All posts filed under: Genetics

Taboo: Why Is Africa the Global COVID ‘Cold Spot’ and Why Are We Afraid to Talk About It?

The first COVID-19 case in Africa was confirmed on February 14th, 2020, in Egypt. The first in sub-Saharan Africa appeared in Nigeria soon after. Health officials were united in a near-panic about how the novel coronavirus would roll through the world’s second most populous continent. By mid-month, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed four sub-Saharan countries on a “Top 13” global danger list because of direct air links to China. Writing for the Lancet, two scientists with the Africa Center for Disease Control outlined a catastrophe in the making: With neither treatment nor vaccines, and without pre-existing immunity, the effect [of COVID-19] might be devastating because of the multiple health challenges the continent already faces: rapid population growth and increased movement of people; existing endemic diseases… re-emerging and emerging infectious pathogens… and others; and increasing incidence of non-communicable diseases. Many medical professionals predicted that Africa could spin into a death spiral. “My advice to Africa is to prepare for the worst, and we must do everything we can to cut the root problem,” Tedros Adhanom …

The Campaign to Thwart Paleogenetic Research Into North America’s Indigenous Peoples

One of the major North American archaeological discoveries of the 20th century was made in 1967 by a bulldozer crew preparing a site for a movie theater in the small fishing village of Port au Choix (PAC), on Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula. It was a vast, 4,000-year-old cemetery created by a complex maritime culture known among researchers as the Maritime Archaic. The graves contained beautifully preserved skeletons covered in a brilliant red powder called red ocher (powdered specular hematite). Buried with the skeletons were many finely crafted artifacts. A few similar ones had previously turned up in earlier field surveys on the island, but no archaeologist had suspected that such a large and magnificent ceremonial site existed in the North American subarctic. Had the discovery been made only a few years earlier, it is likely that no trained archaeologist would have taken over from the bulldozer crew. But fortunately, Memorial University in St. Johns had just added archaeologist James (“Jim”) Tuck (1940–2019) to its faculty. The American-born scholar set out to explore the cemetery, eventually excavating …

Standing on the Shoulders of Ogres

There is neither merit nor justice in the posthumous dishonouring of the eminent biologists Francis Galton, who coined the phrase “nature or nurture,” and Ronald Fisher, who advised that “correlation is not causation.” In a recent article in the Journal of Physical Anthropology, Adam Rutherford, author of How to Argue with a Racist, provides reasons for supporting the recent “de-naming” of Galton and Fisher by various institutions. These reasons are historically inaccurate and morally dubious. Standing on the shoulders of bastards: I wrote a paper about cancel culture, accusations of the erasure of history, on how we deal with great scientists who also held outmoded and baleful views. https://t.co/PKr1KNP3xO pic.twitter.com/gQ9u100R4M — Dr Adam Rutherford (@AdamRutherford) December 18, 2020 The crimes of Galton and Fisher, as vaguely framed by Rutherford, seem to be conducting research on eugenics (inventing “pseudoscience”) and making recommendations about eugenic policy. Rutherford tars Galton with the Nazi brush even though he died 32 years before Hitler came to power in 1933. He argues that eugenics was a causal factor in the emergence of …

My White Privilege Didn’t Save Me. But God Did

Following the furore over Netflix’s Cuties movie in the fall, Quillette editor-in-chief Claire Lehmann tweeted that the creepy conservative obsession with paedophilia is as bizarre as the feminist obsession with rape. I took umbrage, and noted my annoyance—though I knew what she meant. Sexual violence, particularly toward children, is becoming more of a marginal topic. Rape, while a serious problem in every society, has been in historic decline in the west. I am not naturally conservative, and I do not exhibit the required antagonism toward men to qualify me as a decent feminist. But in the area of sex, rape, and paedophilia, I am unable to separate my politics from what is fashionably called my “lived experience.” As a young girl, I was raped, as were other members of my family (not all of them female). It was only in my reaction to this tweet that I started to think of how those experiences, and the circumstances that surrounded them, shaped my politics. My experience is not uncommon among those who share my socioeconomic background. …

The Evolutionary History of Man’s Best Friend Revealed

Man and dog share a long history. In much of the world, a history as old as humanity. The latest genetic evidence now tells us that the emergence of the domestic dog lineage occurred soon after the human expansion out of Africa 50,000 years ago, in the depths of the last Ice Age. We came. We saw. And we befriended. This we knew, but now we can closely examine how. A paper out today in Science uses 27 ancient dog genomes from the past 11,000 years to construct an evolutionary history nearly as rich as that produced by human population geneticists over the last decade. The authors found five lineages of ancient dogs that were present at the end of the last Ice Age. These were the dogs that interacted with human migrations during the rise of agriculture and the fall of civilizations to produce the riotous dog diversity that we know today. Familiar breeds like the Pekingese and the St. Bernard, as well as stray Asian village mutts, they’re all the products of a …

Philosophy Is Being Hijacked by Woke Twitter Mobs

Philosophers tend to be highly influenced by their environment, and can often be found rationalizing instead of critically examining the conventional views of the people around them. But if anything warrants philosophical scrutiny, surely it is our national taboos. As a philosopher of biology, one taboo is of particular interest to me: the taboo on considering the possibility that genes play a role in group differences in psychological traits. So I wrote a paper arguing that, while nothing can be definitively proved, there is strongly suggestive evidence that genes are involved in group differences, and we should stop suppressing and censoring research into this topic. I submitted the paper to Philosophical Psychology—a respected journal that publishes work on the connection between philosophy and psychology, which at the time was co-edited by Mitchell Herschbach (a philosopher) and ‪Cees van Leeuwen (a psychologist). To my pleasant surprise, I received two positive referee reports along with a request for revisions. After two rounds of review, the paper was accepted and published in the January 2020 issue of the …

To Be Useful, Health Data Must Go Deeper Than ‘Black’ and ‘White’

All over the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected patients based on a variety of identifiable factors, from age to sex to occupation. Data such as these are crucial to public-health officials and researchers tasked with improving care for all citizens. But in some cases, the quest for data seems driven as much by political factors as by the need to protect public health. In Canada, where I work as a resident physician in the field of head and neck surgery, the federal government has proposed that racial data be tracked as part of our national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, as is already the case in the United States. On the surface, there would seem to be an obvious parallel with the need to collect race-based policing data, especially in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the worldwide protests that followed. Collecting such data makes sense in the context of policing, since race corresponds to a visible marker that can prompt radically different responses from police officers. But the situation is different when …

COVID-19’s Gender Gap

When Hilary Clinton said in 1998 that “women have always been the primary victims of war,” it sent a chill down the spine of many. It is a questionable piece of emotional accounting to calculate that, even though men die in greater numbers than women—often after being drafted unwillingly into combat—the impact on women is greater because they lose male relatives, become refugees, and are left with the responsibility of raising children alone. But if you think Clinton’s accounting was reasonable, then you will have no problem with the narrative around the gender death gap in the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. You might have noticed that in the media (for example, the BBC, the Guardian), and even in the world of health (for example, the World Health Organisation and the Lancet), a commonly recurring narrative has developed around the pandemic: More men are dying, but the real victims are women. Moreover, this narrative usually implies that men’s deaths are largely due to men’s poor decisions about health behaviour. Are men’s deaths their own fault? The Lancet …

Sex Differences in Cognition

In a previous post I examined the biological and social influences on sex and gender identity. Evidence suggests that biology plays a powerful role in the determination of sex as well as of gender identity, although social forces are also important particularly as they relate to gender role expression. In this essay I’ll examine the evidence surrounding a related controversial topic: whether or not there are cognitive differences between the sexes and, if so, whether they are biological or social in origin. In what follows, I’ll focus on individuals whose gender identity matches their biological sex. This leaves out nonbinary and transsexual persons, about whom there is far less research evidence. Nevertheless, given that transsexuals tend to have hypothalamuses that match their identified gender not their biological sex, it would be interesting to know if this produces cognitive differences as well. Some evidence suggests that the administration of sex hormones to those undergoing transition does influence cognition in expected ways. Other studies suggest that cognitive differences exist prior to hormone treatment, and that the cognition …

How CRISPR-Enabled Gene Editing Could Change Our World: A Huntington’s Disease Case Study

Inside the O’Briens is a work of fiction by Lisa Genova that chronicles several years in the life of Joe O’Brien and his family. At the age of forty-four, Joe, a Boston police officer, is diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, a progressive brain disorder. Symptoms of Huntington’s disease usually appear in a person’s thirties or forties and initially include involuntary jerking and twitching movements, as well as subtle emotional difficulties and disorganized thinking. As the disease progresses, problems develop with motor skills like walking, coordination, and balance; the involuntary jerking and twitching become more pronounced; and cognitive abilities and emotions become further impaired. While there are medications to help alleviate these symptoms, there is no cure. Most people with Huntington’s disease die of this illness fifteen to twenty years after the onset of symptoms. The diagnosis of Huntington’s disease is only the beginning of Joe’s nightmare. At the same time that Joe learns he has this fatal disorder, he is made to understand that each of his four adult children—JJ, Patrick, Meghan and Katie—has a 50 …