Site update

Since I have been really terrible at updating the blog (but pretty good at keeping up with the facebook blog posts) I've added the widget below so that facebook cross posts to the blog.

You shouldn't need to join facebook but can just click on the links in the widget to access the articles. If you have any problems or comments please mail me at arandjel 'AT'

Sunday, October 30, 2011

uh. oh. hope trumps general intelligence, personality and even previous academic achievement in predicting success

(via neatoroma)
"a study led by Psychologist Alex Wood of University of Manchester has revealed that hope trumps general intelligence, personality and even previous academic achievement in predicting success

The findings suggest that hope uniquely predicts objective academic achievement above intelligence, personality, and previous academic achievement."
Day L, Hanson K, Maltby J, Proctor C, Wood A (2010) Hope uniquely predicts objective academic achievement above intelligence, personality, and previous academic achievement. Journal of Research in Personality 44: 550–553

A 3-year longitudinal study explored whether the two-dimensional model of trait hope predicted degree
scores after considering intelligence, personality, and previous academic achievement. A sample of 129
respondents (52 males, 77 females) completed measures of trait hope, general intelligence, the five factor
model of personality, divergent thinking, as well as objective measures of their academic performance
before university (‘A’ level grades) and final degree scores. The findings suggest that hope uniquely predicts objective academic achievement above intelligence, personality, and previous academic achievement. The findings are discussed within the context of how it may be fruitful for researchers to
explore how hope is related to everyday academic practice

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Internet 'may be changing brains'

From the BBC

The data
  • Volunteers were asked questions such as: How many friends are in your phonebook? How many friends have you kept from school and university? How many people would you invite to a party? How many friends do you have on Facebook?
  • These questions led to an estimation of someone's social network size
  • Professor Geraint Rees, from UCL, who led the research, said little is understood about the impact of social networks on the brain, which has led to speculation the internet is somehow bad for us.
  • Social network sites may be changing people's brains as well as their social life, research suggests.
Brain scans show a direct link between the number of Facebook friends a person has and the size of certain parts of their brain.

It's not clear whether using social networks boosts grey matter or if those with certain brain structures are good at making friends, say researchers.

The regions involved have roles in social interaction, memory and autism.

The work, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences, looked at 3-D brain scans of 125 university students from London.

Grey matter
Researchers counted the number of Facebook friends each volunteer had, as well as assessing the size of their network of real friends.

A strong link was found between the number of Facebook friends a person had and the amount of grey matter in certain parts of their brain.

The study also showed that the number of Facebook friends a person was in touch with was reflected in the number of "real-world" friends.

"We have found some interesting brain regions that seem to link to the number of friends we have - both 'real' and 'virtual'," said Dr Ryota Kanai, one of the researchers from University College London.

"The exciting question now is whether these structures change over time. This will help us answer the question of whether the internet is changing our brains."

One region involved is the amygdala, which is associated with memory and emotional responses.

Previous research has shown a link between the volume of grey matter in the amygdala and the size and complexity of real world social networks. Grey matter is the brain tissue where mental processing takes place.

Three other areas of the brain were linked with the size of someone's online social network but not their tally of real-world friends.

'Plastic' brain
The right superior temporal sulcus has a role in perception and may be impaired in autism. The left middle temporal gyrus is associated with "reading" social cues, while the third - the right entorhinal complex - is thought to be important in memory and navigation.

"Our study will help us begin to understand how our interactions with the world are mediated through social networks," he said.

"This should allow us to start asking intelligent questions about the relationship between the internet and the brain - scientific questions, not political ones."

Cause and effect
Facebook, the world's most popular social networking site, has more than 800 million active users around the world. The site allows people to keep in touch with friends, from a handful to a thousand or more.

Dr John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust, which funded the study, said: "We cannot escape the ubiquity of the internet and its impact on our lives, yet we understand little of its impact on the brain, which we know is plastic and can change over time.

"This new study illustrates how well-designed investigations can help us begin to understand whether or not our brains are evolving as they adapt to the challenges posed by social media."

Although the study found a link between human brain structure and online social network size, it did not test cause and effect.

Dr Heidi Johansen-Berg, reader in Clinical Neurology at the University of Oxford's Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain, said the study found only a weak relationship between the number of Facebook friends and the number of friends in the real world.

"Perhaps the number of Facebook friends you have is more strongly related to how much time you spend on the internet, how old you are, or what mobile phone you have," she said.

"The study cannot tell us whether using the internet is good or bad for our brains."

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Genetic analysis of orgasmic function in twins and siblings does not support the by-product theory of female orgasm

Thanks to Alex C for the link

Zietsch BP, Santtila P(2011)Genetic analysis of orgasmic function in twins and siblings does not support the by-product theory of female orgasm. Animal Behaviour. 82(5): 1097-1101 doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2011.08.002


The evolutionary basis of human female orgasm has been subject to furious scientific debate, which has recently intensified. Many adaptive explanations have been proposed, invoking functions from pair bonding and mate selection to sucking up sperm, but these have been attacked as being based on flawed logic and/or evidence. The popular alternative theory is that female orgasm is not adaptive and is only evolutionarily maintained as a by-product of ongoing selection on the male orgasm–ejaculation system. This theory has not been adequately tested. We tested one of its central tenets: that selection pressure on the male orgasm is partially transmitted to the female via a positive cross-sex correlation in orgasmic function (susceptibility to orgasm in response to sexual stimulation). Using questionnaire data from over 10 000 Finnish twins and siblings, we found significant genetic variation in both male and female orgasmic function, but no significant correlation between opposite-sex twins and siblings. This suggests that different genetic factors underlie male and female orgasmic function and that selection pressures on male orgasmic function do not act substantively on female orgasmic function. These results challenge the by-product theory of female orgasm.

► Orgasmic function is heritable in both men and women.
► Opposite-sex twins and siblings do not correlate in their orgasmic function.
► Suggests different genetic factors underlie male and female orgasmic function.
► Selection pressure on male orgasmic function cannot act on female orgasmic function.
► Challenges the theory that female orgasm is a simply a by-product of the male orgasm.

How Do Giant Pandas Survive on Bamboo?

Panda poop held clues to how bears break down plant fibers, study says.
From National Geographic

A new analysis of panda poop has finally answered an age-old question: How do giant pandas survive on a diet that's 99 percent bamboo when they have the guts of carnivores?

Plant-eating animals tend to have longer intestines to aid in digesting fibrous material, a trait the black-and-white bears lack.

What's more, when the giant panda's genome was sequenced in 2009, scientists found that the creature lacks the genes for any known enzymes that would help break down cellulose, the plant fibers found in bamboo and other grasses.

This led researchers to speculate that panda intestines must have cellulose-munching bacteria that play a role in digestion. But previous attempts to find such bacteria in panda guts had failed.

The new study looked at gene sequences in the droppings from seven wild and eight captive giant pandas—a much bigger sample than what was used in previous panda-poop studies, said study leader Fuwen Wei, of the Chinese Academy of Science's Institute of Zoology in Beijing.

Wei and colleagues found that pandas' digestive tracts do in fact contain bacteria similar to those in the intestines of herbivores.

Thirteen of the bacteria species that the team identified are from a family known to break down cellulose, but seven of those species are unique to pandas.

"We think this may be caused by different diet, the unique inner habitat of the gut, or the unique phylogenetic position of their host," since pandas are on a different branch of the tree of life than most herbivores, Wei said.

Humans Drove Pandas to Bamboo?

Even with help from gut bugs, pandas don't derive much nutrition from bamboo—a panda digests just 17 percent of the 20 to 30 pounds (9 to 14 kilograms) of dry food it eats each day. This explains why pandas also evolved a sluggish, energy-conserving lifestyle.

So how and why did pandas became plant-eaters in the first place?

Some scientists theorize that, as the ancient human population increased, pandas were pushed into higher altitudes. The animals then adopted a bamboo diet so they wouldn't compete for prey with other meat-eaters, such as Asiatic black bears, in their new homes, said Nicole MacCorkle, a panda keeper at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

Pandas will eat meat if it's offered to them, MacCorkle added, but they won't actively hunt for it.

