Saturday, February 14, 2009

Game theory could save the world
By Roger Highfield, Science Editor
09 Jul 2008

New hope that people around the world can work together to combat global warming has come from a new theoretical study.

A team has been using "game theory" - where mathematics is used to capture how people deal with each other - to show that a classic problem that undermines the ability of individuals to cooperate can be overcome, if people are diverse enough, as is the case when it comes to the 6.5 billion citizens of planet Earth.

Working together for the common good is crucial for progress in any society - not least for effectively addressing big issues such as recycling and tackling climate change. But there is a basic problem with how to make the public share responsibility for common problems, such as climate change.

This was most vividly illustrated by Prof Garrett Hardin, of the University of California, Santa Barbara, in his highly influential 1968 paper 'The tragedy of the commons'.

He used the example of a public pasture. Each herdsman will keep adding cows to a common field, because the benefit of an additional cow goes exclusively to the herdsman. Because the cost of overgrazing is shared by all, the pasture will end up ruined.

Mathematical models have confirmed that this is a profound problem, whether for coming together to fight climate change or pay taxes, but today, in the journal Nature, hope for cooperation is raised by Prof Jorge Pacheco of the University of Lisbon, who did the work there with Ms Marta Santos and Dr Francisco Santos from the Free University of Brussels.

Existing mathematical models treat individuals as equivalent, ignoring real-life diversity and population structure. So the team made the mathematics more realistic in this respect.

The team shows that, contrary to expectations, the temptation to cheat ("Why shouldn't I let others pay more for being green?") declines as society becomes more diverse.

Another discovery is that diversity also plays an important role in wealth distribution.

"Cooperation blooms whenever the act of giving is more important than the amount given," said Prof Pacheco.

The most important factor, he said, seems to be that people actually contribute to the public good.

"In particular, the fact that the wealthy minority contributes stimulates the contribution from the rest, who take them as role models," he said.

Prof Pacheco recalled the words of Anna Dreber and Prof Martin Nowak from Harvard University, leading game theorists, who stated that “preserving the global climate is the biggest public good dilemma ever, the one we cannot afford to lose."

Those who resort to punishment are losers
By Roger Highfield, Science Editor
19 Mar 2008
David Rand, Anna Dreber and Martin Nowak who were part of the research team

Taking the law into your own hands is ineffective. Nor is it true that sparing the rod spoils the child, according to a study that shows people who resort to punishment are losers.

These are not the ravings of someone who has been penalised once too often but the conclusion of an eminent group of biologists, economists and mathematicians at Harvard University, led by Prof Martin Nowak.

Earlier work suggested that punishment helps people to cooperate but was only based on people playing one off games, not having to deal with each other again and again.

When a long term relationship is taken into account, "the kind of punishment by people who 'take the law into their own hands' is now proven to be ineffective," says Prof Nowak.

But he adds that the new work focuses on peer punishment, not that meted out by the state. "Sanctioning institutions (such as the state enforcing law) is a different type of punishment, which still needs to be investigated from an evolutionary perspective."

The team bases its conclusions on a mathematical analysis of strategic games. In these games, people are given the choice of making a fair contribution or free loading.

Over the years, some earlier experiments seemed to suggest that cooperation founders without punishment. These observations lead to the bleak conclusion that cooperative societies need peer punishment.

But the new study published in the journal Nature, concludes that the people who engage in costly punishment do not benefit from their behaviour.

Working with the Harvard Business School, Prof Nowak asked 104 college students to take part in a variant of a classic game, called the Prisoner's Dilemma.

In this game people have a choice between cooperation and defection. Cooperation means paying $1 for the other person to receive $3.

Defection means taking away $1 from the other person. In the extended version of the game there is a third option: costly punishment, which means paying $1 for the other person to lose $4.

The study found that those who punished lost out overall, and that punishment bestows no benefit on the group as a whole.

The five top-ranked players never used costly punishment. More successful players would use tit for tat, while players who earned the lowest payoffs punished most often. "Put simply, winners don't punish," says co-author David Rand.

Punishment is to do with telling someone who is boss, or to defend a possession, and not part of the fabric of a society where people cooperate, as was previously thought.

"Punishment can lead to a downward spiral of retaliation, with destructive outcomes for everybody involved. The people with the highest total payoffs do not use costly punishment."

"Costly punishment," the punitive behaviour studied by Prof Nowak and his colleagues, refers to situations where a punisher is willing to incur a cost - whether a financial one or to his reputation - in order to penalise someone else.

Importantly, most real world punishment is costly in one way or another. Punishers are typically driven by anger and not by altruistic motives.

The reason the findings overturn textbook wisdom is that earlier work has "not been on situations where individuals use punishment in the context of ongoing interactions," says co-author Anna Dreber.

"We make the setting more realistic by having subjects play repeated games and introducing costly punishment as one of several options."

The new study shows that punishment is not an effective way to promote cooperation, the glue that holds society together, but probably evolved for other reasons such as establishing dominance and defend ownership.

"Punishment may be a tool for forcing another person to do what you want," Dreber says. "It might have been for those kinds of dominance situations that the use of punishment has evolved."

"Our finding has a very positive message: in an extremely competitive setting, the winners are those who resist the temptation to escalate conflicts, while the losers punish and perish," says Prof Nowak.

This study was supported by the John Templeton Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Jan Wallander Foundation, and billionaire philanthropist Jeffrey Epstein.

Women are less tolerant than men

Women less tolerant of each other than men are, study finds
13 Feb 2009

Women are less tolerant of each other than men are, according to a new study which may explain why some women prefer to have a male boss.
13 Feb 2009

The research, published in the US journal Psychological Science, found that women formed a negative view of their peers much quicker than men did.

The team from Emmanuel College in Boston asked male and female college students to rate their room-mates under different scenarios.

When asked to judge how they would rate their room-mates if they carried out a single fictional act of negative behaviour, after they had been otherwise completely trustworthy, women were far more likely to be critical of them.

Men, on the other hand, were much more tolerant.

Women were also more likely to switch to a new room-mate than men were.

The authors, led by associate professor of psychology Joyce Benenson, concluded that women were harsher on their peers because they expected more from their same-sex relationships than men did.

They wrote: "Women may simply weight negative information more heavily than men do, because negative information disrupts the establishment of intimacy, which serves a more important function in same-sex relationships for women than for men."

While the study did not take place in the workplace itself, it would appear to back up previous surveys that have found women prefer to work for a male boss.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Fossils reveal truth about Darwin's theory


Transitional creatures found include the 'fishibian' and the 'frogamander'
By Robin Lloyd
Feb. 12, 2009

With the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin this week, people around the world are celebrating his role as the father of evolutionary theory. Events and press releases are geared, in part, to combat false claims made by some who would discredit the theory.

One frequently cited "hole" in the theory: Creationists claim there are no transitional fossils, a.k.a. missing links. Biologists and paleontologists, among others, know this claim is false.

As key evidence for evolution and species' gradual change over time , transitional creatures should resemble intermediate species, having skeletal and other body features in common with two distinct groups of animals, such as reptiles and mammals, or fish and amphibians.

These animals sound wild, but the fossil record — which is far from complete — is full of them nonetheless, as documented by Occidental College geologist Donald Prothero in his book "Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters" (Columbia University Press, 2007). Prothero discussed those fossils last month at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, along with transitional fossils that were announced since the book was published, including the "fishibian" and the "frogamander."

At least hundreds, possibly thousands, of transitional fossils have been found so far by researchers. The exact count is unclear because some lineages of organisms are continuously evolving.

Here is a short list of transitional fossils documented by Prothero and that add to the mountain of evidence for Charles Darwin's theory . A lot of us relate most to fossils of life closely related to humans, so the list focuses on mammals and other vertebrates, including dinosaurs.

Mammals, including us

* It is now clear that the evolutionary tree for early and modern humans looks more like a bush than the line represented in cartoons. All the hominid fossils found to date form a complex nexus of specimens, Prothero says, but Sahelanthropus tchadensis, found in 2001 and 2002, threw everyone for a loop because it walked upright 7 million years ago on two feet but is quite chimp-like in its skull size, teeth, brow ridges and face. It could be a common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees, but many paleoanthropologists will remain unsure until more fossils are found. Previously, the earliest ancestor of our Homo genus found in the fossil record dated back 6 million years.

* Most fossil giraffes have short necks and today's have long necks, but anatomist Nikos Solounias of the New York Institute of Technology's New York College of Osteopathic Medicine is preparing a description of a giraffe fossil, Bohlinia, with a neck that is intermediate in length.

* Manatees, also called sea cows, are marine mammals that have flippers and a down-turned snout for grazing in warm shallow waters. In 2001, scientists discovered the fossil of a "walking manatee," Pezosiren portelli, which had feet rather than flippers and walked on land during the Eocene epoch (54.8 million years ago to 33.7 million years ago) in what is now Jamaica. Along with skull features like manatees (such as horizontal tooth replacement, like a conveyor belt), it also had heavy ribs for ballast, showing that it also had an aquatic lifestyle, like hippos.

* Scientists know that mastodons, mammoths and elephants all share a common ancestor, but it gets hard to tell apart some of the earliest members of this group, called proboscideans, going back to fossils from the Oligocene epoch (33.7 million years ago to 23.8 million years ago). The primitive members of this group can be traced back to what Prothero calls "the ultimate transitional fossil," Moeritherium , from the late Eocene of Egypt. It looked more like a small hippo than an elephant and probably lacked a long trunk, but it had short upper and lower tusks, the teeth of a primitive mastodon and ear features found only in other proboscideans.

* The Dimetrodon was a big predatory reptile with a tail and a large sail or fin-back. It is often mistaken for a dinosaur, but it's actually part of our mammalian lineage and more closely related to mammals than reptiles, which is seen in its specialized teeth for stabbing meat and skull features that only mammals and their ancestors had. It probably moved around like a lizard and had a jawbone made of multiple bones, like a reptile...

Twelve deputies with guns drawn sieze less than an ounce of pot and arrest 8 college kids

After a photo of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps smoking pot appeared in the media, a South Carolina Sheriff ordered a major police action.

Has Sheriff in Phelps Pot Case Gone Too Far?
Eight Arrested, Less Than an Ounce of Marijuana Seized
ABC News' Law and Justice Unit
Feb. 12, 2009

Two South Carolina defense attorneys are questioning the motives of Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, who is pursuing criminal charges against eight people who allegedly smoked marijuana with Olympian Michael Phelps.

Authorities have arrested eight people for marijuana possession.

"It is a fascination if not an effort to destroy a public hero," said Joe McCulloch, an attorney for one of the suspects, today on "Good Morning America." "He's the sheriff, not the Terminator!"

Authorities recently executed search warrants at two private homes in Columbia, S.C., and arrested eight people for marijuana possession in connection with an investigation into the photo of Olympic swimmer Phelps holding a bong. Less than an ounce of marijuana was confiscated by sheriff's deputies, sources told ABC News.

"This is ridiculous. This is about college kids smoking pot and in no way justifies 12 officers entering a house with guns drawn to terrorize college kids," said attorney Dick Harpootlian, who is representing another suspect...

Tennesse Valley Authority CEO pay cut; coal ash lawsuit

Settling ponds and ash piles are shown at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Kingston, Tenn., on Monday, Jan. 12. A breach in a containment wall released 1.1 billion gallons of ash and sludge from the plant on Dec. 22, 2008. The Tennessee Valley Authority has been spending $1 million a day since then to clean it up.

TVA board cuts CEO Tom Kilgore’s pay
Former Republican Party chief chosen
The Tennessean
February 12, 2009

The TVA board sliced CEO Tom Kilgore’s potential pay today, eliminating “performance incentives” that could have sent his salary as high as $3.275 million this year.

The board also – in an unusual split vote – elected a new incoming chairman who is fresh out of the National Republican Committee chairmanship. One critic has called it an "overly partisan and tone deaf move."

Kilgore’s salary will now be capped around $1 million, including his base pay and deferred compensation package.

His pay had been particularly controversial with the public who were outraged when the board approved in October what could amount to a 20% raise for him. Residents were struggling to pay electric bills after their rates had soared about 20% in previous months, mainly to cover rising fuel costs.

The board made cutbacks in incentives TVA-wide, as cleanup costs for the Dec. 22 coal ash disaster at TVA’s Kingston power plant reach $31 million.

The price tag is anticipated to rise to $525 million and possibly $825 million, not including the cost of lawsuits, Kilgore told the board.

In other action, the board elected Mike Duncan as its incoming chairman to take over May 18, with four board members in favor and three against.

Duncan is the former head of the Republican National Committee...

A Coal Day in Hell
by Diane G
Dec 26th, 2008

Right as they are on the brink of selling "Clean Coal Technology" to the American Public, Kingston Tennessee gets buried in 300 million tonnes of coal sludge. Its now in the watershed...

Nothing like cadmium in your water cocktail with a nice fat lead stick to swizzle it and a sprinkle of mercury bits on the brown foam topping.

For the sake of a job, you have been poisoning yourselves, your children and grandchildren for a hundred years. How long will the denizens of Tennessee, West Virginia and Kentucky put up with Coal Mining not only for its irresponsible lack of environmental control, when will they figure out its just a bad overall idea, plain and simple?...

TVA found in violation of federal Clean Water Act
February 10th, 2009
by Jennifer Walker-Journey

Following the investigation of the Kingston, Tennessee coal ash impoundment that failed and spilled more than a billion gallons of toxic material on to 300 acres of east Tennessee property, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in violation of the federal Clean Water Act, according to Knoxville Biz.

In a letter released late last week, EPA regional administrator Stanley wrote that the EPA “considers the Kingston spill to be an un-permitted discharge of pollutant in contravention of the Clean Water Act.” The TVA has been ordered to produce a plan to correct the violation as soon as possible and to keep the EPA in the loop with all its data communication with the state Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC).

Officials hope that data that already has been turned in to TDEC and future data will help pinpoint the why the impoundment failed last December, pouring 2.2 million pounds of coal ash onto a rural neighborhood. The coal ash contains toxins that could be hazardous to human health, including arsenic, lead, chromium, manganese and barium...

Monday, February 09, 2009

Diego has no opinion on Darwin's theory of evolution

Diego is 150, living in the Galapagos Islands once again. He must have been born just a few years after Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands.

Voice of San Diego has a great little story about Diego, who used to live at the San Diego Zoo.

Back in the 1950s, kids were allowed to ride the tortoises at the San Diego Zoo. I loved it. Actually, "ride" is probably the wrong word. As I recall, I just got a place to sit. I envied my brother, whose tortoise actually took off across the enclosed area at the Children's Zoo. But then, perhaps "took off" isn't the right word either.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Lamarck is the skunk at Darwin's (200th) garden party

Lamarck thought that if you worked out faithfully, your children would have bigger muscles. This was wrong, but it turns out that Lamarck was partly right: genes do not entirely account for our hereditary traits. The "new" Lamarckism is gaining ground among scientists.

At tributes to Darwin, Lamarckism—inheritance of acquired traits—will be the skunk at the party.
Sharon Begley
Published Jan 17, 2009
From the magazine issue dated Jan 26, 2009

Alas, poor Darwin. By all rights, 2009 should be his year, as books, museums and scholarly conclaves celebrate his 200th birthday (Feb. 12) and the 150th anniversary of "On the Origin of Species" (Nov. 24), the book that changed forever how man views himself and the creation. Teamed with genetics, Darwin's explanation of how species change through time has become the rock on which biology stands. Which makes the water flea quite the skunk at this party.

Some water fleas sport a spiny helmet that deters predators; others, with identical DNA sequences, have bare heads. What differs between the two is not their genes but their mothers' experiences. If mom had a run-in with predators, her offspring have helmets, an effect one wag called "bite the mother, fight the daughter." If mom lived her life unthreatened, her offspring have no helmets. Same DNA, different traits. Somehow, the experience of the mother, not only her DNA sequences, has been transmitted to her offspring.

That gives strict Darwinians heart palpitations, for it reeks of the discredited theory of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744–1829). The French naturalist argued that the reason giraffes have long necks, for instance, is that their parents stretched their (shorter) necks to reach the treetops. Offspring, Lamarck said, inherit traits their parents acquired. With the success of Darwin's theory of random variation and natural selection, Lamarck was left on the ash heap of history. But new discoveries of what looks like the inheritance of traits acquired by parents—lab animals as well as people—are forcing biologists to reconsider Lamarckism.

The lab mice, of course, came first. Since 1999 scientists in several labs have shown that an experience a mouse mother has while she is pregnant can leave a physical mark on the DNA in her eggs. Just to emphasize, this is not a mutation, the only way new traits are supposedly transmitted to children. Instead, if mother mouse eats a diet rich in vitamin B12, folic acid or genistein (found in soy), her offspring are slim, healthy and brown—even though they carry a gene that makes them fat, at risk of diabetes and cancer, and yellow. It turns out that the vitamins slap a molecular "off" switch on the obesity/diabetes/yellow-fur gene. (Don't try this at home: no one knows which human genes soy, B12 and folic acid might silence.) This was the first evidence, now confirmed multiple times, that an experience of the mother (what she eats) can reach into the DNA in her eggs and alter the genes her pups inherit. "There can be a molecular memory of the parent's experience, in this case diet," says Emma Whitelaw of Queensland Institute of Medical Research, who did the first of these mouse studies. "It fits with Lamarck because it's the inheritance of a trait the parent acquired. There is even some evidence that the diet of a pregnant mouse can affect not only her offspring's coat color, but that of later generations."

Inheriting a DNA-silencing mark that your mom acquired is not as dramatic as giraffes passing on elongated necks to their kids. And the new Lamarckism doesn't mean that human moms who work out will pass along toned abs to their children, or that human dads who dye their hair red will have red-haired children. But preliminary evidence suggests that Lamarckism acts in people, too. In 2005, scientists in London found that the grandsons of men who had abundant food when they were boys (the study was done on men in a small town in northern Sweden) were much more likely to have diabetes and to die an early death than were the grandsons of men who suffered food shortages as boys. A 2006 study by the same scientists found that when fathers smoked as young boys, their sons tended to be more obese than did the sons of men who did not smoke as boys. Similar to the lab mice, the experience of the parents is visited upon the children and even the grandchildren. If the results hold up, says Whitelaw, "it would signal a paradigm shift in the way we think about the inheritance" of traits.

The existence of this parallel means of inheritance, in which something a parent experiences alters the DNA he or she passes on to children, suggests that evolution might happen much faster than the Darwinian model implies. "Darwinian evolution is quite slow," says Whitelaw. But if children can inherit DNA that bears the physical marks of their parents' experiences, they are likely to be much better adapted to the world they're born into, all in a single generation. Water fleas pop out helmets immediately if mom lived in a world of predators; by Darwin's lights, a population of helmeted fleas would take many generations to emerge through random variation and natural selection. The new Lamarckism promises to "reveal how the environment affects the genome to determine the ultimate traits of an individual," says Whitelaw.

Some of these studies will not hold up, as is typical with revolutionary new science. And resistance to what is being dubbed "the renaissance of heresy" is firm; one scientist called a paper on this stuff "a misguided attempt at scientific humor." But evidence for the new Lamarckism is strong enough to say the last word on inheritance and evolution has not been written.

A water flea without a helmut, from bioBlog at University of Waikato, New Zealand.

In some circumstances (water temperature, presence of predators), rather than having that sharp little point on their heads (top of the picture, above the eyespot) some Daphnia will have a longer, spikier 'helmet'. And this is where it gets interesting: it depends on the mother. If a 'helmet-less' female Daphnia is in an environment where there are also predators, her offspring will sport helmets. If not, they won't.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Christians who are pro-science and pro-Darwin meet in Oxford

Charles Darwin, age 51, just after publishing Origin of Species

Churches hold Darwin conference
7 February 2009

A group of churches in Oxford is hosting a conference to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of scientist Charles Darwin.

The event also commemorates the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal book the Origin of Species, on the theory of evolution.

Organiser reverend Tim Stead said it wanted to explore the relationship between science and religion.

He said evolution was one of the "most influential scientific ideas ever".

The conference is aimed at "exploring Darwin's contribution to our world view".

Reverend Tim Stead said: "It impacts on our entire understanding of the world.

"One of our aims in holding this conference is to go some way towards redressing the impression that some of the general public have that Christians are anti-science and anti-Darwin."

Mr Stead said many Christians wanted to celebrate Darwin's huge contribution to their world view.

"This is a chance to set the record straight and to explore how it is possible for faith to sit alongside Darwin's views," he said.

"Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is one of the most influential scientific ideas ever conceived."

If the West Antarctica ice sheet collapses, sea levels could rise more than expected

Ice Melt Could Increase Sea Level Risks
Feb. 7, 2009

...a report in Friday's edition of the journal Science warns that factors not previously considered could one day boost that increase to up to 21 feet in some areas.

The study did not list a time frame for such a dramatic change. But co-author Peter Clark, a geoscientist at Oregon State University, stressed that they "aren't suggesting that a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is imminent."

The most recent International Panel on Climate Change report estimated sea level rise of up to 3 feet by the end of this century...

Earlier research has focused on melting ice adding water to the oceans and on thermal expansion of sea water in a warmer climate over long periods of time...

--When an ice sheet melts, its gravitational pull on the ocean is reduced and water moves away from it. That means sea levels could fall near Antarctica and rise more than expected in the northern hemisphere.

--Antarctic bedrock that currently sits under the weight of the ice sheet will rebound from the weight, pushing some water out into the ocean.

--The melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet will cause the Earth's rotation axis to shift, potentially moving water northward.

"The net effect of all of these processes is that if the West Antarctic ice sheet collapses, the rise in sea levels around many coastal regions will be as much as 25 per cent more than expected," Mitrovica said in a statement.