Metro State Atheists

Promoting Science, Reason, and Secular Values

Food for Freethought 2010

What is “Food for Freethought”?

Food for Freethought, inspired by the Center for Inquiry’s Campaign for Free Expression, is a food drive that also encourages freethought, freedom of expression, and free inquiry.  We plan to accomplish this by giving “Banned” and Freethought books away in exchange for non-perishable food donations that will be going to Food Bank of the Rockies, during “Banned Books Week”, September 27 – October 2 (specific dates below).  Our goal is to raise an enormous amount of food for those in need.  Most food drives are done during the holidays and tons of food is raised and distributed.  That is all well and good, but what about the majority of the time that it isn’t the holiday season?  The hungry don’t stop being hungry after the holidays, they are hungry now too!  Given the existing goals of Metro State Atheists, it is only natural that we would attempt to help the hungry by promoting freethought, freedom of expression, and free inquiry.  With the proper support,  we can  have an immeasurable positive community impact!

The event will be taking place at the Auraria Campus (1201 5th St, Denver, CO 80204).   September 28-30th, 9am-4pm (Times Subject to Change)

Metro State Atheists will have SIGNED COPIES available at Food For Freethought 2010 by the following authors:

Hemant MehtaDaniel Dennett , James RandiMichael ShermerDan Barker, and…RICHARD DAWKINS!. If you’d like to obtain any of these signed copies, donate food!

Largest donors receive signed books!

Metro State Atheists would like to formally thank the above and the following groups  for their support:

The James Randi Educational Foundation

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science

The Center for Inquiry

Secular Student Alliance

Skeptic Magazine

Freedom From Religion Foundation

How can I help?

AMAZON.COM Wishlist

Click here and check out the Food for Freethought 2009 wishlist.  From there you can buy the books directly and they will be sent to us!

A special thanks to Tanya J. Higgins of Boulder, CO for setting this up.

Donate Books:

If you have any of the books on the banned book list (http://banned-books.com/bblist.html) and would like to donate it to the cause, please email Joel Guttormson at metroatheists@hotmail.com to set up pick up/delievery of your donation.


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Metro State Atheists Promo Documentary

April 29, 2009 Posted by | atheism, Bible, Christianity, god, Metro State Atheists, News, philosophy, Politics, religion, science, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Pro-Choice+Pro Life=Common Goal?

Abortion is one of the most controversial issues of our time.  Like most controversies, there exist two main sides that seem diametrically opposed to each other.  However, I believe that in this conflict there is a way for both sides to work together towards a common goal that will benefit both human life and society for the long term.  Before continuing it is important to clarify where each side stands.  Those on the “pro-life” side assert that abortion is morally wrong.  This is usually, but not always, based on the assertion that God (usually the Christian god) has a purpose for all human beings and that the soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception.  If one holds these assertions as truth it isn’t difficult to feel some sympathy to for their position.  For those who stand on the side of being “pro-choice”, abortion is seen as primarily a medical procedure.  Further, most “pro-choicers” would say that it should be a last resort only after all other options and factors such as personal socioeconomic situation and health have been carefully considered.  This is because abortion, by its very nature, is intrusive, can lead to irreparable damage to the reproductive abilities of the woman and can have severe emotional side-effects (similar to those of women who have miscarried, ie. natural abortion).  Therefore, they see abortion as a choice but one that should be used sparingly.

One side feels it is absolutely wrong while the other sees it as treatment and thus not completely wrong. Most of the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” individuals I have known through the years would generally agree with this summary of their general views on the subject. However, there are extremists on both sides. Carl Sagan[i] said of them, “doubtful arguments are trotted out as certitudes”. Thus, it would appear that there is little possibility of reconciliation between the sides. One side feels it is absolutely wrong while the other sees it as treatment and thus not completely wrong.  How then could they be convinced to work together?  To what common goal could they possibly work towards? To begin, I point out that both sides can agree that abortion is at minimum, undesirable.  With this minor agreement as a foundation let us consider other procedures past and present that have either been eradicated from medical practice or are presently being phased out due to current medical therapies/treatments/advances.

For simplicity, let us consider another undesirable medical practice that is less controversial, at least ethically; amputation.  Surgical amputations “date back at least to the time of Hippocrates (c.460-375 B.C.), amputating limbs to save lives did not become widespread until the sixteenth century.”(Source)  Obviously, amputations “were performed mainly to remove tissue that was already dead. The reason for this limitation is that early surgical techniques could not control the blood loss.” (Source)  Advances were made in surgical practices to prevent this hemorrhaging such as tying off the arteries. (Source)  Amputation is an extreme medical practice which, over time given medical advances, decreases in use relative to the population.  In a 1998 article in the journal “Diabetes Care”, Andrew D. Morris, MD et.al.[1] found that “rates in the U.S. Amputation rates appear to have decreased significantly since 1980–1982.”(Source)  The reason given for the decrease was education about diabetes and advances in care.  Another study found that “[t]he frequency of major amputations in the country in 1986-87 of 40.9 per 100,000 per year declined by 25% to 30.9 per 100,000 per year in 1989-90.”(Source), stating further that “vascular surgery reduces the number of major lower limb amputations.”(Source)  Given these and many other examples, it is clear that medical advances both in practice and education are responsible for a great deal of the reduction in the use of such an invasive, life-altering, and extreme medical procedure.

How does this relate to abortion?  Not only is abortion undesirable, it is also invasive, life-altering and extreme.  Thus, just as with the case of amputation; where instead of targeting the practice itself the causes were targeted, we should strive to eliminate the causes of abortions as much as possible.  Abortion is obviously necessary in certain cases such as fallopian-tube babies, that if left to go to term, would kill the mother.  Furthermore, just as education about diabetes helped in the reduction of amputations, so too can better sex education and the elimination of “abstinence-only” education reduce the need for abortions among ignorant or accident-prone young people. The following quote from Carl Sagani drives this point home: “Shouldn’t opponents of abortion be handing out contraceptives and teaching school children how to use them? That would be an effective way to reduce the number of abortions.”  Though it is true that you can’t prevent or solve all amputations, so too will we not be able to end all abortions. That is where technology and research is vital.  However, we can, if we work together instead of fighting about who believes what, we can end most abortions by using sound judgment and trusted preventative practices to treat the causes rather than the treatment.

At this point I anticipate some resistance from those extreme pro-lifers who view contraception as evil and won’t have anything to do with it citing that it is God’s will that we end abortion.  This argument seems fraught with logical problems.  1) If God chooses when we are born and when we die, then why couldn’t abortion be a tool of God? 2) If it’s God’s will that abortions end then shouldn’t he be offering a solution to us without us asking? 3) If it’s God’s will that we end abortion, could it be that his will includes research as described above and through His divine grace provide us an answer via data collected in such studies?  In any case, it would seem to be in the best interest of even the most hardcore pro-lifer to work together with pro-choicers and to utilize sound and moral science to reduce the number of abortions. Instead of killing abortion doctors why not try putting them out of business in a more constructive and less violent way, and donate to an organization or research project that is attacking one of the many causes of abortions.  That will accomplish far more than squabbling amongst each other about who’s right and who’s wrong.  The truth is, neither group is right by themselves, they are only right together.

