How much do our (supposed) intellectual elite…

How much do our (supposed) intellectual elite know about human progress? by Michael Nielsen (

How much do our (supposed) intellectual elite know about human progress?
That’s a question I’ve been stewing about for the past few weeks, ever since reading the results from a quiz (at…/three-minutes-with-hans-rosling-wil… ) in the scientific journal Nature, from Hans Rosling.
The quiz contains 8 fundamental questions about the state of the world: questions about poverty, life expectancy, wealth, population, and so on. All big, important questions.
What has me stewing is that respondents to the quiz – I presume,’s readers – do far worse than chance. That is, they would have done much better overall if they’d simply guessed their answers at random (the questions are multiple choice). Only on 2 of 8 questions do respondents do appreciably better than chance. On most questions they do worse than chance, sometimes much worse than chance. A chimpanzee pushing buttons at random would have done better than’s readers.
(By the way, I’m not certain the response data is from’s readers. It may be separate data, perhaps from Rosling’s audiences. If that’s the case, it weakens my argument below.)
I’m not usually bothered by this kind of thing. Media love to bemoan surveys showing lack of basic scientific knowledge among the general population. That kind of thing doesn’t alarm me. We’re a society in which most people specialize, and it’s not surprising if most of us are ignorant in major areas; collectively we can still do pretty well.
But this data from Rosling – the Nature survey – really got under my skin. It’s a survey of a group (one I’m part of, I guess) that often seems to think it has special knowledge of solutions to big, important problems – things like climate change, energy, development, and so on. And what I take from Rosling’s data is that that group isn’t just ignorant about the state of the world in some fundamental ways. They’re actually anti-informed.
So, why does this matter?
On Twitter, I regularly see people like Rosling, Max Roser, Steven Pinker, and Dina Pomeranz post graphs showing changes in the state of the world. Often, those graphs are extremely positive, like Roser’s wonderful graphs on poverty, education, literacy etc over the last 200 years:
(See the images below, or:… )
It is absolutely astonishing to read the responses to such tweets. Many people are furious at the idea that some things in the world are getting better. Many responses boil down to “Nah, nah, can’t be true”, or “I’ll bet [irrelevant thing] is getting worse, why don’t you focus on that, you tool of the capitalist conspiracy.”
Of course, while those responses are irritating, & illustrate a certain kind of wilful ignorance, they don’t really much matter. What bothers me more is that some of the most common responses are variants on “It doesn’t matter, climate change is more important than all your graphs”; “Where are your climate graphs?”; “Nukes are going to kill us all”; etc.
This type of comment seems wrongheaded for more interesting reasons.
First, appreciating Roser’s (and similar) graphs does not mean failing to acknowledge climate change, nuclear security, and other problems. Roser, for instance, has repeatedly acknowledged that the challenges of climate are huge and critical.
But I think the more significant thing is that graphs like Roser’s don’t happen by accident. They are extraordinary human achievements – the outcome of remarkable technical, social and organizational invention. If you don’t know of these facts, in detail, or if you underplay their importance, then you cannot hope to understand the underlying technical, social, and organizational invention in any depth. And it seems to me that that kind of understanding may well be crucial to solving problems like climate, etc.
To put it another way, the anti-Pollyannas, including much of our intellectual elite who think they have “the solutions”, have actually cut themselves off from understanding the basis for much of the most important human progress.
What’s the solution? I’m not sure. But this line of thinking is deepening my appreciation for the work done by people such as Roser, Rosling et al. And it’s making me think about how it can be scaled up & incorporated more broadly into our institutions.

Source: Michael Nielsen – How much do our (supposed) intellectual elite…

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A Bad Day at Black Rock America

We should be able to learn from history to create better immigration policy today rather than repeating past mistakes

There have been a growing number of reports [1][2][3][4] this week of creating lists of Americans and immigrants. I’m worried about the long term repercussions these acts will have on not only America’s future but that of the world at large. Though some of these reports contained slightly softer verbiage than Donald Trump’s original campaign statements almost a year to the day last year[5], I can’t help but think that his original statements were closer to his real intent.

Many have likely forgotten about the horrific black eye America already has as a result of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Why would we be contemplating thinking about going down this road a second time? Almost a year ago I wrote a short homage to my friend and WWII veteran Millard Kaufman, who I know would be vehemently against this idea. If you haven’t seen his Academy Award nominated film Bad Day at Black Rock, I recommend you pick it up soon–it’s held up incredibly well since 1955 and is still more than culturally relevant today.

In Memoriam: Millard Kaufman, WWII Veteran and Front for Dalton Trumbo

A crippled character played by Spence Tracy shows us by example how not to cave in to menacing bullies in the John Sturges 1955 MGM classic Bad Day at Black Rock written by Millard Kaufman.
A crippled character played by Spence Tracy shows us by example how not to cave in to menacing bullies in the John Sturges’ 1955 MGM classic Bad Day at Black Rock written by Millard Kaufman.

Even Comedy Central’s The Daily Show ran a snippet of the news with their thoughts:


For those who don’t think that senior leadership in America might bend the rules a tad, I also recommend reading my friend Henry James Korn’s reflection of the incident in which Eisenhower expelled him from Johns Hopkins University for a criticism of LBJ during the late 60’s: “Yes, Eisenhower Expelled Me from Johns Hopkins University.”

Yes, Eisenhower expelled me from Johns Hopkins University

In his article, Henry also includes a ten-minute War Relocation Agency propaganda film which is eerily similar to some of what is being proposed now.

Needless to say, much of this type of behavior is on the same incredibly slippery slope that Nazi Germany began on when they began registering Jews in the early part of the last century. When will be learn from the horrific mistakes of the past to do better in the future?


D. Lind, “Donald Trump’s proposed ‘Muslim registry,’ explained,” Vox, 16-Nov-2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 18-Nov-2016]
“Trump’s Muslim registry wouldn’t be illegal, constitutional law experts say,” POLITICO, 17-Nov-2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 18-Nov-2016]
N. Muaddi, “The Bush-era Muslim registry failed. Yet the US could be trying it again,” CNN, 18-Nov-2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 18-Nov-2016]
M. Rosenberg and J. E. Ainsley, “Immigration hardliner says Trump team preparing plans for wall, mulling Muslim registry,” Reuters, 16-Nov-2016. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 18-Nov-2016]
“Donald Trump says he’d ‘Absolutely’ Require Muslims to Register,” New York Times, 20-Nov-2015. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 18-Nov-2016] [Source]
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🔖 Human Evolution: Our Brains and Behavior by Robin Dunbar (Oxford University Press)

🔖 Human Evolution: Our Brains and Behavior by Robin Dunbar (Oxford University Press) marked as want to read.
Official release date: November 1, 2016
09/14/16: downloaded a review copy via NetGalley


The story of human evolution has fascinated us like no other: we seem to have an insatiable curiosity about who we are and where we have come from. Yet studying the “stones and bones” skirts around what is perhaps the realest, and most relatable, story of human evolution – the social and cognitive changes that gave rise to modern humans.

In Human Evolution: Our Brains and Behavior, Robin Dunbar appeals to the human aspects of every reader, as subjects of mating, friendship, and community are discussed from an evolutionary psychology perspective. With a table of contents ranging from prehistoric times to modern days, Human Evolution focuses on an aspect of evolution that has typically been overshadowed by the archaeological record: the biological, neurological, and genetic changes that occurred with each “transition” in the evolutionary narrative. Dunbar’s interdisciplinary approach – inspired by his background as both an anthropologist and accomplished psychologist – brings the reader into all aspects of the evolutionary process, which he describes as the “jigsaw puzzle” of evolution that he and the reader will help solve. In doing so, the book carefully maps out each stage of the evolutionary process, from anatomical changes such as bipedalism and increase in brain size, to cognitive and behavioral changes, such as the ability to cook, laugh, and use language to form communities through religion and story-telling. Most importantly and interestingly, Dunbar hypothesizes the order in which these evolutionary changes occurred-conclusions that are reached with the “time budget model” theory that Dunbar himself coined. As definitive as the “stones and bones” are for the hard dates of archaeological evidence, this book explores far more complex psychological questions that require a degree of intellectual speculation: What does it really mean to be human (as opposed to being an ape), and how did we come to be that way?

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Andrew Solomon Interview on Charlie Rose

Andrew Solomon interview by Charlie Rose by Charlie RoseCharlie Rose (Charlie
Author Andrew Solomon introduces his new book, "Far and Away."

A great interview with Andrew Solomon relating to his new book Far and Away: Reporting from the Brink of Change, travel, and the world in which we live. Though it’s not discussed directly, there’s a feel of Big History philosophy in the discussion.

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Human Collective Memory from Biographical Data

The ability of humans to accumulate knowledge and information across generations is a defining feature of our species. This ability depends on factors that range from the psychological biases that predispose us to learn from skillful, accomplished, and prestigious people, to the development of technologies for recording and communicating information: from clay tablets to the Internet. In this paper we present empirical evidence documenting how communication technologies have shaped human collective memory. We show that changes in communication technologies, including the introduction of printing and the maturity of shorter forms of printed media, such as newspapers, journals, and pamphlets, were accompanied by sharp changes (or breaks) in the per-capita number of memorable biographies from a time period that are present in current online and offline sources. Moreover, we find that changes in technology, such as the introduction of printing, film, radio, and television, coincide with sharp shifts in the occupations of the individuals present in these biographical records. These two empirical facts provide evidence in support of theories arguing that human collective memory is shaped by the technologies we use to record and communicate information.

C. Jara-Figueroa, Amy Z. Yu, and Cesar A. Hidalgo
in Estimating technological breaks in the size and composition of human collective memory from biographical data via arXiv


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Calculating the Middle Ages?

Calculating the Middle Ages? The Project "Complexities and Networks in the Medieval Mediterranean and Near East" (COMMED) [1606.03433] by Johannes Preiser-Kapeller (
The project "Complexities and networks in the Medieval Mediterranean and Near East" (COMMED) at the Division for Byzantine Research of the Institute for Medieval Research (IMAFO) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences focuses on the adaptation and development of concepts and tools of network theory and complexity sciences for the analysis of societies, polities and regions in the medieval world in a comparative perspective. Key elements of its methodological and technological toolkit are applied, for instance, in the new project "Mapping medieval conflicts: a digital approach towards political dynamics in the pre-modern period" (MEDCON), which analyses political networks and conflict among power elites across medieval Europe with five case studies from the 12th to 15th century. For one of these case studies on 14th century Byzantium, the explanatory value of this approach is presented in greater detail. The presented results are integrated in a wider comparison of five late medieval polities across Afro-Eurasia (Byzantium, China, England, Hungary and Mamluk Egypt) against the background of the {\guillemotright}Late Medieval Crisis{\guillemotleft} and its political and environmental turmoil. Finally, further perspectives of COMMED are outlined.

Network and Complexity Theory Applied to History

This interesting paper (summary below) appears to apply network and complexity science to history and is sure to be of interest to those working at the intersection of some of these types of interdisciplinary studies. In particular, I’d be curious to see more coming out of this type of area to support theses written by scholars like Francis Fukuyama in the development of societal structures. Those interested in the emerging area of Big History are sure to enjoy this type of treatment. I’m also curious how researchers in economics (like Cesar Hidalgo) might make use of available(?) historical data in such related analyses. I’m curious if Dave Harris might consider such an analysis in his ancient Near East work?

Those interested in a synopsis of the paper might find some benefit from an overview from MIT Technology Review: How the New Science of Computational History Is Changing the Study of the Past.

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Big History Summer Reading List | Big History Project

I’ve got a lot of these on my big history book list on
It also looks like a lot of these are things that Bill Gates has been reading too!

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Global Language Networks

Recent research on global language networks has interesting relations to big history, complexity economics, and current politics.

Yesterday I ran across this nice little video explaining some recent research on global language networks. It’s not only interesting in its own right, but is a fantastic example of science communication as well.

I’m interested in some of the information theoretic aspects of this as well as the relation of this to the area of corpus linguistics. I’m also curious if one could build worthwhile datasets like this for the ancient world (cross reference some of the sources I touch on in relation to the Dickinson College Commentaries within Latin Pedagogy and the Digital Humanities) to see what influences different language cultures have had on each other. Perhaps the historical record could help to validate some of the predictions made in relation to the future?

The paper “Global distribution and drivers of language extinction risk” indicates that of all the variables tested, economic growth was most strongly linked to language loss.

This research also has some interesting relation to the concept of “Collective Learning” within the realm of a Big History framework via David Christian, Fred Spier, et al.  I’m curious to revisit my hypothesis: Collective learning has potentially been growing at the expense of a shrinking body of diverse language some of which was informed by the work of Jared Diamond.

Some of the discussion in the video is reminiscent to me of some of the work Stuart Kauffman lays out in At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (Oxford, 1995). Particularly in chapter 3 in which Kauffman discusses the networks of life.  The analogy of this to the networks of language here indicate to me that some of Cesar Hidalgo’s recent work in Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, From Atoms to Economies (MIT Press, 2015) is even more interesting in helping to show the true value of links between people and firms (information sources which he measures as personbytes and firmbytes) within economies.

Finally, I can also only think about how this research may help to temper some of the xenophobic discussion that occurs in American political life with respect to fears relating to Mexican immigration issues as well as the position of China in the world economy.

Those intrigued by the video may find the website set up by the researchers very interesting. It contains links to the full paper as well as visualizations and links to the data used.


Languages vary enormously in global importance because of historical, demographic, political, and technological forces. However, beyond simple measures of population and economic power, there has been no rigorous quantitative way to define the global influence of languages. Here we use the structure of the networks connecting multilingual speakers and translated texts, as expressed in book translations, multiple language editions of Wikipedia, and Twitter, to provide a concept of language importance that goes beyond simple economic or demographic measures. We find that the structure of these three global language networks (GLNs) is centered on English as a global hub and around a handful of intermediate hub languages, which include Spanish, German, French, Russian, Portuguese, and Chinese. We validate the measure of a language’s centrality in the three GLNs by showing that it exhibits a strong correlation with two independent measures of the number of famous people born in the countries associated with that language. These results suggest that the position of a language in the GLN contributes to the visibility of its speakers and the global popularity of the cultural content they produce.

Citation: Ronen S, Goncalves B, Hu KZ, Vespignani A, Pinker S, Hidalgo CA
Links that speak: the global language network and its association with global fame, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) (2014), 10.1073/pnas.1410931111

Related posts:

“A language like Dutch — spoken by 27 million people — can be a disproportionately large conduit, compared with a language like Arabic, which has a whopping 530 million native and second-language speakers,” Science reports. “This is because the Dutch are very multilingual and very online.”

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The Information Theory of Life | Quanta Magazine

The Information Theory of Life by Kevin Hartnett (Quanta Magazine)
The Information Theory of Life: The polymath Christoph Adami is investigating life’s origins by reimagining living things as self-perpetuating information strings.

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César Hidalgo on Why Information Grows | The RSA

I’ve just recently finished the excellent book Why Information Grows by César Hidalgo. I hope to post a reasonable review soon, but the ideas in it are truly excellent and fit into a thesis I’ve been working on for a while. For those interested, he does a reasonable synopsis of some of his thought in the talk he gave the the RSA recently, the video can be found below.

The underlying mathematics of what he’s discussing are fantastic (though he doesn’t go into them in his book), but the overarching implications of his ideas with relation to the future of humankind as a function of our economic system and society could have some significant impact.

“César visits the RSA to present a new view of the relationship between individual and collective knowledge, linking information theory, economics and biology to explain the deep evolution of social and economic systems.

In a radical rethink of what an economy is, one of WIRED magazine’s 50 People Who Could Change the World, César Hidalgo argues that it is the measure of a nation’s cultural complexity – the nexus of people, ideas and invention – rather than its GDP or per-capita income, that explains the success or failure of its economic performance. To understand the growth of economies, Hidalgo argues, we first need to understand the growth of order itself.”

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The Math That Connects Pluto to DNA — NOVA Next | PBS

The Math That Connects Pluto to DNA by Alex RileyAlex Riley (NOVA Next | PBS)
How a mathematical breakthrough from the 1960s now powers everything from spacecraft to cell phones.

Concurrent with the recent Pluto fly by, Alex Riley has a great popular science article on PBS that helps put the application of information theory and biology into perspective for the common person. Like a science version of “The Princess Bride”, this story has a little bit of everything that could be good and entertaining: information theory, biology, DNA, Reed-Solomon codes, fossils, interplanetary exploration, mathematics, music, genetics, computers, and even paleontology. Fans of Big History are sure to love the interconnections presented here.

Reed-Solomon codes correct for common transmission errors, including missing pixels (white), false signals (black), and paused transmissions (the white stripe).
Reed-Solomon codes correct for common transmission errors, including missing pixels (white), false signals (black), and paused transmissions (the white stripe).
Microscopic view of glass DNA storage beads
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Collective learning has potentially been growing at the expense of a shrinking body of diverse language

Big History may indicate why we're losing diversity in the number of languages on Earth.

Yesterday, I saw an interesting linguistic exercise:

Short activity to show how flexible our language is and how difficult collective learning would have been for our non sapiens ancestors.

Step 1: As a class, choose 200 random words. (I had 15 kids choose 14 words each)

Step 2: Answer the following questions using only the words listed:

  1. How should we try to kill that mammoth?
  2. Explain why you should marry me.
  3. Give directions for a simple task.
  4. Come up with a plan to improve our cave.
  5. Describe a physical landscape.
  6. Come up with your own question!
Chris Scaturo
on February 3 at 8:44am in Yammer Group on Big History: Unit 6 – Early Humans Group

I have to imagine that once the conceptualization of language and some basic grammar existed, word generation was a much more common thing than it is now. It’s only been since the time of Noah Webster that humans have been actively standardizing things like spelling. If we can use Papua New Guinea as a model of pre-agrarian society and consider that almost 12% of extant languages on the Earth are spoken in an area about the size of Texas (and with about 1/5th the population of Texas too), then modern societies are actually severely limiting language (creation, growth, diversity, creativity, etc.) [cross reference: A World of Languages – and How Many Speak Them (Infographic)]

Consider that the current extinction of languages is about one every 14 weeks, which puts us on a course to loose about half of the 7,100 languages on the planet right now before the end of the century. Collective learning has potentially been growing at the expense of a shrinking body of diverse language! In the paper “Global distribution and drivers of language extinction risk” the authors indicate that of all the variables tested, economic growth was most strongly linked to language loss.

To help put this exercise into perspective, we can look at the corpus of extant written Latin (a technically dead language):

“It is a truly impressive fact that, simply by knowing that if one can memorize and master about 250 words in Latin, it will allow them to read and understand 50% of most written Latin. Further, knowledge of 1,500 Latin words will put one at the 80% level of vocabulary mastery for most texts. Mastering even a very small list of vocabulary allows one to read a large variety of texts very comfortably.”
with data from Dickinson College Commentaries

These numbers become even smaller when considering ancient Greek texts.

Another interesting measurement is the vocabulary of a modern 2 year old who typically has a 50-75 word vocabulary while a 4 year old has 250-500 words, which is about the level of the exercise.

As a contrast, consider the message in this TED Youth Talk from last year by Erin McKean, which students should be able to relate to:

And of course, there’s the dog Chaser, which 60 minutes recently reported has a vocabulary of over 1,000 words. (Are we now destroying variants of “dog language” for English too?!)

Hopefully the evolutionary value of the loss of the multiple languages will be more than balanced out by the power of collective learning in the long run.

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A world of languages – and how many speak them (Infographic)

An infographic from the South China Morning Post has some interesting statistics about which many modern people don’t know (or remember). It’s very interesting to see the distribution of languages and where they’re spoken. Of particular note that most will miss, even from this infographic, is that 839 languages are spoken in Papua New Guinea (11.8% of all known languages on Earth). Given the effects of history and modernity, imagine how many languages there might have been without them.


A World of Languages

Source: INFOGRAPHIC: A world of languages – and how many speak them

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The Information Universe Conference

"The Information Universe" Conference in The Netherlands in October hits several of the sweet spots for areas involving information theory, physics, the origin of life, complexity, computer science, and microbiology.

Yesterday, via a notification from Lanyard, I came across a notice for the upcoming conference “The Information Universe” which hits several of the sweet spots for areas involving information theory, physics, the origin of life, complexity, computer science, and microbiology. It is scheduled to occur from October 7-9, 2015 at the Infoversum Theater in Groningen, The Netherlands.

I’ll let their site speak for itself below, but they already have an interesting line up of speakers including:

Keynote speakers

  • Erik Verlinde, Professor Theoretical Physics, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands
  • Alex Szalay, Alumni Centennial Professor of Astronomy, The Johns Hopkins University, USA
  • Gerard ‘t Hooft, Professor Theoretical Physics, University of Utrecht, Netherlands
  • Gregory Chaitin, Professor Mathematics and Computer Science, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brasil
  • Charley Lineweaver, Professor Astronomy and Astrophysics, Australian National University, Australia
  • Lude Franke, Professor System Genetics, University Medical Center Groningen, Netherlands
Infoversum Theater, The Netherlands
Infoversum Theater, The Netherlands

Conference synopsis from their homepage:

The main ambition of this conference is to explore the question “What is the role of information in the physics of our Universe?”. This intellectual pursuit may have a key role in improving our understanding of the Universe at a time when we “build technology to acquire and manage Big Data”, “discover highly organized information systems in nature” and “attempt to solve outstanding issues on the role of information in physics”. The conference intends to address the “in vivo” (role of information in nature) and “in vitro” (theory and models) aspects of the Information Universe.

The discussions about the role of information will include the views and thoughts of several disciplines: astronomy, physics, computer science, mathematics, life sciences, quantum computing, and neuroscience. Different scientific communities hold various and sometimes distinct formulations of the role of information in the Universe indicating we still lack understanding of its intrinsic nature. During this conference we will try to identify the right questions, which may lead us towards an answer.

  • Is the universe one big information processing machine?
  • Is there a deeper layer in quantum mechanics?
  • Is the universe a hologram?
  • Is there a deeper physical description of the world based on information?
  • How close/far are we from solving the black hole information paradox?
  • What is the role of information in highly organized complex life systems?
  • The Big Data Universe and the Universe : are our numerical simulations and Big Data repositories (in vitro) different from real natural system (in vivo)?
  • Is this the road to understanding dark matter, dark energy?

The conference will be held in the new 260 seats planetarium theatre in Groningen, which provides an inspiring immersive 3D full dome display, e.g. numerical simulations of the formation of our Universe, and anything else our presenters wish to bring in. The digital planetarium setting will be used to visualize the theme with modern media.

The Information Universe Website

Additional details about the conference including the participants, program, venue, and registration can also be found at their website.

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Nicolas Perony: Puppies! Now that I’ve got your attention, complexity theory | TED

Animal behavior isn't complicated, but it is complex. Nicolas Perony studies how individual animals — be they Scottish Terriers, bats or meerkats — follow simple rules that, collectively, create larger patterns of behavior. And how this complexity born of simplicity can help them adapt to new circumstances, as they arise.

For those who are looking for a good, simple, and entertaining explanation of the concept of emergent properties and behavior within complexity theory (or Big History), I just came across a nice TED talk that simplifies complexity using a few animal examples including a cute puppy video as well as a bat and a meerkat example. The latter two also have implications for evolution and survival which are lovely examples as well.

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