Department of Non-Human Minds: Soft Power
David Berreby is the author of "Us and Them: The Science of Identity." He has written about human behavior and other science topics for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Smithsonian, The New Republic, Nature, Discover, Vogue and many other publications. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Paris, a Science Writing Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a resident at Yaddo, and in 2006 was awarded the Erving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship for the first edition of "Us and Them." David can be found on Twitter at @davidberreby and reached by email at david [at] davidberreby [dot] com.
If you want to speculate about an alternate-universe world without intelligent primates (and who doesn't?), then your thoughts must turn to the octopus. Because the octopus has a large and structured brain (the ratio of brain matter to body size in octopuses is similar to that of mammals and birds, rather than lobsters and clams). And anybody who works with these animals will testify to their intelligence. Some have even proposed that they're conscious in the same way that dogs and cats are.
Years ago at a neuroscience lab, the guy who ran the aquarium told me a story. They were keeping various fish and other sea creatures for experiments, so of course they tracked which species were in which tanks. So it was a problem when a few fish started disappearing every night. Obviously they didn't keep anything in the same tank with a species that liked to have it for dinner, so this was a mystery. They only solved it by setting up video surveillance overnight. The camera showed that an octopus was heaving himself out of his tank after hours. He'd wriggle across the corridor, climb up into another tank, eat a couple of fish, and then go back to his own lockup. (A 19th-century version of the same M.O. is here.)
As Carl Zimmer has pointed out, it's hard to grasp the intelligence of a creature that evolved to solve problems so different from those that confronted our land-dwelling, fruit-eating, lion-avoiding bipedal ancestors. But that's precisely what's exciting about finding common ground in the way we and they use our large brains--if you want to define aspects of intelligence in the abstract, a good place to look is in the traits it shares when applied by us and by water-dwelling, seafood-eating, lamprey-avoiding eight-armed creatures.
Today's case in point: Tool use. In the journal Current Biology, a new paper reports that veined octopuses off the coast of Indonesia dig up sunken coconut shells, move them to new locations, and then use the shells as shelters. See for yourself here. The article is the first proposal that science formally recognize tool use by an invertebrate, but at least one diver (and probably others) have noticed similar behavior.
A couple of different turns in evolutionary history, and you come to a vacation spot on the shore, where members of the dominant species are enjoying their trip to the beach. And, then, as the sun starts to rise, packing up their things, stiffening their eight arms into temporary legs, and walking back home, back into the sea.
In a breakthrough for nuclear fusion research, scientists at China's Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) reactor have produced temperatures necessary for nuclear fusion on Earth.
- The EAST reactor was able to heat hydrogen to temperatures exceeding 100 million degrees Celsius.
- Nuclear fusion could someday provide the planet with a virtually limitless supply of clean energy.
- Still, scientists have many other obstacles to pass before fusion technology becomes a viable energy source.
Military recruits are supposed to be assessed to see whether they're fit for service. What happens when they're not?
- During the Vietnam War, Robert McNamara began a program called Project 100,000.
- The program brought over 300,000 men to Vietnam who failed to meet minimum criteria for military service, both physically and mentally.
- Project 100,000 recruits were killed in disproportionate numbers and fared worse after their military service than their civilian peers, making the program one of the biggest—and possibly cruelest—mistakes of the Vietnam War.
The 116th Congress is set to break records in term of diversity among its lawmakers, though those changes are coming almost entirely from Democrats.
- Women and nonwhite candidates made record gains in the 2018 midterms.
- In total, almost half of the newly elected Congressional representatives are not white men.
- Those changes come almost entirely from Democrats; Republican members-elect are all white men except for one woman.
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