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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Reaction to fire by Chimpanzees vs Homo-Nighclubis

Brief comparison: Reaction to Fire by Chimpanzees vs Homo-Nighclubis (modern Homo-Sapiens @ night and under severe alcohol and/or drug intoxication)  by Agustin Majdalani.

The following comparison is based on the following paper:

Reaction to Fire by Savanna Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes verus) at Fongoli, Senegal: Conceptualization of ‘‘Fire Behavior’’ and the Case for a Chimpanzee Model, by Jill D. Pruetz and Thomas C. LaDuke, American Journal of Physical Anthropology 141 (4), pp 646–650, April 2010.

The use and control of fire - unique human trait in the animal kingdom according to Goudsblom, (1986) - are hypothesized to correlate with an increase in intellectual complexity (ref). It is believed that humans may possess evolved psychological mechanisms dedicated to controlling fire and apparently such mastery entails some degree of self-restraint from the urge to flee from a fire. This is in contrary to the general fire avoidance behavior associated with other animals (Goudsblom, 1986).

Nevertheless, given the difficulty in assessing archaeologically the use of fire, estimates of which hominid species exhibited such behavior  first are necessarily conservative. It is currently estimated that the ability of fire control came about fairly late in the evolution of our lineage, i.e. around 2.5 million years ago according to data from Karkanas et al. (2007). By this time, the cranial capacity was already quite large in comparison to earlier homos. Earlier homos had a similar capacity to that of modern wild chimpanzees.

Given the relatively sophisticated cognitive abilities yet small brain size of modern apes compared to humans and even to early hominids (ie Australopithecus), Pruetz et al., the authors of this recent paper in American Journal of Physical Anthropology, consider that careful observations of wild chimpanzees’ reactions to wildfires can help construct hypotheses about the likely responses to fire of early hominids. Their field observations during naturally occurring wildfires lead them to the conclusion that wild chimpanzees may possess some degree of self-restraint from the urge to flee from a fire.

Pruetz et al. suggest that the control of fire by humans is the endpoint of a complex evolutionary process that involves the acquisition of at least three cognitive stages (in evolutionary order):

1)      Conceptualization of fire, i.e. an understanding of fire behaviour under varying conditions that would allow one to predict and anticipate its movement, thus permitting activity in close proximity to the fire.

2)      The ability to control a fire, involving containment, providing or depriving the fire of fuel, and perhaps the ability to put it out.

3)      The ability to start a fire.

Building on this this finding, we propose that understanding how other modern hominids (ie Homo-Nighclubis) react to fire can assist anthropologists in developing hypotheses. In this context, we believe that Pruetz et al.  findings,  together with the evidence collected from the fire at the nightclub Luna in Edinburgh provides clues on whether the control of fire came earlier in our evolution than what’s though today or not.  

A table summarizing the interpretation of the observation of both groups of hominids (also known as great apes including chimpanzees, gorillas, humans, and orangutans), is pasted below. These groups are: chimpanzees and what we called Homo-Nighclubis or “nightclub” humans (i.e., regular or “daylight” humans acting in a non-evolutional emotional way due to the accidental influence of the surroundings together with some strange chemistry going on in their blood pumped into their brains).

Chimpanzees interpretation (by Jill D. Pruetz & Thomas C. LaDuke)
"Nightclub" Humans interpretation (by Fire Safety Engineers)
Chimpanzees at Fongoli calmly monitor bush fires at close range and change their behavior in anticipation of the fire’s movement.
Nightclub humans excitedly monitor the disco fire at extremely close range and change their behavior in anticipation of the DJ and green laser movement.
We interpret the chimpanzees’ behavior as being predictive rather than responsive in that they showed no signals of stress or fear other than avoiding the fire as it approached near them.
Same here, save that instead of avoiding the fire some kind of fun behavior and willingness to touch it is evidenced in the initial stages of the incident.
Therefore, we maintain that they were predicting that the fire would continue its pace of burning and its movement and were unconcerned, for example, that it would suddenly leap forward and burn them.
Exactly, that was what these “nightclub” humans were (wrongly or at least too risky) thinking we guess: “it won’t suddenly spread and burn me. Even the smoke is has a nice and sweet smell”.
The fact that they sat directly in front of the advancing fire at a proximity that made the observer feel uncomfortable for her safety demonstrates that they were comfortable with their understanding of its behavior and their ability to predict its movements and adjust their responses to it.
No, no, no... Here we disagree: the fact that they danced clapping and jumping directly in front of the advancing fire at a proximity that make any observer of this video feel uncomfortable for their safety demonstrates that they were unaware of the danger, misunderstanding the fire behavior, and adjusting their responses just to the sound of fire, music and crowd altogether.
These behaviors demonstrate the cognitive ability to adjust to a potentially harmful agent.
Mmmmmm... No agreement here either regarding our Homo-Nighclubis sampling.
We propose that the first cognitive stage in the control of fire (i.e. Conceptualization of fire: an understanding of the behavior of fire under varying conditions that would allow one to predict its movement, thus permitting activity in close proximity to the fire) characterizes chimpanzees living today.
We propose that “nightclub” humans didn’t develop this cognitive stage, although they allow themselves activity in close proximity to the fire. In risk terms, this would be like piloting a space shuttle without even knowing what a RC model plane looks like.
The previous point suggests that chimps have formed a mental prediction of the fire’s movement. Variables that should be taken into account include flame height and width and fire intensity, as influenced by topographic and climatic factors. Considering such variables and predicting the behavior of fire is a complex task.
No doubt those predictions are an extremely complex task, which we think not even "daylight" humans (i.e. 100% of the human population not subject @ the moment of study to a nightclub atmosphere and its bizarre effects) are able to develop, and certainly we can assure “nightclub humans” DON´T.
Observations at Fongoli suggest that, like humans, chimpanzees are able to control their fear impulse in response to fire.
Same interpretation here again after observing our sampling behavior, but with the topping that they not only control their fear, but also dance altogether singing to the rhythm of "the roof, the roof is on fire!”, roaring with laughter inside a smoke cloud.

The remaining dominant male exhibited a slow and exaggerated display ‘‘toward’’ the fire in a manner analogous to the ‘‘rain dance’’ exhibited here and elsewhere here chimpanzees have been studied. (Goodall,
Well, we’re not certain about the dominance of those males remaining in the dance club completely ignoring the alarm, but as the chimps did, they exhibited the same slow and exaggerated display ‘‘toward’’ the fire in a manner analogous to the ‘‘rain dance’’.

It seems like humans can transform into other species in nightclubs, isn’t it…? No doubt about it, and we’re only analyzing the fire behavior, let’s not even go to the reaction to flirting!

Concluding, if we accept the idea that conceptualization of fire is prerequisite to its control and use, then identifying such conceptualization at a more basal node in the hominid phylogeny than previously hypothesized (i.e. chimps or better because of their lower evolutionary state “nightclub” humans) implies that control and use might have been possible earlier than formerly thought based on the date of first appearance in the fossil record. Thus, if the cognitive underpinnings of fire conceptualization are a primitive hominid trait, hypotheses geared to explaining the control and use of fire in certain taxa may need to be re-examined!

As a final word on the Luna Nightclub fire, we would like to say that, as no one was injured, we looked at this emergency with a little bit of a sense of humour. But nevertheless, this combination of nightclub (usually overcrowded) + fireworks + alcohol have proved to be one of the most lethal combinations leading to high death tolls. Some examples of this are (Source is NFPA files on major fire incidents):

Iroquois Theater, Chicago, IL, 1903. Deaths: 602

Disco/dance hall, Gothenburg, Sweden, 1998. Deaths: 63

Disco/dance hall, Luoyang, China, 2000. Deaths: 309

The Station nightclub, W. Warwick, RI, 2003. Deaths: 100

Republica Cromagnon, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2004, Deaths: 194

So, the message –in this case without sense of humour- goes to society as a whole: we must take care of ourselves, and this situation it means that those “nightclub humans” should be protected by the hole “system” (codes, enforcement, fire safety engineers, owner of nightclubs, etc…) as we cannot expect them to have a nice and organized evacuation in case of emergency. It is the society’s responsibility to protect this people (ourselves!) to be subject to a dangerous similar situation as the one recorded in this movie.

by Agustin Majdalani, BRE Centre for Fire Safety Engineering, University of Edinburgh.

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