The coming revolution over anti-aging research

December 14, 2008

On Bloggingheads’ Science Saturday, Methuselah Foundation chairman Aubrey de Gray argues that eternal life is within reach and attacks those who think it’d be a bad idea.

But here’s something he and interviewer Eliezer Yudkowsky don’t address: on the day eternal life becomes available, it might be a bad idea for everybody over a certain age. Those people would be locked into life at their current age indefinitely, while the rest of the world — their future friends, enemies, bosses and lovers — would become an ever-swelling group of 24-year-olds.

How would society react to this approaching possibility?

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Science Geeking from the Pros

June 2, 2008

This is just a very quick post to point out that ScienceBlogs has started their own version of an online book club. They’ve chosen two science professors (one evolutionary ecologist and one evolutionary and developmental biologist) and two professional science writers to read, discuss, and review new science books for the general audience. Since they are currently in the discussion of the first book chosen, it is unclear to me if the panelists will remain the same each time, or if they will change depending on the book being reviewed. In any case, the first book is Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life, by Carl Zimmer, and I look forward to following this and future book discussions with interest. Reading suggestions are always good, no?


“Dogs make us human.”

May 16, 2007

[Warning: The following may piss off all the cat people who read this blog. I am about to make the claim that all humans are, at heart, dog people. Please keep all pet-speciesist vitriol to a minimum in the comments.]

Near the end of Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin uses an Aborigine saying: “Dogs make us human.” She presents a very interesting bunch of evidence of just how right this saying seems to be. 

But a study by Robert K. Wayne and his colleagues at UCLA of DNA variability in dogs found that dogs had to have diverged from wolves as a separate population 135,000 years ago. The reason the fossil record doesn’t show any dogs with humans before 14,000 years ago is probably that before then people were partnered with wolves, or with wolves that were evolving into dogs. Sure enough, fossil records do show lots of wolf bones close to human bones before 100,000 years ago.

If Dr. Wayne is right, wolves and people were together at the point when homo sapiens had just barely evolved from homo erectus. When wolves and humans first joined together people only had a few rough tools to their name, and they lived in very small nomadic bands that probably weren’t any more socially complicated than a band of chimpanzees…

This means that when wolves and people first started keeping company they were on a lot more equal footing than dogs and people are today. Basically, two different species with complementary skills teamed up together, something that had never happened before and has really never happened since.

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Geek Buffet Theatre Presents: Chickens, Dinosaur Supermodels

May 10, 2007

Scene: A phone conversation.

Dana: (idly wondering) Do you think evolution is going to be all downhill now?

Mark: What?

Dana: I mean, look at chickens. They used to be dinosaurs, and now look. That seems like a rather downward slope.

Mark: Yeah, but take a triceratops, for example. It weighed, what, several tons? And it still had a brain about the size of a chicken’s. That’s not really better, is it?

Dana: So it’s just a more streamlined version now, huh?

Mark: Yeah, it just lost all the extra weight.

Dana: So… chickens are like the supermodels of the dinosaur world?

Mark: Exactly. That’s why they have those spindly little legs.

The End.

Soul Made Flesh: A Tale of Neurology

April 2, 2007

I recently read Carl Zimmer’s book, Soul Made Flesh: The Discovery of the Brain – and How It Changed the World, and I found it fascinating. (It has only added to my intellectual crush on the thinkers of the early Enlightenment. *sigh*) It is, essentially, the story of how the study of neurology came into being. But it is also the tale of how the brain came to light, because before neurology could come into existence, the brain had to be “discovered” as more than just a useless tapioca-like substance. And so, it is a book about the history of the brain, as humans have understood it over time.

One of the interesting things is just how much of the book is also about medical and philosophical understandings of the heart. The title of “Soul Made Flesh” is very descriptive, (as one might expect,) because the whole journey of understanding started in an attempt to understand the soul. Where was it located? How did it work? What was it that made humans so special, above the other animals? What drove our moral actions? Naturally, it started out as a philosophical quest.

As you might imagine, the philosophical descriptions of the soul, its location, and how it worked were nicely explained, logically argued, and based on very little in the way of fact. In trying to localize the soul, the philosophers were trying to base their arguments on human anatomy, and so they also made up what today seem like extremely fanciful interpretations of how the imagined bodily systems all worked together. There were lots of descriptions of little spirits and humors running around to different locations of the body to influence different human functions. Eventually, the heart was settled upon as the home of the soul, as well as the home of thought.

Fortunately for us, in the 1600s, people, particularly young intellectuals, early natural philosophers, if you will, began to find fault with their Greek-based anatomy classes, and started to notice that what was actually being revealed of the human body in the dissection theater didn’t always tally with what was in the books. And so the revolution began, and the real story started.

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Morning lull

March 7, 2007

Yesterday, I read an article on the BBC news site that came as a crushing disappointment to me. Which is to say, it confirmed something I’d always kind of known, but never been willing to admit to myself. The short version: a cup of coffee in the morning doesn’t actually make you energetic.

“But wait,” I cried to myself in desperation, “I always feel groggy in the morning until I have a cup of coffee!” As it turns out, the research presented in the article confirms this to be true. Now comes the crushing disappointment. You know what causes that groggy feeling? Sadly, it’s coffee.

The research shows that people who drink coffee in the morning are no more alert than their peers who go without a cup of joe. Tests of reaction and alertness show that those who consume caffeine score no better than those who abstain. This is because caffeine consumption in the morning does not provide a boost, it only provides relief from the symptoms of caffeine withdrawal.

Those who drink coffee (or other caffeinated beverages) on a regular basis aclimatise their bodies to the stimulant. Let me restate that in a way that is less of a lie to myself: Those who drink coffee on a regular basis become physically dependant on the stimulant. Overnight, they’re not getting their fix, so when they wake up in the morning, they are suffering from a mild form of withdrawal, and feel groggy and out of sorts until they get some of their drug of choice into their system. Thus, it feels like a pick-me-up, but that morning cup of coffee is in reality just getting you back to the baseline that your clean-living friends were cruising at without any chemical assistance.

The article does say that it is possible to get a boost of energy and alertness from caffeine, but it only works if you haven’t had any for quite some time. If it’s been a month (I just made that time-frame up, to be honest) and then you have a quadruple espresso, it will give you a great buzz, but it really only works the first time. Once your body gets used to it, you’re back to being a troll until you get your morning latte.

 I will note that there is a quote from a member of the British Coffee Association in the article which says, in part “…moderate coffee consumption of four to five cups per day…”. Four or five cups per day? Goodness! I don’t have a problem after all. I can stop any time I want to, honest.

Biting one’s nails is absolutely normal

March 3, 2007

Here’s an observation: Using nail clippers to clip one’s nails. Now, I highly doubt that man figured out nail clippers prior to the iron age, but it really does not make sense to use stone to smash one’s own fingers. This allowed me to come to two possible conclusions:

1. Nails naturally wear out under heavy use, so no nail clippers are necessary.

2.  We trim our nails by biting ’em.

Based on how often movies like to portray humans in castaway situations as biting their nails, I suspect it is #2. Therefore, why do we punish nail biters if it’s not disgusting, but rather, normal?