Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Remember behavior!

This afternoon I attended a seminar in the graduate program in Organismal & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, entitled “The Evolution of Comparative Cognition.” The presentation was given by Sara Shettleworth, Professor Emerita of the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto. She gave a delightful and insightful picture of how psychology and the study of animal behavior have evolved (or perhaps not evolved in some ways), and the topic stirred the minds of all in attendance.

One of the most striking aspects of ethology (the study of animal behavior) and psychology is how few species of animals have been studied to date. Initially, it was all rats, all the time, with only a smattering of studies involving other vertebrates, let alone primates or invertebrates. That condition was exemplified in Shettleworth’s talk by a cartoon depicting a “pied piper” rat leading an army of scientists through town.

Today, we collectively study a more diverse lot of species both in the laboratory and in the field, but I can’t help but wonder whether the questions we ask, and the methods by which we ask them, don’t say more about ourselves than about those subjects of experiment.

Students of animal behavior have long been cautioned about the pitfalls of anthropomorphism and assigning human emotions and motivations to the behaviors of another species. Indeed, Shettleworth emphasized the need to take behavior at face value. She also pointed to the need to avoid limiting one’s experiments and observations to the realm of “yes” and “no.” Other animals are generally much more complicated than that.

What may be completely unavoidable, however, is taking an anthropocentric approach to ethology and animal psychology, especially in terms of what we consider “advanced” versus “primitive” attributes. This tendency rears its head frequently, and Shettleworth found humor in colleagues who couldn’t believe that, say, dogs outperform chimpanzees in some tasks. That just isn’t the way it is “supposed” to be!

Personally, I think it may be an overriding concern to prove that Homo sapiens is the most intelligent, highly-evolved species, and we go into our experiments with, and observations of, other species with that bias. The fact is, however, that we are on the planet with a minimum of a million other species that, by virtue of the fact that they also exist here and now, have succeeded at least as well as we have by the only standard that matters: survival. For that matter, even dinosaurs were successful, for the geological period over which they reigned.

Mother Nature (or God, or whatever creative entity you hold dear) wastes nothing, and each species is as complex and intelligent as it has to be to get by. No more, no less. Social species like the other great apes, wolves, and cetaceans may seem to be smarter because they are like us in being social, and do need to master intricate forms of communication in order for each pod, pack or other social unit to prosper.

Still, are solitary species any less successful? No. There are, in fact, vastly more solitary species than social ones. What they may lack in plasticity in learning ability they make up for in instincts and hightened physical senses that have served them for eons. A sand wasp can find its burrow in a seemingly featureless dune, but we can’t remember where we parked the car.

What do you think? Where do you stand? I promise to revisit this topic as often as I can, and welcome your opinions, observations, and shared knowledge. Meanwhile, I may pick up the just-released second edition of Sara Shettleworth’s book, Cognition, Evolution, and Behavior.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Work, Work, Work

I do not like to make excuses for why there are long gaps between blog entries, but right now I am up to my ears in work, and my six month stint here at the University of Massachusetts is winding down.

My current priorities are to finish my tasks in the lab, complete a private project identifying bee specimens, and start packing up to move back to Arizona. Blogging is going to have to be put on the back burner for now, so please bear with me while posts are more infrequent.

Once I return to Tucson, I hope to also return to more creative, philosophical, thought-provoking, and nostalgic themes here at Sense of Misplaced. That is to say that I'd like to share with you some of my memories, and some of the people and experiences that shaped my life over the years.

I also aim to drive more traffic to this blog, and welcome suggestions for how to do so. Thank you.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Field Notes with Laurie Sanders

I had the pleasure of attending a seminar on Friday, October 23, featuring Laurie Sanders, host of Field Notes on WFCR, a public radio station here in Amherst, Massachusetts. Laurie offered some great insight into what it takes to produce a weekly radio show, and I have a much better appreciation now for how hard these journalists and producers work.

Radio and television are media outlets that I wish to branch out into, so I was excited to hear how Laurie has managed to succeed there.

I was intrigued to learn that like me she is an “only child.” It is my belief that having no siblings tends to make an individual even more driven toward success. My mother tells me that I put away my toys at age ten and told her I had to make something of my life.

Laurie has been fearless in the pursuit of her own dreams. Just prior to grad school, she pitched an idea for a nature television show to a commercial station near her hometown of Cheshire, Connecticut. There was interest in the concept, but grad school took precedence. After achieving her degree, she cold-called the local Public Broadcasting Service affiliate WGBY. This time the idea took wing and Laurie ended up producing 36 short television segments on natural history over a four year period. Television is an expensive medium, however, and she eventually turned to radio, and the local National Public Radio affiliate WFCR, 88.5 FM. What materialized was a six month, grant-funded series of two- to three-minute weekly radio pieces for WFCR.

Ten years later, Field Notes shows no sign of slowing down. Laurie strives to present timely pieces that are meaningful to her New England audience. She has only six minutes and eighteen seconds to captivate her loyal followers and hook new listeners in her Monday morning niche.

Gone are the days of lugging heavy tape recorders into the field to record both natural sounds and dialogue with human subjects. The emergence of compact digital recorders has meant that editing interviews and whittling the whole affair down to the allotted time limit has also become easier. No more splicing magnetic tape! There is even freeware like “Audacity” that facilitates the editing of sound files.

Still, it takes a great deal of time to produce a quality presentation. While radio is vastly cheaper than television, with a faster turnaround from recording to broadcast, it still takes twenty to twenty-five hours of production for a five minute piece. Some shows, like NPR’s This American Life, are highly produced, while others take less time and resources.

Laurie is delighted when a national show like Living on Earth wants to use one of her productions. I have a feeling that syndication could be in the offing for Field Notes if Laurie wants to make the next leap. Stay tuned.