Wednesday, June 29, 2005

One Team, Two Team(s), Red Team, Blue Team

Once upon a time, I wrote:
I have to admit, I don't think the evolution v. creationism debate is worth having. There is simply no version of creationism, from young-earth creationism to intelligent design theory, that has the scientific merits to warrant a scientific debate. Still, if people must have such a debate, can't they at least try to do so civilly? All of the evidence speaks to the contrary.
The latest blog war over comments by Mark Kleiman about the tone of the evolution-creationism debate have proved that I was even more right than I thought I was. It turns out that those of us on the side of science can't even be civil to each other.

I'm not really sure why Kleiman's remarks have created such a stir. To be sure, the "red team" and "blue team" labels are not only inaccurate, but silly, but for the most part the post seems to me to be fairly innocuous, even where it's wrong, but since most of the people who comment on his post adopt those labels, that can't be the source of the blog controversy. Kleiman starts out with an undeniably true assertion, namely that the debate over evolution is not about science, but about culture. For many on Kleiman's "red team," or more accurately, for many conservative Christians, evolution is a symbol of what they see as secular moral, social, and cultural trends, ranging from more open-minded sexual attitudes to the removal of the Ten Commandments from courtrooms in Kentucky and Alabama. These people aren't anti-science across the board; they're just as likely to jump on the science bandwagon when it means receiving medical treatment, logging onto a computer to post a scathing anti-evolution blog post, or otherwise serves their interests or ideology, as are those on the "blue team," which is to say, those who are not Biblical literalists or ultra-conservative evangelicals (there are plenty on the "red team," as usually conceived, who don't fall within those categories, which is why Kleiman's labels are so silly). Since the issue is a moral/cultural one, that's where we should be addressing it.

Kleiman goes from there to argue that we who are the side of evolution should be more civil when talking with those on the side of creationism or Intelligent Design, because we have to respect their cultural and moral world-view. Once again, Kleiman is right. We do have to be more respectful. However, he does seem to have the reasons for this respect wrong, and this seems to be where people like Dr. Myers and someday-Dr. Beyerstein start to find Kleiman's post offensive. As Lindsay notes in her second post, "They deserve the same courtesy as anyone who is advancing a view in a public debate, but they don't deserve any special deference from us because their beliefs are well-intentioned and/or faith-based." I might also add that they deserve the same respect from us liberals as we would give any other culture. In particular, we should respect their right to hold a world-view different from ours. None of this, however, as both Lindsay and Kleiman note, means we should tolerate the bad behaviors that arise from that world-view, which include trying to sneak their religion into the classroom.

It's important to note that even in this discussion, some of us "blue teamers" haven't really been doing this. Dr. Myers (several others have picked on him, and he's handled it well, so I will use him as an example) is quick to point out that he doesn't mean all Christians when he attacks creationists and IDers, but because his rhetoric is often very harshly worded and, at times, a bit overly general or at least without argumentation, as for example when he writes: "…so how can he then turn around and say that Genesis is "providing a potentially powerful prop to moral behavior"? It clearly isn't. It is a historical, empirical, ongoing failure as a moral force for good," or frames the debate as one between "reason" and "superstition", it's easy to understand why some might not see it that way. Again, I don't think that Dr. Myers' is attempting to disparage all religion, or even all Christianity, but I can certainly see how someone might interpret him as doing so, and in reality, plenty do, including some on the "blue team." If Kleiman is arguing that we have to be careful to be respectful of the world-views, even if we disapprove, and openly express our disapproval, of some of the world-view-induced behaviors, then we have to watch our tone, and the scope of our language.

Everyone seems to agree on this, even if they don't always practice it to the same degree, and Kleiman's someone convoluted arguments for this position, about Genesis, faith, and the like, can't possibly be the reason for the starting of a blog war. There are other candidates, though. For instance, Dr. Myers rightly takes exception to this little nugget from Kleiman:
Insofar as middle-school Darwinism asserts that each of us is merely an animal of a particular species, fundamentally like animals of other species, it undercuts both halves of that double-barreled moral proposition. If I'm merely an animal, why shouldn't I act like one if I feel like it? And, if you're merely an animal, why shouldn't I beat you up, if I'm so inclined and bigger than you are?
What Kleiman should have concluded from this is that education, which is a form of respect, is what is needed. If the "red teamers" believe that evolution implies "middle-school Darwinism," then science educators have failed, and need to get off their collective ass and start giving people a more accurate representation of evolution and modern biology. This is also where we can begin to bring the discussion around to the cultural/moral issues that have made it so contemptuous. We can point out to creationists that evolution implies that we are all related to each other, that we are brothers or sisters to each and every human being, and thus that from a world-view that includes evolution we can derive the moral views of Christianity, from thou shalt not kill to the golden rule, just as readily as we can scripture and faith. We also have to do a better job of pointing out that belief in evolution does not preclude belief in scripture, and a moral world-view derived from faith. In short, what Kleiman should have said is that the fact that people on the "red team" accept the "middle-school Darwinism" version of evolution is where all of the problems begin, and the greatest respect we can show them is to disabuse them of this misconception. Perhaps it is because Kleiman nowhere makes this point that so many have criticized his entire post.

Even so, I hope that most of us agree with Kleiman's larger point about the evolution-creationism debate, or at least the part that he gets right, which is that it is a debate over a cultural issue, and if we're going to participate in the debate, we should debate it on cultural terms. No amount of scientific reasoning will convince people who fear evolution for cultural reasons. I also think that most of us agree with what I take to be Kleaiman's point at the end of the post, namely that we should point out, again and again, to the "red team" that their justifications of torture, extreme nationalism (in the form of "America first"), and their support for a war of choice, go against their stated moral world-view, whether it is derived exclusively from scripture or not.

In the end, then, I hope that the people on the "blue team" who have been criticizing Kleiman at least recognize what he gets right, and notice where they too are failing, through their observation of what Kleiman leaves out.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Evolutionary Psychology vs. evolutionary psychology

A psychologist who is writing a book on evolutionary psychology (I don't want to mention his name, since he hasn't given me permission to do so) wrote me today with the following:

I recently discovered your blog (via Cognitive Daily), and read two of your skeptical about EP pieces. What I'm puzzled about here is how critics of EP (including Buller and Sharon Begley in the Wall Street Journal) hardly ever mention (or seem to be aware of) the rival version of EP coming out of human behavioral ecology (as found, e.g., in Barrett, Dunbar, & Lycette, Human Evolutionary Psychology, Princeton UP). They, too, reject massive modularity but maintain a thoroughly Darwinian approach to understanding human behavior.

Any comment you have on this point would be much appreciated.
I responded to him in email, noting that the reason the negative focus has been on one particular strand of evolutionary psychology is that it is that strand that gets all of the attention in the popular press. I mention all of this, though, because his email made me realize that with the exception of my last post on the topic, I haven't really distinguished between the different evolutionary approaches in psychology. To be fair to Buller, though, he has in fact mentioned the distinction. He's quite careful to make it in his opening chapter, even going so far as to use Evolutionary Psychology, with initial capitals, to refer to the Cosmides, Buss, and Pinker variety that both he and I criticize, and evolutionary psychology, in all lowercase, to refer to evolutionary approaches to human behavior and cognition in general. They are quite distinct, and anyone who is interested in alternative approaches can choose from a variety of easily accessible resources from which to learn. I've heard that the Barrett et al. book is quite good, and I've bought it, but haven't read it yet, so I can't really recommend it. Instead, in this post I'll link to a few other resources that approach psychological issues from an evolutionary perspective that is quite different from that of Tooby, Cosmides, and the like, or at least does not entail that perspective.
  • First there is the strain of evolutionary psychology that comes out of sociobiology. The only book I've read on the topic, and therefore the only one I can recommend, is John Alcock's The Triumph of Sociobiology. However, there are several others out there, and if that book doesn't do it for you, I'm sure you can find one that does.
  • One of the most interesting, hotly debated, and fashionable topics in evolutionary psychology (lowercase version) today is the evolution of language. There area all sorts of books out there now on the topic. My favorite is Ray Jackendoff's Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. This isn't a book about the evolution of language, and you have to wade through 7 chapters of some pretty heavy linguistics (an experience akin to being subjected to several different types of medieval torture at once) to get to the 30-page chapter on the evolution of language, but the anguish you experience getting there is well worth it, because he presents one of the most level-headed and plausible accounts of the evolution of language out there. If you don't have the stomach for the linguistics, or simply don't want to read a long book by an academic, you can also check out his Trends in Cognitive Sciences paper from a few years ago, in which he gives a glimpse of his view. Also, it may interest some of you to know that Jackendoff has used his approach to the language faculty to study music, and even written about potentially innate capacities related to musical cognition, in this manuscript for instance.

    Of course, if you're reading up on the evolution of language, you have to read Derek Bickerton's Language and Species, and you should probably read Pinker and Bloom's 1990 Behavioral and Brain Sciences paper, because both have been incredibly influential and are discussed in virtually every writing on the topic.

    With Bickerton, Jackendoff, Pinker, and Bloom you will get a set of views on the evolution of language that all fall within the Chomskyan tradition. For slightly (or in some cases dramatically) different perspectives, you might want to read Robin Dunbar's book, Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language. In that book, language evolution is said to be an adaptation to the increasing size of human communities, which makes the other forms of intimacy and communication (e.g., grooming) less effective for maintaining social bonds and retaining knowledge of social relationships and structure. In short, language evolved so we could gossip. Then there's Peter MacNeilage's frame/content theory of language evolution, which he presents in this BBS paper. If you're partial to the Chomskyan versions in the sources above, MacNeilage's account might seem downright wacky, but you should still find it interesting. If you're like me, on the other hand, you'll find it to be a welcome relief.

