The horse is a prey animal, the human a predator. Our shared trust and athleticism is a neurobiological miracle
Janet Jones – 14 January 2022
Horse-and-human teams perform complex manoeuvres in competitions of all sorts. Together, we can gallop up to obstacles standing 8 feet (2.4 metres) high, leave the ground, and fly blind – neither party able to see over the top until after the leap has been initiated. Adopting a flatter trajectory with greater speed, horse and human sail over broad jumps up to 27 feet (more than 8 metres) long. We run as one at speeds of 44 miles per hour (nearly 70 km/h), the fastest velocity any land mammal carrying a rider can achieve. In freestyle dressage events, we dance in place to the rhythm of music, trot sideways across the centre of an arena with huge leg-crossing steps, and canter in pirouettes with the horse’s front feet circling her hindquarters. Galloping again, the best horse-and-human teams can slide 65 feet (nearly 20 metres) to a halt while resting all their combined weight on the horse’s hind legs. Endurance races over extremely rugged terrain test horses and riders in journeys that traverse up to 500 miles (805 km) of high-risk adventure.
No one disputes the athleticism fuelling these triumphs, but few people comprehend the mutual cross-species interaction that is required to accomplish them. The average horse weighs 1,200 pounds (more than 540 kg), makes instantaneous movements, and can become hysterical in a heartbeat. Even the strongest human is unable to force a horse to do anything she doesn’t want to do. Nor do good riders allow the use of force in training our magnificent animals. Instead, we hold ourselves to the higher standard of motivating horses to cooperate freely with us in achieving the goals of elite sports as well as mundane chores. Under these conditions, the horse trained with kindness, expertise and encouragement is a willing, equal participant in the action.
That action is rooted in embodied perception and the brain. In mounted teams, horses, with prey brains, and humans, with predator brains, share largely invisible signals via mutual body language. These signals are received and transmitted through peripheral nerves leading to each party’s spinal cord. Upon arrival in each brain, they are interpreted, and a learned response is generated. It, too, is transmitted through the spinal cord and nerves. This collaborative neural action forms a feedback loop, allowing communication from brain to brain in real time. Such conversations allow horse and human to achieve their immediate goals in athletic performance and everyday life. In a very real sense, each species’ mind is extended beyond its own skin into the mind of another, with physical interaction becoming a kind of neural dance.
Horses in nature display certain behaviours that tempt observers to wonder whether competitive manoeuvres truly require mutual communication with human riders. For example, the feral horse occasionally hops over a stream to reach good food or scrambles up a slope of granite to escape predators. These manoeuvres might be thought the precursors to jumping or rugged trail riding. If so, we might imagine that the performance horse’s extreme athletic feats are innate, with the rider merely a passenger steering from above. If that were the case, little requirement would exist for real-time communication between horse and human brains.
In fact, though, the feral hop is nothing like the trained leap over a competition jump, usually commenced from short distances at high speed. Today’s Grand Prix jump course comprises about 15 obstacles set at sharp angles to each other, each more than 5 feet high and more than 6 feet wide (1.5 x 1.8 metres). The horse-and-human team must complete this course in 80 or 90 seconds, a time allowance that makes for acute turns, diagonal flight paths and high-speed exits. Comparing the wilderness hop with the show jump is like associating a flintstone with a nuclear bomb. Horses and riders undergo many years of daily training to achieve this level of performance, and their brains share neural impulses throughout each experience.
These examples originate in elite levels of horse sport, but the same sort of interaction occurs in pastures, arenas and on simple trails all over the world. Any horse-and-human team can develop deep bonds of mutual trust, and learn to communicate using body language, knowledge and empathy.
Like it or not, we are the horse’s evolutionary enemy, yet they behave toward us as if inclined to become a friend
The critical component of the horse in nature, and her ability to learn how to interact so precisely with a human rider, is not her physical athleticism but her brain. The first precise magnetic resonance image of a horse’s brain appeared only in 2019, allowing veterinary neurologists far greater insight into the anatomy underlying equine mental function. As this new information is disseminated to horse trainers and riders for practical application, we see the beginnings of a revolution in brain-based horsemanship. Not only will this revolution drive competition to higher summits of success, and animal welfare to more humane levels of understanding, it will also motivate scientists to research the unique compatibility between prey and predator brains. Nowhere else in nature do we see such intense and intimate collaboration between two such disparate minds.
Three natural features of the equine brain are especially important when it comes to mind-melding with humans. First, the horse’s brain provides astounding touch detection. Receptor cells in the horse’s skin and muscles transduce – or convert – external pressure, temperature and body position to neural impulses that the horse’s brain can understand. They accomplish this with exquisite sensitivity: the average horse can detect less pressure against her skin than even a human fingertip can.
Second, horses in nature use body language as a primary medium of daily communication with each other. An alpha mare has only to flick an ear toward a subordinate to get him to move away from her food. A younger subordinate, untutored in the ear flick, receives stronger body language – two flattened ears and a bite that draws blood. The notion of animals in nature as kind, gentle creatures who never hurt each other is a myth.
Third, by nature, the equine brain is a learning machine. Untrammelled by the social and cognitive baggage that human brains carry, horses learn in a rapid, pure form that allows them to be taught the meanings of various human cues that shape equine behaviour in the moment. Taken together, the horse’s exceptional touch sensitivity, natural reliance on body language, and purity of learning form the tripod of support for brain-to-brain communication that is so critical in extreme performance.
One of the reasons for budding scientific fascination with neural horse-and-human communication is the horse’s status as a prey animal. Their brains and bodies evolved to survive completely different pressures than our human physiologies. For example, horse eyes are set on either side of their head for a panoramic view of the world, and their horizontal pupils allow clear sight along the horizon but fuzzy vision above and below. Their eyes rotate to maintain clarity along the horizon when their heads lie sideways to reach grass in odd locations. Equine brains are also hardwired to stream commands directly from the perception of environmental danger to the motor cortex where instant evasion is carried out. All of these features evolved to allow the horse to survive predators.
Conversely, human brains evolved in part for the purpose of predation – hunting, chasing, planning… yes, even killing – with front-facing eyes, superb depth perception, and a prefrontal cortex for strategy and reason. Like it or not, we are the horse’s evolutionary enemy, yet they behave toward us as if inclined to become a friend.
The fact that horses and humans can communicate neurally without the external mediation of language or equipment is critical to our ability to initiate the cellular dance between brains. Saddles and bridles are used for comfort and safety, but bareback and bridleless competitions prove they aren’t necessary for highly trained brain-to-brain communication. Scientific efforts to communicate with predators such as dogs and apes have often been hobbled by the use of artificial media including human speech, sign language or symbolic lexigram. By contrast, horses allow us to apply a medium of communication that is completely natural to their lives in the wild and in captivity.
The horse’s prey brain is designed to notice and evade predators. How ironic, and how riveting, then, that this prey brain is the only one today that shares neural communication with a predator brain. It offers humanity a rare view into a prey animal’s world, almost as if we were wolves riding elk or coyotes mind-melding with cottontail bunnies.
Highly trained horses and riders send and receive neural signals using subtle body language. For example, a rider can apply invisible pressure with her left inner calf muscle to move the horse laterally to the right. That pressure is felt on the horse’s side, in his skin and muscle, via proprioceptive receptor cells that detect body position and movement. Then the signal is transduced from mechanical pressure to electrochemical impulse, and conducted up peripheral nerves to the horse’s spinal cord. Finally, it reaches the somatosensory cortex, the region of the brain responsible for interpreting sensory information.
Riders can sometimes guess that an invisible object exists by detecting subtle equine reactions
This interpretation is dependent on the horse’s knowledge that a particular body signal – for example, inward pressure from a rider’s left calf – is associated with a specific equine behaviour. Horse trainers spend years teaching their mounts these associations. In the present example, the horse has learned that this particular amount of pressure, at this speed and location, under these circumstances, means ‘move sideways to the right’. If the horse is properly trained, his motor cortex causes exactly that movement to occur.
By means of our human motion and position sensors, the rider’s brain now senses that the horse has changed his path rightward. Depending on the manoeuvre our rider plans to complete, she will then execute invisible cues to extend or collect the horse’s stride as he approaches a jump that is now centred in his vision, plant his right hind leg and spin in a tight fast circle, push hard off his hindquarters to chase a cow, or any number of other movements. These cues are combined to form that mutual neural dance, occurring in real time, and dependent on natural body language alone.
The example of a horse moving a few steps rightward off the rider’s left leg is extremely simplistic. When you imagine a horse and rider clearing a puissance wall of 7.5 feet (2.4 metres), think of the countless receptor cells transmitting bodily cues between both brains during approach, flight and exit. That is mutual brain-to-brain communication. Horse and human converse via body language to such an extreme degree that they are able to accomplish amazing acts of understanding and athleticism. Each of their minds has extended into the other’s, sending and receiving signals as if one united brain were controlling both bodies.
Analysis of brain-to-brain communication between horses and humans elicits several new ideas worthy of scientific notice. Because our minds interact so well using neural networks, horses and humans might learn to borrow neural signals from the party whose brain offers the highest function. For example, horses have a 340-degree range of view when holding their heads still, compared with a paltry 90-degree range in humans. Therefore, horses can see many objects that are invisible to their riders. Yet riders can sometimes guess that an invisible object exists by detecting subtle equine reactions.
Specifically, neural signals from the horse’s eyes carry the shape of an object to his brain. Those signals are transferred to the rider’s brain by a well-established route: equine receptor cells in the retina lead to equine detector cells in the visual cortex, which elicits an equine motor reaction that is then sensed by the rider’s human body. From there, the horse’s neural signals are transmitted up the rider’s spinal cord to the rider’s brain, and a perceptual communication loop is born. The rider’s brain can now respond neurally to something it is incapable of seeing, by borrowing the horse’s superior range of vision.
These brain-to-brain transfers are mutual, so the learning equine brain should also be able to borrow the rider’s vision, with its superior depth perception and focal acuity. This kind of neural interaction results in a horse-and-human team that can sense far more together than either party can detect alone. In effect, they share effort by assigning labour to the party whose skills are superior at a given task.
There is another type of skillset that requires a particularly nuanced cellular dance: sharing attention and focus. Equine vigilance allowed horses to survive 56 million years of evolution – they had to notice slight movements in tall grasses or risk becoming some predator’s dinner. Consequently, today it’s difficult to slip even a tiny change past a horse, especially a young or inexperienced animal who has not yet been taught to ignore certain sights, sounds and smells.
By contrast, humans are much better at concentration than vigilance. The predator brain does not need to notice and react instantly to every stimulus in the environment. In fact, it would be hampered by prey vigilance. While reading this essay, your brain sorts away the sound of traffic past your window, the touch of clothing against your skin, the sight of the masthead that says ‘Aeon’ at the top of this page. Ignoring these distractions allows you to focus on the content of this essay.
Horses and humans frequently share their respective attentional capacities during a performance. A puissance horse galloping toward an enormous wall cannot waste vigilance by noticing the faces of each person in the audience. Likewise, the rider cannot afford to miss a loose dog that runs into the arena outside her narrow range of vision and focus. Each party helps the other through their primary strengths.
Such sharing becomes automatic with practice. With innumerable neural contacts over time, the human brain learns to heed signals sent by the equine brain that say, in effect: ‘Hey, what’s that over there?’ Likewise, the equine brain learns to sense human neural signals that counter: ‘Let’s focus on this gigantic wall right here.’ Each party sends these messages by body language and receives them by body awareness through two spinal cords, then interprets them inside two brains, millisecond by millisecond.
The rider’s physical cues are transmitted by neural activation from the horse’s surface receptors to the horse’s brain
Finally, it is conceivable that horse and rider can learn to share features of executive function – the human brain’s ability to set goals, plan steps to achieve them, assess alternatives, make decisions and evaluate outcomes. Executive function occurs in the prefrontal cortex, an area that does not exist in the equine brain. Horses are excellent at learning, remembering and communicating – but they do not assess, decide, evaluate or judge as humans do.
Shying is a prominent equine behaviour that might be mediated by human executive function in well-trained mounts. When a horse of average size shies away from an unexpected stimulus, riders are sitting on top of 1,200 pounds of muscle that suddenly leaps sideways off all four feet and lands five yards away. It’s a frightening experience, and often results in falls that lead to injury or even death. The horse’s brain causes this reaction automatically by direct connection between his sensory and motor cortices.
Though this possibility must still be studied by rigorous science, brain-to-brain communication suggests that horses might learn to borrow small glimmers of executive function through neural interaction with the human’s prefrontal cortex. Suppose that a horse shies from an umbrella that suddenly opens. By breathing steadily, relaxing her muscles, and flexing her body in rhythm with the horse’s gait, the rider calms the animal using body language. Her physical cues are transmitted by neural activation from his surface receptors to his brain. He responds with body language in which his muscles relax, his head lowers, and his frightened eyes return to their normal size. The rider feels these changes with her body, which transmits the horse’s neural signals to the rider’s brain.
From this point, it’s only a very short step – but an important one – to the transmission and reception of neural signals between the rider’s prefrontal cortex (which evaluates the unexpected umbrella) and the horse’s brain (which instigates the leap away from that umbrella). In practice, to reduce shying, horse trainers teach their young charges to slow their reactions and seek human guidance.
Brain-to-brain communication between horses and riders is an intricate neural dance. These two species, one prey and one predator, are living temporarily in each other’s brains, sharing neural information back and forth in real time without linguistic or mechanical mediation. It is a partnership like no other. Together, a horse-and-human team experiences a richer perceptual and attentional understanding of the world than either member can achieve alone. And, ironically, this extended interspecies mind operates well not because the two brains are similar to each other, but because they are so different.
Janet Jones applies brain research to training horses and riders. She has a PhD from the University of California, Los Angeles, and for 23 years taught the neuroscience of perception, language, memory, and thought. She trained horses at a large stable early in her career, and later ran a successful horse-training business of her own. Her most recent book, Horse Brain, Human Brain (2020), is currently being translated into seven languages.
Edited by Pam Weintraub
By Rachel FrittsAug. 13, 2021 , 1:25 PM 5-7 minutes
The bears and Indigenous humans of coastal British Columbia have more in common than meets the eye. The two have lived side by side for millennia in this densely forested region on the west coast of Canada. But it’s the DNA that really stands out: A new analysis has found that the grizzlies here form three distinct genetic groups, and these groups align closely with the region’s three Indigenous language families.
It’s a “mind-blowing” finding that shows how cultural and biological diversity in the region are intertwined, says Jesse Popp, an Indigenous environmental scientist at the University of Guelph who was not involved with the work.
The research began purely as a genetics study. Grizzlies had recently begun to colonize islands along the coast of British Columbia, and scientists and Indigenous wildlife managers wanted to know why they were making this unprecedented move. Luckily, in 2011, the region’s five First Nations set up a collaborative “bear working group” to answer exactly that sort of question. Lauren Henson, a conservation scientist with the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, partnered with working group members from the Nuxalk, Haíɫzaqv, Kitasoo/Xai’xais, Gitga’at, and Wuikinuxv Nations to figure out which mainland grizzlies were most genetically similar to the island ones.
Henson used bear hair samples that researchers involved with the working group had collected over the course of 11 years. To get the samples, the team went to remote areas of British Columbia—some of them only accessible via helicopter—and piled up leaves and sticks, covering them with a concoction of dogfish oil or a fish-based slurry. It “smells really, really terrible to us, but is intriguing to bears,” Henson says.
The researchers then surrounded this tempting pile with a square of barbed wire, which harmlessly snagged tufts of fur—and the DNA it contains—when bears came to check out the smell. In all, the group collected samples from 147 bears over about 23,500 square kilometers—an area roughly the size of Vermont.
Henson and her colleagues then used microsatellite DNA markers—regions of the genome that change frequently compared with other sections—to determine how related the bears were to each other. The scientists found three distinct genetic groups of bears living in the study area, they report this month in Ecology and Society.
But they could not find any obvious physical barriers keeping them apart. The boundaries between genetic groupings didn’t correspond to the location of waterways or especially rugged or snow-covered landscapes. It’s possible, Henson says, that the bears remain genetically distinct not because they can’t travel, but because the region is so resource-rich that they haven’t needed to do so to meet their needs.
One thing did correlate with the bears’ distribution, however: Indigenous language families. “We were looking at language maps and noticed the striking visual similarity,” Henson says. When the researchers analyzed the genetic interrelatedness of bears both within and outside the area’s three language families, they found that grizzly bears living within a language family’s boundaries were much more genetically similar to one another than to bears living outside them.
The findings don’t surprise Jenn Walkus, a Wuikinuxv scientist who co-authored the study. Growing up in a remote community called Rivers Inlet, she saw firsthand that humans and bears have a lot of the same needs in terms of space, food, and other resources. It would make sense, she says, for them to settle in the same areas—ones with a steady supply of salmon, for instance. This historic interrelatedness means Canada should manage key resources with both bears and people in mind, she says. The Wuikinuxv Nation, for example, is looking into reducing its annual salmon harvest to support the bears’ needs, she notes.
Lauren Eckert, a conservation scientist at the University of Victoria who was not involved with the study, agrees that the findings could have important implications for managing the area’s bears. It’s “fascinating” and “really shocking” work, she says. The resources that shaped grizzly bear distribution in the region clearly also shaped humans, Eckert says, “which I think reinforces the idea that local knowledge and localized management are really critical.”
Leão Serva, 2 de julho de 2021
Primatologista Frans De Waal fala sobre a inteligência e as emoções dos macacos
O encontro entre a chimpanzé idosa, dias antes de morrer, e seu amigo da vida toda, cientista também idoso, é uma cena inesquecível: a alegria irradiante de Mama, 59, ao abraçar o primatologista Jan Van Hooff, já octogenário, é um gesto reconhecível por milhões de espectadores do Youtube, em todos os cantos do planeta.
O ensaísta Frans de Waal, autor de best-sellers como “A Era da Empatia” e outros estudos sobre comportamentos e emoções dos macacos, usou a cena como mote e título de seu novo livro, “O Último Abraço da Matriarca” (Zahar, 452 págs.).
De Waal foi aluno de Van Hoof e conhecia muito bem Mama, a quem ele estudou e acompanhou por meio século de estudos do comportamento animal.
Como em seus outros livros, o conteúdo é um permanente diálogo entre o comportamento animal e o dos homens. Os chimpanzés e bonobos, que ele define como nossos “parentes” mais próximos, são usados para entender comportamentos humanos e destacar aquelas características que perdemos ou esquecemos ao longo do processo evolutivo.
Algumas delas, qualidades essenciais, atualíssimas, como a tolerância com os indivíduos que tem comportamentos diferentes.
Nesta entrevista, ele antecipa que seu novo livro terá como tema a questão de gêneros nas sociedades de primatas. E antecipa uma conclusão: “Creio que nós humanos podemos aprender muito sobre tolerância com eles”.
A revista “National Geographic” recentemente publicou uma capa sobre os chimpanzés cujo título era: ‘Sapiens?’, com uma interrogação. O senhor crê que os grandes primatas são sapiens?
Eles são muito inteligentes e nós, humanos, nos orgulhamos de nossa inteligência também. Mas quanto mais estudamos e aprendemos sobre os chimpanzés ao longo dos últimos 25 anos, mais encontramos manifestações do mesmo tipo de inteligência. Por exemplo, os chimpanzés são capazes de pensar adiante, podem pensar no futuro, podem planejar o futuro. Também pensam no passado, se lembram de eventos específicos do passado. Eles testar coisas, criar ferramentas e podem se reconhecer no espelho. Então, existem muitos sinais de que eles têm alto nível de inteligência, que os diferencia dos outros animais.
Em seus livros, o senhor descreve vários rituais e formas de mediação de conflitos entre chimpanzés, como fazer cafuné após uma briga. Quais são as formas similares com que os humanos fazem isso?
Por exemplo, depois de uma briga, eles se beijam e se abraçam. Normalmente, depois de 10 minutos eles se aproximam e têm algum contato e depois disso eles fazem carinhos como cafunés. Nós humanos normalmente somos menos físicos: pedimos desculpas, dizemos alguma coisa ou fazemos algo gentil, como trazer um café, como forma de reconciliação. Mas é claro que se for em uma família, pode ter também uma dimensão física, pode ser até sexual, como acontece em certas espécies de primatas. E abraçar e beijar são comportamentos muito humanos e os humanos também fazem isso.
Então, qual é a principal diferença entre os humanos e os outros primatas?
Há muitas semelhanças entre os pontos básicos de nossa inteligência humana e a desses animais. Há uma área em que temos uma diferença, que é a linguagem. É claro que os macacos se comunicam, como outros animais também, eles têm sinais que fazem uns para os outros. Mas, a comunicação simbólica, que pode se desenvolver, mudar, variar, pois o homem tem tantas linguagens diferentes, essa é uma propriedade unicamente humana. E é uma capacidade muito importante, porque podemos nos comunicar com pessoas que estão à distância, como estávamos fazendo agora, sobre coisas que não estão nem aqui e nem aí, isso é algo impossível para outros animais.
Pensando no caso da gorila Koko, que tinha domínio da língua de sinais e com ela se comunicava com humanos, o senhor diria que ela tinha um domínio humano da linguagem?
Não, eu não diria isso. Veja, existem hoje muitos macacos treinados para compreender as línguas de sinais e gestos com as mãos, inclusive comunicação simbólica. Mas os resultados são realmente desapontadores. Eles podem fazer algumas coisas, podem aprender uma centena de símbolos, mas a comunicação com eles continua sendo muito limitada. É mais limitada do que aquela que você pode ter com uma criança de dois anos, aproximadamente. Então, os experimentos de linguagem com macacos já não são muito populares, porque não apresentaram bons resultados.
Suponha que um casal humano tenha um filho e no mesmo momento adote um bebê chimpanzé e decida criar os dois juntos como filhos e irmãos. Até quando o desenvolvimento deles será idêntico?
Essa é uma pergunta interessante, porque pessoas já tentaram isso. Houve famílias nas décadas de 1950 e 1960 que tentaram criar seus filhos na companhia de bebês chimpanzés. O curioso é que esses projetos foram interrompidos porque as crianças humanas começaram a imitar os macacos, ao invés do contrário. As crianças começaram a se comportar como chimpanzés, pulando pra cima e pra baixo e grunhindo como macacos, por isso o programa foi interrompido. Mas os filhotes de macacos, se criados em uma família de humanos, eles fazem muitas das mesmas coisas: eles vêm televisão, gostam de jogar jogos. Algumas vezes eles se comportam fora das regras humanas, escalam as cortinas, sobem no telhado, coisa que as pessoas não gostam nada. Mas, em geral, quando são novos, eles se comportaram como crianças e brincam como crianças.
É correto dizer que só os humanos matam por razões como vingança, ódio, rancor, ambição, inveja e outras razões que não estão ligadas à alimentação ou ao instinto de sobrevivência?
Eu creio que isso seja verdade, porque chimpanzés são animais muito agressivos e eles podem algumas vezes matar uns aos outros por poder, por exemplo, disputa de comando sobre o grupo ou por território, quando eles defendem seus territórios contra outros. Nós temos um outro parente próximo, o bonobo. Eles são tão próximos de nós quanto os chimpanzés. Eles são muito mais amigáveis, não são tão agressivos. Mas há espécies de primatas que matam por outras questões que não só por alimento, sobrevivência ou coisas como essas.
Eu entendo que os chimpanzés tendem a resolver seus conflitos brigando, enquanto os bonobos têm uma diplomacia mais relacionada à sexualidade e à afetividade. O senhor diria que os homens têm um lado chimpanzé mais desenvolvido ou temos características desses dois parentes, dessas duas tendências?
Nós temos os dois lados: nós podemos ser eróticos e sexuais como os bonobos mas também podemos nos tornar violentos como os chimpanzés. Entre os chimpanzés, os homens são os dominantes enquanto os bonobos são dominados pelas mulheres. Por isso algumas pessoas dizem que somos mais parecidos com os chimpanzés. Eu não tenho essa certeza, eu acredito que temos muito da empatia e da sexualidade dos bonobos. Então, eu creio que somos uma mistura das duas espécies. Além disso, nós temos nossa própria evolução, a evolução humana, que se desenvolve há muito tempo. Nós desenvolvemos coisas novas, como a linguagem e o modelo de famílias, formadas por Pai, Mãe e crianças. Isso não vemos em nenhum outro macaco.
Em seus livros o senhor mostra que os macacos são capazes de entender a linguagem corporal dos outros, muito mais do que nós humanos conseguimos. O senhor acredita que o predomínio da linguagem verbal deteriorou nossa capacidade de entender as expressões do corpo?
É uma questão interessante: nós humanos confiamos tanto na linguagem verbal, prestamos tanta atenção ao que uma pessoa diz que muitas vezes esquecemos o quanto somos sensíveis a questões como a expressão facial, o tom de voz, o corpo. Nós somos de fato muito bons na leitura da linguagem corporal mas muitas vezes esquecemos isso. Por exemplo: quando eu vejo debates entre políticos na TV, frequentemente tiro o som, não quero ouvir o que eles dizem porque eles estão sempre mentindo, quero apenas ver sua linguagem corporal, que ela é muito mais informativa do que a linguagem verbal.
E ao observá-lo, o senhor diria que Donald Trump é um macho alfa, se comporta como um líder chimpanzé?
O problema com isso é que eu usei a expressão “macho alfa” para definir machos chimpanzés e muitos dos “machos alfa” que eu conheço são bons líderes: eles mantêm o grupo unido, eles unem as partes quando se dividem, garantem a preservação da ordem na sociedade, eles têm empatia pelos outros. Essas são qualidades que muitos líderes do mundo humano não têm. Nós os chamamos algumas vezes de “alfa” porque eles são dominantes, eles comandam a cena política mas não agem como “machos alfa” em termos de liderança. Liderança, e isso vale também para as mulheres, que podem ser líderes também, é juntar as partes, mantê-las unidas, preservar a ordem na sociedade e nem todos os “machos alfa” são bons nisso.
Seus livros costumam tratar das emoções dos animais e suas relações com as emoções e comportamentos humanos. Quanto nós podemos aprender com os macacos e com isso obter um comportamento melhor de nossa sociedade?
Meus livros não dizem como organizar uma sociedade humana, porque eu falo sobre bonobos, chimpanzés e outros primatas. Eu não sinto que podemos tomar lições diretamente daí. Mas o que eu posso dizer é que a psicologia humana é muito antiga. Nós costumamos pensar que inventamos tudo. De fato nós inventamos muitas coisas de tecnologia: o telefone celular, o avião etc. Mas nosso comportamento e nossa psicologia são muito antigos. Então, a mensagem dos meus livros é que muitas das tendências que nós temos são ancestrais, elas são como as dos primatas. E nesse sentido é que podemos aprender com os primatas. Podemos aprender que em suas comunidades eles resolvem conflitos, são muito bons em se reconciliar depois, em dividir alimentos… Essas são coisas que podemos aprender com os animais.
Seu livro “A Era da Empatia” me deixou a impressão de que o senhor tem o desejo de empoderar o lado bonobo que temos dentro de nós humanos. Estou certo?
Empatia é uma característica muito antiga dos mamíferos. Muitos mamíferos têm empatia, seu cachorro tem empatia. Os cientistas fizeram experiências: pediram para os adultos em uma família chorarem, para observar como os cachorros e as crianças reagem. E ambos reagem procurando se aproximar da pessoa que está chorando para consolá-la e dar conforto. Essa é uma atitude de empatia que podemos observar em todos os mamíferos. Nós humanos temos uma enorme capacidade de exercer a empatia, mas às vezes nos esquecemos disso. Especialmente, com estranhos, com gente de fora de nosso círculo, nós às vezes não revelamos esse tipo de empatia.
Falando da cena que serve de título a seu livro, o abraço final da chimpanzé Mama e do cientista que ela conheceu a vida toda: ela sabia que estava morrendo, que iria morrer em duas semanas? Os chimpanzés enfrentam a morte?
Nesta cena, meu professor, Jan van Hooff, com oitenta anos, se aproximou da chimpanzé Mama, que estava com 59 anos e estava morrendo. Ele entrou em sua jaula; ela vivia em uma área grande, com um grande grupo de chimpanzés, mas dormia em uma jaula. Ele entrou na jaula, o que nós nunca, nunca fazemos porque os macacos são muito mais fortes do que nós. Mas ele fez isso, porque ela estava morrendo. E ela o cumprimentou com um abraço. Ele sabia que ela iria morrer, estava muito fraca, e nós a conhecíamos muito bem. E ela logo o acolheu, o abraçou. O professor Van Hooff entrou lá sabendo que ela estava morrendo, mas não sabemos se ela sabia que ia morrer. Nós não sabemos se os animais têm um senso de mortalidade. Ela evidentemente sabia que estava fraca, mas não podemos afirmar que ela tinha consciência da morte. O encontro era uma oportunidade do professor se despedir dela, não sabemos se ela via aquele momento do mesmo jeito. O motivo de eu trazer esse encontro para o título do livro foi porque aquele momento, além de deixar as pessoas muito emocionadas, nos deixa muito surpresos: como os gestos são parecidos com gestos humanos, como suas expressões são parecidas com humanas. E essa reação das pessoas me surpreendeu. Nós estamos dizendo há cerca de 50 anos que os bonobos e chimpanzés são muito próximos dos seres humanos; então por que as pessoas ainda se surpreendem com suas emoções e suas expressões que parece humanas? Então por isso decidi tomar essa cena para explicar que todas as expressões faciais que nós humanos temos bem como todas as emoções que temos podem ser encontradas em nossos parentes próximos, os primatas.
Em seu livro você narra a história de uma mãe chimpanzé cujo filhote morre e ela segue carregando seu corpo por um longo período. Ela achava que ele estava vivo ou fingia que ele estava vivo?
Isso acontece com frequência. Os laços entre mãe e filho são muito fortes. Então, quando a criança morre, as mães não os abandonam. Isso é verdade com humanos, com orcas e golfinhos, ocorre com os primatas. As mães carregam os corpos de seus bebês mortos com elas. Eu penso que para elas é uma forma de manter o contato com eles. Eu acho que sim, elas sabem que seus filhos morreram, elas sabem que ele está morto, mesmo assim querem mantê-los juntos. Creio que isso é se deve à força dos laços fortíssimos entre eles e essa é uma forma de tornar gradual o processo de separação.
Podemos dizer que humanos demonstram isso com fotos e outros objetos?
Entre humanos, nós esperamos que a mãe, quando o filho morre, se separe do corpo. Mas muitas mães têm a tendência de segurá-lo e provavelmente elas manifestam isso mantendo as memórias vivas. Nunca é uma separação completa. Quando perdemos uma pessoa, nunca nos separamos completamente dela.
O senhor tem um livro inédito no Brasil cujo título é uma pergunta: “Somos Inteligentes o Suficiente para Entender Como os Animais são Inteligentes” (Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are, 2016)? Qual é sua resposta: somos?
Há um longo tempo nas pesquisas em inteligência animal durante a qual nós, humanos, apresentamos desafios muito simples para os animais. Tipo: colocamos um rato em uma caixa e o rato tem que apertar várias vezes uma alavanca para receber recompensas por isso e essa é a forma como testamos sua inteligência. Mas o rato é um animal muito mais inteligente do que isso, ele pode fazer muito mais coisas do que apertar uma alavanca. Então, nós não temos sido muito inteligentes no jeito de testar a inteligência animal. Especialmente com os macacos, os elefantes, os golfinhos, esses animais muito inteligentes, nós não devemos submetê-los a testes simples, devemos fazer testes apropriados para suas capacidades. Algumas vezes é muito difícil; por exemplo, a capacidade do olfato de um elefante é cem vezes maior do que a de um cachorro, que é cem vezes melhor do que nós somos. Então, temos que fazer testes que desafiem o olfato do elefante, mas isso é muito difícil criarmos, porque somos uma espécie muito visual. É complicado para os humanos trabalharem no mesmo nível das capacidades desses animais.
O sermos visuais e verbais reduz as outras dimensões de nossa inteligência?
Sim. Por exemplo, o senso de localização dos morcegos, que permite que eles voem no escuro e capturem insetos, é uma capacidade muito complexa, mas nós humanos não somos muito interessados nisso. Nós somos interessados no uso de ferramentas, em linguagens, porque somos muito bons nisso. As coisas que os morcegos fazem não nos interessam muito, porque não temos essas capacidades. Nós humanos somos muito antropocêntricos, temos viés humanos, admiramos como somos inteligentes. Então, pesquisamos o uso de ferramentas e as linguagens dos outros animais, porque somos bons nisso.
O senso comum criado pela influência das religiões diz que a linguagem é um monopólio do homem, um dom concedido unicamente ao homem. O senhor diria que nos próximos 25 anos poderemos ter surpresas nesse campo, quanto à capacidade de comunicação dos outros seres vivos?
Os animais nos têm surpreendido ao longo dos últimos 25 anos. Todos os tipos de domínios, todos os estudos têm demonstrado isso. E há animais que têm formas de comunicação muito complexas, mesmo que não sejam como a nossa linguagem, mas tipos diferentes. Por exemplo: golfinhos têm muitos sons, embaixo d’água, que nós humanos temos dificuldade de ouvir, mas com sensores temos condições de ouvir e gravar, que revelam uma comunicação complexa. E quem consegue entender o que está acontecendo ali? Por isso, eu creio que sim, vamos nos surpreender com as descobertas que faremos sobre a sofisticação da comunicação de outros animais, que pode não ser exatamente como a linguagem humana mas ser muito complexa. Então, eu não creio que sejamos os únicos animais com capacidade de comunicar coisas complicadas uns para os outros.
O senhor tem um vídeo muito popular no Youtube que mostra um macaco que se irrita por ter recebido uma recompensa pior que outro indivíduo ao realizar a mesma tarefa. Lutar por justiça é uma característica primata, antes de ser humana?
Nesse vídeo há dois macacos-prego, que é uma espécie que existe no Brasil, um recebe passas ao realizar a tarefa e o outro recebe pedaços de pepino cortado. Normalmente, se você dá pepinos aos dois macacos, eles vão achar ótimo. Mas se você dá passas a um e pepino para o outro, o que recebe o pepino vai ficar muito bravo. Nós chamamos isso de aversão pela desigualdade mas você pode chamar de senso de justiça. Eles são sensíveis quanto ao que recebem pelo que realizam, em comparação com o que outra pessoa recebe. Eu creio que isso é a raiz do senso de justiça na sociedade humana. Nós também ficamos irritados se alguém ganha um pagamento maior pelo mesmo trabalho.
O senhor já está trabalhando em um novo livro?
Sim, estou trabalhando em um livro sobre gênero, as diferenças entre os sexos. Em todos os primatas vemos diferenças, como nas sociedades humanas. Eu estou estudando isso.
Há outras espécies de primatas em que se pode encontrar mais de dois gêneros?
Sim, há sempre indivíduos em sociedades primatas que são diferentes dos outros. Por exemplo: fêmeas que agem mais como machos ou machos que agem mais como fêmeas; há também indivíduos que não se encaixam em nenhum desses estereótipos. Então, de fato, tipos de diferenças que observamos na sociedade humana aparecem também em outros animais.
Então podemos aprender também com os outros primatas sobre respeito aos transgêneros?
Eu também escrevi sobre homossexualidade entre os primatas. O mais interessante para mim é que eles toleram qualquer comportamento, sem qualquer problema. Eles não criam agitação em torno do assunto, não é uma questão importante. Se você tem um indivíduo em uma sociedade que não se comporta como outros machos do grupo, ninguém vai se perturbar por isso. Creio que nós humanos podemos aprender muito sobre tolerância com eles, sim.
Many actions that would be considered heinous to humans — cannibalism, eating offspring, torture and rape — have been observed in the animal kingdom. Most (but not all) eyebrow-raising behaviors among animals have an evolutionary underpinning.
By Tim Brinkhof, March 9, 2021 3:00 PM
“In sober truth,” wrote the British philosopher John Stuart Mill, “nearly all the things which men are hanged or imprisoned for doing to one another, are nature’s everyday performances.” While it is true that rape, torture and murder are more commonplace in the animal kingdom than they are in human civilization, our fellow creatures almost always seem to have some kind of evolutionary justification for their actions — one that we Homo sapiens lack.
Cats, for instance, are known to toy with small birds and rodents before finally killing them. Although it is easy to conclude that this makes the popular pet a born sadist, some zoologists have proposed that exhausting prey is the safest way of catching them. Similarly, it’s tempting to describe the way African lions and bottlenose dolphins –– large, social mammals –– commit infanticide (the killing of young offspring), as possibly psychopathic. Interestingly, experts suspect that these creatures are in fact doing themselves a favor; by killing offspring, adult males are making their female partners available to mate again.
These behaviors, which initially may seem symptomatic of some sinister psychological defect, turn out to be nothing more than different examples of the kind of selfishness that evolution is full of. Well played, Mother Nature.
But what if harming others is of no benefit to the assailant? In the human world, senseless destruction features on virtually every evening news program. In the animal world, where the laws of nature –– so we’ve been taught –– don’t allow for moral crises, it’s a different story. By all accounts, such undermining behavior shouldn’t be able to occur. Yet it does, and it’s as puzzling to biologists as the existence of somebody like Ted Bundy or Adolf Hitler has been to theodicists –– those who follow a philosophy of religion that ponders why God permits evil.
Cains and Abels
According to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, genes that increase an organism’s ability to survive are passed down, while those that don’t are not. Although Darwin remains an important reference point for how humans interpret the natural world, he is not infallible. During the 1960s, biologist W.D. Hamilton proposed that On the Origins of Species failed to account for the persistency of traits that didn’t directly benefit the animal in question.
The first of these two patterns –– altruism –– was amalgamated into Darwin’s theory of evolution when researchers uncovered its evolutionary benefits. One would think that creatures are hardwired to avoid self-sacrifice, but this is not the case. The common vampire bat shares its food with roostmates whose hunt ended in failure. Recently, Antarctic plunder fish have been found to guard the nests of others if they are left unprotected. In both of these cases, altruistic behavior is put on display when the indirect benefit to relatives of the animal in question outweighs the direct cost incurred by that animal.
In Search of Spite
The second animal behavior –– spite –– continues to be difficult to make sense of. For humans, its concept is a familiar yet elusive one, perhaps understood best through the Biblical story of Cain and Abel or the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Although a number of prominent evolutionary biologists –– from Frans de Waal to members of the West Group at the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology –– have made entire careers out of studying the overlap between animal and human behavior, even they warn against the stubborn tendency to anthropomorphize nonhuman subjects.
As Edward O. Wilson put it in his study, “The Insect Societies,” spite refers to any “behavior that gains nothing or may even diminish the fitness of the individual performing the act, but is definitely harmful to the fitness of another.” Wilson’s definition, which is generally accepted by biologists, allows researchers to study its occurrence in an objective, non-anthropomorphized manner. It initially drew academic attention to species of fish and birds that destroyed the eggs (hatched or unhatched) of rival nests, all at no apparent benefit to them.
Emphasis on “apparent,” though, because –– as those lions and dolphins demonstrated earlier –– certain actions and consequences aren’t always what we think they are. In their research, biologists Andy Gardner and Stuart West maintain that many of the animal behaviors which were once thought spiteful are now understood as selfish. Not in the direct sense of the word (approaching another nest often leads to brutal clashes with its guardian), but an indirect one: With fewer generational competitors, the murderer’s own offspring are more likely to thrive.
For a specific action to be considered true spite, a few more conditions have to be met. The cost incurred by the party acting out the behavior must be “smaller than the product of the negative benefit to the recipient and negative relatedness of the recipient to the actor,” Gardner and West wrote in Current Biology. In other words, a creature can be considered spiteful if harming other creatures does them more bad than good. So far, true spite has only been observed rarely in the animal kingdom, and mostly occurs among smaller creatures.
The larvae of polyembryonic parasitoid wasps, which hatch from eggs that are laid on top of caterpillar eggs, occasionally develop into adults that are not just infertile but have a habit of eating other larvae. From an evolutionary perspective, developing into this infertile form is not a smart move for the wasp because it cannot pass on its genes to the next generation. Nor does it help the creature’s relatives survive, as they are then at risk of being eaten.
That doesn’t mean spite is relegated to the world of insects. It also pops up among monkeys, where it tends to manifest in more recognizable forms. In a 2016 study, Harvard University psychology researchers Kristin Leimgruber and Alexandra Rosati separated chimpanzees and capuchins from the rest of the group during feeding time and gave them the option take away everyone’s food. While the chimps only ever denied food to those who violated their group’s social norms, the capuchins often acted simply out of spite. As Leimgruber explains: “Our study provides the first evidence of a non-human primate choosing to punish others simply because they have more. This sort of ‘if I can’t have it, no one can’ response is consistent with psychological spite, a behavior previously believed unique to humans.”
Beyond the Dark Tetrad
Of course, spite isn’t the only type of complex and curiously human behavior for which the principles of evolution have not produced an easily discoverable (or digestible) answer. Just as confounding are the four components of the Dark Tetrad — a model for categorizing malevolent behaviors, assembled by personality psychologist Delroy Paulhus. The framework’s traits include narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy and everyday sadism.
Traces of all four have been found inside the animal kingdom. The intertribal warfare among chimpanzees is, first and foremost, a means of controlling resources. At the same time, many appear to actively enjoy partaking in hyperviolent patrols. Elsewhere, primate researchers who have made advances in the assessment of great ape psychology suggest the existence of psychotic personality types. As for Machiavellianism, the willingness to hurt relatives in order to protect oneself has been observed in both rhesus macaques and Nile tilapia.
Although the reasons for certain types of animal behavior are still debated, the nature of these discussions tend to be markedly different from discourse around, say, the motivations of serial killers. And often, researchers have a solid understanding of the motivations and feelings of their own study subjects but not those outside of their purview. Regardless of whether the academic community is talking about humans or animals, however, the underlying conviction guiding the conversation — that every action, no matter how upsetting or implacable, must have a logical explanation — is one and the same.
Redação Galileu, 05 Fev 2021 – 16h19 Atualizado em 05 Fev 2021 – 16h19
Estudo indica que espécies de morcegos, que carregam diferentes tipos de coronavírus, mudaram de região ao longo dos anos em decorrência das alterações no clima
Desde o início da pandemia do novo coronavírus, há um ano, algumas questões permanecem sem resposta. Entre elas, de onde surgiu o Sars-CoV-2, causador da Covid-19. No fim de janeiro, o jornal Science of the Total Environment publicou um estudo que evidencia uma possível relação entre a pandemia e as mudanças climáticas.
De acordo com a pesquisa, as emissões globais de gases do efeito estufa no último século favoreceram o crescimento de um habitat para morcegos, tornando o sul da China uma região propícia para o surgimento e a propagação do vírus Sars-CoV-2.
A análise foi feita com base em um mapa da vegetação do mundo no século 20, utilizando dados relacionados a temperatura, precipitação e cobertura de nuvens. Os pesquisadores analisaram a distribuição de morcegos no início dos anos 1900 e, comparando com a distribuição atual, concluíram que diferentes espécies mudaram de região por causa das mudanças no clima do planeta.
“Entender como a distribuição das espécies de morcego pelo mundo mudou em função das mudanças climáticas pode ser um passo importante para reconstruir a origem do surto de Covid-19”, afirmou, em nota, Robert Beyer, pesquisador do Departamento de Zoologia da Universidade de Cambridge, no Reino Unido, e autor principal do estudo.
Foram observadas grandes alterações na vegetação da província chinesa de Yunnan, de Mianmar e do Laos. Os aumentos na temperatura, na incidência da luz solar e nas concentrações de dióxido de carbono presente na atmosfera fizeram com que o habitat, que antes era composto por arbustos tropicais, se transformasse em savana tropical e florestas temperadas.
As novas características criaram um ambiente favorável para que 40 espécies de morcegos migrassem para a província de Yunnan no último século, reunindo assim mais de 100 tipos de coronavírus na área em que os dados apontam como a origem do surto do Sars-CoV-2. Essa região também é habitat dos pangolins, que são considerados prováveis agentes intermediários na pandemia.
“Conforme as mudanças climáticas alteraram os habitats, espécies deixaram algumas áreas e foram para outras — levando os vírus com elas. Isso não apenas alterou as regiões onde os vírus estão presentes, mas provavelmente permitiu novas interações entre animais e vírus, fazendo com que vírus mais perigosos fossem transmitidos ou desenvolvidos”, explicou Beyer.
O estudo ainda identificou que as mudanças climáticas resultaram no aumento do número de espécies de morcegos em outras regiões, como na África Central, na América do Sul e na América Central. “A pandemia de Covid-19 causou grande prejuízo social e econômico. Os governos devem aproveitar a oportunidade para reduzir os riscos que doenças infecciosas apresentam à saúde e agir para mitigar as mudanças climáticas”, alertou o professor Andrea Manica, do Departamento de Zoologia da Universidade de Cambridge.
Os pesquisadores também ressaltam que é preciso limitar a expansão de áreas urbanas, fazendas e áreas de caça em habitats naturais para que seja reduzido o contato entre humanos e animais transmissores doenças.
Esta matéria faz parte da iniciativa #UmSóPlaneta, união de 19 marcas da Editora Globo, Edições Globo Condé Nast e CBN. Saiba mais em umsoplaneta.globo.com
If you care about the working poor, about racial justice, and about climate change, you have to stop eating animals.
By Jonathan Safran Foer – May 21, 2020
Is any panic more primitive than the one prompted by the thought of empty grocery store shelves? Is any relief more primitive than the one provided by comfort food?
Most everyone has been doing more cooking these days, more documenting of the cooking, and more thinking about food in general. The combination of meat shortages and President Trump’s decision to order slaughterhouses open despite the protestations of endangered workers has inspired many Americans to consider just how essential meat is.
Is it more essential than the lives of the working poor who labor to produce it? It seems so. An astonishing six out of 10 counties that the White House itself identified as coronavirus hot spots are home to the very slaughterhouses the president ordered open.
In Sioux Falls, S.D., the Smithfield pork plant, which produces some 5 percent of the country’s pork, is one of the largest hot spots in the nation. A Tyson plant in Perry, Iowa, had 730 cases of the coronavirus — nearly 60 percent of its employees. At another Tyson plant, in Waterloo, Iowa, there were 1,031 reported cases among about 2,800 workers.
Sick workers mean plant shutdowns, which has led to a backlog of animals. Some farmers are injecting pregnant sows to cause abortions. Others are forced to euthanize their animals, often by gassing or shooting them. It’s gotten bad enough that Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, has asked the Trump administration to provide mental health resources to hog farmers.
Despite this grisly reality — and the widely reported effects of the factory-farm industry on America’s lands, communities, animals and human health long before this pandemic hit — only around half of Americans say they are trying to reduce their meat consumption. Meat is embedded in our culture and personal histories in ways that matter too much, from the Thanksgiving turkey to the ballpark hot dog. Meat comes with uniquely wonderful smells and tastes, with satisfactions that can almost feel like home itself. And what, if not the feeling of home, is essential?
And yet, an increasing number of people sense the inevitability of impending change.
Animal agriculture is now recognized as a leading cause of global warming. According to The Economist, a quarter of Americans between the ages of 25 and 34 say they are vegetarians or vegans, which is perhaps one reason sales of plant-based “meats” have skyrocketed, with Impossible and Beyond Burgers available everywhere from Whole Foods to White Castle.
Our hand has been reaching for the doorknob for the last few years. Covid-19 has kicked open the door.
At the very least it has forced us to look. When it comes to a subject as inconvenient as meat, it is tempting to pretend unambiguous science is advocacy, to find solace in exceptions that could never be scaled and to speak about our world as if it were theoretical.
Some of the most thoughtful people I know find ways not to give the problems of animal agriculture any thought, just as I find ways to avoid thinking about climate change and income inequality, not to mention the paradoxes in my own eating life. One of the unexpected side effects of these months of sheltering in place is that it’s hard not to think about the things that are essential to who we are.
We cannot protect our environment while continuing to eat meat regularly. This is not a refutable perspective, but a banal truism. Whether they become Whoppers or boutique grass-fed steaks, cows produce an enormous amount of greenhouse gas. If cows were a country, they would be the third-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world.
According to the research director of Project Drawdown — a nonprofit organization dedicated to modeling solutions to address climate change — eating a plant-based diet is “the most important contribution every individual can make to reversing global warming.”
Americans overwhelmingly accept the science of climate change. A majority of both Republicans and Democrats say that the United States should have remained in the Paris climate accord. We don’t need new information, and we don’t need new values. We only need to walk through the open door.
We cannot claim to care about the humane treatment of animals while continuing to eat meat regularly. The farming system we rely on is woven through with misery. Modern chickens have been so genetically modified that their very bodies have become prisons of pain even if we open their cages. Turkeys are bred to be so obese that they are incapable of reproducing without artificial insemination. Mother cows have their calves ripped from them before weaning, resulting in acute distress we can hear in their wails and empirically measure through the cortisol in their bodies.
No label or certification can avoid these kinds of cruelty. We don’t need any animal rights activist waving a finger at us. We don’t need to be convinced of anything we don’t already know. We need to listen to ourselves.
We cannot protect against pandemics while continuing to eat meat regularly. Much attention has been paid to wet markets, but factory farms, specifically poultry farms, are a more important breeding ground for pandemics. Further, the C.D.C. reports that three out of four new or emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic — the result of our broken relationship with animals.
It goes without saying that we want to be safe. We know how to make ourselves safer. But wanting and knowing are not enough.
These are not my or anyone’s opinions, despite a tendency to publish this information in opinion sections. And the answers to the most common responses raised by any serious questioning of animal agriculture aren’t opinions.
Don’t we need animal protein? No.
We can live longer, healthier lives without it. Most American adults eat roughly twice the recommended intake of protein — including vegetarians, who consume 70 percent more than they need. People who eat diets high in animal protein are more likely to die of heart disease, diabetes and kidney failure. Of course, meat, like cake, can be part of a healthy diet. But no sound nutritionist would recommend eating cake too often.
If we let the factory-farm system collapse, won’t farmers suffer? No.
The corporations that speak in their name while exploiting them will. There are fewer American farmers today than there were during the Civil War, despite America’s population being nearly 11 times greater. This is not an accident, but a business model. The ultimate dream of the animal-agriculture industrial complex is for “farms” to be fully automated. Transitioning toward plant-based foods and sustainable farming practices would create many more jobs than it would end.
Don’t take my word for it. Ask a farmer if he or she would be happy to see the end of factory farming.
Isn’t a movement away from meat elitist? No.
A 2015 study found that a vegetarian diet is $750 a year cheaper than a meat-based diet. People of color disproportionately self-identify as vegetarian and disproportionately are victims of factory farming’s brutality. The slaughterhouse employees currently being put at risk to satisfy our taste for meat are overwhelmingly brown and black. Suggesting that a cheaper, healthier, less exploitative way of farming is elitist is in fact a piece of industry propaganda.
Can’t we work with factory-farming corporations to improve the food system? No.
Well, unless you believe that those made powerful through exploitation will voluntarily destroy the vehicles that have granted them spectacular wealth. Factory farming is to actual farming what criminal monopolies are to entrepreneurship. If for a single year the government removed its $38-billion-plus in props and bailouts, and required meat and dairy corporations to play by normal capitalist rules, it would destroy them forever. The industry could not survive in the free market.
Perhaps more than any other food, meat inspires both comfort and discomfort. That can make it difficult to act on what we know and want. Can we really displace meat from the center of our plates? This is the question that brings us to the threshold of the impossible. On the other side is the inevitable.
With the horror of pandemic pressing from behind, and the new questioning of what is essential, we can now see the door that was always there. As in a dream where our homes have rooms unknown to our waking selves, we can sense there is a better way of eating, a life closer to our values. On the other side is not something new, but something that calls from the past — a world in which farmers were not myths, tortured bodies were not food and the planet was not the bill at the end of the meal.
One meal in front of the other, it’s time to cross the threshold. On the other side is home.
Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of “Eating Animals” and “We Are the Weather.”
Arctic people have been communicating with cetaceans for centuries—and scientists are finally taking note.
Harry Brower Sr. was lying in a hospital bed in Anchorage, Alaska, close to death, when he was visited by a baby whale.
Although Brower’s body remained in Anchorage, the young bowhead took him more than 1,000 kilometers north to Barrow (now Utqiaġvik), where Brower’s family lived. They traveled together through the town and past the indistinct edge where the tundra gives way to the Arctic Ocean. There, in the ice-blue underwater world, Brower saw Iñupiat hunters in a sealskin boat closing in on the calf’s mother.
Brower felt the shuddering harpoon enter the whale’s body. He looked at the faces of the men in the umiak, including those of his own sons. When he awoke in his hospital bed as if from a trance, he knew precisely which man had made the kill, how the whale had died, and whose ice cellar the meat was stored in. He turned out to be right on all three counts.
Brower lived six years after the episode, dying in 1992 at the age of 67. In his final years, he discussed what he had witnessed with Christian ministers and Utqiaġvik’s whaling captains. The conversations ultimately led him to hand down new rules to govern hunting female whales with offspring, meant to communicate respect to whales and signal that people were aware of their feelings and needs. “[The whale] talked to me,” Brower recalls in a collection of his stories, The Whales, They Give Themselves. “He told me all the stories about where they had all this trouble out there on the ice.”
Not long ago, non-Indigenous scientists might have dismissed Brower’s experience as a dream or the inchoate ramblings of a sick man. But he and other Iñupiat are part of a deep history of Arctic and subarctic peoples who believe humans and whales can talk and share a reciprocal relationship that goes far beyond that of predator and prey. Today, as Western scientists try to better understand Indigenous peoples’ relationships with animals—as well as animals’ own capacity for thoughts and feelings—such beliefs are gaining wider recognition, giving archaeologists a better understanding of ancient northern cultures.
“If you start looking at the relationship between humans and animals from the perspective that Indigenous people themselves may have had, it reveals a rich new universe,” says Matthew Betts, an archaeologist with the Canadian Museum of History who studies Paleo-Eskimo cultures in the Canadian Arctic. “What a beautiful way to view the world.”
It’s not clear exactly when people developed the technology that allowed them to begin hunting whales, but scholars generally believe Arctic whaling developed off the coast of Alaska sometime between 600 and 800 CE. For thousands of years before then, Arctic people survived by hunting seals, caribou, and walruses at the edge of the sea ice.
One such group, the Dorset—known in Inuit oral tradition as the Tunit—were rumored to have been so strong the men could outrun caribou and drag a 1,700-kilogram walrus across the ice. The women were said to have fermented raw seal meat against the warmth of their skin, leaving it in their pants for days at a time. But despite their legendary survival skills, the Tunit died out 1,000 years ago.
An Inuit hunter sits on a whale that’s been hauled to shore for butchering in Point Hope, Alaska, in 1900. Photo by Hulton Deutsch/Getty Images
One theory for their mysterious disappearance is that they were outcompeted by people who had begun to move east into the Canadian Arctic—migrants from Alaska who brought sealskin boats allowing them to push off from shore and hunt whales. Each spring, bowhead whales weighing up to 54,000 kilograms pass through the leads of water that open into the sea ice, and with skill and luck, the ancestors of today’s Inuit and Iñupiat people could spear a cetacean as it surfaced to breathe.
The advent of whaling changed the North. For the first time, hunters could bring in enough meat to feed an entire village. Permanent settlements began springing up in places like Utqiaġvik that were reliably visited by bowheads—places still inhabited today. Social organizations shifted as successful whale hunters amassed wealth, became captains, and positioned themselves at the top of a developing social hierarchy. Before long, the whale hunt became the center of cultural, spiritual, and day-to-day life, and whales the cornerstone of many Arctic and subarctic cosmologies.
When agricultural Europeans began visiting and writing about the North in the 10th century, they were mesmerized by Aboriginal peoples’ relationships with whales. Medieval literature depicted the Arctic as a land of malevolent “monstrous fishes” and people who could summon them to shore through magical powers and mumbled spells. Even as explorers and missionaries brought back straightforward accounts of how individual whaling cultures went about hunting, butchering, and sharing a whale, it was hard to shake the sense of mysticism. In 1938, American anthropologist Margaret Lantis analyzed these scattered ethnographic accounts and concluded that Iñupiat, Inuit, and other northern peoples belonged to a circumpolar “whale cult.”
Lantis found evidence of this in widespread taboos and rituals meant to cement the relationship between people and whales. In many places, a recently killed whale was given a drink of fresh water, a meal, and even traveling bags to ensure a safe journey back to its spiritual home. Individual whalers had their own songs to call the whales to them. Sometimes shamans performed religious ceremonies inside circles made of whale bones. Stashes of whaling amulets—an ambiguous word used to describe everything from carved, jewelry-like charms to feathers or skulls—were passed from father to son in whaling families.
To non-Indigenous observers, it was all so mysterious. So unknowable. And for archaeologists and biologists especially, it was at odds with Western scientific values, which prohibited anything that smacked of anthropomorphism.
A whaler waits for the bowhead whales from shore in Utqiaġvik, Alaska, during whaling season in the Chukchi Sea. Photo by Steven J. Kazlowski/Alamy Stock Photo
In archaeology, such attitudes have limited our understanding of Arctic prehistory, says Erica Hill, a zooarchaeologist with the University of Alaska Southeast. Whaling amulets and bone circles were written off as ritualistic or supernatural with little exploration of what they actually meant to the people who created them. Instead, archaeologists who studied animal artifacts often focused on the tangible information they revealed about what ancient people ate, how many calories they consumed, and how they survived.
Hill is part of a burgeoning branch of archaeology that uses ethnographic accounts and oral histories to re-examine animal artifacts with fresh eyes—and interpret the past in new, non-Western ways. “I’m interested in this as part of our prehistory as humans,” Hill says, “but also in what it tells us about alternative ways of being.”
The idea that Indigenous people have spiritual relationships with animals is so well established in popular culture it’s cliché. Yet constricted by Western science and culture, few archaeologists have examined the record of human history with the perspective that animals feel emotions and can express those emotions to humans.
Hill’s interest in doing so was piqued in 2007, when she was excavating in Chukotka, Russia, just across the Bering Strait from Alaska. The site was estimated to be 1,000 to 2,000 years old, predating the dawn of whaling in the region, and was situated at the top of a large hill. As her team dug through the tundra, they uncovered six or seven intact walrus skulls deliberately arranged in a circle.
Like many archaeologists, Hill had been taught that ancient humans in harsh northern climates conserved calories and rarely expended energy doing things with no direct physical benefit. That people were hauling walrus skulls to a hilltop where there were plenty of similar-sized rocks for building seemed strange. “If you’ve ever picked up a walrus skull, they’re really, really heavy,” Hill says. So she started wondering: did the skulls serve a purpose that wasn’t strictly practical that justified the effort of carrying them uphill?
When Hill returned home, she began looking for other cases of “people doing funky stuff” with animal remains. There was no shortage of examples: shrines packed with sheep skulls, ceremonial burials of wolves and dogs, walrus-skull rings on both sides of the Bering Strait. To Hill, though, some of the most compelling artifacts came from whaling cultures.
Museum collections across North America, for instance, include a dazzling array of objects categorized as whaling amulets. From this grab bag, Hill identified 20 carved wooden objects. Many served as the seats of whaling boats. In the Iñupiaq language, they’re called either iktuġat or aqutim aksivautana, depending on dialect.
One in particular stands out. Hill was looking for Alaskan artifacts in a massive climate-controlled warehouse belonging to Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. The artifacts were housed in hundreds of floor-to-ceiling drawers, row after row of them, with little indication of what was inside. She pulled open one drawer and there it was—the perfect likeness of a bowhead whale staring back at her.
The object, likely from the late 19th century, probably functioned as a crosspiece. It was hewn from a hunk of driftwood into a crescent shape 21 centimeters long. Carved on one side was a bowhead, looking as it would look if you were gazing down on a whale from above, perhaps from a raven’s-eye perspective. A precious bead of obsidian was embedded in the blowhole. “It’s so elegant and simple but so completely whale,” Hill says. “It’s this perfect balance of minimalism and form.”
Sometime in the late 19th century, an Iñupiaq carver fashioned this amulet for an umiak out of driftwood, carving the likeness of a bowhead whale, its blowhole symbolized with a piece of obsidian. As with other whaling amulets Erica Hill has examined, this object may have also functioned as part of the boat’s structure. Photo by Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institute (Cat. A347918)
Using Iñupiat oral histories and ethnographies recorded in the 19th and 20th centuries, Hill now knows that such amulets were meant to be placed in a boat with the likeness of the whale facing down, toward the ocean. The meticulously rendered art was thus meant not for humans, but for whales—to flatter them, Hill says, and call them to the hunters. “The idea is that the whale will be attracted to its own likeness, so obviously you want to depict the whale in the most positive way possible,” she explains.
Yupik stories from St. Lawrence Island tell of whales who might spend an hour swimming directly under an umiak, positioning themselves so they could check out the carvings and the men occupying the boat. If the umiak was clean, the carvings beautiful, and the men respectful, the whale might reposition itself to be harpooned. If the art portrayed the whale in an unflattering light or the boat was dirty, it indicated that the hunters were lazy and wouldn’t treat the whale’s body properly. Then the whale might swim away.
In “Sounding a Sea-Change: Acoustic Ecology and Arctic Ocean Governance” published in Thinking with Water, Shirley Roburn quotes Point Hope, Alaska, resident Kirk Oviok: “Like my aunt said, the whales have ears and are more like people,” he says. “The first batch of whales seen would show up to check which ones in the whaling crew would be more hospitable. … Then the whales would come back to their pack and tell them about the situation.”
The belief that whales have agency and can communicate their needs to people isn’t unique to the Arctic. Farther south, on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula and British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth whalers observed eight months of rituals meant to communicate respect in the mysterious language of whales. They bathed in special pools, prayed, spoke quietly, and avoided startling movements that might offend whales. Right before the hunt, the whalers sang a song asking the whale to give itself.
In Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth belief, as in many Arctic cultures, whales weren’t just taken—they willingly gave themselves to human communities. A whale that offered its body wasn’t sentencing itself to death. It was choosing to be killed by hunters who had demonstrated, through good behavior and careful adherence to rituals, that they would treat its remains in a way that would allow it to be reborn. Yupik tradition, for example, holds that beluga whales once lived on land and long to return to terra firma. In exchange for offering itself to a Yupik community, a beluga expected to have its bones given the ritualistic treatment that would allow it to complete this transition and return to land, perhaps as one of the wolves that would gnaw on the whale’s bones.
According to Hill, many of the objects aiding this reciprocity—vessels used to offer whales a drink of fresh water, amulets that hunters used to negotiate relationships with animal spirits—weren’t just reserved for shamanistic ceremonies. They were part of everyday life; the physical manifestation of an ongoing, daily dialogue between the human and animal worlds.
While Westerners domesticated and eventually industrialized the animals we eat—and thus came to view them as dumb and inferior—Arctic cultures saw whale hunting as a match between equals. Bipedal humans with rudimentary technology faced off against animals as much as 1,000 times their size that were emotional, thoughtful, and influenced by the same social expectations that governed human communities. In fact, whales were thought to live in an underwater society paralleling that above the sea.
It’s difficult to assess populations of animals that swim under the ice, far from view, like bowhead whales. But experienced Iñupiat whalers are good at it. Photo by Steven Kazlowski/Minden Pictures
Throughout history, similar beliefs have guided other human-animal relationships, especially in hunter-gatherer cultures that shared their environment with big, potentially dangerous animals. Carvings left behind by the Tunit, for example, suggest a belief that polar bears possessed a kind of personhood allowing them to communicate with humans; while some Inuit believed walruses could listen to humans talking about them and react accordingly.
Whether or not those beliefs are demonstrably true, says Hill, they “make room for animal intelligence and feelings and agency in ways that our traditional scientific thinking has not.”
Today, as archaeologists like Hill and Matthew Betts shift their interpretation of the past to better reflect Indigenous worldviews, biologists too are shedding new light on whale behavior and biology that seems to confirm the traits Indigenous people have attributed to whales for more than 1,000 years. Among them is Hal Whitehead, a professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia who argues that cetaceans have their own culture—a word typically reserved for human societies.
By this definition, culture is social learning that’s passed down from one generation to the next. Whitehead finds evidence for his theory in numerous recent studies, including one that shows bowhead whales in the North Pacific, off the Alaskan coast, and in the Atlantic Ocean near Greenland sing different songs, the way human groups might have different styles of music or linguistic dialects. Similarly, pods of resident killer whales living in the waters off south Vancouver Island greet each other with different behaviors than killer whales living off north Vancouver Island, despite the fact that the groups are genetically almost identical and have overlapping territories.
Plus, calves spend years with their mothers, developing the strong mother-offspring bonds that serve to transfer cultural information, and bowhead whales live long enough to accumulate the kind of environmental knowledge that would be beneficial to pass on to younger generations. We know this largely because of a harpoon tip that was found embedded in a bowhead in northern Alaska in 2007. This particular harpoon was only manufactured between 1879 and 1885 and wasn’t used for long after, meaning that the whale had sustained its injury at least 117 years before it finally died.
Other beliefs, too, are proving less farfetched than they once sounded. For years, scientists believed whales couldn’t smell, despite the fact that Iñupiat hunters claimed the smell of woodsmoke would drive a whale away from their camp. Eventually, a Dutch scientist dissecting whale skulls proved the animals did, indeed, have the capacity to smell. Even the Yupik belief that beluga whales were once land-dwelling creatures is rooted in reality: some 50 million years ago, the ancestor of modern-day whales walked on land. As if recalling this, whale fetuses briefly develop legs before losing them again.
None of this suggests that whales freely give themselves to humans. But once you understand the biological and intellectual capabilities of whales—as whaling cultures surely did—it’s less of a leap to conclude that cetaceans live in their own underwater society, and can communicate their needs and wishes to humans willing to listen.
With the dawn of the 20th century and the encroachment of Euro-Americans into the North, Indigenous whaling changed drastically. Whaling in the Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth Nations essentially ended in the 1920s after commercial whalers hunted the gray whale to near extinction. In Chukotka, Russian authorities in the 1950s replaced community-based whaling with state-run whaling.
Even the whaling strongholds of Alaska’s Iñupiat villages weren’t immune. In the 1970s, the International Whaling Commission ordered a halt to subsistence bowhead whaling because US government scientists feared there were just 1,300 of the animals left. Harry Brower Sr. and other whaling captains who’d amassed lifetimes of knowledge knew that figure was wrong.
But unlike other whaling cultures, Iñupiat whalers had the means to fight back, thanks to taxes they had collected from a nearby oil boom. With the money, communities hired Western-trained scientists to corroborate traditional knowledge. The scientists developed a new methodology that used hydrophones to count bowhead whales beneath the ice, rather than extrapolating the population based on a count of the visible bowheads passing by a single, ice-free locale. Their findings proved bowheads were far more numerous than the government had previously thought, and subsistence whaling was allowed to continue.
Elsewhere, too, whaling traditions have slowly come back to life. In 1999, the Makah harvested their first whale in over 70 years. The Chukchi were allowed to hunt again in the 1990s.
Yet few modern men knew whales as intimately as Brower. Although he eschewed some traditions—he said he never wanted his own whaling song to call a harpooned whale to the umiak, for example—Brower had other ways of communicating with whales. He believed that whales listened, and that if a whaler was selfish or disrespectful, whales would avoid him. He believed that the natural world was alive with animals’ spirits, and that the inexplicable connection he’d felt with whales could only be explained by the presence of such spirits.
And he believed that in 1986, a baby whale visited him in an Anchorage hospital to show him how future generations could maintain the centuries-long relationship between humans and whales. Before he died, he told his biographer Karen Brewster that although he believed in a Christian heaven, he personally thought he would go elsewhere. “I’m going to go join the whales,” he said. “That’s the best place, I think. … You could feed all the people for the last time.”
Perhaps Brower did become a whale and feed his people one last time. Or perhaps, through his deep understanding of whale biology and behavior, he passed down the knowledge that enabled his people to feed themselves for generations to come. Today, the spring whaling deadline he proposed based on his conversation with the baby whale is still largely observed, and bowhead whales continue to sustain Iñupiat communities, both physically and culturally.
Correction: This article has been updated to clarify the original purpose of the whaling amulet that caught Erica Hill’s attention in the Smithsonian warehouse.
9 abril 2018
GEZA TELEKI. A eleição de um macaco do norte do Parque Nacional de Gombe como macho alfa causou tensão na comunidade de chimpanzés e, principalmente, com dois rivais, Charlie e Hugh
A única guerra civil documentada entre chimpanzés selvagens começou com um assassinato brutal.
Era janeiro de 1974, e um chimpanzé chamado Godi fazia sua refeição, sozinho, nos galhos de uma árvore no Parque Nacional de Gombe, na Tanzânia.
Mas Godi não reparou que, enquanto comia, oito macacos o rodearam. “Ele pulou da árvore e correu, mas eles o agarraram”, disse o primatologista britânico Richard Wrangham ao documentário da BBC The Demonic Ape (O Macaco Demoníaco, em tradução livre).”Um deles conseguiu agarrar um de seus pés, outro lhe prendeu pela mão. Ele foi imobilizado e surrado. O ataque durou mais de cinco minutos e, quando o deixaram, ele mal conseguia se mover.
“Godi nunca mais foi visto.
O episódio é conhecido como o início do que a famosa primatologista britânica Jane Goodall chamou de “A Guerra dos 4 Anos”, o conflito que dividiu uma comunidade de chimpanzés em Gombe e desatou uma onda de assassinatos e violência que, desde então, nunca mais foi registrada.
Macacos e humanos
Feldblum está há 25 anos arquivando e digitalizando as anotações que Goodall fez durante seus mais de 55 anos vivendo no Parque Nacional de Gombe.
A primatologista, que na última terça-feira completou 84 anos, mudou tudo o que acreditávamos saber sobre os chimpanzés (e sobre os seres humanos) ao descobrir que esses macacos fabricavam e usavam ferramentas, tinham uma linguagem primitiva e eram capazes de entender o que seus pares pensavam.
Mas Goodall também descobriu a crueldade que esses animais podiam demonstrar.
GETTY IMAGES. A primatologista Jane Goodall, que lidera uma fundação de pesquisa e conservação com seu nome, acompanhou toda a guerra dos chimpanzés nos anos 1970
Foram quatro anos documentando saques, surras e assassinatos entre as facções Kasakela e Kahama, que ficavam ao norte e ao sul do parque, respectivamente.
Nesse tempo, por exemplo, um terço das mortes de chimpanzés machos em Gombe foram perpetreadas pelos próprios animais.
A guerra, disse Goodall no documentário da BBC, “só fez com que os chimpanzés se parecessem ainda mais conosco do que se pensava”.
A violência foi tão excessiva e única que alguns investigadores sugeriram que ela foi provocada involuntariamente pela própria Goodall, que montou uma estação de observação no local onde os animais recebiam alimentos.
De acordo com essas teorias, “as duas comunidades de chimpanzés poderiam ter existido o tempo todo ou estavam se dissolvendo quando Goodall começou sua pesquisa, e a estação de alimentação os reuniu em uma trégua temporária até que eles se separaram novamente”, disse o comunicado da Universidade de Duke.
“Mas os novos resultados de uma equipe de Duke e da Universidade Estadual do Arizona sugerem que alguma coisa a mais estava acontecendo.”
Amigos e inimigos
No novo estudo, os pesquisadores analisaram as mudanças nas alianças entre 19 chimpanzés machos durante os sete anos anteriores à guerra.
Para isso, elaboraram mapas detalhados das redes sociais dos primatas, nas quais os machos eram considerados amigos se fossem vistos chegando juntos à estação de alimentação com maior frequência.
“Sua análise sugere que, durante os primeiros anos, entre 1967 e 1970, os machos do grupo original estavam misturados”, disse Duke.
Foi aí que a comunidade começou a se dividir: enquanto alguns passavam mais tempo no norte, outros estavam a maior parte do tempo no sul.
Em 1972, a socialização entre os machos já ocorria exclusivamente dentro das facções Kasakela ou Kahama.
Ao se encontrarem, eles começavam a atirar galhos uns nos outros, a gritar ou fazer outras demonstrações de força.
“Escutávamos gritos do sul e dizíamos: ‘Os machos do sul estão vindo!'”, relembra Anne Pusey, professora de antropologia evolutiva da Universidade de Duke que esteve em Gombe com Goodall e é coautora do estudo atual.
“Nessa hora, todos os machos do norte subiam nas árvores e ouvíamos muitos gritos e demonstrações de poder.”
A partir do momento que ocorreu a divisão entre os grupos, os pesquisadores acreditam que o conflito surgiu por causa de “uma luta pelo poder entre três machos de alta categoria”: Humphrey, um macho alfa recém-coroado pelo grupo do norte, e seus rivais do sul, Charlie e Hugh.
“Humphrey era grande e se sabia que ele atirava pedras, o que era assustador. Ele conseguia intimidar Charlie e Hugh separadamente, mas, quando estavam juntos, ele se mantinha fora do caminho”, diz Pussey no comunicado da universidade.
Durante quatro anos, o grupo de Humphrey destruiu o grupo do sul, e diversos machos “rebeldes” morreram ou desapareceram. O maior dos grupos invadia sistemativamente o território alheio e, se encontrasse um chimpanzé rival, o atacava cruelmente e o deixava morrer em decorrência dos ferimentos.
De acordo com a pesquisa, a disponibilidade de fêmeas foi mais baixa do que o normal nesse período, o que provavelmente exacerbou a luta pelo domínio do território.
A violência, por sua vez, não se limitou a esses três machos rivais, mas afetou toda a rede de vínculos sociais dos primatas, sem distinguir idade nem sexo.
Os pesquisadores reconhecem que a falta de outros eventos semelhantes na natureza torna mais difícil comparar os novos resultados, mas o trabalho pode trazer certa paz a Goodall.
“A situação foi terrível”, disse a britânica, reconhecendo que sua estação de observação de fato pode ter “aumentado a violência” entre os primatas.
“Acho que a parte mais triste foi ter observado a sequência de eventos em que uma comunidade maior aniquilou por completo a menor e tomou seu território.”
Abridge in cultures has occurred. A cognitive chasm between intelligent creatures has been crossed. Of all the spectacular times for you to be alive, you happen to have been born in an age when killer whales started talking to the damn dirty apes who were willing to listen. Though this sounds like some sort of sci-fi dream/nightmare, I am here to assure you that this is real. Remain calm, but stay vigilant around all marine mammals at this time. We may be in for a rocky time, as you shall discover.
Let us begin by examining the facts. First, it’s true. As you may have heard by now, a captive killer whale called Wikie, housed at Marineland in Antibes, France, is uttering noises that mimic the human sounds “Hello” and “Bye-bye” as well as “One, two, three” plus, apparently, the haunting word “Amy” – the name of its trainer. Predictably, within hours of the release of the scientific paper, Wikie has become something of an online celebrity.
