Who would you like to signal boost?

Today is Trans* Day of Visibility, and I have a gaggle of people and resources to share. Two web comics I follow are Rooster Tales and Trans Girl Next Door, which provide a great mix of silly and serious. On the educational side, TransAdvocate has been an excellent read, a mix of rigorous scholarship and activism. Zinnia Jones is in the same vein, and the Gender Analysis series she helped start is a must-see. And of course, Shiv’s blogging is worth highlighting.

Proof from Logic and Dualism (3)


These effects aren’t limited to brain damage. Just over four percent of all humans are synaesthetic, which means that two separate regions of their brain link up more strongly than usual. The combinations seem limitless: some will see shapes when they taste anything, or hear sounds when they see something move, or their numbers will appear coloured. We know they aren’t faking it, because we’ve handed them a test like this:

Can you spot all the twos mixed in with the fives?

Most people[B] take about ten seconds to find all the 2’s mixed in with the 5’s. Most grapheme-colour synesthetes will glance at it and say “the 2’s form a square.” These people experience the world quite differently,[96] which has been confirmed by many tests like the above. We’ve also used brain scanning techniques to peer inside the skulls of synesthetes, and we find they’re wired differently in exactly the way our maps predict.

Einstein was infamous for his thought experiments, and when they cracked open his skull they spotted an enlarged inferior parietal lobe,[97] which is linked to spatial reasoning and visualization. Christian Gaser and several other researchers have found that professional musicians have differently structured brains than the rest of us. The areas responsible for hearing, as well as motor and spatial control, are physically larger.

Admittedly, none of the above is a slam-dunk debunk of a bridged consciousness. Nothing ever could be, so long as we have no concise definition of “consciousness.”[98] This fuzziness is exploited by those who are unsettled by the strong links between consciousness and the brain. “All that may be true, but at what point do I ‘see’? At what point does the objective sensory input become a subjective colour?”

The first question’s answer is “wherever you want.” Tell me: when does bread stop being dough, and start being bread? Surely not when the ingredients are mixed together, nor when it’s placed in the oven. It can’t be when it’s removed from the oven, since there’s no difference between the instants before it was removed and the instant after, and besides the inside is still being baked by the warmer outside. It can’t be when it has cooled to room temperature, because it was edible before then. It can’t be when the lump was first edible, because that’s a subjective measure that varies by person.

Face it, bread is much too complex to be understood by science. It must be a divine product!

What’s really going on here is that “bread” and “dough” are only probabilistic definitions. They only work in certain situations, but those situations pop up often enough to justify the definitions. Push either too far, and they’re guaranteed to fail. “Sensory input” and “seeing” are no different.

The second question is a little harder to answer. Christof C. Koch at Caltech found a “Halle Berry” neuron in an epilepsy patient. This little thing got excited whenever its owner was presented with a photo of Halle Berry, or a drawing of her, or even just her name. This neuron isn’t in everyone, of course, and almost certainly isn’t in the same spot in another person who recognizes that actress. And don’t let my poor phrasing fool you, the only difference between it and the neuron two spots over is which connections it has. The neurons on the other ends of those links have already marked the input as “person,” “female,” “known entity,” and so on. The entire length of this patient’s nervous system, from the ganglion in the back of the eye all the way down to this little neuron, has been gradually abstracting that image/picture/name of Halle Berry.

The only question left is how abstract we have to get to satisfy your definition of “subjective.” Once that’s done, we can zero in on one or more brain structures.

The Limits of Logic

Even if our consciousness doesn’t come from this second world, we can at least take some comfort in knowing it exists as the source of perfection and order.

Or can we? This half of the argument suffered two major blows in the past century, thanks to Kurt Gödel and Alan Turing.

Before those two were born, logicians had unearthed a crisis. They were probing the foundations of mathematics, and found it wasn’t as solid as they wanted. How were numbers constructed? Why did the basic math operations work? Could more complex operations be counted on? These are not trivial questions, since science heavily depends on math to measure and predict the world. Any weakness in one could topple the other. That anxiety triggered a century of search for the absolute fundamentals of math, which reached its pinnacle when Bertrand Russell and Alfred Whitehead took 362 pages to prove

1 + 1 = 2

Not only did the uncertainty refuse to leave, but to their horror it crept into logic as well. Epimenides of Crete was one of the first to discover the basic problem, albeit inadvertently:[99]

They fashioned a tomb for thee, O holy and high one
The Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies!
But thou art not dead: thou livest and abidest forever,
For in thee we live and move and have our being.

(Epimenides, Cretica, circa 600BCE)

Or, without the poetry:

I, as a Cretan, know that all Cretans are liars!

If Epimenides is lying, then Cretans tell the truth. But this is impossible, since he is Cretan. He must be telling the truth, then… but that would mean Cretans are liars, including Epimenides! This paradox has an easy solution (Cretans could be a mix of liars and truth-tellers), but it doesn’t take much thought to come up with a stronger version:

This statement is false.

Variations of this paradox were found in the rules of logic, and every attempt to remove them just created more. It was quickly becoming an embarrassment. Many mathematicians and logicians were drawn to the problem, hoping for a solution that put math on solid ground.

Instead, Kurt Gödel proved the ground would always be unstable. In his two Incompleteness Theorems, he noted that you could translate any group or system of mathematical statements into numbers. Since the results had a finite digit count, you could create a method that would take in a number and tell you if the original math statements were true or false. Since this method itself was a mathematical statement, it too had a number. Feed the method’s translated number to itself, and BANG, a contradiction popped out: this method cannot determine its own truthfulness.

Worse, the details didn’t matter. No clever transform could save the day, and every mathematical statement can be transformed. There were only two choices: ensure that this truth-evaluating method was not within the mathematical system you’re using, making it impossible to ever prove that every statement is true or false, or accept that your math rules will have contractions. It was the logical equivalent of a rock and a hard place.[100]

As mathematicians were freaking out over this, Alan Turing made things worse. Gödel’s Theorem focused on proving things true or false; it said nothing about whether all statements could be proven, period.

To study this tougher problem, Turing invented a simple “machine” which would later be named in his honour. These “Turing Machines” were basically an ideal computer,[101] no more than an infinite storage space for symbols paired with a set of instructions for modifying those symbols. Once you set a machine in motion, there were two outcomes: it would eventually stop running, or it would carry on forever. Turing now pondered if there was a way to examine a machine’s instructions to determine which way it would go.

The answer, surprisingly, was no! By using a route similar to Gödel’s, he showed that no matter what sort of method you used, there were always some machines that stopped but couldn’t be proven to do so.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, he also reinforced Gödel’s findings. Let’s define two more conditions: if a Turing machine halts, and there are no symbols in storage, we say it “accepted” the input. If the machine halts with any other configuration, we say it “rejected” the input. Suppose you handed me a storage space and a set of instructions for a Turing machine; could I tell you if the machine would accept or reject the tape? This scenario is Gödel’s Theorem in another form, and unsurprisingly Turing came to the same conclusion as Gödel.

Gödel and Turing shattered the idea of mathematical and logical perfection. Dualism’s proposed universe of ideas is a self-contradicting mess, at best. If we instead view this “universe” as something that emerges out of the material world, those contradictions make more sense. The lumps of matter from before are only additive down to a certain level, at which point reality gets very ugly and our abstractions break down. We should have expected the ugliness others have found in logic, in fact, since our abstractions deliberately over-simplify real life and thus are not guaranteed to be as consistent!

[96]  Having said that, all humans are partial synesthetes. Present us with two squiggles in a “foreign language,” ask us to guess which is “titi” and which is “bouba,” and the vast majority will assign the pointy shape the harsh-sounding name “titi.” The big difference between the typical human and a synesthete is the latter has a stronger, conscious connection.

[97]  Move your hand up your head a hand width, so one edge of it runs along the very top. That’s the parietal lobe, and the lower half of your palm is covering the inferior parietal.

[98]  I encounter the same problem with the intelligence proof, so in the interest of not boring this book out of your hands, I won’t tear “consciousness” apart in the same way.

[99]  I don’t think he did it on purpose. He believed, contrary to most Cretans, that the god Zeus was immortal. His poem was likely a rant against the foolish beliefs of his countrymen. Yes, I’m snickering, why do you ask?

[100]  You might be tempted to claim this impossibility for god. Unfortunately, any god that could defeat Gödel must be partially irrational, yet the laws of nature seem to be consistent and rational. That’s tough to reconcile.

[101]  Actually, Turing outright invented the modern computer. Before him, the non-human computer was dedicated to a single task, like adding numbers or calculating bombshell trajectories. His work, along with Von Neumann’s, showed that you could make them capable of any math task, no matter how complex. This was so important, I think it overshadowed his other big accomplishment: winning World War 2 for the Allies!

[B] Past-me had written “ordinary people” here. Tsk, tsk.

Proof from Logic and Dualism (2)

Elegant, According to Whom?

I suppose you’re curious about what these mythical four equations look like. Fortunately, they’re quite short:

Maxwell's Equations, #1: nabla cdot D ~ = ~ %varrho_f

(Electric fields point away from positive electric charges, and towards negative ones.)

 Maxwell's Equations #2: nabla cdot B ~ = ~ 0

(There is no such thing as a magnetic charge.)

 Maxwell's Equations #3: nabla times E ~ = ~ - {alignc {partial B} over {partial t}}

(An electric field can be created by a changing magnetic field.)

 Maxwell's Equations #4: nabla times H ~ = ~ J_f + {partial D} over {partial t}

(A magnetic field can be created by a changing electric field or current.)

To most of you, none of that math made sense. There’s no shame in that; Maxwell used vector calculus to create those equations, which is rarely taught outside of a university. With the proper training, anyone could grasp them at a glance.

Wait. The elegance of those equations partially depends on your existing knowledge. While there aren’t a lot of symbols in those equations, each of them is rich in meaning. If you don’t know how to properly interpret them, Maxwell’s work is elegant in the way Kanji[89] is to  someone who doesn’t understand the language but likes its look.

On top of that, there are multiple ways to write those equations. The version I’ve used above is the free charge variant, in differential form. I chose it because it has fewer symbols than the other versions, and thus “looks” more elegant. You could unravel the shortcuts provided by vector calculus to make the underlying meaning more obvious, but that would result in an explosion of symbols. The written summaries I’ve cobbled together seem to accomplish elegance while providing meaning, but that’s only because I’ve massively simplified what each equation actually says!

If you want symbolic elegance, you must pay the cost of hidden meaning. There is no way to avoid it. On top of that, it’s easy to forget the cost once you’ve paid it. Thus the intellectual harmony that seems to pervade the universe is partially an illusion.


Perhaps we’ve taken the wrong approach, however.

Maxwell accomplished his feat by taking observations about the universe and condensing them into a pithy intellectual description. We may have better luck in finding the underlying harmony if we do the reverse; instead of moving from the material to the intellectual, we should start with intellect and reason our way to the material universe.

Others have tried this. You’ve no doubt heard of the Pythagorean theorem, that states that the length of the longest side multiplied by itself equals the sum of the squares of the two remaining sides.[90] You probably know nothing about the Pythagoreans, however. That’s by design: they were an ancient Greek cult that kept quiet about most of their discoveries. From what little we can piece together, we know they worshipped numbers and believed that by contemplating them you could free yourself from continual reincarnation.

René Descartes took their ideas to the next level. This brilliant mathematician from the 17th century was also a deep philosopher, as mentioned in my section on the Ontological proof. It’s fitting that he coined the phrase “I think, therefore I am,” since he nearly lived by it. According to him, our senses frequently lie to us while thought is rarely wrong. The intellectual realm must be separate from the rest of reality, though it does have an influence through consciousness and physical laws.

This “dualism” rests on the assumptions that the universe of logic and math is more orderly than the material world, and that these two worlds are linked via consciousness. If consciousness really is a bridge to another world, one wonders where it is situated, fully in one world or somewhat split between the two. If it were mostly in the abstract, we’d expect it to be always available; this second universe is eternal and perfect, after all. And yet all humans shut off their consciousness for 6-10 hours every day via sleep. You could argue that dreams are a sort of continued consciousness, but that does little to save the argument. Dreams rarely last long, are less rich and notable than reality, freely defy logic, and only show up intermittently.

We also loose consciousness via anaesthetic just before surgery. While humans are somewhat aware of their surroundings while asleep, you can rip us to pieces if we’ve been chemically knocked out. The odds of having a dream are much lower, too. Consciousness is more tied to the physical world than the intellectual one.

Dualism also struggles with brain injury. If consciousness was somewhat separate from the physical world, you’d predict that physical trauma would have little to no effect. For example, if a blood vessel were to swell or burst in the brain, you’d expect the symptoms to be easily noticed and highly predictable.

Instead, strokes are difficult to diagnose. The most common symptoms are a weakness of the face or an arm, or difficulty speaking, but it’s also possible to have feelings of numbness, nausea or confusion; a loss of consciousness, vision, memory, or balance; a change in breathing or heart rate; or any of nearly a half-dozen more symptoms. Interestingly, the symptoms of a stroke are strongly linked to where the vessel burst.

More dramatic effects happen when a giant chuck of brain is removed entirely. Phineas Gage was compacting blasting powder and a fuse with a metal tamping rod, as part of the construction of a railway, when the powder accidentally exploded. The rod shot cleanly through his head, landing 25 metres behind him. Gage remained surprisingly alert, despite the new opening in his skull:

I first noticed the wound upon the head before I alighted from my carriage, the pulsations of the brain being very distinct. Mr. Gage, during the time I was examining this wound, was relating the manner in which he was injured to the bystanders. I did not believe Mr. Gage’s statement at that time, but thought he was deceived. Mr. Gage persisted in saying that the bar went through his head….Mr. G. got up and vomited; the effort of vomiting pressed out about half a teacupful of the brain, which fell upon the floor.

(Dr. Edward H. Williams, The American Journal of the Medical Sciences, July 1850)

Gage lived another twelve years, which was unheard of for a head injury that horrible. He was fit enough to work on a farm, and his only long-term problems were a partially paralysed face and no vision in his left eye.

Well, he did suffer from one more problem:[91]

The equilibrium or balance, so to speak, between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities, seems to have been destroyed. He is fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint or advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operations, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible. A child in his intellectual capacity and manifestations, he has the animal passions of a strong man. Previous to his injury, although untrained in the schools, he possessed a well-balanced mind, and was looked upon by those who knew him as a shrewd, smart businessman, very energetic and persistent in executing all his plans of operation. In this regard his mind was radically changed, so decidedly that hisfriends and acquaintances said he was “no longer Gage.”

(Dr. John Martyn Harlow, Bulletin of the Massachusetts Medical Society, 1868)

This was a sensation to contemporary psychologists. They had been debating whether or not changes to the brain could effect personality, and Gage’s case was the first chunk of evidence they couldn’t dismiss. Psychologists began collecting extensive case files on patients with brain trauma. These files did far more than link behaviour and personality to the physical brain; they allowed scientists to start mapping the brain, by matching a loss of functionality to a specific location.

Take HM.[92] He suffered from seizures since childhood, and by the time of his 16th birthday they would drop him to the floor with massive convulsions. The seizures came so often that he had to be institutionalized.  He was eventually placed in the care of Dr William Scoville, who tracked the source of the seizures to HM’s medial temporal lobes.[93] He proposed a radical therapy, the removal of both lobes.

The operation was a success, reducing the seizures from a crippling handicap into an occasional nuisance, but the loss of brain matter had an unexpected side effect: HM stopped forming new memories. Dr Scoville brought in a psychologist to help, Dr Brenda Milner. HM had to be reintroduced to her each time she walked into the room, even if she’d just left to graba drink, even a decade after she began working with him.

Remarkably, nothing else seemed wrong with HM. He did better on intelligence tests after the surgery, since he was on less medication. HM remembered his parents, childhood, and even some of his adult life normally, up to the two years before his surgery. He could easily carry on a conversation. He fell in love with crossword puzzles. Even his short term memory was fine, so he could remember a phone number or name for a bit. Other than some problems with grammar when he was reading, HM could pass as normal if you weren’t paying much attention.

HM had more surprises in store, however. Dr Milner asked him to do a complicated spacial task, which involved drawing stars through a mirror. He did poorly at first, but surprised her by getting better with practice! HM was no less shocked that he could ace a task he’d never seen before. He also wowed her by sketching the interior of his home from memory, even though he moved into it after the operation. Science had just discovered there were multiple kinds of long-term memory, each situated in different parts of the brain.

If this loss of memory was tied to a specific area, we’d expect similar problems in other patients with similar damage, and different problems in patients with different damage. That’s exactly what we find; Clive Wearing had the same area of his brain tampered with, this time thanks to a virus, and also can’t form new long-term memories. He’s famous for greeting
his wife as if she’s been gone for years when she’d last visited him ten minutes before, yet he can still conduct a choir. Gage had a different area ripped from his head, and so his long-term memory was intact.

In 1985, Anthony Barker developed a way to “fake” these injuries in otherwise healthy people. Trans-cranial Magnetic Stimulation sends a pulse of extremely powerful electric current into a coil of wire placed against the scalp. By carefully controlling this pulse, researchers can induce a smaller current in one part of the brain and disable it for a short while, all without cracking open the skull.

This technique can be used for all sorts of fun, from making someone’s arm jump to changing their morality. In the latter case, Rebecca Saxe and others at MIT gave their subjects a story like this:

Alice asks Bob to get her a coffee. As Bob fills the cup, he sees a container labelled “rat poison” and adds it to Alice’s drink. Fortunately it was just a mislabelled tin of sugar, so Alice was fine.

Half of them then had a region of the brain called the right temporo-parietal junction suppressed,[94] while the other half were zapped elsewhere. Both groups were asked immediately afterwards to rate how moral person B’s actions were. Those without a functional TPJ were more likely to say B acted morally than those with another area of their brain disabled.

 That was as expected: functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging had already suggested what that area of the brain did. The TPJ is where we ponder what something is thinking, what’s known as our “theory of mind.” Assessing the morality of this situation depends on being able to read person B’s intention; if you think they intended to kill A, then their actions were immoral.[95]

[89] The ornate Chinese characters that make up part of the Japanese alphabet, eg. 漢字

[90]  If you don’t think math is creative, search out proofs of the Pythagorian Theorem. There are hundreds to choose from, using every technique from high-level math to slicing up squares!

[91]  Gage’s psychological changes are somewhat controversial, since the evidence is thin and Harlow would sometimes exaggerate the change in personality. Recent evidence suggests Gage recovered most of his self-control before he died, though he was still a different person. Still, no-one denies he changed after the accident, they merely haggle over the degree of change.

[92]  To protect a patient’s identity, researchers refer to them only by their initials. HM has since passed away, and finally permitted his real name to be made public: Henry Gustav Molaison.

[93]  Incidentally, brain regions are named for where they are, not what they do. Take one of your hands and place the palm of it over one ear, thumb down, with your fingers wrapping around the back of your head, just above the spot where your neck attaches. You’re covering one of your temporal lobes; do the same with your other hand to cover the other. The medial bits are buried deep inside, right next to each other as well as the spot where your spine plugs in.

[94]  Remember the palm trick? First, find the bony bit of your right palm that’s just above your wrist. Now put your right palm to your right ear as before; that bit is roughly where the right TPJ is, right around where the top of your earlobe attaches to your head.

[95] Note that this also suggests a biological basis for Morality…

Everything Is Significant!

Back in 1939, Joseph Berkson made a bold statement.

I believe that an observant statistician who has had any considerable experience with applying the chi-square test repeatedly will agree with my statement that, as a matter of observation, when the numbers in the data are quite large, the P’s tend to come out small. Having observed this, and on reflection, I make the following dogmatic statement, referring for illustration to the normal curve: “If the normal curve is fitted to a body of data representing any real observations whatever of quantities in the physical world, then if the number of observations is extremely large—for instance, on an order of 200,000—the chi-square P will be small beyond any usual limit of significance.”

This dogmatic statement is made on the basis of an extrapolation of the observation referred to and can also be defended as a prediction from a priori considerations. For we may assume that it is practically certain that any series of real observations does not actually follow a normal curve with absolute exactitude in all respects, and no matter how small the discrepancy between the normal curve and the true curve of observations, the chi-square P will be small if the sample has a sufficiently large number of observations in it.

Berkson, Joseph. “Some Difficulties of Interpretation Encountered in the Application of the Chi-Square Test.” Journal of the American Statistical Association 33, no. 203 (1938): 526–536.
His prediction would be vindicated two decades later.

[Read more…]

Proof from Logic and Dualism (1)

The most influential discovery in science didn’t happen in a lab.

James Maxwell was intrigued by other people’s work in magnetism and electricity, and decided to put his skill at calculus to work by summarizing what they had found.

The result was four equations that captured the close ties between both forces.  It made clear that both were opposite sides of the same coin, better thought of as a single force that could be expressed in two ways. This opened up the idea of a “theory of everything,” that could describe the laws of the entire universe in a few lines of math. For this alone, Maxwell is noteworthy.

As he looked over his work, however, he spotted something. The equations predicted that a changing magnetic field would create an electric field that would create a magnetic field, and so on. The result was a blip of energy that expanded outward.

In other words, Maxwell discovered radio waves, using little more than a chalk board.

That changed civilization. Before, when we wanted to communicate electrically, we had to string up thin, delicate wires. After, all you needed was two antennas and an agreement on how to use them. As a result Rob Hall, alone and dying in a storm on Mount Everest, could have one last conversation with his wife back at home in New Zealand.[86] This wireless bridge can span anywhere from two metres, via a cheap pair of wireless headphones, to 16,957,965,862,947 metres, the distance between the Voyager 1 space probe and Earth.[87]

Science has exploited this to the fullest. If we send a probe into space we don’t care if we get it back, it will tell us what it’s seeing right until it smacks into a planet. In some cases we don’t even need to send probes; the rocky surface of Venus was mapped by bouncing radio waves off it from our home planet, a few million kilometres distant. The Sun, Jupiter, and lightning all spray out radio waves that tell us something about their underlying physics.

And yet those pale in comparison to Maxwell’s final discovery. He noticed that his equations set a limit on how fast these waves could travel. By plunking in a few constants and doing some simple math, he was able to calculate this speed.

It matched the speed of light.

The full impact of that match has been lost over the years. Maxwell’s discovery came in 1865, however; back then, most scientists thought electricity came in particles, light was a wave that rippled through some sort of aether, and magnetism was a field like gravity. No one thought light and electricity were linked, and yet a math geek armed with a blackboard had shown they must be. You know you’ve done good when Albert Einstein is moved to say:

The precise formulation of the time-space laws was the work of Maxwell. Imagine his feelings when the differential equations he had formulated proved to him that electromagnetic fields spread in the form of polarised waves, and at the speed of light! To few men in the world has such an experience been vouchsafed . . it took physicists some decades to grasp the full significance of Maxwell’s discovery, so bold was the leap that his genius forced upon the conceptions of his fellow-workers.

(Science, May 24, 1940)

Maxwell’s simple bit of math spawned a multitude of experiments that confirmed its hunch, which in turn led to the most successful scientific theories we’ve found yet: Quantum Mechanics, and General Relativity.

It’s a staggering legacy for four equations. And it’s not an isolated incident, either. Riemann manifolds were regarded as a weird, useless oddity of math when they were invented; 70 years later, General Relativity relied on them to describe how the universe was shaped. Complex numbers were treated with disdain, until they became essential for electromagnetism and Quantum Mechanics.

But why should these abstract bits of logic and math do such a good job of describing the universe? Doesn’t this point to an underlying order to the universe, a harmony that exists separately from the material world, which could only be provided by God?

The Connection to Reality

One problem with this proof is that it puts the cart before the horse.

I’m assuming you, the reader, are of the species Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Even if I’m wrong, it’s quite likely you take up a finite amount of space and time, and we share the same laws of the universe. You are only a small part of the greater whole, and don’t have complete knowledge of the remainder.

As a result, you interact with things outside of your immediate understanding on a regular basis. You cope with this through abstraction. The collection of wood, metal, and petrochemicals that I’m currently sitting on, for instance, is known as a “chair.”

This “chair” is a structure built to relieve the strain my lower half puts up with as it tries to keep my upper half from hitting the pavement. This abstraction is a big help; without it, every time I wanted to relieve said strain I would have to examine the surrounding area for a flat spot next to a vertical panel at a convenient height, and test its structural integrity and comfort level. With it, I scan for an object that looks like a “chair,” then sit on it. The time and energy savings are enormous!

Abstraction works because the laws of the universe allow it to. If physics somehow forced my lower half to forever carry all the weight of my upper half, no matter what position I put myself in, I’d never create the concept of “chair.”

So it is with numbers. Octopuses, whales, dolphins, parrots, elephants, dogs, and apes like myself can all do basic math. Why? Since all of these are social animals, it seems likely that numbers are handy in social situations. Perhaps we used them to keep track of food or gifts, so we can ensure our generosity is returned or that no-one is being a pig.[88] Whatever the reason, the concept of counting is based on the physical reality that matter is a limited resource, and tends to stay in one place. If food was constantly available to all, or three apples turned into 20 apples before dissolving into mush, it’s doubtful any species would develop the abstraction called “numbers.”

A few things result from this abstraction. If numbers are distinct and unchanging, we could imagine ways to combine them, for instance “adding” and “multiplying.”  Likewise, if matter tends to lump together and remain relatively constant, those extensions we developed for math will also work in the universe. Calculus is an extension that deals with the way numbers can change, based on a few assumptions about those numbers. If those assumptions are similar to the laws of the universe, then the discoveries and predictions of calculus will match reality very closely.

Confirming The Obvious

So there’s a good reason math seems to have an uncanny knack for describing our universe. It was built on the basic laws of said universe! Maxwell’s four equations were an excellent abstraction of the laws of electricity and magnetism, so good that they revealed some surprising connections no one had noticed before.

Sometimes, however, we make assumptions that don’t match the underlying laws. Ole Rømer spent a decade looking at Jupiter’s moon Io, and in 1678 noticed that the predictions of Newton’s “laws” of gravity wobbled from what he was seeing. Years of painstaking study showed that the moon seemed to slow down on one side of its orbit and speed up on the other, and yet it appeared to move the same speed when it moved in front of Jupiter as when it was moving behind. After a lot of head-scratching, he found an explanation. One of the assumptions behind his math was that light moved from one place to another instantly. This was reasonable, since it matched what scientists observed and what the math permitted.

If he instead assumed that light traveled at a fixed rate, his timing problems disappeared. He could estimate this speed from his numbers and the equations, and fortunately it was very, very, very fast. If it was not, that would conflict with our previous guess that it was infinitely fast, and a lot more assumptions would have to be tossed out.

This brings up another good point. We’re small beings in a big universe, so when we find out we’ve misunderstood some part of the greater whole, we’ve got no reason to be surprised. On the contrary, when we really nail down a part of it, we break out the champagne because we realize the odds of getting it right are small. Maxwell’s accomplishment was noteworthy because it goes against our expectations, while Rømer’s observation was just more proof that we don’t understand the universe, so we don’t celebrate it in the same way. A flip through any book on cosmology will show that while we’ve learned a staggering amount in the 330 years since Rømer, there’s still a lot more to know.

[86] His simple last words still move me: “I love you. Sleep well, my sweetheart. Please don’t worry too much.”

[87] As of May 2nd, 2010. Since Voyager is zipping away from us at 17km/s, it’s even further than that by now.

[88] While pigs are considered more intelligent than dogs, I can’t find any evidence that they understand numbers.

Stop Assessing Science

I completely agree with PZ, in part because I’ve heard the same tune before.

The results indicate that the investigators contributing to Volume 61 of the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology had, on the average, a relatively (or even absolutely) poor chance of rejecting their major null hypotheses, unless the effect they sought was large. This surprising (and discouraging) finding needs some further consideration to be seen in full perspective.

First, it may be noted that with few exceptions, the 70 studies did have significant results. This may then suggest that perhaps the definitions of size of effect were too severe, or perhaps, accepting the definitions, one might seek to conclude that the investigators were operating under circumstances wherein the effects were actually large, hence their success. Perhaps, then, research in the abnormal-social area is not as “weak” as the above results suggest. But this argument rests on the implicit assumption that the research which is published is representative of the research undertaken in this area. It seems obvious that investigators are less likely to submit for publication unsuccessful than successful research, to say nothing of a similar editorial bias in accepting research for publication.

Statistical power is defined as the odds of failing to reject a false null hypothesis. The larger the study size, the greater the statistical power. Thus if your study has a poor chance of answering the question it is tasked with, it is too small.

Suppose we hold fixed the theoretically calculable incidence of Type I errors. … Holding this 5% significance level fixed (which, as a form of scientific strategy, means leaning over backward not to conclude that a relationship exists when there isn’t one, or when there is a relationship in the wrong direction), we can decrease the probability of Type II errors by improving our experiment in certain respects. There are three general ways in which the frequency of Type II errors can be decreased (for fixed Type I error-rate), namely, (a) by improving the logical structure of the experiment, (b) by improving experimental techniques such as the control of extraneous variables which contribute to intragroup variation (and hence appear in the denominator of the significance test), and (c) by increasing the size of the sample. … We select a logical design and choose a sample size such that it can be said in advance that if one is interested in a true difference provided it is at least of a specified magnitude (i.e., if it is smaller than this we are content to miss the opportunity of finding it), the probability is high (say, 80%) that we will successfully refute the null hypothesis.

If low statistical power was just due to a few bad apples, it would be rare. Instead, as the first quote implies, it’s quite common. That study found that for studies with small effect sizes, where Cohen’s d was roughly 0.25, their average statistical power was an abysmal 18%. For medium-effect sizes, where d is roughly 0.5, that number is still less than half. Since those two ranges cover the majority of social science effect sizes, that means the typical study has very low power and thus a small sample size. Instead, the problem of low power must be systemic to how science is carried out.

In this fashion a zealous and clever investigator can slowly wend his way through a tenuous nomological network, performing a long series of related experiments which appear to the uncritical reader as a fine example of “an integrated research program,” without ever once refuting or corroborating so much as a single strand of the network. Some of the more horrible examples of this process would require the combined analytic and reconstructive efforts of Carnap, Hempel, and Popper to unscramble the logical relationships of theories and hypotheses to evidence. Meanwhile our eager-beaver researcher, undismayed by logic-of-science considerations and relying blissfully on the “exactitude” of modern statistical hypothesis-testing, has produced a long publication list and been promoted to a full professorship. In terms of his contribution to the enduring body of psychological knowledge, he has done hardly anything. His true position is that of a potent-but-sterile intellectual rake, who leaves in his merry path a long train of ravished maidens but no viable scientific offspring.

I know, it’s a bit confusing that I haven’t clarified who I’m quoting. That first paragraph comes from this study:

Cohen, Jacob. “The Statistical Power of Abnormal-Social Psychological Research: A Review.” The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 65, no. 3 (1962): 145.

While the second and third are from this:

Meehl, Paul E. “Theory-Testing in Psychology and Physics: A Methodological Paradox.” Philosophy of Science 34, no. 2 (1967): 103–115.

That’s right, scientists have been complaining about small sample sizes for over 50 years. Fanelli et. al. [2017] might provide greater detail and evidence than previous authors did, but the basic conclusion has remained the same. Nor are these two studies lone wolves in the darkness; I wrote about a meta-analysis of 16 different power-level studies between Cohen’s and now, all of which agree with Cohen’s.

If your assessments have been consistently telling you the same thing for decades, maybe it’s time to stop assessing. Maybe it’s time to start acting on those assessments, instead. PZ is already doing that, thankfully…

More data! This is also helpful information for my undergraduate labs, since I’m currently in the process of cracking the whip over my genetics students and telling them to count more flies. Only a thousand? Count more. MORE!

… but this is a chronic, systemic issue within science. We need more.

Proof from Intelligence (7)


Ah, but what about less cooperative behaviours? Humans grow cattle for meat, for instance, and bred our plants to suit our needs instead of theirs. With altruism, you could argue that both parties are coming out ahead; with farming, one side is getting far more out of the bargain. Are we the only ones clever enough to bend evolution in our favour?

Certainly not! The leaf-cutter ant farms fungus. Worker ants venture out to collect leaves, return to the nest with their haul, chew them into small pieces, and finally feed the fungal matter carefully growing within.[70] They manually keep the crop parasite-free, and make use of anti-mold bacteria specifically targeted against the greatest threat to their harvest, the Escovopsis mold. Surprisingly, the ants have prevented this pest from evolving a resistance to its poison, a trick that we big-brained humans have yet to figure out. Remove the ants from the equation, and the fungus is completely overrun by Escovopsis within days.[71]

Aphids are also farmed by ants. They will be carried out of the nest to a leaf, protected from predators while they feed, then carried back in when the ants retreat for the day. When stroked by the ants they will release a sweet nectar called honeydew. The queens of the yellow meadow ant will even take an aphid egg with them as they jet off to start a new colony. [insert references here]

What pushes this from mutual co-operation to true farming, however, is the harm the ants inflict on the aphids. They secret a chemical on their feet that impairs the ability of the aphids to walk. Their glands produce a chemical that prevents aphids from growing wings, to prevent their “cows” from flying away. If that fails, they simply rip out the wings.

Beavers outright kill their helper. They chew down trees to create dams and lodges, creating deep ponds that are more beaver-friendly.

You might argue these to examples are cheating on my part. Our instances of farming are not instinctual, but instead carefully planned. If you lock a beaver in a bare room, for instance, it’ll start building a phantom dam with invisible wood. That’s a fair point, but it also implies that farming doesn’t take any brains to pull off, which ruins its use for the Intelligence proof.


The used car salesman is an American cliché that comes from a grain of truth. Few people know how to fix cars, let alone have the time, tools, and training to properly inspect an auto. Buyers are forced to trust the salesmen, which gives the latter a big advantage. It is all too easy to repair a car just enough to get it running, and turn a blind eye to the expensive but hidden problems that won’t blow up immediately. By the time trouble hits, the salesman may have skipped town, or swear the buyer must have mistreated the car and wants to blame someone else for their mistakes.

Lying relies on a lot of high-level skills. The liar has to act according to a reality that doesn’t exist; not only does that require a mental model of how the universe works, but that model has to be sophisticated enough to model other mental models. With so many layers of misdirection, it must be a human-only thing.

Except I’ve already mentioned Santino the chimpanzee, who is infamous for pelting unwary visitors with rocks. Back then, I conveniently failed to mention why he’s managed to keep surprising his keepers.

On the day after he played cool, Santino twice repeated his usual pattern: freak out to show dominance when he saw a tour group approach, only to fizzle out in frustration as the group stayed out of throwing range but failed to submit. The third group found Santino calmly resting on a bed of hay, near the edge of his pen, with no rocks in sight. Again, the tour guides declared the coast to be clear and brought the group in for a close look. When they were within throwing range, Santino reached into his bedding, pulled out a few rocks he’d hidden there, and began pelting the hapless group. He kept doing this throughout the year, but sometimes hid the rocks behind a log.

Santino is a master liar. He was able to suppress his desire to show his dominance, and hide the tools he used as enforcement, long enough to trick another species famed for its lying.

[insert section on antelopes faking predator calls for sex]


The male antelopes, observed in southwest Kenya, send a false signal that a predator is nearby only when females in heat are in their territories. When the females react to the signal, they remain in the territory long enough for some males to fit in a quick mating opportunity.

The signal in this case, an alarm snort, is not a warning to other antelopes to beware, but instead tells a predator that it has been seen and lost its element of surprise, the researchers found.

So when the scientists observed the animals misusing the snort in the presence of sexually receptive females, they knew they were witnessing the practice of intentional deception – a trait typically attributed only to humans and a select few other animal species. ]

So What’s Left?

I’ve racked my brains, and so far I can’t think of anything within them that isn’t partially present in some other species. It’s entirely plausible for our intelligence to be a product of evolution, and so I can invoke Ockham’s Razor.

There’s still one nagging problem. No other animal exploits their intelligence to the degree we do. While I’ve had little difficulty finding bits and pieces of intellect scattered around the place, no-one seems to have mastered them like we have,[72] let alone collect all of them under one brain. Even if the pieces of intelligence existed before we did, isn’t our combination and amplification of them into a cohesive whole a sign of divine nudging?

There are two big flaws in this argument. First, it assumes our species jumped to prominence from humble beginnings alone. In fact, we were competing against at least three other braniacs: Homo Erectus,[73] Homo Neanderthalensis, and Homo Florensiensis.[74] Secondly, it views evolution as a sort of  “ladder of life,” where species grow increasingly complex in a linear fashion, conveniently ending with us.

As I point out in the chapter on the Design proof, evolution is nowhere near that tidy. Rewind the clock back 40,000 years ago, and all three of our Homo cousins were competing with us. While all four shared a common ancestor two million years prior, there’s no evidence that they could interbreed at that time.[75] Even though the four of us looked very similar, we were distant cousins like chimpanzees and bonobos currently are. All four of us used tools better than any other species that came before. At least two of us could sail the seas, Florensiensis and Sapiens Sapiens, and there are hints that Erectus might have beaten both to the shipbuilding business. Erectus  also earns a medal for being the first to create fire,[76] and were the first of our line to build houses.[77] For a long time, Sapiens Sapiens  and Neanderthalensis  swapped tools and goods. Neanderthalensis  in particular is famed for building decorated houses and burying their dead, perhaps even creating their own animal traps, jewellery, and body paint. Yet the most successful of us all, Erectus,[78] had the intellect of Alex the parrot. The species with the biggest brain was not Sapiens Sapiens, but Neanderthalensis; 1.8 litres worth, for the record, to our 1.4.

We shouldn’t be asking why one species alone has been granted superior intellect, we should be pondering why the most successful wasn’t smart, and the smartest one didn’t win!

One objection is that we’re a young species, and haven’t been given the same chances as Erectus had to prove our longevity. I’m a little dubious at this, given the number of nuclear missiles we have on a hair trigger and our lousy attempts at managing climate changes that we’ve created, but overall I think the point has merit.

The Neanderthalensis skull is a tougher nut. One argument is that they weren’t as smart as their brain size would indicate, since they had difficulty speaking. Robert McCarthy from Florida Atlantic University found some evidence they couldn’t pronounce “E.” That letter serves as an “anchor” for all of our languages, and since language was so important for our success that could be counted as a handicap.

However, that assumes there’s only one way to craft a language; Steven Mithen, for instance, proposes they instead mixed together singing and speech. I’ll also note that whales and prairie dogs have no difficulty communicating through languages completely unlike our own.

Proving that a long-extinct species was able to talk is clearly quite difficult, and can only be approached by piling up heaps of circumstantial evidence. The Neanderthalensis hyoid bone is nearly identical to ours, and this bone is essential to form the wide range of sounds that our verbal languages crave. The nerve that shuttles signals between brain and tongue is also a close match in both species. Their genome may also have contained a human-like FOXP2 gene, an essential part of our language skills.

Recently, David Frayer and his colleagues at the University of Kansas[79] discovered an interesting pattern. Imagine you want to scrape an animal hide clean using simple stone tools. In order to do this properly the hide has to be stretched tight, but suppose there are no other human beings around to help you pull, and no giant stones or frames are around to give you a hand. The easiest solution is to grip one end of the hide in your teeth, pull it tight with one hand, and scrape away with the other. If you have a dominant hand, you’ll likely use that hand for scraping and the other for pulling; otherwise, you’d just pick any old combination. Since accidents happen, you’ll occasionally smack your teeth with the stone tool, creating permanent little nicks in your front teeth. The direction of these scratches will depend on the hand you’re holding the tool in. These marks are small, but still large enough for anthropologists to spot.

I think you can see where I’m going with this. About 93% of all Neanderthalensis individuals had distinctly more down-right nicks on their front-most teeth, which suggests they were right-handed. What might not be obvious is why I’m headed that way.

Many of you may know that about 90% of all Sapiens Sapiens individuals are right-handed. Most of you have also heard that our brains are lopsided; language processing tends to be on the left-hand side of our brain, which corresponds to the right side of the body. The leading theory of handedness claims that having two areas for fine motor control mirrored across the brain is less efficient than cramming it all on one side, because neuron signals have more distance to travel and the two sides could give conflicting orders. Since both hand manipulation and speech require fine motor control, they get shoved to one side. Thanks to the mirroring of the body, this gives an advantage to the opposite side of the body, and most of the time genetics gives the nod to the right side.[80] Fewer of you will know that many other animals also tend to favour one hand, paw, or flipper. About 60% of Chimpanzees, for instance, favour their right hand.[81]

Interestingly, scientists have observed a link between higher brain function and handedness, and have also noted that no other species exhibits the same degree of bias we show. In other words, no other species of animal has 90% of them favouring a single side.

Well, up until David Frayer did some digging. And since handedness is linked to higher brain function and complex tasks, this strongly suggests Neanderthalensis was our intellectual peer, and weakly suggests they were equally adept at language.

So why did they, or for that matter Florensiensis or Erectus, go the way of Raphus Cucullatus?[82]

I suspect the real reason was luck. We traded tools with Neanderthalensis, which gave both our species a crucial leg up on the rest of the family. Both of us also lived in a more bountiful biome that gave ample spare time to refine our tools and practice co-ordinating with one another. This weeded out all but our Neanderthalensis buddies,[83] until climate change rolled in. Their larger bodies required more calories to sustain than ours,[84] and around the time of their extinction an ice age caused the climate to wildly swing around. This would have been devastating to a species that lived in woodlands and hunted by surprising prey, but not so bad to one that liked grassland and chased down their food. Neanderthalensis was starved out of existence, leaving us all alone.

While this line of thought seems plausible, it still has gaping holes. Why didn’t Neanderthals simply move to the more fertile plains and shove the weaker Homos out? They survived multiple ice ages, so why was the last one so fatal for our bigger-brained cousin? There’s also some evidence they subsisted on plants,[85] contradicting earlier claims that Neanderthalensis lived solely on meat, and suggesting they were more adaptable to food changes than we thought.

Science, alas, has not provided us with an answer yet. But it knows enough to suggest our intelligence is not so much a god’s touch as a lucky break.



[72]  I can think of one exception: plunk a human being down in front of a television. Flash them the numbers one through nine, scattered about randomly on the screen, for one second, then replace them with white squares. Ask us to select those white squares in ascending order of the numbers behind them. Almost all of us will fail before we get to our second number, even with training; Tetsuro Matsuzawa handed the same test to chimps, and after training them to settle down in front of the telly, they could repeatedly nail every number.

[73] There’s some controversy over how to classify Erectus, with a few palaeontologists wanting to break them up into an Asian-only group with H. Ergaster taking over the African/European half. Recent human ancestors are incredibly difficult to classify, since their bones are nearly identical to ours yet too old for genetic tests.

[74] As usual, there’s controversy over this species too. Some palaeontologists think they were diseased Sapiens Sapiens, though this seems to be a minority view. The bones we’ve found are uniquely fresh and well-preserved, compared to the remains of our other cousins, so genetic testing may solve this dispute.

[75]  Recent genetic tests suggest we may have had a little cross-species action roughly 65,000 years ago, but nothing since. Some archaeologists, however, point to much later skeletons which apparently show a mix of Neanderthalensis and Sapiens Sapiens traits. Both of them could be right; there may have been a hybrid population that went extinct, leaving us relative purebloods to be the last species standing in the Homo line. More recent research has cast doubt on those findings, though, suggesting instead that those shared genes really came from our common ancestor. Separating fact from speculation will take a few decades, unfortunately, and only if the geologic record permits.

[76] [better citation needed: more recent research pins it at 1mya]


[78] Erectus had survived nearly two million years by then, and spread over much of Africa, Europe, and Asia. In contrast, genetic testing has shown Sapiens Sapiens nearly went extinct within the last 100,000 years; there were roughly 10,000 individuals alive at that point, making our entire species somewhat inbred.

[79] Right handed Neandertals: Vindija and beyond; David W. Frayer et al, Journal of Anthropological Sciences, volume 88, pp. 113-127

[80] There are some big problems with this theory; a minority of left-handed people process language equally on both sides of the brain, for instance. Still, the basic pattern holds true for 95% of all right-handers, so this explanation is likely half-true.

[81] Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) Are Predominantly Right-Handed: Replication in Three Populations of Apes; William D. Hopkins et al, Behav Neurosci, 2004 June.

[82] The Dodo was a very trusting bird that we “Wise Men” decided to club into extinction on a lark.

[83] On the mainland, anyway. Florensiensis managed to outlive Neanderthalensis by hanging out on tropical islands, which insulated them from climate shifts but limited their food choices. Only they know the true reason for their extinction, unfortunately.

[84] Energetic Competition Between Neandertals and Anatomically Modern Humans , Andrew W. Froehle and Steven E. Churchill, PaleoAnthropology 2009: 96−116

[85] Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of cooked foods in Neandertha diets, Amanda G. Henry, Alison S. Brooks, and Dolores R. Piperno, PNAS January 11, 2011 vol. 108 no. 2 486-491

Proof from Intelligence (6)


Out of all the suggested components to intelligence, this one is nearest to my heart. One of the most important books of my life was “The Creative Spirit,” based on a PBS series of the same name. While it was laughably optimistic about the transformative power of creativity, even the die-hard realist within me admits it is full of inspiring tales. Can’t get a finger around a tricky ledge while rock climbing? Flip upside-down and grab it with your toes. Have a beetle in both hands, and want to collect a third? A young Charles Darwin solved this problem by popping one into his mouth, with distasteful results. From realizing Benzene’s physical layout by daydreaming in front of the fire, to the joys of quiet contemplation via calligraphy, the younger me was opened up to an entire new way of thinking.

One that seems strangely absent in the rest of the animal kingdom. Coincidence?

I’d argue creativity is more common that you think. We tend to think of creativity in terms of the Picassos or Mozarts of the world, creative geniuses who towered over all their field. They’re so prominent, however, because they’re so uncommon; most creative output is actually done quietly, in the process of just living a life. That creative fix you made to one of your tools, or the novel arrangement of some flowers or words for your own enjoyment, are both examples of creativity in action, even though they won’t get you on the cover of a magazine.

And when you stop looking for a squirrel Picasso, you start seeing actual creativity. Solving novel problems qualifies, and I’ve already mentioned crows and octopuses that can managed that. There’s also the remarkable songbook of the Brown Thrasher.

Human play can be very creative, but that doesn’t mean all play is. Merely practising instincts that have been burnt in by evolution certainly shouldn’t count, for instance. That still leaves dolphin bubble games and crow sledding as valid examples, though.

Long-Range Planning

Would you like to visit a clock that will outlast your great-great-great grandchildren? The Long Now Foundation is hoping to build a clock inside the Snake mountain range, one that will run for 10,000 years. It will synchronize itself by using the sun, and chime differently for each new year. This is an extreme example of something we do every day. We plan our lives days, months, even years in advance. It’s difficult to picture any other species thinking this far ahead.

So instead, picture nothing.

Human beings navigate by sight and communicate by sound. Cut off both senses, and we’re helpless. Gathering food in that state would be impossible for us.

And yet killer whales can pull it off.

Vision is nearly useless in the ocean, so all whales use echolocation to navigate. This consists of sending out a loud sound, which bounces off rocks or animals and returns back some time later. By carefully analysing the returning sound, you can determine where something is and even what sort of texture it has. Unfortunately, this also broadcasts your location to the rest of the ocean, but there’s no other way to get around in the dark or communicate with your fellow whales.

“They go into stealth mode – completely silent,” said Dr Deecke. “This raises the question: how are they communicating?” It seems that orcas can carry out complex, co-ordinated mammal-hunting trips without “talking to each other” at all. “To cover a wider area, they fan out occasionally – travelling hundreds of metres, even kilometres apart, and they come back together again,” said Dr Deecke. Only once they catch their prey, does the noise – whistling and pulsing calls – begin. […]

Dr Deecke thinks that the orcas might “rehearse” their hunting routines, to learn the position of each group member. “They tend to be very predictable,” he said. “I often know exactly where they are going to surface.” How they manage this level of co-ordination is not clear. And the scientists plan to continue their research by fitting sound recording and satellite tracking tags to individual orcas to follow their behaviour much more closely. Dr Deecke said: “It seems like there’s no way for them to communicate without their prey being able to eavesdrop.”

(“Killer whales hunt in silent ‘stealth mode’,” by Victoria Gill. BBC News, March 3rd 2011. )

While killer whales may not be able to talk, they can still hear perfectly fine. If they’ve been through an area before, they can verify there’s no obstacles in their way. Even with those advantages, however, those whales still need to swim in a straight line for kilometres at a time, with no external reference points to guide them; keep track of time, so they know when to stop and regroup; and somehow negotiate and share all this with their fellow pod members. It’s a formidable show of long-range planning.

Primates, of course, also do quite well for themselves. Santino, a chimp at a zoo in Stockholm, Sweden, has been observed methodically going around his cage before the public arrives, knocking on the walls and fake boulders. Water can seep into them, freeze and expand during winter, and slowly break them into smaller chunks. Once Santino stumbles on such a weak spot, he pounds harder and breaks off little bits of concrete, which he then hides in convenient places near the visitor area.

Much later, while asserting his dominance over the unimpressed humans on the other side of the cage, he’ll reach into one of these caches and convince them he means business with a few projectiles. Zoo-keepers usually find and remove these piles before they become missiles, but Santino has managed to keep surprising them for over twelve years.

One example stands out. Santino’s zoo is only open from June until August each year, although they offer pre-season guided tours as early as May. During the first of those pre-season tours in 2010, the guides spotted Santino making threat displays at the edge of his pen and waving around a bit of concrete he’d just pried loose, so they were careful to keep well out of his range. The same thing happened during the next two tours. On the fourth, the eagle-eyed guides found a calm Santino in the middle of the pen, albeit with a concrete projectile in each hand. Since the dominance freak-out always came before he threw anything, they risked a close-up visit to the enclosure. Santino seemed mildly curious about the newcomers, and lazily ambled his way toward the group. The instant he got within throwing distance, though, he did exactly that. Santino gave the hapless tour no warning, and only after things started flying did he start flipping out and asserting his dominance.[55]


Santino could only have pulled that off by getting inside the mind of his keepers. And understanding others is the definition of interpersonal intelligence. There’s no doubt human beings are very good at this, but there’s also no doubt we’re but one of many social species on the planet. To survive, members of those species must have some understanding of other creatures.

What would be more impressive was if we could find a species that not only recognized others, but could tell if those others were in need and help them.


In other words, can other species be altruistic?

The gold standard for altruistic behaviour is food sharing; in the wild, every calorie is sacred, a little insurance against a potential future famine. Researchers were unable to find this form of altruism in other animals, so it seemed safe to declare it a human-only activity. They were reassured by the chimpanzee, our closest cousin and a consistent foe of anyone who’d declare “other animals can’t do this,” which had never been spotted sharing its food.[56]

 So there was a lot of surprise when Gerald S. Wilkinson discovered that vampire bats share food. Females will regurgitate blood for their infants, if they had a bad hunt that night, but will also do it for unrelated pups or even other females. Many bats will pair up and share food with one another, even if they aren’t related. All of this is very deliberate. Studies have shown they consistently share with other bats they know, and avoid the strangers who could easily take advantage of this kindness.

Since then, many more examples have come to light.[57] Birds will help each other by mobbing predators to drive them off,[58] walruses will adopt unrelated orphans,[59] while bonobos[60] and dolphins[61] [62] will aid injured animals. To elaborate on that last one, dolphins will push the injured party to the surface to ensure they won’t drown, they will protect them if an predator shows up, and are more than willing to slow down their pace to match that of the hurt animal.[63]

In case that isn’t sufficiently astonishing, dolphins will do the above for animals of another species.[64]

Cross-species Altruism

We as a species have moved well past altruism. We’re also generous to other animals, in ways ranging from bird feeders to wildlife refuges, and ask for little to nothing in return. Surely no other mammal… oh right, dolphins.

Chimps have also pulled off this feat. Felix Warneken and a team from the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology enacted a little play in front of chimpanzees; two humans had a brief tug-of-war with a stick, with the victor deliberately placing it out of reach of the first person. That person then requested help from the chimp. While our ape cousins had a rough time with indirect requests (in this case, a longing gaze at the object), when the hapless victim visibly reached for the object they were rewarded about 40% of the time, even when the grateful Homo Sapiens Sapiens offered no reward in return.

A second experiment, involving just the most generous apes from the first, showed that half the time chimps were willing to run an obstacle course to help said human, even though no reward was hinted at. A third showed that chimps could tell the difference between a legit and bogus request for help, and were willing to help a strange ape four times out of five if the request was legit. Plunking human children down in similar situations led to similar results.[65]

We have no shortage of examples here. News departments love to print stories about dogs adopting cats,[66] a tiger adopting piglets or a pig adopting tiger cubs,[67] an elephant becoming best friends with a dog,[68] leopards chumming it up with dogs, vicious polar bears carrying on long-term relationships with dogs, turtles looking after hippos, and so on.[69]

[55]  Osvath M, Karvonen E (2012) Spontaneous Innovation for Future Deception in a Male Chimpanzee. PLoS ONE 7(5): e36782. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0036782 .

[56]  Notice I’m using the past tense here.

[57]  I’m exaggerating the “surprise” part a little. There are good evolutionary reasons for altruism, in theory, which I discuss a little in my section on the Morality proof. The lack of evidence was a big concern, though, since science has always ranked evidence above theory, in theory anyway.

[58] “Experimental evidence of reciprocal altruism in the pied flycatcher ,” Indrikis Krams et al. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, February 2008.

[59] “Protection and Abuse Of Young in Pinnipeds ,” Burney J. Le Boeuf and Claudio Campagnn. Infanticide and parental care , 1994, pg. 261




[63] “Are Dolphins Reciprocal Altruists?,” Richard C. Connor and Kenneth S. Norris. The American Naturalist, Vol. 119, No. 3 (Mar., 1982), pp. 358-374.


[65] “Spontaneous Altruism by Chimpanzees and Young Children,” Felix Warneken et al. PLoS Biology, June 26, 2007.





Double-Dipping Datasets

I wrote this comment down on a mental Post-It note:

nathanieltagg @10:
… So, here’s the big one: WHY is it wrong to use the same dataset to look for different ideas? (Maybe it’s OK if you don’t throw out many null results along the way?)

It followed this post by Myers.

He described it as a failed study with null results. There’s nothing wrong with that; it happens. What I would think would be appropriate next would be to step back, redesign the experiment to correct flaws (if you thought it had some; if it didn’t, you simply have a negative result and that’s what you ought to report), and repeat the experiment (again, if you thought there was something to your hypothesis).

That’s not what he did.

He gave his student the same old data from the same set of observations and asked her to rework the analyses to get a statistically significant result of some sort. This is deplorable. It is unacceptable. It means this visiting student was not doing something I would call research — she was assigned the job of p-hacking.

And both the comment and the post have been clawing away at me for a few weeks, when I’ve been unable to answer. So let’s fix that: is it always bad to re-analyze a dataset? If not, then when and how?

[Read more…]

Proof from Intelligence (5)

Spatial Reasoning

[diagram of a round peg and a square hole]

Here’s a peg and a hole. Can you fit them together?

The answer should be obvious. And yet, you didn’t need to fit them together to figure it out. You simply created an imaginary peg and hole of the same dimensions in your mind, and tried the experiment there. It’s a remarkable talent, perhaps even… miraculous?

We put our spatial reasoning to best use when creating tools. In order to solve a problem in the physical world, we must be able to mentally break it down into sub-problems, picture an object or technique that solves each of them in turn, and assemble a tool or tools in the real world that behave like our imagined ones.

So if I find another species that uses tools, I’ve also found one capable of spatial reasoning.

Tool Use

That should be tricky. Humans are practically defined by tools. Even the lowliest hunt/er-gatherer never leaves home without a spear or axe. We’ve built entire civilizations around them, from the daggers and shields of the Romans, to the automobiles of the USA. No other animal is as skilled a toolmaker.

