Of interest around the web & elsewhere – November 29th, 2010

By Razib Khan | November 29, 2010 2:02 am

Goodbye November.

Male Reproductive Problems May Add to Falling Fertility Rates. There’s an implication that there may be epigenetic and developmental reasons for this phenomenon. But check out this quote: “Today, at least one in five 18-25 year old men in Europe have semen quality in the subfertile range.” I’m starting to wonder about genetic load W. D. Hamilton style. If death doesn’t prune the deleterious alleles, perhaps PGD is going to be necessary in the face of rising infertility. Or somatic genetic engineering.

Now a Giant, Google Works to Retain Nimble Minds. I, like every nerd, have friends who work at Google. Great food. Awesome company. Smart people. But I do wonder if the cycle of institutional sclerosis is speeding up. IBM maintained hegemony for decades. Microsoft’s time in the sun really didn’t make it to the 20th year (I think 1990 is a good compromise year to peg the age of Microsoft, though it really got going with Windows 95 and had some juice in the days of MS-DOS. Facebook is already breathing down Google’s neck. This doesn’t mean that Google won’t be profitable, Microsoft is still making bank, and will do so for years to come. But It companies may be more and more ephemeral.

Information overload, the early years. In some ways the internet is, I believe, qualitatively different from previous information revolutions. But the critics really do repeat old & tired arguments, which pre-date the printing press, and go back to alphabetic script in ancient Greece. I assume that cuneiform and hieroglyph elicited the same concerns, but we don’t have records of that.


Children Ease Alzheimer’s in Land of Aging. Developed nations are filled with aging societies where one or two children have to be caregivers for parents. This is the future. We need to deal.

Hybrid vigor and missing genes. Agricultural genetics is really important. There are 7 billion humans, and we depend on plants.

The Rise of the Tao. One thing to remember is that in Taiwan and Singapore Taoism, which is ineluctably associated with the broad term “Chinese folk religion,” seems to give ground to Buddhism and to a lesser extent Christianity with development. So the concentration of the Taoist revival in the hinterlands makes sense.

The Complex Genetic Architecture of the Metabolome. Possible bad news: ” If this pattern proves generally applicable to other species, it could present a significant hurdle to identifying genes controlling metabolic trait variation via genome-wide association studies..”

23andMe $99 sale still going. +$60 subscription fee, but that’s mandatory now.

F.B.I. Says Oregon Suspect Planned ‘Grand’ Attack.

Also, Suspect in Oregon Bomb Plot Is Called Confused. “When you think of someone doing what he did, you think of some crazy kind of guy,” said Mohamed Kassim, 21, a fellow Oregon State student who knew Mr. Mohamud from around campus. “He wasn’t like that. He was just like everybody else.” Actually, most terrorists aren’t crazy. They’re motivated by political beliefs, though naturally specific life situations and dispositions play into their actions. I know it’s PC to say that there’s not a war against Islam, but the reality is that the USA is engaged in several imperialistic ventures which entail tussling with “Team Islam.”

Size of Mammals Exploded After Dinosaur Extinction, Researchers Confirm. Contingency and convergence?

The Real Culprit in Overeating. Not sure if I believe this. We can sense calories?

Fem Hiring Jealousy. It’s been a reported social science finding for a generation that good looking men get more of a wage premium than good looking women. The argument here is that women do the HR screening and penalize good looking women, but not the men. Or perhaps it could just be that men are more concentrated in professions and sectors with winner-take-all dynamics?

Can you provide humanitarian aid without facilitating conflicts? These are complex issues, and I don’t have anything to add.

Dogs Have Bigger Brains Than Cats Because They Are More Sociable, Research Finds. But what about I.Q.?

ADMIXTURE on the shores of the Indian Ocean.

For Google, the Browser Does It All. The article argue that the Chrome OS was designed for the Netbook era which never came to be, thanks to the power of smartphones, and the success of iPads.

Will Ireland Default? Ask Belgium

Nomadic Enhancers: Tissue-Specific cis-Regulatory Elements of yellow Have Divergent Genomic Positions among Drosophila Species. “This finding is important because it demonstrates a type of evolutionary change affecting DNA sequence elements critical for gene expression that is currently under appreciated and should be considered when searching for enhancers in related species.”

People Who Donate to Religions Are More Likely to Punish Selfish Behaviour, New Study Finds.

Joel Grus. If you remember him, you’ve read my stuff for a while.

Entitled to an Opinion. Nerd.

Less Wrong. Nerds.

Animals getting fatter too. Really strange.

According to this Isidore of Seville is a descendant of Augustust Caesar! I don’t believe it. Must be errors in the genealogical database. I traced it by starting with Augustus’ great-great-granddaughter Junia Lepida. I suspect what’s going on is that the arriviste Christian aristocratic clans of the early 5th century simply made up connections to older Roman families to burnish their reputations in the face of accusations that they were anti-traditional (because they had rejected the old gods, and often risen from below through imperial patronage of late).

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  • Katharine

    “Today, at least one in five 18-25 year old men in Europe have semen quality in the subfertile range.”

    This is not a bad thing. Of course, one must determine whether this is a worldwide trend.

    What is the projected change in world population if this trend continues?

  • Professor Booty

    Re “The Complex Genetic Architecture of the Metabolome” — oops! (But not entirely surprising to those following human GWAS studies.)

    Re “Also, Suspect in Oregon Bomb Plot Is Called Confused” — is it me, or is the NYT trying to apologize for this guy? I’m usually unsympathetic to MSM-bashers, but it really annoys me when the Times and other outlets refuse to confront the reality of Muslim extremism.

  • omar

    Subfertile is not infertile. It is my impression that other factors explain most or all of the fertility difference between countries (eg Russians are less fertile than the Dutch, but I could find no evidence that Russian sperm counts are lower…Russians just dont seem to want to have a lot of children). If sperm counts continue to decline, they will eventually have an impact, but until now this is generating business for infertility clinics, but does not seem to be a big factor on a population basis.

  • Roy

    Peter at Hyperlipid had an interesting comment about this, a researcher says in ” Denmark one in 8 children is born to couples where medical assistance is needed due to low male sperm count This correlates directly with degree of westernisation in a given country and the effect occurs in the first few weeks of foetal life”.

  • pconroy

    Roy,
    I remember reading somewhere that Finns aged 20-25 had average sperm counts of 330 M – the highest of any European group – and they’re hardly much less industrialized than Danes right?!

    I think it’s got to be some other factor, like Water Flouridation or something?

    I know I myself grew up in rural Ireland, without many immunizations, on well water, and a diet heavy in organic farm-grown meat and milk. In my late 30′s, my sperm count was 70% higher than 20 yo Finns, and in my late 40′s it’s 20% higher.

    I can’t locate the figures, but IIRC the average US male is 40 M?!

  • Roy

    pconroy, Going by your photo you have a rather broad face (like many Irishmen), broad faced men tend to have a low digit ratios and high sperm counts (Finns do).
    Face shape regression on 2D : 4D ratio .
    I think it’s partially due to relaxed sexual selection of European men in the ice age myself but a lot of people think pollution is a factor. Slate: Why do Danes have smaller nuts than Finns—are toxins to blame?

    On the other hand it sounds like your mother ate a good high protein diet when you were in the first few weeks of foetal life , some say inadequate nutrition by pregnant women is very deleterious to their child’s future health. There is even said to be a epigenetic effect from what your grandfather ate.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    dude, talking about paul’s sperm count is creepy ;-)

  • omar

    Paul, your numbers for Finland seem too high. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12151459

    Secular trends are not necessarily bad:
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8612826
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10068941
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10367238

    WHO criteria for normal may not be normative http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9886521

    The whole field is riddled with methodological problems: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20085639
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11478681

    Keep in mind that reporters are generally biased in favor of exaggerating the problem. I am not convinced that this is a significant cause of population wide decline in fertility.

  • dave chamberlin

    low sperm counts can be partially caused by um… errr… well they don’t those british wankers for nothing.

  • dan

    re: sensing calories. yes, there’s a lot of good data on that. we have a whole set of neurons in our gut and there’s been some good studies with their relation to overeating and fullness, sensing fake carbs vs real, diet sodas, etc.

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    Isidore’s remains are easy to find and more likely to be authentic than most because of his family’s temporal importance. Paternity testing might be possible. This said, he is noted more for the breadth of what he discussed than his accuracy.

  • Katharine

    This correlates directly with degree of westernisation in a given country and the effect occurs in the first few weeks of foetal life

    Be specific: which aspect? I’m inclined to think it’s levels of industrial chemicals.

    Also, calling it ‘westernization’ has certain political connotations. ‘Development’ is a more accurate term.

  • omar

    “Be specific: which aspect? I’m inclined to think it’s levels of industrial chemicals.”

    I think this statement may be true, but is not yet supported by solid evidence. Denmark, for example, seems to have the lowest sperm counts in Europe but levels of pollution are not, to my knowledge, the highest in Europe. And as you can see from the links I posted, the whole business is rather murky when you get down to details. Its not clear that sperm counts are declining all across the industrialized world, its not clear that this correlates with industrial pollution and its not clear that its had any signficant impact on population fertility (as opposed to impact on individual “time to successful pregnancy”, or business for fertility clinics, which started from a low base and has indeed increased)

  • pconroy

    Omar,

    Good points. Sperm count alone is not all important viz fertility, motility and morphology are also important.

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  • Roy

    Katharine, not only does Denmark have the lowest sperm counts in Europe it also has the highest ( least masculine ) digit ratio in the world. That suggests relaxed sexual selection of men and intensified sexual selection of women was responsible for shifting north Europeans to a more feminine hormonal profile.

    In men who are naturally closer to being infertile a certain amount of pollution could be taking them over the brink into infertility in a way that wouldn’t happen to naturally very fertile men . So it’s may be the Danes get no more pollution than Finns but they have not got the excess fertility that the Finns do and are hence become infertile. The effect is probably occurs in prenatal development. Pollution includes things like women smoking or taking painkillers like aspirin, paracetamol and ibuprofen during pregnancy, both damage the future fertility of their unborn sons, ” Simultaneous use of more than one painkiller between weeks 13 to 28 increased the risk 16-fold, a study in journal Human Reproduction shows.”

  • crf

    You mean “… rising infertility”.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    I don’t remember Grus, but after checking out his site I recall you mentioning his book not too long ago.

    Entitled to an Opinion is mostly me, but Dain occassionally posts as well, making it a plural “nerds”. And you already featured LessWrong in last week’s of interest.

  • Katharine

    Katharine, not only does Denmark have the lowest sperm counts in Europe it also has the highest ( least masculine ) digit ratio in the world. That suggests relaxed sexual selection of men and intensified sexual selection of women was responsible for shifting north Europeans to a more feminine hormonal profile.

    (I’m getting this vibe of ‘masculine/men gooood feminine/women baaaad’ from this comment. It makes me very uncomfortable.)

    As omar mentioned above, there’s also sperm motility and morphology. Have there been studies done on not only the number but the quantity of sperm?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    there was something really familiar and creepy about roy’s comments. i went and typed ‘digit ratio’ into the comment search box, and boom, turns out that he is a commenter i banned back at scienceblogs because of his tendency to push his monomaniacal obsessions in a repetitive fashion. the IP is the same, though the name and email has changed.

    don’t respond to him anymore.

    if people want to push their obsessions online, they need to start their own blog, and not hijack other people’s comments who have more popular venues (though if he had consoled himself to the ‘open thread’ i probably would have not looked into it).

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    Most of the people I encounter on the internet who think men should be more masculine also think women should be more feminine. The contrary view might fit with someone like Jack Donovan who wants a race of Spartans.

  • pconroy

    TGGP.
    Yeah that’s funny. I read a few of the Roissyphere blogs, and most guys are focused on picking up a waif. I have to laugh at this, as any Alpha male who wants to have Alpha male sons*, is in for a shock, as having sons with a skinny, hyper-feminine, waif will almost automatically NOT produce Alpha male sons.

    * of course I understand that procreation is often not a priority for such people, as they tend to have shorter time horizons.

  • Katharine

    The funny thing about the concept of ‘alpha male’ as presented by manchildren such as Roy is that it presumes that wife-beating-gay-bashing-hyper-testosterone’d man = more fertile = better.

    There are three funny things about this.

    1) The whole concept of ‘alpha male’ as applied to humanity is problematic for reasons I’m not going to go into here

    2) Men with a lot of testosterone are not necessarily more fertile; in fact, anabolic steroid users, who take steroids to increase their testosterone, often undergo sperm count drops

    3) Fertility is not necessarily evolutionarily favorable. Consider the fact that every species has a carrying capacity dependent on their environment – we humans will, if we do not find a way to regulate population growth to a relatively stable number with little fluctuation and as little detriment to the environment and societal progress as possible, eventually hit a carrying capacity. There are numerous instances where populations of animals have reproduced out of control and eventually f*cked themselves to death indirectly by being so numerous they’d eaten everything available – only then did their numbers drop, and drop they did to zero.

  • Katharine

    Really, I think it’s one of those things where someone’s trying to push their insecurity or their bias backed up with evidence that doesn’t even prove what the insecure idiot using it is saying.

  • Katharine

    Oh, and the ‘alpha male’ concept presumes that humanity is a polygynous species, which there is no hard-and-fast proof for it being (the only ‘evidence’ for it is the handful of cultures which practiced polygyny, and cultural does not necessarily translate to biological – and extradyadic couplings, referred to as either cheating or polyamory, occur among both sexes), and, specifically in the human context, it somehow seems to presume that men are somehow superior to women or should occupy naturally a position superior to them, which is horrifically wrong and sexist and not even supported by anything (that’s the best way I can summarize it, really).

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Fertility is not necessarily evolutionarily favorable. Consider the fact that every species has a carrying capacity dependent on their environment – we humans will, if we do not find a way to regulate population growth to a relatively stable number with little fluctuation and as little detriment to the environment and societal progress as possible, eventually hit a carrying capacity. There are numerous instances where populations of animals have reproduced out of control and eventually f*cked themselves to death indirectly by being so numerous they’d eaten everything available – only then did their numbers drop, and drop they did to zero.

    this doesn’t make sense to me. are you making a group-selective argument? pushed far enough, e.g., clonal vs. sexual lineages, this works. but we need to be careful throwing out terms like that. better just to clarify the terms than accept the basic logic and refute.

    Oh, and the ‘alpha male’ concept presumes that humanity is a polygynous species, which there is no hard-and-fast proof for it being

    i’m weak on ethology. does this really? aren’t wolves the original model, and they themselves are monogamous? (that is, the pack revolves around the breeding pair)

  • Katharine

    this doesn’t make sense to me. are you making a group-selective argument?

    Yes.

    i’m weak on ethology. does this really? aren’t wolves the original model, and they themselves are monogamous? (that is, the pack revolves around the breeding pair)

    I don’t think people who push the whole ‘alpha male’ thing know wolves are monogamous.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan


    I don’t think people who push the whole ‘alpha male’ thing know wolves are monogamous.

    that’s true. but why are you making that argument now? i’m sure a lot of people who read this weblog surely sympathize with ‘game’ (though ‘survey says’ only a minority) and all that, but i discourage that sort of discussion since i find it rather boring and uninteresting. ‘roy’ won’t be commenting anymore. at least under that name.

  • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

    The scientist who originally coined the phrase “alpha wolf” now says it was a mistake.

    We don’t have to look up any anthropology about specific cultures, we can examine the number of male vs female ancestors our DNA shows evidence of, as well as examine size differences for sexual dimorphism.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    we can examine the number of male vs female ancestors our DNA shows evidence of, as well as examine size differences for sexual dimorphism.

    yeah, anthropological terms are too categorical. real human evolution and history is more continuous.

  • Sandgroper

    #25 – Katharine 2) men who take anabolic steroids also often suffer a lowering of libido (this is anecdotal, but I used to work out with enough hardcore body builders on steroids of a mix of races to be satisfied it’s a common problem associated with steroid use.

    My take was that anabolic steroid use among body builders was a strictly narcissistic exercise – it had nothing to do with trying to attract females for sex.

    I differentiate between these men and women), and those who do weight training as part of a balanced exercise program for fitness purposes,which is, on the surface, a similar activity, but in reality entirely differently motivated.

    My view, having read broadly on the subject for a lot of years (including the serious sports medicine literature), is that people of both genders and all ages, once adult growth has been achieved, should do weight training, or at least some form of resistance training as part of a balanced exercise program, but no one should be on steroids. Protein supplements – fine, but don’t take them unless you are on a heavy weight training program, otherwise they just make you fat.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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