Saturday, May 25, 2013

A lot of pain, a little hope

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, food poisoning, lawsuits

According to a CDC report from a year ago, summarized here, about 5,000 people die each year in the U.S. from food poisoning. Some 1,800 deaths are from Salmonella, Listeria and Toxoplasma, leaving 3,200 to "all other agents". About 90 of those "other" cases are from E. coli, usually the strain known as O157:H7. This strain of "coliform" bacteria is unusually scary. A victim doesn't get sick the same day, as is the case with Salmonella; it takes about 3 days. That is when the pain and bloody diarrhea begin. By then, the load of bacterial toxin in the body is ramping up massively. At that point, antibiotics cannot be used; they are simply deadly, because the bacteria release even more toxins as they die, and the patient is almost certain to die as a result. While the immune system fights the bacteria, organ after organ will fail or flounder. The official term is HUS, or hemolytic-uremic syndrome, which means that blood cells are shredded and the kidneys shut down.

O157:H7 killed four children in California and Washington state in 1993, all due to contaminated ground beef at some Jack in the Box restaurants. Another 600 were sickened, and many of them are suffering continued debilities. The restaurant chain settled a series of lawsuits for record amounts (for the time), but the most significant effect was a major change, not only in the way ground beef is cooked in restaurants, but in the ways cattle are slaughtered and processed, transported and distributed.

Looking back to those scary days, Jeff Benedict researched and interviewed and studied and has written Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat. The book is part documentary narrative, part docudrama. I found it remarkable that so many of the principals figures freely shared with Benedict as he worked through the great amount of material from newspaper accounts and court records, and also gave many hours to interviews. In an America for which the word "corporate" is most commonly associated with "greed", the company executives (particularly the JitB CEO Bob Nugent) and key lawyers acted in amazingly ethical fashion.

A quirk of the writing finally clued me in that Bill Marler was the "hero" of the book, with strong secondary "performances" by Roni Austin and Suzanne Kiner. Roni's daughter Lauren Rudolph was the first to die, and Suzanne's daughter Brianne nearly died, but recovered after weeks in a coma. The quirk? The trio are nearly always called by their first names, like single-name rock stars. Every other person mentioned in the book is nearly always called by last name. It irked me at first until I understood the author's purpose.

Mr. Benedict takes us blow-by-blow through an unflinching narrative of the tragedies and the legal and political wrangling that led to large damage awards for the hundreds of families of victims, and the record-setting awards to the Kiner family and those whose children died or were most severely affected with HUS, which often led to lifelong dialysis or kidney transplants. Even the more, he shows us the steps taken under the leadership of Dave Theno which have revamped the production and processing of ground beef, and are affecting the processing of other meats.

The legal cases made the career of Bill Marler and his associate Bruce Clark (you can find them here). I don't mind giving that plug, because if the book's portrayal is accurate, we have here a couple of lawyers who are quite different from the sharks one typically thinks of.

It is a shame that it takes a tragedy to motivate significant change. The top five hamburger chains, McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, Sonic, and Jack in the Box, procure and prepare beef patties differently than they did 20 years ago. Still, when I see that E. coli, of the O157:H7 strain and several similar ones, still kills 90 Americans yearly, I feel we have a ways to go.

The essentially American push for more, better, faster, cheaper (especially cheaper) is largely to blame. Cattle, whether prime beef or hamburger quality, are mostly raised in feed lots, where they eat corn rather than grass, and are kept crowded in dung-filled pens in which they must be heavily dosed with antibiotics to keep them from dying where they stand. The ideal way to raise cattle is on grass. I have had grass-fed beef, and it is significantly different (and better tasting!). The trouble is, that takes a lot more room, and we probably don't have enough room. Are we willing for our hamburger "fix" to be "treated" with a $15 burger (and that's just the one off the dollar menu)? Until we are, food poisoning can't be conquered.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Getting familiar with familiar birds

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, natural history, birds, paintings, drawings

