Archive for September, 2006

Since the discovery in the 1920s that all types of radiation can cause gene mutations, scientists have wondered what role high energy cosmic rays might play in human evolution. Yet it was an idea destined never to find favour among geneticists, who could determine no hard evidence that the background flux of cosmic rays might have had any noticeable effect on human cell mutation.

All this is about to change, as an examination of ice cores extracted from sites in Antarctica and Greenland provides new information on the level of cosmic rays reaching Earth in past ages.

When so-called “primary” cosmic rays hit the upper atmosphere they generally break up to produce a plethora of “secondary” particles that form isotopes, which fall to Earth and are preserved each year in layers of ice. One such isotope is beryllium 10, found within the ice cores, which provides clear evidence that on three occasions over the past 100,000 years � around (more…)

“Lets make English America’s Official Language” is the clarion call for many activists resisting America’s apparent polyglot tendencies. My recent post on what makes America special as a country showed how it is important that each generation of immigrants succeed and also speak English. Over the years politicians and guardians of American heritage have bemoaned that immigrants are not fluent in English. President Teddy Roosevelt said, “Every immigrant who comes here should be required within five years to learn English or leave the country.”

Well, a recent study by Douglas Massey at Princeton University and Ruben Rumbaut along with Frank Bean at the University of California, Irvine have found that this goal may take care of itself! In Southern California, their study shows that the children of Mexican Immigrants have lower Spanish fluency and better English, and their grandchildren mostly speak English as their first language. (more…)

Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain

Antonio Damasio has written two books in one: A tour of his field of active brain imaging science which provide new insights into the dynamic working of emotions and feelings, and a biography of Benedictus Spinoza who three hundred and fifty years ago published exquisite, but very disruptive insights into the nature of man.

The important thing is that Looking for Spinoza, in the end, brings its multiple theses together in a gratifying view of the human condition. It shows not only how much we now know about the function of feelings and emotions, and how they regulate the body. Damasio shows how exquisitely accurate Spinoza’s insights were.
At first, Looking for Spinoza seems a little disjointed – what do brain scans and symptomatic analysis of people with brain lesions have to do with seventeenth century philosophical writings? Well, it turns out, quite a bit. It seems that Spinoza, intuited the functional relationships between emotionally competitent stimuli, emotions and feelings that are only now are being rediscovered by neuroscience. (more…)

Remember the story about the Siberian breeder who bred tame Silver Foxes? Over just a few generations Dmitri Belyaev selected only the most tame foxes to breed, and ended up with a dog-like fox – as tame as you please, thank you. The foxes also had a number of other characteristics that came along with the tameness – similar to the changes between dogs and wolves – droopy ears, and patchy color, etc.

rat A - Photo by Socar MylesWell, this same fellow also did a similar experiment with rats! He developed two colonies; one about as friendly as you can imagine, and the other colony a clan of uber-rodents that are more vicious than those in Willard. The New York Times reported that Frank Albert of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionalry Anthropology has convinced Dr. Belyaev to loan him a few rats from each of his strains to look for the genetic differences between the two closely bred colonies. (more…)