Sunday, October 1, 2017

State of the Farm, Fall 2017

(Picture from here.)
You recall last year when we had the worst drought I’d ever seen since I moved out here. Parts of our garden just twisted themselves out of the ground and we lost a couple of trees. Sections of grape arbors died and never came back. The birds, in their desperation, stripped one whole arbor of every grape that was there. The hornets and yellow jackets fought each other over left over orange rinds.

Everybody prayed for rain.

You recall that old adage, be careful what you wish for?

Well, it’s been a wet 2017. I mean, we’re not in hurricane class, but we got all the rain we needed. It was a cold rain, too. None of the melons set at the right time. The grapes came to fruition but they never got enough light or heat to really sugar up.


It was a good year for some things and a bad year for others. This was the best year we’ve ever had for apples. However, that’s not a high bar. Some folks would say that the measure was more a paint strip on the road than a bar. We got a bout thirty of the ugliest Granny Smith apples you’ve ever seen. I mean, these made those ugly dried face looking cabbage patch kids look positively handsome.

They made good apple tarts, though.

Back to the grapes.

I held off harvesting as long as I could, hoping against hope, they’d sugar up. We harvested the Concords and got an adequate harvest—maybe 15 pounds or so. Not much for that vine. They had a Missouri interesting flavor. (“My. What an… interesting looking baby.”) Not bad but  not too sweet, either.

Over the years I’ve moved to freezing the grapes before I press them. This has the interesting effect of making more of the juice available. But, since it ruptures the cells, other things come out in higher concentration. It gives a little something extra to the flavor. Sometimes it works as a wine. Sometimes it doesn’t.

So I froze the Concords and started up primary fermentation. I’ll get a hint when I rack the batch.
To make room for the Concords, I had to pull up some frozen peaches from earlier this year. (We had a good peach harvest.) That’s just finishing up primary so I don’t know how it came out.

We have two primary grape producing vines: Concord and Marechal Foch.

The M/F was the arbor that got nailed by the birds last year. Like the Concords, I held off as long as I can. Until I saw the birds paying too much attention to one corner. Okay. I attacked it last weekend. We got about 30 pounds of grapes.

It was interesting. The birds didn’t bother me but yellow jackets know no fear. I’d be working on a section when two wasps would decide that they wanted that bunch. No problem. I’d go working on another section. It reminded of a Leonard Wibberley quote from (I think) The Mouse that Roared.  It went something like this: “The pen is mightier than the sword but the sword is mightier than the pen at any given moment.”

I coexisted with the yellow jackets as the total amount of grapes gradually decreased. They flew near me once or twice but more as a sheathed threat than an active menace. Until the last bunches at the very top of the arbor.

I started pulling at the bunch and got seriously buzzed. This time one of them bounced off my head.

I figured I could do without that last bunch of grapes.

As I said, we got a good peach harvest earlier in the summer. Ditto the pie cherries. I hoped to get a few sweet cherries but, as always, the birds got there first. We did get a few plums.

The apples are always the last fruits of the season so we’re talking about what to do next year. We planted several new bushes and small trees: blue berries, sea berries, some paw paws. The nectarine has never produced well. The fruit is prolific but it splits and tears up the tree. It’s a dwarf. We got a volunteer nectarine across the yard. (Thank you, squirrels.) Its fruit didn’t split but the chipmunks got to them first. So I think it might be the base graft upon which the fruiting tree rests. Likely we’re going to tear it out and put something else in.

Ditto the prune plum and the pluot. Both appear to be reservoirs of black knot. We’ve been tip toeing around the problem for years because the prune tree has been with us for years. But no longer.

Likely, we’ll save the wood. We’ve been doing that this year. We had to cut down a birch and lopped the limbs off a cedar. Instead of just burning the wood, we coated them so they wouldn’t crack while they dried. When they’re dry enough, I’m going to pull out the lathe and see what I can make.

Musn’t waste things.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Ammonites, Allosaurs and Sauropods. Oh, My.

(Picture from here.)

It has been a while since I put up a post-- nearly two months. A lot of things have happened in that time, including a two week vacation for the eclipse and a visit to Dinosaur National Monument.

There's been enough discussion of the eclipse that anything I can say about it is probably redundant. People have asked me what I thought. I have said, "It's an hour and a half of, hey, that's really interesting, followed by a minute and a half of transcendental ecstasy."

 But enough of that. Except to say if you get a chance to go to a total eclipse or the monument, don't even think about it. Just go. The difference between totality and 99.999% totality is, literally, night and day.

Instead, I'm going to talk about what we did with the rest of the vacation: rocks and fossils.

Steamboat Springs was the center of our operations. From here we went north to Casper to see the eclipse but hung around Chalk Mountain in the afternoon looking for interesting rock. This is what we do: go some place and look at interesting rocks.

Chalk Mountain is a very strange place. It has land of the normal color surrounding a mountain made chiefly of black and white. It's like a strange composite photograph. There we found jasper and olivine. Ben found a single piece of turquoise the size of the tip of my little finger. No crystal material to speak of but some fossils. Nothing terribly identifiable but interesting none the less.

Here I want to talk about the Bureau of Land Management, one of my favorite parts of the federal government.

The feds own a lot of land. Some of it is of obvious use: parks, wildlife refuges, etc. But the vast majority the feds just hold in trust. They let cattle graze on it for a nominal fee. Sometimes they let miners use. Mostly, they just leave it alone.

This is not to say the public can't use the land. The public can and does. We have driven over hundreds of miles of BLM land, collecting minerals and fossils, looking at the views, taking pictures of the wildlife, watching the stars miles from any city.

There is some controversy about the BLM. It administers about 1/8 of the land of the country. There are a lot of people who don't believe in public ownership of any land much less that much. I'm not one of them. The whole idea of sequestering land for future possible use means that the land must be sequestered: not developed. Not reapportioned. Not sold.

The land within a particular state is administered by that state's BLM office and the rules change from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. We've explored land in Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. The rules are significantly different between states. Some states allow collecting of petrified wood. Others do not. Nationally, you can't collect vertebrates without a permit but this is somewhat elastic in that no state has a limit on collecting shark's teeth and sharks are definitely vertebrates.

Anyway, so we collected on BLM land in Wyoming, looking for jasper and agates and found a few. Nice stuff that I might tumble.

Tuesday, we went to Dinosaur National Monument.  (And here.) This place is like the eclipse: if you get a chance, go. Don't wait. Don't think about it. Go.

No rock or fossil collecting is allowed in any national park. But that's fine. We went to see the dinosaurs.

Picture from here.

Way back in 1909, the dinosaur fossil beds were discovered by Earl Douglass working for the Carnegie Museum. There were three rough pinnacles and they excavated down, exposing one bed after another.

Eventually, they decided (and possibly lost funding) that they had excavated enough. The bed reflected what looks like a massive death of dinosaurs from a flood. In 1915, Woodrow Wilson declared it a national monument. When he did so, a whole wall remained unexcavated. It is still unexcavated. But the entire wall is housed. It's about 70 feet long and about forty or so feet tall: a solid wall of dinosaur bones. Stegosaurus. Apatosaurus. Allosaurus. All right there for you to just observe.

Which we did for about three hours.

Afterwards, we drove across Echo Park Road, which is not for the squeamish. It was only chance that we ended up with a 4wd vehicle. At one point I looked down and there was a chunk of road missing beyond which was a 90 foot drop. Supposedly, it's one way but we met a Honda Fit coming the other way later in the trip. I have no idea how they navigated the road.

One should question one's mortality every good trip.

(Picture from here.)

The next day we went from the big vertebrates to the big invertebrates. We explored the ammonite locality in Kremmling, Colorado. (Also, see here.) Ammonites are extinct molluscs that resemble nautilus.

That vaguely spiral shape in the picture is about two feet across. It's the imprint a the ammonite shell. The Kremmling site has the largest fossil ammonites in the world.

This is a protected site with a fence all around it. But it is surround by BLM land. So we walked around the edge of the site but safely on BLM land and found a few good fossils to take home. The rules say we can take a small amount (a 5 gallon pail's worth) which is far less than what we collected. Thank you, BLM.

(For a really good artistic perspective of ammonites, see "Night of the Ammonites" by Ray Troll and can be purchased here.)

This is a wonderful country and there are wonderful things in it. Turns out 1/8 of them are on BLM land.

Sunday, July 23, 2017


I took this picture on the train station on my daily commute. There are four problem species in the picture: Asian bittersweet, Japanese knotweed, bamboo and Concord grapes. Of the four, only the grapes are native.

For us, this year is a particularly bad one for bittersweet. We’re finding it everywhere. They Gypsy moths, which seemed to like everything, leave bittersweet alone. We’re finding it pretty much anywhere there’s any kind of shrubbery.

Different vines use different methods of gaining a foothold. Grapes have tendrils that curl around a base. Poison ivy—one of my particular favorites—actually bores its roots into the barks of the trees it parasitizes. I don’t know if it actually vampirizes the tree but it’s creepy to watch a poisonous plant stick itself right into the bark like some snarling alien.

Bittersweet is just as nasty. It grows around whatever it’s based on, encircling and eventually strangling it. It’s quite prevalent up here in the northeast. I’ve driven sections of highway where both sides are covered in rounded mounds of bittersweet, their searching tendrils sticking out like triffids.

The good news is they’re non-toxic so you can pull them up by hand—and you have to pull them up. They’re like Hydra: cut off a limb and two more shall take its place.

But these are just the visible aspects of a larger problem. The US has a real problem with invasive organisms. In large part, it’s a self-inflicted wound.

This goes back to the very beginning of the United States. Earthworms were not native to the northern US since the last ice age.  The result was deep beds of leaf litter and a rich understory. Enter the lowly earthworm brought over by English colonists in their fruit trees. Notice the lack of deep leaf litter in the area.

Not to mention sparrows and starlings. Sparrows were at least introduced here in an ill conceived attempt to control the linden moth. Ah, but the starling, a relatively ugly bird with noisy habits, was introduced because the American Acclimatization Society thought the USA should have all of Shakespeare’s birds. 

There is also the Burmese python. Who would have thought it would have thrived in Florida? I used to have a Burmese but I, like a lot of other people, found it got too big and so I gave it back to the guy I bought it from. He had a 23 and 24 foot pair. They lived in the first floor of his house. These were big enough to eat him.

But my own personal favorite is pampas grass—which you can still buy! Up here if you drive by a marsh that should have an abundance of native grasses and cattails, you’ll see unbroken pampas grass. Nothing eats it. Nothing nests in it. It’s the Styrofoam of the plant kingdom.

It’s interesting that we in the New World seem to get the short end of the stick with invaders. It turns out that the New World has a significantly shallower evolutionary history than the Old World. See here and here.)  I’m not sure why that is. When I read the original article I didn’t see an explanation. Could it be that the New World is the site of the Cretaceous meteor extinction event? Is it size—the Old World has Europe, Asia and Africa. We have North and South America connected by a fragile thread. Not clear.

Invasions are rarely pleasant for the invaders. For example, the brown marmorated stink bug destroys fruits and vegetables because it can reproduce without problems. Why? Because back in China, the bugs original home, there’s a parasitic wasp that lays its eggs on it. The larva hollow out the bug like United Fruit did Central America. 

This is a pattern. Species get transported here and do well because they do not have the same predators they did back home. Birds and turtles will eat Gypsy moth larva but with the numbers produced, they can’t keep up. Thank you, √Čtienne Trouvelot

Sometimes, I find this sort of thing discouraging. Okay, we’re poisoning the planet but putting out CO2, methane and mercury introduces passive problems into the system. Sure, it’s bad. But the CO2 molecules don’t go out there and make more CO2 molecules. Starlings and pythons are active agents. They’re the equivalent of Von Neumann  or Berserker machines. 

But from bittersweet to buckthorn to bullfrogs, human beings are one of the most successful couriers in biological history.  We’re just going to have to live with it.

Interesting side links

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Blending People

(Picture from here.)

Human beings are biased towards themselves.

We then to think of the world as reflections of ourselves. We project our nature on our pets, our automobiles, our weapons, the landscape and fictional entities. Sometimes I think we are incapable of separating ourselves from the world.

But we force three qualities together that are completely separable because they are bound together in us. These qualities are sentience, consciousness and intelligence.

Let me define my terms.

Sentience is the ability to feel and experience. It is the capacity to suffer and feel joy. Consciousness is the ability to be aware of ourselves as an entity. While sentience allows us to suffer, it is consciousness that determines that we are suffering as opposed to anyone else.

Which leaves intelligence as the ability to learn, retain knowledge and apply that knowledge. It is the ability to perceive the relationships between things.

In human beings, these are all mixed up. We are thinking, feeling beings that are aware of ourselves. Consequently, we blend these things when we think about things other than human beings. Bacteria, fungi, ants and bees function intelligently. Are they sentient? Are they conscious? Rats are sentient and demonstrably intelligent. Are they conscious?

Working with vertebrates, we start to see a difference between them regarding these qualities. That tetra has some intelligence-- intelligence is, in some ways, more easily demonstrable than the other two qualities. We have mechanisms we can use to test it. How can we test consciousness and sentience?

We can create avoidance situations for even lower animals-- a grid with an electric shock. The animal is shocked, behaves as if it find the experience is unpleasant, and moves off the grid. If a planaria exhibits the same behavior, is it sentient? Does it suffer?

In vertebrates, we can make an association based on how like us the animal is. Dogs and cats are clearly sentient and conscious. They can apparently model other animals' behavior and change their own accordingly. It is, therefore, reasonable to presume if they can model other animal behaviors they can model their own-- a prerequisite, I think, for consciousness.

Anybody who's seen a dog suffer knows they're sentient.

But when we drop down to frogs, are they conscious? The electric shock test still holds so we can intuit they might have sentience. They exhibit some intelligence in their interactions with the world-- not much, but some. But are they conscious? Does that green frog over there know who it is? I suspect not.

Do ants and flies? Is suspect that not only are ants and flies not conscious but they maybe non-sentient as well. Ants might flee a noxious substance but do they do it out of pain or is this an avoidance circuit of some sort, devoid of actual feeling?

These are important questions as we start to create truly intelligent systems. I think consciousness derives from the mechanism in the brain that models the behavior of other agents. One way-- perhaps the only way earth organisms have created-- is to model oneself as interacting with those agents. I suspect here-- the modeling of oneself-- is the origin of the little homunculus inside that is consciousness.

It is a common trope in SF that systems of sufficient complexity become conscious. Sometimes they become sentient as well. Neither of these propositions is inevitable or even likely. I think consciousness in organisms was selected for just like any other phenotype. Therefore, it derives from an organism's heritage and has value that is then supported at significant cost. The human brain uses up to 20% of the calories absorbed by the organism. It is unreasonable for that 20% to be preserved if it is merely a parasitical accident.

We must be prepared for artificial intelligences that have no consciousness or sentience. Or AIs that have only consciousness. Or have only sentience. Humans in their design select for intelligent systems. We like smart cars, phones and airplanes.

The Human Brain Project has, as part of its research, the full simulation of human brains in silicon. Other animals will also be modeled. Is a rat modeled in silicon sentient? Does it suffer?

I think that's likely.

Is a human brain modeled in silicon conscious? I think that's likely as well.

In 2014, the K supercomputer was used to model 1 second of human brain activity. It took 40 minutes and modeled only 1% of the actual neuron and synapse population. What is 1% of a human being? Is it enough to experience consciousness and sentience? Was that one second an eternity of pain for the equivalent of a severely coginitively impared human being?

Forget our moral obligations to an AI, what are our moral obligations to a simulated human being? A simulated dog?

Monday, June 5, 2017

The Bell Curve: Race and Bad Science

Science is important to me and a couple of articles have come across my desk recently that are not just bad science but bad science serving a political agenda. Bad science is bad enough. But using evidence based thought to serve an agenda usually tosses the evidence out in favor of the bias. It not only helps no one, it holds us all back.

As Stan Marsh said in the South Park episode, The Biggest Douche in the Universe:  

“The Big Questions in life are tough. Why are we here? Where are we from? Where are we going? But if people believe in… liars like you we’re never going to find the real answers to those questions. You aren’t just lying, you’re slowing down the progress of all mankind.”

From here.

Which is why I enjoy South Park.

The article that crystallized it for me wasn’t a recent one but it is representative of a lot that I’ve seen.

Back in 1995, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murry published The Bell Curve.  This book purported to represent how intelligence influenced class structure in America. I read it the year it came out and pretty much dismissed it since it violated most of the neuroscience I knew. (My Master’s is in Neurophysiology.) The book suggested that African Americans were too dumb to educate and should therefore we shouldn’t spend any money on them or the poor. A good refutation of the book is here. Vincent Sarich’s defense of the book is here.

Sarich’s defense was reprinted recently and when I read it, it ticked me off. It was bad science. But given recent events, I’m starting to think that people are having trouble detecting bad science when it comes up. So, I’m going to analyze the defense and show at least what goes on in my mind trying to winnow out good science from bad.

The first thing to notice about Sarich’s defense is that it is not a scientific paper. Forget its publishing history. That’s not germane. A scientific paper or other publication is distinguished by two salient characteristics: a dispassionate voice and a reliance on evidence and analysis local to the paper.

This latter concept is key. What it means is that a scientific publication attempts to enclose all evidence, reasoning and conclusions within the confines of the paper. Appeals to outside material—religion, ethics, popular concepts, etc.—should not be part of the paper. This is a goal but may not be possible in practice since the scope of the argument may exceed the boundaries of the paper. Hence, the concept of citation—the citing of other, relevant materials accessible to the reader.

This is not to say a non-scientific paper is not good, relevant, exciting or important. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is not a scientific paper but it is good, relevant, exciting and important. But a scientific publication defines its own venue of criticism. Consequently, stepping outside that realm means that such material cannot be taken as scientific. It is, at best, digested material. Interesting but not amenable to scientific judgement.

So: Sarich’s defense is not a scientific publication. There are a number of irrelevant references. Sarich attacks commentators on The Bell Curve. This is known as the ad hominem argument where the people promoting a point of view are attacked to besmirch their opinion. This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. For example, if one notices that Koch Industries is funding a climate denial scientist, it injures the credibility of that scientist if he comes out favoring a position supporting Koch Industries. (See here.) But it is not a scientific argument. These are arguments are not couched in dispassionate terms. Sarich quotes a number of people using fairly passionate language.

That’s all right but it means that we should not give it scientific weight whether or not it purports to be a scientific publication. It’s a polemic.

But since we want to evaluate the science in the article, let’s winnow that out.

Sarich bases his defense of The Bell Curve on the following arguments:
Races are real with actual phenotypes that are identifiable among groups. These do not constitute species or subspecies as any race can easily interbreed with any other race and produce viable offspring.
The creation of racial phenotypes derives from historical geographical separation whereupon natural selection operated differentially on those phenotypes according to environmental success.
  • Intelligence is one of those phenotypes.
  • Intelligence is accurately measured by IQ as presented by intelligence tests.
  • Intelligence is a function of brain size.
  • IQ as an accurate measurement of intelligence can substitute for brain size.
  • Brain size is genetically determined.
  • Brain size (as derived from IQ tests) is varied across races.
  • Therefore, some races have greater intelligence than others as an inherited phenotype trait determined by genetics.
These are, in fact, many of the same arguments of The Bell Curve. No surprise there. So a lot of Sarich’s defense is saying “look at the evidence. It’s obvious these guys are right.”

Hm. Not so much.

Richard Feynman gave the 1974 Caltech commencement address, entitled Cargo Cult Science. I strongly urge anyone to read this.

The Cargo Cult was first described in Melanesia. It has come to mean circumstances where people built or rely on the attributes of what they want (runways, etc.) in hopes of attracting what they want (airplanes bearing material wealth.)

Science is hard. Figuring out what is actually going on rather than what we think is going on requires diligence, perseverance and a willingness to tear apart your own pet theories. Just pushing up straw men reflecting what you want to be true is Cargo Cult science.

He described Young’s very interesting rat experiments in 1937 trying to figure out why rats picked a particular door in his tests. While I urge you again to read the Feynman article, it’s worth quoting this bit:

“So he painted the doors very carefully, arranging the textures on the faces of the doors exactly the same.  Still the rats could tell.  Then he thought maybe the rats were smelling the food, so he used chemicals to change the smell after each run.  Still the rats could tell.  Then he realized the rats might be able to tell by seeing the lights and the arrangement in the laboratory like any commonsense person.  So he covered the corridor, and, still the rats could tell.

 He finally found that they could tell by the way the floor sounded when they ran over it.  And he could only fix that by putting his corridor in sand.  So he covered one after another of all possible clues and finally was able to fool the rats so that they had to learn to go in the third door.  If he relaxed any of his conditions, the rats could tell.”

My point with this quote is that is what is missing from Sarich’s arguments: rigor. Let’s take them one by one:

Races are real with actual phenotypes that are identifiable among groups. The phenotypes that represent the groups do not constitute species or subspecies as any race can easily interbreed with any other race and produce viable offspring.

The latter statement here is obvious: any human being can interbreed with pretty much any other. So we are all one species regardless of how much some people want to argue against that. The “race” question is much more subtle. There are group phenotypes, some with longer lasting effects than others. Any genetically isolated group will start to show them as the gene pool narrows. Similarly, these phenotypes begin to fade as soon as the gene pool widens, though some phenotypes have more staying power than others.

But the group definition of race is often defined by the qualities of those outside the group in question and it’s of particular importance here in the United States with our heritage of centuries of African American chattel slavery. 

On average, African Americans are an amalgam of 73-80% or so West and Central Africa, 18-24% European and a little less than 1% Native American. (From here) This means that the group being criticized shares 20% of the genetic material as the group doing the criticizing. So: is there a cultural phenomenon of race? Sure. Is there a genetic component to race? Probably—there are phenotypic traits we identify. Do they mean much? Probably not.

The creation of racial phenotypes derives from historical geographical separation whereupon natural selection operated differentially on those phenotypes according to environmental success.

Sure. That’s how phenotypes arise—see above. The key component here is “natural selection.” What does that mean?

