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the reveries of a solitary wa*ker: wa*k 4 (universal matters)

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could someone be spreading BS over the internet?

The universe is more turbulent than we imagined. It’s a quantum computer. It’s nothing but information. Where’s all the lithium? Is it really spinning, and are we anywhere near the axis? What was in the beginning? Pure energy? What does that mean? Energy without particles? The energy coalesced into particles, so I’ve read. Sounds a bit miraculous to me. The fundamental particles being quarks and electrons. Leptons? But quarks aren’t leptons, they’re fermions but leptons are also fermions but these are but names. Quarks came together in triplets via a strong force, but from whence this force? Something to do with electromagnetism, but that’s just a name. I’m guessing that physicists don’t know how these forces and particles emerged, they can only deduce and describe them mathematically. Quarks and leptons are elementary fermions, that’s to say particles with half-integer spin, according to the spin-statistics theorem. Only one fermion can occupy a particular quantumstate at one time, that’s according to the Pauli exclusion principle. Fermions include more than just quarks and leptons (electrons and neutrinos), they can be composite particles made up of an odd number of quarks and leptons, hence baryons made up of quark triplets. Fermions are often opposed to bosons in the sense that they’re associated with particles (matter) but bosons are more associated with force, but the intimate relation between matter and energy blurs this distinction. Anyway this strong force pulled quarks together to form protons and neutrons, while an electromagnetic force pulled together protons and electrons and voila, hydrogen atoms. All this in the turbulent immediate post-bang time. Hydrogen fused with hydrogen to form helium and so on all the way up to lithium, but that’s not far up because lithium comes after helium in the periodic table. The amount of hydrogen and helium in the universe fits precisely big bang expectations, and in fact is bestevidence for that theory but where’s all the lithium? There’s only a third as much lithium isotope 7 (with four neutrons) as there should be, but that’s okay cause there’s a superabundance of lithium-6. No, not okay. Some argue that it’s a big problem for the big bang theory, others not, surprise surprise. The period of creation of hydrogen and helium is called the primordial nucleosynthesis period, and it covers the time from a few seconds to 20 minutes or so after the bang. More precisely, the heavier isotopes of hydrogen, as well as helium and some lithium and beryllium, the next one in complexity, were created then and everything else was created much later, in stellar evolution and dissolution. Obviously the big bang released a serious amount of energy, and then things quickly cooled, permitting somehow the creation of elementary leptons such as electrons and electron neutrinos. During these first instances there was also a huge degree of inflation. The earliest instants of theuniverse are referred to as the Planck epoch, and it’s fair to say that what we know for certain about that minuscule epoch is equally minuscule, but it’s believed that the different fundamental forces posited today were then unified, and gravitation, the weakest of those forces in the present universe, was then much stronger, and maybe subject to quantum effects, which is interesting because though I know little of all this stuff largely due to mathematical ignorance, and of course inattention, I do know that gravity and the quantum world have proved irreconcilable since first theorised. Needless to say the Planck epoch is very different from ours, and it’s at this scale that quantum gravitational effects may be realised. We can’t test this though even with our best particle accelerators. It’s one for the future. Meanwhile, the renormalisation problem. Well actually renormalisation began as a provisional solution to the problem of infinities.

We describe space-time as a continuum. So there are three dimensions of space, what we call Euclidean space, and a dimension of time. But how does that actually work? Perhaps not very well. I’m talking about a classic-mechanical picture, but in relativistic contexts time is enmeshed with space and velocity and gravity. Cosmologists combine the lot into a single manifold called a Minkowski space. All I know of this is that it involves an independent notion of spacetime intervals and is mathematically more complicated than I can begin to comprehend, though supposedly it’s a relatively simple special case of a Lorentzian manifold, which itself is a special case of a pseudo-Riemannian manifold. I’m engaging in mathematics, not humour. Or vice versa. All this is beside the point, it’s just that trying to reconcile quantum theory and relativity is impossible without the creation of infinities, and infinities are much disliked by many cosmologists, being far too messy, and time is out of fashion too, the quantum world simply ignores it. And we still don’t know what happened to the lithium.

Mathematics has so far been absolutely central to our understanding of the universe. So is the universe or multiverse no more than a mathematical construct? If it is, it’s one that we’ve not yet figured out, and it’s unlikely that we ever will, it just gets more complicated as we develop more sophisticated tools to examine it. I’ve always suspected that the universe/multiverse is as complex as we are capable, with our increasingly ‘precise’ tools and increasingly sophisticated maths, of making it, and so will continue to get more complex, but that’s a sort of sacrilegious solipsism, isn’t it? The universe as increasingly complex projection of an increasingly complex collective consciousness? Is that what they mean when they say it’s a hologram? Probably not.

One more point about infinity. Max Tegmark says that the idea of a finite universe never made sense to him. How could the universe have a boundary, and if so, what’s on the other side? Another way of thinking about this is, if the big bang involved an explosion or, more accurately, a massive, near-instantaneous expansion, what did it expand into? Did this expansion involve a contraction on the other side of the boundary? It’s said that space-time began with the big bang, so there’s no outside. How can we really know that though? Of course if you believe that absolutely everything began with the big bang, then you’ll believe in a finite universe, as the bang began with a particular mass-energy point-bundle, which would have to be finite, and could not be added to or subtracted from, according to what I know about conservation laws. Anyway, enough of all this paddling in the shallows. It’s funny, though, I’ve recently encountered people who are extremely reluctant to talk about such matters, even in my shallow way. They actually suffer from ‘cosmological fear’ (my invention). Something to do with existential lostness, and mortality.

Written by stewart henderson

August 1, 2015 at 9:58 am

distributed consciousness – another nail in the coffin of human specialness

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for more on this, the whole conference is available online

I wrote a piece here called ‘Animals R Us’ a few years ago because I was annoyed at certain contemptuous remarks directed at animals – a rather large set to be contemptuous of – and also because I’ve always disliked the idea of human specialness so beloved of some of our religious co-habitants. I was also thinking of the remarks of Marilyn Robinson on consciousness, which I critiqued even more years ago. Atheists, she argued (wrongly) don’t take enough account of consciousness (with the inference that if they did, they’d be more accepting of a supernatural being, presumably). So I’m happy to briefly revisit the complexities and the consciousness of non-humans here.

The latest research reveals more and more the distributed nature of consciousness, and some of this research is summarised in ‘Triumph of the zombie killers’, chapter 1 of Michael Brooks’s book At the edge of uncertainty: 11 discoveries taking science by surprise. He brings up philosopher David Chalmers’s 20-year-old claim about the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness, that it doesn’t appear to be reducible to material processes. In fact, Chalmers went further, saying ‘No explanation given wholly in physical terms can ever account for the emergence of conscious experience.’ Well, forever is a long long time and I wonder what Chalmers would have to say now (I’ll have to check out his more recent pronouncements). In 1994 he used a zombie analogy, suggesting that you couldn’t know whether we were surrounded by zombies, or ‘pretend’ humans, since the sense of self-awareness essential to consciousness cannot be identified or described by methodological naturalism. It’s been difficult to provide a coherent theory to account for this subjective feeling, and Daniel Dennett took the view a couple of decades ago that consciousness is essentially an illusion, or rather an evolved way of dealing with the world which captures the elements of reality we need to get by, and then some. That’s why we can so often be fooled by our brains. We have perceptual glitches and blind spots. An obvious example is the human eye, which only focuses sharply on a tiny area, using the fovea centralis, a patch of densely packed photoreceptor cells only a millimetre in diameter. The rest of our visual field is seen in much lower resolution, and without colour. But we’re not aware of this because of the eye’s movements, or saccades, which average 3 per second. The time between one sharp focus and the next is ‘blacked-out’ of consciousness, creating an illusion of seamlessly moving vision. The analogy with film is obvious.

This evolved use of sight to be ‘good enough’ helps explain our ‘change blindness’, which has been highlighted by a number of recent experiments, and which has been exploited for decades by professional magicians. It also helps explain why we don’t notice mistakes in editorial continuity in films, which are even overlooked by editors, because they involve ‘irrelevant’ background details. This evolved use of eyesight to help us to make enough sense of the world as we need to, as economically as possible, is something shared by many other creatures, as researchers have declared. Consciousness researchers gathered together at Cambridge in July 2012 and issued a ‘declaration on consciousness’, summarising recent findings on consciousness in non-human animals and in infant humans:

Non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviours… humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates

It’s a vitally important point that’s being made here. Even to call consciousness an emergent property is misleading, as it suggests that we’re still hung up on the consciousness label, and on detecting the point at which this phenomenon has ‘emerged’. Previous tests for consciousness are gradually being found wanting, as what they test has little to do with the more expansive understanding of consciousness that our research is contributing to, more and more. What’s more, serious damage to, and indeed the complete loss of, such areas of the human brain as the insular cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the medial prefrontal cortex, all vital to our self-awareness according to previous research, haven’t prevented subjects from articulating clear signs of consciousness and self-reflection. There’s no ‘place’ of consciousness in the human or mammalian brain, and signs of intentionality and individual personality are cropping up in a whole range of species.

Early researchers on chimpanzees and other highly developed animals were often dismissive of claims that they were being cruel, citing ‘anthropomorphism’ as a barrier to scientific progress. We can now see that we don’t have to think of animals as ‘human-like’ to recognise their capacity for suffering and a whole range of other negative and positive experiences and emotions. And we’re only at the beginning of this journey, which, like the journey initiated by Copernicus, Kepler and others, will take us far from the hubristic sense of ourselves as singular and central.

Written by stewart henderson

July 29, 2015 at 10:05 am

some thoughts on urbanisation, language and culture

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Australian language families. From west to east:

Mindi (2 areas)
Daly (4 families)
Tiwi (offshore)

Pama–Nyungan (3 areas)

The trend is massively towards urbanisation, though it varies massively between nations. The big urbanising country now is China of course. Citification leads to homogenisation, as everyone strives to be original. Anthropologist Wade Davis says that of the 7,000 or so extant languages, more than half are not being taught to the next generation. Cities are about communication, requiring a common language. It’s unlikely to be Wajarri or Pitjantjatjara. How about English? Language groups, it has been argued, constitute the most natural nations, rather than states with their artificial boundaries. There’s a whole theory based around this but I say, whenever you hear the word natural you should be skeptical. Why did a diversity of languages arise? A very very complex question. Or rather a simple question but the answer…

It presumably wasn’t the case that each language was invented from scratch. My speculation – somewhere, sometime, a human or proto-human population developed a language (a bit like saying ‘here, a miracle happens’, but we know more than that about the earliest abstract sign systems). That population grew, split up and separated to such distances that the languages followed separate developments, just like, say, chimps and bonobos followed separate lines of development after being separated by the Congo River, if that’s what happened. But then it could have been invented from scratch more than once, as is supposed to have been the case with writing.

Surely though the emergence of all these languages is primarily due to migration and isolation. Surely this is neither natural or unnatural. It happens. The loss of many of these languages will be due to their being surplus to requirements, due to a modern process that has reversed the ‘tyranny of distance’. The need to communicate effectively across distances, between nations, has meant that a lingua franca has been a high priority, and the more such a language dominates, economically and culturally, the more small, local languages will die of neglect, or be rendered redundant. Is this tragic? I’m not entirely sure.

Wade Davis is quoted (in issue 63 of Cosmos magazine) as saying:

The central revelation of anthropology is that other peoples of the world are not failed attempts at being you, at being modern. On the contrary they are unique answers to a fundamental question: what does it mean to be human and alive? And when the peoples of the world answer that question they do so in 7000 different voices, and those voices and answers collectively become our human repertoire for dealing with the challenges that will confront us all. When we lose a culture we lose a part of ourselves. And it doesn’t have to happen.

