Thursday, February 25

Human Ethology: Induction Machines

When I started writing ethological analyses of various disparate topics a few weeks ago, I found myself running up against a particular issue which seemed unavoidable. Rather than skirt that issue, I'm going to approach it now and explain the "deal" so I can refer back to it later.

The problem we face as human is that we're inclined to make inductive leaps. We're designed to do it, in fact. This goes way beyond the philosophical Problem of Induction, which addresses the validity of science. The fact that we jump to so many conclusions certainly implies that we're not naturally good at science, which is why it takes so many years to perfect our logic for it, and even then mistakes are very common.

How many times have you heard someone say something like "So much for global warming!" when a big snow hits your city early in wintertime? Its called global warming for good reason, yet a single data point from a single city on a single day of the year is enough to bring serious doubt into some minds. That's at least a little bit dumb.

Malcolm Gladwell provides a highly enjoyable discussion of human induction issues in the modern world in his book Blink. Many more books have been written about this human weakness, in fact. Such books tend to answer the questions of How - how are we predisposed to make quick choices? For my part, I think I'll talk a little bit about why, which as usual takes us back to our hunter-gatherer buddies.

Imagine yourself in the position of an ancestral hunter-gatherer (H-G). For starters, you live in the open fields, barely shielded from the elements by crude structures. You reside with a group of about 50 people. You'll live with and know these people your entire life, likely, unless you get married into an adjoining village. Then you'll meet 50 more people. There will be people you encounter from surrounding communities which will raise the total number above a hundred, maybe even close to 200 depending on your particular culture.

You lead a nomadic life, moving from place to place so as not to expend all the resources in a given area and go hungry. Over the course of the seasons, you might have to change your strategies, but this is cyclical. Years go by without significant change.

My work with the baboons comes in surprisingly handy here. Baboon live in dry, savanna landscapes, as our ancestors and many hunter gatehrers still do. The great apes and lesser apes (gibbons) all live in dense forests, which present different challenges to staying alive (though it would be great to get some first hand exposure to the anthropological sites in Africa). Whether you're a chimp, gibbon, or baboon, there's one thing you have in common: life is pretty boring.

The same goes for hunter-gatherers. The gatherers have to spend most of the day searching for food in order to gather enough to get by. The hunters have to spend multiple days looking for game, wounding it, and then often chasing it at length across the savannas while it slowly loses energy. Much of the "excess" time is spent with chores and upkeep. Those simple core axes don't sharpen themselves. The days are long, tiring, and monotonous. There just isn't a lot of new stuff happening. Things don't change.

Life was largely formulaic, at least in the mid to long term, i.e. where to go next for food, who to marry your daughter to. Its in the short term that people needed to make decisions as individuals. But quick decisions were pretty unimportant, except in one particular case: when your life is at risk.

When faced with life or death decisions, you had to make decisions based on the small amounts of info you had. The most important thing to do was make it quickly (because otherwise you'd probably just take a dirt nap). That meant jumping to conclusions. The sacrifices for this behavior were small - so you jump to a conclusion and offend someone in a conversation. You'll both get over it. That's a small price to pay for being equipped with the mental architecture that will save your life time after time.

Under the circumstances of the great outdoor savannas, we were damn good at making smart decisions quickly. But we don't live in the savannahs anymore. We live in fast moving, rapidly changing, crowded civilizations. This creates two problems:
  1.  The quick decisions we don't turn out as well as we might think because we're a bit out of place.
  2. We're called on to make logical, thought out decisions, which we're not very good at.
I have no solutions to offer for these problems. At least not stated as such. They're too big and too deeply ingrained in our biology. But I can offer solutions to the effects ancestral baggage such as this, I just needed to get this basic thing out of the way. Our snap judgments can still be very useful and accurate, but they need to be applied differently.

I think this might as well be the best time for me to shamelessly expose my favorite sociobiology quote of all time:
It seems clear that human beings are the most flexible and adaptable creatures on earth, capable of choosing their own destiny. At the same time, it is also clear that there is a definite genetic influence on many aspects of our behavior, especially when it comes to sex, violence, parenting, even tendencies for altruism and selfishness. The more we understand that influence, the more free we are to chart our own course.
The fact that we manage to live in giant cities and have these ethological problems is a good sign. The next step is to continue our upwards course while being mindful of our origins. Humans are exceptional at being able to pick up new skills and learn them until they become second nature. Rather than skirt these ethological issues, we ought to be working with them, taking advantage of our natural strengths while cultivating new ones.

But enough proselytizing. Next time: ethology and microblogging. Yes, I am entirely serious. Long story made short, Google wanted me to start using Buzz, so I did, got seriously annoyed, started looking at it critically, then realized that there is so much wrong with microblogging from an ethological perspective. The Internet may prove to be a common topic for these discussions since when I don't live in Africa I live here, and also because I hear people on the internet like reading about the internet. So meta.

Tuesday, February 23

Misdirected Affection

In the continuing vein of "silly things baboons do around humans," I have another story about one of young tykes. But first a quick bit on instruction in the multifunctional rear end of the monkey.

Old world monkeys, including baboons, have these prominant hard spots on their butts called callosities. They're good for sitting on because they're basically what they sound like - giant calluses.

The butt is also known for the swellings which are these grotesque pink balloons that tell you when an female is ready for plunder. Well not you I hope, but the males. The females will often times dash up to the males and stick their behinds to in the males' faces, thus "presenting" the goods, in hopes of getting a quickie (the young females particularly like to do this because they are really desperate and none of the adult males want to have sex with them). Hence the term presentation hold a major place in our vocabulary as primatologists.

