genocide.  When peace was restored, a new government decreed that women had to hold at least 30% of the seats in all legislative bodies.  Women now hold 56% of the seats in Parliament.  Rwandan culture has changed dramatically.  Rwanda is leap-frogging into the 21st century because the country realized that women are as valuable as men.

China has a long history of valuing sons more than daughters, so much so that with the one child policy and elective abortion, the country now has an unbalanced male/female ratio.  However, the government now realizes that a better policy is to educate girls and women.  When women are well-educated, they want to use their skills in the workplace.  This delays marriage and child-bearing while also improving the economy. Parents now realize that daughters can be just as valuable as sons. A win-win for China: slowed population growth along with rapid growth in gross domestic product. India also sees the value of educating women.  Bunker Roy created the Barefoot College which educates the poor to become technicians and engineers, among other occupations.  According to Roy, men are untrainable.  Instead, the Barefoot College trains grandmothers.

In the 21st century, women in all cultures must be equal participants in all aspects of life and business if we are to deal with the challenges the world will face.  Corporations are discovering that those boards of directors with a higher percentage of women are significantly more profitable than those with the lowest number of women on their boards.

Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide should be read by anyone who cares about the future.  The tales the authors have collected in their journeys around the world are moving, enlightening, and uplifting.  While oppression is common and severe, it is possible for change to occur.  The book concludes with a plan of action and a long list of things that the reader can do to contribute to the change that must occur.  The website (linked to above) also provides opportunities for action.  “Women are half the sky.”  We cannot succeed in the 21st century without equality for all women and men.

 

Facts and Evidence Don’t Matter

If you operate in an evidence-based world, the title of this post probably annoys/angers you.  As well it should.  Unfortunately, for increasing numbers of people, belief is more important than evidence.  In fact, evidence contrary to their beliefs may make them fight harder than ever to hold on to their beliefs.

Some news items from the believers point of view:

1] Jerry Sandusky [or fill in blank with whichever child predator is in the news] cannot possibly be a child predator because he loves children and created a charity for children.  Providing these believers with the facts and evidence of ‘grooming‘ just makes the believers angrier and more defensive of Sandusky [or whomever].  Vilification of the accusers occurs rather than analyzing the evidence.

2] How dare the state of Kentucky expect high school students to be taught and tested on evolution when it conflicts with the beliefs of Ricky Line, Superintendent of Hart County Board of Education!  (Education?)  “Stop requiring our teachers to teach, as fact, an evolution that would convince our children that they evolved from lower life forms and, therefore, have reason to discount the Bible and the faith beliefs that follow.  This is not an improvement in our public education system.” [Written to Kentucky Commissioner of Education Terry Holiday on 11/21/2011.]  Commissioner Holiday replied with a very well-reasoned statement of facts and evidence.  I doubt it convinced Superintendent Line.  Line’s beliefs will always trump facts and evidence.

3]  The Florida Family Association, a Christian group, is crusading against TLC’s program All-American Muslim because ‘TLC’s “All-American Muslim” is propaganda that riskily hides the Islamic agenda.’  They are haranguing the show’s advertisers in an attempt to have TLC drop the show because it does not sufficiently cover the jihadist point of view. “The show profiles only Muslims that appear to be ordinary folks while excluding many Islamic believers whose agenda poses a clear and present danger to liberties and traditional values that the majority of Americans cherish.”  How dare TLC show ordinary Muslims!

Clearly, the FFA crusade is ridiculous.  And yet, Lowe’s succumbed.  “Lowe’s has received a significant amount of communication on this program, from every perspective possible. Individuals and groups have strong political and societal views on this topic, and this program became a lighting rod for many of those views. As a result we did pull our advertising on this program. We believe it is best to respectfully defer to communities, individuals and groups to discuss and consider such issues of importance.”  So, Lowe’s, will you cease all advertising if enough people complain about the shows on which you advertise?  Or do you just pick and choose based on belief systems rather than evidence and facts?

4]  Only those who believe in God (or a god) are trustworthy.  Atheists are less trustworthy (more evil?) than rapists; and atheists are despised more than are gays.  This is according to recently-published research by Gervais et al. who conducted six different studies in order to clarify why those who are religious have problems with those who are atheists.  The researchers concluded it came down to trust.  Religious individuals simply cannot trust someone who doesn’t believe in a god because they hold the view that a belief in god provides the glue that holds society together.  However, Gervais et al. point out that “the least religious countries are actually among the most cooperative and peaceful on the planet.”   Belief that atheists are bad and untrustworthy trumps the facts and evidence that if we want a peaceful, cooperative society we would be better off with fewer individuals who are religious [See #3 above.] and more who are atheist.

One would hope that education would help eradicate erroneous beliefs.  But if facts and evidence just make believers fight harder, education probably will not work.  Then how can we solve this problem?  I’d like to read your ideas on this.

Meanwhile, have a great holiday season in which we work to increase cooperation and peace in our society.

 

 

 

 

 

Spoken Language is a By-product of Bipedality

Hypothesis:  The ability to speak human language is a by-product of becoming bipedal, while understanding human language precedes the ability to speak it.

Evidence:

Kanzi, a bonobo, understands English and can communicate in English via ‘speaking’ lexagrams.  However, he cannot speak English, although he can make a variety of communicative sounds such as pant-hoots.

Human 9-month-old babies understand what is said to them.  They can discriminate the sounds of different languages at 6 months.  However, they cannot speak, although they can make a variety of communicative sounds such as da-da, ba-ba, ma-ma.

Kanzi’s form of locomotion is quadrupedal knuckle-walking.

A human baby’s form of locomotion is crawling/creeping on all fours.

A chimp/bonobo’s larynx is positioned high in the throat, allowing it to breathe and drink at the same time.

A human baby’s larynx is positioned high in the throat, allowing it to breathe and drink/nurse at the same time.

An adult human’s larynx is positioned lower in the throat: trying to drink and breathe at the same time leads to choking/coughing.

 

A chimp/bonobo and a human infant are incapable of speaking as adult humans do.

However, by the time a human infant becomes a full-time biped at about 18 months – 2 years of age, the larynx has dropped into the adult human position, and the toddler can now speak.

Based on fossil evidence, human ancestors became bipeds at least 4.5 million years ago (mya).

Deductions:

It can be deduced that, as part of the evolutionary process of becoming bipedal, the larynx dropped into its current position in adults around 4.5 mya.

Does this mean that Ardi spoke as we do?  Probably not, since her brain was still close to chimp size.

However, by 2 mya, early Homo, such as the Turkana boy, had a brain size in the low end of the normal range in modern humans.  Based on archaeological evidence, he also had a much more sophisticated material and behavioral culture.

Therefore, it can be deduced that by 2 mya, if not earlier, our ancestors had complex, rich, and sophisticated language and language skills.

Conclusion:

Our ability to speak is a by-product of becoming bipeds.  Language is not a relatively recent development.  We have been speaking sophisticated languages for millions of years.

 

Science is Political

I recently finished reading Shawn Lawrence Otto’s book: Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America.  Otto co-founded Science Debate 2008 which was an effort to get the presidential candidates to have a debate on the important science issues affecting the United States.  Despite strenuous efforts, the candidates refused to agree to such a debate.  The only outcome was that the final nominees, Obama and McCain, did finally agree to answer, in writing, not in debate, “The 14 Top Science Questions Facing America.”   I would like to think that there will be an actual Science Debate in 2012, but given that the only Republican candidate who seems concerned about science and the scientific illiteracy of his fellow candidates is Jon Huntsman, a man who has no chance to be the Republican nominee in 2012, this seems improbable.

Otto’s main thesis is that for the last several decades, scientists, while busy doing science, ignored the erosion of the public’s confidence in science and the rise of a belief system that claimed there is no objective reality; that we each create our own subjective ‘reality;’ therefore, the conclusions of science are only one way of viewing the world, and not necessarily the ‘best’ way.  This flight from objective reality may well be why the United States ranks #23 in the 2009 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test of scientific knowledge.  In addition, the United States ranks just above Turkey in a graph of countries depicting the percentage of the population accepting the validity of evolution, based on research published in Science. The educational system is failing the United States given that the researchers found that percentage accepting evolution actually declined over twenty years.  Otto is convinced that this is because scientists failed to recognize that science is political; that scientists have to write for and speak to the public in language that will make it clear that science is necessary for the future stability, growth, and well being of the United States.  Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin understood that science was political.  Their goal was to create a country where science could flourish.  They would be appalled to discover that at the beginning of the 21st century, a huge chunk of the population is retreating into the anti-science mysticism of the centuries prior to the Enlightenment of the 18th century.

One of the key concepts that has been lost in the relativistic present is that there are not necessarily two sides to every argument.  Otto points this out in the following example (p. 10):

Journalism: There are always two sides to every story.  Bob says 2 + 2 = 4.  Mary says it is 6.  The controversy rages.

Science:  Most times, one side is simply wrong.  I can demonstrate using these apples that Bob is right.

Politics:  How about a compromise?  New law: 2 + 2 = 5.”

Journalists create controversy where, based on the scientific facts, there is none.  “If one side presents knowledge and the other ‘but faith, or opinion, but not knowledge,’ [John Locke] simply reporting both sides is not balanced journalism and constitutes malfeasance by the press.” (p.204-05) Such malfeasance is in large measure due to the fact that few media sources in the United States actually have scientifically-trained reporters.  In fact, according to Otto, most media sources have cut or cut out their science departments.  This is in contrast to the rest of the world where science news remains a vital part of media coverage.

Otto also discusses de Tocqueville‘s views of American democracy, published in 1835, after his travels throughout the new country.  While impressed by many things, de Tocqueville also saw cause for concern.  He saw Americans as tinkerers/inventors rather than as thinkers.  The focus was on practicality rather than the search to understand the unknown; i.e. pure research without thought of how it might be used.  “His [de Tocqueville’s] tale [of 19th century China’s retreat from science] suggests the dangers posed by embracing tradition and precedent at the expense of openness and creativity, applied research at the expense of basic science, fear at the expense of wonder, utility at the expense of beauty, and an insistence on financially quantifiable projections before an investment is made, the idea of which runs contrary to the entire process of discovery and creativity.” (pp. 58-9)

“If knowledge does not have primacy in public decision making, then no truth can be said to be self-evident, and we are left with the tyranny of ideology enforced by might (p. 219)…led [by] a generation of leaders that are at once arrogant and ignorant…(p. 134) Ignorance is not bliss.  It’s tyranny.” (p. 252)

Otto points out that scientifically-literate children are most likely to have parents who are scientists or, and this is critically important, parents who are immigrants.  “Fully 70 percent of the finalists in the 2011 Intel Science Talent Search competition were the children of immigrants–a stunning figure considering that immigrants make up only 12 percent of the US population…” (pp. 291-92)

This matters because if the United States continues to restrict immigration and/or makes life difficult for immigrants, these talented students will be lost to the United States, while at the same time providing a ‘brain gain’ to other countries.  If anti-science attitudes continue to prevail in the United States, it will lose the future to other nations, particularly those in Asia.  During the Middle Ages, science burned brightly in the Islamic countries.  But fundamentalist, anti-science views came to dominate in those regions, and science was lost.  To say such a future is not possible in an anti-science United States is arrogant ignorance.

 

 

 

 

 

Morality and Adaptability

Jonthan Haidt, a psychologist speaking at TED, has some intriguing thoughts on morality and adaptability, and how these relate to liberal and conservative attitudes and behaviors.

Since change will happen, and since one’s ability to adapt to that change will determine one’s success in the future, resistance to change is a problem.  What can be done?  Watch the video and leave your comments below.

 

Adapting to Change in the 21st Century