Archive for the ‘Cool Animals’ category

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: March Mammal Madness Edition

February 18, 2014

That time of the month again:  tomorrow being the third Wednesday of February, I’ll be going on the ‘tubes at my usual gig with Virtually Speaking Science for a conversation with Katie Hinde — biologist at Harvard and major-domo of the world-class awesome blog, Mammals Suck…Milk!

You can listen live or as a podcast later here.  If you’re virtually real, you can join us in the live studio audience at the Exploratorium’s joint in Second Life.  (I’ll get the SLURL up in an update and/or tomorrow’s reminder. We kick off at 6 p.m. ET.

Hinde is just a treat of an interview — fast, funny, and with incredibly rich and interesting science to discuss.  Here’s what she’s about:

Mother’s milk has an organizational effect on infant outcomes, not just by providing the energy that sustains growth, but by also contributing to immunological, neurobiological, and behavioral development.

Guided by evolutionary theory, we investigate how variation in mother’s milk and behavioral care influences infant outcomes from post-natal life into adulthood and subsequent generations.

Her research has centered on primates, but as Ed Yong discusses here, she’s a marvelously agile opportunist, and in one sweet move she managed to turn what has been a field developed on the back of very labor intensive, small sample size studies into something approaching big milk data.  Her trick?   Taking advantage of the detailed record keeping American dairy farmers perform for obvious reasons to acquire 2.4 million lactatation records from 1.4 million cows.  Now that’s some statistical power!


Technique is one thing — asking good questions of data is another, and that’s what makes Hinde such an interesting scholar.  She’s been looking at differences by gender of the offspring in the composition and delivery of milk.  The answer is (a) the details are all in all; different species with different evolutionary histories and behavioral landscapes exhibit different lactation patterns in the context of different behaviors exhibited by daughters and sons, and (b) seemingly obvious evolutionary stories often fail to fit what actually happens at the udder or the breast — and after, through the life of the nourished children.  You can get a sense of the field and a whiff of Hinde’s own work in her review chapter here. [PDF]

We’ll talk about all that — what the story is for cows, as compared with rhesus macaques, for example, and then we’ll talk about that research as it hits the wider world.    That’s in Hinde’s mind because of a very recent encounter with the inimitable (thankfully) Daily Mail.  We’ll talk about that monument to crap science writing, but with this twist:  a look at the importance of social media for contemporary scientists.  Hinde was able to mobilize correctives to the disastrous reporting on her research only because she has a robust presence across a number of networks — and we’ll use her experience over the last week to think about the shifting power structure in media.  A long way — but not really — from the milking shed.

And last, burying the lede as usual, we’ll get to Hinde’s annual mammalian extravaganza — her own bracket of mammals taking on each other in a nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw competition that makes the NCAAs look like toddlers in sandboxes.  Just to give you a taste, last year she pitted (inter much alia) the honey badgers against the wolverines.  Now, there is simply no mammal around that matches the wolverine for sheer, incomprehensible bad-assery (see, e.g., the tale of M3 Hinde often cites).  But Hinde is an honest bracket-builder, so home field matters.  Wolverine could wreck Honey Badger on any neutral field, but in HB’s home turf — Africa — the heat and  humidity negated the advantages of stamina and ferocity, leaving one of the  pre-tourney favorites a loser as the Madness played out.

Hinde will be running a new Mammal Madness this coming March — and that’s where the conversation tomorrow will come to rest.

As you may have gathered, I’m looking forward to this one.  Join in the conversation tomorrow.

Image:  Winslow Homer, Milking Time1875.


My Review of Megan McCardle’s Upcoming Opus (Further to the Megan McCardle Is Always Wrong chronicles)

January 13, 2014

I learned — or rather was horribly brought to recall, after having labored hard to unknow the hideous realization, that Megan McArdle is coming out with a book on how failure propels success. (Sic!)  This grim fact was brought to my attention by a co-blogger at Balloon Juice, DPM (Dread Pirate Mistermix), and to my horror, my many enablers in DPM’s thread have noted that news of McArdle’s upcoming volume might be “worth” reviewing.  One even suggested a basic format.
First:  you all are horrible people, wishing upon me or anyone the evils of (a) reading McArdle at book-length and (b) spending the time it would take to disembowel the work honorably.

Second: I’ve already completed my review, along the precise lines recommended within the Balloon Juice comment thread:

Please suggest other one line/haiku McArdle reviews; it’s a rich vein of snark I’m offering here.

It’s Too Hot To Blog Plus Bonus Kitteh And The Obligatory Link To Charlie Pierce

May 26, 2012

Ponderous here in the Hub of the Universe.  Hot, humid — summer in May.

I’m trying to recover and get a bit done while the munchkin naps.

But as I make my move, what do I find at my desk?


I’m guessing Tikka is saying “Don’t even think about working today.”

Not bad advice, actually.

As for the ritual nod in Charles Pierce’s direction…Charlie has written a truly fine Memorial Day piece.  A sample, his conclusion:

On Memorial Day, when I visit the family plots in the old cemetery in Worcester when they’ve planted my forebears, I always wander over to one of the older sections where lie interred the veterans of the Grand Army Of The Republic, row after row of those round, generic tablets, each of them weathered and indistinguishable now from all the others. Memorial Day, after all, is a product of their war. Abraham Lincoln presaged it in the peroration of his magnificent Second Inaugural Address:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan-to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

After Lincoln’s murder, the spirit of his remarks took hold in curious ways. On May 1, 1865, freed black slaves gathered to honor the Union prisoners who’d been buried in unmarked graves at the Charleston Race Course in South Carolina. Elsewhere, in the South, what was first known as Decoration Day became essential to the Lost Cause mythology that became so destructive to the descendants of those freedmen who’d honored the Union dead in Charleston. Supporting The Troops always has been a more complicated business than applauding at the ballpark.

The whole essay is more than worth your time.

With that — it’s all yours. What’s on for your holiday weekend?

Totes SFW Explicit Film

April 30, 2012

I’m still basically on my work/life-compelled blog hiatus, but I could not so abandon you all as to fail to bring to your attention serious-charismatic-megafauna-gettin’-busy video.

Hence, Ladles and Jellyspoons, may I present some awesome rhino porn:

Do read the story framing the clip.  There is the suggestion of some significant insights into animal behavior that may — emphasize the tentative there — have real bearing on other conservation/species restoration efforts.

PS:  Here’s a bonus video of rhino courtship:

In Praise of Footnotes (Polar Bear Cub/Anything But The Republicans Dept.)

January 11, 2012

Because more or less anything is better than contemplating ten more months of Romney’s self-congratulatory predation of the electorate, I thought I’d try to counter (in some minor way, a jot or a tittle)  the quadrennial sense of despair that comes with the mention of Dixville Notch.

My antidote?

The treasures to be found in those pre-digitized lodes of easter eggs, footnotes in books written by generous minds.

In today’s case, that would be what I found as I finally got my crack at a book I had given my wife this Chanukah, Verdi’s Shakespeare, by one of our national treasures, Garry Wills.  There, in the first chapter, Wills made mention of Winter’s Tale, and its alpha and omega of stage directions: “Exit, pursued by bear.”

That’s one of those bits of theatrical trivia that I can’t remember learning. I think my father was the first person I heard say it, misquoting to “exit hurridly,” whenever he wanted to be gone from something dull — or to get his wild and wired son to bed.  And like most folks (I guess) I always assumed (at least from the time I realized it had something to do with a play, and not a playacting dad) that any action on stage would have been between an actor and some guy in a bear suit.

But no, Wills tells me — laconically, first, in the body of his text, writing that “when it [Shakespeare’s troupe] had a  young polar bear on hand, he wrote a scene stopper…”

That was curious enough.  A polar bear?  In London.  In 1610?

Dive into the footnotes, and it gets better:

It used to be thought that the “bear’ was a man in costume.  But scholars have now focused on the fact that two polar bear cubs were brought back from the waters off Greenland in 1609, that they were turned over to Philip Henslowe’s bear collection (hard by the Globe theater), and that polar bears show up in three productions of the 1610-1611 theatrical season….Polar bears become fierce at pubescence and were relegated to bear baiting, but the cubs were apparently still trainable in their  young state.”

Well, that explains that.  But Wills is a kind and giving writer…and so there’s more:

Since polar bears are such good swimmers, the king even turned them loose in the Thames to have aquatic bear baitings.*

Oh, joy! So much out of so little — and what a reward for the virtuous act of actually looking at the endnotes!**  There’s threads of all kinds of historical ideas to pull there — everything from thoughts about the extended pre- or early history of globalizing media to the power of spectacle as social glue, then as now — and much more, of course.  But what pleased me more, I think, as I retold this factoid to the unwary all day, is simply the images that Wills evoked, playing across my mind’s eye.

Which is to say that nothing here has much to do with the price of eggs. But my brain and my world are enriched, just a little, by the thought of a shambling cub, coat too big for its limbs, rising up on its hind legs to glare at the squealing, hooting, transfixed and terrified audience clamoring just beyond the edge of the stage.

Just thought I’d share…

*Wills directs those with yet more interest in the performing beast of Winter’s Tale to Barbara Ravelhofer, “‘Beasts of Recreacion’ Henslowe’s White Bears,” ELR 32 (2202), pp. 287-323 and Teresa Grant, “Polar Performances, The King’s Bear Cubs on the Jacobean Stage,” Times Literary Supplement, June 14, 2002.

**To declare what is, I hope, obvious:  I’m no fan of bear baiting.  Torturing animals for sport is not my idea of a good time or a good act.  But I dearly love gaining glimpses into the past, and it is always important to remember:  that’s a different country, and they do things differently there.

Image:  Albert Bierstadt, Bears in the Wilderness, c. 1870.

More Treats: CERN, Physicists, Hippopotami, Higgs Love, Flanders and Swann edition

August 30, 2010

Via ThonyC, from Blake Stacy ab origio, this transport of delight*:

For those of you too callow, or merely victims of a deprived childhood to get the ur text from which Cern’s songbirds derive their version, here’s the original, by the irreplaceable Flanders and Swann:

*And just because I do truly love you, and we need all the happiness we can get at the end of a week that featured goldbug-cultist-grifter Glenn Beck’s misspelling of the word “honour” and the start of the final days before the students arrive…

…here’s the source of that little bit of F&S slyness with which I chose to open this farrago:

Science Online 2010 Brain Bubbles: Duck Genitalia Doggerel

January 17, 2010

As has been amply twittered, (search #scio10), one of the hit of this years Science Online conference has been Carl Zimmer’s account of the extraordinary sexual equipment of ducks.

Not only did it serve as an object lesson (and what an object!–ed.) on the intricacies of science journalism in the age of the web, it became a running theme throughout an evening in which the tool a duck’s penis most resembles received an excellent work-out.

My own response?

Why a limerick, of course.

So, for all of you who sadly had to miss this most excellent meeting, I offer you this take-home.  With no apologies.

There once was a mallard quite amorous

Whose genitalia were certainly glamorous

But its left handed screw

Rotating quite true,

Brought results that were sadly calamitous.*

*The calamity here implied could either be the destruction of the silicone vagina used in early versions of the experiment in question, or from the implications of the idea being tested that the co-evolution of duck penises and vaginas occurred in the midst of sexual competition to enable or prevent forced copulation. For the detailed account of the experiment in question — here’s the paper.

Update: Via @JBYoder, this. You will all be punished until moral improves.

Image: Song Dynasty (960-1229) album painting of a duck.

Thursday Brain Candy: In Flight Refueling Video of Surpassing Coolness

January 14, 2010

Don’t say I don’t think of you:

(I particularly like the scene beginning at :48)

My Brother is an Evil Man: Canine Abuse Decadal Survey/John Cole Can’t Have All the Fun Dept.

January 1, 2010

I swear I had nothing to do with Tess’s humiliation below:

Proper blogging — snorts of derision in David Brooks’ direction is up next — to resume ASAP.

In the meantime:  Top of the year to everyone.  I hope that 2010 is for all who tarry here a happy, healthy, and creatively effervescent twelvemonth.

And now, given that I actually went out drinking and dancing to a primo bar blues band last night (yes Virginia, there is the possibility of booty-shaking after 50.  Not a pretty sight, I’ll grant you, but who asked you anyway?)…I’ll get started on all that productive goodness with my first nap of the new year.

See you soon….

Andrew Sullivan Fouls One Off — and Then Grotesquely Strikes Out: God, Evil, and Auschwitz edition, part one

September 30, 2009

Once again, my long promised magnum opus — a shotgun fired at a flea, actually, yet another salvo in the eternal war against stupid at The Atlantic — is delayed to deal with more pressing matters.

This time it’s Andrew Sullivan, and he’s not being stupid — for unlike some of his stable mates he’s not at all slow.  Rather his intellectual wounds are self-inflicted.  I’ve blogged before (and I can’t quite remember where) and no doubt I will again about his tic of dubbing any political act or judgment with which he agrees “conservative,” no matter what its provenance or effect.

But this time, the cuts are deeper, and are much more damaging.  To try to keep my tendency to prolixity under control, I’m going to break up my critique into three bits.  Herewith part one.

Sullivan gets himself into trouble in the midst of a perhaps overly familiar issue,  hardy perennial source of bad reasoning, the theodicy problem:  why would a God worth worshipping (or believing in) permit the evils of the world to exist; why so much human suffering if we are the creation of a loving deity?

Sullivan started this latest effusion of heat-not-light with this post, in which he responded to a reassertion of the problem of evil by saying, in essence, my faith teaches me that suffering is useful, as it opens the believer up to the possibility of surrendering one’s self to God.  Which is fine, as a statement of personal belief.  It is not, however an argument; rather, to those unblessed or cursed by Sullivan’s brand of faith, it reads like a kind of theologically infused experience of the Stockholm Syndrome.

But my goal here isn’t snark. Bottom line for Sullivan himself on the first part of the sequence of posts on this matter: I do believe that each individual, subject to the don’t mess with me/do no harm constraint, is absolutely free to find spiritual comfort or exaltation by just about any act of faith.

But Sullivan gets no pass when he then tries to reason his way through the argument with Jerry Coyne in which he said, in effect, that the allegedly distinctively human capacity to “rise above” suffering (Sullivan’s term), as distinct from mere animal endurance of pain or woe, “is evidence of God’s love for us.”

In fairness to Sullivan, taking the view that one must argue against the best construction of someone’s argument, he spends most of this post recounting the source of his personal credo:  his own suffering brought him to the point of Jesus on the cross:  “…why have you forsaken me,” and then to a more emphatic restatement of that murdered Jew’s final, ambivalent resolution.  For Jesus, it was “it is accomplished.”  For Sullivan, his faith tested by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the personal losses he suffered, it the path he found in the midst of sorrow/anger unto death, on which “God lifted me into a new life…”

All of which is, again, fine.  His response to his pain is his; it’s real, and if it is not universalizable — that is, if it has no more standing as a response to the problem of God amidst evil than another person’s experience of the humanist’s revelation, that there is in this world only that good we are capable of creating ourselves — still, Sullivan gets to experience comfort and more as he can.

But where he goes astray, of course, is exactly in the attempt to universalize a particular, subjective, and wholly interior process.  He writes,

For me, the unique human capacity to somehow rise above such suffering, while experiencing it as vividly as any animal, is evidence of God’s love for us (and the divine spark within us), while it cannot, of course, resolve the ultimate mystery of why we are here at all in a fallen, mortal world.

I do note, as Sullivan rather waspishly enjoins his critics to do, that he qualifies his universal claim with the phrase, “For me…”  But his intent is clear when he speaks of “human capacity,” or “why we are here”  or “God’s love for us” (italics added)…for us, and not simply for Andrew. This is a claim made for humanity, and not simply for the one man recounting his story of despair and redemption amidst the plague.

The issue, beyond the fact that this is an example of the argument by analogy, with all of its pitfalls — I, Andrew, am human.  I, Andrew, experienced the love of God through suffering; therefore, by analogy, all humans encounter God through suffering — is that he makes a specific empirical claim, one that can be interrogated not by logic chopping, but by observation and experiment.

That is, Sullivan asserts that the evidence for God’s love despite the existence of evil, of undeserved suffering, lies in the fact that human beings experience the horrors of existence and mortality in ways that animals do not.

With that, Sullivan has fallen into a very old trap for apologists.  This is mutton dressed as the lamb of God (sorry — couldn’t resist).  What you have here is the old God of the gaps argument all decked out in an invocation of the allegedly bright line between human beings and animals.

Except, of course, that the line isn’t bright, and there is a library full of work in evolutionary biology, molecular genetics, and much more, especially ethology, that has exposed the close kinship not just at the level of base pairs, but in what has validly been called culture in both animals and human.  (See, e.g., this landmark of a book, The Evolution of Culture in Animals, published all the way back in 1983.)

Animals have ethics — as the study of altruism in animals demonstrates.  Animals possess technology. They experience the teacher-student relationship that no less than Jesus recognized as primary among human bonds.

And so on:  the notion that there is an unequivocal divider between animal experience and human has become increasingly blurred over the last several decades.*  It is certainly true that the emotional life, and certainly any inner spiritual experience of a chimpanzee, say, is closed to us, opaque.  But so, at some level, is that of even those closest to us, the beloved next to whose body we conform our own each night.  To bet your God on the claim that an animal does not merely endure (Sullivan’s word in a later post) but retains some transcendent goal — perhaps the care of one’s young — is a sucker’s wager.

Centuries ago, another devout Catholic, Galileo Galilei, wrote a letter to the Medici Grand Duchess Christina in which he counseled her on the proper relation of faith to science.  In 1615, defending the notion that he had uttered no heresy in his observations of the moons of Jupiter, and in support he thus derived forf the Copernican heliocentric universe, he wrote:

It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned. But Nature, on the other hand, is inexorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men. For that reason it appears that nothing physical which sense ­experience sets before our eyes, or which necessary demonstrations prove to us, ought to be called in question (much less condemned) upon the testimony of biblical passages which may have some different meaning beneath their words.

That is, to modernize the argument: no claim of God is secure when it rests on some claim about the behavior of the natural world; whatever someone may experience as sacred resides — and Galileo certainly, profoundly believed in the existence of divinity — in its own realm.   But inexorable and immutable nature does not permit the claim that  within what we do not know about, say, the inner life of animals, therein lies God.

Image:  Henri Rousseau, “The Sleeping Gypsy,” 1897