When Fat Cells Lost Their Way

Long ago, at the dawn of human development, fat cells were honored members of the family of human cells.  In those days, fat cells were a rarity, being created only in the uncommon scenario in which the human host had food in abundance for a prolonged period and could splurge on extra helpings of whatever had been gathered by the tribe.

adipocytes_0It was understood, however, that the fat cells wouldn’t stick around for long.  When food became scarce again, as it inevitably did, the fat cells would promptly serve their important purpose and sacrifice themselves for the greater good, resolutely releasing their stores of energy, lipids, and vitamins, to help the human host and its other cells survive the lean times.  In the process, of course, the fat cells would vanish on the wings of the wind.  In short, fat cells manned one of the crucial lines of defense against death and starvation, and they were recognized for their service.

But over time, as homo sapiens thrived and multiplied and began to produce food in abundance, fat cells lost their way.  They looked around and noticed that there were more fat cells like them — in some cases, a lot more.  And none of them seemed to be doing much of anything, much less sacrificing themselves for the greater good.  Their mission for the human host became confused, and the overriding notion of noble selflessness that once motivated the fat cells was lost.

At that point, fat cells became some of the most stubborn and perverse cells in the human body, focused on hanging around at all costs and in the most visible, annoying places.  Fat cells gathered around the belly, under the arms, and in the posterior regions, holding meetings and recruiting other fat cells to their ignoble, selfish cause.  When the human host actually tried to shed a few of those fat cells for the greater good, the fat cells resisted with every pulpy, jiggling ounce of their being.  And if diets and exercise ultimately succeeded in knocking off a few fat cells, it was the stubborn fat cells girdling the waistline, or rear end, or upper arm that were the last to go.

Dieting and losing weight is all about getting the fat cells to remember their actual purpose, and to once again regain the self-respect and sense of self-sacrifice that they once had in days of yore.

Working For The Three-Day Weekend

In the distant, early days of Homo sapiens, there was no concept of “work” in the modern sense, and thus there were no holidays, either. Every day involved its many toils, from hunting and gathering to working to find shelter and water and protection against predators.

Then, as civilization developed, designated jobs became an inevitable part of the process. No city could exist without people charged with performing essential functions like laboring in the fields to bring in the crops, delivering food from the countryside, serving as scribe for Pharoah, or building the new pyramid or ziggurat.  The concept of holidays came later still. First, there were only religious holidays or seasonal holidays, to mark the Feast Day of Set or commemorate the harvest with a day of celebration. In the medieval era, when a saint’s day arrived, the duties of the job were replaced by lengthy religious obligations and, perhaps, fasting and the ritual wearing of a hair shirt.  It wasn’t exactly a laugh riot.

As humanity advanced even more, the concept of a work week was introduced and, then, secular holidays. When some brilliant soul realized that secular holidays really didn’t have to be tied to a specific date on the calendar and instead could float — so that the holiday could combine with a normal weekend to create a three-day weekend — it was a huge step forward in human development. And when an even more enlightened individual realized that we could use those three-day weekends to bookend the summer months, so that the joys of summer could begin with a glorious three-day revel in the warmth, it marked a true pinnacle in the annals of human achievement.

As we celebrate the joys of this three-day Memorial Day weekend, let’s remember those forgotten figures of human history who came up with the ideas that led us here — and be grateful that wearing sweaty hair shirts isn’t part of the equation.

Species-Saving Sex

Don’t look now, but the history of homo sapiens — and of human-like creatures on planet Earth — is getting progressively weirder and more titillating.

article-2029559-0d8dcb7300000578-310_1024x615_largeScientists conducting studies of human genes are learning lots of interesting information about the development of our species.  One of the more provocative findings is that our genetic information indicates that there were multiple instances of significant homo sapien interbreeding with other human-like species — specifically, the Neanderthals, and a mysterious, largely unknown species called the Denisovans —  that left indelible marks in the DNA of modern humans.  And it also appears that the cross-breeding provided us with some useful genetic material, including genes that enhanced the operation of the human immune system and helped our ancestors fight off pathogens.