In summary, my hope is that I’ve made it clear to pro-choicers that pro-lifers are not all a bunch of scripture-spouting nut-bars that are out to turn the country into a theocracy.  Also, pro-lifers are truly concerned about human life, just as much as any pro-choicer. The problem lies in the question of when “human” life begins. This question is not as clear-cut as both sides would like it to be, therefore the concerns of the pro-lifers about ending human life is a painful decision that is not completely baseless from a scientific point of view.  Also, I’ve hope I’ve made it clear to pro-lifers that not all pro-choicers are malicious baby killers that care only for the reproductive rights of women and care nothing of potential human beings.  There isn’t a single person that is truly for abortion, but one way to rid ourselves of it as much as possible is embracing science and giving medical research a chance to find the cure for the causes of abortion in an effort to greatly reduce the practice.­


[1] ANDREW D. MORRIS, MD; RITCHIE MCALPINE, BSC; DOUGLAS STEINKE, BSC; DOUGLAS I.R. BOYLE, BSC; ABDUL-RAHIM EBRAHIM; NAVEEN VASUDEV; COLIN P.U. STEWART, MD; ROLAND T. JUNG, MD; GRAHAM P. LEESE, MD; THOMAS M. MACDONALD, MD ; RAY W. NEWTON, FRCP.


[i] In an article that first appeared in Parade magazine on April 22, 1990 entitled “The Question of Abortion: A Search for Answers”, quoted here from his book Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death the Brink of the Millennium (1997). The article appears as Chapter 15 entitled “Abortion: Is it Possible to be both Pro-Life and Pro-Choice?

April 23, 2009 Posted by | atheism, Bible, biology, Christianity, creationism, Epistemology, evolution, First Century, god, Jesus, Jesus Christ, Jesus is Lord, Metro State Atheists, Morality, New Testament, Old Testament, Pseudomedicine, Pseudoscience, religion, science, The Holy Bible, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 29 Comments

Creation Museum to Open Natural Selection Exhibit

 

This is straight from Answers in Genesis

 

Where Darwin Got It Right

While creationist organizations like Answers in Genesis strongly disagree with Charles Darwin’s ideas about all of life evolving from a single organism (macro-evolution), his theory of natural selection actually meets with more widespread acceptance as it relates to how species adapt and change over time—but, as we observe in nature, only within their own kind. Such changes, however, and as we point out frequently on this website, are not evolution in the “molecules-to-man” sense. The Creation Museum here in our Cincinnati area (in northern Kentucky) will open a new exhibit this Sunday, March 15, to help explain what natural selection can and cannot do, and how this is supported biblically and scientifically. “Evolutionists use natural selection as evidence for evolution, believing that given enough time (millions of years), natural selection could account for the larger changes required for molecules-to-man evolution,” museum founder and president Ken Ham explains. “Our new exhibit will clear up the differences between natural selection and what would be required for evolution to occur in the molecules-to-man sense—for example, reptiles to birds—as one kind of animal turns into a totally different kind.” The exhibit, entitled “Natural Selection is Not Evolution,” includes an aquarium that resembles a real cave. This cave aquarium will feature live blind cavefish, showing how natural selection allows organisms to possess characteristics most favorable for a given environment—but again, it is not an example of evolution in the molecules-to-man sense. There is also a series of wall displays with professionally produced models that examine, among other things, antibiotic-resistant bacteria (which are commonly cited as an example of “evolution in action”). Instead, the Creation Museum exhibit will point out how antibiotic resistance in bacteria points away from macro-evolution, rather than toward it. The new display also contrasts evolution’s “tree of life,” showing that all organisms have descended from one single-celled creature, with the “Creation Orchard,” which illustrates the family tree of each original kind of created plant or animal life of Genesis chapter 1. A display entitled “Three Blind Mice” will show the devastating effects of mutation and how natural selection works to preserve animal kinds. A dog skull display will demonstrate how natural and artificial selection has led to variation within the dog kind. The exhibit will also include a mounted display of Darwin’s finches based on Darwin’s own studies and observations from the Galápagos Islands. The new exhibit is located near the museum’s popular presentation regarding the geologic evidence for a global Flood. Its proximity to the Flood geology room in the museum was deliberate, as this exhibit also lays the groundwork to understand how Noah could fit representatives of all the animal kinds (not species) on the Ark. “I think one of the reasons evolutionists give creationists such a hard time is that they don’t think we believe in good science, which we absolutely do. In fact, we have several full-time staff with earned doctorates. I’ve read and heard many news reports and columns stating that creationists don’t believe in natural selection, and that is simply not true,” Ham said. “Our new exhibit will help to explain these valid theories and show that we agree with the proven science of these processes. Most people don’t realize that speciation is not evolution—it has nothing to do with changing one kind of animal (e.g., fish) into a totally different kind of animal (e.g., amphibian).” Ham continued: “Our area of disagreement with the evolutionists comes when they start using bad science to state that natural selection could eventually lead from one plant or animal kind changing into another, finally making the leap to humanity.” Not only is this in direct contradiction with the Bible, which states that God created all the various kinds of plant and animal life, including humans, but it also has no scientific validity. “Many Christians are surprised when they learn that valid observational science confirms the biblical accounts of creation and Noah’s Flood,” Ham added. “Our mission at Answers in Genesis and the Creation Museum is to spread that message

in order to uphold all of Scripture and therefore reach non-believers with the gospel, which is based in this history in Genesis.” The exhibit opens as the secular science world has been celebrating Darwin’s 200th birthday this year, plus the 150th anniversary of the publication of his famous book On the Origin of Species. Go to http://www.CreationMuseum.org for more information on the exhibit, and then plan to visit this new, fascinating addition to our Bible-affirming center.

March 18, 2009 Posted by | atheism, Bible, Christianity, creationism, evolution, god, Jesus, Jesus Christ, Jesus is Lord, Metro State Atheists, New Testament, News, Old Testament, religion, science | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Creationism Poster

Creationism

Because desert goat herders living In tents 3000 years ago

knew more about the cosmos and biology

than modern day scientist

October 24, 2008 Posted by | Bible, creationism, Humor | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Science In The News: Turtle, Hamsters, and Babies

1) New fossil provide insights into the evolutionary origins of the turtle shell.

“Over millions of years, rows of protective armour plates gradually fused together and to the reptile’s vertebrae, eventually creating a complete shell.”

2) Hamsters reveal details about the role of the circadian clock in memory.

“Working with Siberian hamsters, biologist Norman Ruby has shown that having a functioning circadian system is critical to the hamsters’ ability to remember what they have learned. Without it, he said, “They can’t remember anything.””

3) Infants seem to be capable of distinguishing happy music from sad music.

“One of the first things babies understand communicatively is emotion, so for them the melody is the message,” Flom said. “Our study showed that by nine months, babies are categorizing songs as happy or sad the same way that preschoolers and adults do”

- Chalmer

October 9, 2008 Posted by | biology, science | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Materialism and Morality

So, according to Michael Humphrey from The Daily Everygreen Online, atheism precludes the possibility of having morals. I thought I would take some time address some of the claims made in his article.

