“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…


Back on the Burger-Wagon

CowHorseCow. Photo Credit: By InSapphoWeTrust I know, I know.  I said, ‘been there, done that’.  So, sorry to return to the issue, but I think there is another symbiologically relevant point to be brought forth from this continuing horsemeat malarky, which I didn’t really look at last time.  But hey (geddit?), I’ve had a week off and need something to get my teeth into.  Sorry, I’ll stop with the puns.

In my last post about horse-meat, I concentrated on the cultural relationship people have with horses in this country and considered why one would be disgusted at the idea of eating horse.  I also said this (so you don’t have to go back and read it again):

“As someone who spends far too long staring at food labels in supermarkets (before deciding just to have a veggie curry because it’s less stressful), I wasn’t particularly shocked to hear that not everything that goes into a Tesco Value Beefburger could be considered ‘beef’.  It says on the packet that beef only constitutes 66% of the actual burger;  I know, the rest is water, wheat flour and ‘beef fat’, but still, there’s no detail of which country it comes from or what part of the cow you’re eating; or even if ‘beef’ and ‘cow’ are necessarily synonyms.”

Last time, the labelling issue – whilst acknowledged – was an aside to a wider point about cultural taboos.  This time, I want to think about why it is such a problem that people may have been ‘misinformed’ into eating horse, especially as that has now become the crux of the issue.

I also want to acknowledge this article: Horse meat – the hardest thing to digest is that it’s your fault. which bravely and eloquently (if rather angrily) expresses a thought that presumably many of us have been thinking: that ultimately, you are responsible for what you consume.  I don’t mean this to be a personal attack on consumers, though; it’s a call to consider, from a less emotive position, how we’ve reached a point at which we are unable to identify the animal we are eating, let alone where it came from or how it lived.

Hunters, Herders & Hamburgers - Richard BullietRichard Bulliet, in his book Hunters, herders and hamburgers – a strangely appropriate title – coined the term ‘post-domestic society’ to refer to those communities that have become completely removed from the realities of animal slaughter.  To put this in perspective, the ‘hunters’ here are hunter-gatherer societies. Domestic societies  – the ‘herders’, i.e. pastoralist or agricultural cultures, are observed to become acclimatised to animal death because they live closely alongside the animals they raise, keep and consume and they witness – often from an early age – the process of animal death and preparation for consumption.

Bulliet noted that, Lebanon being a largely ‘domestic’ society, 90% of students at the American University of Beirut had witnessed animal slaughter compared with less than 20% at New York’s Columbia University.  I have never seen an animal slaughtered, though I am more familiar with the processing side, not least because I come from a town that has an old-school butcher’s shop where the carcasses are hung up in the windows.  It never really bothered me – perhaps because it’s always been there – and now I’m strangely proud of it, because I believe that if you are to eat animals, you should understand fully what that implies. Butcher's Shop Window. Photo Credit: Joadl

Back to the point, though; what kind of strange relationship is this that so many humans now have with domestic species, that we can go our whole lives eating meat without ever having to kill anything?  Well; we trade meat for money, something that I can be fairly confident in saying happens nowhere else in the natural world.  There are two things at play in the horsemeat scandal, I think.  Firstly, there is a post-domestic attitude that leads people not to disregard, necessarily, but to forget or simply not even consider the origin of their meat.  Post-domestic citizens are shielded from the realities of meat eating – the blood and guts, as it were, hardly come into play when burgers are chosen from supermarket freezers.  We are separated, too, from those interspecies interactions that are associated with the end result of consumption – the birth, the feeding, the herding, the death.  So there is no interaction at all and the animal – whatever it may be – is lost sight of. This is where factor two comes into play; money.

Meat packages in a supermarket. Photo: MattesIt is too easy to forget, with 99p McDonald’s meals, that ‘meat’, i.e. animals, are expensive to raise (and rightly so); they require a whole lifetime, however comparatively short, of feeding, sheltering and healthcare, especially (and crucially, for me) if that life is to be one worth living.  The pressure is on, though, to drive prices down, to be competitive.  In the end, is it really surprising that the bottom end of the price range becomes something that you may not consider appropriate meat?  Offal, or maybe horse?

