Starter for 10: Disa Sauter

What with the interdisciplinary thing, I know some delightful and interesting people in quite disparate fields. Starter for 10 is a semi-regular (fortnightly) series of peer interviews, with questions both serious and trivial for your edification.

This week’s interview is with Dr Disa Sauter, who works three doors down from me at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Disa and I both did PhDs at UCL in London, but it took us moving to the Netherlands to bump into one another!

1. In the little space for “occupation” on immigration cards at airports, what do you write?
I’m actually a little stumped by this every time – you’d think I’d have decided on a word to summarize what I do by now! So I alternate between researcher, scientist, and psychologist.

2. Give me your conference tea-break pitch: ” … and what do you work on?”

I work on emotions and the ways that we communicate to others how we feel using facial expressions and vocalisations. I’m especially interested in whether emotions and expressions are the same or different depending on people’s cultural backgrounds. [FJ: Disa has done field work with the Himba people in Namibia, and is currently working with a Mayan group in Mexico]

3. What’s your origin story – how did you end up in your field? Was there a defining moment, or person, or something else that steered you?
I was always interested in the human mind, but torn between philosophy of mind and psychology. Having done my final year school project in philosophy, I decided to focus on psychology instead… Doing a PhD on emotions with Sophie Scott at UCL made me want to continue in research for as long as I can.
4. Journalists reckon that scientists “discover” things. Tell me the coolest thing you’ve “discovered” in your career so far.
In a study published earlier this year, me and my colleagues showed that some sounds that we make to express emotions, like growls and sobs, are shared by people with dramatically different cultural backgrounds, suggesting that they are part of the common human heritage. But while quite a few negative emotions were signalled in the same way across the groups, the sounds used to express many positive emotions were different – the exception to this was laughter, which had the same meaning across cultures.
5. I hear you’re Swedish. In the interests of cultural understanding, tell me something about Swedish language or culture that  doesn’t really have an English equivalent.
‘Lagom’ is a Swedish word and concept that doesn’t have a good equivalent in other languages. The best translation I think would be ‘just right’, like for example neither too much nor too little – but it can be applied in pretty much any domain, size, temperature, satiation etc. Unlike ‘perfekt’ (perfect), ‘lagom’ is not particularly celebratory, it’s more a matter-of-fact statement, which is what makes it so Swedish. [FJ: this brilliant word has its own wikipedia entry, it’s so useful]
6. For a month, you get to do a job-swap outside of academia. What would you do?

I’d be an apprentice in the kitchen of a fancy vegetarian restaurant. [FJ: Mmmm, good choice with the transferable skills!]
7. Too much time, money and intellect has been wasted researching what?
The neural correlates of poorly understood and badly operationalized psychological phenomena.
8. Recommend for me (a) a good pop-science book (b) a good history/philosophy/politics book and (c) a poem.
a) Bad Science by Ben Goldacre
c) The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
9. Who’s your favourite fictional scientist?
Dexter Morgan. [FJ: I am hiding the sharp objects in the canteen]
10. What science-y thing did you do yesterday?
I submitted a paper and started revising another.
Disa’s publications and research interests are listed at her website, including a recent review of positive emotions and how they’re a bit more complex than just “happy”. The media covered her cross-cultural emotion work earlier this year, you can see some of the write-ups here and here.

South Pacific

Pohutukawa flowers on Orewa Beach, New Zealand

I’m watching the BBC series South Pacific on DVD at the moment, and I’m up to the third episode. The series has beautiful cinematography: astonishing ultra-slow-motion footage of waves breaking on Pohnpei was the centrepiece of the first episode, and I’m not going to forget the creepy carnivorous caterpillars in action in Hawaii or the tiger sharks eating the albatross fledglings.

But the series is very much suffering from being “thematic” in the way that many modern museum collections are: without historical or geographic context, a loose set of narratives on a theme is forgettable. Set-pieces become nothing more than passing fancy for the eyes, with only the shocking or unexpected being committed to memory. It’s a great shame – as someone who works on Austronesian cultural diversity and comes from Oceania, it’s always disappointed me that there’s not been a good television series on the natural and cultural history of the Pacific. This series aspires to be that, but it’s a string of anecdotes, lurching from zoology to weather to culture, picking out the amazing (vine-jumping Pentecost Islanders from Vanuatu) and the extreme (freezing Macquarie Island with its penguins and elephant seals), with no contextual background of what the biology of the region is like as a whole, or how the fascinating and complex human settlement history has shaped the social and cultural diversity of today.

Most disappointly, the anthropology has made me cringe. The series is narrated (albeit by the splendid Benedict Cumberbatch) rather than having interviewers or allowing people to speak, and it all comes across as terribly touristic and superficial. Anutans were glowing described as people living in mystical harmony with their tiny atoll environment, and contrasted with those rapacious Rapa Nui who used up all their resources. You would think there was no-one living on Easter Island today, because all we got were atmospheric shots of the moai.

I’m relegating it to the background now and just waiting for the bits about keas. Keas are cool. Here’s one walking up a snowy slope with its beak. Bet you can’t do that.

ARKive video - Kea walking up snowy mountain side - using beak

Starter for 10: Simon Greenhill

What with the interdisciplinary thing, I know some delightful and interesting people in quite disparate fields. Starter for 10 will be a semi-regular (fortnightly) series of peer interviews, with questions both serious and trivial for your edification.
I’m starting off with my friend and colleague Dr Simon Greenhill, from the University of Auckland.
1. In the little space for “occupation” on immigration cards at airports, what do you write?
2. Give me your conference tea-break pitch: ” … and what do you work on?”
I study how languages and cultures evolve using computational methods drawn from evolutionary biology.

3. What’s your origin story – how did you end up in your field? Was there a defining moment, or person, or something else that steered you?

I guess I’d always been interested in languages – I took French, German and Latin at school (the first two reasonably successfully, the latter rather abysmally). At university I intended to get a degree in computer science, but quickly decided I didn’t want to be spending my life doing tech support. At that time I’d discovered how awesome evolutionary biology was and I moved over to biology/psychology and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I ended up taking a course on Evolution, Behavior and Cognition (where a certain young Ms. Jordan was my lab instructor) [FJ notes: Simon is the original skeptic and raised my game!] and I loved every minute of it. I eventually harassed Russell Gray enough so that he had to take me on as a student. It’s all been downhill since there.
4. Journalists reckon that scientists “discover” things. Tell me the coolest thing you’ve “discovered” in your career so far.
In 2009 Russell Gray, Alexei Drummond and I published a paper where we tested different models of Pacific settlement. We showed that the Pacific was settled relatively recently – beginning around 5,200 years ago from Taiwan. The cool thing we discovered there was that we could really nuance our understanding of prehistory by identifying patterns of expansion pulses and settlement pauses, and estimating the timing of these events.
5. What’s the geekiest thing you know how to do?
I cured my addiction to sudoku by writing a program to solve the damn things. [FJ: !!!! ]
6. For a month, you get to do a job-swap outside of academia. What would you do?
Software development.
7. What’s your favourite dinosaur?
You can’t beat Tyrannosaurus rex, although I do have a soft-spot for Opabinia regalis (non-dino, I know).
8. Recommend for me (a) a good pop-science book (b) a good history/philosophy/politics book and (c) a poem.
a) Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. It’s not perfect, but epic in scale and full of interesting, and very testable ideas.
b) David Hull’s “Science as a Process: An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science“. This is an excellent account of how modern systematic biology developed in the 1970s-1980s. Hull describes the major players in the field, how their influences rise and fall over time, and the infighting and squabbling that occurred (the debate between phylogeneticists and cladists is infamously vicious). All in all,  the book is a wonderful example of philosophy/history of science. [FJ: This is indeed a marvellous book, full of scientists being totally human]
c) Preludes by T.S. Eliott, but Evolution by Langdon Smith is probably more appropriate for this blog.
9. Who’s your favourite fictional scientist?
10. What science-y thing did you do yesterday?
My two main achievements yesterday were reviewing a paper, and implementing an XML generator for certain BEAST analyses.
You can find out more about Simon’s research and projects at his (rather beautifully designed) website, which has links to the outstanding Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database. One of his very cool on-the-side projects is HENRY, The Human Evolution News RelaY.

how to have a mini-sabbatical

Around May, I somehow ended up with a whole glut of projects and publications that were in revision, near completion, in draft, or fully designed and just waiting for words on paper. All that each of them needed were some short chunks of time: a day, two or three, or a week. Concentrated, non-disturbed time.
On Darwin's Sandwalk, 2007
I should say that have the fortune, at this stage of my career, to work at a research institute without class teaching or administrative duties, so one would think that it would be easier to have those blocks of time. But distractions expand to fill the available space, and there’s always another seminar, a conference, an interesting chat with a colleague, a discussion about a potential project, time spent with research group members, and I am nothing if not distractable. Eventually it became clear that I had to get hardcore about it or my CV would have nothing but conference talks* with no ensuing publications.
So – a break was required. I blocked out two periods of three weeks in July and August (this is the first week of the second one), with a week in between to catch up and then have a break (it *is* summer). Our institute is pretty quiet in these months, so there’s much less going on in terms of meetings and commitments anyhow. Three weeks seemed to be an acceptable period of time – enough to get into stuff but not more than the psychological barrier of a month. With no funds available for a retreat in the Alps, I just decided notto be at my desk and took a change of scenery approach. Most of the time I’ve worked from home, or in the public or work library, but I also spent five days in Amsterdam house-sitting.
I did make a commitment to go into the office one day a week, which I did because I felt a bit anxious about total selfish abandonment of my colleagues, especially students and research assistants. But this is probably just an inflated sense of my own indispensability, and this second period I’ll go in tomorrow and then probably only if there’s something vital.
So what did I accomplish in #ProjectReadWrite, as I’ve been calling it on Twitter? The first period I picked the low-hanging fruit, but I:
  • Submitted a paper on population size and language change, coauthored with Tom Currie
  • Submitted a paper on comparative cognition with Daniel HaunGiorgio Vallortigara and Nicky Clayton
  • Did the revisions on a paper (my first single-author publication!) on kin-term evolution
  • Did the revisions on a BBS commentary with my group leader, Michael Dunn
  • Read about 15 papers, variously on marriage transfers, semantic change, coalescent theory, and Pacific prehistory
  • Completed a peer-review (my policy: one-out, one-in. I’m now in arrears)
  • Caught up my backlog of journal-content alerts, dumped them all into Google Reader and now feel on top of the literature (as much as one can!)
  • Thought through the theme for a grant proposal
  • Strategised how to pull a bunch of disparate projects together into just two manuscripts
  • And yesterday – I actually consolidated all of my computer files into an organised and navigatable system.
This next period I hope to finish the revisions on one more manuscript (two if I get reviews back), and write the bulk of another. Extra reading for that has made me think I might need to revisit the analyses as well, but it’s all about pushing things forward (and out!), so I’ll be happy just chugging it along.
I’ll post again on my evaluation of how useful this has been at the end of August.
* I am a sucker for the pleasure of designing a conference presentation.

I’ve moved …

… to The Netherlands! I’m now at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, as part of a new research group called Evolutionary Processes in Language and Culture

The academic blog-urge has dwindled this last year; it seems to take a focussed person* to keep a blog going for more than 18 months or so. So now seems like as good a time as any to put Culture Evolves into permanent hiatus.Our group is just in the start-up phase, but once we’ve got our full contingent we’ll have a group website – blogging options yet to be decided.


* Or an anonymous one who thus has loads of indiscreet stories to tell!

The recreational habits of (life) scientists

[This post has been lurking about since, oops, May, so I thought I better put it out there!]

I’m sure everyone has favourite inductive hypotheses about the world that they mull over as potential research questions–if only they weren’t so utterly trivial. Besides, I usually only notice the confirmatory evidence for mine.

The co-incidence of a single case supporting both my pet hypotheses about the recreational habits of scientists came to my notice today: a life scientist who was both a musician and a rock-climber*.

Climbing blue musicians

Previous conversations with colleagues have usually revealed that most biologists (broadly construed) think there seem to be more-than-average numbers of musicians in science. The science/music overlap is one of my pet hobbies, and many popular accounts touch on this relationship as possibly having something to do with a certain kind of brain processing. Okay, whatever, personally I think the causation factor is an objectively defined measure of “cool” or “awesome”. But there’s no statistical evidence–least not that I can find–that musicians are overrepresented in the subset of humans who call themselves scientists, compared to, say, landscape gardeners or art historians. Controlling for age and socioeconomics and all that demographic stuff.

My other inductive hypothesis is that life scientists, especially those working in cultural evolution, seem to be rock-climbers more often than chance might predict. This might be a case of cultural transmission though, because rock-climbing is something that you generally have to be introduced to in a social context, seeing as how it is useful to have someone on the other end of the rope.

Data enabling proper testing of these hypotheses would require more effort than random conversations at the pub, so for the moment, the assertions go unverified.

* And who wasn’t me. Although I haven’t been climbing for so long I doubt I still qualify.

[Photo from mr_o‘s flickrstream]

JPS online!

That’s the Journal of the Polynesian Society, if you were wondering.

It’s been a sad wrench for me at UCL, browsing the e-journals list of our library and always feeling a little empty spot in my heart right here:

The Society is only up to the 1930s, but seeing as the really good ethnographic stuff is mostly pre-1950, it’s a goldmine already.

JPS is one of my favourite journals. It’s regional, obviously, but its coverage within the Oceania remit is a real four-field anthropology, with history, sociology, economics, and geography as well. When I was an undergraduate nerd and used to actually go to the library and read journals I would invariably find at least one or two articles in JPS worth a read. They always seemed chatty and fascinating, especially the dusty ones.

Darwin married his cousin: a lesson on cultural diversity

From Sunday’s Observer, Split over health risk to cousins who marry:

A major medical row will erupt this month when scientists and health experts hold two key meetings to discuss the controversial subject of marriages between cousins and their impact on health in Britain.

Really? I love the clairvoyance afforded to newspaper journalists. They obviously also considered that by Monday morning this article hadn’t made waves enough, as the title has been changed to “Row over health risk”.

Some researchers and politicians say inter-cousin unions, which are highly prevalent among British Pakistanis, have led to a striking rise in the incidence of rare recessive disorders, many of them fatal, in areas such as Bradford. The trend has led to calls for cousin marriages to be banned.

The reasonable science in this piece, as usual, follows after the experiential, moral-panic-related anecdote from an MP, who, despite any obvious medical qualifications, says that:

‘I also know of several sets of parents in my constituency who are cousins and whose children are severely disabled. I have no doubt that the mothers and fathers being closely related to each is a key factor.’

“Striking rise”. “No doubt”. And my favourite:

“you have a child with your cousin, the likelihood is there will be a genetic problem”.

That last from an environment MP, who is presumably drawing this conclusion from an episode of the X-Files.

The voice of reason comes from Aamra Darr, who has written sensibly on the topic of cousin marriage amongst British Pakistanis before. She points out that cousin marriage is one of many diverse
marriage patterns adopted by people for a variety of reasons, but more importantly, the risks of genetic problems with offspring are identifiable and manageable. Genetic knowledge is useful.

The unilateral prescription of social norms by one group in a multicultural society, based on thin-edge emotional judgments and ignorance about cultural diversity – this is not useful. It is also just dumb. Around the world, marriage to cousins is more often permitted (or preferred!) than it is not. Here are some data.

The blue section (not even a third) contains those societies in which marriage to first or second cousins is NOT permitted. The other two allow some form of marriage to cousins, with the red slice indicating the percentage who allow first cousin marriages. These figures are from the Ethnographic Atlas, which contains information about 1267 ethnographically described societies. Some 243 societies had missing data for this category, but ~1000 is a good sample of the world’s cultural diversity.

An argument for––or against––cousin marriage does not gain any moral weight from these numbers. The existence of such cultural diversity, however, begs the question to those who are opposing cousin marriage on genetic grounds: where is your evidence for large-scale, worldwide problems with recessive heritable disorders arising from cousin marriages? Though there are no direct data, one might argue that if at least a third of human societies can maintain such a marriage preference, it implies that any genetic problems are not so severe as to be cumulatively damaging for all individuals. And that is another point: just because a social group permits cousin marriage, it does not follow that every individual in the group marries their cousin. Population thinking seems to be very hard for many people to grasp.

It appears to me that there is not much science going on with any “call” for banning cousin marriage, but something more like prejudicial gut-reactions combined with availability heuristics. That’s just speculation, however.

But I’m still confused about that major medical row. What was the point there?

With thanks to Aamra Darr for a clarification.