Category Archives: Evolution

Ever Wonder Why Humans Are So Clever? Scientists Hone In On Special Genes

brain clever gene

There is no doubt that humans are the smartest creatures on the planet. But for the longest time it has been unclear just how exactly we made the jump from simple creatures to ones capable of mathematics, ethical debate and invention.

But now scientists may have begun to unravel the mystery, discovering that three similar genes may be behind the boost.

Coding for the expansion of our brains by increasing the potential for creating neuronal cells, it may be that these three genes hold the key to human intelligence.

clever gene evolution notch2

Monkeys are intelligent creatures, and share most of our genetic material. So what makes us different? Image courtesy of Flickr.

Genes For ‘Clever’ Are A Mistake.

Publishing in CellPierre Vanderhaeghen and his team investigated the role of the NOTCH2NL gene.  This is just one of a family of genes responsible for modulating the development of organisms, but has appeared in four similar forms in humans.

By reconstructing the story of the gene over time, the team noticed something interesting.

Around 14 million years ago a part of the gene was copied by mistake, and remained silent for millions of years. Later another mutation and insertion rendered it functional, eventually leading to a total of four versions. Three work, and the last remains quiet within our DNA.

clever dna gene brain intelligence

Our DNA defines what and who we are, and by studying it we can learn more about what it is to be human. Image courtesy of Flickr.

So what does the gene do? Aside from promote brain cell maintenance, it seems the trio also increase the potential for new brain cells to be created. When Vanderhaeghen inserted the genes into a growth culture including human brain cells, they created new stem cells.

These stem cells can differentiate (change) into new brain cells.

Furthermore, a certain protein expressed by the gene stops further change, meaning that new neuronal cells can replicate over and over.

Basically, the duplication of the gene seems to lead to a greater number of brain cells, and with that, intelligence.

Neuronal Cells, Evolution and Cleverness

When studying ‘intelligence’ humans have made a lot of mistakes. First we considered a ‘larger’ brain likely ‘more intelligent’, but when you consider an elephant you can see this doesn’t quite work.

It seems that the two best predictors of intelligence are ‘surface area’ of the brain and ‘number of connections’ between the cells.

Basically, by increasing the surface area of the brain there is more room for brain cells, and by forming efficient and numerous connections between them these cells can work more effectively.

This is the case in the human brain, which due to its many rolls and crevices boasts a relatively huge surface area.

This new data sheds some light on why our brains may have developed this way, with the NOTCH2NL genes fundamental in both producing surplus neutrons and modulating their abilities.

But the odd thing is that this kind of  ‘mistake’ is fundamental to evolution.

gene clever brain

Every species on earth evolves, and millions of years of mutation and selection has created the wealth of diversity we see today. Image courtesy of Flickr.

When a species reproduces it passes its genes, the coding material for the production of the species, down the line. Although the mechanisms for replication of the molecule are pretty good, mistakes are made. These are called  ‘mutations‘.

Most are harmless, and have no clear effect on the new organism. But sometimes they confer some benefit, increasing the organisms, and thus  the species’, chance of reproducing again.

Explained in the context of evolution, these mutations  are defined as ‘individual variation‘, and this is one of the central tenets of evolutionary theory. In the case of the  NOTCH2NL gene, it seems the mutation means greater intelligence.

More research is needed to explain intelligence fully, but it seems we have caught a lucky break.

What’s Next?

The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.

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Ever Wondered Who You Are? Stop Waiting And Find Out.

You are a human. One of billions alive today, and one of many more that have passed on. You are built of biological tissues that work harmoniously to stay alive, requiring energy to remain altogether, reproduce and, eventually, die. Given the apparent silence of the Universe (where are all the aliens?!) our type of ‘complex life’ seems very rare indeed. But who are you? Where did you come from? And where the hell is everyone else?

Genesis

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth – Genesis 1, The Holy Bible (New International Version.)

Whether you believe in God or not, the Universe had a beginning (or atleast a defined start to its current iteration.) Big Bang or Simulation, we are 13.8 billion years (or a few thousand if you are religious,) into its life. The Earth came into being around 4.5 billion years ago, likely due to the accumulation of interstellar particles under gravity. And this seems common, in the known universe planets number in the many trillions.

From this perspective, we are not that special. There are trillions of planets in a huge Universe (possibly one of many.) But, there is something that sets us apart (clue, its you.)

Molecules And Man

Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is’ – Albert Camus, Novelist, Playwright and Essayist

Over our relatively short stage-time (a tiny fraction of what the Universe will likely live before becoming an entropic, cold wasteland,) Earth has been home to something truly spectacular. Life. Whether it be the pet project of a deity (which Science would lead you to disregard,) or something to do with molecular replication, you cannot deny that it is special. Why? Because we haven’t seen it anywhere else (yet!)

Current theories propose that certain molecular configurations of highly reactive atoms (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen,) began to replicate due to their increased stability and preferential ability to induce change in free atoms floating near by. If you have studied biology, its a little like the ‘induced‘ reaction of enzymes. But on a simple level, becoming more complicated over time.

