Friday December 13, 2019
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Evolution and falling levels of human intelligence: Learn from cats!

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By Nury Vittachi

A new island appeared off the coast of Japan and scientists are watching it to see evolution at work.

So I was told. I was a bit dubious. Doesn’t evolution take a while? The reader who sent me the report, Sunita Chau, admitted that the only biological entity on the island of Nishinoshima so far was bird poop.

I suppose one can imagine bird poop evolving into extremely primitive live forms such as bacteria, single-celled micro-organisms, and Fox News viewers, for example. She said she reckoned that nationalist politicians in some countries probably shared 99 percent of their DNA with bird poop. I think she was joking, but either way, no offence is intended to any bird poop which might be reading this.

A Wikipedia check showed that organic communities develop fast. Scientists observing Surtsey, an island which appeared suddenly in the sea near Iceland in 1963, noticed that by 1964 it had insects, by 1965 a plant, and by 1998 a slug. In evolutionary terms, a slug is a long way from being a human, but in terms of intelligence, is perhaps not that far from nationalist politicians, supermodels and the like.

To do my due diligence, I phoned a scientist, who castigated me for making the common assumption that human intelligence was the pinnacle of evolution. Intelligence is an anti-evolutionary trait, he said, quoting numerous studies. Stupidity improves efficiency (Journal of Management Studies), boosts productivity (University of Texas), and increases happiness (University of Edinburgh).

That makes sense, if you think about it. The most powerful people in human society are rock stars, builders, footballers, supermodels, stockbrokers et al, folk whose intelligence levels are too often roughly level with that of an average novelist’s colonic microfloral bacteria.

In contrast, people who actually have big brains are writing novels or teaching math and not earning enough money to rub two coins together to keep warm, let alone marry and spread their DNA.

If humans are not evolution’s zenith, what is? One colleague nominated sharks. They do nothing at all except eat, sleep, reproduce and occasionally star in movies. (My dream schedule)

A second said it was domestic dogs. “We feed them and clean up their poop in return for nothing but love and affection.” A third said cat-owners feed and clean up the poop of cats “in return for nothing but disdain and aloofness”. Cats win.

Retreating to my inbox, I found a reader had sent a web link to a news report about a woman who accidentally shot herself when trying to take a “selfie” while holding a gun to her head. It was followed by a report about officials in India asking pet-owners to paint their dogs blue to differentiate them from wild dogs. A web-search led me to a New Scientist report that several studies showed that human intelligence was falling rather than rising.

All this could be good news for the long-term survival of the human race. So let’s all do our bit. Avoid the natural temptation to overthink things. Create balance by drastically under thinking every decision you make.

Step one is to stop worrying about what’s evolving on Nishinoshima and learn from cats. Feed me. Love me. In return, I promise disdain and aloofness.

(Vittachi is an Asia-based frequent traveller. With inputs from IANS)

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Women Good at Recognizing Cats’ Expressions, Says New Study

The finding that some people are skilled at reading cats' faces suggests that others could be trained to do so as well

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cats
A group of three Cats. Pixabay

Cats have a reputation for being hard to read, but a new study suggests that women and those with veterinary experience were particularly good at recognizing cats’ expressions.

For the study, published in the journal Animal Welfare, researchers at the University of Guelph decided to look at how well people were able to read the expressions on cat faces.

“The ability to read animals’ facial expressions is critical to welfare assessment. Our finding that some people are outstanding at reading these subtle clues suggests it’s a skill more people can be trained to do,” said study lead researcher Lee Niel from University of Guelph in Canada.

“This study is the first to look at the assessment of a wider range of negative emotional states in animals, including fear and frustration, as well as positive emotional states,” said Mason.

For the findings, the research team recruited more than 6,300 people from 85 countries who were asked to watch 20 short online videos of cats from a collection of 40 videos, gleaned mostly from YouTube, and complete online questionnaires.

The videos showed cats experiencing either positive emotional states (situations the cats had sought out, such as being petted or given treats), or in negative states (such as experiencing health problems or being in situations that made them retreat or flee).

Each video was focused on the cat’s face – its eyes, muzzle and mouth. None of the cats showed expressions of fear, such as bared fangs or flattened ears, since these facial expressions are already widely understood.

Participants were asked to judge whether each cat was in a positive state, a negative one, or if they weren’t sure.

cats and humans
A detailed survey of cat genes suggest that even after they wandered into human lives, they remained largely unchanged for thousands of years. Pixabay

Most participants found the test challenging. Their average score was 12 out of 20 — somewhat above chance.

But 13 per cent of the participants performed very well, correctly scoring 15 or better — a group the researchers informally called ‘the cat whisperers’.

These people were more likely to be women than men, and more likely to be veterinarians or vet technicians.

Younger adults also generally scored better than older adults.

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“The fact that women generally scored better than men is consistent with previous research that has shown that women appear to be better at decoding non-verbal displays of emotion, both in humans and dogs,” said study researcher Georgia Mason.

Surprisingly, being a cat lover made no difference at all, since reporting a strong attachment to cats did not necessarily result in a higher score, the study said.

The finding that some people are skilled at reading cats’ faces suggests that others could be trained to do so as well. (IANS)