TARGET HEALTH excels in Regulatory Affairs. Each week we highlight new information in this challenging area
FDA Issues Proposal to Increase Consumer Awareness of Tanning Bed Risks
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, there is a 75% increase in the risk of melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer, in those who have been exposed to ultraviolet radiation from indoor tanning, and the risk increases with each use. The proposed order does not prohibit the use of sunlamp products by those under the age of 18, but it provides a warning on the consequences.
The FDA has issued a proposed order that, if finalized, would reclassify sunlamp products and require labeling to include a recommendation designed to warn young people not to use these devices. The order would reclassify sunlamp products from a low risk device (class I) to a moderate risk device (class II). If the order is finalized, manufacturers would have to submit a pre-market notification (510(k)) to the FDA for these devices, which are currently exempt from any pre-market review. Manufacturers would have to show that their products have met certain performance testing requirements, address certain product design characteristics and provide comprehensive labeling that presents consumers with clear information on the risks of use. The order proposes to include a contraindication against use on people under 18 years old, and the labeling would have to include a warning that frequent users of sunlamp products should be regularly screened for skin cancer.
The FDA will take comments on the proposed order for 90 days.
Asparagus Cauliflower Cheese Tart
Here is another wonderful asparagus recipe, because this delicious crunchy little veggie is now in season and growing locally. I am making it a second time this week, just to see how the egg substitute works instead of the eggs I originally used. Originally, mashed potatoes were used instead of cauliflower. I find that not only does the cauliflower make this dish lighter in texture (and lower in calories), but the flavors seem more heightened with the cauliflower; whereas the potato makes everything more dense. If I make this recipe next week ( third time in 10 days) I may add 1 Tablespoon of crème sherry . . . just as an experiment.
PS: After trying out the egg substitute, we conclude that it’s not as good as regular eggs. Now, I need to try 1 whole egg and 4 egg whites, or simply 1 pint of egg whites instead of the 4 whole eggs. My guess is that the 1 pint of egg whites will end up being the best solution because, not only will it hold the custard aspect of the recipe together, but taste will not suffer, calories will be even lower, and there will be zero cholesterol………..with plenty of healthy protein.
- 1 head cauliflower, steamed ahead of time
- Pinch black pepper, (grind to your own taste)
- 1 pound locally grown, thick asparagus spears, woody ends removed
- 8 ounces filo pastry (be sure to thaw completely) (buy it ready-made)
- 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1 container tofutti (tofu cream cheese)
- 1 cup freshly grated soy Cheddar
- 4 large organic or free-range eggs (or use egg beater substitute)
- 1 (8-ounce) container no-fat sour cream
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 2 garlic cloves, juiced
- 1 onion
- 2/3 cup cilantro, chopped
- Prepare a bowl of water with ice cubes in it.
- After washing and snapping off the tough ends of the asparagus, steam them for about 1 minute, just to turn the color to a bright green. Then stop the cooking process, immediately, by plunging them into the ice water. Let them cool down for 1 minute. Then drain in a colander.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
- Get an ovenproof dish. Layer the sheets of filo pastry in the dish, brushing them with olive oil and let about 1-inch hang over the edge. You want to get the pastry about 5 layers thick (not 5 inches). Put a clean, damp kitchen towel over the top and put aside.
- In a large bowl, mash all of the cauliflower with the grated soy cheddar cheese and the container of tofutti (soy cream cheese).
- In a separate bowl, mix together the eggs (or egg beaters) and no-fat sour cream and stir into your cheesy mashed cauliflower. Add the chopped onion, the garlic, the turmeric the pinch black pepper, and the chopped cilantro and mix together.
- Spread the mashed cauliflower over the filo pastry, then bring up the sides of the filo and scrunch them together to form a rim. Take the asparagus and line them up across the filling, making sure you cover it all. Brush all over with the remaining olive oil and pop into the preheated oven for around 20 minutes or less, or until golden and crisp. Jiggle it to see if the tart has any looseness to it, and if so bake for another 5 minutes, or until it no longer jiggles.
Let it stand for 3 to 8 minutes, just to set.
This asparagus dish is so-o good and not difficult to make. I think it’s delicious enough to serve for dinner on its own on a warm Spring or Summer evening, (it has everything: protein, carbs, healthy fat) with a tossed salad, and some lovely French bread or rolls (that you warm up while baking this dish). Mmmm, getting hungry already. We’re having the egg beaters version tonight with icy Sauvignon blanc. Then, a blueberry dessert.
Sauvignon blanc wine grapes
Sauvignon blanc wine – Enjoy!
TEDMED 2013-Immersion in Optimism
Mark L. Horn, MD, MPH, Chief Medical Officer, Target Health Inc.
For nearly four unusual days last month I had the privilege of representing Target Health as a Delegate at the TEDMED Conference, held this year in Washington, D.C.
As a hardened veteran of more than three decades of medical meetings, I have a lot of historical perspective (perhaps baggage?) when evaluating Conferences. In large measure because of this background and the many profound differences between TEDMED and traditional medical meetings, it’s taken some time to integrate and prepare a summary of the TEDMED event.
TEDMED was simultaneously energizing and aspirational; there was a pervasive optimism sometimes lacking at the traditional medical education meetings I attend. This has been increasingly true at recent events where conversations among attendees have focused upon declining reimbursement, insurance company and government interference with clinical practice, concerns about implementing the Affordable Care Act, and frustrations with increasing requirements to report data.
While the multiple challenges facing health care were ‘front and center’– in fact the TEDMED Great Challenges (in health and medicine) Program, an ongoing effort, received considerable attention–, there was a mood, almost a conviction, that solutions are achievable. The meeting was organized to encourage attendees to view health care challenges as addressable. The format, a series of inspirational talks (more on this later) coupled with a ‘Hive’ of innovator companies devoted to creative applications of technology, generated a continuous ‘buzz’ of interactive activity that grew organically during the meeting as these innovators and Delegates got to know each other.
The bonding and general enthusiasm were facilitated by the format; the main sessions were attended by all participants, generating a shared experience. These sessions and speakers were eclectic, diverse, and profoundly entertaining. The gamut ranged from individuals creatively dealing with serious illnesses and disabilities to a workout session with Richard Simmons who offered an engaging and strangely (given the large setting) intimate approach to weight loss and fitness – a potential tool (effective for some, likely not all) for addressing obesity (among the TEDMED Great Challenges). There were performers and patients, academics and afflicted, but all were positive and engaged—problem solvers and strivers. I left some sessions with a smile, others with a tear, but in virtually all instances was inspired and energized.
What made the experience unique was that each session could be followed-up with a short walk to the Hive where there was a bevy of entrepreneurs, some of whom would inevitably have technologies suitable for addressing the issues raised during the sessions. Uniquely among conferences (and it is really not a small thing), the food was healthy and plentiful, and there were places to sit. Participants had time to stroll leisurely through the area during breaks, stopping to interact with the entrepreneurs, without hurrying to the nearest takeout restaurant to avoid starvation during the subsequent sessions.
I left feeling not so much inspired as reassured that our medical future is in good hands; there are, happily, lots of energetic, idealistic, extraordinarily capable (and increasingly young to this observer) individuals ‘working out our problems’. Should Target ask, I shall happily volunteer to represent the Company at TEDMED 2014.
The New York Times, May 9, 2013, by Anahad O’Connor — For years, health officials have told parents not to share utensils with their babies or clean their pacifiers by putting them in their mouths, arguing that the practice spreads harmful germs between parent and child. But new research may turn that thinking on its head.
In a study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, scientists report that infants whose parents sucked on their pacifiers to clean them developed fewer allergies than children whose parents typically rinsed or boiled them. They also had lower rates of eczema, fewer signs of asthma and smaller amounts of a type of white blood cell that rises in response to allergies and other disorders.
The findings add to growing evidence that some degree of exposure to germs at an early age benefits children, and that microbial deprivation might backfire, preventing the immune system from developing a tolerance to trivial threats.
The study, carried out in Sweden, could not prove that the pacifiers laden with parents’ saliva were the direct cause of the reduced allergies. The practice may be a marker for parents who are generally more relaxed about shielding their children from dirt and germs, said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University who was not involved in the research.
“It’s a very interesting study that adds to this idea that a certain kind of interaction with the microbial environment is actually a good thing for infants and children,” he said. “I wonder if the parents that cleaned the pacifiers orally were just more accepting of the old saying that you’ve got to eat a peck of dirt. Maybe they just had a less ‘disinfected’ environment in their homes.”
Studies show that the microbial world in which a child is reared plays a role in allergy development, seemingly from birth. Babies delivered vaginally accumulate markedly different bacteria on their skin and in their guts than babies delivered by Caesarean section, and that in turn has been linked in studies to a lower risk of hay fever, asthma and food allergies. But whether a mother who puts a child’s pacifier in her mouth or feeds the child with her own spoon might be providing similar protection is something that had not been closely studied, said Dr. Bill Hesselmar, the lead author of the study.
In fact, health officials routinely discourage such habits, saying they promote tooth decay by transferring cavity-causing bacteria from a parent’s mouth to the child’s. In February, the New York City health department started a subway ad campaign warning parents of the risk. “Don’t share utensils or bites of food with your baby,” the ads say. “Use water, not your mouth, to clean off a pacifier.”
In the new study, doctors at the University of Gothenburg and elsewhere followed a group of about 180 children from birth. The children were examined regularly by a pediatric allergist, and their parents were instructed to keep diaries recording details about food introduction, weaning and other significant events.
By the age of 18 months, about a quarter of the children had eczema, and 5 percent had asthma. Those whose parents reported at least occasionally cleaning their children’s pacifiers by sucking them were significantly less likely to develop the conditions — particularly eczema — and blood tests showed that they had lower levels of a type of immune cell associated with allergies. Analyses of the children’s saliva also showed patterns that suggested the practice had altered the kinds of microbes in their mouths.
The researchers then looked to see if the method of childbirth provided any additional protection.
It did. The children who were delivered through Caesarean section and whose pacifiers were rinsed or boiled had the highest prevalence of eczema, nearly 55 percent. The group with the lowest prevalence of eczema, about 20 percent, were born traditionally and had parents who cleaned their pacifiers in their mouths.
But are these parents also transmitting harmful infections to their children?
The bacterium that causes dental cavities, Streptococcus mutans, is highly contagious. Studies show that children can be infected at a very young age, and that the strain they pick up is usually one that they get from their mothers. That is why health authorities tell parents to do things that can lower the rate of transmission to their children, like not sharing utensils or putting their mouths on pacifiers.
But Dr. Joel Berg, president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, said those efforts are misguided, since parents are bound to spread germs simply by kissing their children and being around them. “This notion of not feeding your baby with your spoon or your fork is absurd because if the mom is in close proximity to the baby you can’t prevent that transmission,” he said. “There’s no evidence that you can avoid it. It’s impossible unless you wear a mask or you don’t touch the child, which isn’t realistic.”
Dr. Berg, who does salivary research at the University of Washington, said the new findings underscore something he has been telling his patients for years, that “saliva is your friend.” It contains enzymes, proteins, electrolytes and other beneficial substances, some of which can perhaps be passed from parent to child.
“I think, like any new study, this is going to be challenged and questioned,” he said. “But what it points out pretty clearly is that we are yet to fully discover the many and varied benefits of saliva.”
SingularityHub.com, May 10, 2013, by Peter Murray – In what they call the “first step in creating sustainable natural lighting,” a group of innovators coming out of Singularity University have launched a Kickstarter campaign to create glowing plants. Admittedly the idea of replacing street lamps with glowing foliage will seem far-fetched to many. But after just three days the campaign has gone viral, already having surpassed its goal of $65,000.
The core team includes Omri Amirav-Drory, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford and founder of the gene building startup Genome Compiler, a Singularity University company coming out of the rapidly expanding Singularity Labs. Also part of the core team are Senstore co-founder Antony Evans, and Kyle Taylor, a biologist who teaches Intro to Molecular and Cell Biology at the biohacker space BioCurious. The three have now joined forces at Singularity University. I got a chance to speak with Evans, the group’s Project Manager, and ask him about the groups’ exciting and eccentric vision.
To create the glowing plants, the team will first generate modified genes with the Genome Compiler software, then insert them into Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant related to mustard and cabbage (they make sure to point out that the plant is not edible). The main gene, luciferase, is the same one that makes fireflies light up the night.
Evans acknowledges that this isn’t the first time luciferase has been used to create glowing plants. But to create plants bright enough to light our way will take a lot of optimizing. The feature that they’ve already worked out is modifying the luciferase gene so that it recycles, as lots of the enzyme will be needed to make the plant sufficiently bright.
With Genome Compiler they’re able to design and print DNA, to make new sequences from scratch. But even while the price of DNA synthesis drops, costs can mount quickly, especially when you’re troubleshooting. At the time of this writing, the Kickstarter campaign had raised over $64,000 – less than a thousand shy of their goal after just three days. The more money the group gets, the more genes they’ll be able to print and test.
To create a system that people can experiment with, they had to start simple. If you’ve seen Arabidopsis you know it’s more suited to light a dinner table than a sidewalk. “We chose it for good reasons, it’s about as safe as it gets. It’s a winter plant that won’t do well in direct sunlight, so it won’t go crazy [by spreading uncontrollably]. Two, it’s about as good as it gets as a model organism. Because it has such a small genome its metabolic pathways have been completely mapped. What I would really like to do one day is a willow tree, but genetically engineering trees is pushing the boundaries of science that we’re not ready for.”
While the genetics will have to be worked out, for Arabidopsis and willow trees or whatever comes after, Evans said the toughest part about getting the project going was “dealing with the ethics and regulatory questions. Science in some ways is the easy part. There isn’t a lot of precedent for what we’re doing. It took a long time to get to a consensus [with regulatory bodies] on that.”
The glowing gene is first inserted into agrobacteria which are then used to move the gene into the plant. [Source: Kickstarter]
Want to support the cause, or maybe just have the only house on the block with a glowing yard? People from the US who back with $40 or more will be sent seeds (50 to 100) of their own so they can cultivate the glowing crop in their own backyard. They emphasize that the seeds will never be sold commercially, so the only chance ever to get the seeds is through Kickstarter. Those interested can follow them on twitter or Facebook or follow developments on their blog. And anyone in the Sunnyvale, CA area can meet up with the team at the Bioluminesence Community meetups at BioCurious Monday evenings.
Evans acknowledged that they’ve encountered a fair amount of skepticism, but the team hopes to convert those skeptics. “More than lighting streets it’s about educating and inspiring the public – it’s not as dangerous as people think. We want to put a beautiful plant in their hands and show them it’s useful and safe.” And for those who are interested, the team plans on publishing a paper so that others can learn from their trial-and-error and won’t have to reinvent the wheel. “The plant is the sexy part, but if we can establish guidelines, I think that might be the more important part.”
The funds raised with the campaign are just the beginning. The real resource, Evans tells me, is people. “Bigger than the light itself, if we can get people to invest their time, being creative, building an ecosystem, then they can get together to try things and build things. I know it sounds cheesy, but I think of the light of the plant as ‘lighting the way.’ I want kids to see it and think, ‘I can do that,’ go down to the lab and start coming up with things. And that’s where the real innovation will come from, because they’ll come up with things we can’t.”
Like the campaign, Evans hopes the plants will eventually grow into something beyond the original vision. Plants are exquisitely sensitive to their environment and respond to minute changes in air, temperature, light. “You could modify the plants for all kinds of sensing applications,” he says. “I firmly believe that this is something that’s going to revolutionize our society. With this technology we have a lot of tools that can solve a lot of humanity’s problems. We’re limited only by our imagination.”
Kickstarter Replaces Lights with Glowing Plants!
SingularityHub.com, May 07, 2013, by Jason Dorrier – Samsung’s Galaxy smartphones are controlled by touch, gesture, eye movement—and your mind. Well, not exactly that last bit. At least, not yet. Perhaps half in the name of science, half for publicity, Samsung’s teamed up with Roozbeh Jafari (University of Texas, Dallas assistant professor and wearable computing expert) to translate thoughts into common computing tasks using an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap.
The EEG cap fits snugly onto the users’ head and uses electrodes to pick up the brain’s faint electrical signals. These signals fall into repetitive patterns when confronted with repetitive visual stimuli like blinking icons. The initial challenge was detecting and separating the right signals to accurately control the device.
In an MIT Technology Review video, a user sporting an EEG cap is shown manipulating a tablet—launching a music application, selecting the artist, and pausing and resuming music. The same test subject was able to communicate selecting icons linked to preset voice requests like, “Can I have some fruit?” and “I want to change my clothes.”
The news comes with a standard disclaimer: It’s still very early going. Though the team is using a “dry” EEG cap (most use gel), it still bristles with electrodes, and the system’s slow—one interaction per five seconds. So don’t hold your breath for a mind-controlled Samsung phone or tablet. The firm has no such plans. But down the line? Who knows.
Samsung’s lead researcher on the project, Insoo Kim, told MIT Technology Review, “Several years ago, a small keypad was the only input modality to control the phone, but nowadays the user can use voice, touch, gesture, and eye movement to control and interact with mobile devices. Adding more input modalities will provide us with more convenient and richer ways of interacting with mobile devices.”
There’s potential for this kind of technology to assist quadriplegics and those suffering from locked-in syndrome. The system’s 80%–95% accuracy is enough to be of use. And whereas past examples of brain-controlled devices for the disabled—like this wireless thought-to-speech device and, more recently, BrainGate2’s mind-controlled robotic arm—are brain implants, EEG is non-invasive.
Whether this tech shows up in commercial phones, tablets, or life-enhancing devices for disabled folks—it’s pretty amazing you can think a thing and make it happen onscreen. What will we control with our thoughts ten and twenty years from now?
[Source: Georgia Tech]
SingularityHub.com, May 6, 2013, by Peter Murray – While prosthetic limbs continue to improve, tactile feedback is one feature that many are keen to incorporate into the prosthetics but it remains a very difficult technology to develop. But now scientists have developed a new device so packed with sensors it is about as sensitive as human skin. Just as Moore’s Law continues to benefit the integrated circuit, packing ever more sensors into a smaller area will allow such devices to one day be built into everything we touch.
Some areas of our skin, like the lips and fingertips, are more sensitive to the touch because of a greater density of receptors that translate mechanical force into neuronal signals. The sensory device built by scientists at Georgia Tech is a new kind of transistor that converts mechanical force into electricity. The force bends nanoscale wires made of zinc oxide. When the wires bend back, zinc and oxide ions create an electrical potential that is converted to electrical current of a few millivolts. Converting mechanical energy to electrical energy is known as the piezoelectric effect.
To enhance the sensor’s sensitivity, the group of engineers led by materials science and engineering professor Zhong Lin Wang used nanoelectronics that allowed them to increase sensor density and spatial resolution by 15-fold, which translates to a two to three order of magnitude boost in sensitivity. The density, resolution and sensitivity of the sensor approximates that of a human finger.
A paper featuring the device was published recently in Science.
Artificial skin could give prosthetics a real feel by allowing users to feel what they touch. [Source: Wikipedia]
Wang and his colleagues join a field they call “piezotronics” in which mechanical force generates electricity. In 2009 the group created a new type of transistor that doesn’t require a voltage. Because they can generate their own electric current with mechanical force alone, the transistors have the potential to draw their energy from the world around us instead of a battery. Wind, sound waves, even blood flow for body implants, a device powered with piezotronics can be made even smaller without the need for a power source. Even smartphones could be recharged just by using them.
Wang thinks the array could eventually be used to enable prosthetics to transmit a realistic sense of touch. They also think it could be used to improve touchscreen devices, give robots a finer touch for handling objects, or could be placed under the skin of burn victims. By connecting to intact nerves beneath the damaged skin, the sensor could replace actual skin and return sensation to the burn victim.
With the many needs to sense our environment, possible applications for the artificial skin are endless. Still, commercial applications of this technology are rare – there is much work still to be done. As more piezotronic devices become mainstream, their uses will only be limited by the creativity of those using them.
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
Steven Pinker: An interview with the Harvard psychologist and linguist on violence, language and Twitter.
By CARL ZIMMER
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Steven Pinker was a 15-year-old anarchist. He didn’t think people needed a police force to keep the peace. Governments caused the very problems they were supposed to solve.
WORDPLAY Dr. Pinker, in 1991 at M.I.T., showed how a puppet figured in his study of language development in children (here, a colleague’s daughter).
By CARL ZIMMER, The New York Times
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Steven Pinker was a 15-year-old anarchist. He didn’t think people needed a police force to keep the peace. Governments caused the very problems they were supposed to solve.
Besides, it was 1969, said Dr. Pinker, who is now a 57-year-old psychologist/linguist at Harvard. “If you weren’t an anarchist,” he said, “you couldn’t get a date.”
At the dinner table, he argued with his parents about human nature. “They said, ‘What would happen if there were no police?’ ” he recalled. “I said: ‘What would we do? Would we rob banks? Of course not. Police make no difference.’ ”
This was in Montreal, “a city that prided itself on civility and low rates of crime,” he said. Then, on Oct. 17, 1969, police officers and firefighters went on strike, and he had a chance to test his first hypothesis about human nature.
“All hell broke loose,” Dr. Pinker recalled. “Within a few hours there was looting. There were riots. There was arson. There were two murders. And this was in the morning that they called the strike.”
The ’60s changed the lives of many people and, in Dr. Pinker’s case, left him deeply curious about how humans work. That curiosity turned into a career as a leading expert on language, and then as a leading advocate of evolutionary psychology. In a series of best-selling books, he has argued that our mental faculties — from emotions to decision-making to visual cognition — were forged by natural selection.
He has also become a withering critic of those who would deny the deep marks of evolution on our minds — social engineers who believe they can remake children as they wish, modernist architects who believe they can rebuild cities as utopias. Even in the 21st century, Dr. Pinker argues, we ignore our evolved brains at our own peril.
Given this track record, Dr. Pinker’s newest book, published in October, struck some critics as a jackknife turn. In “The Better Angels of Our Nature” (Viking), he investigates one of the most primal aspects of life: violence.
Over the course of 802 pages, he argues that violence has fallen drastically over thousands of years — whether one considers homicide rates, war casualties as a percentage of national populations, or other measures.
This may seem at odds with evolutionary psychology, which is often seen as an argument for hard-wired Stone Age behavior, but Dr. Pinker sees that view as a misunderstanding of the science. Our evolved brains, he argues, are capable of a wide range of responses to their environment. Under the right conditions, they can allow us to live in greater and greater peace.
“The Better Angels of Our Nature” is full of the flourishes that Dr. Pinker’s readers have come to expect. He offers gruesomely delightful details about cutting off noses and torturing heretics. Like his other popular books, starting with “The Language Instinct” (1994), it is a far cry from his first published works in the late 1970s — esoteric reports from his graduate work at Harvard, with titles like “The Representation and Manipulation of Three-Dimensional Space in Mental Images.”
From Irregular Verbs, a Career
He came to Harvard after graduating from McGill University in 1976. At the time, he was convinced that a life in psychology would allow him to ask the big questions about the mind and answer them with scientific rigor. “It was the sweet spot for me in trying to understand human nature,” he said.
But he quickly realized that such explorations would have to wait. “You can’t do a Ph.D. thesis on human nature,” he said. “So I studied much smaller problems — academic bread-and-butter problems.”
He began by studying how we picture things in our heads, looking for the strategies people use to make sense of the visual information continually flooding the brain. As he worked on his dissertation, however, he recognized that many other scientists were also tackling the same problems of visual cognition.
“There were a lot of people studying them who were doing a better job than I could,” he said. So he looked for another problem.
The field he settled on was language, and it proved to be consuming. For Dr. Pinker, it was “a window into human nature.” Linguists have long debated whether language is a skill we develop with all-purpose minds, or whether we have innate systems dedicated to it.
Dr. Pinker has focused much of his research on language on a seemingly innocuous fluke: irregular verbs. While we can generate most verb tenses according to a few rules, we also hold onto a few arbitrary ones. Instead of simply turning “speak” into “speaked,” for example, we say “spoke.”
As a young professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he pored over transcripts of children’s speech, looking for telling patterns in the mistakes they made as they mastered verbs. Out of this research, he proposed that our brains contain two separate systems that contribute to language. One combines elements of language to build up meaning; the other is like a mental dictionary we keep in our memory.
This research helped to convince Dr. Pinker that language has deep biological roots. Some linguists argued that language simply emerged as a byproduct of an increasingly sophisticated brain, but he rejected that idea. “Language is so woven into what makes humans human,” he said, “that it struck me as inconceivable that it was just an accident.”
Instead, he concluded that language was an adaptation produced by natural selection. Language evolved like the eye or the hand, thanks to the way it improved reproductive success. In 1990 he published a paper called “Natural Language and Natural Selection,” with his student Paul Bloom, now at Yale. The paper was hugely influential.
It also became the seed of his breakthrough book, “The Language Instinct,” which quickly became a best seller and later won a place on a list in the journal American Scientist of the top 100 science books of the 20th century.
Dr. Pinker used the success of the book to expand the scope of his work. “It gave me the freedom to return to these much larger questions, informed by what I could learn about real humans,” he said.
For the past 17 years, he has alternated between wide-ranging books on human nature, like “How the Mind Works” (1997) and “The Blank Slate” (2002), and books focused on his research, like “Words and Rules” (1999), about irregular verbs. He writes at the apartment he shares with his wife, the novelist Rebecca Goldstein, and at a house on Cape Cod.
Cause for Optimism
As a public intellectual, Dr. Pinker has engaged in a series of high-profile debates about evolutionary psychology. In 1997, the Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould accused him and other evolutionary psychologists of seeing fine-tuned adaptations in every facet of human existence.
Evolutionary psychology, Dr. Gould wrote, “could be quite useful if proponents would trade their propensity for cultism and ultra-Darwinian fealty for a healthy dose of modesty.”
Dr. Pinker gave as good as he got. He declared that Dr. Gould was “scrambling things so that his opponents have horns and he has a halo.” (Dr. Gould died in 2002.)
Then there is the question of male and female minds. In 2005, Lawrence H. Summers, then president of Harvard, caused an uproar by speculating that one reason for the underrepresentation of women in tenured science and engineering positions was “issues of intrinsic aptitude.”
Dr. Pinker (who had moved from M.I.T. to Harvard in 2003) came to Dr. Summers’s defense, and ended up in a high-profile debate with a fellow Harvard psychologist, Elizabeth Spelke.
Dr. Pinker argued that there were small but important biological differences in how male and female brains worked. Dr. Spelke argued that these differences were minor, and that evolutionary psychology had no part to play in the debate.
“The kinds of careers people pursue now, the kinds of choices they make, are radically different from anything that anybody faced back in the Pleistocene,” Dr. Spelke said at the close of the debate. “It is anything but clear how motives that evolved then translate into a modern context.”
In a way, “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” is a response to this kind of critique. He says the idea for the book took root in his mind around the time of his debate with Dr. Spelke, when he stumbled across graphs of historical rates of violence. In England, for example, homicide rates are about a hundredth of what they were in 1400.
In 2006 Dr. Pinker was invited to write an essay on the theme “What Are You Optimistic About?” His answer: “The decline of violence.”
The reaction to the essay was swift and surprising. “I started hearing from scholars from fields that I was barely aware of, saying, ‘There’s much more evidence on this trend than you were aware of,’ ” he said.
Researchers sent him evidence that violence had declined in many other places, and in many different forms, from the death rate in wars to rates of child abuse. “I thought, ‘This is getting to be a conspiracy.’ It was beyond my wildest dreams. I realized there was a book to be written.”
Dr. Pinker set out to synthesize all these patterns and find an explanation for them. And in the process, he wanted to rebut stereotypes of evolutionary psychology.
“There’s a common criticism of evolutionary psychology that it’s fatalistic and it dooms us to eternal strife,” he said. “Why even try to work toward peace if we’re just bloody killer apes and violence is in our genes?”
Instead, Dr. Pinker argues that evolutionary psychology offers the best explanation for why things have gotten better, and how to make them even better.
“Better Angels” has impressed many experts on historical trends of violence.
“Steven Pinker’s great achievement is to weave these trends into a much larger pattern of reduced violence, greater empathy and, indeed, a comprehensive civilizing process,” said Nils Petter Gleditsch, a research professor at the Peace Research Institute Oslo in Norway.
Human violence started dropping thousands of years ago with the formation of the first states, Dr. Pinker argues. For evidence, he points to archaeological studies and observations of stateless societies today. With the birth of the first states, rates of violence began to fall, and they have dropped in fits and starts ever since.
Dr. Pinker grants that these results may be hard to believe, but he thinks that is more a matter of psychology than of data. The emotional power in stories of violence — whether on the nightly news or on “Law and Order” — can distract us from the long-term decline.
He acknowledges, of course, that the past century produced two horrific world wars. But he says they do not refute his argument. Statistical studies of war reveal a lot of randomness built into their timing and size. The 20th century, he argues, suffered some particularly bad luck.
Dr. Pinker finds an explanation for the overall decline of violence in the interplay of history with our evolved minds. Our ancestors had a capacity for violence, but this was just one capacity among many. “Human nature is complex,” he said. “Even if we do have inclinations toward violence, we also have inclination to empathy, to cooperation, to self-control.”
Which inclinations come to the fore depends on our social surroundings. In early society, the lack of a state spurred violence. A thirst for justice could be satisfied only with revenge. Psychological studies show that people overestimate their own grievances and underestimate those of others; this cognitive quirk fueled spiraling cycles of bloodshed.
But as the rise of civilization gradually changed the ground rules of society, violence began to ebb. The earliest states were brutal and despotic, but they did manage to take away opportunities for runaway vendettas.
More recently, the invention of movable type radically changed our social environment. When people used their powers of language to generate new ideas, those ideas could spread. “If you give people literacy, bad ideas can be attacked and experiments tried, and lessons will accumulate,” Dr. Pinker said. “That pulls you away from what human nature would consign you on its own.”
And these ideas helped drive down violence even further. Ideas about equality led to women gaining power across much of the world, and “women are statistically more dovish than men,” Dr. Pinker said.
Reviews for the new book have been largely enthusiastic, though not unmixed. In The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert called it “confounding,” “exasperating” and “fishy.”
“Hate and madness and cruelty haven’t disappeared,” she concluded, “and they aren’t going to.”
Dr. Pinker’s response was equally scornful. “No honest reviewer would imply that this is the message of the book,” he wrote on his Web site.
Though violence has indisputably declined, he says, it could rise again. But by understanding the causes of the decline, humanity can work to promote peace. He endorses the new book “Winning the War on War” (Dutton/Penguin), by the political scientist Joshua S. Goldstein, which argues that the slogan “If you want peace, fight for justice” is precisely the wrong advice.
If you want peace, Dr. Goldstein argues, work for peace. Dr. Pinker agrees.
“It’s psychologically astute, given the massive amount of self-serving biases,” he said. “In any dispute, each side thinks it’s in the right and the other side is demons.”
The moral of his own book might be, If you want peace, understand psychology.
By THE NEW YORK TIMES
Selections from Steven Pinker’s writings on language, evolution and the mind.
Language is so tightly woven into human experience that it is scarcely possible to imagine life without it. Chances are that if you find two or more people together anywhere on earth they will soon be exchanging words. When there is no one to talk with, people talk to themselves, to their dogs, even to their plants. In our social relations, the race is not to the swift but to the verbal — the spellbinding orator, the silver-tongued seducer, the persuasive child who wins the battle of wills against a brawnier parent.
“The Language Instinct,” 1994
Language is not just a window into human nature but a fistula: an open wound through which our innards are exposed to an infectious world. It’s not surprising that we expect people to sheathe their words in politeness and innuendo and other forms of doublespeak.
“The Stuff of Thought,” 2007
On Science and Art
If music confers no survival advantage, where does it come from and why does it work? I suspect that music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of our mental faculties.
“How the Mind Works,” 1997
Sophisticated people sneer at feel-good comedies and saccharine romances in which all loose ends are tied and everyone lives happily ever after. Life is nothing like that, we note, and we look to the arts for edification about the painful dilemmas of the human condition. Yet when it comes to the science of human beings, this same audience says: Give us schmaltz!
“The Blank Slate,” 2002
On the Brain’s Software
Children’s language errors such as breaked and holded, which could not have been parroted from their parents’ speech, have [long] served as a vivid reminder that the mind of the child is not a sponge, but actively assembles words and concepts into new combinations guided by rules and regularities.
“Words and Rules,” 1999
Thanks to the redundancy of language, yxx cxn xndxrstxnd whxt x xm wrxtxng xvxn xf x rxplxcx xll thx vxwxls wxth xn “x” (t gts lttl hrdr f y dn’t vn kn whr th vwls r).
“The Language Instinct”
Believe it or not — and I know that most people do not — violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.
“The Better Angels of Our Nature,” 2011
At left, Phacellophora camtschatica, a species of jellyfish, next to a glass model of another jellyfish, Cotylorhiza borbonica, created in the late 19th century.
The New York Times, May 6, 2013, by C. Drew Harvell – Mauna Lani Reef, Hawaii — After a long, cold swim in the dark, we spotted it on the night reef with our dive lights: Octopus ornatus, the ornate octopus, a footlong creature in an amber shade of orange with bright white spots and dashes along all its arms.
It sat stolidly in the light of the camera, 30 feet below the surface, unfazed by the attention. I reached out a finger and it touched me with its suctioned tentacles. When it scuttled in the other direction, I herded it between my cupped hands as it watched me attentively with searching golden eyes.
As if levitating, it smoothly lifted off and tried to jet over my head, but slowly enough that I could catch it gently in midair — like handling a large bird, albeit one with eight sticky tentacles. Holding it at eye level, I looked into its eyes. I felt connected, sort of an octopus whisperer.
Then a tentacle slapped the front of my mask. The octopus crawled up my arm and vanished into the night.
I’ve been a marine biologist my entire professional life, spending more than 25 years researching the health of corals and sustainability of reefs. I’m captivated by the magic of sessile invertebrates like corals, sponges and sea squirts — creatures vital to the ecosystem yet too often overlooked in favor of more visible animals like sharks and whales.
The filmmaker David O. Brown and I want to change that. To make a documentary, “Fragile Legacy,” we are on a quest to lure these elusive and delicate invertebrates in front of the camera lens.
Our inspiration springs from an unlikely source: a collection of 570 superbly wrought, anatomically perfect glass sculptures of marine creatures from the 19th century.
These delicate folds and strands of glass make up the Blaschka collection of glass invertebrates at Cornell, of which I am the curator — enchanting and impossibly rare jellyfishes of the open ocean; more common but equally beautiful octopus, squid, anemones and nudibranchs from British tide pools and Mediterranean shores.
They are the work of an extraordinary father-and-son team, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. Leopold Blaschka (1822-95) was a Czech immigrant to Dresden, in what is now Germany; on a trip to America in 1853, his ship was becalmed and he was enchanted by a spectacular display of bioluminescence from a type of jellyfish called a siphonophore.
He decided to study the jellyfish more closely and create their likenesses in glass. His first works were a set of anemones for the Dresden Natural History Museum in 1863, inspired by the naturalist Philip Henry Gosse’s “British Sea-Anemones and Corals.”
Leopold’s son, Rudolf (1857-1939), was a keen natural historian in his own right, and an ardent aquarist, or aquarium keeper. He followed his father’s lead, expanding in biodiversity to reach the edges of the animal kingdom. (And beyond: Later they created a comprehensive collection of flowers that is now on display at Harvard.)
To restore Cornell’s vast collection — bought from the Blaschkas themselves in 1885 — a glassworker, Elizabeth R. Brill, has painstakingly cleaned each piece and glued back fragmented gills and wayward tentacles. The collection is on view at several galleries and the Johnson Museum of Art on the Cornell campus, and restored pieces can be seen in an online gallery.
The marine biodiversity recreated by the Blaschkas is a phantasmagorical view of life in the oceans. For they were artists as well as keen natural historians, with an eye for the forms that would enchant in glass and that were too rare or fragile to be seen readily. They were also superb teachers, eager to share the wonders of nature with students.
Their favorite subjects were the ephemeral, translucent, bright forms of the Cnidaria (anemones, jellyfish, corals), unshelled mollusks (nudibranchs, octopus and squid) and brilliant tentacled worms. Some of their most brilliant creations are of the different species of cephalopods, like the ornate octopus.
David Brown and I came to Hawaii with the goal of making videos of as many Blaschka cephalopod look-alikes as we could find. (The ornate octopus we found was not an exact match with the Blaschkas’, but the common octopus was: Our glass counterpart still sits dusty and broken in its original shipping box, soon to be restored by Elizabeth.)
Our quest is also to use the Blaschka collection as a time capsule, to take a snapshot of change. How many of these creatures that were so common 150 years ago can still be found today?
The oceans are changing rapidly, with a 30 percent increase in acidity in the last 200 years, lethally stressful warming in many tropical seas, and significantcoastal pollution and overfishing just about everywhere. If ever there was a time to compare the plentiful past with an ocean in jeopardy, that time would be now.
The chances of finding cephalopods are much improved while they are out foraging at night. So we did a series of night reef dives, followed by a “black water” dive three miles off the Kona coast.
That one put us in 1,000-foot-deep water, well after sunset, with the very real possibility of encountering tiger sharks and great white sharks. Floating in the current, the captain turned off all the boat’s lights, the better to see bioluminescent “black magic.”
We clipped onto our safety lines and slipped below the surface without lights, into darkness punctuated by bioluminescent splashes. We had to drift close to identify whether these splashes were from jellyfish, ctenophores, salps or squid. As we settled into our depth at 50 feet below the surface and turned on our dive lights, the sparkles of bioluminescence turned into a stream of tiny plankton floating by.
What I really hoped to see were siphonophores, the creatures that created the mid-Atlantic bioluminescence that so inspired Leopold Blaschka in 1853 and whose models are some of the most intricate in our collection.
For example, the glass model of Apolemia uvaria has the basic form of a siphonophore that I could see before me — the large swimming bell, its powerhouse for fast movement, and the long dangling tentacles — each capped with a deadly harpoon loaded with neurotoxin — that are death traps for all manner of small shrimp and fish.
And the siphonophores put on quite a show for us, even if they were small and wickedly hard to film. They stretched out those long tentacles, hauling them in rapidly when prey arrived.
And when they encountered danger, their nervous systems fired a signal to muscles that zipped up the tentacles and powered the swimming bell to high speed. A three-foot-long string of stinging tentacles contracted in a flash to a three-inch stream of jet propulsion. (Somehow, the term “jellyfish” doesn’t capture the extravagant evolution and biology at work here!)
Then I heard an underwater shout from David as he caught a picture of an exquisite tiny octopus zooming past.
The next stop in our quest is the Mediterranean, ground zero for Blaschka subjects. This month I head to Italy, to the Naples Marine Station, which supplied the glassmakers with many of their live animals.
Perhaps we’ll find exact matches for such spectacular invertebrates as the curly tentacled octopus (Eledone moschata) and the giant siphonophore Apolemia uvaria, which at 20 feet long can dominate a Mediterranean food web. At any rate, we hope to find out whether they are surviving in the sea as magnificently as they do in glass.
C. Drew Harvell is the associate director for environment at the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future at Cornell, and curator of the Cornell Collection of Blaschka Invertebrate Models.
Target Health Proudly Supports the Arts in NYC
May 2013 – Springtime in Central Park, New York City (Manhattan)
We believe that the Arts represent the soul of a city, and of a society. Driven by our founder and CEO Joyce Hays, and as part of corporate civic responsibility and to give back to our great city, Target Health is pleased to announce that it supports the following theatre and cultural groups in NYC (and one in Santa Fe, NM):
1. Manhattan Theater Club
2. Roundabout Theatre Club
3. Signature Theater Company
4. Atlantic Theatre Company
5. Metropolitan Opera
6. MCC Theater Company
7. New York Theater Workshop
8. PILOBOLUS Dance Company
9. SITE Santa Fe
For more information about Target Health contact Warren Pearlson (212-681-2100 ext. 104). For additional information about software tools for paperless clinical trials, please also feel free to contact Dr. Jules T. Mitchel or Ms. Joyce Hays. The Target Health software tools are designed to partner with both CROs and Sponsors. Please visit the Target Health Website at www.targethealth.com