Uses and misuses of evolutionary biology 2

 In my last post, I wrote about how it's impossible for epigenetic changes from very cold environments 3-4 billion years ago to have been conserved. Somehow people thought I was accusing Dr. Kruse of making up cold-adapted monkey ancestors or something. 

No, I realize he doesn't mention cold-adapted monkeys, but he also doesn't stick to bacteria living in sad cold slurries either. He also mentions ancient mammals. Dr. Kruse also has an interesting belief that all mammals “evolved in the polar environments on earth.” 

I can't find any evidence that early eutherian mammals evolved in such an environment or even a later candidate for a polar eutherian that could be a possible ancestor. They discovered the earliest known (so far) eutherian fossil last year in China, Juramaia sinensis, in a Late Jurassic formation. The climate in the area at the time was relatively warm and dry. Juramaia sinensis' teeth suggests it was an insectivore. Many other early mammal fossils have been found in Asia, but as we know, mammals went on to colonize a variety of environments and climates. 

Dr. Kruse says "mammals were ideally adapted for hibernation too, until they got too smart for their own genes sake.” It is indeed true that Juramaia sinensis and other early eutherians did hibernate. Mevolutionary biologists now consider the origin of biological changes distinct to hibernation behaviors to have originated even before the evolution of class mammalia and are displayed even in reptiles who live in very warm environments.

Why did most mammals stop hibernating then? As the excellent paper The Evolution of Endothermy and Its Diversity in Mammals and Birds says “ energy-optimization-related selection pressures, often dictated by the energetic costs of reproduction, apparently favored abandonment of the capacity for short- or long-term torpors." In most primates, it seems this abandonment was characterized by a species with a large brain and increased adaptability to a variety of foods and climates.

That's too bad, because hibernation (or even torpor, a less extreme form) would be very useful for things like organ transplantations, surgery recoveries, or long space flights. In the future, if we figure out how to do it, being able to trigger hibernation would be incredibly useful. Unforunately, the exact way to trigger hibernation is not currently known, though there are many promising candidates. Dr. Kruse however believes that the stimuli is already known: “the stimulus for hibernation in eutherian mammals and their descendants are tied to high dietary carbohydrate intake (proven fact already in science and not controversial).” If only it were that easy. A search of the scientific literature found no papers that posited that carbohydrate consumption triggers hibernation, though it is established that carbohydrate metabolism undergoes changes before and after hibernation. Scientists who propose triggering hibernation believe it would probably involve injection of chemicals produced by hibernating animals. This would be possible because many of the genes related to hibernation are still present in primates, not because we hibernate, but because they have other functions. We'd also have to figure out how to prevent brain damage, which has been a major challenge to such research since humans appear to suffer memory loss from brain changes normal to hibernating mammals.

Evolution is efficient and while genes that had interesting past uses (wouldn't it be cool if we could "reawaken" gills or the ability to lay eggs??) are often conserved in our genome, they are often expressed in radically different ways. It seems the areas that once encoded for gills, for example, are now related to the bones in the ear. As for those that don't seem to be in use now, as geneticist Paul Szauter says:

If genes are not expressed in the human genome, they do not survive intact over evolutionary time, because they accumulate mutations in the absence of selection. If there were squid genes in the human genome that could be "activated," it is likely that the accumulated mutations would result in a truncated gene product (3 of the 64 codons are "stop") with many changes in its  sequence.

Dr. Kruse believes that humans, like all mammals, are optimized for hibernation and that remnants of mammalian hibernation are activated in humans based on certain times of the day: "It appears 12-3 AM are the critical hours at night are where the remnants of mammalian hibernation lies for our species". This is a far cry from the current state on literature related to hibernation. The idea that remnants of hibernation occur in humans at night also goes against the definition of hibernation. An excellent paper authored by another McEwen, Dr. Bruce McEwen, has a great concise definition "Hibernation is a highly regulated physiological response to adverse environmental conditions characterized by hypothermia and drastic reductions of metabolic rate"

Re-definition and special unique definitions of terms is another of Melia’s characteristics of bad books: “ The texts of these books all continue in the same excited first-person voice. They often introduce vague, undefined or invented terms.” A good example of this is in Dr. Kruse’s PaleoFX talk, where he references “ geothermal circadian cycles.” It sounds scientific, but there are no known circadian cycles that are tied to Earth’s internal heat* and it appears Dr. Kruse invented the concept since it is found nowhere else. It is a particularly deceptive practice, made easier by the fact that many of the terms that are often mis-used by these authors, such as the species concept or even hibernation, are the subject of some academic contention. But while academics might be arguing about whether or not bears are “true hibernators,” we can be assured that no one is considering that humans are hibernating every night because that doesn’t even fit into the realm of contention or the fringes of what is considered hibernation.

The only known primate that hibernates is Cheirogaleus medius, member of suborder Strepsirrhini, which diverged from the evolutionary line that led to humans over 70 million years ago. They also store a lot of fat beforehand, so I don't know if I'd like to hibernate like them anyway. I don't think I'd look so good and I probably wouldn't get much work done.

Even if it were conserved, Dr. Kruse makes the mistake of tying hibernation to extreme cold: “Cold environments are found as mammals hibernate in normal circadian biology…….this completely reverses IR in mammals and wakes them up when conditions are better for life.” Dr. Kruse’s cold therapy involves exposure to freezing temperatures, because he thinks that is linked to hibernation in humans. Kruses asks his readers if maybe diabetes has “become thought of as a neolithic disease in humans because we we have simultaneously lost the ability to hibernate because we evolved the ability to control our environment completely?” However, there are many animals that hibernate without exposure to very cold temperatures and biologists are still debating whether or not relative cold is even needed to trigger hibernation at all. For example, the only hibernating primate, the aforementioned Cheirogaleus medius, hibernates at 30 degree celsius (86 F). And if humans had lost the ability to hibernate because we control our environment, we would find the ability in related primates who do not control their environments. But we do not. The northernmost living non-human primate, Macaca fuscata, does not show any evidence of hibernation or even torpor, even those that do not visit hot springs. Interestingly, their winter diet does include digging for roots.

Why do so few primates hibernate? Around the equator, where primates evolved, seasons operate quite differently than they do in the arctic and other regions far from the equator. Because the environments and climates of Africa are so diverse, with many micro-climates in certain regions, most primates closely related to humans have evolved to be able to adapt to scarcity regardless of Earth’s axis tilt through the reliance on “fall back foods.” Possibly because of this evolutionary strategy, there is no particular dietary pattern that consistently characterizes the seasons for primates as an order or even within species.

Even in non-primates that live in the north, a very small percentage hibernate. For example, some squirrels hibernate, some don't. Those that don't often will cache food and eat it later. Some humans are known to raid rodent caches for carbohydrates. This contrasts with Dr. Kruse’s idea of seasonal biological changes being triggered by changing to carbohydrates or one season being devoid of carbohydrates: “it appears that dietary carbohydrates, which are only present in long light cycles in the summer in cold places, induce mammals to add PUFA’s to our cells to become fluid so we can function as we hibernate.”

According to Kruse, since carbohydrate consumption is tied to hibernation in cold environments, since we don’t really hibernate now (except sort-of, at night according to Kruse), carbohydrates might not be safe to consume: “Since we no longer hibernate……..maybe you need to consider how you eat carbohydrates within the circadian controls? Maybe what you thought was safe………really is not?” The implication is that carbohydrate consumption is only “safe” for mammals in the context of nature’s “design” for hibernation. In terms of our evolutionary line, that makes little sense. The vast majority of primate species consume diets of mainly carbohydrate, with two main digestive strategies. The evidence is that ancestors of modern hominins relied on a mainly-carbohydrate diet until somewhat recently.

If Dr. Kruse’s line of reasoning is true, most primates are living out of balance with nature and have been for millions of years. Some of his followers have said that this only applies if you live in the north since there are somehow some circadian controls only in the North that are tied to carbohydrates (zero evidence provided), but then the mice and squirrels who are eating stored or underground roots are violating natures law. And the idea that if you put an individual primate in the north that it will change its underlying biology to fit the north's light cycles does not have any evidence behind it (and in fact the fact that individual humans don't adapt particularly well to northern light cycles is perhaps behind the etiology of many modern illnesses).

As I will write in my next post, some human populations (and possibly other hominin lines) have genetic adaptations to more polar light cycles, but these are recent adaptations and are not shared by all humans. And one unique thing is that humans that inhabit cold regions have a raised metabolic rate during the coldest season, not a lowered one characteristic of torpor or hibernation, which suggests adaptations more similar to those found in wolves rather than ground squirrels**. Also, I must also discuss longevity being derived rather than ancestral. But I'll leave that to the next post. 

 * Geothermal according to the OED is “ 1. Geol. Relating to or resulting from the internal heat of the earth; (of a locality or region) having hot springs, geysers, fumaroles, etc., heated by underlying magma.””


** are non-hibernating squirrels naughty "nature's law" breakers? Particularly if they are eating stored carbohydrates?