Monthly Archives: September 2010

Monkeys Pass Mirror Test for Self-Awareness

The website of the University of Wisconsin–Madison has this news item: For first time, monkeys recognize themselves in the mirror, indicating self-awareness. Here are some excerpts, with bold added by us:

Typically, monkeys don’t know what to make of a mirror. They may ignore it or interpret their reflection as another, invading monkey, but they don’t recognize the reflection as their own image. Chimpanzees and people pass this “mark” test — they obviously recognize their own reflection and make funny faces, look at a temporary mark that the scientists have placed on their face or wonder how they got so old and grey.

For background, Wikipedia has a brief article on the mirror test as a measure of self-awareness. They say:

Animals that have passed the mirror test include: all of the great apes (bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans, humans, and gorillas), bottlenose dolphins, orcas, elephants, and European Magpies. … Dogs, cats, and young human babies all fail the mirror test.

Okay, back to the university’s news article:

Because chimps, our closest relatives, pass the test, while almost all other primate species fail it, scientists began to discuss a “cognitive divide” between the highest primates and the rest.

But a study published today (Sept. 29) by Luis Populin, a professor of anatomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, shows that under specific conditions, a rhesus macaque monkey that normally would fail the mark test can still recognize itself in the mirror and perform actions that scientists would expect from animals that are self-aware.

They don’t provide a link, but the article is online: Rhesus Monkeys (Macaca mulatta) Do Recognize Themselves in the Mirror: Implications for the Evolution of Self-Recognition. Let’s read on:

Populin, who studies the neural basis of perception and behavior, had placed head implants on two rhesus macaque monkeys, while preparing to study attention deficit disorder. Then Abigail Rajala, an experienced animal technician who is in the university’s Neuroscience Training Program, mentioned that one of the monkeys could recognize himself in a small mirror. “I told her the scientific literature says they can’t do this,” says Populin, “so we decided to do a simple study.” Much to his delight, it turned out that the graduate student was right.

The news article doesn’t elaborate on the head implants, but the published paper says the test monkeys “had been prepared for electrophysiological recordings with a head implant …” and there’s more information about the implants in the paper’s “Materials and Methods” section. We continue with the news article:

In the standard mark test, a harmless mark is put on the animal’s face, where it can only be seen in a mirror. If the animal stares at the mirror and touches the mark, it is said to be self-aware: It knows that the mirror shows its own reflection, not that of another animal. (Animals that lack self-awareness may, for example, search for the “invading” animal behind the mirror.)

[...]

But in Populin’s lab, the monkeys that got the implants were clearly looking in the mirror while examining and grooming their foreheads, near the implant. Tellingly, they were also examining areas on their body, particularly the genitals, that they had never seen before.

Wicked beasts! Then an interesting point is brought up:

Scientists who have used the mark test to explore self-awareness have found the quality in one species of bird, in one individual elephant, and in dolphins and orangutans. And so instead of asking how self-awareness evolved only among primates, they face the larger question of how it evolved multiple times in distantly related species.

But we are left with an even more perplexing question — the Curmudgeon’s Creationist Conundrum: If all the higher apes have a sense of self-awareness, what’s the explanation for creationists’ behavior? If they had the capacity to be aware of how ridiculous they are, surely they’d behave differently.

There’s more information in the university’s news article, so click over there and take a look. And of course there’s much more in the published paper. But there’s no data on our Conundrum.

Copyright © 2010. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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Creationist Wisdom #154: Teach the Evidence

We present to you, dear reader, a letter-to-the-editor titled Why don’t schools teach about phi and creationism?, which appears in the Daily Journal of Vineland, New Jersey. We’ll copy most of today’s letter, but we’ll omit the writer’s name and city. We’ll also add some bold for emphasis, plus our usual Curmudgeonly commentary between paragraphs. Here we go:

I am surprised how our educational system teaches just the same things. In my opinion, the educational system is not interested in new things and teaches for the test — only students don’t learn.

The system teaches “just the same things”? What’s the letter-writing getting at here? Let’s read on:

As an example, I was taught pi or 3.14, the theorem of Pythagoras and Darwin’s theory (evolution by natural selection) in the school system.

Right then we suspected that we had found another letter for this series, but the true value of today’s letter is yet to be revealed. We continue:

I wanted to have the school teach 1.618. Interesting, the Italian scholar Leonardo da Vinci used it. Google it on the computer; it said the fingerprint of God is 1.618 (also called the “Divine Proportion”).

Lordy, lordy. The fingerprint of God? Is that what the letter-writer thinks 1.618 really is? He’s referring, of course, to what is usually called the golden ratio. It pops up everywhere — even in one of our earlier articles (Golden Ratio, Facial Beauty, and Evolution).

We know what you’re thinking: Okay, Curmudgeon, what’s going on here? The letter-writer’s wish to have that ratio thing taught in school may be a bit unusual, but what does that have to do with this blog?

You must be patient and trust your Curmudgeon. The letter now gives you the answer:

It’s interesting how we teach Darwin in our school system, but not even consider 1.618 (phi), or teach how nature has a perfect order and about creationism.

You see, dear reader, the letter-writer understands that there’s a very clear connection between creationism, nature’s perfect order, and 1.618 — the fingerprint of God. He’s been watching detective shows on television and he knows that fingerprints are evidence. Evidence! But for some reason the schools don’t teach it.

And now we come to the letter’s end:

They at least teach creationism at the Christian school on Sherman Avenue in Vineland.

[Writer's name and city can be seen in the original.]

This could be the creationists’ next big campaign. After “Teach the controversy!” has taken root in the schools they can be out there marching, carrying signs, and wearing T-shirts with a big phi printed on them (φ), and demanding “Teach the evidence!”

Copyright © 2010. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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Newly Discovered Habitable Extra-Solar Planet

The University of California, Santa Cruz has this press release: Newly discovered planet may be first truly habitable exoplanet. Here are some excerpts, with bold added by us:

A team of planet hunters led by astronomers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington has announced the discovery of an Earth-sized planet (three times the mass of Earth) orbiting a nearby star at a distance that places it squarely in the middle of the star’s “habitable zone,” where liquid water could exist on the planet’s surface. If confirmed, this would be the most Earth-like exoplanet yet discovered and the first strong case for a potentially habitable one.

Interested? Sure you are. Let’s read on:

To astronomers, a “potentially habitable” planet is one that could sustain life, not necessarily one that humans would consider a nice place to live. Habitability depends on many factors, but liquid water and an atmosphere are among the most important.

No doubt. We continue:

“Our findings offer a very compelling case for a potentially habitable planet,” said Steven Vogt, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz. “The fact that we were able to detect this planet so quickly and so nearby tells us that planets like this must be really common.

Here’s where it’s located:

The paper [to be published in the Astrophysical Journal] reports the discovery of two new planets around the nearby red dwarf star Gliese 581. This brings the total number of known planets around this star to six, the most yet discovered in a planetary system other than our own solar system. Like our solar system, the planets around Gliese 581 have nearly circular orbits.

Gliese 581? Where is that star?

Gliese 581 [is] located 20 light years away from Earth in the constellation Libra …

There’s a lot more information at that link to UC Santa Cruz, but we’ll skip to the end:

“If these are rare, we shouldn’t have found one so quickly and so nearby,” Vogt said. “The number of systems with potentially habitable planets is probably on the order of 10 or 20 percent, and when you multiply that by the hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way, that’s a large number. There could be tens of billions of these systems in our galaxy.”

So there you are. Plug that into your Drake equation. If this discovery is what it seems to be, then life is likely to be everywhere!

Update (creationist view): Newfound Extra-Solar Planet: No Chance for Life.

Update: See Earth-like Planets May Be Very Common.

Copyright © 2010. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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Rush Limbaugh on Evolution

We can’t embed this tape, so you you’ll have to click on this link to Media Matters: Limbaugh defends O’Donnell’s evolution views and attacks Darwin.

The recording only runs for about a minute or so. Rush had a lot more creationist stuff to say throughout the show, but it’s not on this tape. From memory, his rant included these goodies, and more: Evolution isn’t science, Freud and Darwin are responsible for all of our problems, where did everything come from, “survival of the fittest” is nonsense, etc.

He sounded like he’s been taking science lessons from Ray Comfort. We usually enjoy listening to Rush, but this was really painful.

Addendum: Here’s a link to part of the show’s transcript: Tackling Darwinism in Literalville.

Update: See Rush Limbaugh on Evolution — Again!

Copyright © 2010. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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