Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Looking forward to 2011

Time to die. This parasitic fungus begins as a spore on an ant’s body. It germinates, grows inside its host and eventually directs the ant’s brain to climb a plant and clamp its mandibles around a leaf or stem. The fungus then kills its host.

It won’t be such a bad year. Stock markets will reach record highs and pundits will say we’ve entered a sustained boom. For many people, life will never again be so good as it will be this year.

The main worry will be price rises for many commodities. With a return to even modest rates of economic growth, demand will outstrip supply in several areas. Talk of “peak oil” will be joined by concerns over “peak food” and “peak water.” Serious water shortages will hit the American southwest and southeast.

There will also be concern over the decline in physical infrastructure, i.e., roads, bridges, and the like. Most of this infrastructure was built during the postwar boom of the 1950s and 1960s. Now it’s falling apart.

Finally, there will be concern over behavioral infrastructure, albeit less openly expressed. The market economy may be self-generating, but it doesn’t self-generate in a vacuum. As the historical economist Gregory Clark has shown, the market economy began to develop once a certain behavioral profile had become the norm—above all, a commitment to honesty and a rejection of violence and theft as means of self-enrichment. If the current population is replaced by one where people casually cheat and steal, transaction costs will escalate throughout the economy. A lot of economic activity will simply cease to be cost-effective.

Economists are afraid that a sharp rise in interest rates will abort the present recovery. Or a sharp rise in commodity prices. Frankly, I’m more worried about the behavioral changes.

Yes, humans are ingenious creatures. We’ll undoubtedly think of something. Nonetheless, the coming decade will confront us with several different challenges. Do we have enough fingers to plug all the holes in the dike? I’m not so sure, especially given the obliviousness of our political and economic elites.

Anyway, these problems won’t really bite until the second half of the decade. So enjoy life.

This year, I’ll try to use my recent book, Femmes claires, hommes foncés. Les racines oubliées du colorisme, to raise awareness of skin tone and gender/face recognition.

In short, the human face is a special visual object. We don’t learn to recognize it. Instead, the brain has a hardwired capacity for face recognition. This point is no longer debated. Controversy begins when we turn to the elements of this hardwired facial schema.

It is increasingly apparent, especially with recent work by Richard Russell and by Frédéric Gosselin’s research team, that one key element is skin tone, specifically facial coloration and luminosity. This visual element is apparently used to distinguish between male and female faces.

In pursuing this line of research, we should above all:

- locate the region of the brain that harbors this mental module. Gosselin’s team suggest that the location may be in the infero-temporal cortex, which handles both face perception and color perception. The best approach would likely be a real-time MRI study.

- show that this mental capacity is indeed hardwired and not learned. The best approach would be a twin study, such as Zhu et al (2009) used to show that face recognition is hardwired.

- identify other areas of cognition and behavior (sexual attraction, emotional distancing, etc.) that may be influenced by the output of this module.

The challenge here is not so much funding as access to special resources (real-time MRI brain scanning, large pools of identical and fraternal twins, etc.). And beyond that challenge lies another one: persuading other academics that this line of research is worth pursuing.

Other topics

This year, I hope to write posts on the following two topics. Depending on what turns up, these posts may eventually become publishable articles.

Parasite manipulation: Certain parasites can manipulate host behavior in a number of surprisingly specific ways. Although parasite manipulation has been documented for many non-human species, possible human examples are still lacking. One problem is paradigmatic. When a non-human animal acts strangely, we suspect parasite manipulation. When a human acts strangely, we just see a strange behavior.

I will argue that a likely candidate for parasite manipulation in our species is vaginal yeast, specifically the more aggressive strains associated with vulvovaginal candidiasis. This parasite has evolved the capacity to cross the blood/brain barrier and may manipulate certain neural circuits in both the female host and her regular male partner.

A new cold war? When the Cold War ended some two decades ago, it seemed that we had come to the “end of history.” All nations now agreed on the best social system: a free market economy combined with certain communitarian values (the family, the local community, the nation, etc.).

Yet, after a period of apparent convergence, the world is once more repolarizing into two opposing blocs. In the Eastern bloc, the decline of Marxism-Leninism has allowed a resurgence of pre-revolutionary social values, often with the encouragement of the State. Meanwhile, these same values are withering away in the Western bloc. Our ideal is now the self-defining individual who freely operates within a post-national, post-gender, and post-family world. But this freedom does not include the right to adhere to older social values. Such adherence is increasingly scorned as pathological, if not criminal.

This repolarization is especially visible on the Korean peninsula, where it is fueling renewed tensions. Will we see a Second Korean War? And will this war escalate into a larger, more global conflict?


Brainwashed by a parasite, Neurophilosophy, August 9, 2007

Clark, G.. (2007). A Farewell to Alms. A Brief Economic History of the World, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.

Clark, G. (2009). The indicted and the wealthy: surnames, reproductive success, genetic selection and social class in pre-industrial England,

Dupuis-Roy, N., I. Fortin, D. Fiset, and F. Gosselin. (2009). Uncovering gender discrimination cues in a realistic setting. Journal of Vision, 9(2), 10, 1–8., doi:10.1167/9.2.10.

Frost, P. (2010). Femmes claires, hommes foncés. Les racines oubliées du colorisme, Quebec City: Presses de l’Université Laval.

Russell, R. (2003). Sex, beauty, and the relative luminance of facial features, Perception 32: 1093-1107.

Russell, R., B. Duchaine, and K. Nakayama. (2009). Super-recognizers: People with extraordinary face recognition ability. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 16(2):252-257.

Russell, R. and P. Sinha. (2007). Real-world face recognition: The importance of surface reflectance properties, Perception 36: 1368-1374.

Russell, R., P. Sinha, I. Biederman, and M. Nederhouser. (2006). Is pigmentation important for face recognition? Evidence from contrast negation, Perception 35: 749-759.

Zhu, Q., Y. Song, S. Hu, X. Li, M. Tian, Z. Zhen, Q. Dong, N. Kanwisher, and J. Liu. (2009). Heritability of the specific cognitive ability of face perception, Current Biology, 20:137-142.


J Schwartz said...

Another Greg Clark paper linked here:

"The Darwinian struggle that shaped human nature did not end with the Neolithic Revolution but continued right up until the Industrial Revolution. But the arrival of settled agriculture and stable property rights set natural selection on a very different course. It created an accelerated period of evolution, rewarding with reproductive success a new repertoire of human behaviors – patience, self-control, passivity, and hard work – which consequently spread widely.

And we see in England, from at least 1250, that the kind of people who succeeded in the economic system – who accumulated assets, got skills, got literacy – increased their representation in each generation. Through the long agrarian passage leading up to the Industrial Revolution man was becoming biologically more adapted to the modern economic world. Modern people are thus in part a creation of the market economies that emerged with the Neolithic Revolution. Just as people shaped economies, the pre-industrial economy shaped people. This has left the people of long settled agrarian societies substantially different now from our hunter gatherer ancestors, in terms of culture, and likely also in terms of biology."

The Domestication of Man: The Social Implications of Darwin

Anonymous said...

"I will argue that a likely candidate for parasite manipulation in our species is vaginal yeast, specifically the more aggressive strains associated with vulvovaginal candidiasis. This parasite has evolved the capacity to cross the blood/brain barrier and may manipulate certain neural circuits in both the female host and her regular male partner."

Haven't almost all women had a bout of this? Thus, wouldn't that mean that almost all men have been exposed? And what of a fetus?

I'll stay tuned. Am wondering just what kind of behavior you believe the suspected manipulation fosters.

BTW, I've seen that pic of the ant before and it gives me the creeps. Same thing with a pic of a crab that was taken over by a common parasite. Wow. All kinds of things might have body-snatched us.

Thanks for the preview of things to come.

Tod said...

If candidiasis does turn out to be capable of manipulation then there will be a paradigmatic shift; the viral causation of homosexuality will be seen as a lot more likely.

Native Australians don't suggest there is much to 'adaptive introgression'.

Anonymous said...

Had to add these two: first the succulina parasite that attacks crabs. This parasite changes the male crab's behavior to the point it adopts typically female crab behaviors, including mating gestures and nesting practices. Sure makes one think, doesn't it?

Also, I know that the continuing story of toxoplasma gondii is fascinating and that research on its effects continues, but I found this interview with Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky about it really interesting: . (He also speaks briefly of succulina.)

Check out his anecdote about his doctor friend's story about the organs of motorcycle accident victims. You can find it at approx. 15:25 in the video. If f you don't want to watch the video, the text of the interview is supplied in the link, and you can find that reference in paragraph 24 Whoa! I told a colleague of mine who frequently rides his motorcycle. He's now pretty interested in toxo.

What could be more interesting, and as we learn more and more about parasitic manipulation, more pertinent to human behavior than life forms that are, in a sense, smarter than we?

Tod said...

"the market economy began to develop once a certain behavioral profile had become the norm—above all, a commitment to honesty and a rejection of violence and theft as means of self-enrichment."

Those from societies where people are naturally predisposed to aggressively 'cut corners' (which is probably the default setting for humanity) will not gain any advantage from staying put because they'd have to deal with people like themselves - devious and suspicious. But if they move to where they'll be dealing with honest good citizen types they'll prosper.

Maybe the honest societies will start to seize up economically (I wish they would because I don't see any other way for current trends to alter) but I'm afraid I don't see that happening for long while. The trouble is the west is too productive and works too well; it will be able to support the predators in the medium term.

Tod said...

I don't see Russia as being part of an Eastern bloc. China is going to become a Mega state, states on the far side of China's rivals will be natural allies. So it will be Pakistan, Sri Lanka, maybe Bangladesh allying themselves to China. That is what will form the ' East'.

In the other corner :-

"We can expect the United States to lead a balancing coalition against China that includes India, Japan, Russia, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam, among others"

According to a Dec 2010 John Mearsheimer article in National Interest Imperial by Design.

The next war will pobably be a limited conventional one fought over the Siachen glacier ( which seperates Pakistan from China). Nukes? Hmmm, unlikely unless some Indian army general tries to throw the full weight of the Indian army at Pakistan.

November 2009: India stops road project in Kashmir after China objects

"Last month, China also offered financial help to Pakistan to build a multi-billion-dollar dam in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, which led to complaints from New Delhi.

N.Korean actions are mainly motovated by fear that the outside world will try to take advantage of the leadership succession. It's their way of warning the US not to get any funny ideas.

Anonymous said...

Considering the shortage of women in China and that " mortality in Russia is 3-5 times higher for men and twice as high for women" I would say that Russia is not going to join a block with China. A Chinese man married to a Russian woman said "”Life is so much better here,” he said. “In China, the competition is cruel and there is huge pressure on people. Here there is space and nature. I can walk by the sea or feel the fresh air in the forest. In China, there is barely a tree left"
Chinese immigrants flood Russian Far East

As for Korea the succession is a family one, maybe that is what you were getting at.

Tod said...

Sorry, above 'Anonymous' was actually yet another comment by me.

Anonymous, for toxo infected motorcycle accident victims there is another explaination. Men with a high degree of testosteronization may be prone to take risks and be particularly vulnerable to parasitic infections due to the effect of T. on the immune system.

Anonymous said...

Tod said, "Anonymous, for toxo infected motorcycle accident victims there is another explaination. Men with a high degree of testosteronization may be prone to take risks and be particularly vulnerable to parasitic infections due to the effect of T. on the immune system."

Thanks. I did assume that men who ride motorcycles, as that is a risky activity, are likely to be those who take more risks than the average guy, and that that might indicate high T; however, I didn't know that being high T. in that way would lessen one's immune system defences.

RS said...

As I recall, the Japanese aristocracy was swept aside, more than once, after having become 'effete', and perhaps particularly artistic.

Is this related to their taking highly genetically-physiologically feminized wives? And thus, over the generations, the men becoming less than highly androgenized - or even less androgenized than the median person?

There is of course the stereotype that gracility is aristocratic and robusticity plebeian.

I wonder if this could have any connection to European revolutions as well as Japanese.

Do you know if this idea has ever been raised?

