Thursday, August 24, 2006

They're in your braaaaaains.

So I've finally gotten my lazy arse (mantle?) in gear and signed on as a writer of this blog. Er...hi.

The reason I did this was not, unfortunately, because of any amazingly insightful commentary I had to provide; instead, it's more of a link dump, because something in Seed Magazine was just too awesome to pass up. It's likely a lot of my posts will be of this nature.

This article discusses some new findings that suggest an internal parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, has some effects on human (as well as rodent) behaviour, causing neuroticism and uncertainty avoidance. Now Toxoplasma is an exceedingly common parasite, afflicting significant -- but varying -- percentages of the population in different countries. The CDC has this to say about Toxoplasma gondii:
A single-celled parasite called Toxoplasma gondii causes a disease known as toxoplasmosis. While the parasite is found throughout the world, more than 60 million people in the United States may be infected with the Toxoplasma parasite. Of those who are infected, very few have symptoms because a healthy person's immune system usually keeps the parasite from causing illness.
So we have a transmissible agent of infection that afflicts large proportions of the human population and has measurable effects on behaviour. You know what that sounds like to me?


Yeah, so that's what this article in Seed is saying too. Earlier research has indicated that humans, Toxoplasma infection correlates highly with certain personality traits: Infected men tended to have lower levels of intelligence, superego strength and novelty-seeking, while infected women exhibited higher levels of intelligence, superego strength and warmth. Infected people of both sexes tend to be susceptible to feelings of guilt. [Seed]

This researcher from USGS, name of Kevin Lafferty, argues in his paper that infected women, intelligence, superego strength (rule-conscious, dutiful, conscientious, conforming, moralistic, staid and rule-bound) and affectothymia (warm, outgoing, attentive to others, kindly, easy-going, participating and likes people) are higher, while infected men have lower intelligence, superego strength and novelty-seeking (low novelty-seeking indicates rigid, loyal, stoic, slow-tempered and frugal personalities); both infected men and women have higher levels of guilt-proneness (they tend to be more apprehensive, self-doubting, worried, guilt prone, insecure, worrying and self-blaming; Flegr & Hrdy 1994; Flegr et al. 1996, 2000, 2003).
Toxoplasma gondii appears to manipulate human personality as a result of adaptations that normally help complete its complex life cycle from intermediate hosts to the final host, a cat (Webster 2001)....Parasites are under selection to increase the chance that final hosts eat intermediate hosts (Lafferty 1999). As a result, many parasites alter the behaviour of intermediate hosts to increase predation risk (Moore 2002). For example, T. gondii appears to manipulate rodent behaviour in sophisticated ways that would increase transmission to domestic cats (Webster 2001). Rodents infected with T. gondii are more active (Hay et al. 1983, 1984), first to enter traps (Webster et al. 1994), and less fearful of cats and their associated smells (Berdoy et al. 2000). Mice infected with T. gondii have elevated levels of dopamine (Stibbs 1985), a neurotransmitter known to alter novelty-seeking (Benjamin et al. 1996; Ebstein et al. 1996) and neuroticism (Lee et al. 2005).... Currently, cats rarely eat humans, so there should be little selective advantage for T. gondii to specifically manipulate human behaviour. Still, T. gondii cysts infecting a human have nothing to lose, evolutionarily speaking, in trying manipulative strategies adaptive in other intermediate host species.
The seroprevalence (percentage of people with antibodies to latent infections) of T. gondii varies geographically nearly from 0 to 100% (Tenter et al. 2000), suggesting that T. gondii could lead to variation in aggregate personality among populations (Lafferty 2005). In other words, the average personality of a population might be shifted if a higher proportion of individuals are infected with T. gondii. [from Lafferty's paper]

The paper's here in full text, if you can get to it; if not, try this. (Lafferty, K., 'Can the common brain parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, influence human culture?', Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2006.) His data, collected from 39 countries, seem to bear out the idea of cultural changes mediated by this parasite's manipulation of its hosts' brains. In fact -- and this is where it gets really interesting -- they bear out a strong correlation between
...a society's preference for strict laws, an expression of uncertainty avoidance, and its valuation of 'masculine' priorities such as competitiveness and financial success over 'feminine' values like relationship-building.
"Toxoplasma appears to explain 30% of the variation in neuroticism among countries, 15% of the uncertainty avoidance among Western nations and 30% of the sex role differences among Western nations," Lafferty said via e-mail.
Lafferty analyzed preexisting data on Toxoplasma prevalence and mean trait levels in 39 countries. He found a significant linear correlation between latent Toxoplasma prevalence and neuroticism with a few outliers, including the unusually neurotic nations of Hungary and China and the notably easygoing Turkey. [Seed]

So, obviously, the really interesting thing that's going on here is this: a parasite in the brain is responsible for 30% (!) of the differences in neuroticism, uncertainty avoidance, and attachment to sex roles -- this last, I suspect, being of particular interest to readers of this blog -- among all the nations Lafferty managed to survey. I'm not any kind of neuropsychologist, so I won't try to analyse his results in depth, but it's still worth some more investigation.

Traditional sex roles: don't listen to your parents, it's just their BRAIN PARASITES talking.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Bob Rants On: Genetic Determinists

Bob's Rants are likely to be a recurring feature. Be warned...

Among the various people who really get my goat are genetic determinists. They lean exclusively toward the Nature side of the Nature-versus-Nurture debate, and believe that a person's genetic code determines practically everything about that person.

They hold a position different from mine, and good for them! Science thrives on debate, and nothing enlivens a controversy like good old-fashioned polarization.

But in one sense the genes-versus-environment controversy has more at stake than, say, disagreement over the mechanism of enzymatic reactions. The premise that genes determine complex human characteristics, like morality and intelligence, has been used aggressively to promote social engineering. To Social Darwinists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, "survival of the fittest" wasn't just a mechanism that drove evolution, it was a moral imperative to cull "undesirables" from the human populations. What started out as a collection of drawing room intellectuals patting each other on the back for being "genetically fit" soon turned into public policy. The conflation of social privilege with genetic superiority allowed people to accept their socio-economic advantages without guilt, and gave them the additional pretext to deny the underprivileged a fair chance to succeed. "Pauperism" was declared a genetic predisposition to poverty, and many proposed it be "cured" via sterilization. Native Americans were actually sterilized. American immigration policies were severely biased against non-Anglo-Saxons, to prevent "dilution" of the national blood by less worthy ethnicities.

Many contemporary genetic determinists continue to attribute the low success rates of underprivileged groups to genetic causes. They are careful to avoid outright claims that "Caucasians and Asians are more intelligent than Africans". They speak of more averages and standard deviations and outliers than you can throw a bell curve at. But their underlying premise is that IQ tests and the SAT are accurate predictors of "intelligence" rather than of, well, test taking ability. If the average scores for whites and asians are higher than those of blacks and hispanics, it is because the evolutionary pressures on their ancestors selected for sentence completion and analogy recognition.

Come again?

It is interesting to note that genetic determinists have never doubted their own fitness. Why should they? It is obvious to them that they are the creme de la creme of the human race. If they are anything less than the fittest, they would clearly not be at the top of the game. Their status at the top confirms their belief in their genetic superiority. It also affords them the unique privilege to decide what "fitness" is, and to judge others for their difference.

More importantly, it allows them to strengthen their position in the social heirarchy. They are successful, therefore they are fit. They are fit and so are entitled to more. The have-nots are unfit because they have not, and therefore deserve not. It's the perfect excuse to eliminate social welfare, abandon affirmative action, and place power firmly in the privileged hands that have held it so far. And what of the women, the poor, the ethnic and racial minorities? Let them fend for themselves. After all, it's a jungle out there.

Funny how anti-science correlates with anti-feminism

Anti-Darwinist and co-founder of the Discovery Institute, George Gilder, reveals that his first beef with the theory of evolution is that it doesn't Put Women In Their Proper Place.

Darwinism seemed to offer me and its other male devotees a long-sought tool — resembling the x-ray glasses lamentably found elsewhere only in cartoons — for stripping away the distracting décor of clothing and the political underwear of ideology worn by feminists and other young women of the day. Using this swashbuckling scheme of fitness and survival, nature “red in tooth and claw,” we could reveal our ideological nemeses as naked mammals on the savannah to be ruled and protected by hunting parties of macho males, rather like us.

In actually writing and researching Sexual Suicide, however, I was alarmed to discover that both sides could play the game of telling just-so stories. In The Descent of Woman, Elaine Morgan showed humans undulating from the tides as amphibious apes mostly led by females. Jane Goodall croodled about the friendliness of “our closest relatives,” the chimpanzees, and movement feminists flogged research citing the bonobo and other apes as chiefly matriarchal and frequently homosexual.

Gilder proceeds to write a weak and disjointed essay on how Information Theory applied to his straw-man version of molecular biology proves that life could not have arisen without the input of an Intelligent Designer.

One of his more amusing claims is:

Biologists commonly blur the information into the slippery synecdoche of DNA, a material molecule, and imply that life is biochemistry rather than information processing. But even here, the deoxyribonucleic acid that bears the word is not itself the word. Like a sheet of paper or a computer memory chip, DNA bears messages but its chemistry is irrelevant to its content. The alphabet’s nucleotide “bases” form “words” without help from their bonds with the helical sugar-phosphate backbone that frames them. The genetic words are no more dictated by the chemistry of their frame than the words in Scrabble are determined by the chemistry of their wooden racks or by the force of gravity that holds them.

Let's ponder the last statement - that the chemistry of a DNA molecule is as irrelevent to its ability to convey information as the substance of a Scrabble rack is to the words formed during the game.

It is clear to me that one could play Scrabble with the same vocabulary and intellectual ability whether one used a wooden, metal, plastic or blue cheese rack. One could also conceivably play Scrabble in zero-gravity conditions. But if we were to make similar substitutions in the chemistry of a DNA molecule while keeping the "information content" constant, the ability to use those words would unquestionably be lost. Just try to replace the four nucleotides with four other arbitrary monomers. Without the requisite chemical bonds that Gilder pooh-poohs, a molecule that stores and conveys information is just so much polymeric gunk.

If Gilder's arguments made any sense, I could refute each one and say, "Ergo, information is not necessarily preceeded by intelligence." That consolation is lost under the deluge of misinformation, misquotation, obfuscatory jargon and non sequitors that he subjects us to. I can't desprove a premise if a cogent premise doesn't exist.

Panda's Thumb dismantles the essay, and lets the gunk on the cogs dry and shrivel under the blazing heat of Real Science.

Pharyngula points out that Gilder is an ideologue trying to force-fit science to his worldview. He also links to his previous previous posts on the gentleman's writings - well worth a read.

Pandagon explores the idea that creationism and fundamentalism appeal to people because they want justification for their own bigotries.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Excommunication Is Sought for Stem Cell Researchers

Scientists who engage in stem cell research using human embryos should be subject to excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church, according to a senior Vatican official.

"Destroying an embryo is equivalent to abortion," said the cardinal. Excommunication is valid for the women, the doctors and researchers who destroy embryos."

Mmhm. Didn't get the memo about Galileo, did you?

The Catholic Church punishes the most severe religious transgressions with latae senentiae, which is automatic excommunication of a church member. It applies to those who direct violence at the Pope, desecrate the Eucharist and have abortions.

Interesting that automatic excommunication applies predominantly to ecclesiastical offenses, for which excommunication seems a reasonable response. But it additionally applies to women who procure abortions, extending church authority to the bodies of female church-goers. The church may argue that protecting the sanctity of all human life is its responsibility. I wonder then if latae senentiae applies to all other instances in which a life is taken.

