Finding Patterns

It’s a fact in the Western world that we have, for a very long time, operated on the assumption that we humans have consciousness cornered.

Whether we adhere to a religion or no, we have mostly acted as Genesis 1:28 commands: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

All images here are the result of the Google image recognition neural network - which looks for patterns in pictures. A hallucinatory filter over a red tree.  Photograph: Google via Guardian

All images here are the result of the Google image recognition neural network – an artificial neural network (ANN) inspired by biological networks – a tool used to search for patterns in pictures. A hallucinatory filter over a red tree.
Photograph: Google via Guardian

Even before I watched documentaries of primatologist Jane Goodall’s research on chimpanzees in the 1960s, I found it hard to believe the long-held axiom of human superiority that of all creatures on the earth, only humans had emotions, social structure, intelligence, or some kind of consciousness.

That all creatures but humans operated solely on instinct.

Long-term studies are now bearing out the idea that we aren’t as special as we like to think. Descartes had it all wrong when he manage to persuade himself and countless others that animals are little more than meat machines.

I’m not talking here about cute animals stories, or reasons to become a vegetarian, or anything like that.

An ANN result of a picture of a knight after an search for animal images.

An ANN result of a picture of a knight after a search for animal images.

From the realization that many other animals use tools, to a study showing that other primates smile just like humans (and why should this come as a surprise?), to the complex social relationships of whales, to the self-restrained leadership techniques shown by alpha wolves, it’s pretty safe to say that we are not alone in the universe – and it’s not because we’ve found aliens, it’s because we’ve started seeing fellow Earth-dwellers in a different light.

They were there all along, we just didn’t know how to see them. Or we didn’t want to.

When will we get far enough in this journey of discovery to find out how they see us? What will we learn about ourselves?

A featureless image after being scanned for building images.

A featureless image after being scanned for building images.

Heedless Ways

Chimpanzees in Uganda’s Kigali National Park have been getting up to some unusual business at night. These daytime foragers with poor night vision have been leaving the safety of the forest, crossing a bridge over a large ditch meant to keep elephants out of neighboring crop areas, and raiding corn fields.

And they aren’t the only ones. Chimps in other areas are raiding farmers’ fields, as well.

Why is this noteworthy?

Chimpanzee hand Artist: Lisa Roet

Chimpanzee hand
Artist: Lisa Roet

Well, according to a study out in PLOS ONE, this is the first recorded evidence that day-dwelling chimpanzees have significantly altered their behavior to include night-time feeding parties. Unlike some forest animals, chimpanzees’ eyes are not particularly suited for low-light vision, yet they are entering fields after sunset, and often during the darkness of a new moon.

Another development is that the raiders carry their food away with them, rather than eating it on the spot as usual. In doing so, they’ve overcome their own evolutionary wiring to eat during the day and avoid traditional nocturnal predators, like the jaguar, which has all but died out in these regions.

With habitat loss turning once-dense forests into mosaics of cultivated acreage and trees, and a reduction in the fruits usually eaten by the endangered chimps, the maize growing in nearby fields must seem like a decent alternative, if snares and farmer’s weapons can be avoided.

Primate finger Artist: Lisa Roet

Primate finger
Artist: Lisa Roet

One can’t help but admire the chimpanzees’ audacity and creativity in the face of necessity, and their unwillingness to simply starve.

It put me in mind of one the best-known poems of Dylan Thomas, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday today:

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Now the question is, how well will government, conservation groups and farmers adapt to innovative chimpanzee behavior?

A few other examples of new adaptations, some less successful than others:

North American populations of the monarch butterfly, decimated over the years mainly due to deforestation in the wintering habitats of Central Mexico and the loss of milkweed plants, the monarch’s main choice of food, to industrial farming and pesticides. In an encouraging and unexpected turn of events, deforestation activity seems to have slowed, allowing the monarch to recover, at least for the time being. Deforestation, and milkweed prevalence, are two factors well within human control, so the monarch is adapting to our habits–and once in a while, we adapt to the monarch’s.

Walrus tusks, fossilized Source: Alaska Fur Exchange

Walrus tusks, fossilized
Source: Alaska Fur Exchange

A very large cluster of walruses was in the news for a few days in early October. As in previous years, tens of thousands of the sea mammals gathered on dry land when the sea ice that usually forms the platform from whence walruses hunt melted early in the feeding season. A gathering of walruses is known as an ‘ugly’, not a very kind term for such an interesting creature, but perhaps descriptive of what happens when too many of them all find themselves on the same beach, commiserating over meagre ice and elusive food. The 2014 ugly has since broken up and moved on to further shores, but given the current negative trends in Arctic sea ice, whether the walrus succeeds in surviving remains to be seen.

Arctic Dreams Artist: David Dancy-Wood via Wildlife Sketches

Arctic Dreams
Artist: David Dancy-Wood via Wildlife Sketches

The disappearance of ice platforms in the Arctic region has a number of species scrambling to maintain a foothold, among them the polar bear, whose populations have been in drastic decline as their hunting habitat melts beneath them. Stuck on land (well, the ones who make it to land), they have replaced their diet of seal and fish with Arctic birds and human garbage (and even, occasionally, other polar bears).

And again, what of our abilities to adapt our own behaviors, not just to make adjustments for the protection of these various iconic creatures, but when it comes to making the changes that won’t put us in situations similarly dire?

In the sun born over and over,
I ran my heedless ways,
My wishes raced through the house high hay
And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.

(Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill)