As “Neotenous Apes,” Humans Retain Their “Wandering, Exploratory Inner Child”

(p. C4) Cephalopods are having a moment. An octopus stars in a documentary nominated for an Academy Award (“My Octopus Teacher”). Octos, as scuba-diving philosopher Peter Godfrey Smith calls them, also play a leading role in his marvelous new book “Metazoa,” alongside a supporting cast of corals, sponges, sharks and crabs.

. . .

Smart birds and mammals also keep their neurons in one place—their brains. But octos split them up. They have over 500 million neurons altogether, about as many as dogs. But there are as many neurons altogether in their eight arms as in their heads. The arms seem able to act as independent agents, waving and wandering, exploring and sensing the world around them—even reaching out to the occasional diving philosopher or filmmaker. Mr. Godfrey-Smith’s book has a fascinating discussion of how it must feel to have this sort of split consciousness, nine selves all inhabiting the same body.

I think there might be a link between these two strange facts of octopus life. I’ve previously argued that childhood and intelligence are correlated because of what computer scientists call the “explore-exploit” trade-off: It’s very difficult to design a single system that’s curious and imaginative—that is, good at exploring—and at the same time, efficient and effective—or good at exploiting. Childhood gives animals a chance to explore and learn first; then when they grow up, they can exploit what they’ve learned to get things done.

. . .

Human adults are “neotenous apes,” which means we retain more childhood characteristics than our primate relatives do. We keep our brains in our heads, but neuroscience and everyday experience suggest that we too have divided selves. My grown-up, efficient prefrontal cortex keeps my wandering, exploratory inner child in line. Or tries to, anyway.

For the full commentary, see:

Alison Gopnik. “MIND AND MATTER; The Many Minds of the Octopus.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 17, 2021): C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 15, 2021, and has the same title as the print version.)

The book discussed in Gopnik’s commentary is:

Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Metazoa: Animal Life and the Birth of the Mind. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.

An Octopus “Is a Being With Multiple Selves”

(p. 11) What makes this book shimmer and shine is Godfrey-Smith’s exploration of marine life (drawing on his vast and extensive diving knowledge and field experience) to illuminate the ways in which the animal mind works — and the thoughts and experiences that give it shape.

. . .

Godfrey-Smith has an elegant and exacting way of urging along our curiosity by sharing his own questions about animal cognizance and the ability of some animals, like rats and cuttlefish, to “meander, drift off and dream.” But perhaps the most enthralling part of this book is the author’s experiences diving at famous sites now affectionately called Octopolis and Octlantis, just off the coast of eastern Australia where several octopuses live, hunt, fight and make more octopuses.

It’s an experience that demands we consider the very real possibility that an octopus, an animal already regarded as one of the most complex in the animal kingdom, is a being with multiple selves. A breathtaking explanation follows, and it’s one that makes even a cephalopod fan like me swoon over the myriad possibilities for rethinking the mind as a sort of hidden realm for sentience.

Godfrey-Smith declares, “The world is fuller, more replete with experience than many people have countenanced,” . . .

For the full review, see:

Aimee Nezhukumatathil. “Deep Dive.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, December 27, 2020 ): 11.

(Note: ellipses added; italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Nov. 12 [sic], 2020, and has the title “Where Does Our Consciousness Overlap With an Octopus’s?”)

The book under review is:

Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Metazoa: Animal Life and the Birth of the Mind. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020.

Ancient “Cousin” to Homo Erectus Adapted to “a Chaotic Climate Shift”

(p. D4) Around two million years ago, this area in South Africa is believed to have undergone a chaotic climate shift. The regional environment transformed from wetter and more lush conditions to drier and more arid ones. In order for a species like P. robustus to survive in such terrain, it probably would have needed to be able to chew on tough plants. But the specimen found in the cave at Drimolen didn’t seem to fit with what some scientists had previously stated about the human cousin.

They labeled the skull DNH 155 and determined that it belonged to a male.

. . .

In addition to being smaller than male P. robustus who lived at Swartkrans, DNH 155’s cranium indicated its chewing muscles were not as strong as theirs. Mr. Martin said the differences suggest DNH 155 and the other P. robustus found at Drimolen were smaller not because they were all female, but rather because they were earlier forms of the species belonging to a different population that hadn’t yet been subjected to the environmental pressures that would favor larger sizes and stronger jaw muscles.

“It basically hasn’t become this massive chewing and grinding machine that it becomes later,” Mr. Martin said.

The change would have been the result of microevolution, or an evolutionary change occurring within a species. Such a morphological change, the scientists said, was likely the result of P. robustus adapting to that changing climate, with members of the species who were able to get enough nutrition from a change in their food supply surviving, and passing their traits to offspring.

For the full story, see:

Nicholas St. Fleur. “How to Adapt: A Skull’s Story.” The New York Times (Tuesday, November 17, 2020): D4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 9, 2020, and has the title “How a Human Cousin Adapted to a Changing Climate.”)

Resilient Eaten Beetle Persists to the End

(p. D2) It’s a familiar story: Predator hunts prey. Predator catches prey. Predator gulps down prey.

Usually, that’s it. But the water scavenger beetle Regimbartia attenuata says, “Not today.” After getting swallowed by a frog, this plucky little insect can scuttle down the amphibian’s gut and force it to poop — emerging slightly soiled, but very much alive.

For the full story, see:

Katherine J. Wu. “A Beetle Swallowed By a Frog Decides To Do an End Run.” The New York Times (Tuesday, August 11, 2020): D2.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date August 3, 2020, and has the title “There Are Two Ways Out of a Frog. This Beetle Chose the Back Door.”)

The scavenger beetle’s escape is documented in:

Sugiura, Shinji. “Active Escape of Prey from Predator Vent Via the Digestive Tract.” Current Biology 30, no. 15 (2020): 867-68.

Covid-19 More Severe If You Inherited a Neanderthal Gene on Chromosome 3

(p. A6) A stretch of DNA linked to Covid-19 was passed down from Neanderthals 60,000 years ago, according to a new study.

Scientists don’t yet know why this particular segment increases the risk of severe illness from the coronavirus. But the new findings, which were posted online on Friday [July 3, 2020] and have not yet been published in a scientific journal, show how some clues to modern health stem from ancient history.

. . .

Last month, researchers compared people in Italy and Spain who became very sick with Covid-19 to those who had only mild infections. They found two places in the genome associated with a greater risk. One is on Chromosome 9 and includes ABO, a gene that determines blood type. The other is the Neanderthal segment on Chromosome 3.

But these genetic findings are being rapidly updated as more people infected with the coronavirus are studied. Just last week, an international group of scientists called the Covid-19 Host Genetics Initiative released a new set of data downplaying the risk of blood type. “The jury is still out on ABO,” said Mark Daly, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School who is a member of the initiative.

The new data showed an even stronger link between the disease and the Chromosome 3 segment. People who carry two copies of the variant are three times more likely to suffer from severe illness than people who do not.

. . .

(p. A7) Tony Capra, a geneticist at Vanderbilt University who was not involved in the study, thought it was plausible that the Neanderthal chunk of DNA originally provided a benefit — perhaps even against other viruses. “But that was 40,000 years ago, and here we are now,” he said.

It’s possible that an immune response that worked against ancient viruses has ended up overreacting against the new coronavirus. People who develop severe cases of Covid-19 typically do so because their immune systems launch uncontrolled attacks that end up scarring their lungs and causing inflammation.

Dr. Paabo said the DNA segment may account in part for why people of Bangladeshi descent are dying at a high rate of Covid-19 in the United Kingdom.

For the full story, see:

Carl Zimmer. “String of Neanderthal Genes May Increase Risk of Severe Illness.” The New York Times (Monday, July 6, 2020, 2020): A6-A7.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated July 8, 2020, and has the title “DNA Inherited From Neanderthals May Increase Risk of Covid-19.”)

The unpublished paper, mentioned above, is:

Zeberg, Hugo, and Svante Pääbo. “The Major Genetic Risk Factor for Severe Covid-19 Is Inherited from Neandertals.” bioRxiv (posted July 3, 2020).

Early Tool by Extinct Human Ancestors

(p. D2) What’s so special about a 300,000-year-old stick stuck in the muck?

“It’s a stick, sure,” said Jordi Serangeli, an archaeologist from the University of Tübingen in Germany.

. . .

. . . the short, pointed piece of wood his team found in Schöningen, Germany, in 2016 may be the newest addition to the hunting arsenal used by extinct human ancestors during the Middle Pleistocene.

For the full story, see:

Nicholas St. Fleur. “Haywire Immune Reaction Linked to Most Severe Cases.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 28, 2020): D2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 22, 2020, and has the title “A Short, Pointy, 300,000-Year-Old Clue to Our Ancestors’ Hunting Prowess.”)

Fossil of Oldest Air-Breathing Animal Found

(p. A3) In a trove of fossils dug up decades ago in Wisconsin, a team of paleontologists say they have discovered the oldest known prehistoric scorpion species—and clues about how early organisms evolved to venture onto land.

The arachnids, which were well-enough preserved that researchers could study their internal anatomy, wandered the rich shallow waters of its ancient habitat. Yet the species had cardiovascular and respiratory systems like modern scorpions that could breathe air, say researchers who described their findings in a paper published Thursday in Nature Scientific Reports.

. . .

The researchers dated the fossils to the Silurian Age, a period in the Paleozoic Era between 443 million and 416 million years ago when shallow waters and abundant sunlight allowed colorful reefs and other ancient life to make their debut.

. . .

Joanna Wolfe, who works in the organismic and evolutionary biology department at Harvard University, said the Wisconsin quarry is famously home to marine fossils, so they are “definitely not fully terrestrial, but they are older than the oldest truly terrestrial body fossil of a millipede-like [organism] 427 million years ago.”

“It’s plausible to me that indeed there was a more complex pattern of evolution where we’re going from water to land and back to water, and that that could’ve happened more than once,” said Dr. Wolfe, who wasn’t involved in the research.

For the full story, see:

Katie Camero. “Scorpions Among Earth’s First Air Breathers.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, January 17, 2020): A3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Jan. 16, 2020, and has the title “Ancient Scorpion Offers Clues to How Animals Moved From Sea to Land.”)

Entrepreneur Hopes to Turn Jellyfish from Turtle Food into Tourist Attraction

(p. A7) In a rare marine lake on a hatchet-shaped atoll in Indonesia, four species of jellyfish have evolved in isolation and lost their ability to sting humans. There are believed to be millions of these benign jellyfish in Kakaban Lake, which has become a popular spot for tourists intrepid enough to reach the remote archipelago known as the Derawan Islands.

. . .

While the jellyfish continue to thrive on Kakaban, the island has just two human inhabitants, . . .

. . .

About 4,000 people, mostly Muslim, live on nearby Maratua, the largest of the Derawan islands.

. . .

Maratua has at least two marine lakes. One, Haji Buang, once had jellyfish to rival Kakaban Lake. But about five years ago, its owner, Hartono, thought he could make some quick cash by raising more than 30 hawksbill sea turtles in the lake.

Only after he put the turtles in the water did he discover that it would be illegal to sell their shells because the species is critically endangered.

The hawksbills, which feed on jellyfish, have nearly exterminated the lake’s population.

“Now I regret it,” said Mr. Hartono, 62. “There used to be more jellyfish than in Kakaban Lake, but we didn’t realize this could be a tourist area.”

Mr. Hartono said he was contemplating how to catch the turtles so he could return them to the sea — with the hope that the jellyfish population would recover.

For the full story, see:

Richard C. Paddock. “INDONESIA DISPATCH; A Harmless Jellyfish Fears Humanity’s Sting.” The New York Times (Monday, November 4, 2019): A7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the same date as the print version, and has the title “INDONESIA DISPATCH; A Lake With Stingless Jellyfish and Hints of Hotter Seas.”)

Rats, Mice, and Humans Fail to Ignore Sunk Costs

(p. D6) Suppose that, seeking a fun evening out, you pay $175 for a ticket to a new Broadway musical. Seated in the balcony, you quickly realize that the acting is bad, the sets are ugly and no one, you suspect, will go home humming the melodies.
Do you head out the door at the intermission, or stick it out for the duration?
Studies of human decision-making suggest that most people will stay put, even though money spent in the past logically should have no bearing on the choice.
This “sunk cost fallacy,” as economists call it, is one of many ways that humans allow emotions to affect their choices, sometimes to their own detriment. But the tendency to factor past investments into decision-making is apparently not limited to Homo sapiens.
In a study published on Thursday [July 12, 2018] in the journal Science, investigators at the University of Minnesota reported that mice and rats were just as likely as humans to be influenced by sunk costs.
The more time they invested in waiting for a reward — in the case of the rodents, flavored pellets; in the case of the humans, entertaining videos — the less likely they were to quit the pursuit before the delay ended.
“Whatever is going on in the humans is also going on in the nonhuman animals,” said A. David Redish, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Minnesota and an author of the study.
This cross-species consistency, he and others said, suggested that in some decision-making situations, taking account of how much has already been invested might pay off.

For the full story, see:
Erica Goode. “‘Sunk Cost Fallacy’ Claims More Victims.” The New York Times (Tuesday, July 17, 2018): D6
(Note: bracketed date added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date July 12, 2018, and has the title “Mice Don’t Know When to Let It Go, Either.”)

New Tools May Have Allowed Hominins to Leave Africa Far Earlier Than Previously Known

(p. D1) The oldest stone tools outside Africa have been discovered in western China, scientists reported on Wednesday [July 11, 2018]. Made by ancient members of the human lineage, called hominins, the chipped rocks are estimated to be as much as 2.1 million years old.
The find may add a new chapter to the story of hominin evolution, suggesting that some of these species left Africa far earlier than once believed and managed to travel over 8,000 miles east of their evolutionary birthplace.
. . .
(p. D3) The trigger for that migration? Maybe it was figuring out how to make sharp stone tools.
“Suddenly you had a primate that could obtain meat from a carcass, and it opened up a new world for them,” Dr. Dennell said. “That simple technology was enough to get them out of Africa and right across Asia.”

For the full story, see:

Zimmer, Carl. “Ancient Tools Provide New Insight.” The New York Times (Tuesday, July 17, 2018): D1 & D3.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date July 11, 2018, and has the title “Archaeologists in China Discover the Oldest Stone Tools Outside Africa.”)

Government Uses Cruel Painful Snare Traps to Kill Gorgeous Respectful Foxes

(p. A18) BRIGANTINE, N.J. — Red foxes can be found all over New Jersey, wandering out of the woods and poking through garbage at dusk in search of a meal. In many places, they might be overlooked, if not seen as a disease-carrying nuisance. But not in Brigantine, an island community where the fox has become an unofficial ambassador.
Many residents warmly share stories of their encounters, like the fox that would routinely come up to a back door or the time a children’s soccer game had to pause so one could cross the field. A fox makes an appearance on the cover of the city’s tourism guide, as much of an attraction as its golf course and pristine beaches. A real estate company regularly sends its mascot, Briggy the Fox, to community events.
Yet the island is also the seasonal home to piping plovers, a small bird that returns every year to dig its nests on the beach. The bird is an endangered species in New Jersey that state wildlife officials closely watch and fiercely protect, including from foxes, creating a bitter conflict that has caused an uproar as residents protest the trapping and killing of the animals.
Some are challenging the use of snare traps, a contraption that they describe as cruel and painful. The contretemps has also stirred a wider debate: Is it fair to kill one animal for the sake of protecting another?
“It disgusts me,” said Donna Vanzant, who owns a marina. “Why go after these gorgeous animals? Just let nature take its course.”
State lawmakers recently wrote a letter to wildlife officials expressing their “deep concern,” and the City Council passed a resolution condemning the “inhumane and indiscriminate killing of red foxes.” Briggy the Fox attended the meeting and held a sign: “Please stop killing my friends.”
“Everyone on the island cherishes the foxes and does not want them killed,” said Donna Grazioli DeAngelis, a retired teacher who started a petition online, which about 90,000 people have signed. “They have been so respectful, so perfect in every way,” she said of the foxes. “People paint them, photograph them. They haven’t been a nuisance in any way.”
. . .
“It’s an overreach and overreaction,” Philip J. Guenther, Brigantine’s longtime mayor, said of the fox trapping. “It just doesn’t seem to make any sense from a protection standpoint.”

For the full story, see:
Rick Rojas. “To Save One Precious Animal, a Town Must Sacrifice Another.” The New York Times (Monday, May 7, 2018: A18.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 6, 2018, and has the title “Trapping Foxes to Save Plovers Sets Off Showdown at Jersey Shore.” The online version says the print version appeared on May 6 on p. A17 of the New York Edition. My print version, as usual, was the National Edition.)