A Siberian giant virus and the butterfly effect

Omulyakhskaya and Khromskaya Bays lie along the northern Siberian coast, where permafrost blankets the land around the bays. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory

Omulyakhskaya and Khromskaya Bays lie along the northern Siberian coast, where permafrost blankets the land around the bays. Photo: NASA Earth Observatory

Embedded in the mud, glistening green and gold and black, was a butterfly, very beautiful and very dead.

“Not a little thing like that! Not a butterfly!” cried Eckels.

It fell to the floor, an exquisite thing, a small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominoes and then big dominoes and then gigantic dominoes, all down the years across Time. Eckels’ mind whirled. It couldn’t change things. Killing one butterfly couldn’t be that important! Could it? — Ray Bradbury, A Sound of Thunder, 1952

As one of the massive and probably irreversible consequences of climate change, the melting of the Northern Hemisphere’s permafrost is not an example of the butterfly effect. Yet the discovery of a giant virus which has come back to life after 30,000 years of frozen dormancy, suggests many possibilities including some akin to those envisaged by Ray Bradbury is his famous science fiction story.

Whereas his narrative required that the reader suspend disbelief by entertaining the idea of time travel, the thawing tundra may produce a very real kind of time travel if any viruses or other microbes were to emerge as new invasive species.

Rather than being transported geographically as a result of human activity, these will spring suddenly from a distant past into an environment that may lack necessary evolutionary adaptations to accommodate their presence.

We are assured that Pithovirus sibericum poses no threat to humans — it just attacks amoebas. But our concern shouldn’t be limited to fears about the reemergence of something like an ancient strain of smallpox.

The rebirth of a pathogen that could strike phytoplankton — producers of half the world’s oxygen — would have a devastating impact on the planet.

BBC News reports: The ancient pathogen was discovered buried 30m (100ft) down in the frozen ground.

Called Pithovirus sibericum, it belongs to a class of giant viruses that were discovered 10 years ago.

These are all so large that, unlike other viruses, they can be seen under a microscope. And this one, measuring 1.5 micrometres in length, is the biggest that has ever been found.

The last time it infected anything was more than 30,000 years ago, but in the laboratory it has sprung to life once again.

Tests show that it attacks amoebas, which are single-celled organisms, but does not infect humans or other animals.

Co-author Dr Chantal Abergel, also from the CNRS, said: “It comes into the cell, multiplies and finally kills the cell. It is able to kill the amoeba – but it won’t infect a human cell.”

However, the researchers believe that other more deadly pathogens could be locked in Siberia’s permafrost.

“We are addressing this issue by sequencing the DNA that is present in those layers,” said Dr Abergel.

“This would be the best way to work out what is dangerous in there.”

The researchers say this region is under threat. Since the 1970s, the permafrost has retreated and reduced in thickness, and climate change projections suggest it will decrease further.

It has also become more accessible, and is being eyed for its natural resources.

Prof Claverie warns that exposing the deep layers could expose new viral threats.

He said: “It is a recipe for disaster. If you start having industrial explorations, people will start to move around the deep permafrost layers. Through mining and drilling, those old layers will be penetrated and this is where the danger is coming from.”

He told BBC News that ancient strains of the smallpox virus, which was declared eradicated 30 years ago, could pose a risk. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Can plants make choices?

a13-iconHelmholtz Centre for Environmental Research: Plants are also able to make complex decisions. At least this is what scientists from the Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research (UFZ) and the University of Göttingen have concluded from their investigations on Barberry (Berberis vulgaris), which is able to abort its own seeds to prevent parasite infestation. The results are the first ecological evidence of complex behaviour in plants. They indicate that this species has a structural memory, is able to differentiate between inner and outer conditions as well as anticipate future risks, scientists write in the renowned journal American Naturalist — the premier peer-reviewed American journal for theoretical ecology.

The European barberry or simply Barberry (Berberis vulgaris) is a species of shrub distributed throughout Europe. It is related to the Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) that is native to North America and that has been spreading through Europe for years. Scientists compared both species to find a marked difference in parasite infestation: “a highly specialized species of tephritid fruit fly, whose larvae actually feed on the seeds of the native Barberry, was found to have a tenfold higher population density on its new host plant, the Oregon grape”, reports Dr. Harald Auge, a biologist at the UFZ.

This led scientists to examine the seeds of the Barberry more closely. Approximately 2000 berries were collected from different regions of Germany, examined for signs of piercing and then cut open to examine any infestation by the larvae of the tephritid fruit fly (Rhagoletis meigenii). This parasite punctures the berries in order to lay its eggs inside them. If the larva is able to develop, it will often feed on all of the seeds in the berry. A special characteristic of the Barberry is that each berry usually has two seeds and that the plant is able to stop the development of its seeds in order to save its resources. This mechanism is also employed to defend it from the tephritid fruit fly. If a seed is infested with the parasite, later on the developing larva will feed on both seeds. If however the plant aborts the infested seed, then the parasite in that seed will also die and the second seed in the berry is saved. [Read more...]

facebooktwittermail

The importance of consilience in science

OpinionPaul Willis writes: Science is not a democracy. A consensus of evidence may be interesting, but technically it may not be significant. The thoughts of a majority of scientists doesn’t mean a hill of beans. It’s all about the evidence. The science is never settled.

These are refrains that I and other science communicators have been using over and over again when we turn to analysing debates and discussions based on scientific principles. I think we get torn between remaining true to the philosophical principles by which science is conducted and trying to make those principles familiar to an audience that probably does not understand them.

So let me introduce a concept that is all-too-often overlooked in science discussions, that can actually shed some light deep into the mechanisms of science and explain the anatomy of a scientific debate. It’s the phonically beautiful term ‘consilience’.

Consilience means to use several different lines of inquiry that converge on the same or similar conclusions. The more independent investigations you have that reach the same result, the more confidence you can have that the conclusion is correct. Moreover, if one independent investigation produces a result that is at odds with the consilience of several other investigations, that is an indication that the error is probably in the methods of the adherent investigation, not in the conclusions of the consilience.

Let’s take an example to unpack this concept, an example where I first came across the term and it is a beautiful case of consilience at work. Charles Darwin’s On Origin Of Species is a masterpiece of consilience. Each chapter is a separate line of investigation and, within each chapter there are numerous examples, investigations and experiments that all join together to reach the same conclusion: that life changes through time and that life has evolved on Earth. Take apart On Origin Of Species case by case and no single piece of evidence that Darwin mustered conclusively demonstrates that evolution is true. But add those cases back together and the consilience is clear: evidence from artificial breeding, palaeontology, comparative morphology and a host of other independent lines of investigation combine to confirm the same inescapable conclusion.

That was 1859. Since then yet more investigations have been added to the consilience for evolution. What’s more, these investigations within the biological and geological sciences have been joined with others from physics and chemistry as well as completely new areas of science such as genetics, radiometric dating and molecular biology. Each independent line of investigation builds the consilience that the world and the universe are extremely old and that life has evolved through unfathomable durations of time here on our home planet.

So, when a new line of investigation comes along claiming evidence and conclusions contrary to evolution, how can that be accommodated within the consilience? How does it relate to so many independent strains conjoined by a similar conclusion at odds with the newcomer? Can one piece of evidence overthrow such a huge body of work?

Such is the thinking of those pesky creationists who regularly come up with “Ah-Ha!” and “Gotcha!” factoids that apparently overturn, not just evolution, but the whole consilience of science. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

A new theory about the origin of life

origin-life

Evolution explains how life changes, but it doesn’t explain how it came into existence. A young physicist at MIT has now come up with a mathematical formula which suggests that given the right set of conditions, the emergence of living forms is not merely possible; it almost seems inevitable.

Let there be light, shining on atoms, and there will eventually be life.

Quanta magazine: Why does life exist?

Popular hypotheses credit a primordial soup, a bolt of lightning and a colossal stroke of luck. But if a provocative new theory is correct, luck may have little to do with it. Instead, according to the physicist proposing the idea, the origin and subsequent evolution of life follow from the fundamental laws of nature and “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.”

From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.

“You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant,” England said.

England’s theory is meant to underlie, rather than replace, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which provides a powerful description of life at the level of genes and populations. “I am certainly not saying that Darwinian ideas are wrong,” he explained. “On the contrary, I am just saying that from the perspective of the physics, you might call Darwinian evolution a special case of a more general phenomenon.”

His idea, detailed in a recent paper and further elaborated in a talk he is delivering at universities around the world, has sparked controversy among his colleagues, who see it as either tenuous or a potential breakthrough, or both.

England has taken “a very brave and very important step,” said Alexander Grosberg, a professor of physics at New York University who has followed England’s work since its early stages. The “big hope” is that he has identified the underlying physical principle driving the origin and evolution of life, Grosberg said.

“Jeremy is just about the brightest young scientist I ever came across,” said Attila Szabo, a biophysicist in the Laboratory of Chemical Physics at the National Institutes of Health who corresponded with England about his theory after meeting him at a conference. “I was struck by the originality of the ideas.”

Others, such as Eugene Shakhnovich, a professor of chemistry, chemical biology and biophysics at Harvard University, are not convinced. “Jeremy’s ideas are interesting and potentially promising, but at this point are extremely speculative, especially as applied to life phenomena,” Shakhnovich said.

England’s theoretical results are generally considered valid. It is his interpretation — that his formula represents the driving force behind a class of phenomena in nature that includes life — that remains unproven. But already, there are ideas about how to test that interpretation in the lab. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Less than one third of Americans believe in evolution

(Note: Because of the misleading way in which Pew presents its own findings, multiple reports run with a headline similar to this one in USA Today: “One-third of Americans reject human evolution.” That would appear to imply that two-thirds of Americans accept the theory of evolution that provides the foundation for evolutionary biology. However, the rejectionists that the survey identifies are those who believe in the literal truth of Genesis, Adam and Eve etc.. Those who subscribe to Intelligent Design or other non-scientific Creationist evolutionary narratives are viewed by Pew as believing in human evolution.)

I am not a militant atheist. I have little patience for the anti-religion campaigning engaged in by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and their ilk. The idea of trying to rid the world of religion makes no more sense than trying to abolish sport.

Human beings are not governed by reason and people who become enslaved by rationality, inevitably become emotionally malformed. The human capacity to express and experience love is a capacity without which we would cease to be human. As Pascal said: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows not.”

We live in a world constructed by thought and shared ideas and our ability to make sense of life springs in large part from the fact that we continuously filter our experience through stories — stories through which we tell ourselves who we are, where we live, and why we live.

Because of this, I don’t think that science should or can be thrust down anyone’s throat…

And yet to learn that less than a third of Americans believe in evolution is deeply depressing — even if not surprising.

Those who want to put a strong political spin on the results of a new Pew Research Center poll on views about evolution are emphasizing the fact that the greatest concentration of skepticism on evolution is among Republicans while pointing to the figure of 67% of Democrats believing in evolution.

The pollsters, however, fudged the basic question by implying that it’s possible to believe in evolution without accepting its scientific basis.

Pew’s primary interest was in differentiating between those Americans who take Genesis literally and those who don’t. Those Americans who believe “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today” are counted as believing in evolution, even though they don’t believe in natural selection.

The fact that Pew chose to slice the question in this way is itself illustrative of the weak influence science has in American culture. “Evolution” is being treated as an object of belief coming in many varieties, rather than as hard, incontrovertibly proven scientific fact.

No one would conduct a poll asking Americans whether they believe the Earth revolves around the Sun and yet when it comes to the subject of evolution, the deference to religious belief is so engrained that evolution is treated as a completely subjective term — evolution, whatever that means to you.

Why does this matter?

The world cannot tackle climate change if America turns its back on science. And yet as a culture, America currently stands somewhere between the sixteenth and the twentieth century. Copernicus was successful but the jury’s still out on Darwin.

If two-thirds of the population is skeptical about evolution, what chance is there of persuading them that climate change is caused by human activity?

It hardly seems coincidental that almost exactly the same number of Americans who believe in human-caused climate change also believe in evolution through natural selection. (I would hazard a guess that it’s not just the same number, but also the same Americans.)

facebooktwittermail

The society of microbes that make us what we are

Earth Island Journal: In your new book, Cooked, you explore the art of cooking through the elements of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. I’m sure you love all your children equally, but of those four, which taught you the most?

Michael Pollan: Fermentation – without a doubt. I began this education about microbiology. I’ve always been interested in nature and other species, and this symbiotic relationship we have with them, and I have mostly paid attention to it in the plant world. I just had no idea of how rich our engagement with microbes was, and how invisible it is to us. I began it when I was doing the Air section and learning about sourdough cultures. But then I got into that last chapter and started learning about fermentation: how much of our food is fermented, the fact that you could cook without the use of any heat, and the fact that we are dependent on these microbes. They’re using us; we’re using them. For me that was most fascinating.

You point out that our feelings about microbes are an expression of our attitude toward the natural world.

Yeah, and our drive for control, at all costs. Microbes are frightening for a couple reasons. One is, they’re invisible. They’re an unseen enemy. And they are pathogens, I mean some of them. You know, conquering infectious disease was a tremendous achievement for our civilization. But as so often happens, we cast things in black and white. So microbes are all bad because some microbes cause disease, and we fail to realize how dependent we are on them for our health. I think we’re going to get to a point where we will discover the unit in evolution and natural selection is not the species as an individual, but what is called the “holobiont,” the group of species that travel together. And that’s what selection is acting on very often, is the super-organism of humans or cats or plants.

Plants, you know, they, too, have their own microbiome; I didn’t talk about this in the piece, but their microbiome is outside their bodies. It surrounds their roots. It’s in what’s called the rhizosphere. There’s a little ecosystem around the root of every plant, and I think we’re going to come to learn that it’s as important to plant health as our flora is to us. I think we’re going to start looking at all species as collectivities, and microbes will be the part of that. And that changes a lot. It changes how you approach agriculture. It certainly changes how you approach health. So I think we’re really on the verge of a paradigm shift around that. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

The misleading metaphor of the selfish gene

David Dobbs writes: A couple of years ago, at a massive conference of neuroscientists — 35,000 attendees, scores of sessions going at any given time — I wandered into a talk that I thought would be about consciousness but proved (wrong room) to be about grasshoppers and locusts. At the front of the room, a bug-obsessed neuroscientist named Steve Rogers was describing these two creatures — one elegant, modest, and well-mannered, the other a soccer hooligan.

The grasshopper, he noted, sports long legs and wings, walks low and slow, and dines discreetly in solitude. The locust scurries hurriedly and hoggishly on short, crooked legs and joins hungrily with others to form swarms that darken the sky and descend to chew the farmer’s fields bare.

Related, yes, just as grasshoppers and crickets are. But even someone as insect-ignorant as I could see that the hopper and the locust were wildly different animals — different species, doubtless, possibly different genera. So I was quite amazed when Rogers told us that grasshopper and locust are in fact the same species, even the same animal, and that, as Jekyll is Hyde, one can morph into the other at alarmingly short notice.

Not all grasshopper species, he explained (there are some 11,000), possess this morphing power; some always remain grasshoppers. But every locust was, and technically still is, a grasshopper — not a different species or subspecies, but a sort of hopper gone mad. If faced with clues that food might be scarce, such as hunger or crowding, certain grasshopper species can transform within days or even hours from their solitudinous hopper states to become part of a maniacally social locust scourge. They can also return quickly to their original form.

In the most infamous species, Schistocerca gregaria, the desert locust of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, these phase changes (as this morphing process is called) occur when crowding spurs a temporary spike in serotonin levels, which causes changes in gene expression so widespread and powerful they alter not just the hopper’s behaviour but its appearance and form. Legs and wings shrink. Subtle camo colouring turns conspicuously garish. The brain grows to manage the animal’s newly complicated social world, which includes the fact that, if a locust moves too slowly amid its million cousins, the cousins directly behind might eat it.

How does this happen? Does something happen to their genes? Yes, but — and here was the point of Rogers’s talk — their genes don’t actually change. That is, they don’t mutate or in any way alter the genetic sequence or DNA. Nothing gets rewritten. Instead, this bug’s DNA — the genetic book with millions of letters that form the instructions for building and operating a grasshopper — gets reread so that the very same book becomes the instructions for operating a locust. Even as one animal becomes the other, as Jekyll becomes Hyde, its genome stays unchanged. Same genome, same individual, but, I think we can all agree, quite a different beast.

Why?

Transforming the hopper is gene expression — a change in how the hopper’s genes are ‘expressed’, or read out. Gene expression is what makes a gene meaningful, and it’s vital for distinguishing one species from another. We humans, for instance, share more than half our genomes with flatworms; about 60 per cent with fruit flies and chickens; 80 per cent with cows; and 99 per cent with chimps. Those genetic distinctions aren’t enough to create all our differences from those animals — what biologists call our particular phenotype, which is essentially the recognisable thing a genotype builds. This means that we are human, rather than wormlike, flylike, chickenlike, feline, bovine, or excessively simian, less because we carry different genes from those other species than because our cells read differently our remarkably similar genomes as we develop from zygote to adult. The writing varies — but hardly as much as the reading.

This raises a question: if merely reading a genome differently can change organisms so wildly, why bother rewriting the genome to evolve? How vital, really, are actual changes in the genetic code? Do we even need DNA changes to adapt to new environments? Is the importance of the gene as the driver of evolution being overplayed?

You’ve probably noticed that these questions are not gracing the cover of Time or haunting Oprah, Letterman, or even TED talks. Yet for more than two decades they have been stirring a heated argument among geneticists and evolutionary theorists. As evidence of the power of rapid gene expression mounts, these questions might (or might not, for pesky reasons we’ll get to) begin to change not only mainstream evolutionary theory but our more everyday understanding of evolution. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Are we alone in the Universe?

Paul Davies writes: The recent announcement by a team of astronomers that there could be as many as 40 billion habitable planets in our galaxy has further fueled the speculation, popular even among many distinguished scientists, that the universe is teeming with life.

The astronomer Geoffrey W. Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley, an experienced planet hunter and co-author of the study that generated the finding, said that it “represents one great leap toward the possibility of life, including intelligent life, in the universe.”

But “possibility” is not the same as likelihood. If a planet is to be inhabited rather than merely habitable, two basic requirements must be met: the planet must first be suitable and then life must emerge on it at some stage.

What can be said about the chances of life starting up on a habitable planet? Darwin gave us a powerful explanation of how life on Earth evolved over billions of years, but he would not be drawn out on the question of how life got going in the first place. “One might as well speculate about the origin of matter,” he quipped. In spite of intensive research, scientists are still very much in the dark about the mechanism that transformed a nonliving chemical soup into a living cell. But without knowing the process that produced life, the odds of its happening can’t be estimated.

When I was a student in the 1960s, the prevailing view among scientists was that life on Earth was a freak phenomenon, the result of a sequence of chemical accidents so rare that they would be unlikely to have happened twice in the observable universe. “Man at last knows he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he has emerged only by chance,” wrote the biologist Jacques Monod. Today the pendulum has swung dramatically, and many distinguished scientists claim that life will almost inevitably arise in Earthlike conditions. Yet this decisive shift in view is based on little more than a hunch, rather than an improved understanding of life’s origin. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Social complexity and facial diversity among primates

UCLA Newsroom: Why do the faces of some primates contain so many different colors — black, blue, red, orange and white — that are mixed in all kinds of combinations and often striking patterns while other primate faces are quite plain?

UCLA biologists reported last year on the evolution of 129 primate faces in species from Central and South America. This research team now reports on the faces of 139 Old World African and Asian primate species that have been diversifying over some 25 million years.

With these Old World monkeys and apes, the species that are more social have more complex facial patterns, the biologists found. Species that have smaller group sizes tend to have simpler faces with fewer colors, perhaps because the presence of more color patches in the face results in greater potential for facial variation across individuals within species. This variation could aid in identification, which may be a more difficult task in larger groups.

Species that live in the same habitat with other closely related species tend to have more complex facial patterns, suggesting that complex faces may also aid in species recognition, the life scientists found.

“Humans are crazy for Facebook, but our research suggests that primates have been relying on the face to tell friends from competitors for the last 50 million years and that social pressures have guided the evolution of the enormous diversity of faces we see across the group today,” said Michael Alfaro, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science and senior author of the study.

“Faces are really important to how monkeys and apes can tell one another apart,” he said. “We think the color patterns have to do both with the importance of telling individuals of your own species apart from closely related species and for social communication among members of the same species.” [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Moore’s law and the origin of life

I recently offered some commentary on a scientific paper, “Life before Earth,” written by a couple of geneticists, Alexei Sharov of the National Institute on Aging in Baltimore, and Richard Gordon of the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in Florida, who suggest that the rate at which evolution advances necessitates that life must be much older than the Earth and may trace back to within the first 2 billion years of the universe’s existence.

Sharov and Gordon base their analysis on the claim that genetic complexity advances exponentially and they draw a comparison with Moore’s law which, though not actually a law, describes the fact that roughly every two years semiconductor manufacturers are able to double the number of transistors that can be crammed onto a microprocessor. Sharov and Gordon say that genetic complexity doubles every 376 million years.

The idea that life began long before the existence of our planet is certainly a view well outside orthodox views of evolution. And science is inherently conservative in its approach to radical new ideas. So, the fact that Sharov and Gordon’s paper has either been ignored or dismissed does not in and of itself indicate it is worthless.

However, I’m not a geneticist, so I’m not in a position to provide any critical analysis on what they wrote. Massimo Pigliucci, on the other hand, is a rare combination: he’s both a geneticist and a philosopher. So, unlike some other scientists, he doesn’t contemptuously dismiss the paper, but he does have the wherewithal to pick it apart.

Pigliucci writes:

[T]he first highly questionable statement … is that “the core of the macroevolutionary process … is the increase of functional complexity of organisms.” No, it isn’t. Stephen Gould long ago persuasively argued that there is no necessary direction of increased complexity throughout evolution. The only reason why complexity historically follows simplicity is because life had to start simple, so it only had “more complex” as a direction of (stochastic, not directed) movement. It’s a so-called “left wall” effect: if you start walking (randomly, even) from near a wall, the place you end up is away from the wall. And of course, as Gould again pointed out, life on earth was (relatively) simple and bacterial for a long, long time — and none the worse for it either. Moreover, the most complex organism on earth — us — though very successful in certain respects, is actually a member of a very small and often struggling group of large brained social animals. Measured by criteria such as biomass, bacteria still beat the crap out of us “superior” beings.

But the real problems begin for the Sharov and Gordon paper when they finally get to the business at hand: correlating genomic complexity with time of origin of the respective organisms, and then extrapolating back in time. [As a commenter on my Twitter stream pointed out, they could just as “reasonably” have extrapolated into the far future, arriving at the conclusion that the entire universe will eventually be made of DNA...]

The authors realize that simple genome length won’t cut it, because what matters is functional complexity, and there are some portions of the genomes of various organisms that are redundant and possibly without function. Nonetheless, they end up plotting the log-10 of genome size against time, which is how they arrive at the figure of 9.7 billion years ago for the origin of life. As PZ Myers quickly pointed out, however, even if we accept the procedure at face value, they simply cherry picked the data: plenty of organisms that don’t show up on the graph (plants and fungi, for instance) would completely scramble the results. Make no mistake about it: this is a fatal blow to the entire enterprise, and one that the authors ought to have thought about well before posting the paper. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Problem-solving and pattern recognition

The Telegraph reports: The apes, which are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, seem to get the same level of satisfaction out of solving brain teasers as their human evolutionary cousins.

A study published by the Zoological Society of London shows that six chimpanzees who were given a game which involved moving red dice or Brazil through a maze of pipes enjoyed solving the puzzle whether they got a reward or not.

The researchers claim this suggests they got the same kind of psychological reward as humans get when solving problems.

Most problem solving witnessed in the animal kingdom, where animals use tools or navigate mazes, are with the aim of reaching food. Hyenas, octopuses and birds such as crows all show the ability to solve problems.

Chimpanzees have also been witnessed in the wild using tools such as a stick to forage for insects or honey in hard to reach places like tree stumps.

But ZSL researcher Fay Clark said their research said they could be motivated by more than just food.

She said: “We noticed that the chimps were keen to complete the puzzle regardless of whether or not they received a food reward.

“This strongly suggests they get similar feelings of satisfaction to humans who often complete brain games for a feel-good reward.”

It seems like research repeatedly demonstrates that we share more similarities with other primates than we previously recognized, and as I’ve suggested before, this says as much about our preconceptions about human uniqueness as it says about the human-like qualities of our close relatives. Moreover, in this case, just as the research indicates chimps experience a human-like satisfaction in problem-solving, I suspect that in both instances this trait relates to something shared by all animate creatures: an interest in discerning order.

Chaos is immobilizing and the ability to turn one direction rather than another rests in part in the ability to see patterns and repetition. In pure pristine perception, every moment would be unique, but in reality, the ground of perception is not blank — present is mapped onto past.

facebooktwittermail

How a quarter of the cow genome came from snakes

Ed Yong writes: Genomes are often described as recipe books for living things. If that’s the case, many of them badly need an editor. For example, around half of the human genome is made up of bits of DNA that have copied themselves and jumped around, creating vast tracts of repetitive sequences. The same is true for the cow genome, where one particular piece of DNA, known as BovB, has run amok. It’s there in its thousands. Around a quarter of a cow’s DNA is made of BovB sequences or their descendants.

BovB isn’t restricted to cows. If you look for it in other animals, as Ali Morton Walsh from the University of Adelaide did, you’ll find it in elephants, horses, and platypuses. It lurks among the DNA of skinks and geckos, pythons and seasnakes. It’s there in purple sea urchin, the silkworm and the zebrafish.

The obvious interpretation is that BovB was present in the ancestor of all of these animals, and stayed in their genomes as they diversified. If that’s the case, then closely related species should have more similar versions of BovB. The cow version should be very similar to that in sheep, slightly less similar to those in elephants and platypuses, and much less similar to those in snakes and lizards.

But not so. If you draw BovB’s family tree, it looks like you’ve entered a bizarre parallel universe where cows are more closely related to snakes than to elephants, and where one gecko is more closely related to horses than to other lizards.

This is because BovB isn’t neatly passed down from parent to offspring, as most pieces of animal DNA are. This jumping gene not only hops around genomes, but between them.

This type of “horizontal gene transfer” (HGT) is an everyday event for bacteria, which can quickly pick up important abilities from each other by swapping DNA. Such trades are supposedly much rarer among more complex living things, but every passing year brings new examples of HGT among animals. For example, in 2008, Cedric Feschotte (now at the University of Utah) discovered a group of sequences that have jumped between several mammals, an anole lizard, and a frog. He called them Space Invaders.

The Space Invaders belong to a group of jumping genes called DNA transposons. They jump around by cutting themselves out of their surrounding DNA, and pasting themselves in somewhere new. They’re also relatively rare—they make up just 2 to 3 percent of our genome. BovB belongs to a different class of jumping genes called retrotransposons. They move through a copy-and-paste system rather than a cut-and-paste one, so that every jump produces in a new copy of the gene. For that reason, they spread like wildfire.

BovB was first discovered in the genomes of cows and other cud-chewing mammals in the 1980s, and seemed to be a signature of that group. Then, in the 1990s, Dusan Kordis and Franc Gubensek detected an extremely similar version of BovB amid the genes of the horned viper. It looked like this piece of DNA had jumped between species. Now, with complete genomes of the cow and other animals at hand, Walsh has more fully mapped BovB’s voyage through the animal kingdom. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Paul Seabright on evolution and human cooperation

Paul Seabright author of The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life, interviewed at The Browser.

You have turned to evolutionary biology and anthropology to help understand the development of economic institutions and behaviour. Why are they important in helping us get to grips with today’s complex and fast-moving world?

They are important because we are a species like any other and have this wonderful construction, which is the society we’ve built. It’s as wonderful, or more so even, as the extraordinary nests built by ants and termites or the incredible song and other behavioural patterns of birds. I’ve always thought that if we take animals seriously as producing behaviour and not just bodies, then we should do the same for ourselves. We should see our behaviour as coming out of the constraints of our environment and the adaptations that have developed in the history of our species.

It used to be fashionable to think that genes, and indeed the process of natural selection, affected our bodies but not our minds. We’ve come to realise that that’s untrue and that our minds are profoundly shaped by natural selection – even if the environment we now live in is massively different from the one in which most of that evolution took place. So you can learn a lot from the fact that our minds are not just any old general purpose computer. They are actually shaped by evolution, though we have to remember that the circumstances in which we evolved are startlingly different from the circumstances in which we now have to navigate.

The world has got a lot more complex in the last 100 years or so and human minds have to process ever larger amounts of information. Are they evolving fast enough to deal with it?

No, in some ways they aren’t. A very good example is the way in which we process a lot more digital information now than we used to – we read a lot more text. People sometimes say we are completely overwhelmed with incoming information in the modern world, and that’s true. But in a certain sense our hunter-gatherer ancestors were also overwhelmed with incoming information – they would be sitting around their fires with their senses very carefully tuned for predators, for example. They would also take in information about their environment with a tremendously high bandwidth, in terms of how they judged their fellow human beings as being hostile or friendly, reliable or untrustworthy. Natural selection produced a number of mechanisms that helped them deal with that bandwidth. For example, we know we have these abilities to size up people’s faces with extraordinary speed and sophistication – we can tell just from the location of the white of somebody’s eyes who they are looking at, and whether their relationship with people around them is dominant or submissive, aggressive or defensive, competitive or collaborative.

In the modern world we can still do all that sort of thing rather quickly, but a much larger part of the information comes in the form of text, some of which we deal with using a part of the brain called “working memory”, which has a much lower bandwidth. For example, the standard idea is that you can hold about seven to nine items of information in working memory at one time. That’s enough to remember somebody’s telephone number, but if you try to remember somebody’s telephone number and try to do something else that requires textual manipulation at the same time, you are very quickly overwhelmed. That’s a good example of how natural selection shaped the brain for the kind of tasks that we needed to do in the Pleistocene but didn’t – for obvious reasons – foresee the kinds of tasks we would have to do in the 21st century. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Kin and kindness

Michael Shermer writes: It is the oldest and most universally recognized moral principle, codified more than 2,000 years ago by the Jewish sage Hillel the Elder: “Whatsoever thou wouldst that men should not do to thee, do not do that to them. This is the whole Law. The rest is only explanation.” The explanation of morality was the subject of intense theological and philosophical disputation well before Hillel, of course, and has been ever since. Lately scientists have begun weighing in with naturalistic views of the matter, and now their cause has been joined by Paul J. Zak with The Moral Molecule and Christopher Boehm with Moral Origins.

Mr. Zak, an economist and pioneer in the new science of neuroeconomics, has built his reputation on research that has identified the hormone oxytocin as a biological proxy for trust. As he documents, countries whose citizens trust one another gain economically, enjoying a higher gross domestic product, on average, than countries where lower levels of trust exist. Mr. Zak explains that trust is built through mutually beneficial exchanges that result in higher levels of oxytocin.

How does he know this? By studying blood samples taken from participants in economic-exchange games administered by researchers as well as from people in real-world encounters. “The Moral Molecule” is an engaging popular account of Mr. Zak’s decade of intense research into how oxytocin evolved for one purpose—pair bonding and attachment in social mammals—but had the bonus effect of cementing a sense of trust among strangers.

The problem to be solved here is why strangers would be nice to one another. Evolutionary “selfish gene” theory accounts for why we would be nice to our kin—they share our genes, so being altruistic and moral has an evolutionary payoff in our genes being indirectly propagated into future generations. The theory of kin selection explains how this works, and the theory of reciprocal altruism—I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine—goes a long way toward explaining why unrelated people in a social group would be kind to one another: My generosity to you today, when my fortunes are sound, may pay off down the road if life is good to you and my luck has run out. What Mr. Zak has so brilliantly done is to identify the precise biological pathways through which this behavior system evolved and operates today. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

How dogs helped early modern humans

Pat Shipman writes: We all know the adage that dogs are man’s best friend. And we’ve all heard heartwarming stories about dogs who save their owners—waking them during a fire or summoning help after an accident. Anyone who has ever loved a dog knows the amazing, almost inexpressible warmth of a dog’s companionship and devotion. But it just might be that dogs have done much, much more than that for humankind. They may have saved not only individuals but also our whole species, by “domesticating” us while we domesticated them.

One of the classic conundrums in paleoanthropology is why Neandertals went extinct while modern humans survived in the same habitat at the same time. (The phrase “modern humans,” in this context, refers to humans who were anatomically—if not behaviorally—indistinguishable from ourselves.) The two species overlapped in Europe and the Middle East between 45,000 and 35,000 years ago; at the end of that period, Neandertals were in steep decline and modern humans were thriving. What happened?

A stunning study that illuminates this decisive period was recently published in Science by Paul Mellars and Jennifer French of Cambridge University. They argue, based on a meta-analysis of 164 archaeological sites that date to the period when modern humans and Neandertals overlapped in the Dordogne region of southwest France, that the modern-human population grew so rapidly that it overwhelmed Neandertals with its sheer numbers.

Because not all the archaeological sites in the study contained clearly identifiable remains of modern humans or Neandertals, Mellars and French made a common assumption: that sites containing stone tools of the Mousterian tradition had been created by Neandertals, and those containing more sophisticated and generally later stone tools of the Upper Paleolithic were made by modern humans. This link between tool and toolmaker is well supported by sites that do contain hominin remains, but there is nothing inherent in a stone tool that tells you who made it—not even if you find a skeleton right next to it. Still, stone tools are one of the best available indicators of which species—modern human or Neandertal—inhabited a particular location.

Mellars and French compared the number and sizes of Neandertal and modern-human archaeological sites, as well as the density of tools and the weight per square meter of prey animals, represented by fossils, in those sites. They standardized their results for 1,000-year periods to compensate for the varying amounts of time that the different locations had been occupied. In every respect, modern humans surpassed Neandertals. In fact, the greater success of modern humans was so clear that, according to Mellars and French’s calculations, the human population increased tenfold over the 10,000-year overlap period. Modern humans thrived and Neandertals did not—even though Neandertals had lived in the European habitat for about 250,000 years before modern humans “invaded.” Why weren’t Neandertals better adapted to their environment than the newcomers?

There is no shortage of hypotheses. Some favor climate change, others a modern-human advantage derived from the use of more advanced hunting weapons or greater social cohesion. Now, several important and disparate studies are coming together to suggest another answer, or at least another good hypothesis: The dominance of modern humans could have been in part a consequence of domesticating dogs—possibly combined with a small, but key, change in human anatomy that made people better able to communicate with dogs. [Continue reading...]

facebooktwittermail

Sharing is human

Maria Konnikova writes: Last week, Facebook made its largest ever acquisition: Instagram, the popular photo-sharing service that lets you snap, filter and send with the click of a button. While the fit seems to make sense – a major reason to use Facebook is to share photos; the more photos you share the more time you spend on the site; the more time you spend, the happier the advertisers – the $1bn price tag raised many an eyebrow.

But should the price come as a surprise or is the purchase perhaps a visionary move? In making its offer for Instagram, Facebook had, I think, recognised the ever-growing importance of one little impulse that is awfully hard to resist: the urge to share.

That irresistible impulse to post, to tweet, to “like” has evolutionary roots that far precede the advent of social media. Consider something that’s known as the “communal sharing” norm. In an environment of scarce resources (ie, the one that prevailed for most of our history), every existing resource has to be shared with others. In this environment, what I find out isn’t my exclusive prerogative – it’s actually common property, in case it can be beneficial to someone else. There’s a bear in that cave; these berries may kill you; I found a stream of water in that direction. All important information to pass on and the quicker the better. After all, the bear may wake up or the berries may end up in someone’s mouth before we’ve had a chance to share our wisdom.

The facts may have changed, but the immediacy seems just as real now. It’s hard to shake off the feeling that people are somehow missing out or worse off if we don’t communicate what we’ve seen – and communicate it at once. Is it really so far from: “There’s a bear in the cave” to: “Look at that adorable bear playing with the berries in that YouTube video”? We don’t just passively take in information. We want actively to pass it on to others. We share emotions; we share thoughts; we share opinions; we share objects. We share because we’re happy, angry, perplexed, upset. Or experiencing any strong emotion.

facebooktwittermail