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  • November 27, 2010
  • 09:35 AM
  • 682 views

The Town That Went Mad

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Pont St. Esprit is a small town in southern France. In 1951 it became famous as the site of one of the most mysterious medical outbreaks of modern times.As Dr's Gabbai, Lisbonne and Pourquier wrote to the British Medical Journal, 15 days after the "incident":The first symptoms appeared after a latent period of 6 to 48 hours. In this first phase, the symptoms were generalized, and consisted in a depressive state with anguish and slight agitation.After some hours the symptoms became more clearly defined, and most of the patients presented with digestive disturbances... Disturbances of the autonomic nervous system accompanied the digestive disorders-gusts of warmth, followed by the impression of "cold waves", with intense sweating crises. We also noted frequent excessive salivation.The patients were pale and often showed a regular bradycardia (40 to 50 beats a minute), with weakness of the pulse. The heart sounds were rather muffled; the extremities were cold... Thereafter a constant symptom appeared - insomnia lasting several days... A state of giddiness persisted, accompanied by abundant sweating and a disagreeable odour. The special odour struck the patient and his attendants.In most patients, these symptoms, including the total insomnia, persisted for several days. In some of the patients, these symptoms progressed to full-blown psychosis:Logorrhoea [speaking a lot], psychomotor agitation, and absolute insomnia always presaged the appearance of mental disorders. Towards evening visual hallucinations appeared, recalling those of alcoholism. The particular themes were visions of animals and of flames. All these visions were fleeting and variable.In many of the patients they were followed by dreamy delirium. The delirium seemed to be systematized, with animal hallucinations and self-accusation, and it was sometimes mystical or macabre. In some cases terrifying visions were followed by fugues, and two patients even threw themselves out of windows... Every attempt at restraint increased the agitation.In severe cases muscular spasms appeared, recalling those of tetanus, but seeming to be less sustained and less painful... The duration of these periods of delirium was very varied. They lasted several hours in some patients, in others they still persist. In total, about 150 people suffered some symptoms. About 25 severe cases developed the "delirium". 4 people died "in muscular spasm and in a state of cardiovascular collapse"; three of these were old and in poor health, but one was a healthy 25-year-old man.At first, the cause was assumed to be ergotism - poisoning caused by chemicals produced by a fungus which can infect grain crops. Contaminated bread was, therefore, thought to be responsible. Ergotism produces symptoms similar to those reported at Pont St. Esprit, including hallucinations, because some of the toxins are chemically related to LSD.However, there have been other theories. Some (including Albert Hofmann, the inventor of LSD) attribute the poisoning to pesticides containing mercury, or to the flour bleaching agent nitrogen trichloride.More recently, journalist Hank Albarelli claimed that it was in fact a CIA experiment to test out the effects of LSD as a chemical weapon, though this is disputed. What really happened is, in other words, still a mystery.Link: The Crazies (2010) is a movie about a remarkably similar outbreak of mass insanity in a small town.GABBAI, LISBONNE, & POURQUIER (1951). Ergot poisoning at Pont St. Esprit. British medical journal, 2 (4732), 650-1 PMID: 14869677... Read more »

GABBAI, LISBONNE, & POURQUIER. (1951) Ergot poisoning at Pont St. Esprit. British medical journal, 2(4732), 650-1. PMID: 14869677  

  • November 24, 2010
  • 07:35 PM
  • 691 views

We were all Africans…before the intermission

by Razib Khan in Gene Expression

Quick review. In the 19th century once the idea that humans were derived from non-human ancestral species was injected into the bloodstream of the intellectual classes there was an immediate debate as to the location of the proto-human homeland; the Urheimat of us all. Charles Darwin favored Africa, but in many ways this ran against the [...]... Read more »

Jinchuan Xing, W Scott Watkins, Ya Hu, Chad D Huff, Aniko Sabo, Donna M Muzny, Michael J Bamshad, Richard A Gibbs, Lynn B Jorde, & Fuli Yu. (2010) Genetic diversity in India and the inference of Eurasian population expansion. Genome Biology. info:/10.1186/gb-2010-11-11-r113

  • November 24, 2010
  • 11:49 AM
  • 674 views

Indian population genetics study published in Genome Biology

by Tara Cronin in BioMed Central Blog

Population genetics have revolutionized human anthropology, with differences in the DNA sequences between existing populations allowing for the retracing of human migration over time. In a new population genetics study published in Genome Biology, the labs of Lynn B Jorde and Fuli Yu present evidence for an ancient northern migration route out of Africa taken by the common ancestors of Eurasians, from whom today’s East Asians, Europeans and Indians are descended. Their data also support a “delayed expansion” hypothesis for the history of Eurasians.By sequencing a small part of the genomes of 92 individuals from four Indian population groups, and comparing the results with existing sequences of other populations from the HapMap project, Indian populations were shown to be highly genetically diverse. Surprisingly, in some cases Indian populations were found to be nearly as diverse as African populations.Analyses of the sequences suggested that the Eurasian ancestors separated from African populations approximately 90 – 110,000 years ago but that the next expansion into separate population groups (East Asians, Europeans and Indians) was delayed, not occurring for another 40,000 years. The analyses also suggested that the Indian populations included in the study (Brahmin, Yadava and Mala/Madiga castes and the Irula tribe) had migrated to India via a northern route.The findings from this study, in particular the high degree of genetic diversity and the discovery of a large number of new genetic variants, highlight the need for including multiple Indian populations in any wider discovery effort relating to the demographic history of the human Eurasian expansion.

... Read more »

Jinchuan Xing, W Scott Watkins, Ya Hu, Chad D Huff, Aniko Sabo, Donna M Muzny, Michael J Bamshad, Richard A Gibbs, Lynn B Jorde and Fuli Yu. (2010) Genetic diversity in India and the inference of Eurasian population expansion . Genome Biology, 11(11). info:/

  • November 24, 2010
  • 10:11 AM
  • 1,165 views

From Natyural to Nacheruhl: Utterance Selection and Language Change

by Wintz in A Replicated Typo 2.0

Most of us should know by now that language changes. It’s why the 14th Century prose of Geoffrey Chaucer is nearly impenetrable to modern day speakers of English. It is also why Benjamin Franklin’s phonetically transcribed pronunciation of the English word natural sounded like natyural (phonetically [nætjuɹəl]) . . . → Read More: From Natyural to Nacheruhl: Utterance Selection and Language Change... Read more »

  • November 23, 2010
  • 01:36 AM
  • 730 views

Some new yellow-tailed woolly monkeys on the block.

by seriousmonkeybusiness in This is Serious Monkey Business

Here's something to get some holiday cheer in your lives a little early: a new population of critically endangered yellow-tailed woolly monkey was discovered recently!--but who are these guys and what exactly does this mean?... Read more »

Anneke M. DeLuycker. (2007) Notes on the Yellow-tailed Woolly Monkey (Oreonax flavicauda) and Its Status in the Protected Forest of Alto Mayo, Northern Peru. Primate Conservation, 41-47. info:/

  • November 22, 2010
  • 11:01 AM
  • 776 views

Stressing Motherhood: A primatologist discovers the social factors responsible for maternal infanticide. (Scientific American)

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

The latest stop in the #PDEx tour is being hosted by Scientific American:Throughout history, from the fictional Medea to the tragic reports of modern times, women have taken the lives of their children under a variety of contexts, whether it is to punish the father, escape from the burden of motherhood, or even to protect a child from what they perceive as a fate worse than death. In this regard humans share yet another feature, albeit a tragic one, with nonhuman animals since females in a variety of species have been observed to abandon, abuse, or even kill their own offspring. To stress the importance of motherhood in human societies today, how can we best understand this behavior so that we can better predict, and prevent, its recurrence?Dario Maestripieri has spent most of his career studying maternal behavior in primates. In particular, he’s focused on the factors that influence a mother’s motivation towards her young. As a professor of Comparative Human Development, Evolutionary Biology, Neurobiology, and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago he has enjoyed the kind of cross-disciplinary success that most scientists only dream of. His 153 academic papers and six books have been cited more than a thousand times by scholars (including this one) in many of the world’s top scientific journals. His latest paper is scheduled to be published in early 2011 by the American Journal of Primatology. In it Maestripieri lays out the argument he’s built over the last two decades showing how one of the most serious impacts on maternal behavior, one with potentially lethal results, is so common in modern life as to be nearly invisible: stress.Read the rest of the post here and stay tuned for the next entry in the Primate Diaries in Exile tour.Reference:Maestripieri, D. (2010). Emotions, stress, and maternal motivation in primates American Journal of Primatology DOI: 10.1002/ajp.20882... Read more »

  • November 22, 2010
  • 11:01 AM
  • 654 views

Stressing Motherhood: A primatologist discovers the social factors responsible for maternal infanticide. (Scientific American)

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries in Exile

The latest stop in the #PDEx tour is being hosted by Scientific American:Throughout history, from the fictional Medea to the tragic reports of modern times, women have taken the lives of their children under a variety of contexts, whether it is to punish the father, escape from the burden of motherhood, or even to protect a child from what they perceive as a fate worse than death. In this regard humans share yet another feature, albeit a tragic one, with nonhuman animals since females in a variety of species have been observed to abandon, abuse, or even kill their own offspring. To stress the importance of motherhood in human societies today, how can we best understand this behavior so that we can better predict, and prevent, its recurrence?Dario Maestripieri has spent most of his career studying maternal behavior in primates. In particular, he’s focused on the factors that influence a mother’s motivation towards her young. As a professor of Comparative Human Development, Evolutionary Biology, Neurobiology, and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago he has enjoyed the kind of cross-disciplinary success that most scientists only dream of. His 153 academic papers and six books have been cited more than a thousand times by scholars (including this one) in many of the world’s top scientific journals. His latest paper is scheduled to be published in early 2011 by the American Journal of Primatology. In it Maestripieri lays out the argument he’s built over the last two decades showing how one of the most serious impacts on maternal behavior, one with potentially lethal results, is so common in modern life as to be nearly invisible: stress.Read the rest of the post here and stay tuned for the next entry in the Primate Diaries in Exile tour.Reference:Maestripieri, D. (2010). Emotions, stress, and maternal motivation in primates American Journal of Primatology DOI: 10.1002/ajp.20882... Read more »

  • November 22, 2010
  • 08:55 AM
  • 866 views

The Blood of Louis XVI

by Terri Sundquist in Promega Connections

A bloody handkerchief stored in an ornately decorated gourd seems like a gruesome keepsake, but that is exactly what scientists are using to obtain the presumptive genetic profile of King Louis XVI of France. “Who would want such an odd souvenir?” you might ask. Well, apparently a bloody handkerchief was a perfectly acceptable memento from [...]... Read more »

Carles Lalueza-Fox, Elena Gigli, Carla Bini, Francesc Calafell, Donata Luiselli, Susi Pelotti, Davide Pettener. (2010) Genetic analysis of the presumptive blood from Louis XVI, king of France. Forensic Science International: Genetics. info:/doi:10.1016/j.fsigen.2010.09.007

  • November 22, 2010
  • 03:29 AM
  • 696 views

The flux of genes on the South Seas

by Razib Khan in Gene Expression


Huli Wigman from the Southern Highlands, Painting of Tahitian Women on the Beach by Paul Gauguin
Many demographic models utilized in genetics are rather simple. Yet the expansion and retreat of various demes in post-Ice Age Europe seems to be far more complex than had previously been assumed, though I suspect part of the rationale for [...]... Read more »

Wollstein A, Lao O, Becker C, Brauer S, Trent RJ, Nürnberg P, Stoneking M, & Kayser M. (2010) Demographic History of Oceania Inferred from Genome-wide Data. Current biology : CB. PMID: 21074440  

  • November 21, 2010
  • 06:41 AM
  • 672 views

Autism Gives You Biblical Superpowers

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

We've all heard about autistic "savants" with amazing mathematical, memory or artistic abilities. But could autism give you the power to kill 1,000 men armed only with a donkey bone?Samson was the original Chuck Norris. Granted mighty strength by God so long as he didn't cut his hair or shave, Samson's first act of heroism was ripping a lion to shreds with his bear hands. Then he moved onto people. According to the Book of Judges:"And Samson said, With the jawbone of an ass, heaps upon heaps, with the jaw of an ass have I slain a thousand men." - Judges 15:16Samson later bested even this achievement. Finding himself trapped in a building with over 3,000 enemies who were about to sacrifice him to their pagan god, Samson single-handedly demolished the building by smashing some pillars, killing everyone including himself.Samson owed his pagan-slaying powers to God, who promised him mighty strength, so long as he didn't shave or cut his hair. Anyway, what does this have to do with autism? Well, according to Indian neurologists Mathew and Pandian in a new paper, it shows that Samson had it. No, really.One of the earliest incidents recorded from Samson's adult life is the journey to Timnath with his parents where he tears a lion with his bare hands. On his return, he finds a swarm of bees and honey in the carcass of the lion, which he eats, and offers his parents (Judges 14:8-9). Abnormal eating is one of the atypical behaviors noted among children with autism [ref].Throughout Samson's life, it is seen that he performed extraordinary physical feats... It is possible that Samson was able to perform these feats as he may have been insensitive to pain, which is occasionally seen among autistics [ref]. A study of hospitalized individuals carried out in Sweden had reached the conclusion that individuals with autism or autism spectrum disorders are prone to acts of violence [ref].Hmm. Fair to say this falls into the "speculative" category. They also diagnose other Biblical characters with various disorders ranging from strokes to acromegaly but Samson's autism is certainly the most "interesting" of the bunch.Link: This study also blogged at Autism Jabberwocky, an extremely good blog I only found out about yesterday. I've subscribed, you should too.Mathew SK, & Pandian JD (2010). Newer insights to the neurological diseases among biblical characters of old testament. Annals of Indian Academy of Neurology, 13 (3), 164-166 PMID: 21085524... Read more »

  • November 19, 2010
  • 11:51 PM
  • 805 views

Trampling Over The Dikika Cut Marks

by Anthropology.net in Anthropology.net

Well, I feel somewhat vindicated. Remember the post where I criticized hominin cut marks from over 3 million years ago? Others have also had an eye of suspicion and have published their concerns in PNAS this week. I was wrong in considering the croc marking differential to the cut marks. But I was not wrong [...]... Read more »

Domínguez-Rodrigo M, Pickering TR, & Bunn HT. (2010) Configurational approach to identifying the earliest hominin butchers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. PMID: 21078985  

  • November 17, 2010
  • 05:29 PM
  • 575 views

Autism Following Viral Infection

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

I just discovered a remarkable case report from 1986 about a Swedish girl who developed all of the major symptoms of autism at the age of 14, following a severe brain infection.Autism generally becomes noticeable in early childhood. There are plenty of cases in which autistic people don't get diagnosed until much later in life, but the symptoms invariably turn out to go back a long way. Older children, teenagers and adults don't just go autistic overnight. Except in this case, if you believe it.The patient, "A", was born to healthy parents and developed perfectly normally, though she was described as somewhat shy. Just before her 14th birthday, she became ill with what at first seemed to be nothing more than a fever and mild headache.However, a week later, she developed a severe headache and had a seizure. After being rushed to hospital, she was unconscious for a few hours and then awoke, tired but fairly lucid. However, her recovery was only temporary:On day 6 there was a severe aggravation of symptoms and she became confused, part of the time verbally and physically aggressive, at other times tired and apathetic. She kept complaining of the headache.These complaints would be perhaps the last time she would use language appropriately for the purposes of communication.From day 10 she became autistic, reacting not to people but to pain. She would avert her gaze when approached. She was still febrile.... From day 12 to day 19 she was sometimes comatose and sometimes awake, "looking through people with her empty staring gaze," in the words of her mother (day 18) according to the medical records. She reacted with a pained facial expression even to rather slight noises (day 19).She then began to recover some of her faculties, but only some:On day 33: "lying in bed, accepting food orally for the first time, avoiding gaze contact but looking around her when she is not observed. Obviously sensitive to smells and taste. Empty, autistic like gaze."Day 40: "still quite 'fenced-off' but manipulated small objects with great skill. She echoed what nurses and mother said to her. Wrote simple words. Laughed in odd situations and raged with anger without obvious cause."Day 45: "autistic, not responding to social interactions, but echoing long phrases and sometimes chatting away in a cocktail party fashion."Autism is defined by a 'triad' of symptoms: difficulties with social interaction; difficulties with communication; and insistence on sameness, or repetitive interests and behaviours.Of these, it's perhaps not surprising that brain damage could cause the first two. We socialize and communicate with our brains, so of course damage could cause difficulties. What makes this case remarkable is that the patient also developed the third element of triad, repetitive behaviours.From day 70 bilateral flapping stereotypies of the hands were observed. She had also had bouts when she would laugh intensively and jump up and down, surreptitiously... She would carry with her small plastic objects and protest if these were removed. She would scream for hours if daily routines were changed in any way.10 years later, when the case report was written, her condition had changed only slightly.At the age of 22 years she moved to a small group home for mentally retarded persons... The most severe problem nowadays is her insistence on sameness. She absolutely refuses to go to the bathroom and screams for a quarter of an hour every morning before she finally accepts... Then she refuses to leave the bathroom and screams for another quarter of an hour. This pattern is followed every day without fail and intrudes on almost all activities of daily life.What happened to her? She suffered from herpes simplex encephalitis, a viral infection of the brain. X-rays at the age of 22 showed serious damage to the temporal lobes of the brain, extending to parts of the parietal lobes. (No pictures were provided, however.)Can her case really be described as a "typical autistic syndrome"? Certainly, there are striking similarities, from the obsessive routines, to the echolalia (repeating what other people say), to the avoidance of eye contact, all classic symptoms of severe autism.Of course it's always possible that the case report was written to accentuate these similarities, in order to make a nice publication. There have been a handful of other similar cases, though the same caveats apply. Still, if we do accept that these patients are indeed autistic, the implications for understanding the neurobiology of "normal" autism are obvious.Link: "The Man With Half A Brain" who developed a rather different pattern of symptoms after herpes encephalitis.Gillberg, C. (1986). Brief report: Onset at age 14 of a typical autistic syndrome. A case report of a girl with herpes simplex encephalitis Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 16 (3), 369-375 DOI: 10.1007/BF01531665... Read more »

  • November 17, 2010
  • 01:17 PM
  • 771 views

Icelanders descended from Native Americans?

by Razib Khan in Gene Expression

That is the question, and tentatively answered in the affirmative according to a new paper in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology. A new subclade of mtDNA haplogroup C1 found in icelanders: Evidence of pre-columbian contact?:
Although most mtDNA lineages observed in contemporary Icelanders can be traced to neighboring populations in the British Isles and Scandinavia, [...]... Read more »

Ebenesersdóttir SS, Sigurðsson A, Sánchez-Quinto F, Lalueza-Fox C, Stefánsson K, & Helgason A. (2010) A new subclade of mtDNA haplogroup C1 found in icelanders: Evidence of pre-columbian contact?. American journal of physical anthropology. PMID: 21069749  

  • November 17, 2010
  • 12:03 PM
  • 2,345 views

Faunal Friends: Evolution and the Animal Connection

by Krystal D'Costa in Anthropology in Practice


I’ll never forget the day S brought home a live chicken. When we lived in Queens, there were a number of fresh poultry and livestock suppliers that catered to the growing West Indian community, but there were definitely a few backyard farmers in the neighborhood. S was at a gas station when he heard a cheeping noise. He knelt down to investigate and when he straightened up, found a chick sitting on the mat in the car. “What was I supposed to do?” he asked showing me the chick. “It jumped in the car.”
His affinity with animals is nothing new. At fifteen, he nursed a pigeon back to health after setting its broken wing. During a trip to Trinidad, he befriended a bull—despite being warned away by my uncles—by sitting in the mud with it for hours and staring into its eyes. And today, we are the proud parents of two cats (we did not keep Chicken Little) who can’t seem to get enough of him. I am definitely second fiddle in their feline minds—though handy to have around when they need to be fed.
S is not alone. Pat Shipman (2010) notes the significance of pets—and animals—in our lives:In both the United States and Australia, 63% of households include pets, compared to 43% of British and 20% of Japanese households. In the United States, the proportion of households with pets is larger than those with children. (522).This relationship, dubbed the animal connection by Shipman, may have played an important role in human evolution, linking the traits that distinguish Homo sapiens from other mammals. How is it that some animals transitioned from food to friends, and what is the significance of this relationship?
The animal connection is the process by which pets or livestock become companions and/or partners, and are treated as members of the family. It refers to the intimate and reciprocal set of interactions between animals and humans starting 2.6 million years ago [mya],beginning with the use and study of animals by humans, and leading to regular social interactions. Today this is manifested in the adoption of animals (alloparenting) and the care provided to them in the course of that relationship. The roots of this relationship may be found in the development of three often recognized traits of humans: making and using tools, symbolic behavior (including language, adornment, and rituals), and domestication of other species. Shipman views the animal connection as a fourth trait, tying the other three together and having an immense effect on human evolution, genetics, and behavior (2010: 522).


Homo erectus shown with tools.
Photo taken at the American Museum
of Natural History
Though tool use has been documented in other nonhuman mammals, the manufacture and use of tools by humans is an extremely complex behavior. Modern chimpanzees are often recognized for their tool usage, but this usage varies whereas humans consistently use tools. Early humans used tools to process carcasses, and we have evidence of this from the marks left on the bones after contact with implements. Stone tools gave humans an advantage: they no longer needed to compete with other scavengers; they could hunt game on their own and/or drive off those scavengers if needed. The increased meat in the human diet meant that humans occupied a predatory niche, and as such necessarily needed to disperse so that their localities could support their needs. While Shipman makes clear that the fossil record supports that expansion of geographic range about 2 mya, the more interesting point, in my opinion, is that in seeking out live game, humans needed to learn about their prey, which opened the door for a more meaningful relationship with animals.
Wild animals are certainly able to communicate with each other, but language has thus far largely been relegated to humans due to syntax and grammar (520). Animals have alarm calls, but there are limits to what they can communicate. For instance, a monkey alerting his troupe about a snake cannot provide details about the snake: The monkey cannot say it is a brown snake. And while educated apes may have a vocabulary of about 400 words, they don’t apply syntax and grammar to those words (520). Language allows humans to share information, and we have developed delightfully complicated means of doing so:Ritual, art, ochre, and personal adornment are used to transmit information about such concepts as beliefs, group membership, or style, leaving physical manifestations visible in the archaeological record. Nothing interpreted as art, ritual, the use of ochre, or personal adornment has been reported in nonhuman mammals in the wild (521).

Depiction of prehistoric art.
Photo taken at the
National Museum of Natural History
As more sophisticated stone tools were developed, humans could pursue larger game. But this might often require collaboration, which encouraged language. Perhaps the strongest example of this is prehistoric art which depicts animals extensively, revealing morphology, coloring, behaviors, and sexual dimorphism (Shipman 2010: 524). It creates a record to be shared with others.
Domestication required humans to select for desirable behavioral traits and control the reproductive and genetic output over generations. They lived in close proximity to the animals, historically even bringing them into the home. Indeed, the physical closeness of humans to animals has allowed some infectious diseases to enter the human population from animal hosts, e.g., measles (dogs), mumps (poultry), tuberculosis (cattle), and the common cold (horses) (529). However, the benefits have outweighed the costs when it comes to keeping animals near: animals are much more than a food source. The Goyet dog is at least 17,000 years older than the next oldest domesticate (also a dog) … animals were domesticated first because their treatment was an extension of tool making (Shipman 2010: 524).Animals were domesticated as living tools! They expanded the reach of humans and made other resources more accessible. Animals could provide labor, milk, wool, and opportunities for the... Read more »

Shipman, Pat. (2010) The Animal Connection and Human Evolution. Current Anthropology, 51(4), 519-538. DOI: 10.1086/653816  

  • November 17, 2010
  • 05:50 AM
  • 807 views

Homozygosity runs in the family (or not)

by Razib Khan in Gene Expression

The number 1 gets a lot more press than -1, and the concept of heterozygosity gets more attention than homozygosity. Concretely the difference between the latter two is rather straightforward. In diploid organisms the genes come in duplicates. If the alleles are the same, then they’re homozygous. If they’re different, then they’re heterozygous. Sex chromosomes [...]... Read more »

Mirna Kirin, Ruth McQuillan, Christopher S. Franklin, Harry Campbell, Paul M. McKeigue, & James F. Wilson. (2010) Genomic Runs of Homozygosity Record Population History and Consanguinity. PLoS ONE. info:/10.1371/journal.pone.0013996

  • November 16, 2010
  • 08:25 PM
  • 1,089 views

Monkeys and Uncles

by Laelaps in Laelaps

During the long wind-up to this autumn’s congressional elections, hardly a week went by without a gaffe by Delaware tea partier and Sarah Palin-wannabe Christine O’Donnell. The sharp-tongued political commentator Bill Maher seemed to have an entire stockpile of embarrassing clips from when O’Donnell – then president of the conservative advocacy group the Savior’s Alliance [...]... Read more »

Meikle, W., & Scott, E. (2010) Why Are There Still Monkeys?. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 3(4), 573-575. DOI: 10.1007/s12052-010-0293-2  

Zalmout, I., Sanders, W., MacLatchy, L., Gunnell, G., Al-Mufarreh, Y., Ali, M., Nasser, A., Al-Masari, A., Al-Sobhi, S., Nadhra, A.... (2010) New Oligocene primate from Saudi Arabia and the divergence of apes and Old World monkeys. Nature, 466(7304), 360-364. DOI: 10.1038/nature09094  

  • November 15, 2010
  • 03:15 PM
  • 678 views

Around the web: male behavior

by Kate Clancy in Context & Variation

This post looks at the behavioral endocrinology of the human male.... Read more »

Levi, Maurice, Li, Kai, & Zhang, Feng. (2010) Deal or no deal: hormones and the mergers and acquisitions game. Management Science, 56(9), 1462-1483. info:/

  • November 15, 2010
  • 02:00 PM
  • 2,030 views

Evolving Together: Human Interference Not ALL Bad

by Krystal D'Costa in Anthropology in Practice

Is hindsight really 20/20? When we look at the past, we tend to imagine things as we wish they were, and not recall things as they actually were—nostalgia can be problematic. Romanticism of the past has given rise to ideas like the “Ruined Landscape” or “Lost Eden theory” which create pristine images of the past and argue that human activity is largely to blame for the overall degradation of landscapes. There is no denying that humans have had a lasting impact on the environment, however biologist Jacques Blondel (2006) suggests that these ideas overlook the ways human activity has actually contributed to the maintenance, diversity, and embellishment of landscapes (714). Blondel acknowledges that there is a middle ground between these ideas when it comes to the relationship we have with our landscapes—a balance must exist between resistance and resilience, between disturbance and recovery. While Blondel focuses his discussion largely on the Mediterranean, perhaps these ideas can also be applied to our own local landscapes, and help us understand how biodiversity can evolve in these circumstances.
One of the first significant marks—disturbance effects—by humans on their landscapes was likely their role in the disappearance of large land mammals:(T)here is much evidence of the direct responsibility of humans in the extinction of the ‘megafauna’ of Mediterranean islands. These island faunas included strange mammal assemblages with dwarf hippos and elephants the size of pigs. Archaeological sites in Cyprus indicate that human colonization began as early as 10,500 years ago and was soon followed by the rapid decimation of these mammals (Blondel 2006: 716).The loss of these animals had a direct consequence for the local environment: Forests and other vegetation could grow unchecked and previously open landscapes could be reclaimed over time. However, the rise of permanent settlements meant that such landscapes were not left to natural forces. The disturbance effect was compounded as humans managed these resources in the absence of large grazing animals, which of course leads us to the most “obvious consequence of human action”: deforestation.


Fossils of large mammals on display at AMNH.

In the Mediterranean at the time of Blondel’s writing, forests covered 9.4% of the Mediterranean Basin [pdf] —about 15% of the original vegetation. The rest of the land, believed to be so thick with vegetation that a “monkey could have travelled from Spain to Turkey almost without leaving the canopy,” has been “redesigned” via human intervention from about 10,000 years ago when Near and Middle East hunters began establish permanent settlements and produce their own food supply (2006: 714-715). They employed a formulaic approach to creating sustainable agro-silvio-pastoral ecosystems:Forest management through wood-cutting and coppicing, controlled burning, plant domestication, livestock husbandry, grazing and browsing, as well as water management and terracing have been for centuries the main tools for producing intermediate disturbance regimes (Blondel 2006: 716).For example, as already noted early humans may have contributed to the demise of large grazing mammals, however, the spaces these animals created by their behavior became important and necessary as humans became more settled and involved in their local environment. Fire cycles became an important means of maintaining open spaces and mosaic landscapes [pdf].
This method of clearing and shaping the landscape seems harsh and does require a steady turnover for plant and animal communities, but these sorts of changes were partially compensated for by intraspecific and interspecific adaptation in response to the changes in habitat:Cultivated plants in the Mediterranean Basic from the Neolithic onward included grain crops, fodder plants, oil-producing plants, fruit crops, vegetables, and a vast range of condiments, dyes, and tanning agents. The remarkable combination of protein-rich pulses and cereals that were domesticated in Neolithic farming villages of the Fertile Crescent, along with domesticated sheep, goats, cattle, and in some cases pigs, appears to have facilitated the rapid spread of herding and farming economies throughout the rest of the Old World. The perennial plant alfalfa, a source of fodder and green manure, apparently was also domesticated in the Middle East between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago and soon carried to all parts of the basin (Blondel 2006:717).In addition, ungulates (hoofed animals) were also domesticated, dogs took on a greater importance in providing protection, and wild boars found a niche in consuming the edible refuse produced by humans. Sheep and goats became major grazers and browsers in the area, and their popularity gave rise to several local varieties. Domesticated animals provided meat, milk, wool, opportunities for the production of tools and clothing, and assistance with labor. The picture that emerges is one where there is a dialogue of sorts between the landscape and its human inhabitants where changes build upon one another:The long-term accumulation of local differentiation during glacial times and subsequent human-induced selection processes together have resulted in the development of more than 145 varieties of domesticated bovids and 49 varieties of sheep. Over the centuries, hundreds of varieties of olives, almond, wheat, and grape, which have been selected intensively by humans, have also added to the biological diversity of the Mediterranean … human influence on population undoubtedly constituted a significant selective factor in their evolution through the process of domestication (Blondel 2006: 718).

The Mediterranean Basin showing the range of olive trees.
Credit: Velho

Blondel’s point is not to minimize or overlook the devastating effects of human disturbance events, but to draw attention to the ways in which our environment can react to us. The unique topography of the Mediterranean coupled with human efforts were factors in the evolution of plants and animals. However that is not to say that there is not a limit to the resilience in the region. Resilience—the ability of the landscape to redefine itself in terms of the changes that are occurring—is possible only as long as lasting damage is avoided:Gradual changes in land use practices, in humans’ use of chemicals or other factors, might have little effect until a threshold is reached beyond which restructuring occurs, restructuring that can be difficult to reverse (Blondel 2006: 727).Essentially, ecosystems tend toward stability cycling through positive and negative feedback from human activity. That stability is threatened permanently, resulting in badlands, once humans adopt industrial style agriculture and begin to use fertilizers and pesticides.

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  • November 14, 2010
  • 11:06 PM
  • 650 views

The Mines of the Future and of the Past

by teofilo in Gambler's House

In 1527 an expedition led by the Spanish nobleman Pánfilo de Narváez left Spain with the intention of conquering and colonizing Florida.  Accompanying the expedition as treasurer was Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who ended up being one of a handful of survivors of the disastrous expedition.  Cabeza de Vaca later wrote an account of [...]... Read more »

  • November 12, 2010
  • 11:00 AM
  • 739 views

How does an anthropological perspective contribute to our understanding of birth control? Part II

by Kate Clancy in Context & Variation

I polled my Twitter followers recently to find out what they wanted me to cover, and heard back a resounding "CONTRACEPTIVES!" So first I am going to re-post a series I wrote on my lab blog in July of 2009, with significant editing and updating. I think after these reposts I'll have a better idea of where it would make sense for me to contribute more, if at all. This is post two of five. Part one can be found here.What is a normal menstrual cycle? Are you normal? Am I? Women spend a lot of time worrying about this, and most of them seem to assume they fall outside of normal. So, I'd like to spend a little time unpacking the concept of normal reproductive functioning in the second part of this series.What is normal?Recently, in the beginning of an evolutionary medicine volume, I read in the editors’ opening comments that there is “nothing biologically normal” about monthly menses, as a way to put forward the idea that women should take continuous oral contraceptives (Stearns and Koella 2008, p. 4). This led me to wonder what it means to be biologically normal. That offhand, and troubling, statement about there being "nothing biologically normal" about month-long cycles and frequent menses, makes an entire population of women feel as though they are, then, biologically "abnormal." I don't think this is useful.My understanding of biologically normal is that the body varies and is responding to its environment in a way that we would consider to be adaptive. It is normal for the female reproductive system to allocate resources in response to its environment.Women from industrial populations are at the far end of the spectrum of variation in reproductive function, but we have not fallen off the end of the continuum. On the one hand, I appreciate the attempt of the authors to introduce the idea that American physiology is not the global standard that we should use to evaluate all human populations. However, any body that responds appropriately to its ecology is, by the definition I've always learned, normal.The reason Stearns and Koella (2008), and Eaton et al (1994; 2002), and others have been advocating continuous hormonal contraceptive use in industrial populations is that it may decrease reproductive cancer rates. The relatively higher incidence of reproductive cancers in industrial populations is a consequence of our flexibly responsive bodies being in an environment of low energy constraint. Once upon a time, we were eating less and moving more. Age at menarche (that’s when we get our first menstrual period) used to be much later, menses itself wasn’t particularly heavy or cumbersome, and few cycles were ovulatory (meaning that an egg is released for possible fertilization). Soon after reaching menarche (as in, within a few years) a woman has her first child. She breastfeeds intensively for the first few years, but continues to breastfeed at least occasionally for four years, maybe more. At some point towards the end of breastfeeding, or sometimes not even until breastfeeding was done, she would resume cycling, and in a few cycles likely get pregnant again.This pattern would continue, with some variations based on miscarriages, increasing age, seasonal variation in food availability, and other issues, until the woman hit menopause. Of course, for many women, their lives ended around that point or even before, but plenty of women survived to be grandmothers, if observation of current forager populations is any indication. This means that for most of a woman’s reproductive life she was pregnant or breastfeeding, and cycling only occasionally. Strassmann (1997) has a great analysis of this and comparison between populations: the punchline is that an industrialized woman of today has around 400 menstrual cycles, while our ancestors, if modern foragers are an indication, had 50-100.Now let’s look at today’s industrialized woman: like men, she eats more and moves around less, largely because she is in school or working rather than getting her own food. She hits menarche earlier, and menses are more frequent and copious than her ancestors, which creates lots of tissue remodeling in the endometrium (the lining of the uterus). Many of her cycles are ovulatory, necessitating frequent tissue remodeling for the ovaries. She may cycle for years before having her first child, even decades, and with those frequent cycles come a higher exposure to endogenous (coming from within the body rather than outside it, as in a pill) sex steroids like estradiol and progesterone. Even if she breastfeeds for years, she will likely resume menstrual cycling sooner than her ancestors because she is better fed. She will probably have fewer pregnancies and births than her ancestors, which means more cycles in between pregnancies. She will most likely make it to menopause and beyond; because she is so much more likely to make it past menopause we are far more likely to notice the negative effects of all that hormone exposure, in the form of reproductive cancers.So while I disagree with the idea that there is “nothing biologically normal” about frequent menstrual cycles, I certainly agree that they are not doing us any favors. But is it the reproductive system that is at fault or the lifestyle? Should we artificially suppress the system in order to promote health, or make changes to the way we live? I want to complicate things further and ask if it is actually true that continuous oral contraceptive use would actually reduce reproductive cancer risk, and if so, at what age should it be administered? Currently, I'm not convinced that getting women on to oral contraceptives for their entire reproductive years is wise. But that's for another post.The third part of this series will address population variation in reproductive function, and how this impacts the efficacy and side effect incidence of hormonal contraceptives.ReferencesEaton SB, Pike MC, Short RV, Lee NC, Trussell J, Hatcher RA, Wood JW, Worthman CM, Blurton-Jones NG, Konner MJ, Hill KR, & Bailey R (1994). Women's reproductive cancers in evolutionary context Quarterly Review of Biology, 69 (3), 353-367Eaton, S.B., Strassmann, B.I., Nesse, R.M., Neel, J.V., Ewald, P.W., Williams, G.C., Weder, A.B., Eaton III, S.B., Lindeberg, S., Konner, M.J., Mysterud, I., & Cordain, L. (2002). Evolutionary health promotion Preventive Medicine, 34, 109-118Stearns S, and Koella J, editors. 2008. Evolution in health and disease. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Strassmann, BI (1997). The biology of menstruation in Homo sapiens: Total lifetime menses, fecundity, and nonsynchrony in a natural-fertility population Current Anthropology, 38 (1), 1... Read more »

Eaton SB, Pike MC, Short RV, Lee NC, Trussell J, Hatcher RA, Wood JW, Worthman CM, Blurton-Jones NG, Konner MJ.... (1994) Women's reproductive cancers in evolutionary context. Quarterley Review of Biology, 69(3), 353-367.

Eaton, S.B., Strassmann, B.I., Nesse, R.M., Neel, J.V., Ewald, P.W., Williams, G.C., Weder, A.B., Eaton III, S.B., Lindeberg, S., Konner, M.J.... (2002) Evolutionary health promotion. Preventive Medicine, 109-118.

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