RS said...

> or even less androgenized than the median person?

Lol, I meant median male of course.

Peter Frost said...

J. Schwartz,

Your Greg Clark quote is spot on!


About 5-8% of adult women have recurrent vulvovaginal candidosis. In total, 70-75% have had it at least once in their lifetime. The latter figure includes all strains of Candida albicans.

My hypothesis is that certain strains have specialized in vaginal infection and have exploited their ability to cross the blood/brain barrier. I'm still working on this hypothesis, so I don't feel quite ready to write it all up.

Hint: male-to-female transmission is much less common than female-to-male transmission.

Anon, Tod,

Yes, I've been following the research on toxoplasma gondii. As with C. albicans, it's difficult to prove the direction of causation.


At present, the Eastern bloc is essentially an alliance of convenience where the main members (Russia, China, Iran) are more afraid of the U.S. than of each other. They're very strange bedfellows, but the same could have been said about Russia, France, and Britain in 1914.

In 1914, a marginal player in the international system wished to unify all Serbs in a single state. This aim was impossible without the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and that aim was impossible without a much broader conflict that would involve not only Serbia and Austro-Hungary, but also Russia, Germany, and France.

Yes, a marginal player can engineer a world conflict if it understands the weaknesses of the international system.


Your idea sounds a bit like my article on genetic pacification, i.e., the shift to settled societies with State enforcement of justice created a new environment of selection pressures that penalized "bad boys" and rewarded "good boys." Greg Clark has also written on this subject.

Tod said...

'Jackie' Fisher before the event predicted that the Germans would start the war in 1914 because their big ships and canal were going to be finished then

Tod said...

While a marginal player can seem to engineer a conflict (as in the folk tale 'Kalila and Dimna' where the jackal engineers a conflict between the lion and the bull) I think the final cause of conflict ought to be interpreted differently. The lion was right to kill the bull in the story, or put it another way he would have been taking an unconscionable risk not to kill the bull; it was a potential threat and there was no way to know what the bull's real intentions were or were going to become in the future.

So while a clique of Serbian nationalists did engineer a conflict they were only able to do that because it was the sensible thing for the Germans to start a war in 1914 given that Russia was increasing its military potential with every year thereby making the German strategy unviable if they waited. (In fact they already had waited too long , they ought to have attacked Germany in 1905 when Russia was in no position to help France).

Now what is the risk to China in the ongoing developments of the international situation? None whatsoever as far as I can see. China is being assisted to become a giant Hong Kong Gabor Steingart.

Tod said...

(It looks like the US doesn't understand it is part of a western block)

Chimerica's Monetary Management: China Has a Plan, America Doesn't

"China is talking down the dollar to serve its own interests. When the dollar depreciates against the euro and the yen, the yuan declines as well, because the Chinese currency is pegged to the dollar. And the declining yuan helps boost Chinese exports to Europe and elsewhere in Asia."

It is important to understand the differences between a emerging economy and a society in decline. Even the word unemployed means two different things in the two systems. While the unemployed in the West are yesterdays workers the unemployed in China are tomorrows workers. The former are a burden on the economy because they cost money, The latter are useful to the economy becuase their mere presence is enough to depress the wages of others."

(Much to the disgust of John Mearsheimer):-

China's Challenge to US Power 10.00 - 12.00 especially.

Tod said...

The US doesn't seem to realize it is part of a western block. The Chinese don't seem scared, and why should they be?

Chimerica's Monetary Management: China Has a Plan,America Doesn't

"China is talking down the dollar to serve its own interests. When the dollar depreciates against the euro and the yen, the yuan declines as well, because the Chinese currency is pegged to the dollar. And the declining yuan helps boost Chinese exports to Europe and elsewhere in Asia."

Ben10 said...

I'd like to see something developed in 2011, it's this story about the 7000 mutations recently acquired in our species and in particular, the so-called 'accelerated' evolution.
I don't know if it's a figure of speach of if the scientists really mean it but 'acceleration', in the newtonian sense, refers to an underjacent force. There is no such forces in darwinian evolution which is limited by the number of random mutations. Natural selection transforms this brownian agitation in meaningful information but it can't accelerate (or heat) the agitation itself. Genetic hot spots for mutation could exist near or inside genes involved in cognition but that would translate into a huge amount of variation in the population, including cognitive impairements, for Natural Selection to be able to produce an 'accelerated' output. All we can see is a small variation in IQ, pretty stable, and a very small number of mentally impaired, suggesting no such hot spot exists, how can we make an 'acceleration' from there?

Tod said...

America doesn't seem to be behaving as if it's part of a western block. Maybe genetic pacification is responsible for the 'strange mixture of complacency and willful naiveté'. Mearshiemer's theory doesn't seem to account for it

Chinamerica against the rest of the world

"China is talking down the dollar to serve its own interests. When the dollar depreciates against the euro and the yen, the yuan declines as well, because the Chinese currency is pegged to the dollar. And the declining yuan helps boost Chinese exports to Europe and elsewhere in Asia."

Tod said...

"ought to have attacked Germany in 1905 when Russia was in no position to help France"

I meant to say "Germany ought to have attacked France in 1905 when Russia was in no position to help France"

Peter Frost said...


A major world conflict was not inevitable in 1914. Yes, there were prominent war parties in each major European nation, but the main bones of contention were being resolved peacefully. Austro-Hungary was being won over to the idea of becoming a 3-member confederation of Germans, Hungarians, and Slavs. Germany had given Alsace-Lorraine autonomy as a bilingual state. Russia, after its humilitation by Japan, was widely seen as a paper tiger. "The scramble for Africa" was largely over, and colonialism itself was being seen as a vain undertaking.

There was also a noticeable shift, both politically and culturally, from nationalism to internationalism. Left-wing parties were gaining ground, and their worldview was essentially internationalist. Popular culture was increasingly consumerist and Americanized. The "Roaring Twenties" had already begun.

In short, the international system was fragile in 1914, but no more so than ten or twenty years earlier. Serb nationalists struck in 1914 because their window of opportunity was moving out of range. Had they waited a bit longer, things might have turned out differently.


It is not because of an increase in the mutation rate that the pace of human genetic change has accelerated over the past 40,000 years. Mutations have always been appearing at the same rate, but more of them have been conserved by natural selection. Genetic evolution has accelerated because the environment of selection has been changing at a faster pace. Humans have not just been moving into new ecological environments. They have been creating their own man-made environments.

Jez said...

What are your thoughts on this brain training study from 2008. It has been replicated in 2010.

According to the study, using a computerized exercise boosts nonverbal IQ. The trained group saw an increase of about 5 iq points, and increase in iq was dosage dependent.

If in 2011, the researchers at the University of Michigan publish a more definitive study on this(which they will and have over 100 participants thus far) would this be something of significance? Since intelligence basically determines everything about a person beyond gender-education, socioeconomic status, its connection to race, health, criminal disposition, what you do for a living ect, then wouldn’t this be important?

Tod said...

"There was also a noticeable shift, both politically and culturally, from nationalism to internationalism"

The rhetoric and public sentiment may not be a good guide. It is an important part of Mearsheimer's theory that states are 'black boxes' which act acording to the correlation of forces in almost every situation.

I think a good case can be made that widespread internationalism and liberalism led to the British foriegn policy leadership under Lord Grey concealing its position (ie,that Germany would not be allowed to achieve hegemony) from its own people. A side effect of the was that it was not made explicit to the Germans that Britain would intervene. So in fact internationalism made the war more likely. (WW2 was somewhat similar

"Deterrence is more problematic under multipolarity The resolve of opposing states and also the size and strength of opposing coalitions are hard to calculate in this geometry of power, because the shape of the international order tends to remain in flux, owing to the tendency of coalitions to gain and lose partners. This can lead aggressors to conclude falsely that they can coerce others by bluffing war, or even achieve outright victory on the battlefield. For example, Germany was not certain before 1914 that Britain would oppose it if it reached for Continental hegemony.In 1939 Germany hoped that France and Britain would stand aside as it conquered Poland.

Deductively, a bipolar system is more peaceful [...]. Moreover those great powers generally demand allegiance from minor powers in the system, which is likely to produce rigid alliance structures. The smaller states are then secure from each other as well as from attack by the rival great power. Consequently [...] a bipolar system has only one dyad across which war might break out. A ... war is statistically more likely in a multipolar system than it is in a bipolar one. Admittedly, wars in a multipolar world that involve only minor powers or only one major power are not likely to be as devastating as a conflict between two major powers. But small wars always have the potential to widen into big wars."

I think that this suggests that a small power like Korea could start a war because it is not really part of a block.

Peter Frost said...


This is nothing new. I was a participant in a study on the relationship between mental ability and experience with a video game. The hypothesis was that mental exerise would lead to a convergence of mental ability. The more the participants played the video game, the more similar they would all become in ability, i.e., everyone would be realizing the same innate potential.

The result? Mental exercise did raise mental ability among the under-achievers, but it also raised mental ability among everyone else. At the end of the experiment, everybody differed from each other to the same degree.

Tod said...

The spam filter may have blocked some comments of mine, here goes again.

On looking at Mearshiemer's theory more closely he says a bi-polar (ie 2 two opposing blocks) system is inherently more stable and less likely to end up in general war than a multi-polar system. He sees pre WW1 Europe as being multi-polar.

So maybe a somewhat detached minor power like N.Korea could spark a war more easily than one that was integrated into a power block.

Anonymous said...

About fungal manipulation:

Hubby remembered a paper he read long ago... found it. Yes, it's old, and don't know if the research went anywhere, but I remembered your posts last year on possible causes of homosexuality, and even though your preview of a possible post on certain yeast infections and their potential for behavioural manipulation doesn't seem to have anything to do with homosexuality, thought I'd provide this as an intersect between the topic of fungi and sexual behaviors.

"The effect of fungal toxins on the sexual behaviour of rabbits" (1987)

The abstract: "Feeding rabbits with mycelium from Fusarium roseum is shown to produce infertility, the disappearance of aggressivity, and homosexual behaviour in males, while the effect of the females is only infertility. This mycelium contains the mycotoxin zearalenon which has effects similar to those of the female hormone. This fungus willingly grows on common crops and is consumed both by people and animals-although normally in very low doses. It cannot be ruled out that an increased growth of fungus, due to artificial fertilization, which then can be demonstrated to be found in food and consumed, can be a factor which increases the incidence of homosexual behavior in people."

Jez said...

Yes, gaps in IQ between individuals would still persist if everyone used the computerized exercise equally. However if general reasoning capacity can be improved, then there are clear educational implications.

Also can you be more specific as to what study you participated in if that is possible. What video game did researchers use?

Tod said...

Fleeing Polygamy? Senegalese Young Men Flock to Europe

1990 Mearshimer article Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War

"What caused the era of violence in Europe before 1945, and why has the postwar era, the period of the Cold War, been so much more peaceful? The two world wars before 1945 had myriad particular and unrepeatable causes, but to the student of international relations seeking to establish generalizations about the behavior of states in the past which might illuminate their behavior in the future, two fundamental causes stand out. These are the multipolar distribution of power in Europe, and the imbalances of strength that often developed among the great powers as they jostled for supremacy or advantage.

There is something elementary about the geometry of power in international relations, and so its importance is easy to overlook. "Bipolarity" and "multipolarity" are ungainly but necessary coinages. The Cold War, with two superpowers serving to anchor rival alliances of clearly inferior powers, is our model of bipolarity. Europe in 1914, with France, Germany, Great Britain, Austria-Hungary, and Russia positioned as great powers, is our model of multipolarity."

One very important reason for the German actions which started WW 1&2 was that both times the Germans thought Britain might stay out; the British had not made their position clear.

If the British leadership kept their foreign policy a secret because of widespread internationalist feeling in the masses then it could be argued that this internationalist feeling actually made war more likely.

Peter Frost said...


Yes, with the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the overexpansion of Nato, the situation increasingly resembles the pre-1914 period. Alliances are loose and vaguely defined, and the decision to go to war is no longer centralized.


It was a game called "Oils well."