Henry Ford, it is said, commissioned a survey of the car scrap yards of America to find out if there were parts of the Model T Ford which never failed. His inspectors came back with reports of almost every kind of breakdown: axles, brakes, pistons -- all were liable to go wrong. But they drew attention to one notable exception, the kingpins of the scrapped cars invariably had years of life left in them. With ruthless logic Ford concluded that the kingpins on the Model T were too good for their job and ordered that in future they should be made to an inferior specification.
For the automotively challenged, the kingpin is the main pivot in the steering mechanism of a car or other vehicle. Originally this was literally a steel pin on which the moveable, steerable wheel was mounted to the suspension. It is usually made out of metal.
This story, well-known on the internet, was originally told by Nicholas Humphrey in 1976, and often referred to by other biologists including Jared Diamond and Richard Dawkins, the latter recounting the story in what is, by far, the most pessimistic chapter ("God's Utility Function") in his book River Out of Eden.
John Hawks, who has an interesting anthropology weblog takes a look at the Henry Ford story, and why evolutionary biologists seem to love it so:
Of course, the truth is natural selection doesn't cut back the quality of functional parts easily, either. Selection also has to overcome fixed costs in order to change populations: costs stemming from pleiotropy, epistasis, and coevolution with other kinds of organisms (e.g. predator-prey relationships, mutualisms, and mimicry). How much selective advantage can come from reducing femur diameter a smidgeon? It can't be very much, and it might easily be outweighed by the manifold costs of changing osteoblast function to accomplish it. In other words, adaptation is constrained by the same sorts of problems that constrain industry. Ruthless efficiency can rarely be maintained in biology or in manufacturing.
But then again, was the story even true?
Barbara Mikkelson over at the Urban Legends website thinks not, but offers an additional insight:
Though the legend is almost always positioned as a "let's screw the consumers" tale, on rare occasion it has been presented as an example of intelligent design."*
It all reminds me of the Edward de Bono books I read as a kid.
* She includes a similar type of anecdote about another engineering triumph, from WWII:
"A proposal was made to armour bombers in the places where the returning planes showed most damage from anti-aircraft fire. One young analyst suggested that instead, the planes should be armoured where the returning bombers showed no damage. He inferred that the planes that did not return were being damaged in the places that the returning planes were not. His suggestion was implemented and an X% reduction in lost planes resulted."
One of the great chin-scratchers of modern physical anthropology revolves around blood type, in particular why most indigenous populations of the New World have such incredibly high percentages of the gene for type O. Sometimes, especially as you move south of the modern US-Mexico border, the percentages almost reach 100%.
Since almost everyone agrees that human habitation of the New World began with migrations out of the Siberia, across the Bering Sea, and the population on the Russian Asiatic side shows no similar high percentage of type O; if anything the percentage frequency of the type O gene drops as we move further and further north and east. Several theories have been advanced to explain the apparent 'Bering Sea Bottleneck'.
The most often suggested is the genetic drift theory. The basic idea behind genetic drift is easy enough to understand. If you flip a coin two hundred times, there is a very good chance that your results will be somewhere close to 100 times coming up heads, and another 100 times coming up tails. Indeed, the more you flip a coin, the more likely (given that you have an honest coin) the results will be 50% head and 50% tails.
However, suppose that you instead only flipped the coin seven times; would it not be feasible on any given Sunday to flip five heads and two tails? Sure it is. That is how Las Vegas stays in business. Genetic drift is like that: A small population may have an uncharacteristic gene distribution simply because the genetic coin did not flip enough to have things even out.
So the Genetic Drift Theory of the 'Bering Bottleneck Type O Anomaly' posits that a small band of folks swam, walked or boated over the Bering Strait, and because their numbers were so small, the genes for A and B did not come along with the coin flip. This small number of colonist determined the future gene pool for the continent due to their exerting a 'founder effect'.
It's not a bad theory, except that in order to accomplish this, the numbers of Asian immigrants to the New World must be very small; along the order of a dozen or less, so that there is an even slight statistical chance that they could all be type O. However, even if the original colonizers of the New World numbered, say ten or eleven, the odds of those entire ten or eleven colonist being type O is about one in a thousand. Even if the number of colonists is dropped to five the odds only drop to one in thirty-two. (1) And that also assumes that there was one boatload or band of colonists, when common sense tells us that there must have been numerous attempts, though perhaps not all successful, to migrate to the New World.
The second theory is that of Natural Selection, which a lot of people equate with evolution, but it's not. Natural selection posits that perhaps a mixture of all blood types were part of the original migration, but for some reason, probably infectious disease, the type A and type B colonists died out. Of the two, Natural Selection is perhaps the stronger theory since there a definite likes between ABO type and susceptibility to small pox, syphilis, E. coli and tuberculosis, all of which probably killed lots of people back then.
However, as any honest exterminator will tell you, it's hard to kill them all.
A.E. Mourant addressed this issue in his book Blood Relations
"Like the absence of B in the Australian aborigines, the lack of B in the northern zone and of A and B in the southern zone raises a problem of world-wide importance. Was the B gene totally absent from the original populations from eastern Asia that ultimately reached Australia and America, or was the gene lost on the way? If so, was this due to genetic drift in relatively small isolated populations, or to natural selection? Early blood-group workers suggested that when man left Asia for Australia and America mutations for the A and B genes had not yet occurred. However, analogous if not identical genes occur in the higher apes at least, and so are several million years old. In the light of the discussion of O frequencies in Europe it is not difficult to see how, as a result of the elimination of A and B fetuses of O mothers, first the gene B (which is rarer than A) could have tended to disappear, and then A itself."(2)
Now, it has been know for a while (3) that human and primate ABO genes are somewhat analogous, let's just say that they are similar enough for our purposes, which is to say that the individual genes for A, B and (by default) O are 'old'. However, does it automatically lead us to assume that just because genes share a long history, does that mean we can assume that they will always exist in the percentage numbers? Of course not, we just say that with Genetic Drift: percentages change.
With apologies to Edward Tufte, let's take a look at the snazzy graphic I just did:
What you are looking at is the northeast corner of Asia and the northwest corner of North America at the Bering Strait, across and under-which one day your kids may be able to drive their cars. Not surprisingly, the colors of the map mean things: For example, the darker green the land is colored, the higher the frequency of the gene for type O; the lighter the color, the lower the percentage (less type O genes)
Now, first of all, note that these are indigenous populations, so the modern-day Alaskans and Siberians don't figure here that much here. What sticks out at you? Yup, there is lots of O gene the further east (the right side of ther map) you travel! But what else? Normally we might expect the trail of O genes to drift nicely along, but in our map the distribution is bi-modal: The incidence of O gene is higher at both ends of the map and lower in the middle. You can see that by looking at the bar graphs below, which not only looks at the relative 'percentage if each percentage' but also the percentage of land versus water: Each bar graph is actually a snapshot of one of the sixteen 'slices' of the map, the black lines.
So if anything, the more constricted that land mass became, the less you find the type O gene.
Interestingly, look at the red numbers on the map. They are the percentages of type B gene. Notice as well that the Asian side of the Strait has some of the highest percentage of Type B gene on the planet. What about on the American side?
Virtually no type B gene.
Now, to me this implies that there may well have been two waves, a 'First Wave' that contained very high percentages of type O gene and which had a relatively easy time getting across the Bering Strait (which may well have still been a land bridge) and who created the 'Founder Effect' in America, and a 'Second Wave' somewhat higher in Type A and much higher in Type B which followed but got stymied by the ecological changes and the closing of the land bridge.
So what I think is that both the Genetic Drift and the Natural Selection theories are correct, but I'm more inclined to move both of their occurrences with regard to blood type further back in time and much further west. In that case, rather than having crossed before the advent of the genes for A and B, our first American colonists would have walked across before the rest of Asia had a chance to recover from the results of its own initial 'flip of the coin.'
By which time there was no more walking there.
1. L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza. Genes People and Languages. University of California Press, 2000
2. Mourant, AE. Blood Relations, Blood Groups and Anthropology. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK 1983.
3. Saitou N, Yamamoto F. Evolution of primate ABO blood group genes and their homologous genes. Mol Biol Evol. 1997 Apr;14(4):399-411.
William C. Boyd.
Perhaps a list of his partial accomplishments will demonstrate:
- Boyd wrote the first textbook of immunology.
- Boyd discovered the blood type specificity of many lectins.
- Boyd coined the word 'lectin.'
- He was one of the first 'paleoserologists', using lectins to trace the blood type distributions of many populations around the world. Boyd was the first to document that blood group substances could be recovered intact from physical remains of graves, such as from mummies.
- With Isaac Asimov, he wrote a book for the general public which was one of the first to attack the notion that race was a scientific fact.
- He developed antibody techniques, such as precipitation and flocculation, and applied them to blood group serology.
- He was among the first researchers to recommend the use of magnesium salts in the immediate aftermath of heart attack.
- Boyd wrote some pretty good science fiction (under the name "Boyd Ellanby" ).
Every time I venture into something, be it ABO blood group immunology, lectins in foods, anthropology, and a slew of immunology techniques, this guy was there first. It's a pity nobody really knows about him.
Best serologist, ever.
In addition to my feverish efforts to bring www.dadamo.com back into the Information Age ---the shoemaker's kids do in fact often lack shoes--- the so-called holiday week finds your humble blogger finally mastering the intricacies of Apple's wonderful Keynote presentation software. If like me you've always used PowerPoint, Keynote is indeed a revelation.
The purpose of using presentation software is to give presentations and my upcoming lectures in Arizona are providing the necessary threat-impetus.
At the request of the Arizona Naturopathic Medical Association (AzNMA) on Saturday, January 10, 2009 I'll be doing a total of four hours of lecturing to docs and a one hour public lecture (with a half hour reserved for questions and answers) at the Doubletree Paradise Valley in Scottsdale, AZ. If you are in the Phoenix area why not plan to stop by. I can promise you that the slide/multimedia/rumination presentation may well give old Al Gore a run for the money.
Any trip to Phoenix also affords the extra benefit of seeing our good friends Paul and Laura Mittman. I'm so proud of what Paul has accomplished at Southwest College.
Found this little unused snippet from the volumes of material that was prepared for The GenoType Diet but never used. Thought it might make for interesting reading.
The high water mark of hunter-gathering is often called the Mesolithic period ('Middle Stone Age') which began around 10,000 years ago and ended with the introduction of farming. The onset of farming differed from place to place, starting early in the Near East and much later in Europe. Hunter-gatherer technology reached its apex during the Mesolithic era; fishing tackle, stone adzes, canoes and bows have all been found preserved at various sites.
Popular culture tends to depict our Stone Age ancestors as crude, simplistic animals perpetually at the point of starvation. "Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" as Thomas Hobbes had put it in 1651. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Though small in number, Paleolithic hunter-gatherers worked far fewer hours and enjoyed more leisure than typical members of industrial society, and they still ate well, satisfied with very little in the material sense. The transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture was not necessarily a one way process, and evidence seems to disprove any notion that hunter-gatherers were saved from extinction by the advent of farming technology. They seem to have been familiar with farming practices when it arose, but for the longest time simply rejected it, or used it as a marginal supplement to the diet.
As these late hunter-gatherer societies evolved, they began to develop specializations such as fishing and seafood collection, harvesting nuts and fruits, or trapping small animals. They often had simple forms of representative government, based around family or clan.
Perhaps it is not coincidental that the story of the Garden of Eden in the Bible shares some of the same elements in its storyline. Some anthropologists have hypothesized that the Garden of Eden does not represent a geographical place, but rather represents cultural memory of the simpler times of hunter-gathering, when man lived off God's bounty, as opposed to being civilized and toiling at agriculture.
A large percentage of the world's cultures have stories of a Great Flood that devastated earlier civilization. This flood is sent by God or the gods as an act of divine retribution to destroy civilization. Noah and the Ark in Genesis, Matsya in the Hindu Puranas and the Epic of Gilgamesh are among the most familiar versions of these myths, all of which divide prehistory into a pre-flood or Antediluvian and a post-flood world.
Certainly there were major changes to the planetary water table at the end of the last ice age, as melting waters for the rapidly diminishing glaciers would have caused the levels of the seas and oceans to rise about 125-150 feet, deluging and destroying many prior land bridges, such as that between Alaska and Siberia, and isolating many populations. The end of the last ice age was also accompanied by the mother of all volcanic eruptions as the movement of the African plate opened a fault-line under the Mediterranean Sea, creating a string of volcanoes that still exist, such as Vesuvius and Etna. There is some geological evidence suggesting that a massive prehistoric flood occurred around 8000 years ago as the Mediterranean Sea spilled into the present day Black Sea.
William Ryan and Walter Pitman, geologists from Columbia University proposed what came be called the 'Black Sea Deluge Theory' which hypothesizes that melting of the last great glaciers caused the rising Mediterranean to finally spill over a rocky sill at the Bosporus eventually flooding 155,000 square kilometers of land. Despite some supportive findings, the theory remains an active subject of debate among archaeologists.
Although by this time agriculture had already reached the plains of central Europe, the Ryan and Pitman linked its spread with farming people displaced by the flood. It has been suggested that the memories of these displaced survivors was the source of the Great Flood Legends.
The summer of 1968 beckoned and looked very promising. Balmy days for us kids often spent butterfly collecting, trading comic books, listening to baseball on the radio, and playing afternoon stickball, a uniquely New York City street game involving a stick --usually appropriated from an unwatched broom-- and a hard pink rubber ball manufactured by the AJ Spaulding Company universally referred to as a “Spalldeen.”
However my dreams for such a bucolic near future came to a screeching halt one afternoon when I was greeted by my little brother at the door with news that we would all soon be flying in an airplane! That sounded exciting enough, but further elaboration disclosed a darker truth: We would be flying to the village of my mother’s birth in North East Spain. My knowledge of the place was minimal at best: I had only seen rather quaint photographs with scallop-cut edges of what appeared to be a ramshackle, sleepy and sun baked town populated by sunburned farmers with dazzling white teeth clustering around a new tractor, scooter or calf. It looked foreign, smelly and somewhat ominous.
Soon enough we headed for the airport to begin our journey. Modern, security-frazzled, airline customers may not realize or remember just how much of an event traveling by airplane was in the mid 1960’s. Washed and scrubbed, wearing rayon shirts and thin ties, mother in Sunday best complete with pill box hat, we journeyed the Atlantic in the marvelous Boeing 707.
Fully jet-lagged we landed many hours later at Barcelona airport and were greeting by a deputation from the village, 150 screaming, waving and wildly gesticulating Catalans, for this was, as I would soon be told “Catalonia, not Spain.” From Barcelona we soon began our travels westward, into the Llobregat river valley and the mountains of the Montserrat, strangely carved peaks that are the results of eons of erosion by now-extinct giant rivers. This is an enchanted land; not for nothing are Catalan artists overrepresented in the Surrealist art movement.
Winding down roads of choking dust, we made our way to the town, or pueblo. Until then having grown up in the restrained, plasticized and sanitized habits that characterized the USA in the 1960’s, I was in now way prepared for the coarse, almost brusque mannerisms of these folks. The gesticulated wildly, seemed to argue about everything, screamed at each other from their windows and talked at an amazingly rapid-fire rate of delivery. It’s phenomenally fertile land, and the local people are rumored to be the only people in Spain who can “make bread out of stones.” The closest town, which is at the border between Catalonia and Aragon, was described as being “renowned for its figs, and the thick-headedness of the inhabitants.”
Culture shock soon set in. A shy kid to start off, I was soon just happy to find a quiet place and read my bon voyage present, a huge book on the Battle of Gettysburg. Unlike my little brother, who was muy sympatico, eating in the café and yelling at the soccer games on the one TV like everyone else, I just felt alienated. One had to be careful with their choice of friends. The headless automaton jumping around my aunt’s kitchen spurting blood all over the place was just shortly before the chicken with two different colored eyes that I had so carefully observed that morning. Cute, friendly rabbits were soon rendered into grotesque hanging parodies of the “visible body” model that I had built that Christmas.
Being the wonderful people that they are, my family soon began to try to get me to come out of my shell. One of my uncles took notice of my liking of history, and soon we were off in his tiny car, visiting Visigoth and Roman ruins. Another uncle, a simple but lovable farmer, would take me out to his fields, hold a finger up to his lips so as to say “let’s keep this secret to ourselves” and begin pushing aside sagebrush, rubble and other weeds, revealing a lovely Roman husband and wife gravestone. Gradually, I began to open up to this wonderfully simple and pure world.
Around midday we would break for lunch and siesta, which never varied all that much; a medium sized fish, called a “sardine”, stuck on a branch and placed around perimeter of a small fire, some olives and almonds from the field, followed by a peach or pear. Since it was still too hot to go back to work we’d look at clouds or the distant hills and at one point I asked him what lay beyond those hills.
“Saragossa.” He said.
“And beyond that?”
“And beyond that?”
“The Basques. But they are different than us, and a little crazy.”
It would take a lot for a Catalan to call someone else “different”, and to a Catalan, the Basques may well be the only qualifying group. Like the Catalans, the Basques are very independent minded, with great cultural sensitivity and were consequently heavily repressed during the Franco dictatorship. Similarly, they have experienced a phenomenal cultural renaissance in the years following his death.
An ancient people, or more correctly a “people island,” they have resisted virtually all attempts at assimilation, forced or otherwise. In the Basque language there is no name for “Basque”. There is a name for the language that Basques speak, Euskera and a Basque is simply defined as a Euskaldun, someone who speaks Euskera.
But we would have to go back farther still to get a grip on the Basques. You have to go back to a very cold, dry time without agriculture. The Basques, you see, are sort of living fossils, probably the most direct link we genetically possess to a distinct people that can be traced back to the Pleistocene Age.
The upper right-hand corner of Spain has some of the most interesting dialects to be found in the world over such a small piece of geography. Catalan, the language of my family, is an ancient Latin derived tongue, probably closer to the Latin of the Romans than either modern day French or Spanish.
For a romance language, Catalan has a surprising number of consonants, with the free use of the letter x as an example. But for all its unique qualities, Catalan is a relative newcomer, the Romans having inhabited the area roughly two-thousand years ago. Prior to that the population was a hybridization of two earlier groups, rather short, dark haired and eyed indigenous people, called Iberians and taller, lighter transplanted Celts who arrived a few hundred years prior to the Romans in search (like their modern-day counterparts) of a warmer climate. These two groups intermingled freely, fused and produced what historians called the “Celt-Iberians.”
Yet these modern languages are distinct from Basque Euskera or any of the Semitic or African languages as well. English with it clipped and nasally sounds; German with its guttural mega words; French, with its mellifluous hints of romance and Hindi, with its beautiful Sanskrit writing all share Indo-European as a common ancestor.