Thursday, December 18, 2014

Some links and reciprocal behavioral development

Three part series on genotypes at the Mermaid's Tale.

Another chapter in the critique of twin studies by Jay Joseph. The problem of reflection for behavior and identity development as regards genetic inheritance claims is something I have tried to wrap my mind around. Joseph summarizes this: “The similar physical appearance and level of attractiveness of MZAs will elicit more similar behavior-influencing treatment by their social environments.” The idea being that if we hold a social environment steady, then some shared trait, like height, may encourage further shared behaviors and identity structures within those individuals. Across a given culture then a simpler shared trait will blossom into a more common shared trait, one that would hold across all niches of that society. And hence it will be questionable what a twin study would mean as regards that complex trait. Without understanding the social influence on that complex trait, it will then seem to make perfect sense that the complex trait is genetically shared. In some sense, of course, it is genetically shared, similar to how slavery often had a shared genetic component.

We can also see other complex factors. Take two twin babies, given (for arguments sake) a shared disposition for crying. The behavioral interaction of others towards those babies may go on to influence emotions and behaviors within those babies. However, us humans are complex behavioral machines. Given an emotional distaste of crying babies by adults, this will not mean that the response to crying babies has to be uniform. An adult behavioral response is capable of being tailored in many ways, such as by scientific thought of the day or by situational structures, such as care-givers that are more or less readily available. If across a given society we see rather shared behavioral responses to crying babies as well as care-givers rather readily on hand, some further emotional or behavioral characteristic may develop in these babies in response to those adult interactions. If more complex behavior and emotional structures arise out of those dynamics, what will then seem like rather correlated genetically structured responses will actually have a social dynamic that is embedded into that more complex trait but arising uniformly from a simple trait within a shared social response. This also throws the wrench into dizygotic versus monozygotic analysis.

As I have previously claimed, this is the problem with trying to pronounce shared genetic structures when we have no clue as to the mechanisms involved or even of good definitions and categorizations of the behaviors (e.g. see some of the wrangling over schizophrenia).

My first major recognition of this came in a popular book by Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt called Welcome to Your Child's Brain. The book was enjoyable and informative on many levels, though I do have some critiques.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

A bit on language and some other stuff

A good rundown of arguments against a universal grammar is given in this article (There is no language instinct) at Aeon. Some of it is a little sloppy, especially a line on genes near the end. Though I have only tepidly read on such stuff, the Chomsky line, the innate language faculty, as it is often presented, is surely wrong. Jesse Prinz makes similar arguments, as those in the article, in his book Beyond Human Nature. Also, Patricia Churchland gives an enjoyable rebuttal in Brain-Wise:
Nevertheless, it is sobering to remind ourselves of the many cognitive artifacts that are known to be cultural inventions. . . We do not know how much of the complexity seen in human language depends on cultural evolution. Structural similarities among human languages are consistent with, but certainly do not entail, that there exists a genetically specified grammar module in the human brain. Such structural commonalities as do exist could be as well explained, so far as is known, as arising from similarities in fundamental aspects of human experience, such as spatiality, sociability, the need for sequence assembling in forming plans and in behavioral execution, and so forth. As Elizabeth Bates wryly commented, the similarities among humans in getting food to the mouth by using hands rather than feet does not imply the existence of 'hands for feeding module. Rather the existence of a shared body plan and the ease of hand feeding relative to foot feeding suffice to explain 'feeding universals.' (284)

I've often wondered what exactly a noun is, whether we could see it as continuous with animal communication, whether nouning and verbing is really that different, and whether it would be possible to create creatures that use complex language without using nouns. I would think you would have to do some significant jingling to get complex creatures with an ability to use language to not dialectically turn to the use of nouns. But similar to the Churchland quote, humans' use of nouns does not seem like something that would need specific structures for it. Stanislas Dehaene (see below) gives some detailed accounts of what exactly is structured for in the brain as regards reading, which he suggests is not brain structures that were selected for (against) specifically for reading capacities. If such a story is at least partially true, then the divide between what is actually genetically structured as regards the brain and what actually comes out as regards social institutions and behaviors, even if fairly widespread, is a more complicated picture than how universal grammar is often presented

Other things of interest:

Speaking of Brain-Wise (2002) by Churchland, it is recommended over her earlier book Neurophilosophy (1989). These books seemed to cover much of the same stuff, especially as regards philosophical positions, with Brain-Wise being more readable and more up-to-date.

Stanislas Dehaene's Reading in the Brain and Consciousness and the Brain (2014) are both good. I think Reading in the Brain (2010) could provide ammunition against the Chomsky line as well, which is why I was thinking about it. I say that despite the fact that Dehaene may endorse the Chomsky line on universal grammar, or something of the sort. His general take on consciousness is moving in the right direction as well.

On genetics and behavior, Jay Joseph has a new book detailing issues around twin studies called The Trouble with Twin Studies (2014). See his recent article Genetic Research in Psychiatry for some of his main complaints.

Friday, December 5, 2014

3-D Nerve Terminal

This video. It is an illustrated model  of an axon terminal that is derived by carefully studying rats' nerve ends. The video is half way down the article. You are going to want to use the pause button. Also, if like me, you will probably need wikipedia handy. Enjoy.

In the spirit of the blog, it is unacceptable that any 18 year old (or any adult) does not have a general understanding of what they are looking at in this video. That speaks both to our level of education, but also to our style of education. Every student should understand what the hippocampus is as readily as they understand what a hippopotamus is. There are probably brain mechanisms, emotional responses for one, that make it easier to think about other large mammalian, possibly dangerous entities as opposed to more theory- laden, very small entities, but these are the kinds of things we have to ignore to a great degree, that we have to work around.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Social Construction

At Sociologically Speaking a quick (~20 min.) podcast on social construction.

It is a good overview of social constructionism.

For most of behavior, dissecting the social element is very difficult, especially as developed entities within our particular cultural system. This is because of two processes that we will call reification and essentializing. Reification has to do with the inability to see social institutions as contingent, as artifacts that are capable of being changed. That is, we reify, objectify, or see as unchangeable those social institutions. This can be applied to object descriptions and valuations (diamonds), categorizations and beliefs, and institutions and norms (say marriage structures and roles). Essentializing has to do with identity. It is to place identity structures and behavior structures as givens to human behavior or to an individual's behavior. Though a certain developmental process (socialization/education) and a certain social matrix may have created an individual who has certain behavioral aspects, the ability to ask about those processes become difficult to assess as we essentialize the identity of a person. If we say something like “she is smart,” we first, perhaps, have a problem with defining the trait itself, but also we have a language instance that simply postulates and ensconces a given being. This is useful for social behavior but it can make reflection on self and society difficult. It encourages us to see identity of individuals as simply unalterable givens to the world instead of reminding us of the developmental process that creates that identity, those behaviors, that brain/mind.

This brings me to one slight criticism of the audio above. Her story about buying a diamond ring is presented as a bit of a personal struggle within the telling. That is, I feel like the author realized the problem that I present, but sometimes life is messy.

There are parts to our social world and hence our selves that we can shrug at to a great degree. Some of the meanings that are imbued onto objects and behaviors, and that we reproduce through our actions, are ephemeral, or perhaps even those processes are enjoyable or practical in rather unproblematic ways.

I feel like things such as the diamond ring example are going to have to be a place where people who are in the best position to stop reinforcing more problematic social reproductions need to also take a stand against reproducing something seemingly more benign. Undoing, unraveling the more simple reproductions needs to happen because other instances where we would consider it vitally important to undermine such social meaning making or change a social behavior are going to be very difficult to achieve.

I have an intuition that two people standing at a privileged point to bring about such changes, to help reshape our social worlds, are going to need to have a better resolve towards not being so immersed in the world that shaped them. And thus it is worrisome that such people could not, or did not, reject the empty valuing of diamond rings and the belief that they need such a social symbol in order to have a good relationship (they don't). Continuing on with such practices seems like a marker that suggests that they or we may not be able to achieve the larger tasks. I use the diamond ring here but there are probably many objects, behaviors, and norms that I think need to be undone, or whose value reproduction are suggestive of a non-aggressive attitude towards social change or to opening up our selves and society to be better understood. The places in society and in our behaviors that are the most reified, that are the most unseeable contingent factors, are places that need to be marked as such. To continue to non-reflectively reproduce those instances, to not set in the possibility that there are others way to organize our selves, is to blur over those institutions. It is to encourage the reproduction of the world that we found, and that is problematic.  

One quick note on social behavior reproduction, played out a bit in this example, is that stopping the reproduction of such is often difficult for individuals. Mainly, one of the ways we continue to reproduce our social world is through social regulation. That is, individuals will become upset or find others unfriendly if others do not have standard behavioral structures. As individuals we are greatly moved by social regulation. Some of this is good as it was developed either biologically or socially over a long time to encourage more harmonious living. But as we strive to build better societies and better selves, worlds we want to live in, there is a need to stop reproducing a great deal of social institutions, for instance gender norms, gender roles, and socialization/education practices. Undercutting emotional responses, to put these things on the table of reflection outside of social regulation, is an important way to be able to adequately reflect on those processes. It is difficult to ask about whether we want to change institutions while under the emotional gaze of others. 

That last thought brings up another point. All of this is why Jonathan Haidt (The Righteous Mind) is wrong, and why Joshua Greene (Moral Tribes) only goes part of the way in dispelling him. Our moral world is our institutional world. All social policies and institutions are political policies, they are political institutions. As individuals we are the environment that created us, we are the end products of a socialization/education process and the institutional world that is around us. The world that we found needs to be drastically changed. And all of it needs to be open to reflection.