Tonight I read the geeklet a story at bedtime, the kind of thing that’s designed to be restful with a hint of mind-broadening moral reassurance. As I finished, he looked thoughtful.
“We wouldn’t be here without this.” He tapped on the floor. “I don’t mean the floor, or the neighbors downstairs. I mean the ground underneath us.”
“We also wouldn’t be here without this.” He held up is palm, and this time I wasn’t sure what he meant. “We wouldn’t be here without the sky.”
“That’s also true.” I stood up and turned out the light. “Good night.”
He wasn’t done, though. “The sky wiped out the dinosaurs so we could take over.”
“Mm hmm,” I said, without even a pause. “Good night.”
“Good night, daddy.”
This is a great article in National Geographic called Animal Minds.
Certain skills are considered key signs of higher mental abilities: good memory, a grasp of grammar and symbols, self-awareness, understanding others’ motives, imitating others, and being creative. Bit by bit, in ingenious experiments, researchers have documented these talents in other species, gradually chipping away at what we thought made human beings distinctive while offering a glimpse of where our own abilities came from. Scrub jays know that other jays are thieves and that stashed food can spoil; sheep can recognize faces; chimpanzees use a variety of tools to probe termite mounds and even use weapons to hunt small mammals; dolphins can imitate human postures; the archerfish, which stuns insects with a sudden blast of water, can learn how to aim its squirt simply by watching an experienced fish perform the task.
I can say that my sheep definitely recognize me over other people — although I think it’s my voice, more than anything, that gives me away. However, my sheep do look at my face and make eye contact. Anyway, the article is a worthy read.
Ok, so this is the biggest, hairiest and cutest spider I’ve ever seen! (Unfortunately, the little freak is not long for this world; story link is here.)
Well here’s something interesting, and in Newsweek, no less. Getting along, social bonding and using their wits are what helped our ancient ancestors to survive:
The realization that early humans were the hunted and not hunters has upended traditional ideas about what it takes for a species to thrive. For decades the reigning view had been that hunting prowess and the ability to vanquish competitors was the key to our ancestors’ evolutionary success (an idea fostered, critics now say, by the male domination of anthropology during most of the 20th century). But prey species do not owe their survival to anything of the sort, argues Sussman. Instead, they rely on their wits and, especially, social skills to survive. Being hunted brought evolutionary pressure on our ancestors to cooperate and live in cohesive groups. That, more than aggression and warfare, is our evolutionary legacy.
Both genetics and paleoneurology back that up. A hormone called oxytocin, best-known for inducing labor and lactation in women, also operates in the brain (of both sexes). There, it promotes trust during interactions with other people, and thus the cooperative behavior that lets groups of people live together for the common good.
So it was not big sticks, aggression or killing large prey that created the evolutionary success of our ancestors (in fact, there is a lot of evidence, according to the article, that our ancestors were prey, not predators), but trusting people and working together for the “common good.” Well, how about that?
This quote comes from the current cover story of Newsweek, “The Evolution Revolution.” It’s actually a good read and worth a look — lots of interesting tidbits about our deepening understanding of human evolution — we’ve got lots of extinct cousins, folks. But remember, it’s still Newsweek: the article has an almost apologetic use of God and Bible references — as if we can’t talk about evolution without refering to religion. It’s annoying.