Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Human?

I was actually working on a post on a much more pleasant topic, but I came across something today in the bowels of the Internet that I didn’t want to let go without comment.

In brief, it was a group of people who gather under the Internet’s cloak of anonymity to share in a hatred for wolves and coyotes that borders on the sociopathic (that’s a description, not a diagnosis, by the way; but if the shoe fits…).

From what I could gather from their writings, these individuals are operating under the assumption that wolves and other wild canids have nothing better to do—indeed, like nothing better—than to go around killing innocent, Disney-esque woodland creatures in as slow and horrific a manner as their wily, sadistic brains can concoct. These four-footed menaces also, it is conveyed, have a particular interest in demolishing the local livestock population. Because, you know, wolves sit up nights ruminating on how they might more fully ruin the livelihoods of nearby ranchers—their ancient, bespoke nemesis.

And so, in righteous retribution, the folks in this group support an all-out war of vengeance upon canid kind, meting out death in as slow and painful a way as they possibly can, as “punishment” for the perceived sins of wolves and their evolutionary cousins. This includes, amongst other things, encouraging hunters to go for the “gut shot, every time!” — the idea being to deliberately deliver a slow and painful death. As near as I can tell, the rationale is that these animals cause slow and painful deaths to their prey, so it is therefore the death they “deserve” in return.

One particularly illuminating image, which I’ve declined to share here, depicts a coyote with its entrails hanging out that was then strangled to death. The image carries the caption, “Anything after a gut shot is mercy.”

On my more ornery and borderline-misanthropic days, I tend to think that committing acts of sadism against members of any species should be considered a form of diagnosable sociopathy. But, my feelings on that subject (and research on the links between animal cruelty and violence) aside, what I find most interesting about this sort of thing is how neatly it reflects, in a real-world scenario, something I studied in a research setting a few years ago.

In the days before becoming a science journalist, my psychology master’s thesis was on people’s perceptions of the mental lives of animals—that is, what sort of emotional and intellectual “stuff” people believe animals have going on in their heads—and how those perceptions change when the person sees the animal in question as threatening.

There were a number of things that came out of that research that I found interesting; but the one that stuck with me the most was what I’m going to call the “Big Bad Wolf” phenomenon: People who villainize predators don’t tend to think of them as mindless forces of nature, red in tooth and claw; instead, they ascribe to those animals very complex, human-like emotions—but all of them bad.

The Big Bad Wolf, you see, doesn’t feel positive complex emotions like love, or joy, or embarrassment; but what it does feel is hatred, anger, spite, and sadism. To the wolf-hater, these predators aren’t “just doing what comes naturally.” They are fundamentally vicious and cruel creatures—making it a moral decision to respond to them with viciousness and cruelty in kind.

This was the least graphic image I could find on the website that instigated this response. The caption there read, “There used to be a time when trapping a wolf made you a hero.”

When fighting the Big Bad Wolf—not a creature obeying millions of years of evolution, not a force of nature, but a willfully malicious and malevolent being, an embodiment of ancient and inhuman horror—the “right” course of action is to fight back. To punish. And to kill.

Men at Labor

I promise a serious new entry is forthcoming, but this was just too fabulous not to share—

Simulated Labor. For Men.

Above and Beyond

In a video released today, Colonel Chris Hadfield gives his own rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.”

Hopefully you don’t need me to tell you that there’s some pretty terrible stuff going on in our world right now. It’s probably been that way for the whole of human history—and yeah, I’m not optimistic that the bad stuff will ever completely go away. Even if we did, as a species, stop doing godsawful things to each other and to the other creatures that share our little blue marble with us, I doubt we could ever totally do away with those “slings and arrows” the Bard wrote about. The Buddhists say that life—that crazy trip of birth, growth, old age, and death that all of us are on right now—is inherently filled with suffering. While, so far as I know, nobody’s made a scientific study of that hypothesis, anecdotal evidence thus far seems to suggest they’re right. You can’t not experience pain and suffering, and live on this planet. Or any planet, I imagine.

But despite all of that, Col. Hadfield’s video is a powerful reminder that we as a species are so much more than the petty, mean, self-centered, short-sighted, insecure crap we do to ourselves and to each other. We are creatures of curiosity and wonder, driven to some of our greatest moments by the unbridled desire to know; we seek—and find—awe and beauty in the cosmos, and are driven to share our experiences so that others can be moved by them, too; we are, at heart, child-like and rather silly creatures, finding delight in bits of silliness in the midst of the Serious Business of our lives. We are, in our best moments, creatures at play with each other, and with this mad impossible universe in which we find ourselves. We are so much more than the worst of ourselves; we are immeasurably above and beyond the pettiness of I-me-mine and us-versus-them that plagues our lesser moments. And a guitar floating in zero-G, while the Earth wheels around far below, can be enough to remind us of that–of our smallness, and our bigness.

And that’s kind of magnificent.

Col. Hadfield handed over command of the International Space Station yesterday, prior to his scheduled return to his home planet late this evening in Kazakhstan. Here’s wishing him a safe journey back to Earth, with thanks for sharing his adventures with the rest of us back here.

P.S.: Scientific American has put together a Top Ten list of videos Hadfield filmed while on the ISS that I highly recommend perusing.

Change We Can Believe In

So, by now you’ve probably heard that we’ve recently crossed a dubious milestone: Earth’s carbon dioxide level has reached 400ppm. That’s the highest it’s been since we started taking measurements—and, as far as we can tell, the last time it was that high, there weren’t any people around to talk about it.

Well, okay, that’s not entirely true. There were people, but they looked more like this:

Image of female Australopithecus

(San Diego Museum of Man)

As you might have grasped from the NatGeo article, this is…kind of a big deal. Right about this point, the folks who’ve been sounding the alarm on climate change for years might be about ready to tear their hair out. Why aren’t we doing more about it? Why aren’t we doing absolutely everything in our power to try to reverse the damage we humans are doing to the climate?

The short answer—the easy answer—is that there are too many climate-change deniers. And while that’s definitely true, there’s a bigger ideological issue here.

As you may have heard, we have a bit of a problem here in the U.S. involving the intersection of science and religion. These two have some trouble getting along, sometimes. For reasons that I’ll leave to the religion scholars, our country has become a stronghold for a particularly virulent strain of fingers-in-ears, head-in-sand Biblical literalism that is so anti-science it’s frankly terrifying. You may be familiar with the anti-evolution, Young Earth Creationist nonsense that gets spouted by these folks, but there’s another branch of Christian thought that isn’t anti-science so much as anti-Earth.

At a recent evangelical Christian conference, Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll is reported to have said during a talk, “I know who made the environment. He’s coming back and he’s going to burn it all up. So yes, I drive an SUV.” (You can see liberal Christian publication Sojourner‘s theologically alarmed response here).

Driscoll also made some comments linking SUVs and his concept of masculinity that I’ll leave to his psychoanalyst to unpack—but, for now, back to the topic at hand. Driscoll’s comment, referring to the “End Times” of Biblical prophecy, basically conveys that he sees no point in exerting any effort to protect the environment because it’s all going to end in a fiery cataclysm, anyway.

Just like the good Lord intended.

There is a strain of Christian belief that views the world as fundamentally flawed, “fallen” along with our mythical garden-going progenitors who succumbed to the temptations of forbidden fruit. From within this mindset, the world is inherently corrupt, and slotted for destruction. It’s not worth saving. Which might be why believers in the End Times are less likely to believe we should take action to avert climate change.

Especially if you don’t believe the end is far off. I mean, all those climate-disaster-scenario weather-pornos films that Hollywood’s cranked out over the years make it look like climate change would kind of suck. But if you’re planning on getting Raptured out of here before ravening wolves take to eating people in Central Park (or whatever happened in that one movie), then what do you care what happens to this planet before it collapses into an unholy hot mess?

Do you remember way back a year ago, when folks were freaking out over the purported end of the Mayan calendar, and a Reuters poll found that 22% of Americans think the world will end in our lifetime? At least 1 in 5 people in this country believes the material universe is currently circling the drain, and that we—as in, the people alive right now—will personally witness its final lap around the cosmic toilet bowl.

When you look at it from their perspective, what’s a few miles per gallon in the not-so-long run?

But this worldview doesn’t just make people indifferent to environmentalism; it is, by logical extension, fundamentally anti-environment.

Christians of this stripe are in the world, not of it. This wicked world belongs to the unwashed masses of unsaved souls who are doomed along with it, and to expend any effort trying to preserve what God has earmarked for righteous destruction is an exercise in both futility and borderline-heretical arrogance. From the perspective of someone who adheres to this belief system, it might even be a sign of one’s faith to actively oppose any perceived pro-environmental causes.

For example: In a recent study, researchers found that self-identified conservatives were significantly less likely to buy an energy-efficient lightbulb if its packaging included a pro-environmental sticker than if it didn’t. Pitching it as something that would save them money on their electricity bill was fine; but as soon as you said the Evil E Word, conservatives checked out.

“He who is not with me is against me,” as they say.

Existential Crisis: Apparently, There’s a Pill For That

Greetings, intrepid readers! It’s been a long, long time, hasn’t it? I took a break from blogging for a while (okay, more than year, but who’s counting?) to do stuff like go to grad school, do an internship, save the world… Y’know, the usual. But now I’m back, living in the Really Real World, and attempting to make a living as a no-kidding science writer.

So, on that note, let’s get to it.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have found the mental anguish of existential dread can be eased with acetaminophen (or paracetamol, for folks in other parts of the world)—commonly sold as Tylenol here in the U.S.

Previous research has already shown that acetaminophen can treat pain even when it isn’t physical—like the social pain of being treated badly by others. So, Daniel Randles and his colleagues decided to see if Tylenol can deaden the ache of a head-on collision with one’s own mortality. And it looks like it can.

In the current study, participants in the experimental condition were given either Tylenol or a placebo, and then asked to write about what would happen to their bodies after they were dead (while controls wrote about dental pain, an annoying but significantly less distressing topic for most).

Earlier work has found that, when people are forced to contemplate their own imminent demise, one of the things they often do in response is more strongly assert their values—by, for example, punishing wrong-doers more harshly. So, Randles and company used this as a proxy measure of participants’ existential angst, having them set the bail amount for a (fictional) jailed prostitute.

Those participants who’d written about toothaches were much kinder to the wayward lady of the night than were those who’d just finished meditating on being worm-food. But the worm-food contingent were kinder if they’d been dosed with Tylenol than if they’d only taken a sugar pill—suggesting the common painkiller can ease the burden of contemplating our own mortality.

In a second study, the researchers showed participants a David Lynch film and then asked them to pass judgment on a group of rioters at a hockey game. Those who’d been given Tylenol were much more lenient to the hockey hooligans, in line with the results from the first study—and, more importantly, confirming what years of anecdotal evidence had already suggested:

David Lynch films give people existential crises.

So, the next time you’re contemplating your own brief turn on the universal stage, wrestling with a persistent, nagging sense of spiritual emptiness, or marathoning the first season of Twin Peaks on Netflix, you might try taking Tylenol for that.

You can find the original journal article here.

Singing Penis Sets World Record

Hello again, dear readers.  I’ve been vacationing in Europe, but I am now back home in the good ol’ U. S. of A.  And to celebrate my return (oh, yeah, and the founding of our great nation—Happy Birthday, America!), it seemed like a good idea to post on my blog.

So, before you report me, I’m talking about this guy:

the lesser water boatman

tiny bug, huge…sound.

This little bug, known in the UK as a “lesser water boatman” and officially classified Micronecta scholtzi, is an aquatic insect that sings to court females.  But how he sings is a little bit unorthodox.  Hence why he’s also known as the “singing penis.”

I can’t make this stuff up.

Many insects (and some other animals) use a behavior called stridulation, which simply means rubbing one body part against another to produce sound.  Some more familiar examples are the songs of crickets (which rub their wings together) and grasshoppers (which rub their legs against their wings).

But these guys…  These guys “sing” by rubbing their, erm, “bughood” against their abdomens.

No word yet on the state of their eyesight.

But the best part is just how incredibly loud these blokes get when they’re in the mood.  They average 78.9 decibels—about as loud as a freight train.  Relative to body size, that makes them the loudest animals on the planet.  The only reason humanity isn’t being deafened by these lover-bugs is that they make their sweet, sweet love-music underwater, dampening 99% of the sound as it crosses the barrier from water to air.  But even after that, human passersby can still hear them.

For the curious, you can hear recordings of the singing penis (and how many times will I get to say that in my life?) in the BBC Nature article here.

Scientists propose that this might be a case of runaway selection:  Mentioned in an earlier post, this refers to when animals keep demanding bigger and better of their mates, driving the continued growth of things like elk antlers, peacock tails, and this little bug’s positively enormous…sound.

On the off-chance you feel the overuse of cheap innuendo in this article left you hanging (so to speak), here’s a bit of fun trivia (and a fantastic mental image) to make you feel better:  

Relative to body size, the largest penis in the animal kingdom belongs to the barnacle.  

You’re welcome.

An evolutionary psychologist walks into a comedy show…

Disclaimer:  This post is going to use some “grown-up” words.  Remember when the movie theaters used to tell people “No crying babies”?  Yeah.

So, recently I had the privilege of once again seeing one of my favorite comedians, the inimitable Christophe the Insultor.  He’s a self-described “verbal mercenary”:  People pay Christophe money—very good money, from what I’ve seen—to insult their friend; and in return, he unleashes all the fury of the English vernacular, channeling it into a tightly focused death ray of linguistic might and blasting a hole in the psyche of  the aforementioned (and erstwhile) friend.  Christophe is a hitman with the entirety of the English lexicon for his arsenal—and he makes good use of it.  While I’ve not seen any statistics, I’d wager he has a vocabulary to rival Shakespeare, and a grotesquely warped imagination that I like to think would do George Carlin proud.

And he’s vulgar.  Very, very vulgar.  I don’t mean the kind of vulgar that would make your tight-laced Victorian throwback for an aunt tut-tut disapprovingly; I don’t mean the kind of vulgar that would make proverbial sailors blush; I mean the kind of vulgar that would make a baby’s underdeveloped prefrontal cortex ooze out its ears, send the Aristocrats into hiding under assumed aliases, cause grown men to bury their faces in their mothers’ laps, muffling their cries of “Take me back!”, and make your grandmother fall down stone dead.  Twice.

Yet, having seen Christophe more times than I can count over the past five years or so, he always has a packed house.  And he should:  His stuff is beating-puppies-with-the-claw-end-of-a-hammer wrong; but, if you’ve got the stomach for it, it’s by far some of the funniest stuff anyone’s ever thought to say in the English language.  And when he really shines is when he’s faced with a heckler, hooligan, or other miscreant in his audience—not because I wish this on any entertainer; but because it proves that Christophe didn’t just sit up at night in a dark basement somewhere thinking up all these awful things to say to people.  While yes, the bread-and-butter of his routine has been carefully polished to bring out the fullness of its glorious awfulness, he is more than capable of coming up with something equally pointed on the fly that’ll take somebody’s knees out from under him.

Now, being the person I am, as I sat listening to Christophe most recently, I was contemplating some of the reasons his show is fascinating to an evolutionary psychologist.

I Do This For You

At the beginning of the show Christophe asks, by a show of hands, how many people in the audience have seen him do his dirty work before—and it’s often the majority.  Not only do people keep coming back to see Christophe take the mickey out of people; but there are plenty who happily volunteer to be on the receiving end of Christophe’s craft, like Aztec warriors skipping giddily up the pyramid steps on the way to their own sacrifice.

“Taking one for the team” is often heralded as the mark of the truly best members of society.  Whether it’s giving up a seat on the bus or taking a bullet for somebody, altruism is one of the greatest puzzles to evolutionary science, because it makes no sense: If all that counts on the evolutionary scale is getting your genes passed on to the next generation, then any action that helps somebody else get ahead would seem counter-productive, and natural selection should weed that kind of behavior out of the population almost instantaneously.

If, say, there were a self-sacrifice gene that made moose throw themselves into the gaping jaws of wolves in order to sacrifice themselves for their brethren, and then a random genetic mutation created a selfish variant of the gene that produced a moose who just went ahead and let his moose comrades get eaten, you know what you would get pretty soon?  A whole herd of selfish moose.  “The needs of the many” doesn’t apply to evolution.

Now, obviously, the moose example is a bit extreme: Christophe’s performances generally don’t actually kill anybody, so getting verbally trampled on probably isn’t going to permanently remove you from the gene pool.  But still, it doesn’t seem to do you any favors.  So why do people sign up to be on the front lines at Christophe’s shows?  Maybe taking one for the team means you’ll endear yourself to that girl you brought to the show (or the saucy wench you just met by the bar); maybe it shows her that you’ve got enough self-esteem to take a few verbal shots across the bow without breaking a sweat.  Maybe Richard Dawkins should go see Christophe’s show.

You Show Me Yours…

Having seen a number of these shows, I’ve noticed a general trend in the insults:  When it comes to sex, the biggest insult for a woman is to say she’s had too much sex; but for a man, it’s that he hasn’t had any.

“Well, obviously,” you say.  But why is that obvious?

From an evolutionary perspective, sex is a very different proposition, depending on your plumbing.  For a woman, sex is a major deal:  If she gets pregnant, she’s looking at nine months of that particular joy—she’s slow-moving, sick all the time, and she’s got an alien organism growing inside her and sapping all the nutrients out of her body.  Then when that slice of heaven is over, she has almost two decades of child support to look forward to.  All that just to pass on her genes.  For a man, on the other hand, we’re talking about a minimum investment of approximately five minutes of his time.  Now if he wants to invest more in ensuring the survival of his offspring, that’s his prerogative; but he can just as easily go the quantity-over-quality route and produce in bulk:  If you make enough kids, some of them have got to make it to adulthood—blind squirrels, nuts, and all that.

So from an evolutionary perspective, a man who can’t get it on with anyone pretty much fails at life—not that you can’t live a rich and fulfilling existence without producing any progeny, of course; but your genome is probably going nowhere.  But with women, for whom reproduction is very much a long-term commitment, you want to be careful whose genes you decide to help propel into the next generation.  Ladies have to choose their mates carefully; so a woman who goes around with an “any port in a storm” attitude is basically evolutionarily stupid.


And speaking of stupid, Christophe uses a catch-phrase I quite like:  When he’s going to make some sort of cultural reference or some other statement requiring more than a rudimentary knowledge of bodily functions in order to be understood, he prefaces it by saying, “Smart people, get ready to help the dumb people.”

To do his show and do it well, Christophe has to be scary-smart.  I’ve seen him switch tracks from classical literature to reality TV when the former made his audience go tharn on him.  And in the case of hecklers, drunkards, and other “problem people,” Christophe has to deviate from his usual format in order to slap said offenders down to parade rest.  And all of this raises the question:  We got a neocortex for this?

The human brain is a massive drain on our bodily resources.  It’s big and heavy—so big it’s the reason so many women die in childbirth, and even then we come out as small and helpless as we do because if we stayed in the oven cooking any longer we’d get too big to ever fit out the door; the brain burns glucose (cell food) like nothing else in our bodies; and if your brain goes more than four minutes without getting any oxygen, you’re looking at the possibility of doing an uncanny vegetable impersonation for the rest of your life (short though it may be).  But when the vast majority of animal species on this planet have gotten by for millions of years with approximately the IQ of a broccoli patch, why on Earth do humans waste so many resources on the costly lump above our necks?

Well, one theory (Christophe, this is for you) is that smart people are sexy:  The theory goes that, much like a peacock’s tail, smarts say to somebody, “Hey, look at me!  All these resources dumped into lugging this giant handicap around, and I’m still awesome.”  But, like in the case of the peacock, sexual selection (pressure from potential mates guiding the path of evolution) can lead to what’s called runaway selection—that is, the demand for bigger and better constantly forces us to up the ante on the desired trait.  So if smart is sexy, then we should be breeding our way to a race of über-nerds even as we speak.

The second theory, called the Social Brain Hypothesis, says that we’re smart because we need to be in order to keep tabs on our neighbors.  When our ancestors started hanging out in groups, it was no longer enough to know that Bob’s an asshole; you also needed to know that Joe thinks Bob’s an asshole, too, and Mary knows that he’s an asshole; and you needed to know how Mary knows that Bob’s an asshole, and what Bob thought about all of this…  Now if you try keeping straight all the social connections within a group of, say, two hundred people, that’s a lot of information to have to keep straight in your head all at once.  The Social Brain Hypothesis predicts that the smartest critters on the planet are going to be mammals living in complex social groups, who got smart simply so they could keep track of what was going on in their group.  And considering nature’s biggest intellectual heavy-hitters include chimpanzees and bonobos, dolphins, and elephants—all of which live in large and complex social groups—there’s some strong evidence to support the theory.

But in any case, I tip my hat to evolution for producing a singular wit like Christophe’s, and look forward to seeing him again.

If you would like to learn more about Christophe the Insultor, you can visit his website, or find him on Facebook here.  But don’t say I didn’t warn you about the content.  My blog strives to remain PG-13, but Christophe distinctly has crossed the 18-and-up line to dwell on the farther shore.  But if you’re up for it, do take the time to pay him a visit.  As for me, I’ll be back at his show this weekend.