Something I’ve written about before but continues to surprise me when I encounter it, is that despite all the fancy software, listings of all the laborious statistical models, double blind tests and holy of all holies the untouchable power of peer review that is part and parcel of contemporary life sciences research you can still find, with relative ease, entrenched great chain of being philosophy that for me, completely torpedoes and sinks some of the merit of the research in question.
I’m not saying we can ever unhook ourselves from the delusion that we’re special wee beings amongst the rest of organismal life because we’ve got a chin, invented jazz, pot noodles and various other debatable accolades that propel us to the top of some pyramid or front of some queue but I do wish it wasn’t quite so explicit in the structure of degree courses, the language we use to talk about evolution, the way we frame interest in science stories and of course how we frame our relationship with the rest of the organismal life.
Read on, dear reader for the paradoxical platypus, concerned scientists who are earthworms and other lies we tell ourselves at night.
I was prompted to put fingers to keys on this topic by this rather naff Guardian headline*: Cuttlefish have ability to exert self-control, study find. The article itself goes on about a series of ridiculously unnatural experiments with shapes and rewards that demonstrated that some individual (presumably wild caught) cuttlefish learned to associate shapes with different value food rewards and they could be trained to wait for preferred food items for up to 130 seconds yada yada yada intelligence, yada yada yada humans, chimps and parrots, yada yada ‘higher’ intelligence evidence wrapped up and topped off with the awkward headline. Are we supposed to believe that before this finding scientists assumed cuttlefish careen around on automatic driven purely by base desires? Do we, as humans, constantly teeter on the line between our paragonic existence and some base state held back only by our galaxy brain’s ability to stay out of the Pringles tube for three minutes?
The experiment itself but to a further extent the coverage of this piece of experimental research by the Guardian deploys a favourite fallacy that cuts deep into behavioural research and that is that there’s a special importance to animals that can perform (or be trained) to do extremely human activities. The yard stick for intelligence, importance, value and more philosophical points of interest in other animals is that barometer of organismal excellence, the human being.
I’m not the first to have issue with this, in fact behavioural biologists are more than aware of the limitations of our species to draw any inferences about other species as the title of Frans de Waal’s classic popular science book on the topic: Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Other Animals Are alludes to. It’s a recommended read. We force various animals through ridiculous, unnatural, sterile, staged experiments that human toddlers perform well at then dish out badges of merit accordingly. And that’s not just when we’re subconsciously clueing the animals in with our own subconcious body language, scent marking, autonomic reactions. We’re debatably smart enough to know how smart we are. Well done crows, you’re as smart as a five year old (when it comes to matching those most natural of objects a red pyramid and a blue cylinder etc.).
With my personal interest in cephalopods, I believe there’s honestly limited stock we can put in any lab based behavioural studies. The vast majority of all test animals are wild caught and near impossible to control for the influence of prior experience. Even, if for a second we bestow cephalopods a personhood-type status just imagine how you’d perform were you ripped out of your environment placed in a cheap and tacky captive environment that some other animal deems an appropriate proxy to your natural one (think a tiny tank or blue plastic tub with a bit of butcher’s shop fake grass and some shop bought gravel as an approximation of ‘the sea floor’) and then forced to do incredible obscure tasks over and over again. We’re nowhere near understanding how the stress of the whole enterprise, let alone the lack of stimulation experimental settings provide really affects what we’re trying to test. I’d love to write a film script about aliens who arrive on our planet to test human intelligence in the manner we test other animals intelligence using real examples of the trials many sacrificed animals (endless mazes, overwhelming of senses, vibrated to death, maimed, dismembered, imploded, blinded and lobotomised) have been put through but It’d never get greenlit as it would be two hour torture porn.
One of my favourite ways in which these problems with our human-centric measures of importance of being can be thought about is T. Ryan Gregory’s Platypus Fallacy [sadly only accessible via the wayback machine] which is a really fun thought experiment that lifts the words directly from a scientist involved in serious, peer reviewed scientific paper on the platypus genome and reimagines how platypus scientists would, using the same judgemental, unscientific, subjective methods to describe humans. Go and have a read because it’s perfect and as I said up at the top. You. Find. This. Fallacy. Everywhere. In. Science. From the high and mighty to this whacky pseudo science. You find it in all the ranking language of biology- higher vertebrates, lower animals, most evolved, primitive, complex the list goes on. You find it in the awkward separation of our closest relatives as somehow not human or less human. Of course you find it in the pervasive scientific racism in research and sadly in research communities.
Above image: A 2013 example from a peer reviewed scientific paper plainly stating “Cephalopods are considered to be the most evolved invertebrates”. Remind me why we don’t teach basic zoology anymore? Below image: Various examples of news websites fumbling around desperately with understanding what humans are. Selected examples of humans as not animals, fossil relatives as definitively not human and one example of our own DNA linked to less undesirable trait being othered as “the Neanderthal in you”.
Here’s some other (imagined) press release style quotes and judgements from animals if they covered the biology of humans with the same navel gazing propensity we do.
Fish scientists surprised to report that humans can live underwater (for up to three minutes), a trait unique and special to fish and a few other major groups of animals.
Migratory bird scientists astonished that the primitive humans, who evolved from the Cynodonts, still hanging in despite no flight ability and “hopeless” at homing unassisted beyond a few miles.
An international consortium of scientists from across the animal kingdom describe today how humans evolved a behaviour called ‘sleeping’ for up to a third of their whole lives because they’re so helpless in the dark they’d basically all die in accidents otherwise.
Nautilus scientists shock the scientific world by confirming humans can taste after all. Despite test humans not managing to find food underwater buried just metres away leading to starving to death, they do have a primitive ability to taste, limited to the contact to cm range.
Ant sociobiologists baffled by trends across “pseudo social’ human populations that artifice a selection pressure against reproduction itself. One leading ant scientist said “We don’t think they are aware they’re biological organisms or at least where new humans come from”.
Penguins at a loss to understand why evolutionary dead ends, humans, freeze to death so readily.
Echinoderms reveal ‘critical flaw’ in human, often called a living fossil, evolution. Not only can they not regenerate limbs at all but a significant percentage die soon after the removal of a single limb, experiments have conclusively demonstrated.
Human evolution “surprisingly interesting” claims Cetacean human expert and historian. Traditional narratives around ‘falling out of a tree’ bely subtle but important changes to spine, teeth and limb anatomy in this obscure primate group.
A joint team of termite & wasp scientists declare humans ‘not concious’ animals after historic debate. Their limited capacity for architecture, a hallmark of intelligence, once again quashes some scientists hopes of conferring some level of protection to the lumbering megabeasts.
Newborn humans take YEARS to develop essential behaviours most other animals master from seconds after birth new research by dik-diks shows. Quote “Although ethically we can’t judge the actions of mindless animals, if we did, humans are perhaps the stupidest animal there is”.
Earthworm scholars defend existence of ‘pointless’ animals such as humans emphasizing “We shouldn’t just value organisms we can exploit, farm or infest, even destructive and wasteful species are important members of the wider web of life”.
Atlas Blue moths this week have reported astonishment that humans function at all with a mere 46 chromosomes. One lepidopteran scientists cheekily announcing they’ve had post-it notes with a larger karyotype.
Will we ever be able to escape the gravity of our own egos when it comes to thinking about other organisms? Doubtful but I would encourage students, publishing scientists, journal editors and journalists to check their bases because it does lead to crappy science. As much as Biological Science (big B, big S) pretends to be some pious objective truth seeking enterprise a lot of them have Just-So stories at their hearts predicated on an internalised system of value suspiciously benchmarked against our own specific biological evolution.
*I used to write for the Guardian science blog team back in the day and let me tell you, we used to hate the misleading click bait headlines the SEO team and editors would put on top of pieces, however, here I am having read that article, thought about it, sharing the link on Twitter and in this blog all of which I probably wouldn’t have done otherwise had the headline been some dry but accurate reflection of the latest research. It works. So to the much maligned editors of science news sites you’re geniuses, I celebrate you.
UPDATE 03/03/2021: Various minor tweaks and additions as clear light of day mind fights against what crippling insomnia mind wrote the night before.