Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Environmental Limericks

On FutureLearn there is a course
(New South Wales is a source I endorse)
It's environmental
With  humanities (gentle)
Put over with plenty of force.

I  have recently been doing a number of FutureLearn courses, as they encourage me to think outside the box and the current one is on Environmental Humanities, put on by the University of New South Wales. As scientist with little formal training in the humanities I have found the discussion so far interesting- and the comments between the students on the course stimulating.

We are all trapped on a planet where the climate is changing and part of the course involved students suggesting a task area and relating it to the discussions. I though about how, through this blog, I could introduce more environmental posts to alert people of the issues by linking simple poetry to a topic - by resurrecting my limerick posts - although I do not promise one a week, which was the original idea.

Were there significant differences between Neanderthals and us?

Adam Benton, on Evoanth recently posted an interesting article "How similar were Neanderthals and humans?" which looked at the evidence and while there are definite differences it is not clear how significant they are -in deciding why they became extinct and we did not.

I responded:

It might be worth thinking about later encounters – when the Europeans discovered America and Australia. The Europeans came off best because they had the stronger cultural communal knowledge base, which enabled them to build more powerful weapons. It might be a complete accident of history that the discovery of how to make iron happened on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other.

Could we have done better than the Neanderthals because we had a better cultural knowledge base which gave us more advanced technology and allowed us to work together in larger groups, perhaps with some people beginning to take on specialist roles. At the time that language was first appearing the key to having a better cultural knowledge base would be having a more powerful language. Thus it may be that when modern humans first met with Neanderthals we collectively “knew more” – so we came off best – just as Europeans came off better in America and Australia – because they had better technology.

If we look at language as a self-modifying tool there were almost certainly some key “inventions” – such as being able to differentiate between the past, present and future, counting, etc.  Perhaps it was just an accident of history that one of our species, rather than a Neanderthal, made the first key technical advances which allowed language to develop and that Neanderthal brains were just as capable in that respect as our own.

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Dogs have owners - Cats have staff

During some online discussions on the Futurelearn Environmental Humanities: Remaking Nature course the question of domestication of animals came up and the difference between the domestic dog which we have domesticated, and the "parasite" cats which have domesticated us.

Lesley mentioned seeing a T shirt that summarised the position nicely and I have tracked down where it may be purchased.
For sale

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Direct Computer Links with the Brain

Implant in place
Bionic implant in the eye
Brian has drawn my attention to an article DARPA's Neural Interface Will Let Brains And Computers "Communicate" which raises some interesting points  as does the recent BBC news item about bionic implants in the eye and other work using nerve signals to help control artificial limbs.

The problem is that the interfaces are crude and it would seem that they work a bit like braille. For instance the brain interface uses the word "communicate" in quotes and describes the process thus:
Up to 100 implants or “channels,” each connected to tens of thousands of neurons, are able to record and encode information that a computer can recognize as representing specific neurological activity. However, this data is full of “noise,” and is frequently inaccurate.

It would seem that both it and the optical chip have a grid of active spots and leave the brain to interpret them. in the same way that the sense cells in the tips of the fingers can interpret the bumps of the braille and transfer the dot pattern to the brain to interpret them. This is a mechanism which clearly works whether or not you actually understand how the brain codes information internally.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Humans, dogs and intelligence

In my studies into the evolution of human intelligence it is becoming increasingly clear that the main difference between us and other mammals is that we have invented a tool called language which enables parents to teach their children a significant amount of cultural information. Better knowledge means better chances of survival. However in other respects animal brains work in basically the same way and you can expect them to have similar emotions.

Two pieces of recent research have caught my eye relating to dogs. One relates to their domestication and the other to their ability to recognise human emotions

The idea that wolves found scavenging human sites, and some became non-aggressive, to the point of eventual domestication seems even more likely when it is realised that wolves seem to be developing a similar friendly relationship with geleda monkeys.

The fact that we share emotions with dogs and there can be recognised both way across species suggests a kind of symbiotic relationship. Another factor which suggests a similarity between dog and human brains is the extent that dogs can be taught to carry out a range of useful activities. Because they do not have anything like human language wolves are limited in what they can teach their young. But humans have evolved to be very good teachers of human children - and dogs respond when positively taught in the same way.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

What explains the Rise of Humans

Why is language so important when discussing the reasons why humans are different to chimpanzees? This TED talk suggests that the difference is because we can work together in large groups by mutually agreeing fictional stories about the world. I like it and I think you will too.