Saturday, April 28, 2012

A gene at your fingertips

A gene involved in vibration sensing in the skin.

There has been something of a quiet revolution in the biology of human perception. The sense of self now seems far more complicated and constructed than we previously realized. The five senses are only the beginning of a much more complex system of senses plus cognition that situates us in the world, seeing, tasting, and hearing- yes, but also, gyroscoping, sensing muscle and tendon tone, empath-ing, and, generally, feeling what is going on at many levels.

In the skin, we have numerous sensor and nerve systems, including, hot, cold, heavy pressure, light pressure, sustained pressure, and pain (damage and inflammation), involving over seven different sensory cells or structures, some of which overlap in function, creating quite a menagerie for the physiologist.

A recent paper told a remarkable story of one of these mechanoreceptor structures, a gene that is essential for its development, and the discovery of people missing this gene, with a defect in vibration sensation.

One Pacinian corpuscle, abnormally enlarged.
The Pacinian corpuscle is a 1mm onion-like blob in the skin composed of layers of cells and gels surrounding a nerve ending. It responds to rapid vibration, (40 Hz to 500 Hz), as might come from rubbing a rough surface, potentiated by the ridges of our fingerprints. The researchers were studying genes turned on in the developing mouse nervous system when they saw a gene called c-Maf expressed in the neurons that extend from the spinal cord to several skin sensory structures. They were interested in this gene because it is a member of a family of regulatory genes (which turn other genes on/off) known to have roles in sensory structure and peripheral nervous system development.

This particular gene, however, was only known to participate in eye development, so seeing it expressed in early embryonic sensory nerves was a surprise. I'll note here that this is a reason I would never say that this or any other gene is the gene "for" vibration sensing, or Pacinian corpuscle development, etc. Any biological structure of any complexity is built by many many cooperating genes, and most genes conversely collaborate in several or many biological processes, this being how a small genome of 24,000 genes gives rise to the unimaginable complexity that is us.

Indeed, this gene has other roles in development that are currently unknown, since its complete deletion is lethal in mice. So the researchers created a special genome mutation where the c-Maf gene would be destroyed at a pre-determined stage of development in only a few places, by hooking up a killing gene (cre recombinase) to a promoter from another embryonic-specific gene. The resulting mice were viable into adulthood, though with a few coordination problems. They achieved their point of eliminating expression in sensory nerves, with dramatic alterations in the nerves that feed the Pacinian as well as some other corpuscles

Sensory function in these mice was also impaired, as they found by eavesdropping on nerve firing in response to physical stimulation of the mouse's skin. And finally for the mice, they saw dramatic defects in the Pacinian corpuscles themselves.

Defects in vibration-sensing Pacinian corpuscles in mice lacking the c-Maf gene. Note both fewer corpuscles and the rough shape of those remaining.

Other touch sensory structures, like the Meisnerian corpuscles, where affected, with altered function as well, but the most dramatic effects appeared to be in the Pacinian system.

Turning to humans, the researchers knew that c-Maf mutations exist as a rare genetic disease in humans, (with the gene partially defective; not completely dead), causing cataracts and other eye problems. (Not to mention being an oncogene as well.) They figured on the basis of their mouse results that a subtle defect in touch sensation might also be present, though never reported. The last figure shows that this is the case, as the threshold for the sensation of high-frequency vibration, to which the Pacinian corpuscles are particularly sensitive, is quite blunted, with almost ten-fold less sentitivity in the optimal range of ~250Hz.

Humans with a cMaf mutation and associated genetic syndrome also show defects in touch sensation of high-frequency vibration dependent on the Pacinian corpuscles.

The complexity of our sensory apparatus is remarkable. Slowly elaborated over eons of evolution, we are covered with high-tech instrumentation by which we know and enjoy the world. This paper is one of those small bricks in the edifice of knowing just how that experience comes to pass.

"Economic theory also predicts that for a large enough sum of money there will be economists who will say that the stimulus did not work regardless of what they actually believe to be true."

Saturday, April 21, 2012

I sing, you sing, we all sing, with feeling

On the broad biological origins of music.

Why do we love music?  Is it uniquely human? Where did it develop from, and why do magical chords strike us with such immediate emotion? Why is there such a wide and evocative palette available in music?
"As neither the enjoyment nor the capacity of producing musical notes are faculties of the least direct use to man in reference to his ordinary habits of life, they must be ranked amongst the most mysterious with which he is endowed. They are present, though in a very rude and as it appears almost latent condition, in men of all races, even the most savage ... Whether or not the half-human progenitors of man possessed, like the before-mentioned gibbon, the capacity of producing, and no doubt of appreciating, musical notes, we have every reason to believe that man possessed these faculties at a very remote period, for singing and music are extremely ancient arts."
—Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), from Wallin, Merker, and Brown.

I think the current theories on the origin of music are a little weak, whether for sexual selection among humans showing off, mother-infant bonding, or cultural coordination, etc. They certainly address parts of the story, but fail to put humans into a properly deep evolutionary relationship with other animals.

"There are at least three possible interactive theories for the evolution of music and speech: that music evolved from speech, that speech evolved from music, or that both evolved from a common ancestor. As Erich von Hornbostel wrote in 1905: “The close correlation between language, music, and dance has already occupied the attention of earlier theoreticians. Spencer (1857) considered singing to be emotionally intensified speaking; for Darwin (1871), it was the inherited and mellowed remnant of the courting periods of our animal ancestors, from which language derived at a later stage; Richard Wagner (1852) believed that language and music issued from a common source, that of speech- music” (p. 270). Unfortunately, despite the age of this issue, it is still too early to predict its resolution."  ...  "Second, several authors link music’s adaptive role to its ability to promote coordination, cohesion, and cooperation at the level of the social group." from Wallin, Merker, and Brown.

The fact is that all animals above a certain low level live in a world of sound, especially including amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Music touches our emotions most immediately and forcefully, and since emotion is the motive force for life, it stands to reason that there is something about music and its relatives that is not just ornamental, but evolutionarily important not just for humans, but through a very long evolutionary history.

So first off, to ask about the origin of music in humans is like asking about the origin of vision in humans. It is the wrong question, because music, and especially its emotional appreciation, far predates human evolution. Whales sing, birds sing, wolves sing, frogs sing. Even crickets and many other insects sing. We all sing.

Walking through a forest, there can be a cacophany of animal sounds, each expressing some feeling or idea, each meant to be heard by someone else, whether friend or enemy. And I think it is fair to posit that each of these sounds carries emotional power. This is not just anthropomorphism, but simple recognition that animals have fully functional emotions that they express in ways that we might not readily appreciate, but which function much the same way they do for us- as the connecting rod between cognition and action.

When a cow moos, it is expressing a feeling, and its point is not entertainment, but to induce a sympathetic feeling, and appropriate response, in other cows. Likewise for all the calls and songs of other animals. The calls within a species can be richly communicative, (chickadees differentiate their warning calls among serveral predators), while the calls meant for other species (cries of attack, or defense) are more broadly dissonant, sure to be understood instinctively by most targets.

Human language is a highly stylized form of singing/calling that has been abstracted to a symbolic communication stream, though heavily supplemented by movement, facial expression, gestures, and complex tonal and rhythmic inflections. I favor theories that human language developed out of a more general musical form of interaction that is common among animals, and which continues to affect us far more immediately than abstract language does.

In sum, music appreciation seems to be a natural capacity common to most animals, evolved out of the clay of sonic math to communicate and evoke emotions both within and across species. The texture of possible sound varies with a species' size, where elephants use infrasound at super-long wavelengths and birds tend to be very high-pitched.

So, why is the communication of emotion so important? Wouldn't it be typically better to keep personal issues to oneself? The suffering of prey animals is often silent for that reason. But generally, any social species needs some way to share feelings, which leads to social connection and support. Ants don't use sound, as far as I am aware, but have about twelve pheromones they use for communication, plus a lot of touchy-feely behaviors. Only with these kinds of  interactions can some know that others are hungry, or danger alarms spread, or food sources get found.

Likewise with musical sounds for other animals, who don't have the infinitely varied symbolic streams humans have via language, but a more limited, though evolutionarily deeper and more directly evocative palette that is musical tones. Social interactions rely on "mirroring"- the empathic experience of what the other is feeling, so that we can come in aid, flee in fear, or collaborate in sex, among many other important activities. And that is what music is about- mirroring in the most powerful way.

As Steven Pinker states, we have made of music, like our other art forms, confected "ice creams" of cognitive overload, which can make it hard to figure out their core appeal and origin. It is more the appreciation of art that needs to be explained than their methods of creation. Visual animals have strong search images and preferences- seeing certain types of landscapes and faces of familiar or high-status individuals. In touch, we love certain textures and warmth. In foods, we love variety, certain textures and tastes. And in music, we enjoy the cycle of warning tension and release, the pathos of deeply felt tragedy, and the reflected jaunty happiness of the composer, all as ways of connecting with others and with our deepest history.

