Biodiversity May Increase If We “Let the Winners Go on Winning”

(p. C7) In 2004 Mr. Thomas, a biologist at the University of York, garnered headlines with a study predicting that at least a fifth of land animals and plants would be “committed to extinction” by 2050. In “Inheritors of the Earth,” Mr. Thomas does not disavow those findings. A mass extinction is in full swing, he concedes. But the “gloom-merchants” are ignoring the success stories, Mr. Thomas argues, of animals and plants that are thriving in the Anthropocene. Nature, in many respects, “is coping surprisingly well,” he writes, and we shouldn’t ignore “the gain side of the great biological equation of life.”
In some corners of the planet, warmer, wetter conditions have allowed a greater variety of species to survive than would have just decades ago, he points out, while modern transport keeps new immigrants rolling in. The result is a greater number of species in many regions–more local biodiversity–even if the global picture may be trending toward less.
Many species that contribute to diverse and functioning ecosystems aren’t native–they did not evolve where they now occur. And introduced species can jump-start evolutionary processes. They compete with established species, prey on them, or breed with them, and they can occupy ecological niches once occupied by organisms that have died out or are faring poorly.
Mr. Thomas describes a honeysuckle in Pennsylvania that’s a hybrid of species from several remote continents, and yet delicious to local flies, which began to interbreed out of a shared love of its berries; there’s a deer with Japanese genes that’s doing just fine in Scotland’s woods. We should be cheering on these victors, he says, but instead many have been subjected to dubious campaigns to eradicate them.
Conservation usually aims to help the most imperiled species, and favors those with a longer claim to the habitats they occupy. But rather than “always try to defend the losers,” Mr. Thomas proposes, what if we embraced the dynamism of evolution and let the winners go on winning?

For the full review, see:
Jennie Erin Smith. “Picking Sides in the Fight for Survival.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Sept. 23, 2017): C7.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Sept. 22, 2017.)

The book under review, is:
Thomas, Chris D. Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction. New York: PublicAffairs, 2017.

“Insects Can Solve Problems, They Can Learn”

(p. D6) Never underestimate the power of the bee brain.
In the latest triumph for one of humanity’s favorite insects, bumblebees learned how to push a ball to the center of a platform for a sugary treat.
That may not make them a threat on the chess board, but soccer or even Skee-Ball might be within their intellectual grasp — if it were scaled down in size, of course.
The new research finding is one more reason that scientists who study insects, of all sorts, would like to point out that just because a brain is small, doesn’t mean it is simple.
Clint Perry, one of the bumblebee trainers at Queen Mary University of London, and a confirmed small brain partisan, said, “I’ve actually been asked if bees have brains.”
In fact, a number of recent experiments have shown that “insects can solve problems, they can learn,” he said. And scientists have yet to define the limits of insects’ mental abilities.
. . .
The task of pushing a little ball to the center of a platform was completely arbitrary. Bees don’t do anything like this in nature, where they seek out flowers for nectar and pollen. So it was a brand new behavior demanding some kind of general ability to learn.
The way the bees learned was important, too. They were pre-trained to expect a treat in the center of a platform. But having to push a ball to the center to get the treat was something they hadn’t seen.
Then the researchers tried several ways of teaching the bees what to do. The bees learned best by watching a fellow bee perform the feat. After that kind of observation, 10 of 10 bees solved the problem on the first try. On later tries, they continued to improve, taking less time.

For the full story, see:
Gorman, James. “SCIENCETAKE; The Power of the Bumblebee Brain.” The New York Times (Weds., FEB. 28, 2017): D6.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date FEB. 23 [sic], 2017, and has the title “SCIENCETAKE; Bumblebees Demonstrate the Power of Insect Brains.”)

“Basic Fairness Is Probably Written into Our Genetic Code”

(p. C2) Basic fairness is probably written into our genetic code. Human societies depend on the expectation of reciprocity: We assume that a neighbor will collect our mail if we’ve mowed their lawn, or that drivers will take turns braking at stop signs.
Fundamental as this trait might seem, however, its evolutionary origins are hazy. Previous research has shown that chimpanzees–one of our closest relatives–are less motivated by fairness than by what they immediately stand to gain from a transaction.
A new study shows that chimps can go beyond such reflexive selfishness and cooperate, even if it costs them something. But they don’t just give up what’s theirs, even to their kin. They are particular about when they will share some of their food, according to research led by University of Vienna biologist Martin Schmelz and just published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Like many of us, the team found, chimps keep score: They’re most likely to allot treats to a partner if that chimp helped them first.

For the full commentary, see:
SUSAN PINKER. “MIND AND MATTER: What Chimps Understand About Reciprocity.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., July 22, 2017): C2.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 21, 2017.)

The full academic article that is summarized above, is:
Schmelz, Martin, Sebastian Grueneisen, Alihan Kabalak, Jürgen Jost, and Michael Tomasello. “Chimpanzees Return Favors at a Personal Cost.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114, no. 28 (July 11, 2017): 7462-67.

Human Species Is Highly Adaptable to Climate Variation

(p. A15) In “Evolution’s Bite,” paleoanthropologist Peter S. Ungar follows the stories encapsulated in our enamel-coated anatomy.
Mr. Ungar’s story isn’t so much about teeth themselves as about the sweeping tale of human evolution as seen through the mouth.
. . .
Unpredictability in climate and resources, Mr. Ungar emphasizes, has made us a species adapted to variation. Drawing from the work of researchers like Elisabeth Vrba and Rick Potts, he underscores how environmental shifts influence our evolution just as they have for other animals. The invention of culture did not somehow free us from nature. Our existence and continuing evolution are still influenced by shifts in climate and their effects. Humans didn’t become locked into just one narrow mode of life but rather became a flexible species as comfortable above the Arctic Circle as on the equator. “Climate change,” he writes, “drove human evolution, in large part by swapping out food options available on the biospheric buffet.”
This new story–that humans became adapted to the variability of the world rather than any one set of conditions–hasn’t had time to become pop-culture canon just yet. Images of Man the Hunter stepping out onto the savanna in search of big game still dominate. “The story used to be simpler,” Mr. Ungar writes, when it seemed that “the spreading savanna coaxed our ancestors down from the trees, and the challenges it brought made them human.” All the same, the mounting swell of research doesn’t show a slow and steady transition from a chilly Ice Age world to the warmer one we know today. Instead, Mr. Ungar points out, temperatures dipped and spiked in a haphazard pattern prior to our influence on the climate, having an overall trajectory that we can detect now but that probably would have seemed simply chaotic to the people and creatures living through it.

For the full review, see:
Brian Switek. “BOOKSHELF; Chewing Over History.” The Wall Street Journal (Weds., May 31, 2017): A15.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 30, 2017, and the title “BOOKSHELF; Chewing Over Humanity’s History.”)

The book under review, is:
Ungar, Peter S. Evolution’s Bite: A Story of Teeth, Diet, and Human Origins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017.

“Unfettered Science, If We Have the Courage to Let It Unfold”

(p. 26) “How to Tame a Fox” sets out to answer a simple-seeming question: What makes a dog a dog? Put another way, how did an animal that started out as a bloodthirsty predator become one that now wants nothing more than a nice belly rub and the chance to gaze adoringly at a member of another species? In the late 1950s, a Russian scientist named Dmitri Belyaev decided to address this puzzle by taking the unheard-of tack of replicating the domestication process in real time. He and his colleagues took silver foxes, widely bred in vast Siberian farms for their luxurious pelts, and made them into friendly house pets. It was a deceptively simple process: Take the puppies from only the friendliest foxes, breed them and repeat. Lyudmila Trut, the current lead researcher of the silver fox experiment, who began work as Belyaev’s intern, along with Lee Alan Dugatkin, an American scientist and writer at the University of Louisville, documents their monumental effort in this sparkling new book.
Belyaev died in 1985, but the experiment is still ongoing, with 56 generations of foxes bred to date — a far cry from the snarling creatures that used to snap at the hands of their caretakers when the research began. The new foxes run toward people, jump on the bed and nuzzle one another as well as their human caretakers. Such a behavioral transformation was to some degree expected, since they were bred from the tamest members of their groups. Perhaps more intriguing, they also look more doglike, with floppy ears, wagging tails and piebald fur.
. . .
The book, . . . , is not only about dogs, or foxes, or even science under siege from political interests. . . . It may serve — particularly now — as a parable of the lessons that can emerge from unfettered science, if we have the courage to let it unfold.

For the full review, see:
MARLENE ZUK. “Fox and Friends.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., MAY 7, 2017): 26.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date MAY 5, 2017, and has the title “How Do You Make a Fox Your Friend? Fast-Forward Evolution.”)

The book under review, is:
Dugatkin, Lee Alan, and Lyudmila Trut. How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog): Visionary Scientists and a Siberian Tale of Jump-Started Evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

The Octopus, Though Intelligent, Only Lives for Two Years

(p. C5) Around 600 million years ago there lived in the sea a small unprepossessing worm, virtually eyeless and brainless. For some reason this species split into two, thus seeding the vast zoological groupings of the vertebrates and the invertebrates. On one branch sit the mammals; on the other sit the molluscs (and many others). Among these two groups, two notable creatures eye each other warily: the human and the octopus. They have no common ancestor apart from that lowly worm, yet there is a strange affinity, a bond almost. For they are both evolutionary experiments in intelligence–pockets of genius in a vast ocean (sorry!) of biological mediocrity.
In “Other Minds,” Peter Godfrey-Smith, a philosopher at CUNY and an avid scuba diver, has given us a smoothly written and captivating account of the octopus and its brethren, as observed by humans. He celebrates the cephalopods: the octopus, the squid and the cuttlefish. He stresses their dissimilarity to us and other mammals, but he also wants us to appreciate what we have in common. Just as eyes have evolved independently in many lineages, so have intelligent minds. From those mindless worms, via two separate evolutionary paths, to the glories of consciousness and curiosity–we are brothers in big brains.
. . .
(p. C6) Mr. Godfrey-Smith mixes the scientific with the personal, giving us lively descriptions of his dives to “Octopolis,” a site off the east coast of Australia at which octopuses gather. There they make their dens in piles of scallop shells. He also reproduces some excellent photographs of the octopuses and other cephalopods he has observed in his submerged city. It is with a jolt, then, that he announces the average life span of the cephalopod: one to two years. That’s it: That marvelous complex body, the large brain, lively mind and amazing Technicolor skin–all over so quickly. There are boring little fish that live for 200 years, and the closely related nautilus can live for 20 years, but the octopus has only a year or two to enjoy its uniqueness. Mr. Godfrey-Smith speculates that the brevity results from a lifestyle that forces the animal to reach reproductive age as soon as possible, given the problem of predators such as whales or large fish.
Whatever the biological reason for such a brief life, it is a melancholy fact.
. . .
What is it like to be an octopus? It’s not easy to say, but I speculate soft, malleable, brimming with sensation, vivid, expressive, exciting, complicated, tragic and determined. They make good, if brief, use of their portion of consciousness. They must live by the evolutionary laws that have created them, but there is an inner being that makes the best of its lot. Though it’s easy to think of octopuses as alien, a better view is that they are our cousins in biological destiny–spirits in a material world.

For the full review, see:
COLIN MCGINN. “Experiments in Intelligence.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 3, 2016): C5-C6.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 4 [sic], 2016, and has the title “Our Noble Cousin: The Octopus.”)

The book under review, is:
Godfrey-Smith, Peter. Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.

Rat Ticklers Find Ticklishness Has Deep Evolutionary Roots

(p. A12) As Michael Brecht and Shimpei Ishiyama of the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin point out in their report, tickling raises many questions. We don’t know why it evolved, what purpose it might serve and why only certain body parts are ticklish. And what about that disappointing and confounding truth that all children and scientists must grapple with: You can’t tickle yourself.
The researchers were also inspired by earlier studies. ” ‘Laughing’ Rats and the Evolutionary Antecedents of Human Joy?” published in 2003 in Physiology & Behavior, reported that rats would emit ultrasonic calls when tickled. Ultrasound is too high for humans to pick up.
. . .
The scientists found that tickling and play, which involved chasing a researcher’s hand, both caused the same ultrasonic calls and the same brain cells to be active. The scientists also stimulated those cells electrically, without any tickling or play, and got the same calls.
And they found that you can’t tickle rats when they are not in a good mood, something that is also true of people.
. . .
And the similarity of tickling in rats and humans is, Dr. Brecht said, “amazing.” They even have similar areas that are susceptible for unknown reasons, including the soles of their hind feet, but not of their forepaws.
That similarity suggests that tickling is evolutionarily very ancient, going back to the roots of touch as a way to form social bonds in the ancestors of rats and humans.
“Maybe,” Dr. Brecht speculated, “ticklishness is a trick of the brain to make animals or humans play or interact in a fun way.”

For the full story, see:

JAMES GORMAN. “When Tickled, Rats Giggle and Leap, Researchers Find.” The New York Times (Fri., NOV. 11, 2016): A12.

(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date NOV. 10, 2016, and has the title “Oh, for the Joy of a Tickled Rat.”)

Ishiyama and Becht’s recent report, discussed above, is:
Ishiyama, S., and M. Brecht. “Neural Correlates of Ticklishness in the Rat Somatosensory Cortex.” Science 354, no. 6313 (Nov. 11, 2016): 757-60.

The earlier paper mentioned above, is:
Panksepp, Jaak, and Jeff Burgdorf. “”Laughing” Rats and the Evolutionary Antecedents of Human Joy?” Physiology & Behavior 79, no. 3 (Aug. 2003): 533-47.

Another paper in this line of research, is:
Rygula, Rafal, Helena Pluta, and Piotr Popik. “Laughing Rats Are Optimistic.” PLoS ONE 7, no. 12 (Dec. 2012): 1-6.