Thursday, November 09, 2006


Shallow End of Gene Pool

All this conflict between science and religion can actually be traced back to the fool things scientists are always doing. They are either busy proving something that everybody already knows, or worse, something that doesn’t make any sense. Take this latest thing, proof that Neanderthals are in the gene pool. Who doesn’t know that? The big surprise was that only 30% of people worldwide carry the gene.

The gene in question is the one that regulates brain size, called microcephalin. Now if you know your Latin, you know micro means small and cephalin means brain. The old version emerged over a million years ago, and made small brains, which, when you think about it, makes sense. Then the gene underwent a significant change about the time the modern form of human migrated into Europe, some 40,000 years ago. Some 70% of the humans got the new version, while the Neanderthals, and 30% of the humans, were stuck with the small brains. The pure line of Neanderthals went extinct over the next 10,000 years.

Now it has long been suspected that there was fooling around between the camps, so to speak. The scientists are now debating just how much there might have been. The report published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science suggested that matings between Neanderthals and modern humans caused the mutation in the gene, leading to bigger brains. Dr. Lahn, the senior editor of the report, cautioned that the interbreeding may not have been widespread, and could have been rare, or even a single event. See, first they demonstrate the obvious, and then make some dumb statement like that. He obviously wasn’t one of the guys in high school, when we were all out drinking beer and looking for action. Imagine if there had been a Neanderthal high school in the area.

This lack of real world experience reminds you of this business of the proof of the Poincaré conjecture. If you are into topology, you know that this is the idea that a rabbit is the same as a sphere, because it doesn’t have any holes in it. Now that had been proved earlier for rabbits in space of more than three dimensions, but it took Grisha Perelman to prove it for three-dimensional space. This was pretty exciting, and now a bunch of mathematicians who have never seen a rabbit are busy polishing up Grisha’s proof, as Grisha promptly disappeared. I think you are beginning to get the idea.

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