October 5th, 2010

[LINK] "Canada's changing faith"

At the Globe and Mail, Joe Friesen and Sandra Martin take a look at the issue--potential problem, really--of the greater religiosity of immigrants as compared to the native-born Canadian population.

The numbers tell the tale of an important demographic shift. More than 40 per cent of the people who landed here between 1982 and 2001 have a high degree of religiosity, according to Statistics Canada’s General Social Survey, compared with 26 per cent of native-born Canadians. Many of those immigrants, especially from Latin America and such countries as the Philippines and South Korea, are bolstering congregations at long-established Christian denominations. Others, from Asia, the Middle East and Africa, are primarily Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and Muslims, religions that have been practised here since before Canada was a country, but never in such large concentrations. Muslims, for example, are the fastest-growing religious group in Canada. They make up a little more than 2 per cent of the population, but that number is expected to grow to nearly 8 per cent by 2031.

It’s a reality most Canadians would prefer to ignore: Although we think of ourselves as a secular, tolerant society, Canada is becoming increasingly religious because of immigration.

Dealing with that change will require a sustained effort to accommodate one another. But compromise may not come easily. Religious beliefs are protected in the Charter of Rights, which must be interpreted in a manner “consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.” But what if those values clash with the principle of equality of men and women? Since there is no established hierarchy of rights, could the right to religious and cultural practice supersede the right to gender equality enshrined in sections 15 and 28?

It’s that kind of multicultural anxiety that has reverberated across Europe and is now increasingly visible in Canada. Following France’s lead, Quebec Premier Jean Charest introduced anti-niqab legislation earlier this year. If passed, Muslim women will be required to remove face coverings if they want access to government venues including schools, hospitals and government buildings. And yet, Quebec also voted to retain the crucifix on the wall of the National Assembly as a historical rather than a religious symbol.

Religious arbitration courts were encouraged for generations in the Christian and Jewish faiths to deflect Family Law disputes from the costly and adversarial legal system. Ontario banned them outright in 2005 rather than allow an Islamic version, popularly described as sharia law, because of the outcry that questioned whether principles of gender equality would be threatened.

The authors are cautiously optimistic inasmuch as there's a greater tolerance for hyphenated identities in Canada as opposed to many other countries, lacking negative histories with its sources of immigrants, and selecting for a diverse immigrant population relatively qualified for the Canadian economy. Then again, there's always the possibility for nasty conflict if something goes very wrong.

[LINK] "Bubbly Ocean on Enceladus Explains Plume Mystery"

This item from Wired Science's Lisa Grossman goes a long way towards explaining the dynamics of the subsurface ocean of a moon, Saturn's Enceladus, that had been expected to be frozen solid but might instead provide an environment for life. Plus, the image of the bubbly ocean is cool, too.

Bubbly seawater below a crust of ice could explain the famous plumes on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. A new model based on data from the Cassini orbiter suggests the water, gas, dust and heat observed in the moon’s plumes all come from seawater circulating from the ocean to the surface of the ice and back.

[. . .]

Enceladus’s fantastic wet plumes make it one of the solar system’s best candidates for life. But astronomers have gone back and forth on whether the moon’s southern spritzes mean it has a liquid ocean. Most of the debate has centered around salt. While Cassini found sodium in Saturn’s outermost ring, which is believed to be formed from material spat out by Enceladus, observations from Earth-based telescopes found no sodium in the plumes.

The missing salt could be explained by a “Perrier” ocean of slightly bubbly seawater, Matson said. The bubbles come from gas dissolved in the water, and an ocean of just one or two percent gas would do it, according to their model. Bubbly seawater is less dense than ice, so it would rise easily to the surface through cracks in an ice crust. At the surface, popping bubbles would throw a fine salty spray that would show up in the solid ring, but not in vapors in the plume.

“The sodium was hiding in the little grains,” Matson said. “In the case of Enceladus, sodium isn’t in the vapor, it’s in the solid particles. This was something entirely new that had not been seen elsewhere.”

[. . .]

In the bubbly ocean model, heat from the moon’s interior is transferred in ocean water to the surface of the ice. At the surface, the water cools, dissolves the bubble gases and returns to the ocean via cracks in the ice.

“The realization that there’s a circulation system inside of Enceladus is a new way of thinking, and it’s not one that’s been employed to explain any other satellite behavior,” Matson said.

[BRIEF NOTE] We're not alone

Or, at least, we're not as unique in our quality of intelligence as we thought.

  • First come the monkeys, rhesus macaques apparently, who apparently recognize their own reflections in mirrors, thus passing a key test for consciousness.

  • In the lab of University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Luis Populin, five rhesus macaques seem to recognize their own reflections in a mirror. Monkeys weren’t supposed to do this.

    “We thought these subjects didn’t have this ability. The indications are that if you fail the mark test, you’re not self-aware. This opens up a whole field of possibilities,” Populin said.

    [. . .]

    So-called mirror self-recognition is thought to indicate self-awareness, which is required to understand selfhood in others, and ultimately to be empathic. Researchers measure this with the “mark test.” They paint or ink a mark on unconscious animals, then see if they use mirrors to discover the marks.

    It was once thought that only humans could pass the mark test. Then chimpanzees did, followed by dolphins and elephants. These successes challenged the notions that humans were alone on one side of a cognitive divide. Many researchers think the notion of a divide is itself mistaken. Instead, they propose a gradual spectrum of cognitive powers, a spectrum crudely measured by mirrors.

    Indeed, macaques — including those in Populin’s study — have repeatedly failed the mark test. But after Rajala called attention to their strange behaviors, the researchers paid closer attention. The highly social monkeys only rarely tried to interact with the reflections. They used mirrors to study otherwise-hidden parts of their bodies, such as their genitals and the implants in their heads. Mark tests not withstanding, they seemed quite self-aware.

  • Next come dolphins, where groups of mixed species change the way they communicate (speak?) with each other.

  • Bottlenose and Guyana dolphins, two distantly related species, often come together to socialize in waters off the coast of Costa Rica, and although each species normally makes distinct, different sounds, they change the way they communicate when together and begin using an intermediate language, the BBC reported Thursday.

    Biologist Laura May-Collado of the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan made the discovery while studying dolphins swimming in Costa Rica's Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge off the country's southern Caribbean coast.

    When bottlenose dolphins swim together, they emit longer, lower frequency calls that are modulated, she said. In contrast, Guyana dolphins usually communicate using higher frequency whistles that have their own particular structure.

    But the two species often swim together in one group and when they do they produce quite different calls, May-Collado has discovered.

    Calls emitted during these multi-species encounters are of an intermediate frequency and duration, a style that is somewhere between those of the two separate species.

  • Finally, there's the evidence that Neanderthals--our ancestors, too, if from a divergent gene pool--were a compassionate lot.

    The archaeologists studied archaeological evidence and used this to propose a four stage model for the development of human compassion. It begins six million years ago when the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees experienced the first awakenings of an empathy for others and motivation to 'help' them, perhaps with a gesture of comfort or moving a branch to allow them to pass.

    The second stage from 1.8 million years ago sees compassion in Homo erectus beginning to be regulated as an emotion integrated with rational thought. Care of sick individuals represented an extensive compassionate investment while the emergence of special treatment of the dead suggested grief at the loss of a loved one and a desire to soothe others feelings.

    In Europe between around 500,000 and 40,000 years ago, early humans such as Homo heidelbergensis and Neanderthals developed deep-seated commitments to the welfare of others illustrated by a long adolescence and a dependence on hunting together. There is also archaeological evidence of the routine care of the injured or infirm over extended periods. These include the remains of a child with a congenital brain abnormality who was not abandoned but lived until five or six years old and those of a Neanderthal with a withered arm, deformed feet and blindness in one eye who must have been cared for, perhaps for as long as twenty years.

    With these three news items, I'm tempted to believe that the natural direction of evolution is towards complex behaviours and eventually intelligence.