A week ago we found the first blue, cast-off robin egg shell in the middle of the back yard. Robins carry empty shells away from the nest, to mislead predators, but I knew the nest was within 50-100 feet. A few days later, I saw the male (so I assume because his colors are so distinct) following me as I cut the lawn. He didn't follow closely, keeping a dozen yards back, but I could see that he was having good success picking out worms, which he carried to our apple tree—to be sure, about 100 feet from where we found the egg shell. I can think of two reasons for his behavior. Of course, the newly cut grass is shorter, and robins hunt for worms by sight. Earthworms frequently push out a little processed dirt, and sometimes their end sticks out of the ground briefly. But also, many worms come out of the ground when it is "thumped". This seems to be a mole-avoidance maneuver. It is the basis of "worm thumpers", sundry devices for thumping against the ground (some are wind driven), used by anglers to get bait. I reckon my power mower was doing plenty of thumping! The robin somehow learned to take advantage of it.

I wonder who else might have observed this behavior by a robin? A likely candidate is Julie Zickefoose. In her recent book, The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds, Ms Zickefoose writes of 25 bird species with which she has had an uncommon level of contact, although her chapter on the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker is based on others' stories. She is a licensed rehabilitator for songbirds, a job few take on because an infant bluebird or phoebe needs at least one feeding per hour, for ten days or more!

As Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot just by looking." Looking is what birdwatchers do best. Fortunately for us, Ms Z is not just a looker but a painter and sketcher. She draws and paints from life, or from very recent memory. She laments that she is no cartoonist, able to draw a made-up scene, even if its elements are remembered and not imagined. To me, that is no loss. An artist's eye and hand are better than a camera, making clear to the viewer details that she subtly enhances in a way no automatic device can capture.

This painting forms the book's frontispiece, and is on its cover. It has instantly become my favorite picture of a bluebird.

The essays in Bluebird Effect brought together for me a trend I had observed without taking particular note. Baby birds in open nests fledge quicker than those in cavities (or bird boxes). One of the fastest is the mourning dove; the babies are ready to fly in 10-12 days after hatching. A typical cavity nester, the tree swallow, takes about twice as long. The reason is simple, once it was pointed out to me. An open nest is harder to defend, so the young need to spend as short a time there as possible. During several years I checked bird boxes on a box trail set up by my company (I'd still be doing it, but I retired). Our most frequent "guests" were tree swallows. I recall it was typically about three weeks from hatching to an empty box. There are also barn swallows that nest atop a porch column at a place I frequent. The mud nest tucked under the roof is well protected, and those young stay on the nest about three weeks also.

Even in a bird box, species differ. House wren and chickadee babies leave the nest within about 2 weeks. I also remember chickadees as very aggressive. They are scrappy little critters! I think of them as avian Napoleons. However, the "bird lady" at a museum where I volunteer told me that a house wren will typically drive off a chickadee, though it is even smaller. Nature is not all sweetness and light.

Ms Zickefoose has a special love for phoebes, and named her daughter Phoebe. This young phoebe is just 9 days old. Its feather coat is full, but the wing pinions are only half grown. A few more days will take care of that. One of the author's specialties is drawing young birds daily as they develop. This is what she calls a "drawing". The book is filled with the author's art. It is also a tad oversize (8¼ x 8¼, or 21x21 cm), making it a mini-coffee-table book. The art is worthy of a full-size coffee-table book, but I know the market for those is tiny. This size is just right. I love it.

I remember being told not to handle baby birds; that my smell would make the parents abandon them. This is a convenient bit of fiction to keep kids from hurting baby birds. I have since learned that it is quite OK to return a fallen youngster to the nest. The parents are smart enough to continue caring for their baby. Not only so, they will probably attack you while you are doing your kindness for their chick. A bluejay peck hurts, even through a ball cap!

The author has come to feel that the turkey vulture is her totem, or a special sign to her. Seeing them makes her happy. This sketch shows feeding behavior. Many of the sketches and drawings in the book are right out of her field notes, complete with her comments.

She is one of the lucky ones to have seen an albino vulture. It was not totally white, having a few black pinions, including three primaries on the right. After she reported her sighting to others, the bird was seen by others at both ends of its migratory route. No need for a leg band on that bird!

I too like seeing these big buzzards, as they are also called. When I was a teen, we lived near Cleveland, Ohio, and would go to a place called Whipps Ledges near Hinckley to see them returning from South America. We would sing a parody of "Swallows come back to Capistrano" about the buzzards returning to Hinckley.

