Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
The Child is Father of the Man (Wordsworth, My heart Leaps Up). Whatever Wordsworth meant, I take it to mean that the true nature of a person does not change with time. True, but the clever child will grow smarter. Modern children are definitely smarter than their parents. I don’t mean more genetically intelligent, but having better ability to do creative work, to make and invent things. They can adapt to a far more complicated world.
I may be smarter than my father. I can work on computer. But, I may not be more intelligent than my father. My father could cope with the world as it existed then. The ever-increasing scientific spectacle with visual imagery all around us has made children smarter than when I was at their age.
It’s also because of better nutrition in their formative years while the brain is growing and better nurturing of children by their parents. Intelligence differences between generations are largely gaps in different abilities.
According to IQ researcher and political scientist James Flynn (New Zealand), children’s IQ scores throughout the developed world have been creeping up for the past 70 years at about 3 IQ points every decade, known as “Flynn effect”(1994) after him. And that, American’s mean IQ score that was slowly rising over the past 100 years might well have stopped now. For the developing world, he says: “It’s a different kettle of fish. They are taking off in the way Europeans did 100 years ago when Americans and Britons had a mean IQ of 70 in 1900.”
‘Flynn effect’ is substantial and long-sustained increase in both fluid [ability to solve new problems] and crystallised [ability to use learned knowledge and experience] intelligence test scores. This is a hot topic. He might be right though controversial. His study of African IQ levels is “deeply flawed” (University van Amsterdam, 2010).
Preschool children in private nurseries in Imphal, must now be as familiar with dinosaurs and woolly mammoths, as my 4-year old granddaughter, who goes to a day private nursery in London since the age of one and knows about them. Not only does she know the English alphabet, but can write phonetic words. She won’t have done in a state nursery with the same IQ. I began to struggle with my vernacular alphabet when I was 5, “encouraged” with my father’s sporadic clouts, for being gormless.
I knew about dinosaurs when I was 30, after I saw a huge skeleton, 26m long, of a dinosaur diplodocus , unearthed in the US in 1898, in the entrance hall of Natural History Museum in London. It has now been replaced in 2015 by the skeleton of a blue whale, found dead in 1891 on an Irish beach.
Scientists are now trying to bring an extinct mammoth that lived alongside dinosaurs, alive and kicking, after the discovery of a well preserved adult female mammoth, code-named “BUTTERCUP” in May 2013, in the Arctic permafrost (frozen earth under the snow) of Siberia. It was 2.4 m tall, about the same size as a modern elephant, and died at the age of 50 (normal life span of 80-90 years like an elephant). Palaeontologists think this female creature died around 40,000 years ago. As it is in such a good condition they believe they may be able to clone the creature.
Scientists believe “de-extinction”(bringing extinct creatures to life) has become a realistic prospect as they have the technique to ‘edit’ genes that allows precise selection and insertion of DNA taken from extinct specimens. Prof George Church, a world-renowned geneticist, who helped develop the most widely known technique, known as CRISPR/Cas9, that has transformed genetic engineering since it was first demonstrated in 2012, has made the project possible. The technique derives from a defence system bacteria, used to fend off viruses and allow precise “cut and paste” manipulation of strands of DNA.
Scientists at Harvard Woolly Mammoth Revival Team, led by Prof Church, have been working to create a DNA blueprint of the mammoth for the past two years, using materials from carcases preserved in the Arctic permafrost. They hope they will eventually be able to reintroduce the huge creatures back in the wild, tens of thousands of years after they became extinct, by cloning them with an Asian elephant surrogate mum at some point.
The woolly mammoth is closely related to Manipuri elephants like those at Kaziranga National Park, Assam (Asian). I used to see them in my childhood, often taking brides to their grooms’ houses. They have smaller ears shaped like India and thus different from African elephants. They roamed Europe, Asia, Africa and North America during the Last Ice Age. They vanished about 10,000 years ago, presumably due to climate change and being hunted for food by our human ancestors.
The autopsy (November 23 2016) of most of Buttercup’s body with her three legs, head and trunk, still intact (the rest was probably eaten by predators after becoming stuck in a bog), has given scientists serious ideas about bringing them back to life. Church and his team that started the project in 2015, hope to isolate the genes that differentiate mammoths from modern elephants, such as those responsible for its woolly coat, and then slice mammoth genes with the genomes of the elephant embryo to create a hybrid with recognisable features of a mammoth like its woolliness. They are now trying to grow a mammoth embryo in artificial womb, rather than use a female elephant as a surrogate mother.
Prof Church, speaking at the meeting of the Annual American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, Massachusetts in February 2016, said: “We are working on ways to evaluate the impact of gene editing and trying to establish embryogenesis [to develop into an embryo].” He said: “The list of edits affects things that contribute to the success of elephants in cold environments, and we already know about those to do with small ears, subcutaneous fat, hair and cold-adapted blood, but there are others that seem to be positively selected. These modifications could help preserve the Asian elephant, which is endangered, in an altered form.”
“Further, our aim is to produce a hybrid elephant-mammoth embryo that will be more like an elephant with a number of mammoth traits [elephant at heart, mammoth in body]. We’re not there yet, but it could happen in a couple of years. The mammoth project has two goals: to secure an alternative future for the Asian elephant and to combat global warming. They keep the tundra from thawing by punching through snow and allowing cold air to come in. In the summer they knock down trees and help the grass grow.”
The Harvard team intends to engineer elephant skin cells to produce the embryo, or multiple embryos, using cloning techniques. Nuclei from the reprogrammed cells would be placed into elephant egg cells whose own genetic materials have been removed. The eggs would then be artificially stimulated to develop into embryos. Prof Church said: “We hope to do the entire procedure ex-vivo (outside a living body). It would be unreasonable to put female reproduction at risk in an endangered species. We are testing the growth of mice ex-vivo with a new set of technology and we’re taking a fresh look at it.”
More invigoratingly, Prof Church also said, “Age-reversal [altering old to new cells] will become a reality within 10 years as a result of developments in genetic engineering.” He didn’t elaborate on it. But we know in July 2016, he and others of the Life Extension Foundation at Harvard School of
Medicine, have envisioned a time when human longevity would not be constrained to a finite number of years. He has already been able to ‘reverse ageing’ in human cells by using the emergent technique of ‘gene editing’.
He expects the clinical trials of this technology to rejuvenate old folks to lively youthfulness, to begin within as little as one year. Whilst, Japanese scientists, the only nation with superb IQ in Asia, led by Jun-Ichi Hayashi at the University of Tsukuba, independently, reversed ageing in human “Cell Lines” in May 2015. They made a 97-year old cell line behave as good as new.
Mammoths were thought to be legendary creatures like Himalayan snowman, often found in prehistoric cave paintings, until many of them were found frozen as carcasses, skeletons, stomach content and dung in Siberia and Alaska. The woolly mammoth lived during the Pleistocene epoch or the Last Ice Age. They diverged from ‘steppe mammoth’ about 400,000 years ago. Its present relative is the Asian elephant.
Mammoths were vegetarians. Early humans used to build houses of mammoth bones and used their bones and tusks for making tools and dwellings. They also ate mammoth flesh. There are mountain caves used by mammoths such as, Mammoth Cave Natural Park in Kentucky and one particular cave in Utah, US, had mammoth dung of 45cm thick, with a total volume of 226 cubic metre.
Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), French founder of vertebrate palaeontology, astonished the world by saying that some species of animals had actually vanished from the face of the Earth, which we now believe without a thought. He was able to identify mammoth as an extinct species of elephant in 1796.
(The writer is based in the UK. Email:[email protected]; Website:www.drimsingh.co.uk)
Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh