Category Archives: veganism

You’re such a Neanderthal!

It turns out that that statement is probably true of the person whom you so labeled.

And it’s probably true of you too! Awesome.

Here’s the story, as told by National Geographic.

A reconstruction of a Neanderthal female.

A Neanderthal-female reconstruction based on both fossil anatomy and DNA (file photo).

Photograph by Joe McNally, National Geographic


Inside of the Vindija cave, Croatia. Image courtesy of Johannes  Krause MPI-EVACroatia’s Vindija cave, where Neanderthal bones used to assemble genome were found. Image courtesy of Johannes Krause MPI-EVA.

Ker Than

Published May 6, 2010

The next time you’re tempted to call some oaf a Neanderthal, you might want to take a look in the mirror.

According to a new DNA study, most humans have a little Neanderthal in them—at least 1 to 4 percent of a person’s genetic makeup.

The study uncovered the first solid genetic evidence that “modern” humans—or Homo sapiens—interbred with their Neanderthal neighbors, who mysteriously died out about 30,000 years ago.

What’s more, the Neanderthal-modern human mating apparently took place in the Middle East, shortly after modern humans had left Africa, not in Europe—as has long been suspected.

“We can now say that, in all probability, there was gene flow from Neanderthals to modern humans,” lead study author Ed Green of the University of California, Santa Cruz, said in a prepared statement.

That’s no surprise to anthropologist Erik Trinkhaus, whose skeleton-based claims of Neanderthal-modern human interbreeding—previously contradicted with DNA evidence—appear to have been vindicated by the new gene study, to be published tomorrow in the journal Science.

“They’ve finally seen the light … because it’s been obvious to many us that this happened,” said Trinkaus, of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, who wasn’t part of the new study.

Trinkhaus adds that most living humans probably have much more Neanderthal DNA than the new study suggests.

“One to 4 percent is truly a minimum,” Trinkaus added. “But is it 10 percent? Twenty percent? I have no idea.”

Surprising Spot for Neanderthal-Human Mating

The genetic study team reached their conclusion after comparing the genomes of five living humans—from China, France, Papua New Guinea, southern Africa, and western Africa—against the available “rough draft” of the Neanderthal genome.

The results showed that Neanderthal DNA is 99.7 percent identical to modern human DNA, versus, for example, 98.8 percent for modern humans and chimps, according to the study. (Related: “Neanderthals Had Same ‘Language Gene’ as Modern Humans.”)

In addition, all modern ethnic groups, other than Africans, carry traces of Neanderthal DNA in their genomes, the study says—which at first puzzled the scientists. Though no fossil evidence has been found for Neanderthals and modern humans coexisting in Africa, Neanderthals, like modern humans, are thought to have arisen on the continent.

“If you told an archaeologist that you’d found evidence of gene exchange between Neanderthals and modern humans and asked them to guess which [living] population it was found in, most would say Europeans, because there’s well documented archaeological evidence that they lived side by side for several thousand years,” said study team member David Reich.

For another thing, Neanderthals never lived in China or Papua New Guinea, in the Pacific region of Melanesia, according to the archaeological record.

“But the fact is that Chinese and Melanesians are as closely related to Neanderthals” as Europeans, said Reich, a population geneticist at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University.

Neanderthal-Human One-Night Stand?

So how did modern humans with Neanderthal DNA end up in Asia and Melanesia?

Neanderthals, the study team says, probably mixed with early Homo sapiens just after they’d left Africa but before Homo sapiens split into different ethnic groups and scattered around the globe.

The first opportunity for interbreeding probably occurred about 60,000 years ago in Middle Eastern regions adjacent to Africa, where archaeological evidence shows the two species overlapped for a time, the team says.

And it wouldn’t have taken much mating to make an impact, according to study co-author Reich. The results could stem from a Neanderthal-modern human one-night stand or from thousands of interspecies assignations, he said.

More DNA Evidence for Neanderthal-Human Mating

The new study isn’t alone in finding genetic hints of Homo sapiens-Homo neanderthalensis interbreeding.

Genetic anthropologist Jeffrey Long, who calls the Science study “very exciting,” co-authored a new, not yet published study that found DNA evidence of interbreeding between early modern humans and an “archaic human” species, though it’s not clear which. He presented his team’s findings at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Albuquerque, New Mexico, last month.

Long’s team reached its conclusions after searching the genomes of hundreds of modern humans for “signatures of different evolutionary processes in DNA variation.”

Like the new Science paper, Long’s study speculates that interbreeding occurred just after our species had left Africa, but Long’s study didn’t include analysis of the Neanderthal genome.

“At the time we started the project, I never imagined I’d ever see an empirical confirmation of it,” said Long, referring to the Science team’s Neanderthal-DNA evidence, “so I’m pretty happy to see it.”


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New Evidence That Dark Chocolate is Good For Me!! (and you)

I have a serious addiction to Lindt Swiss Dark Chocolate – a vegan delight if there ever was one.

And now I have further evidence that this addiction is actually a virtue, not a vice. Here’s the story from Science Daily:


ScienceDaily (Nov. 12, 2009) — The “chocolate cure” for emotional stress


Pieces of dark chocolate. The "chocolate cure" for emotional stress is getting new support from a clinical trial. (Credit: iStockphoto)

is getting new support from a clinical trial published online in ACS’ Journal of Proteome Research. It found that eating about an ounce and a half of dark chocolate a day for two weeks reduced levels of stress hormones in the bodies of people feeling highly stressed. Everyone’s favorite treat also partially corrected other stress-related biochemical imbalances.

Sunil Kochhar and colleagues note growing scientific evidence that antioxidants and other beneficial substances in dark chocolate may reduce risk factors for heart disease and other physical conditions. Studies also suggest that chocolate may ease emotional stress. Until now, however, there was little evidence from research in humans on exactly how chocolate might have those stress-busting effects.

In the study, scientists identified reductions in stress hormones and other stress-related biochemical changes in volunteers who rated themselves as highly stressed and ate dark chocolate for two weeks. “The study provides strong evidence that a daily consumption of 40 grams [1.4 ounces] during a period of 2 weeks is sufficient to modify the metabolism of healthy human volunteers,” the scientists say.

Journal reference:

  1. Martin et al. Metabolic Effects of Dark Chocolate Consumption on Energy, Gut Microbiota, and Stress-Related Metabolism in Free-Living Subjects. Journal of Proteome Research, 2009; 091007113151065 DOI: 10.1021/pr900607v
Adapted from materials provided by American Chemical Society.

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Vegans Are NOT Wimps!

Here’s a reprint of an article from Canada’s Globe & Mail newspaper about Montreal Canadiens’ tough guy, Georges Laraque.

Sean Gordon

MONTREAL — From Wednesday’s Globe and Mail Last updated on Thursday, Sep. 17, 2009 12:45AM EDT

First, the eyebrows arch quizzically, then the legend’s nose crinkles in disapproval.

“Ferguson never would have accepted it,” huffs Henri Richard,

George Laraque

George Laraque

11-time Stanley Cup champion, uber-competitor, the Pocket Rocket himself, speaking of John Ferguson, the former Montreal Canadiens tough guy.

It’s a natural enough reaction from a man whose off-season preparations used to consist of switching from golf to tennis in early August.

He has just been informed that Canadiens forward Georges Laraque, boulevardier, animal-rights activist and perhaps the most feared pugilist in the NHL, is a vegan (“a what?” Richard said), a militant one.

No dairy, no poultry, no fish, no more leather shoes or animal byproducts, Laraque has been on a strict diet of vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes since June 1.

While he says he was partly motivated to improve his health for the hockey season, Laraque insists the decision was made primarily for political, rather than nutritional, reasons.

Everything changed, Laraque said, after he saw Earthlings, a 2006 documentary that is widely celebrated in animal-rights circles.

“It’s unconscionable what’s happening to animals in this country and the way we treat animals we eat. … I realized I had to make some big changes,” Laraque said.

Though Laraque said he will no longer buy leather of any kind, he hasn’t rid his closet or hockey bag of previously purchased leather products because, “that would be a further waste. And this way I don’t forget.”

Laraque, who also does yoga daily, an activity he picked up as a member of the Edmonton Oilers, said he’s never felt better and reported for training camp at a comparatively svelte 245 pounds.

“I’ve lost some weight, but I’ve been working with a really great nutritionist and I’ve never had this much energy,” he said.

“I think it’s also important to break the stereotype that all vegans are skinny people with long hair,” added Laraque, as unlikely a supporter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals as the NHL has ever seen. (This summer he sent a letter on the group’s behalf to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, protesting the Canadian seal hunt.)

Laraque couldn’t think of any other vegan NHLers off the top of his head.

But the burly winger finds himself among a vanguard of current and former pro athletes who are eschewing most meats.

Laraque cites Major League Baseball player Prince Fielder, former Olympic sprinter Carl Lewis, NFL tight end Tony Gonzalez and retired NBA player John Salley as vegetarians who inspired him.

Richard, who readily admits that he’s often astonished at the lengths to which today’s hockey players go to train, hails from an era when Guy Lafleur prepared for the season by cutting back from three packs of cigarettes a day to two, or so the legend goes. (“It didn’t matter, he was always faster than everyone,” Richard joked.)

And though Laraque is undoubtedly an outlier in the Canadiens dressing room and in the league, he’s not alone in his approach.

Mike Cammalleri, who joined the Habs as a free agent in the summer, strives to eat organic, fresh and local foods.

“I find it helps my energy levels stay high throughout the season,” he said.

Cammalleri also regularly practises Pilates and occasionally will throw in a few yoga exercises, “but I don’t really have the patience for yoga.”

Not all the Habs are in tune with the new ethos. Fourth-year forward Guillaume Latendresse, who has overhauled his off-season regimen in each of the past two seasons, says he switched to a high-protein diet, but that he’s not willing to renounce meat altogether.

“[Laraque] has invited us all out to a vegan restaurant … but if I go, I’m bringing a steak in my jacket pocket,” he joked.

So in a tough-guy, famously hidebound culture like pro hockey, Laraque remains a curiosity, but he’s resolved to carry on spreading the word.

“People still think it’s kind of funny, but I’m not doing this to be funny,” he said. “There are more puppy mills in Quebec than anywhere else in Canada, and no laws to shut them down. People get slapped with a fine and six months later they reopen. Do you think that’s funny?”


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Monkey Revolt – Part Deux

If you read my blog about Santino, the monkey in a Swedish zoo who created stockpiles of rocks to throw at annoying voyeurs, you will see that we have a trend developing amongst our primate cousins when you read this story from the Telegraph.


A monkey who was forced to climb palm trees by his owner took revenge by killing him with a coconut.


Last Updated: 7:03AM GMT 11 Mar 2009

The animal threw the missile from the top of a tree after becoming frustrated with his tiring labour, according to reports.

Leilit Janchoom, 48, had employed the monkey to pick coconuts which he could then sell for around 4p each.monkeycoconut

The animal – named Brother Kwan – found the work tedious and strenuous but Mr Janchoom refused to let him rest, dishing out beatings if he refused to climb trees.

It is believed that the monkey eventually snapped, and targeted his owner from a high branch with one of the hard-skinned fruits.

Mr Janchoom, from the province of Nakorn Sri Thammarat in Thailand, died on the spot after being struck by the coconut, according to reports in a local newspaper.

The dead man’s wife said that the monkey had “seemed lovable” when they bought him for £130.

News of the attacks comes after scientists disclosed this week that a chimpanzee at a Swedish zoo became so annoyed at being gawked at by tourists in a zoo that he started creating weapons to hurl at them.

Santino the chimp would calmly collect stones and fashion discs made out of concrete even when the zoo was closed, to throw at visitors when they returned.

Scientists believe his behaviour is the strongest proof yet that humans are not the only creatures which can make plans for the future.

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Skeptics in the Auld Dubliner Irish Pub

I am currently in California on a combination business/writing trip. Last night I had the pleasure of meeting Jim Etchison, author of The Meat of the Matter blog.  jim

Like me, Jim is an  ex-fundamentalist, charismatic Christian who is now a thoroughgoing skeptic and atheist. Jim and I met through our blogs and when I knew that I was coming to sunny SoCal, I asked Jim if he would be interested in getting together for a drink. So, last night we met at the Auld Dubliner pub in Irvine.

Jim and I had a lot of affinities and it was fun meeting up with someone with a similar journey to my own.

I encourage you to check out Jim’s blog. He has a lot of great things to say — although his stance on animal rights still needs some tweaking! [Sorry, Jim, I had to take that shot while I had the chance. : ) ]

Anyway, it’s always great when someone who is an electronic friend becomes a real flesh and blood one. Here’s to you, Jimmy boy!

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Am I my brother’s zookeeper or just a drinking buddy?

I want to tie together two seemingly disparate stories in this post, so I hope you will bear with me.

The first story concerns a recent conversation I had with friends.

I am currently on a writing retreat in California, enjoying a respite from Toronto winter weather while I get back to working on a memoir about my journey from fundamentalist Baptist minister to atheist/naturalist.

On Sunday night, four of my friends/colleagues got together for dinner at a stylish bar called Yard House (which claims to have the world’s largest selection of draft beer – I’d love to know how you would go about proving that. And I think our Toronto establishment, The Bier Market, could give them a good run for their money. But, I digress…)

Yardhouse at Irvine Spectrum

Yardhouse at Irvine Spectrum

As we were deciding what to order, I, the sole vegan in the group, was asked the usual question, “Is there anything here that you can eat?” On this occasion, this caring question somehow kicked off a discussion about animal rights. I really don’t remember exactly how we got into it…

At one point in our “discussion” (if my friends are reading, they will be smiling with how I just dignified the description of our conversation!) I was trying to get them to articulate the basis on which they believe all humans should be granted rights. The question I asked – which I repeated several times, each time with more volume, intensity, and frustration! – was this, “What is the basis on which we grant rights to humans that would include all members of our species — babies, the severely mentally challenged, those suffering from Alzheimer’s, blacks, whites, Asians, the rich, the poor?”

My frustration came out of my perception that for some reason, my friends kept wanting to answer the question, “Why do humans have rights and not other animals?” Each time they would give me an answer (which always boiled down to “Because we’re human and they’re not”) I would respond, “That’s not what I’m asking!!!”

I’m not sure why there was this disconnect. (Part of me wants to believe that it’s because they knew where this was heading and didn’t want to have to deal with the implications of the answer – but that’s a very convenient interpretation for me!) I guess I wasn’t asking the question clearly. Eventually, we moved on to less contentious conversation.

What I was trying to get at in asking my question in the manner I did was this: it seems to me, the only real criterion sufficient to grant all humans rights – apart from the religious dogma that all humans are made in God’s image, whatever that means –  is that we are sentient beings (sentience is simply the ability to feel things). Attempts to link human rights to cognitive capacity of some kind ultimately fail to protect everyone.

For example, if we try to argue that rights are related to the cognitive capacity of self-consciousness that allows one to be aware of one’s circumstances and have a stake in them, then infants, the severely mentally challenged and Alzheimer’s patients would not qualify. In a somewhat related vein, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives as its basis for declaring the rights of all humans the idea that , “All human beings are…  endowed universal-declaration-of-human-rightswith reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” But clearly, as indicated above, not all humans are endowed with reason. And some humans seem to genuinely lack a conscience (we call them sociopaths).

So, if cognitive capacities fail to include everyone, what other criterion exists that would suggest that all humans worthy of the basic rights of life and liberty?

I believe that the only logical, defensible criterion is that of sentience.

All humans have the capacity to sense pain and pleasure. And it is that capacity that gives them a moral right to life and liberty. Apart from the empirically unprovable metaphysical statement that humans possess some divinely granted “spiritual” status, the only criterion that I can think of that can cover ALL humans and that is logically and psychologically defensible is sentience.

Now, if this is granted as a sufficient and necessary criterion for human rights, we are then forced to ask, “Are humans the only animals that are sentient?” And the answer to that is clearly, “No.”

And that brings up the question of the logical disparity between saying that humans deserve rights but other animals do not (to claim that humans deserve rights simply because we are human is the same as saying that whites deserve rights that blacks do not simply because they are white. The logic is the same).

So, that’s my first story.

The second story I want to discuss is one that I read about today on a couple of different online newspaper sites. It concerns a chimpanzee named Santino at a zoo in Furuvik, Sweden.

Why is Santino special? According to The Guardian,

Santino, a 31-year-old male… may be the first animal to exhibit an unambiguous ability to plan for the future, a behaviour many scientists argue is unique to humans. Forward planning takes considerable cognitive skills, because it requires an animal to envisage future events it will have to deal with.

What exactly was Santino doing to merit such a claim?

When visitors would arrive to view him, Santino would throw stones at them trying to get them to go away.

Santino the chimp with a stone in his hand

Santino the chimp with a stone in his hand

The “planning for the future” piece was demonstrated by the fact that in the early mornings, when the zoo was still closed, Santino would go out to the protective moat surrounding his island, looking for more stones  which he would then groups into piles, thus resupplying his ammunition. He also was observed thumping concrete walls in order to shake off small clumps that he would then break into smaller disks, creating even more ammo. Even more telling, Santino’s piles were only located on the quarter of the island’s shore that faced the spectators.

The zoo responded by warning visitors when Santino was becoming agitated and by erecting a protective wall to try to keep his missiles from hitting anyone.

Cognitive scientist Mathias Osvath, led the study of Santino’s behaviour. Ovath believes that Santino’s behaviour reveals complex forward planning aimed at trying to get onlookers to move along.

“Forward planning like this is supposed to be uniquely human; it implies a consciousness that is very special, that you can close your eyes you can see this inner world,” he said. “Many apes throw objects, but the novelty with Santino is that he makes caches of these missiles while he is fully calm and only throws them much later on. “We are not alone in the world within. There are other creatures who have this special consciousness that is said to be uniquely human.”

So, here’s my point. For those who do try to posit the uniqueness of human cognition and consciousness as the grounds for human rights, the fact is that there are many animals who seem to demonstrate a significant degree of intelligence (consider, as another example, the remarkable story of Alex the Parrot) and even self-awareness – often more than some members of the human community.

Evolution gives us the fact of common descent, the evidence is in both the fossil record and our own DNA. Evolution teaches us that the line between species is fuzzy at best. As Darwin said 150 years ago, our differences from other animals are those of degree, not kind. The more we learn about the inner life of animals the more we are realizing that the degree of difference is far less than we once imagined. It is for this reason that Spain has passed legislation granting rights to other primates.

So, while I believe that sentience is the only solid ground for human rights, even if we posit certain cognitive abilities as the ground for those rights, we are still drawn by logic to the conclusion that other animals also deserve the right to life and liberty.

So, I should not be my brother’s zookeeper, but I am happy to be his drinking buddy. My two stories coalesce.


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Study Suggests Multivitamins Don’t Work

This is a reprint of a Live Science article. It reinforces what I have been reading for some time. The bottom line: humans evolved to get our nutrients from real food not artificial vitamins and supplements. And note the importance of the plant-based foods! 🙂


Long-term multivitamin use has no impact on the risk of common cancers, cardiovascular disease or overall mortality in postmenopausal women, a new study finds.

The message is simple and echoes the advice of most researchers who have looked into the effects of diet: Eat real food.

Several other studies have shown vitamin supplements to be next to worthless and in some cases harmful.

“Get nutrients from food,” said study leader Marian L. Neuhouser of the Public Health Sciences Division at the Hutchinson Center. “Whole foods are better than dietary supplements. Getting a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and whole grains is particularly important.”

Multivitamins because they are the most commonly used supplement in the United States, used by more than half of residents, who spend more than $20 billion on these products each year, Neuhouser said.

“To our surprise, we found that multivitamins did not lower the risk of the most common cancers and also had no impact on heart disease,” she said.

The results were published in the Feb. 9 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Study details

The study was big. It assessed multivitamin use among nearly 162,000 women enrolled in the Women’s Health Initiative, one of the largest U.S. prevention studies of its kind designed to address the most common causes of death, disability and impaired quality of life in postmenopausal women. The women were followed for about eight years.

Of the participants, 41.5 percent reported using multivitamins on a regular basis. Multivitamin users were more likely to be white, live in the western United States, have a lower body-mass index, be more physically active and have a college degree or higher as compared to non-users. Multivitamin users also were more likely to drink alcohol and less likely to smoke than non-users, and they reported eating more fruits and vegetables and consuming less fat than non-users.

During the eight-year study period, 9,619 cases of breast, colorectal, endometrial, renal, bladder, stomach, lung or ovarian cancer were reported, as well as 8,751 cardiovascular events and 9,865 deaths. The data showed no significant differences in risk of cancer, heart disease or death between the multivitamin users and non-users.

Not news

These findings are consistent with most previously published results regarding the lack of health benefits of multivitamins, Neuhouser said. But this study provides definitive evidence.

“The Women’s Health Initiative is one of the largest studies ever done on diet and health,” she said. “Because we have such a large and diverse sample size, including women from 40 sites across the nation, our results can be generalized to a healthy population.”

Since the study did not include men, Neuhouser cautions that the results may not apply to them.


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