A turkey vulture is big enough to support plenty of brain, and these birds are curious and comical. My wife took the picture below last October, when a pair of vultures came into our yard, devoured a roadkill squirrel they'd carried in, then swept up to the neighbor's roof, where one looked in his window.

This picture, like the others my wife took that day, was shot through a window. No way was she going to go outside, with the birds nearly as tall as she was! Besides, they'd just have flown away.

Whether it is the gentleness of a dove, or the cussing ability of a titmouse, the essays in this book amuse, delight and inform. I learned that the call "peter-peter-peter" I have been hearing is a tufted titmouse in full territorial defense mode. They are small gray birds that I have a hard time distinguishing from a mockingbird (I usually don't carry binoculars; Ms Z has at least one pair in every room with a window, and wouldn't be caught outside without). I have a suggestion. This book has four parts, with essays pertinent to each season. She would to well to produce an entire book about each season, supplementing the lovely seasonal set by Edwin Way Teale.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A Bible lost and only partly found

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, history, bible, manuscripts

Interested in translating the Hebrew Bible for yourself? Step 1: learn the Hebrew of the Sixth Century BCE. Then get access to a critical edition of the Hebrew Bible, preferably the Leningrad Codex. This clip is from Exodus. Links to biblical texts are found at this Brandeis University page. That is step 2. Step 3 is to begin translating.

What is a critical edition? It is one that contains the most accurate compilation from all earlier manuscripts (see an example below), plus apparatuses that help a translator. For Biblical Hebrew, these include headnotes, footnotes and indications of the frequency of special words, and most importantly the diacritical marks above and below the letters, which indicate pronunciation and even the stress or emphasis to use while reading aloud. This helps a translating scholar determine the precise meaning of a word.

Think of the English "word" display. It is actually three words. As a noun or a verb, it is stressed dis-PLAY, but as an adjective most people say DIS-play. Then there is dove; to refer to a lovely, cooing bird, we say duvv, but the past tense of dive is pronounced dohv.

This situation is tougher in Hebrew, which has only one explicit vowel (aleph) and one semivowel (yod). SPPS NGLSH WR WRTTN THAT WY? (and without the question mark, either…nor any spaces between words!) How could you tell the difference between meet, met, mite, meat, and mete?

The self-chosen task of the Masoretes was to gather a compilation from the best manuscripts such as the Second Century CE one shown here, to produce an edition such as the Eleventh Century Leningrad Codex shown above. It is not known whether the original books were written this way, or whether there were word separations and punctuation, at least. All surviving early manuscripts look like this one. But the Masoretes had centuries of oral tradition and scholarship regarding how every word was to be pronounced during public reading, knowledge of which words were unique or used but twice (even if a certain string of consonants did not appear unique; its vowel sounds did differ).

They also developed methods to ensure faithful copying. A sheet of parchment was prepared by scoring with a grid. Each grid cell was to contain one letter. Every page of the entire Bible was gridded and thus would be identical to that in every other Masoretic copy.

The Leningrad Codex, dated about 1008, is the earliest complete Hebrew Bible, and the best. There was once a chance to make it second best, as we read in The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith, and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible by Matti Friedman. The 500-leaf (1,000 page) manuscript that became known as the Aleppo Codex (more here) was produced in the same generation as the Leningrad Codex, but in Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, rather than in Cairo. It was the work of a single scribe, supervised by the chief scholar of his generation, and double-checked by the scholar and other skilled copyists to ensure that every letter, every vowel point, every item was perfect.

Mr. Friendman is currently based in Jerusalem, where the surviving portions of the Aleppo Codex are housed. By his account, during several years he crisscrossed the world to track down the manuscript's story. The book is part historical chronicle, part whodunit, but the "who" remains obscure, right to the end. It is hard to interview sources when most of them are dead.

The Aleppo Codex looks a lot like the Leningrad. This portion, from the end of Deuteronomy, shows purple stains at the page corners that have been touted as burn marks, but are actually fungus.

The manuscript was intended to guide scholars and copyists. It was used by Moses Maimonides, who was its custodian in the late 1100s. Sadly, he was the last scholar to use the book for its intended purpose. During later upheavals, it was taken first to one place, then to another, and eventually to Aleppo, in Syria, to the oldest Jewish community in the area (the Jews of Aleppo were there before the Syrians). It was kept safely in Aleppo for 600 years, until the day the UN voted to divide Palestine, setting up the state of Israel for the Jews after nearly 1,900 years as a stateless people.

In the rioting that followed the announcement, in late 1947 (just three weeks after I was born), the Great Synagogue of Aleppo was burned, and all the manuscripts scattered, including those in a doubly locked box. What happened next is a great mystery, one Friedman has largely solved, but not entirely. For months it was thought that the manuscript, called the Crown of Aleppo, had been burned. But it was not. That was a cover story. It was taken first to Turkey and then to Jerusalem.

At some point, about 40% of the leaves went missing, including nearly all the Torah, and the portion at the end that contains much of the Prophets. The remaining portions have been photographed (finally!) and images may be found at the link above.

The pages have a rather distinctive look, as this image shows. While all Masoretic texts are identical in layout, including where each letter is on each page, the handwriting is distinctive. The entire Aleppo Codex was crafted by a single scribe. Many others are in the hand of more than one scribe. Experts can recognize the handwriting. Even I can see that this scribe wrote more regularly and precisely than the scribe who wrote the Leningrad fragment shown above. It is the nearest thing to a machine-printed page produced in manuscript history.

Author Friedman set himself to peel back the layers of a very deep onion, to determine the true story of this manuscript's travels, and if possible to determine what became of the missing portions. He had the very great help of at least one or two of the principal players who were still living. He was also able to obtain documents that had been kept hidden for half a century, and it is likely that his narrative is accurate. His first objective was thus achieved. But not the second. When did the missing parts go missing, and who is responsible? Suspicion falls on a certain person, but much documentary evidence that could corroborate the suspicions of the remaining players has been lost, destroyed, or was never produced. A 4-year trial in the 1950s led to more obscurity, requiring much detective work to pick out the story from misdirection on nearly everyone's part.

We could have had a perfect Bible, in Friedman's opinion. The opportunity was squandered.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Making zombies possible

kw: book reviews, horror, fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction

After finishing the prior book, I spent a couple of hours with Deadline by Mira Grant. That was about all I could take. The book is based on an "explanation" for people becoming brain-eating Zombies because of a virus infection. The other theme is that with everyone staying indoors (or else!), more media entertainment is needed, so zombie fighters wear all sorts of cameras to go out and kill them by the dozens.

I had my fill of gore by about page 20, so I flitted about, reading portions of another several pages, and the conclusion. This being the middle book of a trilogy, it was not surprising that the book ends with a hint that the virus may be one day overcome. I mean, if you aren't going to at least try to "solve the problem", why raise it? Downers don't sell.

Anyway, good writing skills, but the author isn't someone I'd want to hang out with.

Oh, by the way, there is a preview of the third book in the end papers. Somebody gets cloned. I wonder how the clone gets the memories of the original? Not enough that I'd want to read it.

When both are right, but not all right

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, sociology, social psychology, morality

"Our God's better than your god!" That is the hidden motto of many religions. Substitute the word "candidate" for "god", and you have the basis of political parties, at least in "democratic" nations. This also demonstrates that Atheism and New Atheism are religions, with the over-individualized Self substituted for a Deity.

I have belonged to a number of clubs and groups over the years, in addition to my church. Whether it is a stamp collecting club, the Boy Scouts, or Toastmasters, every group has a similar structure, whether official or not: a large number of "members" and a small number of "leaders". Usually the "leaders" group is supported by a middling number of devotees, for whom, I have observed, the group is their "church"; they are its fanatical evangelists.

"No Man is an Island" is not just a nice poem or song. It expresses that humans are not just a "social animal". Nearly all of us are obsessively groupish. Yet we are also selfish, which leads to trouble with our groups. Biologists and psychologists don't like to admit it, but this tension must have an evolutionary basis.

Once in a while a book comes along that explains so much, it seems to explain everything. Jonathan Haidt's new book seems to come close: The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Dr. Haidt's thesis is straightforward, as in the preface he states that "…an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition." (p xiii). He uses two great analogies throughout:
  • Elephant and Rider – The Elephant is our intuition or "gut reaction". The Rider is our reason. As any howdah knows, the rider serves the elephant. Thus, the first section of the book has the subtitle Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. We primarily use reason to justify our beliefs, not to determine what they ought to be.
  • Taste Buds – Through research, he and his colleagues have identified six "Moral Foundations" (more on them later) that shape our attitudes toward events, and the kinds of reactions we will have, including the kinds of groups we choose to adhere to.
The author calls Plato's idealized Philosopher-King a "rationalist delusion", and demonstrates that the notion of "Philosophers Behaving Badly" (the title of a book by Rodgers and Thompson) is well supported by both casual observation and detailed research. In PBB we find, for example, that Bertrand Russell was called "Dirty Bertie" by those who knew him, and with good reason. In The Righteous Mind, the author calls upon research that shows philosophers are really a cut below "the common man", probably because their education has made them experts at rationalization. And in truth, a foray into the "Ring of Gyges" story in The Republic shows that we value a good reputation much more than actually being good.

Late in the book Dr. Haidt makes a strong case in favor of group selection, or multi-level selection, which is disparaged by many biologists, but without it, the theory of natural selection is too weak to explain relationships among social animals (and most are!). Among primates, humans are the most social, even compared to Bonobos. We are ultrasocial (the author's synonym for eusocial, but allowing for a much broader range of expression and cognition than found in eusocial insects such as bees or termites). Even a complete psychopath cares about reputation, if only to be (initially) attractive to victims. I'll leave it to you to read his 4-pronged defense of multilevel selection and how it supports grouping behavior.

I am much more taken by the statement that we are 90% Chimp and 10% Bee. Chimpanzees are quite social, but also very selfish, to a level akin to psychopathy in humans. Not having language, their only method of resolving disputes is physical force, somewhat modified by a group's dominance hierarchy. I recall reading an account of New Guinea tribesmen meeting in the forest. They spend a few minutes discussing their relatives, to determine if perhaps they are related to each other, and thus not duty bound to fight to the death. I believe language arose to facilitate such negotiations. Those who can talk and live will outbreed those who instantly fight and thus are more likely to die.

So, OK, we can talk, we can negotiate. Favor based on relatedness is understandable from an evolutionary viewpoint. But how about a Crip meeting a Blood in downtown Los Angeles? If they negotiate at all, it is to determine if some kind of truce is there, otherwise they fight. A Crip meeting another Crip "out of uniform" (not wearing gang insignia) may chastise him, but no deadly fight ensues. Yet they are probably not related. Individual selection cannot explain this.

Dr. Haidt frequently invokes Emile Durkheim, who seems to have "got it right", that humans live on two levels. Our Chimpish selfishness rules much of our daily activity. When we are with a group we belong to, however, we are driven by the need for good reputation. But there is more. Groups all have rituals, and participating in them often triggers a "hive switch". Under its influence, we become more Beeish (hivish?), ready to propagate the group, defend the group, and possibly kill or die for it. A threat to the group can also trigger the hive switch. For many Americans, the 9/11 attacks did so. Dr. Haidt, a proud liberal, found himself wanting to wear a flag pin on his lapel (he didn't, but he wanted to).

Group activities, whether "team building" games at a company retreat or the rites of a church, trigger the hive switch and foster powerful, and very enjoyable, feelings of group unity and connectedness. Thus we read on page 257 that "…the very practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship." It is not yet proven that this is a direct product of evolution, but I suspect it will be found to be so.

In the second section of the book, the motto is There's more to morality than harm and fairness. Looked at in a simple way, American Liberals seem to be motivated primarily by the desire to "help the helpless" and to promote "fairness", while American Conservatives care more about tradition. A deeper look led the author to discover the six moral "taste buds", which he also calls Moral Foundations, and to consider their origin and present expression:
  • Care/Harm - evolved to motivate child care. Now it underlies the Welfare State and all kinds of "white knight syndrome".
  • Fairness/Cheating - evolved to permit coordination and cooperation and reduce exploitation. Now Liberals exhort us to "soak the rich" and overtax them (further than we already do).
  • Liberty/Oppression - evolved in response to bullying. Now underlies opposition to all kinds of societal restrictions as "oppression", and supports rebels against Authority (see below).
  • Loyalty/Betrayal - evolved to support forming coalitions. Now it is the Circle the Wagons response to every question, legitimate or not.
  • Authority/Subversion - evolved to regulate hierarchies. Now it tends toward Fascist overcontrol, or reacts into "Off the Pig" rebellion.
  • Sanctity/Degradation - evolved to prevent poisoning (chemical or bacterial). Now disgust is used to condemn everything your political faction disagrees with (but be sure to circle the wagons if "your guy" is accused of any kind of degradation).
In 1972 I went to a Republican rally for President Richard Nixon, where he spoke. We were really revved up. Everybody's hive switch clicked full on! Within two years, I was mad as hell and deeply disappointed. He betrayed us all. If Bob Woodward was correct in All the President's Men, Nixon deeply despised the law and its restrictions. Nixon had nobody to write a book in his defense, at least not right away, but his later "rehabilitation" was based on some good things he had done (like opening relations with China), and did not address the Watergate matters, so "his side" was apparently no side. He remains a betrayer in my mind…or, perhaps, actually, in my heart.

This chart was prepared rather early on, when only 5 of the 6 moral taste buds had been chosen. It is found on p 161. The political Left relies for moral guidance on Care and on Fairness, with little regard (or active contempt) for Loyalty, Authority or Sanctity. The political Right relies more equally on all the taste buds. Later the Liberty/Oppression Foundation was split out from the Fairness/Cheating Foundation. Liberty has been found to trend with Care.

Note that, as befits those of a traditionalist mindset, among Conservatives the Authority Foundation is slightly the strongest. I took the Moral Foundations Questionnaire (MFQ) found at, and found that I rely on all the Foundations about equally.

Political partisanship and religion are discussed most fully in the third section, with the motto Morality binds and blinds. It is actually in this part that the hive switch is introduced and discussed in detail. It operates to temporarily overcome the effects of our WEIRD socialization: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic as we are throughout the West. In less WEIRD societies, collective tendencies are more pronounced, and the hive switch is even more effective at eliciting group feelings. Although, it is hard to imagine a greater example of hivish activity than we see in a sports stadium. This is the Bind part.

Those who are the WEIRDest tend to see the trees and not the forest. The author was fully of this mindset until a few months in India opened his eyes to a different kind of socialization. Outside the West, relationships trump individual "self determination". They may have something there. For example, most of my friends from India have had arranged marriages, where total family compatibility is an important part of choosing marriage partners, a matter much too important to entrust to the young "eligibles". They do tend to have stable and happy marriages, more so than here.

I find it interesting that the chart above has seven gradations of Left to Right. I have noted elsewhere that such gradations tend to correspond to a statistical standard deviation, and that differences greater than 2 standard deviations (2 sigma) render people mutually incomprehensible. This is the Blind part. The Left is at best indifferent to Loyalty and Authority, and openly disdainful of Sanctity. The lesser reliance on Care, Fairness and Liberty by the Right induces the Left to disparage them as "heartless" or even "cruel". And both ends hate the Moderates in the middle, even though the central three categories describe 90% of Americans.

I think it is clear that Conservatives are in better balance. They do not neglect any of the Foundations. It is a realistic stance. I also note that this study did not result in Dr. Haidt's becoming conservative. That would be going too far! But he is now a rare Liberal, being at least somewhat sympathetic and understanding of conservative motives. He probably remains an atheist also, though he disparages the New Atheists, who are actually anti-God (only Nontheists are genuinely indifferent to whether a god may exist).

Yet he records the results of a study of communes (Sosis, R. and E. R. Bressler, 2003. "Cooperation and Commune Longevity: A Test of the Costly Signaling Theory of Religion." Cross-Cultural Research 37:211-239) in which it was found that 6% of secular communes had lasted 20 years or more, compared to 39 percent of religious communes. And he quotes another study (Robert Putnam and David Campbell, 2010, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us):
By many different measures religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens than secular Americans—they are more generous with their time and money, especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life.
We can compare this with the Biblical book of Judges. Twice in the book we find, "In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes", written in connection with some horrifying story of anarchy and chaos. Three other places in the Bible we find injunctions against doing "right in your own eyes."

All this just skates over the surface of a wonderful book. We are moral because morality is needed to succeed as a species. A final statement by the author sums it up: "Morality is, in large part, and evolved response to the free rider problem." (in a note on p 349)

Friday, May 03, 2013

Our marvelous kluge

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, physiology, brain, evolution

For the handful of people who actually follow this blog, the past nine days without a post indicate the difficulty I had finishing the latest book. While I enjoyed it and learned much, it was rough sledding, which I'll get into. I also find that, having retired, I am busier than when I was working, so for these few months at least, I have only written to review a book.

This common illustration of the Ascent of Man represents what most people think of as Evolution. As described in The Brain: Big Bangs, Behaviors and Beliefs by Rob DeSalle and Ian Tattersall, evolution works more like one of those massive multiplayer quest games. Imagine the players being all species of animals, from flatworms and beetles and clams and fish to birds and frogs and squids and primates and cattle. As the "players" move through the game, this one will encounter some new charm or tool or whatever, and that one will encounter something else. "Picking up" the new gewgaw may increase the survival of that kind of animal. After some time passes (lots of it!) some players will have gathered a number of such items, more might have gained one or two, even more have nothing new, and many have in one way or another "lost" and vanished from the game.

But what, exactly, is winning? Attaining the greatest percent of the biosphere? Certain species of termite seem to have won that hands down. Of course, in the context of The Brain, the biggest brain is thought of as the "winner", and many folks confidently expect humans to get brainier in the future.

The authors emphasize repeatedly that there was no preordained big brained "winner" of the "smarts lottery". Looking further back than the ape in the picture above, many of us learned that there is a "lizard brain" deep in our skulls, covered over with a "mammal brain", and finally covered over with the famed "gray matter" that makes us human, but with certain lizardly and "primitive mammal" mental quirks. Not really.

True, we are the current expression of 3.5 billion years or more of biological evolution. However, so is every other species on Earth! Your pet dog or cat, the robin in the yard, the worms in the dirt, the ants invading your kitchen, and the bacteria that help all of them digest their food, all have the same 3.5 billion-year evolutionary descent. Every leaf on a tree can be traced back to the same root. Humans are, as regards brains, the "lucky ones". If we succeed in bombing ourselves to smithereens, though, "lucky" isn't really the right word for it.

Well, the above is my take on it. The authors' take is detailed and comprehensive, showing (as well as we may know) how many features of the brain were developed and appended to what came before. The jargon gets a bit dense at times, but it seems the authors' attitude must be, "The readers are adults. They'll catch on, or look up what they must." We even find an occasional long chemical name, for no good reason I can determine. Lazy readers won't get far.

So, starting with the lowliest animals—and even with plants, which have some rudiments of cell-to-cell communication—we are led through the development of nerve nets, nervous systems, clusters of ganglia, brains, and the higglety-pigglety addition of features and structures to brains of all types, insofar as they tended to improve the lot of the animals possessing them. Along the way, we learn certain principles of evolutionary study, such as the importance of an out-group to clarify how to structure a portion of an evolutionary tree.

Natural selection is strict. Every feature of every creature has to be adaptive or it (the feature) will vanish. It can take many generations, but just as the human race is evolving toward having 28 teeth instead of 32, and losing our appendix, stuff we don't need is being done away with. That goes for the many parts of our brains. We have 'em because they are useful. At the end, the singular new feature that is, so far as we know, not present in any other Earthly animal, is our capacity to create and manipulate symbols.

Yes, I know that certain great apes have been taught to communicate using Yerkish or ASL, but the level of discourse possible with any of them is very, very limited. None of them created something like Yerkish; human experimenters did so. And transcripts of "conversations" that go for more than two or three exchanges make it clear that apes' intellect stops well before the level of a human 2-year-old. Abstract reasoning is beyond young human children, and much further beyond apes. Not only so, the behavioral clues gathered by anthropologists indicate that symbol manipulation, that is, language skills that we take for granted, were probably not present in our cousins the Neandertals or the earlier Homo heidelbergensis. The Neandertals (the book uses the word Neanderthals), though their average brain size was slightly larger than ours, apparently had a qualitatively different brain. They were very, very bright and capable, but there were no Neandertal Spinozas or Mozarts or Picassos or Feynmans. Hey, I just thought of a title for a great book for someone competent to research and write it: Did Neandertals Dance? I am betting they didn't.

At this point, I am going to chase another rabbit. I like the book and recommend it, but it does show marks of overspecialization on the part of the authors. They needed some more broadly-based scientists to check it. I hope this doesn't sound like sour grapes or piling on, but here goes:
  • In the second half of the book, where the authors are wholly comfortable with the material, there is only one deficiency. They do not mention the Mirror Test. Humans over the age of 18 months, the great apes, one or two species of monkey, bottlenose dolphins, orcas, elephants, and at least one species of bird, the European Magpie, can all recognize themselves in a mirror. This indicates a level of self-awareness that might be called consciousness, though many bridle at that notion for nonhuman animals.
  • Working back to front: on p. 174 in an illustration of the limbic system in 3 animals, the Olfactory Bulb in the 3 labels is called the Optic Bulb in the main caption. Proofreading needed.
  • On p. 142, we find the sentence, "Many bacteria have light-sensing cells that help them orient…" Bacteria are single-celled. They don't have cells, they are cells. They have light-sensing chemicals, perhaps even localized within the cell.
  • On p. 135, they state that magnetotactic bacteria sense up and down magnetically, because the natural magnetic field is horizontal. The key sentence is "The magnetosomes allow the bacteria to orient North-South, so theat they are parallel to the earth's surface." Not so. Earth's magnetic field is horizontal only at the magnetic equator. Everywhere else it dips. Throughout most of the U.S., and at similar latitudes in Europe and Siberia, and in South America and southern Africa, the dip is in the 40°-60° range. The dip is vertical at the geomagnetic poles. The bacteria can follow the dipping field either toward or away from light. Bacteria from very near the geomagnetic equator would find the field useless for guiding vertical motion.
  • On p. 105, an unusual typo appears: "A micrometer is one billionth of a meter…'. No, it is a millionth of a meter. I don't know if this was an author error, but since most folks do their own typesetting these days, I think it was.
  • I find two problems on p. 85. Firstly, the reason creatures that molt are called Ecdysozoa is stated "…because a hormone called ecdysone is involved in the molting". The two "ecdy" words are related, but in this way: εκδύομαι, or ecdyomai, is the Greek word for "undress". Secondly, it is stated that Barnacles are Bryozoans. Whoo, boy! These are in different phyla. Barnacles are arthropods, essentially like crayfish hiding in a cone-shaped shell, without claws. Bryozoa are "moss animals", more similar to sponges.
  • Now for something truly extraordinary. On p. 58 it is stated that the number of connections in a human brain is about 100 trillion (1014). That's right. Then we find, "Using the area of axons as a guide, the number of potential connections in a human brain has been estimated to be more than 10 to the 76th power. That is a 1 with 76 zeroes after it, a number in the same range as the number of particles in the known universe." I must conclude that the authors are entirely ignorant of both astronomy and physics! Whoever did this "estimate" is worse. Brain connections are made via synapses, and a synapse has a volume of about one cubic micron. That means a cubic millimeter could contain a billion synapses. So far so good. A small, 1,000 cc brain contains one million cubic millimeters, so if that brain were nothing but synapses (no room left for axons, dendrites and so forth), there would be a million billion of them, or 1015. The largest human brains are about 2,000 cc in size, so at most, the number of connections must be quite a bit less than 2x1015. This error, a factor of about 1051, is in magnitude the largest error I have ever encountered in print!
Enough of that. I have a chemist friend who is pretty unaware of anything except chemistry. Chemical IQ: 180; all other kinds of IQ: about 80. A little more thoughtful proofreading would have helped The Brain a great deal. It makes me wonder if the 5 people who wrote the blurbs on the back book jacket actually read the book. Maybe they're equally over-specialized and just didn't notice.