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February 3, 2007

The Male — and Female — Gaze: What makes us human?


Michael Tomasello, in a January 13, 2007 New York Times Op-Ed page essay, noted that the whites of human eyes — unlike those of any of the other 220 species of nonhuman primates, including chimpanzees, whose DNA is 99+% identical to ours — can be easily seen by others.

He believes this variation in the size of the whites of human eyes — they are several times larger than those of other primates — may be what makes humans categorically different from our genetic relatives.

His piece follows.

    For Human Eyes Only

    Col. William Prescott is said to have prepared his troops for a charge from the British Army at the Battle of Bunker Hill by telling his men, ''Don't one of you fire until you see the whites of their eyes.''

    If the opposing army had not been British men but rather a horde of charging chimpanzees, the American troops would have been summarily overrun. Why? Because neither chimpanzees nor any of the other 220 species of nonhuman primates have whites of the eyes, at least not that can be easily seen. This means that if their eyes are looking in a direction other than the one in which their heads are pointing, we can easily be fooled about what they are looking at.

    Why should humans be so different? And yet we are. We can't fool anyone. The whites of our eyes are several times larger than those of other primates, which makes it much easier to see where the eyes, as opposed to the head, are pointed. Trying to explain this trait leads us into one of the deepest and most controversial topics in the modern study of human evolution: the evolution of cooperation.

    The idea is simple. Knowing what another person is looking at provides valuable information about what she is thinking and feeling, and what she might do next. Even young children know that when a person is looking at one toy and not another, she most likely prefers that toy and may reach for it. Professional poker players are often so worried about others reading their minds by reading their eyes that they wear sunglasses.

    Evolutionarily, it is easy to see why it is to your advantage to be able to tell with maximum certainty where I am looking. You may use this information to detect food you wouldn't otherwise have seen, or to detect the dominant male approaching in a fighting mood.

    But evolution cannot select the color of my eyes based on advantages to you. Evolutionary theory tells us that, in general, the only individuals who are around today are those whose ancestors did things that were beneficial to their own survival and reproduction. If I have eyes whose direction is especially easy to follow, it must be of some advantage to me.

    If I am, in effect, advertising the direction of my eyes, I must be in a social environment full of others who are not often inclined to take advantage of this to my detriment — by, say, beating me to the food or escaping aggression before me. Indeed, I must be in a cooperative social environment in which others following the direction of my eyes somehow benefits me.

    Of course, it's possible that having large whites of the eyes serves some other purpose, like enabling me to advertise my good health to potential mates. But such an advantage would apply to other primates as well. Cooperation, on the other hand, singles out humans, as humans coordinate activities to do such things as construct buildings, create social institutions and even, paradoxically, organize armies for war.

    In a recent experiment, our research team has shown that even infants — at around their first birthdays, before language acquisition has begun — tend to follow the direction of another person's eyes, not their heads. Thus, when an adult looked to the ceiling with her eyes only, head remaining straight ahead, infants looked to the ceiling in turn. However, when the adult closed her eyes and pointed her head to the ceiling, infants did not very often follow.

    Our nearest primate relatives, the African great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas) showed precisely the opposite pattern of gaze following. When the human pointed her eyes only to the ceiling (head remaining straight ahead), they followed only rarely. But when she pointed her head only (eyes closed) to the ceiling, they followed much more often.

    It has been repeatedly demonstrated that all great apes, including humans, follow the gaze direction of others. But in previous studies the head and eyes were always pointed in the same direction. Only when we made the head and eyes point in different directions did we find a species difference: humans are sensitive to the direction of the eyes specifically in a way that our nearest primate relatives are not. This is the first demonstration of an actual behavioral function for humans' uniquely visible eyes.

    Why might it have been advantageous for some early humans to advertise their eye direction in a way that enabled others to determine what they were looking at more easily? One possible answer, what we have called the cooperative eye hypothesis, is that especially visible eyes made it easier to coordinate close-range collaborative activities in which discerning where the other was looking and perhaps what she was planning, benefited both participants.

    If we are gathering berries to share, with one of us pulling down a branch and the other harvesting the fruit, it would be useful — especially before language evolved — for us to coordinate our activities and communicate our plans, using our eyes and perhaps other visually based gestures.

    Infant research, too, suggests that coordinating visual attention may have provided the foundation for the evolution of human language. Babies begin to acquire language through joint activities with others, in which both parties are focused on the same object or task. That's the best time for an infant to learn the word for the object or activity in question.

    We are still a long way from figuring out why humans evolved to do so many complicated things together — from building houses to creating universities to fighting wars. But the simple fact that we have evolved highly visible eyes, to which infants attune even before language, supplies at least one small piece of the puzzle of how.



Michael Tomasello is the co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

February 3, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Internet radio: Over 10,000 stations — and more every day


Hey, joe, that's great and all but where do I go to find them?


That's why we're here.


shoutcast.com, radio-locator.com and live365.com should provide more than enough in the way of free entertainment for everyone everywhere.

February 3, 2007 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

'Distress' — by Greg Egan


A wonderful 1995 science fiction novel, set in 2055.

From the book's very first words — "All right. He's dead. Go ahead and talk to him." — you know you're in for something different.

[Not too] long story (454 pages — but the print's big) short: A mysterious syndrome called Distress — in which people begin to speak in tongues and twitch and flail, then die — starts to appear sporadically around our planet.

At the same time scientists, building on the Standard Unified Field Theory of 2036, appear to be closing in on a Theory of Everything (TOE) and a global conference is set to offer the latest thinking on such by the world's greatest scientists.

Distress and the imminent TOE turn out to be causally related, and our hero, investigative reporter Andrew Worth, makes it his business to find out how and why.

The two giant news channels on Earth are TechnoLalia and SeeNet; a number of Ignorance Cults with names like Humble Science!, Culture First and Mystical Renaissance have great power and influence, trash journalists are known as murdochs and the self-involved rich as trumps.

Quite compelling is the standard accessory of the mid-21st-century, the notepad.

It's voice-controlled and relates its information etc. the same way, along with a high-resolution, 3-D color screen to illustrate things as needed.

Built into the notepad are Sisyphus, a knowledge-mining program; Witness, which allows an individual's eyes and ears to channel their input into an essentially infinite memory to record as desired; and Hermes, communications software which serves as a control-point for information in and out.

All input is automatically uploaded via satellite so that nothing is ever lost; losing one's notepad is thus no big deal, as you go into any dealer (they're everywhere), buy a new one and in a few seconds download your life via satellite, ready to go on where you were.

Sure beats transferring your files, settings, passwords, etc. via FireWire or whatever.

But I digress.

    From the novel:

    I hung my clothes on the cleaning rack, and switched on the power. The polymers in the various fabrics expelled all their moisture in a faint humid exhalation, then packed the remaining dirt and dried sweat into a fine, loose dust, and discarded it electrostatically. I watched it drift down into the receptacle; it was always the same disconcerting blue — something to do with particle size.

    The pharm began to hum softly, creating a sedative tailored to my current biochemical state, in a dose in accordance with my intended sleeping time. The synthesizer inside used an array of programmable catalysts, ten billion electronically configurable enzymes bound to a semiconducter chip. Immersed in a small tank of precursor molecules, the chip could assemble a few milligrams of any one of ten thousand drugs. Or at least, any of the ones for which I had software, for as long as kept paying the license fees.

    My three-year-old 2052 Affine Graphics editing console was incapable of destroying anything. Every shot I downloaded was burnt into two independent write-once memory chips — and also encrypted and sent automatically to archives in Mandela, Stockholm, and Toronto.

    I didn't really envy my analog-era counterparts, though; the painstaking mechanics of their craft would have driven me mad. The slowest step in digital editing was human decision-making, and I'd learned to get most judgments right by the tenth or twelfth attempt. Software could tweak the rhythms of a scene, fine-tune every cut, finesse the sound, remove unwanted passers-by; even shift whole buildings, if necessary. The mechanics was all taken care of; there was nothing to distract from the content.

    The console delivered it in the diction profile I'd chosen..., cloned from samples of an English actor named Juliet Stevenson. The long-vanished "Standard English" pronunciation — unlike any contemporary UK accent — remained easily comprehensible across the vast Anglophone world. Any viewer who wished to hear a different voice could cross-translate at will....

    I'd heard that London had suffered badly from the coming of the networks, but was less of a ghost town than Sydney. The Ruins were more extensive, but they were being exploited far more diligently; even the last glass-and-aluminum towers built for bankers and stockbrokers at the turn of the millenium, and the last of the "high tech" printing presses which had "revolutionized" newspaper publishing (before becoming completely obsolete), had been labeled "historic," and taken under the wing of the tourism industry.

    Disinhibitors were non-toxic and non-addictive. They created a mild sensation of well-being, and increased the effort required for considered thought — rather like a moderate dose of alcohol or cannabis, with few of the side effects. Their concentration in the bloodstream was self-limiting — above a certain level, the molecule catalyzed its own destruction — so taking a whole bottle was exactly the same as swallowing a single D.

    "I'm not a member of any Ignorance Cult. And I'm afraid you're twenty years out of date if you think sociology is some kind of hotbed fro Humble Science! or Mystical Renaissance. In academia, they're all in the History Departments now." Her expression softened to a kind of weary resignation. "We still get all the flak, though. It's unbelievable: a couple of badly-framed studies from the nineteen eighties still get thrown in my face by medical researchers, as if I was personally responsible."

    "I believe we have to take a difficult stand and declare: the probablities just don't matter. Forget the hypothetical ensemble of other universes. Forget the need to fine-tune the Big Bang. This universe does exist. The probability of our being here is one hundred percent. We have to take that as a given, instead of bending over backward trying to contrive assumptions which do their best to conceal the fact of that certainty."

    My testimony had been recorded to international judicial standards: each frame stamped with a centrally generated time code, and an encrypted copy lodged with Interpol. I was invited to scan through the file to verify that there'd been no tampering, before I electronically signed it. I checked a dozen points at random; I wasn't going to view the whole three hours.

    Then I felt a gentle stirring of the humid air, and the blackness of the entrance disgorged a machine. I flinched, but stood my ground; if it had wanted me dead, I would never have seen it coming. The thing betrayed a flickering succession of partial outlines as it moved — faint but consistent distortions of the light which the eye seized as edges — but once it halted, I was left staring at nothing but afterimages and guesswork. A six-legged robot, three meters high? Actively computing my view of its surroundings and programming an optically active sheath to match luminosities? No — more than that. It stood protruding halfway into the floodlit forecourt, without even casting a shadow — which meant it was realtime holographing the blocked light sources, its polymer skin lasing out a perfectly matched substitute beam, wavefront by wavefront.... This was alpha military tech, costing millions.

February 3, 2007 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

MorphWorld: Priscilla Lane into Hayden Panettierre


Ms. Lane (below


and above), who was 26* when she starred in Frank Capra's 1944 film "Arsenic and Old Lace," is indeed quite the predecessor of the 17-year-old Ms. Panettiere (below),


currently headlining


in "Heroes."

*The film was actually shot in 1941 when Ms. Lane was 26 but not released until 1944.

[via idea]

February 3, 2007 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

BehindTheMedspeak: Human Metabolome Project


Scientists have just announced that the first phase is complete.

Hey, joe, wait a minute — what the heck is the Human Metabolome Project?

Long story short, from the January 30, 2007 New York Times Science section:

"Metabolome, as in the metabolites and other compounds produced or found in humans — the body's chemical fingerprints.

"In the two-year, $7.5 million project, scientists at the University of Alberta and the University of Calgary have compiled a database of 2,500 metabolites, 1,200 drugs and 3,500 food-related compounds. The information, they say, will help in the diagnosis and monitoring of disease."

Online resources include:

Human Metabolome Database

Human Metabolite Library


February 3, 2007 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

floppydisk.com — 'Because it's all about the data'


The front page of the February 1, 2007 Washington Post Style section featured an appreciation by Jose Antonio Vargas of the soon-to-be obsolete floppy disk.

He noted that PC World, one of Europe's largest computer retailers, this past week declared that once its current stock of floppies was gone, they would no longer be sold.

Thankfully, for those who prefer the old ways, floppydisk.com exists.

57-year-old Tom Persky runs it, and offers everything floppy-related as well as transfer services to move your floppies' information to CDs.

He said he has 2 million floppy disks in his office in Orange County, California and that "business is strong."

February 3, 2007 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

'Best. Press. Conference. Ever.'

Above, the headline of Jason Canfora's story in yesterday's Washington Post Sports section about Prince's Super Bowl Preview press conference — in which a live concert (above) unexpectedly broke out — on Thursday afternoon, February 1, 2007.

I was fortunate enough to catch it live on TV so I quickly turned up the volume and enjoyed the preview of the upcoming Super Bowl's halftime show featuring the purple master (who appeared clad head-to-toe in Chicago Bears orange).

Karen Crouse of the New York Times loved it too; her story's here.

February 3, 2007 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Wall Protector


From the website:

    Wall Protector

    No More Doorknob Dents

    Prevent unsightly holes and damage from a doorknob hitting the wall.

    Clear protectors are almost invisible once in place, so they won’t detract from your decor.

    Each 2¼" dia. peel-n-stick Wall Protector goes up in seconds.

    Engineered to absorb shock.


Two for $5.95 (doorknobs not included).

February 3, 2007 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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