Sunday, February 16, 2014

Show for Feb 16, 2014. Naturalist and Ophidophile Harry Greene.

Harry Greene is a much-admired natural historian and herpetologist with a soft spot for black-tailed rattlesnakes. He’s spent years in the field studying venomous serpents, when not in the classroom or lab (he’s currently a prof at Cornell; before that he was at UC Berkeley, where he both taught and curated the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology). Harry’s a very thoughtful guy and serious writer, as evidenced in his new memoir Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art. We talked about his career, about field biology vs. theory and experiment, about the wonders of snakedom and some of his favorite rattlers (like “Superfemale 21”), and life and death in the natural and human worlds. 


Two-fisted herpetologist Harry Greene.

Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Show for Feb 9, 2014. Felix Warneken and Robert Sapolsky on the Nicer Side of Primates (Rerun)

Originally broadcast in 2010: Science has done a lot to expose the darker side of human behavior, and that of our primate relatives, so we thought it was time to highlight some more encouraging studies. In part one of the show, developmental psychologist Felix Warneken looks for and finds evidence of instinctive altruism in young humans and chimps. In part two, neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky discovers that even baboons—long believed to be incorrigibly bellicose—can change their ways and make nice.

Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Show for Jan 26, 2014. Novelist Karen Joy Fowler on Our Animal Problem.

So we’re kin to our fellow creatures – cousins, we like to say, to chimpanzees and bonobos. But what sort of family obligations should follow from that, it seems we’re nowhere near to working out. Some people have taken the notion of primate kinship to literal lengths, attempting to raise chimps as children in psychological studies of the animal-human cognitive divide. With their often-sloppy science and often-sorry outcomes (see, for example, Project Nim), most such experiments have done less to limn the inter-species boundary than to highlight our dire confusions about it.

These studies also tell a larger tale of familial dreams and disappointments in general, a point brought achingly to life in Karen Joy Fowler’s latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. It’s the saga of one chimped-up family and its inevitable dissolution. Karen and I talked about the troubled history of chimp cross-fostering experiments, about the splintering of families, of siblings and selves, and storytelling as a source of self-knowledge, real or illusory. We also shared a bit of our own stories, as kids of psychology profs with former lab rats – though thankfully not chimps – as pets.  

 

Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Show for Jan 5, 2014. Social Genomicist Steve Cole.

If you’ve bought into the simplified notion that genes are top-down bosses, issuing marching orders that your cells, body and brain merely obey, it’s time to rethink. Steve Cole first came to national attention with studies showing that HIV-positive gay men had lower survival rates if they were closeted. The real kicker: social stresses were depressing the mens’ viral resistance by affecting their genes. No, not the sequence of genes but their regulation – which genes are switched on and how much. In the succeeding years, Cole and fellow researchers have assembled an increasingly detailed portrait of our socially and psychologically responsive genome. Though scientists have long known that external inputs play a role in gene expression, the degree to which large numbers of genes are influenced on a moment-to-moment basis by our experiences – including our social life, our feelings and perceptions – is an important developing story.

Steve and I talked about this new understanding of the mind-body connection, genes as listeners and the emerging field he calls “social genomics.” After hearing this interview, you may never feel the same about your genome again.

Click the Listen arrow at the top of this post to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Show for March 24, 2013. Neurologist Robert Burton on The Limits of Neuroscience.

I don’t know whether Bob Burton’s car sports this bumper sticker…

… but it ought to. Bob has spent years exploring our shaky reliance on what he calls “involuntary mental sensations”: the internal perceptions by which we come to “know” our own minds. He says these inner representations, offered up by the brain itself, are partial at best, delusory at worst. And that’s a problem not only for ordinary seekers of self-knowledge but also for an ambitious group of neuroscientists attempting to explain consciousness and the human psyche, while beholden to many of the same, suspect intuitions that bamboozle the rest of us. Of course, there’s also that matter of the yawning gulf separating objective explanation and subjective experience, and whether it’s bridgeable at all. 

Bob raises these and other problems in his latest book, A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell us About Ourselves. We had a long and wide-ranging tête-à-tête on the difficulties that loom when science shifts from studying the brain to mapping the mind, and the deep and dubious assumptions built into categories such as conscious and unconscious, self and other, choice and non-choice.

You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Show for March 17, 2013. Neurologist Robert Burton on Self-Certainty.

As a preamble to next week’s interview with neurologist and neuroskeptic Robert Burton, I re-aired this earlier conversation with Bob from 2008. In it, we discussed his book On Being Certain: Believing You’re Right Even When You’re Wrong, about our brain’s often unreliable sense of self-certainty. Bob says our inner sensation of knowing or not knowing something, of familiarity or unfamiliarity – so critical to perception, judgment and decisionmaking – is based on neural mechanisms that can go badly awry and, even when things are working OK, is hardly a dependable arbiter of truth.

You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Show for Feb 17, 2013. Hear, Hear: Auditory Neuroscientist and Sound Savant Seth Horowitz.

Sound as vibration, sound as sensation, sound as means of manipulation. Sound as a state of mind and as a weapon. Seth Horowitz considers sonic phenomena from these and other angles in his new book The Universal Sense. And he’s a good one to do it: as a neuroscientist specializing in auditory phenomena, sound recordist, musician and aural explorer, not to mention the guy who proved that tadpoles can hear, Seth is a well-travelled guide to the sonic world. He and I listened to a sampling of audio curiosities while contemplating questions such as:

  • What’s faster, our ears or our eyes?
  • What’s it like to be a bat?
  • What’s it like to be Evelyn Glennie?
  • How do we build a picture of the world from auditory clues?
  • Why are low sounds ominous?
  • Can sounds kill?

You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Show for Jan 13, 2013. Human Evolution Marches On?

People love to trip out on the subject of future human evolution, usually conjuring some form of twinkly transcendence (a seraphic super-race) or dystopian degeneracy (machine-dependent dullards enfeebled by our own technology). But those stories owe more to wishful thinking or baseless anxiety than to actual evolutionary theory. I decided to forgo the fantasizing and explore the science itself: the forces that shaped our species and that are still at work, however subtly, today. Evolutionary biologist Barry Sinervo joined me to explain the fundamentals and offer some educated guesses on what comes next. 

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Barry has been on the 7th Avenue Project twice before, discussing lizard evolution and game theory here and a major new study of climate-related extinctions here.

You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Show for Nov 25, 2012. Your Brain on Music (Rerun).

An old fave makes its return: our 2007 jam with music producer/neuroscientist Dan Levitin.

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You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Show for Oct. 28, 2012. From Animals to Us: David Quammen on Zoonotic Disease.

There’s more between humans and our fellow animals than a common ancestry and a common planet. We also share some really gnarly pathogens. Our “infernal, aboriginal connectedness,” as David Quammen puts it, makes humanity a target-rich environment for zoonoses – diseases that spring up in other species and leap to us. In fact, most of our infectious maladies may have gotten their start in animals, and the latest wave of emergent contagions, including HIV, Ebola, SARS, Hantavirus, Lyme disease, avian flu and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow) all have non-human beginnings.

David has spent the last few years absorbing the latest research, hanging with scientists and Indiana Jonesing his way through jungles and caves (with respirator and hazmat suit in place of fedora and bomber jacket), in pursuit of zoonotic wisdom. His new book, Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, is simultaneously a serious introduction to the biology and epidemiology of animal-to-human disease, a series of medical adventure stories and a somber warning (he says human actions are responsible for the uptick in spillovers).



Despite the scary cover, David Quammen’s book eschews
the sensational and sticks to the science.

You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Show for March 4, 2012. Sebastian Seung—Mapping the Brain

And you thought sequencing the human genome was a big job. MIT neuroscientist Sebastian Seung is proposing something even more Herculean: tracing the trillions of neuronal connections in the human brain, collectively known as the  “connectome.” He believes the connectome may hold the key to understanding the brain and the self. That follows from connectionism—the notion that learning, memory and personality are  embedded in the brain’s wiring. Like so much else in neuroscience, that’s still hypothetical, and Sebastian is refreshingly candid about the limits of current understanding. We discussed what is and isn’t known about the workings of neurons, how the brain’s circuitry might encode information, the relevance of computer models, and artificial intelligence techniques that may help map the connectome. Also: the “Jennifer Aniston neuron,” whether or not to freeze your posthumous head, and the cautionary tale of the South Park underpants gnomes.

Click the Play arrow above to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Show for Jan 29, 2012: Pulling the Wool Over Our Own Eyes—Robert Trivers on the Evolution of Self-Deception

Robert Trivers is a widely influential evolutionary thinker (as these tributes from Steven Pinker et. al. attest). His theoretical work on the genetic trade-offs underlying altruism, parent-child relationships and other social interactions are a cornerstone of behavioral ecology and evolutionary psychology. His new book, The Folly of Fools, applies an evolutionary framework to another set of behaviors: deception and especially self-deception. Subjects discussed in our interview include: self-deception in nature, our capacity to simultaneously know and blind ourselves to the truth, the field formerly known as sociobiology, and Robert’s own life and career, including his friendship with the late Black Panther leader Huey Newton.

Click the Play arrow above to listen to the show, or you can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Show for Oct. 30, 2011. Cognitive Psychologist Steven Pinker on the Decline of Violence

Steven Pinker, celebrated for his books on language and the workings of the mind, ventures into big history with his latest volume, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. He presents a truckload of evidence to argue that humans have been getting more peaceful, more cooperative and less murderous, on scales large and small, for quite some time. Among the reasons: civilization really has made us more civil. That might seem a surprising conclusion for a card-carrying evolutionary psychologist, but Pinker hasn’t gone all liberal artsy on us. Historicity has a role to play, he says, but so do biology and game theory.

You can download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Show for Oct. 9, 2011. Evolutionary Biologist Marlene Zuk on Bugs and Us

We love biologists who can entertain as well as they explain, and Marlene Zuk is great at both. Last time we had her on the show, the subject was parasites (you can listen or download the mp3 here). This time, it’s insects, and what they do or don’t have in common with human beings. Our conversation took some fun and interesting turns into areas such as anthropomorphism and sexual politics in entomology.

Click the “play” arrow above to listen to the show, or download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)


Marlene Zuk’s latest book, Sex on Six Legs.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Show for July 17, 2011. The Machinery of Life.

Harry Noller has been doing molecular biology since before it was even called that, and he’s been doing it very well. His work has helped illumine some of the fundamental processes on which all life (at least all earthly life) depends. He speaks about his fascinating career and research on today’s show. We’ll hear about his meetings with remarkable scientists, his own brush with Nobel laureate-hood and the dizzying intricacies of his pet research subject, the microscopic machines known as ribosomes.

Click the “play” arrow above to listen to the show, or download the MP3 here (if using a Mac, control-click the link and choose “Save Link As…” If using a PC, right-click and choose Save Target As…”)

Harry’s lab has put together some ribosome animations, which you can view here. Have patience: some of these take a while to download.  Here’s another ribosome movie (very simplified), with music you can dance to: