Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Blind to signals, blind to minds

How does signal selection work?  Any ability we have to determine the actual capabilities of others will be used for that end.  And any means we have for manipulating the behavior of others will tend to be used for that end, if possible.  In humans, our sensory abilities limit the kinds of information we can collect about other humans and animals, and therefore our ability to learn about them and predict their behavior is limited to what our senses tell us.  However, many other animals are not so restricted in what they can learn about other organisms; they have other avenues for reading each other's minds as well as manipulating each other's behavior.  I thought about these other sensory abilities after watching “The Cove” the other day. 

Dogs live in a world filled with scents.  Their noses are so sensitive that they can smell the change in body odor associated with the growth of cancer cells.  Of course, dogs do use chemical signals to manipulate the behavior of other dogs and determine their intentions, we just don't yet know the extent of their use of this signalling ability.  Another interesting example is that of dolphins.  Their sonar abilities are more advanced than anything man has yet created.  They are capable of seeing through a person and revealing details of internal structures such as the heart and skeletal system.  Could it be that dolphins use this information to learn about animals and other dolphins too?  And if they can use the information, could certain features of it be subject to signal selection?  I say yes.  I know of no features in the natural living world that are beyond the reach of signal selection.  Perhaps female dolphins can determine which males have strong healthy hearts or other organs and preferentially mate with these males over others.  Or perhaps status in pods of whales is partially determined by skeletal features.  We just don't know.  Of course, it would be easier for dolphins to determine another's health through more obvious behavioral means.  But I hope the point I am making is clear.  Whereas chemical signalling in dogs and other animals is better studied, the use of sonar information and signalling is poorly understood.  When we understand what kind of signals animals can sense in the world around them, and how they send and receive these signals, our view into the minds of other animals like dogs and dolphins will be clearer, assuming we have not degraded the environment to such a point that the minds of cetaceans would no longer be available to study.  In the event this happens, our children, biological or artificial, will condemn us for consuming our evolutionary cousins.  Hopefully we will be spared the same treatment.


  1. And some animals make very different uses of the same kind of sensory apparatuses we have. Jerry Coyne had a fascinating post on how the reflective chromatic patterns on a certain insect's wings may be something they use to distinguish each other and tell how healthy or attractive another individual of their species is.

    I think the part about how we should be careful to not cause wholesale extinction of cetaceans is important, but realistically I have little doubt that there is anything we can do as individuals to stop our children, just a few generations from now, from condemning us for a great many things.

    Will there be some other presumably intelligent lifeform that might put humans in danger of going extinct through their own destructive or carnivory habits? Possibly. And here again, I doubt humans would be spared if such a lifeform does exist or does evolve, especially if we were seen as primitive lifeforms and/or an exotic snack.

  2. I remember that post about sexual selection in wasp and fly wing patterns. I downloaded the paper it was about (though haven't read it, yet). The pictures are beautiful.

    Okay, now I have to highlight some of the other recently cool posts at WEIT.

    A few days ago there was another great post on WEIT. Coyne wrote: “Crows are the only animals known to make tools from stuff they haven’t previously encountered in nature... Why are these crows the most adept tool-makers of all animals besides humans—and that includes other primates?”
    Doesn't this really put things into perspective regarding the abilities of animals other than humans? Blind to minds...

    Almost a week ago I read a post on WEIT that reminded me of the "progressive" faith that I left (and for many of the same reasons Coyne identified).
    It sounded almost like several of these Methodists had a deistic faith similar to Thomas Paine (and many of the authors of the Constitution).

    Back to the rest of your comment:

    I have little doubt that there is anything we can do as individuals to stop our children, just a few generations from now, from condemning us for a great many things.

    If there is anything we can do, it is individuals who will do it. This is almost certain. It is the exception, not the rule, that governments are ever the advocates of, or motive force behind, positive change and socially responsible and environmentally ethical policy change. In China, the government censors everything, including personal blogs, those that are too critical of government are "harmonized". In Japan, it is very difficult to get a copy of "The Cove", which, if taken seriously by the people, presents a danger to the huge fishing industry. Change in any country comes from the individuals of the population. The change we need more than anything is a change of focus from what is best for today, to what is best 50 years from now. You are right, we will be condemned, but it is we who should be paying the price for our actions, not them. So let's ante up and start paying now!

    I'm glad you got the analogy I was making at the end. If we destroy them, what is to stop another from destroying us? We would have no ethical defense to make, being guilty of the same crime ourselves. But, and this is my belief, organisms as presumably intelligent as we are, we should strive to act in a more responsible way and find a balance point with the rest of the world that focuses on increasing the natural wealth and diversity of nature (humans included) rather than continuing its wanton destruction in the interest of short term gains.

  3. It sounded almost like several of these Methodists had a deistic faith similar to Thomas Paine (and many of the authors of the Constitution).

    Yes. I missed that post of his and went back and read it with great amusement. The "Methodists" in the comments really didn't sound all that Christian to me. In fact, they sounded like me after I moved on from Christianity.

    I concede about the individuals thing. That was rather stupid of me to say. What I meant was that I doubt our current society can be deterred from its current path of aggression toward cetaceans and all the rest of the destruction we are causing to other species and ourselves and future life on this planet no matter what a few of us do, so it is almost inevitable that we will be condemned in more enlightened times in the future.

    I've recently attained a rather dark impression of the current Japanese government now that I see how they treat their LGBT people, which is to say that they ignore them, mock them, and little else. The governor of Tokyo just took some time out of his busy schedule to publicly disparage gays there. No wonder there is almost no gay pride left in Tokyo. And it is sad in comparison to Japanese Americans who have historically been leaders in the LGBT rights movement in the USA.

    I guess the current local and national Japanese governments are pretty much super conservative, and unfortunately they are likely to remain that way because of the faltering economy there (well, it's faltering everywhere right now). And conservatives generally don't care at all about non-humans and non-straights. It doesn't help that Obama tacitly approves of their whale hunting.

  4. I wonder if conservatives care about anything at all! PZ is right - the slogan by which most politicians live by could well be Eat the Future. We don't have to worry about others consuming us, we are doing it fine all on our own.

    I'd like to draw attention to Loren Eiseley's essay The Star Thrower which addresses the ability of the individual to make a difference in the face of overwhelming resistance. It is worth a quick look, I'm sure you've heard it retold before.

  5. I've been meaning to post this link: www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/02/seti-dolphins/

    Denise Herzing is studying the ability of dolphins to use language and discovering what might be a form of dolphin social etiquette.

    As for The Star Thrower, I don't remember hearing the tale before and the Wikipedia excerpt is too small to trigger any memories in me that might be related to it. I'll probably have to read the full thing.

  6. I just came across this blog post at the ethical werewolf with a link to another dolphin-positive article: Dolphins Are Smart!