April 16, 2012
to be posted on silentnursery.com and nobabies.net

Heidi Ledford
75 First Street suite 104
Cambridge, MA 02141

Dear Heidi Ledford:
I read your article (Heidi Ledford The Biological Higgs NATURE vol. 483 no. 7391 March 29, 2012 page 528 with interest.  Given the current excitement about finding the Higgs boson particle, which can now be hiding in only one place, which needs must be what was a priori the least likely place, you contend with the question of what biology can do to match the magnitude of the endeavor.  Well the human genome project was certainly a hard act to follow.  Like the Higgs project, practical applications seem somewhat uncertain at best.

You consider three possibilities, whether there is life off the earth, whether there is life on the earth that is unrelated to known life, and whether we can extend old age a lot.  This last might have some spin offs.  Biologically it would be a blessing if the extra years were accompanied by sufficient health and vigor.  But there is also a social issue.  Most moderately successful people get replaced not because they can no longer do the work but because they are supplanted by younger people with new ideas.  Science seems to be an exception to this trend of course.

But I think there is a brighter prospect.  Years ago there was a paper (On the Regulation of Populations of Mammals, Birds, Fish, and Insects, Richard M. Sibly et al. SCIENCE vol. 309 no. 5734  July 22, 2005 page 607 – 610) that found a relationship between population size and population growth that did not seem to be due to environmental effects.  Basically the less kin the average mating pair were, the fewer offspring they had.  The paper suggested that there must be a mechanism.  Later papers (An Association between Kinship and Fertility of Human Couples Agnar Helgason et al. SCIENCE vol. 329 no. 5864 February 8, 2008 page 813 – 816 and Human Fertility Increases with marital radius. Rodrigo Labourai and Antonio Amorim.  GENETICS volume 178 January 2008 page 603) confirmed the effect in humans.

Understanding this would have enormous effect.  This is about babies, and there is nothing more important in life either in the short run or the long run.  Understanding the effect of kinship is as important as understanding the effect of sex. 


M. Linton Herbert MD

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