Tuesday, June 30, 2009

...with Just a Splash of Lime

Here is a video that describes the evolution of a monkey society. The narration implies that vervet monkeys in west Africa do not have a particular taste for alcohol, but in the Caribbean islands, where fermented sugar cane was plentiful, they developed such a taste.

Now, the monkey population mirrors the human population in percentage of alcohol drinkers vs. non-drinkers, and in the levels to which they get drunk.

When the narrator started talking about the similarities between the monkey society and human society, I knew that it would be explained by the similarity of their genes to human genes. DNA is the current "magic" in our society--it explains whatever we want it to explain, and if we don't want to see a link, DNA is not invoked, or a category like "junk DNA" is invented.

It's simply not acceptable to say that something else may be providing the personality, or the life force, for all living things.

Anyway, here's the video. Party on, little monkey dudes!

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Adopted by a Butterfly

photo from the Washington Post article linked at leftIn this article (free registration may be required but they don't spam you), a former reporter for the Washington Post tells of how a butterfly took a liking to him and stayed with him for weeks.

From the article:
...Day by day, he became, from my point of view, increasingly friendly and playful. I began to keep a log of his comings and goings as well as of his stunts, which reminded me of a fighter pilot who fired no weapons but just loved flying.

...How did I know it was the same butterfly that landed on me each time? The answer was in his behavior. It was so consistent that it was hard to imagine another butterfly precisely duplicating it.

...I'm convinced that he also had a tremendous sense of joy. The novelist Vladimir Nabokov picked up on this. A passionate amateur lepidopterist, Nabokov once wrote that the red admiral is "a most frolicsome fly."

...I began paying a lot more respect to all insects. Poppy taught me how little we know about these small creatures. He didn't completely change my life, but he certainly enhanced my ability to question.

...I had made a connection with the natural world that I had never dreamed possible.

Say Hello to the Nice Tiger...

Here's a short video of a tiger surprising somebody. I have to say I never had a tiger do that to me. I would guess there's a simple reason: Listen to that sound the tiger makes as it walks up to the camera. That's called a "chuff", and it's a greeting. In my experience, if a tiger makes that sound to you, and you repeat it back to the tiger, you've started a friendly relationship. It should be one of the first things a place like that in the video tells visitors.

And I would guess that the tiger figures that someone who doesn't return the greeting isn't worth his respect.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

That Inner Knowing

I know, it's Thursday and I should be offering a video of some animal doing something cute or amazing. But Comcast screwed up my internet connection and I can't do videos right now. I'll be lucky to get plain text posted. So lack of videos has made me turn philosophical, and I ask this question:

What's the difference between a scientist and a psychic?

Well, there's a lot of differences, but the one I'm thinking of is that the scientist wants proof, while the psychic says, "trust your feelings".

Another difference is that I've never heard of a psychic sticking electrodes in an live animal's brain, but let's stick with the proof/feelings issue for now.

I've been dancing around this idea with many of my posts here. Like how established scientific knowledge is proven wrong when words of wisdom from a computer says it should be wrong. So many accepted ideas are based on what later turns out to be erroneous scientific leaps to conclusions. Yes, this can be called progress. But looking at the bigger picture, what is being proven over and over is that experiments are flawed, conclusions based on them are not logical, and the whole of established thought can seem as flimsy as a house of cards.

I would much rather read anecdotal accounts of animal intelligence than scientific papers, because I get the feeling scientists don't use all their abilities when they write. I get the feeling they're holding back, they're filtering their thoughts into accepted channels, and ignoring a lot of real life.

I would rather read a good account by someone like Clyde Beatty. I like to mention him because I know his name is much reviled in some circles. But the man had genuine insights into the personalities of the animals he worked with. And this came from the need to pay attention to all aspects of those animals, and the need to trust his feelings every moment.

People who work closely with animals in non-laboratory situations have no doubt about animals' intelligence or personalities and certainly not the most basic of scientific questions, consciousness. The question of consciousness eventually boils down to the idea that no one can prove that another human being is conscious. So why do they look for proof of animals' consciousness? What would constitute proof for them, anyway?

Those who truly pay attention on a constant basis already know. The proof exists in everyday life, and the means to know it exists within each of us. This is why people love to look at such things as Christian the lion demonstrating his love. It touches their inner feelings, that inner knowing.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Personality Quiz

Which cat are you most like?

I'd say I am most like the orange-and-white cat.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Are Insects Conscious?

When you delve into what's been written about the nature of consciousness and current scientific opinions about it, you find that a lot of people tie the existence of consciousness to brain complexity. This gives rise to arguments that humans have the most complex brains and so are the only conscious animals.

An article in Discover magazine reports on some scientists willing to take an open-minded approach to these ideas. These scientists are making discoveries about insects' brains.
"Many people would pooh-pooh the notion of insects having brains that are in any way comparable to those of primates. But one has to think of the principles underlying how you put a brain together, and those principles are likely to be universal."
Going against the flow of established thought, another scientist says,
"We have literally no idea at what level of brain complexity consciousness stops. Most people say, 'For heaven's sake, a bug isn't conscious.' But how do we know? We're not sure anymore. I don't kill bugs needlessly anymore."
The first sentence in that quote is worded a bit awkwardly. He means that as he looks at smaller and smaller brains in studying insects, he can't point to one level and say, this animal cannot be conscious.

A lot of the article is not for the squeamish, and it avoids raising the question of ethics of doing these experiments on conscious animals. But this is how scientists study brain function, and they are finding great similarities between insect brains and human brains.
"Probably what consciousness requires is a sufficiently complicated system with massive feedback. Insects have that. If you look at the mushroom bodies [a part of the cockroach's brain], they're massively parallel and have feedback."
I have an anecdote that, to me, demonstrates the similarities between the way humans think and the way insects think. One Spring, I had to knock down a wasp's nest--I had no choice, it had been started under one of the folds of our pool's winter cover. Soon after I did this, the wasp returned. He went immediately to the post where the nest had been. Not finding it, he went to neighboring posts on the pool wall, first to the right, then to the left. Still unsuccessful, he backed up to get a view of the entire pool, then flew to the post where the nest had been. Since this didn't work, he backed up further to get a view of the entire yard, and again returned to the post. Failing again, he flew off out of sight, in the direction he had come from originally, presumably to get a bearing on whether he had the right yard. And then he flew straight in to the original post. Finally, he realized something had happened to the nest and he gave up.

As I watched him, it struck me that this is exactly how a human would act if his car had been stolen from a parking lot.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Myths of "Wild" and "Domestic"

photo by Joseph ScherschelThere are two related concepts that are deeply ingrained in our society; so deeply ingrained that we may never be free of them. And yet, the world would be so much better if we could be free of them. Better for all of us, and better for all the animals.

Those concepts are that some species have been "domesticated" while other species are intrinsically "wild".

Everybody knows what a "domestic" animal is: A dog, a cat, a parakeet, a horse, a cow, and so on. Everybody knows what a "wild" animal is: A lion, a bear, a fox, and so on.

And yet, I could take you on a walking tour of a nice suburban neighborhood and point out plenty of dogs you wouldn't want to get within 20 feet of. Why is that? They're domesticated, aren't they?

And the list of gentle, loving lions (to pick one supposedly "wild" species) is quite long: Christian, Elsa, Zamba, Little Tyke, Blondie; to name just a few.

The proper way to think of these animals--and all animals--is in terms of whether they have been properly socialized or not. Socialization is the process of learning the rules of the society you live in.

The reason so many dogs are dangerous is due to the myth of domestication. According to the myth, a dog is an animal that is just supposed to behave in a certain way. Just go down to the pet shop, pick any one you want, throw it out in the back yard "for protection", and you're done. But this dog doesn't really know how to behave. Not with you, not with your neighbors, not with anyone. And so the dog will be dangerous to be around.

On the other hand, there have been plenty of people who have successfully owned so-called "wild" animals as pets--foxes, racoons, skunks, ferrets, pumas, tigers, lions. Probably their success is due in no small part to the fact that the owners were not blinded by the myth of domestication and took the time to actually pay attention to their animals and teach them the proper ways to behave.

Any animal has to learn how to behave, whether it has to live in human society or in a society with its own species. An animal that doesn't know the rules of human society will find you unpredictable, and so his behavior will be unpredictable and potentially dangerous, be it a wolf or a chihuahua.

What is the point of all this? For one thing, dealing with people's unsocialized "domestic" animals is a problem we all have to face from time to time. I believe it wouldn't be such a problem if people didn't think that a dog just naturally will behave like a proper "domestic" animal. Any animal you bring into your life needs to be taught how it should behave in your life.

For another, the myth of intrinsically "wild" animals is separating us as a whole from practically the entire animal world. We have the phenomenon of uncommon animals being seen as threatening coupled with the myth that a "wild" animal can never be properly socialized. And unethical political action groups are using this to make people more and more ignorant about animals with every passing year.

The fact is, in the right hands, any properly socialized animal is a good companion. And in the wrong hands. an improperly socialized animal is a major problem, no matter how small, or common, or "domestic" it's supposed to be.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


For Lighten-Up Thursday, two videos of a cute bunny along with some helpful information. Rabbits are common enough as pets, yet most people don't know anything about them. First we have the most basic of information: how to properly pick up a rabbit--you need to know this; it's very important for the rabbit's health and safety. Then, something to make a rabbit nicer to live with: how to train him to use a litter box. I like these videos because Sarah explains things from the rabbit's point of view--I have to admit that my first reaction to putting hay in the litter box is that it's just plain nasty. But I'm not a rabbit, and rabbits have a different point of view.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Something's Fishy Here...

For a while, everybody knew -- well, everybody who happened to be interested in the mating behavior of a fish known as the Atlantic Molly -- that when a male molly knows that another male is watching him, he will lose interest in mating with a female molly.

Well, the study that led to that conclusion wasn't exactly perfect, since the fish weren't even allowed to come into contact with each other. So, more scientists set out to corroborate the idea.

Their better-constructed set of circumstances led them to a different conclusion, however: the presence of a competitor male will cause the first male to feign interest in a less appealing female, and since the fish will pay attention to what the others are doing, the ploy is to lead the competitor away from the female the first male actually wants.

Now, who among us hasn't done something similar? It doesn't have to involve sex; it could be at an auction or second-hand shop, a bit of deception to get someone away from that prized item you really want.

Still, the scientists were surprised. "I find it particularly interesting that fish are capable of such a sophisticated behavior," said Martin Plath of the University of Potsdam in Germany and the University of Oklahoma.

Well, it's been there. Unnatural surroundings and contrived circumstances may have prevented people from observing it, however. I guess it's surprising to them because from a strict evolutionary point of view, such deceptive behavior would not persist--it would select for fish that didn't pay attention to what the other fish are doing.

Noticing what others are doing and copying their behavior is an important aspect of any society. It allows what one has learned to benefit others. Knowing that others will copy you and deliberately trying to "fake them out" requires a good deal of logic. And even the superficially simple act of copying another's actions requires a great deal of mental processing.

But while this new example by the fish did seem to startle the scientists, it was not enough to shake them from their deeply held beliefs. Plath also said:
"The study highlights that traits that we typically ascribe to humans only can also be found in other, seemingly simpler animals and that no consciousness or self-awareness is needed for a behavior like deception to occur."
*sigh* What we really need is a study to show why supposedly smart people would want to leave logic behind and jump off to a conclusion like that.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Again, the Question of Consciousness

The things I read while researching for new articles...

I am astounded to learn that colleges and universities are still teaching that only humans have consciousness and self-awareness. It makes me think that we're not that far removed from the bad old days of Descartes and his stupid notion of "biological machines". (Oh wait--we're not.)

