bonus-soft-science

Poor Carl just couldn’t catch a break last week. I was able to give him my heartfelt condolences the other night at a discussion he spoke at. I also let him know that I was going to draw a comic about his recent tribulations. I neglected to mention that I wasn’t planning on bucking the trend. A jovial ribbing makes for more enjoyable drawings—especially since I should be packing, sleeping, or ironing my shirt for 21812 today.

It all started well enough when he landed the cover story in Time Magazine. The article, Friends with Benefits (behind paywall), addressed the tricky business of animal cognition and friendship. More specifically, it pointed out that as we study social animals for longer periods of time, we begin to see that some species (dolphins, chimpanzees, baboons) form bonds that go beyond that of reciprocal altruism. But as the data for chimps piled up, man’s “best friend”, the dog, wasn’t looking so great after all. The evidence just wasn’t there to show that dogs form friendships. Duke University anthropologist Brian Hare, an expert on canine cognition, described the relationship between human and dog as one of guardianship. Zimmer compared the play behavior between two dogs meeting in the park to that of two children on opposite soccer teams, who play and then move on.

Dog lovers were not happy. Cue the anecdotes, the heartfelt stories, the indignation that some science writer—with the consultation of a panel of experts—would tell them that Fido was not really their best friend. I can relate. I loved my dog, and they’re amazing companions, but it’s not the same as a good friend. I love my cats; I call them “buddy.” But 100% honest: They’re really crappy friends. I mean, if you die and your pets get really hungry, they will eat you. It’s called postmortem predation. Dogs will wait several days before eating their owner, cats wait a day or so, Ferdinand starts gnawing on my face if I’m any bit too slow in waking up to feed him. Not cool, guys.

But angry dog lovers were merely a bad omen—an ill portend. The other day Zimmer was surprised to see he was on the Daily Show. Just not in a fashion that he would have preferred. You can see the clip on The Loom.

Stewart didn’t mention Zimmer by name, but his ridicule of Time‘s fluffy art direction on the cover made Zimmer complicit in some sort of late-night comedy thought crime. Not to worry though, as Stewart’s point was an ill-researched one. Pink cover aside (even I cringed), not only had the Time US/European cover discrepancy been pointed out before, but it had already been debunked over at Mad Art Lab. Fact is, when you look at the range of cover choices, it balances it out a bit. Sometimes Europe will get the US cover and vice-versa. Also, the interior articles are the same, so even in the cases where the US does get a fluffy-as-crap cover, it was more likely due to a “follow the money” decision. It’s a chicken-egg debate over whether Time should be trying to cultivate a smarter audience that cares about European politics, or whether we as an audience should give marketers a reason to put European politics on the cover.

All in all, I think despite the initial setbacks and my own merciless piling-on, you can see that Mad Art Lab has vindicated our beleaguered science writer. Besides, the guy wrote Parasite Rex. Carl Zimmer is hard science, yo.

 

This post has been brought to you by 21812, which is where I am rushing off to. Hope to see you there!