  • Krugman lays out the links between inequality, corruption, and dysfunction. Corruption in its political, economic, and intellectual senses, with added dollops of institutional sclerosis, viciously circular feedback, and the religion of business "confidence".
  • GOP continues its campaign of deregulatory corruption.
  • Report on BP oil spill- things are getting worse, and the dispersants were not such a good idea.
  • Becoming a religion by accident ... scientology.
  • Cringely returns to IBM, as the hollowed-out corporation.
  • Shariah and Islam.. not so bad after all, as long as you ignore central tenets and practices.
  • “This is what heaven would be like if God were real.”
  • "First they came for “hopefully” and we said nothing."
  • Peak oil, going mainstream.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Global epidemic of bullying

... by Islamists and other fundamentalists.

Just when I thought I had mellowed on the religion front, taking a more anthropological, psychological view of the matter as an involuntary and evolutionarily successful form of delusion, an article in The New Republic reminded me all over again why I got into this topic in the first place - rampant, ignorant bullying.

That the US should be undergoing a consciousness-raising about bullying among children in schools is intriguing, when, under the guise of politics and religion, bullying is an enormous international issue as well. Perhaps, like in late colonial times when consciousness of liberty and freedom was honed on the abject slavery in our midst, our raised awareness of Islamism since 9/11 has made us more sensitive to similar phenomena closer to home.

And what is that phenomenon? The use of intimidation to win arguments that could never be won by reason. Apparently, it is simply one of the "deep" beliefs of Islam that Muslims who leave the faith should be killed. Nothing personal! Apparently, it is part of the "deep" beliefs of Islam that women must make themselves into posterboards of patriarchy by veiling, or better yet, burka-ing themselves into oblivion. Apparently, the existence of infidels so enrages the omnipotent Allah that good Muslims can not help but help him out by going on jihad and killing them. Apparently, free speech about the shortcomings of Islam, its founder, gods, etc. are so impolite that Salman Rushdie should be killed. That does turn out to be personal.

What makes people both so righteous and so insecure in their beliefs? What makes them so group-ish? Tribalism is hardly the sole posession of religion, but religion has a peculiarly common and powerful way of combining propositions of cosmic and transformative importance with intellectual foundations empty of any facts or evidence while full of assertions of complete authoritativeness and certainty. Surely you have heard that the Koran has anticipated all the discoveries of modern science?

It is a very special kind of con job, that doesn't on the short term make any difference. Unlike false beliefs about gravity or what is good to eat, false beliefs about the origins of morals or the universe have no terrible immediate impact. And they have the beneficial effect of bonding people who share a harmless story- a narrative of origins and meaning. No problem, right?

Oh, god, what a question! What happens when people are righteously certain about the most important aspects of the universe, but can't really support what they think (if it is conceptualized at all) against the simplest skeptical question? What happens when one's scriptural / religious system is particularly confused and contradictory? What happens when the morals reputed to be so pristinely perfect look, in detail, appalling in their source material and persistently incapable of sponsoring humane societies in the real world?

Well ... there are two common answers. One (typical of liberal temperaments) is to accept the ambiguity of the situation, retain some faith in one's position, and ignore the skeptics & questions or drown them in some sophistry. The other approach, more typical of conservatives and fundamentalists, is to- psychologically speaking- lose it: to shut down questions, lash out at skeptics, and at least close ranks if one can not, perchance, purify the entire society of the contagion of doubt.

Unfortunately, we live in a global society, so this purification process is a rather arduous affair, requiring the terrorism of vast populations outside one's own immediate culture. So the forces of Islam are busy branching out into anti-blasphemy resolutions at the UN, warning killings like 9/11, intimidation of writers and cartoonists far and wide, and ritually broadcast protests inspired by Friday "prayers." Aren't there better things to be angry about?

Not that Christianity should be let off the hook, either. Western societies have proven to be better able to deal with modernity, mostly in spite of Christianity, but certainly with some of its influences echoing still. Yet the conservative, patriarchial, anti-progress, pro-guns and pro-capital punishment party in the US also happens to be the home of hyper-religious Christians, whose top priority seems to be re-establishing a lost patriarchy over the reproductive lives of women. Which party issues threats to secede from the union? Which party threatened to blow up US credit-worthiness? Which party favors bullying other countries over mostly imagined dangers? Which party seeks opportunities to use the coercive powers of the state to push religious projects like ten-commandments monuments, contraception and abortion restrictions, and creationism?

You know the one. Communities have many virtues for us as humans, aside from being essential, and require some amount of discipline and even coercion to perpetuate themselves. One can not live with complete freedom from everything and everyone. Yet the practice of founding communities in bizarre narratives and otherworldly theologies, for all its strengths and occasional virtues, has awful defects as well- ones we need to keep in mind as we fight bullying on all fronts.

P.S. One may ask, from the Islamic perspective, isn't the US the one doing the bullying? Invading countries, killing innocent people from the air, carrying on some kind of weird socio-political crusade to make us all atheist and/or Christian evangelical junk food-eating, TV-watching drones? Fair enough. But is terror really the instrument of US policy, or does it only seem that way when we torture people, bomb civilians, and mess up whole countries? It should be evident that we don't use terror as a matter of policy, but target bullies directly as best we can. It isn't easy. How does one draw the line between defeating bullies and being a bully oneself? Hitler thought that other countries were forcing him into war, since they didn't want to give him the land that he deserved, like Poland, etc. The power of victimization narratives to justify bullying is as common as it is ironic.

I am sure it is self-evident to Muslims that no one should speak ill of them or their religion. But empirically speaking, that has not exactly been the golden road to human prosperity and fulfillment, either in the Islamic world or elsewhere. The West (and Islam too, in its golden age) has found a truly universal political principle, which is that of proportionality and tolerance- that social and especially state coercion must be avoided as far as possible, and employed as minimally as possible, for identifiable, civil / secular ends. That is to say that people should be afforded extensive rights of conscience and self-expression. Whether Afghanistan, say, wants this kind of social tolerance is an internal decision, but serving as a springboard for international terrorist bullies trying to eliminate such rights in other cultures is another matter. Target countries such as the US can't stand idly by, however reluctant to interfere with anyone's self-expression and governance.

The record is pretty clear. After a dismal period in the cold war where the US deposed several democratic governments and suported many authoritarian ones, much to our everlasting shame, the last few decades have witnessed the US typically deposing unquestionable bullies with execrable domestic as well as international records, from Manuel Noriega to Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. Being the most powerful nation in the world, we hardly get any thanks, of course. This is hardly a war on Islam, but a policing of the international scene, as far as we are able, for our own benefit but also that of others, including the oppressed countries themselves, now possibly with the exception of Iraq whose occupation was so catastrophic, and that of Afghanistan, whose "reconstruction" is heading who-knows-whither.

  • Theocratic Christianity still going strong.
  • It would be one thing if Catholics were actually consistent...
  • Yes, conservatives & authoritarians are closed-minded and easily led. But they have high theological intelligence!
  • Becoming one with the archetypes.
  • Monarch butterflies hang out in California.
  • The European crisis stutters on towards long-term decline. Roubini: no growth.
  • Corporatocracy, Gresham's law, and accounting fraud. "... for a looter, the highest return on assets was always a political contribution."
  • More on Minsky- the importance of expectations and psychology.
  • Economics quote of the week, from Bill Mitchell:
"Governments should not worry about deficits."
  • Economics bonus graphic, of economic models and their uniform failure to predict reality (black line).

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Invisible man, in a hoodie

Review of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.

I happened to be reading Invisible Man as the Trayvon Martin story erupted, so I will totally give into temptation and draw some parallels, as a completely unexpert reader and onlooker. The book is wonderful. I think Ellison's greatest accomplishment is in his tone- one of bemusement and evident reasonableness and likeability, even while grappling with the harshest questions of American race relations.

It partakes of magical realism, telling a highly archetypal story in memoir form, filled with episodic drama and occasional actual dreams that heighten the drama still further. The stories range from an idealistic Southern youth forced to box fellow blacks for the obscene entertainment of the local white oligarchy, expulsion from Tuskeegee Institute for inadvertantly opening a trustee's eyes to the underside of black culture, to work in Harlem as a Communist organizer (an archetypally white organization) and a closing affair with a white woman comically drenched with stereotypes about her black "buck." Looking it up online, I was surprised to conclude that it has never been made into a movie. It would make a fantastic movie- deep, dark, humorous, and action-packed. For its time, (1952), it was both stylistically advanced, and politically prophetic, with race riots and themes of black power, foreshadowing events of the 60's.

Why invisible? Ellison's core observation is the universal one of psychological projection- that we deal typically with our images of the other, rather than with the real, actual other person. Lovers are notoriously in love with their idealized object, not with an actual person, and the test of marriage is then whether affection can survive the fleshing out and occasional shocks of reality as the real person gradually elbows his or her way out of the image. Incidentally, self-images are likewise hopelessly stylized and rose-tinted.

But darker projections are just as common, especially of minority groups that have been ritually subjugated, denigrated, and segregated. Blacks in America are so heavily projected upon that they hardly exist in real terms- they are invisible. And for a black person, navigating this treacherous terrain is undoubtedly extremely exhausting in the best of times. The landscape can be played with, but can never be ignored. Barack Obama performed quite the feat of racial jujitsu by inverting the projection in its key points, presenting high intelligence, extreme discipline, and a Cleaver-esque family to disarm marginally sympathetic white onlookers. Yet, even now, roughly one-third of Americans refuse to be disarmed, and entertain the most vitriolic hatred, and dismissal of his legitimacy, despite Obama's diligent impersonation, in office, of a milquetoast Dwight Eisenhower.

All this was acted out in tragic fashion in Florida, with George Zimmerman apparently in the grips of a racist and overly-armed animus towards blacks. Projection meets invisible man, and the invisible man ends up dead. Little of Zimmerman's story holds up. Nor does the "Stand your ground" law provide any legal cover. Zimmerman was not on his own ground, either on his home property or approached where he sat. He stalked the "intruder" on a public street, after being explicitly and officially told not to do so, started a fight, then killed him. The only person standing his ground was Trayvon Martin, not very successfully.

To top it all off, the police and/or the district attorney appear to share these strong projections, regarding Trayvon Martin as invisible, hardly due the benefit of their doubt after their quasi-deputized vigilante was attended to first, emerging as the only survivor telling tales. Obviously, I am shamelessly rushing to judgement based on little evidence. But the story has belatedly erupted because the pattern is so maddeningly typical of the psychological hazards facing, not just those paying the ultimate price for our stereotypes, but all those who drive, walk, drink, and exist ... while black, in the US.

Here are a few choice quotes from the book:

The black doctor / prophet / insane asylum inmate is treating the old white trustee, and speaks of the naive college student driver & narrator:
"'You see,' he said turning to Mr. Norton, 'he has eyes and ears and a good distended African nose, but he fails to understand the simple facts of life. *Understand. Understand? It's worse than that. He registers with his senses but short-circuits his brain. Nothing has meaning. He takes it in but he doesn't digest it. Already he is- well, bless my soul! Behold! a walking zombie! Already he's learned to repress not only his emotions but his humanity. He's invisible, a walking personification of the Negative, the most perfect achievement of your dreams, sir! The mechanical man!' "
"' Poor stumblers, neither of you can see the other. To you he is a mark on the scorecard of your achievement, a thing and not a man; a child or even less- a black amorphous thing. And you, for all your power are not a man to him, but a God, a force-'"

The paint company engine room mechanic, who is black, tells the narrator to keep an eye on the dials:
"You caint forgit down here, 'cause if you do, you liable to blow up something. They got all this machinery, but that ain't everything; we the machines inside the machine."

The narrator has finally had it with his communist organization that cares little about black issues:
"Oh, I'd yes them, but wouldn't I yes them! I'd yes them till they puked and rolled in it. All they wanted of me was one belch of affirmation and I'd bellow it out loud. Yes! Yes!, YES! That was all anyone wanted of us, that we should be heard and not seen, and then heard only in one big optimistic chorus of yassuh, yassuh, yassuh! All right, I's Yea, yea, oui, oui, and si, si and see, see them too; and I'd walk around in their guts with hobnailed boots. Even those super-big shots whom I'd never seen at committee meetings. They wanted a machine? Very well, I'd become a supersensitive confirmer of their misconceptions ..."

"I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest. Or when, even as just now I've tried to articulate exactly what I felt to be the truth. No one was satisfied- not even I. On the other hand, I've never been more loved and appreciated then when I tried to 'justify' and affirm someone's mistaken beliefs; or when I 've tried to give my friends the incorrect, absurd answers they wished to hear. ... But here was the rub: Too often, in order to justify them, I had to take myself by the throat and choke myself until my eyes bulged and my tongue hung out and wagged like the door of an empty house in a high wind. Oh, yes, it made them happy and it made me sick. So I became ill of affirmation ..."

"I'm invisible, not blind."

"Wen Jiabao, meanwhile, who plays the role of a learned, emphatic, and upright Confucian prime minister, has been challenging the other half of Deng consensus -- absolute political control -- from the liberal right. He has continuously articulated the need to limit government power through rule of law, justice, and democratization. To do this, he has drawn on the symbolic legacies of the purged reformist leaders he served in the 1980s, particularly Hu Yaobang, whose name he recently helped to 'rehabilitate' in official discourse. As every Communist Party leader knows, those who want a stake in the country's future must first fight for control of its past."
  • Bonus video- a little virtuoso piano by Errol Garner. A lot, actually.