Print Story Potestatem obscuri lateris nescis
By TheophileEscargot (Thu Apr 17, 2008 at 09:09:31 AM EST) Listening, Reading, MLP (all tags)
Listening: "Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality". Sociobiological musings. Web.

Latest TTC course was Biology and Human Behavior: The Neurological Origins of Individuality by Robert Sapolsky. 2nd Edition, 24 lectures.

Interesting course. Pretty thorough: starts off with how the brain works, starting with a single neuron and moving on to networks and entire regions, then the effect of hormones and neurotransmitters. This is the most difficult bit to follow. Relies a bit too much on the diagrams in the course guide to work really well on audio.

The next bits are easier though as the course moves on to genes and evolution, then ethology. The final section brings everything together and concentrates on aggression and how it fits it with the way things work.

The key word of the course is "interaction". Sapolsky at all times stresses the sheer complexity of how the brain works. There's practically no such thing as a "gene for" anything to do with behaviour: everything is due to the interactions between various systems. The glands interacts with hormones, hormones interact with the brain (which is itself a gland), neurotransmitters interact with neurons, genes interact with the environment, the environment switches on genes. In spite of the complexity though, Sapolsky does manage to paint a good picture of how things work overall.

The emphasis on complexity also makes the course a bit of an inoculation against the over-simplistic abuse of sociobiology. As I see it, the political abuse of sociobiology tries to use it to write off certain groups as intrinsically too stupid to be educated, or too violent to be pacified, or too soft to function in the corporate world. What looking at the complexity shows us is that this it's almost never possible to write off behaviour this way: any genetic influence on behaviour depends on environmental and learned factors to be expressed.

A few details that interested me.

  • If you're subjected to a moderate amount of short-term stress, steroid hormones called glucocorticoids are released. These lead to an increase in dopamine. (LTP is increased too).

    This seems to me might be a mechanism by which Aristotle's concept of literary catharsis works. Temporarily stressing yourself with a horrible story can leave you happier, and possibly wiser.

  • The importance of environmental influences in the womb are more important than previously thought. If you stress out a pregnant rat, the children of that rat are more easily stressed, and their stress periods last longer.

    In the Dutch "hunger winter" in WW2, children born afterwards showed "thrifty metabolisms": they stored calories more efficiently, but were more prone to diabetes and other conditions. The surprising bit is that their children were also prone to the same condition.

    What this looks like to me of course is Lamarckian evolution. Acquired characteristics are being passed on to descendents after all.

  • It looks like Calvin's father might have had a point about building character. An adult is more likely to perform moral acts at his own expense if as a child he's been forced to exert a degree of self-discipline.
Sociobiology and interactions
The core point of scientific sociobiology seems to be that it's not about environment and it's not about genes: the only important thing is the interaction between the two.

The core point of popular sociobiology seems to be that it's not about the scientists and it's not about the media, the only important thing is the interaction between the two.

As ex-journalist Terry Pratchett put it in his novel The Truth:

"People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things ... well, new things aren't what they expect. They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man. That is what dogs do. They don't want to know that a man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds."
The way this plays out is that the media acts as a filter and amplifier on any kind of sociobiological research. Any scientific result that seems to contradict popular prejudice will be buried. Any result that seems to confirm a popular prejudice will be trumpeted far and wide.

So consider the question of whether women talk more than men (Deborah Cameron). About 61% of studies show men talk more than women, 4% show women talk more than men. But the 4% are the ones that get all the attention: like the dog biting the man, they tell use what we already think is true.

But I'm not sure the interaction stops there. If you can get vastly more media attention by confirming prejudices, I suspect that creates a temptation for academics to produce suitable research. I wonder how much dodgy research like the girls prefer pink because they've evolved to gather berries thing is encouraged by that.

Coming soon
Next TTC course is Conquest of the Americas by Marshall C. Eakin.

Useful Latin phrases.

ADHD vs parenting.

Tallest horse.

YouTube: Adolf Hitler performs: "I Will Survive".

Electioneering. Kaletsky on the London election:

Yet this conventional wisdom is completely wrong. Mr Johnson and Mr Livingstone, far from being blundering political innocents, are both politicians of the first rank. Mr Livingstone not only managed to outmanoeuvre and humiliate both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown by becoming the first Mayor of London, but proved himself to be the only British politician of his generation to confront Margaret Thatcher and win in the long run. Mr Johnson cannot, yet, claim any such electoral triumphs, but he has managed to survive verbal gaffes and personal scandals as serious as the ones that ended the career of David Blunkett and a host of Tory Cabinet ministers from the Thatcher years.
< More boring stuff. | I have a tree >
Potestatem obscuri lateris nescis | 15 comments (15 topical, 0 hidden)
Caveat emptor... by ana (4.00 / 1) #1 Thu Apr 17, 2008 at 09:26:12 AM EST
there are multiple typos in the list of convenient Latin phrases. I, too, have trouble touch-typing in Latin.

"And this ... is a piece of Synergy." --Kellnerin

ADHD by ucblockhead (4.00 / 3) #2 Thu Apr 17, 2008 at 10:40:19 AM EST
I've long been convinced that most ADHD is the result of bad parenting and a fair bit of the rest is misdiagnoses.

My brother was long misdiagnosed with ADHD...turns out he is severely bipolar. It is one of those conditions that gets blamed for everything, though it seems to be giving way to autism as the whipping boy for why Johnny won't do what he's told. (To the detriment of the kids who've actually got it.)
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman

I was diagnosed adhd back in the early 70's by wiredog (4.00 / 1) #7 Fri Apr 18, 2008 at 02:38:59 AM EST
Before it was trendy, when they called it 'hyperactive'. Looking at report cards sent home by the first grade teacher (at a private school) something needed to be done.

I was on the meds for about 5 years, by which time I'd developed the habits needed to function appropriately so my took me off the meds.

I still can't sit still for more than a few minutes...

Earth First!
(We can strip mine the rest later.)

[ Parent ]
I don't doubt it exists by ucblockhead (4.00 / 1) #8 Fri Apr 18, 2008 at 05:10:27 AM EST
But I've heard lots of examples similar to the article.
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
[ Parent ]
It's over-diagnosed and over-treated by wiredog (4.00 / 1) #9 Fri Apr 18, 2008 at 05:17:13 AM EST
Note that my parents took me off of the meds once I'd built up the necessary habits to function in school. These days, once someone is on the meds they tend to stay on them forever. You see people in their 20's who can't remember a time when they weren't on meds. A bit scary, actually.

Earth First!
(We can strip mine the rest later.)

[ Parent ]
The News Media by Alan Crowe (4.00 / 2) #3 Thu Apr 17, 2008 at 12:00:48 PM EST
The news media sell your eyeballs to advertisers and pay you for this with worry candy.

I'm not sure about news vs olds by garlic (4.00 / 1) #4 Thu Apr 17, 2008 at 01:02:56 PM EST
I think people like hearing what they expect, but I think they also like hearing the opposite of expectations.

Influencing research by Merekat (4.00 / 1) #5 Thu Apr 17, 2008 at 10:33:20 PM EST
That's a bit trickier to draw a direct line between research that gets good press, and research that gets done. Getting funding is the biggie for most research and while some of that might be influenced by how much press the research will bring to the university or whereever, accessing buzzword-protected pots of EU or other sponsored money is also important. So while the broad principle of looking for 'olds' does apply, the definition by the purse string holders as what counts for that is not necessarily consistent.

Very interesting stuff by nebbish (4.00 / 1) #6 Fri Apr 18, 2008 at 01:39:31 AM EST
Increased LTP and dopamine could explain why I love violent horror films so much, and why I feel so compelled to write about them afterwards :)

Also interesting about the children of the Dutch "hunger winter" - I remember reading something similar about Glasgow, that the high rate of diabetes and obesity among certain parts of the working class population is partly due to genetic changes caused by extreme poverty and hunger in the past.

I'll consider getting that audiobook. However my concentration wavers a lot when I listen to stuff, I'd probably be better off with something in book form.

It's political correctness gone mad!

Nice blog concept by TheophileEscargot (2.00 / 0) #10 Fri Apr 18, 2008 at 11:16:13 PM EST
I might try sticking it on Metafilter at some point, if you don't mind the sarcasm of random Internet strangers.

You might find this course a bit of a struggle early on, since he makes reference to diagrams quite a lot in the early lectures. I find the history ones work best.
It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?

[ Parent ]
Please do! by nebbish (4.00 / 1) #13 Sun Apr 20, 2008 at 11:44:06 PM EST
Could do with some traffic, the stats so far aren't very impressive.

Yeah, I'm going to try something similar in book form instead. Don't know what yet. Might be the right time to join the library...

It's political correctness gone mad!

[ Parent ]
Up by R Mutt (4.00 / 1) #14 Mon Apr 21, 2008 at 12:44:18 AM EST

[ Parent ]
Cheers mate! by nebbish (4.00 / 1) #15 Mon Apr 21, 2008 at 01:25:17 AM EST
Should crack on with some new posts I suppose!

It's political correctness gone mad!

[ Parent ]
I read by iGrrrl (4.00 / 1) #11 Sat Apr 19, 2008 at 05:17:00 AM EST
...starts off with how the brain works...

at which point I was going to laugh uproariously and say that no one knows how the brain works. Then I saw it was Sapolsky who has a bigger clue and a smaller ego than most of the people who say they can explain the mind. He's pretty damn brilliant.

As for ADHD... yeah. It's most difficult because there are real cases, but there's a fascinating correlation between amount of time in front of a TV and chance of ADHD diagnosis later.
"I honestly pity the stupid motherfucker who tries to talk down to iGrrrl" - mrgoat

And also, a Beard of Justice by TheophileEscargot (2.00 / 0) #12 Sat Apr 19, 2008 at 05:32:53 AM EST
Robert Sapolsky
It is unlikely that the good of a snail should reside in its shell: so is it likely that the good of a man should?
[ Parent ]
Potestatem obscuri lateris nescis | 15 comments (15 topical, 0 hidden)