Saturday, December 23, 2006

An Example Of Altruism?

Many people have wrote that there is no such thing as altruism. I must admit that I have also always thought the same thing..even though I continued to search for one such act. I have often been the lone arguer pointing out that no one has been able to uncover a single example of true a natural setting or in the human race. I am now rescinding my previous statement. I have for a very long time..searched for an example that I could in some way attribute to altruism..and until now I have been unsuccessful. I suppose all examples are based upon your own definition of altruism. I learned many years ago that altruism is an act done by an individual at a cost..benefiting another individual not of relation to the one performing the act.

The said example concerns a chimpanzee and a human. A researcher was following a group of chimpanzees in the jungle. After some hours, he found that he had forgotten his lunch back at the research station. This researcher then proceeded to try to knock down fruit from a tree some distance from where the group of chimpanzees sat eating their mid-day meal. It has been noted that after some time of unsuccessful attempts to acquire fruit... a young male from the group collected some fruits from a tree and climbed down toward the researcher. The chimpanzee then proceeded to approach the researcher and leave the fruit for the researcher.

This instance has been noted as a true act of altruism by any definition since the chimpanzee was not of relation to the researcher (not in the last 1000 years at least) and this act was a cost to itself with no benefit. Therefore, I stand corrected on the notion of seems to exist after all.

Compassion, Rescue and the Altruism Debate, The emotional lives of animals Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson and Susan McCarthy.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Why We Should Always Question..

There are many moments in time that we look back at now...which will always lead to us to slap our foreheads and say, "stupid, stupid, stupid". There is one such moment that continues to be brought up in the most general science if to say.."if you don't test and retest...we will ridicule you for years to come". This example is of course the lemming. Lemmings were believed to commit, "The Lemming Suicide Plunge" when the population became too numerous. It was really believed that millions of lemmings would be overcome by a hard-wired impulse to dash to their death by hurling themselves over a cliff to the rocks below or by plunging into the sea to die a horrible death by drowning. The reasoning behind this was thought to be a deep-rooted act of altruistic behavior resulting the greater good for the species. However, you can probably guess, this is not the case. Shown to the right is a famous Far Side cartoon dipicting natural selection in action. As the lemmings dash to their death..there is one cheater in the group that will survive and ultimately passing on the cheater genes to future generations.

How this story may have gotten started....

Many rodent species experience very strange cyclic population explosions. It is very interesting that lemmings have one of the most regular cyclic fluctuations in population densities. It has been shown that these little creatures have population explosions about every three or four years. The population numbers of lemmings explode to high numbers, and then drop almost to extinction. Even after approximately 75 years of intense research, scientists do not fully understand why the populations fluctuate so much. Throughout the years, many factors have been tested (i.e., changes in food availability, climate, density of predators, stress of overcrowding, infectious diseases, snow conditions, sunspots, etc) but none completely explain why populations of lemmings have these explosive cycles.

The myth of the lemming most likely started when these population explosions happen and the lemmings migrate away from areas with a dense population. As you can imagine, the migrations begin slowly and erratically. It has been shown that small numbers of lemmings will move at night, and larger groups in the daytime. This movement causes small groupings of lemmings to move instead of one continous mass, usually seperated by a short time frame of 10 minutes or so. It has been noted that they will often follow well worn paths and roads along their journey.

As you can imagine, there will be unavoidable obstacles, such as streams and lakes inevitalby causing them to swim as a last resort. Suprisingly, they are able to swim across a 200 meter body of water on a calm night, but most will drown in a windy night.

So why the myth began....

It is due to a very unlikely source....Walt Disney. Walt Disney was making a movie tittled, "Wild Wilderness" which was released in 1958. It was filmed in Alberta, Canada, in a location that is far from the sea and not a native home to lemmings. The lemming were imported and forced to jump to thier deaths by placing them on a spinning turntable that was covered with snow, and then shooting it from many different angles. The cliff-death-plunge sequence was done by herding the lemmings over a small cliff into a river. It's easy to understand why the filmmakers did this - wild animals are notoriously uncooperative, and a migration-of-doom followed by a cliff-of-death sequence is far more dramatic to show than the lemmings' self-implemented population-density management plan.

The moral of the story....lemmings do not commit mass suicide and Walt Disney has clear prejudice against the lemming and for the mouse.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Net Picks

Something to read while taking a break -

Fifty Years With Double Stranded RNA
Alexander Rich, the scientist who discovered hybridization and the "other" double helix describes what it meant to biology.

Bioengineering and AIDS
University of Utah scientists designed a "molecular condom" women could use daily to prevent AIDS by vaginally inserting a liquid that would turn into a gel-like coating and then, when exposed to semen, return to liquid form and release an antiviral drug.

Genetic Map Offers New Tool For Malaria Research
In one of three genomic studies of malaria appearing in Nature Genetics, scientists chart genetic variation across the genome of the malaria parasite, unlocking novel DNA regions associated with drug resistance.

Laugh And The Whole World Laughs With You: Why The Brain Just Can't Help Itself
Researchers at UCL (University College London) and Imperial College London have shown that positive sounds trigger a response in the listener's brain in an area that is activated by smile, as though preparing our facial muscles to laugh.

This Holiday Season drink without fear.
A study performed by the Research Laboratories of the Catholic University of Campobasso (Italy) confirms the beneficial effects that moderate consumption of alcohol has on our health: drinking in moderation reduces all-cause mortality.

Another reason why the Octopus Rules - in built 3-D light reflectors!
Roger Hanlon at the Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts and colleagues took a close look at the octopus's skin and identified a new group of proteins (leucophores) with remarkable properties.

New Insights Into The Origin Of Life On Earth
In an advance toward understanding the origin of life on Earth, scientists have shown that parts of the Krebs cycle can run in reverse, producing biomolecules that could jump-start life with only sunlight and a mineral present in the primordial oceans.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Science Daily Picks

Found : Apple Gene for Red
CSIRO scientist have found the gene that controls the color of apples. The red color of apple skin is result of anthocyanins (responsible for blue or red color in plants). It was known that color of apples is affected by light (less light results in poor color), so the scientist looked for genes that were activated by light and compared these to genes in a green apple and bingo!

Learning During Sleep?
Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg have taken a step towards understanding communication between memory areas. Their study shows a link between sleep and memory consolidation (transfer of memory from hippocampus to the cerebral cortex).

Cities Change The Songs Of Birds Leiden University researchers studied the songs of the great tit (Parus major), a successful urban dweller in the center of ten major European cities and compared the songs to that of the bird living in nearby forest sites. The results show that songs that are important for mate selection or territory defense are shorter, sung faster and at a higher pitch by the urban bird. The findings published on Dec.5 in Current Biology show divergence within a species because of the environment and could very well lead to speciation.

NASA Telescope Sees Black Hole Munch On A Star.
NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer has caught a black hole eating a star, from the initial capture to the last bites.

Water Still Flows In Brief Spurts On Mars, NASA Images Suggest
NASA photographs have revealed bright new deposits seen in two gullies on Mars that suggest water carried sediment through them sometime during the past seven years.
So let the hunt for the ETs begin :)