Saturday, July 29, 2006

We Ain't Nothing But Mammals...

Every once in a while when I am reminded that I live in a Puritanical sex-repressed insensitive patriarchal country, I get angry enough that I want to do something about it.

What incensed me today was a topic on the Yahoo EP listserve - breastfeeding in public.

Evidently many people are disgusted by it. UPenn psychologist Paul Rozin proposes that anything that reminds us we are animals is disgusting. I agree with him and think that certainly applies to breastfeeding, the most mammalian of activities.

I personally am not disgusted by the idea we are animals, am not disgusted by breastfeeding in public, and look forward to the occasion when I can piss someone off because I am breastfeeding my child in public. I don't know if I would breastfeed my child until the age of 3-4 as some women in many parts of the word do, but I can certainly see the benefits. It provides fantastic nutrition and immunoenhancement for the child, acts as natural birth control because lactational hormones suppress ovulation, and eats up calories so quickly that a mom can either quickly lose "baby weight" or keep eating like mad. Aside from the discomfort of breastfeeding while a child has teeth, what else is wrong with nursing a 3-4 year old child?

And what is so upsetting about seeing a baby nursing from its mother's tit?

I wonder if the x% of people who are disgusted by public breastfeeding are the same people who believe that atheists like me are going to hell. I say bring the fire on baby, I am not at all worried.

I couldn't locate a link to the AP story I read so here's a link to one that carries:
click here for news story

Friday, July 28, 2006

Flies are More Interesting...

... than primate brains.

At least when the fly education is delivered via the Discovery Channel and the primate brain information is delivered via an unnecessarily redundant and narrow article about how the number of cones in a primate's fovea is correlated with its brain size.

To make a long story short, I read the other article I alluded to in my previous post. It appears in the 51st issue of the Journal of Human Evolution. Kirk provided data that shows that for the most part, throughout primate evolution the size of the optic foramen is associated with total brain size. The optic foramen is the opening in the skull through which the optic nerve passes. The photo to the right, from an NIH website, illustrates the whereabouts of this thing. Why do primate have such large brains relative to other animals? And, why do anthropoids (monkeys & apes) have such large brains compared to strepsirrhines (wet nosed prosimians like lemurs and bushbabies)? They receive more "visual input" to the brain because of having more cones in their retinas which forced (because of Jerison's principle of proper mass) their brains to become larger to accommodate the need to process more info coming in through their eyeballs, i.e. primates have big brains because they have sharp eyes.

The author, E. C. Kirk, barely offers a reason for why primates have greater visual acuity (more cones in their retinas). He defers to the prevailing theory of visual predation. Perhaps the editors of the journal excised that part to make room for Isbell's seriously long article...

Aside from learning that a huge proportion of the neocortex is devoted to visual information processing, I also learned some more about aye-ayes and night monkeys, two oddballs in the primate world.

First, the aye-aye and the night monkey don't fit the equation for the visual acuity/big brain relationship.

The aye-aye's brain is much larger than it should be, and the night monkey, despite having few cones in its retina, does NOT have a smaller brain than it should, so like the aye-aye, its brain is larger than it should be. Cool. "Clearly, factors other than increased visual input are responsible for the evolution of high encephalization in Daubentonia" (Kirk, 2006, 86). Yeah, like maybe instead of depending on visual predation, it relies on auditory predation.

This beautifully ugly little bugger uses echolocation by tapping on tree limbs to locate nutritious grubs inside. Then, with its rodent-like incisors it gauges a hole in exactly the right spot and uses its incredibly long middle finger to winkle out the worm. The aye-aye's brain is also more heavily convoluted than it ought to be. Perhaps its auditory cortex or whatever part of the brain deals with spatial locations is disproportionately large. Meanwhile, the nocturnal and incredibly large eyed Aotus may have a large brain because of the "ratchet effect," the tendency for brains to stay large once they've evolved to that size because of the cognitive advantages (which presumably outweigh the metabolic cost of maintaining it).

Big brains are like SUVs, they need a lot of gas to go. If you're a small bodied primate, your tank isn't very large so if you're going to run a large brain, you'd better be ingesting some high octane fuel. Because large brains are so costly, many scientists have pondered why they become so large.

Finally, I wanted to talk about flies (actually MAGGOTS) so here goes!
This will be comparatively short and less than erudite because A, I am no Drosophila expert, and B, I got it from the Discovery Channel.

1. TSETSE FLIES (the nasty vermin that cause African Sleeping Sickness) give live birth to single young larvae which develop some sort of airbag on their forehead which presumably blows them away... maybe so they don't compete for prey with mom? The sickness is caused by a trypanosome, a parasite, that quickly migrates to the brain and eventually causes the afflicted to be perpetually and seriously drowsy. The program reported that 50 million people may be affected but the CDC reports that the figure is closer to 400,000. Of interest to me, being someone who would like to visit Mali someday to see the largest mud structure in the world and listen to music following in the tradition of Ali Farka Toure, the CDC also reports:

"African trypanosomiasis is confined to tropical Africa between 15° north latitude and 20° south latitude, or from north of South Africa to south of Algeria, Libya, and Egypt... Tsetse flies inhabit rural areas, living in the woodland and thickets of the savannah and the dense vegetation along streams [i.e places where two birdwatchers could find themselves]. Infection of international travelers is rare [great news!]. Approximately 1 case per year is reported among U.S. travelers. Most of these infections are caused by T. b. rhodesiense and they are acquired in East African game parks. Travelers visiting game parks and remote areas should be advised to take precautions. Travelers to urban areas are not at risk [no problem, I will be spending ZERO time in Lagos]."

2. Maggots are used to keep wounds clean and can be very helpful for treating gangrene when other methods (antibiotics and surgery) fail. Maggot therapy in the UK is such big business, at least according to the Discovery Channel, that it's an 11.5 million/year industry there. If they inflated these numbers like they did with the alarmist tsetse fly numbers, then the real figure may be closer to 100,000. Maggot factories employ owls to catch the escapees. What a great natural solution to two gross problems. I couldn't help but to think of the scene from The Gladiator...

