Agriculture vs. Hunting and Gathering

•May 8, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Agriculture is not necessarily a ‘better’ system than hunting and gathering.  Agriculture creates inequality, susceptibility to famine, tons of work, warfare, and a less varied diet.  Sometimes, those who farm are employed to feed those who do not and the farmers end up malnourished themselves.  Other times, crops fail and lead to large, unsustainable population.  Unfortunately for hunting and gathering, agriculture also creates more people.  Regardless of whether the supply of food is open and reliable, a ton of undernourished agriculturalists can always fight off a few healthy hunter-gatherers for their land.

Simply put,

Agriculture creates inequality and many unhealthy people.

Hunting and gathering creates equality and a few healthy people.

The Evolutionary Accident of Aging

•May 8, 2008 • 4 Comments

The theory of evolution is often misunderstood to mean that anything that everything evolves with a specific purpose. However, sometimes its better to look at characteristics as the absence of something else evolving. Take aging.

During most of human history, we lived like animals, battled predators, lacked modern medicine, and were generally more likely to die tragic, early deaths. Since we have limited energy for our bodies to use, biological investment in repair mechanisms for the bodies cells would have been unwise. That energy was much better spent on characteristics that help avoid predators (like strength and eyesight). Any individual that spent energy on repair would have been more likely to have been eaten by a saber tooth tiger or stomped by a mammoth. Modern life spans, then, are a function of historical danger. This helps explain why women have longer life spans than men. Men were exposed to more danger and so invested less in evolving repair mechanisms.

This idea is very important because it highlights the fact that aging is not natural. We don’t age because its advantageous or nature wills it. Its simply because nature, until now, had no reason to do anything about it. Today, however, scientists are taking charge and developing the ability to increase human life span exponentially. Researchers like Aubrey De Grey are finally looking at aging as a very serious problem instead of an inevitability. That we can postpone aging is certain. The speed at which we develop these technologies, however, will depend on how quickly universities, scientists, funding boards, and the public adopt this same view on aging.

To those researchers tackling aging, this also means that there is likely no single or small group of causes for aging.  Aging isn’t a roadblock created by one inefficient system in the body.  No system of the body had pressure to create a perpetual repair mechanism and so every system of the body decays.  If we are fortunate, as Aubrey De Grey believes, and most of the body’s systems decay in similar ways, there may still be relatively simple ways to defeat aging across the board.

*This post inspired by Ray Kurzweil’s ‘The Singularity is Near’ and Jared Diamond’s ‘The Third Chimpanzee’

A Theory on The Evolutionary Science of Attraction

•May 8, 2008 • Leave a Comment

What Am I Talking About: Human couples tend to resemble one another, not just in skin color and height and other obvious traits, but in finger length and many other minutia.

How Does This Occur: Humans evolved to base attractive qualities on those they are exposed to most as children.  In other words, attractive qualities come from parents, siblings, cousins, close family friends, etc.

Why Did This Evolve: Any gene that increased our preference for those resembling family would have increased the survival of that gene, since family members carry similar genes and those resembling family members are likely to carry similar genes.  An attraction to family members however would have been evolutionarily discouraged by recessive genetic diseases that would have had a high occurrence in mommy-lovers.

*This theory is based on reflection on material from Jared Diamond’s ‘The Third Chimpanzee’

Crowdsourcing in Science: Engaging the Public and Getting Things Done

•May 8, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Forget collaboration scientists… collaboration between scientists and the public might be even more powerful.  I feel like I’ve missed an entire sector of the new information economy!

Google is outsourcing image labeling to the public.
Recapcha is outsourcing book digitizing to the public.
David Baker is outsourcing enzyme design to the public.

Three reasons I love this:
(1) Its engaging the public in science and may increase both the number of students that choose to pursue science and the general support and awareness of science among those who don’t.
(2) Graduate biology students get PhDs for bunkering down and doing the hard work required to design new molecules.  When this stuff gets outsourced to some minimally trained gamers, they too can produce such work.  Let’s say that 25 gamers produce 1 PhD worth of work in 6 years.  Let’s also say that 100,000 people play this game.  That is the equivalent of 4,000 PhD students enrolling in Dr. Baker’s lab!  That’s a heck of a lot of science being performed at almost no cost to the University of Washington.
(3) The outsourcing of ‘tedious’ work to gamers frees up PhD students to tackle new problems as well.

Nick Bostrom’s 3 Biggest Problems for Humanity

•April 16, 2008 • Leave a Comment

The following list is drawn from Nick Bostrom’s talk on Ted.com.

1. Death and Aging

Oft overlooked, aging is the leading cause of death and death decimates our supply of human capital every day. The burning of the Library of Alexandria is mourned as a great loss of human knowledge, but even worse, were the deaths of the millions of people who wrote the lost manuscripts.

2. Extinction

Various scenarios exist, but as humans come to wield more destructive power, it becomes exceedingly possible and likely.

3. Life Isn’t Usually as Wonderful as it Could Be

We experience small moments of extraordinary joy, but much of our lives is spent at a less optimal level of happiness. Not only should we be able to sustain those moments of joy, but we should be able to create even more emotionally enjoyable ones.

Why Preventative Medicine Will Never Fully Replace Curative Medicine

•April 7, 2008 • 1 Comment

Cambridge physicist David Deutsch’s talk on Ted.com, though on the universe and global warming, illuminates an interesting problem in medicine.

Preventative medicine is only enabled when we what we want to prevent is known.  Often, we do not know of problems until they are looming.

Curative medicine then is essential to solving those problems that we do not recognize before they become problems.  To use David Deutsch’s example, 30 years ago, scientists thought we were headed for an ice age, not a planet of melted ice caps.  Prevention of global warming is a great notion but its already too late.  Its time to search for remediation.

Often times, particularly in medicine, there is simply not enough foresight to practice prevention and cure are the only way to go.

The Repercussions of Evolution

•April 7, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I don’t believe we look often enough at the repercussions of our being a naturally evolved species in a world of technology.  For instance, Stephen Hawking tipped me off to this idea in his talk on Ted.com.

We evolved our tendencies for violence and aggression in a world without massively destructive technologies.  In this environment, these tendencies aided the survival of the individual and were not especially detrimental to the species.  Today, however, a few acts of such aggression, leveraged by nuclear and chemical weapons, have the capability to wipe out the human race.  Our evolved tendencies toward violence and aggression, while once adaptive, may now lead us to sabotage all the progress we have made.