David Dobbs writes: A couple of years ago, at a massive conference of neuroscientists — 35,000 attendees, scores of sessions going at any given time — I wandered into a talk that I thought would be about consciousness but proved (wrong room) to be about grasshoppers and locusts. At the front of the room, a bug-obsessed neuroscientist named Steve Rogers was describing these two creatures — one elegant, modest, and well-mannered, the other a soccer hooligan.
The grasshopper, he noted, sports long legs and wings, walks low and slow, and dines discreetly in solitude. The locust scurries hurriedly and hoggishly on short, crooked legs and joins hungrily with others to form swarms that darken the sky and descend to chew the farmer’s fields bare.
Related, yes, just as grasshoppers and crickets are. But even someone as insect-ignorant as I could see that the hopper and the locust were wildly different animals — different species, doubtless, possibly different genera. So I was quite amazed when Rogers told us that grasshopper and locust are in fact the same species, even the same animal, and that, as Jekyll is Hyde, one can morph into the other at alarmingly short notice.
Not all grasshopper species, he explained (there are some 11,000), possess this morphing power; some always remain grasshoppers. But every locust was, and technically still is, a grasshopper — not a different species or subspecies, but a sort of hopper gone mad. If faced with clues that food might be scarce, such as hunger or crowding, certain grasshopper species can transform within days or even hours from their solitudinous hopper states to become part of a maniacally social locust scourge. They can also return quickly to their original form.
In the most infamous species, Schistocerca gregaria, the desert locust of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, these phase changes (as this morphing process is called) occur when crowding spurs a temporary spike in serotonin levels, which causes changes in gene expression so widespread and powerful they alter not just the hopper’s behaviour but its appearance and form. Legs and wings shrink. Subtle camo colouring turns conspicuously garish. The brain grows to manage the animal’s newly complicated social world, which includes the fact that, if a locust moves too slowly amid its million cousins, the cousins directly behind might eat it.
How does this happen? Does something happen to their genes? Yes, but — and here was the point of Rogers’s talk — their genes don’t actually change. That is, they don’t mutate or in any way alter the genetic sequence or DNA. Nothing gets rewritten. Instead, this bug’s DNA — the genetic book with millions of letters that form the instructions for building and operating a grasshopper — gets reread so that the very same book becomes the instructions for operating a locust. Even as one animal becomes the other, as Jekyll becomes Hyde, its genome stays unchanged. Same genome, same individual, but, I think we can all agree, quite a different beast.
Transforming the hopper is gene expression — a change in how the hopper’s genes are ‘expressed’, or read out. Gene expression is what makes a gene meaningful, and it’s vital for distinguishing one species from another. We humans, for instance, share more than half our genomes with flatworms; about 60 per cent with fruit flies and chickens; 80 per cent with cows; and 99 per cent with chimps. Those genetic distinctions aren’t enough to create all our differences from those animals — what biologists call our particular phenotype, which is essentially the recognisable thing a genotype builds. This means that we are human, rather than wormlike, flylike, chickenlike, feline, bovine, or excessively simian, less because we carry different genes from those other species than because our cells read differently our remarkably similar genomes as we develop from zygote to adult. The writing varies — but hardly as much as the reading.
This raises a question: if merely reading a genome differently can change organisms so wildly, why bother rewriting the genome to evolve? How vital, really, are actual changes in the genetic code? Do we even need DNA changes to adapt to new environments? Is the importance of the gene as the driver of evolution being overplayed?
You’ve probably noticed that these questions are not gracing the cover of Time or haunting Oprah, Letterman, or even TED talks. Yet for more than two decades they have been stirring a heated argument among geneticists and evolutionary theorists. As evidence of the power of rapid gene expression mounts, these questions might (or might not, for pesky reasons we’ll get to) begin to change not only mainstream evolutionary theory but our more everyday understanding of evolution. [Continue reading...]
Eric E. Schadt writes: It’s been 10 years since an international consortium of scientists successfully completed the mapping of the human genome — a world-changing project that couldn’t have happened without public and private support. The feat neatly coincided with the 50th anniversary of the description of DNA’s double helix by Nobel laureates James Watson and Francis Crick. These are incredible achievements, and today, we couldn’t conceive of the future of medicine without them.
Equally unfathomable is a view of medicine that doesn’t take into account the trove of clinically relevant information available for any individual person, and for all people more generally. DNA holds (among other things) your personal architectural blueprint, but unto itself, it is a fairly static factor, the genome in your normal, healthy cells changing very little over the course of your life. We know with certainty that DNA alone is not a categorical predictor of disease. The BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, for example, signals significantly higher risk for breast cancer in women, but people with the same defective gene often have remarkably different outcomes. Researchers and the public are asking: why is that?
Whether disease manifests, the age at which it manifests, and how severe it becomes, all depend on a multitude of other factors and the dynamic interplay between them: RNA, metabolites, proteins, healthy and diseased tissues, insulin and cholesterol levels, weight, age, gender, tobacco use, and toxic exposures — to name just a few. To achieve a comprehensive understanding of disease so that we can better diagnose and treat it, researchers must examine a hierarchy of levels — multiple scales — of all observable characteristics. Each element — from molecules, to cells, to tissues, to organs, to the person, and then to the community at large — and the flow of information between these elements, is a biological data point at a particular point in time, and the observation of many millions of these elements in a given individual and population of time is where “big data” meets medicine. [Continue reading...]
BBC News reports: Smaller animals tend to perceive time as if it is passing in slow motion, a new study has shown.
This means that they can observe movement on a finer timescale than bigger creatures, allowing them to escape from larger predators.
Insects and small birds, for example, can see more information in one second than a larger animal such as an elephant.
The work is published in the journal Animal Behaviour.
“The ability to perceive time on very small scales may be the difference between life and death for fast-moving organisms such as predators and their prey,” said lead author Kevin Healy, at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), Ireland.
The reverse was found in bigger animals, which may miss things that smaller creatures can rapidly spot. [Continue reading...]
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes: American scientists have made an unsettling discovery. Crop farming across the Prairies since the late 19th Century has caused a collapse of the soil microbia that holds the ecosystem together.
They do not know exactly what role is played by the bacteria. It is a new research field. Nor do they know where the tipping point lies, or how easily this can be reversed. Nobody yet knows whether this is happening in other parts of the world.
A team at the University of Colorado under Noah Fierer used DNA gene technology to test the ‘verrucomicrobia’ in Prairie soil, contrasting tilled land with the rare pockets of ancient tallgrass found in cemeteries and reservations. The paper published in the US journal Science found that crop agriculture has “drastically altered” the biology of the land. “The soils currently found throughout the region bear little resemblance to their pre-agricultural state,” it concluded.
You might say we already knew this. In fact we did not. There has never before been a metagenomic analysis of this kind and on this scale. Professor Fierer said mankind needs to watch its step. “We really know very little about one of the most productive soils on the planet, but we do know that soil microbes play a key role and we can’t just keep adding fertilizers,” he said.
The Colorado study has caused a stir in the soil world. It was accompanied by a sobering analysis in Science by academics from South Africa’s Witwatersrand University. They fear that we are repeating the mistakes of past civilisations, over-exploiting the land until it goes beyond the point of no return, and leads to a vicious circle of famine, and then social disintegration.
Entitled “Dust to Dust“, the paper argues that the erosion of soil fertility has been masked by a “soup of nutrients” poured over crop lands, giving us a false sense of security. It said 1pc of global land is being degraded each year, defined as a 70pc loss of the top soil.
Once the top soil crosses a crucial threshold, the recovery rate plunges. Chemicals can keep crop yields high for a while but the complex ecology beneath is being abused further. Yields have already fallen 8pc across Africa as a whole. The paper calls for a complete change of course as the “only viable route to feeding the world and keeping it habitable.” [Continue reading...]
Paul Davies writes: The recent announcement by a team of astronomers that there could be as many as 40 billion habitable planets in our galaxy has further fueled the speculation, popular even among many distinguished scientists, that the universe is teeming with life.
The astronomer Geoffrey W. Marcy of the University of California, Berkeley, an experienced planet hunter and co-author of the study that generated the finding, said that it “represents one great leap toward the possibility of life, including intelligent life, in the universe.”
But “possibility” is not the same as likelihood. If a planet is to be inhabited rather than merely habitable, two basic requirements must be met: the planet must first be suitable and then life must emerge on it at some stage.
What can be said about the chances of life starting up on a habitable planet? Darwin gave us a powerful explanation of how life on Earth evolved over billions of years, but he would not be drawn out on the question of how life got going in the first place. “One might as well speculate about the origin of matter,” he quipped. In spite of intensive research, scientists are still very much in the dark about the mechanism that transformed a nonliving chemical soup into a living cell. But without knowing the process that produced life, the odds of its happening can’t be estimated.
When I was a student in the 1960s, the prevailing view among scientists was that life on Earth was a freak phenomenon, the result of a sequence of chemical accidents so rare that they would be unlikely to have happened twice in the observable universe. “Man at last knows he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he has emerged only by chance,” wrote the biologist Jacques Monod. Today the pendulum has swung dramatically, and many distinguished scientists claim that life will almost inevitably arise in Earthlike conditions. Yet this decisive shift in view is based on little more than a hunch, rather than an improved understanding of life’s origin. [Continue reading...]
UCLA Newsroom: Why do the faces of some primates contain so many different colors — black, blue, red, orange and white — that are mixed in all kinds of combinations and often striking patterns while other primate faces are quite plain?
UCLA biologists reported last year on the evolution of 129 primate faces in species from Central and South America. This research team now reports on the faces of 139 Old World African and Asian primate species that have been diversifying over some 25 million years.
With these Old World monkeys and apes, the species that are more social have more complex facial patterns, the biologists found. Species that have smaller group sizes tend to have simpler faces with fewer colors, perhaps because the presence of more color patches in the face results in greater potential for facial variation across individuals within species. This variation could aid in identification, which may be a more difficult task in larger groups.
Species that live in the same habitat with other closely related species tend to have more complex facial patterns, suggesting that complex faces may also aid in species recognition, the life scientists found.
“Humans are crazy for Facebook, but our research suggests that primates have been relying on the face to tell friends from competitors for the last 50 million years and that social pressures have guided the evolution of the enormous diversity of faces we see across the group today,” said Michael Alfaro, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology in the UCLA College of Letters and Science and senior author of the study.
“Faces are really important to how monkeys and apes can tell one another apart,” he said. “We think the color patterns have to do both with the importance of telling individuals of your own species apart from closely related species and for social communication among members of the same species.” [Continue reading...]
One does not need to believe in a deity animating the natural world, in order to disturbed by the idea of manufactured organisms.
For the first time, scientists have created an organism with a new genetic code. We are told that recoded bacterium will be converted into:
… a living foundry, capable of biomanufacturing new classes of “exotic” proteins and polymers. These new molecules could lay the foundation for a new generation of materials, nanostructures, therapeutics, and drug delivery vehicles…
Treating DNA as a construction material involves a kind of hubris that glosses over what would seem to be inevitable: that there will be unintended consequences. By definition, we do not know what these will be.
SciTechDaily reports: Scientists from Yale and Harvard have recoded the entire genome of an organism and improved a bacterium’s ability to resist viruses, a dramatic demonstration of the potential of rewriting an organism’s genetic code.
“This is the first time the genetic code has been fundamentally changed,” said Farren Isaacs, assistant professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at Yale and co-senior author of the research published October 18 in the journal Science. “Creating an organism with a new genetic code has allowed us to expand the scope of biological function in a number of powerful ways.”
The creation of a genomically recoded organism raises the possibility that researchers might be able to retool nature and create potent new forms of proteins to accomplish a myriad purposes — from combating disease to generating new classes of materials.
The research — headed by Isaacs and co-author George Church of Harvard Medical School — is a product of years of studies in the emerging field of synthetic biology, which seeks to re-design natural biological systems for useful purposes.
In this case, the researchers changed fundamental rules of biology. [Continue reading...]
The Economist: For decades scientists have known that birds’ ability to navigate with great accuracy over long distances, in some cases migrating from one side of the world to the other, relies on a magnetic sense that humans lack. Experiments with homing pigeons performed in the early 1970s found that attaching a magnet disrupted their ability to orientate themselves. Since then, research has intensified into the precise mechanism of birds’ magnetic sense. So how does it work?
Scientists have focused their attention in three areas: the beak, the inner ear and the eyes. Birds’ beaks contain tiny grains of magnetite, a form of iron oxide which is easily magnetised, and is known to be involved in magnetic sensing in bacteria. But when David Keays of the Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna examined the beaks of 200 pigeons, the results were surprising. He found that the magnetite grains were mostly located in macrophages, which are sort of biological garbage collectors that wander around the body, rather than in specialised sense cells. This strengthened the case that birds’ magnetic sense resides not in their beaks, but in their inner ears. Dr Keays and his colleagues changed tack, and earlier this year they reported that they had found tiny concentrations of iron in the neurons of a pigeon’s inner ear.
BBC News reports: Plants have a built-in capacity to do maths, which helps them regulate food reserves at night, research suggests.
UK scientists say they were “amazed” to find an example of such a sophisticated arithmetic calculation in biology.
Mathematical models show that the amount of starch consumed overnight is calculated by division in a process involving leaf chemicals, a John Innes Centre team reports in e-Life journal.
Birds may use similar methods to preserve fat levels during migration.
The scientists studied the plant Arabidopsis, which is regarded as a model plant for experiments.
Overnight, when the plant cannot use energy from sunlight to convert carbon dioxide into sugars and starch, it must regulate its starch reserves to ensure they last until dawn.
Experiments by scientists at the John Innes Centre, Norwich, show that to adjust its starch consumption so precisely, the plant must be performing a mathematical calculation – arithmetic division.
“They’re actually doing maths in a simple, chemical way – that’s amazing, it astonished us as scientists to see that,” study leader Prof Alison Smith told BBC News. [Continue reading...]
Michael Pollan writes: I can tell you the exact date that I began to think of myself in the first-person plural — as a superorganism, that is, rather than a plain old individual human being. It happened on March 7. That’s when I opened my e-mail to find a huge, processor-choking file of charts and raw data from a laboratory located at the BioFrontiers Institute at the University of Colorado, Boulder. As part of a new citizen-science initiative called the American Gut project, the lab sequenced my microbiome — that is, the genes not of “me,” exactly, but of the several hundred microbial species with whom I share this body. These bacteria, which number around 100 trillion, are living (and dying) right now on the surface of my skin, on my tongue and deep in the coils of my intestines, where the largest contingent of them will be found, a pound or two of microbes together forming a vast, largely uncharted interior wilderness that scientists are just beginning to map.
I clicked open a file called Taxa Tables, and a colorful bar chart popped up on my screen. Each bar represented a sample taken (with a swab) from my skin, mouth and feces. For purposes of comparison, these were juxtaposed with bars representing the microbiomes of about 100 “average” Americans previously sequenced.
Here were the names of the hundreds of bacterial species that call me home. In sheer numbers, these microbes and their genes dwarf us. It turns out that we are only 10 percent human: for every human cell that is intrinsic to our body, there are about 10 resident microbes — including commensals (generally harmless freeloaders) and mutualists (favor traders) and, in only a tiny number of cases, pathogens. To the extent that we are bearers of genetic information, more than 99 percent of it is microbial. And it appears increasingly likely that this “second genome,” as it is sometimes called, exerts an influence on our health as great and possibly even greater than the genes we inherit from our parents. But while your inherited genes are more or less fixed, it may be possible to reshape, even cultivate, your second genome. [Continue reading...]
The Telegraph reports: A study has shown that people are able to precisely identify a range of emotions in dogs from changes in their facial expressions.
The research showed that volunteers could correctly spot when a dog was happy, sad, angry, surprised or scared, when shown only a picture of the animal’s face, suggesting that humans are naturally attuned to detecting how animals are feeling.
Dr Tina Bloom, a psychologist who led the research, said: “There is no doubt that humans have the ability to recognise emotional states in other humans and accurately read other humans’ facial expressions. We have shown that humans are also able to accurately – if not perfectly – identify at least one dog’s facial expressions.
“Although humans often think of themselves as disconnected or even isolated from nature, our study suggests that there are patterns that connect, and one of these is in the form of emotional communication.”
The study, published in the journal Behavioural Processes, used photographs of a police dog named Mal, a five-year-old Belgian shepherd dog, as it experienced different emotions. [Continue reading...]
Sy Montgomery: “Meeting an octopus,” writes [professor of philosophy, Peter] Godfrey-Smith, “is like meeting an intelligent alien.” Their intelligence sometimes even involves changing colors and shapes. One video online shows a mimic octopus alternately morphing into a flatfish, several sea snakes, and a lionfish by changing color, altering the texture of its skin, and shifting the position of its body. Another video shows an octopus materializing from a clump of algae. Its skin exactly matches the algae from which it seems to bloom — until it swims away.
For its color palette, the octopus uses three layers of three different types of cells near the skin’s surface. The deepest layer passively reflects background light. The topmost may contain the colors yellow, red, brown, and black. The middle layer shows an array of glittering blues, greens, and golds. But how does an octopus decide what animal to mimic, what colors to turn? Scientists have no idea, especially given that octopuses are likely colorblind.
But new evidence suggests a breathtaking possibility. Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and University of Washington researchers found that the skin of the cuttlefish Sepia officinalis, a color-changing cousin of octopuses, contains gene sequences usually expressed only in the light-sensing retina of the eye. In other words, cephalopods — octopuses, cuttlefish, and squid — may be able to see with their skin.
The American philosopher Thomas Nagel once wrote a famous paper titled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” Bats can see with sound. Like dolphins, they can locate their prey using echoes. Nagel concluded it was impossible to know what it’s like to be a bat. And a bat is a fellow mammal like us — not someone who tastes with its suckers, sees with its skin, and whose severed arms can wander about, each with a mind of its own. Nevertheless, there are researchers still working diligently to understand what it’s like to be an octopus.
Jennifer Mather spent most of her time in Bermuda floating facedown on the surface of the water at the edge of the sea. Breathing through a snorkel, she was watching Octopus vulgaris — the common octopus. Although indeed common (they are found in tropical and temperate waters worldwide), at the time of her study in the mid-1980s, “nobody knew what they were doing.”
In a relay with other students from six-thirty in the morning till six-thirty at night, Mather worked to find out. Sometimes she’d see an octopus hunting. A hunting expedition could take five minutes or three hours. The octopus would capture something, inject it with venom, and carry it home to eat. “Home,” Mather found, is where octopuses spend most of their time. A home, or den, which an octopus may occupy only a few days before switching to a new one, is a place where the shell-less octopus can safely hide: a hole in a rock, a discarded shell, or a cubbyhole in a sunken ship. One species, the Pacific red octopus, particularly likes to den in stubby, brown, glass beer bottles.
One octopus Mather was watching had just returned home and was cleaning the front of the den with its arms. Then, suddenly, it left the den, crawled a meter away, picked up one particular rock and placed the rock in front of the den. Two minutes later, the octopus ventured forth to select a second rock. Then it chose a third. Attaching suckers to all the rocks, the octopus carried the load home, slid through the den opening, and carefully arranged the three objects in front. Then it went to sleep. What the octopus was thinking seemed obvious: “Three rocks are enough. Good night!”
The scene has stayed with Mather. The octopus “must have had some concept,” she said, “of what it wanted to make itself feel safe enough to go to sleep.” And the octopus knew how to get what it wanted: by employing foresight, planning — and perhaps even tool use. Mather is the lead author of Octopus: The Ocean’s Intelligent Invertebrate, which includes observations of octopuses who dismantle Lego sets and open screw-top jars. Coauthor Roland Anderson reports that octopuses even learned to open the childproof caps on Extra Strength Tylenol pill bottles — a feat that eludes many humans with university degrees.
In another experiment, Anderson gave octopuses plastic pill bottles painted different shades and with different textures to see which evoked more interest. Usually each octopus would grasp a bottle to see if it were edible and then cast it off. But to his astonishment, Anderson saw one of the octopuses doing something striking: she was blowing carefully modulated jets of water from her funnel to send the bottle to the other end of her aquarium, where the water flow sent it back to her. She repeated the action twenty times. By the eighteenth time, Anderson was already on the phone with Mather with the news: “She’s bouncing the ball!”
This octopus wasn’t the only one to use the bottle as a toy. Another octopus in the study also shot water at the bottle, sending it back and forth across the water’s surface, rather than circling the tank. Anderson’s observations were reported in the Journal of Comparative Psychology. “This fit all the criteria for play behavior,” said Anderson. “Only intelligent animals play — animals like crows and chimps, dogs and humans.” [Continue reading...]
Immortality has always struck me as a terrible idea — the most extreme expression of self-infatuation. Out with the old and in with the new seems like a universal law and a good one. It turns out, however, that that’s not always the case.
Nathaniel Rich writes: After more than 4,000 years — almost since the dawn of recorded time, when Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh that the secret to immortality lay in a coral found on the ocean floor — man finally discovered eternal life in 1988. He found it, in fact, on the ocean floor. The discovery was made unwittingly by Christian Sommer, a German marine-biology student in his early 20s. He was spending the summer in Rapallo, a small city on the Italian Riviera, where exactly one century earlier Friedrich Nietzsche conceived “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”: “Everything goes, everything comes back; eternally rolls the wheel of being. Everything dies, everything blossoms again. . . .”
Sommer was conducting research on hydrozoans, small invertebrates that, depending on their stage in the life cycle, resemble either a jellyfish or a soft coral. Every morning, Sommer went snorkeling in the turquoise water off the cliffs of Portofino. He scanned the ocean floor for hydrozoans, gathering them with plankton nets. Among the hundreds of organisms he collected was a tiny, relatively obscure species known to biologists as Turritopsis dohrnii. Today it is more commonly known as the immortal jellyfish.
Sommer kept his hydrozoans in petri dishes and observed their reproduction habits. After several days he noticed that his Turritopsis dohrnii was behaving in a very peculiar manner, for which he could hypothesize no earthly explanation. Plainly speaking, it refused to die. It appeared to age in reverse, growing younger and younger until it reached its earliest stage of development, at which point it began its life cycle anew.
Sommer was baffled by this development but didn’t immediately grasp its significance. (It was nearly a decade before the word “immortal” was first used to describe the species.) But several biologists in Genoa, fascinated by Sommer’s finding, continued to study the species, and in 1996 they published a paper called “Reversing the Life Cycle.” The scientists described how the species — at any stage of its development — could transform itself back to a polyp, the organism’s earliest stage of life, “thus escaping death and achieving potential immortality.” This finding appeared to debunk the most fundamental law of the natural world — you are born, and then you die.
One of the paper’s authors, Ferdinando Boero, likened the Turritopsis to a butterfly that, instead of dying, turns back into a caterpillar. Another metaphor is a chicken that transforms into an egg, which gives birth to another chicken. The anthropomorphic analogy is that of an old man who grows younger and younger until he is again a fetus. For this reason Turritopsis dohrnii is often referred to as the Benjamin Button jellyfish.
Yet the publication of “Reversing the Life Cycle” barely registered outside the academic world. You might expect that, having learned of the existence of immortal life, man would dedicate colossal resources to learning how the immortal jellyfish performs its trick. You might expect that biotech multinationals would vie to copyright its genome; that a vast coalition of research scientists would seek to determine the mechanisms by which its cells aged in reverse; that pharmaceutical firms would try to appropriate its lessons for the purposes of human medicine; that governments would broker international accords to govern the future use of rejuvenating technology. But none of this happened. [Continue reading...]
Mark Rowlands writes: When I became a father for the first time, at the ripe old age of 44, various historical contingencies saw to it that my nascent son would be sharing his home with two senescent canines. There was Nina, an endearing though occasionally ferocious German shepherd/Malamute cross. And there was Tess, a wolf-dog mix who, though gentle, had some rather highly developed predatory instincts. So, I was a little concerned about how the co-sharing arrangements were going to work. As things turned out, I needn’t have worried.
During the year or so that their old lives overlapped with that of my son, I was alternately touched, shocked, amazed, and dumbfounded by the kindness and patience they exhibited towards him. They would follow him from room to room, everywhere he went in the house, and lie down next to him while he slept. Crawled on, dribbled on, kicked, elbowed and kneed: these occurrences were all treated with a resigned fatalism. The fingers in the eye they received on a daily basis would be shrugged off with an almost Zen-like calm. In many respects, they were better parents than me. If my son so much as squeaked during the night, I would instantly feel two cold noses pressed in my face: get up, you negligent father — your son needs you.
Kindness and patience seem to have a clear moral dimension. They are forms of what we might call ‘concern’ — emotional states that have as their focus the wellbeing of another — and concern for the welfare of others lies at the heart of morality. If Nina and Tess were concerned for the welfare of my son then, perhaps, they were acting morally: their behaviour had, at least in part, a moral motivation. And so, in those foggy, sleepless nights of early fatherhood, a puzzle was born inside of me, one that has been gnawing away at me ever since. If there is one thing on which most philosophers and scientists have always been in agreement it is the subject of human moral exceptionalism: humans, and humans alone, are capable of acting morally. Yet, this didn’t seem to tally with the way I came to think of Nina and Tess.
The first question is whether I was correct to describe the behaviour of Nina and Tess in this way, as moral behaviour. ‘Anthropomorphism’ is the misguided attribution of human-like qualities to animals. Perhaps describing Nina and Tess’s behaviour in moral terms was simply an anthropomorphic delusion. Of course, if I’m guilty of anthropomorphism, then so too are myriad other animal owners. Such an owner might describe their dog as ‘friendly’, ‘playful’, ‘gentle’, ‘trustworthy’, or ‘loyal’ — a ‘good’ dog. On the other hand, the ‘bad’ dog — the one they try to avoid at the park — is bad because he is ‘mean’, ‘aggressive’, ‘vicious’, ‘unpredictable’, a ‘bully’, and so on. Nor are these seemingly moral descriptions entirely useless. On the contrary, it is a valuable skill to be able to assess these descriptions when an unfamiliar dog is bearing down on you in the street. If I’m guilty of anthropomorphism, so too, it seems, are many others.
Many scientists (and more than a few philosophers) would have no hesitation in accusing perhaps several billion people of such delusional anthropomorphism. A growing number of animal scientists, however, are going over to the dark side, and at least flirting with the idea that animals can act morally. In his book Primates and Philosophers (2006), the Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal has argued that animals are at least capable of proto-moral behaviour: they possess the rudiments of morality even if they are not moral beings in precisely the way that we are. This was, in fact, Charles Darwin’s view, as developed in The Descent of Man. In a similar vein, the American biologist Marc Bekoff has being arguing for years that animals can act morally, and his book Wild Justice (2009) provides a useful summary of the evidence for this claim. Perhaps scientists such as Darwin, de Waal and Bekoff are also guilty of anthropomorphism? The evidence, however, would suggest otherwise. [Continue reading...]
Adam Rogers poses some interesting questions about how we understand intelligence, but the observations he describes about slime molds pose an array of other questions. For instance, although a slim mold doesn’t possess a brain as a distinct organ, what might this organism’s aptitude in network formation tell us about the way neural networks are formed? Is it possible that these molds don’t so much lack a brain but rather that they are more like a brain with no body? (And forgive this off of the top of my head speculation. I know nothing about slime molds and not much more about brains.)