It means there is differential reproduction between individuals such that particular phenotypes are preserved. That’s all it means. It does not mean “fittest.” It does not mean “successful” except with respect to that differential reproduction. And it does not indicate in any way why those traits became established.

In some cases phenotypes can be established without any natural selection whatsoever. For example, there’s such a thing as genetic drift where traits become established in a given population from pure randomness. 

There is also sexual selection where individuals are selected based on appearance that has nothing to do with any sort of physical “fitness.”

Sarich brings up the fairly tired example of the preponderance of African Americans in the National Basketball Association. He suggests that there is a genetic fitness of the individuals, based on race, that predisposes African Americans towards success in the NBA based on their statistical presence.

This is confusing correlation with causation.

There are a lot of confounding factors in his conclusion: what are the relative population sizes of of cultural groups attempting to join the NBA. Are opportunities of those groups the same? Are there differences in competing attractive opportunities? Are there differences in access to those competing attractive opportunities between groups? What are the relative cultural ambitions of the two groups? Any one or combination or additional unmentioned issues can confound a biological interpretation.

If you want to examine the hypothesis that there is a predisposition towards basketball among demographics in the US, the obvious characteristic to consider is average height and height variation. And there is some variation. (See here.) Non-Hispanic Blacks average about 12% taller than average Non-Hispanic Whites according to the CDC. This could be a salient biological factor. Does Sarich investigate it? No.

If we were to investigate it, the hypothesis might be phrased:
  1. Height is important in basketball.
  2. African Americans are statistically taller than other ethnic groups
  3. Therefore, can African Americans be statistical overrepresentation in NBA basketball be related to a function of height?

That’s as far as the scientific analysis. It’s not, “African Americans are better at basketball.” That’s a conclusion that cannot be demonstrated. All that can be demonstrated is the correlation. But even that’s not a scientific approach. One would want to bracket each statement:
  • Is height a determining factor for player admission to the NBA?
  • Is the tall African American population the same population drawn on by player admission?
  • Are there countervailing factors that are more important than height in the admission process?
  • Do these factors outweigh the influence of height?

This is where the “fitness” argument begins to break down. People use the word “fitness” as a substitute for being “better”—that is not evolution. Evolution is all about statistical reproductive success. If that individual asthmatic neighbor with blue eyes has one more child than the NBA neighbor, the asthmatic is more reproductively successful.

It is common to confuse societal success with evolutionary success. They are completely different. 

Sarich’s example with the NBA is a classic result of this. He’s suggesting that success in the NBA is a result from genetic heritage and demonstrates some sort of evolutionary fitness. The only component amenable to scientific analysis on a racial basis is something demonstrable like height and that’s not a clear relationships. Yet, Sarich presents this as a scientific predisposition when it is not.

Intelligence is one of those phenotypes.

This is one of those “obvious” statements that’s anything but. In order to understand this statement we have to define intelligence and relate it to the concept of phenotype. Certainly, intelligence is demonstrable and it is a phenotype. However, in order to determine its genetic heritage, we have to be able to define it quantifiably and reproduce that quantity on demand. This brings the next three statements up:

Intelligence is accurately measured by IQ as presented by intelligence tests.
Intelligence is a function of brain size.
IQ as an accurate measurement can substitute for brain size.

In this context, “intelligence” is quantified as the score on an IQ test. This means that the definition of “intelligence” must be the ability to take IQ tests—we’ve redefined an important quality of a human being and narrowed it to the ability to take a standardized test.

Think what this means. Let us say, for example, we pull a Neanderthal from the past and plunk him down in a classroom with a pencil, booklet and test sheet. This would be a person that does not know what a pencil, booklet and test sheet is or how to read. By the above definition, the Neanderthal is not intelligent.

IQ tests are notoriously biased towards the culture that originates them. (See here.) As the cultures narrow towards each other, the IQ scores begin to approach one another. A wonderful example of this is the The Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity (B.I.T.C.H.) invented by Robert Williams in 1972. Williams deliberately developed a test with a cultural bias and, sure enough, African Americans did better than their white counterparts.

Then, the IQ score is linked to brain size, i.e., the ability to take standardized tests is a function of brain size.

Again, this is not a scientific proposition. Certainly, brain size is a variable. However, elephants have bigger brains than humans, men have bigger brains than women, big people have bigger brains than smaller people. Does this mean elephants would be better at taking IQ tests?

One has to define what is meant by “brain size” and justify the proposition that brain size, as it is defined, reflects what is defined to be intelligence. Sarich does neither of these. (There’s a good analysis of what does constitute intelligence vs brain component relative sizes here and here.) Note from those links that there is only a marginal relationship between head size and brain volume.

Studies of Cro Magnon Man (28k years ago) and NeandertalsClose analysis of brain size/intelligence correlation suggests that it’s not size alone that drives the relationship but the size of differing components. So size alone doesn’t matter so much. In both cases, their brain size is greater than modern man's. Would Sarich think we are, therefore, less intelligent than past members of genus Homo? I suspect not.

Brain size is genetically determined.

This is the point where Sarich’s argument begins to narrow towards his conclusion. Up to now the different propositions have been more or less separate from one another. But now, he is linking brain size to IQ and genetics.

It is, in part, the “genetics is destiny” idea. Essentially, it says your physical inheritance determines who you are. Historically, it’s been the basis for as diverse political ideas as eugenics, class breeding and the divine right of kings.

We’ve already suggested the relationship between brain size and brain function is a complex relationship—as we should expect. Leg length and stride have a relationship but it’s not completely straightforward. Certainly, hip to ankle length makes possible a certain stride. But this is mitigated by the hip to knee and knee to ankle lengths. In addition, the human hip and the hips of other animals are quite different as human beings are adapted to upright walking. 

Consequently, while we can say the relationship between leg length is straightforward, even a cursory analysis shows that’s not the case.

In addition, we also know that nutrition, birth traumas and other issues can dramatically change the leg length. We can argue something similar for “brain size.” In addition, while “brain size” might be genetically determined it must be corrected for body size, etc., to be meaningful.

By simplifying the statement to just saying brain size (stand in for IQ test performance stand in for intelligence) is genetically determined, the inference is that intelligence is genetically determined.

Which brings us to the next statements:

Brain size (as derived from IQ tests) is varied across races.
Therefore, some races have greater intelligence than others as an inherited phenotype trait determined by genetics.

Sarich tries to couch this in evolutionary terms saying this is analogous to leg length and other such items. The issue makes two very profound assumptions:

  • That the variation within brain size (stand in for intelligence) serves as an opportunity for natural selection.
  • That the natural selection on brain size (stand in for brain function, i.e., intelligence) must necessarily cause differences between the races.

That’s a lot to unpack.

There is variation in cognition. Everybody knows somebody smarter than they are or not as smart. All cognition tests, IQ or otherwise, shows a curve of ability. So we know there is variation. The implied shift between Brain Size and Race is couched as a derivative from the known evidence (which we have questioned but for this part of the discussion let stand) to a solid conclusion.

Instead, there are a lot of implied assumptions in that leap that are not obvious.

For one, there’s the presumption that intelligence variation between races is meaningful. For such a variation to occur, much less be meaningful, would indicate that natural selection within a racial group is operating differently when compared to a second group. The brain is expensive—it takes on the order of 20% of the entire energy budget of the body to keep it going. If we could do without it or could manage a reduction in its size and demand, natural selection would immediately push us in that direction.

There are quite minor variations between racial groups in brain size—much less than the width of variation within the same group. One would expect any group that could reduce the energy load would very quickly naturally select to do so. The fact that no human group has reduced that much when compared to one another suggests that the advantage of a large brain overcomes the disadvantage of the expense.

Given that, the presumption of Sarich’s argument then is that the mechanism that created racial differences is the same mechanism that creates differences in intelligence (brain size.)

This is a huge assumption. It’s comparable to saying that the same selection mechanism that gave us long legs got rid of body hair. Or the selection mechanism for stubby toes is the same one that gave us the taste of sugar.

No doubt there is selection for increasing intelligence in humans—that’s our heritage. And no doubt variation in intelligence and selection against that variation caused it to increase. But to presume that selection for one phenotype is equivalent to another is madness.

In point of fact, I argue right here that since the variation within groups is greater than between them, that argues that the selection mechanism for human beings evolving larger brains is independent of racial groups. It acts on all human groups equally—suggesting that whatever the mechanism is, it is intrinsic to human beings independent of their environment. I think it’s likely sexual and social selection. The complexity of human groups is much greater than any environmental complexity we’ve faced.

Regardless, there is no evidence that there is differential selection between "racial" groups which suggests that Sarich's conclusions are spurious.

The Bell Curve and its criticism and defense happened in 1995. Vincent Sarich died in 2012. You could say the discussion is more than twenty years old but, as I said, I'm started to see it rear its ugly head again. I’ve been fairly careful not to introduce subsequent neurological research. It turns out that the relationship between IQ and brain size is somewhat nebulous. (See here.) It also turns out that (what a surprise) when corrected for body size, brain size is astonishingly similar for everybody.

But my point here is that by just thinking critically about the material one can come away with pretty much knowing what is bad science and what is good science. The problem is that thinking critically is hard. Thinking critically about ourselves (human beings) is much, much harder.

It does seem in this post-reality society, we’re making our lives harder for ourselves.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

State of the Farm: June, 2017

The drought last year and this wet spring have been significant enough I thought it worthwhile to revisit our little farm.

As my two readers might recall, we had a multi-century drought last year. With the precipitation since last summer, the snow pack and rains, that drought has been rescinded.

A month ago (see here) I was cautiously optimistic that this year might be better than the last. Now, it's a maybe yes, maybe no.

As I said, the apricots did not put out a single blossom. I had hopes some of those nubbins might show up but no. The good news is that they appear robust in growth. So: next year. Looks good. Fruit set on the peaches, nectarines, almonds, plums, pears, cornelian cherries. Flowers just showed up on the grapes. Nothing on the kiwi. Anybody out there ever see a kiwi bloom? Let me know. I've never seen our kiwi bloom.

The caterpillars showed up en masse. Tents. Greens. Gypsies. I decided not to stick with Surround but to go with the hard stuff: Captain Jack's Dead Bug Brew.

The Brew's active ingredient is spinosad,

Spinosad was discovered from observation of the bacteria, Saccharopolyspora spinosa, discovered in a sugar cane rum still. With a heritage like that, how could one go wrong?

Spinosad is an insecticide and operates as a neurotoxin. It interferes with acetylecholine and GABA transmission. It, apparently, binds to the neurotransmitter sites of insects. It appears to have a low toxicity to mammals.  It is moderately toxic to birds and fish and moderately toxic to aquatic invertebrates. It is highly toxic to bees. (See here.)

So: we sprayed with the Brew only on plants that were not themselves in bloom nor near other plants in bloom. Those, we sprayed with Surround only. So far, we're not worrying about the garden but as soon as we have a bloom there, the surround trees go back to Surround.

We were unable to spray much, though, as we've had rain, rain, rain all the month of May. Even with the limited spraying, many of our apples (always the worst hit) have actually born this year. The stone fruits don't seem to have the same problem with caterpillars as the other trees. We have plums this year but the caterpillars don't seem to bother the fruit. Other bugs do.

I do think I'm going to seriously trim the tops of the trees if we're going to do this much spraying. Right now I can't reach the tops and that just leaves caterpillars for seed.

Spinosad is, supposedly, recognized as an organic insecticide. It doesn't seem to linger too much and, as I said, We Mammals aren't much affected. That said, calling spinosad "organic" raises questions about what "organic" means.

The Sun Joe tiller I spoke of last time performed beautifully-- with, of course, some caveats. I think it's worth reporting here.

First, there's a common thread between electric garden machine and gasoline garden machines. This is true, I think, for tillers and mowers. Electric chain saws have all of the assets and flaws of regular chain saws minus the issues of an internal combustion engine.

That is, the tillers and mowers are between 5 and 10 times faster than their gasoline counterparts. Essentially, gasoline engines as implemented in these garden machines operate on a low speed high torque principle. The electric machines seem to operate on a high speed less torque principle. Not that you should try to stop that electric motor with your hand. Or, if you do, make sure someone finds the lost limb. They're doing great things with reattachment these days.

Our old gasoline tiller rotated at a stately four rotations a second or so. The Sun Joe seems to run about 10. However, we could take the old tiller and bear down on a tough section of dirt and it would grind down and dig up all of the rocks. If it hit ledge, it would just rub against it until we figured it out and moved on.

Not so, the Sun Joe. The Sun Joe will dig up rocks but it won't grind them out like the old tiller. I tried and bent a tine. I couldn't have bent a tine on the old tiller with a sledge hammer.

It bent back all right. But it was a wake up call. The Sun Joe will still go down as far but the user has to be sensitive to what it's doing. I found that if I let it go forward and then pulled it back as it was turning, I got a very good turn of the dirt. That would have been prohibitive with the old tiller. It was just too dang heavy.

The Sun Joe is quite light-- my wife could pick it up easily. It worked fine. It did the garden in about the same time to (maybe) a slightly less depth. And with much less wear and tear on me.

Sun Joe: A win! Though, we'll see how long it lasts.

We didn't irrigate the main garden as we thought. With all the rain we thought it unnecessary. We might try that next year or revisit it later in the season.

Still too cold for beans. Corn is in along with basil and tomatoes and the different squash. Everything is growing. Hopefully, we'll get more warmth and sun.