¿Chau Servicio Meteorológico? El biólogo argentino que predice el clima estudiando hormigas. Foto: Archivo
Jorge Finardi predice el clima a través de las hormigas. Estudia sus movimientos, los registra, los compara y llega a la conclusión, por ejemplo, de que mañana a la tarde lloverá. Y acierta. Esta semana, Finardi anticipó con su método el calor sofocante del lunes, la tormenta del martes, y la caída de la temperatura del miércoles. Nada mal.
Finardi es químico, biólogo, y lleva adelante la cuenta de Twitter @GeorgeClimaPron. En ella, comunica sus pronósticos climatológicos. En una entrevista con LA NACION, explica su sistema.
-¿Cómo funciona tu método de análisis?
-En primer lugar, determino el grado de actividad de las hormigas en una escala del 1 al 10. Para armar la escala tengo en cuenta la cantidad de interacciones entre las hormigas, el número de hormigas involucradas, y el tipo y tamaño de carga que llevan, además, de la clase de hormiga que trabaja.
-¿Y de qué manera se relaciona con el clima? ¿Más actividad es indicativa de lluvia?
-En parte sí, pero depende de la carga que lleven. Por ejemplo, cuando las hormigas llevan palitos y barritas, es porque tienen que fortalecer el hormiguero, debido a que se aproxima lluvia o frío. Cuando hay movilización de tierra es porque se viene una lluvia fuerte. Cuando llevan cereal, viene frío, porque el cereal fermenta dentro del hormiguero y produce calor para que nazcan los hongos que ellas comen.
Para las altas temperaturas, por otro lado, se acondicionan los túneles: las hormigas empiezan a abrir “chimeneas”, que son como agujeritos esparcidos dentro del hormiguero, que puede llegar a tener metros de profundidad. Cuando pasa eso, se viene una ola de calor.
-¿Cómo te interesaste por el tema?
-Desde los tres años me paso horas mirando las hormigas y todo tipo de insectos. Por otro lado, mi profesión me ayudó a profundizar estos temas, y también a hablar con gente de edad avanzada que vive en el campo y no se fija en los pronósticos. No los necesita. Así avancé. Así y con un poco de prueba y error. Al principio introduje hormigas en un terrario para poder observarlas más cómodo. Pero ellas se comportaban de otra manera, por el aislamiento. Ahora las sigo con una cámara.
-¿Además de las hormigas, analizás otros insectos?
-Sí. Las arañas, por ejemplo, tienen la capacidad de detectar actividad eléctrica, cuando aparecen y están muy activas. Las libélulas pueden anticipar una tormenta o viento. Las cigarras anuncian calor. Los gallos, cuando cantan a media noche, anuncian neblinas. También hay que prestar atención a las hormigas cuando están desorientadas, porque pueden captar actividad sísmica a grandes distancias.
-¿Este tipo de análisis es científico?
-No. Hay que destacar que el método no es científico, no es positivista, pero sí es cualitativo, experimental y observacional. Y sirve. Los hombres estamos acá desde el período cuaternario, pero las hormigas, por ejemplo, están desde la época de los dinosaurios. Están muy adaptadas, son muy sensibles a los cambios de ambiente. Y la naturaleza, así, nos habla, nos presenta síntomas. Hay que saber leerlos.
A fama internacional de Tilikum começou em 2010, quando, durante uma acrobacia, matou sua treinadora
Postado em 06/01/2017 16:38
A orca Tilikum, estrela do SeaWorld e protagonista do aclamado documentário “Blackfish”, que denunciou o sofrimento dos animais em cativeiro em atrações do gênero, morreu nesta sexta-feira após sofrer uma infecção bacteriana, anunciou o parque temático da Flórida em um comunicado.
A orca macho de 36 anos sofria de “graves problemas de saúde” e ainda se não pode determinar exatamente a causa da morte, segundo a empresa. Entre outros problemas, seus veterinários detectaram uma infecção bacteriana nos pulmões.
“Tilikum tinha, e ainda tem, um lugar especial no coração da família SeaWorld, assim como nos corações de milhões de pessoas ao redor do mundo que inspirou”, disse Joel Manby, presidente do parque de Orlando, no centro da Flórida.
A fama internacional de Tilikum começou em 2010, quando, durante uma acrobacia, matou sua treinadora.
“A vida de Tilikum estará sempre ligada à perda de nossa amiga e colega Dawn Bancheau”, escreveu a empresa no texto publicado em seu site. “Enquanto todos nós sofremos grande tristeza por essa perda, continuamos oferecendo a Tilikum o melhor cuidado possível”.
A morte de Dawn é mencionada no filme de 2013, que ganhou o prêmio Bafta de Melhor Documentário, como um efeito do estresse sofrido por orcas em cativeiro por viver em pequenos tanques e com pouca luz.
A empresa sofreu uma avalanche de críticas após o filme e multiplicaram-se as chamadas para o fechamento desses parques aquáticos.
Finalmente, em março de 2016, SeaWorld anunciou que iria parar a criação de orcas e que sua atual geração desses mamíferos em cativeiro seria a última. A decisão foi aplaudida por organizações de defesa dos animais.
“Tilikum estava perto do fim da expectativa média de vida de baleias orcas do sexo masculino, de acordo com um estudo científico independente”, disse o SeaWorld nesta sexta-feira, relatando ainda que as bactérias que atingiram o animal são encontradas “em hábitats naturais e instalações de zoológicos”.
Com a perda de Tilikum, o SeaWorld tem agora 22 orcas em seus três parques em Orlando, San Antonio (Texas) e San Diego (Califórnia).
Pesquisa correlaciona a extinção de espécies com a origem dos produtos do comércio global
Os orangotangos de Bornéu estão ameaçados pela produção de óleo de palma. JEFTA IMAGES / BARCROFT
5 JAN 2017 – 00:53 CET
Os humanos começam a admitir que somos como um meteorito que vai provocar a nova megaextinção de espécies no planetaTerra. Mas ainda nos falta muita informação sobre o tamanho desse meteorito coletivo e o alcance da devastação que juntos causaremos. Sabemos, por exemplo, que a exploração maciça dos recursos naturais é um dos grandes fatores associados à devastação da biodiversidade, mas são necessários mais dados para conectar esse fenômeno com nosso consumo desmesurado.
Um estudo pioneiro, divulgado nesta quarta-feira, mostra a grande responsabilidade do comércio global na extinção maciça de espécies no mundo, traçando uma clara correlação entre a cesta de compras dos países mais consumidores e as selvagens pressões que massacram os tesouros naturais. O cafezinho que alguém toma nos EUA, por exemplo, está ligado ao desmatamentoda América Central – onde esse café é cultivado –, e esse é o habitat do acuado macaco-aranha, o mais ameaçado do planeta.
“Pelo menos um terço das ameaças à biodiversidade em todo o mundo estão vinculadas à produção para o comércio internacional”, dizem os autores do estudo publicado na Nature Ecology & Evolution. Em seu trabalho, eles mapearam locais do planeta onde há quase 7.000 espécies ameaçadas, estabelecendo sua conexão com a cadeia de consumo nos EUA, China e Japão. Desse modo, pode-se ver facilmente como os animais sob risco em determinados pontos do planeta sofrem com a demanda de bens por parte dos grandes consumidores.
Por exemplo, o lince e dúzias de outras espécies sofrem na península Ibérica pela pressão da produção agrícola que abastece os mercados europeus e norte-americanos. “É digno de menção o importante rastro dos EUA na biodiversidade do sul da Espanha e Portugal, ligado aos impactos sobre uma série de espécies ameaçadas de peixes e aves, já que esses países raramente são percebidos como pontos de ameaça”, afirmam os autores no estudo.
No Brasil, a principal ameaça está no sul, no planalto brasileiro, devido à agropecuária extensiva, e não na Amazônia
“O que este trabalho nos mostra é que os humanos estão assaltando o planeta”, resume David Nogués-Bravo, especialista em macroecologia da Universidade de Copenhague. Nogués-Bravo, que não participou do estudo, diz que os impactos humanos sobre a natureza podem ser representados como um redemoinho que engole a diversidade de seres vivos sobre a Terra. “Esse turbilhão é constituído por três nós: poder, comida e dinheiro. A capacidade da nossa espécie de sugar energia e recursos do planeta é quase ilimitada, e é o que está provocando a sexta extinção maciça na história da Terra”, denúncia o ecologista.
Para ele, tanto o enfoque como os resultados são muito pertinentes, porque põem em perspectiva as perdas de biodiversidade, principalmente em países tropicais em vias de desenvolvimento, e os fluxos de demanda que se originam nos países mais ricos e industrializados.
“O planeta inteiro se tornou uma fazenda, tudo está a serviço de fornecer cada vez mais bens”, critica Juan Carlos del Olmo, secretário-geral da organização conservacionista WWF na Espanha. “O maior vetor de destruição da biodiversidade é a produção de alimentos numa escala brutal”, aponta. Os autores do estudo relatam, por exemplo, sua surpresa ao comprovar que o principal foco de ameaça aos tesouros naturais do Brasil não está na Amazônia. “Apesar da grande atenção dedicada à selva amazônica, o rastro norte-americano no Brasil é maior no sul, no planalto brasileiro, onde há práticas agropecuárias extensivas”, ressalta o trabalho.
“Os humanos estão assaltando o planeta. A capacidade da nossa espécie de sugar energia e recursos no planeta é quase ilimitada”, resume Nogués-Bravo
“E o rastro ecológico não para de crescer”, acrescenta Del Olmo, “mas reduzir esse rastro não é fácil; não podemos fomentar um consumo responsável se depois vamos jogar fora 25% do que se produz”. Como alterar a influência negativa destes fluxos? “Com este enfoque, do rastro de cima para baixo, examinamos todas as espécies ameaçadas e a atividade econômica em conjunto, razão pela qual pode ser difícil estabelecer vínculos claros entre consumo, comércio e impacto”, admitiu ao EL PAÍS um dos autores do estudo, Keiichiro Kanemoto, da Universidade de Shinshu.
“Precisamos ver de onde importamos e onde estão as espécies ameaçadas. Nosso mapa pode ajudar as empresas a fazerem uma cuidadosa seleção dos seus insumos e assim aliviar os impactos sobre a biodiversidade”, diz Kanemoto. Segundo o pesquisador, se as empresas oferecerem informações em seus produtos sobre as ameaças a espécies nas cadeias de suprimento, os consumidores poderão escolher em seu cotidiano produtos favoráveis à biodiversidade.
Os morangos que afogam o lince
“Esperamos que as empresas comparem nossos mapas e seus lugares de aquisição e então reconsiderem suas cadeias de suprimento, e queremos trabalhar com elas para começar a tomar medidas reais”, afirma Kanemoto. Neste sentido, Del Olmo diz que o trabalho do WWF há bastante tempo vem se voltando para esse foco: fazer com que todos os participantes da cadeia conheçam o impacto sobre a biodiversidade, para que a indústria, os fornecedores e os consumidores evitem os bens que mais causam danos na sua origem. Em outras palavras, que todos estejam conscientes de que o café coloca em risco o macaco-arranha, assim como o óleo de palma (dendê) ameaça o orangotango na Indonésia.
O estudo de Kanemoto e seus colegas ressalta como é inesperada a aparição da Espanha como uma região com grandes problemas de biodiversidade por culpa do consumo fora das suas fronteiras. Apontam especificamente o lince, que reina no Parque Nacional e Natural de Doñana, no sul do país, e que chegou a ser o felino mais ameaçado da Terra, entre outros motivos pela perda de hábitat. “Do ponto de vista da biodiversidade, a Espanha é o Bornéu da Europa. Nas grandes espécies a briga está acontecendo, mas a biodiversidade pequena – anfíbios, aves e peixes – está desaparecendo a uma velocidade brutal”, lamenta Del Olmo.
O diretor do WWF na Espanha cita como exemplo os morangos: a água que dava de beber à marisma de Doñana é atualmente usada nos milhares de hectares de cultivo de morangos. Essa área responde por 60% do cultivo da fruta na Espanha, e metade da água usada vem de poços ilegais, que secam o entorno. “O uso brutal da água e do território, o impacto da agricultura para exportar produtos a todo o mundo, deixa os aquíferos secos. Não notamos, mas o impacto é impressionante”, explica Del Olmo. E acrescenta: “Por isso dizemos às grandes redes varejistas: não comprem de quem usa poços ilegais e está destruindo a biodiversidade. Premiem quem faz direito”.
Tens of thousands of years ago, before the internet, before the Industrial Revolution, before literature and mathematics, bronze and iron, before the advent of agriculture, early humans formed an unlikely partnership with another animal—the grey wolf. The fates of our two species became braided together. The wolves changed in body and temperament. Their skulls, teeth, and paws shrank. Their ears flopped. They gained a docile disposition, becoming both less frightening and less fearful. They learned to read the complex expressions that ripple across human faces. They turned into dogs.
Today, dogs are such familiar parts of our lives—our reputed best friends and subject of many a meme—that it’s easy to take them, and what they represent, for granted. Dogs were the first domesticated animals, and their barks heralded the Anthropocene. We raised puppies well before we raised kittens or chickens; before we herded cows, goats, pigs, and sheep; before we planted rice, wheat, barley, and corn; before we remade the world.
“Remove domestication from the human species, and there’s probably a couple of million of us on the planet, max,” says archaeologist and geneticist Greger Larson. “Instead, what do we have? Seven billion people, climate change, travel, innovation and everything. Domestication has influenced the entire earth. And dogs were the first.” For most of human history, “we’re not dissimilar to any other wild primate. We’re manipulating our environments, but not on a scale bigger than, say, a herd of African elephants. And then, we go into partnership with this group of wolves. They altered our relationship with the natural world.”
Larson wants to pin down their origins. He wants to know when, where, and how they were domesticated from wolves. But after decades of dogged effort, he and his fellow scientists are still arguing about the answers. They agree that all dogs, from low-slung corgis to towering mastiffs, are the tame descendants of wild ancestral wolves. But everything else is up for grabs.
Some say wolves were domesticated around 10,000 years ago, while others say 30,000. Some claim it happened in Europe, others in the Middle East, or East Asia. Some think early human hunter-gatherers actively tamed and bred wolves. Others say wolves domesticated themselves, by scavenging the carcasses left by human hunters, or loitering around campfires, growing tamer with each generation until they became permanent companions.
Dogs were domesticated so long ago, and have cross-bred so often with wolves and each other, that their genes are like “a completely homogenous bowl of soup,” Larson tells me, in his office at the University of Oxford. “Somebody goes: what ingredients were added, in what proportion and in what order, to make that soup?” He shrugs his shoulders. “The patterns we see could have been created by 17 different narrative scenarios, and we have no way of discriminating between them.”
The only way of doing so is to look into the past. Larson, who is fast-talking, eminently likable, and grounded in both archaeology and genetics, has been gathering fossils and collaborators in an attempt to yank the DNA out of as many dog and wolf fossils as he can. Those sequences will show exactly how the ancient canines relate to each other and to modern pooches. They’re the field’s best hope for getting firm answers to questions that have hounded them for decades.
And already, they have yielded a surprising discovery that could radically reframe the debate around dog domestication, so that the big question is no longer when it happened, or where, but how many times.
* * *
On the eastern edge of Ireland lies Newgrange, a 4,800-year-old monument that predates Stonehenge and the pyramids of Giza. Beneath its large circular mound and within its underground chambers lie many fragments of animal bones. And among those fragments, Dan Bradley from Trinity College Dublin found the petrous bone of a dog.
Press your finger behind your ear. That’s the petrous. It’s a bulbous knob of very dense bone that’s exceptionally good at preserving DNA. If you try to pull DNA out of a fossil, most of it will come from contaminating microbes and just a few percent will come from the bone’s actual owner. But if you’ve got a petrous bone, that proportion can be as high as 80 percent. And indeed, Bradley found DNA galore within the bone, enough to sequence the full genome of the long-dead dog.
Larson and his colleague Laurent Frantz then compared the Newgrange sequences with those of almost 700 modern dogs, and built a family tree that revealed the relationships between these individuals. To their surprise, that tree had an obvious fork in its trunk—a deep divide between two doggie dynasties. One includes all the dogs from eastern Eurasia, such as Shar Peis and Tibetan mastiffs. The other includes all the western Eurasian breeds, and the Newgrange dog.
The genomes of the dogs from the western branch suggest that they went through a population bottleneck—a dramatic dwindling of numbers. Larson interprets this as evidence of a long migration. He thinks that the two dog lineages began as a single population in the east, before one branch broke off and headed west. This supports the idea that dogs were domesticated somewhere in China.
But there’s a critical twist.
The team calculated that the two dog dynasties split from each other between 6,400 and 14,000 years ago. But the oldest dog fossils in both western and eastern Eurasia are older than that. Which means that when those eastern dogs migrated west into Europe, there were already dogs there.
To Larson, these details only make sense if dogs were domesticated twice.
Here’s the full story, as he sees it. Many thousands of years ago, somewhere in western Eurasia, humans domesticated grey wolves. The same thing happened independently, far away in the east. So, at this time, there were two distinct and geographically separated groups of dogs. Let’s call them Ancient Western and Ancient Eastern. Around the Bronze Age, some of the Ancient Eastern dogs migrated westward alongside their human partners, separating from their homebound peers and creating the deep split in Larson’s tree. Along their travels, these migrants encountered the indigenous Ancient Western dogs, mated with them (doggy style, presumably), and effectively replaced them.
Today’s eastern dogs are the descendants of the Ancient Eastern ones. But today’s western dogs (and the Newgrange one) trace most of their ancestry to the Ancient Eastern migrants. Less than 10 percent comes from the Ancient Western dogs, which have since gone extinct.
This is a bold story for Larson to endorse, not least because he himself has come down hard on other papers suggesting that cows, sheep, or other species were domesticated twice. “Any claims for more than one need to be substantially backed up by a lot of evidence,” he says. “Pigs were clearly domesticated in Anatolia and in East Asia. Everything else is once.” Well, except maybe dogs.
Other canine genetics experts think that Larson’s barking up the wrong tree. “I’m somewhat underwhelmed, since it’s based on a single specimen,” says Bob Wayne from the University of California, Los Angeles. He buys that there’s a deep genetic division between modern dogs. But, it’s still possible that dogs were domesticated just once, creating a large, widespread, interbreeding population that only later resolved into two distinct lineages.
In 2013, Wayne’s team compared the mitochondrial genomes (small rings of DNA that sit outside the main set) of 126 modern dogs and wolves, and 18 fossils. They concluded that dogs were domesticated somewhere in Europe or western Siberia, between 18,800 and 32,100 years ago. And genes aside, “the density of fossils from Europe tells us something,” says Wayne. “There are many things that look like dogs, and nothing quite like that in east Asia.”
Peter Savolainen from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm disagrees. By comparing the full genomes of 58 modern wolves and dogs, his team has shown that dogs in southern China are the most genetically diverse in the world. They must have originated there around 33,000 years ago, he says, before a subset of them migrated west 18,000 years later.
That’s essentially the same story that Larson is telling. The key difference is that Savolainen doesn’t buy the existence of an independently domesticated group of western dogs. “That’s stretching the data very much,” he says. Those Ancient Western dogs might have just been wolves, he says. Or perhaps they were an even earlier group of migrants from the east. “I think the picture must seem a bit chaotic,” he says understatedly. “But for me, it’s pretty clear. It must have happened in southern East Asia. You can’t interpret it any other way.”
Except, you totally can. Wayne does (“I’m certainly less dogmatic than Peter,” he says). Adam Boyko from Cornell University does, too: after studying the genes of village dogs—free-ranging mutts that live near human settlements—he argued for a single domestication in Central Asia, somewhere near India or Nepal. And clearly, Larson does as well.
Larson adds that his gene-focused peers are ignoring one crucial line of evidence—bones. If dogs originated just once, there should be a neat gradient of fossils with the oldest ones at the center of domestication and the youngest ones far away from it. That’s not what we have. Instead, archaeologists have found 15,000-year-old dog fossils in western Europe, 12,500-year-old ones in east Asia, and nothing older than 8,000 years in between.
“If we’re wrong, then how on earth do you explain the archaeological data?” says Larson. “Did dogs jump from East Asia to Western Europe in a week, and then go all the way back 4,000 years later?” No. A dual domestication makes more sense. Mietje Genompré, an archaeologist from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, agrees that the bones support Larson’s idea. “For me, it’s very convincing,” she says.
But even Larson is hedging his bets. When I ask him how strong his evidence is, he says, “Like, put a number on it? If was being bold, I’d say it’s a 7 out of 10. We lack the smoking gun.”
Why is this is so hard? Of all the problems that scientists struggle with, why has the origin of dogs been such a bitch to solve?
For starters, the timing is hard to pin down because no one knows exactly how fast dog genomes change. That pace—the mutation rate—underpins a lot of genetic studies. It allows scientists to compare modern dogs and ask: How long ago must these lineages have diverged in order to build up this many differences in their genes? And since individual teams use mutation rate estimates that are wildly different, it’s no wonder they’ve arrive at conflicting answers.
Regardless of the exact date, it’s clear that over thousands of years, dogs have mated with each other, cross-bred with wolves, travelled over the world, and been deliberately bred by humans. The resulting ebb and flow of genes has turned their history into a muddy, turbid mess—the homogeneous soup that Larson envisages.
Wolves provide no clarity. Grey wolves used to live across the entire Northern Hemisphere, so they could have potentially been domesticated anywhere within that vast range (although North America is certainly out). What’s more, genetic studies tell us that no living group of wolves is more closely related to dogs than any other, which means that the wolves that originally gave rise to dogs are now extinct. Sequencing living wolves and dogs will never truly reveal their shrouded past; it’d be, as Larson says, like trying to solve a crime when the culprit isn’t even on the list of suspects.
“The only way to know for sure is to go back in time,” he adds.
The study informally known as the Big Dog Project was born of frustration. Back in 2011, Larson was working hard on the origin of domestic pigs, and became annoyed that scientists studying dogs were getting less rigorous papers in more prestigious journals, simply because their subjects were that much more charismatic and media-friendly. So he called up his longstanding collaborator Keith Dobney. “Through gritted teeth, I said: We’re fucking doing dogs. And he said: I’m in.”
Right from the start, the duo realized that studying living dogs would never settle the great domestication debate. The only way to do that was to sequence ancient DNA from fossil dogs and wolves, throughout their range and at different points in history. While other scientists were studying the soup of dog genetics by tasting the finished product, Larson would reach back in time to taste it at every step of its creation, allowing him to definitively reconstruct the entire recipe.
In recent decades, scientists have become increasingly successful at extracting and sequencing strands of DNA from fossils. This ancient DNA has done wonders for our understanding of our own evolution. It showed, for example, how Europe was colonized 40,000 years ago by hunter-gatherers moving up from Africa, then 8,000 years ago by Middle Eastern farmers, and 5,000 years ago by horse-riding herders from the Russian steppes. “Everyone in Europe today is a blend of those three populations,” says Larson, who hopes to parse the dog genome in the same way, by slicing it into its constituent ingredients.
Larson originally envisaged a small project—just him and Dobney analyzing a few fossils. But he got more funding, collaborators, and samples than he expected. “It just kind of metastasized out of all proportion,” he says. He and his colleagues would travel the world, drilling into fossils and carting chips of bone back to Oxford. They went to museums and private collections. (“There was a guy up in York who had a ton of stuff in his garage.”) They grabbed bones from archaeological sites.
The pieces of bone come back to a facility in Oxford called the Palaeo-BARN—the Palaeogenomics and Bioarchaeology Research Network. When I toured the facility with Larson, we wore white overalls, surgical masks, oversoles, and purple gloves, to keep our DNA (and that of our skin microbes) away from the precious fossil samples. Larson called them ‘spacesuits.’ I was thinking ‘thrift-store ninja.’
In one room, the team shoves pieces of bone into a machine that pounds it with a small ball bearing, turning solid shards into fine powder. They then send the powder through a gauntlet of chemicals and filters to pull out the DNA and get rid of everything else. The result is a tiny drop of liquid that contains the genetic essence of a long-dead dog or wolf. Larson’s freezer contains 1,500 such drops, and many more are on the way. “It’s truly fantastic the kind of data that he has gathered,” says Savolainen.
True to his roots in archaeology, Larson isn’t ignoring the bones. His team photographed the skulls of some 7,000 prehistoric dogs and wolves at 220 angles each, and rebuilt them in virtual space. They can use a technique called geometric morphometrics to see how different features on the skulls have evolved over time.
The two lines of evidence—DNA and bones—should either support or refute the double domestication idea. It will also help to clear some confusion over a few peculiar fossils, such as a 36,000 year old skull from Goyet cave in Belgium. Genompré thinks it’s a primitive dog. “It falls outside the variability of wolves: it’s smaller and the snout is different,” she says. Others say it’s too dissimilar to modern dogs. Wayne has suggested that it represents an aborted attempt at domestication—a line of dogs that didn’t contribute to modern populations and is now extinct.
Maybe the Goyet hound was part of Larson’s hypothetical Ancient Western group, domesticated shortly after modern humans arrived in Europe. Maybe it represented yet another separate flirtation with domestication. All of these options are on the table, and Larson thinks he has the data to tell them apart. “We can start putting numbers on the difference between dogs and wolves,” he says. “We can say this is what all the wolves at this time period look like; does the Goyet material fall within that realm, or does it look like dogs from later on?”
Larson hopes to have the first big answers within six to twelve months. “I think it’ll clearly show that some things can’t be right, and will narrow down the number of hypotheses,” says Boyko. “It may narrow it down to one but I’m not holding my breath on that.” Wayne is more optimistic. “Ancient DNA will provide much more definitive data than we had in the past,” he says. “[Larson] convinced everyone of that. He’s a great diplomat.”
Indeed, beyond accumulating DNA and virtual skulls, Larson’s greatest skill is in gathering collaborators. In 2013, he rounded up as many dog researchers as he could and flew them to Aberdeen, so he could get them talking. “I won’t say there was no tension,” he says. “You go into a room with someone who has written something that sort of implies you aren’t doing very good science… there will be tension. But it went away very quickly. And, frankly: alcohol.”
“Everyone was like: You know what? If I’m completely wrong and I have to eat crow on this, I don’t give a shit. I just want to know.”
Author, ‘Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future’
An individual gorilla is more valuable than an individual human being.
What is your response to that statement?
I have seen no such argument in response to the death of Harambe, the Western Lowland Gorilla who was shot on 28 May at the Cincinnati Zoo. Zookeepers understandably feared for the life of a child who entered his enclosure. The incident has created furor.
Mainstream media depicted the shooting as a tragic necessity because the child was at risk of grievous harm or death. Whether implicitly felt or explicitly stated, the assumption was that the life of this child was more valuable than the life of this gorilla.
This was the view of Jack Hannah, the well-known conservationist and former director of the Columbus Zoo. In a host of interviews he clearly stated that the decision to kill Harambe was an easy call because every human life is more valuable than any animal life.
For her part, the child’s mother, after insisting that she is a responsible parent, asserted on Facebook, “God protected my child until the authorities were able to get to him.” Then she thanked those who saved her son and “most importantly God for being the awsome (sic) God that he is.” She apparently believed that God had intervened, even at the price of the Gorilla’s life.
She did not explain why God did not elect to protect her son by more peaceful means, such as, by preventing him from climbing into the enclosure.
In contrast, a host of critics was outraged by the killing and what they considered the mother’s negligence.
Especially upset were animal rights proponents, who base the value of animals on emotional, or cognitive traits they are believed to share with us, or on their capacity to suffer. For them, the great apes, our closest biological cousins, have rights that deserve respect, foremost, the right to life.
But I could find no one making a reasoned argument that this gorilla’s life was more valuable than that of this human child.
Some environmental philosophers and scientists, however, contend that an individual member of an endangered species is more valuable than an individual human being. Or, as conservation biologist Reed Noss put it to me recently, the value of an individual decreases proportionately with the size of its population.
Such arguments are premised upon an understanding that the viability of a species is associated with the variety of genes in its population: With few exceptions, the greater its genetic diversity the greater will be a species’ resilience in the face of diseases or environmental threats. But the smaller the population is, the higher is the risk of extinction. Consequently, every individual matters.
So, if one starts from an ethical claim that humanity ought not drive other species off the planet, and add scientific understandings about the value of an individual organism to the viability of its species, an endangered animal such as Harambe could be considered more valuable than one that is not valuable in this way.
The argument is as worth pondering . . . and so are our reactions to it.
Our reactions to the value of humans and other animals are typically shaped by culturally deep religious roots.
Put simply, most large human civilizations have religious roots and strong constituencies, which either view humans as a special creation of God, or consider humans to have become the highest and most valuable life forms by leading meritorious past lives.
Whatever ground for felt ethical obligations toward non-human organisms there might be given such premises, when push comes to shove, human lives come first.
In contemporary environmental philosophy, such views are termed anthropocentrism or literally, human-centered ethics.
That is a nice way of putting it.
But it is really the ideology of human supremacy.
Harambe’s demise may not provide a perfect fit for considering the proposition with which I began my provocation. The Zoo had frozen semen taken from him because it is part an international consortium that understands the importance of genetic diversity for efforts to save endangered species. Moreover, Western Lowland Gorillas have more habitat and greater numbers than great apes that are on the very brink of extinction.
But Harambe may have a greater conservation legacy than his genes being posthumously passed on through an endangered species breeding program. Hopefully, this tragic event will increase public awareness of the accelerating extinction crisis and the importance of preserving habitat for wild Gorillas, and protecting endangered species in captive breeding programs.
And perhaps, this case will help those who are skeptical of the religious ideas that undergird human supremacy to leave them behind, once and for all.
It may be that corresponding conservation policies and efforts would follow is such a value transformation spreads.
Indeed, there are signs just such a transformation is under way. It can be seen in the work of Dian Fossey who risked her life and was killed while trying to protect endangered Gorillas, and as rangers are empowered by law to use lethal force against poachers. So, we have examples where the lives of endangered species are considered to be more valuable than at least some human lives.
I hope that zoos will soon, and universally, be on the leading edge of this transformation, rather than reinforcing ancient and self-serving human conceits.
Researchers are using ideas from animal training to help non-expert users teach robots how to do desired tasks.
Virtual environments in which trainers gave directions to robot dog. Credit: Image courtesy of Washington State University
Researchers at Washington State University are using ideas from animal training to help non-expert users teach robots how to do desired tasks.
The researchers recently presented their work at the international Autonomous Agents and Multiagent Systems conference.
As robots become more pervasive in society, humans will want them to do chores like cleaning house or cooking. But to get a robot started on a task, people who aren’t computer programmers will have to give it instructions.
“We want everyone to be able to program, but that’s probably not going to happen,” said Matthew Taylor, Allred Distinguished Professor in the WSU School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “So we needed to provide a way for everyone to train robots — without programming.”
User feedback improves robot performance
With Bei Peng, a doctoral student in computer science, and collaborators at Brown University and North Carolina State University, Taylor designed a computer program that lets humans teach a virtual robot that looks like a computerized pooch. Non-computer programmers worked with and trained the robot in WSU’s Intelligent Robot Learning Laboratory.
For the study, the researchers varied the speed at which their virtual dog reacted. As when somebody is teaching a new skill to a real animal, the slower movements let the user know that the virtual dog was unsure of how to behave. The user could then provide clearer guidance to help the robot learn better.
“At the beginning, the virtual dog moves slowly. But as it receives more feedback and becomes more confident in what to do, it speeds up,” Peng said.
The user taught tasks by either reinforcing good behavior or punishing incorrect behavior. The more feedback the virtual dog received from the human, the more adept the robot became at predicting the correct course of action.
Applications for animal training
The researchers’ algorithm allowed the virtual dog to understand the tricky meanings behind a lack of feedback — called implicit feedback.
“When you’re training a dog, you may withhold a treat when it does something wrong,” Taylor explained. “So no feedback means it did something wrong. On the other hand, when professors are grading tests, they may only mark wrong answers, so no feedback means you did something right.”
The researchers have begun working with physical robots as well as virtual ones. They also hope to eventually use the program to help people learn to be more effective animal trainers.
Physicists update predator-prey model for more clues on how bacteria evade attack from killer cells
April 29, 2016
Studying the way that solitary hunters such as tigers, bears or sea turtles chase down their prey turns out to be very useful in understanding the interaction between individual white blood cells and colonies of bacteria. Researchers have created a numerical model that explores this behavior in more detail.
Studying the way that solitary hunters such as tigers, bears or sea turtles chase down their prey turns out to be very useful in understanding the interaction between individual white blood cells and colonies of bacteria. Reporting their results in the Journal of Physics A: Mathematical and Theoretical, researchers in Europe have created a numerical model that explores this behaviour in more detail.
Using mathematical expressions, the group can examine the dynamics of a single predator hunting a herd of prey. The routine splits the hunter’s motion into a diffusive part and a ballistic part, which represent the search for prey and then the direct chase that follows.
“We would expect this to be a fairly good approximation for many animals,” explained Ralf Metzler, who led the work and is based at the University of Potsdam in Germany.
To further improve its analysis, the group, which includes scientists from the National Institute of Chemistry in Slovenia, and Sorbonne University in France, has incorporated volume effects into the latest version of its model. The addition means that prey can now inadvertently get in each other’s way and endanger their survival by blocking potential escape routes.
Thanks to this update, the team can study not just animal behaviour, but also gain greater insight into the way that killer cells such as macrophages (large white blood cells patrolling the body) attack colonies of bacteria.
One of the key parameters determining the life expectancy of the prey is the so-called ‘sighting range’ — the distance at which the prey is able to spot the predator. Examining this in more detail, the researchers found that the hunter profits more from the poor eyesight of the prey than from the strength of its own vision.
Long tradition with a new dimension
The analysis of predator-prey systems has a long tradition in statistical physics and today offers many opportunities for cooperative research, particularly in fields such as biology, biochemistry and movement ecology.
“With the ever more detailed experimental study of systems ranging from molecular processes in living biological cells to the motion patterns of animal herds and humans, the need for cross-fertilisation between the life sciences and the quantitative mathematical approaches of the physical sciences has reached a new dimension,” Metzler comments.
To help support this cross-fertilisation, he heads up a new section of the Journal of Physics A: Mathematical and Theoretical that is dedicated to biological modelling and examines the use of numerical techniques to study problems in the interdisciplinary field connecting biology, biochemistry and physics.
Maria Schwarzl, Aljaz Godec, Gleb Oshanin, Ralf Metzler. A single predator charging a herd of prey: effects of self volume and predator–prey decision-making. Journal of Physics A: Mathematical and Theoretical, 2016; 49 (22): 225601 DOI: 10.1088/1751-8113/49/22/225601
The Large Hadron Collider uses superconducting magnets to smash sub-atomic particles together at enormous energies. CERN
A small mammal has sabotaged the world’s most powerful scientific instrument.
The Large Hadron Collider, a 17-mile superconducting machine designed to smash protons together at close to the speed of light, went offline overnight. Engineers investigating the mishap found the charred remains of a furry creature near a gnawed-through power cable.
A small mammal, possibly a weasel, gnawed-through a power cable at the Large Hadron Collider. Ashley Buttle/Flickr
“We had electrical problems, and we are pretty sure this was caused by a small animal,” says Arnaud Marsollier, head of press for CERN, the organization that runs the $7 billion particle collider in Switzerland. Although they had not conducted a thorough analysis of the remains, Marsollier says they believe the creature was “a weasel, probably.” (Update: An official briefing document from CERN indicates the creature may have been a marten.)
The shutdown comes as the LHC was preparing to collect new data on the Higgs Boson, a fundamental particle it discovered in 2012. The Higgs is believed to endow other particles with mass, and it is considered to be a cornerstone of the modern theory of particle physics.
Researchers have seen some hints in recent data that other, yet-undiscovered particles might also be generated inside the LHC. If those other particles exist, they could revolutionize researcher’s understanding of everything from the laws of gravity, to quantum mechanics.
Unfortunately, Marsollier says, scientists will have to wait while workers bring the machine back online. Repairs will take a few days, but getting the machine fully ready to smash might take another week or two. “It may be mid-May,” he says.
These sorts of mishaps are not unheard of, says Marsollier. The LHC is located outside of Geneva. “We are in the countryside, and of course we have wild animals everywhere.” There have been previous incidents, including one in 2009, when a bird is believed to have dropped a baguette onto critical electrical systems.
Nor are the problems exclusive to the LHC: In 2006, raccoons conducted a “coordinated” attack on a particle accelerator in Illinois.
It is unclear whether the animals are trying to stop humanity from unlocking the secrets of the universe.
Dr. Stephan Junek, Max Planck Institute for Brain Research
Estudo mostra que lagartos atingem padrão de sono que, em humanos, permite o surgimento de sonhos
REINALDO JOSÉ LOPES
COLABORAÇÃO PARA A FOLHA
Será que os lagartos sonham com ovelhas escamosas? Ninguém ainda foi capaz de enxergar detalhadamente o que acontece no cérebro de tais bichos para que seja possível responder a essa pergunta, mas um novo estudo revela que o padrão de atividade cerebral típico dos sonhos humanos também surge nesses répteis quando dormem.
Trata-se do chamado sono REM (sigla inglesa da expressão “movimento rápido dos olhos”), que antes parecia ser exclusividade de mamíferos como nós e das aves. No entanto, a análise da atividade cerebral de um lagarto australiano, o dragão-barbudo (Pogona vitticeps), indica que, ao longo da noite, o cérebro do animal fica se revezando entre o sono REM e o sono de ondas lentas (grosso modo, o sono profundo, sem sonhos), num padrão parecido, ainda que não idêntico, ao observado em seres humanos.
Liderado por Gilles Laurent, do Instituto Max Planck de Pesquisa sobre o Cérebro, na Alemanha, o estudo está saindo na revista especializada “Science”. “Laurent não brinca em serviço”, diz Sidarta Ribeiro, pesquisador da UFRN (Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte) e um dos principais especialistas do mundo em neurobiologia do sono e dos sonhos. “Foi feita uma demonstração bem clara do fenômeno.”
A metodologia usada para verificar o que acontecia no cérebro reptiliano não era exatamente um dragão de sete cabeças. Cinco exemplares da espécie receberam implantes de eletrodos no cérebro e, na hora de dormir, seu comportamento foi monitorado com câmeras infravermelhas, ideais para “enxergar no escuro”. Os animais costumavam dormir entre seis e dez horas por noite, num ciclo que podia ser mais ou menos controlado pelos cientistas do Max Planck, já que eles é que apagavam e acendiam as luzes e regulavam a temperatura do recinto.
O que os pesquisadores estavam medindo era a variação de atividade elétrica no cérebro dos dragões-barbudos durante a noite. São essas oscilações que produzem o padrão de ondas já conhecido a partir do sono de humanos e demais mamíferos, por exemplo.
Só foi possível chegar aos achados relatados no novo estudo por causa de seu nível de detalhamento, diz Suzana Herculano-Houzel, neurocientista da UFRJ (Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro) e colunista da Folha. “Estudos anteriores menos minuciosos não tinham como detectar sono REM porque, nesses animais, a alternância entre os dois tipos de sono é extremamente rápida, a cada 80 segundos”, explica ela, que já tinha visto Laurent apresentar os dados num congresso científico. Em humanos, os ciclos são bem mais lentos, com duração média de 90 minutos.
Além da semelhança no padrão de atividade cerebral, o sono REM dos répteis também tem correlação clara com os movimentos oculares que lhe dão o nome (os quais lembram vagamente a maneira como uma pessoa desperta mexe os olhos), conforme mostraram as imagens em infravermelho.
DORMIR, TALVEZ SONHAR
A primeira implicação das descobertas é evolutiva. Embora dormir seja um comportamento aparentemente universal no reino animal, o sono REM (e talvez os sonhos) pareciam exclusividade de espécies com cérebro supostamente mais complexo. “Para quem estuda os mecanismos do sono, é um estudo fundamental”, afirma Suzana.
Acontece que tanto mamíferos quanto aves descendem de grupos primitivos associados aos répteis, só que em momentos bem diferentes da história do planeta – mamíferos já caminhavam pela Terra havia dezenas de milhões de anos quando um grupo de pequenos dinossauros carnívoros deu origem às aves. Ou seja, em tese, mamíferos e aves precisariam ter “aprendido a sonhar” de forma totalmente independente. O achado “resolve esse paradoxo”, diz Ribeiro: o sono REM já estaria presente no ancestral comum de todos esses vertebrados.
O trabalho do pesquisador brasileiro e o de outros especialistas mundo afora tem mostrado que ambos os tipos de sono são fundamentais para “esculpir” memórias no cérebro, ao mesmo tempo fortalecendo o que é relevante e jogando fora o que não é importante. Sem os ciclos alternados de atividade cerebral, a capacidade de aprendizado de animais e humanos ficaria seriamente prejudicada.
Tanto Ribeiro quanto Suzana, porém, dizem que ainda não dá para cravar que lagartos ou outros animais sonham como nós. “Talvez um dia alguém faça ressonância magnética em lagartos adormecidos e veja se eles mostram a mesma reativação de áreas sensoriais que se vê em humanos em sono REM”, diz ela. “Claro que os donos de cachorro têm certeza que suas mascotes sonham, mas o ideal seria fazer a decodificação do sinal neural”, uma técnica que permite saber o que uma pessoa imagina estar vendo quando sonha e já foi aplicada com sucesso por cientistas japoneses.
Um babuíno sobreviveu por dois anos e meio após ter um coração de porco transplantado em seu abdômen. Em pesquisas anteriores, primatas sobreviviam no máximo 500 dias. O recorde foi divulgado na última terça-feira (5) na revista Nature Communications e abre espaço para transplantes entre suínos e humanos no futuro.
O método utilizou uma combinação de modificação genética e drogas imunossupressoras em cinco babuínos. Os corações dos porcos não substituíam os dos primatas — que continuaram com a função de bombear o sangue, mas estavam ligados ao sistema circulatório por meio de dois grandes vasos sanguíneos no abdômen.
Muitas vezes, o sistema imunológico do receptor rejeita o coração do doador por reconhecê-lo como estranho e, portanto, uma ameaça. Na pesquisa com babuínos, os corações dos porcos foram geneticamente modificados para ter alta tolerância à resposta imune. Os cientistas norte-americanos e alemães também adicionaram uma assinatura genética humana para ajudar a prevenir a coagulação do sangue.
Apenas um dos babuínos atingiu a marca de 945 dias vivo. A média entre os cinco foi de 298 dias. A equipe pensa em estender a pesquisa para a substituição dos órgãos.
Transplantes em humanos
Os cientistas têm feito experiências com transplante de rins, coração e fígados de primatas em seres humanos desde a década de 1960. Nenhum sobreviveu por mais de alguns meses.
Por conta da proximidade genética, os primatas eram os melhores candidatos a doadores. Mas não há uma grande quantidade de macacos criados em cativeiro.
Os corações dos porcos são anatomicamente semelhantes aos corações humanos. Os suínos também crescem rápido e são amplamente domesticados.
TICKLING a juvenile chimpanzee is a lot like tickling a child. The ape has the same sensitive spots: under the armpits, on the side, in the belly. He opens his mouth wide, lips relaxed, panting audibly in the same “huh-huh-huh” rhythm of inhalation and exhalation as human laughter. The similarity makes it hard not to giggle yourself.
The ape also shows the same ambivalence as a child. He pushes your tickling fingers away and tries to escape, but as soon as you stop he comes back for more, putting his belly right in front of you. At this point, you need only to point to a tickling spot, not even touching it, and he will throw another fit of laughter.
Laughter? Now wait a minute! A real scientist should avoid any and all anthropomorphism, which is why hard-nosed colleagues often ask us to change our terminology. Why not call the ape’s reaction something neutral, like, say, vocalized panting? That way we avoid confusion between the human and the animal.
The term anthropomorphism, which means “human form,” comes from the Greek philosopher Xenophanes, who protested in the fifth century B.C. against Homer’s poetry because it described the gods as though they looked human. Xenophanes mocked this assumption, reportedly saying that if horses had hands they would “draw their gods like horses.” Nowadays the term has a broader meaning. It is typically used to censure the attribution of humanlike traits and experiences to other species. Animals don’t have “sex,” but engage in breeding behavior. They don’t have “friends,” but favorite affiliation partners.
Given how partial our species is to intellectual distinctions, we apply such linguistic castrations even more vigorously in the cognitive domain. By explaining the smartness of animals either as a product of instinct or simple learning, we have kept human cognition on its pedestal under the guise of being scientific. Everything boiled down to genes and reinforcement. To think otherwise opened you up to ridicule, which is what happened to Wolfgang Köhler, the German psychologist who, a century ago, was the first to demonstrate flashes of insight in chimpanzees.
Köhler would put a banana outside the enclosure of his star performer, Sultan, while giving him sticks that were too short to reach the fruit through the bars. Or he would hang a banana high up and spread boxes around, none of which were tall enough to reach the fruit. At first, Sultan would jump or throw things at the banana or drag a human by the hand toward it, hoping to use him as a footstool. If this failed, he would sit around without doing anything, pondering the situation, until he might hit on a solution. He’d jump up suddenly to put one bamboo stick inside another, making a longer stick. He’d also stack boxes to build a tower tall enough to attain his reward. Köhler described this moment as the “aha! experience,” not unlike Archimedes running through the streets shouting “Eureka!”
According to Köhler, Sultan showed insight by combining what he knew about boxes and sticks to produce a brand-new action sequence to take care of his problem. It all took place in his head, without prior rewards for his eventual solution. That animals may show mental processes closer to thinking than learning was so unsettling, though, that still today Köhler’s name is hissed rather than spoken in some circles. Naturally, one of his critics argued that the attribution of reasoning to animals was an “overswing of the theoretical pendulum” back “toward anthropomorphism.”
We still hear this argument, not so much for tendencies that we consider animalistic (everyone is free to speak of aggression, violence and territoriality in animals) but rather for traits that we like in ourselves. Accusations of anthropomorphism are about as big a spoiler in cognitive science as suggestions of doping are of athletic success. The indiscriminate nature of these accusations has been detrimental to cognitive science, as it has kept us from developing a truly evolutionary view. In our haste to argue that animals are not people, we have forgotten that people are animals, too.
This doesn’t mean that anything goes. Humans are incredibly eager to project feelings and experiences onto animals, often doing so uncritically. We go to beach hotels to swim with dolphins, convinced that the animals must love it as much as we do. We think that our dog feels guilt or that our cat is embarrassed when she misses a jump. Lately, people have fallen for the suggestion that Koko, the signing gorilla in California, is worried about climate change, or that chimpanzees have religion. As soon as I hear such claims, I contract my corrugator muscles (causing a frown) and ask for the evidence. Yes, dolphins have smiley faces, but since this is an immutable part of their visage, it fails to tell us anything about how they feel. Yes, dogs hide under the table when they have done something wrong, yet the most likely explanation is that they fear trouble.
Gratuitous anthropomorphism is distinctly unhelpful. However, when experienced field workers who follow apes around in the tropical forest tell me about the concern chimpanzees show for an injured companion, bringing her food or slowing down their walking pace, or report how adult male orangutans in the treetops vocally announce which way they expect to travel the next morning, I am not averse to speculations about empathy or planning. Given everything we know from controlled experiments in captivity, such as the ones I conduct myself, these speculations are not far-fetched.
To understand the resistance to cognitive explanations, I need to mention a third ancient Greek: Aristotle. The great philosopher put all living creatures on a vertical Scala Naturae, which runs from humans (closest to the gods) down toward other mammals, with birds, fish, insects and mollusks near the bottom. Comparisons up and down this vast ladder have been a popular scientific pastime, but all we have learned from them is how to measure other species by our standards. Keeping Aristotle’s scale intact, with humans on top, has been the unfailing goal.
But think about it: How likely is it that the immense richness of nature fits on a single dimension? Isn’t it more likely that each animal has its own cognition, adapted to its own senses and natural history? It makes no sense to compare our cognition with one that is distributed over eight independently moving arms, each with its own neural supply, or one that enables a flying organism to catch mobile prey by picking up the echoes of its own shrieks. Clark’s nutcrackers (members of the crow family) recall the location of thousands of seeds that they have hidden half a year before, while I can’t even remember where I parked my car a few hours ago. Anyone who knows animals can come up with a few more cognitive comparisons that are not in our favor. Instead of a ladder, we are facing an enormous plurality of cognitions with many peaks of specialization. Somewhat paradoxically, these peaks have been called “magic wells” because the more scientists learn about them, the deeper the mystery gets.
We now know, for example, that some crows excel at tool use. In an aviary at Oxford University in 2002, a New Caledonian crow named Betty tried to pull a little bucket with a piece of meat out of a transparent vertical pipe. All she had to work with was a straight metal wire, which didn’t do the trick. Undeterred, Betty used her beak to bend the straight wire into a hook to pull up the bucket. Since no one had taught Betty to do so, it was seen as an example of insight. Apart from dispelling the “birdbrain” notion with which birds are saddled, Betty achieved instant fame by offering proof of tool making outside the primate order. Since this capacity has by now been confirmed by other studies, including one on a cockatoo, we can safely do away with the 1949 book “Man the Tool-Maker” by the British anthropologist Kenneth Oakley, which declared tool fabrication humanity’s defining characteristic. Corvids are a technologically advanced branch on the tree of life with skills that often match those of primates like us.
Convergent evolution (when similar traits, like the wings of birds, bats and insects, appear independently in separate evolutionary branches) allows cognitive capacities to pop up at the most unexpected places, such as face recognition in paper wasps or deceptive tactics in cephalopods. When the males of some cuttlefish species are interrupted by a rival during courtship, they may trick the latter into thinking there is nothing to worry about. On the side of his body that faces his rival, the male adopts the coloring of a female, so that the other believes he is looking at two females. But the courting male keeps his original coloring on the female’s side of his body in order to keep her attention. This two-faced tactic, known as dual-gender signaling, suggests tactical skills of an order no one had ever suspected in a species so low on the natural scale. But of course, talk of “high” and “low” is anathema to biologists, who see every single organism as exquisitely adapted to its own environment.
Now let us return to the accusation of anthropomorphism that we hear every time a new discovery comes along. This accusation works only because of the premise of human exceptionalism. Rooted in religion but also permeating large areas of science, this premise is out of line with modern evolutionary biology and neuroscience. Our brains share the same basic structure with other mammals — no different parts, the same old neurotransmitters.
Brains are in fact so similar across the board that we study fear in the rat’s amygdala to treat human phobias. This doesn’t mean that the planning by an orangutan is of the same order as me announcing an exam in class and my students preparing for it, but deep down there is continuity between both processes. This applies even more to emotional traits.
This is why science nowadays often starts from the opposite end, assuming continuity between humans and animals, while shifting the burden of proof to those who insist on differences. Anyone who asks me to believe that a tickled ape, who almost chokes on his hoarse giggles, is in a different state of mind than a tickled human child has his work cut out for him.
In order to drive this point home, I invented the term “anthropodenial,” which refers to the a priori rejection of humanlike traits in other animals or animallike traits in us. Anthropomorphism and anthropodenial are inversely related: The closer another species is to us, the more anthropomorphism assists our understanding of this species and the greater will be the danger of anthropodenial. Conversely, the more distant a species is from us, the greater the risk that anthropomorphism proposes questionable similarities that have come about independently. Saying that ants have “queens,” “soldiers” and “slaves” is mere anthropomorphic shorthand without much of a connection to the way human societies create these roles.
THE key point is that anthropomorphism is not nearly as bad as people think. With species like the apes — aptly known as “anthropoids” (humanlike) — anthropomorphism is in fact a logical choice. After a lifetime of working with chimpanzees, bonobos and other primates, I feel that denial of the similarities is a greater problem than accepting them. Relabeling a chimpanzee kiss “mouth-to-mouth contact” obfuscates the meaning of a behavior that apes show under the same circumstances as humans, such as when they greet one another or reconcile after a fight. It would be like assigning Earth’s gravity a different name than the moon’s, just because we think Earth is special.
Unjustified linguistic barriers fragment the unity with which nature presents us. Apes and humans did not have enough time to independently evolve almost identical behavior under similar circumstances. Think about this the next time you read about ape planning, dog empathy or elephant self-awareness. Instead of denying these phenomena or ridiculing them, we would do better to ask “why not?”
One reason this whole debate is as heated as it is relates to its moral implications. When our ancestors moved from hunting to farming, they lost respect for animals and began to look at themselves as the rulers of nature. In order to justify how they treated other species, they had to play down their intelligence and deny them a soul. It is impossible to reverse this trend without raising questions about human attitudes and practices. We can see this process underway in the halting of biomedical research on chimpanzees and the opposition to the use of killer whales for entertainment.
Increased respect for animal intelligence also has consequences for cognitive science. For too long, we have left the human intellect dangling in empty evolutionary space. How could our species arrive at planning, empathy, consciousness and so on, if we are part of a natural world devoid of any and all steppingstones to such capacities? Wouldn’t this be about as unlikely as us being the only primates with wings?
Evolution is a gradual process of descent with modification, whether we are talking about physical or mental traits. The more we play down animal intelligence, the more we ask science to believe in miracles when it comes to the human mind. Instead of insisting on our superiority in every regard, let’s take pride in the connections.
There is nothing wrong with the recognition that we are apes — smart ones perhaps, but apes nonetheless. As an ape lover, I can’t see this comparison as insulting. We are endowed with the mental powers and imagination to get under the skin of other species. The more we succeed, the more we will realize that we are not the only intelligent life on earth.
Frans de Waal, a primatologist and professor of psychology at Emory University, is the author, most recently, of “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?” from which this essay is adapted.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on April 10, 2016, on page SR1 of the New York edition with the headline: What I Learned Tickling Apes. Today’s Paper
Como se mover num mundo em que se tornou impossível não enxergar o mal que se pratica
29 FEV 2016 – 14:44 BRT
O golfinho que pode ter morrido por desidratação tirando selfie com turistas na Argentina.
Lembro uma cena do primeiro filme da trilogia Matrix, ícone do final do século 20. Os membros da resistência eram aqueles que, em algum momento, enxergaram que a vida cotidiana era só uma trama, um programa de computador, uma ilusão. A realidade era um deserto em que os rebeldes lutavam contra “as máquinas” num mundo sem beleza ou gosto. Fazia-se ali uma escolha: tomar a pílula azul ou a vermelha. Quem escolhesse a vermelha, deixaria de acreditar no mundo como nos é dado para ver e passaria a ser confrontado com a verdade da condição humana.
Na cena que aqui me interessa recordar, um traidor da resistência negocia os termos de sua rendição enquanto se delicia com um suculento filé. Ele sabe que o filé não existe de fato, que é um programa de computador que o faz ver, sentir o cheiro e o gosto da carne, mas se esbalda. Entregaria sua alma às máquinas em troca de voltar na melhor posição – rico e famoso – ao mundo das ilusões. Delataria os companheiros se a ele fosse devolvida a inocência sobre a realidade do real. Sacrifica a luta, os amigos e a ética em troca de um desejo: voltar a ser cego. Ou voltar a acreditar no filé.
A frase exata, pronunciada enquanto olha para um naco da carne espetada no garfo, é: “Eu sei que esse filé não existe. Sei que, quando o coloco na boca, a Matrix diz ao meu cérebro que ele é suculento e delicioso”. Faz uma pausa: “Depois de nove anos, sabe o que percebi? A ignorância é maravilhosa”.
Naquela época, véspera da virada do milênio, o filme deu ao público uma porta para o debate filosófico sobre o real. Tomar a pílula vermelha logo tornou-se uma metáfora para quem escolhe enxergar a Matrix – ou enxergar para além das aparências. Desde então, nestes últimos anos de corrosão acelerada das ilusões, penso que a escolha se tornou bem mais complicada.
A ilusão, que desempenhou um papel estrutural na constituição subjetiva da nossa espécie, pode já não estar ao nosso alcance
Talvez o mal-estar do nosso tempo seja o de que já não é possível escolher entre a pílula azul e a vermelha – ou entre continuar cego ou começar a enxergar o que está por trás da trama dos dias. O mal-estar se deve ao fato de que talvez já não exista a pílula azul – ou já não seja mais possível a ilusão, esta que desempenhou um papel estrutural na constituição subjetiva da nossa espécie ao longo dos milênios.
Se fosse um de nós o membro da resistência disposto a trair os companheiros, a negociar a rendição com as máquinas diante de um suculento filé num restaurante, aqui, agora, e não mais no final dos anos 90, o dilema poderia sofrer um deslocamento. O drama não seria enxergar o filé como filé, no sentido de poder acreditar que ele existe, assim como acreditar que o restaurante existe e que o cenário a que chamamos de mundo existe tal qual está diante dos nossos olhos.
Não. O dilema atual pode ser também este, mas só na medida em que também é outro. O drama é que acreditamos no filé, sabemos que ele existe e sabemos que é gostoso. Desejamos o filé, nos lambuzamos dele e temos prazer com ele. Ao olhar para ele, porém, não enxergamos apenas “o deserto do real”, mas algo muito mais encarnado e cada vez mais inescapável: enxergamos o boi.
É terrível enxergar o boi. E, como os mais sensíveis já descobriram, é impossível deixar de enxergá-lo. Nossa superpopulação de humanos extrapolou a lógica dos vivos, matar para comer. E impôs a escravização e a tortura cotidiana de outras espécies. Milhões de bois, galinhas e porcos nascem apenas para nos alimentar em campos de concentração aos quais damos nomes mais palatáveis. São sacrificados em holocaustos diários sem que nem mesmo tenham tido uma vida.
Animais confinados, presos, às vezes sem sequer poder se mover por uma existência inteira. Criamos profissões capazes de reconhecer em segundos se um pinto é macho ou fêmea para separar as fêmeas que viverão espremidas, muitas vezes sem conseguir sequer abrir as asas, botando ovos e depois virando bandejas no supermercado e jogar os machos para serem moídos ainda vivos no triturador de lixo. Escravidão e tortura/sacrifício e lixo, estes são os destinos que determinamos aos frangos.
Somos os nazistas das outras espécies – e produzimos holocaustos cotidianos
Somos os nazistas das outras espécies. E, se antes era possível ignorar, desqualificando a questão como algo menor ou coisa de “adoradores de alface”, a internet e a disseminação de informações tornaram impossível não enxergar o olho do boi. Ao olhar para o filé, o olho do boi nos olha de volta. O olho vidrado de quem está aterrorizado porque pressente que caminha no corredor da morte, o boi que se caga de medo enquanto é obrigado a dar o passo para o sacrifício, o boi que tenta escapar, mas não encontra saída. O olho do boi alcança até gente como eu, que pode ser colocada na categoria “adoradores de churrasco”.
A publicidade do século 20 perdeu a ressonância em tempos de internet. Porque a ilusão já não é possível. Nada era mais puro do que o leite branco tirado de uma vaquinha no pasto. Era fácil acreditar na imagem bucólica do alimento saudável. Nosso leite vinha do paraíso, de nosso passado rural perdido, da vida nos bosques de Walden. Assim como a longa série de produtos dele originados, como queijo, iogurte e manteiga.
Mas a vaca da imagem não existe. A real é a vaca que nasce em cativeiro, filha de outra escrava. A vaca que quase não se move, cuja existência consiste numa longa série de estupros por instrumentos que se enfiam pelo seu corpo para fecundá-la com o sêmen de outro escravo. Então ela engravida e engravida e engravida de bezerros que dela serão sequestrados para virar filés, para que suas tetas sigam dando leite delas tirados por outras máquinas. E, como sabemos disso, o leite que chega à nossa mesa já não pode mais ser branco, mas vermelho do horror da vaca cujo corpo virou um objeto, a vaca para quem cada dia é tortura, estupro e escravidão.
Para não beber sangue procuramos nas prateleiras leites à base de vegetais. Vegetais não gritam. Soja, apenas um dos tantos exemplos. Bifes de soja, hambúrgueres de soja, linguiças de soja, leite de soja. Mas como ignorar o desmatamento, a destruição de ecossistemas inteiros e com eles toda a vida que lá havia? Como ignorar que a soja pode ter sido plantada em terra indígena e que, enquanto ela vira mercadoria no supermercado, jovens Guarani Kaiowá se enforcam porque já não sabem como viver? Já não é possível fingir que não enxergamos isso. Assim, nem os veganos mais radicais podem se salvar do pecado original.
Os mais sensíveis sentem a textura de suas roupas e sabem que são costuradas com carne humana
Olhamos para nossas roupas e horrorizados sabemos que em algum lugar da linha globalizada de produção há nelas o sangue de crianças, homens e mulheres em regime de trabalho análogo à escravidão. Como o casal que morreu abraçado na fábrica de Bangladesh, gerando a fotografia que comoveu o mundo mas não eliminou o horror que seguiu em escala industrial. Ou mesmo de um imigrante boliviano enfiado num quarto insalubre trabalhando horas e horas por quase nada bem aqui ao lado. Mas os mais sensíveis sentem a textura de suas roupas e sabem que são costuradas com carne humana. E já não sabem como vesti-las. Nem sabem como dar brinquedos para seus filhos porque sabem que os bonecos, os carrinhos, os castelos e os dinossauros contêm neles o sangue das crianças sem infância, ou o de suas mães e pais.
Já não é possível levar crianças a zoológicos ou aquários porque sabemos que a única educação próxima da verdade que receberiam ali é a do horror a que os animais são submetidos para serem exibidos, por melhor que seja a imitação de seu habitat. Lembro uma reportagem que fui fazer num zoológico, planejada para ser divertida, e só pude contar, entre outros horrores, que o babuíno chamado Beto era mantido à custa de Valium, para evitar que arrancasse pedaços do próprio corpo. Mesmo dopado jogava-se contra as grades, atirava fezes nos visitantes e espancava a companheira. Pinky, a elefanta, vivia só. Seus dois companheiros tinham morrido ao cair no fosso tentando escapar do cativeiro. Sabemos hoje que os golfinhos e as baleias dos shows acrobáticos são escravos brutalizados para servir de entretenimento a humanos. E, desde que sabemos, aqueles que gozam com esses espetáculos de morte podem se descobrir não mais como famílias felizes num momento de lazer, como nas imagens dos folhetos publicitários, mas como hordas de sádicos.
Ao pedir um café e um pão com manteiga na padaria, nos implicamos numa cadeia de horrores
O tempo das ilusões acabou. Nenhum ato do nosso cotidiano é inocente. Ao pedir um café e um pão com manteiga na padaria, nos implicamos numa cadeia de horrores causados a animais e a humanos envolvidos na produção. Cada ato banal implica uma escolha ética – e também uma escolha política.
A descrição das atrocidades que cometemos rotineiramente pode aqui seguir por milhares de caracteres. Comemos, vestimos, nos entretemos, transportamos e nos transportamos à custa da escravidão, da tortura e do sacrifício de outras espécies e também dos mais frágeis da nossa própria espécie. Somos o que de pior aconteceu ao planeta e a todos que o habitam. A mudança climática já anuncia que não apenas tememos a catástrofe, mas nos tornamos a catástrofe. Desta vez, não só para todos os outros, mas também para nós mesmos.
Já não é possível a pílula azul – ou já não é possível à adesão às ilusões. Há várias implicações profundas numa época em que o conhecimento não liberta, mas condena. A começar, talvez, pela pergunta: quem é o inocente num mundo em que a inocência já não é possível? Seria o inocente o pior humano de todos? Seria o inocente um psicopata?
O que seremos nós, subjetivamente, agora que estamos condenados a enxergar? As redes sociais têm nos dado algumas pistas. O que a internet fez foi arrancar da humanidade as ilusões sobre si mesma. O cotidiano nas redes sociais nos mostrou a verdade que sempre esteve lá, mas era protegida – ou mediada – pelo mundo das aparências. Sobre isso já escrevi um artigo, chamado A boçalidade do mal, que pode ser lido aqui. As implicações de perder este véu tão arduamente tecido são profundas e recém começam a ser investigadas. O impacto sobre a subjetividade estrutural de nossa espécie é tremendo, exatamente porque é estrutural e desabou num espaço de tempo muito curto, quase num soluço.
Já não é mais possível pensar apenas em humanos quando se aborda o tema dos direitos
O que faremos diante da impossibilidade da pílula azul, a que garantia as ilusões? A ridicularização daqueles que levantam esse tema ainda é um caminho, mas convencem menos que no passado. Também a piada se torna anacrônica. As interrogações vêm mudando, e já não é possível afirmar, sem revelar considerável ignorância, inclusive sobre a ciência produzida, que os animais não têm vida mental nem emocional, são “irracionais”. Ou, lembrando um argumento religioso, “que não têm alma”. Toda a ideologia que um dia justificou a escravidão de humanos, até que foi questionada, derrubada e transformada numa mancha de crime e vergonha na história da humanidade, passou a ser confrontada também com relação aos animais.
Cada vez mais as outras espécies começam a ser vistas como diferentes – e não mais como inferiores. Assim, o que se coloca no campo da ética são questões fascinantes e muito mais espinhosas. Mesmo o termo “direitos humanos” passa a ser questionável, porque pensar apenas em “humanos” já não é mais possível. No momento em que nos tornamos a própria definição de catástrofe, o conceito de “espécie”, em sua expressão cultural, se desloca. Outras formas de compreender e nomear o lugar dos humanos ganham espaço no horizonte filosófico e no exercício da política.
Resta o cinismo, sempre o último reduto. Dizer que, diante de mais de 7 bilhões de seres humanos ocupando o planeta e crescendo, não há outra maneira a não ser comer e vestir exploração, escravidão e tortura é a afirmação mais óbvia. É a afirmação expandida usada para todas as desigualdades de direitos. Desde que não seja eu – ou os meus – os sacrificados, tudo bem.
Vale a pena dedicar um parágrafo aos cínicos, essa categoria que prolifera com o ímpeto de um Aedes aegypti no Brasil e no mundo. O cínico é aquele que olha com calculado enfado para todos os outros, porque ele acredita que entende o mundo como ele de fato é. Ele é o que sabe das coisas, o único esperto. Todos os outros são tolinhos com ideias irreais. O cínico é aquele que deixa o mundo como está. Mas talvez, neste momento, o cínico seja justamente o inocente. Sua inocência consiste em acreditar que a pílula azul ainda está disponível.
Como ser ético num mundo sem ilusões, em que cada ato implica na tortura e no sacrifício de um outro?
Há um preço para enxergar e, mesmo assim, assumir o extermínio cotidiano como dado, como parte intrínseca da condição de ser um humano. Nem toda a crescente gourmetização da comida, nem todas as narrativas ficcionais que contam uma história idílica sobre a origem daquele produto, nada ocultará esse preço. E nada reduzirá seu impacto subjetivo. Não é fácil viver na pele do algoz. Não é simples viver sabendo-se. Aquele que se olha no espelho e se enxerga carregará essa autoimagem consigo. E se tornará algo que já não é mais o mesmo.
Há uma imagem recente que pode dar algumas pistas sobre esse caminho. Numa praia da Argentina, um golfinho foi carregado por turistas. Alguns dizem que ainda estava vivo, outros que já estava morto. Vivo ou morto, os turistas preocuparam-se apenas com tirar selfies para postar nas redes sociais. O site de humor Sensacionalista postou: “Golfinho morre ao ser retirado do mar para turistas fazerem selfie e Deus anuncia recall do ser humano”.
Ainda assim, quem se horrorizou com a falta de horror alheia, à noite seguiu diante do olho do boi. O que fazer diante do olho do boi? Como ser ético num mundo sem ilusões, em que cada ato implica na tortura e no sacrifício de um outro, humano e não humano? Se somos os nazistas das outras espécies, quando não da mesma, aceitar que assim é não seria se tornar um Eichmann, o nazista julgado em Jerusalém que alegou apenas cumprir ordens, o homem tão banalmente ordinário que inspirou a filósofa Hannah Arendt a criar o conceito da “banalidade do mal”? Não seríamos, aos olhos do boi, todos Eichmann, justificando-nos pelo senso comum de que assim é e se faz o que é preciso para sobreviver? Se sim, o que implica viver assumidamente nesta pele?
Talvez estejamos, como espécie que se pensa, diante de um dos maiores dilemas éticos da nossa história. Sem poder optar pela pílula azul, a das ilusões, condenados à pílula vermelha, a que nos obriga a enxergar, como construir uma escolha que volte a incluir a ética? Como não paralisar diante do espelho, reduzidos ou ao horror ou ao cinismo, eliminando a possibilidade de transformação? Como nos mover?
Diante do filé que desejamos e do olho boi que nos interroga, há pelo menos uma hipótese cada vez mais forte: o inocente é um assassino.
Source: American Association for the Advancement of Science
Summary: A new study reveals that prairie voles console loved ones who are feeling stressed — and it appears that the infamous ‘love hormone,’ oxytocin, is the underlying mechanism.
Prairie voles consoling. This material relates to a paper that appeared in the Jan. 22, 2016 issue of Science, published by AAAS. The paper, by James Burkett at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, and colleagues was titled, “Oxytocin-dependent consolation behavior in rodents.” Credit: Zack Johnson
A new study reveals that prairie voles console loved ones who are feeling stressed — and it appears that the infamous “love hormone,” oxytocin, is the underlying mechanism. Until now, consolation behavior has only been documented in a few nonhuman species with high levels of sociality and cognition, such as elephants, dolphins and dogs.
Prairie voles are particularly social rodents, causing them to be the focus of many studies. This led James Burkett and colleagues to explore their potential for empathy-motivated behaviors.
The researchers created an experiment where relatives and known individuals were temporarily isolated from each other, while one was exposed to mild shocks. Upon reunion, the non-stressed prairie voles proceeded to lick the stressed voles sooner and for longer durations, compared to a control scenario where individuals were separated but neither was exposed to a stressor.
Measurements of hormone levels revealed that the family members and friends were distressed when they could not comfort their loved one.
The fact that consoling behavior occurred only between those who were familiar with each other — including non-kin members — but not strangers, demonstrates that the behavior is not simply a reaction to aversive cues, the authors note.
Since the oxytocin receptor is associated with empathy in humans, Burkett et al. blocked this neurotransmitter in prairie voles in a series of similar consolation experiments. Blocking oxytocin did not cause family members and friends to alter their self-grooming behavior, yet they did cease consoling each other.
These findings provide new insights into the mechanisms of empathy and the evolution of complex empathy-motivated behaviors.
J. P. Burkett, E. Andari, Z. V. Johnson, D. C. Curry, F. B. M. de Waal, L. J. Young. Oxytocin-dependent consolation behavior in rodents. Science, 2016; 351 (6271): 375 DOI: 10.1126/science.aac4785
An ancient canine skull at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences. Scientists are still debating exactly when and where the ancient human-canine bond originated. ANDREW TESTA FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
By JAMES GORMAN
JANUARY 18, 2016
OXFORD, England — Before humans milked cows, herded goats or raised hogs, before they invented agriculture, or written language, before they had permanent homes, and most certainly before they had cats, they had dogs.
Or dogs had them, depending on how you view the human-canine arrangement. But scientists are still debating exactly when and where the ancient bond originated. And a large new study being run out of the University of Oxford here, with collaborators around the world, may soon provide some answers.
Scientists have come up with a broad picture of the origins of dogs. First off, researchers agree that they evolved from ancient wolves. Scientists once thought that some visionary hunter-gatherer nabbed a wolf puppy from its den one day and started raising tamer and tamer wolves, taking the first steps on the long road to leashes and flea collars. This is oversimplified, of course, but the essence of the idea is that people actively bred wolves to become dogs just the way they now breed dogs to be tiny or large, or to herd sheep.
The prevailing scientific opinion now, however, is that this origin story does not pass muster. Wolves are hard to tame, even as puppies, and many researchers find it much more plausible that dogs, in effect, invented themselves.
Greger Larson, a biologist in the archeology department at the University of Oxford, hopes a large database of ancient DNA will help determine where and when the domestication of dogs occurred. ANDREW TESTA FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
Imagine that some ancient wolves were slightly less timid around nomadic hunters and scavenged regularly from their kills and camps, and gradually evolved to become tamer and tamer, producing lots of offspring because of the relatively easy pickings. At some point, they became the tail-wagging beggar now celebrated as man’s best friend.
Some researchers question whether dogs experience feelings like love and loyalty, or whether their winning ways are just a matter of instincts that evolved because being a hanger-on is an easier way to make a living than running down elk. Raymond Coppinger, a professor emeritus of biology at Hampshire College, noted in his landmark 2001 book, “Dogs,” that “best friend” is not an “ecological definition.” And he suggested that “the domestic house dog may have evolved into a parasite.”
Researchers also point out that of the estimated one billion dogs in the world, only a quarter of them are pets. The vast majority of dogs run free in villages, scavenge food at dumps, cadge the odd handout and cause tens of thousands of human deaths each year from rabies. They are sometimes friendly, but not really friends.
Modern dogs are different from modern wolves in numerous ways. They eat comfortably in the presence of people, whereas wolves do not. Their skulls are wider and snouts shorter. They do not live in pack structures when they are on their own, and so some scientists scoff at dog-training approaches that require the human to act as pack leader.
Jawbone and teeth fragments housed at the Oxford Museum of Natural History. ANDREW TESTA FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
Wolves mate for the long haul and wolf dads help with the young, while dogs are completely promiscuous and the males pay no attention to their offspring. Still, dogs and wolves interbreed easily and some scientists are not convinced that the two are even different species, a skepticism that reflects broader debates in science about how to define a species, and how much the category is a fact of nature as opposed to an arbitrary line drawn by humans.
Tracing the Origins
If current divisions between species are murky, the past lies in deep darkness. Scientists generally agree that there is good evidence that dogs were domesticated around 15,000 years ago. By 14,000 years ago, people were burying dogs, sometimes along with humans. But some biologists argue, based on DNA evidence and the shape of ancient skulls, that dog domestication occurred well over 30,000 years ago.
And as to where the process occurred, researchers studying dog and wolf DNA — most of it modern but some from ancient sources — have argued in recent years that dogs originated in East Asia, Mongolia, Siberia, Europe and Africa.
Arden Hulme-Beaman cutting a piece from an ancient skull for DNA testing at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels. ANDREW TESTA FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
One reason for the conflicting theories, according to Greger Larson, a biologist in the archaeology department at the University of Oxford, is that dog genetics are a mess. In an interview at his office here in November, he noted that most dog breeds were invented in the 19th century during a period of dog obsession that he called “the giant whirlwind blender of the European crazy Victorian dog-breeding frenzy.”
That blender, as well as random breeding by dogs themselves, and interbreeding with wolves at different times over at least the last 15,000 years, created a “tomato soup” of dog genetics, for which the ingredients are very hard to identify, Dr. Larson said.
The way to find the recipe, Dr. Larson is convinced, is to create a large database of ancient DNA to add to the soup of modern canine genetics. And with a colleague, Keith Dobney at the University of Aberdeen, he has persuaded the Who’s Who of dog researchers to join a broad project, with about $2.5 million in funding from the Natural Environment Research Council in England and the European Research Council, to analyze ancient bones and their DNA.
Robert Wayne, an evolutionary biologist at U.C.L.A. who studies the origin of dogs and is part of the research, said, “There’s hardly a person working in canine genetics that’s not working on that project.”
A wolf on display at the Oxford Museum of Natural History. ANDREW TESTA FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
That is something of a triumph, given the many competing theories in this field. “Almost every group has a different origination hypothesis,” he said.
But Dr. Larson has sold them all on the simple notion that the more data they have, the more cooperative the effort is, the better the answers are going to be. His personality has been crucial to promoting the team effort, said Dr. Wayne, who described Dr. Larson as “very outgoing, gregarious.” Also, Dr. Wayne added, “He has managed not to alienate anyone.”
Scientists at museums and universities who are part of the project are opening up their collections. So to gather data, Dr. Larson and his team at Oxford have traveled the world, collecting tiny samples of bone and measurements of teeth, jaws and occasionally nearly complete skulls from old and recent dogs, wolves and canids that could fall into either category. The collection phase is almost done, said Dr. Larson, who expects to end up with DNA from about 1,500 samples, and photographs and detailed measurements of several thousand.
Scientific papers will start to emerge this year from the work, some originating in Oxford, and some from other institutions, all the work of many collaborators.
Dr. Larson is gambling that the project will be able to determine whether the domestication process occurred closer to 15,000 or 30,000 years ago, and in what region it took place. That’s not quite the date, GPS location and name of the ancient hunter that some dog lovers might hope for.
But it would be a major achievement in the world of canine science, and a landmark in the analysis of ancient DNA to show evolution, migrations and descent, much as studies of ancient hominid DNA have shown how ancient humans populated the globe and interbred with Neanderthals.
And why care about the domestication of dogs, beyond the obsessive interest so many people have in their pets? The emergence of dogs may have been a watershed.
“Maybe dog domestication on some level kicks off this whole change in the way that humans are involved and responding to and interacting with their environment,” he added. “I don’t think that’s outlandish.”
Shepherding the Research
Dr. Larson is no stranger to widely varying points of view. He is an American, but recently became a British citizen as well. His parents are American and he visited the United States often as a child, but he was born in Bahrain and grew up in Turkey and Japan, places where his parents were teaching in schools on American military bases.
He graduated from Claremont McKenna College in California and received his Ph.D. at Oxford. In between college and graduate studies, he spent a year searching for the bed of an ancient river in Turkmenistan, and another couple of years setting up an environmental consulting office in Azerbaijan. He had an interest in science as an undergraduate, and some background from a college major in environment, economics and politics, but no set career plans. Instead, his career grew out of intense curiosity, a knack for making friends and a willingness to jump at an opportunity, like the time he managed to tag along on an archaeological dig.
He was staying in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, and a local man who had helped him rent an old Soviet truck to explore the desert told him some Westerners were arriving to go on a dig, so he wangled his way onto one of the trucks.
“I think everybody there thought I was with somebody else,” Dr. Larson said.
By the time the group stopped to rest and someone asked him who he was, it was too late to question whether he really belonged. “I was a complete stowaway,” he said.
But he could move dirt and speak Russian, and he had some recently acquired expertise — in college drinking games — that he said was in great demand at night. By luck, he said, the researchers on the dig turned out to be “the great and the good of British neolithic archaeology.” One of them was Chris Gosden, the chairman of European Archaeology at Oxford, who later invited him to do a one-year master’s degree in archaeology at Oxford. That eventually led to a Ph.D. program after he spent some time in graduate school in the United States.
The current project began when he became fed up with the lack of ancient DNA evidence in papers about the origin of dogs. He called Dr. Dobney, of the University of Aberdeen in 2011, and said, “We’re doing dogs.”
After receiving the grant from the council in England, he and Dr. Dobney organized a conference in Aberdeen, Scotland, to gather as many people involved in researching dog origins as they could. His pitch to the group was that despite their different points of view, everyone was interested in the best possible evidence, no matter where it led.
“If we have to eat crow, we eat crow,” he said. “It’s science.”
A 32,000-Year-Old Skull
Mietje Germonpré, a paleontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, is one of the many scientists participating in the dog project. She was one of a number of authors on a 2013 paper in Science that identified a skull about 32,000 years old from a Belgian cave in Goyet as an early dog. Dr. Wayne at U.C.L.A. was the senior author on the paper and Olaf Thalmann from the University of Turku in Finland was the first author.
It is typical of Dr. Larson’s dog project that although he disagreed with the findings of the paper, arguing that the evidence just wasn’t there to call the Goyet skull a dog, all of the authors of the paper are working on the larger project with him.
In November in Brussels, holding the priceless fossil, Dr. Germonpré pointed out the wide skull, crowded teeth and short snout of the ancient skull — all indicators to her that it was not a wolf.
“To me, it’s a dog,” she said. Studies of mitochondrial DNA, passed down from females only, also indicated the skull was not a wolf, according to the 2013 paper.
Dr. Germonpré said she thinks dogs were domesticated some time before this animal died, and she leans toward the idea that humans intentionally bred them from wolves.
She holds up another piece of evidence, a reconstruction of a 30,000-year-old canid skull found near Predmostí, in the Czech Republic, with a bone in its mouth. She reported in 2014 that this was a dog. And she says the bone is part of evidence the animal was buried with care. “We think it was deliberately put there,” she said.
But she recognizes these claims are controversial and is willing, like the rest of the world of canine science, to risk damage to the fossils themselves to get more information on not just the mitochondrial DNA but also the nuclear DNA.
To minimize that risk, she talked with Ardern Hulme-Beaman, a postdoctoral researcher with the Oxford team, about where to cut into it. He was nearing the end of months of traveling to Russia, Turkey, the United States and all over Europe to take samples of canid jaws and skulls.
He and Allowyn Evin, now with the National Center for Scientific Research in Montpelier, France, also took many photographs of each jaw and skull to do geometric morphometrics. Software processes detailed photographs from every angle into 3-D recreations that provide much more information on the shape of a bone than length and width measurements.
Dr. Germonpré and Dr. Hulme-Beaman agreed on a spot in the interior of the skull to cut. In the laboratory, he used a small electric drill with a cutting blade to remove a chunk the size of a bit of chopped walnut. An acrid, burning smell indicated that organic material was intact within the bone — a good sign for the potential retrieval of DNA.
Back in Oxford, researchers will attempt to use the most current techniques to get as much DNA as possible out of the sample. There is no stretch of code that says “wolf” or “dog,” any more than there is a single skull feature that defines a category. What geneticists try to establish is how different the DNA of one animal is from another. Adding ancient DNA gives many more points of reference over a long time span.
Dr. Larson hopes that he and his collaborators will be able to identify a section of DNA in some ancient wolves that was passed on to more doglike descendants and eventually to modern dogs. And he hopes they will be able to identify changes in the skulls or jaws of those wolves that show shifts to more doglike shapes, helping to narrow the origins of domestication.
The usual assumption about domestic animals is that the process of taming and breeding them happened once. But that’s not necessarily so. Dr. Larson and Dr. Dobney showed that pigs were domesticated twice, once in Anatolia and once in China. The same could be true of dogs.
Only the Beginning
Although the gathering of old bones is almost done, Dr. Larson is still negotiating with Chinese researchers for samples from that part of the world, which he says are necessary. But he hopes they will come.
If all goes well, said Dr. Larson, the project will publish a flagship paper from all of the participants describing their general findings. And over the next couple of years, researchers, all using the common data, will continue to publish separate findings.
Other large collaborative efforts are brewing, as well. Dr. Wayne, at U.C.L.A., said that a group in China was forming with the goal of sequencing 10,000 dog genomes. He and Dr. Larson are part of that group.
Last fall, Dr. Larson was becoming more excited with each new bit of data, but not yet ready to tip his hand about what conclusions the data may warrant, or how significant they will be.
But he is growing increasingly confident that they will find what they want, and come close to settling the thorny question of when and where the tearing power of a wolf jaw first gave way to the persuasive force of a nudge from a dog’s cold nose.
Domingo, 17 Janeiro 2016 14:27 Escrito por Redacção
Um Pangolim foi encontrado na manhã deste sábado no bairro Nkobe na Cidade da Matola Província de Maputo.
Segundo as autoridades tradicionais, o animal anuncia muita chuva e produtividade nos próximos tempos neste ponto do país.
O mamífero foi encontrado no bairro Nkobe na Província de Maputo, o mesmo foi transportado para a residência da Rainha, onde os régulos realizaram uma cerimónia tradicional com vista interpretação da mensagem que o animal trazia para a população da Cidade da Matola.
Realizada a cerimónia tradicional, a Rainha disse tratar-se de um animal cujo aparecimento tem explicação entre as quais se destaca a queda da chuva e cultivo de comida em abundância.
Dirigentes da Cidade da Matola estiveram no local para testemunhar o acto e estes consideram que o cenário da seca que se vive na Província de Maputo poderá ser ultrapassado.
Segundo as autoridades tradicionais esta é a segunda vez que um Pangolim é encontrado na urbe, o primeiro apareceu em dois mil e catorze.
Summary: Researchers report for the first time that the ‘living’ bridges army ants of the species Eciton hamatum build with their bodies are more sophisticated than scientists knew. The ants automatically assemble with a level of collective intelligence that could provide new insights into animal behavior and even help in the development of intuitive robots that can cooperate as a group.
Researchers from Princeton University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology report for the first time that the “living” bridges army ants of the species Eciton hamatum (pictured) build with their bodies are more sophisticated than scientists knew. The ants automatically assemble with a level of collective intelligence that could provide new insights into animal behavior and even help in the development of intuitive robots that can cooperate as a group. Credit: Courtesy of Matthew Lutz, Princeton University, and Chris Reid, University of Sydney
Columns of workers penetrate the forest, furiously gathering as much food and supplies as they can. They are a massive army that living things know to avoid, and that few natural obstacles can waylay. So determined are these legions that should a chasm or gap disrupt the most direct path to their spoils they simply build a new path — out of themselves.
Without any orders or direction, individuals from the rank and file instinctively stretch across the opening, clinging to one another as their comrades-in-arms swarm across their bodies. But this is no force of superhumans. They are army ants of the species Eciton hamatum, which form “living” bridges across breaks and gaps in the forest floor that allow their famously large raiding swarms to travel efficiently.
Researchers from Princeton University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) report for the first time that these structures are more sophisticated than scientists knew. The ants exhibit a level of collective intelligence that could provide new insights into animal behavior and even help in the development of intuitive robots that can cooperate as a group, the researchers said.
Ants of E. hamatum automatically form living bridges without any oversight from a “lead” ant, the researchers report in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences. The action of each individual coalesces into a group unit that can adapt to the terrain and also operates by a clear cost-benefit ratio. The ants will create a path over an open space up to the point when too many workers are being diverted from collecting food and prey.
“These ants are performing a collective computation. At the level of the entire colony, they’re saying they can afford this many ants locked up in this bridge, but no more than that,” said co-first author Matthew Lutz, a graduate student in Princeton’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
“There’s no single ant overseeing the decision, they’re making that calculation as a colony,” Lutz said. “Thinking about this cost-benefit framework might be a new insight that can be applied to other animal structures that people haven’t thought of before.”
The research could help explain how large groups of animals balance cost and benefit, about which little is known, said co-author Iain Couzin, a Princeton visiting senior research scholar in ecology and evolutionary biology, and director of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and chair of biodiversity and collective behavior at the University of Konstanz in Germany.
Previous studies have shown that single creatures use “rules of thumb” to weigh cost-and-benefit, said Couzin, who also is Lutz’s graduate adviser. This new work shows that in large groups these same individual guidelines can eventually coordinate group-wide, he said — the ants acted as a unit although each ant only knew its immediate circumstances.
“They don’t know how many other ants are in the bridge, or what the overall traffic situation is. They only know about their local connections to others, and the sense of ants moving over their bodies,” Couzin said. “Yet, they have evolved simple rules that allow them to keep reconfiguring until, collectively, they have made a structure of an appropriate size for the prevailing conditions.
“Finding out how sightless ants can achieve such feats certainly could change the way we think of self-configuring structures in nature — and those made by man,” he said.
Ant-colony behavior has been the basis of algorithms related to telecommunications and vehicle routing, among other areas, explained co-first author Chris Reid, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Sydney who conducted the work while at NJIT. Ants exemplify “swarm intelligence,” in which individual-level interactions produce coordinated group behavior. E. hamatum crossings assemble when the ants detect congestion along their raiding trail, and disassemble when normal traffic has resumed.
Previously, scientists thought that ant bridges were static structures — their appearance over large gaps that ants clearly could not cross in midair was somewhat of a mystery, Reid said. The researchers found, however, that the ants, when confronted with an open space, start from the narrowest point of the expanse and work toward the widest point, expanding the bridge as they go to shorten the distance their compatriots must travel to get around the expanse.
“The amazing thing is that a very elegant solution to a colony-level problem arises from the individual interactions of a swarm of simple worker ants, each with only local information,” Reid said. “By extracting the rules used by individual ants about whether to initiate, join or leave a living structure, we could program swarms of simple robots to build bridges and other structures by connecting to each other.
“These robot bridges would exhibit the beneficial properties we observe in the ant bridges, such as adaptability to local conditions, real-time optimization of shape and position, and rapid construction and deconstruction without the need for external building materials,” Reid continued. “Such a swarm of robots would be especially useful in dangerous and unpredictable conditions, such as natural disaster zones.”
Radhika Nagpal, a professor of computer science at Harvard University who studies robotics and self-organizing biological systems, said that the findings reveal that there is “something much more fundamental about how complex structures are assembled and adapted in nature, and that it is not through a supervisor or planner making decisions.”
Individual ants adjusted to one another’s choices to create a successful structure, despite the fact that each ant didn’t necessarily know everything about the size of the gap or the traffic flow, said Nagpal, who is familiar with the research but was not involved in it.
“The goal wasn’t known ahead of time, but ‘emerged’ as the collective continually adapted its solution to the environmental factors,” she said. “The study really opens your eyes to new ways of thinking about collective power, and has tremendous potential as a way to think about engineering systems that are more adaptive and able to solve complex cost-benefit ratios at the network level just through peer-to-peer interactions.”
She compared the ant bridges to human-made bridges that automatically widened to accommodate heavy vehicle traffic or a growing population. While self-assembling road bridges may be a ways off, the example illustrates the potential that technologies built with the same self-assembling capabilities seen in E. hamatum could have.
“There’s a deep interest in creating robots that don’t just rely on themselves, but can exploit the group to do more — and self-assembly is the ultimate in doing more,” Nagpal said. “If you could have small simple robots that were able to navigate complex spaces, but could self-assemble into larger structures — bridges, towers, pulling chains, rafts — when they face something they individually did not have the ability to do, that’s a huge increase in power in what robots would be capable of.”
The spaces E. hamatum bridges are not dramatic by human standards — small rifts in the leaf cover, or between the ends of two sticks. Bridges will be the length of 10 to 20 ants, which is only a few centimeters, Lutz said. That said, E. hamatum swarms form several bridges during the course of a day, which can see the back-and-forth of thousands of ants.
“The bridges are something that happen numerous times every day. They’re creating bridges to optimize their traffic flow and maximize their time,” Lutz said.
“When you’re moving hundreds of thousands of ants, creating a little shortcut can save a lot of energy,” he said. “This is such a unique behavior. You have other types of ants forming structures out of their bodies, but it’s not such a huge part of their lives and daily behavior.”
The research also included Scott Powell, an army-ant expert and assistant professor of biology at George Washington University; Albert Kao, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard who received his doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology from Princeton in 2015; and Simon Garnier, an assistant professor of biological sciences at NJIT who studies swarm intelligence and was once a postdoctoral researcher in Couzin’s lab at Princeton.
To conduct their field experiments, Lutz and Reid constructed a 1.5-foot-tall apparatus with ramps on both sides and adjustable arms in the center with which they could adjust the size of the gap. They then inserted the apparatus into active E. hamatum raiding trails that they found in the forests of Barro Colorado Island, Panama. Because ants follow one another’s chemical scent, Lutz and Reid used sticks and leaves from the ants’ trail to get them to reform their column across the device.
Lutz and Reid observed how the ants formed bridges across gaps that were set at angles of 12, 20, 40 and 60 degrees. They gauged how much travel-distance the ants saved with their bridge versus the surface area (in centimeters squared) of the bridge itself. Twelve-degree angles shaved off the most distance (around 11 centimeters) while taking up the fewest workers. Sixty-degree angles had the highest cost-to-benefit ratio. Interestingly, the ants were willing to expend members for 20-degree angles, forming bridges up to 8 centimeters squared to decrease their travel time by almost 12 centimeters, indicating that the loss in manpower was worth the distance saved.
Lutz said that future research based on this work might compare these findings to the living bridges of another army ant species, E. burchellii, to determine if the same principles are in action.
The paper, “Army ants dynamically adjust living bridges in response to a cost-benefit trade-off,” was published Nov. 23 by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The work was supported by the National Science Foundation (grant nos. PHY-0848755, IOS0-1355061 and EAGER IOS-1251585); the Army Research Office (grant nos. W911NG-11-1-0385 and W911NF-14-1-0431); and the Human Frontier Science Program (grant no. RGP0065/2012).
Chris R. Reid, Matthew J. Lutz, Scott Powell, Albert B. Kao, Iain D. Couzin, Simon Garnier. Army ants dynamically adjust living bridges in response to a cost–benefit trade-off. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2015; 201512241 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1512241112
Desmatamento na Região de Xapuri no Acre – Gustavo Stephan/ 05-12-2013
RIO— Parte expressiva da liberação de carbono na atmosfera fica bem longe da fumaça liberada por usinas ou carros. Um novo estudo do Chatham House, o Real Instituto de Relações Internacionais do Reino Unido, indica que cerca de 15% dos poluentes que levam ao aquecimento global são provenientes da pecuária — seja pelo metano da digestão e estrume dos animais, ou pela produção de culturas para alimentação. De acordo com o relatório “Mudanças climáticas, mudanças na alimentação”, reduzir a quantidade de carne no prato é fundamental para assegurar que a temperatura global não avance mais do que 2 graus Celsius neste século.
O planeta, porém, ignora a recomendação. Estima-se que, com o aumento da classe média nos países em desenvolvimento — especialmente na China e no Brasil —, o consumo de carne crescerá até 76% nos próximos 35 anos.
Mudar a alimentação pode cortar pela metade os custos das futuras medidas contra o aquecimento global. E o clima não será a única área favorecida pela nova dieta. Coautora do estudo, Laura Wellesley ressalta que conter o consumo exagerado de carne também traz benefícios imediatos à saúde.
— Não estamos sugerindo que todo mundo deve se tornar vegetariano. A carne, consumida com moderação, pode fazer parte de uma dieta saudável para o indivíduo e o meio ambiente — ressalta. — De acordo com a Escola de Medicina de Harvard, a porção diária não deve ultrapassar 70 gramas, que é um hambúrguer de tamanho médio. Se nada for feito para nos limitarmos a este valor, os padrões alimentares atuais serão incompatíveis com o aumento de temperatura de apenas 2 graus Celsius.
DIETA SAUDÁVEL FORA DA COP-21
Atualmente, o consumo dos brasileiros é de duas vezes e meia a quantidade diária recomendada; nos EUA, é de três vezes mais. Um estudo divulgado em outubro pela Organização Mundial de Saúde alertou que a ingestão exagerada de carnes vermelhas e processadas pode levar à ocorrência de doenças não transmissíveis, principalmente o câncer.
— Mudanças de alimentação devem estar no topo da lista das discussões na Conferência do Clima de Paris (COP-21). É uma estratégia rápida e econômica para conter as emissões de gases-estufa — avalia Laura.
Ainda assim, o debate sobre a dieta mundial deve ficar fora da mesa de negociações da COP-21. Para os pesquisadores do Chatham House, os governos temem que campanhas reivindicando limitações ao consumo de carne desagradem a opinião pública e a indústria de alimentos.
Desde o início do ano, cerca de 150 países apresentaram à ONU metas voluntárias para cortar a emissão de gases de efeito estufa. A diminuição do consumo de carne não foi mencionada em nenhum projeto.
— Como são cautelosos em assumir um risco, os governos têm favorecido a inércia e permanecem em silêncio sobre a questão das dietas sustentáveis — lamenta Laura. — As pesquisas revelam que inicialmente muitas pessoas não gostam da ideia de comer menos carne, e por isso são resistentes à ideia de intervenção do poder público. No entanto, depois que são informadas sobre a relação entre dieta e clima, a maioria recomenda que o governo promova intervenções e forneça orientações e incentivos para a mudança na alimentação.
No Brasil, diz o levantamento, a população sente orgulho da pecuária, mas demonstra preocupação com sua potencial expansão desordenada para a Floresta Amazônica. A pecuária é uma das atividades econômicas mais importantes do país — representa 6,8% do PIB —, mas também corresponde a uma das mais ineficientes do mundo, já que é baseada na prática extensiva. Os lucros estão no tamanho da área usada, e não na eficiência produtiva. No Cerrado há, em média, apenas 1 boi por hectare — estima-se que é possível triplicar esta ocupação sem qualquer comprometimento dos rendimentos do setor.
A força econômica da pecuária e o hábito do consumo exagerado de carne — a “tradição do churrasco de fim de semana”, como destaca o Chatham House — são os maiores obstáculos para que o governo federal desenvolva projetos que promovam a alimentação saudável e, ao mesmo tempo, aumente o alerta da população contra as mudanças climáticas. O brasileiro é conhecido como um dos povos mais preocupados no mundo com o aquecimento global, mas nunca foi informado sobre sua ligação com mudanças na dieta.
James Cameron speaking during a forum at the 2012 Beijing Film Academy. AFP/Getty Images)
There are few films more environmentally infused than the highest grossing one in history, “Avatar” — in which a highly militarized mining company seeks to exploit the resources of the rich forest world of Pandora. But less known is how the film’s director, James Cameron, has also used some of the money made from “Avatar” to champion an array of green causes, even as he’s also using clean energy to power the film’s three planned sequels.
“We put in a 1 megawatt solar array on the roof of the soundstages where we’re doing the ‘Avatar’ sequels, so we’ll be net energy neutral there,” Cameron told The Washington Post recently. “We’ll sell back to the grid and it will balance back over the time when we’re working and when we’re not working.”
It’s just one of the many green initiatives the director has undertaken. Heck, he even designed his own solar sunflowers, and they’re pretty cool looking.
(He’s also a noted underwater explorer: In 2012 Cameron undertook a historic dive 35,787 feet deep into the Mariana Trench.)
Cameron spoke Wednesday morning in Washington at Greenbuild, a major conference on green buildings sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council. Projected population growth means there will be massive construction in new cities around the world, Cameron told The Post. “If all those buildings are constructed the way we’ve traditionally constructed buildings it will be an enormous spike in greenhouse gas emissions,” he adds.
But one of his most unique recent environmental causes has focused on what we eat — meat and dairy, particularly — and how it relates to climate change. This topic has long been a kind of elephant in the room of environmental discussions – and now Cameron is pointing straight at the elephant.
“When you add it all up, it comes up to about 14.5 percent of greenhouse gas comes from the animal agriculture sector,” Cameron says. “That’s bigger than all transportation combined.”
Granted, the gases aren’t just carbon dioxide — the leading, long-lived atmospheric greenhouse gas. They also include methane, which is harder hitting but dissipates much faster — and in this context chiefly comes from so-called “enteric fermentation” (digestion and subsequent burps) in cows and other livestock — and nitrous oxide, emitted by fertilizers and manure. The 14.5 percent figure was affirmed by Chatham House, a London-based think tank, which also calculated that livestock drives 39 percent of human-caused global methane emissions and 65 percent of human induced nitrous oxide emissions.
You can’t fix global warming without fixing carbon dioxide — it has a longer atmospheric residence time than these other gases, and is the dominant greenhouse gas in general. But Cameron observes that because agriculture is so closely tied to deforestation — in many places around the globe, forests are being cleared for cattle and other agricultural activities — it’s also in effect a major source of CO2 to the atmosphere.
Moreover, given global goals to keep global warming between 2 degrees Celsius, it has often been observed that taking action on non-CO2 gases with greater immediate warming consequences, like methane, can buy us some time.
There have been proposed techno-fixes to the problem of agricultural emissions — including the intriguing idea of changing the chemistry going on in cows’ rumens (one chamber of their stomachs) by feeding them a “methane inhibitor” powder, which has been proved in published research to work. DSM, the Dutch life-sciences company, is developing this product.
But there’s also changing what we consume and, in effect, driving market-based changes on a global scale. On the latter front, Cameron and his wife, Suzy Amis Cameron, founded the Food Choice Taskforce, seeking to change our diets, and thereby, lessen climate change and other environmental impacts. “It’s a viable choice, it’s essentially a thermostat that’s being handed to us that we can use to turn down climate change,” Cameron says.
The group is supported in part by the private Avatar Alliance Foundation, which Cameron endowed with some of the film’s proceeds. The foundation has also supported Chatham House’s research on agriculture and the environment.
According to Chatham House, international negotiations to address climate change naturally target the energy and transportation sectors, and the forest and land use sector — but for a complex set of reasons, they have just as traditionally overlooked agriculture. The report contended that “dietary change is essential if global warming is not to exceed two degrees Celsius – the stated objective of the international community.”
“I think they’re basically unachievable goals if we don’t embrace the way we eat as well as part of it. But nobody’s talking about it,” says Cameron.
Granted, there are signs of momentum lately. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, for instance, recently made major waves when it included environmental concerns to its assessment of our diets. “Current evidence shows that the average U.S. diet has a larger environmental impact in terms of increased greenhouse gas emissions, land use, water use, and energy use,” the report noted, compared with more plant-based diets. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer recently declared processed meats a carcinogen.
When it comes to the U.S. dietary guidelines committee — a group of scientists who provide advice, but do not set official policy, it seems a particularly auspicious sign. “For the first time, the issue that I’ve been screaming about has been codified as advice to the government,” says Cameron.
More general, Cameron — who is just as much a wonk about climate change and ocean science as one presumes that he is about the technical aspects of filmmaking — thinks the tide is turning.
“It feels like climate denialism is starting to look like it’s really on the wrong side of history for a greater majority every day,” says Cameron. “Momentum is building in a great direction.”
Even as larvae, honey bees are tuned in to the social culture of the hive, becoming more or less aggressive depending on who raises them, researchers report in the journal Scientific Reports.
“We are interested in the general issue of how social information gets under the skin, and we decided to take a chance and ask about very young bees that are weeks away from adulthood,” said University of Illinois entomology professor and Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology director Gene Robinson, who led the research with postdoctoral researcher Clare Rittschof and Pennsylvania State University professor Christina Grozinger.
“In a previous study, we cross-fostered adult bees from gentle colonies into more aggressive colonies and vice versa, and then we measured their brain gene expression,” Robinson said. “We found that the bees had a complex pattern of gene expression, partly influenced by their own personal genetic identity and partly influenced by the environment of the colony they were living in. This led us to wonder when they become so sensitive to their social environment.”
In the new study, the researchers again cross-fostered bees, but this time as larvae in order to manipulate the bees’ early life experiences. The larvae were from a variety of queens, with sister larvae divided between high- and low-aggression colonies.
The larvae were removed from their foster hives and put into a neutral laboratory environment one day before they emerged as adults. The researchers tested their aggressiveness by exposing them to an intruder bee.
They were surprised to see that the bees retained the social information they had acquired as larvae. Those raised in aggressive colonies were 10 to 15 percent more aggressive than those raised in the gentler colonies.
“Even sisters born of the same queen but reared in different colonies differed in aggression, demonstrating the potency of this environmental effect,” Robinson said.
The finding was surprising in part because bee larvae undergo metamorphosis, which radically changes the structure of their bodies and brains.
“It’s hard to imagine what elements of the brain are influenced during the larval period that then survive the massive reorganization of the brain to bias behavior in this way,” Robinson said.
The aggressive honey bees also had more robust immune responses than their gentler counterparts, the team found.
“We challenged them with pesticides and found that the aggressive bees were more resistant to pesticide,” Grozinger said. “That’s surprising considering what we know from vertebrates, where stress in early life leads to a diminishment of resilience. With the bees, we saw an increase in resilience.”
This finding also suggests that the effects of the social environment on young bees could extend beyond brain function and behavior, Robinson said.
The researchers don’t yet know how the social information is being transmitted to the larvae. They tested whether the bees differed in size, which would suggest that they had been fed differently, but found no size differences between aggressive and gentle bees.
“Adult honey bees are well known for their sociality, their communication skills and their ability to adjust their behavior in response to the needs of the hive,” Rittschof said.
“In mammals, including humans, the effects of early life social interactions often persist throughout adulthood despite additional social experiences,” she said. “A similar pattern in honey bees has broad implications for our understanding of social behavior within the hive and in comparison with other species.”
Clare C. Rittschof, Chelsey B. Coombs, Maryann Frazier, Christina M. Grozinger, Gene E. Robinson. Early-life experience affects honey bee aggression and resilience to immune challenge. Scientific Reports, 2015; 5: 15572 DOI: 10.1038/srep15572
Estudo mostra redução no tamanho de duas espécies na Groenlândia
POR O GLOBO
07/10/2015 15:57 / atualizado 07/10/2015 16:23
A Boloria chariclea foi uma das espécies analisadas pelos pesquisadores – Divulgação/Toke T. Hoye
RIO — As mudanças climáticas já provocam impactos sobre a Humanidade, mas também sobre algumas espécies animais. Um estudo publicado ontem na revista científica “Biology Letters” mostra que borboletas na Groenlândia se tornaram menores como resposta ao aumento das temperaturas. Para os pesquisadores, a mudança no tamanho corporal prejudica a mobilidade, que pode causar graves consequências à dinâmica populacional e distribuição geográfica das espécies.
Pesquisadores da Universidade de Aarhus, na Dinamarca, analisaram aproximadamente 4,5 mil borboletas de duas espécies diferentes capturadas entre 1996 e 2013. Os resultados apontaram para uma redução no tamanho das asas, na mesma taxa em ambas as espécies, provocada pelo aumento das temperaturas durante o verão. As espécies estudadas foram a Boloria chariclea e a Colias hecla.
— Nossos estudos mostram que machos e fêmeas seguem o mesmo padrão, que é similar em duas espécies diferentes, o que sugere que o clima exerce um papel importante na determinação do tamanho corporal das borboletas na Groenlândia — explicou Toke T. Hoye, pesquisador da Universidade de Aarhus.Esse é um dos primeiros estudos a acompanhar mudanças no tamanho corporal de uma espécie durante um período de mudanças climáticas, e corrobora pesquisas realizadas em laboratório, mas raramente demonstradas em campo.
A Colias hecla está ficando menor por causa dos verões mais quentes no Ártico – Divulgação/Toke T. Hoye
Experimentos apontam que a mudança no tamanho corporal é uma resposta antecipada às mudanças climáticas, que pode acontecer de duas maneiras. Para algumas espécies, uma temporada maior de alimentação pode resultar no aumento do tamanho, enquanto para outras, alterações metabólicas provocam a perda de energia e consequente redução das dimensões.
— Nós, humanos, usamos mais energia quando está frio, porque precisamos manter a temperatura corporal constante — disse Hoye. — Mas para a larva da borboleta e outros animais de sangue frio, que dependem do ambiente para manter a temperatura, o metabolismo aumenta em temperaturas maiores por causa dos processos bioquímicos que se tornam mais rápidos. Dessa maneira, a larva gasta mais energia do que é capaz de consumir. Nossos resultados indicam que essa mudança é tão significativa que a taxa de crescimento das larvas diminui. E quando as larvas são menores, as borboletas também se tornam menores.
As consequências para as borboletas do Ártico podem ser significativas. Com corpos menores, a mobilidade é reduzida. Como as duas espécies vivem apenas no Norte, a redução no tamanho pode ter graves consequências na dinâmica populacional, e prejudicar a dispersão dos insetos.
— Elas vivem tão ao Norte que não podem se mover para regiões mais frias, e elas provavelmente vão desaparecer da parte mais ao Sul da Groenlândia por causa do aumento da temperatura — disse Hoye. — Além disso, sua capacidade de dispersão está se deteriorando, e corpos menores devem resultar em menor taxa de fecundidade. Então, essas espécies do Ártico devem enfrentar desafios severos causados pela rápida mudança climática.
In what ways do we humans share lives with nonhuman animals? What are our ethical commitments towards them? What kinds of moral worlds is it possible for humans and nonhumans to cohabit? These questions have preoccupied not just moral philosophers but also anthropologists working in diverse ecological and socio-political milieus. While debates in philosophy engage in such complicated questions as our duties with respect to animals and their rights in respect to us, anthropologists have tended to focus more on actual local worlds in which humans share lives with nonhuman others—animals, plants, microorganisms and spirit beings. While an older anthropology explored our kinship with nonhuman others in the form of debates on totemism, sacrifice and animism, sub-fields such as “ecological” anthropology locate these questions in the nature-culture interface. The more recent, “ontological” turn attempts a radical unsettling of the epistemological certainties of “Western” social science by dwelling in spaces of trans-species engagements and encounters. Dreaming dogs (Kohn 2007), caribou that give themselves to their hunters (Willerslev 2007), jaguar spirit masters (Nadasdy 2007)— these all invite journeying into worlds where human uniqueness cannot be assumed. These are not merely quaint, alternative cosmologies where people “believe” certain things about nonhuman personhood, they are spaces in which humanness is not taken for granted as the property of some and denied to others (those who do not possess language or tool-use or souls); humanness is, instead, a task to be achieved in spaces of shared encounter and habitation. By no means are these spaces, often ecological niches such as forests or mountains or deserts, inhabited on equal terms. But they are frequently worlds in which the stakes of the nonhuman in sustaining or threatening the life of a human community is explicitly acknowledged.
In contrast, modern, post-industrial societies have largely invisibilized animals from everyday social worlds. Contact between animals and humans only takes place in highly regulated situations; as pets, for instance, in zoos, sanctuaries and theme parks or in laboratories and stockyards, where they are bred for human use and overuse. As spaces of real freedom for animals decline and they come more and more under human stewardship, the problem of humans’ ethical responsibilities towards them, and their rights with respect to us is named, if not resolved, by the term “animal rights.” The requirement for a new conceptual vocabulary to address the complex ethical and political implications of human-animal entanglements in diverse conditions has led to the emergence of the hybrid, boundary-crossing field of animal studies spanning disciplines as diverse as cognitive ethology, field ecology behavioral psychology, philosophy, literary studies and biological and social anthropology.
In this context, a recent set of essays, framed as philosophical responses to the writings of novelist J.M. Coetzee, addresses these issues from a rather singular vantage point. My aim in this brief essay is to bring these essays into conversation with certain Indian materials— a film, to be specific, that also deals with similar themes.
In 1997, novelist J.M. Coetzee introduced his eponymous character Elizabeth Costello on the occasion of the Tanner Lectures at Princeton University; while ostensibly dealing with philosophical themes, his lectures deviated from convention in that they took the form of a fictional Australian author, Elizabeth Costello, delivering two lectures to an American university audience. The two lectures, entitled “The Lives of Animals,” were subsequently published as a volume with a set of commentaries, and also in a novel by Coetzee, titled “Elizabeth Costello.” Rather like the question of the animal itself, Costello’s is a presence that jars, haunts and discomfits. The character is that of an aging novelist who is invited to give a lecture at the liberal arts college where her son also teaches. Instead of delivering the lecture expected of her, Costello, rather like Coetzee himself, delivers a lecture on what her son calls “a hobbyhorse of hers”—the status of animals. The content and tone of the two lectures delivered by Costello are far from the works for which she is famous, and signal her own alienation from her younger self and the world around her. Costello likens herself to Kafka’s Red Peter, who performs for the academy. Almost immediately, she polarizes her listeners by likening the contemporary mass killing of animals in slaughterhouses, stockyards and laboratories to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. In order for life to go on in areas surrounding the camps, there must have been, Costello argues, a certain willful misrecognition on the part of those living there. A sort of not-knowing that replaced a full acknowledgement of the horrors that went on around them. In order for people to live with what was being done around them, it was necessary for them not to know. We are now accustomed in our rhetoric, says Costello, “to think of Germans of a particular generation..as standing a little outside of humanity…[t]hey lost their humanity, in our eyes because of a certain willed ignorance on their part” (Coetzee 1999:20). The very normalization of brutality that now, today, makes us feel that a whole generation was tainted by it, is akin to what continues to happen in the case of our non-response to the plight of animals, says Costello. In a sense then, it is possible to go through the pleasant streets of a nice town, by agreeing to not know that possibly, quite nearby, there are abattoirs and factory farms. This not knowing is of a very specific kind and it points to an aspect of knowing that the philosopher Stanley Cavell calls “acknowledgement.” It refers to situations where knowing, as a mode of relating to the world, fails. It only reinscribes our separateness from the world and our lack of fit with the world. It is not-knowing in relation to this special sense of knowing that Costello refers to.
Costello’s words, which do not take the conventional form of prescriptions or arguments for the better treatment of animals, are jarring, and succeed in losing her audience. Her son is embarrassed, and so are her hosts. People take offense at her comparison of the situation of animals with the holocaust.
Costello declines to speak in the voice of reason. Reason, she says, is better available in the words of countless philosophers from Augustine to Aquinas, Porphyry to Plato. The audience doesn’t need her to repeat their words. Reason is also what has systematically been used to distance humans not just from other living beings but from our own organic life. Reason is what argues for an unbridgeable gap between human experience and nonhuman experience, that renders each inaccessible to the other. She prefers, she says, the voice of poetry, which allows for us to just experience in embodied form, both joy and suffering, to just be. Poetry, in the language available to Costello, is a much more likely country from which to experience animal life and our own animality. Costello’s speech does not take the form of propositional argument or of a polemic— pro or anti vegetarianism, in favor of or against laboratory testing, for instance. These arguments stem from a point where the place of the animal in our world is settled. Instead, Costello, or the figure of Costello, pressures us to be unsettled, asks us to allow the animal to mark us. She does this at various points in her speech by drawing attention to her own body: she likens herself to an animal, to Kafka’s ape, to a corpse. Therefore, when she fields sharp questions from her audience— are you saying we should give up meat?— her answers fail to convince, because she is not speaking from a place of rationality, she is speaking from a place of madness. Later, at the polite dinner given in her honor, when a guest professes “great respect,” for vegetarianism as a way of life, Costello says- “I’m wearing leather shoes…I’m carrying a leather purse. I wouldn’t have overmuch respect if I were you” (Coetzee 1999:43).
By way of this comment, Costello draws attention to the specificity of the human animals’ form of life— we can be marked by animal suffering and also not be marked by it, we can distance ourselves not just from other animals, but also from our own animality, and from other humans who are regarded as somehow “not quite human.”
It is impossible to do justice to all the nuances of Coetzee’s brilliant text in the space of this brief essay— but one further remark must be made. Coetzee, through Costello, is also making a particular kind of claim about language, particularly human language—not as something that separates us and elevates us beyond the plane of nonhuman animals, but as something that exposes us, in all our vulnerability, to the world. This point has been brilliantly explored in a set of essays titled “Philosophy and Animal Life” that try to respond, in a philosophical voice, to Coetzee’s genre-bending text (and the set of essays that accompanies “The Lives of Animals”). Of these, the response by Cora Diamond stands out for its stunning appreciation of the Costello pieces as not merely putting forth a case for animal rights in an imaginative and literary way, in which the figure of Costello is a mouthpiece for Coetzee’s views on our ethical responsibilities to animals. Instead, Diamond suggests that there are two ways to read the lectures— one is to read them as grappling with the ethical issue of how to treat animals. Another is to see them as being centrally about a wounded woman, a wounded animal. The statement about the holocaust, which so polarizes Costello’s audience, can be seen as an argument by analogy for our treatment of animals in the contemporary moment, or as the cry of “a wounded woman exhibiting herself as wounded through talk of the Holocaust that she knows will offend and not be understood” (Wolfe et al. 2008:50). It is really a cry of madness. This, argues Diamond, drops away totally in conventional readings of Coetzee’s text. Drawing from the work of philosopher Stanley Cavell (who also has a piece in the volume), she calls such conventional readings as instances of “deflection,” in which “we are moved from the appreciation, or attempt at appreciation, of a difficulty of reality to a philosophical or moral problem apparently in the vicinity” (Wolfe et al. 2008:57). “Our concepts, our ordinary life with our concepts pass by as if it were not there; the difficulty, if we try to see it, shoulders us out of life, is deadly chilling” (Wolfe et al. 2008:58). In other words, arguments about animals’ rights, or vegetarianism, or laboratory testing are really the limited response that human language can come up with to contain a horror that, if embraced in its fullness, would leave us with no home in our language. It is this domain of experience, which resists interpretation, which resists philosophy, that Diamond says is what the figure of Costello is “about.”
When I walk to my classes and to the library on campus everyday, the possible use of animals in medical and scientific research in unseen underground laboratories around me does not unhinge me. In fact, I hardly think about it. This is not the same as not knowing about it. It is a special kind of unknowing where I do not allow the knowledge to mark me. For, if it did, I would not be able to take another step. In a sense then, this dulling of our response to the pain of the other is also what marks the human form of life, enables it to carry on and protect itself. But then, is it human anymore? The response to this “difficulty of reality” cannot take the form— but, animal research is necessary for… – for then the problem has already been displaced to another register. That is what Diamond refers to as the “difficulty of philosophy,” of doing philosophy when philosophy has in a sense, become impossible. It is this potential of the everyday around us to carry horrors that throw us into skeptical doubt that has been a running theme in the work of Stanley Cavell, and which Diamond explores fully in her essay, “The Difficulty of Reality and the Difficulty of Philosophy.”
At this point, I find that my thoughts and words have, of themselves, led me to the example I was proposing to discuss to amplify this “difficulty of reality” outlined above. My example consists of a film, “Ship of Theseus,” written and directed by an Indian filmmaker, Anand Gandhi, which premiered at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival to much critical acclaim. I discuss the film as an ethnographic vignette, that is, as a voice from a particular culture that speaks to global concerns. The title of the film is a reference to the paradox of whether an object restored with the dismembered parts of its former self is still the same object. The film itself tracks three individuals in present-day Mumbai— a young woman photographer from Egypt, an ailing monk, and a young stockbroker. All three are in need of vital organs, and only come together at the very end of the film at an event organized by the NGO that facilitates organ donation. The film has received much praise for being a somewhat unique venture within the general climate of popular Indian cinema, unabashedly dealing with weighty, cerebral themes. It has also been sneered at for the apparent pretentiousness of its “philosophy”— encapsulated in snippets of ponderous dialogue. I find the film intriguing for the simple reason that it explicitly deals with the question of animal suffering, a theme that has rarely found any place in the popular cinema of any part of the world, and offers a brief glimpse into the marginal spaces that animals occupy in the life of a bustling mega-city. The second segment of the three-part film, which is the one that this essay takes up for discussion, centers on Maitreya, a monk belonging to a sect practicing extreme nonviolence, who is portrayed as being an intelligent, scientifically-oriented, articulate man. Maitreya is actively involved with animal rights causes, but unlike Coetzee’s Costello, believes that reason and not sentiment should form the basis for animal rights campaigns. In the course of long, barefoot walks around the city, he engages a skeptical youngster who challenges him on his “extreme” views. Significantly for the film, Maitreya rejects for a long time, the medication that will prepare his body to undergo a liver transplant on the grounds that it has been tested on animals. Scenes of his progressing ailment are interspersed with montages of him attending a court case where animal rights groups are fighting a pharmaceutical company to give up animal testing. There are painful shots of rabbits in laboratories. Maitreya’s health deteriorates rapidly, and he ends up bedridden in a shelter, with other monks tending to his emaciated body and its discharges, over which he now has no control. At the point of delirium, when he finds the horror of his own mortality staring him in the face (the camera here pans directly into his ashen face), Maitreya collapses. Or rather, the entire structure of concepts with which he confronts the world, collapses. He is unable to embrace death and opts instead to take the medication.
Maitreya, as a figure, is an interesting foil to Costello. They are both unseated, or rather, choose to be unseated, by the treatment they see meted out to animals around them. While Costello rejects the voice of reason for its complicity in this violence—Maitreya embraces it as a way to sound sane, to reach out to people around him. He is also coming from a different tradition— though the sect that he belongs to is not named, it is perhaps easy to identify as belonging to the Jain tradition, of which ahimsa is a founding principle. But ahimsa, which does not quite translate into its commonly invoked English counterpart, nonviolence, also encompasses a very different view of the human in relation to the world than the Judaeo-Christian tradition which Costello claims as her inheritance. “We— even in Australia— belong to a civilization deeply rooted in Greek and Judeo-Christian religious thought. We may not, all of us, believe in pollution, we may not believe in sin, but we do believe in the psychic correlates” (Coetzee 1999:21). Maitreya, on the other hand, coming from a culture whose location we might call, following Homi Bhabha, “hybrid,” is able to try on different voices for size. Unlike Costello, who rejects the voice of reason and feels trapped by it, he speaks with the voice of reason in an effort to reach out to those around him. Costello presents her body—exposes—we might say, her body to her audience as a wounded, talking animal. Maitreya’s body is equally “unreasonable,” but it is already a body immersed in a long tradition of practicing kinship with all organic life as an ethics of the self. Maitreya takes on his body, his organic being, as a vehicle for a practice of the self, not as Costello does, as a wound and a rebuke that alienates her from her fellow humans. Costello’s state of being resonates with a comment made by Veena Das in her reading of Wittgenstein— that “claims to one’s culture rest on one’s being able to find a voice within it both as a gift and also as a rebuke.” Oddly enough, given that he is a monk, Maitreya is much less unsettled in his world than Costello is in hers. His response to the suffering of nonhuman others, as embodied as Costello’s, does not result in paralysis; he does what is possible for him to do, or rather, what is available to him from within the tools of his culture. He picks a worm up from the floor where it can be crushed underfoot and places it on a leaf. He refuses to consume medicines tested on animals. He walks to the courthouse daily, barefoot, to follow the trial. He argues his point of view in a reasoned and cogent manner. He gives us a glimpse of what it might mean to live and exist in the face of what Diamond calls “the difficulty of reality.” But, in the final reckoning, when confronted with his death, the end of his physical being, he retreats. This is not a fall from grace, or a state of grace, as Costello feels her existence undoubtedly is, but an acknowledgement of his humanness and its limits. For Costello, this means constantly living a life in which she is “shouldered out” from the acceptable speech of those around her; she can only inhabit a place of madness. Maitreya’s culture is able to absorb him.
I find the film useful for anthropological thinking. The many emerging anthropologies of trans-species encounters are, after all, concerned with the problem of the humanness of the animal other. In many non-western ontologies, personhood as a state of being is not limited to humans. This view most often finds expression in the idea that the manifest form of each species is a mere envelope (a form of “clothing”) that is variable, and houses an internal essence or substance or soul which is unvarying. It is this knowledge of possession of an unvarying soul or essence that makes trans-species communication possible at all. By donning the skin of a bear, I am able to become a bear, to inhabit its “umwelt.” There is no limit, in that sense, to my capacity to become another. That is why, when these metamorphoses betray us, or we misread the signals from another being, our whole form of life is thrown into question. Because the presumption in any case is that communication across ontological domains is possible. This is the situation Eduardo Kohn describes in his remarkable essay, “How Dogs Dream: Amazonian Natures and the Politics of Transspecies Engagements” (Kohn 2007). Costello, who finds only disappointment in the languages available to her from her culture to address these sorts of questions, turns to poetry, which offers greater possibilities for sympathetic embodiment. Like all human animals, she struggles to find a home in culture and language.
Coetzee, J.M. 1999. The Lives of Animals. Ed. and intro. Amy Gutman. Princeton University Press. Princeton, N.J.
Gandhi, Anand. 2012. Ship of Theseus. See trailer here Kohn Eduardo. 2007. How Dogs Dream: Amazonian Natures and the Politics of Transspecies Engagements. American Ethnologist. Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 3-24.
Nadasdy, Paul. 2007. The Gift in the Animal: The Ontology of Hunting and Human-Animal Sociality. American Ethnologist, Vol. 34, No. 1, (Feb., 2007), pp. 25-43. Willerslev, R. 2007. Soul hunters: hunting, animism and personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wolfe, Cary, Stanley Cavell, Cora Diamond, John McDowell and Ian Hacking eds. 2008. Philosophy and Animal Life.Columbia University Press. New York.
Maya Ratnam is presently a PhD candidate at the Department of Anthropology, Johns Hopkins University. She is writing her dissertation on the poetics and politics of forest-dwelling in Central India.
Releasing animals into the wild is in vogue—with unwelcome consequences
Sep 12th 2015 | SHANGHAI
The Huangpu: hardly loach heaven
EVERY Saturday morning hundreds of devotees gather by Shanghai’s Huangpu river to liberate fish. Over three hours some 2,000 loach are tipped into the murky waters to the sound of chants.
This is fang sheng, or “animal release”, an East Asian Buddhist ritual in which captive creatures are freed. The point is to demonstrate compassion and earn merit. The practice is ancient, though along with everything else, it was condemned as so much superstition under Mao Zedong. Today fang sheng is making a comeback, especially among the young and well-off. Officials estimate around 200m fish, snakes, turtles, birds and even ants are released each year—though no one really has a clue.
Fang sheng associations can rake in around 1m yuan ($157,000) in annual donations. For some monks it has become a racket. The greatest price, however, is paid by the animals themselves and the ecosystems from which they come and into which they go.
A vast and mainly illegal wildlife trade caters to the demand for animals. Figures are hard to come by, but one paper estimated that in Hong Kong two markets sold over 630,000 birds a year, most destined for fang sheng. Many animals—perhaps half of all the birds—die during capture or transit from stress, disease or mishandling.
Nor does using reared or exotic species help. They create havoc in local ecosystems. Zhou Zhuocheng, chairman of China’s main body on aquatic ecology, cites the case of the mosquito fish from North America, a popular fish for fang sheng. It feeds on the eggs of the native Japanese rice fish, causing the latter to disappear completely in some areas. To add to the grimness, many animals, once released, are hoovered up and sold again to fresh devotees. Animals that do not survive the trauma are often sold as food.
Wang Tianbao, a 26-year-old programmer and evangelical Buddhist, admits that paying for animals that have only recently been released is “a waste of money”. Yet still he is prepared to spend oodles on fang sheng, through whose associations he can disseminate Buddhist information and reach new followers. He says he first practised fang sheng as a student, releasing two turtles that cost him 98 yuan, his food budget for three weeks. Today he spends 5,000-7,000 yuan, or about 5% of his annual salary. There may just be better ways to earn merit.
VIDEO: CHIMPANZEES USE TOOLS TO FEED ON ARMY ANTS. CREDIT: KATHELIJNE KOOPS
For centuries it has been thought that culture is what distinguishes humans from other animals, but over the past decade this idea has been repeatedly called into question. Cultural variation has been identified in a growing number of species in recent years, ranging from primates to cetaceans. Chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, show the most diverse cultures aside from humans, most notably, in their use of a wide variety of tools.
The method traditionally used to establish the presence of culture in wild animals compares behavioural variation across populations and excludes all behavioural patterns that can be explained by genetic or environmental differences across sites. Nevertheless, it is impossible to conclusively rule out the influence of genetics and environmental conditions in geographically distant populations.
To circumnavigate this problem, researchers, led by Dr. Kathelijne Koops, took a new approach. “We compared neighbouring chimpanzee groups living under similar environmental conditions, which allows for the investigation of fine scale cultural differences, whilst keeping genetics constant,” said Koops.
She and colleagues from Kyoto University and Freie Universität Berlin compared the length of tools used for ‘ant-dipping’ between two neighbouring chimpanzee communities, M-group and S-group, in the Kalinzu Forest, Uganda. Dipping for army ants is one of the hallmark examples of culture in chimpanzees and involves the use of a stick to extract the highly aggressive army ants from their underground nests.
Previous research has shown that ant-dipping tool length varied across chimpanzee study sites in relation to the army ant species (Dorylus spp.) that were present. So Koops compared the availability of the different species of army ants and the length of dipping tools used in the two adjacent chimpanzee communities.
The researchers found that M-group tools were significantly longer than S-group tools, despite identical army ant species availability. Considering the lack of ecological differences between the two communities, the tool length difference was concluded to be cultural. “Our findings highlight how cultural knowledge can generate small-scale cultural diversification in neighbouring groups,” said Koops.
“Given the close evolutionary relationship between chimpanzees and humans, insights into what drives cultural diversification in our closest living relatives will in turn shed light on how cultural differences emerge and are maintained between adjacent groups in human societies,” said Koops, who conducted the work at Cambridge University’s Division of Biological Anthropology and at Zurich University’s Anthropological Institute and Museum.
The research is published today in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.
When he pointed to the tree trunk and said the scars were from fires set by invisible forest spirits, I had no idea this supernatural observation would lead to a new discovery for natural science. Mariano, the eldest shaman of the Matsigenka village of Yomybato in Manu National Park, Peru, had first showed me the curious clearings in the forest that form around clumps of Cordia nodosa, a bristly tropical shrub related to borage (Borago officinalis). Both the Matsigenka people and tropical ecologists recognize the special relationship that exists between Cordia and ants of the genus Myrmelachista: the Matsigenka word for the plant is matiagiroki, which means “ant shrub.”
Maximo Vicente, Mariano’s grandson, standing by a swollen, scarred trunk near a Cordia patch.
For scientists, the clearings in the forest understory around patches of Cordia are caused by a mutualistic relationship with the ants. Cordia plants provide the ant colony with hollow branch nodes for nesting and bristly corridors along twigs and leaves for protection, while the ants use their strong mandibles and acidic secretions to clear away competing vegetation. Local Quechua-speaking colonists refer to the clearings as “Devil’s gardens” (supay chacra). For the Matsigenka, these clearings are the work of spirits known as Sangariite, which means ‘Pure’ or ‘Invisible Ones’. Matsigenka shamans like Mariano come to these spirit clearings and consume powerful narcotics and hallucinogens such as tobacco paste, ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis), or the Datura-like toé (Brugmansia).
A “Sangariite village clearing” (igarapagite sangatsiri)
in the upland forests of Manu Park.
With the aid of visionary plants, the shaman perceives the true nature of these mundane forest clearings: they are the villages of Sangariite spirits, unimaginably distant and inaccessible under ordinary states of consciousness. While in trance, the shaman enters the village and develops an ongoing relationship with a spirit twin or ally among the Sangariite, who can provide him or her with esoteric knowledge, news from distant places, healing power, artistic inspiration, auspicious hunting and even novel varieties of food crops or medicinal plants. As proof of the existence of these invisible villages, Mariano pointed out to me the scars on adjacent tree trunks all around large, dense Cordia patches: “The scars are caused by fires the Sangariite set to clear their gardens every summer,” he explained.
Mariano wearing a cotton tunic with designs taught him by the
Sangariite spirits during an ayahuasca trance.
Douglas Yu, an expert on ant-plant interactions, was researching Cordia populations in the forests around Yomybato. I told him of Mariano’s observations about the Sangariite villages, and pointed out the distinctive marks on adjacent trees. In his years of research, Yu had never noticed the trunk scars. Intrigued, he cut into the scars and found nests teeming with Myrmelachista ants that appeared to be galling the trunks to create additional housing. As detailed in a 2009 publication in American Naturalist, this case is the first recorded example of ants galling plants, reopening a century-old debate in tropical ecology begun by legendary scientists Richard Spruce and Alfred Wallace. The discovery of Myrmelachista‘s galling capability also helped Yu understand how this ant species persists in the face of competition by two more aggressive ant types, Azteca and Allomerus, that can also inhabit Cordia depending on ecological conditions.
Douglas Yu carries out research on ant-plant
interactions in the Peruvian Amazon.
My ongoing collaborations with Yu and other tropical biologists in indigenous communities have highlighted how important it is to pay attention to local people’s rich and often underappreciated knowledge about forest ecosystems: sometimes even those elements of folklore that appear quaint or “unscientific” contain astute insights about natural processes.
Cross section of a tree trunk galled by Myrmelachista ants (photo: Megan Frederickson).
 G.H. Shepard Jr. (1998) Psychoactive plants and ethnopsychiatric medicines of the Matsigenka. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 30 (4):321-332; G.H. Shepard Jr. (2005) Psychoactive botanicals in ritual, religion and shamanism. Chapter 18 in: E. Elisabetsky & N. Etkin (Eds.), Ethnopharmacology. Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS), Theme 6.79. Oxford, UK: UNESCO/Eolss Publishers [http://www.eolss.net].
 G.H. Shepard Jr. (1999) Shamanism and diversity: A Matsigenka perspective. In Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity, edited by D. A. Posey. London: United Nations Environmental Programme and Intermediate Technology Publications.
 D.W. Yu, H. B. Wilson and N. E. Pierce (2001) An empirical model of species coexistence in a spatially structured environment. Ecology 82 (6):1761-1771.
 D.P. Edwards, M.E. Frederickson, G.H. Shepard Jr. and D.W. Yu (2009) ‘A plant needs its ants like a dog needs its fleas’: Myrmelachista schumanni ants gall many tree species to create housing. The American Naturalist 174 (5):734-740. [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19799500]