Sunday, 8 November 2015

Are You Smarter Than A Chimp?


Yet more articles have appeared about how animals perform compared with humans; this time it’s chimps.

Experimenters at Kyoto University have found that one chimp can be trained to do a numerical short-term memory test faster than the average human can do it. The media love stories like this. There has been repeated coverage of the fact that crows are better at solving certain problems than children younger than seven – without being trained at all. There are also media favourites Alex the parrot and Koko the gorilla or the orang utans who have learnt to imitate human behaviour, for example hammering nails into wood or starting a fire.

Does this mean they are as smart as us or that they are natural imitators and problem-solvers, evolved cognitive skills that equips them to survive in their ecological niche? Hammering in nails is not a life skill that orangs need and demanding a nut is not one that Alex would need if he wasn’t kept in a lab.

Corvids in general and New Caledonian crows in particular are different from chimps in that they use innate abilities to problem-solve rather than being trained. But comparisons with humans are still false. The average corvid lifespan is around 20 years and they begin to reproduce from around three years old. They don’t have the luxury of a long childhood to acquire skills, they have to hit the ground running or they don’t survive.

Humans have solved the evolutionary problem of head size versus pelvis size by having young that are born in a relatively undeveloped state. Human lifespan and a long protected infancy mean that we have time to learn and develop before being set loose on the world. So comparing a crow with a child tells us nothing about either in terms of how ‘smart’ both species are.

There is a tendency to equate intelligence with consciousness and self-awareness. Humans have the ability to recognise ourselves in a mirror, an indicator of self-awareness. A few other animals have also shown this ability, as opposed to thinking the reflection is another animal, which indicates that they too have a degree of self-awareness. Again, the temptation is to add ‘just like us’. But these are all social animals. In social groups, the ability to tell the difference between yourself and another is a lot more useful than it is for solitary species. So this ability is an indicator of what is needed to survive in social groups, not of ‘elevated’ consciousness or intelligence.

One of the most successful species on earth is grass. It can live pretty much anywhere except the poles. All kinds of parasites have solved evolutionary problems in cunning ways, for example the lancet liver fluke Dicrocoelium dendriticum. These are most definitely not conscious species and yet they thrive. So is intelligence over-rated? Is it something we value only because, by our own definition, we have it? Who are we trying to impress?

There have been attempts to teach other animals to communicate with humans for a very long time. Some primates, for example, can learn to make signs or point to symbols to communicate with us. Alex the parrot could construct basic sentences. The fact that they can’t communicate in a complex human way doesn’t mean they are less ‘smart’, it means they don’t need to. Our more complex vocal communications are necessary in our more complex societies. The intricacy and (to us) the beauty of bird song has been summed up as ‘Fuck me or fuck off’ (attracting mates or warning off rivals). That’s all it needs to do.

If chimps needed human-type language, they would have evolved it. In evolutionary terms, cross-species communication is pointless. There are some monkeys that have learnt to recognise the alarm calls of other monkey species that share the same habitat and will respond appropriately to, for example, a snake alarm or a raptor alarm. But they are not communicating with each other. Apes only communicate with humans because they have been trained to do it for rewards in an artificial environment. This shows that they can adapt their innate skills to new tasks. It says nothing about their relative intelligence.

Most of the response to human-like abilities in other animals comes, not surprisingly, from headlines or TV programmes. But some academics don’t help. Researcher Tetsuro Matsuzawa, Director of the Kyoto Primate Research Institute says "Some humans are uncomfortable with the idea that beasts are cleverer than us, because we are supposed to be their intellectual superiors."

But the research doesn’t show that they are cleverer than us. It shows that they can use their innate abilities to learn tasks that have significance only to humans in return for rewards. You could say that chimps really like fruit and will do anything to get it.

It’s true that many of us still like to see ourselves as the superior species, which is mostly a Judeo-Christian hang-over from the Creation myth where God gives humans dominion over the animals. Some people don’t like it when other animals display skills we see as solely human (and therefore superior), maybe because it hurts our egos, maybe because the more ‘like us’ they appear, the harder it is to justify treating them in unethical ways (very inconvenient).

The claims that many human behaviours are unique has slowly been eroded. Tool use, warfare, problem-solving, social skills like empathy and even farming have been observed in many species (ants farm aphids and fungus). There is pretty much nothing we do that animals don’t, except possibly art. It’s a continuum, with humans displaying more complex forms of certain behaviours than other animals. But only because we need to in order to survive. It could be said that evolving our skills is a price we’ve had to pay to survive, not a crowning achievement.

Put a two year old human in the jungle and it wouldn’t last long. Most adult humans wouldn’t either but they are more than capable of crossing a busy road. Two year olds are rubbish at pretty much everything. But they do have the ability to make adults look after them. We have the skills and the ‘smarts’ that we need.

There are TV shows with titles like ‘Are you as smart as a seven year old?’ These should really be called ‘Can you remember the stuff you were taught 40 years ago that you haven’t needed to know since then?’ It’s the same mentality shown by articles comparing humans and other animals and the same basic error of not comparing like with like. Animals in the wild don’t learn skills that serve no purpose. Not learning how to hammer in nails but focussing on how to build a good tree nest is a better use of mental resources and smarter in terms of survival. It takes a lot of energy to run a brain and it makes no sense to waste energy on unnecessary behaviours.

The chimp at Kyoto outperforms other chimps in the same research programme, which tells us that some animals within the same species are better at certain things than others, not that this chimp is ‘smarter’ than us. The point is that every species is as ‘smart’ as it needs to be. That’s how evolution works. Other animals are experts at surviving in their niches just as we are. When their environment changes or new challenges present themselves, they adapt or die out. So do we.

Intelligence is a human concept, a trait we have defined in narrow terms to suit – and flatter - ourselves. But it’s not a competition. Chimps and crows don’t give a toss how many A Levels you have.

The answer to the question is – you’re asking the wrong question.

Friday, 17 July 2015

A sweet solution?


The British Medical Association is calling for a 20% tax on drinks with added sugar in an attempt to stem the increase in obesity, Type 2 diabetes and tooth decay.

Obesity costs the NHS more than £5 billion every year and treating Type 2 diabetes costs £8.8 billion a year, almost 9% of its budget (smoking-related disease costs around £2.7bn)

However, the BMA proposal may not be the simple fix it appears to be.

The BMA cites evidence from other countries that increasing the cost of these drinks leads to a reduction in obesity in the population. A meta-analysis of the link between a sugary drink tax and obesity levels finds that there is some correlation in America, France, Mexico and Brazil where an increase in price was associated with a decrease in the demand for what the analysis calls sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs).

The BMA cites Mexico as an example of a country where a tax has worked in reducing obesity but doesn’t consider if other measures were taking place at the same time – for example, health awareness campaigns and reduction of sugar in other products. In other words, as we so often find, correlation does not equal causation.

In some countries, people drink SSBs because they have little or no access to clean drinking water – in some parts of Mexico and Brazil, for example. This may have influenced the amount of SSBs people were drinking and their choice of alternatives – which makes them less convincing as arguments for a tax on SSBs in the UK. In other words, the BMA is not comparing like with like.

The meta-analysis found that, rather than choosing diet versions of SSBs, people switched to juice and milk. One study found that the impact of a tax may be minimal because of this and that the fats and calories in these drinks could reduce the effect of SSB price increases. There are vitamins and calcium in these alternatives but if weight loss is the aim, this is not a good argument.

There are also culture-specific factors that need to be considered in the UK.

Focussing on sugar sidelines the problem of fat consumption. Saturated fats are still a major health problem in the UK even if the current fashion is to demonise sugar and blame it for all our ills. Sat fats often come as part of the sugary package – for example in biscuits and chocolate. The UK is the third largest consumer of chocolate in the world and the second biggest biscuit eater.

According to the NHS, sweet drinks are not the biggest contributor to adult sugar intake. Up to 27% of it comes from table sugar, jams, chocolate and sweets and 20% from cakes, pastries and biscuits. Only 25% of added sugar comes from soft drinks and fruit juice. Note that this includes supposedly healthy fruit juice.

The British also eat more crisps than the rest of Europe put together and a third of UK children eat crisps every day. In addition to the fat content, there is all the salt, too.

So while cutting back on SSBs may help, the fact that a tax may have worked in other countries doesn’t mean it will necessarily work here. The BMA needs stronger evidence tailored to British eating habits and culture to make a convincing argument.

Another objection is that a tax would hit the poorest the hardest. The counter-argument is that lower-income groups have seen the greatest rise in obesity. Several US states introduced a tax on SSBs to raise revenue but are now claiming this is part of their anti-obesity policy, so any comparison of the UK with the US should factor in political capital to be gained from any tax as well as financial interests – and political cowardice.

The sugar lobby in America is very powerful, influencing governments and being highly duplicitous about the effects of sugar and the situation in the UK is not much better.

It is very much easier for governments to penalise the public than the producer.

If the tax raised is spent on providing subsidies for healthier drinks and foods or health awareness campaigns, there could be some justification for it; so far there is no indication that this would be done. But this too would let the sugar producers off the hook.

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition is releasing a report this week that says sugar should take up no more than 5% of daily intake, down from 10%.

Figures from the national diet and nutrition survey, referenced in the SACN report, found sugary drinks to be the highest contributor of sugars to the diet of 4 to 10 year olds. While reducing children’s sugar intake is undeniably a good idea to prevent disease in the future, it doesn’t tackle current problems and, again, ignores fat intake. Current adult saturated fat intake, at 13.3% of food energy, far exceeds the 11% maximum recommended intakes and this 2.3% is enough to have a significant health impact.

The Government has delayed the release of a detailed assessment by Public Health England of the likely success of a range of measures to reduce our addiction to sugar. If it ever is released, it will make interesting reading.

It’s clear that something has to be done to curb our sweet tooth but it’s a much more complicated issue that the BMA appears to think it is. There needs to be a different approach for adults and children. Other sources of sugar need to be tackled alongside drinks for there to be any hope of success. Political and financial considerations need to be factored in. Fats must be targeted as much as sugars.

It could be argued that the BMA’s proposal is a step in the right direction. But it’s a false step based on insufficient evidence and a failure to address the bigger picture. It’s like putting a sticking plaster on a gaping wound.






Friday, 13 February 2015

Sisters are doing it for themselves

When I started going to the gym in the late eighties, weightlifting for women was fashionable. It fell out of fashion in favour of aerobics, spin classes and countless other fads. Now increasing numbers of younger women are lifting weights again and not just little tone-up weights. Serious heavy weights.

The gym I go to is mostly used by students and, in the last year or two, I've seen many more young women lifting a lot of weight. This is good to see. They're strong, fit, dedicated and smart. They don't use steroids or pose in competitions in bikinis. They're just naturally strong (naturally meaning they've worked bloody hard for it).

But, perhaps inevitably, the media has picked up on this and sees it slightly differently. There are countless articles ostensibly praising women who lift, some even trying (failing) to be inspirational. But many of them carry the message that Strong Is Sexy. These are just a few examples I found in about ten minutes. There are many, many more.

This video features powerful women. They have clearly worked very hard for a long time. Does the title respect their hard work, laud their achievements and encourage them? Does it hell. The title is Strong Is Sexy. The captions says 'What happens to women when they lift big weights? They get sexy as hell! The long-awaited 3rd female-only California Strength weightlifting video, the weights keep getting bigger, the action is more intense, and the girls are hotter than ever!'

They're not girls, they're women. Sexist, patronising and infantilising women - that's the hat trick, well done you. This is a girl lifting weights (bless her). See the difference?

There's no mention of how much they're lifting, as there would be with male lifters.

There is another 'inspirational' video here, called 'Strong is the new sexy'. No. Strong is the new strong.

The Huffington Post had an article called Bodybuilding Women Prove That Fit Is Sexy with photo captions like Those Shoulders Would Definitely Look Hot In A Strapless Dress. Or under a comfy warm jumper in the winter.

In December the Daily Mail ran the article 'Women who lift weights now seen as 'attractive' by men'. According to them, 63% of men would rather date a girl that weightlifts and 74% say watching a girl use the bench is their favourite spectator exercise.

Yes, this is the Mail and they don't even say who ran the survey the stats came from. But the message clearly reflects common currency that women should get strong for men's pleasure. Gyms have mirrors so that you can check your technique and posture but when women look in them, it's the male gaze they see reflected back according to the media. And why have they put 'attractive' in quote marks? Do they disagree?

Of course we all want to be attractive to whoever we find attractive but this is about more than that. It's about reframing women's strength in a way that's acceptable to men. We can't just be strong. We have to be sexy too. And wear cute little gym outfits. Our strength is for men to perve over. Otherwise the poor little things might be threatened by us, emasculated by our biceps, quads and general awesomeness.

Building muscle is bloody hard work. For women, building upper body muscle is harder than for men. It takes a long time. You don't just have to go to the gym many times a week, every week, you have to eat right, sleep plenty, give up other things, learn about how to do it properly. There's a lot of sweating, grunting, swearing (just me?) and farting. Yes, when you squat, everything inside gets compressed and something's gotta give. Better out than in.

Most of the men at my gym who are serious lifters are great, very supportive of the women. But then, they know exactly what it takes to get strong. They're not scared of a woman who knows how to deadlift. How many of the Mail's 74% who want to wank over women bench pressing ever been anywhere near a gym themselves?

Health and fitness are something everyone should invest in if they can but for women, an extra layer is added, the pressure to be sexy and feminine. This is more likely to put women off than encourage them.

There are also lots of articles on line addressing women's alleged concerns that lifting weights will make them too big and 'masculine', explaining how to keep your muscles small and feminine.

Mixed messages. Big is sexy, but not too big, but here are some really big strong women who are sexy. Huh? Make your minds up.

To be clear: women don't have enough testosterone to get bulky and 'masculine' naturally. That takes serious steroid abuse. Here's a more detailed explanation.

Yes, this is just yet another example of sexism, of men trying to control women's bodies. But sometimes you just have to heave a sigh and call it like it is rather than letting it go.

Women work hard to get strong, they shouldn't have to hand that strength over to men, they should be able to own it.


For my gym buddy, the mighty Syasi, and powerhouse Carmen - you rock!

26 February: I just found this brilliant video about a woman bodybuilder in her seventies. That's what I want to be like when I grow up.

12 July: After winning Wimbledon for the sixth time, and her 21st Grand Slam, Serena Williams is accused of looking like a man. She has that rare combination of good genes, talent and hard work that make a champion but she still needs to be put in her place by men. This is what she looked like when she left Wimbledon. Not like a man, like a heroine to many girls and young women.