Joy in the detail

Reading Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider by Stephen Heard for the Spectator, 16 May 2020

Heteropoda davidbowie is a species of huntsman spider. Though rare, it has been found in parts of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and possibly Thailand. (The uncertainty arises because it’s often mistaken for a similar-looking species, the Heteropoda javana.) In 2008 a German collector sent photos of his unusual-looking “pet” to Peter Jäger, an arachnologist at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt. Consequently, and in common with most other living finds, David Bowie’s spider was discovered twice: once in the field, and once in the collection.

Bowie’s spider is famous, but not exceptional. Jäger has discovered more than 200 species of spider in the last decade, and names them after politicians, comedians and rock stars to highlight our ecological plight. Other researchers find more pointed ways to further the same cause. In the first month of Donald Trump’s administration, Iranian-Canadian entomologist Vazrick Nazari discovered a moth with a head crowned with large, blond comb-over scales. There’s more to Neopalpa donaldtrumpi than a striking physical resemblance: it lives in a federally protected area around where the border wall with Mexico is supposed to go. Cue headlines.

Species are becoming extinct 100 times faster than they did before modern humans arrived. This makes reading a book about the naming of species a curiously queasy affair. Nor is there much comfort to be had in evolutionary ecologist Stephen Heard’s observation that, having described 1.5 million species, we’ve (at very best) only recorded half of what’s out there. There is, you may recall, that devastating passage in Cormac McCarthy’s western novel Blood Meridian in which Judge Holden meticulously records a Native American artifact in his sketchbook — then destroys it. Given that to discover a species you must, by definition, invade its environment, Holden’s sketch-and-burn habit appears to be a painfully accurate metonym for what the human species is doing to the planet. Since the 1970s (when there used to be twice as many wild animals than there are now) we’ve been discovering and endangering new species in almost the same breath.

Richard Spruce, one of the Victorian era’s great botanical explorers, who spent 15 years exploring the Amazon from the Andes to its mouth, is a star of this short, charming book about how we have named and ordered the living world. No detail of his bravery, resilience and grace under pressure come close to the eloquence of this passing quotation, however: “Whenever rains, swollen streams, and grumbling Indians combined to overwhelm me with chagrin,” he wrote in his account of his travels, “I found reason to thank heaven which had enabled me to forget for the moment all my troubles in the contemplation of a simple moss.”

Stephen Heard, an evolutionary ecologist based in Canada, explains how extraordinary amounts of curiosity have been codified to create a map of the living world. The legalistic-sounding codes by which species are named are, it turns out, admirably egalitarian, ensuring that the names amateurs give species are just as valid as those of professional scientists.

Formal names are necessary because of the difficulty we have in distinguishing between similiar species. Common names run into this difficulty all the time. There too many of them, so the same species gets different names in different languages. At the same time, there aren’t enough of them, so that, as Heard points out, “Darwin’s finches aren’t finches, African violets aren’t violets, and electric eels aren’t eels;” Robins, blackbirds and badgers are entirely different animals in Europe and North America; and virtually every flower has at one time or another been called a daisy.

Also names tend, reasonably enough, to be descriptive. This is fine when you’re distinguishing between, say, five different types of fish When there are 500 different fish to sort through, however, absurdity beckons. Heard lovingly transcribes the pre-Linnaean species name of the English whiting, formulated around 1738: “Gadus, dorso tripterygio, ore cirrato, longitudine ad latitudinem tripla, pinna ani prima officulorum trigiata“. So there.

It takes nothing away from the genius of Swedish physician Carl Linnaeus, who formulated the naming system we still use today, to say that he came along at the right time. By Linnaeus’s day, it was possible to look things up. Advances in printing and distribution had made reference works possible. Linnaeus’s innovation was to decouple names from descriptions. And this, as Heard reveals in anecdote after anecdote, is where the fun now slips in: the mythopoeic cool of the baboon Papio anubis, the mischevious smarts of the beetle Agra vation, the nerd celebrity of lemur Avahi cleesi.

Hearst’s taxonomy of taxonomies makes for somewhat thin reading; this is less of a book, more like a dozen interesting magazine articles flying in close formation. But its close focus, bringing to life minutiae of both the living world and the practice of science, is welcome.

I once met Michael Land, the neurobiologist who figured out how the lobster’s eye works. He told me that the trouble with big ideas is that they get in the way of the small ones. Heard’s lesson, delivered with such a light touch, is the same. The joy, and much of the accompanying wisdom, lies in the detail.

Are you experienced?

Reading Wildhood by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers for New Scientist, 18 March 2020

A king penguin raised on Georgia Island, off the coast of Antarctica. A European wolf. A spotted hyena in the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania. A north Atlantic humpback whale born near the Dominican Republic. What could these four animals have in common?

What if they were all experiencing the same life event? After all, all animals are born, and all of them die. We’re all hungry sometimes, for food, or a mate.

How far can we push this idea? Do non-human animals have mid-life crises, for example? (Don’t mock; there’s evidence that some primates experience the same happiness curves through their life-course as humans do.)

Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, an evolutionary biologist, and Kathryn Bowers, an animal behaviorist, have for some years been devising and teaching courses at Harvard and the University of California at Los Angeles, looking for “horizontal identities” across species boundaries.

The term comes from Andrew Solomon’s 2014 book Far from the Tree, which contrasts vertical identities (between you and your parents and grandparents, say) with horizontal identities, which are “those among peers with whom you share similar attributes but no family ties”. The authors of Wildhood have expanded Solomon’s concept to include other species; “we suggest that adolescents share a horizontal identity,” they write: “temporary membership in a planet-wide tribe of adolescents.”

The heroes of Wildhood — Ursula the penguin, Shrink the hyena, Salt the whale and Slavc the wolf are all, (loosely speaking) “teens”, and like teens everywhere, they have several mountains to climb at once. They must learn how to stay safe, how to navigate social hierarchies, how to communicate sexually, and how to care for themselves. They need to become experienced, and for that, they need to have experiences.

Well into the 1980s, researchers were discouraged from discussing the mental lives of animals. The change in scientific culture came largely thanks to the video camera. Suddenly it was possible for behavioral scientists to observe, not just closely, but repeatedly, and in slow motion. Soon discoveries arose that could not possibly have been arrived at with the naked eye alone. An animal’s supposedly rote, mechanical behaviours turned out to be the product of learning, experiment, and experience. Stereotyped calls and gestures were unpacked to reveal, not language in the human sense, but languages nonetheless, and many were of dizzying complexity. Animals that we thought were driven by instinct (a word you’ll never even hear used these days), turned out to be lively, engaged, conscious beings, scrabbling for purchase in a confusing and unpredictable world.

The four tales that make up the bulk of Wildhood are more than “Just So” stories. “Every detail,” the authors explain, “is based on and validated by data from GPS satellite or radio collar studies, peer-reviewed scientific literature, published reports and interviews with the investigators involved”.

In addition, each offers a different angle on a wealth of material about animal behaviour. Examples of animal friendship, bullying, nepotism, exploitation and even property inheritance arrive in such numbers and at such a level of detail, it takes an ordinary, baggy human word like “friendship” or “bullying” to contain them.

“Level playing fields don’t exist in nature”, the authors assert, and this is an important point, given the book’s central claim that by understanding the “wildhoods” of other animals, we can develop better approaches “for compassionately and skillfully guiding human adolescents toward adulthood.”

The point is not to use non-human behaviour as an excuse for human misbehaviour. Lots of animals kill and exploit each other, but that shouldn’t make exploitation or murder acceptable. The point is to know which battles to pick. Making young school playtimes boring by quashing the least sign of competitiveness makes little sense, given the amount of biological machinery dedicated to judging and ranking in every animal species from humans to lobsters. On the other hand, every young animal, when it returns to its parents, gets a well-earned break from the “playground” — but young humans don’t. They’re now tied 24-7 to social media that prolongue, exaggerate and exacerbate the ranking process. Is the rise in mental health problems among the affluent young triggered by this added stress?

These are speculations and discussions for another book, for which Wildhood may prove a necessary and charming foundation. Introduced in the first couple of pages to California sea otters, swimming up to sharks one moment then fleeing from a plastic boat the next, the reader can’t help but recognise, in the animals’ overly bold and overly cautious behaviour, the gawkiness and tremor of their own adolescence.

“Me, Washoe”

Watching Nick Lehane: Chimpanzee  at Barbican Centre, London
for New Scientist, 20 January 2020

The puppet, a life-sized female chimpanzee, is made out of wood, rope, carved hard foam and paper mâché. She gazes out at the audience from a raised platform and, through movement alone, weaves her tale. When she was young, she lived as part of a human family. Now she is incarcerated in a research laboratory, deprived of company, her mind slowly deteriorating.

Rowan Magee, Andy Manjuck, and Emma Wiseman operate the chimpanzee, the sole actor in a puppet play running at the Barbican Centre in London. The play, Chimpanzee, by Brooklyn-based actor and puppeteer Nick Lehane, is a highlight of 2020’s London International Mime Festival. It is a moving story that is attracting attention from neurologists and cognitive scientists along with the usual performing-arts crowd.

Lehane conceived the show after reading Next of Kin, a memoir by psychologist and primate researcher Roger Fouts. Fouts’s tales of experiments in fostering young chimpanzees in human homes had obvious dramatic potential. Then, as Lehane looked deeper, he discovered a much darker story.

The Fouts family’s own chimps enjoyed a relatively comfortable life once they outgrew their human home. But other chimpanzees in similar programmes found themselves sold to research labs, living out almost inconceivably solitary lives of confinement and vivisection.

Modern efforts to communicate with chimpanzees began in 1967 at the University of Nevada, Reno, when primatologists Allen and Beatrix Gardner set up a project to teach American Sign Language (ASL) to a chimp called Washoe. These experiments have so transformed our view of chimp culture that many of the original researchers are campaigning to end the practice of keeping primates in captivity. (It is still legal to keep primates as pets in the UK.)

Chimpanzee vocalisations aren’t under conscious control, but the apes can communicate using body gestures. “This happens naturally in the wild,” says Mary Lee Jensvold, who advised Nick Lehane on his play. A former student of Roger Fouts, she too campaigns to end primate captivity. “And because chimps live in communities that are relatively closed and quite aggressive with each other, each community has its own repertoire of gestures. Where there’s some overlap, there are differences in how the gestures are articulated.”

In other words, each community speaks in its own accent, and this, says Jensvold, “really speaks to chimpanzees being cultural beings“.

As the sign-language studies grew more ambitious, the Gardners and their colleagues Roger and Deborah Fouts took the chimps into their own homes, acculturating them as humans as far they could to encourage communication.

The obvious question – what is it like growing up in a family that contains chimpanzees? – is the only question Roger Fouts’s son Joshua struggles to answer: “The reality is it’s all I knew.” Joshua, now a media scholar, was raised in a family whose rituals involved members that weren’t human, whose human members would sign to each other so the chimpanzees wouldn’t feel left out of the conversation, and the experience has left him with a profound sense that every non-human has inherent sapience. “When I’m walking down the sidewalk, and I see a human walking with their dog,” he says, “I tend to greet the dog.”

Roger Fouts and his colleagues found that their animals used ASL to communicate with each other, creating phrases by combining signs to denote novel objects.

Washoe was the first chimpanzee to wield ASL in a convincing fashion. Others followed: when Washoe’s mate Moja didn’t know the word for “thermos”, he referred to it as a “metal cup drink”. When Washoe was shown an image of herself in the mirror, and asked what she was seeing, she replied: “Me, Washoe.”

The researchers could hardly credit what they were seeing – and some of their peers still don’t. Jensvold believes there may be a cultural conflict at work. “In the US, comparative psychology has historically been a very lab-based science, where you set up these contrived experiments in order to answer your research questions,” she says. “Out of Europe comes an ethological approach, which is really more about taking the time to observe.”

The sign language research has drawn Jensvold and her colleagues into animal welfare and protection. “We can’t keep doing to them what we’ve been doing,” she says.

Joshua recalls the moment his father reached the same conclusion: “About midway through his career, Roger realised that this was an experiment that should never have been done. Out of the desire to determine what it is about humans that makes us special, we’ve effectively condemned these chimpanzees to a life of incarceration. They’re enculturated to our behaviours. They can never be reintroduced to the wild.”

There are no captive chimps in New York, so Nick Lehane’s research for his play consisted almost entirely of watching videos. According to Jensvold, he couldn’t have picked a better form of study. “With video tape,” she says, “you can take close observation down to a minute level.”

By the time Jensvold got involved in Lehane’s project, there was already a performance ready for her to judge. For Lehane, that was a heart-in-mouth moment: “I was afraid that despite our best efforts, we had missed the mark. If anyone was going to think that we had missed something vital about chimp movement or behaviour, it would be Mary Lee.”

He needn’t have worried. “Chimpanzee was phenomenal,” says Jensvold. “I was spotting things that I knew other people in the audience, people who weren’t experts, weren’t going to notice. He captured these incredible nuances.” She pauses: “So the level of suffering that he’s depicting: he gets that right, too.”

How does Lehane’s chimpanzee convey emotion, given that chimp and human expressions don’t overlap at all precisely?

“A lot of it is in the miming of breath patterns,” says Lehane. “Short little pants and hoots look happy; deep intense heaves and cough will register as a different emotion.”

“One of the things I think is so cool about puppetry is that the audience fills in so many blanks,” he says. “I can’t tell you the number of times that someone has said, ‘How did you make the puppet cry?’ ‘How did you make the puppet frown?’ ‘I loved it when the puppet blinked!’ It tickles me because I just didn’t do any of those things.”

Is there a danger here that the audience is merely anthropomorphising his subject, interpreting his chimpanzee as little more than a funny-shaped human?

In answer, Lehane quotes primatologist Frans de Waal: “To endow animals with human emotions has long been a scientific taboo. But if we do not, we risk missing something fundamental, about both animals and us.”

 

Can you use a bottle opener?

Visiting the Baltic in Gateshead for Animalesque: Art across species and beings.
For New Scientist, 15 January 2020.

EXHIBITIONS about our relationship with the environment tend to be bombastic. Either they preach doom and destruction, or they reckon our children will soon be living lives of plenty on artificial atolls.

Animalesque at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, UK, knows better than this. In an international selection of art, sculpture and film, curator Filipa Ramos points out how little we know about other species, and how much we might still learn. With this humility comes hope that we can reform our relations with Earth.

Research has a major role to play, but it can only go so far. One unassuming TV monitor is screening a video from Tupilakosaurus, a long-running project by Danish-Greenlandic artist Pia Arke. It is a telling but not unsympathetic satirical film, in which examinations of a fossil dinosaur throw up folk tales, mangled histories and surreal mountains of paperwork as researchers try to represent and classify the Arctic’s life and history.

Often, we find out about other species only as we are evicting and replacing them. This happened to the Malayan tiger, which now numbers just some 300 wild cats in the Malay Peninsula. 2 or 3 Tigers (2015) by Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen is a 19-minute, two- screen video, made using CGI and some very dodgy operatic singing, about the were-tigers of Malayan folklore. As ancestors, companions, competitors, protectors, destroyers and gods, tigers were central to the indigenous culture. Western settlers couldn’t find any there, however, until one sprang out of the forest in 1835 and attacked a hapless surveyor’s theodolite.

Our most stable cross-species relationships are with domesticated animals, even if they are sometimes discomforting or guilt-ridden affairs. In French artist Pierre Huyghe’s Untitled (Human Mask) (2014), a macaque explores an abandoned restaurant in Fukushima, Japan, an area gutted by the 2011 tsunami. Identifying the species of our protagonist takes a while. You would be forgiven for thinking you were watching a girl, because the macaque is wearing a wig and an eerily beautiful mask (pictured above).

The uncanny collision of categories (girl and pet, puppet and creature) only becomes more dizzying when you discover that Huyghe recruited his “star” from a Tokyo restaurant where the macaque spent many apparently happy hours working as a waiter.

It is a film of great pathos, more moving and less disturbing than this bald description suggests. It speaks to our difficulty understanding other animals, steeped as we are in human concerns.

The difficulty is real, can research help us? Degreecoordinates, Shared traits of the Hominini (humans, bonobos and chimpanzees) (2015) attempts it. For this, UK artist Marcus Coates worked with primatologist Volker Sommer to list questions relevant to all three: do you resolve conflicts using sex? Can you use a bottle opener? Do you kiss? Are you preoccupied with hierarchy and status?

Human answers vary, but so do those gleaned from studying individual chimps and bonobos. The differences between individuals of each of the three species far exceed those across species. Animalesque celebrates what we share – and what we can learn.

 

Come on, Baggy, get with the beat!

Reading The Evolving Animal Orchestra: In search of what makes us musical by Henkjan Honing for New Scientist, 6 April 2019

The perception, if not the enjoyment, of musical cadences and of rhythm,” wrote Darwin in his 1871 book The Descent of Man, “is probably common to all animals.”

Henkjan Honing has tested this eminently reasonable idea, and in his book, The Evolving Animal Orchestra, he reports back. He details his disappointment, frustration and downright failure with such wit, humility and a love of the chase that any young person reading it will surely want to run away to become a cognitive scientist.

No culture has yet been found that doesn’t have music, and all music shares certain universal characteristics: melodies composed of seven or fewer discrete pitches; a regular beat; a limited sequence of rhythmic patterns. All this would suggest a biological basis for musicality.

A bird flies with regular beats of its wings. Animals walk with a particular rhythm. So you might expect beat perception to be present in everything that doesn’t want to falter when moving. But it isn’t. Honing describes experiments that demonstrate conclusively that we are the only primates with a sense of rhythm, possibly deriving from advanced beat perception.

Only strongly social animals, he writes, from songbirds and parrots to elephants and humans, have beat perception. What if musicality was acquired by all prosocial species through a process of convergent evolution? Like some other cognitive scientists, Honing now wonders whether language might derive from music, in a similar way to how reading uses much older neural structures that recognise contrast and sharp corners.

Honing must now test this exciting hypothesis. And if The Evolving Animal Orchestra is how he responds to disappointment, I can’t wait to see what he makes of success.

The boring beasts that changed the world

Visiting the Museum of Ordinary Animals exhibition for New Scientist, 4 November 2017

SOME animals are so familiar, we barely see them. If we think of them at all, we categorise them according to their role in our lives: as pests or food; as unthinking labourers or toy versions of ourselves. If we looked at them as animals – non-human companions riding with us on our single Earth – what would we make of them? Have we raised loyal subjects, or hapless victims, or monsters?

This is the problem that The Museum of Ordinary Animals sets out to address. This show has been artfully, but still none-too-easily, stuffed into the already famously crammed setting of the Grant Museum, a 19th-century teaching collection packed full of skeletons, mounted animals and specimens preserved in fluid.

The exhibition, a sign announces, “begins in front of you, behind the dugong”. The corridor between cases is narrow. Easing past visitors distracted by a glass case of dolphin heads, I shave past the enormous, grinning skull of a saltwater crocodile. Here, as in our imagination, the ordinary animals tend to get squeezed out by the extraordinary ones.

The exhibition is small, so go around twice. Spend the first time reading. There is an art to visitor information and the show’s curators have nailed it here, citing just the right oddities and asking just the right questions to tip the viewer into a state of uncertain wonder.

This show, about animals that are useful to humanity, also turns out to be a show about how dangerously peculiar humanity is. The world has been shaped by our numbers, our intelligence and our activity. For example, all pet golden hamsters descend from a single female fetched from Syria in 1930. It was in a group meant for the lab until it was won in a bet.

And the settling of Europeans in Australia from 1788 triggered the fastest catastrophic species loss we know of. Our cats did most of the work, invading more than 99.8 per cent of the Australian land mass. Today, feral cats kill tens of millions of native animals in Australia every night.

The world has been shaped by our beliefs, too. In Europe, it was once common to bury people with their companion animals. Christianity saw off that practice in the late 7th century, because the faith denies that animals have souls. Then, around a thousand years ago, Benedictine dietary rules were formulated. At that time, chickens were feral, quarrelsome and didn’t lay anything like as many eggs as they do now. Today, the chicken is a more or less mindless and sedentary protein factory.

Having learned that humanity isn’t so much a species, more a narrow and superbly weaponised ecosystem, the visitor is ready for a second go. Now the exhibits resonate wonderfully: the bones, the pictures, the jars. Is the subject of Cornelis de Visscher’s mid-17th-century engraving The Rat-Catcher, the catcher himself or the rat in his cage? There are mice used in diabetes research, ironed flat at death and mounted on cards like obscene tombstones. Nearby, a mummified cat head possesses extraordinary innate dignity: no wonder the animal was a focus of worship.

Leaving Ordinary Animals and the museum, I found myself standing under an orange sky, courtesy of Hurricane Ophelia, which had recently brought ash and dust from runaway forest fires to smother Europe’s Atlantic seaboard. Under that dead light, humans gawped at a red sun while, across the road from me, a pet dog, brought to heel, yawned, as though to say: who cares about the sky? Master will feed us. Mistress knows best.

But the exhibition had thrown me out of my complacency, and rarely have I felt less easy with the human project.

I know why the caged bird sings, so nuts to you

Prince Hamlet of Denmark is out to revenge his father – at least, that’s the idea. But William Shakespeare has saddled him with a girlfriend, Ophelia, and her father Polonius, an interfering old fool. A Pantalone, in other words: a man (by tradition, but the gender’s immaterial) who is losing his grip on affairs of which he was once the master. With age, the Pantalone’s sphere of action and influence becomes comically reduced. What was once a voice of authority has become a bark of comic impotence.

I’m at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London. Andrew Scott (Moriarty in Steven Moffat’s Sherlock) is playing the prince, but it’s Polonius has me fascinated. The British character actor Peter Wight isn’t playing him for a fool, but as someone suffering from mid-stage Alzheimer’s. His mood swings wildly about, his silences are painful, his recollections pathetic victories snatched against the coming dark.

Wight’s portrayal is meticulous, sincere, and timely. Old age may not be a disease but it’s certainly a genetic condition, and one by one, elements of that condition are succumbing to medical research. This has had the disconcerting effect of curing all the easy diseases in order that we may bankrupt ourselves treating the recalcitrant ones. Rates of terminal cancer have plummeted, only to expose us to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

It looks like we’re all going to live to 100 before we drop dead. This pleases me, because I want to become the character described by the Athenian lawyer Solon 2,600 years ago: “so wise that he no longer wastes time on useless things, and this enables him to formulate his profoundest insights most succinctly.”

The trouble is that only a couple of hundred years after Solon, Aristotle came up with this charming formula: the old, he said, live by memory rather than by hope. Sure they have a lot of experience, but this means they are sure about nothing and under-do everything. They are small-minded because they have been humbled by life. As a result, they are driven too much by the useful and not enough by the noble. They are cynical and distrustful and neither love warmly nor hate bitterly. They are not shy. On the contrary, they’re shameless, feeling only contempt for people’s opinion of them.

Aristotle knew what a pantalone was, and he knew that being a pantalone was nothing to do with disease or infirmity. It was, and is, to do with the passing of time.

By the time I’m a hale and hearty 100, what kind of monster will I have become? Always voting the way I’ve voted; always writing the same kind of novel about the same kind of people using the same kind of dialogue; always dating the same kinds of people and always messing them up in the same sorts of ways; bringing up the same kinds of children and saddling them with the same hang-ups.

Would I want to live for ever? Probably. I just wouldn’t want to remain human forever. I don’t want to be “better than human” or “superhuman” or any of that rubbish (what does that even mean?) What I want is simple and, thanks to the passage of time, quite impossible. I want to be not bored. I want to be not burdened by experience. I want to be unfazed by life.

I realise now that I don’t know nearly enough about how other animals think. I need to read more Sy Montgomery. I need to read Marc Bekoff and John Bradshaw. I need to know what my options are, just in case the triumphant effort to healthify old age tips suddenly towards affording us everlasting life.

My best bet right now is the cockatoo. If you treat a cockatoo properly, it’ll stay a three-year-old child forever – and that’s a long time: cockatoos live into their sixties.

Don’t let me be a pompous ass, a fussy, fond old fool. Don’t make me a gull, a mark, a slippered pantalone. Let me become something else, something less than human if needs be, but better adapted to forever.

Who’s a pretty boy then?

I am