About Guest Contributor

From distinguished lecturers to scientific scholars to visiting curators to leaders in their respective fields, we often invite guest authors to contribute content to our blog. You'll find a wealth of information written by these fascinating individuals as we seek to expand your knowledge base with every post.

Don’t believe the crocodile tears: Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson & the truth about animal empathy

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to you from Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, bestselling author of nine books on the emotional lives of animals.

It is pretty common to hear the expression “crocodile tears” in reference to somebody who does not feel remorse — rather, using them as a false or insincere display of emotion. They feel, as the phrase suggests, nothing for their victim.

The phrase began in Shakespearean times, with one prominent example given in Act IV of Othello:

“O devil, devil!
If that the Earth could teem with woman’s tears,
Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile.
Out of my sight!”

I bring this up because of an intriguing problem. Suppose you were asked to describe the “nature” of the crocodile. Do they feel empathy? Do they feel emotional stress or pain? How do they relate with others in their species? Most would describe them as solitary predators. But what is this image based upon: documentaries where we only see their vicious feeding frenzies?

Have you ever given thought to what these creatures might be like when they aren’t on the hunt and are among their own kind?

The image of “crocodile tears” comes from the belief that the crocodile is so remorseless an animal that for him to weep over a victim is pure hypocrisy. It is a nice conceit. Of course, while all 23 members of the crocodile family (including alligators, caimans, muggers, and gharials) have tear glands, they are only used for physiological reasons. For example, they’re used to moistening their eyes when they are on dry land — not for emotional reasons.

Crocodiles do not, in fact weep over their victims. They don’t weep at all for emotional reasons. However, as far as we know, no animals aside from Homo sapiens weep from sadness, remorse or grief.

But that’s not to say other animals cannot feel sadness, remorse or grief — only that they don’t express these feelings by weeping tears any more than we express happiness by purring or wagging a tail.

Crocodiles are very vocal animals. Their social lives begins before hatching with communications occurring from egg to egg. Moreover, hatchlings have a distinct distress call, which not only brings the mother to help, but also other crocodiles in the vicinity. The adults, therefore, want to protect the babies — any babies.

Sounds to me like empathy. Empathy in a crocodile? Try saying that to the cast of Swamp People.

What we know, for sure, is that we only know tiny fraction of what there is to know. This is true, of course, of many animals, but takes on particular importance in an animal which looms so large in our imaginations.

If you’d like to hear more about challenging our perceptions on the emotional state of animals be sure to stop by on Sat., Mar. 13 for our distinguished lecture series featuring author Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson!

Beasts - Book CoverHMNS Distinguished Lecture
Beasts: The Origins of Good and Evil
Jeffrey Moussaiff Masson, Ph.D.
Thursday, March 13, 6:30 p.m.
Tickets $18, HMNS Members $12
Houston Museum of Natural Science, Wortham Giant Screen Theatre
Delve deep into the unexplored territory of animal emotions in an illuminating account of the relationship between humans, animals and our perception of violence. Explore human emotions through animal behavior—the way dogs love, cats practice independence, and elephants grieve for their dead—and examine the difference between the unchecked aggression and the predatory behavior that separates humans from animals. Following the lecture Dr. Jeffry Moussaiff Masson will be signing copies of his new book Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil.

Jeffery MasonAbout the Speaker:
Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson is the bestselling author of nine books on the emotional life of animals. His book Dogs Never Lie About Love, has sold over 1 million copies worldwide. Jeff lives with his family in Auckland, New Zealand. His newest book is Beasts: What Animals Can Teach Us About the Origins of Good and Evil, where Masson looks at why humans have killed 200 million of their own kind in the 20th century alone, while orcas have killed not a single orca in the wild! He will be at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on Mar. 13 for a lecture and book signing.

For advance tickets, call 713-639-4629 or click here.

From white dwarves to dark matter: 75 years of discovery at McDonald Observatory

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to you from Rebecca Johnson, Editor of the StarDate Magazine at the McDonald Observatory.

A year-long celebration is underway to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory, with the first event of 2014 being held at HMNS on Tues., Jan. 14 with a public lecture by Dr. Jon Winget.

McDonald Observatory 1

Photo credit: Sandia National Laboratories

Dubbed “impossible stars,” white dwarfs are the simplest stars with the simplest surface chemical compositions known — yet they are very mysterious. The McDonald Observatory leads in investigating white dwarfs along several avenues: telescope observations, theory, and most recently, the making of “star stuff,” using the most powerful X-ray source on Earth at Sandia National Laboratory.

Dr. Don Winget, one of the world’s leading experts on white dwarfs, will give a Distinguished Lecture at HMNS to examine the how studies of these stars can shed light on everything from the age of the universe to the understanding of dark matter and dark energy.

White dwarves are often difficult to locate due to the larger, brighter stars they are paired with

Located near Fort Davis, Texas, under the darkest night skies of any professional observatory in the continental United States, McDonald Observatory  hosts multiple telescopes undertaking a wide range of astronomical research. McDonald is home to the consortium-run Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET), one of the world’s largest, which is being upgraded to begin the HET Dark Energy Experiment. An internationally known leader in astronomy education and outreach, McDonald Observatory is also pioneering the next generation of astronomical research as a founding partner of the Giant Magellan Telescope. The McDonald Observatory was dedicated May 5, 1939, and has supported some of the most important astronomical discoveries of recent decades about everything from extrasolar planets to exotic stars and black holes.

The Observatory plans a full year of activities around the state to celebrate. Events will run through August 2014, including a lecture series featuring McDonald Observatory astronomers in multiple cities and an Open House at the Observatory.

The celebration continues at the observatory’s website. Visitors to the anniversary pages can peruse a timeline of observatory history, watch several historical videos, and share their memories and photos of McDonald on an interactive blog called “Share Your Story.”

McDonald Observatory 2
(And while we’re at it, don’t forget about our own George Observatory‘s anniversary this year as well — 25 years of showcasing the night sky to the Greater Houston area!)

HMNS Distinguished Lecture
Date: Tues., Jan. 14, 6:30 p.m.
Topic: “Small Stars in a Large Context: All Things White Dwarf”
Speaker: Don Winget, Ph.D.
Where: HMNS Wortham Giant Screen Theater
How: Click here for advance tickets

Sponsored by the University of Texas at Austin’s McDonald Observatory in celebration of their 75th anniversary, with a pre-lecture reception at 5 p.m.


Enchantment in the dark: An uncommon occurrence brings a common bond to Lascaux caves lecture

Editor’s note: This week’s guest post was written by Becky Lao of the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) – Houston. On Tuesday, Nov. 12, Dr. Randall White, a prominent expert on paleolithic art, spoke at HMNS as part of the AIA series on the development of art as a great human innovation. The AIA lecture was presented in conjunction with HMNS and The Leakey Foundation.

Imagine this scene: introductions are almost complete. A FULL house is anticipating a talk about the first art made by humans 40,000 years ago in caves. A speaker introduces Dr. White, speaking on caves without light.


Four hundred people gasp — this outage was not a special effect! We rush out to find the surrounding area is completely dark. A major power outage is affecting the entire Museum District and Medical Center. Looking out the window, we see some lights slowly turn on in the Med Center as emergency generators kick in. HMNS staff works valiantly to find a battery-powered microphone as emergency lights switch on, dimly lighting the hall. We allow the audience to leave or stay to hear stories told in the dark — just as might have happened 40,000 years ago!

Half decide to stay.

Cave paintings from Lascaux on display now at HMNS

Our intrepid lecturer begins. He talks of gorgeous art produced in the deepest depths of caves, illuminated only by animal fat lamps or torches; thousands of stunningly tiny beads made from pearlized shell nacre and calcite, each of which took three hours to make (why devote that many hours to adornment production rather than food procurement?); multitudes of prints made from the hands of a wide range of individuals — two-year olds up to those with arthritis; an image of a bull constructed from densely overlapping handprints.

This is what it means to be human. We are all sitting in the dark, mesmerized by his tales, skin prickling as an amazing sense of wonder and community envelopes us. Some 40,000 years after this art was created, we are huddled around a storyteller in the dark. It’s enchanting.

Half an hour later, electricity surges. Dr. White zooms through his magnificent images of wondrous sites. The image of the bull made from human hand prints is breathtaking. The Chauvet depictions of lions and horses are … indescribable.

We depart into the cold night for well-deserved drinks around the fireplace at a pub, made better by an uncommon encounter with who we are and who we have been for thousands of years.

Sculpture of a stone age family in the Lascaux exhibit at HMNS.

Click here to go to The Leakey Foundation’s website to listen to the audio from the lecture. Make sure you turn off the lights so you get the full experience!

Randall White, Ph.D., New York University


The HMNS School of Rock: Cracking Caveman Crafts in the Classroom

Today’s guest post was written by Dr. Gus Costa, Geoarchaeologist at Rice University and Paleoarts Educator/Owner of The Flintstone Factory

The ascent of humankind is an unlikely story of a clawless, small-toothed primate prevailing in a brutish world of horrific beasts. How did our ancestors compete with lions, tigers and bears? More importantly, how would you cope with similar hardships in the wild without modern amenities? Just think camping without any of your essentials. That’s right! No air conditioned RV or battery-powered margarita maker. Sounds pretty miserable, huh?

Humans are addicted to material culture. We need our “stuff.” We need it so badly that we would die without it. Even the most austere, anti-materialist Tibetan monk needs a coat and shoes when he goes outdoors. Thomas Carlyle (1884) said it best, “man is a tool-using animal…without tools he is nothing, with tools he is all.” Our dependence on stuff as a means of adaptation is what makes us special. Yet this “all or nothing” strategy also makes us particularly vulnerable, especially if many of us cannot make what we need to survive. Modern people are very accomplished tool users, but rarely are we tool makers. Even the contemporary hunter-survivalist culture is inherently consumerist. What happens to human self-reliance when all the fancy bells and whistles are taken away?

The Discovery Channel show “Naked and Afraid” provides an excellent case in point. This TV program follows two survival experts who are tasked with living in the wild, completely nude for 21 days! Participants are allowed to bring one helpful item each. As one would expect, somebody always brings some kind of cutting tool (survival knife, machete, axe etc.). This TV show clearly demonstrates that: 1) even survival experts probably wouldn’t last long in the wild without any gear and most importantly, 2) a cutting implement is the most essential item a human can possess in the wild.

For more than 99% of human existence, stone tools (knives, hammers, axes, spear-tips, arrowheads, etc.) have provided a critical advantage to an otherwise poorly equipped animal. Our distant ancestors may have been naked, but they weren’t afraid because they knew how to make stone knives and other essentials needed for survival.

Factory-made modern cutting implements versus hand crafted, all natural paleo-cutlery (Image Credit: Gus Costa, The Flintstone Factory

Factory-made modern cutting implements versus hand crafted, all natural paleo-cutlery (Image Credit: Gus Costa, The Flintstone Factory

Stone tools are part of everyone’s heritage. Regardless of who you are at some point in the past your ancestors made and used stone tools. It’s an international tradition, not just something that Native American used to do. The oldest artifacts known are 2.6 million year old stone tools from Africa. Yet several contemporary peoples still employ stone tools in traditional activities. In short, flaked stone technology is the most persistent human practice known and was the essential skill largely responsible for the survival of our species………. So why don’t we know more about it?

The Stone Age is the longest and most mysterious phase of the human story largely due to the durability of stone relative to other biodegradable materials. Items made of perishable materials (wood, bamboo, bone) were surely important, but these organic clues have decayed and vanished over the millennia. Much like diamonds, stone tools are forever. Stone tool “fashions” have also changed through time and from place to place, so they can be used by scientists as chronological markers in addition to shedding light on ancient human behavior.

Flaked stone tools are made by fracturing naturally occurring rocks with glass-like properties (brittle, hard and uniform silica-based stones like cherts, flints and obsidian). This process is called knapping, a word of Germanic origin meaning to break by a sharp blow (not to be confused with siesta style napping). Knapping was a cultural universal among all human populations until about 8,000 years ago, when metallurgy emerged and metal artifacts replaced stone tools.

Flint knapping in action (Image Credit: Gus Costa, The Flintstone Factory)

Flint knapping in action (Image Credit: Gus Costa, The Flintstone Factory)

Despite being a major caveman past time, knapping is more complex than most people realize. Locating the proper type of stone requires geological and geographical knowledge. Knapping also demands a basic understanding of physics. The trick behind knapping is the successful manipulation of a “hertzian cone”—a type of fracture commonly seen in car windshields. Hertzian cones are produced because force propagates equally in all directions in uniform materials. Just like a water drop in a pool – energy radiates in a symmetrical manner through glassy substances. Controlling the direction and magnitude of this phenomenon allows the knapper to “sculpt” stone into a finished tool, by using a variety of techniques and knapping tools.

Direct freehand knapping with a stone hammer is the most basic approach, although antler, bone or wood may also be used to remove stone flakes or chips. By the later stages of prehistory, knappers discovered that focused pressure with a pointed implement was an effective way to finish and sharpen tools. Arrowheads and other projectile points were often completed by pressure flaking with deer antler tines.

Tools of the trade. Traditional flint knapping tools Left hammerstones, Right Deer antler and wooden batons. Below Large composite pressure flaker. (Image Credit: Gus Costa, The Flintstone Factory)

Tools of the trade. Traditional flint knapping tools Left hammerstones, Right Deer antler and wooden batons. Below Large composite pressure flaker. (Image Credit: Gus Costa, The Flintstone Factory)

There are many other intricacies to the lost art of knapping. Replicating prehistoric stone tools is extremely powerful and enlightening activity that is much more difficult than one might expect. After more than a decade of knapping and a Ph.D. in Paleolithic archaeology, I have not yet progressed far beyond the Neanderthal stage of technical complexity!

A two million year old Early Stone Age knife is the most rudimentary technology known. It’s so easy that a caveman could do it. In fact, even captive chimpanzees have learned to make these basic tools! But could you? Are you smarter than your prehistoric ancestors?

If you enjoy history, science, technology, art, and breaking things – I invite you to put your highly evolved brain to the test by joining me on Wednesday December 4th for our first HMNS “School of Rock.” This HMNS Adult Education class (must be older than 16) will teach you the prehistoric skills needed to master the ancient art of stone tool making. Discover how antler, stone and bone can be used to fashion a paleo-survival knife through proper percussion and pressure methods. Learn how to make an arrowhead by pressure alone and a simple stone knife using traditional hand tools. Your lithic art is yours to keep for your collection. Participants should wear long pants and close-toed shoes. All materials, tools, and safety equipment will be provided by The Flintstone Factory.

Let’s see you test your wit and grit against that of your “primitive” ancestors!

“Reinventing Stone Age Tools”
Wednesday, December 4, 6 p.m.
Tickets $80, Members $65
Paleolithic archaeologist Gus Costa will teach the prehistoric skills needed to master the ancient art of stone tool making. Using traditional hand tools, craft a simple stone knife that is yours to keep for your collection.

For tickets, click here or call 713.639.4629.