Some Interesting Stuff I've Learned this Week

Josh Clark

Over the last little while I've picked up on some interesting information that, on their own, aren't really enough for a post each. Put together, though: look out!

1) Most of the wildlife photography I've ever seen was probably faked. Disney was long ago exposed for staging the lemmings running off the cliff scene in the nature film White Wilderness, which forged the lasting idea that lemmings are suicidal. They are not. As I learned recently, that tradition continues in the form of game farms. Most of these farms were initially established as wildlife preserves in states like Montana. After awhile, wildlife photographers started turning up looking for perfect shots of what had become tame animals -- shots they could never get in the woods.

These shots have ended up in calendars, magazines and even in literature for wildlife conservation groups. While mags like Smithsonian and Audubon (where the article on game farms was published) have come to label fake photos as taken in game farms, the problem goes a bit beyond tricking the public. Nature photographers can apparently be ruthless when an animal isn't doing what it wants to. The filmmakers for Disney's White Wilderness captured an adorable bear cub sliding down a snowy hill by kicking it down said hill. Photographers looking to get a fish jumping help it to want to jump for the camera by throwing battery acid on it.

2) The answer to why men have nipples is a lot more boring than I realized. Turns out I've been looking at it the wrong way. Asking why men have nipples is tantamount to asking why men have a liver. Both are organs found in mammals, although the liver provides a function in men while the nipples don't. This doesn't mean they're vestigial, however. Nipples are fully functional in men and there's a condition called "witches' milk," where infant boys are born with enough estrogen in their bloodstream that they emerge from the womb lactating.

Cool, sure, but that's not reason enough to outfit all of us with them. Men have nipples because women do, explains evolutionary biologist Andrew M. Simons. Men and women share nipples as a feature as they do eyebrows, the pancreas, approximately ten fingers. It's a part of being a human mammal and the females and males of our species are more similar than different, something called genetic correlation. What makes the nipples unusual under genetic correlation is that unlike the pancreas they don't provide any reproductive function in men. So there's that.

3) I also found out this week about a woman named Henrietta Lacks, an African-American mother of five who died from cervical cancer in 1951. Lacks wasn't necessarily a remarkable person, but her tumor was. Some of cells from her tumor were taken in a biopsy at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore eight months before she died. Unbeknownst to her, Lacks' cells would become the first immortal cell line in human history, a line called HeLa cells. Whatever genetic signal that created the tumor that killed her allowed her cells to reproduce indefinitely, making her cellular line for all intents and purposes immortal.

This is not supposed to happen. All cells are supposed to be subject to the Hayflick limit, roughly fifty divisions per cell, leading to a human lifespan of no more than 120 years. Lacks' cancerous cells managed to reproduce without exhaustion, however, lending a cell line to science that has been used to develop the polio vaccine, radiation as a cancer treatment and numerous other life-saving techniques.

Unsurprisingly, the biomedical industry has failed to compensate her family for the cellular material taken from their matriarch, despite the material generating billions. Worse, her children, still alive today in the U.S., can't afford health insurance.

That's all I've got for now.

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