Saturday, 13 May 2017

Why I Turned to Sharks

I was a wildlife artist when my husband and I moved to Tahiti, so I went out each morning looking for something to paint. The fringe lagoons lay glimmering turquoise and silver under a ringing blue sky, protected by a barrier reef and sheltering an intricate lighted world that put fantasy to shame. Fish of every imaginable shape and colour gazed from the coral formations, ranged across the white sand, and travelled purposefully though the blue. There seemed to be so much life that even the water sparkled with it.

One morning I was roaming upon the barrier reef, lost in a spell. The sunshine ran in golden lines across the coral and flashed upon the fish. It was mesmerizing. When I raised my eyes, a grey shark of about my size was moving languidly towards me and all my lights went on. Everything about her was just right—her curves, her fins, her face—the inarguable shape of shark. Nothing had prepared me for the sight of that splendid creature gliding forth through the rushing landscape, as graceful as a snake.

Having observed the wildlife of the mountains all my life, my knowledge of sharks was limited to the information gained from watching the movie JAWS many years before. All that remained from that brief education was that they bit and badly. Very badly. Essentially, if you met one you died.

So, expecting her to fly into attack mode at the sight of me, I held my breath and drifted behind a coral. But she paid me not the slightest attention as she passed just a metre away. Her smug little face actually looked bored. I moved to keep the coral between us, but when I peeked out to see her again, she was gone as if she never had been. Soon after that, a second shark passed close by from behind as I headed homeward one evening at twilight. Breathless at such fluid beauty and understated power, I followed. But she quickly drew ahead, became a moving shadow, and vanished in the darkness.

I began to seek out sharks each day on my underwater forays. I loved to explore along the barrier reef and peer across it under the layer of pouring water. Sometimes a shark came wriggling across, surfing over the reef to arrive in a cascade of champagne water. When the bubbles vanished, it often approached to turn a circle around me, its eye fixed on mine.

The shark was the first wild animal I had met who came to me instead of fleeing.

They were so intriguing. Shark behaviour was very different from that of the terrestrial wild animals I had known, and their intelligent flexibility and the complexity of their actions soon convinced me that they had been badly underestimated by science.

So I launched an intensive study of the reef sharks using the local lagoon, identifying each one by its markings, and keeping track of subsequent sightings. Soon I could recognize three hundred individuals on sight. I wanted to find out what they were like, not only as animals, but as individuals. I wanted to know them. Used to patiently observing wild animals for long periods, I treated them as I would any other new species. I had no preconceived ideas about them.

Being able to recognize them as individuals revealed a new dimension of their lives, and I had the feeling of a window opening onto another world, one so separate from human daily life that it might just as well have been on another planet.

But when, much later, I acquired an Internet connection, the information about sharks that I found on-line bore no relation to the animals I knew so well. Most entries mentioned only shark attacks, and discussions focused on those too, along with shark movies and shark fishing.

Everyone seemed to think that they were vicious. Indeed, the difference between true shark behaviour and their awful reputation was so exaggerated that most people, it seemed, should forget everything they had ever heard about sharks, and start learning about them all over again.

When I contacted Professor Arthur A. Myrberg, a shark ethologist at the University of Miami, he told me that no one else had studied sharks long-term underwater and encouraged me to publish my findings. Myrberg had worked with Konrad Lorenz and was a friend of Donald H. Griffin, author of Animal Minds, the seminal book establishing that animals are capable of thinking. 
Cognition is the word used to describe reasoning in animals, which is a process of sequential thinking that has nothing to do with instinctive reactions. Myrberg and several colleagues were searching for more evidence to support this important new field of zoology, called cognitive ethology.

So, when he was invited to speak on the subject of shark cognition at an international symposium at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, Myrberg wrote to every known researcher—more than fifteen throughout the world—whose work had anything to do with shark behaviour. Yet no one had found any evidence that could even be speculated to suggest that sharks were thinking, and all but one doubted that such an ancient line of animals were capable of any higher mental abilities.

So he described the situation to me, concluding, "And so it must be shown, as difficult as it is to show, evidence that cognition may well be present rather than to disregard any consideration."

I had been keeping notes on apparent cognitive behaviour in wild animals for decades, so sent him several pages of examples of shark behaviour that suggested cognition. Arthur used my observations to form the bulk of his presentation at the symposium.

Afterwards, he wrote:

“Three days of talks and discussions resulted in agreement among those present that animal cognition can be openly discussed, and that term and its processes need not be treated as a non-scientific entity any longer."

Though more than a decade has passed, mine is still the only long-term underwater study of shark behaviour ever carried out. Traditional shark science is dominated by 'fisheries science,' which has denied any higher abilities to them, even the ability to feel pain. Nor has it offered much information about the way sharks behave, because the popular practice of shark tagging keeps the researcher at a distance from the animal.

My upcoming book, The True Nature of Sharks, fills the need for real information about sharks and the actions they take, to help debunk the destructive myths about them that have effectively erected a barrier to their conservation.

Here is information that can only be found by taking the time to observe these unusual creatures underwater, as animals and individuals, with an open mind.

Ila France Porcher  

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The True Nature of Sharks

My latest book on shark behaviour is finally getting close to its release date. It has taken a long time to write and research what others have found about the actions that various species of sharks will take, their intelligence, and their social lives.

As a life long observer of wildlife, I recognized as soon as I began meeting wild sharks that their behaviour was very different from that of the mammals and birds we are more familiar with. So for fifteen years I spent most of my spare time watching them underwater to learn as much as I could about what they are like as animals and individuals. 

For seven of those years, I kept track of hundreds of individual reef sharks using a lagoon, and could recognize more than three hundred on sight. Studying them as individuals opened a new dimension on their lives, revealing their companionships, their emotional responses, and the way they socialized. These studies were supplemented by observing other species--tiger sharks, lemon sharks, and bull sharks--for shorter periods of time.

Many of the actions that sharks will take indicate that they are thinking, rather than acting on instinct alone, and it became clear that they have been badly underestimated by science. No one in the marine science community has done equivalent studies of sharks underwater, or any similar study involving long term underwater observation of wild sharks.

Yet, though almost nothing was known about what sharks are really like, they have been presented for the past several decades as monsters by fishermen and in the media. So my book also examines the current state of shark science, which is inseparable from fisheries, and how and why it has failed this whole line of animals. At this time many species are plummeting into extinction. 

The knowledge that sharks are intelligently aware, feeling, and thinking about the events in their lives means that we cannot continue to regard them as being automatons, cold and senseless. As Professor Emeritus Alan Kamil wrote about pinion jays, 

"Awareness of the cognitive abilities of these animals forever changes our perception of them and their place in nature, and ours." 

If you love discovering new, intelligent wildlife behaviour, you will love this book, which will make the mysterious world of sharks come alive for you. Like my first book, The SHARK SESSIONS, it is fully illustrated.


Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Question of Consciousness

The current science of consciousness has been widely discussed on the Internet, and considering the many claims that soon we will be blessed or damned by conscious machines, it is remarkable how little is known about it. 

The essential question involves explaining how a physical universe gives rise to non-physical intelligent awareness, and this boggles everyone, because it is explainable by no current scientific knowledge, physical or quantum.

There are various theories, two of which are considered the most promising. One, which is favoured by traditional science and supports the idea that computers could be conscious, holds that after a certain level of complexity is reached, consciousness emerges naturally, all by itself. In neurology, consciousness is always mentioned in connection with the human brain, which, of course is the most complex. Quantities of rambling text, much of it of a speculative and highly philosophical nature, have been written on the theory, including such unexpected claims as Daniel Dennett's, that his thermostat was conscious.

When I read of it, this raised my suspicions immediately, since at the time, I was formulating an argument, based on research from other fields of science, that my sharks felt pain when they were finned. My pleas that they be protected in the middle of their slaughter were laughed at by fishermen, who claimed that science had proven that fish could not feel pain, because it was impossible that they were conscious because they lacked a human brain.

Yet, no study had been done to determine this; the idea was nothing more than a declaration by fishermen scientists, that lacked supporting evidence. Were a human brain necessary for sentience, then the pet phenomenon would be impossible.

Further, in the same year, different researchers had found that fish were capable of all the varieties of cognition (with the exception of imitation), that had been identified in the "higher" animals, including primates. Others felt that cognition is impossible without consciousness in some form, since the act of cognition indicates the presence of an intelligent awareness that is doing the thinking.

No brain is simple, as anyone who has watched the activities of a spider will appreciate.

It seemed extraordinary that scientists believed that their thermostats were conscious, but that animals who shared up to 80% of their genes, were not. This was one of the first indications I found of how wonky science has become, and formed the backdrop to my research into the subject of consciousness.

The idea that consciousness can be created by man has always been a high-profile one, and has captured the public imagination through science-fiction tales and films that have made intelligent robots seem possible. The current efforts by artificial intelligence research (AI) to imitate the human brain, (sometimes by creating a machine with as many connections in it as the brain has), have been more widely publicized than other areas of research into consciousness.

More importantly, the hype that surrounds it has been of vital importance in generating grants for further research into AI.

But, apart from the point that this theory minimizes the difference between the intensively programmed machine, and the self-serving living creature, it directly predicts high levels of consciousness where most people would deny that consciousness is possible, such as in your CD.

Here is a bit of a description, written by John Horgan on March 22, 2016:

“Like heaven, the Singularity [the name for the union of man and machine] comes in many versions, but most involve bionic brain boosting. At first, we'll become cyborgs, as brain chips soup up our perception, memory, and intelligence and eliminate the need for annoying TV remotes. Eventually, we will abandon our flesh-and-blood selves entirely and upload our digitized psyches into computers. We will then dwell happily forever in cyberspace, where, to paraphrase Woody Allen, we'll never need to look for a parking space.

Singularity enthusiasts, or Singularitarians, tend to be computer specialists. . .”

A worrying point in this scheme, that has not come up in any discussions that I have found, is that computers not only just compute without comprehension, but they use only decimal numbers. Yet, there are an infinity of numbers which are impossible to write as decimal numbers. For example, the number one third, easily comprehended by the smallest child trying to cut a cake into three for him and his two sisters, becomes 3.3333333. . . ad infinitum in decimals, so any computer would soon round it off!

You don't have to go very far with numbers to find such surprises. Another example, represented perfectly for all life forms on Earth in the shape of the sun and full moon, is the relationship between the diameter and the circumference of a circle—the irrational number pi. Pi, and all such other numbers that go on and on without foreseeable endings, are rounded off by computers!

Would such over-simplified approximations to the true universal values still result in the generation of consciousness? No thoughts on this obvious point have been offered! That such inconsistencies are considered irrelevant seems quite an assumption for those claiming to be on the verge of producing conscious machines, when those machines cannot even represent one third correctly.

Given the mind-boggling complexity of the universe—we are personally about halfway in size-scale between the universal and the sub-atomic ranges of sizes—human considerations are really fairly simple.

Though in the eighties, exaggerated claims were made about the conscious machine that would soon be created, as time passed, none of the algorithms (combinations of mathematical formulae) originally postulated to imitate cognitive functions were successful. Many of the leading AI labs eventually shut down, and no new algorithms have been developed. The progress that we have seen since, has been due to advances in complexity, miniaturization, and size, which have increased the computational power of computers, but have not given them the power of understanding.

You can demonstrate this to yourself by typing any short piece of writing into Google Translate, to see how well it is translated into a different language of your choice. The poor ability of robots to translate phrases from one language to another is due to the inability of the computer to understand the words. Those meanings are conceptual, not computational.

Yet, robot hype continues at a high pitch, though, like everyone else, the researchers involved have no idea what consciousness is, or what is required for its manifestation.

The other main theory of consciousness was put forth and argued by Roger Penrose, a mathematician at Oxford, and originator of black hole theory, among other things. He believes that consciousness, along with quite a few other things in this universe, is essentially not computable, so no computer could ever be conscious, no matter how big it might be. He postulates that consciousness is a manifestation of quantum mechanical behaviour.

He regrets that biologists are unaware of how matter really behaves, because they ignore the actions of matter at a sub-atomic level, which, after all, takes place all the time all around and within us, not just in physicists' particle accelerators.

You have likely heard of the big problem in physics—that the laws found that govern the universe, as described by such lights as Euclid and Einstein, do not agree with those found in the sub-atomic world of quantum mechanics. One of the curious things about quantum mechanical behaviour, is that at a very small size scale, our universe becomes a mush of probabilities—probabilities that this or that will come down.

The peculiar aspect of this phenomenon is that it appears to be conscious awareness of the probabilities, that makes one or the other actually come to pass. The name given to the transition from the probabilistic state to the collapse into reality is reduction. The need for consciousness to trigger reduction, is another clue to it, that appears in a completely different way.

The subatomic reality is not like the mechanical one we can see, nor does it operate by the same rules, and no one, not even the rocket scientists, have found a way to picture it in their minds. Decades of experimentation in which this was tested repeatedly, and mind boggling mathematics, were necessary before it was accepted at all.

Penrose started one chapter in his book The Emperor’s New Mind, by describing a poor lost man trying to walk home from the pub, and not being able to figure out which way to go. He sits down, gazes at the moon, and goes up, instead. He goes into Plato's world.

Plato first described a world we could access only by the intellect, one which appears to have an independent existence outside of space and time, where the transcendent laws of mathematics, physics, chemistry, music, and maybe even ethics and beauty, exist. Only by going there can we understand the world and the universe, and Plato's world reveals itself to each of us through conscious reflection.

An example of something that exists only in Plato’s world is the square root of minus one. This is the number which, when multiplied by itself, will give minus one. While at first glance this could seem like nothing more than a mathematical joke, since all numbers when squared are positive, the square root of minus one has proved indispensable for working out some of the details of the functioning of the universe--the behaviour of subatomic particles cannot be understood without it!

The mathematical phenomenon known as the Mandelbrot set is the solution to an equation invoking the square root of minus one.

The illustration shows it graphed, and then a part of the set magnified over a million times. The intricate boundary does not change on magnification, which is one of the qualities of a fractal.

The remarkable beauty of the graphed Mandelbrot set, named for Benoît Mandelbrot who found it, was inaccessible until we developed the computational power to unveil it. Yet, it was always there in Plato's world!

Music, too, leads us into Plato’s world, and since some birds sing using the humanly defined scale, it appears to be accessible to other species.

Roger Penrose offered this way of conceiving the idea. He describes three worlds, the mental world of consciousness, the physical universe, and Plato's world, or the place where mathematical reality lies. He calls the relationships between them the three profound mysteries.

As shown in the diagram, in the physical world appears consciousness, which reflects and finds Plato's world, the truths of which lie behind the manifestation of the physical world.

Working with a biologist, Stuart Hameroff, Penrose has developed his complex theory of quantum consciousness further, since, and has written more books on these subjects, including Shadows of the Mind, and The Road to Reality.

There are other theories discussed at the conferences on the Science of Consciousness, including one that states that just as rats cannot do arithmetic, so we are not capable of comprehending consciousness, though of course, we can't give up!

Others cover a vast range of subjects including evidence from altered mental states, taking hallucinogenic drugs, and the realms of the paranormal.

Yet, in all of these writings on the subject, an assessment of how consciousness manifests in life on Earth has not been mentioned. Its as if only humans and their machines are of any concern, though evidence of cognition has been found in all animals studied, from the great apes to sharks, octopi, bees, and even Paramecia. These are one-celled animals, so they have no brain, or even nerves, yet they can learn, remember, and make decisions based on whether or not they were in a place before, and whether or not, when they were there, they had a good time (Armus et al 2006, Day and Bentley 2016).

This fact throws cold water on some of science's assumptions that only "higher" animals are capable of cognition in the sense I had to argue it for the sharks. And if one-celled animals show this level of awareness, it leads to the question of whether or not such awareness may be an intrinsic aspect of life itself.

Yet, the question of life is not included in the discussions of consciousness, possibly because that would exclude computers!

This strange state of affairs ably represents the current state of disconnection apparent between science and the facts, a subject I will return to again. And, in contradiction to what traditional science (which in the case of sharks means "fisheries") claimed, my beloved sharks suffered when they were finned and died.

Ila France Porcher, author of The Shark Sessions

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Commentary on Science ~ The Price of Ignoring Natural Law

  In April, 2016, National Geographic featured an article entitled “The War on Science,” which questions why many scientific claims face a storm of opposition from the public. It explains that these criticisms result from a tendency to believe in one's religious or political position, rather than in the facts, which is a recent finding by Dan Kahan of Yale University.

Yet, the problems with modern science which might contribute to this public attitude were not examined--when one looks out across the ravaged earth, National Geographic's statement “Modern science is based on things it got right,” appears in a different light.

In addition to widespread pollution and the destabilization of the climate, human activity has caused the sixth mass extinction, the tropical forests needed to support the life-giving atmosphere are devastated, and the oceans are showing signs of ecological collapse.

Why, at the height of science's glory, has it had such a destructive effect on the planet upon which we all depend? Why has it offered no guidance to humanity, as civilization expanded, in controlling international events, or finding practical solutions to such serious developments as the threats of nuclear annihilation, and human population growth, which have resulted in dire global problems?

One important reason is that for a material science in a material world, money has been a decisive factor in determining the direction taken by scientific research.

Science began with the work of Aristotle, in an effort to systematically analyse our surroundings—the lines, the curves, the way a stone would fall. It was a quest for understanding of the reality in which we find ourselves, and through observation, measurement, and reflection, a detailed map of reality and its mathematical underpinnings, came into being over the centuries. The edifice of science was built step by step, as facts that could be mutually verified, accumulated through pure research done in the quest for knowledge.

Then came the unholy marriage with industry. Instead of studying life, biology focused on using the biosphere to solve human problems, and it neglected an appropriate analysis of nature. The play of life across the planet, how it interacted with the atmosphere, the seas, earth, rivers, and the falling of rain, was simply ignored.

The result was that western society developed without reference to its environment, and the current state of discontinuity between 'science' and the facts is the result.

The influence of religion
The assumption of human superiority over Earth is a religious one which science adopted centuries ago. The human was considered superior—the only one (!) made “in the image of God”—while the rest of the universe, including all other forms of life, did not share the human gift of consciousness, and were considered mechanical in nature. This convenient idea, attributed to Rene Descartes, has well served a civilization that regards our planet as nothing more than a resource.

But in ignoring the uniformity of life, it took a dramatic departure from evidence-based science. Human beliefs began to be considered more important than the facts while, in ignoring our biological heritage, philosophical science imbued our leaders with the sort of arrogant pride which not only comes before, but causes, a fall.

In science, the only rational position to take is the acceptance of reality.

The uniformity of life
We are surrounded by evidence of the uniformity of life. Not only do all vertebrate animals share the same body plan, but on the microscopic level, our cells, from bacteria to plants to man, have the same make-up. Genetic studies, too, confirm that from primates (99%) to fish (85%) a high fraction of genes are shared among us.

The pet phenomenon, which has been visible to all for centuries, would be impossible if animals truly were mechanical, because by definition, a machine cannot act “as if” it can think and feel. A commonly used excuse for treating animals cruelly is the statement, “Just because they act like they feel pain, does not mean that they really do.” This preposterous argument requires that the alleged machine imitate consciousness on cue.

Every time it has been examined, evidence of sentience has been found in animals from insects, to sharks, fish, and elephants. Even one-celled animals, lacking both brains and nerves, are able to learn and remember.

There is every reason to question the prevailing negative attitude to animals, and its origin. There is simply no evidence to support the idea that life as it arose in this solar system, is inferior and unworthy as traditional science maintains.

Quite the contrary. Given current knowledge of the size and nature of the universe, and the mysteries concerning the presence of life and of consciousness, there is every reason to consider it remarkable.

People studying wildlife behavior, as I do, have to be meticulously careful that all conclusions are objective, and uninfluenced by one's perspective as a human. So it is disappointing to see this essential basis for maintaining scientific integrity being ignored by so many scientists. Yet, their consistently anthropocentric attitude goes unquestioned, while they stand in the way of the search for the true understanding of life.

Human behavior as part of the continuum of life
Human behavior is considered to be dependent on reason and cultural tradition alone, yet this approach has failed to produce any insight into the current state of human affairs, or ways to avoid disaster in the future.

However, when looked at as part of the continuum of the behavior of all living beings, the comportment of the human species fits like a piece in a puzzle. Universal trends are evident in animal behavior, and of these a great deal has been learned. But the information has been ignored, due to the denial of the link between humankind and the rest of nature.

The male/female phenomenon, for example, has framed sexual reproduction for at least half a billion years. Myriad examples of how the two genders work together provide a comprehensive understanding of their interconnected roles, which could greatly relieve the difficulties people face in understanding the opposite sex in the modern world.

Similarly, millions suffering under the stigma of homosexuality, would have been greatly relieved to know that love between members of the same sex is natural, right, and good. (note 1)

Monkey trickery on the scale of the modern human appears truly diabolical. There are many cases in which evidence points to huge deceptions, but they remain uninvestigated due to the territorial command to follow your leader. (note 2)

War is waged by animals from ants, through rats and chickens, to primates. It results from the aggression territorial animals feel toward those on the other side of the border.

The territorial instinct evolved to assure the best distribution of animals of each species through their environment, and each territory has two vital places: the nest with all of its treasures, and the border where intruders are repelled. (note 3) Thus, a conflictual attitude to 'others', be they other tribes, city states, or nations, races, religions, or sports teams, is built into our genes, just as a genetically based love of sugar and fat is evident among us.

This explains why violence is so widespread in our society, whether hidden in families, criminalized in communities, or expressed internationally in wars. The continuing clash between religion and science, which was show-cased by National Geographic's article, is an example of the tendency to attack those with different beliefs, and serves as a daunting reminder that even our brightest lights are no more capable of managing their aggressive inclinations than any animal.

Some primate, including human, societies live in a constant state of war with the surrounding tribes, and our history is an account of wars. It is easy to see how the clans whose warriors could not keep up with the continuous demand for violent responses, would simply have disappeared, resulting in an increasingly militant population.

Ethologist Konrad Lorenz wrote :
“Unreasoning and unreasonable human nature causes two nations to compete, though no economic necessity compels them to do so; it induces two political parties or religions with amazingly similar programmes of salvation to fight each other bitterly and it impels an Alexander or a Napoleon to sacrifice millions of lives in his attempt to unite the world under his sceptre. We have been taught to regard some of the persons who have committed these and similar absurdities with respect, even as ‘great’ men, we are wont to yield to the political wisdom of those in charge, and we are all so accustomed to these phenomena that most of us fail to realize how abjectly stupid and undesirable the historical mass behaviour of humanity actually is.”

In a world in which the current alpha males have science fiction weapons to use in their dreams of world dominion, there is every reason to consider this type of instinctive aggression as the greatest of all dangers. Yet, in an astounding display of denial, science supports the continuing efforts to create ever more destructive weapons, and the news as I write today is full of flagrant attempts by those in power to arouse everyone to militant enthusiasm for yet more war!

Accepting the truth
Insight into how to control the forces of nature has always resulted from the understanding gained through investigation of their natural causes. Were our true inclinations accepted as natural, providing alternate outlets for our aggression could become part of our culture until the brute force method fell out of favor.

Recognition that borders remain in about the same place in spite of wars, could result in a mutual decision to simply respect the ones we have now, and enjoy competing in other ways. Militant enthusiasm can be raised in young people for plenty of other challenges, including science, art, and sports, causes considered worthy by all human beings.

The bonds of love and friendship that join individuals together, work like magic to defuse the hackle-raising communal defense instinct evolved by our pre-human ancestors, and an awareness of them has the power to change the world. The greatest danger is the instinctive tendency to regard those who speak or look differently, as inferior. Recognizing that this inclination is common to us all, as people growing up in different areas of the world, and that in spite of cultural differences we all share similar interests in life, makes it easy to find reasons to like those who are different from us.

Individuals communicating with and befriending others in a spirit of brotherhood could, given the power of the Internet, swiftly connect the people of the world in friendship, which would go far toward defusing international hostilities. A day could come in which they might tell their leaders, when summoned to slaughter their friends, “We the people, have met on the Internet, and we like each other. So please, just let us live.”

In time, adequate knowledge of ourselves would determine the directions to take to avoid the dangers implicit in our ignorance of the nature of aggression.

Other thinkers have written of an “awakening” that might come about to save the world, as human destruction threatens the planet. Indeed, we may be the first life form to gain understanding of the difference between instinct and the wiser choices that are possible through using the intellect.

Perhaps that is final test of the human spirit—that we gain the courage to manage our own biological heritage and remake our world using wisdom and understanding instead.

(c) Ila France Porcher
               August 2016

1) Homosexuality is widespread in nature, but because it runs counter to Christian beliefs about the purpose of love and sex, this has not become widely known. There is a BBC documentary which serves as a review of this subject on youtube at :
2) Bob Altemeyer, The Authoritarians 2006. Humans have a tendency to follow a leader, to the degree of giving up the guidance of their own conscience. In a famous experiment, he found that you only need to ask three or four people before finding someone who is willing to hold another person down and shock him to death, if you present yourself as an authority.
3) Schjelerup-Ebbe (1922), Z.Psychol. 88: 226-252
4) From Konrad Lorenz's book On Aggression, written in 1966 as an overview of aggressive behavior, and a warning to humanity. His choice of the species closest to humans in behavior was the rat; at that time he considered that humans had about the same chances as several hostile clans of rats on a ship that was almost out of food. My advisor with the sharks, Professor Arthur A. Myrberg Jr., had worked with him, and we both felt that his ideas were in accordance with what we too had observed.
My choice for a comparable species, based on my own experiences is the junglefowl--the ancestor of modern chickens, a species more affectionate and loving than the rat, as well as expressing most dramatically the single-minded determination to fight to gain power, that one sees among humans. These highly territorial birds will also wage war, on a modest scale, with the alpha male using the younger beta males as warriors. Thus he avoids being hurt himself, and rids himself of future competition. With them, too, the borders remain in about the same place.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

More Fisheries Pseudoscience

Another piece of shark fisheries propaganda has been published. Shark fisherman David Shiffman now claims it to be scientific fact, that most shark scientists believe that shark fishing and shark finning are the best ways to “manage” sharks, when done sustainably. The fact that most shark scientists work for the fishing industry is omitted. 

What true scientist would condone shark finning when it involves the waste of 95 percent of the shark, in a protein starved world? Shark finning has been documented to be responsible for the 25% of shark species currently threatened with extinction, but a little known fact is that the United States is the seventh worst shark finning nation. The paper even affirms that it was the shark fisheries scientists who were the most likely to be in favour of sustainable shark fishing as opposed to outright protection for sharks.

At about the same time as this paper was announced in the news, The Global Strategy for the management of sharks and rays (2015 to 2025) summarized their plan thus : 
“This Global Strategy aims to dramatically alter the current trajectory of shark and ray decline by promoting the protection and recovery of the most endangered species, advancing the understanding and conservation of all species and their critical habitats, and ensuring that the fisheries, trade and demand for these species shift from overexploitation towards sustainability.” (note 1)

When stated in context, one can see where working towards sustainable fishing practices is beneficial when the current practice is chronic overfishing. What is different about Shiffman's paper, is that it seeks to use the authority of science to manipulate public opinion to support shark fishing, and to weaken the efforts of shark advocates to protect them in other important ways. The very worrying point that shark meat is increasingly toxic due to the accumulation of poisons, including mercury, making sharks unfit food, is not even mentioned. The findings of a dangerous depletion of sharks by overfishing has been echoed every time an intensive global study on shark and ray depletion has been done.

NOAA (2011) itself states:
“The law calls for the United States to pursue an international ban on shark finning and to advocate improved data collection (including biological data, stock abundance, bycatch levels, and information on the nature and extent of shark finning and trade). Determining the nature and extent of shark finning is the key step toward reaching agreements to decrease the incidence of finning worldwide. “

In October 2014, in an article in the journal “Fisheries” Shiffman made another effort to give the ring of authority to fishing sharks, this time by promoting shark sports fishing in Florida. Though both bird fighting and dog fighting are illegal in Florida, he had no qualms about promoting the “fighting” and killing of sharks. 

Based on the findings that in French Polynesia, the biggest shark sanctuary in the world, one shark can be worth over 2 million dollars in its lifetime through shark diving, he recommended that Florida's sharks were similarly worthy through “catch and release,” which he argued was a good way for the state to make money!

Yet, for one shark to earn 2 million dollars for Florida, it would have to be fished 4000 times. This is calculated by dividing 2,000,000 dollars by 500 dollars—which is an average price charged by shark fishing charters to go out and catch a shark. The possible effects on the lives and biology of the sharks living there, as a result of being repeatedly “fought” nearly to death at this intensity, was not a subject that concerned him.

When questioned about it, it became clear that he had not even thought about the mathematics, though math is an important tool for other scientists. Nor could he come with any argument to back up his position. 

Sharks are not trout. They are large animals that have to swim continuously forward just to keep an adequate supply of oxygen moving over their gills, and their strong horizontal undulations are like a heartbeat, a powerful automatic motion they cannot stop. Their desperate efforts to escape death while pulling with so much force against a big shark hook piercing their faces or internal organs, can cause serious internal and facial injuries. And as any wildlife rehabilitator soon learns through experience, serious injuries to wild animals are usually fatal without the benefit of treatment and supportive care.

Further, examination of Shiffman's own data reveals that the near threatened blacktip shark is the most frequent species caught, and its survival rate from catch and release fishing is one of the lowest of all species shown. Blacktips and the endangered great hammerhead showed “high physiological disruption and low survival following release.” (note 2) In contradiction to this information, he states many times that the sharks are released “unharmed.” 

It is now a matter of record that industry will deliberately support a political platform for favoured, and often paid researchers, to influence public opinion. This was done, for example, by the tobacco industry and the oil industry.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce (NOAA), two million, seven hundred thousand sharks were caught by sports fishermen in the U.S.A. in 2011. Since those were only the killings that were reported, this figure could be low compared with the true numbers killed if the toll from private boats that were not reported, were added in. 

The fishing industry is a multi-billion dollar power that has taken control of both the wild fish populations, and the way these animals are viewed by the public. The result is that irregardless of available facts, their conclusions are always in favour of fishermen, and not “fish,” a word which fisheries will apply to all marine animals, including sharks, whales, and turtles.

Another example of unsubstantiated claims used to support the fishing industry is the Rose paper which sought to give scientific authority to the old tale that fish don't feel pain. Though Rose has never done a study to prove his allegations, and though his argument applies to all animals except man and possibly the great apes, and though it was published in a fishing journal and not a neurological journal, it received so much publicity that people got the idea that science had really proven that fish were too simple-minded to feel pain. 

Yet at the same time, other researchers had learned that fish have cognitive skills that rival those of birds and mammals, and they are likely conscious. Veterinarians who work on them systematically use pain relief, and have said that they found fish to be more sensitive than birds. It is more logical to believe those who treat and look after fish, than those who kill them.

Scientists have a duty to humanity and the search for objective truth, to remain open-minded. Arguments against established ideas are welcomed when they are based on evidence and logic, but when they are based on political agendas which are not supported by evidence, they fall under the definition of pseudo-science. 

note 1 : This was the result of a collaboration between the Shark Specialist Group of IUCN, and scientists from the major conservation organizations, following the SSG study, published last year, which found that 24% of sharks and rays are in danger of imminent extinction.

note 2 : According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, IUCN, great hammerheads are endangered, and blacktip sharks are near threatened.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Seeing is Believing : An Affectionate Shark

For the first time, affectionate behaviour in a shark has been documented. Jim Abernethy, of Palm Beach in Florida, filmed his reunion with a tiger shark after a separation of two years.

Abernethy, owner and operator of Scuba Adventures in Florida, had gained the shark's trust through gentle touches, initially to remove five hooks from her mouth. Since 2003, he has been using this method to remove hooks from many different species of sharks, as described in this former article about him, here.

The sharks he helped responded by cooperating, and would return for more affection as is seen so clearly in his video with this tiger shark. Abernethy's achievement was only possible because of his dedication to getting to know these mysterious and very unusual animals, while spending so much of his time on location where he could see them almost daily. As the first dive operator to show that sharks are peaceful animals, Jim always treated them with respect and affection. He spends most of his time on his liveaboard ship, The Shear Water, diving with sharks at sites in the vicinity of the Bahamas, and is on land for only about 40 days a year.

Though divers have understood for decades that sharks are not the demons of the sea as promoted by the media, the long standing bias against them has lived on, and shark attack mania is alive and well, in spite of decades of accumulating evidence that sharks are far less aggressive than the predators we are familiar with on land. Though increasing numbers of researchers are finding that a variety of marine animals are sentient, fisheries science continues to affirm that this is not the case. The argument is summarized here. Abernethy had removed five hooks from Tarantino's mouth initially, so the shark's reaction also strongly supports the argument that she appreciated the relief from pain.

I never got photographic evidence of affectionate behaviour in my sharks, mostly because nearly all of my study took place before I got an underwater camera. (Its hard to believe now, in the age of digital photography, how much more difficult it was to get underwater photos before). That is why it means so much to me that this behaviour has now been recorded. Even people who are willing to consider that sharks might have negative emotions such as fear or rage, find it less believable that they could have positive emotions such as happiness or affection.

With traditional science denying feelings in these animals, it provides evidence that some updates are needed! Anyway, this is a first, and a wonderful intimate look at the natural gestures of a tiger shark. Enjoy!

(c) Ila France Porcher 

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

SHARKS DON'T BITE like we do

Though sharks have gained a mythical reputation for being biters, their behaviour in nature is the opposite of what we would expect from the vicious animals depicted in the media. I had many opportunities to observe sharks under circumstances in which I expected them to bite, as a dog, cat, horse, or bird would tend to do. Yet they did not. 

All other species, wild and tame, with whom I had the intimacy I shared with sharks, had bitten me sooner or later, either by accident or in a fit of pique; even my pet dog sometimes grabs my hand in her teeth along with the offered cookie. 

Further, while the blackfin reef sharks I knew enjoyed roaming with favourite companions, I never saw them fighting with each other. They had friends but no enemies !

For years people had told me, and I half believed myself, that one evening I would be bitten and would bleed to death, or faint and drown. Since I was alone far from shore as night was falling, I could expect no one to save me, and these circumstances enhanced a tendency to react with darkening consciousness and soaring terror at times. 

The graceful creatures were the colour of the twilight waters, and as night fell, they became just motions in the shadows. As if they knew they had an advantage, it was then that they became emboldened, and would suddenly shoot forward faster than my eyes could follow them--the speed at which a shark can suddenly move, is one of the startling things about them.

So I had long acquaintance with the phenomenon of fear. Often it took all my psychological force to compose my mind in order to overcome it. 

