The Problem With Incest

Humans find the idea of incest disgusting and thus avoid mating with close relatives. Most people have a vague understanding that children born to closely related parents are likely to have physical or mental abnormalities, like the royal family of years gone by and some of that dodgy village down the road. This is known as inbreeding depression. But why does it occur? Surely it is beneficial to give children not only half of your set of genes, but also some that your sibling or parent shares with you, thus passing more than 50% of your genes to the next generation. Inbreeding ought to allow you to maximise the proportion of your genes in the next generation, the ‘goal’ of reproduction. Unfortunately, for most animals on this planet there are severe problems with inbred offspring that outweigh any benefits in terms of propagating their genes.

To understand inbreeding depression you must first have some basic knowledge of errors that occur when genes are copied or repaired incorrectly, called mutations. Every time cells divide they must copy all of their genetic material using microscopic ‘machinery’, and these are subject to the occasional error, which can result in a new version of a gene. Additionally, mutations can arise due to environmental damage through radiation, heat or chemical agents. These mutations become permanent features in the genetic lineage of a given cell, hence those that appear in the germ line (egg and sperm cells) are passed from parent to offspring eternally down the generations.

Within a single cell a mutation happens at a completely random point in the genome, effecting any of the ~25,000 genes. In most cases the mutation is not expressed, as there are two copies, called alleles, of each gene. And mutations usually result in a recessive allele, meaning it is submissive and masked by the ‘normal’, dominant allele, which works as usual. Therefore, any person with a random recessive mutation is unaffected and a ‘carrier’ for the genetic disorder associated with faults in that particular gene.

Most individuals inherit between 3-5 random recessive mutations and when they mate with an unrelated person in the population there is a very low probability that they are both carriers of the same mutation. This means that their children are pretty much guaranteed to inherit at least one healthy, working version of each gene. However, when closely related people mate they are likely to share mutations they’ve inherited from a common ancestor, meaning each of their children would have a 1 in 4 chance of receiving both faulty versions of a particular gene, giving them a genetic disorder. As most people carry multiple mutations (and these are likely to be shared by related parents) the chance that their child will have genetic abnormalities becomes seriously high.

So that is inbreeding depression: the accumulation of faulty versions of genes in descendants of closely related sexual partners, where they are shared through common ancestry.

Note: Not all mutations are harmful; most are in fact neutral, producing no effect on the protein and function of the gene. And while some mutations are harmful, a small but important subset result in improved function of a gene, and this is a crucial way in which new adaptations can arise.

Guest Post For Nature’s ‘Eyes On Environment’ Blog

Eyes on EnvironmentJust had my first guest blog post published on one of Nature’s Scitable blogs called ‘Eyes on Environment’.

Unique and Alone on the EDGE of Existence
How to maximise biodiversity when resources are limited: calculating priority species in conservation.

Have a read!

http://www.nature.com/scitable/blog/eyes-on-environment/unique_and_alone_on_the?isForceDesktop=Y

Should Same-Sex Couples Be Allowed To Adopt?

Of course they should. But I was at a wedding last weekend and found myself listening in to a heated argument that centred on whether or not gay men should be allowed to adopt and raise children. The opposition to said rights was shocking in his distorted understanding and use of the principles of evolution and what is natural, in defending his position. He passionately argued that since gay men could not naturally produce a child together they should never be provided with this opportunity. “It’s not natural, it’s not natural”, he kept repeating. He is right about the impossibility of two men conceiving a child, however his beliefs were a perfect example of the naturalistic fallacy, as I pointed out to him. This fallacy is easily simplified as ‘the misunderstanding that everything that’s natural is good, and everything that’s unnatural is bad’. Infanticide, rape and war are all perfectly natural components of many animals’ societies, including our own, but this does not mean that they are right or good. As an intelligent and moral species we can see that these behaviours are terrible and should be penalized in order to reduce their occurrence.

Coming back to the topic of having children, many heterosexual couples find that they are unable to conceive naturally, but IVF treatment allows them the joy of bringing a child into this world. The process is as unnatural as you can imagine, and using a Darwinian moral compass they should be denied this right along with homosexual couples. But nobody in their right mind uses this compass and falls for the naturalistic fallacy so completely that they would seek to deny the right to have children to anyone, regardless of sexual orientation.

That being said, this man’s beliefs ran further still and he went on to argue that homosexuals in general were not natural since they couldn’t reproduce. This simply isn’t true. Being homosexual is partly genetic and there are no right and wrong genotypes; there are many variations each with their own advantages and disadvantages, depending on the environmental conditions. Being homosexual usually results in less offspring but may allow greater care of nieces and nephews, resulting in overall greater fitness. The frequency of male and female homosexuals worldwide is far higher than would be predicted, given the fact that they don’t directly pass on their genes. So it is probable that their relatives (who share their genes) have a corresponding increase in reproductive output, which their homosexual kin lose, thus maintaining the genes for homosexual orientation. There is absolutely nothing unnatural about homosexuals. And there’s nothing unnatural about homosexuals raising children that aren’t their direct descendents. If there were evidence suggesting future psychological problems for adopted children then this would need considering, but there is no grounds for denying these rights by virtue of it being unnatural.

This is a classic case of people twisting and distorting principles of natural selection in order to justify their prejudices. Some people dislike homosexuals so they try to demonize them and limit their rights as human beings. It is the exact same principle as eugenics that the Nazi’s infamously took to extremes. But the idea is completely flawed. There is no right set of genes that make up a human or any other animal, so there can be no perfect specimen to try to breed towards. Any person advocating or subjugating a particular race or trait is simply imposing their opinion with absolutely no scientific evidence to support it. And we must not take such behaviour lying down.

The Unbelievers: Science Trumps Religion

The Unbelievers

Watched a documentary today called The Unbelievers which follows Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss as they tour the world speaking about science and religion. They are trying their best to promote the open discussion (and abandonment) of religion, instead of it being protected as a taboo subject we are just expected to accept and live with. Why should all other aspects of society and culture be open to criticism and scrutiny while religion gets a free pass?

This film simply promotes the rather sensible idea that reason and evidence should guide our beliefs, rather than just old, fictitious stories, taken on faith. By using the scientific method we can hone in on the truth and discover the incredible wonders of the universe, and of our own lives. Science is willing and able to change as new discoveries are made; it doesn’t hold a position and refuse to budge out of fear and blindness. We may not yet have answered all of life’s questions convincingly but that doesn’t mean we need to cop out and cry miracle!

Facebook’s Emotion Study Under Ethical Scrutiny

A controversial paper has just been published in PNAS that studied the effects of the emotional content of posts that appear in a person’s news feed on Facebook. The number of positive and negative posts that appeared was manipulated without the person’s knowledge to look at what effect it had on the emotional content posted by the user. Their results show that emotional contagion (transfer or sharing of an emotional state) can occur through online social networks. However, the effects reported in the study were very small. As they put it, “people’s emotional expression is difficult to manipulate” as mood is affected by many experiences throughout the day.

More interesting than the results is Facebook’s ability and willingness to cause changes in emotions in an enormous number (689,003) of unknowing ‘participants’. There was no consent given for involvement in the study and it is looking as though no ethical approval was ever received by the researchers. The rather serious implications are that the data use policies of companies like Facebook and Google can allow them to legally experiment and tinker with the emotions and thoughts of their users. Don’t get me wrong collaboration between universities and private companies is desirable, but there surely must be greater transparency and regulation to limit behavioural manipulation of the public.

Medical Advances and their Limitless Potential

Extraordinary genetic and medical advances are becoming ever-more frequent occurrences it would seem. The possibilities are endless and we are rapidly increasing our repertoire of extreme, life-saving and unbelievable therapies. For example, this woman in Holland had a rare condition that caused the bone in her cranium to thicken to the extent that it was crushing her brain, causing loss of sight and severe headaches, which would eventually have killed her. So she had her cranium scanned and then a perfect 3-D printed version made for her and implanted as a replacement to her own. This photo shows her with the new plastic skull as it was fitted during the operation.

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Insane. But 100% real and hopefully life-saving for her. We can allow ourselves to imagine that we’ll soon be able to create synthetic versions of any organ or structure and make it personalized to an individual’s DNA, so the chances of it being rejected are extremely slim. We’ll be growing spare organs that are made-to-order and perhaps even providing genetic and tissue enhancements too. It reminds me of the film ‘Robots’ where they buy new parts in order to grow or make improvements, but only the richest individuals can afford the most desirable and powerful upgrades.

However, it’s unlikely we could ever recreate a person’s brain, as it is incredibly difficult to understand and attempt to replicate the relationship between neuron signalling and memories, thoughts, feelings and emotions, although we are improving all the time. Maybe one day it will be possible to upload the content of a brain, and to download this on to a replacement, in essence allowing someone to live forever. The film ‘Transcendence’ uses this idea to suggest that an uploaded brain could be given access and control over the power of a super-computer, forming a sort of Artificial Intelligence/Human hybrid. I can’t help but think that film is about Ray Kurzweil. But I would hasten a guess that if we do hybridise in some way with machines, it is more likely that we would be incorporating computer power into our heads, rather than our minds into a computer. It just seems simpler.

Mass Extinction Event, BEWARE!

Most people probably don’t realise it but we are currently in the 6th mass extinction event that our planet has ever known! The last one, the K-T (Cretaceous-Tertiary) extinction 65 million years ago, wiped out the dinosaurs and 75% of the species alive at the time – another saw as many as 95% of species disappear. The KT extinction was probably triggered by a large asteriod hitting the earth and causing major changes to the global climate, which could have lasted thousands of years. This one has been called the Holocene or Anthropocene extinction and is being clearly caused by HUMAN ACTIVITY. When we think of it in geological terms it becomes frighteningly obvious that we are making very rapid and unnatural changes to the biodiversity on this planet. Most extinction events lasted for thousands of years yet the current one has been noticeable in just the last 50! This does not bode well for the future; this is our warning! It is our responsibility to recognise and react to this devastating situation and start making serious conservation progress, before we see mass ecosystem collapse. It’s not just a moral obligation but a matter of the survival and well-being of our own species as inhabitants of this planet. So spread the word and stop hoping that someone else will sort out the world’s problems.

Extinction Symbol

This symbol represents the current mass extinction, click it, draw it, spread it around and help raise awareness.

Killer Robots No Longer Just Science Fiction

Later this month the UN will discuss the possibility of autonomous killing machines at a convention on weaponry in Geneva. They are essentially talking about Terminators or drones from the Iron Man films (pictured), that is killer robots that don’t require human involvement or decision making. We could be in serious trouble if Google (AKA Skynet?) decide to get involved, or maybe they already are?

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Isn’t it crazy to think that we’re considering developing and building robots designed to, quite literally, kill ourselves. Surely it would only be a matter of time before they got into the wrong hands or experienced a life-destroying software malfunction. It’s hard to know how advanced technology has become in the most secretive and well-funded laboratories around the world, namely those involved in military projects. We can be reasonably sure these technologies do not yet exist, but equally sure they are close to being a possibility, if not a reality. The weapons experts talking in Geneva are therefore attempting to pre-empt killer robot manufacturers and impose a ban that will ensure the safety of us all.

Look Up and Stop Being a Phonie

This video basically sums up my previous article on Phonies being distracted by technology and failing to engage with friends and family. The message is that we should all “look up” from those screens and see what is happening around us, talk to people and live our lives. We need to use our phones in moderation and be aware of the appropriate times to use them, or more likely, to keep them firmly in our pockets.

Brains Online in 2030’s?

Over at the Singularity University in Silicon Valley, California (of course), some of the brightest (and richest at $29,500 per 10 week course) technology-loving futurists gather to discuss, imagine and create. Ray Kurzweil, co-founder of the ‘university’, has recently been speaking about some of his work as the Director of Engineering at Google. He describes their current mission as “reengineering the human brain” in such a way that we can eventually connect it to the internet, which he predicts will be realised in the 2030’s. As a leader in this field and proven predictor of such things as the year a computer would beat a human chess grand master and the explosion of the internet, it’s hard not to take his word for it.

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Perhaps the most shocking part of Kurzweil and Google’s work is not that they are trying to hook us up to the cloud by inserting nanobots into our brains, but the potential resulting brain power that could come from such a process. Were it done correctly, and by that I mean accurately mimicking existing brain connections and hierarchical structure, then it could create a super-intelligent network of brains. Imagine linking the neocortex of the members of a lab group, allowing them to more efficiently trade ideas, innovate and discover using a ‘multi-brainstorm’ approach. Teaching would be transformed – think Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Paige designing radical architecture while dream-sharing in the film Inception – but in danger of imposing ideas instead of just presenting them.

Picture world leaders plugged into each other’s heads discussing the future on behalf of the rest of us. Could they not easily do away with transparency, leaving the public out of the loop? Or would it allow great collaboration, democracy and openness in politics and worldwide, unified action? There is also danger that the experience of linking minds itself may be so overwhelming that any group risks an explosion of power-thirst and ambition from among its members. More likely not.

There is no shortage of volunteers to scout, pioneer, and trial new technologies, even when there are unresolved ethical dilemmas and questionable futures. The “Explorers” that bought the first Google Glass models and have been using them ever since are just one such example – cameras in contact lenses could be next. Whatever new tech is released there is always someone willing to test it, so the progression towards greater technological dependence and enhancement of humans is in some ways inevitable (if such things are mechanistically feasible, which they probably are).