Mouse Utopia

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

In the late 1960s, John B. Calhoun placed four breeding pairs of mice into a Mouse Utopia, free of predators and full of food and water.

The population grew exponentially — for a while. For the first 620 days, the population doubled every 55 days. Then, the doubling slowed down. Then, growth stopped, and the dysfunction began.

In the original paper, Death Squared: The Explosive Growth and Demise of a Mouse Population, Calhoun draws these conclusions:

The results obtained in this study should be obtained when customary causes of mortality become markedly reduced in any species of mammal whose members form social groups. Reduction of bodily death (i.e. ‘the second death’) culminates in survival of an excessive number of individuals that have developed the potentiality for occupying the social roles characteristic of the species. Within a few generations all such roles in all physical space available to the species are filled. AT this time, the continuing high survival of many individuals to sexual and behavioural maturity culminates in the presence of many young adults capable of involvement in appropriate species-specific activities. However, there are few opportunities for fulfilling theses potentialities. In seeking such fulfilment they compete for social role occupancy with the older established members of the community. This competition is so severe that it simultaneously leads to the nearly total breakdown of all normal behaviour by both the contestors and the established adults of both sexes. Normal social organization (i.e. ‘the establishment’) breaks down, it ‘dies’.

So far, that sounds almost like Peter Turchin’s notion of elite overproduction.

Calhoun continues:

Young born during such social dissolution are rejected by their mothers and other adult associates. This early failure of social bonding becomes compounded by interruption of action cycles due to the mechanical interference resulting from the high contact rate among individuals living in a high density population. High contact rate further fragments behaviour as a result of the stochastics of social interactions which demand that, in order to maximize gratification from social interaction, intensity and duration of social interaction must be reduced in proportion to the degree that the group size exceeds the optimum. Autistic-like creatures, capable only of the most simple behaviours compatible with physiological survival, emerge out of this process. Their spirit has died (‘the first death’). They are no longer capable of executing the more complex behaviours compatible with species survival. The species in such settings die.

You may be wondering about his references to the first death and the second death. They’re Biblical references — with which he opens his scientific paper — in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1973:

I shall largely speak of mice, but my thoughts are on man, on healing, on life and its evolution. Threatening life and evolution are the two deaths, death of the spirit and death of the body. Evolution, in terms of ancient wisdom, is the acquisition of access to the tree of life. This takes us back to the white first horse of the Apocalypse which with its rider set out to conquer the forces that threaten the spirit with death. Further in Revelation (ii.7) we note: ‘To him who conquers I will grant to eat the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God’ and further on (Rev. xxii.2): ‘The leaves of the tree were for the healing of nations.’


Anyway, the Mouse Utopia experiment is usually interpreted in terms of social stresses related to overcrowding, but, Bruce Charlton points out, there’s another explanation:

But Michael A Woodley suggests that what might be going on is mutation accumulation, and deleterious genes generating a wide range of maladaptive pathologies, incrementally accumulating with each generation; and rapidly overwhelming and destroying the population before any beneficial mutations could emerge to ‘save; the colony from extinction.

So the bizarre behaviours seen especially in Phase D — such as the male ‘beautiful ones’ who appeared to be healthy and spent all their time self grooming, but were actually inert, unresponsive, unintelligent, uninterested in reproduction — are not adaptations to crowing, but maladaptive outcomes of a population sinking under the weight of mutations.

The reason why mouse utopia might produce so rapid and extreme a mutation accumulation is that wild mice naturally suffer very high mortality rates from predation.

Boas Wasn’t Boasian

Tuesday, July 29th, 2014

When anthropologist Franz Boas died in 1942, his Boasian school had been defined by Ruth Benedict, in her book Patterns of Culture:

The word “define” may surprise some readers. Wasn’t Boas a Boasian? Not really. For most of his life he believed that human populations differ innately in their mental makeup. He was a liberal on race issues only in the sense that he considered these differences to be statistical and, hence, no excuse for systematic discrimination. Every population has capable individuals who should be given a chance to rise to the limits of their potential.

He changed his mind very late in life when external events convinced him of the need to fight “racism,” at that time a synonym for extreme nationalism in general and Nazism in particular. In 1938, he removed earlier racialist statements from his second edition of The Mind of Primitive Man, and the next year Ruth Benedict wrote Race: Science and Politics to show that racism was more than a Nazi aberration, being in fact an ingrained feature of American life. Both of them saw the coming European conflict as part of a larger war.

This is one reason why the war on racism did not end in 1945. Other reasons included a fear that extreme nationalism would lead to a second Hitler and a Third World War. How and why was never clear, but the fear was real. The two power blocs were also competing for the hearts and minds of emerging nations in Asia and Africa, and in this competition the West felt handicapped. How could it win while defining itself as white and Christian? The West thus redefined itself in universal terms and became just as committed as the Eastern bloc to converting the world to its way of life. Finally, the rhetoric of postwar reconstruction reached into all areas of life, even in countries like the U.S. that had emerged unscathed from the conflict. This cultural reconstruction was a logical outcome of the Second World War, which had discredited not just Nazism but also nationalism in general, thereby leaving only right-wing globalism or left-wing globalism. Ironically, this cultural change was weaker in the communist world, where people would remain more conservative in their forms of sociality.

Ruth Benedict backed this change. She felt that America should stop favoring a specific cultural tradition and instead use its educational system to promote diversity. To bring this about, she had to reassure people that a journey through such uncharted waters would not founder on the shoals of unchanging human nature.

The Illusion of Intelligence

Monday, July 28th, 2014

Maybe the reason that scientists are having a hard time creating artificial intelligence, Scott Adams suggests, is because human intelligence is an illusion:

You can’t duplicate something that doesn’t exist in the first place. I’m not saying that as a joke. Most of what we regard as human intelligence is an illusion.

I will hedge my claim a little bit and say human intelligence is mostly an illusion because math skills are real, for example. But a computer can do math. Language skills are real too, but a computer can understand words and sentence structure. In fact, all of the parts of intelligence that are real have probably already been duplicated by computers.

So what parts of intelligence are computers failing to duplicate? Answer: The parts that only LOOK like intelligence to humans but are in fact just illusions.

For example, science knows that we make decisions before the rational parts of our brains activate. So if you make a computer that thinks first and then decides, you haven’t duplicated human intelligence. If you want your computer to think like people it has to start with an irrational set of biases, make decisions based on those irrational biases then rationalize it after the fact in ways that observers think are stupid. But no one would build such a useless computer, or even try.

I laughed about the recent reports of a computer that passed the Turing test by pretending to be a teenager that was such an airhead jerk that he never answered questions directly. That fooled at least some of the observers into thinking a real teen was behind the curtain instead of a computer. In other words, the researchers duplicated human “intelligence” by making the computer a non-responsive idiot. Nailed it!

This Tree Is Growing 40 Different Kinds Of Fruit At Once

Friday, July 25th, 2014

This single colorful tree grows 40 different varieties of peaches, plums, apricots, nectarines, cherries, and even almonds:

Chip-Grafted Tree with 40 Varieties

After sculptor Sam Van Aken bought a failing orchard in upstate New York full of hundreds of different fruit trees, he began the pain-staking process of grafting several of the different varieties together into one tree. Six years later, the result is this 40-fruit bearing tree (which includes some heirloom varieties that are centuries old) that you can see if full bloom above.

Chimps Like African Beats

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

Research has shown that chimps don’t like human music — but those studies all used Western music:

“Although Western music, such as pop, blues and classical, sound different to the casual listener, they all follow the same musical and acoustic patterns. Therefore, by testing only different Western music, previous research has essentially replicated itself,” the authors wrote. The study was published in APA’s Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition.

When African and Indian music was played near their large outdoor enclosures, the chimps spent significantly more time in areas where they could best hear the music. When Japanese music was played, they were more likely to be found in spots where it was more difficult or impossible to hear the music. The African and Indian music in the experiment had extreme ratios of strong to weak beats, whereas the Japanese music had regular strong beats, which is also typical of Western music.

“Chimpanzees may perceive the strong, predictable rhythmic patterns as threatening, as chimpanzee dominance displays commonly incorporate repeated rhythmic sounds such as stomping, clapping and banging objects,” said de Waal.

