Edge —August 1, 2007
(2,700 words)


LIONS: AFRICA'S MAGNIFICENT PREDATORS
Photo Essay By Nathan Myhrvold

lion cubs bloody


THE THIRD CULTURE

LIONS: AFRICA'S MAGNIFICENT PREDATORS
Photo Essay By Nathan Myhrvold

DAWKINS ANNOUNCES "THE OUT CAMPAIGN"

EDGE IN THE NEWS

SIGNANDSIGHT.COM
Magazine Roundup
Edge.org 18.07.2007

PERLENTAUCHER.DE
Die Magazinrundschau

THE GUARDIAN WEEKLY
The new age of ignorance
By Tim Adams

ARTS & LETTERS DAILY
Dangerous Ideas

BOING BOING
Kevin Kelly: The Technium and the 7th kingdom of life
Posted by Xeni Jardin

THIRD CULTURE NEWS

THE NEW YORK TIMES
In Games, an Insight Into the Rules of Evolution
By Carl Zimmer

THE NEW YORK TIMES
The Whys of Mating: 237 Reasons and Counting

NEW SCIENTIST
Am I my android?
Alun Anderson

SALON
Should national security depend on Michael Chertoff's gut?
By Farhad Manjoo

THE NEW YORK TIMES
Tierney Lab: The 238th Reason for Having Sex
By John Tierney

THE NEW YORK TIMES
The Real Transformers
By Robin Marantz Henig

THE NEW YORK TIMES
Eternity for Atheists
By Jim Holt

NEW SCIENTIST
Comment: Don't vote for scientific ignorance
Lawrence Krauss

VOGUE
A Beatuful Mind: Lisa Randall
Photographed by Raymond Meier

DISCOVER
The Discover Interview: Steven Pinker
By Marion Long

DISCOVER
Jaron's World: The tangled dance of science, violence, hope, and strange belief
By Jaron Lanier

SCIENCE
The Nature of Belief
Scott Atran

ALL IN THE MIND
When Good People Turn Bad
Philip Zimbardo in conversation

MSNBC
Physicists probe the fifth dimension
By Alan Boyle,

CHICAGO READER
Our Town
By Harold Henderson

NEWSWEEK
Putting Time in a (Leaky) Bottle
By Sharon Begley

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Full Disclosure
By Esther Dyson

THE GUARDIAN
Science Weekly for July 23
By Ben Green

NATURE
A Constant Problem
By Geoff Brumfiel

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
The Gedanken Experimenter
By JR Minkel

SÜDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG
Über die neue Politik des Wissens
Von Larry Sanger

IN CHARACTER
I Cannot Tell a Lie
By Simon Baron-Cohen

TIME
Saving American Science
By Michael Lemonick



LIONS: AFRICA'S MAGNIFICENT PREDATORS
Photo Essay By Nathan Myhrvold

lion cubs bloody

Once the carcass is opened the lions settle down to eat. This is punctuated by each lion growling, hissing and sometimes snapping at the lions around it. Lions are not polite eaters—they grab as much as they can for themselves in a pretty direct competition with the other lions. Usually one of the pride males shows up and when he does the females give it him a very berth—he can attack or maim them at any moment. If they want to eat close to him they approach carefully and try to mollify him with some social greeting and flirting. Cubs are usually a bit more tolerated by the male, but even they risk pushing too far. Cubs are quite enthusiastic eaters and seem to love a carcrass. Some enterprising cubs actually crawl inside the carcass and eat it from the inside out, leaving them drenched in blood afterward.

[more...]





DAWKINS ANNOUNCES "THE OUT CAMPAIGN"


(RICHARD DAWKINS:) In the dark days of 1940, the pre-Vichy French government was warned by its generals "In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken." After the Battle of Britain, Winston Churchill growled his response: "Some chicken; some neck!" Today, the bestselling books of 'The New Atheism' are disparaged, by those who desperately wish to downplay their impact, as "Only preaching to the choir."

Some choir! Only?!

As far as subjective impressions allow and in the admitted absence of rigorous data, I am persuaded that the religiosity of America is greatly exaggerated. Our choir is a lot larger than many people realise. Religious people still outnumber atheists, but not by the margin they hoped and we feared. I base this not only on conversations during my book tour and the book tours of my colleagues Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, but on widespread informal surveys of the World Wide Web. Not our own site, whose contributors are obviously biased, but, for example, Amazon, and YouTube whose denizens are reassuringly young. Moreover, even if the religious have the numbers, we have the arguments, we have history on our side, and we are walking with a new spring in our step – you can hear the gentle patter of our feet on every side. Our choir is large, but much of it remains in the closet. Our repertoire may include the best tunes, but too many of us are mouthing the words sotto voce with head bowed and eyes lowered. It follows that a major part of our consciousness-raising effort should be aimed, not at converting the religious but at encouraging the non-religious to admit it – to themselves, to their families, and to the world. This is the purpose of the OUT campaign. [...more]

LINK: The Out Campaign




signandsight.com
July 24, 2007

Magazine Roundup

Die Weltwoche | The New York Review of Books | The New Yorker | Der Spiegel | The New York Times | The Economist | Nepszabadsag | Edge.org | Asharq al-Awsat | Magyar Hirlap | Figyelö | Gazeta Wyborcza

Edge.org 18.07.2007 (USA)

Kevin Kelly, one of the heralds of the "third culture" explains the term that he coined: "technium" (more on Kelly's homepage). He understands it as all the converging and networked technological and scientific revolutions, particularly in genetics and the natural sciences, which could have frightening consequences and must be controlled. ...



perlentaucher.de
Vom 24. Juli 2007

Die Magazinrundschau

Im Spiegel verteidigt Alexander Solschenizyn den KGB-Mann Wladimir Putin. In der New York Times porträtiert Bernhard-Henri Levy Nicolas Sarkozy als Freibeuter nationaler Identitäten. Magyar Hirlap versteht die Wut der Kaczynskis auf Europa. Nepszabadsag spürt es in Ungarns Tiefe gären. In Edge bereitet uns Kevin Kelly darauf vor, ein halberwachsenes Technium gehen zu lassen. Der New Yorker porträtiert Abraham Burg, den Herold des Zionismus und seines Endes. Der Spectator feuert Boris Johnson an, der jetzt Bürgermeister von London werden will. Für die New York Review of Books gibt Timothy Garton Ash Günter Grass einen halben Punkt. Und der Economist vermisst Reiche in Berlin. ...




THE GUARDIAN WEEKLY
July 20, 2007

The new age of ignorance: How much do we really know about the basic questions of science that control our lives?
By Tim Adams (Observer)

"...He [Brockman] also runs a kind of global online Royal Society called Edge. Edge promotes what he calls the Third Culture, a marriage of physics and philosophy, astronomy and art."



July 23, 2007

Essays and Opinion
Dangerous ideas: science has a habit of turning them up, and the internet has a habit of blowing their cover. Let's face them squarely in open debate, says Steven Pinker... more...




BOING BOING
July 20, 2007


Kevin Kelly: The Technium and the 7th kingdom of life

...Snip from a essay at Edge.org by Kevin Kelly

posted by Xeni Jardin on July 20, 2007, 09:05 AM





THE NEW YORK TIMES
July 31, 2007

SCIENCE TIMES

SCIENTIST AT WORK | MARTIN NOWAK
In Games, an Insight Into the Rules of Evolution
By Carl Zimmer
.

"Martin has a passion for taking informal ideas that people like me find theoretically important and framing them as mathematical models," said Steven Pinker, a Harvard linguist who is collaborating with Dr. Nowak to study the evolution of language. "He allows our intuitions about what leads to what to be put to a test."

On the surface, Dr. Nowak’s many projects may seem randomly scattered across the sciences. But there is an underlying theme to his work. He wants to understand one of the most puzzling yet fundamental features of life: cooperation.



THE NEW YORK TIMES
July 31, 2007

FINDINGS

The Whys of Mating: 237 Reasons and Counting
By John Tierney

...The researchers, Cindy M. Meston and David M. Buss, believe their list, published in the August issue of Archives of Sexual Behavior, is the most thorough taxonomy of sexual motivation ever compiled. This seems entirely plausible. ... Who knew, for instance, that a headache had any erotic significance except as an excuse for saying no? But some respondents of both sexes explained that they’d had sex "to get rid of a headache." It’s No. 173 on the list. ... Others said they did it to "help me fall asleep," "make my partner feel powerful," "burn calories," "return a favor," "keep warm," "hurt an enemy" or "change the topic of conversation." The lamest may have been, "It seemed like good exercise," although there is also this: "Someone dared me."...



NEW SCIENTIST
July 28,
2007

Am I my android?

Hiroshi Ishiguro made waves last year when he built a robot twin of himself. He had previously built equally realistic android copies of his daughter and of a TV announcer. Less publicly, he is working on a raft of other ideas, including sensor networks to give robots better data about the world. So where is robotics headed? Even Ishiguro doesn't know yet, but he loves exploring as many ideas as Japan will fund - and being surprised as often as possible. Alun Anderson talked to him.

...



SALON
July 31, 2007

Should national security depend on Michael Chertoff's gut?
"Gut Feelings" author Gerd Gigerenzer talks about the Bush administration's hunches, how to make good decisions and why you should listen to your doctor.

By Farhad Manjoo

...The controversy hit at a propitious moment for Gerd Gigerenzer, a German behavioral scientist who has made human intuition his life's work. Gigerenzer's new book, "Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious" -- a more deeply scientific (if less tickling) look at a subject first popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in "Blink" -- seeks to undo the cultural dismissal of the gut.

Not just Chertoff's but everyone's: Intuition, Gigerenzer writes, "is more than impulse and caprice; it has its own rationale." A "gut feeling" is not a supernatural force -- it's not ESP. Rather it is the product of your brain quickly, often unconsciously, using a rule of thumb (what academics call a "heuristic") to arrive at a decision using little evidence. ...



THE NEW YORK TIMES
July 3O, 2007

TIERNEY LAB

The 238th Reason for Having Sex — or Any Reason for Saying No
By John Tierney

...Let the search begin for Reason 238. Here’s your chance to add to the 237 reasons to have sex, the list that I write about in my Findings column. Before nominating a motive that caused you to have sex in the past, you might check out the list of reasons that have already been catalogued in the new paper by Cindy Meston and David Buss of the University of Texas at Austin. ...



THE NEW YORK TIMES
July 29, 2007

The Real Transformers
By Robin Marantz Henig

...Both pragmatism and theory drive Rodney Brooks, author of "Flesh and Machines," who until the end of last month was director of M.I.T.’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, home to the Humanoid Robotics lab that houses Mertz. Brooks is an electric, exaggerated personality, an Australian native with rubbery features and bulgy blue eyes. That mobile face and Aussie accent helped turn him into a cult figure after the 1997 theatrical release of "Fast, Cheap & Out of Control," a documentary by Errol Morris that featured Brooks — along with a wild animal trainer, a topiary gardener and an expert in naked mole rats — as a man whose obsessions made him something of a misfit, a visionary with a restless, uncategorizable genius.

...



THE NEW YORK TIMES
July 29, 2007

Eternity for Atheists
By Jim Holt

...The most interesting possibilities for an afterlife proposed in recent years are based on hard science with a dash of speculation. In his 1994 book, "The Physics of Immortality," Frank J. Tipler, a specialist in relativity theory at Tulane University, showed how future beings might, in their drive for total knowledge, "resurrect" us in the form of computer simulations. (If this seems implausible to you, think how close we are right now to "resurrecting" extinct species through knowledge of their genomes.)

...



NEW SCIENTIST
July 25, 2007

Comment: Don't vote for scientific ignorance
Lawrence Krauss

...Whether or not a person believes in God is a personal matter. In contrast, the biological relationships between modern humans and earlier hominid species are what they are, independent of those beliefs, and the way to discover them is through the scientific method - by observations and experiments. Similarly, to understand any aspect of how the world works, we must rely on what the evidence tells us, regardless of whether or not we believe that God started the whole thing.

The candidates' confusion on this matter is serious, and we should worry about it a great deal in a would-be commander-in-chief. Whether the issue is descent of species, weapons of mass destruction or human-induced global warming, we may believe what we want, but if we ignore the evidence we can be wrong in ways that can have manifest and serious consequences.

Science is not mere storytelling. It makes predictions that help us to control our destiny. The actions of the president and indeed any politician should be based on the best possible evidence, not a priori beliefs, whether they are ideological or religious. Our future depends on it. ...



VOGUE MAGAZINE
AUGUST 2007

A Beautiful Mind
Harvard physicist Lisa Randall has unlocked secrets of a hidden universe. Robert Sullivan taps into an extraordinary intellect. Photographed by Raymond Meier.

On a glorious spring morning in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randall is walking fast, like an energized particle. "It's just that I have a meeting and I want to prepare," she apologizes as she leaves her Cambridge town house. "And I want to get a latte." It took a lot of lattes over the course of three years for Randall to write Warped Passages: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions, but the book, which The New York Times has called "mind-bending reading," has made her the theoretical physicist most likely to appear on Charlie Rose, as well as one of the most-cited scientists in her field.

...



DISCOVER
September 2
007

The Discover Interview: Steven Pinker
By Marion Long

Like Alice in a verbal wonderland, the renowned cognitive scientist has spent his career poppoing in and out of rabbit holes trying to understand why we say the things we do the way we do.

Fifty-three-year-old Steven Pinker may look like a rock star, but he is actually a linguistics explorer, hunting around the sentences and syntax of human language for clues (he calls them "rabbit holes") to the inner world of the human brain. His favorite rabbit hole is verbs-what they mean, how they are used in sentecnces, and how, according to his latest book, The Stuff of Thought, kids "figure it all out."

...



DISCOVER
September 2
007

Jaron's World: The tangled dance of science, violence, hope, and strange belief
By Jaron Lanier


Nine years ago, a Brazilian student in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, where I used to lecture, came to me with what I initially took to be a tall tale. She described an obsucre new cult that prayed in binary numbers (strings of ones and zeros), the fundamental elements of computer programs. The cult's founder apparently believed that the universe was a giant computer.

...



SCIENCE
July 27, 2007

The Nature of Belief
Scott Atran

Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief
by Lewis Wolpert

...If religion is, as Wolpert suggests, a special form of causal belief--immune to logic and evidence--about how things are in the world, then it is true that "science is basically in conflict with religion." But if religion is primarily about what ought to be, including moral framing that convinces people to commit to others beyond the logic and evidence for advancing self-interest, then conflict is not inevitable. Understanding and manipulating causality, though key to science, is only one integral component of religion and other aspects of human brain development, knowledge, and belief that bind us to one another and the world.




ALL IN THE MIND
July 28, 2007

When Good People Turn Bad - Philip Zimbardo in conversation
In 1971, 23 American college students' lives were changed by the now notorious Stanford Prison Experiment. For the eminent psychologist responsible, Philip Zimbardo, the parallels to the atrocities at Abu Ghraib are palpable. In an exclusive Australian interview, he joins Natasha Mitchell, to reflect on the capacity in all of us to commit evil. It's a case of good apples put in bad barrels. ...



MSNBC
June 6, 2007

Physicists probe the fifth dimension
Can we prove realms exist beyond our plane...or 'brane'?
By Alan Boyle, Science editor

... Even the physicists behind today's most-talked-about extradimensional theory, Harvard University's Lisa Randall and Johns Hopkins University's Raman Sundrum, aren't yet exactly sure whether the approaches will pay off.

...



CHICAGO READER
July 27, 2007

Our Town
Jerry Coyne spreads the gospel of evoution.
By Harold Henderson

EVOLUTION VIA NATURAL selection is the great unifying idea of biology, so explaining it to students is part of a day’s work for Jerry Coyne, who teaches in the University of Chicago’s department of ecology and evolution. Coyne also spends a good amount of time speaking to nonstudents—the Alaska Bar Association, North Shore businesspeople, and the Graham School of General Studies, to name a few—on the overwhelming evidence that life developed pretty much as Darwin says, not as the Bible says. Coyne’s colleagues in other disciplines don’t have to go around explaining that matter really is made up of atoms, or that the earth really is round and travels around the sun. But many Americans haven’t even heard the evidence for evolution. Coyne reports that his students at the U. of C. "have barely been exposed to Darwin."

...



NEWSWEEK
July 30, 2007
COLUMN

Putting Time in a (Leaky) Bottle
By Sharon Begley

...In the meantime, experiments have put detectors on the far side of the blinds. If the blinds are open and the detectors peek at the slits, photons fly through only one slit and no zebra stripes form. If the blinds are closed so the detectors cannot see the slits, photons fly through both and form the stripes. Here's the twist: if the blinds open only after photons have passed the slits but before they reach the blinds, the stripes fail to form even though the photons have seemingly done what they must to form stripes—namely, fly through two slits, as they always do when unobserved. The act of observing alters what the photons did earlier, somehow changing things so they passed through one slit and not two. There are "many histories" a photon could have, such as passing through one slit or two,[Paul] Davies writes in his new book, "Cosmic Jackpot." Making a measurement "chooses which [history] existed." ...



WALL STREET JOURNAL
July 25, 2007

COMMENTARY

Full Disclosure

By Esther Dyson

In a couple of months, my genome, my answers to a substantial health questionnaire and my medical records (as many of them as I can collect, anyway) will be posted on the Internet for all to see.

I'm one of 10 members of Harvard geneticist George Church's Personal Genome project. We all come to this with slightly different motivations, histories and medical records. But we share, in theory, the equivalent of a master's degree in genetics, an age between 30 and 100, and a willingness to come to Boston to give blood, get our faces professionally photographed and sit down with one another to discuss strategy. ...



THE GUARDIAN
July 23, 2007

Science Weekly for July 23
By Ben Green / Science

Also in the show, we hear from one of the world's leading philosophers, Daniel Dennett, on the fundamental principles of consciousness. The interview is conducted by Dr. Susan Blackmore for her book, 'Conversations on Consciousness'. Susan has allowed us to host the audio recordings of these interviews, and you can hear the extended version of the discussion with Prof Dennett as this week's Science Extra - as well as Susan's conversation with V.S. 'Rama' Ramachandran and an extract from the last ever interview given by DNA legend, Francis Crick before his death.



NATURE
July 19, 2007

A constant problem

Why is dark energy, hailed as a breakthrough when discovered a decade ago, proving so frustrating to the scientists who study it?

Geoff Brumfiel

...Such a hope-it-goes-away approach is used by physicists quite a lot, and can be the only way to make progress in some circumstances. At the same time, applying it to the vacuum energy was, admits Susskind, "completely illogical".

"And I must say I shared that illogical attitude myself," he continues almost apologetically. Now, he thinks differently, and is one of those who has proposed a solution of sorts to the conundrum. ‘String theories’, popular with many particle physicists, make it possible, even desirable, to think that the observable Universe is just one of 10500 universes in a grander ‘multiverse’, says Susskind. The vacuum energy will have different values in different universes, and in many or most it might indeed be vast. But it must be small in ours because it is only in such a universe that observers such as ourselves can evolve.

This sort of anthropic argument irks many scientists. Critics say such reasoning is almost impossible to verify and doesn’t provide any deeper insight into the cosmos. "Anthropics and randomness don’t explain anything," says Paul Steinhardt, a theorist at Princeton University in New Jersey. "I’m disappointed with what most theorists are willing to accept." ....

...In general, the theoretical side of the debate is not a pretty thing. "We’ve tried a whole bunch of things and nothing has sprung forward," says Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. What’s needed, Carroll says, are a few more good clues. ....




SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
July 2007


QUANTUM WEIRDNESS

The Gedanken Experimenter

In putting teleportation, entanglement and other quantum oddities to the test, physicist Anton Zeilinger hopes to find out just how unreal quantum reality can get

By JR Minkel

Physicist Anton Zeilinger may not understand quantum mechanics, but he has not let that stand in his path. Besides paving the way for ultrapowerful computers and unbreakable codes that run on quantum effects, the 62-year-old Austrian has a gift for pushing the limits of quantum strangeness in striking ways. Recently he observed the delicate quantum link of entanglement in light flickered between two of the Canary Islands, 144 kilometers apart. He dreams of bouncing entangled light off of satellites in orbit. ...




SÜDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG
Samstag/Sonntag, 21./22. Juli 2007


FEUILLETON

Über die neue Politik des Wissens
Die Masse macht’s eben nicht: Die Wikipedia-Ideologie von der Schwarmintelligenz gleicht einer Lebenslüge
Von Larry Sanger


[Translated from
WHO SAYS WE KNOW: On the New Politics of Knowledge By Larry Sanger 4.28.07 — An Edge Original Essay]



IN CHARACTER
July 20, 2007

I Cannot Tell a Lie - what people with autism can tell us about honesty
By Simon Baron-Cohen

And then there are people with autism. Their neurological condition leads not only to difficulties socializing and chatting but also to difficulties recognizing when someone might be deceiving them or understanding how to deceive others. Many children with autism are perplexed by why someone would even want to deceive others, or why someone would think about fiction or pretense. They have no difficulty with facts (version 1 of reality) and can tell you easily if something is true or false ("Is the moon made of rocks? Yes! Is the moon made of cheese? No!"). But they may be puzzled by version 2 of reality, that "John believes the moon is made of cheese." Why would a person believe something that is untrue?




TIME
July 11, 2007

EYE ON SCIENCE

Saving American Science
By Michael Lemonick

I may have had a transformative experience last week. In fact, I'm prettu sure I did.

What I'm talking about is the growing drumbeat of amply justified fear that America is fast losing its edge over the rest of the world in science and technologyósomething I wrote about in this TIME cover story.

Figuring out why, and what to do about it, has become a cottage industry. So when I was asked to come to a two-day meeting sponsored by the Aspen Science Center, I was kind of dubious. Even though the organizers had put together a guest list so prestigious that I felt like an important-person impersonator, I was pretty sure the result would be a list of platitudes and noble-sounding but impotent suggestionsósome sort of feel-good document that wouldn't accomplish much.

I think I was wrong. On the second day of the conference, the proceedings were basically hijacked by two participants: Esther Dyson, former journalist and current high-tech venture capitalist, and Adam Bly, founder of Seed Magazine, the associated (and terrific) ScienceBlogs website and plenty of other science-communications ventures you're likely to hear about. ...



LIONS: AFRICA'S MAGNIFICENT PREDATORS
Photo Essay By Nathan Myhrvold

lion cubs bloody

[Click on photos to enlarge]

One of the focal points, if you pardon the pun, of my recent trip to Botswana was lions, Africa's magnificent predators.

WARNING: some of the photos are a bit gory, and one shows explicit lion sex.

Lions are the only truly social cat, living in groups called prides. A pride is a set of females, often but not always sisters, along with their cubs and subadult cubs. There are also one or more males, usually a coalition of two brothers, but sometimes unrelated lions. Lionesses are the backbone of the pride—they stay together for many years. Males tend to come and go—the typical time frame for them dominating a pride is just 3 to 4 years. Upon reaching adulthood female cubs may stay with the pride. Males never do—they disperse and become nomadic, looking for a pride where they can challenge the dominant male and take over.

lion roaring

lion carrying impala

Male lions really look the part of the "king of beasts". Their lives are full of violence, exploitation and sex—in other words just like human royalty through much of history. Male lions sleep an average 20 hours per day. The females on the other hand do all of the really hard work—killing the majority of prey, which the males then appropriate for themselves. The main danger males face is fighting off other males that want to take over their pride and territory. This is serious business; most male lions die in such fights. In between territory fights they are bad tempered and terrorize the females in their pride. In short, they have the lifestyle of pimps.

silver eye

lioness evil eye

lioness with wounded eye

Females, on the other hand are sleek efficient hunters. They must kill most of the prey, which is very dangerous work. I saw three lionesses that had each lost an eye. One, which the guides call Silver Eye is the most aggressive hunter in her pride. In another area we saw a lioness dubbed "Evil Eye" who had a similar but much more recent eye problem. The eye was still swollen, giving her a demonic look, a bit like villains in Japanese Anime. I also saw a lioness which had lost her eye in the last couple days—the socket was still oozing blood. Each of the lionesses had lost their right eye, which suggests to me that lions might be right handed—technically this is called laterality. Presumably right favoring lions would approach prey preferentially from the right, leading to more right side injuries. Of course, a sample size of three is too small to make a firm conclusion.


lion stalking

One of the places I visited is Duba Plains, an island in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. The island has a herd of about 600 Cape buffalo, and a pride of ten lions. Both the buffalo and the lion got there about a decade ago in a year when crossing channels was possible—since then both have pretty much been trapped on the island. For reasons nobody fully understands, the Duba lions only hunt during daylight—the reverse of the situation in most parts of Africa. So you go to Duba to see one thing—lions hunting killing buffalo. I spent five days doing this, and it was quite an experience.

ioness watching herd

Anybody who has seen a documentary "knows" that lions hunt cooperatively to bring down prey. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have told the lions this. Indeed, for many years field biologists who study lions have realized that cooperative hunting is an illusion. The naturalist George Shaller figured this out in the late 1960s with the first quantitative field study. He found that a single lion has a success rate of 15% on a given hunt—or about one successful hunt for every seven. Two lions have a success of 29%, which is 3% LESS successful than if the two lions with 15% individual success hunted by themselves (32.2%). Three lions get 27%, or 2% less than two lions. Four, five and six lions get 32% - meaning that they are (finally) as successful as sending two lions out by themselves. There is clearly no statistical value to hunting in groups.

More recent studies by Craig Packer and others have looked at higher order statistics—the variance, or the size of the animal. It all comes out the same way. If indeed lions hunt in some cooperative and strategic way, then they get no benefit from it statistically. So, how come the Discovery Channel says they are cooperative? Partly it is because these figures are buried in Appendix B of Shaller's book, or in dense academic papers. Mostly it is because the story of cooperative strategy in hunting is so endearing to people. Especially to film editors, which means we are destined to seeing cooperation in every nature documentary. The cases where the hunting fails due to lack of cooperation end up on the cutting room floor.

Watching lions hunt, the trends are quite obvious. The primary reason that groups of lions are no more effective than two by themselves is that typically only two lions do the actual hunting. They all make a show of hunting, but in the cases I watched, in several different prides, there were always a couple females that were the most aggressive and took the lead. The others hang back for the hard part then rush up at the end after the worst danger is over. Their primary goal is to be at the kill early so they can eat, not to actually help. Field studies have confirmed that lions do not seem to keep track of this and punish slackers.

Lions can seem quite inept at hunting, because they have no way to communicate complicated information. The Discovery Channel case happens when one lion flushes prey in past another for a perfect catch. More often, what happens is than one lion blows it and scares the game too early, or flushes it in the opposite direction. After watching hunt after hunt fail, you soon decide that Iions are not very coordinated. Indeed their only saving grace is that the buffalo can't communicate very well either.


buffalo charging lions

Buffalo are quite impressive animals. They are very brave and will not hesitate to attack lions when they can. When one buffalo has been knocked down by lions, the buffalo herd will almost always attempt a rescue—charging in to drive the lions away. This succeeds a large fraction of the time—even if the buffalo has been down for 30 minutes. Of course if the buffalo herd surrounded the lions when they were sleeping and just methodically trampled them to death, their whole problem would be over, but there is no buffalo general to lead them in such an endeavor. Alternatively, if the buffalo had a bit more skill at rounding up the herd, they'd never leave some separated which is what the lions look for.

lioness in shadow

Even a buffalo separated from the herd has reasonable chances. At one point we saw a lone bull that was trying to get back to the herd, which was about a half mile away. In between him and the herd were four lionesses, sacked out asleep. This looked like the perfect opportunity for a kill, but the buffalo surprised both us and the lions. He crept up on the sleeping lions, then when he got close he lowered his horns and charged. The lions awoke, panicked and scattered into the bushes. The buffalo then trotted victorious back to the pride. It was a perfect illustration of the adage that the best defense is a good offense.

lioness running

lions bringing down buffalo

In order to catch a buffalo a lion must jump on the buffalo's back, and do to that they need to get past the horns. It's the same problem that a Spanish matador faces in bullfighting. The matador has a huge advantage however—his cape distracts the bull who tries to gore the center of the cape, allowing the matador to slip by. Lions don't have capes, and as a result they cannot approach a buffalo from the front—they must jump on the back from the side or behind. Once on the back, the lion hangs on for dear life, a bit like a cowboy riding a bull. The goal is to get the buffalo to stumble. If there is more than one lion hunting this is the point when they will start to pile on.

lion nose biting buffalo

lion bringing down buffalo

Often the buffalo just shrugs the lions off, and that is that. However if the buffalo falls down, things get much more serious. Some cats kill instantly with a bite that dislocates cervical vertebrae, severing the spinal cord—for example, cougars in the US. This is not the case for lions, they are stranglers or suffocators. They either bite the underside of the neck to collapse the trachea. Or they put their entire mouth over the prey animal's nose. Either way it is a relatively slow suffocation that kills the animal. This can take 30 minutes, or even an hour for a buffalo because they can't get enough pressure on the huge buffalo neck to close it all the way, or can't get a good seal on the nose. This is not the quick merciful picture that one sees in nature documentaries. If the buffalo gets up during that period he or she may get away with only some minor mauling.


lion kill with elephants

At one of the kills a small herd of elephant came in to investigate. They clearly were thinking about rescuing the buffalo—they trumpeted and the herd matriarch ripped a tree of out the ground to impress the lions. It certainly impressed me! The lions were clearly concerned, and if they had been attacking an elephant calf they would have been in trouble. After a tense showdown the elephants decided it wasn't their fight and walked away.

lion male on buffalo

Lions don't wait to kill the animal before starting the process of eating it—as soon as the buffalo stops thrashing, lions start to eat. This is much harder than it sounds however, because the hide is very thick. The prime spot to start is always claimed by the dominant female, or if the male is there, he takes the prime spot. The prime spot is not what you might thing—it is the rectum. Believe it or not, the king of beasts starts his dinner by carefully licking the rectum clean. Since the buffalo defecates while dying this is a bit messy. The lion then works very hard to gnaw through the skin and get an incision open.

lion male stalking

I was describing this to a friend over lunch in Palo Alto. As I was describing this the waiter came up behind me to take our order. I was in the middle of saying "it's very hard to enter the rectum, but once you do things move much faster", only to hear the waiter gasp. Whoops. I tried to explain saying "well, this is about" but with a horrified look he said "I do NOT want to know what this is about! Some people are just not interested in natural history, I guess.

lions eating buffalo 1 hour after kill

Once the carcass is opened the lions settle down to eat. This is punctuated by each lion growling, hissing and sometimes snapping at the lions around it. Lions are not polite eaters—they grab as much as they can for themselves in a pretty direct competition with the other lions. Usually one of the pride males shows up and when he does the females give it him a very berth—he can attack or maim them at any moment. If they want to eat close to him they approach carefully and try to mollify him with some social greeting and flirting. Cubs are usually a bit more tolerated by the male, but even they risk pushing too far. Cubs are quite enthusiastic eaters and seem to love a carcrass. Some enterprising cubs actually crawl inside the carcass and eat it from the inside out, leaving them drenched in blood afterward.

buffalo after 24 hours

Within a few hours the carcass has most of the meat gone, and within a day there is almost nothing left of even a large bull buffalo. Jackals, vultures and other scavengers move in for the scraps, but if there is a good sized pride of lions there isn't that much for them. If hyena are in the area then they will come and eat the bones, cracking them with specially adapted teeth to get the marrow and collagen from the bone.


Lion social life is very rich and complicated. In human terms it is very easy to see them as affectionate, because as social animals we share the practice of greetings with physical contact. We hug. They rub noses. These similarities make it easy to understand what is going on—or perhaps misunderstand because the translation from lion to human is not 100%.

lion sex

Lion sex is interesting to watch, but I fear that admission may tell you more about me than about them. So here is why it is interesting. many mammals, including humans, have regular estrus cycles, but lions have a different system. After cubs are weaned the female becomes interested in sex again and flirts outrageously with the male, wrapping her tail around his head and other things that are pretty unmistakable, even to a human observer. The happy couple then starts having sex - over and over and over again. Lions are stimulated ovulators; the female does not ovulate until she is stimulated to do so by lots of sex. As a result lions will mate roughly every 15 to 20 minutes for two or three days—200 to 300 times in succession. During that period they are inseparable and will not hunt or eat. They still need to drink but this is a bit problematic because if the male goes to drink then another male may sneak in. The regularity of the mating process is great for a photographer, because lion sex is over very fast. Although they surely win the prize for the number of repetitions, each time only takes a minute or so. You have to be all ready to get a good picture.

lion male

Lions are very compelling subjects to watch. This is especially true in Botswana where you are in open land rovers, often just a few feet away from them. When a wild lion, its face smeared with blood, is only a few feet away from you it is hard to keep your eyes of it—just like it is hard to avoid watching an open flame dance in a campfire. It's more than just the visual spectacle—there is something very ancient about our relationship to lions, a fascination with the dark side of nature. Or perhaps it is that we are both humans and lions are crown predators. Humans are one of the few creatures that lions fear, and they are of the few things we fear. Lions are magnificent animals —they can be cruel, brutal and gory, but they're also beautiful and fascinating. A bit like people, I suppose.

—Nathan

DR. NATHAN MYHRVOLD is CEO and managing director of Intellectual Ventures, a private entrepreneurial firm. Before Intellectual Ventures, Dr. Myhrvold spent 14 years at Microsoft Corporation. In addition to working directly for Bill Gates, he founded Microsoft Research and served as Chief Technology Officer.


Nathan Myhrvold's Edge Bio Page

Photos copyright © 2007 by Nathan Myhrvold. All rights reserved.



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