Predator or prey – look at the eyes

I found this here:

Which I guess makes us humans predators. Makes sense. Many surely knew this and predator eyes and prey eyes, but I did not know this.

I further guess that fish are accordingly the ultimate prey.

Otters in Singapore City

The whole world is becoming a giant zoo, curated by humans. Now, for instance, there are otters living in Singapore City:

Singapore’s otter families all have names. Here, the Bishan family crosses a street in the city center.

Start reading this National Geographic article, and you soon encounter a link to another NG piece about how Hundreds of wild parrots are thriving in this Brazilian city.

But back to those otters. As Singaporeans become more affluent and more inclined to welcome the otters into their midst, and less inclined to do things like kill them and eat them, instead treating them as sort of mobile urban sculptures, …:

In 2016, an otter family suddenly ran across the Singapore Marathon route, and Otter Working Group volunteers rushed to warn the runners of the otters’ presence, as well as also position themselves along the route to prevent the animals and runners from colliding.

… the otters themselves are, understandably, becoming less frightened of humans than they used to be. Evolution in action. The adventurous otter families, willing to explore human cities in search of new ecological niches, get selected for, and the more timid ones have a harder time of it.

LATER: It’s happening here also. Otters are making themselves at home in UK cities.

Steve Stewart-Williams on the evolution of the Breton fishing boat

I finished reading The Ape That Understood The Universe about a week ago now, but there is one further bit from this book that I want to scan into this blog, because I think it is my absolute favourite.

At the beginning of the second half of the book devoted to Man, “The Cutural Animal”, SS-W offers six examples of cultural evolution in action. These are: Breton Boats, Conditioned Behavior, Language, Teddy Bears, Businesses, and Science. I have already copied the bits on Teddy Bears, and on Language. Here is the bit about Breton Boats (p. 224):

The first example concerns the fishing boats used by Breton fisherman in the Île de Groix. Where did these boats come from? At first glance, it looks like a no-brainer: If anything’s a product of intelligent design, it’s a boat. On closer inspection, though, it turns out it really is a no-brainer … or at least a partial-brainer, in the sense that human brains played a more modest role in crafting the boats than we normally assume. This possibility was first mooted by the French philosopher Emile-Auguste Chartier (aka Alain), who in 1908, took a Darwinian hatchet to the common sense view. “Every boat,” he observed,

is copied from another boat … Let’s reason as follows in the manner of Darwin. It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up at the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied … One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.

If a boat returns, the boat makers may copy it. If it doesn’t, they definitely won’t. The boats that are most likely to be copied are therefore those that survive the longest. As Daniel Dennett points out, no one needs to know why these particular boats survive. To make a good boat, you don’t need to understand what makes a boat good; you only need to be able to copy another boat. How do you know you ‘re copying a good boat? Well, you don’t need to know, because the sea automatically culls the not-good ones from the boat population. Meanwhile, any especially good boats get copied at a faster rate. Over time, this process of culling and copying fashions more and more seaworthy boats.

Now maybe each and every step in the gradual evolution of the boat was a product of intelligent design: of a thousand forgotten boat makers figuring out a thousand different ways to make their boats more sea-worthy. But maybe not. Maybe many steps along the path were simply fortuitous accidents, which were automatically preserved and propagated. To the extent that this is so, the design evident in Breton boats comes from blind, mindless selection, rather than the machinations of intelligent minds.

Language and Teddy Bears are a bit off the beaten tracks I like to beat. But with this discussion of the design of a quite big physical object, in this case a boat, SS-W’s core agenda, and one of my obsessions over the years and decades ever since I was a failed architecture student, overlap in a very big way. As I said at the end of the language posting linked to above, I have long been thinking along the same lines as SS-W, about “mindless” design. And as I said at the end of another recent posting here, about Facadism, Keeping Up Appearances and so on, it is my earnest hope that I will, by and by, be able to pull such thoughts together in a bigger piece for Samizdata.

The Modern Movement in Architecture was, when it started out, shot through with the idea that you should not “mindlessly” copy an established design, even if it worked well, unless you knew why it worked well. Wrong.

Equally and oppositely, the first lot of Architectural Modernists said that you should turn your back on “mindless tradition” and design anew, from “first principles”. Very dangerous, as a design technique. Sometimes necessary, provided you choose good “first principles”, but never without extreme hazard. Architectural Modernism only worked well, and in a country like Britain has only started to work well, when Modernism itself became a tradition, embodying the experience of what worked and what works, and what did not work and what does not work.

Steve Stewart-Williams on the evolution of language

Today, right near the end of The Ape That Understood The Universe (pp. 275-276), I had another What He Said moment:

… Earlier I mentioned that humans have an innate capacity to learn language, but that the specific languages we learn evolve culturally to mesh with our language-hungry brains. There may be a twist in the plot, however. It’s possible that our languages themselves helped to wire a language-learning instinct into the human genome. Here’s what might have happened. It all began with the cultural evolution of a rudimentary proto-language: a system of grunts and gestures not too far removed from what we see today in wild chimps. We didn’t have a dedicated language faculty at that time, so we acquired this proto-language via general learning mechanisms. (This is presumably what captive apes do when they learn to communicate with signs.) The proto-language wasn’t nearly as useful as our modern ones. But as anyone who’s visited a foreign-speaking country knows, even a little language is better than none. As such, any ancient human who acquired the proto-language more easily, mastered it at a younger age, or used it more adroitly, would have had an advantage over her more linguistically ham-fisted contemporaries. And what an advantage! Language is useful in virtually every sphere of human life: communicating needs and wants, organizing hunts and other cooperative ventures, entertaining mates, conveying useful information to offspring, finding out who to trust and who not to. In these areas and others, better language-users would have had a definite edge. Given the evolutionary importance of these activities, such individuals would plausibly have had more offspring, and their linguistic advantage would have spread through the population. As humans became more verbally adept, this would have triggered the cultural evolution of a more complex proto-language. That in turn would have created a selection pressure for even greater linguistic giftedness, which would have spurred the cultural evolution of an even more complex language – the usual story. In short, the cultural evolution of language resulted in the biological evolution of a language-learning instinct, and vice versa.

If so, this has an interesting implication. We saw earlier that genes for lactose tolerance were a consequence of milk drinking, rather than a cause. The same may be true of language. We tend to assume that genes for language came first, thereby making language possible. It’s equally likely, however, that it’s the other way around: that language came first and then created a selection pressure for genes promoting the rapid acquisition of language. In other words, our gift of the gab may have started with a cultural mutation, rather than a genetic one.

I worked out this notion, that culture creates new evolutionary spaces for genetic evolution to move into, several years ago, but it is good to have it confirmed by SS-W. I presume that this means that, what with culture hurtling towards new evolutionary spaces all the time, that means that genetic evolution is hurtling onwards, faster than ever before.