Frans de Waal, a renowned primatologist and ethologist, has an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, in advance of his most recent book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates, which was released today. Here’s an excerpt:
Underlying many of our mistaken beliefs about animal intelligence is the problem of negative evidence. If I walk through a forest in Georgia, where I live, and fail to see or hear the pileated woodpecker, am I permitted to conclude that the bird is absent? Of course not. We know how easily these splendid woodpeckers hop around tree trunks to stay out of sight. All I can say is that I lack evidence.
It is quite puzzling, therefore, why the field of animal cognition has such a long history of claims about the absence of capacities based on just a few strolls through the forest. Such conclusions contradict the famous dictum of experimental psychology according to which “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” . . .
The one historical constant in my field is that each time a claim of human uniqueness bites the dust, other claims quickly take its place. Meanwhile, science keeps chipping away at the wall that separates us from the other animals. We have moved from viewing animals as instinct-driven stimulus-response machines to seeing them as sophisticated decision makers.
Aristotle’s ladder of nature is not just being flattened; it is being transformed into a bush with many branches. This is no insult to human superiority. It is long-overdue recognition that intelligent life is not something for us to seek in the outer reaches of space but is abundant right here on earth, under our noses.
The Brains of the Animal Kingdom | WSJ
I just learned of a couple of products, among several others, that Google is shutting down this coming summer: Building Maker and Google Reader. From the official Google blog:
Google Building Maker helped people to make three-dimensional building models for Google Earth and Maps. It will be retired on June 1, but users are still able to access and export their models from the 3D Warehouse. We’ll continue to expand the availability of comprehensive and accurate new 3D imagery on Google Earth, and people can still use Google Map Maker to add building information such as outlines and heights to Google Maps. . . .
We launched Google Reader in 2005 in an effort to make it easy for people to discover and keep tabs on their favorite websites. While the product has a loyal following, over the years usage has declined. So, on July 1, 2013, we will retire Google Reader. Users and developers interested in RSS alternatives can export their data, including their subscriptions, with Google Takeout over the course of the next four months.
It’s inconvenient that they’re shutting down Google Reader, but I’m especially sad that they’re shutting down Building Maker. It’s a wonderfully simple online app that’s perfect for teaching beginners how to model buildings in 3D. In fact, it’s where I started when I taught myself to model.
Farewell, Building Maker and Google Reader; we hardly knew ye.
Here’s an interesting article from the BBC: researchers from Oxford’s Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, led by Jacob Dahl, are attempting to decipher inscriptions in Proto-Elamite — an undeciphered writing system from Elam, in present-day Iran — by taking high-resolution photos of the inscriptions and posting those photos online for anyone and everyone to help decipher. Here’s the BBC’s description of the process:
Dr Dahl, from the Oriental Studies Faculty, shipped his image-making device on the Eurostar to the Louvre Museum in Paris, which holds the most important collection of this writing.
The clay tablets were put inside this machine, the Reflectance Transformation Imaging System, which uses a combination of 76 separate photographic lights and computer processing to capture every groove and notch on the surface of the clay tablets.
It allows a virtual image to be turned around, as though being held up to the light at every possible angle.
These images will be publicly available online, with the aim of using a kind of academic crowdsourcing.
Dahl and his team have set up a wiki with links to their photos of the Proto-Elamite inscriptions and tools for studying the language. Interested parties can also email email@example.com to volunteer.
To me, this sounds like a very good opportunity for an undergraduate class project in a Near Eastern Languages and Cultures or a Classics program. Students would get hands-on experience using digital tools for research, as well as providing a great benefit to the field.