STRANGE BUT TRUE- Sharing: Food-flush chimps more generous

Q. Will a wealthy chimp share with a poor chimp? –B. Gates

A. Yes, if wealthy means being given plenty of food compared to a chimp in an adjoining cage who was given none, says psychologist Elliot Aronson in The Social Animal.

Now the foodless chimp begins to beg. Reluctantly, the wealthy chimp hands over some food. In a sense, the very reluctance with which he does so makes the gift all the more significant. "It indicates he likes the food and would dearly enjoy keeping it for himself," says Aronson. "Accordingly, it suggests the urge to share may have deep roots, indeed."

Q. Why do so many of us say, "I never take a good photo"? And a related question: Don't you just love the Eiffel Tower? –J. Fariello

A. When people were shown actual photos of themselves alongside ones that had been reversed left to right in processing, most preferred the mirror image, the way we all see ourselves every day– hair part on the left, etc.– while friends picked the true picture, says psychologist David Myers. "No wonder our photos never look quite right."

Contrary to the old proverb, familiarity breeds not contempt but fondness– true not only with faces, but new brand names, tunes, places, even nonsense words.

To cash in on a South American election campaign, an ad agency used the slogan, "Vote for such-and-such footpowder," and surrounded it with election themes. "The footpowder won the real election as a write-in, in spite of having no face, no platform, nothing to do with politics," reports psychologist Robert Zajonc. Familiarity triumphed.

Then there's the Eiffel Tower, mocked as grotesque upon its completion in 1889, "a blight on the city." But soon, just as Prof. Henry Higgins of My Fair Lady grew accustomed to Eliza Doolittle's face and fell in love, Parisians came to adore their unique architectural creation.

Q. Food for thought: Which eats more, a 5-ton elephant or 50 men weighing 5 tons total? –P.T. Barnum

A. An elephant– like all larger animals– has trouble getting rid of excess body heat, requiring a slower

metabolism and reduced rate of food burnoff, says Chris McGowan in Diatoms to Dinosaurs. So pound for pound, an elephant eats much less than a person. Or put another way, five tons of men will eat many times more than one five-ton elephant (just as five tons of mice, struggling to stay warm, outeat five tons of men). And it's a good thing for the elephant, which, as it is, spends 18 hours a day feeding.

Q. Geologically, how is oil formed, and why is there so precious little of it to be found? –G. Bush

A. Things die, and some sink deep to the bottom of an ocean or swamp– unless they get gobbled on the way by other still living things, says University of Alberta Earth scientist John Waldron. So only a small fraction of these remains find their way to a deep reservoir "source" without oxygen, where decomposition can't occur. Here over millions of years they get compressed by accumulating sediment, heated under pressure and "cooked" to liquid oil. Now, industry must find the stuff and get it to the surface before it is lost (as so much is) to "seeps." 

Regarding oil's scarcity, one recent estimate put world reserves at about 1,300 billion barrels (1,300,000,000,000). Yet nearly 30 billion barrels are pumped each year, says geologist Brian Willis of Texas A&M University, enough to fill over 400 cylindrical tanks, each a football field in diameter and a mile high! "So while there's still plenty of oil for the getting," Willis says, "world demand is so great we may well run short of affordable oil before alternative energy sources are developed."

Q. At what point in history did "foul" language become foul? Why is it offensive? –S. Johnson

A. "Don't say that word!" "Why not?" "Because it's dirty." "Why?" "It just is." That's the essence of

swearing– cultural taboo, tongue turf declared off-limits.

When this all started seems unknowable, antedating written records, says Ohio State linguist Mike Geis. Certainly the "foulness" is not in the words themselves, because the exact same sounds in another language but with a different meaning wouldn't offend. It's not the meaning either, because in any language there are neutral non-taboo equivalents, such as feces or urine in English.

Of course, different cultures stress different taboos, often religious (blasphemy), sexual (obscenity), or bodily (scatology). Speakers of English use all three. Interestingly, people who learn a language as an adult rarely find the taboo words of that language offensive.

 "This suggests that our response is due simply to conditioning, especially conditioning as children," Geis says. "And it seems to show that word magic– the language of spells and incantations– is alive and well in the human race."

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com.

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1 comment

I'd like to see the contest between 5 tons of men and 5 tons of mice.