[T]he language biologists use to describe how animals behave … always lauds the individuals who hold territories and possess mates, as though each male were biologically entitled to a castle of his own, complete with princess. Words like stealing, parasitism, deceit, and mimicry dominate the discussion and distort the sophisticated reality of what really happens in societies that contain a biological diversity of participants.
—  Joan Roughgarden, Evolution’s Rainbow (73-74)
Do animals really own anything? The assumption that they do naturalizes human property rights. Because of this assumption, animals can be described as stealing. Biologists are willing to impute ownership to animals, as though animals cared about property as much as people do. […] Time and again, biologists assume that ownership is well defined, and explain away the failure to be selfish as a limitation of ability, rather than as falsifying the assumption that selfishness is adaptive.
—  Joan Roughgarden, Evolution’s Rainbow (69)
Nurture impacts nature: Experiences leave genetic mark on brain, behavior

New human and animal research released today demonstrates how experiences impact genes that influence behavior and health. Today’s studies, presented at Neuroscience 2013, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world’s largest source of emerging news about brain science and health, provide new insights into how experience might produce long-term brain changes in behaviors like drug addiction and memory formation.

The studies focus on an area of research called epigenetics, in which the environment and experiences can turn genes “on” or “off,” while keeping underlying DNA intact. These changes affect normal brain processes, such as development or memory, and abnormal brain processes, such as depression, drug dependence, and other psychiatric disease — and can pass down to subsequent generations.

Today’s new findings show that:

  • Long-term heroin abusers show differences in small chemical modifications of their DNA and the histone proteins attached to it, compared to non-abusers. These differences could account for some of the changes in DNA/histone structures that develop during addiction, suggesting a potential biological difference driving long-term abuse versus overdose (Yasmin Hurd, abstract 257.2, see attached summary).
  • Male rats exposed to cocaine may pass epigenetic changes on to their male offspring, thereby altering the next generation’s response to the drug. Researchers found that male offspring in particular responded much less to the drug’s influence (Matheiu Wimmer, PhD, abstract 449.19, see attached summary).
  • Drug addiction can remodel mouse DNA and chromosomal material in predictable ways, leaving “signatures,” or signs of the remodeling, over time. A better understanding of these signatures could be used to diagnose drug addiction in humans (Eric Nestler, PhD, abstract 59.02, see attached summary).

Other recent findings discussed show that:

  • Researchers have identified a potentially new genetic mechanism, called piRNA, underlying long-term memory. Molecules of piRNA were previously thought to be restricted to egg and sperm cells (Eric Kandel, MD, see attached summary).
  • Epigenetic DNA remodeling is important for forming memories. Blocking this process causes memory deficits and stunts brain cell structure, suggesting a mechanism for some types of intellectual disability (Marcelo Wood, PhD, see attached summary).

“DNA may shape who we are, but we also shape our own DNA,” said press conference moderator Schahram Akbarian, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, an expert in epigenetics. “These findings show how experiences like learning or drug exposure change the way genes are expressed, and could be incredibly important in developing treatments for addiction and for understanding processes like memory.”

In Hopkins basement, bats and owls offer clues into brain function

In one corner of the basement of Ames Hall at the Johns Hopkins University, Cynthia Moss opened the door of a room where about a dozen Egyptian fruit bats dozed inside a milk crate attached to the wall.

“Come on, sweeties,” she said, stirring them up, and they raced in circles around her head.

Adjacent to the climate-controlled bat rooms live 14 barn owls, whose spaces are quieter and where the floors are littered with the remains of bloodied mice — a recent meal — and droppings. Shreesh Mysore often places the owls, tummies down, inside a box-like apparatus and places little headphones over their ears as part of his research into how the birds focus their attention.

The two professors, who work in Hopkins’ department of psychological and brain sciences, share an interest in the study of attention and hope to find ways to collaborate. They believe their work may lead to a better understanding of how blind people navigate the world, or the cause of disorders such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, schizophrenia and autism.

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Driven by the anthropological machine, the identity of the human becomes self-enclosed and self-referential. It becomes mirror-gazing. Constantly on the lookout for that one thing that would indicate human uniqueness and transcendence over nature, the thinkers of the machine polish an animal mirror, looking for themselves; and they come to the conclusion that human identity is something that can be ascertained by looking solely at humans. The logic of the mirror is circular: having found something unique to humans, the uniqueness of the human is then derived from it: only human beings are capable of, say, language, and thus language, in turn, founds the human subject. Man looks at his own visage and, satisfied, deems himself worthy and dignified. Then, from this image in the mirror he begins to assess what is proper to man, what it is that marks his difference and separation from the rest of the living world.

And what does he see? Himself, only himself. Here is a partial list of such human-centred discoveries that have been denied, in the course of history, to all other animals, precisely all animals in toto: language, speech, symbolic forms, rationality, reason, freedom,culture, history, consciousness, subjectivity, personhood, soul, self-reflection, laughter, ethics, politics, experience of death, tool-making, wearing clothes, feeling naked, eroticism, lying, pretending, bartering, shame, guilt.

Man looks at himself and likes what he sees, and thus he decides to share his own propriety – that which he finds to be important and dignified in himself – with other animals,or then again, remove it from them. Never does he decide that an appendix, an adenoid, atoenail would be worthy of standing as a characteristic that can be used to pass judgement onanimals. Neither can any other animal have something that could be used to judge humans.When an animal has something that humans do not, then the animal is different; when humanshave something that animals do not, then the humans are unique, or better yet: superior. Nor is it really worth, in this perspective, to compare animals between themselves: an otter is notfarther from or closer to an elephant by the degree of trunk that it has. But when a human mental characteristic is being discussed, the distance can be measured: “The gorilla has the mind of a three-year old child”, they say.

This is precisely the law and rule of comparing humans and animals: a more or less mental characteristic is found solely by looking at the highly dignified Man in the Mirror; this quality is then dispensed to animals in some degree, or withheld from them with the same movement. Are they conscious, too? Do they possess language too? Do they too fear death? Man’s measuring hand pulls the entire living world together into one single undifferentiated mass, and the blanket judgment he will pass on this multitude that has, under his judging gaze, lost all of its differences, all of its diversity, is lack and absence: no other creature has what he has, no other living being can be characterised by any criteria he has discovered while admiring himself. Or at best, not to the same degree. Even if, in his better moments, he kindly allows some other animals to have these things he has first found in himself, they will have but a shadow, a rudiment, a partial development of that thing. To be an animal is to lack something human. To this gaze, animals are mere pathetic replicas of human beings, nothing but rudimentary humans.

Within the anthropological machine, animals, all animals in their totality form an undifferentiated mass: there is an absence of understanding of, and respect for the diversity of all life, the difference between species, their own being as themselves. There is no desire to stand face to face with the alterity and singularity of nonhuman animals, or to place oneself under the gaze of an alien being; comparisons with particular species (as opposed to “animality” as a whole) only function as particular examples in the service and name of animality as such, in the general singular. What is nowhere in sight within this machine is an understanding of and respect for the diversity of all life, the difference between species, their own being as themselves; there is no multiplicity, no diversity, no difference, no desire to stand face to face with the alterity and singularity of nonhuman animals, or to place oneself under the gaze of an alien being and let go of the sovereign gaze of the Philosopher.