Animal House

Getting to the aforementioned serious content…

Among the many topics I wanted to write about this week, four involved animals. Let’s make things easy and cover them all in one entry.

California legislator wants to ban cloning of pets

California legislator Lloyd Levine has introduced a bill that would ban the sale of cloned or genetically modified pets in California. This is a growth industry, with prices falling for cloned cats and research underway to bring dogs to market. Genetic Savings and Clone offers cat cloning for $32,000 and another company, Allerca, is working to develop pets that won’t upset human allergies. From the L.A. Times:

Cloning hurts animals, exploits grieving pet owners and is unnecessary in a state that kills more than a million unwanted dogs and cats each year, said Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys), whose bill, AB 1428, would make it illegal to sell cloned pets in California.

Randall Parker thoroughly rebuts the bill’s proponents with his post on Future Pundit, so I’ll limit myself to a comment on Levine’s selective nanny statism. Levine argues that companies like Genetic Savings and Clone mislead their customers and exploit their grief. However, GS&L’s claims are quite modest:

Will a pet clone have the same behavior as the genetic donor?

It�s well established that genes influence two key components of behavior�intelligence and temperament�which is why golden retrievers tend to behave differently than pit bulls. Of course a clone doesn’t inherit the memories and experiences of its genetic donor; it’s a unique individual, like an identical twin born later. But if a clone is raised in a similar way as its genetic donor, you�ll probably see behavioral similarities.

Besides, should the government really be concerned about the possibly frivolous choices made by people who can afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars on a pet, especially when doing so appears to make them happy? The consumer protection angle is utter bunk.

Interestingly, Levine is the cosponsor of another recent bill that would allow assisted suicide for terminally ill patients in California:

The bill’s sponsors, Democratic Assembly members Patty Berg and Lloyd Levine, frame the measure as protective of individual privacy, autonomy and dignity. Berg, of Santa Rosa, and Levine, of Van Nuys, accepted several amendments to assuage lawmakers’ concerns that people could be coerced into committing suicide, or that the bill would eventually lead to involuntary euthanasia.

The bill “is about the freedom of the individual to make choices — the freedom for your choices to be different from my choices,” said Berg.

Apparently Levine believes that people are fit to make wrenching life or death decisions about how they should be treated when they’re gravely sick, but that they lose all sense of rationality when deciding whether or not to splurge on a replacement for little Fifi. I’m all for politicians invoking individual privacy, autonomy, and dignity, but would rather they not throw them out the window when it comes to their own pet causes (haha).

Genetic engineering may not be the only way to affect our pets. What about giving the animals themselves technology? Which brings us to…

Animal cyborgs

Marginal Revolution points to this Wired review of Augmented Animals:

Natural evolution has produced the eye, butterfly wings and other wonders that would put any inventor to shame. But who’s to say evolution couldn’t be improved with the help of a little technology?
So argues James Auger in his controversial and sometimes unsettling book, Augmented Animals. A designer and former research associate with MIT Media Lab Europe, Auger envisions animals, birds, reptiles and even fish becoming appreciative techno-geeks, using specially engineered gadgets to help them overcome their evolutionary shortcomings, promote their chances of survival or just simply lead easier and more comfortable lives.

On tap for the future: Rodents zooming around with night-vision survival goggles, squirrels hoarding nuts using GPS locators and fish armed with metal detectors to avoid the angler’s hook.

Check out the photo gallery for an imaginative look at these possibilies. On a more serious note, Auger suggests stimulating farm animals’ pleasure centers to allow them to live a life of bliss while trapped on a factory farm. Conjuring shades of Robert Nozick’s experience machine, the thought is disturbing. But should it be any more disturbing that the suffering millions of animals go through every day to support our eating habits?

The review adds:

If the debate over animal augmentation is still in its infancy, it will likely only grow along with advances in technology. Ultimately, some theorists argue, humans may have to decide whether they have a moral duty to help animals cross the divide that separates the species by giving them the ability to acquire higher mental functions — a theme explored in apocalyptic films such as Planet of the Apes and The Day of the Dolphin.

“With children, the insane and the demented we are obliged, when we can, to help these ‘disabled citizens’ to achieve or regain their full self-determination,” says Dr. James J. Hughes, executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and author of Citizen Cyborg. “We have the same responsibility to enhance the intelligence and communication abilities of great apes, and possibly also of dolphins and elephants, when we have the means to do so. Once they are sufficiently enhanced, they can make decisions for themselves, including removing their augmentation.”

