Disease-ridden societies could be more murderous

DOES the threat of rampant disease leave people more likely to commit murder? It's a provocative suggestion, that, if correct, should provide even more incentive to improve the quality of public healthcare in countries where disease is rife.

Randy Thornhill, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, has spent years amassing evidence for his "parasite stress" model of human society, which considers all disease to be a parasite on human society. He has already used it to predict that people in disease-ridden regions will be more xenophobic, and prefer to associate with relatives and close neighbours. These "collectivist" societies opt for strongly conservative values and autocratic governments, which Thornhill says minimises the risk of contracting diseases. By contrast, people in countries with low disease rates tend to be more individualistic and democratic, he says.

With Corey Fincher, also at the University of New Mexico, Thornhill has now found a link between disease and violence. The pair compared murder and disease rates from 48 US states and found that high disease rates correlated with high murder rates. The pattern held even when they took into account economic inequality within the society, which also increases the murder rate (Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2011.0052).

The idea tallies with what we know about different countries' murder rates, says Martin Daly of McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. A recent study identified a link between collectivist societies and murder rates, but did not look at disease rates (Homicide Studies, DOI: 10.1177/1088767911406397).

"Thornhill has pretty convincingly established a link between parasite stress and violence," says Carlos David Navarrete of Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Others are not yet ready to accept the link, though. "It's fascinating and I'd like it to be true," says Val Curtis of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, but she points out that there may be other factors at work. For instance, although the research takes into account relative economic inequalities within the society, it does not consider absolute wealth. Poverty itself may lead to higher murder rates - but because poor societies are likely to have relatively weak healthcare systems and higher levels of disease, there might still be a strong correlation between disease and murder.

If Thornhill's hypothesis is right, it should be possible to see a change in the murder rate as a society faces a reduced or heightened disease risk even as the levels of wealth in the society remained constant. The US data was not detailed enough to allow such an analysis. He predicts that simply investing in healthcare - but not necessarily any other aspect of society - could have an effect on the murder rates.

"If you clean up the diseases you'll reduce the rates of homicide," he says. He predicts that reducing disease rates should cut the murder rate within 20 years as a new generation grows up in a healthier environment.

"I'm not sure about that," says John Archer of the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, UK. He says social systems can linger for decades, even if the original cause disappears.

"The place to try this out is Africa," Curtis says. There are many projects under way to improve public health in disease hotspots, and it would be simple to track any effects on violence, she says.

The riddle of free will goes unsolved

Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga's Who's In Charge? Free will and the science of the brain is fascinating, but doesn't deliver on its promise

ABOUT half way through this fascinating book, Michael Gazzaniga harks back to his previous one, Human. He wanted to call it Phase Shift, he says, but his publisher overruled him.

Gazzaniga - one of the giants of modern neuroscience - tells this story to illustrate a point about the difference between animal and human brains, but by the end of the book it has taken on a different complexion. Because while Who's In Charge? is full of wonderful material, anybody expecting an answer to the vexing question of free will is going to come away disappointed.

The book is based on Gazzaniga's contribution to the Gifford lecture series, established in 1887 at four prestigious British universities to "promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term". It romps around the intersection of neuroscience and the human condition, from Gazzaniga's own astonishing work on split-brain patients to social neuroscience, consciousness, morality and more. Free will gets a look in, but is far from the centrepiece. To subtitle the book Free will and the science of the brain frankly sets up expectations that are never met, and which prove very distracting.

As one example of how the title does disservice to the content, Gazzaniga opens his final chapter with the harrowing story of Lawrence Singleton, who in 1978 raped a teenage girl in California, hacked off her forearms with an axe and left her to die by the roadside. She survived, and her testimony helped put Singleton away. He got 14 years but served just eight. After being released for good behaviour, he went on to murder a prostitute. He died on death row in 2001.

As I read this horrific tale, I was expecting it to be the point where Gazzaniga finally takes on the problem of free will. Singleton's acts were monstrous, but was he really responsible? Frustratingly, the story turns out to be a preamble for a discussion of how our brains deal with justice and retribution. Interesting stuff, but my own brain was plotting a bit of justice and retribution of its own for being misled.

So what of free will? The problem is a familiar one. We live in a deterministic universe. Given enough information about its present state, we could extrapolate to any past or future state with 100 per cent accuracy. Everything that has or will happen was determined at the big bang - and given that our brains are part of the physical universe, free will does not exist. Depressingly, neuroscience itself offers little comfort that this isn't the case.

Gazzaniga's solution is also a familiar one. Post-Newtonian physics has retreated from strict determinism in the form of quantum mechanics, chaos theory and emergence. Perhaps neuroscience can use them to rescue free will? Gazzaniga throws all of these at the problem but ultimately they bounce off, leaving determinism's hard and unforgiving core intact.

There is a great book waiting to be written on free will. This isn't it, but it's worth reading all the same.

Google lets Wi-Fi network owners opt out of mapping

Simply adding "_nomap" to the name you've given your domestic WiFi network will prevent Google Maps-equipped cellphones using your home as a position fix, Google announced last night. The idea is to allow people the chance to opt out of helping provide Google's commercial positioning service - even though doing so is likely to degrade its accuracy.

Google announced the opt-out option on its blog today in a further move to assuage the criticism it faced over its infamous Wi-Fi data sniffing operation carried out in 2010. When Google's Street View cars photographed our streets and used laser radar to get the shapes of buildings right in Google Earth, it also sniffed the air for two key ID numbers on the Wi-Fi networks at each property: the router's hardwired Media Access Control (MAC) address and the Service Set Identifier (SSID) - the name you've given your network. However, lax controls on the MAC/SSID sniffing software resulted in Google also acquiring personal data, such as snippets of our emails and web requests - leaving it censured by data protection authorities.

Why use Wi-Fi data for positioning? When phones can't get a GPS satellite fix in a built-up area, triangulating signals from either cellphone antennas and/or Wi-Fi routers can provide a reasonably accurate position fix. So, Google and rival providers like Skyhook look for and store our MAC and SSID data on their location servers.

However, pressure groups like Privacy International complain that databases of Wi-Fi IDs were surreptitiously compiled and that people should be able to opt out. This is what Google has provided today. But while adding _nomap to your SSID will prevent passing Google devices using your network, it won't stop its rivals using it. But Google hopes the opt-out format will be adopted by its rivals, too.

Defence witnesses testify in Nature libel trial

A libel case brought against the scientific journal Nature by an independent physicist is hearing statements from defence witnesses this week in London. Mohamed El Naschie, a former editor of the physics journal Chaos, Solitons and Fractals, is claiming that an article published in Nature in November 2008 damaged his reputation. The article is currently unavailable on the Nature website.

The article questioned the peer-review process at Chaos, Solitons and Fractals, where El Naschie served as editor and published many of his own papers. Peer review is at the heart of science publishing: research papers submitted to journals are assessed by scientists who are experts in the relevant field.

The Nature article also reported that several of El Naschie's claims of affiliation with academic institutions could not be verified.

The trial started in London's High Court on Friday, although El Naschie, who is representing himself, has not been present during the proceedings.

Humans killing at least 750 Bornean orang-utans a year

Indonesians are killing endangered orang-utans at an alarming rate. At least 750 were killed in one recent year, according to a new survey.

The survey focused on Bornean orang-utans (Pongo pygmaeus) living in Kalimantan, the Indonesian side of the island of Borneo. Led by Erik Meijaard of People and Nature Consulting International in Jakarta, Indonesia, researchers interviewed 6983 people from 687 villages between April 2008 and September 2009 about bushmeat.

Tallying up individual accounts, they estimate that between 750 and 1800 orang-utans were killed in the year leading up to April 2008. In previous years, however, things were even worse: the researchers calculate that between 1950 and 3100 were killed each year.

Interviews suggest 54 per cent were killed for food and eaten by local people. Conflict between humans and orang-utans also seems to be a factor: 10 per cent of orang-utans were said to have been killed because they were raiding crops, and 15 per cent of respondents said the orang-utans had come into conflict with local people.

Even without the threat of becoming bushmeat, Bornean orang-utans are already endangered, with no more than 69,000 left in the wild. The main culprit is habitat loss, with expanding palm-oil plantations often blamed. The high rate of killing only adds to the pressure on the species.

Seventy-three per cent of respondents knew that orang-utans were protected by Indonesian law. "If people are found holding a dead orang-utan they should be prosecuted," says Ashley Leiman, director of the Orangutan Foundation in London. But that is not the case, she says. Killing orang-utans is illegal, but the Indonesian government rarely prosecutes or punishes perpetrators. She is aware of just one successful prosecution; another case is pending.

Burt Rutan's boat-plane retirement project

Bored in retirement, legendary aerospace engineer Burt Rutan is working on a new project, a high-speed winged boat that can double as a seaplane, so he can fly between lakes and rivers near his new home in Coeur d'Alene, a lakeside resort in northern Idaho.

Famed for designing a series of innovative aircraft and spacecraft, Rutan began building planes of his own design in the late 1960s while working as a project engineer for the US Air Force. He founded Scaled Composites in Mojave, California in 1982, where he became famous for designing Voyager, the first plane to fly around the world without refuelling in 1986. More recently, Rutan designed a flying car, which got off the ground for the first time in July.

However, his crowning achievement was SpaceShipOne, which in 2004 became the first privately funded craft to fly a human into space. A follow-on design, SpaceShipTwo, is intended to carry six space tourists to altitudes of about 120 kilometres, but so far has only glided in the air.

Having sold Scaled Composites to Northrop Grumman, Rutan retired in April, although his flying car design remains in development. But he isn't done yet - he has his sights set on designing a short-takeoff and landing (STOL) plane. "Getting out and exploring little lakes and rivers in a STOL seaplane is a fantasy, I think, for a pilot," he told the Experimental Aircraft Association.

But when Burt Rutan says "seaplane", you know he's not thinking of the propeller-powered pontoon planes that have been flown for decades. Instead, his plans draw inspiration from large wing Russian ships or "ekranoplans" built during the Cold War (see below). Essentially boats with wings and aircraft engines, they could rise up to 20 or 30 metres above the water. Rutan is thinking of a much smaller wing-boat that could reach high speeds in boat-mode on the water then take off and fly.

Test all kids for cholesterol, says US government

Here's a school-age test that requires no studying to pass. The US National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute wants all children aged 9 to 11 to be screened for high cholesterol levels.

"The reason to start this young is that atherosclerosis, the disease process leading to heart attacks and strokes, starts this young," says Stephen Daniels of the Children's Hospital Colorado in Aurora, chair of the NHLBI panel.

Since 1992, children from families with a history of high cholesterol have been screened, but a report last year suggested the strategy misses one-third of high-risk cases. Testing all children should catch those cases.

But not everyone thinks the approach makes sense. "We have not seen evidence to suggest that screening the entire population of 9 to 11-year-olds would throw out the types of benefits sought," says a spokesman for the British Heart Foundation.

Fin massage relieves stress in surgeonfish

Life on the reef can be stressful. Fortunately for some of its fishy inhabitants, they can call on a masseur to soothe their nerves – the first non-primate known to do so.

Surgeonfish (Ctenochaetus striatus) make regular use of cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus) to remove their parasites and dead skin. Marta Soares of the ISPA University Institute in Lisbon, Portugal, noticed that the cleaners seem to offer another service too: they can placate an agitated surgeonfish by rubbing back and forth on its pelvic and pectoral fins.

Soares and her team set out to see if it was the social interaction or the feeling of the massage that kept the surgeonfish at ease. "We know that fish experience pain," says Soares. "Maybe fish have pleasure, too."

To test this, they studied two groups of eight surgeonfish. The team confined each fish in a small bucket for a short period to simulate the stresses they would encounter in the wild – predation, conflicts with cleaner fish or competition for food, for instance. They then placed the surgeonfish into tanks with a model cleaner fish. One group was given a stationary model, the other a model that moved back and forth, and so could provide physical stimulation.

All the surgeonfish readily approached the model, but those in the tank with the moving model were able to position themselves beneath it and use its fake fins to gain a back rub. These fish were more relaxed, as measured in terms of the steroid hormone cortisol, which is released in response to stress.
The touch of your fin

Todd Anderson, a biologist at San Diego State University, California, who studies the ecology of reef fishes, says he's surprised that physical contact lowers stress in fish.

"Normally I would think that physical contact would elevate stress in fish, as it should, for example, in prey experiencing attempted capture by a predator," Anderson says. "However, the contact [in this study] is initiated by the client fish for an often beneficial relationship [that includes] removing parasites."

Soares says that the tactile stimulation by cleaner fish may now be seen as more than purely exploitative, because it offers the client surgeonfish a benefit. She also says this research may mean that pathways for sensory information processing in fish are more similar to humans that previously thought.

"Humans go to have massages when we feel sick or just to feel better, so maybe the reasons are basically the same," she says.

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