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Teaching animal pets to read: too much evolution?

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By Nury Vittachi

New Delhi: Who thought pets could read? No one. But this dog has learned to read. Fernie, a two-year-old labrador from the UK, can read four words and is working on another 20, says his owner, a teacher.

I was impressed, as I well remember the difficulty I once had trying to teach a two-year-old human not to throw herself off a balcony.

All parents know that children get furiously angry if we stop them doing things like climbing into lion enclosures, drinking poison, eating mystery brown objects off the forest floor and the like. The basic toddler philosophy is: “I wonder what (insert lethal activity here) feels like? Let’s find out.”

(I suspect there’s also a subconscious undercurrent of “Time for a quick round of Make Dad Panic.”)

Parenting books say “they grow out of it”. They don’t say that they grow right back into it as teenagers, who have the exact same philosophy, but with more expensive dangers. (“I wonder what would happen if we mixed every chemical in the school lab?”)

The obvious solution is to teach children the way we teach dogs. “Sit.” (Child sits.) “Who’s a good boy?” (Adult pats head and presents tiny morsel of food.) “Study! Pass exams! (Child studies and passes exams.) “Who’s a good boy?” (Adult pats head and presents another tiny morsel of food.) and so on and so forth.

What if your child can’t talk yet? You can still teach it, thanks to scientists in Taiwan who have just invented an Infant Cries Translator app. You download the app and stick your phone near your baby’s mouth. Wah wah waahhhhh is translated on the screen into clear, adult-readable terms such as: “I wish to have an additional beverage, carer.”

This reminded me of my first daughter, who had advanced verbal skills and actually spoke like that from about 18 months old: “Convey me to the potty immediately, carer, or you and your so-called Persian rug will live to regret it.”

Happy memories. But I was brought back on topic by a colleague from the US who says TV shows in her home country feature a dog called Willow who can read. Clearly this is the trend.

I’m sorry, but I’m not convinced that teaching animals to read is a good thing. Life is grim enough without coming home to be greeted by my dog saying things like: “What do you think of Schopenhauer’s second volume of essays? Good grief, you haven’t read it, have you?”

The fact is reading gives humans an evolutionary advantage that we should not share with less-evolved creatures such as dogs, cats, amoeba, Donald Trump fans and the like.

But I must admit I was curious. So I handed my newspaper to my dog. She stared at the front page picture (a politician of course) and then tilted her head to one side, apparently having the same gyroscopic thing in her brain that smartphones have. Then she took a step forwards and peed on it. That was probably a rather insightful thing to do. I wish I’d thought of it.

If dogs do learn to read, let’s limit them to books about their kind: White Fang, 101 Dalmatians, and Marley and Me are probably the three most famous. Do NOT give them Cujo. (IANS)

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Scientists Try To Map Animal Genes To Save Them From Extinction Down the Line

The project has similarities with the Earth BioGenome Project, which seeks to catalog the genomes for 1.5 million species.

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This undated photo provided by NOAA Fisheries, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, shows alewives, a species of river herring in North Kingstown, R.I. The federal government's National Marine Fisheries Service is looking at the health of the populations of alewives and blueback herring to see if the little fish should be listed under the Endangered Species Act. VOA

A group of scientists unveiled the first results Thursday of an ambitious effort to map the genes of tens of thousands of animal species, a project they said could help save animals from extinction down the line.

The scientists are working with the Genome 10,000 consortium on the Vertebrate Genomes Project, which is seeking to map the genomes of all 66,000 species of mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian and fish on Earth. Genome 10,000 has members at more than 50 institutions around the globe, and the Vertebrate Genomes Project last year.

The consortium Thursday released the first 15 such maps, ranging from the Canada lynx to the kakapo, a flightless parrot native to New Zealand.

Future conservation

The genome is the entire set of genetic material that is present in an organism. The release of the first sets is “a statement to the world that what we want to accomplish is indeed feasible,” said Harris Lewin, a professor of evolution at University of California, Davis, who is working on the project.

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The work is intriguing because it could inform future conservation efforts of jeopardized species. VOA

“The time has come, but of course it’s only the beginning,” Lewin said.

The work will help inform future conservation of jeopardized species, scientists working on the project said. The first 14 species to be mapped also include the duck-billed platypus, two bat species and the zebra finch. The zebra finch was the one species for which both sexes were mapped, bringing the total to 15.

Sequencing the genome of tens of thousands of animals could easily take 10 years, said Sadye Paez, program director for the project. But giving scientists access to this kind of information could help save rare species because it would give conservationists and biologists a new set of tools, she said.

Paez described the project as an effort to “essentially communicate a library of life.”

Three sequencing hubs

Tanya Lama, a doctoral candidate in environmental conservation at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, coordinated the effort to sequence the lynx genome. The wild cat is the subject of debate about its conservation status in the United States, and better understanding of genetics can better protect its future, Lama said.

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Genome 10,000 has members at more than 50 institutions around the globe, and the Vertebrate Genomes Project last year. Pixabay

“It’s going to help us plan for the future, help us generate tools for monitoring population health, and help us inform conservation strategy,” she said.

The project has three “genome sequencing hubs,” including Rockefeller University in New York, the Sanger Institute outside Cambridge, England, and the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, organizers said.

The work is intriguing because it could inform future conservation efforts of jeopardized species, said Mollie Matteson, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity who is not involved in the project. More information about animals’ genetics could lead to better understanding of how animals resist disease or cope with changes in the environment, she said.

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Sequencing the genome of tens of thousands of animals could easily take 10 years, said Sadye Paez, program director for the project. Pixabay

“I think what’s interesting to me from a conservation aspect is just what we might be able to discern about the genetic diversity within a species,” Matteson said.

Also Read: British Scientists Use Sunlight And Convert it to Fuel

The project has similarities with the Earth BioGenome Project, which seeks to catalog the genomes for 1.5 million species. Lewin chairs that project’s working group. The Vertebrate Genomes Project will contribute to that effort. (VOA)