RSSCategory: Human animals

The case for less-is-more democracy

November 27, 2011 | By | 5 Replies More
The case for less-is-more democracy

I have long been fascinated by the herd instinct of human animals. What could be more obvious than the fact that we mimic each other for all kinds of reasons, even for reasons that seem absurd to outsiders. Further, we follow each others’ lead even while we chant that we are “individuals.”

In reality, many of us panic at the idea that differences among the citizens. How dare some citizens question even some of America’s war efforts! That is “unpatriotic.” How dare some Americans encourage multi-culturalism! Gay marriage? Forget it. And don’t ever forget that the United States is the world’s greatest country—let us all say that in unison! For many of us, everybody has a categorical moral duty to fall in line on all matters relating to God and country.

Perhaps I find the topic of the human herding so compelling because of my own personal instinct to aversion to joining groups. For reasons I don’t understand, I instinctively rebel against many efforts to convince me to go along with “everybody else.” I’ve been this way ever since I can remember. Going along with the crowd is not something that gives me joy and comfort. Rather, it makes me feel wary and out of control. If people at my workplace were to announce that next Wednesday will be “Blue Shirt Day,” I’ll go out of my way to not wear blue. I perplex those who root for the home town sports teams and I don’t join political parties. I commonly hesitate to join in most displays of patriotism, including America’s warmongering. This is not to say I’m immune to such impulses, but it is fair to say that where many other Americans revel in community bonding, I tend to fight inner battles while questioning the need. Instead of joining in, I tend to question.

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Megabytes per sperm

November 26, 2011 | By | Reply More
Megabytes per sperm

How much information does each sperm carry? How much sperm in an ejaculation? An Austrian Facebook page offers answers: each sperm carries DNA worth about 37.5 MB of data. If you assume that an ejaculation contains 200 – 300 million sperm that means that each ejaculation is a loss of 7153 TB to 10,729 TB.

Have these factoids ready for your next cocktail party.

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Why do we yawn? Maybe to keep our brains cool.

November 23, 2011 | By | Reply More
Why do we yawn?  Maybe to keep our brains cool.

I learned this from National Geographic:

[Gary] Hack and co-author Andrew Gallup, of Princeton University, propose that yawning causes the walls of the maxillary sinus to expand and contract like a bellows, pumping air onto the brain, which lowers its temperature. Located in our cheekbones, the maxillary are the largest of four pairs of sinus cavities in the human head. Like a computer, the human brain is “exquisitely” sensitive to temperature and must stay cool to work efficiently . . . “

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Robin Ince on the Magic of Science

November 23, 2011 | By | Reply More
Robin Ince on the Magic of Science

I sometimes hear that science is a threat because it turns humans into “machines,” and otherwise removes the magic of life.   I’ve sometimes had a fleeting thought of this type, for instance, while first encountering “Terror Management Theory” (I got over it).

Does science ruin the magic of life? In this entertaining TED monologue, BBC radio show host Robin Ince argues more science teaches us about the astonishing behavior of the universe, the more we stand in awe. Understanding does not remove the wonder or the joy.  He offers many anecdotes and thought experiments.  For instance, one of the atoms that is now part of you was once part of Napoleon’s knee;  “We are all totally recyclable.”

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Ten-Legged Love Story

November 2, 2011 | By | Reply More
Ten-Legged Love Story

If you’d like to hear about a love story between a human animal and an octopus, with a lot of science stirred in, take a look at Sy Montgomery’s “Deep Intellect,” in this month’s Orion Magazine.

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Your great great grandparents were sponges, and their great grandparents were fungi

October 26, 2011 | By | 6 Replies More
Your great great grandparents were sponges, and their great grandparents were fungi

About 10 years ago, I had the opportunity to view a set of videos called “The Shape of Life.” It was an amazing journey because it suggested that the earliest animal ancestor of human beings was the sponge. I watched this video several times, because I had trouble wrapping my mind around this finding. It was an excellent set of videos that I still highly recommend.

The mind-boggling conclusion that we are descendants of sponges was reinforced in my mind back in November, 2004, when I read a fascinating article about our ancestors in discover magazine, pulling out the article: “This Is Your Ancestor.” It is a story of an evolutionary microbiologist named Mitchell Sogin, who wanted to know the animal from which all other animals came. He extrapolated backwards from today’s oldest known species: jellyfish, sea anemones, sponges, mollusks and starfish.  When he grouped each of these organisms according to their first appearance on Earth, the most likely candidate appeared to be the sponge. As the Discover article points out, sponges don’t look much like animals, though they are truly animals, not plants, and there are 9,000 species of sponges on the planet.

Sponges are multicellular, but the cells don’t add up to much: no tissues, muscles, organs, nerves, or brain. But this simplicity can be deceptive. Some sponges come armed with glasslike skeletal spikes, microscopic and as beautiful as snowflakes. . . . Sponges are the earliest, most primitive multicelled animal, Sogin says. Some scientists believe the ability to grow different cell types started animals on the evolutionary road to becoming humans. With just a few kinds of cells, only loosely connected, the sponge manages to produce a variety of as symmetrical shapes, from cups and fans to tubes and piecrust shapes. Sponges survive handsomely on their own and can even shelter other sea creatures… Sponges are also the earliest sexual re-producers; most are hermaphroditic, producing both eggs and sperm which they release into the water.… Sponges don’t just sit still-many actually move… One sponge moves 4 millimeters a day.


Sogin used an innovative ribosomal RNA analysis and he worked at it for more than 20 years. His conclusions are stunning:

The sponge was indeed at the base of animal lineage, and just above it were the cnidarians, such as jellyfish, anemones and corals. They, like the sponge, have a saclike body form. They developed tentacles and an opening like a mouth at one end. But there were other forms of life lower down the line of descent that scientists might not have expected. Suddenly, they made sense. One of the sponges cell types is the distinctively shaped choanocyte, a cell equipped with a tiny long filament, called a flagellum, surrounded by a collar studded with even tinier hairs called microvilli. Thousands of these flagella beat constantly at the water and move it past the sponges feeding cells. As it happens, Sogin found that the sponges’ immediate evolutionary predecessors are the choanoflagellates, which represent what life would have looked like just before animals in the form of sponges emerged. Scientists had long suspected that the choanoflagellates could have been the nearest things to animals without actually being animals.

The Discover article then points out that the only thing older than the choanoflagellates in the same line of organisms are the fungi.  Sogin has determined that “fungi and plants are very different from each other, and fungi are actually more closely related to animals. [W]e share a common, unique evolutionary history with fungi.” The same article points out that this common evolutionary heritage of fungi and animals explains “why fungal infections are so difficult to treat–they’re more like us than we thought. They are similar targets.” Therefore, the next time you see a sponge, show some respect, since sponges are the first multicellular animals, and “all the other animals emerged from this imple architecture and are built upon this platform.” What animal would be find a bit upstream from sponges? Worms, another of our ancestors. Worms are “the first creatures with bilateral symmetry.” The worm, along with fungi and sponges, organisms highly deserving of your respect because they are in your line of ancestry.

For more about sponges, see my 2006 post titled “My Life as a Sponge.” For a quick ride down the evolutionary highway, visit this post.

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Here are some of the chemical reactions going on in your cells right now

October 18, 2011 | By | 1 Reply More
Here are some of the chemical reactions going on in your cells right now

Ever wonder what’s going on in your body’s cells? Incredible numbers of chemical reactions, as generally mentioned in this post on cell biology. And now you can look at many of the documented chemical reactions in one chart.

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Darwin’s strange inversions

October 2, 2011 | By | Reply More
Darwin’s strange inversions

In this humor-laden short TED talk, philosopher Daniel Dennett discusses things that seem to be intrinsically sweet, sexy, cute or funny. Actually, there is NOTHING that intrinsically has any of these qualities. These qualities don’t exist out in the world. Rather, you need to look inside our brains to determine any of these qualities. We are wired to have these reactions when we encounter certain stimuli. There is nothing sweet, for example, in a molecule of glucose.

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How to turn a human being into a tree

September 8, 2011 | By | 2 Replies More
How to turn a human being into a tree

It can be done, and here’s how.

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