Pragma Synesi – interesting bits

Compendium of interesting bits I come across, with an occasional IMHO

Evolutionary traps

” ON THE Caribbean island of St Kitts, a colony of exuberant vervet monkeys patrols the beach, waiting to pounce on unattended drinks. When they spot one, they scamper acrobatically across the sand to steal it. They fight. They drink. They overturn tables. Finally, as the sun slides over the horizon, they slump clumsily onto the sand.

Scientists have been studying the drunken monkeys of St Kitts for decades, using them to research the neural pathways involved in alcoholism. But they represent more than just a primate model of addiction.

According to biologist Bruce Robertson at Bard College in New York, the monkeys are caught in an “evolutionary trap”. Their enjoyment of alcohol exists for a very good reason, he says: they evolved to crave energy-rich foods. But now that piña coladas are easier to obtain than bananas, it has become a liability. “It’s an incorrect behaviour that happened because we changed the environment too fast for evolution to catch up,” Robertson says.

Evolutionary traps – also called ecological traps – are everywhere. They have been found in almost every type of habitat, affecting mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and insects. Bamboozled by rapid environmental change, these animals can no longer accurately assess the suitability of food resources, mates, habitats or much of anything else. Bad choices look like good ones, and the animals are lured into an evolutionary dead-end.”

– excerpt from the article Trapped! (New Scientist issue 2960, 17 March 2014, by Christopher Kemp)

The article goes on to give examples of other animals that are facing decline due to the change in their environment, from newly hatched turtles crawling towards the city lights instead of the sea, to jewel beetles mistaking a beer bottle for a female and mating with it.  It’s eye-opening to see examples of the inadvertent destruction humans cause in the environment.

But there are two additional ideas in this article that fascinated me.  The first one is what Robertson calls “virtuous evolutionary traps”, a trap set on purpose, for example for mosquitoes carrying malaria. Ken Pienta is using it to trap metastasizing cancer cells — and calling it eco-therapy.

The second idea is that evolutionary traps apply to humans too. Behaviours that evolved to aid survival, hijacked to our detriment:  fast food, gambling, video gaming, drugs, pornography and so on. How can these be fixed?

The article is well worth reading. If you don’t have a subscription to New Scientist, this link seems to have the full text.

April 21, 2014 Posted by | behaviour, environment, evolution | , , , | Leave a comment

Why you may want to avoid anti-bacterial products

In August 2009, the Canadian Medical Association asked the Canadian government to ban triclosan use in household products under concerns of creating bacterial resistance and producing dangerous side products (chloroform). This article highlights a new study that gives one more reason to avoid triclosan-containing products.

Hand Soap Ingredient Can Increase Body Bacteria Burden

Residues of the antimicrobial agent triclosan can paradoxically boost bacterial growth in our bodies, by giving microbes a comfortable biofilm in which to rest.

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April 17, 2014 Posted by | environment, health | , | Leave a comment

Unreliable research

If you think you can rely on scientific research as truth, you’d be wrong, according to this article. I certainly will be much more skeptical of research from now on.  Well explained, a must-read article from The Economist:

Unreliable research:

Trouble at the lab

Scientists like to think of science as self-correcting. To an alarming degree, it is not

The Economist, Oct 19th 2013

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April 8, 2014 Posted by | information, statistics | , , , , | Leave a comment

What is music?

Fascinating read on how our brains deal with repetition.  Make sure you go to the article site to experience the audio clips.

One more time

Why do we listen to our favourite music over and over again? Because repeated sounds work magic in our brains

by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis | 7 March 2014 | Aeon Magazine

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March 29, 2014 Posted by | anthropology, brain | , | Leave a comment

How Animals See the World

We take it for granted that what we see is reality.  But what we think we see is only an image that our mind conjures up based on partial light reflections.  It is eye-opening to compare how other creatures, with abilities to sense a different spectrum of light from ours, perceive the world. You have to go to the article site itself to see the wonderful photos.

How Animals See the World

See through the eyes of cats, birds, fish, and snakes.

By Elizabeth Preston | Photos by Dr. Klaus Schmitt | March 20, 2014 | Nautilus
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March 29, 2014 Posted by | brain | , , , | Leave a comment

Want to learn quicker? Use your body

Good to know.

Want to learn quicker? Use your body

By Colin Barras |21 March 2014 | BBC Future

Waving your arms, wriggling your fingers and striding around a room can help you learn faster, says Colin Barras. How does it work?

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March 23, 2014 Posted by | behaviour, learning | Leave a comment

Beauty and friendliness

Breeding experiment with silver foxes showed that friendliness and facial features are correlated — the friendlier, the more “beautiful”, and it seems, the more “highbrow”.  From The Economist, November 16th, 2013:

The evolution of beauty:  Face the facts

What makes for a beautiful visage, and why, may have been discovered accidentally on a Russian fur farm

February 18, 2014 Posted by | evolution | , , , | Leave a comment

The future of jobs

Insightful article worth reading from The Economist, Jan 18th, 2014:

The future of jobs: The onrushing wave

Previous technological innovation has always delivered more long-run employment, not less. But things can change.

February 1, 2014 Posted by | business, economics | | Leave a comment

Marketing meets psychology

Marketing will make use of every trick in the book to screw with your head…. Scary.  From The Economist:

Nothing more than feelings

Admen have made a marketing guru of Daniel Kahneman, a prizewinning psychologist

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January 28, 2014 Posted by | behaviour, decision making, psychology | , , | Leave a comment

Don’t take pills to reduce your fever

I already knew that your body’ chemical reactions work best at 37 C; temperature above that slows processes down, including viral and bacterial reproduction.  So when you take fever reducing drugs, you are actually increasing the viral/bacterial load in your body, making your immune system work harder to fight off the infection.  The article below points out that the fever reduction affects not just yourself, but everyone around you, as you have more infectious agents to spread around.

Spread of flu linked to fever med­i­ca­tions

KELLY GRANT HEALTH RE­PORTER | The Globe and Mail Metro | January 22, 2014

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January 28, 2014 Posted by | health | , , , | Leave a comment


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