Over the years, species have come and gone, and presentation has become both a functional and ritualistic behavior. From yielding to the reproductive designs of the males, the behavior has taken on larger dominance/submissiveness connotations, so that presentation (and beyond that, mounting) becomes a sign of dominance removed from any actual intercourse. The adult females out of estrus do it, the males do it to one another, and the young juveniles and infants do it.

The last category is relevant to today's misadventure. I was chilling out with the usual pack of jokers, also know as the juveniles. They appeared to be interested in initiating one of the black infants, at that moment. They'd probably lose interest in about 10 minutes. Young playing baboons aren't exactly well-known for their attention spans.

Aforementioned "blackie" (as the young black infants are affectionately referred to) slowly began to approach my position, while I was none the wiser. I was a fair distance away, taking a breather, propped against a dead log. I took notice when the sprog bounded up to me like an excitedly puppy. She looked at me for a bit. I looked back, suspiciously. I looked around for the mother or some larger protecting male. Getting up might scare her, which wouldn't help me in my predicament at all.

The staring contest was cut short when the blackie took action. She awkwardly leaped up into the air, spun around, and landed, her backside fully presented to me.

I continued to stare in some amazement. As if to say, "I don't think you understood me, let me show you again," she returned to her original position, and then performed the same awkward flip into presentation. She repeated the acrobatic sequence a couple more times.

To be entirely honest, I was quite flattered. It was quite adorable to have a baby baboon display its submissiveness to me. The energy it put into the behavior was refreshing as well. She seemed all too happy to recognize me as being above her in the hierarchy.

That's probably nicest part about this - a feeling of inclusion is very difficult to obtain around baboons When they grow older than a year, and they notice you near by, the juveniles just stare at you like you're some kind of alien visitor from another planet. The youngest of the infants don't have brains developed enough to tell us apart from their own species. Or at least they're just confused enough to think us worthy the effort. This one was older, so she might have just been practicing on me, though that would require a complicated mental state that I'm not sure any baboon possesses. Either way, my own perception of the situation, correct or not, played an equally important role in the magic of the moment.

Sunday, February 21


We went to see the South African "musical sensation" Gazelle down at the Assembly the other night, and it was quite a blast. My encounter with Gazelle began many months ago, back at the Daisies festival. Let me read to you from the info booklet:  
An experiment with electronic bedroom music led Gazelle to discover a fresh mix of reggae dub and electro sound, leading the African music renaissance.

At Daisies, I didn't manage to see Gazelle, at least not performing. He went on at midnight on Saturday, and there was no way I was staying up that late. According to the people I talked to at the festival, he was the odd fellow wandering around the whole time in a leopard print jumpsuit. Hmmm. They didn't have any better idea how to describe his music, though, so I remained in the dark.

Later, I spoke to some other South African about the music scene down here, and Gazelle came up. "What is his music actually like?" I asked them. The best they could manage was that it was like Funkadelic. Well, I thought, I have seen George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars live, and that was pretty bumpin, so maybe this Gazelle fellow will be alright.

Fast forward several months, and The Assembly comes into the picture. I'd heard about it back in October, but never got around to going down to the place. Its located at the edge of District Six, in a former industrial sector. The building itself was formerly a warehouse, and has been renovated to support musical acts and dancing, while maintaining that grungy factory feel.

Last week, I heard that Gazelle was coming back into town from his Kalahari Safari across Europe. And he was playing at the Assembly, tickets only R40. That sounded to me like a good deal. Tickets were obtained and plans were made.

Upon arriving, we were instantly taken by the place. For Bostonians, its about the same size as the Paradise, and follows a similar layout aesthetic. We were made to suffer through the openers, sadly. The Plastics are an indie rock band. They look and sound like every other generic indie rock band. Next was Jack Parow, an Afrikaans rapper, and his crew. They were....uh... well it was hard to understand him what with the whole Afrikaans thing. Think of Asher Roth, but imagine that Roth had grown up on a Dutch horse farm. If you don't know who Asher Roth is, thank your lucky stars, and heed the inevitable conclusion: It wasn't great.

Then Gazelle took the stage with his DJ, drummer, bongo player, and dance troupe.

Twas awesome. I had not realized it, but the DJ is pretty much an equal partner in the musical vision of Gazelle. He's got a kind of Daft Punk thing going on since he wears this helmet and visor which prevents you from seeing his face. He was good, and full of energy, too. Its surprisingly fun to notice the DJ having a really good time behind the booth. The rest of the crew was similarly adorned in Southern African attire, ranging in style from traditional African to colonial, to military. Gazelle the singer was wearing a different leopard print uniform, and sporting the shades ala Funkadelic (and I can understand what they were saying about the similarity in sound, mostly with the synths).

Its amazing what you can still do with a stationary laser and a disco ball.  Down in the pit, it was quite a mad dance party. I felt the lighting was no small part of that, but that might just be me and my fervent joy for good light effects doing the talking. Regardless, the party was good times, as empirically determined by the amount of sweat generated by my body

You can listen to Gazelle on myspace, and that will give you a reasonable idea of how they sound, though hardly an inkling of how they feel. Studio tracks are always missing some things that can't be taken out of the live setting. Like the excessive bass, and trace drums beats. Like the leopard costumes and African dancers.

For lack of any better description for the music, I am going to go with the words straight from the White Lion himself: Afrikan Future Disko.

After walking around a bit today, I found my ankle a bit wonky. I think I did something to it last night. Prices are high at the Bushland Discotheque.

Thursday, February 18

Displacement Aggression

A perfectly ordinary situation can explode almost instantaneously when among the baboons. The handy part aspect of this is that these internal cataclysms seldom affect us researchers. A throng of juveniles will scream their lungs out for five minutes, and I'll just roll my eyes and mutter to myself about melodrama. Just today, I was surrounded by three screaming infants, and while attempting to escape the harsh sounds in the only direction open, Aaron the alpha barrels right past me at full tilt, never slowing, never laying his eyes on me for a moment. I might as well have been a column of empty air.

But I chose the word "seldom" up there for good reason. Nothing is sacred, certainly not the person of a lowly field researcher.

Chester one of the older male baboons. He's a lucky old dude - a miniature company of infants follows him for much of the day. The rest of the day they spend with mom or Bertrand. Bertrand is also old, but not quite ancient, so he probably provides more protection while still being a genial grandfather figure.

The setup prominently featured one such small infant. Chester sat about two meters away from where the infant played in a bush. Damian was a greater distance off. I stood about fifteen meters from Chester, observing his behavior. Damian then entered the vicinity nonchalantly, stopping when he came within ten meters of both Chester and myself.

Barbary macaque males use the infants as a tool for social mediation. The males will sit together and handle/play with a single infant. After a while, they might let the infant go and interact directly, through grooming perhaps.

Coming from the baboon perspective, this is very surprising. Males don't interact except to indicate submissiveness to one another. They barely even look at each other, avoiding eye contact like the plague. And I have never seen two males groom.

Yet, baboons do appear to use infants in a similar fashion. They're just far more subtle about it.

At the approach of Damian, Chester stepped forward, and reached for the infant which dangled from a thin, leafy branch. The infant was having plenty of fun on its own, and didn't appear keen on being distracted from its play by a weird old man. The infant could not compete against the old male's superior strength and bulk, thus was pulled, squawking, from the bush and clutched to Chester's hairy chest.

Mmmmm, musky.

The infant clearly wasn't enjoying this. Chester was quite intent on maintaining his hold, at least while Damian was around. For a few moments, the three sat in stalemate, not altering their behavior. As a bystander at the time, I was barely aware of the strong undercurrents of tension flowing around and about the trio.

In animal behavior, "displacement aggression" is visible everywhere you look. Classic human example: an angry student is cheesed off at a professor for some odd reason, but he can't very well hit the prof, so he takes his anger out on a pillow or a door. He displaces the aggression onto a different object. Primates do this a lot - someone chases them away from food, and they respond by chasing a conspecific lower in the hierarchy.

Or sometimes they displace onto a different species of primate.

Damian was no closer than a decameter, but we were at the edge of the group, with no one else nearby. Damian was just sitting there, aware of the infant and Chester but not really looking at them, since they prefer to rely on the grand power of subtext. But he looked at me after I mis-stepped towards him and cracked a twig.

Damian responded by bounding towards me, firing up the engine of his roar-grunt, the male vocal precursor to the fearsome wahoo. Please note: this is always the beginning of an Oh Shit moment.

I followed the guidelines. I turned away from him, and slowly walked away. I could hear the sound getting closer, but I did not run or alter my behavior in any other way. After a few more seconds, when I could no longer feel his presence behind me, I ventured a glance, and saw Damian swaggering away, down the hill. I did what I did because that's what is known to work. An overload of adrenaline is an unfortunate and unavoidable side effect, but its worth it ever now and then (...he says in hindsight).

In the future, all I need to for protection is a whiny monkey infant on hand which I can thrust in the face of any aggressive baboon. As to why infants become pawns of the male hierarchy, we haven't the faintest clue, except what we know from the closest relevant behavior - male-infant-male sociability in barbary macaques. Maybe some other baboonists have picked up on these behaviors while watching, or maybe we're the only one's who have ever noticed. Maybe it only happens in this population or region. Maybe I'm completely wrong. It's cutting edge, after all.

Tuesday, February 16

Human Ethology: Part I of ?

When I started getting into primatology field work, I went to talk to Jerry Schneider, my former teacher and boss from my 9.20 days, to ask his advice. Jerry's known a lot of behavior people over the years, and he was right there in Boston through the whole sociobiology controversy. Jerry's recommended a lot of books to me over the years, this time he said that if I was interested in primatology, specifically an anthrocentric view, I ought to read Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt's Human Ethology.

Ethology is the study of the natural behavior of animals. Human ethology focuses on humans, though evolutionary science often brings chimps, bonobos, and other primates into the picture. Human ethology is basically a different way of looking at anthropology, instead of taking a cognitive approach, or working down from societies and cultures to the individual, human ethology examines anthropology from an evolutionary standpoint, a sociobiological standpoint. It attacks problems by asking what the adaptability of human behaviors are.

I brought the tome with me to Africa, and have since burned through its contents. Eibl-Eibesfeldt's work remains a liberating source of knowlegde, but it does have a few drawbacks:
  1. The text is outdated. It was originally published 1989, and while I have the "Second Edition" from 2008, it is effectively just a reprint and does not incorporate new data from the intervening twenty years.
  2. Eibl-Eibesfeldt's primary goal was to present the facts of natural human behavior, rather than give recommendations on one ought to do. He does give some tips, as it would be impossible not to in a good discussion. The book is in turth a textbook; a descriptive work, not a persuasive one.
I'm interested in taking the findings presented by Eibl-Eibesfeldt and others (who are hopefully more up to date), and seeing how we can improved short and long term aspects of one's lifestyle. Self-help, basically.

So what's new in this line of advocacy? We already have methods in ergonomics, which were invented in order to take advantage of how we were meant to sit. We have products like the FiveFingers, designed to be as much like a normal human foot as possible, so that we can run the way we were meant to. Perhaps most popular are the "new" diets, based on prehistoric peoples who didn't have the option of processing their grains into bleached flour, so they just ate the wholegrains, nuts, and fruits, which could be easily gathered in their habitat - how we're meant to eat. Human ethology grapples with a broader and arguably different problem: how are we meant to act?

Our minds and bodies are attuned for life running through savannas, hunting, picking berries, laying the the dirt, being exposed to the elements under the sun all day. Life under the protective watch of civilization does open up all kinds of new avenues of discovery and enlightenment, but sometime our environment can become over-protective, leading to negative effects. Stress levels are higher, overall health is declining, infections race through populations unchecked. Simply put, people aren't meant to live this way. The nature-versus-nuture debate tell us that both influences come into play when shaping a person's development. We are not blank slates, and we possess many innate qualities and tendencies. We need to figure out how we can work with our natural affinities, not around them or ignoring them entirely. We need to able to find a way to keep progressing while not losing sight of our roots. Human ethology allows us to do this.
For my purposes, I'm going to use human ethology as a blanket to cover related topic, like nutrition and exercise, which I've already discussed. These topics still have a strong behavioral component because of the power of choice. For example, diet becomes more useful and interesting to discuss when we try to understand why we make poor dietary choices. The more you know, the better you can make the informed decision.

Here's a quick but telling example: Birthing. Unquestionably one of the most crucial moments in human life. In my discussions with primatologists, I've learned that monkeys and apes don't have much of a problem with giving birth, which is certainly not true for humans. Our births are long and arduous, with a high mortality rate for mother and child. There are a number of reasons for this, but can we do anything to combat mortality? We can't increase the size of our pelvic girdle or stop walking upright - these are unalterable physical traits. Yet we can alter alter our approach to the situation; how we behave under these circumstances.

Modern hospitals have been getting with the picture in terms of providing ethological birthing beds, but the problem is still worth noting, since the majority of readers were probably born under poor conditions. "Primitive" cultures all around the globe rely on squatting births, which is how our other ape buddies do it. Gravity is a powerful factor, but more fundamentally, this was how the human birth canal was designed to be used. If you're not giving birth in a squat, you're basically doing it wrong (unless there are extenuating circumstances, of course). And doing birth wrong is one of the biggest mistakes you could make.

The circumstances are another thing we don't need to take for granted. A hospital is not a fun place to be. Few enjoy being in a hospital for the obvious reason of its-a-hospital-full-of-sick-and-dying-people-oh-this-is-depressing. That's not the whole story though - a hospital is bare, sterile, mechanistic. They are cold and unfamiliar: hospital interiors are unlike anything else in our lives, except for the occasional nursing home or science lab.

Animals want to give birth somewhere comfortable. This varies among animals, I've learned from the baboons that they tend to do it at night, when they're around their sleeping site, a known safe location. The rest of the troop can be gotten away from for more privacy and comfort, but the mother knows they are nearby for assistance if she needs it. Humans are more needy in birth than baboons, desiring assistance to be on hand throughout, usually in the form of female relatives. A female rushed to a hospital and dumped in a bed is put under enormous stress, and she must get used to the unfamiliar location before giving birth. This is going to lengthen the birthing time by a lot - studies have revealed that home births take significantly less time than hospital birth.

We've stumbled upon the first lesson of human ethology - you should never assume physical comfort is good for you. Bringing ergonomics back into the picture, La-Z-Boy makes these wonderfully soft couches which look great and do feel great at first, but provide very little support. Pretty soon, you'll probably develop a sore back or buttocks from sitting on one of those. Since we are so distantly removed from our primordial homelands, our behavior is removed as well, which requires we contemplate our drives and desires, and interpret them in the unnatural context of our everyday lives. We're aren't a blank slate, our minds are the most malleable and fluid in the world. This advantage might have gotten us into this jam in the first place, but it can definitely get us out.

Sunday, February 14

Wars and Alliances

Some mouse sperm can identify, and even cooperate with, its brethren

ScienceDaily (2010-01-25) -- Some mouse sperm can discriminate between its brethren and competing sperm from other males, clustering with its closest relatives to swim faster in the race to the egg. But this sort of cooperation appears to be present only in certain promiscuous species, where it affords an individual's sperm a competitive advantage over that of other males. ... > read full article

Back in the day I wrote a diddy on Sperm Warfare, which is a sweet book worth reading. It is also a controversial book, and the results have been challenged in the years since its publication. However, as one famous but egotistically arrogant professor told me, "don't believe any results until at least five different labs replicate the findings."

Which brings us to today's news item: more support for the idea that sperm are highly adaptable, multipurpose creations. For some time, it was believed that a large portion of sperm were not viable, thus not functional. Sociobiologically, something sounds wrong with this statement. Evolution doesn't waste such an important commodity.

Some truly wasted sperm are bound to be malformed, but not a significant number. Sperm Wars (and the research behind the book) suggests that there are many varieties of sperm, all of which are functional in their own way. Inseminators, warriors, blockers, and now cooperators. If sperm are shown to be doing something adaptive, then chances are this isn't going to be an isolated example.

The authors of the paper mention that most human sperm do not possess the necessary head shape to facilitate cooperative clustering. Human sperm is known for quite high variability, however, so I wouldn't rule out the possibility just yet. Again, at least five labs ought to reproduce the data. Plus, this could catch on in humans any day now.

Sperm competition is the counter to female cryptic choice, another devious reproductive tactics. Sperm Wars received considerable flak because the subject material is frankly disturbing, largely because it talks about the adaptability of infidelity. As with Wilson's original Sociobiology, it the book did not support any such actions. The fair view is to recognize the utility of all major strategies, paying due homage to the monogamous family which dominates human bonding.

Friday, February 12

The Plummet

You might be getting the impression from me that males are nothing but a bunch of outright jerks. You might be right. Aaron the alpha has a reputation for being a strong but kind baboon. More human personification - baboons do not have any understanding of kindness. Aaron's pure strength is what shapes his attitudes, he can afford to be calm because he knows how easily he could defeat anyone else, and the others know it too.

There are occasional times when Aaron appears to be putting on displays. Considering the ritualistic nature of the baboon wahoo battle, other symbolic displays are hardly surprising. As usual, I did not see what triggered the outburst which started the extended affair, but the results ended up being quite distressing for just about everyone.

It probably started with a female. It usually does. Then, one of the other males gets annoyed at the aggressor male for treading too far, and a male battle ensues. It happens all the time. It used to be an incredible, exhilarating event, but it everything loses its charm with time. Something needs to make the incident stand out - like a baboon falling twenty meters to solid earth.

The battle between these two males had progressed into the canopy, as is common place. Baboons are natural climbers, but tall trees are not a part of their natural habitat. They might be at a bit of a disadvantage, actually.

Dead branches are not unusual. Even the unfortunate monkey didn't appear to be much surprised when a limb cracked under his weight and he feel those twenty meters straight to the ground. The big guy landed, and without even pausing, burst forward with energy, continuing the chase as if nothing had happened. For those in need of perspective, he fell a height of at least two stories.

This guy's next move was to chase some offending female into a tree, up said tree, and out onto a branch way up at top. It was like a cinematic pirate duel onto the gangplank, where one of the fencers is pushed to the very edge, but remains clam. Except it was two baboons, and the female at the end of the branch was screaming her lungs out.

I'd be screaming. She was suspended 40 meters from the ground by a thin pine branch which already bent ominously under her weight. The gargantuan male loomed in front of her, threatening and slowly pushing her back until there was no where she could go, and even then continuing his advance. Her cries died down after about ten minutes or so, maybe from losing her voice. One false slip and she was done for. She did almost fall several times, which is no surprise since he kept her up there on the tip of the branch for half an hour. Of course, these monkeys don't exactly have anything better to do with their time.

Later, I was able to determine that the baboon was Aaron. In these fights and chases, the action is so quickly paced that one can seldom identify anyone. I've gotten comfortable with identifying all of the adults, particularly the males, but during a fight, I'd need to be very close, uncomfrotably close in order to identify them.

Once tempers had cooled, everyone came down from the trees and continued to forage. Aaron appeared to have no injury whatsoever. It was just another part of the daily routine.

Thursday, February 11

More Late Breaking Bonobo News

... Because I only check some of my RSS feeds on a regular basis.

'Peter Pan' apes never seem to learn selfishness

ScienceDaily (2010-02-01) -- Sharing is a behavior on which day care workers and kindergarten teachers tend to offer young humans a lot of coaching. But for our ape cousins the bonobos, sharing just comes naturally. ... > read full article

Very similar story to last time. I heard about food sharing among bonobos a little while back, which I do not think has been observed in captive studies. Whenever food sharing happens among primates, its a pretty big deal and researchers immediately want to determine the adaptability of such behaviors. Some baboon-ists joke about making their key breakthrough by discovering food sharing in baboons. Hare and Wrangham are pressing towards some highly interesting conclusions.

Wednesday, February 10

Those childish bonobos

Developmental delay may explain behavior of easygoing bonobo apes

ScienceDaily (2010-01-29) -- New research suggests that evolutionary changes in cognitive development underlie the extensive social and behavioral differences that exist between two closely related species of great apes. The study enhances our understanding of our two closest living relatives, chimpanzees and the lesser-known bonobos, and may provide key insight into human evolution. ... > read full article

For years, I was not particular gungho about developmental psychology. Developmental neurobiology has some pretty neat genetics in it, like Robo, but you're still talking about just one gene in just one part of the brain during just one part of the organism's lifespan. Also these genes have been observed in fruit flies, not Bongo Jones at the San Diego chimp enclosure.

Anyway. Developmental psych becomes much more interesting when you consider the mental capacities that develop during childhood, most notably theory of mind. Apes have incomplete theories of mind, and some would say that an eight year old child mimics the behavior of an adult chimp quite effectively. Children happen to be easier to study because there are more of them, they can usually communicate verbally, and you potentially have access to the complete development of the human theory of mind, which might just replicate our extinct ancestors' development of this theory of mind. While not always true, "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" remains a powerful principle.

What do these findings mean for primatology? If bonobos are more "juvenile" it could mean a less developed theory of mind, among many things. There is already some evidence to suggest this is the case. While the three chimpanzees (human, bonobo, chimp) are more closely related to each other than other apes, there remain limitations on how accurately we can assess relatedness. This might mean that chimps are significantly more related to us than we are to bonobos, or it could be an example of convergent evolution.

I was pleased to see this research is supervised by both Richard Wrangham and Brian Hare. I'm a big fan of both their work. The studies were performed in sanctuaries in Congo, not zoos, which I have been lead to believe (by Gottfried Hohmann), leads to better results. Hohmann mostly does impressively challenging work with free ranging bonobos in Congo, but he mostly studies behavioral ecology, not cognition.

In conclusion, please note that the "blog copy" function of ScienceDaily doesn't work on either Firefox or Chrome. So of course I used ... Opera.

Tuesday, February 9

Troop Mind Journal 01/28

The troop sat at the edge of a grove, barely shielded from the mid-morning sun the shadows of the canopy. A lazy day. They would probably go to the feeding ground in anywhere from ten minutes to three hours.

Suddenly, screams filled the air. Then a wahoo. A female, lips curled back, tail in the air, and shrieking, bounded past. She was moving too quickly for me to identify her. A male ran by, and I would have mistaken him, as well, except for that brief second when he turned his head toward me as passed, never slowing. Those intense yet stoic eyes told me it could only be Aaron, the alpha.

Aaron herded this single female around for almost five minutes without a break. At the end, she could barely keep running; it was the equivalent of a human jog which was actually no quicker than a walk. Aaron slowed his pace to match, but did not catch her - he had already done so twice, and the newly opened wound on her face would mark her for a couple weeks at least.

When the chase reached this point, I realized that he seemed to have brought her full circle, back to the core of the troop. Not quite. What actually happened was that the female core (and me accompanying them) had slowly shifted in the direction of Aaron and the female he was chasing. The whole troop has moved about 30 meters in this five minutes.

This was a case where the male appeared not to be directing the movements of the troop. He was involved with this lone female for reasons not apparent to me. Meanwhile, rest of the troop moved. The most obvious reasons would be because they wanted to stay near the male for his protection. The females like to be around the adult males, the alpha in particular. They seemed drawn to him, but followed of their own choice.

However, appearences are highly suspect (and this isn't how all herding goes down). The male might know that the effect of chasing the female will be that the others will respond accordingly. The chasing of the single female could be a highly complex social signal which told all of them to "move and follow." The females would obey, the infants would follow their mothers, and the juveniles would follow their junior playmates, and the remaining guys would have barely anyone left behind to interact with, and would thus be forced to fall in line.

Does it matter if the male chases a female back towards the troop, or away from the troop's center? Are they distinct behaviors? If they followed him regardless of where he chased, it could be evidence to say they are just following the male. What if the chaser wasn't the alpha, but a different male? Males before and after their prime could yield different results. Tricky - I think looking for a behavior where aggression is not involved would be a better way to determine if the male (and which male) is perceived as the "leader."

I'm going to keep my eyes open for a clear example of when the male clearly is not purposefully directing the group. Given our inability to understand the mental states of baboons, it might not be possible for me to be certain that I've found a scenario where the male definitely isn't considering the troop (and his females as a whole) when he is making a directed movement. But, I shall make the attempt, and possibly construct a variety complementary situations.

Sunday, February 7

News From Nowhere

The newspapers in Cape Town put up "abridged stories" on posters around town on a daily basis. These are actually just headlines meant to sucker you into buying the paper. This time they almost got me. I saw the following headline on my Friday drive back from work, and even signed up for their free online trial so I could read the story.

Man, 69, dies after baboon shoves him
Cape Times
05 Feb 2010

AN ELDERLY man died after a baboon knocked him off a ramp at a Simon’s Town shelter for homeless people, leading to renewed calls for authorities to ensure the baboon troop in the area gets monitored. Michael Bates, 69, a resident of the Happy Valley...read more...
This is an example of bad reporting. The headline is technically correct, but extremely misleading. Here's the truth, buried deeper in the story:
Happy Valley Home manager Cindy Dollery said: “It was a freak accident. I’ve been told that one of the residents threw a jug of water at the baboon and, as it ran out, Mr Bates was knocked down. He died in his sleep on Sunday.
...which was three days later (the story being published five days after this).

Way to infer a causative link on some the flimsiest evidence imaginable, Cape Times.

Addendum: I went out last night, and majority of people I talked with asked me about this "news." And I was very pleased to be able to explain to them the disgusting truth of the matter. Most people's reactions: "Three days? Seriously?"

Thursday, February 4

The Quest

There are a few questions which transcend science and capture the imagination and thoughts of the greater population. One such question sits at the nexus of the fields of anthropology, sociobiology, ethology, psychology, evolutionary/population genetics, primatology, and archaeology there sits a question which is the Holy Grail of biological inquiries. Progressive hypotheses have been posed for hundreds of years, hopefully been getting closer and closer to the truth. But we're still not there. It is a topic which has influenced religion, literature, philosophy; thousands of books and stories have hinged on this question, some of the most notable recent examples include Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, the Chrono series, and even the modern reinterpretation of Battlestar Galactica.

Simply put, the question is, "Why are we here?" However, with our existing knowledge of physics and the biology of natural selection, we can focus the question into "How did we get here?" Well, where exactly is here? We know how we got to this planet - astrophysics and primordial soup. So where have we gone that other life hasn't? Well, we appear to defy many "rules" of nature, and we've created complex cultures and vast civilizations, spanning the entire globe. No other creature has come close to extending as far as our species has. "How did we get to where we are today?"

My actions at this very moment rely on a collection of unique human accomplishments: writing this blog post about human understanding of natural science on the internet for a global community. Your pet snake and my monkey friends will never see one of their species capable of understanding even one of these concepts. So, the question has now reached the form, "How were humans able to become civilized and advanced beyond any other animal?"

The question is not, "How are humans different form other animals?" This question has been addressed for years, and our understanding of the answer is quite concrete. To be certain, this information is important to understanding my question, but alone it is not a solution. If you're interested in the answer to this other question, I recommend Human, by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, a modern overview of the known difference between man and the other apes.