This is all stirring stuff, and it would seem bad form to demur, even slightly. But I would like to reflect a bit more on this. First, note that Davis is equating language with culture, which is fair enough to a degree, but some people may be separated by language but have more cultural similarities than differences. After all, this is part of the raison d’être of the European Union, that the French, the Italians, the English etc have enough in common that they should work together rather than separately. And I would dispute the claim that there are 7000 different voices answering the basic questions of human existence and purpose. Surely there are no less than 7.2 billion? On my street, I know there are at least a couple of people who speak a different first language from me. It’s highly likely, though, that I would share more with them in terms of outlook or interest than with others who share my language. But I wouldn’t share every interest or preoccupation with anyone, and nor would anyone else.

And to look at the first part of the quote: I’ve never seen other cultures, such as Australian Aboriginal cultures, as failed attempts at being modern. I see them as generally quite successful attempts at surviving and multiplying in a fairly inhospitable but obviously not uninhabitable environment, in which they’ve had to adapt to a world of resources, opportunities and threats that has remained relatively static, and certainly far far more static than was the situation in Europe over the same time period. And then, 200-odd years ago, Europeans arrived here, with (always in hindsight!) predictable consequences. The very concept of modernity would not have occurred to humans who had lived in a pretty well completely unchanging environment for more than 40,000 years, whereas for the Europeans who arrived here the concept of modernity was very much a living thing, as they were constantly aware of their changes and development, in technology, in politics, in lifestyle. They naturally believed in the progress which had, after all brought them to this great southern land and enabled them, they felt, to lay claim to it.

So, many of us are well aware of the situation. Just keeping to our Australian circumstances (though I’m actually a Brit, if it comes to strict definitions), one culture or set of cultures was long habituated to stasis, the other set of cultures was long habituated to dynamics, and, as a result of having survived all those dynamic processes, to ‘progress’. So, in an important sense these two different groups aren’t answering the one fundamental question, they’re answering two quite different questions. The Aborigines had answers to ‘what is it like to be a human in a world which for 40,000 years has been unchallenged by other humans, and which has enough resources to survive on if you know how to read the signs, and if you pass knowledge and skills on down the generations’, whereas the Europeans had answers to ‘what is it like to be a human whose ancestors have fought and defeated invaders, conquered other lands and enslaved or exploited their peoples, cultivated soils and experimented with plants and animals to provide a variety of foodstuffs, exploited mineral resources for construction and technological purposes, etc etc’.

So, it comes to this. We Europeans, sharpened by our historical experience, have come to Australia and transformed it. We – some of us – tried to make peace with the Aborigines while taking the best land to cultivate ourselves. We brought in our sheep and cattle, we took over the rich coastlines, we built our industries, and we made an assumption of ‘Terra nullius’ because it was so obviously in our interest to do so. We had no idea, of course, of the history of the Aborigines – being all ‘young earth creationists’ at the time. The Aborigines had no more chance than, say, a tasty flightless bird would have if feral cats were introduced onto an island that the birds had comfortably and skilfully survived on for a million years. Of course we didn’t eat any Aborigines (as far as I’m aware) but we transformed their environment almost beyond recognition and made a continuation of their habitual way of life well-nigh impossible.

I make that comparison to suggest that humans are nothing special. Cultures, like species, go extinct, or adapt. That’s a harsh reality, but somehow, in our sophistication, we know, at least some of us do, that diversity, of species and cultures, is a good thing, not just intrinsically but for our own selfish benefit. It’s a balance maybe – we strive to preserve, but also encourage to adapt.

Written by stewart henderson

July 18, 2015 at 3:44 pm

something to send you to sleep

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sleep apnoea mask – looks great, feels even worse?

I went to a Science in the Pub talk last night, not knowing what to expect. The three speakers were all researching sleep, and the focus was mainly on insomnia and sleep apnoea. How fortunate, for I’m having a problem with insomnia at the moment. I may well have a problem with apnoea too, but because I sleep alone I can’t monitor it. Sleep apnoea is about blocked airways that reduce the intake of oxygen, causing sleep disturbance. Here’s an extract from the Better Health Channel on the subject:

In most cases, the person suffering from sleep apnoea doesn’t even realise they are waking up. This pattern can repeat itself hundreds of times every night, causing fragmented sleep. This leaves the person feeling unrefreshed in the morning, with excessive daytime sleepiness, poor daytime concentration and work performance, and fatigue. It’s estimated that about five per cent of Australians suffer from this sleep disorder, with around one in four men over the age of 30 years affected.

So it’s much more common among older males, and it correlates with excessive weight and obesity. Some years ago, when I had a sleeping partner, she expressed a concern about what she thought might be my sleep apnoea, but since then I’ve lost a lot of weight, and my overall health – apart from my bronchiectasis – has improved, so I don’t intend to worry needlessly over that, but it was interesting to hear about the CPAP mask and other treatments being offered, including the possibility of surgery to the uvula and tongue. Also that the evidence is mounting about the long-term effects of sleep apnoea, upon the heart particularly, though not surprisingly with obesity, confounding factors are hard to control for. The problem I’m having at the moment, though, is ‘advanced circadian rhythm’ insomnia, which has only been happening over the past few weeks and which I’m hoping will sort itself out. Our roughly 24-hour circadian rhythms, our body clock, when running at its best, gives us at least eight hours sleep, optimally between 11pm and 7am, though there is enormous individual variation, and huge variation in tolerance of sleep deprivation, possibly due to genetic factors. Amongst the many varieties of body clock-related sleep disorder, two were focused on last night; delayed-phase and advanced-phase circadian rhythms. The terms are largely self-explanatory. In the delayed-phase type, you stay up late and find it hard to get up in the morning, a common teenage problem (or habit). In the advanced-phase type, which I’m now experiencing for the first time in my life, you find yourself falling asleep alarmingly early, and then waking up – and being alarmingly wide awake, at 4am or sometimes even earlier.

The Circadian Sleep Disorders Network is a great place to learn about the problems, and possible solutions for having a body clock that’s out of synch with the day-night cycle or with your work or other commitments. These problems can lead to all sorts of stresses, but what I took from last night’s session, though it was never explicitly stated, was that your attitude to wonky sleep patterns might be causing more stress than the patterns themselves. In my case, though it’s irritating, I tell myself I needn’t stress over it as I have to get up around 6am for work anyway, and as long as I’m awake and fully operational until 5pm, or 7pm for cooking and eating dinner, it’s no big problem. I’ve not noticed excessive daytime sleepiness or poor concentration (but maybe I’m not concentrating enough). Though I do hope it will right itself, just because being abnormal feels – abnormal. Then again, I’m abnormal in so many other ways that are far more stressful.

Advanced-phase sleep disorder is apparently much less common than delayed phase, though that might just be that it’s less often reported precisely because it doesn’t disrupt work routines. The main treatment is the use of bright light, though I’ve found myself falling asleep in the bright light of the lounge room, or in my bedroom with a bright reading lamp left on. But there’s more to it than just leaving the light on. Here’s a summary from the Sleep Health Foundation:

Bright light visual stimulation should occur in the evening before you go to bed. The light should be brighter than normal indoor lighting. You can obtain it from specialized light boxes, or portable devices that you can wear, e.g. eye glasses. A few examples can be found by a web search for “bright light therapy”. You may need an hour or two of bright light therapy before bed. Some will benefit from nightly use for a week. Others will need longer, sometimes several weeks, to get maximum benefit. It is best used late in the evening, perhaps turning the bright light device off half an hour before bed.

Something to think about if this keeps up. Another treatment is with melatonin, the ’sleep hormone’:

One option is to take a 2mg slow release melatonin tablet (Circadin™) as close to your new (later) bedtime as possible. A second option is to take a small dose of melatonin (0.5 mg), about half way through your sleep period. This could be at a time when you wake up on your own. To change your hours of sleep, you should gradually delay your bed time (e.g. 20 minutes later each night) until you get it to the time that you want. As you delay your bedtime, you will also be delaying the time of your bright light exposure and melatonin intake.

Obviously, neither of these treatments are simple or guaranteed to be effective. Cognitive behaviour therapy was suggested by the experts, if these approaches were unsuccessful, but I know next to nothing about that. For now I’m not too worried, I just hope the problem goes away without my noticing.

Written by stewart henderson

July 5, 2015 at 10:12 am

the ‘as if’ principle: or, how to cultivate happiness

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William James – a surprisingly fun guy

The following post is based entirely on Richard Wiseman’s book Rip it up, which should be better known, but perhaps it is, I don’t know.

William James, Henry’s more interesting big brother, was one of the world’s first professional or academic psychologists, though I’d say more academic than professional. His most significant contribution to psychology was the utterance of a single simple sentence: ‘If you want a quality, act as if you already have it.’ It sounds anodyne and not particularly original – I’m sure a lot of us have imagined from childhood that acting as if you’re a knowledgeable, intelligent person might make people treat you like one, even if it’s all BS. I know I have.

The fact is, though, that a ton of research has shown that James really was onto something. I’m going to present an annotated list of the research, but first, some background to James’s thinking. He followed a well-worn track for original thinkers (if that’s not a contradiction, which it is) of deciding that the common-sense view of ‘x’ isn’t true, or at least needs considerable tweaking (think Newton on motion, Einstein on space and time, etc). The common-sense view on emotions is that when we feel anxious, we sweat; when we feel happy, we smile; and when we feel sad, we weep. This seems pretty well unarguable. Here’s what James himself had to say:

Why do we smile, when pleased, and not scowl? Why are we unable to talk to a crowd as we talk to a single friend? Why does a particular maiden turn our wits so upside-down? The common man can only say, ‘Of course we smile, of course our heart palpates at the sight of the crowd, of course we love the maiden, that beautiful soul clad in that perfect form, so palpably and flagrantly made for all eternity to be loved!’

But James had learned to be wary of the obvious, and his thoughts about emotion and behaviour were piqued by one of Darwin’s most important books, The expression of the emotion in man and animals, in which he noted how easily and reliably we can identify the emotions of others from their facial expressions. James took this in another direction. Maybe if we took more notice of our own facial expressions we would gain more insight into how we were feeling. Then he took it a step further: Maybe if we changed our expressions we could change our emotional state.

James got a little carried away with his own insight, as you do. He imagined that we really had got the causal connection round the wrong way. As he put it:

You do not run from the bear because you are afraid of it, but rather become afraid of it because you run from it.

We now know, though, that it isn’t that the causal connection is reversed, it’s that it runs both ways. Yes, we smile because we’re happy, but it’s also true that smiling makes us happier. And that’s just the start. James was no experimental psychologist – more of an armchair ideas man, so it took a while for this idea to catch on and be tested, but in recent decades we’ve really caught up. So here’s the evidence – and I’ll number and describe the research pieces (they’re not all empirical research, as you’ll see, and they’re in no particular order) and provide academic details, if any, at the end.

1. Volunteers were first asked to smile or frown, then report on their feelings. Then the experimenter, James Laird, decided a more reliable method was needed. He told the subjects he’d be examining electrical activity, and placed electrodes at various facial muscles. He explained that their emotional state might affect the experiment, so asked them to report on their feelings. In fact the electrodes were fake. Then they were asked to manipulate their faces into what we would see as happy or angry expressions, though emotional terms were never used. Instead they were asked to draw their eyebrows up or down, to purse or spread their lips, to clench their teeth, etc. Those whose faces were ‘forced’ into smiles reported feeling significantly happier than those who frowned – who felt more angry. When asked why, they had no ready answer – few attributed it to the facial manipulations.

2. Constantin Stanislavsky was the ‘inventor’ of method acting. He encouraged actors to experience real emotion through behaviour – the key idea being ‘if I was really experiencing this emotion, how would I behave?’ Many famous actors have used the ‘magic if’ principle to great effect.

3. Other psychologists, inspired by Laird’s research, used other tricks to change people’s facial expressions, such as getting people to use ‘ee’ words (as in ‘say cheese’) or ‘eu’ words (as in ‘ooh yuk’), which produced similar results to (1). A German team told half of their subjects to hold a pencil horizontally between their teeth, forcing a smile, while the other half held the pencil with lips only, forcing a frown. All results supported the power of the ‘as if’ principle.

4. Volunteers were attached to a machine that monitored heart rate and skin temperature. They were asked first to think of an event that made them feel angry, and to try to relive that event as intensely as possible. Then they were asked simply to manipulate their faces into a recognisably angry expression. These two separate tasks were repeated for other emotions – surprise, fear, disgust, happiness and sadness. Not surprisingly, heart rates and skin temperatures changed considerably when the first of the tasks were carried out, in line with the emotions being experienced. More surprisingly, the same effects were measured when the subjects simply manipulated their faces. This experiment, first carried out with western subjects, was repeated with subjects from a remote Indonesian island. The results supported the idea that the ‘as if’ principle is universal among humans.

5. Participants were placed in a brain scanner and asked to contort their faces into a fearful expression. This time there was no need to ask subjects for feedback. Instead, scientists measured directly the activity in the amygdala, known to be highly associated with fear responses.The experiment provided strong evidence that the ‘as if’ principle has a definite effect on the brain.

6. A national survey was conducted in which people rated their cheerfulness levels, from 1 (not at all cheerful) to 7 (very cheerful). 45% of the population rated themselves from 5 to 7. Then a study was conducted involving some 26,000 internet respondents. Participants were randomly assigned to various groups and asked to engage in activities designed to make them happier (e.g. encouraged to feel grateful, to relive happy memories, etc). One group was simply asked to smile for a brief period every day. When participants were asked to rate their happiness after the exercises, those who simply smiled had the most positive results. (no research data available)

7. In a study designed to determine whether walking style influenced emotional state, subjects were asked to take a 3-minute walk in 2 ways. One half were asked to take long strides, swing their arms and hold their heads high. The other half were asked to shuffle and look at their feet. The first half afterwards rated themselves significantly happier than the second half.

8. Sabine Koch has conducted research which reveals that people feel happier when they move in a fluid way, and avoid sharp, straight movements. She focused particularly on hand-shaking. She trained some experimenters to shake hands in a smooth flowing way, and others to shake hands more jerkily. Koch then asked people who’d been subjected to these different handshakes how they felt. Those subjected to the flowing handshake felt considerably happier, and closer to and more trusting of the experimenter (I like this one).

9. Clinical psychologist Emmett Velten wanted to create a happy atmosphere in the lab. He experimented by dividing volunteers into 2 groups, handing each a stack of 60 cards. For group 1, the first card, which the subject was asked to read aloud, said ‘today is neither better nor worse than any other day’. The next card read ’I do feel pretty good today though’. The subject slowly read through the whole stack, which contained increasingly positive messages. Group 2’s cards simply contained statements of fact, such as ‘The Orient Express travels between Paris and Istanbul’. After the read-through, the subjects in group 1 reported feeling in a ‘wonderful’ mood, while group 2 subjects reported no change. This striking effect led to a number of similar experiments.

10. One group of participants were asked to read aloud a short paragraph describing how their friend had thrown them a surprise birthday party. Another group read a story about how a family member had been diagnosed with an illness. The participants’ moods were genuinely affected, as if these stories were true.

11. On reading about the medical benefits of laughter, Dr Madan Kataria went to a local park with some friends. They told each other jokes and laughed loudly. It became a regular thing and soon grew into the first laughter club. When the jokes started becoming offensive, he tried a new tack, employing the as if principle. He found that laughing out loud as if you’ve heard a great joke had much the same effect (no research data)

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12. Research based on laughter clubs has been carried out in the USA. Subjects were split into 3 groups. Group 1 spent a minute smiling, group 2 spent a minute laughing aloud, group 3 spent the minute engaged in an activity requiring a similar physical effort to laughing, but with no amusement factor (howling like a wolf). Group 2, the laughing group, felt happiest afterwards, followed by the smiling group. The howling group reported no effect.

13. Another popular ‘fun’ activity is dancing. Researchers split 300 students into 4 groups. Group 1 participated in an hour-long aerobic exercise class, group 2 in a body conditioning session, group 3 in hip-hop dancing, and group 4 went ice skating. Due to feel-good endorphin release, all groups felt happier afterwards, but the hip-hop group were happiest (not precisely an illustration of the ‘as if’ principle, but fuck that, let’s dance). Other research has shown that non-competitive, easily-learned dance moves have the most positive effect on mood.

14. Not surprisingly, another activity which has an overwhelmingly positive effect on mood is singing. In one experiment, choristers were asked to sing sections of Mozart’s Requiem, against controls who only listened to recordings of the piece. The singers reported far higher levels of happiness.

Okay, that’s enough. I’ve taken these research pieces entirely from the first chapter of Wiseman’s book, which focuses on happiness. Other chapters deal with romance and relationships, mental health, and the art of persuasion. Among many insights, the importance of role-playing is emphasised throughout. That’s to say. it’s not just a matter of thinking yourself in others’ shoes, but wearing those shoes that effects change. The notorious Stanford prison experiment, and the famous blue eyes, brown eyes experiment are two classic, albeit largely depressing, accounts of the power of role-play, but clearly it can be used to more positive effect. One of the most inspiring aspects of Wiseman’s book, for me, is to show that change might be easier than we think (and again that’s a two edged sword, depending on the nature of the change). The call to action is very useful, especially if, like me, you tend to be more wedded to thinking than to doing.

1.Laird, James D. (1974). “Self-attribution of emotion: The effects of expressive behavior on the quality of emotional experience”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 29(4): 475–486. doi:10.1037/h0036125.

2. Merlin, Bella. 2007. The Complete Stanislavsky Toolkit. London: Nick Hern. ISBN 978-1-85459-793-9.

3. Strack, F et al. (1988) ‘Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 768-77

4. Levenson, R W et al (1990) ‘Voluntary facial action generates emotion-specific autonomic nervous system activity’, Psychophysiology, 27(4), 363-84

5. Lee, T W et al (2006) ‘Imitating expressions: emotion-specific neural substrates in facial mimicry’, Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience, 1, 122-35

7. Snodgrass, S E et al (1986) ‘The effects of walking behaviour on mood’. Paper presented at the American Psychological Association convention.

8. Koch, S C (2011) ‘Basic body rhythms and embodied inter corporality: from individual to interpersonal movement feedback’, in W Tsacher, & C Bergomi (eds), ‘The implications of embodiment: cognition and communication’ (pp151-71), Exeter: Imprint Academic

9. Velten, E (1968) ‘A laboratory task for induction of mood states’, Behaviour research and therapy, 6, 473-82

10. Hatfield, E et al (1995)’The impact of vocal feedback on emotional experience and expression’. Journal of social behaviour and personality, 10, 293-313

12. Neuhoff, C & Schaefer, C (2002) ‘Effects of laughing, smiling and howling on mood’, Psychological Reports, 91, 1079-80

13. Kim, S & Kim, J (2007) ‘Mood after various brief exercise and sport modes: aerobics, hip-hop dancing, ice skating ad body conditioning’. Perceptual and motor skills, 104, 1265-70

14. Clift, S et al (2010) ‘Choral singing and psychological well-being’, Journal of applied arts and health, 1, 19-34; Kreuz, G et al ‘Does singing provide health benefits?’ Proceedings of the 5th triennial ESCOM conference, 216-19

Written by stewart henderson

July 3, 2015 at 3:09 am

why is evolution true? (if it is): part two, the problem of macroevolution

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Fig-8-9-Chimp-Skeletons

So, in Darwin’s day, there was a clear problem. Fossilised bones turning up everywhere, sometimes of gigantic creatures unlike anything on earth, sometimes of creatures very like those then living but not quite the same – in any case all indicating change, change, change. And there were many other oddities, some of them observed by Darwin himself on his Beagle voyage. Marine fossils embedded in landscapes way above sea level. Darwin had a great interest in geology, courtesy of Charles Lyell, whose landmark work, Principles of Geology, he carried with him on his great voyage. He was very interested in Lyell’s view, derived from Hutton, that landscapes changed slowly, with mountains rising from the sea, over periods of time much greater than the biblical account. So imagine his mind, full of Lyell’s speculations, when on March 4 1835 he was exploring the cliffs above Talcuhano Harbour, near Concepcion in Chile, shortly after the devastating earthquake, and found maases of seashells embedded in the rock. The Andes had risen from the sea, surely! Yet he might well have been in two minds – slow change, yes, perhaps, but the earthquake had also changed the physical landscape in an instant, bringing rocks dripping and oozing with marine life up several feet above the sea surface…

Meanwhile, dinosaurs. Of course the bones of these critters have been unearthed for millenia, but it was only in the early nineteenth century that they were treated scientifically. It was Richard Owen, later to become Darwin’s bête noir, who coined the term in 1842 (it’s from the Greek, roughly meaning ‘terrible lizard’ though dinos weren’t lizards, and they weren’t all terrible, or terribly large). These huge beasts (dinos come in all sizes, but large bones are more easily preserved than small ones, giving a false picture, and of course bigness grabs the public imagination) had clearly disappeared, but when? Why? How long ago? It all made the question of the earth’s actual age and history rather more urgent.

Darwin, back in England after a richly stimulating voyage in which he’d collected and ruminated over a vast number of exotic species, was exercised by a number of problems. Why did whole species disappear? Surely this had some connection with changes of landscape and habitat? He’d been making observations with regard to predators and prey, how species depended on other species, how individuals competed for mates. It seems that, unlike Wallace who came upon the insight of natural selection more or less in one fell swoop years later, Darwin was piecing things together painfully slowly, with hesitation, scepticism and uncertainty, but also with a dogged accumulation of evidence, so that when, finally, impelled by the famous letter from Wallace in the late 1850s to express his views, he was able to do so fulsomely, in spite of a lack of writerly ability. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The theory of natural selection is the most spectacularly successful and productive theory in biology, and is in fact its foundation stone. It has been reinforced by all that has been discovered since, especially in genetics and microbiology, fields that didn’t exist in Darwin’s time. The basis of the theory is quite simple, though it has been much misrepresented. Creatures reproduce, and generally the offspring are pretty well identical to the parents, but sometimes mutations occur. The offspring is in some way different. Usually the difference is ‘negative’, disadvantaging the offspring. The offspring is thus unable to reproduce and its line dies out. Sometimes the difference is ‘neutral’ and the line continues to reproduce, until or unless natural (environmental) conditions change and that line becomes either positive or negative within the context of those conditions. In other words it thrives compared to others or it dies out. Sometimes the difference is immediately positive, and this line outcompetes the others. The variation is random, but the natural environment ‘selects’ the best fit – the birds with the best beak for pecking out food; the worms with the best chemistry for thriving in a particular soil; in more recent times, the bacteria that can best resist the antibiotics we throw at them.

So the theory of natural selection describes incremental, gradual change. Its effect upon species is more difficult to explain, and it’s with this that creationists like to play, raising lots of dust and fog with respect to the species concept.

So what exactly is a species? The first more or less universally accepted classification of living things into groups was that of Linnaeus in his Systema naturae of 1735. It was a thoroughgoing system, from kingdom at the top, ranging down through phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. It’s still used today, of course, with various additions intercalated with these layers, but in the 20th century a new taxonomic system called cladistics, based on a more scientific understanding of descent from common ancestry, and so incorporating the new science of genetics, has won increasing favour.

One of the main reasons for this new development is that the term ‘species’ has historically been  frustratingly vague. Originally it was based on morphological characteristics – in other words, visible similarities. Nowadays, though, with the emergence of population genetics and genomics, we can be more rigorous about species and speciation. Basically, a species becomes separated from another when it no longer breeds with that other. More often than not, this is due to geographic separation. Early on in the separation interbreeding is still possible, but over time, with continued lack of opportunity, the two groups become increasingly distinct and unlike (and one or both groups may go extinct). This branching has of course occurred oodles of times, creating an evolutionary bush, each twig of which can be traced back to the original stem.

So far, so clear, I hope. So where do the creationist terms micro-evolution and macro-evolution come in? Well, off the top of my head, I think that, since creationists really really dislike the theory of natural selection as presented by Darwin, they have to account for obvious changes somehow without abandoning divine creation, especially of humans, as soul-blessed, dominion-holding, image-of-god types. So, they distinguish micro-evolution, changes within species (e.g. different breeds of dogs) from macro-evolution, transformations from one species to another, which they claim doesn’t exist. Presumably they think that every species was specially created by their god, though why he should have created so many and rendered the vast majority of them extinct before humans even came on the scene is a mystery. This points up a major problem for those who believe in directed evolution as well as creationism.

Okay, to be clear, micro-evolution and macro-evolution aren’t terms invented by creationists, though they’ve taken to them like babies to their mothers’ milk. The terms were first used by evolutionary biologists early in the 20th century to characterise not different processes but different scales of evolution. Micro-evolution plus time (in which minute changes accumulate) equals macro-evolution. Creationists, then, are reduced to claiming that, because we don’t ‘see’ speciation, it doesn’t exist. Presumably they can say the same for the big bang and black holes, but we can detect such objects and events through increasingly precise instrumentation, and we can pretty well map the relations between species, and the branchings-off, by examining genomes. They tell us, for example, that we share an ancestor with our closest living relatives, the chimps and bonobos, dating back between 5 and 7 million years ago. We are equally related to these two species because they branched off from each other later, between one and a half and two million years ago. Richard Dawkins, in his monumental work The Ancestors’ Tale, attempted to trace these nodes of connections between the ancestors of humans and other species, back to the first life forms. There are gaps in our knowledge of course, but they’re being filled in on an almost daily basis.

As Dawkins points out in another of his books, River out of Eden, the DNA ‘revolution’ that got underway as a result of Watson and Crick’s unravelling of the molecular structure of the gene, is a digital revolution. The genetic code is quaternary, with four nucleotide elements – adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine which can be combined in specific ways. Therefore the difference in the coding for different proteins, leading on the large scale to all the variation we see, can be worked out mathematically. This allows us to define more precisely our cousinship to other species – which are the more distant cousins, horses or pigs? Or, how closely connected are bees and butterflies? We can illustrate these relations using cladograms:

663px-Cladogram-example1

 

The technology we now have at our disposal allows us to map whole genomes increasingly cheaply and efficiently, and so we’re finding some surprising relationships. For example, recent DNA analysis has revealed that falcons, previously thought for fairly obvious reasons to be closely related to other birds of prey such as eagles, are in fact more closely related to parrots, songbirds and passerines such as the humble sparrow – a significant shift in taxonomic placement.

The obvious connections between species, and the fact that we can draw the evolutionary bush with increasing confidence, makes a mockery of creationist claims against natural selection, which not only explains speciation but also extinction. We may not know exactly why the neanderthals, or the trilobites, or the Australian megafauna died out, but natural selection points us in the right direction for answers – climate change, food scarcity and the introduction of new predators into the environment being the obvious candidates. The creationist, on the other hand needs to answer the question – why would their god keep creating these species, endlessly, only to have them snuffed out? No answers about the opacity of their god’s intentions are acceptable. And of course that’s far from being the only question they can’t answer.

Written by stewart henderson

June 13, 2015 at 5:14 pm

why is evolution true? (if it is): part one, the problem of fixity

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some Galapagos finches

some Galapagos finches

Much of my writing, especially about sciency stuff, is an attempt to own the knowledge. It’s perhaps never completely successful, especially for the non-specialist, the dilettante, who tries to own so much and to keep all those possessions together. You read about it, you cast it in your own words, you grasp it, you think you’ve grasped it completely, you move on to other things, and six months later you’re asked a curly question and in trying to answer it you find you’ve forgotten the half of it, and you wonder – did I ever really understand it after all?

So. We have the theory of evolution, or natural selection from random variation, and we have the theories of special and general relativity and quantum theory and so forth. And we have those in science who tell us that ‘theory’ is a technical term constantly misunderstood by the general public and deliberately misconstrued by those with particular agendas. And we have general talk and a lot of general ignorance about evolution.

Several years ago, when I was starting out as a teacher of ESOL (English to speakers of other languages) I observed a small community centre English class. The elderly teacher was asked by a well-dressed middle-aged African man, did she really think evolution – that we were descended from monkeys – was true? It was a polite, puzzled question. The teacher, understandably not wanting to dive down that rabbit hole, replied, ‘well, you know, it’s just a theory’, and the subject was changed. It unsettled me, to put mildly. It’s not how I would’ve dealt with the matter, and in fact I’ve twice since been placed in that position in recent times, and I’ve responded with ‘oh yes, it’s true, the evidence is in and it’s overwhelming,’ or words to that effect. Bam bam, take that and let’s back to grammar.

But of course, that response, too, is unsettling. After all, I could’ve given the exact same response to the question ‘Does God exist?’. It was just saying, an argument from my own authority.

Of course I had back-up from years of science and evolution-reading, but still I felt I was just imposing my authority as a teacher. I half-hoped for and half-dreaded being asked to elaborate.

The other night, at an atheist meet-up, the group was ‘invaded’ by three or four young street-preachers, self-confessed fundies who were apparently keen to debate evolution (they didn’t believe in it) and cosmology (the universe can’t create itself, ergo god). I didn’t engage with them myself, as I’m still recovering from a chest infection and want to avoid stress, but things got very heated over in their corner and I’ve since received an email asking for help to convince one of them of the evidence for evolution. It may be that the young man’s ignorance is wilful, but maybe not, and in any case it provides me with a useful opportunity to answer as best I can the title question.

Questions were raised about the fixity of species well before Charles Darwin was born. The most important figures in this early questioning of orthodoxy came from France. One of the founders of naturalism, Buffon, speculated that the earth might be much older than the standard biblical 6000 years, and that change, both geological and organic, might be endemic and constant. He mostly kept his views to himself, as the idea that the earth was maybe more than ten times older than the accepted figure was incendiary for the time. Lamarck, however, was the first to really go public with a theory of evolution. His essential view was that creatures adapted to their environment over time through the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Although he was generally incorrect as to his mechanism there is still some interest in his ideas today, but above all Lamarck strongly influenced future thinking on the subject as he was a first-rate scientist.

It should be noted though that all this speculation was brought on by the problems posed by evidence. The biblical fixity of species account was becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile with the discoveries of fossils of creatures not to be found anywhere, yet apparently related to current species. And then there were the fossils of ‘giants’, which had been discovered here and there for centuries, but which were not described scientifically until the nineteenth century. How could all these remains of  ‘disappeared’ creatures be turning up in a world where creation was fixed? The most popular explanation was ‘catastrophism’, a view held by Cuvier, a younger contemporary of Lamarck and one of his strongest critics. It was an attempt to reconcile fixity with a conveniently biblical diluvian view, but it continued to move thinking in a scientific, evidence-based direction.

Meanwhile, however, other fields of research, such as geology, were also becoming increasingly scientific, especially in Britain, with the work of Hutton and Lyell. Through inference from present conditions, they developed a gradualist, uniformitarian theory of physical change, with a more open-ended view of the earth’s age. This was the scientific background to Darwin’s naturalism. His own grandfather, Erasmus, dabbled in evolutionary ideas, and proposed that the earth had existed for ‘millions of ages’.

Now I know there’s a view out there among fundamentalists called ‘young earth creationism’, but I don’t know much about it. It would seem to be an absolutely crackpot notion, a denial of modern geology, astronomy and cosmology as well as biology and palaeontology, and I presume people who think this way consider the whole of modern science a massive conspiracy theory. How could they not? Yet the young man mentioned above has suggested we go and see a lecture by John Hartnett, an Adelaide University Associate Professor of Physics who’s also a young earth creationist. How could this be? Well I know something of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias, but still I can barely imagine what he would say to justify his worldview, and I’m not really interested in trying to rebut his specific arguments, if he has them. These people tend to have martyr complexes about their positions, and I suspect they’d be happy to spend hours trying to bamboozle you. The main thing is to be clear about your own understanding of the evidence.

However, I also have an interest in the psychology of belief. Take the case of Hartnett, which I can only speculate about, but this is an obviously intelligent person who has apparently written scientific papers on dark matter and other aspects of cosmology and astrophysics. He knows, surely, how vast the universe is, that the Andromeda Galaxy, our nearest neighbour, is a barely-conceivable 2.5 million light years away, and there are billions of them beyond that, and yet he manages to square this with a six-day creation 6,000 years ago because it was written down by someone and collected much later with a whole mess of other writings by other people, compiled into a book and pronounced ‘holy’. Surely such thinking is more of a mystery than the gods themselves?

I can only speculate again, but Hartnett’s middle name is Gideon, a name inevitably associated with bible-bashing. Can it be that a person gets locked in, from earliest childhood, to a religious schema that they would never think to escape from, no matter how intelligent they are? Can cultural-familial influences have such a vice-like grip? Apparently so, but it’s unusual for someone to be regularly crossing the boundary between a rigid and dogmatic religious belief system and a highly speculative, often free-wheeling but rational and profoundly naturalist enterprise in the way that Hartnett must do. Ain’t people fascinating?

I’ve just read an article about rapid speciation among cichlid fishes in the African lakes. The authors note that this speciation, involving some 500 new species in Lake Victoria, has taken place over less than 15,000 years, unlike the famous speciation among ‘Darwin’s’ finches in the Galapagos (14 species, several million years). It’s called adaptive radiation, where ‘one lineage spawns numerous species that evolve specialisations to an array of ecological niches’, to quote Axel Meyer, writing in the April 2015 edition of Scientific American.

Yet this rapid speciation is still too much for young earth creationists, who believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old. What they make of stromatolites is anyone’s guess. Note that the term ‘earth’ is central, and presumably the universe or multiverse is of little concern to them, existing perhaps only as a fireworks show for our delectation.

As an Australian, this is all good for a laugh – though some Australians, such as John Hartnett, are full-on believers of a six-day creation a few thousand years ago – but apparently in the USA a substantial proportion of their very large population actually believes this (though to be honest, I can’t bring myself to believe the survey figures).

So, I wonder how I would deal with these young-turk young earth creationists who come to our atheist meet-ups spoiling for an argument. My hope is that I would have the wherewithal to ask these questions.

Is it your hope to convert the whole world to your view?

If you were successful, wouldn’t science classes be a lot shorter?

What would you do with those who insisted on being heretical? Preaching that the universe has existed for 13 billion years? Would you have them liquidated, or just permanently incarcerated? How about public recantations?

How come your god allowed us to be led astray by the evidence into getting it so wrong?

What would science be like if young earth creationists controlled all the levers of power? What would scientists do?

Of course I’m yet to hear what young earth creationists, many of whom are apparently highly intelligent, have to say about star formation, black holes and the big bang. They may well have the talent to bamboozle me with ingenious arguments. In the end, though, the best argument is to just keep doing the science, following the evidence. As long as we’re still allowed to.

Meanwhile, I haven’t yet answered the question – why is evolution (or more specifically, natural selection of random variation) true? But before I answer that, I believe that creationists do accept evolution of a particular kind, and distinguish between ‘micro-evolution’ and ‘micro-evolution’. I’ll pay some attention to that – but perhaps not too much – in my next post.

Written by stewart henderson

June 8, 2015 at 6:56 am

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