Field of Science

Are dolphins the new subhumans?

Reading an article in Science on dolphin brains, Are Dolphins Too Smart for Captivity?, I am glad to finally see someone but myself making the point that the level of sentience is key when deciding how one can deal with other animals. Not the only thing that matters, yet sentience - the ability to feel things - is in my view the most important, simply because hurting is bad for all creatures that feel it. As opposed to plants, which no one (sane) has any problem inflicting damage on for the fear that they would feel pain (though admittedly that doesn't mean I endorse cutting down the rainforest, etc.).
Marino has also teamed with advocacy groups like TerraMar Research, a nonprofit organization based in Seattle, Washington, dedicated to protecting marine wildlife. TerraMar's director, Toni Frohoff, argues that if dolphins are as self-aware as people, they deserve the same basic rights. “The more sentient we see dolphins to be,” she says, “the greater our ethical obligation to them. We can't study them like goldfish or lab rats.”
[Emphasis added.]
And if they really are very sentient, then I agree with Lori Marino that we ought not to keep them in captivity - especially not for entertainment. As I wrote some time ago, perhaps dolphins are the new subhumans?
We don't know for sure, but I think that when dealing with whales and other animals (e.g. elephants and dolphins) that clearly show what we call empathy, sorrow, and compassion in humans, we should assume that they feel it. Otherwise we might make the same mistake as Europeans did with Africans and Native Americans, and end up hurting them to an extent we will come to regret.
Also, for the Faroe Islanders: Pilot Whales are dolphins.

One of Marino's many detractors, Lou Herman, says the following. Please read this carefully and see if you can catch the self-contradiction:
Herman agrees. The godfather of research on dolphin cognition and a contributor to the journal package, he says that the evidence for higher dolphin mortality in captivity versus in the wild is “very, very questionable,” adding that a recent study based on National Marine Fisheries Service data showed no significant difference. “The mortality is horrific in the wild. Fifty percent of wild dolphins bear shark scars—and those are the ones that are still alive.” Marino, he says, reminds him of John Lilly, who eventually railed against captivity as a concentration camp: “Once you mix politics with science, you lose objectivity.”

Herman says he, too, has struggled with the ethics of keeping dolphins in captivity. But he notes that Marino is basing many of her ethical arguments on understanding gained from captive research. “That's the irony of it. How do they know dolphins are intelligent? Because of the captive studies. And now they don't want us to do that research.” Herman says he never could have made his cognitive breakthroughs in the wild. Researchers have to train animals, collect baseline readings, and follow individuals for months or years, he notes: “Science demands controls and replication. What they're proposing is a fantasy.”
Shorter version: When Marino bases her advocacy on science, then she has lost objectivity. When Herman does it by conlcuding that research must go on, then it's fine.

Herman objects that Marino bases her opinion on science (what, pray tell, should she base them on? Faith?). He think it's ironic that Marino's opinion stems from the scientific observation that dolphins are intelligent. What the hell does it matter how it is discovered? Just because it is discovered through science, then this way of doing science is forever safe? That people die when you shoot a bullet through their brains was based on the observation of shooting a bullet through a head... So Herman would label advocacy against shooting people in the head as ironic?

Yes, to do science (though not all science), one has to repeat experiments. But that does not dictate that we must do the science. If we wanted to know what the effect would be putting babies in microwave ovens, then would Herman also say that science demands that we replicate? That line of argument is so asinine that it would never work for experiment with humans, and yet for dolphins it is somehow okay.

So, dolphins researchers are divided on this issue. However, when dolphins are just slaughtered, then at least they can stand together:
Reiss, who continues to work with dolphins in captivity—a position that drove Marino to stop speaking to her in 2009—doesn't support Marino's movement, arguing that there's still value in captive research. But Reiss does think dolphin researchers can find common ground. Now at Hunter College in New York City, she is spearheading a campaign to stop the bloody dolphin hunts in Taiji, Japan, for example. Marino joined this effort, as did scientists on both sides of the captivity debate. Reiss and others who support captive research also believe that many zoos and aquariums should improve their dolphin facilities. Everyone wants the best for these animals, Reiss says: “To me, the biggest thing is to keep the knowledge coming, whether they're in captivity or in the wild.”
And that's a fine thing. Those dolphin killers need to be stopped, and I'm glad to hear that they all agree with that. However, Reiss' comment that the biggest thing is to keep the knowledge coming irrespective of how that knowledge is found is just as asinine as Herman's comment above. Would Reiss think so even if we one day were to - very hypothetically - learn how to communicate with dolphins, and they told us how miserable they are in captivity?

I am not saying I am certain that dolphins are miserable or suffering in captivity. I am merely saying that if they are, then we should stop keeping them.

Evolution is wrong, unproven and a blasphemy

Here's an imam in London who spoke out saying that evolution is not incompatible with the Koran, and then retracted his views because of threats against his life.
Recently you retracted your views because of the outrage they caused. Could you explain?

My retraction was saying that I misjudged how to go about explaining these things. Sooner or later someone will have to address the issue of evolution - it's a no-go area, especially with the clerics - but I'm abandoning my attempt to reconcile it with the Koran until things settle down. I am not willing to risk my life over this issue.
Good for him, I suppose. I would have made the same choice. It's just that it's a freakin' England! Why is there even the need?
How common is the creationist position among Muslims?

It is the default position. Most of us are taught that evolution is wrong, unproven and a blasphemy. A lot of people enjoy science programmes on TV such as those by David Attenborough, but they tend to say he's an unbeliever so we can't trust him.
Couple that with fanatical righteousness and a penchant for violence, and this is the result.

Doing science vs. writing science

These days I am writing up a paper on some metagenomics research I have been doing while at Michigan State. It is hard and takes time. For me. Not so for everyone that I know, and that's good for them, because writing is an essential part of being a scientist*. Doing the research alone is not enough - writing about it is of course part of the process.

However, it has made me think that maybe this situation is not the best of all possible worlds. Rather, I find that I am better at making models and analyzing data than anything else, while some other colleagues are really good writers. So, why shouldn't we split the tasks among us? Someone collects the data, I do the analysis, and someone third writes up the manuscripts. That would suit me just fine.

The analyst is always first author, right?

* By the way, I like to say 'scientist' rather than researcher. I once conducted a poll asking random people which term they would prefer, and the one airport security person I asked said that he liked 'researcher' better, because 'scientist' made you think of 'evil'.

Lars von Trier is a Nazi

Go to Politiken (scroll one page down for the movie) and see this clip of a press conference Lars von Trier gave about his new film Melancholia.

He says that he sympathizes a bit with Hitler, and that he is a Nazi. von Trier (that's pronounced 'fun', btw) is trying to make a joke with some truth in it. It's a very Danish thing to do, and a very Danish way to do it. Something that most Americans cannot understand. Look at Kirten Dunst. She is so uncomfortable that at one point she even leans over and says something to von Trier (maybe "time to shut the fuck up!") that makes him object that he is trying to make a point.

Granted, I cringed as well, but not because he talk about being a Nazi in order to make some point, but because his delivery was pathetic.

Also in video: why did Newt Gingrich say "Nice to live in a free country"?

Is it just me or did he really mean it's a bugger to live in a free country?

Update 5/24/11:

von Trier has released this statement:

"In my opinion, freedom of speech, in all its shapes, is part of the basic human rights. However, my comments during the festival’s press conference were unintelligent, ambiguous and needlessly hurtful.

My intended point was that the potential for extreme cruelty, or the opposite, lies within every human being, whatever nationality, ethnicity, rank or religion. If we only explain historical disasters with the cruelty of individuals we destroy the possibility of understanding the human mechanisms, which in turn are necessary in order to avoid any future crimes against humanity."

Which I find very true.

Again, homosexuality is not a choice

New research strongly suggests that if human sexuality isn't determined before birth, then at least it happens shortly after. That is, way before any "lifestyle" choices can be made.
A group of 90 healthy gay and heterosexual adults, men and women, were scanned by the Karolinska Institute scientists to measure the volume of both sides, or hemispheres, of their brain.

When these results were collected, it was found that lesbians and heterosexual men shared a particular "asymmetry" in their hemisphere size, while heterosexual women and gay men had no difference between the size of the different halves of their brain.

In other words, structurally, at least, the brains of gay men were more like heterosexual women, and gay women more like heterosexual men.

A further experiment found that in one particular area of the brain, the amygdala, there were other significant differences.
In heterosexual men and gay women, there were more nerve "connections" in the right side of the amygdala, compared with the left.

The reverse, with more neural connections in the left amygdala, was the case in homosexual men and heterosexual women.
Homosexuality is not a choice. But we already knew that, because no one can say that they chose to be heterosexual at some age.

But, even if it was a choice, that would be their choice.

Oh, and, see this post by someone who knows statistics well, and found that something was amiss with the original paper.

Rapture May 21st - save your pets

Apparently the (next) Rapture is May 21st.

But what of your pets? They are not likely going with, so are they just to starve in you absence? No, they aren't, at least if you pay up $135 in advance (!) to a company of atheists who are as unlikely to be taken as your pets.
In 2009, he launched Eternal Earth-Bound Pets USA. Centre guarantees that if or when the Rapture comes he or one of his 44 contractors in 26 states, including Washington, will drive to your home within 24 hours, collect your dog, cat, bird, rabbit or small caged mammal, and adopt it. (Rapture rescue services for horses, camels, llamas and donkeys are limited to New Hampshire, Vermont, Idaho and Montana.)

