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The blush response

15 December 2013

I have a problem with blushing. Not the physical act of having my face turn red when I make a fool out of myself, mind, but the actual concept of the blush response. Why do we blush? What’s the evolutionary value of showing people around that we’re embarrassed? What could possibly be the point?

The physiology

No blushing here. But then again, she's not human, is she?

No blushing here. But then again, she’s not human, is she?

I find that the best way to get answers is to learn more about the problem. So what is blushing exactly?

From a physiological point of view blushing can be described as an autonomous phenomenon where our facial capillaries dilate to increase the blood flow in the surface of the skin, turning it red. It happens involuntarily when embarrassed or under emotional stress. The increased blood flow also make the face (and other parts also blushing, like neck or ears) feel hot and uncomfortable. The response usually soon fades away and normal skin colour returns within a few minutes.

Caught with our pants down

"Ok, you saw through that one, did you? Don't I just feel like a proper tit right now?"

“Ok, you saw through that one, did you? Don’t I just feel like a proper tit right now?”

Ok, so blushing is a physiological representation of the emotional state of embarrassment. Fair enough. We get caught telling a lie, we feel exposed and embarrassed and we blush. And since we have little or no control over this phenomenon, it stands to reason it would have some kind of evolutionary value. After all, it costs extra energy exposing our warm blood to the outer layers of our skin and that cost must be counter-weighted by some benefit, or it would have been selected against and disappeared millions of years ago.

As we blush when we’re exposed with not telling the truth, perhaps blushing is a lie detector alarm? Perhaps we’re supposed to get caught when lying – especially since we as humans are so good at it. Could it be that the blush response is a control device to make sure we don’t lie our heads off? After all, if we were to lie too much, we would potentially sabotage our position within the group and get left on our own. And we wouldn’t have survived on our own…

Good in theory…

That might be an interesting idea, but there’s a major flaw in the reasoning. And to illustrate that we have to – yet again – go back to the birth place of modern humans: Africa.

Yeah, hide your face. That'll make your embarrassment much less conspicuous.

Yeah, hide your face. That’ll make your embarrassment much less conspicuous.

We diverged as a separate species from Homo heidelbergensis some 200,000 years ago in East Africa. The climate was tropical just like today and the days would have been scorching hot. To protect us from the damaging radiation of the sun, we no doubt had black curly hair and dark skin, as is the case with most African populations today. In the beginning, we were all African. That’s the proper, original variant of our species. Those of us not African (or of African descent) are mutants – plain and simple.

That little fact highlights the problem with blushing as a social signal: in dark-skinned humans, blushing is more or less undetectable. And since blushing is a common trait in all modern humans (and most likely also in older forms, like Homo ergaster and Homo heidelbergensis), we must conclude that the visible part of blushing has been of little consequence to us. It’s therefore not very likely that blushing has evolved as a social signal to alert others of our embarrassment.

Blushing is supposed to be – invisible?

So blushing evolved as an invisible phenomenon. Ok, so be it. But that makes it even more peculiar. What is then the point of flushing our faces if no one can even see it?

"I might be blushing. Or I might not. And you can't tell."

“I might be blushing. Or I might not. And you can’t tell.”

I’ve already mentioned another effect of blushing, something we often think of as secondary and of little importance: heat. When we blush, our faces go hot from all the blood flushing through our skin. And this effect might be what the blush response is all about. When we blush, we get a physical reminder that we’re in an embarrassing situation and that we should probably try to avoid those in the future.

So it could be that blushing is a lie detector after all, but a personal, secret one. It could be a way for our brains to tell us that we’ve made fools of ourselves again and that we need to do better in the future. After all, it’s not a problem being a liar as long as you don’t get caught. The blush response might aim to make us better liars rather than stopping us from lying. It might be our personal trainer helping us becoming highly functional sociopaths.

This whole chain of reasoning highlights a very common pitfall in our culture: extrapolating features and phenomenons displayed in one sub-population (our own) and applying them to the whole of the species. With the blush response, it seems like we’ve succumbed to the temptation once more. Man, is my face red.

P.S. Turns out my face was to become even more red. As Jim kindly pointed out, I made a couple of embarrassing typos in this post. Don’t worry, they’ve been rectified. But the whole episode sure altered my facial colour. Not that that would have any evolutionary significance.

P.P.S. I was just informed that comments and pingbacks had been switched off. This was most unconsciously done, I assure you. I always welcome your comments. (This post is quickly becoming the most embarrassing I’ve ever posted.)

Luddites, biotechnology and the future

14 October 2013

Luddites - fighting progress since 1812.

Luddites – fighting progress since 1812.

It’s early morning. A thick fog is wrapping the cobbled narrow street in a translucent cotton, softening the appearance of grimy buildings and filth-ridden gutters. A group of people are quickly but quietly moving up the street towards a big red-bricked building. They stop in front of a wide double door, built from pale solid wood. One of the men raises an axe and smashes the door open. The mob storms the building and starts destroying the delicate machinery inside. Soon, only splinters and bent and distorted lengths of steel remains where once stood one of the finest examples of technological progress made in over 200 years: the automated power loom. The Luddites have struck again.

In hindsight, it might seem a bit foolish to have tried to stop the progress of industrialisation by chopping up some old machinery with an axe, but humans aren’t exactly rational creatures (see The limbic society) and tend to react emotionally to most situations.

Yet another example of hysteria over reason.

Yet another example of hysteria over reason.

Cue present day. A field of golden wheat, swaying slowly in the soft wind. The early morning sun has just touched the top of a hill on the other side of the valley. A group of people are quickly but quietly positioning themselves along the downwind edge of the field. On a given signal, they set fire to the tall dry grassy strands. The fire spreads rapidly, engulfing the wheat. Soon, only scorched earth and charred stumps remains where once stood one of the most technologically advanced feats in the history of mankind: the genetically modified organism or GMO.

GMO – a quick background

A rock dove (a.k.a. common pigeon) genetically modified into a fantail pigeon by means of artificial selection.

A rock dove (a.k.a. common pigeon) genetically modified into a fantail pigeon by means of artificial selection.

Now, about GMO: even though biotechnology is a fairly modern concept, the process of genetically modifying organisms to suit our needs and fancies is nothing new. We’ve been doing it ever since we cultivated the grey wolf some 10,000 years ago. But we’ve been forced to do it old-school: look for traits that we think would be of benefit to us (if not the organism itself) and select upon them. Over years, decades, centuries and millennia we have managed to create a wide range of unnatural beasts and abnormal crops, all by using controlled breeding.

What’s different now is that we for the first time have access to the genome itself. Instead of looking for how genes express themselves in the form of their parent organism’s plumage, colour or size, we can now modify them directly, either by borrowing traits from other organisms or by tweaking the genes themselves. By injecting the new genes into our target organism (on egg cell level) we can then increase an animal’s resistance to certain pathogens or increase the yield of a crop. This would then reduce the need to use antibiotics or fertilisers and would therefore help produce higher quality food for less money.

Controversy

As hinted in the introduction, people aren’t all that keen on genetically modified organisms. The reasons for this seem to group together in four different arguments: terrorism, religion/ethics, invasion and health.

We should probably worry more about naturally occurring pathogens than synthetic ones.

We should probably worry more about naturally occurring pathogens than synthetic ones.

I’ll start with terrorism. With biotechnology we have the possibility to create new and previously unknown biological weapons and disperse them on the enemy. The population in that country would then quickly get infected and perish from this synthetic superbug.

While this is a theoretical possibility, it’s not really a practical one. It would be much easier to just use an existing virus or bacteria than to create a new one. And even then, the lack of control over how the disease will spread makes bio-terrorism even more uncontrollable than nuclear terrorism. So in short, yes, it would be possible but it could as easily turn on you and your family as on your enemy.

Yeah, that sure does look like natural variations of the grey wolf and not like some unnatural genetically modified frankendogs**.

Yeah, that sure does look like natural variations of the grey wolf and not like some unnatural genetically modified frankendogs**.

Next up is religious and ethical arguments. I won’t bother with the former – not a lot is allowed according to most monotheistic religions anyway, including banking, pork chops and alcohol consumption – but I will have to say something on the latter. From an ethical point of view, biotechnology is indistinguishable our current breeding programmes. We alter nature to fit our needs, with little or no concern of the welfare of the organisms themselves. Lately, we do seem to have started to care more about animal welfare (although mainly pets), which is of course a Good Thing, but regardless, bioengineered organisms should fall under the same regulations as any other creature. Which it does and all should therefore be catered for*.

The effect of the Japanese vine kudzu, let loose in Georgia, USA.

The effect of the Japanese vine kudzu, let loose in Georgia, USA.

Invasive species. Now this is a big one. It’s well-known that the introduction of foreign species into existing ecosystems is usually less than favourable for native species, like when the European rabbits were planted in Australia or the Japanese kudzu-vine spread into the wild in USA. The threat that a genetically enhanced organism lets itself loose and out-competes the wild fauna or flora is a real one. So far – even though several GMOs have managed to spread in the wild – nothing like this has happened. But we need to monitor the situation carefully and make sure we don’t inadvertently create a species that will become a pest. (There are safeguards in place, like suicide-genes and such, but if life and evolution has taught us anything it’s that things constantly change. The suicide genes might devolve, or lose their efficiency for a number of reasons. It would be foolhardy to rely solely on emergency shutdown mechanisms.)

Ok, good. I'm glad we're keeping this discussion free from emotionally loaded propaganda and deliberate misinformation.

Ok, good. I’m glad we’re keeping this discussion free from emotionally loaded propaganda and deliberate misinformation.

And finally health. This is the argument most widely used against GMOs, and especially GMO crops. It has been stated by activist groups that GMO food could be bad for your health, either directly or through long-term exposure. A plausible mechanism for how that could possibly work has yet to be suggested. Especially since GMO food chemically is no different from other food.

Also, we have been using GMO food for 30 odd years now and no apparent epidemic of related health problems has been detected.

The only possible mechanism for harming human beings would be to deliberately introduce a gene that produces some kind of toxin. And even then it would have to be produced in high enough concentrations to harm us, which would mean precious energy that could have been used to increase the yield would have to be reallocated for expensive toxin production. The resulting crop would perform very poorly in the fields compared to other, non-toxic, varieties.

Conclusion

Although there are issues with genetically modified organisms, they’re mainly to do with the potential threat of creating new pest species that could potentially harm the local ecosystems. However, in that scenario, it’s worthwhile to remember that GMOs rarely turn out to be the super-organisms that everyone fear. Even if sporting a modified gene here and an enhanced gene there, they rarely perform better in the wild than the species with a few million years of evolutionary adaptation under their belt.

You might question – and rightfully so – what the point of GMO crops is, if they don’t perform any better than the regular selected crops. Actually, they sometimes do, but we’re still in the process of trying to figure this biotechnology thing out. We have managed to produce crops that express some beneficial traits, but it has not been as easy as we’ve hoped. The potentials are promising but getting there might take some time. But obviously, this should warrant more research to be done, not less.

Good food is just good food, regardless of what technology was used to modify the genes.

Good food is just good food, regardless of what technology was used to modify the genes.

And when it comes to health concerns, we need to remember there’s no magical ‘natural’ substance or medium. Just because a gene has been modified by us and not nature, it doesn’t make the organism somehow completely foreign and less natural. It’s still the same chemicals as in non-GMOs, and the GMO crops still contain all the regular stuff like dietary fibers, carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins and minerals. Or as the European Commission Directorate-General for Research and Innovation would have it:

“The main conclusion to be drawn from the efforts of more than 130 research projects, covering a period of more than 25 years of research, and involving more than 500 independent research groups, is that biotechnology, and in particular GMOs, are not per se more risky than e.g. conventional plant breeding technologies.”

So to conclude this – all too long – post: GMO food is no more dangerous to eat than food from crops refined through selective breeding. And frankly, if you’re worried about what’s in your food, you could do worse than focusing on what could really harm you: refined sugar. But that’s another story.

* Unless of course you don’t have any faith in our authorities competence or good intentions. In which case it’s a different issue all together.

** For the record, I’ve been lucky enough to have owned a couple of Great Danes and they’re lovely dogs. Not frankenesque at all.

Simulacrum

29 September 2013

Look at all the little virtual people.

Look at all the little virtual people.

I read a book a while back. The book was Accelerando by Charles Stross and it was packed with new concepts in a way I hadn’t experienced since I read Neuromancer by William Gibson decades ago. (Yes, I’m a huge Science Fiction fan. Didn’t you know?) Just as Gibson in the very first cyberpunk novel* back in 1984 hinted at the future of a connected world (world-wide web, anyone?), in Accelerando, Stross shows us the future of a post-singularity humanity.

Singularity

The idea of a post-singularity humanity might warrant some further explanations. The singularity, in a socio-technological aspect, is where the processing power of our computers exceed the processing power of humanity. Essentially, it’s when machines become smarter than us.

Well, this looks suitably artificial. And vaguely intelligent.

Well, this looks suitably artificial. And vaguely intelligent.

Now, we’re all aware of the blistering speed of computer technology the last 80 or so years. From clunky steam-powered mechanical calculators, via electrical tube-endowed monsters to the first microchip computers in the early 60s, our computers keep on getting faster. And, according to Moore’s law, they will keep on doubling in speed every 18 months. That’s an exponential acceleration and it stands to reason that within a relatively short amount of time, we will have more processing power in our glasses than a commercial data processing warehouse has today.

So. Soon we will have computers that can out-think us. And not just in a simplistic mechanical way, like calculating one trillion decimals of the number π, but actually be better at reasoning, analysis and pattern recognition. That’s what we call the technological singularity; humans would no longer be highest intelligence on the planet.

A post-singularity humanity would therefore face a completely different set of challenges than what we currently do. Rather than having to worry about growing crops and building armies to defend our territories from other human beings, we would be competing with a new type of consciousness: the artificial intelligence or AI. And one way of managing that would be to go digital.

Uploading…

A solar-system-sized computer? Yes, why not? Why not indeed.

A solar-system-sized computer? Yes, why not? Why not indeed.

Just as enough processing power would allow artificial intelligence and consciousness to be created synthetically, that same power would allow us to scan the current state of our brains and upload that state to a processing cloud. This facsimile would then go on being a conscious intelligence, with similar emotions and experiences to what we experience here in the physical analogue world.

Having been uploaded, we could go on experiencing the physical world using sensors of different kind, just as we currently use our eyes, ears, noses and what-not. That way we would very much still be physical beings, relying on the external word for our everyday experiences. Or we could recreate a virtual world to live in instead. In this virtual world we could be gods, changing the world around us as we please; or we could have restrictions in place, making the virtual world as limiting as the physical reality.

And with enough power, the fidelity of this virtual world could be as high as the real world. Essentially, our virtual existence would be indistinguishable from reality.

What is reality?

This would be a definite low fidelity virtual reality, then.

This would be a definite low fidelity virtual reality, then.

But hang on. If we – at least in theory – could simulate a virtual world to the level of it being the same as the physical world, what would the difference be? How would we know we’re simulated conscious-nesses living in a virtual world and not physical beings living in the real world?

Well, we probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. All our senses would tell us that the rain that was falling was wet and cold, the wind strong and smelling of the sea and the sky dark and full of clouds. We would experience emotions like fear, love and hate, just as we do in the real world.

This has some uncomfortable consequences. If we can foresee a possible future of a post-singularity humanity, where we live virtual lives in a simulated reality, what is to say that it hasn’t already happened? What if we already live in a simulation and don’t even know it? This might already be in the future and we might just have chosen to not remember any of it, and instead live our lives in a costume drama, as it were.

Out of all the infinite worlds…

A multiverse containing many different Earths. I particularly like the octopus one.

A multiverse containing many different Earths. I particularly like the octopus one.

I sincerely doubt that we are living in a simulation, though. For one thing, why would we have chosen to not remember that we are, if we were? That doesn’t sound very likely, in my opinion. Also, if we were in a simulation, why would we choose one with so many practical problems in it? Why choose to live in a world with global warming, starvation, poverty, slavery, prostitution, countless wars and a mass extinction rate that’s off the chart? Surely there would be nicer worlds that we could create?

And I don’t put much faith in theories of some alien intelligences having secretly invaded us and staged a synthetic world for us to use. Why go through all that trouble? They would essentially have to dismantle the whole solar system and turn it into a Matrioshka brain in order to provide the required processing power. And for what? Placating a bunch of simian low-brows? Surely it would be cheaper just to exterminate us, old-school-style.

Science to the rescue

If you can’t stand the uncertainty of not knowing if you (and the rest of the perceived universe) is really real, physicists might soon come to the rescue. The prospect of our universe not being a real physical universe is actually not laughed at within the scientific sphere, and several theoretical experiments for determining if this is the case are being designed.

Science Woman and Science Boy to the rescue.

Science Woman and Science Boy to the rescue.

One of them rely on the assumption that – as we currently understand the laws of physics – it would take an infinite amount of processing power to simulate them ad infinitum. And since there can’t be an unlimited amount of anything, some short-cuts must be made in order to simulate our universe on a quantum level. This would result in rounding-off errors and weird values at the far ends of the scale for all physical forces within our world, and were we to find such anomalies we could deduce that we are indeed living in a simulated reality.

But, as I said, don’t lose any sleep over it. The probability of that being the case is pretty low. And even if it was true, and we were really living in a simulated reality, what difference would it make on a practical level? If it still feels like it’s real, why not treat it as if it was real. I mean, what options would we have? Sit around and complain about it? Much better to embrace whatever reality we find us in and make the best of it.

Don’t worry, be happy. It will end soon enough, anyway.

 

* I find it slightly ironic and quite amusing that Neuromancer, the novel that defined the genre cyberpunk, was written on a mechanical typewriter, and that Gibson didn’t even own a computer at the time. But then again, who am I to talk? I only bought my first computer 11 years ago.

Crime and punishment

9 September 2013

This is not a post on Fyodor Dostoyevsky‘s famous novel Crime and Punishment. Rather, it is a post on capital punishment, its moral implications and social consequences. As such, it might be slightly controversial and easily offended readers might do well in skipping this post.

There. Warning over. (Side note: I haven’t done a post where I had to put a warning or disclaimer at the top for a while now. Am I losing my sting?)

Justice

The current legal systems by nation.

The current legal systems by nation.

There are only four types of legal systems in use in the world today. The most common is Civil law, which is based on abstracted laws and rules legislated by a governmental body. This is the legal systems used throughout Europe (except for the UK) and most of South and Central America, Asia and Africa.

The second most common system is Common law, based on the old legal system of the British Empire and famous from all the British and American films and television shows. It is essentially a precedential system, where judges develop the laws in court, creating precedents that will act as guidelines for subsequent cases of a similar nature.

Common law is not the most common after all.

Common law is not the most common after all.

Then we have religious law, now only represented by the Islamic Sharia, where laws are based on rules found in religious scriptures. It is mainly practiced in the Middle east and parts of Northern Africa.

Finally – and now all but extinct – we have the Customary law systems, where old customs are essentially viewed as laws in court. In practice, if things have always been done a certain way, it becomes the law and people are required to continue doing them that way. Today only Mongolia and Sri Lanka practice Customary law.

Fairness

I’ve talked about fairness before, both in The fairness syndrome and The moral code. I concluded that there seem to be a hardwired sense of fairness in us humans, where we expect people to behave decently and if they don’t, we become outraged. This fairness sense is the basis of all legal systems, both current and ancient. We want our societies to be fair, and for everyone to be treated fairly. However, the way in which we realise this fairness has varied over the ages and across borders.

"Yeah, like I'd eat YOU."

“Yeah, like I’d eat YOU.”

In the beginning we had the old ‘Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’-system. If someone knocked out one of your teeth, you had the right to knock that persons tooth out in return. Or stab out their eye, had they somehow managed to cause you to lose an eye. It’s a very direct and basic system and it’s still in use today. In fact, in the Korowai people in Papua New Guinea, you are allowed by the village elders to take revenge on a murderer by killing him/her yourself. And then you’re allowed to eat him/her, to regain some of the energy lost when the murderer killed the victim. But this is a dying practice (no pun intended) and most societies now delegate the punishment to a legal institution of some sort.

Death penalty

This brings me to the core subject of this post: capital punishment. Just like the old ‘Eye for an eye’-system is declining, so is the practice of sentencing people to their death. Currently, out of 206 countries, only 57 actively practice the death penalty. Of those, most are developing countries, and there’s an obvious trend towards abolishment in countries where the economy is advancing. The only post-industrial countries still practicing death penalties are Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and United States.

Getting rid of enemies of the state is not really about justice.

Getting rid of enemies of the state is not really about justice.

So the number of countries using the death penalty is steadily decreasing. And this raises a question: why has so many countries abolished the death penalty? Is it for moral reasons? A sense of becoming a more enlightened society? Or is there something more practical behind the decision?

An argument in favour of the death penalty is that the presence of capital punishment will act as a deterrent and stop people from committing heinous crimes. In reality, that doesn’t seem to be the case. With the typical practicality of the human mind, criminals (like all humans) tend to suppress uncomfortable facts and rationalise that it ‘could never happen to them, anyway’.

No, I can't see much of a correlation either...

No, I can’t see much of a correlation either…

The statistics seem to validate this view. As seen in the graph to the right, there is no obvious correlation between the use of capital punishment and the percentage of homicides committed per year. For instance, most European countries have the same low-level of homicides as Saudi Arabia, even though none of the European countries practice capital punishment and Saudi Arabia does. And on the other side of the Atlantic, United States does practice capital punishment but still have the same amount of homicides per year as Argentina, that has abolished it.

So, perhaps the reason almost every single developed country has abolished the death penalty is because it just doesn’t work as a deterrent?

Morality

But there’s also the moral side of capital punishment to consider. In recent years, more and more elaborate methods of absolving the executioners have been invented. The (in)famous lethal injection machine of United States uses a control computer with a randomising function and a mix of lethal and non-lethal syringes in order to allow the two operators to stay ignorant of who did actually order the machine to perform the execution.

Lethal injection machine - a philosophical folly.

Lethal injection machine – a philosophical folly.

From a philosophical point of view it’s a bit of a folly, since each operator is required to press the button and therefore is essential for the execution to take place. That way, however much they would like to avoid it, they are both equally responsible for taking the prisoner’s life.

But the phenomenon does highlight a conflict of interest. Even though a state wishes to be able to enforce the death penalty, it doesn’t want to force anyone to have to carry out the sentence. This is a symptom of trying to escape responsibility of performing the executions. It’s similar to the notion of people not wanting to know how the meat they’re having for dinner has been produced. And just like suppressing the thoughts of slaughter houses filled with petrified cows and pigs is the first step towards vegetarianism, trying to avoid the guilt associated with executions is the first step towards abolishing the death penalty all together.

The future

As mentioned, there is a global trend towards abolishment of the death penalty. More and more countries join the ranks of post-industrial nations and in the process, most of them leave capital punishment behind. And for good reasons. Capital punishment has no place in a modern society; it doesn’t work as a deterrent and is just a brutal and archaic form of punishment that’s left over from when we had a much more primitive view on justice.

But being an abolitionist doesn’t make me a pacifist. If someone were to hurt someone I love, I would turn to violence in an instant. But that’s just me allowing my limbic system getting the better of me. I would hope that an enlightened and advanced society would keep itself above such primitive emotions and be guided by a clear state of mind. Courts of law are supposed to be about justice after all, not knee-jerk simian responses to emotional triggers.

So let’s call capital punishment for what it is: revenge, not justice.

Fat and fit?

26 August 2013

Warning for obesity-related mortality?

Warning for obesity-related mortality?

I watched a Swedish television commercial the other day. It consisted of depicting a slightly portly middle-aged woman winning a range of different Olympic sports. The point of it – I think – was to show that middle-aged women are better than you think at things you didn’t think they could do; an idea that the company behind the commercial – an internet service provider focusing on online gaming – was eager to enforce.

But regardless of the message or the motive behind the commercial, it got me thinking: does being overweight stop you from being a healthy human being? Is what we’ve been told actually true – that being overweight is a sure ticket to heart conditions, diabetes, circulatory problems and all the rest? Or is there something else hidden here? Could we have oversimplified the issue?

Conventional wisdom

The traditional view of overweight people: lazy, unmotivated and unfit.

The traditional view of overweight people: lazy, unmotivated and unfit.

There is such a mountain of statistical data showing links between numerous diseases and being overweight that it has become the conventional wisdom of the medical profession. And not just the medical profession either; the same links are used in the insurance business and the fitness industry as well as generic healthcare services. There is a lot of money to be made on this, and to reinforce the idea that being overweight is the same as being unhealthy. No one wants to be unhealthy after all, and being told that you are will most like trigger a behavioural change, in order to fight this evil overweight and become healthy again. It’s then a piece of cake (mmm, cake…) to sell in services that cater to that need to lose weight.

Case in point: when I had my yearly medical a while back, it was pointed out that I could do with losing some excess weight and that additional exercise would be a good idea. My first reaction was to immediately start planning how to lose this overweight to assure my good health. But then I had second thoughts. Ok, so I don’t participate in any team sports or spend my free time at the gym, but I eat (more or less) healthily and I walk 6-7 km at a brisk pace daily. That should at least make sure I’m not exceptionally unfit, shouldn’t it? I mean, one doesn’t want to be manic about fitness, does one?

But, on the other hand, those statistics are a frightening read…

Lies, damned lies and statistics

Don't listen you your bathroom scale; it's just being melodramatic.

Don’t listen you your bathroom scale; it’s just being melodramatic.

It turns out that the truth is a little more complex than what the statistics are indicating. What we think we see in the statistics could just be common symptoms rather than cause and effect. Even though it is indeed true that people who are overweight are more likely to also suffer from diabetes, heart conditions and circulatory problems, it doesn’t automatically follow that the former is the cause of the latter. Rather, an equally valid answer would be that an unhealthy lifestyle is the cause of both. This would mean that you could get all the health problems listed above without being overweight and that you could be overweight without developing a single one of them.

Now, obviously I can’t deny that certain conditions are linked directly to being overweight. If you happen to be very overweight, you might start suffering from pains in your joints, and your heart would have to work harder to power a bigger and heavier body. But that’s not my point. My point is that in the current culture of manic weight loss, even healthy young people who are just above the ‘normal’ weight (or indeed at or under it) are desperately trying to lose weight by dieting and excessive training and exercise. That is not healthy behaviour, and is just a few tiny steps away from turning into full-blown eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia.

The tide is turning

You don't have to be skinny to be fit.

You don’t have to be skinny to be fit.

Lately, reports have started to challenge the old wisdom. Studies have been carried out to more closely investigate the link between obesity and the lack of fitness. They all show that keeping fit is much more important than losing weight. Obese people who exercise regularly and lead a healthy life have a much lower risk of morbidity than people who are of ideal weight but unfit.

But don’t take my word for it. Here are a few quotes, starting with the Harvard Health Policy Review:

“A fit man carrying 50 pounds of body fat had a death rate less than one-half that of an unfit man with only 25 pounds of body fat.”

And the Annals of Epidemiology:

“Consistently, physical inactivity was a better predictor of all-cause mortality than being overweight or obese.”

And from The President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports:

“Active obese individuals actually have lower morbidity and mortality than normal weight individuals who are sedentary … the health risks of obesity are largely controlled if a person is physically active and physically fit.”

And finally the International Journal of Obesity Related Metabolic Disorders:

“An interesting finding of this study is that overweight, but fit men were at low risk of all-cause mortality.”

No, it's not a deadly sin to enjoy a cheeseburger.

No, it’s not a deadly sin to enjoy a cheeseburger.

To summarise: being unhealthy is much more dangerous than being overweight. And being overweight is not the same as being unhealthy. Although they can sometimes correlate, they are independent, and should be viewed as such.

So, if you’re feeling guilty lusting after that cheeseburger or pizza – don’t worry. As long as you have a reasonably healthy lifestyle, and it’s not in direct conflict with any pre-existing medical conditions, go ahead. Enjoy. Life is short enough; live it a little.

 

P.S. Just after finishing this post I read on New Scientist that not only does being overweight have no negative effects our health and longevity but it could actually be beneficial. Indeed, carrying a few extra pounds seems to make you live longer than if you’re at your ‘ideal’ weight. There you go: yet another reason not to forgo that dessert.

 

"Fat and fit" pullover

“Fat and fit” pullover

P.P.S. I’ve added a motivational “Fat and fit” pullover inspired by this post to my Zazzle store:

Literacy

12 August 2013

Whenever I finish a blog post I say to myself: “There. I’m done. This will be my last post. I’ll never blog again.” It feels like I’m empty. Done. Finished. And if I go against my better judgement and try to force myself to open WordPress and click Add New Post I end up staring at the dreaded blank page.

The dreaded blank page.

The dreaded blank page.

But after a while (days or sometimes weeks) I get this itch, this urge to write. An idea has formed, or a need to explore a topic in more detail. It connects with other ideas and factoids I’ve collected over the years and before I know it I once more find myself sitting in front of my computer and starting on another post.

This seems to be my process. I need these periods of downtime in order to be creative. And, being aware of this, I don’t really mind. It is as it is. It’s a small price to pay to be able to express myself in text.

Illiteracy

But this has put me in mind: what does it really mean being able to write? Is it important? And I don’t mean being able to write your name to sign for that delivery, but actually put your thoughts down in writing in a way that’s understandable to others. Is that in any way essential? Or is it like being able to sculpt or play the sitar – nice if you know how to do it, but not really important for your everyday life?

"What do they mean 'Referring to'? 'Referring'? Is that even a real word?"

“What do they mean ‘Referring to’? ‘Referring’? Is that even a real word?”

There’s a form of illiteracy spreading that takes the form of not being able to express one’s ideas and thoughts clearly enough in text for someone else to understand them. People suffering from this new illiteracy know how to write, but not how to write understandably. Their writing reveals a severe lack of understanding of basic grammar and spelling, and only rudimentary knowledge of sentence structure.

This form of illiteracy has in fact spread all the way up to the higher levels of the education system. Uppsala University is Sweden’s oldest and most prestigious university, and has traditionally been ranking well both in Sweden and internationally. But lately the professors teaching courses there have noticed a significant drop in the students’ ability to write. They don’t seem to understand that changes in word order changes the meaning of a sentence, they only have a very limited vocabulary and they suffer from a severe lack of grammatical knowledge in general. They no longer use capital letters at the beginning of sentences or full stops at the end. It’s come to the point where they can’t write reports or read and understand academic texts.

Does it matter?

But does it really matter? If everyone is on the same – albeit less than ideal – level of understanding, wouldn’t the language simply adjust and become simplified in itself? Why do we need this advanced linguistic knowledge anyway? What does it matter if students are on the literacy level of a 13-year-old? Aren’t they still smart enough? Don’t they still think unique thoughts and come up with new ideas?

In the future, we will all be subvocalising like bosses.

In the future, we will all be subvocalising like bosses.

Perhaps they do. Perhaps language doesn’t affect the way we think. And with the advent of new technologies we might never have to write things ever again. Voice-to-text solutions are limited today but they show encouraging signs of maturing into usable tools for everyday situations. And with text reading algorithms reading out loud for us we could perhaps bypass the written language all together, or at least banish it to our computers and make it into a machine language? In the near future, we could have devices interpreting the nerve signals we send to our larynx and tongue as we subvocalise our thoughts, and then easily store those thoughts digitally on the cloud, send them to our friends or publicise them to a wider audience. All of it without ever touching a keyboard or picking up a pen.

But hang on. If we’re no longer able to write comprehensible sentences, what would those subvocalised thoughts really look like? If we lack the ability to put our thoughts together according to strict grammatical rules, how would we be able to communicate them to other people? If we don’t all follow the same rules, wouldn’t we simply drift apart and end up being utterly incapable of understanding each other? We would be split up and isolated, just like in a modern version of the tower of Babel*.

Language and thought

I’ve made a lot of questions in this post, but the central one would have to be ‘Does language affect the way we think?’. And to answer that question I’d like to return to my favourite subject: human evolution.

That little ring of bone could tell future paleontologists if you were able to speak or not.

That little ring of bone could tell future paleontologists if you were able to speak or not.

In the beginning there was no language. Humans – or pre-humans, I guess – made do without ever uttering a single word. Sure, we had different calls and gestures for different things, ‘words’ if you like for things like ‘leopard’, ‘water’ and ‘crocodile’ (just like a lot of other animals), but no language as such. That lack of linguistic capability could be seen not just in the physical structure of our bodies (lack of space for a lowered and elongated larynx, the diminutive size of the hypoglossal nerve canal), but in our culture and tool industry as well. As our linguistic prowess increased so did our sophistication in tool making and arts and crafts. There seem to be a direct correlation between inventions and the use of language.

This interesting connection could well be evidence of us humans having to be able to think things through in words and sentences in order to make sense of them. Until we can put an idea into words we only perceive it as a hunch, something just beyond the grasp of our minds. So in that sense, being able to form coherent sentences is an essential requirement for constructive thoughts and ideas. Without language our minds are blind, fumbling around without a chance of ever coming up with any original thoughts of their own.

So, yes: a proper understanding of language is essential for our capability of thinking original thoughts. We need a language with a fixed set of grammatical rules in order to make sense of the confusing and ever-changing collection of ideas we have inside our minds. And if we want to communicate those ideas to others – the basis for human culture – we need everyone else to use the same grammatical rules in order for them to understand what we’re saying.

Evolution or degeneration?

If we're to survive as a species we really need to keep our minds sharp.

If we’re to survive as a species we really need to keep our minds sharp.

Language isn’t a fixed thing. It is constantly changing and evolving. New words and grammatical rules are adopted regularly and old ones disappear and are left by the roadside of the history of language like old fast food wrappers and discarded empty cans of soda pop.

But, whatever changes a language goes through it has to be a global change, a change everyone (at least eventually) is onboard with. Otherwise the language will start to degenerate and become a blunter and blunter tool. And our thoughts and minds will become blunter with it. So let us keep our language and our minds as sharp as possible. We are going to need them. Badly.

 

* For the record, the tale of the tower of Babel has always confounded me. What is the moral suppose to be? “Don’t try to do great things”? “Be wary of God, for he is a mean bastard and will mess you up good”? Honestly, does anyone have any ideas?

Evolution 101

3 August 2013

It has come to my attention that people are sometimes confused about the theory* of evolution. This might take several forms, from mixing up facts or misunderstanding processes to an outright denial of the whole thing. This bothers me. No one should have to go through life without a basic understanding of the most revolutionary theory of science ever conceived.

Here it is: arguably the most important book ever written. This second edition is yours to own for a mere $8,000 (1st editions fetch ten times that amount). Or you could download it for free on Amazon.

Here it is: arguably the most important book ever written. This second edition is yours to own for a mere $8,000 (1st editions fetch ten times that amount). Or you could download it for free on Amazon.

I’ve therefore written this blog post in order to try to explain the theory of evolution in simple, non-sciency, everyday terms.

But before I begin, I have to mention the 154 year old book On The Origin Of Species By Means Of Natural Selection by Charles Darwin. It’s arguably the most important book ever written and it has influenced not only biologists and other scientists but popular culture and society as a whole. It has made Charles Darwin the only scientist to ever become immortalised by having an ism named after him (by contrast, there is no Newtonism or Einsteinism). It’s also a very well-written book, easy to read (even though it can sometimes feel like it is mostly about pigeons) and I recommend that you download your free copy right now.

All done and ready to go? Good. OK, here we go.

The theory of evolution is based on three components: heredity, variation and selection. I’ll go through these one by one before summarising the modern theory of evolutionary.

Heredity

Example of heredity in the appearance of a mother and her daughter.

Example of heredity in the appearance of a mother and her daughter.

The first part of the theory of evolution is the concept of heredity, that character traits are inherited from the parents to the offspring. We are all familiar with this phenomenon and it’s been a well-known fact for millennia. What hasn’t been known is the nature of heredity, how it actually works. Until quite recently, we believed it worked like mixing paint, so that the offspring became a mix of its parents’ traits.

Thanks to an 19th century Austrian monk called Gregor Mendel, we now know this is not the case, and that traits are in fact passed on as discrete units – genes. We’ve also figured out that genes are made up of a special kind of molecule called DNA and that they are collected in their thousands into chromosomes.

Variation

The second part of the theory of evolution is the observation that offspring seem to vary. Within a litter of animals or a collection of seedlings, there will be slight (or sometimes not so slight) variations in appearance, strength, endurance and so on. We see this in our own children, in our pets and in our garden plants, but it’s equally true for wild animals, plants, fungi and all other life-forms that reproduce sexually. In addition to visible traits, there are also hidden or more subtle variations in traits like capability to process certain types of food, resistance to pathogens and so on.

Recombination of chromosomes.

Recombination of chromosomes.

The reason for this variation is due to how the genes of the parents are combined. With sexual reproduction (as opposed to cloning), the chromosomes are recombined within the offspring to form a random variation of the traits the parent possess. It works sort of like a tumbler, where the chromosomes from the parents are mashed together, with different bits of the offspring’s chromosomes coming from either the mother or the father.

There is also another form of variation which occurs at a slow but more or less regular rate: mutations. A mutation is when a gene is changed so that it results in a different function. There is a range of different causes for mutations like certain chemicals, radiation or even infections. Most of the time, the mutation takes place in a somatic cell (i.e. a regular cell that makes up the body of the organism**, like a skin cell or a muscle cell) but sometimes it happens in an egg or a sperm and then the mutation becomes hereditary and the offspring could potentially display a completely different character trait than that of either parent organism.

Selection

Yes. That's exactly how it works.

Yes. That’s exactly how it works.

The final part of the puzzle is the concept of natural selection. This is the key to understanding how evolution works, and is the most often misunderstood part of the theory of evolution. In essence it’s a variation of the artificial selection we’ve been undertaking for centuries on our livestock, pets and plants. We can easily see how our careful selection of desired traits has resulted in the multitude of breeds and stocks we have in agriculture today. Natural selection works in a similar way in that traits that are to a benefit for the organism will help it keep healthy and produce more offspring. Over generations, that particular trait will become more and more common in a population until the population is different enough from other populations to no longer reproduce with them and it becomes a new species.

Now, all of this takes time. For any kind of visible change to take place 100s if not 1000s of generations will have to pass. In larger organisms this would take many thousand or even million years, but in smaller ones – like bacteria – the changes can be seen within weeks or even days.

Evolution in a nutshell

And that’s the theory of evolution in a nutshell. It’s heavily based on Darwin’s idea of natural selection, but with the deeper understanding of heredity and variation that modern genetics has given us and can be summarised in one paragraph:

The theory of evolution states that all life is related and that traits within each organism are hereditary, albeit with some variation. This variation is played out in competition where the most fit for their environment produces more offspring and that variant becomes more numerous as a result.

I cannot write a post on the theory of evolution without it featuring a diagram of the Tree of life. Here's one based solely on genetic differences.

I cannot write a post on the theory of evolution without it featuring a diagram of the Tree of life. Here’s one based solely on genetic differences.

It’s a very neat theory that clearly explains how life have managed to become so diverse and how it all links back to one single organism (called LUCA – Last Universal Common Ancestor), way back in the mist of time some 3.8 billion years ago, when life first appeared on the planet. In the 150 odd years since the theory was first conceived, it has withstood countless attempts to disprove it but only grown stronger as more and more facts pile on in its favour.

It’s all pretty amazing and in my opinion truly awe-inspiring in its breath-taking simplicity.

 

* A quick note on the use of the word ‘theory’: rather than representing a vague idea or hunch as is often the case in civilian use, a theory is the highest order of empirical knowledge in the world of science; once a set of hypotheses have been combined, they can then be elevated, through extensive testing and multiple attempts to disprove it, to the final stage of being a scientific theory. For instance, we have come up with the theory of gravity in order to explain the everyday phenomenon we experience of not being flung into outer space. It doesn’t mean that we don’t know if gravity exists or not, just that we have constructed a theory for how it works. (Coincidentally, the theory of gravity is on much shakier grounds than the theory of evolution.)

** Mutations that occur in regular somatic cells sometimes cause cancer. In fact, we all get multiple new cancerous cells every day, but our immune system is very good at tracking them down and destroying them. It’s only when that protective system fails that we develop cancer.

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