Tag Archive | science

Climbing on Things and Other Evolutionary Pursuits

KenyaRunnerI had one of those odd old man moments today where I’m watching a squirrel run up a tree. It goes half way up the tree in a split second, stops, then decides there’s nothing to run from after all. It then spends the next 10 seconds trying to get down. In short, the squirrel can climb a tree in a tenth the time it takes to get down. I realize this is a pretty silly observation.

Humans, too, are really good at running up hills, but terrible at getting down them. I remember climbing Mt. Mulanje in Malawi once. Going up was no problem at all. Getting down was dangerous as hell.

We pull better than we push, see right in front of ourselves better than beside ourselves, and have an easier time thinking of the concerns of a few proximal people, than a vast numbers of people who live far away. The latter, obviously, has important implications for global policy.

All of these things, though, are remnants of our evolutionary past and make complete sense when put in the context of our humble, though dangerous, beginnings. Arising in the savannahs of Kenya, humans would have been easy prey for all sorts of predators. When faced with a lion or hyena, a reasonable strategy is to run up the nearest tree and wait for the threat to pass. Thus, getting up the tree is critical for survival, particularly for children. Importantly, if they are eaten before they reproduce, the survival of the species is in question. Better climbers are survivors who are able to pass their climbing abilities on to their own children.

Getting down from the tree, of course, is not critical to survival. Thus, we can take our sweet time clumsily trying to get down, live and be able to pass our clumsy genes on to our children. So threats create effective adaptations and the lack of threat creates useless ones. The same is true for eyesight. Humans, as predatory omnivores, benefit from being able to focus on their prey while hunting, especially when they have the unique ability to run long distances while they wait for their prey (which likely has a serious head start) to tire out.

The Kericho region of Kenya is famous for producing long distance runners. I wonder if they maintained a particular hunting strategy that the Europeans or Asians no longer required.

Of interest to me is why humans might be so clan centric. It has been shown that humans are able to feel empathy for individuals close to them, but have a hard time imagining the sufferings of millions of unfamiliar people. This limitation, of course, allows us to wage wars far from home, and maintain indifference toward the millions living in poverty around the world.

Again, there are evolutionary roots here. Humans, being pack animals are adapted to be concerned about their immediately family and pack members, particularly children. This is important to survival. When any member of the group is threatened, all must be ready to ward off the threat, and protect children, who pass on similar traits to their children. A group of people indifferent to those aorund them would die out quickly. We are poor fighters on our own.

We have lived only in small groups until very recently. Thus, we never formed a need to be concerned with anyone else besides those closest to us. This state of having to care about the welfare of millions (or billions) is entirely new. We haven’t yet adjusted to it, though we make noble attempts. It is possible that we may never fully develop the ability to feel the pain of billions, unless something comes along and starts wiping out those who don’t. If that happened, we’d probably all be dead, though.

I had never thought of the problems of global policy in terms of evolutionary behavior. I guess, I have the squirrel to thank.

“Monsanto Protection Act”: Liberal Outrage or Herd Behavior?

Liberals gone wild

Liberals gone wild

I’ve been seeing a number of fiery comments from my liberal bretheren regarding the recent “Monsanto Protection Act.” Normally, I try to be sympathetic to liberal politics, but sometimes I can’t help but shake my head in disgust. I expect ignorance from the listeners of Rush Limbaugh. It’s disappointing when the supposedly better educated fall prey to the same gimmicks. It’s worth pointing out that even conpiracy nut Alex Jones has taken on the same position liberals have.

First, there is no such thing as a “Monsanto Protection Act” anymore than there is any such thing as “Obamacare.” This is a term created by the item’s opponents to rile up opposition, rather than foster critical analysis. I think that Liberals should be well aware of the political problems associated with demonizing and reductionist labeling of things they don’t like.

Second, though Presidents can veto any bill that comes across his desk, the veto of appropriations bills are rare, and have often been overridden by Congress in the past. It may be a shock to liberals, but Presidents aren’t kings. Conservatives often don’t seem to understand the three branches of Government. Liberals often appear to understand it even less.

Third, there was hardly “no debate.” A Google search will reveal that discussions of this particular item go back at least to June of 2012 and the “Famer’s Assurance Provision” as it is correctly known is part of another Ag Appropriations bill which passed last year. Anyone who tells you this is new, is either lying, or doesn’t know what they are talking about. (Even Snopes took this on.)

Fourth, there is no evidence (that I’m aware of) that GMO’s, which are already in our food supply, are having deleterious effects on human health or the environment. There have been some studies on mouse models that I know of, but it appears that no one can really agree on what a “GMO” really is. Until we can nail that down, and have more informed discussion of which GMOs are “bad” and which are “good”, I don’t think that screaming about GMO’s is any more productive than poorly informed discussion of complex issues such as climate change.

I’m not trying to suggest that there are no effects of “GMOs” whatever they may be. I am saying that lefties are accepting that there are broad effects without question and are relying on less-than-scientific and politically motivated sources such as Salon and the Huffington Post to inform them. That’s a very, very dangerous position to take.

Fifth, I think we should all know by now that rightists use issues like this to weaken Democratic Presidencies. I was of the opinion that much of the furor over controversial portions of the 2012 NDAA bill was stoked by right wingers hoping for a Achilles heel in the 2012 Obama campaign. When we buy into this type of sensationalist reporting without examining the evidence, we play right into their hands.

Sixth, well, I had a sixth, but lost it. But back to GMO’s: It’s interesting that discussions of GMO’s in Sub-Saharan Africa are opposite of what we hear in the US. People view the American and European opposition to GMOs, some of which have the potential to increase food yield while minimizing inputs, as an infringement on developing countries’ rights of self determination. It’s easy to dismiss their concerns as uninformed. However, people and policy makers in developing countries face competing issues of immediate economic needs and broad environmental concerns. Lots of things seem obvious to us, but then we have most of our basic needs already met.

I mean this not as a defense of the Farmer’s Assurance Provision or anything else having to do with GMO’s (so chill out). The endless (and perhaps deserved) vilification of Monsanto has reached a point where examination of the facts is secondary to screaming like a blithering idiot. To me, this is dangerous. When we reduce ourselves to merely accepting positions without criticism, we allow ourselves to be manipulated by just about anything. Not everyone has the time to read all that is required to create a truly informed and reasoned opinion on all subjects, I realize. Striving toward obtaining as much information as is reasonable, however, and acting critically should be a priority for everyone, however.

Liberals are the smart ones. We can do better.

Food Prices and Conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa

African Conflict and Worldwide Food Prices, 1997-2013

African Conflict and Worldwide Food Prices, 1997-2013

I decided I’d continue on this theme of African conflict for a bit after noticing some interesting trends in the data.

I’ve written before on the link between unrest in South Africa and the problem of rising food prices. Looking at the plot of the right, it’s not hard to notice the similarities in the series of conflict events post 2005 to food prices as estimated by the FAO’s Food Price Index (FPI).

I began to wonder whether some of the recent rise in conflict events is somehow related to rising food commodity prices. Having found a correlation in South Africa, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

I calculated the cross correlations between the FPI and conflict events and found that the FPI was predictive of conflict, but that conflict was not predictive of FPI. This was similar to what I found in South Africa.

Plotting the FPI against the number of monthly conflict events, I found something interesting. It appears that the two are mostly unrelated until the FPI reaches a threshold of approximately 200, then the number of monthly events shoots up. It is interesting to note that in other research, 210 was the assumed maximum price that households would absorb before taking to the streets.

I’ve repeatedly written on the problem of stock market speculation in food commodities as a cause for rising volatility in world food prices. I won’t beat this into the ground again. However, results such as these indicate that the problem of rising and volatile food prices is not just an economic problem, but also a problem of human health and welfare.

FPI and Monthly Events with Threshold

FPI and Monthly Events with Threshold

Cross correlations of FPI and monthly conflict events

Cross correlations of FPI and monthly conflict events

Conflict in Africa Getting Worse: A Good Sign?

Conflict events in Africa, 2012

Conflict events in Africa, 2012

Now that the intellectual chaos of PhD defending is over, perhaps now I’ll be able to put together some meaningful sentences.

I started my newfound state of semi-freedom by reading, something I haven’t done in while (outside of papers on malaria). Mo Ibrahim, cel phone magnate and philanthropist was interviewed by the World Policy Journal in the most recent issue.

Mo is responsible for bringing cell phone technology to Sub-Saharan Africa, expanding telecommunications on the continent from a few thousand land lines (outside of North Africa and the country of South Africa) to more than 500 million mobile subscribers today.

The total number of phones in Africa was maybe two or three million fixed-line phones. And this was mainly in South Africa in the south or in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco in the north, and nothing in between. Right now, Africa has more than 550 million mobile subscribers. This is more than the number of mobile phones in Europe, by the way. This brought farmers to the market place. It brought new services. Banking now in Africa is done more with mobiles than in actual physical branches of banks. All kinds of services are available cheap like mobile banking services, which are more used there than in Europe or the United States. It improved elections and democracies. The democratic process improved a lot because of the transparency. It encouraged entrepreneurship and economic growth. So a lot of things happened, especially in a place like Africa, which badly needed that kind of service which bridged so many years of underdevelopment, and that is wonderful. With information at their fingertips, people are able to communicate, able to talk to each other. This should bring a better sense of understanding and less conflict.

It was the last sentence that intrigued me. Could the expansion of cell phone coverage in SSA be associated with a decline in conflict? Armed with my statistical tools, I was ready to check test this hypothesis.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find much data on cel phone coverage. It appears that providers are either reluctant to publicize it, or are too fractured to merit a single source of data.

Data on conflict events, however, are reliably stored at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Database (ACLED). I have written on the database before, but hadn’t looked at it since late 2010.

What I found was disturbing. Conflict events have not decreased in SSA. In fact, there are more than ever. in 2012, there were more than 10,000 events recorded, almost double the number of events in 2011. Many of these events were protests (3,292) but there was a disturbing number of events involving state violence against civilians (2,706).

These events are spread throughout the continent, but far too many are occurring in developed hot spots like South Africa and Kenya (as the map shows).

Now, this could be a result of increased recording of events in the database. it could also be a result of the expansion of cell phone technology and the free exchange of information on the continent.

It is clear, though, that wider access to mobile technologies is not leading to peace on the continent, but rather more violence. However, protest is a hallmark of democracy and development. Let’s hope that these protests, as bloody as they may be, lead to wider access to public liberties and stable governance.

Perhaps this is a sign of good things to come? It’s certainly up to debate.


HIV “Cure” Found in Mississippi: Nothing to be proud of

Dubious reports have surfaced that an allegedly HIV positive infant born prematurely in rural Mississippi to an HIV infected mother has been cleared of the virus due to a non-standard administration of HIV drugs. Naturally, I am extremely skeptical.

I wonder if the child ever truly had HIV in the first place. Given that the child was born prematurely, I also wonder how generalizable the strategy would be, assuming that the child did, in fact, have HIV.

The world, however, seems to believe that this is a “cure” for HIV. Optimistically, I would call this a case of prophylaxis.

Most frustrating for me, is the surge of pride from Mississippians. Having grown up there, I don’t think that this is anything to be proud of. The profile of HIV in Mississippi (see my paper draft) is overwhelmingly rural, poor and, most salient, black (See my lit review on HIV in Mississippi).

The simple reason that this so-called “cure” was “found” in Mississippi, as opposed to say, Vermont, is Mississippi’s crushing level of endemic poverty, entrenched racism, and institutionalized marginalization and exclusion. Mississippi’s backward politics and racist history are what caused this epidemic in the first place. Nothing to be proud of.

Equally frustrating are the absurd comments to the effect that “God has come and given us this cure” likely stemming from the heart wrenching involvement of an infant. Assuming that such a deity exists, we should probably fault God with creating the disease in the first place, and allowing babies to be infected through no fault of their own. It seems silly to me to praise a despot for delivering services after he’s made a mess of the place.

Mississippi is sixth in the nation for new cases of HIV. The social dynamics which determine transmission are different in rural and urban areas. Dividing states into clases of rural HIV and urban HIV, Mississippi would come in number 3 just behind Georgia and Louisiana. In fact, though, I would argue that Mississippi’s rate of new HIV cases (25 per 100,000) is actually an underestimate. Health delivery in Mississippi’s HIV hotspots is so inadequate and health care utilization so low, that many new cases are undetected.

I will wait and see if the optimistic reports are true. My feeling is that this is a case of hopeful overstatement. Until then, I will remain skeptical.

Kenya Day 4: Reflections on fish and global capitalism

FIsherman along Lake Victoria

Fisherman along Lake Victoria

Lake Victoria is a rich source of Nile Perch and Tilapia. Both fish are recent introductions to the lake. The Nile Perch, as a top predator, is associated with extensive ecological damage to the Lake’s ecosystem. Extensive fishing of the Nile Perch has led to a decrease in size, and the comeback of several types of local fish fauna.

Local fisherman on hand made boats use crudely fabricated nets to pull a few fish out of the water, they then sell either whole fish or smoked chunks to dealers. Dealers in turn sell the fish to processors, who then sell the fish to European, American and Japanese distributors. The distributors sell the fish to large supermarkets, who, of course, sell the fish to you and me.

Where the fish may bring as much as $20 a kilo in giants such as Whole Foods, a local fisherman can expect approximately $1.00, but the price is set by the world market and also subject to the whims of dealers. Without a union, fishermen have little means to negotiate prices.

As the lure of quick and plentiful cash is hard to resist, local fisherman have abandoned traditional fishing practices to enter the cash economy. This, of course, in itself is not a bad thing, but the money often gets spent on alcohol and prostitutes, rather than school and health fees for children. The nutritional profile of Lake communities suffers, and children are malnourished in an area that brings nearly $500 million dollars in revenue to Kenya.

Worse yet, ready cash creates a new market for sex work and positions are easily filled by poor women from the rural areas with no other options. The result is that the fish trade, and its destabilizing effect on families, is fueling HIV transmission here. Up 40% of people in any community along Lake Victoria may be HIV positive.

The trade has brought people from the inland areas to Lake Victoria, which has led to displacement of indigenous populations. Displacement has serious implications for security and livelihoods but in this area of intense malaria transmission, displacement and encroachment both impacts human health. The movement of populations has changed the genetic profile of local communities. Millennia of interactions between locals and parasite had led to at least some minimal level of genetic balance, which may have been disrupted by the introduction of new humans not acclimated to local strains of the parasite which causes malaria. This present added risks of serious disease.

Now, anyone who reads this blog knows that I am pro-economic development, pro-market and see no merit in suggesting that developing countries uselessly stick to old, antiquated and oppressive ways. No matter how nostalgic we may be for an idyllic past that may or may not have ever existed, the reality is that economic development in many cultural contexts has extended human life expectancy, reduced infant mortality, freed women to not be treated as cattle and reduced the subjugation of social minorities. But being pro-development means that one must support, err, development, which is only occurring slowly here.

The fishing communities suffer for a number of macro level factors.

  1. The nature of global economic disparities means that the government cannot step in and help negotiate fair prices for fish. The producers live entirely at the mercy of the market. The government would probably not be successful in artificially raising prices, but could help reduce price volatility by negotiating a yearly floor.
  2. There is no reliable means of taxing earnings to make sure that money is invested in schools and infrastructure (instead of alcohol). Say what one will about taxation, but the truth is that without it, power lines and roads don’t get built.
  3. The economy here is insufficiently diversified. The entire economy relies on fish, that developed countries may or may not buy. There is sadly little agriculture here, almost no tourism and, like just about all African countries, no manufacturing. A concentrated economy like that along Lake Victoria, could easily bust overnight.

All of these things, however, are challenges that all developing countries are facing. The economy along Lake Victoria is hardly an exception, but the mechanism are at least somewhat more obvious.

Kenya Day 3: Malaria Journal

Girl with a motorcycle, Homa Bay, Kenya

Girl with a motorcycle, Homa Bay, Kenya

As part of our research in Kenya, we have hired a couple of local people to keep journals on malaria. Basically, we give them a notebook, they observe people in the community, watch for conversations about malaria or malaria related things, and write down what they hear.

Called “hearsay ethnography,” it makes ethnographers out of non-professional folks who are already embedded within the community. To date, it has been used in understanding the cultural understanding of HIV in Malawi.

We are turning local young people into anthropologists.

Through this technique, we can minimize the observer effect, i.e. the problem of influencing the data collection environment by being the odd, linguistically challenged white people of ambiguous intent. The writers have to write in English, in a manner assumed to be understood by educated folks, which presents problems of its own, but it’s a somewhat more flexible methodology.

It’s a valuable tool for medical anthropology. Through this study, we hope to begin to understand how people in this area conceptualize malaria, malaria treatment and health delivery.

I hired these guys last May, the money ran out, and I thought that the project was just a bust. To my surprise and delight, the data collectors are still writing in their journals and I was finally able to see the results.

Here’s a sample:

I attended the funeral of a child below five years old at Kamyeri. There were so many people who attended irrespective of their age or gender. The discussion about malaria broke out when the child’s father was narrating the cause of her death. He said that many people may think that his daughter had been bewitched but according to him, her death was as a result of his wife’s negligence.

He went on saying that he wasn’t at home when he received the news about her daughter’s illness. He told his wife to take the child to the hospital. However, he arrived home after two days to find out that the child had not been taken to hospital and have not received any kind of medication. He rushed her to the hospital but it was too late because the child died dew hours after the doctor had confirmed that she had serious malaria.

He went on saying if she would have diagnosed early enough, maybe she could have not died.

He added that before someone make or jump to any conclusions about the cause of any illness, he/she should go to the hospital and get tested in order to know the real cause of a disease he/she must be suffering from.

Then an old woman who was just in front of me said that she had informed the child’s mother to take to her the child so that she could treat her through “frito” and “suro.” ”Frito” means a method in which powder traditional herbs are administered to a patient through snifting, while “suro” means a method in which herbs in a powdered form is put on small cuts made using a knife. However, the woman did not turn up instead she went to a preacher to seek divine healing.

The old woman continued saying that the shivering and headache could have been treated using traditional herbs.

God is the source of human needs. Why Christianity is at odds with Buddhism

God is the source of human needs. Why Christianity is at odds with Buddhism

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