Slate Video: Can Apes Really Talk?

John Cohen at Slate interviews researchers at the Great Ape Trust, a bastion of ape language research, as well as some of their skeptics about their claims for ape language. If you wnat more, Wikipedia provides some general background on ape language research.

What I find fascinating in this research: the revelations about cognition, symbolic abilities, and grammar, all helping to show us that the gap we set between ourselves and one of our favorite “others” is not so great as generally thought. On the other hand, the incredible physiological and neurological skills that go into the production of human speech show the strong selective pressures that existed during our human evolution.

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Monkeys and robots teaming up — worried?

As Daniel discussed in January in Monkey Makes Robot Walk!, a number of researchers are working on brain-machine interfaces by attaching prostheses to monkeys. Science Daily carries a new story, Mind Over Matter: Monkey Feeds Itself Using Its Brain, about a University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine experiment in which a monkey successfully used a human-like prosthetic limb to feed itself. As the Science Daily story reports:

Using this technology, monkeys in the Schwartz lab are able to move a robotic arm to feed themselves marshmallows and chunks of fruit while their own arms are restrained. Computer software interprets signals picked up by probes the width of a human hair. The probes are inserted into neuronal pathways in the monkey’s motor cortex, a brain region where voluntary movement originates as electrical impulses. The neurons’ collective activity is then evaluated using software programmed with a mathematic algorithm and then sent to the arm, which carries out the actions the monkey intended to perform with its own limb. Movements are fluid and natural, and evidence shows that the monkeys come to regard the robotic device as part of their own bodies.

According to the team, this is the ‘first’ example of the ‘use of cortical signals to control a multi-jointed prosthetic device for direct real-time interaction with the physical environment (’embodiment’)’ (from the abstract to the Nature article) (I’m always dubious about such ‘firsts,’ especially as this team has been announcing work on this project since at least 2004; but the research is still fascinating even if not a ‘first’).

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What makes humans unique?

Photo by JoProf. Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, whose work on chimpanzees and human children, on the biological capacity for culture, and a range of other subjects, must place him among the most important contemporary thinkers using comparative primate data, asks ‘How Are Humans Unique?’ in a recent piece for The New York Times‘ Idea Lab.

As Tomasello suggests, many things that we thought once definitively marked the difference between humans and other species, have gradually been found in evidence in other species — tools, deductive learning, language, even certain patterns of anti-social behaviour suggesting war and the like. The result is, for some, an uneasy sense that we might not be so different from other animals, and for others, a satisfaction that humans might be thought about using analytical frames developed with other species.

One thing that Tomasello points out very well is that many of humans’ cognitive advantages over other intelligent animals are ‘products of collective cognition,’ that is, not so much just an individual’s ability as the ability of an individual invested with the collective creativity and mental tricks invented by previous generations of humans.

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Comfort Food and Social Stress

Comfort Food, for Monkeys is John Tierney’s article today, reporting on recent research by Mark Wilson and colleagues at Yerkes Primate Center about rhesus monkeys, sweet tooths, social stress and inequality. Familiar themes, all of them.

Normally, low-status monkeys eat roughly the same amount of bland monkey chow as dominant individuals. But add sweet banana-flavored pellets to the mix, and suddenly the equation changed: “While the dominant monkeys dabbled in the sweet, fatty pellets just during the daytime, the subordinate monkeys kept scarfing them down after dark.”

Tierney goes on to outline reasons why this scarfing vs. dabbling dynamic might emerge in socially complex species like rhesus monkeys. As Wilson et al. note in their paper, “this ethologically relevant model may help understand how psychosocial stress changes food preferences and consumption leading to obesity.”

Tierney describes research by Dallman et al., who have proposed that people can directly impact stress hormones through eating, largely by mediating anxiety: “[P]eople eat comfort food in an attempt to reduce the activity in the chronic stress-response network with its attendant anxiety.” So individuals with greater stress reactivity and negative mood tend to eat more in their stressed vs. control experimental paradigm.

As Tierney notes with a quip about a “stressed-out wage slave who has polished off a quart of Häagen-Dazs at midnight while contemplating the day’s humiliations,” inequality can bring on stress reactivity and negative mood (for more on that, see previous stress and inequality posts on Sapolsky and Blakey). In turn, inequality feeds into the obesity epidemic through both social and cultural dynamics.

But Tierney also knows that seeking food, not simply reactive eating, is key to overall weight gain. Continue reading

Red meat, Neandertals were meant to eat it

The Meat and Livestock Association (MLA) of Australia has these great television commercials featuring actor Sam Neill (and by ‘great,’ I don’t mean ‘scientifically accurate’). They’re all about how we humans were ‘meant’ to eat red meat. They’re obviously meant to counteract growing concern about red meat in our diet, in the environmental impact of livestock, and other issues, and they use evolutionary arguments to try to get Australians to ‘beef up’ the amount of red meat in their diet, because of course, Australians don’t eat enough meat (trust me if you’re not in Australia — that’s probably not the biggest health issue here, ‘lack’ of red meat in the Aussie diet). For more information on the campaign, check out the MLA’s webpage, ‘Red Meat. We were meant to eat it.’ (You can download the video of the ads from that site if, like me, you want to incorporate it into your lecture on human evolution and diet.)

Especially interesting is the third ad in the campaign, ‘Evolution.’ The text of that ad is:

‘Evolution’ set the scene for the story of red meat and its role in human evolution. It also highlights the bundle of nutrients in red meat making it a foundation food essential for brain development and function. Red meat. We were meant to eat it.

But an article by M. P. Richards and colleagues soon to appear in the Journal of Human Evolution suggests that the evolutionary prize for red meat-eating should have gone, not to Homo sapiens sapiens but to Homo sapiens neanderthalensis (or H. neanderthalensis). Richards and the research team examined carbon and nitrogen ratios in Neandertal bone collagen to figure out what the Neandertals were eating.

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You can lead a horse to water

I’m not sure what to file this thought under, but I figure I may as well share it. I was holding a couple of my wife’s horses today while our farrier, Chris, shoed them, and we got to talking about horses instincts. I think I was asking about horses hooves in the wild, how they responded to injury or heavy use. He joked that the only reason we really needed to clip their hooves was that we kept them in overly-soft paddocks, fed them high energy feed, and thus they didn’t cover the miles and miles that wild horses would have to in order to get enough to eat. In other words, the ecological niche we created for our horses was so unusual that the whole horse physiology was different.

He also pointed out that most domestic horses, unless they are trained to, will not drink from natural water sources. If they’re accustomed to drinking from troughs or buckets, some will die of thirst before drinking out of a creek or lake. They may recognize that it’s water on some level, but they don’t trust the source unless they’re used to encountering water in this way. Obviously, they might be socialized early in order to become acquainted with water in a wider variety of forms.

I don’t have any information on whether or not a horse has ever died from thirst in the presence of lakes or streams, so I can’t confirm this. (I’ll look it up and report back.) If it is true — and I have no reason to doubt Chris as he’s a deeply knowledgeable guy on the subject of horses — it would be a fascinating case of a very useful ‘instinct’ not being inevitable. It also explains the ‘You can lead a horse to water…’ proverb, which I didn’t really understand until today, in retrospect.

Jeff Lichtman’s Brainbows

Take a genetically-engineered mouse and add color. That is what Jeffrey Lichtman, Jean Livet, and Joshua Sanes have done. Start by inserting genes that turn neurons fluorescent hues of yellow, red and cyan. Then add some more DNA that randomly expresses those three genes. Presto, rainbow brains.

As a Harvard Science piece reports, “By activating multiple fluorescent proteins in neurons, neuroscientists at Harvard University are imaging the brain and nervous system as never before, rendering their cells in a riotous spray of colors dubbed a ‘Brainbow.’ This technique… allows researchers to tag neurons with roughly 90 distinct colors, a huge leap over the mere handful of shades possible with current fluorescent labeling.”

So many colors in something as complex and elegant as a neuron produces striking images, and I have included many here. These images also permit the study of fields of neurons, from the life course of one neuron to the patterns of connections between neurons. Hence the emerging field of “Connectomics” which “attempts to physically map the tangle of neural circuits that collect, process, and archive information in the nervous system.”

I stumbled across Lichtman’s images in two publications recently. Harvard Magazine features his work, along with five other Harvard scientists, in this month’s feature article, Shedding Light on Life: Advances in Optical Microscopy Reveal Biological Processes as They Unfold. The magazine also provides an online collection of short video clips called Lights! Microscopes! Action! Across the Charles River, MIT’s Technology Review features Lichtman’s work as one of its Ten Emerging Technologies of 2008, complete with an accompanying video featuring Lichtman.

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