Monthly Archives: August 2015

Who’s top dog? New research sorts dominant and submissive canine poses

The Conversation

Sunanda Creagh, The Conversation

In the first quantitative study on status behaviour in a stable group of domestic dogs, Dutch researchers have identified and categorised dog behaviours most consistently associated with dominance and submission.

The new study, published today in the journal PLOS ONE, adds some quantitative data to a debate usually infused with opinion.

The researchers found that the concept of dominance does apply to domestic dogs and that certain behaviours, regardless of context, are good indicators of the dog’s status.

“The best indicator for status assessment in a pair of individuals, as well as for the position in the group (rank order), is submission, not aggression,” said lead researcher, Joanne van der Borg, a behavioural biologist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

“The best formal submission signal is body tail wag, often shown in combination with mouth lick. Lowering of posture is the best status indicator for most relationships. The tail position is the most informative body part of dogs for the assessment of status in relationships.”

The best formal submission signal is body tail wag, often shown in combination with mouth lick.

Lessons for dog owners

Janice Lloyd, Senior Lecturer in Animal Behaviour at James Cook University said dominance-submissive relationship only exists when one dog consistently submits to the other. “Once the relationship is established, it is reinforced through warning postures and ritualistic aggressive encounters, rather than full-blown fighting,” she said.

Aggressiveness and social dominance are not the same thing she said, adding that postural displays can provide more information about status and rank than aggressiveness alone.

“I think it is important to note that the paper analysed dominance through behavioural measures and that dominance was used as a variable. It is uncertain if the ‘concept of dominance’ is useful to explain dog–dog aggression or dog-human aggression,” said Lloyd, who was not involved in the study.

“Although dominance-submissive relationships exist among some pet dogs (and probably cats), a linear hierarchy may not exist as individuals can share similar ranks and an animal will guard only what is important to it.”

The dominance-submissive model is not that relevant for most of the behaviours dog owners want from their dogs, she said.

“Most aggressive behaviour seen in dogs is caused by fear and/or anxiety rather than dominance. It would be ill-advised for a dog owner to think that there was one or two dog postures identified in the paper that would be most likely to predict a dog that was about to be aggressive,” she said.

Visual cues that indicate fear include blinking, licking, turning away, moving away and – if the perceived threat is not removed – growling, snapping and possibly biting, she said.

“My advice is for dog owners to learn as much as they can about canine body language and avoid putting their dogs into situations where the ‘ladder of aggression’ may escalate. If owners believe that an individual dog has a ‘dominance-trait’ that drives it to achieve a high rank, this might lead to coercive and punishment-based techniques, in order for the owner to erroneously try to ‘show the dog who is boss’, which can exacerbate the problem and ruin the owner-pet relationship.”

The ConversationSunanda Creagh is Editor at The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

1 Comment

Filed under Reblogs

Karl Popper on tolerance


1 Comment

Filed under Quotations

Peter Drucker on meetings

Peter Ferdinand Drucker (November 19, 1909 – November 11, 2005) was an Austrian-born American management consultant, educator, and author, whose writings contributed to the philosophical and practical foundations of the modern business corporation. He was also a leader in the development of management education, he invented the concept known as management by objectives and self-control, and he has been described as “the founder of modern management”.


Leave a comment

Filed under Quotations

Michael Leunig, Conscience, and The Choice to Vaccinate

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Karl Popper on knowledge and ignorance

Sir Karl Raimund Popper CH FBA FRS (28 July 1902 – 17 September 1994) was an Austrian-British philosopher and professor. He is generally regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century. Popper is known for his rejection of the classical inductivist views on the scientific method, in favour of empirical falsification: A theory in the empirical sciences can never be proven, but it can be falsified, meaning that it can and should be scrutinized by decisive experiments.



Filed under Quotations

Don’t fall off! The delicate balance of outrunning a predator

The Conversation

Rebecca Wheatley, The University of Queensland

Imagine you are crossing a stream over a fallen log. How fast would you walk across? Probably fairly slowly, balancing carefully as you go. Now imagine you are being chased by a bear. How fast should you cross the stream?

This kind of situation is something other animals face on a daily basis. Many small animals must be able to successfully evade predators in the trees as they look for food and mates. But how fast should an animal run when a predator is chasing it? What factors must it consider? And what happens if the environment the animal lives in changes?

An animal needs to run fast enough to escape its pursuer. But it also needs to avoid slipping and falling, as this could result in its death, either through the predator catching it, or by gravity just doing its thing. This presents the animal with a conundrum, because the faster it runs, the less accuracy it has over the placement of its feet.

So there is a trade-off between the speed and accuracy of locomotor tasks. The faster you perform an activity, the less control you have over the movement.

Looking for the best escape tactic

What this means for animals in the wild is that running as fast as they can might not give them their best chance of survival. There are other factors that must be considered.

In many predation situations, prey animals will perform tight turns and sudden changes in direction to try and out-manoeuvre the predator. In these cases, animals don’t use their top speed, as running faster makes it harder to change direction while remaining stable.

But if the animal’s route is constrained to a straight line – like when it’s running along a branch – it does not have the option of using these tight turns. Instead, it must be able to outrun the predator using speed alone.

On a typical small branch there are only two possible routes. Andrew Maynard, Author provided

But, just like people, different animals have different capabilities both in terms of how fast they can run and how coordinated they are. This means that different individuals will have different optimal speeds based on how good they are at maintaining their footing when they’re running.

So how can we figure out what the best running speed for a critter in this situation is?

We built a mathematical model that predicts just that, with the findings published earlier this month in the journal Integrative and Comparative Biology.

Our model takes into account the size and stride length of an animal, it’s level of coordination, and the speed of the predator. It also takes into account the difficulty of the environment the animal is facing – that is, how thick the branch is, or how narrow a target the animal has to aim for.

The model also accounts for different levels of mistake – for instance, a minor slip versus a really major slip – and the different costs for each.

A 3D plot showing the effects of beam width and individual coordination (where a smaller value means better coordination) on the optimum running speed for an animal escaping a predator.
Rebecca Wheatley, Author provided

We found that the fastest escape speeds should be attempted by the most coordinated animals on thick branches. The slowest escape speeds, on the other hand, should be attempted by uncoordinated individuals on thin branches. These results are pretty intuitive and are exactly what we would expect: there’s no point in running fast if it guarantees that you’ll slip and die.

The model in practice

This means that our model is probably on the right track. But, of course, we need to test it out in reality: do animals actually use their best running speed in nature?

The neat thing about this model is that it can be customised to any kind of animal. This means that we can modify the model to fit whatever animal we’re interested in studying, and then get some estimates for the speeds we think that animal should choose in different situations.

We can then run experiments to see if this is what our animals actually do. And if they don’t, our model will help us figure out why.

Our research looks at movement decisions in many different animals, from human athletes to native Australian marsupials like the buff-footed Antechinus (Antechinus mysticus). As a small mammal, Antechinus are under threat from a variety of exotic predators.

They are also a predator themselves, hunting down insects, small amphibians and reptiles for food. As such, they are an ideal species for looking at the kind of decisions animals make when avoiding predators and capturing prey.

But why does any of this matter?

Understanding how and why animals move the way they do can help us understand the impacts the environment has on a species’ ecology. This in turn can help us figure out how changing the environment will affect how easily particular animals can escape from predators.

It is well established that clearing habitat leaves many species vulnerable to predation. But little is known about how the complexity of the environment affects species directly in terms of how well they perform. Are trees easier to navigate than thick ground cover? Is a complex understory better for outmanoeuvring a predator than a simple one?

If we can develop models that accurately predict how environmental conditions affect animals survival through their ability to escape from predators, we can determine which environmental components are most important to preserve.

The ConversationRebecca Wheatley is PhD Candidate in Ecology at The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

Argument to moderation

Argument to moderation (Latin: argumentum ad temperantiam) is an informal fallacy which asserts that the truth can be found as a compromise between two opposite positions.  It is also known as the argument from middle ground, false compromise, grey fallacy and the golden mean fallacy.  It is effectively an inverse false dilemma, discarding both of two opposites in favour of a middle position. It is related to, but different from the false balance fallacy.

An individual demonstrating this fallacy implies that the positions being considered represent extremes of a continuum of opinions, that such extremes are always wrong, and the middle ground is always correct.  This is not necessarily the case.

The form of the fallacy goes like this:

Premise: There is a choice to make between doing X or doing Y.

Conclusion: Therefore, the answer is somewhere between X and Y.

This argument is invalid because the conclusion does not logically follow from the premise.  Sometimes only X or Y is right or true, with no middle ground possible.

To give an example of this fallacy:

‘The fact that one is confronted with an individual who strongly argues that slavery is wrong and another who argues equally strongly that slavery is perfectly legitimate in no way suggests that the truth must be somewhere in the middle.’[1]

Another example is:

’You say the sky is blue, while I say the sky is red. Therefore, the best solution is to compromise and agree that the sky is purple.’

This fallacy is sometimes used in rhetorical debates to undermine an opponent’s position.  All one must do is present yet another, radically opposed position, and the middle-ground compromise will be forced closer to that position.  In pragmatic politics, this is part of the basis behind the Overton window theory.

In US politics this fallacy is known as ‘High Broderism’ after David Broder, a columnist and reporter for the Washington Post who insisted, against all reason, that the best policy was always the middle ground between the Republicans and the Democrats.

Related to this fallacy is design by committee, which is a disparaging term used to describe a project that has many designers involved but no unifying plan or vision, often resulting in a negotiated compromise; as illustrated by the aphorism ‘A camel is a horse designed by a committee’. The point is that a negotiated compromise is not necessarily true, right or even the optimal outcome. This does not mean that a negotiated compromise may not be appropriate in some cases.


[1] Susan T. Gardner (2009).Thinking Your Way to Freedom: A Guide to Owning Your Own Practical Reasoning. Temple University Press.

If you find the information on this blog useful, you might like to consider supporting us.

Make a Donation Button


Filed under Logical fallacies

The two billionaires

One night during the 1990s, my band the Australian Cotton Club Orchestra was playing at a posh society dinner dance at one of the 5-star international hotels in central Melbourne. After we had just finished a set and were taking a break, I looked down from the stage and there in front of me were two billionaires standing side by side. One of these two men is still alive so I won’t mention their names. Suffice to say that they were both well known in Melbourne society; and indeed, we had played at one of their mansions a few times. I recognised the other one from media images, although we had never met.

So what on Earth would they want to talk to me about? And why did they both want to talk to me together? One of them said: “We’ve just had a $10,000 bet on the name of that slow Duke Ellington tune you just played”. “Was it ‘Black and Tan Fantasy‘ or ‘The Mooche’?” This was a fair question because they are both dark and mysterious blues numbers in minor keys. I was actually quite impressed that they were at least partially familiar with Duke Ellington’s music.

As I recall, the answer I gave was ‘The Mooche’. So I had one smiling billionaire and the other a bit crestfallen. Needless to say, the winner didn’t give me a cut of his loot.


Leave a comment

Filed under Memoirs

The genetic blueprint of an octopus reveals much about this amazing creature

The Conversation

Jan Strugnell, La Trobe University and Alvaro Roura, La Trobe University

Octopuses are among the most impressive of the invertebrates thanks to their ability to solve puzzles, camouflage perfectly with their surroundings, mimic other species, use tools and potentially predict world cup victories.

Now that scientists this month have published the first octopus genome we are a step closer to understanding how these feats are achieved in a lineage so divergent from our own.

The octopus genome was of the California two-spot (Octopus bimaculoides) and it may provide us with some leads on how the highly unusual octopod body plan evolved.

Interesting body plan

Octopods are contained within the group Cephalopoda, which literally means “head-footed”, as the foot (i.e. the octopus arms) are connected directly to the head.

One family of genes that is known to influence body plan in animals is called Hox. These genes usually occur together, clustered in groups, and the order of the genes directly corresponds to the order in which they are activated along the body during development.

In the octopus genome the scientists found the Hox genes are completely scattered, with no two of them occurring together. This scattered nature of the Hox genes across the genome may provide insights into octopod body plan development and why octopus have a much more unusual body plan than their cousins, such as snails and oysters.

Another big finding of this octopus genome project is actually something the authors did not find: whole genome duplication. That is, evidence that the entire genome was duplicated throughout history so that two copies of the genome were present.

It was previously believed that a whole genome duplication event in the octopus lineage may have driven the evolution of some of the remarkable characteristics present within octopus, such as complicated behaviours including the use of tools or vertebrate-like eyes.

The idea was that a whole genome duplication event frees up a set of genes, allowing these copies to take on new functions. But the lack of evidence for this suggests other mechanisms are at play.

Blended genome

One of these mechanisms appears to be the huge expansion in some gene families previously thought to be expanded only in vertebrates and not in other invertebrate lineages. One of these families is the protocadherins, which are cell adhesion molecules required to establish and maintain nervous system organisation.

The octopus genome boasts 168 protocadherin genes, which presumably play a crucial role in the highly modified octopus nervous system and complex brain. In contrast, these protocadherins are found in relatively small numbers (17 to 25) in organisms such as limpets and oysters, and are completely absent in several invertebrate model organisms including the fruit fly and nematodes.

The fact that protocadherin genes occur in large numbers in vertebrates and octopus but not in other animals, and that they are expressed in octopus neural and sensitive tissues (suckers and skin), suggests that they might play an important role in the evolution of cephalopod neural complexity.

Protocadherin diversity provides a mechanism to establish the synaptic connections needed to interpret the vast amount of stimuli, including touch and smell perceived through the suckers, and organise complex behavioural responses like camouflaging through the change in skin colour and texture/sculpture. It is interesting that the diversity in these genes has been generated by different mechanisms in octopus and vertebrates.

The genome also shows a lot of evidence for transposon activity. Transposons are DNA sequences that move locations around the genome (sometimes called “jumping genes”) and they can drive evolution.

In comparison to other genomes, the scientists note that the octopus genome looks like it has been “put into a blender and mixed”. They show that these transposons play an important role in driving this mixing of the genome.

They also found that transposons are highly expressed in neural tissues. They suggest that these may play an important role in memory and learning as shown in mammals and flies.

The ability of octopuses to learn and solve puzzles is something that is fascinating to us and so this will be a fruitful area for further research.

Why did it take so long?

It is more than 14 years since the human genome was published in Nature and Science, and numerous genomes have been published since then such as pandas, bees and recently 48 species of bird.

But this latest publication represents the first genome of any cephalopod and one of only a handful of molluscs, (the group containing cephalopods). Other molluscan genomes include the limpet (Lottia gigantea), oyster (Crassostrea gigas) and the sea hare (Aplysia californica).

This first octopus genome gives us great insight into the evolution and function of this fascinating group and will serve as a great catalyst for further research on cephalopod genetics.

Jan Strugnell is Associate professor at La Trobe University and Alvaro Roura is Postdoctoral fellow at La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

What is a ‘classical liberal’ approach to human rights?

The Conversation

Catherine Renshaw, Australian Catholic University

Tim Wilson, Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner, has announced that he will take a “classical liberal” approach to human rights. There is a fair degree of confusion about what this means.

Classical liberalism is not a coherent body of political philosophy. However, in relation to human rights, there are three key ideas that most classical liberals subscribe to.

The first is the idea that all people are born with rights, which they hold simply because they are human. This is the idea that underpins Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Not everyone shares this belief. Many people believe that rights are simply entitlements granted by the state and held only by citizens. But for classical liberals, rights are much more than this. They are universal (held by everyone) and inalienable (they continue to exist regardless of whether or not governments recognise them).

The second idea concerns what human rights actually are. Classical liberals believe that the list of genuine human rights is quite short. It is comprised primarily of those things that are necessary to preserve life and individual liberty.

This list includes the right to be free from torture, slavery, arbitrary arrest or detention. Freedom of association and freedom of speech are also seen as legitimate human rights. But other rights, particularly economic and social rights, are viewed as mere aspirations.

Thirdly, classical liberals believe that the role of the state in fulfilling or protecting human rights should be very limited. States should do only what is necessary to protect life and property.

Classical liberals believe in a minimal state – as political philosopher Robert Nozick puts it, a “night watchman” state – that does not interfere with the privacy of citizens and their freedom to live, work and be educated in any way they see fit.

Wilson has alluded to all of these ideas in public statements. Like attorney-general George Brandis, Wilson has argued in favour of focusing the attention of the Australian Human Rights Commission on the rights championed by classical liberals, particularly the right to free speech.

Wilson has talked about the problems that occur when certain rights (such as the right not to be discriminated against) collide with other rights (such as the right to freedom of association). Like Brandis, Wilson has criticised the Australian Human Rights Commission for its emphasis on anti-discrimination.

But there are several reasons why a classical liberal approach to human rights does not necessarily reflect the needs and aspirations of contemporary Australian society.

First, the philosophical foundation for the classical liberal idea of human rights is very shaky, as argued by the likes of philosopher Joseph Raz. Historically, classical liberals view rights as bestowed by God or derived from some essential human essence.

But many Australians seem to take a more pragmatic view of human rights, as noted by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner Mick Gooda. Rights are the important interests and values that democracies have decided to protect. Far from making rights less important, this makes them more so.

Community consultations show that many Australians are also more ambitious than many classical liberals about what these rights should consist of. Brandis has said that freedom is the core human right without which nothing else is possible. But food, work, education and social security are also important. Rights are inter-related and inter-dependent. It is a mistake to think that something like a right to adequate health care is too vague to be an enforceable right.

Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson has criticised the
government’s policy 
of detaining asylum seeker children. AAP

Finally, Australians seem to aspire to more than a society where individuals are just left alone to pursue their own interests and where the best a government can do is prevent individuals from being arbitrarily deprived of life or property.

For example, ensuring that certain groups of people are not discriminated against is a central part of an equal society. As Brandis points out, since its establishment in 1986, the Australian Human Rights Commission has spent much of its time advancing the idea in Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads:

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

This is hard, slow work, done on a case-by-case basis and through public education and training. It certainly lacks the glamour of the classical liberal rhetoric around liberty and freedom, but it has been a vital part of achieving a fairer society and a better life for millions of Australians.

So far, Wilson has not been at his most convincing championing rights of privacy or arguing for more free speech. Where his views have resonated is on subjects such as children in immigration detention. On this issue, Wilson has simply said that he doesn’t think it is right. This is the sort of visceral response shared by most Australians.

In addition to his gut feeling that imprisoning children is wrong, as a classical liberal, Wilson should find the government’s entire asylum seeker policy deeply troubling. What the government is doing is violating the rights of the few (asylum seekers) in the name of achieving a greater good for the many (preventing deaths at sea and protecting Australia’s sovereignty).

To a classical liberal, this sort of utilitarian approach to rights should never be acceptable. Wilson’s intervention on this issue will be important.

The ConversationCatherine Renshaw is Lecturer, School of Law, at Australian Catholic University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs