Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Neuroscientist Michael Egnor to lecture on Why We Got Eugenics

A friend writes to say that neurosurgeon Michael Egnor, who has said kind things about The Spiritual Brain, is speaking at the University of Alabama at Birmingham late next month:
Michael Egnor will be coming on Thursday, November 20 to the University of Alabama at Birmingham to speak on "Why We Got Eugenics: The Old and New Science of Evolutionary Medicine." The lecture will be held on the third floor of Lister Hill Library, 1700 University Blvd., Birmingham, AL from noon to one and is being presented as part of the Reynolds Historical Lecture series. The lecture is free and open to the public.
I'm told Egnor is a good speaker; here's a podcast. He's certainly entertaining: In "P.Z. Myers’ Neurons Give Talk to Minnesota Atheists on Non-Existence of the Soul," he offers advice on giving a talk on the non-existence of the soul.

Re "evolutionary medicine": It strikes me as just another project based on the idea of looking for something for "evolution" to do in the present day, to demonstrate that enquiries into evolution are useful. But it doesn't sound as though a lot of people agree that evolution is much use in clinical medicine.

As I put it recently, evolution doesn't have to be useful to be worth studying:

... consider the example of heart attacks: What if the lemur-like creature from which humans are said to descend never had heart attacks? What if it usually did, under stress? How does such information help the medical interne whose patient presents with cardiac arrest? Whatever the interne decides to do must work in half a minute, not half a billion years.

Yes, evolution is very interesting - like any other type of ancient history - but no, it is not essential. I think it should definitely be studied, along with the cave paintings, ancient Egypt and theories about the origin of life and the universe and all that. But the burden of pretending that evolution is useful in a concrete way is tiresome and surely avoidable.

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Evolutionary psychology: Police just as good as church in promoting socially helpful behavior -researchers

At MSNBC, Robin Lloyd advises,"Religion not the only path to altruism." He is reporting on research showing that religious people give more to charity. According to a recent review essay by University of British Columbia social psychologist Ara Norenzayan and graduate student Azim Shariff,
Religion and its promotion of empathy get undue credit for our unselfish acts. Instead, it’s our less-than-virtuous psychological perception that a moral authority is watching us that promotes altruism, a new review essay suggests.
They reevaluated many studies and "found little or no evidence that empathy plays any role in religious prosociality."

Humans are evolved to be acutely sensitive to our reputations as do-gooders in our social groups because this promotes strong cooperative bonds that help the species. This psychological mechanism was originally unrelated to religion, the authors write in the Oct. 3 issue of the journal Science.

The review also shoots down the idea that religion is necessary to make people choose to engage in altruistic behavior — or do something that benefits others at your own personal expense. Religion has no monopoly on good behavior today, Norenzayan said.

In fact, the courts, police, cameras, credit records and other justice-related authorities can serve the same purpose nowadays, encouraging proscial behavior among large groups of strangers.

Note the staggering implication: Police, cameras and credit records are required to get the non-religious to do things that the religious do willingly? Surely, it is not qute as bad as that.

A friend writes,
The piece totally misses the point if it thinks that forced "giving" is altruism. Giving motivated by "courts, police, cameras, credit records and other justice-related authorities" is not giving and not altruism. It is done for self-interest.
Yes, but keep in mind that evolutionary psychology, in which this current research is rooted, denies that anyone ever acts except in self-interest - driven by their selfish genes.

There seems to be a constant need to discredit the voluntary charity and empathy of religiously motivated people, a need typefied by this research. It's not hard to see why. Charity and empathy demonstrates that the key assumption behind the research is false.

See also: Neuroscience: News flash, sort of ... people would rather give to charity than pay taxes

Research that tells you something you already knew: Givers are happier

Altruism - it's all about sexual display, see?

Humanity's hopeful sign: Disaster causes outpouring of charity in China

Altruism: Why it can't really exist but why it does anyway

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Child mental health: Why progress is so slow

(My most recent column for ChristianWeek )

Last column (September 15, 2008) featured tips from psychology and neuroscience for doing the best possible job in schoolwork. The skinny: For normal levels of achievement, self-discipline and sleep matter far more than IQ.

But what about truly troubled kids? Kids with mental problems like anxiety, ADHD, disruptive behavior, or pervasive development disorders? Parents, pastors, and youth leaders might be interested to learn of a recent hard-hitting editorial in Nature Neuroscience (September 2008) highlighted a “Credibility crisis in pediatric psychiatry.” It is a warning that there are no simple, short-term answers to these problems on the horizon.

Briefly, the editors said, “Our understanding of the neurobiology and treatment of psychiatric illness in children remains poor. Prominent psychiatrists have now been accused of concealing the extent of their financial ties to the drug industry. We urgently need to encourage more science in this area and we need vigorous regulation to restore some neutrality to the field.” What’s behind that?

First, as the editors implied, it is often difficult to identify or treat childhood mental disorders. For one thing, children are always growing and changing, and learning to cope and relate—and they mature at their own pace. They may not be able to communicate clearly. And even if we are pretty sure about what is wrong, we don’t always know what to do about it. And by the time we develop an effective approach, the problem may have changed.

Here are some other problems they identify: Drugs are usually tested on adults, but the findings do not necessarily translate well to children. Their long term effects on brain development and function are not known. One research problem is that, whereas drugs for physical conditions can be tested on animals first, there are often no useful animal models for specifically human mental problems.

The issue that sparked the “credibility crisis” mentioned above was that psychiatrists who prescribe anti-psychotic drugs may have financial ties to the drug industry, in the form of, for example, consulting fees or ownership of shares. In one instance, Stanford University recently removed its chairman of psychiatry as a principal investigator of an antidepressant in a study paid for by the US National Institute of Mental Health. It determined that he had undisclosed ties to the drug company whose product was being investigated.

A subtler problem is this: Many drugs are prescribed for children off-label. But there is little incentive for the drug company to sponsor expensive large trials to determine whether they work for children. If studies show that a drug does not work, it should not be prescribed, but no useful substitute may be available.

Here is another problem: A scientifically based trial must have a placebo group—a group that thinks it is getting the medication, but actually isn’t. Here is the reason: A large proportion of the placebo group will get better, partly because the subjects believe they are receiving a treatment. These results must be subtracted from the results in the control group, to determine the difference the medication itself made, as opposed to the power of suggestion. Adult participants in a clinical trial are told up front that they might be randomly assigned to the placebo group. According to surveys, few subjects actually believe they are in the placebo group. But because they are informed adults and they gave consent, what they believe is beside the point. However, children cannot give valid consent to participate in a clinical trial. So the risk that many children are in the placebo group—and therefore may not be receiving a medication that could actually help them—is an ethical dilemma. It could become a legal dilemma too, if tragedy occurs.

For these and other reasons, there are few or no obvious solutions to child mental health problems. Many parents may echo the father in Mark 9:17-29, “ ... Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit ... I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.” Knowing in advance that this will sound trite to some desperate parents, one must mind Jesus’s word (v29), “This kind can come out only by prayer.” The good news is that prayer does help, though we do not often see its results immediately, only in retrospect.

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