Showing posts from 2006

Culture and climate

Brandeis historian David Hackett Fischer pointed out in his famous Albion's Seed that racial differences had an enormous impact on the history of America. He notes that the cold climate of colonial Massachusetts

"proved to be exceptionally dangerous to immigrants from tropical Africa, who suffered severely from pulmonary infections in New England winters. Black death rates in colonial Massachusetts were twice as high as whites' - a pattern very different from Virginia where mortality rates for the two races were not so far apart, and still more different from South Carolina where white death rates were higher than those of blacks. So high was mortality among African immigrants in New England that race slavery was not viable on a large scale, despite many attempts to introduce it. Slavery was not impossible in this region, but the human and material costs were higher than many wished to pay. A labor system which was fundamentally hostile to the Puritan ethos of New Englan…

Masculinity and Perceived Status by Females

Physical Strength in Men Correlates with Attractiveness
Am J Hum Biol. 2006 Dec 7;19(1):82-87

Male facial appearance signals physical strength to women. Fink B, Neave N, Seydel H.Previous studies showed that male faces with extreme features that are likely to be associated with testosterone (T) are perceived as dominant and masculine. Women were reported to prefer masculinized male faces, as they may consider T markers to be an "honest" indication of good health. [and a holdover from the days when physical strength equated with status and leadershipTOM]

However, it is also likely that female preferences for certain male faces arise from the fact that dominant-and masculine-looking males are signaling characteristics which maybe beneficial in intrasexual conflict, and thereby also indicate potential achievers of high status, an important factor in female mate selection.

Although numerous studies were built on this assumption, nothing is known about the relationship between p…

Gene Variant in Abused Boys Linked to Antisocial Behavior

by Joan Arehart-Treichel

When maltreatment is combined with having the short MAOA gene variant, it may put children on track for antisocial behavior later on. Genetic screening, however, may not be a strategy for preventing such behavior.

For four years, the case has been building that a short variant of the monoamine oxidase a (MAOA) gene, when combined with harsh discipline, physical abuse, or other forms of maltreatment, puts youngsters at risk for antisocial behavior.

In 2002, as noted in an earlier post, Avshalom Caspi, Ph.D., of the Institute of Psychiatry in London and his coworkers were the first to report such a connection in a sample of more than 400 young men who had been followed since childhood. In 2004, Debra Foley, Ph.D., an assistant professor of human genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University, and colleagues reported that they had made the same association in youth aged 8 to 17 (Psychiatric News, September 3, 2004). And now Julia Kim-Cohen, Ph.D., an assistant profess…

Speeded up evolution can be predicted

Pressured by predators, lizards see rapid shift in natural selection

November 17, 2006 - CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -

Countering the widespread view of evolution as a process played out over the course of eons, evolutionary biologists have shown that natural selection can turn on a dime - within months- as a population's needs change. In a study of island lizards exposed to a new predator, the scientists found that natural selection dramatically changed direction over a very short time, within a single generation, favoring first longer and then shorter hind legs. The findings, by Jonathan B. Losos of Harvard University and colleagues, are detailed this week in the journal Science.Losos did much of the work before joining Harvard earlier this year from WashingtonUniversity in St. Louis.

"Because of its epochal scope, evolutionary biology is often caricatured as incompatible with controlled experimentation," says Losos, professor of organismic and evolutionary biology in Harvard's …

"My genes made me do it"

Psychiatric News November 3, 2006Volume 41, Number 21, page 12© 2006 American Psychiatric Association

Jury Still Out on Impact Of Genes on Trial Verdicts

Mark Moran

Americans should not be surprised to hear that claim made by criminal defendants as the genetics of behavior, especially antisocial behavior, are explored by science and popularized.

Paul Appelbaum, M.D., chair of APA's Council on Psychiatry and Law, told psychiatrists at APA's 58th Institute on Psychiatric Services last month that the findings of behavioral genetics—even such preliminary findings as have been made to date— are making their way into the American legal system.

He predicted, however, that genetic arguments are not likely to be successful in freeing defendants from guilt for their crimes, but may more likely be advanced in criminal cases as mitigating factors that should be taken into account in sentencing. Yet even there it remains to be seen how a genetic propensity will be viewed by juries and judges; …

Are you out of shape?


COLUMBUS, Ohio – Researchers may get some indication of how aggressively an angry person will react by measuring the size relationship between a person’s ears and other body parts, according to a new study.

Research showed that the farther certain paired body parts were from symmetry – if one ear, index finger or foot was bigger than another, for example – the more likely it is was that a person would show signs of aggression when provoked. The symmetry effects were different in men and women, however.