On mentioning that theme, it’s curious that the author mentioned Planet of the Apes and The Day of the Dolphin but not David Brin’s Uplift novels. They’re very good and provide a much more favorable view of animal augmentation. It doesn’t have to be apocalyptic!

But getting back to factory farms…

Autism and animal feelings

One of the most interesting books I’ve read in a while is Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation. Grandin is autistic, a trait that has given her a unique talent for understanding animals and seeing the world from their points of view. Her basic argument is that both animals and autistic humans differ from normal humans by perceiving the world with hyper-specificity. This has allowed her to make a living reforming slaughterhouse practices, noticing the little details that fly right by human handlers but scare the hell out of the animals.

The book, co-authored with Catherine Johnson, reads in a conversational style and delivers fascinating anecdotes along with its many insights. It’s occasionally repetitive but never boring. Though often speculative, Grandin clearly states when her claims are based on extensive scientific research and when they’re derived from her personal experiences with animals.

The most controversial chapters are the concluding ones on “how animals think” and “animal genius,” in the latter of which she compares animals to autistic savants. The examples range from stunning feats animals perform in nature, like birds learning complex migration routes or squirrels remembering the locations of hundreds of nuts they’ve buried, to domestic helper dogs becoming alert to imperceptible (to humans) signs that their owners are about to have a seizure. Even Clever Hans is partially redeemed, for even if he couldn’t do math it was a pretty good trick for him to pick up on when his testers wanted him to stop stamping his hoof.

The one part of the chapter where I would have liked to see a more balanced view was her discussion of animal language. Grandin discusses the grey parrots that have been famously trained by Irene Pepperberg to communicate with the humans around them. Remarkably, they’ve learned to carry categories like color, shape, or matter across domains, applying them to novel objects. For example, Dr. Pepperberg can take an item that her most famous parrot, Alex, has never seen before, and he can name the color with a high degree of accuracy. Specific anecdotes about other grey parrots are also impressive. One in New York named N’kisi has reportedly employed verbs in the past tense, going so far as use the word “flied.” That’s an incredibly suggestive anecdote because it’s unlikely the parrot heard anyone around him using that incorrect form of the irregular verb; the mistake implies he picked up the add “-ed” to a word to make it past tense rule and overapplied it.

That’s all very interesting, but it’s not always clear in Grandin’s discussions about it what has been peer reviewed and what is just an anecdote that may be impossible to verify or replicate. Grandin doesn’t make any claims as to what language abilities parrots and other animals have; she just uses the examples to illustrate how much we still have to learn about animal abilities. Nonetheless, given the implications of the parrot examples, some skepticism and criticism should have been included.

(And just how reliable are the reports about N’Kisi? According to his owner, Aimee Morgana, he can do more than use grammar. He’s even telepathic!

[N’kisi] has been allowed to develop his own creative relationship to language as a means of self-expression. N’kisi speaks in sentences, showing a grasp of grammar in formulating his own original expressions. He is capable of actual conversations. He often initiates comments about what we are doing, feeling, looking at, thinking, etc, which is how we discovered his ability to read minds. N’kisi often demonstrates telepathy in spontaneous situations, and also communicates love, compassion, and a keen sense of humor.

Reading Animals in Translation, one would never know that N’kisi’s owner is such a whack job. The credibility of the source should have been assessed!)

That’s a small complaint about an otherwise very interesting book, though. If you like animal and human psychology, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable read.

And finally, an all animal entry wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Australian Fish Museum…

The tassled anglerfish

Mark McGrouther sent this one in just after the last fish was posted here. Mark says:

The fish is the tasselled anglerfish. It’s an amazingly camouflaged fish that is only found in southern waters of Australia. Check out
Unfortunately the web-friendly images don’t do the fish justice. The originals are much clearer, but too big for the web.

He’s right, the camouflage on this fish is really amazing. Have a look at the third picture to see how effective it is.


1 thought on “Animal House”

  1. i watched the anglerfish battle on iron chef. they have like, 7 zillion bones.

    it was really gross.

    i still think they’re weird. i don’t want to pet one, or eat one.

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