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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Quantum physics for the win!

This has nothing to do with anthropology, it's just awesome!

New quantum theories are messing with time!!! Holy cow (originally posted on Scientific American):

The main story " Splitting Time from Space—New Quantum Theory Topples Einstein's Spacetime," describes recent excitement over a quantum theory of gravity proposed by physicist Petr HoYava of the University of California, Berkeley. Testing theories of quantum gravity in the laboratory is not possible, but computer simulations may offer the next best thing—and they seem to be lending support to HoYava gravity.
Jan Ambjørn of the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen and his colleagues have been using computer simulations to model quantum gravity based on spacetimes built from self-organizing "motes" that fall into place naturally.
So far, they have succeeded in creating a stable four-dimensional spacetime, when viewed at large distances. But when they zoomed in to small distances, they found a strange result—their universe seems to drop two dimensions. So where did the missing dimensions go?
HoYava believes that this dimension drop marks the point at which general relativity emerges in his theory of gravity. In his model, the shackles that force time and space to stretch in unison are removed at high energies and short distances. In a paper published in Physical Review Letters in April, he explains that within this regime, space stretches only a third as quickly as time. "The three spatial dimensions effectively mimic just one normal relativistic dimension," he says, making it look as though two dimensions have vanished.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery - and bonding

Okay, first I just have to get it out of the way that Frans de Waal is a giant hippie. Big ol' bio-anth hippie! The article I'm posting below undoubtedly reflects that. BUT, if you look past the hippiness, I think he's onto something.

Okay, cue posting of Discover Magazine, general audience article about bonobos:

What intrigues me most about laughter is how it spreads. It’s almost impossible not to laugh when everybody else is. There have been laughing epidemics, in which no one could stop and some even died in a prolonged fit. There are laughing churches and laugh therapies based on the healing power of laughter. The must-have toy of 1996—Tickle Me Elmo—laughed hysterically after being squeezed three times in a row. All of this because we love to laugh and can’t resist joining laughing around us. This is why comedy shows on television have laugh tracks and why theater audiences are sometimes sprinkled with “laugh plants”: people paid to produce raucous laughing at any joke that comes along.

The infectiousness of laughter even works across species. Below my office window at the Yerkes Primate Center, I often hear my chimps laugh during rough-and-tumble games, and I cannot suppress a chuckle myself. It’s such a happy sound. Tickling and wrestling are the typical laugh triggers for apes, and probably the original ones for humans. The fact that tickling oneself is notoriously ineffective attests to its social significance. And when young apes put on their play face, their friends join in with the same expression as rapidly and easily as humans do with laughter.

Shared laughter is just one example of our primate sensitivity to others. Instead of being Robinson Crusoes sitting on separate islands, we’re all interconnected, both bodily and emotionally. This may be an odd thing to say in the West, with its tradition of individual freedom and liberty, but Homo sapiens is remarkably easily swayed in one emotional direction or another by its fellows.

Read the full article. I'll wait.

Okay, are you back? Good.

I think he has a good point. There are lots of other data that really point out to me how important it is to have other individuals around, how much we learn from them, and how it's hard for us to be the "lone wolf" (which doesn't actually exist either, but that's a different post all together).

The first type of play that humans participate in is imitating their moms and dads. Smiling at them, opening and closing their mouth the same way they do. Kids learn by mimicking and playing, trying the same stuff those around them do.

I don't know if you need to go so far as to call it the new field of “embodied” cognition, but it is important to acknowledge that that part of us as social creatures definitely exists, and that basically, no man is an island. This is being re-shown every day.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Large Prehistoric fauna and you

Featured in the New York Times:

Whenever modern humans reached a new continent in the expansion from their African homeland 50,000 years ago, whether Australia, Europe or the Americas, all the large fauna quickly disappeared. [Editorial comment: Hmmm, not exactly true, but I'll go with it for now]

This circumstantial evidence from the fossil record suggests that people’s first accomplishment upon reaching new territory was to hunt all its all large animals to death. But apologists for the human species have invoked all manner of alternative agents, like climate change and asteroid impacts [I am not one of these, for the record, but I don't think we were that well coordinated or that large a community to hunt out all the big fauna in North America].

A careful analysis of lake deposits in New York and Wisconsin has brought new data to bear on this heated debate. A team led by Jacquelyn Gill, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, has uncovered a critical sequence of events that rules out some explanations for the extinction of the large animals and severely constrains others.

The first event documented by Ms. Gill and her colleagues is the pace of extinction in North America, known from other research to have affected all animal species over about 2,200 pounds and half of those weighing more than about 70 pounds, the weight of a large dog.

Ms. Gill found a clever proxy for these disappearances. A fungus known as Sporormiella has to pass through the digestive system to complete its life cycle, and its spores are found in animal dung. By measuring the number of spores in the lake deposits, the Wisconsin team documented the steady disappearance of large animals from 14,800 years to 13,700 years ago, they reported in Thursday’s issue of Science.

The next clue to emerge from the lake deposits was the pollen of new plants including broad-leaved trees like oak. This novel plant community seems to have emerged because it was released from being grazed by large mammals.

The third clue is a layer of fine charcoal grains, presumably from fires that followed the buildup of wood.

This sequence of events has direct bearing on the megafauna whodunit. First, it rules out as the cause an impact by an asteroid or comet that occurred 12,900 years ago — the animals were dead long before.

It also excludes the standard version of a more popular explanation, that of habitat loss due to climate change. The extinction of large animals occurred before the emergence of the new plant communities. Ms. Gill said that some other aspect of climate, like direct temperature change, could have been involved [so it WAS climate change, then?].

The third suspect to be cleared is the people of the Clovis culture [editorial comment: well, duh!!!!], which first appeared some 13,000 years ago, well after the extinction event. The Clovis people have long been considered the first inhabitants of North America, which they probably reached by trekking across the land bridge that joined Siberia and Alaska during the last Ice Age.

So, do the new data exculpate humans of the murder of the North American mammoth? Not exactly. Butchered mammoth bones some 14,500 years old have been found in Wisconsin. There were evidently pre-Clovis people in North America, and they could have hunted the large animals to death. [no, no, look at frequency, not presence/non-presence of scraping on bones. Humans are also scavengers and opportunistic meat eaters]

But Ms. Gill is not yet willing to declare people guilty. “At this stage it’s too early to completely eliminate climate change,” she said.

Nor is it clear that the pre-Clovis people had the technology to take down large game like mammoths. [you can take down mammoth by driving them off a cliff, but I'll go with this for now]. Ms. Gill plans to analyze many more lake bottoms before rendering any final verdict.

Am I just being grumpy here, or does this article sort of miss the point, or try to keep the "mystery alive" just for a good story? Interesting research, however.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Why chimps don't talk?

All the news came out last week about the FOXP2 gene, but I can't help and post it here a week late anyway:

Chimps, our nearest relative, don't talk. We do. Now scientists have pinpointed a mutation in a gene that might help explain the difference.

The mutation seems to have helped humans develop speech and language. It's probably not the only gene involved, but researchers found the gene looks and acts differently in chimps and humans, according to a study published online Wednesday by the journal Nature.

Lab tests showed that the human version regulated more than 100 other genes differently from the chimp version. This particular gene — called FOXP2 — mutated around the time humans developed the ability to talk.

"It's really playing a major role in chimp-human differences," said the study's author, Daniel Geschwind, a professor of neurology, psychiatry and human genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles. "You mutate this gene in humans and you get a speech and language disorder."

This tells you "what may be happening in the brain," he said.

Read the full Associated Press story.

Mummies had clogged arteries

A recent study of mummies found a significant number of the elite mummies (which most were) had clogged arteries, calcification of vessels, and other symptoms of heart disease and obesity.

This has been found before, but this is the largest study so far.

The BBC article I read suggested it was caused by the supposed large amounts of fatty meats being eaten by the elite.

However, as I suspected he might, Rafe said "There's currently a bit of discussion on GNXP (Gene Expression). Michael Eades, auther of Protein Power, has published in the past showing that the Egyptian elite were in fact obese quite regularly, and attributes it to a diet that was very high in grains combined with a sedentary lifestyle, not the high in meat diet proposed in the BBC article."

Quoted from Science Daily: "UC Irvine clinical professor of cardiology Dr. Gregory Thomas, a co-principal investigator on the study, said, 'The findings suggest that we may have to look beyond modern risk factors to fully understand the disease.'"


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Effects of prenatal exposure of phthalates in boys

First came across this in Discover Magazine:

A new study in the International Journal of Andrology has raised a storm of concern that prenatal exposure to these chemicals could make boys less masculine in their play preferences.

Phthalates, which block the activity of male hormones such as androgens, could be altering masculine brain development, according to Shanna H. Swan, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Rochester Medical Center and lead author of the new report [Los Angeles Times]. To test whether that link extended into behavior, Swan’s team tested women for phthalate levels midway through their pregnancy and then checked back in on the children four to seven years later.

The researchers asked parents to report their children’s patterns of play, but they knew they also had to separate any potential phthalate effect from the “nuture ” side of question. To determine how parental views might sway behavior, parents completed a survey that included questions such as, “What would you do if you had a boy who preferred toys that girls usually play with?” They were asked to respond with whether they would support or discourage such behavior, and how strongly [TIME].

The study of about 150 kids found that while girls were mostly unaffected, boys who had been exposed to the highest phthalate levels showed a lower likelihood than other boys to participate in what we consider typical rough-and-tumble male recreation—play fighting, pretending to play with guns, and so on. But the research might not imply the national masculinity crisis that some headlines suggest. Play in the most highly phthalate-exposed boys wasn’t “feminized,” Swan explains, since these kids didn’t preferentially play with dolls or don dresses. Rather, she says, “we’d describe their play as less masculine” [Science News]. Rather than play-fighting, she says, those boys tended toward “gender neutral” play like putting puzzles together or competing in sports.

Read full article here.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Gay Manimals

What do you think about teaching about sexuality, homo or hetero, in school? Here's one guy's opinion (Actually a fairly knowledgeable guy who has his own blog "Primate Diaries" on Science Blogs):

By now everyone has heard of the high school English honors teacher, Dan DeLong, who was suspended for offering students the Seed magazine article "The Gay Animal Kingdom" by Jonah Lehrer as an optional extra credit assignment.

According to the Alton, IL based Telegraph newspaper, DeLong has now been reinstated at Southwestern High School after several hundred students and parents attended a six-hour long disciplinary hearing:

At Monday night's meeting, more than 200 people lined the stairs, sidewalk and office space at the district's small unit office at 884 Piasa Road in the Macoupin County village of Piasa. Many of DeLong's supporters had handmade posters and banners stating: "Mr. DeLong Inspires Us," and chanting, "Broadening minds is not a crime."

Unfortunately, what it looks like is that DeLong entered a plea deal with the Board of Education where he would admit that the article was "inappropriate" in exchange for going back to work. In a statement that DeLong read, on behalf of both himself and the School Board, this agreement was that:

[T]he Board of Education and administrator's concern was never about sexual preference or homophobic condemnation. Rather, the issue of concern was the age appropriateness of the material. . . I agree with the board that the material in my class was not age appropriate for my sophomores and for that I apologize. I understand the board has decided that I shall receive a Notice of Remedial Warning.

This is wrong on several levels. First off, this is absolutely about homophobic condemnation. No one would have had any problems with a science article that described the evolution of heterosexual monogamy in voles or gibbons. Such an article would have naturalized a belief that many people hold as the only legitimate kind of relationship for our society today. However, by showing that same-sex pairs exist in the natural world (and that gender is a much more fluid concept than people may have realized) it challenges people's assumptions about what "natural" actually is. Because they were threatened by this idea, the Board is confessing that ANY discussion that homosexuality could be natural is therefore inappropriate. It's homophobia, pure and simple.

Secondly, does the Southwestern Board of Education even know what teenagers are exposed to these days? This is the generation that invented sexting and half of whom have had oral sex (according to the National Center for Health Statistics). Students today are fascinated by sexuality and are ardent consumers of information. They know full well that homosexuality exists and that there is currently a "debate" about whether or not all people should be granted human rights. Not only is the discussion of how humans define themselves useful in this regard, it should be required. Across the country we're asking that people vote on the civil rights of people with other sexual orientations. Isn't it a good idea to know something about the issues involved? Plus, Lehrer's article was completely tame and had no explicit content (that is, unless the word "ejaculate" causes you to get the vapors). What this overreaction does is say far more about what makes some parents and school board officials uncomfortable than any need to "protect the children."

The whole situation is a farce. If I was still teaching high school students (which I did for about two years) I would use this opportunity to make Lehrer's article required reading and ask students to discuss whether or not they thought a teacher should be suspended for making it available. It would be a terrific lesson in civics. And if not this article, I would certainly make the issues of gay marriage, gay adoption, and gay service in the military part of any discussion on current affairs.

What's ironic about the conservative outrage over gay rights is that the "homosexual agenda" is revealing itself to be an inherently conservative movement. Think about it. What other group is advocating for the right to get married, adopt children, and serve in the military? And conservatives have a problem with this? Perhaps a high school teacher somewhere should offer an article to students seeking to explain that strange phenomenon.

What do you guys think?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Addicted to cute?

American society definitely is, according to Vanity Fair:

Cootchie-coo behavior used to be reserved for private moments in the home. But now, with the Internet’s help, people feel free to wallow in cuteness en masse, in the company of strangers. The serious political blog Daily Kos, for instance, is awash in cute pictures of kittens and panda bears. The Web site Cute Overload, which gets 100,000 visits a day, is all photographs and videos of puppies (“puppehs” in the site’s own particular argot), kittens (“kittehs”), and baby rabbits (“bun-buns”), who are said to go nom-nom-nom as they munch their little meals.

“It’s part of our DNA to react to cute things,” says Meg Frost, who founded Cute Overload in 2005. “What makes me post certain pictures is if I have an audible reaction—a squeal—when I see the picture. I’m kind of annoyed at myself for having no control over thinking these things are so cute. It’s like ‘Oh, why don’t you just kill us with your fur?’”

The popularity of Cute Overload (and the more than 150 other cute-animal sites catalogued by the recommendation engine StumbleUpon, including Stuff on My Cat, Cute Things Falling Asleep, Kittenwar, and I Can Has Cheezburger) reflects a growing self-infantilization that is also in evidence at the social-networking site Facebook, where countless subscribers have posted photos of themselves as babies on their profile.

Vice, a hipster publication and Web site based in Brooklyn, has also gotten in on the cute act, with a Web channel called The Cute Show. With an un-ironic focus on cute animals, The Cute Show would not seem to belong in the company of other Vice programming, such as Inside Afghanistan and The Vice Guide to Sex.

It’s not just a digital thing. In this cuteness-crazed environment, Time Warner’s People magazine decided it was good business to shell out an estimated $6 million for photos of Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony’s newborn twins. At the same time, Britney Spears, Angelina Jolie, Madonna, Katie Holmes, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Gwen Stefani have kept the supermarket tabloids afloat through the power of their spawn. And it’s no accident that the biggest tabloid saga of the year concerns Jon and Kate Gosselin, who rode to fame on the backs of their eight little cuties.

cuteness alert! cried the Hollywood Gossip Web site in a recent headline running above a snapshot of Matt Damon and his “adorable little ladies,” ages nine months and two years, photographed near Central Park. The caption that ran with the photo might be our new cultural credo: “Everybody together now ... Wait for it ... Awwww!”

Even our cars are getting cuter. The Mini Cooper, one of the cutest things ever to hit pavement, entered the U.S. market in 2002. Seven years and one economic collapse later, it perfectly suits the changing image of a country in which General Motors, the maker of the Cadillac, filed for bankruptcy and sold its Hummer line to Tengzhong, a company based in China. The Mini’s main competition, the Smart car (a brand so cute its name is rendered in lowercase letters in its logo), was introduced into the U.S. last year by Mercedes-Benz/Daimler. If you want one, you need to get on a waiting list. At 1,808 pounds, it is the smallest car domestically available. “If you look at it from the front, with the position of the grill and the headlights, it looks like it’s smiling,” says Smart spokesman Ken Kettenbeil.

And Darth Vader does not lie beyond the reach of cuteness. The ultimate movie villain of the last three decades is now available as a cuddly plush toy. “Squeeze him into your world today!” says the ad copy.

In this atmosphere, it’s no surprise that the most monstrously profitable company of our time has a name that could have been made up by a five-month-old: Google. Twitter, another hot digital entity with a babyish name, has reduced even Shaquille O’Neal to peppering his postings with cute emoticons.


That’s me crying over the depressing rise of cuteness.

Is this really just a fad, or is the root of cuteness deeper inside our evolutionary genes. I vote for the latter, but read Jim Windolf's entire article decrying the cute phenomenon that is sweeping the nation.

Babies cry in their own language

From Newsweek and several other magazines:

There had already been provocative research on what sounds a fetus can hear in the womb and what effect that has right after birth, with several research teams finding that newborns prefer their mothers' voices over those of other people, as in studies such as this and this. That makes sense, since Mom's voice is what a baby heard most for nine months. Newborns also prefer their native tongue to other languages for the same reason.

Now an intrepid team of scientists, three from Germany and one from France, has gone an intriguing step further: they have found that newborns cry in their native language. "We have provided evidence that language begins with the very first cry melodies," says Kathleen Wermke of the University of Würzburg, Germany, who led the research.

The idea was to extend the existing findings about what sounds babies can perceive—their native language, their mother's voice—to test what sounds they can create. Once the researchers had their recordings (no babies were harmed in the course of this research! All crying was spontaneous, due to hunger or thirst or general unhappiness rather than pain, as from having blood drawn), they set to work analyzing the cries' melodic qualities.

French babies tended to cry "with a rising melody contour," they will report in the December issue of the journal Current Biology, posted online Thursday. The cries sounded French: the pitch changed from low to high, rising toward the end of words as well as phrases within a sentence (though the final sound of a sentence has a lower pitch). In contrast, the German babies' cries had falling melodic contours. They sounded German: the pitch fell from high to low, which is consistent with the sound of German's falling melody contour, from the accented high-pitch syllable at the start of a phrase or word to the lower pitch at the end of a phrase. A French child says "papa," while a German one says "papa." There is, in short, "a tendency for infants to utter melody contours similar to those perceived prenatally," write the scientists.

"The dramatic finding of this study is that not only are [newborns] capable of producing different cry melodies, but they prefer to produce those melody patterns that are typical for the ambient language they have heard during their fetal life, within the last trimester," said Wermke. "Contrary to orthodox interpretations, these data support the importance of human infants' crying for seeding language development."

Read the full article at Newsweek

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Claude Levi-Strauss dies at 100

I hope I live that, really.

AP Story By Angela Doland

PARIS – Claude Levi-Strauss, widely considered the father of modern anthropology for work that included theories about commonalities between tribal and industrial societies, has died. He was 100.

The French intellectual was regarded as having reshaped the field of anthropology, introducing structuralism — concepts about common patterns of behavior and thought, especially myths, in a wide range of human societies. Defined as the search for the underlying patterns of thought in all forms of human activity, structuralism compared the formal relationships among elements in any given system.

During his six-decade career, Levi-Strauss authored literary and anthropological classics including "Tristes Tropiques" (1955), "The Savage Mind" (1963) and "The Raw and the Cooked" (1964).

Jean-Mathieu Pasqualini, chief of staff at the Academie Francaise, said an homage to Levi-Strauss was planned for Thursday, with members of the society — of which Levi-Strauss was a member — standing during a speech to honor his memory.

France reacted emotionally to Levi-Strauss' weekend death, with French President Nicolas Sarkozy joining government officials, politicians and ordinary citizens populating blogs with heartfelt tributes.

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner praised his emphasis on a dialogue between cultures and said that France had lost a "visionary." Sarkozy honored the "indefatigable humanist."

Born on Nov. 28, 1908, in Brussels, Belgium, Levi-Strauss was the son of French parents of Jewish origin. He studied in Paris and went on to teach in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and conduct much of the research that led to his breakthrough books in the South American giant.

Beatriz Perrone Moises, an anthropology professor at the University of Sao Paulo, said "given his age, we were almost expecting this, but still I feel a kind of emptiness."

"The Brazil he described in "Tristes Tropiques" is a very particular world of the senses and as he himself said there, it was a bit like rediscovering Americans, like the explorers of the 17th century. He often spoke about this emotion, this feeling. (For him,) Brazil that was less about the county itself than about the Brazil of the Indians and the feeling of walking in the footsteps of the 17th century explorers," Perrone Moises told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from Sao Paulo.

Levi-Strauss left France during as a result of the anti-Jewish laws of the collaborationist Vichy regime and during World War II joined the Free French Forces.

Levi-Strauss also won worldwide acclaim and was awarded honorary doctorates at universities, including Harvard, Yale and Oxford, as well as universities in Sweden, Mexico and Canada.

A skilled handyman who believed in the virtues of manual labor and outdoor life, Levi-Strauss was also an ardent music-lover who once said he would have liked to have been a composer had he not become an ethnologist.

He was married three times and had two sons, Matthieu and Laurent.