Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Damn you - Evolution!

I'm in the middle of recovering from travel and from dreading the start of the next semester. So to fill in the recover-dread vacuum, here is Smithsonian on the Top 10 Daily Consequences of having Evolved. This is just a nice way of showing the broad (and sometimes entertaining) ways we are connected with other species on the planet. Here are three of my favorites on the list:
1. Our cells are weird chimeras 
Perhaps a billion years ago, a single-celled organism arose that would ultimately give rise to all of the plants and animals on Earth, including us. This ancestor was the result of a merging: one cell swallowed, imperfectly, another cell. The predator provided the outsides, the nucleus and most of the rest of the chimera. The prey became the mitochondrion, the cellular organ that produces energy. Most of the time, this ancient symbiosis proceeds amicably. But every so often, our mitochondria and their surrounding cells fight. The result is diseases, such as mitochondrial myopathies (a range of muscle diseases) or Leigh’s disease (which affects the central nervous system).
This is just fascinating and really links us with the long history of life on Earth. But my favorite example here is that of hiccups and why we can't really control them:
2. Hiccups 
The first air-breathing fish and amphibians extracted oxygen using gills when in the water and primitive lungs when on land—and to do so, they had to be able to close the glottis, or entryway to the lungs, when underwater. Importantly, the entryway (or glottis) to the lungs could be closed. When underwater, the animals pushed water past their gills while simultaneously pushing the glottis down. We descendants of these animals were left with vestiges of their history, including the hiccup. In hiccupping, we use ancient muscles to quickly close the glottis while sucking in (albeit air, not water). Hiccups no longer serve a function, but they persist without causing us harm—aside from frustration and occasional embarrassment. One of the reasons it is so difficult to stop hiccupping is that the entire process is controlled by a part of our brain that evolved long before consciousness, and so try as you might, you cannot think hiccups away.
Wait a minute. Growing up, I was told that hiccups signify that someone is thinking of you. I'm so confused now...

And since I recently saw the fantastic, but very intense and somewhat scary, Black Swan, I will add the origin of the useless goosebumps here: 

7. Goosebumps don't really help 
When our ancestors were covered in fur, muscles in their skin called “arrector pili” contracted when they were upset or cold, making their fur stand on end. When an angry or frightened dog barks at you, these are the muscles that raise its bristling hair. The same muscles puff up the feathers of birds and the fur of mammals on cold days to help keep them warm. Although we no longer have fur, we still have fur muscles just beneath our skin. They flex each time we are scared by a bristling dog or chilled by a wind, and in doing so give us goose bumps that make our thin hair stand uselessly on end.
Read the full article here.

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