Haidt & Gazzinaga on E. O. Wilson

E. O. Wilson’s latest book, The Social Conquest of Earth, has generated the usual firestorm. Wilson couldn’t publish a bus schedule without complaints from a large group of angry scientists who prefer the train.

So it’s a little unusual to encounter so close together two predominately positive references to Wilson.

The first is admiring passages in Jonathan Haidt’s new book, The Righteous Self. (Review to come — I’m still reading.) The second is last week’s Wall Street Journal article, “Evolution Revolution,” by Michael Gazzaniga.
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Can other animals help us understand our emotions?

We often attribute feelings and emotions to members of other mammalian species.

Our  dogs are loyal, while our cats are haughty. Orcas who live in aquarium tanks miss the open sea, and chimpanzee mothers mourn for infants that have died.

The list goes on and on.

Entire ethical movements are based on a belief that cultivated animals feel pleasure and pain in the same ways that we do. One current example is the push to recognize higher animals like dolphins and chimpanzees as “intelligent non-human persons.”

But how much can we learn about our own emotions by looking for emotions in  animals? Is there a better way to do comparative studies?

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Warming up to the idea of smart tortoises

One popular way to describe our brains is to think of them as composed of three parts, arranged from most primitive to most advanced.

At the top is the human brain, where we think. This lies both figuratively and literally on top of the mammal brain, where we perceive and respond physically to our surroundings. At the bottom is the reptile brain. Here we experience our basest feelings and instincts.

But one reptile, the red-footed tortoise, is working to upset that comfortable hierarchy.

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Do a few smart birds reset the mental pecking order?

As a teenager, I was addicted to sci-fi of all kinds.

One of the most persistent and intriguing conventions of the space adventure subgenre is “first contact,” initial encounters between humans and sentient aliens.

Often, these aliens have been depicted as having descended from non-mammals, usually dinosaurs. The common premise is that on some planets, dinosaurs survived and evolved into intelligent, technological species.

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