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Three ways your environment affects your intelligence
You can be born with good genes and study hard and still not meet your potential. Your environment has a lot to do with how smart you are.
- Euthenics refers to the practice of improving humanity's environment in order to maximize its potential.
- Throughout history, we've tweaked our surroundings in such a way as to directly enhance our intelligence.
- These examples underscore the importance of environmental regulation and policies; otherwise, we might just be throwing away our potential.
Every few years, researchers administer IQ tests to a sample of test subjects, take the median score, and declare that to be the new "100," the score that means you're of perfectly average intelligence. This begs the question: Why do they need to update the average score? Simply put, we've been getting smarter. Every time the test is re-administered, the median score has almost always gone up. In fact, if we were to administer today's IQ tests to people from 100 years ago, they'd score somewhere around a 70; researchers estimate that our IQ scores jump about 3 points every decade. This is called the Flynn effect, named after the researcher who discovered it.
There are several proposed reasons for the Flynn effect. It could be that more people are attending school than they were before or that we do a better job of teaching students the skills directly related to IQ tests. These may be true, but there is one domain that has unquestionably increased our smarts: euthenics.
Where eugenics deals with improving humanity by selectively breeding allegedly "superior" groups of people — an idea that would ultimately sow considerable discord and decidedly not improve humanity's condition — euthenics focuses on improving humanity by improving our environment. Here are three examples of how tweaking our environment can make us smarter.
The US Government tinkers with salt
In the early 20th century, people living in the Great Lakes and Pacific Northwest regions were particularly susceptible to acquiring goiters, which are swollen lumps in the neck associated with a dysfunctional thyroid gland. David Murray Cowie, a professor of pediatrics, knew that this was due to iodine deficiency, a critical micronutrient that the thyroid needs in order for it to function properly. Cowie also knew that the Swiss incorporated sodium iodide in table salt to prevent this condition, so he persuaded the US government to implement the practice as well.
In the fall of 1924, the Morton Salt Company began distributing iodized salt at a national level. As expected, the number of goiters dropped precipitously.
Nearly 100 years later, researchers discovered that introducing iodized salt had some significant ancillary benefits as well. In iodine-deficient regions, IQ scores jumped by 15 points, and they increased by 3 points nationally. What's more, incomes in those iodine-deficient regions grew by 11 percent. How did this happen?
Iodine is easiest to gain from seafood and seaweeds, but it can also be gained from plants and animals so long as those plants and animals were raised on soil rich in iodine. In the Great Lakes and Pacific Northwest regions, floods and ancient glaciers had scrubbed all the iodine from the soil. This made goiters more common, but it also had a major impact on pregnant women. If a pregnant woman has an iodine deficiency (and therefore a dysfunctional thyroid gland), their child will be mentally impaired. A huge chunk of the US population had grown up with iodine-deficient mothers, negatively impacting their potential.
Making gasoline even more toxic
Photo: David Brodbeck via Flickr
In 1922, GM discovered that a chemical called tetraethyl lead worked fantastically as an anti-knock compound in automobiles — essentially, it prevented the early combustion of fuel. Ethanol would have worked just as well, but this substance could not be patented despite being considerably less toxic than lead. So, GM worked with oil companies to introduce lead into gasoline rather than the safer but less profitable ethanol. GM, Du Pont, and the general public were all aware that tetraethyl lead was poisonous. Rather than refer to this additive by its true name, they called it "ethyl."
Unfortunately, leaded gasoline remained a fact of life far after the public became aware of it. It was only in the mid-1970s with the passage of the Clean Air Act that its use was banned. And once we scrubbed the lead out of our gasoline, the terrible impact of this decades-long poisoning became clear.
The generation born after the Clean Air Act gained 6 points in their IQ scores. What's more, researchers argue that kids who grew up during the period between lead's introduction to gasoline in the 1920s and its elimination in the 1970s drove up to 90 percent of the variation in violent crime. Crime in cities like Los Angeles and New York reached dizzying heights in the '80s and '90s and then dropped continuously as the last leaded generation died, became incarcerated, or escaped their criminal lifestyle. Politicians were eager to attribute this to police practices, such as the "broken windows" theory of law enforcement, but some researchers assert that it had more to do with the smarter, healthier, and better-adjusted crop of citizens who grew up in a lead-free environment.
The link between smog and brain fog
While the previous items on this list discussed things that we have done, humanity still has a long way to go before pollution is significantly reduced. Every year, the State of Global Air project releases a report [PDF] assessing the severity of air pollution around the world. The most recent report found that 92 percent of the world's population is living in an area that exceeds healthy guidelines for small, particulate air pollution as set out by the World Health Organization. Not only is this bad for local ecosystems, climate change, and the human body, air pollution has been linked to major decrements in intelligence.
One study, for instance, analyzed a dataset of nearly 32,000 observations of standardized test scores and the daily air pollution index throughout China. The researchers found that the longer a study participant was exposed to high levels of pollution, the more their intelligence dropped. In particular, linguistic ability was affected the most, and men were more affected than women. Overall, the average effect of pollution reduced the study participants' intelligence to a similar degree as missing a year of school, roughly the equivalent of 5 IQ points.
Small particles from air pollution enter the body through the lungs, and from there, they travel throughout the body, including to the brain. The researchers from this study speculated that these particles were likely inflaming the brain and thereby damaging its white matter at an accelerated rate.
We like to think that our intellect is a resource we're born with, one that we can exercise or let go to waste. This isn't exactly true. Intelligence is a dynamic phenomenon that depends on the quality of our environment to a considerable degree. That's why smart regulations and policies are important. Without them, we might not get smart enough to implement them in the first place.
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These alien-like creatures are virtually invisible in the deep sea.
- A team of marine biologists used nets to catch 16 species of deep-sea fish that have evolved the ability to be virtually invisible to prey and predators.
- "Ultra-black" skin seems to be an evolutionary adaptation that helps fish camouflage themselves in the deep sea, which is illuminated by bioluminescent organisms.
- There are likely more, and potentially much darker, ultra-black fish lurking deep in the ocean.
A team of marine biologists has discovered 16 species of "ultra-black" fish that absorb more than 99 percent of the light that hits their skin, making them virtually invisible to other deep-sea fish.
The researchers, who published their findings Thursday in Current Biology, caught the species after dropping nets more than 200 meters deep near California's Monterey Bay. At those depths, sunlight fizzles out. That's one reason why many deep-sea species have evolved the ability to illuminate the dark waters through bioluminescence.
But what if deep-sea fish don't want to be spotted? To counter bioluminescence, some species have evolved ultra-black skin that's exceptionally good at absorbing light. Only a few other species are known to possess this strange trait, including birds of paradise and some spiders and butterflies.
The Pacific blackdragon
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
When researchers first saw the deep-sea species, it wasn't immediately obvious that their skin was ultra-black. Then, marine biologist Karen Osborn, a co-author on the new paper, noticed something strange about the photos she took of the fish.
"I had tried to take pictures of deep-sea fish before and got nothing but these really horrible pictures, where you can't see any detail," Osborn told Wired. "How is it that I can shine two strobe lights at them and all that light just disappears?"
After examining samples of fish skin under the microscope, the researchers discovered that the fish skin contains a layer of organelles called melanosomes, which contain melanin, the same pigment that gives color to human skin and hair. This layer of melanosomes absorbs most of the light that hits them.
A crested bigscale
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
"But what isn't absorbed side-scatters into the layer, and it's absorbed by the neighboring pigments that are all packed right up close to it," Osborn told Wired. "And so what they've done is create this super-efficient, very-little-material system where they can basically build a light trap with just the pigment particles and nothing else."
The result? Strange and terrifying deep-sea species, like the crested bigscale, fangtooth, and Pacific blackdragon, all of which appear in the deep sea as barely more than faint silhouettes.
David Csepp, NMFS/AKFSC/ABL
But interestingly, this unique disappearing trick wasn't passed on to these species by a common ancestor. Rather, they each developed it independently. As such, the different species use their ultra-blackness for different purposes. For example, the threadfin dragonfish only has ultra-black skin during its adolescent years, when it's rather defenseless, as Wired notes.
Other fish—like the oneirodes species, which use bioluminescent lures to bait prey—probably evolved ultra-black skin to avoid reflecting the light their own bodies produce. Meanwhile, species like C. acclinidens only have ultra-black skin around their gut, possibly to hide light of bioluminescent fish they've eaten.
Given that these newly described species are just ones that this team found off the coast of California, there are likely many more, and possibly much darker, ultra-black fish swimming in the deep ocean.
Information may not seem like something physical, yet it has become a central concern for physicists. A wonderful new book explores the importance of the "dataome" for the physical, biological, and human worlds.
- The most important current topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all — information, which is central to thermodynamics and perhaps the universe itself.
- The "dataome" is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls.
- The dataome is vast and growing everyday, sucking up an ever increasing share of the energy humans produce.
Physics is a field that is supposed to study real stuff. By real, I mean things like matter and energy. Matter is, of course, the kind of stuff you can hold in your hand. Energy may seem a little more abstract, but its reality is pretty apparent, appearing in the form of motion or gravity or electromagnetic fields.
What has become apparent recently, however, is the importance to physics of something that seems somewhat less real: information. From black holes to quantum mechanics to understanding the physics of life, information has risen to become a principal concern of many physicists in many domains. This new centrality of information is why you really need to read astrophysicist Caleb Scharf's new book The Ascent of Information: Books, Bits, Machines, and Life's Unending Algorithms.
Scharf is currently the director of the Astrobiology Program at Columbia University. He is also the author of four other books as well as a regular contributor to Scientific American.
