03 January 2006

For what the turtles do, you don't need live ones

From Sherry Turkle's 'dangerous idea' for Edge's question centre 2006:

At the entrance to the exhibit is a turtle from the Galapagos Islands, a seminal object in the development of evolutionary theory. The turtle rests in its cage, utterly still. "They could have used a robot," comments my daughter. It was a shame to bring the turtle all this way and put it in a cage for a performance that draws so little on the turtle's "aliveness." I am startled by her comments, both solicitous of the imprisoned turtle because it is alive and unconcerned by its authenticity. The museum has been advertising these turtles as wonders, curiosities, marvels — among the plastic models of life at the museum, here is the life that Darwin saw. I begin to talk with others at the exhibit, parents and children. It is Thanksgiving weekend. The line is long, the crowd frozen in place. My question, "Do you care that the turtle is alive?" is welcome diversion. A ten year old girl would prefer a robot turtle because aliveness comes with aesthetic inconvenience: "Its water looks dirty. Gross." More usually, the votes for the robots echo my daughter's sentiment that in this setting, aliveness doesn't seem worth the trouble. A twelve-year-old girl opines: "For what the turtles do, you didn't have to have the live ones." Her father looks at her, uncomprehending: "But the point is that they are real, that's the whole point."

Turkle goes on to surmise that the value of the original/authentic/alive thing is in decline.

Her subsequent thoughts about virtual creatures and robots are particularly interesting for owners of Nintendogs.

I call these creatures... "relational artifacts." Their ability to inspire relationship is not based on their intelligence or consciousness, but on their ability to push certain "Darwinian" buttons in people (making eye contact, for example) that make people respond as though they were in relationship. For me, relational artifacts are the new uncanny in our computer culture — as Freud once put it, the long familiar taking a form that is strangely unfamiliar. As such, they confront us with new questions.

(See also a mostly unrelated essay by Christoper Allen about our 'junk relationships' with TV characters, Belongingness and Para-Social Relationships.)

Posted at 02:19 PM in Children and teens, Cultured animals, Fakes and forgeries, Mimicry | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

09 January 2005

What I believe is true but cannot prove

The Edge's World Question Center started the year by asking 'What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?'. My interest was piqued by George B. Dyson's response:

During the years I spent kayaking along the coast of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska, I observed that the local raven populations spoke in distinct dialects, corresponding surprisingly closely to the geographic divisions between the indigenous human language groups. Ravens from Kwakiutl, Tsimshian, Haida, or Tlingit territory sounded different, especially in their characteristic "tok" and "tlik."

I believe this correspondence between human language and raven language is more than coincidence, though this would be difficult to prove.

This answer relates to my own belief that animals are less different from humans than we tend to allow, in terms of both intelligence and culture. This conviction was inspired by one of my favourite books, Frans de Waal's The Ape and the Sushi Master, and 2004 was a particularly good year for studies challenging some of the perceived barriers between animals and people.

First, in May, there was a report that ravens follow the human gaze and likely have a theory of mind. Then, in July, we discovered that yawning is contagious for chimps, suggesting that they are able to understand their own and others' state of mind. And, finally, in December there was evidence of Capuchins using tools to dig up tubers:

Several species are known to use 'tools', such as the birds of prey that dash their hard-shelled prey on to rocks to crack them open. But the latest case of tool use differs from many of these examples because it may be based on an understanding of cause and effect.

Were there any other examples that I missed?

Posted at 02:37 PM in Cultured animals | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

16 May 2004

Birds can have theories of mind

According to two recent studies of ravens (reported in the Economist) birds can understand that others have their own personal thoughts and therefore have the potential for empathy and deception. In these studies, ravens were found to follow the human gaze -

They found that all the birds were able to follow the gaze of the experimenters, even beyond the barrier. In the latter case, the curious birds either jumped down from the perch and walked around the barrier to have a look or leapt on top of it and peered over. There was never anything there, but they were determined to see for themselves.

- and practice deception to safeguard a food source.

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16 October 2003

Intangible property

According to Oliver Goodenough (can that be his real name?) people possess domain-specific capacities in their evolved psychology for tangible property, tied to their emotions. And culture and law have tried to expand the notion of property into other domains - e.g. intellectual property – that probably have much weaker links to the emotions. He therefore argues speculates that intellectual property, although a good idea formally, is might be too new for people to respect. So people who would never normally steal will swap files, even if it's behaviour characterisable as theft.

Noted during Oliver Goodenough's Natural Born Lawyers talk, at The Place of Value in a World of Facts

Also gleaned at The Place of Value in a World of Facts: A recent study by Frans de Waal - reported in Nature - shows that Capuchin monkeys have a sense of fairness

Posted at 05:29 PM in Cultured animals | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

12 October 2003

There's no place like home

The typical zoo enclosure for a polar bear is one-millionth the size of its home range in the wild, which can reach 31,000 square miles... Some captive polar bears spend 25 percent of their day in what scientists call stereotypic pacing, and infant mortality for captive animals is around 65 percent.

From the New York Times.

There follows a more general discussion of efforts to simulate native environments - the most striking of which is the Bronx Zoo's introduction of a spinning ball scented with various odours, for tigers. If Richard Dawkins' speculation yesterday is right and some animals (rhinos, dogs...) smell in colour, then the animals in the Bronx Zoo must smell in technicolor.

More Africams and Robot Zoos and less animal enclosures, please.

Posted at 07:14 PM in Cultured animals | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

15 September 2003


In a maths test based at a science museum, female volunteers recognised one to four dots more quickly than males did. Both sexes did equally well at counting larger numbers of dots.

The findings add to evidence that the brain deals differently with small and large numbers. We seem to have a built-in idea of 'two-ness' or 'three-ness', but must count to distinguish 12 and 13, say...

Why the brain treats small and large numbers differently is not clear. Some social animals - rats, lions and chimpanzees - can count, a skill that perhaps enables them to decide how their group should react to single or multiple intruders.

From Nature

Posted at 09:42 PM in Cultured animals | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

03 September 2003

Lapsed vegetarian

I very recently started eating fish again after 10 years of vegetarianism. They choose now to report that:

Fish are regarded as steeped in social intelligence, pursuing Machiavellian strategies of manipulation, punishment and reconciliation, exhibiting stable cultural traditions, and co-operating to inspect predators and catch food.

Recent research had shown that fish recognised individual shoal mates, social prestige and even tracked relationships.

Scientists had also observed them using tools, building complex nests and exhibiting long-term memories.

The Ape and the Sushi Master had nothing to say about cultured fish.

No wonder the Vegetarian Society has launched its Fishconceptions Campaign:

Planted any red herrings this year? Tuna coming up nicely? Been offered a nice 'vegetarian' salmon steak lately? You could be suffering from fishconceptions. We can help!

Spot the difference

Hmmmm, further thought is clearly required but can I just say - in my defence - that I have never called myself a pesco-vegetarian or pescetarian?

Reading list for self:

  • Fishing hurts
  • One boat, one line, no bait

    Posted at 07:59 PM in Cultured animals | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack