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Penile spines & sensory whiskers

March 18, 2011

I switched my subscription recently from Scientific American to New Scientist. I discovered I was picking up the latter in newsagents on the basis of the cover story, and finding more useful material. I went through the reverse process a few years ago so I suppose these things go in cycles. Either way I was catching up on the edition of 12th March seated in the new wet room while reflecting on civilisation; in this case underfloor heating and a bidet shower. The magazine lede (marker sign for a wikipedia editor that spelling) reported on research which established that human differences from other mammals is not a result of our having more genes, but rather having lost regulatory regions (sequences of DNA that “lie between genes and act as switches, orchestrating when and where specific genes are turning on or off through the course of an animal’s development”).

Two examples of this loss, namely sensory whiskers on the face and the penile spine are interesting. The speculation is that the penile spine is highly functional if you want to focus on fertilization in a competitive market place, but its loss encourages intimacy through prolongation of the sexual act and this producing all sorts of benefits in terms of empathy, child rearing etc. etc. Sensory whiskers are part of the same AR gene so their loss is an unintended consequence.

Now one should beware too close a metaphor, but I think this makes the point of efficiency against effectiveness on which I have posted too many times to reference a specific example. Human systems need inefficiencies for intelligence to develop.

The picture I leave to your imagination ….

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