    Finally, if you just want a general book on the evolution of language, the compilation Approaches to the Evolution of Language : Social and Cognitive Bases, edited by Hurford et al., which contains chapters by Bickerton, Dunbar, and MacNeilage, along with several others, including a little John Locke thrown in for good measure, is an excellent resource.
  • Another very interesting area of research is cultural evolution and the evolution of culture. Robin Dunbar, along with a few others, recently edited a book on the topic, titled The Evolution of Culture: An Interdisciplinary View. You'll get a lot of primatology and other non cog-sci perspectives in the book, which is a good thing, since cognitive scientists tend to have a pretty rudimentary knowledge of evolution, which is why we have Evolutionary Psychology (initial caps version) in the first place.

    Much of the interesting work in this area by cognitive scientists themselves has been in the area of religious cognition, and one of the foremost researchers who takes an evolutionary approach to issues of culture is Scott Atran, whose book In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion is both interesting and full of great citations if you want to follow it up with some more thorough research. One of the interesting ideas to come out of the work in the evolution of religion is the existence of an agency-detection module. Note, however, that the existence of an agency-detection module does not in any way imply massive modularity. Atran's related work on folk biology, mostly conducted with Doug Medin, as well as similar work by other cognitive scientists, is discussed in the book he and Medin edited, titled simply Folkbiology, which may also be of interest to those seeking non-Evolutionary Psychology evolutionary psychology.

    Then there's one of my favorite cognitive scientific books, by one of my favorite cognitive scientists, Michael Tomasello's The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition. This book is an anti-evolutionary psychologist's guide to evolutionary psychology. In it, he argues that the primary cognitively-significant adaptation in human evolutionary history was an advanced capacity for mimesis. It is through this capacity that we are able to actively teach our young, and ultimately develop a cumulative culture. It is through this capacity, and the accumulation of cultural knowledge that it allows, that we developed our capacities for language and complex reasoning, along with virtually every other exclusively human cognitive ability. The book, while excellent, does have its weak points. Fortunately, Tomasello has been actively working on his theory. For a later treatment, you can read his paper (which I believe is still in press at BBS, which means it might actually be published at some point in the next 35 years) titled "Understanding and sharing intentions: The origins of cultural cognition."
That's probably enough for now. With this list, you should be able to access a wide variety of evolutionary psychological views that are independent from, if not diametrically opposed to those of the Cosmides, Buss, and Pinker crowd. Now I feel like I've done my duty in making an important distinction, one that I've failed to explicitly make in posts in the past, and can already sense my karma improving.

By the way, if you're reading this and are more familiar with some of these literatures (particularly sociobiology) and know of some good sources, leave me a comment and I will be sure to add an update.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Epistemology of Neuroimagining

Via the Online Papers in Philosophy blog, I discovered a nice paper by William Bechtel titled, "The Epistemology of Evidence in Cognitive Neuroscience." In the paper, he discusses in some detail, and with great examples, the ways in which neuroscientists have used three different methodologies: lesion/deficit studies, single-cell recordings, and neuroimagining (PET and fMRI in particular). The first two methods have been used for decades in neuroscience proper, and with a great deal of success. Single-cell recording studies, for instance, have painted an incredibly thorough picture of the visual cortex, especially its early parts (and most especially V1, about which we probably know more than we do about any other brain area). Still, both lesion and single-cell recording methods have their limits (it's unlikely that either will tell us much about higher-level cognitive processes anytime soon), and this has led cognitive neuroscientists to rely heavily on neuroimagining techniques. In my last post, I made some pretty snide remarks about neuroimagining studies (heck, the whole post was a snide remark about neuroimagining studies). I thought it might be appropriate, then, to link to a paper which does a good job of discussing the problems with neuroimagining techniques, and in particular, the problems with the subtraction method that is most commonly used in cognitive neuroscience.

If that's not enough for you, you might also check out Sartori and Umilta's excellent paper on the subtraction method, and alternative methods, titled, "How to Avoid the Fallacies of Cognitive Subtraction in Brain Imaging." It was published in Brain and Language in 2001 (vol. 74, pp. 191-212), but I can't seem to find an online version that doesn't require a subscription. If anyone knows of one, please let me know.

And finally, while you're reading Bechtel, you might also check out his very interesting paper on the symbolic-connectionist debate, which was also linked on the Online Papers in Philosophy blog. That paper is here.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Orgasm in the Brain, or Porn for Neuroscientists

Sometimes I really think I went into the wrong area of cognitive science. I mean, I'm not really a big fan of cognitive neuroscience; I tend to think it's a faddish discipline that tells us little more than that cognition happens in the brain (a joke that I stole, but since none of you are likely to know the person from whom I stole it, and since he probably isn't reading this, I'm going to pretend it's my own). But when I read about studies like the one I'm about to describe, my opinion of imaging research changes dramatically, not so much because I think it's more scientifically sound, but because I would really like to run the experiments.

The research, which I discovered through John Hawks (my new source for all things cool and neuroscientific), involves looking at the brain regions that are active during sexual arousal and orgasm. The article that John links in his post is mostly about a study on female orgasms, and more specifically on the differences between the brain areas that are active during faked and real female orgasms. That research is so new that I can't find it on any of the article databases that I usually use. The research on male orgasm, however, was published a couple years ago, so I can talk about that*.

Here is the background: several studies of brain activation, or dysfunction as a result of brain lesions, during ejaculation have been conducted using rats, along with at least one study using nonhuman primates. These studies have been inconclusive with regard to the specific functions of different brain regions during ejaculation, and there are differences between the activation in rat and primate brains. These two facts limit our ability to draw conclusions about brain activation in human males during ejaculation from the animal literature. Now that we have some fairly good imaging techniques (in particular, fMRI and positron emission tomography, or PET), though, we can look at brain activation in humans during ejaculation directly, and bypass the animal literature altogether.

How, you might ask, do we get people to ejaculate while in a PET scan machine? Well, that's where this research gets interesting (for me, at least), and what makes me think I should have gone into the neuroscience of sex. Here is the description of the experiment, from the methods section of the above-linked paper:
The volunteers were asked to perform the following tasks twice: rest, erection, sexual stimulation, and ejaculation induced by sexual stimulation. To minimize motor activity by the volunteer during the scan, sexual stimulation was provided by his female partner by means of manual penile stimulation in the tasks stimulation and ejaculation. Manual stimulation was continued throughout ejaculation. The volunteer's head was maintained in position with a head-restraining adhesive band, and, to minimize visual input, volunteers were asked to keep their eyes closed.
Seriously, does this not sound like neuroscientist porn (complete with bondage)? If sessions were taped, how much do you want to bet that the videos are currently being sold on some neuroscience email group? Anyway, in order to make sure that the volunteers could perform the task, it was suggested that for a few weeks prior to the experimental session, they practice at home, "especially regarding minimizing head and limb movements." So the experiments were probably fun for the participants as well.

Once they had them in the machines, they took scans during stimulation and during orgasm, and later analyzed the data by comparing the stimulation scans to orgasm scans in 11 volunteers (only 8 of the 11 could be used for some analyses, for reasons discussed in the paper that are simply too uninteresting to mention in a blog post).

Most of the results are unsurprising. They found the strongest activation during ejaculation in the mesodiencephalic transition zone (MTZ), which is comprised of several regions involved in the brain's rewards system, and its dopamanergic reward system in particular. Specifically, the ventral tegmental area is part of the MTZ, and is associated with the pleasurable sensation people get from drugs like heroin and cocaine. Thus, orgasm and heroin highs appear to use the same brain structures in males. Activation was also found in the right thalamus and neighboring regions, which are associated with arousal and "visceral sensory responses." The right parietal lobe, which is also associated with sensation, was also active during ejaculation. All of this sounds about right. The same goes for the activation found in certain parts of the visual system, including the precuneus (visual memory) and the secondary visual cortex, because as the authors note, most of the volunteers reported using visual imagery during the session.

Finally, and perhaps this is a bit surprising, they found a lot of activation in the cerebellum. Traditionally, the cerebellum has been thought to be primarily involved in movement, but the volunteers' movements were restricted, and their female partners were doing all of the work. Recently (over the last decade or so), researchers have begun to realize that the cerebellum is involved in a lot more than just movement, though. In particular, it appears to be heavily involved in emotion, and the authors of the article explain its activation by arguing that cerebellum activity during ejaculation produces a "rush" similar to that experienced during other rewarding activities, such as heroin use and listening to pleasant music.

The researchers did find deactivation in two areas, the amygdala and entorhinal cortex. These areas, especially the amygdala, are also associated with emotion. The amygdala is particularly associated with fear responses, and decreased activation in this area has been shown to cause euphoric states associated with drug use and intense love. So, the corresponding activation of the cerebellum and deactivation of the amygdala appear to cause the intense euphoric emotional state associated with orgasm.

Thus, in sum, human male brain activity during orgasm looks a lot like it does when we're doing drugs. The authors also note that it also looks more like nonhuman primate activation than rat activation, a fact which probably ruins a lot of potential jokes. Furthermore, the bulk of the activation during ejaculation was in the right hemisphere, which makes me wonder whether left-handers have stronger orgasms (a speculation that is completely unwarranted by the data, but I'm pretending to be a cognitive neuroscientist now). Mostly, though, given the terrible resolution (both spatial and temporal) of the imaging techniques that are available today (both PET and fMRI were used in this study), what we've really learned is that male orgasm causes brain activation. The authors themselves note that the resolution isn't sufficient to distinguish the activation in different parts of the MTZ, and it's hard to say exactly which of the functions of the other multi-functional brain areas are involved, because we can't tell exactly which parts, much less which neurons, are active. As is usually the case with brain imaging studies, the conclusions involve inferences to the best theoretical bias. Still, we've got to start studying the role of the brain in male orgasm somewhere, sometime, and even if I don't think this sort of research tells us a whole hell of a lot, I sure wish I could get in on it.

