A New, Older y-Chromosomal Adam

23 05 2011

Image via Wikipedia. Though it couldn't be more obvious, am I right?

Researchers believe they have identified an earlier “y-chromosomal Adam,” the earliest human male from whom we are all descended. This isn’t a literal individual they’ve identified, but a genetic fingerprint of one. Where once this “chromosomal Adam” was believed to have lived about 60,000 years ago in some part of southern or southeastern Africa, a new paper published in the Journal of Human Genetics puts his life at about 140,000 years ago. The research also suggests that the male seems to be from northwest Africa, not the eastern or southern portion as has long been suspected:

“The number of deep branchings leading to African-specific clades has doubled, further strengthening the MSY-based evidence for a modern human origin in the African continent. An analysis of 2204 African DNA samples showed that the deepest clades of the revised MSY phylogeny are currently found in central and northwest Africa, opening new perspectives on early human presence in the continent.”

(That’s how scientists express excitement).

This discovery can alter a number of things about our understanding of human evolution and development: if the chromosomal Adam had lived only 60,000 years, it would compress significantly the time period human had to migrate from Africa and populate the rest of the world, and begin the phenotypic variations we see in people today. Given that the agricultural revolution started about 15,000 years ago, that’s not a lot of time. The current time frame was also a point of dispute between physical anthropologists and their molecular counterparts, as the former believed they had evidence of modern humans as far as Australia as long ago as 100,000 years.

More than doubling the distance between ourselves and Adam also puts chromosomal him closer in time to the mother of humanity, Mitochondrial Eve, who lived about 200,000 or so years ago, making her the earliest recorded instance of a cougar.

To keep my jokes from confusing you further, may I suggest actually going to the article itself?

For the research itself, check here. For a better explanation, go here.

Chrysippus’ End: Life Without Death

9 01 2011

What’s to be learned from Chrysippus’ death? I’m not sure that I can tell you; but I need to try. Chrysippus was a great logician–one of the most important analytic thinkers in western history, in fact. Hilarious.But it’s the way he died that brings me such joy. When I first heard this story, it made me so happy, I actually got a little misty eyed. Chrysippus died my favorite death.

This is the story as I heard it: Chrysippus, esteemed philosopher and logician, was drinking with a bunch of his friends and having just, well, a gay ol’ time. Revelry gave way to fatigue eventually–after all, Chrysippus and his friends were old men by this point–and his friends, drunk and in fine moods, excused themselves to sleep. Chrys (can I call you Chrys?), however, was not at all ready to retire. Determined to keep the good feeling going, Chrys took his wine jug out to the fields and sat down with his favorite young goat*. He shot the shit with the goat for a while, feeding it figs and wine, until the goat, drunk, tried to eat more figs and began comically stumbling around.

Chrys found this so funny, he began laughing uncontrollably. And when I say “uncontrollably” I mean he laughed so hard he burst something in his brain and died instantly, with a smile on his face. That’s how his friends found him the next morning.

During a recent bout of depression, this story kept flashing in happy images across my mind. But when I retold the story to some people, they just gave me a blank stare.

“Ramsin, that is an intensely sad story.”

B-but…what a way to go, right?


This had me second guessing. What was it about this story about instant death and nothingness that made me smile?

Death as Relief

As a kid I was terrified of death because I could see hell when I closed my eyes to say my nightly prayers. My dad would flip off my light after tucking me in and I would shut my eyes tight and say the Our Father prayer and beg for protection for my family and for forgiveness of my many mental sins. But even as I prayed, horrible thoughts filled my head: sexual thoughts, lies, hates, all the things that the big guy who Art in Heaven reads in our thoughts and judges us for. Sometimes, I’d panic. It was so real. I knew what the devil looked like; my Children’s Illustrated Bible, which I still have, helpfully provided a visualization.

Destroyed in a Blazing Fire

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March of the Morons: Brady on Evolution and Creation

6 10 2010

I have one question that I believe should be used to disqualify people from running for executive office. It is, “Do you accept the theory of evolution?” Anybody who says no should be disqualified. No, it’s not a religious test that would violate the Article VI prohibition. It’s a moron test. We could also ask, “Are you a moron?” but then we’d be less likely to get an honest response. This way we could actually root out the morons.

This has nothing to do with conservative/liberal, Democrat/Republican. Evolution is a fact–in fact, it’s more than a fact. It is a theory built upon literally millions of facts. Believe whatever other thing you want, but denying that evolution took place–maybe not exactly how science now conceives, but that it took place in some way–is absolutely no different than denying gravity. Newtonian physics got the mechanics of gravity wrong, but that didn’t make gravity itself wrong. If you think “the jury is out” on evolution, you’re not particularly bright, willfully ignorant, or poorly educated (which may not be your fault, but still–probably shouldn’t be elected to executive office).

Bill Brady thinks it’s okay to teach Creationism in schools. By doing so, he betrays his claim that he accepts “both” creationism and evolution. Accepting both as equivalent to be taught is like saying you accept “both” the theory of electromagnetism and fish are delicious. I don’t care about any of the rest of his politics. How can you vote for a person like that? Creationism in schools? Really? We want the US to create well-educated kids prepared to tackle the most significant problems of the future–not to mention stay on the cutting edge of science–and we’re going to allow school districts to teach Creationism? How stupid is this guy?

Apparently immensely.
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Of Sex, Gametes, and Judd Apatow.

26 09 2010

Last week after writing about my favorite primate, the bonobo (sorry humans), I got thinking more about the biological basis for how our society is ordered. I also got thinking more about sex. Given the base level amount of thinking I do about that (which is quite a bit), this means I was thinking, really, quite a lot about it. And while this may have been a cause for concern to friends when I happily informed them that I’d been having sex dreams about them, it was nevertheless fairly welcome. There’s no greater freedom, I think, than sex. It wasn’t lasciviousness that moved George Orwell to focus so heavily on Winston and Julia’s sex life in 1984, to have The Party’s secret police working on a way to “abolish the orgasm.”

...but it's all they have

There are a lot of psychological and emotional issues tied up with sex that can add dimensions to it; but in all-things-equal conditions, sex is the highest form of intimate interaction humans have one to another.

Socially, sex is tied to gender roles. Learning to be both an object and agent of lust and taking pleasure in both is not easy (which is very unfortunate). Thinking about sex got me thinking about gender roles, and in outlining this here piece I began to worry that it’d be taken as reducing women’s rights to a question of their sexuality. That’s a dangerous thing, and not at all my intent. But ultimately we are one species with two genders, and those genders are, equally, sexes. Who we are as men and women is derived to a great deal from our sexuality. Our biology determines that much at least. The strong impulse to sexual pleasure and gratification is one of our most animating human urges. It isn’t dirty, it isn’t unfortunate, it isn’t shameful or lewd. It’s beautiful. It’s comes as close to being a “gift” as anything we’ve developed over the course of millions of years of evolution. The combination of self-awareness and sexual pleasure make us so fortunate among all the animal kingdom that, ironically, I’m almost compelled to infer a designer. (Though, I’m totally not ever going to infer a designer).

I’ll never understand why “foodies” can flaunt their gluttony, taking digital pictures of their food at restaurants, shamelessly overpreparing meals they then catalog for the public, but discussing your affection for various kinds of sex play is lewd. Frankly foodies gross me out. Lustiness I adore. Fetishizing food is odd. Passion is inborn.

What biology has determined in us and in our sexuality doesn’t make the social institutions which, over the course of human history, have bonded women to inferior status, segregated them into caregiver labor, and otherwise shackled them to the “household,” natural or morally right.

Women represent 91% of graduates from nursing school. Ninety eight percent of preschool and elementary school teachers are women; 82% of elementary school teachers, too, are women. The majority of workers in elder care are women. Women have always been tasked as caregivers by the division of labor in human societies. At least now they’re getting paid for it–or are more likely to be getting paid for it. But why, in our supposedly egalitarian society, are the high-stress, high-burnout, low-pay, caregiver fields almost exclusively the wheelhouse of females?

I have made no bones about the fact that identity politics is deleterious to human progress. A proper material analysis of the systems of society lead inexorably to the conclusion that only class-based solutions can justly reorder society.

That said, it can’t be doubted that throughout human history, it has rained shit on one gender more than the other. That there has been essentially an uninterrupted chain of uneven exploitation of women since humanity’s social beginnings makes it almost silly to refer to the “plight” of women. At this point it isn’t a plight. It’s the way things are.

While Europeans were exploiting Black and brown people, Islamic expansionism was destroying indigenous cultures, various indigenous American empires were overrunning each other, and the poor were being exploited since…well, basically since the agricultural revolution, within each of those societies, women have been exploited in their labor, denied active liberty and self-determination, been controlled sexually, and otherwise made appendages of their fathers and husbands.

We needn’t even go so far back. According to Gordon Wood (or, as he was referred to in Good Will Hunting, Gwahdan Wood) in his seminal The Radicalism of the American Revolution, many of the court records found in pre-revolutionary America didn’t refer to women by their names, but by their relationship to men, referred only as “Wife to” “sister to” “daughter of.” Like slaves, a woman’s social and civic identity was defined wholly by her relationship to the patriarchal head of the household.


The Gamete Game

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On the Origin of Clothing

22 09 2010

Put cloth on them!

Hey, did you guys get your latest issue of Molecular Biology and Evolution? Mine came with a mix CD of Peanut Butter Wolf and Mad Lib tracks.

Anyway, the latest issue features a paper that aims to tell the true story of our first fig leaf.

There’s a fascinating piece in it that seeks to pinpoint the origin of clothing on anatomically modern humans (homo sapiens sapiens). This is of interest because it will give a clearer picture of when humanity was capable of moving out of Africa and into more challenging climates. Evolutionary scientists are using the DNA of lice to build their hypotheses, by figuring out when the modern clothing louse speciated from the head or hair louse. Their estimate? As late as “83,000 and possibly as early as 170,000” years ago. Given humanity’s origins of 300,000 to 600,000 years ago, that makes our development of clothing fairly early in our history.

Andrew Kitchen of Pennsylvania State University helped pioneer this field of study, and, it goes without saying, there are competing estimates for the origin of clothing.

Sisterhood is Power: The Fear of Science

17 09 2010


Bonobos are awesome. As closely related to us phylogenetically as our very violent cousins the chimpanzees, bonobos exist in refreshingly peaceful social groups. Those groups are dominated by females, although there is some dispute as to whether they are strictly matriarchal.

The status of males in bonobo communities is related to the status of their mothers, and the status of females is generated by the relationship of females one to another. The mechanisms of status in their society are based on cooperation with regards to food, grooming, and casual sex and sex play, including both opposite- and same-sex genital rubbing and oral sex. Bonobo males are also distinct from chimps in one very important regard: they are attentive and affectionate to the young of the group–all the young of the group. Chimps, on the other hand, tend to murder the children of rival males.

Monkey cousins.

The “selfish gene” theory gets a bad rap for its supposed implications for human society. The gene-centered view of evolution by natural selection, which says that natural selection operates on the level of the gene rather than the individual, makes people, particularly social theorists, very uncomfortable, exactly because of things like male chimp infanticide tendencies–not to mention chimp patriarchy and forced copulation. If humans are nothing but elaborate mechanisms meant to perpetuate individual genes, are we reduced to our biological imperatives? “Should” our society look like that of our closest relative? Is our society ordered against our will, by millions of years of primate evolution?

English moral philosopher Mary Midgley must’ve felt shaken, dismissing Richard Dawkins’ seminal The Selfish Gene by saying she hadn’t “attended” to it because she thought “it unnecessary to break a butterfly upon a wheel.” In 1997, Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet McIntosh were disturbed enough by what they termed “secular creationism” to write an essay, “The New Creationism: Biology Under Attack” specifically about the academic tendency to dismiss evolutionary exploration of human society. They illustrated their point with a horrifying anecdote about a presentation by social psychologist Phoebe Ellsworth, wherein Ellsworth’s mention of DNA prompted a fellow academic to incredulously ask, “You believe in DNA?”
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Letter from an Optimist

3 05 2010

I was kicked out of class once in high school because a teacher overheard me say something was “bull”. Not “bullshit,” just “bull”. I couldn’t help myself; she’d made an offhanded comment that infuriated me, and for no reason I could identify. In fact, it took me years to figure out what it was that made me so upset.

What’d she said was in response to someone’s asking a question about the future of literature. She’d said, “There’s nothing new under the sun. Everything’s been thought of before you.”

It was no coincidence that she was an evangelical Christian–that particular cliche is actually from Ecclesiastes 1:9; “What has been will be again,¬†what has been done will be done again;¬†there is nothing new under the sun.”–and a general curmudgeon. Years later I formulated the proper response: you and I are both new things under the sun. We’ve never been before, and will never be again.

Optimism has its merits, and delusion is not one of them. Pessimism and cynicism are always more en vogue; thinking the world is on its way to a better future, that the history of humanity has much in it to make us hopeful, just isn’t cool. It reeks of naivete; and the cool kids never want to be caught in a fit of humiliating enthusiasm. Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” As an optimist, I have to believe that “Hell is people like Sartre.” Robert Burns was right to note the depth of man’s inhumanity to man, but it requires willful ignorance to simply ignore the immense progress the human family has made towards solidarity, peace, and the highest ideals that have survived since the inception of civilizations: namely, cooperation, friendship, and love.

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