Daily Archives: November 22, 2016

Will Chimpanzees Ever Speak?

Chimpanzees are known for being the closest relatives to humans genetically, sharing over 98% of our DNA. Though, it doesn’t take a biologist to figure out some of the major differences between us and our genetic cousins. However, one question that comes up a lot regarding all animals is the difference in our ability to communicate through speech. Why is it that chimpanzees, as well as other great apes, who so closely resemble our DNA, can’t perform one of the simplest staples of human interaction?

Contrary to some beliefs, the issue is not one that has to do with the brain. At least not entirely. Chimpanzees, as well as other apes, have proven their capability to understand language on a basic level through the use of sign language. It’s hard to say whether or not they have the ability to think in terms of grammar, because within their current “language,” apes tend to only speak about the present. This means that we don’t know if they haven’t developed a form of past and future tense due to actual mental restrictions, or simply the lack of the need to. Regardless of their brain’s capacity to understand grammar and complex language, the use of sign language still proves that the speech barrier between humans and apes does not have to do with the genetic ability to learn some kind of language, simple as one may be, but rather comes down to more physical reasons.

Physically speaking, apes, such as chimpanzees, have their vocal chords located higher in their throat than humans. Additionally, as mentioned in a special on NPR which quotes Dr. Philip Lieberman, one of the reasons our necks got longer was the downward movement of our tongues over time, which also brought the larynx down with it. With this space in our mouth and the shape of our tongues, we have the ability to move them up and down, as well as forward and backward, contrary to chimpanzees, whose tongue movement is mostly in-out.

While many of the details of these reasons are still being researched, unless the need arises for natural selection and evolution among the great apes to allow for changes in their tongues and vocal structures, it can be assumed that we won’t be hearing any chimpanzees speaking full sentences any time soon. However, if studies continue down the path of developing complex sign language between us and our fellow great apes, we could see any number of breakthroughs in understanding the actual mental capacity of these creatures, and whether or not they posses the ability to think beyond the present tense.


We Are All Lowkey Racist.

Do people subconsciously harbor racist ideas and attitudes? How is this possible? Do certain social situations provoke different responses in racism?

These were the questions that seemed to drive the research I so desperately sought to find, especially considering the recent events that have made American history. After this past election, so many ideas and racist thoughts have been brought to light that I assumed had been abolished decades ago; it turns out I was wrong. People still seem to hold discriminatory thoughts; the only difference is that people in today’s world appear to conceal it better. However, although I found research that supports some people harbor racist ideas, this does not mean you are racist! It just shows the the subconscious mind is much stronger than you believe!

Warning: Do not be offended by the results!

In April of 2009, a study was done that had some scary implications: there are still negative associations and connotations surrounding the black race. Even more is that when people hear racial slurs being spoken, less people had the confidence to speak up than you would think.

Associate professor of psychology at York University, Kerry Kawakami (the author of the study) divided 120 non blacks into different roles for the experiment: experiencers and forecasters. It was the experiencers job to sit in a room where therigaud_2 fabricated altercation was to occur while the forecaster had the job of predicting how he would feel if he was in the situation. When a black person “accidentally” ran into a caucasian (part of the experiment), the white person would utter sentences from either one of three stages: weak, mild, and extreme. In the mild case, the white man would say nothing, and in the moderate case, he would say something along the lines of “Typical, I hate it when black people do that.” In the most extreme cases, he would shout, “Clumsy n*****.” It was the experiencers who essentially were observed in this study (thus making this an observational study), and what the author found was chilling.

Photo Credits

As even the most racist of the comments were said, the amount of discomfort the experiencers felt was astonishingly low; then as soon as the experiment was over, the participant had to choose either the white or black person to be a partner for an anagram test, and still, greater than 50 percent of the people chose the white person. This was even considering the fact that the white person had said some very nasty and derogatory comments. Now, even when no comment was made by the white person, people were still likely to choose him.

In that same article, the author goes on to explain the decades of research that seem to point to the same conclusion: when people are placed in certain sensitive situations, they tend to act opposite of what they accordingly believed. Back in the early 1960’s, a man by the name of Stanley Miligram performed the Miligram experiment; there is a psychological correlation between this study and Kawakami’s study. Watch the video below if you are interested in this correlation and the actual Miligram study; you will find that under certain situations, humans seem to act callously and maliciously when provoked, or, surprisingly, even when they are not.

Possible Flaws and Conclusions:

Throughout studying this experiment, I realized that there were a number of possible flaws with it. For example, it says that all the participants were non black, but what exactly does this mean? Does this mean that they were all white, or perhaps that they were simply minorities other than African American? There is too much ambiguity. Furthermore, this article seems to imply that the lack of discomfort the experiencers had is an example of them being racist, but is this necessarily the case? The way I see it, there is not correlation between these two variables; and furthermore, lack of discomfort does not equate to racism, so causation is not involved either. Lastly, confounding variables, although not a flaw, might definitely have played its role in this experiment.

So, what should you be taking away from this article? If you are learning anything, its that certain aspects of science, and even in everyday life, are not always as they appear. You might believe that you have made up your mind on something, and there might be evidence to prove it, but the subconscious is powerful; there are things that it can hide from you, and when certain situations arise, your innermost thoughts come out to play.

The Great Barrier Reef Problem

Recently this year, scientist informed the public that the Great Barrier Reef is in danger of completely dying out if some major changes aren’t implemented soon. The  biggest threat is the bleaching of the reef due to chemical pollutants.


When this issue first made itself apparent, scientist came up with the null hypothesis that the pollutants would have no effect on the health of the reef, with the alternative hypothesis being that the pollutants would in fact have an effect on the reef’s health. Although there a some skeptics of the reef’s actual health, scientists have been able to reject the null hypothesis, meaning that the reef is in danger.

To ensure that the reef doesn’t completely die off, scientists from NASA and even Penn State have begun to research the problem and look into possible counter-measures to combat the issue.  Researchers from NASA have begun a 3 year observational study and ecological survey in Australia as the first step in preparing the reef. Using new state of the art technology, NASA researchers are taking aerial surveys of the reef as well as surveys of 6 different areas of the reef to compare the health in the different areas as well as the conditions of their surroundings. In order to carry out these tests, scientists are using airborne imaging spectrometers and 6 separate teams of scientists that are designated to the 6 sections of the reef that are being observed.


Students of Penn State have also been doing research of reefs, specifically the reefs located in the Caribbean. The main objective of their research is looking at the genome of each reef and   how they are able to survive multiple environmental catastrophes. This research is very important for the Great Barrier Reef because, although it isn’t a test of the Great Barrier Reef’s genome, if they are able to find what helps the Caribbean reefs, it could help in the efforts to save the great Barrier reef.

We can be almost certain that the pollutants in the water cause the dying off of the reef. Although we can never rule out chance, its highly unlikely that the reef began to die off at such a rate that just-so-happens to match up with increase of pollutants found in the surrounding ocean. It’s also highly unlikely that reverse causation is to blame in this situation, becasue if that was the case, the dying of the reef would be the cause of humans polluting the water which doesn’t make sense.

In conclusion, the possibility that the Great Barrier Reef dies off if very real; however, with the efforts of scientists and if they correctly carry out the scientific process, we might be able to save the reef after-all.

Other Sources:


Wine Without the Whining

Recently I have seen advertisements on Facebook about a device that takes the fear of hangovers away from drinking wine. Of course that sounds like a dream come true, but I wonder if this claim is scientifically based or just strategic marketing. The specific product that I am looking into is called Ullo. Ullo is a startup from Chicago with the mission of bringing wine back to its natural state. After watching Ullo’s story video, I learned several things. First, the creators of this product have chemistry or vineyard/ wine-making backgrounds which could make them more credible than someone with a total unrelated background. Second, I learned that their product attempts to trap the sulfites used to preserve the wine to bring the wine back to its natural taste. Lastly, their product is said to have an aeration function that can be turned on or off to add flavor, specifically to red wine. After hearing all of this, I think that their product sounds very appealing, but how valid are all of these claims?


Next, I decided to find some scientific sources to confirm that sulfites can act as a causal agent for hangovers or at least see if there is a correlation between amount of sulfites consumed and severity of hangover after drinking. On Google Scholar I found a post which discusses sulfites in wine and the trend of consumers paying more for sulfite-free wine. Since the 1980s, the FDA has required sulfites to be on wine labels because they can be hazardous to about 1% of the population. For these sulfite-sensitive consumers, sulfite intake can lead to difficulty breathing, skin rashes, and stomach pain. Typically, we associate hangovers with headaches, nausea, and fatigue so it is interesting that this article does not link any of those symptoms with sulfite intake. Although there is a very small number who are sulfite-sensitive, anecdotal evidence and articles show that a much higher percentage of the population reports headaches after drinking small amounts of sulfites. So we can not state that sulfites in wine is a direct cause of hangovers, but since many people have complained there could possibly be a correlation. There would also be confounding variables like amount of wine consumed, amount of water consumed to keep hydrated, variations in a drinker’s tolerance, other alcoholic drinks consumed on the same days, and others. Another scholarly journal article admits that the cause of hangovers are still unknown. Research on the topic has only used anecdotes and questionnaire-based approaches so I can not confirm that there is a direct causation between sulfite intake and hangover intensity.


When it comes to the topic of aerating wine, there is a patent for a method of aeration. This patent discusses the benefits and improvement of taste. I recognize that there may be some bias with a patent positively marketing its product. Unfortunately, when I looked for university studies or scholarly articles on the topic, there were not any substantial articles. I have had some difficulty finding proper research for this piece, but I have learned several things. It appears that scientists have not put much focus on researching sulfites in wine, wine taste or wine aeration. I think that there is a lot of room for research in this area, especially with wine’s popularity increasing with millennials. I can not draw a specific conclusion based off of the information that I found so all that I can do is leave a recommendation. Ullo’s wine purifiers are $79.99 which is expensive and that money could buy several bottles of wine. I do not think that a product at that price is worth it since the product is not 100% backed by science, but another option is using reviews as anecdotal evidence and deciding whether the investment is worth it. After all of this research, I cannot confirm or deny that Ullo’s products 100% work. Since the product is $79.99, I do not think that it is logical for a Penn State student to purchase the item. That is a lot of money for a product that only works based on a few consumer’s anecdotes.



Oxytocin makes us closer…

When you look at it, your brain is in a series of complex change: gazing makes your brain secrets a large amount of oxytocin that makes you  get closer. At the same time, the oxytocin in its brain is increasing, making the same impact…

“It”I mention here is dog.  Journal“Science”has published a study in recent year, that points out that gazing behavior between owners and dogs produce a positive feedback of oxytocin secretion, which makes dogs become human’s best friends. Wolves, who rarely engage in eye contact with their human handlers, seem resistant to this effect. Hence, oxytocin not only become the connection of people’s love, but also produce the love over species.

What is oxytocin?imgsrv

In 1906, the renowned British physiologist Sir Henry H Dale discovered a type of hormone facilitating uterine contractions. He named it “oxytocin”. In 1909, the clinical potential of Dale’s seminal findings on oxytocin was realized by the celebrated British obstetrician and gynecologist William Blair Bell. Bell claimed that oxytocin could not only rapidly facilitated uterine contractions to assist in fetal delivery, but also prevented postpartum hemorrhage, and provided considerable relief for male and female patients suffering from severe constipation. In the early 1950s, American biochemist Vincent du Vigneaud identified the nine-amino acid sequence of oxytocin, and synthesized this polypeptide hormone for the first time. This work represented the first characterization and synthesis of a neuropeptide and resulted in a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for du Vigneaud in 1955. (More details about oxytocin in http://jop.sagepub.com/content/27/3/231.full)

Oxytocin is normally produced by the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus and released by the posterior pituitary. Both male and female can secrete oxytocin. After releasing, a part of oxytocin reaches periphery tissue through blood circulation, and the rest passing hemato encephalic barrier, enters the central nervous system and functions as a neurotransmitter.

Oxytocin’s functions

Oxytocin influence several aspects of individual behaviors. The studies in early stage mostly focus on its impact of maternal behavior. A study shows that there is a positive correlation between oxytocin throughout pregnancy and maternal-fetal attachment. In other words, if mother has high levels of oxytocin, she would do more intimate behaviors, such as hug. Besides this, oxytocin affects couple relationship. Because the couples who absorb oxytocin have less conflicts and more positive communications. Additionally, previous studies have shown oxytocin increases trust among people.

It is very interesting that oxytocin can also affect some animals. lk__4eathv79yfhvqdoly1vym_cmx0a-bind7ljplbkeawaaiwiaaepqMicrotus ochrogaster release oxytocin that stimulates dopamine during mating, so they can maintain monogamy. However, microtus montanus, which has similar genes with microtus orhrogaster, doesn’t release oxytocin and dopamine, so this species maintains group marriage.

sn-bondingThen we go back to the study at Azabu University in Sagamihara, Japan, which was published in “Science”. The result finds that gazing from pet dogs made high levels of oxytocin contents in owner’s urine samples, and vice versa. Therefore, the relationship between owners and pet dogs becomes closer and closer. This positive feedback loop, he says, may have played a critical role in dog domestication. In this study, the dogs were males and females, spayed, neutered and intact. The breeds included Golden retrievers, standard poodles, miniature Dachshunds, miniature Schnauzers, a Jack Russell Terrier, and two mixed breed. So the samples are very representative. And I think the conclusion is convincing.

So that human and dogs become good friend is not a coincidence. What’s more, in my opinion, my dog is as my “fur baby”, do you?

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