Today on Ujima – Dinosaurs, Afrofuturism, Psychology & Feminism

It was radio day again today. I think I had a great bunch of guests on Women’s Outlook. Hopefully you do too.

We began with DB Redfern from the Bristol Museums Service telling us all about the fabulous new dinosaur exhibit they have open this summer. Actually it is not strictly a dinosaur thing, because the star attraction, Doris the Pliosaurus, was a sea dweller. She might have eaten dinosaurs, though. Anyway, she was a magnificent monster: as long as a bus with teeth the size of bananas. Doris would have eaten great white sharks as snacks. DB and I had a great discussion, covering important topics such as dinosaur poop and whether Nessie exists. Kids of all ages will love this one.

After the news I was joined by Zahra Ash-Harper and Edson Burton to discuss the Afrofuturism event, Afrometropolis, that I attended a couple of weeks ago. We had a great chat about what Aforfuturism, and an African-centered future, might mean. I got in a plug for Worldcon 75, Nalo and Karen. I do hope we get more events like this in Bristol.

You can listen to the first hour of the show here.

For the second hour I was joined my a new friend, Clare Mehta, who is a psychology professor from Boston. She’s doing some really interesting work on human ideas of gender and how they are affected by social settings. This all harks back to some of the things that Cordelia Fine was talking about in Testosterone Rex. Fascinatingly, your social environment, and the sort of things that you are doing, can affect your hormone levels. And yes, women do have testosterone in their bodies, and men have estrogen.

Also in that segment I had a pre-recorded interview with Nimco Ali that I did when she was in town doing a talk on the campaign to end Female Genital Mutilation. One of the things she talks about in the interview is having to leave Bristol because she was getting death threats. Ironically today on Twitter she was talking about getting death threats for standing as a Women’s Equality Party candidate. Hopefully once the election is over I can catch up with her again and talk about her experiences as a candidate.

To go with the interview I played the wonderful song, “My Clitoris”, produced by a local charity. I had to check the OfCom regulations carefully for that, but apparently it is perfectly OK to say “vagina” and “clitoris” on the radio. Thank goodness for that, because if we can’t talk openly about this stuff then we are never going to put an end to FGM.

My final guests were Byrony and Liza from See It From Her, a wonderful new group that exists to promote women and non-binary people in the media. They are putting on a one-day event called Borderless on Sunday, and it is sort of a Women’s Outlook co-production because both Yaz and I are on the programme chairing panels. Yaz is doing the one on racism, and I’m doing the one on identity. It is a free event, but you do need to book via Eventbrite so that they can keep an eye on the numbers. Even if you are not interested in what Yaz and I are doing, do come anyway because food is being provided by Kalpna’s Woolf’s amazing 91 Ways project. There’s lots of other stuff too. The full programme is on the Eventbrite page.

You can listen to the second hour of the show here.

The playlist for today’s show was as follows:

  • Whitney Houston – Love will save the day
  • George Clinton – Walk the Dinosaur
  • Janelle Monae – Dance Apocalyptic
  • Sun Ra – Blues at Midnight
  • Integrate – My Clitoris
  • Michael Jackson – Human Nature
  • Meet Your Feet – World Party
  • O Jays – Love Train

And because the video is so good (and we had to cut the song a little short) here is the You Tube version of “My Clitoris”.

Accidental Birds of Prey

On my way home from Hay I chanced upon some signs directing me to the International Centre for Birds of Prey. Well, you have to stop, don’t you. And I’m delighted that I did. There was no wedgie, of course, so the eagles looked a little small to me, but there were lots of splendid birds on display, including Moccas the condor who has her own Twitter feed.

There are, of course, live flying displays. The one I sat in on lasted about 45 minutes, though they can run longer if the birds decide they want more time on the wing. I got to see a variety of birds including an eagle, a burrowing owl, a peregrine and some harris hawks.

The staff know their stuff. I learned quite a lot about the birds. One of the more interesting bits of information is that a peregrine and a harris hawk are about the same weight. The hawk looks much bigger, but the peregrine is solid muscle with tiny wings built for diving at speed. The hawk has much bigger wings designed to allow it to turn on a sixpence so that it can hunt the insects that it preys on. While a peregrine is an awesome sight, I must admit a certain fondness for a bird that might eat mosquitoes by the score.

Dinosaur Babies

One of the things that came up on the show today was this news story involving Prof. Mike Benton, a palaeontologist from the University of Bristol. Up until now it was thought that all dinosaurs laid eggs, but a new discovery in China has turned all that on its head. A fossil of a plesiosaur-like creature called Dinocephalosaurus has evidence of what looks like a well-developed baby inside of the adult. That means that Dinocephalosaurus must have given birth to live young, just like whales and dolphins. On the face of it, this makes good sense. An animal that size isn’t going to find it easy to lay eggs on a beach the way turtles do. But it does seem to be a major new piece of evidence, always assuming of course that the news media has got it right.

Parthenogenesis – How It Is Done

Yesterday I posted a a story about one of the classic themes of biological SF – regenerative medicine. However, there is one area of SF that sees quite a different aspect of biology as more important. Feminist SF has for some time been very keen on the idea of Parthenogenesis, the ability to have babies by asexual reproduction, without the need for men.

Can it be done? Well sure. Amoeba do it all the time. For that matter is has been observed in lizards, sharks and chickens. There are (according to Wikipedia) a few cases of it having been done on small mammals. But now a German-Israeli team of biologists think that they have found a genetic trigger that turns on the ability in any species that has that gene. Thus far they have only done it in plants, but that’s obviously just a start.

Queen of the Jungle

Mmamoriri


This is Mmamoriri. She’s a rather unusual lioness. As you can see, not only does she have a full mane, but it is quite dark which is indicative of high testosterone levels, even for a male lion.

The media has managed to make a right mess of this story. My favorite is the piece in the Independent which manages to suggest that this is an evolutionary adaptation, states that Mmamoriri is probably infertile, but adds that she will probably be able to pass on her unusual features to her offspring.

Fortunately they link to a report by an actual scientist in Africa Geographic. This dispenses with all the nonsense about evolution and mutations, and instead focuses on the much more likely explanation of an intersex condition. Chromosome testing has shown that Mmamoriri is XX, but as the article notes there are other conditions well documented in humans that could explain such features in lions.

Interestingly the researchers monitoring Mmamoriri’s pride have noticed other lionesses with similar features in other groups. They think that the relatively isolated nature of the lion population on Chief’s Island in the Okavango Delta, Botswana may be part of the explanation for this.

Some of the reaction I have seen on Twitter has praised Mmamoriri for adopting male gender performance, but a mane is not clothing; she had no choice in this. Human women who have beards get bullied rather than praised. Thankfully lions don’t appear to be so obsessed with biological essentialism. There’s no suggestion in the scientific reports that Mmamoriri has been in any way ostracized by her pride because of her appearance. Obviously lions are much more sensible than humans.

Karen Joy Fowler & Cats

This past weekend the Cheltenham Festival of Literature had a panel featuring the finalists for the Booker Prize. As you should know, Karen Joy Fowler is one of those writers, and on her way to Cheltenham she stopped off to do a reading for Toppings in Bath. She has, after all, written The Jane Austen Book Club, and had not visited Bath before. A visit was clearly overdue. Obviously I had to go along and show support.

I’m not going to say much more about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. There’s a review here if you are interested. What I want to talk about (and those of you who have read the book will know why this is relevant) is animal behavior.

The thing that struck me most about Karen’s talk was when she got onto the subject of animal communities. Some animals, for example most cats (lions being the obvious exception) are fairly solitary. Other animals like to gather in groups. Humans are an example of the latter. We like forming tribes, and we are very protective of fellow tribe members. But there is a corollary, in that we are also very hostile to anyone we see as not part of the tribe.

Politicians understand this; right wing populists such as Nigel Farage build their careers on it. The more they can make people think that life is a constant battle of “us” against “them”, the better they do in the polls. For Farage, and Rupert Murdoch, life is a constant effort to shrink and homogenize the group of people that is regarded as “us”.

What Karen said in her talk is that it is the duty of Art to constantly try to grow the group of people that is regarded as “us”, until it encompasses the whole species, and even beyond. She thinks that it is the duty of Art to encourage empathy for our fellow beings. That’s a project I am happy to get behind.

With this sort of thing in mind, once the signing was over I had a chat with Karen about the recent BBC Horizon series on cat behavior, because some of it is also very relevant. In particular, in the second program, they noted how cat personality is very plastic. The period between around 2 and 8 weeks old is crucial for kittens. If, during that time, you give them constant contact with humans, then they will grow up to behave like domestic cats. If, on the other hand, they are kept away from people, they will grow up to behave like ferals. Where they were born, and the lives of their parents, is not relevant.

That’s a classic example of nurture over nature. But of course it isn’t the only aspect of cat personality. Hunting, it appears, is instinctive. Cats will display hunting behavior, regardless of how domesticated they are. They won’t necessarily kill if they are not hungry, but they will hunt. Some are better at it than others. Here’s the scary bit.

The program put cameras on a couple of the best hunters to see how they did it. One of the cats was caught imitating bird calls. Not song, obviously, as cats don’t have the vocal skills, but they can apparently mimic cawing and clucking noises. Cats are smart. I guess it is just as well that they don’t mimic human speech.

Post-Finncon

Today we traveled back to Helsinki from Jyväskylä. As usual, my Finnish friends insisted on showing me some of the best parts of their beautiful country.

The day began with breakfast with Irma at a cafe on a place called Women’s Island. I have no idea where the name came from, but the island is in part of the network of lakes and waterways that surrounds Jyväskylä. There are a couple of hydro-power stations on the island: an old one which is now a bat sanctuary, and a new one that actually provides power. There is also a large lock that we got to see in operation as a Finnish family on a boating holiday came through while we were looking around.

While we were eating a red squirrel wandered into the cafe gardens. Wisely it wasn’t going to let the very large cat get too close, but Paula managed to sneak up and get a good picture.

Red squirrel

In the afternoon we took the scenic route back to Helsinki. The road Otto took ran along a narrow ridge between two lakes and had some magnificent views.

Back in Helsinki we checked out some of the new construction by the railway station. It is mainly offices, but several of the buildings have restaurants on the ground floor. A place called Eatos doesn’t sound very promising, but Otto had seen it recommended in the Helsinki Sanomat so we checked it out. The food was seriously good. So if you want Mexican food in Helsinki you now know where to go.

I’m flying back to London tomorrow and will be offline most of the day. Then it is back into the Ujima studio on Wednesday, for which I have an interview with Tobias Buckell.

More Mad Gender Biology

Via Gio Clairval on Twitter I found this article from Cosmos magazine. It is primarily about the way in which the function of the Y chromosome has evolved in mammals. From my point of view, the most startling thing about it is that two species of rodent — mole voles of Eastern Europe and spiny rats of Japan — have no Y chromosomes at all, and yet they still manage to produce males.

Those TERFs who yell “but science!” in support of their contention that chromosomes can be used to rigidly divide humans into males and females are looking sillier and sillier all the time.

Psychology, Animals and the Evolution of Patriarchy

Karen Joy Fowler was in Bristol last night promoting her latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which has just launched in the UK. As ever, Karen had a lot of interesting things to say, and consequently my thoughts rambled over a number of issues.

One of the big lessons of the book is how little psychologists knew back in the 20th Century, and how arrogant they were about what little knowledge they had. Pavlov was able to train dogs. Everything else was assumed to flow from there. The novel is, in a large part, about a psychology experiment that went disastrously wrong. And yet it is also about the malleability of memory — something that we now understand to be very real.

What struck me, listening in the audience is that there are things we can do to each other very easily, such as instill false memories, but there are others that prove hugely intractable. For example, we are unable to “cure” people of their sexuality or gender identity, despite the huge amounts of effort that has been poured into such endeavors, and the strong social desire to make such things possible. Why are some forms of what we rather blithely call “brainwashing” so much easier than we thought, and others so much more difficult?

I asked Karen for her views, and she said she thought it was all about working with what was there. Pavlov trained dogs to do things using behaviors that were natural to dogs (slobbering). The same techniques might have been much less effective had he tried to get the dogs to do things that dogs don’t normally do. She also talked about educational theories that suggest that children’s personalities are fixed at birth. You can teach kids to do all sorts of things, but training a naturally shy kid to be outgoing, or a naturally pessimistic kid to be more optimistic, is very hard.

The conversation also strayed onto issues of animal behavior, and Karen noted that chimpanzee society is strongly patriarchal and very violent. We now know that, in the wild, chimpanzee groups engage in wars of aggression against other chimp groups, something we once thought only humans did to each other. In contrast, bonobo society is matriarchal, and while violence does occur, is it much less prevalent than in chimp society. Apparently we’d see a lot more bonobos in zoos were it not for their fondness for casual sex, which is apparently deemed inappropriate for family viewing.

Now chimps and bonobos are as close as you can get to humans in evolutionary terms. Socially speaking, we seem to be rather closer to chimps than bonobos (though Kevin tells me that genetically it is the other way around). At some point in evolutionary history all three species probably had a common ancestor. So there is an open question as to whether susceptibility to patriarchy is something that is hardwired into human and chimp behavior, or something that we developed as an evolutionary response at some point in the past, and which has become fossilized in our social behavior, handed down from parents to children.

This also reminds me or Mary Beard’s recent London Review of Books lecture on The Public Voice of Women. Mary, being a classicist, made a point of tracing the exclusion of women from political discourse back to Greece and Rome, and for the UK that’s a fair point. But it occurred to me that similarly gendered attitudes are common in societies that owe very little to the classical world. I’ve been told that my voice, being somewhat deeper than that of an average woman, is good for radio because it carries an air of authority. Again, how much of that is hardwired, and how much something we pick up as children?

Finally, Karen talked about our relationship with animals. In particular she noted that small babies are given animal toys, and most books for children feature anthropomorphized animals as characters. Yet at some point we are supposed to “grow out of” such ideas, and to see animals as lesser beings. Why do we do this? Is it some part of how we learn to be those arrogant and ruthless creatures called humans? Is it just a behavior we have fallen into and have lost the original rationale for? It is certainly very odd.

All that from an hour of an author chatting about her work. I do so love listening to clever science fiction writers.

Toronto Wrap

Royal Ontario Museum
Image from Wikimedia Commons, see here for usage rights

While I am absolutely delighted to have been able to get into Canada, and plan to go back again soon, I have also been forcibly reminded that I do not cope well with eastbound jet lag. Next time I go, I need to allow a day or two to just rest after I get back. Hopefully that way I won’t lose so much time to exhaustion. Anyway, I am now in catch-up mode, and the first job is to tell you a little more about Toronto.

First up I should mention that I visited Chapters, which claims to be the biggest bookstore in the world. It is a long time since I was in Powells so I can’t really comment on how that claim stacks up, but I do know that the place is huge, and the SF&F section excellent. I’d love to see bookstores like that in the UK, but I guess that space is much cheaper in Canada.

Much of Sunday, however, was spent in the Royal Ontario Museum, which I rather like. Partly that’s because it took the challenge of extending a beautiful old building with a modern wing in a way that must give Prince Charles nightmares (see photo above), but it has good content too. I was pleased to see a large gallery devoted to First Nations people (and now know what a parka should be like). And they have a great dinosaur collection. Going around it, I kept experiencing flashbacks to books I read as kid because, poor old Brontosaurus apart, they seemed to have all of the well known creatures represented, including a T.Rex, Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops and an impressive array of hadrosaur species. It cost CA$16 to get in, but I spent several hours there and could have stayed much longer.

Half Boy, Half Girl

Gynandromorph cardinal
This is a Northern Cardinal. As US readers will know, while the male is bright red, the female is much less gaudy. (See Wikipedia for pictures). So what’s up with this particular bird? It is half boy, half girl, split right down the middle. The bird is an example of a gynandromorph. Whereas “hermaphrodite” is generally used to mean exhibiting both genders, a gynandromorph is split down the middle, one half of the body expressing as male and the other half expressing as female. Actually it can get more complicated than that. There are also “mosaic” gynandromorphs where the animal exhibits mixed patches of male and female tissue.

All of the examples I have seen of gynandromorphs have been insects and birds. Both have different chromosome systems to the one used by mammals, so I have no idea whether the phenomenon is even possible in humans. But hey, aliens…

For more information about this bird, and the biological mechanisms that cause gynandromorphs, see here.

(Thanks to Helen Boyd for finding this.)

Nature, It’s “Not Natural”

With the marriage equality debate going through Parliament in the UK (and France) right now we are hearing a lot of people complain that certain practices are “not natural”. I’m sure you all know by now that there are loads of species in which homosexual behavior has been observed in the wild, but to stretch your minds a little further here is Deep Sea News with a list of “10 Ocean Species That Challenge Gender Role Stereotypes”. It includes sex changes, hermaphrodites, transvestism, a species that has been reproducing by cloning for 80 million years and my favorites, the Loriceferans, whose gender identity is very clearly dependent on what food they eat. Goodness only knows what our bishops would make of all this depravity. What was God thinking when she made these creatures?

Archaeopteryx Upstaged?

When I was a kid it was an article of scientific fact that Archaeopteryx was the first bird-like creature known to man. Scientific knowledge, however, never stands still. Our understanding of the relationship between dinosaurs and birds continues to evolve, and this paper in Nature Communications presents a newly discovered creature from China, Eosinopteryx, which opens up whole new areas of investigation.

I found out about this story here. I’m not entirely sure why an expert in Vertebrate Palaeontology such as Dr. Dyke should be based at the National Oceanographic Centre, but I am allowing myself a small amount of alumnus pride.

Squid On Film

A Discovery Channel press release brings the exciting news of the first ever live film of the Giant Squid, Architeuthis dux, in its natural habitat. A program featuring the film is due to be broadcast (presumably in the US first) on January 27th. Deep Sea News has some speculation as to where the film is likely to have been shot, and who was responsible for this triumph of natural history film-making.

Rumors that the squid was seen holding up a placard that read, “Thanks Jeff & China, the checks are in the mail”, have been hotly denied by Discovery.

Swans and Trains and Otters

Most of today has been spent touring around South Devon.

First we stopped off in Dawlish to take in the true extent of Brunel’s craziness in building a major railway line along the sea shore, and meet the famous flock of Australian black swans.

Next we headed on to Totnes to catch the South Devon Railway up the Dart Valley to Buckfastleigh. There were a couple of school parties riding the rails today. The first group we saw were all in costume as witches and wizards (including several of the teachers). A young man in Harry Potter glasses asked Kevin who he was dressed as. “I’m an American Tourist”, he answered. I guess I should have told them that I know a flying monkey (as all of the best Wicked Witches do).

At Buckfastleigh there is an otter and butterfly sanctuary. I was really impressed by the butterflies — their collection stood up well compared to the one I’m familiar with in Kuranda, Queensland. As for the otters, well, we died of cute, as one does. These two are Canadian otters, which are slightly bigger than the British variety, and apparently capable of taking down a seagull should one venture too close.

Otters