are people the problem?

Published on Oct 3, 2012 Malthus Miffed: Are People the Problem, the Solution, or Both? An Introduction to Demography and Populations Study through an Examination of the World’s Population Professor Joel Cohen: Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of Populations, Rockefeller University, Mathematical Biologist, Columbia University In the next fifty years the world will face population problems […]

Published on Oct 3, 2012

Malthus Miffed: Are People the Problem, the Solution, or Both? An Introduction to Demography and Populations Study through an Examination of the World’s Population

Professor Joel Cohen: Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of Populations, Rockefeller University, Mathematical Biologist, Columbia University?

In the next fifty years the world will face population problems that it has never faced before. Billions will live in mega slums without access to clean water or medical care. In his lecture, Professor Joel Cohen teaches you how demography can provide answers to the life or death questions caused by the world’s swelling population and dwindling resources. Can we prevent an outcome where wealthy western countries are in permanent population decline, while third world cities into swell into massively overcrowded slums with no access to education, healthcare, or hope?

The Floating University
Originally released September, 2011.

Linguistics as a Window to Understanding the Brain

The ability to communicate through spoken language may be the trait that best sets humans apart from other animals. Last year researchers identified the first gene implicated in the ability to speak. This week, a team shows that the human version of this gene appears to date back no more than 200,000 years–about the time […]

The ability to communicate through spoken language may be the trait that best sets humans apart from other animals. Last year researchers identified the first gene implicated in the ability to speak. This week, a team shows that the human version of this gene appears to date back no more than 200,000 years–about the time that anatomically modern humans emerged. The authors argue that their findings are consistent with previous speculations that the worldwide expansion of modern humans was driven by the emergence of full-blown language abilities.

The researchers who identified the gene, called FOXP2, showed that FOXP2 mutations cause a wide range of speech and language disabilities (ScienceNOW, 3 October 2002). In collaboration with part of this team, geneticist Svante Pääbo’s group at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, set about tracing the gene’s evolutionary history.

As a uniquely human trait, language has long baffled evolutionary biologists. Not until FOXP2was linked to a genetic disorder that caused problems in forming words could they even begin to study language’s roots in our genes. Soon after that discovery, a team at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, discovered that just two bases, the letters that make up DNA, distinguished the human and chimp versions ofFOXP2. To try to determine how those changes influenced the gene’s function, that group put the human version of the gene in mice. In 2009, they observed that these “humanized” mice produced more frequent and complex alarm calls, suggesting the human mutations may have been involved in the evolution of more complex speech.

When humanized mice and wild mice were put in mazes that engaged both types of learning,the humanized mice mastered the route to the reward faster than their wild counterparts, report Schreiweis, Graybiel, and their colleagues

The results suggest the human version of the FOXP2 gene may enable a quick switch to repetitive learning—an ability that could have helped infants 200,000 years ago better communicate with their parents. Better communication might have increased their odds of survival and enabled the new version of FOXP2 to spread throughout the entire human population, suggests Björn Brembs, a neurobiologist at the University of Regensburg in Germany, who was not involved with the work.

“The findings fit well with what we already knew about FOXP2 but, importantly, bridge the gap between behavioral, genetic, and evolutionary knowledge,” says Dianne Newbury, a geneticist at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics in Oxford, U.K., who was not involved with the new research. “They help us to understand how the FOXP2 gene might have been important in the evolution of the human brain and direct us towards neural mechanisms that play a role in speech and language acquisition.”

Chomsky critiqued the field of AI for adopting an approach reminiscent of behaviorism, except in more modern, computationally sophisticated form. Chomsky argued that the field’s heavy use of statistical techniques to pick regularities in masses of data is unlikely to yield the explanatory insight that science ought to offer. For Chomsky, the “new AI” — focused on using statistical learning techniques to better mine and predict data — is unlikely to yield general principles about the nature of intelligent beings or about cognition.

 

Published on Oct 6, 2012

Steven Pinker – Psychologist, Cognitive Scientist, and Linguist at Harvard University

How did humans acquire language? In this lecture, best-selling author Steven Pinker introduces you to linguistics, the evolution of spoken language, and the debate over the existence of an innate universal grammar. He also explores why language is such a fundamental part of social relationships, human biology, and human evolution. Finally, Pinker touches on the wide variety of applications for linguistics, from improving how we teach reading and writing to how we interpret law, politics, and literature.

The Floating University

 

 

Dysteleology

Dysteleology is the philosophical view that existence has no telos or final cause from purposeful design. The term “dysteleology” is a modern word invented and popularized by Ernst Haeckel.[1]Dysteleology is an aggressive, yet optimistic, form of science-oriented atheism originally perhaps associated with Haeckel and his followers, but now perhaps more associated with … Continue reading

Dysteleology is the philosophical view that existence has no telos or final cause from purposeful design. The term “dysteleology” is a modern word invented and popularized by Ernst Haeckel.[1]Dysteleology is an aggressive, yet optimistic, form of science-oriented atheism originally perhaps associated with Haeckel and his followers, but now perhaps more associated with the type of atheism of Richard DawkinsSam Harris, or Christopher HitchensWestern philosophy since Copernicus has been increasingly dysteleological.

Unlike traditional philosophical and religious perspectives, modern philosophical naturalism sees existence as having no inherent goal. Philosophical schools that have rejected dysteleology include German idealism (including the philosophies of Hegel and Schelling), Integral theory, and some adherents to the Anthropic principle.

Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel (February 16, 1834 – August 9, 1919),[1] also written von Haeckel, was an eminent German biologist,naturalistphilosopherphysicianprofessor and artist who discovered, described and named thousands of new species, mapped a genealogical tree relating all life forms, and coined many terms in biology, including anthropogenyecologyphylumphylogenystem cell, and the kingdom Protista.

Haeckel promoted and popularized Charles Darwin’s work in Germany and developed the controversial recapitulation theory (“ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”) claiming that an individual organism’s biological development, or ontogeny, parallels and summarizes its species’ evolutionary development, or phylogeny.

The creationist polygenism of Samuel George Morton and Louis Agassiz, which presented human races as separately created species, was rejected byCharles Darwin, who argued for the monogenesis of the human species and the recent African origin of modern humans. In contrast to most of Darwin’s supporters, Haeckel put forward a doctrine of evolutionary polygenism based on the ideas of the linguist August Schleicher, in which several different language groups had arisen separately from speechless prehuman Urmenschen, which themselves had evolved from simian ancestors. These separate languages had completed the transition from animals to man, and, under the influence of each main branch of languages, humans had evolved — in a kind of Lamarckian use-inheritance — as separate species, which could be subdivided into races. From this Haeckel drew the implication that languages with the most potential formed human species with the most potential, led by the Semitic and Indo-Germanic groups, with Berber, Jewish, Greco-Roman and Germanic varieties to the fore.[11] As Haeckel stated:[12]

We must mention here one of the most important results of the comparative study of languages, which for the Stammbaum of the species of men is of the highest significance, namely that human languages probably had a multiple or polyphyletic origin. Human language as such probably developed only after the species of speechless Urmenschen or Affenmenschen had split into several species or kinds. With each of these human species, language developed on its own and independently of the others. At least this is the view of Schleicher, one of the foremost authorities on this subject.… If one views the origin of the branches of language as the special and principal act of becoming human, and the species of humankind as distinguished according to their language stem, then one can say that the different species of men arose independently of one another.

Haeckel’s view can be seen as a forerunner of the views of Carleton Coon, who also believed that human races evolved independently and in parallel with each other. These ideas eventually fell from favor.

Haeckel also applied the hypothesis of polygenism to the modern diversity of human groups. He became a leading proponent of scientific racism, stating for instance:[13]

The Caucasian, or Mediterranean man (Homo Mediterraneus), has from time immemorial been placed at the head of all the races of men, as the most highly developed and perfect. It is generally called the Caucasian race, but as, among all the varieties of the species, the Caucasian branch is the least important, we prefer the much more suitable appellation proposed byFriedrich Müller, namely, that of Mediterranese. For the most important varieties of this species, which are moreover the most eminent actors in what is called “Universal History,” first rose to a flourishing condition on the shores of the Mediterranean.… This species alone (with the exception of the Mongolian) has had an actual history; it alone has attained to that degree of civilization which seems to raise men above the rest of nature.

Haeckel divided human beings into ten races, of which the Caucasian was the highest and the primitives were doomed to extinction.[14] Haeckel claimed that Negros have stronger and more freely movable toes than any other race which is evidence that Negros are related to apes because when apes stop climbing in trees they hold on to the trees with their toes, Haeckel compared Negros to “four-handed” apes. Haeckel also believed Negros were savages and that Whites were the most civilised.[15]

However, Robert J. Richards notes: “Haeckel, on his travels to Ceylon and Indonesia, often formed closer and more intimate relations with natives, even members of the untouchable classes, than with the European colonials.”

The published artwork of Haeckel includes over 100 detailed, multi-colour illustrations of animals and sea creatures (see: Kunstformen der Natur, “Art Forms of Nature”). As a philosopher, Ernst Haeckel wrote Die Welträtsel (1895–1899, in English, The Riddle of the Universe, 1901), the genesis for the term “world riddle” (Welträtsel); and Freedom in Science and Teaching[2] to support teaching evolution.

Deepak Chopra

The Woo of Creation: My evening with Deepak Chopra Michael Shermer On Thursday, March 31, Deepak Chopra and I squared off for a second time in person in a public venue, this time accompanied by the physicist Leonard Mlodinow on … Continue reading

The Woo of Creation: My evening with Deepak Chopra

Michael Shermer

On Thursday, March 31, Deepak Chopra and I squared off for a second time in person in a public venue, this time accompanied by the physicist Leonard Mlodinow on my side and Stuart Hameroff on his side (along with other panelists). The question on the table was this:

“Is there an Ultimate Reality?” and if yes, “Can it be accounted for by science such as mathematics, biology and physics?”

My answers: YES and YES

I explained that I am a Materialist and a Monist. I do not believe that there is a body and a soul, there is just a body. There is no brain and mind, just brain. The mind is just a word we use to describe what the brain does. I said, “you know I’m right” (which got a surprising laugh from the audience) because of the evidence from strokes, tumors, brain damage, senility, dementia, and Alzheimer’s, all of which kill brain cells, and along with the loss of brain comes the loss of mind. I asked Deepak and Stuart where Aunt Millie’s mind goes when her brain slowly disappears from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

I noted that consciousness is just a word we use to describe our inner thoughts about the workings of the brain, and that our “soul” is just a pattern of information stored in our genes and our brains. Consciousness is just an emergent property of integrated brain modules and patterned firing of neural networks.

By contrast, I believe that Deepak’s use of the word “consciousness” is very anthropocentric, once again returning humans to a central place in the cosmos as the “observers” who, in quantum mechanics, brings things into existence. If Deepak is right then the moon doesn’t exist unless it is observed, and yet, quoting that great scientist Bill O’Reilly, “times come in, tides go out—never a missed communication—and they would do so whether or not humans, or any other conscious (or unconscious) being existed.

In fact, I said, Deepak’s quantum consciousness is not holistic but reductionistic in the extreme. We don’t need to go down that far. Quantum mechanics is not needed to explain brain functions: the neuron is the individual unit of thought, the “atom” of mind. I then worked in a little joke I wrote earlier in the day:

Quantum mechanics is spooky and weird.
Consciousness is spooky and weird.
So what? Charlie Sheen is spooky and weird, but we don’t need quantum mechanics to explain his behavior. His “tiger blood” theory works just fine.

Haha.

In Deepak’s worldview, everything is conscious, which means that there is no way to distinguish between consciousness and unconsciousness, which is how I often feel when I listen to Deepak.

Thought Experiment:

  • If humans went extinct instead of Neanderthals, how does that effect the universe?
  • What if the Earth were suddenly demolished by a rogue planet (as in 2012)? Would that mean the end of the universe because observers would disappear?
  • Are whales, dolphins, gorillas and chimps conscious and therefore integral to the universe?
  • What can it possibly mean to say that the universe is conscious? If you will pardon the nerd science pun, that is such a vacuous concept!

Before the debate Deepak asked me to read a paper by himself and Menas Kafatos and Rudolph Tanzi published in the Journal of Cosmology, entitled: “How Consciousness Becomes the Physical Universe.” Deepak asked me to comment on it, which I did in the second half of the debate. I noted that given the prominence of “consciousness” to the central theme of the paper that one might expect it to be defined with semantic precision. Nope. Here is what the authors write:

“We will sidestep any precise definition of consciousness, limiting ourselves for now to willful actions on the part of the observer.”

What can it possibly mean for the universe to be conscious in the sense of having willful actions? The universe behaves with willful action? The universe is an observer? As well, quantum mechanics only requires an observation of any kind: an electron microscope will do. Is an electron microscope willful? Does an electron microscope take action? The authors of this paper write:

Werner Heisenberg concluded that the atom “has no immediate and direct physical properties at all.” If the universe’s basic building block isn’t physical, then the same must hold true in some way for the whole. The universe was doing a vanishing act in Heisenberg’s day, and it certainly hasn’t become more solid since. And Heisenberg again: “The atoms or elementary particles themselves … form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.”

No, sorry, these are different levels of analysis. To prove it I challenge Deepak to climb to the top of this building and jump off and see if the ground is a potentiality or a thing! They also write:

Heisenberg: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” Reality, it seems, shifts according to the observer’s conscious intent.

Once again, NO! This would imply that anyone’s method of questioning is just as valid as anyone else’s, which would mean that the way astrologers question the universe is just as valid as that of astronomers. I concluded by saying that if you want to get a spacecraft to Mars the questions that astronomers ask are absolutely objectively really better than those of astrologers. Q.E.D.!

In Deepak’s rebuttal, in discussing quantum mechanics, he actually used the phrase “the womb of creation.” Nice. It’s that sort of precise language that makes people all gushy and mushy about science. I pressed him for a definition of consciousness, which he gave me as “consciousness is the ground of existence.” I replied that this sounded tautological to me: since reality needs consciousness to come into existence, this means that reality = consciousness = existence; or existence = existence. A is A. Very Aristotelian. But what does that really tell us?

In the end I pressed both Deepak and Stuart Hameroff for an answer as to where Aunt Millie’s mind goes during the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Stuart’s answer was so rapid fire and jargon laden (something about the collapse of the wave function inside the microtubules in the neurons inside Aunt Millie’s brain) that I couldn’t quite get an answer, so Deepak clarified it for me later: Aunt Millie’s mind is in the matrix. Okay, I asked, how does poor Aunt Millie access the matrix. “We’re working on that,” was the reply. Okay, fine, and if our memories really are stored somewhere outside of our brains, then that would indeed be one of the greatest discoveries ever made in the history of science: Nobel worthy. But, until that is proven, I remain … skeptical.

POST SCRIPT

I am often asked if I believe that Deepak believes what he says, with an underlying assumption behind the question that Deepak is knowingly selling snake oil and doesn’t really believe his public patter. Having gotten to know Deepak over the years I can assure you that he absolutely positively believes what he says, and that while he may make a lot of money in the process of writing books, giving lectures, hosting radio and television shows, and running his various business enterprises (but, hey, that’s not exactly something anathema in America), this fact is quite orthogonal to his deeper mission in life: to shift the Western worldview Eastward.

I had never met Stuart Hameroff before, but I liked him as well, sharing a beer after the debate while watching a Laker game and schmoozing about science. Although I do not accept his theory of consciousness (most neuroscientists are skeptical as well), it would be fun to engage him again in a spirited debate over the brain and the mind.

bias influencing results

Harvard biologist and popular author Stephen Jay Gould was a well-known advocate for evolution and denouncer of scientific bias. But a new study shows that one of his most famous claims—that an early researcher unconsciously manipulated his measurements of skulls to make Caucasians seem smarter—is baseless. The researcher actually made few errors, and it looks […]

Harvard biologist and popular author Stephen Jay Gould was a well-known advocate for evolution and denouncer of scientific bias. But a new study shows that one of his most famous claims—that an early researcher unconsciously manipulated his measurements of skulls to make Caucasians seem smarter—is baseless.

The researcher actually made few errors, and it looks like Gould never bothered to measure the skulls himself, as the study’s authors did, before crying bias. “Ironically,” the authors write, “Gould’s own analysis…is likely the stronger example of a bias influencing results.”

  • Gould’s influential 1981 book, The Mismeasure of Man, asserts that Samuel George Morton, a 19th-century anthropologist, fudged his measurements and analysis of 100 human skulls to support his hypothesis that brain volume would be larger in Caucasians. It’s now a textbook example of how unconscious bias can sway the results of a study.
  • The team went back and measure Morton’s skulls themselves. What they found was that very few of his measurements were off, and the errors he had made actually contradicted his hypothesis that Caucasian brains would be larger. Nature News’ Great Beyond provides the team’s full list of mistakes Gould made in his analysis.
  • This isn’t the first time that scientists have looked into Gould’s assertion and found it lacking, writes the NYTimes:

    An earlier study by John S. Michael, then an undergraduate at Penn, concluded that Morton’s results were “reasonably accurate,” with no clear sign of manipulation.

  • But because it was the work of an undergraduate, the scientific community did not immediately accept the conclusion. “It is not entirely evident that one should prefer the measurements of an undergraduate to those of professional paleontologist,” [Philip Kitcher, a philosopher of science at Columbia] wrote in 2004 (via NYTimes). “Pending further measurement of the skulls and further analysis of the data, it seems best to let this grubby affair rest in a footnote.”

Cancer and Left-Handed DNA.

Reaction path ensemble of the B–Z-DNA transition: a comprehensive atomistic study
Mahmoud Moradi, Volodymyr Babin, Christopher Roland, and Celeste Sagui
Nucleic Acids Res. published 26 October 2012, 10.1093/nar/gks1003
[Abstract] [Full Tex…

Reaction path ensemble of the B–Z-DNA transition: a comprehensive atomistic study
Mahmoud Moradi, Volodymyr Babin, Christopher Roland, and Celeste Sagui
Nucleic Acids Res. published 26 October 2012, 10.1093/nar/gks1003

[Abstract] [Full Text] [PDF]

Toxoplasma gondii

A food-borne parasite that infects domestic cats can get inside the human brain by commandeering special cells of the immune system which it uses as a Trojan horse to enter the central nervous system, a study has found. Scientists believe they have finally discovered the mechanism that allows Toxoplasma gondii – a single-celled parasite – […]

A food-borne parasite that infects domestic cats can get inside the human brain by commandeering special cells of the immune system which it uses as a Trojan horse to enter the central nervous system, a study has found.


Scientists believe they have finally discovered the mechanism that allows Toxoplasma gondii – a single-celled parasite – to pass from the human gut to the brain where it may cause behavioural changes.
Researchers have shown that the parasite can infect the dendritic white blood cells of the immune system causing them to secrete a chemical neurotransmitter that allows the infected cells, and the parasite, to cross the natural barrier protecting the brain.
Toxoplasma gondii can live in many different species but it can only complete its life cycle in cats, which secrete the parasite in their faeces. Studies have shown that toxoplasma affects the behaviour of rats and mice, making them more likely to be eaten by cats, thereby completing parasite’s complex life-cycle.
Latest figures released in September by the Food Standards Agency show about 1,000 people a day in Britain – 350,000 a year – are being infected with toxoplasma, probably from either direct contact with cats or by eating poorly-cooked meat or vegetables.
Up to 40 per cent of the British population are believed to be infected with toxoplasma and although the vast majority show no apparent symptoms, there is a risk to unborn children if their mothers become infected for the first time during pregnancy.
However, recent studies have also suggested that toxoplasma may be a trigger for psychological disturbances in humans, including schizophrenia, although the research has fallen well short of showing a cause-and-effect.
Antonio Barragan of Sweden’s Centre for Infectious Diseases at the Karolinksa Institute in Stockholm said that when infected with toxoplasma human dendritic cells, which are not part of the central nervous system, begin to secrete a neurotransmitter called GABA which is normally produced by brain cells.
“For toxoplasma to make cells in the immune defence to secrete GABA was as surprising as it was unexpected…This was unknown before. It means that the parasite had the capacity potentially to manipulate the central nervous system,” Dr Barragan said.
The study, published in the on-line journal Plos Pathogens, used human dendritic cells growing in a test tube, but it also showed that infected dendritic cells pass more easily than uninfected cells into the brains of laboratory mice.
“We’ve shown that it happens in human dendritic cells taken from healthy donors and also proved that the same thing happens in the mouse model. It shows that the parasite is using dendritic cells as a sort of Trojan horse to transport itself from the human gut to the brain,” Dr Barragan said.
“We’ve not looked at behaviour changes in people infected with toxoplasma, as that’s been dealt with by previous studies. Instead, we’ve shown for the first time how the parasite behaves in the body of its host, by which I mean how it enters the brain and manipulates the host by taking over the brain’s neurotransmitters,” he said.
GABA, or gamma aminobutyric acid, is involved, among other things, in inhibiting the sense of fear and anxiety. Rats and mice infected with toxoplasma show little fear of cats and Dr Barragan suggested that infected dendritic cells may continue to stimulate the production of GABA once the cells have entered the brain.
However, other scientists have shown that toxoplasma is capable of producing another nerve substance called L-dopa which is a chemical precursor to the dopamine neurotransmitter, which may be another route to altering mammalian behaviour.
“Many neuropsychiatric disorders implicate a dysregulation of several neurotransmitters. If one is affected, this may affect the others, or the balance between neurotransmitters. How GABA specifically acts in the equation is a question for the future,” Dr Barragan said.
Scientists emphasised that the jury is still out on whether toxoplasma is capable of influencing the behaviour or mental state of infected people given the preliminary nature of the studies showing a tentative link between the parasite and human behaviour.
“We believe that this knowledge may be important for the further understanding of complex interactions in some major public health issues that modern science still hasn’t been able to explain fully,” Dr Barragan said.
“At the same time, it’s important to emphasise that humans have lived with this parasite for many millennia, so today’s carriers of toxoplasma need not be particularly worried,” he said.

cousins

Bonobo Genome Found Strikingly Similar To Humans And Chimps (via redOrbit) Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com The bonobo, one of man’s closest relatives, has had its genome completely mapped by German researchers, placing a new checkmark in the DNA-sequencing list that … Continue reading


Bonobo Genome Found Strikingly Similar To Humans And Chimps (via redOrbit)

Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com The bonobo, one of man’s closest relatives, has had its genome completely mapped by German researchers, placing a new checkmark in the DNA-sequencing list that already includes humans, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, giving scientists a complete record of the…