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Cryptozoology: Adventures in fantasy land with bigfoot, or legitimate science? February 26, 2009

Posted by Eban in Philosophy of biology.
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Cryptozoology is the search for and study of vertebrates that have either been deemed extinct or have never even been taxonomically identified by science in the first place. If you think you’ve never heard of such a strange practice, then think again. We all know of at least a few cryptids. For example, we’ve got:



The Loch Ness Monster:


And El Chupacabra (literally “goat sucker”):


These are just a few examples of cryptids that are incessantly searched for by “cryptzoologists.”  Now that we’re all on the same page as to exactly what cryptozoology is…how could something that has stolen hours of our lives in the form of hour long specials called “Monster Hunters” or “In Search of Bigfoot” (or something with the same effect) possibly have anyone calling it a science?  (It would be extremely easy to talk about this all day, but I’m going to try to keep it really short and to the point.)

Another side of cryptozoology that isn’t explored in these mind numbing television shows is the fact that people actually do make “cryptozoological discoveries.” No, I’m not talking about finding isolated populations of bigfoot; I highly doubt that a discovery like that could be kept under wraps for long anyway. If you recall the definition I gave in the very first sentence of this post, part of cryptozoology is the search and study of animals that once existed but are now believed to be extinct. We talked about examples like the mega mouth shark and the ivory billed wood pecker during my presentation. However, Dr. Brister was kind enough to send me a link to another, more recent, discovery. It has to do with a quail in the Philippines that was photographed and then promptly sold as a food item in a local market…Here is the link:

Extinct Quails Just Taste Better

Basically, what everything is boiling down to is that there are two sides to cryptozoology. There is the fantasy land side (at least until someone actually finds one of the mythical cryptids) where people are, and have been for quite some time, searching for mythical beasts; and then you have the side that actually contributes to mainstream science in rediscovering species thought to be wiped from the face of the earth. With this, there are some questions you have to ask yourself:
-Should cryptozoology be accepted by mainstream science?

-Should it even be considered its own field? (considering 90% of discoveries happen on accident or the organism was already known about by locals)

-This brings up the issue with the reluctance of mainstream science to listen to local knowledge.  What would cause scientists to be skeptic of local knowledge?

-Is the amount of skepticism towards cryptozoology a healthy amount or is it just too much?

-And finally, are you a believer or a skeptic?

Some research may help you answer some of these questions, and I found that a good place to start is Wikipedia.  Personally, as much as I would like to believe in the idea of all of these mythical creatures, they are just that, myths.  I will always keep a healthy level of skepticism until I actually see one.  But, again, this is just my opinion and only you can sift through all the information available out there and decide for yourself.  Good luck out there and godspeed fellow monster hunters; and please keep an open mind!

When do Humans Develop Consciousness?, Part 3: Self-Awareness February 22, 2009

Posted by ews8704 in Philosophy of biology, Philosophy of mind.

baby chicks Self -Awareness

My 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Wilkens, had us hatch baby chicks in the classroom as part of our biology curriculum. This has to have been one of my favorite memories of Mullan Road Elementary School: for weeks we 8-year olds waited restlessly as the eggs sat huddled inside the classroom incubator, and every week Mrs. Wilkens would explain how the baby chickens inside were growing.

I remember they all started hatching at once, right before P.E class.  Unfortunately, one of the chicks “didn’t make it,” as Mrs. Wilkens said (later one of the boys in my class told me it was born with its intestines hanging out, although I don’t know whether that’s true.) Despite our loss, we were delighted to have a handful of our very own cheerful chicks for  pets.

They were busy, these chicks, and they seemed to make decisions as a collective. They would interrupt our lessons by a sudden chorus of chirps, only to all plop down asleep a couple minutes later, their plump little bodies all snuggled up together.

Unfortunately chicks, despite their cuteness,  can have a vicious streak  (much like 8-year-olds, for that matter) . All of the chicks were born with black feathers, except for one, who was instead a perfect butter yellow color, like the Easter biddies on Hallmark cards. Sadly, the other chicks taunted this yellow one relentlessly. Mrs. Wilkens, worried that his siblings would peck the yellow one to death,  eventually moved him to his own separate terrarium.

The yellow chick, unfortunately, became quite lonely all by himself, and soon our long division lessons were interrupted by the deep, somber chirps of a chick forgotten.  Mrs. Wilken’s tried giving him a friend, a tiny stuffed panda bear, but it was just not the same.

Unable to bear his yelping any longer, Mrs. Wilken’s finally tried giving the chick a little mirror. It worked. He loved it. He would peck at it and brush against it and have whole conversations with just  his reflection. We kept the chicks for a couple of weeks more, until we had to return them to the farm, and I don’t think that little yellow chick ever did catch on.


At What Point in Development do Humans Become Conscious?, Part 2: Differing Definitions of Consciousness February 16, 2009

Posted by ews8704 in Metaphysics, Philosophy of biology, Philosophy of mind.

It’s been a while since my last post, and since then I’ve gotten some interesting comments (Yay!).Reaching

Tony mentioned that,  even if we are indeed conscious in the later stages of prenatal development, we aren’t  necessarily so in the earlier stages.  I agree; I don’t think anyone could argue that zygotes are conscious.  U.S. law, too,  differentiates between earlier and  later term abortions, with lawmakers and activists seeing 3rd trimester abortions as the most controversial.

Greg and Kyle suggested that consciousness doesn’t depend on memory. I also think they have a point-

One of my older relatives had a medical procedure done where the doctors stuck a tube with a small camera attached to it down his throat. The procedure was supposed to be horrifically uncomfortable, but the doctors needed him awake (conscious?),  in order to tell them if it was going down okay. So the doctors gave him a pill to make him completely forget the procedure. So my relative, to this day, has no idea what the surgery was like, although the doctors report he was very cooperative and helpful throughout.

I think our association of consciousness with memory comes from our experiences with passing out and falling asleep, when we truly do not remember what we were doing and what was happening around us.  Memory can also be helpful for us when we question when humans develop consciousness: If I can remember thinking, feeling, acting, and having a sense of self when I was, say, 5, at least I know  I was conscious by the age of 5, even if I wasn’t before then.

Dr. Brister pointed out that consciousness is sometimes defined as self-awareness, a trait that sets humans apart from other animals. Babies could be conscious of their surroundings, like many animals,  but not yet self-aware, unlike grown humans.  I want to include this in my discussion of differing definitions of consciousness.

Thanks everyone! Now here’s where my post gets weird…


The study of Happiness February 7, 2009

Posted by esl5400 in Medicine, Philosophy of biology, Philosophy of mind, Social science.
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·         Defining Happiness

Happiness is a state of mind or feeling such as contentment, satisfaction, pleasure, or joy

·         Measuring happiness

What causes happiness:  External stimuli (i.e.  Win the lottery; Get an A on an exam…)

The Satisfaction with Life Index was created by Adrian G. White, an Analytic Social Psychologist at the University of Leicester, using data from a metastudy.  It is an attempt to show life satisfaction (subjective life satisfaction) in different nations.

In this calculation, subjective well being correlates most strongly with health, wealth, and access to basic education

This is an example of a recent trend to use direct measures of happiness, such as surveys asking people how happy they are.  Some studies suggest that happiness can be measured effectively.

Ø  Interesting fact:  USA ranks 23rd in the world for overall self assessed satisfaction

Ways to measure happiness levels:                Self Assessment   (Surveys)                                                   Biochemical testing

ü  A chemical called Serotonin is believed by doctors and researchers as the neurological cause for happiness perception.  The influx in the level of Serotonin in your bloodstream can be the main cause for sadness, depression, and suicidal thoughts and feelings.

ü  Other “Drugs” can replace Serotonin with a stronger chemical in the brain, having a similar or increased effect

§  LSD

§  Ecstasy


Q:  So why measure happiness?

A:  Pharmaceuticals!

Although studies are performed to assess overall contentment, or to judge the effect of a change in outside influence, Doctors and biochemists want to create a solution to create a treatment to make people happier.

Testing (surveys or chemical) is done in laboratories to determine the effectiveness of the drugs in clinical trials. If we couldn’t effectively, repeatedly, and consistently measure happiness, then the entire market for medical research and development of happiness and/or depression would be futile. 




·         Example:  How stuff affects our happiness level

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – is a mood disorder in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms in the winter or, less frequently, in the summer, repeatedly, year after year.

The US National Library of Medicine states that “some people experience a serious mood change when the seasons change. They may sleep too much, have little energy, and crave sweets and starchy foods. They may also feel depressed.

There are many different treatments for classic (winter-based) seasonal affective disorder, including:  

§  Light therapies with bright lights

§  Anti-depression medication

§  Cognitive-behavioral therapy

Questions to consider:

*      Is happiness learned?

Ø   If so, how do babies recognize and respond in comfort to their mother, or to being fed, or held and rocked? 

Ø  If not, can this be broken down to and simply explained with brain chemistry and preprogrammed responses?

*      If we effectively argue that the feeling of happiness is no more than a scientifically explained organic chemistry problem, further resolved in human psychology, then what might be the social and moral repercussions or concerns that would be incurred? 

Ø  Consider:  does the same thing make two different people happy?  Can the effects of pleasure and happiness be predicted?

Ø  If happiness, love, and joy were simply preprogrammed responses to external stimuli, does that take away from the experience of happiness?

*       Could science ever get to the point where, through chemistry and medicine, happiness is measured on a point value system (based on Serotonin levels)?  Would people then choose certain experiences based on this quantitative approach?

Ø  Much like counting calories or carbohydrates when eating

Sources:              Wikipedia:

Ø  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happiness

Ø  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satisfaction_with_Life_Index

Ø  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seasonal_affective_disorder 


This is a copy of what I plan to present this comming Thursday for my class project on the study of happiness.  It covers a range of topics, but my focus is on the ability to study hapiness.  We begin by defining what we percieve happiness to be.  The two most common, and seemingly practical, ways of measuring happiness levels are the more popular (surveys) and the more precise (biochemical testing).  I will discuss the differences in these, and related them to how they are both used to better understand happiness, and therefore make better applications of medicine and making changes to your enviromnet, and how this call all have wither positive or negative impacts on your happiness level.  Please feel free to read my proposed topic questions to create a more intellectually stimulating conversatioons after my presentation.



Creationism and Intelligent Design February 5, 2009

Posted by cpf5875 in Philosophy of biology.
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According to the Creationist point of view, the Earth (the universe) was created by God in six days approximately 6,000 to 10,000 years ago.  In those six days, God created every single living plant and animal that is inhabiting the world today.   This point of view is taken from the book of Genesis from the Bible.   Is this view of the origin of life on this planet science?

A claim that a supernatural being created the world as we know it is not in the realm of science.   Many of the events that are claimed to have taken place in the book of Genesis have been disproved by geologic evidence, fossil records, and radioactive dating.  In order for a claim to have scientific value there must be either an confirmation or a falsification of hypotheses, observations, and/or theories.  In the scientific community, a theory must have been, through observation and testing, proven probably.  In Creationism, there are no conjectures which have not been falsified already.  Any theory that hasbeen proven false, cannot not possibly be confirmed.  There is no scientific evidence to support the claims of Creationists.  There are simply conjectures and speculations about the origins of the world and radical claims made to uphold the Biblical teachings of the origins of life on Earth.

Even though there are scarce people in the scientific community who believe in the creationist claim (I fear to say none because you never know who is out there), there are many well respected scientists who believe in Intelligent Design (ID).  This is the belief that a creator (God) laid out a master plan for the creation of the Universe and Life as we know on the planet Earth.  This theory differs from Creationism by not limiting the origins of life and the Universe to the writings and teachings of religious doctrine.  In fact, God and the Bible are not encouraged to be discussed when referring to Intelligent Design.  The age of the Earth according to most IDers is what the scientific community have deemed it to be, approx. 4.5 billion years old.  IDers do not believe a great flood took place or that the Earth was created in six days.  In fact, most scientific claims which have proven to be irrefutable (ie the age of the earth, gravity, newtons laws…etc) are supported by ID.  However, the big question is evolution.  ID claims that many (if not all) biological systems are far too complex to have evolved from simpler systems by natural selection and mutation. 

Like Creationism, ID does have that one thing in common which denies any credibility it has as a science.  The term Creator is used to show a divine and intelligent order to the Universe.  Just because the term GOD is not used, does not mean that there is no religion involved.  The words used become twisted to give the illusion of non-religion and legitimate science.  Theistic Supernatural, Creator, Intelligent Design, and the latest euphemism provided by Kyle (thank you Kyle, i especially get a kick out of this)  “Sudden Emergence”.  Sounds like a miracle to me.  A clear demarcation criterion for science has become increasingly difficult to find.  However, if the term “insert miracle here” is needed to explain a theory, that is not science.


At What Point in Development do Humans Become Conscious?, Part 1: Societal Ramifications January 26, 2009

Posted by ews8704 in Philosophy of biology, Philosophy of mind.

An Infant Processing her Surroundings

Societal Ramifications

The question of when we develop consciousness is, naturally, very loaded . If we are conscious in the womb, for instance,  can abortion ever be  moral? On my search for materials on nascent consciousness, I even ran across a book that insisted all expecting mothers should stay at home, lest they pass the toxic stress of the working world on through the placenta and trouble the fetus.


Introduction: At What Point do Humans Develop Consciousness? January 22, 2009

Posted by ews8704 in Philosophy of biology, Philosophy of mind.
Wired Baby

Wired Baby

I first remember thinking about the nature of consciousness when I was 4 years old. Back then, I knew I was a big girl: my parents and teachers kept telling me so.  I also knew that, before a girl is big, she is little. Yet I had  no memory of being a little girl. (more…)

Levels of Natural Selection January 21, 2009

Posted by tcb1370 in Philosophy of biology.
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There are many theories about the question of “At What Level Does Natural Selection Operate”, but I’ve chosen to focus on just three mainstream theories.

Group Level

Group selection is commonly referred to as “Multi-Level Selection Theory“.

D.S. Wilson defines group selection in this way:

Group selection promotes fitness of groups, relative to other groups in the global population. The levels of selection are not always in conflict.

It’s easy to fall into thinking about individual selection, when one is trying to imagine group selection taking place, but these following examples are sometimes used to differentiate between group selection, and the levels below it:

  • Molecular reactions initially “competed” against each other, but eventually became cooperative and formed into simple cells.
  • Simple cells once competed against each other for resources and eventually became complex cells working together.
  • Multi-cellular organisms arose from groups of complex cells.  We consider a multi-cellular organism to be one organism now, but it may have evolved as such because of the benefits to replication that groups of cells received when cooperating.
  • Eusocial insects like bees, wasps and ants are groups that act as a single organism in some ways, and compete against other like groups.  Note: This type of colony has actually evolved 11 different times independently.  I find that to be very interesting.

Group selectionists also seem to use the idea of Koinophilia as evidence of their theory.  Basically, by only choosing mates that have the most average characteristics of their population, a group can fend off selfish individuals from taking advantage of the group’s cooperation.

For more information on group selection, I would suggest this paper by D.S. Wilson and Elliott Sober: Re-introducing Group Selection to the Human Behavioral Sciences.  Their main point is stated here in the abstract:

We show that the rejection of group selection was based on a misplaced emphasis on genes as “replicators” which is in fact irrelevant to the question of whether groups can be like individuals in their functional organization. The fundamental question is whether social groups and other higher-level entities can be “vehicles” of selection.

Gene Level

Gene level selection, also known as “Selfish Gene Theory” really seems to have been made most popular by Richard Dawkins, in his book “The Selfish Gene”.  In this book, Dawkins explains the idea of replicators as the underlying cause of all evolution and describes the organism as a machine that perpetuates its replicators (in this case, genes).

He uses Evolutionarily Stable Strategies to show that most of the behaviors we see today in organisms can be explained by the way that replicators fall into certain patterns that do not allow other organisms to take advantage of them.  These strategies may not be the most optimal in terms of overall benfit to the organism – for example, a strategy where an organism never fights another organism would be beneficial to everyone in the population – but they prevent a mutant aggressive organism from being born that would invade and inevitably spread through the population.

I found his paper Burying the Vehicle, to be very interesting because it refuted many of Wilson and Sober’s claims about ‘vehicles’ of selection.   I think it can be summed up pretty well here:

Natural selection chooses replicators for their ability to survive in an environment that includes other replicators and their products. Sometimes cooperation among replicators is so strongly favoured that units coherent enough to be called vehicles emerge. But just because a vehicle may emerge at a given level, we have no right to assume that it will and I believe the evidence will show that at most levels it usually doesn’t. The question, “What is the vehicle in this situation?” may be no more justified than “What is the purpose of Mount Everest?” Ask rather “Is there a vehicle in this situation and, if so, why?”

Individual Level

Individual selection seems to be the most commonly accepted view of natural selection.  Selfish Gene Theorists agree, in that since it is only through an individual that a gene may express its characteristic, the individual may rightly be thought of as the unit of selection.

For more information on the various levels of Natural Selection, I would take a look at the Wikipedia page Unit of Selection as a starting point.

Some authors and books I would suggest would be:

  1. Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene
  2. Frans de Waal – a primatologist who writes a lot about the origins of altruism
  3. Elliott Sober – a philosopher of science, who has an interest in biology
  4. PZ Myers – I can’t help myself. PZ is my favorite science blogger, so I have to include him.  He’s done a few controversial things in the past to make his points, but he really knows biology.  He is my daily source for information about evolutionary theory, so I would highly recommend him.