December 19, 2019 | David F. Coppedge

Exchanging One Myth for Another

Scientists gleefully chuckle at one ethnic myth only to replace it with a more incredible one.

New Scientist shows a reindeer in a Superman suit. The gist of its article is that reindeer, though they don’t really fly (like some ethnic northern Europeans named the Sami, under the influence of mushrooms, dreamed they did), they really do have amazing traits. How did they get those traits? By evolution, we are told.

Unfortunately, that’s all bunkum – even the bit about the Sami. But who needs fiction? Reindeer have real-world superpowers. The animals have evolved a whole range of amazing innovations that let them not just survive but thrive in the frigid Arctic.

Reindeer live in northern tundra habitats from Europe to Siberia. Depending on the species, males can weigh from 90 to 250 kilograms (50 to 250 pounds). The article lists some reindeer superpowers:

  • Their “eyes change colour like living sunglasses, from gold in summer to blue in winter.”
  • They see the world in “glorious ultraviolet.”
  • They “can switch their body clocks on and off.”
  • They produce a lot of vitamin D in limited sunlight.
  • They grow antlers up to a meter long in just a few months.
  • The antlers grow 2.5 cm a day and weigh as much as 10 kilograms.
  • They have “strong tumor suppression systems to avoid cancer in fast-growing headgear.”

Reindeer could give all of us a lift, not just Santa. Credit: Duluth Trading, Inc. catalog

Scientists are interested in these superpowers, because they could lead to treatments for human diseases. Learning how reindeer do these feats could help us solve problems such as:

  • Overcoming jet lag
  • Overcoming insomnia
  • Curing cancer
  • Regeneration of limbs
  • Increasing vitamin D production

Not explained in the article, though, is why humans didn’t evolve these traits if they are so helpful to reindeer.

“The genes that get turned on in cells destined to become antlers are also turned on in cancer cells” says Yunzhi Peter Yang, a tissue engineer at Stanford University in California. “Tissue regeneration and cancer growth are two sides of the same coin.” Yet reindeer are five times less likely to get cancer than other mammals because they have evolved highly efficient tumour suppression mechanisms that control the otherwise dangerous cancer pathways. This extraordinary ability makes them of great interest to researchers looking for new ways to prevent or treat cancer in humans.

Stuff happens, Darwin taught.

We like the Sami myth better. It’s more creative than saying Stuff Happens.

Science should get out of the mythoid business and stick to observational and logical explanation. Keep the Darwin Fudge off the plate, and focus on the meat of using observational science to cure cancer.



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