The Neanderthal In (and On) Steve Colbert

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We sapiens weren’t always the only Homos. Not long ago we shared it with Neanderthals, Denisovans, even hobbits, it seems, and perhaps others, most of whom were technically humans, which is to say, Homos.

So how did we end up being solo Homo? Did we outlast, outsmart, or outcompete the others, or just luck out? This question, which happens to be one of the hottest and most vital in anthropology, is the subject of a new book, Lone Survivors, by paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer, who heads the human evolution group at the British Museum of Natural History. Somehow, rather incredibly, he manages to deliver a fairly concise overview of this subject during a typically entertaining but distracting barrage of questions from Steven Colbert. Take it in, and if you want more, go fetch the book.

See also:

Chris Stringer on the Origins and Rise of Modern Humans

Chris Stringer – The Colbert Report 

Gimme Johann, Gimme Jimmy: Music to Write By

What do writers listen to while they write? Over at NeuroTribes, where the splendid Steve Silberman has gathered Music to Write By: 10 Top Authors Share Their Secrets for Summoning the Muse, we learn that Priscilla Gibbs leans to the Dead and Iron and Wine; David Shenk to Philip Glass; Carl Zimmer to Steely,  Joni, and Neil; David Quammen to silence; and Jane Hirschfield to a “John Cage-like sound-space that governs itself” — which is to say, true ambient sound, the real deal. Ed Yong, David Wolman, and August Kleinhahler round out the chorus.

Do go see all these for yourselves; great stuff (and good photos).

My own pickings, for the lazy, are below the fold:

Continue reading →

Psychiatry Set to Medicalize Hissy Fits

a child having a disproportionate emotional response to news that DSM wants to medicalize disproportionate emotional responses

Every decade or two, the American Psychiatric Association reworks its Diagnostic Statistical Manual, or DSM, to try to have diagnostic categories reflect the current state of theory and practice. Given enormous evidence that we’re currently overdiagnosing things and medicalizing normal behavior, many had hope that the upcoming DMS-5 — the fifth major revision — would show some restraint. We may see it yet — but not if we go down the track described in a post today by neuroscientist, blogger, and DSM watchdog Neuroskeptic. It seems that the DSM-5 may include a new proposed “mood disorder” called “disruptive mood dysregulation disorder,” or DMDD.

If DSM-5 is officially published (it’s due in 2013), kids will be deemed DMDD if they show

“severe recurrent temper outbursts that are grossly out of proportion in intensity or duration to the situation.” … at least three times a week.

Do you know any kids like that? If you don’t, then you don’t know many kids. This could be anything, like the meltdown when the shoes can’t be found, the homework got lost, or the braids aren’t quite right. Crimey, I met this criteria last week, just yelling at Karl Rove.

As Neuroskeptic notes, my folk-wisdom skepticism is backed by science:

Pittsburg psychiatrists David Axelson and colleagues have just shown that the DMDD concept is deeply flawed. They took a large sample of kids assessed for emotional or behavior problems, and compared those who would meet the new DMDD criteria, to those who wouldn’t.

“DMDD” turned out not to be correlated with anxiety or mood symptoms in either the child or their parents – rather unusual for a so-called ‘Mood Dysregulation Disorder’ which is found in the ‘Depressive Disorder’ section of the DSM-5.

In fact, DMDD can’t be distinguished from two existing disorders that get wildly overused, “Conduct Disorder” and “Oppositional Defiant Disorder,” which are often used to justify medication for Kids Who Just Won’t Listen. In short, says Neuroskeptic,

DMDD seems to be nothing to do with mood, but instead covers a pattern of misbehavior which is already covered by not one but two labels already. Why add a misleadingly-named third?

Well, the back-story is that in the past ten years, many American kids and even toddlers have got diagnosed with ‘child bipolar disorder‘ – a disease considered extremely rare everywhere else. To stop this, the DSM-5 committee want to introduce DMDD as a replacement. This is the officially stated reason for introducing it. On the evidence of this paper and others it wouldn’t even achieve this dubious goal.

The possibility of just going to back to the days when psychiatrists didn’t diagnose prepubescent children with bipolar (except in very rare cases) seems to not be on the table.

As I’ve noted before, there’s an awful lot at stake in this DSM rewrite. The world is blessed with some really good psychiatrists. I hope I’m wrong in thinking that this DMDD suggests the good ones are not winning enough arguments at the DSM meetings.

via Neuroskeptic: The New “Mood Disorder” That Isn’t One.

Image by mdanys, by permission. Some rights reserved.


A Week in Madison, Talking Writing & Science

I’m pleased to be going to the land of Deborah Blum, John Hawks, Siri Carpenter, and other illustrious types to spend a week talking with classes and giving public lectures about writing, science, music … and pretty much whatever anyone wants to talk about. If you’re in Madison, love to see you at one of the public talks, in a class if you’re one of the classes I’m visiting, in the pubs, or out-n-about.

My public talks are:

Tuesday, Nov 6 at 4 pm, Memorial Union: Working the Mystery: How to Write Real about Genes, Mind, Science, and Culture. That’s election day. I’m hoping for a strong turnout.

Friday, Nov 9 at 3 pm, Vilas Hall, Nafziger Room, 5th Floor: Writing with Zeppelin & Schubert on Your Shoulder: Musical Models for Longform Structure, which is probably the funnest talk I give. For me, anyway. Think ‘Kashmir’.

I’ll also be meeting with various classes in anthro, journalism, psychology, and other departments. If you’re in one of those, ask around.

Many thanks to Deborah Blum, Terry Devitt, Sharon Dunwoody, and the University of Wisconsin science writing program for hosting me. Very much looking forward to this. The university’s press release is below:

Author and science journalist David Dobbs will visit the UW-Madison campus the week of Nov. 4 as the 2012 Fall Science Writer in Residence.

Dobbs is the author of the recent Atavist best seller, “My Mother’s Lover,” and contributes features and essays for The Atlantic, National Geographic, Nature, The New York Times Magazine, and other publications.

He is the author of several books, his most recent being “Reef Madness,” which explores an argument that Chares Darwin had about how reefs form. He is currently writing a new book, “The Orchid and the Dandelion,” which explores the genetics of temperament.

Dobbs will visit the Madison campus the week of Nov. 4. He will spend the week teaching and exploring campus. He will give a free public lecture, “Working the Mystery: How to Write Real about Genes, Mind, Science, and Culture,” at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 6 at the Memorial Union (check TITU).

The UW-Madison Science Writer in Residence Program, now in its 26th year, seeks to bring some of the nation’s top science writers to Wisconsin as a resource for the university community and others. It was established with support from the Brittingham Trust and continues with support from the UW Foundation. Past visiting writers include many of the nation’s leading science writers, including three whose work subsequently earned them the Pulitzer Prize.

The UW-Madison Science Writer in Residence Program is sponsored by the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and University Communications.

Open-Science Roller Coaster Accelerates

Biophysicist and open-science fan Stephen Curry, in The inexorable rise of open access scientific publishing, at The Guardian, notes that the move to open science is speeding up a wee faster than many people expected or even realize:

Read all about it: academic publishing is changing faster than anyone has realised, according to a new study reported today in BMC Medicine.

Before 2000 the vast majority of research papers were published in journals that could only be read by academics if they — or their university libraries — paid a subscription. But since the turn of the millennium, the growth of the world wide web has been accompanied by the emergence of open access publishing, by which research papers are made freely available online. According to results published today by Laasko and Björk, over half* of all research papers may now be available through open access.

The academic publishing game has changed irrevocably.

The move to open access publishing, the most visible part of this, shows starkly in the graph accompanying the story:

Graph showing the rapid rise in online open access journals
The rapid rise in open access. The graph (from Laasko and Bjork’s paper – BMC Medicine 2012, 10:124) shows the numbers of papers published in three different types of online open access journals from 2000 to 2011. Courtesy The Guardian


I’m not among those surprised, and I doubt Curry is, either. Early last year, writing about the move to open science, I noted that, for those paying attention, there was good reason to expect the disruption to academic publishing to accelerate:

As I’ve covered this, I’ve often thought of happened to the music industry a decade ago and is happening to the consumer newspaper, magazine, and book industries now. In every case, change arrived in a way that brings to mind a roller coaster ride as it approaches and then descends that first wild drop: The change came slowly at first, sped almost imperceptibly for a bit — and then accelerated wildly in a long drop that would forever transform the ride. Even among the industry insiders who saw change coming, most badly underestimated the steepness of the drop they were approaching. Once the drop started in earnest, the only ones having fun were those who saw the big drop and, whooping, leaned into it.

Some, like Curry, are enjoying the ride. Others, not so much.

Photo by Upsilon Andromedae.  Some rights reserved.

The Genetics of Stoopid

Ask not what your genes have done to make you smart, but what they’ve done to make you stupid.

That’s the gist of an idea offered recently by neurogeneticist Kevin Mitchell in a “The genetics of stupidity,” a fun, provocative post at his blog, Wiring the Brain. Today  I unpack this idea a bit in a piece in a column at the New York Times, titled “Smart is the Norm, Stupidity Gets More Interesting?” It’s first of a series I’ll be doing for the Times’ Mind column, part of the Science section. Here’s the opener of today’s post:

Few of us are as smart as we’d like to be. You’re sharper than Jim (maybe) but dull next to Jane. Human intelligence varies. And this matters, because smarter people generally earn more money, enjoy better health, raise smarter children, feel happier, and, just to rub it in, live longer as well.

But where does intelligence come from? How is it built? Researchers have tried hard to find the answer in our genes. With the rise of inexpensive genome sequencing, they’ve  analyzed the genomes of thousands of people, looking for gene variants that clearly affect intelligence, and have found a grand total of two.

One determines the risk of Alzheimer’s and affects I.Q. only late in life; the other seems to build a bigger brain, but on average it raises I.Q. by all of 1.29 points.

Other genetic factors may be at work: A report last year concluded that several hundred gene variants taken together seemed to account for 40 to 50 percent of the differences in intelligence among the 3,500 subjects in the study. But the authors couldn’t tell which of these genes created any significant effect. And when they tried to use the genes to predict differences in intelligence, they could account for only 1 percent of  the differences in IQ.

“If it’s this hard to find an effect of just 1 percent,” Robert Plomin, a professor of behavioral genetics at King’s College London, told New Scientist, “what you’re really showing is that the cup is 99 percent empty.”

But is the genetic cup really empty, or are we just looking for the wrong stuff? Kevin Mitchell,  a developmental neurogeneticist at Trinity College Dublin, thinks the latter. In an essay he published in July on his blog,  Wiring the Brain, Dr. Mitchell proposed that instead of thinking about the genetics of intelligence, we should be trying to parse “the genetics of stupidity,” as his title put it. We should look not for genetic dynamics that build intelligence but for those that erode it.

From there the column looks at three of those erosive dynamics: mututional load, developmental stability, and that odd duck of development, asymmetrical symmetry. Please do get on over and check out the whole thing.  When you’re done, take a look at Mitchell’s’ original Genetics of Stupidity post, his related posts on  “wild-type” humans (including Brad Pitt), Why have genetic linkage studies of schizophrenia failed?, Are human brains especially fragile?, and It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up: reactivity in the developing brain and the emergence of schizophrenia. This is a genetics of decrement, essentially, which means, above all, that ain’t none of us perfect. Lots of provocative ideas, and a nice look at how one scientist is using a blog to explore implications of the research he’s doing and reading.

If your own randomly developed neurodevelopmental pathways lead you to favor videos over words, you might prefer Mitchell’s recent 5-minute Ignite talk, where he covers many of these ideas in fast motion:

Hey You Men Who Yell “Nice Tits”: STFU. Again.

Note: I post this again because various males have recently forgotten when it’s best to STFU. This post originally ran in January 2011. Thanks to Isis and DrugMonkey & Janet Stemwedel and Jezebel for calling this to my attention, amid much distration, and Kate Clancy and Christie Wilcox for initial inspriation. Plus, Mom. I thank Mom once again, and my sisters. More on that below. Plus: This latest high-profile faux pas was a complaint about the perceived lack of attractiveness of women at a the annual neuroscience meeting. My post below concerns unwelcome compliments. But pretty much everything below applies to such idiotic public complaints as well. Sub language as need be.)


ScienceOnline, more than most conferences, seems to add immense energy and new perspectives to discussions long percolated. Often this rises in an unexpected way, and often from the blog posts re-examining the conference and its sessions. Behold: In the past couple days, two blog posts have energized the often dead-tired but ever-relevant issue of sexism in the science and writing worlds. Yesterday I crossposted a post by Kate Clancy, of Context and Variation, that examined with particular nuance the internal battles and obstacles that many women feel in presenting their work to the public. Today brings a much different but equally special post, “I’ve never been very good at hiding,” in which Christie Wilcox, of Observations of a Nerd, declares war on titty talk.

A few weeks ago, I received a facebook message. It was from a male admirer of my blog (and his fiancée, coincidentally). In it, he said “You are GORGEOUS, and your tits look absolutely incredible.” I froze. I know it was meant as a compliment, but it made me really uncomfortable. It was a sentiment that was much more muted in other comments I’d gotten. You know, ones like “wow, you’re an amazing writer AND you’re hot?” or “who would have thought a pretty girl could be so good at science?”

Of course, if you point out to any of these people that their comments are sexist, they instantly defend themselves and say that’s not what they meant. They weren’t trying to imply women should be less good at science or writing, they just wanted to say that it’s cool that I’m pretty and nerdy. They think women in science are great.

But what they fail to realize is the fact that my looks are important enough to comment on is what makes their comments sexist.

Then, after some explaining, some pondering, and a reminder that the science blogosphere has some work to do, this smart, tough young woman makes up her mind, right there before us, stands up and draws her sword:

I don’t have the same risk-aversion that other female scientists or science writers might because I haven’t been beaten down or held back. Nor am I timid. Trust me, no one has ever accused me of being too quiet. Call me ambitious, driven, or even a bitch – those words are all compliments in my book – but be certain that I will not allow my gender to prevent me from achieving success.

Clearly, we need to make a change in the science blogging community. I won’t stand up and say I have all the answers. I don’t know how to better encourage other female science bloggers other than to say I’ve got your back. I can’t assuage the fears of those who think if they put their name and face on a blog, they’ll lose credibility or get attacked, other than to lead by example. But maybe I don’t have to do more than that. Perhaps all it will take to tip the scales is a woman who is willing to say “bring it” and is still standing a year later.

Well, then. Bring it.

I find this both wonderful and horrible. I’ve met Wilcox a couple times, and I don’t know her well, but she is ever so pleasant, and my impression is that while she now stands tall before us having drawn her sword, that’s not her favorite stance or persona. Rather she has taken up sword because she sees a battle that must be fought and won. It’s a shame she must do so. She has less frustrating work that she loves. Yet clearly she must take up this battle, and I admire her for taking it up so boldly. She brings to mind my favorite novelistic hero, Lucky Jack Aubrey; when Lucky Jack decides to engage, he engages. My late mother had to do likewise. So do my sisters. So, it appears, must my daughter. Thus horror and wonder: Horror this thing must still be fought; wonder that Wilcox so energetically joins the battle.

Whose battle is it? Everyone’s, I’d say. Wilcox’s post has already inspired a rich conversation in the comments, one taking alongside and entwined in many ways with the comments-conversation in Clancy’s post. About halfway down, my dear friend Steve Silberman lodged a quick comment but kept it brief, he said, because he didn’t want it to become too much a male conversation. I know what he means. Yet as I said in my own hurried (but long; I didn’t have time to write shorter) comments there, I think we men should engage here, if for nothing else than to tell their fellow men, when they are being titty idiots (titjiots?), to STFU. Even if we don’t elaborate on STFU — maybe especially if we don’t elaborate on STFU — it might inspire some self-reflection. Or at least get them to STFU.

So for those men who don’t already understand, I offer this brief STFU guide:

What are you thinkingHear this: Telling anyone but your sweetheart that you like her breasts is like giving a stranger a squeeze. You may be drooling inside, it happens, but for God’s sake, man, YOU DO NOT HAVE A SEXUAL RELATIONSHIP WITH THIS PERSON. That’s your fantasy. Keep it in your pants. It was nothing to do with public life and conversation.

Mind your manners. As my mom said, Some things you just don’t talk about it in public. So men: However short is your personal list of Things You Don’t Talk About in Mixed Company, add to it a woman’s physical appearance. If you truly just can’t resist some reference to anatomy, tell her what Cornell West told my English prof sister — tall, good-looking, wicked smart redhead vying for a job  — after her presentation at Harvard: “Sister, you kicked some ass.” Trust me, that goes over much better than “Nice tits!”

I know that to some women this may seem slightly patronizing (though I hope not), but: Men, if this is what it takes to give a crap, think about how you’d feel if someone said something similar to your mom or your sister. I PRAY that thought disturbs you.

I care about this because it’s disgusting and idiotic and demeans both public conversation and over half of humanity. Our half too, for that matter. I care about it more immediately because my late mom — an absolute kickass doctor who went through medical school in Texas in the 1950s as a highly attractive single mother, a stunner and a hotshot, way-smarter-and-tougher-than-you, cowboy, who took no guff from anyone — had to deal with this crap all her professional career. Into her sixties. She bore it well; she was tough as hell. She was so hard you could rollerskate on her. But she didn’t enjoy it. And there’s no reason she should have had to deal with it.

My kickass sisters the lawyer and the English prof have to deal with it too. One, while in college, was straightout offered an A — an A she was already EARNING, thank you — in return for sex. When she told me, I wanted to drive down, from New York to Texas, and pound the guy’s face against his desk. There! You want some Dobbs on your desk! Here it is! My sister said, No, that’s okay. I’ve got this. She did.

God save that guy if he encounters her now, when the table is level. Yet my 8 year-old-daughter, despite two generations of tough battlers before her,, will have to deal with this crap as well. This infuriates me.

Men, listen up: A woman at work — whether blogging, doing science, lecturing, banging nails, soldiering — SHOULD feel an insult when they get titty compliments. You should learn this, and realize that no matter what your intentions, this will be the effect of your inappropriate “compliments.” Why? Because a statement about their anatomy or sexual appearance gives notice that this woman, presently striving to do good work in a realm of public discourse, must please and impress not just with her work or intellectual contributions, and not even with the sexuality we all inevitably carry, but with an available sexuality — free for inspection, comment, and all but direct physical fondling by the observers.

WTF is that? As to the “Well, it could happen to men, too, so it’s really equal”:  That it happens to men only with extreme rarity should tell us something. It happens rarely to men, and frequently to women, because some men feel they gain an advantage by introducing sexuality into the conversation. So cowboy up. Be man enough to fight fair.

Leave the tits out of it. If you must mutter about them, mutter to yourself later, when you’re all manly and alone.

I harbor no doubt that Christie’s BRING IT attitude can deliver what we might call an educational effect. I was once walking down a Brooklyn street with two friends, a man and a woman, soon after we graduated college — Oberlin, where harassing and sexist language and leering was (rightly) looked at harshly and so was rarely heard — when one of a trio of large, tough-looking construction workers, who were sitting alongside the sidewalk having lunch, gave a wolf whistle in response to the sight of my friend Jane. (Such charm!) I felt shocked, bothered, disgusted, flummoxed as to what to do, and a wee bit scared. Should I be chivalrous and say, in however many words, STFU? And possibly get thumped?

I didn’t have to decide. In less than a second, Jane took matters into her own hands. She immediately stopped and turned and faced these three big men dead on and said, “Thanks! Thanks for NOTHING!” Doug and I stood slack-jawed, amazed. The construction workers sat dumbstruck. They stayed dumbstruck as Jane stared them down for several seconds. They said nothing as she turned and we walked off.

I like to think their behavior and possibly even their thinking was changed. I know my own thinking about such comments were.

Finally: Men, if the above seems complicated, use this simple rule: If you’ve a vague feeling that what you’re getting ready to say might be inappropriate, pay heed. Say something safer, or just STFU.

If that rule is too complicated, just STFU.

So readers, that’s my two cents. For the heavy  coins, head to NotSoNerdyChristie’s blog, read her post, and engage. Mind your manners.

And to Christie Wilcox: Sister, you kicked some ass.


“A Handy Tip for the Easily Distracted”:

Filmmaker Miranda July, who apparently suffers from the distractibility that led you and me both to this film (she once had a real problem resisting the PennySaver), fashioned this short instructional film from a scene she cut from her feature The Future, in which she plays the under-employed dancer who is shown here burying her distractions. Alas, this won’t work if your main distraction, your laptop, is also your main work tool. But that’s why they make Freedom.

Many thanks to Ayun Halliday, who drew this to my attention in a nice post at the marvelous Open Culture, a distraction mine stuffed with great ore.


Miranda July’s very cool website.

Her instructional talk On Strangers (the vid at the top of the page), which is both talk and experiment.

Ayan Halliday’s ” ” “.

How Petulant Skeptic, in the interest of procrastination, de-programs his self-control. Literally.

Again: Freedom, so you can end the distraction.


Don’t Step in That Sh*t: How the GMO-Study Authors Played the Media

Last week a small group of scientists and journalists signed a secret pact to do a bad, bad, really bad thing to science, journalism, and everyone that depends on either of those things, which is to say everybody, including you. The authors of a small, weak study of genetically modified crops managed to warp media coverage of their small, weak study by letting journalists read versions of the study before publication (and a big press conference) only if the journalists agreed not to talk to any outside scientists before the embargo date.

As Carl Zimmer points out at The Loom:

the strategy was clear: prevent science writers from getting informed outside opinions, so that you can bask in the badly-reported media spotlight. Sure, the real story may emerge later, but if you get that first burst of attention, you can lock in people’s first impressions.… The French scientists got the attention of the French government, and thus reinforcing opposition to genetically modified foods, although the study itself fails to make that case. Mission accomplished.

This is, as my grandpa would say, a mighty big pile of Grade-A horseshit. It’s a move specifically designed to undermine the mechanisms of good science, good journalism, and good policy, all so that the authors of a weak study can shape a political debate — in this case, the debate over whether to ban genetically modified foods. It also just happens to fall just before publication of an upcoming book by one of the study authors. And it worked. The study generated a ton of positive coverage before experts had a chance to point out how weak it was. The president of France immediately cited the study as a reason to ban such foods, as did anti-GMO activists in California.

Fortunately, Zimmer was quick to point out why this thing smells so bad — and that shame should fall on scientists who use such confidentiality agreements and on journalists who agreed to them. Science and journalism work, when they do, by casting light on their subjects from several different angles. Intentionally generating an initial burst of press coverage that draws from only one perspective betrays all the good interests of both disciplines — and of the citizens and readers who fund those endeavors.

Good on Zimmer and everyone else who called this out. For more, read Zimmer’s full (but short) post here, or listen to a fine short interview with Zimmer that Brook Gladstone did at On The Media.


Stenographers, anyone? is a good roundup of reactions by the invaluable Embargo Watch, which chronicles other hijinks that the embargo allows. Other good roundups by Deborah Blum at Knight Science Journalism Tracker and

Single-Study Syndrome and the G.M.O. Food Fight, in which the Times’ Andy Revkin points out this is also an example of the press’s habit of giving fevered coverage to even small, weak single studies.

Science Held Hostage, Zimmer’s account of a similar ruse used to spin coverage of a fossil discovery.

Are GMO foods safe? Opponents are skewing the science to scare people.  by Keith Kloor at Slate.

Image by dok1, via Flickr. Some rights reserved.