Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Is Death Coded In Our DNA?

Have you ever wondered if death might be a beneficial thing, in terms of human evolution? I’m not talking about destroying the species, I’m talking about the idea that there is a beneficial side to members of the species dying at prescribed times. If that’s true, is death encoded in our genes?

This sounds really morbid, I know. Maybe it is.

Let me tell you what got me thinking about it, though.

Lately I’ve been seeing different reports about how the human lifespan is increasing. You’d think that this would be the goal with evolution. Long life = healthy species. But, we’ve also been seeing more degenerative diseases cropping up in our society than we ever had before. Some are speculating it’s because we’re living longer than we used to. People of earlier generations just didn’t live long enough to develop them.

I’ve also been thinking about the problems with cloning. The cells used to clone animals seem to know how old they are. The clones develop diseases comparable to the older animals and die earlier than they should.

It makes sense. Some have speculated that aging is simply the result of mistakes cropping in from time to time within our DNA when cells replicate, especially in the mitochondria. Cells are pretty good at catching those mistakes, but it’s not a perfect system.

Now let’s look at forest fires. It turns out that forest fires may not be all that bad for the plants in the forests. Destroying old growth makes room for the new growth that lives below the vertical fire line. They’d be choked out by the older growth, otherwise.

This isn’t a great example, because it’s environmental, but stay with me.

The same hold true with animals. When older animals die, or herds are thinned by predators, there’s less competition for resources. The younger ones have a better chance for survival.

Anything that codes for a mutation in a species’ genome, that allows it to adapt to changing conditions and survive while others die, allows that mutation to be passed on to it’s children. It creates a stronger creature that is better “fit” for survival. If death allows for the younger, stronger creatures to more easily survive, could death be an adaptation that is actually coded in our genome as a tool for survival?

It seems contradictory, I know. But, what if it’s not? Does that mean that our efforts to prolong the lifespan of those who are genetically damaged, or otherwise have been “selected for death,” run counter to evolutionary progress as a species?

The social ramifications of this, if it’s right, are frightening. I can easily imagine the potential horror of governmental policies that could be developed around this idea. Children that are “imperfect” would be left to die. Adults that are “imperfect” could be left to die. Their contributions to our society would be lost. If you really wanted to “go down the rabbit hole” with this, it could lead to a “Logan’s Run” or “Brave New Word” scenario, where "undesirables" aren’t just allowed to die, they are actively killed.

And all by government mandate.

Sometimes I scare myself.

Monday, December 03, 2007

My First Week with Vista

I've had my new Vista (Home Basic) computer running for about a week now. I gotta tell ya', it's not that bad. I was expecting a lot of problems, but to be honest, I only ran into a couple of hiccups, and they were solved pretty simply.

The first is backward compatibility. There were several older programs I've got that I couldn't get to run properly, or even install - like my old copy of Myst and a few of my kid's programs. I was pleasantly surprised with others. Links (1999) and Tomb Raider III have never run better.

The next was my ISP. The software they used simply wasn't compatible with Vista. Not a big deal. They had been bought out by Netscape about a year or so ago and so all I had to do was cancel my regular account and open a Netscape account. Same price, same servers. It took about and hour, and some frustration with the one of the outsourced tech support people (Only one. The others were very good.), but in the end it got cleared up.

The last was my scanner/printer. Again, the drivers just weren't compatible. No big deal, though. With my ISP problems worked out I just hit the manufacturer's website and downloaded new drivers. Now it works like a charm.

If only the ink cartridges weren't so expensive.

But I digress.

There's one thing about it I really like about Vista - the Parental Controls. It was incredibly easy for me to set up my kids with their own accounts and limits as to what kinds of games, software, and even the times of day they can access the computer. It was ten times easier than setting up user access controls under XP.

I got to see it work, first hand, too. I was showing my middle daughter how to get into her account. It was later in the evening, and nearing the time I'd set up as a limit for when she could get on the computer. I clicked on something and BOOM, it came back to her log-in screen and told her she wasn't authorized to use the computer at this time. It turns out the clock had struck 8:00 PM and her account had turned into a pumpkin.

What's even better is that the games and programs I don't want her using don't even show up as options. She can't get tempted by them in the first place.

As a parent of young children, that's pretty cool.