anthropology · behavior · community · happiness · mental health · Social

Transparency: Which Countries Are the Happiest?

Thanks Facebook for directing me to this follow-up to my earlier post!

For decades, the World Database of Happiness has tracked down how happy people are—not at all happy, not very happy, quite happy, or very happy. As it turns out, most of us are mostly happy, even when things aren’t going so well. Here is a look at how happy people said they were (on average) over the last 30 years.

Find out more at Transparency: Which Countries Are the Happiest? – Culture – GOOD – StumbleUpon.

culture

NYT: "Human Culture, an Evolutionary Force"

Ha ha!
 By NICHOLAS WADE, New York Times

As with any other species, human populations are shaped by the usual forces of natural selection, like famine, disease or climate. A new force is now coming into focus. It is one with a surprising implication — that for the last 20,000 years or so, people have inadvertently been shaping their own evolution.
The force is human culture, broadly defined as any learned behavior, including technology. The evidence of its activity is the more surprising because culture has long seemed to play just the opposite role. Biologists have seen it as a shield that protects people from the full force of other selective pressures, since clothes and shelter dull the bite of cold and farming helps build surpluses to ride out famine.
Because of this buffering action, culture was thought to have blunted the rate of human evolution, or even brought it to a halt, in the distant past. Many biologists are now seeing the role of culture in a quite different light.
Although it does shield people from other forces, culture itself seems to be a powerful force of natural selection. People adapt genetically to sustained cultural changes, like new diets. And this interaction works more quickly than other selective forces, “leading some practitioners to argue that gene-culture co-evolution could be the dominant mode of human evolution,” Kevin N. Laland and colleagues wrote in the February issue of Nature Reviews Genetics. Dr. Laland is an evolutionary biologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Read full article

Uncategorized

More mysterious hominids

Featured in Discover Magazine: The Boskops.
Skulls found of this group had a cranial capacity of 1,980 cc and a child-like face. The combination of a large cranium and immature face would look decidedly unusual to modern eyes, but not entirely unfamiliar. Such faces peer out from the covers of countless science fiction books and are often attached to “alien abductors” in movies.

The combination of a large cranium and immature face would look decidedly unusual to modern eyes, but not entirely unfamiliar. Such faces peer out from the covers of countless science fiction books and are often attached to “alien abductors” in movies. The naturalist Loren Eiseley made exactly this point in a lyrical and chilling passage from his popular book, The Immense Journey, describing a Boskop fossil:
“There’s just one thing we haven’t quite dared to mention. It’s this, and you won’t believe it. It’s all happened already. Back there in the past, ten thousand years ago. The man of the future, with the big brain, the small teeth. He lived in Africa. His brain was bigger than your brain. His face was straight and small, almost a child’s face.”

Boskops, then, were much talked and written about, by many of the most prominent figures in the fields of paleontology and anthropology.

Yet today, although Neanderthals and Homo erectus are widely known, Boskops are almost entirely forgotten. Some of our ancestors are clearly inferior to us, with smaller brains and apelike countenances. They’re easy to make fun of and easy to accept as our precursors. In contrast, the very fact of an ancient ancestor like Boskop, who appears un-apelike and in fact in most ways seems to have had characteristics superior to ours, was destined never to be popular.

Read the whole article

culture

Wide spread tool use in primates

Despite the common perception, tool use is not just a sporadic behavior among animals; it’s especially prevalent in primates.

For example, chimps use cleavers and anvils as tools to chop food. Chimps in the Nimba Mountains of Guinea, Africa, use both stone and wooden cleavers, as well as stone anvils, to process Treculia fruits.
The apes are not simply cracking into the Treculia to get to otherwise unobtainable food, say researchers.
Instead, they are actively chopping up the food into more manageable portions.
PhD student Kathelijne Koops and Professor William McGrew of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, University of Cambridge, UK, studied a group of chimps living wild in the Nimba Mountains.
The apes’ use of such tools can be surprisingly sophisticated. “For example, nut-cracking in the Bossou chimpanzee community in Guinea involves the use of a movable hammer and anvil, and sometimes the additional use of stabilising wedges to make the anvil more level and so more efficient,” explains Ms Koops. “Termite fishing in some chimpanzee communities in the Republic of Congo involves the use of a tool set, i.e. different tool components used sequentially to achieve the same goal.
“These chimpanzees were found to deliberately modify termite fishing probes by creating a brush-end, before using them to fish for termites.”

How do these animals keep their teeth healthy? Floss after a meal. At least one does. A macaque in Japan flosses its teeth with its hair, demonstrating that humans aren’t the only animals that clean their teeth and invent tools to help with the task.

The flosser, a free-ranging, middle-aged, female Japanese macaque named Chonpe, may have come up with the tool and the idea, according to a new study that will appear in the January issue of Primates.
Lead author Jean-Baptiste Leca told Discovery News that dental flossing could have been a fortuitous yet “accidental byproduct of grooming.”
Leca, a post-doctoral fellow at Kyoto University’s Primate Research Institute, explained that “Japanese macaques sometimes bite into hair or pull it through their mouths to remove external parasites.”
The hair might have become stuck in Chonpe’s teeth, and as she drew the hairs out, “she may have noticed the presence of food remains attached to them.”
“The immediate reward of licking the food remains off the hair may have encouraged her to repeat the behavior for the same effect in the future,” he added.
Read more about meat hammering and flossing.
Uncategorized

Beauty is only city-deep

From MSNBC (with a few edits because I can’t help myself):

Women’s magazines often spread the same message: Money may not buy you happiness, but beauty certainly will. A new study has actually proven that the women’s magazines were right — so long as you live in the city. But if you’re a country girl, it’s more of a case of “pretty is as pretty does.”
Researchers have found that happiness for city women is quite dependent upon physical appearance. But in the country, looks don’t count for much in terms of overall life satisfaction and happiness, according to a new study in the journal Personal Relationships.
 
“City women who were the most attractive got a lot of bang for their appearance buck,” says the study’s lead author, Victoria Plaut, a visiting assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, and an assistant professor at the University of Georgia. “And if you were even slightly below average, you were very clearly worse off.”
When it came to women living in the country, there was no connection between physical appearance and happiness. Even more interesting — there was a slight trend in the data for women in the country to be happier if they were chubbier, Plaut says.
For the new study, Plaut and her colleagues interviewed 257 women who lived in the city and 330 from the country. The women were asked to rate their satisfaction with life, their connectedness with friends and community, and their general level of happiness. For a measure of satisfaction, they were asked to rate their lives on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being “worst possible life you can imagine” and 10 listed as the “best possible life you can imagine.”
To get a sense of the women’s attractiveness, researchers asked for waist and hip measurements. Other studies have shown that the ratio of waist to hips is a reliable indicator of attractiveness, Plaut explains. The lower the ratio, the slimmer the waist — and the more attractive a woman is considered to be.
The new findings fall in line with other research, says Michael Cunningham, a psychologist and professor in the department of communications at the University of Louisville, Ky. “In competitive and individualistic cultures you have to compete for limited social attention,” Cunningham says. “Physical attractiveness is one of the variables that gets you social attention and other positive outcomes. But in communal cultures and rural areas, family reputation and other longer-term variables have a bigger impact on your well-being. As a consequence, physical attractiveness doesn’t have as big an impact.” 
I’m not sure yet if I buy Cunningham’s reasoning why this is true; I think it’s more complicated than competition for attention. But I’d love to hear what other people think.
play

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – and bonding

Okay, first I just have to get it out of the way that Frans de Waal is a giant hippie. Big ol’ bio-anth hippie! The article I’m posting below undoubtedly reflects that. BUT, if you look past the hippiness, I think he’s onto something.

Okay, cue posting of Discover Magazine, general audience article about bonobos:

What intrigues me most about laughter is how it spreads. It’s almost impossible not to laugh when everybody else is. There have been laughing epidemics, in which no one could stop and some even died in a prolonged fit. There are laughing churches and laugh therapies based on the healing power of laughter. The must-have toy of 1996—Tickle Me Elmo—laughed hysterically after being squeezed three times in a row. All of this because we love to laugh and can’t resist joining laughing around us. This is why comedy shows on television have laugh tracks and why theater audiences are sometimes sprinkled with “laugh plants”: people paid to produce raucous laughing at any joke that comes along.

The infectiousness of laughter even works across species. Below my office window at the Yerkes Primate Center, I often hear my chimps laugh during rough-and-tumble games, and I cannot suppress a chuckle myself. It’s such a happy sound. Tickling and wrestling are the typical laugh triggers for apes, and probably the original ones for humans. The fact that tickling oneself is notoriously ineffective attests to its social significance. And when young apes put on their play face, their friends join in with the same expression as rapidly and easily as humans do with laughter.

Shared laughter is just one example of our primate sensitivity to others. Instead of being Robinson Crusoes sitting on separate islands, we’re all interconnected, both bodily and emotionally. This may be an odd thing to say in the West, with its tradition of individual freedom and liberty, but Homo sapiens is remarkably easily swayed in one emotional direction or another by its fellows.

Read the full article. I’ll wait.

Okay, are you back? Good.

I think he has a good point. There are lots of other data that really point out to me how important it is to have other individuals around, how much we learn from them, and how it’s hard for us to be the “lone wolf” (which doesn’t actually exist either, but that’s a different post all together).

The first type of play that humans participate in is imitating their moms and dads. Smiling at them, opening and closing their mouth the same way they do. Kids learn by mimicking and playing, trying the same stuff those around them do.

I don’t know if you need to go so far as to call it the new field of “embodied” cognition, but it is important to acknowledge that that part of us as social creatures definitely exists, and that basically, no man is an island. This is being re-shown every day.

language

Why chimps don’t talk?

All the news came out last week about the FOXP2 gene, but I can’t help and post it here a week late anyway:

Chimps, our nearest relative, don’t talk. We do. Now scientists have pinpointed a mutation in a gene that might help explain the difference.

The mutation seems to have helped humans develop speech and language. It’s probably not the only gene involved, but researchers found the gene looks and acts differently in chimps and humans, according to a study published online Wednesday by the journal Nature.

Lab tests showed that the human version regulated more than 100 other genes differently from the chimp version. This particular gene — called FOXP2 — mutated around the time humans developed the ability to talk.

“It’s really playing a major role in chimp-human differences,” said the study’s author, Daniel Geschwind, a professor of neurology, psychiatry and human genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles. “You mutate this gene in humans and you get a speech and language disorder.”

This tells you “what may be happening in the brain,” he said.

Read the full Associated Press story.

health

Mummies had clogged arteries

A recent study of mummies found a significant number of the elite mummies (which most were) had clogged arteries, calcification of vessels, and other symptoms of heart disease and obesity.

This has been found before, but this is the largest study so far.

The BBC article I read suggested it was caused by the supposed large amounts of fatty meats being eaten by the elite.

However, as I suspected he might, Rafe said “There’s currently a bit of discussion on GNXP (Gene Expression). Michael Eades, auther of Protein Power, has published in the past showing that the Egyptian elite were in fact obese quite regularly, and attributes it to a diet that was very high in grains combined with a sedentary lifestyle, not the high in meat diet proposed in the BBC article.”

Quoted from Science Daily: “UC Irvine clinical professor of cardiology Dr. Gregory Thomas, a co-principal investigator on the study, said, ‘The findings suggest that we may have to look beyond modern risk factors to fully understand the disease.'”

Thoughts?

children · gender · play

Effects of prenatal exposure of phthalates in boys

First came across this in Discover Magazine:

A new study in the International Journal of Andrology has raised a storm of concern that prenatal exposure to these chemicals could make boys less masculine in their play preferences.

Phthalates, which block the activity of male hormones such as androgens, could be altering masculine brain development, according to Shanna H. Swan, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Rochester Medical Center and lead author of the new report [Los Angeles Times]. To test whether that link extended into behavior, Swan’s team tested women for phthalate levels midway through their pregnancy and then checked back in on the children four to seven years later.

The researchers asked parents to report their children’s patterns of play, but they knew they also had to separate any potential phthalate effect from the “nuture ” side of question. To determine how parental views might sway behavior, parents completed a survey that included questions such as, “What would you do if you had a boy who preferred toys that girls usually play with?” They were asked to respond with whether they would support or discourage such behavior, and how strongly [TIME].

The study of about 150 kids found that while girls were mostly unaffected, boys who had been exposed to the highest phthalate levels showed a lower likelihood than other boys to participate in what we consider typical rough-and-tumble male recreation—play fighting, pretending to play with guns, and so on. But the research might not imply the national masculinity crisis that some headlines suggest. Play in the most highly phthalate-exposed boys wasn’t “feminized,” Swan explains, since these kids didn’t preferentially play with dolls or don dresses. Rather, she says, “we’d describe their play as less masculine” [Science News]. Rather than play-fighting, she says, those boys tended toward “gender neutral” play like putting puzzles together or competing in sports.

Read full article here.