A Map of All Known Species of the World

Since first conceptualized by Charles Darwin in his seminal book, The Origin of Species (1859), tree diagrams of various kinds have been used to depict evolution and convey the relationship between various species across the animal, plant, and microbial kingdoms.

Now, a project called OpenTreeOfLife.org has confensed tens of thousands of various phytogenic trees into one beautiful and inuitive circular diagram, as seen below.


Circle of Life

This lovely and useful guide is the end result of three years of work undertaken by researchers from a dozen scientific institutions from around the world.

Every line in the circle represent a species, and together they account for all 2.3 million species thus far named; another 5.4 million are thought to remain to be properly accounted for. With around 15,000 new species being discovered annually, the diagram will continue to grow in size and sophistication — so it is a good thing anyone is free to suggest updates or tweaks to the database.

As biologists continue to make progress in discovering and classifying new species (and re-examining existing ones), we can expect to see a lot of changes in the makeup of this diagram. I cannot wait to see this used in classrooms and popular science books.

Source: Scientific American

Trauma Can Run In Our DNA

It is not surprising that the impact of trauma often transcends generations; after all, the psychological and behavioral consequences can easily rub off on one’s children. But a recent finding from New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital strongly suggests that trauma is not just socially conditioned, but genetically inheritable.

As the Guardian reports, the study analyzed the genes of children born to Jewish men and women who, in some way or another, had suffered during the Second World War (as camp internees, torture victims, being on the run, etc.). The offspring of these survivors were already known to have an increase chance of stress disorders, and sure enough, results showed that the region of a gene linked to stress was altered in a way not seen in the control group. (The research team confirmed that the changes were not due to any trauma experienced by the children themselves.) Continue reading

The Ultradian Rhythm

Ever find yourself periodically losing energy and enthusiasm throughout the day? Turns out, there is a name for that phenomenon, and it reveals a lot about how our waking lives should be structured. More from Christine Carter of the Greater Good Science Center:

Our brains and bodies also cycle in “ultradian rhythms” throughout the day and night. An ultradian rhythm is a recurrent period or cycle that repeats throughout the 24-hour circadian day, like our breathing or our heart rate.

…[About] every hour and a half to two hours, we experience a significant “ultradian dip”, when our energy drops and sleep becomes possible. When we work through these dips—relying on caffeine, adrenaline, and stress hormones to keep us alert—instead of letting our bodies and brains rest, we become stressed and jittery, and our performance falters.

Now I feel a lot less bad about hitting these seemingly random walls of fatigue and disinterest. But how does one overcome this problem? Thankfully, it is a lot simpler than you would think.  Continue reading

The Unknown Chinese Woman Who Helped Find a Treatment for Malaria

Among the three scientists awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for work against parasites was Tu Youyou, an octogenarian pharmacologist whose work led to the development of the most effective treatment against malaria. But despite her invaluable role in saving millions of lives from this public health scourge, her contributions remained largely unknown, even in her own homeland.

Vox.com recounts the amazing story that led up to her breakthrough discovery.

In 1967, Chairman Mao Zedong set up a secret mission (“Project 523”) to find a cure for malaria. Hundreds of communist soldiers, fighting in the mosquito-infested jungles of Vietnam, were falling ill from malaria, and the disease was also killing thousands in southern China.

After Chinese scientists were initially unable to use synthetic chemicals to treat the mosquito-borne disease, Chairman Mao’s government turned to traditional medicine. Tu, a researcher at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing, had studied both Chinese and Western medicine, according to a New Scientist profile, and was hand-plucked to search for an herbal cure.

By the time I started my search [in 1969] over 240,000 compounds had been screened in the US and China without any positive results,” she told the magazine. But, she added: “The work was the top priority, so I was certainly willing to sacrifice my personal life.”

Tu’s dedication included first testing the promising treatment on herself, to ensure that it was safe. Once it was proven to have no side effects, she organized clinical trials for people with malaria, all of whom were incredibly cured of the disease within no more than a day. Continue reading

What Makes the Human Brain So Special

If have about thirteen minutes to spare, I recommend checking out this fascinating TED Talk by neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel, who discovered a new way to count the brain’s neurons — and subsequently unveiled some curious characteristics. (If you have trouble viewing the embedded video below, click here.)

My timing for sharing this lecture is pretty apt, given the recent discovery that the brain has an unfathomably large capacity for storing data, equal to roughly one petabyte. To put that in perspective, Gizmodo notes:

A good analogy is the total amount of data amassed at the U.S. Library of Congress, which is about 235 terabytes. One petabyte is about four times that. Put yet another way, one petabyte is enough to store the DNA of the entire population of the United States twice over. So our brains may not have the equivalent storage capacity of the entire Web, but it’s still a huge data reservoir.

It is easy to take for granted just how amazing our brains are.


Cancers Cells Programmed Back to Normal

News about the next big breakthrough in cancer treatments are a dime a dozen. But this particular achievement seems worthy of hype and attention. Here is hoping its results can be further verified and replicated.

According to the Telegraph:

For the first time aggressive breast, lung and bladder cancer cells have been turned back into harmless benign cells by restoring the function which prevents them from multiplying excessively and forming dangerous growths.

Scientists at the Mayo Clinic in Florida, US, said it was like applying the brakes to a speeding car.

So far it has only been tested on human cells in the lab, but the researchers are hopeful that the technique could one day be used to target tumours so that cancer could be ‘switched off’ without the need for harsh chemotherapy or surgery.

“We should be able to re-establish the brakes and restore normal cell function,” said Professor Panos Anastasiadis, of the Department for Cancer Biology.

The scientists discovered that the glue which holds cells together is regulated by biological microprocessors called microRNAs. When everything is working normally the microRNAs instruct the cells to stop dividing when they have replicated sufficiently. They do this by triggering production of a protein called PLEKHA7 which breaks the cell bonds. But in cancer that process does not work.

Scientists discovered they could switch on cancer in cells by removing the microRNAs from cells and preventing them from producing the protein.

And, crucially they found that they could reverse the process switching the brakes back on and stopping cancer. MicroRNAs are small molecules which can be delivered directly to cells or tumours so an injection to increase levels could switch off disease.

As always, medical experts are rightly cautious about the results, noting that there is still quite a gap between cells grown in a laboratory and those of a human with cancer. Nevertheless, this is a big step forward, and presents yet another promising approach to consider in combating this scourge.

Altruism: It’s In Our DNA

Although, like most people, I have my cynical and misanthropic moments, I broadly consider myself to be an optimist with regards to human nature and our species’ capacity to improve itself and the world (arguably, I would be a poor humanist if I did not believe in the positive potential of humanity). The ability to practice concern for the welfare of others, without any want of reward or gain, represents one of the key virtues that will lead to a better world.

Much of my confidence stems from my own broadly beneficial experience with my fellow humans: I am fortunate to have experienced and witnessed so much kindness, compassion, and understanding. While my intimate study and exposure to the worst of humanity, past and present, has no doubt tempered my faith, I remain committed to the idea that humans are not in any sense fundamentally evil or violent, as many would believe.

Indeed, whatever moral and cognitive failings seem innate to our species seems offset by an inherent, evolutionary capacity to transcend such faults. Aside from ample anecdotal evidence of humans (as well as other primates) demonstrating selfless behavior, there is a large and growing body of research proving that selflessness and conscientiousness is a fundamental aspect of being human.

One of the most recent studies to explore the origins of human altruism was conducted by a team from the University of Zurich in Switzerland, which examined groups of primates — including humans — and how they each develop concepts of selflessness and cooperation. As reported in IFScience:

The researchers designed a test in which a food treat was placed on a sliding board. The individual moving the board can bring the treat within reach of others within the group, but will not be able to get the food themselves.

The experiment was carried out in 24 groups across 15 species of primates, including 3 groups of human children who were 5-7 years old. The food selection was tailored for each group, in order to test whether or not the primate would willingly give up a desired treat. The researchers found that species who most often utilized the “it takes a village” style of cooperative breeding were also more likely to help someone else get a treat, even though they didn’t get one themselves.

“Humans and callitrichid monkeys acted highly altruistically and almost always produced the treats for the other group members. Chimpanzees, one of our closest relatives, however, only did so sporadically,” Burkart explained in a press release.