Human Sex is Boring

from Roxy Drew

for more go to Roxy Drew

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The best paper abstract ever?

from :

thanks to Lissa O for the link!

Free doc - Pleasure and Pain

"Pleasure is vital for our survival – without it we wouldn’t eat or have sex, and would soon die out as a species. But how does pleasure work and what gives us the most pleasure in life?

In an attempt to find out, Michael Mosley learns how the hottest chilli in the world creates euphoria in the brain, why parents have an overwhelming surge of love for their newborn child and what happens if you turn your own wedding into a chemistry experiment.

We all know that where there is pleasure, pain can’t be far behind, and Michael gamely exposes himself to some painful experiments to show why the two are so interlinked. Why is pain so important and how can we measure it?
How much pain are we prepared to put up with if the reward is right and what would happen if we couldn’t feel pain at all? And how far is Michael prepared to go in the name of pleasure?

Will he be able to overcome enormous pain and stress in order to experience one of the biggest pleasure kicks in the world?"

Ted Talk - Jae Rhim Lee: My mushroom burial suit

Cuttlefish changes colors like chess!

Thanks to Amy C for the link!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

culture more then consumption determines reaction to alcohol

Thanks to Geraldine F for the link
from the BBC
by Kate Fox
Viewpoint: Is the alcohol message all wrong?
Many people think heavy drinking causes promiscuity, violence and anti-social behaviour. That's not necessarily true, argues Kate Fox.

I am a social anthropologist, but what I do is not the traditional intrepid sort of anthropology where you go and study strange tribes in places with mud huts and monsoons and malaria.

I really don't see why anthropologists feel they have to travel to unpronounceable corners of the world in order to study strange tribal cultures with bizarre beliefs and mysterious customs, when in fact the weirdest and most puzzling tribe of all is right here on our doorstep. I am of course talking about my own native culture - the British.

And if you want examples of bizarre beliefs and weird customs, you need look no further than our attitude to drinking and our drinking habits. Pick up any newspaper and you will read that we are a nation of loutish binge-drinkers - that we drink too much, too young, too fast - and that it makes us violent, promiscuous, anti-social and generally obnoxious.

Clearly, we Brits do have a bit of a problem with alcohol, but why?

The problem is that we Brits believe that alcohol has magical powers - that it causes us to shed our inhibitions and become aggressive, promiscuous, disorderly and even violent.

But we are wrong.

In high doses, alcohol impairs our reaction times, muscle control, co-ordination, short-term memory, perceptual field, cognitive abilities and ability to speak clearly. But it does not cause us selectively to break specific social rules. It does not cause us to say, "Oi, what you lookin' at?" and start punching each other. Nor does it cause us to say, "Hey babe, fancy a shag?" and start groping each other.

The effects of alcohol on behaviour are determined by cultural rules and norms, not by the chemical actions of ethanol.

There is enormous cross-cultural variation in the way people behave when they drink alcohol. There are some societies (such as the UK, the US, Australia and parts of Scandinavia) that anthropologists call "ambivalent" drinking-cultures, where drinking is associated with disinhibition, aggression, promiscuity, violence and anti-social behaviour.

There are other societies (such as Latin and Mediterranean cultures in particular, but in fact the vast majority of cultures), where drinking is not associated with these undesirable behaviours - cultures where alcohol is just a morally neutral, normal, integral part of ordinary, everyday life - about on a par with, say, coffee or tea. These are known as "integrated" drinking cultures.

This variation cannot be attributed to different levels of consumption - most integrated drinking cultures have significantly higher per-capita alcohol consumption than the ambivalent drinking cultures.

Instead the variation is clearly related to different cultural beliefs about alcohol, different expectations about the effects of alcohol, and different social rules about drunken comportment.

