What the Pliocene epoch can teach us about future warming on Earth

Science News reports: Imagine a world where the polar ice sheets are melting, sea level is rising and the atmosphere is stuffed with about 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Sound familiar? It should. We’re living it. But the description also matches Earth a little over 3 million years ago, in the middle of the geologic epoch known as the Pliocene.

To understand how our planet might respond as global temperatures rise, scientists are looking to warm periods of the past. These include the steamy worlds of the Cretaceous Period, such as around 90 million years ago, and the boundary of the Paleocene and Eocene epochs, about 56 million years ago.

But to many researchers, the best reference for today’s warming is the more recent Pliocene, which lasted from 5.3 million to 2.6 million years ago. The mid-Pliocene was the last time atmospheric CO2 levels were similar to today’s, trapping heat and raising global temperatures to above the levels Earth is experiencing now.

New research is illuminating how the planet responded to Pliocene warmth. One set of scientists has fanned out across the Arctic, gathering geologic clues to how temperatures there may have been as much as 19 degrees Celsius higher than today. The warmth allowed trees to spread far to the north, creating Arctic forests where three-toed horses, giant camels and other animals roamed. When lightning struck, wildfires roared across the landscape, spewing soot into the air and altering the region’s climate.

Other researchers are pushing the frontiers of climate modeling, simulating how the oceans, atmosphere and land responded as Pliocene temperatures soared. One new study shows how the warmth may have triggered huge changes in ocean circulation, setting up an enormous overturning current in the Pacific Ocean, similar to the “conveyor belt” in today’s Atlantic that drives weather and climate. A second new paper suggests that the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets might have responded differently to Pliocene heat, melting at different times.

All this research into the last great warm period is helping scientists think more deeply about how the future might play out. It may not be a road map to the next 100 years, but the Pliocene is a rough guide to the high sea levels, vanishing ice and altered weather patterns that might arrive hundreds to thousands of years from now.

“It’s a case study for understanding how warm climates function,” says Heather Ford, a paleoceanographer at the University of Cambridge. “It’s our closest analog for future climate change.” [Continue reading…]

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America’s ancient heritage is rapidly disappearing

Kathleen Sharp writes: Like many pre-Columbian sites on this timeless plateau [in Arizona], Little Giant’s Chair is both a Hopi shrine and a crime scene. America’s ancient heritage is disappearing at an alarming rate. Some archaeologists estimate that more than half of America’s historic sites have been vandalized or looted. According to the non-profit Saving Antiquities for Everyone, over 90 percent of known American Indian archaeological sites have been destroyed or degraded by looters.

As the cultural legacy of Native American tribes has vanished, the demand for genuine U.S. antiquities has exploded. And few objects are more coveted than a Hopi religious item, Kuwanwisiwma says. “People love them so much, they are slowly robbing us to death.”

The outside world calls them “artifacts,” but they are often ceremonial items that have been passed down over the years and are still in use by the tribes. Others are ripped from grave sites like the one at Little Giant’s Chair. If this burial ground had been in Arlington, Virginia, or Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the police would have wrapped the scene in yellow crime tape and called in their top investigators. But on this case, the primary detectives were a Hopi ranger and the skeleton crew at the CPO, whose mission is to find, repatriate, and protect the cultural objects that belong to the Hopi people. [Continue reading…]

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How bacteria help regulate blood pressure

Veronique Greenwood writes: Some years ago, when Jennifer Pluznick was nearing the end of her training in physiology and sensory systems, she was startled to discover something in the kidneys that seemed weirdly out of place. It was a smell receptor, a protein that would have looked more at home in the nose. Given that the kidneys filter waste into urine and maintain the right salt content in the blood, it was hard to see how a smell receptor could be useful there. Yet as she delved deeper into what the smell receptor was doing, Pluznick came to a surprising conclusion: The kidney receives messages from the gut microbiome, the symbiotic bacteria that live in the intestines.

In the past few years, Pluznick, who is now an associate professor of physiology at Johns Hopkins University, and a small band of like-minded researchers have put together a picture of what the denizens of the gut are telling the kidney. They have found that these communiqués affect blood pressure, such that if the microbes are destroyed, the host suffers. The researchers have uncovered a direct, molecular-level explanation of how the microbiome conspires with the kidneys and the blood vessels to manipulate the flow of blood.

The smell receptor, called Olfr78, was an orphan at first: It had previously been noticed in the sensory tissues of the nose, but no one knew what specific scent or chemical messenger it responded to. Pluznick began by testing various chemical possibilities and eventually narrowed down the candidates to acetate and propionate. These short-chain fatty acid molecules come from the fermentation breakdown of long chains of carbohydrates — what nutritionists call dietary fiber. Humans, mice, rats and other animals cannot digest fiber, but the bacteria that live in their guts can.

As a result, more than 99 percent of the acetate and propionate that floats through the bloodstream is released by bacteria as they feed. “Any host contribution is really minimal,” Pluznick said. Bacteria are therefore the only meaningful source of what activates Olfr78 — which, further experiments showed, is involved in the regulation of blood pressure. [Continue reading…]

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The scallop sees its world with hundreds of space-age eyes

Carl Zimmer writes: It’s hard to see what’s so special about a scallop. It looks a lot like a clam, mussel or any other bivalve. Inside its hinged shell lurks a musclebound creature that’s best enjoyed seared in butter.

But there’s something more to this ubiquitous entree: the scallop sees its world with hundreds of eyes. Arrayed across the opening of its shell, the eyes glitter like an underwater necklace. Each sits at the tip of its own tentacle and can be extended beyond the rim of the shell.

While some invertebrate eyes can sense only light and dark, scientists have long suspected that scallops can make out images, perhaps even recognizing predators quickly enough to jet away to safety. But scallop eyes — each about the size of a poppy seed — are so tiny and delicate that scientists have struggled to understand how they work.

Now, a team of Israeli researchers has gotten a look at the hidden sophistication of the scallop eye, thanks to powerful new microscopes. On Thursday, they reported in the journal Science that each eye contains a miniature mirror made up of millions of square tiles. The mirror reflects incoming light onto two retinas, each of which can detect different parts of the scallop’s surroundings.

Our own eye has been likened to a camera: it uses a lens to focus light on the retina. The new research suggests that scallop eyes are more akin to another kind of technology: a reflector telescope of the sort first invented by Newton. Today, astronomers build gigantic reflector telescopes to look in deep space, and they also build their mirrors out of tiles.

“For me, Newton and Darwin come together in these eyes,” said Gáspár Jékely, a neuroscientist at the University of Exeter who was not involved in the new study. [Continue reading…]

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Bacteria from outer space rendezvous with Russians at International Space Station?

National Geographic reports: Living bacteria have been found on the outside of the International Space Station, a Russian cosmonaut told the state news agency TASS this week.

Anton Shkaplerov, who will lead Russia’s ISS crew in December, said that previous cosmonauts swabbed the station’s Russian segment during spacewalks and sent the samples back to Earth. The samples came from places on the station that had accumulated fuel waste, as well as other obscure nooks and crannies. Their tests showed that the swabs held types of bacteria that were not on the module when it originally launched into orbit, Shkaplerov says.

In his interview with TASS, Shkaplerov says the bacteria “have come from outer space and settled along the external surface”—a claim that sparked some media outlets to issue frenzied reports about aliens colonizing the space station.

For now, though, details about the swabbing experiment are thin on the ground. Shkaplerov did not note whether the study has been vetted by a peer-reviewed journal, which means it’s unclear exactly when and how the full experiment was conducted, or how the team avoided any contamination from much more mundane bacteria on the cosmonauts or in the Earth-bound lab. Interview requests with the Russian space agency were unanswered when this article went to press.

Rather than microbes raining down from outer space, it’s much more plausible that the outside of the space station became contaminated by earthly organisms, many of which can survive in the harsh environment in orbit. [Continue reading…]

Indeed, the journey along Occam’s Razor is much shorter and vastly easier than any voyage from distant worlds.

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Cockatoos match shapes better than primates

James Gorman writes: Cockatoos are smart birds, and the Goffin’s cockatoos in a Vienna lab are among the smartest. In an experiment reported about a year ago, they turned out to be real stars at making tools from a variety of materials in order to get a treat.

In a new study, researchers tested the birds’ ability to match shapes using an apparatus reminiscent of a child’s toy. The birds had to put a square tile into a square hole and more complicated, asymmetrical shapes into matching holes. If they were successful, they got a treat.

Cornelia Habl, a master’s student at the University of Vienna, and Alice M. I. Auersperg, a researcher at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, ran several experiments. They reported in the journal PLOS One that the cockatoos were not only able to match the shapes to the holes, but did much better than monkeys or chimpanzees.

“It was thought to be an exclusively human ability for a long time,” Ms. Habl said. Tests of matching shapes are used to mark milestones in child development.

Babies can put a sphere into the right hole at age 1, but they can’t place a cube until age 2. From there, they continue to improve.

Some primates can do similar tasks, although they need a lot of basic training to get up to speed before they can use the experimental apparatus, called a key box.

The birds jumped right in without any training and excelled. “Compared to primates, the cockatoos performed very well,” Ms. Habl said.

Why are they so good? In the wild, they haven’t been observed using tools. But they are generalists, foragers who take whatever food they can find. [Continue reading…]

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The forgotten art of squatting

Rosie Spinks writes: Sentences that start with the phrase “A guru once told me…” are, more often than not, eye-roll-inducing. But recently, while resting in malasana, or a deep squat, in an East London yoga class, I was struck by the second half of the instructor’s sentence: “A guru once told me that the problem with the West is they don’t squat.”

This is plainly true. In much of the developed world, resting is synonymous with sitting. We sit in desk chairs, eat from dining chairs, commute seated in cars or on trains, and then come home to watch Netflix from comfy couches. With brief respites for walking from one chair to another, or short intervals for frenzied exercise, we spend our days mostly sitting. This devotion to placing our backsides in chairs makes us an outlier, both globally and historically. In the past half century, epidemiologists have been forced to shift how they study movement patterns. In modern times, the sheer amount of sitting we do is a separate problem from the amount of exercise we get.

Our failure to squat has biomechanical and physiological implications, but it also points to something bigger. In a world where we spend so much time in our heads, in the cloud, on our phones, the absence of squatting leaves us bereft of the grounding force that the posture has provided since our hominid ancestors first got up off the floor. In other words: If what we want is to be well, it might be time for us to get low.

To be clear, squatting isn’t just an artifact of our evolutionary history. A large swath of the planet’s population still does it on a daily basis, whether to rest, to pray, to cook, to share a meal, or to use the toilet. (Squat-style toilets are the norm in Asia, and pit latrines in rural areas all over the world require squatting.) As they learn to walk, toddlers from New Jersey to Papua New Guinea squat—and stand up from a squat—with grace and ease. In countries where hospitals are not widespread, squatting is also a position associated with that most fundamental part of life: birth.

It’s not specifically the West that no longer squats; it’s the rich and middle classes all over the world. My Quartz colleague, Akshat Rathi, originally from India, remarked that the guru’s observation would be “as true among the rich in Indian cities as it is in the West.”

But in Western countries, entire populations—rich and poor—have abandoned the posture. On the whole, squatting is seen as an undignified and uncomfortable posture—one we avoid entirely. At best, we might undertake it during Crossfit, pilates or while lifting at the gym, but only partially and often with weights (a repetitive maneuver that’s hard to imagine being useful 2.5 million years ago). This ignores the fact that deep squatting as a form of active rest is built in to both our evolutionary and developmental past: It’s not that you can’t comfortably sit in a deep squat, it’s just that you’ve forgotten how. [Continue reading…]

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The deep history of the domestication and enslavement of humans

Steven Mithen writes: When our ancestors began to control fire, most likely somewhere in Africa around 400,000 years ago, the planet was set on a new course. We have little idea and even less evidence of how early humans made fire; perhaps they carried around smouldering bundles of leaves from forest fires, or captured the sparks thrown off when chipping stone or rubbing sticks together. However it happened, the human control of fire made an indelible mark on the earth’s ecosystems, and marked the beginning of the Anthropocene – the epoch in which humans have had a significant impact on the planet.

In Against the Grain James Scott describes these early stages as a ‘“thin” Anthropocene’, but ever since, the Anthropocene has been getting thicker. New layers of human impact were added by the adoption of farming about ten thousand years ago, the invention of the steam engine around 1780, and the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945. Today the Anthropocene is so dense that we have virtually lost sight of anything that could be called ‘the natural world’.

Fire changed humans as well as the world. Eating cooked food transformed our bodies; we developed a much shorter digestive tract, meaning that more metabolic energy was available to grow our brains. At the same time, Homo sapiens became domesticated by its dependence on fire for warmth, protection and fuel. If this was the start of human progress towards ‘civilisation’, then – according to the conventional narrative – the next step was the invention of agriculture around ten thousand years ago. Farming, it is said, saved us from a dreary nomadic Stone Age hunter-gatherer existence by allowing us to settle down, build towns and develop the city-states that were the centres of early civilisations. People flocked to them for the security, leisure and economic opportunities gained from living within thick city walls. The story continues with the collapse of the city-states and barbarian insurgency, plunging civilised worlds – ancient Mesopotamia, China, Mesoamerica – into their dark ages. Thus civilisations rise and fall. Or so we are told.

The perfectly formed city-state is the ideal, deeply ingrained in the Western psyche, on which our notion of the nation-state is founded, ultimately inspiring Donald Trump’s notion of a ‘city’ wall to keep out the barbarian Mexican horde, and Brexiters’ desire to ‘take back control’ from insurgent European bureaucrats. But what if the conventional narrative is entirely wrong? What if ancient ruins testify to an aberration in the normal state of human affairs rather than a glorious and ancient past to whose achievements we should once again aspire? What if the origin of farming wasn’t a moment of liberation but of entrapment? Scott offers an alternative to the conventional narrative that is altogether more fascinating, not least in the way it omits any self-congratulation about human achievement. His account of the deep past doesn’t purport to be definitive, but it is surely more accurate than the one we’re used to, and it implicitly exposes the flaws in contemporary political ideas that ultimately rest on a narrative of human progress and on the ideal of the city/nation-state. [Continue reading…]

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Young again: How one cell turns back time

Carl Zimmer writes: None of us was made from scratch. Every human being develops from the fusion of two cells, an egg and a sperm, that are the descendants of other cells. The lineage of cells that joins one generation to the next — called the germline — is, in a sense, immortal.

Biologists have puzzled over the resilience of the germline for 130 years, but the phenomenon is still deeply mysterious.

Over time, a cell’s proteins become deformed and clump together. When cells divide, they pass that damage to their descendants. Over millions of years, the germline ought to become too devastated to produce healthy new life.

“You take humans — they age two, three or four decades, and then they have a baby that’s brand new,” said K. Adam Bohnert, a postdoctoral researcher at Calico Life Sciences in South San Francisco, Calif. “There’s some interesting biology there we just don’t understand.”

On Thursday in the journal Nature, Dr. Bohnert and Cynthia Kenyon, vice president for aging research at Calico, reported the discovery of one way in which the germline stays young.

Right before an egg is fertilized, it is swept clean of deformed proteins in a dramatic burst of housecleaning. [Continue reading…]

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Bacteria slow their DNA repair to a crawl in favor of proofreading RNA gene transcripts

Jordana Cepelewicz writes: Evolution is a game of trade-offs. Every trait an organism inherits may have benefits and drawbacks; what matters to natural selection is whether the trait is positive or negative on balance. But in a recent study, researchers described a balancing act that seems more counterintuitive than most: Bacterial cells prioritize transcription — the process of making RNA transcripts of genes as the first step in protein production — over repairing double-strand breaks in their DNA.

“We tend to think of DNA as the brains of the cell,” said Susan Rosenberg, a biologist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “If we push that analogy and think about parts of the cell competing for resources the way the parts of the body do, the brain should be getting whatever it needs at the expense of everything else.”

So when her Baylor colleague Christophe Herman approached her with the hypothesis that transcription might be more important than DNA repair, Rosenberg was ready to bet the other way. “And I was sure I would win,” she said.

But she was proven wrong. Last month, she, Herman and their team published the results of their research in Nature: They found, using a series of experiments and intricate controls, that transcription can trump DNA repair in E. coli. [Continue reading…]

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Gandhi the pragmatic philosopher

Richard Sorabji writes: Was Mahatma Gandhi a philosopher? He would not have thought so himself. But I want to show that he was a model for philosophy in the philosophical subtlety of his accounts of non-violence and in his thinking on a vital kind of freedom. Gandhi was full of surprises: in his defence of concrete particularity in ethics when exceptionless rules cannot guide conduct; in his openness to views from other cultures; and in his exemplary response to criticism, which was welcomed, promulgated without being distorted, treated with disconcerting wit, and used to lead to a radical re-thinking of his own views.

Of course, Gandhi (1869-1948) is known for his belief in non-violence, which included, but was by no means confined to, non-violent resistance to the British rulers of India. But it is less well-known that he rejected the non-violence he had heard of in India. Although the most important influence in his life was the Jain faith, on non-violence, he preferred the second most important influence – Leo Tolstoy. He thought, rightly or wrongly, that the Indian view he knew did not sufficiently mind someone else treading on a beetle, so long as one kept oneself pure by not treading on it oneself. Gandhi saw his early self as a votary of violence. It was the Russian Christian writer, Tolstoy, who converted Gandhi to non-violence, a fact that shows his openness to views from other cultures.

For this openness to views from elsewhere, Gandhi acknowledged the value of another Jain view – that ordinary humans have only partial knowledge, from which he concluded that truth must be sought in diverse quarters. He described non-violence as being, on Tolstoy’s view, an ocean of compassion – one would not want anyone to tread on a beetle. But more than that, you should never hate your opponent. With his permission, Gandhi published Tolstoy’s A Letter to a Hindoo (1909), which argued that millions of Indians were enslaved to a few thousand British only because, instead of internalising the law of love, they cooperated with the British in carrying out the violence on which their enslavement depended.

Gandhi combined the attitude of compassion to all, opponents included, with a readiness for self-sacrifice so that, in resisting the British, he was ready to suffer a violent response without ever hating. But he did not think that all should join his non-violent confrontations, because everyone has a different character and hence a different duty (svadharma), since only some can retain the non-violent attitude in the face of violence. For those who could not, he set up a ‘constructive programme’, to carry out a different type of work. [Continue reading…]

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Dogs attempt to communicate with us through facial expressions

Gemma Tarlach writes: Hey dog owners, you’re not imagining it: Researchers think your pooch may be trying to say something with a pout or pleading eyes.

Everyone who lives with dogs may be rolling their eyes right about now and saying “Of course Boopsie/Rex/Potato is smiling/frowning/expressing wide-eyed existential dread,” but heaps of anecdotal evidence don’t mean much in terms of scientific cred. A study out today, however, is a big step toward confirming that dogs use facial expressions in an attempt to communicate with humans.

Within our extended primate clan, particularly orangutans and gibbons, there is evidence that individuals modulate their facial expressions based on whether there’s an audience, which suggests they’re using the expressions as a form of communication. But there’s been no evidence that’s the case among non-primates — their facial expressions have generally been considered involuntary and reflexive displays of emotion.

Interested in testing that notion, reasearchers from the University of Portsmouth designed an experiment to determine whether the facial expressions of dogs change in the presence of a human audience. [Continue reading…]

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How Yamnaya nomads and other herding cultures became early forces of globalization

Science News reports: Nomadic herders living on western Asia’s hilly grasslands made a couple of big moves east and west around 5,000 years ago. These were not typical, back-and-forth treks from one seasonal grazing spot to another. These people blazed new trails.

A technological revolution had transformed travel for ancient herders around that time. Of course they couldn’t make online hotel reservations. Trip planners would have searched in vain for a Steppe Depot stocked with essential tools and supplies. The closest thing to a traveler’s pit stop was a mountain stream and a decent grazing spot for cattle. Yet, unlike anyone before, these hardy people had the means to move — wheels, wagons and horses.

Here’s how the journeys may have played out: At a time when rainfall dwindled and grasslands in western Asia turned brown, oxen-pulled wagons loaded with personal belongings rolled west, following greener pastures into central and northern Europe. Other carts rumbled east as far as Siberia’s Altai Mountains, where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan meet today. Families of men, women and children may have piled on board. Or travelers may have been mostly men, who married women from farming villages along the way. Cattle, sheep and goats undoubtedly trailed along with whoever made these trips, under the watchful guidance of horse riders. Wagons served as mobile homes while on the move and during periodic stops to let animals graze.

These journeys, by people now known as the Yamnaya, transformed human genes and cultures across a huge swath of Europe and Asia. Yamnaya people left their mark from Ireland to China’s western border, across roughly 4,000 kilometers. [Continue reading…]

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The surprising forces influencing the complexity of the language we speak and write

Julie Sedivy writes: “[[[When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people [to dissolve the political bands [which have connected them with another]] and [to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station [to which the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them]]], a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires [that they should declare the causes [which impel them to the separation]]].”
— Declaration of Independence, opening sentence

An iconic sentence, this. But how did it ever make its way into the world? At 71 words, it is composed of eight separate clauses, each anchored by its own verb, nested within one another in various arrangements. The main clause (a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires …) hangs suspended above a 50-word subordinate clause that must first be unfurled. Like an intricate equation, the sentence exudes a mathematical sophistication, turning its face toward infinitude.

To some linguists, Noam Chomsky among them, sentences like these illustrate an essential property of human language. These scientists have argued that recursion, a technique that allows chunks of language such as sentences to be embedded inside each other (with no hard limit on the number of nestings) is a universal human ability, perhaps even the one uniquely human ability that supports language. It’s what allows us to create—literally—an infinite variety of novel sentences out of a limited inventory of words.

But that leads to a curious puzzle: Complex sentences are not ubiquitous among the world’s languages. Many languages have little use for them. They prefer to string together simple clauses. They may even lack certain words such as relative pronouns that and which or connectors like if, despite, and although—these words make it possible to link clauses together into larger sentences. Allegedly, the Pirahã language along the Maici River of Brazil lacks recursion altogether. According to linguist Dan Everett, Pirahã speakers avoid linguistic nesting of all kinds, even in structures such as John’s brother’s house. (Instead, they would say something like: Brother’s house. John has a brother. It is the same one.)

This can’t be pinned on biological evolution. All evidence suggests that humans around the world are born with more or less the same brains. Abundant childhood exposure to a language with layered sentences practically guarantees their mastery. Even adult Pirahã speakers, who have remained unusually isolated from European languages, pick up the trick of complex syntax, provided that they spend enough time interacting with speakers of Brazilian Portuguese, a language that offers an adequate diet of embedded structures.

More useful is the notion of linguistic evolution. It’s the languages themselves, rather than the brains, that have evolved along different paths. And just as different species are shaped by adaptations to specific ecological niches, certain linguistic features—like sentence complexity—survive and thrive under some circumstances, whereas other features take hold and spread within very different niches. [Continue reading…]

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Primate vocalizations are much more than gibberish

By Jay Schwartz

A chimpanzee is strolling along a trail through the lush Budongo Forest in Uganda when he spots a deadly Gaboon viper. Chimps have an alarm call for scenarios like these: a soft “hoo” grunt that alerts others to potential danger. But there’s no point in alerting his group mates if they’re already aware of the threat. So what does he do?

This is the question that Catherine Crockford, a primatologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and her colleagues were keen to answer. They are the ones who’d put the viper—a convincing model made out of wire mesh and plaster—in the chimp’s path. It sounds like a silly prank, trying to surprise a chimp with a model snake. But the researchers were trying to get at an elusive and profound question: How much of what a chimp “says” is intentional communication?

Their findings, published in 2012, along with those of a 2013 follow-up study by University of York psychologist Katie Slocombe and colleagues, challenged long-held assumptions about what makes humans unique among our primate relatives.

Researchers have spent decades endeavoring to unravel the depth of communication that nonhuman primates can achieve. Do they have words as we would think of them? Do they have grammar? Since language is so integral to our identity as humans, these questions get to the heart of what it means to be human. While the public tends to imbue every cat meow and dog bark with meaning, scientists have traditionally taken a much more conservative approach, favoring the least cognitive explanations and assuming that animal vocalizations are involuntary and emotional. “Conservatism is essential if animal cognition work is to be taken seriously,” says Slocombe.

We can’t see inside primate brains (at least not without a lot of practical and ethical difficulty), or ask primates what they mean or why they vocalize. So primate-communication researchers have been forced to devise clever studies to work out what’s going on in their subjects’ minds.

[Read more…]

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What happens if China makes first contact?

Ross Andersen writes: Last January, the Chinese Academy of Sciences invited Liu Cixin, China’s preeminent science-fiction writer, to visit its new state-of-the-art radio dish in the country’s southwest. Almost twice as wide as the dish at America’s Arecibo Observatory, in the Puerto Rican jungle, the new Chinese dish is the largest in the world, if not the universe. Though it is sensitive enough to detect spy satellites even when they’re not broadcasting, its main uses will be scientific, including an unusual one: The dish is Earth’s first flagship observatory custom-built to listen for a message from an extraterrestrial intelligence. If such a sign comes down from the heavens during the next decade, China may well hear it first.

In some ways, it’s no surprise that Liu was invited to see the dish. He has an outsize voice on cosmic affairs in China, and the government’s aerospace agency sometimes asks him to consult on science missions. Liu is the patriarch of the country’s science-fiction scene. Other Chinese writers I met attached the honorific Da, meaning “Big,” to his surname. In years past, the academy’s engineers sent Liu illustrated updates on the dish’s construction, along with notes saying how he’d inspired their work.

But in other ways Liu is a strange choice to visit the dish. He has written a great deal about the risks of first contact. He has warned that the “appearance of this Other” might be imminent, and that it might result in our extinction. “Perhaps in ten thousand years, the starry sky that humankind gazes upon will remain empty and silent,” he writes in the postscript to one of his books. “But perhaps tomorrow we’ll wake up and find an alien spaceship the size of the Moon parked in orbit.”

In recent years, Liu has joined the ranks of the global literati. In 2015, his novel The Three-Body Problem became the first work in translation to win the Hugo Award, science fiction’s most prestigious prize. Barack Obama told The New York Times that the book—the first in a trilogy—gave him cosmic perspective during the frenzy of his presidency. Liu told me that Obama’s staff asked him for an advance copy of the third volume.

