Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Woman Still Uncertain about Future Man

Are humans still evolving? is a question often asked in undergraduate Evolutionary Anthropology courses and its an important and honest query that we would all like to be able to answer. Although evolutionary theory is necessarily retroactive, I invite you to join me in speculating forward, to the future of our species. Now, for a moment, please put aside the obvious abyss of uncertainty that the future repeatedly confronts us with, and that Hostess snowball you are eating.

I recently read an article called, “Evolution stops here: Future Man will look the same”. It was written by a David Derbyshire and it quotes a geneticist named Steve Jones from the University College London. He posits that humans have stopped evolving because we no longer interface as intimately with our environment as we once did. Now we live in houses, have central air and plenty of food. The article also says that the decrease in older fathers, leads to fewer mutations passed on to offspring—because mutations in sperm cells accrue over an individual male’s lifetime. And with increased travel and globalization, there are fewer isolated populations of people, and this may cause a decline in the randomness that evolutionary change is predicated on.

It’s possible that some of the geneticist’s original points may have been lost in the brevity of the journalistic translation. So I address the following points to the article, not necessarily to the geneticist, and to you.

Firstly, it is true that our relationship to the environment has changed dramatically in modern times. We do live in houses with central air and we do have an abundance of agriculturally grown and processed food. However, we don’t all have the HVAC technician on speed dial and we don’t all have a stockpile of twinkies, ding-dongs or ho-hos. What about contemporary non-Western societies that subsist on hunted or gathered food stuffs? And what about the poor schleps with no central air, like me? I think this article underrepresents the heterogeneity with which modern humans, from all parts of the world, interact with their environment. It is true that some hunter-gatherer populations are dwindling in the face of increased agricultural practices, but they are not gone yet.

Alternatively, Western practices such as controlled housing temperature and our new processed diet may present some novel selective pressures of their own. For example, our increasingly sedentary lifestyle and our ubiquitous consumption of processed products such as high-fructose corn syrup. These elements of our society are the new selective pressures. Childhood obesity is skyrocketing, and I cannot imagine this will not have some effect on the fitness, meaning how many viable offspring are produced, of this new generation.

There may be fewer older fathers than there were in the 18th century, but what about older mothers? In this case, our culture is evolving and is selecting for mothers who are able to have successful offspring—who are themselves reproductively fit—into their later years. True, this seems like a predominantly Western phenomenon, but women are having children later and later in life. This can lead to increased stress on the mothers body and it increases the possibility of offspring having chromosomal abnormalities, such as down-syndrome. This can’t mean nothing for our species. This may have some long term effect on our life history, and more specifically, the increment of time that females are reproductively fit. Mothers who have healthy daughters later in life may pass on the trait of being able to have successful offspring later in life. Longevity and reproductive health are, to some extent, heritable. Or perhaps mothers who have daughters later in life may pass on inability or difficulty in having successful offspring. All female babies are born with all of their eggs, perhaps the development and viability of the female fetus’ eggs is affected by the mothers health and age during gestation.

And what about artificial insemination, IVF or assisted hatching? Do we know the long term fitness effects that these novel reproductive practices may have on our species? No, I don’t believe we really do. And I say this with a gentle hand, quite simply, offspring are being born who would otherwise not be. Genes are being passed on to the next generation that would otherwise not be. What is their fitness level, how many successful offspring will they have, and what traits will they then pass on to their own offspring? So, while prezygotic selective pressure may be abated through these new medical practices, I cannot imagine that the subsequent population will not differ in its genetic and physiological landscape.

Evolution is random. Mutation and genetic drift both shape the population’s collective genome in a random manner. This author suggests that the lack of isolated human populations will halt randomness. It is true that genetic drift—or the selection of alleles from one generation to the next based on stochastic sampling—is stronger in smaller populations. But genetic drift is not absent in larger populations. Also—while it may be more rare and less random than we once thought—mutations do continually arise and lead to novel phenotypes that interact with the ever changing environment.

And what about the environment, or large scale climate change? For one thing, global warming can affect the ecological habitat of some parasites, like Plasmodium which causes malaria, and that can affect humans. Microorganisms that lead to diseases that we don’t have inexpensive widespread cures for, are key in the evolution of our species. Individuals who are resistant or less susceptible to disease, because of a random mutation, survive in the population to reproduce, others don’t. The flu virus rapidly mutates every year, so as long as viruses and bacteria are still evolving, we will be too.

The point is, adaptations to temperature, diet, reproductive robusticity or disease resistance, may still be relevant to the evolution our species. Natural selection may no longer be traditionally “natural”, but it’s still selective. And maybe more directly, “Woman Still Uncertain about Future Man” is not as sexy a headline as “Evolution stops here: Future Man will look the same”. And perhaps Future Man will fuel vehicles with Hostess snowballs and wear t-shirts that say “Only Losers Evolve”, but then again, we wont really know.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

a little birdie told me

I am addicted to Twitter. For those of you who don’t know it, its a website/service that allows you to get snippets of streaming information from organizations or people of your choice. When you decide you want to know whats going on with someone, or something, via Twitter, you find their Twitter profile and you “Follow” them.

Its different from Facebook because its less personal, and that is a wonderful thing. You do not have to accept people as friends, or even “friends”, and the amount of information doled out is, mercifully, short and sweet.

I do not follow many friends, so I don’t get updates like, “there is slightly more jelly than peanut-butter on my sandwich today.” And I don’t follow celebrities, although you can. I have accumulated a list of organizations that I follow (NYTimesArts, several Museums, NatureNews, ScientificAmerican, Pratt Institute) that update me on smart and interesting information. All. Day. Long.

Here are a few links that I have learned about via Twitter that I thought I would share with you:

The Promise of Evolutionary Synthesis:linking previously unconnected scientific ideas together.

Artists Reconstruct the Past:paleoartistry and its origins. see also, my blog post about this very topic.

Super Color Vision in Humans:some humans may be able to see more nuanced shifts in color.

Death Blooms:copper urns that have weathered, very spectacular and strange and sad.

Perfect Lego Art:the whimsy and simplicity of legos in unexpected outdoor spaces.

A Twitter sized thought I had last weekend: What if all car horns sounded like notes from wind instruments, then a traffic jam might sound more like a symphony.

Friday, March 19, 2010

of Brilliance and Brilliance.

My brain responds dramatically to light. All through the dark winter nights my personal struggles about [insert word] reach sisyphean proportions. I get especially dark and brooding. I quit things, break off relationships, decide [blank] is just not for me, pack my bags, hang my head and incessantly navel-gaze, during winter. Its flat out pathetic. Now that sunny spring has arrived in New York, I realize that this winter problem I have, is getting worse.

But then, a larger thought occurred to me. I know I am not the only person who reports these feelings during winter. And I started wondering about seasonal patterns of ideas. I wonder how music written, paintings painted, scientific eurekas, and novels or love letters penned—in winter—differ from those in spring. They must. Although, out of struggle, and winters of discontent, great work most certainly has sprung, but not if one found themselves too melancholy to concentrate.

Seasonality is something that is widely discussed in the primate ecology literature. Trees fruit seasonally (or mast), food abundance shifts and animals respond both behaviorally (less competition for more resources) and physiologically (better nutrition leads to healthier, and more, offspring). Or when any animal lives in a seasonally shifting climate, adaptations to fluctuating temperatures, landscapes and resources are what’s crucial to survival.

You might say our relationship to the earth, and its resources, is not knitted quite as tightly as the primates to their fruit. Globalization allows other climates to provide us with faraway warm-weather resources year-round. And we also have the option of hopping on JetBlue to experience a verdant season, somewhere else.

I know that light influences hormones in the brain. I want to know more about how other animal brains respond to light. And what’s with nocturnal animals, like possums and vampires, they must have some alternate neurophysiological profile to diurnal animals?

Also, perhaps more poetically, I am envisioning a cultural history of ideas, arranged according to how close the sun was to the location of the birth of each idea, published by Phaidon, or as a large mural, or information graphic, or a map in radiant color. Would there be some kind of latitudinal gradient of idea strength or quality as one approaches the equator, I am not sure.

Or maybe as the poem suggests, its not really the springtime or the sunlight, its the drama of seasonal change that seems to ignite an intellectual dawn. If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant: if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.”—Anne Bradstreet

Oh and happy luminescent spring my darlings!

Monday, March 15, 2010

light love

at the new 5:30 this evening
I fell in love with the lingering daylight
that was saved for me

Monday, March 1, 2010

Maternal Imprinting

Did you ever spend all day at the beach and then close your eyes in the evening and see waves? Or did you ever spend all day driving and go to bed and see the road? How much of the beach or the road can you really make out? And how much is your brain just making you feel it, in its most drowsy and abstract incarnation?

Well, some nights I go to sleep and I see patterns on fabric. One after another. They are always colored, sometimes brightly, and flat. They are not consciously constructed and often, unexpected color combinations present themselves. But its not like I really see these, like a proper hallucination. Its just that on the brink of sleep, I think about these things and my mind wanders like a plotless shimmering dream.

My maternal grandmother worked as a dress maker at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York, NY. She came from Algeria, was French and her fabric draping skills were legendary, or so I have been told. Because of this, as a child, my mother was dressed in her Sunday best every day of the week. By the time my mother grew up, married my father and moved out, it was the middle of the 60s. She embraced 60s fashion with a particular grace and restraint. She was not a hippy and her skirts were never too micro. But by today’s standards she would fall on fashion’s flashy side, although she would deny it. She had a gold embroidered dress, a bright bright red bouchlĂ© skirt suit and a long gown with only one shoulder and a gossamer fabric wing fluttering behind her on one side. By the time I was born, she had toned it way down, but I still knew of the fuschia prints that bloomed in her heart. Partly I still knew because the clothes were all neatly relegated to a metal cabinet in our attic which, in spite of my childhood dust allergy, I visited often.

All of this focus on fabric and fit and femininity in the family affects a girl. The tradition of fashion and what was considered right and beautiful was given to me. I have spent years toying with it in varying doses and rejecting it at times when I felt a rebellion of practicality or grittiness swelling. I remember little containers of endless varied buttons and scraps of deeply colored thick laces and trims, and even though they were all reduced to a box or two in the bottom of my mom’s closet, it was impossible not to vividly imagine the garment of their origin.

I have always been fascinated by what makes a favorite color, a favorite. Or what makes someone go into a clothing store and really deeply “ooooooOOO” at something. And I realized that the patterns that I am most intensely drawn to are patterns that look something like, something my mother wore. The colors and combinations I tend towards are attached to memories of her memories.

Although I think about and very much love loud beautiful clothing, I don’t quite have the personality to carry most of it off—that I got from my Dad. You can’t wear a bright orange pea coat and a concerned scowl. And most times I find myself wanting to be discreet or invisible and a red suit unfortunately wont do. Also, I have no sisters and most days the only people around me were my brothers in blue jeans and old sneakers, so that too influenced my sensibilities. I spent 12 years in a plaid school uniform and oh yes, I am training to be a scientist, so there is quite the de-emphasis on clothing. But I live in Manhattan, pulled in many fashion conscious and unconscious directions, there is hope yet.

My grandmother was very sick before she died. She was in her home in Queens, NY in a hospital style bed, with nurses taking care of her every minute. It was the 4th of July, which was her birthday. I was about 14 or so and wearing a red t-shirt and blue and white checkered short-shorts. She reached up from her bed and touched my shorts and she said “seersucker”, with soft approval. This is something that will always be with me.