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  • October 5, 2010
  • 09:51 AM
  • 555 views

Family and Culture Affect Whether Intelligence Leads to Education

by APS Daily Observations in Daily Observations

Intelligence isn’t the only thing that affects your education: family, culture, and other factors are important, too. A new study published in Psychological Science, compared identical and fraternal twins in ... Read more »

Johnson, W., Deary, I.J., Silventoinen, K., Tynelius, P., & Rasmussen, F. (2010) Family background buys an education in Minnesota but not in Sweden. Psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science / APS. PMID: 20679521  

  • October 4, 2010
  • 11:37 PM
  • 1,039 views

The Ignobel Prizes – A computational study of the Peter Principle

by Croor Singh in Learning to be Terse

This year’s Ignobel Prizes have been announced. Among the winners are an engineering solution to the problem of collecting whale snot, a prize in Medicine for the people who discovered that asthma can be treated by putting the patient on a roller coaster (I’m having a hard time imagining clinical trials for this!), a Peace [...]... Read more »

Pluchino, A., Rapisarda, A., & Garofalo, C. (2010) The Peter principle revisited: A computational study. Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications, 389(3), 467-472. DOI: 10.1016/j.physa.2009.09.045  

  • October 4, 2010
  • 12:35 AM
  • 532 views

ET Impact Probably Didn’t Wipe Out Clovis

by cfeagans in A Hot Cup of Joe



In a paper published in PNAS in 2007[1], Firestone and others suggested that there was evidence that shows that the Younger Dryas period in the Northern Hemisphere was interrupted by a barrage of extraterrestrial comets at about 12.9 ka. This … Continue reading →... Read more »

  • October 1, 2010
  • 12:26 PM
  • 655 views

Sex, Evolution, and the Case of the Missing Polygamists

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries in Exile

The latest stop in the #PDEx tour is being hosted at Psychology Today by Sex at Dawn:There is no greater mystery in human evolution than the origins of our sexuality. Following the trail of clues available researchers have independently concluded that humans evolved through systems of monogamy, polygyny, as well as polyamory. However only one can be the culprit and, like a detective interrogating multiple suspects, the solution ultimately depends on which account you're willing to believe. Last year Owen Lovejoy made the case for monogamy based on the fossil remains of the early human ancestor Ardipithecus ramidus. Meanwhile, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá have argued that polyamory (or, more precisely, a multimale-multifemale mating system) is the most likely scenario from an analysis that emphasized anthropology, behavioral biology, and physiology. To further complicate matters the third suspect in this mystery, polygyny, has been the conclusion from scientists conducting DNA analyses. These conflicting accounts therefore require careful detective work in order to determine which story is the most convincing.Read the rest of the post here and stay tuned for the next entry in The Primate Diaries in Exile tour.Hammer, M., Mendez, F., Cox, M., Woerner, A., & Wall, J. (2008). Sex-Biased Evolutionary Forces Shape Genomic Patterns of Human Diversity PLoS Genetics, 4 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1000202... Read more »

  • October 1, 2010
  • 05:17 AM
  • 638 views

Genes for ADHD, eh?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

The first direct evidence of a genetic link to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder has been found, a study says.Wow! That's the headline. What's the real story?The research was published in The Lancet, and it's brought to you by Wilson et al from Cardiff University: Rare chromosomal deletions and duplications in attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.The authors looked at copy-number variations (CNVs) in 410 children with ADHD, compared to 1156 healthy controls. A CNV is simply a catch-all term for when a large chunk of DNA is either missing ("deletions") or repeated ("duplications"), compared to normal human DNA. CNVs are extremely common - we all have a handful - and recently there's been loads of interest in them as possible causes for psychiatric disorders.What happened? Out of everyone with high quality data available, 15.6% of the ADHD kids had at least one large, rare CNV, compared to 7.5% of the controls. CNVs were especially common in children with ADHD who also suffered mental retardation (defined as having an IQ less than 70) - 36% of this group carried at least one CNV. However, the rate was still elevated in those with normal IQs (11%).A CNV could occur anywhere in the genome, and obviously what it does depends on where it is - which genes are deleted, or duplicated. Some CNVs don't cause any problems, presumably because they don't disrupt any important stuff.The ADHD variants were very likely to affect genes which had been previously linked to either autism, or schizophrenia. In fact, no less than 6 of the ADHD kids carried the same 16p13.11 duplication, which has been found in schizophrenic patients too.So...what does this mean? Well, the news has been full of talking heads only too willing to tell us. Pop-psychologist Oliver James was on top form - by his standards - making a comment which was reasonably sensible, and only involved one error:Only 57 out of the 366 children with ADHD had the genetic variant supposed to be a cause of the illness. That would suggest that other factors are the main cause in the vast majority of cases. Genes hardly explain at all why some kids have ADHD and not others.Well, there was no single genetic variant, there were lots. Plus, unusual CNVs were also carried by 7% of controls, so the "extra" mutations presumably only account for 7-8%. James also accused The Lancet of "massive spin" in describing the findings. While you can see his point, given that James's own output nowadays consists mostly of a Guardian column in which he routinely over/misinterprets papers, this is a bit rich.The authors say thatthe findings allow us to refute the hypothesis that ADHD is purely a social construct, which has important clinical and social implications for affected children and their families.But they've actually proven that "ADHD" is a social construct. Yes, they've found that certain genetic variants are correlated with certain symptoms. Now we know that, say, 16p13.11-duplication-syndrome is a disease, and that its symptoms include (but aren't limited to) attention deficit and hyperactivity. But that doesn't tell us anything about all the other kids who are currently diagnosed with "ADHD", the ones who don't have that mutation."ADHD" is evidently an umbrella term for many different diseases, of which 16p13.11-duplication-syndrome is one. One day, when we know the causes of all cases of attention deficit and hyperactivity symptoms, the term "ADHD" will become extinct. There'll just be "X-duplication-syndrome", "Y-deletion-syndrome" and (because it's not all about genes) "Z-exposure-syndrome".When I say that "ADHD" is a social construct, I don't mean that people with ADHD aren't ill. "Cancer" is also a social construct, a catch-all term for hundreds of diseases. The diseases are all too real, but the concept "cancer" is not necessarily a helpful one. It leads people to talk about Finding The Cure for Cancer, for example, which will never happen. A lot of cancers are already curable. One day, they might all be curable. But they'll be different cures.So the fact that some cases of "ADHD" are caused by large rare genetic mutations, doesn't prove that the other cases are genetic. They might or might not be - for one thing, this study only looked at large mutations, affecting at least 500,000 bases. Given that even a deletion or insertion of just one base in the wrong place could completely screw up a gene, these could be just the tip of the iceberg.But the other problem with claiming that this study shows "a genetic basis for ADHD" is that the variants overlapped with the ones that have recently been linked to autism, and schizophrenia. In other words, these genes don't so much cause ADHD, as protect against all kinds of problems, if you have the right variants.If you don't, you might get ADHD, but you might get something else, or nothing, depending on... we don't know. Other genes and the environment, presumably. But "7% of cases of ADHD associated with mutations that also cause other stuff" wouldn't be a very good headline...N. M. Williams et al (2010). Rare chromosomal deletions and duplications in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a genome-wide analysis The Lancet... Read more »

