Cat Ladies

There’s a new paper out that extends the record of host manipulation by toxoplasma. We already knew that toxoplasma infections cause mice to lose fear of cat urine – turns out that toxoplasma infections also cause chimpanzees to develop a morbid attraction to leopard urine, a marker of their main predator. Uninfected chimps avoid it. Interestingly, infected chips don’t seem attracted to lion or tiger urine, which suggests a specific strain of toxo.

The background is that toxoplasmosis infects many warmblooded creatures as the intermediate host, but can only sexually reproduce in cats, their definitive host. These protozoans (apicomplexans, like malaria) need to have their intermediate host eaten by a cat, and they’ve apparently evolved methods of manipulating host behavior to help bring that about, probably through their colonization of the brain.

There is some evidence that toxoplasma in the brain has effects on human behavior, such as slowed reaction times, reduced long-term concentration, and, of course, liking the smell of cat urine.

The changes in mice sure look like host manipulation, and I have wondered if it might be happening in humans – in particular, cat ladies, but maybe this played a role in the whole human domestication-of-cats thing. Then again, perhaps it was toxoplasma domesticating humans. But if this manipulation happens in chimpanzees, you just know it has to work in humans. This suggests that if you eliminate the toxoplasma in the brains of cat ladies, say with Atovaquone and Clindamycin, you could perhaps cure their morbid attraction, just as antibiotics can cure parthenogenesis in parasitic wasps infected by Wolbachia. Cured, they might put all their flea-bitten parasites in a sack and throw them into the river. And get a dog.

About half the human race has toxo on the brain, as if we didn’t already have enough trouble.

The big question (other than helping explain human craziness) is whether this is an important part of how cats make a living. It may be that toxo is an essential ingredient in cat predation strategies: if so, it is probably very old, and may even go back before cats, perhaps switching from some creodont.

If toxo naturally can make people like cat piss, it’s already preadapted to become (with suitable genetic engineering) the model system for many kinds of infectious behavior modifiers.

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I was reading a article in Ars Technica about the Columbia disaster, back in 2003, written by Lee Hutchinson, who was doing some support work for NASA back then. He talks about the possibility of a rescue mission using the Atlantis (already undergoing mission prep). An emergency spacewalk to make repairs was also possible. The NASA honchos decided that even if there was damage (caused by a chunk of foam breaking off the external tank during launch and hitting the wing) nothing could be done, so decided not to check for damage (which could have been done with an EVA, or sophisticated ground-based imaging systems, or recon sats).
I remember this all pretty well: I’d still welcome the chance to strangle the key NASA players. I remember how they forbade lower-level people at NASA to talk to the Air Force and ask for recon assets – how they peddled ass-covering bullshit about how nothing could possibly have been done. A lie.

One of the dogs that didn’t bark was the fact that NASA acted as if relevant DOD assets did not exist. For example, if you could have put a package into a matching low orbit with those consumables in shortest supply, say CO2 absorbers and/or cheeseburgers, there would would have been considerably more time available to assemble a rescue mission. For some forgotten reason the Air Force has hundreds of missiles (Minuteman-IIIs) that can be launched on a moment’s notice – it wouldn’t be that hard to replace a warhead with a consumables package. A moment’s thought tells you that some such capability is likely to exist – one intended to rapidly replaced destroyed recon sats, for example. Certainly worth considering, worth checking, before giving up on the crew. Just as the Air Force has recon assets that could have been most helpful in diagnosing the state of the ship – but NASA would rather die than expose itself to Air Force cooties. Not that the Air Force doesn’t have cooties, but NASA has quite a few of its own already.

If we ever had a real reason for manned space travel – I can imagine some – the first thing you’d need to do is kill everyone in the NASA manned space program. JPL you could keep.

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Caught in the act

The fossil record is sparse. Let me try to explain that. We have at most a few hundred Neanderthal skeletons, most in pretty poor shape. How many Neanderthals ever lived? I think their population varied in size quite a bit – lowest during glacial maxima, probably highest in interglacials. Their degree of genetic diversity suggests an effective population size of ~1000, but that would be dominated by the low points (harmonic average). So let’s say 50,000 on average, over their whole range (Europe, central Asia, the Levant, perhaps more). Say they were around for 300,000 years, with a generation time of 30 years – 10,000 generations, for a total of five hundred million Neanderthals over all time. So one in a million Neanderthals ends up in a museum: one every 20 generations. Low time resolution!

So if anatomically modern humans rapidly wiped out Neanderthals, we probably couldn’t tell. In much the same way, you don’t expect to find the remains of many dinosaurs killed by the Cretaceous meteor impact (at most one millionth of one generation, right?), or of Columbian mammoths killed by a wave of Amerindian hunters. Sometimes invaders leave a bigger footprint: a bunch of cities burning down with no rebuilding tells you something. But even when you know that population A completely replaced population B, it can be hard to prove that just how it happened. After all, population A could have all committed suicide just before B showed up. Stranger things have happened – but not often.

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He said he was high-caste

but that was just a lie.

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The Vasconic Program

The idea is that there used to be a related set of languages all over Europe, spoken by those early Sardinian-like farmers (Cardial Culture, LBK) before the Indo-Europeans showed up and trashed them. How to study that language family? How to become a succesful Pan-Vasconicist, the analog of an Indo-Europeanist? (some of my best friends are Indo-europeanists)

It’s not gonna be easy. There is today a single living language that seems likely to be a member of that family – Basque.

But there may have been others (in southern Europe) that survived long enough to leave a possibly-useful written record. Etruscan: Minoan: if we could crack them.

The Indo-European languages of Europe must have have picked up a Vasconic substrate – while Tocharian probably did not.

We know quite a bit about the genetics of this expansion – and from that (which means ancient DNA) we can probably definitively locate the Vasconic urheimat, which is one advantage over the early Indo-europeanists. We know that a particular archaeological culture is associated with this expansion (Impressed Ware) – that may help us trace it back in time.

Using the location of the urheimat, and associated gene movements, we may be able to find other languages in this family that stayed in the Middle East, and, again, survived long enough to leave a written record. Hattic, Hurrian, Sumerian, even Semitic are candidates. Check out the Caucasus, the rubble-heap of history.
This is the sort of work in which cracking Linear A and Etruscan would just be a warmup.

We need more aDNA: more archaeology: more work on recovering lost Classical literature (x-ray scanning burnt scrolls at Herculaneum, etc). We need to crush Isis and pacify Iraq, n order to get some serious archaeology done (like finding the Mitanni capital and reading their cuneiform archives.) We need to translate all the stuff from Bogazkoy. Wouldn’t hurt to scour Iran in search of lost Sassanid literature – we could always claim to be nuclear inspectors. Maybe hiring a few archaeologists who were also mercenary tankers would help cure archaeology’s Kumbayah syndrome – we’re not going to get this done without straight thinking.

Linguists, geneticists, archaeologists, and a whiff of depleted uranium. It’s a million to one shot –
but it just might work.

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Perils of Incorrect Thought

A colleague pointed me to this essay by an academic who mentioned in a submitted paper that the possibility of biological differences among human groups ought to be considered.  His submission was firmly rejected in the face of “… expletives and exclamation points to give the most venomous and dismissive feedback I have ever encountered” from the reviewers.  This essay ought to be read by anyone concerned about the sorry state of our social and behavioral sciences.  The author also points us to a  website at Heterodox Academy with useful comments and discussion.

Long ago when I was in graduate school I attended a “workshop” sponsored by an outfit called the “Foundations’ Fund for Research in Psychiatry.”  The attendees were mostly chairs of Psychiatry at US and Canadian medical schools.  Each had been invited to bring along a promising graduate student or postdoc, hence my presence.  The meeting, to my innocent eyes, was hilarious.  The opening session led by David Hamburg outlined the theme of the meeting, the movement to rid psychiatric education of analysis and all its baggage and to replace all of it with biological psychiatry.  It was a carefully thought out session with a lot of emphasis on evidence and the scientific method.

The afternoon session featured the analysts and they completely torpedoed the meeting without providing a trace of substance.  The talks were variants of “let us think about why you feel this way and understand the source of your antagonism”.  They were a smooth talking lot and, sure enough, nothing at all was accomplished.  I didn’t know much at that time but I knew enough to recognize a faith-based cult of true believers.

Our social and educational sciences are, much of them, in the hands of a cult like this, devout creationists all with their heads in the sand of social science as it was envisioned half a century ago.  We recently had an experience much like Anomaly’s.  Over a year ago Mike Weight (an undergraduate) and I posted a draft of a manuscript about using quantitative genetic theory to evaluate changes over time in traits. We had in mind a technology useful for distinguishing cultural from genetic transmission. Many readers of our blog made helpful comments and, to our shame, found a large number of typos.  I shudder when I reread that old post.  It was written shortly after I had my temporal lobe bleed and the whole part of my brain that was capable of proofreading seems to have been knocked out.

 We thought we should submit it somewhere where social scientists would read it.  We got back, from a succession of three journals, a stunning set of ignorant and irrelevant reviews.  For example the first sentence of the first one we read said “this is really about race and it ought to be made clear”.  Another said “they are trying to push genetics where it has no place”.  The tone of all of them was like this, angry and scornful.  One reviewer told us that our views were outdated and discredited since epigenetics had swept the field!

We had two and one half mildly sensible reviews, one about technical aspects of quantitative genetic theory and another by a reviewer unhappy with the level of detail and statistical aspects of the treatment of Amish test results.  Since we regarded the Amish data as a toy set of data, we made no changes. The other reviewers were all hostile and angry at what we had written, several convinced that the paper must be racist but they didn’t quite understand how or why.  We could only laugh at the collection of reviews because none of them had any idea what they were talking about.  None  made it so far as to read and understand the central point of the paper.  With the exceptions mentioned above, they were pig ignorant and proud of it.

In a recent post here, Greg’s conclusion about the social sciences was that “they’re just no damn good”. It is easy to come up with social scientists who are excellent— Steve Pinker and Charles Murray and Dalton Conley and Jonathan Haidt pop to mind — but my sample of reviewers suggests that for most of them Greg is right on the money.  We surrendered to the collective social science wisdom and submitted the paper to our friends at the Journal of Biosocial Science where it is in press, out any day now, as an open access article.





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Some prominent pinheads have recently suggested racial reparations. I think it’s a hard sell, unlikely to happen – but I haven’t seen much talk of the likely consequences, probably because our public intellectuals have no idea what those consequences would be. They just don’t know.

But I do.

One can make a close analogy with the results of that land lottery in Georgia back in 1832, and with the outcomes in families that won the lottery in Scandinavia. David Cesarini’s work strongly suggests that reparations would have no effect on infant health, drug consumption, or scholastic performance. The recipients would be no more literate, their occupational status no higher. There would be economies of scale: because of the size of the pot, swarms of the world’s most skillful and voracious grifters and con-men (Goldman Sachs) would immediately descend upon the black community and begin to extract the winnings, somewhat more rapidly than would have happened to a single individual receiving the same sum. I’m not sure whether more of the capital would simply be wasted or end up in the Cayman islands ( economically preferable).

It might only cost a couple of trillion dollars. A lot like Iraq – but way funnier!

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