Dragons, Devils & Dinosaurs: A Symbiologist’s Guide to St George’s Day

It’s St George’s Day today; here in England, this is the feast day of our Patron Saint.  We share him with a number of other countries including Moldova, Palestine and (perhaps unsurprisingly) Georgia, but we are particularly ‘into’ patron saints in the UK; our Union Flag is a mishmash of the flags of Saints George, Andrew and Patrick (St David – the Welsh patron Saint – was left out…nothing personal against David, mind, it was just that at the time the flag was created Wales was still considered part of the ‘Kingdom of England’.)

The other patron saints in the UK and Ireland seem somewhat logical choices: Patrick (Northern Ireland and Ireland, obviously) and David (Wales) were fairly local and significant in the bringing of Christianity to the ‘pagans’ of their respective countries.  St Andrew (St Peter’s brother) was in fact Palestinian, but gained particular meaning for the Scots for a number of reasons; they had his bones for a while and have invoked him as a protector in battle and of Scottish independence since the 1300s.

St George – well, we all know that George slew a dragon.  Wait… what?

St George & Dragon: Armand Point

Yup.  Killed it dead (after first defeating it and dragging it into town to use it to encourage people to convert to Christianity, obviously, or he’d be a pretty poor Saint).

When I was younger I just, sort of, accepted this story, although no-one mentioned at school that George was probably born in Turkey and the dragon business apparently took place in Libya – though let’s not forget that the whole story appears to be based on a compendium of older, mostly Greek, myths about dragon slayers.  Nevertheless, the tale made its way to England and was popularised on the return of the crusaders, who had probably been inspired by George’s unsubtle conversion methods… The story was further embellished, romanticised and Anglicised by medieval retellers.  Similarly to Andrew, George  – symbolic of bravery and overcoming adversity – became the protector of the English military and hence our patron saint.

Why the history lesson?  Well, there are currently stuttering attempts by the English to make St George’s day more of an event (unlike the Irish and Welsh, we don’t really do much for our patron saint’s feast day, apart from note that it has taken place again).  This minor media attention meant that I started thinking about the story again for the first time in years.  Why do we have an aspect of our national identity based around a myth / legend of a Turkish soldier?  Why do we use this as a metaphor for courage and overcoming adversity?  Are true stories of real, actual people overcoming adversity not good enough for us?  And… most importantly… what is it with dragons?

There’s no such thing as a dragon (sorry, Billy Bixbee), or at least, not the kind you see flying about in Skyrim and being slain by Saint George on his white horse.  It’s likely that there has never been such a creature; the ‘dragons’ described by the ancient Greek historians mostly appear to resemble oversized pythons and monstrous skeletons of sea dragons, it has been suggested, could have been those of whales which, minus the blubber, can look surprisingly dragon-esque.

Skeleton of a Killer Whale. Photo Credit: Wolfgang Sauber

More than the debate of ‘real’ dragon origins, what has struck me during my mini swatting-up session (which has not included oriental dragons, by the way, as the literature on those is much more substantial) is the interesting symbolism surrounding them.  The Welsh Dragon is said to represent the Red Dragon (the Britons) defending Wales in an epic battle with the White Dragon (the Saxons).  Yet the connections with Christianity in Europe are the most notable. The Biblical serpents and dragons are often in cahoots with, or a representation of, the Devil:

“And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years” – Revelation 20:2

St George’s defeat of the dragon takes on new meaning in this light; perhaps it was the devil, and not simply adversity, that he was overcoming.

To this day there is a connection between Christian missionaries and dragons, though now there is a new twist in the tale.  Creationist literature cites the widespread occurrence of dragon legends as support for their belief that humans and dinosaurs once co-existed (and that the world could consequently have been created comparatively recently).

With the exception of some more recent interpretations that consider dragons to be intelligent, noble, sometimes even friendly beings, most depictions of dragons are very devilish; they are firey, bitey, malicious beasts who mostly enjoy roasting crops and livestock and keeping maidens in the larder, or dragging unwitting fisherman into lakes and seas.   David Jones, an Anthropologist from the University of Florida, has also spotted this and has taken it a step further, suggesting that dragons are ubiquitous in legends across the world not so much because they once roamed (or flew over) the earth, but because we humans share the joint worry that… they might.

The gist of Jones’ theory is that dragons combine the scariest ‘bits’ of a number of dangerous species and they are therefore representative of the ultimate human predator, a combination of big cat, eagle and python; they are large, scaled, flying, swimming and lethal.  Plus, they breathe either poison or fire, two additionally dangerous characteristics.  From an evolutionary perspective, this would explain the enduring human fascination with this mythical taxa.

This is an intriguing hypothesis that perhaps explains why, despite its distant and seemingly irrelevant origins, the legend of St George appeals to so many; maybe he didn’t just slay the dragon, but everything there is to fear about the natural world.

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Not so unlike after all…?

Although I’ve been hiding in my cave for the last month, I promise I haven’t gone away altogether.  Just been attending to duties and teaching the Masked Bandits to high-five – proof may be posted here at a later date.

Our Anthrozoology facebook page (because we’re cool) is often updated with interesting stories and links – one recent one was this:

"The Water Bear"

(Apologies for linking to the Daily Mail by the way, but credit where credit’s due and all that…and there are some great pictures on this article) 

This ‘water bear’ is so-called because its movement apparently resembles that of the rather larger, furrier mammal.  Water-bear is the ‘common name’ for tardigrades; there are more than 100 species of them and they’re microscopic, living their hidden lives in moss, lichen or liverwort and feeding on it using those sharp mouthparts.  Though they might move like bears, I think a better name would be ‘mini-manatee’, because manatees already live in water and because they look like this:

Manatee. Photo: Chris Muenza

They also live pretty quiet lives primarily eating sea grasses and algae – hence their nickname, ‘sea-cow’.  We seem to like to name animals after other animals, even when they’re not at all related – think ‘flying fox’, which is in fact (quite obviously, when you look at it) a bat.  As well as being linked to our slightly OCD habits of putting things in boxes, I think this cross-referenced naming is also related to the tendency of evolution to be highly repetitive – as I’ve said before, if it ain’t broke…

Tree Lungs: I would love to attribute this picture if I knew who drew it!

It’s very easy and very interesting to find novelty and uniqueness in others; but I’m often pleasantly surprised to be reminded that in the end, we’re all made of the same old stuff.

“The Etymology of Entomology”

“The Etymology of Entomology”

This time I have a deadline and a presentation pending.  So, sorry about the lack of original finks this evening.  However, I will leave you in the capable hands of Dr George McGavin, who I have been fortunate enough to meet and whose fascination with all things creepy and crawly is akin to my peculiar fondness for camels.  This is an interesting listen (and has some links to my previous blog posts about naming and categorising).  If you can’t listen due to being outside the UK, have a read of this instead

See you on the flip side…

A Comforting Thought

It’s only Tuesday and I’m already having a bad week.  It’s got to the point where I’ve had to take up yoga.  Yoga!  But even that, the centering, the focusing, the calm, doesn’t seem to have perked up my tired but ever-racing brain.

Bunny Cuddle. Photo Credit: AlexSo, today’s fink is about melancholia, and specifically, how we remedy it.  I don’t consider myself to be a particularly melancholy person.  I like fixing things and if I’m unhappy, I tend to immediately take steps to fix it.  I realised yesterday that one of the first things I do to ‘fix’ my melancholia is to seek physical comfort – namely, a cuddle.  First point of call is the Crow, obviously (fitting that he should be called that, as I learned today that corvids are one of a few other species that have been observed to show conciliatory, or comforting, behaviour).  Failing that, I head straight for the Masked Bandits.  Now, rats aren’t necessarily cuddly animals.  Most of the time, the Bandits would not be considered cuddly.  They will tolerate cuddles for a short amount of time, but then they’d really prefer to be climbing, digging, or chewing through various valuable objects.

Nevertheless, I still obtain a significant amount of comfort from playing with them, even when they are more engaged in using me as a climbing frame than letting me stroke them.  This might have something to do with oxytocin, a hormone that is released in humans during bonding activities – during and after childbirth, during sex, or even simply when there is a demonstration of mutual trust.  It is also seen to increase in both humans and dogs when they play or interact. Increased levels of oxytocin are correlated with feelings of calmness and reduction of anxiety.

It follows, then, that there is a significant – and growing – body of research on the therapeutic benefits of human animal interactions (often referred to as Animal Assisted Therapy, or AAT).  There are a whole range of ways in which these interspecies meetings are thought to benefit humans; the alleviation of isolation or depression is just one.  I wonder if this bonding with animals is more beneficial than an equally sociable activity with humans?  Perhaps it’s just less socially fraught (for the humans, anyway).

Macaca fuscata grooming.  Photo credit: Noneotuho Allo-grooming, the mutual grooming behaviour observed in many social species (notably primates but also birds, ungulates such as horses and rodents, including rats), is thought to have evolved as a mechanism for removing dirt and parasites from the fur, skin or feathers of fellows.  Yet it also has other social functions; in primates, particularly, it is often a reconciliation or bond-strengthening exercise.  The Masked Bandits, who may also be influenced by oxytocin, use an unusual form of ‘forced grooming’ as part of their occasional wrestling matches; one will pin another, then start grooming him very thoroughly, sometimes making him squeak in protest.

I am a true groomer, always playing with hair and inspecting hands; not looking for anything, but just because I like to do it.  The Bandits find this particularly annoying most of the time, but occasionally reciprocate; they are particularly fond inspecting fingernails.  I remember a couple of capuchins in Ecuador who used to pull the hands of (naive) volunteers into their enclosure before swiftly identifying any scabs or loose skin and pulling it off.  Horses, too, will scratch your back (or try to) if you scratch theirs.    Although the intentions behind these moments are difficult to decipher, it’s possible – even likely – that many of these behaviours have shared evolutionary drivers; these types of physical contact can be calming, improve social bonds and (certainly in my case), reduce that ‘is it only Tuesday?’ feeling.

When I am sad I seek comfort from both human and nonhuman sources.  I know that physical contact will help alleviate it.  That’s likely to be the case with other species too.  What about offering comfort to others, though?

I have known a couple of dogs who showed impressive talents for responding to human emotion; one I recall specifically climbing on me and whining when I was having a good weep at a very sad book.  It’s thought that this harks back, again, to the long co-evolution of humans and dogs, which seems to have resulted in dogs being particularly adept at interpreting human expression and emotions.  Does anyone know of other examples of cross-species comforting?  I imagine there are many individual cases of animals that have developed specific interspecies bonds in captivity (such as Koko the Gorilla and her kitten), but I’m more interested in a more general ability.

Comforting behaviour is linked to sympathy, which is in turn linked to empathy, which I have talked a little about before.  Relatively recent research in neuro-science has been looking at mirror-neurons, which are activated when we observe behaviours in others – so, if we see another human performing a behaviour, our brain reacts as if we had ourselves performed it.  There are thought to be similar processes that related to observing expressions of emotions in others.  So, in theory, this could explain why when we see another person – or maybe another animal – expressing sadness, we recognise or even mirror the feeling and respond accordingly.  That being said, though a top-class groomer, I consider myself a pretty poor comforter of others; so perhaps this varies significantly and comfort behaviour is as much learned as neurological.

A bit of a rambling blog tonight, but I have found this interesting to research and for me, it’s a comforting thought that we can find comfort not just with our family, or with our own species, but even with smelly little rodents.  As ever, would like to hear your finks too.

Related Links:

Chimpanzee co-operation linked to ‘social bond’ hormone  /  An Examination of Changes in Oxytocin Levels in Men and Women Before and After Interaction with a Bonded Dog  /  Handbook on Animal Assisted Therapy  /  Canis empathicus’? A proposal on dogs’ capacity to empathize with humans /

Due to an impending deadline, I am unable to write a blog that would make any sense at present but wanted to let you know that I haven’t gone anywhere and intend to return later in the week.  Here are some newsy things I’m not going to talk about today:

1.  Urban foxes. Exasperating.  For today, my only comment is this (as noted on Twitter earlier in the week): if a dog injures a child, the individual dog (or sometimes, its owners) are blamed.  If a fox injures a child, the entire species is a ‘menace’.  What’s that all about?

2. Horse meat.  I’ve been there and done that. (Written about it I mean, not consumed it).

Instead, I’m going to send you on your way with this nice article about dog cognition, as it appears to be the only vaguely cheerful news this week.

Let me know if you have any requests for the next blog, when my mind is once more free and clear for application to random musings….

This service will resume shortly…

A Clarification

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”
Charles Darwin

Yes, I have opened my very first blog post with a quote.  Cowardly, I know, but it seemed so fitting that I couldn’t resist.  After much thought (and ignoring the part of me that still thinks I should have gone for something more dramatic), I have decided to begin at the beginning, by clarifying the meaning and purpose of ‘Symbiology’: a term which I haven’t exactly made up, but probably may as well have – I for one had never heard of it until today.

Symbiology is the study (or in this case, exploration) of symbioses.  A symbiosis, as you may know, is a frequent or long term interaction between different living things, normally between different species.  As usual, there is a boring and mostly unnecessary academic dispute as to whether or not a ‘symbiotic’ relationship is one that benefits both parties, or whether the term refers to any kind of association (including, for example, the relationship between a parasite and its host).  I’m going to stick with the broader definition, because it better serves my purpose, which is to cast the net wide and look at all kinds of interactions between all different kinds of species.  That being said, I warn you now that there will, at least initially, be a focus on interactions between humans and other animals.  Why?  Well, because my primary area of interest (and to some extent, expertise) is anthrozoology, or the study of human-animal interactions.  You probably think I’m just making stuff up now, but anthrozoology is a bona fide academic field (we have a society and everything); although when I say field, it’s more like rangeland, with a roughly defined outline but very little in the way of fences.

That’s a plus-point, as far as I’m concerned, because (as you will no doubt learn) I am quite an indecisive person and, as an anthrozoologist, one can also be a zoologist, a psychologist, an anthropologist, a sociologist, a philosopher, a geographer or just someone who’s interested in animals and/or humans (which covers pretty much everyone else, excluding sociopaths).  The boundaries are faint because, although you may not have thought about it before, anthrozoology influences almost everything; from everyday activities like keeping pets, eating meat and visiting zoos, through well-covered issues like conservation, hunting and medical research, to animal-assisted therapy and enlisting dolphins to help with fishing.

Despite this, I still thought anthrozoology was too limited a scope for this fledgling blog, as I would then feel bound to exclude posts that weren’t human-related in some way.   So, Symbiology is the exploration of how living things relate to other living things.  That should be broad enough…