The Best Science Problem Ever

The Best Science Problem Ever

John Reid


Science isn’t about finding solutions.

It’s really about finding problems.

I am talking about the taxpayer-funded science that is done in universities and government science agencies. If you are a working research scientist and you happen to solve a long-standing problem, how are you going to justify your funding for the next triennium? On the other hand, if you come up with, or participate in, a good Problem, it can keep you, your students and your institution funded for decades to come.

Climate Change is a wonderful science Problem with a capital “P” because it feeds into Western cultural preconceptions about guilt and redemption, about the fundamental wickedness of humankind and about the ultimate perfectibility of Man and Society. In the West there has always been a breast-beating minority with an exaggerated sense of sin, who wish to change the world before some imagined apocalypse overtakes us all. They tend to take the moral high ground and villify those who would question their baseless beliefs. Nowadays they are called “the Greens”.

Climate Change is the outcome of an unholy alliance between Problem-seeking scientists and Green zealots. Some people are both. Green scientists are the ones who are “saving the planet”. The rest of us are still trying to understand it.

The real beauty of the Climate Change Problem is that it can never be solved while at the same time it provides endless material for breast-beating media pronouncements.

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Is Bitter Better?

Foxgloves growing “outside the fence” near Cygnet, Tasmania.

Is Bitter Better?

John Reid

According to a recent article in Science magazine (“How modern humans ate their way to world dominance” by Ann Gibbons) humans have fewer bitter-taste genes than chimps. She writes:

… anthropological geneticist George Perry of Pennsylvania State University, University Park, and his colleagues compared the genomes of modern humans and chimpanzees to the newly published genomes of a Neandertal and one of its close relatives, a mysterious human ancestor known as a Denisovan, known only from a few bones found in a Russian cave. All three groups of humans had lost two bitter taste genes, TAS2R62 and TAS2R64, that are still present in chimpanzees, the team reports this month in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Two million years ago, our early ancestors such as Australopithecus or early members of Homo likely found wild yams and other tubers bitter. But as humans began to cook, they could roast tuberous root vegetables long enough that they weren’t as bitter. (Today, hunter-gatherers still rely on roasted tubers as a major source of calories.) At the same time, hominins—members of the human family—lost those two particular bitter taste genes, so they were presumably able to eat a wider range of tuberous plants. Modern humans, Neandertals, and Denisovans all lost the ability to detect the bitter flavor in some wild plants and eventually modern humans bred varieties of squashes, gourds, and yams that are less bitter than the wild types.

My wife and I have been gardening on the edge of native forest in Southern Tasmania for a decade now and we have had some hands-on experience with native animals and bitter plants.

Rufous wallabies (Thylogale billardierii) are particularly voracious and will even eat potato tops. “Will it grow outside the fence?” is a popular topic among local gardeners. Bulbs such as daffodils will survive and sometimes beds of daffodils can be seen in wild places decades after house and gardener have disappeared.

We have noticed that plants noted for their alkaloid content, particularly foxgloves (digitalis) and tobacco (nicotiana), do quite well outside the fence, presumably because they taste bitter to the animals.

Now here’s the thing: presumably these plants evolved to secrete poisonous alkaloids to protect themselves from being eaten by animals and the taste genes of the animals co-evolved to prevent them from being poisoned by alkaloids. Hence having fewer bitter taste genes should be an evolutionary disadvantage rather than an advantage as the article suggests.

Maybe we humans lost the TAS2R62 and TAS2R64 genes because, having learned how to cook, we no longer needed them.