Ebola And The Most Deadliest Enemy

When one thinks of a deadly enemy, one usually thinks of something big, strong, fast, maybe something like a dinosaur or a huge monster. Or one might think of aliens with sophisticated technology invading the Earth. I remembering reading such a thing like this in the science fiction novel War of the Worlds, where Martians with their superior intelligence and technology sweep in to invade the Earth. Humans, with their primitive canons and artillery, proved to be no match for these aliens, and were destroyed quickly city by city. All hope seemed to be lost for humanity, then suddenly the aliens started dying mysteriously and soon, the Martians retreated back to Mars.

What was it that was killing off these superior aliens? Was it that humans had suddenly innovated a superior weapon? No. Rather, the book tells us that “All over the world, their machines began to stop and fall. After all that men could do had failed, the Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this Earth.” Yes, what eventually stopped these aliens was not any super duper awesome gun, but rather bacteria. 

Or you can add viruses to the mix. Which in the end proves that in this survival of the fittest between two intelligent species, bacteria and viruses came out to be the most powerful. Although that may be fiction, even right now in the real world are we seeing viruses beating the crap out of supposedly the most dominant species on the planet. Just look at West Africa, with the Ebola virus.

Now here’s how viruses basically work. A virus enters the body. It sorta tricks a cell into letting it into the cell because of matching receptors. Once in the cell, it can either be dormant and not do anything for a while, just letting the cell help reproduce its viral RNA/DNA, or it can use the cell to produce more viruses, then breaks apart the cell so that these new viruses can affect other cells. And then the process starts all over again.  Now here’s how the Ebola virus works- same process, but deadlier results. First, it just seems like a fever. Then, you start getting pain in the neck and the abdomen, you start getting headaches, you start throwing up. The real pain comes when you start bleeding like hell- not just externally, but internally. And then in around a week, you can expect yourself to die.

To make this virus sound even more deadly, there is no cure and the survival rate is low. And in West Africa, more than 1,200 people have died, with the virus having spread to three countries already, and possibly more. Now, what exactly makes this virus deadly?

1) It’s small. We think that bigger is stronger, but when your enemy is as small as a virus, you can’t tell where the hell it is, but it’s still all around you. Because it’s small, studying your enemy (or the virus) is not just difficult, but even dangerous, given you can be the next victim.

2) It’s contagious and spreads fast. Like I said, in around one week, one can easily die of the virus. This Ebola virus spreads much quicker and more efficiently inside a body than any typical virus. Not just inside the body, but outside the body as well. Bodily contact, direct and indirect, are all means for the virus to spread. There have been even cases where nurses and doctors under full protective body suit are still infected.

Ebola Virus

Fortunately, two American doctors who were infected have been successfully treated due to an experimental medicine. This has raised hopes that this might eventually be a cure for Ebola. But stopping this virus will take more than medicine, because

3) Fear. Because Ebola is small and not much is known about it, myths have been surrounding this virus in Africa. People who have been infected and cured have been stigmatized when they return home. Many think that it’s the doctors that introduced the virus, and thus this hinders the ability to effectively carry out treatments. Take for instance last week, where rioters frightened by Ebola rampaged a healthcare facility treating Ebola, forcing many Ebola-infected people to flee to other places, further spreading the virus. This and many other nonsense myths about the virus underscore the fear and superstition underlying this virus, and this is perhaps the number one reason why the virus outbreak has not been stopped and is still spreading. Yes, ironically, humans- not the virus itself- are worsening this Ebola disaster. The only cure for this is increased public education about the disease.

And so I will end here. But to me, reason number three brings up a good point. Perhaps the most deadliest enemy is not any creature, whether that be an alien or a virus. Maybe, the most deadliest enemy is perhaps ourselves.

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Confessions of a Speciesist

For my first post of 2014, I’m gonna share this opinion article that I read from Scientific American by Michael Shermer. It’s a problem with humans that really bugs me.

Where do nonhuman mammals fit in our moral hierarchy?

The case for exploiting animals for food, clothing and entertainment often relies on our superior intelligence, language and self-awareness: the rights of the superior being trump those of the inferior. A poignant counterargument is Mark Devries’s Speciesism: The Movie, which I saw at the premiere in September 2013. The animal advocates who filled the Los Angeles theater cheered wildly for Princeton University ethicist Peter Singer. In the film, Singer and Devries argue that some animals have the mental upper hand over certain humans, such as infants, people in comas, and the severely mentally handicapped. The argument for our moral superiority thus breaks down, Devries told me: “The presumption that nonhuman animals’ interests are less important than human interests could be

cow illustrationmerely a prejudice—similar in kind to prejudices against groups of humans such as racism—termed speciesism.”

I guess I am a speciesist. I find few foods more pleasurable than a lean cut of meat. I relish the feel of leather. And I laughed out loud at the joke about the farmer who castrates his horses with two bricks: “Does it hurt?” “Not if you keep your thumbs out of the way.” I am also troubled by an analogy made by rights activists that animals are undergoing a “holocaust.” Historian Charles Patterson draws the analogy in his 2002 book Eternal Treblinka, and Devries makes visual reference to it by comparing the layout of factory-farm buildings with that of prisoner barracks at Auschwitz. The flaw in the analogy is in the motivation of the perpetrators. As someone who has written a book on the Holocaust (Denying History, University of California Press, revised edition, 2009), I see a vast moral gulf between farmers and Nazis. Even factory-farm corporate suits motivated by profits are still far down the ladder of evil from Adolf Eichmann and Heinrich Himmler. There are no signs at factory farms reading “Arbeit Macht Frei.”

Yet I cannot fully rebuke those who equate factory farms with concentration camps. While working as a graduate student in an experimental psychology animal laboratory in 1978 at California State University, Fullerton, it was my job to dispose of lab rats that had outlived our experiments. I was instructed to euthanize them with chloroform, but I hesitated. I wanted to take them up into the local hills and let them go, figuring that death by predation or starvation was better than gassing. But releasing lab animals was illegal. So I exterminated them … with gas. It was one of the most dreadful things I ever had to do.

Just writing those words saddens me, but nothing like a video clip posted at freefromharm.org. Appropriately described as the “saddest slaughterhouse footage ever,” the clip shows a bull waiting in line to die. He hears his mates in front of him being killed, backs up into the rear wall of the metal chute, and turns his head around, seeking an escape. He looks scared. A worker then zaps him with a cattle prod. The bull shuffles forward far enough for the final death wall to come down behind him. His rear legs try one last time to exit the trap and then … Thug! … down he goes in a heap. Dead. Am I projecting human emotions into a head of cattle? Maybe, but as one meat plant worker told an undercover usda inspector who inquired about the waste stench: “They’re scared. They don’t want to die.”

Mammals are sentient beings that want to live and are afraid to die. Evolution vouchsafed us all with an instinct to survive, reproduce and flourish. Our genealogical connectedness, demonstrated through evolutionary biology, provides a scientific foundation from which to expand the moral sphere to include not just all humans—as rights revolutions of the past two centuries have done—but all nonhuman sentient beings as well.

And here was an interesting comment I saw: The “vast moral gulf” you see between a genocide like the Holocaust and that perpetrated against 60 billion land animals intentionally and annually in animal agriculture is in the vast perceived difference we see as a speciesist culture who believes, without any rational basis, that simply being a member of a different species is grounds for exploitation. The victims are indeed different but the methodologies, strategies, ideologies and propaganda used by the perpetrators of oppression are always consistent in both of these cases and indeed in all cases of genocide. The same “otherization” is perpetrated against those based on race, religion, color, sex, etc. It’s all part of the same “naturalization” of violence and hierarchy by those in a position of power against those who have little or no power.

“There is a vast mythology surrounding meat, but all the myths are in one way or another related to what I refer to as the Three Ns of Justification: eating meat is normal, natural, and necessary. The Three Ns have been invoked to justify all exploitative systems, from African slavery to the Nazi Holocaust. When an ideology is in its prime, these myths rarely come under scrutiny. However, when the system finally collapses, the Three Ns are recognized as ludicrous.” ~ Melanie Joy, author of Why We Loves Dogs, Eat Pigs and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism.

Can We Really Control Sexual Preference?

Homosexuality is a serious issue for Christians, especially since America and other nations around the world have become more accepting of gays and lesbians. They worry of this because they believe that homosexuality is a sin (by the way, I’m a Christian, too, and I actually advocate for sexual equality, so I am referring to Christians in general). But what defines a sin? God wants us to get rid of sin, so if he is asking us to do this, then it must be reasonable to assume that sin is something that we can control and get rid of. For instance, sexual lust is a sin, because it is something that we know not only is bad, but also can control. But what about gayness? Say it is morally bad. But can you control it?

Nobody knows the answer for sure, but recent experiments have been pointing to the fact that maybe it can’t be controlled. In China and Korea, scientists have identified a gene-related chemical called serotonin that are commonly found in many animals. It is thought to be related to the mood of happiness. But things have been indicating otherwise.

In the lab, scientists took a group of lab mice. When females were put with males, the females mated with the males. When females were put with only females, the females still preferred to mate with the males and thus, didn’t mate at all. Overall, this was how a normal female mouse was supposed to react.

Then, scientists genetically engineered the female mice’s gene by taking the serotonin gene out, and put the mice once again in the same conditions. When the female mice were grouped with only the female mice, they started and attempted to sexually mount other females- mice of the same gender. Even when put with males, too, the female mice simply ignored the males and tried to mount the females.

Two male fruit flies

We see this not only with mice, but also fruit flies. In this case, it is not serotonin that seemingly controls sexual preference, but a master sex gene known as fru. A normal male fly will act like this when beginning to mate: It pursues a waiting virgin female. It gently taps the girl with its leg, played her a song (using wings as instruments) and, only then, dared to lick her – all part of standard fruit fly seduction. Yet, scientists were surprised when they saw a female fly doing this to another female fly- after giving the female suitor a male-type fru. Similarly, when males were given a female-type fru, they became more passive in their sexual behavior.

Overall, we see that genes is the cause of sexual preference for two animals- fruit flies and mice. But could we not extend this possibility to humans? Perhaps there is a gene, not identified yet, that is linked to human sexual preference? In other words, the only reason why gays and lesbians are homosexual is maybe because they were born with it- they lacked the gene necessary for heterosexuality.

If this is the case, then this is big controversy, scientifically and morally. You can’t now blame a gay for being gay, because it wasn’t his choice. And if homosexuality is just an inherited gene thing, then it must not be a sin, for in order for it to be a sin, they have to be able to control it. But they cannot. It’s just like a boy not being able to control the fact he is a boy or a human not being able to control the fact he’s human. They were born with it.

Again, this is only if humans do have a gene for sexual preference. If we do,  then I think it is time for the church to embrace them- heterosexual people should not superimpose their own values on homosexual people. We should embrace this difference, just like we embrace differences in race, gender, and ethnicity. Pretty much, if sexual preference is determined by genes, then homosexuality is not a sin.

You Don’t Own Your Body

The human body. A miraculous structure of cells working together. So complex, yet so beautifully fitted together. Each cell, organ, tissue, or organ system does not act alone. Cellular respiration, on the small cellular level, is also tied to our respiratory system, on the organ system level. At the same time this is happening, other functions are also being processed in other parts of our body. All of this in one body. To me, this seems like a truly unified thing- complex processes all beautifully tied together into one human body.

As unified as the body seems, there are two things that don’t seem to be that unified: the person himself and his body. Perhaps more clearer is one’s mind and one’s body. For instance, have you ever sat in a quiet room full of people, just minding your own business? Then suddenly, because it’s almost lunch time, your stomach starts growling? And you’re even not that hungry? You tell your stomach to shut up, but it keeps on growling, and by then, everybody is looking at you weird.

Your stomach growling is an involuntary action; you have no say in the matter. Then who does? Your body. Because your body senses no food coming in, it starts giving off these growling messages. Wait, hold on then. Isn’t your body also you? As you can see, times such as this seem to suggest that no, your body is not you.

In a sense, your body seems like another organism- maybe just like a jumble of cells deciding to work together. If you were your body, then you would be aware of all the chemical reactions in your body, you would be able to make your stomach never growl, you would be able to consciously breathe while you are sleeping. But do you? No.

Portuguese-man-of-war

So I noticed this, and I was thinking, maybe our body is  another organism. For instance, take the Portuguese-man-of-war. Its sort of like this jellyfish that floats on water. This species is actually not an animal (even if it looks like it), but rather a collection of animals. Its just a group of  individual organisms who decided to attach together and soon became dependent on each other, thus forming a new species.

I would say all multicellular organisms are just like that. In the pre-ancient past, there were these primitive cells roaming around, similar to bacteria. Through endosymbiosis, a few cells swallowed other cells, and those cells swallowed became organelles. Thus, eukaryotic cells came into being. Now, this is where my hypothesis kicks in: soon, bands of eukaryotic cells decided to join together, probably because it made life easier for them, or because of safety in numbers. After a long long time, cell specialization occurred, (just like in the Portuguese-man-of-war, where the organisms became specialized), where liver cells, muscle cells, etc. developed to perform a certain function. Soon enough, these cells became dependent on each other (sorta like a symbiosis) and formed a new species.

Overall, the body you think you own now is actually not yours. Rather, they are organisms themselves, separate from you, and you don’t control them. The only reason why these cells decide not to just escape from your body and live their own life is because they’ve become dependent on the other cells in your body.

Now, this is where animals like humans differ from the Portuguese-man-of-war. Whereas this jellyfish creature did not evolve consciousness, somehow humans did. You could think of consciousness as an accidental byproduct of cells coming together to form a species. Or perhaps it was an intentional byproduct- the brain cells maybe were just cells evolved to make sure all the cells were doing their thing for the benefit of the body as a whole.

watch out…..

Let me clarify this: suppose a tiger comes chasing after you. What does your brain aka consciousness tell you to do? Scram! But why is it doing this? Is it really to make sure you’re safe? Heck no, your cells don’t care about you. Rather, your brain cells are telling the muscle cells to move, so that in the end, if the muscle cells can make you outlast the tiger, the rest of the cells are safe. Again, they’re not doing it for you; the muscle cells and brain cells are doing it for the other cells that they have become dependent upon. So all the cells are safe as a whole. Its like a symbiosis between the cells.

Basic message: cells came together not to create you, but just as a beneficial symbiosis for each of themselves. Just like two smart students coming together to make a group project; they’re not doing it for the group itself, but rather for each of them individually so each can have a higher chance of getting a good grade. The students are like the cells and the group is like the body. In a sense, cells are a little bit selfish.

However, although consciousness has seemed to occur just so all the cells in your body are safe, our conciousness has evolved, such that we feel that we were meant to be made. We feel that we are a single organism, a human, rather than just a collection of organisms. And then from there we become creative and do things that are not necessary for the survival of your cells, but for our consciousness. That is perhaps the true beauty of humanity- we made our consciousness human.

An Alien Docufiction

Remember back in elementary or middle school, when your science teacher asked you to create a bizzare or alien creature? However, you weren’t allowed to just draw something random- you had to justify your creature’s characteristics scientifically. For instance, you could draw a creature with an extremely short height due to the strong force of gravity on its planet. You could give your creature the ability to do echolocation given that it was nocturnal.

I remember doing the exact same thing. To me, it was sort of fun. It was kinda like playing God; just like how God created us through evolution, I was creating my own animals also in a sense through evolution. However, in the end, what I really created was a picture of my creature. That’s all.

But now, imagine one day you can extend this science project and actually create a virtual world full of aliens. (Again, although it is science fiction, it is not total science fiction given that you have scientific explanations behind the creatures’ characteristics.) Suddenly, you really feel like god. The final result is not a piece of paper that you have to turn in, but a virtual world. To see what I mean, watch the docufiction below:

Pretty cool, right? And also pretty insightful too if a situation like this were to ever occur, such as robots acting all out by themselves without human guidance.

But notice the assumption that the planet we fall on is Earth-like. What I find confusing is that why do scientists assume that life on other planets is gonna be like life on Earth? For instance, a lot of documentaries show that in order for life to exist, there must be water. And what is the basis of that assumption? Well, life on earth. But we can’t just base it off one planet to determine how life on all other planets are going to be like. 

In fact, the likelihood of life depending on something non-water has a much higher probability. So, just pointing out that we need to correct that mistake.

All in all, I enjoyed it, and hope you did, too.

The Cockroach Defeats The Trap

Most people hate cockroaches. To them, “cockroach” in the thesaurus is another word for “disgusting.” But when I think of cockroaches, I marvel at their extreme adaptability. It’s the number  one reason why cockroaches are perhaps the oldest living species on earth. This LA Times article that I reblogged below shows just how unique and wonderful these bugs are- even more adaptable than I could’ve ever imagined:

In the war against pests, the lowly cockroach makes for a fearsome adversary. It can go weeks without water, survive decapitation for a time — and, like any proper super-villain, can send humans screaming from a room.

Now researchers have discovered how some roaches have eluded humans’ once-infallible traps: They have evolved so that glucose-sweetened bait tastes bitter. The discovery, published in Friday’s edition of the journal Science, solves a 20-year mystery and sheds light on the cockroach’s powerful ability to adapt.

“These roaches are unbelievable,” said Walter Leal, a chemical ecologist at UC Davis who was not involved in the study. “There’s an arms race here.”

Cockroaches are an inevitable companion to human civilization. They infest dark corners of homes, feed on all types of food — not to mention hair, glue and soap — and skitter away quickly when spotted. They can fill homes in the tens of thousands.

Exterminators once responded to the onslaught by spraying a home’s baseboards with strong insecticide, but this risked exposing children and pets to harsh chemicals. The baited trap solved this dilemma in the mid-1980s. Placed under sinks and in cupboards, the traps lured in hungry cockroaches with sugary temptations and then poisoned them quickly with insecticide.

But by 1993, exterminators started noticing something strange: The traps seemed to have lost their power. Somehow, cockroaches were thriving in baited homes.

Jules Silverman, an entomologist, got on the case. His employer at the time, the Clorox Co., owned a bait-making business, and he began taking the traps apart, testing the ingredients one by one on Blattella germanica, the German cockroach.

Silverman could see that the pesticides still killed the roaches; clearly, the problem had to be with the sweet baits. They were sweetened with a formulation of high-fructose corn syrup that was about 55% fructose and about 45% glucose — a simple sugar that serves as standard energy currency in living things.

Companies switched baits to favor fructose, and the traps have seemed to work since. But the cause of cockroaches’ glucose boycott remained a mystery.

Silverman revisited the question two decades later, after he had joined the faculty of North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Using a network of cockroach collectors around the world who picked up samples from infested homes on the U.S. mainland and in Puerto Rico and Russia, he and his colleagues gathered 19 different populations of German cockroaches and tested the bugs for the anti-sweet-tooth.

This was easy enough: Normal cockroaches will gladly dig into a batch of sweet, sticky jelly, while glucose-averse roaches will jump back, as if repulsed. Sure enough, the glucose-haters cropped up in seven of the populations studied, said Coby Schal, an entomologist at North Carolina State and senior author of the Science study. “It’s really interesting how they jump away from it,” he said. “It’s like an electric shock almost.”

The cockroach’s taste system is much more decentralized than that of humans, Schal said. They have taste buds on several facial appendages, and even on their feet.

The researchers focused on the paraglossae, which sit closest to the cockroach mouth and allow the critters to taste objects before eating them. The paraglossae are lined with hairlike sensilla, just a few micrometers long, that contain taste receptor neurons.

Glucose-averse cockroaches

a cockroach in the experiment

The researchers stuck tiny glass electrodes onto these sensilla and then had the cockroaches taste a variety of sweet and bitter compounds, including fructose (the sugar found in fruit) and caffeine (whose bitterness is used by plants to deter predators). Then they watched the electrical signals the neurons sent to the brain. Signals for “sweet” had a very different shape than those for “bitter,” Schal said. That gave the scientists a fingerprint of each taste.

Next they fed the cockroaches a glucose-laced solution and watched the electrical signals. For normal cockroaches, glucose triggered a “sweet” signal. But in the glucose-averse cockroaches, the solution triggered both “sweet” and “bitter” signals.

Mystery solved: The warning was coming straight from the tips of their taste buds. “We were elated,” Schal said.

Losing a function in sight or taste is not uncommon in the animal kingdom — in fact, many marine mammals have lost their ability to taste sweet things, perhaps because they don’t encounter it in their fishy diet. But adding sensory information — setting off a “bitter” alarm for a sweet food — is another story. “It’s incredibly rare,” Schal said. “We don’t know any other example where instead of having a loss of function, you had a gain of a new function — and that’s what happened in this cockroach.”

There are some disadvantages to glucose aversion, the authors pointed out: Glucose-averse cockroaches tended to grow and reproduce more slowly than their sweeter-toothed brethren. But in a trap-filled home, perhaps slow growth was a fair price to pay to stay alive.

The findings could have implications for research on obesity and diabetes in humans, said Grzegorz Buczkowski, an urban entomologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., who was not involved in the study. Perhaps there’s a way to induce this type of evolutionary change to make harmful substances less appealing — even repellent.

“Maybe we would have fewer health problems because of obesity and diabetes — maybe even addiction to alcohol and drugs,” he said. “If we could induce aversion to different materials that harm people, maybe that has implications for human health overall.”

Compassion, Intelligence, and Evolution

Reblogged from http://www.davidyerle.com:

Today I want to speak about compassion. By compassion I mean the ability to feel some other being’s pain. I say being, and not human being, because I want to venture a hypothesis that correlates compassion and intelligence. To do that, I have to look at compassion in animals.

There are different degrees of compassion. Most human beings feel compassion towards their children. A smaller subset feels compassion towards their parents. In decreasing order of frequency, human beings feel compassion towards their family, friends, reduced social group, extended social group, nation, continent and humanity as a whole.

Compassion is a fairly recent invention. For example, bacteria don’t feel compassion. They don’t feel much, in fact. Worms, fish and cephalopods also don’t seem to have much compassion either, not even towards their children. Reptiles in general don’t take care of their young: they lay their eggs and leave their offspring to fend for themselves. One may say they couldn’t care less.

Only mammals and birds seem to feel some sort of compassion, though it is mostly confined to the family unit. Mammals and birds also have the biggest brain sizes in the animal kingdom. It is probably not a coincidence: feeling compassion requires the capacity to make simulations of another living thing. But let me elaborate, because I believe the simulation point to be important.

Most living beings are capable of making some type of simulation of their environment. That’s how we make decisions: we simulate possible outcomes based on our different courses of action and we choose the one that leads to the most pleasure and the least pain. At least, that’s the basic framework. Bacteria don’t have to simulate much: when their food detectors fire, they move towards the food. That’s pretty much it. But, as the complexity in situations increases, so does the need for more accurate simulations.

Any software engineer will tell you that simulating something inorganic is millions of times easier than simulating something organic. A rock’s trajectory is easy to calculate; a sparrow’s, not so much. The capability for simulating other living things, then, requires significant processing power. Since this capability is needed for compassion, it is not surprising that only animals with highly developed brains have developed it. In fact, one may even see compassion as a by-product: as animals learned to simulate others (in order to eat them, for example) they also learned to simulate their peers, which lead to some kind of understanding that these peers also feel pain. Mirror neurons may also have evolved in this context.

Monkey surprise

A sociable animal

Monkeys are capable of compassion. Unlike other mammals, theirs extends a little further from their family and into their social group. If a chimpanzee is beat up in a fight, it is common to see another one trying to comfort it by putting its arm around it, something which may look spookily familiar. However, chimpanzees are only capable of compassion within their social group. They couldn’t care less about what happens to individuals outside it.

This is the way it works in humans, most of the time. Every time there’s a plane accident, the first we ask is “were there any people from my country?” We don’t care what happened to all of those foreigners. We want to know that our people are safe. The same thing happened recently with the Boston bombings: even though much more horrid acts take place daily in Iraq or Syria, we shrug them off without much thought, while being struck with grief with the ones that hit close to home.

However, that’s only part of the story. Some humans do feel empathy towards other people that are not in their social group. According to primatologist Frans de Waal, this kind of compassion is “a fragile experiment” being conducted by our species. That is, we are the first species to feel universal empathy. And I think this is significant, because it signals a trend from less compassion to more: from not caring about any other individual to caring about your children to caring about your family, to your social group, to every single member of your species.

Can this trend continue? As we get smarter, be it with technology or evolution, will we become even more compassionate? Is caring for the welfare of animals the next step, which is already taking place? As we get smarter, will we be able to simulate other living beings better? Will that increase our compassion? Where does this lead?

People usually see evolution (rightly) as this really cruel, blind process where the strong step on the weak. However, I find it encouraging that, even so, it seems to have led to the emergence of increasingly compassionate species. This outcome was far from obvious, given the way natural selection works. I like the idea of evolution being a blind, cruel, horrid process that somehow gives birth to a species that stops being blind and cruel. Evolution as a process that can put a stop to itself and become something better, gentler, more nurturing, more creative.

Who knows, maybe there’s still hope for us all.

Reviving Extinct Animals

Reblogged From Scientific American:

The rebirth of an extinct frog species may come from the freezer, not the stomach. The gastric brooding frog, when it existed on Earth, swallowed its eggs, transformed its stomach into a womb and vomited up its young once sufficiently grown. But the frog disappeared from the mountains of southern Australia shortly after it was discovered in the 1970s, persisting only as a few frozen specimens in the bottom of a scientist’s freezer.

The cells in those tissues should have been ruptured by the swelling ice crystals that formed within and around them. But some of the cells remained reasonably intact, according to paleontologist Michael Archer of the University of New South Wales in Australia, who is attempting to resurrect the species via his Lazarus Project. He and his colleagues transplanted the nucleus of that cell and others like it into hundreds of eggs from a closely related species. “Last February we saw a miracle starting to happen,” Archer announced for the first time to the crowd at the TEDx De-Extinction event on March 15 at the National Geographic Auditorium. “One of them began to divide.” (Archer’s group has not published the work yet.)

While tadpoles may be a long way off, let alone a viable frog, the southern gastric brooding frog might be the first species brought back from the dead permanently. The first de-extinction happened in 2003, although it lasted all too briefly.  Scientists coaxed a clone of an extinct ibex from Spain to birth from a special hybrid goat. But the cloned bucardo bore a third lung and couldn’t breathe properly, dying within 10 minutes.

Although this early effort failed, the growing cohort of resurrection projects raises a central question: Does extinction mean forever, anymore? If not, do we have an obligation to bring species back? “If it’s clear that we exterminated these species, we not only have a moral obligation to see what we can do about it but a moral imperative to do something if we can,” Archer argued. The new science of synthetic biology aims to make it possible for him to fulfill that moral imperative.

Sixth extinction
Humans have killed off many species, both iconic and common. A lighthouse keeper’s cat Tibbles—aided by a few feral cats perhaps—caught and killed nearly every single Stephens Island Wren just as they were discovered by science in 1900. Hungry sailors ate the Steller’s sea cow to death within a century of its discovery. The Xerces Blue butterfly disappeared with the sand dunes from San Francisco in the 1940s as that city swelled. The American chestnut, once the most abundant tree in eastern North America, succumbed to a fungal blight imported from Asia by humans.

“As a human species, we have been amazingly efficient at making things extinct,” noted conservation scientist Kate Jones of University College London at the TEDx DeExtinction event.

As the extinction rate swells thanks to habitat loss, over-hunting and human-induced climate change, the world may be on pace to lose half of all species by the end of this century—a reality dubbed the sixth extinction because it would represent the sixth mass die-off of life in Earth’s history. Of course, the other five were caused by climatic, planetary or astronomic events.

The de-extinction effort is being led by a group of scientists and others, ranging from synthetic biologist George Church of Harvard Medical School to environmental gadfly Steward Brand of the Long Now Foundation and its Revive & Restore project. They have banded together to see if new genetic tools might enable them to bring back even more species, as Archer is attempting to do with the gastric brooding frog. Their first target is the passenger pigeon, which once was so abundant it darkened the skies of eastern North America.

A similar bid by scientists in South Korea to revive the woolly mammoth—an even more scientifically challenging feat because it has been extinct for thousands of years—may garner the most attention, however. And no need to stop there; extinct human species, like the Neanderthal, could be revived as well, or even sabre-tooth cats—although species that have been extinct for more than a few thousand years are unlikely to be found preserved with enough DNA intact to permit their restoration.  (Say goodbye to Jurassic Park.)

As the bucardo example shows, however, de-extinction will be no easy feat. For the bucardo, scientists will not only need to get a female clone to survive, they will also need to find a Y chromosome to make a male bucardo and then stitch that into the cloned DNA. Another approach, championed by Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology, is to forego cloning and instead create stem cells from the ancient DNA. That would then enable Lanza or other scientists to create sperm or egg cells that bear the DNA of endangered or extinct species—and can provide the genetic code to restore or resurrect them.

Going from DNA to a stem cell of some kind, that is then coaxed into becoming a sperm or egg cell, and finally grows into a mammoth, however, is a process still beyond even the most advanced genetic science. “You cannot realistically change one or 10 percent of a genome and have that go to term,” Lanza noted in an interview with Scientific American, which is the reason for multiple implantations when attempting to impregnate. But “this is the beginning. It’s not going to stop.”

Furthermore, as paleogenomicist Beth Shapiro of the University of California, Santa Cruz, reminded the TEDx audience, creating an embryo is just the first step in bringing any extinct species back. There is also the mammoth challenge of restoring the world—or at least the ecosystems—that the elephant relatives inhabited, among other hurdles. And given the perilous plight of still extant elephant species, humanity has yet to show that it can manage the survival, let alone the revival, of a pachyderm.

Keep it cool
Still, there are lessons to be learned from the mammoth, not least the importance of cold. The Arctic “is the best place for the long-term preservation of DNA,” Shapiro said. “It’s cold and it’s been cold for at least the last million years.”

Just as mammoth DNA has waited in the Siberian tundra, preserved by constant cold temperatures, the cold of the San Diego’s frozen zoo may be the key to ensuring that today’s biodiversity makes it through the next few centuries of the Anthropocene intact. This ark, maintained at a steady -197 degrees Celsius, holds the cells of 503 mammals, 170 birds, 70 reptiles and 12 amphibians and fish—out of an estimated 10 million animal, plant, microbe and fungal species on the planet. The collection displays a bias toward charismatic megafauna and thus against the uncharismatic microfauna that keep the planet alive. The cold Svalbard seed vault in Norway performs the same function for crops—species that, despite their importance to us, have dwindled in biodiversity as genetic engineering has created specialized variants that now dominate the landscape.

Some conservationists also pour cold water on the very idea of de-extinction, worrying that it could enable the extinction of yet more species by diverting funds from proven efforts to sustain them, such as protected areas, intensive management of small surviving populations, even advertising campaigns to reduce the consumption of endangered species. We might bring the mammoth back while letting its relatives slip away. “At this moment, brave conservationists are risking their lives to protect forest elephants from armed poachers,” noted biologist David Ehrenfeld of Rutgers University at TEDx. “And we’re talking in this safe auditorium about bringing back the woolly mammoth?”

Is The Meaning Of Life Making Babies?

Reblogged From Scientific American:

From an evolutionary gene’s-eye perspective, the genes are immortal, and our role, the meaning of life, is to perpetuate the genes. In a few centuries, all traces of our existence as human individuals — memories of us, all our accomplishments –will likely be gone and forgotten, except for genes that survive from those of us who successfully reproduced through the generations.

But, of course, we don’t experience the world from a gene’s eye evolutionary perspective. One experiences the world as an individual person, not as a gene dispenser (fun as that may be). The joy we get from parenting comes not from some abstract generic idea of gene propagation, but from specific love and interaction with our own children — making your own baby son giggle uncontrollably when you make ridiculous animal noises, the bittersweet emotional rush you feel as you watch your daughter walk down the aisle. We care about ourselves and others as persons, not as a gene menagerie. Humans create our own meanings.

But — reproduction as the answer to life’s meaning cannot be dismissed quite so easily. Genetic evolution is the meaning of biologic life, in that it is the why and how of it, as well as the stock of future biological existence. The genes that survive — and in turn the organisms they make — are the winners in the existence game. Can we just dismiss this when considering the meaning of our own individual human lives? Sure, evolution itself does not have a specific direction or teleology, and genes themselves are not conscious, so there is not meaning in that sense. But evolution cannot just be shrugged off as something apart from us, take it or leave it. It is the biological explanation of who we are, how we got here, and the diversity of life. Over billions of years, life left the oceans, stretched limbs to cover the earth, raised wings to fly. Underlying it all are the replicating molecules that continue to copy themselves even now. We owe our existence to this process, and our future depends on it. Perhaps the meaning of your life as a biological creature is to make babies and help ensure the survival of life. In discussing the children she had with Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan put it like this: “When we come closest to each other we can create new life forms that carry on that continuity that stretches back all those billions of years, and in them are the generations of human beings who have struggled. That is magnificent.”

By making babies, we continue life’s pageant. In children, we cheat death.

Yet something seems fundamentally very wrong, or incomplete, with this idea that making babies is the meaning of life. I wouldn’t be jumping with jubilation if my teenage son announced today that he was going to be a father. Do we laud the parents of extremely large Mormon, Hasid, Catholic, and Muslim families as public exemplars of a meaningful life? Do we honor the most popular sperm donor as humankind’s greatest philanthropist?

Even if our genes get perpetuated, our genes are not us. After a few generations of genetic mixing and shuffling, there’s unlikely to be anything unique or identifying about us in our offspring. If your great-great-grandchild has your brown eyes and your blood type, but no other personality or physical traits uniquely identifiable to you, how much of “you” has really lived on? Further, if the idea is to perpetuate our genetic lineage, what if we have children, but no grandchildren?

Fundamentally, as humans, the problem with identifying the meaning of life with having children is this — to link meaningfulness only with child production seems an affront to human dignity, individual differences, and personal choice. Millions of homosexuals throughout the world do not have children biologically. Millions of heterosexual adults are unable to have children biologically. For many adults, not having children is the right choice, for themselves, the world, the economy, or for their would-be children. Socrates, Julius Caesar, Leonardo da Vinci, George Washington, Jane Austen, Florence Nightingale, John Keats, Vincent van Gogh, Vladimir Lenin, and Steven Pinker as far as we know did not have biological children. Would we deny the meaningfulness of their impact or existence? The meaning of life for childless adults — roughly 20% of the population in the U.S. and U.K. –  has nothing to do with fame, but everything to do with what makes life meaningful for everyone: experiencing pleasure, personal relationships, and engagement in positive activities and accomplishments.

From a moral perspective if you are giving of your life for an adopted child, a parent, creative production, teaching, volunteer work, or anything that helps others, adds to happiness, and makes the world a better place — then an evolutionary genetic perspective seems irrelevant. It is from such bedrocks that human meaning springs. Human meanings are worthwhile regardless of long-term, universal, final consequences, because they are meaningful now.

Also, it’s not just the seed alone that produces bountiful produce, it’s the entire garden and all it takes to nurture it. The environment is a critical part of the equation. Evolution by natural selection occurs by differential survival and reproduction of genes in a population as a consequence of interactions with the environment. There is also the danger of overpopulation, which could result in famine, disease, and environmental catastrophe, perhaps jeopardizing the future evolutionary success of the entire species. So, ironically, perhaps not having children is the best way to ensure longevity of the human genome. Unlike other animals, we can be conscious stewards of the future.

So is making babies — and having genes survive through the generations — the meaning of life? The answer is yes — from an evolutionary gene’s eye view. Making babies, and also other actions and social structures that result in the survival and reproduction of one’s gene, such as protecting one’s relatives. Differential reproduction is a process which, in conjunction with environmental interactions, has led to all life as we know it, with all its diversity and grandeur, including conscious experience itself. This is modern knowledge that is not to be taken lightly, and has impact on how we view our own meaning.

But from almost every other perspective — individual, group, moral, environmental, or concern for life as a whole — the answer to the question is no. Meaning from these perspectives — from life as it is actually experienced — is up to us. Reproduction and genetic survival may be the meaning of Life, but it is not inescapably the meaning of your life.

So, in the end, the full answer is no — we do not bestow having babies as the sole guardians of life’s meaning. But we do need to respect and grapple with the view. Differential genetic success, as a result of reproduction and environmental conditions will — for better or worse — provide the template for what humans will become in the future. It is to evolutionary genetic success that we — and all life — owe our existence, and to which the future of all life on Earth depends. Including creatures that create our own meaning. We perform our solos with passion, but we are playing in nature’s grand symphony.

The Chicken or the Egg?

Which came first: the chicken or the egg? When I first heard that question, I thought it was just a joke or a question just to mess up your brain. I never really took it seriously. Until when I watched this video. That was when I realize you can take this in a scientific way.