An Animated History of Dogs, Inspired by Keith Haring

That quivering teacup Chihuahua…

The long-suffering Labrador whose child-friendly reputation has led to a lifetime of ear tugging and tail pulling…

The wheezing French bulldog, whose owner has outfitted with a full wardrobe of hoodies, tutus, rain slickers, and pajamas

All descended from wolves.

As anthropologist and science educator David Ian Howe explains in the animated TED-Ed lesson, A Brief History of Dogs, above, at first glance, canis lupus seemed an unlikely choice for man’s best friend.




For one thing, the two were in direct competition for elk, reindeer, bison, and other tasty prey wandering Eurasia during the Pleistocene Epoch.

Though both hunted in groups, running their prey to the point of exhaustion, only one roasted their kills, creating tantalizing aromas that drew bolder wolves ever-closer to the human camps.

The ones who willingly dialed down their wolfishness, making themselves useful as companions, security guards and hunting buddies, were rewarded come suppertime. Eventually, this mutually beneficial tail wagging became full on domestication, the first such animal to come under the human yoke.

The intense focus on purebreds didn't really become a thing until the Victorians began hosting dog shows. The push to identify and promote breed-specific characteristics often came at a cost to the animals’ wellbeing, as Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys point out in BBC History Magazine:

…the improvement of breeds towards ‘perfection’ was controversial. While there was approval for the greater regularity of type, many fanciers complained that standards were being set on arbitrary, largely aesthetic grounds by enthusiasts in specialist clubs, without concern for utility or the health of the animal. This meant that breeds were changing, and not always for the better. For example, the modern St Bernard was said to be a beautiful animal, but would be useless in Alpine rescue work.

Cat-fanciers, rest assured that the opposition received fair and equal coverage in a feline-centric TED-Ed lesson, published earlier this year.

And while we applaud TED-Ed for sparking our curiosity with its “Brief History of” series, covering topics as far ranging as cheese, numerical systems, goths, video games, and tea, surely we are not the only ones wondering why the late artist Keith Haring isn’t thanked or name checked in the credits?

Every canine-shaped image in this animation is clearly descended from his iconic barking dog.

While we can’t explain the omission, we can direct readers toward Jon Nelson’s great analysis of Haring’s relationship with dogs in Get Leashed:

They’re symbolic of unanswered questions, prevalent in the 80s: “Can I do this?” “Is this right?” “What are you doing?” “What is happening?” Dogs stand by people, barking or dancing along, sometimes in precarious scenarios, even involved in some of Haring’s explicitly sexual work. Dogs are neither approving nor disapproving of what people do in the images; their mouth angle is neutral or even happy. In some cases, human bodies wear a dog’s head, possibly stating that we know only our own enjoyment, unaware, like a dog, of life’s next stage or the consequences of our actions.

Visit Ethnocynology, David Ian Howe’s Instagram page about the ancient relationship between humans and dogs.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City April 15 for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

A Brief Animated Introduction to Noam Chomsky’s Linguistic Theory, Narrated by The X-Files‘ Gillian Anderson

How is it that children just entering toddlerhood pick up the structure of their respective languages with ease? They are not formally taught to use speech; they have limited cognitive abilities and a “poverty of stimulus,” given their highly circumscribed environments. And yet, they learn the function and order of subjects, verbs, and objects, and learn to recognize improper usage. Children might make routine mistakes, but they understand and can be understood from a very early age, and for the most part without very much difficulty. How?

These are the questions that confronted Noam Chomsky in the early years of his career in linguistics. His answers produced a theory of Universal Grammar in the 1960s, and for decades, it has been the reigning theory in the field to beat, initiating what is often referred to as the “Chomskyan Era,” a phrase the man himself dislikes but which nonetheless sums up the kinds of issues that have been at stake in linguistics for over fifty years.




Questions about language acquisition have always been the subject of intense philosophical speculation. They were folded into general theories of epistemology, like Plato’s theory of forms or John Locke’s so-called “blank slate” hypothesis. Variations on these positions surface in different forms throughout Western intellectual history. Descartes picks up Plato’s dualism, arguing that humans speak and animals don’t because of the existence of an immortal “rational soul.” Behaviorist B.F. Skinner suggests that operant conditioning writes language onto a totally impressionable mind. (“Give me a child,” said Skinner, “and I will shape him into anything.”)

Chomsky “gave a twist” to this age-old debate over the existence of innate ideas, as Gillian Anderson tells us in the animated video above from BBC 4’s History of Ideas series. Chomsky’s theory is biolinguistic: it situates language acquisition in the structures of the brain. Not being himself a neurobiologist, he talks of those theoretical structures, responsible for reproducing accurate syntax, as a metaphorical “language acquisition device” (LAD), a hardwired faculty that separates the human brain from that of a dog or cat.

Chomsky’s theory has little to do with the content of language, but rather with its structure, which he says is universally encoded in our neural architecture. Children, he writes, “develop language because they’re pre-programmed to do this.” Syntax is prior to and independent of specific meaning, a point he demonstrated with the poetic sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Every English speaker can recognize the sentence as grammatical, even very small children, though it refers to no real objects and would never occur in conversation.

Conversely, we recognize “Furiously sleep ideas green colorless” as ungrammatical, though it means no more nor less than the first sentence. The regional variations on word order only underline his point since, in every case, children quickly understand how to use the version they’re presented with at roughly the same developmental age and in the same way. The existence of a theoretical Language Acquisition Device solves the chicken-egg problem of how children with no understanding of and only a very limited exposure to language, can learn to speak just by listening to language.

Chomsky’s theory was revolutionary in large part because it was testable, and researchers at the professor’s longtime employer, MIT, recently published evidence of a “language universal” they discovered in a comparative study of 37 languages. It's compelling research that just might anticipate the discovery of a physical Language Acquisition Device, or its neurobiological equivalent, in every human brain.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Becoming: A Short Timelapse Film Shows a Single Cell Morphing Into a Complete, Complex Living Organism

From Jan van IJken comes "Becoming," a short timelapse film that documents "the miraculous genesis of animal life." He writes:

In great microscopic detail, we see the 'making of' an Alpine Newt in its transparant egg from the first cell division to hatching. A single cell is transformed into a complete, complex living organism with a beating heart and running bloodstream.

The first stages of embryonic development are roughly the same for all animals, including humans. In the film, we can observe a universal process which normally is invisible: the very beginning of an animal's life.

"Becoming" has been "selected at more than 20 international film festivals and won the award for Best short documentary at Innsbruck Nature Film Festival 2018, Austria." Enjoy.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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via Twisted Sifter

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Explore an Interactive Version of The Wall of Birds, a 2,500 Square-Foot Mural That Documents the Evolution of Birds Over 375 Million Years

Now, this avian Vatican also has its own Michelangelo.

Audubon Magazine

And the Class of Aves has its very own avian Pantone chart, created by science illustrator Jane Kim in service of her 2,500 square-foot Wall of Birds mural at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology.

The custom chart’s fifty-one colors comprise about 90 percent of the finished work. A palette of thirteen Golden Fluid Acrylics supplied the jewel-toned accents so thrilling to birdwatchers.

Along the way, Kim absorbed a tremendous amount of information about the how and why of bird feather coloration:

The iridescence on the neck and back of the Superb Starling comes not from pigment,

but from structural color. The starling’s outer feathers are constructed in a way

that refracts light like myriad prisms, making the bird appear to shimmer. The eponymous

coloring of the Lilac-breasted Roller results from a different kind of structural

color, created when woven microstructures in the feathers, called barbs and barbules,

reflect only the shorter wavelengths of light like blue and violet.

The primary colors that lend their name to the Red-and-yellow Barbet are

derived from a class of pigments called carotenoids that the bird absorbs in its diet.

These are the same compounds that turn flamingos’ feathers pink. As a member of

the family Musophagidae, the Hartlaub’s Turaco displays pigmentation unique in the

bird world. Birds have no green pigmentation; in most cases, verdant plumage is a

combination of yellow carotenoids and blue structural color. Turacos are an exception,

displaying a green, copper-based pigment called turacoverdin that they absorb

in their herbivorous diet. The flash of red on the Hartlaub’s underwings comes from

turacin, another copper-based pigment unique to the family.

 

Kim also boned up on her subjects’ mating rituals, dietary habits, song styles, and male/female differences prior to inscribing the 270 life-size, lifelike birds onto the lab’s largest wall.

She examined specimens from the center's collection and reviewed centuries’ worth of field observations.

(The seventeenth-century English naturalist John Ray dismissed the hornbill family as having a “foul look,” a colonialism that ruffled Kim’s own feathers somewhat. In retaliation, she dubbed the Great Hornbill, “the Cyrano of the Jungle” owing to his “tequila-sunrise-hued facial phallus,” and selected him as the cover boy for her book about the mural.)

Research and preliminary sketching consumed an entire year, after which it took 17 months to inscribe 270 life-size creatures—some long extinct—onto the lab’s main wall. The birds are set against a greyscale map of the world, and while many are depicted in flight, every one save the Wandering Albatross has a foot touching its continent of origin.

Those who can’t visit the Wall of Birds (official title: From So Simple a Beginning) in person, can log some digital birdwatching using a spectacular interactive web-based version of the mural that provides plenty of information about each specimen, some of it literary. (The aforementioned Albatross’ entry contains a passing reference to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.)

Explore the Wall of Birds’ interactive features here.

You can download a free chapter of The Wall of Birds: One Planet, 243 Families, 375 Million Years by subscribing to Kim’s mailing list here.

Via Hyperallergic

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City February 11 for Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Learn Anatomy Through a Pictorial History of James Bond 007

Remember the scene in Tomorrow Never Dies when sexy double agent Wai Lin handcuffs James Bond to the shower and leaves him there?

Alternately, remember “Table 9” from anatomist Bernard Siegfried Albinus’ 1749 Tabulae sceleti et musculorum corporis humani?

Kriota Willberg, an educator, massage therapist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and author of Draw Stronger: Self-Care For Cartoonists and Other Visual Artists, is sufficiently steeped in both Bond and Albinus to identify striking visual similarities.

That shower scene is just one iconic moment that Willberg included in her mini-comic, Pictorial Anatomy of 007.

Agent Bond’s sartorial sense is a crucial aspect of his appeal, but Willberg, a Bond fan who’s seen every film in the canon at least five times, digs below that celebrated surface, peeling back skin to expose the structures that lie beneath.

Sean Connery’s Bond exhibits a veteran artist’s model's stillness waiting for the right time to make his move against Dr. No’s “eight-legged assassin.” Even before Willberg got involved, it was an excellent showcase for his pecs, delta, and sternocleitomastoid muscles.

Leaving her flayed Bonds in their cinematic settings are a way of paying tribute to the antique anatomical illustrations Willberg admires for their dynamism:

…sitting in a chair, taking a stroll, holding its skin or organs out of the way so that the reader can get a better look at deeper structures. Some of the cadavers are very flirty. The pictures remind us that we are the organs we see on the page. They do stuff! 

The New York Academy of Medicine selected Willberg as its first Artist in Residence, because of the way she explores the intersections between body sciences and artistic practices. (Other projects include an intricate needlepoint X-Ray of her own root canal and Stitchin’ Time!, a fictional encounter in which Aulus Cornelius Celsus (c. 25 BCE – c. 50 CE), author of  De Medicina, and surgeon Aelius Galenus (129  – c. 200 CE) team up to repair a disemboweled gladiator.

Is there a squeamish bone in this artist's body?

All signs point to no.

Asked to pick a favorite Bond movie, she names Goldfinger for the mythology concerning the infamous scene wherein a beautiful woman is painted gold, but also 2006’s Casino Royale for keeping the torture scene from the book:

I didn’t think they’d have the balls! Sorry! Poor taste but I couldn’t resist. Although Timothy Dalton physically resembled Bond as described in the books, most of the movies make Bond out to be smarter than Fleming wrote him. I think Judy Dench called Daniel Craig, Casino Royale’s Bond, a “blunt instrument” which is pretty much how he’s written. He’s tough and lucky and that’s why he’s survived. Plus the machete fight is great. 

Sometimes people get too prissy about the body. I am meat and liver and sausage and so are you. Your body is inescapable while you live. You should get to know it. Think about it in different contexts. It’s fun!

When From Russia With Love’s Rosa Klebb punches master assassin, Red Grant, in the stomach, she is squishing a living liver through living abdominal muscles.

Hard copies of Kriota Willberg’s anatomy-based comics, including Pictorial Anatomy of 007, are available from Birdcage Bottom Books.

Listen to an hour-long interview with Comics Alternative in which Willberg discusses her New York Academy of Medicine residency, anatomical research, and the ways in which humor informs her approach here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her latest script, Fawnbook, is available in a digital edition from Indie Theater Now.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Explore an Interactive, Online Version of Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, a 200-Year-Old Guide to the Colors of the Natural World

In a post earlier this year, we brought to your attention Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours. Used by artists and naturalists alike, the guide originally relied on written description alone, without any color to be found among its pages. Instead, in the late eighteenth century, German mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner painstakingly detailed the qualities of the 110 colors he surveyed, by reference to where they might be found on animals, vegetables, and minerals. The color “Pearl Gray,” for example, might be located on the “Backs of black headed and Kittwake Gulls,” the “Back of Petals of Purple Hetatica,” or on “Porcelain Jasper.”

The literary possibilities of this approach may seem vast. But its usefulness to those engaged in the visual arts—or in close observation of new species in, say, the Galapagos Islands—may have been somewhat lacking until Scottish painter Patrick Syme updated the guide in 1814 with color swatches, most of them using the very minerals Werner described.




It was the second edition of Syme's guide that accompanied Charles Darwin on his 1831 voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, where he “used it to catalogue the flora and fauna that later inspired his theory of natural selection,” as historian Daniel Lewis writes at Smithsonian.

While we might think of taxonomies of color as principally guiding artists, web designers, and house painters, they have been indispensable for scientists. “They can indicate when a plant or animal is a different species or a subspecies,” Lewis notes; “in the 19th century, the use of color to differentiate species was important for what it said about evolution and how species changed over time and from region to region.” For historians of science, therefore, Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours represents an essential tool in the early development of evolutionary biology.

Other color dictionaries followed, “designed to give people around the world a common vocabulary to describe the colors of everything from rocks and flowers to stars, birds, and postage stamps.” Some of these were highly specialized, such as the two-volume set created by the French Society of Chrysanthemists in 1905. All of them, however, strove to meet the high bar set by Werner when it came to level of detailed description. These are guides that speak in human terms, in contrast to the nomenclature most often used today, which “is really a machine language,” Kelsey Cambell-Dollaghan writes at Fast Company, “numerical hex codes crafted to communicate with software on computers and printers.”

In recognition of Werner and Syme’s contribution to color nomenclature, Smithsonian Books recently republished the 1814 edition of their guide, and the revised 1821 edition has been available for some time as scans at the Internet Archive. Now it has received a 21st update thanks to designer Nicholas Rougeux, who has created an online interactive version of the book, “with additions like data visualizations of its 100 colors and internet-sourced photographs of the animals and minerals that the book references"—a feature its creators could never have dreamed of. You can read Werner’s complete text, see all of the colors as illustrated and categorized by Syme, and even purchase through Rougeux's site cool 36” x 24” posters like that above, starting at $27.80.

It’s true, viewing the book online has its drawbacks, related to how Syme’s paint swatches are translated into hex codes, then displayed differently depending on various screen settings. But Rougeux has tried to compensate for this difference between print and screen. On a publicly accessible Google Doc, he has provided the hex codes “for each of the 18th-century hues, from Skimmed Milk (#e6e1c9) to Veinous Blood Red (#3f3033).” Not nearly as poetic as Werner’s descriptions, but it’s what we have to work with these days when reference books get written for computers as much as they do for humans.

See the interactive Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours here.

via Fast Company

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Pianist Plays Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Ravel & Debussy for Blind Elephants in Thailand

Romsai the elephant wore a red rope around his neck to warn approaching humans that he was a danger to both them and elephants. A dark patch on his head from a temporin secretion indicated that he was in the musth cycle, which only heightened his aggression. His mahouts at the ElephantsWorld sanctuary in Kanchanaburi, Thailand observed that the old, blind elephant was growing more dangerous with age.

And yet, he is the personification of sweetness, as pianist Paul Barton serenades him with a performance of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique, repeating the melody section several times “as he seems to like it.”




In lieu of applause, Romsai places his trunk over the top of Barton’s upright piano again and again, in no way aggressive, more the gesture of a grateful audience member.

As Barton, a Yorkshireman who went to Thailand over twenty years ago for what he thought would be a short piano teaching stint only to wind up marrying a local artist and animal rights activist, said in an interview with YourStory:

All animals like music. Dogs, cats, etc. But elephants are the closest to human beings in the sense that they have the same neurons in the brains as us. Also they have a very good memory. If you are treated badly as a child, you are going to remember that all your life. It’s the same with elephants. The elephant shares that part of the brain with us which has flashbacks. They can never forget the terrible things they have seen and suffered… If you play classical music to an elephant, something soft and beautiful, something that human beings have been listening to for hundreds for hundreds of years, something that is timeless—and you play that to an elephant that is blind and they've never heard music before—the reaction is priceless. There is a special bond between you and the elephant. You are communicating with them in a different language. That language is neither ours nor theirs. There is something infinitesimally wonderful in a piece of Beethoven that connects me to that elephant and that feeling is otherworldly.

The impulse to play live concerts for Romsai and other blind sanctuary dwellers was partly born from seeing the positive effect music had on some blind children with whom Barton worked.

He also wanted to make amends for the deforestation of the elephant’s homeland, and the way the teak industry exploited their labor. It was while thus employed that many of them suffered scratched corneas and other eye injuries that blinded them, rendering them doubly vulnerable when the Thai government enacted a ban on commercial timber logging in 1989:

The elephant has worked for humans for too long. It was used in wars, it was used to deforest its own home. What is the little thing I can do as a human to say sorry, for my species for what we have done to them? I'll carry this heavy thing myself and play some music for the elephant while it is having some breakfast.

Removed from the plush seats of a concert hall, Ravel feels right at home. A rooster crows, a nearby child pipes up, and Romsai wanders in and out of the frame, at times appearing to keep time with his trunk.

Cicadas underscore Schubert’s Serenade.

Another ElephantsWorld resident, Lam Duan's (aka “Tree with Yellow Flowers”) stillness as she listens to Bach is reminiscent of Barton’s first musical outing with the elephants:

Elephants eat a lot of food. A lot. It is exhausting trying to procure that much food for so many elephants. When an elephant gets to eat, it’s a bit like a dog. A dog will eat its food so quickly because it’s not sure if it will ever eat again. And elephants are the same. Once they get their hands on some juicy leaves, they will eat and eat and nothing can tear them away from their food. That morning I brought the piano in early to the sanctuary. Pla-Ra was taken to a field full of juicy bamboo shoots and she began eating with a single minded dedication. I started to play Beethoven and she stopped eating. There was this half eaten bamboo shoot sticking out of her trunk while she stared at me. That was a reaction never seen before. An elephant stopped eating because of music.

Barton’s latest recording features 80-year-old Ampan, blind in one eye and near blind in the other, enjoying Debussy’s Clair de Lune.

Support Paul Barton’s Patreon here. Learn about volunteer opportunities or make a donation to ElephantsWorld here

via Laughing Squid

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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