Genetic populations

After I graduated from college I taught 5th grade for a few years in a small town in North Carolina just above the border with South Carolina.  Virtually all the students I taught, a third white, a third black and a third Lumbee Indian, had never left the county, had never gone to the nearest “big” town where there was a military base, and had certainly never gone to Raleigh, the capital.  The big event one year for our 5th graders was a trip to the planetarium at the University in Chapel Hill.  The three races had lived together in parallel without much mixing for many, many years, under the shadow of slavery and then Jim Crow.  I will bet that the races have mixed much more since those days in 1972.  Now consider an article in the 5/17/14 edition of Science News.


Ms. Saey reports on several studies of the DNA recovered from ancient remains, like Otzi above.  He seems to have lived most of his life in southern Italy around 5300 BC but his body was found in the Italian alps.  His DNA is found these days only in the populations of the islands, Corsica and Sardinia.  Why he was in the alps hunting from where he resided is something of a mystery as is the arrow wound that caused his death.

Another fossilized remains from about 7000 BC in northern Spain showed a dark skinned blue eyed man, quite unusual.  Other studies showed that hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists lived in the same areas for some 2000 years without much genetic mixing, and further that these samples taken from Spain, Italy, Germany, and Sweden show little similarity to modern day Europeans.  Whoa!  The neolithic population of Europe moved on and the modern population, who seem to stay close to home, show little overlap.  Complicated.  Eventually farmers and hunters began to intermarry (in a copper and bronze age sort of way) but still they contribute little DNA to the modern population of Europe.  Further, as peoples moved in after the last ice age with different technologies, exemplified in their different potteries, they also tended to remain to themselves.  The human clan or tribe would seem to be an insular organization.  Thank heavens for modern mixing.

The article has more interesting features and I recommend it.  One other study showed that Native Americans, Asians, northern Europeans, whether farmer or hunters, showed the influence of a previously unknown population, the ancient northern Eurasians.  It is beginning to appear that humanity has many roots.



Last week some news reports came out (see for one) about recent research on meditation from some good folks in Scandinavia.  They looked at EEG patterns in two types of meditative activity.


In one type the person clears their mind, focuses on breathing, and lets the conscious flow come and go, not hindering it and not holding it.  The EEG in this case showed more widespread activation front and back of alpha and theta waves.  In the other type the person focuses on a mental image, be it Buddha, a nature scene, or some other distinct image to hold onto mindfully.  The EEG here showed specific frontal activation of alpha and theta waves.  A quick search showed that the more one practices meditation the more pronounced the ability to induce such rhythms, alpha relating to a relaxed conscious state and theta to alert arousal.  These are reminiscent of the infant’s quiet alert state seen right after feeding, when content, secure, and watching the world perhaps with a bit of infant wonder.

I have written before of the MEMBRAIN, our brain as the membrane surrounding our mind.  To do this it must perform the 4 basic membrane functions, keeping energy (information) in and out, passing energy in and out.


I wrote then about certain signals, e.g., language, art, facial expression, tone of voice, having a privileged pass into and out of the mind through the MEMBRAIN’s channels.  Now I want to use the four functions to differentiate the two modes of meditation.  In the first mode with the diffuse focus, the MEMBRAIN passes little information out but lets it in, not working to keep any out, and also not keeping any in.  Information comes and goes, not held onto nor acted upon.  In the second mode with a specific focus, the MEMBRAIN again passes little information out, but now it passes some in and works to keep out what is not the image, then to keep the image in mind.  Information is gathered and held, little else is let in and again it is not acted on.  In both modes the MEMBRAIN performs its functions through control of arousal and attention seen in the alpha and theta waves, so the areas most involved are medial (down the center), not lateral (across the sides).

Here’s recent haiku that’s half-way relevant:

Now bask in the wild fresh breeze

bringing today’s warm sunlight.

Now don’t.

Just saying.

Neuroanatomy again

Generally I try to do 2 posts a week but I also farm for two markets a week and my time and energy is limited during this part of the year.  I saw interesting news this week on several fronts and will talk about agenesis of the corpus callosum today (and genetic studies of hunter/gathers vs agriculturalists and meditative brains later). reported a study showing that  people with callosal agenesis actually have other rather disorganized fibers connecting each hemisphere.


Some few people are born without a corpus callosum.  Evidently the fibers develop in the fetus longitudinally in their respective hemispheres and do not cross over, yet these people have few, if any, mental sequelae.  Recent anatomical studies show that in these patients some fibers do cross over, not in any massive or organized manner, but sufficient to facilitate inter-hemispheric integration.  One of the truisms that I do not think gets much mention is that peoples’ anatomies vary across individuals a good deal and yet we all function about the same.  I have a colleague with congenital prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces; she can sit next to an acquaintance or ride with a familiar in an elevator without recognizing them unless they speak and she can recognize their voice. Some suffer from this due to stroke but she was born this way and does quite fine, even if she does have to apologize or explain sometimes why she seemingly ignored someone’s presence.  Anyway, we all have variations in our brains, organs, skeleton, and musculature etc not listed in the anatomy books.

Back to the corpus callosum.  Back in the 1960s, Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga studied patients who had had their corpus callosums cut in order to control otherwise intractable epilepsy.  These patients generally show very little consequent dysfunction but with careful experimental procedures, they found that the two hemispheres carry on independent functions unknown to the other, i.e., they each seem to have their own consciousness.  I will not go into detail as so many are familiar with them but these are very interesting studies, so well done, and illustrative of good science and medicine running together.


Now I decided to re-read Julian Jaynes’ book from way back then, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, for a variety of reasons.  I am finding I still disagree with him a good deal (and will address this in a future post) but he summons a great deal of scholarly information and scientific data that is interesting and informative.  He gives an excellent summary of the split brain research as he seeks support for his idea that the two hemispheres function very differently from each other.  He focuses on the findings that both hemispheres understand speech while only the left one produces speech, and goes from there with various stops along the way to say the right hemisphere spoke internally and that these were the voices of the gods helping ancient humans figure things out and solve problems of action.  Is this a biological root of religious beliefs?  Jaynes thinks further that until this neurological organization broke down, humans were not truly conscious.  Ah, well. More later but here is another view of hemispheric lateralization, left and right.


Gerald Edelman

Dr. Edelman passed away yesterday.  He won the Nobel prize back in 1972 with Robert Porter for their work on the immune system.  In his later career he focused on neuroscience and philosophy.  I read his book, A Universe of Consciousness: How matter becomes imagination, co-authored with Giulio Tononi last year.  A great read.  His approach to the the matters of brain and mind were quite scholarly and advanced.  He did a lot of research using neural net models to simulate the brain, which usually I find fault with, but not his use of them because he was so grounded theoretically and philosophically.  And a good writer to boot.  So thank you, Dr. Edelman, for helping us understand our biological roots better.


A follow up from Relinquishing poetry

3 points to expand upon from last post:  on Santa Muerte, addiction, and righteous indignation.


Mostly the disenfranchised, especially those with ties to the indigenous world, believe in Santa Muerte.  They petition her for forgiveness for having to break the law through petty crimes in order to survive.  She is also seen as a protector of the downtrodden and rejected, such as the LGBT community.  Scholars believe she is a ‘syncretic’ image formed from two traditions, the ancient Mesoamerica honoring of death and the Catholic belief of saintly intervention and forgiveness.  Evidently the Catholic church views Santa Muerte as a perversion of religion.  The true perversion here, though, would seem to be the adoption of a saint of forgiveness and protection from those in power by those drug cartels who have attained power through corruption and violence.  Sometimes religious authorities lack fine discrimination.

Now a side trip to the neuroscience of addiction.  In the mid 1950s James Milner and Peter Olds found that rats would press a lever almost  interminably to gain electrical stimulation in the lateral hypothalamus and septum.


This area has subsequently been found to be part of a circuit involved in addictive behaviors.  The original idea for many years, still maybe to some, is that these areas are pleasure centers, i.e., that the stimulation was so pleasurable that the animal would keep pressing the lever (or taking the drug) to gain satisfaction.  Jaak Panksepp in his wonderful book Affective Neuroscience (to which I have often referred) cites further experimental work and another interpretation.  Briefly, animals (rats mostly) that engage in pressing the lever for self stimulation do not show the usual signs of pleasure following gratification such as grooming and other post consummatory behaviors.  Instead these animals continue in appetitive or seeking behaviors, so that rather than seeing this circuit as one of pleasure, it is more one of seeking pleasure.  Thus addiction is always seeking reward but never really gaining it.  Seeking behavior is a remarkable and ubiquitous presence in our mentality and more could be said here.

And now on to righteous indignation.  I have long noticed in my personal life and my old profession as a psychologist that when people experience righteous indignation, they often sustain their anger through imagined moral outrage and use this to justify a range of poor and mostly destructive behaviors.  This is different from the moral outrage, say, of the civil rights movement that is different in many ways as it avoids  the irrational and unmodulated anger, the focus on retribution and revenge on individuals, and actions more destructive than remedial.



Righteous indignation is more of a closed loop reverberating with a singular emotion, self-sustaining through stereotyped cognitive inputs, and can lead to actions that are ineffective, destructive, and lack the human touch of empathy, forethought, and perspective. We can simplistically look at the limbic system as that closed loop, operating off of one cogntive, mnemonic set shut off from inputs that would help gain perspective, a rather ugly feedback loop like when the microphone is too close to the speaker and that awful wail ensues until either the mic or the speaker is turned off.  So political demagogues and gangsters run amuck in similar gutters.

Relinquishing poetry

The inception of this blog or better, its title and effort, grew from my strong sense that we are biological first and foremost, so to understand humanity we need to follow our biological roots.  I focus mostly on empathy and art because those are 2 keys to understanding our minds and so our humanity, but I also keep an eye out for ideas to help me understand the negative side of the phenomena such as political hatreds, gaining power and material advantage at the expense of others, and the murder of those who hold to a gentler approach.  So I come today to visit Santa Muerte.


Simon Baron-Cohen in his book, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, focuses more on the the lack of empathy in individuals and how this contributes to autism spectrum disorder (not evil) and psychopathy (evil) from a medical perspective.  He touches here and there on more cultural institutions of evil, like the Nazis and the Holocaust.  Here is something important because many ‘normal’ people with the usual empathic capacity act out psychopathically, i.e., focused on gaining wealth and power without regard for their destructive effect on others.

Last night I watched Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown episode on Mexico.  Framing his encounters with this remarkable cuisine (check out the mole) he interviews some Mexican writers and a photojournalist about the rise of drug cartels, the corruption of the government, and the 80,000 deaths from the effort tp protect their turf and money.  From what I can gather, Santa Muerte is a female grim reaper initially idolized (old meaning) by the destitute and powerless at the bottom of society but whose image has been usurped by the drug cartels as a symbol of what?, ruthless power rising from the impulse to rule and to profit from vice.  Bourdain talked with those intimately involved in documenting this rather total failure of empathy in institutions and individuals and in advocating for a gentler world where life is respected and honored.

The show ends with Bourdain interviewing Javier Sicilia, a noted Mexican writer of essays, novels and poetry.  His son was killed by drug traffickers a few years ago.  He wrote a poem about this and then became more actively involved in the political process of change.


He also said, “I have no more poetry in me,” and so relinquished this way of writing.  Art is many things, human, revolutionary, a buoy in time and space marking the brilliance of life’s greatest wave breaking against the void, but it is not inexhaustible.  I hope that we who still live and participate in Gaia carry on his quest for a better world, maybe even with a surge of renewed artistic purpose.

Here is his last poem:

The world is not worthy of words

they have been suffocated from the inside

as they suffocated you, as they tore apart your lungs …

the pain does not leave me

all that remains is a world

through the silence of the righteous,

only through your silence and my silence, Juanelo.

What’s is a name? pt 2


“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  I have been reading an introductory text on Aesthetics with short chapters on philosophers known for their work on the topic.  Some are interesting, some not.  One is obtuse to the point of comedy; another shows more command of the obvious even than I have.  All are male, go figure.  

Some raise the curious issue as to whether there is a theoretical difference aesthetically between the beauty found in nature and that found in art.  Again, obviously there is but what is it?  In essence one is based in perception and one is through symbolization, but can natural beauty be sensed without symbolic capacity?



Is the beauty of a rose initiated by a bee’s appreciation of color and nectar?  Does a bird look at this year’s nest as particularly well done?  Does a dolphin thrill with the pirouette it makes or one by its pod mate?  Does a bonobo gaze at the sunlight through the trees?  Does any animal but a human look at backlit clouds over the ocean with an appreciation of its beauty?  We know that male bird songs vary in their power to elicit mating responses by the female but how does this feel?

Symbols carry meaning; they have import, they have significance and this is based upon the empathic sense of our own and of another’s mind.  The name of something is something special.  In some religions the name of god must not be uttered or should not be uttered except in special circumstances.  Representations of god are specially restricted as well.  In some science fiction/fantasy stories, to know the name of something is to have power over it.  And biologically the power of symbolization transforms sentience into consciousness.

Aesthetics, as surveyed in my text, seems closely aligned in modern times with art appreciation and criticism, thus focusing on the aesthetic feelings derived from input.  Some think that the artist’s intent is important, so some attention is paid to aesthetic output.  The difference between natural beauty and art is rather obvious in the latter, but the appreciation, the feeling engendered by beauty, traced from eyes and ears to consciously experiencing the aesthetic, would also seem different.  If we could watch brain activity as we viewed a natural beauty or a painting, we would see differences, and these would reflect our brain’s symbolic ability.  What else is this woman smiling about, eh?


What’s in a name?


Reuters and other news agencies are reporting on an article in PLOS ONE by two paleontologists who have studied Homo sapiens neanderthalus.  They report that Neanderthals were quite as advanced as Homo sapiens sapiens, citing evidence for complex tool making, social strategies for hunting, use of fire, use of pigments and use of eagle claws and animal teeth in ornamentation for some purpose.  Of course these would all presuppose the development of language.


I think this view has been prominent in scientific circles for some time though the general public still seems to hold the view that Neanderthals were not intelligent, did not have any advanced culture and lost out to modern humans in the survival of the fittest competition.  Oops.  One of the authors of this latest paper points out that they are not even extinct since they interbred with modern humans and specifically Neanderthal parts of their genome survive in us.  Our genomes in general are very similar even apart from this.

So the name, Neanderthal, connotes some ignorant brute and why?  This is mostly historical, as the discovery 150 years ago came when racial discrimination was often based on stereotypes supportive of someone’s superiority.  I think the prejudice has been reinforced by the image of a robust, heavy boned, shorter stature and forelimbs, and prominent nose/brow facial area.




I also think their discovery came during Darwin’s time and many misunderstood (for propaganda reasons?) the survival of the fittest concept.  Neanderthals, before interbreeding, survived over 300,000 years until the climate change (now I’m worried) and some sort of interaction with modern humans. This is another example, I think, of good science arriving at self-correction and hopefully the rest of culture following along albeit slowly.  A list of interesting facts was published in Discovery magazine December 2013 which you can see here:

By the way, did you catch the last episode of Cosmos about the beginnings of astrophysics?  Neil deGrasse Tyson pointed out that many of the key scientists there and then were female, unknown now and prohibited then from studying science at university or leading research efforts (at least in title) in England and other countries.  Seems like 100 years ago or so that females and Neanderthals suffered from similar prejudices relegating them to second class status.  Cultures change, albeit slowly, with some resisting more than others and in this case usually on religious grounds.  Amen.