Lying Commies

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

An experiment last year tested Germans’ willingness to lie for personal gain:

Some 250 Berliners were randomly selected to take part in a game where they could win up to €6 ($8).

The game was simple enough. Each participant was asked to throw a die 40 times and record each roll on a piece of paper. A higher overall tally earned a bigger payoff. Before each roll, players had to commit themselves to write down the number that was on either the top or the bottom side of the die. However, they did not have to tell anyone which side they had chosen, which made it easy to cheat by rolling the die first and then pretending that they had selected the side with the highest number.


The authors found that, on average, those who had East German roots cheated twice as much as those who had grown up in West Germany under capitalism. They also looked at how much time people had spent in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The longer the participants had been exposed to socialism, the greater the likelihood that they would claim improbable numbers of high rolls.

(Hat tip to our Slovenian Guest.)

Differences between Organic and Non-Organic Food

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

A new study finds significant differences between organic and non-organic food:

The study, funded jointly by the European Framework 6 programme and the Sheepdrove Trust, found that concentrations of antioxidants such as polyphenolics were between 18-69% higher in organically-grown crops. Numerous studies have linked antioxidants to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers.

Substantially lower concentrations of a range of the toxic heavy metal cadmium were also detected in organic crops (on average 48% lower).

Nitrogen concentrations were found to be significantly lower in organic crops. Concentrations of total nitrogen were 10%, nitrate 30% and nitrite 87% lower in organic compared to conventional crops. The study also found that pesticide residues were four times more likely to be found in conventional crops than organic ones.

Ecological Imperialism

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Environmental history‘s popularity derives from progressive political concerns. This is unfortunate, T. Greer notes:

There are few fields whose findings have such a clear and wide ranging impact on every other aspect of human civilization. The rise and fall of dynasties, the great deeds of armies and generals, the wealth and poverty of nations, and the daily life of men and women across human history were molded by the ecological setting in which they occurred.

A book I often recommend to those who doubt that environmental history is essential to making sense of human civilization is Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Over the last three decades a torrent of books and articles have been written to explain why the West was able to rise above ‘the rest’ and establish global supremacy. While of the same vein as these works, the question that animates Ecological Imperialism is slightly different: why were Europeans so successful at reproducing European society (and completely displacing the previous inhabitants) of some locales but unable to accomplish this same feat in other locations? Why were white settlers in North America, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, and South Africa fantastically more successful than their fellow colonists in Brazil, Mozambique, Panama, or New Guinea?

The answer, says Crosby, is ecology. European expansion was not just a movement of peoples, but of entire environments. For settlers to survive and thrive they must be able to secure food, construct buildings, and move about from place to place. European civilization allowed Europeans to do this on a scale new to human history, but the successes of Western civilization cannot be separated from the environment from which they sprang. Its great cities, armies, and ships were ultimately built upon a unique suite of European flora and fauna. When transplanted far from their homeland these alien organisms do better in some lands than in others. Places where climate and local disease prove hostile to European biota, like central Africa, are places where Western imperialists could only establish an ephemeral presence. Places like Brazil or Mexico, less deadly to European life but unsuitable for large-scale colonization without adopting indigenous crops and farming techniques, produced creole cultures that mixed European and Amerindian traditions. In Australia, New Zealand, North America, and the South African coastline the only environmental constraint European settlers faced was distance. The geography, climate, and ecology of these places were perfect for European biota, allowing them to displace native life without conscious effort.

The displacement was complete and utter. American readers may be surprised to find out how much of America’s ‘natural and wild’ wilderness is made of European aliens of recent import. Sparrows, starlings, house flies, honeybees, garden snails, earthworms, common rats, white clovers, dandelions, Kentucky blue-grass, stinging nettles, knot-grass, broadleaf plantains, Bermuda grass, periwinkles, mayweed, ground ivy, knapweed, milk thistles and almost every type of grass you can find east of the Mississippi originated in Europe and came to the United States in the two centuries after 1650. And that is just a small sample of the hundreds of plants and animals that came to America along with the Europeans. What started as a few alien weeds accidentally carried across the sea grew to dominate entire ecosystems. By 1940 an ecological survey in Southern California could report that “63% of herbaceous vegetation in the grassland types, 66% in the woodland, and 54% in the chaparral” were naturalized plants.

The expansion of European biota across the land was not simply a consequence of European migration. In most cases it was an essential precursor to large-scale European immigration itself. European colonization of New Zealand’s South Island is a case in point. The first settlers in New Zealand did not believe that sheep could ever prosper there, for both islands, being carpeted by ferns or covered with dense forest, had no grass to speak of and nothing sheep could survive on. Initial attempts to remedy the situation by introducing flowering plants to New Zealand failed. The plants would grow but could not reproduce: New Zealand had no insect species adapted to pollinate them! It was not until settlers brought honeybees to the islands that the situation changed, leading to an explosion of European plants across both islands. The new grasses and clovers were perfect feed for English sheep, and it was not long before the sheep had reached such numbers that they became one of New Zealand’s chief exports and an economic pull for more migrants.

Ecological Imperialism does sound comically left-wing, doesn’t it?

Cool It in the Bedroom

Monday, July 21st, 2014

Cool it in the bedroom, a new study recommends:

For the new study, published in June in Diabetes, researchers affiliated with the National Institutes of Health persuaded five healthy young male volunteers to sleep in climate-controlled chambers at the N.I.H. for four months. The men went about their normal lives during the days, then returned at 8 every evening. All meals, including lunch, were provided, to keep their caloric intakes constant. They slept in hospital scrubs under light sheets.

For the first month, the researchers kept the bedrooms at 75 degrees, considered a neutral temperature that would not prompt moderating responses from the body. The next month, the bedrooms were cooled to 66 degrees, a temperature that the researchers expected might stimulate brown-fat activity (but not shivering, which usually begins at more frigid temperatures). The following month, the bedrooms were reset to 75 degrees, to undo any effects from the chillier room, and for the last month, the sleeping temperature was a balmy 81 degrees. Throughout, the subjects’ blood-sugar and insulin levels and daily caloric expenditures were tracked; after each month, the amount of brown fat was measured.

The cold temperatures, it turned out, changed the men’s bodies noticeably. Most striking, after four weeks of sleeping at 66 degrees, the men had almost doubled their volumes of brown fat. Their insulin sensitivity, which is affected by shifts in blood sugar, improved. The changes were slight but meaningful, says Francesco S. Celi, the study’s senior author and now a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. “These were all healthy young men to start with,” he says, “but just by sleeping in a colder room, they gained metabolic advantages” that could, over time, he says, lessen their risk for diabetes and other metabolic problems. The men also burned a few more calories throughout the day when their bedroom was chillier (although not enough to result in weight loss after four weeks). The metabolic enhancements were undone after four weeks of sleeping at 81 degrees; in fact, the men then had less brown fat than after the first scan.

The message of these findings, Celi says, is that you can almost effortlessly tweak your metabolic health by turning down the bedroom thermostat a few degrees.

A Woman Wants It All

Monday, July 21st, 2014

Spandrell recently found “a very neat paper on sex relations” — Women’s Mating Strategies, published in Evolutionary Anthropology — and decided “to pull an Isegoria and silently quote some pieces of the paper over several posts” — starting with this:

What does a woman want? The traditional evolutionist’s answer to Freud’s famous query is that a woman’s extensive investment in each child implies that she can maximize her fitness by restricting her sexual activity to one or at most a few high-quality males. Because acquiring resources for her offspring is of paramount importance, a woman will try to attract wealthy, high-status men who are willing and able to help her. She must be coy and choosy, limiting her attentions to men worthy of her and emphasizing her chastity so as not to threaten the paternity confidence of her mate.

The lady has been getting more complicated of late, however. As Sarah Hrdy predicted, we now have evidence that women, like other female primates, are also competitive, randy creatures. Women have been seen competing with their rivals using both physical aggression and more subtle derogation of competitors. While they are still sometimes coy and chaste, women have also been described recently as sexy and sometimes promiscuous creatures, manipulating fatherhood by the timing of orgasm, and using their sexuality to garner resources from men.

The real answer to Freud’s query, of course, is that a woman wants it all: a man with the resources and inclination to invest, and with genes that make him attractive to other women so that her sons will inherit his success. Her strategies for attaining these somewhat conflicting aims, and her success in doing so, are shaped by her own resources and options and by conflicts of interest with men and other women.

The User Interface to Reality

Sunday, July 20th, 2014

Scott Adams (Dilbert) was raised as a Methodist and was a believer until age eleven:

Then I lost faith and became an annoying atheist for decades. In recent years I’ve come to see religion as a valid user interface to reality. The so-called “truth” of the universe is irrelevant because our tiny brains aren’t equipped to understand it anyway.

Our human understanding of reality is like describing an elephant to a space alien by saying an elephant is grey. That is not nearly enough detail. And you have no way to know if the alien perceives color the same way you do. After enduring your inadequate explanation of the elephant, the alien would understand as much about elephants as humans understand about reality.

In the software world, user interfaces keep human perceptions comfortably away from the underlying reality of zeroes and ones that would be incomprehensible to most of us. And the zeroes and ones keep us away from the underlying reality of the chip architecture. And that begs a further question: What the heck is an electron and why does it do what it does? And so on. We use software, but we don’t truly understand it at any deep level. We only know what the software is doing for us at the moment.

Religion is similar to software, and it doesn’t matter which religion you pick. What matters is that the user interface of religious practice “works” in some sense. The same is true if you are a non-believer and your filter on life is science alone. What matters to you is that your worldview works in some consistent fashion.

If you’re deciding how to fight a disease, science is probably the interface that works best. But if you’re trying to feel fulfilled, connected, and important as you navigate life, religion seems to be a perfectly practical interface. But neither science nor religion require an understanding of reality at the detail level. As long as the user interface gives us what we need, all is good.

Some of you non-believers will rush in to say that religion has caused wars and other acts of horror so therefore it is not a good user interface to reality. I would counter that no one has ever objectively measured the good and the bad of religion, and it would be impossible to do so because there is no baseline with which to compare. We only have one history. Would things have gone better with less religion? That is unknowable.

If you think there might have been far fewer wars and atrocities without religion, keep in mind that some of us grow up to be Josef Stalin, Pol Pot, and Genghis Khan. There’s always a reason for a war. If you add up all the people who died in holy wars, it would be a rounding error compared to casualties from wars fought for other reasons.

What I know for sure is that plenty of people around me are reporting that they find comfort and social advantages with religion. And science seems to support a correlation between believing, happiness, and health. Anecdotally, religion seems to be a good interface.

Today when I hear people debate the existence of God, it feels exactly like debating whether the software they are using is hosted on Amazon’s servers or Rackspace. From a practical perspective, it probably doesn’t matter to the user one way or the other. All that matters is that the user interface does what you want and expect.

There are words in nearly every language to describe believers, non-believers, and even the people who can’t decide. But is there a label for people who believe human brains are not equipped to understand reality so all that matters is the consistency and usefulness of our user interface?

The 1% of scientific publishing

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

A new study finds that very few scientists — fewer than 1% — manage to publish a paper every year:

But these 150,608 scientists dominate the research journals, having their names on 41% of all papers. Among the most highly cited work, this elite group can be found among the co-authors of 87% of papers.


Many of these prolific scientists are likely the heads of laboratories or research groups; they bring in funding, supervise research, and add their names to the numerous papers that result.

Cold Snap in Novosibirsk

Monday, July 14th, 2014

It was extremely hot in Novosibirsk a couple days ago — and then suddenly it wasn’t:

The temperature dropped from 41°C (106°F) to 21°C (70°F), and the rapid drop caused some extreme weather.

Reading to Newborns is Probably Useless

Saturday, July 12th, 2014

The single biggest thing you as an expectant parent can do to have a child with a large vocabulary, Razib Khan reminds us, is to select a mate with a large vocabulary.

Can Video Games Make You Smarter?

Friday, July 11th, 2014

Can video games make you smarter? Yeah, sort of: