Back in the virtual saddle

It’s been almost a year since I last posted anything on this page. I’ve been concentrating on book reviews and longer essays, on my other page, but the modest but persistent interest shown in the old posts on this page has led me to think that it might be time to post some topical articles again. (The two pages have now accumulated more than 75,000 reads.)

I still have strong opinions on the subjects about which I used to write, and so much has happened in the last year that would have been worthy of comment. So, I’m back. Perhaps not with my former frequency, but I hope with as much clarity and specificity as I can muster.

Meanwhile, don’t forget to read the book reviews, which will continue to be posted on More Notes from Aboveground.

See you soon.

 

Babies, bonobos, and brains

I’ve written fairly often here about the behaviour of our nearest primate relatives, typically with a view to deflating the idea that there’s something special about the human animal. Of course, there is something special about us. But my contention has always been that our specialness is much more a matter of degree than of kind.

That is, to pick just one felicitously phrased example, I believe that we are specially creative, but not the product of special creation. Our superior mental abilities are extreme versions of similar or analogous abilities in other creatures; these abilities are not one-off gifts from a benevolent creative force, natural or supernatural.

I’m back to this topic thanks to the conjunction of three sources: a book, a journal study, and a popular science article. Although these sources are quite independent, taken together they highlight a number of connected points about primate mental development. And this set of overlapping sources adds yet another layer to the arguments that (1) evolutionary biology is the key to any deep understanding of human nature and behaviour and (2) our proudest achievements are extensions of the skills of other creatures.

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I’ve mind, hive mind

Human intelligence is unique, and it isn’t.

Our intellects are unique, in the sense that no other animal more than remotely approaches the power of the human brain, a power that includes the remarkable ability both to become aware of its own activity and to think about itself. Cognition and metacognition, on a scale no other animal even approaches.

Our intellects are not unique, in the sense that our formidable mental powers result from the action and interaction of the same neural raw material that compose all synaptic systems, large and small. A hundred neurons or a hundred million neurons is a difference of scale — a very significant difference — not a difference of kind.

The idea that all brains fall somewhere along the same neural continuum is reinforced by David Robson’s “Hive minds: Honeybee intelligence creates a buzz,” published by New Scientist on November 28th.

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The case for dog-gone empathy

Sometimes the media report a scientific study that makes you think, “Duh. Everybody knows that. Why waste time and money studying that?”

That was my initial reaction to the online publication by MedicalXPress (formerly the medical strand of PhysOrg) of “Domestic dogs display empathic response to distress in humans” (June 7, 2012).

As a live-in companion of four Golden Retrievers over the last twenty-five years, I don’t need to be convinced how emotionally sensitive and empathically supportive dogs are when people around them are in distress. When you’re down, few things could be more comforting than a cold nuzzle from a warm Golden.

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Chimps with smarts and culture

A lot of people over a lot of years have disliked Darwin’s contention that humans are just “big-brained apes.” They’ve fought to maintain a suitable distance between us and our closest primate cousins.

While the least sophisticated of these people are motivated by Bible literalism, and others by an often unrecognized or unadmitted need for human dignity, the most thoughtful objectors argue that we can’t rely on perceived similarities as real evidence that there is an uninterrupted continuum from the ai ai to the academic.
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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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