Hard-Wired to NOT Be Hard-Wired – Pat Clarkin on Our Marvelous Flexibility


Zebra finches in conversation.
Zebra finches in conversation. Photo by RHL Images, via Flickr.

Humans are hard-wired not to be hard-wired.

That phrase, drawn from Ken Weiss, is perhaps the simplest of the many ways that Patrick Clarkin tries to convey, in his wonderful post “Developmental Plasticity and the ‘Hard-Wired’ Problem,” how thoroughly entwined are genetics and experience in shaping and constantly reshaping any organism. It’s silly, in a way, to think of a nature responding to nurture; of a gene responding to an environment; or of one or the other ever being, even for a nanosecond, more important than the other. For they are “inextricably intertwined,” as Clarkin himself puts it.

There is no organism without a genome; but there is also no such thing as an organism without an environment.

This is part of the problem with the idea of a gene being immortal or immutable. How can you be immortal or immutable if you immediately perish, if you have no meaning, without environmental stimulation?

As to what this means for humans, Clarkin draws on a point made nicely by Anne Fausto-Sterling

Human behaviors are not “things” more or less influenced by one or another source. They are processes that are simultaneously embodied and shaped by experience. The behavior of walking, as just one example, differs from one individual to the next depending on health history, body size and shape for example, limb-to-trunk length ratios, past physical experience, the character of the walking surface, clothing, and many other factors.

The same goes, big-time, for intensely our social existences and interactions with other people. We’re constantly developing and re-developing in response to social experience. No gene has meaningful existence until it encounters the environment; no environment has meaning (to the organism) until it stimulates a response from the gene. This delicious conversation takes place in our cells, were outer world meets inner, and this reception of and response to the world within does not merely change us; it is us. Development isn’t a pathway to what we are; it is what we are, and it never stops.

So how are we hard-wired not to be hard-wired? Because we’re wired — perhaps molded is a better term — to be flexible.  “How does a genome accommodate so much unpredictable complexity?,” asks Clarkin. “In a nutshell, plasticity” — our ability to not just respond but change in fluid and sometimes unpredictable ways to the changes (or stasis) around us.

Much more, quite fascinating, at Clarkin’s splendid post, and at the several superb posts he links to; some are linked below. Clarkin’s list of references has much other great stuff. I highly recommend you get over there and read it. It’s a rich fine dive.

Photo by RHL Images, used by permission. Some rights reserved.

Cited or related:

  • Developmental Plasticity and the “Hard-Wired” Problem, by Patrick Clarkin
  • Letting Go of Normal, by Anne Fausto-Sterling
  • The Nair-do-wells, and their evolutionary message, by Ken Weiss
  • Die, Selfish Gene, Die, by David Dobbs
  • The Social Life of Genes, by David Dobbs

Social Service is Depressing, Oil and Gas Are Fun – Jobs Rated by Depression Prevalence

Depressing news you can use. Or possibly delight in, depending. From Neuroskeptic:

An interesting study just published examines the rates of clinical depression experienced by workers in different jobs.It turns out that people involved in ‘Local and Interurban Passenger Transport’ are most likely to be treated for depression. By contrast, those employed in ‘Amusement and Recreational Services’ are less than half as likely to experience it – at least, in Western Pennsylvania, where the research was conducted.

Here’s the chart, so tiny it’s depressing to try to read if you’re over 40:


I’m troubled that the oil and gas extraction people are almost as happy as the amusement and recreation folks. Also, publishing, which would include me, is on the high side.

See Americas Most Depressing Jobs? – Neuroskeptic, for the wrinkles, caveats, and commentary.

Harvard’s Damning Report on Marc Hauser’s Fraud Charges

Whispering Rhesus

Ever since Marc Hauser’s 2011 resignation from Harvard amid findings of scientific misconduct, observers, critics, colleagues, and defenders have argued about Just How Bad His Behavior Was or Wasn’t. Harvard’s refusal to release its full report encouraged this, since people could speculate freely about the actual evidence behind the findings. Did he commit minor or common transgressions that the school inflated because it didn’t like him? Did Harvard give into a media frenzy? Or were the findings, as some Hauser doubters alleged, actually conservative?

monkeys grooming

All this mattered and matters not just because Hauser’s work on primate cognition had made him a sort of emblem of flashy psych science. It also mattered because, as Boston Globe reporter Carolyn Johnson recently put it,

“Hausergate” became a window into the mechanics of research fraud and the tense internal politics of a university that was investigating one of its best-connected figures.

People will long argue about how badly Hauser cheated, but they’ll have more evidence to draw on now that Johnson, continuing her strong reporting on this issue, has obtained a full copy of the Harvard in-house report through a Freedom of Information Act request. Both her resulting story and the full (redacted) report paint a rather damning picture.

The report describes a thorough, detailed, and careful investigation. For instance, when Hauser suggested that someone had doctored a videotape of his research that provided some particularly damning evidence, Harvard had two external firms examine it for signs of tampering; they found none. In other cases, the Harvard investigators found that Hauser had changed values in data — the tweaking known as falsification. Only fabrication, the outright invention of evidence, is considered worse; systemic falsification is a very close second. From Johnson’s story:

In 2005, Hauser and colleagues did a statistical analysis of an experiment in which monkeys responded to two artificial languages. In a later statistical analysis, an unnamed individual using the raw data got very different results.

The committee painstakingly reconstructed the process of data analysis and determined that Hauser had changed values, causing the result to be statistically significant, an important criterion showing that findings are probably not due to chance.

For example, after the data from one experiment were analyzed in 2005, the results initially were not statistically significant. After Hauser informed a member of his lab of this by e-mail, he wrote a second e-mail: “Hold the horses. I think I [expletive] something up on the coding. Let me get back to you.”

After correcting for that problem, he concluded that the result was statistically significant.

According to the Harvard report, five data points had changed from the original file, and four of the five changes were in the direction of making the result statistically significant.

In another experiment, writes Johnson (drawing from the report),

a member of the laboratory wanted to recode an experiment involving rhesus monkey behavior, due to “inconsistencies” in the coding.

“I am getting a bit pissed here. There were no inconsistencies!” Hauser responded, explaining how an analysis was done.

Later that day, the person resigned from the lab. “It has been increasingly clear for a long time now that my interests have been diverging sharply from what the lab does, and it seems like an increasingly inappropriate and uncomfortable place for me,” the person wrote.

And perhaps saddest:

The committee said it carefully considered Hauser’s allegation that people in his laboratory conspired against him, due to academic rivalry and disgruntlement, but did not find evidence to support the idea.

For more, see Johnson’s story, the Harvard report (pdf), and a nice take on this latest set of revelations from Language Log.  Retraction Watch has also followed the entire affair. You can also find my own coverage of the issue here.

A selection of my own coverage:

Marc Hauser, monkey business, and the sine waves of science

This Hauser thing is getting hard to watch, August 20, 2010

Hauser and Harvard speak; labmates and colleagues cleared, August 21, 2010

Journal editor concludes Hauser fabricated data, August 27, 2010

Edge corrects — no, make that ERASES — the record on Hauser, September 5, 2010

A Rush to Moral Judgment, at Slate, Sept 7, 2010

Hauser resigns, July 29, 2011

Marc Hauser’s Evilicious Rebound Draws Generous Puffs, Sept 26, 2013

A Eulogy to Britain’s Finest Hour

Harry Leslie Smith. Photo by Sarah Lee, for the Guardian
Harry Leslie Smith. Photo by Sarah Lee, for the Guardian

Harry Leslie Smith, who lost a sister to a world without public health care and then saw the National Health Service arise in the wake of World War II, laments the decimation of one of the finest products of Britain’s finest hour:

My sister’s body was committed to a pauper’s pit and interred in an unmarked grave along with a dozen other forgotten victims of penury. My parents didn’t even have a picture to remember their daughter’s life. To the outside world, it was as if she was never there, but for our family her life and her end profoundly affected us. My father never mentioned Marion’s name again. It wasn’t out of callousness or disrespect, but because her death festered in his soul like a wound that never healed. For the rest of his life my dad carried with him an unwarranted guilt that he was responsible for Marion’s tuberculosis, and it cut him deep. As for my mother, she often talked about Marion. As my family stumbled from misery to calamity, through the pitch dark of the Great Depression, my mother invoked my dead sister’s name as a warning that the workhouse awaited each of us, unless the world and our circumstances changed.

It would be almost 20 years before, in 1948, the NHS was formed, and for the first time in my civilian life I went to a doctor’s surgery and was treated for bronchitis with antibiotics that assured me a speedy and safe recovery. The cost to me was nothing, and I was grateful because I was skint, having just started back in the civilian working world.

via A eulogy to the NHS: What happened to the world my generation built? | Society | The Guardian.

Can A Pilot Save Medicine From Its Fatal Mistakes? He Can Try

Fabulous story from Ian Leslie:

Martin Bromiley is a modest man with an immodest ambition: to change the way medicine is practised in the UK.

I first met him in a Birmingham hotel, at a meeting of the Clinical Human Factors Group, or CHFG. Hospital chief executives, senior surgeons, experienced nurses and influential medical researchers met, debated and mingled. Keynote speakers included the former chief medical officer for England Sir Liam Donaldson. In the corridors and meeting rooms, rising above the NHS jargon and acronyms and low-level grumbling about government reforms, there floated a tangible sense of purpose and optimism. This was a meeting of believers.

A slow transformation in the way health care works is finally gaining traction. So far, it has gone largely unnoticed by the media or the public because it hasn’t been the result of government edict or executive order. But as Suren Arul, a consultant paediatric surgeon at Birmingham Children’s Hospital put it to me: “We are undergoing a quiet revolution and Martin Bromiley will, one day, be recognised as the man who showed us the way.”

Although I knew whom to look for, Bromiley was hard to spot at first. He wasn’t on stage, and he didn’t address the full conference. He was, I discovered, sitting at a table at the edge of the hall, in the suburbs of the meeting. You would hardly have guessed that the CHFG was a group he’d founded, or that everyone at the meeting that day was there because of him. Bromiley doesn’t fit with our preconceived ideas of a natural leader. He speaks with a soft voice. He doesn’t command your attention, though you find yourself giving it.

Neither is he a doctor, or a health professional of any kind. Bromiley is an airline pilot. He is also a family man, with a terrible story to tell.

This is a splendid read full of smart ideas and great stories.

New Statesman | How mistakes can save lives: one man’s mission to revolutionise the NHS.

Virginia Woolf on Happiness Among the Plain

Virginia Woolf on people that you might think that she would think plain, and does, but then again, not. This while on holiday visiting some in-laws: a banker and his wife.

Why do I pity and deride the human race, when its lot is profoundly peaceful and happy? They have nothing to wish for. They are entirely simple and sane. She has her big dog. They turn on the Loud Speaker. When they take a holiday they go to the Spring of the Thames where it is as big as a man’s arm, not big enough for a boat; and they carry their boat till they can put it in, and then they skull all the way down to Marlow. Sometimes, she said the river is level with the banks; and it is perfectly deserted. Then she said to me suddenly, as we were looking down at the wood from her window ‘Thats where the poet Shelley wrote Islam. He tied his boat to the tree there. My grandfather had a walking stick cut from that tree.’ You always run up against poetry in England; and I like this dumb poetry; and I wish I could be like that. She will live to be 100; she knows exactly what she enjoys; her life seems to me incredibly happy. She is very plain; but entirely un-vex, unambitious; and I believe, entirely right.[1]

I’m neck-deep right now in Virginia Woolf’s letters, diaries, memoirs, novels, biographies, for some material on her going into The Orchid and the Dandelion, and it’s a gas; but seriously, I’d be perfectly happy right now just running a Woolf Tumblr, if it would pay the rent.

[1] Letter to Vita Sackville West, March 1, 1926. In Congneial Spirits, p 203.

Virginia Woolf Takes a Walk, Finds a Novel

The Cornwall coast near St. Ives. Photo by John Stratford (john47kent at Flickr), via Creative Commons
The Cornwall coast near St. Ives. Photo by John Stratford (john47kent at Flickr), via Creative Commons

In 1905, a year after her father died, Virginia Woolf, then 23, took a vacation with her sister and two brothers near St. Ives, the town along the Cornwall coast where as children they had spent summers that were among the happiest times of what would become a loss-haunted family history. It was there she reconnected with the family history on which To the Lighthouse would eventually be based; and there that she began discovering the lifelong pleasure of walking in the countryside:

It has become the habit for me to spend my afternoons in solitary trampling. A great distance of the surrounding country have I now traversed thus, & the map of the land becomes solid in my brain. Twice these walks were taken in the teeth of heavy rain storms. I walked, it seemed, toward the very front of the torrent, up among grey hills. Both times it swept the driving smoke across the sea, & all the cheerful shapes and colours evaporated. One could just see the hazy outlines of the hills which lifted themselves out of the mist, but the sweep of the bay filled almost instantly with dense vapors.

At Krill’s monument I had to take my bearings, and repeated “A blinding mist came down & hid the land!”• and reflected how easily I might share Lucy’s fate. The delight of the country is that all moods of the air and the earth are natural, & therefore fit and beautiful. There is nothing incongruous about a wet day among the hills, as there is when decent streets and brick houses are exposed to the shock of an uncivilised storm. One may fancy even, a storm rejoicing among these granite hills when the wind and rain beat upon them as though they loved the conflict. But the sunny days give one, after all, a more spontaneous pleasure, the scents of the earth & the budding gorse are sucked out of them by the heat, and all the land glows with a mellow August radiance. The air becomes of a richly luminous quality; you see all things through an amber coloured medium.

Up on the hill today the only sound we heard was the tap tap of the stone breakers as they chipped the granite blocks, and we noticed the curious creamy richness of the stone pit in which they stood; the sun every now and then, making it gleam silver.

NB: The quote about “a blinding mist,” and the mention of Lucy, rise from a novel about a heroine (Lucy), who, forced to marry someone she does not love, kills him and then dies of convulsions. Woolf has not yet begun her very happy marriage to Leonard Woolf.

From Virginia Woolf, A Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals, 1897–1907 (Harvest/HBJ Books, 1990), 285–286.

Click here for other results of my Virginia Woolf obsession.

Baseballs Unwritten Rules Are Bullshit, Says This MLB Pitcher

When David Ortiz hits a home run, his leisurely trot around the bases is just shy of a professional wrestlers ring entrance. The crowd goes wild, his bat is raised for the first three steps, pyrotechnics follow, music roars, somewhere a Yankee fan is being clobbered with a steel folding chair.

Ex-MLB pitcher Dick Haythurst, on why the so-called unwritten rules of baseball, like those about post-dinger strutting, are bullshit.

A Major League Pitchers Guide To Baseballs Bullshit Unwritten Rules.

Beauty, Brains, Bodies, and Poultry – The Week’s Brightest Glitter

Photo by Maryn McKenna, all rights reserved, used here by permission.
Photo by Maryn McKenna, all rights reserved, used here by permission.

A not-comprehensive sampling of the good stuff I found this week. (I spent most of my reading time reading Virginia Woolf.)

Oh do, do watch this: A poultry farmer, one I could listen to all day, tells Maryn McKenna why he’s preserving the genes, carried in the squawking, beautiful birds all around him, of heritage poultry breeds that Big Ag no longer wants. Some seriously high-end Americana here. Get the whole scoop via McKenna’s post at NatGeo’s food blog, The Plate

Beauty is truth? There’s a false equation. Philip Ball with a splendid rich piece at Aeon

, but Einstein’s brain wasn’t that special, writes Neuroskeptic.

America’s mental health care crisis: families left to fill the void of a broken system The Guardian looks at the shameful sham we call a mental health system.

Should a Mental Illness Mean You Lose Your Kid? At ProPublica.

Of Brains & Minds: An Exchange with Patricia Churchland and Colin McGinn Churchland writes book saying one must grok brain to grok mind. McGinn reviews it. Churchland says McGinn “gibbles up” her simple message. McGinn nibbles back. One more reason to love NYRB.

Stronger Brains, Weaker Bodies Why do humans have them? Carl Zimmer reminds us the funnest things in science are mysteries, not answers.

The Naturalist and the Neurologist: How a neurologist’s photos helped Darwin with this theory of emotion. Big hat-tip to Alexis Madrigal.

Measles at 20-year-high in the U.S.

Why not cycle paths everywhere? A great idea … from December 1897. We’re awfully slow on some things.

Battered pot found in Cornish garage unlocks Egypt excavation secrets Though answers are fun too, especially when they’re mysteries.

Rolf Zwaan: Trying to Understand both Sides of the Replication Discussion Debate on replication replicates.

Three Walls in Search of a Ball Photo homage to Ireland’s abandoned handball alleys.

“We are judged on what we show, not what we shoot.” Photographer Ming Thien reminds us of why photographers and writers must both cull and revise.

The Winners of the 2014 Best Illusion of the Year Contest


For more reading heavily weighted toward science, see (always) Ed Yong’s weekly roundup, published every Saturday at his blog precisely at … whatever time he finally wakes up that day.

I also highly recommend Ivan Oransky’s weekly Weekend Reads, over at the invaluable Retraction Watch. This week he offers much more on replication as well as look at scientific fraud and the like.

Virginia Woolf is happy, but not with D.H. Lawrence, not at all

Virginia Woolf

In the fall of 1932, the same year she fell apart in March and fainted in August, Virginia Woolf went on a happy compositional tear in October and November, writing 60,000 words in about 60 days. “All flowing into the stream of its own accord,” as she put it elsewhere. Amid this she recorded this happiness:

I don’t believe in aging. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun. Hence my optimism.…

I’m interested in watching what goes on for the moment without wishing to take part — a good frame of mind when one’s conscious of power. Then I am backed now by the downs: The country: how happy L. and I are at Rodmell: what a free life that is—sweeping 30 or 40 miles; coming in when and how we like; sleeping in the empty house; dealing triumphantly with interruptions; and diving daily into that divine loveliness— always some walk; and the gulls on the purple plough; or going over to Tarring Neville—these are the flights I most love now—in the wide, the indifferent air. No being jerked, teased, tugged.

… and then, irritated with D.H. Lawrence’s Letters, she finishes the diary entry by giving him a good proper spanking.

It’s harrowing: this panting effort after something…the brutality of civilized society to this panting agonized man: and how futile it was. All this makes certain gasping in his letters. And none of it seems essential. So he pants and jerks. Then too I don’t like strumming with two fingers— and the arrogance. After all, English has one million words: why confine yourself to 6? and praise yourself of so doing.… And why does Aldous say he was an “artist”? Art is being rid of all preaching.

from her diary entry of 2 October 1932, in A Writer’s Diary (Harvest/HBJ), pp 181-182.