3. An unidentified Mexican woman believes, "Flies and insects are the answer to word famine." She says maggots provide 50% more protein than beef and can be digested more easily. She even promos a recipe book that she wrote which contains instructions for making a substitute cream sauce for ratatouille out of pureed maggot innards. Primates were originally insectivores so maybe she's on to something....

... if you're an AYE-AYE!

Entomophagy - YUCK
Coprophagy - DOUBLE YUCK
Steakophagy.... YUM.

By the way, according to, coprophagy is "the eating of excrement that is normal behavior among many especially young animals but in humans is a symptom of some forms of insanity."

As is eating maggot cream sauce on your pasta!

Seriously, I don't think eating shit makes you certifiably insane, nor does consuming bugs.

Would you eat maggot cream sauce?

What if it could be made to taste just like the cream sauce the guys over at Cafe Medit make for their lobster ravioli?

Academic Milestones ... and Hoops

With the recent acceptance of her first published research article, Science Woman is asking others about their professional/academic milestones over at her blog. That got me thinking that I probably have a few of those to be proud of.

So, here are my favorite achievements:
1. winning 5 awards from the Columbia University school of journalism my senior year in high school for kicking butt on layout and design as editor-in-chief of our school's yearbook
2. winning the chemistry award in high school for being the best chem student
3. scoring 44th in my state on a nationally adminstered math exam
4. getting into a prestigious SLAC and graduating with honors while being the first person in my family to go to college
5. teaching myself French while I was under-employed after graduation
6. getting into grad school AT THE ONLY PLACE I APPLIED
7. giving my first research presentation at a conference that I thought I had no hope of even getting into in the first place (I recently got two of my students' papers into it)
8. having my petition accepted so that I could teach my first course in primatology during grad school
9. getting a temporary full-time teaching position at one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country while I was ABD
10. teaching as a visiting prof at my alma mater, another top-tier liberal arts college, while ABD
11. introducing my students to my academic loves: primates, animal behavior, and evolutionary science
12. receiving one of the best teaching compliments ever: "I heard about evolution in other classes before, but I never really understood it until your class."

Ok, so that was lot, and I could probably think of others, but those are the ones I am most proud of.

For those of you, who like myself 6 years ago, have no idea about what kind of rigamarole getting a PhD involves, I thought I would break it down in a paragraph, as I did for my dad who emailed me the other night asking, "SO YOU ARE REALLY ALMOST DONE WITH THAT PHD?" He always uses all CAPS and writes in almost telegraphic sentences. Like I said before in a previous post, he is a man of few words. That raises the bar for verbose me to answer, in as few words as possible, his question about that degree.

So, I said:
"Yep, I am really almost done."

I could have left it at that, and he probably would have been just as happy to go eat his steak dinner that much sooner, but no, I had to delay his dining experience to give him an account of my anticipated ordeal:

"I just need about 150 more males to take my survey then I can import the rest of the data into SPSS, clean up the spreadsheet, analyze the data, and write up what story the data tells. Once I have all of the data, it'll take a week or two to import/clean up, a month to analyze, and a month to write it up. Then I'll send it to my advisor, she'll read and comment on it and we'll email back and forth for 4-5 weeks about what changes I need to make, then I'll make them and resubmit it to her and when she gives me the "go-ahead" that it is defensible as PhD level research, I will send it to my other 4 committee members and then they will read it and maybe about 3 weeks later comment on it, suggest changes and maybe ask a few questions. Once I get the go-ahead from them, I'll schedule my oral defense for 2-3 weeks later and then I'll fly out to NH to defend it and then at that time they will "pass" me and make me make more changes. After I make those changes I submit it to my advisor one last time and when she approves, I send it to the graduate school and then several weeks later I get the degree."

It is an awful lot of hoops to jump through, and as I learned from the first half of the process, the thing that takes the most time is working back & forth with the committee. It has to be done their way in the end. What a surprise.

That night, my main man treated me to a yummy steak dinner at our favorite cheap restaurant.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Belief Perseverance & Inertia

When I read scholarly articles that challenge commonly held theories, I wonder whether scholars will embrace the new theories and actually test the hypotheses they propose or will they dismiss the new theories out-of-hand based on some superficially valid reasoning without stepping up to test them or at least deeply consider them?

There are two such theories that hit the press this week: the snake one I posted about earlier which challenges the prevailing theory of the evolution of binocular vision (visual predation) and, published in the same journal as the snake paper, one about the evolution of large primate brain size that I hope extends Dunbar's sociality theory.

I haven't heard the scientific buzz about these new theories, but will be interested to see how well-received they are. A Christian blog poked fun at it after having seen the news story on Fox.

Will the result be belief perseverance, holding to one's beliefs despite evidence to the contrary, a phenomenon psychologists have noted and that 'young-earth creationists' suffer from? Or will scientists read the papers and re-evaluate the cherished theories? Whatever happens, I can only say that papers like this prompt good teachers to revise lecture notes. Perhaps the scientists who suffer most from belief perseverance are the same ones who use lecture notes yellowed from years of use. They must be members of The Flat Earth Society.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A Geneology of Kanzi's Family

Today I discovered the familial relationships among the bonobos at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa where Kanzi lives. I'm a visual thinker so I made this map to show how they are all related. The dates indicate the year of the bonobo's birth. Circle = Female; Square = Male. An E behind the date indicates that bonobo is actively involved in research; C indicates that bonobo is part of a control group. Notice that Kanzi is adopted but has never mated with his 'sisters,' notably Panbanisha who being similar in age would seem a good match. Perhaps bonobos are not sexually interested (for mating purposes anyway) in those they grew up with or maybe Kanzi and Panbanisha were prevented from conceiving any offspring. Note also that Panbanisha has produced offspring with the same male her mother Matata did: P-Suke, a male who moved to their group from a lab in Japan.

Snakes in Primate Vision

A tip from Daphne led me to read the following news story about an anthropologist, Lynne Isbell, who believes that snakes drove the evolution of the primate visual system, in particular binocular vision.

Fear of Snakes Drove Primate Evolution, Scientist Says

That caught my eye to say the least, considering my interest in both primates *and* vision. Stereopsis! Plus primates. Excellent.

So, I did some digging and located the primary source article, "Snakes as agents of evolutionary change in primate brains," published in the Journal of Human Evolution (2006).

is well over 30 pages of microprint loaded with neurological jargon. I am only 11 pages into it and already I have received a nice refresher on neuroanatomy. I've also gained a new perspective so that next time I teach the neuro and S & P sections of intro psych I will be able to contextualize how these systems are interconnected. And I will be able to do it using primates *and* evolution! Most excellent. I love it when I can integrate topics.

Without getting into the nitty gritty details, suffice it to say, Isbell has synthesized a mountain of
information into a new, compelling theory on the evolution of binocular vision, one that extends the two prevailing theories (visual predation and arboreal life) of why early primates' eyes gradually moved from the sides of their heads to the front. She proposes that the ability to visually detect snakes using binocular cues proved advantageous. So far, the most compelling evidence she provides concerns the relationship between orbit convergence (movement of the eyes from the sides to the front of the face) and the activity of parvocellular and magnocellular neurons in the LGN (lateral geniculate nucleus) of the primate thalamus. Frontal vision anatomy is associated with parvocellular development. This system provides "vision for perception" (such as being able to spot a venomous snake camouflaged in leaves) while the magnocellular neurons enable "vision for action" (such as being able to reach and grasp an insect to eat or a branch while leaping). Other pieces of compelling evidence come from research into the koniocellular pathway (a new one to me!) as well as V1, V2, and V4 areas of the visual cortex. V2 cells respond preferentially to small spots of color and also to oscillating rodlike objects, i.e. stimuli that resemble snakes. Thus, ancient primate vision evolved in response to the need to quickly perceive the presence of a deadly snake in the field of vision.

On page 10 Isbell spends quite a few paragraphs talking about Parkinson's disease (PD) which seemed odd at first, but then she presented a few interesting factoids that show the relevance of the condition to understanding how the visual system works. Apparently people with PD experience a loss of sensitivity to light in blue wavelengths due to loss of dopamine in certain retinal cells that are concentrated in peripheral vision. That's trivial it seems, but what isn't is that people with PD often freeze in doorways or places where there are obstacles present. Freezing is also a typical response of many mammals to the sudden appearance of a predator or other danger in the periphery.
This response appears to be controlled by a portion of the cortex called the substantia nigra. The unnecessary freezing of PD could be caused by damage to dopamine producing neurons in this area combined with an upset connection of this region to the superior colliculus, a portion of the cortex that attends to visual stimuli outside of awareness.

Did you know your brain sees things that you do not consciously see? Even when you don't realize it or even try, your eyes and brain take in vast quantities of stimuli that you are never consciously aware of but that influence you to act nonetheless. The superior colliculus may be the neurological hardware that permits us to be influenced subliminally. It just happens that people with PD react to the subliminal awareness of doors, changes in floor tiles, and boxes as fear-arousing stimuli whereas for the rest of us, it takes a snake.

Here's a great photo of a Japanese snow monkey displaying a classic play face. It looks like a human surprise face. The position of the monkey's eyebrows (up and together) suggests this surprise is mixed with fear. Some surprises are scarry after all, like snakes!

In addition to being a fan of vision science, I am also a fan of nonverbal behavior, in particular facial expressions. Paul Ekman has done some amazing work on the facial expression of emotion, one of Darwin's pet projects. Ekman extended Darwin's study of emotional expressions by showing that people around the world display and understand the same facial expressions. People have the most difficulty telling the difference between surprise and fear. Perhaps that's because they often co-occur.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Dissertation Progress!

Today I achieved something marvelous:
I successfully downloaded my online data for study one and imported it via Excel into SPSS. I had to merge the files which was a pain, but 6 hours later I now have a file that is only a few steps away from being analyzable. Then I can start the sadistics. I began with the easier of the two studies so that I would have a confidence booster. The other one is four times as large and presents even more rigamarole before it will be useful.

I still had time to play with my little darlings who were much better behaved today. If you want time to yourself, put the dogs to sleep by setting the thermostat a few degrees higher. You can always put on a tank top :0) while they resort to minimizing their 'travel budget.' It works very well, or at least it did today!

Now that I have a social science and also a behavioral science project underway, I thought I would try a botany experiment as well. I'm attempting to germinate some seeds from my jasmine plant and also a strange pink carnation producing ground cover grass that grows in the front yard.

I even managed to read two articles and am about to iron some clothes.

Productivity :-)

And I did eat breakfast and lunch today so all things considered, I had an excellent day!

Monday, July 24, 2006

Don't Buy This Product

If you like the look of tanned skin but don't want to expose your skin to ugly UV rays, then be advised: Don't by NEW Dove® Energy Glow™ Daily Moisturizer with Subtle Self-Tanners.

The company blurb:
"gradually adds a beautiful summer glow to skin. Fast-absorbing and with a delightful fragrance, it moisturizes and gradually enhances your natural skin color. "

What they leave out:
The self-tanning ingredients bear all of the hallmarks of the chemicals that Clinique used in their self-tanner TEN YEARS AGO which means that although it costs 1/4 of the price now, you are stuck with a product that makes your skin smell awful after it absorbs the lotion. This smell will not go away until you shed the layers of skin that absorbed it. Showering will not help. You will have to exfoliate like a Turkish bath house masseuse to get the smell off and by then you'll be covered with sores. If you think you can hide the smell with strongly scented lotion, forget about it. If you sweat even slightly, everyone within a ten foot radius of you may think you haven't bathed in a week.

My recommendation:
Spend the extra money and buy the new formula Clinique self-tanner. It has a slight odor but once it soaks in all you have to do is shower once to odor-free.

Holly Snappleseed

Last summer I transplanted a bunch of sorry looking about-to-die snapdragons from a container plant that came with my house to a new, permanent spot by the back fence. They had already bloomed but after dead-heading them, a few stalks produced one or two more flowers. As it turns out, with a lot of regular watering and some fertilizer, this is a very good spot for them. To my surprise, this spring the snapdragons produced a ton of flowers. They tripled in size, maybe even quadrupled and spread way out. All of the flowers are in the pink range. Some tend toward orange while another variety is paler and has hints of white. They make excellent cut flower arrangements to bring some garden color indoors. I like snapdragons so much that I bought two more this spring - white and deep wine with yellow. Now that they are finished with their spectacular blow-out blooming season I have started gathering the seeds from their pods. I plan to start them indoors in March and plant them in profusion when the time is right.

Early his morning I was rudely awakened by Old Man barfing in my bedroom and after getting up to clean his present up I realized that I was too awake to go back to bed. So, I used my Alessi tea strainer to remove the leaves and other debris that got mixed in when I gathered the seeds. With a bit of shaking as if sifting flour, the seeds fell right through the little holes and left the junk behind. I snapped this photo of to separate the snapdragon seeds from the riff-raff of dried stems and leaves my haul of this year's crop. I could gather more, but honestly, where would I plant them all?

On a visit to the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Florida many years ago, I bought some really neat handmade paper cards. Embedded in the paper were seeds for herbs like parsley and basil. The idea was to soak the card and then plant it. I ended up sending them off to green thumb friends and family while I saved the idea for myself. My guess is that no one actually planted those cards.

Perhaps now that I have some time on my hands and a big enough place, I can get back into the paper making thing again; except this time, I'll make them with snapdragon seeds inside. I always used junk paper. Sometimes I would use perfumed magazine sample inserts to add fragrance to the paper. Some of the sheets I have saved (from more than 7 years ago) still smell. I also occasionally added rose petals to the pulp. When the sheets dried the paper turned green around the petals. This happened most dramatically for the deep burgundy ones. Alas, I think I have many, many other projects I would rather do than make more paper, even if they would have snappy seeds in them, so I'll just keep that idea on the back burner.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Mama Bird

Ordinarily I wouldn't touch a grasshopper but today I picked one up and brought inside to give to Max. He loves to eat them and he hasn't had much fun ever since a much younger but larger dog came to live with him, so I figured it would bring some happiness to his otherwise humdrum day to make a grasshopper delivery. I was outside with Dog Dos by the way, which is why he didn't catch it himself. I tried to interest her in it, but she only became accinterested when I showed it to Max. Of course. She killed it and he ate it. I hope my little baby bird was happy.

Later that day while I was deep into pinning fabric for the curtains I'm sewing for my bedroom, I was startled by the sudden appearance of Her Highness the Thundering Herd. Being bred to be in Canadian air, she naturally gravitates to the AC vent by the dining room table. I think it's where her heart lies. Today that literally came true - her heart shaped dog tag got caught in the AC register. She didn't exactly panic, which was nice, but I did have to drop what I was doing to assist her... by taking embarrassing photos.

The Maternal Brain, an article in SciAm Jan 2006 (see I've advanced two months in my pile), suggests that mothers actually get smarter because of motherhood. At least mother rats do. It's an interesting proposition that I won't get into now, at least not academically. I'll just suffice it to say that adding a puppy to your life does change things. Has it made me more intelligent? I doubt it, at least not by the usual psychological definition of ratcheting up my WAIS-R IQ score.

But I can say that it has propelled me into being much more active and productive. I've actually lost 4 lbs chasing around after her and trying to teach The Twins how to behave. Not that I keep track of weight, but I do weigh exactly as much as I did on my first day of college (minus those 4 lbs). I think that's pretty darn good since that was 14 years ago. I've got to figure out how to get those pounds back. When I get productive I don't prioritize eating.

Today I didn't get around to eating lunch until around dinner time. What's really funny is that while I was pinning curtains, I was also editing and burning another DVD (it's my 2nd in 2 days - backing up research and teaching clips so I can free up more space on my laptop) and also listening to a French language lesson. See, being a mom to two pups has made me smarter - I regularly do three things at once now. Ok, so I've probably been TypeA since birth. The mutli-tasking thing is nothing new. I have Pimsleur's lessons mounted on my iPod and when they come up in rotation sometimes I listen to them for a while as a refresher. When Bomber the Newfie needed my urgent assistance I was listening to the lesson that teaches you how to say "Je voudrais dejeuner." I would like to eat lunch. It was about 4:30, and yep, I should've eaten lunch way before that. Oh well, I'm eating ice cream now with all the toppings :-)

Perhaps I need a mama bird to deliver me little packages of protein...

I think this is Max's way of seeing to it that I do that:

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Gestural Communication

As reported by Maurice yesterday,
"Today I had an interesting experience which told me something about how the mind works. I came across a gang of ten-year olds and asked them if they knew of a way to get across a nearby freeway. All the boys said they didn't know, which is a big improvement over just saying no. Then a girl told me what to do. I am never surprised by the superior intelligence of females. The interesting thing was that as she was giving me directions she was also gesticulating by moving her hand in a counterclockwise rising spiral. She never mentioned anything remotely like a spiral during her directions. When I got to the bridge she told me how to find, I saw that it was reached by walking up a rising counterclockwise spiral ramp. It is clear to me that she knew about this ramp, maybe even visualized it, and that's why she gesticulated the way she did."

All of this reminded me of two articles I've read about gesture.

Click here for one I've used as assigned reading in my nonverbal behavior seminar and here for media coverage of the other which is sure to make it into class discussion in my primate behavior class.

Indeed, gesture does tell us something about how the mind works.

Not only does it pave the way for youngsters to learn language more quickly [see research abstract here], but it also helps us process information more efficiently. In psycho(research)babble this is called "lightening cognitive load." As soon as I discovered Susan Goldin-Meadow's research I was hooked. She totally changed my perspective on gesture. Previously I had only seen gesture as communicative in function, but they are far more than that. Perhaps the youngster Maurice observed gesturing a spiral was able to recall those directions better because she gestured. That's what Goldin-Meadow's research would suggest.

Very recently I read the following article, procured electronically through interlibrary loan the day after I requested it (isn't technology amazing?!):
Latéralité et communication gestuelle intentionnelle chez le babouin.

I didn't read it in French, I just like the title and spelling of "baboon" in French ;-) It looks comically elegant. I could read it in French if I wanted to, but thankfully for my optimal comprehension, it was published in English in Behavioural Brain Research:
Baboons communicate with their right hand.

Evidently a couple of French psychologists observed captive baboons making hand slaps on the ground to intimidate other baboons (and humans). This is not a revelation. Baboonologists have known this for as long as they've been watching baboons. What is news is that finally a bunch of people sat down and logged serious observational hours tallying up the proportion of right vs. left handed hand slaps. Of course, you might be wondering why does it matter? Why would anyone record in meticulous detail the hand actions of a bunch of monkeys?

Well, Meguerditchian and Vauclair's research is the first to show that a non-ape has a hand preference for communicative purposes, and as it turns out, most of them are not south paws. What's more, psychologists have known that speech/language capabilities are "lateralized" in the left side of the brain ever since a fellow Frenchy Paul Broca found that out about 150 years ago, and they've known for about 1o years that vocalizations in monkeys are similarly lateralized thanks to one of my favorite primate-psychologists, Marc Hauser, BUT ... they did not know until now that nonverbal communicative hand gestures are also likely left hemisphere lateralized in NON-APES.

You see, chimps tend to gesture with their right hand, which suggests that gestural communication and corresponding supportive brain structures were lateralized about 5-6 million years ago in our common ancestor. Now that we can see that baboons also make asymmetrical communicative gestures, we can guesstimate that primate brains became lateralized and prepared for language specialization much earlier than previously thought.

All of this comes down to trying to pinpoint the evolutionary origins of language, the most useful of human 'tools.'

What I really appreciated about this article in addition to all of the above, is that the authors (probably because of reviewer criticism or to head it off at the pass) proposed and then refuted a potential problem with drawing conclusions from a small sample size.

Think about this...
If you observed a baboon slapping the ground with its right hand 12 times, how could you be sure that she really is a right-handed baboon? What if in the other 273 times she slapped the ground Miss Baboon did so with her LEFT hand and you only happened to see that 12 times she did it with her right hand? What if during the week you observed her she primarily slapped the ground with her right hand but during the next week when you were crunching the numbers on your new data she slapped the ground 10/12 times with her LEFT hand?

To get around such sources of error, M & V looked at their data to see whether baboons who had fewer recorded hand slaps were more likely to be labeled as rightys. They weren't.

I always like to see this sort of problem discussed because it gives me a reason to get students to think critically about scientific research, statistics, and sampling.

The other thing I really appreciated about this article is that they observed baboons making the intimidating hand-slap gesture to other baboons as well as humans. It didn't make a difference who the intended receiver of this communicative signal was. Baboons did not didn't discriminate. That's not really surprising, but what made me laugh was that in order to get the baboons to slap the ground to a human receiver, all that person had to do was shake her head at the target baboon.

I suppose if a baboon slapped the ground at me I might send a rude hand gesture back... from a safe distance. Have you seen their canines?!

They eat meat.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Kanzi Plays Ms. Pac-Man

This morning I discovered (through the blog grapevine) this cool video of Kanzi, a language trained bonobo I wrote about earlier (Sun July 9), who plays Ms. Pac-Man, which happens to be one of my favorite video games. It may be my favorite arcade game. I spent a lot of quarters in my youth on this game. But back to the real story...

The website that hosts the video calls him a "chimp" which for those who don't know, is partly true and partly wrong. He is a bonobo. They are also called pygmy chimps.

Kanzi and his extended bonobo family formerly lived at the Language Research Center at Georgia State University where they learned to use lexigrams, symbolic language equivalents of Japanese kanji (the similar words being coincidental, Kanzi means treasure in Swahili). NPR carries a nice summary of how Kanzi learned to use language. This is significant because Kanzi did not learn using the Skinnerian conditioning methods that other ape language projects had relied on. Perhaps this is the reason for his success, but it could very well be that Kanzi, and bonobos in general, are primed for language acquisition like humans are.

Kanzi and his teacher's achievements are remarkable, but so is the limit of his language abilities. He does understand syntax (which is a HUGE accomplishment & discovery for science), but he still doesn't have the ability to carry on complex conversations, tell stories, use past tense and other tenses (though there is a way he can talk about the future, usually his desires for the immediate future), and his vocabulary is nowhere near the hundreds of thousands of words that adult humans have in their repertoire. To be fair, this may be dependent on the time and creativity of his teachers who must design new lexigrams.

Now that Kanzi and Co. have reached retirement age (there should be a primate AARP, All Ape Retirement Program... definitely not American Association of Retired Primates, why be exclusive to only 'american' primates? After all, there are aging research apes in Japan, too [who are also involved in language and cognition studies]... of course my suggested way is hardly inclusive as it leaves out all non-apes... but anyway, I digress), they live at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa. The bonobos pictured snoozing in my photo above live at the San Diego Zoo. They look retired to me.

From their website:
"Great Ape Trust is dedicated to providing sanctuary and an honorable life for great apes, studying the intelligence of great apes, advancing conservation of great apes and providing unique educational experiences about great apes. Great Ape Trust of Iowa is a 501(c) 3 not-for-profit organization and is certified by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA)."

It looks like Sue Savage-Rumbaugh finally realized her dream of giving Kanzi & Co. a better life than a laboratory could provide. Maybe she just got tired of living in Georgia. Or maybe her funding ran out. Or maybe Kanzi told her he was ready to live somewhere else.

In any case, the Great Ape Trust looks like a wonderful place and there is still plenty of quality research being conducted by more than a dozen LRC affiliated scientists, including Dorothy Fragaszy who along with Leighty published "Primates in cyberspace: Using interactive computer tasks to study perception and action in nonhuman animals. 2003. Anim. Cogn. 6: 137-139." as well as "Joystick acquisition in tufted capuchins (Cebus apella).2003. Anim. Cogn. 6:141-148." I bet these two experts could provide some very interesting commentary on Kanzi's Ms. Pac-Man skills.

Rather than playing Ms. Pac-Mac, over the weekend I painted this, a post card sized watercolor of a Hand of Fatima inspired by tiles I saw on a beautiful house in El Jem, Tunisia.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


My front yard sports this solo flower, a gladiolus. Right before it unleashes its splendor it looks like a gladiator's spear. Very neat. I want to plant many, many more of them.

