Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Denial: Self Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind by Ajit Varki - Book Review

A Great question but an unconvincing answer!

In this book Ajit Varki addresses a very critical and important question that would strike any one looking at human evolution - how come our species is the only one that attained self consciousness? Why didn't any other species cross the barrier? The dinosaurs did get plenty of time - even by cosmological standards, 200 million years is a decent time period.

Most probably I would not have read this book, except that I happened to meet Ajit Varki at a conference recently. (Btw, the conference was 'From Bones to Genomes' at Sitges close to Barcelona - a fantastic conference with speakers like Matt Ridley, Svante Paabo, Chris Stringer etc - making it a veritable heaven for those interested in Evolution, Genetics and Population history). His book was also mentioned in some side discussions and that prompted me to download the kindle version (talk about the benefits of technology!) and take a stab at it.

However the approach of the book was rather surprising. Ajit had decided on the answer upfront - that humans were able to cross the 'intelligence barrier' by being able to deny the inevitability of death. To make it clearer, according to Ajit the barrier that prevents any species from attaining self consciousness is that it will not have the neuronal connections or capabilities to handle the fact that death is inevitable. Only the human brain developed in such a way that both self consciousness and death denial ability developed together at some time (only once) in our past and that was the turning point. The book is then one long argument (in the author's words) to try to convince himself and the reader that the argument is correct. (lot of cherry picking!) Ajit acknowledges that there is no clear evidence to prove his thesis and also acknowledges that it is not falsifiable but does try to be as fair as possible in outlining that. He still gets carried away with his theory and even attempts to compare the situation with that of Darwin's Evolution theory in the late 19th century. But he ignores that Darwin did not start with a conclusion - he had discovered a large number of facts that led him to a conclusion which is not the case here.

The book is an interesting read and the author is a very knowledgable person that makes the narrative fun. But I have to say that his answer to an all-important question is possible but not probable.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Homing Instinct by Bernd Heinrich - Book Review

Home Beckons.....

Animal migration is a well- known phenomenon and most of us do not give much thought to it. If we do think about it in passing, we would imagine that weather and food would be the driving reasons for the animals and birds to migrate and  that they must be genetically programmed to manage the migration process. But in this fascinating book ‘The Homing Instinct’, Bernd Heinrich creates scientific poetry by delving deep into the mechanisms and mysteries of animal migration: how geese imprint true landscape memory; hoe scent trails are used by many creatures from fish to amphibians, to pinpoint heir home if they are displaced from it; and how the tiniest of songbirds are equipped for solar and magnetic orienteering over vast distances.

It will surprise the reader on realizing that even butterflies can migrate over hundreds of miles and some ocean birds can fly thousands of miles without even stopping once! And over the vast ocean landscape how do they even know where they are? Many, many more similar mysteries are covered in this wonderful book. Another real surprise is the deep physiological emotions showed by many creatures when they get back to their home, that Bernd highlights with a beautiful example of the sandhill cranes.

With this as a back ground Bernd then builds up a larger story of what a home means to animals as well as humans and what a home and its creation means for human happiness and survival. The variety of creatures that Bernd covers is mind boggling – from cranes, albatrosses, loons, geese, pigeons to locusts, bees, dragon fly, butterflies, and then to ants, beetles and leeches and goes on to Turtles, Salmon, Eels and many more!

Once in a while, Bernd gets carried away with personal stories and a couple of chapters do get really boring with his hunting stories along with his nephew!. But barring that, the book is an amazing read and a great example of how science can be practiced by observing even the most routine happenings in Nature.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Gem in the Lotus by Abraham Eraly - Book Review

A Gem of Indian Literature!

The Indian Civilization goes back over 6000 years and is the most confusing among all the ancient civilizations. There is not as much grandeur in it as the Egyptian pyramids or the Greek heroes, but there is nothing anywhere in the world to match the Indian philosophies and thinking that are highlighted through the Vedas and great thought leaders like Buddha. However ancient Indian history is documented very little and the grand mythologies of Mahabharata and Ramayana eclipses actual facts to a large extent.

Good books that explain ancient Indian history are also very few; but Abraham Eraly with the ‘Gem in the Lotus’ has created a marvelous narrative that bridges the gap to a large extent. Starting of with a lesson in geology on how the Indian subcontinent and the towering Himalayas were created, Eraly provides a good background to the geography, climate and topography that played a major role in early developments in India. He then describes the Indus Valley civilization and explores the causes of its sudden disappearance. Eraly really excels when he explains the Vedas and takes us through a detailed tour of how they came into being and what we can understand of the social dynamics of that period through them. Intellectually the grandest period for India would have been from 500 BC to 100 BC when not only Buddhism and Jainism came into being, but also the hundreds of other philosophies that disappeared over the subsequent centuries.

Alexander’s invasion and its effects, the first Indian empire of the Mauryas and Asoka’s grand reign are covered in detail. The world’s first treatise in politics and economics – the ‘Arthasasthra’ is leveraged very well to provide us an understanding of the life and culture of that period.

Indians even now suffer from considerable cultural baggage – the most unfortunate of them being the easy acceptance of ‘fate’. Nowhere else will people accept unfortunate events with so much equanimity that Indians can. This might have stood them in good stead at some critical periods in the past, but it has seriously affected their ability for critical inquiry. Though Eraly does not address this directly, through his book one will get a good understanding of the various factors that must have led to such a condition.

Eraly used the title ‘Gem in the Lotus’ as a metaphor for the Indian civilization but I feel that his book itself is a glittering gem of Indian Literature.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Neanderthal Man by Svante Paabo - Book Review

With the completion of the full human genome sequence in 2003 and the rapid fall in DNA sequencing costs over the subsequent 10 years, we have been awaiting major advancements in many fields such as Healthcare, Agriculture, Drug Discovery and so on. However, the progress has been slow and the deluge of genome sequence data has been a tough problem to handle.

