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.



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:


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.


Extreme Landscapes

Sorry I haven't been updating in awhile...my week has been a bit crazy. But thought I'd drop this amazing photo of Fort Bourtange, located in the Dutch province of Groningen. The fortifications were originally built in the 15th century, during the Eighty Years War. Neato, huh?

hat tip, BLDGBLOG


Ten Things You May Not Know About Carrots.

1. The carrot is the second most popular vegetable in the world (after the potato, duh).

2. The carrot is the most popular vegetable in England (probably thanks to carrot pudding, a popular Welsh dish).

3. The carrot is a member of the parsley family.

4. The longest carrot ever grown, in 1996, was 16 feet 10.5 inches.

5. Sliced carrots may help physicists unlock the secrets of the universe.

6. Holtville, California, claims to be the "Carrot Capital of the World."

7. Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny, did not like carrots.

8. The heaviest carrot ever grown, by mechanical designer John V.R. Evans in 1998, was 18.985 pounds.

9. In the late 19th Century, men in Teheran at carrots stewed in sugar to increase the quality and quantity of their sperm.

10. Carrots, unlike most other vegetables, are more nutritious cooked than uncooked. That's because cooking breaks down cellulose-heavy cell walls, freeing up nutrients within.

(Photo: USDA Agricultural Research Service)
(Hat tip: GrrlScientist)

Lard, that's funny.

(Hat tip: Shelley)


In Honor of St. Pattie's Day...

In our newly minted Best Picture Oscar, The Departed, Matt Damon's character, Colin, woos over his love interest, the psychoanalyst Madolyn, by quoting something Freud said about the Irish:
Colin: "Of course I want to see you again. What Freud said about the Irish is we're the only people impervious to psychoanalysis."
But as Dr. Charles points out, despite what you'll find on a Google search or the Boston Globe, Freud didn't actually ever say that! In a clever act of investigative journalism, Dr. Charles actually wrote to the director of research at the Freud Museum, in London, and asked him about the legitimacy of the quote's attribution. His response (which is also stated on the FAQ section of the museum's website):
"There is no evidence Freud said [the quote]. The only documentation seems to be Anthony Burgess, in his introduction to a book of Irish short stories: 'One of [Freud's] followers split up human psychology into two categories - Irish and non-Irish.'"
Impervious to psychoanalysis or not, here's wishing a happy St. Patrick's Day to all you crazy Irish!


Piss Off

We all get a rise, now and again, out of seeing somebody pissed off. Like when your boss scowls after spilling coffee all over his shirt. Or when the girl who used to make fun of your frizzy hair in seventh grade flunks out of college. But most of the time, a friend, boss, or fellow subway rider's angry face is not something I want to see.

However, a new psychology study from the University of Michigan finds that people with high levels of testosterone like seeing angry faces. For these people, an angry facial expression "on a non-conscious level, can be like a tasty morsel that some people will vigorously work for," says Oliver Schultheiss, co-author of the study. Schultheiss says it might be why some people like teasing others so much.

In his experiment, subjects were asked to complete a "learning task"--pressing a sequence of keyboard buttons--after a computer screen flashed either an angry or neutral face. While most of the subjects did not show a learning difference between the two paradigms, the subjects with the highest testosterone levels learned the keyboard sequence better after looking at the angry face.

Well, the high-testosterones may have learned the task better, you say, but does that mean they actually preferred looking at the angry faces? Yes, says lead author of the study, Michelle Wirth: "Better learning of a task associated with anger faces indicates that the anger faces were rewarding, as in a rat that learns to press a lever in order to receive a tasty treat."

Assuming their results are valid, I wonder why these two opposite responses to social cues may have evolved. Why would it be evolutionarily advantageous for humans with lots o' testosterone to like pissing people off? Maybe it led to more fights, more outlets for their aggression...but how did it lead to them producing more offspring?


Praise for Facebook

I love Facebook. You love Facebook (admit it, punks). Even this crabby, 50-year-old writer at Slate loves it. Her article quotes a new study by media professors at Michigan State:
They convinced me that it is the greatest breakthrough for improving social interactions since the invention of deodorant. As they point out, when students move from high school to college, it allows them to keep constant tabs on former classmates instead of naturally drifting apart. Also, before Facebook, when you met someone who might have potential as a friend or lover, you had to make yourself vulnerable seeing if the interest was returned. You were forced to do embarrassing things like make conversation, followed by trying to get a phone number or e-mail address. But now all that's necessary is the most cursory, name-exchanging encounter. Then you can go back to your room, look up the person's Facebook profile (Is he a Republican? Is she available?) and decide if you want to be "friends."
Mmmmmm...isn't New Media grand?


Robot Rights?

Isaac Asimov, revered science fiction author of I, Robot and Foundation Series, died almost 15 years ago. Yet now, the South Korean government is looking to his writings to inspire a new Robot Ethics Charter: rules to keep humans from misusing robots.

Government representatives say the charter will be issued in April, spurred by the country's flurry of recent and soon-to-be robot releases: one carries a machine gun and patrols the border with North Korea; another does chores for the elderly; still another prototype, the creepily named "EveR-2 Muse," is a talking model of a female human that also makes elaborate facial expressions.

South Korean robots, apparently, will be given slave-status rights, according to three rules proposed decades ago by Asimov:

1. A robot may not injure a human or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm

2. A robot must obey orders given by a human unless these conflict with the first law

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as this does not conflict with the first or second law

"Imagine if some people treat androids as if the machines were their wives," Park Hye-Young of the ministry's code of ethics team told New Scientist. "Others may get addicted to interacting with them just as many internet users get hooked on the cyberworld."

Ok...that thought alone is frightening. But more puzzling: the three rules outlined above wouldn't preclude this scenario. That is, people could treat robots "as their wives" or "get addicted to interacting with them" while still adhering to these proposed rules...right? Am I missing something?

For cool robot work done here in the U.S., check out the borgs chosen for the Carnegie Mellon Robot Hall of Fame.

Politically Incorrect: Adjectives?

There's a post over at Language Log that made me chuckle. It starts with an incredible anecdote--I almost doubt its authenticity--from one of their readers, Lydia:
I was in the Children's Museum in Baltimore when I overheard this conversation between a mother and a young son, concerning a bizarre "fun house" installation, which had sloping ceilings, "wrong" furniture, odd colors, and all sorts of other things meant to delight children with its absurdity:

SON: I want to go in that silly house again!

MOTHER: Don't you remember? We do NOT use ADJECTIVES!

SON: Sorry, mommy!

If I'd been able to scrape my chin off the floor in time, I would have asked, "You don't let you child learn colors?"

What she meant, of course, which wasn't any less ludicrous, was that her child shouldn't "judge" anything because "judging" is bad, and adjectives imply some level of judgment.

What exactly did the woman think her son would gain from visiting the museum? Perhaps she just wanted him to be seen there. Or to absorb all information exactly as presented to him, without any kind of thoughtful processing. As LL points out, if the mother had allowed her precious boy to use adjectives, he might grow up "to be one of those people who are always making academic judgments or expert evaluations of things. The kid might grow up to be an art dealer or a business ethics specialist or a literature professor or a high court justice...The child might grow up to have an interesting job."

Hmm, I'm now trying to think of a job where one doesn't have to make value judgments... I got nothin. (And actually, isn't scolding her son for using adjectives a kind of value judgment in itself?)

But here's my big question: if this politically correct mother didn't want her son to judge anything, then why single out adjectives? To be absolutely nonjudgmental, you'd have to get rid of all qualifiers, including adverbs (is the mother truly asinine, or only temporarily?) and prepositional phrases (No, she's just out of her mind).

Do You Speak Michigander?

Some of my friends tease me for my Michigan accent. Others say I sound like I'm from Connecticut. If you're looking for an entertaining way to spend a couple of hours, check out this speech accent archive, sponsored by a linguistics professor at George Mason University. The site allows you to listen to hundreds of people--born in cities all over the world--reading the same passage in English. You can sort by geographic region (and click on, say, Detroit, Michigan), or by the speaker's native language (and click on, say, French10: male, Bordeaux, France).

My favorite?
54-year-old woman from Kiev, Ukraine

(hat tip: Dave and Greta)
(NPR report)


Blog Carnival: Mendel's Garden

Check out Matt's excellent carnival, Mendel's Garden, in which he graciously includes my recent post on evolution, as well as other clever diddies about moths, DNA in criminal cases, social Darwinism, and the science of sex. At right, Gregor Mendel.

A Ph-atty (get it?) Pin Up from SCQ

(Hat tip: SCQ)


Depressing Thought of the Week. Bah

When it comes to scientific literacy, Americans aren't nearly as evolved as they may think. In fact, only about 40 percent of American adults accept the basic idea of evolution, a figure much lower than any European country.
source: Mr. Science Policy Statistics Jon Miller (Hat tip: Christopher)

"Online Disinhibition"

One of the best parts about communicating via machines—whether by email, or instant messenger, or Google chat, or text message—is the lack of inhibition. I’ve known this since 10th grade, when I used to stay up late into the weeknight talking, on AIM, to my crushes from math class. The next day, in class and face to face, those same screennames transformed into real, scary boys, and we would barely exchange a few words.

About a week ago, the NYT ran a fun piece about this phenomena, which in the psychological literature is referred to as “online disinhibition.” The article mentions a paper published in the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior (yes, that is a real journal, and even peer-reviewed) that lists five factors that lead to online disinhibition:

-the anonymity of a Web pseudonym;

-invisibility to others [I don’t understand how this is a different factor than the previous one…];

-the time lag between sending an e-mail message and getting feedback;

-the exaggerated sense of self from being alone; and

-the lack of any online authority figure.

Thankfully, to dovetail this pop psychology, the article goes on to give a bit of neuroscience:

In face-to-face interaction, the brain reads a continual cascade of emotional signs and social cues, instantaneously using them to guide our next move so that the encounter goes well…Socially artful responses emerge largely in the neural chatter between the orbitofrontal cortex and emotional centers like the amygdala that generate impulsivity. But the cortex needs social information — a change in tone of voice, say — to know how to select and channel our impulses. And in e-mail there are no channels for voice, facial expression or other cues from the person who will receive what we say.

Consequently, as we all know, words are often sent hastily in cyberspace. Words that you didn’t necessarily mean to send. Or words that were taken in an unintended tone. Happily for us, many bold NYT readers submitted their own stories of emails that were sent and later regretted. Here are a few snippets…

I sent an email to my daughter’s boyfriend telling him: “You suck”. He was playing the yo-yo game with her and my mother hen instincts drove me to do something I regret to this day! Even though they are no longer together…I still feel badly. — Posted by RJK

I once sent an email to my congressman and told him he was doing a good job. I wish I had never done that. — Posted by Ralph

I had a roommate, one of several at the time, who, delusional, believed he was “in charge” of our shared house and everything that went on in it. This drove me absolutely mental — the situation was so creepily inappropriate. The guy was sick. Anyway, the morning after a particularly objectionable in-person encounter with him, I woke up early, still seething, and typed up a long, detailed e-mail in which I told him off in technicolor. I was furious and took great satisfaction in hitting “Send”. Hoo, brother. He got me back in the cheapest way. He forwarded my e-mail around to our other roommates for “their insights”, and of course without anyone else’s saying anything he came off wounded and innocent and I came off like a monster. — Posted by Sparks

I was emailing back and forth with a “friend” about our upcoming date, and decided to raise the ante by describing the lovely red eyelet lace bra I would be wearing underneath my dark blue suit….his name and the name of my CEO are similar, and when I pressed send, I realized my smart little name feature had sent it to the CEO.

Fortunately for me, the CEO is a wonderful man with a great sense of humour….and he blushes easily, I have discovered since that day.

Oh - and the red lingerie - it worked! — Posted by Marie


Saturday: Lunar Eclipse!

Tomorrow, for 1 hour and 14 minutes around sunset on the East Coast of the U.S., the Earth--which, from the Moon, will look like a big, black disc--will block all sunlight from reaching the Moon.

Around this black disc, a red glow will appear where the Sun was before, and this glow will turn the Moon's surface a warm red.

If NASA's current plan of sending astronauts back to the Moon actually transpires, then those astronauts will experience lunar eclipses typically once or twice a year.

But how can YOU see it best from Earth? Steinn suggests:
To see it in the US, hope for clear skies, and find high ground with unobstructed view to the east and look for the moon rising right at sunset.