The Beast Within: 2016 Biology Ig Noble Prize Award



The IG Noble Prizes are a parody of the prestigious Noble Prize which are awarded each year to individuals or teams whom have conducted unusual and often comical scientific research. The awards are intended to celebrate the unusual, honour the imaginative and ‘spur people’s’ interest in science, technology and medicine. Regardless of the comedic nature of the award ceremony and novelty project titles, these discoveries of human knowledge may still have real world applications.

Vaguely Accurate will be releasing a series of short articles that which will highlight some of the most bizarre and fascinating research to receive the Ig Nobel Prize.

2016 Biology – Release the Beast

The 2016 IG Noble prizes have brought a vast array of comical, yet thought-provoking endeavours of scientific research to the spotlight. However, in my opinion, none are quite as ‘weird’ and wonderful as the award for biology.

This year, the biology IG Nobel Prize was awarded to two separate individuals, Charles Foster and Thomas Thwaites, who felt unsatisfied with the disconnect they had from the natural world. The works of both these individuals could be summarised as a philosophical and biological insight into the ‘way of life’ of animals, achieved through reverse-anthropomorphism. However, the motivations for both Charlies and Thomas were slightly different.

Let me explain.

Charles Foster: The Real Animorph

Charles Foster is an academic at Oxford. He is a, barrister and former vet by profession, with a recreational interest in the naturalist world. In an interview, he stated that he wished to understand the natural world in a way that other animals did.  He would often see animals gather at locations that to him, seemed no different from any other spot.

While every animal will have a primary sensory method to understand a landscape, many use a combination of these sensory organs to gather vast amounts of environmental data. However, us humans ted to utilise sight via our eyes rather heavily and lack a level of sensitivity with our other senses. Charles Fosters believed that this limits our worldly experiences due to limited sensory input and has stimulated our disconnect from nature.

This motivated Charles to personify himself as several different wild animals from various habitats.

For example:

– A badger in a Welsh hillside: becoming nocturnal, eating earthworms and using his nose rather than his eyes to sense the landscape.

– An Otter: swimming in freshwater reserves and catching fish with his mouth – Rather impressive seeing as I can’t seem to catch fish using a rod!

– An urban fox: running around the backstreets of London and rooting through the garbage in search of his evening meals.

– A red dear: living off the land and experiencing the real threat of being hunted by bloodhounds in the snow.

– A swift: following the migration of swifts over the Strait of Gibraltar –  Not being able to fly brought its own challenges.

Thomas Thwaites: Be One With The Goat

The  motivation of Thomas was different to that of Charles. Thomas is a designer and author with an academic background in biology and art. He wanted a break from being human. He realized that the daily stress, anxieties and poignant emotions common to today’s society can essentially be toxic and he recognised that animals tend not to suffer from these issues. He came to conclude that the life of a goat  was much more simple, honest and free of the exhausting emotions of being human. He was originally going to be an elephant until a Danish shaman advised against it.

With all this in mind, Thomas began commenced his temporary transformation into a goat.

He had a goat exoskeleton designed, complete with artificial limbs to adapt his posture to suit that of a goat. He met a neuroscientist whom provided medication (hallucinogenic drugs) to ‘turn off’ the parts of his brain responsible for speech. He even

consulted with animal behaviourists whom offered advice and provided him with goat scent and pheromones to spray over his body. Finally, Thomas developed an artificial method to digest grass using a pressure cooker, which he called a prosthetic goat stomach.

Once his was prepared Thomas then sought residence among an appropriate herd of goats. At first, he took up residence at a Swiss goat farm but he then subsequently progressed to a hillside in the Swiss Alps where he spent 3 days. He said that the goat ‘community’ recognised posture and scent much more than physical appearance, therefore a complete fur coat was never required.

During his time as a goat, Thomas explained how he was judged by the herd, how he made allies and how he traversed and lived off the terrain.

I don’t know whether you would call these animal or human experiments; however, the results from both of these allowed both Thomas and Charles to feel more connected with nature, to hold an increased sensory awareness for a short period of time, and to earn a growing respect for the evolutionary features of each animal.

If you wish to read more about the works of Charles and Thomas, they have both released books for which they were awarded the Ig Nobel Prize of Biology 2016:

Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide – Charles Foster

GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human – Thomas Thwaites

Goatman: Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

Goatman: Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press