Tuesday, 17 April 2012

A Human Evolutionary Battle of the Technological Titans for the Undisputed World Heavyweight Championship of Nest Building: Castor Canadensis VS. Pongo pygmaeus

Round 1: In which Pongo makes a nest (Credit)

In the world of ethology one group stands head and shoulders [well, head, anyway] above the rest--primatologists. Unlike their scholarly kindred primatologists can make a claim that's unique among those who study animal behaviour. That is, they can always justify their days spent grunting, hooting and chest beating, and walking about on all fours so as to acclimatize their subjects to their presence by arguing that they are investigating behaviours that might [a mighty might, that] have a bearing on our understanding of how humanity dragged itself up out of the primordial muck savannah dust to stand erect and eventually to free its hands for tool making or rickshaw pulling and in the process enslaved its feet, qua pedal extremities, qua locomotory appurtenances, forever [credit goes to my old acquaintance Gary Richards for that bit of podial insight].
Jane Goodall in the early 1960s
     Indeed, since the time Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire Valerie Jane Morris-Goodall removed herself from her (probably girlie) English roots to insinuate herself into Pan trogolodytes (chimpanzee) society on the shores of Lake Tanganyika at Gombe, revelations about the human-like behaviour of the great apes [other than humans] have punctuated an otherwise brutally hot, sometimes deadly, but always physically and emotionally difficult vocation. 
Gombe (© 2003 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.)

Dame Goodall has shown us that chimps pull the leaves off of twigs to enable them to reach into termite mounds to attract termites for consumption [or did some oblivious ranch-hand inadvertently show one of them how to do it, resulting in a new 'tradition' amongst the group?]. Crumpling leaves to make sponges to extract water from puddles also emerged from the studies at Gombe [so, too, did brutal rape, torture and cannibalism of fellow anthropoids, but we won't dwell on that. At least we can be certain that it wasn't the same oblivious ranch-hand that taught them those things...].

     And yesterday comes fresh news of the startling cognitive capabilities of a great ape--Pongo pygmaeus, the orangutan. This animal is, by all accounts, something of a nest-building, evolutionarily precocious, civil engineer! van Casterena et al.'s 'Nest-building orangutans demonstrate engineering know-how to produce safe, comfortable beds' [published online before print April 16, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1200902109, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS)] brings us face to face with ... ourselves [albeit about 12 million years in the past]. Like the good anthropologists the authors are, they've thoroughly anthropomorphized this animal's actions by deeming it 'engineering' and saying as much in print, in a scholarly journal [albeit one about which there are serious questions as to the seriousness of the review process]. This adds to the long list of claims made in behalf of science [the list I've just alluded to] for the other members of what's come to be known as the Homininae,* the Linnaean Family that includes you and me.
But, before you get too caught up in the weltanschauung of willy-nilly anthropomorphizing that permeates higher primate studies, let me bring you back down to the ground. Remember this little furry rodent? Castor canadensis? They build 'nests' too! Only theirs are permanent, unlike those of primates [which are constructed from scratch at least once a day], and are sometimes fairly large structures. Did I say 'fairly' large?
One recently observed in Alberta is an incredible 850 metres long! That's about half a mile! Have a look! Like the Great Wall, you can see this thing from space (thanks to Google Earth). These piccies are from a MailOnline article touting the [ahem] 'engineering' capabilities of this relatively small-brained, furry creature.
The brown area has been denuded by Beaver logging. The water flow is toward the top of the picture. The arrows point to two beaver lodges (themselves quite elegant feats of 'engineering'). There must be myriad smaller ones, considering these ones, too, can be viewed from a satellite orbiting the Earth!
Giving credit where credit is due, the lead author of the orang nest article did say this in an interview.
'We think the skills you'd need to build such a sophisticated nest are on a par with those you'd need to make and use tools, so require a similar cognitive ability. In this context, it would be interesting to investigate nest-building by other animals like beavers and birds,' says van Casteren [click here for the full story of this quote].
I wonder what they'd conclude from a 'study' of the other nest builders. Chances are it won't be that our closest relatives are on a par with beavers and bower birds. Nuh-uh. They'll be lumping beavers and beaked dinosaurs with humans and the other great apes! I mean, really, what else can you say, on present understanding, than that most mammals are capable of some very complex behaviours, that are often, in part, learned from conspecifics. So, it seems, are birds. So are bees and mud wasps. So, too, are web-building spiders! If you wanted to take this whole anthropomorphic engineering meme to its logical conclusion, you could probably see evidence of cognition on a par with humans in the colonial habits of some single-celled organisms. Where does it stop?? 
     If I had my 'druthers it would stop here, with the sensible conclusion that our closest relations are clever mammals. Full stop. Let's face it, the nesting behaviours we're witnessing amongst, for example, Pan and Pongo were probably extant at the time of the last common ancestor, so we're not talking about some inevitable trajectory from nest building (however 'clever' it might seem to us primatologically impoverished humans) to modern human cognitive abilities--such as the ability to understand what these pixels are meant to mean to you. And even if we could possibly understand what it takes in the way of brain function to make a bloody orangutan nest, all we'll have done is identify an ability that's (conservatively) about 12 million years old. So. What!
     I think the study of our primate relations is important (if only 'cause they might not be around forever). But let's get serious about the implications of what we observe.
     I'll now go back to my torpid state.

* I, however, will continue to refer to this small group of extant and fossil forms as belonging to the Superfamily Hominoidea, and to the Families Pongidae, and Panidae, Gorillidae and Hominidae. Unlike so many of my siblings in the biological/physical anthropology clade of the academy, I'm not taken in by the vocal claims of the primatologists that certain behaviours amongst our closest genetic relatives makes them any more human than they were before Johnny Weismüller and Cheetah cavorted in the treetops together before Jane came along [all churlish innuendo intended!] Thus, I am not convinced by the recent, arbitrary revision of the Superfamily Hominoidea, and I will cleave to the taxonomy I've just outlined until either a) someone persuades me to think otherwise, or b) I expire.


  1. My lord, I enjoy this blog!! I hesitate to disturb you from your torpidity to offer my small token of appreciation, but I legitimately get riled up whenever I read you latest post. Plus my sides hurt from laughing. Thanks.

  2. I'll tell my own little just so story. Many an anthropologist has suffered a sheltered suburban upbringing and consequently incline toward absurdities that ignore the context of the natural world of which they are often generally inexperienced.

    Scavenger theory of the '60's was one such laughable idea. Try actually walking through the wilds and finding enough dead yet edible animals to live off of sometime.

  3. @cath
    You're way too kind! Your sides may be aching, but have a thought for your poor subversive. My little head is spreading at its sigmoid sutures it's growing so big thanks to your compliment. Ouch!
    You're right about your average urbane anthropologist. But don't hyaenas manage to do all right by scavenging a lot of the time? You just can't be too choosy about what you stick your snout in...if you catch my drift...no haute cuisine that!


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