Saturday, August 16, 2008

Neanderthals 'were flame-haired'

Last Updated: Thursday, 25 October 2007, 18:07 GMT 19:07 UK
Neanderthals 'were flame-haired'
By Paul Rincon
Science reporter, Murcia, Spain

Did Neanderthals have red hair? (Image: Michael Hofreiter/Kurt Fiusterweier/MPG EVA/Science)
Neanderthal genetics is revealing surprises
Some Neanderthals were probably redheads, a DNA study has shown.

A team reports in the journal Science that it extracted DNA from the remains of two Neanderthals and retrieved part of an important gene called MC1R.

In modern people, a change - or mutation - in this gene causes red hair, but, until now, no one knew what hair colour our extinct relatives had.

By analysing a version of the gene in Neanderthals, the scientists found that they also have sported fiery locks.

"We found a variant of MC1R in Neanderthals which is not present in modern humans, but which causes an effect on the hair similar to that seen in modern redheads," said lead author Carles Lalueza-Fox, assistant professor in genetics at the University of Barcelona, Spain.

Though once thought to have been our ancestors, the Neanderthals are now considered by many to be an evolutionary dead end.

They appear in the fossil record about 400,000 years ago and, at their peak, these squat, physically powerful hunters dominated a wide range spanning Britain and Iberia in the west, Israel in the south and Siberia in the east.

Our own species, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa, and displaced the Neanderthals ( Homo neanderthalensis) after entering Europe about 40,000 years ago. The last known evidence of Neanderthals comes from Gibraltar and is dated to between 28,000 and 24,000 years ago.

Selective pressure

Until relatively recently, scientists could turn only to fossils in order to learn what Neanderthals were like. But recent pioneering work has allowed scientists to study DNA from their bones.

In Neanderthals, there was probably the whole range of hair colour we see today in modern European populations, from dark to blond right through to red
Dr Carles Lalueza-Fox

Genetics could shed light on aspects of Neanderthal biology that are not preserved in fossils. These include external appearance - such as hair, skin and eye colour - cell chemistry and perhaps even cognitive ability.

This will help scientists address key questions, such as why we and not they inherited the Earth.

Genes for skin colour and hair colour are obvious early targets for scientists engaged in these efforts.

In modern people from equatorial areas, dark skin and hair is needed to guard against skin cancer caused by strong UV radiation from the Sun.

By contrast, pale skin - along with red or blond hair - appears to be the product of lower levels of sunlight present in areas further from the equator such as Europe.

"Once you go out of Africa, the selective pressure from UV radiation disappears. So any mutation that falls into the MC1R gene is allowed to survive and spread through a population," said Dr Lalueza-Fox, speaking at the Climate and Humans conference in Murcia, Spain.

But people with fair skin are able to generate more vitamin D, which may have given them an evolutionary advantage in northern regions.

Altered chemistry

The latest research suggests that similar adaptations were evolved independently by Neanderthals and modern Europeans in response to similar environmental circumstances.

Neanderthal jawbones from El Sidron. Image: PNAS.
DNA was taken from Neanderthal bones found in northern Spain
All humans carry the MC1R gene, but modern redheads possess an altered, or mutated, version of it.

This rare variant does not work as effectively as more common forms of the gene. This loss of function alters the chemistry of the cell, producing red hair and pale skin.

In the latest study, the authors retrieved fragments of the MC1R sequence from Neanderthal bones found at Monte Lessini in Italy and from remains unearthed at El Sidron cave in northern Spain. DNA is notoriously difficult to obtain from very old specimens such as these.

"This was a bit like finding a needle in a genomic haystack. I couldn't believe we found it the first time. I asked my friends to repeat the results. Eventually the variant was found in two separate Neanderthals in three different labs," said Dr Lalueza-Fox.

Unique variant

The researchers found that Neanderthals carried a unique variant of the gene not present in modern humans.

