Archive for the 'Evolution' Category

The monkey gland craze

I’ve just started reading a book I’ve been very curious about: “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” by Robert Sapolsky. It’s a breakdown of the various physiological processes that occur when we undergo stress, and what their evolutionary advantage was (and, often, what their disadvantage is in modern times.)

The book has a number of interesting anecdotes. For instance, in the early 1900s, it was presumed that men lost their sex drive as they aged because of declining “male factors” in the testes. As a result…

Soon, aged, money gentlemen were checking into impeccable Swiss sanitariums and getting injected daily in their rears with testicular extracts from dogs, from roosters, from monkeys. You could even go to the stockyards of the sanitarium and pick out the goat of your choice — just like picking lobsters in a restaurant… this soon led to an offshoot of such “rejuvenation therapy,” namely, “organotherapy” — the grafting of little bits of testes themselves. Thus was born the “monkey gland” craze, the term gland being used because journalists were forbid to print the racy word testes. Captains of industry, heads of state, at least one pope — all signed up.

It’s a good thing I wasn’t around back then. People would doubtless observe my awesome manliness and demand — perhaps by force of law — that I contribute my impressive “male factors” to inferior specimens of man.

Rape and pregnancy

It’s rare you see interesting science involved in political kerfuffles. Thus, I was intrigued at the controversial statements by Republican Todd Akin that rape victims are unlikely to have successful pregnancies. His statement was…

“From what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare,” said the U.S. Senate candidate in response to a question about whether abortion should be legal in cases of rape. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down.”

Is this actually true? After a few days of not seeing anything in the media addressing what would seem to be a key question, I came across this article. Experts: Rape does not lower odds of pregnancy The crux of the article:

[The experts] conclusion contradicts a statement made last weekend by Rep. Todd Akin, R-Missouri, who suggested in an interview with CNN affiliate KTVI that rape rarely results in pregnancy.

However, there’s an interesting side note here. This article, discussing a kind of spontaneous abortion called preeclampsia notes that post conception, the female body can “shut the whole thing down,” and does so with increased occurrence after rape. Some select quotes from the article…

More often than not, preeclampsia is the result of a hostile immunological maternal response to the paternal genome in the developing conceptus. In other words, the mother’s body is unwittingly terminating a pregnancy that has arisen with a man for whom she has an incompatible biochemistry.

By the early 1980s, scientists had started to notice that preeclampsia was more likely to occur in pregnancies resulting from “one-night stands,” artificial insemination and rape than in pregnancies that were the product of long-term sexual cohabitation.

Now why would this be? Scientists have a theory.

“It may be useful to think about preeclampsia not simply as a medical anomaly,” reason the authors, “but as an adaptation that may have evolved to terminate pregnancies where future paternal investment was questionable or unlikely.” [WF: such as rape] Their argument, which is admittedly speculative, is predicated on the basic parental investment theory in evolutionary biology. While males could impregnate a potentially limitless number of females and spread their genes far and wide without any cost but a euphoric 90-second time investment, ancestral women’s genetic interests were compromised by having sex with a man who had no intention of helping her to raise any resulting offspring. Yet, if she did, and conceived as a consequence of that intercourse, preeclampsia was a second line of adaptive defence that would terminate this “costly” pregnancy—a sort of Darwinian morning after pill, as Gallup explained it to me.

The whole article is fascinating and really worth reading.

Now, essentially both articles are correct. Rape does not seem to be a factor in whether a woman becomes pregnant. But rape does seem to be a factor as to whether she “keeps” that pregnancy. (I’d be interested in knowing how much of a factor, but haven’t seen any data yet.)

Groove on my elephant brothers

I’m on the final chunk of the book “Music, Language, and the Brain” and it’s revealing its treasures faster than a French whore undressing in your hotel room. The final section of the book discusses the human ability to perceive a beat e.g. our ability to tap in time with a song. This is so innate that we probably don’t think about it much, but it’s a skill lost on most animals. The book argues that this skill might have developed from a more generic skill called “temporal anticipation.” A good example of temporal anticipation is this: I throw you a ball. You have to position your hands in the right place at the right time in order to catch it. Basically, you have to anticipate when the ball will be at a certain coordinate in three dimensional space. Similarly, with beat perception we anticipate when the next beat will fall based on what we hear as a pattern. In both cases we are predicting an event in time. Beat perception may have evolved out of temporal anticipation.

I’ll add my own thoughts here. Perceiving beats is one of the more satisfying aspects of listening to music. Who doesn’t love pumping their fists in the air in time with AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and feeling Satan’s power coursing through your veins? I’d argue that when we correctly perceive a temporal event (say, the fall of a drum hit, or catching a ball in space) we probably get a little neurotransmitter “reward” – perhaps a mild blast of dopamine or serotonin – that gives us a sense of pleasure. Thus we enjoy musical grooves and going to AC/DC concerts (and catching balls.)

I’ll add a further level to this. Scientists have theorized about the existence of what are called mirror neurons – brain neurons that fire both when we perform an activity and when we watch someone else perform an activity. Thus when we seen a drummer nail a drum hit, or a ball player catch a ball, we get a little thrill because our mirror neurons are firing with the performer’s.

I’m reminded of my time in Olympia Washington at the height of the punk rock, riot grrl movement in the early 90′s. The level of musicianship in that town, especially in the dominant musical scene, was simply atrocious, mainly because these pseudo-egalitarian commie socialists felt that judging a person’s ability by any standards was a notion derived from the loathed, dominant patriarchal hierarchy (or some similar nonsense.) Thus there was an attitude of “Play drums in time? Why would I do that when I can express my non-comformity by banging away on the drums like a fucking retarded monkey??!” I can recall watching bands and being perplexed by the horrible rhythm I was hearing. I wanted to pump my fist in time, but when I hit the beat the drums weren’t there to support me. These idiots thought they were violating the laws of “society” (the particular law being “play drums in time”) but I would argue they were violating a much older law encoded into the human brain. If some four-foot tribal caveman from the past visited Olympia back then he probably would have said, “Man, you fuckers suck!!” If there was any justice he would have thrown his feces at them.

Anyway, the book mentions another interesting tidbit. A few other animal species can create a steady beat, including elephants. There’s even an elephant orchestra in Thailand. Check this out:

Of quails and chickens

I’m finishing up this tome “Music, Language, and the Brain.” It’s been one of the more difficult books I’ve ever read primarily because its excessive use of academic terminology, but worth plowing through because occasionally you stumble across really fascinating nuggets of science. For instance, at one point the author is describing an experiment involving baby chickens and quails. As eggs, the embryonic birds were housed in isolation so that they could not hear the sounds of their parents. When they were hatched, the chicks showed a preference for the sound of chickens, and quails showed a preference for the sound of quails. This would seem to indicate that we have a genetic, inborn preference for the “talk” of members of our species.

But here’s where it gets weird. Check this out…

A decade after this original study, Long performed an impressive experiment that probed the neural basis for this preference. Using surgical techniques pioneered by Balaban, the researchers cut small holes in the eggs and operated on the embryos, transplanting different portions of the developing neural tube of quails into chicks. They then sealed up the eggs and housed them in incubators isolated from adult bird sounds. After hatching, they tested these chimera birds for their perceptual preferences using the methods of Park and Balaban. They found that when the transplant was in a specific region of the developing midbrain, the chimeras showed a preference for the quail maternal call.

It seems insane that they can even perform such surgeries, and even crazier that it actually worked: the chunk of brain responsible for responding to quail sounds happily set up shop in the chicken brain.

One must wonder if these mutant birds grew to gigantic proportions and developed an unceasing hunger for human flesh. The book doesn’t mention this, but that would be somewhat off-topic.

E.O. Wilson and modern-day tribalism

In the past, I’ve commented on my belief that people’s tendency to group together in social units and eagerly defend their compatriots while damning their foes probably goes back to our tens of thousands of years evolving in tribal groups. In this blog post about political division, I wrote…

The general view from the left seems to be that you can’t just disagree with conservatives, you must hate them with every fiber of your being, and the inverse is true from the right. People go to great lengths to segregate themselves from people who don’t think like they do.

[This] might make some sense from an evolutionary perspective. When we existed in small tribes, the rest of the world really was out to destroy you, so it was pretty easy to assign the worst motivations to the “them” in “us and them.”

The biologist E.O. Wilson has a new book out exploring this very concept. This article of his summarizes parts of it. One interesting point: once people have joined their group (whether it be fans of certain sports team, people with like-minded politics or people with the same skin color) they’re willing to believe the worst about others.

Experiments conducted over many years by social psychologists have revealed how swiftly and decisively people divide into groups and then discriminate in favor of the one to which they belong. Even when the experimenters created the groups arbitrarily (italics mine), prejudice quickly established itself. Whether groups played for pennies or were divided by their preference for some abstract painter over another, the participants always ranked the out-group below the in-group. They judged their “opponents” to be less likable, less fair, less trustworthy, less competent. The prejudices asserted themselves even when the subjects were told the in-groups and out-groups had been chosen arbitrarily.

I think we’ve all felt this, especially as teenagers. You get arbitrarily assigned to some group (maybe “people whose last name starts with the same first letter is yours”) and you feel a certain bonding for your fellow members and a certain derision for members of all their groups. (“Those people whose last name begins with ‘P’… they’re scum.”) Soon you’re casting taunts at these “others,” then throwing rocks at them. Then you are raiding their villages, killing their men, raping their women, and heartlessly slaying their children before them.

Come on, admit it, we’ve all done it.

Musical Cells

An interesting subject I’ve been reading about is the presumption of how cellular life evolved. In theory, before cells existed, there were all these tiny quasi-alive things floating around and they ending up grouping together within a membrane and becoming single cells. These cells ending up dividing and changing and thus we have variation in cells, which leads to different forms of life.

It struck me this is a bit like the formation of music. You might have a couple snatches of music floating around but they have no structure. Eventually these snatches group together – one becomes a verse, another a chorus etc. – and form a coherent whole, like the formation of a cell. And songs also vary between being a lot alike (the entire blues canon) and quite diverse (rap versus classical.)

This indicates that music represents the core structure of life. With this knowledge I can cause people’s brains to melt out of their heads. I AM UNSTOPPABLE!!!

The slow march towards obsolescense

I’ve commented in the past on the observation, made by many, that creative, artistic types seem to become less creative with time. In the realm of music, art, film etc., an artist past age 50 or so is over the hill and assumed to be no longer capable of exciting work. Their output may have a technical mastery, but no soul.

Today, a possible evolutionary reason for this struck me. Let’s presume that the main “purpose” of artistic talent (from an evolutionary perspective) is to attract a mate. Artists are fundamentally  honing their skills to be seen as talented by attractive consorts. These consorts are presumably “thinking” (on a subconscious level), “This artist has skills. As such, our progeny would also have skills and be able to earn a mate and thus carry on my genes. It would be in the interests of my cellular lineage to mate with this artist.” However, it’s at around 50 or so that people become physically unattractive and their abilty to solicit sex dissolves. Our bodies know that at this age all the talent in the world won’t make up for our hideous appearences, our flabby wrinkled flesh, our inabilty to control our own flatuence, etc. As a result, there is no longer a reason to inspire any kind of creative drive, to perculate the creative juices, to stoke the artistic embers. Our brain essentially gives up and resolves itself to watching Cheers reruns with a martini in hand, immolating our once great frontal cortex in alcohol and mediocrity.

Curse yourself happy, continued

The millions of frequent readers of this blog are doubtless familiar with a theory I’ve been intermittently ruminating on: the idea that swearing offers some kind of cathartic release for a subconscious part of the brain/mind. In essence, when you swear in anger, you’re giving voice to some part of yourself that is not often allowed to speak. This part may be what Freud would refer to as the id.

Part of what got me thinking about this was people with Tourette’s syndrome — they seem to have this uncontrollable need to swear. I’m also reminded of several cases of people who were in horrible accidents and lost much of their frontal cortex. These people could not use language, but they could swear. The famous Phineas Gage who lost some of his prefrontal cortex in an accident and went from being a responsible prude to a degenerate brute famous for swearing (a real-life Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde situation) might also offer anecdotal evidence. And frankly, just my own experience with the catharsis of swearing makes me think it’s offering some release of tensions held deep within the mind.

It turns out that there’s actually been a lot of academic investigation in this topic, much of it nicely summarized in this Time magazine article. First the article discusses a study investigating how cursing alleviates pain.

To figure out why, psychologists at Britain’s Keele University recruited 64 college students and asked them to stick their hands in a bucket of ice water and endure the pain for several minutes. One group was allowed to repeat a curse word of their choice continuously while their hands were in the water; another group was asked to repeat a non-expletive control word, such as that which might be used to describe a table. The result was that swearing not only allowed students to withstand the discomfort longer, but also reduced their perception of pain intensity. Curse words, the study found, help you cope.

The article then takes comments from famed psychologist/scientist Steven Pinker, who offers a theory remarkably similar to my own.

That’s probably because humans are hardwired to swear cathartically, says Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist and author of The Stuff of Thought, an exploration of the psychology of language. Pinker distinguishes cathartic cursing from using profanity descriptively, idiomatically, abusively or for emphasis, and points to similar behavior in animals that suggests its evolutionary roots. If you step on a dog or cat’s tail, it will let out a sharp yelp of pain, for example. “Swearing probably comes from a very primitive reflex that evolved in animals,” Pinker says. “In humans, our vocal tract has been hijacked by our language skills,” so instead of barking out a random sound, “we articulate our yelp with a word colored with negative emotion.”

The part of the brain that accounts for the urge to swear — or yelp, in the case of animals — is deep within, suggesting its primitiveness. Studies of non-human primates show that vocalization is nearly always attributed to subcortical processes in the brain, in those regions that control primal, raw emotions, says Diana Van Lancker Sidtis, a professor of speech language pathology and audiology at New York University. In humans too, the urge to swear likely stems from primitive parts, but it is usually overridden by commands from the brain’s more complex cortex — the abundant gray matter on which humans rely for language and reason, among other sophisticated abilities. “We have intact frontal lobes, which inhibit these responses,” Sidtis explains. But in certain circumstances — either because we don’t bother to inhibit them or because the shock of pain or discomfort momentarily surpasses the safeguards — our impulse for obscenity takes over. “In that way, it’s like the dog when you step on his tail,” Sidtis says.

Or, in the case of Phineas Gage and others who suffered cortex destroying accidents, the inhibition of cursing is no longer possible, because the brain parts that do the inhibiting are now splattered outside the brain. And in the case of people with Tourette’s, perhaps the ability of the cortex to inhibit the behavior of their primitive brain is somehow itself inhibited.

Can swearing offer catharsis and help relieve pain? Fuck yeah! I said, fuck yeah you stupid shit eating cunt hole!

(Sorry, I’m just doing this for my health. I feel better already.)

The God part of the brain

I’ve been reading an interesting book called “The God Part of the Brain.” It’s written by an author who freely admits that he had a bad acid trip as a young man which sent him on a decade-plus search for the roots of spirituality. His thesis is that human spirituality is an evolved function, much like language, passed through genes. Up to the point that I’m at in the book, he’s made two arguments — one that man, a creature whose only defense is his intelligence, is the only animal who realized his own mortality, thus setting off a kind of existentialist crisis for the species. Second, man, with his acumen with numbers, was the only creature to be able to contemplate notions of infinity which are integral to religion and spirituality. These notions of mortality and infinity were a kind of psychological attack, and in order to weather them, man had to develop his religions.

I’m not entirely sure I buy this, or at least it sounds more like a skeleton of a theory than a fully fleshed out idea, but it’s pretty interesting.

Were our ancestors too stupid to appreciate pain?

When you think about pain, especially chronic pain, you have to wonder about the supposed cleverness of the body’s design. Certainly immediate, sharp pain — say, from stepping on a nail — has a clear and useful message: get away from this nail (and tend to your foot.) But if that pain persists with you for months or years (in a muted form) what’s the point? Certainly one could ask what’s the point of phantom limb pain which is pain from a part of the body that doesn’t even exist anymore.

I’m reading an interesting book called “The Emotion Machine” by Marvin Minsky, an author most famous for his contributions to the realm of artificial intelligence in computers. He makes similar comments about the “injustice” of pain.

It seems fair to complain that, in this realm [pain], evolution has not done well for us — and this must frustrate theologians: Why are people made to suffer so much? What functions could such suffering serve?

He then offers a theory as to why we might suffer from chronic pain.

Perhaps… the bad effects of chronic pain did not arrive from selection at all, but simply arose from a “programming bug.” The cascades that we call “Suffering” must have evolved from earlier schemes that helped us to limit our injuries — by providing the goal of escaping from pain with an extremely high priority. The resulting disruption of other thoughts was only a small inconvenience before ancestors evolved new, vaster intellects. In other words, our ancient reactions to chronic pains have not yet been adapted to be compatible with the reflective thoughts and farsighted plans that only later evolved in our brains.

Basically, if you’re Neanderthal moron and you’re sitting there thinking “Duuuuuuuhhhh…” all day, you don’t really mind the intrusion of pain in your thoughts. But as humans evolved and became highly intellectual creatures, that constant nag induces what Minsky refers to as “Suffering.”

This explanation seems to be missing something — there’s more to the quality of pain than just disruption of our thoughts. But it’s an interesting idea.