Monthly Archives: September 2012

Older Fathers and Royal Blood

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about older fathers and their DNA.  An Icelandic study led by Kari Stefansson, published in Nature and explained more clearly for us lay people here in The Guardian.

Men produce sperm throughout their lives (unlike women, whose eggs are all there by the time they are born), and as they age, men produce a higher (though still very small) number of mutations that pass to their children.  Stefansson’s team looked at 78 trios (i.e. father, mother and child) and found that ‘a 20-year-old father transmits, on average, around 25 mutations…whereas a 40-year-old father transmits around 65.’   Every additional year at the time of conception adds an average 2 further mutations.

It’s an interesting finding, even though the number of mutations in the father’s DNA is only a tiny fraction of the total.  Journalists have extrapolated from the finding to suggest that it may explain rising levels of certain diseases, such as autism and schizophrenia, because the age at which men father children is rising.

This seems to me rather a leap to make, based on a sample of only 78 fathers – and from Iceland, one of the most homogeneous populations in the world.  Nor is it all that clear what role genes play in conditions such as autism and schizophrenia, although there are certainly some problems that are caused by a genetic mutation, such as Fragile-X syndrome.

I can’t comment on the science, or the statistics, but the other assumption in this story is that fathers are now older than they used to be.  It’s true, more or less, that first time fathers in 2012 are older than first time fathers in 1900, or 1950, or ever 1980.  But the assumption that most children were once born to younger men is wrong.

A hundred years ago, men and women married earlier, had their first child 9 or so months later, and then continued to have children until the mother reached menopause or died, quite possibly in childbirth.  If only because they needed help to raise their motherless brood, widowers usually married again, so they might well start another family when they were in their 40s or 50s.  Henry Parkes, Premier of New South Wales, married 3 times, and his youngest son Cobden, was born when he was 77.

Continue reading

The Last Plantagenet: another cold case

Like everyone else with an interest in history, I’m following the story of ‘The King in the Car Park’ with fascination. Can it really be true that the remains of Richard III have been found in Leicester?  Archaeologists from the University of Leicester have been conducting a dig in a car park, where they have discovered a church that seems to belong to the ruined Franciscan Friary known as Grey Friars.

It seems almost too good to be true, but the archaeology team have announced the discovery of a male skeleton wrapped in a shroud, with an arrowhead in his back and his skull sliced through, perhaps with a sword or battle-axe.

The really interesting feature, though, in an already fascinating story, is that while there’s no evidence of either a withered arm or a hunched back, this man suffered from scoliosis, a spinal curvature that would have made his right shoulder higher than his left.

Richard Plantagenet King of England

Is it just me, or does Richard’s right shoulder look slightly higher than his left in this portrait?

Continue reading

Dutch Courage and the FV Abel Tasman

They say it’s bad luck to change the name of a ship.  The owners of the super trawler formerly known as Margiris may be pondering this old saltie’s superstition as the Australian government ramps up its efforts to prevent the ship fishing out in Australian waters.

The issues are complex and controversial.  Environmentalists are worried that this ship – larger than any fishing vessel that has operated in Australian waters before – will gobble up too many fish, and destroy too much ‘by-catch’ while doing so.

Scientists are divided, and there’s a healthy dose of nationalism in play as well, worried that ‘our’ fish will be harvested for sale overseas.  But there’s a division of power in a federal system, and as Tasmanian government has already okayed the deal it’s not clear what the federal Minister for the Environment can do, especially in a hung Parliament.  We may find out later today. [Update: Or not]

As a historian, I’m intrigued by the actions of the spin-doctors behind the Dutch company, Parlevliet & Van Der Plas, who have decided to rename the ship, which is now registered in Australian waters as the FV Abel Tasman.  It’s a clever attempt to highlight 400 years of Dutch-Australian contact, but I think they may have been too clever by half.

Continue reading

National Bilby Day and the future of the Easter Bilby

The Easter Bilby is a relatively recent Australian phenomenon, but in a land where rabbits have been viewed as the Enemy, Easter Bunnies never made a lot of sense.  So it was a great marketing strategy to reshape the bunny into a bilby: lengthen his nose and tail, give him claws and a squat stance and – hey presto – a politically correct, environmentally friendly chocolate marsupial.  Since most of us city dwellers have never seen a bilby anyway, anatomical accuracy isn’t essential.

Continue reading