Posts Tagged ‘Columbia University’

Book on the Evolution of the Human Brain

December 30, 2017

The Human Brain Evolving: Paleoneurological Studies in Honor of Ralph L. Holloway, edited by Douglas Broadfield, Michael Yuan, Kathy Schick and Nicholas Toth. Stone Age Institute Press, Gosport Indiana and Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. 2010.

This is another book I got much cheaper than the cover prise through Oxbow Books’ bargain catalogue. The book is a collection of papers from a two day conference by the Stone Age Institute in April 2007 to celebrate the life and work of Ralph Holloway, one of the great founders of the field. Holloway as he explains in the first paper in which he gives his personal perspective, started out studying metallurgy at Drexel Institute of Technology in Philadelphia in the 1950s. He then moved to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, where he took courses in anthropology and geology. After this, he enrolled in the Ph.D. programme in anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. There he became interested in exploring how evolution had shaped the development of primate brains. His interest in this area led him to do research in the brain casts from australopithecine skulls in South Africa, where his mentor was professor Phillip V. Tobias. In 1969 he settled down to study paleoneurology fulltime. His decision was partly made by the testicular trauma he suffered the previous year by the cops while in a student demonstration in New York. This gave him considerable with Prof. Tobias as the struggles he was having against apartheid and the fuzz in South Africa.

As Holloway himself explains, any study of the evolutionary development of the specialised structure of the human brain was very strongly discouraged when he was a student. The simple assumption was that humans got more intelligent as their brains got bigger. There was no investigation about how the particular areas of the brain, in which specific brain functions are located, developed. Indeed this was actively and vehemently discouraged. He says that his first mentor at Berkeley was Professor Sherwood Washburn, who kindly suggested that he take various courses in anatomy. When Holloway told him that he wanted to take the course in neuroanatomy, however, Washburn was horrified, and said that he would no longer be Holloway’s mentor if he did so, fearing that it would make him too specialised to be a physical anthropologist, an argument Holloway found unconvincing. He goes on to point out the paucity of material in physical anthropological textbooks from the 1950s to the present, pointing out that only one, published in 2008 actually does because its co-author, John Allen, is a neurologist.

The book’s contents include the following papers.

Chapter 1: The Human Brain Evolving: A Personal Retrospective, Ralph L. Holloway.

Chapter 2: The Maternal Energy Hypothesis of Brain Evolution: An Update, Robert D. Martin and Karen Isler.

Chapter 3: The Meaning of Brain Size: The Evolution of Conceptual Complexity, P. Tom Schoeneman.

Chapter 4: Human Brain Endocasts and the LB1 Hobbit Brain, Ralph L. Holloway.

Chapter 5: The Fossil Hominid Brains of Dmanisi: D 2280 and D2282, Dominique Grimaud-Herve and David Lordkipandze.

Chapter 6: The Evolution of the Parietal Cortical Areas in the Human Genus: Between Structure and Cognition, by Emiliano Bruner.

Chapter 8: Study of Human Brain Evolution at the Genetic Level, by Eric J. Vallender and Bruce T. Lahn.

Chapter 9: Brain Reorganisation in Humans and Apes, by Katerina Semendeferi, Nicole Barger and Natalie Schenker.

Chapter 10: Searching for Human Brain Specializations with Structural and Functional Neuroimaging, by James K. Rilling.

Chapter 11: Structural and Diffusion MRI of a Gorilla Brain Performed Ex Vivo at 9.4 Tesla, by Jason A. Kaufman, J. Michael Tyszka, Francine “Penny” Patterson, Joseph M. Erwin, Patrick R. Hof, and John M. Allman.

Chapter 12: The role of Vertical Organisation in the Encephalisation and Reorganisation of the Primate Cortex, Daniel P. Buxhoeveden.

Chapter 13: The Evolution of Cortical Neurotransmitter Systems Among Primates and their Relevance to Cognition, Mary Ann Raghanti, Patrick R. Hof, and Chet C. Sherwood.

Chapter 14: Sex Differences in the Corpus Callosum of Macaca fascicularis and Pan troglodytes, by Douglas C. Broadfield.

Chapter 15: Dental Maturation, Middle Childhood and the Pattern of Growth and Development in Earlier Hominins, by Janet Monge and Alan Mann.

Chapter 16: Perikymata Counts in Two Modern Human Sample Populations, by Michael Sheng-Tien Yuan.

Chapter 17: Mosaic Cognitive Evolution: The case of Imitation Learning, by Francys Subiaul.

Chapter 18: The Foundations of Primate Intelligence and Language Skills, by Duane M. Rumbaugh, E. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, ,James E. King and Jared P. Taglialatella.

Chapter 19: Hominid Brain Reorganisation, Technological Change, and Cognitive Complexity, Nicholas Toth and Kathy Schick.

Clearly this is a written at an advanced, technical level for a specialist academic audience. I’ve done little but skim through it so far, but have found some fascinating facts. For example, Holloway’s paper on the brain of the Flores Hobbit recognises that it does share some features of modern microcephalics, but also others that are very different. This could mean that the creature could have been an archaic hominid suffering from a peculiar form of neurological defects that now no longer exists.