This week, after the news broke about Wikie’s great feat, a number of vocal animal welfare charities were calling for her release from captivity. This troubled me a little. Really? I thought. Is that really a good idea?
Killer whales (like all dolphins) are adept at horizontal learning, after all. They copy one another. They have sounds for objects, possibly names. They have dialects. They transmit behaviours. In other words, they have culture like we do. Might the once captive Wikie somehow spoil their untamed wildness with her newly learned human vernacular? What if this captive dolphin, somehow released into the wild with a human greeting (“Hello!”) should corrupt the wild dolphins it comes across? What then? I dread to think, but the idea is entertaining to consider so let us do just that.
Let us imagine pods of wild dolphins screaming “Goodbye” at boatloads of tourists that encroach on their hunting grounds each year. Imagine them saying “Bye-bye” to trawlers. Imagine them ruining countless nature documentaries by screaming “Hello” to BBC camera crews while filming.
And what if Wikie and her kind later develop sarcasm? Can you imagine, in an age where our oceans become bereft and depleted of nutrition, the words “So long and thanks for all the fish!”, delivered in a sarcastic tone? In a perverse sort of way, I suspect Douglas Adams would have laughed long and loud at this idea. And then wept.
Listen to killer whales mimicking human voices – audio
But there are positives to this possible cross-species dialogue, and perhaps it is this potential that we should focus on. Imagine a non-human animal that could speak up – in human words – against the degradation of a vast ecosystem like that of the oceans? In such a world, perhaps modern politics would find itself a new enemy in marine mammals like Wikie. One can imagine, for instance, in some alternative universe, a language-endowed Wikie being invited to speak at Davos or some other God-awful international event.
One can imagine the soundbites (“Amy?”); the 7.45am BBC Breakfast interview; the cosy press conferences with Wikie, wide-eyed in a giant blow-up birthing pool in front of the cameras, next to a shady foreign president secretly plotting her kind’s political downfall while sipping imported water from a non-recyclable plastic bottle. (While writing this it strikes me how, in moments like these, just how so many of us would side with these talkative killer whales). But alas, such imaginative scenarios are just that – imaginative.
You knew this bit was coming. It is time to burst the bubble about this female killer whale. Wikie has a kind of magic about her, but it is not yet a two-way conversation. She is a mimic, pure and simple and she is hungry for her fish rewards. In the same way as a 14-year-old can armpit-fart his way through Bach’s Fifth Symphony to achieve 1,000-plus views on YouTube, without ever truly knowing Bach, this killer whale has hit upon a neat trick for reward by exhaling in a measured way that sounds a little like human voice.
But that doesn’t make the science hogwash. Far from it. It’s a beginning. And all scientific journeys have a beginning. We’ll need wild, untainted, unspoiled populations to test ideas on. We need to get away from fish rewards. We need to move away from captive research. This is a start. It’s not the end. They may one day talk with us, but not like this.
And so, in my wildest dreams it won’t be a “bye-bye” or a “hello” that curries favour with an intelligent species such as the killer whale, but a word of more depth: a word like “friend” or “partner” or “respect”. And further down the line maybe we could manage something else. Dialogue. Truth. Meaning.
As of recent times, these are no longer uniquely human concepts when it comes to zoology. Welcome to the brave new world. You happen to be alive in it. But who else is listening? Increasingly, we shall get to decide. Bye-bye, or hello: you and I get to choose.
• Jules Howard is a zoologist and the author of Sex on Earth, and Death on Earth
Transmissão de práticas de uso de ferramentas por macacos-prego ajuda a repensar o papel das tradições na evolução
Com uma pedra erguida acima da cabeça, o jovem Porthos bate vigorosamente no chão arenoso de modo a abrir um buraco. Seu objetivo: uma aranha, que logo consegue desentocar e rola entre as mãos para tontear a presa que em seguida come. Ele é um macaco-prego da espécie Sapajus libidinosus, habitante do Parque Nacional Serra da Capivara, no Piauí, e objeto de estudo de pesquisadores do Instituto de Psicologia da Universidade de São Paulo (IP-USP). O biólogo Tiago Falótico tem caracterizado o uso de ferramentas por esses animais (ver Pesquisa FAPESP nº 196) e mostrou, em artigo publicado em julho na revista Scientific Reports, que a ação do jovem macho envolve conhecimento, aprendizado e transmissão de práticas culturais – ou tradições, como alguns preferem chamar quando os sujeitos não são humanos – dentro de grupos sociais. A pesquisa está no bojo de um corpo teórico que busca entrelaçar biologia, ciências sociais e humanas e recém-desembocou na formação da Sociedade de Evolução Cultural. Sua reunião inaugural acaba de acontecer na Alemanha, entre 13 e 15 de setembro.
Até agora, o uso de pedras como ferramentas para cavar só foi documentado nessa população. Especialmente quando se trata de desentocar aranhas, é preciso experiência. O estudo, resultado de observações feitas durante o doutorado de Falótico, encerrado em 2011 sob orientação do biólogo Eduardo Ottoni, mostra que quase 60% dos adultos e jovens (como Porthos) têm sucesso na tarefa. Macacos juvenis (o correspondente a crianças), por outro lado, só conseguem em pouco mais de 30% dos casos. Isso acontece porque é preciso reconhecer o revestimento de seda que fecha a toca do aracnídeo, sinal de que o habitante está lá dentro. “Os juvenis às vezes cavam uma toca que acabou de ser aberta por outro macaco”, conta Falótico. Estruturas subterrâneas, parecidas com batatas, da planta conhecida como farinha-seca (Thiloa glaucocarpa), também são desenterradas com mais eficiência pelos adultos. Já as raízes de louro (Ocotea), outro alimento desses primatas, apesar de envolverem o uso de pedras maiores, não parecem apresentar um desafio especial para os aprendizes. Macacos dos dois sexos se mostraram igualmente capazes de cavar com pedras, com uma taxa de sucesso equivalente, embora eles pareçam ter mais interesse pela atividade: entre as 1.702 situações observadas, 77% envolviam machos e apenas 23%, fêmeas.
“Esperávamos encontrar uma correlação entre o uso de ferramentas e a escassez de alimentos, mas não foi o que vimos”, conta Falótico. Se os macacos da serra da Capivara encontram algo comestível que exija o uso de ferramentas, recorrem a elas. Seu modo de vida, em que passam metade do tempo no chão rodeados de pedras e gravetos, parece ser propício ao desenvolvimento das habilidades. Mas não é só isso. Embora não haja diferença entre os sexos nos hábitos alimentares, as fêmeas nunca usam gravetos – que seus companheiros masculinos utilizam para desentocar lagartos de frestas e retirar insetos de troncos, por exemplo. Há diferença apenas, aparentemente, no interesse. “Quando um macho vê outro usar uma vareta, ele observa atento; já uma fêmea, mesmo que esteja ao lado daquele usando a ferramenta, não se interessa e olha para o outro lado!”
Os macacos da mesma espécie que habitam a fazenda Boa Vista, em Gilbués, cerca de 300 quilômetros (km) para sudoeste, têm tradições distintas no uso de ferramentas. Ali, uma área com mais influência de Cerrado do que Caatinga, as pedras são menos abundantes, mas necessárias (e usadas) para quebrar cocos. Gravetos estão por toda parte, mas não têm uso. Essa diferença cultural entre grupos de macacos foi explorada em um experimento feito pelo psicólogo Raphael Moura Cardoso durante o doutorado, orientado por Eduardo Ottoni, e relatado em artigo de 2016 na Biology Letters. Eles puseram – tanto na fazenda Boa Vista como na serra da Capivara – caixas de acrílico recheadas de melado de cana. O único jeito de retirar a guloseima era por meio de uma fenda no alto com largura suficiente apenas para varetas. “Na serra da Capivara, um macho logo acertou uma pedrada na caixa”, lembra Ottoni, que, previdente, tinha planejado o aparato “à prova de macaco-prego”. “Quando nada aconteceu, ele largou a pedra, coçou a cabeça e pegou um graveto.” Ele brinca que nem precisou editar o vídeo para mostrar em um congresso – foi uma ação contínua e imediata. Ao longo de cinco dias de exposição à caixa, 10 dos 14 machos usaram o graveto logo na primeira sessão, e apenas os três mais jovens não foram bem-sucedidos. Os demais conseguiram um sucesso de 90% na empreitada. As fêmeas não tentaram, assim como os macacos da fazenda Boa Vista. Lá, os pesquisadores até tentaram ajudar: depois de seis horas expostos à tarefa, os macacos deparavam com um graveto já fincado na fenda. Mesmo tirando e lambendo o melado da ponta, nenhum deles voltou a inserir a ferramenta na caixa ao longo de 13 dias de experimento. Uma surpresa foi que os macacos da Boa Vista, exímios quebradores de coco, não tentaram partir a caixa. “Eu esperava isso deles, não dos outros”, diz Ottoni.
Os resultados, surpreendentes, podem reforçar a importância da transmissão de tradições entre os macacos. A capa da edição de 25 de julho deste ano da revista PNAS traz justamente a foto de um macaco-prego da fazenda Boa Vista comendo uma castanha que conseguiu quebrar com a ajuda de uma grande pedra redonda, observado de perto por um jovem. A imagem anuncia a coletânea especial sobre como a cultura se conecta à biologia, da qual faz parte um artigo do grupo liderado pelas primatólogas Patrícia Izar, do IP-USP, Dorothy Fragaszy, da Universidade da Georgia, nos Estados Unidos, e Elisabetta Visalberghi, do Instituto de Ciências e Tecnologias Cognitivas, na Itália, sobre os macacos da fazenda Boa Vista, que estudam sistematicamente desde 2006. Nas observações recolhidas ao longo desse tempo, chama a atenção a tolerância dos adultos em relação aos jovens aprendizes que olham de perto e até comem pedaços dos cocos partidos. “Os adultos competem pelos recursos e os imaturos podem ficar perto”, conta Patrícia. As análises publicadas no artigo recente mostram muito mais do que proximidade: os quebradores de coco influenciam a atividade dos outros, sobretudo os jovens, que também começam a manipular pedras e cocos. Isso dura alguns minutos. “A tradição canaliza a atividade para o mesmo tipo de ação importante para essa tradição”, define.
Patrícia ressalta que os macacos nascem nesse contexto. “Muitas vezes vemos filhotes nas costas das mães enquanto elas quebram”, conta. Com esse aprendizado contínuo, acabam se tornando especialistas na tarefa. Mas não basta observar, e daí a importância de os filhotes serem atraídos pela ação dos adultos – principalmente os mais eficazes. “O sucesso passa pela percepção da tarefa e das propriedades da ferramenta”, detalha, descrevendo um complexo corpo-ferramenta em que é constantemente necessário ajustar força, gestos e postura. Quando quebram tucum, um coquinho menos resistente, os macacos ajustam a força das pancadas depois de ouvirem o som da superfície rachando, o grupo mostrou em artigo do ano passado na Animal Behaviour. Para cocos mais difíceis, eles escolhem pedras que podem chegar a ser mais pesadas do que o próprio corpo. E a seleção da pedra é criteriosa, conforme mostrou um experimento em que Patrícia e seu grupo forneceram pedras artificiais com diferentes tamanhos, pesos e densidades. As pedras grandes logo atraíam a atenção dos macacos, mas se fossem pouco densas – mais leves do que aparentavam – eram abandonadas. “Eles têm a percepção de que o peso é importante na quebra”, diz Patrícia.
Tolerância: macho adulto da fazenda Boa Vista come castanha partida observado de perto por jovem
Essas sociedades primatas alteram o ambiente. Macacos escolhem pedras ou troncos achatados como base para quebrar coco, e para lá carregam as raras pedras grandes e duras que encontram no ambiente. Essa conformação é importante não só por criar oficinas de quebra, mas por canalizar a possibilidade de aprendizado, já que todos sabem onde a atividade acontece e pode ser observada. “Não faz sentido pensar em maturação motora independente do contexto social, alimentar”, afirma a bióloga Briseida Resende, também do IP-USP e coautora do artigo da PNAS. O desenvolvimento individual depende das experiências de cada um, de suas capacidades físicas e do acervo acumulado pelo grupo, no qual uma inovação criada pode se disseminar, perpetuar-se e fazer parte da cultura mantida por gerações. Resende defende que indivíduo e sociedade são indissociáveis, embora historicamente tenham sido vistos como entidades distintas.
Reunir a evolução cultural e a biológica é justamente o foco da síntese estendida, agora sedimentada com a fundação, em 2016, da Sociedade de Evolução Cultural – o primeiro presidente é o zoólogo Peter Richerson, da Universidade da Califórnia em Davis, cujo grupo privilegia a estatística. Essa visão conjunta amplia o olhar evolutivo, já que a transmissão de ideias ou inovações não se dá apenas de pais para filhos e pode trazer vantagens seletivas favorecendo as capacidades cognitivas e sociais relevantes. Considera também que a cultura pode influenciar aspectos físicos, como a conformação e o tamanho do cérebro, ou o desenvolvimento de habilidades que por sua vez sedimentam o comportamento. Os genes e a cultura, duas vias de transmissão de informação, relacionam-se, portanto, por uma via de mão dupla.
Jovens aprendizes tentam tirar proveito de escavação feita por fêmea
A oportunidade de ver comportamentos surgirem e se espalhar é rara, e por isso abordagens experimentais que provocam inovações são um acréscimo importante aos comportamentos diversos dos macacos-prego do Piauí. Ferramentas estatísticas recentes podem ajudar a aprofundar essa compreensão, como a Análise de Difusão Baseada em Redes (Network-Based Diffusion Analysis) que o grupo de Ottoni começa a usar. “O programa monta uma rede social aleatória e compara à real”, explica o pesquisador, que torna as análises mais robustas inserindo características medidas nos sujeitos em causa. Em agosto de 2016 ele apresentou, no congresso da Sociedade Primatológica Internacional, em Chicago, resultados do experimento feito pela bióloga Camila Coelho durante doutorado orientado por ele com um período passado na Universidade de Durham, no Reino Unido, para aprender o método. Os resultados indicam que, no caso dos macacos-prego, o aprendizado social prevê a difusão de informação na espécie.
Até meio século atrás, o uso de ferramentas era considerado privilégio humano. Ao observar chimpanzés na Tanzânia, a inglesa Jane Goodall derrubou essa exclusividade e, de certa maneira, causou a redefinição das fronteiras entre gente e bicho. Muito se descobriu de lá para cá, mas falar em cultura animal ainda esbarra em certo desconforto. Talvez não por muito mais tempo.
O uso de pedras para escavar só foi descrito na serra da Capivara
Sob o comando de hormônios
O cuidado com os filhotes está ligado ao hormônio oxitocina em mamíferos. O grupo liderado por Maria Cátira Bortolini, da Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, descreveu há poucos anos as variações na molécula de oxitocina em espécies de macacos nas quais há bons pais (ver Pesquisa FAPESP nº 228). Ensaios farmacológicos feitos no laboratório do bioquímico Claudio Costa-Neto, da Faculdade de Medicina de Ribeirão Preto da USP, agora desvendaram o caminho da oxitocina dentro das células e verificaram que os receptores das formas alteradas ficam mais expostos nas membranas das células, de maneira que o sistema não se dessensibiliza. “É como se o macaco recebesse constantemente a instrução ‘tenho que cuidar dos filhotes’”, explica Cátira. Faz diferença para a sobrevivência de saguis, que frequentemente têm filhotes gêmeos, por exemplo.
O resultado está em artigo publicado em agosto na PNAS, que também descreve o resultado da aplicação dessas oxitocinas em ratos por meio de borrifadas nasais, experimento realizado em colaboração com o fisiologista Aldo Lucion, da UFRGS. As fêmeas lactantes, já inundadas de oxitocina, alteraram pouco o comportamento. Mas os machos tratados com o hormônio alteraram radicalmente o hábito de ignorar os filhotes e correram para cheirá-los, uma reação que foi três vezes mais rápida com a oxitocina de sagui.
Os cebídeos, família que inclui os macacos-prego, também têm um tipo de oxitocina que aumenta a propensão à paternidade ativa. Os grupos de Cátira e de Ottoni recentemente iniciaram uma colaboração para investigar as características genéticas em machos mais e menos cuidadores. “Já conseguimos extrair material genético de amostras de fezes e estamos selecionando genes candidatos a serem rastreados”, conta ela, fascinada com a tolerância dos machos e as habilidades cognitivas dos primatas do Piauí. “A capacidade de inovar, por um lado, e a de sentar e observar, por outro, são necessárias para o desenvolvimento e a transmissão de traços culturais adaptativos e certamente há um cenário genético por trás disso.”
3. Desenvolvimento de novos ligantes/drogas com ação agonística seletiva (biased agonism) para receptores dos sistemas renina-angiotensina e calicreínas-cininas: Novas propriedades e novas aplicações biotecnológicas (nº 12/20148-0); ModalidadeProjeto Temático; Pesquisador responsável Claudio Miguel da Costa Neto (USP); Investimento R$ 3.169.674,21.
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- February 7, 2017
- University of Exeter
- The Amazonian rainforest was transformed over 2,000 years ago by ancient people who built hundreds of large, mysterious earthworks.
The Amazonian rainforest was transformed over two thousand years ago by ancient people who built hundreds of large, mysterious earthworks.
Findings by Brazilian and UK experts provide new evidence for how indigenous people lived in the Amazon before European people arrived in the region.
The ditched enclosures, in Acre state in the western Brazilian Amazon, were concealed for centuries by trees. Modern deforestation has allowed the discovery of more than 450 of these large geometrical geoglyphs.
The function of these mysterious sites is still little understood — they are unlikely to be villages, since archaeologists recover very few artefacts during excavation. The layout doesn’t suggest they were built for defensive reasons. It is thought they were used only sporadically, perhaps as ritual gathering places.
The structures are ditched enclosures that occupy roughly 13,000 km2. Their discovery challenges assumptions that the rainforest ecosystem has been untouched by humans.
The research was carried out by Jennifer Watling, post-doctoral researcher at the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography, University of São Paulo, when she was studying for a PhD at the University of Exeter.
Dr Watling said: “The fact that these sites lay hidden for centuries beneath mature rainforest really challenges the idea that Amazonian forests are ‘pristine ecosystems`.
“We immediately wanted to know whether the region was already forested when the geoglyphs were built, and to what extent people impacted the landscape to build these earthworks.”
Using state-of-the-art methods, the team members were able to reconstruct 6000 years of vegetation and fire history around two geoglyph sites. They found that humans heavily altered bamboo forests for millennia and small, temporary clearings were made to build the geoglyphs.
Instead of burning large tracts of forest — either for geoglyph construction or agricultural practices — people transformed their environment by concentrating on economically valuable tree species such as palms, creating a kind of ‘prehistoric supermarket’ of useful forest products. The team found tantalizing evidence to suggest that the biodiversity of some of Acre’s remaining forests may have a strong legacy of these ancient ‘agroforestry’ practices.
Dr. Watling said: “Despite the huge number and density of geoglyph sites in the region, we can be certain that Acre’s forests were never cleared as extensively, or for as long, as they have been in recent years.
“Our evidence that Amazonian forests have been managed by indigenous peoples long before European Contact should not be cited as justification for the destructive, unsustainable land-use practiced today. It should instead serve to highlight the ingenuity of past subsistence regimes that did not lead to forest degradation, and the importance of indigenous knowledge for finding more sustainable land-use alternatives.”
The full article will be released in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA and involved researchers from the universities of Exeter, Reading and Swansea (UK), São Paulo, Belém and Acre (Brazil). The research was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, National Geographic, and the Natural Environment Research Council Radiocarbon Facility.
To conduct the study, the team extracted soil samples from a series of pits dug within and outside of the geoglyphs. From these soils, they analysed ‘phytoliths’, a type of microscopic plant fossil made of silica, to reconstruct ancient vegetation; charcoal quantities, to assess the amount of ancient forest burning; and carbon stable isotopes, to indicate how ‘open’ the vegetation was in the past.
- Jennifer Watling, José Iriarte, Francis E. Mayle, Denise Schaan, Luiz C. R. Pessenda, Neil J. Loader, F. Alayne Street-Perrott, Ruth E. Dickau, Antonia Damasceno, Alceu Ranzi. Impact of pre-Columbian “geoglyph” builders on Amazonian forests. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2017; 201614359 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1614359114
June 2, 2016
The first domesticated animals may have been tamed twice.
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.
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.”
Virtual dogs take place of programming
- May 16, 2016
- Washington State University
- Researchers are using ideas from animal training to help non-expert users teach robots how to do desired tasks.
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.
April 29, 201611:04 AM ET
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.)
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.
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.
No simples ato de acender a luz já existe a consciência de que estamos destruindo o mundo de alguém e de que nada mais será simples. Neste momento, para ficar apenas num exemplo, dezenas de milhares já perderam suas casas no rio Xingu, na Amazônia, para a operação da Hidrelétrica de Belo Monte. Povos indígenas que vivem na região atingida já não conseguem suportar o aumento exponencial de mosquitos desde que o lago da usina começou a encher, alterando o ecossistema e dizimando culturas, no que já foi denunciado pelo Ministério Público Federal como etnocídio. Os impactos mal começaram e, em menos de três meses, mais de 16 toneladas de peixes morreram. E talvez também esteja chegando ao fim o tempo em que ainda é aceitável contar vidas por toneladas, mesmo que seja a vida de peixes. Ou a morte de peixes. Um dedo no interruptor e uma cadeia de mortes. E agora também já sabemos disso.
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.
11 de fevereiro de 2016
Lei de Biossegurança completa 10 anos dialogando com as mais recentes descobertas da ciência
Walter Colli – Instituto de Química, Universidade de São Paulo
Ao longo de 2015, uma silenciosa revolução biotecnológica aconteceu no Brasil. Neste ano a Comissão Técnica Nacional de Biossegurança (CTNBio) analisou e aprovou um número recorde de tecnologias aplicáveis à agricultura, medicina e produção de energia. O trabalho criterioso dos membros da CTNBio avaliou como seguros para a saúde humana e animal e para o ambiente 19 novos transgênicos, dentre os quais 13 plantas, três vacinas e três microrganismos ou derivados.
A CTNBio, priorizando o rigor nas análises de biossegurança e atenta às necessidades de produzir alimentos de maneira mais sustentável aprovou, no ano passado, variedades de soja, milho e algodão tolerantes a herbicidas com diferentes métodos de ação. Isso permitirá que as sementes desenvolvam todo seu potencial e que os produtores brasileiros tenham mais uma opção para a rotação de tecnologias no manejo de plantas daninhas. Sem essa ferramenta tecnológica, os agricultores ficariam reféns das limitações impostas pelas plantas invasoras. As tecnologias de resistência a insetos proporcionam benefícios semelhantes.
Na área da saúde, a revolução diz respeito aos métodos de combate a doenças que são endêmicas das regiões tropicais. Mais uma vez, mostrando-se parceira da sociedade, a CTNBio avaliou a biossegurança de duas vacinas recombinantes contra a Dengue em regime de urgência e deu parecer favorável a elas. Soma-se a estes esforços a aprovação do Aedes aegypti transgênico. O mosquito geneticamente modificado aprovado em 2014 tem se mostrado um aliado no combate ao inseto que, além de ser vetor da dengue, também está associado a casos de transmissão dos vírus Zika, Chikungunya e da febre amarela.
Nos últimos 10 anos, até o momento, o advento da nova CTNBio pela Lei 11.105 de 2005 – a Lei de Biossegurança – proporcionou a aprovação comercial de 82 Organismos Geneticamente Modificados (OGM): 52 eventos em plantas; 20 vacinas veterinárias; 7 microrganismos; 1 mosquito Aedes aegypti; e 2 vacinas para uso humano contra a Dengue. Essas liberações comerciais são a maior prova de que o Brasil lança mão da inovação para encontrar soluções para os desafios da contemporaneidade.
Entretanto, é necessário enfatizar que assuntos não relacionados com Ciência também se colocaram, como em anos anteriores, no caminho do desenvolvimento da biotecnologia em 2015. Manifestantes anti-ciência invadiram laboratórios e destruíram sete anos de pesquisas com plantas transgênicas de eucalipto e grupos anti-OGM chegaram a interromper reuniões da CTNBio, pondo abaixo portas com ações truculentas. Diversas inverdades foram publicadas na tentativa de colocar em dúvida a segurança e as contribuições que a transgenia vem dando para a sociedade. A ação desses grupos preocupa, pois, se sua ideologia for vitoriosa, tanto o progresso científico quanto o PIB brasileiros ficarão irreversivelmente prejudicados.
Hoje, a nossa Lei de Biossegurança é tida internacionalmente como um modelo de equilíbrio entre o rigor nas análises técnicas e a previsibilidade institucional necessária para haver o investimento. O reconhecimento global, o diálogo com a sociedade e a legitimidade dos critérios técnicos mostram que esses 10 anos são apenas o início de uma longa história de desenvolvimento e inovação no Brasil.
Date: January 21, 2016
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.
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
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.
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.
“I’m starting to drink my own Kool-Aid,” he said.