Neuropathological

Politics may not be rocket science, but apparently it is brain surgery.

Understanding the genesis of political orientation has long been a subject of biological interest, with every few years a new study suggesting our ideological differences aren’t skin-deep, they’re sub-atomic. 

Add to the list the findings of the University College London, which takes the theory of different liberal and conservative genes to another level.  Liberals and conservatives have always thought the other had their brains wired differently and, according to the University, physically speaking they’re right.

But the University’s study is also a case example in the sideshow of the politicization of science – namely, “proving” that conservatives are mentally (or genetically) deficient:

Using data from MRI scans, researchers at the University College London found that self-described liberals have a larger anterior cingulate cortex–a gray matter of the brain associated with understanding complexity. Meanwhile, self-described conservatives are more likely to have a larger amygdala, an almond-shaped area that is associated with fear and anxiety.

Using every inch of my larger amygdala, it’s hard not to notice how many of these studies inevitably lead to a conclusion that liberal physiological differences are viewed as genetically preferable – if not superior.  A similar outlook could be found just this last year with the ballyhooed discovery of a so-called “liberal gene”:

As a consequence, people with this genetic predisposition who have a greater-than-average number of friends would be exposed to a wider variety of social norms and lifestyles, which might make them more liberal than average. They reported that “it is the crucial interaction of two factors — the genetic predisposition and the environmental condition of having many friends in adolescence — that is associated with being more liberal.”

Outgoing, popular kids equals well-balanced, politically liberal adults?  Conservatives are creepy, adolescent shut-ins?  Curse my shriveled anterior cingulate cortex for reading anything into that study.

Of course, not all scientists are inferring that our political and genetic differences are so stark as to invite a Cro-Magnon/Neanderthal comparison.  In fact, some recongize the potential for political bias in such a report and actively work to tap down any broad-based partisan conclusions…including the actual authors of the study:

While the London study does find distinct differences between Democrats and Republicans, its authors caution that more research needs to be done on the subject. One unknown is whether people are simply born with their political beliefs or if our brains adjust to life experiences–which is a possibility, Kanai writes.

“It’s very unlikely that actual political orientation is directly encoded in these brain regions,” he said in a statement accompanying the study. “More work is needed to determine how these brain structures mediate the formation of political attitude.”

Talk about burying the lead.  And I thought we were just told that larger anterior cingulate cortexs led to understanding complex subjects better. 

Truthfully, we want our differences to be genetic for they absolve us of needing to convince others.  And seeking to find that absolution – that genesis of political thought – in the genius of others brings to mind the words of the discoverer of the double helix, J.D. Watson

One could not be a successful scientist without realizing that, in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid.”

It aint illegal. They know it aint good for ‘em. And they don’t give a rip.

I don’t begrudge your choice to smoke cigarettes as long as you:

1) Keep it out of my face.

2) Keep it out of my kids’ face.

3) Quit throwing them out of your god-damned window.

4) Pay your fair share: don’t expect me to pay higher life, disability or health insurance premiums. You should though.

5) Let me bum one off of you once a year or so for old times.

But seriously, if you don’t know smoking is dangerous by now, is it because the government hasn’t done an adequate job of edumacating you?

Apparently the government thinks you’re so damn stupid that the dangers can only be conveyed to you in pictures.

Corpses, cancer patients and diseased lungs are among the images the federal government plans for larger, graphic warning labels that would take up half of each pack of cigarettes sold in the United States.

Whether smokers addicted to nicotine will see them as a reason to quit remains a question.

Sounds like another shovel-ready project to me.

The share of Americans who smoke has fallen dramatically since 1970, from nearly 40 percent to about 20 percent, but the rate has stalled since about 2004. About 46 million adults in the U.S. smoke cigarettes.

In the same period, the average cost per pack has gone from 38 cents to $5.33. Much of those increases are from state and federal taxes.

It’s unclear why declines in smoking have stalled. Some experts have cited tobacco company discounts or lack of funding for programs to discourage smoking or to help smokers quit.

I would submit to you that there are a certain percentage of us that are going to smoke cigarettes.  They like to smoke. It aint illegal. They know it aint good for ‘em. And they don’t give a rip.

In the mean time are we to assume the federal government intends to spend more and more of everyone’s tax dollars until there are no smokers left? Maybe we should just let evolution run its course.

More Evolved

Over the weekend, one of the producers at the station (actually from “AM980 The Believer”, the religious station upstairs from the Patriot) asked me if the NARN wanted to book a couple of segments on an upcoming debate between a Creationist (“the earth is 6,000 years old!”) and an “Evolutionist” (“There is no God!”).

While I was too tactful to say “I’d rather lobotomize myself with a spork” – the producer is a good guy and an excellent producer, and when you’re a host you gotta know how dumb it is to antagonize good producers – there are probably few arguments that interest me less than “Creation versus Evolution”.

Part of it is that there is no conflict between science and an allegorical reading of the Old Testament – and I personally believe that God is glorified no less by recognizing the immensely, exquisitely wonderous and complex system He created (humanity and our existence included) than by chalking it up to six days of cosmic tinkering 6,000 years ago.  The conflict between evolution isn’t really one over the origin of the universe so much as it is about interpretations of history; less a matter of validating faith and science than of competing groups of book critics impotently slapping at each other.

The other part, of course, is that the debate is so badly-informed.  As MPR’s Speaking of Faith’s excellent piece on Darwin’s anniversary pointed out in an excellent program on Darwin’s anniversary last week, Darwin himself never saw the conflict between evolution and faith.

And finally, too many followers on both sides are just so face-palmingly ignorant.

Bogus Doug knows of which he speaks:

In honor of this day Gallup helpfully polled the U. S. public only to discover that only 4 in 10 of us “believe in the theory of evolution.” This is probably not the best outcome anyone might hope for. I mean… if it’s true, you want everyone to see that and believe it. If it’s false (spoiler alert: it’s not), you want everyone to see that and believe it. But that’s not the part that most bothered me.The part that most bothered me is that I know that within those “4 out of 10″ are a considerable number of people who believe in something they call evolution, but which is very much at odds with Mr. Darwin’s theory. I met these people when I attempted to help my professor teach “Introduction to Physical Anthropology” as an undergraduate teaching assistant. I was staggered by the number of people flunking our quizzes who insisted they hated the idea of creationism and believed in evolution. (Me the undergrad TA: Hey, that’s fine. Good luck with that anti-creationist stuff. But can we talk about why you got every question describing the fundamental mechanisms of evolution wrong? I mean… I thought we went over this after you failed the last time.)

See, my problem isn’t so much that people understand the theories of Mr. Darwin and choose to reject them. My problem is that so few people understand them in the first place. Including many of those who profess deep abiding belief in them.

The sad thing I reflect on upon the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth is that his scientific discoveries and ideas have gotten to far fewer people than can be measured by Gallup asking who believes in them. And honest to God, the basics of this stuff aren’t that hard to grasp.

They then grow up to comment endlessly on how we need to separate church and state to keep all those ignint fundies out of power.  And/or take PZ Meiers seriously.

As Long As They Don’t Get Behind the Wheel, I’m Fine With That

I enjoy Glenfiddich 12-year-old Scotch and almost any Red Wine, but have often wondered how mankind discovered alcohol.

Did Cro-Magnon man have a little still in his cave? Was it the social lubricant that it is today? Having invented the wheel and alcohol, did early man anticipate the trouble the two would cause generations later when used together?

We may never know the answers to these vexing questions, but it appears the imbibing of fermented fruits and grains is a natural thing.

A large variety of creatures consume alcohol in the wild, ranging from bumble-bees to elephants. Hooch finds its way into their diets via the fermenting fruit, sap and nectar of various plants, and many exhibit signs of inebriation after they’ve enjoyed a good feed. Their weakness for the substance au naturel is understandable: ethanol is a rich food, with 75 percent more calories than refined sugar, and its distinctive aroma makes it easy to locate. This natural thirst has been exploited by man since the dawn of history. Aristotle noted that wild monkeys were caught by setting out jars of palm wine — the creatures would drink, then pass out, leaving them easy prey. The same method of trapping was still in use in the 19th century and commented on by Darwin in the opening chapter of “The Descent of Man,” when drawing similarities between humanity and the rest of creation. Monkeys could get drunk like men. They also got hangovers: “On the following morning they were very cross and dismal; they held their aching heads with both hands, and wore a most pitiable expression: when beer or wine was offered them, they turned away with disgust, but relished the juice of lemons.”

Interestingly, a few species of mammals including the slow loris and the pentailed treeshrew (with which we share a common ancestor) not only have a predilection for alcohol but also a natural tolerance. When the latter species find an especially rich batch of fermented palm nectar in their native Malaysian rainforests, they’ll visit it several times each night and consume the equivalent, in human terms, of nine standard drinks, without any evident deterioration in their behavior. Perhaps we drank deep before we were fully human?

Well, isn’t the pentailed treeshrew a lucky bird. Modern man, after “drinking deep” is usually not so fortunate.

The propensity of a variety of domesticated animals to drink is well documented. Clearly, it’s cruel to force alcohol on them — tantamount to poisoning them: Mad Jack Mytton killed one of his horses when he made it bumper a bottle of port after it had won a race. However, some, including dogs, goats, cows, and pigs, develop a taste for it on their own. Aristotle noted that Greek swine became inebriated “when they were filled with the husks of pressed grapes.” A similar phenomena was common in colonial-era New England, where cider production and consumption, in per capita terms, were colossal, and where hogs were fed on windfalls and pomace (the pulp from the bottom of the cider press) both of which ferment. Their subsequent inebriation was often a matter of comment, and may have been the inspiration for the term “hog-whimpering drunk.”

I hadn’t heard that term, but it does explain the more common “drunk as a pentailed treeshrew.”

Most people carry a little of each, don’t they?

With DNC in mind, city bans carrying urine, feces

Poo and pee dominated a public hearing Monday on a new law that prohibits people from carrying certain items if they intend to use them for nefarious purposes.

What other purpose might there be for carrying these “products”? I’d say monger away. This is a law whose time has come!

Representatives from some of the groups planning large-scale protests during the DNC this month said the ordinance was unnecessary and accused city officials of fear mongering.

No Pun intended? 

“The intent of this ordinance is to try to smear protesters and make them look as if they are somehow criminal or somehow going to engage in some kind of gross conduct,” said Glenn Spagnuolo, an organizer with the Re- create 68 Alliance.

The ordinance makes it illegal to carry certain items, such as chains, padlocks, carabiners and other locking devices. It also prohibits the possession of noxious substances. Two of the most frequently used examples of a noxious substance are a bucket of urine and a “feces bomb.”

Police have to prove that people carrying such items intend to use them to block public access or emergency equipment or to thwart crowd control measures.

“Our intent for this bill is not about suppressing or chilling First Amendment rights,” he said.

“Young man!”

“Yes Officer?

“ Just exactly what do you intend to do with that shit?”

“Exercise my first ammendment rights?”

“Put down the poop son. Before I get pissed!”

Hope Drives

Lileks and I were talking last Saturday on the NARNII show about the real “Two Americas” in this country. There’s a pessimistic America that believes the nation is spinning into a vortex of decay, global warming, and rich-vs.-poor civil war on the one hand – an American that thinks the rest of America needs its soul “saved” (not to name any names here). And there’s an America that is optimistic – that retains the spirit of its immigrant forefathers who came to this land to find a new, better life.

One America thinks our best days are behind us, and gets a secret tingle up their leg watching The Day After Tomorrow (“That’ll teach you to drive SUVs and ignore Mother Earth!”), and believes that we’d better quit nattering about freedom and the market and liberty and just hush up and listen to our older, wiser betters in China and India. One America sings “America: F*** Yeah!” with simultaneous comic irony and pit-of-the-gut sincerity.

One America voted for Jimmy “Malaise” Carter, Walter “Sure, I’ll Raise Your Taxes” Mondale, Michael “Look At Me In My Tank” Dukakis, Algore, John Kerry and Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, and quietly waits for the inferno to overtake them; many of them even avoid having children, either because their thoughts of the future are so dismal or, in extreme cases, because they believe the human race should voluntarily extinct itself. The other America elected Ronald Reagan, flocked to see Rambo, waved the flag at times that made that other America blanche with embarassment, bought Smith and Wesson Model 29s and dared you to pry them from their cold, dead hands, and quietly contributed to the downfall of a genuinely evil empire, leaving the world a much better place than it’d been ten years earlier.

Now, I believe a couple of things:

  1. The world’s going to run out of oil. Not real soon, but eventually.
  2. The free market – assuming it’s allowed to be free – will anticipate and react to that inevitability faster than government will. People will adapt their behaviors in the short run (as they are today with gas prices); as the supply of oil contracts, the market will present alternatives.
  3. The market will present these alternatives long before government can mandate them. Long before the government can lay a half-mile grid of trolley tracks in every American city, industry will have developed an electric or fuel-cell car, running from something we do have in great profusion – nuclear-generated electricity, waste material, paperwork from failed Tic programs, whatever.
  4. Government actions will exacerbate the problem.

Let’s go back to optimism for a bit.

James and I were talking about how crushing pessimism was one of the dominant leitmotifs of American pop culture over the past fifty years. We also noted that next week’s Minnesota Street Rod Association convention at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds (at which the NARN will be broadcasting!) harkens back to an era when America was profoundly optimistic – where the sky, and beyond, was the limit. Cars were big, brawny, cheery and optimistic.

I noted, in contrast, that this is the face of the current American car-buying public (or at least the stereotype of it):

Now, the Prius is a perfectly fine car – Toyota builds a good vehicle, yadda yadda.

But I noted that other car makers had tried their hands at building hybrids – Honda, Volvo et al – and gotten dicier results in the hybrid market; they’d made the “mistake” of merely building hybridized versions of their regular cars. In other words, their “normal”-looking hybrids failed in the market, while Toyota dealers can’t keep the dorky-looking Prius in stock.

The reason, of course, is that the people who are concerned about “global warming” today want to be seen doing the vehicular equivalent of wearing a hair shirt. They want to drive a car that looks like a rolling cockroach, thus to feel closer to the nature into which they feel we are all about to decay anyway.

My statement; America – at least, the part of America that flies the flag and hears “God Bless the USA” with a certain tingle of pride even as they cringe at the mawkishness, the America that flies the flag on June 14, right-side up, no flame involved – will take the notion of alternative transportation into their hearts only when electric vehicles look like this…:

…only when hybrids look like this…:

Only when a ride on a light rail train looks like this:

…rather than some exercise in self-abnegation and penitence to Mother Earth (like Michelle Obama envisions for us…):

Then – when the idea of “alternatives” are seen not as expressions of shame, of crabbling about after the crumbs of our betters, of finding comfort in societal doom, but rather of progress rather than decay, of skill and prowess rather than doom – then, America will embrace these ideas.

So sign me up for the first electric Porsche 914.

Er…maybe the first one in the third year of production, anyway.