(Full disclosure: Scharf and I have been collaborators on a scientific project involving the Fermi Paradox, so I was a big fan before I read this new book. Of course, the reason why I collaborated with him is because I really like the way he thinks, and his creativity in tackling tough problems is on full display in The Ascent of Information.)
What is the dataome?
In his new book, Scharf is seeking a deeper understanding of what he calls the "dataome." This is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls. The book opens with a compelling exploration of how Shakespeare's works, which began as scribbles on a page, have gone on to have lives of their own in the dataome. Through reprintings in different languages, recordings of performances, movie adaptations, comic books, and so on, Shakespeare's works are now a permanent part of the vast swirling ensemble of information that constitutes the human dataome.
I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
But the dataome does not just live in our heads. Scharf takes us on a proper physicist's journey through the dataome, showing us how information can never be divorced from energy. Your brain needs the chemical energy from food you ate this morning to read, process, and interpret these words. One of the most engaging parts of the book is when Scharf details just how much energy and real physical space our data-hungry world consumes as it adds to the dataome. For example, the Hohhot Data Center in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China is made of vast "farms" of data processing servers covering 245 acres of real estate. A single application like Bitcoin, Scharf tells us, consumes 7.7 gigawatts per year, equivalent to the output of half a dozen nuclear reactors!
Information is everywhere
But the dataome is not just about energy. Entropy is central to the story as well. Scharf takes the reader through a beautifully crafted discussion of information and the science of thermodynamics. This is where the links between energy, entropy, the limits of useful work, and probability all become profoundly connected to the definition of information.
The second law of thermodynamics tells us that you cannot use all of a given amount of energy to do useful work. Some of that energy must be wasted by getting turned into heat. Entropy is the physicist's way of measuring that waste (which can also be thought of as disorder). Scharf takes the reader through the basic relations of thermodynamics and then shows how entropy became intimately linked with information. It was Claude Shannon's brilliant work in the 1940s that showed how information — bits — could be defined for communication and computation as an entropy associated with the redundancy of strings of symbols. That was the link tying the physical world of physics explicitly to the informational and computational world of the dataome.
The best parts of the book are where Scharf unpacks how information makes its appearance in biology. From the data storage and processing that occurs with every strand of DNA, to the tangled pathways that define evolutionary dynamics, Scharf demonstrates how life is what happens to physics and chemistry when information matters. I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
The physics of information
There are a lot of popular physics books out there about black holes and exoplanets and other cool stuff. But right now, I feel like the most important topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all. Information is a relatively new addition to the physics bestiary, making it even more compelling. If you are looking for a good introduction to how that is so, The Ascent of Information is a good place to start.
A new study tested to what extent dogs can sense human deception.
Is humanity's best friend catching on to our shenanigans? Researchers at the University of Vienna discovered that dogs can in certain cases know when people are lying.
The scientists carried out a study with hundreds of dogs to determine to what extent dogs could spot deception. The team's new paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, outlined experiments that tested whether dogs, like humans, have some inner sense of how to assess truthfulness.
As the researchers wrote in their paper, "Among non-primates, dogs (Canis familiaris) constitute a particularly interesting case, as their social environment has been shared with humans for at least 14,000 years. For this reason, dogs have been considered as a model species for the comparative investigation of socio-cognitive abilities." The investigation focused specifically on understanding if dogs were "sensitive to some mental or psychological states of humans."
The experiments involved 260 dogs, which were made to listen to advice from a human "communicator" whom they did not know. The human told them which one of two bowls had a treat hidden inside by touching it and saying, "Look, this is very good!" If the dogs took the person's advice, they would get the treat.
Once they established the trust of the dogs, the researchers then complicated the experience by letting dogs watch another human that they did not know transfer the treat from one bowl to another. In some cases, the original communicator would also be present to watch but not always.
The findings revealed that half of the dogs did not follow the advice of the communicator if that person was not present when the food was switched to a different bowl. The dogs had a sense that this human could not have known the true location of the treat. Furthermore, two-thirds of the dogs ignored the human's suggestion if she did see the food switch but pointed to the wrong bowl. The dogs figured out the human was lying to them.
Photos of experiments showing the dog, human communicator, and person hiding the treat. Credit: Lucrezia Lonardo et al / Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
"We thought dogs would behave like children under age five and apes, but now we speculate that perhaps dogs can understand when someone is being deceitful," co-author Ludwig Huber from the University of Vienna told New Scientist. "Maybe they think, 'This person has the same knowledge as me, and is nevertheless giving me the wrong [information].' It's possible they could see that as intentionally misleading, which is lying."
This is not the first time such experiments have been carried out. Previously, children under age five, macaques, and chimps were tested in a similar way. It turned out that children and other animals were more likely than dogs to listen to the advice of the liars. Notably, among the dogs, terriers were found to be more like children and apes, more eagerly following false suggestions.