10 September 2008

Why we are superstitious

People have evolved to be superstitious because it pays to take a "better safe than sorry" approach to life, a new mathematical study suggests.

Researchers at Harvard University say history has taught people that it is better to interpret a rustle in the undergrowth as a threat just in case it is a bear, a member of a rival tribe or another real danger.

Although in the vast majority of cases it will be nothing of the sort, responding to the potential threat by always acting to ensure we protect ourselves remains the best strategy as it means we will not be caught out when the danger is real.

"In an uncertain world, natural selection can readily favour making all kinds of associations, including many incorrect ones, in order to make sure that the really important associations are made," says Dr Kevin Foster of the Centre for Systems Biology, Harvard University, near Boston, Massachusetts.

"Perhaps the easiest example to understand is the use of medicines that are not proven scientifically to actually work," explains Dr Foster, who reports the study with Dr Hanna Kokko of the University of Helsinki in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences. "This occurs both in small-scale societies and in our own societies in the form of alternative medicine.

"It is clear that many medicines in these contexts do not work, but some do," says Dr Foster.

"Therefore, it may be evolutionarily advantageous to adopt the general strategy "believe that alternative medicines work" because in doing so, one will benefit from the few that are effective and suffer little cost from using those that do not work."

He adds that humans are not alone and that many other creatures are superstitious too. "Any decision making organism faces the same challenges of identifying causal relations, that is, will event A mean that event B is coming soon?

In the case of a prey species fleeing from loud noises, "it is clearly advantageous to run from all sorts of loud noises - including many that are not associated with predators - to make sure that when a predator comes, they are in a burrow or other such safe place."

The results are clear: superstitions are a part of adaptive behaviour in all organisms as they struggle to make sense of an uncertain world.

Dr Foster emphasised that the evolution of superstition is more than the natural selection of genes that linked with touching wood, crossing fingers and other superstitious traits.

"We are heavily affected by culture and learning as well, and so the specifics of any one example of superstition in humans will be affected by these factors as well."

By Roger Highfield
This article first appeared in the Telegraph.

9 September 2008

What is it with these guys? Another Fritzl case is revealed!

Just when you thought the Fritzl case was a one off, another bloke, this time in Poland has just appeared in court charged with imprisoning his daughter for six years as a sex slave - a chilling echo of the Austrian cellar fiend Josef Fritzl.

The girl, now 21, was tied up, locked in a room without a door handle and repeatedly raped. She gave birth to two of his children.

The 45 year old dad watched over both births in hospital - then forced her to leave the kids, now aged 3 and 20 months, and return to her dungeon, police said in evidence.

The girl escaped the home in the village of Grodzisk, eastern Poland last week, and went to police with her mum - who is being quizzed over how she did not know what was going on. The dad tried to flee to Italy - but was caught at atrain station. He is denying the rape charges, but refuses to talk to police.

A judge has ordered that he be held in prison for three months while detectives investigate the case. A police spokesman said that the picture the girl had painted was horrific.

This case mirrors the plight of Elisabeth Fritzl, aged 42 - who was kept in a specially built underground dungeon for 24 years! in Amstetten, Austria. She gave birth to seven children by her dad, Josef Fritzl, aged 74. Fritzl selected three of the children to live upstairs with him and his wife Rosemarie, 68, while the other three remained incarcerated with their mother in the cellar dungeon until they were released by police in April.

One of the children, a baby boy called Michael, died shortly after birth and Fritzl burned his body in an incinerator.

Fritzl, who is awaiting trial, faces a string of charges including manslaughter, and up to 3,000 counts of rape, abuse and incest.

3 September 2008

Man stuck trying to have sex with bench!

I found this amazing story over at Super Mae's blog.

A "lonely and disturbed" Hong Kong man had to call police to try and free him after his penis got stuck in a park bench he had apparently tried to have sex with, reports said.

Emergency workers took four hours trying to free Le Xing after he attempted to use a hole in the exercise bench to masturbate in a deserted park after dark, the Apple Daily and other papers reported.

Eventually they had to take him to hospital with the bench's 2.5-metre-long metal base still attached to him after attempts to free him by draining blood from his penis failed.

Doctors said the 42-year-old was lucky to still have a penis after the embarrassing incident, reported in lurid detail by several Chinese-language papers here.

Photographs showed rescue workers carrying him to an ambulance on the metal sheet, covered in a red blanket. To see the photo's and get some great comment on this story pop over to Super Mae's.

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2 September 2008

Manta Ray joins Georgia Aquarium

The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta is now home to a new manta ray from South Africa — making it one of the few aquariums in the world with enough space to house one of these giant creatures. The video of this beautiful animal is below.

The ray, named Nandi, was rescued from shark nets along the South African coast last year, and becomes the only one on display in the United States. It joins rays on display in just three other countries: Japan, Spain and the Bahamas.

Most aquariums cannot house a manta ray because of how large the animal gets — up to 26 feet (7.9 meters) across and weighing about 6,000 pounds (2,700 kilograms).

The Georgia Aquarium says it has the largest tank in the world, a 6.3-million-gallon (23.8-million-liter) salt water exhibit that has plenty of room for Nandi, who is about 9 feet (2.7 meters) from the tip of one wing to the other and still growing.

Aquarium officials chartered a jumbo jet to fly Nandi the 9,000 miles (14,500 kilometers) from uShaka Marine World in Durban, South Africa, to Atlanta, after she outgrew her tank, aquarium spokesman Dave Santucci said.

On Friday, Nandi was released to test the waters before her official public debut Monday.

Manta rays are listed as a threatened species. The mammoth diamond-shaped animal has a black top and white bottom with wings that move gracefully up and down as they swim through the water.