Animals

I Blame the Parasites

The Economist has an article with a provocative sub-heading: “Religious diversity may be caused by disease.” The article refers to a recent scientific study suggesting that religious groups might form as a way of protecting their followers from exposure to diseases. The Economist summarizes the paper thus:

“[The] hypothesis is that in places where disease is rampant, it behoves groups not to mix with one another more than is strictly necessary, in order to reduce the risk of contagion. [The authors of the study] therefore predict that patterns of behaviour which promote group exclusivity will be stronger in disease-ridden areas. Since religious differences are certainly in that category, they specifically predict that the number of different religions in a place will vary with the disease load. Which is, as they report in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, the case.”

While there are numerous possible criticisms of this study, it could explain in part why I occasionally feel an urge to wash my hands after talking to a Southern Baptist. And as intuitively far-fetched as it sounds to propose that the development of religions might have been driven by parasites, ever since I read about Toxoplasma gondii on science writer Carl Zimmer’s blog, The Loom, I can’t put anything past parasites. (Seriously, if you’ve never heard of Toxoplasma gondii, click on that link and read. It might change the way you look at the world.)

(Via The Rough Guide to Evolution.)

Animals
Culture
Religion
Science

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Think Like an Animal

I’ve always found the problems raised by anthropomorphism interesting. When a dog looks at us with a seemingly quizzical expression, are we actually reading the dog’s true state of mind or are we “projecting” our own understanding of human expressions onto the dog? My own unscientific guess is that it’s probably a bit of both. We tend to think of dogs, especially, as such a part of our families that we’re shocked on the occasions they behave like the wolf-cousins they are and snap at strangers. (As Chris Rock said about the tiger that attacked Roy Horn of Siegfried and Roy, “That tiger didn’t go crazy! That tiger went tiger!”)

Nevertheless, the fact that we share, basically, a similar physiological structure with other chordates (four limbs, a dorsal nerve chord, bilateral symmetry, etc.) has always suggested to me that we have a pretty good chance of “reading” animals emotions accurately in many situations. Their brains, though not identical to ours, must work similarly to ours at least some of the time, because their bodies do.

Fortunately for me, there are people who have actually begun to study how animals’ brains work in a more rigorous fashion than me musing on whether my friend’s dog is smiling at me. National Geographic has an article online about some of these scientists’ work. It’s accompanied by a set of animal portraits that bring up the anthropomorphism question beautifully. Can we really read the expressions of these animals, or are we deceiving ourselves?

The portrait of “JB,” a Giant Pacific Octopus, is especially strange and beautiful, and perhaps the most prone to my anthropomorphizing instinct, as it’s so different from us it seems a much greater leap to imagine that we can know what it’s feeling. But maybe it’s not so different after all. It turns out, according to this article on ScientificBlogging, that octopi are among the most intelligent of the invertebrates, but their relatively large brains are structured more simply and have fewer nerve cells than ours, so they are perfect for studying how brains, even our brains, memorize and learn things.

Animals
Philosophy
Science

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Cartes Postales

If you like old French postcards (not to be confused with old “French letters”—if that’s your thing you’ve got the wrong Web site), you will enjoy this site. The googly-eyed animal postcards are especially bizarre and amusing. It’s a French site, so naturally some of the postcards are smutty. Those of delicate sensibility beware.Pantouflard 

Animals
Culture
Design

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Cat’s Eye View

If you’ve ever wondered what your cat, or other people’s cats, do while you’re not around, wonder no more. A German engineer, Juergen Perthold, modified a small digital camera to take pictures at timed intervals and then attached it to his cat’s collar. The result, a pictorial diary of Mr. Lee’s adventures—sitting under cars, staring down other cats, and provoking a snake—can be seen here.

Animals
Technology

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Great Moments in Marketing

A German zoo used a trompe l’oeil dog costume to attract people to the zoo as part of its menacing “Come to the Zoo before the Zoo comes to you” campaign. Scroll down for the pictures.

Advertising
Animals
Comedy

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