Watching the World
Whence Comes Complexity?
Many evolutionists assume that ancient living things were simple but then were supposedly driven by natural selection to become more and more complex through the ages. Recent studies have failed to find such a drive toward greater complexity. Dr. Dan McShea, a paleobiologist, examined the fossilized backbones of various mammals; another study focused on mollusk fossils. Neither study found any evidence of an evolutionary drive toward greater complexity. Nor did they find that greater complexity brought any survival advantage. According to The New York Times, experts say that these findings “will come as a surprise to many biologists used to thinking in terms of such trends.” Notes the Times: “According to Dr. McShea, the perception of drives toward complexity may be more a reflection of scientists’ desires to see some sort of progress in evolution rather than a reflection of any biological reality.”
Exercise and Age
Is it ever too late to start exercising? Not according to a study carried out recently in the eastern United States. A survey of over 10,000 men found that they increased their average life span regardless of their age when they took up “moderately vigorous” exercise. Those who were between 45 and 54 when they started benefited most, extending their life span by some ten months. The 65 to 74 group added six months, and those 75 to 84 improved by two months. Dr. Ralph S. Paffenbarger, who directed the study, emphasized that these were averages; thus, some subjects benefited much more from exercise than others. The main benefit seemed to lie in preventing heart attacks. However, those who exercised were less likely to die of other causes as well.
The demand for tiger bones for use in traditional Oriental medicine poses a threat to the world’s dwindling tiger population, states the British medical magazine The Lancet. Despite international efforts to curb trading in tiger products, tiger bone is widely marketed in wines, medicines, and confections (medicinal powder mixed with honey or syrup). In 1991 alone, one Asian country allegedly exported 15,079 cartons of tablets, 11,570 pounds [5,250 kg] of confections, and 31,500 bottles of wine containing tiger bone. The remaining number of tigers worldwide is estimated to be only about 6,000.
The Gender Handicap
“Too often in the Third World, a female’s life is hardly worth living,” began a recent series of reports in The Washington Post. The Post reporters, after interviewing scores of women in poor parts of Africa, Asia, and South America, found that “culture, religion and the law often deprive women of basic human rights and sometimes relegate them to almost subhuman status.” For instance, in one Himalayan village, the women did 59 percent of the work, laboring up to 14 hours a day and often carrying loads 1.5 times their own weight. A study found that “after two or three . . . pregnancies, their stamina gives up, they get weaker, and by the late thirties are spent out, old and tired, and soon die.” Female children are commonly fed less, pulled out of school and put to work earlier, and given less medical attention than boys. Many women kill female infants, viewing them as an expensive liability. The reporters noted that in rural southern India, a common method of infanticide is to pour scalding chicken soup down the child’s throat. A police official, when asked if such crimes are punished, responded: “There are more pressing issues. Very few cases come to our attention. Very few people care.”
The Essential Moon
To the already striking list of factors that make planet Earth uniquely suitable for life, astronomers may have to add another item: the Moon. Our satellite does far more than provide an ornamental night light for the skies and create tides. According to computer studies by French astronomers, it also helps to regulate earth’s obliquity, that is, the degree of tilt of its spin axis. Mars, which does not have such a large satellite, has apparently shifted in its degree of tilt between 10 and 50 degrees over the ages. This instability has probably caused catastrophic climate changes, with the polar caps melting and then refreezing. The computer studies revealed that without the moon, which exerts a restraining influence, the earth’s obliquity may well have shifted by some 85 degrees. Thus, the French astronomers conclude: “One might consider the Moon to act as a potential climate regulator for the Earth.”
South Africa Addresses Abuse Crisis
In just five years, the number of children raped in South Africa more than doubled, according to The Star, a Johannesburg newspaper. The paper reports that there were 1,707 rapes of children reported in 1988; by 1992 that figure had soared to 3,639. Minister of Justice Kobie Coetsee cited these figures when opening the country’s first court designed to specialize in rape cases, located at Wynberg, Cape Town. He expressed hope that the court would handle such cases speedily and more sympathetically. Deputy Attorney General Natalie Fleischack said that the new initiative would eliminate some of the humiliation and embarrassment that rape victims commonly experience during prosecution and would expedite their “psychological rehabilitation” as well.
Suspicious Birth Defects in Hungary
In a small town in southwestern Hungary, a high percentage of babies were born with severe birth defects in 1989 and 1990. In fact, 11 of the 15 babies born in that period were afflicted with such disorders as Down’s syndrome and abnormalities of the lungs, heart, and digestive tract. This rate was 223 times that of the rest of the country. Andrew Czeizel, with a team of Hungarian and German scientists, zeroed in on a possible culprit: trichlorfon, a pesticide. It seems that in 1988 the village fish farm adopted a new technique of administering trichlorfon: the fish were soaked in the undiluted chemical and returned to the water with levels of the stuff that were a thousand times the recommended maximum. “It is a poison,” says Czeizel about trichlorfon. According to New Scientist magazine, it changes slowly into another chemical that is a hundred times deadlier and is able to pass through the mother’s placenta into the fetus.
Translated by Computer
In what is being described as a first, a computer recently provided a translation of telephone conversations between researchers in Japan, Germany, and the United States. When speaking, scientists at Kyoto, Munich, and Pittsburgh restricted their vocabulary to 550 everyday words and an additional 150 specialized terms from the field of convention and hotel bookings. These are the only words that the computer program can understand and translate. The newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung of Munich reports that scientists “are working together on a translation computer that will handle convention bookings from participants from various countries and answer simple questions.”
In an effort to bring Buddhism back to their wandering flock, Buddhist priests have opened a bar in Osaka, Japan. “In ancient times,” Asahi Evening News quoted one of the priests as saying, “all kinds of people gathered at temples and talked while eating and drinking. As hundreds of years passed, Buddhism became separated from the people.” Fifteen priests, many of them young, take turns acting as host at the bar and drinking with the customers. “Our bar is a temple in the real sense of the word where you can talk frankly with a priest,” says the manager. Incense burns and religious symbols hang on the wall. The background music is rock.
A Little Wine for Your Heart
Moderate consumption of red wine may reduce the risk of heart attack. For some time scientists have puzzled over what has come to be termed the “French Paradox.” Although the average Frenchman’s diet is not low in the saturated fats that contribute to cardiovascular problems, the French have one of the lowest mortality rates for coronary heart disease in the industrialized West. According to the Paris newspaper Le Figaro, which was referring to reports published in the British medical journal The Lancet, scientists believe this may have something to do with the red wine that the French generally drink with their meals. Acidic compounds present in red wine, called phenols, have been shown to inhibit the so-called bad cholesterol (LDL) from clogging arteries with the fatty deposits that cause heart attacks. Le Figaro adds that these phenols are nonalcoholic components of wine and that beyond a half pint [0.25 L] a day, the alcohol does more harm than good.