The researchers also examined possible relationships between giving a treat to a friend and other cooperative behaviors, such as group hunting and complex social bonds, as well as relative brain size. Cooperative breeding was the only trait that showed a strong linear correlation and was the best metric for predicting altruistic behavior.

“Spontaneous, altruistic behavior is exclusively found among species where the young are not only cared for by the mother, but also other group members such as siblings, fathers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles,” Burkart continued.

However, cooperative breeding is likely one of many factors that could have influenced the evolution of altruism among humans. Over the evolutionary history of our ancestors, living in cooperative groups may have benefited greatly from high cognitive abilities, especially regarding things like language skills.

Burkart concluded: “When our hominin ancestors began to raise their offspring cooperatively, they laid the foundation for both our altruism and our exceptional cognition.”

In other words, being altruistic comes as natural to us as any other trait we consider to be quintessentially human (language, higher thinking, etc). Not only is it a virtue in itself, but it serves a pivotal role to our survival and flourishing. Working in tandem with the other characteristics of higher sentience, altruism helped grow and solidify social bonds, which in turn facilitates the cooperation and organization that is so vital to an otherwise defenseless and vulnerable species.

In fact, without our high cognitive capacity — our ability to share and develop new ideas, to invent, to coordinate and work together — we would not have survived against the harsh elements and the many physically superior predators that inhabited it. In the aggregate, every individual act of welfare and assistance to others helps create a stronger and more robust society that can better survive and prosper.

Shortly after the IFLS piece, NPR also published an article on the subject of altruism and its roots in human biology. It was inspired by the case of Angela Stimpson, a 42-year-old woman who donated a kidney to a complete stranger without any credit or reward. She cited a sense of purpose as her motivation, echoing many other altruists who claim to derive meaning from being kind and doing good deeds.

So what is the psychological basis of this position?  That is what Abigail Marsh of Georgetown University,a leading researcher on altruism, set out to discover:

Marsh wanted to know more about this type of extraordinary altruism, so she decided to study the brains of people who had donated a kidney to a stranger. Of the 39 people who took part in the study, 19 of them, including Angela Stimpson, were kidney donors.

Marsh took structural images to measure the size of different parts of their brains and then asked the participants to run through a series of computer tests while their brains were being scanned using functional MRI. In one test, they were asked to look at pictures of different facial expressions, including happiness, fear, anger, sadness and surprise.

Most of the tests didn’t find any differences between the brains of the altruistic donors and the people who had not been donors. Except, Marsh says, for a significant difference in a part of the brain called the amygdala, an almond-shaped cluster of nerves that is important in processing emotion.

These findings are the polar opposite to research Marsh conducted on a group of psychopaths. Using the same tests as with the altruists, Marsh found that psychopaths have significantly smaller, less active amygdalas. More evidence that the amygdala may be the brain’s emotional compass, super-sensitive in altruists and blunted in psychopaths, who seem unresponsive to someone else’s distress or fear.

The amygdala is part of the brain’s limbic system, the area that primarily houses our emotional life, and that plays a large role in forming memories and making decisions. Neither the study nor articles delves into the causality of the relationship between amygdala size and altruism: is it a large amygdala that leads one to become more selfless? Or does engaging in enough altruistic act over time cause the amygdala to grow larger? There is still much to learn about this area of the body.

But one thing is for certain: for all the negative behaviors and habits we associate with human nature, we must not overlook or understate just how intimately tied our humanity is with acts of kindness and compassion. From our biology to our neurology, humans, for the most part, have an instinct to be kind whenever and however possible. The key is to build upon these foundations, cultivate them in others, and figure out how to correct any naturalistic imbalances that may undermine. A difficult and long-term goal, but certainly a worthy and ultimately human one.

Sleep and Ethics

Coming shortly after my blog about the consequences of sleep deprivation, a common issue in our society, Mic.com published an article about a Harvard study that found yet another negative effect from insufficient rest: bad ethics.

Previous research has shown that people are more likely to become more unethical as the day goes on, but the Harvard team wanted to see if people with different sleeping patterns had different responses to temptation. So the researchers separated study participants into morning larks and night owls and gave them two different decision-making tasks that actually tested their honesty.

The Harvard team found that “larks will be more unethical at night than in the morning, and that owls will be more unethical in the morning than at night” — the more tired people felt, the more they were inclined to lie.

Here’s a chart showing the correlation between lack of energy and lack of ethical scruples:

The results are not too surprising, given that lack of sleep has been linked to a wide variety of mental and emotional problems, including increased likelihood of irritability, depression, impaired judgement, and so on.  It stands to reason that a mind weakened by lack of sleep would under-perform in other areas as well.  You simply won’t be thinking as much or as clearly.

As with my previous post on the subject, the implications of this finding take us back to the socioeconomic paradigms of our society: namely a business culture that makes people work increasingly unpalatable hours that are simply not conducive to optimal physical or mental performance. The Mic article makes a similar note:

Studies like this challenge the notion of a traditional 9-5 workday: If people are naturally inclined to be more productive and ethical at different hours of the day, isn’t it inefficient and ultimately dangerous for a company to ask everyone to work the same hours?

The Harvard team think so. “Managers should try to learn the chronotype (lark, owl, or in between) of their subordinates and make sure to respect it when deciding how to structure their work,” they wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “Managers who ask a lark to make ethics-testing decisions at night, or an owl to make such decisions in the morning, run the risk of encouraging rather than discouraging unethical behavior.”

As technological advances make it easier for people to telecommute or restructure their schedules, it’s up to managers to decide whether they want to allow flexible workdays. If you can get people to operate at optimum efficiency and moral uprightness for their shift, does it matter when they do the work?

Unfortunately, Americans employers overall have a bad track record of heeding, much less implementing, such evidence-backed recommendations. There has already been good evidence, not to mention historical precedence, showing that people are more productive when paid better and given more leisure time; yet the trend has increasingly been in the opposite direction, regardless (for their part, most government agencies and school administrations have not followed suit either).

Barring a few forward-thinking and largely niche businesses, it does not seem likely that the average employer will be willing to provide that much flexible without legal and/or organized pressure (though in fairness, I could see some individual local managers in non-9-to-5 jobs designing their schedules to work with their employees’ preferences).

Otherwise, we should do our best, whenever possible, to maintain schedules that are more conducive to the wellness of our minds, bodies, and souls. The connection between our physical health and mental health cannot be understated.

Recent Research Finds Humans Have Only Four Emotions

From The Atlantic

Conventional scientific wisdom recognizes six “classic” emotions: happy, surprised, afraid, disgusted, angry, and sad. But the [University of Glasgow] scientists studied people’s facial expressions, and the emotions they signal, by showing people computer-generated facial animations. They asked the observers to characterize the faces based on those six basic emotions, and found that anger and disgust looked very similar to the observers in the early stages, as did fear and surprise. For example, both anger and disgust share a wrinkled nose, and both surprise and fear share raised eyebrows.

The thing was, as time went on, the face showed the distinction between the two, but when the emotion first hit, the face signals are very similar, suggesting, the researchers say, that the distinction between anger and disgust and between surprise and fear, is socially, not biologically based.

This leaves us with four “basic” emotions, according to this study: happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted.  These, the researchers say, are our biologically based facial signals—though distinctions exist between surprise and fear and between anger and disgust, the experiment suggests that these differences developed later, more for social reasons than survival ones.

“These results show that dynamic facial expression models transmit an evolving hierarchy of signals over time, characterized by simpler, biologically rooted signals early in the signaling dynamics followed by more complex socially specific signals that finely discriminate the six facial expressions of emotion,” the study reads.

The researchers posit that the wide-open eyes that come with fear/surprise are a response to “fast-approaching” danger, and that we widen our eyes to get more visual information. The wrinkled nose that comes with anger/disgust, they say, is a response to “stationary danger,” such as pathogens—by wrinkling your nose, you may be less likely to breathe in something harmful.

“Our data reflect that the six basic facial expressions of emotion, like languages, are likely to represent a more complex set of modern signals and categories evolved from a simpler system of communication in early man developed to subserve developing social interaction needs,” the authors wrote. By that they mean these four emotions are the basic building blocks from which we develop our modern, complex, emotional stews.

It’s remarkable how so many seemingly mundane characteristics of our species have vital evolutionary origins for our survival.