Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

A South Korean company says it has taken its first order for the cloning of a pet dog.

February 16, 2008
First order for pet dog cloning

A South Korean company says it has taken its first order for the cloning of a pet dog. A woman from the United States wants her dead pitbull terrier – called Booger – re-created.

RNL Bio is charging the woman, from California, $150,000 (£76,000) to clone the pitbull using tissue extracted from its ear before it died.

The work will be carried out by a team from Seoul National University, where the first dog was cloned in 2005.

Commercial cloning

RNL Bio says this is the first time a dog will have been cloned commercially.

“There are many people who want to clone their pet dogs in Western countries even at this high price,” company chief executive, Ra Jeong-chan, told the Korea Times.

  The cost of cloning a dog may come down to less than $50,000
Cho Seong-Ryul, RNL Bio
The firm is expecting hundreds more orders for pets over the next few years and also plans to clone dogs trained to sniff out bombs or drugs.

One out of every four surrogate mother dogs produces puppies, according to RNL Bio’s marketing director, Cho Seong-ryul.

“The cost of cloning a dog may come down to less than $50,000 as cloning is becoming an industry,” he said.

Dog attack

The pitbull’s owner, Bernann McKunney, gave the company ear tissue, which an American biotech firm preserved before the animal died 18 months ago.

She is said to have been particularly attached to the dog, after it saved her life when another dog attacked her and bit off her arm.

The university’s team is led by Professor Lee Byeong-chun, who was previously in a team headed by the disgraced stem cell scientist, Hwang Woo-suk.

Mr Hwang’s results on cloning human stem cells, initially hailed as a breakthrough, were found to have been falsified and he is now on trial charged with embezzlement and fake research.

But the team did succeed in creating the world’s first cloned dog two years ago – an Afghan hound named Snuppy.

They continued with the programme, cloning more dogs and also producing clones of Korean grey wolves.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2008/02/15 11:49:45 GMT



Gay By Choice? The Science of Sexual Identity

September 12, 2007

Gay By Choice? The Science of Sexual Identity
If science proves sexual orientation is more fluid than we’ve been led to believe, can homosexuality still be a protected right? Gary Greenberg
August 27 , 2007

when he leaves his tidy apartment in an ocean-side city somewhere in America, Aaron turns on the radio to a light rock station. “For the cat,” he explains, “so she won’t get lonely.” He’s short and balding and dressed mostly in black, and right before I turn on the recorder, he asks me for the dozenth time to guarantee that I won’t reveal his name or anything else that might identify him. “I don’t want to be a target for gay activists,” he says as we head out into the misty day. “Harassment like that I just don’t need.”

Aaron sets a much brisker pace down the boardwalk than you would expect of a doughy 51-year-old, and once convinced I’ll respect his anonymity, he turns out to be voluble. Over the crash of the waves, he spares no details as he describes how much he hated the fact that he was gay, how the last thing in the world he wanted to do was act on his desire to have sex with another man. “I’m going to be perfectly blatant about it,” he says. “I’m not going to have anal intercourse or give or receive any BJs either, okay?” He managed to maintain his celibacy through college and into adulthood. But when, in the late 1980s, he found himself so “insanely jealous” of his roommate’s girlfriend that he had to move out, he knew the time had come to do something. One of the few people who knew that Aaron was gay showed him an article in Newsweek about a group offering “reparative therapy”—psychological treatment for people who want to become “ex-gay.”

“It turns out that I didn’t have the faintest idea what love was,” he says. That’s not all he didn’t know. He also didn’t know that his same-sex attraction, far from being inborn and inescapable, was a thirst for the love that he had not received from his father, a cold and distant man prone to angry outbursts, coupled with a fear of women kindled by his intrusive and overbearing mother, all of which added up to a man who wanted to have sex with other men just so he could get some male attention. He didn’t understand any of this, he tells me, until he found a reparative therapist whom he consulted by phone for nearly 10 years, attended weekend workshops, and learned how to “be a man.”

Aaron interrupts himself to eye a woman in shorts jogging by. “Sometimes there are very good-looking women at this boardwalk,” he says. “Especially when they’re not bundled up.” He remembers when he started noticing women’s bodies, a few years into his therapy. “The first thing I noticed was their legs. The curve of their legs.” He’s dated women, had sex with them even, although “I was pretty awkward,” he says. “It just didn’t work.” Aaron has a theory about this: “I never used my body in a sexual way. I think the men who actually act it out have a greater success in terms of being sexual with women than the men who didn’t act it out.” Not surprisingly, he’s never had a long-term relationship, and he’s pessimistic about his prospects. “I can’t make that jump from having this attraction to doing something about it.” But, he adds, it’s wrong to think “if you don’t make it with women, then you haven’t changed.” The important thing is that “now I like myself. I’m not emotionally shut down. I’m comfortable in my own body. I don’t have to be drawn to men anymore. I’m content at this point to lead an asexual life, which is what I’ve done for most of my life anyway.” He adds, “I’m a very detached person.”

It’s raining a little now. We stop walking so I can tuck the microphone under the flap of Aaron’s shirt pocket, and I feel him recoil as I fiddle with his button. I’m remembering his little cubicle of an apartment, its unlived-in feel, and thinking that he may be the sort of guy who just doesn’t like anyone getting too close, but it’s also possible that therapy has taught him to submerge his desire so deep that he’s lost his motive for intimacy.

That’s the usual interpretation of reparative therapy—that to the extent that it does anything, it leads people to repress rather than change their natural inclinations, that its claims to change sexual orientation are an outright fraud perpetrated by the religious right on people who have internalized the homophobia of American society, personalized the political in such a way as to reject their own sexuality and stunt their love lives. But Aaron scoffs at these notions, insisting that his wish to go straight had nothing to do with right-wing religion or politics—he’s a nonobservant Jew and a lifelong Democrat who volunteered for George McGovern, has a career in public service, and thinks George Bush is a war criminal. It wasn’t a matter of ignorance—he has an advanced degree—and it really wasn’t a psychopathological thing—he rejects the idea that he’s ever suffered from internalized homophobia. He just didn’t want to be gay, and, like millions of Americans dissatisfied with their lives, he sought professional help and reinvented himself.

Self-reconstruction is what people in my profession (I am a practicing psychotherapist) specialize in, but when it comes to someone like Aaron, most of us draw the line. All the major psychotherapy guilds have barred their members from researching or practicing reparative therapy on the grounds that it is inherently unethical to treat something that is not a disease, that it contributes to oppression by pathologizing homosexuality, and that it is dangerous to patients whose self-esteem can only suffer when they try to change something about themselves that they can’t (and shouldn’t have to) change. Aaron knows this, of course, which is why he’s at great pains to prove he’s not pulling a Ted Haggard. For if he’s not a poseur, then he is a walking challenge to the political and scientific consensus that has emerged over the last century and a half: that sexual orientation is inborn and immutable, that efforts to change it are bound to fail, and that discrimination against gay people is therefore unjust.

But as crucial as this consensus has been to the struggle for gay rights, it may not be as sound as some might wish. While scientists have found intriguing biological differences between gay and straight people, the evidence so far stops well short of proving that we are born with a sexual orientation that we will have for life. Even more important, some research shows that sexual orientation is more fluid than we have come to think, that people, especially women, can and do move across customary sexual orientation boundaries, that there are ex-straights as well as ex-gays. Much of this research has stayed below the radar of the culture warriors, but reparative therapists are hoping to use it to enter the scientific mainstream and advocate for what they call the right of self-determination in matters of sexual orientation. If they are successful, gay activists may soon find themselves scrambling to make sense of a new scientific and political landscape.

In 1838, a 20-year-old Hungarian killed himself and left a suicide note for Karl Benkert, a 14-year-old bookseller’s apprentice in Budapest whom he had befriended. In it he explained that he had been cleaned out by a blackmailer who was now threatening to expose his homosexuality, and that he couldn’t face either the shame or the potential legal trouble that would follow. Benkert, who eventually became a writer, moved to Vienna, and changed his name to Karoly Maria Kertbeny, later said that the tragedy left him with “an instinctive drive to take issue with every injustice.” And in 1869, a particularly resonant injustice occurred: A penal code proposed for Prussia included an anti-sodomy law much like the one that had given his friend’s extortionist his leverage. Kertbeny published a pamphlet in protest, writing that the state’s attempt to control consensual sex between men was a violation of the fundamental rights of man. Nature, he argued, had divided the human race into four sexual types: “monosexuals,” who masturbated, “heterogenits,” who had sex with animals, “heterosexuals,” who coupled with the opposite sex, and “homosexuals,” who preferred people of the same sex. Kertbeny couldn’t have known that of all his literary output, these latter two words would be his only lasting legacy. But while homosexual conduct had occurred throughout history, the idea that it reflected fundamental differences between people, that gay people were a sexual subspecies, was a new one.

Kertbeny wasn’t alone in creating a sexual taxonomy. Another anti-sodomy-law opponent, lawyer Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, proposed that homosexual men, or “Uranians,” as he called them (and he openly considered himself a Uranian, while Kertbeny was coy about his preferences), were actually a third sex, their attraction to other men a manifestation of the female soul residing in their male bodies. Whatever the theoretical differences between Ulrichs and Kertbeny, they agreed on one crucial point: that sexual behavior was the expression of an identity into which we were born, a natural variation of the human. In keeping with the post-Enlightenment notion that we are morally culpable only for what we are free to choose, homosexuals were not to be condemned or restricted by the state. Indeed, this was Kertbeny and Ulrichs’ purpose: Sexual orientation, as we have come to call this biological essence, was invented in order to secure freedom for gay people.

But replacing morality with biology, and the scrutiny of church and state with the observations of science, invited a different kind of condemnation. By the end of the 19th century, homosexuality was increasingly the province of psychiatrists like Magnus Hirschfeld, a gay Jewish Berliner. Hirschfeld was an outspoken opponent of anti-sodomy laws and championed tolerance of gay people, but he also believed that homosexuality was a pathological state, a congenital deformity of the brain that may have been the result of a parental “degeneracy” that nature intended to eliminate by making the defective population unlikely to reproduce. Even Sigmund Freud, who thought people were “polymorphously perverse” by nature and urged tolerance for homosexuality, believed heterosexuality was essential to maturity and psychological health.

Freud was pessimistic that homosexuality could be treated, but doctors abhor an illness without a cure, and the 20th century saw therapists inflict the best of modern psychiatric practice on gay people, which included, in addition to interminable psychoanalysis and unproven medications, treatments that used electric shock to associate pain with same-sex attraction. These therapies were largely unsuccessful, and, particularly after the Stonewall riots of 1969—the clash between police and gays that initiated the modern gay rights movement—patients and psychiatrists alike started questioning whether homosexuality should be considered a mental illness at all. Gay activists, some of them psychiatrists, disrupted the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association for three years in a row, until in 1973 a deal was brokered. The apa would delete homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (dsm) immediately, and furthermore it would add a new disease: sexual orientation disorder, in which a patient can’t accept his or her sexual identity. The culprit in sod was an oppressive society, and the cure for sod was to help the gay patient overcome oppression and accept who he or she really was. (sod has since been removed from the dsm.)

The apa cited various scientific papers in making its decision, but many members were convinced that the move was a dangerous corruption of science by politics. “If groups of people march and raise enough hell, they can change anything in time,” one psychiatrist worried. “Will schizophrenia be next?” And their impression was confirmed when the final decision was made not in a laboratory but at the ballot box, where the membership voted by a six-point margin to authorize the apa to delete the diagnosis of homosexuality. It may be the first time in history that a disease was eliminated by the stroke of a pen. It was certainly the first time that psychiatrists determined that the cause of a mental illness was an intolerant society. And it was a crucial moment for gay people, at once getting the psychiatrists out of their bedrooms and giving the weight of science to Kertbeny and Ulrichs’ claim that homosexuality was an identity, like race or national origin, that deserved protection.

three decades later, at least one group is still raising hell about the deletion: the National Association for the Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (narth), an organization founded by Charles Socarides, a psychiatrist who led the opposition to the 1973 apa vote. “They will wipe the floor with us,” Socarides (who died in 2005) once said, “but we will wear our wounds as badges of courage,” and at narth‘s November 2006 national meeting in Orlando, Socarides’ firebrand rhetoric is still in the air. You hear it when Joe and Marian Allen take to the lectern to tell us how God has called them to “give testimony” about their gay son who was murdered by his lover, a tragedy that they manage to twist into a cautionary tale about what happens when a “struggler” is told by a “well-meaning therapist” that he was “born gay” and can’t change it. Or when a minion of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family cheerfully explains the Gay Agenda to me: “It’s doing whatever you want, whenever you want, with whoever you want, wherever you want.”

“Well, just for the sake of argument,” I ask, “what’s wrong with that?”

“I’m sure the people who follow that agenda believe what they believe, but they don’t realize that they’re pawns in a great cosmic battle, that they are perpetrating a lie.”

“Pawns of?…”

“Satan,” he informs me, “is the author of lies, chaos, and confusion.”

But the men of narth (nearly all the 75 attendees are white men) aren’t spewing nearly as much hellfire and brimstone as I expected. They do seem to hug a lot—many reparative therapists are ex-gay themselves, and, someone explains, part of being ex-gay is learning to be same-sex affectionate without being same-sex sexual—and maybe some of those hugs last a little too long, but it’s mostly like every other convention: bad coffee, worse Danish, dry-as-dust lectures. narth‘s president-elect, A. Dean Byrd, a psychologist and professor at University of Utah Medical School, methodically lays out his case that sexual orientation is malleable in his daylong seminar on how to treat unwanted same-sex attraction.

If narth‘s strategy is to seek a place at the table by demonstrating its scientific seriousness, Byrd’s modulated approach, tedious as it may be, is just what the doctor ordered. Sometimes he’s puckish—as when he says, “When it comes to homosexuality, I’m pro-choice”—a comment sure to get a rise out of a crowd well versed in the other moral disaster of 1973—and sometimes glib (“the proper answer to the nature/nurture question is yes”), but mostly he’s just workmanlike as he reviews the research—much of it, he is delighted to point out, conducted by the “activists themselves.” He cites a study from Denmark—the first place that legalized civil unions and perhaps, he says, the most gay-friendly place in the world—in which gay people turned out to have mental illness at a higher rate than straights, which proves, he says, that an intolerant society is not the culprit when gay people suffer. He describes studies that show that the identical twin brother of a gay man has only a 50 percent chance of being gay himself, which may be twice the rate among fraternal twins, but still, he argues, far from the 100 percent you would expect if sexual orientation is purely genetic. He even shows us video of one of his treatment sessions, and gives a plausible-sounding assessment of the prospects for patients of reparative therapists—that one-third of them will become heterosexual, one-third will remain gay, and one-third will move a few notches along the Kinsey scale, enough to leave the lifestyle and limit their unwanted feelings and behavior.

Byrd, like everyone else here, is very excited about an article that appeared in Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2003. It was a small study—200 subjects—but it concluded that gay people could indeed change their sexual orientation, that the change was not merely religiously motivated repression or politically motivated bluster but rather some fundamental shift in desire. The researcher concluded that even the people who showed little benefit from reparative therapy didn’t seem to be harmed by it, and that much more research needed to be done. The study was full of caveats and received withering criticism from scientists who claimed that it relied on a skewed sample—mostly people handpicked by reparative therapists like Byrd—but it had passed peer review, and, even more importantly, it had been conducted by none other than Robert Spitzer, the same psychiatrist who had brokered the deal that deleted homosexuality from the dsm.

Spitzer also called for an end to the ban on research into reparative therapy, and one psychologist who has taken him up on that call is welcomed in Orlando like a conquering hero. Elan Karten is an unassuming young man who wears a yarmulke and recently got a doctorate from Fordham after writing a dissertation on ex-gay men. Karten only got the go-ahead for his study by positioning it as an inquiry into the type of people who seek reparative therapy rather than as an exploration of its efficacy. He did manage to sneak in some of that research as well, and reached conclusions similar to Spitzer’s—though peer reviewers objecting that it revives the notion that homosexuality is a mental illness have thus far prevented Karten, an academic unknown, from publishing his work.

By Saturday morning, gay activists have begun to gather outside the hotel to protest narth. We are instructed not to respond to them (“Sing a hymn or pray instead”) as they put on duck outfits, hoist their signs (Stop Ducking the Truth; narth Is Goofy), make quacking noises, and yell “Shame!” in our general direction. Byrd looks out the door, shakes his head, and laughs when a man behind him says, “Quack, quack? They’re the queer ducks.”

I wait until the foyer is empty before I head out to talk to Wayne Besen, a tall man in a polo shirt, who is pulling the props and costumes out of his car trunk. He runs Truth Wins Out, an organization devoted to debunking the research of the ex-gay movement. He minces no words about Spitzer’s research—”one of the most poorly constructed studies in the history of science, a travesty”—and he calls reparative therapy “intelligent design for gay people.” Besen thinks the stakes of the scientific battle are impossible to overstate. “Americans are not cruel. If they think that being gay is inborn and can’t be changed, they are going to be very sympathetic to full equality for gay people,” he says. “We win this argument, the gay rights struggle would be done.”

Besen is sure that science is on the verge of giving gay people their slam dunk. After all, he says, study after study shows that homosexuality is biological in origin. In the last 15 years, researchers have discovered differences in brain anatomy between gay and straight men—and found that the 6 percent of rams that have sex exclusively with other rams (just one of hundreds of species in which homosexual behavior has been observed) have a similar neuroanatomical difference; identified a gene sequence on the X chromosome that is common to many gay men; traced genealogies to show that homosexuality runs in families, on the maternal side; proved that a man’s likelihood of being gay increases with the number of older brothers he has, which scientists attribute to changes in intrauterine chemistry; and learned how to use magnetic resonance imaging to detect sexual orientation by watching the brain’s response to pornography. Findings in the field of anthropometrics have yielded intriguing results: Gay men’s index fingers, for instance, are more likely than straight men’s to be equal in length to their ring fingers; gay men have larger penises than straight men. These findings all seem to support Besen’s contention that being gay is essentially biological and should remain beyond the reach of law, morals, or medicine.

But some activists are more reluctant than Besen to rely on this line of reasoning. “One thing I find troubling within the gay community is a lot of people feel if they can make that claim strongly enough that’s going to give them equal rights,” Sean Cahill, former director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, told me. “But I don’t think it really matters,” he says, pointing out that believing that sexual orientation is biological doesn’t cause one to support gay rights. Indeed, many social scientists think that the beliefs are merely correlated, that people who hold one tend to hold the other.

Some gay rights lawyers point out that whatever biology’s role in sexual orientation, it should not be legally paramount. The Supreme Court has ruled that the immutability of a group’s identifying characteristics is one of the criteria that entitle it to heightened protection from discrimination (and some cases establishing gay rights were decided in part on those grounds), but, according to Suzanne Goldberg, director of the Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic at Columbia Law School, there’s a far more fundamental reason for courts to protect gay people. “Sexual orientation does not bear on a person’s ability to contribute to society,” she notes. “We don’t need the science to make that point.” Jon Davidson, legal director of Lambda Legal, agrees, adding that if courts are going to ask about immutability, they shouldn’t focus on biology. Instead they should focus on how sexual orientation is so deeply woven into a person’s identity that it is inseparable from who they are. In this respect, Davidson says, sexual orientation is like another core aspect of identity that is clearly not biological in origin: religion. “It doesn’t matter whether you were born that way, it came later, or you chose,” he says. “We don’t think it’s okay to discriminate against people based on their religion. We think people have a right to believe whatever they want. So why do we think that about religion and not about who we love?”

Cahill—who says he doesn’t think he was born gay—points out that even if it is crucial for public support, essentialism has a dark side: the remedicalization of homosexuality, this time as a biological condition that can be treated. Michael Bailey, a Northwestern University psychologist who has conducted some of the key studies of the genetics of sexual orientation, infuriated the gay and lesbian community with a paper arguing that, should prenatal markers of homosexuality be identified, parents ought to have the right to abort potentially gay fetuses. “It’s reminiscent of eugenicist theories,” Cahill tells me. “If it’s seen as an undesirable trait, it could lead in some creepy directions.” These could include not only abortion, but also gene therapy or modulating uterine hormone levels to prevent the birth of a gay child.

Psychology professor Lisa Diamond may have the best reason of all for activists to shy away from arguing that homosexuality is inborn and immutable: It’s not exactly true. She doesn’t dispute the findings that show a biological role in sexual orientation, but she thinks far too much is made of them. “The notion that if something is biological, it is fixed—no biologist on the planet would make that sort of assumption,” she told me from her office at the University of Utah. Not only that, she says, but the research—which is conducted almost exclusively on men—hinges on a very narrow definition of sexual orientation: “It’s what makes your dick go up. I think most women would disagree with that definition,” she says, not only because it obviously excludes them, but because sexual orientation is much more complex than observable aspects of sexuality. “An erection is an erection,” she says, “but we have almost no information about what is actually going on in terms of the subjective experience of desire.”

Diamond has spent the last 12 years doing her part to fill in this gap by following a group of 79 women who originally described themselves as nonheterosexual, and she’s found that sexual orientation is much more fluid than activists like Besen believe. “Contrary to this notion that gay people struggle with their identity in childhood and early adolescence, then come out and ride off into the sunset,” she says, “the more time goes on, the more variability comes out. Women change their identities and find their attractions changing.” In the first year of her study, 43 percent of her subjects identified themselves as lesbian, 30 percent as bisexual, and 27 percent as unlabeled. By year 10, those percentages had changed significantly: 30 percent said they were lesbian, 29 percent said they were bisexual, 22 percent wouldn’t label themselves, and 7 percent said they were now straight (the remaining 12 percent had left the study). Across the entire group, Diamond found that only 58 percent of her subjects’ sexual partners were women; in year eight, even the women who identified as lesbians reported that between 10 and 20 percent of their sexual partners were men. Diamond concludes that the categorization of women into gay, straight, and bisexual misses an important fact: that they move back and forth among these categories, and that the fluidity that allows them to do so is as crucial a variable in sexual development as their orientation.

Diamond cautions that it’s important not to confuse plasticity—the capacity for sexual orientation to change—with choice—the ability to change it at will. “Trying to change your attractions doesn’t work very well, but you can change the structure of your social life, and that might lead to changes in the feelings you experience.” This is a time-honored way of handling unwanted sexual feelings, she points out. “Jane Austen made a career out of this: People fall in love with a person of the wrong social class. What do you do? You get yourself out of those situations.” For the women in Diamond’s study who tell her, “‘I hate straight society, I don’t want to be straight,'” Austen’s solution is an effective treatment for unwanted other-sex attraction. “If you’re around women all the time and you are never around men, you are probably going to be more attracted to women,” she says. Such women sometimes end up falling in love with women, and their sexual feelings follow. And it can work the other way, Diamond says: Women who identify themselves as gay or bisexual sometimes find themselves, to their own surprise, in love with men with whom they then become sexual partners. Indeed, she says, “love has no sexual orientation.”

Which isn’t all that different from what they say at narth—that people like Aaron who hate the gay lifestyle and don’t want to be gay should leave the gay bars, do regular guy things with men, and put themselves in the company of women for romance. And indeed the narthites know all about Diamond’s work. “We know that straight people become gays and lesbians,” narth‘s outgoing president Joseph Nicolosi told the group gathered in Orlando. “So it seems totally reasonable that some gay and lesbian people would become straight. The issue is whether therapy changes sexual orientation. People grow and change as a result of life experiences, especially personal relationships. Why then can’t the experience of therapy and the relationship with the therapist also effect change?” Diamond calls this interpretation a “misuse” of her research—”the fluidity I’ve observed does not mean that reparative therapy works”—but what is really being misused, she says, is science. “We live in a culture where people disagree vehemently about whether or not sexual minorities deserve equal rights,” she told me. “People cling to this idea that science can provide the answers, and I don’t think it can. I think in some ways it’s dangerous for the lesbian and gay community to use biology as a proxy for that debate.”

aaron doesn’t put it this way, but he thinks of himself as a member of a sexual minority—not forced into the closet by an oppressive society, but living under the restrictive view that sexual orientation is a biological category, something we are born with and that is impossible to change. When I tell him about some of what I saw at narth—like when Nicolosi, recalling one of his antagonists at the apa convention, said, “I knew that she was a lesbian—I don’t know why; she was wearing a muscle shirt”—Aaron doesn’t defend the organization. He knows that narth doesn’t like gay people much (he’s attended one of their meetings). But he’s more concerned with a different kind of intolerance. “Not all homosexual men want to lead a gay lifestyle. Gay activists shouldn’t be threatened by that. I mean, here I am, as a liberal, telling gay people to accept diversity.”

narth spares no opportunity to claim that it is a victim of political correctness, silenced by a science that gay activists hijacked in 1973 and have exploited ever since. It’s a page right out of James Dobson’s playbook, but narth is right on at least one count: The complexity of sexual orientation surpasses the certainties of biology. To the extent that the struggle for gay rights rests on a scientific foundation, narth‘s strategy is bound to pay off. Gay activists will then be left to build on other sources of public sympathy, none of which has the appeal of science. After all, if sexual identity is more like religion than race, a matter of affiliation rather than birth, fluid rather than fixed, then finding a different basis for popular support—as well as for legislative and judicial protection—means confronting directly something Americans are perpetually confused about: the nature and boundaries of pleasure.

narth is perfectly positioned to exploit this confusion by arguing that sexual orientation can be influenced by environmental conditions, and that certain courses are less healthy than others. That’s how narthites justify their opposition to extending marriage and adoption rights to gay people: not because they abhor homosexuality, but because a gay-friendly world is one in which it is hard for gay people to recognize that they are suffering from a medical illness.

Of course, in deploying medical language to serve its strategic interests, narth is only following the lead of Kertbeny and Hirschfeld, the original gay activists, and their modern counterparts who, despite minimizing the importance of biology, resort to scientific rhetoric when it suits their purposes. “People can’t try to shut down a part of who they are,” says Sean Cahill. “I don’t think it’s healthy for people to change how their body and mind and heart work.”

But medicine, which is what we rely on to tell us what is “healthy,” will always seek to change the way people’s bodies and minds and hearts work; yesterday’s immutable state of nature is tomorrow’s disease to be cured. Medical science can only take its cues from the society whose curiosities it satisfies and whose confusions it investigates. It can never do the heavy political lifting required to tell us whether one way of living our lives is better than another. This is exactly why Kertbeny originated the notion of a biologically based sexual orientation, and, to the extent that society is more tolerant of homosexuality now than it was 150 years ago, that idea has been a success. But the ex-gay movement may be the signal that this invention has begun to outlive its usefulness, that sexuality, profoundly mysterious and irrational, will not be contained by our categories, that it is time to find reasons other than medical science to insist that people ought to be able to love whom they love.

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This article has been made possible by the Foundation for National Progress, the Investigative Fund of Mother Jones, and gifts from generous readers like you.

© 2007 The Foundation for National Progress

Gaping hole found in universe

August 24, 2007

Gaping hole found in universe

Fri Aug 24, 2007 12:49PM EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A giant hole in the Universe is devoid of galaxies, stars and even lacks dark matter, astronomers said on Thursday.

The team at the University of Minnesota said the void is nearly a billion light-years across and they have no idea why it is there.

“Not only has no one ever found a void this big, but we never even expected to find one this size,” said astronomy professor Lawrence Rudnick.

Writing in the Astrophysical Journal, Rudnick and colleagues Shea Brown and Liliya Williams said they were examining a cold spot using the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe satellite, and found the giant hole.

“We already knew there was something different about this spot in the sky,” Rudnick said. The region stood out as being colder in a survey of the Cosmic Microwave Background — the faint radio buzz left over from the Big Bang that gave birth to the Universe.

“What we’ve found is not normal, based on either observational studies or on computer simulations of the large-scale evolution of the Universe,” Williams said in a statement.

The astronomers said the region even appeared to lack dark matter, which cannot be seen directly but is usually detected by measuring gravitational forces.

The void is in a region of sky in the constellation Eridanus, southwest of Orion.

The researchers have posted images on the Internet at

What’s in a Name? Parsing the ‘God Particle,’ the Ultimate Metaphor

August 7, 2007

August 7, 2007


What’s in a Name? Parsing the ‘God Particle,’ the Ultimate Metaphor

We need to talk about the “God particle.”

Recently in this newspaper, I reported on the attempts by various small armies of physicists to discover an elementary particle central to the modern conception of nature. Technically it’s called the Higgs boson, after Peter Higgs, an English physicist who conceived of it in 1964. It is said to be responsible for endowing the other elementary particles in the universe with mass.

In a stroke of either public relations genius or disaster, Leon M. Lederman, the former director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, referred to the Higgs as “the God particle” in the book of the same name he published with the science writer Dick Teresi in 1993. To Dr. Lederman, it made metaphorical sense, he explained in the book, because the Higgs mechanism made it possible to simplify the universe, resolving many different seeming forces into one, like tearing down the Tower of Babel. Besides, his publisher complained, nobody had ever heard of the Higgs particle.

In some superficial ways, the Higgs has lived up to its name. Several Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work on the so-called Standard Model, of which the Higgs is the central cog. Billions of dollars are being spent on particle accelerators and experiments to find it, inspect it and figure out how it really works.

But physicists groan when they hear it referred to as the “God particle” in newspapers and elsewhere (and the temptation to repeat it, given science reporters’ desperate need for colorful phrases in an abstract and daunting field, is irresistible). Even when these physicists approve of what you have written about their craft, they grumble that the media are engaging in sensationalism, or worse.

Last week a reader accused me of trying to attract religiously inclined readers by throwing out “God meat” for them.

It was not the first time that I had been accused of using religion to sell science. Or was it using science to sell religion?

Last year, I described the onset five billion years ago of dark energy, the mysterious force that seems to be accelerating the expansion of the cosmos, with the words “as if God had turned on an antigravity machine.”

More people than I had expected wrote in wanting to know why I had ruined a perfectly good article by dragging mythical deities into it.

My guide in all of this, of course, the biggest name-dropper in science, is Albert Einstein, who mentioned God often enough that one could imagine he and the “Old One” had a standing date for coffee or tennis. To wit: “The Lord is subtle, but malicious he is not.”

Or this quote regarding the pesky randomness of quantum mechanics: “The theory yields much, but it hardly brings us closer to the Old One’s secrets. I, in any case, am convinced that He does not play dice.”

With Einstein, we always knew where he stood in relation to “God” — it was shorthand for the mystery and rationality of nature, the touchstones of the scientific experience. Cosmic mystery, Einstein said, is the most beautiful experience we can have, “the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”

“He who does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement,” he continued, “is as good as a snuffed-out candle.”

If we didn’t already have a name for the object of Einstein’s “cosmic religion,” we would have to invent one. It’s just too bad that the name has been tainted and trivialized by association with the image of a white-bearded Caucasian-looking creature who sits in the clouds attended by harp-strumming angels.

If Einstein were around today, he would likely be scolded every other time he opened his metaphor-laden mouth for giving aid and comfort to the creationists. Indeed, the architects of intelligent design have not been shy about interpreting his aversion to divine dice playing and a remark wondering if God had any choice in creating the world, as support for an intelligent designer. Einstein didn’t mean it that way, of course. He was only using a metaphor to wonder if it was possible to build more than one logically consistent universe. That’s a question that still provokes hot debate.

As it happened, Dr. Lederman’s book came out about the time that creationism was on the rise in this country, and “my colleagues gave me hell,” as he put it in a recent e-mail message.

Neither time nor criticism seems to have dimmed Dr. Lederman’s taste for metaphor or sense of humor. Only two weeks ago, he titled an article about particle physics “The God Particle, Et Al.” Well, O.K., he had a book to sell.

It’s not easy to stand up for a moniker as over the top as the one that Dr. Lederman used — one we are likely to hear again and again in the next couple of years as the generation-long hunt for the Higgs particle reaches a climax. But I have to applaud Dr. Lederman’s spirit. Historians have suggested that it was a mistake for the antiwar movement of the 1960s to yield the flag — a powerful symbol of patriotism — to the war’s supporters, and likewise I think it would be a mistake for scientists to yield such a powerful metaphor to creationists and religious fundamentalists.

The Higgs particle is not God, but as theorized it is a piece of the sublime beauty of nature that had Einstein figuratively on his knees. I can’t prove it, but I can’t help wondering if Einstein, a man with what the geneticist Barbara McClintock called “a feeling for the organism” — in this case the universe — was aided in his intuition by being able to personify nature in such a familiar and irreverent way.

Is there a God who worries about the flight of every sparrow? Einstein said that was a naïve and even abhorrent idea.

Do I believe the universe is a mystery? Absolutely. Is that mystery ultimately explicable? Intellectual empires from Plato to Einstein have been founded on that presumption, bold and optimistic as it is, and I wouldn’t advise betting against it.

In the meantime, I wouldn’t dream of depriving any future Einstein of his or her rhetorical or metaphorical tools.

Not to mention myself.

Who’s Minding the Mind?

July 31, 2007

July 31, 2007

Who’s Minding the Mind?

In a recent experiment, psychologists at Yale altered people’s judgments of a stranger by handing them a cup of coffee.

The study participants, college students, had no idea that their social instincts were being deliberately manipulated. On the way to the laboratory, they had bumped into a laboratory assistant, who was holding textbooks, a clipboard, papers and a cup of hot or iced coffee — and asked for a hand with the cup.

That was all it took: The students who held a cup of iced coffee rated a hypothetical person they later read about as being much colder, less social and more selfish than did their fellow students, who had momentarily held a cup of hot java.

Findings like this one, as improbable as they seem, have poured forth in psychological research over the last few years. New studies have found that people tidy up more thoroughly when there’s a faint tang of cleaning liquid in the air; they become more competitive if there’s a briefcase in sight, or more cooperative if they glimpse words like “dependable” and “support” — all without being aware of the change, or what prompted it.

Psychologists say that “priming” people in this way is not some form of hypnotism, or even subliminal seduction; rather, it’s a demonstration of how everyday sights, smells and sounds can selectively activate goals or motives that people already have.

More fundamentally, the new studies reveal a subconscious brain that is far more active, purposeful and independent than previously known. Goals, whether to eat, mate or devour an iced latte, are like neural software programs that can only be run one at a time, and the unconscious is perfectly capable of running the program it chooses.

The give and take between these unconscious choices and our rational, conscious aims can help explain some of the more mystifying realities of behavior, like how we can be generous one moment and petty the next, or act rudely at a dinner party when convinced we are emanating charm.

“When it comes to our behavior from moment to moment, the big question is, ‘What to do next?’ ” said John A. Bargh, a professor of psychology at Yale and a co-author, with Lawrence Williams, of the coffee study, which was presented at a recent psychology conference. “Well, we’re finding that we have these unconscious behavioral guidance systems that are continually furnishing suggestions through the day about what to do next, and the brain is considering and often acting on those, all before conscious awareness.”

Dr. Bargh added: “Sometimes those goals are in line with our conscious intentions and purposes, and sometimes they’re not.”

Priming the Unconscious

The idea of subliminal influence has a mixed reputation among scientists because of a history of advertising hype and apparent fraud. In 1957, an ad man named James Vicary claimed to have increased sales of Coca-Cola and popcorn at a movie theater in Fort Lee, N.J., by secretly flashing the words “Eat popcorn” and “Drink Coke” during the film, too quickly to be consciously noticed. But advertisers and regulators doubted his story from the beginning, and in a 1962 interview, Mr. Vicary acknowledged that he had trumped up the findings to gain attention for his business.

Later studies of products promising subliminal improvement, for things like memory and self-esteem, found no effect.

Some scientists also caution against overstating the implications of the latest research on priming unconscious goals. The new research “doesn’t prove that consciousness never does anything,” wrote Roy Baumeister, a professor of psychology at Florida State University, in an e-mail message. “It’s rather like showing you can hot-wire a car to start the ignition without keys. That’s important and potentially useful information, but it doesn’t prove that keys don’t exist or that keys are useless.”

Yet he and most in the field now agree that the evidence for psychological hot-wiring has become overwhelming. In one 2004 experiment, psychologists led by Aaron Kay, then at Stanford University and now at the University of Waterloo, had students take part in a one-on-one investment game with another, unseen player.

Half the students played while sitting at a large table, at the other end of which was a briefcase and a black leather portfolio. These students were far stingier with their money than the others, who played in an identical room, but with a backpack on the table instead.

The mere presence of the briefcase, noticed but not consciously registered, generated business-related associations and expectations, the authors argue, leading the brain to run the most appropriate goal program: compete. The students had no sense of whether they had acted selfishly or generously.

In another experiment, published in 2005, Dutch psychologists had undergraduates sit in a cubicle and fill out a questionnaire. Hidden in the room was a bucket of water with a splash of citrus-scented cleaning fluid, giving off a faint odor. After completing the questionnaire, the young men and women had a snack, a crumbly biscuit provided by laboratory staff members.

The researchers covertly filmed the snack time and found that these students cleared away crumbs three times more often than a comparison group, who had taken the same questionnaire in a room with no cleaning scent. “That is a very big effect, and they really had no idea they were doing it,” said Henk Aarts, a psychologist at Utrecht University and the senior author of the study.

The Same Brain Circuits

The real-world evidence for these unconscious effects is clear to anyone who has ever run out to the car to avoid the rain and ended up driving too fast, or rushed off to pick up dry cleaning and returned with wine and cigarettes — but no pressed slacks.

The brain appears to use the very same neural circuits to execute an unconscious act as it does a conscious one. In a study that appeared in the journal Science in May, a team of English and French neuroscientists performed brain imaging on 18 men and women who were playing a computer game for money. The players held a handgrip and were told that the tighter they squeezed when an image of money flashed on the screen, the more of the loot they could keep.

As expected, the players squeezed harder when the image of a British pound flashed by than when the image of a penny did — regardless of whether they consciously perceived the pictures, many of which flew by subliminally. But the circuits activated in their brains were similar as well: an area called the ventral pallidum was particularly active whenever the participants responded.

“This area is located in what used to be called the reptilian brain, well below the conscious areas of the brain,” said the study’s senior author, Chris Frith, a professor in neuropsychology at University College London who wrote the book “Making Up The Mind: How the Brain Creates our Mental World.”

The results suggest a “bottom-up” decision-making process, in which the ventral pallidum is part of a circuit that first weighs the reward and decides, then interacts with the higher-level, conscious regions later, if at all, Dr. Frith said.

Scientists have spent years trying to pinpoint the exact neural regions that support conscious awareness, so far in vain. But there’s little doubt it involves the prefrontal cortex, the thin outer layer of brain tissue behind the forehead, and experiments like this one show that it can be one of the last neural areas to know when a decision is made.

This bottom-up order makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. The subcortical areas of the brain evolved first and would have had to help individuals fight, flee and scavenge well before conscious, distinctly human layers were added later in evolutionary history. In this sense, Dr. Bargh argues, unconscious goals can be seen as open-ended, adaptive agents acting on behalf of the broad, genetically encoded aims — automatic survival systems.

In several studies, researchers have also shown that, once covertly activated, an unconscious goal persists with the same determination that is evident in our conscious pursuits. Study participants primed to be cooperative are assiduous in their teamwork, for instance, helping others and sharing resources in games that last 20 minutes or longer. Ditto for those set up to be aggressive.

This may help explain how someone can show up at a party in good spirits and then for some unknown reason — the host’s loafers? the family portrait on the wall? some political comment? — turn a little sour, without realizing the change until later, when a friend remarks on it. “I was rude? Really? When?”

Mark Schaller, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, has done research showing that when self-protective instincts are primed — simply by turning down the lights in a room, for instance — white people who are normally tolerant become unconsciously more likely to detect hostility in the faces of black men with neutral expressions.

“Sometimes nonconscious effects can be bigger in sheer magnitude than conscious ones,” Dr. Schaller said, “because we can’t moderate stuff we don’t have conscious access to, and the goal stays active.”

Until it is satisfied, that is, when the program is subsequently suppressed, research suggests. In one 2006 study, for instance, researchers had Northwestern University undergraduates recall an unethical deed from their past, like betraying a friend, or a virtuous one, like returning lost property. Afterward, the students had their choice of a gift, an antiseptic wipe or a pencil; and those who had recalled bad behavior were twice as likely as the others to take the wipe. They had been primed to psychologically “cleanse” their consciences.

Once their hands were wiped, the students became less likely to agree to volunteer their time to help with a graduate school project. Their hands were clean: the unconscious goal had been satisfied and now was being suppressed, the findings suggest.

What You Don’t Know

Using subtle cues for self-improvement is something like trying to tickle yourself, Dr. Bargh said: priming doesn’t work if you’re aware of it. Manipulating others, while possible, is dicey. “We know that as soon as people feel they’re being manipulated, they do the opposite; it backfires,” he said.

And researchers do not yet know how or when, exactly, unconscious drives may suddenly become conscious; or under which circumstances people are able to override hidden urges by force of will. Millions have quit smoking, for instance, and uncounted numbers have resisted darker urges to misbehave that they don’t even fully understand.

Yet the new research on priming makes it clear that we are not alone in our own consciousness. We have company, an invisible partner who has strong reactions about the world that don’t always agree with our own, but whose instincts, these studies clearly show, are at least as likely to be helpful, and attentive to others, as they are to be disruptive.

Skulls confirm we’re all out of Africa

July 19, 2007

Skulls confirm we’re all out of Africa

Wed Jul 18, 2007 5:16PM EDT

By Ben Hirschler

LONDON (Reuters) – An analysis of thousands of skulls shows modern humans originated from a single point in Africa and finally lays to rest the idea of multiple origins, British scientists said on Wednesday.

Most researchers agree that mankind spread out of Africa starting about 50,000 years ago, quickly establishing Stone Age cultures throughout Europe, Asia and Australia.

But a minority have argued, using skull data, that divergent populations evolved independently in different areas.

The genetic evidence has always strongly supported the single origin theory, and now results from a study of more than 6,000 skulls held around the world in academic collections supports this case.

“We have combined our genetic data with new measurements of a large sample of skulls to show definitively that modern humans originated from a single area in Sub-Saharan Africa,” said Andrea Manica of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

Manica and colleagues wrote in the journal Nature that variations in skull size and shape decreased the further a skull was away from Africa, just like variations in DNA.

The decrease reflects the fact that, while the original African population was stable and varied, only a small number of people embarked on each stage of the multi-step migration out of Africa. This effectively created a series of “bottlenecks”, which reduced diversity.

The highest level of variation in skull types was seen in southeastern Africa, the generally accepted cradle of mankind.

The Cambridge work also suggests in-breeding with other early humans, such as Neanderthals, either did not happen or was insignificant. That is in contrast to recent suggestions that such hybrids may have been fairly common.

“We’re not saying there was never a single mating between a homo sapiens and a Neanderthal. But I can say, very confidently, that whatever the product of that mating was, it didn’t breed back into the population,” Manica told Reuters.

Chris Stringer, a palaeoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, said the new research was important for indicating that modern human diversity was derived entirely from Africa rather than coming from inter-mixing elsewhere.

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Tummy fat ‘can grow new breasts’

July 9, 2007

Tummy fat ‘can grow new breasts’

Fat from the tummy or bottom could be used to grow new breasts in a treatment which could be carried out in an hour – or a lunch break. Scientists say they can create a fat mixture with concentrated stem cells, which, when injected into the breast, apparently encourages tissue to grow.

The therapy, detailed in Chemistry and Industry Magazine, could help cancer patients who have had mastectomies.

And if licensed, it may rival silicone for those seeking bigger breasts.

Using fat from the patient’s own body to rebuild other areas is not a novel idea, but such reconstructions often fail as the fat is simply reabsorbed.

However using fat-derived stem cells appears to overcome this problem, according to the company behind the procedure, Cytori Therapeutics.

Scientists say they are not sure quite how it works, but suspect that the stem cells emit signals that encourage blood vessels to grow and nurture new tissue.

Rajiv Grover of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (Baaps) said he saw the research as a “positive development for medical science”, but doubted whether it would provide any immediate results in cosmetic surgery.

“We need to find out how these cells work once they are in the breast before any great claims can be made.”

Antonia Dean, a clinical nurse specialist at Breast Cancer Care also said more work needed to be done – “both in terms of how long the new breast really lasts for, but most importantly the safety implications for women who have had tumours.”

Filling out

The procedure – dubbed Celution – could be carried out in an hour.

Fat from the either the stomach, bottom or thigh can be taken out with a standard liposuction procedure, and the stem cells then extracted.

These cells are placed into a cartridge ready for injection one hour later. The company says the breasts will then fill out over the course of six months.

The largest trial so far has involved 19 women in Japan. All of them had had at least partial mastectomies and all responded well to the treatment, with no major side-effects.

Clinical trials are continuing, and the company hopes to introduce the therapy to Europe in early 2008.

It is expensive – costing a few thousand pounds per cartridge, but this is not dissimilar to the price of conventional surgery.

In the UK, about 45,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer each year. Of these about 30% will have mastectomies.

The Gregarious Brain

July 9, 2007

July 8, 2007

The Gregarious Brain

If a person suffers the small genetic accident that creates Williams syndrome, he’ll live with not only some fairly conventional cognitive deficits, like trouble with space and numbers, but also a strange set of traits that researchers call the Williams social phenotype or, less formally, the “Williams personality”: a love of company and conversation combined, often awkwardly, with a poor understanding of social dynamics and a lack of social inhibition. The combination creates some memorable encounters. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author, once watched as a particularly charming 8-year-old Williams girl, who was visiting Sacks at his hotel, took a garrulous detour into a wedding ceremony. “I’m afraid she disrupted the flow of this wedding,” Sacks told me. “She also mistook the bride’s mother for the bride. That was an awkward moment. But it very much pleased the mother.”

Another Williams encounter: The mother of twin Williams boys in their late teens opened her door to find on her stoop a leather-clad biker, motorcycle parked at the curb, asking for her sons. The boys had made the biker’s acquaintance via C.B. radio and invited him to come by, but they forgot to tell Mom. The biker visited for a spell. Fascinated with how the twins talked about their condition, the biker asked them to speak at his motorcycle club’s next meeting. They did. They told the group of the genetic accident underlying Williams, the heart and vascular problems that eventually kill many who have it, their intense enjoyment of talk, music and story, their frustration in trying to make friends, the slights and cruelties they suffered growing up, their difficulty understanding the world. When they finished, most of the bikers were in tears.

These stories are typical of those who have Williams syndrome. (Some people with the disorder as well as many who work with them simply call it Williams.) Williams syndrome rises from a genetic accident during meiosis, when DNA’s double helix is divided into two separate strands, each strand then becoming the genetic material in egg or sperm. Normally the two strands part cleanly, like a zipper’s two halves. But in Williams, about 25 teeth in one of the zippers — 25 genes out of 30,000 in egg or sperm — are torn loose during this parting. When that strand joins another from the other parent to eventually form an embryo, the segment of the DNA missing those 25 genes can’t do its work.

The resulting cognitive deficits lie mainly in the realm of abstract thought. Many with Williams have so vague a concept of space, for instance, that even as adults they will fail at six-piece jigsaw puzzles, easily get lost, draw like a preschooler and struggle to replicate a simple T or X shape built with a half-dozen building blocks. Few can balance a checkbook. These deficits generally erase about 35 points from whatever I.Q. the person would have inherited without the deletion. Since the average I.Q. is 100, this leaves most people with Williams with I.Q.’s in the 60s. Though some can hold simple jobs, they require assistance managing their lives.

The low I.Q., however, ignores two traits that define Williams more distinctly than do its deficits: an exuberant gregariousness and near-normal language skills. Williams people talk a lot, and they talk with pretty much anyone. They appear to truly lack social fear. Indeed, functional brain scans have shown that the brain’s main fear processor, the amygdala, which in most of us shows heightened activity when we see angry or worried faces, shows no reaction when a person with Williams views such faces. It’s as if they see all faces as friendly.

People with Williams tend to lack not just social fear but also social savvy. Lost on them are many meanings, machinations, ideas and intentions that most of us infer from facial expression, body language, context and stock phrasings. If you’re talking with someone with Williams syndrome and look at your watch and say: “Oh, my, look at the time! Well it’s been awfully nice talking with you . . . ,” your conversational partner may well smile brightly, agree that “this is nice” and ask if you’ve ever gone to Disney World. Because of this — and because many of us feel uneasy with people with cognitive disorders, or for that matter with anyone profoundly unlike us — people with Williams can have trouble deepening relationships. This saddens and frustrates them. They know no strangers but can claim few friends.

This paradox — the urge to connect, the inability to fully do so — sits at the center of the Williams puzzle, whether considered as a picture of human need (who hasn’t been shut out of a circle he’d like to join?) or, as a growing number of researchers are finding, a clue to the fundamental drives and tensions that shape social behavior. After being ignored for almost three decades, Williams has recently become one of the most energetically researched neurodevelopmental disability after autism, and it is producing more compelling insights. Autism, for starters, is a highly diverse “spectrum disorder” with ill-defined borders, no identified mechanism and no clearly delineated genetic basis. Williams, in contrast, arises from a known genetic cause and produces a predictable set of traits and behaviors. It is “an experiment of nature,” as the title of one paper puts it, perfect for studying not just how genes create intelligence and sociability but also how our powers of thought combine with our desire to bond to create complex social behavior — a huge arena of interaction that largely determines our fates.

Julie R. Korenberg, a neurogeneticist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has helped define the Williams deletion and explore its effects, believes the value of Williams syndrome in examining such questions is almost impossible to overstate. “We’ve long figured that major behavioral traits rose in indirect fashion from a wide array of genes,” Korenberg says. “But here we have this really tiny genetic deletion — of the 20-some-odd genes missing, probably just 3 to 6 create the cognitive and social effects — that reliably creates a distinctive behavioral profile. Williams isn’t just a fascinating mix of traits. It is the most compelling model available for studying the genetic bases of human behavior.”

Korenberg’s work is part of a diverse research effort on Williams that is illuminating a central dilemma of human existence: to survive we must relate and work with others, but we must also compete against them, lest we get left behind. It’s like the TV show “Survivor”: we want to keep a place in the group — we must — and doing so requires not only charming others but also showing we can contribute to their success. This requires a finely calibrated display of smarts, savvy, grit and hustle. Show too little, and you’re voted off the island for being subpar. Show too much, and you’re ousted as a conniving threat.

Where is the right balance? A partial answer lies in the mix of skills, charms and deficiencies that is Williams syndrome.

Williams syndrome was first identified in 1961 by Dr. J. C. P. Williams of New Zealand. Williams, a cardiologist at Greenlane Hospital in Auckland, noticed that a number of the hospital’s young cardiac patients were small in stature, had elfin facial features and seemed friendly but in some ways were mentally slow. His published delineation of this syndrome put Dr. Williams on the map — off which he promptly and mysteriously fell. Twice offered a position at the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., he twice failed to show, disappearing the second time, in the late ’60s, from London, his last known location, with the only trace an unclaimed suitcase later found in a luggage office.

The rarity of Williams syndrome — about 1 in 7,500 people have it, compared with about 1 in 150 for autism or 1 in 800 for Down syndrome — rendered it obscure. Unless they had the syndrome’s distinctive cardiovascular problems (which stem from the absence of the gene that makes blood vessels, heart valves and other tissue elastic and which even today limit the average lifespan of a person with Williams to around 50), most people with Williams were simply considered “mentally retarded.”

This ended in the late 1980s, when a few researchers in the emerging field of cognitive neuroscience began to explore Williams. Among the most earnest was Ursula Bellugi, the director of the Laboratory for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif. Bellugi, who specializes in the neurobiology of language, was drawn to the linguistic strength that many Williamses displayed in the face of serious cognitive problems. The first person with Williams she met, in fact, came by referral from the linguist Noam Chomsky.

“The mother of that Williams teenager later connected me with two more, both in their teens,” Bellugi said. “I didn’t have to talk to them long to realize something special was going on. Here they had these great cognitive deficits. Yet they spoke with the most ardent and delightful animation and color.”

To understand this uneven cognitive profile, Bellugi gave an array of language and cognitive tests to three groups: Williams children and teenagers, Down syndrome kids with similar I.Q.’s and developmentally average peers. “We would do these warm-up interviews to get to know them, ask about their families,” said Bellugi, who, less than five feet tall and with a ready smile and an animated manner, is somewhat elfin and engagingly gregarious herself. “Only, the Williams kids would turn the tables. They’d tell you how pretty you look or ask, ‘Do you like opera?’ They would ornament their answers in a way other kids didn’t. For instance, you’d ask an adolescent, ‘What if you were a bird?’ The Down kids said things like: ‘I’m not a bird. I don’t fly.’ The Williams teens would say: ‘Good question! I’d fly through the air being free. If I saw a boy I’d land on his head and chirp.’ ”

Bellugi found that this fanciful verbosity was accompanied by infectious affability. To measure it she developed a questionnaire and gave it to parents of Williams, Down and normal children. It asked about things like friendliness toward strangers, connections to familiar people, different social scenarios. At every age level, those with Williams scored significantly higher in sociability than those in the other groups. Having long studied the human capacity for language and its biological basis, Bellugi assumed that some extraordinary urge to use language drove this hypersociability: “The language just seemed to be erupting out of them.”

Then she attended a meeting of Williams families that included infants and toddlers. “That was about a year into my research project,” she says. “The room was full of little ones — babies, toddlers who weren’t speaking yet. And when I came in the room all the young children old enough to walk ran to the door to greet me. No clinging to Mom; they just broke away. And when I would talk to mothers holding infants — literally babes in arms — some of these babies would almost dive out of their mothers’ arms to meet me.

“I knew then I was wrong. The language wasn’t driving the sociability. If anything, it was the other way around.”

Developmental psychologists sometimes call the social urge the “drive to affiliate.” It seemed clear early on that the Williams deletion, which was definitively identified in the mid-1990s, either strengthened this drive or left it unfettered. But how do missing genes steer behavior toward gregariousness and engagement? How can a deletion heighten a trait rather than diminish it?

I got a hint when I met Nicki Hornbaker, who is 19, at Bellugi’s office in La Jolla. Nicki, whose Williams was diagnosed when she was 2, has been participating as a subject in Bellugi’s research for 15 years. She and her mother, Verna, drove down from Fresno that day to continue testing and to talk with me about living with Williams syndrome. Like most people with Williams, Nicki loves to talk but has trouble getting past a cocktail-party-level chatter. Nicki, however, has fashioned at least a partial solution.

“Ever since she was tiny,” Verna Hornbaker told me, “Nicki has always especially loved to talk to men. And in the last few years, by chance, she figured out how to do it. She reads the sports section in the paper, and she watches baseball and football on TV, and she has learned enough about this stuff that she can talk to any man about what the 49ers or the Giants are up to. My husband gets annoyed when I say this, but I don’t mean it badly: men typically have that superficial kind of conversation, you know — weather and sports. And Nicki can do it. She knows what team won last night and where the standings are. It’s only so deep. But she can do it. And she can talk a good long while with most men about it.”

In the view of two of Bellugi’s frequent collaborators, Albert Galaburda, a Harvard Medical School professor of neurology and neuroscience, and Allan Reiss, a neuroscientist at the Stanford School of Medicine, Nicki’s learned facility at sports talk illustrates a central lesson of Williams and, for that matter, modern genetics: genes (or their absence) do not hard-wire people for certain behaviors. There is no gene for understanding calculus. But genes do shape behavior and personality, and they do so by creating brain structures and functions that favor certain abilities and appetites more than others.

Reiss and Galaburda’s imaging and autopsy work on Williamses’ brains, for instance, has shown distinct imbalances in structure and synaptic connectivity. This work has led Galaburda to suspect that some of the genes missing in the Williams deletion are “patterning genes,” which direct embryonic development and which in this case dictate brain formation. Work in lab animals has shown that at least one patterning gene choreographs the developmental balance between the brain’s dorsal areas (along the back and the top of the brain) and ventral areas (at the front and bottom). The dorsal areas play a strong role in vision and space and help us recognize other peoples’ intentions; ventral areas figure heavily in language, processing sounds, facial recognition, emotion, music enjoyment and social drive. In an embryo’s first weeks, Galaburda says, patterning genes normally moderate “a sort of turf war going on between these two areas,” with each trying to expand. The results help determine our relative strengths in these areas. We see them in our S.A.T. scores, for example: few of us score the same in math (which draws mostly on dorsal areas) as in language (ventral), and the discrepancy varies widely. The turf war is rarely a draw.

In Williams the imbalance is profound. The brains of people with Williams are on average 15 percent smaller than normal, and almost all this size reduction comes from underdeveloped dorsal regions. Ventral regions, meanwhile, are close to normal and in some areas — auditory processing, for example — are unusually rich in synaptic connections. The genetic deletion predisposes a person not just to weakness in some functions but also to relative (and possibly absolute) strengths in others. The Williams newborn thus arrives facing distinct challenges regarding space and other abstractions but primed to process emotion, sound and language.

This doesn’t mean that specific behaviors are hard-wired. M.I.T. math majors aren’t born doing calculus, and people with Williams don’t enter life telling stories. As Allan Reiss put it: “It’s not just ‘genes make brain make behavior.’ You have environment and experience too.”

By environment, Reiss means less the atmosphere of a home or a school than the endless string of challenges and opportunities that life presents any person starting at birth. In Williams, he says, these are faced by someone who struggles to understand space and abstraction but readily finds reward listening to speech and looking at faces. As the infant and toddler seeks and prolongs the more rewarding experiences, already-strong neural circuits get stronger while those in weaker areas may atrophy. Patterns of learning and behavior follow accordingly.

“Take the gaze,” Reiss told me. Everyone who has worked with Williams children knows the Williams gaze, which in toddlers is often an intense, penetrating eye contact of the sort described as “boring right through you.” The gaze can seem like a hard-wired expression of a Williams’s desire to connect. Yet the gaze can also be seen as a skill learned at the end of the horrible colic that many Williams infants suffer during their first year and before they start to talk well. This window is longer than that for most infants, as Williams children, oddly, start talking a year or so later than most children. It’s during this window that the gaze is at its most intense. Until she was 9 months old, for instance, Nicki Hornbaker rarely slept more than an hour at a time, and when she was quiet she tended to look vaguely at her mother’s hairline. Then her colic stopped, she started sleeping and “almost overnight,” her mother told me, “she became a happy, delightful, extremely social child, and she couldn’t get enough eye contact.” Later, when talk gave Nicki a more effective way to connect, the intensity of the eye contact eased. Nicki’s eyes now meet yours, warm and engaging, but they don’t bore through you.

To Reiss, the gaze is one of several things Williams people learn in order to pursue social connections. “They want that connection,” he said, “and they learn all these things to get it: the gaze and the gregariousness, the smiles and language and narrative skills, in succession as they’re able to. What they learn is shaped by the inclinations and abilities their genes create.

“Look at the difference between Williams kids and fragile X.” Fragile X, another developmental syndrome, produces similar cognitive defects but a pronounced social reticence or aversion to looking at faces. If a Williams wants to lock eyes, a fragile X child will literally twist himself sideways to avoid eye contact. “Nothing could be more different from a Williams,” Reiss continued. “But the thing is, fragile X kids don’t do that when they’re a year old. They’ll still look at you at that age. And Williams kids don’t have that intense gaze yet at that age. It’s only over the next year or two that they take this incredible divergence. In both cases you have a genetically inclined pattern of behavior that is reinforced.”

This is a genetic version of Bellugi’s observation that sociability drives language. The child gravitates toward the pathways that offer smoother going or more interesting experiences — at least until she finds other pathways more rewarding (sports talk, for example). In fragile X, those pathways tend to keep a child close to himself. In Williams they lead headlong toward others.

As an experiment of nature, Williams syndrome makes clear that while we are innately driven to connect with others, this affiliative drive alone will not win this connection. People with Williams rarely win full acceptance into groups other than their own. To bond with others we must show not just charm but sophisticated cognitive skills. But why? For vital relationships like those with spouses or business partners, the answer seems obvious: people want to know you can contribute. But why should casual friendships and group membership depend on smarts?

One possible answer a comes from the rich literature of nonhuman primate studies. For 40 years or so, primatologists like Jane Goodall, Frans de Waal and Robert Sapolsky have been studying social behavior in chimps, gorillas, macaques, bonobos and baboons. Over the past decade that work has led to a unifying theory that explains not only a huge range of behavior but also why our brains are so big and what their most essential work is. The theory, called the Machiavellian-intelligence or social-brain theory, holds that we rise from a lineage in which both individual and group success hinge on balancing the need to work with others with the need to hold our own — or better — amid the nested groups and subgroups we are part of.

It started with fruit. About 15 or 20 million years ago, the theory goes, certain forest monkeys in Africa and Asia developed the ability to digest unripe fruit. This left some of their forest-dwelling cousins — the ancestors of chimps, gorillas and humans — at a sharp disadvantage. Suddenly a lot of fruit was going missing before it ripened.

To find food, some of the newly hungry primate species moved to the forest edge. Their new habitat put more food in reach, but it also placed the primates within reach of big cats, canines and other savanna predators. This predation spurred two key evolutionary changes. The primates became bigger, giving individuals more of a fighting chance, and they started living in bigger groups, which provided more eyes to keep watch and a strength of numbers in defense.

But the bigger groups imposed a new brain load: the members had to be smart enough to balance their individual needs with those of the pack. This meant cooperating and exercising some individual restraint. It also required understanding the behavior of other group members striving not only for safety and food but also access to mates. And it called for comprehending and managing one’s place in an ever-shifting array of alliances that members formed in order not to be isolated within the bigger group.

How did primates form and manage these alliances? They groomed one another. Monkeys and great apes spend up to a fifth of their time grooming, mostly with regular partners in pairs and small groups. This quality time (grooming generates a pleasing release of endorphins and oxytocin) builds strong bonds. Experiments in which a recording of macaques screaming in alarm is played, for instance, have shown a macaque will respond much more strongly to a grooming partner’s cries than to cries from other members of the group. The large time investment involved seems to make a grooming relationship worth defending.

In this and other ways a group’s members would create, test and declare their alliances. But as the animals and groups grew, tracking and understanding all those relationships required more intelligence. According to the social-brain theory, it was this need to understand social dynamics — not the need to find food or navigate terrain — that spurred and rewarded the evolution of bigger and bigger primate brains.

This isn’t idle speculation; Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist and social-brain theorist, and others have documented correlations between brain size and social-group size in many primate species. The bigger an animal’s typical group size (20 or so for macaques, for instance, 50 or so for chimps), the larger the percentage of brain devoted to neocortex, the thin but critical outer layer that accounts for most of a primate’s cognitive abilities. In most mammals the neocortex accounts for 30 percent to 40 percent of brain volume. In the highly social primates it occupies about 50 percent to 65 percent. In humans, it’s 80 percent.

According to Dunbar, no such strong correlation exists between neocortex size and tasks like hunting, navigating or creating shelter. Understanding one another, it seems, is our greatest cognitive challenge. And the only way humans could handle groups of more than 50, Dunbar suggests, was to learn how to talk.

“The conventional view,” Dunbar notes in his book “Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language,” “is that language evolved to enable males to do things like coordinate hunts more effectively. . . . I am suggesting that language evolved to allow us to gossip.”

Dunbar’s assertion about the origin of language is controversial. But you needn’t agree with it to see that talk provides a far more powerful and efficient way to exchange social information than grooming does. In the social-brain theory’s broad definition, gossip means any conversation about social relationships: who did what to whom, who is what to whom, at every level, from family to work or school group to global politics. Defined this way, gossip accounts for about two-thirds of our conversation. All this yakking — murmured asides in the kitchen, gripefests in the office coffee room — yields vital data about changing alliances; shocking machinations; new, wished-for and missed opportunities; falling kings and rising stars; dangerous rivals and potential friends. These conversations tell us too what our gossipmates think about it all, and about us, all of which is crucial to maintaining our own alliances.

For we are all gossiped about, constantly evaluated by two criteria: Whether we can contribute, and whether we can be trusted. This reflects what Ralph Adolphs, a social neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology, calls the “complex and dynamic interplay between two opposing factors: on the one hand, groups can provide better security from predators, better mate choice and more reliable food; on the other hand, mates and food are available also to competitors from within the group.” You’re part of a team, but you’re competing with team members. Your teammates hope you’ll contribute skills and intergroup competitive spirit — without, however, offering too much competition within the group, or at least not cheating when you do. So, even if they like you, they constantly assess your trustworthiness. They know you can’t afford not to compete, and they worry you might do it sneakily.

Deception runs deep. In his book, “Our Inner Ape,” Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University, describes a simple but cruel deception perpetrated by a female chimp named Puist. One day, Puist chases but cannot catch a younger, faster female rival. Some minutes later, writes de Waal, “Puist makes a friendly gesture from a distance, stretching out an open hand. The young female hesitates at first, then approaches Puist with classic signs of mistrust, like frequent stopping, looking around at others and a nervous grin on her face. Puist persists, adding soft pants when the younger female comes closer. Soft pants have a particularly friendly meaning; they are often followed by a kiss, the chimpanzee’s chief conciliatory gesture. Then, suddenly, Puist lunges and grabs the younger female, biting her fiercely before she manages to free herself.”

This “deceptive reconciliation offer,” as de Waal calls it, is classic schoolyard stuff. Adult humans generally do a better job veiling a coming assault. The bigger the neocortex, the higher the rate of deceptive behavior. Our extra-big brains allow us to balance bonding and maneuvering in more subtle and complicated ways.

People with Williams, however, don’t do this so well. Generating and detecting deception and veiled meaning requires not just the recognition that people can be bad but a certain level of cognitive power that people with Williams typically lack. In particular it requires what psychologists call “theory of mind,” which is a clear concept of what another person is thinking and the recognition that the other person a) may see the world differently than you do and b) may actually be thinking something different from what he’s saying.

Cognitive scientists argue over whether people with Williams have theory of mind. Williams people pass some theory-of-mind tests and fail others. They get many jokes, for instance, but don’t understand irony. They make small talk but tend not to discuss the subtler dynamics of interpersonal relationships. Theory of mind is a slippery, multilayered concept, so the debate becomes arcane. But it’s clear that Williamses do not generally sniff out the sorts of hidden meanings and intentions that lie behind so much human behavior. They would reach for Puist’s outstretched hand without hesitation.

To inquire into human behavior’s genetic underpinnings is to ask what most essentially defines us. One of the most vexing questions raised by both Williams research and the social-brain thesis is whether our social behavior is ultimately driven more by the urge to connect or the urge to manipulate the connection.

The traditional inclination, of course, is to distinguish essential human behavior by our “higher” skills and cognitive powers. We dominate the planet because we can think abstractly, accumulate and relay knowledge and manipulate the environment and one another. By this light our social behavior rises more from big brains than from big hearts.

Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, a psychiatrist and neurologist, sees it differently. Meyer-Lindenberg spent the last several years at the National Institute of Mental Health exploring neural roots of mood, cognitive and behavioral disorders — including Williams syndrome, which he has investigated as part of a team led by Karen Berman, a N.I.M.H. psychiatrist, clinical neurobiologist and imaging specialist. Working with Berman and Carolyn Mervis, a developmental psychologist at the University of Louisville, Meyer-Lindenberg became convinced that we may be overvaluing the cerebral.

“Cognitive social neuroscience tends to be very top-down,” Meyer-Lindenberg says. “It looks at lofty things like triadic intentionality — I’m conscious of you being conscious of me being conscious of you, things like that. Things that presuppose consciousness and elaborate intellectual procedures.” The Berman group’s work, however, was focused on brain networks operating, as Meyer-Lindenberg puts it, “at a lower hierarchical level.”

“And the most important abnormalities in Williams,” he says, “are circuits that have to do with basic regulation of emotions.”

The most significant such finding is a dead connection between the orbitofrontal cortex, an area above the eye sockets and the amygdala, the brain’s fear center. The orbitofrontal cortex (or OFC) is associated with (among other things) prioritizing behavior in social contexts, and earlier studies found that damage to the OFC reduces inhibitions and makes it harder to detect faux pas. The Berman team detected a new contribution to social behavior: They found that while in most people the OFC communicated with the amygdala when viewing threatening faces, the OFC in people with Williams did not. This OFC-amygdala connection worked normally, however, when people with Williams viewed nonsocial threats, like pictures of snakes, sharks or car crashes.

This appears to explain the amygdala’s failure in Williams to fire at the sight of frightening faces and suggests a circuit responsible for Williamses’ lack of social caution. If the results hold up, the researchers will have cleanly defined a circuit evolved specifically to warn of threats from other people. This could account not just for the lack of social fear in Williams, but with it the wariness that can motivate deeper understanding. It is possible, in short, that people with Williams miss social subtleties not just because they lack cognitive tools but because they also lack a motivation — a fear of others — that the rest of us carry to every encounter. To Meyer-Lindenberg, the primacy of such circuits suggests that human sociability rises from evolutionarily reinforced mechanisms — a raw yearning to connect; fearfulness — that are so basic they’re easy to undervalue.

The disassociation of so many elements in Williams — the cognitive from the connective, social fear from nonsocial fear, the tension between the drive to affiliate and the drive to manipulate — highlights how vital these elements are and, in most of us, how delicately, critically entwined. Yet these splits in Williams also clarify which, of caring and comprehension, offers the more vital contribution. For if Williams confers disadvantage by granting more care than comprehension, reversing this imbalance creates a far more problematic phenotype.

As Robert Sapolsky of the Stanford School of Medicine puts it: “Williams have great interest but little competence. But what about a person who has competence but no warmth, desire or empathy? That’s a sociopath. Sociopaths have great theory of mind. But they couldn’t care less.”

David Dobbs writes frequently about science and medicine. His last article for the magazine was about depression.