Playful, clever octopods

Awww, it’s a charming little story about the intelligence of the octopus:

Ah, the creepy-crawly creature, the swarming arms, that deep-sea demeanor. This is the bearer of intelligence?

“That was my attitude, too,” confesses science writer Eugene Linden, who has written about animal intelligence since the 1970s and had focused, mostly, on the “big-brained” creatures such as apes, dolphins, elephants and whales. “I shared all the prejudices everybody else has.”

Then he started hearing octopus stories. Like how they can open screw-top jars and hamster balls and child-proof caps. They can do mazes and learn shapes and distinguish colors and use tools.

“They play,” says Jennifer Mather, a psychologist and octopus expert at Canada’s University of Lethbridge.

There are even hints that octopuses have a sense of humor, Linden says.

He talks about the finicky octopus who, in a lab in Pennsylvania, was served slightly spoiled shrimp. The octopus refused to finish its dinner, and when the feeding researcher returned to its tank, the octopus made eye contact with her, then meaningfully pushed all the shrimp down the drain.

A great deal of that is the interpretation of the human observer, of course; it could be the octopus isn’t making a joke at all, but is instead mentally noting the face of the offending person and promising itself to make her pay someday. But still, it’s clear that some wonderfully sophisticated things are going on inside those big invertebrate brains.

(Thanks to Mrs Coulter)

A butterfly puzzle


A reader sent in a question asking me to explain this: a swallowtail wings with different color patterns. Has anybody seen anything like this before? Got any explanations?

My first thought was that it was a genetic mosaic. A mitotic error in early development can lead to one wing primordium carrying a mutant allele, and the other carrying a wild-type form. At metamorphosis, the differences would become visible. It could be a defect that knocks out one pigment on pale wing, or since swallowtails can show sexual and seasonal dimorphism, it could be a change that switches on or off a male/female pattern, or an early summer/late summer pattern. Alternatively (and probably less likely), since seasonal morphs are switched by environmental conditions, this could have been a pupa in a very odd place that got different signals on the two sides.

If you’ve got a better idea, pass it on in the comments.

They’re catching up to us!

I’d point at England and give a Nelson Muntz laugh if it weren’t so depressing. A survey of UK students on evolution is showing large numbers falling for the creationism/ID scam.

In a survey last month, more than 12% questioned preferred creationism — the idea God created us within the past 10,000 years — to any other explanation of how we got here. Another 19% favoured the theory of intelligent design — that some features of living things are due to a supernatural being such as God. This means more than 30% believe our origins have more to do with God than with Darwin — evolution theory rang true for only 56%.

Of course, you know whose fault this is: Richard Dawkins. Who else could possibly have filled English children’s heads with these kinds of ideas?

“As a Christian, I have believed in it for a long time and I have no reason to doubt it.”

“When I look at things in the world I think it is amazing that God has created it for us. If you have faith in God you can believe he has done it, whether there is evidence or not.”

As a practising Muslim, the holy Qur’an — that’s our proper evidence.”

Why, those are straight out of Dawkins’ books! I think. Maybe. Some books, anyway…the author was probably an atheist, so that’s close enough.

So Long Mom, I’m off to Drop the Bomb

Some people seem to be outraged at the idea of people stopping the killing in the Middle East. Those people are, curiously enough, some very prominent Christians.

A small minority of evangelical Christians have entered the Middle
East political arena with some of the most un-Christian statements I
have ever heard. The latest gems come from people like Pat
Robertson, the founder and chairman of the Christian Broadcasting
Network, and Rev. John Hagee of Christians United for Israel. Hagee,
a popular televangelist who leads the 18,000-member Cornerstone
Church in San Antonio, ratcheted up his rhetoric this year with the
publication of his book, “Jerusalem Countdown,” in which he argues
that a confrontation with Iran is a necessary precondition for
Armageddon (which will mean the death of most Jews, in his eyes) and
the Second Coming of Christ.

