Monthly Archives: November 2017

Book Club: Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, 3, fish tales and creativity

Footnotes to Plato

Threespine and Ninespine sticklebacks

Continuing our discussion of Kevin Laland’s Darwin’s Unfinished Symphony, on the evolution of culture, I am going to briefly cover “A tale of two fishes” (ch. 4) and “The roots of creativity” (ch. 5). Together with the chapters we have already discussed, they complete the first part of the book, devoted to the foundations of culture. (After this, we’ll move to the chapters in the second part, on the evolution of the mind.)

Chapter 4 is devoted primarily to research conducted over a period of two decades by Laland’s own lab, focusing on the contrast in the behavior between two small species of fish, the threespine and the ninespine sticklebacks. The reason for working on this sort of experimental animals is that if one is interested in social evolution then one needs to set up replicates of entire populations. Logistically, this is going to be…

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Science or Snake Oil: will horseradish and garlic really ease a cold?

The Conversation

File 20171123 6013 1vm5e9b.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Horseradish hasn’t been studied, and studies on garlic found it probably does nothing. from

Ken Harvey, Monash University

Some of us may have heard that horseradish and garlic supplements help ease cold and flu. Blooms High Strength Horseradish and Garlic Complex claims it has

a soothing antimicrobial action that helps fight off the bugs that can cause colds and flu and provides symptomatic relief from upper respiratory tract infections.

Others, such as those promoted by Swisse and Blackmores, claim to be “traditionally used in Western Herbal Medicine to provide symptomatic relief of sinusitis, hay fever and upper respiratory tract infections”. And the Swisse and Blackmores products (and many others) add additional ingredients, commonly vitamin C, which is claimed to be beneficial for “immune health”.

There are two categories of “evidence” allowed by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) to validate indications or claims made for complementary medicines: scientific or traditional.

Scientific evidence is based on the scientific literature, such as trials in humans. Traditional evidence is based on theories outside modern conventional medicine, such as Western herbal medicine, traditional Chinese medicine and homeopathy.

Read more – Science or Snake Oil: can turmeric really shrink tumours, reduce pain and kill bacteria?

So, what does the research say?

A search of the medical journal database PubMed failed to find any clinical trials on the combination of horseradish (Armoracia rusticana) and garlic (Allium sativum), with or without vitamin C. Nor were any clinical trials found on horseradish alone.

The authors of a 2014 Cochrane review concluded there was insufficient clinical trial evidence supporting garlic in preventing or treating the common cold. A single 2001 trial (from the Garlic Centre in the UK) suggested garlic may prevent the common cold, but more studies were needed to validate this finding. Claims of effectiveness appear to rely largely on poor-quality evidence.

A 2013 Cochrane systematic review explored whether taking vitamin C (0.2g a day or more) reduced the incidence, duration or severity of the common cold. The 29 trial comparisons involving 11,306 participants found taking vitamin C regularly failed to reduce the incidence of colds in the general population.

Supplements can claim they’re a traditional medicine, meaning they don’t have to prove they’re effective. Screenshot, Author provided

Regular supplementation had a modest effect in reducing the duration of common cold symptoms by a few hours. The practical relevance of this finding is uncertain. The authors felt this level of benefit did not justify long-term supplementation. Finally, taking vitamin C at the onset of cold symptoms was not effective.

Vitamin C deficiency can impair immune function, but this is uncommon in Australia and best prevented by eating fruit and vegetables.

Read more – Monday’s medical myth: vitamin C prevents colds

The TGA accepts a traditional indication if that use has been recorded in internationally recognised traditional sources for a period of use that exceeds three generations (75 years). Traditional indications or claims don’t mean a product actually works – that requires scientific evidence.

What’s the verdict?

Products such as Blooms High Strength Horseradish & Garlic Complex claim they fight off bugs, but those claims that lack scientific validation. This breaches many provisions of the Therapeutic Goods Advertising Code 2015.

Products such as Swisse Ultiboost High Strength Horseradish + Garlic + Vitamin C, claiming horseradish and garlic have been “traditionally used in Western Herbal Medicine”, have correctly invoked the TGA’s “traditional paradigm”. But it’s important to remember this doesn’t mean these products work.

What’s the implication?

Recently, more and more purveyors of complementary medicine have been making “traditional” claims for their products.

If consumers are to make an informed choice about medicines claiming traditional use, a mandatory statement is required on the label and on all promotion explaining what this means. It should be explained to consumers the “tradition” is not in accordance with modern medical knowledge, and there is no scientific evidence the product works.

Without such a disclaimer, consumers will be misled and the TGA will be seen to be endorsing pseudoscience. But to date, industry, the TGA and government have refused to take on-board such proposals.

The ConversationRead more: Which supplements work? New labels may help separate the wheat from the chaff

Ken Harvey, Associate Professor, School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Why Did We Fight the Korean War?

American Elephants

Here’s military historian Victor Davis Hanson to explain, briefly. War is not the worst of things.

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New Zealand police recruitment video

Why Evolution Is True

Reader Diana MacPherson sent me this recruitment video produced by the New Zealand police. (Stuff, a New Zealand news site, explains anything that might confuse you, but it’s pretty clear). It makes me proud to be an honorary Kiwi. As Diana said, “Watch for the police cat near the end!”

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Hybrid speciation in Galápagos finches

Why Evolution Is True

I’ll take “speciation” in this post, as do all the authors involved, to mean “the origin of reproductive barriers between populations that live in the same area, preventing them from either cross0mating or producing fertile hybrids if they do.” Most biologists think that speciation—the acquisition of these barriers—requires a prolonged period of geographical isolation between populations, allowing them to diverge through natural selection or genetic drift without contamination of genes between the groups. When that differentiation has proceeded to a certain point, reproductive barriers can arise as a byproduct of evolutionary divergence, and thus have new species. (If we’re to be sure they are genuine “biological species”, they should be able to coexist after coming back together in the same area, or, in a one-way test, produce sterile or inviable hybrids when forcibly mated in zoos. If they’re cross-fertile in zoos, we can’t tell, for lots of animals who coexist…

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Alice Ambrose and Life Unfettered by Philosophy in Wittgenstein’s Cambridge


by guest contributor David Loner

As the first and only official post-graduate advisee of the celebrated Austrian thinker and Cambridge philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Alice Ambrose (1906-2001) typified in her 1932-38 Ph.D. course the complex social experience interwar upper-middle-class women underwent as unofficial members of the University of Cambridge. Compelling yet reserved, Ambrose toed a line between subordination and originality which Cambridge dons often expected their female pupils to exhibit in the years following the Cambridge University Senate’s 1921 university ordinance on “title of degree,” or unofficial courses for women students (women were not made full university members until 1948). Yet, despite this carefully-negotiated and normative gender performance, Wittgenstein ultimately denounced his protégée and her work as morally “indecent”?precipitating a contest between the Austrian thinker and his fellow dons over the place of women and high academic distinction in mid-twentieth-century Cambridge philosophy.

As an American graduate student at the University…

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Evolutionary biology student discovers that UK water companies engage in dowsing

Why Evolution Is True

What is it with the UK? The National Health Service still subsidizes homeopathy in some parts of England, and now there are reliable reports (here and here) that a substantial number of British water companies—10 out of 12!—use dowsing (if you don’t know it, look here) to find water, in particular pipes and mains.

I’m proud to say that this ridiculous practice was discovered by an evolutionary biologist—Sally Le Page, a grad student at Oxford—and first published on her site at Medium. She got wind of this when she saw a man from a big Midlands water company, a company called in to install a pipe from the mains, walking around her parents’ yard dowsing. Further inquiries revealed that 83% of the 12 companies use a practice that has never been scientifically shown to work, and there have been plenty of tests. As Le…

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A nostalgic look at The Bed of Nails

Victorian Skeptics

Here’s a look back at Vic Skeptics’ flirtation with the Bed of Nails.

Some enterprising Victorian Skeptics made a Bed of Nails and documented the process in the late 1990s. (See Ye Bed of Nails .pdf below)

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Guide to the Classics: Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars explores vice and virtue in ancient Rome

The Conversation

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Giovanni Cavino, I primi dodici imperatori Romani (‘The first twelve Roman emperors’), plaquettes produced at Padua, c. 1550. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Caillan Davenport, Macquarie University

In a memorable scene from the classic BBC TV series I, Claudius (1976), three frightened senators are summoned to the palace in the dead of night by the emperor Caligula. Rather than being executed, they are treated to a command performance by Caligula himself, who dances before them dressed in a shimmering gold bikini.

Caligula’s midnight dance routine is the climax of a sequence of horrors and indiscretions committed by the emperor. He has his predecessor suffocated to death with a pillow, executes his cousin because of his irritating cough, and engages in an incestuous relationship with his sister (they’re both gods, you see).

Caligula dances for Claudius and two other senators. Scene from the BBC TV series, I, Claudius (1976).

These outlandish scenes cannot be ascribed to the imagination of the scriptwriter Jack Pulman or to Robert Graves, the author of the original novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, on which the series is based. The incidents are adapted from Suetonius’s On the Lives of the Caesars, a collection of imperial biographies written in Latin in the second century A.D.

Latin edition of The Twelve Caesars published in 1541.
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Suetonius’s work describes the lives of Rome’s first 12 leaders from Julius Caesar to Domitian – hence it is best known today as The Twelve Caesars. This is the title it bears in the paperback Penguin Classics edition, translated by Robert Graves himself in 1957, and still in print today.

Suetonius’s unforgettable tales of sex, scandal, and debauchery have ensured that his writing has played a significant role in shaping our perceptions of imperial Rome.

The man and the work

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was a scholar and intellectual who held administrative positions at the imperial court under the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. He was a prolific author, writing biographies of poets and orators, as well as works on topics as diverse as the games, the Roman year, bodily defects, and lives of famous courtesans.

He probably began to write the Caesars when he was Hadrian’s secretary of correspondence. However, the biographies were only published after Suetonius was dismissed from Hadrian’s service for being too familiar with the emperor’s wife.

Bust of Hadrian in the Musei Capitolini.
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Political expediency meant that Suetonius wisely avoided writing about Hadrian. Instead The Twelve Caesars includes the Julio-Claudians, Rome’s first imperial dynasty (Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero), three short-lived emperors during the civil wars of A.D. 69 (Galba, Vespasian, Otho), and the Flavian dynasty (Vespasian, Titus, Domitian).

The structure of the individual biographies has often puzzled modern readers, who expect Suetonius to tell his story in a linear fashion from birth to death. Although Suetonius usually begins with an emperor’s family and upbringing, the bulk of each Life consists of an assortment of memorable, and sometimes salacious, anecdotes about an emperor’s public conduct and private life.

But this is no mere haphazard catalogue of sex and corruption. Instead, Suetonius tells his readers that he has carefully organized the stories “by categories”. These categories include the emperor’s virtues (such as justice, self-control, and generosity) and his vices (like greed, cruelty, and sexual excess).

Virtues and vices

In the second century A.D., when Suetonius was writing, there was no chance of a return to the Republic, but aristocrats still expected the emperor to behave as if he were merely the most prestigious citizen rather than an autocrat. The stories of virtue and vice in the Caesars are carefully selected to illustrate whether emperors measured up to this standard.

When Suetonius describes an emperor’s ancestors, he highlights how their qualities influenced the ruler himself. Early in the Life of Nero, the reader encounters Nero’s grandfather who staged particularly cruel shows in the arena. This helps to explain the later tales of Nero’s own savagery, because the reader would see that this vice was part of his nature.

Suetonius is fair and evenhanded in his treatment of his subjects. All emperors appear as flawed men with both virtues and vices, but the balance between them depends on the individual ruler. He even gives due credit to the notorious Caligula, who began his reign by publishing the imperial budget and showing generosity to the people. Suetonius then signals a change:

Thus far, it is as if we have been writing about an emperor, but the rest must be about a monster.

This “division” – a statement in which Suetonius clearly separates the anecdotes illustrating virtues from the vices – is a feature of several of his biographies. In Caligula’s case, it is from this point on that we read about his pretensions to divinity, his condemnation of aristocrats to hard labour in the mines, and his sexual immorality.

Emperor Tiberius, played by George Baker, in I Claudius.

The tales of the emperors’ sexual habits constitute some of the most famous passages in Suetonius. He chronicles Tiberius’s sordid behaviour on Capri, detailing how he forced men and women to engage in threesomes, had children perform oral sex on him, and raped young men who took his fancy.

When the Loeb Classical Library, which features the original Latin and the English translation of classical texts on facing pages, published their first edition of Suetonius in 1913, these chapters about Tiberius’s behaviour were left in Latin because they were considered too scandalous to translate. Although they are now translated into English, these graphic tales still have the power to shock and unsettle the reader.

An emperor’s private life and his sexual conduct were fair game because they reflected whether or not he was fit to rule. The same applied to members of his family. Augustus’s daughters were praised by Suetonius for spending their time weaving in his house. (Such gender stereotypes remain with us today, if one recalls the photo shoot of Julia Gillard knitting in Women’s Weekly). When his daughter Julia flagrantly flouted Augustus’s own adultery legislation, Suetonius reports that he had no choice but to exile her. The imperial family had to set standards for the entire empire.

Man or god?

Silver coin of the emperor Otho.
Wikimedia Commons

After the virtues and vices, Suetonius’s Lives usually conclude with a narrative of the emperor’s death and a detailed physical description of his body. Suetonius didn’t hold back in these passages, even pointing out that the emperor Otho sported a terrible wig to hide his bald patch (as his coinage also reveals).

The description of the emperor Nero is particularly memorable:

He was of a good height but his body was blotchy and ill-smelling. His hair was fairish, his face handsome rather than attractive, his eyes bluish-grey and dull, his neck thick, his stomach protruding, his legs very thin…

The different body parts were supposed to indicate character traits. Nero’s blotchy skin likened him to a panther (regarded as a deceitful creature); his hair colour suggested courage; the bulging beer belly had connotations of power, but also exposed his devotion to pleasure; his feeble legs indicated both femininity and fear. Nero was thus revealed to be a contradiction.

The emperor Claudius as Jupiter, Vatican Museum.
Wikimedia Commons

The descriptions of the bodies are also very funny. They undercut the divine pretensions of emperors, whose statues showed them in heroic nudity with six-packs that demonstrated their virility and likened them to gods. (Once again, not much has changed, as revealed by the images of Vladimir Putin’s shirtless hunting expeditions or Tony Abbott in his budgie smugglers).

Suetonius’s stories about the emperors’ faults and foibles exposed them as human beings. He even collected their famous sayings to shed light on their character – the famous line “as quick as boiled asparagus”, intoned beautifully by Brian Blessed’s Augustus in I, Claudius, is straight out of Suetonius.

His account of the witty sayings of Vespasian shows that the emperor frequently joked about his own economic policies:

When his son Titus criticized him for putting a tax even on urine, he held up a coin from the first payment to his son’s nose and asked him if he was offended by its smell. When Titus said no, he observed: ‘But it comes from urine.’

Vespasian emerges as a rather avuncular figure. He even pokes fun at the deification of emperors, proclaiming in the days before his death, “Oh dear, I think I am becoming a god!”

Laughing at power

But the humour of Suetonius’s Caesars is often double-edged. He tells one story about the time Nero visited his aunt on her death bed, and she lovingly remarked that she would die happy once she had the hairs from the first shaving of his beard. Nero joked that he would shave it off immediately. He then gave his aunt an overdose of laxatives to kill her off and seized her estate for himself.

Head of Nero, with beard, from the Palatine Museum.
Wikimedia Commons

Roman aristocrats reading this tale would probably have laughed, given its absurdly comic elements. But it would have been nervous laughter. For such stories reminded them of the power of the emperor. While they might have chuckled at another’s misfortune, they would have been acutely aware that one day it could be them.

Suetonius’s Caesars is thus more than a haphazard collection of gossip and scandal, but a work that sheds light on the world of the Roman aristocracy and how they lived (and coped) with their emperors. The stories of the emperors’ virtues and vices illustrates what Roman elites considered to be acceptable behaviour by their leaders.

Suetonius’s biographies also cut the emperors down to size, revealing them to be men with human flaws, rather than gods. They offered a necessary means of escapism in a world where imperial fickleness could end one’s career – or one’s life.

The ConversationRecommended translation: Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, Oxford World’s Classics edition by Catharine Edwards (2008).

Caillan Davenport, Lecturer in Roman History and ARC DECRA Research Fellow, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Obama’s letter to Trump

Barack Obama (born August 4, 1961) served as the 44th President of the United States from 2009 to 2017. The first African American to assume the presidency in U.S. history, he previously served in the U.S. Senate representing Illinois from 2005 to 2008 and in the Illinois State Senate from 1997 to 2004. As he departed the presidency in January 2017, Barack Obama offered his successor advice in a customary handover letter.

“…we are just temporary occupants of this office. That makes us guardians of those democratic institutions and traditions — like rule of law, separation of powers, equal protection and civil liberties — that our forebears fought and bled for. Regardless of the push and pull of daily politics, it’s up to us to leave those instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them.”

Read the full transcript of the letter here.

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