8.23.2007

Da Blog Has Moved!

Hello Sequitur fans. Ginny's moved to a new domain, with a much more self-promotional name.


Please visit me!

http://virginiahughes.com

8.17.2007

Knitted Brain
























It's accurately knitted. Yes, they're serious.

(via The Museum of Scientifically Accurate Fabric Brain Art)
(Hat tip: Sandra)

8.14.2007

Another Strike Against the Panspermia Hypothesis

The Earth's oldest ice has been thawed, and its drippings contained fragments of very, very old DNA. Scientists recently brought this DNA back to life.

As he describes in a recent PNAS paper, microbiologist Kay Bidle and colleagues at Rutgers discovered DNA pieces in thawed chunks of Antarctic ice that ranged in age from 100,000 to eight million years old.

When they tried to make the bacteria "viable" again—that is, when they tried to get it to grow and reproduce in lab cultures—the researchers found that the older samples were much more fragmented than the newer ones. From these samples, they calculated a "DNA half-life:" The length of DNA fragments in the ice breaks in half about every 1.1 million years.

They attributed the DNA breakdown to its long-term exposure to cosmic radiation, which digs another nail into astrobiology's Panspermia Hypothesis. The idea, which dates back to the
writings of the 5th Century Greek philosopher Anaxagoras, is that the "seeds of life" are found throughout the universe. In 1973, the co-discoverer of DNA Francis Crick proposed a "directed panspermia" theory: An advanced alien civilization, perhaps facing its imminent demise, intentionally spread small grains of DNA in random directions through the universe, some of which landed on Earth.

Panspermia, though an immensely popular idea in science fiction, has been widely criticized in the astrobiology field, mostly because the specific combination of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen necessary for life isn't found widely in the universe.

Moreover, stellar winds and cosmic rays make space is a harsh environment for poor little traveling microbes. Biddle's latest research seems to support this latter point. As he recently told Nature News:
"If you take the speed of a comet and take the distance it would need to travel it would take longer than eight million years to do that. In a comet the DNA would be completely deteriorated."

(For more astrobiology goodness, check out my Master's thesis about the hunt for life on Mars.)

8.12.2007

Autism and Neurodiversity

Last week's PostSecret included the postcard at right, which shows an illustration of an Autism Awareness ribbon and reads: "I AM NOT A PUZZLE! I DON'T WANT TO BE CURED."

This brings up an interesting point that I didn't have space to cover in my recent Nature Medicine story about autism and the parents of autistic children who believe the condition was caused by mercury-based preservatives in vaccines. While reporting for the story, I interviewed several parents of autistic children. They fell into two camps: Those who believed that vaccines poisoned their otherwise normally developing children so that they developed the neurological symptoms associated with autism spectrum disorders; and those who believed that their child was born with a set of genes that would have caused autism regardless of whether their child had received a vaccination. At the heart of this bifurcation is a bigger question: Is autism a disease that can, or should, be "cured?"

One autism parent and fellow blogger, Kevin Leitch, says no. Leitch used to believe that mercury in vaccines caused autism, but changed his mind after several years of reviewing the scientific literature. His daughter's brain, he says, is not disease-ridden, but an example of "neurodiversity."
"The idea that shes damaged in some way became fairly repugnant to us," Leitch told me. "We just don’t see her like that. I objected very strongly to the language being used to describe them: poisoned, empty shells, dead souls, toxic train wrecks...You're talking about children here; we cant call them these things."
Another blogger, Autism Diva, has an autistic child and has been diagnosed herself with Asperger's Syndrome (an autism-spectrum disorder). Autism Diva, who obviously doesn't have a hard time accepting that the disorder has a genetic component, had similar sentiments:
"I love my autistic child. How could you think of re-wiring them and making them someone else?" she said. "My child’s very impaired and needs a lot of help. If I left her alone in the world she would die. That’s kind of scary, and I can't see a lot of parents signing up for that. But it's common, it's not a new thing. Not an infection that we all ought to be fighting, it’s a part of humanity. You get on a slippery slope to eugenics very quickly. Is every brain one day going to be uniform?"
This concept of "neurodiversity" is explored in depth—as it relates to autism but also to racism, sexual orientation, and even left-handedness—by yet another blogger, Kathleen Seidel at her website, neurodiversity.com.

7.31.2007

Walk (and) Score

When I visited my family in southwest Michigan a few weeks ago, the first thing I noticed was the twangy, excruciatingly-long-A accent. The second thing I noticed: Everybody was fat, and, despite the fact that my hometown spans a maximum of about two miles, the lanky members of the high school cross-country team were the only residents using the sidewalks.

That’s a shame. The average resident of a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood weighs 7 pounds less than someone who lives in a sprawling subdivision, according to one study done in Washington. And walking of course cuts down on driving, and thus car accidents and carbon emissions.

So just how walk-able is your neighborhood? I just found a fabulous site, www.walkscore.com, that will rate it based on its proximity to nearby stores, restaurants, schools, parks, etc. (Unfortuantely, it doesn’t take into consideration other factors that make walking more attractive, such as the width of the streets, crime stats, topography, or public transit.)

My old haunt in southwest Michigan: 49/100

My current Greek ‘hood in Queens: 95/100 (Score!)

7.29.2007

Joy to the Fishes

Revenge of the Goldfish, Sandy Skoglund, 1981

7.26.2007

Aliens in Queens

In the summer of 2005, five illegal aliens were caught in Queens, skulking in the brackish water of Meadow Lake. After positive identification, New York State authorities cut them with knives until they bled to death. But the government had no other choice. These were alien fish, whose continued survival could lead to dire economic and ecological consequences.

The exterminated individuals were Northern snakehead fish (Channa argus argus), native to Asia. Also known as “Frankenfish,” the MO of these monsters comes straight from the annals of science fiction. Their heads, covered in snake-like scales that give them their name, also hold a mouth full of sharp fangs. Their torpedo-shaped bodies grow as long as 40 inches, as heavy as 15 pounds. They can breathe air, and “walk” on land using their pectoral fins. They’ll survive for several months under iced-over waters or even buried in mud banks. Scarier still is an insatiable and indiscriminate appetite—they’ll feast on anything on land or sea, from fish and frogs, to ducks, and even small mammals. Secretary of the Interior Gale A. Norton was apt to call them, “something from a bad horror movie.”

Yet the public has taken little note of the Queens incident, and the media has described it with tongue-in-cheek. In a New York Times article at the time, for instance, Anthony DePalma made light of the problem, writing “Lady Liberty…might have a hard time getting at all gushy about some of the most recent immigrants to the city.”

This mockery of the snakeheads is unfortunate, and surprising, because this isn’t the first time the fish have reared their ugly heads. Just five years ago, a tourist bought a snakehead at a fish market in Manhattan’s Chinatown. (Sold for about $9 a pound, steamed strips of fish are often combined with ginger and scallions in sweet soup recipes. Cooks like them for their freshness, since they can survive up to four days out of water.) The man took his new pet back to Crofton, Maryland to raise it. But there was a problem: No matter how much it ate—up to 12 goldfish per day—it wouldn’t stop growing. When he finally dumped the beast into a small pond behind a local shopping center, he had no idea he was breaking a state law, or that his act could lead to an ecological disaster for the entire Chesapeake Bay.

