China’s CRISPR Babies

According to Chinese medical documents posted online this month (here and here), a team at the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, has been recruiting couples in an effort to create the first gene-edited babies. They planned to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in order to render the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera.
The clinical trial documents describe a study to employ CRISPR to modify human embryos, then to transfer them into the uterus of mothers and deliver healthy children.

It is unclear if any children have been born. The scientist behind the effort, Jiankui He, did not reply to a list of questions about whether the undertaking had produced a live birth. Reached by telephone he declined to comment. However, data submitted as part of the trial listing shows genetic tests have been carried out on fetuses as late as 24 weeks, or six months. It’s not known if those pregnancies were terminated, carried to term, or are ongoing.

The birth of the first genetically tailored humans would be a stunning medical achievement, for both He and for China. But it will prove controversial, too. Where some see a new form of medicine to eliminate genetic disease, others see a slippery slope to enhancements, designer babies, and a new form of eugenics. 

Source: MIT Technology Review

Happy Birthday to Charles Darwin’s Seminal Work

On this day 1859, “On the Origin of Species” by British naturalist Charles Darwin was first published, selling out by the end of the day. It introduced the scientific theory that populations evolve over generations through a process of natural selection. It presented a body of evidence — gathered from Darwin’s nearly five-year journey around the world on the HMS Beagle — that the diversity of life arose by common descent through a branching pattern of evolution.

While various evolutionary ideas had been proposed since ancient times, there was renewed interest into the 19th century as scientific knowledge increased. (In fact, fellow British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace had independently conceived the theory of evolution through natural selection, publishing his paper on the subject jointly with Darwin in 1858.)

However, Darwin’s book was brilliant in that it was written for lay readers who were not specialists in the subject. Moreover, because he was already a famed scientist, his findings were taken seriously, with the evidence he presented generating intense scientific, philosophical, and religious discussion. Within two decades, there was widespread scientific belief in evolution with a branching pattern of common descent, although people were slow to give much credit to Darwin’s specific finding of natural selection as the primary mechanism.

Indeed, from the 1880s to the 1930s there occurred an “eclipse of Darwinism” , wherein various other mechanisms of evolution were given more credit and Darwin’s fell to the wayside. Only in the 1940s, with the development of the modern evolutionary synthesis — a set of theoretical concepts that tried to harmonize and integrate different factors in evolution — did Darwin’s concept of evolutionary adaptation through natural selection become central to modern evolutionary theory, now becoming the unifying concept of the life sciences (botany, zoology, biology, etc.)

A word about the term theory as used in science: Contrary to popular belief, a theory in science is not the same as how theory is used in everyday language. 

A scientific theory is an explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can be repeatedly tested and verified in accordance with the scientific method (rigorous observation, measurement, evaluation of results, etc.) Theories are tested under controlled conditions and/or through abductive reasoning (logical inference from a set of observations). Scientific theories are established following repeated tests and scrutiny. 

By contrast, outside the scientific context, a theory usually defines explanation that is unsubstantiated or speculative–hence why so many people wrongfully believe that evolutionary is “just a theory” in the vernacular sense, rather than the more rigorously proven scientific kind of theory.

The Parent of All Virtues

The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero observed that “Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.” Acknowledging every good thing in our lives, no matter how brief or small, at all times, helps fuel kindness, benevolence, and other positive traits. Numerous schools of thoughts, as well as every major religion, have affirmed the importance of gratitude to both individual and societal well-being. I can attest to the importance of gratitude for my own mental and emotional health, but fortunately there is lots of evidence to back it up, too.

In light of the universal importance of gratitude, psychologists and social scientists have increasingly focused their attention on exploring the benefits of gratitude. Multiple studies have shown a correlation between gratitude and increased well-being—not only for the individual exercising gratitude, but for their recipients and even third parties. Continue reading

One Death v. One Million

Any reporter who has covered a humanitarian disaster should understand what Stalin is once reported to have said to a fellow Soviet official: The death of one person is a tragedy, but the death of one million is a statistic. [Note this account is most likely apocryphal.]

This is why news coverage of a famine or a flood will often highlight the story of one victim.

Or why, say, Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach in 2015, galvanized global attention to the larger refugee crisis.

It is not easy to wrap one’s mind around thousands of deaths. It becomes an abstraction of geopolitics, economics, conflict dynamics — of statistics.

But a single death can be understood in the more relatable terms of, say, a grieving father or a desperate spouse. Or a murdered journalist, like Mr. Khashoggi.

Psychologists have repeatedly found that people experience a greater emotional reaction to one death than to many, even if the circumstances are identical. Perversely, the more victims, the less sympathy that people feel.

The effect even has a name: collapse of compassion. It’s not that we can’t care about a million deaths, psychologists believe. Rather, we fear being overwhelmed and switch off our own emotions in preemptive self-defense.”

— Max Fisher, “How One Journalist’s Death Provoked a Backlash That Thousands Dead in Yemen Did Not“, New York Times

Mayan Civilization Continues to Amaze

I have been listening to this lecture series about the colonization of the Americas, and how the Mayans were unprecedented for being able to carve out an advanced civilization in an inhospitable, under-resourced jungle without the benefit of the wheel, plow, and draft animals (the lack of the latter is why the wheel never came to use as a tool to begin with).

Now, scientists using advance laser technology have revealed the incredible extent of the Mayans’ achievements: sophisticated urban complexes spanning tens of thousands of structures deep in the jungle. As IFLS reports:

Archaeologists first discovered the vast metropolis in February, National Geographic reported, led by Guatemalan science nonprofit group the PACUNAM Foundation. Publishing their work in Science over six months later, the team confirms the presence of more than 61,000 ancient structures, including houses, large palaces, ceremonial centers, and pyramids.

LiDAR pierces through the thick forest canopy to reveal changes in elevation, allowing the researchers to identify these topographical features as manmade walls, roads, and buildings without ever having to set foot on the ground. With this information, they are able to create three-dimensional maps in a matter of minutes, avoiding years of arduous fieldwork.

Seen as a whole, terraces and irrigation channels, reservoirs, fortifications, and causeways reveal an astonishing amount of land modification done by the Maya over their entire landscape on a scale previously unimaginable,” explained team member Francisco Estrada-Belli in a statement.

In all, more than 61,000 ancient structures have been accounted for in the surveyed region, indicating that up to 7 to 11 million people were present at the height of the Late Classic period, 650-800 CE. For scale, New York City has about 8.5 million people. These populations were unevenly distributed with different levels of urbanization and were spread out over more than 1,200 square kilometers (810 square miles). This land was modified in some way for the intensive agricultural production needed to support the massive population for hundreds of years.

“It seems clear now that the ancient Maya transformed their landscape on a grand scale in order to render it more agriculturally productive,” said Maya archaeologist Marcello A. Canuto. “As a result, it seems likely that this region was much more densely populated than what we have traditionally thought.”

Whether or not these structures existed at the same time, or represents different periods of development, it is still amazing that such large and well organized societies could have sustained themselves in environments that even today are challenging to settle and develop.

The Benefits of Indoor Plants

Though I cannot confirm the efficacy of the many studies cited in the following
Vice article, I can speak from experience that gardening and caring for indoor plants has always been therapeutic for me; in fact, I attribute it to helping me cope with many a stressful or melancholic episode.

What’s good for the body is good for the brain, and the toxin-absorbing, air-purifying abilities of plants like pothos, aloe vera, and ivy are worth considering on your next trip to the nursery. Scented plants have health benefits, too: the smell of flowers like jasmine and lavender have been shown to lower anxiety and stress, and promote a good night’s sleep.

Researchers have been promoting the mental health benefits of horticulture for decades, and for good reason. Studies have repeatedly shown that the act of tending to plants can take our minds off the bad stuff, relieve stress, and have an overall calming effect. Gardening is so good for your brain that it’s even thought to lower the risk of dementia.

[…]

One recent study was able to demonstrate that a group of people in their early twenties experienced a massive decrease in blood pressure and other physical stress symptoms when they followed a computer-related task with an indoor gardening session; the results suggested that tending to indoor plants “reduced physiological and psychological stress, especially in comparison to mental tasks performed using technology.

[…]

The science is pretty clear on all this: humans are happier when they’re close to aesthetically-pleasing living things. Office workers have been found to be more productive and happy when surrounded by indoor plants, and having plants in hospital rooms helps surgical patients recover faster by lowering blood pressure, pain, and fatigue levels. Studies have found that even the literal act of looking out the window at a tiny strip of sad urban park can have restorative mental health properties—which means by investing in a couple of hanging baskets, you’ll actually be ahead of the game. Eyeballing the colour green has been found to promote emotional stability, whereas the presence of bright-coloured flowers can provide an instant mood booster.

Perhaps this isn’t too surprising, given that we did evolve and live in nature across millennia, after all.

The Martyr of Palmyra

Three years ago on August 18th, Syrian archaeologist Khaleed al-Assad—no relation to the Syrian dictator—was publicly beheaded by ISIS for refusing to betray the location of ancient artifacts he had hidden. He was 83 years old.

Al-Assad was the head of antiquities for the ancient city of Palmyra, which was founded in the third millennium B.C.E. During his over forty-year career, he engaged in the excavations and restoration of the site, serving as its primary custodian and protector. He worked with archaeological missions around the world, and helped elevate Palmyra to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He was so dedicated to his profession that he learned the ancient extinct language of Aramaic, helping to translate texts.

When ISIS took control of the Palmyra region, al-Asaad helped evacuate the museum and hide most of its artifacts, knowing that the fanatics would destroy them for being idolatrous, as they had done to so many others. After resisting torture intended to get him to reveal the hidden items, he was executed, and his decapitated body was strung up first in the town square, then in the ancient site. Among the list of “crimes” posted on his body was serving as “the director of idolatry” in Palmyra, visiting “Heretic Iran”, and attending “infidel” conferences.

Al-Assad willingly paid for this dedication with his life, considering the ancient heritage of humanity—and standing up to thugs and zealots seeks to destroy it—to be worth the cost. He is survived by eleven children; six sons and five daughters, one of whom was named Zenobia after a famous queen of Palmyra.

khaled_al-asaad_2012

Wikimedia Commons

 

Schola Medica Salernitana

Founded in the ninth century in Salerno, Italy, the Schola Medica Salernitana was the first medical school of its kind, aimed at expanding medical knowledge and professionalizing the practice of medicine. It rose to prominence as one of the most important sources of medical knowledge in the world, due largely to Salerno’s cosmopolitan outlook – like most Italian city-states, it had diplomatic and commercial relations beyond Europe, particularly with the Muslims and Byzantines, who had a wealth of medical knowledge, both preserved and of their own making.

40010713_10160886295590472_7284479123467010048_n

A depiction of the medical school in one of Avicenna’s medical works, The Canon of Medicine (Wikimedia Commons)

Continue reading

Study Claims No Single Birthplace for Humanity

As reported by The Guardian, an international multidisciplinary team led by Oxford archaeologist Dr. Eleanor Scerri has claimed that a comprehensive survey of fossil, archaeological and genetic evidence shows humans “mosaic-like across different populations spanning the entire African continent”. Thus, modern humans did not come from a specific area — namely East Africa, where the oldest confirmed Homo Sapiens fossils have been found — but are the end result of millennia of interbreeding and cultural exchange between semi-isolated groups.

The telltale characteristics of a modern human – globular brain case, a chin, a more delicate brow and a small face – seem to first appear in different places at different times. Previously, this has either been explained as evidence of a single, large population trekking around the continent en masse or by dismissing certain fossils as side-branches of the modern human lineage that just happened to have developed certain anatomical similarities.

Advertisement

The latest analysis suggests that this patchwork emergence of human traits can be explained by the existence of multiple populations that were periodically separated for millennia by rivers, deserts, forests and mountains before coming into contact again due to shifts in the climate. “These barriers created migration and contact opportunities for groups that may previously have been separated, and later fluctuation might have meant populations that mixed for a short while became isolated again,” said Scerri.

The trend towards more sophisticated stone tools, jewellery and cooking implements also supports the theory, according to the paper in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution.

Scerri assembled a multidisciplinary group to examine the archaeological, fossil, genetic and climate data together, with the aim of eliminating biases and assumptions. Previously, she said, scientific objectivity had been clouded by fierce competition between research groups each wanting their own discoveries to be given a prominent place on a linear evolutionary ladder leading to the present day. Disputes between rival teams working in South Africa and east Africa had become entrenched, she said.

“Someone finds a skull somewhere and that’s the source of humanity. Someone finds some tools somewhere, that’s the source of humanity,” she said, describing the latest approach as: “‘Let’s be inclusive and construct a model based on all the data we have available.”

Like any study, the claims will need to be confirmed, but from my layman’s perspective, it makes sense. What are your thoughts? (Especially if you have a background in this area.)

The World’s First Atlas

Today’s Google Doodle is a particular treat for a map lover like me: it commemorates the publication in 1570 of the world’s first atlas, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theatre of the World) by Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius.

1024px-orteliusworldmap1570

As Forbes explains, Ortelius’ work was an unusual concept at the time: an expertly-crafted book of similarly-sized maps neatly organized by geography. Continue reading