The forcing of language


All languages show a continuous flow of transformation; so much so that the Latin of 2000 years ago morphed into a myriad of new languages, among them Portuguese, Spanish, French, the Italian dialects etc. That the outcome had not been one single language is a sign that the forces acting on language are region dependent. Slang words are continuously being invented and, despite the resistance of the literates, some new words find their way into the accepted dictionaries. But there are other forces as well.

An example: one of the forces is the casting of spoken language into writing. Considering the Latin alphabet of 23 letters, if the presumably much larger number of original phonemes was to be represented by a small number of signs a streamlining of words was then required which tended to change word forms for good and even eliminate some. In speech there is the ancient hiatus word “ahhhn”, which means more will come. It  occurs in conversations, being what one can call a sonorous pause in which the speaker instantly ponders what to say next. Pressure exists not to represent it in writing and treat it as an affectation, or to represent it by a hyphen which is not pronounced. This might be so because the western alphabets are, in some aspects, inadequate and almost force the elimination of this word. Not so in Japanese script which has a widely used sign for more will come.

The ongoing globalization of economy is bringing with it new forces on language. Newly introduced commercial products tend to bring with them to other languages the name they have in the country of origin.  The words “computer” and “software” are good examples. Many languages accepted these words with only minor modifications. It is true that some resisted, like the French, who created for them their own words “ordinateur” and “logiciel”.

Linked to globalization, another forcing of languages is also springing up, coming from the need to translate. In the act of translating a text from one language into another, correspondences of words need to be established. With most words the correspondence is straightforward, but in many instances there is a cultural dependence, so that for a good translation the translator should be well versed in the cultures of the countries where the languages are spoken. Otherwise, when he faces a multiple choice for the translation of some word, he might pick the wrong correspondence making the resulting translation strange-sounding or unintelligible. Take the word “assume” in its meaning of “suppose”. At present an acceptable choice, for a translation into Portuguese, is “assumir”. Not so 50 years ago. In the meantime this new word was forced into the Portuguese language due to pressure coming from translation. As automatic translation is becoming important, it is expected that the words in our dictionaries will be streamlined so as to facilitate them.


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Primordial Soup

Primordial Soup

In the lifeless “Primordial Soup”, made up of carbon compounds and exposed to solar radiation, the making and breaking of chemical bonds between neighboring atoms would have been going on at random if it were not for catalytic forces which are present in chemical environments. Catalytic action directs chemical reactions in a way specific to each type of catalyst, and these are numerous. The directing happened initially almost at random, but the situation changed, when in that random succession of compounds a self-catalyzing molecule emerged.
The self-catalyzing property of a molecule is its ability to act on the neighboring substances and prompt them to assemble a new molecule just like itself. At present this process goes on routinely inside cells of living beings, in the process of duplication of DNA molecules: each time that is, when a single strand of DNA acts on its environment so as to receive a companion strand. But molecules simpler than DNA might have a self-catalytic capability already.
There is speculation that in the primordial soup the first self-catalytic entities, relevant to life, had been RNA molecules. These are made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorus. Such imagined self-catalytic entities are then self-replicating and could be considered as being the simplest form of life.
The presence of self-replicating molecules inside a primordial soup will have the effect of increasing the numbers of such molecules until the resources are exhausted. What are the resources? They could be the sources of elements such as phosphorus and nitrogen, in the case of replicating RNA; plus, of course, the source of carbon and the source of energy. To simplify presentation, all these resources can be thought-of as existing mixed together inside the primordial soup.
Production of new replicating molecules would come to a halt once the resources were exhausted; unless there was a conceivable slight spread in the molecule’s structure or a favorable mutation had occurred. Based on the differences the dominance of the fittest for replication would tend to set in.
Darwinian type selection would then be unleashed with premiums set on capability for mobilization of resources outside the primordial soup and maybe even on a kind of “division of labor” among different molecules culminating in the evolution of a cell-wall to capture and preserve a catalytically favorable environment.

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A challenge for genetic engineers

Years ago a primate researcher taught a gorilla some 450 words using sign language. Why not spoken language? – because gorillas do not have appropriate vocal cords and cannot pronounce words.

As an aside, I can tell you the sad end of the story: When research funds had run out the researcher sold the gorilla back to a zoo, a harsh environment after having been accustomed to the amenities of human dwelling. Some time later, maybe missing the gorilla’s company or maybe even struck by remorse, the researcher went to see the caged animal. In sign language the gorilla signaled: “want out”.  What else he said was not reported, maybe he insulted his teacher.

So what is the challenge? – vocal cords for gorillas, of course! Sounds very strange at first, but look at the details: the gorilla is an endangered species and if nothing is done he might be hunted to extinction. Why not, then, put the burden of preserving the species on the species itself? Contrasting with other animals, the gorilla might be intelligent enough to succeed.  To accomplish it I propose this scheme:

Transfer vocal cord forming genes into a gorilla’s genome. The genes could be taken from humans, from parrots or from some other animals. Likely to be a minor modification. With that accomplished, bring up a few specimens of genetically modified gorillas, males and females, and teach them as many words as they could learn (I would guess much more than 450); and stimulate them to talk to each other. Then, by using language it would be possible for us to explain to them where the dangers are and teach them how to take defensive measures, as we would teach a child (who understands 450 words only). One of the measures could be to teach them the use a camera so they can help in tracking down and prosecuting the poachers that hunt them.

Taken back to their natural environment they could intermingle with their cousins and protect the pack. A byproduct would be for us to study how the language would be passed on by interbreeding.

As a genome modification project the proposed one differs from what has been practiced.  Inserting additional genes into genomes of animals has been successfully done for decades but always in the interest of humans: producing a goat with fiber-production chemicals in its milk or a pig helping us to handle fertilizer better. The speaking gorilla project, in contrast, is in the gorillas interest.

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Genetic modification

Genetically modified (GM) varieties of soybeans, cotton, corn, rice, etc have been produced, endowed with new qualities. A GM soybean variety contains genes that give it resistance to herbicides so that planted areas can be cheaply cleared of weeds by spraying. A GM cotton variety is resistant to its pest beetle.  For the cotton two advantages resulted: no pesticide spay is necessary and the yield, not being shared with the beetle, is bigger.

The new varieties are quickly displacing the conventional kind, although in some parts of the world, notoriously in Europe, they have initially met with distrust. But opposition seems to be waning.

The distrust is a normal precaution against unexpected and possibly harmful or irreversible side effects which could be unleashed by GM crops. Environmentalists envisioned the GM soybeans possibly affecting the pollinating insect population. They also mentioned a possible release of the implanted genes to other species.  But in the 20 odd years of GM crop cultivation  no disastrous consequences materialized.

A curious aside: the objectors even brought in ethics, arguing that the GM seeds were protected by intellectual property rights,  those of their creators, and allowing food crops to be burdened by royalties was unethical.

Of what consists genetic modification and how is it done? – Throughout a beings life its functioning is determined by what is written in its DNA, which is an assemblage of genes. Genes dictate the behavior by mandating the production or release of chemical compounds such as structural components (e.g. aminoacids),  “fuel” for energy (e. g.  sugars),  or mood affecting humors (e.g. endorphines). New genes can be introduced by extraordinary processes, which are rare and  not part of normal functioning of the plant, and can be brought in by a virus or by certain types of bacteria, or as a consequence of artificial or natural mutation.

All living beings on earth are subject to continual bombardment by ionizing radiation, coming from the earths crust, from the air or from space, at a rate of 0.3 rad per person per year. This is quite strong considering that a sudden dose of 400 rads is lethal to a human. The radiation, being penetrating, sometimes breaks chemical bonds in our DNA. Natural repair mechanisms exist but they fail occasionally, the broken bond might then heal in a wrong way and a new gene can thus be created. This is called mutation, it is natural.  Although a random mutation is likely to be for the worse, some rare ones are for the better. This then can give the individual  a new quality and through it a competitive advantage in reproduction favoring the spread of the new gene.  Other natural ways exist for incorporation of new genes into a living beings genome, although they are rare: some bacteria and viruses are capable of spicing genes into a hosts DNA.

An engineered addition of new genes into a living beings genome, like the one added to the soybean, is indistinguishable from what a bacterium could have naturally done. Mutation is slowly but continually going on around us anyway and crops mutated by genetic engineeing should not be expected to produce upheavals in the environment.

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Defeating viruses

The ongoing battle between us and  sicknesses has not shown any clear signs yet that we will eventually score a definitive victory. To the contrary, there was a succession of advances and retreats.

In more recent history, when we changed our rural habits and started living in towns, the crowded living conditions and our ignorance of hygiene made us vulnerable. New sicknesses found us an easy prey and could score spectacular victories, like killing half the population of a town, as still would happen with the bubonic plague a mere 200 years ago. But implanting hygienic habits stopped it, thus defusing the plague problem.

Small pox had also devastating effects.  Some victims would die of it; the survivors would acquire immunity but be left with a pockmarked face. With smallpox we learned how to make vaccines which produce immunity.  Universal vaccination was introduced in the late 1800s and in 1976 the last smallpox infection had been reported and none since. Small pox, a virus, is now wiped out. It is true that in the freezers of some laboratories samples are still kept, but there is pressure to destroy them. The next one likely to be wiped out, using immunization, is polyo.

These early successes were obtained by only manipulating innate  defensive capacity which our bodies possess anyway and not by applying ingenious biochemical schemes. But the chemistry of life is becoming better understood and also our skill to use it in our defense is improving.  In the struggle against the human immunodeficiency virus (hiv) progress is made along this line.

A virus, by itself, has no capacity to reproduce and that makes it very vulnerable to start with. But it  subdues a human cell into producing copies of itself and that requires a succession of well-orchestrated operations: piercing the cell-wall, transcribing its RNA genetic information into DNA which the cell understands, splicing that into the cell’s DNA, ordering production and so on in a succession of precise steps resulting in many copies of the virus. But each step can be chemically interfered with so as to force “errors” into the process.

The present anti-hiv cocktails interfere with the transcription, not too spectacularly as yet. But improving that and adding some other interferences should inhibit production of viable hiv viruses and cure the patient.

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Frontiers exert a fascination on many of us, apart form what our occupation is.  Beethoven, the great composer of 200 years ago, wanted to know whether Bellinghausen, a seafaring explorer in Russian employ, had found any land with temperate climate  where Antarctica is. A musician caring  about finding new habitable land, shows how widespread among us is the instinctive urge for humanity to keep expanding to the frontiers and beyond.

And  humanity has been expanding, as if propelled by the new skills  which kept being acquired. An important skill was agriculture, invented 10 thousand years ago,  which allowed our ancestors to move into the areas which were thinly populated by nomadic hunters or herdsmen. The big challenge then, in Europe, was to cut down the forests and produce arable land. Their spirit is not promptly understandable to us, but an echo of it is in the surviving names like Roger, Roderich, Rodrigo originally given to men with the desirable skill of routing out trees.

A more recent expansion of frontiers started when high-sea navigation became feasible about 500 years ago. People from densely populated countries, mainly in Europe, could then expand into the New World, where the population was technologically less skilled, and not so dense. But the settling phase did not start promptly. First came what can be called an  adventure phase, in which young men  would go to the New World in search of riches, to be spent in the “Old Country” on return. The spirit of those is satirically portrayed by Voltair’s Candide. Summing up: it was not a desire to re-settle, but only to take advantage of the wealth of new regions. This attitude is promptly transportable to the exploitation of cosmic space.

Space is the new frontier. But a big emigration of settlers to other planets should not be expected for two reasons. One is that mankind is optimized for prevailing conditions on earth: oxygen in air, availability of liquid water, amenable temperatures, suitable gravity, symbiotic engagement with plants and animals, etc. The other is that declining birthrates, worldwide, are pointing to a stabilization of world population numbers, at about 9 billion inhabitants, which, with appropriate management, can be accommodated on earth, no emigration being necessary.

Men already went to the moon, and within the coming decades it is likely that humans will land on Mars, but only small groups will be able to go. Also the stay will not be very long. But, creating the base for space travel with our tax money will make us feel involved in the tackling of this new frontier.

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The dog, originally a wolf, is likely to have been  the fist species to be domesticated,  which happened while we still were hunters. The advent of agriculture allowed us to domesticate many other species, among them plants like rice, wheat, barley, oats, maize, melon, cucumber, apple, banana, plus a very long list; and animals: cattle, horses, chickens, ducks,  goats, sheep, bees, etc.

A shorter list is that of domesticated microorganisms: Yeast, used for alcoholic fermentation, and also for baking bread; and a few others. Not too many, because domesticating microorganisms is a more recent art. But very promising.

Recently a research group from UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) announced that Clostridium Cellulosicum, a bacterium, was engineered to produce butyl alcohol straight from cellulose; no intermediary steps, cellulose IN butyl alcohol OUT.  What was produced is isobutanol, one of several structural variants of butyl  alcohol. Like ethanol (ethyl alcohol) it can be used in combustion engines, except better. It can be added to gasoline in any proportion or be used straight in unmodified engines.

Cellulose is very abundant, it constitutes about half of tree trunks and branches, but only a small fraction of it is actually used by us; sulfite paper is almost pure cellulose, so is cotton fiber. But  the bulk of cellulose produced by the biosphere nobody uses, it just rots away, i. e. is used up by decomposers. Prominent among them are bacteria and fungi they can use it as food: to extract energy and grow.

In the UCLA announcement is stated that the engineered bacterium produces water  solutions containing slightly under 0.1% isobutanol, a rather dilute solution, but a very good beginning. Look at the cow, originally producing just enough milk to feed its calf. But by  domestication and selective breeding the quantity was amazingly expanded, as we can see by looking at the milk products on the supermarket shelf.

It is not yet clear whether Clostridium Cellulosicum can be domesticated as spectacularly as the cow had been and, in the future,  feed our vehicle-fleet with isobutanol. But it is fairly certain that domestication of microorganisms will play a prominent role in the present century which promises to become the century of biology.

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