Monday, August 26, 2013

Could we have evolved traits that are detrimental to our survival?

Let us assume that we collected data on the presence or absence of a trait (e.g., propensity toward risky behavior) in a population of individuals, as well as on intermediate effects of the trait, downstream effects on mating and survival success, and ultimately on reproductive success (a.k.a. “fitness”, in evolutionary biology).

The data would have been collected over several generations. Let us also assume that we conducted a multivariate analysis on this data, of the same type as the analyses employing WarpPLS that were discussed here in previous posts (). The results are summarized through the graph below.

Each of the numbers next to the arrows in the graph below represents the strength of a cause-effect relationship. The number .244 linking “a” and “y” means that a one standard deviation variation in “a” causes a .244 standard deviation increase in “y”. It also means that a one standard deviation variation in “a” causes a 24.4 percent increase in “y” considering the average “y” as the baseline.

This type of mathematical view of evolution may look simplistic. This is an illusion. It is very general, and encompasses evolution in all living organisms, including humans. It also applies to theoretical organisms where multiple (e.g., 5, 6 etc.) sexes could exist. It even applies to non-biological organisms, as long as these organisms replicate - e.g., replicating robots.

So the trait measured by “a” has a positive effect on the intermediate effect “y”. This variable, “y” in turn has a negative effect on survival success (“s”), and a strong one at that: -.518. Examples: “a” = propensity toward risky behavior, measured as 0 (low) and 1 (high); and “y” = hunting success, measured in the same way. (That is, “a” and “y” are correlated, but “a”=1 does not always mean “y”=1.) Here the trait “a” has a negative effect on survival via its intermediate effect on “y”. If I calculate the total effect of “a” on “w” via the 9 paths that connect these two variables, I will find that it is .161.

The total effect on reproductive success is positive, which means that the trait will tend to spread in the population. In other words, the trait will evolve in the population, even though it has a negative effect on survival. This type of trait is what has been referred to as a “costly” trait ().

Say what? Do you mean to say that we have evolved traits that are unhealthy for us? Yes, I mean exactly that. Is this a “death to paleo” post? No, it is not. I discussed this topic here before, several years ago (). But the existence of costly traits is one of the main reasons why I don’t think that mimicking our evolutionary past is necessarily healthy. For example, many of our male ancestors were warriors, and they died early because of that.

What type of trait will present this evolutionary pattern – i.e., be a costly trait? One answer is: a trait that is found to be attractive by members of the other sex, and that is not very healthy. For example, a behavior that is perceived as “sexy”, but that is also associated with increased mortality. This would likely be a behavior prominently displayed by males, since in most species, including humans, sexual selection pressure is much more strongly applied by females than by males.

Examples would be aggressiveness and propensity toward risky behavior, especially in high-stress situations such as hunting and intergroup conflict (e.g., a war between two tribes) where being aggressive is likely to benefit an individual’s group. In warrior societies, both aggressiveness and propensity toward risky behavior are associated with higher social status and a greater ability to procure mates. These traits are usually seen as male traits in these societies.

Here is something interesting. Judging from our knowledge of various warrior societies, including American plains Indians societies, the main currency of warrior societies were counts of risky acts, not battle effectiveness. Slapping a fierce enemy warrior on the face and living to tell the story would be more valuable, in terms of “counting coup”, than killing a few inexperienced enemy warriors in an ambush.

Greater propensity toward risky behavior among men is widespread and well documented, and is very likely the result of evolutionary forces, operating on costly traits. Genetic traits evolved primarily by pressure on one sex are often present in the other (e.g., men have nipples). There are different grades of risky behavior today. At the high end of the scale would be things that can kill suddenly like race car driving and free solo climbing (, ). (If you'd like to know the source of the awesome background song of the second video linked, here it is: Radical Face's "Welcome Home".)

One interesting link between risky behavior and diet refers to the consumption of omega-6 and omega-3 fats. Risky behavior may be connected with aggressive behavior, which may in turn be encouraged by greater consumption of foods rich in omega-6 fats and avoidance of foods rich in omega-3 fats (, ). This may be behind our apparent preference for foods rich in omega-6 fats, even though tipping the balance toward more foods rich in omega-3 fats would be beneficial for survival. We would be "calmer" though - not a high priority among most men, particularly young men.

This evolved preference may also be behind the appeal of industrial foods that are very rich in omega-6 fats. These foods seem to be particularly bad for us in the long term. But when the sources of omega-6 fats are unprocessed foods, the negative effects seem to become "invisible" to statistical tests.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

This, That and the Other...

I find facebook a pest and an irritant, but just occasionally I stumble upon interesting stories and individuals. Overwhelmed with work, (but with determination to provide some interesting texture, as well as funding and job opportunities), this week’s blog offers two-such links. Click on the photograph above to discover the work of Jill Peters and her documentation of burneshas, that is females who have lived their lives as men for reasons related to their culture and society. Very interesting and badged up by Peters as Sworn Virgins of Albania and thinking of the reporting around Chelsea Manning this week, it can only be healthy to understand different cultural and political influences on gender, sexuality and equality.

"Artists 'better protected' against dementia" 
Neurologists at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto found that artists suffering from vascular dementia may still be able to draw spontaneously and from memory, despite being unable to complete simple, everyday tasks. "We discovered that there is a disproportion between the degree that artists lose some of their memory function, their orientation and other day-to-day cognitive functions. But at the same time, some of their art form is preserved," Dr. Luis Fornazzari, a neurological consultant at St. Michael’s Hospital memory clinic and lead author of the paper, told CBC News. You can read more about this research, by clicking on the not-entirely-irrelevant image of Willem de Kooning above.

June 2013 – November 2015
We are seeking an experienced evaluator or research organisation with a strong track record in both the arts and public health arenas to provide guidance in selecting and managing the internal evaluation and monitoring processes, and to carry out independent analysis of the programme as a whole.  We are looking for robust evidence of the impact of arts approaches in addressing health and social care priorities to provide effective advocacy tools.

The role of the appointed evaluators will be to interrogate the following questions:

· How effective are arts and cultural interventions in addressing health and wellbeing agendas?
· What are the opportunities and challenges presented to organisations working collaboratively in this field?
· What are the benefits (financial, organisational, qualitative) to commissioners of the Creative Communities Consortium model of working?

We are offering an inclusive fee of £10,000 for this piece of work, plus £500 for the production (design and print) of a final report and are inviting suitable bodies and individuals to submit proposals for how this work would be carried out. Papers relating to the membership criteria and procedures of the consortium and to the tendering process for the arts and wellbeing programme are available on request.

Closing date for submission of proposals to undertake this evaluation work – Thursday 19th September 2013. All enquiries to Abby Gretton

British Academy - Small Research Grants 
The British Academy, the UK’s national body for the humanities and social sciences, has announced that it is planning to issue a call for a further round of Small Research Grants on the 4th September 2013. Under the Small Research Grants programme grants of between £500 and £10,000 over two years are available to support primary research in the humanities and social sciences. Funds will be available to:
· Facilitate initial project planning and development
· Support the direct costs of research
· To enable the advancement of research through workshops, or visits by or to partner scholars.  
The closing date for applications will be the 16th October 2013. Read more at:
The Triangle Trust 1949 Fund is currently inviting applications from charity organisations to support projects that support the rehabilitation of offenders and ex-offenders.  The Trust would like to see applicants use these grants to develop sustainable income sources, so that when the grant comes to end the applicant organisation’s income will not be reduced.  Grants are available for up to £40,000 or 50% of the organisation’s current annual income, whichever is lowest, per year for 3 years. The Trust would expect to see the amount requested each year tapering down as applicants develop other income streams to replace the grant income.   The 50% of annual income limit is in place to discourage smaller organisations making an unrealistic step change in income that cannot be sustained when the grant ends. The closing date for applications is the 7th November 2013. Read more at: 

Music Grants for Older People 
The registered charity, Concertina which makes grants to charitable bodies which provide musical entertainment and related activities for the elderly has announced that the next deadline for applications is the 31st October 2013. The charity is particular keen to support smaller organisations which might otherwise find it difficult to gain funding. Since its inception in 2004, Concertina has made grants to a wide range of charitable organisations nationwide in England and Wales. These include funds to many care homes for the elderly to provide musical entertainment for their residents. Read more at:

Monday, August 19, 2013

Inequalities, Surviving Stroke, the Arts and so much more...

