February 13, 2011

The _why_ tales

Some of the coolest recent research stories about why some things are the way they are. These stories have appeared in the news over the last year or so. The synopsis: blame evolution, society, genes and your unnaturally large heads.


If you thought tickling served no purpose other than to cause social faux pas, you were underestimating its significance. Turns out there is a purpose to tickling. And funnily it is self defense. According to people that spend time thinking about this, the parts that make you tickle are the same one that need to be protected the most. And tickling between kids is a way to develop and hone self defense skills. Which is why when someone goes for that ticklish spot, you cannot help but react like you are being hunted.

Pruney fingers

I had always interpreted the wrinkling of fingers in water as a sign to stay clear of prolonged exposure to water - one of the many reasons I never learned to swim. However, research suggests that the real reason is way cooler. Wrinkled fingers are our own all-weather tires. If our fingers didn't wrinkle, we would have to learn two sets of actions, one set for when our hands were dry and another set of actions for when our hands were wet and slippery. The wrinkles do away with that need. Instead we grab onto stuff the same way, and our fingers take care of the rest.

Body Clocks

Body Clock

Your internal clock is the reason you feel drowsy at late night parties, and annoyingly awake during lazy weekend mornings. Till recently lab coats had associated this 24-hour circadian cycle to our DNA. Turns out the truth is cooler, or redder. The clock is a protein in your blood whose quantity rises and falls (like tides) in a 24 hour cycle, that tells us what time it is. This happens in all living things, including algae. What is scary is that, the body clock keeps running even if genes are not active. And that, kids, is why zombies are able to maintain a perfect 24-hour clock hunting cycle.

Snakes and Spiders

So you have had it with these mutter-feeling snakes and these manner-fearing spiders. Guess what - you are not alone. Of all earthly creatures, snakes and spiders are the least helpful and most dangerous (poisonous) to humans. Which is why even though it is not (yet) in our DNA to fear these slimy and leggy buggers, we are inherently biased when it comes to hating them. One man's phobia is basic common sense for the rest of us. And guess what happened to that one man. He was bitten to death by a slithering pile of venomous snake-iders.


Body Clock

Don't you hate it when the IT guy glances at your browsing history and you have to blush? How we blush is well known. The why is linked to evolutionary social adaptation. Blushing is a way of saying sorry when one is guilty of a social infraction. Unlike other animals, our primary defense was not speed or strength, but in numbers. Being kicked out of a social group was generally considered a life-limiting move. Blushing and apologizing could be the difference between life and death. So next time you bump into someone - apologize. Unless you like being eaten by wild animals.


At the cost of sounding flippant, cancer is apparently just your inner monkey expressing itself (ugh, there is so much wrong with this sentence, that it stays). In other words it, allegedly, is our unicellular selves deciding to ignore billions of years of evolution to decide that we are little more than rotting logs in shallow water. If this is true, the bad news is cancer is not something mankind can inoculate into oblivious. The good news is cancer has as much intelligence as moss growing under a rock. Maybe now "curing cancer" will stop being the sarcastic benchmark for overzealous committees.

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