Science is often seen as an immutable thing. It simply is. But, for anyone who’s paid any attention to science, they know that’s woefully misguided. Science, by its very definition, evolves constantly. When new things are discovered that reject old knowledge, the new is embraced. Some things are perceived to be ancient knowledge and aren’t at all. They are merely a product of modern prejudices. For example, while there are morons today who believe the Earth is flat, they are a relatively new phenomenon. Ancient Greeks knew the Earth was round. As did Polynesian sailors. And pretty much anyone involved in trade. Eratosthenes, three hundred years before Christ was born, knew that there needed to be a method of determining latitude so sailors, and other travelers, could figure out where things were on the planet. [Read more…] about Ooops
I’ve written before about how some of our simian cousins have entered the Stone Age. Simply put they are using stone tools and planning for events that haven’t happened. Those are definable signs of sapience. I have also noted that octopuses, those yummy tasty octopuses laden in garlic and butter, are also developing along the same lines. Before they meet the garlic and butter, natch. The point is that life is not some stagnant thing. It wasn’t plopped here to never grow. On the one hand life adapts to its surroundings. People who live in the mountainous regions of Peru have larger lungs than the rest of us simply due to the thin air. No large lungs equals no breathing. At least not easily. Polar bears have different furs than grizzlies simply due to environment. I could go on, and on and on and on …., but you get the idea.
On the other hand, life develops intelligence if it’s faced with obstacles that basic cunning can’t overcome. For humans that was finding food in the veld. They had to learn to hunt and cook if they were to survive. Other proto-humans learned those skills as well. Then our ancestors hunted, and killed, them. They may have eaten them too. Either way, they eliminated the competition.
That last sentence is the one you need to remember.
Sarah Chodosh, over at Popular Science, notes that ravens are joining the party and moving up the evolutionary ladder.
Ravens can solve puzzles, trick other animals into helping them out, and communicate with each other at a level even apes can’t match. And now we know they can hatch plans. These aren’t dastardly plans to overthrow humans in a battle for control of the Earth (we hope)—they’re plans to get better food for themselves. It’s like the marshmallow test—more on that in a minute—but for birds that have more self control than most children.
This latest revelation comes courtesy of two cognitive scientists at Lund University in Sweden who literally put ravens to test. They published their findings on Friday in the journal Science. Up until now, we knew that ravens had some ability to plan ahead for their own food needs because they hide caches of food to dig up later. Then again, squirrels store food in the ground for later and they’re, well, not the smartest. They forget about 75 percent of their nuts, planting millions of trees in the process. They’re accidental environmentalists. And if moronic squirrels can be biologically programmed to cache food for later, maybe ravens aren’t as smart as we thought.
Except obviously they are.
Ravens, as it turns out, will often choose to forgo a tasty morsel now in favor of getting access to a better treat later. Faced with a food tidbit and a tool that they know can open a box containing more tempting food, they will generally choose the tool—even if they don’t have the box yet. They’ve learned that when researchers present them with the box in 15 minute’s time, they can use that tool to unlock their prize. That’s forethought right there. Even small children often choose to eat one marshmallow immediately rather than wait a few minutes for more marshmallows, and all that experiment makes the participants do is sit there being cute.
This shouldn’t come as such a shock. Ravens also steal from each other by watching competitors hide food, noting the location, and returning later to dig up their spoils. And because they get stolen from, some ravens will actually pretend to hide food to throw thieves off the scent. What’s more, they can tell other ravens where to find a juicy, rotting carcass and team up to scare off their competitors. That ability—to communicate information about a distant location—is shared only by ants, bees, and humans. Note that great apes and monkeys are not on that list. Plus, ravens can apparently deceive one another if it means keeping a food source a secret. They can also call wolves over to a carcass that hasn’t broken down enough yet so that the canines can rip it apart, leaving more convenient scraps for the birds to scarf down.
If all that doesn’t make you love and embrace our raven overlords, nothing will. These birds are geniuses in their own right—so what if their look is a little goth? Their intelligence isn’t to be feared, it’s to be revered. Ravens for President 2020.
Okay, so super smart birds that can plan, like some horror movie creatures shambling into your home in the dark, may not make you happy. But, as I noted above, it’s only when faced with direct competition that one species wipes out another.
Humans, ravens, and octopuses, have very few areas where they need the same resources. They could, much like the creatures in David Brin’s Uplift series, be brought up the evolutionary ladder to be our partners. To be a boon rather than a bane. In other words, the exact opposite of what happens when I write about it.
The simians, however, might be a different issue. They are similar enough to us that they may, at some point, want what we have. And history has shown us that rarely goes well for someone.
All that said, none of this is a concern for today. In fact it may all be moot. according to David Wallace-Wells global warming could make Earth uninhabitable in before 2100 AD. In other words, if he’s right, your teenage kids will live just long enough to see the end of the world.
There’s your happy thought for today.
Lately I have been deluged with links to a site called Science Vibe. It purports to be a hip way to get people to understand science. It is anything but. It is exactly the problem with what people think is science. Vague generalizations, quotes taken wildly out of context, all festooned with a combination of fabrications and repeatedly debunked nonsense. One article quoted a scientist I know well. He had written a piece as an introduction to a brand of scientific study. It was well written, clear, and fun. At one point he said something like “Under no circumstances should anyone think blah blah blah.” Science Vibe quickly had an article stating “Prominent Scientist Claims Blah Blah Blah!!!!” I am not providing links here for two reasons. One, I loathe giving them any additional viewers. And, two, what I said about my buddy applies to several scientists and I see no reason to single him out. Nor would he want me to.
So let’s move on to some real science.
Back in 2015 I wrote about how several tribes of monkeys had entered the Stone Age.
According to a fascinating report from Collin Barras of the BBC, archeologists in Africa, South America and Southeast Asia, have been digging up crude stone tools that date back thousands of years — tools that were fashioned by non-human primates.
Which means something kind of extraordinary:
“The tools are crude. A chimpanzee or monkey stone hammer is hardly a work of art to rival the beauty of an ancient human hand axe. But that’s not the point. These primates have developed a culture that makes routine use of a stone-based technology. That means they have entered the Stone Age.”
That’s right: We now how pretty solid evidence to suggest that at least some chimps are now firmly in the Stone Age.
That’s both cool and frightening. But, for them to take the next steps, such as creating fire, domesticating animals, creating pottery, and so on, they need to learn non-linear thinking. They need to be able to extrapolate possibilities out of unknowns. Or, to put it in more basic terms, they need to be able to win at Rock, Paper, Scissors.
I know how stupid that sounds but I ask you to step back and think about it. Dr. Jie Gao certainly did.
Chimpanzees of all ages and all sexes can learn the simple circular relationship between the three different hand signals used in the well-known game rock-paper-scissors. Even though it might take them longer, they are indeed able to learn the game as well as a young child. Jie Gao of Kyoto University in Japan and Peking University in China is lead author of a study in the journal Primates, which is the official journal of the Japan Monkey Centre, and is published by Springer. The research compares the ability of chimpanzees and children to learn the rock-paper-scissors game.
Gao’s research team wanted to find out whether chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) can grasp extended patterns. They used the rock-paper-scissors game, a popular children’s game in which the hand signal for “paper” always beats “rock,” while “rock” trumps “scissors,” and “scissors” defeats “paper.” The relationship between the signals are non-linear and must be understood within the context of how the pairs are grouped. Learning such transverse patterns requires enhanced mental capacity and it is useful when forming complex relationship networks, solving problems, or updating what you already know about a subject.
Seven chimpanzees of different ages and sexes living in the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University were part of the experiment. They sat in a booth housing a computer-based touchscreen and were trained to choose the stronger of two options (based on the rules of the game) they saw on screen. They first learnt the paper-rock sequence, then the rock-scissors one and finally the scissors-paper combination. Once they knew how the pairs fitted together, all the different pairs were randomly presented to them on screen. Five of the seven chimpanzees completed the training after an average of 307 sessions.
The findings show that chimpanzees can learn the circular pattern at the heart of the game. However, it took them significantly longer to learn the third scissors-paper pair than it did to grasp the others, which indicates that they had difficulty finalizing the circular nature of the pattern.
There is one other point to be made here. Rock, Paper, Scissors requires a working knowledge of the three components and all the societal background each entails. There are no direct parallels in simian life. That means they learned something completely alien to them and then learned how to manipulate, and control, the variables.
Since we consider the typical four year old human to be sentient, if developing, there is no way we can deny the same status to these monkeys.
Since male fertility rates are rapidly plummeting in Western Civilization, I think it’s only polite that we help our replacements get a feel for things before we go.