Reconstruction of Neanderthal man and boy (Image: AFP/Getty)
Until now, information on hair colour has been sparse

In order to test what effect it had on hair and skin colour, the researchers inserted the Neanderthal variant into a human cell called a melanocyte.

Melanocytes produce the dark pigment called melanin which gives skin, hair and eyes their colour.

The researchers saw the same loss of function in the Neanderthal form of MC1R as they did in modern variants of the gene which produce red hair.

"In Neanderthals, there was probably the whole range of hair colour we see today in modern European populations, from dark to blond right through to red," Dr Lalueza-Fox told the BBC News website.

To Dr Lalueza-Fox, the observation that the Neanderthal version of the gene is not found in modern humans suggests they did not interbreed with each other, as some scientists have proposed.

Primitive speech

Dr Clive Finlayson, director of the Gibraltar Museum, commented: "It's extremely interesting - it makes us understand a bit more about who the Neanderthals were.

"It suggests there may be a propensity towards the reduction of melanin in populations away from the tropics. If the Neanderthal and modern variants are different, it may be a good example of parallel, or convergent evolution - a similar evolutionary response to the same situation."

"Neanderthal genetics is going to give us a lot more information. This is the tip of the iceberg."

In a separate study, published in the journal Current Biology, Dr Lalueza-Fox and colleagues extracted the DNA sequence for a gene called FoxP2 from Neanderthals.

Modern people have several changes in this gene that are absent in our relatives the chimpanzees. This suggests that FoxP2 may have been an important gene in the evolution of language, something which separates us from the great apes.

The researchers found that Neanderthals shared these key mutations in FoxP2 with modern humans, suggesting they had some of the prerequisites for language and speech.

An ongoing project to sequence the entire Neanderthal genome was recently hit by claims by a group of researchers that samples could be contaminated with modern human DNA.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The best way to find meaning at work? Don't look for it

Page last updated at 16:37 GMT, Friday, 23 May 2008 17:37 UK

The best way to find meaning at work? Don't look for it

Hospital ward
Nursing has meaning, then managers come along with performance targets


It pays the mortgage and gets you up in the morning, but these days workers want more from a job - they want meaning. Just don't go looking for it, says Lucy Kellaway.

Not long ago a man came to our house to unblock the drain. He peered into the stinking manhole, stirred the sewage with a stick and gleefully pronounced that there were several months of back-up in there. He then got to work with a rod and a plunger, and finally with a high-pressure hose - which sent the filthy, stinking mess flying into his face and all over the garden.

While he toiled he cracked jokes, gave me a lesson in the engineering of Victorian drains, and eventually, having cleared the blockage and tidied up as best he could, he got into his van, whistling to himself as he drove away.

Lucy Kellaway
We start to demand that our work has a larger meaning. This almost always ends badly, meaning is a bit like happiness - the more you go out looking for it the less you find

Since then I've kept thinking of this contented sewage man, and wondering what exactly it was that he got from his job that so many people doing grander and cleaner ones don't seem to get from theirs.

It strikes me that we are in the middle of an epidemic of meaninglessness at work. Bankers, lawyers, and senior managers are increasingly asking themselves what on earth their jobs mean, and finding it hard to come up with an answer. As the agony aunt on the Financial Times I get asked all the time by successful professionals - what is it all about?

The Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl wouldn't have been in the least surprised by this. In 1946 he wrote Man's Search for Meaning in which he argued that that our deepest hankerings are not - as Freud thought - of a sexual nature, but are a lust for purpose in life. Frankl spent five years in Nazi prison camps and during that time he worked out that there are three paths to meaning - work, love and suffering.

Gordon Brown, a man who has been doing a certain amount of suffering of late, seems to think that the answer is to strive harder. In a speech last week he said "I aspire for everyone to reach for the light - their ambition. Very simply, I aspire to create an opportunity-rich country where everyone can get on and get up in the lives we live. Never to level down, always to lift up."

Stamp of approval

This doesn't sound much more profound than James Brown's song Sex Machine - Fellas, I'm ready to get up and do my thing - get on up.

James Brown and Gordon Brown
'Get up, get on up' - the Browns' approach to work
It's also dreadfully bad advice, as Brown should know from personal experience. For all those years when Tony Blair was at Number 10, Brown reached for his ambition - but now that he has got on and got up, has he found the light? No, it seems to me that the poor man is floundering around in the dark.

This doesn't mean that ambition is a mistake; it is just that there is no magic to advancement per se. The status and the money go up, but that's it. And then, beset by affluence and by introspection we start to demand that our work has a larger meaning. This almost always ends badly: meaning is a bit like happiness - the more you go out looking for it the less you find.

So where is the real meaning at work? Last week I put the question to various people - starting with our postman. Do you think your job has meaning, I asked him, as he stuffed a fistful of junk mail through our tiny letter box. He looked at me and shrugged. "I'm trying to pay the bills".

Getting paid to do a job is surely the most important sort of meaning there is. Earning enough money to feed and house one's family might be at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but the rest of the edifice depends on having this solid base.

Is the job sick?

As for the work itself, the postman said: "It's not the best job in the world, but I try to keep cheerful. I've always said that if you are unhappy at work, there must be something wrong somewhere else in your life."

A meaningful job? Sometimes it's just about paying the bills
He may have been on to something here. In the last few months three people with grand jobs have been involved in three horrible, violent ends. Mark Saunders, a successful barrister, was killed in a police shoot out; Mike Todd the chief constable of Greater Manchester police force was found dead on a hill, gin bottle by his side. And last summer the insurance millionaire Alberto Izaga, suffered a shocking breakdown and ended up beating his two-year-old daughter to death.

It is tempting to conclude - as many columnists have - that there is something about the intolerable stress and emptiness of these top positions that lead people to breaking point. The jobs are sick and they are making us sick too.

Possibly; but overall, I'm with the postman, in thinking that such problems come from us. I don't believe that these jobs are terribly sick. Instead, these were three unrelated personal tragedies that tell us nothing about work at all.

My search for meaning - and for a pint of milk - then took me to the Turkish corner shop where I asked my question to the man behind the counter. He was looking tired: his shop is open fifteen hours a day so one might think he had no time for meaning. But he said there was a lot of meaning in what he did. "I make a living and I like the people who come to my shop." he said.

Parenting craft

A good point, too. According to a recent survey of work place satisfaction, liking one's work-mates is as important as money in persuading people not to quit. Simply by being friendly and chatting by the coffee machine one is creating meaning... of a sort, which, given how much chatting I do, is quite a comforting thought.

When you have spent a couple of days changing nappies and grilling fish fingers, to be surrounded by adults who don't want their bottoms wiped seems pretty meaningful
The shopkeeper also said he liked the work itself - he takes pleasure in stacking his tiny premises so high with goods that he has just the thing you want when you find the cupboard is bare at 10pm. It's hard running a successful corner shop, and he's good at it.

According to Richard Sennett's new book, The Craftsman, this ability to master a skill and then practice it well satisfies a basic human need. For Sennett, a craftsman doesn't have to make beautiful inlaid cabinets or chisel stone. He could be a software programmer, a cook or even a parent.

This satisfaction in the job itself seems to me the best sort of meaning there is. As a journalist, I survive on those rare jolts of pleasure that come when you find just the right words and get them together in just the right order.

Yet this sort of "craft" meaning isn't open to everyone. Shoving junk mail though letter boxes isn't a craft. Neither, at the other end of the spectrum, is being prime minister. Indeed no jobs that involve managing or leading are crafts, which is one of the things that makes it so particularly hard for managers to find meaning in what they do.

Peace with pointlessness

In fact managing is one of the most thankless jobs in the world. What managers are mainly trying to do is to get other people to do things that they don't want to. To work harder, for a start. Their other primary function is to carry the can, and to get blamed for all sorts of things that probably aren't their fault. Not only are they creating little meaning for themselves, they get blamed for destroying meaning for people below them.

Chocolate factory
The craft of making people happy... through chocolate
Sennett describes how the craft of doctors and nurses is spoilt by NHS managers and their punishing targets. Teachers bleat endlessly that government guidelines are taking all the joy out of teaching. The other day an RAC man changed my tyre, which he accomplished in about three minutes, and spent the next 10 jabbing data into a hand held computer. He told me that this new bureaucracy had destroyed his pleasure in the job - a complaint echoed by most workers in most jobs. The meetings, the second guessing, the pointless duplication, the politics, we all moan. Just let us do the damned job.

In some ways I'm with the managers, or I would be if they didn't so often make such a hash of it. Hospitals and schools both need targets. Businesses, including the RAC, need to be run efficiently. People hate change, we naturally suspect all new ways of doing things, we scream that the purpose in the job is going, but that's too bad.

Maybe the best way of dealing with pointlessness at work is not to worry too much about it. An acquaintance in advertising tells me how one day he and his colleagues were agonizing over a tiny nuance in a script for a radio commercial. Suddenly he had a jolt of realisation: this was utterly pointless. Since then he has made his peace with the meaninglessness of what he does, and enjoys the job rather more as a result.

Another way of finding work more meaningful is to do less of it. Last week the government extended its plans for flexible working to make it easier for parents to work part time. When I worked a three day week I found the meaning of work was complemented by the meaning of looking after children. Or rather, that each provided a refuge from the meaninglessness of the other. When you have spent a couple of days changing nappies and grilling fish fingers, to be surrounded by adults who don't want their bottoms wiped seems pretty meaningful. And by contrast, having half of one's identity tied up in the rearing of children means that one places fewer impossible demands on the job itself.

A final way of gaining meaning at work is also on the rise: and that is the threat of redundancy. As a result of the credit crunch 55,000 financial sector jobs have already been lost, and more losses are to come. While being fired is the ultimate sign that one's job was meaningless, the relief of escaping the axe could make one so grateful to have work, that one stops asking oneself such awkward questions.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Bad spelling 'should be accepted'

Page last updated at 13:05 GMT, Thursday, 7 August 2008 14:05 UK

Bad spelling 'should be accepted'

exam room
The professor says he corrects the same mistakes year after year

Common spelling mistakes should be accepted into everyday use, not corrected, a professor has said.

Ken Smith says the most common spelling mistakes should simply be accepted as "variant spellings".

He lists the 10 most commonly misspelt words, which include "arguement" for "argument" and "twelth" for "twelfth".

The professor says his proposal, outlined in an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement, follows years of correcting the same mistakes.

Why can't 'truely' be accepted as a variant spelling of 'truly'?
Ken Smith

Mr Smith, a criminology lecturer at Bucks New University in High Wycombe, listed the 10 words most commonly spelled wrongly by his students.

He said: "Instead of complaining about the state of the education system as we correct the same mistakes year after year, I've got a better idea.

"University teachers should simply accept as variant spellings those words our students most commonly misspell.

"Mediaeval" and "Medieval" - both correct, but many people consider the latter to be the dumbed-down American spelling.
Mahatma, Stirling
"The spelling of the word 'judgement', for example, is now widely accepted as a variant of 'judgment', so why can't 'truely' be accepted as a variant spelling of 'truly'?"

Mr Smith also suggested adding the word "misspelt" to the list and all those that break the "i before e" rule - weird, seize, neighbour and foreign.

The professor said he was not asking people to learn to spell words differently.

"All I am suggesting is that we might well put 20 or so of the most commonly misspelt words in the English language on the same footing as those other words that have a widely accepted variant spelling," he added.