22 May 2016: Crows got smarts

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Corvus corax, the common raven. Photo: Pkspks [CC BY-SA 4.0]

It’s no secret that corvids – crows and ravens – are exceptionally smart for birds, especially at problem solving. Now an experiment carried out with ravens provides evidence they may have a basic Theory of Mind as well; this means they have an ability to attribute mental states they experience to another raven.

In a paper published in Nature in February, researchers Thomas Bugnyar, Stephan Reber and Cameron Buckner from the universities of Vienna and Houston, carried out an ingenious experiment that tested how ravens caching food behaved when they thought they were being seen by another raven.

There is increasing evidence that the Theory of Mind exists in chimpanzees, bonobos, scrub jays and ravens. How equivalent the experience of a ToM is between species is, so far, untestable, but the strong possibility that some form of ToM exists in different animals provides yet more evidence of the complexity of the mental life of species apart from humans.

Not only does this add weight to calls that humans should reconsider the way they relate to other animals, especially the often appalling way we treat farmed and domesticated animals, but firmly places Homo sapiens as the product of the same evolutionary process that produced ravens, dogs and garden slugs.

17 May 2016: ScoMo’s slowmo

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Comme Sisyphe by Honore Daumier (Brooklyn Museum)

Treasurer Scott Morrison’s mantra on budget night was “Jobs and growth”.

Much of the political narrative surrounding the 2016 Budget was about creating jobs, creating pathways to jobs, filling jobs, training people for jobs. It was about jobs for the future, jobs for Australia.

It was about getting Australians back to work.

But what about getting Australia itself to work?

What about getting Australia working as one nation, one people, united by fairness and equity rather than divided by injustice and poverty?

Listening to the speeches of many of our country’s politicians, and the commentary that follows in the media, I can’t avoid the feeling they’re talking about an imaginary Australia, an Australia that exists only in an ideologically-created fantasy.

It’s an alluring fantasy, too, for many conservative Australians. It involves a world where the better angels of our nature materialise in the board rooms of the largest companies, and where paternalism – here called the “trickle-down effect” or “supply-side economics” or, more damningly, “voodoo economics” – is genuinely concerned not with self-aggrandizement but the betterment of all humanity.

But this is a world constructed from the thin and rapidly unravelling fibres of neoconservative economics, a febrile dream of a world with resources that would never run out feeding a market that would never stop growing.

This is a dream that Australia is only now slowly rousing from. We are opening our eyes and seeing what we have wrought: a broken connection between what makes a society wealthy and what makes a society liveable.

Families, particularly women and children, are increasingly worse off and dramatically vulnerable to domestic violence. Affordable housing is in short supply. For many, a world-class education is now unaffordable and world-class health care increasingly unobtainable. The majority of Australians now look forward to a retirement hindered by the threat of poverty and shortfalls in aged care. Unemployment in many parts of the country is entrenched and multi-generational.

That any of this is happening in Australia, for the size of its population one of the wealthiest countries in all history, is unbelievable.

No. Sorry. It is believable because it is happening. It is a tragedy, and a tragedy that at present has no prospect of catharsis because it does not seem the political will exists to turn things around, to realise that Australia is made of 24 million human beings rather than the companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange.

Let me say that I’m not against business. I’m not against the accumulation of wealth and capital. I’m not against free enterprise.

What I am against is inequality and injustice. What I am against is a free enterprise system untrammelled by regulation that is both efficient and enforced, and without a system to redistribute equitably a portion of wealth so that the whole of society benefits.

Free enterprise cannot properly operate in a society that itself is not free but imprisoned by poverty and division.

The good news is that there is a solution.

First, we need to look over our shoulder.

We need to look back to the past and see how previous generations of Australians made huge sacrifices so that those who followed did not suffer from hunger, from despair or from fear, but instead inherited a nation with great promise, great ambition and great hope.

We are no longer making those sacrifices for those who come after us. We have forgotten what it is like to struggle for the generations to come instead of just for ourselves.

Second, we need to look out to the far horizon and not down at our feet. As a nation we are failing to future-proof because we have forgotten there is a future. We cannot afford political decisions made today simply to be about today, or the next news cycle, or even the next election. Every time the government chooses the short-term over the long-term, the future is diminished.

Third, investing in Australians instead of in huge companies whose management and majority shareholding live far from these shores, will make a dramatic difference, bringing benefits not just to society but to the national economy.

Fourth, politicians must not only comprehend that social justice and a healthy economy go hand-in-hand, but understand why the link exists. An IMF report from 2015 on the causes and consequences of income inequality  will provide some of that understanding. In part, the report reveals there is an inverse relationship between income accruing to the richest and economic growth. A rise of 1% point in the income share of the top 20% leads to lower GDP growth. A similar increase in the bottom 20% is associated with a higher GDP growth. A similar increase in disposable income for the middle class also leads to higher GDP growth.

As Per Capita’s Stephen Koukoulas pointed out in The Guardian, “ … the government could have aimed to reduce inequality in the economy by skewing the income tax cuts linked to low-income earners [where the] marginal propensity to spend is higher … The cost to the budget of skewing tax cuts to lower-income earners could have had the same impact on [the] bottom line but with the benefit of faster GDP growth and jobs than what is currently projected.”

In other words, Scott Morrison’s budget is a slow motion crawl to growth and jobs. The problem is, the longer we delay taking action, the more the country’s options are whittled away. The longer we delay taking action, the greater the cost and the repercussions we let fall on the shoulders of our children and their children after that. By not acting now, we are implicitly shrugging off our responsibilities as good citizens.

By not acting now, we are failing to make Australia work for all Australians.

16 May 2016: New dates for the ‘Hobbit’

Homo floresiensis

Photo: Ryan Somma

Updating my blog celebrating the 10th anniversary of the discovery of Homo floresiensis, better known as the ‘Hobbit’, a letter in Nature has revised the most recent dates for the remains from 12,000 years back to 60,000 years. The sediment layers in the cave of Liang Bua on the Indonesian island of Flores, where the remains were discovered, had not been laid evenly, leading to an initial miscalculation.

Stone artefacts attributed to H. floresiensis are dated more recently, to 50,000 years ago.

The biggest implication of the new dates is that it is now less likely that the ‘Hobbit’ coexisted at the same time as H. sapiens on Flores. Although it cannot be ruled out, the earliest dates for human occupation at Flores is 50,000 years, leaving a very narrow window of opportunity.

11 February 2016: Digging for relatives

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Elen Feuerriegel with thermoplastic copy of H. naledi lower jaw.

“Sometimes I can’t believe it happened,” said Elen Feuerriegel as the 3D printer by her side chugs out a thermoplastic copy of the cranium of an ancient human.

“I’m doing something ordinary, something I do every day, and then remember that two years ago I was working 30 metres underground recovering the remains of Homo naledi, a previously unknown human species.”

Feuerriegel, a PhD student in palaeoanthropology at the Australian National University, was one of six excavators – dubbed underground astronauts by an excited media – who retrieved the bones of up to 15 individuals from a small and almost inaccessible cave.

Part of an expedition organised by Professor Lee Berger from the University of Witwatersrand to investigate the Rising Star Cave in South Africa, it was the task of the Feuerriegel and the other five excavators to reach a small and unmapped annex to the cave system called the Dinaledi Chamber.

“To get to the chamber meant worming our way through a fissure that in one place narrowed to just 18 centimetres,” Feuerriegel said. “The fissure itself was a 12-metre drop that ended in a tiny landing, followed by another four metre drop to the floor of the chamber.”

What Feuerriegel first saw there will stay with her for the rest of her life.

“It was a wonderful, exhilarating experience. It was incredible amount of fossil material in one place. It was almost impossible to move without stepping on a jaw or leg bone.

“As our eyes got used to the dimness and we became more experienced at discerning fossils in the floor sediment, new finds seemed to appear out of nowhere.”

Despite her interest in science starting as a young teenager, her appearance at the Rising Star Cave System was never a given. She reached palaeoanthropology through a route almost as torturous as the entrance to the Dinaledi Chamber.

“My first love was marine biology, particularly sharks. That somehow morphed into a fascination with volcanoes. Then my mum, an information architect, helped me put together a web page for a school project I did on human evolution.”

Feuerriegel speaks about evolution through natural selection with a focused passion.

“For me, evolution is the great leveler. We humans are as subject to evolutionary forces as other species.”

The American crime procedural CSI: Crime Scene Investigation also stirred in her an interest in anatomy.

She did her first degree in sociocultural anthropology at the University of Queensland. “I’d given up on the idea of palaeoanthropology until I did an intensive summer course on human evolution.”

With an honours degree in her pocket, Feuerriegel came to the ANU to do her masters, and in 2013 began her PhD in palaeoanthropology.

Later that year, Lee Berger put the call out for people with a special and unusual skill set.

“He wanted skinny palaeoanthropologists who were also experienced climbers or cavers.”

Feuerriegel, who enjoyed wall-climbing and hiking, and had previously worked in a mine shaft in Sima de las Palomas in Spain looking for the remains of Neanderthals, applied for one of the openings.

Underground astronauts

The Underground Astronauts: Becca Peixotto, Alia Gurtov, Elen Feuerriegel, Marina Elliott, K. Lindsay Hunter, Hannah Morris. Photo: John Hawks

“Despite the specialist skill set, there were 60 applicants. I was one of six chosen.”

Within three weeks of an online interview, Feuerriegel found herself in South Africa retrieving the remains of a new human species, Homo naledi.

“We worked in two shifts, each with three excavators and two support cavers. Each shift lasted anywhere between three and six hours, depending on the task. The expedition tried to get at least two shifts down in the chamber every day, and sometimes three.

“For the first few days it could take up to an hour to get down from the surface to the chamber, but by the end of our stay there we’d reduced that to 20 minutes, giving us much more time for the real work.”

Towards the end of the work, seasonal rains raised the water table.

“There was no danger to us – the site was well above the water table – but conditions gradually got worse and surfaces more and more slippery.”

In the end, the excavators recovered the remains of 15 individuals, male and female, ranging in age from neonatal to an older female with very worn teeth.

Feuerriegel said she’s sure what the team discovered is a new species of ancient human.

“Morphologically, Homo naledi sits somewhere in the bridge between the latter Australopithecines and the early Homo, having features of both as well as some unique features all of its own. Exactly where it fits is something we don’t know yet.

“The other thing we don’t know at this point is how old the remains are. The bones we found had not yet been replaced with minerals like silica, but were still made up of hydroxylapatite, a form of calcium.”

She said if the remains proved to be between two and three million years old, H. naledi is the earliest definite example of Homo with skeletal material representing the whole body.

“If the remains are between one and two million years old, the date’s about right for a hominin of H.  naledi’s morphology.

“And if the date is less than one million years old, it means we have multiple species of hominins existing at the same time in South Africa. In that case, H. naledi’s small braincase and primitive morphology must make us seriously reconsider what it means to be a member of our own genus.”

Early reaction among some palaeoanthropologists hasn’t been all positive.

“Claims that the remains represent an early form of Homo erectus are fanciful,” Feuerriegel said. “A lot of critics have also focused on Lee’s description of the appearance of the bodies in one place as ‘ritual’.

“In this case, we aren’t suggesting anything spiritual, only that it represents repeated and deliberate behaviour.”

One of the career highlight for any palaeoanthropologist is to be one of the official ‘describers’ of a new species; thanks to her time in South Africa, Feuerriegel, at the age of 26 and still at least six months from finishing her PhD, is one of the names on the scientific paper officially naming the new species.

“I’ll also be lead author on a paper describing H. naledi’s upper limb, an area of morphology I’m particularly interested in.”

Feuerriegel said humans hold themselves on a pedestal as a species, above and apart from our ancestors.

“If there’s one thing H. naledi illustrates, it’s that the characteristics and behaviours we believe make us unique are not so unique after all.”

22 October 2015: Waiting for Harriette

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Maggie Sutcliffe Photo: Rachel Tokley

“When Rachel and I got together, the issue of having kids came up occasionally. It would go like ‘Would you like to have kids?’, ‘One day. What about you?’, ‘One day, yeah’.”

Maggie Sutcliffe is sitting in her kitchen in the leafy Canberra suburb of Hackett, trying to recall exactly how the vague idea of becoming parents solidified into something more certain.

“We’d been together for just over two years. We were in a good space, and committed to being together. We were both getting older, which was a factor, and the timing seemed right.”

Maggie says she always thought she would one day carry a baby. “Rachel was less sure about that, and she is older than me, so once we decided to get things in motion, the decision for me to become pregnant seemed right and natural.”

She says it’s wrong to think that people in a same-sex relationship wouldn’t want children.

“My sexuality and my desire to have a child are two different things. After all, there are heterosexuals who don’t want to have children.

“If you want to make it happen you’ll make it happen.”

Maggie says she and her partner talked long and hard about raising a child with two mothers.

“We didn’t only talk about what it would be like as same-sex parents with a child, but what it would be like for the child as well.”

As well, they had the example of many friends is a same-sex relationship with children ranging in age from toddlers to 14 years-old. “And all those children are healthy, happy and well-adjusted. So in the end that aspect of the decision didn’t concern us greatly. Having said that, we realised there are going to be challenges. But there are always challenges having children.”

Having made the choice to start a family, Maggie and her partner then had to decide how to go about it.

“We figured we had three options. To ask someone we knew to be the donor, to organise a sperm donor online in Australia, or to go to a fertility clinic. In the end, we made the choice to go to the Canberra Fertility Centre, where we chose an anonymous donor from America because the availability of sperm from Australia is limited.”

Maggie says that although they did not know the donor’s name, they had information about his education, medical history, background and – as far as we could find out from the material at hand – what sort of a person he was.

“The whole process was kind of surreal, a mix of online shopping and online dating. At first we felt awkward about the whole picking-a-donor thing, but it had its humorous side.”

Initially they tried artificial insemination, but without success after five attempts.

“We then decided on IVF. Seven eggs were taken, six of which became viable. One three-day embryo was implanted, but that attempt failed as well. The embryos were grown to five-days, and one survived. That one was implanted.”

It was at this point that Maggie and her partner decided that if the last embryo didn’t work out, they would go on a long holiday to France and embark on a different adventure rather than having children.

“IVF is a very ‘medical’ way to have a baby. It was all a bit full-on.  But the end result of our own child would be worth all the medical intervention.”

As it turned out, it was the last embryo that did the trick.

“When we realised it had probably taken, we were hopeful without being carried away about it. We knew from past experience that disappointment was never far off, and it was hard to take. We went away for a short break to distract ourselves.

“The first real sign was one morning when I couldn’t stand the taste of coffee. I love coffee! It was hard not reading something into that.”

The first blood test was positive.

“To make sure, though, we needed a second blood test. All the waiting was nerve-wracking. But the second blood test confirmed I was pregnant. The embryo was 14 days old.”

She says it all became very real when she had the seven-week scan and a heartbeat was detected.

“We were very excited.

“We also made the decision we didn’t want to know the embryo’s sex, but at the 12-week scan the technician asked us if we wanted to know and we just said ‘Yes’. She said she thought it might be a girl, and that was confirmed at the 20-week scan.”

Except for the morning sickness, life returned to a kind of weird normality.

“We were no longer going through the whole medicalized fertility process of blood tests, insemination and waiting, waiting, waiting. We had time and space to ourselves. The second trimester was great, a breeze, but the whole thing still seemed slightly unreal.

“Then with the third trimester it all really hit home. This is actually happening! There is a small person inside me.”

Maggie says reaction to the news she was pregnant was overwhelmingly positive.

“Looking back on it now, from the initial decision through to choosing a donor and then going through AI and IVF, it’s all a bit of a blur. The pregnancy itself has overtaken everything that came before. Now even the pregnancy is taking no time at all. It’s been my focus, what my life has been about, for 37 weeks.”

When asked if she would go through the whole thing again, Maggie says they would like to have more than one child, but will have to wait and see how things play out first time around before making a decision.

“If we restart the process, I’ll be over 40, so that will make us think harder about it. And if we could we’d like to use the same donor again.”

She and her partner have already chosen the child’s name.

“For a while I was convinced it was going to be a boy, and we’d settled on the name Huon. But she is going to be called Harriette. Harrie for short. Or maybe just Harrie … ”

Maggie says they will learn to deal with things as they come.

“We’re in a loving same-sex relationship. We’re both going to be mothers. That does influence where we want to live, where we want Harrie to go to school, the community in which we want her to grow up. They are all factors that will help decide what we do in the future.

“We’re looking forward to Harrie being with us. We can’t wait!”