This basic fact has been proved time and again, not just in qualitative cross-cultural research, but also in carefully controlled scientific experiments - double-blind, placebos and all. To put it very simply, the experiments show that when people think they are drinking alcohol, they behave according to their cultural beliefs about the behavioural effects of alcohol.

The British and other ambivalent drinking cultures believe that alcohol is a disinhibitor, and specifically that it makes people amorous or aggressive, so when in these experiments we are given what we think are alcoholic drinks - but are in fact non-alcoholic "placebos" - we shed our inhibitions.

We become more outspoken, more physically demonstrative, more flirtatious, and, given enough provocation, some (young males in particular) become aggressive. Quite specifically, those who most strongly believe that alcohol causes aggression are the most likely to become aggressive when they think that they have consumed alcohol.

Our beliefs about the effects of alcohol act as self-fulfilling prophecies - if you firmly believe and expect that booze will make you aggressive, then it will do exactly that. In fact, you will be able to get roaring drunk on a non-alcoholic placebo.

And our erroneous beliefs provide the perfect excuse for anti-social behaviour. If alcohol "causes" bad behaviour, then you are not responsible for your bad behaviour. You can blame the booze - "it was the drink talking", "I was not myself" and so on.

But it is possible to change our drinking culture. Cultural shifts happen all the time, and there is extensive evidence (again from carefully controlled experiments, conducted in natural settings such as bars and nightclubs) to show that it doesn't take much to effect dramatic changes in how people behave when they drink.

These experiments show that even when people are very drunk, if they are given an incentive (either financial reward or even just social approval) they are perfectly capable of remaining in complete control of their behaviour - of behaving as though they were totally sober.

To achieve these changes, we need a complete and radical re-think of the aims and messages of all alcohol-education campaigns. So far, these efforts have perpetuated or even exacerbated the problem, because almost all of them simply reinforce our beliefs about the magical disinhibiting powers of alcohol.

The drinkaware website, for example, warns young people that a mere three pints of beer (ie a perfectly normal evening out) "can lead to anti-social, aggressive and violent behaviour", that "you might start saying things you don't mean and behaving out of character", that alcohol is implicated in a high percentage of sexual offences and street crimes, and that the morning after "you may wonder what you did the night before".

I would like to see a complete change of focus, with all alcohol-education and awareness campaigns designed specifically to challenge these beliefs - to get across the message that a) alcohol does not cause disinhibition (aggressive, sexual or otherwise) and that b) even when you are drunk, you are in control of and have total responsibility for your actions and behaviour.

Alcohol education will have achieved its ultimate goal not when young people in this country are afraid of alcohol and avoid it because it is toxic and dangerous, but when they are frankly just a little bit bored by it, when they don't need to be told not to binge-drink vodka shots, any more than they now need to be told not to swig down 15 double espressos in quick succession.

Even the silliest teenagers would not dream of doing that. And not because they have been educated about the dangers of a caffeine overdose - although there undoubtedly are such dangers - but because it would just be daft, what would be the point?

What we should be aiming for is a culture where you don't need alcohol-education programmes, any more than we now need coffee or tea education programmes.

If I were given total power, I could very easily engineer a nation in which coffee would become a huge social problem - a nation in which young people would binge-drink coffee every Friday and Saturday night and then rampage around town centres being anti-social, getting into fights and having unprotected sex in random one-night stands.

I would restrict access to coffee, thus immediately giving it highly desirable forbidden-fruit status. Then I would issue lots of dire warnings about the dangerously disinhibiting effects of coffee.

I would make sure everyone knew that even a mere three cups (six "units") of coffee "can lead to anti-social, aggressive and violent behaviour", and sexual promiscuity, thus instantly giving young people a powerful motive to binge-drink double espressos, and a perfect excuse to behave very badly after doing so.

I could legitimately base many of my scary coffee-awareness warnings on the known effects of caffeine, and I could easily make these sound like a recipe for disaster, or at least for disinhibition and public disorder.

It would not take long for my dire warnings to create the beliefs and expectations that would make them self-fulfilling prophecies. This may sound like a science fiction story, but it is precisely what our misguided alcohol-education programmes have done.

