Earlier this week, Republican representative Devin Nunes referred to his colleagues in the US House of Representatives as "lemmings with suicide vests". I would like to propose that this characterization is vastly unfair. To the lemmings.
That's because real lemmings, such as the adorable little creature pictured above, aren't actually suicidal. If anything, their problem is that they're just too damn horny. [Insert new political analogy here.]
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My new column for The New York Times Magazine involved some of the most emotionally intense reporting I've done in a while. It's all about a little-discussed genre of observation-based scientific papers, documenting what chimpanzees and bonobos (and, sometimes, other primates) do when confronted with death. These are difficult events for scientists to catch — they don't happen very often, and it's even less frequent that researchers happen to be right there to record and film the whole thing, especially in the wild. Because of that, scientists can't say a lot that's definitive about these behaviors. But they can tell you what they've seen. And what they've seen can be devastating.
Pansy was probably in her 50s when she died, which is pretty good for a chimpanzee. She passed in a way most of us would envy — peacefully, with her adult daughter, Rosie, and her best friend, Blossom, by her side. Thirty years earlier, Pansy and Blossom arrived together at the Blair Drummond Safari and Adventure Park near Stirling, Scotland. They raised their children together. Now, as Pansy struggled to breathe, Blossom held her hand and stroked it. When the scientists at the park realized Pansy’s death was imminent, they turned on video cameras, capturing intimate moments during her last hours as Blossom, Rosie and Blossom’s son, Chippy, groomed her and comforted her as she got weaker. After she passed, the chimps examined the body, inspecting Pansy’s mouth, pulling her arm and leaning their faces close to hers. Blossom sat by Pansy’s body through the night. And when she finally moved away to sleep in a different part of the enclosure, she did so fitfully, waking and repositioning herself dozens more times than was normal. For five days after Pansy’s death, none of the other chimps would sleep on the platform where she died.
That's my re-telling of an incident that happened in 2010 in Scotland and was originally observed by James Anderson, a primate psychologist at the University of Stirling in Scotland. His full paper is available online, and it's definitely worth a read. Anderson's paper is the one that got me into this topic to begin with and he was instrumental in my reporting.
The video above is a different incident, which I also talk about in the Times piece. This one involves a group of bonobos who defend the body of a newcomer and relative stranger to their pack. The footage was taken by Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke.
Boldly going where nobody's gone before. In a lot of ways, that idea kind of defines our whole species. We travel. We're curious. We poke our noses around the planet to find new places to live. We're compelled to explore places few people would ever actually want to live. We push ourselves into space.
This behavior isn't totally unique. But it is remarkable. So we have to ask, is there a genetic, evolution-driven, cause behind the restlessness of humanity?
At National Geographic, David Dobbs has an amazing long read digging into that idea. The story is fascinating, stretching from Polynesian sailors to Quebecois settlers. And it's very, very good science writing. Dobbs resists the urge to go for easy "here is the gene that does this" answers. Instead, he helps us see the complex web of genetics and culture that influences and encourages certain behaviors at certain times. It's a great read.
Not all of us ache to ride a rocket or sail the infinite sea. Yet as a species we’re curious enough, and intrigued enough by the prospect, to help pay for the trip and cheer at the voyagers’ return. Yes, we explore to find a better place to live or acquire a larger territory or make a fortune. But we also explore simply to discover what’s there.
“No other mammal moves around like we do,” says Svante Pääbo, a director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, where he uses genetics to study human origins. “We jump borders. We push into new territory even when we have resources where we are. Other animals don’t do this. Other humans either. Neanderthals were around hundreds of thousands of years, but they never spread around the world. In just 50,000 years we covered everything. There’s a kind of madness to it. Sailing out into the ocean, you have no idea what’s on the other side. And now we go to Mars. We never stop. Why?”
Why indeed? Pääbo and other scientists pondering this question are themselves explorers, walking new ground. They know that they might have to backtrack and regroup at any time. They know that any notion about why we explore might soon face revision as their young disciplines—anthropology, genetics, developmental neuropsychology—turn up new fundamentals. Yet for those trying to figure out what makes humans tick, our urge to explore is irresistible terrain. What gives rise to this “madness” to explore? What drove us out from Africa and on to the moon and beyond?
Underwater, Antarctica's Weddell seals are fast-moving, graceful predators, catching and eating as much as 100 pounds of food per day. They dine on squids and fish and have been known to enjoy the occasional penguin or two.
On land, they are hilariously ineffectual blobs of jelly.
You can see that dichotomy in action in this great (and long) video made by Henry Kaiser in Antarctica. Following the adventures of a baby seal on the ice and under the water, the video is peaceful, meditative and reminds me a bit of the sort of old-school Sesame Street video that would build simple, kid-friendly narratives out of nature footage and music. (The music, by the way, was written and performed by Henry Kaiser, as well.)
Despite their poor performance in land-based locomotion, Weddell seals actually live on the ice, descending into the water to hunt and mate and swim around. They use natural holes in the ice to get from above to below and back, but they also work to maintain those holes and often use their teeth to chew at the edge of the ice and make a small hole larger. At about 13 minutes into the video, you can watch a seal doing just that — rubbing its head back and forth to enlarge an opening in the ice.
And why hang out on the ice, to begin with? Simple. In the water, seals are, themselves, potential dinners for larger creatures. On land, they have no natural predators at all and can safely bask in the sun, lying on their cute and chubby bellies for so long that their body heat hollows out divots in the ice.
I really enjoyed reading a recent story in The New York Times Magazine about attempts to understand extreme longevity — the weird tendency for certain populations to have larger-than-average numbers of people who live well into their 90s, if not 100s.
Written by Dan Buettner, the piece focuses on the Greek island of Ikaria, and, in many ways, it's a lot like a lot of the other stories I've read on this subject. From a scientific perspective, we don't really understand why some people live longer than others. And we definitely don't understand why some populations have more people who live longer. There are lots of theories. Conveniently, they tend to coincide with our own biases about what we currently think is most wrong with our own society. So articles about extremely long-lived populations tend to offer a lot of inspiring stories, some funny quotes from really old people, and not a lot in the way of answers.
Buettner's story has all those elements, but it also proposes some ideas that were, for me, really thought provoking. After spending much of the article discussing the Ikarian's diet (it's low in meat and sugar, high in antioxidants, and includes lots of locally produced food and wine) and their laid-back, low-stress way of life, Buettner doesn't suggest that we'll all live to be 100 if we just, individually, try to live exactly like the Ikarians do. In fact, he points out that other communities of long-lived individuals actually live differently — Californian Seventh-Day Adventists, for instance, eat no meat at all and don't drink, and they live with the normal stresses of everyday American life.
What these groups do have in common, though, is a strong social infrastructure that ties people to each other emotionally and connects individual choices to a bigger community lifestyle.
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Hey guys! Check out this great JPEG I found last month. The caption was created by physics blogger Matthew Francis, and I've really been looking forward to sharing it with you!
In totally unrelated news, I just read a story by Stephanie Pappas at LiveScience.com, all about evolutionary psychologists' ongoing attempts to determine whether human females prefer our men hairy or smooth and, if so, why. Pappas' story covers a recent study that tried (and failed) to support one hypothesis: Women like hairless guys because we somehow know that hairy chests could be havens for parasites. A Sean Connery-like thatch is just one more place for lice to hang out.
Studying the preferences of women in two different cultures — Turkey and Slovakia — the researchers expected to find that Turkish women were more likely to choose hairless men because that country has long had higher rates of parasite-transmitted disease. Instead, they found that women in both countries overwhelmingly preferred their gentlemen in a less-wooly state.
The headline on the LiveScience article: "Why Women Don't Fall for Hairy Guys Remains A Scientific Mystery".
Thanks to Joanne Manaster for the inspiration!
Time is relative. Remember how each day in grade school (especially summer days) seemed to last for an eternity? Ever notice how it seems to take forever to travel a new route on your bike, while the return trip along the same path is done in the blink of an eye?
Turns out, both of those things are connected and they have important implications for the nature of memory. There's a great summary of the science on this up at The Irish Times. It's written by William Reville, emeritus professor of biochemistry at University College Cork.
The key issue, according to Reville, is that the amount of information your brain can store during a given time period isn't really dependent on the length of that time period. You could store up a lot of new information during 10 minutes of a really interesting lecture. You might store only a little new information during 10 minutes of walking your dog along a path you know very well.
The higher the intensity, the longer the duration seems to be. In a classic experiment, participants were asked to memorise either a simple [a circle] or complex figure . Although the clock-time allocated to each task was identical, participants later estimated the duration of memorising the complex shape to be significantly longer than for the simple shape.
... [H]ere is a “guaranteed” way to lengthen your life. Childhood holidays seem to last forever, but as you grow older time seems to accelerate. “Time” is related to how much information you are taking in – information stretches time. A child’s day from 9am to 3.30pm is like a 20-hour day for an adult. Children experience many new things every day and time passes slowly, but as people get older they have fewer new experiences and time is less stretched by information. So, you can “lengthen” your life by minimising routine and making sure your life is full of new active experiences – travel to new places, take on new interests, and spend more time living in the present.
I think this also has some implications for my exercise routine. I am well aware that my ability to run any distance at all is heavily dependent on psychological factors. I am not one of those people who likes to go running in new places, along unfamiliar trails, because it has always made me feel like the distance was much, much longer — and, consequently, leads me to stop running and start walking sooner than I actually have to. I've had a lot more luck running on tracks and elliptical machines—situations where it seems to be easier for me to get into a zone and lose track of time. When I run that way, it's my physical limitations that matter, not my psychological ones.
Of course, I know a lot of people who feel exactly the opposite. Maybe, for those people, running in a routine situation, like a track, makes them start to think more about their day or what's going on around them, and processing all that information makes the workout seem longer. I'm not sure. But this is awfully interesting.
Via Graham Farmelo
Xenophobia is neither the fear of Xeni, nor of Xena. Rather, it's more about knee-jerk mistrust, dislike, and hatred for people who aren't part of your group. We've come to associate it with not liking people from other countries, but it applies to smaller-scale, less formal tribalism, as well.
Over at the Scientific American blogs, science writer and biologist Rob Dunn talks about some of the theories for why something as seemingly antisocial as xenophobia could have been beneficial to our ancestors—at least under certain circumstances. The key, he says, might be disease. Not cooperating between groups, refusing to share resources, and generally going out of your way to avoid strangers makes sense if those strangers are infected with something that could kill you.
If I'm understanding Dunn correctly, the research and theorizing on this topic isn't saying xenophobia is good. Nor is it saying that all xenophobia grows out of a conscious, reasonable fear of disease. It's more like, the times when xenophobia did turn out to be coincidentally beneficial happened to reward people who were more likely to pass on xenophobic tendencies to their offspring (whether those tendencies were genetic or cultural is hard to say). Thus, the tendency continues, even in situations where it's actively detrimental. And Dunn points to an interesting recent study that showed deadly white-nose syndrome is causing xenophobic-esque changes in the behavior of bat populations.
Although it looked as though the little brown bats and several other species might soon face extinction, at least in some regions and perhaps even in North America, the little brown bats have begun to rebound in some places, albeit modestly. A new paper out this week takes notice of one of the reasons they appear to be rebounding, the bats are avoiding each other. Little brown bats (at least historically) tend to roost in large, groups, one next to the other, bumping fuzzies as it were. But not anymore. More and more, this new study, led by Kate Langwig, a graduate student at Boston University, suggests, the bats are spreading themselves out in their roosting caves, their hibernacula. Once, they clumped, warming themselves around the tiny fires of their bodies. Now, they go it alone.
Langwig’s results are preliminary, as she and her colleagues are the first to admit. She has measured the change in the bat roosting (and abundance) before and after the arrival of the disease, but she has not really studied the behavior of the bats and how it is they come to be spaced apart. Yet, the bats the are important from the perspective of the basic biology and conservation of the bats and so there remains much to do and much that can be done. For example, it would be good to know if the probability of transmission of the disease really goes down when the bats are further apart. It would also be interesting to figure out if the same individuals that were once nuzzling up next to each other, are now hanging out on their own.