Other species still create and use tools, though. I’ve already talked about Betty’s amazing abilities with tools, so I should elaborate on their use in wild crows. Dr Lucas Bluff and others from the Department of Zoology at Oxford University have collected nearly 2,000 hours of video footage in a detailed study of those birds. They noted that wild crows have stopped using their beaks to dig out insect larvae, and instead gather most of their food using tools. The birds are smart enough to match their tools to their job, using long twigs in deep holes and short twigs in shallow holes. They’re also picky in what they’ll use as a tool, presumably because they’ve learned some materials and sizes work better than others.

And as mentioned before, adult crows are much better at using tools than juveniles, a sign that tool use is a learned skill, not an evolved instinct.

Tool use is not limited to land animals, however, or even organisms with a backbone. The Veined Octopus has been filmed gathering coconut shells from the sea floor. After digging out two of them, they’ll combine them into an invincible spherical shelter, perfect for sleeping in or lounging around. Once finished, the satisfied octopus will discard the halves. By itself, that would be notable; the only other animal that has been observed fashioning their own temporary shelter is a human.[53]

But then the Veined Octopus did something that had the researchers doubled over in fits of laughter. As Julian Finn, of Museum Victoria, and colleagues looked on, one octopus positioned itself over top a coconut half, gathered it up in its tentacles, and walked across the ocean floor! Sort of, anyway; the coconuts are roughly twice as big as the poor cephalopod, so its “walk” is more of a drunken stumble. Like any good comedic video it’s been posted to the internet, so you too can enjoy science history by rolling on the floor, laughing.

I can’t leave this topic without mentioning our closest cousin, the chimp. After all, they were the first animal noted to use tools in the wild, by Jane Goodall in 1960, and have remained the best-documented.

Chimpanzees don’t have a single tool, so much as an entire tool kit. Over fifty years of close study, researchers have discovered that chimps have nine different ways of putting tools to use. They’ll use branches to check out-of-reach places, clean themselves with wet bundles of leaves and moss, and even sharpen sticks into spears for hunting.


[All children] shall have full opportunity for play and recreation, which should be directed to the same purposes as education; society and the public authorities shall endeavour to promote the enjoyment of this right.

( Principle 7, “Declaration of the Rights of the Child.” UN General Assembly Resolution 1386, adopted December 10th, 1959 )

Granting a Universal Human Right to the protection of consciousness, free expression of thought, and even medical assistance makes quite a lot of sense. But why should the ability to play get such fundamental protection?

Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development. It is through play that children at a very early age engage and interact in the world around them. Play allows children to create and explore a world they can master, conquering their fears while practicing adult roles, sometimes in conjunction with other children or adult caregivers. As they master their world, play helps children develop new competencies that lead to enhanced confidence and the resiliency they will need to face future challenges. Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.

(“The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds,” by Kenneth R. Ginsburg. Pediatrics, Vol. 119 No. 1 January 1, 2007. )

Come to think of it, human beings also have a ridiculous amount of free time compared to other species. They blindly focus on sex and defence, while we sharpen our social and mental skills by engaging in play. I’m not sure what sort of skills we’re enhancing when slowly float down a river with a cooler of beer in the boat, but maybe that’s the point; we’re also capable of having mindless fun, in addition to the more beneficial types of play. Is this a divine gift, perhaps?

At the Konrad Lorenz Research Centre, researchers have spotted some bizarre behaviour in wild crows. One of them would fly to the top of a steep, snowy hill, tuck in its wings, and flop over. After it slid down the slope on its back, it would shake itself off then fly back to the top for another go. Another time, they spotted birds grabbing the tail of a wild boar, then letting the larger creature drag them through the snow upside-down.

Crows do not have to know how to slide in order to survive. On the contrary, these behaviours are dangerous to a delicate winged creature, and yet the birds didn’t look distressed or hassled into doing them. After considering all the alternatives, the researchers conceded the best explanation for their behaviour was play. The crows were just stunting for a good time.

Dolphins get their kicks by swimming in a tight circle, then blowing bubbles into the column of rotating water. The resulting bubble ring is usually admired as it floats to the surface, though sometimes the dolphin will give it a bite and delight in the scattered bubbles that rise more quickly. For bigger thrills, they’ll body-surf along waves that crash into shore, or in the big waves of a giant ship.

Lauren Highfill and Stan Kuczaj have been studying porpoise play. In five years, they spotted 317 different games. One young calf had an elaborate game that involved blowing bubbles while upside-down, then chasing them to the surface:

She then began to release bubbles while swimming closer and closer to the surface, eventually being so close that she could not catch a single bubble. During all of this, the number of bubbles released was varied, the end result being that the dolphin learned to produce different numbers of bubbles from different depths, the apparent goal being to catch the last bubble right before it reached the surface of the water.

She also modified her swimming style while releasing bubbles, one variation involving a fast spin-swim. This made it more difficult for her to catch all of the bubbles she released, but she persisted in this behavior until she was able to almost all of the bubbles she released. Curiously, the dolphin never released three or fewer bubbles, a number which she was able to catch and bite following the spin-swim release.

(Behavioral and Brain Sciences, October 2005)

Interestingly, most of these games were developed by young dolphins, something Highfill and Kuczaj suspect may be their contributions to a dolphin “culture.”


Ah, yes, culture. The collection of little things that we share from one person to another that have little or nothing to do with reproduction. Our great works of art fall into this category, as does our choice of music. We dress like other people, and try to inspire others to take on our fashions; we paint ourselves up, to look good for potential mates but also to fit into a social niche. We add little flourishes to our buildings that follow someone else’s tradition, and we even adjust our slang to fit in. We have so much intelligence that we can afford to waste it on these trivial touches.

Other species lead much duller lives, preferring to bask in the sun instead of accessorize their coats. What could be a better indicator of intelligence?

As it turns out, nearly everything. The banded mongoose has never been called a brainy animal, and yet Corsin Müller has shown they have culture. He presented wild populations with a plastic egg containing fish and rice for half a month, and noted how they treated the egg; did they hold it in their mouth with their paws and crack it open with their teeth, did they smash it against a tree or rock to open it, or did they pass it by? Mongooses are very dogmatic, so once their initial decision was made they stuck with it. They also have a unique way of raising their pups; the young ones don’t spend much time with their parents, but instead grow up with another adult and learn by watching them go about their business. Müller ensured there were some apprentices nearby when he dropped the plastic treats in front of these tutors, but also made sure that only the adults got to handle the egg.

Müller then safely stashed the eggs for two to ten months. After that, he dropped a few by the former apprentices, now mature adults in their own right. Would they follow in the paw prints of their mentor, and adopt the behaviour they had been shown, or invent their own method? As you’ve guessed, they nearly always did what their tutor originally did.

What makes this study stand out is that it was an experiment on a wild population. Most studies of primates, and almost all the ones done on whales, are done to a captive audience. There’s a chance that those animals have picked up on human behaviours and adopted them as their own, but would never consider fluff like culture in the wild.

So it’s amusing that the humble mongoose is our best example of culture in a wild animal.

Whales may not be far behind. We know that wild killer whales can be divided into three populations: one group hangs out in one place and eats nothing but fish, another that wanders the coastline looking for plump seals and otters, and a third that dives deep and does something-or-other.[54] Genetic analysis shows that all three could interbreed, yet they don’t. It strongly suggests a deep cultural divide between wild populations, but no-one has proven it.

We’ve taken captive chimps and taught two different ways to retrieve food from a puzzle to two of them from two different groups. When returned to the cage they immediately enlightened other members of their group how to solve the puzzle. Two months on, each group was using the method they had been taught, even though both shared the same cage and could watch the other group use the other method to do the same task. It experimentally proved that chimps could have culture, but said nothing about their wild behaviour.

[53] Hermit Crabs don’t count. While they’ll freely use shells and even bottles to create a shelter, those are permanent and stay firmly attached to the crab until they are either outgrown or their squatter dies.

[54] This third group was only found recently, so little is known about them. It’s notoriously difficult to study deep-diving creatures; no human has seen a deep-sea squid, and no scientist who’s gone looking has found one, yet their dead bodies will occasionally wash up on a beach. Presumably, some of them prefer a burial at land…