The Catholic Church is also vocal in its opposition to capital punishment. Are state executioners and involved officials excommmunicated as well? Perhaps the church is especially protective of "innocent", "defenseless" life. Then why doesn't it automatically excommunicate people who murder young children? And why not excommunicate priests who have molested children? They have injured children, betrayed their communities and damaged the integrity of the Church - an ecclesiastical offense by any stretch of the imagination.

The excommunication of women who have made a difficult decision in trying circumstances is arbitrary and cruel. Officials of the Church now wish to extend their controlling influence to scientists who are trying to save the lives of people with debillitating diseases. It seems clear that the Church is motivated by a desire not to protect life but to elevate an unsentient embryo above living people, especially the young and the ill.

In the process, the Church collides head-on yet again with Science, makes hand-wavy ecclesiastical arguments to justify bad policy, and threatens Catholic scientists with spiritual blackmail. I do not know how many practicing Catholics are working on embryonic stem-cell research, but I'm sure the number is not insignificant. Like all scientists with religious affiliations they find a way to reconcile their spiritual lives with their scientific work. I imagine that many feel called to their work out of a desire to end human suffering. For high-ranking Church officials to suggest they should be excommunicated is to circumvent the authority of God to call upon a believer to do His works. Is the Catholic Church within its rights to make such a decision? Can anyone tell me?

Monday, June 26, 2006

Half Empty or Hall Full?

Imagine a car race, where there are two cars A and B, A in the lead. B manages to catch up to A, and even starts to get ahead. There are two basic scenarios for what could have happened:

Scenario 1: A drops in speed, so B, still going at the same pace, is able to pass.

Scenario 2: B increases in speed while A stays the same, so B catches up.

Now, obviously we could determine which of these happened by analyzing average velocities. But which one do we believe happened?

We hear a report that girls are now catching up to boys, doing better in school, higher graduation rates, grades, even in “boy subjects” like math and science. Is it because (1) boys are doing worse or (2) girls are doing better?

Overwhelmingly, we seem to believe it is Scenario 1, that somehow our education system is failing the boys. We are so concerned in fact, that Newsweek had a cover story about how we need to "Save the Boys!". Stop worrying about girls! Our education system is failing behind! Having female teachers (women in authority!) plus asking boys to “behave” and “follow rules” and “turn in homework on time” is asking too much of them! It’s not like the system was made for boys in the first place, and for a century or two boys seem to do fine.

When girls are doing well, we assume it’s not that girls are doing better, it’s that boys, in comparison are doing worse. The Newsweek article (and many others like it) believe we need to change the system to help boys. When girls were behind forty years ago, there were no thoughts of changing the system, it was how to change girls to better succeed in this system. Now that they have managed to succeed, they are now outstripping boys, so now the system is “bad” because it “penalizes boys”. Sigh. Girls just cannot get a break in this country.

The good news? One study is now realizing this. Quote from the study :

"The real story is not bad news about boys doing worse," the report says, "it's good news about girls doing better.”

Finally the press seems to get the idea. But while the headline “Boys doing worse!” can make the cover of Newsweek, “Girls doing better!” cannot even stay on the front page of the Washington Post the day it’s published. Why don't we sing girls praises, for doing so well in really, so short on a time? Why do we assume girls can't be doing better, boys must be doing worse? How can we fix this?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Should pro-choicers always vote democrat?

As you may know, Louisiana Govonor Kathleen Blanco signed a statewide ban on abortions, a “trigger law” that will take effect if (when?) Roe V Wade is overturned. So, this begs the question, how safe is it to vote democrat when some decide to renounce women’s rights in such a way? Should we always vote democrat? What’s better, a pro-life democrat or a pro-choice republican?

So, I’m going to look at this question purely from an abortion rights standpoint, ignoring other issues. The confirmation of Samual Alito to the Supreme Court will almost certainly tilt the court against abortion and women’s rights. His beliefs on abortion rights were extremely clear, and most people are convinced he would vote to overturn Roe V Wade.

Four democrats voted to confirm Alito: Bryd (W. Va), Conrad(ND), Johnson (SD) and Nelson (Neb). All four are either confirmed pro-life (Nelson) or have heavily pro-life leanings, according to NARAL rankings. All are also fairly conservative, from very conservative states. Senate minority leader Reid, however, while staunchly pro-life did vote against Alito, as did pro-life leaning democrats Landrieu and Pyror.

As for the republicans, only one republican Senator Chafee of Rhode Island, voted against Altio. He is one of four prominently pro-choice republicans, but the other three, Snowe, Collins and Spector, all voted for Alito.

Snowe especially has gotten endorsements and supports from pro-choice groups, but what good is that when she won’t vote pro choice when it counts? Votes were more along party lines on both sides than ideology. In addition, current NARAL rankings show that pro-life democrats have similar voting records on abortion to pro-chioce republicans, ironically enough, so these labels may not mean much. Which makes me think a pro-life democrat is a safer vote than a pro-choice republican, because, most often, they will follow the party lines.

Monday, June 19, 2006

First things first

Women who wish to make a contribution to the realm of science have long had their work cut out for them. They have been relegated to the hearth, enjoined to passivity, upbraided for their temerity in straying from their ordained roles, decried as rabble-rousers, burnt as witches, dismissed as soft-headed and exploited as uncredited lab-grunts.

The roots of this tradition run deep. Hypatia, after whom this blog is named, was reportedly flayed to death by a religious mob that viewed her science as sorcery. During the Enlightenment, the liberty and welfare of all Mankind were seen as just and noble goals, and Science thrived as an intellectual field. Yet somehow these high ideals didn't extend to women's freedom to pursue scientific learning. As recently as the 20th century, women who attained an education in the sciences were excluded from arenas where male scientists could share and develop their ideas. Highly trained and talented women were treated as technical assistants.

While we have come a long way since those days, women still have a long way to travel. Women now make up a much larger percent of undergraduate degrees in the sciences, but we have not yet made up the predicted gains in women professors and “higher-ups” in industry. One description I heard from a prominent women scientist was it is not one thing keeping women out of science, it is the accumulation of small inequalities, which slowly build up over time and edge women out of science. Women are paid less and despite what some may think of affirmative action, women have more difficulty being hired and are held to higher standards than men. One study showed that handing the same resume for a faculty position and placing a woman’s name at the top, it would get a much less favorable response than if it were a man’s name. They determined a woman would have to publish 2.5 times more to be seen as equal to a male competing for the same offer.

Women are also forced out of science not by direct prejudice, but by “choice.” The United States falls behind almost every developed country in the amount of maternity leave and support we give working mothers. For many women, it must be a choice between science and family, in a way very different from the choice for a man. These are not free “choices” women have to make.

We are concerned not only about the specific issues that affect us as women in science, but the way women's rights and civil rights are being eroded, and how religious beliefs are being touted as "science" in public policy.

We are scientists, engineers and mathematicians who believe that intellectual ability is not the domain of one gender.

Saturday, June 17, 2006


Natural Philosopher (355? - 415 CE)

She is one of the more romantic figures in science. She was the daughter of Theon, a mathematician who taught at the great school at the Alexandrine Library. She traveled widely and corresponded with people all over the Mediterranean. We know of her only through her letters because all of her work was destroyed when the Great Library of Alexandia was destroyed.

She taught at the school in the Library in Alexandria, Egypt. Letters written and addressed simply to the philosopher were delivered to her. She taught mathematics and natural philosophy. She is credited with the authorship of three major treatises on geometry and algebra and one on astronomy. She invented several tools: an instrument for distilling water, an instrument to measure the specific gravity of water, an astrolabe and a planisphere.

She died violently. She was dragged to her death by a mob who pulled her from her classroom into the streets where they peeled her to death with oyster shells.

She wrote that:

  • All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final.
  • Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.
  • To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing.