Monday, December 27, 2010

Gannets and boobies

When I saw photos of blue footed boobies in Dawkins' latest book (color page 24), my first thought was that these birds were excellent examples of signal selection.  Then I learned more about their natural history and behaviors and was even more impressed.  Birds make excellent photographic subjects.  Take a look at this gannet in the photo at left, a member of the Sulidae family with the blue footed booby, diving into the ocean, its wings are stretched out behind it, and its whole body is straight as an arrow before it plunges into the water.  It makes a very dramatic impression, falling like a meteor to the Earth, transforming to kinetic energy that which was only potential moments ago.  Many questions come to mind upon seeing this.  When it dives, why does it arrange its wings in this way, instead of say the way a falcon folds its wings when diving?  My guess is that a falcon must be ready to apply the air brakes quickly and slow down once it reaches its target, whereas a gannet's speed is slowed simply by the water friction after it enters the ocean, affording it the freedom to adopt this more streamlined position.  (I also wondered why there are no seabats, whereas there are numerous seabirds.  There are fishing bats, at least.  I think beaks and feathers are significant adaptations for an ocean going lifestyle allowing birds to out compete bats in this ecosystem.  But then, whence pterodactyls?)  Another interesting fact about gannets is that they have occluded nostrils.  The opening is inside their beaks instead of on the surface, so they breathe through the corners of their mouths.  This prevents water from going in their noses when they dive at speeds of up to 100 kph from 100 feet up.  I am convinced that there are some excellent videos of gannets and other members of the Sulidae family of diving seabirds online, but I haven't seen any yet due to my 40 kbps connection speed.  Will update if I find some.

Friday, December 24, 2010


I have tried to watch myself as I fall asleep, to be aware of my slipping consciousness.  (Is it like watching in reverse the developing consciousness from embryo to adult?)  It is a difficult undertaking.  Who has been able to mark off the point where consciousness ends while in the process of losing it?  Once it is gone, so too has gone the ability to be aware that it is gone.  I can, however, try to recall my last thoughts before lapsing into unconsciousness each night as I fall asleep, to find as close I can the moment before I crossed that boundary into unconsciousness.  To a person such as myself for whom the experience of awareness holds a deep mystery, this is an interesting exercise.  Now to add some perspective, if Nicholas Humphrey is right, were it not for evolutionary pressures toward increased ability for mind-reading and manipulation (via animal signals as ethologists like Dawkins would point out), I would not be able to consciously observe my own mind as it changes states of awareness at all.

Sandra Bloom

The human service field in any state is large; Northstar, API, and Providence are the more well known facilities in Alaska. So it should come as no surprise that there are a variety of resources available to the mental health care worker. Sandra Bloom is well known for creating the Sanctuary Model and many books and articles describing it. Other resources include Ross Greene's The Explosive Child, Susan Thierman's The Discipline Gradient, and Michael Thompson's Raising Cain, written with Dan Kindlon. I just read an article by Bloom, The Sanctuary Model of Organizational Change for Children’s Residential Treatment, and would like to identify some of the points it contains.

According to Bloom, victims of traumatic experiences keep repeating the same destructive intrapsychic and interpersonal behaviors - the hallmark characteristic of stress being repetition and resistance to change. This dramatically affects their ability to learn and grow. And when self correcting skills that involve self-control and self-discipline fail to develop properly children are unable to keep themselves safe in the world. Therefore, a “trauma-informed” community must place an emphasis on safety in an environment where social normative standards are continually maintained and reinforced. Routine conflict resolution strategies, based on clear rules and consequences, are an additional tool. “Safety plans” should be created that are simple and straightforward and provide options for immediate steps that can be taken as soon as an individual finds him or herself in a stressful, challenging, or dangerous situation. (Awareness of each person's “action safety plan” as well as any identified triggers is important.) Individuals must learn skills to modulate emotional arousal (in response to memories, persons, events) so that emotion does not interfere with the cognitive processes necessary to ensure good decision making and problem-solving. Productive discourse depends on good communication and recovering individuals need to learn how to listen and how to talk - involving a willingness to temporarily reflect on the past, create a culture of inquiry to examine the present, and make a commitment of sufficient time to engage in honest dialogue. This promotes an environment that encourages healing and social learning.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Greatest Show on Earth

