Thursday, January 27, 2011

Humans Left Africa Earlier, During Ice Age Heat Wave

Humans Left Africa Earlier, During Ice Age Heat Wave

A warm spell during the Ice Age gave early humans a route out of Africa 20,000 years earlier than thought, say scientists who've uncovered a prehistoric tool kit in Arabia.

A period of climate change about 130,000 years ago would have made water travel easier by lowering sea levels and creating navigable lakes and rivers in the Arabian Peninsula, the study says.

Such a shift would have offered early modern humans—which arose in Africa about 200,000 years ago—a new route through the formerly parched northern deserts into the Middle East.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The ‘Point’ is Beside the Point | Big Questions Online

The ‘Point’ is Beside the Point | Big Questions Online

Over the past decade I have participated in several debates over the question, Does the Universe Have a Purpose? — most recently in Puebla, Mexico, in November, 2010 — when Richard Dawkins, Matt Ridley, and I squared off (literally — in a boxing ring) against Rabbi David Wolpe and the theologians William Lane Craig and Douglas Geivett.

The theists argued that without God the universe has no purpose. They invested most of their time making the case for God’s existence through standard arguments: the Big Bang had to have a first-cause which is God, the fine-tuning of the universe for stars, planets, and life could only have come about by God, the intelligent design of living organisms is only accountable for by an Intelligent Designer, the existence of consciousness is a product of the conscious agent who created the universe, and the moral sense of right and wrong could only have come from a moral law giver.

Why are these arguments irrelevant to the question? Because whether there is a God or not, the universe per se cannot have a purpose in any anthropomorphic sense for which that term is usually employed. The universe is simply the collection of galaxies, stars, planets, comets, meteorites, and other solar system detritus, plus whatever dark matter and dark energy turn out to be. The universe is governed by laws of nature that themselves have no purpose other than what they inevitably dictate matter and energy to do. Stars, for example, convert hydrogen into helium, and they have no choice in the matter once they reach a certain size and temperature. Stars are not sitting around thinking “my purpose in life is to convert hydrogen into helium so I better get on with it.” Ditto everything else in the universe, including all living organisms, from C. elegans to H. sapiens.

Life began with the most basic purpose of all: survival and reproduction. For 3.5 billion years organisms have survived and reproduced in a lineal descent from the pre-Cambrian to us, an unbroken continuity that has endured countless terrestrial and extraterrestrial assaults and five mass extinctions (six if you count the one we may be causing). This fact alone imbues us with a sense of cosmic purpose. Add to it the innumerable evolutionary steps from bacteria to big brains, and the countless points along the journey in which our lineage could have easily been erased, and we arrive at the conclusion that we are a glorious contingency in the history of life. As Charles Darwin wrote in the penultimate paragraph of his 1859 masterpiece On the Origin of Species: “When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.”

Humans have an evolved sense of purpose — a psychological desire to accomplish a goal — that developed out of behaviors that were selected for because they were good for the individual or for the group. Although cultures may differ on what behaviors are defined as purposeful, the desire to behave in purposeful ways is an evolved trait. Purpose is in our nature. With brains big enough to discover and define purpose in symbolic ways inconceivable to billions of preceding and co-existing species, humans stand apart as genuinely unique in our attention to purposeful behavior. Evolution gave us a purpose-driven life.

By Michael Shermer

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Male Bird Links Its Call To Deadly Enemy To Get Female Attention

Male splendid fairy-wrens in Australia prefer to make their calls after a predator makes its, and females pay more attention when the calls are linked. Cynthia Graber reports.
It’s one of the oldest moves in teen dating. Head to a scary movie. As soon as the scary music kick in, your date cuddles closer for comfort. Well, some birds may have the same idea. Splendid fairy-wrens are small, sexually promiscuous birds native to Australia. It turns out that males get the attention of potential mates by making their move after a predator announces its presence. The research was published in the journal Behavioral Ecology. [Emma Greig and Stephen Pruett-Jones, Danger may enhance communication: predator calls alert females to male displays]

That’s the sound of butcherbirds, which prey on splendid wrens. Every time male wrens hear that cry, they sing this in response [wren sound]. Researchers say the calls become layered atop one another, almost like a duet.

Christianism Watch - The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

Christianism Watch - The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

This Week's Hot Reads

This Week's Hot Reads

A riveting history of the white chief who led the Cherokee tribe through their most progressive era, then through their greatest tragedy.

John Ross wasn't Cherokee, but he grew up in their villages and spent his days hunting and fishing with their children. Before the "Cherokee Moses" had reached his 30th birthday, he had fought alongside the tribe, and unified the Southeastern tribes under a democratic government. He went toe-to-toe with President Andrew Jackson, opposing the aggressive policies that were driving Native American tribes further west. His arguments in Congress and the Supreme Court drew the attention of John Quincy Adams and Chief Justice John Marshall, but Ross was ultimately sent away, defeated to march on the Cherokee's long road into exile. "You feel the fate of John Ross and the Cherokees," author Hampton Sides wrote of Hicks' "probing, eloquent" history.

An Evolutionary Biologist Answers Christine O'Donnell's Question About the Missing Monkey-Humans - Newsweek

An Evolutionary Biologist Answers Christine O'Donnell's Question About the Missing Monkey-Humans - Newsweek

To imply that if evolution were true we should see monkeys turning into people shows not much knowledge of biology. Clearly Ms. O’Donnell is not very knowledgeable on this subject.

We did not evolve from monkeys as such: they are a living organism. We evolved from a common ancestor. If you go farther back, we evolved from the same ancestor as all vertebrates.

All of those changes have taken an extraordinarily long time. Even a single change in a species takes a very long time. For example, there is evidence that some humans in Africa and Europe have evolved ability to drink milk as adults without lactose intolerance. That change clearly took thousands of years to occur as one generation of species replaces another. One genetic type has to survive better or have more babies. That process of replacement takes hundreds or thousands of generations. So you don't see evolution over your lifetime, even if the change were slight.

If you compare us to our closest relatives, chimpanzees, the changes are significant. It took 5 to 6 million years. No biologist has any expectation that monkeys would change into anything but monkeys over our lifetime.

Boy grieves as brother who gave his life for him is laid to rest

Elena Grothe writes:Several emotional images emerged from the funerals of flood victims Donna Maree Rice and Jordan Rice. Blake, pictured above, is the younger brother who was rescued after his brother, Jordan, told the rescuer to save Blake first.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Tragedy, Death & Solidarity

At Gettysburg Lincoln might have been expected to defend the North and blame the South—which is what Edward Everett did in the speech preceding his. Rather, the bulk of his speech was given to praising the dead and urging others to learn from them.

Death should forge a bond among the living

Gary Wills

Richard Dawkins Plays the Piano - "Earth History in C Major"

Tunisia's Spark - The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

Tunisia's Spark - The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

Theodore Dalrymple compares the Tunisian and Algerian riots to what the future holds for Europe. He also recounts the figure at the center of it all:

The story of the young Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi, whose suicidal self-immolation was the spark that set Tunisia aflame, is instructive.

He was 26 and had a degree in computer science. Like 200,000 other university graduates in Tunisia (in a population of 10 million), he could not find a job. He then tried selling fruits and vegetables from a stall. However, he did not have bureaucratic permission to do this—such permission being bestowed by other university graduates, lucky or well-connected enough to have found jobs in the public-sector bureaucracy. The police constantly harassed him because he didn’t have the requisite licenses. It is said that he set fire to himself when a policeman spat in his face. ...

The penny is not likely to drop soon regarding the fact that governments don’t create jobs; at best, they create the conditions in which jobs can be created. The future of Europe, I fear, can be discerned in Tunis and Algiers.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

ScienceShot: The Dusty Swirls of the Whirlpool Galaxy - ScienceNOW

ScienceShot: The Dusty Swirls of the Whirlpool Galaxy - ScienceNOW

Fall of Rome Recorded in Trees - ScienceNOW

Fall of Rome Recorded in Trees - ScienceNOW

A new analysis of European tree-ring samples suggests that mild summers may have been the key to the rise of the Roman Empire—and that prolonged droughts, cold snaps, and other climate changes might have played a part in historical upheavals, from the barbarian invasions that brought about Rome's collapse to the Black Death that wiped out much of medieval Europe.

"Looking back on 2500 years, there are examples where climate change impacted human history," says the study's lead author, Ulf Büntgen, a paleoclimatologist at the Swiss Federal Research Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape in Zurich. "This kind of information is not only relevant for ancient agrarian societies, it might also impact modern societies."

Chart Of The Day - The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

Chart Of The Day - The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

Gabrielle Giffords' Difficult Path Back From a Brain Injury

Gabrielle Giffords' Difficult Path Back From a Brain Injury

Until Bob returned to work 10 months later, I would not turn on a TV or watch any news. It was painful to see that my husband, who loved what he did, was no longer in the mix as a journalist. He might never be in the mix again. As I awoke daily into the fresh hell of grief and uncertainty during the five weeks he was comatose, part of me was stunned that the world outside the ICU window kept on spinning. The sun still rose and set. People still went to the grocery store. I couldn’t imagine it then, but the real work was about to begin.

Take life hour by hour. Forget about a day—that’s too long. Some days just getting through an hour is a monumental task.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

My father's murder must not silence the voices of reason in Pakistan by Shehrbano Taseer

Shehrbano Taseer

I can't help but roll my eyes when I'm informed I must keep a guard with me at all times now. After my father, Salmaan Taseer, was assassinated by his own security guard on 4 January – my brother Shehryar's 25th birthday – does it even matter? If the governor of Pakistan's largest province can be shot dead by a policeman assigned to protect him in broad daylight in a market in the federal capital, Islamabad, is anyone really safe?

It was after lunch that I started receiving one message after another from friends inquiring about my father. I rang him. No answer. I called his chauffeur in Islamabad. He was wailing and incoherent. I told him to calm down and tell me everything. The governor had been about to step into the car after lunch at his favourite local cafe, he said. He had been shot in the back. There was a lot of blood, he said. I told him everything would be fine: my father was a fighter and he would make it.

According to the postmortem report I read, they recovered 27 bullets from his body, which means the gunman actually reloaded his weapon so nothing would be left to chance. Each one of my father's vital organs was punctured by the hail of bullets, except his heart and larynx – his mighty, compassionate heart and his husky, sensible voice.

The assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, had reportedly asked others in the governor's temporary security detail to take him alive. Almost a dozen, including security personnel, are now under arrest. Speaking to camera crews the same day from jail, 26-year-old Qadri said he had killed my father because he had criticised the country's draconian and often misused blasphemy laws. It seems that Qadri was also inspired by the rally against my father on 31 December, at which rabid protesters demanded his blood. Yet no arrests were made over this brazen incitement to murder.

The blasphemy laws were foisted on Pakistan by Islamist dictator General Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s. As an intellectual firebrand of the Pakistan People's Party, my father endured jail and torture during that dictatorship. We had thought the nightmare and brutality of the Zia regime was over when the general's aircraft fell out of the skies in 1988. We were so wrong.

Some 200 lawyers – men of the law – garlanded Qadri and showered him with pink rose petals on both his days in court. The president of the lawyers' wing of the opposition party Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz was reportedly among them. The smiling assassin has become the poster boy for the unholy ambitions of the self-deluded. Lawyers who fought for an independent judiciary are standing in support of a self-confessed murderer. This is not the Pakistan for which my grandfather, MD Taseer, fought alongside founding father Mohammad Ali Jinnah.

The inability of the state to prosecute terrorists successfully is proving fatal for Pakistan. The country's antiterrorism courts, where Qadri was presented, have a sorry record on convictions, and have been clogged by non-terrorism cases. The state is unable to gather evidence properly, make a cohesive case and ensure the safety of those who provide evidence against the militants. It is a different matter when it comes to trying poor, underprivileged Pakistanis – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – accused of blasphemy. Under pressure from the mobs outside, Pakistan's lower-level courts convict quickly, but these convictions are almost always overturned by the higher judiciary, although the accused (and in some cases the judges) are then killed by vigilantes.

My father was buried in Lahore on 5 January under high security. Cleric after cleric refused to lead his funeral prayers – as they had those of the sufi saint Bulleh Shah – and militants warned mourners to attend at their own peril. But thousands came to Governor House on that bitterly cold morning to pay their respects. Thousands more led candle-lit vigils across the country. But the battle is not going to be over any time soon.

In Pakistan, the voices calling for reason and tolerance are in danger of being wiped out. The fear is palpable. The militants have issued a warning against further vigils for my father. Yesterday, a rally in support of the blasphemy laws was held in Karachi, at which mullahs incited violence against former information minister Sherry Rehman – my mother's close friend, and the brave woman I was named after – who tabled a bill in the National Assembly in November proposing blasphemy-law amendments. The politician and former cricketer, Imran Khan, and former prime minister Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain – both conservatives – have also come out in support of my father's position: amending the blasphemy laws to prevent their misuse. The ruling party – my father's party – continues to equivocate.

My father's assassination was a hate crime fuelled by jihadist fervour, abetted by some irresponsible sections of the media and sanctified by some political actors. All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good people do nothing. The loss of one good man must not deter others. Pakistan's very future depends on it.

First Earth-Sized Exoplanet Discovered - ScienceNOW

First Earth-Sized Exoplanet Discovered - ScienceNOW

Astronomers have announced the discovery of an extrasolar planet not much larger than Earth—the smallest exoplanet yet found. Although the world orbits too close to its sun to sustain life, the finding is a milestone in the quest to find out how common Earth-sized, habitable planets really are. It also shows that, with some luck and some innovative new technology, astronomers could be announcing the discovery of a habitable Earth-like exoplanet within a few years.

Today's announcement, made at the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle, Washington, had been foreshadowed. Last year, team members operating the Kepler telescope orbiting the sun announced that they had found so many new exoplanets less than half the size of Jupiter that Earth-sized exoplanets must be abundant.

Now Kepler has found the much-anticipated first rocky, Earth-sized exoplanet. It did it by staring for months on end at the same 150,000 stars in the constellation Cygnus. Kepler's 1-meter-diameter telescope, hooked up to a sensitive light-measuring instrument, is capable of detecting the dimming of a star as a planet orbits in front of it—even if the star dims by only 0.01%. That's like detecting the dimming of 10,000 light bulbs when one burns out, noted Kepler deputy science team leader Natalie Batalha of NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

Holding Giffords’s Hand by Amy Davidson

Holding Giffords’s Hand

Christina-Taylor Green was nine years old, and is dead. It is hard to stop thinking about her. In some measure that’s because, having spent a good part of the spring and summer watching Little League, I can very easily imagine her playing second base—her regular position as the only girl on her Canyon del Oro Little League team. She came from a baseball family: her grandfather managed the Phillies, Mets, and Yankees, and her father, John Green, was a Dodgers scout. John told reporters that Christina wanted to be the first woman to play in the major leagues; she was also considering a career in public service. She was born on September 11, 2001, and might have done or become just about anything. (One thinks of the frequent complaint about the scarcity of good people who are drawn to political careers; another loss.)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Matt Ridley: When ideas have sex


It is said that in War the truth is surrounded with a bodyguard of lies. When it comes to the religious professional apologist the game is to surround the lie with a bodyguard of truths.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Silence of the Gods

Why doubt the God concepts so far?

The silence of the Gods is strong and the proud,loud, diverse, contradictory, and extraordinary claims of humans who speak for the Gods is anemic and that is why I doubt the existence of their Gods. The human claims are many and the evidence is little more than a non sequitur.
A long view of history should make one cautious to believe in the God of the moment. Changing, morphing, adapting, and hybrid religions are common in the history of human civilization.

Do people reject evolution because it unnerves them?

Do people reject evolution because it unnerves them?

...when primed to feel loss of control, the students were much more likely to prefer either ID or CMTE (although still a large majority accepted evolution).
So the students seem to compensate for their feeling of anxiety and uncertainty induced by their loss of control by turning to theories about life that reassure them that there is some kind of plan in place.
All this may help explain why evolution is unpopular in parts of the world where life is full of uncertainty. And it might help explain why religion and rejection of evolution so often go hand in hand. Both are tools that provide compensatory control.

This Remarkable Thing

Egypt's Muslims attend Coptic Christmas mass, serving as "human shields" - Ahram Online

Egypt's Muslims attend Coptic Christmas mass, serving as "human shields" - Ahram Online

The Gathering Storm, Ctd - The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

The Gathering Storm, Ctd - The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

The Psychology of Religion-What you want, god wants

What you want, god wants

"The more I study religions the more I am convinced that man never worshiped anything but himself."
~Sir Richard Francis Burton

by Tom Rees

The gods can't be communicating their preferences directly (because there's no such thing), so where do these beliefs come from?

One obvious source is the various holy books. However, even if you restrict yourself to adherents of a single religion, there are vast differences in beliefs about god's opinions (and that's just looking around the world today - when you extend the comparisons back in time the disagreements between believers become even more dramatic).

All this suggests that people must be projecting their own beliefs and opinions onto their god. A bundle of new studies from Nicholas Epley, at the University of Chicago, suggests that that is exactly what happens.

What he and his colleagues did was to subtly manipulate people's own opinions, and see if that affected their ideas about what God's opinions were.

Their beliefs about what god thought did change, however. In fact, the correlation between their own opinions and those they attributed to God was very strong.

'What would jesus do?' It turns out that what Jesus would do is exactly what 'I' would do - at least in so far as figuring out what Jesus's opinions are. Thinking about God's opinions and thinking about your own opinions uses an identical thought process.

This is a fascinating result. It suggests that people use God not to inform their own decision making, but to reinforce it. Here's what the study's authors conclude:

People may use religious agents as a moral compass, forming impressions and making decisions based on what they presume God as the ultimate moral authority would believe or want. The central feature of a compass, however, is that it points north no matter what direction a person is facing. This research suggests that, unlike an actual compass, inferences about God’s beliefs may instead point people further in whatever direction they are already facing.

Now, this doesn't show that religion has no influence on attitudes and opinions. Other research has shown that it does. But it does show is that people can and do reinvent their god to suit their own beliefs.

They make god in their own image.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Stephen Hawking Biography -

Stephen Hawking Biography -

Born January 8, 1942 in Oxford, England. The eldest of Frank and Isobel Hawking's four children, Stephen William Hawking was born on the 300th anniversary of the death of Galileo, which has long been a source of pride for the noted physicist. Stephen was born into a family of thinkers. At a time when few women thought of going to college, the Scottish born Isobel earned her way into Oxford University in the 1930s, making her one of the college's first female students. Frank Hawking, another Oxford graduate, was a respected medical researcher with a specialty in tropical diseases.

Stephen Hawking's birth came at an inopportune time for his parents, who didn't have much money. The political climate was also tense, as England was dealing with World War II and the onslaught of German bombs. In an effort to seek a safer place to have their first child, Frank moved his pregnant wife from their London home to Oxford. The Hawkings would go on to have two other children, Mary (1943) and Philippa (1947). A second son, Edward, was adopted in 1956.

The Hawkings, as one close family friend described them, were an "eccentric" bunch. Dinner was often eaten in silence, each of the Hawkings intently reading a book. The family car was an old London taxi and their home in St. Albans was a three-story fixer-upper that never quite got fixed. The Hawkings also kept bees in the basement, and made fireworks in the greenhouse.

In 1950, Stephen's father took work as the head of the Division of Parasitology at the National Institute of Medical Research, and spent the winter months in Africa doing research. He wanted his oldest child to go into medicine, but from an early age Stephen showed a passion for science and the sky. That was evident to his mother who, along with her children, often stretched out in the backyard on summer evenings to stare up at the stars. "Stephen always had a strong sense of wonder," she remembered. "And I could see that the stars would draw him."

Early in his academic life Stephen, while recognized as bright, was not an exceptional student. At one point in high school, his mother recalled, he was third from the bottom of his class. Instead, Stephen turned his mind loose on pursuits outside of school. He loved board games, and with a few close friends created new games of their own. At the age of 16 Stephen, along with several other buddies, constructed a computer out of recycled parts for solving rudimentary mathematical equations.

He was also on the go a lot. "Always on the move," said a family friend. "Hardly ever still." With his sister Mary, Stephen, who loved to climb, devised different entry routes into the family home. He remained active even after he entered Oxford University at the age of 17. He loved to dance, and also took an interest in rowing, becoming one of the Oxford rowing team's coxswain.

To his father's chagrin, Hawking finally said no to medicine, instead expressing a desire to study mathematics. But since Oxford didn't offer a mathematics degree, Hawking gravitated toward physics and, more specifically, cosmology.

Read More

Neurotoxins in society

Dr. Douglas Fields on Neurotoxins
Chief of the Nervous System Development and Plasticity Section, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

...through adolescence, the human brain is molded by the social environment in which a child is reared. A disrespectful, stressful social environment is a neurotoxin for the brain and psyche, and the scars are permanent.

One can debate how accurately television entertainment reflects reality, but there is no doubt that it represents the ideals of the time. Commercial art and entertainment always reflect and reinforce a society's values, as the public buy it (literally) because they value it. There is no doubt that American society has changed dramatically with respect to manners and social discourse in a generation. The "Leave It to Beaver" model of American polite society in the 1950s and early 1960s is gone. Those black-and-white sitcoms have been supplanted today by garish reality television programs that showcase domestic and social interactions driven by narcissism, factionalism, competition and selfishness.

The contrast between the brash, comparatively disrespectful behavior of Americans today and the courtesy, formal manners, civil discourse, polite behavior and respect for others regardless of social status that is evident in Japanese society is striking. The contrast hits an American like a splash of cold water upon disembarking the airplane in Japan, because it clashes so starkly with our behavior. For an American, Japanese manners and courtesy must be experienced.

American children today are raised in an environment that is far more hostile than the environment that nurtured today's adults. Children today are exposed to behaviors, profane language, hostilities and stress from which we adults, raised a generation ago, were carefully shielded. When I was a boy, there were no metal detectors at the entrance to my school. The idea was inconceivable, and there was indeed no need for them. Not so today. I wonder: how does this different environment affect brain development?

First it is helpful to consider, from a biological perspective, what "rudeness" is, so that we can consider what is lost when formal polite behaviors are cast away. People (and animals) living together in large numbers must develop strict formalized behaviors governing interactions between all individuals in the group, or there will be strife and chaos. In the natural world, as in the civilized world, it is stressful for individuals (people or animals) to interact with strangers, and also with other members of a working group and family members. As the size of the group increases, so do the number of interactions between individuals, thus raising the level of stress if not controlled by formal, stereotyped behavior, which in human society is called "manners." The formal "Yes, Sir, Yes, Ma'am," is not a showy embellishment in the military; strict respect and formal polite discourse are the hub of the wheel in any effective and cohesive social structure. True, many chafe under a system of behavior that is overly rigid, as do many young Japanese, but my point is that these polite and formalized behaviors reduce stress in a stressful situation that arises from being an individual in a complex society. Stress is a neurotoxin, especially during development of a child's brain.

Studies have shown that children exposed to serious psychological trauma during childhood are at risk of suffering increased psychiatric disorders, including depression, anger, hostility, drug abuse, suicidal ideation, loneliness and even psychosis as adults. Using modern brain imaging, the physical damage to these children's brain development can be seen as clearly as a bone fracture on an X-ray. Early-childhood sexual abuse, physical abuse and witnessing domestic violence undermine the normal wiring of brain circuits, especially those circuits connecting the left and right sides of the brain through a massive bundle of connections called the corpus callosum. Impairment in integrating information between right and left hemispheres is associated with increased risk of craving, drug abuse and dependence, and a weakened ability to make moral judgments. (See my post "Of Two Minds on Morality" for new research on the corpus callosum and the ability to make moral judgments.)

A series of studies by a group of psychiatrists and brain imaging scientists lead by Martin Teicher, of Harvard Medical School, shows that even hostile words in the form of verbal abuse can cause these brain changes and enduring psychiatric risks for young adults. In a study published in 2006, the researchers showed that parental verbal abuse was more strongly associated with these detrimental effects on brain development than was parental physical abuse. In a new study published in the July issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, they report that exposure to verbal abuse from peers is associated with elevated psychiatric symptoms and corpus callosum abnormalities. The main causes are stress hormones, changes in inhibitory neurotransmitters, and environmental experience affecting the formation of myelin electrical insulation on nerve fibers. The most sensitive period for verbal abuse from peers in impairing brain development was exposure during the middle school years. Why? Because this is the period of life when these connections are developing in the human brain, and wiring of the human brain is greatly influenced by environmental experience.

Unlike the brains of most animals, which are cast at birth, the human brain develops largely after we are born. The brain of a human infant is so feeble that human babies are helpless. Human infants cannot walk, visual perception is rudimentary, and cognitive abilities, likes and dislikes, talents and skills, and the ability to communicate by speech or through reading and writing do not develop fully until the completion of adolescence. Our brains are the product of the environment in which we are nurtured through the first two decades of life. Whether you are Mormon or Muslim or speak Spanish or French depends primarily on where you were born and raised. Our experience during childhood and adolescence determines the wiring of our brain so powerfully that even processing of sensory information is determined by our childhood environment. Whether or not we can hear eight notes in a musical scale or 12, or whether we find symmetry in art beautiful or boring, or whether we can hear the difference in sound of the English letter "R" vs. "L", depends entirely upon whether our brains wired up during childhood in Western culture or Asian culture. The neural circuitry underlying those sensory perceptions is directed by what we experienced in early life, and these circuits cannot be rewired easily in the adult brain.

One can view the effects of environment on brain development with fatalism or with optimism. It is, however, the reason for human success on this planet. The fact that our brains develop after we are born rather than in the womb allows humans to adapt to changing environments. Biologically speaking, this increases the likelihood of success in reproducing in the environment we find ourselves rather than in the cave-man past coded through natural selection in our genes.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

50 Best Natural History Blogs

50 Best Natural History Blogs

No matter how sophisticated humanity’s technology grows, nature will continue to draw in just as much — if not more — fascination. From the most distant galaxies to the imperceptible quasar, the scientific principles driving the universe lead millions to study them in depth and attempt to make sense of any mysteries. No matter one’s proficiency and area of interest, there exists a blog catering to their needs. Though the term "best" is, of course, highly subjective, the following resources provide a nice start for natural history enthusiasts hoping to immerse themselves in the world’s organic curiosities.

Where Are Congress' Unreligious? - The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

Where Are Congress' Unreligious? - The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

The Pew survey of the new Congress finds little too surprising about the religious make-up of the new bunch, but this is still remarkable:

The greatest disparity between the religious makeup of Congress and the people it represents is in the percentage of the unaffiliated — those who describe their religion as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” Only six members of the 112th Congress (about 1%) do not specify a religious affiliation and none say they are unaffiliated. By contrast, about one-sixth (16%) of U.S. adults are not affiliated with any particular faith.

This group has also been growing very strongly - but the public political culture closets it.

Post by Andrew Sullivan

The Flame in the damp of the night - Memento Mori

African vultures dying of poison - environment - 06 January 2011 - New Scientist

African vultures dying of poison - environment - 06 January 2011 - New Scientist

AFRICAN vultures are starting to follow their Asian cousins on a deadly downward spiral.

Munir Virani and colleagues at the National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi, have reported that vultures in and around the Masai Mara National Reserve have suffered a population crash of over 50 per cent in the last 25 years (Biological Conservation, DOI: 10.1016/j.biocon.2010.10.024). Over the same period the number of livestock farmers near the park soared. The pattern of vulture deaths suggests their main threat comes from the farmers, who leave dead goats laced with the toxic pesticide Furadan to kill hyenas and lions.

In south Asia, griffon vultures have been driven to near-extinction by consuming accidentally poisoned cattle carcasses - cows that had been treated before death with drugs that happen to harm vultures. Because vultures range widely and eat communally, only 1 per cent of cattle need to be poisoned to affect the whole population. This makes the use of deliberately poisoned carcasses in Africa even more of a threat to the scavengers.

The irony, says Chris Bowden of the UK's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, is that if the poisoned carcasses eliminate vultures, it will help the hyenas and lions that the farmers are trying to eliminate to flourish. That's because there will less competition for the carrion normally eaten by the birds.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Response to Tragedy: A Solipsistic Search for Meaning vs. Stoic compassion

Christopher Hitchens:Concerning the Virginia Tech killings and the response...

"The person being quoted is the Rev. Susan Verbrugge of Blacksburg Presbyterian Church, addressing her congregation in an attempt, in the silly argot of the day, "to make sense of the senseless":

Ms. Verbrugge recounted breaking through the previous week's numbness as she stopped on a morning walk and found herself yelling at the mountains and at God. Though her shouts were initially met with silence, she said, she soon was reassured by the simplest of things, the chirping of birds.

"God was doing something about the world," she said. "Starting with my own heart, I could see good."

Yes, it's always about you, isn't it? (By the way, I'd watch that habit of yelling at mountains and God in the greater Blacksburg area if I were you. Some idiot might take it for a "warning sign.") When piffle like this gets respectful treatment from the media, we can guess that it's not because of the profundity of the emotion but rather because of its extreme shallowness. Those birds were singing just as loudly and just as sweetly when the bullets were finding their targets.

But the quest for greater "meaning" was unstoppable."

Solipsistic purpose and false sentiment that makes evil acts sacred-insult to injury. Yes to real solidarity that helps the victims and honors them and not the aggressors. Do not damn the victims of violence with an infusion of divine purpose that soothes and feeds egocentric narrow-minded solipsism. Stand with the victims do not damn their tragedy with false meaning or divine blessing. For example Christians who say God allowed the holocaust so that the jews would return to Palestine.
I believe it was Aristotle who stated that, luck is when the other person is getting hit with an arrow. This type of luck is a good description of the problem of human narcissism and the limits of human imagination due to self -preservation. face suffering head on and be wide awake and not filter it with false meaning that insults the victims.

During the sniper shootings a reporter was interviewing a woman who had just escaped a bullet but a man next to her had been hit. Her response to the reporter was filled with a euphoric joy and she stated that her God had saved her and led her not to be shot. Humans have a hard time encompassing the reality of all human experience and instead focus on their own immediate experience. This womans miracle was the other mans murder. Aristotles luck. A woman named Ashley Smith was under the thumb of a fugitive killer and she explains how her faith and a book called The Purpose-Driven Life helped save her and lead the fugitive to justice. This saved her life and now she has fame to go along with it. But about the same time there was a little nine year old girl named Jessica Lunsford who was being raped and murdered. She was buried in a shallow grave. One claims to be miraculously saved because of her faith and a book and the other is ruthlessly murdered. We know what Ashley is telling the media but what would Jessica tell us? What would she have to say about purpose? We do not know because she has no personal voice but Ashley does along with fame and a best selling book. Our altruism should be tamed with the knowledge that the dead have no voice.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Cosmic Perspective - "the fuel of interest to the fire of genius"

America's secular roots

Sam Haselby - The enigma of America's secular roots

On 3 January 1797, 214 years ago, Joel Barlow, an American poet pressed into service as the US consul-general in Algiers, drafted and signed the treaty of Tripoli. Its article 11 states: "The government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." In 1797, to those who had drafted and signed the declaration of independence and the constitution, it seemed a statement of plain truth. American newspapers reprinted the treaty of Tripoli without igniting public debate. The US Senate approved it unanimously and without discussion. President John Adams signed it without comment.

In the past two generations, a "Christian nation" movement in the US has made article 11 of the otherwise-forgotten treaty of Tripoli's an occasional point of debate. In a sense, article 11 is a bit of an enigma. Why was the disavowal of Christianity included in the treaty? Did Barlow intend it to mollify the Bey of Algiers and other Muslim leaders of the Barbary states, whose piracy exerted an expensive toll on US shipping in the Mediterranean? Was it meant to rally European revolutionaries, who had become Barlow's friends and allies? Did it aim to consolidate the authority of Thomas Jefferson and other secularists in America, whose achievements Barlow prized? It is not clear, and Barlow never explained.

It may not be clear why Barlow put article 11 in the treaty of Tripoli, but it is clear that he had once had religion, and lost it. Following his 1778 graduation from Yale, he entered the ministry and, in 1780, became a chaplain in the revolutionary army. In 1784, the Connecticut general assembly even made Barlow the state of Connecticut's official translator of the Book of Psalms. In 1792, however, after four years in London and Paris, he published Advice to the Privileged Orders, a revolutionary work which, basically, offered members of the European aristocracy their lives in exchange for their surrender.

Advice to the Privileged Orders included a polemical attack on religion. "Nations," wrote Barlow, "are cruel in proportion as they are religious." The jury was still out, he wrote, on whether Islam, "the crescent of the east", was infused with "the lust of slaughter", but he insisted it was simply a matter of the historical record that Christianity had "committed greater ravages" than any other religion. "The cross of the west," he wrote, was "the wandering demon of carnage."

In contrast to the militant secularists of today, whose work suggests that ignorance and feeble individual minds lead to religion, Barlow thought that sick societies led to religion. More moderate secularists today are quick to concede the formal beauty or theoretical appeal of religion. Barlow granted no such allowance. Religion is not a good idea that men corrupt, he wrote, rather "men are corrupted by the church".

Barlow thought that a religion or "mode of worship" granted "any preference in the eye of the law" was incompatible with "equal rights". Therein lay the force and the fury that drove the first generation of American secularists. Religion, they insisted, was responsible for inequality. The moment any member of a society is granted "familiar intercourse with God, you launch him into a region of infinities and invisibilities", which alone could obscure the natural equality and brotherhood of all men. The creation of a clerical class, the "giving to one class of men the attributes of God", was the very inception, the root and branch, of inequality. Abolish all legal privileges for religion, Barlow wrote, and you will then begin "to tear the bandage from the eyes of mankind, to break the charm of inequality".

In Advice to the Privileged Orders, which was meant primarily for European readers, Barlow boasted of the historic contribution of the United States to secular government. It was American secularism, he wrote, that made possible, "the continuation of public instruction in the science of liberty and happiness".

Today it would impossible to appoint a man with Barlow's outspoken radical views to a high-level diplomatic post. No doubt, too, that Barlow would be dismayed at how, in the United States, secularism and the fight for equality have parted ways. For him, that was the point.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Secrets of the Colosseum

Secrets of the Colosseum

“A team of workmen at the capstan could raise a cage with a bear, leopard or lion inside into position just below the level of the arena. Nothing bigger than a lion would have fit.” He pointed out a diagonal slot angling down from the top of the wall to where the cage would have hung. “A wooden ramp slid into that slot, allowing the animal to climb from the cage straight into the arena,” he said.

Just then, a workman walked above our heads, across a section of the arena floor that Colosseum officials reconstructed a decade ago to give some sense of how the stadium looked in its heyday, when gladiators fought to their death for the public’s entertainment. The footfalls were surprisingly loud. Beste glanced up, then smiled. “Can you imagine how a few elephants must have sounded?”

Read more:

The Top Dinosaur Discoveries of 2010

The Top Dinosaur Discoveries of 2010

2010 has been a good year for dinosaurs. Numerous new species have been named, long-awaited conference proceedings have been published, new techniques for studying the past have been devised, and scientists finally allowed us to answer one of the most confounding questions in dinosaur science. There was so much new dinosaur science that it was impossible to cover it all here (in fact, an accepted manuscript describing a new, giant horned dinosaur from New Mexico called Titanoceratops was just made available while this post was being prepared), but here is a breakdown of the top discoveries discussed here at Dinosaur Tracking over the past 12 months.

Before the Dinosaurs

There is much that remains unknown about the origin and early evolution of dinosaurs, but several discoveries announced this year have helped to fill in the early history of dinosaurs and their close relatives. Tracks made by the precursors of dinosaurs – the dinosauromorphs – found in the 249-million-year-old rock of Poland suggest that the ancestors and close relatives of the first dinosaurs originated not long after the great Permian mass extinction 251 million years ago. Creatures of this antiquity can be tricky to identify. Azendohsaurus, once thought to be an early dinosaur, was reclassified this year as being only a distant cousin, and the newly-described creature Asilisaurus was somewhat dinosaur-like but not a dinosaur itself.

Funky Theropods

Multiple theropod dinosaurs were described this year, but two exceptional species stand out. One, the carcharodontosaurid Concavenator, had a short sail on its back and may have had tubular bristles growing out of its forearms. The other, the raptor Balaur, had only two fingers on each hand and a double set of hyperextendable sickle claws on each foot. (And, while not as anatomically strange, the first specimens of Linheraptor described this year were absolutely gorgeous.)

Other notable theropod news included the discovery that a specimen of the small predator Juravenator from the famous Jurassic limestone quarries of Germany preserved traces of both scales and feathers, traces of predatory dinosaurs digging after mammals in their burrows found in Utah, and that the idea that Sinornithosaurus was venomous was rightly called into question. Paleontologists also confirmed that many, if not most, coelurosaurs did not exclusively dine on meat, making this group of dinosaurs one of the strangest and most varied of all.

Of course, no list would be complete without mention of some of the studies about that most famous group of theropods, the tyrannosaurs. The Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences devoted a special issue to Albertosaurus, the tyrannosaur Bistahieversor was named, direct evidence was found of cannibalism among Tyrannosaurus, the identity of the purported tyrannosaur from Australia was debated, damaged bones showed that Tarbosaurus could be delicate with its massive jaws, and one study found that Tyrannosaurus and other predatory dinosaurs had some extra “junk in the trunk.”

Year of the Ceratopsians

Although theropod dinosaurs regularly make headlines, 2010 was notable for the exceptional number of new studies about horned dinosaurs. The year’s major story was the formal publication of the idea that the dinosaur called Torosaurus was really an adult stage of Triceratops – an argument which will require further study to resolve – but paleontologists were also thrilled to see the publication of the New Perspectives on Horned Dinosaurs volume, a landmark publication in the study of this group. Multiple new species of ceratopsians were described this year, as well. In addition to those announced in the conference volume, Koreaceratops, Zhuchengceratops, Utahceratops, Kosmoceratops, Sinoceratops, and Ajkaceratops (the first confirmed ceratopsian from Europe). Our understanding of ceratopsians is rapidly changing, and I am currently working on a formal academic article reviewing the significant discoveries which were announced this year.

Armored Dinosaurs

Multiple new analyses published this year have altered our perspective of the armored stegosaurs and ankylosaurs. Regarding stegosaurs, in particular, an issue of the Swiss Journal of Geoscience included a spate of papers about the relationships and biology of these dinosaurs, including studies on stegosaur soft tissue, their relatively weak jaws, their posture, the history of stegosaur discoveries, and stegosaur diversity in the Late Jurassic of North America. Furthermore, a pair of studies by Phil Senter on the forefeet of Stegosaurus and the ankylosaurs Edmontonia and Peloroplites have shown that these dinosaurs had a semi-tubular arrangement of lower limb bones similar to that seen among some sauropod dinosaurs, changing our understanding of how these armored dinosaurs walked.

Sauropods and Their Kin

The long-necked, large-bodied sauropods are among the most iconic of the dinosaurs, but new discoveries are rapidly changing our understanding of their origin and evolutionary history. The discovery of the sauropodomorph Sarahsaurus from Arizona has helped identify an evolutionary pattern in which these dinosaurs migrated into North America multiple times during the Early Jurassic rather than just being part of a single move northward. Another sauropodomorph described this year, Seitaad, provided further evidence for this hypothesis.

A presentation at this year’s Geological Society of America meeting caused a stir by claiming to have found tracks of juvenile sauropod dinosaurs running only on their hindlimbs. Paleontologists are awaiting further details about these fossil footprints. Most of the known sauropod tracks are quite a bit larger, and footprints made by some sauropods may have formed deathtraps which later preserved smaller dinosaurs like Guanlong and Limusaurus.

One sauropod nest site in Argentina was found in close proximity to geysers, vents and other features associated with geothermal activity – the dinosaurs selected a naturally-heated nursery. Nesting sites were not always safe, though. A different nest site in India contained the remains of a snake that had been feeding on baby sauropods.

Even well-known sites and old collections are yielding new discoveries. A juvenile Diplodocus skull collected decades ago has helped show how the diets of these dinosaurs changed as they aged. This specimen came from Dinosaur National Monument, and a geologically younger, Early Cretaceous site from the national park also yielded the skulls of a previously-unknown sauropod called Abydosaurus.

Dinosaur Colors

The biggest announcement of the year was that scientists have finally found a way to detect the colors of some dinosaurs. The technique has only been applied to feathered dinosaurs, but by comparing microscopic structures in preserved dinosaur feathers to their counterparts in modern birds, paleontologists have finally been able to fill out parts of the dinosaur palette. The first study, published in Nature, looked at just part of the tail plumage of Sinosauropteryx, while the second study (published the following week in Science by the team that had pioneered the techniques being utilized) reconstructed the entire feather colors of Anchiornis. These were just initial reports in what is sure to become a very active area of research. At long last, scientists will be able to provide answers about what has traditionally thought to be a question incapable of resolution.

Those are just a few selection from stories we covered here during 2010. What were your favorite dinosaur stories from the past year?