Inequalities, the Arts and Public Health: Towards an International Conversation 
Some of you may have heard me give a presentation last year called - State of the Arts - not content with letting this work fester in the minds of those people who did, (and with the critical co-authorship of my compadre Mike White) an intelligible reworking is now available to those with refined sensibilities in that most august of publications, Arts & Health: An International Journal for Research, Policy and Practice.

The paper considers how participatory arts informed by thinking in public health can play a significant part internationally in addressing inequalities in health. It looks beyond national overviews of arts and health to consider what would make for meaningful international practice, citing recent initiatives of national networks in English-speaking countries and examples of influential developments in South America and the European Union. In the context of public health thinking on inequalities and social justice, the paper posits what would make for good practice and appropriate research that impacts on policy. As the arts and health movement gathers momentum, the paper urges the arts to describe their potency in the policy-making arena in the most compelling ways to articulate their social, economic and cultural values. In the process, it identifies the reflexive consideration of participatory practice – involving people routinely marginalised from decision-making processes – as a possible avenue into this work.

To access the journal, click on the lovely green patch of grass above. If you want to ask anything at all about this paper, please don’t hesitate to get in touch! Following the public health focused, Invest to Save: Arts in Health Research Project (2003 - 2007) and since my keynote (The Arts, Popular Culture and Inequalities) at the first international conference in Port Macquarie in 2009, I have been continually developing my thinking around inequalities, culture and the arts. I hope to bring some of this work full-circle this November in a new piece of work, FICTION/NON-FICTION.  

Art and poetry help Mancunian stroke survivors in their recovery
Here in the North West, the Stroke Association has been ploughing the furrow with some great arts based practice. Poet Laureate of the North, Mike Garry, best known for his poems ‘God is a Manc’ has been running a series of poetry workshops with stroke survivors in Greater Manchester aiming to create poetry that reflects their lives and experiences, giving them a platform to share their stories. You can see a short video about this below. Meanwhile students from MMU Design Lab teamed up with people affected by stroke and with Hyper Island’s Jim Ralley to produce a billboard poster for the curated Print and Paste site in central Manchester.

The students took the insights from the session and worked up this clever design in a couple of weeks. Katie Lea was one of the students: “After a four hour discussion with stroke survivors, we came away with a clear direction - life after stroke, particularly seeing things differently. We wanted to create an optical illusion, which draws people in and illustrates this shift in perspective. The poster wording ‘things were right, now they’re left’ also addresses the fact that a stroke in the left side of the brain can affect the right side of the body, and vice versa.”

You can see the poster on Chester Street (just off Oxford Road) up until the end of September. To see a little of the work with Mike Garry, click on the video below.

A stroke is a brain attack which happens when the blood supply to the brain is cut off, caused by a clot or bleeding in the brain. There are around 152,000 strokes every year in the UK and it is the largest cause of complex disability in adults. There are over 1.1 million people in UK living with the effects of stroke. For more information about local stroke services and groups, email or call the stroke helpline on 0303 303 3100.

 11 August 13
Funding for Organisations Tackling Violence Against Women & Children
The European Commission has launched a new call for proposals under the Daphne III Programme 2007 - 13. The overall aim of Daphne III is to contribute to the protection of children, young people and women against all forms of violence including sexual exploitation and trafficking in human beings. The total amount of funding available is €11,404,000.  The EU will finance up to 80% of eligible project costs.  There is no maximum level of grant that can be applied for; however, the minimum grant that can be applied for is €75,000. The closing date for applications is the 30th October 2013. Read more at:

Hilton in the Community Foundation Grants
Organisations that work with young people have the opportunity to apply for grants through the Hilton Foundation. Organisations such as charities and other not for profit organisations can apply for grants ranging from a few hundred pounds up to £30,000 per year for up to 2 years that meet one of the Foundation's chosen areas of focus, these are:
· Disabled children
· Children in hospital
· Homelessness
· Life-limited children in hospices. 
The next closing date for applications is the 15th October 2013. Read more at:

...and finally, Claire Ford, (who some of you will have seen present her work at networking events) is undertaking some brilliant work connecting people affected by dementia with iPad’s and as part of her iPad engAGE project, is moving on to a second phase. To read more about her work and if you’re feeling generous, support her work, click on the image above.

...and for the sheer hell of it...

Thank you for passing by...C.P.

Monday, August 12, 2013

We share an ancestor who probably lived no more than 640 years ago

This post is a revised version of a previous post. The original post has been or will be deleted, with the comments preserved. Typically this is done with posts that attract many visits at the time they are published, and whose topics become particularly relevant or need to be re-addressed at a later date.


We all evolved from one single-celled organism that lived billions of years ago. I don’t see why this is so hard for some people to believe, given that all of us also developed from a single fertilized cell in just 9 months.

However, our most recent common ancestor is not that first single-celled organism, nor is it the first Homo sapiens, or even the first Cro-Magnon.

The majority of the people who read this blog probably share a common ancestor who lived no more than 640 years ago. Genealogical records often reveal interesting connections - the figure below has been cropped from a larger one from Pinterest.

You and I, whoever you are, have each two parents. Each of our parents have (or had) two parents, who themselves had two parents. And so on.

If we keep going back in time, and assume that you and I do not share a common ancestor, there will be a point where the theoretical world population would have to be impossibly large.

Assuming a new generation coming up every 20 years, and going backwards in time, we get a theoretical population chart like the one below. The theoretical population grows in an exponential, or geometric, fashion.

As we move back in time the bars go up in size. Beyond a certain point their sizes go up so fast that you have to segment the chart. Otherwise the bars on the left side of the chart disappear in comparison to the ones on the right side (as several did on the chart above). Below is the section of the chart going back to the year 1371.

The year 1371 is a mere 640 years ago. And what is the theoretical population in that year if we assume that you and I have no common ancestors? The answer is: more than 8.5 billion people. We know that is not true.

Admittedly this is a somewhat simplistic view of this phenomenon, used here primarily to make a point. For example, it is possible that a population of humans became isolated 15 thousand years ago, remained isolated to the present day, and that one of their descendants just happened to be around reading this blog today.

Perhaps the most widely cited article discussing this idea is this one by Joseph T. Chang, published in the journal Advances in Applied Probability. For a more accessible introduction to the idea, see this article by Joe Kissell.

Estimates vary based on the portion of the population considered. There are also assumptions that have to be made based on migration and mating patterns, as well as the time for each generation to emerge and the stability of that number over time.

Still, most people alive today share a common ancestor who lived a lot more recently than they think. In most cases that common ancestor probably lived less than 640 years ago.

And who was that common ancestor? That person was probably a man who, due to a high perceived social status, had many consorts, who gave birth to many children. Someone like Genghis Khan.

Thursday, August 1, 2013


So, the Manchester International Festival might be over, but the best free exhibition in town is still on! Mortality: Death and the Imagination runs at the Holden Gallery until 16th August.

By now, I know a good number of people have had the chance to look at the full transcript of the debate in the House of Lords last Thursday and a lot of you have looked at the video too. (see last weeks blog) These are really interesting times for our field, and whilst we all know that the Government’s austerity measures have a long way to go yet and the cuts we’ve felt are only the tip of the iceberg, it doesn’t seem to be stopping our momentum - not least our belief that our work has never been more relevant.

Having only ever read the political proceedings of debates, after the events in Hansard, the opportunity to witness one in the flesh, albeit as a silent partner, was something of a revelation. Ushered up to a narrow balcony over the chamber, I had a vantage point to take in the debate and a little of the theatricality of parliament. 

The opportunity to attend a debate, whilst it wasn’t a packed chamber (the Commons being in recess and the Lords were about to be), was still deeply compelling. The pr essence of the familiar faces of Joan Bakewell and Robert Winston added something to the sense of occasion, with Bakewell a consistent advocate for the arts and recently, older people - Winston of course, a ubiquitous presence on the small screen - and arguably (alongside that ever-young professor from the boy-band), the ‘face’ of popular science. I was very curious as to their take on the debate. More of that in a moment.

I’d been advised that the way these debates are formatted, adheres to rigid rules and however many people had asked to speak, would dictate the allotted time that would be then equally divided between those people. This meant that each speaker had a nine minute allocation. For some of the speakers, this meant that whilst covering the the themes of emotional well-being in both health and education, there was an inevitable passion to frame their stories in work that they were deeply involved in. 

The commitment and passion of all the speakers was palpable and for me, it was a strange position, not to be able to offer approval, support or even the odd whoop of bravo! After all, I’ve been brought up listening to the bear-baiting fervour of the Commons. All those here-here’s, boos and growls, yet not a sound could I utter. So, in respect of my noble colleagues, I offer these modest reflections, as I too take my ‘summer recess’ of two weeks annual leave. 

First of all, the debate was introduced by Baroness Jones of Whitchurch who not only spoke with a deep understanding of the issues, but judging by her own roles and interests inside and outside of Parliament is someone we should be very interested in. Education, culture and the arts and a strong interest in homelessness, the environment and communities, mark this peer out as a committed and articulate advocate for the field, who alongside Baroness Northover - representing both the DCMS and International Development - topped and tailed this debate.

Following on the heels of Baroness Bakewell who in her recognition of the ‘awesomeness of music,’ extolled the impact of the Proms and in particular the impact of the arts on the lives of people affected by disability, Lord Winston inevitably looked at the impact of the arts in scientific terms and its affects on different parts of the brain. His description of evidence from magnetic image resonance scanning of the brain, whilst interesting, perhaps just adds fuel to the age old debate that we need this kind of scientific magic to know that music can just be wonderful, its impact varied and mysterious, and beyond any need for measurement? Lord Howarth’s suggestion that ‘stimulus to the imagination’ might be what counts, tallies with so much of  your responses to my blogging of last weeks debate.

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve also been asking for examples of qualitative, or arts-based evaluation, and much intelligent deconstruction of the RCT have ensued! Thank you all for your contributions, which will provide me with much reading over the next couple of weeks. I feel there is much to discuss on this subject which ties into both the debate in the Lords, the rich variety of research being undertaken and of course, the ways in which we continue to advocate for the place of creativity, culture and the arts in wellbeing, health and education.

I’ve gone through the speakers words again in an attempt to distill something of the essence - I offer you a modest ‘anonymised’ cut and paste of the salient points.

         I want to make a different case—
                  the arts for their own sake, 
              for what they provide to our civilisation and the benefits   they impart to our well-being as a nation. This should be a sufficient reason to 
            celebrate, to defend and to invest in our arts culture.

        Celebration, insight, empathy and intellectual exchange.
    The arts lead us to see into the life of things.

   The arts are, in every possible sense, priceless. To equate them with commercial calculations is doing us all a disservice. 
                You cannot quantify it...

      One of the great things about music is that it expresses all 
         humanity. It expresses longing, sadness, anger and humour, it 
    looks at joy, it looks at sadness and at love and {...} hope as well. 
          It is a basic civilising influence on our population.

                        Lifestyles are not simply a matter of individual choice, they are a product of economic and social pressures. 

          The key thing here is the facilitation of artists, which I believe 
   is a good in itself, whatever the specific effects may be, 
                      because the artist’s work is the contribution 
           to society.

               If we slam the doors, we slam them not just on aspiration but 
                also on knowledge, confidence, communication
   and language — and we are just not prepared to see those doors slammed. 
           We are going to keep them open, and we shall have to fight to do 

             The value of that kind of experience is not measurable; it 
    is over and beyond the utilitarian calculus {…} or, all too often, of the 
         Department for Education and of the DCMS, with the Treasury lurking behind them. {…} 
               Poetry, drama and the novel offer insight into human nature, and a moral education—the best kind of moral education, 
           because it is not dogmatic. 
      Matthew Arnold was professor of poetry at the University of Oxford, and 
                 also Chief Inspector of Schools—what a good appointment that was
        by the Govt of the day. He said that the study of literature helps one to
     answer the great question: “How to live?” 
      The study of literature teaches people—to use a term that has lost too
                   many of its positive connotations—discrimination. It teaches them
                   to make moral distinctions, to recognise integrity 
  and quality.

As the House adjourned, I had the opportunity to walk with Lord Howarth along some of those corridors, mulling over what happens next. Clearly we have staunch allies in the Upper House - allies and advocates who see beyond simple reductionism and the value of culture and the arts beyond the miserablist bean-counters. Let us keep this momentum and let us keep our passion and vision. 

...and my final thoughts on that debate? Well actually, I’d like to restate one particular passage of the Earl of Clancarty who for me, hits the nail on the head: 

“The key thing here is the facilitation of artists, which I believe is a good in itself, whatever the specific effects may be, because the artist’s work is the contribution to society. The Government’s primary job in relation to the arts is—or should be—to do just that and must of course include encouraging the potential for creativity from all classes of society. {...} Indeed, in the short term, good art may not give a feeling of well-being at all but may be disturbing and highly critical of society, as much of our best post-war drama was. It is a healthy society which allows artists to have their say, encourages that criticism and, all importantly, offers spaces within which that can happen.”

My sincere thanks to Alan Howarth for his personal and unwavering committment to the arts and his belief in their impact on wellbeing, and for the time he made to share some of the hidden spaces within Westminster. 
MTV Staying Alive Foundation Grant 

The MTV Staying Alive Foundation has announced that its grants programme is currently open for applications. Through its grants programme, organisations led by young people (aged between 15 and 27) that work in HIV prevention can apply for support, which includes a small amount of funding as well as training and development, etc.  The maximum level of funding available is $12,000 per year.  The application process works in two stages. The first stage is a short online form.  If successful at this stage, applicants will be required to fill in a longer form with more details about the applicants organisation and the project for which you they are seeking funding.  The closing date for applications is the 12th August 2013. Read more at 

Clore Poetry & Literature Awards 
The Clore Duffield Foundation has announced that the sixth funding round under its £1 million programme to fund poetry and literature initiatives for children and young people across the UK is now open for applications. Through the programme, schools, FE colleges, community groups, libraries and other arts/cultural organisations can apply for grants of between £1,000 and £10,000 to support participatory learning projects and programmes focused on literature, poetry and creative writing for under 19s. Previous projects that received funding include:
·         Action Transport Theatre, which received a grant of £7,725 to develop primary school children’s appreciation of creative reading and writing through an exploration of traditional European fairy tales, using the power of live theatre performance.
·         Barnet Libraries LONDON Little Listeners: Big Readers project which received a grant of £9,761 to work with children aged 3-4 and targets 36 families where there is no regular reading habit. As well as library-led workshops in schools, volunteers will support targeted families to involve them in regular reading and library visits. 
The closing date for applications is the 7th March 2014. Read more at: 

Nominet Trust ‘Social Tech, Social Change’ Fund 
The Nominet Trust, a UK charity that invests in digital technology to improve lives, has teamed up with the Founders Forum for Good (FFFG) community of entrepreneurs to offer approximately 20 technology and digital startups the opportunity at getting a share of £1 million of funding.The funding is being made available through the ‘Social Tech, Social Change’ fund and is being made available to startups in the hope that they can be turned into profitable – and critically, scalable – businesses that use technology to tackle social challenges. This can be anything ranging from tackling child poverty to climate change. The fund is available to organisations such as Charities; Not-for-profits Community groups; Schools, PTAs, universities or other educational establishments; and Statutory bodies e.g. local authorities Commercially-run organisations that act as social enterprises; etc.  The next closing date for stage 1 applications is the 4th September 2013.  Those applicants successful at this stage will be asked to submit a fuller stage 2 application. Read more at:

Arts Council England Announce 2015 to 2018 
investment plans

A new application process for organisations wishing to apply for Arts Council National Portfolio Funding 

Thank you as ever and normal service will be resumed as soon as possible...C.P.