In New Alarming Trend, Poachers Target Rescued Circus Lions in South Africa

‘[Poachers are] targeting lions at sanctuaries, private nature reserves, and breeding farms for their body parts. Lion bones are sought after in Asia for use in traditional medicine—as health tonics and wines—and increasingly as a substitute for remedies made from the bones of tigers, whose numbers in the wild are somewhere around 3,900. Lion teeth and claws are also in high demand in China and elsewhere in Asia as necklaces and other adornments and trinkets. In some African countries the heads, tails, and paws are favored for use in traditional medicine, known as muti.

Source: National Geographic

How ‘Talking’ Corpses Were Once Used to Solve Murders

‘The skull of Richard III, discovered under a parking lot, was analyzed by forensic scientists at the University of Leicester. In Shakespeare’s play about the infamous monarch, Richard is accused of murder when he nears a corpse and it begins to bleed.

For centuries, oozing wounds were seen as proof of guilt in court—but even in death, women’s testimony was considered less credible than men’s…’

Source: National Geographic

Why We Still Need Monsters

Philosopher Stephen T. Asma of Columbia College Chicago and author of On Monsters and the Evolution of Imagination, argues that the encounter with the monstrous is useful. The term monster is from the Latin word, monstrare, to warn. Monsters activate our sense of repulsion or disgust (about which I have written here), which is why we demonize or monsterize our enemies, casting them as uncivilized or disgusting. Similarly with mass murderers such as Stephen Paddock in Las Vegas.

Calling others monsters is deeply adaptive from an evolutionary perspective, operating to contribute to group survival by getting us to be nervous about both non-human and human predators. Asma gives as an example the fact that the traditional werewolf story was strong in Europe, since wolves were a predator for Europeans, whereas there is a werebear tradition in the Americas because Native Americans were worried about bear predation.

But there is a “xenocurious” as well as a xenophobic piece to considering monsters. For instance, St. Augustine stressed the “wondrous” aspects of the monstrous creatures thought to be living in Africa and the East.

He says, “These guys are scary, but if we can talk to them, and they demonstrate some kind of rationality, they might be capable of being saved, they could be part of redemption.”

This is the project of Western liberalism — to expand the circle of tolerance to those who are different from you. From the liberal point of view, disgust for strangers is terrible. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for instance, can be read as a way to show that you create aggression and violence by not welcoming difference into your group.

Liberal humanism may also factor into the fact that monster has come to be a term for persons as well, now that we are able to see members of the out-group as humans as well. Simultaneously, we began to understand that we have hidden incomprehensible parts within ourselves that could make us do monstrous or revolting things. Although it is a much older notion (why Medea killed her children, for instance) it comes to fruition in Freud’s notion of the id.

There’s a part of us all that has to be carefully managed. Otherwise it does psychopathological actions. You see this now with the Las Vegas shooter. We want to know why he did it. Is there some part of ourselves that if we don’t manage it correctly, it could, in fact, lead us to some kinds of behaviors like this?

There is an impulse to understand the monstrous. The first question we ask about someone like Stephen Paddock is what his motives were, the second whether there is something wrong with his brain. But sometimes it will remain inexplicable and we must be content with the fact that humans beings can be monsters, although it is probably quite rare.

Our literature and culture creates icons of immorality, and they help shape our behavior and our thinking. A lot of people enjoy horror like The Walking Dead because it’s a form of rehearsal. I’m not expecting a zombie apocalypse, but I do wonder what would happen if the grid went down and we had no electricity and suddenly there’s a food shortage. What would happen if modern society came to some screeching halt? Many of the monster scenarios would be a surrogate training for what could happen between human beings.

Source: Nautilus

What We Got Wrong About the Lyme Epidemic

‘The genetic and ecological history of the Lyme disease bacterium make it clear: Neither ticks nor the bacterium are invaders onto our pristine landscapes. They are the beneficiaries of an artificial and fragmented ecology created by the real invaders, us. Having sectioned and sliced the continent into a patchwork, we are confronted with the consequences…’

Source: Nautilus

Why Facebook Is the Junk Food of Socializing

‘Have you ever been walking in a dark alley and seen something that you thought was a crouching person, but it turned out to be a garbage bag or something similarly innocuous? Me too. Have you ever seen a person crouching in a dark alley and mistaken it for a garbage bag? Me neither. Why does the error go one way and not the other?

 

Human beings are intensely social animals. We live in hierarchical social environments in which our comfort, reproduction, and very survival depend on our relationships with other people. As a result, we are very good at thinking about things in social ways. In fact, some scientists have argued that the evolutionary arms race for strategic social thinking—either for competition, for cooperation, or both—was a large part of why we became so intelligent as a species. Back then, if you saw something that looked like a person, by golly it was a person.

 

This affinity for social reasoning, however, has resulted in systematic quirks in human reasoning about the non-human. This happens in two ways. First, we tend to see humanlike agency where there isn’t any, a common form of pareidolia.

 

…Why would we evolve to have a systematic error like this? Like most biases, it takes advantage of patterns in our environment to help us (or, more accurately, paleolithic people) reproduce and survive. In the environment where humans first evolved, mistaking a log for a lion is much safer than mistaking a lion for a log, favoring the survival of those who err on the side of seeing agency in many places. And for a hunter-gatherer at greater risk from wild animals and interpersonal violence than we face today, living things tend to be more dangerous than non-living things. We tend to see agency in everything, and children have it more than adults, suggesting that it has an inborn element.

 

…The other interesting effect of this is that we treat virtual people as real people. …[W]hen we interact with “friends” on social-networking sites or through texting, it can feel like we’re getting quality social contact, but we are not. It turns out that face-to-face interaction with other people—real people, right in front of us, not characters on TV or friends we communicate via text messages—is absolutely vital for longevity and happiness. In fact, it is a larger contributor than exercise or diet! …’

Source: Nautilus

Why We’ll Have Evidence of Aliens—If They Exist—By 2035

‘The rapid growth in digital processing means that far larger swaths of the radio dial can be examined at one go and—in the case of the Allen array—many star systems can be checked out simultaneously. The array now examines three stars at once, but additional computer power could boost that to more than 100. Within two decades, SETI experiments will be able to complete a reconnaissance of 1 million star systems, which is hundreds of times more than have been carefully examined so far. SETI practitioners from Frank Drake to Carl Sagan have estimated that the galaxy currently houses somewhere between 10,000 and a few million broadcasting societies. If these estimates are right, then examining 1 million star systems could well lead to a discovery. So, if the premise of SETI has merit, we should find a broadcast from E.T. within a generation.

 

…Furthermore, scientists have been diversifying. For two decades, some SETI researchers have used conventional optical telescopes to look for extremely brief laser flashes coming from the stars. In many ways, aliens might be more likely to communicate by pulsed light than radio signals, for the same reason that people are turning to fiber optics for Internet access: It can, at least in principle, send 100,000 times as many bits per second as radio can.

 

…Physicists have also proposed wholly new modes of communications, such as neutrinos and gravitational waves. Some of my SETI colleagues have mulled these options, but we don’t see much merit in them at the moment. Both neutrinos and gravitational waves are inherently hard to create and detect. In nature, it takes the collapse of a star or the merger of black holes to produce them in any quantity. The total energy required to send “Hello, Earth” would be daunting, even for a civilization that could command the resources of a galaxy. …It is hard to imagine that aliens would go to the trouble of smashing together two huge black holes for a second’s worth of signal.

 

But there is a completely different approach that has yet to be explored in much detail: to look for artifacts—engineering projects of an advanced society. Some astronomers have suggested an alien megastructure, possibly an energy-collecting Dyson sphere, as the explanation for the mysterious dimming of Tabby’s star (officially known as KIC 8462852). It is a serious possibility, but no evidence has yet been found to support it.

…It’s also conceivable that extraterrestrials could have left time capsules in our own solar system, perhaps millions or billions of years ago, on the assumption that our planet might eventually evolve a species able to find them. The Lagrange points in the Earth-moon system—locations where the gravity of Earth, moon, and sun are balanced, so that an object placed there will stay there—have been suggested as good hunting grounds for alien artifacts, as has the moon itself.

 

Another idea is that we should search for the high-energy exhausts of interstellar rockets. The fastest spacecraft would presumably use the most efficient fuel: matter combining with antimatter. Their destructive “combustion” would not only shoot the craft through space at a fair fraction of the speed of light, but would produce a gamma-ray exhaust, which we might detect…’

Source: Nautilus