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  • October 19, 2010
  • 08:00 AM

Banana domestication revisited

by Jeremy in The Vaviblog

Edible bananas have very few seeds. Wild bananas are packed with seeds; there’s almost nothing there to eat. So how did edible bananas come to be cultivated? The standard story is that some smart proto-farmer saw a spontaneous mutation and then propagated it vegetatively. Once the plant was growing, additional mutants would also be seen [...]... Read more »

  • October 19, 2010
  • 05:39 AM

Did cavemen eat bread?

by Razib Khan in Gene Expression

Food is a fraught topic. In How Pleasure Works Paul Bloom alludes to the thesis that while conservatives fixate on sexual purity, liberals fixate on culinary purity. For example, is it organic? What is the sourcing? Is it “authentic”? Obviously one can take issue with this characterization, especially its general class inflection (large swaths of [...]... Read more »

Anna Revedin, Biancamaria Aranguren, Roberto Becattini, Laura Longo, Emanuele Marconi, Marta Mariotti Lippi, Natalia Skakun, Andrey Sinitsyn, Elena Spiridonova, & Jiří Svoboda. (2010) Thirty thousand-year-old evidence of plant food processing. PNAS. info:/10.1073/pnas.1006993107

  • October 19, 2010
  • 03:07 AM

Wired to be Social

by Glialdance in Glial Dance

Humans are a social species, we interact with other people – aided by language- and exchange information on daily basis. The effects of social isolation have been demonstrated and predicted to be very severe and “de-humanising” in many cases with a long list of adverse effects on cognitive abilities and emotional stability. The question often posed when [...]... Read more »

Umberto Castiello, Cristina Becchio, Stefania Zoia, Cristian Nelini, Luisa Sartori, Laura Blason, Giuseppina D’Ottavio, Maria Bulgheroni, & Vittorio Gallese. (2010) Wired to be Social: the ontogeny of human interaction. PLoS ONE. info:/

  • October 18, 2010
  • 02:34 PM

There are more things in heaven and earth, cobber, than are dreamt of in your philosophy

by Alun in AlunSalt

Studying astronomy in culture should be simple. There’s only so much that is visible by the naked eye, and it follows predictable patterns. Modern astronomy means that we can reconstruct what was visible anywhere in the world in human history, within certain boundaries for errors. If we know what happens when, then studying a culture... Read more »

Clarke, P.A. (2007) An Overview of Australian Aboriginal Ethnoastronomy. Archaeoastronomy: The Journal of Astronomy in Culture, 39-58. info:/

  • October 18, 2010
  • 10:04 AM

Two DonorsChoose projects you must support: Girls are good at math, and Technology tools while pregnant

by Kate Clancy in Context & Variation

A plea to fund DonorsChoose projects that highlights research on sexism in mathematics instruction.... Read more »

Alessandri SM, & Lewis M. (1993) Parental evaluation and its relation to shame and pride in young children. Sex Roles, 335-343. info:/

Fennema, E., Peterson, P., Carpenter, T., & Lubinski, C. (1990) Teachers attributions and beliefs about girls, boys, and mathematics. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 21(1), 55-69. DOI: 10.1007/BF00311015  

  • October 17, 2010
  • 07:20 AM

settling the black death debate with ancient dna

by Greg Fish in weird things

While for most of us, it tends to be a given that the culprit behind the scourge known as the Black Death was the bubonic plague, a number of historians weren’t so sure. The reports from the time talked about the kinds of symptoms we’d expect from a bizarre hybrid of bubonic and hemorrhagic plagues, [...]... Read more »

Haensch, S., Bianucci, R., Signoli, M., Rajerison, M., Schultz, M., Kacki, S., Vermunt, M., Weston, D., Hurst, D., Achtman, M.... (2010) Distinct Clones of Yersinia pestis Caused the Black Death. PLoS Pathogens, 6(10). DOI: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1001134  

  • October 17, 2010
  • 02:00 AM

More aDNA from the Black Death

by Michelle Ziegler in Contagions

    An international team has confirmed Yersinia pestis biomolecules in Black Death era* ‘plague pits’ (Haensch et al., 2010). Ancient DNA (aDNA) specific for Yersinia pestis and the Yersinial F1 antigen were discovered in skeletons from recognized plague pits in the Netherlands, England, and France. German and Italian skeletons tested positive for Y. pestis [...]... Read more »

Haensch, S., Bianucci, R., Signoli, M., Rajerison, M., Schultz, M., Kacki, S., Vermunt, M., Weston, D., Hurst, D., Achtman, M., Carniel, E., and Bramanti, B. (2010) Distinct clones of Yersinia pestis caused the Black Death. PLoS Pathogens, 6(10). info:/

Pusch CM, Rahalison L, Blin N, Nicholson GJ, & Czarnetzki A. (2004) Yersinial F1 antigen and the cause of Black Death. The Lancet infectious diseases, 4(8), 484-5. PMID: 15288817  

  • October 16, 2010
  • 05:21 AM

The @#$% 2010 Ig Nobel Peace Prize: Pain files 1

by gregdowney in Neuroanthropology

The 2010 Ig Nobel Prizes were awarded recently by the Annals of Improbable Science, and a paper I read a while ago and wanted to comment on won the Ig Nobel for Peace! (By the way, comment on, not because I thought it was Ig Nobel-esque, but because it was actually relevant to my work — what does that say about my research!?)! Congratulations to Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston for the prize, awarded for their paper, ‘Swearing as a Response to Pain,’ in Neuroreport. I’ll blog specifically about their article below the fold.
Apparently, recipients didn’t get to try on bra-gas masks this year like at last year’s Ig Nobels 2009, but I’m sure much fun was had. Paper plane throwing, operatic songs about tooth bacteria, bat porn (well, they didn’t actually get to show the bat porn…), a little girl telling award winners she was bored to stop them from giving overly-long acceptance speeches… sounds like something for the whole family.
There are a number of great-looking winners, including a brilliant engineering team who used remote-controlled toy helicopters to breathalyze whales to better sample their snot (yeah, ‘why didn’t *I* think of that?!,’ you’re saying…), a game-theory demonstration that hierarchical firms were better off simply promoting people randomly, a demonstration that oil and water in fact do mix together (the award was shared with BP for demonstrating the same effect on a much larger scale), and a too-long-ignored, forty-year-old contribution to epidemiology which pointed out the dangers of beards on microbiologists.
For more on all the papers that won, check out Christie Wilcox’s prize-by-prize rundown with links or a great discussion by Jeff Hecht at New Scientist. If you wanted to watch the ceremony, it was streamed, but I haven’t found it archived yet; I’m sure it will eventually be available at the Annals of Improbable Research YouTube channel.

Pain and swearing
In their paper in Neuroreport, Richard Stephens, John Atkins, and Andrew Kingston discuss research in which they tested whether swearing really helped pain resistance. They hypothesized, like good emotionally repressive scientists, that swearing was a maladaptive response to pain, exacerbating the pain by generating additional ‘negative thoughts.’ They first asked experimental subjects to list five words that people might say if they struck their thumb with a hammer (controls were asked for five descriptors for a table). Subjects then did a cold pressor test, in which they held an open hand in iced water; both groups were instructed to repeat a word from their list, seeing how long they could keep their hands immersed.
The test subjects who swore kept their hands in the water longer than the folks who muttered about tables, and reported less perceived pain from the cold pressor than did the control subjects, with some variation: ‘Although both sexes experienced a reduction in perceived pain in the swearing condition, females did so to a greater extent’ (1057). The table below shows some of the key results: not only did the swearing subjects hold their hands in longer, they experienced less pain according to their reports, and their heart rates spiked higher.

The data not only disproved the researchers’ hypothesis (that swearing was maladaptive), it also revealed interesting sex differences between men and women, and the link to increased heart rate, which I think is especially interesting. Stephens and co-authors suggest that the increased heart rate while swearing may indicate a heightened emotional response like fear or aggression that downward regulates experiences of pain through ‘classic fight or flight mechanisms’ (1060).
As the researchers conclude:
This study has shown that, under certain conditions, swearing produces a hypoalgesic effect. Swearing may have induced a fight or flight response and we speculate on a role for aggression in this. In addition swearing nullified the link between fear of pain and pain perception. (1060)
Minor issues
Of course, the research did confront the occasional outlier. After they asked all the experimental subjects to list the words a person would say when hit on the thumb with a hammer, ‘One participant was excluded because none of their suggested words were swear words’ (1057). Unfortunately, no footnote reveals what precisely this outlier thought a person would say if hit on the thumb with a hammer. (‘Rats’? ‘Fudge’? ‘Sugar’? ‘Fiddlesticks’?)
Trying to create a careful control for the swearing/non-swearing conditions also created some issues, forcing a control that meant that some of the cathartic value of swearing had to be sacrificed: ‘Participants were asked to maintain a similar pace and volume of word recital across conditions’ (1056). Subjects were also required to repeat the same word over and over again — anyone who swears like a stuck sailor knows that part of the relief comes from the stream of changing epithets shouted at the top of one’s lungs, the profane creativity of the novel compound vulgarity, ‘@#$%! *&^%-*&^%! $@*^^&^$#@! &^%$#@@!’ (although sometimes you just can’t manage anything more interesting than repeating the same choice epithet).
Vocal volume especially would seem to be an issue if the researchers are postulating that the analgesic mechanism was an effect of aggression downward mediating perceptions of pain. I’m not sure that swearing relatively quietly and at a measured pace would actually provoke a strong emotional dynamic, no matter what sort of dynamic you’re expecting.
Thinking through the dynamic of vulgar analgesia
The research is fun, of course, but I find it particularly intriguing because the experiment, in its own way, illuminates some of the neurological complexity underlying pain, including the possibility that top-down mechanisms— like coping techniques, conscious thought, or learned emotional responses—might modulate our experience. As a number of neuropsychologists have argued (and demonstrated empirically), pain involves a constellation of interacting neural mechanisms, some of them more conscious than others, rather than a single ‘pain centre’ (see Apkarian et al., 2005). Donald Price (2000), for example, reviews the relations among pain, feelings of ‘unpleasantness’, and ‘secondary pain affect,’ such as the emotional feelings of long-term worry or ‘suffering’ that may accompany the unpleasantness. As Price writes (2000: 1769):
Psychophysical studies demonstrate that pain sensation and pain unpleasantness represent two distinct dimensions of pain that demonstrate reliably different relations to nociceptive stimulus intensity and are separately influenced by various psychological factors.
One of the clearest examples of the way that pain stimulus can be, to a limited degree, decoupled from sensations of unpleasantness is that subjects reliably report diminished sensations of pain if told that a pain is transitory and will produce no lasting effect and enhance reports of suffering if they believe that a pain will be long-lasting.
In some cases, the decoupling can produce a quite profound gulf between pain sensation and pain unpleasantness; in a study at a Forward Hospital in World War II, military surgeon Dr. Henry Beecher found that three-quarters of severely wounded men did not experience such pain that they asked for pain relief, even when they were reminded that it was available (1946: 99). Beecher was surprised by the result, pointing out that even patients suffering severe wounds to the chest and head and broken bones, caused a minority of sufferers to report significant subjective pain.
In addition, the relation between unpleasantness and secondary pain affect – suffering or distress – also varies. A study of ethnic differences in pain perception, for example, conducted by Zborowski (1952), found that different ethnic groups felt varying levels of distress in relation to similar reports of pain, some groups worrying extensively about the future implications of pain and others curtailing expression of suffering. Pric... Read more »

  • October 15, 2010
  • 04:11 AM

The rise and crash of civilizations

by Razib Khan in Gene Expression

One of the questions of interest in the study of the evolution of culture is whether there is a direction in history in terms of complexity. As I have noted before in the pre-modern era many felt that the direction of history was of decline. That is, the ancients were wise and subtle beyond compare [...]... Read more »

Currie, Thomas E., Greenhill, Simon J., Gray, Russell D., Hasegawa, Toshikazu, & Mace, Ruth. (2010) Rise and fall of political complexity in island South-East Asia and the Pacific. Nature. info:/10.1038/nature09461

  • October 13, 2010
  • 11:05 AM

Seeking Authenticity in Facebook Profiles

by Krystal D'Costa in Anthropology in Practice

I was chatting with a friend who is in the process of job hunting the other day and he told me that he friended a recruiter on Facebook. Perplexed, I asked if he was concerned about the information the recruiter might see. "No," he said. "I'm not really the drunken reverie poster." He also does not use features such as lists to organize contacts and restrict access to parts of his profile.
This exchange suggests to me that the boundaries between online social networks are still in flux. So far, the general suggestion has been that users should use LinkedIn for professional contacts and keep Facebook for personal ones—or make use of the lists feature to set privacy settings accordingly. We've heard the horror stories about the times when friending a supervisor went astray (seriously, Google Facebook fired—there's even a group!), and we're learning that HR is increasingly reviewing the social media profiles of applicants before they're even invited for an interview. Sites like Facebook allow users to craft a personalized image of themselves—does this personalization suggest a more authentic self? And if so, does that make Facebook a more desirable point of contact for a more "complete" view of a person?
Researcher Soraya Mehdizadeh (2010) proposes that sites like Facebook and MySpace have contributed to the rise of narcissistic tendencies. As Facebook has surpassed MySpace in overall general use and has a wider base of potential contacts (e.g., recruiters and applicants, supervisors and employees), I'll focus this discussion on Facebook. In my opinion, it seems to be the more "serious" of the two—at least, it appears to be the more trustworthy for authentic representations, which we'll explore in bit. First, what does Mehdizadeh mean by narcissism online?
She define narcissists as individuals who seek superficial relationships with high status individuals who can contribute to public glory (2010: 358). Online social networking sites encourage these sorts of relationships:First, this setting offers a gateway for hundreds of shallow relationships (i.e., virtual friends), and emotionally detached communication (i.e., wall posts, comments). While these sites do indeed serve a communicative purpose among friends, colleagues, and family, other registered users can initiate requests to be friends, and one's social network often snowballs rapidly across institutions in this fashion (358).One way this sort of relationships is achieved is through the presentation of an attractive self—the user must reveal something that encourages the connection. this connection may be emotionally appealing (e.g., a shared history: attending the same high school or college) or physically appealing (e.g., an enticing photo, a pleasant demeanor). The latter seems particularly important once the user moves past first tier connections and begins to add connections from the second tier (i.e., friend of a friend) and beyond. According to Mehdizadeh, this opens the door for a showing of the "hoped for possible self," which "emphasizes realistic socially desirable identities an individual would like to establish given the right circumstances" (358).
Facebook is a "nonymous" online environment—it requires the user to reveal herself. Users have to enter their real names, for example, although an increasing number of users are slightly tweaking their names to make themselves unsearchable. But it also requires users to place themselves within a physical network, whether that be an academic circle or a geographic one. And while a small number of users choose not to have a photo, many have some sort of pictorial representation associated with their name. Frequently, this is a photograph although in some cases avatars or other icons may be used, however, the representation is true in that it represents the user in some way. That is to say, Jane Doe does not use Mary Smith's image as her own. Nonymous environments require a degree of truth. The personal nature of Facebook adds another layer to that sense of truth which distinguishes the network from the likes of LinkedIn. Users are not free to simple pretend to be someone they are not.
Mehdizadeh correctly states that users are actively engaged in constructing their identity in nonymous settings:While the nonymity of this environment places constraint on the freedom of the individual identity claims, this setting also enables users to control the information projected about themselves. In particular, users can select attractive photographs and write self descriptions that are self-promoting in an effort to project an enhanced sense of self. Furthermore, Facebook users can receive public feedback on profile features from other users, which can act as a positive regulator of narcissistic esteem (360).Though she views the interaction between users and their connections as confirming narcissistic behaviors, I want to propose that Facebook relationships also help vet the image projected by calling attention to anomalies. For example, if a user posts a photo showing themselves in a new, unexplained location, someone will usually ask where the user was and what he was doing at the time.
In this sort of setting, it may be possible to expand your network to include business and other professional contacts. In this setting, would a drunken reverie poster get a pass because it would seem out of character? It may mean a more open social web.

Cited:Mehdizadeh S (2010). Self-presentation 2.0: narcissism and self-esteem on Facebook. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking, 13 (4), 357-64 PMID: 20712493
... Read more »

Mehdizadeh S. (2010) Self-presentation 2.0: narcissism and self-esteem on Facebook. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking, 13(4), 357-64. PMID: 20712493  

  • October 13, 2010
  • 03:35 AM

The revenge of history

by Jeremy in Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog

Three papers today which look into the role of history in determining patterns of diversity, at the species and genetic level. I don’t have much time today, so descriptions will have to be quick and dirty for now. In Molecular Ecology, Hoban et al. used microsatellites to genotype 29 populations of Juglans cinerea from throughout [...]... Read more »

  • October 11, 2010
  • 04:40 PM

My IVF story: conclusions

by Kate Clancy in Context & Variation

I discuss aging and reproductive health, reproductive choice, and the naturalistic fallacy in my concluding post on IVF.... Read more »

  • October 11, 2010
  • 12:52 PM

What Are Those Darned Neanderthals Up to Now?

by Krystal D'Costa in Anthropology in Practice

Scene from the Neanderthal diorama at the American Museum of Natural History.
Not shown: Male Neanderthal figure holding tool.
The Neanderthal story is quickly becoming a favorite serial—who knows what new drama the day will bring! Once regarded as brutish and stupid, it was accepted that they could not compete technologically and socially with early modern human (EMH) populations and were eradicated as the latter spread throughout the globe. But in the last few years, the reputation of our Neaderthal cousins has changed. In fact, we've learned that they were surprisingly like us in many ways: they painted shells for jewelry, provided care for those in need, and had a sophisticated tool industry (see more here). Their diorama at the American Museum of Natural History shows them in a family unit. Their genome has revealed few conspicuous differences, instead demonstrating that Neanderthals may have in fact left a trace of themselves in our own genes.
The Neanderthal story stimulates the imagination because for all the similarities and newly credited skills the fact remains that they disappeared completely (in geological terms), leaving the earth to Homo sapiens. And I think part of the reason we're so intrigued is that on one level we wonder as a species whether we could disappear in the same way—gone but for a few instances in the fossil record. The Discovery Channel has done an excellent job of presenting the disaster possibilities: an asteroid could strike, global warming could do us in, the sun will eventually die, and so on. All the scenarios present events with immense environmental impact that would threaten our ability to find sustenance and cripple our overall well-being. A recent paper in Current Anthropology proposes that Neanderthals fell victim to one such devastating environmental event—volcanic activity—and illustrates the ways the fallout from the event would have made their environment inhospitable.

The skeleton called the "Ring Lady"
unearthed in Herculaneum.
Credit: Wikipedia
Neanderthals lived in Europe from about 400,000 to about 40,000 years ago. And they were used to adverse conditions: their environment was a very cold one, and may have included a severe ice age known as glacial period OIS 4. Like EMHs, they were accustomed to and could manage the climatic variables of the northern European landscape they frequented. For example, they clothed themselves against the elements. However, we know from Vesuvius that volcanic activity can present an insurmountable challenge. The charred remains of Pompeii are a testament to the speed and finality with which ash can cover the surrounding area. And ash is a troublesome thing: it spreads easily, carrying its effects far and wide. When the Eyjafjallajökull Volcano erupted earlier this year, NASA documented the spread of the ash over the Atlantic. Ash can have a cooling effect, causing crop failures and widespread famine. If it reaches the stratosphere (upper atmosphere), these effects can be prolonged as sulfur lingers in a reflective layer above the earth keeping much needed sunlight from the planet's surface (and eventually falling as acid rain as an added bonus).
Researchers Golovanova et. al. (2010) believe that Neanderthals may have been overcome by the combined effects of three successive volcanic explosions, the largest of which would have been the Campanian Ignimbrite (CI) eruption from the Phlegraean Fields in Italy:We offer the hypothesis that the Neanderthal demise occurred abruptly (on a geological timescale) at around 40,000 BP after the most powerful volcanic activity in western Eurasia during the period of Neanderthal evolutionary history. We further hypothesize that this catastrophe not only drastically destroyed the ecological niches of Neanderthal populations but also caused their mass physical depopulation in most of their habitation areas across Europe and the Near East. This loss of viable source populations may have significantly contributed to the eventual extinction of Neanderthals throughout their range (673).Using soil samples from Mezmaiskaya Cave, a well-preserved site of occupation for both Neanderthals and EMHs in the Northern Caucasus, Golovanova et. al. were able to trace periods of occupation in the area, noting significantly that activity dropped in correlation to volcanic soil layers. This information not only demonstrates when the site was being used, but also provides us with a foundation with which to understand the apparent transition from Neanderthal occupation to EMH occupation of the region.
Soil samples from Mezmaiskaya Cave have revealed two distinct layers of volcanic ash, suggesting that the ash accumulated as a result of two different eruptions—neither of which are the CI eruption:Geochemical analysis suggests that eruptions in the Elbrus volcanic province between 45,000 and 40,000 years ago are the most likely sources of the ash in later 2B-1 at Mezmaiskaya Cave ... The basaltic chemical composition of the ash in layer 1D is closer to that of volcanic rocks of Mt. Kazbek in the Central Caucasus. The explosive volcanoes of Mt. Kazbek in the Terek River upper valley are the most likely sources of the ash in layer 1D at Mezmaiskaya (660).Soil analysis also suggests climatic shifts following the volcanic events as well, with low levels of pollen concentration and little arboreal spores (660). This would have made the area unsuitable for foraging and inhospitable for any animals that frequented the area as well, which in turn resulted in diminished activity in and around Mezmaiskaya. What is interesting, however, is that activity seems to have resumed at Mezmaiskaya following the Elbrus eruption:The first volcanic eruption produced ash in the later MP [Middle Paleolithic] layer 2B-1 and essentially resulted in the deterioration of ecological conditions in the region ... The intensity of site use increased, however, during the accumulation of the upper MP layers 2A and 2 when the climate became cool and wet. Although the lithic industry changed slightly after the environmental crisis of layer 2B-1, it still remained typically MP Eastern Micoquian. Skeletal and mtDNA evidence indicates that Neanderthals produced both the earlier and the later MP industries at Mezmaiskaya (667).The Kazbek eruption proved to have been more serious. The ash layer is about 0.7 m thick, and following the eruption signs of habitation are sparse. The CI eruption fits into this puzzle because it had a widespread ... Read more »

Liubov Vitaliena Golovanova,, & Vladimir Borisovich Doronichev, Naomi Elansia Cleghorn, Marianna Alekseevna Koulkova, Tatiana Valentinovna Sapelko, M. Steven Shackley. (2010) Significance of Ecological Factors in the Middle to Upper Paleolithic Transition. Current Anthropology, 655-691. info:/10.1086/656185

  • October 11, 2010
  • 10:18 AM

Paleo Diet for Heart Patients With Diabetes and Prediabetes

by Steve Parker, M.D. in Diabetic Mediterranean Diet Blog

A Paleolithic diet lowered blood sugar levels better than a control diet in coronary heart disease patients with elevated blood sugars, according to Swedish researchers reporting in 2007. About half of patients with coronary heart disease have abnormal glucose (blood sugar) metabolism.  Lindeberg and associates wondered if a Paleolithic diet (aka “Old Stone Age,” “caveman,” or ancestral human diet) [...]... Read more »

  • October 11, 2010
  • 09:31 AM

The 20th Anniversary of Steven Pinker & Paul Bloom: Natural Language and Natural Selection (1990)

by Michael in A Replicated Typo 2.0

The day before yesterday Wintz mentioned two important birthdays in the field of language evolution (see here): First, Babel’s Dawn turned four, and second, as both Edmund Blair Bolles and Wintz pointed out, Steven Pinker‘s and Paul Bloom‘s seminal paper “Natural Language and Natural Selection” (preprint can be found here) has its 20th anniversary.
Wintz wrote that he . . . → Read More: The 20th Anniversary of Steven Pinker & Paul Bloom: Natural Language and Natural Selection (1990)... Read more »

Pinker, Steven, & Bloom, Paul. (1990) Natural Language and Natural Selection. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 13(4), 707-726. info:/

