A little over a decade ago, a clutch of scientific studies was published that seemed to show that survivors of atrocities or disasters such as the Holocaust and the Dutch famine of 1944-45 had passed on the biological scars of those traumatic experiences to their children.
The studies caused a sensation, earning their own BBC Horizon documentary and the cover of Time (I also wrote about them, for New Scientist) – and no wonder. The mind-blowing implications were that DNA wasn’t the only mode of biological inheritance, and that traits acquired by a person in their lifetime could be heritable. Since we receive our full complement of genes at conception and it remains essentially unchanged until our death, this information was thought to be transmitted via chemical tags on genes called “epigenetic marks” that dial those genes’ output up or down. The phenomenon, known as transgenerational epigenetic inheritance, caught the public imagination, in part because it seemed to release us from the tyranny of DNA. Genetic determinism was dead…
This article first appeared in The Observer on 10 October 2021. To continue reading, click here.
FERTILITY rates are falling across the globe – even in places, such as sub-Saharan Africa, where they remain high. This is good for women, families, societies and the environment. So why do we keep hearing that the world needs babies, with angst in the media about maternity wards closing in Italy and ghost cities in China…?
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 8 July 2021. To continue reading, click here.
YOU have probably seen the annual rankings of the world’s cities by “liveability” or “quality of life”. It is intriguing to discover which come out top – and which bottom. After all, most of us have skin in this game: more than half of people around the world live in urban environments, and that number is growing. But you may also have wondered what “quality of life” really means. Which qualities? Whose life…?
This article first appeared in New Scientist on 9 June 2021. To continue reading, click here(paywall).
IN 2011, when the global population hit 7 billion, economist David Lam and demographer Stan Becker made a bet. Lam predicted food would get cheaper over the next decade, despite continuing population growth. Becker predicted that food prices would go up, because of the damage humans were doing to the planet, which meant that population growth would outstrip food supply. Becker won and, following his wishes, Lam has just written out a cheque for $194 to the Vermont-based nonprofit Population Media Center, which promotes population stabilisation internationally…
This article first appeared in The Observer on 8 May 2021. To continue reading, click here.
TO prevent future pandemics, we must stop deforestation and end the illegal wildlife trade. Do you agree? Of course you do, because what’s not to like? The buck stops with the evil other. The question is, will doing those things solve the problem? And the answer is, probably not. They will help, but there’s another, potentially bigger problem closer to home: the global north’s use of natural resources, especially its reliance on livestock…
This article was first published in The Guardian on 21 December 2020. To continue reading, click here.