Science

I Blame the Parasites

The Economist has an article with a provocative sub-heading: “Religious diversity may be caused by disease.” The article refers to a recent scientific study suggesting that religious groups might form as a way of protecting their followers from exposure to diseases. The Economist summarizes the paper thus:

“[The] hypothesis is that in places where disease is rampant, it behoves groups not to mix with one another more than is strictly necessary, in order to reduce the risk of contagion. [The authors of the study] therefore predict that patterns of behaviour which promote group exclusivity will be stronger in disease-ridden areas. Since religious differences are certainly in that category, they specifically predict that the number of different religions in a place will vary with the disease load. Which is, as they report in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, the case.”

While there are numerous possible criticisms of this study, it could explain in part why I occasionally feel an urge to wash my hands after talking to a Southern Baptist. And as intuitively far-fetched as it sounds to propose that the development of religions might have been driven by parasites, ever since I read about Toxoplasma gondii on science writer Carl Zimmer’s blog, The Loom, I can’t put anything past parasites. (Seriously, if you’ve never heard of Toxoplasma gondii, click on that link and read. It might change the way you look at the world.)

(Via The Rough Guide to Evolution.)

Animals
Culture
Religion
Science

Comments (0)

Permalink

Think Like an Animal

I’ve always found the problems raised by anthropomorphism interesting. When a dog looks at us with a seemingly quizzical expression, are we actually reading the dog’s true state of mind or are we “projecting” our own understanding of human expressions onto the dog? My own unscientific guess is that it’s probably a bit of both. We tend to think of dogs, especially, as such a part of our families that we’re shocked on the occasions they behave like the wolf-cousins they are and snap at strangers. (As Chris Rock said about the tiger that attacked Roy Horn of Siegfried and Roy, “That tiger didn’t go crazy! That tiger went tiger!”)

Nevertheless, the fact that we share, basically, a similar physiological structure with other chordates (four limbs, a dorsal nerve chord, bilateral symmetry, etc.) has always suggested to me that we have a pretty good chance of “reading” animals emotions accurately in many situations. Their brains, though not identical to ours, must work similarly to ours at least some of the time, because their bodies do.

Fortunately for me, there are people who have actually begun to study how animals’ brains work in a more rigorous fashion than me musing on whether my friend’s dog is smiling at me. National Geographic has an article online about some of these scientists’ work. It’s accompanied by a set of animal portraits that bring up the anthropomorphism question beautifully. Can we really read the expressions of these animals, or are we deceiving ourselves?

The portrait of “JB,” a Giant Pacific Octopus, is especially strange and beautiful, and perhaps the most prone to my anthropomorphizing instinct, as it’s so different from us it seems a much greater leap to imagine that we can know what it’s feeling. But maybe it’s not so different after all. It turns out, according to this article on ScientificBlogging, that octopi are among the most intelligent of the invertebrates, but their relatively large brains are structured more simply and have fewer nerve cells than ours, so they are perfect for studying how brains, even our brains, memorize and learn things.

Animals
Philosophy
Science

Comments (4)

Permalink

Both Sides of the Story

Here’s a depressing report on the forced resignation of Christine Comer, former director of curriculum for science at the Texas Education Agency. Comer was forced to resign after forwarding an e-mail about a lecture by Barbara Forrest, author of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. Her ouster is apparently part of a plan on the part of Gov. Rick Perry and his cretinous minions to introduce, yet again, the intelligent design “debate” into public school curricula. The State Board of Education will be reviewing the science curriculum in January, Flying Spaghetti Monster help us all.

Education
Politics
Religion
Science

Comments (0)

Permalink