Pure materialism rejects the existence of anything beyond matter and its interaction. When all events in the universe are reduced to the colliding of atoms, there’s no room for good or bad. These interactions are purposeless and irrational.

Though it may be without purpose, it is far from being irrational. The interactions of matter are consistent. If one is rational, it means their opinions are consistent with and logically derived from established facts and observations. The interactions of matter are determined by the properties inherent to the matter itself. Matter never deviates from its own nature, and never reaches irrational conclusions. The material world never actually reaches any conclusions, nor does matter apply reason to anything because matter is not aware of facts and it doesn’t make observations. Matter has no need to derive truth from itself, because the properties of matter, and energy, dictate what truth is.

Because of this reductionism of everything, materialists argue that humans are the same as animals, thus taking away the dignity humans have.

I’m not so insecure that I think my worthiness of esteem and respect is somehow robbed if I’m not the product of divine inspiration. Dignity is only lost if your standard for dignity requires that the entirety of the universe revolves around our tiny little lives. Besides, why should truth conform to the whims of our discontentions. Reality need not think you speacial in order to remain real.

This line of thinking is severe and deadly. Let’s consider whether it is evil or not to kill an animal. If it is evil to indiscriminately kill an animal, then it is also evil to indiscriminately kill humans. However, the unfortunate side effect of this is that we must stop washing anything, because killing bacteria – animals – is just like killing people.

The other option is that indiscriminately killing animals is not evil, but then killing humans indiscriminately isn’t evil either. So the worst atrocities of human history are nothing more than just washing your hands.

In either case, the final issue is that the Holocaust becomes morally equivalent to cleaning a dirty bathroom.

This is a very simplistic view of morality because it does not take into account the reasons why we consider killing in some circumstances wrong and not in others. The killing itself is not inherently wrong and, for most people, the moral implications of the act are based on other factors such as necessity and sentience.

Then things such as altruism are only believed to be “good” because they benefit the species and forward our evolution. However, altruism and self sacrifice are actually a detriment to our progress. If the weak are procreating, they only pollute the gene pool and ultimately damage the species. If Dawkins is right about memes and morality developing in an evolutionary way, then all forms of altruism will quickly exterminate themselves, since it is disadvantageous evolutionarily.

Altruism need not be applied only to the weak and, as a social species, our certain weaknesses can be more tolerated in the population. When a parent cares for her children or her relatives, he/she is helping to ensure that members of the species sharing at least some of his or genome are more likely to survive. While altruism might perpetuate certain weaknesses, such as strength, it selects for intelligence and strengthens the group by cultivating problem solving skills. Altruistic behavior is even present at the cellular level. In multicellular organisms, a process of cell destruction called apoptosis occurs. Apoptosis can be mediated by the organism, or by the cell to be destroyed. In one case we see murder, but in the other we see self-directed cellular suicide. When the cell poses a threat to the organism, it quite literally takes one for the team. I’m fairly certain Dawkins discusses social evolution in more than a few of his books, and he addresses this very concern. If Humphery read Dawkins work at all, he might have been aware of that.

Furthermore, this type of thinking on morality can lead some to justify atrocities. If we take Dawkins at his word about the evolution of morality, then for the sake of the species almost every corner of the world has found it acceptable to enslave, exterminate and sterilize humans at some point.

The behavioral parameters we have are not absolute, because our circumstances are not absolute. Many societies have also deemed slavery not acceptable. Why should we assume that one circumstance is inherently implied while the other is not? Evolutionary pros and cons exist for societies advocating slavery and those not advocating slavery. Ultimately, slavery is less beneficial. Freedom allows for the persistence of genetic diversity and increases the likelihood that a beneficial characteristic will be have a chance to enter the population. Freedom is potentially beneficial for every member of our species, while slavery only favors the few. Humphery also seems to think that those who use slavery are so capable because they are superior. Slave drivers usually have a weapon, something their genetics know nothing about. Technology has changed the course of evolution. Almost anyone, regardless of their genetic “inferiority”, can pull a trigger.

It was once legal and morally acceptable to own slaves, yet Western civilization considers freedom to be an inalienable right. But from Dawkins’ point of view, it could be prudent for our species to enslave the weak for survival of the strong.

Slavery does not favor the strong. With a weapon, even a child is potentially deadly. Also, if I were to advocate slavery, I would have to acknowledge the potential that I might be enslaved. Not only is it in the best interest of our species to remain free, but it is in the best interests of the individual.

These conclusions, once illuminated for what they are, morally corrupt – lose their creditabilty. They are simply a gross oversimplification of the human condition. We are more than biological programs.

This reasoning is completely circular. Humphery correctly implies that certain atrocities such as slavery are neither morally right or wrong, but then arbitrarily decides that such a a conclusion is unacceptable. In other words, he’s assuming the existence of absolute moral truths, and using them as evidence that moral relativism is irrational. Humphery deems the implications of moral relativism unacceptable by applying them to his as yet unjustified absolute moral standards. Humphery’s argument establishes nothing, it requires that moral absolutes already exist. His argument is as follows:

Slavery is wrong, moral relativism implies otherwise, therefore moral relativism is wrong.

That Slavery is absolutely wrong, or that moral absolutes even exist, is never established and the assumption never actually justified.

God gave us stewardship over creation not to exploit, but to tend it as a servant tends his master’s vineyard.

I may have spoken to soon. It seems Humphery feels that servitude is morally acceptable. How ironic…

-Chalmer

October 7, 2008 Posted by | Morality, philosophy, religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Summary analysis of Effects of Oxygen on Virulence Traits of Streptococcus Mutans

I wrote summary of this publication for my microbial genetics class. Probably pretty bland to most, but might as well post it.

Chalmer Wren

March 20, 2008

Summary analysis of Effects of Oxygen on Virulence Traits of Streptococcus Mutans

This is a summary of Effects of Oxygen on Virulence Traits of Streptococcus Mutans, by Sang-Joon Ahn, Zezhang T. Wen, and Robert A. Burne. The researchers sought to investigate the effects of aerobic and anaerobic conditions on the virulence traits of S. mutans. S. mutans, a gram-positive lactic acid bacterial species, is the primary contributor to tooth decay (1, p.266). This species of bacteria is localized in the crevices and pits of the teeth, which are a normal part of tooth topology. Tooth decay occurs as the result the acidic byproducts of the bacteria’s metabolic processes. Differential gene expression was first investigated by means of DNA microarray analysis, and the results validated by real-time quantitative RT-PCR on a subset of genes. Included among the genes which were down-regulated under aerobic conditions is gtfB, which encodes an enzyme critical to the process of biofilm production. The biofilm is an extracellular polysaccharide matrix which contributes to the virulence of S. mutans by protecting it from adverse environmental conditions and allowing it to adhere strongly to its substrate. Because the GtfB and GtfC proteins both play a significant role in biofilm production, the regulation of the genes encoding them were further investigated under aerobic and anaerobic conditions using a CAT assay and a western blot. Furthermore, the role of the VicK sensor kinase of a CovRS-like two component system (TCS) and the autolysin AtlA in S. mutans response to oxygen were also studied.