  • October 11, 2010
  • 09:05 AM

Why I'm out online

by Jeremy Yoder in Denim and Tweed

Exactly a year ago today, I came out of the online closet. Now it's another National Coming Out Day, and it seems like as good a time as any to think out loud about why I made that decision.
.flickr-photo { }.flickr-frameright { float: right; text-align: left; margin-left: 15px; margin-bottom: 15px; width:40%;}.flickr-caption { font-size: 0.8em; margin-top: 0px; } Image borrowed from Wikipedia under fair use rationale.My reasons aren't going to surprise anyone who has even a passing familiarity with gay rights history:Familiarity breeds acceptance. This is mainly a political argument. It's widely accepted (and supported by ongoing public opinion surveying) that people who personally know GLBT folks are overwhelmingly more likely to support treating GLBT people like full citizens. The psychology isn't hard to understand—it's easy to hate the nebulous, faceless, unknown Gays; it's rather harder to hate your son, or your niece, the nice neighbors who let you borrow their lawnmower, or (I hope) the guy who writes that one not-entirely-terrible science blog you check every so often.
Gotta give'em hope. And an example. This is more personal. I grew up without knowing any out gay people, which was, to put it mildly, not helpful. I was, to paraphrase the Onion headline, The Only Homosexual in the World; I didn't have any of the support, or visible examples, that would've helped me think critically about my sexual orientation or imagine a future in which I was out, and happy about it. (Which I very much am, these days.) By being open about my orientation, maybe I can help someone else figure out his (or hers) in a way I couldn't, and even show that, as confusing and frequently miserable as growing up gay is, it gets better.
And if there's one impression I hope to give a confused, lonely (and presumably nerdy) gay kid reading D&T, it's that it did get better for this formerly confused, lonely (and unquestionably nerdy) gay kid. And a large part of how it got better, for me, has to do with going into science.

Evolutionary biology has turned out to be a good field for me, in this personal respect. When I started my first genuine biology-related internship, I was surrounded for the first time by people who didn't talk about gays in the hushed, scandalized tones I'd heard through a lot of my childhood and schooling. Biologists are as human as the next ape descendent, but they're also a generally open-minded bunch who tend to be more interested in the quality of your work than what you do after you leave the lab. And, for what are probably obvious reasons, evolutionary biology doesn't attract the sort of people who hold doctrinaire conservative religious positions on any subject.

Evolutionary biology is also a pretty good academic discipline for me because evolutionary biology has something to say about sexual minorities, just as it has something to say about humans in general. Humans are biological beings, and we're part of an animal kingdom that exhibits a wide array of sexual behaviors, as elaborately documented by the evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden in her book Evolution's Rainbow. Exactly how to explain this diversity, particularly in the case of humans, is still quite controversial [$a]—but it's a question for which I have some expertise, and one I'd like to weave into the writing I do for D&T in the future.


Futuyma, D. (2005). Celebrating diversity in sexuality and gender. Evolution, 59 (5), 1156-9 DOI: 10.1111/j.0014-3820.2005.tb01052.x

Roughgarden, J. (2004). Evolution's Rainbow. Berkeley: University of California Press. Preview on Google Books.

... Read more »

  • October 11, 2010
  • 01:02 AM

Welcome, Science Readers!

by teofilo in Gambler's House

In honor of the twentieth anniversary of the passage of NAGPRA, Science has an interesting special section of short articles on the impact of NAGPRA on archaeology and physical anthropology.  They’re all definitely worth reading, and free with an annoying registration.  Among them is an interview of Steve Lekson by Keith Kloor which is of [...]... Read more »

  • October 7, 2010
  • 09:45 PM

Unique Strains of Yersinia pestis Caused the Black Death

by Michael Long in Phased

Barbara Bramanti (Johannes Gutenberg University, Germany) and coworkers present conclusive biochemical (DNA and protein) evidence that Yersinia pestis, of multiple and possibly extinct lineages, was responsible for the Black Death of medieval Europe. This news feature was written on October 7, 2010.... Read more »

Haensch, S., Bianucci, R., Signoli, M., Rajerison, M., Schultz, M., Kacki, S., Vermunt, M., Weston, D. A., Hurst, D., Achtman, M.... (2010) Distinct Clones of Yersinia pestis Caused the Black Death. PLoS Pathogens, 6(10). DOI: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1001134  

  • October 7, 2010
  • 09:50 AM

Around the web: the dark side of behavioral biology

by Kate Clancy in Context & Variation

A link round-up on evolutionary psychology, rape, infanticide, and other nasty stuff.... Read more »

Thornhill, R, & Thornhill, NW. (1992) The evolutionary psychology of men's coercive sexuality. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 363-421. info:/

  • October 7, 2010
  • 08:31 AM

Israel and Palestine are Both Fighting Back...?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

There are three basic schools of thought on the Israel / Palestine thing.Those evil Israelis are out to destroy Palestine, and the Palestinians are just fighting back.Those evil Palestinians are out to destroy Israel, and the Israelis are just fighting back.It's a cycle of violence, where both sides are fighting back against the other.Which one you subscribe to depends mostly on where you were born. I'm not aware of many people who've changed their minds on this issue, perhaps because doing so would require a study of the last 2,500 years of history, religion and politics.Wouldn't it be handy if science could provide an answer? According to the authors of a new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, the "cycle" school is right: both sides are fighting back against the other: Both sides retaliate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.The authors (from Switzerland, Israel and the USA) took data on daily fatalities on both sides, and also of daily launches of Palestinian "Qassam" rockets at Israel. The data run from 2001, the start of the current round of unpleasantness, to late 2008, the Gaza War.They looked to see whether the number of events that happened on a certain day predicted the number of events caused by the other side on the following days, i.e. whether a Palestinian death caused the Palestinians to retaliate by firing more rockets and killing more Israelis, and vice versa.What happened? They found that both sides were more likely to launch attacks on the days following a death on their own side. The exception to this rule was that Israel did not noticeably retaliate against Qassam launches. This is perhaps because Qassams are so ineffective: out of 3,645 recorded launches, they killed 15 people.These graphs show the number of "extra" actions on the days following a event, averaged over the whole 8 years, according to a statistical method called the Impulse Response Function. Note that the absolute size of the effects is larger for the Israeli retaliations (the Y axis is bigger); there were a total of 4,874 Palestinian fatalities and 1,062 Israeli fatalitiesThe authors then used another method called Vector Autoregression to discover more about the relationship. In theory, this method controls for the past history of actions by a given side, so that it reveals the number of actions independently caused by the opposing side.the number of Qassams fired increases by 6% on the first day after a single killing of a Palestinian by Israel; the probability of any Qassams being fired increases by 11%; and the probability of any Israelis being killed by Palestinians increases by 10%. Conversely, 1 day after the killing of a single Israeli by Palestinians, the number of Palestinians killed by Israel increases by 9%, and the probability of any Palestinians being killed increases by 20%....retaliation accounts for a larger fraction of Palestinian compared with Israeli aggression: in the levels specification, 10% of all Qassam rockets can be attributed to prior Israeli attacks on Palestinians, but only 4% of killings of Palestinians by Israel can be attributed to prior Palestinian attacks on Israel.... 6% of all days on which Palestinians attack Israel with rockets, and 5% of all days on which they attack by killing Israelis, can be attributed to retaliation; in contrast, this is true for only 2% of all days on which Israel kills Palestinians.What are we to make of this? This is a good paper as far as it goes, and it casts doubt on earlier analyses finding that Israel is retaliating against Palestinians but not vice versa. However, the inherent problem with all of this research (beyond the fact that it's all based on correlations and can only indirectly imply causation), is that it focuses on individual acts of violence. The authors say, citing surveys, thatOver one half of Israelis and three quarters of Palestinians think the other side seeks to take over their land. When accounting for their own acts of aggression, Israelis often claim to be merely responding to Palestinian violence, and Palestinians often see themselves as simply reacting to Israeli violence.But I don't think many Israelis would argue that the IDF only kills individual Palestinians as a reflex reaction to a particular attack. They're claiming that the whole conflict is a defensive one, that the Palestinians are the aggressors, but that doesn't rule out their taking the initiative on a tactical level e.g. in destroying Palestinian military capabilities before they have a chance to attack. And vice versa on the other side.WW2 was a war of aggression by the Axis powers, but that doesn't mean that the Allies only killed Axis soldiers after they'd attacked a certain place. The Allies were on the offensive for the second half of the war, and eventually invaded the Axis's own homelands, but it was still a defensive war, because the Axis were responsible for it.For Israel and for Palestine, the other guys are to blame for the whole thing. Who's right, if anyone, is fundamentally a historical, political and ethical question, that can't be answered by looking at day-to-day variations in who's shooting when.Comment Policy: Please only comment if you've got something to say about this paper, or related research. Comments that are just making the case for or against Israel will get deleted.Haushofer J, Biletzki A, & Kanwisher N (2010). Both sides retaliate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 20921415... Read more »

Haushofer J, Biletzki A, & Kanwisher N. (2010) Both sides retaliate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. PMID: 20921415  

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