Jerry on ‘Why Evolution is True’ at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside

December 1, 2009 • 10:30 am

by Greg Mayer

As part of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside’s Darwin 1809-1859-2009 series commemorating the Darwin bicentennial and Origin sesquicentennial (some of the earlier events noticed here and here), Jerry spoke on ‘Why Evolution is True’ on Sept. 9 of this year. Here’s the video of his talk; that’s me doing the intro. (I’m not mic’ed, and the volume starts out low, but Jerry is mic’ed, and the volume is fine for his talk.)

Meet your guest blogger (again)

May 14, 2009 • 8:07 am

by Greg Mayer

Jerry is off gallivanting again, so I’ll be filling in for a few days till his return next week. Jerry’s main motivation when he visits me is food, especially kringle and Kewpee burgers, so I thought I’d introduce myself by posting a picture taken by Jerry of me cutting a kringle we are about to share.

Racine kringle
Me cutting a kringle in my office (photo by Jerry).

A kringle is a Danish pastry introduced to Racine, Wisconsin, by Danish immigrants (of which there were a lot), and made by a handful of bakeries.  Cognoscenti argue over whether the best kringle is O&H, Larsen’s, Bendtsen’s, or Lehmann’s. You can’t get genuine kringle in many places outside Racine: as close as Madison all you’ll find is some ersatz thing resembling bread with icing on it. Next time Jerry visits, I’ve promised him a Ron’s burger too. If you didn’t catch Jerry’s introduction of me last time, it’s here.

Sympathy for the human: further consideration of my cat Peyton

March 3, 2009 • 11:39 am

by Greg Mayer

I gave a public lecture yesterday at my university entitled “Is There a Moral Instinct?”  Part of what I did was to elaborate on the theme of Steve Pinker’s rudimentary moral sentiments– sympathy, trust, retribution, gratitude, guilt– and how I see them exemplified in the behavior of my cat, Peyton.  I showed some video of Peyton-human interactions, including the following, showing trust. She’s exposing her belly and throat for scratching in a way that makes her vulnerable, and thus trust must accompany the seeking of tactile pleasure.

In this next video she’s playing with me, and in doing so holding back from scratching and biting strongly. She wasn’t really very interested in playing at the time, and I had to initiate it, but note that she does not leave, which she easily could do. As I described in a previous post, when her sympathy and trust are removed, she’s quite capable of inflicting painful wounds. The gentle bites and scratches of play are not due to some inability of the cat to fight effectively with people, but rather are an action that mitigates harm to another– sympathy.

Meet your guest blogger

February 25, 2009 • 11:55 am

From tomorrow through March 9, I’ll be sailing the Caribbean and lecturing on a Scientific American “Insights” cruise, bound for the islands, Costa Rica, and Panama (tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it). So that you’re not deprived here of matters evolutionary, I’ve asked my friend and colleague Dr. Greg Mayer, an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, to fill in for me, and he’s kindly agreed. Greg is also Adjunct Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians at the University of Wisconsin Zoological Museum and Field Associate in the Department of Zoology of the Field Museum of Natural History. He did his undergraduate work at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and received his masters and doctoral degrees in organismic and evolutionary biology from Harvard University. After his graduate work, Greg did postdoctoral research at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, and at the University of Wisconsin Zoological Museum. His research and teaching have taken him to many places, including Central America, South America, throughout the West Indies, and to Darwin’s own enchanted isles, the Galapagos.

I have known Greg since he was an undergrad at Stony Brook. He’s not only deeply read in evolutionary biology, but also a tireless opponent of creationism and an excellent writer. I should add that he is co-author of a paper called “The platypus is not a rodent.”

Please welcome Greg and do follow his posts over the next ten days or so. Here he is in Costa Rica collecting reptiles (blue bag at his waist):


Do animals have morality? A response: “For I will consider my cat Peyton”

February 16, 2009 • 1:18 pm


A moral cat?

An alert reader, my friend and colleague Dr. Greg Mayer from The University of Wisconsin, Parkside, read Steven Pinker’s thoughts on the evolution of morality (posted below) and informed me that he saw the rudiments of morality in his cat Peyton (pictured above). I asked him why, and he responded with an answer so cogent that I thought it deserved posting. To wit:

My cat's morality

In his post on the material mind, Steve Pinker mentions the rudimentary moral sentiments-- "sympathy, trust, retribution, gratitude, guilt". I’m pretty sure my cat, Peyton, has some of them. Gratitude and guilt– maybe; retribution– probably not; but sympathy and trust– absolutely.

The cat I had as a child used to catch small mammals in the yard, and then bring them back to the house. Many cats do this, and some interpret this as the cat sharing its prey with its (human) family, which might be gratitude. Peyton is an indoor cat, and so has no opportunity to share what she’s caught. But it might be that the sympathy and trust she shows to us can be seen as an expression of gratitude. Guilt I’m not sure about. She knows when we disapprove strongly of something she's done (as long as the disapproval is expressed immediately– you can't remonstrate with her over things that are over and done with), and she'll behave in a particular way (slink off), but what her mental state is like is hard to know.

But about sympathy and trust, I’m sure. She lets us do things with her (like playing Spidercat– this involves holding her upside down near the ceiling) that she would not tolerate from other creatures or people. She routinely exposes her belly and throat for scratching in a way that goes beyond mere pleasure seeking, because it makes her vulnerable, and thus trust must accompany the seeking of tactile pleasure. And in various forms of play, she holds back from scratching and biting strongly. Scratching and biting are key elements of cat play– what makes them play, instead of fighting or predation, is the cat's withholding of its effort so as not to injure the playmate. It's easiest to demonstrate the existence of sympathy and trust by seeing what happens when they're removed. We have to put her in a travel case to take her to the vet. She resists going in, because her trust is reduced by the odd circumstances, which she experiences very infrequently (ca. once per year). On leaving the vet's office, she more fully understands that the case and a trip in the car (which she doesn't like) are coming. She has now lost sympathy with us, and claws in ways designed to prevent her from going into the case, and she draws blood if the people are not careful. Thus the many incidents of play are revealed to be not some inability of the cat to fight effectively with people, but as a voluntary withholding of the full force of her defenses– sympathy.

I may seem like a raving anthropomorphizer here, but the differences in cognitive state, when you live in close contact with them (or observe them carefully in the wild) among amphibians, reptiles, and mammals (especially predatory mammals) are astounding. Darwin, of course, lived most of his life in the country, raised pigeons, and always had dogs which he studied carefully (see especially The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals), and I think this helped him to see the continuity of behavior, especially social, and even moral, between man and the animal kingdom. It's a little harder to notice with mice and hamsters (which, when kept as pets, tend not to be handled as much as cats and dogs), but the cognitive advance of Peyton over my turtle (who has a gentle disposition, and is noticeably brighter than my giant toad) is striking.

Thanks to Greg for this, and of course to the highly ethical Peyton as well.