More on Gene-culture coevolution

Ed Yong has a cool article on Genes and culture: OXTR gene influences social behaviour differently in Americans and Koreans. It has some interesting parallels, and contrasting conclusions, with my post last week. Key paragraphs:

Heejung Kim from the University of California has discovered a great example of this effect by studying a gene called OXTR (or the ‘oxytocin receptor’, in full). The gene creates a docking station for a hormone called oxytocin, which is involved in all sorts of emotions and social behaviours, from trust to sexual arousal to empathy.

Kim looked at a specific version of the OXTR gene, whose carriers are allegedly more social and sensitive. But this link between gene and behaviour depends on culture; it exists among American people, who tend to look for support in troubled times, but not in Korean cultures, where such support is less socially acceptable. Culture sets the stage on which the OXTR gene expresses itself.

OXTR varies from person to person, and the DNA ‘letters’ at particular spots can affect the way we behave. According to previous studies, people with a ‘G’ at one specific site tend to be more sensitive parents, more empathetic and less lonely than those with an ‘A’. But most of these studies have been done with white, Western people who are hardly representative of the world at large – in fact, they’re positively W.E.I.R.D. [My emphasis]

Some Links #13: Universal Grammar Haters

Universal Grammar haters. Mark Lieberman takes umbrage with claims that Ewa Dabrowska’s recent work challenges the concept of a biologically evolved substrate for language. Put simply: it doesn’t. What their experiments suggest is that there are considerable differences in native language attainment. As some of you will probably know, I’m not necessarily a big fan of most UG conceptions, however, there are plenty of papers that directly deal with such issues. Dabrowska’s not being one of them. In Lieberman’s own words:

In support of this view, let me offer another analogy. Suppose we find that deaf people are somewhat more likely than hearing people to remember the individual facial characteristics of a stranger they pass on the street. This would be an interesting result, but would we spin it to the world as a challenge to the widely-held theory that there’s an evolutionary substrate for the development of human face-recognition abilities?

Remote control neurons. I remember reading about optogenetics awhile back. It’s a clever technique that enables neural manipulation through the use of light-activated channels and enzymes. Kevin Mitchell over at GNXP classic refers to a new approach where neurons are activated using a radio frequency magnetic field. The obvious advantage to this new approach being fairly straight-forward: magnetic-fields pass through brains far more easily than light. It means the new approach is a lot less invasive, without the need to insert micro-optical fibres or light-emitting diodes. Cool stuff.

Motor imagery enhances object recognition. Neurophilosophy has an article about a study showing that motor simulations may enhance the recognition of tools:

According to these results, then, the simple action of squeezing the ball not only slowed down the participants’ naming of tools, but also slightly reduced their accuracy in naming them correctly. This occured, the authors say, because squeezing the ball involves the same motor circuits needed for generating the simulation, so it interferes with the brain’s ability to generate the mental image of reaching out and grasping the tool. This in turn slows identification of the tools, because their functionality is an integral component of our conceptualization of them. There is other evidence that  parallel motor simulations can interfere with movements, and with each other: when reaching for a pencil, people have a larger grip aperture if a hammer is also present than if the pencil is by itself.

On the Origin of Science Writers. If you fancy yourself as a science writer, then Ed Yong, of Not Exactly Rocket Science, wants to read your story. As expected, he’s got a fairly large response (97 comments at the time of writing), which includes some of my favourite science journalists and bloggers. It’s already a useful resource, full of fascinating stories and bits of advice, from a diverse source of individuals.

Some thoughts about science blog aggregation. Although it’s still hanging about, many people, including myself, are looking for an alternative to the ScienceBlogs network. Dave Munger points to Friendfeed as one potential solution, with him setting up a feed for all the Anthropology posts coming in from Research Blogging. Also, in the comments Christina Pikas mentioned Nature Blogs, which, I’m ashamed to say, I haven’t come across before.

Some Links #9: Sowing the Seed of doubt

This isn’t the first time Seed has sacrificed editorial independence. A worrying article about scienceblogs’ parent company, Seed, and how they restricted the publication of a column on the basis of it being critical of Dow Chemical — someone they were seeking an advertising contract with. As Gaia Vince points out in an email she received from Seed:

We’re not running the bhopal piece, and we’re passing on the Maldive shark ban (a bit late now… Too bad it got caught up in prod week… ). As for Bhopal, it’s a cautionary call on our part as we’re in the midst of advertising negotiations with Dow (who have been inspired by Seed’s photography in their own brand campaigns). RE: the payment, as you’re on a scheduled direct-payment, the bhopal fee covers the Kerry/Carbon trading news piece fee that was outstanding. Let me know if that’s clear.

It’s a great article that’s not only revealing about Seed, but the underlying motivations of the journalism industry in general. I never thought I’d find myself linking to Chomsky’s politics, yet, given the nature of this article, maybe it’s time I dug out my copy of Manufacturing Consent.

Scientific Certainty Argumentation Methods (SCAMs): Science and the politics of doubt. H/T: Ben Goldacre. A good paper looking at what happens when science and politics mix, and how the two have different expectations of what science is. Here’s the abstract:

At least since the time of Popper, scientists have understood that science provides falsification, but not “proof.” In the world of environmental and technological controversies, however, many observers continue to call precisely for “proof,” often under the guise of “scientific certainty.” Closer examination of real-world disputes suggests that such calls may reflect not just a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of science, but a clever and surprisingly effective political-economic tactic—”Scientific Certainty” Argumentation Methods, or SCAMs. Given that most scientific findings are inherently probabilistic and ambiguous, if agencies can be prevented from imposing any regulations until they are unambiguously “justified,” most regulations can be defeated or postponed, often for decades, allowing profitable but potentially risky activities to continue unabated. An exploratory examination of previously documented controversies suggests that SCAMs are more widespread than has been recognized in the past, and that they deserve greater attention in the future.

The secret history of X and Z. An excellent article from Ed Yong on Chromosome evolution in humans and birds. Key paragraph:

Why the similarities? It’s possible that both X and Z evolved from autosomes with features that made them more likely to become sex chromosomes. Perhaps, for example, their genes were already sparsely distributed. But Bellott ruled out this idea. He compared X to its closest counterpart in chicken, and Z to its equivalents in humans – none of these relatives had any structural features that made them stand out among other autosomes. There’s nothing that singles them out as ideal candidates for the role of sex chromosome.

You are not authorized to see these pictures of the oil spill, citizen… Do not look. Washington’s Blog has some fairly harrowing photos of the recent gulf oil spill and the damage it’s doing to wildlife. Here’s one example:

Some Links #6: We are all Keynesians now. Yeah, but which type?

If you think economic cuts are necessary, you’re being fooled. Martyn Winters (known to me as dad) writes about Joseph Stiglitz’s thoughts on George Osborne’s attempts to reduce the deficit:

You may have heard of Professor Joseph Stiglitz – he’s the Nobel laureate economist who correctly predicted the global crash. He’s distinctly unimpressed with Osbourne’s budget. This, he predicts, will make Britain’s recovery from recession longer, slower and harder than it needs to be. The rise in VAT could even tip us into a double-dip recession. He took time to offer George Osbourne a bit of advice – which will probably go unheeded, because Osbourne’s objectives aren’t necessarily to improve the economy. They are an ideological attack on the state, with the intention of shrinking it by forty percent.

The basis for this is part Keynesian, and has been echoed by other commentators such as Johann Hari, in that we must spend our way out of economic woes. Now I must admit I’m not too fond of how Osborne is going about reducing deficit (raising VAT… huh?), but, for reasons that’ll become apparent below, I do think we need to tackle the deficit.

Continue reading “Some Links #6: We are all Keynesians now. Yeah, but which type?”