Sunday, May 29, 2005

Remote control of behavior

I found out about this paper last week - it didn't seem to be picked up by a lot of the popular press despite its wackiness. Susana Lima and Gero Miesenbock at Yale have designed a fruit fly that can be activated to perform certain behaviors by remote control, using a laser. You put a non-endogenous ATP receptor into defined neurons that control a certain behavior, inject the flies with caged ATP, uncage the ATP with a laser, and - voila - those neurons are activated and the fly does the correct behavior. They got flies - even headless flies or blind flies - to perform stereotypical escape behavior (jumping and wing-flapping) when "activated" with a UV laser.

Freaky, eh?

Abstract with link to full article here, layman's write-up here.

Friday, May 20, 2005


The other day I went to a talk by Dan Dennett, the originator of the idea of universal acid. On a tangent, he mentioned this factoid, which perhaps most of you know about but I did not - the origin of the Jesus fish is a Greek acronym, ICHTHYS, the ancient Greek word for fish. Apparently this stands for Iesous Christos Theou Y(u)ios Soter, or Jesus Christ Son of God Savior. (See here for how it looks with Greek letters. The acronym makes more sense if you remember that CH and TH are single letters in Greek.) So early Christians used to draw a fish with the Greek letters ICHTHYS written inside, and this apparently got translated into drawing a fish with JESUS written inside.

You also probably know about the Darwinian takeoff on the Jesus fish, where the fish has the name DARWIN instead of JESUS written inside. So Dennett came up with his own (Latin) acronym to indicate what DARWIN means:

Delere Auctorem Rerum Ut Universum Infinitum Noscere (Destroy the author of things in order to understand the infinite universe).

I thought it was pretty clever.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

More on genetics and homosexuality

A nice piece by Steven Pinker taking off on the pheromone study that I discussed a couple posts ago. He also makes the point that I was trying to make here: "The difference in the brain responses of gay and straight men does not, by itself, prove that homosexuality is innate; after all, learned inclinations, like innate ones, must reside somewhere in the brain."

I'm less sure about his take on the origins of homophobia, but this line is funny enough to quote:
Why didn't evolution shape straight men to react to their gay fellows by thinking: "Great! More women for me!"

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

More bad news on polio

Well this is just fantastic:
More than 40 new cases of polio have been confirmed in Yemen, the World Health Organization said yesterday, more new cases than in any other nation. "It's a much bigger outbreak than we originally thought, and it's spread throughout the country," said Dr. David L. Heymann, who is in charge of the W.H.O. polio-eradication campaign.

Epidemiologists expect the 63 cases confirmed thus far in Yemen, a poor country on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, to grow to more than 100 soon. ... But transmission usually soars in the late summer rainy season, and some districts in any country report more promptly than others, so it is too early to tell which country will end the year with the most cases.
See my previous posts about vaccines here, here, here, and here.

More on biological v. genetic causes

Mark Kleiman highlights the "biological = innate" confusion when he writes about the pheromone study I commented on yesterday, "if the laboratory result holds up, the argument that the sexual orientations of males are hard-wired, rather than chosen, just got much stronger." In fact, "hard-wired" and "chosen" are perfectly compatible - any choice you make will naturally be reflected in the wiring (or some other biological aspect) of your brain. The mere fact that homosexuality has a neurobiological basis tells us very little about whether homosexuality is innate, learned, involuntary, or chosen.

Rather than looking to biological evidence for the innateness of homosexuality (which will be found not in the biology of adult brains, but in genes and possibly the biology of fetal and infant brains), we should look instead to the actual experiences of gay people - the vast majority of whom say that they didn't choose to be gay. Isn't that enough?

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Pheromones and sexual orientation

A brain imaging study just published yesterday suggests that gay men's brains respond to putative pheromones similarly to straight women's brains, but differently from straight men's brains. Here's the NY Times' write-up:
The two chemicals in the study were a testosterone derivative produced in men's sweat and an estrogen-like compound in women's urine, both of which have long been suspected of being pheromones.

Most odors cause specific smell-related regions of the human brain to light up when visualized by a form of brain imaging that tracks blood flow in the brain and therefore, by inference, sites where neurons are active. Several years ago, Dr. Savic and colleagues showed that the two chemicals activated the brain in a quite different way from ordinary scents.

The estrogen-like compound, though it activated the usual smell-related regions in women, lighted up the hypothalamus in men. This is a region in the central base of the brain that governs sexual behavior and, through its control of the pituitary gland lying just beneath it, the hormonal state of the body.

The male sweat chemical, on the other hand, did just the opposite; it activated mostly the hypothalamus in women and the smell-related regions in men. The two chemicals seemed to be leading a double life, playing the role of odor with one sex and of pheromone with another.

The Swedish researchers have now repeated the experiment but with the addition of gay men as a third group. The gay men responded to the two chemicals in the same way as did women, Dr. Savic reports, as if the hypothalamus's response is determined not by biological sex but by the owner's sexual orientation.
I'd first like to point out that this study tells us exactly zero about whether male sexuality is innate, learned, a choice, or anything like that. This study is not about nature v. nurture. As I've noted before, a biological basis for behavior is very different from a genetic or innate cause for behavior. All behaviors are somehow mediated by the brain, so there must be something happening in the brain that is correlated with behavior - it's just a question of developing methods sensitive enough to detect it, which is why cognitive neuroscience has only exploded in the last decade. Happily, the NY Times article recognizes this and goes into as much depth with it as one might hope for in a newspaper article.

One objection that Charles Todd has over at Majikthise is that the NY Times article presents the result as "gay men's brains are like women's brains" rather than "gay men's brains are like straight women's brains." Luckily, the scientific article is careful to specify that gay men's brains behaved like straight women's brains. (Sexual orientation appears to have been assessed by interview / self-report via the Kinsey scale.) Now, the most intuitively appealing result would be if lesbians' brains behaved like straight men's brains in response to these pheromones, but of course science is never so simple:
Dr. Savic said that she had also studied gay women, but that the data were "somewhat complicated" and not yet ready for publication.
So it's not the researchers who are falling prey to the "gay man = woman" fallacy, but the NY Times (seriously - how hard is it to add the adjective "straight" into the lede?). [By the way, I love the euphemism "somewhat complicated."]

On one level, the study isn't very surprising at all in terms of sexual orientation. Imagine if someone did a study showing beautiful male faces and beautiful female faces to subject and showed that gay men and straight women had their "sexual attraction" brain areas activated when viewing beautiful male faces, whereas straight men had the same brain areas activated when viewing beautiful female faces. Not so interesting.

What's interesting is, rather, that these chemicals seem to be acting as pheromones, when people thought that humans didn't respond to pheromones (because the relevant sensory organ in other mammals, the vomeronasal organ, is largely inactive in humans). And even this was shown almost 4 years ago comparing just straight men and straight women - it's just that the finding that responses are different for gay and straight men provides additional support for the theory that they are pheromones.

See Rob Helpy-Chalk for some more intelligent dissection of this study.

Update: The BBC brings more news about pheromones - apparently there has been another study showing that
The preferences of gay men were strikingly different from those of heterosexual men and women, and lesbian women. Gay men preferred the odours of other gay men, and heterosexual women. The smell of gay men were the least liked by heterosexual men and women, and lesbians.
So maybe this is how gaydar works??

Seriously though, again I'd like to point out that the conclusion that "gender preference has a biological component" (as the lead author of this second study says) is very different from the conclusion that gender preference has an innate component. [NB - I have been unable to find the scientific article - I think it hasn't been published yet.]

Interestingly, the BBC article does make the distinction between "women" and "heterosexual women" that the NY Times missed out on.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Ingenious condom usage

This is amazing:
Only a quarter of condoms made in India are used for sex, most of the others are used to make saris, toys and bathroom slippers, a newspaper reported on Saturday.

The condoms are valuable to manufacturers because of the lubricant on them. Sari weavers place the condoms on their thread spools and the lubricant on the prophylactics is rubbed off on the thread, making it move faster through their sewing machines, the newspaper quoted an Indian industry official as saying.

Sari makers also turn the condom's inside out, place them on their fingers and use the high-quality lubricant to polish gold and silver threads used in the traditional Indian women's outfits. India manufactures more than 1 billion condoms annually to check population growth and curb the spread of HIV/AIDS.
My first thought was that I can't imagine that using condoms is cheaper than just buying a vat of lubricant, but then I figured that they must get them really cheap because the government gives them out for free. I guess it's an unintended government subsidy for textile manufacturers, but it's not a bad side effect for a policy that surely has much greater benefits (prevent AIDS, unwanted pregnancies, etc.)...

Friday, May 06, 2005

Un-Americanism in the South

Mark Kleiman notes that some Southern schools leave out the Civil War or present it with a strong pro-Confederate bias.
There's a case to be made for teaching children, especially young children, a version of history conducive to patriotic feeling, and letting them fill in some of the darker chapters later. ... But distorting Civil War history in a pro-Confederate direction has no such justification. Catering to the Southern version of victim-identity politics is obviously bad for national unity. Why are the core red states so damned unpatriotic?
Exactly. It is very, very weird to me that several of the "red states" that have seized the mantle of patriotism (partly to label the blue states as "unpatriotic") are precisely those states that carried out treasonous rebellion against the United States of America and to this day continue to celebrate said treasonous rebellion as part of their regional heritage. Meanwhile, the states that actually led the American Revolution (*couMassachusettsgh*) are tarred as unpatriotic.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Polio now in Indonesia

Following my blogging on the spread of polio and vaccine skepticism, now comes news that polio has spread to Indonesia, previously free of the disease since 1995.
A case of polio has been detected in Indonesia, World Health Organization officials said today, indicating that an outbreak spreading from northern Nigeria since 2003 had crossed an ocean and reached the world's fourth-most-populous country.
This is extremely frustrating - we were so close to eradicating it for good. But now, thanks to unfounded rumors that polio vaccines are a Western plot to spread AIDS or make Muslims sterile,
With each new case, the W.H.O.'s goal of eradicating polio by the end of this year slips farther away. Its emergency response fund is virtually depleted and the agency has begun pleading with donors for help controlling new outbreaks in Ethiopia, Yemen and other very poor countries.

At the disease's low point, in early 2003, it was endemic in only six countries: Nigeria, Niger, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.
Update: Orac has more on polio and anti-vaccine hysterics in general here.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Even more appalling

Now this is truly, truly, truly appalling. Sadly, I cannot say that I am surprised.
Seven months before Sept. 11, 2001, the State Department issued a human rights report on Uzbekistan. It was a litany of horrors.

The police repeatedly tortured prisoners, State Department officials wrote, noting that the most common techniques were "beating, often with blunt weapons, and asphyxiation with a gas mask." Separately, international human rights groups had reported that torture in Uzbek jails included boiling of body parts, using electroshock on genitals and plucking off fingernails and toenails with pliers. Two prisoners were boiled to death, the groups report.

Now there is growing evidence that the United States has sent terror suspects to Uzbekistan for detention and interrogation, even as Uzbekistan's treatment of its own prisoners continues to earn it admonishments from around the world, including from the State Department. ... Uzbekistan's role as a surrogate jailer for the United States was confirmed by a half-dozen current and former intelligence officials working in Europe, the Middle East and the United States. The C.I.A. declined to comment on the prisoner transfer program, but an intelligence official estimated that the number of terrorism suspects sent by the United States to Tashkent was in the dozens. ... There is other evidence of the United States' reliance on Uzbekistan in the program. On Sept. 21, 2003, two American-registered airplanes - a Gulfstream jet and a Boeing 737 - landed at the international airport in Tashkent, according to flight logs obtained by The New York Times. [Emphases added.]
The non-answer answer from a CIA official is possibly even worse:
A senior C.I.A. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he would not discuss whether the United States had sent prisoners to Uzbekistan or anywhere else. But he said: "The United States does not engage in or condone torture. It does not send people anywhere to be tortured. And it does not knowingly receive information derived from torture."
If they're going to send people to be tortured, at least they could say so, so we could openly debate the merits of torture (though there are none, in my view). Instead we get a bland lie and a misleading dodge about "not knowingly" receiving information derived by boiling prisoners alive. (As Henry Farrell notes, this is nothing more than a "don't ask, don't tell" policy.)

I find it so hard to be shocked by this administration's actions anymore, so when I first saw this story, I thought "ho hum, more torture by the Bush administration." But of course, we can't let our moral sense be dulled by long-term exposure to atrocity. This is the United States of America. We're supposed to be the good guys.

Hilzoy poignantly asks a question I have thought a lot since the last election: "What has happened to our country?"