February 25th, 2011

krazy koati

I'd say ``whynotamous?'' and would

It's a great time to for animal researchers discovering things about animals. We've always known things about animals, but it was only around 1995 that researchers found out it was OK to actually look at animals. They'd been afraid of anthropomorphism, or teleology, or having a squirrel fall down their shirts. But now they avoid these hazards by tying the tops of their shirts closed and wearing a light enough weave they could see through the fabric. So they're doing better on daytime animals, while progress on night animals is sluggish. It has to be inferred almost entirely from animals' Internet usage.

But by ``looking'' all kinds of misconceptions have been cleared up. It wasn't long ago respectable textbooks would report polar bears laid their eggs in nests at the top of palm trees and sat for upwards of four years until they hatched, squashed flat, or fell out. Now we understand polar bears actually steal their eggs, as they have no methods of reproduction. Small polar bears are the result of regular polar bears just being, according to a 2006 Nature article, ``really quite far away''.

Where this takes me --- don't think I wasn't wondering --- is the discovery that monkeys can display self-doubt. This wasn't done by pure observation, wandering around looking for monkeys still pondering whether they should've replaced the automatic transmission in their Blackberries or should have majored in Applied Howling rather than Pure, or whether socklessness was a mistake. Many monkeys probably wonder such things, but suspect their friends are just waiting for one more complaint before dropping them altogether, and they need help in case of falling polar bears.

The demonstrations were made by teaching macaques to play a video game, where if they got an answer wrong they knew somebody was writing something snarky on the experiment's comment thread. They ``pass'' if they weren't sure, coming back if time allows to try winning the $25,000 and chance to appear on tomorrow's show. But no macaques were able to get the final category, ``Things Found In Your Bedroom'', which was attributed to macaques tending to live in studio apartments and sleeping on futons.

That would be interesting by itself, particularly if you knew nothing else about the universe and had to deduce everything from self-evident laws of logic and this fact --- from which the brilliant would reason the existence of the moons of Neptune, but where I'd probably top out at thinking ``macaque'' always looks like it's spelled wrong --- but it's more interesting when you hear capuchins would not take the self-doubting ``pass'' option. This doesn't surprise friends of capuchins, who know how the New World monkeys get into exciting adventures by not thinking things through, such as the time they tried running away to California or that summer in the Self-Glossing Paint factory.

Still, it's the most interesting technology-assisted advance in animal personality disorders since koalas got all smug about knowing Javascript utility toolkit jQuery, especially when all they really know is how to make pictures slide across the page until the web browser crashes. And it's nearly up there with the training of ibexes to make fun of Star Trek: Voyager which filled two-thirds of the Internet from 1994 to 2001.

Being able to induce self-doubt into macaques has great prospects for giving all animals emotional disorders. We might see the day this generation when we can inspire angst in trout, or pass our burden of crippling nostalgia onto the double-wattled cassowary, which always seems to be wandering around in search of some extra projects. Flocks of digitally-enhanced melancholy pigeons could hover around our cities, sighing that statues just aren't worth it. Herds of alienated chipmunks may roam the plains (plains not included). And imagine if there were a simple, free app with which we could inspire weltschmerz in hippopotamuses. We would finally have an application for the classic poem:

Verse on the myriad neuroses
Endured by poor rhinoceroses
You'd think was writ by Ogden Nash
But far as I can tell he pasht.

At a minimum we might give polar bears acrophobia. That one is a public safety issue.

Trivia: When Samuel de Champlain built his home in Quebec City he set up a pigeon house. Source: Superdove: How The Pigeon Took Manhattan ... And The World, Courtney Humphries.

Currently Reading: The Wizard And The War Machine, Lawrence Watt-Evans.