But, Svante Paabo in this fascinating book on the 'Neanderthal Man' shows how the new technologies have enabled him to sequence the genomes of our extinct relatives - the Neanderthals and the Denisovans. The data proves how our ancestors moved out of Africa about 50,000 years back and interbred to a small extent (2 to 7% of our genes come from them) with the Neanderthals and Denisovans and maybe drove them to extinction. Many interesting facts come out of these studies such as, (a) that gene flow seems to have been from the Neanderthals to us (and not the other way), (b) the founding population of the Neanderthals also seems to have pretty small like in the case of the humans (c) we split from the Neanderthals about 500,000 years back (d) the Denisovans split about 1 million years back (e) the Denisovans seem to be closer to the Neanderthals than to humans, and much more...

The book is not only fun to read, but Paabo detective mode of story telling will also keep the reader focused. By mixing his personal stories with scientific research, Paabo provides a refreshing frankness to the narrative. We get a direct view of the challenges in scientific research and how the role of institutional support and adequate funding can make research a success. Paabo's journey from Egyptian mummies to Mammoths, to Sloths and finally the Neanderthals and Denisovans is a great inspiration to all students of science. He shows how passion, perseverance, attention to detail, and collaboration can deliver results not only in Science but in all aspects of life.

Paabo explains the Science very clearly and the narrative shows us how he has become the world's expert in 'ancient DNA'. But in order to do that he often has to go into intricate details of lab work which some readers might find difficult to follow. Still it will not affect the story and if you are interested to learn how we became what we are, this is a book that you should not miss.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Healthcare - Dramatic Changes ahead!

(This has been published in Future Medicine Magazine -

The era of personalized medicine has arrived with the developments in genomics studies. But the studies have stumbled on obstacles like the amazing complexity of genomics data, slowing down its progress

With the full sequencing of the human genome in 2003 and the drastic fall of DNA sequencing costs in the last decade, there were great expectations in the scientific community as well as in the public’s mind that the heath care sector would see dramatic changes. The era of personalized medicine seemed to have arrived heralding individualized treatment regimes based on a person’s genome. However neither has this expectation been met nor has the practice of medicine changed significantly, yet.

What happened? Why did the Science fail to deliver?

The main reason for the seeming lack of progress has been the amazing complexity that the genomic data presented.  Every step forward seemed to open up more avenues than scientists could explore and it soon became clear that it would take decades of effort to understand what it took Nature millions of years to evolve. The first revelation was rather surprising – contrary to the initial expectation that the human genome would contain about 80 to 100,000 genes, there were only about 20,000 genes to do the job. Not only that, many plant genomes were bigger and more complex than the human genome and hence bigger did not mean better! More surprising revelations were on the way - decoding the gene sequences were shedding very little light on diseases or even traits. Even characteristics that looked genetically straightforward like ‘height’ could not be pinned down on specific genes. The non coding regions of the genome - what was considered once as ‘junk DNA’ – was playing an important part in regulating gene activity.  Other factors such as environment, food and even stress level were playing a major role.   Further, the importance of epigenetics (heritable, chemical modifications to the genome that would affect the function without changing the sequence) and the microbiome (the microbial cells in the human body that not only number about 10 times more than the human cells, but also play a significant role in digestion and immunity) was sufficient proof that the belief that the genomic data was the entire and only blueprint for the development of the organism was na├»ve at best.

At the same time, what we could understand of the genome offered tantalizing glimpses into our past, present and future health. The genomic data proved beyond doubt the origin of humans in Africa and we could now trace our migratory path over the rest of the earth in the last 60,000 years. During this migratory journey our species did breed to a minor extent with other homo species like Neanderthals and Denisovans (and maybe others as well), acquiring 5 to 8% of their genes.  As we split into different ethnicities in different regions, the climate, food and other environmental pressures led to different groups acquiring different genetics mutations leading to changes in appearance as well as different capabilities like lactose tolerance, disease immunity and so on.  We could now understand why many drugs create adverse reactions in some and why we react so differently to various disease causing pathogens. Genes causing over 6000  rare inherited diseases have now been identified.  We have been able to pinpoint specific genetic mutations that lead to cancer in about 35 to 40 % of the cases.  A number of drugs that can treat these cancers have been released and many more are on their way. Genes that play a major role in cardiovascular diseases, diabetes etc. have been identified and we are on the path to reaching the dream of predictive and personalized medicine.

What more should be done?

While there is no doubt that we are moving in the right direction, we still need a considerable amount of genomic studies across the world.  Surprisingly, it has been a recent realization that India is a treasure trove for genomics. Over the last 2000 years, unknowingly, India has been the home to the largest genomic experiment in human history. Due to religion, caste and geography, the Indian population has been split to over 4500 groups and till recently has been strictly breeding within the groups. This has created unique genetic mutations that when co-related with susceptibility to diseases can lead to major discoveries. India also suffers from a higher burden of inherited diseases due to inbreeding and consanguinity and thus a better understanding of the genome can lead to proper treatment and cure. Counseling and carrier testing of couples can significantly reduce the occurrence of many inherited diseases thus reducing the burden on the family as well as the society.

India is also home to traditional systems of medicine like Ayurveda which promoted ‘personalized’ medicine 3000 years ago. However, the science was very basic at that time and hence there was no clear understanding of why the herbal medicines or treatment practices worked. Now, if we can combine the genomic understanding with traditional practices and conduct extensive studies across our population, we would be able to make a difference in the healthcare sector by providing solutions in a cost effective manner.