Archive for May, 2009

Kansas girl wins national spelling bee

By Razib Khan | May 29, 2009 1:36 pm

The AP, 13-year-old Kansas girl wins National Spelling Bee:

Cool and collected, Kavya Shivashankar wrote out every word on her palm and always ended with a smile. The 13-year-old Kansas girl saved the biggest smile for last, when she rattled off the letters to “Laodicean” to become the nation’s spelling champion.

Here are the next 10 runner ups….

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The bubble in irrationality

By Razib Khan | May 29, 2009 10:56 am

Felix Salmon pointed me to The Myth of the Rational Market: A History of Risk, Reward, and Delusion on Wall Street today. There really is a boom in these sorts of books recently! Are we overdoing the “irrationality” bit? Probably. Mike offers up some skepticism about the creeping of irrationality as an explanation for everything.



By Razib Khan | May 29, 2009 9:31 am

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If these mice could speak

By Razib Khan | May 28, 2009 3:01 pm

pinkyAndBrain_traced.jpgNick Wade in The New York Times reports on new research where they inserted human FOXP2 genes into the mouse genome. Here are some of the findings:

Despite the mammalian body’s dependence on having its two FOXP2 genes work just right, Dr. Enard’s team found that the human version of FOXP2 seemed to substitute perfectly for the mouse version in all the mouse’s tissues except for the brain.
In a region of the brain called the basal ganglia, known in people to be involved in language, the humanized mice grew nerve cells that had a more complex structure and produced less dopamine, a chemical that transmits signals from one neuron to another. Baby mice utter ultrasonic whistles when removed from their mothers. The humanized baby mice, when isolated, made whistles that had a slightly lower pitch, among other differences, Dr. Enard says. Discovering that humanized mice whistle differently may seem a long way from understanding how language evolved. Dr. Enard argues that putting significant human genes into mice is the only feasible way of exploring the essential differences between people and chimps, our closest living relatives.

It isn’t a surprise that FOXP2 has a lot of effects. Additionally it probably isn’t that surprising that the “language gene” as it is sometimes hyperbolically termed changes the way mice vocalize, it seems to have evolved in songbirds as well as the lineage leading up to humans. Mice are obviously more similar genetically to humans than birds so it shouldn’t been that surprising.
The original paper is in Cell, A Humanized Version of Foxp2 Affects Cortico-Basal Ganglia Circuits in Mice:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Genetics

The "future" of the American automotive industry

By Razib Khan | May 28, 2009 9:32 am

BusinessWeek, The Tough Road Ahead for GM and Chrysler:

The upshot is that some 30 significant players worldwide are fighting over a pie that has shrunk by more than 30% in the past 12 months. The industry can make about 90 million cars worldwide, but it’s selling only about 55 million. Not exactly a forgiving environment for a pair of wounded car companies. That, partly, is why Chrysler’s rescue has struck some as misguided. Speaking of the government’s decision to save the weakest and smallest Detroit player, industry consultant Michael Robinet says: “We needed to take a patsy out, and we didn’t. We may have missed an opportunity. The Japanese, Hyundai, and the Germans will still be here.”

I was skeptical of the bailout last fall because I assumed bankruptcy was inevitable. Of course I don’t know much about the automotive industry, but numbers like those above aren’t hard to find. It seems likely that the government knew that a bankruptcy was coming anyway, so the whole song & dance about the bridge loans were going to make the companies viable was kind of weird, though perhaps there’s some “animal spirits” rationale for the soft landing….


Scitable, Nature as king of all science media?

By Razib Khan | May 28, 2009 8:04 am

A few weeks ago I was pointed to Scitable, part of the Nature media empire. Here’s how it’s introduced:

A free science library and personal learning tool brought to you by Nature Publishing Group, the world’s leading publisher of science.
Scitable currently concentrates on genetics, the study of evolution, variation, and the rich complexity of living organisms. As you cultivate your understanding of modern genetics on Scitable, you will explore not only what we know about genetics and the ways it impacts our society, but also the data and evidence that supports our knowledge.

Due to the disciplinary focus I can see why Nature Education might have thought I would be curious. Since I’m rather confused by Facebook’s constant barrage of applications the relative simplicity of the interface was a relief. The site has the standard “social networking” features, but these sorts of utilities are useless without content. I clicked Topics, then Population and Quantitative Genetics. This is an area where I feel that Google has problems spanning the gap between Wikipedia and academic articles…because there isn’t much content in between in terms of difficulty and depth.

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Kate Gosselin before & after!

By Razib Khan | May 27, 2009 10:43 pm

2144_Medium.jpgI was at the supermarket today and saw some some before and after pictures of Kate Gosselin on the cover of Us Weekly. Pretty crazy, though not as extreme as some of the “pre” and “post” makeup photos of celebrities you always see in Star. I don’t know much about the show but I get really interested in the couple’s story whenever I’m at at the supermarket (Us Weekly should be renamed The Gosselin Weekly). Now whenever I randomly run across a story about the Gosselins on the internet Fuji apples come to mind.
On a somewhat genetically related note some people have commented that it’s peculiar that the Gosselins’ offspring look so Asian when they’re only genetically 1/4 Asian. Jon Gosselin’s mother, who is ethnic Korean from Hawaii, chalked it up to the dominance of Korean genes apparently. It seems to me that Jon Gosselin is relatively Asian looking for someone who is Eurasian, so I am not that surprised that his offspring look more Asian than one might expect. But, they’re all very young, and many people look more Asian as babies than they do as adults. For example, the epicanthic fold that is common among adult East Asians is a trait which many non-East Asian infants, toddlers and children retain. Phoebe Cates, Keanu Reeves and Dean Cain seem more typical in appearance for someone who is 1/4 East Asian & 3/4 European in ancestry. The former is discernible, but not dominant, in their in adult appearance.
Note: Us Weekly original image source.


"The Quarks," prizes for weblog writing

By Razib Khan | May 27, 2009 9:40 pm

The first is for science weblog posts. Nominations end the 1st of June. Steven Pinker is picking the winner out of 6 finalists.


Evolution & the cat

By Razib Khan | May 27, 2009 11:37 am

Scientific American has a long piece reviewing the recent genetic insights into the origins and development of the most awesome pets of all:

It is by turns aloof and affectionate, serene and savage, endearing and exasperating. Despite its mercurial nature, however, the house cat is the most popular pet in the world. A third of American households have feline members, and more than 600 million cats live among humans worldwide. Yet as familiar as these creatures are, a complete understanding of their origins has proved elusive. Whereas other once wild animals were domesticated for their milk, meat, wool or servile labor, cats contribute virtually nothing in the way of sustenance or work to human endeavor. How, then, did they become commonplace fixtures in our homes?
Scholars long believed that the ancient Egyptians were the first to keep cats as pets, starting around 3,600 years ago. But genetic and archaeological discoveries made over the past five years have revised this scenario–and have generated fresh insights into both the ancestry of the house cat and how its relationship with humans evolved.

This part on the look of modern cats was surprising to me:

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Around ScienceBlogs

By Razib Khan | May 27, 2009 8:45 am

Return of the Quaternary
Jared Diamond hides behind the “it wasn’t science” defense
Building your own Star
Opponent-Process Theory: Welcome to the dark side
Cloud Computing

Indians were lepers a long time ago

By Razib Khan | May 27, 2009 12:12 am

Kambiz of is back. His first offering reports on a new paper on the evidence for leprosy in India 4,000 years ago.

…Lots of hallmarks in human existence occurred during this time period, some being inventions in system of writing, standardized weights and measures, monumental architecture, and trade networks that stretched to Mesopotamia and beyond. While the pathophysiology of leprosy is up in the air, it is not surprising that communicable diseases, even not very contagious ones like leprosy, also blossomed during the rapid sedentarisation of human populations.

Well, I guess it’s OK to reinforce some stereotypes if it’s in the service of science :-)


Conformity scorned, the dangers of within group criticism….

By Razib Khan | May 26, 2009 11:06 am

In light of my post on politics and personal perspective yesterday, I thought this “exchange” between Mark Levin and Conor Friedersdorf would be of note. Also see Rod Dreher on the controversy. In any case, here you have a case where the principals agree on the broad political issues at stake, and many of the specifics as well, but disagreemants over style lead Levin to takfir his critics. In fact, if you read the comments at the first link it’s clear that Friedersdorf’s point is basically unintelligible to many fans of Levin.


The evolutionary origins of human nature

By Razib Khan | May 26, 2009 9:50 am

On this week’s Science Saturday John Horgan interviews Richard Wrangham. The second half of the conversation focuses on Wrangham’s new book, Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. I’ve heard pieces of the arguments mooted in the back & forth before, but it looks like in this book they’re all brought together. Humans are a large animal with a very small gut, so we need to maximize the bang-for-the buck when it comes to what we eat. Unlike gorillas and to a lesser extent chimpanzees we just aren’t able to process enough low quality vegetable matter to keep ourselves going. Part of this also might be due to the fact that we have some serious energetic needs, our outsized brains require a lot of energy to keep them chugging along (as anyone with low blood sugar can tell you), and I also recall that our bipedal locomotion isn’t quite as efficient as that of the typical mammal’s at high speeds. Due to the topic it’s no surprise that they spend a fair time talking about the Raw Food movement. Wrangham’s thesis that we’re primed to consume cooked food because of our evolutionary background is obviously at odds with the theories which Raw Foodists propose (i.e., that in our “natural” state we didn’t cook foods). This is similar to some vegetarians who assert that man is naturally a plant eater. The very fact that we tend to crave meat and cooked foods would tend to argue against that, but there is plenty of evidence that humans have been omnivores who used fire to preprocess their food for a long time. But, the very difficulty of consumption of raw foods, or a high vegetable diet, is probably what makes them often a good choice for someone who wants to lose weight in an affluent society. In world with a surfeit of nutritional intakes putting foods on your plate which are relatively hard to digest (high fiber, etc.) and have a lower caloric intake per unit is a way to modulate consumption naturally (taking advantage of the very unnaturalness of what one is consuming).

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Anthroplogy, Evolution

The paradox of relationship thrift?

By Razib Khan | May 26, 2009 8:38 am

The Onion presents an interesting spin on the financial retrenchment that’s in vogue right now. I do wonder it’s really the best for the real estate sector, as it seems like it would reduce aggregate demand for rental units. Also, note the shout out to Robert Ingersoll.

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Brian Switek in Times Online on Ida

By Razib Khan | May 25, 2009 9:36 pm

Brian Switek of Laelaps has an op-ed in on Ida. Here’s the conclusion:

What could have been a unique opportunity to communicate science has quickly developed into a fiasco. Science proceeds through discovery and debate, and hypotheses do not become accepted by flooding the media with press releases. Scientific scrutiny of Ida has only just begun, and regardless of who her closest living relatives are, I hope the debate surrounding her will not sink away from sight. She truly is an amazing find, but for now I think that she has taught us more about science communication than our ancestry.

It seems to me one of the issues with “missing links” is that they reinforce the Great Chain of Being which is implicit in the public’s understanding of evolutionary processes.


Staring at "freaks"

By Razib Khan | May 25, 2009 3:38 pm

Why We Stare, Even When We Don’t Want To:

“When a face is distorted, we have no pattern to match that,” Rosenberg said. “All primates show this [staring] at something very different, something they have not evolved to see. They need to investigate further. ‘Are they one of us or not?’ In other species, when an animal looks very different, they get rejected.”
And so, we stare. (An averted gaze is triggered in some people. This too can be overridden only with great difficulty.)
It doesn’t take much of a facial anomaly to trigger a transfixed response; a normal human face upside down will do it. Or one that is simply unmoving.
In her work with Paul Ekman, who pioneered the widely accepted theory that human emotion conveyed via facial expressions is biological in origin, Rosenberg studied a group of people with a condition that prevents their facial muscles from moving.
“They talk about how difficult it is to interact with people because people can’t handle looking at a face that doesn’t move,” Rosenberg said.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cognitive Science, Genetics

MHC & mating

By Razib Khan | May 25, 2009 10:38 am

Dienekes points me to new research on MHC and mating:

The scientists studied MHC data from 90 married couples, and compared them with 152 randomly-generated control couples. They counted the number of MHC dissimilarities among those who were real couples, and compared them with those in the randomly-generated ‘virtual couples’. “If MHC genes did not influence mate selection”, says Professor Bicalho, “we would have expected to see similar results from both sets of couples. But we found that the real partners had significantly more MHC dissimilarities than we could have expected to find simply by chance.”
Within MHC-dissimilar couples the partners will be genetically different, and such a pattern of mate choice decreases the danger of endogamy (mating among relatives) and increases the genetic variability of offspring. Genetic variability is known to be an advantage for offspring, and the MHC effect could be an evolutionary strategy underlying incest avoidance in humans and also improving the efficiency of the immune system, the scientists say.

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Your neuro-personality in graphics

By Razib Khan | May 25, 2009 9:16 am

The Neurocritic points me to a paper, The brain structural disposition to social interaction:

Social reward dependence (RD) in humans is a stable pattern of attitudes and behaviour hypothesized to represent a favourable disposition towards social relationships and attachment as a personality dimension. It has been theorized that this long-term disposition to openness is linked to the capacity to process primary reward. Using brain structure measures from magnetic resonance imaging, and a measure of RD from Cloninger’s temperament and character inventory, a self-reported questionnaire, in 41 male subjects sampled from a general population birth cohort, we investigated the neuro-anatomical basis of social RD. We found that higher social RD in men was significantly associated with increased gray matter density in the orbitofrontal cortex, basal ganglia and temporal lobes, regions that have been previously shown to be involved in processing of primary rewards. These findings provide evidence for a brain structural disposition to social interaction, and that sensitivity to social reward shares a common neural basis with systems for processing primary reward information.

The primary figure, reedited for easy viewing on the page-width of this weblog:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cognitive Science, Psychology

Categorizing ideas & humans

By Razib Khan | May 25, 2009 9:04 am

Andrew Gelman has a post up titled Difficulties in trying to understand the views of others, responding to a Robin Hanson taxonomy outline the motivations of liberals, conservatives and libertarians. Gelman is skeptical of Hanson’s glosses of each group.
The human ability to engage in Meta-Representation is one of the hallmarks of our species. We can analyze abstract ideas, take the positions of others, examine counter-factuals and what-if’s. In terms of core competencies our Theory of Mind is a sharp knife, we are unparalleled at modeling social relations contingent upon the mental states of other human beings and how they might react to a huge range of inputs. Many scholars have made the case that core first order cognitive competencies such as Theory of Mind, Folk Physics, Meta-Representation, etc., are the units from our more complex mental activities or cultural productions are derived. Scientific models for example are abstractions of reality which allow us to examine alternative outcomes as we shift the parameters of the system. Many cognitive scientists would argue that our belief in supernatural agents, gods and ghosts, is only possible because of our well developed Theory of Mind.
What does this have to do with Robin Hanson’s post and Andrew Gelman’s response?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cognitive Science, Culture, Politics

Links of note

By Razib Khan | May 24, 2009 10:43 pm

A quick note. Two new ScienceBlogs: Christina’s LIS Rant & Confessions of a Science Librarian. Also, Afarensis, John Lynch and John Wilkins have new locations.


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