Emiliano Bruner’s paper argues from the study of Neanderthal and Early Modern Humans that modern humans’ parietal lobes are actually larger than would have been predicted by evolutionary theory for hominids of our size.

Anne Weaver’s paper argues that, in contrast to the standard view that this area of the brain has not evolved in the course of the development of modern humans, 30,000 years ago the size of the Cerebellum increased relative to the Cerebrum. The cerebellum is the part of the human brain dedicated to motor coordination and related tasks.

Douglas Broadfield’s paper on sex difference in chimp brains takes further Holloway’s and Kitty Lacoste’s 1982 paper, which controversially showed that that the corpus callosum in women was larger than those of men. His study of this part of the brain in chimps shows that this development is unique to humans.

Paleoneurology is still controversial, and Holloway holds some very controversial opinions. He’s an evolutionary reductionist, who considers culture to be the sole product of evolution, and religion and politics to be intrinsically evil. It’s an opinion he recognises is not held by the vast majority of people.

He also laments how the anthropology course at Columbia has abandoned physical anthropology, and been taken over completely by social anthropology, stating that the majority appear ‘postmodern, post colonialist, feminist and political’. This led to him being marginalised and isolated at the faculty.

He also states that it is stupid, for reasons of ‘political correctness’ not to consider that the same evolutionary processes that have shaped the different physical forms of the various human races, have not also affected their mental capacities and evolution too. He describes this research as intensely political and near-suicidal, and describes how he was accused of being a Nazi because of his investigation into it. He states that one critic described it as the kind of research that got his relatives put into concentration camps.

Professor Holloway is clearly a decent, humane man, who has in his day stood up for liberal values and protested against institutional racism. However, while he states that the neurological differences between male and female brains are ‘more or less accepted’ today, there are still women neurologists, who argue against them. More recently they’ve argued that sex difference in the brain are a continuum between the extremely male and extremely female, with most people lumped somewhere in between. In fact, the sex differences in the brain are so small that you simply can’t tell by looking whether a brain is male or female.

Furthermore, anthropological science was used in the period of full-blown European colonialism to justify White rule over their non-White subject peoples, and certainly has been used by Nazis and Fascists to justify their persecution of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs and other ‘subhumans’. After the War, the British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley cited scientific papers on the differences in intelligence between the races to argue for a form of apartheid that would lead to the complete separation of Blacks and Jews from White, gentile Brits. This would affect only those, who were allowed to remain in Britain, because their culture was compatible with White, gentile British civilisation. See the section 13, ‘The Colour Question in Britain, Immigration, the Racial Question’ in his wretched book, Mosley – Right or Wrong, published by Lion Books in 1961. And of course, like all Fascist after the War, Mosley denied that he was actually racist!

Holloway knows from personal experience just how touchy this subject is, and is aware that the lower IQ scores made by Black Americans is still a subject of intense and acrimonious debate. But he thinks it silly to rule out the question of racial differences in human brain structure because of current political dogma.

This is too complacent. My impression here is Prof. Holloway has this rather more tolerant view of the acceptability of this direction of neurological investigation, because he is a White man from a privileged background. After all, in the 1950s very few working or lower middle class Americans could afford to do a university or college degree. It simply has not affected him personally, although he has stood on the barricades to denounce racism and support other liberal causes during the student unrest of the late ’60s. The same applies to women. In the second edition of the BBC popular science programme QED in the ’80s, a female scientist presented a programme on how male scientists down the centuries had tried to argue that women were biologically inferior, before concluding that ‘the tables are turning’.

Racial neurology and the neurology of gender differences is particularly dangerous now with the rise of the Alt Right and real White supremacists and Nazis surrounding Donald Trump, and the whole milieu of the Republican party and Libertarians in America. These are intensely racist, despising Blacks, Asians and Latinos, and using scientific evidence like the highly controversial ‘Bell Curve’ to argue that Blacks are intellectually inferior to Whites. I’ve also seen the islamophobes argue that Muslims also shouldn’t be allowed into Britain from the Middle East and Pakistan, as the average intelligence of the people from those regions is 75! Which to my mind is just ridiculous.

I’ve also heard from a friend, who keeps up with the latest neurological research by talking to some of the scientists involved, that recent studies of neuroplasticity have cast doubt on the amount of specialisation of brain function in specific brain regions. Moreover, everyone’s brain, male and female, is weird up differently. We may in fact know far less about the nature of the human brain, a point made by the neurologist and Humanist Professor Raymond Tallis in his book, Aping Mankind, written against precisely this kind of reductionism, which tries to reduce human cognition and culture by viewing it solely in terms of Darwinian theory in which humans are simply another species of ape.

This is a fascinating book, and offers many insights into the evolution of the human brain. But this is an area that is still developing, and intensely controversial. As such, other scientific opinions are available and should be read as well.

Advertisements

Wartime Conference on Science, Philosophy, Religion and Democracy

March 12, 2017

I found a copy of the 1942 book, Science, Philosophy and Religion: Second Symposium, over a decade ago now in a secondhand bookshop in Totnes in Devon. As the above title page states, this comes from a conference on science, philosophy and religion and their relation to the democratic way of life, held in New York in 1942. The conference was held at Columbia University and was the successor to the first symposium, held a year earlier. The book was a collection of papers by leading members of the above disciplines, edited by Lyman Bryson and Louis Finkelstein. These were intended to show how these areas of research and experience supported democracy against the advance of the totalitarian regimes in Europe.

The volume has the following contents

I Democracy’s Challenge to the Scientist, by Caryl P. Haskins;
II Democracy and the Natural Science, Karl F. Herzfeld;
III Some Comments on Science and Faith, Hudson Hoagland;
IV The Comparative Study of Culture of the Purposive Cultivation of Democratic Values, by Margaret Mead;
V The Basis for Faith in Democracy, Max Schoen.
VI Pragmatism, Religion and Education, John L. Childs;
VII Liberal Education and Democracy;
VIII A Philosophy of Democratic Defense, Charles Hartshorne;
IX The Role of Law in a Democracy, Frank E. Horack, Jr.
X Pluralism and Intellectual Democracy;
XI, Empiricism, Religion and Democracy, Charles W. Morris;
XII Philosophical Implications of the Prevalent Conception of Democracy;
XIII The Spiritual Basis of Democracy, by the Princeton Group;
XIV Thomism and Democracy, by Yves R. Simon.
XV Democracy and the Rights of Man, Paul Weiss.
XVI The Stake of Art in the Present Crisis, George Boas.
XVIII An Approach to the Study of History, William G. Constable;
XIX Literature and the Present Crisis, Joseph Wood Krutch.
XX How Long is the Emergency, Mark Van Doren.
XXI Democratic Culture in the Light of Modern Poetry.
XXII Democratic Aspirations in Talmudic Judaism, Ben Zion Bokser.
XXIII Democracy in the Hebrew-Christian Tradition; Old and New Testaments, Millar Burrows;
XXIV Christianity and Democracy from the Point of View of Systematic Christian Theology, Nels F.S. Ferre;
XXV Philosophical Foundations of Religion and Democracy, Willliam O’Meara;
XXVI The Patristic Christian Ethos and Democracy, Albert C. Outler.

There is also a section of addresses. These are

I The Faith and Philosophy of Democratic Government, A.A. Berle, Jr.
II The Function of Law in a Democratic Society, Charles E. Clark.
III The Artist and the Democratic Way of Life, Walter Pach.
IV Democracy in Our Times, M.L. Wilson.
V The Religious Background of Democratic Ideas, Simon Greenberg, Clarence Mannion, Luther A. Weigle.

I’ve dug it out again as I believe very strongly that this symposium and its wisdom is needed again with the current stagnation of democracy and the rise of Trump in America, UKIP in Britain and the parties of the extreme right in Europe. The basis of democracy in the West has been gradually undermined over the last 30-odd years, ever since the election of Thatcher and Reagan. Successive governments in Britain and America have been determined to work for the benefit of rich, corporate paymasters against the poor and middle class. There has been a massive redistribution of wealth upwards, as welfare services have been slashed and outsourced, industries privatised and closed down, and public utilities sold off. As wages have stagnated, the corporate elite have seen their pay grossly inflated. Their taxes have been cut, while those for the poor have actually been increased.

As a result of this concentration on the demands of corporate political donors, recent studies by Harvard University and the Economist have concluded that America is no longer a full democracy. It is a ‘flawed democracy’, or even oligarchy.

At the same time governments in Britain and America have also supported the massive expansion of the surveillance state under the pretext of countering terrorism. At the same time, the rights of workers to strike, and ordinary people to protest, have been curtailed. David Cameron’s Tory administration tried to introduce a series of reforms to block street demonstrations and protests under the guise of preventing residents for suffering the nuisance caused by them.

We also have Tory and Republican administrations that insist that only their view of history should be taught in schools. Michael Gove a few years ago made a ridiculous speech complaining about the ‘Blackadder’ view of the First World War taught in schools, while the educational authorities in Arizona withdrew studies of slavery and the civil rights movement from the school syllabus. Instead, pupils in that state were to be taught the speeches of Ronald Reagan.

Donald Trump’s administration is overtly anti-immigration, particularly of Latinos and Muslims. It includes members of the Alt Right, like Steve Bannon and Curtis Ellis, who hold bitterly racist views. Many of Trump’s supporters are White supremacists and Nazis. UKIP and Brexit in Britain have also led to an increase in racism and racist violence against ethnic minorities. At the same time, these movements have also promoted hatred towards gays and the transgendered. And similar movements are attempting to take power or increase their gains across Europe, from Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France, the Alternative Fuer Deutschland in Germany, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, Jobbik in Hungary, and other extreme right-wing parties in Switzerland, Austria and Scandinavia.

Democracy, tolerance, pluralism and the rights of the poor are under threat. The threat in America and western Europe isn’t as overt and violent as it was when the Fascists seized power from the 1920s onwards. But it is there, and desperately needs to be resisted.