Sandkings, by George R.R. Martin

I randomly found a link to an amazing short story by George R.R. Martin.  It is a sci-fi story about someone who buys a “fishtank” of tiny semi-sentient hivemind creatures who create small castle-based societies and busy themselves fighting each other.  I think it should be pretty clear why I would love it – go read it here.

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Naked moles

Naked mole rats have to be one of the ugliest and strangest creatures on the planet. I mean, just look at the guys: evolution is a cruel mistress. The mole rats are particularly cool because they are the only eusocial mammal – they have a highly structured social life, with a queen and different castes. This behavior is common in insects with ants, bees, termites, but mammals?  Weeeird.

These mole rats are found in eastern Africa and live entirely underground. Their eyes are so devolved that they can only tell whether it is light or dark. Thanks to these little guys, I learned there is more to this whole “herbivore” vs. “carnivore” dichotomy than I thought: they are “radicivores” meaning they eat only tubers. But in fact they farm tubers! When they find one, they will eat the inside and then let it grow back. In this way, a single tuber can feed a colony for weeks to months. Also, strangely, the mole rats eat their own poo in order to get the maximal amount of nutrients out of everything they eat. Oh, and they don’t drink water and can’t feel pain. Didn’t I say they were strange?

nacktmull
The rats – even though they aren’t really rats, they are more closely related to hamsters – have a social structure with a queen at the top of the hierarchy. The rest of the colony is split into castes with some specialized as tunnelers, some as warriors, some as foragers, etc. The fattest and laziest caste sits around until one day they decide to wander off and start a new colony. After the queen of a colony dies, the remaining females fight to be the queen, upon which the winning female grows an inch or so and starts popping out huge numbers of babies. Because of this structure, individual colonies are incredibly inbred and their individual DNA is virtually identical. In fact, they are so socialized that if they are kept alone they will die. They need their hive!

The foragers use their giant teeth to dig through the dirt and create large underground tunnels, attempting to run into tubers at random. Great strategy. Their teeth are actually on the outside of the mouths, and can be moved individually, like chopsticks. In fact, up to a third of their cortex is devoted to their mouth area! That is ridiculous, oh silly naked mole rats. Now I suggest you watch this movie about them, and gaze in some awe.

Social Bonobos

Oh TED talks, will you ever stop being interesting. This talk is something I’ve posted on my gchat before, but it’s really, really cool so I hope you watch it.

One question that has been rumbling around in the back of my head concerns the uniqueness of the human mind. Science throughout history has continually displaced humanity from the center of the universe and told us that we are not special. Modern science (and neuroscience) continues to do that. Tool use? Pah! You can teach rodents to use a rake! Social coordination? Ants! Language? Maybe there we have something – although who knows? Birds sometimes seem like they might be able to do that. And the conceit that language is always auditory is almost certainly false – it is quite likely that other creatures use other methods of communication in ways equivalent to our languages. Maybe they are using chemicals?

Probably the largest difference is in our ability to socially communicate culture. Modern humans aren’t significantly more intelligent than man from hundreds of thousands of years ago – we just have culture. All those things that you would ask, “How could someone not know how to do that?” is the result of deep acculturation. I think this video of Bonobos should make that clear.

But I think that humanity is really exacerbating that advantage. Note pads allow us to extend our memory. Books enhance cultural transmission. The Internet can increase socialization (through Facebook, Twitter, etc.). And so on and so forth. I think may be something of a contentious issue in philosophy, though I haven’t actually read the article yet.

Also, apparently people film Bonobos having sex and make other humans watch it. Strange.