Rodent dilemmas and simian doubts

Paul Raven @ 19-04-2010

These just in from the Animal Psychology Department; first up, rats are surprisingly good at the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma [via BoingBoing]:

It may not be entirely surprising that rats cooperated in the Prisoner’s Dilemma.  After all, animals often cooperate in nature to altruistically serve the group, whether that means hunting in packs to get more meat, or a surrogate mother animal adopting an abandoned baby to boost the pack’s numbers.  Still, there’s no direct evidence that shows rats grasp the concept of direct reciprocity.  Given that the rats in this study changed their strategy based on the game their opponent was playing, and cooperation rates were only high when the rats played against a tit-for-tat opponent, the authors showed, perhaps for the first time, that rats directly reciprocate. But an even more surprising finding was how well the rats played the game.  They plotted and schemed.  They manipulated their opponents by taking calculated strategic risks for the high payout reward. In essence, these rodents challenged our perception of animal intelligence and proved that they, too, can master both the game, and the psychological component of competition.

Furthermore, apes have been discovered to have the capacity to doubt their own decisions [via George Dvorsky].

Josep Call […] put food in one of two opaque plastic pipes and had watching bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans pick the one with the food. If they were made to wait, the apes sometimes forgot where the food was, but by and large they did well on the task.

To test if the apes doubted their own decisions, Call gave them the option to peek into the end of the pipes before they chose one. He found that the apes were more likely to check the pipes if they had to wait before picking one. Call says this suggests that the apes had begun to doubt their memory.

That consensus definition of “human” is starting to look a lot less exclusive than it used to, no?

Eradicate cruelty: “reprogram” predators

Paul Raven @ 24-11-2009

hungry lionI’m sure that almost everyone would rather live in a world that featured less cruelty and pain for living creatures… but what if it were possible to eradicate them completely? Via Accelerating Future comes a provocative essay by one David Pearce, who suggests that not only would it be possible for us to engineer a biosphere without suffering, but that it is our moral duty to do so. Global veganism in the wake of readily available vat-grown meat would be merely the start of the project; next would be the engineered extinction of all obligate predator species. [image by Tambako the Jaguar]

Even the hypothetical world-wide adoption of a cruelty-free diet leaves one immense source of suffering untouched. Here we shall explore one of the thorniest issues: the future of what biologists call obligate predators. For the abolitionist project seems inconsistent with one of our basic contemporary values. The need for species conservation is so axiomatic that an explicitly normative scientific sub-discipline, conservation biology, exists to promote it. In the modern era, the extinction of a species is usually accounted a tragedy, especially if that species is a prominent vertebrate rather than an obscure beetle. Yet if we seriously want a world without suffering, how many existing Darwinian lifeforms can be conserved in their current guise? What should be the ultimate fate of iconic species like the large carnivores? True, only a minority of the Earth’s species are carnivorous predators: the fundamental laws of thermodynamics entail that whenever there is an “exchange of energy” between one trophic level and another, there is a significant loss. The majority of the planet’s 50,000 or so vertebrate species are vegetarian. But among the minority of carnivorous species are some of the best known creatures on the planet. Should these serial killers be permitted to prey on other sentient beings indefinitely?

There’s a whole raft of obvious objections to the idea, of course, but Pearce has covered pretty much all of them with the logic of our obligation to compassionate stewardship of our biosphere. I’m not even close to agreeing with him – frankly, the whole thing seems no less hubristic to me than believing that we have a moral right to impose cruelty by dint of our top-most position on the evolutionary chain, though (as Pearce points out) that’s representative of a fundamental bias toward the biological status quo. But it’s a fascinating and challenging read nonetheless… not to mention a spark for dozens of science fictional story ideas.

Smarter than the new Apple mouse

Paul Raven @ 21-10-2009

ratSteve Jobs and company may have radically re-engineered the mouse, but a team of researchers from the States and China have been busy re-engineering the rat, culminating in the quaintly-named Hobbie-J, a rodent who owes her preternatural smarts to the over-expression of a particular gene associated with brain-cell communication speed. [image by stark23x]

Scientists found that Hobbie-J consistently outperformed the normal Long Evans rat even in more complex situations that require association, such as working their way through a water maze after most of the designated directional cues and the landing point were removed. “It’s like taking Michael Jordan and making him a super Michael Jordan,” Deheng Wang, MCG graduate student and the paper’s first author, says of the large black and white rats already recognized for their superior intellect.

That’s one of the best quotes I’ve read in a science article in ages; it’s like something Don King would say. And if you’re now worrying about hordes of intellectual rodents escaping their cages and taking over the world, relax – Hobbie-J isn’t going to be inventing a death-ray any time soon.

… even a super rat has its limits. For example with one test, the rats had to learn to alternate between right and left paths to get a chocolate reward. Both did well when they only had to wait a minute to repeat the task, after three minutes only Hobbie-J could remember and after five minutes, they both forgot. “We can never turn it into a mathematician. They are rats, after all,” Dr. Tsien says, noting that when it comes to truly complex thinking and memory, the size of the brain really does matter.

More interestingly, though, this sort of meddling is a proof-of-concept. What might similar tweaking achieve in animals whose cognitive ability already approaches that of our own? Perhaps a radical group of animal rights activists might boost the brain-power of some primate tribes in order to justify parity in their treatment under law. In other words, maybe animal uplift isn’t as ridiculous an idea as it might initially appear…

MAQUECH by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Paul Raven @ 01-07-2008

First of the month means fiction time at Futurismic; this month’s offering is “Maquech” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a haunting and darkly beautiful tale of dreams and desperation set in a scarcity-riddled near-future Mexico City.

So get stuck in, and don’t forget to leave Silvia some feedback in the comments at the end!


by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The jewel encrusted beetle walked slowly across the table, dragging its golden chain behind. It was bigger than any other maquech he’d ever seen before and more richly decorated.

Gerardo put down the eyeglass.

“It’s not my usual purchase,” he said.

“It’s rare,” Mario replied. “This is the last one my grandfather made before he passed away.”

“Monkeys are the thing now. Everyone wants a monkey.”

“But it doesn’t need a lot of food or water,” Mario protested. “That’s a benefit.”

“Do you think my clients worry about things like food or water? Listen, I sold five ostriches two months ago. People want large animals now.”

It was a lie. He sold fish and birds and maybe a reptile or two. He could not afford extravagant purchases like ostriches.

“I need the money,” Mario confessed. “I want to go to Canada.”

“What for?”

“I want to see the polar bears before they disappear. Before all the ice melts away.” Continue reading “MAQUECH by Silvia Moreno-Garcia”