Right next to it is an as-yet-unidentified tree that we planted last year. It is one of the two survivors out of ten very young flowering saplings obtained as an incentive for joining the National Arbor Day Foundation. Any bets on which variety it is? Dogwood, rosebud, cherry, crab apple, or the ever so cool golden rain tree, aka koelreuteria?

The last variety produces wonderful seed pods. What is really interesting, and something I just discovered, is that this tree is NOT native to Washington State. It originates in Asia and is considered an invasive species in Florida!
According to this site, "Golden rain tree should not be planted in Florida (or in similar climates) because it becomes invasive and displaces native plants. The Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council lists golden rain tree as an invader with the potential to disrupt native plant communities."

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Meerkat Teacher

How do you know when you've taught someone something? This question is not easy to answer. Perhaps they coincidentally learned it on their own or picked it up from observing you. In those cases, can you really say that you taught them? I don't think so. So then, what exactly does it mean to teach?

The following news brief doesn't really address this issue but is provocative nonetheless. I'm not sure if the issue gets addressed in this NPR interview; I haven't heard it. I prefer to go to the original publication. Only those in privileged positions can access the publication online, and fortunately I am one of them so I can tell you they go with a definition from Marc Hauser, author of Wild Minds, a book I recommend.

To qualify as teaching, these criteria must be met:
1) the 'teacher' modifies its behavior only in the presence of a naive observer (the 'student')
2) the 'teacher' incurs some cost or at least no immediate benefit
3) the 'student' acquires knowledge or skills more rapidly than s/he would have otherwise

The only one I get stuck on is #2. I can understand the teacher has to expend at least some time/energy (a cost), but why does the teacher have to not immediately benefit from the activity? I know it says "or" and this might be the key to the definition.

Some primatologists think that chimps living in the Côte d'Ivore have taught their offspring how to crack nuts, which may be the case, but I've always wondered if this was only another case of observation learning rather than active teaching.

Let's take another look at this definition using a common example from West Africa, imagining I'm a chimp. If I'm not spending any extra time or effort on teaching someone, say I'm using some innovative technique to extract a highly nutritious and rare substance for myself in the presence of my young one (which happens often), then I would possibly be teaching if I do not immediately consume this delicacy. I would still have to use some other technique, one that I don't ordinarily use while eating this food (to satisfy #1), and my youngster would have to extract this item sooner than s/he would have if I had not altered my foraging behavior (to meet #3).

Evidently this is what meerkat parents have been observed doing - with scorpions.


Meerkat Parents Demo Life Lessons

July 13, 2006 — It's hardly algebra or physics, but meerkats have been observed actively teaching their young, something not often seen among animals in the wild.

While the young of many species learn by observing older members of their group, it's less common for adults to take direct actions with the only goal being teaching.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge in England observed meerkats gradually introducing cubs to prey, showing them how to handle captured insects and even removing the stingers from scorpions before giving them to youngsters.

"Although there are anecdotal reports of teaching in species from chimpanzees to killer whales, until this year solid evidence was really lacking," said Alex Thornton, co-author of the report appearing in the current issue of the journal Science.

There had also been evidence of teaching by cats, Thornton added, but that was hard to confirm because of the difficulty of studying large cats in the wild.

Meerkats are not related to cats. They are about a foot long plus an eight-inch tail and weigh about two pounds. They live in groups.

"Meerkats provide the ideal study species to examine these questions because they eat a whole range of prey items including lizards, geckos, scorpions, spiders and small mammals that are very difficult for young pups to handle," Thornton said.

While evidence of teaching has been rare, he said, "My feeling is that teaching is a lot more common than we had previously supposed. I think teaching is probably very common among species in which dependent young must learn complex skills. Teaching of hunting, for example, is likely to be common among felines, mongooses and birds of prey."

He also expects to see reports of teaching among insect societies.

"The important thing is to consider under what conditions we might expect one animal to actively promote learning in another," he said.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Clo, The Cartoon Cow

On a tip from Maurice, I checked out the clever milk puns at the following site:

My favorite is the Moona Lisa, a classic pitcher. You can find it among the 1990 billboards.

I think it would make a great magnet.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Happy Hippos

Imagine the following scene. Hungry dogs circling the meat wagon 30 min. early then doing their very best to wait patiently. Door to the meat wagon opens; driver disappears inside and returns with FULL bowls. Mouths salivate. Giant puppy leaps for joy while older man cowers beside her not fully satisfied with his new position in the hierarchy. While the driver sweet talks older one, the leaping nose knocks a full bowl. Pieces of large breed puppy chow fly. Older one goes bananas. He just won the lottery. Chaos ensues. The driver rushes frantically to scoop up the pieces before older man eats it all. A few stern corrections to the nape and some snarling later, the puppy kibble ends up in the right mouth.

It all reminded me of this game I used to play as kid. I think it was called Happy Hippos or something like that. It involved snapping plastic hippo mouths at little marbles in the middle of a tray to scoop them up before they rolled into the trap. I don't know why they called it Happy Hippos, perhaps the hippos were starving to death and eating marbles made them feel good. Besides remembering that this was an insanely fun game, I also remember certain parental units of the female persuasion thinking this game ought to be called Horrible Hippos because it made an awful racket. Now that I think of it, I believe the real name of this game was Hungry Hippos. I still like the name Happy Hippos. Anybody who gets to inhale food that fast has got to be happy!

Despite some worry about Katy's stitches coming apart last night and having to go to the vet again yesterday for antibiotic pills and cream, she is doing fine. She wolfed her food down this morning and last night plus is feeling playful this morning. And, she's starting to boss Max around again. He got a two day quasi-reprieve. I say quasi because the only thing she let him do was drink water when he wanted to. She was probably too tired to get up just to tell him to stop. This morning she asserted herself at the door. She *had* to enter before he did.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Pacifiers for Dogs

How to get a few minutes to yourself...
With their little mouths and paws busy dismantling rawhide chews I finally got to take care of some things I had been putting off. My dad is so smart for suggesting I buy a bag of them! Another good way to get some free time - send one off to surgery. Katy got "fixed" this week and is now recovering at home. Who would have thought that a day and a half at the vet would make one pup so smelly? I thought such a rank aroma would take at least a week in a kennel to set in, having experienced that whenever Max got boarded for vacations, but this was surprising. Her scent turned from doggy to downright vile. With super hot weather coming for this weekend bringing with it an airtight AC house, I have got to do something to get the stench under control. Thankfully the vet's office says it is ok to give her a bath as long as her sutures are carefully dried right away. Good news! Hopefully that's the last bath we'll have to give her for a long time. Newfies need regular grooming but are said to be able to go fer years without a bath as long as their coat is maintained.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Van Gogh's Mathematical Perfection

The following piece came over an EP listserve I belong to. I found it really interesting because it provides hints at how an unusual mind works. Apparently Vincent Van Gogh's swirling whirlpool stars in The Starry Night (and a few other pieces) fits a mathematical equation that defines perfect turbulence. Van Gogh possibly painted these patterns when he was mad, hallucinating, or otherwise different from himself than when he painted less chaotic pieces. The author of the following article also makes reference to Jackson Pollock, another artist who painted with a free spirit. His creations are said to capture fractal patterns. I think elements of such art vaguely resemble those made by some nonhuman apes. The physical forms that Van Gogh and Pollock created in their art may be the unconscious expression of a more animalistic mind, one unfettered by the structure of human consciousness.

Van Gogh painted perfect turbulence The disturbed artist intuited the deep forms of fluid flow.
by Philip Ball

Source: Nature

Sunday, July 09, 2006


Does any other animal have a theory of mind (ToM)?

That is, can they understand that what another individual knows is different from what they themselves know? That's the question some primatologists have been attempting to answer. Like many questions of the animal mind, this one happens to be tricky to answer definitively.

Psychologists test the age at which children develop a theory of mind by using a fairly simple test. It goes something like this:

Show Sally a box of Band-Aids. Open it up and let her see the bandages inside. Then while she's watching, replace the bandages with crayons. Ask Anne to come into the room. Ask Sally what she think Anne will say is inside the box.

Children without a theory of mind think egocentrically. They believe that what they know everyone else knows too. But when they have ToM, the child is able to understand that Anne will think there are Band-Aids inside the box. There are other variants on this same basic premise.

The trick is to figure out a test that does not require language to "pass."

To figure out what non-linguistically inclined babies know, developmental psychologists rely on looking times. Babies look longer at unexpected events, such as a rolling ball that fails to reappear after it passes behind a screen.

Developmental cognitive psychologists have established empirical methods to investigate children's understanding of mentality, and, those working with primates have adapted these tests to answer a basic question of whether any primate has any capacity to conceive of mental states.

Primatologists and other investigators of animal behavior use a variety of substitutes for the term "theory of mind," asking whether animals are capable of, for example:
"Machiavellian intelligence" (Whiten & Byrne 1988)
"metacognition” (Povinelli 1993)
"mind reading" (Krebs & Dawkins 1984)
"mental state attribution” (Cheney & Seyfarth)

What underlies all is this knowledge:
Your mind is different from my mind.
What you know is different from what I know.

But why does theory of mind matter in the first place? What good does it do? And why are we interested in whether other beings have it?

I think it makes it possible for us to lie to each other, a skill that probably came in very handy in our evolutionary past. It's one of the things that makes us human. It shows we can think. Interestingly, those with autism don't seem to have a theory of mind. Understanding which animals have ToM can help us know more about our development as a species, and it might provide some insights into how autistic brains work. Eventually, we might know which circuitry got funky wiring and possibly which genes are involved. Afterall, we already know that a segment of DNA labeled foxp2 helps humans utter syntactically correct sentences and may even enable birds to learn different song dialects.

Recently NPR interviewed Sue Savage-Rumbaugh about her work with Kanzi, a bonobo who communicates with humans and bonobos alike using lexigrams, a symbolic language akin to Japanese kanji. He's been doing this virtually from birth without formal instruction like so many other apes who have been taught sign language. Rather than using Skinnerian conditioning, Kanzi learned that individual lexigrams had meaning and could be combined to form sentences simply by watching his mother being trained to use them. She never caught on; she started learning too late, past the critical stage for language acquisition. Later Kanzi learned like human children learn language, by being immersed in human linguistic culture. This may be the key to his success, and lest you think there is something amazingly unique about Kanzi (he could be some sort of mutant, the first of his kind to "evolve" language) you should know that he's not the only bonobo who can "talk." Savage-Rumbaugh is an outspoken proponent, one of the last ones left, of the idea that apes, at least bonobos comprehend and can produce language. Lately, she's been championing the idea that they also have a theory of mind.

Like all intriguing work with primates, the evidence is serendipitous and anecdotal. See below: (Fields is a colleague of S-R)

"Scientists disagree about whether apes have this ability. But Fields has no doubt. "I'm missing this finger," Fields says, holding up one of his hands. "One time when Kanzi was grooming my hand, when he got to where the missing finger is, he pretended like it was there. And then he used the keyboard, he uttered, 'Hurt?,' as though to say, 'Does it still hurt?' "

If you ask me, he could just be identifying that the hand has been hurt, not that he knows the person is in pain.

The full article can be accessed here. For dog lovers, there's also a nice piece on how much dogs understand humans. They ought to. They've been co-evolving with us for at least 100,000 years!

Friday, July 07, 2006

Summer Session at School

Today on her walk to school Katy met kids! 5 professor's kids, one of whom had to tell me about his dad's privates. Definitely going through the phallic stage. He also asked me if I knew Fnu Lnu (his mom). I said no, do you? It was all pretty fun meeting kids. My favorite memory of Max meeting kids is the time we encountered a bunch of them on Symons Lane. We had to stop of course because Max is Mr. Friendly. One of them commented that he was wearing a belt, referring to his leather embossed collar from SDC. It really does look like a belt though I had never myself seen it that way up until that moment.

Katy has not met very many kids and was definitely scared of them. With a bit of ingenuity, politeness, and patience I am sure I can figure out a way for her to meet kids often. She has to. It's our new goal now that we have passed Housebreaking 101 and Snoozing Near Parents 102. She's concurrently enrolled in Meeting Kids 103, Bring/Give 113, and Kisses 123. I think she could take on a few more credits during this summer session at WC as she appears to be an apt pupil.

Today's mail brought the arrival of a much anticipated new boook - The Newfoundland Puppy: Early Care, Early Training by Judi Adler. Being the book worm that I am, I instantly opened it and got sucked in. Soon I found myself multi-tasking. Reading, eating, and playing flip-flop chew at the same time. If only I had an opposable tail I'd be able to add wiping up the floors! There are so many books I'd like to read; it's difficult to choose where to start. I like books that can be picked up and read at random. They're the best for busy people. Two are on my list now: Don't Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor which has been on our bookshelf courtesy of Margot for a long time. I flipped through it a while back but having been through both Skinner(Eacker)'s class and behavioral therapy for a boy with autism during college, I wasn't all that captivated. Still I did get a great idea for teaching operant conditioning in intro psych. The other book I would like to read is Adapting Minds by David Buller. It's a critique of EP that got a lot of attention months ago. For shear warm fuzzies delight, I think it would also be amusing to page through this one. I haven't bought the latter two yet, but I have a feeling it's only a matter of time. About books and buying them: I figure that I am pretty much a book junkie in a small office with zero available shelf space so I'd better take the MBS approach - Get rid of one before buying another. So, now it's also a matter of selecting two books to put up on Amazon marketplace! Piece o'cake... not.

Here's Margot, the soon-to-be-mom, looking totally gorgeous:

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Scenes from the 4th

Katy found shade and a space to observe the activity from underneath the raspberry bushes:

The newlywed babe trying hard to not get skin cancer...
Backed into a corner at Grandma's... and wondering whether she'll have to wipe her water drool off of the floor at Mom's:

((( ( ( KABOOM ) ) )))

Celebrating the establishment of this country in MT for a long weekend of house painting brought more than pyrotechnic bangs.

Besides getting to spend time with my mom and Barry and my younger sister and her new husband, I also got to spend time with my dad. He showed off his new "birthday present" which of course has already been put to good use on varmint control. I prefer the term vermin, but am happy that hooked me up the correct spelling for the former as I had totally blown it on my guesstimate. Maybe I'll get to try it out on my next visit. I prefer target practice; no matter how undesirable pests are, somehow I just can't get behind killing animals myself. That may be the one thing I found that baby sis and I actually agree on.

Gorilla poachers might be an exception. Are they animals or not? Some people think people aren't animals, others like myself don't separate the two. Where the line gets drawn has all kinds of repercussions. Humans draw the line where they like for selfish gain. Isn't that what animals do? Nevertheless, animals are cooperative and altruistic, but this still ultimately benefits #1. Is there such thing as pure altruism? A deed done at clear expense to oneself for the clear gain of another with no benefit to oneself? That's a question I like to have my students grapple with in social psych but we also get into it in primate psychology too. After all, chimps are notoriously Machiavellian, just like people.

How manipulative are people? That's a question I'll have to leave to my number one sister to answer.

She brought some fireworks of her own on the trip. To my surprise she unpacked the same familiar stuff from her arsenal. You'd think I would be bored of it by now, but no Dice. I need something like Katy's waterproof coat to deflect all of the shrapnel from li'l sis's explosions.

Painting dad's house as a family defies categorization. I don't think there's a word in the English language to describe it, and despite my vast french, spanish, german, and arabic vocabulary I can't think of a single adjective to capture it. Mish mumkin.

Dad delivered a gem of wisdom as usual. He's a man of few words, but when he speaks, listen up! The wall is for working out your problems. I said I don't have any problems. That's not what I heard... Huh? You need a car. Oh yeah, that problem. I already solved it so I had nothing left to work out, leaving my mind free to enjoy the soft MT breeze, the sound of the paint brush on the cedar siding, the smell of thick latex paint, and the aches of muscles I had not felt for some time. Long ago when I experienced my first meditation practice I learned that aches are not easy to let alone. The buddhist monk who served as our guide and teacher told me to think of it as a baby. I must hold that feeling close, love it, and view it as a precious thing. Yeah. I walked out of the consultation room back to the pillow room to stew on my pain, not metaphysical pain, literal pain. Years later, about ten to be exact, I can say that I think I've developed the maturity necessary to treat that pain like a baby. Even so, I've never really known real pain. I mean real, actual pain. Like the pain of radiation treatments or losing a brother to cancer. Wisdom, like courage, is what you get after the war.

On the lighter side, I bought my first car in my hometown. It's an SUV, gulp. I thought I'd never go there.
Hybrids, yes!
A mini Copper, hell yeah!
A Smart car, you bet!
A Fit?
Couldn't wait that long... so a CRV it is. I negotiated the deal myself. $2500 off the sticker price, but I still think I could have done better by at least a grand if not two. At least I didn't have to do it in french. I would have liked the mint tea though...

Katy also showed up at Dad's house fully housebroken like a good little pup. She has an amazing handler though ;-) I think she made quite an impression. Hopefully none of them had a lasting effect on his hopefully soon-to-be-sold hardwood floor or her delicate little bones. She's not really little, at 15 weeks I think she's now more than 50 pounds. She'll be a real behemoth when she grows up and already, every time she flops herself down on the floor, you get a sense of what she'll be like. The walls shake. Everything in the room rattles, just like it does while watching a Bruce Willis flick with Dad. A trip home is not complete without one of those. Initially dad scoffed at having to pick her up because she's not supposed to climb stairs. Barry made a ramp for her out of an old door with some leftover carpeting tacked to it so she could go up and down the stairs safely. That was a huge help, especially at the inevitable 3 o'clock in the morning trip outside. After the initial eye rolling, dad hefted her up and down the other stairs and in and out of the The Truck like a precious little baby. I think he was happy to meet his furry new granddaughter. She'll have to tide him over for now!

On a final note, Dad issued the one word that reverberates through my mind as the perfect adjective to describe the week: