Wednesday Round Up #25

Human-Animal Interactions – The Badger Version

The biology of dads

The finding was fascinating in light of seminal research in birds, which had established that testosterone facilitated aggressive competition for mates and territory, while interfering with parenting. For example, when researchers gave monogamous, parental male birds extra testosterone, they became polygynous and non-parental.

This is an interesting change, but how strong is the evidence that a decrease in testosterone helps to shuttle energy from mating to parenting in species other than birds, including humans and other primates? Pretty significant, it turns out.

Marmoset monkeys are one of a minority of primate species in which adult males care for their offspring. Adult marmosets carry their twin infants on their back, a significant energetic burden. They also groom their infants and might share food with them. When the primate researcher Toni Ziegler and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin-Madison presented adult male marmosets with the scent of an ovulating female, testosterone levels skyrocketed, as if preparing the males for mating. However, this response was blunted in fathers compared with non-fathers, as if to discourage them from redirecting their attention from parenting. On the other hand, when Ziegler and colleagues presented adult males with the scent of an infant, testosterone levels decreased in fathers, as if preparing them to focus their energy on caregiving. By contrast, the infant scent had no effect on testosterone in non-fathers.

Such findings led to the idea that testosterone might redirect energy from parenting to mating in humans too. Important proof came in 2011, when the biological anthropologist Lee Gettler, then at Northwestern University, and colleagues measured testosterone levels twice in the same young Filipino men over a span of 4.5 years. Those who became fathers during that interval experienced a significantly larger decline in testosterone than men who didn’t become fathers, conclusively establishing that the transition to fatherhood decreases testosterone.

Conspiracy theories, explained

Conspiracy theorists have what Radford describes as “self-reinforcing belief systems,” which is also part of why the theories spread so quickly — particularly the political ones. Often, an emotional byproduct of a conspiracy theory is to make the audience feel as though they’ve arrived at a profound new realization about the world on their own. “They think they’re thinking more critically, when in fact they’re thinking less critically,” van der Linden said.

“The conspiracy theory provides an access point to people,” Radford told me. “They think they’re given the key, right? So they’ll say, ‘Well, if you’re woke, and you’re taking the red pill, or blue pill, or whatever the hell pill it is, then you know; you understand what’s going on.’” People who have bought in often believe they can see patterns, codes, and symbols that the rest of us can’t.”

The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done

[Allen] proposed a theory about how our minds work: when we try to keep track of obligations in our heads, we create “open loops” that make us anxious. That anxiety, in turn, reduces our ability to think effectively. If we could avoid worrying about what we were supposed to be doing, we could focus more fully on what we were actually doing, achieving what Allen called a “mind like water”…

The knowledge sector’s insistence that productivity is a personal issue seems to have created a so-called “tragedy of the commons” scenario, in which individuals making reasonable decisions for themselves insure a negative group outcome. An office worker’s life is dramatically easier, in the moment, if she can send messages that demand immediate responses from her colleagues, or disseminate requests and tasks to others in an ad-hoc manner.

But the cumulative effect of such constant, unstructured communication is cognitively harmful: on the receiving end, the deluge of information and demands makes work unmanageable. There’s little that any one individual can do to fix the problem. A worker might send fewer e-mail requests to others, and become more structured about her work, but she’ll still receive requests from everyone else; meanwhile, if she decides to decrease the amount of time that she spends engaging with this harried digital din, she slows down other people’s work, creating frustration.

In this context, the shortcomings of personal-productivity systems like G.T.D. become clear. They don’t directly address the fundamental problem: the insidiously haphazard way that work unfolds at the organizational level… There are ways to fix the destructive effects of overload culture, but such solutions would have to begin with a reëvaluation of Peter Drucker’s insistence on knowledge-worker autonomy. Productivity, we must recognize, can never be entirely personal. It must be connected to a system that we can study, analyze, and improve.

People’s words and actions can actually shape your brain — a neuroscientist explains how

We also regulate each other with words — a kind word may calm you, like when a friend gives you a compliment at the end of a hard day. And a hateful word may cause your brain to predict threat and flood your bloodstream with hormones, squandering precious resources from your body budget.

The power of words over your biology can span great distances. I can text the words “I love you” from the US to my close friend in Belgium, and even though she cannot hear my voice or see my face, I will change her heart rate, her breathing and her metabolism.

Or, someone could text something ambiguous to you like “Is your door locked?” and odds are that it would affect your nervous system in an unpleasant way.

Your nervous system can be perturbed not only across distances, but also across centuries. If you’ve ever taken comfort from ancient texts such as the Bible or the Koran, you’ve received body-budgeting assistance from people long gone.

Books, videos and podcasts can warm you or give you the chills. These effects might not last long, but research shows that we all can tweak one another’s nervous systems with mere words in very physical ways that go beyond what you might suspect.

A Thousand Years Before Darwin, Islamic Scholars Were Writing About Natural Selection

“I was struck by the extent to which Al-Jahiz appears to have had not just evolutionary ideas, but many ideas that could be said to be related specifically to the process of evolution by natural selection,” Higham said in an email. “This seems to have included ideas such as competition over finite resources, adaptation in response to the environment, and speciation over time as an outcome.”

The Pandemic and the Process of Becoming

In these pandemic times, the days feel liminal. As the weeks go by, I find myself neither alone nor among, as I shelter in place, hunker down, stare at screens, grasp at fog. I watch within my community as previous social structures dissolve and are made new. I see the invention of new rituals: masks, handwashing, temperature checks. We look at each other through glass windows. We learn to smile with the top half of our faces. We perform calm for our children.

Unlike with Turner’s account of the Ndembu, though, there is no well-trodden path to lead us through to the other side. We have no idea where it all leads, or indeed if it leads anywhere. We are betwixt and between the betwixt and between. An egg and yet not an egg, halfway down a bottle.

Life with Purpose

It’s one of the great missed opportunities in science that Schrödinger failed to connect his view of life as organisation maintained against entropic decline with the work his fellow physicists were doing on Maxwell’s demon. This is the missing link that could release biology from having to pretend that agency is just a convenient fiction, a mirage of evolution. ‘What is needed to fully understand biological agency,’ say the complex-systems theorist Stuart Kauffman and the philosopher Philip Clayton, ‘has not yet been formulated: an adequate theory of organisation.’

This link between organisation, information and agency is finally starting to appear, as scientists now explore the fertile intersection of information theory, thermodynamics and life. In 2012, Susanne Still, working with Gavin Crooks of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California and others, showed why it’s vital for a goal-directed entity such as a cell, an animal or even a tiny demon to have a memory. With a memory, any agent can store a representation of the environment that it can then draw upon to make predictions about the future, enabling it to anticipate, prepare and make the best possible use of its energy – that is, to operate efficiently.

Every Successful Relationship Is Successful for the Same Exact Reasons

What Gottman does is he gets married couples in a room, puts some cameras on them, and then he asks them to have a fight.

Notice: he doesn’t ask them to talk about how great the other person is. He doesn’t ask them what they like best about their relationship.

He asks them to fight. Pick something they’re having problems with and talk about it for the camera.

And from simply analyzing the film for the couple’s discussion (or shouting match, whatever), he’s able to predict with startling accuracy whether a couple will divorce or not.

But what’s most interesting about Gottman’s research is that the things that lead to divorce are not necessarily what you think. Successful couples, like unsuccessful couples, he found, fight consistently. And some of them fight furiously.

He has been able to narrow down four characteristics of a couple that tend to lead to divorces (or breakups). He has gone on and called these “the four horsemen” of the relationship apocalypse in his books. They are:

Criticizing your partner’s character (“You’re so stupid” vs “That thing you did was stupid.”)
Defensiveness (or basically, blame shifting, “I wouldn’t have done that if you weren’t late all the time.”)
Contempt (putting down your partner and making them feel inferior.)
Stonewalling (withdrawing from an argument and ignoring your partner.)

The reader emails back this up as well. Out of the 1,500-some-odd emails, almost every single one referenced the importance of dealing with conflicts well.

Fairy Tales Could Be Older Than You Ever Imagined

It turns out that it’s pretty hard to figure out how old fairy tales are using simple historical data. Since the tales were passed down orally, they can be almost impossible to unwind using a historian or anthropologist’s traditional toolbox. So the team borrowed from biology, instead, using a technique called phylogenetic analysis. Usually, phylogenetic analysis is used to show how organisms evolved. In this case, researchers used strategies created by evolutionary biologists to trace the roots of 275 fairy tales through complex trees of language, population and culture.

Using the Aarne-Thompson-Uther Classification of Folk Tales, a kind of über index that breaks fairy tales down into groups like “the obstinate wife learns to obey” and “partnership between man and ogre,” the team tracked the presence of the tales in 50 Indo-European language-speaking populations. They were able to find the ancestries of 76 tales, tracking them backward using language trees.

As they tracked, they found evidence that some tales were actually based in other stories. More than a quarter of the stories turned out to have ancient roots—Jack and the Beanstalk was traced back to the split between Western and Eastern Indo-European languages more than 5,000 years ago and a tale called The Smith and the Devil appears to be more than 6,000 years old.

Five of the best documentaries, as chosen by Werner Herzog

Vernon, Florida
(Errol Morris, 1981)
This was his second documentary, after Gates of Heaven, and I pushed Errol into doing it at the time, when he was very young. He spent some time in a small town in the Florida Panhandle, just engaging with and talking to local people. And it’s a completely incredible world of fantasies and strangeness. You have to see it. How can I describe it? I’m not a reviewer. It’s a great, great film.

Vision and Breathing May Be the Secrets to Surviving 2020

How are breathing and the brain connected?

The relationship is anchored through the diaphragm, the only organ in the body that is skeletal muscle designed for voluntary movement. You can immediately take control of the diaphragm. So breathing represents a bridge between the conscious and unconscious control of the body.

When you inhale, the diaphragm moves down, and the heart gets a little bigger because it has more space. Blood flows a little more slowly through the heart under that condition. So the heart then signals to the brain, and the brain says, “Oh, we’d better speed up the heart.” So if you want to increase your heart rate, you inhale more than you exhale. The opposite is also true. Every time you exhale, you’re slowing down the heart rate.

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