What Monkeys Can Tell Us About Ourselves
Evolutionary biases that are hard-wired into our behavior are "really hard to turn off, even when we're aware of them," says Yale psychologist Laurie Santos. But at least being aware of them can help us understand why we do what we do. "The fact that we can kind of think twice, pause,
kind of inhibit this sort of instinctual bias... that gives us a weapon
against these sorts of biases," says Santos. "But in some sense we have to know
they’re there in the first place to actually implement these kind of 'Wait, wait, wait, let me stop, pause, think about it and try to come up
with the right decision.'"
In her most recent Big Think interview, Santos talks about some of the more interesting ways that we can see the roots of these kinds of behaviors in our primate relatives. She says for a long time it was difficult for researchers to understand the motivations of monkeys because they were looking at the problem from a human perspective. In order to understand monkeys, she says, they had to learn to think like monkeys.
Santos also talks about research that seems to indicate similarities to human prejudice in Rhesus monkeys. Evidently monkeys have similar ways of reacting to "in" groups and "out" groups, indicating the same cognitive processing "at the roots of human sexism, human racism, human ageism, basically any form of human group-ism," she says.
Looking at chimpanzees and bonobos, the closest animal relatives to humans, can be somewhat confusing, says Santos. Chimpanzees are aggressive and warlike, while bonobos are very peaceful, social, and sex-oriented. "There’s a bit of a puzzle in the field of what parts of these two guys did the humans get, you know, are we more like chimpanzees, are we more like bonobos?" she notes. And despite how advanced our species is, Santos notes that humans know maddeningly little about why we have the reproductive system that we have. "We know much more about the reproductive systems of pipe fish and swans and lions, then we do about our own species," says Santos. "Which is kind of pathetic."
The animal kingdom is full of colorful ways that males woo mates, and Santos shares one of her favorites: the mating ritual of the buff-breasted sandpiper. "It's this otherwise kind of drab-looking brown Arctic bird," she says of the sandpiper. "It’s drab looking because it lives in the Arctic, very hard to get food and do everything. But it kind of allows for its beauty to come out in really strange ways. And one of these ways is that it has incredibly attractive armpit. So, its armpit is very white, very clean and it will do flash displays for females where males will kind of get out in a field and kind of flash its armpit and if the females like the armpit, they can fly from miles and miles and then they’ll do this kind of wonderful armpit display and the females, you know, fall for it."
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
- The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
- The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
- It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
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