Barking Dogs And Crying Babies

If you’ve ever had a baby in your household, you know that humans are hard-wired to respond to the cries of an infant.

We can get used to tractor-trailers rumbling past our front door, or the 24-hour drone of a factory in the neighborhood, but there is something about the pitch and tone of a crying baby that cuts through all other noises and reaches down and sends an electric bolt to the nervous system. When Richard and Russell were in their cribs, their tiny, initial cries always jolted us instantly awake, no matter how tired we might have been.

IMG_1870Are humans similarly responsive to the barking of dogs? Kasey, unlike Penny, is a big barker. She barks when she wants food, she barks when food is being prepared, and she barks when she sees a stranger walking by or a cat stretching in our yard. Her shrill barks have an impact on my nervous system that is similar to a baby’s cries — they are disturbing and profoundly irritating.

There’s an evolutionary reason why we respond to baby cries, obviously. Human infants are helpless, and if evolution didn’t condition adults to react to their cries they would starve or be carried away by wolves, and the human species would cease to exist.

Could there similarly be an evolutionary reason why humans respond to a barking dog? Have dogs been domesticated for so long that natural selection has preferred humans who awaken when they hear the barking of man’s best friend and thereby can respond to whatever dangers the dog’s animal instincts have perceived?

I’m sticking with that theory, because it will be a lot easier to endure Kasey’s barking sprees if I believe that there is some Darwinism at work.

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Richard And The “Chicken From Hell”

Scientists have discovered and properly named a new dinosaur species. Its technical name is Anzu wyliei, but it’s been commonly described on the news as the “chicken from hell.”

Of course, it’s not like any chicken we’ll ever see — fortunately. This creature weighed 500 pounds, had a crested skull, long beak, and powerful claws, and lived during the late Cretaceous period at the same time that Tyrannosaurus Rex roamed the planet. Like all of the late dinosaurs, the “chicken from hell” went extinct after a meteorite struck the Earth and changed the climate in which dinosaurs had thrived.

Richard’s connection with the “chicken from hell” is that paleontologists from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh played an integral role in the discovery of Anzu wyliei. Richard’s interesting Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story about their discovery is available here.

12 Years A Slave

Last night, Kish and I watched 12 Years a Slave. It is a well-made, gripping film that features an exceptional performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup, a free man who is lured away from his New York home, drugged, and then sold into more than a decade of slavery.

For all of its beautiful cinematography and superb acting, the movie is incredibly difficult to watch because of the oppressive reality of slavery and the bloody and terrible beatings, the hangings, and the lashings of Northrup and his fellow slaves. Of course, that’s the point — at least in part. For too long, in movies like Gone With The Wind, the reality of slavery in America was sugarcoated and airbrushed into fantasyland. 12 Years a Slave, with its depiction of the story of one man’s hellish experience on several plantations in the deep South, helps to balance the scales.

Movies can make us laugh, make us cry, make us think, and make us wonder. 12 Years a Slave falls into the latter categories. One of the great values of the movie is its exposure of the many different people who participated in the slavery system and facilitated its enormous evil. For every brutish slave owner and sadistic overseer there were a host of slave auctioneers, jailers, tradesmen, ship owners, and fugitive slave hunters who helped to keep the system running. 12 Years a Slave shows them all doing their jobs, apparently untroubled by the fact that they are trading in the lives of human beings. How did that happen? How did those people come to accept and participate in such a perverse and inherently wicked institution?

In our fast-moving modern world, where everyone focuses on the future and things a decade old are viewed as the distant past, it’s important to remember that there is a deep and rancid stain on the history of the United States that grew and endured for decades. 12 Years a Slave is a fine movie in its own right, but its powerful message about the dark corner of our heritage makes it a must-see film.