Sadly, most Americans are not now and have never been aware of the dangers caused by the introduction of invasive alien species. For hundreds of years, Europeans and Americans who ventured abroad have shipped slaves, gold and, yes, biological booty back and forth from their native lands. Take one romantic, if not odd, Eugene Schieffelin. In the late 19th century, this wealthy contributor to New York theatre was determined to give the New World all of the birds ever mentioned in the works of Shakespeare. Most couldn’t survive the American habitat. But he released 60 pairs of starlings (mentioned by Shakespeare just once, in Henry IV: “I'll have a starling shall be taught to speak…”) that would propagate to become our most abundant and annoying bird species, pushing out natives like bluebirds and martins.

Granted, creatures from afar are often romantic, novel, exotic—it’s why everybody loves the zoo. So an earnest public might ask, why not bring them here? What’s the big deal?

According to an extensive 1993 report by the Office of Tribal Affairs (OTA), over 900 exotic, free-ranging species have caused ecological or economic harm in the United States. To understand why, consult evolutionary theory. Alien species, by definition, did not evolve in or for our specific ecosystem. Thus, when thrown into a new environment—with a new climate, new food sources, new competition, new prey—their behaviors are unpredictable. Unsurprisingly, many cannot survive at all. But others are superbly equipped to travel, thrive and even dominate their new surroundings.

Take that wretched Northern snakehead, for example. In its native Southeast Asia, it lives in irrigation ditches and rice paddies. After the rainy season, these trenches dry out and the fish must migrate to a wetter place. Hence, for thousands of years, the creatures with fins that allowed them to flop around on land are the ones that survived. Similarly adaptive systems evolved in the snakehead’s digestive system, where it has an air sac that allows it to absorb oxygen when it’s out of water. The snakeheads, thus falling into the category of invasive foreign species, are a North American ecosystem’s worst nightmare.

The biggest ecological problem with invasive species is the loss of biodiversity. In the 1960s, a “walking” catfish from Sri Lanka was exported to a Florida fish farm. Within 10 years, the catfish had spread to 20 Floridan counties. In the decades since, up to 90%—that’s 4,000 pounds per acre—of the area’s fish kill has consisted of the catfish. In Australia, a similar invasion has caused the rapid decline of native frog populations. There, a deadly virus was introduced to Queensland and transmitted to frogs by an imported fish. The telling part: the fish was not sold for eating, but for ornament.

Another negative effect of invasive species is the destruction of natural resources. The Siberian gypsy moth, an insect that strips the leaves from spruce, larch, and fir trees, and in large numbers thus poses a great threat to coniferous forests, is ranked in the top three of Russia’s biological pests. The OTA’s report divulged that thousands of raw logs imported to the United States from Siberia carried—guess what?—Siberian gypsy moths.

And for those who scoff at the ecological consequences, perhaps they’ll sit up when they hear the situation affects their pocketbooks. Loss of biodiversity often translates into loss of money, and lots of it. The Australian Brown tree snake, accidentally introduced to Guam in the early 1950s, now thrives there with up to 13,000 snakes per square mile. The snakes, by crawling on power lines, have caused more than 1,200 power outages since 1978. Since its arrival in 1892, the Cotton boll weevil has cost the U.S. cotton industry $13 billion; Zebra mussels—introduced to the Great Lakes from Caspian Sea water dumped from a transatlantic ship—have clogged American pipes since at least 1988, demanding utility repairs to the tune of $3 billion.

So what ever happened to those snakefish dumped in the Maryland pond five years ago? Officials knew they had to be eradicated, for fear of their spread. Because they can “walk,” they could have left the pond, crawled a mere 75 feet to the Little Patuxent River, and from there invaded the Maryland river system and Chesapeake Bay. The pond could have been drained, except some of the fish would have inevitably buried themselves in the mud until they could make it to the Little Patuxent. Electroshock treatments didn’t work, due to dense vegetation in the pond. Traps were used with some success, but authorities still didn’t know for certain that all of the fish had been killed. A complete purge came finally when they poisoned the entire pond using a plant-derived toxin called Rotenone.

If not public awareness, the incident in Maryland at least spawned legislation. Within a few months, a federal law was passed banning the importation of snakeheads. But for many working on the problem, the ban didn’t go far enough. California is one of 13 states where it is illegal to import, transport, or even possess a snakehead. The state’s Fish and Game Commission has argued that the federal ban lacks teeth, as the high volumes of fish are imported together, and the snakeheads are small enough to hide behind larger ones. As Miles Young, a lieutenant in the California Department of Fish and Game, told the Sacramento Bee: “it’s been an enforcement problem.”

Back in Queens, now a two years since the finding of the five snakeheads, the problem rages still. Undoubtedly, kin of the five exterminated fish are lurking underwater, devouring what’s left of the carp, white perch, and pumpkinseed fish native to Meadow Lake. Now closed for fishing, activity on the lake consists solely of local biologists setting traps for more snakeheads. But so far, they’ve had no luck.

7.21.2007

LOLZ





































(Hat tip: Dark Roasted Blend)

7.20.2007

Nature's Fractals

At right, feast your eyes on Brassica oleracea, a.k.a. fractal broccoli. Complex fractal, or self-similiar, patterns like this are ubiquitous in nature—in leaf veins, seashells, snowflakes, even blood vessels in the lung.

So what does self-similarity mean? As John Walker, the photographer of the image at right, explains:
The self-similarity of most of these patterns is defined only in a statistical sense: while the general "roughness" is about the same at different scales, you can't extract a segment, blow it up, and find a larger scale segment which it matches precisely.

However, some of the most pleasing patterns in geometric art exhibit exact or almost exact self-similarity. These are patterns which are composed of smaller copies of themselves ad infinitum, or at least until some limit where the similarity breaks down due to the granularity of the underlying material.
That fractal broccoli is one of those rare examples of "almost exact" self-similarity. Pretty. Damn. Cool.

Check out Walker's site. He gives lots of graphs and photos and math stuffs, but cutest of all was his closing recipe:
It's excellent raw, enhancing both the appearance and taste of an assiette de crudités. It's crunchier than cauliflower and not as bland. It has a nutty taste (and looks kind of nutty too until you get used to it!) and doesn't have the chalky edge which some people dislike in broccoli. Any dip that's good with cauliflower and broccoli will go fine with Romanesco, but be sure to try it by itself—you may decide to forgo the dip. It would be absolutely ideal to serve raw Romanesco on a platter with an image of the Mandelbrot set!


(Hat tip: Dark Roasted Blend)

7.19.2007

Happy For You

A couple of days ago, I caught an old episode of the Ellen show when Beyonce Knowles was the guest. It was Beyonce's 25th birthday, and Ellen surprised her by bringing out her childhood dance teacher. When Beyonce saw her teacher—for the first time in years—she was overcome with emotion. She covered her mouth with the back of her hand, and started crying.

And to my surprise, so did I.

Could our brains have a built-in capacity for experiencing "altruistic pleasure"—that is, feeling good about other people feeling good? Last month, NYT columnist John Tierney wrote about new research done by neuroscientists at the University of Oregon, in which they scanned the brains of 19 female subjects while they made decisions, via a computer, about donating real money to charity. As Tierney explains:
Sure enough, when the typical student chose to donate to the food bank, she was rewarded with that warm glow: increased activity in the same ancient areas of the brain — the caudate, nucleus accumbens and insula — that respond when you eat a sweet dessert or receive money. But these pleasure centers were also activated, albeit not as much, when she was forced to pay a tax to the food bank.
Now the philosophical question (which Tierney explores in a related blog entry) is, Does activation of a neurological pleasure center mean that people are: Truly Altruistic (because we have this innate wiring system that makes us feel good about helping people); or, Truly Selfish (because we're not actually behaving in order to help others, but just to make ourselves feel good)?

Ouch, makes my head hurt even thinking about. But the distinction, though subtle, is important. Viewed through the "lens"—I hate that phrase, but whatever—of evolutionary biology, I don't see how we can be anything but Truly Selfish.

At the end of the blog post, Tierney asks his readers: "...what do you think is your chief motivation in making charitable donations? Do you give because it makes you feel good, or because you (in accordance with Kant’s ideal of praiseworthy altruism) are painfully carrying out your duty?"

Forty-nine people commmented...Some goodies:

Trite:
Does it really matter why a person does something kind or compassionate for another person, for an animal, or for the environment? The point is that if every single human being would perform an act of kindness, this world would be a better place. —Bobbi

Pretentious:
A world in which positive relational networks enable one’s own pleasure to be generated from facillitating another’s sounds pretty ethically desirable to me. —Chris

Dismissive:
What this debates lacks is the admission that nothing is ever simple in human culture. —Mitch

Either Chauvinistic or Insightful, can't decide which:
all the participants were female—motherly love is as altruistic as it gets —David

7.15.2007

7.11.2007

Capturing the Small

For 33 years, Nikon has sponsored a "Small World Photomicrography" competition, what they call "the leading forum for showcasing the beauty and complexity of life as seen through the light microscope."

The official judging for the 2007 contest took place on May, and now website visitors may vote for their favorites among the top entries. Winners will be announced this fall.

The site also showcases winning entries from previous years. They are certainly beautiful, and certainly complex. At right, the 3rd-place winner from 2004: Differentiating neuronal cells (actin, microtubules, and DNA), by Torsten Wittmann at The Scripps Research Institute.

The deadline for entries in next year's competition is April 30, 2008. First prize gets $3000 toward the purchase of Nikon equipment.

6.28.2007

Cartoon Contest Redux

Remember that Science Idol cartoon contest sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists? Well the 12 finalists have been announced! Vote for your favorite (my pick below) before midnight on July 23.

6.26.2007

It's POP, fools!

Clever reader Jason sent me a link that just may beat out the site of (fake) sweet tea preferences. This one's a map of every county in the U.S., color-coded to show if residents call their soft drinks "Pop", "Coke", "Soda", or anything else. Best of all: It's based on real data!

Note, please, that most of the country calls soft drinks by the correct name, "Pop" (See map, gigantic chunk of royal blue that spreads from Washington state to western New York, and as far south as Oklahoma).

Apparently, the data was compiled by one Matthew T. Campbell of the Department of Cartography and Geography at East Central University in Oklahoma who, according to their website, received a bachelor's degree in cartography in 2004-2005.

Survey-takers in my Michigan homecounty, Calhoun, where I was born and raised for 17 years, answered in resounding favor of "Pop;" New York City, my current home, prefers to call it "Soda." Percentages below.

Calhoun County, MI (out of 95 respondants):
POP: 91%
COKE: 2% (I'd bet these guys didn't understand the question.)
SODA: 6%
OTHER: 1%

New York City (out of 484 respondants):
POP: 2%
COKE: 5%
SODA: 90%
OTHER: 3%

P.S. What are these "other" labels? "carbonated beverage"? "soft drink"? "liquid refreshment"? And what's with the east coast of Wisconsin?

6.25.2007

There Once Was a Site that Ginny Adored

My latest procrastination site: the Online Limerictionary, from which you may peruse limericks by topic, word, or author. I liked the science ones, 'course...A few favs:

"So you're Schrödinger's lab-mate, no blag?
Does it purr, then?" I purred (not to nag).
And he told me (sly fox)!
Well, he opened the box
And he let the cat out of the bag.



Arterial blood is bright red
As it goes from your lungs to your head.
You might find that it spurts
When you get major hurts—
If it ceases its flow, then you're dead.



The dollar? The pound? Guarani?
No! the "rich" cells all use ATP!
Since it offers a whole
50 kJ per mole,
This here compound's their energy fee.
(Hat tip: PZ)

6.19.2007

Sweet Tea: Update!

So, a funny coincidence (one of my favorite redundancies of all time) led me to the personal email address of Justin Stimmel, interactive artist and the brains behind that sweet tea map I wrote about earlier today. Turns out that he designed the map for a graphic design project using Flash, and the data was completely made up! As he explains:
Yes I did make the map, and sadly it is fake. I grew up in Arlington, VA...but I went to school at NC State. Several times a year I would make the drive up and down I-95 to DC. After a while I began to plan my rest stops based on whether or not I thought they would have sweet tea. Obviously, I'm a big fan. This went on for a year or two and developed a mental sweet tea map. I was studying graphic design at the time and we had an assignment to graphically map something of interest. Most students choose things like mitosis or the cycle of water, but I knew exactly what I wanted to 'map'. Because it was a student project, and I didn't want to actually contact every McDonalds in VA, made up the data based on my experiences.

Was is more interest, at least to me, is that I did that project in 2004, and it's sat on my personal domain, with no updates, and no visitors for three years. I'm not sure how it suddenly reached the blogosphere, but it's been a welcome spike in visitors.
(Go ahead, visit his site and contribute to that spike.)

Sweet Tea

Whoa, here's a crazy-interesting way to visualize the Mason-Dixon line: map the location of restaurants that sell sweet tea.






















Yellow dots are restaurants serving sweet tea; black dots don't serve it.

From EightOverFive:
The following is a nonscientific investigation into the relationship of Sweet Tea availability and the separation of northern and southern cultures in the United States. An interesting phenomenon exists somewhere in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The northern and urban areas of the state do not generally offer sweet tea in the most restaurants, where as it is a staple beverage for the southern part of the state.
Hat tip: Dave

6.13.2007

Ouch!

Neurophilosopher had a great post yesterday on the history of trepanation, the skull surgery that's been performed in one way or another since prehistoric times. The money quote:
In his treatises on surgery, Paré also described “trepanes or round saws for cutting out a circular piece of bone with a sharp-pointed nail in the centre projecting beyond the teeth,” and another trepan with a transverse handle. The mechanical cogwheel trepan (above left) was invented by Matthia Narvatio in Antwerp in 1575. The cogwheel was connected to a second wheel which rotated a circular saw that cut through the bone. This instrument was used much in the same way as a modern hand drill - held in one hand and cranked with the other.
Warning: Not for the faint of heart!

6.08.2007

Evolution for Everyone (except UD)

Today, some 54% percent of adults in the United States believe that humans did not evolve from some earlier species. This number is growing—up from 46% in 1994.

These statistics were called out recently in evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson's new book, Evolution for Everyone, and again in a Nature review (behind firewall) of the book by evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel .

That America is getting more and more scientifically illiterate is sad enough. But more sickening is the spin taken by popular creationist blog, Uncommon Descent. (Sorry, I refuse to link to UD as I don't want them to receive even one referral from Sequitur.) UD bloggger scordova says that the Nature review, because it mentions these statistics, puts out "an unwitting slam of Darwinism." Scordova excitedly continues:
The number of non-Darwinists is rising! Pagel then asks this rhetorical question, “Where have the evolutionists gone wrong?”
It's an apt question. And one that should be seriously addressed before another poll is taken, say in 2017, when the percentage of Darwin denialists has grown even higher.

6.07.2007

J'adore les francais


Hat tip: Grrl

6.06.2007

EM Humor


























I heart xkcd.

6.05.2007

Literally Inane

Apologies for the infrequent blogging lately...I've been traveling and working and strolling and boozing too much to give Sequitur much attention. And that continues today...but! Wanted to at least give a quick shout-out to my new favorite blog, Literally which points out—what else?— ridiculous uses of the word "literally." Here's their latest post, a quote from the late Reverend Jerry Falwell:
Someone must not be afraid to say, ‘moral perversion is wrong.’ If we do not act now, homosexuals will own America! If you and I do not speak up now, this homosexual steamroller will literally crush all decent men, women, and children who get in its way … and our nation will pay a terrible price!”
(I, for one, can't wait for that homosexual meme to infiltrate the entire country...just think—better window treatments, mandatory Sunday brunch, AND I wouldn't have to deal with boys. Wink wink ECH.)

5.28.2007

Well-rounded

Einstein's general theory of relativity proposed that the all-encompassing blanket of space-time is warped, ever so slightly, by massive objects like the Earth. Al's theory was, you know, pretty genius. Still, so far there's been no way to measure these tiny distortions and actually prove his predictions. But a NASA/Stanford team of physicist- engineers might have finally found this proof.

In April 2004, the team launched the "Gravity Probe B"—a satellite-laboratory that contains the world's most precise gyroscopes. The satellite has been in orbit ever since, and the researchers are now starting to make sense of the data it collected. (Interestingly, the probe was first proposed in 1960, but funding and technological hurdles kept it from ever getting off the ground.)

To refresh your memory, a gyroscope is basically a wheel that's mounted within a ring so that it's free to spin in any direction. When the wheel is spun quickly (and in the absence of any pesky friction), it will keep its original plane of rotation no matter which way the ring is turned. Since gyroscopes always maintain equilibrium, they're used by experimentalists to define a fixed direction in space.

Gravity Probe B holds four super-accurate, 3-D gyroscopes, so accurate that they could detect a movement the width of a human hair from 20 miles away. Each gyroscope is made up of a spherical mass, about the size of a ping pong ball, spinning in a -271 degree-Celsius chamber of superfluid helium. The spheres are the most perfectly rounded objects ever made by hand—if blown up to the Earth's size, their biggest imperfections would form mountains only eight feet high.

If Newtonian physics is right, then the gyroscopes within Gravity Probe B should always point in the same direction. But if Einstein's relativity is correct, then the slight curvature of space should cause the spin axis of the gyroscope to change by a tiny, tiny bit (we're talking a difference of .0018 degrees in one year). As I mentioned, the data's still being analyzed...but preliminary results show the balls are indeed drifting. Way to go, Al.

Hat tip: Clive

Fair Warning









PostSecret

5.23.2007

Does Size Matter? It's all relative.

When I was about 12, my piano teacher extolled my long fingers: thumb to pinky, when stretched, could span 10 keys. But she was the exception. My sister calls them “alien fingers,” and it’s generally an awkward moment when a date first discovers his hands are smaller than mine.

Finger length is determined by the precise mix of hormones a developing fetus is exposed to. Men, who were exposed to more testosterone in the womb than women, generally have ring fingers that are longer than their index fingers. Women, exposed to more oestrogen, generally have longer index fingers. (The differences, of course, are but a couple of millimeters.)

A new study from the British Journal of Psychology found that this ratio of finger lengths may also indicate how well a child scores on math and verbal SAT tests.

After comparing the index and ring-finger lengths of 75 7-year-olds, psychologists from the University of Bath found the children whose ring fingers were longer than their index fingers--mostly boys--did better on math tests than verbal tests.

This makes sense, the researchers say, since previous research has shown that exposure to testosterone in the womb promotes growth in brain areas associated with math and spatial reasoning. It's not yet clear whether oestrogen exposure promotes growth of verbal areas of the brain.

...which means that apparently my hands are unusual in yet another way: unlike most girls, my ring fingers are longer than my index fingers. And indeed, my math standardized test scores were higher than my English scores. But what I really wanna know is: How'd I get all that extra testosterone? (And shouldn't I be, like, more competitive? Or at least less timid?)

5.16.2007

eBay Allows Ivory Trade

In a one-week period this February, more than 2,200 elephant ivory items were up for grabs on eBay, according to a report released Tuesday by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

In Britain, it's legal to sell ivory only if it was harvested before June 1947. In the U.S., it has to be more than 100 years old. But for more than 90 percent of those listed ivory goods, sellers did not provide the required proof-of-age certificates, the report stated.

"What's happening online is that there's a totally unregulated trade. If you stop the selling of ivory, then the killing will stop," Robbie Marsland, director of the IFAW in Britain, told the AP.

Between 1979 and 1989, poaching for ivory in Africa cut its elephant population in half. About 1.3 million elephants lived in Africa in 1977; by 1997, there were just 600,000.

5.14.2007

Marriage, Divorce, and Mitt Romney's Delusions

Every once in a while, we can all get caught up bemoaning the progressive decline of "American Family Values." I just wrote a piece on childhood obesity, in fact, that cited some discouraging statistics: 40 percent of American meals are eaten outside the home; Americans now spend more than $100 billion a year on fast food, up from $3 billion in 1972; 53 percent of kids aged 6 or younger eat meals in front of the TV; 31 percent of eighth graders watch four hours or more of TV per day.

This week over at denialism blog, Mark debunks another oft-quoted (like by the Family Research Council) sob-story statistic that 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce. This is "statistical nonsense," he says, that:
...comes from comparing the number of marriages in a given year to the number of divorces in a given year. However, since the marriages and divorces aren't occurring in the same year, this doesn't give an accurate picture of how many marriages are failing and is notoriously susceptible to population dynamics. Your actual chances of a failed marriage are about one in four.
The myth is interesting in itself, but I was more interested in one of the comments made on Mark's post, by one Michael LoPrete:

The other, other, alternative is to abandon this notion of marriage as permanent.

They may only exist right now in Romney's bizzaro-France, but 7-year marriage contracts make a whole lot of sense.

What what what'd he do? About a week ago, Romney indeed said to a crowd of more than 5,000:

"In France, for instance, I'm told* that marriage is now frequently contracted in seven-year terms where either party may move on when their term is up. How shallow and how different from the Europe of the past."

Whatever jokester intern told Romney that must be having quite the chuckle now, for no such contract exists in France, or anywhere else. (*A few clever internet punks have offered various hypotheses for the source of Romney's misstatement...my favorite is that it's actually a reference to the 1992 sci-fi novel, The Memory of Earth, a fictionalization of the first few hundred years recorded in the Book of Mormon. In the book, marriages just so happen to be contracted out for seven years. Romney's not only Mormon, remember, but also loves sci-fi....)

Anyway, maybe a seven-year marriage contract DOES make sense. The scariest thing about marriage, after all, is that "forever" concept (which includes the "omg I'll never be able to sleep with anyone else for the rest of my life"). When I was young, my parents used to send me away to summer camp in Connecticut. Some days I loved it (especially archery and synchronized swimming), but some nights I cried my homesick self to sleep. The only thing that got me through the tough times was knowing that it would all be over at the end of the summer. I actually had a piece of notebook paper taped to the top of my bottom bunk bed where I tallied the days left until the end. But then, by the time the next spring rolled around, I was always itching to go back. Go figure.

5.10.2007

Sperm Compete (duh)

Here's a recent press release, from Blackwell, about an article (behind firewall) in the February issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science. Not only are they three months late on getting out this "news," but please note the writer's egregious oversimplification of the work (in bold). Sigh. (The news is actually much, much older than than three months. Robin Baker et al. have been observing sperm competition in all kinds of animals, including humans, for, oh I dunno, 20+ years...still, glad to see it making headlines again.)

Research suggests men's sexual behavior adapts to perceived threats

Behavioral and physical characteristics allow men to compete in fertilization

Davie, Fla. May 08, 2007 -- A review of the latest research in sexual adaptation shows that evidence is building for what researchers call "sperm competition." According to a review appearing in Current Directions in Psychological Science, physical and behavioral sexual characteristics exhibited by human males indicate that males have evolved to deliver their sperm more effectively to females with multiple partners.

"Although many people are familiar with the idea of animals competing for mates before sex occurs, through mating displays such as bright feathers or butting antlers, we are finding more evidence that there is also competition after mating occurs," says author Todd K. Shackelford. "An alternative way of thinking about it is that there is not only competition between males for mates, but competition between males for fertilization."

The research presented in the review covers physical adaptations, including penis shape and style of intercourse, as well as behavior in response to perceived infidelity that all serve to increase the success of fertilization. "The studies have shown that when partners are separated for periods of time, males are more likely to arouse easily, produce more sperm, and even rape their partners," says Shackelford. According to Shackelford and co-author Aaron T. Goetz, this does not mean that women are promiscuous by nature, but it is evidence that humans are not naturally a monogamous species.

Shackelford is quick to point out, however, that females are not passive partners in the sexual relationship. "Although this review focused on male adaptations, sexual conflict between males and females produces a co-evolutionary arms race between the sexes, in which an advantage gained by one sex selects for counter-adaptations in the other sex."

5.09.2007

"Proving" God

On Saturday, two celebrity Christians debated a group called the Rational Response Squad about the existence of god for the televised "ABC Nightline Face-off." Evangelical author Ray Comfort and child actor Kirk Cameron intended to “prove god’s existence scientifically, without mentioning the bible or faith." After watching the clip (below), it's clear they failed. Not quite as funny as the banana video, though.



(Hat tip: PZ)

5.08.2007

Charleston Punk



Hat tip: Lee. Thanks for cheering me up. ;-)

5.06.2007

Monkeys at the GOP Debate

Thursday night, the 10 Republican candidates in the 2008 presidential race squared off in their first debate. They repeatedly mentioned Reagan (but rarely Bush), and also answered a few questions about global warming, embryonic stem cell research, and, bizarrely, organ donation. Three candidates raised their hands to show they did not believe in evolution.

Cartoon hat tip: John

5.03.2007

Map of Online Communities

































xkcd, you never disappoint.

5.01.2007

Violent Vaccine Denialists

Sadly, the anti-vaccination lobby seems to be growing in political influence, according to an editorial in May’s Nature Neuroscience (under firewall). The editors point out (as I did this fall in a Nature Medicine feature story about how vaccine denialists affect public health) that a host of rigorous scientific studies have debunked each and every claim of a mercury-autism link. Nevertheless, in the same insidious style as animal rights wackos, the anti-vaccers won’t back down—on Capitol Hill, in the press, or in their personal attacks. The editorial’s money quote:
People who oppose the [mercury-autism link] have been harassed with repeated calls, whether they have written a letter to their local paper or an editorial for The Wall Street Journal. The harassment includes parents of autistic children who do not align themselves with the anti-vaccine movement. Kevin Leitch reports, 'I have personally been told that because I am not chelating my daughter, I am a child abuser. That I am a murderer. I have had threats of violence made against me, and a few people have even sent personal hate mail to my seven-year-old autistic daughter.'
As Orac points out, Kevin Leitch made further comments about harassment by anti-vaccers on his blog:
I know of four scientists whom I have exchanged emails with who have been targeted by this same extreme group and who had:

1) Threats of property damage made against their homes and property
2) Threats of physical violence made against them
3) Been the victims of concerted email and telephone harassment campaigns to the point where security services have had to get involved
4) Had their associations with entities that merely sound like Pharma organisations misrepresented
5) Been accused, on no basis at all, of fraud

These scientists are staggered that merely performing accurate science has led them to having to (in three cases I know of) inform Campus Police of the places they work at of their movements in order to remain safe.
Indeed, this behavior reminds me of an act of “protest” against esteemed UCLA neuroscientist Dario Ringach. Ringach’s lab used monkeys to study information processing in the visual system. (Primates are the only animals whose eye biology/physiology is comparable to humans.) In August, after receiving several threats from the Animal Liberation Front—including a bomb on his porch—Ringach sent the ALF an email saying, “You win,” and closed up his lab.

The anti-vaccers whom I interviewed for my story presented themselves as helpless victims of some kind of medical/CDC conspiracy. I’d never suggest that any of them are instead violent manipulators. However, it’s time to start holding the activist groups they’re associated with accountable for their violent acts, regardless of their philosophical/political motivations. I thus agree whole-heartedly with the logical, if naïve, recommendation from the editorial:
In the end, these fears are driven by ideology rather than science. We urge legislators to base science policy on the best consensus among researchers in the field, rather than the emotional appeals of an agenda-driven group, especially one that attempts to bully into silence those with opposing opinions.
(Right, because our government always tries to base its science policy on sound science. Like our stance on stem cells, for instance, or the space program, or global warming. Sigh.)

4.29.2007

The Blogosphere

This month's Discover Magazine has a neat-o map of the Blogosphere:
Even though the vast majority of blogs are either abandoned or isolated, many bloggers like to link to other Web sites. These links allow analysts to track trends in blogs and identify the most popular topics of data exchange. Social media expert Matthew Hurst recently collected link data for six weeks and produced this plot of the most active and interconnected parts of the blogosphere.
1 White dots represent individual blogs, sized according to number of links. Nearly 500,000 people visit the DailyKos every day, making it one of the world’s most popular blogs.

2 The bright spot here represents the popular site Boingboing, a “Directory of Wonderful Things.”

3 LiveJournal bloggers (like my sista, Charlotte)

4 Blue means blogs are reciprocal (they link to each other). The brightest light belongs to syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin.

5 Porn blogs. And no, I’m not going to link to them here.

6 Sports bloggers



But where, oh where, is the science blogosphere? Oh yeah, here.

4.26.2007

Nostalgic.

Rolling groggy into Baltimore on Amtrak train 185 I had forgotten that all the roofs are flat; bricks painted green, blue, pink; windows boarded up. I thought of that new Atlantic article about snitchers in Baltimore ghettos. But the streets looked empty. Too early for drug deals, I guess.

Squalor. S-q-u-a-l-o-r I counted walking north from Penn station on the durty North Charles sidewalk. My intended destination: Tapas Taetro, right up there at 20th, for an early lunch. Hummus, maybe. Or crab cakes. Nope. Closed until 5:00. I wasn’t planning to go all the way north, those 12 blocks to campus. I’d just walk until I saw a place to eat. But each one I came to was (card)boarded up—one Chinese, one Korean, one “cool Caribbean,” two diners. No restaurants, but five hair salons, two realty offices, WYPR public radio and a “Big Boyz” bail bond shop. A few stuttering fat women, old, tired-looking, probably strung out out of their minds. A few teenaged gangsters giving me the up-down. Got to that big Safeway on 24th, cut across the parking lot to St. Paul. A young man dragged a blue-sneakered limp foot across the road with his brown-sneakered left. His neck collared with a plastic grocery bag. The sun h-o-t hot. And I was so preoccupied with forehead sweat running my makeup that 32nd startled me, those brown dumpsters in the alley behind The Allston. Up on the wobbly fourth-floor fire escape, the black asphalt roof still inviting, no girls sunbathe in bikinis.

It was supposed to rain—60 percent chance—but it’s not. Sun’s so bright I have to scrape my white-tableclothed table (did they used to have tablecloths?) at Donna’s so that the awning covers my shoulders.

All of those 7ams at Donna’s, writing about Mars with cinnamon hazelnut in a paper cup. The two female waitresses still work here. (That one Meagan and I always thought was a bit slow in the head, she still seems a bit slow in the head. Perhaps more so with those ridiculously plastic, ridiculously sea-foam green hoop earrings.) My waitor, Josh P., is new.

Next door is still Rocky Run, with the pricey beers, and then Charles Village Pub with the cheap ones. We watched the Ravens there that one Sunday afternoon. (That was before the Warhol exhibit in Chicago—or was it after? And long before the Warhol sleep documentary at PS 1 MOMA. Remember the afternoon skyline from the rooftop? It was so fucking hot.) And there’s still Eddie’s, still—a banner on the window says “celebrating 45 years.” I laugh, not out loud but in my head, because last week, in a compulsive fit, I cleared my desk and threw away the tattered Eddie’s discount card, thinking, When’s the next time I’ll be in Baltimore again, anyway?

April 25, 2007. The streets are quiet, still, empty. The Hopkins kids at the next table—in suits and lacrosse t-shirts, some young entrepreneurs club meeting, no doubt—are pretentious, discussing “border theory” of South America, and the air smells like the water, I think as I sign the check. “Donna’s,” it says at the top, “Charle’s Village.”

4.24.2007

Dawkins vs. O'Reilly

Monday night, the Oxford evolutionary biologist (and ever-adorable) Richard Dawkins appeared on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor to debate the atheistic premise of his new book, The God Delusion. The final score: Roman Catholic imbecile host Bill O'Reilly uttered 609 words, Dawkins just 342. Try not to gag.



My last post on The God Delusion...

(Hat tip, PZ)

On Touching.

When Roberto Salazar was an infant, his parents thought he was the perfect baby: he never cried, and slept most of the day. But at three months, they knew something was wrong. Roberto was losing weight dramatically, and not interested in food. He didn't sweat, even on hot summer afternoons. And most startling, when he started teething, he chewed apart his own tongue, lips, and fingers.

Roberto, now almost 6 years old, is one of a couple of dozen people in the United States with "congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis," or CIPA--he was born without a sense of touch. More than half of all children born with CIPA--the most severe type of sensory neuropathy--die from heat stroke before age 3. Those who live must be on constant alert for unfelt injury; they may walk on a broken leg, or stay in the cold after frostbite's set in. And a lover's caress will never make them shiver with delight.

Of all our senses, touch is certainly the most essential to survival. And interestingly, being touched may be almost as critical.

Duke neurologist Saul Schanberg first started thinking about the power of touch after meeting children with psychogenic dwarfism, the stunting of growth that occurs after extreme emotional deprivation. Children who were ignored at home--both emotionally and physically--just stopped growing. Not only that but, as Diane Ackerman explains in her charming, poetic book, A Natural History of the Senses:
Schanberg found that even growth-hormone injections couldn't prompt the stunted bodies of such children to grow again, but tender loving care did. The affection they received from the nurses when they were admitted to a hospital was often enough to get them back on the right track. What's amazing is that the process is reversible at all.
Ackerman goes on to discuss premature infants, who gain weight at a much faster rate when physically massaged by parents, nurses, and hospital volunteers. Schanberg's experiments on rats showed this happens in the opposite direction, too: when an infant rat was denied its mother's touch, even for as little as 45 minutes, it lowered its food intake and slowed its metabolism, presumably to save energy until the mother returned. But if she didn't come back at all, the baby rats stopped growing.

This evolutionary importance of touching and being touched may also explain why it makes us feel just so damn good. As Schanberg told Ackerman, "It's ten times stronger than verbal or emotional contact, and it affects damn near everything we do. No other sense can arouse you like touch...We forget that touch is not only basic to our species, but the key to it."

Wikipedia on Psychogenic Dwarfism
FeralChildren.com

4.14.2007

Heartening

Greg Critser can feel good about this: Thursday the FDA rejected Merck's application to sell its new pain pill, Arcoxia, a Cox-2 inhibitor that Merck saw as the new Vioxx. The FDA panel's decision was unequivocal (vote was 20 to 1) , and the criticisms of the drug by FDA safety officers, who testified before the panel, were unusually harsh. The New York Times reports that one officer, Dr. David Graham, told the panel that if Arcoxia is approved for sale, “what you’re talking about is a potential public health disaster."

People with arthritis feel pain because of acids released by damaged cells. An enzyme system in the stomach, called COX, manages these and other acids. The Cox-1 system protects the stomach lining by producing acids that maintain cellular structure. The Cox-2 system produces acids that start the chain of reactions that leads to the pain response.

Traditional drugs for arthritis pain, including aspirin, inhibit both Cox systems--leading to a reduction of pain and inflammation, but also a damaged stomach lining. For people with arthritis who took anti-inflamatories regularly, this often led to gastrointestional bleeding, congestion, and ulcers.

Thus, when Cox-2 inhibitors--drugs that stopped the Cox-2 system without affecting Cox-1--like Vioxx were first marketed in the '90s, they were trumped as superaspirins that would take away the pain without hurting the gut.

So why do we even have that nasty Cox-2 enzyme system? Ohhh yea, it has lots of important functions, like preventing tiny bumps inside of arteries from exploding into blockages. But more problematic for heart health is that the Cox-1 system is also responsible for increases in blood clots, which often lead to heart attack; that is, it's good to inhibit it. So patients who switched from aspirin (6¢ per pill) to Cox-2 inhibitors ($3 per pill) were at a much higher risk of heart attack and stroke.

Between 1999 and 2003, Merck sold 92.8 million prescriptions of Vioxx. For .03% of cases, patients died from a heart attack, which doesn't sound like much--until you realize that's 27,785 people. This risk isn't for a life-saving cancer drug; Vioxx is a pain pill, whose huge customer base is exactly why ensuring its safety is so important.

The sales potential, of course, is also the reason Merck's fighting so hard to get back into the pain market. Arcoxia is a Cox-2 inhibitor and almost identical to Vioxx, and thus contributes to heart attacks for the same reasons as Vioxx. According to the FDA safety experts, Arcoxia alleviates pain no better than Aleve, yet causes three times as many heart attacks, strokes and deaths. Yea...I'd say that's a no-brainer decision.

As Martha Solonche, another member of the FDA safety panel, said: "The idea should not be that we need new drugs. The idea should be that we need better drugs.”

4.12.2007

How to Detect a Liar

I just found a fascinating post, via Kevin, about liars, how to detect them, and how to understand their motivations. (I say "them" in the most abstract sense...I lie every day, probably several times.) Kevin calls it "pretty basic stuff;" nevertheless, it's stuff that, despite my obsession with behavioral bio, I've never read before. Here's the gist:
Whether we lie depends on our calculation of the reward/punishment equation. This is called “situational honesty.” Because most of us are conditioned to believe lying is wrong, it creates stress...The degree of emotional discomfort is determined by two factors: the adverse consequences of the lie and our perception of being caught.
Those little white lies, the article explains, don't stress us out because a) there are no adverse consequences; and b) it's unlikely your deception will be found out. Conversely, if you're, say, Jeffrey Skilling (whom superlative-loving CBS news calls "the most vilified figure from the most notorious financial scandal of the decade"), then your lies have enormous adverse consequences AND are likely to be found out. Big lies thus put you in a high-stress mode, complete with "telltale behavioral changes."

What are these changes? I know from Meet the Fockers that your pulse races...but what do the real lie-detecting experts look for? The article mentions several lying behaviors:
  • Repetition of the question
  • Selective memory (I might have been there, I might have been off; I just don't remember)
  • Oaths (Honey, I swear on my mother's life, nothing happened!)
  • Character testimony (I'm an honest person--ask any of my friends)
  • Answering with a question
  • Overuse of respect
  • Avoiding emotive words
  • Covering mouth with hands
  • Assuming a "fleeing position" (That's because, when threatened, humans react with a “fight or flight” mentality....neat-o, right?)

This list is somewhat exhaustive, no? Makes me wonder, what behaviors are left for that hypothetical Ben Stiller, under duress, who's trying to tell the truth?

4.10.2007

Angry Drunks

We all love a cheap beer, especially in New York. But what if low prices lead to more violence-related injuries? A new study from Applied Economics suggests this is indeed the case.

Using five years of data from 58 hospital emergency departments in England and Wales, researchers from Cardiff University's Violence and Society Research Group found that the higher the price of beer, the lower the rate of violence-related injuries.

If you ever get drunk with Irish guys, these results probably aren't too surprising. Still, the question of why alcohol spurs violence in some but not others is an interesting one. Mind Hacks suggests three theories of why alcohol and violence are linked:
  • because of the drug's effects on the brain [what effects, exactly, they don't explain. nor why these neuronal interactions would differ between individuals...]
  • because people use alcohol as an excuse for violent behavior
  • because people who use alcohol might be more likely to be violent, perhaps due to personality factors like sensation-seeking, impulsivity or risk-taking.

Anyway, alcohol's not the only culprit. The study found several others factors that independently correlated with increased hospital visits, including poverty, unemployment, major sporting events, and the summer months. (Which reminds me--Who's ready for summer at the beer garden?!)

And I don't know the man in this photo. It came up, quite appropriately, from my Google Image search for "angry drunk."

(Hat tip, Mind Hacks)

4.08.2007

Easter Funnies

(PostSecret is my new obsession. Shhhh)

4.03.2007

Call for Nerd Cartoonists!

Attention all doodlers! The Union of Concerned Scientists is now accepting entries for its second annual Science Idol: The Scientific Integrity Editorial Cartoon Contest. The grand prize includes $500 and an all-expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C. to tour the UCS offices and meet with Tom Toles, editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post.

Here's the catch: You gotta make the distortion, manipulation, and suppression of science in the federal government, well, funny. An ambitious task, for sure, but the UCS does offer a couple of tips for creating that winning entry:
This year, we are especially interested in cartoons that focus on the recent actions the White House has taken to centralize decision-making authority...We'd also like cartoons that examine possible solutions to this wide-spread problem, including steps the next president might take to restore scientific integrity to federal policy making.
They also suggests steering clear of a few hot-button topics, including
the morality of stem cells or cloning, the teaching of evolution (sorry PZ!), and ethical lapses of individual scientists. At right, one of last year's 12 finalists, drawn by Xeth Feinberg of New York, NY.

Make sure to enter before the May 22 deadline!

4.01.2007

Despite the date, this isn't a joke.

Salmon that have fled from the confines of the fish farm--beware! Forensically minded Norwegians are on your tails.

From the Institute of Marine Research (IMR):
A fish farm in western Norway is currently under police investigation after being identified by IMR as the source of a salmon escape. This is the first example of DNA methods being used to trace farmed escaped salmon to source of origin...

The Directorate took samples from all fish farms in the area and delivered them to IMR in Bergen. Samples from the escapees were also collected and analysed.

Results indicated that most of the recaptured escapees originated from a specific cage, and that it was highly unlikely that the escapees came from any other fish farm.
Needless to say, this technology is a monumental step forward in the quest to catch all of the world's marine fugitives. I'll sleep soundly tonight.

3.29.2007

What's uniquely human? Religious indoctrination.

My last Netflix treasure was Jesus Camp, a documentary about American evangelical children and their—sorry, gotta say it—deranged parents. To the uninitiated East Coaster, perhaps, the film seems far-fetched. But trust me, every bit is true. Even in my 9+ years of Midwest-Catholic-school education, which was considerably more progressive and reality-based than that of these home-schooled Bible-thumpers, one idea was repeatedly drilled into me: humans are different than all other species; we have souls; we’re “special.”

Of course humans have behaviors that are different from other species. Just as birds have behaviors that are different from lizards. Thanks to natural selection, every species has evolved, and continues to evolve, to survive in its own environmental niche.

The problem is when these differences between humans and other animals are presented in a species-ist fashion: that is, when they’re used as "evidence" of human superiority. Take these bulleted “facts” I found—from a quick Google search—at the website of The Good News Magazine, which is similar to what was touted on the Jesus Camp documentary (emphasis mine):

Consider some of the ways mankind differs from the animal kingdom:

Self-consciousness and intelligence. The human mind gives us capacity for reasoned thought. Instinct isn't the driving force that determines our behavior. This ability leads us to search for meaning in our individual lives as well as meaning in human life as a whole.

The capacity for empathy and sharing another's suffering.

The ability to think and plan in time. It's an amazing aspect of the human mind to think in terms of past, present and future. We have aspirations to achieve; we set goals and organize ourselves relative to time. When was the last time you saw a gorilla or chimp open his calendar and make an appointment?

The capacity to conceive of our own death.

The ability to create. Human beings are unlike other creatures in their concepts and development of art, music and literature. Beavers through instinct build the same types of dams generation after generation. There isn't a raging river on the globe that mankind cannot dam and use to create electricity.

The ability to create languages. Human beings comprehend connections between large numbers of words, including the ability to learn languages, even so-called animal languages.

The ability to create economic systems. Humans have the desire to work and be productive, to barter, exchange and set up economic systems.

The capacity for scientific thought. This includes experimentation and development of theories.

The ability to perform mathematics and construct computers.

The desire to find meaning in sex beyond procreation.

The ability to consciously change our environment, personality, character, habits and even physical appearance.

The ability to experience emotions such as happiness, joy, peace and, conversely, depression and despair.

The ability to conceive of morality. Because human beings can conceive of a choice between inherently right and inherently wrong behavior, we have a capacity for a relationship with God.

Most of this is bullshit. Anybody who’s seen the videos of Kanzi at the Great Ape Trust knows that humans don't have a monopoly on language. And even if you only scan the surface of the literature on bonobo sex behavior, you’ll see that those horny 'lil buggers find plenty of fun in sexual activities that don't necessarily lead to making babies. (Readers of Sperm Wars, meanwhile, will wonder if humans find “meaning” in sex beyond procreation.) And every dog or cat owner would take offense to the statement that their Rover or Claw doesn't have “the ability to experience emotions such as happiness, joy, peace and, conversely, depression and despair.”

I won’t argue that other animals have designed computers, or created economic systems—because they don’t need to. Humans, unlike dolphins or brown bats, don't use sonar communication. And humans, unlike most butterflies, can't see the intricate patterns of ultraviolet light on flower petals. By the Good News logic, doesn't this make us the inferior species?

The more I learn about evolution, the less I believe in human specialness. So I love any new study that shows that anatomical details, cultures, or behaviors that theologians, philosophers, anthropologists, or even biologists have labeled as uniquely “human” aren’t so unique after all.

It’s my pleasure to point out two such studies released in the last week:

The first, done by biological anthropologist Antonio Moura of the University of Cambridge, shows that primates can learn skills from each other just like humans do. While doing field research in Brazil, Moura watched Capuchin monkeys bang stones as a signalling device to ward off potential predators. The stone-banging was originally directed at Moura, but as the monkeys got used to his presence they stopped. Later, Moura saw both adult and young monkeys banging the stones without any signs of a predator, which he says suggests that the elders were teaching the skill to the younger animals. Moura also released captive monkeys into the area, and they, too, learned how to stone-bang from the others. Most interesting to me is that scientists have found evidence of similar stone-based technologies in the archaeological record of the earliest humans. Moral of the story: Monkeys are like us.

The second, presented at the 2007 conference of the International Association of Dental Research, deals with cranial anatomy…Decades ago, the famous archaeologist Richard Leakey wrote that man’s earliest ancestor had a vertical profile and a relatively large brain. But that idea was overturned recently, when NYU paleoanthropologist Timothy Bromage used a computer model to reconstruct the skull of this direct ancestor, 1.9 million year old Homo rudolfensis. Bromage found that rodolfensis had a protruding jaw and a brain less than half the size of a modern human. Moral of the story: Homos were like monkeys.

There is one cultural practice that I hope, for the sake of other species, is uniquely human: religiosity.

3.26.2007

PostSecret

Seems I was the last person on earth to discover PostSecret--"an ongoing community art project where people mail in their secrets anonymously on one side of a homemade postcard."

The secrets range from the silly to the tragic. I'm not sure under which category this one fits:

3.25.2007

Stories from the N Train

It’s Saturday, late afternoon, and I’m riding the N train from the last stop in Astoria into Manhattan. Four stops in, all seats now taken, a small man, early 30s, boards the train. He’s an angry-faced punk: black hooded sweatshirt, piercings, silver wallet chains hanging from the belt loops of black jean cutoffs.

The punk’s left leg, from the knee to the black high-top sneaker, is made of a shiny metal prosthesis. His right leg is covered in a fresh white cast. He’s using crutches and winces with each step. He addresses the sedate group, flatly.

“This is the most humiliating thing I’ve ever done. I lost my left leg. And this week, I broke my right leg. I don’t have any money. I need Ace bandages, pain medication, and food. When I get off the train, I need to take a taxi to my house because I don’t think I’ll make it if I walk. I’m asking you, begging you, to give me money.”

He stops, leans both crutches against a center pole. He removes his prosthesis, showing the crowd his stump—covered in a bloody, torn Ace bandage. He reattaches the prosthesis, and begins a belabored lap around the train to collect his charity. But nobody gives.

One by one, each of the three or four dozen train riders—male, female, old, young, well dressed, poorly dressed, Mexican, Chinese, Wasp, Greek—diverts their eyes as the man waves his cup expectantly across their laps. Finally, defeated, he takes a seat at the end of the car.

“This ain’t a fun life,” he says, shaking his head disapprovingly. “I can assure you.” The guilt washes over me, and as I try to catch the eyes of my complicit neighbors, I feel theirs, too.

By the time we reach Lexington and 59th Street, the train is packed, and that uncomfortable silence has been replaced by the rustling of newspapers and giggling of a few freshly Frappaccinoed teenagers. The doors close, the train lurches forward, and a petite, cheery-faced woman begins to sing.

She has a beautiful, resounding voice. She’s singing an aria; sounds Italian to me. She’s making her way, slowly, through the crowd, holding her trendy newsboy cap upside-down to receive contributions.

She nods politely to the passengers as, one by one, the vast majority give her $1, $5, even $10 bills.

She gets off two stops later, still singing. I look around for the punk, but he's already gone.