The cost is $135, plus $20 per additional animal. Payable upfront, of course, and good for 10 years.

"Right now, we have over 250 clients," said Centre, 62, who is retired and pens anti-religion books under the name Dromedary Hump.

Centre says he has carefully screened all the rescuers. They have to love animals, of course, but just as important is that they don't love Jesus. For obvious reasons, they're all atheists.

Keller shows robots evolving altruism - Nowak dismisses simulations

ResearchBlogging.orgAs also reported on Panda's Thumb, Laurent Keller's group have evolved robot behavior in a computer (report in Science). The robots were given the ability to share food with each other, and more related groups quickly evolved altruism, sharing food with other robots they were related to. Classical and unsurprising, at least given our theoretical understanding of the evolution of altruism.

However, Martin Nowak, champion of the anti-kin-selection view, in a stunning feat of denial, dismisses the result because they are mere robots.
But Harvard University theortician Martin Nowak is more cautious about drawing conclusions based on computer simulations. Virtual robots are not a stand in for real life, he says. "[The work] tells us nothing about whether Hamilton's rule makes a correct prediction for actual biological systems," he says.
If you don't think that's ironic, then you don't know much about Nowak's work. Nowak mainly uses mathematics to make inference and draw conclusions about "actual biological systems". In my book, robots that actual do stuff seems much closer to biology than equations.

That being said, as I've previously noted, I am personally agnostic about the role of kin-selection in group selection.
altruism quickly evolved in the simulation, with greater food-sharing in groups where robots were more related, the researchers report online today in PLoS Biology.
Yes, but the fact that individuals groups that are more altruistic are related begs the question of causality. Did altruism evolve because they were related, or did groups of related individuals evolve because they were altruistic? In a situation like the one by Keller's group, these two scenarios may be inseparable. Is there another way to test what comes first, altruism or relatedness? Or rather, can we get altruism in groups of no relatedness?

Check out some other cool robots.

Waibel, M., Floreano, D., & Keller, L. (2011). A Quantitative Test of Hamilton's Rule for the Evolution of Altruism PLoS Biology, 9 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000615

Grow up, Americans!

Seriously, Americans. What is this infatuation you have with your founding fathers?

Whenever Americans from the right of the political spectrum (which, btw, is far right compared to normal countries*) insist that America is a Christian country, they turn to the founding fathers to prove their point. And when Americans from the left of the spectrum (why is quite far to the right compared to normal countries**) counter that it is not, then they too turn to the Constitution. Fair enough, you might say. It is the law, after all (at least the Constitution is, which says nothing about America being a Christian nation: We The People ring a bell?). However, it is the law as written centuries ago. Newsflash: it is outdated.

Last night on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart interviewed David Barton about whether America is a Christian nation.

See it here:

Should we*** have prayer be in school? Whenever Americans discuss whether we are a Christian nation, they always look to their dear founding fathers. Of course, they can't agree on what they meant, which makes it extra ridiculous. But the really stupid part is that it is so infantile.

It's infantile because America and Americans have changed, so what the founding fathers said is outdated. It's immature because when discussing how things should be, arguing over what your parents thought they should be really should be beside the point.

Instead, we should be talking about how things should be today based on what the current conditions are. Take guns. Back then it made a lot of sense to write into law that a militia should be allowed to carry guns. The threat from governments was real, and guns weren't used to kill schoolchildren. Today, there is no threat from the government, despite conspiracy theories originating on the stupid right side of the political aisle. And guns aren't muskets that take minutes to load, but things that the British could have won the war with had they had just five men armed with them. And they are used mainly for killing schoolchildren. So, allowing everybody to buy guns is stupid, so the freaking Constitution needs to be changed. It is outdated.

Completely ignoring the notorious discussion about many of the founding fathers not really being religious, letting your forefathers dictate how you should live centuries hence is puerile. It's tantamount to tradition. Eeew! Tradition is one of my favorite hating words. Tradition means doing something just because people did so in the past. Tradition is eating lutefisk because your parents did it. Tradition means not thinking for yourself. Which is something Americans excel at.

Time to grow up, Americans!

* Yes, normal countries, such as those where people care for each other by paying taxes in order to provide universal health care and the sale of guns are restricted to hunting rifles - for hunters.

** No, we are not talking about communism, you ignorant tools.

*** I say 'we' deliberately. While I am not American myself, I have lived here for most of my adult life, and my children go to school here, so it matters to me, too.