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An interview with Booker-prize winning novelist Ian McEwan caught my eye the other day. He spoke to Nature about the gulf between science and the humanities. The classification of this boundary throws up some interesting areas of contention, especially when looking at those who attempt to stride the gap between the two giants of academia – taking their preconceptions with them.

Ian McEwan talked about emotion, literature and the brain

Is the flow between the two disciplines equal? Is the literal physicist as wary as his charismatic literary counterpart is of him? Have you read Shakespeare, do you understand quantum physics? Perhaps you know both. I’m envious.

Shakespeare - sexier than quantum physics?

Romanticism aside, McEwan raised some interesting points. He noted the wall between the two trains of thought, saying it was ‘intellectual madness’ for the humanities not to be interested. By the gulf between the archetypal scientist and literary scholar, he refers to differing philosophies. which can lead hostility.

McEwan said: “There’s something very warm and human about rationality. I think we are all both emotional and rational creatures and many of our conflicts or interactions with each other are mediated through our sense  of a natural justice, logic, and rationality. Somewhere along the line in Western culture, probably about the time that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, an idea grew up that Science was an unruly beast, both cold, abstracted and antithetical to the deep, warm-blooded human nature.

Frankenstein - is modern scientific apathy his fault?

“I think that needs to be unpicked. There is great warmth, to be had, a great cross fertilisation, if you take the time to think, reflectively on what your emotional state is and how this might be changing your decisions.”

How to go about unpicking this perception? McEwan refers to the separation of mind and body imbued in the characters novelists portray – and cites this as an antidote to the embodiment promoted by scientists. Is this part of the greater problem in the public’s perception of the scientific community? Does the notion of science as an inaccessible, dusty discipline trickle down subconciously from those providing our well-thumbed method of escapism? If the two cultures were at peace – what would this acheive?

Charles Percy Snow CBE (1905 – 1980), an English physicist and novelst, famously lamented the dead space between scientists and literary intellectuals. In his lecture ‘The Two Cultures’, after finding a widespread incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists and a lack of scientific understanding of the scholars, he mused: ”The great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.’

There are, however, those in the Scientific community whom have, arguably, perpetuated this dusty reputation of the literal scientist. It doesn’t get much more literal than Charles Babbage, the ‘father of the computer’.

Babbage's 'Difference Engine' could perform mathematical calculations

Babbage (1791 – 1871) felt a little disgruntled after reading English poet Alfred Tennyson’s poem ‘The Vision of Sin’, so contacted Tennyson. He wrote: ‘In your otherwise beautiful poem, one verse reads –

Every moment dies a man

Every moment one is born

‘if that were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that of death. I would suggest:

Every moment dies a man,

Every moment 1 1/16 is born.

‘Strictly speaking, the actual figure is so long I cannot get it into a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry.’ Now that’s romance.

Aristotle (384 -322 BC) - Philosopher or Scientist?

The scientific community has had a larger role in refuting the validity of work from those of a literary persuasion. In an article this week in The Times, Professor Armand Marie Leroi from Imperial College cited Aristotle as the ultimate heavy weight of science. He argued: ‘You know him as the inventor of logic and political philosopher, yet Aristotle was, above all, a scientist. A third of his works were about animals. He made living things the centre of the cosmos. What he thought defined biology for 2000 years.’

The octopus was one of the animals that inspired Aristotle

Upon observing the fauna in the lagoons on the Greek Island of Lesvos, a 39 year-old Aristotle compiled observations, classifications and dissections, writing a book spanning anatomy, physiology and the soul.  But his work was refuted by the founders of the Scientific Revolution, as science is ‘about the study of nature, not books.’

McEwan sums up today’s gulf as a conflict between innatism and constructivism. This brings the discussion back to the two sides of the highest and oldest wall in science; the battle of nature versus nurture. Considering the basics of this debate may remind those in each community to marvel plainly at the wonder of the natural world, just as Aristotle did in 349BC. Perhaps considering this may bring the lab coats and the quills closer, and the gulf may begin to lessen.

Perhaps we should all take a leaf out of George's bush

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Last week, an article that featured in Current Biology was covered broadly in the media – by the  BBC and bloggers alike – which I am thrilled to see as it involves an animal I think is awesome. The Veined Octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus), from the same group (Mollusca) as snails, has blown existing theory on intelligence in invertebrates clean out of the water.

Octopuses are considered as intelligent as dogs

In a study spanning nine years from 1999  to 2008, researchers Julian Finn and Mark Newman from Museum Victoria in Australia spent 500 hours diving in Indonesian waters. They filmed the shenanigans of the soft-sediment dwelling octopus, and realised something unique was going on. The octopus was seen digging empty coconut shells out of the sand, emptying them with jets of water, stacking them and carrying them with a cumbersome gait now known as ‘stilt-walking’:

The shells are used as an instant shelter for the octopus – and are only used when required, often being carried as far as 20 meters across the sea floor. Stilt-walking is a novel method of transporting the shells, and leaves the octopus open to attack by predators. This deployment of the shell is a clear example of tool use.

Ants carry leaves - but they are not as canny with them

Where various ant species will collect and carry leaves, this is only in reponse to specific stimuli and not deployed – meaning this is the first-ever recorded case of tool use in invertebrates.

The use of tools is a benchmark of higher intelligence, previously only observed in mammals and birds.  Professor Jerry Coyne from the University of Chicago discussed this in his informative blog, Why evolution is true.  Although the greater intelligence of the octopus is well-known and debated over in biological circles, the actions of acquiring the coconut shells are the most complex ever recorded – and there have been a few.

It seems the Beatles were a fan of the octopus, too –

Observational learning is considered a sign of higher intelligence. In 1992, an experiment in Naples proved octopuses displayed key characteristic behaviours of this type of learning, when a group of captive octopuses were trained to grab a red ball over a white ball – after having watching previously trained octopuses do the same.

In 1997, an article by Doug Stewart for America’s National Wildlife Federation cites how a night biologist at the Seattle Acquarium heard a commotion and caught a 40-pound octopus slithering around on the floor, having smashed the quarter-inch-thick lid of its tank.

Octopuses can be pesky beasts

The article also notes: ‘Octopus literature is filled with tales of naturalists briefly leaving animals in open tanks and returning to find them scaling a bookcase, hiding in a teapot or expired on the carpet.’ There have been reports of octopuses boarding fishing boats, opening holds and stealing fish, and playing with bottles, by releasing them into currents of water and catching them.

The biology of the octopus is just as neat. If in danger, they can expel black ink, change colour in less than a second and, if they do get nipped by a predator and loose an arm,  they can grow a new one back. Expert in animal behaviour from Marine Biology Laboratory in Massachusetts, Roger Hanlon, told Stewart: “When it comes to camouflage, it’s the most capable organism on the planet without question.”

The blue ringed octopus - master of deception

Octopuses have a retractable beak like a parrot’s to kill their prey. They can even eat sharks:

But the intelligence of the Veined Octopus as represented by their canny use of coconut shells is still baffling. How has their cognitive ability evolved to this extent in the marine environment, where selective pressures are completely different to those influencing the evolution of terrestrial beings? How does a species known for being solitary know to mimic the actions of its contempories – what is the advantage of this?

I shall keep an eye on the way this debate shapes up. Meanwhile, here’s Jean Geary Boal, one of the scientists who worked on the Naples experiment. She’s got a bit of a soft spot for the soft things:  “It’s extremely easy to anthropomorphise octopuses. They make eye contact with you. They respond to you. They reach toward you. There’s just something mesmerising for people about octopuses.”

*nb – in researching this article, I found Octopi is not the plural preferred by the majority of  scientists.

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