Homer Numan

Homer Numan

Monday, January 18, 2010

Smarter Than You Think

Smarter than you think (Sunday Times Article 17/01/10)

The animal kingdom is home to much greater intelligence than has been previously acknowledged, with scientists seeing evidence of human-like traits everywhereJonathan Leake and Georgia Warren

It was the sight of a diminutive Diana monkey attacking a giant crowned eagle in the treetops of the Tai forest in Ivory Coast, west Africa, that gave Klaus Zuberbühler his great insight into the language of monkeys.

As the animal charged the bird it emitted screams that Zuberbühler, a psychologist at St Andrews University, knew he had heard before.

“When we analysed our recordings we realised it was different to all the other monkey alarm calls — except for when they were fighting off eagles,” said Zuberbühler.

The implication was a powerful one. Jungles such as the Tai forest are a cacophony of monkey shouts and screams. Researchers had assumed they were just simple markers of territory, distress or a desire to mate. What Zuberbühler’s findings suggested was something much more exciting: the monkeys were communicating with each other, in this case passing on complex information about a specific threat and its whereabouts. In other words, they had developed a rudimentary language.

Over the following months Zuberbühler and his colleagues recorded thousands more monkey calls and spent hundreds of hours listening to the animals. Slowly they learnt the language of the apes.

They found that the Campbell’s monkey, another species, has the ability to add suffixes to its calls, changing the meaning to tell one another of different threats or opportunities. When they saw a leopard, for example, they gave a “krack” alarm call, but when they were just repeating calls made by other monkeys they added an “oo”.

The males had another refinement, emitting a “boom boom” sound to call other monkeys towards them, but sometimes appending an “ooo” sound to warn of a falling branch or tree.

“We found they have six call types, three of which can take a suffix. It means they can put the sounds into sequences that convey complex meanings,” Zuberbühler said.

Perhaps most exciting of all was the discovery that the calls could be understood by other species of monkey — and even by birds such as hornbills.

It means, said Zuberbühler, that animals and birds can communicate complex ideas not just to their peers but also across species.

Zuberbühler’s research is exciting and by no means unique. In the past few years researchers have been finding similar examples of sentience and self-awareness across the animal kingdom in species ranging from elephants and dolphins to crows and parrots. Even sheep, cows and pigs appear to be far more self-aware and to lead more emotionally charged lives than we have previously understood.

It means that humans, used to regarding ourselves as unique in our ability to think and feel, are not so special. Increasingly scientists believe we are merely at the top of a spectrum of intelligence across the animal kingdom, rather than standing apart from it. We may be better at thinking and more able to articulate our feelings — but animals can do all the same things.

AMONG scientists, the idea that animals and birds might be sentient has been around a long time. Charles Darwin suggested there were good evolutionary reasons for complex organisms such as mammals to develop self-awareness. However, he had no evidence for it.

A prescient Darwin thought social animals that lived in groups would be the most likely to show signs of intelligence. It is a prediction that scientists are confirming over and over.

Dolphins, for example, were recently proposed as the world’s second most intelligent creatures after studies showed they had distinct personalities, a strong sense of self and could think about the future.

This was backed up by MRI scans showing their brains were second in mass only to those of humans when adjusted for body size.

Chimpanzees are perhaps the most obvious species for comparisons with humans, but their abilities can still surprise, as when researchers at Georgia State University’s language research centre in Atlanta taught some to “speak”.

They taught the animals to use voice synthesisers and a keyboard to hold conversations with humans. One chimp developed a 3,000-word vocabulary and tests suggested she had the language and cognitive skills of a four-year-old child.

Perhaps the most surprising signs of intelligence have been found in birds — whose tiny heads and small brains were long assumed to be a complete barrier to sentience. All that is changing fast, however, with many species showing powerful memories and reasoning power. A few years ago Irene Pepperberg of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology taught a parrot to recognise and count up to six objects and describe their shapes.

