Tag: netherlands

Epigenetics: Where Biology and Culture Meet

By Craig Axford | United States | @CraigAxford

Sperm meets egg and your genetic destiny is sealed. For most people it’s just that simple. But genetics are anything but simple. While certainly a necessary event in our individual creation story, our parents getting together for a proverbial roll in the hay is hardly the only act in our life’s genetic drama. Life continues to mold the way our DNA expresses itself in ways we have only begun to fathom long after our parents did their part to bring us into the world.

Genes don’t exist in a vacuum. Given the right circumstances they can turn on or off. This capacity to respond quickly to environmental stress can have significant consequences for generations to come.

While it’s often thought that mutations are where all the action is, the interaction between our genes and the larger world is going on in real time beneath the radar, frequently with health consequences that can be as severe as cancer even if they are less perceptible to those suffering from them. Of course, this capacity for genes to express themselves or not in response to cues from the environment can also have positive impacts on our well-being. This phenomenon, known as epigenetics, is now well documented.

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Epigentics has to do with gene expression, as opposed to gene alteration. Much of our DNA spends its time silently replicating without actually doing anything remarkable, or even much of anything at all. It’s somewhat analogous to a program that’s been downloaded onto a laptop that the owner has forgotten about. It’s only when someone asks “what’s this?” and double clicks on the icon that we discover what the software does and whether its activation comes with any compatibility issues that might cause us to regret our curiosity later.

Sadly, the event that turns on a formerly silent portion of the genetic code, or turns off a formerly active one, is often a traumatic one of some sort. Indeed, it was a famine that gave epigenetics its first real moment in the scientific spotlight.

During the winter of 1945, the Nazis cut off food supplies to the Dutch to punish them for a railway strike by Dutch workers that had been launched with the intent of interrupting the flow of reinforcements and supplies to the front. By the time the war ended in May of that same year approximately 20,000 people had starved to death in the Netherlands as a result.

In 2013, while reviewing the medical records of 408,015 Dutch males born between 1944 and 1947 and subsequently examined for possible military service at the age of 18, a team of researchers from Columbia University found that men whose mothers had been pregnant with them during the famine of early 1945 were far more likely to suffer a variety of health problems later as adults. As a result, these men experienced a far higher mortality rate than those conceived and born either before the famine or afterwards.

The epidemiologists at Columbia University were only the latest to document significantly greater occurrences of health issues among those in utero during the months known as the Dutch Hunger Winter. Prenatal exposure to malnutrition during that period had already been linked to higher rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, pulmonary disease, high blood pressure, and kidney disease to name just a few. Overall, if your mother was pregnant with you in the Netherlands during the winter of 1945, your mortality rate was 10% greater after the age of 68 than those born prior to or conceived following those horrible months.

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Saying that a gene ‘decides’ when it is transcribed is like saying that a recipe decides when a cake is baked.
Thus transcription factors regulate genes. What regulates transcription factors? The answer devastates the concept of genetic determinism: the environment…genes don’t make sense outside the context of environment. Promoters and [DNA] transcription factor introduce if/then clauses: ‘If you smell your baby, then activate the oxytocin gene.’ ~ Robert M. Sapolsky

While studying anthropology at university, an elephant was often present in the classroom. Sometimes it was gingerly acknowledged. Other times it was simply ignored or dismissed as self-evidently false with an off hand remark. That elephant was genetic determinism.

Determinism is, in my experience, a label that critics like to attach to other ideas they want to undermine more than it is a doctrine people typically claim to strictly adhere to. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a true absolute determinist. That said, there seemed to be a reasonable amount of tolerance for certain varieties of determinism within many of the same academic circles often hurling the charge in the direction of the physical sciences.

For example, culturally determined (or constructed) things were considered less toxic to concepts like free will or humanity’s supposed elite status than genetically or environmentally determined aspects of our existence. The reason cultural determinism is more likely to get a pass has little to do with the evidence and a great deal to do with human psychology. It’s much more comforting to believe that humans serve as the fundamental unit of change than it is having genes or random forces of nature play this role to an equal or greater degree.

The field of anthropology long ago split itself into physical and cultural branches, in part, I think, to accommodate those uncomfortable with the demotion humanity had been dealt by evolution. This bifurcation never felt quite right to me. It seemed that once again humans were removing themselves from nature by treating culture as an entirely separate force acting independently rather than a product of natural forces, with all the connections and limitations that entails. That any major environmental change, whether it was one we intentionally initiated or one thrust upon us, would have physical and psychological impacts upon both the individuals and groups experiencing them seems obvious. The only question is how these impacts will manifest themselves at the personal level and what the consequences will be if these effects are scaled up to involve large populations.

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Epigenetics is quickly erasing much of what’s left of the artificial line many in fields like cultural anthropology would prefer to keep between humanity and the physical environment they inhabit. Scientists are now finding it’s not just sudden traumatic shifts in a person’s environment like a war induced famine that shape gene expression, typically for generations to come. Day to day culture itself influences gene expression, creating self reinforcing feedback loops between the genes being switched on or off and the behaviors influencing their expression.

In a study just published in the journal eLife, researchers report that as much as one quarter of gene expression is likely the result of cultural differences between populations rather than their genetic ancestry. The researchers were examining two diverse populations of Latino children, one in Puerto Rico and the other in Mexico.

That 25% of the gene expression in these two populations might “reflect a biological stamp made by the different experiences, practices, and environmental exposures of the two subgroups” has profound implications for how we view both our culture and our biology. As Noah Zaitlen, one of the co-authors of the study put it, “These data suggest that the interplay between race and ethnicity as social constructs and genetic ancestry as a biological construct is more complex than we had realized.”

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Culture is a broad term that touches upon virtually every aspect of human activity. Simply sitting on the couch eating a bag of potato chips technically qualifies as a cultural activity given both the couch and the chips, to say nothing of the eater, are products of a particular cultural milieu. Most of the time we are swimming through culture the way fish swim through water: without either much awareness or effort.

But if our culture is both shaping and being shaped by our environment, providing feedback that influences gene expression as it does so, then we owe it to ourselves and to the future generations whose genetic story we are continuously writing and rewriting to take a more deliberate stance. Public policy, diet, and even time spent in front of the screen could very well be triggering changes both subtle and profound that we are not even aware of. Many of these changes may be positive, while others will be only temporary. Regardless, that a more reflective intentional approach to culture would likely have a net positive effect from our genome to whole ecosystems appears increasingly difficult to seriously dispute.

Photo by Capturing the human heart. on Unsplash

Other recent stories by Craig Axford: Are You Getting Enough Awe in Your Experiential Diet? & Objectivity vs. Subjectivity: An Incongruity That Isn’t Really

Read Craig on Medium.com


The USA is not the Best Country in the World

By James Sweet III | USA

US News & World Report has released its rankings of the best countries in the world, and the results may or may not shock you. Economic influence, citizenship, and quality of life were found among the 65 factors that were taken into consideration for this list. 21,000 men and women were asked to rank 80 countries based off of these factors. Surely, from what the American populace has been told, the United States would be number one. To the surprise of some, this is simply not true. In fact, the USA is not even in the top five. So, who placed where?

10. The Netherlands

Men and women selected the Netherlands as the tenth best country overall. Also, it was a top ten finisher in the following categories: most business-friendly, most modern, entrepreneurship, quality of life, best countries to headquarter a corporation, raising kids, travel alone, most transparent countries, green living, and women. Clearly, the Dutch nation, though small, seems to be very mighty.

9. France

France, though recently ravaged by terrorist attacks and political conflicts, ranked ninth overall. The culturally rich nation ranked in the top ten for the following factors: cultural influence, power, heritage & richest traditions, most influential, education, and starting a career. However, this shouldn’t come as a shock to many. The Eiffel Tower and many other pieces of French art and culture are renowned around the world.

8. The United States of America

Come on, America. Can’t you do better? After all, we are the land of the free and the home of the brave! Well, at least we ranked in the top ten for cultural influence, entrepreneurship, power, most forward-looking, most influential, and education. Some may disagree with this, but it seems that is how civilization sees the USA.

7. Australia

Our friends down under seemed to edge above us this time. Although they lost the Emu War, they won when it came to this list. Ranking top ten in cultural influence, most modern, quality of life, most-forward looking, best countries to headquarter a corporation, raising kids, traveling alone, green living, investing in, education, retiring comfortably, and women, it seems the Australians are having a fun time outback.

6. Sweden

Sweden, despite conflicts due to mass migration, once again finished with a spot in the top ten. The Scandinavian nation ranked highly in: most business-friendly, cultural influence, most modern, entrepreneurship, quality of life, best countries to headquarter a corporation, raising kids, transparency, green living, education, retiring comfortably, and women.

5. Japan

This shouldn’t come as a shock, considering that Japan is a peaceful, extravagant, culturally influential nation. This can be contrasted to the high levels of tension in much of Eastern Asia. Placing in the top ten for cultural influence, entrepreneurship, power, up & coming economies, most-forward looking, most influential, green living, and education, the island nation of Japan seems to have a bright future ahead of them.

4. The United Kingdom

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island once used to rule the waves. Now, they rule the rankings. The former British Empire placed in the top ten for cultural influence, entrepreneurship, power, starting a business, most forward-looking, most influential, transparency, education, and starting a career. Despite a lack of unification within the nation, the UK finished with an impressive showing.

3. Germany

From Holy Roman Empire to Federal Republic, the nation of Germany has risen and fallen. Today, Germany is once again a leader of European and world politics. They placed in the top ten for: being the most modern, entrepreneurship, quality of life, power, most forward-looking, headquartering a corporation, most influential, transparency, green living, education, and women. Where’s the ranking for best bratwurst?

2. Canada

The culturally diverse nation of Canada finished as number two on this list. It’s always nice to see another North American nation on this list. #Represent. They were in the top ten for most business-friendly, most modern, entrepreneurship, quality of life, starting a business, most forward-looking countries, headquartering a corporation, raising kids, transparency, green living, education, retiring comfortably, and women.

1. Switzerland

Finally, the glorious Swiss Republic, known for its armed neutrality and semi-direct democracy, finished in first for the second year in a row. Unsurprisingly, they were ranked in the top ten for a number of categories. These include the most business-friendly, cultural influence, most modern, entrepreneurship, quality of life, starting a business, most forward-looking countries, headquartering a corporation, raising kids, transparency, green living, education, retiring comfortably and women.

If Switzerland’s name wasn’t there, many Americans would likely believe the USA was actually number one in the world.  Yet, we have seen that the USA only ranked as the eighth best country. Perhaps, the government should take some notes from the Swiss.

(Image courtesy of www.wonderfulengineering.com)

Human Body Heat is Being Harvested to Mine Cryptocurrency

By Jason Patterson | NETHERLANDS

A relatively new German  startup has been using the body heat of volunteers to mine cryptocurrencies in a project reminiscent of “The Matrix.”

A  business venture based in The Hague, Netherlands, called Ioho has utilized specially-designed bodysuits to turn excess body heat into digital currency since the beginning of 2015.

On their website, they claim that. “A single human body at rest radiates 100 watts of excess heat…We created a body-suit that uses thermoelectric generators to harvest the temperature differential between the human body and ambient and converts it into usable electricity. The electricity generated is then fed to a computer that produces cryptocurrency. ”

The company claims that it has chosen its pursuits solely on alternative coins such as Dash and Lisk, and not coins like Bitcoin, given the relatively low energy requirements needed for mining.

They have gotten more than 37 volunteers that have apparently produced $127,210 over the course of 212 hours since the project’s inception.

During one interview, with Motherboard’s Daniel Oberhaus, IoHO founder Manuel Beltrán explained the idea of the company, how it works and how it has grown.

“We never mined bitcoins because it would be useless to produce them with human heat,” Beltrán said. “We exclusively mined altcoins and some of them have risen over 46,000% in value. What in the beginning were just small cents now became substantial amounts of money.”

Volunteers were permitted to keep 80 percent while the remaining 20 were kept by the IoHO.

Oberhaus claims that if they decided to use and go in the direction of Bitcoin, it would have taken more than 44,000 volunteers spending 24 hours per day in the bodysuit for one month to achieve the number of funds they have presently met.

“To do 1 bitcoin per month with IoHO’s tech—which in terms of efficiency is on par with most affordable wearable thermoelectric generators available today—you’d need around 44,000 people providing their body energy 24/7,” Oberhaus writes.

The bodysuits from IoHo are claimed to only be capable of harvesting less than 1 percent of the body heat made by the volunteers.

The website also reads “Machines are outing us…As some time ago happened to horses after the invention of the steam engine, humans are becoming obsolete to perform mechanical labor, soon, with the advance of artificial intelligence, it will also affect our possibilities to be useful workers performing intellectual labor.”

5 Nationalist Movements to Watch

By Colin Louis | U.S.

All around the globe nationalism is on the rise. The ideas of right wing populism and nationalism are starting to grow into large movements all over the free world. People are beginning to shift to these ideas. The following five countries are turning nationalist.

5. The UK

Recently, the U.K has shown signs of shifting further to the nationalist right. The Brexit vote provided evidence that the UK is moving further towards nationalism and populism. Brexit clearly signals that nationalism and euroskepticism is on a significant rise in the U.K. The recent UKIP leadership election could help them continue this.

4. Ireland

Irish politics serves as a reminder that nationalism comes in different forms. In the case of Ireland, it’s left nationalism with much momentum. The concept of left nationalism is a form of socialism mixed with nationalism, not to be confused with National Socialism, which is a far more authoritarian belief. Sinn Féin, led by Garry Adams, won around 14% of the vote in the recent 2016 election. Sinn Féin did very well compared to its past performance and that of other less nationalist parties. 14% might not sound like much, but the ruling party, Fine Gael, only received around 36% of the vote.

3. Germany

In the most recent German elections, the new nationalist party, Alternative Für Deutschland (AFD), won a considerable amount of seats in the German parliament. This sent a signal to incumbent Chancellor, Angela Merkel, that the German people are moving further from the European Union and her administration. Germany has always attempted to stray away from their Nazi history and refrain from nationalist movements. Although the election of AFD provides evidence that Germany is losing this mindset.

2. America

The recent election of Donald Trump as President of the United States signals a shift further towards his movement of American nationalism. The policies Trump promised he would put in place, such as protectionist trade deals with China, are designed to put America over the rest of the world. The movement Trump sparked now runs rampant through the Republican Party. The Republican Party didn’t necessarily hold these views until Trump nearly hijacked the party. His America first movement destroyed the Party establishment and put these ideas into action.

1. Netherlands

The one that may surprise people the most is the Netherlands. The once center left nation recently took a swing right in the 2017 elections when Garret Wilders and the Party for Freedom ran a hard anti Islam and European Union campaign. Wilders has come out in support of banning the Koran, even going as far as to compare the book to Mein Kampf. Wilder’s Party won enough seats to place them as the opposition party in the Dutch House of Representatives. Even parties that have never run a hard line anti- Islam campaign are shifting in support of more nationalist ideas. Prime Minister Mark Rutte put out an advertisement that stated, “act normal or leave.” Rutte later said that this wasn’t meant to attack ethnic groups, but instead people who did not share their values. This signals that Wilder’s nationalist movement has spread most everywhere in the Netherlands.