Brain and Behavior

Last week my editor at the New York Times asked me to write an article about the evolution of crying, to accompany an article by Sandra Blakeslee on colic. Both articles (mine and Blakeslee's) are coming out tomorrow. As I've written here before, human babies are by no means the only young animals that cry, and there's evidence that natural selection has shaped their signals, whether they have feathers or hair. Among animals, there's a lot of evidence that infants can benefit from manipulating their signals to get more from their parents. On the other hand, evolution may sometimes favor "…
In following up on yesterday's post, I thought it would be fun to go back in time to 1999 to see what the Worldnutdaily was saying about the issue of Wiccans in the military when the big stink over the issue was going on and Christian groups were telling their followers not to join the military as a result of it. It was even more idiotic than I expected. In a "Worldnetdaily exclusive commentary" (which, as previously stated, means that no other outlet would publish anything so monumentally stupid), Jon Dougherty declared that allowing Wiccans to practice their religion the same way that…
I've not commented on the brouhaha that has surrounded Harvard President Lawrence Summers' comment at a conference last week that innate differences might have some role to play in explaining the relative underrepresentation of women in math and science (and relative overrepresentation of women in English and the humanities). Let me do so now. Bottom line: *shrug*. This is controversial? I think the whole situation is one giant overreaction based more on emotional response than on rational thinking. For evidence of that, I submit the statements of MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins upon hearing…
Intelligence is no different than feathers or tentacles or petals. It's a biological trait with both costs and benefits. It costs energy (the calories we use to build and run our brains) which we could otherwise use to keep our bodies warm, to build extra muscle, to ward off diseases. It's also possible for the genes that enhance one trait, such as intelligence, to interfere with another one, or even cause diseases. Over the course of evolutionary time, a trait can vanish from a population if its cost is too high. On the other hand, intelligence may offer some evolutionary benefits, by…
Kelly Hollowell is not the only one making absurd statements about the new Homo floresiensis find. Ken Ham, founder of Answers in Genesis, sees her absurdity and raises it to outright idiocy in this interview with Agape Press. The way this is phrased is absolutely precious: Answers in Genesis founder Dr. Ken Ham says he is always amazed by the reactions of evolutionists whenever a new, so-called "humanoid" bone is found. Inevitably, he says, the evolution proponents say with the finding of a new fossil that creationists have lost their age-old argument with Darwinists. But Ham says this is…
I am sure that in 50 years, we are going to know a lot more about how the mind works. The fusion of psychology and genetics will tell us about how our personality is influenced by our genes, and they'll also show exactly how the environment plays a hand as well. The preliminary evidence is just too impressive to seriously doubt it. Likewise, I am sure that we will have a deeper understanding how our minds have evolved, pinpointing the changes in DNA over the past six million years have given us brains that work very differently than apes. Again, the first results can't help but inspire a lot…
"A world without memory is a world of the present," Alan Lightman wrote in Einstein's Dreams. "The past exists only in books, in documents. In order to know himself, each person carries his own Book of Life, which is filled with the history of his life...Without his Book of Life, a person is a snapshot, a two-dimensional image, a ghost." Most people would probably agree with Lightman. Most people think that our self -knowledge exists only through the memories we have amassed of our selves. Am I a kind person? Am I gloomy? To answer these sorts of questions, most people would think you have to…
In my earlier post, I mentioned Perry Friedman as a member of the infamous Tiltboys and it reminded me that I should write something about them and get the word out about some hilarious reading you can do. If you have any interest in poker at all, I guarantee that you will enjoy reading about this group of guys. Even casual poker fans may recognize Phil Gordon, the ring leader of the bunch, as the expert commentator on Bravo's Celebrity Poker Showdown (it's a very bad show, actually, amusing only for the behavior of the celebrities once in a while). Phil has also finished 4th in the World…
Love demands an explanation. Less than 5% of mammal species live monogamously, with males and females staying together beyond mating, and fathers helping mothers care for babies. We humans aren't the most monogamous species of the bunch, but we're closer to that end of the spectrum than the other end, where mating is little more than ships bumping into each other in the night. A biological explanation for love--as with any biological explanation--has two levels. On one level are the molecular circuits that produce love, and on another level are the evolutionary forces that favor the…
Inspired by a conversation this afternoon, prompted by the death of Alan King, I'd like to lay out my list of the greatest comedians of all time. If anyone bothers to read it, I'm sure there will be lots of debate over who is on the list that shouldn't be, or who was left off the list that should be, and that's fine. This is my list and it will probably reflect my own rather dark sense of humor. First, a couple notes about this list. I'm sticking, with one exception, to well known names. Having spent 4 years as a comic myself, I know of a couple dozen comics I consider geniuses that few…
Charles Colson, the Nixon co-conspirator turned Christian apologist, can quite often be seen shoveling out nonsense on evolution on his website and in books, but I think this opinion piece may take the cake. His commentary is a follow up on this one by Roberto Rivera, and the subject of both articles is the survival of the giant pandas. Their survival, as anyone who has paid attention knows, is in serious jeopardy right now, with experts estimating that there are less than 1500 left in the world. Zoologists and biologists around the world are very concerned about this and there are projects…
My wife and I have two lovely daughters: Charlotte is two and a half, and Veronica is seven weeks. And we are tired. We think of ourselves as being on the losing end of a tag-team wrestling match--particularly at about seven in the morning, after Veronica has gone through a few hours of pre-dawn nursing, squirming, groaning, crying, spewing, and nursing. Just when she has faded off into angelic sleep, Charlotte wakes up from a long restful night and wants to eat Cheerios, do some jumping jacks, and type on my laptop pretty much all at the same time. It's like the Destroyer giving the Crusher…
There's been a fair amount of press about a new paper in Science that shows how the brain responds to social rejection. The kicker is that a region of the brain known as the insula becomes active. As I mentioned yesterday, that's the same area that responds to pain and physical distress. It's an interesting paper with historical dimensions that are missing from the news reports--historical in both the human and evolutionary sense. There's a lot of back-story behind the word "heartache." A common theme in evolution is the way a structure or a system takes on new functions over time. In our "…
It's never pretty to see journalism transformed into propaganda, especially when you're the one who wrote the journalism. I recently did an article for the New York Times Magazine about the grey zone between coma and consciousness. The National Right to Life web site then posted a long "News & Views" piece by one Dave Andrusko that pretended to recount my article. It was annoying enough to see careless mistakes--adding quotation marks to a passage from the article, so as to put it into the mouth of a doctor, for example. But it was really unpleasant to see my article distorted to serve a…
D. Deming wrote: For those interested in statistical criminology, there is an interesting article that appeared in the scholarly journal "The Mankind Quarterly", vol. 35, no. 4, summer, 1995. The article is titled "Ideology and Censorship in Behavior Genetics" by Glayde Whitney of Florida State University in Tallahassee. A most, umm, interesting journal. If I was looking for one word to describe it I think that word would be "racist". In one of the other issues I found an absolutely glowing and entirely uncritical review of JP Rushton's "Big dick = little brain" theory about the…