Bigger brains aren’t always better

“Nearly 3 million years ago, our ancestors had brains about as big as modern chimps. Since then the brain that would become human grew steadily, tripling in size. But this extra cranium capacity may not have resulted in smarter hominids.

As far as tool-making is concerned, there is little evidence of improvement over much of the period that the brain was growing.

“Archaeology has found that brain size grew gradually, but cleverness took steps,” said William Calvin, a neurobiologist from the University of Washington.

The most dramatic of these steps is referred to by some as the Mind’s Big Bang. It occurred between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago. This burst of creativity resulted in bone tools, including sewing needles and throwing sticks. There was also a flourishing of portable art, such as necklaces and pendants, as well as cave paintings.

“There was nothing like this before,” Calvin said here Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

It is hard to explain the Mind’s Big Bang with a jump in skull size, seeing as Homo sapiens with modern-sized brains had already been around for 100,000 years or more before the tool and art revolution occurred.

“The big brain was perhaps necessary for the creative explosion at 70,000 years ago, but it sure wasn’t sufficient by itself,” Calvin said.

So what was a larger brain good for? What was the evolutionary advantage that propelled our family tree to make more room between the ears?


The brain
An interactive road map to the mind

Calvin postulates that a big brain may have made our ancestors better hunters by improving their throwing accuracy. Or perhaps it allowed for the development of a rudimentary language of three-word sentences.

The social psychologist Robin Dunbar has even suggested that the higher memory capacity in a bigger brain could have helped early hominids identify freeloaders who were not pulling their weight for the community.

But none of these subtle advances, according to Calvin, led to the emergence of behaviorally modern humans.

“If you can’t speak sentences of more than two to three words at a time without them all blending together like a summer drink, you likely cannot think complicated thoughts either,” he said.

Increasing sentence length or doing multistage planning requires an understanding of structure. Moreover, it is structural creativity that led to advances in tools and art.This structure may have developed in early human language and thought through trial and error.

“We invent new levels on the fly,” Calvin said.

A lot of this invention might be nonsensical, but occasionally an innovative adult might have tried out a new word or syntax, and a child heard it and began incorporating it into his or her language.

“Then long-sentence language can spread like a contagious disease, as more kids hear structured sentences and grow up to become super adults,” Calvin explained.

The incorporation of more and more complexity is attributable to a combination of culture and genes.

“Behavior invents, and then little genetic changes come along that improve it,” Calvin said.

He wonders if we might be headed into a second big bang of the mind. With “better-informed education” based on empirical methods, Calvin postulated that we might see a creative flourishing in the coming century, comparable to the advances made in medicine of the past century.”

Do launch the Interactive Roadmap to the Brain for fun and read more here.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

On vegan and vegetarian parents

From The Guardian,

“Prof Allen conducted a study of impoverished children in Kenya, and found that adding as little as two spoonfuls of meat a day to their starch-based diets dramatically improved muscle development and mental skills.

. . .

Prof Allen was especially critical of parents who imposed a vegan lifestyle on their children, denying them milk, cheese, eggs and butter, as well as meat. ‘There’s absolutely no question that it’s unethical for parents to bring up their children as strict vegans,’ she said.
. . .

However, the British Dietetic Association said the study looked at impoverished, rural children with a poor background diet low in essential nutrients such as zinc, B12 and iron, and its findings were not applicable to vegan children in the developed world.”

Now assuming this is true, why doesn’t the ethical quandry hold for parents who don’t force their children to exercise, etc.?

Segments of the Iraqi insurgency seem willing to negotiate

This report in Time suggests that there may be even more positive fallout from the Iraqi elections (in addition to the elections themselves).

“The secret meeting is taking place in the bowels of a facility in Baghdad, a cavernous, heavily guarded building in the U.S.-controlled green zone. The Iraqi negotiator, a middle-aged former member of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the senior representative of the self-described nationalist insurgency, sits on one side of the table. He is here to talk to two members of the U.S. military. One of them, an officer, takes notes during the meeting. The other, dressed in civilian clothes, listens as the Iraqi outlines a list of demands the U.S. must satisfy before the insurgents stop fighting. . . The discussion does not go beyond generalities, but both sides know what’s behind the coded language.

The Iraqi’s very presence conveys a message: Members of the insurgency are open to negotiating an end to their struggle with the U.S. ‘We are ready,’ he says before leaving, ‘to work with you.’

In that guarded pledge may lie the first sign that after nearly two years of fighting, parts of the insurgency in Iraq are prepared to talk and move toward putting away their arms–and the U.S. is willing to listen.”

Star in a Jar, again a controversial claim regarding nuclear fusion

The quest for a practically limitless source of energy through fusion continues unabated even though talks between the Japanese and the European on the administrative structure, contracting and location of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) project are bogged down. 


“Rusi Taleyarkhan claims to have achieved it [nuclear fusion] using simple sound waves. His breakthrough is based on something called sonoluminescence. It is a process that transforms sound waves into flashes of light, focusing the sound energy into a tiny flickering hot spot inside a bubble.

It has been nicknamed ‘the star in a jar’ by researchers in the field.

The star in a jar effortlessly reaches temperatures of tens of thousands of degrees, which is hotter than the surface of the Sun. It was able to do all this by simply focusing the energy of the sound wave into a tiny hot spot.

. . .

But there was one major criticism of Rusi Taleyarkhan’s work.”

Empire as Cultural Hegemony

How culturally hegemonic was the project of Empire for the British?  A new book tries to answer.

“As everyone knows (everyone, at least, whose knowledge is derived from paperback history books and the BBC), Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries was an imperial power with an imperialist culture. The British were taught imperial history at schools, they read imperial news in the newspapers, they devoured novels with imperialist themes, and so on. The upper classes were educated to run the Empire; the lower classes, to take pride in it.

There is now an entire academic industry devoted to tracing this all-pervading imperialism through every aspect of 19th-century life: masculinity, tea-drinking, zoo-keeping, you name it. So confident are modern writers in the omnipresence of imperialism that specific references to the Empire are not in fact required: thus one modern art critic has identified an imperialist theme in Constable’s painting Hadleigh Castle on the grounds that the Thames Estuary (shown in the background) ‘represents’ British expansion into the rest of the world.

. . .

Bernard Porter, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Newcastle, takes Seeley’s remark as the starting-point for a wide-ranging investigation of what the British really thought about their Empire. And to anyone brought up on the paperback-BBC view, the evidence he has accumulated will be truly startling.”

How the Ward Churchill Affair Unfolded

The self-obsession of the blogosphere is something I’m fascinated by.  I watched but did not post on the Ward Churchill controversy. (What can you really say about someone who would suggest that the 9/11 victims in the World Trade Center were “little Eichmann’s”, except that they are insane, opportunistic, and/or morally decrepit?)  I take it for granted that there are insane, opportunistic, and morally decrepit people out there who hold ridiculous views and offensive opinions and will express them.  Call it a side effect of diversity and openness.  But I was amazed at how the rantings of an obscure academic aimed at whatever pseudo-lefty self-righteousness crowd and made quite sometime ago became a national issue.  The Chronicle has this account of the Ward Chruchill affair.

“In the Internet age, that report in the Syracuse newspaper quickly reached far beyond upstate New York. A link to the article was posted on Little Green Footballs, a widely read conservative Weblog, at 9:40 a.m. Eastern time.

Eleven minutes later a reader posted a comment, saying Mr. Churchill deserved to be shot in the face. And then just before 10 a.m., a different reader provided the professor’s e-mail address. Before 11 a.m., another reader announced she had just called the Colorado governor and had written letters to The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News. She followed up a few minutes later with contact information for the newspapers so that others could do the same.

Linking to a simple article from Syracuse had unleashed the power of hundreds of individuals, all using Google to add little bits of information. Within hours, 500 comments about the matter had been posted on Little Green Footballs alone. Readers linked to old news releases regarding squabbles between Mr. Churchill and the American Indian Movement. They linked to Hamilton news releases about alumni who were killed in the attacks. Someone requested the name of a September 11 widow from Colorado who might have political clout.”

Frozen Sea under surface of Mars

‘A huge, frozen sea lies just below the surface of Mars, a team of European scientists has announced. The team think a catastrophic event flooded the landscape five million years ago and then froze out. They tell a forthcoming edition of Nature magazine that sediments covered the ice, locking it in place. Large reserves of water-ice are known to be held at the poles on Mars but if this discovery is confirmed by follow-up observations, it would be a first for a region at such a low latitude.’

From the BBC.

Peck, Bad Boy

Dale Peck has been pissing people off with his literary criticism for some time now. Stanley Crouch once bitch slapped him in a bar. The stories go on. But he’s always interesting. Gary Sernovitz has written a nice essay explaining why.

Dale Peck can be a very good critic. When he angrily scrawls, “Lies! Lies! All lies!” on the cover of Rick Moody’s The Black Veil, it’s not right, it’s not justified, it probably hurts the book’s resale value, but it’s good: Dale Peck genuinely cares about fiction. He writes forcefully and directly, without any academic fussiness and often with surprise. (One novel’s tensionless structure is “like playing racquetball in a court with   no walls.”) Peck is enlightening about black women writers’ rise into prominence, for example, or the trap of being a cult writer like Kurt Vonnegut. In his best essays, Peck celebrates books’ successes and laments (without joy) their failures on clear, common, deeply-felt criteria: their characters’ vitality and complexity, the credibility and balance of their drama, the closeness of their observation, their humor, their prose, their pace. Even when using his axe, Peck can reveal insights into the novel as a form. For instance, Peck writes that Julian Barnes “is a terribly smart man and a terribly, terribly skilled writer, if by smart you mean a mind that has ready access to its wide  store of information and by skilled you mean a writer who can manipulate words so that they simultaneously sound familiar and original.” However, “intelligence and talent in the service of a discompassionate temperament… are precisely the opposite of what one seeks from a novelist, or a novel.” Finally, Peck convincingly laments that his essays, literary criticism in general, and in particular his notorious review on Rick Moody’s The Black Veil, are too often discussed in terms of personality and gossip. “I realized that people,” he writes, “were less interested in what I (or the writers I reviewed) had to say than the possibility of a brawl.”

Monday, February 21, 2005

On the Autonomy of Aesthetic Experience

Rochelle Gurstein writes about the “Aztec Empire” exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in The New Republic:

The ideal of experiencing art in all its optical richness without any need of mediation is dear to me, but my radically unstable experience with the art of the Aztecs made me consider (not for the first time) the kind of distancing, moral and intellectual, that aesthetic autonomy requires. Which, in turn, led me to recall the history of ruins-gazing, which, in its picturesque phase beginning in the eighteenth century, provides the earliest example of aesthetic autonomy. Instead of falling into melancholy reveries at the sight of ancient Roman ruins, as was the habit of humanists, picturesque travelers, trained to see ruins as if they were discerning the artistic merits of landscape painting, were instead enchanted by the aesthetic wonders worked by time.

More here.

Roger Penrose and the Gödelian Argument Against AI

In my recent post of the New Yorker article by Jim Holt on what Einstein and Gödel talked about on their walks in Princeton, Holt writes about Gödel:

He believed he had shown that mathematics has a robust reality that transcends any system of logic. But logic, he was convinced, is not the only route to knowledge of this reality; we also have something like an extrasensory perception of it, which he called “mathematical intuition.” It is this faculty of intuition that allows us to see, for example, that the formula saying “I am not provable” must be true, even though it defies proof within the system where it lives. Some thinkers (like the physicist Roger Penrose) have taken this theme further, maintaining that Gödel’s incompleteness theorems have profound implications for the nature of the human mind. Our mental powers, it is argued, must outstrip those of any computer, since a computer is just a logical system running on hardware, and our minds can arrive at truths that are beyond the reach of a logical system.

Some people, like my friend Timo Hartmann, have pounced on this as proof of their conviction that computers will never be able to think like humans. Unfortunately, they are on thin ice. Penrose’s argument, set out in detail in his book Shadows of the Mind, is shaky at best, sometime’s outright bizarre, and in the end, just wrong. For a good rebuttal of Penrose, see what Hilary Putnam wrote in a review of Shadows of the Mind:

[Shadows of the Mind] will be hailed as a “controversial” book, and it will no doubt sell very well even though it includes explanations of difficult concepts from quantum mechanics and computational science. And yet this reviewer regards its appearance as a sad episode in our current intellectual life. Roger Penrose is the Rouse Ball Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University and has shared the prestigious Wolf Prize in physics with Stephen Hawking, but he is convinced by–and has produced this book as well as the earlier The Emperor’s New Mind to defend–an argument that all experts in mathematical logic have long rejected as fallacious. The fact that the experts all reject Lucas’s infamous argument counts for nothing in Penrose’s eyes. He mistakenly believes that he has a philosophical disagreement with the logical community, when in fact this is a straightforward case of a mathematical fallacy.

Read the rest of Putnam’s review here.

And here, if you need more, is a whole list of References for Criticisms of the Gödelian Argument.

Iraqi Marshes

One of the nastier moves by Saddam was to drain the southern marshes of Iraq in order, essentially, to eradicate the peoples known as the Marsh Arabs. One of the nice stories among the debacles and violence of the last two years in Iraq is the story of the slow resurgence of those marshes.

One of the world’s greatest marshland habitats – and home of an ancient culture – is beginning to show the first signs of recovery after decades of systematic destruction under Saddam Hussein.

An international scientific assessment of Iraq’s drained wetlands, the first since they were partially reflooded after the downfall of Saddam, has found that the giant reeds are growing once more and the water birds and otters are returning. However, ecologists told the American Association for the Advancement of Science yesterday that some parts of the Iraqi marshes may never recover fully because of a build-up of salt in the soil during the time when they had been artificially dammed or drained. . . .

Curtis Richardson, a wetlands expert at Duke University, told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC that in the areas where recovery is going well, more than half of the species of birds have returned.

The Iraqi marshes are an important wintering ground for species migrating between Africa and Siberia. “Right after the war, we were counting birds on one hand or two,” Professor Curtis said. “When we went back in February we were talking in the hundreds, and the most recent census shows we’re talking in the thousands.”

Terrified by a Tyrannosaur

In John Brockman’s Curious Minds: How a Child Becomes a Scientist, a collection of 27 autobiographical essays by leading savants, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker scoffs at this oft-told story. Pinker relates that Gould dedicated his first book: “For my father, who took me to see the Tyrannosaurus when I was five,” and admires Gould’s “genius … for coming up with that charming line.” But he doesn’t buy it.

Pinker goes on to tell his own childhood story, with the caveat that long-term memory is notoriously malleable and that we often concoct retrospective scenarios to fit satisfying scripts of our lives. So don’t believe anything in this book, he warns, including his own self-constructed mythology; many children are exposed to books and museums, but few become scientists. Pinker concludes that perhaps the essence of who we are from birth shapes our childhood experiences rather than the other way around.

Lynn Margulis’s early interest in the wonders of the microscopic world began when she was a “boy crazy” adolescent, who was amazed to learn that some minuscule creatures never need sex in order to reproduce. Enter a teenage heartthrob: the budding astrophysicist Carl Sagan. (“Tall, handsome in a sort of galooty way, with a shock of brown-black hair, he captivated me.”) She was 16 when they met; eventually they married.

Sagan’s fascination with “billions and billions” of cosmic bodies resonated with her own fixation on the billions of microcosms to be observed through the microscope. Margulis’s study subjects have included a tiny animal in a termite’s gut that is made up of five distinct genomes cobbled together. She has argued that we and other animals are composite critters, whose every cell harbors long-ago invaders–minute symbiotic organisms that became part of our makeup. Her innovative approach to evolution has profoundly influenced biology.

Terrorist Attacks Follow Power Law Relationship

Phillip Ball in Nature:

Computer scientists Aaron Clauset and Maxwell Young of the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, have analysed the data on terrorist attacks compiled by the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism in Oklahoma City. They say the numbers follow a ‘power-law’ relationship.

A graph of the number of attacks n plotted against their severity x (in terms of injuries and/or fatalities) reveals that n is roughly proportional to x -1.85. Put simply, this means that the frequency of attacks decreases as their size increases – which is what you’d expect – but also that this relationship holds for events ranging from those that injured or killed just a few people to those that, like the Nairobi car bomb in August 1998, produced over 5000 casualties.

This might sound like no more than a formal way of presenting the statistics, but the power-law relationship has startling implications. For example, Clauset and Young say that the statistics suggest a strong probability of an attack as devastating as that on the World Trade Center within seven years.

More here.

What were Einstein and Gödel talking about?

Jim Holt in the New Yorker:

Einst_godelA decade after arriving in Princeton, Einstein acquired a walking companion, a much younger man who, next to the rumpled Einstein, cut a dapper figure in a white linen suit and matching fedora. The two would talk animatedly in German on their morning amble to the institute and again, later in the day, on their way homeward. The man in the suit may not have been recognized by many townspeople, but Einstein addressed him as a peer, someone who, like him, had single-handedly launched a conceptual revolution. If Einstein had upended our everyday notions about the physical world with his theory of relativity, the younger man, Kurt Gödel, had had a similarly subversive effect on our understanding of the abstract world of mathematics.

Gödel, who has often been called the greatest logician since Aristotle, was a strange and ultimately tragic man. Whereas Einstein was gregarious and full of laughter, Gödel was solemn, solitary, and pessimistic. Einstein, a passionate amateur violinist, loved Beethoven and Mozart. Gödel’s taste ran in another direction: his favorite movie was Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” and when his wife put a pink flamingo in their front yard he pronounced it furchtbar herzig—“awfully charming.” Einstein freely indulged his appetite for heavy German cooking; Gödel subsisted on a valetudinarian’s diet of butter, baby food, and laxatives. Although Einstein’s private life was not without its complications, outwardly he was jolly and at home in the world. Gödel, by contrast, had a tendency toward paranoia. He believed in ghosts; he had a morbid dread of being poisoned by refrigerator gases; he refused to go out when certain distinguished mathematicians were in town, apparently out of concern that they might try to kill him.

More here.

Hunter S. Thompson, 65, Author, Commits Suicide

The New York Times:

PounhunterHunter S. Thompson, the maverick journalist and author whose savage chronicling of the underbelly of American life and politics embodied a new kind of nonfiction writing he called “gonzo journalism,” died yesterday in Colorado. Tricia Louthis, of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, said Mr. Thompson had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Woody Creek, Colo., yesterday afternoon. He was 65.

Mr. Thompson, a magazine and newspaper writer who also wrote almost a dozen books, was perhaps best known for his book, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” which became a Hollywood movie in 1998. But he was better known for his hard-driving lifestyle and acerbic eye for truth which he used in the style of first-person reporting that came to be known as “gonzo” in the 1960’s, where the usually-anonymous reporter becomes a central character in the story, a conduit of subjectivity.

More here.

Sunday, February 20, 2005


There’s a lovely little magazine called Cabinet that more people should know about. Here’s what they have to say about themselves:

Cabinet is an award-winning quarterly magazine of art and culture that confounds expectations of what is typically meant by the words “art,” “culture,” and sometimes even “magazine.” Like the 17th-century cabinet of curiosities to which its name alludes, Cabinet is as interested in the margins of culture as its center. Presenting wide-ranging, multi-disciplinary content in each issue through the varied formats of regular columns, essays, interviews, and special artist projects, Cabinet‘s hybrid sensibility merges the popular appeal of an arts periodical, the visually engaging style of a design magazine, and the in-depth exploration of a scholarly journal. Playful and serious, exuberant and committed, Cabinet‘s omnivorous appetite for understanding the world makes each of its issues a valuable sourcebook of ideas for a wide range of readers, from artists and designers to scientists and historians. In an age of increasing specialization, Cabinet looks to previous models of the well-rounded thinker to forge a new type of magazine for the intellectually curious reader of the future.

A recent project, The Cabinet National Library is particularly inspired. Cabinet purchased a piece of scrubland in New Mexico that has become the site for various activities in what has now been named ‘Cabinetlandia’. It now has principalities such as Readerland, Nepotismia, Funderlandia, Editorlandia, Internlandia, etc.

Sexy ‘perfume’ lures cockroaches to their doom

Image: Cockroach courtship

In a finding that could revolutionize pest control, researchers have discovered the identity of the “perfume” produced by female cockroaches when they are feeling amorous. When the scientists set out traps wafting synthetic versions of the compound, male cockroaches came scurrying within seconds.

There hasn’t been a particularly effective way to attract the tenacious pests until now, so pesticide is currently the antiroach weapon of choice, according to author Coby Schal of North Carolina State University.

By themselves, cockroach traps probably won’t eradicate a whole cockroach population, but they should help with detecting and monitoring the insects, especially in places where even a single bug is too many, such as schools, operating rooms and food processing centers.

Schal also proposed that adding the pheromone to bait laced with insecticide might help reduce cockroach populations via the “domino effect.” Cockroaches have about two or three days after eating the poisoned food before they die. In the meantime they could pass along the insecticide via their feces, which baby cockroaches eat.

Read more here.

Tsunami uncovers ancient city in India


Three rocky structures with elaborate carvings of animals have emerged near the coastal town of Mahabalipuram, which was battered by the Dec. 26 tsunami.

As the waves receded, the force of the water removed sand deposits that had covered the structures, which appear to belong to a port city built in the seventh century, said T. Satyamurthy, a senior archaeologist with the Archaeological Survey of India.

Mahabalipuram is already well known for its ancient, intricately carved shore temples that have been declared a World Heritage site and are visited each year by thousands of Hindu pilgrims and tourists.  According to descriptions by early British travel writers, the area was also home to seven pagodas, six of which were submerged by the sea.

Read more here

The Birth of the Mind

Very good article by Gary Marcus in the Boston Review:

Marcus3In the nine-month dash from conception to birth—the flurry of dividing, specializing, and migrating cells that scientists call embryogenesis—organs such as the heart and kidney unfold in a series of ever more mature stages. In contrast to a 17th century theory known as preformationism, the organs of the body cannot be found preformed in miniature in a fertilized egg; at the moment of conception there is neither a tiny heart nor a tiny brain. Instead, the fertilized egg contains information: the three billion nucleotides of DNA that make up the human genome. That information, copied into the nucleus of every newly formed cell, guides the gradual but powerful process of successive approximation that shapes each of the body’s organs. The heart, for example, begins as a simple sheet of cell that gradually folds over to form a tube; the tube sprouts bulges, the bulges sprout further bulges, and every day the growing heart looks a bit more like an adult heart.

Even before the dawn of the modern genetic era, biologists understood that something similar was happening in the development of the brain—that the organ of thought and language was formed in much the same way as the rest of the body. The brain, too, develops in the first instance from a simple sheet of cells that gradually curls up into a tube that sprouts bulges, which over time differentiate into ever more complex shapes. Yet 2,000 years of thinking of the mind as independent from the body kept people from appreciating the significance of this seemingly obvious point.

Rest of Marcus’s article here.

And here you will find a number of reviews of Gary Marcus’s book The Birth of the Brain: How a Tiny Number of Genes Creates the Complexities of Human Thought, about which Steven Pinker writes, “A brilliantly original book that is a contribution both to popularizing science and to science itself.”