Not much is known about human history before the dawn of civilization.  Most of what we understand comes from looking at fossils of human ancestors and attempting to piece together the gnarled branches of the human family tree.  Human genetic analysis provides a different kind of window to the past of our species.  It’s now obvious that the early days of the human species saw our ancestors competing with — and apparently having lots of sex with — other hominid species.  We couldn’t have been too much different from them, because the genome evidence means that when humans had sex with Neanderthals and those enigmatic Denisovans, their one-night stands produced pregnancies and non-sterile offspring that, in turn, shared their genes through mating.  All of that cross-breeding among different species helped to make humans what they are today.

We might never learn what happened to the Neanderthals, or the enigmatic Denisovans, and why they died out while humans survived and became the dominant species on the planet.  What we can now say with some confidence is that human ancestors apparently were as interested in sex as modern humans are, and weren’t particularly troubled about who — or what species — they were having sex with, either.

Looking Ahead, Warily, At 2014

On January 1, it’s always tempting to review the old year and look ahead to the new.

So, what about 2013? Most people seem to think it was a pretty mediocre year in the world — not terrible, certainly, but nothing to do handsprings about. Bill Moyers argues, however, that 2013 was the best year in human history. Moyers contends that the arc of history is moving in a favorable direction and that big picture, long-term factors, such as people living longer, less extreme poverty, less frequent and less deadly wars, less violent crime, and less discrimination, made 2013 a year to celebrate.

072Those of us who experienced it, of course, don’t typically compare our lives to those of serfs in the Middle Ages, so we tend not to take the long view — but perhaps we should. I think that any year that ends with family and friends experiencing health and happiness should be chalked up as a pretty good year. Why shouldn’t the world as a whole look at years the same way?

What should we expect in 2014? Will it be an ill-omened year? After all, in the last century the year ending in ’14 was an unfettered disaster that saw the start of a senseless war that killed millions of people for no apparent reason and ultimately contributed to the rise of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Let’s hope we’re not on a 100-year cycle here, because 1914 clearly was one of the worst years in history.

Speaking of which, The Atlantic recently published an article in which experts identified the worst years in history. One picked 1914, but more picked 1918, when the First World War ended in massive bloodshed and then an influenza outbreak began that killed additional millions. Others picked 1942 and 1943, when World War II raged and the Holocaust was at its height; still another selected the year more than 65 million years ago when a huge asteroid struck the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, wiping out all life for hundreds of miles and causing a mile-high tsunami that wiped clean the east coast of America.

So, let’s have a little perspective here as we head into another new year. I’m not insisting that 2014 be one of the best years in human history, I’m just hoping it’s not one of the worst.

Lessons From A Mastodon’s Rib

Scientists have been carefully examining the rib bone of a mastodon, a giant, tusked, elephant-like creature that roamed North America thousands of years ago.  The bone has led them to some interesting conclusions about when humans first came to the Americas, and what they were like.

The mastodon rib bone is unique because it includes an embedded projectile — a spear-point, also made from a mastodon’s bone, that had been sharpened to a needle-like point.  Scientists have applied precise new dating technologies, including radio carbon tests using atomic accelerators, to the bone and have concluded that it dates from 13,800 years ago.  The age of the bone is significant because it predates the point at which the so-called “Clovis hunters” were supposed to have swept across the land bridge from Siberia and spread across the North American continent.  The needle-like spear point in the mastodon’s rib — which uses bone tool techniques much more sophisticated than those purportedly used by the stone tool-wielding “Clovis hunters” — indicates that humans probably arrived thousands of years earlier.

The bone tells us that the early North Americans were capable of fine and effective toolmaking and were fierce and formidable hunters.  Imagine being able to hurl or thrust a bone spear with sufficient force to pierce not only the hide of a mastodon, but also penetrate its rib bone!  But the bone may tell us something more about the bloody-handed history of our race.  It raises the possibility that early humans played a much larger role than was once thought in the mass extinction of the huge creatures that ruled the Earth during the last Ice Age.  Woolly mammoths, mastodons, sabre-toothed cats, giant sloths, and giant birds all went extinct about 13,000 years ago.  The dating of the mastodon’s rib bone increases the sad likelihood that the fierce, bone spear-throwing hunters standing at the dawn of recorded history hunted those long-lost species to their deaths.