The animal in us, the human in them

Jeff Warren in The Globe and Mail:

Dewaal_259508gm-a The book of nature is like the Bible: Everyone reads into it what they want.” So writes eminent primatologist Frans de Waal about a third of the way into his latest, The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society. As nature readers go, de Waal is among the most accomplished. He has spent the better part of 30 years studying chimpanzees and bonobos, sometimes in the wild, but mostly in his capacity as director of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta, Ga.

And what a sobering education the apes have given him. For six books, de Waal has chronicled their scheming and their turf battles, their amazing problem-solving abilities and sexual politics. From the start, it has been clear to de Waal that the apes represent a kind of proto-human society, with many of our same patterns and preoccupations. These days, there is nothing controversial about this view; it's trotted out by pundits and newspaper columnists at every opportunity, all of them enthralled by evolutionary psychology – the idea that all of human nature can be explained by adaptive responses formed on the prehistoric savannah – as a kind of arch-explanatory paradigm. If we want to understand ourselves, the thinking goes, then look to our ape ancestors, who exhibit many of the same traits in more elemental form.

De Waal is very much with this program, and he is an astute enough cultural commentator to recognize how the specific details of this narrative influence politics and society.

More here.

Faheem Hussain — As I Knew Him

by Pervez Hoodbhoy

Faheem It was mid-October 1973 when, after a grueling 26-hour train ride from Karachi, I reached the physics department of Islamabad University (or Quaid-e-Azam University, as it is now known). As I dumped my luggage and “hold-all” in front of the chairman's office, a tall, handsome man with twinkling eyes looked at me curiously. He was wearing a bright orange Che Guevara t-shirt and shocking green pants. His long beard, though shorter than mine, was just as unruly and unkempt. We struck up a conversation. At 23, I had just graduated from MIT and was to be a lecturer in the department; he had already been teaching as associate professor for five years. The conversation turned out to be the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Together with Abdul Hameed Nayyar – also bearded at the time – we became known as the Sufis of Physics. Thirty six years later, when Faheem Hussain lost his battle against prostate cancer, our sadness was beyond measure.

Revolutionary, humanist, and scientist, Faheem Hussain embodied the political and social ferment of the late 1960's. With a Ph.D that he received in 1966 from Imperial College London, he had been well-placed for a solid career anywhere in the world. In a profession where names matter, he had worked under the famous P.T. Mathews in the group headed by the even better known Abdus Salam. After his degree, Faheem spent two years at the University of Chicago. This gave him a chance to work with some of the world's best physicists, but also brought him into contact with the American anti-Vietnam war movement and a powerful wave of revolutionary Marxist thinking. Even decades later, Faheem would describe himself as an “unreconstructed Marxist”. Participating in the mass anti-war demonstrations at UC had stirred his moral soul; he felt the urge to do more than just physics. Now married to Jane Steinfels, a like-minded soul who he met in Chicago, Faheem decided to return to Pakistan.

Read more »

Mapping the Cracks: Art-Objects in Motion

Part One

by Daniel Rourke

“The spacetime of the lightcones and the fermions and scalar are connected to the chocolate grinder. The chocolate grinder receives octonionic structure from the water wheel.”

– Tony Smith, Valdosta Museum Website

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, EvenIn 1927 Marcel Duchamp's The Large Glass was broken in transit. The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, Duchamp's title for the piece, depicts a mechanical Bride in its upper section and nine abstract Bachelors in its lower. Duchamp took oil, lead, varnish and dust and sandwiched them between panes of glass. The Bachelors encounter their Bride in the presence of a large, gorgeous, chocolate grinder whose drums revolve in motions which seem to reach up, across the divide, to touch the ethereal Bride in her domain.

In 1936 Duchamp 'fixed' the broken Bride by repairing, rather than replacing, the shattered panes of glass. He claimed to like it better that way.

Today progenies of Duchamp invest time, thought and often a great many dollars in their own artworks. The successful ones amongst them package those artworks up in foam, plaster and cellophane to be moved, shipped and re-exhibited in multiple gallery spaces again and again. Without dwelling on the commodification of the artwork I want to build my own scheme for understanding these movements. I want to rest a little and draw the lines of desire that artworks traverse; the paths they take that human intent had nothing to do with; the archives they carry within themselves. For every map there are points we must plot, spaces and places in real space and time that require isolation and signification. We grab a GPS device and codify the crossroads where St. Martin's Place meets Trafalgar Square, marking carefully the precise angle via which Madonna on the Rocks will be fed through the clamouring crowds into the The National Gallery's mouth. Artworks live in motion, just as readily as they live in the gallery. In the dark recess of transit they sketch a hidden, secret life away from the viewing eye, becoming not 'art', but 'object' – traversing the gap between these concepts as they travel.

The Bride now rests out her Autumn years in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, waiting for gravity to release her chocolate grinder once again from its sandwich of (un)shattered glass.

Read more »

Monday Poem

To Roof

Ah, to put a roofing spade
to desiccated shingles

To lean upon the spade-handle’s end
leveraging stubborn nails
from their impacted seats

To wrench my back

To abrade my bleeding hands again
stroking the asphalt’s pebbled face

To fight a wind while laying felt
which, like Ahab’s sails, would whisk me
to a mad roofer’s end

To slam my thumb once more

To slash my hands with flashing
imagining the course of rainwater
down a 4 square deck–
……… to place aluminum just so
as if I could plumb
a droplet’s depth

To race the advance of a front

To look skyward anxious
under gathering clouds

To become so unfocused in haste
my courses, like the venal
schemes of politicians, veer off
disordered and untrue
leaving poor substrate constituents
vulnerable to a deluge

Ah, but then, at last,
to button it up

To take the scaffold down
and store the ladder

To pack the tools and,
eye-balling the shingled slope,
wax smug

To hope again I’d out-danced
natural law

To think I’d punked Poseidon
(who pelts my roof with rain and hail)

To stride off then self-satisfied
and step upon a roofing nail


By Jim Culleny; Sept 27, 2009

There are 237 reasons why women have sex

Tanya Gold in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_05 Oct. 04 18.12 Do you want to know why women have sex with men with tiny little feet? I am stroking a book called Why Women Have Sex. It is by Cindy Meston, a clinical psychologist, and David Buss, an evolutionary psychologist. It is a very thick, bulging book. I've never really wondered Why Women Have Sex. But after years of not asking the question, the answer is splayed before me.

Meston and Buss have interviewed 1,006 women from all over the world about their sexual motivation, and in doing so they have identified 237 different reasons why women have sex. Not 235. Not 236. But 237. And what are they? From the reams of confessions, it emerges that women have sex for physical, emotional and material reasons; to boost their self-esteem, to keep their lovers, or because they are raped or coerced. Love? That's just a song. We are among the bad apes now.

More here.

Roman Polanski sex case arrest provokes backlash in Hollywood

Paul Harris in The Observer:

ScreenHunter_04 Oct. 04 17.27 The Polanski backlash has spread far and wide. He was never popular at all on the right wing of America's culture, but now middle America is firmly in favour of seeing him in a Californian courtroom. Talkshow hosts, radio commentators and newspaper editorials from coast to coast have all insisted that the arrest was long overdue and that Polanski needs to be brought to the US.

“Hollywood people really don't see the world in the same way as average people… that is why there is a backlash,” said Mike Levine, a Hollywood PR expert.

But it is perhaps no surprise that the gap between Hollywood and the rest of America has grown so large on this particular case. Because of his long and illustrious career, Polanski is a friend and colleague of nearly all the main players in the film world. They are his confidantes and his peers. His movies have made them stars and helped them to earn millions. They live in the same rarefied world of global fame. “Elite Hollywood culture is protecting one of its own,” said Alexander Riley, a professor of sociology at Bucknell University.

More here.

I’m a combination of an old man and a baby


ON DENYING CHRISTIAN IMAGERY IN HIS FILM “KNIFE IN THE WATER” An accident. The rope [in the shape of a halo] was simply to cushion his head. And he spreads his arms because, you know, he wants a better suntan (1972)


ON HIS FILM “FRANTIC”, STARRING HARRISON FORD It's a film about jet-lag (1988)


more from Roman Polanski at The Guardian here.

I’ll always love her, though


The Association for the Advancement of Advanced Intelligence report . . . will also grapple . . . [with] probable changes in human-computer relationships. How would it be, for example, to relate to a machine that is as intelligent as your spouse?
The Times.

Don’t get me wrong; my wife is great. I bristle when I overhear someone say that my DVR is smarter than she is. Chloe went to SUNY-Binghamton. She’s plenty smart. My DVR knows French, but so what? It’s not like I go to French restaurants with my DVR. . . . O.K., one time I went to Le Pescadou with my DVR. Chloe and I were going through a weird time. I was hungry. There was nothing on TV. No, that last part about TV is a joke. Get it? Because I was with my DVR? Doesn’t matter. Point is— No, actually, it does matter. My DVR would have got it.

My DVR is very funny. Not funny ha-ha, not like my A.T.M., but funny. It loves that movie “My Dinner with Andre.” Between you and me, I have no idea if that movie is funny or not. I try to laugh in the right places, but who knows? And, well, sometimes it’s nice to not always be the person who “knows” when to laugh, to be with someone—O.K., not someone, your DVR, or a G.P.S. system—and learn something.

more from Zev Borow at The New Yorker here.

Jatin Das at San Francisco (Sep 20 to Oct 20)

Das Jatin Das, one of the most prolific figurative painters, is also a graphic artist, sculptor, muralist and a poet. He was born in 1941 in Mayurbhanj, Orissa. Jatin studied painting at Sir J J School of Art in Bombay (1957-62). Since he finished his art educated he has been participating in all important national and international art exhibitions, namely the Biennales in Paris (1971), and in Venice (197 8) and the Documenta in Kessel (1975).

A tirelessly innovative explorer of dynamic human figures in terms of linear structuration and breezy brushwork, Jatin Das focuses mainly on man-woman relationships in varying moments of crises, contacts, revelation, and emotional tension. There is a monumentality in his treatment of human forms, which is retained even when the forms are energized by way of rhythmic discontinuities of color-planes and rushing lines. A sensitive colorist who refuses to treat his imagery in 3-D volumes, Jatin charges his palette with emotional nuances.

More here. (Note: Jatin Das, who is also the father of my brilliant friend Nandita Das, is showing his work at The Artist Alley Gallery in San Francisco. Please go see it if you can.)

Ancient Skeleton May Rewrite Earliest Chapter of Human Evolution

From Science:

Ape Researchers have unveiled the oldest known skeleton of a putative human ancestor–and it is full of surprises. Although the creature, named Ardipithecus ramidus, had a brain and body the size of a chimpanzee, it did not knuckle-walk or swing through the trees like an ape. Instead, “Ardi” walked upright, with a big, stiff foot and short, wide pelvis, researchers report in Science. “We thought Lucy was the find of the century,” says paleoanthropologist Andrew Hill of Yale University, referring to the famous 3.2-million-year-old skeleton that revolutionized thinking about human origins. “But in retrospect, it was not.”

Researchers have long argued about whether our early ancestors passed through a great-ape stage in which they looked like protochimpanzees, with short backs; arms adapted for swinging through the trees; and a pelvis and limbs adapted for knuckle-walking (Science, 21 November 1969, p. 953). This “troglodytian,” or chimpanzee, model for early human behavior (named for the common chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes) suggests that our ancestors lost many of the key adaptations still found in chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas, such as daggerlike canines and knuckle-walking, which those apes were thought to have inherited from a common ancestor.

More here.

Infections responsible for four-fifths of cancers?

Andrew Grant in Discover:

Breast%20Cancer%20Cell Most current research into the causes of cancer focuses on genes and environmental triggers. Evolutionary biologist Paul Ewald of the University of Louisville in Kentucky argues that scientists have overlooked the most important cause: parasites, especially viruses. Blending medicine and Darwinian biology, Ewald considers cancer and other diseases from the pathogen’s point of view, showing how natural selection determines why the smallpox virus, for instance, is a ruthless killer while viruses for the common cold are relatively benign. He says that once we identify the viruses that trigger cancer, we can work to prevent their transmission and force them to evolve from fatal scourges into mere nuisances, eventually turning cancer into a manageable disease.

DISCOVER: What is new about the way you are thinking about disease?
Paul Ewald: I apply Darwinian principles to medicine with the goal of solving problems. Medicine is not very good at addressing evolution, and to me that’s a great problem in regard to infectious disease. Humans barely evolve quickly enough to adjust to rapidly evolving infectious agents.

D: Why do you believe that viruses lie behind many types of cancer?
PE: To progress toward cancer, you need a few specific genes to be mutated, within a limited number of cell divisions, to cause the cells to divide uncontrollably. But if you mutated almost any of the other 30,000 genes, the cells would die or be crippled. So how do all those specific mutations occur so rapidly without destroying the cells? It turns out that each virus that’s been studied and associated with cancer—such as hepatitis B with liver cancer or human papilloma virus with cervical cancer—evolves characteristics that allow it to target those genes immediately upon infection. They’re pushing cells to the brink of cancer because the cells will grow faster with the virus embedded inside and won’t be able to stop dividing. These viruses don’t really benefit if you get cancer, but they do benefit when the viral genome can replicate and persist despite a sophisticated immune system.

More here.

How Often Do Women Falsely Cry Rape?

Emily Bazelon and Rachael Larimore in Slate:

ScreenHunter_03 Oct. 04 09.38 Because of the 18-year-old Hofstra student who recanted after telling police that five men had tricked her into a bathroom and then gang raped her two weeks ago, that question has been flying around the Internet. As Cathy Young notes in Newsday, the answers often fall into one of two camps. “Many feminists argue that the problem of false accusations is so minuscule that to discuss it extensively is a harmful distraction from the far more serious problem of rape. On the other side are men's-rights activists, claiming that false accusations are as much of a scourge as rape itself.”

But isn't the rate of false rape charges an empirical question, with a specific answer that isn't vulnerable to ideological twisting? Yes and no. There has been a burst of research on this subject. Some of it is careful, but much of it is questionable. While most of the good studies converge at a rate of about 8 percent to 10 percent for false rape charges, the literature isn't quite definitive enough to stamp out the far higher estimates. And even if we go by the lower numbers, there's the question of interpretation. If one in 10 charges of rape is made up, is that a dangerously high rate or an acceptably low one? To put this in perspective, if we use the Bureau of Justice Statistics that show about 200,000 rapes in 2008, we could be looking at as many as 20,000 false accusations.

More here.