While the findings may seem strange, there is a plausible explanation, said Zeynep Benderlioglu, co-author of the study and a post-doctoral researcher at Ohio State University.

Deviations from symmetry are thought to reflect stressors during pregnancy – such as poor health, alcohol and tobacco use – that may affect development of the fetus in a variety of ways.

"Paired body parts are presumably controlled by s…

Guns, Genes, and Steel

Whistling Past the Graveyard
by John Derbyshire (Nov. 2006)
Reviewing Mark Steyn's new book, America Alone
. . . .

Ah, culture. Of course it’s not about race! Nothing is about race, because there is no such thing as race. (Repeat 100 times.) It’s about culture—the aether, the phlogiston, of current social-anthropological speculation, whose actual nature is mysterious, but whose explanatory power is infinite. You know, culture: those habits, folkways, beliefs, ways of thinking and behaving and connecting that arise from... pure chance! Or geography (see below). Or something... but definitely nothing to do with biology.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am sure Mark Steyn is sincere here. I am sure he believes this stuff about “culture.” Most educated people do. Most will continue to do so for a few more years, while the neuroscientists, geneticists, genomicists, anthropologists, paleontologists, and statistical sociologists sap away beneath them—until the ground gives way. (A professional ac…

Moral Minds

New York Times
October 31, 2006
Books on Science
An Evolutionary Theory of Right and Wrong

Who doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong? Yet that essential knowledge, generally assumed to come from parental teaching or religious or legal instruction, could turn out to have a quite different origin.

Primatologists like Frans de Waal have long argued that the roots of human morality are evident in social animals like apes and monkeys. The animals’ feelings of empathy and expectations of reciprocity are essential behaviors for mammalian group living and can be regarded as a counterpart of human morality.

Marc D. Hauser, a Harvard biologist, has built on this idea to propose that people are born with a moral grammar wired into their neural circuits by evolution. In a new book, “Moral Minds” (HarperCollins 2006), he argues that the grammar generates instant moral judgments which, in part because of the quick decisions that must be made in life-or-death situations, are…


October 24, 2006

Op-Ed Columnist
New York Times

One Nation, Divisible

An American in Iraq has finally gotten it almost right.

J. D. Thurman, the major general who is the senior commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, has figured out the obstacle to America’s dream for Iraq.

“Part of our problem is that we want this more than they do,” General Thurman told The Times’s Michael Gordon, alluding to American efforts to unify Iraqis. “We need to get people to stop worrying about self and start worrying about Iraq.”

That’s a refreshingly candid alternative to the usual lines we hear about the Iraqi people’s patriotism and resolve. General Thurman predicted that Americans will keep struggling unless Iraqis put aside their differences. Quite right — and quite depressing, because they’re not about to do it, no matter what timetable the U.S. tries to impose.

But what’s stopping them is not selfishness. When General Thurman talked about the conflict between serving oneself and serving one’s c…

Positive feedback relationship

It is admittedly difficult to prove that mankind has changed biologically since, let us say, the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans, if by "proof" you mean demonstration of sizeable gene differences. We cannot test the genes of Pericles or Caesar or their contemporaries. But neither was Darwin able to "prove" organic evolution in this sense. The evidence is indirect, inferential, but nevertheless, I think, conclusive.

Paradoxically, it is precisely because we know that mankind changes so greatly culturally that we can be so confident that it changes to some extent also genetically. When the environment changes, the only other necessary condition for the occurrence of genetic evolutionary change can be defined. This is the presence in human popluations of genetic variants, some of which confer upon their carriers a higher fitness....

Despite all the inadequacies of our present knowledge of human genetics, this can scarcely be doubted. What is more, since the env…

The likelihood of more recent genetic evolution

... the capacity for innovation in behaviorally modern humans materially speeded up evolution, because it led to frequent innovation, and every significant innovation created a mismatch with the environment and, therefore, new selective pressures. Look at the Bushmen: they're 4' 8" and hunt big game. They couldn't do it without poisoned arrows and, back before missile weapons, no one did: early humans were bigger and built like linebackers. The bow begat the Bushmen.

Take agriculture: the switch to reliance upon cereals cut protein intake almost threefold while reducing protein quality and greatly increasing the percentage of high-glycemic carbohydrates in the diet (along with other changes) That put huge areas of metabolism under selective pressure - towards more robust glucose regulation, towards changes that conserve protein, especially essential/scarce amino acids. Check out the distribution of diabetes - it's not 'thrifty genes', it's pre- and post…

Clothes unmake the woman

"Even after her husband was executed, Marie Antoinette defied her captors by ordering mourning dress, seeking solace in the illusion that had set her on her unlucky course: the notion that by controlling her image, she could master her fate. Bound for the chopping block, deprived of her widow’s weeds, she still contrived to have a clean-lined martyr’s costume smuggled into her cell. She was the first woman of whom it truthfully could be said that she shopped until she dropped"

Liesl Schillinger reviewing

What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution.
By Caroline Weber

in The New York Times Book Review

Bred for Agression

Nicolas Wade once again identifies some meaningful research and makes it available to the general reader. If such work in neuroscience and genetics shows how brains, including human brains, predispose us to certain kinds of productive or counterproductive actions, why don't our modes of intervention (including, of course, punishment) reflect such findings? We are caught in a vicious cycle where adverse environments reinforce genetically influenced behviour. This is cause for much pessimism, particularly since a whole welfare industry with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo tends to frustrate achieving any real modification, if modifications can indeed be made in laissez faire societies....


October 10, 2006 ~ The New York Times

Flyweights, Yes, but Fighters Nonetheless: Fruit Flies Bred for Aggressiveness

By Nicholas Wade

What can stand on its hind legs and duke…

On national character traits

"As Gov. Schwarzenegger implied, the more outgoing West African personality contribution in Puerto Ricans makes them more extroverted on average that Mexicans, whose Native American contribution inclines them toward solidity and introversion. (Spaniards tend to be fairly extroverted, so mestizos come in a wide range of introversion to extroversion, while mulattos are more consistently extroverted. That may have something to do with why the smaller Caribbean population has made a bigger impact on American popular culture then the very large Mexican-American population -- e.g.., Jennifer Lopez, and American-born Puerto Rica won the role of Selena, the American-born Tex-Mex singer."

-From Steve Sailer's blog, September 8,2006


The New Atlantis, Summer 2003

Eugenics—Sacred and Profane
Christine Rosen


"A recent working paper by the President’s Council on Bioethics noted that “as genomic knowledge increases and more genes are identified that correlate with diseases, the applications for preimplantation genetic diagnosis will likely increase greatly,” including for medical conditions such as cancer, mental illness, or asthma, and non-medical traits such as temperament or height. “While currently a small practice,” the Council working paper declares, “PGD is a momentous development. It represents the first fusion of genomics and assisted reproduction—effectively opening the door to the genetic shaping of offspring.”

In one sense, of course, PGD poses no new eugenic dangers. Genetic screening using amniocentesis has allowed parents to test the fitness of potential offspring for years. But PGD is poised to increase this power significantly: It will allow parents to choose the child they want, not simply re…

The culture of getting away with it

David Brooks, in his column below, fails to mention a key variable affecting national character traits, group intelligence, which is to say, the compilation of individual IQ by country or region. Corruption may correlate with capacity which then leads to cultural practices. Hong Kong and Singapore, and Chile for that matter, eliminated corruption in a few decades because the residents had the collective wherewithal to fashion a civil society with the necessary rules which were eventually woven into the ethos of the countries.


August 13, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist

The Culture of Nations

Diplomats in New York rack up a lot of unpaid parking tickets, but not all rack them up at the same rates. According to the economists Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel, diplomats from countries that rank high on the Transparency International corruption index pile up huge numbers of unpaid tickets, whereas diplomats from countries …

Once were warriors: gene linked to Maori violence

MAORIS carry a "warrior" gene that makes them more prone to violence, criminal acts and risky behaviour, a scientist has controversially claimed.

Dr Rod Lea, a New Zealand researcher, and his colleagues told an Australian genetics conference that Maori men had a "striking over-representation" of monoamine oxidase - dubbed the warrior gene - which they say is strongly associated with aggressive behaviour.

He says the unpublished studies prove that Maoris have the highest prevalence of this strength gene, first discovered by US researchers but never linked to an ethnic group.

This explains how Maoris migrated across the Pacific and survived, said Dr Lea, a genetic epidemiologist at the New Zealand Institute of Environmental Science and Research.

But he said the presence of the gene also "goes a long way to explaining some of the problems Maoris have".

"Obviously, this means they are going to be more aggressive and violent and more likely to get involved in …

East and west speakers make different calculations

Source: scenta

Native English speakers calculate mathematical problems much differently to those who learned Chinese as their first language.

By completing simple arithmetic, the two nationalities were observed to use different parts of their brain, according to a report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers utilised brain imagining techniques to determine which parts of the brain were active when participants completed basic sums, such as four plus five equals nine.

All arithmetic questions were with Arabic numbers, a numeral system familiar in both cultures.

Both the Chinese and English groups utilised a region of the brain known as the inferior parietal cortex, an area connected to quantity representation and reading.

English speakers, however, displayed more activity in the language processing area of the brain, while their Chinese counterparts used the area of the brain that deals with processing visual information.

Lead author Yiyuan Tang of Dalian Univer…

Slating the thirst for knowledge... an addiction...?

'Thirst for knowledge' may simulate opium craving
General Science : June 20, 2006

Neuroscientists have proposed a simple explanation for the pleasure of grasping a new concept: The brain is getting its fix. The "click" of comprehension triggers a biochemical cascade that rewards the brain with a shot of natural opium-like substances, said Irving Biederman of the University of Southern California. He presents his theory in an invited article in the latest issue of American Scientist.

"While you're trying to understand a difficult theorem, it's not fun," said Biederman, professor of neuroscience in the USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

"But once you get it, you just feel fabulous."

The brain's craving for a fix motivates humans to maximize the rate at which they absorb knowledge, he said.

"I think we're exquisitely tuned to this as if we're junkies, second by second."


"The better part of valor is discretion"

Wall Street Journal. (Eastern edition).
June 16, 2006. pg. A.1

Scientist's Study Of Brain Genes Sparks a Backlash

Antonio Regalado

[Dr. Bruce Lahn of the Univeristy of Chicago] says he is moving away from the research. "It's getting too controversial," he says....

Dr. Lahn had touched a raw nerve in science: race and intelligence.

Dr. Lahn has drawn sharp fire from other leading genetics researchers. They say the genetic differences he found may not signify any recent evolution -- and even if they do, it is too big a leap to suggest any link to intelligence. "This is not the place you want to report a weak association that might or might not stand up," says Francis Collins, director of the genome program at the National Institutes of Health....

Pilar Ossorio, a professor of law and medical ethics at the University of Wisconsin, criticizes Dr. Lahn for implying a conclusion similar to "The Bell Curve," a controversial 1994 bestseller by Richard J. Herrnst…

The role of dominance (power tripping) in the Islamic Threat

The week following the Muslim protests in London against the Danish cartoons—with marchers carrying signs calling for the beheading of infidels—other Muslims demonstrated to claim that Islam really meant peace and tolerance. While their implicit recognition that peace and tolerance are preferable to strife and bigotry, the claim regarding Islam was both historically and intellectually preposterous. Only someone ignorant of the most elementary facts could believe such a thing, or... they are suffering from serious delusions.

From the first, Islam was a religion of pillage, violence, and compulsion, which it justified and glorified. And it is certainly not "the evident truth of the doctrine itself," to quote Gibbon with regard for what, with characteristic irony, he called the primary reason for the rapid spread of Christianity throughout the civilized world, that explains the exponential growth of the Dar-al-Islam in its early history.

It is important, of course, to distinguis…

E.O. Wilson now places group selection above kin selection

The idea that group selection (or multilevel selection) could have any validity is sometimes dismissed in rather derogatory terms. It may therefore come as a surprise that one of the main "fathers" of ev psych, Edward O. Wilson, now theorizes that kin selection is NOT the why of the evolution of eusocial insects, as widely accepted, but rather group selection -- and the same seems to hold true for humans.

In an interview in the June 2006 Discover Magazine(pp. 58-61), Wilson says that one reason he now rejects the "standard theory" he helped develop is that there's very little evidence that ants and termites in the early stages of evolution could determine who's a brother, sister, cousin, etc. He says: "They're not acting to favor collateral kin. The new view that I'm proposing is that it was group selection all along, an idea first roughly formulated by Darwin."

The key to Wilson's new theory is the relatively recent recognition that gen…

Environment modifies genes

From Discover Magazine online

A Mother's Touch
Good parents can change children's DNA.
By Victor Limjoco
May 12, 2006 | Mind & Brain

Be grateful to your mom. Not only did she carry you around for nine months, but now new research suggests that her mothering style may have triggered genes that help determine your parenting style.

Columbia University neurobiologist Frances Champagne says that previous research across species showed that maternal behaviors are passed down from mother to daughter.

"So if your mother held you a lot, you will hold your infants a lot," Champagne says.

But she wanted to know whether mothering tendencies are passed on through genetics or experience. Her team studied mother rats that spent time licking and grooming their babies, and others that didn't.

As she wrote in the journal "Endocrinology," without enough licking and grooming, female rats had certain genes turn off, prevent…

Rapid gene change via behavior

Individuals with mutations in the tumor suppressor gene PTEN are prone not only to tumors but also to brain disorders, including macrocephaly (enlarged head circumference), seizures and mental retardation. Although PTEN mutations have been reported in autistic patients with macrocephaly, it is not clear whether there is a causal link between this gene and autistic spectrum disorders (ASD). Writing in Neuron, Chang-Hyuk Kwon and colleagues provide direct evidence that inactivation of Pten in mice results in neuropathological changes as well as abnormalities in social interaction.

Using several behavioral models, the researchers show that the Pten-mutant mice have deficits in social learning and interaction. For example, the mutant animals spent less time investigating the social target (a new mouse) compared with controls. When presented with a choice between the social target and an inaminate object, the Pten mutants spent similar amounts of time interacting with both. When the social …

Kwame Anthony Appiah on Cosmopolitanism

The fear is that the values and images of western mass culture, like some invasive weed, are threatening to choke out the world’s native flora.

The right approach, I think, starts by taking individuals – not nations, tribes or ‘people’ – as the proper object of moral concern. It doesn’t much matter what we call such a creed, but in homage to Diogenes, the fourth-century Greek Cynic and the first philosopher to call himself a ‘citizen of the world’, we could call it cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitans take cultural difference seriously, because they take choices individuals make seriously. But because difference is not the only thing that concerns them, they suspect that many of globalisation’s cultural critics are aiming at the wrong targets....

Yes, globalisation can produce homogeneity. But globalisation is also a threat to homogeneity.That prospect is unsettling for some people (just as it is exciting for others)....

Urbanity: the big, polyglot, diverse world of the city.

Human variety matter…

Tom Wolfe on writing

Robert Cole [Director of the National Endowment for the Humanities]: Let me turn to your work. You've described yourself as a chronicler. What is that exactly?

Wolfe: Balzac enjoyed saying, "I am the secretary of French society," meaning a secretary who takes notes, not like the Secretary of Labor or something . . . He keeps tabs on what is happening in society, in the sense of social mores as well as just "society" with a small s. If I'm working well, I'm first and foremost bringing the news.

That was Nietzsche's expression when he said "God is dead." He said this is not a manifesto for atheism. He said, I'm just bringing you the news. I'm bringing you the news of the biggest event in modern history. God is dead, by which he meant, of course, that educated people were beginning to have no faith in God any longer. This was the 1880s. He predicted that in the twentieth century would come the rise of "barbaric nationalistic brothe…

Oochy woochy coochy coo

May 11th 2006
From The Economist
Women can read men like books

A GROUP of scientists has discovered that women are attracted to men who are fond of children. In years gone by, that announcement might have qualified for one of the late Senator William Proxmire's Golden Fleece awards for pointless scientific research—except that what this particular group of scientists has shown is that women can tell who is and is not fond of children just by looking at their faces.

The members of the group in question, led by James Roney of the University of California, Santa Barbara, are part of the revival of a science that once dared not speak its name—physiognomy. In the late 18th century, and during most of the 19th, it was believed that the shape of a person's head could tell you something about his character. Such deterministic thoughts fell out of favour during the 20th century. Most behavioural scientists thought that environment, not biology, shaped behaviour, and even those who did not…

The importance of delayed gratification

Self Control is the Key to Success

AROUND 1970, psychologist Walter Mischel launched a classic experiment. He left a succession of 4-year-olds in a room with a bell and a marshmallow. If they rang the bell, he would come back and they could eat the marshmallow. If, however, they didn't ring the bell and waited for him to come back on his own, they could then have two marshmallows.

In videos of the experiment, you can see the children squirming, kicking, hiding their eyes -- desperately trying to exercise self-control so they can wait and get two marshmallows. Their performance varied widely. Some broke down and rang the bell within a minute. Others lasted 15 minutes.

The children who waited longer went on to get higher SAT scores. They got into better colleges and had, on average, better adult outcomes. The children who rang the bell quickest were more likely to become bullies. They received worse teacher and parental evaluations 10 years later and were more likely to have drug probl…

Race and War

White Guilt and the Western Past
Why is America so delicate with the enemy?

Tuesday, May 2, 2006
Wall Street Journal Online

There is something rather odd in the way America has come to fight its wars since World War II.

For one thing, it is now unimaginable that we would use anything approaching the full measure of our military power (the nuclear option aside) in the wars we fight. And this seems only reasonable given the relative weakness of our Third World enemies in Vietnam and in the Middle East. But the fact is that we lost in Vietnam, and today, despite our vast power, we are only slogging along--if admirably--in Iraq against a hit-and-run insurgency that cannot stop us even as we seem unable to stop it. Yet no one--including, very likely, the insurgents themselves--believes that America lacks the raw power to defeat this insurgency if it wants to. So clearly it is America that determines the scale of this war. It is America, in fact, that fights so as to make a litt…