Neanderthals: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

One of my dear readers (Thanks, Lyn!) sent me a link to a fascinating article entitled, “How Neanderthal DNA affects human health—including the risk of getting Covid-19.” I am fascinated with all things Neanderthal, especially since learning that most humans have a small amount of Neanderthal DNA within them. They aren’t thuggish cavemen, these Neanderthals. They’re relatives.

The article listed the following traits that have been linked to Neanderthal DNA: Fertility, how we feel pain, immune system functionality, skin tone, hair color, height, sleep patterns, depression, addiction, the chance of being more severely ill when infected by COVID-19, decrease in miscarriages and bleeding while pregnant, hair color, baldness, and the skin’s capacity to tan.

Some of these traits I’m sure most of us could do without, while others would be most welcome. Unfortunately, you don’t get to pick and choose your DNA. I was amused that the article stressed, quite adamantly, that we should not blame Neanderthals for these connections. And of course you can have these traits without your Neanderthal ancestors being the source. So yeah, don’t go blaming them.

As if Neanderthals were around to be insulted. Come on. They’re beyond societal backlash.

But, okay. No hard feelings, ancestor! I’m sure you did your best. Thanks for making me me.

Great great great great great great grandpa? Is that you?

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Mid-Month Marvel: The Innocence Network

A recurring theme in this blog is the celebration of people and/or organizations that have a positive impact on their communities. What they do is not easy, but it’s inspirational, and we don’t hear enough about them. So I’ve decided to commit to singing their praises at least once a month. I’ll be calling it Mid-Month Marvels. If you have any suggestions for the focus of this monthly spotlight, let me know in the comments below!

Given our current atmosphere, I can think of no better organization to highlight this month than The Innocence Network. This is a network of 55 U.S organizations and 12 international organizations that are working to redress the causes of wrongful convictions. They do this by providing pro bono legal and investigative services to people seeking to prove their innocence.

Since the advent of DNA testing, there has been a shocking number of convictions that have had to be overturned. Part of police reform needs to be in the area of interrogations that obtain false confessions. It has also been shown that witnesses can be very unreliable or biased.

Hand in hand with wrongful convictions is the horrifying amount of police brutality. According to this network’s home page, between 2013 and 2019, police violence in the US lead to the deaths of 7,666 people, most of whom were black. This network also directed me to a very sobering website called MappingPoliceViolence.org, which states that 1,098 people were killed by police in 2019, and that there were only 27 days that entire year where police did not kill someone.

Also, in 99 percent of the police killings from 2013 to 2019, police were not convicted of a crime. In 96 percent of them, they weren’t even charged with one. Yes, I imagine there are instances where they shouldn’t be charged, but come on. These are some very scary statistics.

The Innocence network has a page dedicated to ways you can get involved. Whether it be educating yourself and others, advocating for legislative reform, or fundraising for one of the local Innocence organizations, there are a variety of ways that you can make an impact.

At a time when many of us are feeling frustrated and ineffectual, fighting for justice for those who are still alive, and making a difference via the Innocence Network sounds like a fine idea to me. I hope you agree.

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De-Extinction

Recently, I listened to a series of five TED talks regarding de-extinction. Here are some interesting tidbits that I picked up.

The biotechnology exists to bring back extinct species, such as the Passenger Pigeon, by using the DNA of these creatures that can be found in museum samples, and splicing them with the more intact genes of similar, still living animals. This technology is being improved upon with each passing day.

Now, the question is, even if we can de-extinct an animal, should we? We need to think long and hard about this. There are several factors to consider.

First of all, if we are going to recreate a creature, we need to be sure that the habitat it needs to survive still exists. Given our penchant for taking over and spreading our parking lots as far as the eye can see, the answer could very well be no. There’s no point in recreating a species if it then has no way to survive.

Another question is, will these reintroduced animals overwhelm plants and animals that are currently thriving on this planet? We need to keep in mind that there may be unintended consequences. We’ve all seen what non-native species can do to a landscape. If something has been gone for centuries, and other animals have stepped into their ecological niche, are these extinct animals really native anymore?

Third, what came first, the chicken or the egg? If you de-extinct a Passenger Pigeon, for example, it will have no parents to teach it how to behave like a Passenger Pigeon. The current thinking on this is that we’d introduce the chicks to similar birds in hopes that they’ll teach them what they need to know. But of course, there are no guarantees.

I have mixed emotions about de-extinction. I think nature has a way of taking care of itself. So, for example, I don’t think we should reintroduce the Woolly Mammoth. It experienced a natural extinction long before you or I came along. The last thing we need is the equivalent of a Jurassic Park.

But on the other hand, there are plenty of animals that are extinct simply due to the callousness of Man. For example, if we didn’t kill Passenger Pigeons by the millions, simply because they were the most easily obtainable source of protein at the time, those birds would still exist.

If we are capable of repairing the damage that we caused in the first place, shouldn’t we do so? It’s a tricky subject. What do you think?

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That Race Thing

Recently I attended an all day seminar at work regarding race and racism. That’s one of the many beautiful things about living on the left coast. I doubt it would even occur to my former employers in Florida to allow us to have such training, let alone make it an annual event.

I learned much that day. For instance, on a scientific level, race doesn’t even exist. If you look at our DNA, only one out of every thousand nucleotides is different, from human to human. In fact, Penguins and fruit flies have more genetic differences within their own species than we humans do. (I didn’t learn this in the training, but I’ve read somewhere that our DNA is has 40 percent in common with that of a banana! Think about that the next time you eat a banana…)

The trainers showed us a fascinating video in which they did an experiment with a high school class. They sequenced a portion of each student’s DNA. Before the results came back, they were asked who they assumed they had the most genetic similarities to. Naturally, the African Americans assumed they would have more in common with each other, and the Whites gravitated toward the Whites, the Asians with the Asians, the Hispanics with the Hispanics, and so on. But here’s the interesting thing. That turned out not to be true at all. The commonalities and disparities were actually amazingly random.

The skin color thing is a function of the sun. Humans in more overcast climes developed lighter skin over time so that they could absorb every ounce of vitamin D that they could. Otherwise they would not have survived to pass on their genes. It’s just a melanin thing, as simple as that.

Race is something constructed by society to further political and economic goals. Thomas Jefferson, the same guy who wrote that all men are created equal, also wrote, in Notes on the State of Virginia, that “Blacks are inferior to whites in the endowments both of body and mind.” That was, in essence, his way of justifying his ownership of 225 slaves. But there is no scientific evidence of these inferiorities whatsoever. The only reason blacks became slaves in our society was that the white indentured servants who used to do our scut work before slavery could too easily run away and blend in with the general population. Whereas if your skin was a different color, you had nowhere to hide. Slavery was a much more sustainable outrage than indentured servitude.

We often talk about America being a melting pot. I was taught to believe that that meant we are diverse, and we’ve all blended together to become Americans. I used to be so proud of that! But actually, the melting pot concept was more about the desire for all Americans to be able to assimilate and be exactly the same. It was all about only allowing white Christians to sit at the table. I’m repulsed by how twisted I got this. I’d much rather that we be a hardy stew.

One last thought for those of you who still think others are inferior because they have not reached your level of success. It’s easy for us W.A.S.P.s to forget that everyone else has to start 30 yards deep in their own end zone. They don’t have the leg-up that we were born with and never earned. This picture is one of the hand outs from the training. Print it out. Mark off all the privileges you have. Then mark off any additional ones you feel you don’t have that people will assume you have. (For example, I’m not a Christian, but people would think that I was.)

Once you’ve marked off all that privilege, think about who has to be oppressed for you to have each one. It’s a sobering realization. Now, tell me again how all men are created equal?

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It’s Normal to be One of a Kind

Many of us, especially when we’re young, try desperately to “fit in”. We want to be like our peers. We don’t want to be an outcast or an oddball. It feels much safer to graze with the herd rather than blaze one’s own trail.

It’s also quite common for us to pigeonhole other people; fit them into nice, neat little cubby holes so we don’t have to make much effort to get to know them as individuals. If you’re that religion, you’re violent. If you’re that skin color, you’re lazy. If you are from that country, you can’t be trusted. (This is such a common habit that you most likely filled in the blanks regarding which religion, skin color or country I was referring to. Let that sink in for a minute, because it’s really sad.)

Here’s the problem with all of the above: We are all one of a kind. Unless you are an identical twin, no one on the planet has the exact same DNA that you have. And even twins have different life experiences, and that shapes them over time.

We have all lived different lives. We’ve seen different parts of the world. We’ve experienced different tragedies and triumphs. We’ve loved and lost and learned and laughed and cried, each in our own ways.

A very, very rough estimate tells me that the number of people born each second on this planet is about 2. So there might be someone in the world who was born the same second that you were. (Actually, by my admittedly rough calculation, one human is born every 0.576 seconds, so you may even have your second all to yourself. It could happen.) But the odds that you and your second-mate, if you have one, will both die at the same second, unless the whole world explodes, is pretty slim. So it’s safe to say that no one, no one will experience the exact same span of history that you will.

And then, if you start comparing favorite colors, career paths, place of birth, politics, and whether you prefer chunky peanut butter or smooth… well, you can just imagine what a rare individual you are! You are truly one of a kind. And I think that’s wonderful.

My question is, why are we so loathe to celebrate our differences, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that they exist?

Today, as you walk through your unique life, look at the people around you, and revel in their individuality. And take a moment to appreciate yourself for the miracle that you are. Vive la différence!

You are a gift!

gift

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The Recipe of Me

For many years, I have wanted to have my DNA tested by Ancestry.com. Sadly, it’s always been a bit out of reach for me, financially. But this year I had a great idea. I asked my sister to split the cost with me. I figured that there’s little question that we are paddling around in the same gene pool, so our DNA would be extremely similar. So a test for me would pretty much be a test for her. To my delight, she agreed.

I ordered the kit and it came pretty quickly. I had to spit into this tube thingy. You have no idea how hard it is to produce vast quantities of saliva on demand. It’s such a strange concept to me that so much can be learned from something that seems so insignificant. And gross.

Mailing it was interesting. They provide you with all the prepaid packaging, and I followed their instructions to the letter. But when I got to the post office, it occurred to me that for the first time I’d have a hard time answering the question, “Does your package contain anything fragile, liquid, perishable, or potentially hazardous?” So I just dropped the box in their bin and basically ran like hell, letting my spit fend for itself.

I was relieved to be notified that my package had arrived safely. (And I’m sure the post office delivers these packages all the time without it becoming a hazmat situation.) Then the waiting began. They tell you it could “take 6-8 weeks or possibly longer.” You have to love specifics like that.

Finally, the results were in! I was so excited! Here are the highlights:

ethnicity-estimate

Color me surprised. I’m white. And by that I mean, I’m white, white, white, white, white. Yeah, there’s some “Iberian Peninsula” in there, but for their purposes, that includes Southern France. And since I’ve always considered myself ½ Danish, ¼ French, and ¼ Irish, the results were to be expected.

I have to confess, I was a little bit disappointed. I was kind of hoping that there would be a few exciting skeletons in the family closet. Arabic. Asian. American Indian. African. Something to add a little flavor to my stew! But no. I’m as white as snow. Still, it is fascinating to find out more about your ancestry just by spitting into a little tube.

I did learn something interesting though. According to the folks at Ancestry.com, “Your ethnicity results are unique to you. If you had additional family members tested, their results might look different. How is that possible? It comes down to the random nature of genetic inheritance. You received a random 50% of each of your parents’ DNA; because inheritance is random, a sibling typically won’t inherit exactly the same DNA as you unless he or she is an identical twin.”

Now I have to figure out how to break it to my sister that she paid for half my DNA test, but her results may vary.


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We Will Survive

A longtime reader and friend made a very simple and yet extremely profound point the other day. She said, “We are all descended from survivors.” Wow. Yet another epiphany of the obvious!

Think about it. Every single direct branch of your family tree consists of someone who survived long enough to pass on his or her DNA to the next generation, on and on, until it came down to… you. Ta Da! You have a lot of hardy people to thank for your existence.

That fact should not be taken for granted. Despite your ancestors’ flaws and quirks and foibles, they still managed to carry on, to pass the torch to the next generation. That was no mean feat. Just imagine the infant mortality rate in the 1300’s, or the slim chance of avoiding plague and war and famine and pestilence throughout the ages. It takes a special person to outrun that literal or figurative lion on the open plain day after day.

We all come from a long line of survivors. I don’t know about you, but I find that comforting as hell. I’m going to try to remember that the next time I feel defeated or helpless or in despair.

It may not be pretty, it may not be easy, but come on, people. We got this.

family-tree

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Thanks, Crappy Dad!

I was commiserating the other day with someone about what horrible, toxic, deadbeat and emotionally unsupportive fathers we each have. I was wondering how much farther ahead we’d both be if we had grown up with men in our lives who encouraged us and made us feel safe and loved. I can’t even imagine what that must be like. (If you can, then call your dad right now and tell him that you love him. Seriously. Do it right now.)

But my wise friend said that she’d keep her crappy dad, because otherwise she wouldn’t be who she is. (And I’ve got to say that she’s pretty darned amazing.)

She makes a very good point. We may have sprung from the loins of a couple of really rotten human beings, but that’s part of what makes us who we are. Without the trials and tribulations and struggles that came from being raised by single mothers, we wouldn’t have the intestinal fortitude that we have. Without the financial stress, we wouldn’t have the work ethic that we have. Without the deprivation, we wouldn’t appreciate what truly matters in life, and here’s a hint: it sure isn’t money.

And then there’s also the DNA contribution, I suppose. That can’t be discounted. I guess they were good for something.

So, if I had actually had the opportunity to meet my father before he died his sad, alcoholic death, I might have said to him, “Thanks, Crappy Dad! You taught me much about the kind of person I would never want to be!”

Come to think of it, that’s quite a gift. I just sort of wish it had come packaged a bit differently.

Benzopyrene_DNA_adduct_1JDG

The Travel Bug

I love, love, LOVE to travel. It’s my reason for being. My predominant trait is curiosity. What’s around the next corner? How do people live their lives over there? And how about over there? What’s the food like? How do they celebrate? If someone told me that I could never leave home again, I’d curl up and die on the spot. I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t filled with wanderlust.

So when my niece posted this article on Facebook, it really fascinated me. It seems there’s an actual genetic component to my desire to get moving. I love that I have an excuse now. (“But honey, it’s not my fault. I have to go to Hawaii.”)

And it does feel like a need. When I don’t travel for a long time, I start to get tense. It almost feels like an itch that I’m not able to scratch. The desire to see something new is almost overwhelming. I’ve been to 22 countries so far, and it never gets boring.

It doesn’t have to be expensive or elaborate. I’m not flying first class or eating at 5 star restaurants. I’m not shopping until I drop. I just need to explore. I need to expand my horizons. I need to wander the back alleys, I need to descend into the caves. I need to find out.

Travel is who I am. It only seems fitting that it’s in the very marrow of my bones, in the genes that were passed down to me from a long line of fellow travelers. This makes me very happy.

Mark-Twain-Travel-Quote.png

Trapped on the Washing Machine in a Powder Blue Tux

“You know, midgets are because humans used to breed with trolls.” These words of wisdom were issuing forth from my coworker, “C”. I wish I could say that I was shocked, but after years of working with this guy, nothing could surprise me anymore. There was no point in trying to explain that trolls are mythical creatures, or that midget is a derogative term for dwarf. This guy was just too unrepentantly dense for that. He also believed that the Amazons, the mythological race of female warriors, actually existed and still exist, because he’d read it in a comic book. It’s C’s world. We’re just living in it.

He once called in sick to our drawbridge using the excuse that his pants had gotten caught in an ATM machine.

I’ll just let that sentence stand alone so it can sink in.

One night he walked into work in a state of high dudgeon because one of his relatives had been incarcerated unjustly. Apparently the guy was a house painter with no access to a bathroom during his work day, and he felt the need to masturbate. With no good place to do so, he just did it in the yard, and a 10 year old girl walked by. When I mentioned that there were, perhaps, more appropriate places to do his thing, C responded that without access to a bathroom, what was he supposed to do? “Uh…wait ‘til he got home?” C did not speak to me for the rest of the shift. He actually thought that that was a punishment to me.

powder

Waxing nostalgic one evening, he told us about his honeymoon. He took his bride down the street to the Gator Lodge. Now, for those of you who are not familiar with this fine establishment, the Gator Lodge can be rented by the hour, and there’s a prostitute stroll right out front for your convenience. Nothing but the best for his darling wife! Hearing this, my best friend said to C, “I bet you wore a powder blue tuxedo and a frilled shirt at the wedding.” “Well, it was the STYLE back then!!!!” C snapped. I laughed so hard that I actually sank to the floor. I thought that only happened in books.

He also couldn’t come to work one time because his wife was stuck on top of the washing machine. Hate when that happens.

He once came to work feeling triumphant because he was now positive that his girlfriend’s child was his. He was certain because that very day he was sitting next to the boy, both had their feet on the coffee table, and their feet were exactly the same! Jeez, and people have been wasting money on DNA tests all this time.

C no longer works with me, and we’ve long since lost touch. I will say this about the guy: he meant no harm to anyone, and he was a constant source of entertainment if not logic.