What has this to do with symbiology?  Well, I’m really making a reverse point.  What’s gone on here is not an association between species, an interaction between organisms, but a great gaping hole where that interaction, for better or worse, once sat.  I’m not sure I would like to live in a domestic society because they are tough and gory, but that being said, living in a post-domestic society is a little like living in space.  Connections to reality – to the way the world is when there are no supermarkets and processing plants and cleverly-hidden slaughterhouses – are getting thinner and fainter.  Connections to other animals –  even if they ultimately end in death – are growing weaker.  I sometimes feel like we are drifting away from the rest of the world, even as we try to understand it better.

So, my attention was drawn to this article the other day, which describes the attempts of a primary school to educate children on the entire process of rearing meat; they are to raise pigs and then send them to the butcher (though I imagine they won’t see the actual slaughter – might be a bit much too soon).  I am not sure that I’m on board with teaching children how to advertise and sell meat, as that seems to hark back to the competitive pricing issue again and I’m not sure that’s what I’d focus on, but I can see the value in children being taught to understand exactly what their meat-eating involves.  It gives them the opportunity to be fully informed when they choose their future relationship with meat.  A good friend of mine became vegetarian after learning, as a child, what happened to the pigs she’d come to regard as friends.  Fair enough, and that might happen to some of these kids too. Sow with piglet. Photo Credit: Scott Bauer

Equally, the children might be unfazed and simply continue to eat pigs with aplomb (unless they’re Islamic or Jewish; either its not a very religiously diverse school or the teacher hasn’t thought this through). As far as I’m concerned, in essentials that’s OK too.  The key point is, they will understand the input and resources required to raise animals; the true cost of their consumption. They will (hopefully, and importantly for me) recognise the value of the life of their pigs, see that those lives means something, even if they are eaten at the end of it.  They will have an interaction and they will be symbiotes in the real world, even if only for a little while.  They may be the ones who end this fantasy of consequence-free consumption.

The Rescuers – the pitfalls and potential of interspecies altruism

Since I published my blog about morality, I’ve been noticing lots of instances of humans demonstrating our extensive capacity for altruism (re-cap: acts that help others without any significant gain to ourselves).  Particularly, me being me, I’ve noticed how far we extend our altruism – far outside of our own social group, to include strangers, other animals and even ‘concepts’, such as a real concern for ‘nature’ as a whole.Brazilian Beachgoers Rescuing Stranded Dolphins

I’ve also noticed the conflict that this expansion of our empathy seems to initiate.  Not only does it create novel moral dilemmas for us when we project our own moral values onto other species (as discussed in my blog about cats as serial killers), it also produces dilemmas as to the reasonable limits of our altruism.  Without wanting to harp on about the cat issue again, I must highlight this quote from the extensive press relating to it:

“It is not humane treatment of animals to place a killing machine in their midst. Nor is it humane treatment of animals to allow one to live, with the knowledge that others will die painful deaths because of that act.” – Karin Kline, Los Angeles Times

Erm… I have an issue with the second sentence of that statement.  Allow me to jump off my fence and dust the sawdust of my backside for a moment while I point out that, by that logic, we should not be allowing any predators to live, at all, ever.  Such a level of intervention into the lives of others, I think most people would agree, would be a step too far and would likely have disastrous results for the functioning of our planet.

So, although I think most would agree that we can’t reasonably attempt to intervene in every violent and non-altruistic interaction that takes place, we are still left with the question: when is it OK to intervene?

The Crow and I have been watching the BBC’s ‘Africa’ for the past few weeks and in the most recent episode – regarding the future of the continent – a number of these issues were discussed.   Filmmakers and local conservationists watched a baby elephant die of starvation.  They did not intervene.  On another occasion, however, an adult female was stuck in mud unable to free herself; the team pulled her free using heavy machinery.  The explanation was that, during the drought, the team felt that there was nothing they could realistically do for the infant.  There was no food, no water and the calf was too weak to walk.  It was agreed that with so little chance of a positive outcome, it was not worth causing the mother the stress of their intervention; in such a situation the mother is not to know that humans are trying to help.  Their experience of humans may not always have been positive and the first part of a different video below – in which humans did intervene to save an elephant calf stuck in a well – shows how distressing such well intentioned actions can be (don’t worry – on this occasion it has a happy ending):

I don’t know of researchers, conservationists or filmmakers ever intervening in situations where an animal is threatened by a predator – some of the camera operators on ‘Africa’ said how emotionally difficult it had been to watch hundreds of young turtles snatched by crows and eagles.  Here, though, another of our most developed abilities – reasoned thought – often wins out over the initial empathic response.  Most people recognise that life functions on death and consumption, even if (like my mum) you’d rather not watch it happen.

The question of human intervention, then, is normally restricted to events that could be classified as ‘natural spite’ (such as elephants trapped in mud and beached whales) or situations caused by anthropogenic activity (such as dolphins trapped in fishing lines and birds coated in mystery substances probably of human origin).

Photo: Brendan McDermid/ReutersThe big dilemmas arise when we just don’t know what’s happened, or what is the best course of action.  Last week, in New York, a lone dolphin was discovered in the Gowanus Canal.  David Kirby of the Huffington Post has written a really thoughtful article considering both sides of the story, which is worth reading in full.  In short, though, the official advice from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was to leave the dolphin alone until high tide to give him the chance to ‘rescue’ hisself.  Sadly, he didn’t survive that long.  Although there were many concerned onlookers, restricted access made it very difficult for anyone to reach the stranded dolphin and, even if they had, there was nowhere nearby to take him.  The general desire to help, though, was apparently evident  – the photo I’ve yoinked here (all credit to Brendan McDermid/Reuters) shows a man climbing over the barriers in an attempt to offer the dolphin some comfort.

Although we may be conflicted, I am heartened by the length and breadth of our compassion and altruism towards others, both within and across species.  It makes me hopeful that, by employing both this natural generosity and the aforementioned reason, we’re not entirely doomed to failure as a species and as (self-appointed) stewards of this planet.  Our emotions and reason mean that as well as acting selfishly, which heaven knows we’re also very good at, we also want to help – and for many of us, this extends to a desire to help not just our friends and family but other animals, plants, entire ecosystems or even the whole planet!  So, for me our capacity for altruism is one of the most fortunate of evolution’s branches: imagine what things might be like if we lacked it.

It also seems that this adaptation is not just a one-off.  Evolution is full of patterns and parallel solutions to common problems (I like to thing of parallel evolution as the theory of ‘if it ain’t broke..’)  As I discussed in ‘Moral(animal)ity‘, there is a growing body of data regarding other social animals exhibiting altruism and the foundations of moral systems.  It is hardly surprising, then, that some of the most ‘socially intelligent’ of these animals have also been recorded to generalise their altruistic behaviour to other species, including humans.  It’s the usual suspects – elephants, cetaceans, great apes – with a couple of less-obvious inputs, for example, from pigs and parrots (again, though, both highly social species).

Dolphins, in particular, have been observed on multiple occasions helping both humans and other cetaceans out of sticky situations, suggesting that they either have a particularly strong capacity for altruistic action or that people watch them a lot.  Could be a little from column A, a little from column B…  I’ve put some links to examples below.  Many of these accounts are anecdotal, but they have considerable potential for further study and – as Marc Bekoff says – the plural of anecdote is data.Cookie.  Photo: Wales News Service

Finally, a touching (and local to the Battcave) example of true animal nonhuman altruism, whether intended as such or not; it was reported today that Cookie the Cockatiel woke his owner in the middle of a house fire by repeatedly dive-bombing him, saving the boy’s life.  Tragically, Cookie did not make it out of the fire and has therefore become an ultimate altruist, by giving his life to save another’s.

Aubrey Manning – Animal Magic: Why Species Give Each Other a Helping Hand  /  Dolphins Save Surfer from Becoming Shark Bait  /  Beluga Whale ‘Saves’ Diver  /


(This one is interesting, because I’m not sure whether or not the gorilla intended to save the duckling or was just really interested in it; what do you think?)

Zoonomastics: or, what’s in a name?

Today I’m thinking about names.  As a result, I have made up a name for this blog post that is a squishing-together (‘combination’ probably would have worked, but clearly I’m feeling simple today) of ‘zoo’ (animal) and ‘onomastics’ – the study of names.