The real question, the true Grail, concerns events which happened tens of thousands of years ago. Humans weren't always able to do these neat things we take for granted in the modern age. So when and did these developments start? For hundreds of thousands of years, we lived as hunter-gatherers (H-G), and for millions of years past our emergence, our authrolopithecine ancestors lived this way as well. The prehistoric hunter-gatherer lifestyle is actually quite similar to how modern chimpanzees live. Even my friends, the baboons, gather their food in much the same way our cro-magnon ancestors did.

Then something happened. It transpired tens of thousands of years ago, and may have been a transition which itself took thousands of years.

Agriculture used to be a big deal in terms of fundamental human achievements. Don't take this the wrong way, the invention of agriculture was huge, but it wasn't what set us apart. Something happened before agriculture, something which allowed us to develop massive living groups.

A hundred thousand years ago and earlier, our ancestors lived as simple hunter-gatherers. Between simple hunter-gatherers and agricultural based towns is an intermediate step: complex hunter-gatherers. Complex hunter-gatherers lived in a larger groups, used more complex tools, and practiced the gathering tactic of radiating mobility.

Simple hunter-gatherers are characterized by their circular mobility and lack of permanent settlements. They would travel from place to place, using some of the local resources and then moving on before completely draining the area. They would follow game to satisfy their need for protein, and gather as they would go, altering their movements seasonally to accommodate migration and ripening of fruit. The baboons do almost exactly what I'm describing, except without the hunting.

Complex tools and sophisticated hunting and gathering techniques are no big deal. We're part of the branch of primates (chimpanzees) which excels at technology. It makes decent sense for us to be able to do the seemingly insane things we do with technology, both modern and ancient.

It is the large group size which is the confusing part of this situation. Chimps can maintain group sizes of 70 at the most. Complex hunter-gatherers managed to push this number up into the hundreds and beyond. Simple hunter-gatherering humans didn't live this way. They still don't. Contemporary African bushmen camps contain about a dozen tiny stick huts populated by approximately 40 people.

So how'd we do it? We lived as simple hunter gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years. Why the sudden change to larger groups? Animal behavior is adaptive, which means we wouldn't have done it unless it helped us out somehow. In hindsight, the advantages of agriculture over complex H-G over simple H-G are obvious, and our vast population expansion which occurred over the last ten thousand years is further proof of our unique accomplishments. But why should we have managed to succeed when in the millions of years of hominid history, no one else figured it out?

Scientists have ideas. Lots of them. Yet, whatever happened, it happened so long ago that little evidence remains. This is the biggest impediment we face in our attempts to tackle the question. We must work with extremely limited remains of tools, shelters, and bodies. Human remains provide limited genetic data, which may be the most useful data at our disposal.

My main purpose in writing this is so I have the neccessary background info readily at hand for discussions of the various theories which seek to answer the question. There are a slew of papers, some old, most new, which seek to give answer(s). They're interesting to read and this is "kind of a big deal" so I think they are worth the attention. Although, I'll also say right here and now that I don't believe any of these papers have it right, which makes the debate all the more fun.

Why am I personally interested? Well, we're basically talking about figuring out the most important  development in human history! That sounds pretty exciting to me. Its also controversial, and I can't help myself, I'm drawn towards a good struggle. Plus, I have the advantage of having already read many of these papers, and I believe there are some conclusions being misrepresented, and something I can add from there...

Wednesday, February 3

Being a female baboon is not a fun time

 The title says it all. All that's left for me to do is tell you how through the use of shocking anecdotes.

One of my colleagues and I were able to sum up the difference between the genders quite concisely. We approached the divide on the plane of physical appearance, since is this one of the realms in which we humans are best able to understand baboons.

Male baboons are greatly fortunate in being very handsome. They are blessed with thick, flowing coats of hair, square jaws, pristine bodies, and ears which are usually entirely intact. The females have misshapen nipples, scarred tails, mangled finger permanently bent out of shape, and ears which are often so damaged they become our primary means of identification. Furthermore, when a female is frightened, her tail sticks into the air, her lips curl back revealing her yellow teeth and bright pink gums, and she dashes about wailing frantically. It is a hideous sight to behold.

Please do not get the wrong impression - I do not fault the females, for how can I? Most of their unattractiveness is caused by baboon-on-baboon violence, not innate uglyiness. Everyone beats up on female baboons. From a human standpoint, they were dealt a very poor hand, indeed.

The most obvious (to us humans) source of violence is the males. Our minds are swamped with tales of domestic violence in human society, offering us some preparation for what we observe in the troops. Adult male baboons always sit much higher in the absolute hierarchy than females, mostly because of their immense size advantage. This size is exactly what defines much of their relationship with the females. Virtually all adult males, not just the alpha, will chase the females. We call this herding. Males use it as a tactic to control the movements and interactions of females - the unfortunate victim of the herding, specifically, but also any other females in the vicinity.

Most of the time, the chased female will just grimace and shriek horribly while running madly from the male, but the male can pretty much always catch the female if he truly desires. Maybe he's really angry at that female, or displacing some other aggression, but there are times when he catches, them, and its not a pretty site. The effect on the female is primarily mental and emotional, nevertheless the females rarely escape physical harm.

Like their brothers, juveniles will also chase the females around. An adult female is about the same size as a four year old juvenile, and the females are not built for rigorous combat. So, those juveniles can push them around just as easily. Injury is rarely incurred by the females in these conflicts, but I can personally attest that these males tend to be huge assholes, and are a giant nuisance to constantly deal with.

Yet, a female's worst injuries are invariably inflicted by other female baboons.

A female's time is largely consumed with socializing with other females, and the young children. The dominance hierarchy is thus very important to these female baboons, as it affects mate selection, alliances, grooming partners, etc. Basically, baboons hierarchies are rigid. Part of why they are so rigid is because is you step out of line, you'll end up starting a fight. The torn ears, ragged tails, and scratched faces are the obvious signs of the lifelong sources of suffering

Males leap about, wahoo at each other, engaging in ritualized aggression, which is when the fighting doesn't actually come to blows, but one's strength is displayed via alternative methods. In the case of the male baboons, they engage in "wahoo battle" where the male who can run around and shout at the top of his longs the longest is clearly shown to be the strongest. This way, no one gets hurt, which is good for everyone, and the outcome remains the same. From my observations, it appears that females engage in a lot less ritual aggression, and a lot more real aggression

I have seen female baboons gradually tear the skin from the skull bone of a live and struggling female over the course of several days (a tale which may one day be told in full...). She lived, but her scars will not fade anytime soon.

Violence appears to be the worst part of a female baboon's life. Still, when they aren't being abused, they still have to to deal with the joys of pregnancy and subsequent high infant mortality rates. There's no such thing as monkey abstinence, so until they become menopausal, female is either pregnant or suckling some brat who is constantly yanking on their nipples (when I am able to get a good shot of this, I will show you these nipples - they are impressive). They're often still suckling when they begin cycling again, which doesn't stop the males from following them around all day, and copulating on a whim. Immediately following ovulation, I'd guess a female will have to copulate about a hundred times in a day. Plus, they have to carry those big, tender genital swellings around all day.
don't even bother asking me how this is fucking possible I don't know
Its hard to think of upsides, though I am a male, so I am unfortunately not the best judge. The juveniles are really the ones who have it easy. Females have all the problems I've just stated, and the males barely live past ten years, and their lives are honestly pretty dull most hours of the day. If you're ever reincarnated as a baboon, choose to be juvenile... And then never grow up. I did a search for "Peter Pan Baboon" and couldn't find any remotely relevant images, so I think I'm done here.

Monday, February 1

Diapadion Hates the Internet - SA Edition

As any educated individual is aware, the modern world is rife with different internets. As it happens, the South African one sucks. 

If you were wondering why I was out of commission all weekend (you probably weren't), its was because I ran out of internet. This might not seem possible, but it is! The internet goes to new and unforeseen places in Africa. 

Allow me to run this down for you. In most of Africa, the mega-internet connection, which allows whole countries to be connected with the rest of the world, uses satellite technology. Pretty much everywhere else in the world, including North African countries like Egypt, giant underseas fibre optic cables do the heavy lifting because they are much much better than satellites.

Despite being one of the (if not the) most developed African nation, South Africa is still stuck with satellites. Overcoming massive geographic isolation just isn't an easy task. Have a look at a map of the world - we are out of the way. SA isn't quite at the Cape Horn extreme, but it is of the same magnitude. Yet, any day now they'll finish the big tube that will soon give Africa unrestrained access to the nets.

I don't live in that glorious future world. I live in the world where the tube is incomplete, and we in South Africa have to deal with reasonable and unreasonable restrictions on our internet use.

Firstly: bandwidth capping. Capping means that they limit the amount of total (not the rate) information you can upload and download, as opposed to the amount of time you spend connected. Standard monthly allotments run between 1 and 10 gigabytes. You can obtain uncapped accounts, but you have to pay out the wazoo for them.

Secondly, what if you run out of gigabytes? Well, you can "top up" your account with more "air time." You're paying for a minimum monthly allowance, but if you don't use it all, or if you buy extra and don't use that, its gone at the end of the month.

Let it be known that the majority of South African utilities use this system, electricity, water, gas, phones. I can't think of anyone I know, or even anyone I've met, who doesn't use a prepaid cellular phone.

Thirdly, all the connections are ADSL and slow as a raging sloth. Even a premium uncapped connection will be slow by American and European standards because of the satellite limitations.

These are generally things that just "have to be." Now I'll relate my most recent experience, which highlights things that suck and really don't need to suck.

The main service provider is Telkom. I hope they won't revoke my IP for trashing them. Go government subsidized monopolies! So that you do not get boned, Telkom have a service setup where they send you an email once a day letting you know what your remaining available bandwidth is. However, sometimes the emails just don't arrive. This, is bullshit. I could remotely setup a server to send reminder emails.

This would not be such a problem if it was not compounded with Telkom's other critical flaw. Even if you didn't get the emails, you could just run out of bandwidth, and then everything would stop. Then you'd just grumble for a few minutes, get some more bandwidth, and resume what you were doing. This is what you would think would happen.

Not so. When you run out of data each month, you are done. No more refills. You want more, you must get a new account. I just discovered this recently, much to my surprise, sooo... yeah. No internet for a few days until the new month. Fun times. So if you don't get an email, and don't know where you stand, you run out, and are done for the month.

Who thought that was a bright idea?

Being in the black wasn't all bad, of course. Internet draughts are okay (even refreshing) every now and then, but a SURPRISE draught is okay about once. In a post-millennium lifetime. Ever.

In summary, Telkom sucks and no one likes them. Some things are forgivable. Too many are not. I look forward to the day the fiber pipes come to South Africa, and real internet becomes available.

Meanwhile, the baboons didn't care and continued to swing around in pine trees, beat up on each other, and copulate.