An alien star-child?

Waikato University biological sciences lecturer Alison Campbell posts a regular blog on matters biological (sci.waikato.ac.nz/bioblog/). Her aim is to encourage critical thinking among secondary students. We think these need sharing.

Last week one of my students wrote to me about something they’d seen on TV:

My friend and I saw this on Breakfast this morning. Although we don’t think it is all true, we are still interested because they talked a lot about the skull’s morphology and how they believe it is the offspring from a female human and an alien. Here’s the website on it: www.starchildproject.com

It would be great to hear your thoughts.”

So I went off and had a look at the website, and wrote back. My first thought is that (following what’s called ‘Occam’s razor’) the simplest possible explanation is likely to be correct, ie that this is simply a ‘pathological’ human skull, rather than a mysterious alien-human hybrid. (Read Armand LeRoy’s book Mutants to get a feel for just how wide the range of potential variation is in humans.)

Happily there are ways of testing this – the skull is reportedly only 900 years old so it should be possible to look at its DNA.

And indeed this has been done – and the data are presented on the Starchild project’s website. Which surprised me more than a little, given that they don’t support the hybrid idea! The skull in question – which certainly has an interesting shape – was found along with the remains of an adult female. The DNA results show that both woman and child were native Americans, not related to each other, and also that the child was male. There is absolutely no indication there of any ‘alien’ DNA. Which is what I would have predicted – if we were to be visited by extraterrestrial individuals, why would we expect them to be a) humanoid and b) genetically compatible with us? ie the likelihood of successful interbreeding is vanishingly small. And that’s a big ‘if’ in any case … Carl Sagan had some sensible things to say on that issue in The Demon-haunted World.

My personal view is that the whole thing should have been examined rather more critically by the programmers before it made it to air. But then, I have ceased to be surprised at the uncritical nature of much that’s presented by our broadcast media (with the honourable exception of the National Programme!).

Forum

Why do men have nipples?

Nikos Petousis, in his article Skepticism Greek-style answers many questions which have previously puzzled me, for which I thank him sincerely.

In return, may I answer one of his own unanswered questions? He had asked why God gave us such useless things as nipples on men. Many people, doubtless not attendees at the 2008 Skeptics conference, would claim Intelligent Design or Divine Guidance.

I know better. Those apparently useless appendages evolved for two excellent reasons, both for the benefit of the medical profession. The first reason is so that the doctor knows where to apply a cold stethoscope for maximum effect. The second is so that if the patient is unclothed, the doctor knows if s/he is looking at the front or the back. Q.E.D. (Sorry to revert to Latin, but I don’t know the Greek for this. Perhaps Nikos could help).

PS If you are in doubt about my theory, please check with John Welch for a second opinion.

PPS I’ve just realised that in sending this by email I cannot sign this in my usual manner (copyrighted) which you seem to have appropriated! However, I hasten to assure you that I am not planning legal action in the matter. When I did attempt to sign in my usual manner, the pen skidded on the monitor screen, which now has some nasty inky scratches.

(That’s OK – we Davids have to stick together! – ed.)

Genealogy and gender

Genealogy as normally practised gives us a very misleading view of our genetic heritage. This article was originally presented at the 2005 Skeptics Conference in Rotorua.

Over recent years, there has been a huge surge of interest in tracing family genealogies. Genealogy has always been important for Maori, but pakeha New Zealanders seem to have come to it more recently. For many New Zealanders of European ancestry, there is a fascination in learning about our roots in the old world, and in discovering what caused our forebears to uproot themselves and come to the other side of the globe.

I imagine that most people reading this have found themselves involved at some level in a family genealogical search. I certainly have, and this has caused me to give a lot of thought to what it all really means, and what it tells me about myself.

Alas, I suspect that in some cases, the underlying motivation for tracing genealogy could be the hope of unearthing a famous ancestor, or a rich maiden great-aunt with a fortune looking for a home. I have seen several examples where New Zealand families have paid many thousands of dollars to have their genealogy researched by the appropriate authorities in Britain. In each case, the pattern of the resulting family tree has been similar. The family line was traced back several generations to a male ancestor in the 19th Century, then a single dotted line projected back hypothetically several centuries to a male of the same or similar surname with some claim to fame or prestige, with no evidence of an actual relationship. For example, one discovered a supposed ancestor who was Lord Mayor of London, while another claimed that the current family descended from a noble in Cromwell’s court with a name that was only vaguely similar.

I am not knocking genealogy. Personally, I am interested to increase my abysmal knowledge of where my various grandparents and great-grandparents originated, and how and why they came to New Zealand. However, the more that I get involved, the more I have become sceptical about the traditional approach to genealogy. I have come to the conclusion that genealogy as often practised is a very artificial and largely meaningless construct driven by ancient religious tradition and a huge historical gender bias.

My interest was first piqued a few years ago when I read an account of the lives of Nicholas and Alexandra, the last Tsar and Tsarina of Russia. Nicholas was the last Tsar of the Romanov dynasty, which had ruled Russia for some 300 years. For the Romanovs, the tradition was that the eldest son and heir would be found a suitable bride among the royal houses of Europe, and this continued through the generations. This meant that the Russian Romanov blood was diluted 50% at each generation. Someone calculated that, as a result, the last Tsar, the supreme ruler of Russia, had only 1/128 Russian blood. Of course, with the amount of interbreeding that occurred among the royal families of Europe, this was probably not strictly accurate. Nevertheless, it makes the point that, because of the historical tradition of a male-dominated patrilineal society and a corresponding lack of recognition of the female contribution, our view of heredity can be very skewed. While I am sure that some Russians were conscious that their ruler was not totally Russian, I imagine that the Tsar was not promoted as being “99% Russia-free.”

Surnames are irrelevant

The normal way people research their genealogy is to trace one surname back through the centuries, which of course means following the male line. There are many internet sites devoted to tracing a particular family line. I find this approach to genealogy to be rather pointless and artificial. The fact that we carry a particular surname has little relevance in genetic or historical terms, nor do I find that it means much at a personal interest level. We are all in fact the product of an almost infinite mixing of genes. Probably the easiest way to demonstrate the point is to use my own genealogy back to my great-grandparents’ generation as an example.

If I construct a conventional “top-down” Garratt family tree with the apex as my great-grandfather George Garratt and his wife Jane (nee Higbed), I find that at my generation I have eight first cousins, none named Garratt, and a multitude of second cousins. Some of those have the Garratt surname. However, the only common relatives I have with those Garratt second cousins are great-grandparents George and Jane. I share none of my other six great-grandparents with them.

If I work in the opposite direction and trace my background as far back as my eight great-grandparents, it becomes apparent that while my name is Garratt, I am equally a Higbed, a Dunne, a Sears, a Woodley, an Ayers, a Waghorne, and a Turner. I would like to find out more about each of these lines, and how they came to be in New Zealand. Interestingly, I have found that it is much harder to trace the backgrounds of my female great-grandparents than those of the males. Even enquiries to elderly aunts tend to bring blank stares when I ask about their mothers’ backgrounds. I presume that this is because in those earlier generations the wives’ identities were considered to be subsumed in that of their husbands.

Personally, I find there is little point in trying to track back further than my great-grandparents, as any meaningful relationship of those historical people to myself becomes very tenuous. If we go a few generations further back, the numbers increase exponentially to the point that I realise that I am actually the mix of a huge number of unknown people.

Biblical underpinnings

Whatever our individual religious beliefs, there can be no doubting that many of our societal values and traditions are driven by biblical and Christian heritage. In our Christian-based society, the gender-biased view of heredity that virtually ignores the contribution of women to the mix is very ancient. If we go back to the Adam and Eve story in Genesis, we learn that they had sons Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel, then went out and took a wife, but there is no mention of who she was and where she came from. The most common explanation in Christian circles is that she was his sister, but that this creates no moral problem because God had not at that stage declared incest to be a sin. However, this begs the question of why Genesis chooses to completely omit any reference to female children of Adam and Eve. Whoever Cain’s wife was, she was clearly heroically prolific, because Cain’s next recorded move was to build a city.

According to the Bible story, at 130 years old Adam and Eve had another son called Seth. From that point, the genealogy of Adam and Eve’s descendants through Seth are recorded through dozens of generations of males begat by males, with very little reference to who they were all doing the begetting with. Eventually, we reach Noah, who (after living 500 years) had three sons. Presumably, in the course of 500 years he also had some daughters. However, there is no mention of them. In any case, they were dead out of luck. It was only Noah and his wife (unnamed), his sons and their wives (also unnamed) that got tickets for places in the Ark.

After the flood, human history was nearly back to square one, as it was now up to Noah’s sons and their wives to start the system going again. They and succeeding generations all produced prolific numbers of sons, but no recorded daughters. If in fact the successive male generations had managed to keep the lineage going without the help of females, this would have been a miracle that would overshadow the virgin birth.

Following the flood, the Bible’s genealogy then follows the male descendants of Noah’s son Shem through many generations, eventually reaching Abraham.

A small theological problem

We can now skip a few thousand years to where we find an account of 14 generations from Abraham to King David, again all through begettings by male descendants with little recorded help from any females. Then there are another 27 or 28 begettings to reach Joseph then on to Jesus, who, apparently on the basis of this genealogy, is referred to throughout the remainder of the New Testament as the son of David. This seems to be contradictory, as the New Testament gospels make it clear that Joseph was not the father of Jesus.

Without entering into the theological argument about this, it does provide an illustration of a major paradox in the tradition of tracing genealogy and descent through the male line. Motherhood is certain, fatherhood is not. It is naïve to believe that all those dozens or hundreds of generations from Adam to Jesus traces a true bloodline in times when contraception was not available.

We can now jump forward another two thousand years to the gospel according to Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code. This is based on the theory put forward in the earlier book Holy Blood, Holy Grail – that Mary Magdalene was pregnant at the time of the crucifixion, fled to France, gave birth to the child, who then bred with local kings. The suggestion is that there are direct descendants of Christ still alive, and that it is the holy bloodline that is the mystical Holy Grail. It is assumed that if this is proven true, it will somehow destroy the Roman Catholic church, although I cannot quite understand how. Supposedly, the church is in mortal fear that Christ’s descendants will lay claim to the church.

If this is true, I find it is interesting to do some mathematics. If we assume that in the intervening 2000 years, there has been an average of four generations each century, then there have been 80 generations since that time. If we ignore the effects of possible intermarriage among the holy descendants, we find that the bloodline dilution is so great that if there are in fact current direct descendants of Christ, there is statistically little chance that their blood will contain one holy corpuscle. (It may be that they have all become homeopaths.)

The great genetic pyramid scheme

Even more interesting is to try to estimate how many current direct descendants of Christ there may be to lay claim to the church. As we are in the 21st Century, it is important that we take a politically correct gender-neutral and age-neutral approach by including direct descendants through all siblings of both sexes at each generation. I have to confess that when I tried to do this, the mathematics quickly got out of hand. If we assume that all marriages are to people outside the family, we soon get into the pyramid scheme trap, where there are simply not enough people around to provide a pool of new recruits. My calculations show that, without interbreeding, Christ’s direct descendants would by now be sufficient to populate the galaxy, not just this world. Suffice to say that, on this basis, by about 400AD Christ’s direct descendants outnumbered the entire population of France at that time.

Now, this is of course all theoretical nonsense which ignores the reality of intermarriage within the extended family. However, after 2000 years, if the Holy Blood/Holy Grail theory is correct, there must be many millions of people out there with an equal right to claim direct lineage from Christ and to inherit the church. In fact, it is certain that many skeptics are included. Are you ready to claim your share of the Vatican treasury?

In the television series, The History of Britain, there was often reference to the exploits of some British nobleman of 500 or 1000 years ago. The presenter would then interview the current holder of the title, being the current eldest son of the family. The first reaction was to think “Wow, isn’t it amazing that he is the current incarnation of that long-lost notable.” However, on brief reflection I realised that any surviving blood link after all those generations was virtually zero, if one takes into account the genetic contributions of the wives down the centuries. The chances of a surviving genetic link reduce even further unless one assumes that the successive generations of wives were all faithful to their lords, and did not produce the eldest son by a dalliance with a passing knight or a gamekeeper called Mellors. It is probably fair to assume that a large proportion of the hereditary peers sitting in the House of Lords have no blood connection with the original holder of the title.

For that current nobleman, his view of say 500 years of genealogy is that he is the authentic carrier of the aristocratic bloodline (and the land, money, prestige and title). My view of my genealogy over the last 500 years is quite different. If I look back 500 years, mathematics tell me there were hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of people back then who are equally my direct ancestors. I know that I can never trace them, but that does not change the reality. I console myself by believing that among all those ancestors, there must have been some of fame or notoriety.

We’re all related

Looking at genealogy this way raises another interesting point. My eight great-grandparents all either emigrated to New Zealand or were born here. A large proportion of living New Zealanders also had forebears resident in New Zealand at that time, say the mid to late 19th Century. Let us assume conservatively that there are a million fourth and fifth generation New Zealanders who could identify eight ancestors living in New Zealand in 1870. (This does not seem unreasonable, given that the fifth generation group would only need to have had one half of their 16 great-great grandparents in New Zealand.) This gives us a theoretical eight million ancestors at a time when the total population of New Zealand was around 250,000. This means of course that there is a very high incidence of sharing of ancestors of that period. As a result, there is a very high chance that any two New Zealanders are related at some level. This of course provides an explanation of apparent coincidences in discovering relatives.

One may ask whether all this has any importance. Personally, I find my approach to genealogy to be more meaningful in helping me to understand who I am and how I came to be here. Also, I believe that it is more valuable than the traditional approach in helping to understand our genetic makeup, for example in tracing and understanding hereditary conditions.

However, I think that there is a deeper issue. New Zealand has always been at the forefront of the fight to ensure gender equality. However, the notion that wives are mere child-producing chattels and housekeepers for their husbands dies hard in some sectors of New Zealand society. We live in a country where it is still possible to produce an aspiring male Prime Minister with archaic attitudes to the role and place of women. The traditional approach to genealogy serves to reinforce historical attitudes about the subservience and assumed unimportance of women that have no place in the 21st Century.

The Prehistoric Boy Racer Gene

Bob Brockie thinks he can explain why the Skeptic editor gets woken up at 2am every Saturday morning

Doctors have a name for impulsive, over-energetic, risky, unpredictable, posturing, defiant behaviour — they call it ADHD (attention deficit hyper-active disorder) and it affects mainly boys.

About 12 years ago geneticists discovered a gene which “contributes” to this naughty behaviour. Nearly half the impulsive naughty boys in the US have this so-called “7R” gene.

Geneticists know that this gene is very ancient and think we may have inherited it from apes. The risk-taking behaviour may have helped prehistoric hunter-gatherers to survive, but once people settled down and became farmers, the impulsive behaviour became in-appropriate and socially disruptive.

Paradoxically, the gene has become commoner in some parts of the world over the last 10,000 years. Now a Dr Chen leads a team of Californian geneticists who suggest this is because risk-taking people left their ancestral Africa and China to migrate long distances, taking their overdrive genes and unpredictable behaviour with them. Dr Chen sampled 39 communities round the world and fiound that the risk-takers have migrated to the ends of the Earth where their 7R genes now concentrate.

His team found that nearly all the Yanomamo men up the Amazon and those ferocious guys in New Guinea have the gene. These blokes live in a state of local aggressive anarchy, spend all day adorning themselves and posturing, sharpening their elaborate weapons, and eating and sleeping separately from their hard-working women.

By contrast, Dr Chen’s team found the risk-taking gene was rare or totally absent among Kalahari bushmen and Chinese farmers. These long-settled men live peaceably, don’t make fancy weaponry or show off. They help rear their children and share everything with their wives. No wonder the Yanomamo are known as “The Fierce People” and the bushmen as “The Gentle People”. Europeans and other Africans fall somewhere in between these extremes.

And what about us? Whether Polynesian or Pakeha, we New Zealanders are all descended from long distance risk-taking migrants. If Dr Chen’s theory is right, our boys should be awash with the 7R gene.

My impression is that we have plenty of defiant, risk-taking, hyperactive boys. Just what we need to play rugby. And what about our boy racers, all those kids sent home from school for disruptive behaviour, and our 12,000 kids on Ritalin, the drug used to treat the condition?

Enough of this armchair theorising. Some geneticist will have to go out and survey our youths’ 7R genes. Our boy racer genes.
Originally published in the Dominion Post, July 22, 2002

Back From the Dead?

I’ve just witnessed a miracle. Probably. On January 2 I took part in a trip to the outer Hauraki Gulf to search for a bird that until recently had not been seen since the nineteenth century. Three specimens of the bird, the New Zealand Storm Petrel, sitting in museums in Paris and London, were believed to be the only representatives of yet another of this country’s extinct species.

Then in January 2003 a bird matching the New Zealand Storm Petrel’s description was photographed off Whitianga. By itself that didn’t mean too much; sometimes you get strange individuals of common species, and this bird’s resemblance to the lost petrel may have been coincidence. But in November two British birdwatchers saw 10 or 20 birds just north of Little Barrier Island that looked just the same, and took some amazing photos (http://www.wrybill-tours.com/idproblems/stormpet3.htm). And our trip found at least three in the same area. Needless to say, we were over the moon. Here’s one of our pictures; not as good as the ones on the website, but clearly it’s the same thing.



So can a species really go more than a century without being recorded, less than 100km from Auckland? That’s what we skeptics would call an extraordinary claim, and quite correctly the Ornithological Society’s Rare Birds Committee isn’t rushing to confirm the bird’s continued existence.

But with every week that goes by, the case is looking stronger. Trips are now going out regularly, and amassing considerable documentary evidence. In the latest development, TV3 News has shown film of the bird. It’s all developing in a way that’s very different from sightings of moa, lake monsters, or Bigfoot, which are invariably isolated events with no follow-up. There’s definitely a bird out there in the outer gulf that wasn’t there before (at least not in any numbers), it looks just like the museum specimens, and not really like any other known species.

Possibly it’s an unexpected dividend of the rat eradication programme on our offshore islands; maybe a tiny population was able to hang on until the rats were gone, and they’ve bred up in the intervening years to the point where people are starting to see them.

Whatever the explanation, it looks like the biggest thing to happen in New Zealand ornithology since David Crockett rediscovered the Chatham Island Taiko in 1978, a mere 111 years after its last sighting. And it’s a reminder that however much we think we know about the world around us, nature can still spring surprises.

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A Close-Run Thing

The Eugenics movement in New Zealand had legislative successes greater than anywhere in the world outside the USA and Nazi Germany

Eugenics was a phenomenon that lasted for less than a hundred years, although for some it still exists as a rational stand to take on the population problem, if not as a scientific theory. Of course advances in genetics have reintroduced the idea that we can by our own scientific efforts improve the human race. It was a theory that engaged not only some of the finest scientific, but also the finest philosophical and ethical minds of the day. It was a scientific theory that was brought to a halt less by scientific inquiry than by the moral revulsion produced by the excesses of Nazi Germany. Eugenics is interesting partly at least because New Zealand went further than anywhere else except for Germany and the US in the application of practical Eugenics in certain areas of legislation.

Francis Galton (1822-1911) began an investigation in the 1860s into the inheritance of genius, which was to have profound effects on the way people viewed the poor and the handicapped for almost 100 years. His ideas incorporated those of his cousin Charles Darwin and others who were worried that evolution might be reversed, and the human race become “degenerate” if those regarded as of little worth were allowed to breed unchecked, and the middle classes restricted the size of their families. Galton had some funny ideas about what might be inherited genetically from one’s forebears. Love of the sea for instance, as he noticed that the sons of ships’ captains often followed their fathers to sea. Galton was joined in his research and beliefs by several famous researchers including Karl Pearson, regarded by some as the founder of modern statistics.

Eugenics remained a concern mainly of a few biologists and statisticians until the first decade of the 20th century when it became very popular with certain sections of the public in particularly Europe and the US, although it did spread almost throughout the world. In Britain the popular movement was begun by Sybil Gotto, a recent widow. Many wellknown people either joined or supported the society. Cyril Burt, Havelock Ellis, Julian Huxley, John Maynard Keynes, George Bernard Shaw, all supported eugenics. Winston Churchill represented Britain at the second international congress in 1912. His views on the subject were considered so embarrassing to the government that they were suppressed until 1991. The reasons for the popularity of eugenics are complex but can probably be ascribed to perceived social problems affecting the latter half of the 19th century and the relatively new belief in science as the answer to the world’s problems. Both the popular and scientific beliefs in eugenics were remarkably resistant to the discovery of evidence refuting them.

Two family case studies came to encapsulate popular eugenics ideas about the results of degeneration. Both of these came from the US. The Jukes were a related group of misfits and criminals traceable to a single couple in New York State. The Kallikaks were a pseudonymous feeble-minded family discovered by H. H. Goddard, a prominent American eugenist who published his research about the heritability of feeble-mindedness in 1912. Eugenists continued to use these case studies as evidence of the truth of their beliefs long after they had been discredited.

Eugenists were often associated with social darwinists, who saw the solution to the problem of racial degeneration in allowing a high death rate among the lower classes to keep their numbers down. However Eugenists were interested in using social instead of natural selection to increase the proportion of the best “stock” in the racial group. The definition of good and bad stock was entirely predictable. Eugenic worth was seen as incarnate in oneself and one’s associates, and there was general agreement that many of the traits of the lower classes, such as poverty, disease, mental defect, and unemployment were not only unwanted but inherited. Eugenists generally divided people into three broad groups: “desirables”, “passables”, and “undesirables”. The desirables were almost invariably members of the Eugenists own social grouping, that is members of the academic and professional classes. The passables did change slightly over time but tended to be seen as the upper end of the working class. The undesirables could be people with mental or physical disabilities, the poor, or members of a race lower on the Victorian hierarchy of ethnic groups, the highest of which of course was Anglo-Saxon.

Popular Movement

Eugenics then, became a small popular movement among sections of the middle class responding to what they saw as the major population problems of the 20th century, sparked off by specific events, such as the poor state of health of many of the population shown by medical examinations of troops in the Boer War, and the IQ tests given to American soldiers in World War I.1 The idea was to promote eugenics as a solution to these problems by either encouraging the worthy to breed (positive eugenics) or somehow discouraging or preventing those of lesser worth from having children (negative eugenics).

The German Society for Race Hygiene was established in 1905, the English Eugenics Education Society in 1907, the American Eugenics Record Office in 1910, and the French Eugenics Society in 1912. Eugenics societies were also established in Latin America. The New Zealand society was established in 1910. In Britain and the US laboratories were funded to undertake eugenic research. Karl Pearson became the first director of the Galton laboratory for National Eugenics at University College in London, and Charles Davenport founded the Eugenic Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor in the US, which due to its generous funding could employ hundreds of researchers, most of whom were women.2

Legislation

Eugenists agitated for legislation which reflected their beliefs. This could be relatively benign. In France for instance, because Eugenists there remained Lamarckian in their outlook, they agitated for better working and living conditions for the lower classes in the belief that these conditions would produce healthier people who would pass on their good health to their descendants. In Germany however, because of their obsession with so-called racial hygiene, these beliefs eventually led to the Nazi programme of racial extermination.

Eugenic beliefs changed over time, tending to become more benign. Gradually, very gradually, scientists began to realise that eugenic beliefs simply didn’t stack up. However what was more influential was the association with the excesses of the Nazi regime, particularly in the US. Basically eugenics fizzled out from the 1930s onwards, and was regarded with loathing from 1945. Many Eugenists moved into the area of genetic counselling, advising rather than compelling the changes they wished to see. However as late as the 1950s at least one ex-eugenic researcher was employed by the tobacco industry to produce “research” showing that genetic predisposition, rather than smoking, was responsible for lung cancer.

The New Zealand Experience

Interestingly I could find no evidence of eugenic ideas in any of the New Zealand scientific journals in the 19th century. Eugenics in New Zealand was more a popular phenomenon that a scientific one. Those scientists that were interested in eugenics tended to be working in the public service rather than engaging in research.

New Zealanders did embrace eugenics enthusiastically however, when the first society was formed in Dunedin in 1910. As with the overseas experience members of these societies tended to be middle-class people, often medical or academic. Many politicians also accepted eugenics if they did not join the societies. One of the major eugenic publications, The Fertility of the Unfit was published by W B Chapple (later a Liberal MP in Britain) while he was resident in New Zealand.

The New Zealand societies agitated for eugenics to be applied to legislation in this country and began an education programme for schools and other interested bodies. As far as I could see eugenics was not as such taught in high schools or universities in this country, but some was certainly taught in training colleges, interestingly enough. (It was taught extensively in US high schools and colleges.)

Eugenists allegedly influenced the passing of the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act Amendment Bill of 1907, which granted divorces to those married to the insane, insanity being fairly broadly defined by Eugenists and regarded as something that could be bred out of the race.

In spite of the fact that the New Zealand eugenics societies lapsed at the beginning of World War I the fertility of the unfit remained a common cause of many influential New Zealanders. This culminated in the introduction of two bills which were to some extent designed to curb it. Part of the reason for doing this of course was economic, as the unfit were considered to be a huge drain on the finances of the state. Eugenics may have given these bills a certain scientific legitimacy which they may not otherwise have had.

The first of these was the Mental Defectives Bill of 1911. This was a large bill which set out to reorganise care of the “feeble-minded”. Much of it was concerned with classification, and treatment, and much of it was uncontroversial and of benefit to people in institutions. However a substantial proportion of the bill was concerned with the segregation of the allegedly feeble-minded from people of the opposite sex and protecting them from their own “uninhibited and promiscuous sexual nature”. People of unsound mind, and I might add that epileptics were considered to be in this category, were thought to breed like rabbits. Therefore carnal knowledge of mentally defective females became an offence, with consent of the female not considered to be a valid defence, although ignorance of her mental defect was. This bill passed with very little opposition, although MPs generally eschewed any drastic solutions to the problem such as sterilisation or contraception. Sterilisation was regarded at this time as both politically dangerous and a problem for doctors who may have been sued.

The next bill, the Mental Defectives Amendment Bill of 1928, was much more problematic, as it did include provisions for sterilisation of the unfit. Indeed a government committee of inquiry, which was set up to investigate the whole question of mental defect and sexual offending, discussed the lethal chamber with some enthusiasm. On the other hand, there was an organised and stout resistance to the bill from various politicians and members of the academic community.

Nationwide Questionnaire

The commission was a particularly thorough and large-scale exercise. A questionnaire was sent to every GP in the country, asking about numbers of mental defectives and suggestions for treatment. There was some discussion of eugenics in general in the New Zealand Medical Journal, but little about the actual bill. Very few GPs replied, and those that did tended to be scathing.

Almost everyone with any bureaucratic authority seems to have been solicited for an opinion, including the Government balneologist.3 The commission’s report was sought by a great number of organisations, from women’s groups and the major churches to the Theosophical Society. The list of organisations to which the report was sent runs to five pages and the print run for the report was very large. Overseas governments and organisations as far apart as Australia, the US and Germany also showed interest in the report.4 There seems to have been a general enthusiasm for sterilisation in the US, Germany and Scandinavia at this time. The first eugenic sterilisation laws in Europe were introduced in 1928 by the Swiss and in 1929 by the Government of Denmark. The Americans were also sterilising quite large numbers of people they judged to be mentally unfit, and had been, both informally and formally, for some years. All of this would have been apparent to the Inspector General of Mental Hospitals, when he was sent overseas to gather information for the bill.

Controversy

The bill itself had a number of uncontroversial clauses relating to the classification and treatment of so-called mental defectives. Like the preceding act of 1911 much of the bill was procedural. However certain clauses relating to sterilisation of mental defectives, the prohibition of their marriage, the new classification of “social defectives”, and the classification of children who were two years behind in their school work as mentally defective, caused much controversy. The clause relating to the sterilisation of mental defectives attracted more opposition than anything else in the bill. (Although the trade unions were naturally opposed to the social defective classification, which they thought might be used against them.)

All this resulted in a remarkably lively debate in Parliament. Although the eugenic societies had been defunct for about 10 years it is obvious that eugenics ideas were very much alive. The opposition debate in particular was both vigorous and informed. Peter Fraser, who was the best informed of the (Labour) opposition members, had obviously done some research into genetics as he quoted some of the best geneticists of the day in support of his argument for dropping the controversial clauses. He also sensibly quoted a number of examples of famous fathers who had had less than perfect sons while refuting the inevitable references to the Jukes and Kallikaks.5 On the government side the arguments tended to be less scientific, although the Minister of Health claimed to have “…searched the world’s best literature on the subject…”. On the whole though, the government arguments tended to be fairly agricultural. The member for Riccarton, for instance, likened human beings to Clydesdales.

The best debate however took place in the daily newspapers. This paralleled the various debates on this topic overseas, with those people involved with the care and control of mental defectives generally being for sterilisation, and academic psychologists being against. This debate mostly took place in the Auckland papers but did spill over into others. It seems to have been between R A Fitt, professor of Education at Auckland University College, with W Anderson, Professor of Philosophy at the same institution on the one hand, and W H Triggs, chairman of the Committee of Inquiry into Mental Defectives and Sexual Offenders on the other. The general public did not on the whole take part in this debate.

Trenchant Criticisms

Professor Fitt offered some trenchant criticisms of the science that the bill was based on. His main objection was that there was not as yet enough scientific knowledge about the measurement of mental defect, or enough work on interpreting its causes. He also believed that the psychiatrists who were to be put in charge of the classification of mental defectives were not properly competent to do so. He quite rightly stated that scientific testing should be used instead of the intuition of the psychiatrists in charge of the classification board. Triggs’ defence of the government’s position on the bill was eugenic in nature, stressing typical ideas about the unrestricted multiplication of the unfit and its cost to the taxpayer. This debate went on for some time, in the form of letters and articles from the main protagonists and others, including the Controller of Prisons, B L Dallard, on the government side, and a group of Auckland academics and educationalists including the headmaster of Kings College.6 Others who supported Fitt and Anderson were Professor J S Tennant, Professor of Education at Victoria University College, and Professor James Shelly, Professor of Education at Canterbury University College.

Other groups who might have been expected to oppose this of course were the Catholic Church and the unions. Both of these groups, like Fitt and Anderson, were quite prepared to accept quite a bit of eugenic theory at least as regards to the inheritance of mental defect, but the Church opposed sterilisation for various ethical reasons, including the idea that it was punishing the morally innocent. Neither of these groups put up a particularly vigorous fight, at least in public. Particularly the Church which, if one looks at the amount of space dedicated to these topics in the Tablet, seemed much more concerned with the threat of prohibition.

It is fairly clear why the clauses concerning sterilisation were dropped. Public reaction as such was minimal, but the vigorous attack put up by politicians and academics probably had its effect. However, if the clauses had been implemented New Zealand would have been the first country to implement legislation of this type (excluding American states) and this would have been the most extreme eugenic legislation short of Nazi Germany.

There is very little information about eugenics in New Zealand but these two books are both good general reading. Kevles, D J, 1985: In the Name of Eugenics; Knopf, New York. Paul, D B, 1995: Controlling Human Heredity, 1865 to the Present; Humanities Press, New Jersey.

Footnotes

1 These tests purported to show that recruits who were of Southern and Eastern European stock, and non-Europeans had lower IQs than Anglo-Saxons. They were later shown to be deeply flawed.
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2 Eugenists attitudes towards women were contradictory, in that as “race mothers” womens’ major role of course was in breeding. Many women however were involved in eugenics research, possibly because they were cheaper, but some took doctorates which was apparently uncommon at the time.
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3 The person in charge of public baths.
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4 It is interesting to note that the German government introduced in 1932 legislation for voluntary sterilisation of various groups. Possibly the reaction in New Zealand to compulsory sterilisation influenced this legislation.
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5 We find for instance, that Luther’s son was insubordinate and violent; William Penn’s son was a debauched scoundrel; … the son of Cicero was a drunkard….
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6 These divisions reflect some of the debate that took place before the commission, except that two academic biologists who were consulted were both supporters of sterilisation or segregation. Others who gave evidence, including teachers, headmasters, probation officers, doctors, nurses, religious leaders and others were overwhelmingly of the opinion that mental deficiency is hereditary, that it can be easily identified, and that people with this problem should be segregated and/or sterilised if not desexed.
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Family Obligations

Our acceptance of evolution brings with it moral obligations, believes geneticist Professor David Penny, who has been fighting for greater consideration to be given to the well-being of the great apes

From the path we gaze down at them. From their grassed mound they turn an occasional incurious gaze back – primate watching primate. I have seen very few chimpanzees. For them we are just part of an eternal procession of their depilated, camera-toting, child-accompanying, gawping kin. Behind the idling chimps, beyond the grassed enclosure with its climbing poles, beyond the zoo, rise the hills and houses of Wellington.

As we watch, one of the smaller chimps breaks away and speed-shuffles towards us. Alongside me, Suzette Nicholson the curator of primates, tenses, then relaxes. Along the way Gombi, an adolescent chimp, has picked up a broken plastic water container, and now he dippers himself a drink from the moat that separates him from us, fastidiously avoiding the muddy margin.

No good was what Suzette thought this sweet, obviously misunderstood creature was up to. “Gombi is 9 now, which is like the terrible teens, and he’ll throw things at the public if he can. He runs round trying to be big and staunch,” she explains.

Gombi is one of 15 chimpanzees at the Wellington Zoo, or, more broadly, one of the around 30-or-so great apes in New Zealand. Not many, and nor do we have the complete set. Of the species that make up the great apes – chimpanzees, orangutans, bonobos (once known as pigmy chimpanzees) and gorillas – we have only the first two. Yet New Zealand is often referred to as an example by those fighting for the great apes to be brought more fully within our circle of moral consideration, or even to be granted some form of rights.

The reason is the handful of lines in our 1999 Animal Welfare Act stipulating that any experiments with the great apes must be justified on the grounds of a benefit to the apes themselves and that these experiments must have the final approval of the director-general of Agriculture.

There has never been experimentation carried out with the great apes in New Zealand. The provision is intended at least as much as an example for others as it is for domestic consumption.

A Few though they are, these lines were hard fought for by the New Zealand membership of the Great Ape Project, and one of the most persuasive of advocates was Professor David Penny. An activist by disposition – he protested the Springbok tours and the Vietnam war – he says we should accord the great apes greater consideration, letting our morality be driven by the evidence presented by our science. We now know how close to us they are. In fact, viewed through the dispassionate eyes of molecular geneticist and evolutionist David Penny, we are ourselves great apes. The differences between their species and ours are of degree, not kind.

For the great apes – or more exactly the other great apes – life is generally far from great at all. Bonobos, chimpanzees, and gorillas are native to central and western Africa; orang-utans to Sumatra and Borneo. In these developing – or in some cases undeveloping – regions, conservation is often not a leading concern. Deforestation, the trade in baby orang-utans as pets, and, in Africa, the trade in bushmeat are whittling away great ape numbers. Their species have been given at best a vulnerable and at worst a highly endangered rating by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

In captivity, whether kept as pets or as circus animals, the great apes largely live their lives at the favour of their owners. Often this means a life arbitrarily cut short at the age of 7 or 8 when the tractable youngster becomes, like Gombi, an assertive, unpredictable and physically powerful adolescent. (Bebe, the matriarch of Gombi’s group at 40-plus, could live for another 20 years.)

In the US thousands of the great apes are used as laboratory animals. Animals used to roaming distances are kept in close quarters, infected with diseases such hepatitis or Aids, and subjected to medical procedures.

They are our substitute in experiments for one reason: they are so like us. Like us, some non-human primate species have naturally occurring osteoporosis and hypertension, some undergo the menopause, and they are susceptible to many of the same diseases that threaten human populations.

On the other hand, Penny believes the case for testing with the great apes is often overstated. Take Aids, for example. The epidemiological and laboratory evidence from human populations is actually very strong, and “we have learned virtually nothing of benefit to humans from infecting many chimpanzees with HIV”.

And his argument for ending experimentation with the great apes is much the same as that employed by those who want it to continue: the great apes are so like us.

Penny’s office is not much more than a glass cubicle inside a laboratory in a ’60s building on the Palmerston North campus. There’s a clutter of papers – apologised for with some perverse pride – and students are forever wandering to the door to seek guidance on papers or theses. Now is the most exciting time ever in the molecular biosciences, he says. Eternal questions are being answered.

Using DNA and protein sequences, Penny and his colleagues have looked at the origin and dispersal of modern humans, not only confirming the likelihood that humans originated in Africa, but also, with their finding that Maori share ancestry in a group of around 50 to 100 women, lending weight to the Maori oral tradition of the seven canoes that settled New Zealand.

The chimpanzee genome has been another particular interest. Penny sees the differences between human and chimpanzee as something of a test for whether microevolution – small changes over generations – is enough to account for macroevolution, the more major differences between species.

One estimate puts the genetic similarity between chimpanzees and humans at 98.76 per cent. (If you want to quibble you can find a smidgen more or less difference by selecting different categories of DNA.) Counterintuitively this makes us more closely related to chimpanzees than chimpanzees are related to gorillas.

DNA sequencing can also be used to put dates to our evolutionary history. The difference between chimpanzee and human DNA has come from the mistakes that are made as the DNA is copied from generation to generation. The errors occur at a reasonably constant rate in certain types of DNA. So if you know the rate, can compare the two DNA sequences, and have some sophisticated mathematics at your command, you can arrive at a date for a common ancestor.

The common ancestor of man and chimpanzee turns out to have walked the earth about 6.5 million years ago. Although this is around half a million years before the Grand Canyon started to form — and although it has to be realised that this is 6.5 million years in which chimpanzees and humans have evolved down their respective paths – in evolutionary terms it is the blink of an eye.

So close is our genetic makeup to that of the other great apes that the question for Penny and others like him is not why humans are so similar to the other great apes, but rather how to account for the differences. Penny’s answer: our species has a much longer growth period during which the brain and body are increasing in proportion.

If evolution seldom creates features out of nothing – and microevolution is sufficient to explain macroevolution – then we should expect our own attributes in the other great apes. And the more closely researchers look, the more this turns out to be so. Chimpanzees employ mental representations. They are self- aware. They are capable of deceit. They use tools. They transmit culture. They can acquire language.

In the mornings at Wellington Zoo the chimpanzees are given cups of blackcurrant drink fortified with vitamins. Overnight the female chimpanzees have been segregated – a welcome break from the attentions of the males. The status conscious males line up to be passed their drinks. The females and infants extend their hands through the bars in a prehensile tangle. The hands are rough and powerful; they look as if they have been crafted from black latex.

As the males head back outside to join the females they let loose with a rising anarchic chorus of pant-hoots.

Anatomy is destiny. The smartest of chimpanzees is still not going to be able to talk. They lack the breath control and physical equipment to do so. Nor should we expect a watchmaker chimpanzee. See how well you do at manipulating objects if you stop using your opposable thumb.

C But if “chatting to a chimp in chimpanzee” – to quote the Doctor Dolittle song – isn’t going to happen, having a conversation is still possible. Beginning with Washoe the chimpanzee in the 1960s, numerous great apes have been taught Modified American Sign Language or have been shown how to communicate using the lexigrams on symbol keyboards.

At age 5 Washoe the chimpanzee was capable of using more than 100 signs and understanding hundreds more. Panbanisha, a bonobo, can produce about 250 words on a voice synthesiser and understand about 3000. Koko, a 26-year-old gorilla is claimed to understand about 2000 words of English and to have an IQ of between 70 and 90. These acculturated apes produce an extraordinary effect on those who meet them.

“I have been strongly influenced by some of the chimps who have been taught American sign language, and once you look a chimp in the eye and see something there that is different from a dog, you have a different perspective,” says Massey primate expert Arnold Chamove, who has met the likes of Washoe, and Lucy, who was raised from infancy by American psychologists, the Temerlins.

The Temerlins, who seem to have been like-totally-60s, raised Lucy as one of their own children, to the point that she had become, as primatologist Jane Goodall put it, a changeling, neither chimpanzee nor human. Lucy was accustomed to serving tea to guests, fixing her own pre-dinner cocktails, and masturbating to Playgirl centre-spreads. Eventually the Temerlins felt it best that Lucy move on, and she was sent to Gambia for a difficult and lengthy rehabilitation back into the wild.

“She was sent away from her family to be rehabilitated and she was depressed,” says Chamove. “I had worked as a clinical psychologist, so I knew a bit about depression. It was just like someone had taken a 5-year-old out of her family and put her in a zoo with some chimpanzees. And she was thinking ‘Jesus Christ, how long is this going to last?’ No blankets, no beds, no food she was used to.”

Could it be that Chamove was over-empathising?

“I didn’t see any substantive difference [between Lucy and someone in the same situation].”

For Suzette Nicholson at the Wellington Zoo the chimpanzee colony has all the continuing interest of a long-running and perfectly comprehensible soap opera. Recently a palace coup ousted the dominant male. “Mahdi, the youngest of the big males wanted to take over, so he tried to beat up Boyd, the alpha male, when he had been sick. What happened was that the girls all ganged up on Mahdi and chased him around the park at full speed. Now the three males share power.”

When one of the babies died the colony went into mourning. “We let the mother keep the baby for a couple of days until it became a health hazard and we took it off her. When we did, all of the other females would sit round her, grooming her and fussing over her. They do grieve. One of our females died not long ago while under anaesthetic. After she died we let the other chimps in to see that she was dead and wasn’t coming back.”

As it becomes ever more evident that we are as much the product of evolution as any other creature, and that evolution has no higher goal, so Penny hopes the centuries-old paradigm of the Great Chain of Being (GCB) will begin to crumble. The GCB is the notion that there is a progression of living things: from creatures barely alive on the lower rungs, to sentient then rational beings, and, above that, beings that are no longer anchored to material existence. Less perfect beings are there to serve more perfect beings. The GCB is us-and-them. Animals and us.

Penny finds the quote he wants and recites with theatrical enjoyment: “‘There is none that is more powerful in leading feeble minds astray from the straight path of virtue than the supposition that the soul of brutes is the same nature of our own.’ Isn’t that wonderful?”

This is the 17th century French philosopher René Descartes, but the GCB’s pedigree can be traced back to the ancient Greeks. Plato, for example, thought there were three different kinds of souls: the primitive, the mortal and the immortal, but that the immortal soul – the one that counted – resided strictly in humans, and even then not all of them; children and slaves, for example, were out of luck. The ancient Greek thought meshed nicely with the part of Judao-Christian teachings that put all of nature at man’s disposal, and in the fifth century Saint Augustine folded the one into the other.

Penny sees the GCB as a licence for environmental despotism and will be pleased to see an end to it.

As for the law, this is a 3000-year old accretion of precedent which generally holds animals, no matter how intelligent, to be no more than property. And property can neither suffer injury nor sue; injury can only be done to the owner. Hominum cause omne jus constitum – the law was made for men and allows no fellowship or bonds of obligation between them and the lower animals – runs a tag derived from Roman law. In his book Rattling the Cage, Harvard law lecturer Steven Wise puts a case for legal personhood for the great apes, but it seems unlikely that this will happen any time soon. Still, it is well to remember that it is only within relatively recent times that various groups of humanity have gained fundamental civil rights.

What Penny and his fellow members of the New Zealand Great Apes Project have wanted has been more modest. Steering clear of the contentious issue of rights, they would have liked to introduce a system of legal guardianship into the An-imal Welfare Act as a pragmatic way of dealing with the courts. In the end, the backlog of legislation awaiting Parliament in the lead-up to an election dictated what was achievable.

Of course if we admit the great apes within a widened circle of moral consideration, it begs the question of where to next. If we extend rights to the great apes, then what about those other primates that exhibit similar attributes, if to a lesser degree?

Making more of a species leap, what about, say, whales? While it is easy enough to imagine oneself inhabiting the mental landscape of a primate, says Penny, the world of a whale is almost unknowable. So much of how we perceive and interact with the world is defined by our bodies and our senses. If you put two blind people in a room they will still use hand gestures to emphasise what they are saying. Such things are hard-wired. Comprehend how the world must seem to a whale – how can we?

Questions answered with questions. If we are to discuss the issues surrounding our treatment of the great apes, then Penny seems keen that we discuss the particular issues, and not go haring off to who knows where.

Yet with the Great Chain of Being displaced by DNA’s double helix it seems hard to see this debate as anything other than the harbinger of many others to come.

David Penny will be speaking at the Skeptics’ Conference in Wellington, September 19-21.

Reprinted from Massey University Alumni Association newsletter with the author’s permission.

The Life and Times of a Scientific Heretic

In Darwin’s Shadow: The life and science of Alfred Russel Wallace, by Michael Shermer. Oxford University Press.

Alfred Russel Wallace was the co-discoverer of perhaps the most revolutionary idea in human history, but today his name is little more than a footnote in the biology textbooks.

It was Wallace who, as a young and unknown field naturalist, wrote to Charles Darwin in 1858 setting out his ideas on evolution by natural selection, spurring his older and more famous colleague to finally go public with his own work in this area. While Wallace always recognised Darwin’s prior claim, a joint presentation of the two men’s writings was made to the Royal Society later that year, propelling Wallace to the forefront of the Victorian scientific community. In his time, says Shermer, he was as well known and nearly as influential as Darwin. Besides helping to set evolutionary biology on a firm scientific footing, he founded the science of biogeography, and wrote on geology and anthropology.

In later life, Wallace would champion fields which today are regarded as at best pseudosciences, among them spiritualism and phrenology — the determination of intellectual capacity by measuring the shape of the skull. He also opposed vaccination and advocated land reform and women’s rights. Shermer argues that these activities were not in conflict with his scientific work, but can be understood as aspects of Wallace’s “heretic personality”, which was shaped by his background. Unlike Darwin, and indeed most of the scientific community, Wallace’s family was working class, and his formal education fairly minimal. His life was far less cosy than those higher up the social scale, and he was very ready to adopt radical ideas. With some of these, such as natural selection, he struck paydirt, with others he was less fortunate.

Shermer, the author of Why People Believe Weird Things, and director of the Skeptics Society, spends many pages examining the social pressures which shaped Wallace, attempting to apply quantitative analytical techniques to the task. A lot of this is quite heavy going, and its ultimate success is debatable. Personally I would have preferred less of it and more on Wallace’s expeditions to the Amazon and the Malay Archipelago, which are covered rather briefly, although they each lasted several years and laid the groundwork for his future scientific career.

On the other hand, Shermer deals well with such issues as the differences between Darwin’s and Wallace’s views on evolution, or Wallace’s involvement with spiritualism and social activism, and peppers it all with fascinating details such as an amusing but financially costly battle with a Flat-Earther.

Wallace was a major character in the history of science and deserves to be better known; hopefully this book will help redress the balance.

Newsfront

Death was “the Biggest Gift”

A Feng Shui practitioner who died while on a life mastery course in Fiji was ready to leave his body, his widow believes. Stephanie Challis, pictured in the Nelson Mail (11 December 2002) smiling happily with her three children, told how her 41 year old husband Will had undergone a course of body cleansing which involved colonic hydrotherapy and drinking quantities of good quality water.

“He always played full out,” she said. “My guess is that he had seven or eight litres of water, thinking, ‘the more I drink, the cleaner I am’.” Mr Challis mentioned that he had been throwing up, but Mrs Challis, having previously done that when detoxifying, didn’t think too much of it. She said his sodium levels had become unbalanced, leading to loss of consciousness. Because they were on an island facilities were not available to rectify his sodium balance, and he was not given any oxygen.

“It appears his brain suffered massive oxygen starvation in that first 24 hours. The doctors tell me they will never know.”

Mrs Challis said she met her husband through training in Qi Gong, an ancient form of energy cultivation, and the basis of their relationship had always been spiritual. In the months leading up to his death, they had been “full out” on various courses. She believes he was on an unconscious level preparing to leave his body. “There are so many amazing coincidences. It all points to the fact that this was his time.”

Mrs Challis said she had remained positive throughout the ordeal, and did not blame anyone for what happened and, in fact, feels privileged that her husband shared the experience with her. “I was keeping the bigger picture in mind the whole time. When he died I felt incredibly peaceful and even joyful. I realise since that what he’s done has been the biggest gift he’s ever given me. I feel closer to him now than I’ve ever felt and deeply grateful for what he has taught me about life through his dying.”

Out-of-Body Experiences at the Flick of a Switch

Doctors say that out-of-body experiences (OBEs) may be triggered by stimulation in one part of the brain (Dominion, 23 September 2002). Writing in Nature, the Swiss researchers say they were able to trigger OBEs in a female patient. They say their work may explain the phenomenon of people reporting having “left” their body and watched it from above. The doctors were studying epilepsy by using electrodes to stimulate the woman’s brain. They found that stimulating the angular gyrus in the right cortex repeatedly caused OBEs. At first, the stimulations caused the woman to feel she was sinking into the bed, or falling from a height. When the strength of the current was increased, she reported feeling she had left her body. The doctors believe the angular gyrus matches up visual information and the representation of the body formed by the brain’s touch and balance faculties. When the two become dissociated, an OBE may result.

Mormon Researcher gets the Wrong Answer

Anthropologist Thomas Murphy faces expulsion from the Mormon Church after showing by DNA analysis that native Americans are not descended from ancient Israelites, as the church claims (Dominion Post, 9 December).

The Book of Mormon, made public by Joseph Smith in 1830, is a cornerstone of church doctrine and taken literally by the faithful. It teaches, among other things, that America was populated by Israelites who went to North America 600 years before Christ – a time within the reach of archaeology and genetics. Mr Murphy, of the anthropology department at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood, Washington, set out to test this, and his negative findings saw him charged with apostasy. It appears this is the first time a member of the Mormon Church has faced expulsion for genetic research.

Church leaders declined to comment on specifics of the case, but critics said they feared his excommunication would have a chilling effect on Mormon scholars who wanted to stay in the church.

Clone Petition Dismissed

The Raelians, of course, know full well that native Americans are not descended from Israelites. According to the cult they, and everyone else, owe their origin to extraterrestrials, who cloned themselves to produce the human race some 25 000 years ago. They’ve gained themselves a lot of publicity in the last few months with their claims to have produced human clones of their own (eg Dominion Post, 30 December). More recently (Reuters, 29 January) a Florida judge has dismissed a petition to appoint a state guardian for “Eve”, the first of three allegedly cloned babies, reportedly born on December 26. Clonaid, the company which claims to have produced the clones, says the baby is in Israel.

Expressing skepticism that a cloned child even existed, but expressing concern for its welfare if it did, Juvenile Court Judge John Frusciante said his court had no jurisdiction in the case. Clonaid president Brigitte Boisselier testified that the baby had never been anywhere near the United States.

Clonaid has produced no evidence for any of the clones. Scientists widely believe the assertions are a hoax to make money or garner publicity for the Raelians.

Boisselier, a French-born chemist who is a member of the Raelians, would not say where in Israel the child was, adding she did not know as she was no longer in contact with the parents. She also told the court that she had not seen the baby, although she had seen videotapes.

Bernard Siegel, a private citizen and attorney, filed the petition earlier this month asking for the state to appoint a guardian to supervise her care. He said that if “Eve” were indeed a cloned child she could face serious medical problems.

In dismissing the case, Frusciante made plain his concerns about cloning, citing at one point President Bush’s remarks during his State of the Union address on Tuesday in which Bush said no human should be started or ended as the object of an experiment and asked Congress to ban cloning.

Clonaid, which made the initial announcement of “Eve’s” birth at a hotel in Hollywood, Florida, backed away from its earlier promise to provide DNA proof of the cloning after Siegel filed his petition. The company, which does not reveal where it is located or anything about its finances, now says that it has deliberately cut links with “Eve’s” parents to ensure their privacy.

The lawyers representing Clonaid had urged Frusciante to dismiss the petition. “The case was a preposterous case, there was no basis for it,” attorney Jonathan Schwartz said after Wednesday’s hearing.

But Siegel said he was glad he presented the petition even though it failed, not least because it had prompted Boisselier’s testimony under oath that a cloned child existed and was in Israel. He added he hoped the Florida Department of Children and Families, which had representatives in court on Wednesday, would alert the relevant authorities in Israel to the possibility of a child in need of protection.

And now it’s Homeopathic Vets

The first output from a new diploma course in homeopathy graduated at the end of last year (Rural News, December 2). The four women are mostly veterinarians who have taken the course at the Bay of Plenty College Auckland Campus. New Zealand Homeopathic Council president Joan Goddard says the qualification is unique, and is the first time that basic medical knowledge has been taught beside homeopathic treatment and diagnosis in an animal health course.

Students take a part-time one-year foundation course before electing to complete the two or three-year diploma.

Goddard says most of the students graduating this year are veterinarians looking to extend their treatment capabilities.

“Vets treat the diploma as an additional skill to use on herds and do not rely solely on homeopathics.”

She hopes the course will set up a list of standard homeopathic treatments for various animal conditions, as many current practitioners depend on personal experiences to treat animals. Twelve students should graduate in 2004, with similar numbers going through the course.

Goddard hopes course numbers will gradually grow but says there are only a limited number of people to teach students. Well that’s something, I suppose.