I was inspired to write this by a jolt to the memory by Twitter, of all things.  This story might seem odd, but it comes around to a point.  A friend of mine informed me that a favourite boyband of old (well, mid-90s) had reformed for a TV programme.  I was thus inspired to follow them on Twitter (something I really haven’t got the hang of as much as I probably should).  Their reappearance in my consciousness led me to thinking of the extent of my youthful fandom and also made me think about my old cat, Jimmy. Jimmy the Pink Cat

You might be thinking that Jimmy is an odd name for a cat (although I’ve heard weirder).  You might also be wondering why thinking about boybands made me think about cats.  Well, the truth is, Jimmy was named after a member of said boyband.  I can hear you laughing from here; I’m OK with it.  I was 12.

Why did I name a pink tabby after a pop star?  It was hardly flattering for either party.  Fortunately, neither was ever in a position to appreciate the implications of this dubious honour (though thanks to Twitter, that’s now changed…)  It was often joked, nevertheless, that Jim the Cat – who sadly died in 2008 – acted in a particularly macho fashion, all whipping tail and narrowed eyes, to overcome his multiple handicaps to masculinity: no balls, boyband namesake and to top it all off, distinctly pink fur.

What is it that influences our choice of personal names for pets and other animals?  Celebrity worship aside, it has been suggested that the growing trend for allocating dogs and cats names that have traditionally been reserved for humans means we increasingly view pets as valued or equal family members.  This is particularly interesting because at the same time, at least in ‘Western’ cultures, there is an observable trend towards more unusual names for human children.

One obvious influence is appearance, especially, I think, for children.  I named my first pet, a rabbit, Blacky; possibly the world’s most unoriginal name, as well as being politically dubious (one step short of the name of the dog in Dambusters… that’s dropped off the top ten list).  I had a toy Koala that I named Koaly and a toy parrot named Beaky.  I don’t think I’m alone in my ‘add a y’ technique: Sooty, Smokey, Fluffy, Snowy, Wolfie… any of those sound familiar?

It has been suggested that personality might play a role, but if you are naming a young animal, much like naming a young human, you can’t really surmise much about personality from a sleepy, whiny bundle of warm.

I’m being very mammal-centric here, though… what about the less fluffy amongst our animal friends? Although not as widely studied as cats and dogs,a quick browse for gecko and lizard names highlighted things like Rex, Godzilla (yep), Lizzie (see what you did there), Spikes and Rango… so a couple more nods to popular culture.Leopard Gecko: definitely looks like a Godzilla.  Photo: Fritz Geller-Grimm  Indeed, it is reassuring to know that I was not alone in my culturally influenced choice; according to this article, Bella has topped the list of female puppy names ever since Twilight was released.  I will leave you to reach your own conclusions as to why Bella but neither Edward nor Jacob has hit the top ten list.  Worth noting, thought, that it has the coveted ‘vowel-ending’ that makes calling the name easier…

A lighthearted post today, but before I go, a couple of anthrozoological bits and pieces I’ve thought about as a result of this topic.  Firstly – and I might look into this further at some point – I am interested in the level of interaction we need to have with a nonhuman to decide that it is worthy of a personal name.  I think it is probably key that the object of our naming demonstrates a certain level of individuality;  without much thought, I named all of my demodex Dexter in the recognition that I wouldn’t be able to tell them apart, even under a microscope.   I don’t know much about the psychology of names and it’s too late at night to start reading up on it now, but I would suspect that our penchant for labelling things falls under a similar scope as our need to categorise.

Secondly – and finally – from a less anthropocentric (human-centred) point of view, do other animals have names for one another?  As mentioned before, our capacity and application for language is one of our most notable features.  Yet just because there is no direct comparison in the nonhuman world, this doesn’t mean other species don’t have individual labels for one another.    In fact, solely in terms of auditory communication, as I mentioned in a previous post, dolphins are thought to have unique identifying whistles comparable to names.   Similar findings exist in parrots and also crows, elephants and certain primates; all social animals who, like us, may benefit from being able to recognise who is who, who is friend and who is foe.

As I’ve given so much away about my own (terrible, apparently) naming principles, I think you should share too – please leave any anecdotes in the comments below, or just fill in my little poll!

As for The Masked Bandits – their occupation as thieving little hobbitses means their identities must, for now, remain undisclosed. Sorry.

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…