Trump-ed Up Genes

“Wherever you go, there you are.”

 

I try to keep my ears open to how public figures speak about science and anthropology. It’s always interesting to learn how different people, particularly influential people, perceive these subjects. For example, in his 2009 acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize Barack Obama said that “War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man.” That’s an empirical claim, but I don’t think the archaeological evidence is on his side.  

However, Obama’s statement offered a tantalizing window into the way he might see war – that it is simply an unavoidable outcome of human nature, implying that we may be stuck with it indefinitely. I don’t know for a fact that he actually thought that way; that’s me trying to read between the lines. And I’m not saying that such a view is wrong; I don’t think war will be eradicated anytime soon either. But I don’t think we should reduce something as complex as the large-scale arming and mobilization of military forces simply to some fuzzy notion of an aggressive human nature.     

This brings me to Donald Trump. More than once, I’ve noticed that he likes to say that he’s a “big believer” in the “gene thing” as an explanation for whatever success he has had in life (see here and here). A quick Google search shows that he’s done this for years, and that he has credited several of his ‘superior’ traits to his genes or some generic notion of heredity, a pattern I find interesting. Some examples:

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Developmental Plasticity and the “Hard-Wired” Problem

“Development is the missing link between genotype and phenotype, a place too often occupied by metaphors in the past … But a strong emphasis on the genome means that environmental influence is systematically ignored. If you begin with DNA and view development as “hard-wired,” you overlook the flexible phenotype and the causes of its variation that are the mainsprings of adaptive evolution.” (Mary Jane West-Eberhard, 2003: 89-90)

“Genes, unlike gods, are conditional. They are exquisitely good at simple if-then logic: if in a certain environment, then develop in a certain way… So here is the first moral of the tale: Don’t be frightened of genes. They are not gods; they are cogs. (Matt Ridley, 2003: 250)

 

Plasticity: actor Christian Bale at two points in time. Same genes, different phenotypes.

Plasticity: actor Christian Bale at two points in time. Same genes, different phenotypes.

In his book The Triple Helix, Richard Lewontin told the story of the molecular biologist and Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner, who – while speaking at a conference – predicted that one day we would be able to “compute” an organism (2002). All we would need are two things: the organism’s full genome and powerful enough computers that were up to the task.

The idea is seductive. Genes are sometimes seen as self-sufficient molecules, almost existing in a vacuum, that contain all the information necessary to code for proteins. From there, it’s not a very big logical leap to think that if you had the genome, you could enter the code in some database, hit “run,” and then watch some digitized version of the organism unfold.

In fact, scientists are doing something much like this for the tiny roundworm C. elegans with the project OpenWorm. Yet even for a relatively simple organism such as this, with only about a thousand cells in total, there are reasons to be cautious. As The Economist warned in its write-up of OpenWorm: “Attempting to simulate everything faithfully would bring even a supercomputer to its knees.” However, this isn’t due solely to the limits of computing power (what if we had a super-duper computer!?). Rather, it’s a matter of how the question is framed.

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Part 14: Humans Are (Blank)-ogamous: Paleo Hookups & Archaic Lovers

The introduction to this series can be found here.

Summary: Genetic evidence shows that various Pleistocene populations interbred, including humans, Neanderthals and Denisovans. Is it possible to know whether these could have occurred in pair-bonded relationships? What were the evolutionary origins of pair-bonds in hominins, or are single explanations too simple? 

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Paleoanthropologist John Hawks created this great infographic that summarizes what we know about ancient human interbreeding, based on recent genetic discoveries (this link to his site has a larger version). The graphic shows that several archaic populations mated with each other, although likely at low rates, including modern humans with Neanderthals and Denisovans. There are also a couple of mystery populations in the mix, whose existence is known solely based on the DNA they left behind. Very cool stuff.

Who Interbred with Whom in the Pleistocene. (Figure by John Hawks).

Who Interbred with Whom in the Pleistocene. (Figure by John Hawks).

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Human Evolution, an Ongoing Story

Over at Scientific American, Kate Wong compiled a list of some of the most compelling discoveries in human evolution from 2013. I won’t rehash her entire list here, but the ones that will stick with me for a while include the variation found among the Dmanisi hominins, probably all within the same species. The other is the genetic evidence for interbreeding between Neanderthals, Denisovans, and other extinct humans. Fascinating.

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Part 9. Humans are (Blank)-ogamous: Love Is an Evolutionary Compromise

This is part 9 of a series on the evolution of human mating behavior, comparing evidence for promiscuity and pair-bonding in our species. Please see the introduction here.

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I want love to roll me over slowly,
Stick a knife inside me, and twist it all around.
I want love to grab my fingers gently,
Slam them in a doorway, put my face into the ground. – Jack White (Love Interruption[1]  

“Everything is a double-edged sword… Even single-edged swords are a double-edged sword. Because you can cut something with it, but the other edge is kind of flat and it doesn’t cut very well.” – Louis CK (comedian)

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Yesterday’s post looked at the neurobiology of romantic love, asking whether evolutionary perspectives are sufficient to explain this highly significant part of what it means to be human. It also raised the question as to why love seems to be a painful experience for so many people.

Before going further, it’s important to remember that while humans are undoubtedly evolved, biological organisms, we are also animals with complex behavior, language, and culture. Others have said this better than I can. To Jon Marks (2010), we are “biocultural ex-apes,” while Agustin Fuentes wrote that “human behavior is almost always ‘naturenurtural’ ” (2012:16). Just as human modification of the environment can affect natural selection (Hawks et al 2007; Laland et al. 2010), so can culture profoundly influence the way we interpret powerful emotional impulses, including those related to desire and love.

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Part 3. Humans are (Blank) -ogamous: More on Promiscuity, & Genetics

This is the third part on the evolution of human mating behavior, comparing evidence for promiscuity and pair-bonding in our species. Please see the introduction here.

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Part 2 pertained to human behaviors that suggested a human propensity for promiscuity (primate sexuality, the excessive sexual capacity of humans, infidelity rates, cultural variation in marriage practices, number of lifetime sex partners, etc.). This post and the next are concerned more with clues from our genes, anatomy, and physiology suggesting promiscuity. I realize these things are not clearly demarcated. My advisor at Binghamton, Mike Little, liked to say that “biology is behavior, and behavior is biology.” But I think in general most people would agree that while behavior has a genetic component, it is more plastic than are anatomical structures.

We left off with a list of six traits hinting at promiscuity. I don’t want to simply rehash what Ryan and Jethá address, so this post addresses some additional points on genetics before returning to their book in the next submission. Continuing with that list…

Fetal ultrasound at 4.5 months, profile view

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Killer Ghosts & Broken Hearts: The Mystery of Sudden Unexplained Death in Sleep in Asian Men

One of the strengths of a biocultural perspective in anthropology is its broad approach to understanding human biology and health (Wiley and Allen 2008). Such a framework seems particularly appropriate when looking at the fascinating phenomenon of SUDS (Sudden Unexplained Death During Sleep). Though SUDS first appeared in the medical literature 1917 in the Philippines, where it is referred to as ‘bangungut’ (Guazon 1917), it was largely forgotten until the late 1970s when it regained notoriety as an important cause of mortality among Southeast Asian refugees in the United States, particularly among young men (Baron et al 1983).

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