Alright, let's address self-awareness. An idea that I am me and you are not me. I still say that the common act of hiding from, and stalking, prey indicates self-awareness, and an awareness of what the prey perceives.

Kevin Richardson, The Lion Park, South AfricaLet's get a little more personal. That picture is actually Kevin Richardson in South Africa, having a grand old time playing with a couple of lions. Doesn't it show awareness of self and others on the part of the lions that they can do this without tearing into his skin?

On a personal level, I have a cat who just bursts with energy. She loves to go all out in play wrestling. She attacks with teeth and claws, tearing with full abandon. BUT she only does this to me if my hand and/or arm is covered. If my hand and arm are bare, she holds back. She still plays, but never so much as leaves a mark. She knows, and she has proved this over and over, that a covering like a sweater will protect me, and that my bare skin can't stand up to her little weapons. Doesn't this show awareness--and caring--on her part?

Now to get a bit more abstract... Scientists will be glad to tell you of the importance of DNA and how very similar human DNA is to that of other species--even such apparently different species as rats and tigers have DNA that is mostly like ours. And famed scientist Carl Sagan wrote at length to prove that consciousness must arise from DNA. Therefore, wouldn't it be more reasonable to approach animals with the idea that they do have consciousness, awareness, thoughts, feelings, and emotions like ours--easily proved to be true with thoughtful observation--than to postulate some sort of unproven disconnect between humans and every other species on the face of the earth? (I think it's called applying Occam's Razor.)

So why are our colleges and universities teaching that we should ignore our own eyes and ears? Why are they promoting dangerous, unprovable ideas instead of teaching people to actually observe what's real?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Cat and Crow

This is a beautiful story of love, altruism, and what "family" really means. A cat and a crow with a wonderful relationship. As I watched this video, I wondered, how many times do the people in it say that this shouldn't happen? But it did happen. So why shouldn't it?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Swimming with the Big Cats

South Africa's Kevin Richardson made a splash recently (pun intended) by swimming with some of the lions he cares for. Video here.

I thought I'd offer a video of people swimming with big cats a little closer to home. This was filmed at The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species in South Carolina. It's maybe not quite on the same level as watching Kevin Richardson with lions in water, mostly because tigers really love to be in water, but you do get to see a full-body view of a tiger swimming, which is a beautiful thing to see.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

You Cannot See Anything that You Do Not First Contemplate as a Reality.

What does our society believe in? Computers, for one thing; games too. So, it comes as no surprise that the June 2009 issue of Discover magazine has an article based on a computer model using game theory analysis...

The article tells us that game theory has successfully predicted animal behavior in nature by "forecasting" a foraging strategy that ravens should use, and that was later observed in the wild.

The article is a bit sketchy on details about the actual actions of the ravens, but we are told that it involves cooperation between birds that are traditionally described as "selfish".

The point I want to make here is that nothing changed about the ravens' behavior. They have always cooperated when searching for food. But the traditional, unexamined belief was that each individual acted only for his own benefit. It took words of wisdom from a computer to change the way scientists perceived the birds, and only then was the birds actual behavior noticed.

I'm not a computer, but I would say to anyone that they should approach any animal with the idea that the animal is capable of thinking, of feeling, of loving, just as much as any human. Immediately, the animal will be transformed. Or, I should say, the perception of the animal will be transformed-- into a realistic one.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Dance, Dance, Dance

Well, I'm not sure what's the biggest news in today's post; whether it's that some animals can follow a musical beat, or that YouTube is now considered to be a valid scientific research tool...

Apparently, after watching a whole bunch of YouTube videos, real scientists with university credentials decided that some animals can move in time with the music that they hear. Previously, "it was thought that only humans had the ability to groove", says the BBC.

There's a big writeup in the Journal Current Biology, or you can act like a real scientist and watch the YouTube version:

Go, Snowball!