Last year that was topped by Alex Kacelnik, a professor of behavioural ecology at Oxford, who discovered that crows are capable of using multiple tools in complex sequences, the first time such behaviour had been observed in non-humans. In an experiment seven crows successfully reeled in a piece of food placed out of reach using three different lengths of stick.

Crucially, they were able to complete the task without any special training, suggesting the birds were capable of a level of abstract reasoning and creativity normally associated only with humans.

Last week it emerged that researchers from Padua University in Italy had found that birds were able to read numbers from left to right, as humans do, and count to four even when the line of numbers was moved from vertical to horizontal. They also showed that birds performed better in tests after a good night’s sleep.

All this is powerful evidence against the idea that people are unique and, some argue, also undermines the idea that humans should have “dominion” over animals, as the Bible puts it.

This has traditionally been the justification for the exploitation and abuse of animals in many different ways, the most emotive of which is animal experimentation, particularly involving primates.

In terms of sheer numbers, though, it is farming that inflicts the most misery with about 60 billion animals farmed worldwide for food each year, most of them in intensive systems.

Recent campaigns by Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the celebrity chefs, against battery-reared chickens highlighted how large poultry farms can cram up to 50,000 chickens into one shed, forcing the birds to live in their own faeces. Similar conditions are inflicted on other livestock such as pigs and cattle, again once thought of as dumb animals but which research has shown to be highly sentient.

John Webster, emeritus professor of animal husbandry at the University of Bristol, has studied the group dynamics of cows, finding that apparently peaceful herds are actually heaving with complex emotions. Cows can form intimate friendship groups of a few animals — or develop grudges that last for years. Sometimes they even turn lesbian, grooming, licking and trying to mount each other.

Research by Professor Keith Kendrick, a neuroscientist at the government’s Babraham Research Institute in Cambridge, looked at what goes on in the brains of animals such as sheep, suggesting remarkable similarities to humans.

In one experiment he showed that sheep are able to recognise the individual faces of at least 50 other sheep for up to two years. He also found that the electrical activity in the brain associated with recognising other individuals was similar to that seen in people.

“People see sheep as grass-eating robots but they are complex social animals. Their brains works in similar ways to our own,” he said.

Webster believes such complexity and possible self-awareness create a moral obligation to treat farm animals better. “What’s clear is that the animals we use on the farm, in the laboratory or in the home are able to experience emotions ranging from comfort and pleasure to pain and suffering,” he said.

“Our aim should be to keep them fit and happy: to create a physical and social environment where they can achieve a sense of wellbeing. This applies whatever may be our intentions for the animal: to love it, eat it, or to find a cure for cancer. Animals under our protection deserve a fair deal: a sense of wellbeing in life and a humane death.”

Such an approach has already been incorporated into law — but only for pets. The Animal Welfare Act of 2006 said that humans have a duty of care for companion animals and cannot maltreat them for fear of legal retribution. Farm animals are excluded, which some say is based not on science but on the financial interests of the farming and food industries.

Joyce D’Silva, of Compassion in World Farming, said the research supported the idea that animals were sentient and had complex emotional needs and lives “not so different to our own”.

“Industrial farming ignores all those needs,” she said.

“We can see their physical distress but this research tells us it goes much deeper than that and affects their emotional health, too.”

ONE fascinating aspect of research into animal cognition is the insights it offers into how early humans might have developed intelligence.

There have been 15-20 species of human in the past several million years but modern humans are the only survivor. Why is this?

Some researchers suggest that from about 3m years ago early humans had to deal with a series of sudden changes in climate that could be survived only by co-operation and teamwork.

These would have placed a premium on skills such as rapid reasoning, communication and other social skills. Hominids such as Neanderthals, who were intelligent enough to produce jewellery and wear make-up, could not adapt fast enough and so perished — while we survived.

Such ideas suggest that the cognitive abilities of animals and humans lie on a spectrum. The skills of humans may be at the top end but they are no different in kind from those of many animal species.

Thomas White, professor of ethics at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, believes that some animals are bright enough to merit human rights. He suggests that hunting dolphins or capturing them for aquariums is “roughly the same thing whites were doing to blacks 200 years ago in the slave trade”.

Hyperbole, perhaps, but at a simpler level Zuberbühler has good reason to be thankful for the ability of animals to communicate complex information. Walking back to camp in the Tai forest he heard a group of monkeys screaming the warning call for a leopard.

That was nothing special but a few minutes later he passed a second group who took up the cry — and then the same happened with a third.

He said: “By then I had been listening to monkeys for long enough to recognise what the cries meant — I was being stalked by a leopard.”

Zuberbühler picked up a stick and ran for the camp, wishing he could thank the monkeys for their help.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Why Do Humans Need to Believe in the Supernatural?

The Wikipedia definition:

''The term supernatural pertains to being above or beyond what is natural; unexplainable by natural law or phenomena. Religious miracles are typically supernatural claims, as are spells and curses, divination, the belief that there is an afterlife for the dead, and innumerable others. Supernatural beliefs have existed in many cultures throughout human history.''

Most religions don't tend to class themselves as 'supernatural' organisations. The term is generally associated with sci-fi and ghosts, yet it is equally applicable to religious belief.

Despite centuries of scientific, societal and cultural progress, supernatural beliefs are densely interwoven in all human societies. Belief in an invisible, unknowable, unproveable supernatural being is still regarded as normal, while in most cultures, atheism is regarded as unusual or in extreme cases, heretical.

Indeed the term atheism only dates back to the 16th century, and whilst there were undoubtedly non-believers prior to that time, they obviously had little influence and tended to keep their thoughts to themselves, presumably through fear of ridicule, peer rejection or persecution.

So in a world where belief in the irrational remains the norm and stating the obvious remains an outsider position, what exactly are we to make of the human 'spiritual' condition?

First of all, I should briefly outline my position. I had a religious (though not oppressively so) upbringing in the Protestant (Presbyterian) church. At the age of approx 13, I formulated my own ideas which are largely unchanged today.

My view is that humanity is merely the dominant creature in a food chain. A skilled and destructive parasite, leeching off a small planet and it's largely unfortunate (non-human) animal neighbours.
At present we have no way of knowing how the planet or indeed the universe came to be, and such questions, whilst interesting, are largely irrelevant. Infinitely more important is the question of how future generations are going to survive on a planet already massively overpopulated, polluted, ravaged and damaged in a most short-sighted manner.

The notion that humanity is in some way more important, relevant or deserving than the rest of the animal kingdom is by turns quaint and dangerously self-deluding. Dangerous in that it encourages and excuses habitat and species destruction, quaint in that it is a belief stretching back to the dimmest mists of human existence, propelled by zero evidence and egotism.

That's my take and to me it's as obvious as night and day. So why do so few others agree?

Skipping over the endless subject of organised religion and it's disastrous and frequently appalling track record, we need to turn to human nature.

The need to believe in SOMETHING beyond ourselves is largely universal. But why?
There are several theories -- that humanity needed an explanation for existence, particularly an explanation for death. That there had to be some reason for us to be here and that inexplicable natural events such as storms, earthquakes and floods needed a 'rational' explanation. And that a society built on tribal and spiritual values, often masqueraded as morality, created a more cohesive and easily manipulated populace.

But whilst we can understand the above in the context of primitive and even medieval societies, surely such notions should largely have fallen by the wayside in today's global, enlightened and technological age? Few still believe in a flat earth, the sun revolving round our planet or in witches, goblins and fairies, so why do we still feel the need for a deity?

Well there are a few possibilities. First of all, religious belief, particularly in the notion of a MALE deity (surely common sense should indicate that any deity would be sexually neutral?) helps to reinforce societally convenient stereo-types. Thus Christianity and particularly Islam are used as excuses for the subjucation and abuse of women, the persecution of homosexuals and the supposed superiority of men.

Tribalism -- humanity has always been a tribal animal, clinging to the 'them and us' notions of the earliest days when being in the correct group meant life or death. Today's tribal societies are more subtle, relying on the basic insecurity of the individual. Being brought up in one 'tribe' due to job description or skin colour is a little too 'loose' -- being raised in a tribe which has the spiritual 'truth' is quite another. Thus Roman Catholics, Sunni Muslims, Mormons etc 'belong' to a particular group, complete with their own rituals, fanciful ideas and tribal laws. They may not appear sensible or ethical to outsiders, but 'belonging' to a group, even an abusive one, is for many preferable to being an 'outcast' forced to stand on your own two feet.

Vested interests -- God = money. Whether a humble priest or a multi-millionaire cult leader, there is money to be made from the exploitation of others gullibility. It works for anti-wrinkle creams, alternative medicines and fortune tellers, so why not for supernatural belief? Indeed it's only limits are the imagination.
In addition to financial gain, other benefits of running a religious group include power, respect and control. As the RC church have so ably demonstrated, religious power brings with it such perks as unfettered paedophilia as well as huge amounts of money and influence. The world's religions have myriad reasons for wishing their particular brands to continue, and the best way to do so is by 'getting them young.'

Indoctrination -- this is perhaps the most insidious of all. Rather than allowing an individual to choose their faith in early adulthood, most supernaturalists insist on indoctrinating their children in their tribal faith (and their faith ONLY) literally from birth. What could say more about the tribal nature and uncertainty of religious faith than that parents and their religious masters are afraid to allow their offspring to choose -- they must be TOLD, despite the fact that their 'faith' is merely an accident of birth, that they have been born into the one 'true' faith.

So is supernatural belief merely about rigid organised religion and tribalism? Or is there something more?

Left to decide for themselves, having been brought up in a non-religious or religiously neutral environment, many people WILL choose religious belief of one sort or another. Sometimes through marriage, sometimes through persausion, sometimes through liking what they see in a particular faith. There's no doubt that most people still feel the need to believe and worship something. Even non-deity believers will still say thet are 'spiritual', that there is 'something greater than us.'

Why should this be? Is it merely the sense of scale? That individuals feel (rightly) dwarfed by the vastness of the universe and the seeming futility of existence? Is it a coping mechanism dating from our primeval past? And are we always likely to have these feelings?

I say always because always may not be that long. Whether or not global warming even exists, the planet's resources are being sucked dry at an alarming rate. Whether you're religious or not, the end (for humanity as we know it as opposed to the planet which will continue regardless) may well be nigh.

The question is should humanity be wasting it's time on oceans of mumbo jumbo and ancient manuscripts when the actual survival of the species is infinitely more important?

Saturday, January 02, 2010

St Trinians 2

If you've seen the first film in this revamped franchise, you'll likely know what to expect.

Thankfully shorn of the obnoxious Russell Brand, but somewhat inexplicably boasting David Tennant, St Trinians 2 is a pretty cack-handed romp through the bargain bins of British cinema.

A wafer thin plot, dreadful jokes and plodding dialogue characterise this fairly woeful sequel, but somehow, like the bulldog pup humping Colin Firth's leg, you can't help but quite like it. It truly does what it says on the tin, and whilst even the most mediocre episode of Dr Who could knock the socks of this film, David Tennant somehow redeems himself as the leader of a chauvinist secret society hell bent on discovering the true identity of Shakespeare. Yes it's really that daft.

Firth and the gender-bendering headmistress are back for more silliness and the girls themselves do their best with dialogue which often feels like it's been made up on the hoof. Girls Aloud's Sarah Harding doesn't have to work too hard in her role, but certainly doesn't disgrace herself and easily acts Madonna off the screen in every movie she's ever been in. Possibly not saying much though.

A nation of lads will be gutted to discover that Gemma Arterton is relegated to supporting role while some young upstart takes over as headgirl, but when the upstart is Talulah Riley it kind of softens the blow somewhat.

All in all, don't expect much and you won't be disappointed. Harmless fluff. (6 out of 10).