Friday, December 29, 2006

Universal human behaviors

There is a trend amongst scholars in sociology and gender sciences to argue that more or less everything is social constructions. Relationships and roles in the society are constructed by humans in our conversations. Hence, they argue, there are almost no universal behaviors. Anthropologists writing about strange habits in different societies are often cited to show that there is great variability between people living in different places, and indeed there is. However, it is often overlooked that there are many similarities between different cultures as well. I argue that even though there are many differences between people in different societies that stand out, there are also many, more fundamental, behaviors which do not vary between different cultures. These behaviors seem so natural to us that we barely notice them...

Take beauty for instance. Is it true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder? Research suggests not! People from cultures all around the globe agree on what faces are beautiful and which are not beautiful. For example, symmetrical faces are seen as more attractive than non-symmetrical faces. Similarly, around the globe a 0.7 and 0.9 waist to hip ratio for women and men respectively, is considered the most attractive body shape. Preferences for the amount of fat on the body varies between cultures. In starving countries in Africa "wider" ladies are generally preferred whereas in western cultures almost anorectic women are seen as very attractive, but consistently it is found that people prefer 0.7 and 0.9 waist to hip ratios. We can do even better than this. For example, have you seen someone who becomes happy when faced with misfortune and sad when life is good? Have you heard of a society where there is neither love nor hate?

Comparing humans to other species can show us how similar we really are as a species. The dung fly know no better place for mating than a new, fresh, rich in nutrients pile of dung. What do you imagine dung smells like for a dung fly? Probably it is equivalent to when we smell our partners perfume or a bed of roses. I don´t think there is any woman who would prefer to pop out her baby into a pile of dung, but why not? I hope it is clear by now that humans, even though we differ in many respects, are fundamentally very similar to each other. Any two humans will differ only marginally in their DNA sequence, and this similarity has a correspondence in the phenotype of the host. Put more simply, all humans share most of their DNA and therefore we are very similar in the most fundamental respects.

As I have argued before I think it is better to recognise that we have some instincts and then figure out the best way to deal with these, than to say that we have no instincts or innate behavioral patterns because we want it to be true. "Go save the world, but do it using what you know about human nature"...

If you have not been convinced that our seemingly natural behaviors are in fact not so natural, then take a look at this wonderful citation from William James, one of the founders of psychology.

"On making the natural seem strange...
It takes...a mind debauched by learning to carry the process of making the natural seem strange, so far as to ask for the why of any instinctive human act. To the metaphysician alone can such questions occur as: Why do we smile, when pleased, and not scowl? Why are we unable to talk to a crowd as we talk to a single friend? Why does a particular maiden turn our wits so upsidedown? The common man can only say, Of course we smile, of course our heart palpitates at the sight of the crowd, of course we love the maiden, that beautiful soul clad in that perfect form, so palpably and flagrantly made for all eternity to be loved! And so, probably, does each animal feel about the particular things it tends to do in the presence of particular objects. ... To the lion it is the lioness which is made to be loved; to the bear, the shebear. To the broody hen the notion would probably seem monstrous that there should be a creature in the world to whom a nestful of eggs was not the utterly fascinating and precious and never-to-be-too-much-sat-upon object which it is to her. " (William James, 1890)"

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Why I don´t believe in homeopathy

Homeopathy is an alternative kind of medicine based on the principle "like cures like". This means that a substance which in a large dose will cause some form of illness, will in a small dose cure the same illness. Already at this point my sceptic instinct kicks in. Does this mean that if I am poisoned with arsenic, then taking a little bit more will cure me? Eating fat food (in small quantities) will make me thinner? Sugar will help against diabetes? Furthermore, it is suggested that substances get better the more diluted they are. One explanation of this pattern could be that the active ingredient is harmful, and therefore, the more diluted substance will have less of a negative effect on the patient. Often homeopathic medicines doesn´t contain a single molecule of active substance, it is pure water. It is claimed that the water molecules have a memory of the active substance and therefore they work (see picture). I would like to know how a memory is stored in two hydrogen and an oxygen... Despite these issues which are at odds with both chemical and physical principles homeopathic medicine is gaining in popularity. In Belgium, for instance, 52% of the people use homeopathic substances. On the positive side, these substances are unlikely to do any harm to the patients.

Since I grew up in Järna, the Scandinavian centre of the Antroposofic movement, I have been exposed to many weird theories that flourish in this little town. I should mention here, in case friends and family read this, that I think there are many good things about antroposofi. They have a developed art and many good artists have received their training in Järna. I also think their school system is superior to others in many respects (though not all). Nevertheless, some theories are, in my opinion, swallowed with too little sceptic though. For instance, in Järna people widely believe in astrology, and they use celestial powers to make biodynamical foods that will give the consumer more spiritual strength...

In Järna it is also widely believed that homeopathic medicine works. My mother is one of its advocates and she often gave me these substances when I was sick. When got well she would say, I told you so, it works. I don´t think she thought a lot about it when I followed the normal pattern. Individual exemplars are of course no valid evidence, even if I did get well earlier than normally it might have been because of other factors, such as the healthy food that she insisted on giving to me (which I am of course grateful for). So what does the evidence say?

There are, to my surprise, one meta-analysis which suggests that homeopathic substances do have an effect. This study, published in the British medical journal showed that in 81 out of 107 trials, homeopathic substances had been effective. However, in another meta-analysis published by the lancet, the effect was at par with the placebo effect. Studies with better experimental control more rarely show significant effects. Because homeopathic theory is at odds with chemical and physical laws I believe that the effects that are attributed to these substances are actually placebo effects.

A clever little twitch has made it all but impossible to falsify homeopathy, which is not a virtue in a scientific sense. Homeopaths claim that even though two persons have the same disease, they may need different remedies, so when someone is given a homeopathic substance and there is no effect, the doctor can simply refer to this principle. This is similar to telling your psychoanalyst that you were not abused as a child. He (it is normally a he) will respond that you are in denial. If you say that you were indeed abused he will say "aha, then I was right"...

There is an award of one million dollars to you if you can show in a well conducted experiment that homeopathic medicine works...

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Birthday paradox/problem

Did you know that if you are at a party with 23 people attending, then the probability that two people will share birthday is more than 50%!

I sometimes use this example as a way to show people that our intuitive reasoning with numbers can be quite wrong, and it really works, people shake their head in disbelief when I tell them this statistic. How can this be? To illustrate imagine that there are two people attending a party. There are 364 ways in which the second person will not have the same birthday as the first person. For the third person there are 363 days which are still not occupied. The formula that we get is that the probability that at least two people share the same birthday when there are three people attending is 1-(365*364*363)/(365*365*365) = about 0.01. If you do the same calculation but with 23 people p will be just above 0.5. The general formula is: 1 - (365)(364)(363)...(365 - N + 1)/(365)^N.

Doing this calculation with 40 persons will give you a probability of around 0.9 (see graph above)! Next time you are attending a party with 40 persons or more, why not make the safest bet ever... For more information on this problem as well as a birthday generator which lets you test these claims empirically, go to ""

Friday, December 15, 2006

South Africa finally starting to realize what AIDS is…

Each time I have read about AIDS policies in South Africa I have been amazed. South Africa is, as far as I know, a relatively developed country if you compare it to other nations in the same area, yet somehow they have managed to avoid reading about AIDS research for at least a decennium. Only a few years ago president Mbeki (picture) questioned whether HIV and AIDS were related(!). Since then his unbelievable ignorance has generated headlines on a regular basis. On one of his particularly bright moment Mbeki said that he did not know anyone who had died in AIDS. Not long before he uttered these words his own press secretary had succumbed to the disease, not to mention the 600 people who die from AIDS in South Africa every single day!

The climax happened in august this year when South African representatives visited the international AIDS conference, proudly exhibiting their best cures against the disease, such as beets and garlic. They were severely ridiculed because of this, and a speech by AIDS activist Stephen Lewis (who is by the way not welcome in South Africa) received wild cheers when he described South Africa’s AIDS policy as insanity (I would have clapped to). Since then South Africa, thank god, have started to give their population conventional medicine which can help increase life span as well as life quality. Out of the 5.5 million HIV carriers in South Africa today, 213000 are receiving medicines, a figure which is currently increasing with 11000 per month. Too slow indeed, but better than it has been before.

What I really find hard to understand about all this is why? What do politicians have to gain by letting their people suffer more than is necessary? Does anyone know? Or is it really true that they believe Garlic and beets (or having sex with infants) really helps? Do religious beliefs play a role? In all fairness you can find weird cures for most things in most countries, but rarely does the government itself hold such outrageous beliefs about such a serious belief…

Most of this I read in yesterdays (14th of December 2006) issue of In yesterdays Svenska dagbladet.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Buy a christmas gift from Oxfam

If you know a lot of people who cannot think of anything they would want for Christmas here is a tip. Go to oxfam unwrapped and buy a gift that will actually make a difference to someone. They sell alpacas, goats, water, trees, condoms, HIV awareness events, textbooks etc etc. The gifts range from just a few punds to 1700 pounds, an animal costs about 20 pounds. I just purchased three alpacas since I know there will be a lot of people in my family who will never be able to answer the question "what do you want for Christmas"...

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

About me

I was born 1983 in a small village outside Århus in Denmark. At seven years of age I moved with my mother and my sister to Järna, Swedens center for antroposofi, located south of Södertälje. There I went through elementary school and high school. Before moving on to Lund I also worked one year with neuropsychiatrically challenged children (mostly Autism and ADHD).

In Lund I have studied mainly psychology, but I have also taken courses in statistics, criminology and astrophysics. After two years in Lund I went abroad to University of California, Santa Barbara where I studied neuroscience and biology for three semesters. Subsequently I went back to Lund to finish my degree in psychology, resulting in this article. After having finished my degree there I received a six month scholarship to work on the cerebellum and classical conditioning. During the fall (2007), I worked together with my former advisor on a new project which involved finding good material to study retrival induced forgetting (RIF). Simultaneously I was studying at the medical program here in Lund. As you might have already guessed my big passion (in academics) is the brain, the most complex thing in the entire universe. However, I think that my blog will reflect the fact that I am interested in subjects far beyond the brain. I love physics and astronomy, and evolution is another subjects which gets me going...

I am a strong believer in the liberty of individuals to make up their own minds on almost all matters. Neither churches nor any other intrest group should be allowed to indoctrinate children. In symphoni with these values I have joined the Swedish Humanist association "Humanisterna", who are actively advocating these values in the Swedish society. When it comes to Science and philosophy I am largely pragmatic, though I do believe there is an objective truth out there (in contrast to post-modernist scholars). I believe that natural laws govern everything that is happening in the universe, including our own behaviors. Therefore I do not believe that we have free will. However, I recognize the importance of the concept of free will, it would be too complicated to speak in terms of interacting molecules in ordinary life.

Besides all this nerdy stuff I like to play and watch football (for Americans this means soccer), and I (kind of) regularly run. I live in Lund toghether with my wife and her three children, and our dog. Then of course I like to blog...

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Some interesting discoveries about pheromones

In order to prepare for my soon to start PhD studies, I have been reading a lot of neuroscience lately. I am currently reading a book called Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain by Bear et. al. (2006), a textbook that I warmly recommend to everyone interested in the field.

In this book there is a section about human pheromones which I found so fascinating that I thought I would share it with those few people who occasionally read this blog. Pheromones are basically small molecules that fall off us and are sometimes picked up by the nose of other people or (more likely) animals. Our pheromones tells our genotype and can work as a fingerprint even more accurate than the fingertip fingerprint. A bloodhound which has perhaps the most developed sense of smell of all animals has great difficulty in distinguishing between two identical twins. Fraternal twins on the other hand is piece of cake. An ewe will establish a life long memory of her lamb when it is born. Pregnant female mice will automatically trigger an abortion if they feel the smell of a male other than the one that impregnated her.

What about humans then. One rather well known, yet astonishing, effect of pheromones is the synchronization of women's menstrual period. When females are allowed to smell pads which have been under the arm of another female, their menstrual period will converge with the other females period. This happens even though the women do not feel any smell at all! Pheromones are also very much involved in our sex life, believe it or not. Evidence indicates, that by picking up pheromones we can sense whether the potential mate is a good match or not (in terms of genes). Napoleon (see picture) was probably one of the first people to realise what smells can do to your lust. He once wrote and asked Josephine not to bathe for two weeks(!), so that he could enjoy her aromas...

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Richard Dawkins interview

If you, like myself, are interested in questions about science, religion, and evolution you have probably heard of Richard Dawkins (see picture). Following, his recent book, The God Delusion, he has answered a few questions from the readers. Find all the questions and answers here. Below is his response to people who claim that he is a fanatic... This post is more or less a plagiarism of Felicia Giljam's most recent post on her blog.

What is there to distinguish your intolerance from that of a religious fanatic?

Dawkins answer: It would be intolerant if I advocated the banning of religion, but of course I never have. I merely give robust expression to views about the cosmos and morality with which you happen to disagree. You interpret that as 'intolerance' because of the weirdly privileged status of religion, which expects to get a free ride and not have to defend itself. If I wrote a book called The Socialist Delusion or The Monetarist Delusion, you would never use a word like intolerance. But The God Delusion sounds automatically intolerant. Why? What's the difference?

I have a (you might say fanatical) desire for people to use their own minds and make their own choices, based upon publicly available evidence. Religious fanatics want people to switch off their own minds, ignore the evidence, and blindly follow a holy book based upon private 'revelation'. There is a huge difference.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Neuropharmacology of alcohol: One reason why you don't want to become an alcoholic

The active ingredient of alcohol is as most people already know, ethanol. We all know too well what the behavioral effects of this drug is, people who were previously shy starts to dance on tables, we say things we later regret, people hook up or break up, or worse, get into fights. In sum we lose our inhibitions and become reptiles for an evening. How do these effects arise?

Before I had taken a course in pharmacology I thought it would be almost as dull as economics (I have not studied economics, so this is just a prejudice of mine). I do not know if it was because of our terrific teacher, Karen Szumlinski (UCSB), nevertheless, I now consider pharmacology, and particularly neuropharmacology as one of the most interesting subjects there is. Anyways, back to the subject. Alcohol affects many different transmitter systems in our brain, amongst them the GABA system and the Glutamate system. The GABA system mainly inhibits our brain, so when alcohol comes and stimulates the GABA system it means that certain brain regions will become more inhibited. Most notably, our frontal cortex is inhibited. (I am sorry if this gets too technical.) The frontal lobe inhibits impulses, so when alcohol comes and stimulates the GABA system, this inhibits the frontal lobe, which in turn prevents us from inhibiting impulses, thus you get dancing on the tables. At a larger dose the GABAa system will become so active that you lose your conscience (see picture).

Another, potentially more dangerous, effect of alcohol is its effect on the glutamate system and the NMDA receptor. Activating these receptors will activate the neuron and make it fire, if you overactive the NMDA receptor, the cell will become hyperactive and die. Alcohol is actually an NMDA antagonist meaning that it prevents activity at this receptor, however, when you are on your third bottle of wine and the brain realizes that there is no activity at any of the NMDA receptors anymore it gets worried. It has a solution to this however: Make more NMDA receptors! If you are an alcoholic and drink a lot, often, then your brain will produce tons of receptors. When you finally put down the bottle for a while, there will be excess NMDA activity and many cells will die. In sum then, drinking alcohol will cause an up regulation of NMDA receptors which in turn will cause excess activity at these receptors when there is no antagonist (such as alcohol) present.

Also, one last advice, don't drink coffee the day after, it can cause seizures...

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Our debt to research animals...

If you google for "animal research" and then switch to the pictures section you will see many very upsetting pictures depicting animals that have been used in research. I first want to point out that these pictures are not representative of the way it looks in most laboratories. Secondly, the animals in the pictures may not have suffered to anywhere near the extent that people uploading these pictures want to make you believe.

I do not think that being a laboratory animal is a great life for an animal, however, nor do I think that it is the worst fate an animal can suffer. I would personally much rather be a laboratory rat than a cow or a chicken that is slaughtered to become food for us. There are a number of reasons why animal research is not as bad as some people want us to believe. First of all, only in a minority of all the conducted experiments do the animals experience any pain, and when they do they are nearly always given anesthetics (one exception to this is when pain is the research subject in which case it is a necessary evil). Secondly, researchers, in order to get good data, must make sure that their animals are feeling well. Data from sick laboratory animals is worthless. Of course, the well being of laboratory animals is also inspected by committees on a regular basis and labs which do not take proper care of the animals will be shut down. Thirdly, for me, personally, working with laboratory animals actually made me value animals more than before. Rats are, believe it or not, smart playful and social, and working with them have made me more concerned about animal welfare in general. I now buy ecological meat, eggs from free outdoor hens (free walking indoor is no good either!), and in general try to buy products that have not caused unnecessary pain for any animals. This brings me to my next point.

I often hear from different people that many animal experiment that are carried out are unnecessary. To some extent I agree, I think that animal experiments that are done to develop new cosmetics are definitely unnecessary, let us use what we have got and spare these animals. Nevertheless, to conduct an experiment involving animals at a university one have to argue, very convincingly, that the research can further our knowledge in some way, and one must justify any hypothetical pain that the animals must endure. It is also not true that there are other methods that we could use just as well as animal research. Sure, studies can be done in vitro (that is, in a dish), but today these methods cannot replace animal research.

In the end I guess it all comes down to what your values are. Is it worth it to sacrifice laboratory animals in order to develop medicines that can cure us as well as animals. My answer is yes, but I don't think it is entirely obvious, so think for yourself. Perhaps we should be content with just living 48 years instead of around 75 years, and perhaps we should just accept that some diseases will kill us (I am not being sarcastic here).

I want to end with a list of some of the discoveries that would not have been possible was it not for animal research, you can find a much longer list and more information about animal research here. Our dept to laboratory animals, as you can see from the list below (remember this is not a complete list), is indeed great. The laboratory animals have helped us alot, and for that they deserve our respect, but should we stop doing these types of experiments?

Vaccines: Anthrax, Smallpox, Polio, Yellow fever, Measles, Hapatitis, Whooping cough...

Drugs: Insulin, Antibiotics, Birth control pills, pain killers, anti malaria drugs, chemotherapy...

Treatable conditions: Anemia, PKU, Herpes, Allergies, Chlamydia...

Life prolonging treatments: Diabetes, Epilepsy, Leukemia...

Other major discoveries: DNA, Virus, Electron microscope, ECG, EEG, Pacemaker, Artificial hips, x-rays, monoclonal antibodies, ultrasound, MRI, Artificial limbs, Effects of smoking alcohol and drugs, How lifestyle affects health

Surgery: Blood transfusions, Coronary bypass, Organ transplants, Breast cancer

Friday, November 24, 2006

My current research project (fall 06) - Electrophysiology and stereotypes...

Since I am doing the "C-course" in psychology at Lund University, I am expected to carry out a research project. I was lucky to be allowed to use the rather new EEG lab that has been set up. This allowed me to do an experiment that I have been thinking about since the spring but which I have not had the chance to do until now

So what is my project about? I am actually trying to do something as sexy as measuring peoples' stereotypes using EEG. An EEG (see picture) measures the electrical activity that the brain generates. This electrical activity differs depending on what the brain is doing. If you are sleepy the brain will start to generate what is referred to as alpha waves (a funny consequence of this is that you can actually see when your subjects are starting to get fed up with your experiment), if you are dead there will be a straight line, an epileptic seizure is characterized by wild activity etc etc. In fact, the brain also generates characteristic wave patterns in response to certain events, these patterns are called event-related potentials or ERPs.

In my experiment I am looking at a specific wave called the N400, N because it is a negative deflection, and 400 because it occurs 400 milliseconds after the stimuli was presented. The N400 appears when our brain perceives something unexpected. For example, when the brain hears a sentence such as "Jack took the bus to town to meet some of his boxershorts", the brain says, wrooong!! (an N400 wave appears). Similarly, if famous faces from different occupations e.g. Robert De Niro and Billy the clown, are presented serially, the N400 also appears, thus suggesting that our brain has recognized that these two stimuli did not belong to the same category.

I am reasoning that stereotype incongruency, that is, things that go against your stereotype, will also elicit this N400 component. To test this prediction I have obtained a collection of attractive and unattractive faces as well as a collection of negative and positive words. Presumably the N400 component will appear when I present to my participants an attractive face followed by a negative word, or conversely an unattracitve face followed by a positive word. The reason I believe so is that there is a lot of evidence suggesting that we associate attractive faces with positive characteristics and unattractive faces with negative characteristics. To be continued...

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Trofim Lysenko - why we should not mix ideology and science

What happens when ideology becomes more important than scientifical critical thinking?

Trofim Lysenko (see picture), quickly became a very prominent "scientist" in the soviet union following an article printed in Pravda (aka "the truth") about this barefooted peasant who "solved problems". Even though he had little education and was barely literate Lysenko progressed rapidly in the soviet system and it did not take many years before he controlled much of the agricultural policy in the soviet union. Lysenko was a practical man who cared about practical issues rather than theoretical nonsense. When something appealed to Lysenko's intuition there was really no need for rigorous testing, consider for instance his citation "In order to obtain a certain result, you must want to obtain precisely that result; if you want to obtain a certain result you will obtain it". When he had achieved a powerful position in the soviet union Lysenko's intuition became so important that criticzing him was associated with grave dangers. Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian biologist who have made important contributions to genetics was one of Lysenko's many victims

Lysenko did not believe in Darwin's theory of evolution because organisms do not "compete", they co-operate. Based on this belief Lysenko ordered that trees should be planted in groups so that they would co-operate (perhaps he was a well-meaning man after all). The result: only 5% of the trees planted flourished, 15% survived, huge economical costs to the soviet union. Lysenko also believed that environment meant everything. Give a seed a good environment and it will flourish. The result of this: availability of meat and vegetables was no higher in 1953 than in 1900 when Tsar Nicholas II reigned the country, millions of Russians starved. In fact, Lysenko even believed that one could easily change one species into another species by manipulating the environment, and indeed "scientists" began reporting studies in which they changed bacteria into viruses and even a rabbit into a chicken!

This history shows the danger of letting ideals steer science. Though he may have been a well meaning man, Lysenko ignored what was known about agriculture and the Russian people suffered the consequences. As I have previously argues, I think it would be a mistake to ignore what we know about human nature when we design our society. Under what conditions do people tend to co-operate, and when do we not co-operate?, what differences between the sexes should we expect and accept rather than fight against (and which should we fight against)? I think that the most important lesson of the above is that whatever ideological motives we have we should not let these motives affect the way we do scientific research...

Monday, November 13, 2006

Should we use stem cells?

"Stem cells fend off lung cancer".

I just read a news article with this headline in the journal Science. Apparently, because stem cells are rather similar to cancer cells, the immune system adaptation that occur when you inject stem cells into the lung, will subsequently help the immune system kill cancer cells as well. That is, the immune system treats stem cells as invaders, why they develop a defense against these cells. If the same immune system, on a subsequent occasion, encounters a cancer cell it will, because of the strong resemblance, wrongly "assume" that it is another stem cell and therefore get rid of it. Out of 25 mice that were given stem cells, 20 were able to kill a subsequent cancer. A slightly altered compound increased the cancer survival rate to 100%!!! This should be compared to the 0% survival rate experienced by mice that did not get any compound.

Of course, this does not mean that we can cure cancer in humans, at least not yet. Mice for some reason tend to respond better to cancer therapies, but nevertheless, I think the figures above justifies some excitement. I think that stem cell research is one of the methods with the best potential. This research not only has the potential to cure cancer, but various other diseases and insults as well, including Parkinson disease, chronic pain, and strokes.

So what about the larger issue? Are stem cells individuals? I guess that if you believe that a cell with all the genes necessary to build a human being is an individual, then stem cell research is murder. However, if this is your belief then scratching your nose or stepping into a shower would be genocide. All the cells that die when you do one of these two things could produce an individual if you put it into an egg and allowed it to mature. So why should stem cells be protected as if they were full grown individuals? A fully conscious monkey, capable of feeling pain and stress, has barely any rights! That is puzzling to me. Furthermore I think not doing stem cell research is unethical, considering the huge potential. Not doing stem cell research is the same as saying to those who have Parkinson or those who are suffering from chronic pain, that "we care more about these few cells than we care about finding a cure for you".

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Ethics of an atheist

One common misconcepetion about atheists is that they do not care about anything, after all, why would anyone want to be good unless they are rewarded with a place in heaven?, and what would stop someone who do not fear the eternal fire in hell from rape and murder?

I think statements such as these say more about religious people than it does about atheists. It reveals that the only reason they are acting morally is because of the reward that they believe will be given to them.

For me there is really no egoistic reason for behaving morally, it is just something I try to do for its own sake, acting morally is simply good. I think that ethics in the 21st century should not be based on an ancient book of fiction which advocates "turning the other cheek" on one page and stoning to death those who do not share your faith on another page. Rather, I advocate thinking rationally about ethics.

I personally subscribe to some form of utilitarianism, meaning that we should try to maximize happiness in the word. I say some form of utilitarianism, because sometimes I think it can be questioned whether the end justify the means. Another sound ethical principle in my opinion is the one of the "original position" advocated by Harvard professor John Rawls. According to Rawls it should not matter where or by whom you are born. If being born in a certain part of the society or by a certain class means entering a life of unhappiness or even slavery, then it is not a good society. A leader, thus should be able to say that "if I was reborn tomorrow, it would make no difference to me where or by whom I was born". This may be a utopian idea, but I think it is a good guideline.

How does a belief in evolution fit into all this? Surely, evolution teaches us that the killing rivals and raping is good? No! Evolution, says nothing about what is good and what is bad, that is for us to decide. Evolution can teach us many things about the ways in which humans work and what kinds of instincts to expect. Evolutionary psychology can give us invaluable information in the building of a just world. Not taking into account what we know about humanity when building a society just seems rather stupid to me. I will end with a quote by a great Professor, Leda Cosmides (see picture), whose class I had the privilege to attend; "Go save the world, but do it using what you know about human nature!"

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Experimental evidence of evolution

For those who say that the theory of evolution is a belief just like intelligent design is a belief, here is another piece of evidence for you. The two species shown to the left are involved in a "red queen" antagonistic co-evolution race. The wasp feeds on the larvae of the house fly, and because wasps that eat more larvae are more likely to survive and have offspring, the population as a whole become more and more efficient predators. The fly on the other hand must develop defenses against these wasps. Those larvae that are unable to defend themselves against the predator will die and therefore cannot contribute any genes to the next generation. In sum while the wasps become more and more efficient killers, the flies get better at protecting themselves, thus the relative frequencies remain stable.

What happens though if you, for each new generation, take out, say all the surviving flies, that is, all the flies that were able to survive the attacks from the wasps, and instead introduce a new population of flies that have never encountered these wasps before? What happens is that virtually all flies are killed! The wasps have evolved by natural selection, but the flies have not. If you do the opposite and introduce naive wasps to flies that have had a chance to evolve, then the relative frequencies tilt to the advantage of the fly. The wasps starve to death because they cannot overcome the defenses that the house fly has evolved.

This experiment has actually been done, way back in 1963 by Plmentel and Al-Hafldh, and yet, there are still tons of people who claim that the theory of evolution asserts that all species were formed accidentally (not to mention all the Christians who firmly believes this is what the theory of evolution says). How is the process illuminated in these experiments chance? Please, someone explain that to me, I do not understand

Why we need the theory of evolution to explain HIV

If you are wondering why the HIV virus unlike other viruses kills you and if you have not accepted the catholic explanation that all Africans who get aids are sinners and deserved it you might want to continue reading.

The reason that our otherwise extremely impressive immune system is not able to cope with the HIV virus in the long run, is that the virus has a very high mutation and proliferation rate. Following any type of virus infection, the number of viruses in your body will go up exponentially, however, once your immune system is able to recognize the virus it will mobilize its troops (the white blood cells) and destroy the invader.

The same thing happens when someone is infected with HIV, first the number of viruses go up, then down. However, because of its rapid mutation rate, some of the HIV viruses will change so much that the immune system no longer recognize the virus. This new virus, which has evolved by natural selection will proliferate. Our immune system will soon be able to recognize the new invader, but then yet a different virus will be present. This constant race will go on for about ten years. At that time the HIV virus will have killed of so many white blood cells (the HIV virus is specifically targeting white blood cells) that the body can no longer defend itself against otherwise non-fatal infection, and you will die, perhaps, from a simple flu.

Friday, November 10, 2006

A few interesting facts from "Molecular biology of the cell"

Here follows a few of the astonishing facts that you will learn if you read "Molecular Biology of the Cell" by Alberts et. al.

Did you know that
- During cell division your DNA is replicated at a speed of 1million nucleotide base pairs per second, and yet a mistake only occurs one time for every 1billion base pairs!
- Each nucleus in your body contains aproximately 2 meters of DNA in a nucleus that is six micrometers in diameter, this is equivalent to packing 40 kilometers of fine thread into a tennisball!
- All the ATP in our body (about one billion molecules) is used and recycled every 1-2 minutes. That means that we use and recycle 10000000 molecules of ATP per second!
- A extension of a grove in an enzyme by one nanometer can reduce its efficiency in carrying out its reaction by more than a thousand fold!