Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Darwin's Reach A Celebration of Darwin's Legacy Across Academic Disciplines Thursday, Friday and Saturday March 12, 13 and 14, 2009

I will be doing a talk at this conference on the 14th. It should be good --- the conference, of course, not my talk.
It is a bit ironic that my kids confirmed to me that Darwin's names has never been mentioned in school science class so far, and this in New York City's PS/IS187. Anyway, here is the blurb and link to the conference program. --- BRBIII


The Hofstra University Library, Hofstra College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the Hofstra Cultural Center present a conference:
Darwin's Reach
A Celebration of Darwin's Legacy Across Academic Disciplines

Darwin’s Reach examines the impact of Darwin and Darwinian evolution on science and society in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Robert Darwin and the sesquicentennial of the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859).

The central theme of this academic conference is an exploration of how Darwin’s ideas have revolutionized our understanding of both the living world and human nature.

Keynote speakers include:

Frans de Waal, Ph.D., Charles Howard Candler Professor of Primate Behavior at Emory University; author of Chimpanzee Politics and Our Inner Ape; preeminent researcher on primate social behavior

Niles Eldredge, Ph.D., Curator of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History; curator of the Darwin exhibition; author of Charles Darwin - Discovering the Tree of Life and numerous other books on the subject of evolution

Judge John E. Jones III, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, who ruled against the Dover (Pennsylvania) area school board’s attempt to introduce teaching on "intelligent design" into school science classes

Jay Labov, Ph.D., senior advisor for education and communications at the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C.

William F. McComas, Ph.D., Parks Family Professor of Science Education, University of Arkansas; 2007 recipient of the Evolution Education Award sponsored by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) and the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS)

Online registration is available for this conference.
Conference Coordinator:
Carol D. Mallison
Hofstra Cultural Center

Sunday, March 8, 2009

One group of Chimps found to modify tool.

In another of what is becoming an increasing number of specific studies, chimps in one group of chimps in the Congo have learned to modify their sticks to greatly increase the amount of food (termites in this case) that they are able to collect. This recent study appears in Biology Letters.

The lead researcher Crickette Sanz, from the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, said: "They have invented a way to improve their termite-fishing technique."

Dr Sanz told the BBC: "We found that in the Goualougo Triangle in the Republic of Congo, the chimpanzees were modifying their termite-fishing tools with a special brush tip."

To make their rods, the chimps first picked some stems from the Marantaceae plant and plucked off the leaves.

"They then pulled the herb stems through their teeth, which were partially closed, to make the brush and they also attended to the brush by sometimes pulling apart the fibres to make them better at gathering the termites," Dr Sanz added.

Further research revealed that a stem with a frayed tip collected 10 times more termites than a pointed probe.

Dr Sanz said: "The chimps seem to understand the function of the tool and its importance in gathering termites."

So far, the team have only found this behaviour in chimps in the Goualougo Triangle.

The apparent absence of this in populations in eastern and western Africa suggests that it is not an innate skill found in all chimpanzees.

Instead it seems that the Goualougo primates are learning the crafting techniques from other chimps.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Something Wild?

When I spent a few misused months reading about serial killers, I often noticed that the common refrain from those interviewed was that the killer was such a nice person, though a bit odd. Seemed so much like us but not quite "all there," etc. There is a subtle link here between this fascination that we humans have with our own dispositions toward certain types of social behavior, and how we tend to see the creatures that share many of our social habits and genetic makeup --- from altruism and compassion to killing and ruling.
So it was interesting that Charles Siebert touched on some of these issues in his piece on human attempts to anthropomophize great apes.
"Something Wild" by Charles Siebert, New York Times
It is a good article, and it will be interesting to read Siebert's forthcoming book.
Of course, anthropomorphizing an animal is quite an old habit for humans. Take a look again at any of the cave paintings left by some of our ancestors while resisting the need to read them in spiritual or religious terms as we understand such ideas now. We can anthropomorphize apes precisely because they are so like us, and because we are embarrassed by what we are, we tend to attempt to change them rather than see that many of our behaviors are just as brutal, if not more so because of the massive scale at which we go about killing each other as well as other forms of life. So one way of saying that "we were never really so bad" or that "All the good things were there from the beginning" is to force apes to be human in the sense that we misunderstand what it means to be human.
As I have often noted in my studies, the views that we have of apes today are remarkable similar to the views that we held of slaves in the past. And the uses we put apes to today, as well as our justifications for such barbarity, are justified by language quite similar to that used to justify the treatment of slaves, whether that treatment came from "benevolent masters" or the worst of the slavers. But as Darwin noted, the slave reminds the master of the master's inhumanity.
It is precisely because they are so like us and yet so different that some humans want to make them human (aka "civilized"), as though civilization has only given us the good stuff.
A couple excerpts:

Chimps are, like us, given to occasional violent outbursts, but they have exponentially greater strength. Chimps also have, like us, minds enough to lose and memories that can hasten the process. Wild chimps “recruited” by poachers for entertainment watch as their mothers are gunned down — the only way a chimp mother would ever relinquish a child. Chimps born in captivity are spared that experience, but they suffer the same premature separation from their mothers, isolation from their normal social groups and often mistreatment from trainers and keepers, all traumatic events that have been shown to cause deep psychological scarring and, as in human beings, can lead an animal to overreact to the slightest stimuli: the look in someone’s eye, the color of someone’s hair or, as with Ms. Herold’s friend that day, hair done up in an unaccustomed style. These are, in short, deeply conflicted beings, evolutionary anomalies that only we could have created: chimps with names and yet no recollection of trees.

Lucy, Travis and all the others died for the same reason that Tulp couldn’t draw the actual being seated before him: our ongoing inability to see animals outside our own fraught frame of reference. The chimp that Tulp, in fear of science, preserved as a mythic human, Temerlin tried to make a human, in science’s name. Lost in the shuffle of either agenda were the animals themselves, creatures we still can’t regard and respect for what they are and just leave alone.