The Incredible Promise of CRISPR

Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats / Cas9, better known as just CRISPR, is a form of genetic modification that utilizes the immune system of bacteria to selectively remove or replace individual genes. As you can imagine, it is a very complex concept — I recommend this great full explainer – but it has vast implications for the future of human health and prosperity, Continue reading

Eurasia’s Oldest Words

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It is hard to imagine that the world’s many distinct and disparate languages, such as those highlighted above, share a common ancestor. But a new study reported in Foreign Policy  has ostensibly identified several words shared by at least three major Eurasian language families.

In research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mark Pagel, Quentin D. Atkinson, Andreea S. Calude, and Andrew Meade attempt to identify words shared between Eurasia’s major language families — implying that they may be relics of an older common tongue. Most words have a “half life,” meaning there’s 50 percent chance they’ll be replaced by a new noncognate word every 2,000 to 4,000 words. But some words — particularly numerals, pronouns, and adverbs — tend to last longer.

Using a database of hypothesized ancestor words, the authors looked for words related by sound within the language groups in the map above. (An example: The Latin pater is obviously related to the English father.)  They found “188 word-meanings for which one or more proto-words had been reconstructued for at least three language families”.

Among the shared words are the following:

  • Thou
  • I
  • Not
  • That
  • We
  • To give
  • Who
  • This
  • What
  • Man/male
  • Ye
  • Old
  • Mother
  • To hear
  • Hand
  • Fire
  • To pull
  • Black
  • To flow
  • Bark
  • Ashes
  • To Spit
  • Worm

The researchers have concluded that these common words prove the existing of linguistic “superfamily” that evolved from a common ancestor around 15,000 years ago. Interesting stuff.

Map: American Foreign Aid

Many Americans believe U.S. foreign aid is ineffective and fails o reach the people that need it most. Unfortunately, the following map from HowMuch.net, courtesy of Vox.com, validates this criticism by revealing that the vast majority of government aid largely bypasses the world’s neediest countries:

Note that while this is based on 2014 data, official aid policy hasn’t really changed.

Israel is clearly the biggest recipient by a large margin, despite being one of the world’s wealthiest countries, followed by Egypt and Jordan, which, while middle income countries, have their aid mostly contingent on their peace treaties with Israel. Many of the top recipients are not among the poorest countries in the world, and although Afghanistan and Pakistan are impoverished, their aid is also mostly tied up with foreign policy objectives (e.g. the War on Terror).

Ten Great Things That Happened in 2016

It pretty much goes without saying that 2016 has been a rough year for a lot of people and for a multitude reasons, none of which need to be rehashed here. Suffice it to say, I am all the more grateful to have had a largely great year, due in no small part to the support and companionship of loved ones and the good fortune of my life circumstances.

And contrary to popular belief, there was more to 2016 than celebrity deaths and political decay. As Swedish writer and historian Johan Norberg reminds us, the past year has seen plenty of amazing progress in areas as wide ranging as conservation, public healthy, and conflict resolution. Here are just ten examples: Continue reading

The World As 100 People

To better grasp just how much human conditions have improved only over the past two hundred years, consider the following summation, which imagines humanity as just a hundred people.

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Imagine if you were surrounded by abject poverty and misery, but only years later find most people lifted out of deprivation and living comfortable lives; imagine nearly half of all the kids around you dying before their fifth birthday, but over the span of just a couple of years, such tragedies are virtually unheard of.

When you consider that these conditions were the norm for most of our 200,000 year history, and that only in the last two centuries — a relatively small blip in the timescale — have they reversed so rapidly, it is astounding how so many of us fail to realize how incredibly far our species has come.

Learn more about human progress from the source of this infographic.

A History of Human Progress

It goes without saying that 2016 has been a rough year for a lot of folks. People can be forgiven for thinking that the world is going to hell in one way or another, but as economist Max Roser of Our World in Data points out in Vox.com, there has never been a time more worth celebrating in terms of moral progress. From poverty to literacy, the world is improving in so many areas, even if there is still quite a way to go. Continue reading

An Effective Ebola Vaccine Has Been Developed

Following a horrific epidemic in West Africa that claimed the lives of over 11,000 people — the deadliest the world had ever seen — we finally have a breakthrough vaccine against Ebola. As Vox.com reported:

Today, the same researchers — who hail from the World Health Organization, Guinea’s Ministry of Health, Public Health England, and other international partners — have unveiled their final results in the Lancet, and they’re just as remarkable. The vaccine was tested in a trial involving nearly 12,000 people in Guinea and Sierra Leone during 2015 and 2016. Among the 5,837 people who got the vaccine, no Ebola cases were recorded. By comparison, there were 23 Ebola cases in the control group that had not gotten the vaccine.

“This trial, confirming the 100 percent efficacy of the rVSV Ebola vaccine, is a simply remarkable outcome”, Dr. Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, said of the research. “We’ve shown that by working collaboratively, across international borders and sectors, we can develop and test vaccines rapidly and use them to help bring epidemics to an end”.

You can read the published study here. It was one of fifteen clinical trials for an Ebola vaccine conducted around the world in a single year, and is a vindication of what collective action and responsibility by the international community — including the U.N., NGOs, and national governments — can accomplish. It is a shame it took so many deaths spanning a nearly three year period to finally come up with a promising form of prevention, although the vaccine is far from ready to hit the market.  Continue reading

Human Population Through Time

Humans began migrating out of Africa and across the rest of the world about 100,000 years ago. But it was only around 12,000 years ago, with the invention of agriculture, that large and permanent populations began to emerge. Continued improvements in agriculture and medicine, combined with the development industry, had contributed to an exponential expansion of the human race, as the video below by the American Museum of Natural History powerful visualizes:

While the human population is projected to increase to over 11 billion by 2100, the rapid decline in fertility across much of the world (including developing countries) may indicate — for the first time in history — a peaking of the number of humans, and much earlier than expected.

H/T to Aeon.

India Surpasses U.K. As Sixth Largest Economy

In an achievement as symbolic as it was substantive, India’s economy has overtaken that of the United Kingdom, its former colonial master, to become the sixth largest in the world by GDP, after the United States, China, Japan, Germany, and France. The last time its economy was larger than the U.K.’s was 150 years ago, when it was the second largest in the world after China. (Indeed, the two Asian giants were for centuries the biggest economies in the world prior to the age of European exploration and colonialism.) Continue reading

Female World Leaders By Country

The Economist has put together an interesting map, based on data from the World Economic Forum, a Swiss think tank, showing the number of years each country has a had a female head of state or government. You might find the results surprising:

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As with any data set, there are some caveats:

During that time period, just under two-fifths of the countries surveyed had a female head of state or government at some point for at least a year (excluding monarchs). In half of those countries, the total time served by female leaders falls short of five years, a common length of a single full term in office.

Like Hillary Clinton, who is the wife of a former American president, many female heads of state have hailed from political dynasties. At least a dozen are the wives or daughters of former presidents or prime ministers. They include the two women who, between them, have held the prime minister’s post in Bangladesh for 23 of the past 50 years—the longest any country has had women at the helm.

Moreover, the mixed bag of high ranking countries — ranging from developed democracies like Iceland and New Zealand, to more flawed democracies like the Philippines and Bangladesh — shows that greater representation for women in the upper echelons of power does not necessarily reflect, or translate to, more female empowerment and gender parity overall. (Especially if the women in power got there through proximity or political connections with men.)