Chimpanzee Trafficking: A Growing Threat

Conservationists are well aware of the major threats to chimpanzee survival.  Not surprisingly, all of these threats are anthropogenic in naturehabitat loss, disease transmission, and hunting.  Raising awareness about these issues is important, because it can make people realize that our actions are directing affecting chimpanzee welfare and safety.  As overwhelming and complex as these issues are, chimpanzees now face another growing anthropogenic threat: great ape trafficking.

Great ape trafficking itself is not new, conservationists have known about the trade for decades.  However, in recent years technology and demand for live chimpanzees in zoos has increased the number of chimpanzees exported overseas.  To make matters worse many countries in West and Central Africa do not have effective policies for preventing wildlife trafficking.  This has resulted in chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas becoming the target of animal traffickers in countries like Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea and Senegal.  A live chimpanzee infant is worth $5,000-20,000 from zoos in North America, Europe and Asia.

Illegal Trade In Guinea

Recent developments in Guinea are an example of the grave threat great ape trafficking poses to chimpanzee survival in the wild.  Over the past 3 years it is estimated that over 130 chimpanzees have been smuggled from Guinea by Chinese miners to Chinese zoos.  David Cress of the Pan-African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA) stated that “the Chinese are bringing their own labourers into remote areas and wildlife trafficking is a lucrative illegal trade.  Law enforcement for wildlife is non-existent in Guinea.  It’s likely that permits have been falsified or stolen for shipments to pass through.” (Tanna, 2012).  As China’s industrial presence throughout Africa expands, these trafficking incidents may grow.  At the moment, chimpanzees are being caught in crates and shipped overseas while corrupt and/or incompetent officials turn a blind eye.  If the status quo is maintained chimpanzee trafficking to zoos throughout the developed and developing world will continue to rise.

The severity of this problem cannot be emphasized strongly enough.  When I first read these reports I felt as though 130 trafficked chimpanzees was a relatively small number.  However, it is important to consider the fact that these traffickers target infants because they are the most financially valuable.  As a result, for every infant taken, several group members likely died attempting to protect it from capture.  This can have irreversibly negative affects on chimpanzee populations.  Chimpanzees have very slow reproduction rates and require a high degree of parental investment to survive.  Although hundreds of individual chimpanzees have been ripped from their family troops, thousands have suffered indirectly.

What Can We Do?

Great ape trafficking is a multi-continental global problem, however there are still things we can do on an individual level to prevent it from continuing.  The reason zoos are willing to spend $20,000 for a live chimpanzee is because they know hundreds of thousands of people will pay to see them in captivity.  When you visit zoos that have great apes, whether in North America, Europe or Asia, make sure you know where the great apes came from.  Were they born in captivity?  Or were they smuggled into the country illegally?  If we, as consumers, refused to give zoos that participate in great ape trafficking our money, there would be no sense for them to continue engaging in the destructive trade.  Raise awareness about this issue by sharing and discussing information related to great ape trafficking, and contact your local zoo to make sure you know about the origin of their chimpanzees.  If we allow this to continue, zoos may be the only remaining refuge for our closest relatives.

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Did Curiosity Discover Life on Mars?

On November 20, 2012, Curiosity’s chief scientist John Grotzinger told NPR that the Mars rover had made a discovery “for the history books” (Palca, 2012).  However, he was unable to elaborate on what exactly Curiosity has discovered because a team of NASA scientists still need to analyze and double-check the significance of the data (Gayle, 2012).  Hypotheses of what Curiosity discovered are varied.  Everything from presence of methane to the discovery of Martian life is a possibility (Hoover, 2012).

What Do We Know?

At the moment we know that Curiosity had been exploring the Rocknest area of the Gale Crater.  This site was covered with water at some time in the distant past (Gayle, 2012).  We also know that whatever the discovery was, it was made with the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument which is designed to sample Martian rock, soil or air and find out what it is composed of (Hoover, 2012).  We also know that the Curiosity Rover itself is teasing us via Twitter:

Curiosity tweet

What If It Is Life?

I personally believe that this discovery could be of microbial life.  If Curiosity found water, traces of methane or chemical conditions suitable for past and/or present life on Mars, those would all be great discoveries, however would they be discoveries “for the history books?”  Probably not.  Don’t get me wrong, they would be massive discoveries, but only the discovery of life on Mars would definitely be “for the history books.”  That statement, coupled with knowledge that Curiosity was exploring Rocknest and the SAM instrument could detect microbial life all indicate that NASA will announce the discovery of the first extra-terrestrial life ever discovered.  The announcement will be made in betweenDecember 3-7 at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

If Curiosity found life on Mars, what will it be composed of?  To me, this is the most significant question.  All life on Earth is composed of DNA.  If life on Mars turns out to be based on a different code that would be proof life independently evolved on another planet.  The ramifications of such a finding are far reaching.  The discovery would permanently dismantle any notion that our planet is the center of life in the universe.  Also, if microbial life evolved independently on Mars, there is increasing likelihood that life is abundant in the universe.  There would be an increased probability of finding life on other planetary bodies in our solar system (e.g., Europa, Titan, Venus), as well as increased probability of finding chemical signs of life on Earth-like exoplanets within the goldilocks zone of their parent star.

However, if life on Mars is based on DNA, this probably indicates that Earth and Mars share an extended biosphere.  Most scientists were surprised to find out that all life on Earth stemmed from one DNA-based common ancestor.  The chance of two forms of DNA-based life forms evolving independently on two different neighbouring planets is mathematically implausible.  It would be much more likely that at some point in the distant past Earth seeded Mars or Mars seeded Earth.  There are several extremophiles that can survive within rock and can withstand the environmental pressures of space, planetary entry, and impact (Impey, 2007).  If we find out that Earth seeded Mars, then it would be interesting to discover when that happened.  More interesting, if we find out that Mars seeded Earth, it could revolutionize the way we understand life on our planet.  It is possible that early in the Earth’s history DNA-based life forms were transported from Mars to Earth.  If this happened it seems evident that they outcompeted any complex organic compounds present and took over the early Earth’s biosphere.

Of course, I am getting way ahead of myself.  The Curiosity may not have made the biggest scientific discovery of our generation.  Astronomer Phil Plait has wisely suggested that we shouldn’t speculate.  He also said he doesn’t want to make any predictions of what was found.  But if it is the biggest discovery of our generation I want to make a prediction.  So here it is:

DNA-based microbial life, seeded from Earth (prediction 22/11/11)

I know that is the safe, and least interesting answer.  But I also think it is the most plausible.

References:

Gayle, D.  2012.  Mars Curiosity rover team set to announce ‘major discovery’ on surface of Red Planet that ‘will be one for the history books’.  Daily Mail.  Accessed November 22, 2012. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2236333/Curiosity-team-set-reveal-major-discovery-Martian-soil–just-yet.html

Hoover, N.  2012.  Mars Mystery: Here’s What We Know.  Information Week.  Accessed November 22, 2012.  http://www.informationweek.com/government/information-management/mars-mystery-heres-what-we-know/240142491

Impey, C.  2007.  The Living Cosmos.  New York: Random House.

Palca, J.  2012.  Big News From Mars?  Rover Scientists Mum For Now.  NPR.  Accessed November 22, 2012.  http://www.npr.org/2012/11/20/165513016/big-news-from-mars-rover-scientists-mum-for-now?utm_source=NPR&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=20121119

A ‘Great’ Crisis

I have been thinking a great deal about happiness and how we can best study the happiness of our species.  I will likely expound more on this topic in the coming months but a recent study caught my eye that I found quite insightful.  The study was led by psychologist Alexander Weiss, who investigated patterns of well-being in two great ape species: chimpanzees and orangutans (Coles, 2012).  In this study, Weiss and his colleagues wanted to understand if our closest relatives share the same general life pattern of well-being that humans seem to possess.  Social scientists have established that humans experience a U-shaped pattern of well-being.  This means that as a species we tend to experience greatest mental health in youth, become far less happy throughout midlife, and then become happier again in old age (Weiss et al., 2012).  This seems to be a general pattern regardless of various socio-cultural  and economic factors.  The study by Weiss et al. (2012) provide some evidence that this U-shaped well-being curve is an evolved predisposition that we share with our closest relatives.

In the study, 508 captive great apes of varying age ranges were rated based on their ‘happiness’.  However, happiness is notoriously difficult to study.  Many social scientists are still struggling to understand how to study happiness in humans.  Researchers decided that the best way to study happiness in apes was to survey the people who knew them best: their keepers.  In the survey happiness was rated using four criteria (Callaway, 2012):

1. The animals overall mood

2. How much pleasure they got out of socializing

3. Their success in achieving goals such as obtaining food and objects they desire

4. How happy the keeper would be if s/he were that animal for a week

The results of this survey indicated that individuals in their late 20s to mid-30s were significantly less happy than individuals younger and older (Weiss et al. 2012).  These results mirror the U-shaped happiness curve found in humans and raises some interesting questions about the evolutionary pressures that would have selected for these patterns.

Admittedly, the study is intensely anthropomorphic.  As primatologist Frans de Waal suggested, it would have been nice to see a harder measure of ape happiness (e.g., stress hormone levels) (Callaway, 2012).  Furthermore, I do think future studies should incorporate a more sophisticated methodology over a longer period of time before we can conclude with certainty that great apes experience a U-shaped well-being curve.  However, I think this study does give us some insight into our own happiness because it is relatively easy for keepers to gauge the mood of the apes they know so well and because the data had such strong conclusions.  So, if you trust the methodology what does this tell us about the evolutionary pressures that produced it?  Do these results mean that we are all destined to experience a mid-life crisis to some degree, regardless of socio-economic status and/or our own personal perception of age-appropriate achievement?

I believe that if a U-shaped curve is something we share with our closest relatives then it has probably been present for tens of millions of years throughout ape evolution and potentially primate evolution.  It is plausible to suggest that the main pressure for this U-shaped curve would be the need for increased adaptability during mid-life.  Generally speaking, young and old individuals are under less pressure to accumulate resources for survival and do not have the added burden of needing to increase biological fitness.  Perhaps being discontent increases the likelihood that an individual will put extra effort into acquiring more resources or finding a new/better mate.  It would make sense that there would be a strong selection pressure for this throughout our evolution because resources were so scarce and difficult to acquire.  Discontented middle-aged individuals would likely be able to out compete (and out survive) those middle-aged individuals that were content.

Either way, future research regarding great ape happiness needs to be conducted before we can be sure that the U-shaped curve is something they share with humans.  If future data indicate it is true, our only chance of minimizing the bottom of the U-shaped curve may be to genetically reprogram ourselves.

References

Callaway, E.  2012.  Great ape go through mid-life crisis.  Nature.  Accessed November 21, 2012. http://www.nature.com/news/great-apes-go-through-mid-life-crisis-1.11847

Coles, J.  2012.  Great apes may have ‘mid-life crisis’, a study suggests.  BBC Nature.  Accessed November 21, 2012. http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/20359229

Weiss, A. et al.  2012.  Evidence for a mid-life crisis in great apes consistent with the U-shaped in human well-being.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  doi: 10.1073/pnas.1212592109

Super Volcanoes: Our Biggest Threat?

There are few natural disasters that pose a severe threat to our global civilization.  Tens of thousands of years ago, when our species lived exclusively in East Africa in small bands of 250-500 individuals, an earthquake, volcano, tsunami or hurricane could have pushed us to the brink of extinction.  However, there is still one natural disaster that we should be wary of: a super volcano.  Super volcanoes are rare events; there are only 10 known eruptions in the past 25 million years.  Despite this, when they do occur, they radically alter the biosphere and destabilize global temperature and climate for decades, sometimes centuries.

What Are Super Volcanoes?

Super volcanoes were classified in the 1980s by using a Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI)(OurAmazingPlanet, 2011).  The VEI is a scale from one to eight that quantifies volcanic power, with each succeeding VEI being 10x greater than the last.  VEI 8 volcanic eruptions are classified as super volcanoes capable of reaching an ejecta volume of greater than 1000 km3.  Super volcanoes are thousands of times larger than normal volcanic eruption events (VEI 1).  Over the last 100,000 years our planet has experienced two VEI 8 eruptions.  One occurred 26,500 years ago in New Zealand and one occurred 74,000 years ago in what is today Lake Toba in Indonesia (Ninkovich, 1978).

Considerably more is known about the Lake Toba event, and all evidence indicates that it devastated the Austronesian and South Asian region (Owen, 2012).  The eruption itself may have lasted for more than two weeks producing pyroclastic flows (superheated gas and rock) that destroyed an area of 200,000 km2 and depositing over 600m of ash surrounding the site.  The effects of the blast were global, decreasing average temperature by 3-3.5 degrees Celsius for at least a decade and covering most of South Asia in 15cm of ash.

Around this time a few bands of our species had migrated out of East Africa into the Arabian Peninsula and areas of modern day India.  Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) evidence suggests that the super volcanic event seriously challenged our existence, slowed our expansion across Asia and led to a genetic bottleneck (Achenbach, 2005).  In between 50,000-100,000 years ago the human population fluctuated around 10,000 individuals (Impey, 2007).  If the genetic bottleneck was as severe as the mtDNA suggests, our population could have dwindled well below this average.  Many paleoanthropologists believe that in order to survive the global catastrophe, our species needed to fundamentally change our behaviour.  There is some evidence to suggest that post-eruption humans began ranging over longer distances in order to build more complex and stable trade networks that could withstand the destabilizing effects of such an event.

Will It Happen Again?

Volcanologists admit that it is exceptionally difficult to predict when a volcano will erupt, regardless of its potential size.  However, it is known that certain areas of the planet are hot spots for super volcanic activity in the past.  For example, Lake Toba, the site of the super volcanic eruption 74,000 years ago,seems to be on a 400,000 year cycle (Achenbach, 2005).  However, the super volcano underneath Yellowstone National Park may pose the most eminent threat to our species.  Although the Yellowstone supervolcano seems to be on a much longer cycle of approximately 2.0 million years, the last eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago producing one of the largest known eruptions in natural history.  If it were to erupt on a comparable scale to the eruptions 2.1, 4.5 and 6.0 million years ago the entire United States would need to be evacuated.  Most of the North America would be covered in a minimum of 1 cm of volcanic ash, and half of the United States would be covered in over 1 m of volcanic ash (Choi, 2012).  At least 2,500 km3 would be completely destroyed.  The ensuing volcanic winter would likely last for decades on a global scale and pose a significant threat to our civilization.  Although it is unlikely that it would cause complete extinction, it would probably take centuries to recover.

Luckily, most volcanologists agree that we shouldn’t expect the Yellowstone super volcano to erupt in our lifetime.  However, it is also probable that it will erupt soon on a geologic scale.  The restless caldera of red-hot molten lava is a hidden dragon underneath one of the world’s largest natural tourist attractions.  It may be impossible to predict exactly when the magma in the mantle will rise to the crust and break through, but it’s inevitable that it will happen one day.

References:

Achenbach, J.  2005.  Big Chill: How Toba’s eruption changed life on Earth.  National Geographic.  Accessed November 18 2012. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0503/resources_who.html

Choi, C.Q.  2012.  Yellowstone’s supervolcano: Where is lava likely to erupt?  MSNBC: Technology and Science.  Accessed November 18 2012. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/49037141/ns/technology_and_science/t/yellowstones-supervolcano-where-lava-likely-erupt/#.UKlBqJhijdk

Impey, C.  2007.  The Living Cosmos.  New York: Random House.

Ninkovich, D. et al.  1978.  The exceptional magnitude and intensity of the Toba eruption, Sumatra: An example of the use fo deep-sea tephra layers as a geological tool.  Bulletin of Volcanology, 41, 286-298.

OurAmazingPlanet Staff.  2011.  10 Biggest Volcanic Eruptions in History.  Accessed November 18 2012. http://www.ouramazingplanet.com/1436-volcanoes-biggest-history.html

Owen, J.  2012.  Supervolcano Rained Aced on Both Poles – But Wasn’t So Bad After All?  National Geographic.  Accessed November 18 2012. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/11/121107-toba-supervolcano-antarctica-ice-eruption-science/

The Universe’s Adolescent Pictures

During the early years of the 20th century most astronomers believed that the universe was static.  Even Albert Einstein incorporated the notion of the static and eternal universe in his equations.  After Edwin Hubble conclusively proved that the Universe was in fact expanding, Einstein admitted that describing the universe as static was “the greatest blunder of my life”.  Later observation revealed that the universe wasn’t just expanding – it was expanding at an accelerated pace.  Astronomers were puzzled and had no idea how to explain the accelerated expansion of the universe because their calculations revealed that there should be enough matter in the universe to eventually slow the expansion.  A hypothetical form of energy – dark energy – was used to explain the accelerated expansion.  Although dark energy has never been directly observed it is thought to permeate the entire universe.

Recent observations have continued to make the picture more confusing.  An international team of scientists revealed that there was a stage in the universe’s history when the expansion of the universe was decelerating.  These observations were made using the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), which is part of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.  The results indicate that when the universe was in between 2.5-7 billion years old, it was expanding at a decelerating pace.  This is perhaps what would have been expected before the understanding that the universe is currently expanding at an accelerated pace.  It now appears that for the first 2.5 billion years of the universe’s existence the force of the Big Bang caused rapid expansion, which was slowed in between 2.5-7 billion years due to the force of gravity.  Astronomers call the first 7 billion years the “matter-dominated” universe.

However the divide between the transition from decelerated-expansion to the current state of accelerated-expansion was sharp.  And if dark-energy is causing this expansion, how did it come to affect the universe when it did?  As many astronomers are now realizing this is one of the biggest questions in all of cosmology and the answer to it could have deep implications for the fate of the entire universe.  Most importantly, will dark energy continue to push the universe apart forever?  Or will gravity eventually re-gain control over the expansion and start a phase of contraction?

The answers to these questions depend on three important variables:

  • The overall shape of the universe
  • How much dark energy it contains
  • How dark energy density responds to continued expansion

It may surprise you to realize that scientists do not currently know for sure what the shape of the universe is.  There are thought to be three possibilities: closed, open and flat.  If the universe is closed (like a sphere) then it should eventually enter a phase of contraction, unless there are significantly more amounts of dark energy than presently hypothesized.  If the universe is open (like a saddle) or flat, than the universe will continue to expand forever.

The results of continued expansion or eventual contraction have far reaching consequences for the ultimate fate of the universe.  If the universe eventually enters a phase of contraction (i.e., gravity beats dark energy) than the universe will experience what is known as a Big Crunch.  During the Big Crunch the universe would return to the state at which it began, as a dimensionless singularity.  In this universe all of the galactic clusters and galaxies would start to get closer and closer together and the universe would start to get very warm, perhaps mirroring the state the universe was in during its infancy.  However, if accelerated-expansion continues (i.e., dark energy beats gravity) than the universe will likely experience a Big Freeze or Big Rip.  In a Big Freeze scenario everything would be so far apart that no more stars or galaxies would form and the universe would reach a temperature of absolute zero.  Or it is even possible that the universe could experience a Big Rip.  In this scenario all material objects in the universe would disintegrate because the universe would be accelerating so quickly that all objects would be ripped apart at a molecular level.  Current expansion is only accelerating a pace that affects objects on a galactic cluster scale of reality.

Unfortunately, at this stage in our knowledge about the development of the universe it is still premature to conclude with any certainty that one scenario is more plausible than another.  And the recent observations made by BOSS raise more questions and make our understanding of the universe more complicated than it was previously.  Could dark energy’s effects on our universe decrease in the future?  It appears as though dark energy’s effects have changed in the past (i.e. 6.5 billion years ago).  Could we be in a dark energy phase?  Could gravity start to re-assert control over accelerated-expansion?  Or is the universe now too big for gravity to pull it back together again?

The only way to know for sure will be to continue making observations and developing new technologies that will be able to reveal aspects of the universe that are currently unknown to us.  If the universe’s ‘adolescent’ pictures tell us anything, it is that we still have a lot to work out.  Either way, whether the universe expands forever, or eventually starts to contract, it will be tens of billions, if not trillions of years, before complex life (like us!) should begin to worry.

 

Communicating with Bonobos

On November 6, 2012, the world lost one of the most linguistically accomplished non-humans on the planet.  Her name was Panbanisha and she was a bonobo (Pan paniscus).  Panbanisha grew up in aHomo sapiens/Pan paniscus hybrid culture at the Language Research Center (LRC) in Georgia (Armstrong & Botzler, 2003).  Her entire life was a language experiment that taught us a great deal about the behavioural continuum separating humans from our closest living relatives.

When Panbanisha was born, language research with bonobos had already commenced with studies on Kanzi.  However, researchers knew more experiments needed to be conducted.  They wanted to understand how a young bonobo would develop linguistically with a linguistically competent bonobo present (i.e., Kanzi) and they wanted to see how bonobo and chimpanzee linguistic development differed (Armstrong & Botzler, 2003).  In order to test bonobo/chimpanzee linguistic difference they raised Panbanisha with a chimpanzee named Panzee.

When research started, Kanzi had already learned 256 symbols using a lexigram.  Therefore, Panbanisha and Panzee were exposed to complex communications from the very first weeks of life.  As a result, they acquired language much quicker than did Kanzi (e.g., Krasnegor et al., 1991).  The effects of Panbanisha’s early exposure to language seemed to have a significant effect on her subsequent development.  Both Panbanisha and Panzee understood and used words through direct linguistic training and also through passively listening to human-human conversation.  Their competency was best displayed in a series of tests to see how well they could understand unique sentences.  At the age of 7.5, Kanzi, Panbanisha and Panzee could respond correctly ~75% of the time to unique sentences that required more than a yes or no response.  In comparison, an intelligent two-year-old child can accomplish the same task with a ~65% success rate (Hillix & Rumbaugh, 2003).  However, PET scans revealed that both Panbanisha and Panzee had superior information-processing skills when compared to Kanzi, which increased their ability to process verbal material.  This demonstrated that rearing may be a more powerful variable than species (e.g., bonobo/chimpanzee) when it comes to comprehending and using language (Armstrong & Botzler, 2003).

Conversation with Panbanisha also revealed that she connected deep meaning to the words she was using.  Here is an excerpt from a conversation she had with one of her trainers in the early 2000s (Hillix & Rumbaugh, 2003):

Panbanisha: Milk, Sugar

Liz: No, Panbanisha, I’d get in a lot of trouble if I gave you milk with sugar.

Panbanisha: Give milk, sugar.

Liz: No, Panbanisha, I’d get in so much trouble.  Here’s some milk.

Panbanisha: Milk, sugar.  Secret.

Panbanisha’s understanding of the word, “secret,” provides evidence of incredibly complex thought.  Still there were obvious limitations.  Geoffrey Pullum, a linguist at the University of California stated, “I do not believe that there has ever been an example anywhere of a nonhuman expressing an opinion or asking a question.  It would be wonderful if animals could say things about the world, as opposed to just signaling a direct emotional state or need.  But they just don’t” (Raffaele, 2006).  Furthermore, neither Panbanisha nor Panzee developed the ability to communicate using human-like sounds.  ThePan vocal tract is different than the human vocal tract because they lack a descended larynx.  The human larynx descends shortly after infancy allowing us to make a seemingly infinite number of vocalizations (Hillix & Rumbaugh, 2003).  However, the Pan vocal tract does permit for the production of more sounds than they do produce, which could mean that both chimpanzees and bonobos lack the neural connections necessary to fine-tune the vocal apparatus and produce human-like sounds and language (Hillix & Rumbaugh, 2003).

Despite this, Panbanisha showed us that bonobos can and do participate in meaningful discourse interactions with humans (Benson et al, 2004).  She communicated her emotions, feelings and developed strong linguistic bonds with three species (i.e., chimpanzees, bonobos and humans).  She also learned how to make and use stone tools, which also sheds light on the mental capacities necessary for complex tool construction.

Did Panbanisha prove that nonhumans can use language?  This research may have shown us that this question is too simplistic.  There is clearly a linguistic continuum.  There are several aspects of human language that Panbanisha never displayed.  However, she was able to understand English sentences and respond meaningfully to them.  She could not express ideas or opinions, but she could express her feelings and desires.  She could not use language vocally, but she could master language symbolically.  This research also showed that when it comes to language, early development is crucial.  Without exposure to language at an early age maximal linguistic potential can never fully develop.

Whether Panbanisha used language is also subject to definitions.  If language is any means of communication between two entities, then clearly she was quite advanced on the continuum of linguistic competency.  If language means creating meaningful units from meaningless units and combining them according to certain rules and then turning those units into meaningful phrases and sentences, then Panbanisha did not break the language barrier, and no other nonhuman ever has either (Hillix & Rumbaugh, 2003).

Panbanisha’s life taught us a great deal, not only about what separates our species, but also what makes us unique.  Although she died too young (26), she leaves behind one surviving offspring (Nyota) at The Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa (The Stone Age Institute, 2012).  Future research into the origins of language, language acquisition and interspecies vocal communication will continue to build on what we were able to learn from her accomplishments.

Panbanisha lexigram Panbanisha (Pan paniscus) (November 17, 1985 – November 6, 2012)

References

Armstrong & Botzler.  2003.  The Animal Ethics Reader.  Routledge.

Benson et al.  2004.  Mind and brain in apes: a mathodology for phonemic analysis of vocalizations of language competent bonobos.  Language Sciences, vol. 24, 543-660.

Hillix & Rumbaugh.  2003.  Animal Bodies, Human Minds: Ape, Dolphin and Parrot Language Skills.  Springer.

Krasnegor, et al.  1991.  Biological and behavioural determinants of language development.

Raffaele, P.  2012.  Speaking Bonobo.  Smithsonian Magazine.

The Stone Age Institute.  In Memorium – Panbanisha: 1985-2012.

Rethinking Education

 

Throughout history, Aristotle has been idealized as the perfect tutor.  He was the best scientist and philosopher in the ancient world and had a deep understanding of almost every subject known to the ancient Greeks.  As a result he was hired by Philip II of Macedon to tutor his son, Alexander the Great.  Unfortunately, this ideal model of hiring the most intelligent and knowledgeable person of the age to personally tutor your child was not a feasible teaching model for mass education programs that began during the industrial revolution.  As C.G.P. Grey elucidated in a recent YouTube video there are a) not enough humans on earth for every child to have a personal tutor, b) even if there were, that would be horrifically expensive and c) not every tutor can be as good as Aristotle.  Furthermore, in contemporary times no human can know all there is to know about every subject.  The amount of knowledge our global civilization has accumulated is so vast that even experts in one very specific sub-field have a difficult time knowing every single aspect of their field of study.

As a result of these limitations early mass-education models attempted to structure education in the same basic way all other mass-production was being structured.  Children were organized by age cohort and made to work their way through a one-size fits all curriculum structure.  There would be one instructor for each subject and lots of students in every classroom.  Actual class time would be used for passive learning with an instructor telling you what s/he knows about a given subject.  Problem solving would be reserved for ‘homework’ when you are away from your instructor and fellow classmates.  At every stage of the standardized curriculum children perceived to be excelling would be streamlined for higher education and children perceived to be falling behind would be streamlined for working sector jobs.

This early model may have been the best that the 19th century had to offer future generations, but 200 years later we should be able to offer a better educational structure.  The traditional education structure is inherently problematic and is not conducive to maximizing learning potential.  However, as stated above, we cannot all have a “personal Aristotle” so what is the solution?  Many new educators are proposing some form of “digital Aristotle”.  New technologies have created new media and a new way to learn.  In the future, our education systems may be completely redesigned.  The architects of this future education system have been working on it for several years now.

Efforts like Project Halo and Khan Academy are focused on completely restructuring education.  Project Halo is a multi-staged effort to create an application that will possess the world’s scientific knowledge and be capable of tutoring and instructing students in the sciences and assisting scientists with their research (Friedland et al. 2012).  Khan Academy on the other hand, has already had a transformative effect on education.  It is a non-profit educational organization created by Salman Khan that offers thousands of free online video tutorials of subjects ranging from mathematics, biology, history, economics, computer science and more.  As I’m writing, Khan Academy has delivered more than 200 million lectures and over a million students a month are watching the site.

The Khan Academy believes that with online video students can learn at their own pace by pausing and repeating the videos as much as they need to.  Salman Khan has released a new book titled The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined arguing that the Khan Academy model can flip the classroom.  Currently, school is organized so that students go to class and passively learn.  However, under the Khan Academy model you would listen to online lectures on your own time and at your own pace, and go to class to problem solve.  This removes the one-size-fits-all curriculum model and allows students to get more out of the classroom experience.  Instead of having 30 plus students passively listening to a lecturer, you would have an environment where students could work with other students to solve problems.  Additionally, instructors could spend their time helping students solve problems instead of explaining the material in a rigid curriculum.

There are a few more interesting YouTube channels that reflect the Khan Academy philosophy as well (e.g., Crash CourseVeritasiumMinute Physics), and they are being used in schools more and more to change the way education is structured.  However, these videos are not designed to be personal tutors.  If the Khan Academy is used properly or efforts like Project Halo become realized, students would have access to computer programs that tutor students individually by pulling from a library of videos.  The program would adapt to the way the student learns and would progress at the pace which that individual needs to be successful.  It is possible that everyone will have their very own digital Aristotle, and there is no reason why it needs to be restricted to the classroom or the traditional schooling process.  It is entirely possible that everyone will have their Digital Aristotle with them throughout life, teaching them what they need to know at age and time appropriate intervals.

Education has long been in need of an overhaul.  The idea that we can re-structure our system and better educate the next generation of professionals is not a new one.  However, new technologies make re-structuring a real possibility in a way that was impossible before.  At the moment the industrial model remains intact.  How long before it falls to the relentless progression of increasingly personalized 21st century computer technologies?

References

Friedman et al. 2012.  Project Halo: Towards a Digital Aristotle.  AI Magazine, Vol. 25