Edge 228 —November 20, 2007
(1,300 words)


Scott Atran


Are the family clichés true?

Street Dogs: A little more about black swans

23andMe will decode your DNA for $1,000. Welcome to the age of genomics.

By Scott Atran

... Scott Atran, an American academic who has investigated the Hamburg cell connected to the September 11 2001 attacks in the US and numerous other terrorist attacks around the world, witnessed much of the trial and described it as "a complete farce".
The Guardian, October 31, 2007

Presented at U.S. State Department/UK House of Lords
October/November 2007

[Click for Presentation]

SCOTT ATRAN is a research director in anthropology at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, France. He is also visiting professor of psychology and public policy at the University of Michigan and presidential scholar in sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York City.

Scott Atran's Edge Bio Page

November 20, 2007

Are the family clichés true?

The middle one's always difficult, the eldest is a bossy boots and the youngest is a tearaway. But are the family clichés true? Finally, scientists have the answer. Steve Connor (youngest of two) reports

...This latest argument has several enthusiastic supporters. Professor Frank Sulloway, who has become a leading proponent of the birth-order idea, has gone as far as to suggest that the Norwegian study dispels any previous doubts about the intellectual prowess of first-borns. Sulloway, of the University of California, Berkeley, says that any major criticisms of the birth-order idea – that the personality differences between families are so great that they obscure any differences within the families – can now be laid to rest. "At least in the domain of intellectual ability, the new Norwegian findings rule out this alternative explanation," he says.

In fact, he suggests that birth order helps to shape more than just intelligence. Since the publication in 1996 of his book on the subject, Born to Rebel, Sulloway says four different studies, involving more than 5,000 subjects from five countries, also support this contentious view. "They have shown that first-borns are rated as being more con-scientious, less agreeable, less extroverted – in the sense of being fun-loving and excitement-seeking – and less open to experience than later-borns," he says. "Several studies have shown that later-borns are judged to be the 'rebels' of the family and that they are actually more likely to rebel in real life." ...

...More recently, other critics have lashed out at those they perceive to be peddling bad science. One of the most outspoken critics is Judith Rich Harris, an American psychologist and author of The Nurture Assumption, a treatise that tears apart the gamut of birth-order research. The belief that birth order accounts for personality traits, Harris says, can only be explained by "subjective impressions based on personal experiences, flawed or misleading research, the tendency for research to be published and publicised only if it supports the belief in birth order, the impressions psychotherapists get from listening to their patients, and biological factors".

Harris is perplexed that so many people continue to believe that birth order plays a significant role in forming adult personality. In a vitriolic exchange with Sulloway on the edge.org website, Harris explains that the strategies children learn to use at home to get along with siblings are not the same as those they employ outside home and in later life. ....


BUSINESS DAY (South Africa)
Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Street Dogs: A little more about black swans

ANALYSTS are historians who are predicting the past, said Intel CEO Craig Barrett. Nassim Taleb said “ a black swan is a large-impact, hard-to-predict, and rare event beyond the realm of normal expectations”.

The concept refers to the ancient belief that all swans were white and therefore black swans didn’t exist, until the impossible happened and black swans were found in Australia in the 17th century.

A succinct explanation of the concept and its implications was provided by Taleb in April 2003 in a talk published at Edge.org. ...


November 17, 2007

By Thomas Goetz

Anne Wojcicki, Sergey Brin, J. Craig Venter
at "The Billionaires' Dinner" 2005

"In February 2005, Anne Wojcicki sat down at the so-called Billionaires' Dinner, an annual event held in Monterey, California, and asked her tablemates about their urine. She was curious whether, after eating asparagus, they could smell it when they urinated. Among those at her table were geneticist Craig Venter; Ryan Phelan, the CEO of DNA Direct, a San Francisco genetic-testing company; and Wojcicki's then-boyfriend (and now husband), Sergey Brin, cofounder of Google. Most could pick up the smell of methyl mercaptan, a sulfur compound released as our guts digest the vegetable. But some had no idea what Wojcicki was talking about. They had, it seems, a genetic variation that made the particular smell imperceptible to them.

"Soon, the conversation turned to a growing problem: While researchers are amassing great knowledge about certain genes and genetic variations, there is no way for people to access that data for insights about themselves and their families — to Google their genome, as it were. As a biotech and health care analyst at Passport Capital, a San Francisco hedge fund firm, Wojcicki knew that the pharmaceutical industry was already at work on tailoring drugs to specific genetic profiles. But she was intrigued by the prospect of a database that would compile the available research into a single resource.

"Linda Avey wasn't at the dinner, but she wished she had been when she read about it later that year in David Vise and Mark Malseed's book, The Google Story. ..."



See also: The New York Times ("My Genome, Myself: Seeking Clues in DNA" By Amy Harmon); The New York Times ("Company Offers Genome Assessments" By Nicholas Wade); "The Quantified Self" By Kevin Kelly


Paperback—UK £8.99, 352 pp
Free Press, UK

November 5, 2007

Paperback — US
$14.95 400 pp
Harper Perennial
November 1, 2007

WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?: Today's Leading Thinkers on Why Things Are Good and Getting Better With an Introduction by Daniel C. Dennett, Edited By John Brockman

"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant book: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)

Paperback—UK £8.99, 352 pp
Free Press, UK

Paperback — US
$13.95, 336 pp
Harper Perennial

WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA? Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable With an Introduction by STEVEN PINKER and an Afterword by RICHARD DAWKINS Edited By JOHN BROCKMAN

"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald "Provocative" The Independent "Challenging notions put forward by some of the world’s sharpest minds" Sunday Times "A titillating compilation" The Guardian "Reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science" Discover

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