* Just in case you're new to the blog, or you've forgotten, it's my policy not to comment on research that I only know about through articles in the popular press, because the press generally does a horrible job of reporting about science, especially cognitive science.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Why Is Yawning Contagious?

Today as I was riding home from campus on the bus, I was talking on the phone, and my interlocutor yawned. Almost immediately, I yawned as well. She made a joke about it, and I said that it wasn't my fault, because yawning is contagious -- when you see or hear someone yawn, you tend to yawn as well. I thought that was a well-known fact, but apparently she had never heard it, or noticed it before, so my first instinct was to prove that it was true by explaining to her why it happened. Then I realized that I had no idea why it happened. So I decided that when I got home, I would look it up. Let it never be said that I am not a geek.

So, I got home and started researching the topic, and quickly discovered that I was not alone. It seems that nobody's sure why yawning is contagious. There do appear to be some differences in individuals who are susceptible to contagious yawning and those who are not1. In particular, contagious yawners score lower on the Schizotypal Personality Questionnaire, which was designed to measure the symptoms of Schizotypal Personality Disorder. These symptoms involve less social and self-awareness, along with schizophrenia-like symptoms such as altered or unusual perceptions, particularly in social contexts, which can lead to paranoia. Lower scores on the test indicate lower levels of schizotypal symptoms. Contagious yawners also performed better when answering questions about stories designed to test for theory-of-mind ability. Finally, they also had much faster reaction times when asked to identify their own face presented on a computer screen. Steven Platek and his co-authors argue that these findings, that contagious yawners score lower on the Schizotypal Personality Questionnaire, and show better theory-of-mind and self-recognition performance, indicates that self-awareness and empathy underlie contagious yawning.

This would fit with what we do know, and can easily see about contagious yawning: it is automatic and unconscious. We don't try to yawn when we see or hear someone else do so; we just do. Self-recognition and theory-of-mind mechanisms are generally fast, automatic, and unconscious, and thus it is plausible, given the data described above, that they are involved in contagious yawning. But the data I described above is pretty thin, and is certainly open to alternative interpretations. To find out for sure, I looked to neuroscience. Unfortunately, when I got there, the picture got a bit muddier. In a very recent study (published in February), researchers had participants watch videos of yawning while they were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)2. They found that people who watched the yawning videos had increased activation in the right posterior superior temporal sulcus and in the anterior superior temporal sulcus in both hemispheres. These areas are associated with the processing of social information, and the increased activation in these areas thus fits with the theory that social awareness may underlie contagious yawning. However, they did not find activation in Broca's area, which is thought to house the human version of the mirror neuron system, and believed to be associated with theory of mind. Furthermore, they found that participants who watched the yawning videos showed decreased activation in the left periamygdalar region. This area of the brain is associated with the recognition of emotional facial expressions.

These last two findings are confusing, and perhaps inconsistent with Platek's theory. It appears that, while social information processing does underlie contagious yawning, action and emotion recognition, which are parts of our theory-of-mind abilities, are not associated with contagious yawning. However, to make things even more confusing, Platek and his colleagues have conducted their own imaging study3. When contrasted with laughing and neutral videos, yawning videos caused increased activation in the posterior cingulate and precuneus, areas associated with, among other things, autobiographical memory, emotion, and self-judgements. Thus, Platek's findings are consistent with his theory, but inconsistent with the only other imaging study of contagious yawning.

The take home message, then, is that it's not quite clear what causes contagious yawning. Sure, we can say with a high degree of certainty that social-information processing is involved, but that seems obvious. What's less obvious is what else is involved. Are empathy and self-awareness involved? The neuroimaging data is too inconsistent to say for sure.

However, if it turns out that empathy and self-awareness are involved in contagious yawning, then another finding becomes much more interesting. It was previously thought that, while yawning occurs in many animal species, only humans yawned contagiously. It turns out, chimps may yawn contagiously as well. James Anderson and his colleagues published a paper in late 2004 in which they presented six adult female chimpanzees with videos depicting facial expressions, including yawning. When the videos showed yawning, two of the six chimps yawned more frequently than when watching other expressions4. While this is obviously a preliminary finding, if it turns out that chimps do yawn contagiously, and that contagious yawning requires empathy and self-awareness, as Platek argues, then we would have strong evidence that chimps are self aware and have some level of theory-of-mind/empathy.

1Platek, S.M., Critton, S.R., Myers, T.E., & Gallup, G.G., Jr. (in press, 2003). Contagious yawning: The role of self-awareness and mental state attribution. Cognitive Brain Research, 17(2):223-7.
2Schurmann, M., Hesse, M..D, Stephan, K.E., Saarela, M., Zilles, K., Hari, R., & Fink, G.R. (2005). Yearning to yawn: the neural basis of contagious yawning. Neuroimage, 24(4), 1260-1264.
3 Platek, S.M., Mohamed, F.B., & Gallup, G.G. Jr. (In Press). Contagious yawning and the brain. Cognitive Brain Research.
4Anderson, J.R., Myowa-Yamakoshi, M., & Matsuzawa, T. (2004). Contagious yawning in chimpanzees. Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences, 271, Biology Letters Supplement 6, S468 - S470.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Your Cat Could Change Your Personality

A few years ago, I read about this strange parasite that cats pass to rats, and rats pass back to cats, that caused infected rats to lose their fear of cats (the title of the original paper was, "Fatal attraction in rats infected with Toxoplasma gondii"1. Now researchers have demonstrated that it can have more subtle effects when humans become infected. First, I learned that researchers showed that those who are infected with the parasite, whom researchers had known showed slower reaction times in laboratory experiments, were 2.65 times more likely to be in car accidents than uninfected people. Now I've learned that they've also discovered even stranger effects on people's personalities (thanks to John Hawks, who linked this article). In 1999, this paper reported the differences found in women who were infected. This is from the abstract:
The subjects with latent toxoplasmosis had higher intelligence, lower guilt proneness, and possibly also higher ergic tension. The difference in several other factors (desurgency/surgency, alaxia/protension, naivete/shrewdness, and self sentiment integration) concerned changes in the variances, rather then the mean values of the factors.
Then I found this 1996 paper which showed than men who were infected were more likely to disregard rules, were less trusting and tolerant, and more jealous, reserved, critical, detached, and guilt prone. Infected women, on the other hand, were more "warmhearted," outgoing, easygoing, trusting, accepting, tolerant, astute, worldly, and polished. In other words, the effects on men and women were in entirely opposite directions. Even more disturbing was the 2003 paper reporting research using military personell that showed infected men to be more impulsive, extravagant, and disorderly (they looked more ragged), along with having lower IQs, lower education levels, and lower levels of novelty seeking.

All this sounds pretty bad for us men, and perhaps not that great for women either. Men become dirty, dogmatic recluses, and women become naive, outgoing, and promiscuous (some of the evidence indicates that they have sex with more men). The authors of the 2003 paper (the first author is the same in each of the papers that I've linked) suggest that the specific behavioral differences in infected men may indicate that the parasite affects the dopamanergic system, which may be why there is a link between infection and schizophrenia.

It turns out, though, that the most recent research indicates that the parasite may not be the cause of some of the behavioral differences. Instead, it appears that there are physical differences between infected and uninfected males that are unrelated to infection, and which may be related to decreased immune response to the parasite. These differences may also be associated with some of the behavioral differences, indicating that the differences may have existed in the individuals prior to infection. So, the parasite may not be causing people's personalities to change afterall. Or at least, it may not be causing all of the differences (e.g., IQ differences and differences in reaction times). The jury is still out, though, so for now, I'm going to be staying away from cats and cat people.

1Berdoy, M., Webster, J. & Macdonald, D. (2000). Fatal attractions in rats infected with Toxoplasma gondii. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London (B) 267: 1591-1594.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Orac and Galileo

Via Brandon, I came across this excellent reply to the misgivings of a young creationist. Unfortunately, at the age of 14, his or her beliefs may be too set in stone to be altered by facts or reason. Still, Orac gives him both, and does so in an extremely respectful tone. Given the lack of civility that dominates the debate between science and religion, Orac definitely deserves recognition for the way he handle the situation.

I was particularly impressed with the way he ended the post, posing an extremely interesting and important question to the young creationist. Orac wrote:
I'd like to leave you with a few questions to ponder: If, as you almost certainly believe, God is indeed the source of all truth, why would He leave so much evidence scattered about His creation showing that the earth is billions of years old and that animals and plants evolved into different species over hundreds of millions of years if it were not the truth that this is so? Why would He endow humans with the intellect and desire to delve deeply into the mysteries of His creation to try to learn what His natural laws are, if the truth of creation and His natural laws are not the same as what His creation tells them? As a Christian, does it not make more sense to conclude, as the minister above (and others) do, that God set things in motion and evolution was His preferred mechanism to produce all the diversity of life on this planet?
This immediately reminded me of a point that Galileo made in his famous "Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany." In that letter, he defends his views concerning the relationship between the Earth and the sun against the criticisms coming from within the Church. His comments largely concern the relationship between science and religion, and I've often felt that the letter should be required reading for creationists. I won't post the whole letter, but here's a good chunk of it:
I think in the first place that it is very pious to say and prudent to affirm that the holy Bible can never speak untruth-whenever its true meaning is understood. But I believe nobody will deny that it is often very abstruse, and may say things which are quite different from what its bare words signify. Hence in expounding the Bible if one were always to confine oneself to the unadorned grammatical meaning, one might; fall into error. Not only contradictions and propositions far from true might thus be made to appear in the Bible, but even grave heresies and follies. Thus it would be necessary to assign to God feet, hands ans eyes, as well as corporeal and human affections, such as anger, repentance, hatred, and sometimes even the forgetting of` things past and ignorance of those to come. These propositions uttered by the Holy Ghost were set down in that manner by the sacred scribes in order to accommodate them to the capacities, Of the common people, who are rude and unlearned. For the sake of those who deserve to be separated from the herd, it is necessary that wise expositors should produce the true senses of such passages, together with the special reasons for which they were set down in these words. This doctrine is so widespread and so definite with all theologians that it would be superfluous to adduce evidence for it.

Hence I think that I may reasonably conclude that whenever the Bible has occasion to speak of any physical conclusion (especially those which are very abstruse and hard to understand), the rule has been observed of avoiding confusion in the minds of the common people which would render them contumacious toward the higher mysteries. Now the Bible, merely to condescend to popular capacity, has not hesitated to obscure some very important pronouncements, attributing to God himself some qualities extremely remote from (and even contrary to) His essence. Who, then, would positively declare that this principle has been set aside, and the Bible has confined itself rigorously to the bare and restricted sense of its words, when speaking but casually of the earth, of water, of the sun, or of any other created thing? Especially in view of the fact that these things in no way concern the primary purpose of the sacred writings, which is the service of God and the salvation of souls - matters infinitely beyond the comprehension of the common people.

This being granted, I think that in discussions of physical problems we ought to begin not from the authority of scriptural passages but from sense­experiences and necessary demonstrations; for the holy Bible and the phenomena of nature proceed alike from the divine Word the former as the dictate of the Holy Ghost and the latter as the observant executrix of God's commands. It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned. But Nature, on the other hand, is inexorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men. For that reason it appears that nothing physical which sense­experience sets before our eyes, or which necessary demonstrations prove to us, ought to be called in question (much less condemned) upon the testimony of biblical passages which may have some different meaning beneath their words. For the Bible is not chained in every expression to conditions as strict as those which govern all physical effects; nor is God any less excellently revealed in Nature's actions than in the sacred statements of the Bible. Perhaps this is what Tertullian meant by these words:
"We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine, by Nature in His works, and by doctrine in His revealed word."
From this I do not mean to infer that we need not have an extraordinary esteem for the passages of holy Scripture. On the contrary, having arrived at any certainties in physics, we ought to utilize these as the most appropriate aids in the true exposition of the Bible and in the investigation of those meanings which are necessarily contained therein, for these must be concordant with demonstrated truths. I should judge that the authority of the Bible was designed to persuade men of those articles and propositions which, surpassing all human reasoning could not be made credible by science, or by any other means than through the very mouth of the Holy Spirit.

Yet even in those propositions which are not matters of faith, this authority ought to be preferred over that of all human writings which are supported only by bare assertions or probable arguments, and not set forth in a demonstrative way. This I hold to be necessary and proper to the same extent that divine wisdom surpasses all human judgment and conjecture.

But I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them. He would not require us to deny sense and reason in physical matters which are set before our eyes and minds by direct experience or necessary demonstrations. This must be especially true in those sciences of which but the faintest trace (and that consisting of conclusions) is to be found in the Bible. Of astronomy; for instance, so little is found that none of the planets except Venus are so much as mentioned, and this only once or twice under the name of "Lucifer." If the sacred scribes had had any intention of teaching people certain arrangements and motions of the heavenly bodies, or had they wished us to derive such knowledge from the Bible, then in my opinion they would not have spoken of these matters so sparingly in comparison with the infinite number of admirable conclusions which are demonstrated in that science. Far from pretending to teach us the constitution and motions of the heavens and other stars, with their shapes, magnitudes, and distances, the authors of the Bible intentionally forbore to speak of these things, though all were quite well known to them. Such is the opinion of the holiest and most learned Fathers, and in St. Augustine we find the following words :
"It is likewise commonly asked what we may believe about the form and shape of the heavens according to the Scriptures, for many contend much about these matters. But with superior prudence our authors have forborne to speak of this, as in no way furthering the student with respect to a blessed life-and, more important still, as taking up much of that time which should be spent in holy exercises. What is it to me whether heaven, like a sphere surrounds the earth on all sides as a mass balanced in the center of the universe, or whether like a dish it merely covers and overcasts the earth? Belief in Scripture is urged rather for the reason we have often mentioned; that is, in order that no one, through ignorance of divine passages, finding anything in our Bibles or hearing anything cited from them of such a nature as may seem to oppose manifest conclusions, should be induced to suspect their truth when they teach, relate, and deliver more profitable matters. Hence let it be said briefly, touching the form of heaven, that our authors knew the truth but the Holy Spirit did not desire that men should learn things that are useful to no one for salvation."
The same disregard of these sacred authors toward beliefs about the phenomena of the celestial bodies is repeated to us by St. Augustine in his next chapter. On the question whether we are to believe that the heaven moves or stands still, he writes thus:
"Some of the brethren raise a question concerning the motion of heaven, whether it is fixed or moved. If it is moved, they say, how is it a firmament? If it stands still, how do these stars which are held fixed in it go round from east to west, the more northerly performing shorter circuits near the pole, so that the heaven (if there is another pole unknown to us) may seem to revolve upon some axis, or (if there is no other pole) may be thought to move as a discus? To these men I reply that it would require many subtle and profound reasonings to find out which of these things is actually so; but to undertake this and discuss it is consistent neither with my leisure nor with the duty of those whom I desire to instruct in essential matters more directly conducing to their salvation and to the benefit of the holy Church."
From these things it follows as a necessary consequence that, since the Holy Ghost did not intend to teach us whether heaven moves or stands still, whether its shape is spherical or like a discus or extended in a plane, nor whether the earth is located at its center or off to one side, then so much the less was it intended to settle for us any other conclusion of the same kind. And the motion or rest of the earth and the sun is so closely linked with the things just named, that without a determination of the one, neither side can be taken in the other matters. Now if the Holy Spirit has purposely neglected to teach us propositions of this sort as irrelevant to the highest goal (that is, to our salvation), how can anyone affirm that it is obligatory to take sides on them, that one belief is required by faith, while the other side is erroneous? Can an opinion be heretical and yet have no concern with the salvation of souls? Can the Holy Ghost be asserted not to have intended teaching us something that does concern our salvation? I would say here something that was heard from an ecclesiastic of the most eminent degree: "That the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven. not how heaven goes."

But let us again consider the degree to which necessary demonstrations and sense experiences ought to be respected in physical conclusions, and the authority they have enjoyed at the hands of holy and learned theologians. From among a hundred attestations I have selected the following:
"We must also take heed, in handling the doctrine of Moses. that we altogether avoid saying positively and confidently anything which contradicts manifest experiences and the reasoning of philosophy or the other sciences. For since every truth is in agreement with all other truth, the truth of Holy Writ cannot be contrary to the solid reasons and experiences of human knowledge."
And in St. Augustine we read:
"If' anyone shall set the authority of Holy Writ against clear and manifest reason, he who does this knows not what he has undertaken; for he opposes to the truth not the meaning of the Bible, which is beyond his comprehension, but rather his own interpretation, not what is in the Bible, but what he has found in himself and imagines to be there."
This granted, and it being true that two truths cannot contradict one another, it is the function of expositors to seek out the true senses of scriptural texts. These will unquestionably accord with the physical conclusions which manifest sense and necessary demonstrations have previously made certain to us. Now the Bible, as has been remarked, admits in many places expositions that are remote from the signification of the words for reasons we have already given. Moreover, we are unable to affirm that all interpreters of the Bible speak by Divine inspiration for if that were so there would exist no differences among them about the sense of a given passage. Hence I should think it would be the part of prudence not to permit anyone to usurp scriptural texts and force them in some way to maintain any physical conclusion to be true, when at some future time the senses and demonstrative or necessary reasons may show the contrary. Who indeed will set bounds to human ingenuity? Who will assert that everything in the universe capable of being perceived is already discovered and known? Let us rather confess quite truly that "Those truths which we know are very few in comparison with those which we do not know."

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Ten Most Harmful Books

Thanks to Rob "Helpychalk," I discovered this wonderful list of the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Century. It was put together by a conservative group, so some of the books were obvious choices. Number 1 is the Communist Manifesto, with Das Kapital at number 6. The list also provides some pretty big hints about the kinds of conservatives who did the ratings. For instance, Darwin made the Honorable Mention list twice, with The Origin of the Species and Descent of Man. Appparently evolution is pretty harful. The Kinsey Report came in at number 4 (number 4!), meaning that sex is only slightly less harmful than Marx, Hitler, and Mao (whose books are number 1, 2, and 3 respectively). I was excited to find that some of my favorite authors/books are there as well. Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil came in at number 9 (its description ends with, "The Nazis loved Nietzsche"), John Dewey made the list with Democracy and Education at number 5, and Michael Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, and Theodor Adorno (with his book about authoritarianism, which links it to conservativism) all made the Honorable Mention list.

The descriptions of the books are great. I'll just give you a taste, from the description of Democracy and Education.
In Democracy and Education, in pompous and opaque prose, he disparaged schooling that focused on traditional character development and endowing children with hard knowledge, and encouraged the teaching of thinking “skills” instead. His views had great influence on the direction of American education--particularly in public schools--and helped nurture the Clinton generation.
Connecting Dewey and Clinton to make it clear just how harmful Dewey has been is ingenius. I'm a little confused, though, about the use of the adjectives "pompous" and "opaque" to describe the prose in Democracy and Education. It's generally considered one of his most easily read books, and while I doubt anyone would call Dewey a great writer, I've always thought that this book (especially compared to his early writings) was quite clearly written.