Occasionally, things went wrong--the boat overturned in high winds, or my camera fell overboard, for example--and I would find myself in tossing waters opaque with blood and excited sharks, in a situation for which I was unprepared. Yet, no matter what happened, no shark bit me, time after time. 

Why had none of those hundreds of sharks of four different species, some many times my size, ever bitten me? I would watch my favourite, Martha, coil through the sea in front of my face, snapping up the treats I was freeing for her while ignoring my hands and the little plastic bag I had brought them in, and be convinced that it could not be a random coincidence. 

There had to be a reason. 

One night I accidentally kicked a shark with all my force, not realizing that the six foot animal was between my legs as I finned upward to reach into my kayak. Expecting her to turn and slash, I peered underwater to scrutinize the situation, but neither her speed nor her trajectory changed as she curvetted on to circle me. 

It was then I realized that I was expecting a reaction from a shark that was based on my knowledge of mammals. Like the other species we know well, we readily bite in fear. Anyone who has been seriously assaulted knows that the instinct to bite in self defence is very thinly veiled beneath our civilized daily lives. Birds too, readily bite in aggression and fear. It is a reaction that we take for granted--it is an important part of our personal defence system, which is instinctive at its root, and reinforced by countless learning incidents, beginning in infancy, and continuing throughout our lives. 

But that night, I realized that these requiem sharks must not share this strong tendency to bite, either from fear or aggression. Separated from us evolutionarily by a gulf of time spanning half a billion years, and having evolved in an oceanic environment, sharks are not territorial, and don't seem to have developed the same tendency that mammals have, to bite in fear or aggression.

It seemed possible that our fear of sharks is based on the intrinsic knowledge that we, and animals like us, readily bite, and we assume that sharks do too. With their big mouths and shocking sets of teeth, our imaginations are undone as we consider them opening to bite us.

But they don't. 

They even seem to have an inhibition against biting companion animals. They don't regard us as prey, and apparently view us as other creatures who share their ecological community. This is apparent, for example, during shark dives. 

Doc Gruber wrote back with these comments when I asked him about this subject : 
“After years and years of observing sharks in competitive feeding situations I have become impressed by how little aggression is shown by these animals. I often read in books when I was young that sharks can go into a frenzy and will attack and kill one another. I find this to be exactly opposite of what occurs. What I see is that sharks when competitively feeding are almost gentle and balletic. For example, if two sharks rush at a piece of bait and one clamps onto the other's head they will carefully unclamp, back up, and move off. They do not bite or hurt one another. 
“Aggression between sharks of the same species seems to me to be very low; they are very tolerant of each other. White sharks might be the exception but at a big whale carcass they do not seem aggressive. 
“When being handled, some species will definitely bite and others won't bite no matter how much you try. The lemon shark and blacktip shark are two examples of sharks that will definitely bite if you manhandle them. Bull sharks and hammerheads will not bite no matter what, and the same goes for tiger sharks. With tiger sharks, young ones will try to bite, older ones will not.”
Dive club owners, who work with sharks daily year after year, report the same phenomenon of non-aggression among feeding sharks. A possible exception has been noted at certain multi-species commercial shark feedings, where over long periods of time, and intensive daily provisioning, certain species of sharks--those that are larger and more pushy--become more numerous, while other species tend to be pushed out, yet biting among them is still so rare as to be practically unknown.

Even the great white shark has been shown by Dr. Peter Klimley to ritualize conflict when ownership of a seal prey comes into question. Through a remarkable series of videos taken of feeding great white sharks, he documented how the shark who splashes water farthest, with a slash of its tail, wins the seal. Thus a physical battle for the seal is avoided. Given their dentition, a battle between great whites would gravely harm both sharks. (See Klimley's wonderful book, The Secret Life of Sharks)

Within the community of sharks I studied in a lagoon in Tahiti, it was the nurse sharks who were the most aggressive. Still it was very rare that one would aggress a blackfin who came too close; the blackfin would change direction. The reef sharks did not menace the nurse sharks.

The lack of aggression in the submarine community was one of the first things I noticed when I began watching sharks interacting, especially in the presence of food. Only about three times in all those years, did I see a large blackfin appear to make a snapping motion toward a smaller one, but in each case I was able to see that the small one did not suffer a bite as a result. At each session, the sharks swooped around together, often touching, with never a sign that the smaller ones were afraid of the bigger ones or avoided them. 

This is the opposite of what happens in societies in which a dominance-subordinance hierarchy exists. Two examples of such societies are those of chickens and humans.

Sometimes, a tiny blackfin pup would make off with a scrap, for example, closely followed by one of the biggest, a shark three times as long, and many times the baby's volume. But, each time, the baby continued on its way and ate, while the big one made no effort to take its food, and treated the tiny shark just the same way it would treat one of its own size. 

Further, apart from mating wounds on females during the season of reproduction, the sharks did not appear with bite marks on them.

Whitetip reef sharks and sicklefin lemon sharks also attended my sessions at times, and their appearance had no effect on the harmony in the site. Once I watched a lemon shark the size of a horse slowly come up behind a nurse shark pup who was lying on the sand munching on a little scrap. The pup was the size and colour of a human baby with long fins, and the lemon shark could just about have inhaled it whole--yet, it passed on. The huge animal did not even take the baby's scrap!

My sessions ended as darkness enveloped the scene, and only the nurse sharks remained, languidly writhing around the site amid the flitting fish, until it was carpeted in nurse sharks. They would scrape and suck out the contents of the fish heads, wriggling about in clouds of sand, wrasses and yellow perch. 

When it was almost too dark to see them, a massive, pale form would appear off in the coral, weaving in and out of view as she floated cloud-like through the shadows, waving an unbelievable tail. In slow motion, she would waltz through the site, her fins spread wide, as she pressed the water left, then right, as if to an unheard rhapsody. She was the biggest nurse shark, with a body massive as a draft horse, a magnificent creature, who would undulate with her beautiful, lazy ballet through the twilight surroundings until I left.

One night, a two metre nurse shark was lying nearby under a coral formation, close beside a Javanese moray eel of about the same length. The two of them were touching all along their sides, the nurse shark eating, the eel looking calmly out at me. For two species renowned for their aggression and even for being dangerous, the sight was counter-intuitive, enhancing the feeling of being in a community in which a certain camaraderie existed, one whose true qualities no human mind could conceive. 

The unusual behaviour of the sharks points to the way their societies are dramatically different from those of the animals that we know best, a subject I will be writing more about, in time.

(c) Ila France Porcher
 ~ author of The Shark Sessions ~

Wednesday, 9 December 2015


Jim Abernethy, Florida's top shark advocate, has declared WAR on NOAA. Please read this important announcement, and lend your support!

Good Afternoon Friends of Sharks as well as Mr. Guy Dubeck of NOAA,

My entire adult life has been spent fighting for sharks! I have watched our species slaughter sharks at an unprecedented rate worldwide, all to supply the Asian demand for shark fin soup! In the history of our planet no other species has ever been decimated by another species the way sharks are by humans.

In the last 50 years over 90% of all large sharks have been removed. A perfect example of this is the oceanic white tip shark, which 50 years ago Cousteau's scientists stated "The most abundant animal on the planet, over 100 lbs in weight is clearly the oceanic white tip shark!" - today not a single ocean boasts more than 1% of that population.

According to the Ocean Preservation Society, the results of this massive removal of apex predators on our planet is catastrophic and significantly impacting all life on the planet. The cascading trophic collapse felt by their removal is having deep reaching negative impacts on our only biosphere, Earth! Our oceans, the life blood of our planet, are failing right in front of our eyes! We’re at a tipping point, where if we don't change our practices, we will be the cause of Earth's next Extinction.

Today I am writing to plead with you to help us stop NOAA's new plan for so-called "Shark Management", shifting their shark fishery from the summer, when there are fewer sharks, to January 1st, when sharks are at their all time high numbers! This will most certainly decimate the less than 10% of the sharks left in our waters from their mismanagement that already depleted 90% of all large sharks!

Accordingly, I am renaming NOAA - NO OCEAN ALIVE ANYWHERE!

I cannot understand how this can be allowed to happen when we know so much about these creatures and their plight to survive. Extinction is forever, and NOAA seems to be doing everything they can to overturn the state’s interests that are doing their best to protect them!

American NOAA shark researchers caught and tagged 2,835 sharks along the East Coast this spring, a record number which they say reflects a growing population thanks to legal protection. Lisa Natanson, a scientist who leads the survey at the Narragansett Laboratory of NOAA Fisheries' Northeast Fisheries Science Centre, said: "I think that's what turned it around - effective management. Just the decrease in fishing pressure on these species has helped quite a bit." This statement only reflects the last decade. Are we to ignore the previous 50 years where we already removed 90% of all sharks?

By ignoring the statements of their own scientist, is NOAA really looking out for the best interest of our planet, our oceans, and our species? Obviously, they are not!

I believe they are only concerned with the commercial shark fishing interests that line their pockets with money – this will continue to impact our planet in a negative manner until the ecosystem is completely destroyed!

I'm wondering if we allow this to happen, when we look back at this catastrophic mistake decades from now, will NOAA be remembered as my new acronym for them. NO OCEAN ALIVE ANYWHERE!

Will Guy Dubeck, from NOAA, be remembered for as the man who led NOAA to destroy our ocean ecosystems? And consequently the future of generations to come? Will NOAA be remembered as the agency that tried to undermine the people's best interests whom have already passed laws declaring their states SHARK FIN FREE?

As we all should know by now, No blue, No green - the ocean is our life support system, producing 50% of the oxygen we breathe and more than 60% of the protein we eat.

Dr. Silvia Earle, formerly NOAA’s chief scientist, says “We have been far too aggressive about extracting ocean wildlife, not appreciating that there are limits and even points of no return.”

I believe we are at the point where we need to take a stand and put an end to the commercial shark fishery in United States. This non-substance harvesting has no benefit, except to those who profit from it - people who do not care about the future health of our planet.

In 2013, NOAA shifted its so-called "Shark Management" to January 1st for lemon sharks, a decision that essentially wiped out the world's only lemon shark aggregation here in Jupiter, Florida. They did this despite many of the world's top scientists pleading with them not to do so. Since they took this foolish action, no lemon sharks have been seen aggregating naturally. Have we not all learned these valuable lessons from their past mismanagement, even after the shark scientists recommended against it? Obviously NOAA has not, or the shark fishery lobbyist, pay them plenty to undermine the health of our oceans!

To me, I find it strange that NOAA is still trying to manage a shark in point! If I was your money manager with 100 million dollars 50 years ago, and today I only had 10 million left, would you still be allowing me to MANAGE your money?

Face the Facts, NOAA shark management has FAILED MISERABLY! We should give up all thoughts of conservation of sharks! We are in a last ditch effort to recover from NOAA's mismanagement! At this late hour, we’re no longer talking shark conservation management, it should be called what it really is, a last minute attempt at PRESERVATION with the few animals that have survived all NOAA's failed attempts at management!

FIRE YOUR MONEY MANAGER, FIRE NOAA and lets all work hard at preserving what few animals this mismanagement has left us, while we still can! We are all connected here on planet earth! Our diversity of animal and plant life is what keeps us all alive!

Sharks are the controlling factor that keeps our oceans in balance and healthy! Over 50% of the air we breathe and over 60% of the protein we eat, comes directly, or indirectly, from our oceans! We all depend on healthy oceans for this entire planets survival! If you desire healthy oceans, why would you remove from them one of the largest controlling factors that has kept our oceans in balance since before the dinosaurs were here!

Sharks are well documented as carrying high levels of mercury, a poison with devastating consequences to man. Scientist have also now documented that sharks carry the same compounds that have been blamed for causing brain degenerative diseases, like Lou Gehrig's and alzheimer's disease! Which of your friends, family, or US citizen's would NOAA like us to feed this poison to? Why would we have a fishery for an animal that is quite simply, poison? All the world's health organizations are pretty much in agreement, "Whenever possible avoid eating shark for health reasons!"

Why would we kill an integral part of the ecosystem for a one time economic gain of a few hundred dollars for each animal! Our neighboring country, the Bahamas has a thriving shark ecosystem that results in an 80 million dollar per year economic gain, just from looking at sharks in their environment everyday! It is well documented that each shark is worth roughly $250,000 alive over the course of it's life! Bahamas also has a thriving marine ecosystem because of their foresight to protect their offshore marine resources. Can't we learn anything on an economic value alone?

I am declaring WAR on NOAA, and asking all of you to join me, until they act responsibly for the best interests of our people and not the commercial shark fishery. If this mismanagement is allowed, it will jeopardize the future existence of our planet, including our own human existence! Please share this with everyone as we don't have time thanks to NOAA to respond to their announcement (Nov 30, 2015) by January 1, when the last of the 10% of our sharks will most certainly be wiped out, Thanks to NOAA and Guy Dubeck

Please click here to sign these important petitions ASAP at:…/stop-commercial-shark-fis…/

At the moment the 3 petitions have roughly 19,000 signature in roughly 1 week

AND please email Guy DuBeck at NOAA with your thoughts on this decision: You can call Guy Dubeck at 301-427-8503. On twitter at NOAAFisheries @NOAAFisheries

Share this plea with everyone to help us put a stop to this further mismanagement from NOAA, before we wind up with...


To join us in this fight to save our friends in the sea, go to and like us

If you have not already, please watch Racing Extinction on Discovery Channel to see what we must do in order to alter the current direction of our planet into a sustainable direction! Let's use this Christmas time to make peace with earth, while we still can.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Fear of Sharks? A Comment on Aggression and Compassion in Humans and Animals

When I give talks about my study of shark behaviour, the most common question I am asked is : “But weren't you afraid of the sharks?”

Well of course, but to me, those sharks were simply wild animals. I had often been fearful, during my long history of observing wild animals, but never had an animal threatened me.

On the contrary, I learned at an early age that it was the men in the forest, not bears, not mountain lions, not snakes, who were really dangerous. When I was growing up in North America, there was one serial killer after another in the local news. Every couple of months, another girl or young woman would be found, naked, bruised, and bloody after a nightmare death, in some dark corner of the forest, to the shock of her weeping family.

Those were the monsters who lay in wait along my pathways, as a young wildlife artist and ethologist. The first time I had to run for my life, I was only four years old. At twelve, I was grabbed by a strange man while walking home through a local wood, and only escaped after a desperate struggle. Every few years, there was a terrifying, life-threatening incident, always with a man, never with an animal.

Except for one time, and that animal spared me, though it had just been mortally wounded by a man.

It happened at the end of September five years ago. I had been travelling by bicycle across France, and stopped for the night in La Forêt d'Ancenis. But I noticed that in that forest only, no birds sang.

As it grew dark, volleys of gunfire began to shatter the stillness, and with the fall of night, came an alarming crescendo—many big guns were being fired repeatedly nearby. The deafening sound went on and on, as if I was in a war.

Then suddenly an animal came crashing through the trees, and in the charcoal shadows I could scarcely make out something the size of a large dog. It veered around me. The sound of its feet striking the ground sounded like a horse running very unevenly. Perhaps one limb was useless, so it came down hard on the other. Its voice was a series of high barks, but it was not a dog. It settled on the ground nearby, where it lay yipping and crying, as more animals could be heard, crashing through the woods from the direction of the gunfire.

The night had enveloped us when a much larger creature—a different species—came crashing, groaning loudly with each step. It came right up to me and began snorting and pawing the ground in front of my face, as I gazed up into blackness from my sleeping bag, every nerve alight with terror. For long minutes it went on striking the ground, sniffing and exhaling in sharp bursts between its agonized groans—my impression was of an animal the size of a bull. Fully expecting to be mauled at any moment, I was awed when, very gradually, its intensity began to ebb. There was more time between each snort, and finally it took a step back. Then it retreated a few metres away, and lay down, where it went on moaning and crying to itself.

The two wounded and terrified creatures had settled down near me, as if they thought that they had found safety! They knew people. No such wild animals lived in that forest—no wild animal would behave like that. Wild animals would have known where to go to hide. These had no idea what to do. It was clear that they had been brought there, and likely released just before the gunfire had begun. A large gathering of men had fired at them repeatedly with big guns at close range, apparently just to terrify and hurt them as they fled into the forest.

One of them passed me at a canter from time to time, crashing through the darkness and yelling in an unearthly voice. It was not as badly injured as the others—all four legs still worked, and its lungs and internal organs were also functioning.

I called the police, but they were unconcerned. They refused to notify the hunters that I was there. It was the killers, who were in the right, according to French society. I had seen the graceful lawns of the Château d'Ancenis les Bois, which lay beyond the gunfire, swans and ducks floating on the pond in front of the castle. 

They were the nobles of society. Noble? The wounded buck, bear, or bull, whatever it was, had offered me more mercy than it had been shown, and in the morning, these cruel men would be coming with their dogs to satiate their sadism on their victims, with the blessing of the local police. I lay awake all night, listening to the groans and cries of the animals, and thinking.

You can do a lot of thinking during the black hours of a night. For a student of wild animal behaviour, the conclusion was hard to avoid. My own species was the most violent, cruel and dangerous one of all. And it was not just the activities of serial killers and recreational hunters in the balance. I had regularly witnessed irrational, violent, and cruel behaviour among individuals I knew. In families it was common, and often accepted by other family members, so from there it was a short step to acceptance in school, where bullies dominated the scene. But though they caused a great deal of suffering in their victims, the situation was accepted by other students and the teachers, so the scene was set for also accepting injustice in society, where we are expected to turn a blind eye to countless injustices and cruelties, from agribusiness to war.

Scientists have found through animal experimentation, that their lab animals are more compassionate than they are, for example, and any examination of history shows centuries of bloody conflict with no counterpart in nature.

Psychologist Bob Altemeyer, specialist in human aggression, wrote in his book, The Authoritarians, “...someone who wished you dead would have to try three or four complete strangers ... before he found someone who would hold you down and kill you with electric shocks.”

In recent decades, the study of ethology, or natural wild animal behaviour, has revealed universal tendencies that are common across the various families of complex animals. These show that our violence and aggression evolved with us from the animal state. While humanity has over-estimated the force of instinct in animals, it seems that it has under-estimated the same power in humans. Anyone can enter murder-mode given the right circumstances. 

And now, with the science fiction weapons available to us to use on those we don't like, our future safety as a species is called into question. What might have once helped us to succeed—the instantaneous and excessive violent response—now threatens us with extinction. But, this angle on humanity is only rarely mentioned.

Biologist David Carrier, of the University of Utah, was quoted recently in LiveScience as saying, "My personal opinion is that Western society, as a whole, is in mass denial about the magnitude of the problem that violence represents for the future. We are peace-loving and want to believe that the violence and transgressions of the past will not return, but recent history and current events illustrate how easy it is for humans to respond with interpersonal and intergroup violence."

Some writers speak of an "awakening" before it is too late, as human destruction threatens the very health of the planet. Such a phenomenon would necessarily involve the conscious choice of humanity to over-ride their instincts and use their intellect to make decisions. Can a species change? Perhaps that is the final test of the human spirit.  

So, to answer those who wonder about my fear of sharks, after some of the homosaps I have known, sharks were easy, I mean really simple, to deal with.

(c) Ila France Porcher 2015

Friday, 18 September 2015

New Shark Book Coming Soon!

One of the illustrations : the eating shark "inhales" as it takes the food--note jets from gills

My new book, SHARKS | Their Natural Behaviour sets forth fifteen years of underwater observations of the sharks I studied in Tahiti. I wrote it for anyone interested in shark behaviour, or sentience in animals in general. My study followed the precepts of cognitive ethology, and during hundreds of hours of underwater observation, over a period of fifteen years, I tried to understand what sharks are really like. 

As marine animals, separated from us by half a billion years of evolution, their reality comes to them through very different senses, of which no human mind can conceive. Yet, they showed clear signs of intelligent awareness, and a range of feelings, including excitement, fear, happiness, and rage. In spite of the vast gulf of time between us, their sentience was clear to see. 

Indeed, people in the future may see humans as just one of countless intelligently aware, and specialized life forms on this planet, none superior to another, and all interdependent in the beautiful, transcendent web of life.

I found it very hard to write, since the ordering of a vast amount of material on many species was necessary. In contrast, The Shark Sessions was written chronologically, which gave it a natural order.

But I discovered Hack 16, a trick from a book called Mind Performance Hacks--Tips and Tools for Overclocking your Brain, by Ron Hale-Evans. If you have ever felt attracted to Sudoku or word puzzles, this all-encompassing book of Hacks will be your final satisfaction--every sort of mental hack ever discovered is in it, including some very unusual ones.

Anyway, for organizing masses of information, Hack 16 worked like a miracle. Twenty-four hours after I discovered it, I had this inter-tangled myriad of shark actions ordered into little groupings from which the chapters soon emerged, creating an easy flow from one subject to another.

Having spent the summer doing the illustrations, its ready for the final polish. If you would like to read and review it for me, I will be delighted to hear from you! 

After taking the food, the shark shakes it and rises...

Ila France Porcher