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Monday, January 12, 2009

Rent a Friend

This just makes me sad: Japan, with one of the most dense populations, is also one of the most lonely and isolated. So lonely that Japanese people have started renting cats, dogs, drinking buddies, and even pretend family members.

Most Japanese people interviewed for the story say they rent family members because they wanted guidance on an issue but can't talk to their own family members about it. Now in a way hiring someone to talk to is similar to people in the U.S. paying counselors to listen to and hash out their problems. And lots of Americans can't have pets and so they volunteer at animal shelters or go play with their friends' dogs, or just religiously visit But the fact that Japanese people feel they have to pay to have companionship, even just to have a dog sit on the couch and watch T.V. with them, is just a sad statement of how far humans have gone from being the social, close-knit, small-tribe or village types we once were, and were for the majority of human history.

How to make your own primordial soup

A team discovered how to get RNA molecules to not only replicate, but how to grab other useful pieces of RNA, attach them to their string, and replicate themselves with the new pieces. This in effect mirrors how DNA started replicating itself and getting more complicated, thereby creating a primordial noodle dish. Bon Appetite!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

We got to play with Siamangs

Rafe and I visited the Woodland Park Zoo on January 2nd. We LOVE going to the zoo but rarely get to, so this was a big treat for us. What made it more exciting was that the animals hadn’t had many visitors in the past couple of weeks due to bad weather and holidays, so they were excited to see us too. Even on this freezing cold day any of the animals that had thick fur were out and about, lounging around on rocks or scrounging their habitats for food. We got to see animals that normally wouldn’t give zoo visitors so much as a glance: snow leopards, a wolf, wild dogs, even the gorillas seemed in a good mood. They viewed us from their side of the fence, totally comfortable with us staring back like the obsessed fans and paparazzi we truly are.

But the most exciting interaction that day was between Rafe and a siamang (a type of gibbon). They are tropical animals, and so were keeping warm inside their enclosure. They are typically friendly and interested in the humans that come by, and today was no exception.

As we walked up to peer inside their enclosure, the female siamang came over to look at us. Rafe, a large and fairly intimidating figure, got down to a crouching position in hopes the siamang would come over to see us. Instead, she hopped and shook at us. We weren’t sure if this was a threat behavior or not. The siamang shook and jumped again. This time Rafe tried it too. This frankly shocked the siamang, and so she did it a third time. When Rafe jumped a second time, she came straight over to the glass, as if to give Rafe a piece of her mind. She stared at him intently. Then, she turned her back towards him, almost as if a child does when pouting. She glanced over her shoulder at him. She reached out her right hand, one of her long fingers extended. Rafe pretended to grab it through the glass. She sort of wiggled her finger in response, and kept staring at Rafe. So Rafe tried something else. He started play-grooming her through the glass.

It looked very silly, this big man squatting down picking at the glass next to a siamang’s back. I expected the siamang to jump back from this weirdo (gently) tapping and scraping on her window. But instead, she seemed to relax into it. She put her arm down and turned away from Rafe so that she was no longer looking at him, but seemed interested in him continuing. He kept miming picking at her fur, even pretend ate a couple of mites he found.

This behavior went on for awhile. The siamang would look back occasionally to make sure Rafe was still going, especially if he paused for a minute, and so Rafe continued. The sight of a grown man grooming a siamang got the attention of a couple of other zoo goers, and they came over to watch. The siamang just stayed right there, being play-groomed.

Eventually Rafe stopped, and the siamang sort of looked up at him expectantly. Then she quickly jumped down from her side of the glass and swung off to explore other things.

Rafe and I giggled at this event and continued through the exhibit to see the other siamang. But the female wasn't done yet, and found us at another window. Once again Rafe crouched on all fours to say hello again. She came over to the glass, and reached out a hand for Rafe. She then turned her back to the glass, again as if she weren’t interested in him. Rafe began grooming her. She looked over her shoulder at Rafe, and seemed content to continue this activity. Just to see what would happen, Rafe stopped and moved over to another part of the glass. The siamang followed, and repositioned herself against the glass. Rafe continued grooming.

This was an incredibly odd sight to see a human primate being allowed, nay, encouraged, to groom a siamang, even if it was through the safety of thick glass. It seems unlikely that she could have felt him as he gently tapped his two fingers against the glass as he grabbed at imaginary mites.

Again a crowd formed, and eventually one of them said he should turn around and present his back to the siamang to be groomed. He did. For a second, they just sat there, back to back. Then, she turned around and actually started to groom Rafe. A pick here, a pick there, through the glass she grabbed at invisible mites. After about 20 seconds though, she turned around and pressed herself back up against the glass, and it was once again Rafe’s turn. We all laughed, someone said she was being selfish, and Rafe went right back to grooming her.

Eventually the crowd dispersed, and it was time to move away from the siamang enclosure. Rafe stopped grooming her and sat back on his haunches. She was not looking at him but realized he had stopped grooming her, and turned to look at him. Rafe put his hand up against the glass to say good bye, and if I remember correctly she tapped at it, but almost as if to request more grooming. Rafe instead stood up and walked to the other side of the glass. The siamang followed him there, and when she realized their grooming session was over, hopped over to a branch in her enclosure and then ran off to find other exciting things.

As we walked away we couldn’t help but laugh in awe and amazement at this interaction. First, who thinks to play-groom with a wild animal, especially through practically bullet-proof glass? Apparently Rafe does. And the fact that the siamang took to it was just amazing, and almost unreal to see. Let alone that the siamang actually groomed Rafe back, albeit for only a short, half-hearted time. The inter-species interaction was completely surreal.

Did anyone else happen to be at the zoo that day and see this? What was your reaction? Have you ever seen this type of behavior before, not even from siamangs specifically, just other primates in general? After this event I almost wonder if this is something the siamang has tricked other visitors into doing, but again, who thinks to play-groom?

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

More free-range research!

Another reblogged good'n from Brandon Keim of Wired Science, discussing primatologist Pascal Gagneux's argument that free-range research is WAY better for all primates involved, including humans:

"Gagneux, who is noted for both his comparisons of human and chimpanzee genetics and his critical bioethical analysis of chimp research, says it's about time we studied chimpanzees humanely. He'd like to see forest-size chimp-research facilities that would allow scientists to continue studying our closest relative, while protecting the endangered species in something close to its natural habitat.

"Not everyone thinks this is a good idea. 'Chimpanzees should be in sanctuaries to live out the rest of their lives without any blood drawing or having their bodies studied after death,' said Deborah Fouts, co-director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute. She is renowned for her work with Washoe, the first non-human primate to learn sign language. 'Humans can volunteer to have their bodies used for science after death. Chimpanzees cannot.'

"Researchers also caution that captive research populations will never take the place of wild chimpanzees. 'Chimps raised in captivity have no knowledge base about dealing with the natural environment,' said Linda Brent, director of Chimp Haven, which houses chimpanzees retired from government research. The jungle is no longer their home, and won't ever be again."

Read full post.

Personally, I am with Gagneux. It is inhumane, inprimate, to keep chimpanzees in cages and indoors not letting them lead normal lives. Even if they wouldn't know how to act in a wild jungle, they would certainly do better in a large enclosure with trees and things to play with. At the same time, many humans will never be comfortable with the Fouts' idea (Both Deborah and her husband Roger) that chimps should never, ever, ever be used for any type of research ever again. It's going to be a long time before people are willing to do that. BUT giving chimpanzees a nice, humane/primate place to live is a good start.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Reblog: Culture doesn't develop the same way as genes

I saw this post by Brandon Keim at Wired Science discussing a paper by evolutionary game theorist Arne Traulsen and his gang at the Max Planck Institute, titled "Exploration dynamics in evolutionary games," and just HAD to re-post it, mostly because it just seemed like it would push some buttons:

"In a paper published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Traulsen and colleagues modeled the effects of mutational variance in a standard game-theory model where individuals can be part of a community, steal from that community, or punish the thieves.

Most models of behavioral evolution, said Traulsen, assume that individuals will imitate their successful neighbors, with a minor allowance made for random variation — the cultural equivalent of heredity with minor mutations.

But in reality, people are unpredictable, prone to whimsical explorations and rash, seemingly irrational decisions. And when Traulsen reduced imitation and increased randomness, his simulations produced different end-states, with cooperation finally triumphing over thievery."

Read Keim's full post.

Keim seems to think this is a big, grand statement to be making, but to me this is fairly obvious stuff; that humans are greedy, ingenious people who will adapt to different situations in different ways. That's why we have so many different cultures around the world.

Although I suppose if people like Alan Greenspan thought better of the human race, than other people would be surprised by these findings too.

Citation: "Exploration dynamics in evolutionary games." By Arne Traulsen, Christoph Hauert, Hannelore Brandt, Martin A. Nowak, and Karl Sigmund. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jan. 5, 2009.