Friday, August 28, 2015

Early Hands, Mutant Mice

Scientists created "super-intelligent mice" — but this isn't a cartoon, so the mice aren't hatching plots for world domination. The research may lead, eventually, to treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer's disease.

Other scientists found hand bones shaped pretty much like ours: from at least 1,840,000 years back.
  1. Hands, Human and Otherwise
  2. "Super-Intelligent Mice" — Imagined and Real
The smarter-than-average mutant mice reminded me of something I'd written in another blog, back in 2009; so wrapped up with that:

Abracadabra and Getting a Grip

As I keep saying, I'm a Christian: a Catholic. I believe that God exists, and creates everything. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 279, 301)

But that doesn't mean I believe that God said 'abracadabra-presto-chango' over a pottery project, and up popped a nice German couple named Adam and Eve.

As I said last week, the universe follows knowable rules; which means we can learn how it works. Scientific discoveries invite us "to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator."(Catechism, 283)

I also must believe that this world is changing, in a state of journeying — in statu viae — toward an ultimate perfection. (Catechism, 302-305)

I think the universe is billions, not thousands, of years old; Earth isn't flat; Adam and Eve weren't German; poetry isn't science; and thinking is not a sin. (November 21, 2014)

1. Hands, Human and Otherwise

(From C. Lorenzo and others, via Nature, used w/o permission.)
(Hand bones from more-or-less-contemporary humans, left; and fossilized hominin hand bones, right.)
"Earliest modern human-like hand bone from a new >1.84-million-year-old site at Olduvai in Tanzania"
Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo, Travis Rayne Pickering, Sergio Almécija, Jason L. Heaton, Enrique Baquedano, Audax Mabulla, David Uribelarrea; Nature (Accepted July 3, 2015; Published August 18, 2015)

"Modern humans are characterized by specialized hand morphology that is associated with advanced manipulative skills. Thus, there is important debate in paleoanthropology about the possible cause–effect relationship of this modern human-like (MHL) hand anatomy, its associated grips and the invention and use of stone tools by early hominins. Here we describe and analyse Olduvai Hominin (OH) 86, a manual proximal phalanx from the recently discovered >1.84-million-year-old (Ma) Philip Tobias Korongo (PTK) site at Olduvai Gorge (Tanzania)...."
Which critters have hands and which don't depends on who's talking, and what they're talking about.

Apes, monkeys, and other primates, have hands. So do koalas. That chameleon's feet look and act like hands, and I've said that before. (January 30, 2015)

Humans, obviously, are the only animals with "human" hands.

Ours follow the primate pattern: four fingers and one thumb, arranged so we can grasp a branch. All primates can grasp things besides branches, of course. What makes human hands distinct isn't so much a difference in kind, as differences in degree.

Our thumbs are longer in relation to the rest of the hand, and we've got much more control over exactly where each digit goes. On the other hand, genetic code for growing hands, paws, and fins goes back at least 300,000,000 years, and that's another topic. (December 26, 2014)

As the Nature article says, it looks like someone was making stone tools some 3,300,000 years ago. What these scientists found is much more recent: bones from someone's hand, more than 1,840,000 years old.

"Modern Human-Like"

We don't know much about the individual, apart from those bones. Whoever it was shared territory where Olduvai Gorge is now with folks on the Paranthropus boisei and Homo habilis branches of humanity's family tree.

I'm glad to see scientists using terms like "modern human-like (MHL)." Folks in general seem to be getting used to the idea that people who don't look "Anglo-Teutonic" aren't inferior. (May 29, 2015; October 31, 2014; July 11, 2014)

We've changed in the last 1,840,000 or so years. Today's model is taller, on average, with a bigger brain. But those bones come from someone with "modern human-like" hands.

This matters to folks who study humanity's past. Hominins — the current name for chimps, humans, and an increasingly-diverse selection of other critters. (May 29, 2015)

I don't think chimps are people: but figure that critters making tools more complicated than a leafless and/or sharpened stick are almost certainly people. Yes, I know about Jane Goodall's chimpanzees and octopus houses.

Where was I? Chameleons, thumbs, tools. Right.

More Pages of Humanity's Long Story

We're finding more pages of humanity's long story: including a critter called Orrorin tugenensis. There's not much of Orrorin's skeleton left: but one of the bits is a distal thumb phalanx that's shaped a little like ours. Orrorin tugenensis lived were Kenya is now, roughly 6,000,000 years back.

We've found no trace of beyond-a-stick-or-coconuts tools that far back, so my guess is that the metaphorical clay we came from weren't people in Orrorin's day. (August 7, 2015March 27, 2015; July 15, 2014)

Scientists who wrote that Nature article say that hominin hands started looking a lot like ours somewhere between 3,6000,000 and about 2,000,000 years ago. That makes sense, since tools from that era were apparently made by someone with hands like ours. (January 30, 2015)

Our fingers are comparatively short and straight; dandy for making and using tools, but not so good for climbing trees. ("Evolution of the human hand: the role of throwing and clubbing," Richard W Young, Journal of Anatomy (January 2003)(via NIH))

Studying these 1,840,000-year-old bones won't tell scientists how our brains and hands became the way they are today. But I'm pretty sure that they're part of the puzzle: and we know more now than we did last year.

2. "Super-Intelligent Mice" — Imagined and Real

(From Daderot, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Claude Shannon's Theseus Maze; in the MIT Museum. In 1950, Claude Shannon made Theseus, an electromechanical mouse: programmed to search a 25-square maze, and remember where the prize is.)

And now, for something completely different —
"Scientists researching brain disorders create super-clever mice"
Kate Kelland, Reuters (August 14, 2015)

"Scientists have genetically modified mice to be super-intelligent and found they are also less anxious, a discovery that may help the search for treatments for disorders such as Alzheimer's, schizophrenia and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"Researchers from Britain and Canada found that altering a single gene to block the phosphodiesterase-4B (PDE4B) enzyme, which is found in many organs including the brain, made mice cleverer and at the same time less fearful.

" 'Our work using mice has identified phosphodiesterase-4B as a promising target for potential new treatments,' said Steve Clapcote, a lecturer in pharmacology at Britain's Leeds University, who led the study...."
I like to include images related to the articles in these posts. In this case, though, Reuters didn't have any: and Claude Shannon's mouse, Theseus, was the first 'mouse in a maze' photo that seemed halfway interesting.

"Genetically modified mice" reminded me of Tom Ruegger's "Pinky and the Brain," and one of its theme songs:
"They're Pinky and the Brain,
Yes, Pinky and the Brain,
One is a genius, the other's insane.
They're laboratory mice.
Their genes have been spliced.
They're dinky.
They're Pinky and the Brain, Brain, Brain, Brain....
(Animaniacs Wiki)
The mice in this study were "genetically modified" and "super-intelligent."

The PDE4B-inhibited mice learned faster, remembered events longer, and were better at recognizing a mouse they'd seen the previous day.

But that's compared to average mice. This isn't a Warner Brothers cartoon. They weren't plotting world domination.

Interestingly, the PDE4B-inhibited mice were less anxious than normal mice. Mice normally like dark, enclosed, spaces. The genetically-modified mice spent more time in brightly-lit, open, spaces: and didn't respond as fearfully to cat urine: risky behavior for mice.

Many humans aren't overly fond of dark, enclosed, spaces; and spend as much time as we can in brightly-lit, open, spaces. So how come laboratory mice are the go-to critters for so many scientists seeking experimental subjects?

Mice aren't human, but we're both in the Euarchontoglires clade: along with lagomorphs, treeshrews, colugos, and of course other rodents and primates. "Lagomorph" is a word you probably don't hear often. It's what scientists call hares, rabbits, and pikas: those little critters some folks call coneys.

The point is that mice and humans have a lot in common. So do pigs, which aren't quite as easy to keep in a laboratory. Pigs have been experimental stand-ins for humans at least since Galen of Pergamon sidestepped Roman laws restricting autopsies.

Autopsies were very rare in ancient Rome and Greece: Julius Caesar's high-profile case was a notable exception. When Imperial Rome finally imploded, about fifteen centuries back now, Europe entered the "dark ages:" which weren't as bad as you might think.

Reality Check, Please: "Dark Ages," Autopsies, and Animals

The period from about the 6th to 13th centuries started being called the "dark ages" dates from around 1600, when Caesar Baronius applied it to the 10th and 11th centuries.

The notion that superstition reigned supreme then is — inaccurate. It's true that with very few exceptions, the only Europeans who could read or write were Catholic clerics: which meant that the documents written then were almost exclusively written by clerics. But they were Catholic clerics.

Since we don't worship nature, and think God is rational, the Greco-Roman prohibition of autopsies no longer applied. If that's not what you've heard, I'm not surprised, and that's another topic. (August 15, 2014)

I'm a Catholic, so I must believe that humans are animals, and people. We're made in the image and likeness of God: each of us is an "animal endowed with reason," who can control his or her own actions. (Catechism, 1700, 1730, 1951)

Except for humans, animals aren't people. They are for our use, not the other way around: but we can't 'do anything we want' with animals, because they belong to God. Ethics apply to scientific research, just like everything else we do. (Catechism, 2292-2295, 2415-2416, 2418)

From Laban's Sheep to Mutant Safflowers

I haven't run into someone using Mr. Squibbs' line — he's the intense chap in the cartoon — "tampering with things man was not suppose to know," apart from snarky remarks and the occasional satire.

The attitude, however, is alive and well and active in discussions of new technology. These days, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the focus of technophobic forebodings.

My own opinion is that new technology should be treated with the same reasoned care we use with old tech. I don't see ethical problems with GMOs: mostly because they're not new.

What's changed since Laban's day is how we 'tamper' with genes. I get the impression, from Genesis 30:31-43, that Laban wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer.

More recently, Paul mentions grafting, artificially combining parts from different plants. It's a metaphor in Romans 11:19-24, but I don't get the impression that he's condemning the practice.

On the other hand, sometimes there are ethical issues with new tech. A few years ago, scientists grafted human genes for making insulin into safflower DNA.

Good news: the insulin from these altered safflowers is 'human' insulin, and will probably be less expensive than what's available now.

Not-so-good news: mixing human DNA with that of another critter may be unethical.

Rules, Principles - - -

"Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions" (2008), 33., specifically addresses reprogramming human somatic cells with another animal's oocytes.

That's a problem, I read, because "...such procedures represent an offense against the dignity of human beings on account of the admixture of human and animal genetic elements capable of disrupting the specific identity of man...."1

It's not that science and technology are bad. Studying this universe and making new tools are part of being human. (Catechism, 2292-2295)

The point is that each of us is made in the image of God, with a dignity that must be recognized. Respect for the dignity of the human person is why social justice is so important, and that's another topic. (Catechism, 1700, 1701-1706, 1928-1942)

I accept what the Church says about mixing human and other DNA, but suspect that the rule will be reviewed within the next century: probably sooner.

The Church doesn't 'change its mind' about underlying principles: but how those principles get applied gets revised occasionally.

Cremation, for example, was forbidden at one time: but now is allowed, unless the act is a denial of the body's resurrection. (Catechism, 2301; "Some Current Questions in Eschatology," 6.4, International Theological Commission (1992))

- - - and Speculation

Over the last few years, we've been learning that gene swapping between species happens regularly. It's called horizontal gene transfer.

Pea aphids have genes from fungi; a malaria pathogen got genetic material from humans that might help it stay in our bodies. A very recent study says that 100 of the 20,000-odd genes in our DNA probably came from other species.

That last item isn't universally accepted yet, but it hasn't been disproved either.

If we learn that some of our genes come form horizontal gene transfer, and if this turns out to be how our bodies are supposed to work — maybe the Church will decide that mixing human and other DNA is acceptable.

It could, I suspect, be seen as equivalent to implants like fillings and artificial joints, but on a molecular level.

Meanwhile, like I said, I accept what the Church says.

More about horizontal gene transfer, 'supermice,' and ethics:

Afterword: Fearless Mice, Crazy Primates

On a lighter note, reading about those very intelligent and comparatively fearless mice reminded me of a bit of speculation I posted in another blog, a few years back. It doesn't have much to do with today's topic, but it seemed like a good way to close this post.
"...The Gill Theory of Human Evolution

"I'm not terribly serious about it, but I think this is as plausible as some other ideas that've been run up the flagpole:

"Millions of years ago there was a species of primate that was slower and weaker than the rest. They were about as smart as any other primate, with one distinction.

"They were crazy.

"Every other primate had something — common sense, survival instinct, call it what you will — that kept it from climbing out on branches that didn't look thick enough, and inhibited the creature's curiosity when intellectual inquiries would involve getting close to carnivores or other known hazards.

"Not these primates. Many of them found out, first-hand, why they were the first to attempt some mad experiment. Like walking up to a lion and slapping it on the nose.1 A few were quick-witted enough to survive...."
("Move the Planet - or - Safety First ," Drifting at the Edge of Time and Space (December 9, 2009))
And no, I do not think that's exactly what happened.

Stuff, but not nonsense, from this blog:

1 Excerpt"
"///33. Recently animal oocytes have been used for reprogramming the nuclei of human somatic cells – this is generally called hybrid cloning – in order to extract embryonic stem cells from the resulting embryos without having to use human oocytes.

"From the ethical standpoint, such procedures represent an offense against the dignity of human beings on account of the admixture of human and animal genetic elements capable of disrupting the specific identity of man. The possible use of the stem cells, taken from these embryos, may also involve additional health risks, as yet unknown, due to the presence of animal genetic material in their cytoplasm. To consciously expose a human being to such risks is morally and ethically unacceptable...."
("Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions," Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (June 20, 2008))


Victor S E Moubarak said...

I agree with most of what you say in "Abracadabra and Getting a Grip".

I doubt a God who created a whole universe and beyond, needed a rib from Adam to create Eve. And, judging from your image on that post, why did He not create bigger fig leaves?

Thank you for your continued support of my writing.

God bless.

Brian H. Gill said...

Indeed, V S E M. :)

And my pleasure - I enjoy sharing good ideas.

About God, Genesis, and all that: I think part of the confusion comes - perhaps - from a widespread lack of appreciation for poetry and metaphor.

The Bible - both Testaments - is filled with wonderful imagery, and humor; some of which gets lost in translation, since other languages don't 'sound' like Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek - - - -.

Brigid said...

Missing end quote: ""Lagomorph is a word you probably don't hear often."

Missing word: "Autopsies were very rare ancient Rome and Greece:"

Another missing end quote: "started being called the "dark ages dates from around 1600,"

Number agreement? "What's changed since Laban's day are how we 'tamper' with genes."

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian H. Gill said...

Right-ho, Brigid. Found, fixed, and thanks!

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.