Pharyngula

The new phrenology

Morphological variation is important, it’s interesting…and it’s also common. It’s one of my major scientific interests — I’m actually beginning a new research project this spring with a student and I doing some pilot experiments to evaluate variation in wild populations here in western Minnesota, so I’m even putting my research time where my mouth is in this case. There has been some wonderful prior work in this area: I’ll just mention a paper by Shubin, Wake, and Crawford from 1995 that examined limb skeletal morphology in a population of newts, and found notable variation in the wrist elements — only about 70% had the canonical organization of limb bones.

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I’ve also mentioned the fascinating variation in the morphology of the human aorta. Anatomy textbooks lay out the most common patterns, but anyone who has taught the subject knows that once you start dissecting, you always find surprises, and that’s OK: variation is the raw material of evolution, so it’s what we expect.

The interesting part is trying to figure out what causes these differences in populations. We can sort explanations into three major categories.

  1. Genetic variation. It may be the the reason different morphs are found is that they carry different alleles for traits that influence the developmental processes that build features of the organism. Consider family resemblances, for instance: your nose or chin might be a recognizable family trait that you’ve inherited from one of your parents, and may pass on to your children.

  2. Environmental variation. The specific pattern of expression of some features may be modified by environmental factors. In larval zebrafish, for instance, the final number of somites varies to a small degree, and can be biased by the temperature at which they are raised. They’re also susceptible to heat shock, which can generate segmentation abnormalities.

  3. Developmental noise. Sometimes, maybe often, the specific details of formation of a structure may not be precisely determined — they wobble a bit. The limb variation Shubin and others saw, for example, was almost entirely asymmetric, so it’s not likely to have been either genetic or environmental. They were just a consequence of common micro-accidents that almost certainly had no significant effect on limb function.

When I see variation, the first question that pops into my head is which of the above three categories it falls into. The second question is usually whether the variation does anything — while some may have consequences on physiology or movement or sexual attractiveness, for instance, others may really be entirely neutral, representing equivalent functional alternatives. Those are the interesting questions that begin inquiry; observing variation is just a starting point for asking good questions about causes and effects, if any.

I bring up this subject as a roundabout introduction to why I find myself extremely peeved by a recent bit of nonsense in the press: the claim that liberal and conservative brains have a different organization, with conservatives having larger amygdalas (“associated with anxiety and emotions”) and liberals having a larger anterior cingulate (“associated with courage and looking on the bright side of life”).

Gag.

I don’t deny the existence of anatomical variation in the brain — I expect it (see above). I don’t question the ability of the technique, using MRI, to measure the dimensions of internal structures. I even think these kinds of structural variations warrant more investigation — I think there are great opportunities for future research to use these tools to look for potential effects of these differences.

What offends me are a number of things. One is that the interesting questions are ignored. Is this variation genetic, environmental, or simply a product of slop in the system? Does it actually have behavioral consequences? The authors babble about some correlation with political preferences, but they have no theoretical basis for drawing that conclusion, and they can’t even address the direction of causality (which they assume is there) — does having a larger amygdala make you conservative, or does exercising conservative views enlarge the amygdala?

I really resent the foolish categorization of the functions of these brain regions. Courage is an awfully complex aspect of personality and emotion and cognition to simply assign to one part of the brain; I don’t even know how to define “courage” neurologically. Are we still playing the magical game of phrenology here? This is not how the brain works!

Furthermore, they’re picking on a complex phenomenon and making it binary. Aren’t there more than one way each to be a conservative or a liberal? Aren’t these complicated human beings who vary in an incredibly large number of dimensions, too many to be simply lumped into one of two types on the basis of a simple survey?

This is bad science in a number of other ways. It was done at the request of a British radio channel; they essentially wanted some easily digestible fluff for their audience. The investigator, Geraint Rees, has published quite a few papers in credible journals — is this really the kind of dubious pop-culture crap he wants to be known for? The data is also feeble, based on scans of two politicians, followed by digging through scans and questionnaires filled out by 90 students. This is blatant statistical fishing, dredging a complex data set for correlations after the fact. I really, really, really detest studies like that.

And here’s a remarkable thing: I haven’t seen the actual data yet. I don’t know how much variation there is, or how weak or strong their correlations are. It’s because I can’t. This work was done as a radio stunt, is now being touted in various other media, and the paper hasn’t been published yet. It’ll be out sometime this year, in an unnamed journal.

We were just discussing the so-called “decline effect”, to which my answer was that science is hard, it takes rigor and discipline to overcome errors in analysis and interpretation, and sometimes marginal effects take a great deal of time to be resolved one way or the other…and in particular, sometimes these marginal results get over-inflated into undeserved significance, and it takes years to clear up the record.

This study is a perfect example of the kind of inept methodology and lazy fishing for data instead of information that is the root of the real problem. Science is fine, but sometimes gets obscured by the kind of noise this paper is promoting.

I have to acknowledge that I ran across this tripe via Blue Girl, who dismisses it as “sweeping proclamations about the neurophysiological superiority of the liberal brain”, and Amanda Marcotte, who rejects it because “This kind of thing is inexcusable, both from a fact-based perspective and because the implication is that people who are conservative can’t help themselves.” Exactly right. This kind of story is complete crap from the premise to the data to the interpretations.