These last few days I finished reading the second half of Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show On Earth and was rewarded with the best collection of evidence for evolution I have ever seen amassed in a single place.  Even for someone such as myself, fully convinced of its factual reality, I am even more in awe of its effects all around us.  When I was in high school, I recall creationism being mentioned as an alternative idea to evolution.  But whereas the evidence for evolution was tangible and all around us, it was evident to me (and probably many of my other classmates) that creationism had no such evidence.  Nonetheless, the two theories didn't seem inherently incompatible on that basis alone.  Like many people today, and the early Darwin, I adopted a combination of the two.  When I went to college, the supporters of creationism needed no help from anyone else in discrediting their position.  The untenability of creationism became all the more plain when I came to the conclusion that religion itself was not only insupportable but positively undesirable.  As a younger man, and like most religious folk today, I was guilty of the logical falacy of argumentum ad consequentiam (402).  After reading Dawkins book, I have a greater sympathy for the frustration he feels when he encounters evolution deniers. 

Dawkins described many important evolutionary scientists and their work, among those I found most interesting were Richard Lenski's experiments with E. coli (117), John Endler's work with guppies (133), and Sydney Brenner's work with C. elegans (243).  In addition, the description of recent fossil discoveries, such as Puijila darwini were very interesting, and animals visibly evolving within our lifetime, like P. sicula (113). 

I also learned something about human diversity.  It is estimated that Homo sapiens walked out of Africa 100,000 years ago (186) and diversified into all the races that we see around the world today.  I have sometimes wondered if, in our modern world we would begin to lose genetic diversity as there are no longer physical barriers to prevent races from interbreeding.  However, Dawkins uses the metaphor of shuffling and reshuffling cards in a pack to demonstrate the combination of parental genes in offspring, and that therefore “there is no such intrinsic tendency for variation to decrease in a population” (29) when different gene sources combine.  “Genes don't blend, they shuffle.”  Subtle point, but important and easily overlooked.  So even if all the people in the world are equally as likely to interbreed with any other person, no genetic diversity will be lost as a result of it [see also this]. 

After reading this book, I realized more than before that “All animals are much closer cousins to each other than we used to think.” (359)  Even insects, surprisingly, bear marked similarities to you and I.  If you don't believe that, then read the book.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Spirit of Christmas

Christmas is a winter celebration of human values, warmth, and beauty; a time to come together and keep the gloom of winter at bay.  And what a mixed bag it is!  If any seasonal tradition is a good example of ecumenism, Christmas is it.  Half pagan winter solstice celebration and half Christian religious mythology all in one.  Like the "Neo-Darwinian Synthesis" that occurred when the theory of natural selection was united with a genetic understanding of heredity, combining these formerly separate traditions together makes them all the richer.  I remember from my youth that at this time of year the barriers between Christian denominations in the community were dissolved and all the local churches, with their priests and pastors, cooperated together in celebrating the season with nativity plays and potlucks.  The more modern manifestations of the mythology of Christmas, like Santa Claus, even bridge religious and secular barriers.  I get swept up in the holiday cheer myself.  I enjoy the traditional music, whatever its origins, and the anticipation of celebrating with gifts and fun. 

Christians emphasize the birth of a savior who overcame the bogeyman of death.  But perhaps we save our lives when we are willing to give them up for someone else, not just when someone else gives theirs up for us.  (This weekend I watched Pitch Black, which has an excellent demonstration of altruism when Carolyn Fry saves Riddick at the expense of her own life.)  I think my aesthetic sensibility, which is probably closely allied with the ethical sense, is not as well developed as many of the women in my life.  My wife recognizes objects of beauty and comfort better than I, and in my mind thoughts of my mother are mingled with the sounds of beautiful music, like "Annie's Song".  Even women I hardly know can pick out good songs, like "Soul Meets Body", better than I.  Christmas is a time to celebrate beauty, whatever its inspirations, and to me that is also a celebration of women.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Nicholas Humphrey

I recently read Dawkins' 1984 article Animal Signals: Mind Reading and Manipulation.  On page 387 he refers to Nicholas Humphrey's 1976 article The Social Function of Intellect when talking about the origin of consciousness.
Humphrey... goes so far as to suggest that the whole faculty of subjective consciousness and self-awareness evolved as a device to facilitate reading the minds of others.  
Humphrey spells it out simply in the summary of his article:
I argue that the higher intellectual faculties of primates have evolved as an adaptation to the complexities of social living. For better or worse, styles of thinking which are primarily suited to social problem-solving colour the behaviour of man and other primates even towards the inanimate world.
He describes what this means in greater detail on pages 309-310: 
Thus social primates are required by the very nature of the system they create and maintain to be calculating beings; they must be able to calculate the consequences of their own behaviour, to calculate the likely behaviour of others, to calculate the balance of advantage and loss - and all this in a context where the evidence on which their calculations are based is ephemeral, ambiguous and liable to change, not least as a consequence of their own actions. In such a situation, 'social skill ' goes hand in hand with intellect, and here at last the intellectual faculties required are of the highest order...
Once a society has reached a certain level of complexity, then new internal pressures must arise which act to increase its complexity still further. For, in a society of the kind outlined, an animal's intellectual 'adversaries' are members of his own breeding community. If intellectual prowess is correlated with social success, and if social success means high biological fitness, then any heritable trait which increases the ability of an individual to outwit his fellows will soon spread through the gene pool. And in these circumstances there can be no going back: an evolutionary 'ratchet' has been set up, acting like a self-winding watch to increase the general intellectual standing of the species.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Pop-sci books

Good science writing is highly addictive.  Perhaps I should rephrase that.  Good writing that takes a critical and well reasoned perspective on interesting and relevant subjects is addictive.  Lately I have greatly enjoyed reading works by La Mettrie (old, but foundational), Dawkins, Hitchens, Hirsi Ali, Zahavi, and Maynard Smith.  Earlier I had read Feyerabend, Maslow, Trivers, and Gould.  I'd have to add more titles if going beyond the last several years.  And it won't stop there!  Treatment for bibliophiles involves finding a support group and indulging in good books.  Thankfully there is a large supply.  By chance, I picked up a copy of Dawkins latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, and plan to read through it when time allows.  And it has lots of pretty pictures too!  For my next books, I know where to look.  PZ Myers put together a helpful Pop-sci book meme and suggestions for "What science books ought a bookstore stock?"  Certainly more good titles have come out since then, but this is a good place to start your reading list. 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

John Maynard Smith

In Essays in Animal Behavior, Amotz Zahavi writes:
I am grateful to Maynard Smith, who agreed to publish my paper on the handicap principle (Zahavi 1975), even though he did not believe in verbal models. I am also grateful to him for publishing his own paper rejecting the principle (Maynard Smith 1976b). By doing so he drew the attention of the scientific community to the controversy.
I've read about half of The Handicap Principle, and have since found several other books that mention the idea as well (see list).  Of these books, it was Maynard Smith's Animal Signals that finally provided a lucid counterpoint to Zahavi's interpretation.  Refreshingly, he questions the universality with which Zahavi applies the Handicap Principle to signals.  After reading large portions of his book, I am led to believe that costs are avoided whenever possible, and "costly signalling theory" is not a universal explanation.  Maynard Smith clarifies the terms used to describe categories of signals, including: signal, cue, ritualization, handicap, cost (efficacy cost, strategic cost), index, minimal-cost signal, icon, and symbol.  The distinction between an index and a handicap is particularly important.  He links the study of animal signals to the field of semiotics, the communication of meaning, but of which Eco wrote "semiotics is in principle the discipline studying everything that can be used in order to lie."  Charming.  Eco further proposed that every cultural phenomenon can be studied as communication. 

So where do we go from here?  I have a sense that while the Handicap Principle is dramatic, and attractive due to its paradoxical nature, and that this may have led popular authors to overestimate it's importance (Maynard Smith p32), it is not the only, and almost certainly not the most important method by which organisms communicate.  Animal communication, a subject within the field of ethology, occurs by a variety of methods.  In 1984, Richard Dawkins, probably the most famous ethologist alive, characterized animal signaling as an arms race between signalers as 'manipulators' and receivers as 'mind-readers' (Maynard Smith p3).  My interest in biological communication can be seen as it relates also to goal oriented behavior, particularly when this involves social interaction.  As a psychologist, Tim Pychyl continues to study this subject, with humans instead of animals, but I think a clearer understanding can arise from viewing it through the lens of evolutionary biology.  How do signalers manipulate the behavior of receivers?  How do receivers read the minds of signalers?  And how do these processes of "signal selection" stoke the engine of evolution in the formation of new and novel traits?  The answers to these questions are varied and complex.  They are also very important. (Partly due to how fascinating these questions are, I might even say it can be fun to manipulate and "mind-read" each other, within limits.)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Why signal selection?

What is signal selection and why is it important?  The short answer is that it describes how organisms communicate reliable information to one another.  I don't think I need to explain why communication is important.  As for the long answer, I would have to refer to several books discussing Amotz Zahavi's Handicap Principle.

In the course of my research the significant influence of Zahavi's ideas in the biological sciences has been impressed upon me.  Many of these books specifically focus on the implications of the Handicap Principle on sexual selection.  Important as that is, it has equally interesting implications for other types of communication between organisms.  Zahavi himself distinguishes between utilitarian selection and signal selection, a redefinition of Darwin's original categories of natural selection and sexual selection.  I have taken Zahavi's term "signal selection" as the name of this blog to honor the importance of this idea.  "Signalling theory" is the term probably more accepted within academic circles when referring to the subject in general. 

Having found already eight books that bear at least passing mention of Zahavi and his work, I am sure to find more references yet.  I have read The God Delusion and The Generous Man already, I am currently finishing The Handicap Principle and would like to read the latest edition of The Selfish Gene next.  In the 1989 edition of this book Dawkins includes a lengthy analysis in favor of the Handicap Principle in the end notes section.  His discussion of the Handicap Principle within the original 1976 body of the book itself is equally enjoyable to read.  He describes one manifestation of it as "a particularly diabolical form of child blackmail" (131), and  "maddeningly contrary" (159), I have also read it described as "paradoxical".  But at the same time the theory makes everything seem so much clearer once it is understood (if a false notion, it is very seductive).  It is the leading theory, in my estimation, to explain truly novel things in the world.  More than ever before, I now know why nature is so beautiful.

Peer review of research is an important tool in the progress of science, and I wondered what Zahavi's peers make of his ideas. One of the great figures in evolutionary biology, W. D. Hamilton, wrote of Zahavi (Narrow Roads of Gene Land, Volume 2: Evolution of Sex, 2002, p210) "I should say that except on the subject of handicaps Zahavi and I have disagreed steadily about many other things, especially kin selection." And on 212: "On the canvas that day Zahavi was mostly the winner and remains so on the most major issue: numerous cases are now known that bear out his insistence on choice for true worth." Other authors have stated that further development of Zahavi's ideas by Grafen "brought animal communication, game theory, and sexual selection together" (Essays in Animal Behaviour, 2005, p44).  Hamilton identified the bright colors of fall foliage as an example of the Handicap Principle in action, see this article by Carl Zimmer.