Scientists claim promises of stem cell fertility treatments are overhyped

Scientists claim promises of stem cell fertility treatments are overhyped
Reported egg stem cells are not functional, says a new study

Human Egg Cell, "Gray3" by Henry Vandyke Carter - Henry Gray (1918).

Human Egg Cell, “Gray3” by Henry Vandyke Carter – Henry Gray (1918).

Stem cell research has delivered on many promises – some tissue grafts for bone, skin, and eye injuries are made with stem cells, and stem cell transplants have saved the lives of thousands of children with leukemia. But some promises are perhaps more prematurely stated than others – among them, the promise of enhancing women’s fertility using stem cells.

A Cambridge-based biotech firm named OvaScience claimed last spring that it has developed a fertility treatment using stem cells that achieved a pregnancy rate of 53% — out of a small study with 17 embryo transfers in women who previously failed multiple cycles of IVF, nine women became pregnant.

But many expressed skepticism of OvaScience’s results. John Eppig, a reproductive biologist at Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine told Science that he was “highly troubled” by the company’s claims, given that no controlled animal studies on whether or not this approach works, or if it has unintended consequences on offspring, have been published.

Now a new study published in Nature Medicine adds to the choir of critics. Swedish researchers from the University of Gothenberg and the Karolinska Institute performed a study showing that so-called “stem cells” taken from human ovaries did not generate any new eggs. In their study, the Swedish scientists replicated a protocol from a previous study, also published in Nature Medicine in 2012 by a team led by scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

The new study, however, failed to find the same results as the one from 2012 – its authors claim the stem cell isolation procedure is aspecific and is not able to produce new eggs. Beyond this particularly study, though, these results hopefully serve as a wrist slap against overpromising extremely nascent treatments.

“It is not realistic to hope for a new treatment of female infertility with stem cells,” Professor Kui Liu of the University of Gothenberg, and one of the authors of the study, said in a press release.

Part of the problem is that scientists are still not sure whether these cells scraped from ovaries can even be considered stem cells – meaning whether or not they can generate new eggs. The standing belief until a few years ago was that women were born with all the eggs they were ever going to have. But the researchers at Mass Gen claim that the cells they found in ovaries are able to actually produce new eggs throughout life, with the promise of an infinite number of eggs for IVF treatments.

This spring, a couple in Canada gave birth to a baby using OvaScience’s technique, but scientists warn that it can be hard to pinpoint the stem cell treatment as the reason for the couple’s success – the mother may have just gotten lucky this try on her own.

Liu said in a press release that his team was motivated to publish their paper as an admonition of researchers who overinterpret their results and promise treatments before adequate testing has been done. “We believe that such ‘hype’ should cool down and we are warning society of irresponsible promises to patients and investors,” he said.


Daily iron supplementation is safe for pregnant women in malaria-endemic regions

Daily iron supplementation is safe for pregnant women in malaria-endemic regions

A new study finds that daily iron supplements do not increase risk of malaria infection for pregnant women, as some public health experts fear

A recent study in JAMA has found that daily iron supplementation does not increase the risk of malaria for pregnant women in sub-Saharan Africa, buffering concerns from public health experts that it might. The authors further found that babies born to women who took iron supplements everyday were, on average, a third of a pound heavier than those born to women who took placebos (3202 g vs 3053 g, crude difference 150 g, 95%CI, 56 to 244; P = .002).

That’s a striking increase that’s never been shown before, according to Hans Verhoef, a researcher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, and one of the study’s authors.

“It is among the largest effects ever measured for any nutritional intervention in these settings,” he said. “It is larger than the effect of malaria.” Furthermore, Verhoef noted, the effect was even greater for women who were iron-deficient at the beginning of the study — for those women, average birth weight increased by about half a pound.

Given their findings, Verhoef and his colleagues believe that clinics in malaria-endemic regions need to place greater priority on distributing iron supplements to pregnant women in conjunction with antimalarial drugs. “All countries have policies that pregnant women should receive daily iron supplementation,” he said. “But in practice, compliance is very low.”

Photo credit: Felicia Webb

Photo credit: Felicia Webb

In their study, the researchers, led by scientists from the Netherlands and Kenya, recruited 470 pregnant women from Kenyan villages, ranging from 15 to 45 years old and typically at the start of their second trimester. They sent all of the women to local health facilities to receive antimalarial drugs at the start of the study, then gave half of the women 5.7 milligrams of iron each day, and the other half a daily placebo. Screening blood samples collected from each woman after delivery, the researchers found no difference in rates of malaria infection between participants given iron supplements and those given a placebo (50.9%vs 52.1%, crude difference −1.2%, 95%CI, −11.8%to 9.5%; P = .83).

The study addresses concerns stemming from a 2006 landmark study that showed that giving iron to preschool-aged children could increase their risk of malaria infection — prompting public health experts to question whether pregnant women share the same risk.

“This study not only demonstrated the safety of giving iron,” said Parul Christian, a professor of global health and nutrition at Johns Hopkins University, who co-wrote an editorial accompanying Verhoef’s study, “but also that when you do that you actually achieve notable benefits.”

However, one concern that Christian had with the study was its relatively small size, which left the occurrence of hospitalizations and deaths among nine women who received iron and 12 women who received placebo unaddressed. “The study was unable to demonstrate that those adverse events were not higher in the iron group,” said Christian.

Nevertheless, Christian agrees that the new study strongly suggests that the antenatal care system in Africa needs reform. “It needs to be boosted in many countries,” she said.

At the start of their study, said Verhoef, there was no iron available at any nearby clinics. The problem, he believes, is that many health workers don’t perceive iron deficiency to be such a big problem.

“In the face of HIV, hemoglobin disorders and all that, I think health workers sometimes think, ‘oh, a little bit of anemia, who cares,’” said Verhoef. “Our hope is that coverage will increase with the results of our study — that countries, governments, and health workers will really make an effort to get iron to these women.”

The middle road to conservation

The Middle Road to Conservation

Brent Loken maneuvers between academia and activism in his efforts to save Borneo’s rainforests

In 2011, Brent Loken led an expedition deep into the Wehea Forest, a protected rainforest in East Kalimantan, a province in eastern Borneo. The forest is dense and remote, accessible only via a grueling, three-day trek on rutted dirt logging roads.

Loken wanted to study the biodiversity of one of the last untouched lowland tropical forests left in the world, so he assembled a group of local forest rangers and students from around the world to survey its astonishing biodiversity.

A year later, the crew appeared in headlines around the world. They had found a monkey that people thought no longer existed: a slender primate with a long tail, a small face and big feet, mostly black but with a white underside. The species, called Miller’s grizzled langur, was a victim of deforestation and overhunting for meat.

“We were completely surprised,” said Loken. “Nobody had really ever seen this monkey in the wild.”

Loken welcomed press attention around their discovery. “We used it as an opportunity for engaging and reaching out to a wide audience.”

Unlike many researchers, Loken does not shy away from the world stage. The founder of a non-governmental organization called Integrated Conservation, the 44-year-old native Iowan wants to bring attention to the plight of Borneo’s forests — both the wildlife they contain and the adjacent communities of people who rely on them for their livelihoods. To do so, he juggles multiple roles, engaging in scientific research and community outreach as well as diplomacy with big logging and palm oil companies.

Miller's grizzled langur. Image via Simon Fraser University.

Miller’s grizzled langur. Image via Simon Fraser University.

A decade before he rediscovered Miller’s grizzled langur, Loken was in the middle of an entirely different career. After years of teaching at schools all over the world, he was founding a school of his own: Hsinchu International School, or HIS, in Taiwan. He had a progressive vision, one that involved the integration of student internships, a strong focus on the arts and a foundation in environmental science that undergirded the entire curriculum. “We built one of the most innovative schools in Asia,” said Loken.

His path to education started after college, when he decided he wanted to travel and teach. After teaching science in Syria, Bolivia and Pakistan, Loken found himself in Taiwan in the mid-2000s. There, with a few other educators, he built HIS from the ground up. “Our idea was to get beyond the role of memorization, to get beyond the test scores and to have kids work on large projects and interact with professionals,” he said.

His own education was extremely traditional, said Loken, and it never worked for him. A small-town kid, he was always looking for something more. “I always did well, but I felt like I was missing out on the experiential stuff — getting out and actually doing things,” he said.

By 2007, HIS was up and running. During that first year, Loken proudly watched his students get out in the field and make connections between their studies and experiences outside the classroom. But he wasn’t completely satisfied, and he left the following year.

“I left because I still felt that even as far as we took the school, we were limited by the bricks and mortar of the school itself,” he said. “The next step was to create a school without walls.”

Loken’s departure was a “huge loss,” said David Carpenter, a teacher who helped start HIS with Loken. But Carpenter knows that staying still wasn’t an option for Loken. “A catchphrase for Brent is really ‘ideas to action,’ ” he said.

In 2009, Loken started a program that took kids from around the world to Borneo. Each trip lasted ten weeks and involved traveling through East Kalimantan. He introduced his students to scientists, people who ran conservation groups, locals who were struggling to protect the forest and also representatives from palm oil plantations and timber companies. He wanted to get his students thinking about some of the challenges of balancing development and conservation.

“Are the two even possible?” posed Loken. “You are working with local people who want to develop the forests, send their kids to schools, get cell phones. How do you do that in a way that doesn’t destroy incredible forests?”

Researcher Brent Loken founded and runs Integrated Conservation, a non-profit dedicated to ensuring the long-term survival of the Wehea rainforest in Borneo. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Researcher Brent Loken founded and runs Integrated Conservation, a non-profit dedicated to ensuring the long-term survival of the Wehea rainforest in Borneo. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Today, Loken grapples with many of the same questions. Currently in his fifth year of a PhD program at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, he walks the line between academic and activist. In 2009, he founded Integrated Conservation, an NGO dedicated to preserving Wehea Forest. He fights for conservation, but doesn’t pretend he can ignore thrusts toward development.

Earlier this year, Loken published a study suggesting that orangutans seem to be adapting to development by traveling down newly constructed logging roads in Wehea. The project was done in collaboration with a local logging company.

Loken is aware that some conservationists view such collaborations as sacrilegious. But he thinks it’s impractical to reject development completely. “This is a logging area directly bordering the area we work in,” he said. “We knew we had to build a strong relationship with the logging company and have them see science used in a positive way.”

Loken said that Integrated Conservation has never taken money from a logging company, but they have received criticism for other corporate funders, which include Disney and Lush Cosmetics. The unfortunate reality, he said, is that on-the-ground conservation is expensive. “We’re going against logging and palm oil companies that can throw down millions of dollars,” he said. “How do you compete with that unless you have money as well?”

For his doctoral thesis, Loken is looking at what it actually takes to protect an area like Wehea Forest. He believes the answer is to create a conservation plan that protects enough areas to preserve the forest’s diversity while also opening up parts of the forest to logging and palm oil production.

It’s no easy task, said Loken, citing the challenge of supporting a minimum viable population of the native clouded leopard. “We surveyed 38,000 hectares of rainforest and only found ten clouded leopards,” he said. “So now we have to ask, how much forest do we need to protect if we want 50 leopards?”

“Brent is unique in his ability to take the theories he studies and implement them in practice,” said Manny Haider, a professor of resource and environmental management at Simon Fraser University and former intern with Integrated Conservation. “He has an uncanny aptitude for interacting with people on a number of different levels, from the bureaucrats in the city to the individual locals of the communities he works in.”

Loken also continues to prioritize education. A major part of Integrated Conservation’s current work involves appointing local students as forest rangers and funding them to get bachelor’s and master’s degrees so they can bring knowledge of sustainability back to their communities.

But Loken is aware that he is racing against the clock. Borneo’s rain forests are disappearing quickly. Last summer a study in PLOS ONE reported that forest cover in Borneo has declined by as much as 30 percent over the last 40 years. “We’re really focusing on the next generation,” said Loken. “The problem is whether or not there’s time.”

Response to Willie Soon: How can we legitimize scientific consensus?

Over the weekend, news broke that a skeptical climate scientist, Wei-Hock Soon, has accepted more than $1.2 million from the fossil-fuel industry while neglecting to disclose those interests in his papers.

What particularly struck me about this piece was a quote from Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes: “The whole doubt-mongering strategy relies on creating the impression of scientific debate… Willie Soon is playing a role in a certain kind of political theater.” The story of Wei-Hock Soon speaks to a broader problem: that the illusion of scientific debate can be crafted and manipulated, then used in the political arena.

It’s a problem that bridges two scales: individual studies vs. governing consensus. Individual studies often hold disproportionate weight in creating the illusion of scientific debate. The media and general public love single studies, particularly ones that are surprising or go against the grain. Specifics are powerful. A new finding is news, a growing body of evidence towards a general idea is not.

Of course, all science is an iterative process of back and forth. Theories as big as evolution and general relativity cannot be said to be certain. There is always open room for dissent — and often dissent is productive, begetting new strains of thinking. But there are scientific ideas — like anthropogenic climate change — backed by a large consensus, and that consensus should hold a certain amount of weight when a single critic speaks up against the grain.

Scientists like Dr. Soon poke holes in the consensus. They serve as talking heads that politicians can use to further broader agendas. These scientists take advantage of the fact that science is never a closed book. They play off the public’s perception that science is too complicated to be understood or questioned. Scientists can intimidate non-scientists in a way that makes non-scientists feel unentitled to ask for lucid explanations. “Just take my word for it, it’s complicated,” is the message.

To combat this, we should find ways to better consolidate and legitimize consensus, then stack consensus up directly against individual studies. How can we give a platform to voices that contextualize individual studies? One option is post-publication peer review, a topic that my friend Wudan Yan recently reported on for Hippo Reads, a publication between academia and lay audiences.

As more of the scientific publication process migrates on-line, post-publication peer review and other methods for scientific dialogue are beginning to emerge as a powerful tools. More journals are providing on-line platforms for experts in a field to comment on or respond to an individual study. I recently wrote about one example, an on-line debate over studies on the origins of mysterious fairy circles in the Namib Desert in southern Africa. The same journal published the original article, then a critical response, and then a rebuttal from the original authors again.

Options like post-publication peer review are promising because they provide the opportunity for more conversation and transparency. Contextualizing individual studies has a lot of potential for increasing scientific literacy. Accessible post-publication peer review platforms could empower journalists, general audiences and even other scientists to think more critically and holistically about individual studies as they come out. Let’s envision this as creatively as we’d like. “Something like a Yelp for science papers?” my professor suggested. It’s not an outrageous idea. After all, there already exists a Twitter for science papers.

Image: Pixabay / User geralt

Stopping by bromine

Today Jon Scieszka, author of “The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales,” visited our writing workshop class. We did an in-class exercise in which we had to write a poem about an element from the period table based off Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

I decided to write mine on bromine, specifically highlighting research from the past year suggesting that bromine, once thought to be relatively biologically useless, might actually be a trace element essential to our tissue development.

Here it is:

Which element is this I do not know,
Its neighbors are more common though.
It’s really rare in our Earth’s crust,
But in the ocean it does flow.

At room temp, a fluid red-brown,
In nature, it’s in salts, locked down.
We mine it for flame retardants,
So grab some, and make your flames drown!

Its name means “stench,” or a “strong smell.”
Though our common use of it fell
When we learned that it kills ozone,
It’s still in photo films, oh well.

Till now we’ve thought we need zero,
It seems our tissues use it, though,
So bromine would you help me grow…
So bromine would you help me grow.

For reference, this exercise was based on a parody poem Jon wrote himself, entitled “Astronaut stopping by a planet on a snowy evening:”

Which world this is I do not know.
It’s in our solar system though.
I’m thinking that it might be Mars,
Because it has that reddish glow.

But you know it could be Venus.
And if that’s true, then just between us,
It might be wise to leave before
Any locals might have seen us.

Could be Pluto. Might be Neptune.
Don’t they both have more than one moon?
I’m running out of oxygen.
I’d better figure this out soon.

Yes space is lovely, dark and deep.
For one mistake I now do weep:
In science class I was asleep.
In science class I was asleep…

* “‘Astronaut Stopping by a Planet on a Snowy Evening’ definitely reminds me of a poem by Robert Frost (1874-1963). Not ‘Mending Wall.’ Not ‘Fire and Ice.’ More like ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.’”

Image: Wikimedia Commons / User DePiep

P.S. For a neat bromine-related lesson, check out this CreatureCast video about a dye called Tyrian purple, from Nina Ruelle! The dye is a bromine-containing organic compound produced by a sea snail called Bolinus brandaris.

The clock tells me

Hi there, I’m sharing a poem I wrote for an in-class exercise with Stephen Hall. I’ve been thinking about lucid dreaming a lot lately, which definitely inspired this piece. As a prompt, we borrowed the first line, “the bedside clock is right once,” from a poem entitled Nighttown by David Corcoran, former editor of the Science Times. 

The clock tells me

The bedside clock is right for once.
Someone once told me,
“You can’t read a clock in a dream.”
The numbers will appear warped,
lines curved and jagged,
chopped up and squirming.
Discernible, at first—
but they disintegrate the moment you try to focus.

Does the clock read now or then?
I can’t seem to place my fingers.
“Now” is technical,
but most days I live in a “then,”
sticky resin around my consciousness.

The bedside clock is right for once,
which means I must be lucid.
Clear, amber syrup
not yet solidified into resin.
My self, most days, appears warped.
Proprioception curved and jagged,
chopped up and squirming.

The bedside clock tells me to breathe,
instructs me to listen to the silence beneath the ticking, the padding of cat feet, the muffled sounds of city screaming into sky.

The bedside clock reminds me that time,
it is only the workings of cognition.

I am sure of two things:
1) The technical now.
2) My body:
discernible at first,
but it disintegrates the moment I try to focus.

Image: Flickr / garycycles

The pacifist scientist who believes humans evolved to be violent

The pacifist scientist who believes humans evolved to be violent

Richard Wrangham’s research on chimps has led him to believe that humans are evolutionarily adapted for violence—but, he says, that shouldn’t preclude peace.

Richard Wrangham with chimp in background. Photo by Alex Georgiev.

Richard Wrangham with chimp in background. Photo by Alex Georgiev.

Richard Wrangham is a celebrity primatologist — the kind who, last winter, commanded a $25,000 per person price tag for a two-week safari to Uganda co-led with his friend and colleague at Harvard, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker. (Proceeds from the safari went towards the Kibale Chimpanzee Project, Wrangham’s nearly 30-year chimp study in Uganda.) Seduced both by the ideas and the execution of science, he’s as comfortable exchanging pet theories with colleagues in Cambridge as he is hacking through steep forest terrain in Tanzania. He is responsible for some of the most influential theories in human evolution, including the idea that we are biologically predisposed to violence. He is also an avid botanist, has eaten bushmeat, had a girlfriend who was kidnapped by guerrilla terrorists, and once asked Jane Goodall if he could live naked in the forest with the chimps they studied.

It was during his time as a research assistant for Jane Goodall that Wrangham witnessed his first acts of chimp aggression. It was the early 1970s, and he was stationed at Goodall’s field site in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania. One day he saw a group of chimps react to the cry of a single chimp from a neighboring group. “Their hairs became erect, they touched their genitals and the males ran toward the sound,” he said. “But, when they heard five more calls add to the first one, they immediately turned around and raced back to their site. They had wanted to beat up on the lone individual.”

“A lot of people like to think of chimps and other primates as being gentle, peaceful creatures, but Richard has explored some of their darker sides.”

Observations like this set the stage for Wrangham’s later theories on aggression in human males, which he summarized in a controversial 1997 book called Demonic Males. Now a professor of anthropology at Harvard, Wrangham believes that human males are biologically adapted for aggression, particularly when there’s an imbalance of power in their favor. “Natural selection favors aggression when there’s a low risk of cost to the individual,” he said.

This is one of three or four big ideas that have characterized Wrangham’s career as an illustrious primatologist and pioneer in the study of human evolution. He has also studied how female feeding patterns structure primate societies, how cooking led humans to evolve smaller jaws and larger brains, and, most recently, how self-domestication, or evolution away from aggression, occurred similarly in humans and other animals. In 1987, he won a MacArthur award for his work comparing the social behaviors of chimps and humans.

“Although many people rightfully point to Jane Goodall as kind of the founder of modern chimpanzee behavioral biology, it’s really Richard who was one of the great scientific innovators at the very beginning of research on chimp behavior,” said Daniel Lieberman, a researcher of human evolutionary biology and colleague of Wrangham’s at Harvard. “A lot of people like to think of chimps and other primates as being gentle, peaceful creatures, but Richard has explored some of their darker sides. His research has been immensely important in terms of how we think about human evolution and how to understand why we are the way we are.”

Wrangham’s fascination with nature began in the countryside of Yorkshire, England, where he spent his childhood birdwatching and playing hide-and-seek in the woods. Starting at age 15, Wrangham regularly went on overseas birdwatching expeditions. After high school, he took a gap year to conduct wildlife research in Zambia with John Hanks, an English zoologist who later became the international projects manager for the World Wildlife Fund.

In 1967, Wrangham started college at the University of Oxford. He read works by Australian zoologist Konrad Lorenz and American paleoanthropologist Robert Ardrey, both of whom believed that humans evolved to be aggressive to hunt animals and compete for resources with each other. Wanting to learn more about human evolution himself, Wrangham decided to study animals that share key social behaviors with humans.

He first set his sights set on a somewhat unlikely candidate: the banded mongoose. “They were also social animals that ate meat,” he explained. But Wrangham’s mongoose dreams never came to be—his department rejected his study proposal because he had poor grades. Around that time, his academic advisor had heard that Jane Goodall was looking for research assistants. He suggested that Wrangham write her a letter.

At the time, Goodall didn’t think there were social boundaries between chimpanzee groups.

From 1970 to 1975, Wrangham studied chimps in Tanzania, first as a research assistant for Goodall and then as a graduate student with Goodall’s old advisor, Robert Hinde, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge in England. He was the first person to do a doctoral thesis based on full-day field observations of chimps. For 12 hours each day, Wrangham followed the chimps he studied, taking painstaking notes by the minute when they stayed still and keeping pace with them when they roamed the steep forest terrain. He never found the work grueling. “It was just exciting,” he said. “I was discovering things I wanted to know.”

At the time, Goodall didn’t think there were social boundaries between chimpanzee groups. But that was because she didn’t follow the chimps to the edges of their ranges, Wrangham explains. “I was part of a generation picking up astonishing interactions at the edges of these boundaries,” he said. Once Wrangham and his field companions started performing full-day observations, they witnessed dramatic acts of aggression and warfare between males of neighboring chimp groups. It was typical, he said, to see a group of five to six chimps attack a single individual from a different group. “The victim would be torn up, with appalling cuts and bruises,” he said. “The aggressors wouldn’t have a single scratch on them.”

In addition to studying aggression, Wrangham helped identify chimp behaviors previously believed to be exclusive to humans, such as self-medication and culture. The notion that chimps had culture was controversial at the time, but Wrangham found differences in tool usage, grooming, and courtship between chimp communities that strongly supported it.

After leaving Tanzania, Wrangham spent fifteen years more years conducting research in Africa. In the early 1980s, he spent a year in the Democratic Republic of the Congo studying the mutualistic relationship between a partially nomadic group of forest pygmies and a nearby community of village farmers. The experience was his first foray into anthropological thinking and colored his interest in the dynamics of human societies.

During this period, Wrangham enjoyed stints at Stanford, Harvard, Cambridge and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, before winding up back at Harvard in 1989, where he has remained ever since. In addition to chimps and humans, Wrangham studied the social structures of baboons and vervet monkeys.

“Nobody, either primatologists or anthropologists, has had the kind of career he has had.”

At Harvard, Wrangham has continued to expand his ideas on human evolution through his combined lens of zoology, primatology and anthropology. Last September, along with his former student Michael Wilson and 28 other primatologists, he published a controversial paper in Nature arguing that chimps evolved to proactively seek out opportunities for coalitional violence. The study gave credence to his long-standing idea that human aggression has deep evolutionary roots.

Some researchers, however, questioned whether the study adequately differentiated between chimps’ innate aggression and their aggression in response to dwindling resources and human encroachment. “These theories make people think that chimps are nasty, terrible creatures,” said Robert Sussman, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. “But they don’t consider that the chimps are going through all sorts of changes because of what humans are doing to their environment.”

Others accuse Wrangham of over-applying chimp models to human societies. Douglas Fry, an anthropologist at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, points out that chimps and bonobos are equally related to humans on the evolutionary tree. He questions the assumption that violent chimps are more relevant to human origins than bonobos, which are famously peace loving.

Fry also worries that Wrangham’s research contributes to a mass psychology that pits humans against each other and justifies actions like preemptive strikes in war. “It fills a societal expectation, a Hobbesian belief that humans are violently inclined,” he said. His own research on nomadic forager societies suggests, in contrast to Wrangham’s conclusions, that war between human groups is somewhat rare. “There’s very little violence between groups of nomadic foragers,” he said. “The majority of their killings are homicides, which tend to be very personal.”

But Wrangham believes scientists shouldn’t shy away from scientific fact just because it might have political implications. “None of the people who criticize this research have worked with chimps. Their objections are theoretical,” he said, “whereas all the people who work with chimps share the same view — you have to treat chimps very, very carefully.”

Wrangham says he subscribes to “typical left-wing UK” politics, and supports programs that anticipate and intervene against violence over those that try to reform people’s free agency. He applauds “worldwide systems to create peace,” including formal intergovernmental structures like NAFTA, the European Union or the United Nations. These beliefs stem from his conviction that people are, at their core, selfish and prepared to enact violence. “We should recognize that humans have a ready propensity towards violence,” he said, “and then try to minimize it.”

Richard Wrangham with Hadza in Tanzania. Photo by Matt, via Richard Wrangham.

Richard Wrangham with Hadza in Tanzania. Photo by Matt, via Richard Wrangham.

Wrangham doesn’t politicize his research, said Luke Glowacki, one of Wrangham’s current graduate students who studies warfare between nomadic pastoralists in Ethiopia. “He’s actually one of the biggest pacifists I’ve ever met,” Glowacki said. “But he goes where the research goes.”

Many advisors, Glowacki adds, would not let their students enter a war zone in a remote country for the sake of research. “But Richard understands what it means to really be driven by a question.” Wrangham’s other mentees also get to inherit this spirit of being seduced by an idea and chasing it as far as one possibly can. In addition to Glowacki, students in his lab are currently studying relationships between chimpanzee babies and adults, cooperation in indigenous Indonesian communities, disease ecology in chimps, behaviors within foraging communities in Botswana and the spread of infectious disease in Kenyan communities that live closely with rodents.

Wrangham, 66 years old, shows no signs of slowing. Now that their three sons are grown, he lives with his wife Elizabeth on Harvard’s campus, as House Master of an undergraduate dorm. As a teacher, he has a reputation of being a “sage on the stage” during lectures, said Zarin Machandra, a former graduate student of Wrangham’s who now co-directs his Kibale Chimpanzee Project. His latest intellectual pursuit is investigating how primates and other animals evolve away from reactive aggression, or self-domesticate- to increase their chances of mating and getting food. The research will be the foundation of his next book.

Touching on sex, diet and aggression, the topic of self-domestication ties together far-reaching questions Wrangham’s had since his earliest field experiences in Tanzania. “Nobody, either primatologists or anthropologists, has had the kind of career he has had,” said Machandra. “He sees connections many of us only wish we could see.”

Wrangham himself feels lucky to be exploring these evolutionary questions now. “It wasn’t until the 1960s that people started saying, ‘well, ok, evolution really works, so let’s now try to understand how we are adapted and why,’” he said. “So we live in a really exciting time, if you’re thinking about some of the deep questions: exploring the nature of humans, who we are and what we are doing on Earth.”

Sparrow songs tune into context

You know how even though the “k” in skill and “g” in guilt sound really similar, we know to put them in different categories? Many linguists think that ability to differentiate similar sounds based on context is uniquely human. But new research suggests that a type of bird, the swamp sparrow, does the same thing. Learn more in my new piece for Scienceline.
Image: Flickr / Peter Wilton

Alcoholism after gastric bypass: Is it in your mind or gut?

My latest piece for Scienceline explores the mysterious link between gastric bypass surgery and alcoholism. Scientists think it’s undeniable that patients are developing alcoholism at higher rates after gastric bypass surgery. But they still don’t know why. Some reigning theories suggest patients may be transferring food addictions to other substances, the surgery may alter alcohol metabolism in patients’ guts or that a gastric bypass may even trigger changes in the central nervous system, affecting how patients process dopamine, a neurotransmitter that modulates our brain’s reward circuit and plays a large role in addiction. I’m pretty happy with how this piece turned out and hope you enjoy reading it!

Image credit: Flickr / Faisal Akram

Why we should stand up to bullies in the workplace

Bullying isn’t just a playground phenomenon — it happens everyday, in professional settings around the world. My new piece for Cafe takes a look at workplace bullying, and how it can be a lose-lose-lose situation for individuals, business and society at large.

Image source: Flickr / Quinn Dombrowski

Is working a lot necessarily unhealthy?

Here’s a counterintuitive idea: The number of hours you work doesn’t say anything about whether or not you are a workaholic.

It’s a weird statement, right? Isn’t “working too much” the definition of workaholism? Well… maybe not.

Some psychologists believe that working a lot isn’t always unhealthy. They make a distinction between pathological “work craving” and meaningful “work engagement.” I explain the empirical difference between the two work styles in my latest post for Cafe.

Image Source: Flickr/ Bernard Goldbach

Oxycodone, morphine and the chemistry of addiction

Opioid painkillers like oxycodone and morphine are among the most abused drugs in the US … but are there differences in their addictiveness? My new post on Scienceline explores how oxycodone might actually be more addictive than morphine.

Image: Flickr / Victor

No need for the pharmacy; just press print

My new piece for Scienceline is on 3D printing drugs. Researchers at the University of Central Lancashire in England have filed a patent for a 3D printer that can produce complex tablets using chemical “ink.” The technology would be a boon for personalized medicine–but it might also mean unfettered, and in some cases dangerous, access to experimental drugs. As my friend Eliza said, it’s “3D printing on steroids… no, OF steroids.” Read on!

Source: Flickr / Rob Ireton

Is the Workplace the Next Frontier for Wearable Tech?

There’s a lot happening around wearable tech: Google is developing a new edition of Glass, Italian high-end eyewear maker Luxottica wants to make more stylish smart glasses, the Apple Watch is coming out and fitness bands like Fitbit are taking off. In addition to all this, developers and employers are starting to consider workplace applications for wearable tech. My latest piece for Cafe explores this new trend—will wearable tech take off in the workplace before the home?

Image: Flickr/ Antonio Zugaldia

How to Fend Off a Socialist Insurrection… With Dinosaurs

Another article inspired by “Recapturing the Scenic Wilds,” an exhibit on natural history at Wave Hill. This one’s about how dinosaurs might have helped 19th century American tycoons promote capitalism. I originally wrote this piece for Cafe, but here’s an expanded version with more pictures. Special thanks to Lukas Rieppel, David Borgonjon and Wave Hill.

What do we want when we think of dinosaurs? We want to know which were the biggest and baddest. We want spiked tails and razor claws. We want epic battles to the death, the ground shaking underfoot.

We seek certain attributes from different animals. From dogs, we look for playful loyalty; from cats, agile curiosity. In sea turtles, we read grace and wisdom; in owls, stealth and majesty. Dinosaurs are no exception—they prompt a particular, danger-seeking response in our imaginations.

But how, exactly, did we come to think of dinosaurs as ruthless competitors?

Dino natural history: fact meets fiction?

The answer might reach back a couple centuries, according to Lukas Rieppel, a science historian from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. For the better part of a decade, Rieppel has been pondering how we came to imagine dinosaurs the way we do. “I was interested in the history of science aspect—how these creatures were discovered, and then especially how paleontologists did the work of using these fossils to imagine prehistory,” he said.


Skeleton model of Tyrannosaurus, 1912, from the American Museum of Natural History Library. Image: Public Domain.

In the halls of natural history museums, Rieppel noted, many dinosaur skeletons are arranged as if facing each other in eternal battle, leading museumgoers to conclude that most dinosaurs probably died in bloody competition. In fact, this practice of imagining a prehistoric world more gripping, savage and cruel than ours might be exactly why many of us find dinosaurs so alluring.

As a science historian however, Rieppel wanted to know more about the events leading up to these displays. He dug into the past, looking into early discoveries and exchanges of dinosaur fossils. In doing so he started to unravel a story: one that goes back to the late 19th century.

Last month, Rieppel led a panel discussion entitled The Power of Natural History at Wave Hill, a 28-acre public estate in the New York. The discussion accompanied an art exhibit, Recapturing the Scenic Wilds, which explores the intersection between natural history and culture.

Fossil discoveries and the rise of American capitalism

The first dinosaur bones were discovered in England in the early 1800s. But about fifty years later, American paleontologists began to discover more complete sets of bones belonging to larger dinosaurs such as Brontosaurus, Allosaurus and Stegosaurus.

This was the Gilded Age in America, a time of rapid economic growth and corporate trusts, widened social inequality—generating great wealth for business magnates at the expense of a growing population of poor laborers. Over time, many of these magnates turned to philanthropy, funding public institutions such as schools, libraries and art spaces. Some of them also took an interest in natural history and dinosaur fossils.

Why dinosaurs? Rieppel points to two patrons in particular—J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie—to highlight two possible motivations.

America… now better than Europe!

Americans still had something of an inferiority complex toward Europeans in the 19th century, says Rieppel. Europe could tout rich cultural traditions in literature, art and philosophy extending back centuries, but America had not yet established such cultural claims.

What America did have over Europe, he says, was its natural bounty: its wide, open spaces and majestic landscapes. This was particularly true in the newly colonized American West, where people were discovering the first American dinosaur fossils along with rich stores of minerals and other natural resources.

“Dinosaurs fit into this narrative perfectly,” said Rieppel. “American dinosaurs were just bigger, more spectacular and more impressive than European dinosaurs.”

Skeleton of Diplodocus carnegii at the Muséum d'histoire naturelle in Paris. Photo by Lukas Rieppel.

Skeleton of Diplodocus carnegii at the Muséum d’histoire naturelle in Paris. Photo by Lukas Rieppel.

At the time, American museums still imported many of their displays from Europe, but as paleontology took off in the United States, American patrons reversed this process. Carnegie, for instance, distributed about a dozen replicas of a colossal dinosaur named after him, Diplodocus carnegii, across major natural history museums throughout Europe.

“There’s a really strong branding here,” said Rieppel. “At the same time that America is overtaking Europe as the world’s industrial and financial center, these colossal prehistoric creatures are being discovered in the American West—and Carnegie is literally bringing them back to Europe, putting them in European museums, and showing Europeans how much bigger and more impressive American dinosaurs are.”

Capitalism, endorsed by nature

But Morgan and Carnegie were not only interested in celebrating American dinosaurs in Europe—they also wanted to bring dinosaurs to the forefront of Americans’ consciousness. In 1869, Morgan helped found the American Museum of Natural History in New York. A couple decades later, in 1896, Carnegie founded the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

“Carnegie was interested in American dinosaurs for several reasons. One of them has to do with the fact that they’re bigger and better than European dinosaurs, so they become a representation of the American juggernaut,” said Rieppel. “But in addition, Carnegie is interested in dinosaurs because they help him make an argument to justify the competitive nature of American capitalism.”

The turn of the 20th Century heralded the Progressive Era, during which people began demanding stricter regulation of businesses and expansion of welfare. Carnegie, aware that many Americans saw captains of industry as unscrupulous bullies, worried about a socialist insurrection.

He developed an interest in evolutionary biology, drawing a link between competition in the natural world and that in the corporate world. In a popular essay entitled “The Gospel of Wealth,” Carnegie argued that Darwin’s “law of competition” may exact a great price in the form of increased inequality, but that it is nevertheless “essential for the future progress of the race.”

Using Darwin’s ideas of natural selection, Carnegie maintained that competition, though it could generate harsh inequality, was necessary for progress.

How do dinosaurs come in?

In 1891, Morgan recruited his paleontologist nephew, Henry Fairfield Osborn, to start the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. Along with many other notable naturalists at the time, including Theodore Roosevelt, Osborn was a proponent of eugenics: the idea that some humans were genetically superior to others. Osborn and Roosevelt valorized fierce competition in the natural world, a fact that is perhaps revealed in their celebration of hunting. Indeed, Osborn belonged to Roosevelt’s Boone and Crockett Club, a wildlife conservation organization consisting of hunters, many of whom donated their hunted game to natural history museums.

“Leaping Laelaps,” a famous painting by Charles R. Knight, 1897. Image: Public Domain.

“Leaping Laelaps,” a famous painting by Charles R. Knight, 1897. Image: Public Domain.

Given his preoccupation with evolution and his family of wealthy capitalists, Osborn might have been predisposed to also celebrate competition in dinosaurs, Rieppel argues. Moreover, he oversaw many ways in which dinosaurs were depicted to the public. In addition to supervising a team of famous fossil hunters, he hired an artist named Charles R. Knight to produce murals and sculptures imagining live dinosaurs in their habitats.

Between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to Rieppel, depictions of dinosaurs shifted. “Once these capitalists become involved in the funding and promotion of dinosaur paleontology, the way that we imagine dinosaurs changes,” he said. “It’s at this time that dinosaurs become what we mostly think of them as today … [emphasizing] their ferocity, their fierceness, their competitiveness—the fact that they rule over a world that’s red in tooth and claw.”

A pair of dinosaurs at Crystal Palace Park in London, commissioned in 1852 as part of a series of the first dinosaur sculptures in the world. Around the mid-19th century, dinosaurs were often represented as elephantine, stationary creatures. With the discovery of American fossils a few decades later, says Lukas Rieppel, dinosaurs became the fierce, dynamic lizards we often think of today. Photo by Lukas Rieppel.

A pair of dinosaurs at Crystal Palace Park in London, commissioned in 1852 as part of a series of the first dinosaur sculptures in the world. Around the mid-19th century, dinosaurs were often represented as elephantine, stationary creatures. With the discovery of American fossils a few decades later, says Lukas Rieppel, dinosaurs became the fierce, dynamic lizards we often think of today. Photo by Lukas Rieppel.

Many cutthroat images of dinosaurs during the early 20th century came from imaginative paintings, particularly those by Charles Knight. Museum curators like Osborn then used fossils to underscore these images, says Rieppel.

“The way that these museums displayed dinosaurs constantly reinforced the link between the material facts that we have—the fossil evidence that exists in the present day,” he said, “and the flesh and blood—the living, breathing, fighting, competing creatures that existed in the prehistoric.”

Rieppel gave the example of a painting by Knight, which depicted a large, carnivorous Allosaurus predating upon the tail of a Brontosaurus. Paired with the painting was a three-dimensional reconstruction of the scene: an Allosaurus skeleton positioned above a section of Brontosaurus tail. “There’s a one-to-one relationship between the way that the bones are laid out in the three-dimensional exhibit and the way that these flesh-and-blood creatures are represented in the painting,” said Rieppel.

In fact, Rieppel points out, the museum guidebook published with the creation of this exhibit at the turn of the 20th century further reinforced this chain of evidence. Specifically, it called museumgoers’ attention to markings on the vertebrae of the Brontosaurus tailbone that seemed to correspond in size and appearance to teeth of Allosaurus.


A fossil exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History (top) depicts an Allosaurus skeleton feasting on the tail of a Brontosaurus. Created in the early 1900s but still up in the museum today, the fossils accompany a painting (bottom) of the same scene, by Charles Knight. Images: Public Domain.

A fossil exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History (top) depicts an Allosaurus skeleton feasting on the tail of a Brontosaurus. Created in the early 1900s but still up in the museum today, the fossils accompany a painting (bottom) of the same scene, by Charles Knight. Images: Public Domain.

Curators prized painstaking attention to detail as a way of asserting their authority and erasing suspicions that museum exhibits might be flights of fancy, suggests Rieppel. He argues that even as many facts about dinosaurs remained unknown at the time, curators took great pains to present a unified front of knowledge.

He refers to a passage Osborn had written in the 1922 annual report for the American Museum of Natural History: “In the Exhibition Halls of the American Museum of Natural History we are scrupulously careful not to present theories or hypotheses, but to present fact.”

“Of course, this is disingenuous,” said Rieppel. Since dinosaurs are long gone, they are necessarily recast through theories and hypotheses. Museums reimagine dinosaurs again and again, he says.

Today’s dinosaurs

In fact, our images of dinosaurs continue to shift. During the second half of the 20th century, Rieppel explains, paleontologists began to imagine dinosaurs as more social and shrewd than previously thought, doing things like hunting in packs and cooperating to nurture their young. “Now [dinosaurs] are usually depicted as colorful, agile and social creatures,” he said.

This shift also mirrors a shift in American corporate culture, he asserts. “Our own economy today looks very different. It is no longer dominated by large, vertically-integrated corporate firms.”

Of course, large multinational corporations still exist, he says, “But the emphasis of our popular imagination is much more centered on smaller, more agile, and highly adaptable firms. Not General Electric or Standard Oil, but Facebook, Google, Genzyme, 23andMe, Apple, Snapchat, Instagram and so on. Silicon valley startups, biotech spinoffs, that sort of thing.”

Rieppel ultimately hopes to make the point that all science is inextricably linked to human institutions and theoretical trends, capitalism included. “Science is part of our culture in the same way that art, literature and architecture are,” he said. “Therefore, we should analyze it as we do any other human endeavor.”

Cover Image: Flickr / Zachary Tirrell

Natural history museums: fact or fiction?

What goes into the making of natural history dioramas? And how do these dioramas inform us? My first piece for Scienceline explores the line between art and actuality in natural history displays. AND if you’re free this weekend, go to Wave Hill in the Bronx to catch the last couple days of “Recapturing the Scenic Wilds,” the exhibit on natural history that this article is based on. Not only is the exhibit thought-provoking and well-curated, Wave Hill is a stunning escape from the city.

Image: Richard Barnes , “Suspended Giraffe,” 2005, Digital C-print, 48” x 60.” Courtesy of the artist and Foley Gallery.

Can Bright Lights Help You Sleep Better?

My latest for Cafe is on using light therapy to correct wonky sleep schedules (very relevant to my life!).

I’ve also gotten questions about melatonin supplements, so I’ll give a brief explanation here. My understanding is that melatonin supplements have shown moderate effects for helping people fall asleep. One big problem is that the dosages of most pills are too high; at really high doses (>1 mg) it stops working after a while, sometimes after just a few days. Unfortunately the scientist at MIT who first created the supplemental form holds a patent for doses up to 1 mg.

Light therapy is actually often used in conjunction with melatonin supplements. Firstly, synergy: using both can push your sleep cycle in either direction for more than 2.5 hours. But another benefit of light therapy is that it can really be more effective for treating insomnia when it is coupled with seasonal affective disorder or other depression. I think for both light therapy and melatonin supplements, it’s particularly useful to nail down the timing of when to use the light or take the pills, based on your phase response curve (which I discuss in the article). At supplement doses around 0.3 mg, a dosage level studies have shown to be effective over a long term, you should take the pills a few hours before bedtime. In general, however, timing depends on some experimentation under the guidance of a doctor.

Image Source: Flickr/ Russell Bernice