Wednesday Round Up #96

An end of the year mash-up! Enjoy the New Year!

Brian McKenna, Even If Obama Passed Single Payer, Primary Care Doctors Still Wouldn’t Get It
CounterPunch weighs in on real health reform – Jim McKenna the anthropologist and advocate for co-sleeping as pushing the need for communal ideas and population health, not simply biomedical and financial reform

Abigail Zuger, Resilience, Not Misery, in Coping With Death
A new book, The Other Side of Sadness, shows us the new science of bereavement based on interviews, systematic observation, and experimental psychology

Drake Bennett, The Loneliness Network
It’s contagious! And it’s about meaning, or “perceived social isolation” and not actually being alone

Mark Liberman, Framing a Poll
Metaphors are about concepts, not words, and those concepts are embodied. A great new set of experiments from Mark Landau et al. on how metaphors shape political and social attitudes

Stephanie Zvan, Readings in IQ and Intelligence
Quiche Moraine has an excellent set of resources on concepts, measures and debates around IQ measures and intelligence

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Richard Dawkins on ‘Elders’

I haven’t been blogging for a while because I’ve just finished organizing the national meeting of the Australian Anthropological Society and my wife, Tonia, got kicked by our (soon-to-be-former-) stallion. But I had to put down some thoughts having watched a lengthy interview with Richard Dawkins, recently retired Oxford professor, the other night. Andrew Denton, one of the more skillful interviewers on Australia’s ABC, tried to get Prof. Dawkins to talk about a range of issues, personal insights, and life lessons as part of ‘Elders’, a series of interviews with older individuals who might theoretically offer some sort of insight from their longer and accomplished lives.

You can watch the video in three parts on YouTube, starting with this segment:

Dawkins discussed, among other subjects, his childhood in Africa, Wikipedia, the influence of his parents on his scientific worldview, his sense of wonder in the face of evolution and the natural world, as well as his feeling that the belief in a divine creator actually belittles our sense of the universe. Dawkins expressed again his views on human problems with perceiving beyond a humanist scale, a topic he had done at greater length in his talk on the ‘queer’ universe at TEDs. You can also watch the ‘Elders’ video and video extras on the ABC website, or read the transcript.

The interview was painful toward the end, I found (I’m not alone — see the discussion on Reddit). Dawkins is brittle and prickly at his best, and when he doesn’t like the way things are going, he can be positively obtuse and testy. Denton, in contrast, can be gentle and funny when someone is working with him, but he doesn’t hold up well, it seems, with such a challenging subject. There were moments when it felt like a soft-focus celebrity interview of a high-functioning but affectively flat android (note: to all the Dawkins fans, this is a metaphor, I don’t actually think Dawkins was grown in a vat of nutrient fluid). In other words, I’m not sure this was a shining moment for either of them, although it definitely starts out better than it ends.

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Wednesday Round Up #95

I’m going with a different organization this week, but the result is still lots of great neuroanthropology stuff, broadly conceived. Happy Holidays!

Mind Hacks

Vaughan Bell has really been on a roll recently, both on site and off.

Vaughan Bell, Understanding Witchcraft
E.E. Evans-Pritchard and his work on witchcraft among the Azande, now a documentary you can sample at YouTube

Vaughan Bell, The Addiction Habit
Over at Slate, Vaughan asks, “Do we really need rehab centers for people who spend too much time shopping or using the Internet?”

Vaughan Bell, The Ancient Mind Was Planning Earlier Than Thought
The pattern of artifacts in the Gesher Benot Ya’aqov site, which dates back to almost 800,000 years ago – people were creating social spaces already (the Times also covers the same research below)

Vaughan Bell, The Stress of Ancient Peru
Cortisol and stress – using hair samples to get at ancient patterns of stress

Vaughan Bell, Dealing with Data of the Damned
When bad data becomes good theory – scientific progress, reasoning and our brain

The New York Times

Benedict Carey, Studying Young Minds, and How to Teach Them
Children can grasp concepts earlier than we had ever imagined

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Wednesday Round Up #94

After the top selections, a great selection of research papers on primate cultures, human evolution and the like (including a lot of pdfs). And then mind and anthro.

Top of the List

Lisa Wynn, CEAUSSIC Publishes Final Report on HTS
The American Anthropological Association committee examining the Human Terrain System provides its final say, emphasizing the incompatibility of the HTS with disciplinary ethics

Harvey Whitehouse, Anthropology in Crisis – What, Still?
The Oxford professor lays out the case against borrowed intuitions while arguing for a scientific framework for the field

Michael Thomas & Victoria Knowland, Sensitive Periods in Brain Development – Implications for Education Policy
Take functional plasticity, add more sensitive periods (“maximal plasticity”), and think about how to teach children better

Juan Dominguez et al., The Brain in Culture and Culture in the Brain: A Review of Core Issues in Neuroanthropology
Juan and colleagues publish their latest overview of the field, this time in Progress in Brain Research, looking at how cultural practices are manifest in the brain and how brain processes contribute to socially shared meanings and practices. If the title link doesn’t work for you, here’s the doi link for Brain in Culture.

The New York Times Magazine, Ninth Annual Year in Ideas
A wonderful review of eclectic ideas and ingenuity from 2009. The Social Science and Health sections are particularly relevant.

Primates: Cognition & Culture

Peter Kappeler & Joan Silk, Mind the Gap: Tracing the Origins of Human Universals
Google Books title page for this 2009 edited volume. Looks excellent, with contributions from the leaders in the fields of primatology, psychology and evolutionary anthropology. You can also go right to the Amazon page for Mind the Gap.

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The Royal Society: State of the Life Sciences

The Royal Society is celebrating its 350th anniversary, and giving the gift of free online articles across the breadth of the life sciences. The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences has put together a special issue edited by Georgina Mace on Personal Perspectives in the Life Sciences for the Royal Society’s 350th Anniversary.

In her editorial Mace outlines the three broad topics this special issue covers. To paraphrase, they are:

(1) environmental degradation and the intricate linkages between human societal norms and structures

(2) genome to organism processes, both in a theoretical and methodological sense, as well as questions about the origins of life and the sources and maintenance of variability

(3) and complex biological systems, especially the brain and genetic control of organism function, and the nature of intelligence and biological and technological information processing.

You can access all eighteen articles either online or as pdfs through the Table of Contents. These full-length review articles range from Partha Dasgupta on Nature’s role in sustaining economic development to Sydney Brenner on sequences and consequences. Ecosystems, biodiversity, food security, reproductive diversity, ageing, and stem cells are among the topics covered.

The most relevant article for us is Uta Firth and Chris Firth’s “The Social Brain: Allowing Humans to Boldly Go Where No Other Species Has Been (pdf).”

The biological basis of complex human social interaction and communication has been illuminated through a coming together of various methods and disciplines. Among these are comparative studies of other species, studies of disorders of social cognition and developmental psychology. The use of neuroimaging and computational models has given weight to speculations about the evolution of social behaviour and culture in human societies. We highlight some networks of the social brain relevant to two-person interactions and consider the social signals between interacting partners that activate these networks. We make a case for distinguishing between signals that automatically trigger interaction and cooperation and ostensive signals that are used deliberately. We suggest that this ostensive signalling is needed for ‘closing the loop’ in two-person interactions, where the partners each know that they have the intention to communicate. The use of deliberate social signals can serve to increase reputation and trust and facilitates teaching. This is likely to be a critical factor in the steep cultural ascent of mankind.

You can also see Colin and Uta Firth in a video interview.

Finally, the article by Geoffrey Hinton on Learning to Represent Visual Input looks fascinating, examining how “Recent progress in machine learning shows that it is possible to learn deep hierarchies without requiring any labelled data. The feature detectors are learned one layer at a time and the goal of the learning procedure is to form a good generative model of images, not to predict the class of each image… This module looks remarkably like modules that have been proposed by both biologists trying to explain the responses of neurons and engineers trying to create systems that can recognize objects.”

For access, access the entire special issue Personal perspectives in the life sciences for the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary.