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Humans (homo sapiens) have been on the earth for thousands of generations, and we have kept evolving throughout that time. Why don't we just keep evolving so that, let's say, we live for an average of 300 years? Or why don't we evolve so that we don't need to sleep?
This could also apply to many other species.
Welcome to Biology.SE!
There are a many misunderstanding of what evolutionary processes are in your post and it is therefore quite hard to answer (hence the current two close votes I guess). You might want to read some introductory textbook on evolutionary biology or other online resources such as the "understanding evolution" project.
The most obvious misunderstanding is that evolution is NOT some kind of forever "improvement" process in a static environment. Evolution is something else! But I can't make a good overview of evolutionary processes in just one post.
[why don't we live on] average of 300 years?
You may want to read about this post concerning the evolution of aging but it would probably be slightly too advanced but you would probably still get something out of the answers.
Why don't we just keep evolving [… ]?
Humans, definitely keep evolving. Nothing have stopped. We evolved as we have always and it won't stop until we get extinct! This post may for example help you to understand that evolution keep occurring today in humans.
When you say
Humans (homo sapiens) have been on the earth for thousands of generationsit sounds a bit like human have came to existence some time ago and have evolved since. It is a terribly misleading point of view, one of the reason is that one cannot date the existence of the first humans without making a very arbitrary decision about what a human is. A more correct way of looking at life on earth is that everything have come to existence about 3.5 billions years ago and everything have kept evolving since. Any single living thing on earth have been evolving for the exact same amount of time. Humans have evolved for 3.5 billions (even if we don't call earlier forms as humans) and unicellular algea have evolved for 3.5 billions years (even if we don't call earlier forms as algea).
Hope that helped!
Natural selection selects for individuals who can leave the most progeny in the next generation. Traits such as longer lifespan do not typically affect fecundity/fertility. So males and females who have the largest families as quickly as possible are providing the raw material for natural selection.
Viruses: their extraordinary role in shaping human evolution
Viruses give us infections from the common cold to COVID-19 and AIDS. But research shows that they may also have played a key role in shaping the evolution of Homo sapiens.
Published: 19th March, 2020 at 16:13
Coronavirus, Zika, Ebola, flu, even the boring old common cold – we’re all familiar with the viruses that plague humanity. But while we know they make us sick, it may be surprising to discover that, over millions of years, we’ve managed to harness and domesticate these crafty invaders.
From the earliest stages of life to the smiles on our faces, viruses have had a huge influence on our human species.
A Brief History of Human Hair
Human beings evolved from primates (monkeys), which are mammals, just like us. It&rsquos important to remember that all mammals are covered in body hair (mostly in the form of fur). Humans, however, aren&rsquot covered in fur for a number of reasons, namely that it makes it harder to cool the body. Our ancient ancestors, traveling long distances (perhaps while persistence hunting) in the hot summer sun, would have needed a way to cool their bodies as they moved. Sweating is the most effective form, which happens in the skin, which fur blocks. Therefore, humans evolved to fill their mobile needs by losing the fur over the course of generations.
That being said, primates and other mammals do experience thinning of the hair or hair loss, and in some primate species, they experience something akin to balding.
Will Human Innovation Save Us From Future Extinction?
Does the human ability to innovate suggest an immunity to total extinction? originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
Answer by Suzanne Sadedin, Ph.D. Evolutionary Biology, on Quora:
Does the human ability to innovate suggest an immunity to total extinction?
Yes and no. Currently, innovation reduces our chance of extinction in some ways, and increases it in others. But if we innovate cleverly, we could become just about immune to extinction.
The species that survive mass extinctions tend to share three characteristics.
- They're widespread. This means local disasters don't wipe out the entire species, and some small areas, called refugia, tend to be unaffected by global disasters. If you're widespread, it's more likely that you have a population that happens to live in a refugium.
- They're ecological generalists. They can cope with widely varying physical conditions, and they're not fussy about food.
- They're r-selected. This means that they breed fast and have short generation times, which allows them to rapidly grow their populations and adapt genetically to new conditions.
Innovation gives humans the ability to be widespread ecological generalists. With technology, we can live in more diverse conditions and places than any other species. And while we can't (currently) grow our populations rapidly like an r-selected species, innovation does allow us to adapt quickly at the cultural level.
Technology also increases our connections to one another and connectivity is a two-edged sword. Many species consist of a network of small, local populations, each of which is somewhat isolated from the others. We call this a metapopulation. The local populations often go extinct, but they are later re-seeded by others, so the metapopulation as a whole survives.
Humans used to be a metapopulation, but thanks to innovation, we're now globally connected. Archaeologists believe that many past civilizations, such as the Easter Islanders, fell because of unsustainable ecological and cultural innovations. The impact of these disasters was limited because these civilizations were small and disconnected from other such civilizations.
These days, a useful innovation can spread around the world in weeks. So can a lethal one. With many of the technologies and chemicals we're currently inventing, we can't be certain about their long-term effects human biology is complex enough that we often can't be absolutely certain something won't kill us in a decade until we've waited a decade to see. We try to be careful and test things before they're released, and the probability that any particular invention could kill us all is tiny, but since we're constantly innovating, it's a real possibility.
Pandemics pose the same problem for a well-connected species. There are certain possibilities where species extinction is really hard to avoid fortunately, they're also very unlikely, but we are definitely not immune from this.
The most likely cause of our extinction, in my opinion, is innovation in machine learning/AI. This could destroy the planet, but even if it doesn't, humans will be ultimately redundant to the dominant systems. They might keep us alive in a zoo somewhere, but I doubt it. A happier scenario (to me at least) is transhumanism, where humans become extinct in a sense because we've managed to liberate ourselves from biology.
So how could innovation prevent our extinction? We seed the galaxy with independently evolving human populations to create a new metapopulation. These local populations would hopefully be sufficiently isolated that some would survive an innovation or disaster that wipes out the rest. They would, of course, evolve in response to local conditions, perhaps creating several new species. So you could say this is still extinction, but it's as close as we'll come to persistence in our ever-changing universe.
This question originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions:
23 He And His Sister Were Game Show Contestants
As mentioned earlier, Paul Walker got his “start” in the business at the young age of 2, in a Pampers commercial, and he was in his first film at 13, in the horror-comedy film Monster in the Closet. In between that time, he didn’t stray far from the camera: in 1988, he and his sister Ashlie were contestants on an episode of the game show I’m Telling!—and they actually finished in second place. The show was a children’s version of The Newlywed Game, featuring young siblings rather than married couples.
Why don't we keep evolving until we are super-human? - Biology
Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, for the seven days starting January 7th 2009. I'm Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, we'll talk about the January issue of Scientific American magazine, which is devoted to evolution and the evolution of evolutionary theory, because today's evolution is not your grandfather's or even your monkeys' uncle['s]. Editor in Chief John Rennie and I spoke at the magazine's offices.
Steve: What's the big deal with evolution John?
Rennie: Evolution, Steve. Evolution, it's only the most powerful idea in science, and 2009 is a very big year.
Steve: I figured that probably had something do with it. Why don't you tell everybody what the bigness is about [in] 2009.
Rennie: Well sure. It's actually kind of a doubleheader of the anniversaries related to evolution. First of all it marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. So Happy Birthday Chuck in February and then it also marks the 150th anniversary, conveniently, of the publication of On the Origin of Species in which Darwin laid out his theory of evolution.
Steve: Which means for those of you doing the math at home, Darwin was 50 when On the Origin of Species came out.
Steve: And he had spent about 30 or about 20 years, basically sitting at home thinking about things and writing the book and we get into that in our opening article in the issue, for those of you not familiar with the Darwin story. You know, he was very leery about publishing and finally the pressure was on to publish because of Alfred Russell Wallace's discovery of basically the same principle of natural selection driving evolution.
Rennie: Exactly. Independently Wallace had come up with exactly the same sorts of insights and actually had come to Darwin and shown him some portions of his manuscript, and he was looking for feedback on that. And Darwin realized that the ideas that he had been ruminating over for 20 years since he had returned from the Beagle, that he was in danger of losing any claim to those and so he, in rather a rush, wrote On the Origin of Species, which is actually kind of astonishing, because I don't think this is something you have commented on. On the Origin of Species is actually a beautifully written book. It's something of a masterpiece of exposition in laying out the entire argument. Of course, he had been thinking about it for 20 years, so probably it was all just right upstairs there in his head. But still it's really astonishing when you realize that's how it came out
Steve: And we really have Alfred Russell Wallace to thank for both compelling Darwin to publish as soon as he wound up publishing and for indirectly keeping Origin of Species as short as it is, because Darwin considered it to be an abstract of his larger thinking (laughs), and you know it's not a particularly short book. But anyway the lead article is more about the history, and then we get into some of the actual science, and we have the core ideas of modern evolutionary theory being laid out in the subsequent articles. There is your old buddy David Kingsley, who is Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator at Stanford, has an article in the issue about the sources of variation, which is really an interesting idea where the variation comes from that natural selection works on.
Rennie: That's right. You know, I think a lot of people have a sort of na&radicØve view that all of the sources of variation associated with evolution somehow come down to just different random point mutations. You know, the idea that [it']s all different little bits of radiation from
the space pinging off of our DNA, randomly changing one nucleotide into another one. But that's not the case. In fact, although those kinds of point mutations are a very significant source of variation that natural selection acts on. In fact, what Dave Kingsley lays out is that there are, in fact, as biologists have discovered many different sources of variation that can come up. So we do have all kinds of point mutations, but also its possible to see entire whole pieces of DNA inserted into another creature's DNA and so that can be a source of very important variation. Genes can be duplicated and then those duplications can vary themselves and then the various elements that regulate the activity of some of the protein-making portions of the DNA can themselves be under considerable amount [of] change. So in fact, there are many, many different types of variation that can show up inside our DNA, and all of those can be involved in natural selection. And all of those can, in many cases, because we have such a range of different types of variation that we can see the ways in which the kind of complex features will start to show up in organisms and how they can evolve sometimes remarkably efficiently.
Steve: There is a great picture in the Kingsley article of a little Whippet dog next to a dog that basically looks like, you'd really be hard-pressed just [to] spend eight seconds on it in a rodeo, and there is a single point mutation difference between those two animals.
Rennie: Right. There is a perfect example of how the tiniest conceivable genetic difference between one organism and another one can result in a huge change in the body&mdashwhat we call a phenotypic change&mdashwhere these certain kinds of whippets that have this particular mutation are hugely over-muscled. They have a gigantic amount of muscle mass and as you said so, it looks like some kind of bull rather than a little dog.
Steve: And by the way, the reason I said John's old friend, Dave Kingsley is, they went to college together about what, 60, 70 years ago?
Rennie: That's right. That's right. At the time DNA was very new.
Steve: Right. And you have H. Allen Orr who writes extensively on evolution talking about the continual recognition of the importance of natural selection.
Steve: Natural selection has gone in and out of favor as the driving force in evolution, since Darwin first proposed it and now that we have the molecular tools to really test things at the single part of a gene level, it turns out natural selection really is that important.
Rennie: Right, you know, in a sense the important message that you could take away from H. Allen Orr's article about testing natural selection is that the world could work very, very differently. You know, as he points out, you could conceivably have, the biological world could have evolved
along the ways it [in a way that] didn't involve natural selection in the ways we that talk about them. It might have played [a] much more minor role. But in fact, as biologists have gone in and studied the problem, we find in fact, lots of evidence that this kind of natural selection on mechanisms that are related to ones that Darwin sort of sketched out in a very broad way, that these in fact play a huge rule in evolution, much more of a role than we believed for a long time. Because, for example, for a long time there was an idea that many sorts of the changes that would show up in populations would be the result of neutral mutations that in effect, one of those little events changing one nucleotide for another one, was essentially one was as good as the next one and there wasn't any particular different [difference] that natural selection would act one to favor one over the other. So it was thought that a lot of the differences between populations would be the result of really just sort of random chance, which is what he has referred to as genetic drift but in fact when you go in an look at this, you find that natural selection has an extraordinary ability to act on a fantastically small levels of difference in fitness, and as a result that really does have a huge influence on shaping various populations.
Steve: For example, our ability of, some of us, to digest milk, the lactose in milk as adults, it's a very recent adaptation in evolutionary history.
Rennie: Well, right, because really until we started to develop agriculture, until we started to herd animals and collected milk as a good source of protein, mammals don't continue to breast-feed throughout their lives so the young have the ability to digest breast-milk and then after they stop drinking it, they stop making that lactase enzyme that allows them to breakdown the lactose sugar in the milk. But we kept drinking milk: We raised cows and milk was a ready source of protein and other nutrients, and we would keep on drinking that throughout our lives. And so evolution started to act on the human populations and in populations that traditionally drank a lot of milk, we have this ability to keep making the lactose throughout our lives, or lactase throughout our lives.
Steve: Let's just explain a little bit mechanistically. I mean, its likely that the mutation that enabled adults to digest lactose cropped up now and again, you know, throughout the history of human evolution but there was never any selection pressure to keep it around until we had agriculture and were starting to try to use milk as a nutritional source, as a food, as adults.
Steve: At that point in human history, all of a sudden those individuals who happen to have this genetic mutation have a big advantage over their comrades who can't digest the lactose, and so the combination of the environment and that genetic influence makes that genetic construct get selected for and preserved in the population. And all of a sudden, you know, within a couple of thousand years, the majority of Europeans can digest lactose.
Rennie: Right. You know, that's a good point, because it's always important to remember, you know, people always have these sorts of arguments about nature versus nurture and are there genes for various traits you know, discussions about genes for intelligence and so forth are always notorious about this sort of the thing. But the reality is, you can't really discuss a gene, the idea of a meaning of a gene outside of the environment in which it's going to be expressed. You can't really talk about the meaning that it has, what it will do, whether it has any sort of positive or negative value in that way. Ultimately, you know, we talk about genes as though they are building blocks for some sort of complicated traits, even a trait like, say, being able to drink milk. But of course, the reality is, the molecular biological reality is, that the gene is just a stretch of DNA that happens to make a protein that breaks down a sugar that is in milk. So only under a number of different circumstances in which people happen to have exposure to, they happen to have easy access to, a lot of milk that happens to contain a lot of lactose that they can't digest very easily unless they happen to still make a lot of the lactase enzyme that they all made as children. All of these circumstances come together to make something like that beneficial. Anything that breaks down that set of circumstances, it's just another little stretch of DNA that may not prove its worth and as you said, it vanishes back in as random noise again.
Steve: Right. Without the pressure to keep it, it disappears.
Steve: There's a fascinating thing in your most recent comments on what you think about and that is that, you know, probably everybody listening took an introductory biology class at some point, and you saw Mendel's pea plant genetics with the smooth and the round peas and the tall or short stalks. And in the issue it discusses briefly at one point how the understanding at the genetic level is now complete enough where we know exactly what those mutations were, what changes in the DNA code occurred that Mendel was studying. He didn't, of course, know he was studying it. He was studying the phenotypes he was studying the macro information that was available to him with his hand[s] and his eyes. That was the best that he could do, and he did an amazing job with that, but it's just fascinating that we now know exactly to the letter of DNA code what was going on in the plants that he was working with that made the smooth pea wrinkle it's just an amazing thing that information now exists all as a whole.
Rennie: Right. Also, in a way, it's easy to lose track of the effect [fact] that when Darwin was first theorizing and when Mendel was working on [this], the underpinning[s] of heredity were a complete mystery. Nobody knew how it was [that]
the traits that [were] passed on from a parent to a child. There were lots of different theories about it, but nobody knew what the mechanism of it was which is why, in fact, Darwin actually he subscribed to, at least [he was] open to the possibility of the idea that what he was calling, sort of, little gemmules and some sort of element that might have transmitted hereditary information from parents onto offspring, that you might have actually had some kind of Lamarckian mechanism that the experience of the parent organism might have changed what its hereditary contribution would be. We now know that wasn't true or so it is not simplistically true, but you know, they were very open to this. This is the amazing thing. The whole idea of all these ideas about how it is that you could have extraordinary things evolve in the biological realm through this mechanism of natural selection acting on variations in the population all was done without any idea of DNA, without any idea of a sophisticated idea of [how] inheritance worked at all.
Steve: It really is amazing.
Rennie: Well, you know, in a way it also speaks to, I talked about the idea of evolution as being the most powerful idea in science before, and it's because [of] that insight
of that systems will evolve if[at] any time in which you have some sort mechanism of selection that is acting on some sort of underlying set of variation. So you don't have to have, it doesn't have to be a biological system. The ideas of evolution have turned out to be very useful to chemists. They have turned to be useful to physicists and astrophysicists. It's the idea that, oh, if you have something that's tending to scream [screen] out and select for certain kinds, that you will then have the very orderly progressive form of evolution without it being directed by anything. That's an extraordinary insight.
Steve: Some of the other articles in the issue include a look at human anatomy by Neil Shubin, author of the recent best seller, Your Inner Fish: Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body David Mindell's take on evolution in the everyday world, which looks at how healthcare, law enforcement and other disciplines use evolutionary theory David Buller's piece on the fallacies of pop evolutionary psychology and "The Latest Face of Creationism" about the ongoing threat post to science education by anti-evolution political forces. That analysis is from Glenn Branch and Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education. The entire issue is available, much of it free, at http://www.SciAm.com/jan2009.
I was reading an evolution essay last week by Julian Huxley originally written in 1942 and updated in 1963 called "Evolution: The Modern Synthesis". I just want to share a short passage. After a discussion of the structural characteristics of DNA, Huxley writes, "The various properties of DNA, which I have mentioned, to make evolution inevitable, the existence of an elaborate self-reproducing code of genetic information ensures continuity and specificity the intrinsic capacity for mutation provides variability the capacity for self-reproduction ensures potentially geometric increase and therefore a struggle for existence the existence of genetic variability ensures differential survival of variants and therefore natural selection and this results in evolutionary transformation."
said [it] in a nutshell, kids.
Steve: Now it's time to play TOTALL. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL. Y BOGUS.
Story number 1: Something Darwin missed during his trip to the Galapagos&mdasha newly identified pink Iguana species.
Story number 2: Public health researchers are now concerned over what they have dubbed third-hand smoke.
Story number 3: The Milky Way galaxy is spinning more slowly and is somewhat smaller than was previously thought.
And story number 4: President Bush this week became a leading protector of the world's ocean environment.
Story number 1 is true. The pink Iguana species originated in the Galapagos more than five million years ago and diverged from the islands' other Iguana populations when the archipelago was still forming. That's according to genetic analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Story number 2 is true. So called third-hand smoke is a hazard according to public health researchers. Third-hand smoke is all the nasty stuff in cigarette's smoke that winds up embedded in carpets, drapes, clothing, hair and anything else that will absorb it. Infants and children are particularly at risk of exposure to the carcinogens according to a report in the journal Pediatrics.
And story number 4 is true. This week President Bush protected some 335,000 square miles of U.S. territorial waters. Added to waters off of Hawaii that were protected in 2006, it makes Bush responsible for the largest areas of ocean protections ever so designated. For more check out David Biello's blog item posted on our Web site on January 6th.
All of which means that story number 3, about the Milky Way Galaxy being slower and smaller is TOTALL. Y BOGUS. Because what is true is that we are actually bigger and faster. Astronomers announced this week that in our position in the Milky Way, we are moving at 600,000 miles per hour, give or take a couple, 100,000 thousand miles faster than previous estimates, and the galaxy therefore must be half again as massive as we thought to allow that speed without us hurdling out of orbit. That's according to research presented at the meeting of the American Astronomical Society this week. For more check, out the January 5th episode of the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science.
Well that's it for this edition of Scientific American's Science Talk. Check out www.SciAm.com for the latest science news, our very timely In-Depth Report on the science of weight loss and our feature on ten lessons medicine can learn from bears, which includes lots of pictures of baby bears that will make you say, bujubujubu lubidiloo bobo. For Science Talk, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.
Science Talk is a weekly podcast, subscribe here: RSS | iTunes
Scientific American Editor in Chief John Rennie discusses the special January issue of the magazine, which focuses on evolution--2009 being the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species. Subjects in the issue include the importance of natural selection, the sources of genetic variability, human evolution's past and future, pop evolutionary psychology, everyday applications of evolutionary theory, the science of the game Spore, and the ongoing threat to science education posed by creationist activists. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include www.SciAm.com/jan2009
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Steve Mirsky was the winner of a Twist contest in 1962, for which he received three crayons and three pieces of construction paper. It remains his most prestigious award.
The social brain: Culture, change and evolution | A Big Think Long Take
Professor Bret Weinstein has spent two decades advancing the field of evolutionary biology with a focus on adaptive trade-offs. He has made important discoveries regarding the evolution of cancer and senescence as well as the adaptive significance of moral self-sacrifice.
He applies his evolutionary lens to human behavior in order to sketch a path through the many crises we face as a species. By confronting emerging authoritarianism, and abandoning the archaic distinction between political right and left, we can discover a new model of governance that frees humanity to seek a just, sustainable and abundant future.
Bret Weinstein: We&rsquore heading into a very dangerous phase of history human beings being addicted to growth are constantly looking for sources, so when we feel austerity coming on we tend to become more tribal.
Unfortunately a perfectly free market will not allow benevolent firms to survive in the long run.
My argument is not an argument for centrism. I regard utopianism as probably the worst idea that human beings have ever had.
We find ourselves unfortunately stuck in an archaic argument about policy frankly the left and right are both out of answers and they should team up on the basis that they agree at a values level about what a functional society should ideally look like.
Human beings, like all creatures, are the product of adaptive evolution, but they are highly unusual amongst evolved creatures. In order to understand them it is very important to recognize certain things that make us different from even the most similar creatures, like chimpanzees. The most important difference is something I call the omega principal. The omega principal specifies the relationship between human culture and the human genome.
The most important thing to realize about human beings is that a tremendous amount of what we are is not housed in our genomes it&rsquos housed in a cultural layer that is passed on outside of genes.
Culture is vastly more flexible, more plastic, and more quickly evolving in an adaptive sense than genes, which is why in fact cultural evolution came about in human beings.
It allows human beings to switch what they are doing and how they are doing it much more quickly than they could if all information that was adapting was stored in DNA.
One of the very important benefits of understanding this relationship between the genome and the cultural attributes of human beings is that it frees us to engage in an analysis of the evolutionary meaning of behaviors without having to know where exactly the information is stored.
This is especially important with complex phenomenon, which may be partially housed in the genome and partially housed in the cultural layer&mdashsomething like human language, for example.
Human language as a capacity is obviously genetically encoded, but individual human languages are not.
And so if we are to talk about the adaptive utility of human language, being obligated to specify what is housed where could put off that discussion for generations, whereas if we recognize that the cultural aspects of language&mdashas well as the genomic aspects of language&mdashare all serving a united interest then we can begin to understand the meaning of something like language in rigorous, adaptive terms.
The hypothesis of cultural evolution, which has now has been sufficiently tested to be regarded as a theory&mdashof human cultural evolution, is the invention of Richard Dawkins, who in 1976 in The Selfish Gene coined the term &lsquomeme&rsquo as an analog for gene it&rsquos a unit of cultural evolution.
The genome creates a brain that is capable of being infused with culture after an individual person is born.
If culture was evolving to do things that were not in the genome&rsquos interest they would effectively be wasting the time and resources that the genetic individual has access to on frivolous things at best. So the genome would shut down frivolous culture were it a very common commodity. So the theory of memes tells us that there is a process, very much like the one that shapes our genomes, at work in the cultural layer.
That does not mean, however, that the cultural evolving layer is free of obligation to the genome. In fact, the cultural layer is downstream, and one of the things that we have repeatedly gotten wrong is we have attempted to just simply extend the rules of adaptive evolution as we have learned them from other creatures and apply them to human beings, and it leads to some unfortunate misunderstandings.
The fact that we are primarily culturally informed tells us that culture serves the genetic interests almost all of the time.
Which is to say, if you look at a long-standing cultural trait, it doesn&rsquot matter what it is&mdashwhether it&rsquos music or religion or humor&mdashall of those things must be paying for themselves in terms of genetic fitness.
Once we&rsquove recognized that, we can skip to the much more interesting question of: &ldquoin what way do some of the remarkable cultural structures that we see serve genetic interests?&rdquo
Some of them seem absolutely paradoxical if we try to imagine that they are serving our genomes, and yet that is the conclusion that we have to reach when we realize that the genome is not only tolerating the existence of that culture, but it is facilitating its acquisition.
This suggests a very odd state of affairs for human beings, in which we have minds that are programmed by culture and that can be completely at odds with our genomes.
And it leads to misunderstandings of evolution, like the idea that religious belief is a mind virus&mdashthat effectively these belief structures are parasitizing human beings, and they are wasting the time and effort that those human beings are spending on that endeavor, rather than the more reasonable interpretation, which is that these belief systems have flourished because they have facilitated the interests of the creatures involved.
Our belief systems are built around evolutionary success and they certainly contain human benevolence&mdashwhich is appropriate to phases of history when there is abundance and people can afford to be good to each other.
The problem is, if you have grown up in a period in which abundance has been the standard state you don&rsquot anticipate the way people change in the face of austerity.
And so what we are currently seeing is messages&mdashthat we have all agreed are unacceptable&mdashreemerging, because the signals that we have reached the end of the boom times, those signals are everywhere and so people are triggered to move into a phase that they don&rsquot even know that they have.
Despite the fact that human beings think that they have escaped the evolutionary paradigm, they&rsquove done nothing of the kind And so, we should expect the belief systems that people hold to mirror the evolutionary interests that people have rather than to match our best instincts.
When we are capable of being good to each other because there&rsquos abundance, we have those instincts and so it&rsquos not incorrect to say that human beings are capable of being marvelous creatures and being quite ethical.
Now I would argue there&rsquos a simple way of reconciling the correct understanding&mdashthat religious belief often describes &ldquotruths&rdquo that in many cases fly in the face of what we can understand scientifically&mdashwith the idea that these beliefs are adaptive.
I call it the state of being literally false and metaphorically true. A belief is literally false and metaphorically true if it is not factual, but if behaving as if it were factual results in an enhancement of one&rsquos fitness.
To take an example: if one behaves in, let&rsquos say, the Christian tradition, in such a way as to gain access to heaven, one will not actually find themselves at the pearly gates being welcomed in, but one does tend to place their descendants in a good position with respect to the community that those of descendants continue to live in.
So if we were to think evolutionarily, the person who is behaving so as to get into heaven has genetic interests. Those genetic interests are represented in the narrow sense by their immediate descendants and close relatives in the larger sense they may be represented by the entire population of people from whom that individual came, and by acting so as to get into heaven the fitness of that person, the number of copies of those genes that continue to flourish in the aftermath of that person&rsquos death will go up.
So the believe in heaven is literally false&mdashthere is no such place&mdashbut it is metaphorically true in the sense that it results in an increase in fitness.
If you think about all of the things that you know human beings to have done over the course of human history you&rsquoll realize that humans must have shifted from one niche to the other again and again.
Effectively humans are a niche-switching creature.
That is the human niche&mdashto discover new things to do when the ancestral ways have petered out and are no longer useful.
Innovating new ways to be is very much the human toolkit. When human beings adopt an opportunity, their population grows in proportion to the size of that opportunity, and that opportunity essentially should be thought of as a frontier.
Now, there are many kinds of frontiers that humans have discovered. The most obvious kind of frontier is a geographic frontier: when a population discoverers an uninhabited island&mdashor in an extreme case they discover a continent that has no people on it&mdashthat is a tremendous opportunity, and a tiny population can grow to gigantic size given such a bit of good fortune.
But there are less-obvious kinds of frontier as well.
A technological frontier occurs when people discover a mechanism for doing more with the territory that they have.
So for example, if you think about a piece of territory that has been inhabited by hunter-gatherers, at the point that farming is either invented or brought in (discovered by some other population that same piece of territory), if it is hospitable to farming, can support a much larger population. So it functions just like having discovered a new landmass, because the size of the population that exists on the current landmass goes up as a result of the fact that the land is made more productive.
There&rsquos a third kind of a frontier, which I call a &ldquotransfer&rdquo frontier, which is not really the same in the sense that it is zero sum: somebody has to lose in order for somebody else to win.
But from the point of view of an individual population, another population that cannot defend the resources that it has is an opportunity, and so many of the worst chapters in human history involve one population targeting another population that can&rsquot defend the resources that it owns.
And so for the population doing the targeting, capturing those resources functions like having discovered a new landmass or a new technology that allows productivity to go up.
All of these types of frontiers eventually run out. There is simply a limit to the number of geographical locations that can be inhabited. There may always be a next technology, but the discovery of new technologies comes in fits and starts, and there can be long dry periods where you have reached or exceeded the limits of a technological opportunity and the next one is nowhere on the horizon.
So human beings, being addicted to growth, are constantly looking for sources.
And when geographic frontiers and technological frontiers don&rsquot provide those opportunities, human beings will sometimes look within their own population and figure out who can&rsquot defend the resources that they hold and they manufacture reasons that they are not entitled to keep them.
And so when we feel austerity coming on we tend to become more tribal.
And this is a very dangerous pattern of history, for example, what took place during the Holocaust when the German population decided to target European Jews, and it made up reasons that those Jews were not entitled to continue.
So, what we are effectively seeing in the present is a circumstance in which we have reached the end of a boom, and human beings are becoming tribal because that is the natural transition at the end of a growth period, and we are naturally inspired to look for something to replace the growth that has run out.
This is why many of these abhorrent messages have become resonant in the present to many people. They are waiting to hear somebody explain what population isn&rsquot capable of defending its resources and to explain what justification will be used to pursue those resources&mdashand to transfer them.
Many people are optimistic that technological breakthroughs will continue to provide access to growth.
And this is an unfortunate perspective, because it leads us into a false sense of security, not realizing that&mdashbeing evolutionary creatures&mdashwe are not programmed to preserve that state of growth and make it last a long time.
What we are wired to do is to capture the benefits of them and bring them into use.
What that means for most creatures is: when a non-zero sum opportunity has been discovered, creatures create many more like themselves basically more mouths to feed.
For modern people, sometimes creating more mouths is not the natural reaction, but creating greater consumption is.
And so as much as we are wired in a way that is beneficial&mdashwhere we discover new ways of doing more with less that provides abundance&mdashwe are also wired to use up that abundance in consumption.
And in fact we have a dynamic in which our economic theories&mdashthe ones that we run society on the basis of&mdashactually define economic health. Growth is the conversion of useful energy into useless heat and the conversion of useful materials into useless waste. So we have what I call a throughput society where we view ourselves as doing something right as we are taking resources that might be made to last a long time and we use them up.
So, for example, if I were to invent a microwave oven that is just as useful as the one you have but would last ten times as long as the one you have, intuitively it seems that that should be a very good thing but from the point of view of the economy it will result in a reduction in growth because fewer microwave ovens will be sold.
So by defining our economic terms such that they lead us to &ldquocorrect&rdquo for improvements in efficiency and cause us to capture resources and use them up in one kind of consumption or another, we set ourselves up for a situation in which no matter how good an opportunity we discover it is inherently temporary.
Ethics evolved to limit the self-destructive behavior internal to a population.
Unfortunately in our present circumstance, where we have handed over so many functions to an anonymous marketplace, people that learn where the ethical landscape (that we describe to ourselves), where on that &ldquolandscape&rdquo there are opportunities that are unpoliced&mdashactually come out ahead.
If you discover things that are unethical that therefore many people will not engage in, but you&rsquore willing to engage in those things and there&rsquos no penalty&mdasheither informal or legal&mdashbuilt in the system, then you will come out ahead as a result of your increased freedom because you&rsquore not ethically limited to the narrower set of acceptable behaviors.
And so unfortunately society has begun rewarding people who are good at figuring out where we are not policing our ethical standards and exploiting those opportunities as a competitive advantage.
The fate of benevolent firms in the market is a very important topic. Unfortunately a perfectly free market will not allow benevolent firms to survive in the long run.
Now that may seem like an overly declarative statement, but the problem is this: if you imagine two firms, one of which is perfectly amoral and will do absolutely anything that generates a profit and the other one, which is constrained by ethical beliefs that prevent it from availing itself of certain economic opportunities, then it doesn&rsquot matter what the economic circumstance is: the amoral corporation or firm always has an advantage.
The best that can be true is that the ethical choice is also the strategically best choice and the two will be dead even, but in any case where there&rsquos any distinction whatsoever between the ethical choice and the perfectly amoral choice, the amoral firm has the advantage of being perfectly free to avail itself of opportunities that its competitor cannot reach. And what this does is it causes evolution of firms in the direction of ruthlessness.
It is often times the case that people who set things in motion in the marketplace with the best of intentions are surprised at what ultimately becomes of their innovations.
Google famously began with the prime directive &ldquodon&rsquot be evil&rdquo and many people have recognized that over time Google has become more ruthless than it was at the start. This is actually a perfectly predictable phenomenon.
The reason that Google was able to have noble objectives at first was that it existed in an immature market where having ethical restraints on what is possible did not put it at a competitive disadvantage to any viable competitor that it faced.
As a market matures, its tolerance for firms that restrain themselves is much reduced, and a perfectly efficient market has effectively no tolerance for self-restraint. And as a result of this, firms evolve to become more ruthless or they parish.
And either way what we find is an increased tendency in a market&mdashas it becomes more efficient&mdashtowards ruthlessness.
This does not have to be the case, but it is the result of the fact that we leave the market free for this kind of evolutionary trajectory.
If we were wise about this we would realize that a free market is not the ideal state.
We don&rsquot want to tinker, we don&rsquot want to meddle in a way that is overly disruptive of innovation, but we do want to tinker enough that the evolutionary tendency produces the kinds of firms that we wish to see rather than ones that behave in a way that horrifies us.
We find ourselves unfortunately stuck in an archaic argument about policy where right and left disagree about the wisdom of tinkering with society to make certain things better.
In general the left is overly enthusiastic about meddling and it doesn&rsquot appreciate the full danger of unintended consequences, and the right is overly skeptical of the advantages of tinkering and prone to focus on the unintended consequences, and be underambitious with respect to making society better.
But the entire argument is based on ideas of the 18th and 19th century, and those ideas are simply not up to date enough to deal with the problems of the 21st century.
So my argument would be that those on the left and right who are in favor of liberty as perhaps the highest human value should put aside their policy differences&mdashbecause frankly the left and right are both out of answers&mdashand they should team up on the basis that they agree at a values level about what a functional society should ideally look like.
And we should actually begin a new conversation about policy in which we investigate what we can do that the founders of this nation (and others that are modeled on it) couldn&rsquot imagine because they didn&rsquot have the tools at their disposal.
In particular, we should be very careful that whatever solution-making we engage in is evolutionarily aware.
The founders of the United States did not, of course, know anything about evolution.
Those who have constructed our markets did not know anything about evolution.
And what they have done repeatedly is accidentally set up an evolutionary system in which adaptation begins to take place without anybody&rsquos awareness.
And what that tends to do is it tends to take the best intentions of those who set up these systems and overrun them with things that simply function.
It results in dangerous patterns like regulatory capture, where those entities that figure out how to tinker those parts of the governance apparatus that are supposed to regulate them come out ahead of those that don&rsquot attempt to tinker with those elements.
My argument is not an argument for centrism. I believe that the answers we are looking for are not actually on the map of possibilities that we are familiar with. We are effectively living in Flatland, and what we have to do is learn to detect the Z axis so that we can seek solutions of a type that will at first, be unfamiliar to us.
There&rsquos a great danger in doing this, of course, which is Utopianism. I regard Utopianism as probably the worst idea that human beings have ever had, and if anyone doubts that that&rsquos the case you should look at the history of Utopian ideas across the 20th century. The untold number of bodies that stacked up as a result of Utopian ideas run amok is absolutely staggering.
Utopians make two errors: the first error is they prioritize a single value.
Now, because of the way mechanisms function, anytime you optimize a single value you create incredibly large costs for every other value in question.
By prioritizing things like liberty or equality, if you do so in a narrowly focused way you can&rsquot help but generate a dystopian result, because all of the other values that people might hold are effectively destroyed in the process.
The other mistake that utopians make is they tend to imagine that they know what the future state should look like and they miss what every inventor knows, which is that your grandest ideas are crude to begin with. You have to build a prototype in order to figure out what you don&rsquot understand.
And so I would argue we cannot describe the future that we should be seeking.
We can say what direction it probably is in and we can head in that direction intelligently, but the minute we start telling ourselves that we know what the state that we are trying to construct looks like we will suffer the same failure that an inventor that wanted to bypass the prototyping stage would suffer.
There are two kinds of conflict that people can find themselves in: they can be in conflict when they have fundamentally different interests from each other, but very frequently for human beings we will find ourselves in conflict with somebody with whom we are aligned but we have a difference of opinion about what to pursue or in what manner to do so.
And there are a couple of things that evolution can tell us about how to address such a conflict to be productive.
The first thing is it is very important to figure out what it is that causes you to disagree. Sometimes you may be disagreeing over values. So for example, if the two people prioritize things differently they may have a different sense about what should be done.
On the other hand, people may be disagreeing about how to accomplish something while being completely aligned with respect to what it is that is desired.
So establishing what it is that has you disagreeing is very important. I&rsquoll give you an example.
I frequently find, as somebody who comes from the political left, that I have very easy conversations with Libertarians on the right, and those conversations remain easy until we get to the question of policy.
At the point that we get to the question of policy we diverge. And the reason that we diverge is actually that we have different expectations about the danger of creating new policy, but we do not disagree over the values.
A right-of-center economic Libertarian will agree that ideally the market works best when opportunity is as broadly distributed as possible, so that everybody has an opportunity to innovate. They may disagree about how equal the opportunity is currently, and they may also disagree about the wisdom of attempting to redistribute opportunities so that people who don&rsquot have it can gain access to it, but there&rsquos no disagreement over whether it is a desirable characteristic.
On the other hand, there may be disagreements over what objectives are worthy of pursuing that some people would like to see liberty prioritized over equality, for example, and some other group of people may want to see equality promoted at a cost to liberty&mdashthose are both valid perspectives and it is worth understanding that when values are at issue there may actually be no resolution. Two reasonable people can disagree over how valuable various objectives are, and when that&rsquos the case simply recognizing that the difference cannot be resolved at the level of discovering that somebody is correct and somebody is incorrect because in fact both positions are equally valid.
I would say that there is a failure in the way we view argument, that in general I think our politicized and polarized atmosphere has caused us to look at arguments as always tactical.
And one thing that you find when you interact with people who are very adept intellectually is that they are often capable of putting aside suspicion about the motives of the people with whom they are arguing, and they will argue not to win but to discover what is true.
And it&rsquos a very different state of affairs, because although nobody likes being shown to be wrong the great thing about being shown to be wrong is that it gives you the opportunity to correct your understanding and to be wiser the next time you encounter the question, rather than entrenching yourself in a wrong position and suffering the costs of being wrong every time you encounter the question.
So, putting aside a desire to win and substituting a desire to discover what is true is the key to discovering truth through argument, which benefits everybody who participates those who have turned out to be correct, those who have turned out to be incorrect and in general what typically happens is one will discover that nobody was perfectly correct, and then all sides have increased their understanding based on hashing out the details of what they disagree over.
We&rsquore heading into a very dangerous phase of history where a large number of people, especially young people, have become convinced that the free exchange of ideas is not only no longer necessary but is actually counterproductive and so they set out to silence those who have opinions at odds with theirs.
Some of the people who have opinions at odds with theirs truly believe abhorrent things, but the problem is: until you fully understand a topic, you don&rsquot know which opinions to shut out.
One has to actually engage beliefs that are at odds with your own beliefs in order to figure out whether what you believe is correct, and to improve where it isn&rsquot correct.
So shutting down speech has become the mode for a large number of individuals who believe they see very clearly what is wrong with civilization and what must be done to improve it&mdashand they are unfortunately shutting down people who have vital things to tell them that they definitely need to know.
In this wide-ranging talk, controversial professor Bret Weinstein covers several topics: politics, technology, and tribalism, just to name a few. But ultimately the former Biology professor at Evergreen College talks with us about why this particular decade is so interesting. Given the explosive growth of the 20th century, he argues that we've come to the end of that particular boom and have just started searching frantically to keep the pace that we've come to expect. When that change doesn't come, Weinstein posits that we search for scapegoats, turn inwards, and start to attack ourselves. And that's paraphrasing just some of the half-hour talk we have for you.
The Man Who Saw the Pandemic Coming
Happy Holidays. This week we are reprinting our top stories of 2020. This article first appeared online in our “Intelligence” issue in March, 2020.
D ennis Carroll doesn’t mean to sound callous when he says the coronavirus outbreak was predictable. And he doesn’t. He sounds sympathetic to people frightened by the outbreak. He has been an eyewitness to people around the world suffering from similar viruses. Most of all, Carroll sounds authoritative.
For decades, Carroll has been a leading voice about the threat of zoonotic spillover, the transmission of pathogens from nonhuman animals to us. Scientists are confident the current outbreak, which began in Wuhan, China, stemmed from a virus inherent in bats. In 2009, after years of studying infectious diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Carroll formed a USAID program called PREDICT, where he guided trailblazing research into viruses hiding, and waiting to emerge, in animals around the world.
“Dennis is a visionary,” says Christine K. Johnson, an epidemiologist at the One Health Institute at the University of California, Davis, where she is a professor in the School of Veterinary Medicine. “He took the reactive approach to infectious diseases and turned it on its head. He said, ‘We’re going to work on a proactive approach to help countries prepare for the emergence of infectious diseases.’” Johnson, an investigator at PREDICT for 10 years, says Carroll was a pioneer in looking beyond livestock. “Dennis saw that emerging infectious diseases, far and wide, have mostly come from wildlife, and there needed to be investment in research in the wildlife sector.” For a decade, PREDICT received annual federal funding of $15 to $20 million. In 2019, its funding wasn’t renewed. Carroll left USAID and formed a new program, the Global Virome Project, “to build on PREDICT’s scientific insights and experience,” he says.
This is a global event. It is going to hit every community everywhere in the world.
In conversation, scientific insights, based on his experience, emerge from Carroll with a sting, whether he’s talking about the biology of viruses or the stagnant response to the outbreak from the White House. I began by asking about the source of the outbreak.
on site: While in Vietnam being filmed for the recent Netflix documentary series, Pandemic, Dennis Carroll took a moment to pose with two members of the Vietnamese crew. Courtesy of Dennis Carroll
How did the current coronavirus pass from a bat to humans?
We don’t know specifically, but presumably the virus was being shed by the animal in the market, and humans were proximal. Or it could have been that people were directly handling the animal. There may have been a secondary source. In the 2002 SARS outbreak in China, we didn’t see people’s direct exposure to bats as the source of infection. There was a secondary source, a wildlife animal, the civet cat.
Could the transmission have resulted from people eating the wildlife?
Typically the preparation of the animal is where you have exposure. By the time it’s cooked and prepared, the virus would have been dead. It’s more common that transmission is through the animal shedding or people slaughtering the animal, when they’re exposed to bodily fluids, blood, and secretions. With the avian influenza from poultry, a lot of the exposure and infections go back to the preparation of chicken for cooking. In Egypt, for instance, when you look at who was infected, more common than not it was a woman, directly responsible for slaughtering and preparing the animal.
We think of ourselves as special. But viruses are infecting us with the same purpose they infect a bat.
In 2018, you and colleagues wrote in Science, “Our ability to mitigate disease emergence is undermined by our poor understanding of the diversity and ecology of viral threats.” What do we need to understand about the diversity and ecology of viral threats?
The first thing to understand is that whatever future threats we’re going to face already exist they are currently circulating in wildlife. Think of it as viral dark matter. A large pool of viruses are circulating and we don’t become familiar with them until we see a spillover event and people getting ill.
Do bats have a particularly high potential for spillover?
Certainly. We’ve been able to identify bats as reservoirs for coronaviruses and documented specific bat populations as reservoirs for Ebola virus. We want to understand how each of these bats operate within an ecosystem. Do they have certain behaviors and practices that either keep them remote from or proximal to human populations? The bat population in which we isolated the Ebola virus in West Africa was a species of bat that also tends to co-roost within human housing, so it elevates the opportunity for spillover.
Have there been disturbances in their environments that have brought bats closer to us?
The disturbances in their environments are us. We’ve penetrated deeper into ecozones we’ve not occupied before.
What’s a telling example of our incursion?
In Africa, we see a lot of incursion driven by oil or mineral extraction in areas that typically had few human populations. The problem is not only moving workers and establishing camps in these domains, but building roads that allow for even more movement of populations. Roads also allow for the movement of wildlife animals, which may be part of a food trade, to make their way into urban settlements. All these dramatic changes increase the potential spread of infection.
Are spillover events more common now than 50 years ago?
Yes. EcoHealth Alliance, an NGO, and others, looked at all reported outbreaks since 1940. They came to a fairly solid conclusion that we’re looking at an elevation of spillover events two to three times more than what we saw 40 years earlier. That continues to increase, driven by the huge increase in the human population and our expansion into wildlife areas. The single biggest predictor of spillover events is land-use change—more land going to agriculture and more specifically to livestock production.
I’m stunned by the absolute absence of global dialogue for what is a global event.
Is there something specific about a virus that makes it zoonotic?
You can argue viruses aren’t living organisms. They’re sheets of proteins encapsulating some DNA or RNA. Beyond that, they have no machinery to be able to live on their own. They’re looking for an ecosystem that has all of the other cellular machinery essential for replication. They can’t live outside another animal population. They need that animal to replicate. And we’re just one more animal. We think of ourselves as something special. But viruses are infecting us with exactly the same purpose they infect a bat or a civet cat.
Viruses live on a delicate balance, don’t they? They have to be able to thrive without killing their host.
Right. The ones that kill off their host quickly will disappear. With the SARS virus, it’s no surprise that killing 10 percent of its host, it wasn’t able to establish itself as a pandemic virus on this planet.
Are there any signs that this coronavirus will kill itself?
This one has a lower pathogenicity. The lower its virulence, the more likely it’ll become part of an endemic, part of a seasonal event. That’s one of the big things that’s going to be a worry. If it does go quiet over the summer months, then the question’s going to be, “Is it still infecting people?” We could be walking around in the middle of summer with influenza viruses, but they’re not active. They’ve just gone quiet. When the right ecology comes into play, it starts getting cold, and damp, then it starts replicating like crazy. If it’s able to park itself, and not kill its host over the summer months, then we’ve got a virus that has all the telltale signatures of establishing itself as part of our normative landscape, much to our detriment.
Do you think the current outbreak was inevitable?
Oh, sure. It was predictable. It’s like if you had no traffic laws and were constantly finding pedestrians getting whacked by cars as they crossed the street. Is that surprising? No. All you need to do is to better manage how we set up crosswalks, how we establish traffic rules and regulations. We’re not doing that. We’re not establishing the kind of safe practices that will minimize the opportunity for spillover. If we better understood where these viruses are circulating and understood that ecology, we would have the potential to disrupt and minimize the risk of spillover.
Why aren’t we—governments and policymakers—doing that?
First, this is an expanding problem driven by unprecedented population change. It’s only in the last 100 years that we’ve begun adding people at a rate that’s causing this incredible disruption of the larger ecosystem. If you and I were having this discussion 100 years ago, there were 6 billion fewer people on this planet. It took us the better part of our total existence of the species, 300,000 years, before we hit the 1 billion mark. But in 100 years we’ve added 6 billion people and we’ll add another 4 to 5 billion before the end of this century.
Second, governments and society by and large are governed by inertia. We don’t change and adapt and evolve very quickly. And we’re barely cognizant as a global society that the world we’re living in today is fundamentally different than the world our species has ever lived in. You know that old saw that if you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will leap out. But if you take that same frog and put it in a pot of ambient water and slowly crank up the temperature, it will stay in that water and boil to death. It loses perspective on the changing environment around it. We’re that frog in the ambient water. We’re oblivious to the conditions that have enabled zoonotic viruses to become integrated into us.
There are things about this outbreak that are not being talked about. Those are the things that worry me the most.
What first really opened your eyes to the scale of the spillover problem?
You mean my Saul on the road to Damascus moment?
It was avian influenza in the 2000s. What you saw with avian influenza was a direct consequence of how much poultry was being produced to feed people. If you look at China today, it produces something on the order of 15 to 20 billion poultry per year. But if you went back and you looked at the data from the 1960s, you see that, at best, only a few hundred million poultry were under production. When you look in Bangladesh, Vietnam, and elsewhere in Asia and Indonesia, you see that the amount of poultry that was being produced 50 years ago was orders of magnitude less than poultry being produced today. That’s a consequence of more people and more purchasing power. One of the things we know about household purchasing power is that when you have disposable income in your hands, you’re going to move from a root- or grain-based diet and try to get animal protein. And that’s what happened.
One statistic that jumps out of what you wrote in Science is there are 1.67 million viruses on Earth and an estimated 631,000 to 827,000 have the capacity to infect people. That’s pretty frightening, no?
On one level it is pretty frightening. But on another level the potential to infect doesn’t necessarily correlate with illness and death. Some viruses may not have any consequence at all. And some may be involved in enhancing our own biology. They could become part of our microbiome. It’s nothing new in the course of evolution. We have to be open to the idea that viruses aren’t simply our enemies, that they may have an important and positive role to play for us. We found that out about bacteria. At the same time, we have to keep our eyes open and be cautious about the pharmaceuticals we take. If we’re taking broad-spectrum antivirals, they could be opening up other complications.
How would you describe the general attitude of the United States government toward the threat of zoonotic diseases?
It’s not just the U.S. government but governments at large and the private sector—we don’t invest in risk. Talking about zoonotic diseases is different than talking about tuberculosis or malaria. Those are tangible. They are clear and present problems. Zoonotic diseases are an emerging problem. But we as a society don’t invest in things that are not kicking our door down.
The coronavirus is kicking our door down now, don’t you think?
Yes, it’s got everyone’s attention. But this coronavirus will fall off the headlines and when it does, you will see a contraction in the kind of investments that are made in it. We have war budgets and then no monies during peacetime. So part of the challenge—it’s a social engineering exercise—is getting lawmakers and investors to invest in risk. That’s really difficult.
How Animals See the World
Some animals, including your pets, may be partially colorblind, and yet certain aspects of their vision are superior to your own. Living creatures’ visual perception of the surrounding world depends on how their eyes process light. Humans are trichromats—meaning that our. READ MORE
The fact that your PREDICT program was not refunded has become a political rallying point against President Trump, who has shown an ignorance of science. Do you think there’s a connection between the end of PREDICT and what has happened with the coronavirus?
No, I don’t think so. PREDICT was a beautiful project. It was scientifically well executed. It was forward-leaning. But its scale was small. It discovered slightly more than 2,000 viruses. If you’re going to have a public health impact, finding 2,000 viruses out of a pool of 600,000, over 10 years, isn’t going to transform your ability to minimize public health risk. And PREDICT didn’t really navigate the second step in a critical equation—turning science into policy. We didn’t design it for that purpose. Also, even an annual budget of $20 million is not sufficient. You’d need about $100 million a year to carry out the kind of global program that would give us evidence to transform how we think about viral risk and how we should prepare for it. That’s what my new Global Virome Project aims to do.
What worries you about this coronavirus?
There’s the obvious stuff that’s worrying everyone. But there are things not being talked about. Those are the things that worry me the most. This is a global event. It is going to hit every community everywhere in the world. And the impact will not be equally distributed because there are parts of the world that have health care systems that are far more fragile than ours or China’s or Europe’s. We know that when fragile healthcare systems have extraordinary new demands put on them, there’s an enormous risk those health systems will collapse. Specifically in the Africa region and regions where there’s civil disorder or war.
In 2014, when the Ebola virus swept across the three countries of West Africa, we saw that one of the immediate consequences of the virus was to essentially shut down health-service delivery. Health workers became exposed, sickened, and fearful. For five months, you did not have health services that were tending to people’s normative healthcare. Pregnant women didn’t have access to trained birth attendants. Kids didn’t have access to anti-malarials. Immunizations didn’t go on. You had an undocumented population of people whose lives were compromised because they couldn’t get routine health services. My fear is this will likely play itself out again. If the coronavirus continues to be as significant as it appears to be, we’re going to see health systems get overloaded and not be capable of responding to both the virus and normative health issues. No one in government seems to be talking about this.
In 2005, during the avian influenza, George W. Bush was on the phone routinely with leaders around the world about how to coordinate a global response. Barack Obama did the same in 2009 for the second H1N1 pandemic and in 2014 for the Ebola epidemic. You saw presidential leadership step up and act as a catalyst for forging a global way forward for a global problem. It has been absolute silence in this White House. I think the only reason the White House is even paying any lip service to this is because the stock market has gone into a free fall. So they’re trying to figure out what are the words they need to say to placate the stock market.
Why do you think there’s been silence in this White House?
Because the Trump administration is only interested in America first. Populism here and across Europe and elsewhere has fragmented the global networks, which had been so instrumental in being able to bring together a global approach to problems like this. I’ve not seen any reports coming out of the White House that showed that as China was struggling to bring the virus under control, our president reached out to President Xi to talk about how to coordinate action. I’m stunned by the absolute absence of global dialogue for what is a global event. In Europe right now, you would never believe that there was a European Union. From where I sit, it looks like every country is making this up as they go along. Italy isn’t coordinating with Brussels. Brussels isn’t coordinating with Germany. There’s no coherent regional approach to this problem in Europe, even though they have a platform for doing it.
So what will it take to make people aware of the global threat of zoonotic diseases?
There’s nothing like a serial assault to heighten your awareness, and that’s what we’re looking at. We’re on a cycle of about every three years of getting something like this. And each time that happens, there’s more awareness that these investments need to be made and sustained. The problem is getting these monies as part of the annual regular non-emergency funding.
There’s been exemplary sharing of data among scientists and geneticists, don’t you think?
Yes. But think of the syllogism from Socrates: right thinking leads to right action. We know that’s not the case. Your thoughts can be absolutely right on, but your practices can be completely divergent. What science allows us to do is understand, with greater granularity, what’s at risk. Science will give us insight. But we have to translate that insight into a sustained valuation of risk and move that forward.
How, ideally, should we move forward?
These viruses inherently have the ability to mutate. What we’re looking at today isn’t necessarily what we’ll be looking at in a few months. It could become more deadly or it could attenuate and disappear, like the common cold. The big issue is, Are we tracking that? Do we have enough data and transparency and the availability of samples? What’s showing up in Iran? What’s showing up in Israel? What’s showing up in Italy? What’s showing up in the United States? Is there enough open transparency in real time that allows us to keep our finger on the pulse? I’m an internationalist. Figure out how to care for our people. Pay attention to communities around the world that need assistance. We’re all part of the same ecosystem. This is a global issue. We either prepare for it and respond to it in the context of a global lens, or we don’t. If our preparations and responses are country-centric, we’re in for some serious trouble.
A Key Evolutionary Step May Mean Intelligent Alien Life Doesn’t Exist in the Universe
Shortly after Earth’s formation, the planet was barren of life. Then, proteins combined in just the right way, and life appeared. For billions of years, it was simple and uninteresting, oceans full of simple, single-celled organisms floating for millennia after millennia. Suddenly, life got a lot more interesting. Organisms became more complex, with more than one cell. And they got much bigger — 10,000 times bigger by volume, Nick Lane, professor of evolutionary chemistry at University College London, wrote in his 2015 book The Vital Question.
The importance of this step — of this sudden increase in size and complexity — cannot be overstated. Without it, complex life (like humans, for example) would not exist.
How exactly this step happened is one of the big questions in evolutionary biology. There are a number of theories about how, exactly, life got so much more complicated. One of the prevailing theories, from Lane himself, focuses on energy. Here’s the thinking: Cells need more energy to build more complex structures. To do that, according to Lane’s theory, single-celled organisms merged with bacteria we now know as mitochondria, which have an electrical charge and bring power to the cell. It’s possible, though unlikely, for the two bacteria to fit together, and even less probably that the two were able to survive and live symbiotically. This occurrence that made possible all other forms of complex life is rare, to be sure.
But in Lane’s opinion, it only happened once.
“It comes down to one merger between two cells that made one cell, then everything comes from that. You, me, the redwood tree or the hummingbird, a fungus, a piece of algae growing in a pond, every form of life we can see with our naked eyes and many that we can’t come from that single cell,” Nick said in an episode of the science podcast Radiolab on his work.
The debate around how life got much more complicated is important to understand the history of life on Earth, but it also could inform our search for life on other planets. If complex life is exceedingly rare, does that make it less likely for us to find intelligent life in the universe? Should we instead be looking for something much smaller and simpler? If the universe outside of Earth only populated by single-celled organisms? Because these specific conditions are so unlikely, might complex life only exist on our own planet?
Futurism got in touch with a few experts to ask if they agree with Lane’s theory, if they believe intelligent extraterrestrial life is possible, and to get their perspectives on whether we should somehow alter our search.
Mohamed Noor, a professor of biology at Duke University:
To the best of my knowledge, Lane’s version of what happened is likely true: Acquiring mitochondria happened [only] once, long ago in the ancestor of plants, fungi, and animals. It greatly facilitated the evolution of multicellular organisms.
However, it’s impossible to know how to assess the need for something like that in the context of life that is totally unrelated to life on Earth. All life on Earth has a single common ancestor. This ancestor (and all life we on Earth) was presumably carbon/water-based, replicated using nucleic acids, and lived in conditions that existed on ancient or modern Earth. If life arose on a much colder world, for example, many other [environmental] parameters may be totally different as well.
In such a case, life there may use liquid ammonia rather than water as a solvent. It may not use nucleic acids for heredity. But some aspects may be general to life — carbon may intrinsically make sense for life, given its abundance and ability to make long chains. A “cell membrane” of some sort to insulate that life from its environment also seems probable. Finally, there are other things we never think about. How “fast” does this life metabolize and interact? Are there generations occurring in the blink of an eye? Or single interactions over millennia, moving so slowly we wouldn’t even notice?
Honestly, I feel like we cannot have any estimate of the probability of life of any kind (intelligent or not) until we move from a sample size of 1 (related to life on Earth) to a sample size of at least 2 [that is, until we discover at least one more example of life in the universe].
Back to your question, any “life” needs a source of power, but mitochondria need not be the only solution to that problem, especially if life is starting with a completely different basis. Still, my best guess is that microbial-sized life is way more likely to exist than something as large as us on other worlds. If our desire is to “find life,” I speculate that we’re much better off closely examining acquired samples from Europa or other worlds than waiting to receive a radio signal.
Pierre Pontarotti, the director of research at the Mathematics Institute of Marseille, wrote:
The symbiosis between bacteria and eukaryotes has occurred many times during the evolution of life on Earth. For example, cyanobacteria [merged] with the ancestors of plant cells — the cyanobacteria became the chloroplast. Therefore, if organisms like bacteria and eukaryotes are present on another planet, the symbiosis should happen.
We, of course, have no information about the kind of life that exists on other planets. But because galaxies and planets have evolved many times during the history of the universe, why shouldn’t life do so as well?
John Rummel, senior scientist with the SETI Institute:
Given the many advantages offered by the symbiosis of the pre-eukaryote and the pre-mitochondrial bacterium, it is entirely possible that once was enough — given that free oxygen could have been present to fuel the combination. “Once” here may not refer to a single endosymbiotic event, of course.
We don’t know exactly where, and at what scale, eating pre-mitochondria became popular on Earth… The right biochemistry is the key to that being an advantageous thing to do, of course, so whether it is widespread in the cosmos is more a biochemical question than a natural-science one. [It has to be] just so… Without mitochondrial advantages, it might be a struggle to develop complex, anoxic biochemistries that could support the evolution of intelligence on a physically challenging world, but not impossible.
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Why Everyone Will Eventually Get Cancer
Through graduate school and my postdoctoral fellowship, my research was in the area of cancer biology. I'll never forget the time that I had lunch with Bob Weinberg, probably the most famous and most important cancer researcher of all time. When someone asked him why cancer rates were rising, he said, "mostly because we're living longer. If you live long enough, you will get cancer."
This is a jarring thought, to be sure, but it's also something that should have been obvious to me, even back then. While environmental, dietary, and lifestyle factors certainly play some role, most of the rise in cancer is simply because we're no longer dying of so many other things. Just 100 years ago, the leading causes of death were pneumonia, influenza, tuberculosis, and gastrointestinal infections such as cholera. Thanks to vaccines and improvements in public sanitation, these have been all but eradicated in the developed world. Even deaths by accidents have been cut by half, per capita, over the past century. We are living longer and healthier lives than ever before. Until we get cancer.
But why is cancer the beast that stalks us all? The genetics of cancer is extremely complicated, but one doesn't need to appreciate all the mechanisms in order to grasp the basics. Cancer results through the accumulation of the wrong combination of mutations in the wrong order. Inside our cells, we have genes and proteins that drive cells to divide and multiply and others that hold cells back. When these control mechanisms malfunction, cancer results. (For a longer discussion of mutations and cancer, read my article in The Guardian on this same topic.)
How do these pathways malfunction? Mutations. While certain chemicals, lifestyle, and dietary factors also add to this picture, we all have a background rate of mutation that is due to nothing more than copying errors made when we synthesize DNA. Before a cell can divide, it must copy all of its DNA and when it does so, random mistakes are made. While an error rate of one-in-a-million seems very low, remember that our body has trillions of cells and there is a lot of cell division going on in our bodies all the time.
Every day, we suffer hundreds of mutations around our body. Obviously most of these are harmless, but occasionally they can cause problems. The morbid reality is that every time a cell divides, it's a roll of the dice. Eventually, a mutation will strike that inches a cell toward becoming cancerous. Then, years later, it will get nudged again. In their now-classic paper, "The Hallmarks of Cancer," Bob Weinberg and Douglass Hanahan outline the six defining features of a cancer cell. Key to the transition from normal cell to cancer cell is the accumulation of mutations.
So it seems simple: Mutations are bad. Well, for individuals yes, but mutations are also essential for evolution. They are the raw material of all evolutionary innovation. Over evolutionary time, mutations (this time in the "germ line"—sperm or eggs) are what produce all manner of diversity in the forms of various tweaks, tugs, and random changes in all possible directions. Most of that random variation is neutral or bad, but occasionally, a mutation that brings a new and creative functionality will emerge. Natural selection then acts on that beneficial mutation, and this is the essence of adaptation and evolutionary innovation.
So mutations are what drove evolutionary innovation and adaptive radiation, from the earliest single-celled organism building the first signs of stable energy metabolism nearly four billion years ago, through to the expansion of the human cranium over the past two million years. Mistakes in our DNA are the reason there is more than just cells and goo on our planet.
Mutations are responsible for everything great that we are, and they will eventually kill us all. Mutations: Can't live with 'em, can't progress without 'em.
Hanahan and Weinberg. "The Hallmarks of Cancer." 07-Jan 2000. Cell. 100(1):57-70.
Lents NH. "Cancer, mutations and the facts of life" The Observer. 22-April 2018.