In the best-selling book, Hagee insists that the United States must
join Israel in a preemptive military strike against Iran to fulfill
God’s plan for both Israel and the West. Shortly after the book’s
publication, he launched Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which,
as the Christian version of the powerful American Israel Public
Affairs Committee, he said would cause “a political earthquake.”
With the outbreak of the war on Lebanon, he and others have called
to their followers to pray for Israel, and for the continuation of
the war on Lebanon. They have demanded that Israel not relent in
what they call the need to destroy Hezbollah and Hamas. They seem to
have completely forgotten the very core of the Christian faith.

Forgotten the core? What’s that—proselytize, evangelize, convert the heathen, or kill them all and let God sort ’em out? I think Rev. Hagee is perfectly representative of the historical mainstream of the Abrahamic religions.

To our current infestation of cheerleaders for Jesus: if you want to comment on this thread, please make it clear whether you a) believe in the Rapture, Armageddon, etc., b) believe that a war in the Middle East is a necessary precondition for biblical prophecy to be fulfilled, and c) think this is a good thing.

(via Liz Ditz and Boing Boing)

That’s an unimpeachable authority

Creationists often bring up Piltdown Man* as an example of an evolutionary fraud, and claim that it was the foundation of huge volumes of research. It was a fraud, and it did linger unpleasantly in the scientific literature for far too long, but you’d be hard pressed to find a serious work of science that used it any more. Until now. That genius of the modern era, L. Ron Hubbard, cited Piltdown in Scientology: A History of Man.

*By the way, if you haven’t been reading Richard Harter’s World, you should. It’s a sort of antediluvian blog, with none of the conventions we’ve grown accustomed to, but it’s an amazing pile of entertaining and random oddities…including the Piltdown information, monthly joke collections, bits of math and poetry. It’ll keep you busy for days, at least—the archives go back to 1996.

Follow the links round and round

As long as we’re dealing with rebuttals to criticism, Joe Carter has reacted to my previous rejection of his incoherent complaints. Don’t bother reading Carter, though, who is babbling and whining as usual…instead, just read this rebuttal to the rebuttal of my criticisms. Even if it is from a Christian (or especially since it is from a Christian, depending on the flavor of your biases).

Po-mo pro and con

My complaints about that post-modernist screed against evidence-based medicine have elicited some responses.

First up is a Calvinist post-modernist who defends the work by mischaracterizing the criticisms of various bloggers, including me, as:

“Chuckle, chuckle… stupid postmodernists… Sokal… grain of truth surrounded by words I don’t understand… chuckle, chuckle… ridiculous… stupid postmodernists… QED.”

Umm, no. I don’t see that in any of the posts about it. In my own, I said that the accusations of fascism were over the top, that I had read it and found it full of jargon (that does not mean I didn’t understand it), and my primary complaint was that despite making a plea for alternative ways of understanding medicine than evidence-based models, the paper did not propose any positive arguments for any specific alternative. It’s intellectually empty.

Just like our po-mo Calvinist’s complaints. He’s a creationist, so I guess it’s just an ingrained reflex to immediately raise a straw man and start flailing at it.

Much more satisfying, even if he does open the article by damning me (that’s so redundant, anyway), is Orac’s scourging. Call it the Passion of the Post-Modernist—watch that whip fly, see the gobbets of flesh splatter, observe the beads of oily sweat on Orac’s muscular arms as he wields the cat pitilessly. In other words, you might not want to look if you’re at all squeamish.

I’m in the right lane, headed for work


Less than two weeks until classes begin again, and it’s time to juggle syllabi, attend meetings and workshops, and scoot the kids off to school. I’m making another airport run tomorrow to pick up Skatje, whose vacation is ending. Next week, I get to deposit Connlann back in Madison (I didn’t do the traditional knife fight last year, but I like Bérubé’s idea of just booting him out the car door during a rolling stop—could I catch up on tradition if I then throw a bunch of knives after him?) This week I’ve got a division meeting, various campus-wide events, and next week it’s the faculty retreat.

And then, classes. I’m teaching part of our introductory biology course again (syllabus is done, my lectures are all ready to go for that one, and developmental biology…which would be ready to go, except that I added a new supplemental book to the course this year, and need to work up how that’s going to be integrated into the lectures. It’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), by the way—I think it’s going to fit in perfectly.