Over the past few decades the government, the drinks industry and schools have done exactly the opposite of what they should do to tackle our dysfunctional drinking. I remain perhaps stupidly optimistic that eventually they will find the courage to turn things around and start heading in the right direction.

More pachyderms being targeted by deadly jaw bomb

via TRAFFIC - the wildlife trade monitoring network
From Lakimba News

Patas! More pachyderms being targeted by deadly jaw bomb
By Saliya Kumara Gunasekera

Wildlife and Conservation Department officials in the Wayamba, North and North Central Provinces state that over 300 elephants in total die annually in the above areas.
These officials said that the elephants are being killed by the use of a primitive explosive device known as hakka patas.

Hakka patas are explosives made to resemble loaves of bread and laced with dry fish curry. When an elephant attempts to swallow one, the device explodes, injuring its jaws and sometimes even causing death. Department of Wildlife and Conservation sources told LAKBIMAnEWS that at least ten elephants have been injured by hakka patas in the Wayamba Province alone.

Poachers thriving
According to Wildlife Department officials, poachers use this method to obtain elephant tusks. And with the Department’s raids not having measured up, such ruthless poachers continue to thrive. The officials added elephants have suffered at the hands of these poachers in a wide range of areas including Thuruvila, Rambewa Vavuniya, Padaviya,Kahatagasdigiliya, Galgamuwa and Kala weva.

Environmentalists claimed that Wildlife Department officials have even dispensed with night patrols due to a lack of vehicular facilities. A Department official told LAKBIMAnEWS, on condition of anonymity, “We do not have the necessary vehicles to transport injured animals, nor to bring back to our office suspected poachers.”

Spike in use
When contacted, Director General of the Department of Wildlife and Conservation H.D. Ratnayake commented: “Hakka patas has come into use only relatively recently and its use has increased this year. Not only is it difficult to treat elephants injured by hakka patas, but it is also difficult to track down those using the devices.” He added that they will also be attempting to enlighten villagers on the dangers of using hakka patas.

New Form of "Life" - BBC One Theo Jansen's Strandbeests

thanks to Cleve H and Judy S for the link!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Miss representation trailer

I want to not like this and say something along the lines of physical attractiveness being highly valued in society is part of our evolutionary history and that sexuality should not be tempered...but...I also think its quite possible, and ridiculous, that things have just gone too far...its worth a watch - MA

Thanks to Kym S for the link (via entertainment videos on facebook)

Miss Representation 8 min. Trailer 8/23/11 from Miss Representation on Vimeo.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Feynman Series - Beauty

Thanks to Erin W for the link!

from youtube:

The Feynman Series is a companion project of The Sagan Series working in the hopes of promoting scientific education and scientific literacy in the general population.


Thursday, October 6, 2011

listen to all of Björk's Biophilia

NPR is streaming all of Björk's new album Biophilia for the next week.

from NPR:
...So it's fitting that Biophilia, Björk's latest and most ambitious project yet, began as a collection of songs written around themes of nature, science and humanity's relationships to both. For most artists, that'd be a lofty enough concept on its own. But Björk heavily researched astrophysics, string theory, neurology, biology and other areas where science and music meet. Her big ideas didn't stop there....

From wikipedia:
For the music, Björk related the phenomenon the song describes to a musical structure or resource. For example; the song "Moon" has different musical cycles that repeat throughout the song;the song "Thunderbolt" contains arpeggios, inspired by the time between when lightning is seen and thunder is heard; and in "Solstice", the counterpoint makes reference to the movement of planets and the Earth rotation, and the pendulums used on the song make tribute to the Foucault pendulum.
The lyrics also present metaphores to those phenomena. "Dark Matter" features heavy gibberish since the dark matter phenomena are directly "unexplainable". "Virus" describes "fatal relationships" such as the relationship between a virus and a cell as Björk explained "It’s like I have this new neighbour that I have to sort of learn to live with"; "Solstice" presents the relation between the gravity effect on celestial bodies and on human beings and in "Hollow", Björk took inspiration in her "ancestors and DNA, that the grounds open below you and you can feel your mother and her mother, and her mother, and her mother, and her mother 30,000 years back. So suddenly you’re this kinda tunnel, or trunk of DNA… All these ghosts come up so it ended up begin a halloween song and quite gothic in a way… It’s like being part of this everlasting necklace when you’re just a bead on a chain and you sort of want to belong and be a part of it and it’s just like a miracle."

Dog tool use?

Scientists set off to find the abominable snowman

BBC has an audio interview with the researchers CLICK HERE to listen

A team of Russian and American scientists will set off on an expedition this week to try to solve the mystery of the Abominable Snowman. It follows a rise in Yeti sightings in the Kemerovo region, 3,000 miles (4828km) east of Moscow.

Jonathan Downes, the director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology, which is dedicated to the study of unknown animals, talked about the mystical creature on Radio 5 live Breakfast.

Op-Ed: The importance of stupidity in scientific research

Thanks to Alex C for the link!
by Martin A. Schwartz
from Journal of Cell Science

I recently saw an old friend for the first time in many years. We had been Ph.D. students at the same time, both studying science, although in different areas. She later dropped out of graduate school, went to Harvard Law School and is now a senior lawyer for a major environmental organization. At some point, the conversation turned to why she had left graduate school. To my utter astonishment, she said it was because it made her feel stupid. After a couple of years of feeling stupid every day, she was ready to do something else.

I had thought of her as one of the brightest people I knew and her subsequent career supports that view. What she said bothered me. I kept thinking about it; sometime the next day, it hit me. Science makes me feel stupid too. It's just that I've gotten used to it. So used to it, in fact, that I actively seek out new opportunities to feel stupid. I wouldn't know what to do without that feeling. I even think it's supposed to be this way. Let me explain.

For almost all of us, one of the reasons that we liked science in high school and college is that we were good at it. That can't be the only reason – fascination with understanding the physical world and an emotional need to discover new things has to enter into it too. But high-school and college science means taking courses, and doing well in courses means getting the right answers on tests. If you know those answers, you do well and get to feel smart.

A Ph.D., in which you have to do a research project, is a whole different thing. For me, it was a daunting task. How could I possibly frame the questions that would lead to significant discoveries; design and interpret an experiment so that the conclusions were absolutely convincing; foresee difficulties and see ways around them, or, failing that, solve them when they occurred? My Ph.D. project was somewhat interdisciplinary and, for a while, whenever I ran into a problem, I pestered the faculty in my department who were experts in the various disciplines that I needed. I remember the day when Henry Taube (who won the Nobel Prize two years later) told me he didn't know how to solve the problem I was having in his area. I was a third-year graduate student and I figured that Taube knew about 1000 times more than I did (conservative estimate). If he didn't have the answer, nobody did.

That's when it hit me: nobody did. That's why it was a research problem. And being my research problem, it was up to me to solve. Once I faced that fact, I solved the problem in a couple of days. (It wasn't really very hard; I just had to try a few things.) The crucial lesson was that the scope of things I didn't know wasn't merely vast; it was, for all practical purposes, infinite. That realization, instead of being discouraging, was liberating. If our ignorance is infinite, the only possible course of action is to muddle through as best we can.

I'd like to suggest that our Ph.D. programs often do students a disservice in two ways. First, I don't think students are made to understand how hard it is to do research. And how very, very hard it is to do important research. It's a lot harder than taking even very demanding courses. What makes it difficult is that research is immersion in the unknown. We just don't know what we're doing. We can't be sure whether we're asking the right question or doing the right experiment until we get the answer or the result. Admittedly, science is made harder by competition for grants and space in top journals. But apart from all of that, doing significant research is intrinsically hard and changing departmental, institutional or national policies will not succeed in lessening its intrinsic difficulty.

Second, we don't do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid – that is, if we don't feel stupid it means we're not really trying. I'm not talking about `relative stupidity', in which the other students in the class actually read the material, think about it and ace the exam, whereas you don't. I'm also not talking about bright people who might be working in areas that don't match their talents. Science involves confronting our `absolute stupidity'. That kind of stupidity is an existential fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown. Preliminary and thesis exams have the right idea when the faculty committee pushes until the student starts getting the answers wrong or gives up and says, `I don't know'. The point of the exam isn't to see if the student gets all the answers right. If they do, it's the faculty who failed the exam. The point is to identify the student's weaknesses, partly to see where they need to invest some effort and partly to see whether the student's knowledge fails at a sufficiently high level that they are ready to take on a research project.

Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.

Accepted April 9, 2008.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Recent Human Evolution Detected in Quebec Town History


Though ongoing human evolution is difficult to see, researchers believe they’ve found signs of rapid genetic changes among the recent residents of a small Canadian town.

Between 1800 and 1940, mothers in Ile aux Coudres, Quebec gave birth at steadily younger ages, with the average age of first maternity dropping from 26 to 22. Increased fertility, and thus larger families, could have been especially useful in the rural settlement’s early history.

According to University of Quebec geneticist Emmanuel Milot and colleagues, other possible explanations, such as changing cultural or environmental influences, don’t fit. The changes appear to reflect biological evolution.

“It is often claimed that modern humans have stopped evolving because cultural and technological advancements have annihilated natural selection,” wrote Milot’s team in their Oct. 3 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper. “Our study supports the idea that humans are still evolving. It also demonstrates that microevolution is detectable over just a few generations.”

How humans evolve in modern societies is an enduringly fascinating question. It’s easy to assume that, in an age of developed-world plenty, biological evolutionary pressures have ceased, and biological evolution is supposedly too slow to detect in time scales of a few generations.

In fact, genetic signals of recent human evolution have been found, and there’s even reason to think it’s speeding up. But such genetic signatures, unconnected for now to identifiable traits, are far less glamorous and tangible than fertility.

Milot’s team based their study on detailed birth, marriage and death records kept by the Catholic church in Ile aux Coudres, a small and historically isolated French-Canadian island town in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It wasn’t just the fact that average first birth age — a proxy for fertility — dropped from 26 to 22 in 140 years that suggested genetic changes. After all, culture or environment might have been wholly responsible, as nutrition and healthcare are for recent, rapid changes in human height. Rather, it was how ages dropped that caught their eye.

The patterns fit with models of gene-influenced natural selection. Moreover, thanks to the detailed record-keeping, it was possible to look at other possible explanations. Were better nutrition responsible, for example, improved rates of infant and juvenile mortality should have followed; they didn’t. Neither did the late-19th century transition from farming to more diversified professions.

“I am inclined to have faith in the analyses since they are established within the quantitative genetic community,” said University of Utah anthropologist Henry Harpending, who has studied changing rates of human evolution. “Evolution, gene frequency change, can work in a hurry and is working all the time in our species.”
According to Harpending, the findings are part of a trend away from assuming that changes in populations are always environmental. “Here and elsewhere we are discovering that changes are due to genetic changes, not changes in the environment,” he said.

Milot recommended that natural selection not be dismissed out-of-hand by demographers and anthropologists. However, while heritability appeared to account for between 30 and 50 percent of first birth age, social factors still accounted for the other 50 to 70 percent.

“Culture shapes the selection pressures acting on the age at first birth and the reproductive history of women in this population,” he said. “The cultural context was favoring the selection of some genes.”

Citation: “Evidence for evolution in response to natural selection in a contemporary human population.” By Emmanuel Milot, Francine M. Mayer, Daniel H. Nussey, Mireille Boisvert, Fanie Pelletier, and Denis Réale. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 108 No. 40, Oct. 4, 2011.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Did our love of animals propel human social evolution?

Thanks to Geraldine F for the link.
I am not buying this hook, line and sinker but you know I love a just-so story that gets the imagination going. Also its inaccurate to state only humans keep pets, check out:
- MA

From the
Love of animals led to language and man's domination of Earth
When our apemen ancestors began to interact with animals they developed empathy and the ability to communicate, claims anthropologist Pat Shipman

Humans became masters of the planet for a startling reason: our love of animals gave us unsurpassed power over nature. This is the claim of a leading American anthropologist who says our prehistoric ancestors' intense relationships with other creatures – including those we hunt, keep as pets and use for food – propelled humanity towards global domination.

Interacting with animals on an intimate basis led humans to develop sophisticated tools and evolve enhanced communication skills, including language itself, Dr Pat Shipman of Pennsylvania State University told the Observer. Animals also taught us that others – even other species – have emotions, needs and thoughts, while they also helped us to evolve the vital skills of empathy, understanding and compromise.

"The longest and enduring trend in human evolution has been a gradual intensification of our involvement with animals," she added. "But now our world is becoming increasingly urbanised and we are having less and less contact with them. The consequences are potentially catastrophic."

Shipman traces humanity's animal connection to the period 2.5 million years ago when our hominid ancestors first made tools. These crafted pieces of stone still litter sites in eastern Africa, including the Olduvai Gorge in Kenya, and bear testimony to the mental transformation in our ancestors' brains.

"These apemen didn't just pick up stones and use them to hammer or pound prey or plants," said Shipman. "They shaped those rocks for specific purposes. They had a mental image of the kind of tools they needed and created them by chipping away at a large piece of stone until they got what they wanted."

And what they wanted were tools for cutting up carcasses. In other words, the sharp stone flakes spread over Olduvai were not used primarily as weapons to kill animals or to hack down plants, but to process dead animals that had already been brought down by other carnivores. Apemen had begun to scavenge for meat from carcasses of prey killed by leopards, cheetahs and other carnivores. Armed with sharp blades, they could cut off chunks of antelope or deer and escape quickly before being eaten themselves by an enraged lion, they discovered.

And that was the crucial point that began our special relationship with the animal kingdom, said Shipman, whose book, The Animal Connection, is published this week. "Until that point, we had been a prey species. Carnivores ate us. Then we began scavenging before going on to hunt on our own behalf. Meat provided our ancestors with a wonderful, rich source of sustenance. However, scavenging for it left us in a very vulnerable position. We were still just as likely to be consumed when confronted by a carnivore as we were to kill in our own right. To survive, we had to learn about the behaviour of a vast number of different species – the ones we wanted to kill and the ones we wanted to avoid.

"For example, we would have learned to spot when lions were preparing to mate – when a male was showing off to a female – so that we could take some its prey while it was otherwise occupied. We would have also built up knowledge about the migration of species such as wildebeest and other animals."

In the end, this expertise would have become crucial to human survival, a point illustrated in the cave paintings in Lascaux and Chauvet in France and the other caves painted by humans 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. They show us that after 2 million years of evolution, humans had become utterly fixated by animals.

"These paintings are stunningly beautiful and superbly crafted," said Shipman. "Sometimes scaffolding was erected in the caves. At the same time, artists went to enormous lengths to get their pigments mixed with the right binding agents and placed in exactly the right spot. And what did they depict when they got things just right? Animals, animals and more animals.

"There are no landscapes and only a handful of poorly executed depictions of humans. By contrast the paintings of lions, stags, horses, bulls and the rest are magnificent. We were besotted with animals because our lives depended on our relationships with them."

Not long after these paintings were created, the first animal – the dog – was domesticated, followed some time later by the horse, sheep, goat and others. The development was crucial. In each case, humans had to learn to put themselves in the minds of these creatures in order to get them to do our bidding. In this way our senses of empathy and understanding, both with animals and with members of own species, were enhanced.

Our special relationship with animals is revealed today through our desire to have pets. "Humans are the only species on Earth to have one-to-one relationships with a member of another species," said Shipman. "No other creature would waste resources on a member of another family, let alone a member of another species. But we do and that is because we have evolved such close ties with specific animals over the millennia and because we are adapted to empathise with other creatures. It is a unique human attribute. We get so much from animals, much more than we appreciate."

Unfortunately, as society becomes increasingly urbanised those ties are being stretched and broken, added Shipman. "Our links to the animal world are precious and shouldn't be taken for granted," she said.