Monday, March 31, 2014

Early childhood interventions and health in later life -- or not?

On the heels of our Friday post on the causes of obesity comes a paper in Science ("Early Childhood Investments Substantially Boost Adult Health," Campbell et al.), reported by the NYTimes, ScienceNOWand other venues, about the effects of early childhood intervention in poor children on the children's subsequent educational achievement and, relevant to our discussion of obesity and cardiovascular disease, their health in later life.

The study
In 1972 researchers in North Carolina began to follow two groups of children from poor families. The children were enrolled as infants (so that experience they already had would not confound the study) and were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group was given full-time day care and most of their meals up to age 5, and then intensive assistance with what those children were learning at school until age 8, while the other group of children were given only baby formula until they were 18 months old.

Preschool class; Wikimedia

The question the investigators asked was whether early intervention would lead to improved learning abilities later in life, but in fact the effects were fairly immediate, with the groups diverging even by age 3. The groups have been followed up periodically since 1972.  Among other long-term effects are that those in the treatment group were 4 times more likely to have graduated from college.  The authors' bottom-line interpretation of this study is that the earlier the intervention the better, with pre-school effects being much more long-lasting than the effects of school-age intervention.

Now, it turns out that apparently the effects weren't only on cognitive abilities, but were more extensive in important ways.  As the Times reports,
Men in the treatment group, now mostly in their mid-30s, were less likely to develop hypertension than those in the control group. They also had significantly higher levels of so-called good cholesterol, and none had developed metabolic syndrome, the medical term for a group of risk factors that together substantially raise the chances for heart disease, diabetes and stroke. In contrast, a quarter of the men in the control group had the syndrome. 
As for women, those in the treated group were less likely to develop pre-hypertension or abdominal obesity, which tends to be a risk factor for heart problems. They also had healthier habits. They were significantly less likely to have started drinking before age 17, and more likely to be physically active and eat nutritious food, than the women in the control group.
In addition, treated males were more likely to have health insurance at age 30, and to receive medical care when they were ill, although this wasn't statistically associated with health outcomes.  As Campbell et al. write, the intervention group also included a nutritional and health care component.  Children were given healthy meals and a snack every day, and they also were given both well- and ill-child pediatric care, thus, the question of longterm health effects is not an unreasonable one.

Current notions
There has been a lot written in the last decade or so about the effects of uterine environment, early childhood nutritional status and so forth, on health in later life, although cause/effect relationships haven't been solidly established.  Perhaps it's epigenetics, the environmentally-triggered modification of DNA and thus gene expression that is hypothesized to be responsible for just about everything these days, or perhaps exposure to some environmental variable at a given early age triggers a cascade of responses, or perhaps we have no clue.  Studies of these kinds of relationships are in contrast with, in these days of DNA rapture, the much more common and fashionable argument that inherited genotypes are responsible for everything in life.  

Campbell et al. write that the "precise mechanisms" by which early childhood interventions in her study affected adult health "remain to be determined" but that much of the effect seems to be, in the authors' words, "mediated by" (that is, at least were correlated with) low body mass index when children, most significantly males, were 1 year of age.

If so, this would suggest that we know much of what we need to know about how to lower risk of heart disease, stroke, hypertension; feed an infant well, or by the time the child is a year old it's too late.  Forget genes, diet in middle age, cholesterol levels at age 60, sugar consumption, antibiotics, etc.  If obesity or metabolic syndrome or stroke are triggered by what happens in infancy, and similarly, can be prevented with early childhood interventions, looking for causation decades later is fruitless.

This study may well serve to encourage researchers to change the focus of their search for causal risk factors for cardiovascular disease.  At least, these might be the interpretations, if we could take these results seriously.

But can we?
There's a huge caveat.  The original study was of 111 children, 57 in the treatment group and 54 controls.  That's already a small sample.  And then by the time subjects were age 35, attrition had reduced the sample size considerably, until there were only 9 men in the control group who completed both the physical exam and the laboratory component of follow-up, 19 men in the treatment group, 22 women in the control group and 18 in the treatment group.  These are numbers that took a while to find, I might add: I had to dig them out of the supplementary material, though in fairness the main paper did mention that they had had to correct for small sample sizes, which is why I went hunting for the numbers. Indeed, the sample sizes are so small that it makes one wonder why this paper was accepted for publication in Science.  And was picked up by any news outlet at all, never mind many.

ScienceNOW writes:
It’s a grim fact of life in the United States: Children born into poor families are sicker and die earlier than their well-off counterparts, particularly from obesity-related diseases such as heart attack and stroke. Now, new data from a famous North Carolina study of early childhood education suggest that such disparities are not carved in stone. Children who grew up poor but participated in an intensive, 5-year day care program are significantly healthier in their mid-30s than similarly impoverished children who did not receive the same care, researchers report. The study provides rare experimental evidence that such programs can give poor children a better shot at living longer, healthier lives.
Given this kind of write-up, I was ready to really like this paper.  The reporting suggested that longterm, significant health effects could be had with relatively little investment up front.  Regular readers of MT know that that's the kind of health expenditure we would readily support.

Indeed, Campbell et al. concluded,
Whatever the channel, our evidence supports the importance of intervening in the first years of life and suggests that early childhood programs can make a substantial contribution to improving the health of adult Americans and reducing the burden of health care costs. An intervention that lasted 5 years and cost $67,000 [in 2002 dollars] produced sustained and substantial health benefits. Early childhood interventions are an unexplored and promising new avenue of health policy.
Is this science?
This paper should not have made the kind of splash it did. Indeed, its struggle to find convincing samples, measures, and statistically meaningful analyses of same, mainly raise questions about how such research should be done, if indeed it even can be done.

The results as reported are provocative, although the paper itself is less convincing, even if, as the authors write,
We use exact permutation tests to account for small sample sizes and conduct a parallel bootstrap confidence interval analysis to confirm the permutation analysis. We adjust inference to account for the multiple hypotheses tested and for nonrandom attrition. 
Even so, these sample sizes seem 'under powered' to be convincing for this sort of study, to say the least.  Adjusting for attrition and multiple testing as the authors did, even if adequately representing all the data exploration done, with this small and irregular sample, does not convincingly mean that the results are very strong.  The authors went further, to make numerical relative risk estimates on these very small samples, that have to be regarded as very crude, at best, and without much heft.

It has been said with good reason that if you can't see an effect in a sample of 30 or so, the effect isn't big enough to matter.  This argument would apply to simple enough situations where a single variable could effectively be isolated, such as a particular drug vs placebo. Or a gene with strong effect. Unfortunately, in a complex causal web as this paper is reporting, sampling issues are more difficult.  Every sample may be too different to compare, or measures so numerous, interacting, incomplete, imprecise, and context-specific as to require unachievable samples for very definitively specific results to be reached--especially if causation is by complex 'variables' such as diet and so on.

Our personal predilection is that inherent genotypic effects are being heavily oversold these days, for reasons that have as much to do with scientists and their enterprise as they do with the actual facts on the ground about health and societal position.   We would be very happy to be able to laud Campbell et al.'s results as support for our views.

But another view we try to express consistently is that studies should not claim more than they actually find, and that the media should not trumpet them (or in many cases, should refuse even to report them), and should be far more critical of the studies they do decide to report.

In this case, unless we somehow are badly misinterpreting the study, it should be reported at the very most as finding that early effects can be very long-lasting, and that there may be many environmental reasons for this, that could in principle be important to identify.

But as it stands, it just seems highly premature to draw the authors' conclusions, much as we'd like to believe them.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The ever-changing list of cardiovascular disease risk factors

The stories on obesity and heart disease are coming fast and furious.  This is strange because while trends or fads do change, they don't change as fast as the recommendations and findings we get daily from our 'experts'.

This month, obesity is caused by sugar (here's a fine BBC radio program on whether fructose is toxic or not), or antibiotics, and now, according to a piece on the CNN website, food allergies.  Or rather, the public thinks it's caused by food allergies because their friends who went gluten-free lost weight, but it turns out it isn't.  So that one is an urban myth.  But it's an interesting one because it indicates that despite the scorn with which many people hold nutrition advice, given that it changes every week, a lot of people are still looking for simple answers.

Source: Wikipedia

And then there's the question of whether saturated fat -- those fats that are solid at room temperature, like butter, cheese, or fats in meat -- long accepted to be a dietary demon, is actually bad for us.  That is, whether it raises our risk of stroke or heart disease.  The latest news is that it does not.

The BBC sums up the new news this way: "Contrary to guidance, there is no evidence that changing the type of fat you eat from "bad" saturated to "healthier" polyunsaturated cuts heart risk."  But the story is a beautiful example of the role of both faith and evidence in nutritional 'science' because, before describing the study, the reporter hastens to add that researchers still say we should not eat saturated fat.
Heart experts stressed the findings did not mean it was fine to eat lots of cheese, pies and cakes. 
Too much saturated fat can increase the amount of cholesterol in the blood, which can increase the risk of developing coronary heart disease. 
Most of us eat too much of it - men should eat no more than 30g a day and women no more than 20g a day. 
There has been a big health drive to get more people eating unsaturated fats such as olive and sunflower oils and other non-animal fats - instead.
"A big health drive" -- this should mean that unsaturated fats have been clearly demonstrated to protect against heart disease because any expensive public health drive should be based on solid evidence.  As Gary Taubes wrote 13 years ago now in Science, and has been saying ever since, dietary fats have been demonized for decades -- 60 years now -- based on the idea that they raise blood cholesterol levels.

But, as Taubes wrote,
The proposition, now 50 years old, that dietary fat is a bane to health is based on the fact that fat, specifically the hard saturated fat found primarily in meat and dairy products, elevates blood cholesterol levels. This is turn raises the likelihood that cholesterol will clog arteries, a condition known as atherosclerosis, which then increases risk of coronary artery disease, heart attack, and untimely death By the 1970s, each individual step of this chain from fat to cholesterol to heart disease had been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt, but the veracity of the chain as a whole has never been proven. In other words, despite decades of research it is still a debatable proposition whether the consumption of saturated fats above recommended levels (step one in the chain) will increase the likelihood of untimely death (outcome three).
Taubes goes on to say that in the 1960's, when some scientists were still questioning the role of dietary fat in heart disease, politicians stepped in and "initiated the process of turning the dietary fat hypothesis into dogma."  That is, the nutritional advice we've been given for 60 years, public health policy, was driven by politics, not science.  So Taubes must have been gratified to see the recent report about saturated fat.  (Taubes actually has a dog in this fight, as he has written a lot about sugar as the culprit, e.g. here, believing that replacing fats with carbohydrates has been a mistake.)

The study described in the BBC piece was done by British Heart Association researchers who performed a meta-analysis, looking at 72 studies of the effects of saturated fat, including more than 600,000 participants in total.  The results are published in the Annals of Internal Medicine ("Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary Risk: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis," Chowdhury et al.).  Down the line, no blood lipid measure has a significant effect on risk.
In observational studies, relative risks for coronary disease were 1.03 (95% CI, 0.98 to 1.07) for saturated, 1.00 (CI, 0.91 to 1.10) for monounsaturated, 0.87 (CI, 0.78 to 0.97) for long-chain ω-3 polyunsaturated, 0.98 (CI, 0.90 to 1.06) for ω-6 polyunsaturated, and 1.16 (CI, 1.06 to 1.27) for trans fatty acids when the top and bottom thirds of baseline dietary fatty acid intake were compared. Corresponding estimates for circulating fatty acids were 1.06 (CI, 0.86 to 1.30), 1.06 (CI, 0.97 to 1.17), 0.84 (CI, 0.63 to 1.11), 0.94 (CI, 0.84 to 1.06), and 1.05 (CI, 0.76 to 1.44), respectively. There was heterogeneity of the associations among individual circulating fatty acids and coronary disease. In randomized, controlled trials, relative risks for coronary disease were 0.97 (CI, 0.69 to 1.36) for α-linolenic, 0.94 (CI, 0.86 to 1.03) for long-chain ω-3 polyunsaturated, and 0.86 (CI, 0.69 to 1.07) for ω-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementations.
And they conclude, "...the pattern of findings from this analysis did not yield clearly supportive evidence for current cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of saturated fats. Nutritional guidelines on fatty acids and cardiovascular guidelines may require reappraisal to reflect the current evidence."

Source: Wikipedia

It will be interesting to see whether this changes nutritional guidelines.  We're betting it won't, since there is so much belief, and vested interest in current policy.  It's true that if policy were changed to reflect every new finding, there would be no consistent policy, but if Taubes is correct (he's written a lot on fats and heart disease, in addition to the Science piece), the evidence has been inconclusive for a long time, and nutritional recommendations about saturated fats have still not changed.

Is obesity a risk factor?
And then there's the question of whether obesity is a risk factor for stroke and heart disease.   Some studies say yes and some studies say no.  Perhaps that's because sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't; stroke and heart disease happen to people who aren't obese, and obese people don't all have strokes or heart attacks.

A recent study reviewed in a recent issue of The Lancet reports on
... a large collaborative study on the role of overweight and obesity on risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, and on the contributions of blood pressure, dyslipidaemia, and glucose concentration both singly and in combination. The study, which included nearly 2 million individuals of different ethnicity from around the world, increases our understanding of coronary heart disease and stroke. The three major risk factors—often associated with overweight and obesity—explain roughly 50% of the cardiovascular outcomes recorded.
That is, high blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose, associated with obesity, were found to be responsible for 50% of the cardiovascular disease among study subjects, while 50% was unexplained.  The Lancet suggests that, "Therefore, future research should examine other mechanisms linking obesity to cardiovascular disease, including inflammation, cytokine excess and oxidative stress, and cardiorespiratory fitness."

Well, yes, heart disease is yet another complex trait.  Just as with other complex traits, there are multiple paths to cardiovascular disease, and large heterogenous study samples will include many of them, but the analysis won't.  And to complicate things further, if inflammation, cytokine excess and oxidative stress, for example, are found to be linked to cardiorespiratory fitness, they will be in non-obese people as well.

Another bob of the yo-yo
After all these years of work, why do we still have to see such results?  Do these count as actual 'results' or is this just another bob of the yo-yo?  When can we get results we can trust, and then stop re-studying the same thing again and again?  Why are we in this situation?

Culture changes, but if the world follows natural laws, the molecular effects of cholesterol or salt or sugar etc. should not change.  That is, by now, or long before now, we ought to have a sense of the per-dose effects and that should not change, even if our habits do.  But the fact seems to be that we do not, even by now after decades of heavy investment, have such knowledge.  Or, perhaps more cogently, the effects are not acting on their own, and depend on our habits.  Does that mean an endless boon for schools of public health and their epidemiological research projects, that seem to get uncritically ever longer and costlier without more definitive results?  Where, as the old ads said, is the beef?

Or is the truth that this whole field reflects the problem with reductionist science?  When the assumption is that the culprit is a single food, or a single gene, it's impossible to elucidate a more complex interplay of risk factors. It is not new to suggest that this is simply not a very good way to do this sort of science!  Context-dependency at the very least depends on combinations of exposures, not single-factor (including single-gene) causation, even if each individual factor has its own molecular interactions.

But more worrisome is our feeling that even highly technical multivariate statistical slicing and dicing of very large datasets is not a good or effective approach, even if at present we really have no better one.   Ever more sophisticated statistical analysis applied to ever-larger studies do not seem to be generating answers.  As we say many times, it serves perhaps most as a stalling action to keep these research operations in business, rather than a way to stimulate better science.

We know that moderation is a generally good thing, for reasons that range from philosophical to evolutionary.  We also know that small subsets of people are severely affected by some of these factors like sugar (diabetics) or cholesterol (LDL Receptor mutations) and so on.  If we removed the overdosing by our McCulture, we would perhaps be left with these subsets that really might be amenable to simple-cause analysis, and there the application of technological solutions might be feasible -- there is where the research effort should go, not to just more studies of minor statistical effects, in our view.

But our system, though fully aware of the situation, cannot slow itself down to think more critically, is bureaucratized and entrenched so it cannot adequately train new students to be innovative and creative, and cannot forthrightly fess up to the problem.  Instead, whether or not the scientists are just yo-yo's, the science certainly seems to be just that.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Snowy Owl whimsy

The big Snowy Owl irruption of 2013/14 was big bird news in the US northeast this past winter.  The birds were everywhere, to the delight of birders and non-birders alike, the subject of many news stories.

Reported sightings as of December, 2013; eBird

With good reason; they are beautiful, powerful birds, and often visible in daylight hours, unlike many owls.  I didn't see one myself, but that was for lack of trying, but here is a video taken by an expert birder, Zeke Jakub, who spent many hours watching this bird in Deerfield, MA.  Zeke started birding as a kid, and joined the bird group my parents were in.  His passion grew with him, and he is now a professional ornithologist.

Even though I didn't see one, I loved this picture that I first saw in a story about Snowys on the Global News page, but it is all over the web by now, including in this NPR story, which is well worth reading.

Arctic Snowy Owl nest lined with lemmings, 2013; Arctic Raptors Facebook page, photo JF Thierren
Snowy Owls breed in the Arctic during the long days of summer, often building their nests on hummocks on the tundra.  Their primary food source is lemmings, the rodents that are said to blindly follow one another off cliffs.  Or perhaps into owls' nests?  As I learned from another birder in Western Mass last week, owls will keep laying eggs as long as the food supply holds out, just as they might skip breeding when food is scarce. Thus, lemmings were exceptionally abundant in the summer of 2013, which meant it was an especially good year for the Snowy Owl population.

The birds who flew south over the winter were juveniles, and they've already started making their way back north.  The lemming population is cyclic, however, and surely there will be fewer of them this summer, so it's unlikely that this year will be as good for these owls.  Those of us who didn't see one this winter may have to wait for another lemming baby boom.

But last year, there was such a glut of lemmings that at least one owl made her nest of them.  Owls cache food, as do many passerines, and perhaps even lemmings, I don't happen to know.  Why they do this isn't always obvious; are they planning ahead for less abundant times?  How long does a Snowy Owl think a dead lemming is edible?

But, what if this fur-lined nest is the penthouse of owldom instead, like having a gold-lined bathtub, or a mink throw?  Could this owl have been so sated that she was able to think beyond her stomach to imagine creature comforts that most of her species never knows?   

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Vapor, vapor everywhere, and if you drop you clink! The e-cigarette saga.

I was returning from a working week in Helsinki this weekend, and stayed overnight at an airport hotel after arriving in the US.  Usually a quiet place, this time the hotel was filled with countless jovial conventioneers.  From their appearance, dress, and behavior, I assumed I had landed in a bikers' or NASCAR convention.  But no, this was the National Vapor Club meeting.

Vapor club?  What the heck is a vapor club, I asked myself?  It turns out it's the devotees of the exotic new industry of e-cigarettes and e-smoking.  At every table in the restaurant (except mine, I swear!) there were groups of people puffing away on their fancy, silvery devices, everyone different.  They look like high-class bongs.  Indeed, as one guy sat down at his table, he carefully placed two of them in front of him, to 'smoke' alternately  At each table, people were puffing away, exhaling clouds of 'smoke' (presumably, just water vapor).  But one could see the uncomfortable looks on the wait-staff's faces, since this was a smoke-free restaurant!   Should they, could they, turn away all that business?  Indeed, recent stories on the media have said that some restaurants are banning these devices.  But what is 'smoking' in this context?

Puffing as jewelry!
It was such a strange experience to see the dreamy looks in the diners' eyes, not as they gazed at the babe or hunk sitting across from them, at the table but as they, one might say, stroked their thing and then sucked in the satisfying stimulant from it! 

These are not paper-covered metal tubes made to look like your ordinary Marlboro.  If you drop it, you don't set the table cloth or rug on fire, but you clink!  And their weight must make the tactile experience more cigar-like than a cool drag on a Camel.

One can't be surprised that as actual cigarettes finally were shown to enough people to be slow killers, many who could manage it would switch to these nicotine injecting devices.  At first, they seemed to be designed to look like cigarettes, with a glowing false ash tip a slender white tubular shape and all that.  But then the tattoo artists or whoever got the idea that this could be jewelry as well.  Status symbols with all sorts of designs and shapes have resulted, in an apparently booming market.

Now I don't know anything about the National Vapor Club, but their demeanor and t-shirts and so on suggested that this is not just a hobby group (like bikers or NASCAR fans) but an advocacy organization as well.  Perhaps they are paid to proselytize or just do it for their own psychological satisfaction of being on the vanguard of something new. 

If I may take the liberty of making an amateur sociological reflection in this context, this does seem largely like a social class phenomenon--an in-your-face to the professor/liberal know-it-alls who banned real tobacco from public use and made its addicts suffer the rain and cold to get their hits out doors.  At least, the proverbial upper 1%ers were not apparent at this Vapor Club meeting.  In the old days, the Elite smokers had silver cigarette holders, cigarette or snuff boxes, and fancy lighters.  You see that in all the Edwardian period dramas.  The ordinary Joe just had an unfiltered Camel dangling between his lips, in a way a status symbol for that class.  If the Elite have been weaned off tobacco by now, perhaps these new fancy silver tubes will be a symbol of a different social class or solidarity, like tattoos have been, perhaps.

After I had written a draft of this post, Monday's Times had a story consistent with this thinking: that smoking itself has become the purview of the poor.  But if the wealthy discover this, and start making diamond-studded e-cigs, then who knows how the social aspects will play out.

One great idea that has been heavily promoted is that e-cigs are a good way to quit smoking combustible cigarettes, a safe way to dose up on nicotine, avoiding the diverse toxins that clobber your lungs and other organs, and those of your spouse or cohabiting kids who breathe your second-hand exhaust.  With vapers, the exhaust is just harmless steam with visual but no real physiological purpose, and the main thing is that you get some purportedly safe nicotine in your lungs, plus the physical oral and psychological satisfaction that cigarette smokers get from their habit. A piece in this week's Nature argues that e-substitutes don't aid in quitting, however.  They are just a new way to feed the addiction, a fact of course not unknown to the e-manufacturers.

Enter the digital age!
A long-time friend of ours is Robert Proctor, a historian at Stanford (previously here at Penn State), who is one of the foremost and most tenacious scholars who in books (especially see Golden Holocaust), papers, and court testimony has taken the tobacco industry to task for its misrepresentations and tactics to lure people to smoke even knowing (though for a long time not admitting) that their product was a killer.  Robert quipped in a message to me that old-time cigarettes were simple old-fashioned analog devices, but these new e-cigs are digital!  Welcome to the computer age--these new smokes are scientific and, therefore, must be good for you....right?

Well, not necessarily.  The public health community, ever eager for something else to get grants to study, has jumped on the e-cigs and warned that they may have harmful effects that we don't yet know about--and that, at least, the industry should be regulated and standardized.  In the absence of much actual evidence, this seemed like researcher overkill, another way to grab public funds to do yet another survey research study.

But, in the Monday NY Times there was a story that suggests there may actually be at least some evidence for harmfulness, of at least an indirect way.  This may open the floodgates on this topic, such as an editorial in the March 25 Times, and the piece in Nature that both deal with this.  It has the feeling of yet another science bandwagon.  When you see such a flurry, you have to be wary about them, whether in the media or journals, since there is so much opportunism afoot these days.

But the main issue, that does seem to be real, is that the nicotine solutions used to refill these silver bongs may not be pure or of standardized quality and, much worse, tempt children with their colorful containers to drink the the tasty contents which contain nicotine at potentially toxic concentrations plus various sweeteners and flavors: just as Starbuck's no longer just sells actual coffee, unless you gussy it up with candy, I guess e-cigarette smokers want a flavor treat as well as a kick.  Kids may not realize and may drink the alluringly packaged fluid.  This could just be the research industry making up a problem to study, but apparently there are now disturbing data on children showing up in emergency rooms with toxic nicotine doses and even some fatalities; so it's a legitimate serious issue.

Might there be other toxins of various kinds lurking in these devices or other indirect risks of this new habit, besides nicotine poisoning?  There is a burgeoning industry making these devices, so we may face yet another regulatory problem.  If so, safety and regulation will clearly be important, and we will need some research--hopefully more definitive than most of epidemiological studies are these days.

Or, could it largely be anti-smoking purists doing some sabre-rattling because they resent the vapers, who were just defeated over real cigs, doing an e-vading end-run around the public health establishment?  Maybe we should just let the vapers have their pleasures.  At least, we should hold any new studies to a high standard of actual fact, and make sure any research they do is worth the funding and not just made up as professor welfare.  Time will tell.

Meanwhile, the experience of being surrounded by people puffing away on thick, silvery sticks was strange!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

What is an 'idea'? A philosophical puzzle?

I've just returned from giving a talk and working on an evolutionary simulation computer program that I've developed with Brian Lambert here and colleagues in Helsinki, a very nice place with very good colleagues. Now back, I note that the episode of the BBC program In Our Time that was aired while I was away was about the philosopher Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753).  Berkeley was famous in the history of philosophy for many things, but largely for 'immaterialism', the idea that objects only exist in the mind. This might be similar to the classical Solipsists in ancient Greece, who said that all we can actually know are our own thoughts.  The external world need not exist.  Other philosophers pursued similar ideas about perception and reality.  Kant, for instance, wrote about the connection between what our senses can see and the actual reality of the seen (but I confess that this is too burdened with obscure terms for my meager understanding).

Berkeley: if we didn't actually see him, did he exist?

What I found interesting was a quip by one of the guests (Peter Millican, as reported by the moderator on his newsletter after the program), who raised the question: "How would you describe an 'idea'?" Is it really an 'it'?  If so what 'is' it?

Ideas in science
In science we fancy that we are all about the empirical world.  If we are solipsists or Berkeleyites then it may not matter; we either solve the major questions in science in our heads, or not, but it's all up to us since the stuff may not exist outside of ourselves anyway.  Under those rather self-centered conditions, only an inferiority complex would prevent each of us from concocting many Nobel-deserving 'true' stories about the Nature we envision--what could stop us?

Normally, we tend to agree that there is a real world and that we have sense organs and thought organs to perceive some aspects of it and to articulate some generalizations about it--generalizations that may be approximate, but are at least somewhat true of the really-is-true world.

In this sense, an idea is a structured set of relationships between a list of defined concepts of objects.  It need not be rigorous, in the sense that my real ideas may not be anything I can describe accurately to you to the point that you then have the same idea, and vice versa.  But in science we can take these imperfect descriptions or suggestions about reality, and see if our means of perception suggests that they correspond to the reality or not.

These abilities have incredibly impressive power and a phenomenal record of success, I think.  We have extended our natural senses to build equipment and use reasoning (mathematics) to detect and understand things that we believe are real and yet vastly beyond our sensory organs.  Microscopes and telescopes and computers are examples.  The record of ideas and their generalization shows that much about Nature can be organized, and unobserved things predicted with reasonable accuracy, that the reality of reality really is not confined within our own heads.  It's out there!

Models of reality: are they real?  The case of cosmic 'inflation'
As impressive an example of this power is the detection of gravity waves in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) that was announced last week.  Using very high-tech telescopic techniques (measuring 'light' not detectable by the opsin proteins in our eyes, and computer technology far beyond what our brains can manage), evidence was found for a predicted pattern in the CMB.

This pattern is interpreted as showing that very early in the history of the universe, 'spacetime' (the relationships among everything that exists) expanded very rapidly in some parts of the very brand-new universe.  This created some irregularities and they, in turn, allowed gravity and energy to form local concentrations--galaxies, stars, planets, you and me) that purportedly could not occur otherwise.  An alternative theory had been that the universe expanded and contracted endlessly, and in this theory concentrations of matter and energy were possible.

I am no physicist so this post is not about the specifics--plenty of specialists and pop-sci writers will do their best to explain it to you (and me).  E.g., Sean Carroll does a nice job here. But even conceptually, this is so very strange and exotic that one both accepts and questions it at the same time.  We question it for two reasons.  First, and foremost, because for  most of us the whole discussion of early cosmology is totally foreign to common sense.  Secondly, there are some physicists who question whether the data and methods used really show what is claimed.  The analysis is very far removed from normal human cognitive talents, so that interpretation at the deepest level is required to come up with the conclusion.

The usual hype is already out there by the physicists involved and the news media, but this really will be an important finding--not a 'discovery' since the 'idea' is decades old and in a sense is what led to the search--if additional work confirms the interpretation.  Be that as it may, whatever an 'idea' 'is', ones like this are so abstract and yet successful that there should be no questioning of the existence of ideas and their importance.

Non-sensical 'ideas' about reality
The ability to have sensible ideas carries with it the ability to have non-sensible ideas.  We observe the reality in the world (even if imperfectly since our sensory organs are limited), but our minds are constructed to encapsulate these observations and label them and so on.  This means we can give labels to things we just make up in our minds.

The same goes for logic and reasoning.  We in the western tradition, at least, have some ideas about how one is allowed to go legitimately from one proposition about ideas and objects to another.  Something cannot be true and false at the same time, or exist and not-exist, for example.  If we refer to such ideas, they are philosophical or fanciful.

So, even after millennia of philosophical and scientific thought, just in the west alone, it is surprising that CNN saw fit to publish an op-ed piece arguing that the finding of cosmic inflation is proof of the existence of God.  The argument, so far as I could follow its rather vapid content, is that if the universe had a beginning, it had to have an external entity to bring it about--an external cause, as it were, which is God.  Well, CNN is perhaps debatably about actual news, but this is a set of 'ideas' that have no empirical necessity and hence are different from the idea of a 'dog' or 'table', or 'cosmos', for that matter.  The 'idea' of God is more comparable to that of Santa Claus than that of a galaxy, since the latter has empirical relevance and testability.  Santa Claus is an imaginary idea, by contrast.

This has more holes than Swiss cheese.  First, the big bang idea of an origin of the universe is not a new idea at all, nor does inflation suddenly prove such a thing.  Even an infinitely cycling cosmos could, by the same argument, have required an external cause.

But the wishful-thinking of that sort is not the worst aspect in my view.  The fact, if true, that the cosmos began with a Big Bang out of nothing does not imply an external cause.  It only does so based on the daily-experience set of human ideas, that what we see happening has causes of a sort we know about.  We are so frail, relative to the complexity of Nature, that our inability to imagine an effect without a standard cause is no evidence at all that there must be such a cause.  Much of quantum mechanics, for example, violates commonsense and can only be taken as meaningful because of our ability to do experiments and mathematics and so on, that can deal with things beyond commonsense.

Tree fallen in forest; Wikipedia
Worse, however, is the implication that even if there did need to be an external cause of the cosmos, that external cause was God.  That is, was the same 'cause' that (getting really petty relative to causing cosmic inflation!) made Noah build a wooden boat to survive a big rainstorm, or cared whether Abraham sacrificed his son, or wanted some human to live in a gilded palace in Italy while other immortal souls couldn't eat.  You get the idea!

The logic is simply fallacious.  The fact that an external cause were needed, if it were a fact, does not in any way imply that that cause was what we poor humans imagine.  This perverts various 'ideas', ranging from empirical to imaginary, weaves them together into a grander idea that is without serious empirical basis, and claims that the latter has the force of universal laws (of logic).  The Times must be seeking sales to religious believers to have published such an op-ed.

So, what is an 'idea'?  In a somewhat circular way, it is an idea worth thinking about for fun.  But we should not get carried away with its philosophical potential.  We don't really understand much of the physical world, and less of what 'spiritual' even means (if it is 'physical' in any sense).  But we do understand a lot.  We understand enough to know that, all philosophical textbook chapters aside, when a tree falls in the forest, it really does make a Thump! whether or not you're there to hear it.  The cosmic inflation evidence may or may not stand further scrutiny.  But it is an example that shows that we know that ideas can go beyond simple manifestations of the input to our eyes, ears, and nose.  And, speaking of creation, we know that not all ideas are created equal.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Are we removing the wisdom along with the teeth?

When I was a kid, I learned that my uncle had a sweet tooth right about the time I discovered that he had a gold tooth. Therefore the gold tooth was the sweet tooth and, man-o-man, did I want a gold tooth... or a whole grill of gold teeth. The better to taste the sweets!

I've grown wiser with age, knowing, of course, that our teeth don't taste sweets (or at least that it's unconventional to think so). And knowing, of course, that "wisdom teeth" don't bestow wisdom, but are nicknamed so because they erupt last, coinciding with the stage in our lives when we're old enough to do adult things, both according to biology and culture.

Whether or not wisdom is actually present or actually required to vote, to smoke, or to make babies is not the point. The point is, like with whole sweet tooth thing, I understand that wisdom teeth don't come with wisdom, but sometimes I do wonder whether this massive, automatic third molar removal system that we've created for everyone in America who's got dental insurance is removing more than just enamel and dentine from our heads.

What if we're also removing a bit of our minds?

Okay. That's just me, losing a bit of my mind, thanks to an enormous pile of papers I've been grading.

But the metaphor's got teeth, given how the assignment I just graded was about... dun dun duuuuunnnn... the oft spun story of our species' future without third molars.

This assignment that I'm grading got me wondering about wisdom loss because the overwhelming majority of students could not do it.  Here it is:

The future of human wisdom teeth
1. Read this blurb  about a very common perception of human evolution. (source)

About 25 to 35 per cent of people will never get their wisdom teeth (RAFFI ANDERIAN)
Wisdom teeth might be lost as people continue to evolve: Why the modern diet may make wisdom teeth unnecessary 
By: Astrid Lange Toronto Star Library, Published on Tue Jun 25 2013 
Wisdom teeth are the third and final set of molars that most people get in their late teens or early 20s. But not everyone does — the American Dental Association estimates that about 25 to 35 per cent of people will never get their wisdom teeth. Another 30 per cent will only get 1 to 3 of them. Anthropologists believe wisdom teeth evolved due to our ancestors’ diet of coarse, rough food — leaves, roots, nuts and meat — which required more chewing power and resulted in excessive wear of the teeth. Since people are no longer ripping apart meat with their teeth and the modern diet is made of softer foods, wisdom teeth have become less useful. In fact, some experts believe we are on an evolutionary track to losing them altogether.
2. On a separate piece of paper…(typed is preferred but not required)
a. Briefly explain the evolutionary mechanism(s) behind the evolutionary scenario for future wisdom tooth loss that the author of the blurb alludes to. In other words, think about what the writer is really hypothesizing for future human evolution and rephrase it, scientifically, in terms of the four main mechanisms of evolution that we discussed in class which are mutation, gene flow, genetic drift, and selection.
b. Write out an alternative scenario where natural selection is responsible for the loss of wisdom teeth in our future selves. If it’s not obvious, this will be an obviously and significantly different scenario from what the writer has imagined in the blurb. Important! Banned words for your scenario include: Need(s/ed/ing), want(s/ed/ing), try(s/ed/ing), best, most.


Only a handful of students performed this assignment correctly.

Despite my hints in 2b, most still wrote 2a using natural selection. Few spoke of mutation let alone drift in their answer to 2a. What's more, many used genetic drift scenarios (without using the term) for 2b!!! If they got anywhere close to the right answer in 2b then they stopped at something like "mutation arises and it proliferates in future generations"... no talk of a benefit to losing teeth or a cost to having them, no talk of adaptation. This is drift and they think it's natural selection. Or they're sloppy writers. Or both.

So what's going on here? Lots. Here's a little bit of my analysis:

First, it's true that I deliberately chose this example, the future wisdom tooth-less humankind, because it is a well-known scenario out there and I knew that unraveling it would be a challenge as a result of its fame. It's a great example of the kind entrenched in the popular zeitgeist about trait loss and future evolution. And so I wanted to take it head on, but I didn't expect such utter and nearly complete failure in this learning environment I tried to cultivate.

Yet again, I'm reminded that stories stick. Not just stories about our future without M3s, but just-so stories like adaptation by natural selection. Selection stories stick so well that students think any and every evolutionary scenario they come across or that they dream up is nothing other than natural selection!

I have to tell them, as I often do, how great they are at genetic drift and how great they already were at genetic drift before entering my classroom. Yet they continue to insist that genetic drift is natural selection.

The textbook certainly doesn't help. I hadn't looked at the definitions in the glossary until a student used one in his answer... Check this out:

"natural selection. Differential reproductive success over multiple generations."

That also defines genetic drift!

A few students admitted to not having any wisdom teeth at all growing in, or to knowing someone who never got theirs (not even crowns in the crypts). So they understand that there's already variation, or that there hypothetically very easily could be. They get the concept of variation because they're surrounded by human variation and they see themselves as unique. They know they're not clones of either of their parents too. 

So why is it so hard (and even "confusing" as I've been told by a student) for them to accept perpetual change via mutation, recombination, and probabilistic inheritance of one or the other allele from each parent. Mutation and drift... these are constantly occurring and have been for millions and billions of years. Natural selection allows this persistent, perpetual change in lineages and populations! What's more, if everything was under natural selection, if everything is evolving only due to natural selection, we'd be so screwed! From my perspective, it doesn't make any scientific sense to be a hyper-adaptationist. To me, it's a creationist's way of thinking.

But what would anyone expect from a student who's been bombarded with natural selection as "*the* mechanism of evolution" (quote from episode 2 of Cosmos with NdGT)? What would anyone expect from a student who's learning evolution at the college level from, either, folks who are suspicious of it for its social abuses (stemming from that very obsession with natural selection!) or from folks who study evolution itself (which means that, if they're successful, if they have papers published at all let alone in the top journals, then they default to natural selection as an explanation for the trait or the phenomenon they're studying, and usually don't ditch their adaptive explanation unless it's replaced by another adaptive one).

What else would I expect from my students? This is what I should have expected. So I can't believe I thought that they'd do better on this assignment after only one lecture on the mechanisms of evolution from me, after only one momentary exposure to genetic drift.

But since then, lucky for them, they've heard about these issues every single day. And maybe someday down the road "arrival of the frequent" will be better understood both within and beyond the classroom as well. Who knows.

Does it count as a good place to start when most fail? It certainly does since the only direction from here is up.

Except there's the fact that many if not most of my students have had their wisdom teeth removed already or have plans to this year or next. I too have had my wisdom teeth removed. So maybe we're a lost cause.

Or maybe not. It's possible that wisdom or at least experience can be an obstacle to learning. With age, we lose plasticity. That whole, you-can't-teach-an-old-dog-new-tricks sentiment is sort of kind of true for people, regardless of whether it's true for dogs. Very young children can be far more cognitively loose, inventively creative than people are later in life. The latest in this comes from Alison Gopnik's research which was reported at Time magazine (with a kind of weird headline). [This might be part of the reason that children are notoriously hard to trick with magic, at least compared to adults.]

And maybe this phenomenon (considered perhaps too broadly here but I can't resist) that our minds become more rigid as we learn, as we grow up, is contributing to the difficulty I have teaching evolution to undergraduates in my introductory biological anthropology course. After all, as the Time article says,
Their previous experience in the world, which tends to work in a single-cause-equals-single-effect way, hampered their ability to accept the unusual rules that activated the toy; they wanted to believe that it was activated either by a single color or by a combination of colors, but not both. “The training didn’t seem to give them a hint that the world might work in different ways,” says Gopnik, who published her work in the journal Cognition.
So what's next? I'll stop fantasizing about lost wisdom and, instead, I'll be assessing whether the students who've had their wisdom teeth removed, or never had them grow in the first place, are learning evolution better than the rest. Obviously. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

The fluidity of fluid intelligence

If IQ is a measure of some aspects of intelligence, and intelligence is the product of a gene or genes, then it should follow that IQ is a stable trait during an individual's lifetime. So I was interested to hear on a recent episode of the BBC radio program, Analysis, that IQ can change even over the course of participation in a brief psychological study.

Princeton professor of psychology and public affairs, Eldar Shafir, co-author of the book, with economist Sendhil Mullainathan, "Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much", was interviewed  on the program about how having too little time or money influences our lives.  Mullainathan and Shafir believe that experiencing scarcity changes the way we think, and makes a bad situation even worse; poverty creates a "scarcity mind-set" and causes poor people to make bad decisions, which perpetuates their poverty.

To test this, they interviewed people shopping in a mall in New Jersey, determined their financial status, presented them with various financial scenarios and then asked them to play computer games that measured their 'fluid intelligence', a component of IQ that indicates things like the ability to think logically, to reason, or to handle novel situations.

When the scenario is manageable, if for example they are asked what they would do if their car breaks down but it won't cost much to fix, poor and rich people perform equally well on the tests.  But if the scenario is challenging, say fixing the car costs $1500, rich people did as well on the intelligence tests as they did before, but poor people did significantly worse.

Mullainathan and Shafir contribute this to scarcity of what they call 'bandwidth', or the amount of mental capacity that is used to make decisions.  They found that IQ fell by 13 points in their poor study subjects given a challenging scenario.  This, Shafir said, can be equivalent to a drop from borderline gifted to average, or average to borderline deficient.  Shafir contrasted this with a night without sleep, which leads the IQ of the sleep-deprived to be 10 points lower than usual.

Scarcity has other effects as well, according to Mullainathan and Shafir, leading people into a cognitive 'tunnel' so that they can't think broadly about how to solve a problem.  Shafir describes it this way in an interview with the the American Psychological Association:
Every psychologist understands that we have very limited cognitive space and bandwidth. When you focus heavily on one thing, there is just less mind to devote to other things. We call it tunneling — as you devote more and more to dealing with scarcity you have less and less for other things in your life, some of which are very important for dealing with scarcity. There's a lot of literature showing that poor people don't do as well in many areas of their lives. They are often less attentive parents than those who have more money, they're worse at adhering to their medication than the rich, and even poor farmers weed their fields less well than those who are less poor.
Clearly this can become politically volatile very quickly; right-wingers might interpret these results as indicating that poor people doom themselves to poverty, while left-wingers interpret them to show that poverty begets poverty.

But it's the effect on IQ that interests me, and yes, this is another subject that gets volatile very fast. How can this thing, that so many believe is genetic and therefore relatively fixed, change so readily, and in fact predictably?  This is not the first time that fluid intelligence has been shown to be, well, fluid.  A 2007 paper in PNAS showed that it is trainable, and can be significantly improved, e.g., and methods for improving intelligence, something previously thought to be impossible, are now rife.

If true, this doesn't mean that genes have nothing to do with intelligence -- whatever that is -- though it does mean intelligence isn't fixed.  Perhaps intelligence can be thought of as analogous to blood lipid levels, say; we may be genetically predisposed to high or low cholesterol, but we can raise or lower our levels with diet, exercise, or medication.  That is, as every trait, it has a genetic scaffolding, but it is also influenced by experience.  And, as with intelligence, some people have extreme cholesterol levels, generally due to single or few genes.  However, generally, these are genes that don't influence cholesterol levels in people between the extremes.

This is of course one implication of the clear fact that the 'heritability' of intelligence is well below 1.0, meaning that environmental factors are important as well as genetic ones.  The volatility of the measure is, however, an indicator that even the trait itself may not be very stable and that 'environment' may not refer just to random non-genetic factors but ones that systematically affect the measure.  In this case, the environmental factor could suggest that people in poverty are poor because of low-IQ genotypes, but Mullainathan and Shafir believe it's more complicated than that, that poverty creates a mindset that perpetuates poverty.

Similar kinds of issues apply to most complex traits.  Heritability can vary with age as well as many other factors, because the impact of environmental factors can change, and perhaps for genetic reasons as well.  Some genetic factors may be expressed differently at different ages.  A major issue in general in regard to complex traits would be if the genetic component doesn't just fix a certain fraction of the trait value, but is volatile.  Then the time and way of measurement could generate values that are taken as more inherent and permanent, but in fact are more widely variable.  The variation could be such that the genetic component is far less relevant than is often thought.  Of course it could be the other way round.  In each trait if we are determined to identify how much is inborn and how much acquired, it may be that we need to be much more knowledgeable about the determinants, and more careful in how we measure traits -- or how we 'label' individuals.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Who speaks for the facts?

Everyone else is speculating on what happened to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, so we don't have to. The one thing that most people agree on is that the plane met a tragic end, and we pause for a moment to recognize the pain and sorrow this has caused so many people. But, the wide range of hypotheses is fascinating, and we wanted to briefly consider why there are so many and what this might say about science.

We don't need to rehash the possibilities, which range from simple accident to malicious intent on the part of one or more passengers, or even the pilots.  Indeed, you can generate your own conspiracy theory right here.  E.g.:

But a new hypothesis is intriguing and puts the rest in stark relief -- a piece over at Wired, "A Startlingly Simple Theory About the Missing Malaysia Airlines Jet", written by a pilot named Chris Goodfellow, is a reminder that perspective is everything. Well, informed perspective.

Goodfellow says:
There has been a lot of speculation about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Terrorism, hijacking, meteors. I cannot believe the analysis on CNN; it’s almost disturbing. I tend to look for a simpler explanation, and I find it with the 13,000-foot runway at Pulau Langkawi.
He goes on to say that pilots are trained to always know where the closest, safest airport is if something were to happen to the airplane they are flying.  He says the pilot of Flight 370 must have landed at Pulau Langkawi many times, and that he must have realized that there was an emergency on board, and turned toward that airport, knowing it was the closest place he would be able to land.
What I think happened is the flight crew was overcome by smoke and the plane continued on the heading, probably on George (autopilot), until it ran out of fuel or the fire destroyed the control surfaces and it crashed. You will find it along that route–looking elsewhere is pointless.
Goodfellow says this fits all the data, from the loss of transponders to the turning of the aircraft.  He is appalled that people are considering the pilot to have had malicious intent, when in all likelihood -- in fact Goodfellow is certain -- instead he acted heroically.  See his post for the detailed explanation.

Our point here is not to explain what happened, because we have no idea, but to take a look at how hypotheses are made, and how they are evaluated.  Goodfellow is an old and experienced pilot.  He is evaluating the data from inside the pilot's head, and it turns out that his is probably the most parsimonious explanation.  And, as everyone knows, a parsimonious explanation is always the best explanation.  Occam's razor.  And add to that that 'experts' are assumed to have judgment as to what explanation is most parsimonious.

Fossils from the Cretaceous, found in Lebanon; Wikimedia

Except that parsimony is an arbitrary measure of the quality of data assessment.  The basic idea, and it certainly has much merit, is that when a simple explanation will do, adding other variables and explanations is not called for by the data and as a general principle we avoid making explanations more complex than they need to be to account for our data.  Which is not to say that parsimonious explanations can't be the best, just that parsimony itself isn't why they are the best.

Everyone is working with the same data on this airplane mystery.  But terrorism experts see evidence of terrorism, mechanics see sure signs of engine trouble, and so forth.  It's the pilot who can imagine himself in the pilot's seat who, at least to us, makes the most sense.  Not because of parsimony -- do we have good reason to think that the flight tragedy was due to one thing only?  An electrical failure or fire, or a hijacking, or sudden gain in altitude that knocked everyone, pilot and passenger, out cold?  Normally, in this case, we would not think that there was, say, a hijacking and then an on-board fire.  That would be complex compared to just one of those--but how would we know that more than one event didn't account for things?  The hijackers could have jerked on the controls and sent the plane too high, which knocked everyone out, etc.

Also, of the separate hypotheses, is there really at this stage a good reason based on parsimony to choose one over the other?  Each author has his own idea, or advocacy.  The pilot's explanation seems to make the most sense because he's a pilot, and can evaluate the evidence as if he'd been flying a troubled plane.

And in science
Everyone saw the same world Charles Darwin saw in the early to mid 1800's, too, and only he and Alfred Wallace made lasting order from the data, suggesting that the diversity of life is the result of descent with modification from a common ancestor via natural selection, and the fact of evolution is confirmed every day in biology labs around the world.  Alternative explanations for the origins of the diversity that everyone saw around them were many; then as now fundamentalists saw the hand of God and, fossils were thought to be 'sports of nature', not evidence of extinct species, because God wouldn't have made species that went extinct.  A case can be made that Darwin lost his faith after the death of his daughter, Annie, and a theory that didn't require a divine being was one he could readily accept.

One argument against the God argument is that God would have had to have a separate reason for making insects have 6 legs, but not spiders or lobsters, and vertebrates four, but not fish or birds, who have fins and wings.  That is, God made a separate, unique decision about each creature.  That is more complex than saying evolution and common ancestry generically account for what we see. 

Now evolution is different for every creature, just as God's choices would have been, and 'God's choice' is as parsimonious as 'evolution', so the criteria for what is the empirically simplest explanation does involve some subjective judgment.  If evolution is a true generic explanation for life and its diversity, and all the evidence suggests that it is, we tend to seek the simplest evolutionary explanation.  Still, nothing guarantees that an ad hoc phenomenon like evolution has to go from A to Z by the shortest path!

Indeed, there are even those who question the 'obvious' physics principle that radiation like light travels in 'straight' lines (here, modern physics might say 'geodesic' lines in spacetime).  However, some physicists say that energy takes infinite histories all at once, and that the straight-line path is not 'the' path but the average path taken by the radiation.  That puts a twist, so to speak, on parsimony ideas.

And in genetics, everyone has access to the same data, when GWAS results are reported, or genome sequences uploaded to GenBank, yet some geneticists see simple answers and some see complexity. And evolutionary psychologists see adaptive explanations where others might see genetic drift. And many look for one explanation -- this gene, or that bad lifestyle -- even when it is blatantly obvious that genes and lifestyles have effects only in their overall context.  So what is the most 'parsimonious' explanation is debatable and we have no real rigorous way to adjudicate in many instances -- even if we would all agree that we don't invoke a gene plus the tooth fairy plus raging storms on Jupiter to account for a case of cystic fibrosis.

Observations don't speak for themselves, in science or forensics.  It is through the mouths of subjective observers that they speak, observers with more and less credibility.  Who we choose to believe is in turn affected by our own subjective decisions, not usually an evaluation of which argument is more parsimonious.  Parsimony can be one criterion, but it may not be 'the' true explanation, or even the best one.  Life, due to its meandering and highly probabilistic pathways, may be one of the least parsimonious phenomena that science tries to understand.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Where's my grain?

Ken's in Finland this week, giving a talk and working with collaborators in Helsinki, and I'm in Vermont, at my sister and brother-in-law's dairy goat farm.  I've blogged and written about the farm before, so today I thought I'd post some photos.

Winter kidding season has just about wound to an end.  My sister was feeding 50 baby goats for a few weeks there, which is a whole lot of work.  She's down to 9 now.  As she says, fewer than 10 bottle babies are cute; more than that is work.  The 9 she's feeding are pretty cute.

The ground is still frozen here in Vermont, and the ice abundant, but the sun is shining, and goats, chickens, roosters and people are happy to see it.

Having breakfast

Milk goat in the sun

Baby goats

Babies having their breakfast

Another pretty milker

Looking for grain

Enjoying the sun

She'll take any leftover grain

Angora and chicken at the  same trough

Monday, March 17, 2014

You know porn when you see it, don't you?

The other day we wrote a post reacting to a NYTimes article that said that we really don’t know what ‘life’ actually is, that life is only a ‘concept’ we have, not something we can rigorously define.  But one thing about life, whatever life is, is that reproduction is essential.  Successful reproduction proliferates viable genetic variation via both chance and natural selection.  Sex is the way that happens for many species, like us.  That makes sex very interesting to scientists (for purely abstract theoretical reasons, naturally), and to the general public who are the participants in the reproductive circus.

There are various theories about how sex is or how it should be done successfully, not so much in regard to positions, but as to who does it with whom.  As humans, we each have a vested interest in this, and this is at least in part why homosexuality as well as heterosexuality attract attention.  Many studies are done to see how sex works, that is, how the intense and selective competition takes place and all of that.  Because we’re all in this competitive arena together, we naturally are curious to keep an eye on what our fellow competitors are up to.  So, besides the titter, that makes sexual behavior newsworthy.

Of course, the intense scrutiny of behavioral evolutionists centers on the strategies by which males purportedly want to inseminate as many females as possible, to spread their genes, but females want to ‘catch’ their man since they have to care for the few children they can bear, and want a steady breadwinner to help out.  Since this is so fundamental to success, and has been that way so intensely for so long, sexual patterns are often said to have been inscribed deeply in our genes ages ago, to ensure that the genes’ bearers don’t just bear all, so to speak, indiscriminately, but bear fruit in the process. 

Impersonal sex
Thus, for completely scientific and detached intellectual reasons, the news media are curious about sexual behavior.  So a recent newsworthy description grabbed our attention (as scientists). 

The story relates to one aspect of contemporary sexual activity or, one might call it, ‘performing’.  Attractive young people having sex with many different partners, sometimes different from day to day.  The pairings are arranged at the last minute, more or less as a planned business matter.  The performers often don’t know the person they’re doing the very most intimate acts with, or afterwards wonder who s/he was.  They cannot be sure that they were protected from disease or pregnancy, partly because they may be under the influence at the time they’re engaged in their romp with these strangers.  You may see a record of their activity on posted videos showing the various sexual positions, devices, and activities that are involved.  Those activities may include serial sex or group sex—you name it! 

Of course, we must be talking about the porn industry, because there the evolutionary rules are apparently suspended for some reason.  Perhaps society seems to frown on the activity because its random impersonality leads to licentiousness that might upset the evolutionary apple cart.  Fortunately (you breath a sigh of relief!), at least this is a somewhat underground aberrant activity on the fringe of society.

Wrong!  What we describe is today’s ‘hookup’ culture.  This is what many college students (and hence educated and privileged and should-know-better, not just desperate deviant addicts) are doing.  They write and boast about it in their college newspapers.  Campuses are ringed with bars where the ‘auditions’ for partners take place.  The sex that results is no less real, varied, graphic, and impersonal than porn.

Hookup, or porn?

But there’s a difference
Actually, there is a difference between hookup culture and porn.  Porn performers work openly in daytime, with formal contracts, under at least partly regulated conditions.  They are clear in advance about what will be performed, and there is at least some protection related to medical health and contraception.  Their activities take place under controlled conditions, with witnesses.  No waking up afterwards and wondering what went down, with whom (or how many).  It’s completely voluntary, partners not chosen in a stupor.  And they are paid in money, not just beer and vodka.

If you think of it in this way, porn could be seen as a more savory kind of activity than hookup culture.  College students do often voice regrets about their hookup experiences with its drug or alcohol connections, its anonymity, its nocturnal furtiveness (porn is daytime work).  But they still do it regularly, even if they sometimes report feeling ‘used’.  One main difference is that porn is at least always planned for posting on the net, but hookup adventures less often so.

We aren't defending the porn industry which has both its advocates and its critics.  But we write because of a recent news frenzy that concerned a student at a prominent university whose porn activities were outed by a classmate.  This hit the headlines, and the performer (a women’s studies major) became an overnight media interview sensation (interviewed on Piers Morgan/CNN for instance).   She is unapologetic about the fact that she does this to help pay her way through college (here's one of countless stories).  By contrast, hookup culture, if anything, may reduce the performers' chances of getting through college successfully.

If hookup culture is so widespread--and even if we avoid asking why this doesn’t give pause to the evolutionary theorists (one can always find after-the-fact explanations of why this doesn’t really violate the assumed genetic mandates, even though it obviously seems to)--we can ask whether the porn industry is any sleazier, rarer, or more deviant than what’s happening right now in the local bars in your town. 

Why is a college student, doing what she does in what seems a responsible way compared to what her friends are doing in their seemingly less responsible way, considered a sort of shocking misbehavior sensation?  Why is she being scorned or even threatened, as she says, by frat boys and other classmates--who may be watching or up to similar acts?  Why isn't the question not about the porn industry and its exploitation, but rather about the turn of our society in recent years towards amateur porn under the name ‘hookup’?  (See this link from which we got our figure.)

There are a lot of things one can think about the meaning of this state of affairs, knowing that it is transitory and that sexual behavior varies greatly among countries and over time within country (and here we don’t even need to consider the current rise of acceptance for homosexual and transgender/transsexual aspects).  There’s a big nature-nurture difference of opinion about this**, but our own view is that evolution has indisputably given us the drives for sex, either because of its immediate pleasure and/or for whatever other cognitive reasons.  But when it comes to it, like so much in human affairs, culture rules.

One might almost wish that bars would impose similar standards as at least some of the porn industry apparently does, but that the hookup culture apparently doesn’t.

**We will be screening any comments on this post to avoid it being mired in that divisive often polemical area.