Wednesday, April 11, 2018


The Role of Evolution

Evolution may not contribute much to solving the Alzheimer's problems although it must have been involved in the selection of genes and functional aspects responsible.  Whether knowing more about the biochemistry of amyloid and tau proteins involved in the plaques and tangles diagnostic for Alzheimer's will lead to successful treatments is uncertain.

Clues about the disease may come from more primitive animals with smaller and less complicated brains.  Finding such clues may require greater knowledge of the process in our own brains.  The pogonophorans live to extreme ages under very adverse conditions of limited food and are presumably much like the ancestors of the animal line leading to vertebrates.  More recent ancestors are more likely to be of value.  I personally think study of diverse human populations for their diet and health parameters may give the best clues to further research.


Because Alzheimer's and/or senile dementia increase in severity and frequency with advancing age, typically beyond the fertile years, the hereditary component thought to be about 40 percent is only indirectly subject to natural selection.  Selection may differ if societies with multi-generational families are compared with societies of smaller two or three generation families.  Such a comparison is not likely to be informative since the shift has been quite recent.  The stress of dealing with the afflicted versus the wisdom of elders without the disease may contribute to a shift in the gene pool of such groups.

Increasing age seems to enable the disease process to advance, whether by increased deposits in the brain or increased neuron death or impaired function.  Life-style changes may help avert disease progress.  Maintaining a social life, physical and mental activity, getting adequate rest, and good nutrition (moderation in quantities, more fruits and vegetables, and reduced animal fats).  An article by Paula Spencer Scott in the April 8 (2018) edition of Parade is accompanied by a list of suggestions including the value of music.

I'm not very good at doing the suggested changes even though I suspect several deceased relatives had the disease at death 80 or fewer years ago.  I thank my spouse for my being alive with some mental function as a result of her efforts to limit my animal fat intake and increase the vegetarian portion of my diet.

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Toxic substances such as DDT and other halogenated hydrocarbons polluting the food chain accumulate in animal fat deposits because they are fat soluble and poorly eliminated in urine,  They may enter the blood stream in greater amounts when fats diminish due to dieting or illness.  At such times the high concentration may cause or increase behavioral aberrations such as depression.  Even people with little fat could experience such problems compounding illness if the little fat they had released its toxic store.
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It may be too early to determine if Facebook and Twitter are adequate for the social component of a healthy lifestyle.  I have minimal exposure to both, but maybe if I increase my blogging it will help.

An afterthought on music.  The article referred to above noted singing is supposed to be a good form of music.  Years ago it was common to gather around someone's piano (or other instrument) and sing together.  When my father was doing physical work in his printshop he was typically whistling the same tune over and over.  He was still fairly alert mentally the year he died when he was 96 years old,  Maybe I will whistle more frequently.  Do you think it will help?

Joe Engemann    Kalamazoo, Michigan       April 11, 2018

Tuesday, March 6, 2018


Grant for Medical School Research

Medical research at the Dr. Homer Stryker Medical School of Western Michigan University and at its two collaborating teaching hospitals of Borgess Health and Bronson Healthcare will benefit from a two million dollar bequest given by Martha Parfet's estate.  She is a granddaughter of the founder of the Upjohn Company, Dr. W. E. Upjohn.  Kalamazoo has benefited greatly by the generosity of numerous relatives and friends of both of the doctor’s families.

Clinical research will benefit from the bequest, as well as basic research using tissue culture and cells and animals that share functions in ways more accessible than in human subjects.  Such non-clinical studies can speed, reduce cost, and sometimes simplify the discovery of things beneficial in modern medicine.

BACTERIA share many biochemical features of all more advanced organisms.  In particular, they contributed greatly to understanding DNA related details.  Their beneficial roles as well as the diseases some caused will encourage continued searches for new antibiotics when resistance to old ones develop.

The bacteria of today and ourselves share some of our biochemical processes as a result of our common ancestry over two billion years in the past.  As organisms share more recent common ancestry with us, they are expected to share more features with us although they may lose some and gain others unique to themselves and their descendants.

The figure above is just to suggest what happens many times during the ancestral history of organisms.  There is no precision to it, but the internal lines show continuity in one or both branches (multiple branches may also occur at the same time) and it may take very many generations that may include the beginning or end of new or old features.  The short blue line on the right branch could be repeated in many times and places for numerous other extinct groups from the past.

INVERTEBRATE animals range from protozoans and simple sponges to complex ones, some of which, especially the giant squid, reach large size.   Invertebrates began leaving an abundant fossil record of great diversity about 500 million years ago.

VERTEBRATE animals of today share a common ancestry with echinoderms, perhaps lophophorate animals, and a few degenerate annelid-like worms that gave rise to early pre-vertebrate chordates that diverged from the other advanced invertebrates (annelids, mollusks, and arthropods) near the beginning of the Cambrian.  The following figure is intended to represent an educated guess of some of the ancestral tree major relationships.

The tree of life is to graphically show the central role of the annelids leading to the two main branches of coelomate animals (protostomes left, deuterostomes right with the pogonophorans linking them to the other line) with the vertebrates upper right and the arthropods, upper left.  Plants in green are are lower left, and nematodes are on the blue and red left middle main branch.

Why are organisms important in medical research?

1.      Shared system features of physiology, structure, and biochemistry are likely to be most similar when the distances (or perhaps generations) from one group to another along the branches of the ancestral tree of life are shortest (or fewer).

2.      Some organisms have feature comparable in some ways to ours, but in a more accessible or larger form.  For example, the transmission of nerve impulses was made understandable by studying the giant nerve fibers of squids.  Fruit-fly larvae have giant chromosomes that led to some genetic discoveries.

3.      Basic toxicity studies of proposed drugs can be on simple organisms after or in place of initial tissue culture or other studies.  Such tests may be much less costly in time and/or money.

Where should medical research start?

1.      Most likely it will start as you work with a senior medical researcher using you as an assistant performing work for which you are trained.

2.      A first step that should become a habit is studying the research literature in the library, on-line, in appropriate journals, and attending meetings of your research group.  Especially, attending related research being reported at local, state, or national conferences.  Often, verbal presentations of research include clues of value to apply in your research.

How is evolution important in medical research?

It may not always be important to you if you are a specialist is some aspect of a research project.  If you are planning research it may help you select organisms for non-human aspects of research such as in the first list above.  Keep abreast of new developments, even the most unlikely organisms may teach us things of value.

Although animals greatly separated from us on the tree of life may share some identical features with us, they are expected to have greater differences than ones that are more recently separated.  The pogonophorans clue us in on where differences in biology are more likely to be greater in some instances and less in others.

The pogonophorans are a bottleneck where they branch off from the annelids, losing the spiral cleavage of the three big invertebrate groups - the annelids, mollusks, and arthropods – as well as loss of much of the gastrointestinal system and skeletal functions.   In spite of the latter, cartilage of the squid seems indistinguishable from vertebrate cartilage with casual microscopic examination.

Many biochemical features survived the pogonophoran link bottleneck.  Hemoglobin is the blood pigment of vertebrates as well as some invertebrates across the pogonophoran divide.  Aspects of delivery of pituitary hormones in our endocrine system show remarkable similarities in mammals and arthropods.  Peculiar intercalated disks of our heart muscle are also seen in some mollusks.

If you find commonalities of another organism and humans, don’t use the just stated facts as reason to change your experimental animals.  But consider the discussion as an aide to picking new ones if evidence warrants it.  Selective evidence was used to put nematode worms in a major cluster with arthropods when most evidence indicated otherwise.  The post -

- and the post on May 31, 2013 indicate otherwise, Ecdysozoa is not a valid related group.  Both posts provide references supporting that statement.  I write this with hope that it may be of some benefit to the researchers the grant will fund in the university from which, twenty-two years ago, I retired.

Joseph Engemann   Emeritus Professor of Biology, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan           March 6, 2018

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Evolution: Why God Loves You

You Are Unique

You are the only person occupying your shoes.  Take a walk through the park.  Notice and appreciate the things of beauty.  Hear the songs of birds, see their beautiful color and amazing flight - never smashing into a tree branch.  Look for beauty in insects sipping nectar from beautiful flowers, feeding on leaves of seedlings beneath majestic trees, their forebears.  There is so much more to see and appreciate.

God knows everything about God's creation, from the microscopic to the cosmic.  It is all old stuff to God.  But we are able to appreciate it with awe, wonder, and feelings that express our joy to God.  Don't you get warm feelings when your loved ones are pleasurably moved by such things?

When you have a good story to tell, do you only tell it once?  Most of us enjoy telling it over and over to new listeners.  And a listener may be pleased to hear the same story from others.  The excitement of each grandchild during their early childhood celebrations is always joyful.

There are billions of ways and places to have similar, but unique, experiences foreknown to God.  Share them with others, but don't overdo it, they probably won't have God's infinite capacity for love and empathy.

A unique experience for me that came to mind

Our first year in a new, to us, home, we looked out a window into our back yard.  A large rabbit was grazing on the grass.  About a half-dozen half grown rabbits were cavorting around her.  The most amazing thing was that some leap-frogged over one another several times.  I had never seen that behavior before, nor have I seen it in the thirty years since.  I am almost positive others have seen such behavior.

I am less sure that anyone else believes -

- that some deep sea animals have longevity far beyond that of their shallow water relatives.
- that their environment shaped the pogonophoran transition from nervous system ventral annelid ancestors to nervous system dorsal vertebrate descendants.
- that the deep sea provided areas for the pogonophorans to survive multiple major extinction events making the preceding possible.
- the evolutionary story needs correcting where major changes were based on molecular phylogeny studies using inadequate sample sizes, as indicated in earlier posts of this blog.

Joseph Engemann   Emeritus Professor of Biology, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan    February 27, 2018

The opinions expressed in this blog are mine, not those of Western Michigan University; however, I am grateful for the opportunity they provided to teach courses and do research leading to my understanding of many of the topics I present.  Did I answer the question why God loves you - God made you using infinite patience and the evolutionary process.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Natural Selection and Creativity

More on Wilson's Creativity

In his interesting presentation of how the human brain and many aspects of social biology came about Wilson contends that "Natural selection as grand master of evolution means that humanity was not planned by any super-intelligence, nor was it guided by any destiny beyond the consequences of our own actions." [page 103 of E. O. Wilson, 2017, The Origins of Creativity, Liveright, New York.]

On page 6, he had said "Scientific explanations of organic life, including human life, routinely entail both proximate and ultimate causes."  He contrasts that to the humanities attempting only proximate explanations and leaving ultimate cause to various entities, without much attention to the why of our existance.

 On page 100 he says "Because of group selection, and its obvious consequences in the evolution of human social behavior, there is reason to suppose that the better angels of our nature need not be drilled into us under the threat of divine retribution, but are instead biologically inherited."  He goes on to further recognize our amazing place in nature.

What Wilson Misses

God, as the Ultimate Cause, can take the chance events of natural selection, that we see as the operative principle of evolution, and use them to produce the remarkable human species.  There are obvious bits and pieces of our evolutionary development based on various pre-human ancestors.  But our disproportionately large brain has the capacity for performance well beyond what most of us achieve.

Wilson sees the humanities, language, and presumably the cumulative written record, as part of the cause of the gulf between us and the rest of the natural living world.  He sees the good that results.  I hope he comes to see that the good is God's results.

It is very difficult, for finite beings such as ourselves, not to underestimate the power, love, and majesty of the one infinite being, God.  It is very much worth the effort to try to know God better.  God already knows and loves each of us more than we do ourselves.  It is awesome to consider the immensity of the universe and amazing diversity of life in a drop of pond water.  I don't think God needs our input on how the world should be run.  But we should make more effort for properly caring for our planet.

Joe Engemann      Kalamazoo, Michigan          February 1, 2017

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Evolution of Creativity


Wilson is a remarkably productive biologist.  His intensive early studies of ants helped him found the biological subdiscipline we call “sociobiology” with a 1975 book by that name.  But the social behavior of ants is hard-wired into their small brains and not a particularly good model for social behavior of humans.  In searching for the evolutionary roots of social behavior, ants and humans diverged from their most recent common ancestor in the Pre-Cambrian, so answers to our creativity are limited to very fundamental aspects.  His book is fascinating and worth reading for the spectacular grasp of related facts and opinions, especially the role of language in creativity.

[Wilson, Edward O.  2017.  The Origins of Creativity.  Liveright Publishing Corporation.  New York – London.  A division of W.W. Norton & Co., New York.  243 pp.]

On page 68 Wilson describes his brief brush with Christianity and baptism.  Creativity seems to be tied to the humanities, especially language.  On pages 75-77 he expresses concern that organized religion siphons off funds that would be better spent supporting the humanities.  On page 194 he notes that “it needs to be recognized, and talked about more frankly, that for philosophy the elephant in the kitchen is organized religion.”  -because “the understanding of the human condition often foretold by the blending of science and religion is inhibited by the intervention of supernatural creation stories” of the separate tribes.

Dr. Wilson doesn’t have too many years left to get back to that old-time religion that inspired him as a fourteen-year-old about seventy-five years ago.  Perhaps this time he can apply his appreciation for the humanities to extract the good from the stories and traditions of the monotheistic religions.  It is not too late to develop a warm relationship with Jesus.

Joe Engemann      Kalamazoo, Michigan     January 24, 2018