Archive for the ‘evolution’ Category

Die arme Drake

Hoekom hier nie meer drake is nie. Shame man. from: by Neil Shubin

Adapted from Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin © 2008. Reprinted with permission by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Shubin, Chicago’s Robert R. Bensley professor, chair and associate dean for Organismal Biology & Anatomy, is also provost of the Field Museum of Natural History.

Hernias, hiccups, and snores—oh, my! It’s been 3.5 billion years, and the human body’s past still plays a role in our lives and health.

My knee was swollen to the size of a grapefruit, and one of my colleagues from the surgery department was twisting and bending it to determine whether I had strained or ripped one of the ligaments or cartilage pads inside. This, and the MRI scan that followed, revealed a torn meniscus, the probable result of 25 years spent carrying a backpack over rocks, boulders, and scree in the field. Hurt your knee and you will almost certainly injure one or more of three structures: the medial meniscus, the medial collateral ligament, or the anterior cruciate ligament. So regular are injuries to these three parts of your knee that these three structures are known among doctors as the “Unhappy Triad.” They are clear evidence of the pitfalls of having an inner fish. Fish do not walk on two legs.

fish1Our humanity comes at a cost. For the exceptional combination of things we do—talk, think, grasp, and walk on two legs—we pay a price.

This is an inevitable result of the tree of life inside us. Imagine trying to jerry-rig a Volkswagen Beetle to travel at speeds of 150 miles per hour. In 1933 Adolf Hitler commissioned Dr. Ferdinand Porsche to develop a cheap car that could get 40 miles per gallon of gas and provide a reliable form of transportation for the average German family. The result was the VW Beetle. This history, Hitler’s plan, places constraints on the ways we can modify the Beetle today; the engineering can be tweaked only so far before major problems arise and the car reaches its limit.

In many ways, we humans are the fish equivalent of a hot-rod Beetle. Take the body plan of a fish, dress it up to be a mammal, then tweak and twist that mammal until it walks on two legs, talks, thinks, and has superfine control of its fingers—and you have a recipe for problems. We can dress up a fish only so much without paying a price. In a perfectly designed world—one with no history—we would not have to suffer everything from hemorrhoids to cancer.

Nowhere is this history more visible than in the detours, twists, and turns of our arteries, nerves, and veins. Follow some nerves and you’ll find that they make strange loops around other organs, apparently going in one direction only to twist and end up in an unexpected place. The detours are fascinating products of our past that, as we’ll see, often create problems—hiccups and hernias, for example. And this is only one way our past comes back to plague us.

Our deep history was spent, at different times, in ancient oceans, small streams, and savannahs, not office buildings, ski slopes, and tennis courts. We were not designed to live past the age of 80, sit on our keisters for ten hours a day, and eat Hostess Twinkies, nor were we designed to play football. This disconnect between our past and our human present means that our bodies fall apart in certain predictable ways.

Virtually every illness we suffer has some historical component. The examples that follow reflect how different branches of the tree of life inside us—from ancient humans, to amphibians and fish, and finally to microbes—come back to pester us today. Each of these examples show that we were not designed rationally but are products of a convoluted history.

I. Our hunter-gatherer past: obesity, heart disease, and hemorrhoids.

During our history as fish we were active predators in ancient oceans and streams. During our more recent past as amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, we were active creatures preying on everything from reptiles to insects. Even more recently, as primates, we were active tree-living animals, feeding on fruits and leaves. Early humans were active hunter-gatherers and, ultimately, agriculturalists. Did you notice a theme here? That common thread is the word “active.”

The bad news is that most of us spend a large portion of our day being anything but active. I am sitting on my behind at this very minute typing this, and a number of you are doing the same reading it (except for the virtuous among us who are reading it in the gym). Our history from fish to early human in no way prepared us for this new regimen. This collision between present and past has its signature in many of the ailments of modern life.

What are the leading causes of death in humans? Four of the top ten causes—heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and stroke—have some sort of genetic basis and, likely, a historical one. Much of the difficulty is almost certainly due to our having a body built for an active animal but the lifestyle of a spud.

In 1962 the anthropologist James Neel addressed this notion from the perspective of our diet. Formulating what became known as the “thrifty genotype” hypothesis, Neel suggested that our human ancestors were adapted for a boom-bust existence. As hunter-gatherers, early humans would have experienced periods of bounty, when prey was common and hunting successful. These periods of plenty would be punctuated by times of scarcity, when our ancestors had considerably less to eat.

Neel hypothesized that this cycle of feast and famine had a signature in our genes and in our illnesses. Essentially, he proposed that our ancestors’bodies allowed them to save resources during times of plenty so as to use them during periods of famine. In this context, fat storage becomes very useful. The energy in the food we eat is apportioned so that some supports our activities going on now, and some is stored, for example in fat, to be used later. This apportionment works well in a boom-bust world, but it fails miserably in an environment where rich foods are available 24/7. Obesity and its associated maladies—age-related diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease—become the natural state of affairs. The thrifty genotype hypothesis also might explain why we love fatty foods. They are high-value in terms of how much energy they contain, something that would have conferred a distinct advantage in our distant past.

fish2Our sedentary lifestyle affects us in other ways, because our circulatory system originally appeared in more active animals. Our heart pumps blood, which is carried to our organs via arteries and returned to the heart by way of veins. Because arteries are closer to the pump, the blood pressure in them is much higher than in veins. This can be a particular problem for the blood that needs to return to our heart from our feet. Blood from the feet needs to go uphill, so to speak, up the veins of our legs to our abdomen. If the blood is under low pressure, it may not climb all the way. Consequently, we have two features that help the blood move up. The first are little valves that permit the blood to move up, but stop it from going down. The other feature is our leg muscles. When we walk we contract them, and this contraction serves to pump the blood up our leg veins. The one-way valves and the leg-muscle pumps enable our blood to climb from feet to abdomen.

This system works superbly in an active animal, which uses its legs to walk, run, and jump. It does not work well in a more sedentary creature. If the legs are not used much, the muscles will not pump the blood up the veins. Problems can develop if blood pools in the veins, because that pooling can cause the valves to fail. This is exactly what happens with varicose veins. As the valves fail, blood pools in the veins.The veins get bigger and bigger, swelling and taking tortuous paths in our legs.

Needless to say, the arrangement of veins can also be a real pain in the behind. Truck drivers and others who sit for long stretches of time are particularly prone to hemorrhoids, another cost of our sedentary lives. During their long hours of sitting, blood pools in the veins and spaces around the rectum. As the blood pools, hemorrhoids form—an unpleasant reminder that we were not built to sit for too long, particularly not on soft surfaces.

II. Primate past: talk is not cheap.

Talking comes at a steep price: choking and sleep apnea are high on the list of problems we have to live with in order to be able to talk.

We produce speech sounds by controlling motions of the tongue, the larynx, and the back of the throat. All are relatively simple modifications to the basic design of a mammal or a reptile. The human larynx is made up mostly of gill arch cartilages, corresponding to the gill bars of a shark or fish. The back of the throat, extending from the last molar tooth to just above the voice box, has flexible walls that can open and close. We make speech sounds by moving our tongue, by changing the shape of our mouth, and by contracting a number of muscles that control the rigidity of this wall.

Sleep apnea is a potentially dangerous trade-off for the ability to talk. During sleep, the muscles of our throat relax. In most people, this does not present a problem, but in some the passage can collapse so that relatively long stretches pass without a breath. This, of course, can be risky, particularly in people who have heart conditions. The flexibility of our throat, so useful in our ability to speak, makes us susceptible to a form of sleep apnea that results from obstruction of the airway.

Another trade-off of this design is choking. Our mouth leads both to the trachea, through which we breathe, and to our esophagus, so we use the same passage to swallow, breathe, and talk. These three functions can be at odds, for example, when a piece of food gets lodged in the trachea.

III. A hiccup in our tadpole past

This annoyance has its roots in the history we share with fish and tadpoles.

If there is any consolation for getting hiccups, it is that our misery is shared with many other mammals. Cats can be stimulated to hiccup by sending an electrical impulse to a small patch of tissue in their brain stem. This area of the brain stem is thought to be the center that controls the complicated reflex that we call a hiccup. The hiccup reflex is a stereotyped twitch involving a number of muscles in our body wall, diaphragm, neck, and throat. A spasm in one or two of the major nerves that control breathing causes these muscles to contract. This results in a very sharp inspiration of air. Then, about 35 milliseconds later, a flap of tissue in the back of our throat (the glottis) closes the top of our airway. The fast inhalation followed by a brief closure of the tube produces the “hic.”