How the brains of Republicans differ from those of the rest of us

Posted on May 26th, 2016 in Politics by Robert Miller
Spotted Hyena

Spotted Hyena

I am reissuing one of my postings concerning the many differences between Republican brains and those of our own; when I first issued this posting I was comparing the Republican brain with those of Democrats, but I have since become aware that many Democrats have lost their way and become corporatists.   This election promises to be particularly interesting because Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee, and though he doesn’t quite fit the mold of the typical Republican challenger, he nevertheless qualifies for many of the Republican brain characteristics that are mentioned here.

We are making great progress. Progress that is, in understanding the peculiar nature of the Republican brain. In general, humans, both Democrats and Republicans have very large brains and a very long period of adolescence to engage in prolonged learning tasks before the reproductive years come into play. If you try to calculate our brain size, by predicting what it should be, based on mammalians of similar size, you conclude that the human brain is about seven times larger than that of a similar-sized non-human. Other primates have large brains as well. If you look further into the parcellation of our brain, you realize that one of the largest areas of growth over our other mammalian representatives has been dedicated to the growth of the cerebral cortex, but more specifically to the frontal lobes of the brain, where everyone agrees, some of our most complex processes take place, such as long-term planning and analytical strategy.

There are many theories about the evolution of us and our brains, but one theory, that of social evolution is gaining some momentum from studies using fMRI as a method for further defining the roles that different brain regions play in our complex social and biological interactions. A study of great interest in this regard appeared in the New York Times Science section on the social behavior of hyenas. At first, it seems like this may be an irrelevant source of information on this topic, something of a joke. But, one theory of the evolution of our brain comes out of sociobiology. Adapting that point of view to brain evolution suggests that a large frontal lobe evolved and was relegated to the evolution of our complex social interactions, those that feed into our ability to live in a culture and adapt favorably to the survival of a clan, not just an individual.

The hyenas come into this story as a result of extensive studies of their social behavior, based on decades of work, following clans through generations. And, now hyena brain compartmentalization has been invoked to account for hyena social behavior. There are four species of hyenas and they differ from one another based their physical differences, but also on the size of the clan to which they belong and the complex or simple social interactions of each species. Spotted hyenas have the largest clans and the most complex social interactions. A single spotted hyena clan may be as large as 60 to 80 members and each member of the clan recognizes the others as individuals. All social hyena species form a matriarchal structure, with a single “alpha female” as the head. Going down in clan size from the spotted hyenas, you have the brown hyenas with a clan of about 14, striped hyenas have a clan of only 3 and, at the bottom of this social scale you have the aardwolf, who have become primarily insect eaters, with a single pair forming the extent of the clan, living near a termite nest and defending their territory as a small family cluster.

Studies with fMRI have demonstrated interesting phenomena related to brain mechanisms of human social interactions. When studies were carried out to look for brain regions activated by questions about social interactions, the frontal lobe is an apparent source of activity. So the question asked by the hyena researchers was whether the social scale of hyena behavior had a correlate in brain structure. As it turns out, the brains of hyenas are quite large, though still dwarfed by our own. This study was complicated by the fact that hyena brains are hard to come by, but the skulls of different hyena species have been collected and there are well known image reconstruction methods that provide an approximation of different brain regions based on the skull formations and indentations related to the different brain compartments. So, based on this kind of reconstruction data, it appears that the frontal lobes of these four species of hyenas can be scaled in the same order as their social behavior, with the spotted hyenas at the top and the aardwolf at the bottom.

It seems at last, we are beginning to understand the brain structure of Republicans. For the low social brain structure of the Republicans, the type of person to whom Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman would have appeal, we find a brain devoid of major frontal lobe development, something akin to the aardwolf. To compensate for this deficiency, the Republican brain has hypertrophied the amygdala, which is the emotional center that generates strong fear responses in retaliation to threats or unexpected events. Thus the Republican brain responds to threats with emotionalism and seems incapable of engaging in any long-term strategy. The Democrat brain on the other hand has the highest level of frontal lobe development, as these Homo sapiens subtypes rely on a successful clan structure and believe in it as the solution to an ever larger clan community. Concomitantly, the amygdala of the Democrat brain is not hypertrophied, as fear is not the first response of that type of brain. This is because the large frontal lobes allow the Democrat to ponder the threat or the event and make a strategy that is good for the whole clan, not just the aardwolves among us. As clarity on this issue will undoubtedly grow in the coming months and years, it is worth pondering where George W. Bush’s brain will fit on the frontal lobe scale of humanity?

Another triumph of American eclectic university life is reflected in the fact that the academics who have studied hyenas for decades are all members of Michigan State University. Now if that isn’t an elegant example of frontal lobe strategies reaching across the spectrum of biological diversity to find additional clues to George Bush’s behavior, I challenge all of you to come up with a better example. Over and out!


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Red Knot birds: are they on the road to extinction?

Posted on May 13th, 2016 in Climage Change by Robert Miller
red knot birds

Fig 1. red knot birds

The dilemma of the red knot bird not getting adequate nutrition

Fig 2.  The dilemma of the red knot bird not getting adequate nutrition

Today the New York Times has published an article on the red knot bird and whether they are on a glide path towards extinction. For that reason I am reissuing my previous articles on this problem. Each year the red knot makes an incredible migration of 9,300 miles from the tip of South America to the Arctic waters, breed and raise their young and then head back to their wintering place; this tale of annual migration is one of the most stunning examples of endurance and determination. Now we know that climate change is threatening the survival of this species. Their numbers used to be around 1 million, but recent surveys have demonstrated that the are down to about 1/4 of that number and many scientists believe that they are on a certain path for extinction. This is one of the most unique stories of the challenges we will face in the coming years because right now it doesn’t look like there is much we can do to avoid the path toward extinction that the red knot bird is on. The NYT story covers the events after the birds arrive in the Arctic; it is basically a story about bad timing. When the red knot arrives in the Arctic, spring has been going on for two weeks and as a result red knot chicks missed the peak of high insect availability. Missing the peak insect availability results in smaller red knot juveniles. By the time they arrive in Poland on their return trip they are smaller by 15% on average compared to their size in 1985. The smaller sized juveniles are at a disadvantage compared to their normal-sized adults. Normal-sized adults are able to dig deeper into the shoreline sand and successfully retrieve clams, but the smaller juveniles do not have the size to retrieve clams and are restricted to retrieving less nutritious grasses. The red knot has not been able to adjust their timing to leave earlier for the Arctic and unless they manage to do this, the survival of the red knot seems doomed. Can we use optogentics to alter the gene pool and provide the red knot with new clock genes? Hope springs eternal.

Several years ago (2010) I wrote an article entitled “The counter-intuitive interconnectedness of species” in which I explained how the red knot (Claidris canutus rufa) bird makes a remarkable, annual journey from Tierra del Fuego (off the southern tip of South America) to the Canadian Arctic where they nest over the short arctic summer and then return home again in the fall. On the way to its arctic stop, the red knot stops along the East coast to feed on eggs laid by the horseshoe crab (Limulus polyphemus), an ancient, primitive-looking crab, that is indigenous to the shorelines of the East coast. The horseshoe crab has been around for 475 million years, so they have sticking power, despite their seemingly clumsy ways and odd shape. The timing of the red knot arrival coincides with the breeding season of the horseshoe crab who come close to the shore to lay their eggs. The red knot birds have about two weeks to feed on the eggs and build up enough body fat and strength to complete their journey. But the horseshoe crabs are becoming scarce. They not only serve as bait for fisherman in the region, but their blood is used in medicine, as the Limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL) is used as a test to detect bacterial endotoxins, for which it is a highly sensitive, unique detection system. Although medical blood-letting is associated with release of the Limulus, a considerable number of the animals die from this experience. A NYT article on the plight of the red knot bird points out that the population of these birds has plummeted by 70 percent since the 1980s. The United States Fish and Wildlife service has proposed to designate the bird as threatened. If the red knot receives this distinction (we apparently will know by Friday), then the government will develop a plan for the bird’s recovery. If so, this will surely involve additional protections for the horseshoe crab, whose diminished numbers have no doubt contributed to the bird’s decline. If use of horseshoe crabs as bait declines through enforcing new limits, the medical use of the crab’s blood is very likely going to increase, given its importance.

Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus)

Horseshoe Crab (Limulus polyphemus)

One area where survival improvements could be made is to increase the likelihood that blood letting will be more compatible with crab survival. Some estimates suggest that as many as 20 to 30 percent of the crabs from which blood has been withdrawn do not survive. Since 2004, the demand for horseshoe crab blood has increased by 85 percent.

Given what seems to be a biological event of unique synchronization, biologists worry that global warming mechanisms that may interfere with this dependency (an early spring, such that the birds leave too early, or crabs breed out of sync, the threats of ocean acidity from absorbing carbon dioxide on the life cycle of the crab, changes in the arctic that could effect the breeding grounds of the red knot). One could go on and on with other possibilities. How this interdependency between the horseshoe crab and the red knot got started  is itself a remarkable, but unknown story. If crab shortages continue, will the red knot be able to find alternative sources of food? Given the huge drop in the red knot population that answer appears to be no.

Another animal impacted by the drop in the horseshoe crab population is the Atlantic loggerhead sea turtle that feed on Limulus: their numbers have been dropping. Harvesting crabs was banned in New Jersey in 2008.

loggerhead sea turtle (from Wikipedia)

The horseshoe crab has played a major role in our understanding of visual physiology; studies of this animal led to one Nobel Prize (1967, awarded to H.K. Hartline, Ragnar Granit and George Wald; Hartline was the Limulus guy).


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The Dump Trump movement

Posted on May 6th, 2016 in Politics by Robert Miller

Never too late

An interesting poll appeared recently in the NYT, conducted by CBS/NYT. It points out that many Republicans are embarrassed by how things have been going for them  in the election. For example when the question was the “party is divided”; Republicans registered 88% affirmative, while the Democrats scored 33% affirmative; when the question was “mostly embarrassed by Party’s presidential campaign” Republicans 60%; Democrats 13%; “They have a favorable opinion of their party” Republicans 51%; Democrats  82%. So what’s the matter with Kansas to quote the famous book by Thomas Frank. I don’t find anyone that feels sorry for the Republican Party as they brought this low state of affairs all on their own.  They thought they had a bunch of stupid voters who would go along with anything they proposed and it worked for a very long time, too long for a lot of us. But then the Big Recession hit (they weren’t  doing too well before the Big Recession), but coming out of the recession, they have not seen their wages come back, and they are falling further behind in the American Dream,  while the rentier class has prospered (Just wait until his supporters find out that Donald Trump is the King of the rentier class and all Hell will break loose:  If you want to know more about the rentier class read Adam Davidson’s article in the Sunday NYTimes magazine which can be found here). But, back to the CBS/NYT poll. The reason that the conservatives in the party are unhappy with Trump is because he behaves like a rational businessman, and promotes things like healthcare. If you go to Donald Trump’s website at you will see that under positions he lists only six issues, including 1) healthcare reform; 2) U.S. China trade reform; 3) Veterans administration reforms; 4) tax reform; 5) second amendment rights and 6) immigration reform. I won’t go over the details of his plans except to say that on day 1 of his presidency he will repeal “Obamacare,” but he offers no details of how he will insure the 20+ million insured that were not insured under the system that we had before Obamacare became law: he speaks in generalities, and does not offer specific suggestions on how to implement his planned policies on almost any issue he deals with.

On another plane Trump is unafraid to cast insults at his competitors: Trump believes that he can win the onstage insult game and the fact that he performs so well at insulting his competitors means that he is perceived as a winner; he deserves to win and he usually does. So far no other candidate has had such success at throwing barbs at his competitors and his follows believe this adds to his credibility as a winner. Politicians are not trained in trench warfare.


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