N. M. Williams et al. (2010) Rare chromosomal deletions and duplications in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: a genome-wide analysis. The Lancet. info:/

  • September 30, 2010
  • 11:29 AM
  • 509 views

Around the web: sexuality

by Kate Clancy in Context & Variation

The "Around the Web" series highlights informative websites, and also targeted blog posts and news articles, relevant to the courses I teach. This semester I teach Anth 143: Biology of Human Behavior, an introductory-level course that covers the basics of evolution, behavioral biology, and the interaction of biology and culture. My hope is that these posts are useful not only for my current students, but other reasons hoping to gain background or insight into these topics.This week I have been trying to finish up two large writing projects: a new IRB and a manuscript draft. So posting has been light. I also admit to having a little trouble figuring out whether to foreground this particular Around the Web post with some of my own thoughts about this topic. I've decided to risk it.I have two main thoughts I want to offer, one on each half of the lecture I gave Tuesday; these comments will ground the links I'm sharing.Honest signaling and mate preferencesDue to time constraints, I didn't feel I could go into much detail about my unease about this particular field of research. Much of the work done on human mate preferences is quite good, especially the work that either links the preferences to fecundity/fertility (i.e., Jasienska et al 2004), or to actual reproductive success (i.e., Apicella et al 2007). What worries me when I teach this material in a large, introductory setting is that, despite any caveats I may offer about the research, students often walk away from lecture thinking that all women like strong, masculine men who are good hunters, and all men like young, feminine women with big birthing hips. This is simply not true. You can look at the assortment of who marries who and find a lot more variation, and that's because there is so much variation in mating strategy. Perhaps if someone gives you a range of faces and asks you which you prefer you choose one in line with honest signals for immune health or fertility. But do you have sex with this person or enter into a long-term relationship with this person? Not necessarily, because honest signals of health are only ONE of many factors you consider when choosing a mate. Cultural conditioning, humor, kindness, proximity, religion, political leanings... these are all issues that confound choice purely for good genes. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.In fact, an interesting article just came out that shows how some traits in preferred versus actual mates are similar, and how some are different. Definitely worth a read!Dr. Petra Boynton, sexpert, therapist, blogger, and all-around cool person, has a wonderful blog relevant to this week's topic. I'll send you over with one of my favorite posts, but check out the whole site: ten tips for successful dating.I also have to pass on an article sent to me by a student (hooray, I love when students send me stuff!). I'm very glad Davis Shannon sent me this article about body versus face preferences in men looking for one night stands. Of course, the style of the story is pretty offensive. I was also pretty appalled at the quote from the lead author. But in addition to exposing you all to a new study on this topic, it exposes you to an example of very bad science reporting. I think this is very useful to students learning to filter good information from bad.Finally, in an example of GOOD science journalism, I give you several selections from Not Exactly Rocket Science: one on male bowerbirds influencing mate choice in nestmaking, and one that is only barely related to this week's topic, on masturbating squirrels. You heard me right. Go read it, it's great.SexualityI had a rather devastating interaction with a student after class this week. This student approached me and asked me why I thought there was such a thing as homophobia. The student explained that a group of male students behind him/her were making offensive jokes during my portion of the lecture on homosexuality and were dismissive of the idea that there is a spectrum of human sexual preference that is quite normal and reflected in behaviors we see in the animal kingdom. Both the student, and I, were very upset by this, and I didn't have a particularly good answer.Oppressive behaviors of one group of people towards another are not new. But I find it especially disappointing when I hear of my own students behaving in this way, especially when I have invested so much in creating lectures with active learning components that give them space to think critically. Like I said, I have no good answers, except to have zero tolerance for such behavior if I am ever in earshot. Perhaps if more people understood that, for some people in our society, it is a huge personal risk to simply express who you love, and those of us who have a more socially-condoned sexual preference can never quite understand the toll this can take on a human being.Of course, it may be an additional condolence to find out that those individuals who are most homophobic are most likely to have hidden gay urges. No, I didn't make that up. It's SCIENCE!And for every story of teachers suspended for assigning articles on gay animals or assistant attorney generals using internet bullying tactics on gay students, there are stories of LGBT-inclusive immigration legislation or UN efforts to end laws that discriminate against homosexuals.ReferencesApicella, C., Feinberg, D., & Marlowe, F. (2007). Voice pitch predicts reproductive success in male hunter-gatherers Biology Letters, 3 (6), 682-684 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2007.0410Jasienska, G., Ziomkiewicz, A., Ellison, P., Lipson, S., & Thune, I. (2004). Large breasts and narrow waists indicate high reproductive potential in women Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 271 (1545), 1213-1217 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2004.2712... Read more »

Jasienska, G., Ziomkiewicz, A., Ellison, P., Lipson, S., & Thune, I. (2004) Large breasts and narrow waists indicate high reproductive potential in women. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 271(1545), 1213-1217. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2004.2712  

  • September 28, 2010
  • 06:01 AM
  • 1,165 views

Independent Neanderthal Innovation - Some Additional Considerations

by Julien Riel-Salvatore in A Very Remote Period Indeed

One of my upcoming papers (Riel-Salvatore 2010) was written-up in a series of mainstream news outlets, including the New York Times, the BBC, Discovery News, AOLNews, MSNBC and sundry others. The original, reproduced in Science Daily, was published under the headline "Neanderthals More Advanced Than Previously Thought: They Innovated, Adapted Like Modern Humans, Research Shows." In the original ... Read more »

Churchill SE, & Smith FH. (2000) Makers of the early Aurignacian of Europe. American journal of physical anthropology, 61-115. PMID: 11123838  

Green, R., Krause, J., Briggs, A., Maricic, T., Stenzel, U., Kircher, M., Patterson, N., Li, H., Zhai, W., Fritz, M.... (2010) A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome. Science, 328(5979), 710-722. DOI: 10.1126/science.1188021  

Higham, T., Brock, F., Peresani, M., Broglio, A., Wood, R., & Douka, K. (2009) Problems with radiocarbon dating the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition in Italy. Quaternary Science Reviews, 28(13-14), 1257-1267. DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2008.12.018  

Trinkaus, E. (2003) An early modern human from the Pestera cu Oase, Romania. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(20), 11231-11236. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2035108100  

Zilhão, J. (2006) Neandertals and moderns mixed, and it matters. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 15(5), 183-195. DOI: 10.1002/evan.20110  

  • September 27, 2010
  • 11:30 AM
  • 1,497 views

Children and Their Pets

by Jason Goldman in The Thoughtful Animal

Your humble narrator finds himself sick with a cold, so here's a post from the archives.



There is considerable research on how children interact with other children and with adults, and how child development can be influenced by those interactions. But research on children's interactions with non-human animals seem to be limited. Given how ubiquitous pets are in the homes of children (at least, in WEIRD cultures), it is somewhat surprising that there hasn't been more work on the way pet ownership might affect child development.

According to the US Humane Society:

There are approximately 77.5 million owned dogs in the United States
Thirty-nine percent of U.S. households own at least one dog
Most owners (67 percent) own one dog
Twenty-four percent of owners own two dogs
Nine percent of owners own three or more dogs
On average, dog owners spent $225 on veterinary visits (vaccine, well visits) annually

There are approximately 93.6 million owned cats in the United States
Thirty-three percent of U.S. households (or 38.2 million) own at least one cat
Fifty-six percent of owners own more than one cat
On average, owners have two cats (2.45)
Cat owners spent an average of $203 on routine veterinary visits


Developmental scientist Gail F. Melson noted this paucity in research in a 2003 review paper in The American Behavioral Scientist. Melson points out that most parents report that they acquired their family pets "for the children," and given the ubiquity of child-pet bonding and interaction, she suggests that it is an important area for child development research to investigate. She goes through several topic areas in child development and examines what has been learned, or could be learned, by investigating human-animal bonding.
Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »

  • September 27, 2010
  • 07:33 AM
  • 783 views

can language affect blood flow?

by Chris in The Lousy Linguist

Do languages affect blood flow in the brain differently? Apparently, yes! In a recent fMRI study, researchers showed that Cantonese verbs and nouns are processed in (slightly) different parts of the brain than English nouns and verbs in bilinguals. The researchers used a lexical decision task to contrast the processing of English and Cantonese verbs and nouns in the brains of bilingual speakers.Chinese nouns and verbs showed a largely overlapping pattern of cortical activity. In contrast, English verbs activated more brain regions compared to English nouns. Specifically, the processing of English verbs evoked stronger activities of left putamen, left fusiform gyrus, cerebellum, right cuneus, right middle occipital areas, and supplementary motor area. The cognition of English nouns did not evoke stronger activities in any cortical regions.This is truly language affecting thought, no? The point of general interest to linguist is that bilingual speakers seem to process words in their two languages differently. Cantonese words are processed using diffuse brain regions and English words are processed using localized regions (this is a simplified explanation of course).Now, I have to admit that this is not my specialty so I am not familiar with the background literature. However, as interesting as this is, I must say I have some serious questions about their methodology and underlying assumptions. IFirst, they use orthography as their base for determining the "similarity" and "complexity" of languages. That is, if two languages use an alphabet, they are considered similar. While they give some passing references to other linguist measures, ultimately it is orthography that they use to compare "complexity" of stimuli (their word, not mine). So, they compared the mean number of strokes in a Chinese character with the number of letters in an English word to determine which was "more complex" than the other. I found this weird.Then they made an assumption that Cantonese words are more ambiguous with respect to parts of speech. I do not klnow if this is true, but it certainly is true that English has plenty of POS ambiguity (just ask Eric Brill), so it's not obvious to me that this is a fair assumption. Furthermore, they provider no evidence for this. Unfortunately, they do not publish their actual sets of stimuli, so it's not possible (this morning while googling around) to look at which words they actually use, but I suspect there's plenty of ambiguity to be found in the English words.Based on earlier work, they conjecture that morphological simplicity leads the brain to distribute where words are processed in the brain:...a recent fMRI study examining monolingual Chinese adults in our own laboratory indicated that Chinese nouns and verbs activate a wide range of overlapping brain areas (without a significantly different network) than those reported in the English studies cited above (Li et al., 2004). Relatively fewer distinctive  grammatical features of nouns and verbs at the lexical level are likely to be responsible for this finding, but the question may be addressed more directly by employing bilingual individuals.And the corollary should be true: the fact that English has tense and number markings means English verbs and nouns are processed ion more isolated parts of the brain. This is my wording of their conjecture. I may be oversimplifying just a bit, but I'm trying to wrap my head around the underlying claim. It's not clear to me why this would be true.Next (and this may be a bit nit-picky), they judged the level of bilingual proficiency using a self-assessment questionnaire. Call me a cynic, but I just don't trust people's perceptions of their own language skills. Then, the researches used frequency data from really dated sources including Francis and Kuceras 1982. I love F&K as much as the next guy, but in the age of the BNC, Davies's freely available 400 million word COCA, and the redonkulous Web 1T corpus of 1 trillion words (yes, 1 Trillion!), I see no reason to use resources so old.Their basic conclusions are a tad confusing too. They never clearly explained the connection between bilingualism and morphological complexity, imho. The interplay is complicated and requires thorough discussion, which they simply did not provide. When I used to teach writing to college freshmen, I always told them that their job when writing a paper was to make my job as a reader easy. Explain things clearly so I don't have to work too hard to figure out what you mean. These authors failed to make my job easy. I had to figure things out too much for myself.Ultimately, they found something interesting, I'm just not sure what it means and without more thorough linguistic vetting of their underlying assumptions, their results remain a head scratcher.Chan, A., Luke, K.K., Li, G., Li, P., Weekes, B., Yip, V., & Tan, L.H. (2008). Neural correlates of nouns and verbs in early bilinguals. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1145, 30–40. (pdf)Chan, A., Luke, K., Li, P., Yip, V., Li, G., Weekes, B., & Tan, L. (2008). Neural Correlates of Nouns and Verbs in Early Bilinguals Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1145 (1), 30-40 DOI: 10.1196/annals.1416.000... Read more »

Chan, A., Luke, K., Li, P., Yip, V., Li, G., Weekes, B., & Tan, L. (2008) Neural Correlates of Nouns and Verbs in Early Bilinguals. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1145(1), 30-40. DOI: 10.1196/annals.1416.000  

  • September 25, 2010
  • 07:40 PM
  • 507 views

Another Possible Chacoan Effigy Vessel

by teofilo in Gambler's House

Effigy vessels are very rare in the prehistoric Southwest, and human effigy vessels even more so.  Most known examples, especially in the Anasazi area, are of animals, and by far the most common of these are the so-called “duck pots,” a distinctive type of vessel shape that is often considered to be a representation of [...]... Read more »

  • September 24, 2010
  • 08:22 AM
  • 3,928 views

Language, Thought, and Space (V): Comparing Different Species

by Michael in A Replicated Typo 2.0

As I’ve talked about in my last posts (see I, II, III, and IV) different cultures employ different coordinate systems or Frames of References (FoR) when talking about space.  FoRs
“serve to specify the directional relationships between objects in space, in reference to a shared referential anchor” (Haun et al. 2006: 17568)
As shown in my last post . . . → Read More: Language, Thought, and Space (V): Comparing Different Species... Read more »

Haun DB, Rapold CJ, Call J, Janzen G, & Levinson SC. (2006) Cognitive cladistics and cultural override in Hominid spatial cognition. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 103(46), 17568-73. PMID: 17079489  

  • September 23, 2010
  • 01:56 PM
  • 900 views

Reflections on the WEIRD Evolution of Human Psychology

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

The latest stop in the #PDEx tour is being hosted by PLoS Blogs:What happens if researchers inadvertently fall prey to confirmation bias at a societal level?Addressing this question Canadian psychologists Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan at the University of British Columbia (where I am also located) recently published a paper in the journal Behavioral Brain Sciences. Their research documents how most of the studies that psychologists claim show human universals are really just extrapolations from a single social group, the cultural equivalent of the psychopaths in my example. As The New York Times wrote in their review:According to the study, 68 percent of research subjects in a sample of hundreds of studies in leading psychology journals came from the United States, and 96 percent from Western industrialized nations. Of the American subjects, 67 percent were undergraduates studying psychology — making a randomly selected American undergraduate 4,000 times likelier to be a subject than a random non-Westerner.The subpopulation that Henrich and colleagues found to be overrepresented are entirely WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) societies. While it’s bad enough that WEIRD American undergraduates are serving as our model for human behavior, what their paper goes on to document should be of concern to all behavioral and cognitive researchers (particularly those whose work focuses on human evolutionary explanations). Henrich, J., Heine, S., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33 (2-3), 61-83 DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X0999152XRead the rest of the post here and stay tuned for the next entry in The Primate Diaries in Exile tour.... Read more »

Henrich, J., Heine, S., & Norenzayan, A. (2010) The weirdest people in the world?. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2-3), 61-83. DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X0999152X  

  • September 23, 2010
  • 01:56 PM
  • 718 views

Reflections on the WEIRD Evolution of Human Psychology

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries in Exile

The latest stop in the #PDEx tour is being hosted by PLoS Blogs:What happens if researchers inadvertently fall prey to confirmation bias at a societal level?Addressing this question Canadian psychologists Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine and Ara Norenzayan at the University of British Columbia (where I am also located) recently published a paper in the journal Behavioral Brain Sciences. Their research documents how most of the studies that psychologists claim show human universals are really just extrapolations from a single social group, the cultural equivalent of the psychopaths in my example. As The New York Times wrote in their review:According to the study, 68 percent of research subjects in a sample of hundreds of studies in leading psychology journals came from the United States, and 96 percent from Western industrialized nations. Of the American subjects, 67 percent were undergraduates studying psychology — making a randomly selected American undergraduate 4,000 times likelier to be a subject than a random non-Westerner.The subpopulation that Henrich and colleagues found to be overrepresented are entirely WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) societies. While it’s bad enough that WEIRD American undergraduates are serving as our model for human behavior, what their paper goes on to document should be of concern to all behavioral and cognitive researchers (particularly those whose work focuses on human evolutionary explanations). Henrich, J., Heine, S., & Norenzayan, A. (2010). The weirdest people in the world? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33 (2-3), 61-83 DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X0999152XRead the rest of the post here and stay tuned for the next entry in The Primate Diaries in Exile tour.... Read more »

Henrich, J., Heine, S., & Norenzayan, A. (2010) The weirdest people in the world?. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33(2-3), 61-83. DOI: 10.1017/S0140525X0999152X  

  • September 22, 2010
  • 07:33 AM
  • 777 views

Through the Language Glass (Part 2)

by Chris in The Lousy Linguist

This is part 2 of my review of Guy Deutscher's new book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. This covers The Language Lens (129-249). Part 1 is here. This review will cover the scientific evidence that Deutscher reviews suggesting that language affects thought, and will end with a shocking proposal.To sum up my review of part one: meh. Okay, we've established that culture can influence language. This is a lot less controversial than Deutscher makes it seem and he spent a large amount of text defending that position. Okay, whatever, time to move on. In part 2 he again begins with historical review explaining why he thinks Whorf was a con man, but also why he thinks the core insights of early linguist relativity deserve closer, honest investigation. He complains that based his Hopi claims on just one lonely informant (p142). We'll see later that Deutscher himself falls for the same trap. He replaces Whorf with the Boas-Jakobson principle that languages differ in what they must convey, not what they may convey” (151). I respect Deutscher for making this a central theme in his book because I think he's right. To parrot his own recitation of Humbolt: any thought can be expressed in any language. It is what our native language forces us to foreground that makes linguistic relativity an interesting topic.Deutscher spends most of the second part of the book reviewing three areas of language that have provided evidence that language affects thought: spatial coordinates, grammatical gender, and color terms (familiar from part 1). The general point I want to make about his evidence is that it is far weaker than he maintains. But is is interesting. A brief set of reactions:Spatial Coordinates -- everything is embodiedMost of his argumentation about the affect of spacial coordinate terms on thought stems from Levinson's evidence from speakers of the Australian language Guugu Yimithirr which is famous for giving us the word “kangaroo.” Speakers of GY do not generally use ego-centric terms like "right" and "left" but rather use cardinal direction terms like "east" and "west." As a result, Deutscher claims, they remember information about situations differently than speakers of English. They have, so the argument goes, a perfect pitch for direction and they are always attuned to where north is. Deutscher's claim is that only the linguistic repetition of such terms can possibly account for this. Hence, their language affects what they pay attention to and what they remember, hence language affects thought.I've never found this line of research all that convincing regarding linguistic relativity and Deutscher does not really add much to the debate. Like Deutscher's complaint above regarding Whorf's one lonely Hopi speaker, it turns out there are not many native speakers of Guugu Yimithirr left and haven't been for a while. These experiments on directional language involve very few speakers, and most of them have both cardinal direction and ego-centric direction in their dialect. If we're going to complain about Whorf's restricted subject pool, we must complain about Levinson's too.But more to the point, I believe all direction terms are ultimately ego-centric insofar as they are embodied. The terms "north" and "south" are not magically universal. They are based on a human being's body and orientation (i.e., ego-centric). Don't believe me, ask yourself, what does "north" mean in space? What does "north" mean to an amoeba? Mostly what Deutscher does in his discussions of direction terms is reiterate the point he belabored in Part 1: culture affects language. Yeah, we got that already.The rise of similarity judgmentsThat is until he discusses the table experiments. These experiments show subjects tables with objects on them and ask them to arrange them in accordance with a target. Basically, they ask for similarity judgement. How can you make this table arrangement similar to the previous table. This methodological paradigm has become prominent in psycholinguistics and cognitive linguistics, especially studies testing linguistic relativity. In fact, all of the studies Deutscher discusses are similarity judgment studies of one sort or another. The point is that I show you one target thing, then two test things and ask, which test is MORE SIMILAR to the target than the other? Ultimately Deutscher himself problematizes spatial coordinate terms so much, they fall flat and remain unconvincing as a base of evidence for linguistic relativity.Grammatical GenderMost languages have terms for classifying things. Some languages have more elaborate classifier systems than others. In German, the term for the fork is die Gabel, marked by feminine die. Ultimately, most languages with elaborate classifiers have systems that can be described as incoherent in so far as most things given one classification have no inherent properties that signify that classification (there is nothing inherently feminine about a fork). However, Deutscher provides evidence that speakers of languages with grammatical gender will evoke properties of things in keeping with their gender classifier, suggesting that the classifier is causing them to imagine a fork would speak with a female voice, for example. But these experiments mainly test vague associations of imagination, not linguistic causality, as Deutscher admits.Color TermsIt is not until chapter 9 Russian Blues that Deutscher really delivers the goods. It is this chapter which provides the most interesting evidence for the effect of language on thought. Pity it is only about 15 pages of the book. The whole book should have been more like this. The facts he discusses involve the basic point that the brain sees what it wants to see. It turns out our perception of color has little to do with any objective feature of the thing we're looking at (he explains this fact brilliantly in the Appendix which I highly recommend, and frankly, should have been the first chapter, not relegated to the attic of an appendix). The point is that our brains change the input. As our eyes take in objective photons, our brain photoshops the input (a great analogy from Deutscher which really brings the point home).The experimental results Deutscher discusses involve more similarity judgements, albeit with a twist. Instead of relying solely on the similarity judgments, researchers studied the more objective reaction time. They showed people different color patches and asked them to judge the sameness. Despite the various and clever variations on this theme, they all relied on subjective judgements of similarity. And this is where they fail to extricate themselves from the problem of strategizing.Unfortunately they all share the critical flaw that making a similarity judgment is a logical reason act and may be mitigated by strategizing. Deutscher discusses this fact, but doesn't realize that none of the fixes work. A similarity judgment is always a logical process susceptible to the effects of strategizing. This will be a major issue in my Shocking Proposal at the end. You see, regardless of how clever the test, as long as you are basically asking a subject to make a similarity judgment, you are asking them to reason about the task. So your results will be tinged by the strategizing of human subjects as they logically try to game the system. This is well known in psycholinguistics and difficult to avoid. So how do you objectively test what colors a person considers blue?A Shocking ProposalThe paradigm already exists. How can you objectively prove that English speakers really do consider aspirated /kh/ and unaspirated /k/ both the same phoneme? You condition them to fear aspirated /kh/ by shocking them every time they hear it (measuring their galvanic skin response). Once they are conditioned, you then play them unaspirated /k/ (with no shock) and check to see if you get the same GSR spike (in anticipation).Okay, now apply this to color terms. Condition subjects to fear center of the category blue, then show them gradations. What causes the GSR spike? That's what they consider blue. now do that with speakers of 40 different languages.If the hippies on the human subjects review board let you do it, there's your dissertation.... Read more »

Guy deutscher. (2010) Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. Metropolitan Books. info:/

  • September 22, 2010
  • 07:11 AM
  • 594 views

Sociopathic Dementia

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Frontotemporal dementia (FTD) is a tragic, but scientifically fascinating, disease.FTD only accounts for a small fraction of dementias in total (estimates range from 2% to 10%), but it typically strikes people aged in their 50s or 60s, i.e. much earlier than the average for Alzheimer's disease, the most common cause of dementia. As a result, FTD accounts for a large proportion of early-onset cases.The symptoms are different to those of Alzheimer's, at least in the early stages. Memory problems and confusion are not prominent. Nor are hallucinations and delusions, which are seen in 20% of Alzheimer's, but only 2% of FTD.Instead, patients often present with language problems - either forgetting what words mean, starting with uncommon words and progressing to easy ones ("semantic dementia"), or losing the ability to articulate speech ("nonfluent aphasia").But the most disturbing effects are behavioural and personality changes. These are not seen in all cases, but in some people (the "behavioural variant"), they are the main symptom. Patients may begin to act entirely out of character, including criminal acts.Aggressive behaviour is also sometimes seen in Alzheimer's, but it's usually associated with confusion or hallucinations: people "don't know what they're doing". In FTD, patients can commit serious crimes even though their cognitive function is pretty much intact: they do know what they're doing.Mario F. Mendez discusses this in a new paper, The Unique Predisposition to Criminal Violations in Frontotemporal Dementia, and asks whether people who commit crimes while suffering from FTD should be considered legally responsible for their apparantly "sociopathic" actions. He presents 4 case histories.Patient 1: A left-handed male in his sixties began stalking and attempting to molest children for the first time in his life. He followed children home from school and tried to touch them... On another occasion, he stood at the foot of a pool and stared at the children for a prolonged time.When he exposed himself to his neighbor’s children, he was arrested. The patient did not deny his actions, could describe them in detail, and endorsed them as wrong and harmful. Despite this, he stated that he did not feel that he was causing harm at the time of his acts.The patient’s personality had deteriorated over the prior four years, with decreased concern for others, disinhibition, and compulsive hoarding. He had caused disturbances at work, such as intruding into others’ conversations and walking into others’ offices... constantly pilfering... hiding money.... In addition, he ate indiscriminately, even going through waste containers and eating garbage. He stopped showering and wore the same clothes every day.Neuropsychological testing and brain scans suggested early FTD, and his mother had reportedly suffered unspecified dementia; FTD is often genetic. He was not prosecuted. This case has a lot in common with the man who became a pedophile after surgery for a brain tumour: not just the pedophilia, but other symptoms like compulsive hoarding, over-eating, etc.Patient 4: A right-handed man in his early fifties had a hit-and-run accident and left the scene without concern. He had struck a van with passengers but kept driving. The police stopped him a short distance away from the scene, and he did not deny his action.Leaving the scene of an accident was not characteristic of his premorbid personality, yet he had had several recent traffic violations... He could recall and describe the accident, knew that it was wrong to leave the scene, but did not feel the need to stop at the time.Over the prior two years, the patient’s pervasive behavior had significantly changed. He had become disengaged and emotionally detached; for example, he did not react to the death of his mother...He was no longer embarrassed over passing gas or belching in public or appearing partially clothed in front of others. The patient had a tendency toward hyperorality, especially for peanuts, and had a decline in personal hygiene. Other aspects of the history included dysarthria and a recent tendency to choke on liquids.This patient showed clear signs of motor neuron disease, which occurs in up to 15% of FTD cases. He died, as a result of the progression of the motor neuron disease, one year later, after developing other symptoms of FTD. His death meant he could not be tried for the hit-and-run.Mendez notes that legally, these patients would probably not qualify for the "insanity defence". Under the British M'Naghten Rules, also adopted by the USA, the defendant is only eligible if they werelabouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.These patients do not fit that bill.Finally, why does FTD cause sociopathic behaviour? Mendez says that it is because it involves degeneration of the vmPFC, linking FTD patients to the classic case of Phineas Gage whose vmPFC was destroyed by a flying iron rod. But Gage, while he did show personality changes, actually managed to function fairly well in society.So temporal lobe degeneration probably also contributes to the FTD behavioural syndrome, especially since many of the symptoms (like compulsive eating) are seen in monkeys with temporal lobe lesions.Mendez MF (2010). The unique predisposition to criminal violations in frontotemporal dementia. The journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 38 (3), 318-23 PMID: 20852216... Read more »

Mendez MF. (2010) The unique predisposition to criminal violations in frontotemporal dementia. The journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 38(3), 318-23. PMID: 20852216  

  • September 22, 2010
  • 01:01 AM
  • 1,235 views

On local greens and homegardens and local greens

by Jeremy in Agricultural Biodiversity Weblog

Great too see two papers by our friends at Bioversity come out in rapid sequence recently relating to two project with which I was marginally connected in their early stages back in the 90s. One is on African leafy vegetables (ALV), a common subject here. And the other on homegardens. The ALV paper tries to [...]... Read more »

  • September 21, 2010
  • 05:17 PM
  • 876 views

Casas Grandes Macaw Breeding

by teofilo in Gambler's House

One of the many similarities between Chaco and Casas Grandes in Chihuahua, in addition to the similar types of effigy vessels, is the presence of significant numbers of scarlet macaw skeletons at both sites.  As with most of these parallels, the evidence at Casas Grandes is more impressive in scale, with hundreds of macaws found [...]... Read more »

Somerville, A., Nelson, B., & Knudson, K. (2010) Isotopic investigation of pre-Hispanic macaw breeding in Northwest Mexico. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 29(1), 125-135. DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2009.09.003  

  • September 20, 2010
  • 08:01 PM
  • 1,579 views

The Mother Theresa Stamp and the Cultural Legacy of Postage

by Krystal D'Costa in Anthropology in Practice



Unveiling of the Mother Theresa postage stamp Sept. 5th, 2010 at the National Shrine. Postmaster General Jack Potter was in attendance (immediately to the left of the stamp).

Over the recent Labor Day weekend, S and I visited Washington D.C. where purely by chance we stumbled on a stamp unveiling. We were touring the National Shrine—the mosaics are breathtaking—when we realized the ceremony occurring at the front had little to do with normal services.  The United States Post Office had a covered display at the front, so we wound our way up the side aisle and came across a placard announcing that a stamp for Mother Theresa was being issued. (This actually explained the large number of nuns present wearing her traditional white and blue sari.) So we found a spot along the wall and settled into to watch.


First US Postage Stamp:
Benjamin Franklin, 5¢
Credit: National Postage Museum
While the primary purpose of stamps has been to pre-pay for the transportation and delivery of mail, postage icons have marked histories around the world. The world's first postage stamp was the Penny Black invented by Sir Rowland Hill, founder of the Penny Post. It was issued in 1840 by the United Kingdom, and depicted a young Queen Victoria. Seven years later, in an effort to modernize the American postal system, the Benjamin Franklin, 5-cent stamp was issued. Franklin, the first American postmaster, was selected for the image over the recently deceased Andrew Jackson—in part, because he would be recognized as a unifying figure between the conflicted states.
Kristi Evans (1992) has a really nice study that demonstrates using this type of cultural record with regard to Poland. She discusses unofficial stamps that were created by the outlawed Solidarity union. The images used for these stamps present a particular view of history and provide a snapshot of Poland in the 1980s.
Solidarity positioned itself as representing the desire of the Polish nation (the people) to oppose the state (recognized as "Eastern, alien, despotic—as in a word, Russian") (Evans 1992: 751). The stamps often included imagery suggesting sacrifice on the part of the nation in enduring the state. They highlighted events that could take on huge symbolic import for the nation and become integral to identity—a shared national memory remembered through the printing and use of stamps.
For example, in Poland in 1940 Soviet secret police murdered Polish nationals in the Katyn Forest. The order was based on a proposal to execute the Polish Officer Corps, and some 22,000 people were killed. This event came to be known as the Katyn massacre. Evans describes some of the Katyn stamps in her research (1992: 754):A. The word "Katyn" alone, constructed from crosses. B. "Katyn," with a forest and the emblem of the Soviet Union. C. "Matka Boska Katynska" (Madonna of Katyn) with crosses in a clearing. A box in the upper lefthand corner of the stamp frames the picture of a weeping mother and child. D. "Katyn," with a stylized drawing of a person standing like a cross and weeping. E. "Katyn," with a gun pointed at the head of a blindfolded man. F. "Katyn," with white candles (against a black background flickering in a triangular formation. G. "Katyn 1940," with a prominent red star, a skill wearing a Polish military cap, and the exclamation "[We remember!!!]" written in red and stylized graffiti.The images evoke a sense of "betrayal and sacrifice," and in connection with Polish history create a very specific point of identity:By grounding Poland's defining events in a particular space, representations by place creates a geographically situated consciousness of history and "Poland." Poland is defined in opposition to Russia, to the Soviets, and to the Communists, and all three are collapsed into the Katyn image (Evans 1992: 756).Stamps helped transmit these ideas via circulation, and ensured their longevity as collectors preserved them for posterity. In owning stamps, people claimed a certain connection to the nation and to a shared history. This is a particularly salient point given that the majority of Solidarity stamps were unofficial and not used to circulate mail:In collecting underground stamps, individuals can appropriate for themselves the subversive images of the imagined community and locate themselves within a community partially defined by the circulation of these images (Evans 1992: 750). This sense of sharedness, this connection, can help us understand the significance of certain events as experienced by nations and the ways in which they choose to represent themselves.
This is evident in our own postal stamp history. Unfortunately, I cannot copy US stamp images here because they are protected under copyright law, but a survey of the stamps displayed demonstrate that commemorative stamps through the ages highlight advances in transportation, communication, and industry, as well as achievements in the arts and sciences, and much more. The American Art collection provides a clear example of marking these sorts of achievements. 
The Mother Theresa stamp celebrates this amazing woman, but it also claims a portion of her legacy as our own. In commemorating her in this way, we recognize and support the work she has done, and align ourselves with her ideas:Stamps, which are the basis for the circulation of correspondence, facilitate communication while simultaneously expressing certain ideas and emotions through their own imagery (Evans 1992: 750).Stamps may face an uncertain future as we move increasingly toward digital means of communication. I don't know that snail mail will even be entirely eradicated, but there may be less of a need for decorative postage as time goes by. It will be interesting to see whether stamps take on purely a symbolic role, or if they are destined to be removed as cultural currency entirely.

... Read more »

  • September 20, 2010
  • 02:11 PM
  • 825 views

Ladybusiness anthropology: Physical activity and prevention of reproductive cancers

by Kate Clancy in Context & Variation

I use PubMed to make RSS feeds out of searches on topics relevant to my research, because I cannot be trusted to regularly look this up on my own (I also have feeds from many of the main journals in my field, natch). One of my searches, “inflammation endometrium,” turned up an interesting article today from the European Journal of Cancer. Friedenreich et al review the literature on physical activity and cancer prevention and find a consistent relationship between physical activity and reduced risk of several cancers. Obviously, I want to focus on breast, endometrial and ovarian cancers, since those are the stuff of ladybusiness.Breast cancerThe authors found seventy three separate studies on breast cancer (they say separate, I assume, to differentiate multiple publications on the same data set). Three quarters of the studies found physical activity to have a positive effect on breast cancer risk; within those, the risk reduction tended to be around twenty five percent when comparing most to least active participants. Interestingly, postmenopausal physical activity seemed to have the strongest effect, which was a bit of a surprise to me. What this says, to me, is that adjustments to lifestyle made late in life can still have significant effects on health. If you were a couch potato when young but are committed to physical activity now, all is not lost.Endometrial cancerFor endometrial cancer, the authors concluded that “physical activity probably protects against endometrial cancer” (p. 2594, anyone else find that wording odd?). There were twenty studies of endometrial cancer, so far fewer than of breast cancer, but the reduction in risk was very similar, of twenty to thirty percent. Sedentary behavior appears to increase risk (like jobs where you sit all day), and more intense or longer bouts of activity tend to have more positive effects.Ovarian cancerHere, the authors found conflicting evidence, where some studies found risk reduction with physical activity, some found no effect, and one found a risk increase with physical activity. There were about twenty studies that looked at ovarian cancer, but the authors claim that the sample size was often small. What surprised me about this section was what little attention they paid to mechanism. Ovarian cancer is different from breast or endometrial cancer: a big part of what researchers think causes it is the “incessant ovulation” of industrial societies. That is, women in industrial populations, due to a positive energy balance, low rates of childbearing and low rates of breastfeeding, have as many as 400 menstrual cycles in their lives, compared to only 50 in a forager population, which would have a later age at menarche and women who are often pregnant or breastfeeding. Continual insults to the ovarian tissue, from the rupture of the ovarian wall during ovulation, and its subsequent repair, increase the risk of cell mutations. Small differences in sedentary or active behavior don’t tend to be enough to keep a woman from ovulating.Why parse out physical activity and sedentary behavior?You may have noticed that I mention different kinds of physical activity, but also sedentary behavior. In the paper the authors go into far more detail about different types of behavior, from domestic activities to occupational activities to recreational ones, and whether they are physically active or sedentary. It is important to consider both of these factors because they contribute to an overall lifestyle that can tip the balance towards a more positive (more calories in than out) energy balance, or a more negative (more calories out than in) energy balance.Let’s take my Polish field site for instance, the Mogielica Human Ecology Study Site, directed by Grazyna Jasienska. These women burn on average more calories than urban US women (Clancy et al 2009). Women there work alongside the men to do all the agricultural work needed to run their farms. You could just stop there and say that is very different from many populations within the US. But these women also do all their own housework and cooking, they have gardens, if they work they walk or take the bus. They are often sweeping and mopping instead of vacuuming. They spend a lot less time in front of screens, like televisions or computers (they have them for sure, but there are fewer desk jobs in front of a computer there). At least from my observations, they are less likely to order things online, and instead go to the store.So the lifestyle differences, comparing an urban, sedentary person with a desk job in the US to a farmer in Poland, become far more striking, as do the number of calories they likely burn each day in their daily lives.Is there population variation in cancer rates?I thought you’d never ask! The main reason I decided to write about this article was so that I could highlight one of the most elegant, simple little graphs I have ever read, from a 2001 article by Jasienska and Thune. They compare population averages in progesterone (a female reproductive hormone) with breast cancer rates. Here’s the graph:Jasienska and Thune 2001Guess what is one of the biggest predictors of progesterone concentrations? Physical activity.Finally, why someone else should always read your manuscriptsThere were a few tough sentences in here that a copyeditor could have really improved. The authors wrote:“There is strong and consistent evidence that physical activity reduces the risk of several of the major cancer sites, and that between 9% and 19% of cancer cases could be attributed to lack of sufficient physical activity in Europe” (p. 2593, abstract)Which I tweeted, and to which Alex Wild of Myrmecos responded:“@KateClancy So if Europeans were more active we'd all have less cancer?#wordingfail”And then as I was preparing this post, I found:“Physical activity reduces breast cancer risk when performed at any age throughout life, but activity done after the age of 50 years does have a stronger effect on risk than activity done earlier in life and sustained lifetime activity is of benefit” (p. 2594).So, sustained lifetime activity isn’t as good as activity after 50, or this is a point independent of which time of activity matters? I thought perhaps they were trying to make points about both? Copyeditor, please!Anyway, this article was a fun way to get to share a broader perspective on reproductive cancer rates in women across the world. Share your thoughts or questions in the comments!ReferencesClancy, K., Ellison, P., Jasienska, G., & Bribiescas, R. (2009). Endometrial thickness is not independent of luteal phase day in a rural Polish population Anthropological Science, 117 (3), 157-163 DOI: 10.1537/ase.090130Friedenreich CM, Neilson HK, & Lynch BM (2010). State of the epidemiological evidence on physical activity and cancer prevention. European journal of cancer (Oxford, England : 1990), 46 (14), 2593-604 PMID: ... Read more »

  • September 19, 2010
  • 08:54 PM
  • 509 views

The West Mexican Context of the Chaco Effigy Vessels

by teofilo in Gambler's House

Given the rarity of human effigy vessels in the ancient Southwest, it seems clear that understanding them requires looking elsewhere.  Specifically, it requires looking south, to Mesoamerica, where effigy vessels were quite common starting from an early date.  Since most evidence of Mesoamerican influence in the Southwest seems to point to West Mexico as the [...]... Read more »

Beekman, C. (2009) Recent Research in Western Mexican Archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Research, 18(1), 41-109. DOI: 10.1007/s10814-009-9034-x  

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