Cool Science: Part Two

Research Identifies ‘Hot Spots’ Of Ocean Productivity which is really interesting. Apparently, barnacles off the coast of Cape Perpetua -off the coast of Oregon – produce five times as offspring as barnacles off the coast of Cape Foulweather:

The study highlights the importance of including information on ecological processes when designing reserves and other types of marine protected areas, the scientists said. It is one of the first studies to link reproductive variation with key ecological processes on a scale that’s relevant to management and conservation. The findings were published today in a professional journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This study demonstrates that not all ocean places are equivalent, and that some populations are more likely than others to contribute to future generations,” said Heather Leslie, a marine ecologist at OSU. “This could serve as a model for how to link information on biodiversity patterns with underlying ecological processes.”

One wonders about the efects these kinds of hotspots could have on speciation and evolution – the study was more about the implications for conservation:

Variability in ocean currents and bottom topography, as well as biological interactions, all can contribute to differences in the productivity of marine ecosystems. Biodiversity protection and enhancement of nearby fisheries are among the goals of marine reserves, the researchers said, and an important aspect of siting effective reserves would be understanding how the productivity of key populations vary.

“Not all ocean areas are the same, and the likelihood of fulfilling the objectives of reserves and other area-based management efforts would increase if we understand the ecological processes responsible for biodiversity patterns,” Leslie said.

Integrating this information is particularly important, Leslie said, given the forecasts of changes in ocean currents and other biological and physical processes due to climate change.

Cool Science: Part One

Saturn’s Rings Have Own Atmosphere which came as a surprise to me – but I’m not an astronomer or astrophysicist or anything. Apparently, due to some interesting properties concerning the way water (i.e. H20) behaves in the region of Saturn an atmosphere is generated:

Water molecules are first driven off the ring particles by solar ultraviolet light. They are then split into hydrogen and atomic oxygen, by photodissocation. The hydrogen gas is lost to space, the atomic oxygen and any remaining water are frozen back into the ring material due to the low temperatures, and this leaves behind a concentration of oxygen molecules on the ring surfaces and, maybe through ion-neutral chemistry, molecular oxygen is formed, but this is not yet well understood.


I Read it in the New York Times

A lot of folks have commented on the recent series of articles on Intelligent Design in the New York Times. A wrap up can be found at Pharyngula. The articles can be found here, here and here.

The author of the second paper showed up and replied here.

Pharyngula has linked to a much better article than the three New York Times articles. It can be found here. It also discusss Intelligent Design. To me this:

But legislation to require that creationism be taught as a counterpoint to evolution is being discussed in Colorado and across the country. And if history is any guide, we all should be very afraid of politicians legislating science education.

Mitton recalled an Indiana legislator’s attempt in 1897 to require that schools simplify pi (the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter) from the clumsy but accurate 3.141592… to 3.2.

If this had been enforced and the products of Indiana schools tried to apply it, he said, “bridges would fall down, structures couldn’t be built,” engineering would be impossible.

It’s simple: Without pi, there is no mathematics.

And without the teaching of evolution, biology doesn’t have a prayer.

Was the best quote in the article. The best thing about it was that there is none of the he said/she said style of journalism. The article educated and informed people about an important issue making news – and did not pull any punches.

When Did Humans Start Wearing Shoes?

According to Eric Trinkaus we started wearing shoes approximately 30,000 years BP.

A 26,000 year-old early modern human, Dolni Vestonice 16 from the Czech Republic, showing the reduced strength of the bones of the lesser toes. It is one of three partial foot skeletons from Dolni Vestonice that shows the reduced lesser toe strength, all dating to about 26,000 years ago. (Photo Credit: Erik Trinkaus / Czech Academy of Sciences)

He analyzed the the feet of middle and upper Paleolithic humans and compared the strength of the toes (based on robusticity, size of muscle markings, etc.) with leg strength (I’m assuming this means the tibia and fibula – again based on robusticity, size of muscle markings, etc.). Trinkaus notes that around 30,000 years ago toe strength underwent a reduction while calf strength remained the same. He chalks up this decrease in toe strength to the full time use of supportive footwear:

During barefoot walking, the smaller toes flex for traction, keeping the toe bones strong. Supportive footwear lessens the roll of the little toes, thus weakening them.

Trinkaus is certainly one of the more original thinkers in Paleoanthropology, but I am a little bit skeptical. Granted, I haven’t read the article in the October Journal of Archaeological Science (abstract available here – so if someone out there with access wants to send me a copy of the article…?). My first thought on reading the Science Daily article was what about allometry and/or sexual dimorphism?

Added Later: Go here for more.

Culture and Chimpanzees

Culture is one of the seminal concepts in anthropology. A lot of people have tried to define it. Starting with E. B. Tyler (one of the founding fathers of anthropology) who defined culture thusly:

“culture or civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”

Others, such as Linton defined culture this way:

“…the sum total of ideas, conditioned emotional responses, and patterns of habitual behavior which the members of that society have acquired through instruction or imitation and which they share to a greater or lesser degree…”

Perhaps one of the best definitions of culture – well more a list of the characteristics that define a culture – was given by Murdock in his 1940 paper for the American Sociological Review entitled “The Cross Cultural Survey”. Murdock found that culture could be characterised by the following traits:

1) Culture is learned – that is it is not instinctive or biologically transmitted but is acquired by each individual through their life experiences.
2) Culture is inculcated – The above are transmitted from parent to child over successive generations. This means that not only are techniques and knowledge imparted but mistakes are corrected as well. Consequently, there is a certain amount of indepoedence between the traits being passed and the individual bearers of culture.
3) Culture is social – in other words it is shared between individuals living in groups and is kept uniform via social pressure.
4) Culture is ideational – that is certain kinds of behavior should conform to established precedent. Put another way, there are certain ideal norms or patterns of behavior (think mental template)that the bearers can use to guide their behavior.
5) Culture is gratifying – that is it satisfies – or provides a means for satisfying – biological and psychological neads
6) Culture is adaptive – to both the geographic and social environment
7) Culture is integrative – In other words, the elements of a given culture tend to form an integrated whole – although historical events – such as improved technology – exert a disturbing influence.

One could, and many people have, argue with most of these definitions. There are, however, certain commonalities in most definitions of culture. Especially, the parts about culture being shared and learned. For the longest time, cultural behavior was restricted to humans (implicit in E. B. Tylor’s definiton above). For example, it used to be thought that tool use (ala Oakley’s “Man the Tool-maker)was a cultural trait restricted to humans. Then tool use among chimps was discovered. Language was another cultural characteristic that – it was thought- resided only in humans. Indeed, most definitions of culture (See Kroeber and Kluckhohn’s 1952 book “Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions” for over 200 definitions collected from the literature) state overtly or imply that language, and it’s ability to transmit acquired knowledge, is necessary for culture to exist. Then it was discovered that chimps, gorillas and orangs could use sign language.

A recent study at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center has cast an interesting light on culture. Researchers devised an ingenious experiment to study cultural transmission in chimps. Rather than trying to create an artificial situation like you see in some of the language experiments (usually with one chimp in isolation), researchers decided to test chimps in a group situation:

In the study, researchers introduced a naturalistic foraging task into three groups (two experimental and one control) to see if chimpanzees can learn by observation. While unseen by other chimpanzees, researchers taught a high-ranking female from each of the two experimental groups a different way, either Lift or Poke, to retrieve food from a system of tubes called Pan-pipes. Once the two females mastered the task, other chimpanzees within their groups were allowed to watch them perform the new skill over a seven-day period before all group members were allowed to use the tool. According to the researchers, group members gathered around the local expert, watched attentively and proved successful when allowed to try the task on their own. The third group, which did not have the benefit of a local expert and was left to decipher the task on its own, was unsuccessful in retrieving food from the Pan-pipes.

The upshot is that:

“This study demonstrates apes do copy members of their own species and they develop different traditions by doing so,” said Dr. Horner. “It makes it likely differences in tool use between wild chimpanzee communities in Africa indeed reflect a form of culture and establishes another link between human and chimpanzee societies.”

Occassionally, chimps that learned Poke would discover Lift, try it a few times, then revert to Poke. Ditto for chimps that learned lift. This has been taken to indicate a conformity bias among chimps every bit as strong as that among humans:

The conformity bias finding was an unexpected, but equally important, result of this culture study, according to Dr. Horner. A few members of each group independently discovered the alternative method for freeing food from the Pan-pipes, but this knowledge did not endanger the groups’ traditions because most of these chimpanzees reverted back to the norm set by their local expert. “Choosing the group norm over the alternative method shows a level of conformity we usually associate only with our own species,” said Dr. Horner. “By using the group’s technique rather than the alternative method, we see the conformity is based more on a social bond with other group members than the simple reward of freeing the food.”

But think about it in terms Murdock’s definition of culture given above. The different methods of getting the food were learned, certainly social in that the techniques were shared among members of the group, ideational in that each group had a mental template or norm to guide their behavior, gratifying in that biological needs were satisfied, and adaptive. Whether, the behavior was inculcated, in the sense mentioned above, and integrative remains to be seen because the experiments were short term and you would need a long term study to decide those two questions. What about conformity – something getting this study a lot of attention? According to the study:

A characteristic traditionally thought to be solely human, the propensity to conform, may be part of an evolutionary progression. “These results suggest an ancient origin for the cultural conformism that is so evident in humans,” said de Waal. “Further research may reveal these findings to be more widespread throughout the animal kingdom.”

One thinks that here people are confusing the modern, stereotypical definition, of conformism (“Like, gaw’d Levi’s are soo 15 minutes ago…”) with the ideational aspects of culture. Although, in most cultures social pressure can be exerted to insure uniformity, there is room for ideosyncratic behavior. Incidentally, the studies doesn’t mention whether or not social means were used to induce conformity. It just says that the chimps that discovered alternate means reverted back to the norm of their group, i. e. the mental template for getting food that they already had.

Interestingly enough, the New Scientist article mentions that the poke method was more efficient at getting food than the Lift method. Chimps that learned Lift but discovered, independently, Poke reverted to Lift. I would like to see more on this before I chalk it up to “conformity”, especially because of the way the study is portrayed. “Copycat chimps are cultural conformists” is the title of the New Scientist article. The Science Daily title is better but in reading both pieces I don’t get the feeling that the authors really understood the concepts they were discussing.

Leaving the conformity issue aside, what this study does indicate is that we have to look far back in human history to discover the origins of culture – and this study certainly prooves that chimps are culture bearing organisms. It goes without saying that the implications of this study for our understanding the behavior of Australopiths and early Homo will probably need to be revised somewhat.

Cool stuff!

Einstien Manuscript Discovered

A student working on a master’s thesis has discovered the original manuscript of one of Albert Einstein’s papers. According to the news report:

The paper predicted that at temperatures near absolute zero — around 460 degrees below zero — particles in a gas can reach a state of such low energy that they clump together in one larger “mono-atom.”

The idea was developed in collaboration with Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose and the then-theoretical state of matter was dubbed a Bose-Einstein condensation.

In 1995, University of Colorado at Boulder scientists Eric Cornell and Carl Wiemann created such a condensation using a gas of the element rubidium and were awarded the Nobel prize for physics in 2001, together with Wolfgang Ketterle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


Friday Chimpanzee Blogging: The Origins of Brain Lateralization

One of the more interesting subjects paleoanthropologists are interested in is the evolution of the brain. More particulary, they are interested in the origins brain lateralization. A researcher associated with Yerkes National Primate Research Center thinks she has found the beginnings of an answer.

Elizabeth Lonsdorf studied 17 chimps at Gombe National Park in Tanzania:

She and colleague William Hopkins noted which hand mothers and offspring used and found most of the chimpanzees showed a clear preference for one hand or the other, with the majority being left-handed.

Furthermore, they determined the handedness trait runs in families, with females tending to produce offspring with the same hand preference.

They also note that:

“…wild chimpanzees are usually left-handed and pass that preference to their offspring, while chimps in captivity are usually right-handed.”

The above is a picture of a chimp in a zoo – note it is holding a tube in it’s left hand and using a tool to fish out treats in it’s right hand.

The above picture is of a chimp in the wild, unfortunately, it is using a tool in it’s right hand as well. One picture, I hasten to add, does not invalidate the theory. At any rate, this suggests that the beginnings of brain lateralization was present before the split between humans and chimpanzees and occured at least five million years ago. One of the interesting aspects to come from the Study is that:

Another interesting aspect of the new research is that it demonstrates chimpanzees learning by imitation. The adult females studied each had quite distinct patterns of using short, medium and long fishing tools to varying degrees. The lengths of tool used by daughters greatly resembled their mothers’ choices, whereas the sons’ did not. “Obviously they are paying attention to their mother’s technique, while the sons are not,”

Here is a link to some interesting, short, movies of chimps:

Images of Life on Earth