June 23, 2009

Population size linked to intelligence, culture, cancer, and one of my favorite movies

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As you may well know, I hold firm to the idea that science is profoundly important to humans, though it’s sometimes a difficult thing to articulate exactly why. And so, at the risk of beating the proverbial horse, I’m going to take another crack at establishing some of philosophical reasons for scientific research.

One of my favorite movies is Hurlyburly. It’s a little obscure, and my reasons for liking it are a little tangential and not necessarily relevant to this discussion, and so I hope that the connection I wish to draw does not come off as pointlessly esoteric.

Anyway, Sean Penn’s character is this totally self-absorbed Hollywood casting director, a low-life bottom feeder of the film and entertainment industry. He is essentially a member of a vast machine that pumps out entertainment to the masses and the part that he plays in this machine is utterly insignificant in the general scheme of things. This–and a lot of drugs–put him in the state of mind of always questioning his place in the world and how he is to relate to the world. He continually asks when presented with some outside information that is not directly relevant to his life, “How does this pertain to me?”

On the one hand, he is just being utterly self-centered. But on the other, I think he’s asking a valid question. Many things happen in the world that have no bearing on our day to day lives. But are we going to make the claim that starving children in Africa are irrelevant? Are we going to say that the potential for revolution in Iran is not important? These things don’t affect me directly, but as Anna Paquin’s character points out in the film, everything pertains to everything else in the sense that everything is part of the same “flow,” as she puts it.

I’m not trying to be mystical about this. These things that happen in the world always pertain to us because everything pertains to us. Even the most insignificant detail, like the fact that I’m sleepless in a hotel right this very moment because my flight home was delayed until tomorrow morning, is significant. It might, say, affect your decision to book a flight with Northwest Airlines–now Delta–in the future. It might affect your decision to decide on a connection at the Indianapolis Airport (I don’t recommend it).

To move on, there were two new studies that struck me as profoundly relevant, not only to our lives, but also to each other. I will point out that they will not necessarily affect how you live your life, but they definitely pertain to you.

First of all, researchers at the University of Missouri have shown that, as humans evolved, there is a strong correlation between brain size and population density. In other words, they have shown that brain size is directly related to social competition. What this means is: our brains are bigger because we compete with each other, and not with other species. This is pretty serious stuff.

And now some research out of Georgia Tech suggests that the fact that our brains are bigger is the reason we have higher cancer rates than chimps who are much less susceptible to cancer.

So let’s look at this. We–not necessarily willingly–gave up a relatively cancer free existence for our intelligence. That intelligence evolved as a result of competition within our species.

Interestingly enough, it seems that population density is also directly linked to culture. So there is a tension that exists when humans are together. But this tension can be utilized purposefully. It stems from competition (since that is the nature of the world) but it in no way means that we are incapable of transcending our natures and working together. We can do great things when we work together and if it means we’re more likely to get cancer, well, I think it means we have all the more obligation to use our brains.

Gute Nacht.

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