Saturday, January 03, 2009

Footprint of the Fittest - On Cultural Evolution

Very cool article/review of The Dominant Animal by Paul and Anne Ehrlich. It's interesting to look at the differences and similarities between ourselves and our primate cousins to get a glimpse of how we may have evolved as a species. This is a book certain to be on wish list at Amazon.

Can we identify how cultures evolve — and if so, can we change our collective course for the good of the planet?

In 2005 Paul Ehrlich, along with Donald Kennedy, editor-in-chief of Science, proposed that the nations of the world launch a Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior, a project intended to emphasize that changing our behavior, our "individual motives and values," is as pivotal for long-term sustainability as tallying carbon levels and degrees of temperature rise. Ehrlich and Kennedy noted a striking disconnect between the scientific recommendations most of us can dutifully recite — arrest population growth, curb greenhouse-gas emissions, limit consumption — and the measures that we are willing to adopt in our day-to-day lives (and that our politicians are willing to endorse, perhaps especially in an election year). How, they asked, might human cultures evolve to permit the kinds of behavioral changes that bootstrap a sustainable and equitable global society?

A long view of cultural evolution reveals that an edgy coexistence between people and place has shaped our species right from the start. Early humans, since the time of the great "lineage split" from our ape-like ancestors about 6 million years ago, lived off the land. In small groups they gath- ered plants, nuts, and tubers, and later hunted game. People continuously altered their environments — all animals do, from beavers to bonobos — but the pace picked up greatly at the advent of agriculture. From 10,000 years ago on, coexistence shifted toward control. More species, indeed more of the world, came under the human power to reshape, and increasingly, to harm. In The Dominant Animal, Paul and Anne Ehrlich trace this evolutionary trajectory and consider the problems that today beleaguer us, "a small-group animal striving to live in a gigantic global civilization."

Alpha male and female of contemporary science (he a member of the National Academy of Sciences, she of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, both at Stanford University), the Ehrlichs convey a message at once chilling and hopeful. Their overarching theme is environmental, about the planetary peril we face: Our closest primate relatives, the apes, are heading straight for extinction. Within a few decades, the world's seas will be devoid of harvestable wild fish. Worldwide, malnutrition contributes to the deaths of 6 million children every year.

The Ehrlichs' point of departure is in how they frame these familiar facts, enabling us to understand our current predicament as the result of a dynamic interplay among genes, culture, and environment — an environment humans not only adapt to, but simultaneously help to shape. "It was genetic evolution that produced brilliant, behaviorally flexible, highly social apes —  ourselves," they point out. But "it was cultural evolution, building on those accomplishments, that determined most aspects of our environment-building behavior." Not even the genetic part is straightforward. Natural selection rarely influences "just one thing," and genes "aren't quite the discrete entities once thought." The Ehrlichs' sophistication in genetics, combined with their recognition of the complex and contingent forces of cultural evolution (learning and information sharing not passed along genetically) provides a welcome contrast to gene-based claims of evolutionary psychology, a field that excitably anoints past selection pressures with the power to explain all kinds of modern human behavior. The Ehrlichs note dryly just how "unlikely" it is that behaviors like rape or "seeking spouses with big bank accounts" are the direct result of natural selection, as evolutionary psychologists claim. They suggest instead that emergent complexity — the unfolding of patterns that are unpredictable from the properties of their components — will offer more-nuanced explanations, given that it spans both biological and cultural evolution.

If most books on evolution underplay the power of culture and the reciprocity of geneenvironment interactions, most books on the environment — including the recent raft of cli- mate-change press — take little note of evolutionary principles. Why, for instance, aren't more of us scared to death about melting ice sheets and dying frogs, and doing something about them? Because, say the Ehrlichs, our brand of ape has evolved to attend keenly to sudden changes in our environment. A person's rapid response to a greedy predator loping toward her group earned immediate payoffs in the past, in a way that attending to long-term shifts never did. "The most serious threats now faced by humanity are slow, deleterious changes in the environmental background itself, changes our perceptual systems have evolved to encourage us to ignore." Here is grist for an applied-anthropology mill: If we can grasp a species-wide perceptual tendency, we can battle against its ill effects in a bid for what the Ehrlichs call "conscious evolution."

On the heels of theory, the authors provide a broad suite of solutions to environmental problems. They cover familiar territory like carbon taxes and capand- trade agreements but also address fresher ideas about "natural capital" — that is, agricultural soils, groundwater, and biodiversity — and new efforts to recognize the economic value of goods long assumed to be free. Our attempts to rescue biodiversity, the Ehrlichs insist, must go beyond an obsession with endangered species. It's at the population level, after all, that plants and animals deliver to us so-called "ecosystem services," things like freshwater, flood control, and natural pest control.

The big ideas and the tenor of The Dominant Animal are right on. The book rejects starry-eyed insistence on new technology as humankind's savior in favor of socially responsible, if admittedly difficult-to-enact, prescriptions. But the Ehrlichs leave us with an odd disconnect. Now and again they touch on the idea of conscious evolution, bringing home their message that our species is poorly equipped to handle non-linearities and long lag times. They fail, however, to address the questions that naturally follow. Do our evolved tendencies to ignore gradual change undercut any chances for real success of the proposed solutions? Must we, in effect, trick ourselves by attaching something with immediacy — like money — to our environmental resolutions, or is it possible as cultured, information-sharing creatures to recalibrate our own sense of "crisis" in a more fundamental way?

Also disappointing, from an anthropologist's perspective, is the authors' underestimation of the cognitive abilities of our primate relatives. The book reduces tool-making, symbol-using and theory-of-mind-equipped chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas to "speechless and illiterate apes whose only tools are sticks and rocks." And the authors readily accept the Great Leap Forward, a hypothesized event 50,000 years ago that caused the "explosion" of technology and shell, bead, and ivory objects, and thus "one of the most dramatic and abrupt" transformations in human history. But solid evidence points to a much more gradual series of technological and aesthetic changes. At the South African cave of Blombos, for example, Homo sapiens 75,000 years ago shaped bone tools, inscribed ochre, and crafted personal ornamentation from perforated mollusk shells.

The irony, then, is clear. The behavioral and symbolic complexities of human life evolved gradually — even more gradually than the Ehrlichs credit. Yet we are the species of unprecedented cultural transformation, and it's urgent that we ramp up that kind of transformation now. The Ehrlichs are not naïve; they know that today's dominant economic forces push strongly in the opposite direction, and that even the most complete picture of our evolutionary legacy cannot alone prepare us for our future. Nonetheless, we somehow need to sense and respond to the growing environmental danger as if it were a hungry predator bearing down on our family — and to understand that it's our own behaviors, chosen moment by moment and population by population, that will best shift the course ahead. Great leap forward, anyone?

Fareed Zakaria - Writing the Rules for a New World

This is a very good article posted at Newsweek at the end of last year (Wednesday). A lot people dislike Zakaria for his globalist (some might say worldcentric) perspective, but I think he is one of the few people actually thinking big enough to grasp the complexity of the problems facing us.

Writing the Rules for a New World

Today's problems ignore national boundaries. The world needs smart management that does the same.

If you want to know what the post-American world will look like, just reread the coverage of the November G20 summit in Washington, D.C. First, there was the event itself. Every prior financial crisis had been handled by the IMF, the World Bank or the G7 (and, later, the G8). But this time, the big boys realized they couldn't tackle the problems alone and had to bring in world's top emerging markets too. For an effective response in a highly connected global economy, all the world's major players needed to participate. To supply cash, countries like China and Saudi Arabia were crucial. As for legitimacy, the old Western clubs were archaic, relics of a bygone world and could no longer provide it on their own.

Of course, not everything has changed. The meeting was still held in Washington, and President George W. Bush got to play the major role in setting the agenda. America has vital relations with key countries like China, Japan and Saudi Arabia, as well as good ties to old allies like Britain, France and Germany. And it seemed entirely possible that this larger and more representative group of nations could actually do some of the policy coordination needed to begin to solve the crisis. So it's a new world, but not necessarily one from which America has been ousted, nor one where common actions are impossible.

Historians will probably look back on the meltdown and see it as one largely caused by success. I realize it seems odd to say that of events characterized by panic, a credit crunch, slowing growth and falling stock markets. But consider the conditions that created this state of affairs. Over the past two decades, the world had enjoyed political stability, low inflation and a massive expansion of the global economy by almost 3 billion people. Countries around the planet grew at unheard-of levels—124 of them expanded at 4 percent or more in 2006 and 2007. Wars, civil conflicts and terrorism caused less political turmoil than they had in decades—or, by some measures, in centuries.

All this produced a new set of problems. As some countries grew in strength and resources they became more assertive and nationalistic. The emergence of Iran, Venezuela and a revived Russia is in good measure a product of the price of petroleum. So is Islamic jihad. Fueled by vast amounts of money, Wahhabi ideas found their way into almost all Muslim countries, shifting the tone of Islam everywhere and giving resources to radicalized young men.

In the world of economics, prosperity and low inflation unleashed two massive forces. The first was cheap credit, and the second, vast new pools of capital. Surplus savings piled up in the emerging economies of Asia (and then in the oil-producing countries of the Middle East) on a scale never before seen in history. Add to these two new forces two old ones—greed and stupidity—and you begin to understand how it all came apart.

At one level, the problem is that the United States and some other Western economies consumed too much—much more than they produced—and made up the difference by borrowing. But if America overspent, Asia oversaved. All those savings—some $10 trillion—had to go somewhere, and for two decades most of it was funneled back into the United States, which was seen, with some justification, as the safest and best place to invest. This led to easy credit and multiple bubbles in the United States—in technology stocks, bonds, real estate.

As bad as it looks, the current financial crisis will end. I don't know when or how, but the combination of government interventions will eventually work. Why do I say this? Because governments are more powerful than markets. They can close markets down, nationalize firms and write new rules. And Washington has one other, unique power: it can print money.

Read the rest of the article.

Lanting & Eckstrom Reveal Our Chimp Ancestry

Cool video on our nearest relatives.

The Entertainment Gathering 2008
Monterey, CA
Dec 11th, 2008

From eating termites to battling sweat flies, Frans Lanting and Christine Eckstrom, a husband and wife team, describe their experience studying the fascinatingly sophisticated chimpanzees of Fongoli, Africa.

EG is the celebration of the American entertainment industry. Since 1984, Richard Saul Wurman has created extraordinary gatherings about learning and understanding. EG is a rich extension of these ideas - a conference that explores the attitude of understanding in music, film, television, radio, technology, advertising, gaming, interactivity and the web - The Entertainment Gathering.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Research Review: Could Green Tea Actually Be Bad For YOU?

Precision Nutrition (Dr. John Berardi's website) has posted an interesting (and somewhat alarming) article on the possible downside of green tea as a wonder supplement. I hadn't seen this research before, so I thought it important to pass it along.

Research Review: Could Green Tea Actually Be Bad For YOU?

Should you banish this harmless-looking substance from your pantry?

Friend or foe?

Green tea has received a lot of positive media attention in recent years. But is it really good for everyone?

Not necessarily.

There is a group of people for whom green tea may be hazardous. And given green tea’s popularity these days, it’s critical to share this information with anyone interested in health.

Green tea has a wealth of research behind it demonstrating a number of health-promoting benefits including anti-inflammatory, anti-carcinogenic and antioxidant properties. Many of green tea’s benefits are due to its effects on the immune system, which is also where it can cause problems.

But before telling you how green tea impacts the immune system, let’s take a quick look at a simplified version of how it works.

Here is the main point, although you should read the whole article.

When healthy foods are unhealthy

According to research, a number of natural compounds have a tendency to push either side of the Th1/Th2 balance. Green tea is one such substance. The active components of green tea have a tendency to push the Th2 system to be more dominant by inhibiting the Th1 side of the immune system. Therefore someone with a Th2-dominant autoimmune condition (see table below) would be wise to stay away from green tea or products containing concentrated green tea (such as a green tea supplement), because it can upregulate an already dominant system and lead to more tissue destruction. Conversely in someone with a Th1-dominant autoimmune condition, green tea would be beneficial because it inhibits the Th1 side of the immune system.

Another common example most people know of is the herb echinacea. When people get sick with a cold or flu, echinacea helps boost the T cells (Th1 response) involved with the initial attack of a foreign invader. However, in a Th1-dominant autoimmune condition, echinacea will likely make the condition worse and is therefore be something to be avoided.

The more we know, the better we can pinpoint which supplements are going to be beneficial - this is some important research that will hopefully lead to more and better studies on how best to protect ourselves from various diseases.

Tikkun - Memos to Obama (John Welwood)

Tikkun, the socially and spiritually progressive Jewish magazine (led by Rabbi Lerner), has collected some "Memos to Obama" from prominent people, each of which expresses their hope in the Obama administration to make some changes in our culture [it's never that simple, but you get the idea].

There are many good memos, and many of the authors are not Jewish, but they are all spiritually progressive - including this one from John Welwood.
John Welwood on Healthy Relatedness

Clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, John Welwood, on our need for healing.

In a time when politician has become a dirty word, the American people are starving for real leadership—which recognizes and responds to their deepest longings for a sane and healthy society. Our culture is seriously out of balance, as evidenced by widespread unhappiness and record levels of depression and stress. To set America on the right track, we will need not only your wise policies and proposals, but also your capacity to keep an eye on the bigger picture: America is in deep need of healing. Even if all our economic and political problems were solved overnight, this nation would still face the real challenge of becoming a sane and healthy society that furthers genuine well-being in its people.

A sane society is based on healthy relatedness. What currently ails America is a pervasive sense of disconnection—from the earth, from wholesome human community, from a way of life that promotes well-being, and from a balanced wisdom that nourishes the soul. All the pressing problems in the world—destruction of the earth’s natural balance, toxic pollution leading to intractable diseases like cancer, the decline of civility and culture, widespread extinction of species, war, poverty, economic chaos—are signs of our disconnectedness, caused by the reigning mentality of violence, domination, and greedy self-advancement at the expense of the larger whole. We need a new politics based on love and wisdom, one which cares for the web of life and works toward repairing the sacred, broken bonds of interrelatedness that keep us all healthy and sane.

You can help nurture healthy relatedness in many different ways. Insist that our education system teach children not just technical skills and book knowledge, but also social and emotional learning: how to stay inwardly balanced, to recognize their basic goodness, and to communicate honestly and empathically with others. Promote a society that willingly cares for those in need of help, and cut the bloated defense budget to finance that. Instead of creating enemies through branding other nations as evil, your foreign policy can be more compassionate and inclusive, honoring all of the earth’s peoples as part of one human family. As Martin Luther King Jr. argued, the foundation for world peace can only be love. A “war on terror” is an oxymoron, because it’s impossible to eliminate terror through war, which only breeds more terror. By toning down the rhetoric of war and promoting friendship, caring, and understanding abroad, you can disarm terrorists by depriving them of reasons to attack us.

Most critical of all is our fractured relationship with the earth and the web of life that supports the presence of humanity on this planet. Use your persuasive leadership skills to help people recognize that caring for the earth, water, sky, plants, and animals—and preserving large, intact ecosystems—is not a parochial environmentalism promoted by special interests, but the essential basis of health and well-being for all. Through both policies and persuasion, show people how caring for the earth can transform business and help create new jobs. Your voice can be a powerful force that helps enshrine care for the earth in public policy and instill it in the hearts of the people. All other issues, no matter how essential, pale in importance if the earth can no longer support human life, and homo sapiens joins the growing list of endangered species.

Creating a caring society that nurtures and honors healthy interrelatedness on all levels is not a luxury issue but supremely pragmatic, for our collective survival now depends on it. If your actions promote the healing we need, you will garner support from many quarters, both visible and invisible. And people will be inspired to join with you out of love—even many who may not agree with all your policies.

Finally, it’s important to embody well-being yourself. Please take time to nurture your family, care for your health, and tend to the needs of your spirit and soul as you tackle the tremendous challenges that lie ahead. May the healing begin.

Clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Dr. John Welwood specializes in integrating Eastern spiritual wisdom and Western psychology. His latest book is Perfect Love, Imperfect Relationships: Healing the Wound of the Heart.
Go read the other memos.

The Edge Annual Question — 2009

The Edge Annual Question for 2009 is up at their site, and it's a good one:


"What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?"

Here is the text:
New tools equal new perceptions.

Through science we create technology and in using our new tools we recreate ourselves. But until very recently in our history, no democratic populace, no legislative body, ever indicated by choice, by vote, how this process should play out.

Nobody ever voted for printing. Nobody ever voted for electricity. Nobody ever voted for radio, the telephone, the automobile, the airplane, television. Nobody ever voted for penicillin, antibiotics, the pill. Nobody ever voted for space travel, massively parallel computing, nuclear power, the personal computer, the Internet, email, cell phones, the Web, Google, cloning, sequencing the entire human genome. We are moving towards the redefinition of life, to the edge of creating life itself. While science may or may not be the only news, it is the news that stays news.

And our politicians, our governments? Always years behind, the best they can do is play catch up.

Nobel laureate James Watson, who discovered the DNA double helix, and genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter, recently were awarded Double Helix Awards from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory for being the founding fathers of human genome sequencing. They are the first two human beings to have their complete genetic information decoded.

Watson noted during his acceptance speech that he doesn't want government involved in decisions concerning how people choose to handle information about their personal genomes.

Venter is on the brink of creating the first artificial life form on Earth. He has already announced transplanting the information from one genome into another. In other words, your dog becomes your cat. He has privately alluded to important scientific progress in his lab, the result of which, if and when realized, will change everything.

— John Brockman
Editor and Publisher

And here is the list of respondents:


Damn, that's a who's who of thinkers.

Here are a couple of responses from people I think are cool.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Psychologist; Director, Quality of Life Research Center, Claremont Graduate University; Author, Flow


The idea that will change the game of knowledge is the realization that it is more important to understand events, objects, and processes in their relationship with each other than in their singular structure.

Western science has achieved wonders with its analytic focus, but it is now time to take synthesis seriously. We shall realize that science cannot be value-free after all. The Doomsday clock ticking on the cover of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists ever closer to midnight is just one reminder that knowledge ignorant of consequences is foolishness.

Chemistry that shrugs at pollution is foolishness, Economics that discounts politics and sociology is just as ignorant as are politics and sociology that discount economics.

Unfortunately, it does not seem to be enough to protect the neutral objectivity of each separate science, in the hope that the knowledge generated by each will be integrated later at some higher level and used wisely. The synthetic principle will have to become a part of the fundamental axioms of each science. How shall this breakthrough occur? Current systems theories are necessary but not sufficient, as they tend not to take values into account. Perhaps after this realization sets in, we shall have to re-write science from the ground up.

* * *

Psychologist, Harvard Graduate School of Education; Author, Five Minds for the Future


What is talent? If you ask the average grade school teacher to identify her most talented student, she is likely to reject the question: "All my students are equally talented." But of course, this answer is rubbish. Anyone who has worked with numerous young people over the years knows that some catch on quickly, almost instantly, to new skills or understandings, while others must go through the same drill, with little depressingly little improvement over time.

As wrongheaded as the teacher's response is the viewpoint put forward by some psychological researchers, and most recently popularized in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success. This is notion that there is nothing mysterious about talent, no need to crack open the lockbox: anyone who works hard enough over a long period of time can end up at the top of her field. Anyone who has the opportunity to observe or read about a prodigy — be it Mozart or Yo-Yo Ma in music, Tiger Woods in golf, John von Neumann in mathematics — knows that achievement is not just hard work: the differences between performance at time 1 and successive performances at times 2, 3, and 4 are vast, not simply the result of additional sweat. It is said that if algebra had not already existed,, precocious Saul Kripke would have invented it in elementary school: such a characterization would be ludicrous if applied to most individuals.

For the first time, it should be possible to delineate the nature of talent. This breakthrough will come about through a combination of findings from genetics (do highly talented individuals have a distinctive, recognizable genetic profile?); neuroscience (are there structural or functional neural signatures, and, importantly, can these be recognized early in life?); cognitive psychology (are the mental representations of talented individuals distinctive when contrasted to those of hard workers); and the psychology of motivation (why are talented individuals often characterized as having 'a rage to learn, a passion to master?)

This interdisciplinary scientific breakthrough will allow us to understand what is special about Picasso, Gauss, J.S. Mill. Importantly, it will illuminate whether a talented person could have achieved equally in different domains (could Mozart have been a great physicist? Could Newton have been a great musician?) Note, however, that will not illuminate two other issues:

1. What makes someone original, creative? Talent, expertise,
are necessary but not sufficient.
2. What determines whether talents are applied to constructive
or destructive ends?

These answers are likely to come from historical or cultural case studies, rather than from biological or psychological science. Part of the maturity of the sciences is an appreciation of which questions are best left to other disciplinary approaches.

* * *

Steven Pinker
Johnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology; Harvard University; Author, The Stuff of Thought

If you Insist: Personal Genomics?

I have little faith in anyone’s ability to predict what will change everything. A look at the futurology of the past turns up many chastening examples of confident predictions of technological revolutions that never happened, such as domed cities, nuclear-powered cars, and meat grown in dishes. By the year 2001, according to the eponymous movie, we were supposed to have suspended animation, missions to Jupiter, and humanlike mainframe computers (though not laptop computers or word processing – the characters used typewriters.) And remember interactive television, the internet refrigerator, and the paperless office?

Technology may change everything, but it’s impossible to predict how. Take another way in which 2001: A Space Odyssey missed the boat. The American women in the film were “girl assistants”: secretaries, receptionists, and flight attendants. As late as 1968, few people foresaw the second feminist revolution that would change everything in the 1970s. It’s not that the revolution didn’t have roots in technological change. Not only did oral contraceptives make it possible for women to time their childbearing, but a slew of earlier technologies (sanitation, mass production, modern medicine, electricity) had reduced the domestic workload, extended the lifespan, and shifted the basis of the economy from brawn to brains, collectively emancipating women from round-the-clock childrearing.

The effects of technology depend not just on what the gadgets do but on billions of people’s judgments of their costs and benefits (do you really want to have call a help line to debug your refrigerator?). They also depend on countless nonlinear network effects, sleeper effects, and other nuisances. The popularity of baby names (Mildred, Deborah, Jennifer, Chloe), and the rates of homicide (down in the 1940s, up in the 1960s, down again in the 1990s) are just two of the social trends that fluctuate wildly in defiance of the best efforts of social scientists to explain them after the fact, let alone predict them beforehand.

But if you insist. This past year saw the introduction of direct-to-consumer genomics. A number of new companies have been recently launched. You can get everything from a complete sequencing of your genome (for a cool $350,000), to a screen of more than a hundred Mendelian disease genes, to a list of traits, disease risks, and ancestry data. Here are some possible outcomes:

• Personalized medicine, in which drugs are prescribed according to the patient’s molecular background rather than by trial and error, and in which prevention and screening recommendations are narrowcasted to those who would most benefit.

• An end to many genetic diseases. Just as Tay-Sachs has almost been wiped out in the decades since Ashkenazi Jews have tested themselves for the gene, a universal carrier screen, combined with preimplantation genetic diagnosis for carrier couples who want biological children, will eliminate a hundred others.

• Universal insurance for health, disability, and home care. Forget the political debates about the socialization of medicine. Cafeteria insurance will no longer be actuarially viable if the highest-risk consumers can load up on generous policies while the low-risk ones get by with the bare minimum.

• An end to the genophobia of many academics and pundits, whose blank-slate doctrines will look increasingly implausible as people learn their about genes that affect their temperament and cognition.

• The ultimate empowerment of medical consumers, who will know their own disease risks and seek commensurate treatment, rather than relying on the hunches and folklore of a paternalistic family doctor.

But then again, maybe not.

* * *

Cognitive Scientist,, New York University; Author, Kluge


Within my lifetime (or soon thereafter) scientists will finally decode the language of the brain. At present, we understand a bit about the basic alphabet of neural function, how neurons fire, and how they come together to form synapses, but haven't yet pieced together the words, let alone the sentences. Right now, we're sort of like Mendel, at the dawn of genetics: he knew there must be something like genes (what he called "factors"), but couldn't say where they lived (in the protein? in the cytoplasm?) or how they got their job done. Today, we know that thought has something to do with neurons, and that our memories are stored in brain matter, but we don't yet know how to decipher the neurocircuitry within.

Doing that will require a quantum leap. The most popular current techniques for investigating the brain, like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), are far too coarse. A single three dimensional "voxel" in an fMRI scan lumps together the actions of tens or even hundreds of thousands of neurons — yielding a kind of rough geography of the brain (emotion in the amygdala, decision-making in the prefrontal cortex) but little in the way of specifics. How does the prefrontal cortex actually do its thing? How does the visual cortex represent the difference between a house and a car, or a Hummer and a taxi? How does Broca's area know the difference between a noun and verb?

To answer questions like these, we need to move beyond the broad scale geographies of fMRI and down to the level of individual neurons.

At the moment, that's a big job. For one thing, in the human brain there are billions of neurons and trillions of connections between them; the sheer amount of data involved is overwhelming. For another, until recently we've lacked the tools to understand the function of individual neurons in action, within the context of microcircuits.

But there's good reason to think all that's about to change. Computers continue to advance at a dizzying pace. Then there's the truly unprecedented explosion in databases like the Human Genome and the Allen Brain Atlas, enormously valuable datasets that are shared publically and instantly available to all researchers, everywhere; even a decade ago there was nothing like them. Finally, genetic neuroimaging is just around the corner — scientists can now induce individual neurons to fire and (literally) light up on demand, allowing us to understand individual neural circuits in a brand new way.

Technical advances alone won't be enough, though — we'll need a scientist with the theoeretical vision of Francis Crick, who not only helped identify the physical basis of genes — DNA — but also the code by which the individual nucleotides of a gene get translated (in groups of three) into amino acids. When it comes to the brain, we already know that neurons are the physical basis of thinking and knowledge, but not the laws of translation that relate one to the other.

I don't expect that there will be one single code. Although every creature uses essentially the same translation between DNA and amino acids, different parts of the brain may translate between neurons and information in different ways. Circuits that control muscles, for example, seem to work on a system of statistical averaging; the angle at which a monkey extends its arm seems, as best we can tell, to be a kind of statistical average of the actions of hundreds of individual neurons, each representing a slightly different angle of possible motion, 44 degrees, 44.1 degrees, and so forth. Alas, what works for muscles probably can't work for sentences and ideas, so-called declarative knowledge like the proposition that "Michael Bloomberg is the Mayor of New York" or the idea that my fight to Montreal leaves at noon. It's implausible that the brain would have vast population of neurons reserved for each specific thought I might entertain ("my flight to Montreal leaves at 11:58 am", "my flight to Montreal leave leaves at 11:59 am", etc). Instead, the brain, like language itself, needs some sort of combinatorial code, a way of putting together smaller pieces (Montreal, flight, noon) into larger elements.

When we crack that nut, when we figure out how the brain manages to encode declarative knowledge , an awful lot is going to change. For one thing, our relationship to computers will be completely and irrevocably altered; clumsy input devices like mice, windows, keyboards, and even heads-up displays and speech recognizers will go the way of typewriters and fountain pens; our connection to computers will be far more direct. Education, too, will fundamentally change, as engineers and cognitive sciences begin to leverage an understanding of brain code into ways of directly uploading information into the brain. Knowledge will become far cheaper than it already has become in the Internet era; with luck and wisdom, we as species could advance immeasurably.

Read all of them - they're all over the place, but it seems that artificial intelligence of some sort is highly anticipated.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

James Tate - Ryokan #1

A nice and interesting slide show featuring the words of Ryokan, read by James Tate.

Ryokan #1 from James Tate on Vimeo.

Some Favorite Sounds from 2008

I liked these artists and/or songs from the previous year - these are my four "favorite" musicians from 2008. And yes, I am not very much in touch with "popular" music, whatever the hell that is.

Death Cab For Cutie - I Will Possess Your Heart

Death Cab for Cutie-Talking Bird (Live From Seattle)

The Airborne Toxic Event - Sometime Around Midnight

The Airborne Toxic Event - Gasoline

Cold War Kids - We Used To Vacation Acoustic

Cold War Kids - Hang Me Up To Dry

Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan - Keep Me in Mind, Sweetheart

There's no video for this, but I LOVE this song, so here it is:


Dumb Little Man - Ten Simple Things We Should All Say More Often

Here is a good set of suggestions with which to begin the new year - Ten Simple Things We Should All Say More Often. These are all things that would make the world we live in each day a little better than it is today.

Ten Simple Things We Should All Say More Often

How many words do you speak during an average day? No, I am not talking about text messages, emails, or slang chatroom words, I am talking about words that actually come out of your mouth.

The average figure is 16,000 words. Even then, much of what we say can be meaningless chit-chat, brisk, necessary exchanges or even angry rants. Here are ten things that we could all do with saying more often. While reading, I'll bet you believe the list is pretty simplistic. However, the positive impact they will have on your mood and your day is pretty dramatic.
  1. “Hello.”
    How often do you sit silently next to someone on a train, or in a waiting room? How often do you stand tapping your foot in a line at the post office or bank? Just saying a simple “Hello” or “Hi” to the person next to you, and offering them a smile, could give you an instant mood-boost. And you might even get into a conversation to pass the time while you’re waiting.

  2. “Thank you.”
    It’s hard to say “thank you” too often. Even when you feel someone’s performing a service that they should do by the nature of their job, thanking them will make both of you feel good. How about saying “thank you” to your employees or subordinates when they carry out a task for you, “thank you” to the girl at the checkout when she packs your bags for you, “thank you” to the waiter who brings your meals… Those two small words of gratitude can mean a lot.

  3. “Please.”
    A word which we often associate with “thank you”, perhaps because we were taught to say both as young children, is “please”. Using this little word turns a demand into a request – and makes people much happier about fulfilling it. When you queue up for a coffee at Starbucks, don’t just bark “Venti Mocha Frappuccino” at the barista – add a “please”. When asking your partner to pass the salt at dinner, put in that “please”. It doesn’t just set a great example for your kids, it sets a tone of politeness and mutual respect.

  4. “Here, take my seat.”
    Most of us are lucky enough to be fairly able-bodied and can easily stand on trains and buses without risking falling over. If you see someone elderly, pregnant or struggling in any way (perhaps a mother with a small child), offer them your seat. If you’re worried you’ll accidentally offend them, add a “I’m getting off soon” or something slightly jokey like “I could do with stretching my legs.”

  5. "This one’s on me.”
    Out for drinks with a friend or acquaintance? Rather than insisting on splitting the bill straight down the middle, offer to buy for both of you. It’s nice to feel generous, and to feel that you’re receiving a gift – and your friend can reciprocate next time, if s/he wants. A note of caution: if you are a lot better off financially than your drinking partner, be sensitive about this.

  6. “Let me help you with that.”
    If you see someone struggling, offer to help. They may rebuff you, but most people will be touched and grateful – you’ll get to make their day a little bit easier, which will put a dash of joy into yours. You might offer to help someone who’s:

    • Struggling with getting a wheelchair up or down steps
    • Lifting heavy luggage onto a train
    • Carrying an overladen tray across a café
    • Having difficulties reading a notice or leaflet
    • Keep an eye out for other situations where you can make yourself useful!

  7. “I don’t think we’ve met. I’m [name].”
    Many of us aren’t great at introducing ourselves. If you meet someone new, don’t just mumble about the weather or say nothing but “hi”; tell them your name, and ask theirs. It’s awkward to talk to someone for ten minutes before having to say “Sorry, I didn’t catch your name,” so be confident and upfront when meeting new people.

  8. “What I’m really passionate about is…”
    So often, conversations revolve around matters of little consequence to both the speaker and the listener. If you feel that most of what you say is just small talk, try going deeper. Obviously, this doesn’t mean boring the person next to you on the bus with your entire life story – but when you’re getting to know someone, share some of your hobbies and interests, or tell them about your big life plans. You never know, you might have found a kindred spirit.

  9. “Have a great day!”
    Although phrases like “have a nice day” can be overused by shopworkers and telesales staff, it’s still worth wishing people a good day, evening or weekend when you part. Speak with genuine enthusiasm, and you’ll almost certainly get a smile and a “thanks, you too!” in response – a great way to end a conversation on a high note.

  10. “I love you.”
    Lastly, those three most important words; “I love you.” Do you say these enough to the people who you love? Don’t just think about your partner here – how about your kids, your parents, your grandma? It’s easy to assume that people “just know” we love them, but sometimes hearing those little words can really make someone’s day.
What phrases do you think we should all be saying more often? What do you make an effort to say in order to bring a smile to someone's face?
I would "excuse me" and "I'm sorry" to the list - simple courtesy goes a long way.

Happy 2009

I'm sleeping right now, so I hope all of you who are welcoming the New Year in person are safe and warm.

May we all welcome our best selves into the world with the arrival of the new year and each pledge to be of service to the world in the best way we can.

Happy 2009!

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Year in Review - Have You Made a Difference This Year?

Well, have you? I have.

By Donald Latumahina, December 31, 2008

We have come to the end of 2008 and soon we will enter 2009. Now is a good time for you to reflect on how your life is going. How have your year been? Did it meet your expectation? Have you made a difference this year?

Have you made a difference this year?To answer this question, simply look at yourself one year ago. How was your career and finance? How was you spiritually? How was your health? How was your relationships? It’s better if you have numbers that clearly show you how you were (after all, measuring your life is a good life management practice). For instance, what was your income, expenses, net worth, or weight?

Next, compare your situation back then with your current situation. Is there any difference? Or have you let this year pass by without any significant growth on your part?

Read the whole post.

I wasn't planning to do a "year in review" post this year because, well, I'm lazy and it seemed like more work than it's worth. Who the hell cares what kind of year I had?

I did some good writing this year, mostly for other people, but in the coming year I see some new opportunities opening up - that's exciting.

Work stayed steady this year, which is no small feat considering that Tucson has been hit harder than other parts of the nation in the current depression/recession mess. I kept many long-time clients and picked up a few new ones. The coming year looks promising.

I decided last year to go back to school. I have been wanting to become a therapist for at least five years now, after having originally gone to school for that reason. A bad program, another life, and then a reconnection with who I was meant to be have made this the right time to go back. Classes start in February.

My Buddhist practice has continued to wax and wane. But more than ever before, my practice is my life. I don't sit very much these days, but I practice mindfulness and compassion as a part of each day, with each person, in each situation - as best I can.

My blogs have continued to grow, and with the launch of The Masculine Heart this year, I think I found a niche where my experience can be of use to others. IOC had it's best month ever in October, with more than 40,000 visitors. I've been slacking on Elegant Thorn, but with the new year I plan to revive that blog as well.

Most importantly, however, I fell in love with the woman I have always been waiting for this year. Lucky for me, she thinks I'm pretty OK as well. Jami and I are co-creating an amazing relationship. For this, I am most grateful and most humbling aware that life brings us beautiful gifts if we have the courage to accept them.

I'm not the same person I was at the beginning of 2008. No one is. But I like who I am, and I feel that I have grown a lot over the last year. What more can I ask for?

How was your 2008? Hope you are safe, happy, and growing.

Research Supports Spiral Dynamics Model of Memetic Evolution

Over the years, Don Beck (and I would guess Chris Cowen, as well) received a good bit of grief for asserting that religion is a necessary evolutionary development to contain the egocentric power drive of the previous stage. In Sprial Dynamics speak, the rule-bound, authoritarian Blue meme is necessarily developed as a containment for the previous egocentric power drives of the Red meme.

Turns out that Beck and Cowan - and Clare Graves before them - were exactly right. And now there is research to support them.

From PhysOrg:

Religion may have evolved because of its ability to help people exercise self-control

December 30th, 2008 in Medicine & Health / Psychology

Self-control is critical for success in life, and a new study by University of Miami professor of Psychology Michael McCullough finds that religious people have more self-control than do their less religious counterparts. These findings imply that religious people may be better at pursuing and achieving long-term goals that are important to them and their religious groups. This, in turn, might help explain why religious people tend to have lower rates of substance abuse, better school achievement, less delinquency, better health behaviors, less depression, and longer lives.

In this research project, McCullough evaluated 8 decades worth of research on religion, which has been conducted in diverse samples of people from around the world. He found persuasive evidence from a variety of domains within the social sciences, including neuroscience, economics, psychology, and sociology, that religious beliefs and religious behaviors are capable of encouraging people to exercise self-control and to more effectively regulate their emotions and behaviors, so that they can pursue valued goals. The research paper, which summarizes the results of their review of the existing science, will be published in the January 2009 issue of Psychological Bulletin.

"The importance of self-control and self-regulation for understanding human behavior are well known to social scientists, but the possibility that the links of religiosity to self-control might explain the links of religiosity to health and behavior has not received much explicit attention," said McCullough. "We hope our paper will correct this oversight in the scientific literature." Among the most interesting conclusions that the research team drew were the following:

• Religious rituals such as prayer and meditation affect the parts of the human brain that are most important for self-regulation and self-control;
• When people view their goals as "sacred," they put more energy and effort into pursuing those goals, and therefore, are probably more effective at attaining them;
• Religious lifestyles may contribute to self-control by providing people with clear standards for their behavior, by causing people to monitor their own behavior more closely, and by giving people the sense that God is watching their behavior;
• The fact that religious people tend to be higher in self-control helps explain why religious people are less likely to misuse drugs and alcohol and experience problems with crime and delinquency.

McCullough's review of the research on religion and self-control contributes to a better understanding of "how the same social force that motivates acts of charity and generosity can also motivate people to strap bomb belts around their waists and then blow themselves up in crowded city buses," he explained. "By thinking of religion as a social force that provides people with resources for controlling their impulses (including the impulse for self-preservation, in some cases) in the service of higher goals, religion can motivate people to do just about anything."

Among the study's more practical implications is that religious people may have at their disposal a set of unique psychological resources for adhering to their New Year's Resolutions in the year to come.

Source: University of Miami
Here are Don Beck's comments on this study, which was also discussed by John Tierney in the New York Times:
For a number of years I have been under criticism because I recommended that the 4th Level System would be essential in the shaping of the 3rd Level conditions, and that would often take the form of some versions of "religion." But, as many of you know, Blue can wear different types of Content hats but the theme: "Sacrifice self now, to obtain later" will be consistent. There are so many places where this is happening in the geopolitical dynamics and often the transformation is violent as Red resists the discipline and control.

Here, now, is scientific evidence for what Graves expressed in his theoretical models, and for what is contained in the Spiral Dynamics conceptual system. The Content of the Blue code becomes critical, as we are learning in Palestine, for if that Content is anti-Jewish, anti-Western, and even anti-American, then this will set up holy wars for years to come. One of the strategies Elza and I have been using is to help shape (thus Integral Design Engineering) the specific Content of the Palestinian "Blue." This gave rise to the "Hong Kong of the Middle East" initiative, and the nation-building activities in Bethlehem.
In my arguments against the New Atheists, this in one of the areas where I think they have been short-sighted and just plain blind. The completely fail to grasp the developmental structure of human psyches and value systems, which requires that every person and every culture move through fairly precise stages (although how the stages manifest varies).

The New Atheists are right to reject the fundamentalism that makes religion dangerous, but at its heart, nearly every religion is about sacrificing self-interest now for a better life later (often in heaven). This self-control (as the new research highlights) is crucial to containing (creating boundaries for) the egocentric power drives of the previous stage, just the ego development and expression of the Red meme was crucial for movement beyond the embedded tribal kinship system of the previous stage.

Over time, I'm sure we will see more research that supports the SDi model. It's an exciting time. Too bad so few people in power are willing or able to grasp the utility of the system.