At the end of the second volume, one of the main characters lays out the trilogy’s animating philosophy. No civilization should ever announce its presence to the cosmos, he says. Any other civilization that learns of its existence will perceive it as a threat to expand—as all civilizations do, eliminating their competitors until they encounter one with superior technology and are themselves eliminated. This grim cosmic outlook is called “dark-forest theory,” because it conceives of every civilization in the universe as a hunter hiding in a moonless woodland, listening for the first rustlings of a rival. [Continue reading…]

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Consciousness began when the gods stopped speaking

Veronique Greenwood writes: Julian Jaynes was living out of a couple of suitcases in a Princeton dorm in the early 1970s. He must have been an odd sight there among the undergraduates, some of whom knew him as a lecturer who taught psychology, holding forth in a deep baritone voice. He was in his early 50s, a fairly heavy drinker, untenured, and apparently uninterested in tenure. His position was marginal. “I don’t think the university was paying him on a regular basis,” recalls Roy Baumeister, then a student at Princeton and today a professor of psychology at Florida State University. But among the youthful inhabitants of the dorm, Jaynes was working on his masterpiece, and had been for years.

From the age of 6, Jaynes had been transfixed by the singularity of conscious experience. Gazing at a yellow forsythia flower, he’d wondered how he could be sure that others saw the same yellow as he did. As a young man, serving three years in a Pennsylvania prison for declining to support the war effort, he watched a worm in the grass of the prison yard one spring, wondering what separated the unthinking earth from the worm and the worm from himself. It was the kind of question that dogged him for the rest of his life, and the book he was working on would grip a generation beginning to ask themselves similar questions.

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, when it finally came out in 1976, did not look like a best-seller. But sell it did. It was reviewed in science magazines and psychology journals, Time, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. It was nominated for a National Book Award in 1978. New editions continued to come out, as Jaynes went on the lecture circuit. Jaynes died of a stroke in 1997; his book lived on. In 2000, another new edition hit the shelves. It continues to sell today.

In the beginning of the book, Jaynes asks, “This consciousness that is myself of selves, that is everything, and yet nothing at all—what is it? And where did it come from? And why?” Jaynes answers by unfurling a version of history in which humans were not fully conscious until about 3,000 years ago, instead relying on a two-part, or bicameral, mind, with one half speaking to the other in the voice of the gods with guidance whenever a difficult situation presented itself. The bicameral mind eventually collapsed as human societies became more complex, and our forebears awoke with modern self-awareness, complete with an internal narrative, which Jaynes believes has its roots in language. [Continue reading…]

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Sheep learned to recognize photos of Obama and other celebrities, neuroscientists say

Ben Guarino writes: Of the roughly 1.1 billion sheep on Earth, roughly 1.1 billion have no idea who Barack Obama is. But there are at least eight sheep who can recognize the former president by his face. After a few days of training at the University of Cambridge in England, the animals learned to select the former president’s portrait out of a collection of photos.

Recognizing Obama meant the sheep won a snack. The scientists, in turn, were rewarded with better ways to measure sheep brain function.

Sheep are about as capable of recognizing faces as monkeys or humans, University of Cambridge researchers report Tuesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science. The Cambridge flock, eight female Welsh Mountain sheep, successfully learned the faces of four celebrities in a recent experiment: Obama, British newscaster Fiona Bruce and actors Emma Watson and Jake Gyllenhaal.

“Sheep are capable of sophisticated decision making,” said study author Jenny Morton, a neurobiologist at the University of Cambridge. Seven years ago, she said, she bought these sheep out of the back of a truck on its way to a slaughterhouse. Morton, who studies Huntington’s disease, uses them as a stand-in for humans, in part because “sheep have large brains with humanlike anatomy.” [Continue reading…]

Like many other research findings, this will garner the response than animals turn out not to be as stupid as humans are inclined to believe.

This experiment, however, invites a rather obvious follow-up: a test to measure the human capacity to recognize sheep’s faces.

I predict that on this score, the human capacity is probably inferior to that of the sheep, which is to say that our anthropocentric habits have rendered us as among the least perceptive of creatures.

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