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February 26, 2005
When mental algebra goes wrong....
I have a post up at Dean Nation, Toward a reality based foreign policy. It is basically a somewhat pedantic analysis of the term "Shia," and its uses and abuses in the interests of short term political expedience. I will be commenting in more detail on problems I see that often crop in the "algebra of cultural variables" in the future. Unlike the physical and to a lesser extent biological sciences, social science has not discovered its atomic units and so all aproximations are exceedingly slippery and often tenditious. If you know what answer you want you can concoct an appropriate assemblage of variables to spit out the result that will satisfy....
Carl on language
Carl Zimmer discusses the evolution (or lack of) language. Carl focuses on two papers acting as counterpoints, one by Marc Hauser, Noam Chomsky and Tecumseh Fitch, which argues for a "recursion only" model of human language, while a rejoinder from Steven Pinker and Ray Jackendoff put flesh upon a thorough adaptationist narrative centered on a specific "language organ." You can read the full text of the Chomsky et al. paper here, just page down.
I have little to add at this point (Carl promises a sequel, so I will add an update on this post), aside from the fact that I find Chomsky and company's hypothesis miraculous. With Jerry Fodor they seem to have faith in serendipity. This does not imply that one needs to accept Pinker's thesis about a highly specific language organ or the paradigm of massive modularity-we need to lay down the foundations a bit more via neurobiology before we are sure that the houses that congitive science constructs are not blown away. As I have pointed out before, there are plenty of ideas about language out there, in fact, if you go into any old coffee shop I would be willing to bet you money that you could come out with a few "theories" after an hour or two.
Related: The children of Universal Grammar. Additionally, some scientists like Terrence Deacon reject Pinker's focus on a specific language organ and modularity. Deacon sees language as an emergent cultural property of human symbolic capacity, but he would agree with Pinker about the importance of evolution and adaptation and likely reject excessive minimalism in the Chomsky mode (a fair portion of Deacon's book is spent rebutting Chomsky's arguments about universal grammar).
February 25, 2005
Gene-environment interaction and gene-environment correlation
In my previous post on gene-environment interaction David pointed out that I unfortunately confounded the term with gene-enviornment correlation. Vge should have been decomposed into Vge and Vcov(g,e) (covariation between environment and genes).
Gene-enviornment interaction may be conceived of as the influence that different environments may have on different genotypes in shaping the developmental arc of the phenotype, for example, norm of reaction. In this case, genotype A and B might result in the same phenotypic consequences (or at least the same variation of consequences) in environment X, yet still diverge greatly in their expression in environment Y. One common example often given is the growth of two bacterial strains in two mediums, in one medium both may show great vigor, but in the other medium one medium may be far superior.
But for most of the earlier post I was explicitly talking about gene-environment correlations which increase the variance of the phenotype. It seems to me that this process is easier to generalize about than gene-environment interaction, which would have varied contextual manifestations. It is the sort of thing that social engineering might find tractable, as opposed to gene-environment interaction which might elude one-size-fits-all policy prescriptions.
The Biological Basis of Multiple Orgasms
There's been a lot of high talk lately about how the XX are poorly represented in the fields of mathematics and physics (see razib's seminal (heh) post Much Ado about Women and Larry Summers). Yet actually women are biologically superior to men in many aspects, including tolerance of heat, cold, pain and radiation. Women are also far less likely than men to fall asleep after the sex act, according to David Wilkes in Why Men Fall Asleep After Sex .
"The blood rush after climax depletes the muscles of energy-producing glycogen, leaving men feeling physically drained. "Because they have more muscle mass than women, men become tired after sex and this subsequently leads to them feeling sleepy."Another benefit of that extra X is the capacity for multiple orgasms. Is this a spandrel, or possibly an incentive to increased reproductive potential? I think there needs to be more research! But how to keep men awake long enough to research this? Wilkes also suggests:
"Have sex out of the bedroom, away from the usual sleeping environment, or play uplifting music - not the usual romantic sounds,"An anonymous source also told me that keeping the lights on can have excellent results. But what sort of music would work the best? I don't think I could tolerate any of Wilkes' suggestions: I Feel Good by James Brown, Elvis Presley's A Little Less Conversation or Britney Spears's Toxic. So, umm, I have a poll! And if you have other suggestions for good stay awake music, please put them in the comments. ;)
Gender differences in Marlboro Country
Brain activity of men and women can differ greatly during hostile or impulsive acts, but less so on nicotine...
UC Irvine researchers...found during behavioral and brain-imaging tests on hostility and impulsive reaction that brain-metabolism activity – which indicates when neurons are working – was much higher in many brain areas of women than men. But when the test subjects were given nicotine, metabolic activity significantly declined in the women and slightly increased in men – the original differences all but disappeared.
Quote from the UCI press release.
Addendum: Just noticed that one of GNXP's regular readers, Fly, had mentioned this in the Open Threads back on 02.17.
Gay men's maps
According to news reports today, e.g. here, gay men read maps in a way more like women than men. For example, they make more use of landmarks and less of compass directions.
I have no idea if this is a sound finding. The research was carried out at the University of East London, which is not - how shall I put this - a world centre of academic excellence. But it should be easy enough to replicate it if it is true.
The Internationalization of Affirmative Action
Whatever you may think of Affirmative Action now, its genesis was noble (though misguided) in intent - to right the wrongs of the past and to equalize the paths to success for members of discriminated racial groups. I would imagine that those who wrote the legislation thought that the program would have a finite life and would end when the wrongs of the past had been righted.
However, University administrators, in their striving for diversity, are doing their best to insure that Affirmative Action never sees a sunset. (surprise!) They are recruiting students internationally to meet their diversity goals.
A quick Google reveals that the University of Chicago:
The University also visits Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and non-U.S. territories in the Caribbean such as Jamaica to recruit students,
The New York Times in their article reporting on the historic milestone of more Africans now coming to the US per year than during the slave trade. The article touches on many interesting facets of this demographic issue, and I'll quote a few passages, but buried in the article is a quote by a Harvard Law Professor.
The steady decline in the percentage of African-Americans with ancestors who suffered directly through the middle passage and Jim Crow is also shaping the debate over affirmative action, diversity programs and other initiatives intended to redress the legacy of slavery.
The charge made by Prof. Ogletree is the same one we posted about in August.
What exactly justifies granting preferential treatment to voluntary immigrants and their children, none of whom really should be the beneficiaries of society's efforts to redress past wrongs?
February 24, 2005
Return of the bones
Gene + environment interactions....
When people speak of "Nature vs. Nurture" there is often a tendency to refer to the "proportion of a trait that is genetic vs. environmental" in a rather broad and vague manner. The problem is that the proportionate contribution of genes and environment in an individual human on a particular trait varies from person to person. Additionally, since one can not rewind the developmental arc of an individual and expose them to various environments to get a sense of how powerful genetic and non-genetic inputs might be in determining their particular phenotype it is rather difficult to assert that individual A's phenotype B was determined by quanta of x genes and y environment (and unlike the environment, at least genes are discrete elements).
Rather, we generally speak of, heritability, which is roughly the phenotypic variation attributable to genotypic variation within a population. Heritability is further divided into "broad sense" (additive + dominance effects) and "narrow sense" (additive) flavors.1 But the story doesn't end there as those who are skeptical of claims of heritability would remind you, there are gene-environment interactions (or correlation) as well as epistatic effects (the influence that loci have upon each other, adding a nonadditive factor in the equation). So, the final phenotypic variation in a population can be modeled like so....
Vp = Va + Vd + Vi + Vge + Ve
[Vi is epistatic variance, the others are self-evident]
Update: Please read this correction.
Gene-environment interaction and epistasis are, in my opinion, often used as "get out of jail free" cards by some who come rather close to a "Blank Slate" conception of human nature in implementation if not explicit rhetoric (ironic in the case of epistasis since it is gene-gene interaction). But, I don't think that they get off scott free, especially in the case of gene-environment interaction.
Gene-environment interaction tends to amplify the perception of individual differences. Imagine for example that a farmer notices variation in milk output between his cows. He might maximize his yield by shifting his best feed to his best milk producers. Later, if you decide to analyze milk production you will note a far greater phenotypic variation than you would if they were all given the same feed. The "best" genotype is correlated with the best feed, and the "worst" genotype is correlated with the worst feed. There are also forms of gene-environment interaction where genotype A is "superior" to genotype B in environment A but "inferior" in environment "B" (see norm of reaction), or scenarios where A and B express the same phenotype is environment A but differ in environment B.
In human beings the gene-environment interaction in the behavorial/psychological context can be decomposed into three correlations, passive, evocative and active. A child who is very bright often has very bright parents, and these very bright parents often create a very specific environment for their children.2 A child who has a reputation of being very bright often has expectations built up which teachers are well aware of as they progress through the grades.3 Finally, there is active correlations, where children with certain propensities pursue the activities which they can most easily attain virtuosity because of their inborn talent biases. In other words, two children who differ moderately in brightness may make different choices throughout their childhoods which are important in shaping the final phenotype they manifest in adulthood. By the time they are adults the perceived phenotypic differential (as measured by grades and test scores) might be a yawning chasm in comparison to the mild differences of their youth.
You can, at this point, infer what the obvious solution by some might be to this situation. Proactively encourage the student that is somewhat less bright so that they can make the most of their potential. If you had a population where all students had the same expectations, the same environmental inputs, one could imagine that the phenotypic variance in the next generation might decrease (at this point, the variation due to genotypic variation would actually increase as a proportion of phenotypic variation!). Environment equalization might have an impact on both passive and evocative correlations downstream, which would likely percolate horizontally to active correlations. All is well, and the remediative programs that altered the social dynamics in the first place may be removed, correct?
No. This is where a pure social constructionist and someone who acknowledges the salience of gene-environment interaction must part ways. To a social constructionist once the social system is transformed it can perpetuate itself, just like the previous social system did. Remediation is necessary only to flip the system into another equilibrium (that is, nature does not load the die in any particular direction). On the other hand, if you accept gene-environment interaction, the genetic variation remains, the correlations are simply being dampened by social factors. If those incentives toward equalization and homogenization were removed, then the active correlations at least might start to work their way back into the equation. For example, if "problem" students were not proactively targeted, nurtured, cajoled and guided, they would be more likely to follow a different path than the students for whom schoolwork came naturally. This would likely result in the reemergence of passive and evocative correlations in the next generation. Soon enough all the gene-environment correlations would be salient once more. If you attempt to emphasize gene-environment correlation to explain great phenotypic variation, you must also acknowledge that it is likely that societal remediation or dampening of such correlations must be perpetuated indefintely. In contrast, social constructionists can suggest that once social change is affected culture and socialization can perpetuate the new order.
Social constraints are not necessarily negative. I have referred to the possible "social goods" of monogamous marriage before. Though polygyny is "beneficial" in certain circumstances, I find it plausible that middle class liberal democracies are stabilized by monogamy (though this is only a hypothesis, I don't accept this as a definitive truth). But I also suspect that polygyny is, to some extent, a human male Evolutionarily Stable Strategy (ESS). This means that social restraints and legalistic fiat must come into play to shift the incentives toward monogamy. One can imagine this in fact as a form of dampening gene-environment correlation. In a culture where polygyny is socially acceptable, males may seek out and attain different "marital microenvironments." That is, one may have one wife, or two wives and so forth. In most modern societies this is not possible (at least openly), and serial monogamy is the main variation upon the theme. In a monogamous culture males with "fit" genes may still have more wives over their life, ergo, more children, in a serial fashion, but the variation in the number of children and the lifetime aggregate potential number of wives is far smaller than in polygynous societies (less reproductive skew). The offspring payoff of a "fit" male genotype is far greater in a polygynous society than in a monogamous one, in other words, you are seeing different norms of reaction. Additionally, because of imitation, the number of wives accrued by men with multiple wives may also increase solely because of the signalling impact of his microenvironment (that is, he can afford to have many wives to begin with, which amplifies his desirability, resulting in evocative gene-environment correlation).4
After nearly 2000 years of enforced legal monogamy I do not believe that Western males have changed in their "optimal" ESS greatly. Likely part of this is because serial monogamy, illicit relationships and concubinage have given polygyny preferring males some advantage. But nevertheless, the underlying genotypic variation that might lead to differences in "mate attracting" capacity still remains. If Western society were to legalize and normalize polygyny I woud not be surprised if many high status males began to avail themselves of this option. Already, the sexual revolution has enabled some high status men to maintain harems (Hugh Hefner), even if they are not legally solemnized. For those who have fortunes in the tens of millions I suspect that the constraint of legal monogamy serves as an important dampening influence.
But now I will move to sex differences: even assuming similar aptitudes, if there is an innate preference differential, social engineering must be continued indefinitely if "social goods" are to be perpetuated (or at least until the Baldwin Effect kicks in, but that is on a different timescale). Personally, I do favor some of the social engineering, if children were allowed to choose for themselves it seems plausible that in the early ages boys and girls would want to attend different schools. In a society of universal sufferage, and legal equality, I think that mixed-gender socialization is a crucial dampening factor, and a necessary social lubricant. In some ways single gendered education might be optimal for the academic aspect of a child's life, but the American educational system is also a crucial social engineering tool (just as the American military is). But there is no free lunch, and I have just noted that the socially beneficial aspects of mixed-gender education entail a cost, that is, suboptimal development of academic skillsets.5
Similarly, if society made goals for itself in terms of how many women should be in each profession, there will be a cost that must be paid. If there are many more scholarship opportunities available in the hard sciences for females, the cost might be that women who are more inclined toward humanistic professions where they could excel might settle for a life as a mediocre scientist. The perpetual administrative costs of managing gender equalization programs would be a constant fixed expense.
This does not mean that social engineering is plainly wrong, that depends on the values that you promote. But I think the full implications of acknowledging the importance of gene-environment correlation have not been addressed. Implicitly much of what is basically social engineering seems to assume that its aim is to enable individual free choice. I don't think this is always the case, rather, the engineers in question have an idea of what a "good society" is. This is not necessarily a Left-Right issue, modern Christian conservatives in the United States tend to view a monogamous life-long pairbond as the ideal, but it seems that multiple vectors are pointing to far more of a muddle in this area than the starkness of the values. Nevertheless, even many liberals would assent to the validity of monogamous pairbonds as the ideal for a free democratic society. On the other hand, some on the social Left seem intent on reshaping society in a most unnatural state for reasons that I can not really fathom, or at least I do not believe are warranted. When the Left fights for individual civil liberties and revocation of legal barriers to free choice, I tend to agree with them. On the other hand, there does seem to be a segment that intent on punishing humans for their humanity.6
1 - Narrow sense heritability far more relevant for continuous polygenic traits and has great utility in animal breeding. Given enough time you can theoretically remove all the additive genetic variation from a population by selecting for particular phenotypes, but this is not necessarily so with dominance/recessive variation (homozygous and heterozygous phenotypes might have the same fitness or value in determining selection cutoff for the next generation). Additivity is pretty obvious, on one locus AA = 1, aa = 0, so Aa or aA = 0.5 (more or less). Even in dominant/recessive loci where AA =1 and Aa or aA =1 and aa = 0, the heterozygote is often not exactly 1, but almost 1, or close enough that you can't tell the difference on inspection.
2 - If you believe the Judith Rich Harris line, they select a particular peer group, same difference. I suspect much of the gene-environment correlation is in the peer groups. The implication is that if as a society you have particular social mores to promote, and certain peer groups promote contrary values, you must break up the peer groups.
3 - I once convinced two friends of mine to switch essays for the final paper in my high school AP English course. Their grades were fixed at that point at an A and a B, so it was really not going to make a difference. They wrote up their papers and simply printed it out with the names flipped. The student who normally wrote a B paper received a B grade, even though the student who wrote the B paper was the A student! And the reverse also occurred, the paper written by the B student received an A when the A student's name was on it!
4 - Some have argued that males are important in that reproductive skew is crucial is purifying deleterious mutations from a population. In other words, it is the less healthy and fit males in each generation do not reproduce so take many deleterious mutations with them.
5 - In three dimensions one could imagine that social engineering came favor a particular equilibrium by creating an elevated energetic cordon which isolates the stable region from the plains surrounding it. That is, the favored social state might be conceived of as sitting within a crater. Once the walls of the crater drop, the social state becomes unstable and eventually it slides down the energy peak to a lower state.
6 - To be perfectly, I tend to be on the same page with the individual liberties/rights element of the Left. Though I usually disagree, I can see where the socialist/fiscal liberal Leftists are coming from. On the other hand those who fall under the rubric "identity politics" seem to be incoherent, often irrational and rooted in emotive and interpersonal concerns rather than a "good society." Economic redistributionism in the socialist/Left model seems to be marginal. The individual liberties/rights folk also seem to be in decline (partly because they've won many of the rights and liberties that they fought for!). By default the identity politics folk seem to be looming larger and larger....
February 22, 2005
While we British smile by pulling our lips back and upwards and exposing our lower teeth, Americans are more likely simply to part their lips and stretch the corners of their mouths.
Other highlights from the article include >>
The genuineness of a good British smile is all in the eyes — Keltner has found that only 5% of people can fake a smile that uses this muscle.
Update from Scottm There was some disagreement that Jolie's smile is impossible to resist. To this I offer this proof,
Modules of my Mind
Quite a lot of discussion on Gene Expression has revolved around the modular nature of the human brain. Now, I know very little about neurology, but I do have extensive experience with at least one data point, and I do know something about modules: they feature prominently in my profession. So I would like to attempt to put my knowledge of the subject on line and see if anything more general can be learned from it.
I earn my living designing software systems, and I work with the concept of a module every day. In fact, I think of systems as being composed of only two things: modules and architecture. The perfect module is what we in the industry call a "black box" - one which is so completely defined by its interfaces that its inner workings need not be known. This is not as clean a definition as it may, at first, appear: interfaces can be very complex. At the extreme, a module's behavior can be so complex that nothing less than publishing its source code will describe its behavior. On the other hand, a well designed system will have modules as close as possible to black boxes, meaning that all interdependencies between modules will occur at the interface level. (When modules influence each other not at the level of interface, this is called a "side effect".)
Architecture, on the other hand, is the environment in which these modules "live" and interact with each other. For example, the steering wheel of a car is a module: it can be replaced with, say, levers without changing any other parts. Gasoline, on the other hand, is an architectural feature: replace it with diesel or, even worse, electricity, and the car will have to be completely redesigned. Sometimes an architectural feature can be expressed as a module: IANA and DNS, for example, can be easily described by interfaces, like modules, but without them the Internet would cease to function. These kind of modules are often called low-level modules or resources - i.e. modules that are primarily (or solely) used by other modules.
Okay, that was a pretty boring introduction, but I am a great believer in the maxim: “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms” - so I felt I had to get it out of the way. Now (...since I no nothing about neurology), I would like to define my mental modules on a purely functional basis: a module is something I do (correctly) without "thinking" i.e. without being conscious of thought. Language, of course, is the most obvious mental module: I produce grammatical sentences in my native language without thinking (of the grammar), and I can tell when a sentence is ungrammatical instantaneously, without necessarily being able to say why - i.e. I first know that the sentence is ungrammatical, I then have to go back figure out why. In fact, I first started thinking about modules of my mind because of a dramatic event in my life: I suddenly, after years of trying, found myself able to speak a foreign language.
What happened? One day I was painfully parsing sentences and figuring out what they meant. The next day I was just listening and understanding. I had the same amount of knowledge of grammar and vocabulary - obviously that didn't change overnight. On thinking about it, I realized that though this experience was particularly dramatic, it was by no means unique. I have a vivid memory from about the age of 5 or 6 of suddenly being able to ride a bicycle. Again, one moment I couldn't do it, the next moment I could, and I've been riding ever since. Later on something similar happened with symbolic logic: I spent most of a semester looking at proofs, understanding every step, yet having no idea how they got from here to there, i.e. how they chose which steps to take. Then one day, I knew instinctively what to do.
On further reflection, I realized that what I experience as "thought" is really only a tiny proportion of what I do that might, in some other person/organism/world be called thinking. Balancing, seeing, hearing - anyone who has tried to program a computer to do these things knows how difficult it is (in fact, it's impossible at the current state of the art) to even come close to what humans do automatically, without "thinking". It reminds me of a story from the early days of personal computing. At the height of the "database wars" between Dbase and FoxBase, Dbase claimed to be faster because it was written in assembly language, while FoxBase was written in a high-level language (C). It turned out, upon testing, that FoxBase was, in fact, faster. One commentator (I forget which) wrote something like: "The Dbase people should learn something about the importance of algorithms". In other words, although something written in assembly language is theoretically faster, since compiled code is visibly full of inefficiencies (especially considering the compliers of the day) the performance hit of high-level languages is more than made up for by their contribution to the efficiency of the human mind, and its consequent enhanced ability to create efficient algorithms. The moral of the story: For most tasks, it's most important to enhance the efficiency of the human mind.
Now, let's look at some consequences of my particular definition of modularity as it relates to the human mind.
I particularly want to relate to points (1) and (3) with respect to education. Not long ago, a GNXP post asked: "What kinds of activities can be done to enhance cognition and memory beyond nutritional interventions?" I would like to answer a similar question: I think that more education should be devoted specifically toward equipping people with mental modules that are useful in our society. Some of these modules can be called, "skills" - and there is a recognition of the importance of teaching skills. (Though I can think of at least one skill that every elementary-school graduate would benefit from in this day and age: typing.) But I'm sure there are other modules, not usually recognized as skills, that would help with many cognitive tasks, which we could seek to develop explicitly. Here's one: Math. I remember kids in school people complaining of "math block" - at the time I thought they were just making up excuses, but now, after my experience with learning a foreign language, I believe them. I am fairly good at math, and when I see an equation, I don't just see it as a collection of symbols - it "speaks" to me. One glance and I say, for example, "that's a parabola" and in my mind's eye I see a picture of a parabola. I bet that most people can't do this, but perhaps with a little directed training, they could.
(Cross posted at Rishon Rishon.)
Women in physics....
First, please note, the relative competence of female physicists isn't particularly surprising if generally objective standards of excellence are enforced irrespective of gender (give or take some discrimination as well as outreach). By analogy, if you set a high upper body strength threshold for qualification to become a firefighter, though few women might be able to measure up (and many men wouldn't be able to either), those who did pass the requirements would not compare too badly against the majority of their male comrades (of course, it is likely that the males would skew toward the high end when compared to the women because of the nature of truncating two very different distributions).
I have pointed to the variability in frequency of females in the mathematical sciences before in cross country comparisons (see this map which relates to mathematics professors in Europe). Seeing as how there seems to be evidence that the modal frequency of females in the hard sciences seems to be in south-east & south-west Europe, with a relative dearth in north-central Europe and Scandinavia, I am not sure if a standard "sexism" model really works well. Additionally, if you follow the this link, you will note that in Europe there still remains a general trend where the male proportion is highest in mechanical engineering, and lowest in the humanities, transnationally. Even in Mongolia, where this is currently a very strong female bias in education, males hold their own (only) in the hard sciences. To me, this suggests there are relatively static non-environmental factors, perhaps amplified by gene (expression)-environment correlation, underneath the cross-cultural variation.
Finally, even if the majority of physics degree holders are female, that does not address Summers points about variance and allocation of time (preferences?). It is a complex topic, and an intersection of multiple factors and amplifying correlated tendnecies might mean that the top physicists remain male, even when there is relatively gender parity1....
Via Foreign Dispatches.
1 - The article implicitly ignores Summers' point about variability, assuming that parity of numbers might contradict a hypothesis of instrinsic difference.
Meat is Great
A study by nutritionists, reported at the current conference of the AAAS, shows that vegetarian diets can damage children's health. See here for a news report. (Search Google News for the name 'Lindsay Allen' for more coverage.) But the most interesting part of the study is that it followed the effects of giving dietary supplements to Kenyan schoolchildren. Some were given meat (2 ounces a day, equivalent to a small hamburger), some were given extra calories but not meat, and a control group were not given supplements. The results showed large improvements in IQ (fluid intelligence) for the 'meat' group. This seems relevant to the debate over international IQ differences, particularly in Africa, and to the causes of the 'Flynn Effect'.
Related from Razib: Creatine geniuses?
Think globally, act locally
I'll tell you how much of a role discrimination plays in limiting female professors in so-called "elite" universities: 100%. There is no shortage of brilliant women scientists (or brilliant male scientists), but there is a dearth of jobs and we still have bigoted ignoramuses like Summers standing guard over the gateways.
The ecosystem is managed by a male, using some semi-arbitrary algorithm he cooked up. It favors people who link up in lockstep -- check out some of those sites in the top tier. Most aren't particularly interesting or special, but they do engage in a lot of mutual linkage.
If you aren't part of the solution, aren't you part of the problem?
Below is unformatted data we bloggers at GNXP collected so you can confirm our assessments. Sorry for the mess!
Addendum: Please keep the comments civil. Take a moment and reflect that even the great ones amongst us may fall short....Updated: P.Z. responds.
http://www.cronaca.com/ David Male
http://www.lingualnerve.com/ Spacefan female Identifies herself as female on
http://mamamusings.net/ Elizabeth Lane Lawley female
Geeks & Nerds
http://www.alistapart.com/ Erin Kissane female
http://www.christineterry.com/about.html Christin Female
Politics, International & Minnesota
http://mithras.blogs.com/blog/ Dead Link Dead Link
Alas, a Blog
Blog of a Bookslut
The Blue Bus is calling us...
Body and Soul
Byzantium's Shores: Meditations on Nearly Anything
Ayn Clouter's Blog
Doing Things With Words
ECHIDNE OF THE SNAKES
Fact-esque, A Reality-Based Blog
It's My Country, Too
Neil Gaiman's Journal
Happy Furry Puppy Story Time with Norbizness
Long story; short pier
The Mahablog: Truth and the Bush Administration
Media Matters for America
Off-The-Cuff, Off-The-Record, Off-The-Wall
One Good Thing
Paperwight's Fair Shot
Pepper of the Earth - The Home Office Record & Mostly Daily Gazette
The Rude Pundit
Seeing The Forest
The Sixth International
the talking dog
The Un-Common Tater
De Rerum Natura
Dispatches from the Culture Wars
National Center for Science Education
The Panda's Thumb
Thoughts from Kansas
Atheists & Skeptics
ButterfliesandWheels.com Notes and Comments
Corsair the Rational Pirate
GoatOnFire's Burning Blog
God is for Suckers!
Gullibility isn't in the dictionary
(mostly) Rationally Speaking
The Pagan Prattle Online
The Raving Atheist
reality based community
Stupid Evil Bastard
The Two Percent Company's Rants
Unscrewing The Inscrutable
Banana Wielding Racists
For anyone who has read the transcript of Larry Summers' speech it's obvious that his persecutors have taken offense, not at the substance of his comments, but at their own interpretations of his comments. I liken their attacks and mock offense to that of this lady who claimed that eating a banana was a racist act. Hat tip to Ramblings' Journal.
Just think of all the ways a man might use a banana to offend a woman.
February 21, 2005
The Job of Your Dreams (or Nightmares)
Assistant Professor of Human Relations & Multicultural Education-Probationary
Responsibilities: Human Relations and Multicultural Education is an interdisciplinary department that emphasizes student-centered pedagogy and examines the impact of power, resources, cultural standards, and institutional policies and practices on various groups in our society. Responsibilities include:
Hunter-gatherers might not be so ancient
Recent Origin and Cultural Reversion of a Hunter–Gatherer Group. The authors offer compelling genetic evidence that a particular "Hill Tribe" of Thailand which practices hunter-gathering might be descended from a very small founder population that originated among agriculturalists. Though Henry Harpending will know know more about this, I have read that the San of the deep Kalahari might have been adopted an exclusive hunter-gatherer lifestyle after being pushed out of more fertile lands where they might have engaged in some form of cattle herding like their cousins to the south and west. The take home message is that humans are not cockroaches, we shift lifestyles as the circumstances demand and the perception that marginal groups have been ever primitive and changeless is the result of a combination of natural temporal shortsightedness as well as modern man's inability to conceive of a cyclical, rather than linear progressive, model of history.
One point that the authors of the paper make is that "This example of cultural reversion from agriculture to a hunting–gathering lifestyle indicates that contemporary hunter–gatherer groups do not necessarily reflect a pre-agricultural lifestyle." This is relevant as far as evolutionary psychology goes because modern hunter-gathering folk are often used to test hypotheses about the EEA, because they are imagined to be a direct connection to the ur-eco-heimat of our species. Does this invalidate that method? I don't necessarily think so, it seems plausible that just as animal morphology tends to converge upon like forms via different phylogenetic paths (see the Tasmanian Tiger), a hunter-gatherer lifestyle might always be constrained by the cognitive predispositions of our species as well as more prosaic constraints of our biology and the natural environment and so canalized toward a particular mode which does resemble the EEA. Of course those who have analyzed the lifestyles of hunter-gatherer groups who have made it into the modern age will have more to say on this as cross-cultural comparison would be crucial to test a hypothesis of inevitable canalization. If most hunter-gatherer groups have gone through an "agricultural phase" but still exhibit the same broad range of habits and values it is strongly suggestive of canalization.
Messed up mouths
"Evolving to Eat Mush": How Meat Changed Our Bodies. This article interviews researchers who argue on the one hand that we are optimized to process and utilize fat and cholesterol in our diet (via meat consumption), and another who suggests that cooking our already tender foods and cutting them up with tools released functional constraints which resulted in the unaesthetic dentition that characterizes humans. As I'm sure many readers know there is already a lot of speculation about the allometry of the human skull and jaw, so this simply opens up another avenue of inquiry. Some might find it of interest that in The Symbolic Species the author makes the case that humans do not have large brains, rather, we have small bodies. In other words our developmental arc is modified from other large mammals in that our bodies are relatively small rather than our cranium and brain being oversized (ergo, freeing up space which doesn't have to manage all that extra muscle and sinew. Though please note that recent evidence mitigates against human brain size being the result of a simple developmental tweak).
Addendum: Let me make it clear, the part about processing of fats and cholesterol from meat makes a lot more sense to me than the part about jaws, but remember that evolutionary changes may sometimes be subject to developmental constraints (water can't flow uphill, no matter how convenient it might be), while loss of function might also occur adjacent because of mutations and a lack of purifying selection on that feature. Finally, I have asked about wisdom teeth before in terms of their evolutionary significance.
Update: Also, I remembered this paper which suggests that "that the gene encoding the predominant myosin heavy chain (MYH) expressed in these muscles was inactivated by a frameshifting mutation after the lineages leading to humans and chimpanzees diverged. Loss of this protein isoform is associated with marked size reductions in individual muscle fibres and entire masticatory muscles." They say the mutation appeared ~2.4 million years ago, which would put it somewhat before tool use.
February 20, 2005
Stabilizing selection & the illusion of the fossils
Stabilizing selection "acts" against change by favoring intermediate phenotypes.1 Many suspect that this is the stasis that Niles Eldgridge and Stephen Jay Gould noticed in the fossil record and serves as a central element in their theory of Punctuated Equilibrium. It is important to note that selection is still operative, it simply reduces the fitness of those at the tails of the distribution, canalizing the species toward a particular phenotypic configuration (think more metastable as opposed to static).
As I implied above, some paleontologists have observed that there are sharp discontinuities in the fossil record between species which obviously have a phylogenetic relationship. One common inference is that the rate of evolution (sharp fitness differentials between phenotypes tracked by differences between genotypes resulting in greater selection response between generations) sped up to the point where intermediate species were not preserved (perhaps due to catastrophic environmental changes). But there is another more prosaic explanation: allopatric speciation, where a contiguous population becomes separated by some barrier which allows the accumulation of genetic changes and eventually fosters speciation. Imagine that a continent bifurcates into a large fragment, "A," and a small fragment, "B." Now, consider that two populations of a species are separated, and population A and B eventually fix alleles at various loci which results in speciation. Consider the following scenario: continent A and island B are reconnected by an isthmus. Species A now drives species B, which has been isolated and not subject to as many varied selection pressures, to extinction in short order. Eventually, species A also becomes extinct. Over the eons most of the reunited continent is subject to geological change, except for the portion that was once island B. When paleontologists analyze the remains in the region that was once island B, they will find that an ancestral species that evolved into the form of population B. But at some point there is a "jump" where population A appears in the fossil record and B vanishes almost simultaneously. Since A is likely to be morphologically similar, but different, from B, they might infer that the ancestral population evolved into B, and jerked into population A.2
As we've been learning, beware of some tales fossils tell.
1 - The example in the link provided was infant mortality as a function of weight, but one could easily imagine some sort of sexual selection also working in this fashion. We know of the studies which suggest composite images are often more attractive than the normal person off the street (because they are closer to the populational median?), and some have suggested that social selection preserves phenotypes even when ancestry is confounded.
2 - Yes, proponents of Punctuated Equilibrium are aware of this process and offer it as an important factor in what they are observing, but they also suggest a widespread prevelance of macromutations in nature (possibly because macromutations are more challenging to the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis).
Why the inflection?
My post ruminating on post-humanism generated many comments. There were a lot of great informed speculations, and at 160+ comments it stayed shockingly on topic. But, I didn't really get involved in the nitty-gritty of projecting exactly the path that the technological explosion will take in the next century. There are so many options, so many permutations and so many likely dead ends, it is very close to speculative fiction. The only point I would like to add is that while we speculated on all the cognitive, cybernetic, nanotech and infotech enhancements & developments that might be possible, I don't recall much discussion of coopting the variegated biochemical toolkits of the the bacteria. How'd you like to synthesize your own antibiotics?
Nevertheless, I do think an inflection point which will lead to a technological singularity is likely. The general reason is induction, that is, observation of the increase of the rate of change of society & culture since about 1500, starting in Europe, but now expanded to include the inhabited world. It must be pointed out that I accept induction because of induction, it is a somewhat circular position. I'll take that.
But perhaps you would like a more personal and colorful example of why I believe that change is in the air. One of my grandparents was born in 1896. He died in 1996. When he was born....
There were no cars. There were no planes. Iron battleships were hip and steam was tried & true. Gas lights were technological wonders. The telegraph connected the world. Doctors were still quacks. There was no Special or General Relatively or Quantum Mechanics. Mendelianism was only a whisper in the wind, and aether was still respectable. Plate tectonics had not been formulated. Chemists still used taste as a way of identifying chemicals and had only a primitive understanding of the structure of the atom (they weren't much past Dalton). The proof wasn't yet hip in the world of British mathematics. You know what 1996 was like. In that year, the last of my grandfather's life, he dictated a short email to my mother which my brother printed out.
There have been a great many changes in the lives of men and women throughout history. But the transition from hunting and gathering to farming was a process that took generations. The burying of the old gods and submission to new universal religions was a matter of a blink, a profession, a sprinkle of water, but in the inner world of the spirit metamorphasized through the passing out of memory of the old legends and stories. The 20th century though was special, different, qualitatively leaps and bounds beyond belief or projection. It was a century where tens of millions died in the maw of the industrial genocidal state, but a century where hundreds of millions lived because of the fruits of science.
The first half of my grandfather's life was dominated by the British Raj. The next half was bisected by the birth of two new nations. Even the more torpid winds of political change had accelerated.
I wouldn't bet against the constancy of the second derivative in this century....
Parliamentarians in prison = security?
The DutchReport, a blog from Holland, reports that in response to death threats from Islamist extremists, Geert Wilders is being housed, not in a well-guarded safe house, but in the same prison that held the Lockerbie terrorists. Almost as bad is that Hirsi Ali has been forced to live in a Marine barracks in Amsterdam. That's right, Wilders is in prison, and Hirsi might as well be.
Hirsi Ali says the situation is also no longer temporary. She already had to leave her own house in September 2002. But she can not reach agreement with the NCBB about a permanent residence: "Their objective is that is has to be a secret location, without a view, a house where nobody can see you. That way you always have the risk that you have to move, if some does see you."
I hate to say it, but Lawrence Auster is dead on:
So, as a direct result of the Dutch having given Moslems the liberty to enter and live in the Netherlands, a Dutch representative who calls for restrictions on this immigration loses either his liberty, or his life. . . Had that Moslem immigration not been permitted in the first place, Dutchmen would still have complete freedom to discuss whom they wanted to admit into their country; but because they admitted Moslems, they now face the prospect of having their heads sawn off if they exercise that freedom.
Hat tip: VFR
Remember the 1960's marionette shows Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet? I guess the general consensus is that the Hollywood Thunderbirds remake sucked if you were older than 12, but I've seen the first two CGI episodes of Captain Scarlet, and man, they rock.
Problems in Malmö
We seem to be on a Sweden kick of late, so let me continue the trend with a few more links of interest, these mainly dealing with immigration problems. Here is a clip from Swedish TV about a Fox report about Malmö's immigrant problem. Here is a lengthy article entitled A Swedish Dilemma. Here is an article that gives some background on issues facing Denmark. Here is a lengthy article from Policy Review entitled Denmark, the Euro, And Fear of the Foreign and last, but certainly not least, is the famous David Goodhart essay Discomfort of Strangers that challenged liberals to rethink their attitudes to diversity and the welfare state.
...or, what the #*!@% is wrong with paleoanthropologists?!
From Saturday's Guardian >>
"History of modern man unravels as German scholar is exposed as fraud"
Also, in Deutsche Welle.
Addendum from Theresa: This storm has been brewing for a while apparently >> Neanderthal Man 'never walked in northern Europe'.
The Hunterian Museum
Visitors to London should know that the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons has recently reopened after several years of restoration. For the first time it is open to the public without appointment (free of charge). Further details are here. Note that there is no separate entrance to the museum: you have to go in at the main entrance to the Royal College of Surgeons, tell a receptionist you want to visit the museum, and they will give you a visitor’s badge.
The core of the museum is the collection of the 18th century anatomist John Hunter, augmented by later additions. It includes anatomical and pathological specimens (human and animal), surgical instruments, and paintings. The exhibits include the skeleton of the famous Irish Giant, the ‘man with three spines’ (really one spine and two strips of abnormal bone), a huge hydrocephalic skull, some remarkable 17th century dissections of nerves and blood vessels, the brain of Charles Babbage, and the rectum of the Bishop of Durham (fortunately not the present Bishop!) The exhibits are fascinating (though I must admit that after a while one pickled organ in a jar looks much like another), and the presentation is superb.
The museum was featured in a recent article in the London Times, where the reporter seemed more interested by what was not on display than what is. Apparently, in the storage rooms
There is an item so grisly that not only will the museum not display it, but the curators won’t even tell you what it is. Anyone thinking in a blasé sort of way, “oh, it will be a diseased penis that looks like a burst sausage,” should think again because, of course, they have those on display. A whole cabinet full.
The reporter tried to get the curator, Simon Chaplin, to spill the beans, but he stoutly resisted
“It can’t be worse than Ebola, surely?” I ask.
Whatever can it be?
What you can't say...
Today's Sunday Times (London) has an amusing article (here) by Rod Liddle about what you can and can't say on certain subjects. Which doesn't stop him saying it...