DNA microarray analysis is a powerful tool for studying genetics because it allows researchers to potentially monitor thousands of genes. Microarray analysis measures the relative amounts of RNA being produced via transcription by a cell (5, p.517). First, the desired RNA is isolated from the cells and purified. This RNA is then treated with reverse transcriptase and appropriate primers, resulting in the formation of a DNA RNA hybrid. The original RNA is then nicked by an enzyme so that DNA polymerase can utilize the RNA as a primer and then replace the RNA with DNA. The result of this process is called complementary DNA, or cDNA (5, p.769). The cDNA can then be cloned into a vector and labeled with a reporter gene. The cDNA is then allowed to hybridize with the immobilized DNA fragments of the microarray (5). This type of analysis indicates whether genes transcription is taking place, but is limited in its analysis because transcribed mRNA is not always necessarily translated. While useful for studying gene regulation at the transcriptional level, DNA microarray analysis reveals less about gene regulation at the level of translation.

DNA microarray analysis revealed that about 5% of the S. mutans genome displayed differences in genes expression, the majority of which were up-regulated under aerobic conditions. Table 3 lists the differentially expressed genes and the magnitude of difference in expression of each gene between aerobic and anaerobic conditions. Also listed in Table 3 are the P-values, which is an indication of the reasonableness of acquired measurements. Under aerobic conditions 83 genes displayed up-regulation while only 23 genes displayed down-regulation. Figure 1 shows the distribution of genes whose expression was altered by the availability of oxygen. Up-regulated genes were placed in five categories. 28 of the up-regulated genes were classified as hypothetical, unassigned, or unknown, 23 were classified as encoding energy metabolism proteins, 9 encoding signal transduction proteins, 8 encoding transport and binding proteins, and 4 encoding cellular process-proteins.

Of the 16 genes displaying a 10 to 42 fold difference in expression, many are either established or predicted to encode mutacins, which are the bacteriocins of S. mutans. Mutacins are exported by the cell with the intention of limiting competition from closely related species by killing them or interfering with their growth. The researchers postulate that the increased production of mutacins is an effort to limit competitive pressures prior to biofilm maturation. The fact that biofilm formation is a significant contributor to the virulence of S. mutans, and that biofilm formation is inhibited by aeration, is consistent with the observed increase in mutacin production. Lack of a biofilm exposes the S. mutans to a significant number of environmental pressures, including competition from other organisms in the environment, thus dedicating cell resources to creating mutacins would be advantageous.

bip, which encodes a reputed bacteriocin immunity protein, was up-regulated 18-fold. The Bip protein has been implicated in providing resistance not only to bacteriocins, but to a variety of other environmental pressures. These include, but are not limited to, antibiotics, metals, and attacks from the host organisms’ immune system. As mentioned earlier, exposure to inhibitory components of the environment increases when the formation of the protective biofilm is compromised. Therefore the necessity to produce Bip and related proteins becomes increasingly important.

comD, a gene which codes for the histidine kinase of a TCS and functions to increase the expression of com genes via the process of induction, was up-regulated 2.3 fold under aerobic conditions. The comD gene also functions in the development of competence, which is the ability of a cell to import naked DNA from the extracellular space (1, p. 278). The product of the comC gene is a competence stimulating peptide (CSP), the receptor of which is the integral membrane protein called ComD with histidine kinase activity. When ComD is bound to extracellular CSP, the histidine kinase activity of ComD is activated. This leads to altered expression of gene associated with competence (8). This particular instance of regulating gene expression is part of the comC quorum-sensing system (ComCDE), which describes an intracellular communication system of bacteria which alters gene expression in response to population density (9). Previous studies have also shown ComCDE to play a role in appropriate biofilm formation for S. mutans (9).

Previous studies have established that aerobic conditions prompt lactic acid bacteria to resort to a heterofermentative metabolism. The same should also be true for S. mutans. As expected, differential gene expression associated with metabolism was observed in the genes associated with the partial tricarboxylic acid cycle, which will hereafter be referred to as the Szent-Györgyi-Krebs cycle to honor its principle contributors, of S. mutans. The genes associated with the Szent-Györgyi-Krebs cycle were up-regulated. As well, up-regulation of enzymes such as NADH oxidases and pyruvate formate lyase were also observed. NADH oxidase enzymes allow the organism to metabolize oxygen, a function that is important for survival in aerobic environments. Pyruvate dehydrogenase oxidizes pyruvate, which is a product of glycolysis, to form acetyl-CoA, an important precursor of the Szent-Györgyi-Krebs cycle (4). .

Increased production of CcpA, a DNA binding protein, was also indicated by microarray analysis. One aspect of metabolism affected by cultivation in the presence of oxygen is glycolytic rates, the variation of which would lead to a change in the concentration glycolytic intermediates. CcpA is part of a global regulatory system which, in response to the variation of in the concentration of glycolytic intermediates, alters the transcription of genes encoding enzymes of the glycolytic pathway, the Szent-Györgyi-Krebs cycle, and enzymes involved in carbohydrate acquisition and catabolism. Additionally, CcpA has been shown to play an important role in regulating expression of genes whose products are used in biofilm formation. These genes are gtfB, gtfC and ftf, which encode enzymes needed for the production of a major component of the biofilm, called exopolysaccharides.

As mentioned previously, genes affected by the regulatory role of CcpA include those corresponding to the importation carbohydrates from the extracellular environment. So, the observation of up-regulation in genes associated with the phosphophenopyruvate:sugar transerase system (PTF) and the ATP-binding cassette is consistent with what is known about the function of CcpA. The affect aeration has on the production of CcpA and its regulatory role in the expression genes associated with the acquisition of carbohydrates and their subsequent metabolism is an important observation because it indicates a response by S. mutans at the level of transcription.

Of the down regulated genes, 8 are classified as hypothetical or unknown, 4 are involved in transport and binding, 2 in energy metabolism, 2 cellular processes, and 2 in protein fate. One important observation was the up-regulation of relP in conjunction with the down-regulation of genes involved in amino acid metabolism. The product relP catalyzes the synthesis of (p)ppGpp, whose suggested function is to alter metabolism. (p)ppGpp compromises expression of genes needed for cell growth in order to produce an increased expression of genes which aid in stress tolerance and amino acid synthesis.

Cultivation in aerobic conditions yielded 3.3 fold down-regulation of gtfB. Gtfb is an essential enzyme needed for the production of the glucan polymers, a component of the biofilm. These glucan polymers are water insoluble and adhesive, properties which contribute significantly to the functions of biofilms. According to the researchers, the down regulation of gtfB may be a factor in reducing S. mutans’ ability to form biofilms. gtbC, a gene which is cotranscribed with gtfB, was neither up-regulated or down regulated according to DNA microanalysis. Because of their significance in establishing a biofilm, the expression of these genes was further investigated.

Figure 2 shows a CAT assay whose results establish the same trend as the microarray analysis, which is the up-regulation gtfB and a lack of differential expression for gtfC. The CAT assay was produced by fusing the gtfB and gtfC genes with a reporter gene in a process described in more detail in the subsequent paragraph, and then inserted as a single copy into strain UA159, which is wild type, to produce two new strains. The resulting strains, indicated in table 1, were TW54 and TW55. TW54 contained gtfB promoter fusion, while TW55 contained the gtfC promoter fusion. The reporter gene for this analysis is the chloramphenicol acetyltransferase (cat) gene. Chloramphenicol is an antibiotic that functions by binding the ribosome and inhibiting the process of translation. The cat gene gives a bacterium a resistance chloramphenicol (1). Following cultivation of cells, the relative amount of protein produced by cat can be measured. The CAT assay essentially measures effectiveness of a genes promoter, within a given environmental context. The original gene is replaced with the reporter, and the reporters production measured.

In order to construct the reporter gene fusion, PCR was performed on a fragment of DNA containing the promoter regions and ribosome binding sites (RBS) for each gene. The primers used for this process are listed in Table 2. In order to produce the expression of the reporter gene, the products of PCR were cloned into plasmid pU1. Cloning a gene into a plasmid first requires that the plasmid is digested to a linear DNA molecule by a restriction endonuclease. The restriction endonucleases used in this part of the experiment were BamHI and PstI, which create a staggered or sticky end (5). They are capable of creating a staggered break because they recognize sequences with twofold rotational symmetry. The resulting staggered unpaired ends read the same in the 5’ to 3’ direction and this can pair with and be ligated to any other piece of DNA digested by the same restriction endonuclease (5,). The transcriptional fusions were then released by digestion with SmaI and HindIII, also restriction endonucleases, and inserted into pBluescript KS(+) which had been digested by the restriction. endonucleases Eco-RV and HindIII. The resulting plasmid was then digested by restriction endonucleases SmaI and HincIII. HincIII and SmaI differ from the restriction nucleases previously described because they create blunt ends instead of sticky ends. Blunt ends lack the unpaired bases of staggered ends and this have a much lower affinity for the ends of other DNA strands (6,7). The DNA fragments were then purified and ligated into the integration vector, which was then inserted into the gtfA locus of strain UA159 to create strains TW54 and TW55. The results of the CAT assay displays the same trend observed in the DNA microarray analysis, which was that gtfB was up-regulated and gtfC was unaffected.

SDS-polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis (SDS-PAGE) and a Western blot was performed of protein fractions from S. mutans in order to compare the localization of GtfB and GtfC proteins of cells cultured in aerobic to those cultured in anaerobic conditions. Sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS) is a detergent which binds to protein in an amount approximately proportional to the molecular weight of that protein and gives it a net negative charge. Electrophoresis in the presences of SDS separates proteins on the basis of mass(4, p.92). The results of the SDS-PAGE and Western blot, to be discussed later, are displayed in Figure 3. GtfB and GtfC were detected using a polyclonal rabbit antibody. The protein fractions used for SDS-PAGE and Western blot were obtained in a series of steps, the first of which was centrifugation and two washes with Tris-buffered saline. Supernatant proteins were obtained by passing the supernatant fluid through a filter and precipitating the proteins with trichloroacetic acid. Whole cell lysates were obtained by homogenization in an SDS boiling buffer with glass beads in a Bead Beater. Surface associated proteins were obtained by incubating cells in a 4% SDS solution for 30 minutes. The soluble fraction, containing soluble proteins of the cytosol, was obtained by centrifugation of the homogenized cells, which separates soluble and insoluble proteins. Soluble proteins remain in the supernatant, and the pellet is resuspended in SDS boiling buffer to create the insoluble fraction.

Each fraction, the sum of which comprise the whole cell lysate, indicates the amount of GtfB or GtfC within different parts of the cell, this providing data about protein localization. For each fraction, the 4% SDS extract isolates the proteins associated with the cell surface, the soluble fraction contains proteins of the cytosol, and the supernatant fraction contain proteins exported by the cell. The results in Figure 3 indicate that for the 4% SDS extracts (B), the soluble fraction (C), and the insoluble fraction (D), the amount of GtfC as indicated by the intensity of the band was greater in magnitude for the aerobically cultivated cells than for the cells grown in anaerobic conditions. In the supernatant fraction (C), the relative amounts of GtfC were equivalent in magnitude. While Western blot results of GtfB are consistent with the DNA microarray analysis and the CAT assay, it indicates an overall increase in the amount of produced GtfC, which neither of the previous two methods indicated.

Unlike the CAT assay, SDS-PAGE and the subsequent Western blot used a polyclonal antibody to detect GtfC and GtfB directly. The variation in methodology might play a role is the variation observed results.

This study also showed that VicK sensor kinase of the CovRS-like TCS plays a role in the response of S. mutans to aerobic environments. The sensor kinase of a TCS detects changes in the environment and when the appropriate conditions are satisfied it, as its name would imply, phosphorylates protein of the cytosol which plays a role in regulating gene expression (10). The CovRS TCS of S. mutans is a regulatory system which regulates the expression of glucosyltransferase genes, ftf, and a gene encoding a glucan-binding protein (11). Analysis, discussed in further detail in the subsequent paragraph, revealed inactivation of the genes for VicK restored the ability of S. mutans to form biofilms in the presence of oxygen.

In a recent study performed by the investigators it was observed that the VicK-deficient strain, indicated as vicK-NP in Table 1, produced elevated levels of GtfC. VicK is a component of the VicRKX TCS. A PAS domain, which was recently reported to be present in the VicRKX TCS, is a potential sensor for redox potential. This is important because redox potential of mature biofilms differs from that of early biofilms. When subjected to SDS-PAGE analysis, both GtfB and GtfC on the vicK-NP strain an compared to UA159, the amount of both proteins had increased in the soluble and insoluble fractions from vicK-NP strain, while, in the same strain, a reduction in the levels of both proteins was observed for the supernatant fractions. The investigators also measured the levels of mRNA for vicK-NP, the results of which are consistent with the SDS-PAGE analysis in that they display and increase in transcription of gtfC. Figure 4A displays the results of the SDS-PAGE comparison of UA159 and vicK-NP, and Figure 4B displays the results of real-time PCR, used to measure amount of transcribed mRNA.

In addition to the VicK sensor kinase, this study also investigated the role of the AtlA autolysin pathway and its role in meadiating S. mutans’ response to oxygen. Like the VicK sensor kinase, inactivation of the genes for AtlA restored the bacteria’s ability to form biofilms in aerobic conditions. The AtlA autolysins pathway plays an essential role in the formation and maturation of the biofilm, and the regulation of its associated genes by the ComCDE regulatory system has been implicated in other studies (11).

This study established that exposure to oxygen has a profound effect on the virulence of S. mutans, especially in regards to biofilm formation. As well, it was demonstrated that VicK sensor kinase and the AtlA autolysin pathway both play an important regulatory role with gene expression associated with biofilm was established.

Bibliography

1. Champness, W.; Snyder, L. Molecular Genetics of Bacteria, 4th edition. ASM Press: Washington, D.C., 2007;

2. Burne, R.; Ahn, A.; Wen, Z.; Effects of Oxygen on Virulence Traits of Streptococcus mutans. Journal of Bacteriology. 2007. 189. 8519-8527

3. National and Maternal Child Resource Health Center. What is Streptococcus Mutans? 2006. http://www.mchoralhealth.org/OpenWide/mod1_2.htm (accessed on March 20, 2008.)

4. Nlson, D.; Cox, M. Lehninger Principles of Biochemistry, 4th Edition. W.H. Freeman and Company: New York, 2005.

5. Karp, G. Cell and molecular biology. John Willey and sons: United States, 1965.

6. Fermentas life sciences. 2008. http://www.fermentas.com/catalog/re/hincii.htm (accessed March 19, 2008)

7. http://www.fermentas.com/catalog/re/smai.htm, fermentas life sciences. 07, 2008

8. Ichihara, H.; Kuma, K.; Toh, H. Positive Selection in the ComC-ComD System of Streptococcal Species. Journal of Bacteriology. [Online] 2006. 188.6429-6434. http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1595358 (accessed March 19, 2008)

9. Li, Y.; Tang, N.; Aspiran, M.; Lau, P.; Lee, J.; Elle, R.; Cvitkovitch, D. A Quorum-Sensing Signaling System Essential for Genetic Competence in Streptococcus mutans Is Involved in Biofilm. Journal of Bacteriology. [Online] 2002. 184. 2699-2708. http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=135014 (accessed March 19, 2008)

10. Forsyth, M.; Cao, P.; Garcia, P.; Hall, J.; Cover, T. Genome-Wide Transcriptional Profiling in a Histidine Kinase Mutant of Helicobacter pylori Identifies Members of a Regulon. Journal of Bacteriology. [Online] 2002. 184. 4630-4635. http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=135264 (accessed March 19, 2008)

11. Burne, R.; Ahn, A. Effects of Oxygen on Biofilm Formation and the AtlA Autolysin of Streptococcus mutans. Journal of Bacteriology. [Online] 2007, 89, 6293-6302. http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1951938 (accessed March 19, 2008)

September 26, 2008 Posted by | Bacteriology, biology, Microbiology, science | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cloned Meat and Social Paranoia

Cloned Meat and Social Paranoia

According to a recent report released this January by the Food and Drug administration “Extensive evaluation of the available data has not identified any food consumption risks or subtle hazards in healthy clones of cattle, swine, or goats.” The FDA also says it will not require the labeling of cloned products intended for consumers. This has sparked considerable controversy and many are still remain uncertain about the safety of consuming cloned animal products. In a review of the FDA’s risk assessment the Center for Food Safety (CSF) claims that the FDA’s position on the consumption of cloned animal products being safe is based on “flawed assumptions and misrepresented findings”. A pool taken by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) indicated that 59% of Americans said they wouldn’t purchase food derived from cloned animal or their offspring. Despite opposition from the CSF, as well as other organizations such organizations as the Consumers Union and the Consumer federation of America, over 200 scientists signed a public statement issues by the Federation of Animal Science Societies (FASS) supporting the FDA’s risk assessment. FASS claims that “the scientific evidence is absolutely, robustly clear. There is no food safety risk from the meat or milk from clones, or from their conventionally bred offspring.” In light all these contradicting claims, it can be hard for the lay person or the uninformed to form a meaningful opinion. Experts from a variety of backgrounds and organizations both support and reject cloned animal products as safe. In this blog I intend to address some of the primary concerns directly, provide general information about the concerns, and shed some light on the controversy. For now, I am going to disregard most ethical concerns about animal cloning and address primarily concerns about its safety for consumption.

Are They Different From Normal Animals?

One common concern is the relatively lower health expectations of cloned animals. The majority of cloning attempts fail and many clones display a variety of ailments. The reason behind these abnormalities is largely due to epigenetic factors. The term epigenetic refers essentially to the means by which DNA expression is controlled. While the DNA contains all the information, or the blue print, for a living organism, how that information is expressed depends on the type of cell and its stage of development. Although every single cell in your body houses the same genetic information as every other, there is a clear difference between the cells of your skin and those of your brain. During cloning, a certain amount of the epigenetic program in a cell can remain. If a cloned organism retains these epigenetic factors, it could lead to abnormal gene expression. Because epigenetic factors can affect a large portion of the genome, especially those involved in cellular differentiation, they can lead to a massive number of defects.

The primary concern here is not the horribly disfigured unfortunate ones that would never make it to the food supply anyway, but the few clones that appear to be totally and completely healthy to an outside observer. Some residual epigenetic traits remain even in healthy clones. These differences do not appear to inhibit the animal’s normal biological functions. But lets be clear about exactly what the risk might be here. Now, the abnormal gene expression in clones is due to loss of expression products. In other words, cloned animals produce no new gene products. One potential problem might be that proteins are not properly modified, or that they are produced in large enough quantities, as to produce and allergenic response. Because these products would be very similar to the intended biochemical process, this is unlikely. While I have come across no studies that indicate this to be the case, it is at least hypothetically possible. Proteins that have been inappropriately modified would very likely affect the cloned organism adversely either by its loss of function or in producing an immune response. This is an as yet unobserved and improbable risk. As for new and potentially deadly products being formed in the cloned animal, it’s not really conceivably possible. Those kinds of things are the results of mutations, which directly alter the genetic code, while epigenetic alters only which genes are being expressed. Despite this risk being small, consumers with a history of strong food allergies to cloned animal products, such as an allergy to milk, should take this risk more serious than the general population.

It is also reasonable to conclude that, as our understanding of epigenetics increases, scientist may be able to eliminate the concerns associated with variable gene expression, including those to the suffering and well-being of the animal. So if this is your only concern, it might be dealt with eventually. Also, some of the health risks are not so much a result of the abnormal clone, but the large amount of antibiotic and hormones supplements these could potentially need. Given our ability to clone now, it is not yet very practical for the food industry and, in spite of the FDA approval, it is unlikely it will be implemented on any grand scale due to its expense and failure rate, at least until the method is refined. So, the consumption cloned meat, by itself, poses no significant threat greater than that of normal meat. Risks I have not discussed, or may have alluded to, in this blog do warrant consideration though. They include but are not limited to biodiversity, antibiotic and hormone supplementation, practical implementation, and ethical considerations. I intend to address these issues in follow up blogs.

-Chalmer

http://www.fda.gov/cvm/CloneRiskAssessment.htm

http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/cloned_animals.cfm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epigenetics

September 25, 2008 Posted by | Pseudoscience, science | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On the Origins of Language: By Means of Natural Selection


Where did language come from? Why do we talk? Why does there exist such a mosaic of languages around the world? These questions may be the most central and awe-inspiring in all of linguistics. They are also the most important, because without some general understanding of these fundamental questions all other endeavors to understand the complexity of language will ultimately fail. Thus, we should courageously ask the tough questions, regardless of where the answers may take us. In other words, we must look at language scientifically, shedding ourselves of all prejudice, bias and desire for a specific outcome. With this view, it shall be noted that the origin of language is as yet still a mystery which beckons to be answered, however, a strong theory, known in biology, called Evolution, by means of Natural Selection, seems to answer and explain the aforementioned questions with, in the words of Carl Sagan, “systematic grace”.

Where Language Came From

There exists a myth, arising out of superstition, about the origin of language. This is known as “The Myth of the Mother Language”, as Dessalles puts it. This idea simply put; is there was once a single language that was the “mother” of all languages. All other languages came from vulgarization and degeneration of the mother language. The first languages used to support this myth were of course, Latin and Greek. “…similarities between Latin and Greek were traditionally interpreted as meaning that Latin had grown out of Greek.” (Dessalles 34) This is not evidence of anything in particular except that the two languages show particular similarities; also, no evidence of a sound or group of sounds, lexicon or syntax from Latin has been shown to have somehow made its way to Greek. “The evidence for these links was anecdotal; and there was no serious attempt to ground them in a coherent body of knowledge” (Dessalles 34) and from a scientific perspective, purely anecdotal evidence is not viable evidence. The other explanation, being that a god or gods created language, among everything else, violates logic and science to such an immense degree that discussing or considering it any further would be a waste of time. Thus we are left with one, and only one, rational and scientifically verifiable explanation, Evolution by Means of Natural Selection.

Evolution of Language by means of Natural Selection

This section will include and rely on two analogies. The first: Evolution being similar to that of children’s acquisition of language, which for our purposes will focus mainly on the Evolution side taking advantage of the smaller time scales involved in a human child’s ability to acquire language. The second: Languages are similar to species/organisms in biology. By using these analogies, we can get a better sense of the vast time scales involved and the journey language has taken over millennia.

We humans share much of our DNA with the rest of the animal kingdom. In fact, we do not have many significant differences until we get down to plants and bacteria, and even at that, we still have much in common. (Judge). To quote a chemist friend of mine, Chalmer Wren, “it’s not how many genes we have, rather, how they are expressed that makes us physically and biochemically different from all other species”. In other words, we humans aren’t so different from everything else that lives on this planet, that’s because we are a part of it. Like humans share DNA with a myriad of creatures on this planet, so too do we share language with them. If not for their early evolutionary accomplishments, we very well may not have language as we know it today, in fact, it could be quite different or not exist at all. Languages, in all their many forms, are like species of different animals inhabiting a world of thought and reaction to ensure its survival and that of its speakers. We can see two types of language evolution when taking this analogous view; the first and easiest to see is microevolution, for our purposes that of the evolution of lexical and, perhaps, phonetic items. The second, and far more difficult to see, is that of macroevolution, in language it is the evolution of languages from one to another. For instance, how Low German evolved into Modern English. However, before we can investigate such questions, we must first look at their origins, from where did the pieces come from? The answer lays with our animals relatives, both ancient and living today.

It was long believed, that our closest animal cousins, monkeys, had an emotive and reactionary language system that could hardly be called a language at all. Also, that because they were inferior, it was impossible for them to have any communication system that showed any signs of complexity, planning or thought. (Dessalles 5-7) However, in careful experiments, performed by Cheney and Seyfarth in their 1988 study, published in Animal Behavior, entitled ‘Assessment of meaning and the detection of unreliable singles by vervet monkeys’, they found that monkeys could engage in higher thought. They did this experiment by subjecting the monkeys to recordings of two distinct calls. The first call, wrr, is a trill sound, used when an individual notices the presence of another troop. The second call, chutter, is used when two troops either are threatening each other or start to fight. In the experiment, they found that those monkeys subjected to hearing the first call every 20 minutes hardly reacted to hearing the recording of the second call made by the same individual. (Dessalles 7) This is contrary to what one would expect to find with pure habituation, that is, one would expect them simply to react to the call as if the situation warranted, every time they heard the call. However, since this is not the case, one can only conclude that, like humans, they are engaging in a form of mental representation. Thus, Cheney and Seyfarth showed, “that the association between the acoustical forms and the behavioural responses was not direct but that I must mediated by a form of mental representation.” (Dessalles 6) This is similar to what we see in children early in their development. They too employ a crude form of mental representation when using calls or hearing them. Furthermore, the advantage of doing this, whether it is a baby human or vervet monkey is “the possibility of taking account of the context.” In other words, being able to assess the situation at hand, rather than simply reacting to specific calls, helps the animal in question to avoid manipulation, either by another troop of monkeys or a dubious member of their own. We share this property with monkeys, but admittedly at a different level. Our ability to employ this “representational mechanism”, as Dessalles calls it, is a mere improvement on a system and adaptation that has existed, presumably, for hundreds of thousands of years. Our genetic link to monkeys is analogous to that of our linguistic heritage to them, and as we will see, to others of the animal kingdom as well.

The bee dance holds the key to another of our seemingly unique human abilities, displacement. Displacement is “the ability to talk about referents that are removed from time or space” (Hickerson 33)(Emphasis added) The bee dance is how bees communicate: using motions, and the variable speed of these motions, to indicate the location of food. However, they do not do these dances in any close proximity to the food in question, rather they perform these dances in their hives, far removed from the food to which they are referring. Thus, one can also conclude that bees have a crude form of the concept of referents in mind, to what degree is yet unknown. We, as humans, also possess this amazing ability. However, as is the case with the monkeys, we employ this ability at a seemingly high level in that we are able not only to talk about things that are not immediately present in front of but that exist currently, we can talk about things that previously existed or may exist in the future. Again, we see an improvement upon a preexisting structure or system.

The existence of a vocabulary, or a digital code, is also an evolved feature that we can observe in other organisms. The fifth step Hickerson describes as an “essential step” in our evolutionary acquirement of language is the “growth of lexicon, from a limited set of signs to a vocabulary at least 10,000 words in fully evolved language.” (Hickerson 45) This digital code, once thought to be “proof positive of the originality of the system of human communication”, is actually not unique in nature. Birds, specifically male nightingales, have this feature in their communications. The “male nightingales…have about 200 different types of song which are in part learned.” (Hauser 286) This fact, discovered via an experiment performed by M.D. Hauser entitled The Evolution of Communication with baby nightingales “established that their singing is structured into their memory in four hierarchical levels: song-sections, songs, packages, and context.” (Dessalles 19) The order was found to be more complex than once thought, resembling, to some degree, the complexity of human communication. The experiment found “the bird produces sequences (contexts) during which it will go from one ‘package’ to another, the package being memorized combinations of elements sung, which are themselves built out of simpler elements, the sections.” (Hauser 286) This indicates that these birds have even more features, specifically Charles Hockett’s Design Features, thought only exclusive to humans, although these birds express it in a more simplistic form. It appears their communication system is both “productive”, which is “a system that can grow” and “transmissible”, the ability to pass on knowledge, be it language or culture, down to one’s young. (Hickerson 33-34) One can think of the “sections” as morphemes of a sort, like those a child learns early on when learning to speak. Similarly, the “packages” can be seen as phonemes and the sequences, or contexts, seen as words or simple sentences and phrases. With this astonishing fact, it is not remarkable in the least that humans as a species were able to build on this innate ability built into us via Evolution. Though far removed from the birds, their use of a digital code has permeated down through the ages to be with us to this day.

Additionally, some features, which have been the cornerstone of language evolution for some time, must be considered critically. The first is a biological question; one that humans have thought to be true for at least the past one hundred years. The question is, whether or not the human brain as a whole or any part of the human brain is excessively larger than that of monkeys, specifically chimpanzees. Some believe they have already answered the question, proposing, as in Deacon’s theory, “that our cognitive and linguistic ability derives from our prefrontal cortex working in concert with our cerebellum.” (Lieberman 232) Although on the surface, it sounds true based solely on what one could call ‘common sense’, the proposition does not stand up to a shred of scientific evidence. In fact, all the scientific evidence actually points in the opposite direction. This is an astonishing and, above all, humbling discovery. Studies found that “Deacon’s theory is not consistent with MRI studies that have determined the volumes of different part of the brain in living monkey, apes, and humans.” (Lieberman 234) This is not the end of the evidence, however. Using MRI volumetric studies, they found “that the cerebellum is disproportionately smaller in humans” (Lieberman 234) than in monkeys or apes. Deacon’s theory by now is on the rocks and the following information from the same study eliminates it as viable. “Moreover, the frontal regions of the brain are disproportionately larger in humans than in apes.” (Lieberman 234) This is the opposite of Deacon’s theory. In addition, “if human prefrontal regions were disproportionately larger, other frontal regions would have to be disproportionately smaller, and this is not evident.” (Lieberman 234) Thus, it is obvious that the human brain, though a remarkable result of evolution, does not differ much from the primate brain to any ‘disproportionate’ degree. Furthermore, it should not be surprising that primate language and behavior is so similar to our own.

Additionally there exists another feature, which has been popular in supporting the notion that human language is unique to nature. Brain lateralization, championed as being the single feature that distinguishes us from all the “lower animals”, is the next feature examined. Lateralization, “the localization of the control center for a specific function, e.g. speech, on the right or left side of the brain” (Dictionary/MSN) , refers to, in this case, the left hemisphere of the human brain. Extensive research has shown that “the left hemisphere in about 90 percent of the present human population has a dominant role in regulating both motor control and language.” (Lieberman 235) This fact helps us understand why the high percentage of right-handedness exists in our species. However, this fact does not mean that brain lateralization is anyway the “key to human language” (Lieberman 236). Studies have found that the reality is quite the contrary, citing that “the left hemisphere of the brains of species of frogs regulates their vocalizations.” (Lieberman 236) This lends a great deal of credibility to the theory that language evolved, to its present state in humans, through a slow gradual process analogous to that of other traits that evolved. Our earliest ancestors, the hominids, were most likely predominately right-handed. This is evident from the 2 million year old tools they made and left behind. (Lieberman 236). Although, at this point, it may seem like the evidence points to language being centralized in the left hemisphere, it is not the case. In fact, “language capacities are not isolated in the dominant hemisphere of the human brain.” (Lieberman 236) This means that, although one hemisphere may be more active during speech and language activities, the activity, or “the work” involved in producing language is distributed, unevenly, throughout the brain like many of our neural processes. This is in line with what we observe in other animals as well. The brain is efficient in terms of delegating tasks to specific areas of the brain in ways that we are still attempting to understand. These are uncomfortable facts that, thanks to science, we must live and grapple with. Science does not sugarcoat things that may be too harsh it simply dispenses facts impersonally and leaves the overall interpretation to us. Before we look at the evidence, it should be noted that this information does not demean us, but speaks to a deeper connection to the living beings around us.

Assembling the Puzzle

What does all this mean? The assortment of disparate facts is in no way complete, however, it does begin to show us how ancient human language really is, and how it connects us to nature in general. Language, as with every other trait humans have come to express, is a conglomeration of several different beneficial features. In our closest relatives, the primates, we have acquired the ability of metal representation, or the ability to analyze linguistic messages in relation the surrounding environment and current situation. This was advantageous for two reasons. One, it gave us the ability to not be deceived, either by dubious members of the group or by sounds that occurred naturally that bore some resemblance to a sound in the language of the group. Two, arguably the most important consequence, it may have given rise to our human ability of critical thinking and analysis of complex abstract ideas and concepts, like language. The humble and hard-working bees gave us the ability to talk about referents removed from the immediate time and place, displacement. This was advantageous to us mainly because it allowed us to engage in more complex planning and gave a particular group more cohesion. Coupled with mental representation, it allowed early humans not only to plan for the present, but possibly for the future, in a semi-abstract manner. The birds, nightingales in particular, gave us two indispensable language features; the foundations of vocabulary and a primitive form of traditional transmission. Adding these particular features were advantageous, both in their primitive and modern forms. It allowed for a set of words, ideas, and concepts to be assembled, and then taught to the young, who would add to and improve upon the existing language. Brain size and lateralization, the features of the brain that were ever-present during the formation of these, were crucial to developing these features into more complex and useful forms of themselves and to melding them together to create a seamless and streamlined mechanism, we call language. It is because of the fact that our language, built upon pre-existing structures and features that we cannot claim our human language to be unique in the animal kingdom or in nature in general.

Conclusion

We need not conclude that our language has no uniqueness to it however. Although mainly built upon the language features of our fellow inhabiting creatures, it does have at least two unique features, which we humans as a species have contributed to the long process of evolution. The first of these is duality of patterning, hypothesized by Charles Hockett. This feature, linguistically, may be the most important trait that our language has. It allows our language to be rich and complex in ways that the other animals cannot match. The second is writing. Humans can, if they wish, write down their language, and pass down their acquired knowledge, not only to their own young but also to future generations to which they may not be related. In addition, since these generations will be able to read the knowledge, they too can build upon it and the language will persist and evolve on its own, branching off into a great unknown. Like in species evolution, language evolution comes down to the young. Any simple change in the language may be added to a vast accumulation some years in the future, becoming utterly unintelligible to the original language from which it came; this is the origin of new languages. And with all these features put together, and observed over the vast and incomprehensible span of evolutionary and geological time, we see the origins of language.

Bibliography

Dessalles, Jean-Louis. Why We Talk: The Evolutionary Origins of Language. Trans. James Grieve. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Dictionary/MSN, Encarta. Encarta Dictionary. Englewood, 8 May 2008.

Hauser, M. D. “The Evolution of Communication.” MIT Press (1996): 286.

Hickerson, Nancy Parrott. Linguistic Anthropology. Belmont: Earl McPeek, 2000.

Lieberman, Philip. Toward an Evolutionary Biology of Language. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006.

Understanding: Evolution. By Ned Judge. Dir. N/A. The Science Channel. Prod. Ned Judge. 2004.
Written by Joel

September 25, 2008 Posted by | Language, science | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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