46 posts tagged nature
Behaving like animals: The Bonobo and the Atheist
Tessa Kendall reviews Frans de Waal’s new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist. How much of our humanist behaviour do we owe to our cousins in the animal kingdom?
Is human nature a beast that needs to be tamed? Should we “throw out Darwinism in our social and political lives”? Or are we naturally altruistic, empathetic and moral?
In Frans De Waal’s new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, he takes on the thinkers who believe that morality has to be imposed on our brutish natures and catalogues the growing evidence that disproves them.
There is a long history of thought that the natural world is a merciless struggle for survival and that humans decided to live together “by covenant only, which is artificial” (Hobbes), that natural selection is “a Hobbesian war of each against all” and ethics are humanity’s cultural victory over the evolutionary process (Huxley), that civilisation is achieved through the renunciation of instinct and the action of the superego – which men are more capable of than women (Freud), that children have to be trained to be sociable through fear of punishment and desire for praise (Freud, Skinner, Piaget), that moral behaviour is achieved through reason alone (Kant).
These ideas have their origins in Judaeo-Christian teaching that morals have to be imposed from above, that in our “natural state” we are unfit for society (or heaven) because of original sin.
What they all have in common is a kind of dualism between our “better angels” and the beast within, our Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
The idea persists even now, albeit stripped of its religious origins. A lack of understanding of the difference between predation (of other species) and aggression (towards our own species) has led to the popular and persistent image of humans as “killer apes”. Matt Ridley has written that we are potentially but not naturally moral. Richard Dawkins has said that “we, alone on Earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators” (The Selfish Gene) and that “in our political and social life we are entitled to throw out Darwinism, to say we don’t want to live in a Darwinian world.” (via Behaving like animals: The Bonobo and the Atheist | Tessa Kendall | Science | guardian.co.uk)
This vast habitat is the world’s largest freshwater wetland - an immense, landlocked river delta covering large part of the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul and tracts of Bolivia and Paraguay.
Each year this enormous basin is engulfed with rainwater bringing with them an amazing diversity of life to the dry grasslands. Here, jaguars, tapirs and macaws rub shoulders with thousands of other species of bird, reptile, mammal and fish, making it one of the most diverse places on the planet. Yet, the Pantanal is much more than a magical wetland. It also acts like a giant sponge, slowly releasing the flood water throughout the year and helping to protect millions of people further downstream. But now, changes to agriculture threaten this astonishing landscape. (via BBC - Future - Science & Environment - Pantanal: Liquid heart of South America)tur
The wilder side of sex
Humans may look down upon certain sexual interests as odd or gross, though chances are that animals indulge in a spot of similar behaviour too.
Romantic relationships are complicated, and so is sex. Relationships can be fraught with the potential for miscommunication or misunderstanding at the best of times, so imagine how troublesome it is to admit, out loud, to your partner, that you’ve got a sexual interest or fantasy that sits far outside the cultural norms.
But here’s a secret. For just about any fantasy between consenting adults that might be thought of as beyond conventional sexual practices or decency as dictated by society, you can bet that there’s a non-human species for whom that particular behaviour is commonplace.
Sure, there are plenty of examples of creative role-playing, food in the bedroom, or unusual places to do the deed, but even when you push the boundaries much further the chances are you’ll find it happening in the animal world.
Take giraffes, for instance. Males, called bulls, make casual visits to various groups over time in search of a cow who might mate with him. In order to select the mating partner the bull literally finds the one that best suits his taste – by sampling their urine. Females co-operate in this “urine-testing” ritual, according to researchers David M. Pratt and Virginia H. Anderson. “When the bull nuzzles her rump, she must produce a stream of urine if he is to catch some in his mouth and savour it,” they write. If a cow is particularly attracted to a visiting bull, she may simply decide to urinate as he walks past her, no prodding required. Urolagnia, or “golden showers” as it is more commonly known, is not a human invention, it seems. (via BBC - Future - Science & Environment - The wilder side of sex)
A meeting with an artist gets Tom Stafford thinking about the essence of intelligence. Our ability to grasp, process and respond to information about the world allows us follow a purpose. You could say it’s what makes us, us.
In Tim Lewis’s world, bizarre kinetic sculptures move, flap wings, draw and even walk around. The British artist creates mechanical animals and animal machines - like Pony, a robotic ostrich with an arm for a neck and a poised hand for a head – that creak into life in a way that can seem unsettling, as if they have a strange, if awkward, life of their own. His latest creations are able to respond to the environment, and it makes me ponder the essence of intelligence – in some ways revealing what makes us, us.
I met Tim on a cold Friday afternoon to talk about his work, and while talking about the cogs and gears he uses to make his artwork move, he made a remark that made me stop in my tracks. The funny thing is, he said, all of the technology existed to make machines like this in the sixteenth century - the thing that stopped them wasn’t the technical know-how, it was because they lacked the right model of the mind.
What model of the mind do you need to create a device like Tim’s Jetsam, a large wire mesh Kiwi-like creature that forages around its cage for pieces of a nest to build. The intelligence in this creation isn’t in the precision of the craftwork (although it is precise), or in the faithfulness to the kind of movements seen in nature (although it is faithful). The intelligence is in how it responds to the placing of the sticks. It isn’t programmed in advance, it identifies where each piece is and where it needs to go. (via BBC - Future - Health - Why your brain loves to get feedback)
Dolphins ‘should be recognised as non-human persons’
Dolphins and whales are so intelligent that they should be recognised as “non-human persons” and given their own bill of rights, researchers claim.
The animals have distinctive cultures, societies and personalities and are so complex that they should be considered in the same light as people, experts said.
Isolating dolphins and orcas in tanks at amusement parks is morally wrong because the animals are even more socially driven than humans, they added, while killing them is tantamount to murder.
The marine experts hope to persuade international authorities to enshrine in law the rights of cetaceans, a group of water-dwelling mammals which also includes porpoises.
Discussing their “declaration of rights” for cetaceans at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Vancouver, an international team of researchers said the animals should have the same rights to life, liberty and wellbeing as humans.
Dr Thomas White, an ethics expert at Loyola Marymount University in California, said: “The similarities between cetaceans and humans are such that they, as we, have an individual sense of self. (via Dolphins ‘should be recognised as non-human persons’ - Telegraph)
First video of squid sex reveals deep-sea Kama Sutra
Think deep-sea squid have sex in the missionary position? Now the first video capturing a pair in the act is revealing the unexpected details of cephalopod coupling in the abyss.
The clip, filmed by a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) submersible in the Gulf of Mexico last year, allowed Michael Vecchione from the Smithsonian Institution and colleagues to observe for the first time how a male squid uses its penis to transfer packets of sperm. They were surprised at the sexual position the pair adopted: the male was upside down on top of the female and back to front, with his arms around her head. There are a few possible reasons for this arrangement: it could be out of comfort (for the female), or to allow the male to access the best spot for his sperm, but it’s also thought to prevent the female from grabbing and perhaps eating her partner.
As the male holds his partner in what appears to be a firm grip, the video shows the penis extending out to make contact with the female’s back. Although a package of sperm is usually deposited during the process, a transfer isn’t visible in this clip. Squid caught by trawlers have revealed that the sperm mass is usually somehow implanted deep into the female’s tissues, in some species randomly all over her body but in others at the base of the arms. The packet remains in place until her eggs are ready to be fertilised.
Many squid species use a modified arm, instead of a penis, to deliver sperm. It’s very rare to come across a pair of mating squid.
If you enjoyed this post, watch a male crayfish get turned on by urine or see the first camera trap footage of Asian elephants having sex.
No matter how old people are, they seem to believe that who they are today is essentially who they’ll be tomorrow. That’s according to fresh research that suggests that people generally fail to appreciate how much their personality and values will change in the years ahead — even though they recognize that they have changed in the past. Daniel Gilbert, a psychology researcher at Harvard University who did this study with two colleagues, says that he’s no exception to this rule. “I have this deep sense that although I will physically age — I’ll have even less hair than I do and probably a few more pounds — that by and large the core of me, my identity, my values, my personality, my deepest preferences, are not going to change from here on out,” says Gilbert, who is 55. He realized that this feeling was kind of odd, given that he knows he’s changed in the past. He wondered if this feeling was an illusion, and if it was one that other people shared: “Is it really the case that we all think that development is a process that’s brought us to this particular moment in time, but now we’re pretty much done?” Gilbert says that he and his colleagues wanted to investigate this idea, but first they had to figure out how. The most straightforward way would be to ask people to predict how much they’d change in the next decade, then wait around to see if they were right. “The problem with that is, it takes 10 years,” says Gilbert. So the researchers took a much quicker approach. They got more than 19,000 people to take some surveys. There were questions about their personality traits, their core values and preferences. Some people were asked to look back on how they changed over the past 10 years. Others were asked to predict how they thought they would change in the next decade. Then the scientists crunched the data. “We’re able to determine whether, for example, 40-year-olds looking backwards remember changing more than 30-year-olds looking forwards predict that they will change,” Gilbert explains. They found that people underestimated how much they will change in the future. People just didn’t recognize how much their seemingly essential selves would shift and grow. And this was true whether they were in their teen years or middle-aged.