Book Review: Law of the Jungle

LawOfJungleMore Law than Jungle

The rainforest is a bit player in this story of legal machinations, corporate greed, and the exploitation of the poor. The case at the heart of Law of the Jungle—Aguinda v. Texaco Inc.—pitted poor Ecuadorian farmers against petroleum giant Texaco. It alleged that between 1964 and 1992, the oil giant’s South American operations resulted in pollution, environmental degradation, and an increase in illness among people who live in the region. Counting appeals and subsequent lawsuits, the legal battle has raged for two decades and counting.

It’s not surprising that the oil company’s efforts to clean up drilling sites in Ecuador were negligible, but, as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Ecuador shares liability for the degradation of its own rainforests. Adding to the complexity of the case, attorney Steven Donziger, who fought the good fight on behalf of the poor Ecuadorians also, at times, apparently fought dirty. In detailing the legal maneuverings, author Paul M. Barrett’s narrative pays scant attention to the true victims, the rainforest and the people and wildlife affected by the oil operations.

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Book Review: Animal Wise

Animal WiseSeveral themes emerged while reading Virginia Morell’s Animal Wise (recently issued in paperback from Broadway Books), beyond the obvious and overarching message—that humans are animals rather than occupying a separate and exalted plane of existence (the book emphasizes similarities rather than differences in the minds of humans and nonhumans).

Many of the animal researchers whose work is chronicled in this book stumbled into their careers. Neuroscientist Stefan Schuster’s studies into decision-making and imitation among archerfish arose from a “mistake,” when an aquarium he ordered for home amusement was too large, so he brought it to his lab. Parrot researcher Karl Berg majored in business and economics until he took on ornithology course “for fun.” Ethologist Adam Miklosi, known for his canine cognitive studies, initially thought that trying to get inside the minds of dogs was a terrible, crazy idea. Psychologist Louis Herman was with rats when he fell into his “unintended career” as an dolphin cognition expert.

They often describe their subjects as “colleagues” or collaborators. Some describe being deeply affected by a single animal. For Irene Pepperberg, it was Alex, the African gray parrot she famously studied for three decades. For Steve Ross, director of Lincoln Park Zoo’s Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, it was a chimpanzee named Drew.

This engaging volume by science writer Morell grew out of assignments for Science and National Geographic which took her around the globe to interview experts studying elephants, chimpanzees, monkeys, whales, lions, and more. This crash course in animal behavior led to her asking questions about the mental and emotional lives of animals.

Animal lovers will of course be drawn to the spectrum of species discussed, but the human cast of characters is equally intriguing. Take Nigel Franks, the ant researcher who painstakingly paints his subjects so he can differentiate them from one another, or neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, who spends his days happily tickling rats.

From a primatological perspective, of particular interest are findings that show chimpanzees outperform humans at a specific type of memory test) test than humans, and that gorillas (often thought of as less intelligent than other apes) are better on touch-screen cognitive challenges than chimps. (Not surprisingly, chimpanzees’ poor impulse control affects their score.) A fascinating chapter on canine intelligence proposes that, in some areas, dogs’ cognitive abilities are more humanlike than that of chimps.

Animal enthusiasts may find some of the case studies chronicled here already familiar, but the collection of interviews and the authors’ insights add up to a wholly satisfying read.

Disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the Blogging for Books program, the receipt of which did not affect the opinions stated herein.

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July 8, 2014 · 5:04 am

Music to Soothe the Savage Simian

While preferring silence to Japanese taiko music, chimpanzees apparently like to listen to the different rhythms of music from Africa and India, according to new research published by the American Psychological Association.

The short-term study exposed 16 chimps at Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University to bouts of African, Indian, and Japanese music. When African akan and Indian raga music was played near their outdoor enclosures, the chimps spent significantly more time in areas where they could best hear the music. The Japanese music had the opposite reaction: the chimps typically moved away from the sound.

“Chimpanzees may perceive the strong, predictable rhythmic patterns as threatening,” said Frans de Waal, Ph.D., author of must-read primatology texts including Peacemaking among Primates and Chimpanzee Politics, and co-author of the study. The predictable rhythmic patters may sound too much like the stomping and banging that chimps often use in dominance displays.

This study brought to mind this video of chimpanzees at Chimp Haven, a Louisiana-based ape sanctuary, reacting to the beat of visiting drummers. “Much to our surprise, males and females responded differently to the drumming,” a Chimp Haven rep writes. “Many of the males would display while the music was playing but stop when the music stopped.”

Primates in earlier studies usually preferred silence to music from the West. Take that, Arctic Monkeys. But the goal was not to show a cultural preference in chimps’ musical tastes. The investigators feared that the chimps’ prior exposure to Western music might create a bias in this study. And they wanted to pinpoint specific acoustic properties of the different types of music tested. The African and Indian music used in the experiment had extreme ratios of strong to weak beats, whereas the (perceived to be threatening) Japanese music had regular strong beats.

Back to Chimp Haven, where the staff regularly invite musicians to play for their chimpanzees as a form of environmental enrichment. Whereas the drums tend to bring out the beast in the male chimps, classical violin makes them “calm and relaxed.”

On a related note, I wonder, do bonobos suffer from Bieber fever?

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