Archive for August, 2008

Aug 26 2008

You Aren’t What You Don’t Eat

Published by under psychology,science

Okay, what we consume doesn’t alter our physiology to the extent we become a different person.  You aren’t what you eat.  I’ve seen no controlled studies that show people who eat a lot of beef start to grow hooves.  New research, however, shows that what you choose to eat can influence your psychological self. 

In, Part Of The In-group? A Surprising New Strategy Helps Reduce Unhealthy Behaviors, we learn that if you link a particular food or beverage with the identity of the out-group, the in-group is less likely to consume it.  It seems we prefer to avoid a food or drink than to suffer from potential guilt-by-association.  You eat pork!?  Infidels eat pork!  You eat quiche!?  Metrosexuals eat quiche!

The mind works in mysterious ways.  Our developing understanding of human psychology is revealing a hyper-social species that readily forms an allegiance with a group.

It’s almost football season.  Go Patriots!

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Aug 25 2008

The Weatherman Hates Florida?

Our state is prone to flooding rains. Does Gawd hate us? Is the weatherman a prophet with bad will for the somewhat ironically named, “Sunshine State.” (It’s been more of the Soggy State lately.)

Guess what: There’s a natural explanation. Lots of moisture — thanks to the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean squeezing us like two obese airline passengers we’re seated between — and lots of heat. That spells downpour. And then you’ve got the tropical storms and hurricanes that form on the northern side of the equator off the coast of Africa and tend to roll our way.

Plus, Florida is one flat piece of turf. The St. John’s River, a side-branch of which is shown above, travels for 300 miles and drops a mere 30 feet over that distance (there are creeks in Vermont I used to swim in that fell 30 feet in 30 feet). The St. John’s is more of a moving swamp than what people usually think of when they hear “river.” Like a flat roof vs. one with good pitch, it means that run-off is bound to pool. And cause damage.

Fortunately, my wife and I bought a house on an inland ridge, of sorts. Our elevation: 70 feet above sea level. And we’re thirty miles from the coast.

Yes, there was that one time the street waters almost flowed into the mouth of our mailbox. But that was because the public works drainage system was blocked. The waters would have had to rise another three feet to lap on our doorstep, so we weren’t too worried.

And now that tropical storm Fay is gone, I’m not that worried. But I do have the National Hurricane Center website bookmarked. This time of year I check it every few days.

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Aug 25 2008

More Molecular Wizardry

Molecular biology is changing the way we view the living world, including ourselves.  At least it should.  One hundred plus years ago Charles Darwin was bothered by such things as the Peacock’s tail.  How could such a costly adornment help an individual survive?

The answer is that it while it may not boost the individual’s long-term survival, it could help it to have offspring.  The question put the emphasis on genetic vs. individual survival.

The mystery of the peacock’s tale, and other showy male traits, has come one step closer to being solved.  As we learn from Manes, Trains And Antlers Explained: How Showy Male Traits Evolved:

Sean Carroll describes the regulation and evolution of a genetic circuit in fruit flies that permits the male to decorate its abdomen. The work also shows how the regulation of the same genetic circuit in females represses such ornamentation. . . .

The genetic switch that governs expression of the protein, Carroll notes, is ancient and originally evolved for an entirely different purpose, but over time mutations accumulated, perhaps in response to sexual selection, that drove the evolution of male flies with more colorful derrieres.

“The switch existed for tens of millions of years because it had a different job,” says Carroll. “But it got remodeled. Evolution is a cumulative process. You have this machinery and it’s easy to add a bell or a whistle. With this particular trait, it evolved by exploiting (genetic) information that was already there to make male bodies different from female bodies.”

So no, peacock tails — and other extravagant male traits – were not designed.  Surprise.  With biological trait after trait after trait, we find that one biological feature first took one form and/or served one function before evolving into another.

If a person’s mind hasn’t evolved to see the beauty and simplicity of that verified phenomenon, perhaps they should spend less time watching television or in church and go back to school.  And NOT private, religious school.

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Aug 24 2008

Snorkeling in the Forest

Like on land, you will find more marine life where there is an abundance of habitat and food. In the above photo, a southern stingray is traveling a sand channel between grass beds, skimming the ocean floor like a hovercraft (Bahamas). A juvenile bar jack accompanied it, somewhat like a seagull trailing a fishing boat.

After experiencing nearly a week of flooding rains, one of the things I am looking forward to in the coming days – and a silver lining to the whole ordeal, you might say – is a chance at forest snorkeling.

Forest snorkeling? I’ve only done it once before in my life, and the circumstances were similar. Here in central Florida there are a number of freshwater springs. At the state park nearest to my neck of the woods, Blue Springs, millions of gallons an hour of filtered aquifer flow out of a massive hole in the porous limestone substrate to form a crystal-clear spring. The spring follows a half-mile-ish shallow river to where it meets the murky Saint John’s River.

When the St. John’s River basin flooded one time before, it pushed the clear waters back up and higher and into the surrounding forests. I went snorkeling among trees! Man, was that a surreal experience. And I hope to do it again. Maybe tomorrow, if the park hasn’t been closed. This time, I’ll take pictures to document what I could scarcely believe experienced.

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Aug 24 2008

Your Brain is Part Sponge

The believers in Intelligent Design better be closing their eyes.  More and more research is being conducted that supports evolutionary theory to the very fringe of the shadow of a doubt.

No such thing as “half an eye”?  Well, actually there is.  Thanks to recent advances in molecular biology, scientists are discovering the precursors to a whole host of organs and tissues.  Take the nerve cell.  In a recent news release over at ScienceDaily, Tracing Origins Of Critical Step In Animal Evolution: The Development Of Nerves, we learn that researchers have

traced the evolution of the nerve cell by looking for pre-cursors in, of all places, the marine sponge.

Somewhat ironically,

“Sponges have one of the most ancient lineages and don’t have nerve cells,” Professor Degnan said.

What they found in sponges was the “building blocks for nerves.”  How did they know?  They TESTED it.

“But what was really cool is we took some of these genes and expressed them in frog and flies and the sponge gene became functional – the sponge gene directed the formation of nerves in these more complex animals.”

I once heard an anti-evolutionist sputter in a debate something about it being irrational to believe that “the human being is related to a carrot.”  Poor guy, the sponge in his brain was all wet.  Evolution is irrational only to the uninformed.

Either that or Gawd surely works in convoluted ways.

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Aug 23 2008

Homes Within Homes

Bioliogist Lynn Margilus believes that symbiosis has played a significant role in evolution in general and the appearance of whole new kingdoms and forms of life, such as the Cambrian explosion, specifically.  She also wrote one of my all-time favorite books, Microcosmos

What I find eminently clear is that species do not merely compete with one another in some environmental niche for survival, but they also use one another.  Sometimes to the benefit of both (mutualistic symbiosis), other times to the benefit of only one (parasitic symbiosis).

In the photo above, the live oak provides a “home” for Spanish moss.  The Spanish moss, in turn, provides a home for a number of species, such as spiders.  The spiders, no doubt, host a whole number of smaller species, including bacteria living here, there, and almost everywhere.

As for you and me: we live in a home and we are a home.  No doormats necessary.

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Aug 23 2008

A Two-Faced False Dichotomy

Published by under psychology,science

In the ScienceDaily article, Face Recognition: Nurture Not Nature, the author summarizes a recent study finding with these words:

[C]ultural differences cause us to look at faces differently.

Okay.  That indeed is likely “nurture.”  But is there no nature involved?  Is the “not” in the title simply an exaggeration to catch more eyes?

Most psychologists understand that the old dichotomy, “nature or nurture,” is a false one.  “How much nature and how much nurture” would be a better phrasing.  And, not or.  When discussing the nature/nurture puzzle, I give my students this hopefully helpful way of looking at it.  “While nature provides the ‘what’ of a range of possible forms and behaviors, nurture determines the ‘where’ on the range the individual develops to.”

It is certainly more complicated than that, as we are learning.  Nature does not give birth and then it is all nurture.  And nurture likely exerts an influence from the get-go, before birth.  The interplay of genes and environment is dynamic, and thus complicated.  Nature or nurture?  Please.

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Aug 22 2008

Where’s Noah?

The deluge continues. It’s been four days and four nights of heavy rain. Should I start building an ark?

We lost power this morning for a few hours.  When it came back on, I almost thought, “Thank God.”  Okay, so I don’t believe in a gawd of any form, so perhaps my innate proclivity to thank a single agent should have been directed . . . where?  “Thank you, Progress Energy”?

As I type this the rain has just now petered out and the wind abated.  Is it only for now, or for days and maybe months?  Although I wish I could control the course of the weather, I know I can’t, so I won’t bother engaging in any form of comforting but ultimately useless busywork, such as praying or chanting or dancing or sticking a four-leaf clover in the pages of National Geographic.

(BTW, the above fish is called a schoolmaster and it was photographed while snorkeling in the Bahamas. In the background is dead coral rubble.)

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Aug 22 2008

Even in the Supernatural Realm, Size Matters

Praise the LORD. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. (Psalms 150:1)

Power and wealth often go together. A person, state or religion may advertise their power with their property, building projects and possessions. The message: I am great. An intimidating environment can influence how people feel. Imagine dining in a mansion with servers dressed in tuxedos one evening after eating in a shack with the cook and lone waitress clad in coveralls. Yes, modern minds from affluent countries are getting better at seeing past the adornments that “mere” money can buy. But that wasn’t always the case.

Why are palaces and churches frequently so grand? Well, what kind of ruler are you if you fail to impress? As the late Isaac Asimov noted, “The name ‘Pharaoh,’ uniformly used as a title of respect for the Egyptian ruler, comes from the Egyptian pero, meaning ‘great house’; that is, the ruler’s palace.” (14) Similarly, during his visit to the “Forbidden City” in Beijing, world-renown primatologist Frans de Waal wrote, “It wasn’t hard to imagine Chinese emperors ruling from elaborate thrones designed to overlook enormous squatting masses, intimidating them with their splendor.” (15)

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Aug 21 2008

A Super Natural Rainfall

What I would do for a day of sunshine. Here in central Florida we’ve had hour after dozens of hours of rain and wind. I feel soaked to the bone, and I’m inside my window looking out.

I’ve yet to hear a preacher inform his listeners that there is a reason why the tropical storm named Fay has sat its fat ass over our state and flooded many a neighborhood (so to speak, a storm doesn’t technically have an ass). But that doesn’t mean preachers aren’t penning their upcoming Sunday sermons to reflect the theme. The reason, of course, would be divine retribution for the preacher’s own favorite form of bad behavior.

Me, I think somebody ought to inform the folks over at the brand-new Central Florida School for Native American Weather-Dancing (I made that up) that apparently their god or gods can’t tell the difference between practice and the real thing. So cut it out!

The latest on of the movement of “Fay” over at the National Hurricane Center reports that the storm is “nearly stationary.” Groan.

When the sunshine does return, and flowers blossom, I will be relieved. In the meantime I will turn to photos to refresh my eyes.

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