Fiery Debate Over New Book’s Views On Genes And Race

Oof. Berkeley biologist and oft-outspoken blogger Michael Eisen writes perhaps the most vehement book review by a scientist I’ve ever read here, in his verbal firebombing of “A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History.

The new book, written by longtime New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade, had already kicked up controversy. Last week, the Huffington Post ran his defense against three separate critics, in which he counter-attacked “the social science position that there is no biological basis to race.”

This latest offensive seems all the more powerful because it comes from a lab-type scientist, who accuses Wade of veering into “racist claptrap.” And it seems all the more noteworthy because Eisen is so persuasive when he talks about the limits of what science now knows, and the verboten storytelling territory beyond:

In making the leap from the broad to the specific – from signature of natural selection in the human genome to explanations of the industrial revolution, Jewish Nobel Prizes and political turmoil in Africa and the Middle East – Wade tries to paint himself as a courageous scholar, going places with modern evolutionary biology that scientists WILL not go. But the truth is that scientists don’t go there, not because we are afraid to, but because we CAN’T. The data we have before us simply do not allow us to reconstruct human evolutionary history in this way. Continue reading

Caveman Syndrome: Today’s Killer Diseases Stem From Evolutionary Mismatch


By Karen Weintraub
CommonHealth Contributor

Cavemen didn’t have flat feet or type 2 diabetes. They didn’t need orthodontia or get impacted wisdom teeth. The ones who couldn’t see their prey – or predators – from far away didn’t live long enough to pass their nearsightedness on to their children.

Indeed, the vast majority of what ails us today — from leading killers like heart disease and cancer, to smaller health woes such as back pain — is the result of a mismatch between the environments we evolved in and the ones we now inhabit, argues Harvard evolutionary biologist Dan Lieberman in his sweeping new book, “The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, And Disease.”

Lord Jim/flickr

Lord Jim/flickr

Lieberman, perhaps best known for his energetic advocacy of barefoot running (which he sometimes does), convincingly makes the case for a wholesale rethinking of how we live our modern lives based on overcoming these evolutionary “mismatches.”

“Most of us in this room are probably going to die of a mismatch disease,” Lieberman told a capacity crowd Thursday night at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Our bodies evolved as hunter-gatherers to walk 5-10 miles a day, eat a varied diet loaded with fiber and pack on fat in times of plenty to get us through the leaner times, he said. But instead, we live in an environment where we can drive to the mall, park close to the door and take the escalator up to the food court for a dinner that barely needs chewing.

This mismatch has led, he suggests, to a proliferation of heart disease, cancer and diabetes – which were nearly unknown to our prehistoric ancestors, as well as disabling conditions like low back pain and autoimmune problems. Continue reading

Study Suggests Cell Damage As Potential Danger Of Antibiotic Use

Cipro (Wikimedia Commons)

Cipro (Wikimedia Commons)

By Karen Weintraub
Guest Contributor

Might antibiotics be causing harm at a cellular level? That’s one possible conclusion from a new study by researchers at Boston University.

We’ve long known about the dangers of antibiotic resistance – that one day, the drugs will stop working – and scientists have learned in recent years that antibiotics also kill off “good” bacteria with the “bad.” But now, James J. Collins, a B.U. biomedical engineer, says his research in mice suggests that certain antibiotics, taken long-term, could be damaging our own cells.

In a study published today in Science Translational Medicine, Collins’ team showed that widely used antibiotics like ciprofloxacin and ampicillin can damage the cells’ fuel supply and cause oxidative stress, which has been linked to cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and other ailments.

The research is still early and far from conclusive, but Collins says he thinks it’s convincing enough to at least merit more study.

When he and his colleagues exposed cells in a dish and then mice to these antibiotics over several weeks, they saw signs of serious cellular damage. The doses were similar to those given patients taking long-term therapy. The damage may explain why antibiotics have long been associated with side effects such as tendon, kidney and liver problems, says Collins, also a founding faculty member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard. Continue reading

The Giant, Inflatable, Walk-Through Cell

The Giant Cell on display in the Atrium in Technology Square as part of the Cambridge Science Festival. The Giant Cell is a joint project of the University of Basel and Interpharma. (Nate Goldman/WBUR)

The Giant Cell on display as part of the Cambridge Science Festival. (Nate Goldman/WBUR)

Biology is much more fun in 3D — especially if you can touch, squeeze, recline on, peek into and walk through it.

On Tuesday night I got to experience The Giant Cell, an inflatable, interactive exhibit part of the Cambridge Science Festival. It’s a joint project of the University of Basel and Interpharma (a trade association for Swiss pharmaceutical companies).

And yes, The Giant Cell is giant — it’s 300,000 times larger than a cell in your body. But all the parts were there: the nucleus, the ribosomes, the mitochondria, you name it. This was science education at its best. And biggest.
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