Category Archives: science

Priorities

Mortality statistics I’ve stumbled across in my research tonight:

  • Fatal poisonings are about twice as common as homicides.
  • Fatal falls are almost twice as common as fatal poisonings.
  • Suicide kills slightly more people than motor vehicle accidents, but twice as many as fatal falls.
  • And of course, suicide is ten times as common as homicide.

More evolution

Why can’t we grasp the concept of death as nothingness?

When we’re talking about our own deaths, it’s probably a function of consciousness. Death is the ultimate non-event, but we comprehend our existence as a series of sensations and events.

When we’re talking about other people’s deaths, it’s probably evolutionary. Jesse Bering:

In a 2004 study reported in Developmental Psychology, Florida Atlantic University psychologist David F. Bjorklund and I presented 200 three- to 12-year-olds with a puppet show. Every child saw the story of Baby Mouse, who was out strolling innocently in the woods. “Just then,” we told them, “he notices something very strange. The bushes are moving! An alligator jumps out of the bushes and gobbles him all up. Baby Mouse is not alive anymore.”

Just like the adults from the previously mentioned study, the children were asked about dead Baby Mouse’s psychological functioning. “Does Baby Mouse still want to go home?” we asked them. “Does he still feel sick?” “Can he still smell the flowers?” The youngest children in the study, the three- to five-year-olds, were significantly more likely to reason in terms of psychological continuity than children from the two older age groups were.

But here’s the really curious part. Even the preschoolers had a solid grasp on biological cessation; they knew, for example, that dead Baby Mouse didn’t need food or water anymore. They knew he wouldn’t grow up to be an adult mouse. Heck, 85 percent of the youngest kids even told us that his brain no longer worked. Yet most of these very young children then told us that dead Baby Mouse was hungry or thirsty, that he felt better or that he was still angry at his brother.

[…]

From an evolutionary perspective, a coherent theory about psychological death is not necessarily vital. Anthropologist H. Clark Barrett of the University of California, Los Angeles, believes instead that understanding the cessation of “agency” (for example, that a dead creature isn’t going to suddenly leap up and bite you) is probably what saved lives (and thus genes). According to Barrett, comprehending the cessation of the mind, on the other hand, has no survival value and is, in an evolutionary sense, unnecessary.

In a 2005 study published in the journal Cognition, Barrett and psychologist Tanya Behne of the University of Manchester in England reported that city-dwelling four-year-olds from Berlin were just as good at distinguishing sleeping animals from dead ones as hunter-horticulturalist children from the Shuar region of Ecuador were. Even today’s urban children appear tuned in to perceptual cues signaling death. A “violation of the body envelope” (in other words, a mutilated carcass) is a pretty good sign that one needn’t worry about tiptoeing around.

On the one hand, then, from a very early age, children realize that dead bodies are not coming back to life. On the other hand, also from a very early age, kids endow the dead with ongoing psychological functions.

How cool is that?

(via The Morning News)

I have a PhD in popscienceology

I would normally defer to the expertise of someone with such credentials, but this is just junk science.

Evolution never stops; it changes directions!

If you’re lucky enough to live in a developed country, you probably don’t have to worry about starving to death. That doesn’t mean the end of natural selection. In fact, it might be beneficial to lose the coping mechanisms for starvation in our modern age of caloric excess. Natural selection could be pushing evolution in the direction of thinner people, or people who suffer fewer health effects from carrying a lot of fat.

As long as people reproduce (even if they are only having one or two children), people will evolve.

Prevolution

The first life didn’t have to appear fully formed out of the ether.

In showing that selection actually precedes the origin of life, and helps to shape it, Nowak helps bridge the gap between nonliving and living systems. In a sense, he says, the prebiotic soup is constantly testing possible replicators, making it much more probable that one might eventually reach the threshold of life.

Did evolution come before life? – New Scientist

Deep-fry away the pounds

A recent study out of Stanford has found the Atkins diet to be most effective for women. It compared a handful of “fad” diets and one based on the US food pyramid. They were all helpful to varying degrees, but the Atkins diet most of all.

It seems counter-intuitive that eating mostly fats and proteins should help lose loose weight, much less cut your cholesterol and blood pressure. Yet, this is what they found.

Of course, one study isn’t conclusive evidence. This one only looked at overweight women, for starters. Since I am neither overweight or female, I won’t be binging at McDonald’s tonight. Also, I am concerned about the long-term consequences of a diet high in protein. It wouldn’t be very healthy if this weight loss is at the expense of kidney function.

An interesting study, to be sure. But I won’t be changing what I eat anytime soon.

Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Watch TV

A new study has found a strong correlation between autism and hours spent watching television by young children.

For all the theoretical mechanisms that (falsely) implicated thimerosal-containing vaccines, it turns out the culprit may be something even more familiar and seemingly benign than the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine. Ninety-eight percent of American households had at least one television in 2001.

The study, as summarized by Gregg Easterbrook at Slate:

“[…] the study has two separate findings: that having cable television in the home increased autism rates in California and Pennsylvania somewhat, and that more hours of actually watching television increased autism in California, Oregon, and Washington by a lot.”

Of course, even strong correlation is not a causal link. More investigation needs to be done by independent researchers. But in the meantime, I think it would be wise to heed the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics and keep children under two away from the TV. They’re pretty sure it increases attention disorders, why risk autism too?