‘We are all survival machines, but ‘we’ does not mean just people’ – Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Chances are that this type of life is fairly common, as given the large numbers of planets out there, even with a tiny fraction of chance, some would have created the same tiny ‘creatures’ (if you will.) It may very well be that we spot such simple life on Saturn’s moon of Titan, or deep in Martian rock (and some suggest we already have!)

But when did these collections of molecules become more complex? And how? The symbiotic theory suggests that large molecules engulfed smaller to create the first eukaryotes (i.e. multicellular organisms,) which then coalesced to create those with different systems. These were ‘biological’, and relied on interactions between different parts to stay ‘alive’.

Evolution, the scientific theory that attempts to explain life, makes two strong points:

  1. Individual variation in a species will occur by chance (i.e when our genes replicate, they make mistakes, giving a different appearance, behaviour or some other trait.)
  2. If this individual variation is ‘adaptive’, i.e it means it will benefit the individual and species overall, it will likely become predominant in the species (sounds a bit like the molecules right?)

TLDR: Humans are just the current species specific iteration of a long chain or organisms. Cue the book burning.

Something Special (?)

Is mankind alone in the universe? Or are there somewhere other intelligent beings looking up into their night sky from very different worlds and asking the same kind of question? – Carl Sagan, Astrophysicist, Turtle-Neck Enthusiast.

So likelihood is we are the end result of endless generations of molecules, subject to evolutionary pressures and bound by the physical laws of the universe, slowly becoming more and more like us (and other creatures.) But this seems entirely natural, and almost inevitable.  But we don’t see it everywhere in the universe, and this is called the Fermi Paradox.

Actually, The Drake equation suggests that given even restrictive rules, there should be at least 100,000 to  15 million civilizations out there. Even with modifications, we should still see thousands.

SETI (the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence,) is a large array of radar dishes scanning the cosmos. It is pointed toward areas of interest, looking for radio waves from far-flung civilisations. These scientists look for certain signals, such as familiar universal numbers, primes, repeating patterns or something else irregular.) So far, aside from the WOW signal, nothing particularly special has turned up.

We seem to be alone.

But are we really? The Universe is very old, and the laws governing what we understand life needs aren’t very forgiving. We need a certain gravity, heat, energy and abundancy of atoms, time and space. The chances are that even with this caveat, life is out there. But we may never see it, and there are reasons why (stay tuned.)

Who Are You?

For now, when you ask yourself who you are, muse on our shared history. Don’t worry so much about social labels, age or race. If you dare, ignore species altogether. The answer is very humbling and can be expressed in one sentence.

You are a biomass of self-believing consciousness, built from familiar atoms under restrictive universal laws, tuned by selective environmental pressures, and just a small part of something much beyond your comprehension.

And that, for me at least, is pretty freeing.

What’s Next?

  • Follow Ben on Twitter so you never miss an article.
  • Give this a share if you found it interesting.
  • Let me know what you think in the comments below or on social media.
  • Donate. Running this blog requires coffee.
  • Learn more about our history by reading Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything.’ (Seriously, do it!)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Image courtesy of Felix Jody Kirnawan

Sources

The sources above are true as of 17/3/18. Feel free to discredit them, it only brings us closer to the truth. My feelings won’t be hurt.

 

 

 

Why Do Things Scare Us? What Makes Your Heart Beat? Inside; Fear Explained.

All of us have had moments when we have been scared out of our skin.  ‘Jumpscare‘ voyeurism, that is watching people react to horror, has become an internet fascination. With big YouTube gamers like Markiplier and Pewdiepie building their early success on playing games like Amnesia and Five Nights at Freddy’s, there is something oddly fascinating about horror.

But why do ‘Jumpscares’ cause us to ‘jump’. What is happening inside us and why?

There’s Something In There

‘Everything down here floats,’ that chuckling, rotten voice whispered, and suddenly there was a ripping noise and a flaring sheet of agony, and George Denbrough knew no more’ – Stephen King, It, p 27

Last night I was walking home along a familiar path. It was dark, and the only sounds were the rustling of the bushes and my footsteps on the leaves. It was calm, and the long shadows cast by the gentle moon were reassuring.  I was lost in thought, the humdrum of a busy mind, when, all of a sudden, something appeared. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a shadow rise from the bushes, the gentle ambience was broken by a rush of leaves.

Something had come from the darkness. Something unfamiliar, maybe dangerous. Wait no, certainly dangerous. Something inside me saw teeth, claws, my imminent evisceration at the whim of something ancient and devilish.

Immediately I stopped, straightened up and my body was filled with energy. But not good energy, a lance of fear. My heart rate increased, I became super focussed on the shadow, time seemed to slow down and my mind speed up. Within seconds I realised it was nothing, but my body still held on to the fear. Why? What is this emotion? And why did it cause such physical changes.

I would imagine you have had the same. Something moving in the darkness, a loud sudden sound, something out of the ordinary that puts you on edge. We, as humans, and like animals, have a simple and consuming reaction for the sudden imposition of the dangerous unknown, Fear. And the feeling of ‘Fear‘ is just part of a syndrome (a collection of symptoms and physical signs,) that characterises our ‘Fight or Flight (or Freeze) response.

It’s almost as old as life itself, and because of it, we are here.

Fight, Flight or Freeze (FOFOF)

Fear was the hand of the devil holding a scalding hot branding iron and touching your brain and your stomach and yelling at you to run with leaden feet. – Dan Groat, Monarchs and Mendicants

It all comes down to evolution, physiology and psychology. Simply put, those who reacted in an adaptive way to avoid death long enough to mate would pass on their genes. Evolutionary theory suggests that over time, those animals within a species with adaptive traits allowing them to survive and reproduce, would become dominant. Whether this trait is a large plumage, as with Peacocks, or lightening speed, as with Cheetahs, it doesn’t really matter, as long as it works.

So when the ‘monster’ in the bush appeared, I was left with three options. Fight, Flight (leg it,) or freeze (hide.)

Fighting is a solution in very specific circumstances. If you are larger, more powerful, or hold some advantage over the other, you can fight. Many animals faced with threat will make a very quick assessment (often based on simple things like size,) to judge their next move. Many will attack, convinced they will win.

Flight is more common, as most creatures are smaller than their hunters. They will rely on speed, camouflage and a near safe place to survive. This is the normal reaction of a mouse, cat, or anything smaller than you. Not all will run, a spider may attack instead, but this speaks of the system being more complicated than just size. Remember, nature is complicated.

Freezing is a third option, and can occur for a variety of reasons. If you have been spotted, and the eyesight and memory of your predator is good, it probably won’t help. But if you have heard a sudden sound, the predator may not have seen you. If you run, you give off sound, it can chase and find you. If you stay still, it may pass you by. Your natural camouflage is more effective when staying still. Especially in the night.

In my case, I froze. The situation was ambiguous, and humans have a tendency to analyse where they can. The FOFOF response surpasses this tendency, and for good reason, we could be eaten whilst we figure things out. Had it been a bear, my analysis would have given it time to kill me. But weirdly enough, humans tend to freeze quite a lot. It says something about our ancestry.

Where FOFOF Comes From

“Thousands of years ago, when our ancestors encountered a predatory animal like a lion, it was best to react immediately and not stand around thinking about the lion, admiring its beauty or wondering why it was bothering them instead of tracking down some tasty antelope. Thus, the fast track to the amygdala kept our ancestors alive.” – John B. Arden, Rewire your Brain..

The ‘FOFOF’ response is just one evolutionary adaption forged early on in the tree of life. Exposure to danger causes an instant chemical reaction, the secretion of adrenaline, with profound effects on the body. The substance causes the heart rate to rise, blood to be drawn into the limbs and brain, and diverted from our stomachs and pelvic areas**. The body is geared up to be focussed, strong and fighting fit.

And we feel terrified. This is a good thing in short bursts, it tells us that we are in danger. It gives significance to the bodily changes our brain has signalled. It compels us to act, to relieve that feeling by action. Adrenaline is a short lived substance, and ignoring it tends to make the feeling worse. Biologically, prolonged exposure to fear results in anxiety, which can become all consuming and repeated. Panic Attacks are just adrenaline surges caused inappropriately*.

Jumpscares And Entertainment

So with this all in mind, why do we love jumpscares, horror and adrenaline. The simple answer is addiction, the more complicated rooted in deep psychological explanations.  Fear in a ‘contained environment’ (i.e. one which presents no real risk, is often associated with the release of dopamine, our pleasure hormone. This is the same hormone released with cocaine and other drugs, as well as many things that make us ‘happy’.

We become addicted to the situational aspects of horror. It seems crazy to think about it, but it makes sense. If we survive an attack, we feel pleasure. It makes sense for our bodies to reinforce the behaviour that leads to pleasure. This is why we queue for horror films and buy ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’. Its why we love ‘Jumpscares’ and watching others view them. We take pleasure from it.

So  next time you are on the edge of your seat, remember that you are taking pleasure from an ancient system designed to save your life. Kind of macabre, right?

What’s Next?

  • Follow Ben on Twitter so you never miss an article.
  • Give this a share if you found it interesting.
  • Let me know what you think in the comments below or on social media.
  • Donate. Running this blog requires coffee.
  • Learn more about ‘Evolution’ by reading ‘The Selfish Gene‘ by Richard Dawkins

The opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Image courtesy of Eden, Janine and Jim.

*The subjects addressed in this article have been simplified to reflect their effects on a majority of the population. There is always room for individual variation in behaviour (and this is fundamental to evolutionary theory anyway,) which means that not everyone will react the same way. Anxiety for example has many different syndromes, be it Generalised Anxiety Disorder or Panic Disorder, with different effects on behaviour and emotion. The aetiology (cause,) of these diseases are multifaceted, and deserve their own article as opposed to a throwaway clause.

** This is why we often feel a need to ‘shit our pants’ during fearful situations. It is also possibly why ‘Performance Anxiety’ is such an issue, if you are nervous around sex your brain isn’t focussed on diverting blood to the desired regions (and things are slack,) and the last thing we can focus on is sex. 

 

 

 

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