Category Archives: Evolution

Epigenetics, the misunderstood science

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…

DNA methylation

This article first appeared in The Observer on 10 October 2021. To continue reading, click here.

Could whistling shed light on the origins of speech?

FOR centuries, shepherds from the small village of Aas in the French Pyrenees led their sheep and cattle up to mountain pastures for the summer months. To ease the solitude, they would communicate with each other or with the village below in a whistled form of the local Gascon dialect, transmitting and receiving information accurately over distances of up to 10 kilometres…

This article first appeared in The Observer on 26 September 2021. To continue reading, click here.

 

The next pandemic? It may already be upon us

WOULDN’T it be wonderful if there were a silver lining to this pandemic? If history is anything to go by there may actually turn out to be a number of them, though we can’t quite see them yet, but here’s one that is just beginning to gleam. In the words of Prof Kevin Outterson: “Today, people understand the social disruption from an untreatable infection…”

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 15 February 2021. To continue reading, click here.

 

 

Arms and the virus

LETTING the virus that causes Covid-19 circulate more-or-less freely is dangerous not only because it risks overwhelming hospitals and so endangering lives unnecessarily, but also because it could delay the evolution of the virus to a more benign form and potentially even make it more lethal…

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 19 November 2020. To continue reading, click here.