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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Fear of Dying v. Affordable Health Care?

"It’s a shocking outrage in our country. It’s a moral outrage that we have almost 50 million people without coverage, without access to a doctor, and we have even hundreds of thousands more that can’t even use the coverage that they have. That’s wrong. We have to change it," Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby NETWORK, tells anchor Bob Abernethy in a recent episode of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. NETWORK is part of an interfaith coalition of religious organizations calling for health care reform.
"There’s a lot of evidence that the fear of dying keeps us holding on to life in such ways that extraordinary means get used on a regular basis, and that makes it really challenging for limiting costs. There are other places where cost savings can be obtained, too, but that’s a big one," she says.
"Culturally as a nation," she adds, "we do not see death as integrated with living. We see it as something that’s to be feared. We’re getting better at it, but—with the hospice programs and other programs—but we as a culture need to accept dying is part of living, and it’s integrated. It’s one piece."

Field Notes

Archaeologists Uncover Oldest Known Image of Saint Paul
The fresco, which dates back to the 4th Century A.D., was discovered during restoration work at the Catacomb of Saint Thekla but was kept secret for ten days. During that time experts carefully removed centuries of grime from the fresco with a laser, before the news was officially announced through the Vatican's official newspaper L'Osservatore Romano. (Nick Pisa, Telegraph)

All We Know Is That the Bones Are Old Enough
For a faith that's seen too many relics turn out to be fake, scientific proof that bones found at the Vatican date from the first century is being treated as victory. "This seems to confirm the unanimous and uncontested tradition that they are the mortal remains of the Apostle Paul," Pope Benedict XVI declared Sunday. He may be convinced, but that's not proof they are the remains of St. Paul, experts warn. (Stuart Laidlaw, Toronto Star)

Faith-Healing Cases Challenge Courts
Legal and religious scholars say it's becoming more difficult for courts to decide when to honor the religious beliefs of parents and when to order conventional medical treatment for extremely sick children. (Rose French, Associated Press)

Can Art Help People Heal?
Can the power of the arts to soothe, transform and inspire be enlisted to treat—and perhaps even prevent—heart disease? These are the questions driving a fledgling organization called the Foundation for Art & Healing. With the help of an eclectic group of researchers, artists, and health-care providers, the Brookline, Massachusetts, foundation is mapping out a research agenda intended to determine whether artistic expression could be a valid clinical intervention—along with exercise, healthy diets and medicines—for reducing the burden of cardiovascular disease. (Ron Winslow, The Wall Street Journal)

Teens Who Believe They'll Die Before 35 Are More Likely to Take Risks
What's recently been discovered, and is intriguing for teens and the people who love them, is that there seems to be a connection between having a fatalistic take on life and behaving in ways that actually make it more likely that you will die—or at least be sick and miserable—instead of blossoming into a healthy young adult. (Nancy Shute, On Parenting, U.S. News & World Report)

Monday, June 29, 2009

Religion & America's Growing Generation Gap

Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey on aging in America and found some interesting results. Perhaps the most remarkable finding is that 79 percent of people believe there is "a major difference in the point of view of younger people and older people today"—a number that is even higher than it was in 1969, when 74 percent of people felt the same way. In 1979, 60 percent of people perceived this kind of difference.
The most common explanation for today's generation gap? Nearly half of those surveyed (47 percent) pointed to something having to do with values and morality. Much fewer mentioned things like political views, experience and wisdom, or the use of technology. (Click on image for larger view.)

A particularly wide generation gap has developed in terms of religiosity, as younger adults have grown more likely to have no religious affiliation. Today, 25 percent of those under 30 describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, or nonreligious, while only 7 percent of those 65 and older describe themselves the same way. The survey also found that religion plays a significantly larger role in the lives of older adults, with those 65 and older more likely to pray, attend religious services, and believe in God than those under 65.

Older adults are also more likely than younger adults to say their religion has grown more important to them over the course of their lives, especially when they're dealing with a serious illness or often feel sad or depressed.

And according to the survey, adults 65 and older who attend religious services or do other activities at a place of worship have stronger social networks than those who don't, which means they're more likely to have people to turn to for companionship and support. Active churchgoers are also more likely to help other older adults in need.

Heather Wax

Field Notes

Pope Will Release Statement on Markets and Morality Just Before G8 Summit
Pope Benedict XVI signed the document today but the text, which focuses on globalization, poverty, and the financial crisis and is one of the most important to come out of the Holy See in the past decade, will be published 48 hours before the meeting of world leaders at L'Aquila in Italy—a week-long delay. Caritas in veritate, Love or charity in truth, will outline the ethical values that the faithful must "tirelessly defend" to ensure "true freedom and solidarity," the pope said recently. (Richard Owen and Ruth Gledhill, Times Online)

Richard Dawkins Funds Atheist Summer Camp for Kids
Camp-goers will be given lessons in rational skepticism, as well as sessions in moral philosophy and evolutionary biology. There will be more familiar camp activities such as trekking, tug-of-war, canoeing and swimming but children will also be taught to disprove phenomena such as crop circles and telepathy. (Ben Leach, Telegraph)

The Science and Spirit of Alfred Russel Wallace
In the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, a growing number of academics and amateur historians are rediscovering Wallace. Their efforts are raising debate over exactly what Wallace contributed to the theory of evolution, and what role, if any, the spiritual world plays in certain aspects of natural selection. (Michael Casey, Associated Press)

The Baloney Detection Kit

With a sea of information coming at us from all directions, how do we sift out the misinformation and bogus claims, and get to the truth? Michael Shermer of Skeptic Magazine lays out a "Baloney Detection Kit," 10 questions we should ask when encountering a claim. (RDF TV)

Mind Reading
Neuroscience has learned so much about how we think and the brain activity linked to certain thoughts that it is now possible—on a very basic scale—to read a person's mind. (Lesley Stahl, 60 Minutes)

Friday, June 26, 2009

Do We Have a Moral Set Point?

A few years ago, psychologist Nancy Etcoff wrote a piece for Science & Spirit magazine in which she explained that "while feelings of happiness change from day to day, depending on the circumstances, people seem to have a stable midpoint to these variations, a general level of happiness to which they return after momentary irritation or elation fades. Scientists call this the 'hedonic set point' or happiness thermostat."
So I was interested to read about a recent study from a group of researchers at Northwestern University who suggest we have a set point for morality as well. They ran a bunch of experiments to see how our sense of moral self-worth affects our behavior.
According to the scientists, people who behave immorally in one aspect of their lives tend to "cleanse" themselves by performing good deeds in other areas. But their model goes further, as a write-up of the research reports:

Other studies have shown the moral-cleansing effect, but this new Northwestern model shows that the cleansing also has to do with restoring an ideal level of moral self-worth. In other words, when people operate above or below a certain level of moral self-worth, they instinctively push back in the opposite direction to reach an internally regulated set point of goodness.
If they're right, the opposite of the cleansing effect would also hold true: Performing a series of good deeds would raise our moral self-worth, thus leading us to do some not-so-good stuff to balance things out. That's just what psychology graduate student Sonya Sachdeva, who worked on the study, suggests. "Imagine a line on a plane," she says. "The only way you can come back down is either by refraining from good social behavior or by actively engaging in immoral behavior." —Heather Wax

Field Notes

New York to Pay Women Who Give Their Eggs for Stem Cell Research
Proponents say compensating women for their eggs is necessary for research, and point out that women who give their eggs for fertility purposes are already paid. Others worry that the practice will commodify the human body and lead to the exploitation of women in financial need. (Libby Nelson, The New York Times)

More Pushback on Evolutionary Psychology
David Brooks: The allure of evolutionary psychology is that it organizes all behavior into one eternal theory, impervious to the serendipity of time and place. But there’s no escaping context. That’s worth remembering next time somebody tells you we are hardwired to do this or that. (The New York Times)

Hunting for Genes Associated With Happiness
Prof. Yoram Barak of Tel Aviv University's Sackler School of Medicine is engaged in the "attempt to find the happiness gene, the genetic component of happiness," which may be 50 percent responsible for an optimistic outlook. (National Science Foundation, U.S. News & World Report)
•TWITTER BUZZ: @toddkashdan where to begin on the silliness of scientists trying to find a #happiness gene (single genes don't cut it)

Delegitimized Prayer Studies Tell Us Something About Scientists Who Conducted Them
Wendy Cadge: These studies may be seen as cultural artifacts illustrating how researchers’ understandings of prayer were influenced by their contexts. From single Protestant-based prayers in the 1960s, to some more recent attempts to combine Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and other prayers, researchers’ approaches to prayer reflect changing American religious demographics, evolving ideas about the relationship between religion and medical science, and the development of the clinical trial as a central biomedical research tool in this period. (Religion Dispatches)

The Atheism of Science
Lawrence Krauss: J.B.S. Haldane, an evolutionary biologist and a founder of population genetics, understood that science is by necessity an atheistic discipline. As Haldane so aptly described it, one cannot proceed with the process of scientific discovery if one assumes a "god, angel, or devil" will interfere with one's experiments. God is, of necessity, irrelevant in science. (The Wall Street Journal)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Empathy for Patients Takes Toll on Nurses

According to Jenny Watts, a positive psychologist at the University of Leicester, "nurses who identify with the patient and experience empathy appear to be most vulnerable to distress," developing symptoms like flashbacks, sleeping problems, and emotional detachment.
Of particular note: Watts found that nurses who cared for patients with age-related illnesses, such as dementia, "have shown anxiety and depression following patient deterioration and death." As baby boomers age and the number of older patients grows, she says, it will be important to take steps to ensure that nurses' morale, compassion, and quality of care remain high. —Heather Wax

Can This Program Foster Productive Dialogue?

Princeton Theology Seminary is launching a Science for Ministry Institute. The program is based on a "partner model" that pairs "scientifically curious" ministry leaders with "theologically sensitive" scientists. Together, each pair goes through a series of courses that address topics and issues related to human origins and human nature.
Here's how J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, co-director of the institute and a professor of theology and science at the seminary, explains the goal:

This program is intended to address a common experience of ministers and scientists of faith who struggle to develop a constructive dialogue around issues of theology and science in their ministry contexts. We are seeking to equip leaders in ministry with the knowledge and tools to confidently respond to these fundamental challenges, and to do so in ways that encourage a transformational impact on their church communities.
The first course will run from November 2 through 6.

Field Notes

Positive Psychology Package
Positive psychology explores the factors that make life worth living, such as happiness, through the study of positive emotions, positive character strengths, and positive institutions. (Lindsay Lyon, U.S. News & World Report)

•"Daily Diet" of Positive Emotions
•Increasing Your Happiness
•Using Positive Psychology in Your Relationships
•Teaching Resilience With Positive Education

Negative Power of Positive Thinking?
Despite what all those self-help books say, repeating positive statements apparently does not help people with low self-esteem feel better about themselves. In fact, it tends to make them feel worse, according to new research. (Rob Stein, The Washington Post)

Happily Ever After
Happiness does not consist in whatever you might be feeling—after death, of course, you might not be feeling much at all—but in what others feel about you. It consists more precisely in the stories that can be told about you after your death. This is what the Greeks called “glory,” and it expresses a very different understanding of immortality than is common amongst us. (Simon Critchley, Happy Days Blog, The New York Times)

New In Vitro Fertilization Program for Orthodox Jews
An unusual collaboration between religion and science is making it possible for Orthodox Jews to undergo infertility treatment in Montreal. (Janice Arnold, The Canadian Jewish News)

Paleontologists Visit the Creation Museum
In one of the largest gatherings of critics since the northern Kentucky museum opened two years ago, the scientists in the area for a conference took a field trip to get a glimpse of the marketing tactics used by the other side of the evolution debate. (Jeffrey McMurray, Associated Press)

Breaking Down Evolutionary Psychology

David Sloan Wilson: Evolutionary psychology, once the darling of the public media, has been dumped in a recent Newsweek article by journalist Sharon Begley. Return accusations are beginning to fly from evolutionary psychologists, who accuse Begley of willful distortions and scientific incompetence (e.g., 1, 2). As usual for romantic quarrels, there are legitimate grievances on both sides that get lost in a hail of recriminations. (The Huffington Post)

What Should Science Do?

Sam Harris and Philip Ball discuss the conflict between religion and science. They do not agree. (The Reason Project)

Universal Code

Where do we human beings fit in this big picture? Is there a pattern to creation that the human imagination can glimpse? And is it through science, religion, or art that we can best seek the answers? This summer's exhibition at the Power Plant in Toronto, titled "Universal Code: Art and Cosmology in the Information Age," brings together artists who engage in this kind of philosophical grappling. (Sarah Milroy, The Globe and Mail)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Robot Shows Emotion

Meet Kobian, a walking robot that uses its face and body to imitate the way humans express a range of different emotions. The "humanoid," as it's being called, was unveiled yesterday by researchers at Waseda University in Japan.
To display these moods, motors move Kobian's lips, eyelids, eyebrows, arms, legs, and double-jointed neck. Check out some of the emotions (pictured top, left to right: sadness and delight; bottom, left to right: surprise and disgust):

Keep in mind, however: Though Kobian can express feelings, the robot can't yet interact with people emotionally or intuitively. But it is a step in that direction. Robots that can show emotion, the developers believe, will be able to communicate more naturally with people. —Heather Wax

Field Notes

Debunking Darwin Myths
Two-hundred years after he was born, and 150 years after he published On the Origin of Species, it’s time to check the facts, as “most of what most people think they know about him is not true,” according to Darwin scholar John van Wyhe, a historian of science at the University of Cambridge. (Gillian Murdoch, Reuters Blogs)

The Fall of Evo Psych
In some environments it might indeed be adaptive for women to seek sugar daddies. In some, it might be adaptive for stepfathers to kill their stepchildren. In some, it might be adaptive for men to be promiscuous. But not in all. And if that's the case, then there is no universal human nature as evo psych defines it. That is what a new wave of studies has been discovering, slaying assertions about universals right and left. (Sharon Begley, Newsweek)

The Rise of "New Atheism"
Konstantin Petrenko: The tendency in the media has been either to hail this phenomenon as the latest cultural fad or to dismiss it as a secular equivalent of religious fundamentalism. In reality, it is neither of these. The New Atheism is a complex movement that has the potential both to inspire positive change and, sometimes, to promote intolerance. (Religion Dispatches)

Living Kidney Donations to Strangers Increasing in the United Kingdom
"The donors I have come across are genuinely altruistic, they decide that, on balance, donating is unlikely to do them any harm but will transform someone else's life," said consultant nephrologist Peter Rowe. (BBC News)

The Music Instinct: Science and Song

Bobby McFerrin, the singing-conducting "Don't Worry, Be Happy" man, co-hosts with neuroscientist Daniel Levitin (This Is Your Brain on Music), who also knows his way around a musical instrument or two. (Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times)

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Tweeting the World's Religions

Stephen Prothero (@sprothero on Twitter), a Boston University religion professor, has summarized eight major world religions—Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Taoism, and Yoruba—as well as atheism, in 140 characters or less.

Field Notes

Galaxy Gazing at the Vatican's Observatory
The idea is not to watch for omens or angels but to do workmanlike astronomy that fights the perception that science and Catholicism necessarily conflict. (George Johnson, The New York Times)

Support Group for "Recovering Religionists"
The idea for the group came from Darrel Ray, an organizational psychologist and author of The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture. He was raised in a fundamentalist Christian church and attended seminary. But by the time he graduated, he had abandoned the notion of becoming a minister. (Helen T. Gray, McClatchy Newspapers)

Happiness Researchers Unite!
About 1,500 people who make their living thinking about what makes us happier and more emotionally successful have converged on Philadelphia for the First World Congress on Positive Psychology. (Stacey Burling, The Philadelphia Inquirer)

Is Free Will Real?
A psychologist, neuroscientist, and philosopher got together to debate the meaning of free will. They walked onto the auditorium stage, sat down before an eager audience, and all crossed their left legs over their right. The psychologist pointed out the similarity and asked if crossing their legs like so was a consequence of free will or a predetermined action. ( Sarah Arnquist, TierneyLab Blog, The New York Times)

Faith Leaders in United Kingdom Appeal for Organ Donors
The Church of England says organ donation is a Christian duty. The leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales—the Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols—described it as a true act of generosity. The head of the UK Hindu Council, Anil Bhanot, said it was natural for Hindus to donate body parts, as well as goods, at the end of their lives. (BBC News)

Monday, June 22, 2009

Science Cartoon Contest Winner Announced

Congratulations to Richard Korzekwa of Los Alamos, New Mexico, who won the Florida Citizens for Science's "Stick Science Contest" with the comic strip above. (Click on image for larger view.)

Exposed Ancient Quarry—Now With Pics!

Check out these pictures from the 2,000-year-old quarry found in the Jordan valley near Jericho (courtesy of the University of Haifa). The artificial underground cave was uncovered by a team from the university headed by biblical archaeologist Adam Zertal (who previously led the excavation of foot-shaped structures in the valley). A number of engravings were found in the cave, including Byzantine cross markings (pictured left), Zodiac symbols (pictured right) and Roman letters, and Zertal says it's possible the cavern was an early monastery. —Heather Wax

Field Notes

First Image—of Whirlpool Galaxy— From the Herschel Telescope
The observatory's quest is to study how stars and galaxies form, and how they evolve through cosmic time. (Jonathan Amos, BBC News)

Restart of Large Hadron Collider Pushed Back a Few Weeks
The world's largest atom smasher will likely be fired up again in October after scientists have carried out tests and put in place further safety measures to prevent a repeat of the faults that sidelined the $10 billion machine shortly after startup last year, the operator said Saturday. (Associated Press)

Ancient Quarry Found in West Bank
Israeli archaeologists said on Sunday they had discovered the largest underground quarry in the Holy Land, dating back to the time of Jesus and containing Christian symbols etched into the walls. (Ari Rabinovitch and Michael Roddy, Reuters)

British Scientists Say Religious Slaughter Techniques Are Cruel
The Farm Animal Welfare Council says that slitting the throats of the animals most commonly used for meat, chickens, without stunning, results in "significant pain and distress." The committee, which includes scientific, agricultural and veterinary experts, is calling for the Government to launch a debate with Muslim and Jewish communities to end the practice. (Martin Hickman, The Independent)

Theocracies Are Doomed by Modernity But Religion Is No Less Important
Jon Meacham: There is a deep irony at work here. Theocracies usually mandate the teaching of religion, but the teaching of religion—the spread of texts and commentaries, the opening of theological debates among the people as well as the clerics—can lead not to uniform public belief but to a questioning of orthodoxy. Which is always a favorite activity of a new generation. (Newsweek)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Congratulations, Peter and Barbara Grant

Husband-and-wife team Peter Raymond Grant and Barbara Rosemary Grant have won the 2009 Kyoto Prize in basic sciences.
The Grants, both emeritus professors in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, are known for their work studying the population of birds known as "Darwin's finches" on the Galapagos island of Daphne Major and for showing evolution in action—how beak size and shape evolve through natural selection in changing environmental conditions. Beak size is important, they showed, because if the weather changed and suddenly only large, hard seeds were available, for example, finches with bigger, stronger beaks would be more likely to survive and, over generations, would become more common in the population.
"The Grants' empirical research has made the most important contribution since Darwin toward making evolutionary biology a science in which proof is possible," according to a news release from Japan's Inamori Foundation, which sponsors the award. The prize honors "those who have contributed significantly to the scientific, cultural, and spiritual betterment of mankind."
The Grants will receive the award, valued at about 500,000 dollars, in November. —Heather Wax

Field Notes

"Unambiguous Evidence" of Shoreline on Mars
The first-ever shoreline discovered on Mars would be a prime place to try and dig up proof of past microbial life on the red planet, researchers have announced. (Anne Minard, National Geographic)

Bush's Council on Bioethics Will Be Replaced
President Obama will appoint a new bioethics commission, one with a new mandate and that “offers practical policy options,” Reid Cherlin, a White House press officer, said. (Nicholas Wade, The New York Times)

What Drives Deception?
Intentional deceit is not restricted to humans, say Federica Amici and colleagues of Liverpool John Moores University in the UK. Some monkeys use simple forms of deceit, and the ability depends not on how closely related they are to humans, but on their social structure. (Catherine Brahic, New Scientist)

Welsh Psychologist Devises Formula for Happiness
His complicated mathematic formula is: O + (N x S) + Cpm/T + He. Put simply, he gave values to each symbol and added being outdoors (O) to nature (N) multiplied by social interaction (S), added memories of childhood summers (Cpm) divided by the temperature (T), and added excitement about holidays (He). (Telegraph)

Year One

Set in what looks like a succession of B-movie studio sets, the film brings to mind a Hope and Crosby road movie, though only if Bob and Bing, after studying the Bible as children and reading Nietzsche as adults, were grappling with issues of faith. (Manohla Dargis, The New York Times)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Some Video Games Make Kids Kinder to Others

Another study, this time from an international team of researchers, has found a strong link between playing violent video games and hurting others. But they also found something else: a strong correlation between playing video games that encourage positive social interactions and helping others outside of the game.
In one experiment, the researchers asked American college students to play a neutral video game, a violent game, or a game in which the characters help and support each other in nonviolent ways. Then the students had to assign puzzles to random partners, who would win money if they could solve them all.
Those who played the prosocial game were significantly more helpful than those who played the other games, assigning easier puzzles to their partners, while students who played the violent game were much more likely to assign the hardest puzzles. The researchers also found a link between playing prosocial video games and helpful behavior among kids in Singapore and Japan.
"Taken together, these findings make it clear that playing video games is not in itself good or bad for children," reports University of Michigan social psychologist Brad Bushman, who worked on the study. "The type of content in the game has a bigger impact than the overall amount of time spent playing." —Heather Wax

Field Notes

Darwin Was an Abolitionist
It seems that the secular humanist crowd also has an old and some would say noble tradition of anti-slavery agitation which it can draw on—and it was an issue that united it with evangelicals. (Ed Stoddard, Reuters Blogs)

Same-Sex Behavior in the Animal Kingdom
Male-male and female-female interactions have been “extensively documented in non-human animals”, write University of California, Riverside researchers Nathan Bailey and Marlene Zuk. However they want to see scientists looking more towards the evolutionary consequences of same-sex behavior, not just on why it occurs. (

Honey, Are You Happy for Me?
A lukewarm or deflating reaction to a partner's positive news tells more about the health of the relationship, and is even more predictive of its breakup, than whether a partner is supportive after bad news, says Shelly Gable, a psychologist at the University of California-Santa Barbara. (Marilyn Elias, USA Today)

Scientists Smack Down Study That Says Orangutan Is Our Closest Relative
The idea flies in the face of mainstream scientific opinion, not least a wealth of DNA evidence pointing to our close relationship to chimps. Jeffrey Schwartz and John Grehan do not deny the similarity between human and chimp genomes, but argue that the DNA evidence is problematic and that traditional taxonomy unequivocally tells us that our closest living relatives are orangutans. Human evolution and phylogenomics researchers have so far given the paper a rough reception. (Graham Lawton, New Scientist)

Freud's Last Session

Mark St. Germain has constructed an entire one-act play out of one simple “what if’’: What if Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis had met? (Louise Kennedy, The Boston Globe)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

What You Can Tell About a Face in 0.1 Seconds

A team of Spanish and Brazilian researchers has looked at how well—and how quickly—we can recognize the facial expressions of others. Correctly recognizing the emotions behind these expressions is important because they act as signals, and we make judgments and deductions about other people based on what we see. "These inferences can strongly influence election results or the sentences given in trials, and have been studied before in fields such as criminology and the pseudoscience of physiognomy, " explains University of Barcelona psychologist Jose Antonio Aznar Casanova, who worked on the study.
When the researchers gave a group of psychology students 0.1 seconds to look at a face, they found that they could detect happiness better and faster than sadness. "Positive expressions, or expressions of approach, are perceived more quickly and more precisely than negative, or withdrawal, ones," Aznar Casanova says. "So happiness and surprise are processed faster than sadness and fear."

Field Notes

Why the Discovery Institute's John West Is Wrong and Misleading
Peter Hess: West's views are a skewed Cliff Notes version of the serious academic work surrounding faith and evolution—mostly wrong, mostly missing the important points, a repackaging of old ideas and a parroting of discredited arguments. I have taught graduate classes in theology, and if a student turned in something like West's essay on the issue of faith and evolution, it would merit him a D-. ("On Faith," Newsweek/The Washington Post)

Can Faith and Science Both Bring Majesty to the World
Keir Martin: For those debating the role of faith in public life, this sense that life is either more or less enchanted or wonderful with or without religion becomes something of a political resource to be fought over and used as a weapon against one's opponents. And this sense of enchantment feeds into wider claims about the ways in which it is possible to find meaning or value in worlds that often look devoid of any moral compass. (guardian.co.uk)

Reconstructing the First Forms of Life
In the last few years, four surprising advances have renewed confidence that a terrestrial explanation for life’s origins will eventually emerge. (Nicholas Wade, The New York Times)

Vatican Could Become First Carbon-Neutral Sovereignty
Mark Hopkins, director of the United Nations Foundation's energy policy program, said that prior to his June 12 visit to Vatican City he had no idea the tiny city-state was involved in so many "significant projects" aimed at reducing its own carbon footprint. (Carol Giatz, Catholics News Service)

New Report Finds "No Evidence" of Gene for Depression
Why do some people sail happily through life whereas others are brought low by its slings and arrows? A 2003 study offered an answer: a gene variant that made some people more susceptible to depression. The work was hailed as a prime example of how someone's life experiences could activate their genes. But a new analysis of the 2003 study and many that came after it calls the link into question. (Constance Holden, ScienceNOW Daily News)

How Ingrained Are Our Bias and Prejudice Toward Other Groups?
Would a threat like the one depicted in a typical sci-fi Armageddon picture really bring people together, or would tribes and nations keep at each other's throats even in the presence of a common enemy? (JamilZaki, The Huffington Post)

PBS Votes to Ban New Religious Shows
The Public Broadcasting Service agreed yesterday to ban its member stations from airing new religious TV programs, but permitted the handful of stations that already carry "sectarian" shows to continue doing so. (Paul Farhi, The Washington Post)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

If You Had Billions, Who Would You Save?

A week from tomorrow, NBC will premiere a new show called The Philanthropist. The eight-part drama centers around "vigilante philanthropist" Teddy Rist and was filmed in places like South Africa, Mozambique, and Prague.
Here's how the network describes it:

Teddy Rist loves women, money and power. After the tragic death of his only child, Teddy has an awakening and becomes the world's first vigilante philanthropist—a renegade billionaire who uses his wealth and connections to help people in need. Instead of spending $25,000 a plate at a fundraiser, he's dodging bullets in third world countries to hand deliver vaccines. It's an inspiring global adventure that will take you to the ends of the earth.
Rist's actions are not just about helping others—he is purging his soul to help exorcise the inner demons that have been festering ever since his young son died and he lost everything he truly loved. The danger and risk to his life is the only way he can feel genuinely alive and he'll do anything in order to achieve his goals.
The Philanthropist will air Wednesdays at 10 p.m.

Field Notes

Iran Becoming a Leader in Stem Cell Science
In 2002, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei created a "stem cell fatwa" declaring experimentation with human embryonic stem cells consistent with Shiite Islam and encouraging scientists to advance the technology to save lives. (Neil Katz and Jonathan Schienberg, FRONTLINE/World)

New Search Engine for Hebrew-Speaking Orthodox Jews
Yossi Altman said Koogle, a play on the names of a Jewish noodle pudding and the ubiquitous Google, appears to meet the standards of Orthodox rabbis, who restrict use of the Web to ensure followers avoid viewing sexually explicit material. (Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Jon Boyle, Reuters)

The "War" Between Science and Religion
James Hannam: A strange thing about the conflict myth is that much of the evidence for it is bogus. Not only are most people ignorant of the real history, but what they think they know about it is actually untrue. (guardian.co.uk)

Darwin's Endless Forms at the Fitzwilliam Museum

Take a guided tour with the curators Diana Donald and Jane Munro (BBC News)

Good and Evil in HBO's "True Blood"

The drama series repeatedly toys with notions of so-called civilized society, forcing us to question what makes a person (or vampire) morally upright or fundamentally depraved. (Heather Havrilesky, Salon)

Monday, June 15, 2009

Older People With a Purpose Live Longer

A greater purpose in life is linked to longer life for the elderly, according to a new study by neuropsychologist Patricia Boyle and her colleagues at Rush University Medical Center. They studied more than 1,200 older adults at two separate times five years apart. During the period in between, 151 participants died, but the researchers found that a senior with a high purpose in life was about half as likely to die than was a senior with a low purpose. (Boyle defines purpose as the tendency to find meaning in life’s experiences and to be focused and intentional).
“The finding that purpose in life is related to longevity in older persons suggests that aspects of human flourishing—particularly the tendency to derive meaning from life’s experiences and possess a sense of intentionality and goal-directedness—contribute to successful aging,” says Boyle.
“Although we think that having a sense of purpose in life is important across the lifespan," she adds, "measurement of purpose in life in older persons in particular may reveal an enduring sense of meaningfulness and intentionality in life that somehow provides a buffer against negative health outcomes."

Darwin Wrestles With Religion in New Movie

Take a sneak peak at the trailer for Creation, the Charlies Darwin biopic starring Paul Bettany and based on the book Annie's Box by Randal Keynes (Darwin's great-great grandson). The visuals are lovely.
The film doesn't have a U.S. distributor yet, but will hit theaters in the United Kingdom in September.

Field Notes

Who Goes to a Creation Museum—and Why?
Britain has its own creationist museum, in Portsmouth, Hampshire. But its size and popularity is dwarfed by that of its Kentucky counterpart. (Peter Jackson, BBC News)

Religion's Influence Depends on How We See God
Andrew Newberg: There seems to be little question that when people view God as loving, forgiving, compassionate and supportive, this more likely results in a very positive view of themselves, and of the world around them. But when God is viewed as dispassionate, vengeful and unforgiving, this can have deleterious effects on one's physical and mental health. (USA Today)

Science Teacher Who Kept Bible on his Desk Sues School District
An Ohio school teacher fired over accusations that he preached Christianity in class says in a $1 million lawsuit that his free speech and civil rights were violated. John Freshwater, an eighth-grade teacher in Mount Vernon, northeast of Columbus, also says he was harassed because of his religion, was defamed and suffered a hostile work environment. (Andrew Welsh-Huggins, Associated Press)

Fighting Radicalism and Terrorism With Religious Discourse and Education
As Yemen attempts to handle the crisis of the moment, the country looks to its religious dialogue efforts as a possible counter-balance to the religious extremism that fuels kidnapping and Al Qaeda. Human rights activists caution that the programs, however, don't always translate into practical transformation. (Laura Kasinof, Christian Science Monitor)

Jehovah's Witnesses Face Serious Risk During Childbirth
Pregnant women who are Jehovah's Witnesses are six times more likely to die during childbirth and three times more likely to have serious complications than the general population, according to a new study by Dutch researchers. (Daniel Burke, Religion News Service)

Friday, June 12, 2009

What Motivates Us To Act Charitably?

Trying to answer that question, Tel Aviv University economics professor Anat Bracha and her colleagues invited people to bike for 10 minutes in the gym at MIT. One group biked in public—in the gym's main room—while another group biked in a private room on the third floor. All the bikers earned money for a charitable cause based on the effort they exerted, but the researchers found that "giving was affected by how visible the participation was," says Bracha. "The more public, the greater the image boost, and the greater the contribution." In other words, the recognition we get from others is part of what motivates us to give.
Would things change, the researchers wondered, if they started paying the bikers for their participation? Turns out things did change—but only on the private third floor.
It seems the public bikers worried that the "image boost" they got from exerting themselves would be undermined if observers knew they were gaining personally from trying so hard, and the level of their effort was the same whether they received money or not. "Money and image motivations clashed," says Bracha. Those biking in private, on the other hand, didn't have the same conflict: Without any social judgment to deal with, they biked more miles on average when they were getting paid.
In this economy, Bracha argues, charitable organizations could benefit from really boosting the image of its donors—publicizing their names or recognizing them in some other way. "Charitable giving is a much greater sacrifice now than it was at this time last year," she says. "Budgets are tighter for everyone, so giving is likely to have greater image value."

What's J. Craig Venter's "Religious Belief"?

"I think from my experience in war and life and science, it all has made me believe that we have one life on this planet," genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter, who was drafted into the Vietnam War, tells the San Francisco Chronicle. "We have one chance to live it and to contribute to the future of society and the future of life. The only 'afterlife' is what other people remember of you."

Field Notes

Donations to Religious Charities Are Up
Religious organizations reported a 5.5-percent increase in donations last year, a marked contrast from the nationwide 2-percent decline in charitable giving, according to a study by Giving USA Foundation. (Lindsay Perna, Religion News Service)

New Texas Science Standards Pose Challenge For Textbook Authors
In March, the Texas school board approved new science standards that omit the requirement to teach students the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolutionary theory. But many scientists view the new version as more insidious than the previous one. (Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, Science)

Questions and Controversy Surround Obama's Pick to Run Faith-Based Programs at the Department of Health and Human Services
Alexia Kelley, co-founder of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, and considered by some to be a "dissident Catholic," is President Obama's pick to head the "faith office" at HHS, which raises the question—why do we need a "faith office" at HHS in the first place? (Jayne Lyn Stahl, The Huffington Post)

Laughter Clubs Help Some Cope and Heal
But none of the people are laughing at anything that’s particularly funny. And that’s the point. Psychologist Lynn Caesar says our bodies release a wash of beneficial chemicals when we laugh, the harder the better. She says it reduces stress, boosts our immune systems, and mellows us out—even when we fake it. (Andrea Shea, WBUR)

Science: A Four Thousand Year History

Patricia Fara argues, persuasively, that science is rarely an esoteric effort to attain pure knowledge, as envisaged by Bacon. Rather it stems from attempts to gain power through activities such as politics, magic, religion, trade, and war. The Babylonian astronomers were seeking political advantage. The main motive of many Islamic scholars and, indeed, Newton himself, was the better understanding of God. (The Economist)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Guppies Show Evolution Can Be Relatively Fast

Here's a cool study that shows evolution in action: A team of researchers including Swanne Gordon, a biology grad student at the University of California, Riverside, took guppies from the Yarra River in Trinidad and put them into a section of the nearby Damier River that is above a waterfall. Because of the barrier, this section of the river doesn't have any predators. The guppies then also colonized the part of the river below the waterfall, where they coexist with predatory fish.
How did the guppies adapt to their new environment? Rather well. After eight years and less than 30 guppy generations, the researchers discovered that the guppies above the waterfall had produced fewer and larger offspring with each reproductive cycle.
As Gordon explains:

High-predation females invest more resources into current reproduction because a high rate of mortality, driven by predators, means these females may not get another chance to reproduce. Low-predation females, on the other hand, produce larger embryos because the larger babies are more competitive in the resource-limited environments typical of low-predation sites. Moreover, low-predation females produce fewer embryos not only because they have larger embryos but also because they invest fewer resources in current reproduction.

There's also a second part to the experiment. The team took a group of guppies from part of the Yarra River that has predators and a group from a tributary that has no predators and put them in both sections of the Damier River. After four weeks, they checked back and found that the resident guppies from the first experiment—those that had already adapted to the local environment—were more likely to have survived than the newly transplanted guppies. In other words, the first set of guppies had developed a new, advantageous trait in a relatively short period of time. (Keep in mind that generations go much faster for guppies, which have a short lifespan, than for longer-lived species.)

Baboons Live Longer If Their Moms Are Social

Six days a week for 17 years, primatologists observed more than 65 female baboons in the Moremi Game Reserve, a national park in Botswana. They tracked things like the baboons' social interactions, their ranking within the group, and the survival rates of their offspring. Now, a team of researchers has looked at the data and found that the best way to predict whether a baboon would live to adulthood is to look at the strength of its mother's relationship with other females.
The offspring of females who formed strong social bonds with other females–especially their mothers and adult daughters—lived significantly longer than the offspring of mothers who formed weaker bonds with these relatives. (The strongest social bonds were shown to be between mothers and adult daughters, then sisters.)
Dorothy Cheney, a biologist at the University of Pennsylvania who worked on the study, explains why surviving into adulthood (about age 5 for baboons) is so important:

Females who raise offspring to a reproductive age are more likely see their genes pass along, so these findings demonstrate an evolutionary advantage to strong relationships with other females. In evolutionary terms, social moms are the fittest moms—at least when it comes to baboons.
These findings, the authors write, "parallel those from human studies, which show that greater social integration is generally associated with reduced mortality and better physical and mental health, particularly for women."

Much More Work to Do in Year of Darwin

The Creation Museum in Kentucky has drawn 720,000 visitors in its two years of existence and brought in 7 million dollars in receipts, according to the Courier-Journal. Organizers also say students make up about 20 to 30 percent of the museum's attendance, and they plan to increase the reach next year by sending representatives to meet with teachers at religious schools.

Field Notes

Obama Invokes Religion More Overtly Than Bush
As president, Barack Obama has mentioned Jesus Christ in a number of high-profile public speeches—something his predecessor George W. Bush rarely did in such settings, even though Bush’s Christian faith was at the core of his political identity. (Eamon Javers, Politico)

Atheists Still Have Faith in Obama
While atheist advocates railed against Bush, they seem willing to give Obama a pass on his God talk—at least for now. (Daniel Libit, Politico)

Exhibit Celebrates Leonardo da Vinci as Man of Science
Four centuries before Darwin, Leonardo's detailed studies of fossils helped him to foresee the theories of evolution and plate tectonics, and to reject a literal interpretation of the Biblical flood. Almost half a millennium before man landed on the moon, his lunar studies convinced him that the moon shone with reflected light, instead of a light of its own, as the Bible maintained. (Paula Simons, Edmonton Journal)

Medieval Church Didn't Forbid Human Dissection
Leonardo dissected an aged patient whom he had befriended at the hospital of Santa Maria Nova, Florence. As an artist he had no standing to request a corpse for medical research, but he did not get into trouble. (Christopher Howse, Telegraph)

Seeking Forgiveness?
You might be surprised to learn just how effective a simple apology can be. In fact, a recent series of studies showed that, to a large extent, it doesn’t even matter if the apology is patently insincere—at least for the target of the original wrongdoing. (Jesse Bering, Scientific American Mind)

The Importance of Caring About Science
Though Brian Greene is best known for string theory and Alan Alda for comic acting, they’ve also dedicated themselves to popularizing science among the public. For Greene, scientific literacy is a basic part of modern democracy. For Alda, the restless and self-questioning scientific mode of thought is a virtue. (Brandon Keim, Wired Science)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Gene Predicts Gang Membership & Weapon Use

Biosocial criminologist Kevin Beaver and his colleagues at Florida State University have a new paper that looks at the link between genetics and violence. According to their study, boys who have a particular variation of the gene Monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) are more likely to join gangs, behave violently, and use weapons. (While previous studies have linked this variant to violent behavior, this is the first to show it can predict gang membership.) The findings do not apply to girls who have the same variation of the gene, however.
Beaver explains why:

What's interesting about the MAOA gene is its location on the X-chromosome. As a result, males, who have one X-chromosome and one Y-chromosome, possess only one copy of this gene, while females, who have two X-chromosomes, carry two. Thus, if a male has an allele (variant) for the MAOA gene that is linked to violence, there isn't another copy to counteract it. Females, in contrast, have two copies, so even if they have one risk allele, they have another that could compensate for it. That's why most MAOA research has focused on males, and probably why the MAOA effect has, for the most part, only been detected in males.
The MAOA gene affects the levels of neurotransmitters like dopamine (often called the brain's "feel-good" chemical) and serotonin (linked to mood and emotional control), and researchers say the variant of the gene that predicts violence is hereditary.

Congratulations, Robert Pennock

Robert Pennock, a professor of history and philosophy of science at Michigan State University, has won the American Institute for Biological Science’s Outstanding Service Award. Pennock, author of Tower of Babel and Intelligent Design Creationism and Its Critics, was recognized for his work supporting evolution education and his testimony at the 2005 Dover trial, among other efforts.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Why Friendship Is Like Alliance Politics

If you've ever watched the TV show Survivor, you've no doubt noticed how crucial alliances are and how they constantly change and shift as players jockey for position and try to keep themselves from getting voted out of the game. Part of the reason an alliance of more than two people is so hard to keep together is that there's always a hierarchy of allegiance; loyalty, support, and protection do not apply equally among all. This is usually the argument one alliance uses to lure over a player from the bottom of another, bigger alliance: Being fourth from the top in our alliance, they say, is better than being fifth from the top in theirs. It's an argument that works with varying success.
So I was interested to read about a new theory called the "Alliance Hypothesis for Human Friendship," based on a study by Peter DeScioli and Robert Kurzban, psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania. The psychologists say that how you rank your best friends is closely related to how you think these friends rank you.
As Kurzban notes:

Friendships are about alliances. We live in a world where conflict can arise and allies must be in position beforehand. This new hypothesis takes into account how we value those alliances. In a way, one of the main predictors of friendship is the value of the alliance. The value of an ally, or friend, drops with every additional alliance they must make, so the best alliance is one in which your ally ranks you above everyone else as well.
Traditionally, friends have been thought of as "exchange partners" based on the "theory of reciprocal altruism." But research has shown that we don't regularly keep track of the benefits we give and receive in our close friendships, and we help close friends even when the likelihood of them repaying us is slim. The "alliance" theory of friendship is more optimistic since “it’s not what you can do for me, it’s how much you like me," says Kurzban. "In this manner even the weakest nations, for example, or the least popular kid at the party with nary an alliance in the room is set up to be paired with someone looking for a friend.”
Assuming he's right, can we use this to our advantage? Yup, the psychologists say, by 1) ranking our friends, 2) ranking them according to our position in their rankings (preferring friends who rank us higher—our more reliable allies), and 3) hiding our friend-ranking. —Heather Wax

Monday, June 8, 2009

Vatican Governor Visits Particle Accelerator

"The Church never fears the truth of science, because we are convinced that all truth comes from God," Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, governor of Vatican City, said last week in Geneva, where he visited CERN and the Large Hadron Collider (which broke down just after it was first fired up in September and is expected to restart this fall). "Science will help our faith to purify itself. And faith at the same time will be able to broaden the horizons of man, who cannot just enclose himself in the horizons of science."

We See More When We're in a Good Mood

Our mood really changes the way we see the world, according to a new study from a team at the University of Toronto. "Good and bad moods literally change the way our visual cortex operates," explains Adam Anderson, a psychologist who worked on the research. When we're in a good mood, "our visual cortex takes in more information," he says, "while negative moods result in tunnel vision."
The researchers showed volunteers a composite image (pictured here) that had a face in the center and a house in the background, and they focused the volunteers' attention on the face by asking them to identify the gender. Participants who were primed to be in a bad mood did fine on that task, but didn't process the surrounding image of the house. Those who were in a good mood took in more information and processed more of the picture—both the face and the background.
As Taylor Schmitz, a U of T graduate students and the study's lead author, notes:

Good moods enhance the literal size of the window through which we see the world. The upside of this is that we can see things from a more global, or integrative perspective. The downside is that this can lead to distraction on critical tasks that require narrow focus, such as operating dangerous machinery or airport screening of passenger baggage. Bad moods, on the other hand, may keep us more narrowly focused, preventing us from integrating information outside of our direct attentional focus.
The study appears in The Journal of Neuroscience. —Heather Wax

Do Baby Apes Giggle Like Human Infants Do?

Apparently so, according to a new study that analyzed the "tickle-induced vocalizations" of human infants and young apes.
According to the researchers, infant and juvenile orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas, and bonobos "laugh" when they're tickled, even though it sounds acoustically different from human laughter. (We do laugh most like chimps and bonobos, however, which are genetically closest to us). The study shows "the evolutionary continuity of a human emotional expression," says Marina Davila Ross, a psychologist at the University of Portsmouth who worked on the research.
"The results suggest that the evolutionary origins of human laughter can be traced back at least 10 to 16 million years to the last common ancestor of humans and modern great apes," the researchers write in the journal Current Biology.
There is "clear evidence of a common evolutionary origin for tickling-induced laughter in humans and tickling-induced vocalizations in great apes," they report. "At a minimum, one can conclude that it is appropriate to consider 'laughter' to be a cross-species phenomenon." —Heather Wax