Tag Archives: survival

119. How Humans Evolved

28 Aug

The latest issue of Scientific American (September 2018) is concerned with the issue of how we humans are different from other animals. The issue title is: “A Singular Species: The Science of Being Human.” A lot of this valuable issue is concerned with evolution. As I looked through the issue, I tried to find a discussion of certain details about how evolution actually produced our superior brains.

Here is my analysis.  First, what is necessary for biological evolution is the following:

1. Death, which leads to many generations, that can make small incremental changes.

2. Mutation: A change in DNA that is relatively permanent.

3. Survival of the fittest. The key to understanding “fittest” is that there is a combination of traits in an individual that will allow him (and her) to reach the age for sex and child rearing. The mutation and progeny must live long enough to promote the reproductive cycles. These are the main themes, but many details are involved in the whole process of evolution.

An overall observation, is that evolution is a tree process rather than a number of parallel lines. Some detail about primates is instructive. Primates include lemurs, lorises, monkeys, apes, and man. All primates are mammals and have advanced binocular vision, grasping ability, and specific enlargements of brain.

60 or 80 million years ago there was a key species that had the capability of leading to various primate species. There are many primate variations that have been successful. Some species will continue because they are “fit” and those less successful may terminate, that is, become extinct. The branching tree of evolution will lose some branches and gain new ones. The species we see today, have all been good at all the many requirements for survival. The lemurs, monkeys, apes, etc are all successful variations.

The interesting fact is that perhaps a hundred million years ago, a mutant was born that had a DNA structure that could eventually lead to the evolution of humans. I think the existence of humans was not inevitable, it was just a chance event. If you look at all the other current species, many non-human animals are quite successful. Humans are not necessary for their success, and in fact, humans have been responsible for the extinction of many interesting animals. It is easy to imagine an earth without humans.

Some precursor animal lived in an environment where mental ability was a major asset. So this species kept evolving better and better brains that led to more successful and likely reproduction.

Let’s fantasize an environment where high intelligence, instead of such traits as better legs for running, was important for survival. Suppose one such environment was characterized by several major changes in food supply. Perhaps a favorite plant or animal to eat became extinct. The adaptation to major changes in food source probably would require more brain power. There could also be major changes in climate or the availability of water. Perhaps in one region there were two pre-human species that were highly competitive for a limited supply of food. The smarter species could have been more able to survive, and more likely to pass its DNA on to future generations. A superior memory could help find water during a drought, or the location of food sources for different seasons.

Dinosaurs never developed big smart brains like ours during their many years of existence. This suggests it takes a certain DNA structure and a certain environment to initiate the evolution of this large adaptive brain. It may, in fact, be a very rare occurrence in the Universe, and we are just very lucky.

I have written the above to provide information in a short form that may be useful for those not wanting read thousands of book pages. It is an effort to present key facts that may be lost in a sea of writings. I also commend the thousands of dedicated scientists that have contributed to our understanding of this profound topic.

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117. The Amazing Brain: How it was made.

6 Jul

Most people know, or are at least aware of the idea, that our amazing brains were developed through biological evolution. I am going to try to make a clear explanation of this process. One approach is to make comparisons with easy to understand non-biological processes.

A manufactured product can evolve under the following conditions:
1. Consider a product such as a cell-phone, that has a high volume of sales.
2. This product can and will be improved in a number different ways.
3. After each modification, there is an objective measure of the product’s success.
4. The product is permanently modified if there are indications of its success with the public.

So, the procedure is to make and sell a specific improvement, say, a larger screen. If the larger screen sells more phones, then it will be included in all future versions. If sales are worse, then the improved version will be abandoned. In this way, the cell-phone will “evolve” and customers will enjoy better and better phones.

The key factors in this and other evolution are variation (which is persistent) and feedback related to the new features. And, of course, the feedback must have an effect on the persistence of variations.

In biological evolution, mutation (relatively permanent changes) occurs in a species as new DNA is created for offspring. The feedback is success in survival. If a change, such as a longer neck for a giraffe, helps giraffes to survive, then giraffes may “evolve” longer necks. Note, longer necks allow giraffes to reach more food. Natural selection (survival of the fittest) is the biological process, similar to customer satisfaction for the cell phones.

It is really remarkable that “nature” has created automatically self-improving objects like animals and plants. The improvements can take place without any human intervention. Every animal and plant on earth has developed, in this way, for billions of years.

.                           Amazing time leads to Amazing complexity
Now think about this: the amazing complexity of the human brain is based on an amazing amount of time, billions of years. Brains (and all other organs) have developed to a fantastic degree, because of a fantastic amount of time for this “evolution” process to take place.

I should also mention that in our world, there are many types evolution. Similar to natural biological evolution, is animal breeding. Here, the selection is NOT natural, but by humane intervention. As civilization developed, there have been remarkable changes in species to make them more desirable for human use. The clear effects of breeding are very supportive of the concept of natural evolution.

If you want to develop your understanding of brain evolution, do an Internet search on the words “animal nervous systems” or “animal brains” and look at the images. This will help you to see the progression. After the transition from single-celled to multi-cellular animals, rudimentary nervous systems appeared. These provided simple two-cell reflexes based on an input (sensory neuron) and an output (motor neuron). Eventually, more neurons were added to the processing and finally complex brains appeared. Some of this nervous system development is well understood, but there is still very much to learn.

115. Voting in Desperate Times

1 Jul

Our democracy ordinarily works in wonderful ways, but as the founding fathers anticipated, could be corrupted. It is now on a dangerous path. Republicans and their top leaders (Trump, McConnell, Ryan, etc.) are quite willing to sacrifice our ideals, integrity, and world leadership, to survive, and to support their wealthy patrons. The “desperate times” are caused by the factors described below.

In order for Republicans to survive, they feel that they must tell lies, create havoc, and engage in ruthless character assassination. An example is the many repetitions of the investigation of Hillary Clinton and Benghazi, which NEVER resulted in significant findings. The basic reason why Republicans must lie is that they cannot say “vote for us, so that our extremely rich donors can be made even richer.” They fool people by saying that their financial programs will help the middle class, but history shows that they do not. The often used “trickle-down” concept is not supported by fact (even the Pope stated this).

Below I will discuss voting, but it is important to first really define the Republican problem so that the urgency will be apparent. Here is a list of current and future dangers:

1. Alienation of our long-standing and faithful allies (example: NATO and G7 members) in favor of Russian Putin and other ruthless dictators. Difficult international decisions are best made with the support of allies.
2. Encouragement of racism through lies and false data. On two occasions, Trump provided some support for Neo-Nazis, saying “some were very fine people.”
3. Creating an ultimately unfavorable world trade policy, that is not good for us and creates world leadership openings for China and Russia. All of Trump’s tariffs were countered by foreign equivalents. The final result was a loss of many USA jobs. 
4. Shattering our reputation for honesty. World leaders never know where we stand because Trump frequently and impulsively keeps changing his mind.
5. Judicial appointments are based primarily on loyalty to Trump rather than appropriate reputation and experience.
6. Failure to seriously deal with Russian attacks on our election system and also Republican gerrymandering, voter suppression, and other election scams.
7. Failure to separate politics from the functioning of the FBI and other agencies. Inane attacks on the FBI will have long-term effects on its important functioning.
8. Abolishing government regulations that protect us from various forms of pollution, and from financial scams that are often aimed at the elderly and those poorly educated.
9. Degrading government agencies that were established to improve international relations and decisions, such as the State Department.
10. Failure to fill important offices. We lack ambassadors, judges, agency leaders and experts, etc. Republicans want to blame the Democrats, but there is a failure to present nominations, and those nominated are often unqualified and simply Trump sycophants.
11. Disorganized border procedures keep worsening and are establishing rules that will negatively affect border policy for many years. Desperate decent people that are seeking asylum are locked up like criminals and have had their children taken away. It is well-known that certain Latin American countries have been essentially taken over by criminal gangs, and that decent people have needed to escape. Some of the money spent on their jailing could have been spent on helping these desperate countries.
12. Failure to support the problem of climate-change. This could be the most serious problem in the list. Eventually millions of people may die, and the mass migrations due to changes in rainfall patterns, could be horrendous.
13. Policies that negatively affect education and science can ultimately have serious harmful effects. Every nation needs educated people and will benefit from scientific research. Republicans fear education because knowledgeable voters will see through their schemes. Science is discouraged because some manufacturers may lose a little money in doing the right thing.
14. Future Supreme Court justices could be disreputable Trump loyalists that will create laws that a majority of Americans don’t want.
15. Corruption of the Census rules likely will eliminate non-citizens from being counted. This will have a negative political impact.
16. In general, current USA policies emerge from impulsive, simplistic decisions – often by Tweets. Frequently there is little study of all possible outcomes and all relevant factors when a decision is made. The traditional and effective process for making decisions based on hearings and the knowledge of experts is ignored. An example of poor judgment is the very biased tax-cut bill, which will affect infrastructure repair and other important programs. Trump’s advisors are mostly his friends, relatives, and yes-men rather than experienced leaders in relevant fields.

Now that the very real dangers have been described, we know that the most effective way (not the only way) to deal with all these long-term dangers is by voting Trump and Republicans out of office. Voting is critical.

Voting is so important now, that we must consider certain factors. It is sad to say that voting is often based on superficial subjective features like appearance, familiarity, religion, attractiveness, speaking voice, appearance of strength, etc.
We must choose candidates that will get maximum votes.
Of course, candidates must also be intelligent, well-educated, reliable, and supportive of the best policies.
What to avoid in getting maximum votes:
1. A certain number of people will not vote for those with foreign names and accents.
2. People that appear weak. Many voters require an appearance of physical strength.
3. People that lack charisma and a really fluent speaking ability.
4. I hate to say it, but a tall, white, Christian, articulate man is optimal. No one in the USA will reject someone like this, but someone lacking some or all of these features will definitely lose some votes.

A final thought:
I must admit that when the leading Democrat candidates for the presidency were Hillary and Barack, I was worried. Still, it was a great joy for me when Barack Obama emerged, and overcame these petty limitations. (I would also have been very happy with Hillary C.)
There are some really good trends now that hopefully will prevail. For example, women are more and more capable of getting votes. I see really good leadership ability in women like Elizabeth Warren. 

108. Imminent Danger of POTUS

28 Aug

The investigation of Trump and his associates is going slowly (as expected), but the dangerous actions already taken, and worse decisions in the future, are so dire that we must think about quick action. Congress must consider the consequences of his continuing in office. Below, I have listed some of these grim possibilities:

Naive and blatant coercive interactions with certain countries, such as North Korea and Pakistan (and even China and Russia) can move us closer to disastrous situations and even horrible world wars.

Further reductions of government regulations, which could result in serious health factors due to air and water pollution.

Other losses of regulations affect the financial stability of major banks and investment houses. When there are failures, ordinary taxpayers lose money by bailing them out.

Failure to raise the debt ceiling will cause the USA to default on loans. The
consequence of this would be:
1. A lower credit rating will cause an increase in the interest the USA is paying on its loans, and the result is that we, the taxpayers will lose.
2. With less trust in the US dollar, we could lose our Reserve Currency status.
Reserve currency is the money used for international trade, which currently is the US dollar. There are numerous benefits to this status.
3. The US is a world leader in many ways. With a poor credit rating, world respect would diminish.

Trump has alienated many of our traditional allies by egocentric dealings and accidental insults. Allies are helpful for many kinds of international problems and conflicts.

Trump encourages alt-right groups, so that our world-wide reputation for the respect of human dignity is being diminished.

Our traditional system of free public education could be compromised and human resources would be diminished. He sets a bad example for children, by his support of violence and his aberrant actions.

Failure to support climate change remedies can lead to disastrous and costly human migrations, storms, floods, and the formation of new deserts.

Trump has allowed Russians to infiltrate our society and elections. He tends to ignore or even support Russia and has made little progress in fighting cyber-crime.

Trump re-writes history according to his own needs. He tells blatant lies and fails to coordinate with assistants, which causes confusion and distrust at home and abroad.

His attacks on the press undermine a system that is vital for any democracy.  This encourages ruthless leaders abroad to attack, jail, or even murder reporters.  It is telling that so many media organizations are critical of him.  He should be supporting traditional reliable sources like the NY Times, CNN, and the Washington Post.

102. The Other Terrorism

28 Apr

Clearly, terrorism has dramatically affected most of Earth’s citizens. Airplane
travel and other modes of transportation are affected, people live in fear, disastrous mass migrations have occurred, and governments have toppled. The cost is at least billions and maybe trillions. We are all familiar with these problems.

There is a similar destructive force, which is not quite as dramatic, but is still very costly and fearful. It is information corruption — including identity theft, Internet hacking, stolen emails, Internet viruses, bogus news web-sites, blatant political lies, and similar. (Note, I include all computer related problems.)

We all love the convenience of trade using money (becoming obsolete), credit cards, and even Internet money like Bitcoin and the future “Blockchain.” But every financial system created by man has been corrupted. There is counterfeit money, bogus and stolen credit cards, and I am certain that even highly-touted future systems like Blockchain will be penetrated.

What brings this all to the forefront for me was a process of canceling an inexpensive fax service and a credit card. A simple email or web-site cancellation was not possible. The reason always given is “security,” and that is because of the scoundrels that corrupt our financial systems. Phone calls are always required and they can take hours to complete. The typical citizen goes through dozens of screens searching for a box that says: “check this to cancel the service.” Boxes like this used to be common, but now are scarce. You need to supply all sorts of security info, and if you cannot find something, you are doomed to eternal monthly service fees, inactivity fees, or maybe phone or email harassment.

Another experience had to do with an investment account of mine that was almost compromised, but saved by security procedures. A criminal attempted to withdraw money from my account, but was blocked. However, I was unable to use the account for a month or two while lawyers figured out what to do. I finally had to close the account.

Here is a list of ways that information corruption can affect us:

1. Identity theft can ruin your life by affecting your credit rating, loss of funds, and even bankruptcy. Legal help for a serious situation can cost thousands.
2. Stolen emails have affected our recent presidential election.
3. Credit card info stolen from a business can cause losses for thousands of people.
4. Bogus news web-sites have affected elections.
5. We have a leader now that re-writes history to suit his needs.
6. Information in personal and business computers is hacked for illegal purposes, or destroyed, by computer viruses, which generally operate in a way similar to biological viruses.
7. Reliable scientific information is challenged by callous politicians for various reasons, but most often to support the needs of rich industrial donors.
8. Perhaps most important, hackers from a foreign nation or terrorist group could disrupt our electrical grid. Widespread and prolonged power loss could have serious, even life-and-death, consequences for millions of people.

Is there a way to solve the information corruption problem? One thing is likely, that in the near future, security measures will increase and people will be even more disturbed by the inconveniences. Is there a long term solution? Maybe not. The ultimate answer,  I suspect, would require a utopian world of complete equality,  devoid of criminals and competition, and luxuries for all.  (Imagine that.)  As long as there is competition, some desperate folks, who feel left out, will be driven to some form of terrorism.

101. Worldwide Chaos?

26 Apr

Is there “worldwide chaos” or is it normal to have a certain amount of danger, struggle and warfare. I feel that recently, chaos has taken a step upward,
and there is more to be concerned with now — particularly in the USA — than in the last several years.

Here is a list of factors that currently are particularly disturbing:
1. Endless war in Syria and the resulting massive migrations.
2. Our current leader, Trump, is unprepared for high office, and lacks “ideals.”
3. Brexit: Britain leaving the European Union.
4. Russian attack of Ukraine.
5. Israel and Palestinian endless conflict.
6. Worldwide terrorism, including the dangers of ISIS, Taliban, others.
7. Failure of many leaders to recognize climate-change danger.
8. In some countries there is assassination of reporters and dissidents.
9. Greedy leaders scam the citizens, promoting personal wealth for a few.
10. Significant interference in USA elections by a foreign power (Russia).
11. Christianity and Islam sometimes are compatible, but often clash.

The search for chaos “causes” can take many forms, and for most important events, there are many factors that can be causal. There are many places to start the search. I believe a good point is the industrial revolution, usually dated from about 1760 to 1830.

As governments and technology developed, there was a parallel evolution of greed and corruption. The basic principle is that in any society or nation, a few aggressive and intelligent citizens will become leaders. As they improve their political skills, they learn how to communicate with citizens to achieve power, and to make use of rich donors. Congressmen are “bribed to help the wealthy with tax breaks and loopholes, and subsidies, creating a financial cycle: rich donors support desirable legislation and in turn, get even richer.

Once in office for a few years, they also can become adept at increasing their personal wealth. It is a matter of “learning” and of the eventual irresistible temptation to become richer. Those in office gradually separate from the people and form what could be called a “royalty” class. In many cases, a leader that starts out with good intentions will eventually fall into corruption.

The end result of this process of corruption is often violent or non-violent revolution. Excessive greed at the top will produce more poverty and more poor people. This has taken place for centuries, but recent improvement in communication, like the Internet, focused on this oppression, and helped with the organization of protest. One result was the “Arab Spring”, which began in Tunisia around 2010. Revolutions in Egypt and several other countries followed. Syria was the worst case, resulting in a disastrous deadlock between rebels and its President.

So a basic cause for much of the current world crisis is the rise of a greedy “Royalty Class” in many countries (even in the USA). The Syrian disaster became a basic cause to many other international problems. War in Syria resulted in a massive migration to other countries. This refugee problem I see as the major cause of BREXIT, the rise of Pres. Trump, and perhaps the rise of ISIS and other terrorist activity. In the US, the fear of refugees was recognized by Donald Trump, and promoted by him.

Here is a summary of some major (not all) causal links:

The rise of technology was accompanied by gradual governmental corruption.
Greedy and corrupt leaders exploit the citizens and increase poverty.
Citizens, helped mostly by the Internet, discover the corruption.
They are able to organize and revolt in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, etc.
The revolution in Syria caused massive migration and associated fears.
Migration fears caused Brexit, the rise of Trump, terrorism, ISIS?, etc.

Final thought. I have condensed what could be a whole book, into a brief blog.
My purpose here, is to promote thought and analysis. As ordinary citizens better understand the world, it can become a better place.

87. GMO Babies and Foods

26 Jan

I recently listened to a TED talk entitled “The ethical dilemma of designer babies”, by Paul Knoepfler. It was a good talk, but I was disappointed by the suggestion of a moratorium on the science involved in the direct genetic improvement of reproduction.
Knoepfler is a scientist working in the field of genetics and GMOs (genetically modified organisms). He discusses the possibility that in 15 years or so, we will be able to make “designer babies” that are free of genetic diseases and may also have improved looks and intelligence. The author is afraid that “natural” children will be upset by the successes of “designer” children.
I think the “designer” idea is great and is not so strange as some think. After all, we affect the success of our children in many ways, including medical methods such as plastic and corrective surgery, good nutrition, the best education, exercise, mental health, etc. — why not give them an even better start by improving their DNA through carefully studied and regulated procedures.

Aside from the talk, I am also concerned about irrational fears of GMO foods, which are really important for the survival of our growing populations. Here is what I wrote about these methods as a comment to the TED talk:

I am a scientist (retired, and not in the field of genetics) but still study many areas of science and am very interested in scientific progress.   My judgment is to forge ahead in any scientific area, but observe certain limitations.  If there is a clear possibility of danger then we need responsible transparency and monitoring, not moratoriums.  I live in and am a citizen of the USA.  It’s foolish for us to stop working on something potentially very beneficial  while all over the world others are progressing and benefiting. At a minimum, just preventing genetic diseases is very worthwhile.  A moratorium here just puts us behind scientists working in other countries, and does not prevent the dangers that the speaker hints at.  Rich people, of course, would be able to take advantage of this overseas, and ordinary people would not.   My idea is to reject timid and fearful limitations and go full force,  using good documentation and studies as guides.  If it becomes clear that advances such as “designer babies” or certain GMO foods are dangerous, then scientists and Congress can regulate or abolish the procedure. 

The speaker is worried that a “natural” child would have to compete with a “designer” child. But even without this method there will always be someone better than you. It is not a good argument. Nature, breeding methods, cosmic rays, and even choice of a spouse all cause genetic (DNA) changes. The advantage of direct DNA changes by scientists is that they CAN be monitored and procedures can be improved or limited.

The innovations and amazing discoveries of science are a great joy. In a world filled with kindness and intelligence, scientists would never have created atomic bombs. Traditions, rigid beliefs, ignorance, and greedy politicians HAVE caused world disasters — Science has not.
After writing the comment, I decided to read more about GMO use. It is hard to do human research on GMO’s, but there are good studies using animals, that, in fact, we eat. Jon Etine (Sept 19, 2014, Forbes) reports:

“Estimates of the numbers of meals consumed by feed animals since the introduction of GM crops 18 years ago would number well into the trillions. By common sense alone, if GMO feed were causing unusual problems among livestock, farmers would have noticed. Dead and sick animals would literally litter farms around the world.”

There also is formal research that shows no negative effects and no effects on humans eating these animals. Irrational fears about GMO’s are unproductive and harmful. Of course, specific findings on particular GMO’s should be acknowledged, but should not influence the whole field. We don’t avoid all doctors, because a few have been convicted of malpractice. We need to use the results of good responsible scientific research wherever it is helpful. It is ignorance and unethical politicians that have caused our widespread dilemmas.