The observable examined

Archive for the ‘NAture’ Category

Are humans unique?

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We have all interacted with animals, seen them at zoos, marveled at them (watching Nat Geo documentaries). If you are like me, you may have wondered whether they are programmed automatons (“fixed action patterns”) or alternately have a “rich” inner life (don’t accuse me of anthropomorphism just yet). I have always held they view that while animals are well adapted to survive their niches, they are able to do more than execute programmed actions.  Also, along the way, I have tired of the notion that “man was made in the image of God”, in the sense that humans are unique and special, given our extraordinary “cognitive” capacities. But then we humans have succumbed to “confirmation bias” by only looking at evidence that confirms this view (as in the tremendous achievements ranging from agriculture to space research). But we also need to review our history of violence and catalog our behaviors collectively as a species (witness terrorism, territoriality, in group/out group, biases, etc.,) and it becomes quickly evident that our “mental” apparatus has a lot in common with other species.

Frans de Waal argues, that this is indeed in the case, in his essay “What I learned from tickling apes” that appears in the NYTimes. Well worth a read. As always, I find it informative to also peruse the reader comments .

The animal-industrial complex

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My friend, Namit Arora, recently published an excellent article – Eating Animals – in 3quarksdaily.com. I also recommend his blog – Shunya.net . It has great content and excellent photos from his many travels to different corners of the world.

Inspired by his article, I wrote a comment . I am reproducing it here.


As I write this, I am watching a KQED program called Orangutang Diary. The lengths to which the baby sitters and veterinarians go, to rescue an individual animal, is truly amazing. This is indeed testimony to the remarkable heights of compassion humans can achieve, for their fellow beings.

Stark is the contrast between this idyllic scenario and the dark realities of the animal-industrial complex Namit has painted for us. Even more interesting is the psychology of the individuals involved in either of these enterprises. In the Orangutan case, the employees are fully invested emotionally, while in the slaughterhouse the workers are fully divested.

I will venture that in either group, a significant portion of the individuals are meat eaters. Namit wonders why one can be both an animal lover and a meat eater, which cognitively smacks of engaging in double standards. That the brain is pretty adept at suppressing cognitive dissonance by responding with rationalizations and compartmentalization is fairly well documented in the psychological literature. Pertinent to the topic, I found this interesting article (http://www.onegreenplanet.org/lifestyle/carnism-why-eating-animals-is-a-social-justice-issue/) by a social psychologist Melanie Joy. In fact, she has written a book called Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows: An Introduction to Carnism (I have not read it so cannot attest to its contents).

She writes “….Widespread ambivalent, illogical attitudes toward a group of others are almost always a hallmark of an oppressive ideology. Oppressive ideologies require rational, humane people to participate in irrational, inhumane practices and to remain unaware of such contradictions. And they frame the choices of those who refuse to participate in the ideology as “personal preferences” rather than conscientious objections.”

In the same article, she says “….Yet most of us have no idea that when we eat animals we are in fact making a choice. When we are growing up, forming our identity and values, nobody asks us whether we want to eat animals, how we feel about eating animals, whether we believe in eating animals. We are never asked to reflect upon this daily practice that has such profound ethical dimensions and personal implications. Eating animals is just a given; it’s just the way things are. Because carnism operates outside of our awareness, it robs us of our ability to make our choices freely—because without awareness, there is no free choice….”

The general consensus on the comment thread is we all more or less agree with Namit’s position and sense of outrage. But how do we effect change in the general population? The few converts, from meat eating to vegetarianism, have engaged in critical thinking (which by the way requires cognitive effort) to shift their perspective. What about the others (there are some example comments here)? I want to share a personal experience. I grew up in a vegetarian household (thankfully!) but briefly experimented with meat eating in my 20s . Funnily, meat never felt like a meal and cognitively I seemed to be asking where is the real food? I quit. Contrast this with a Hungarian lab mate I had, who was incredulous that I was vegetarian and perhaps wondered how I had even made it. My point is : we may have to catch them young, so it becomes part of your DNA. Of course, this means the parents have to be on board. Here Jonathan Safran Foer -author of Eating Animals offers some help (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/11/magazine/11foer-t.html?_r=2&pagewanted=1).

Lastly, Namit talks about us having lost touch with animals. If anybody doubts that animals have a lot more in common with humans, I suggest you point your browser to this article (a perspective on animals by a cardiologist who has worked with veterinarians)http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/10/opinion/sunday/our-animal-natures.html?pagewanted=all .

As I pondered the article, I thought it highlighted another important bias – one of size. I was thinking of live lobsters and crawfish, that get thrown to their deaths in boiling water.

In essence, we are trying to motivate a change in a fundamental human behavior, what biologists would refer to as one of the four Fs (Feeding, Fleeing, Fighting and Sex).

Thanks Namit, for a thought provoking article.


Written by asterix98

June 20, 2012 at 8:40 pm

Are we all cheaters?

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We are all cheaters and liars: to a degree. At least, that is what Ariely would have us believe. The relevant article appeared a little over a week ago in the WSJ and is pompously titled – Why we lie? Ironically, the title itself is a bit of lie because Ariely makes no attempt to really settle the issue, as the title would lead us to believe. But the hook surely served the editor’s or Ariely’s purpose of attracting eyeballs.

That there is cheating among the populace is not entirely news. It runs the whole gamut from “very minor” to Wall Street style mega embezzlement. Collectively, corporations lose Millions (I think it is more like Billions) when employees help themselves to office supplies for personal use. There are others who misuse customer service provisions, such as the 30-day return policy, when the requirements for a particular item are short term. Such egregious behavior among the lay folk is rampant and the list of situations is pretty long.  This behavior cuts across socioeconomic and educational boundaries.

What is novel in Ariely’s research is that he and his collaborators have systematically catalogued how and to what extent people cheat. While the research is fascinating, the explanations provided for the underlying causes are, in my opinion, superficial or weak. For example, in the studies cited in the article, the basic task assigned to the subjects is to complete as many Math matrices as possible in a finite time. Reporting of number of matrices completed is based on an honor system. The amount of money offered is 50 cents per completed matrix. In this case, subjects cheat by over-reporting number of matrices completed. When the stakes are raised to $10 per matrix, cheating is reduced. The explanation offered is that the participant sense of integrity balances out his/her instinct to cheat. Alternatively, we could argue that a smaller prize may have been suggesting that the task is easy and so fewer solved matrices must imply poor cognitive ability – a blow to self esteem, higher monies must mean a difficult task and solving fewer means self-esteem intact. Tversky and Kahneman (fantastic research on judgment and decision making), I suspect, would have preferred to explain this as at least in part, a framing bias: the setup of the problem and instructions biases the subjects. I wonder what the behavior would be if subjects are paid a fixed amount no matter how many matrices they complete.

The answer to why we lie is unlikely to be a simple one. It must surely involve our sense of morality (already we are on a slippery slope here), sense of entitlement, situational demands (such as hiding uncomfortable truths from the dying), sense of fairness, cultural sensibilities, to name a few. I am pretty sure, the morality line for every individual, lies just to the right of her (meaning it moves with his/her own actions).  But ultimately the explanation must come from the underlying biology and evolutionary pressures and adaptations.  Paul Zak has written about the “moral molecule” –oxytocin and its central importance in building trusting relationships. A second book by Christopher Boehm tackles morality from a anthropologist’s viewpoint. An excellent review of both books can be found here – Kin and kindness. Both of these books are a step in that direction.

Update [07/09/12] – There is a very interesting review of Jay Magill’s book Sincerity in today’s WSJ. For those interested, I think this will complement the discussion here. The review also mentions Dan Ariely’s new book – The Honest Truth About Dishonesty.

Written by asterix98

June 11, 2012 at 4:10 am

We are Oh! so predictable

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Imagine a banyan tree full of monkeys. There are some monkeys at the top, some at the bottom, and many more at varying heights. The monkeys from the top look down at smiling faces…but  all the ones below can look up and only see a**holes!!

– Adapted from The Jokecenter

Actually, this is an old joke that pokes fun at management  in organizations. But as someone noted long time ago , the truth is often said in jest.  Matt Ridley’s piece – Now You Know Why Your Boss Is Such An Ape – is a nice review of a new book out called “Games Primates Play” by Dario Maestripieri. There are interesting analogies of how dominance hierarchies amongst humans parallels what we see in the ape world. Only we have a huge repertoire of dominance behaviors ranging from the subtle (corporations) to the not so subtle (school bullying, extortion, threats etc.,). In fact, many of our dominance behaviors are culturally sanctioned. When I visited Paris, I learned that, for a powerful person, it was ok to arrive late to an appointment. In fact, how late you arrive is an index of your power. Business school professors also study power in organizations. I attended a brilliant lecture on this topic and wrote about it here.

I have always held the belief that we are fundamentally animals. We are fooled into thinking otherwise because societal norms impose a veneer of sophistication on our behaviors. Probably the best example is territorial fights (homes to nations – only group size differs). I will explore this topic in greater detail in a future blog.

Written by asterix98

April 24, 2012 at 6:54 am

stress or stimulation

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Robert Sapolsky was on KQED’s Forum a couple of weeks ago. The actual interview is available here 

He is a pretty interesting guy. In the first part of the interview, he discussed stress a lot. Stress is not good for the brain. In the animal kingdom, in general, short term physical stress is the norm (as evidenced by flight or fight type of responses). But “smart” primates invented psychological stress (presumably by running what-if scenarios). The problem is these mental gyrations elicit the same physiological response. If they are transient in nature then we are ok, as in watching scary movies or a roller coaster ride. When the context is controlled or safe, it even elicits pleasure or is rewarding (dopamine at work). These situations then are not stressful but stimulating. It becomes pathological when prolonged over extended periods of time.

It gets even more interesting. Stress in baboons has the same physiological signature  as humans (elevated BP. Increased levels of cortisol). Baboons kill and so do chimps. They can do so “competitively, premeditatively, gratitiously…”.  Fascinating!  In fact, so do many others. Sapolsky observed that baboons engage in displacement aggression (which is really a fancy term for bullying) by beating up the weaker and smaller. (If we didn’t have culture or social norms, as Hobbes noted, we would have degnerated  into, I suppose, baboons. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that we still do behave like baboons) . Supposedly per Sapolsky, baboons only work hard for about three hours to obtain food, so they have plenty of leisure in which to generate psychological stress and relieve it through aggression – somewhat reminiscent of an idle mind is a devil’s workshop.

So why don’t Zebras get ulcers? (Sapolsky has a book by this title). Because, they are not smart enough to make themselves sick through anticipatory or psychological stress. Their stress is transient:  Run like hell when a predator is attacking. If that turns out ok, go back to grazing. Simple – no anxiety over the lion’s next move. Sort of out of sight, out of mind.

The deeper insight here is that our psychological smarts, the crowning glory of evolution, comes with many strings attached. Stress being one of them.

He also discussed human ranking systems. One study, of British civil servants, is remarkable, in that the lower you are in that hierarchy, the more unhealthy you are. Pfeffer, also from Stanford, who studies power, has noted the more powerful you are, the less stressed you feel, in essensce generalizing this idea.

Theory of mind is yet another of the subjects he touched upon. There is a fascinating study, of a high ranking and a low ranking chimp, both of whom are placed in a enclsoure with a banana that is either visible or not visible to the high ranking chimp. How the low ranker behaves in this situation is indicative of strategizing based on the anticipated behavior of the high ranker. Very clever study indeed. There is more where this comes from but you will have to listen to the interview……

After listerning to the interview, I was looking around for more and found this video put out by Stanford. Sapolsky addresses a graduating class. It is a very entertaining lecture but touches on more or less the same topics as the interview.Be warned that there is a fairly graphic image of an example of displaced aggression by the alpha male baboon…..

Written by asterix98

March 21, 2012 at 4:15 am

Deer Hollow Farm Visit

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This morning, I accompanied the children, from my daughter’s class, on a field trip to Deer Hollow Farm in Los Altos, CA. I was hoping to just drop the children off and then rush to join the rat race. But I was ordered to stay (by the class teacher) and accompany the children the entire trip. It turned out to be one of the best five hours (it went by really fast) I have spent in a long time. I learned so much about the creativity and survival skills of the Ohlone Indians as well as about the bounties of nature. I am going to share as much as I can remember with you.

The kids were broken up into groups of 12 and I accompanied a group that was hosted by a park ranger called Carla (she was just amazing). The goal for the field trip was to learn three natural sources in three categories: food, tools, medicine. The first thing she taught us was to recognize Poison oak (very common on the preserve.)  There is a neat rhyme (not captured accurately) that goes with it

If the leaves are three

 Let them be.

If the leaves are hairy

They are probably berries!

Poison Oak leaves eventually turn red. Notice the three leaf arrangement

 We next learned that the Ohlone Indians liked to eat Miner’s Lettuce. It is a good source of Vitamin C. In more modern times, the miners who came looking for gold also ate it. See below for a visual.


Miner's lettuce. A good source of vitamin C

The elderberry tree found use in tools, food, and medicine. The young tree branches grow straight and the inside of the branches can be easily hollowed out. These branches were used for making spears and musical instruments.  In fact, the Ohlone Indians manipulated these trees so that the branches would grow vertically and get maximum exposure to the sun. In the picture below, you can see the young branches in the foreground.

Elderberry tree.

 Clara then explained how the Ohlone Indians used various oak trees as a source of food. The acorns were harvested, dried in the sun, ground up to make flour, and eventually turned into pancakes.  From harvesting to pancakes, the whole process is pretty laborious and could have easily kept the women occupied all day. 

The buckeye tree was used for fishing. My recollection is that the buckeye seed when consumed by fish, clogs up their gills …….

The willow tree was used in basket weaving (Clara demonstrated how the branches could be made into a circle and not snap). Willow trees are also a source of aspirin which the Indians used to cure headaches.

Mugworts were used before going on hunts because they have hallucinogens that the Indians believed helped them communicate with the spirits. (my recollection here is a bit vague …)

Mugworts plant

Yerba buena (“good herb”) was also used to treat stomach aches. A tidbit – San Francisco was called Yerba Buena before it got its modern name.

Yerba Buena - Good Herb

The bay tree has leaves with strong odor. The Indians used paste from these leaves to mask human odor during hunts (so that they could get close to the deer).

We learned all of the above facts as we hiked our way to the replica Ohlone village (about 0.5mi) from the rendezvous point. The village itself was another big treat. There were examples of early attempts at building spears that were not optimal and how the tools evolved to more efficient forms. My favorite is an accessory for tool throwing (it has a name but I can’t remember). There is a small protrusion on it that fits in the hollow end of the spear. With this aid, we were told, the hunters could hurl the spear at velocities of upto 90mph! Fantastic!  To tie the stone arrowhead tips to the spear, the Indians used “sinew”, found on the hindside of deer legs.

The children also learned about prehunting rituals (lead by the Shaman). For this, Clara made them sit around a circle inside the “Sweat Lodge”, an enclosure that was the exclusive preserve of males. The Indians kept their hunting weapons here, not in their homes. The rationale being, hunting weapons kill, women give birth so it was bad omen for them to coexist in the same space.

The average Ohlone lived upto 30 years of age. So at age 13 or so, children were considered adults. The Ohlone Indians understood the demerits of inbreeding, so when a boy was ready for marriage, he sought his bride in the neigboring village. The girls had their lineage tattooed on their forehead and shoulders. So the grooms would read the tattooes before selection. The girl’s village was paid as part of the marriage.

The children got to play a game that the Ohlone children also played. The game was essentially rolling a small hula hoop like wheel and the children took turns throwing a spear through it. (for the boys, this was practice for hunting).

In another structure, we learned how the Ohlone women ground up acorn and collected the flour in containers (so you can imagine stone mortar and pestle, brushes for scooping out the flour, sieve for collecting fine flour). The kids tried out pounding the acorn nuts to rhythmic singing from Clara.

Other activities for kids included face painting using Ohlone methods (stone and natural color).

The grand finale for the tour was fire making using the Ohlone tradition. This was hit with the kids.

Fire making demonstration

As I mentioned earlier, this whole activity took about 4 hours. But most kids were completely into it, very inquistive, curious,  thinking, asking questions. For me, it was equally informative. It set me thinking about the human ability/capacity to adapt, invent, make creative use of the meagre resources, respect nature, and more importantly, thoroughly blend into the ecosystem (and being an integral part of it). 

This was in my mind, to paraphrase Mark Twain, a prime example of what separates schooling from true education!

I strongly urge you to take the time and visit this wonderful preserve.

Written by asterix98

April 23, 2011 at 6:35 pm

Posted in NAture, Ohlone Indians

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