Thursday, April 28

Queen me?

I'm in the process of writing a paper concerning the ecology and industry of American bison (meat), so my writing engine is low on fuel.

But, a friend sent me this article about bees that I have found myself suprisingly pleased with. Sure, its about insects, but for someone who doesn't spend much time reading entomology papers, it can be rather refreshing. Plus, I would not dream of understating the importance of entomology to the development of the fields of ethology and sociobiology. The fact that I learned about the paper via theNewScientist is less forgivable.

I honestly had no idea how Queens became differetiated from other bees, we just didn't even get into it in Animal Behavior, other than a brief discussion of "royal jelly" which came across almost as an old wives' tale. These folks are lucky that they found such a clear effect from a single compound. A single author, too... most impressive. So, how do Queens come to be in ants, termites, and other eusocial insects?

Anyway, there's your dose of 'real' ethology; the only one you'll get from me for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, April 20

Every primate's a little bit prejudiced

Scientific American covered a new article out in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology which asks an interesting question, of a sort that is not asked nearly enough, in my opinion. Are our biases and attitudes towards other social groups, and within our own group, uniquely human? Do our strategies arise from experiences which no other species can match?

The answer provided by Neha Mahajan, Laurie Santos and colleagues is no.
"We found the first evidence that a nonhuman species automatically distinguishes the faces of members of its own social group from those in other groups and displays greater vigilance toward outgroup members . . . macaques spontaneously associate novel objects with specific social groups and display greater vigilance to objects associated with outgroup members . . . and we discovered that macaques, like humans, automatically evaluate ingroup members positively and outgroup members negatively."
I won't lie, this is some really intriguing stuff. You can read all this and more on the details in SciAm's article, and I hate to rehash thing that have already been said. Rather, I'd like to switch attention to the spin which SciAm puts on this article in their own report.

Once does the SciAm article mentioned "racism," but its in their subtitle. They shouldn't have done this. This cannot be shown to be racism, not under the current conditions. If some sort of morphological or genetic analysis was performed, then maybe they could make this claim. But all the associations in this research are social, not biological. Unless you believe race is a purely social institution, but people have known for a while that its just not that simple.

The true question is easily found in the abstract, and I've paraphrased it above. Did SciAm have access to the full length article, and I missing something with just the abstract? I assume so, though it is rather odd for their link to take the reader to an abstract with no sign of the full text. Even with my various University sources, I couldn't manage to obtain access to this article. So all I have to go by is the abstract, same as you. Ultimately, even if I wanted to, I couldn't write a critical assessment of the source document.

Thus ends this cautionary tale. I am all in favor of more research like this, and other research which truly investigates the genetic basis for ethnic group biases. However, the story of race, genetics, and scientific inquiry is a troubled one. One SciAm article isn't a huge deal, but it demonstrates how easy it is to make little mistakes, and the pursuit of knowledge in this discipline is a razor thin line which must be carefully walked. Otherwise, unfortunate things can happen.

Thursday, April 14

My monkeys are famous on the internet!

Okay not really. Not yet. There's only a few hundred views at time of this posting. But its TV! Real... British TV...

Another thing about this video is that its quite recent. Not so recent as Fred's untimely demise, as that baboon plays a major role in this video. Its quite a good video, too, comapred to the media I'm used to seeing surrounding these baboons. Bill Bailey doesn't make any judgements on what the baboons are doing, and he mostly chastises humans for being clearly dumb and not protecting their valuables. There are several minor errors, and more than a few leaps to conclusions, but that is The Science talking.

The Tokai troop in this video is my troop, though. You won't recognize the names because they have been changed to protect the innocent. Though one of these days I may reveal the unadulterated truth of these baboon tales. Dani's certainly grown into the hide and build of an alpha male, though.

There are some oddities (minor errors, perhaps, as I alluded to earlier), which I could go on about for pages, but I'll stick to some of the more interesting ones. Bailey implies that the Smitz baboons know that the whales are why the humans come to that area. I won't rule out the possibility that they might be doing this, but Occam's Razor suggest otherwise. Have a look at the terrain - its steep fynbos all around. That troop doesn't need to know about whales or the whale watching season, they only need to know that foolish humans with food tend to congregate along that coast line on a regular basis. Then they can peer down from where they might sleep on the outcroppings and see if the humans are lining up as easy pickings on any given day.

In Tokai, Whitey is far from the oldest female around. She wasn't even one of the females I included in the Old Ladies Club. The leg injury is not likely to be permanent. There is a Limper in the other troop, who I figured would recover, but simply never did, however, so Whitey might be stuck that way. Hard to say. As the film shows, and as I always say, being a female baboon is rough. Easy work for the filmmakers, on the other hand; there is a good chance that any day they were to come by, one of the big males would pick on one of the females. I did like the fact that Bailey acted properly confused as to what particular reason Dani had for chasing Berta on this particular day.

Even if you don't care for the narration, the footage is some of the best (and longest) you'll find anywhere. Definitely worth the watch. It would have been worth it just for that shot of Stettler, sitting in the forest. The old man always was my favorite.