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Monday, September 15, 2014

Brownie Kills a Snake

Brownie killed a snake in the back yard yesterday. I stood by and let it happen. Normally, I try to save the snakes. I get a stick or some tongs and a tupperware container, and I distract the dogs or put them up and get the snake. Not this time, though.

I was alerted to the presence of the snake by the persistent barking of the dogs. I stopped by in the kitchen and reached for some tongs and a plastic container and went to the backyard. I was expecting to see a black rat snake or a prairie Kingsnake, but when I got there, the snake rearing its head up to attack between the two dogs seemed unfamiliar and unusually aggressive. As the dogs kept up their barking, the snake tried to lunge several times, throwing itself at each of the dogs in turn with great power and an open mouth. They nimbly jumped back every time that happened. I realized that I was not equal to the situation. I would not be able to put this snake into a plastic container without getting bitten.

While Leo kept up an almost incessant yapping, Brownie only barked periodically, getting closer to the snake than Leo ever dared. Then when the snake seemed distracted by the other dog, Brownie would pick it up in the middle, shake it, and then throw it across the yard.

I considered trying to get the dogs in the house, but I was afraid that even if they did obey me, which was doubtful, because they were so excited, distracting Brownie in the middle of the fight might end up getting one or both of the dogs bitten. So I let Brownie proceed. Bow, watching from the safety of the inner pens, was rooting for Brownie.

After several captures, shakes in the air, and body-bitings, the snake was dead. Brownie still wouldn't let me touch it until hours later. I thought maybe he wanted to eat it, but it was intact when I finally took it away and discarded its limp body in the thicket of the pasture.

My friend tells me it was just a harmless bullsnake, and that if it had been a venomous snake Brownie would be dead now. But I did the best I could under the circumstances, and Brownie did not get bitten once during the encounter. He was actually very careful and meticulous about his work, attacking the snake only when it was distracted and not allowing the head to make contact with him during the struggle. After the kill, Brownie kept the snake to himself, holding it in the middle and shaking its limp body. He would not allow me to touch it until he was absolutely sure that the danger had passed.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Illusion of Progress

Sometimes it seems that the world is getting warmer and warmer, This summer, for a while, it looked that way to me. And then one day it got very cold, and the wind blew, and it rained, and everything was wet and dreary.

We have had some very hot days recently, almost unseasonably hot. But yesterday when I went for a walk in the pasture, there were no bumblebees on the thistle flowers, only cold little droplets of rain. It was so cold, I had to wear a jacket. What happened to the weather?

Even the spiders could no longer ply their trade. Their delicate little webs were full of sparkling droplets, looking like rare jewels in the dreary light.

The goldenrod, till now unnoticed, seemed to shine out against its dull surroundings.

 If I did not know any better, I would say the world was coming to an end! But then I remembered that it's almost fall. And nature works in cycles. And so it's actually going to be okay. These things are supposed to be happening. Summer will come again, but first we have to get through fall, winter and spring.

Is the globe getting warmer? It's entirely possible. And that trend will continue,  until the next ice age! Our planet lives on cycles. Some of the cycles are small, like day and night. Some are bigger, like the seasons. And some are bigger still, so big that you can't even observe them in a single lifespan.

You can watch the days grow brighter and longer and project that trend far, far into the future and call that progress, and then be totally undone when growth and warmth come to a screeching halt. Or you can recognize that it's a cycle. Unlimited growth is not possible. Growth and decay come each in its turn.

But there is even more at play here. Unlimited growth with limited resources is not possible. There are conservation laws in place. More of one thing always means less of something else. Reduce infant mortality and you get more abortions. Raise more cattle and you get fewer wolves. Start to use tools to enhance your prowess, and your muscles will shrink. It's not progress. It is this for that. There's an equilibrium in place that you cannot escape.

Bow can crack a hazelnut with his teeth. That's because he comes from a long line of beings that use their teeth as weapons and as tools and who have not resorted to nutcrackers or swords. Yes, I know that really big nuts are cracked on stones by resourceful chimpanzees, and that they can use sticks as weapons. But by and large their failure to develop a higher technology has left their bodies strong. We come from a common source. We, too, used to be that strong. We did not develop technology to make up for our physical inferiority. We lost our prowess when we started relying on implements. The selective pressure was lifted, so weaker individuals were not eliminated.

Should we choose one path, or should we choose another? Is there one way that leads to heaven and the other to hell? Does eating from the tree of knowledge cast us out of paradise? Or is it simply that there is a natural price for every choice we make?

There are conservatives who think everything should stay the same all the time. There are progressives who think we should have endless progress. They are both wrong. What we have always had, and always will have, is cycles.

We can change certain aspects of the way we live, and in so doing, we change ourselves. We can sometimes have more of one thing, if we are willing to have less of something else. Less of  natural disease means more of  genetic degeneration. More prosperity means less wilderness. More security means less freedom. We can change our preferences, but we can't change the laws of the universe.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Grooming, Implements and Mirror Neurons

When I look at Bow, I can read his expressions. It is not hard to tell what he is feeling, as his facial expressions often mirror my own.

Looking at this picture of Bow eating an apple, can you tell what he is feeling? Let your face resolve itself into a similar expression. How do you feel? We have mirror neurons that allow us to put ourselves into somebody else's shoes, to let us imagine what it would be like to be doing what they are doing.

Can you almost taste that big, juicy, red delicious apple as Bow bites into it? That isn't just your imagination. Those are your mirror neurons firing.

Bow has mirror neurons, too. When he sees me doing something, he sometimes gets it into his head that he should do that, too. I have long hair, but Bow's is short. Sometimes, when I have a messy task to take care of, I put my hair up into a bun. Bow watches, fascinated as I do that. Sometimes, he gathers as much of his hair as he can, and he tries in vain to put his hair up in a bun, too. Only he can't, because it's too short.

Yesterday, I was brushing my hair, and I thought Bow might like to help me brush my hair, too. He often grooms me, but he does that with his bare hands. I thought that if I handed him the brush, he might want to help me brush my hair.

But Bow was fascinated by the iPhone's small screen filming this, instead.  I had to tap him lightly to get his attention before I handed him the brush and asked whether he would like to brush my hair. Bow did not want to help me brush my hair. He took the brush, started to brush his own hair, and then reached for the iPhone, because he wanted to see himself doing it on the screen.

"Would you like to do what I'm doing?" can have two different meanings. It can mean, if I am brushing my hair, "would you like to brush my hair, too?" Or it can mean, instead,  "would you like to brush your hair?" People with healthy mirror neurons often take it the second way.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Sounds of Nature

They say that simply hearing natural ambient sounds, the wind in the trees, soft repetitive birdsong, the chirping of crickets, can help our bodies reenergize and heal themselves. Bow spends a lot of time immersed in the sounds of nature.

He relaxes outside on his bench, and because we are surrounded by open fields, woods and a pasture that has been left wild, there are natural sounds in all directions.

After lunch, every day I go for a walk. Yesterdsay, here is what I saw when I looked to the north.

The neighbors' cows were grazing peacefully in the field. Puffy white clouds hung in the azure sky. I went for a walk down the path in our pasture that leads south, and I saw the wild persimmons ripening.

Nobody planted them. They just grew there themselves. Some conservationists say "plant a tree." They imply that nature is like an underprivileged child, and it needs our charity. But nature is rich with its own wealth. I say: "Get out of the way, stop interfering, and the trees will plant themselves."

There is a great bounty to be had, if only we would get out of the way, make ourselves scarce and appear only in small numbers. My five acres of pasture in a natural state might not be enough to feed Bow, but five thousand acres just might do the trick!

I stopped for a moment to watch a bumblebee harvest nectar on a thistle flower. Somebody keeps telling me that the thistle is a noxious weed that needs to be eradicated. But the bumblebee did not seem to think so. It was doing its very best, hanging on despite the wind, trying to get as much as it could before the weather changed.

By evening, the skies had turned grey over the woods to the east. The wind moved the branches to and fro and dry leaves came tumbling to ground, occasionally seeming to stop for a moment in midair, as the wind changed.

Whenever I get back from my walks out of doors, I share the pictures and videos that I shot with Bow. He saw the bumble bee on the flower yesterday and suggested that I trim the video, because it ran too long. But then he fumbled with the iPhone and showed me what he really wanted.

The thing that Bow most enjoys about the iPhone is not watching nature videos -- it's taking selfies. And so I humor him.

Someday, I want Bow to be able to go on those walks with me again. That would require building a force field or at least a moat around the pasture. But the purpose is not to "liberate" Bow from an unhappy "captivity". It is just to expand his domain!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Identity Politics and Chimpanzees

Bow is a chimpanzee, and many of his behaviors are natural and inborn and not given to change through enculturation or indoctrination or education or whatever you want to call it when we stamp another person with our culture.  The way he walks, his displays, the simple pleasures that he yearns for are not given to change, regardless of where he has been brought up.

But sometimes -- actually quite often -- Bow will do something that seems so characteristic of humans, that it takes one's breath away.

I dropped a Kleenex on the floor by accident yesterday, and as I was cleaning up the potty, my back turned to Bow, I heard him blow his nose -- loudly! I turned around, and there he was, blowing his nose and then looking at the tissue.

Did I teach him how to do this? No. But I did use a tissue in his presence many times, and when he was little, and he had a cold, I used to wipe his nose. Is this "natural" behavior for a chimpanzee? Well, they certainly don't have facial tissue in the wild, but I would not say that it is unnatural. In fact, it is no more natural for a human than for a chimpanzee. Do you think I have had disposable facial tissues all my life? My mother sent me to kindergarten with a cloth handkerchief! Facial tissue is a new invention.

So what is natural? It's natural for all of us to learn to use the cultural artifacts that we have in our environment. Bow picks up Kleenex and the alphabet with the same facility as a human. I didn't invent facial tissues and neither did Bow. I didn't invent the alphabet and neither did Bow. In fact, the alphabet was only invented once in all the history of mankind. Everybody else borrowed it. Having a writing system is not a uniquely human thing. Using the writing system that everybody else drops in our laps is natural for humans -- and no less natural for chimpanzees. The veneer of civilization is something we all pick up, like a dropped Kleenex.

What doesn't make sense to me  is to call it one thing when a human does it and something else when a chimpanzee does it. But there are lots of  experts who do just that. There is the fellow who made a career out of suggesting that chimpanzees may react to seeing just the same as humans, but they don't understand seeing in the same way. So when they hide behind a tree, they do it for a different reason from the reason a human might have to hide behind the tree. The human knows that you can't see him, because the tree blocks your vision. But the chimpanzee only hides out of instinct!

There has been a long tradition for researchers not to attribute mental states and emotions to chimpanzees, even when the reaction is pretty much the same as ours to the stimulus. A human is sad, but a chimpanzee can't be, because he is just a chimpanzee. A human is amused, but a chimpanzee displaying amusement must never be described that way. Different words for the same behaviors have to be employed. A researcher who breaks these rules is considered to have lost his scientific objectivity.

Under our cross-fostering experiment, I call myself Bow's adoptive mother. All I mean by this is that while I am not his biological mother, I have served him in the capacity of a mother all his life. One "expert" told me that because Bow is a chimpanzee and I am a human, I can't be his adoptive mother. At most I am his surrogate mother. The last time I checked, in ordinary parlance, a surrogate mother is a woman who carries another woman's child in her womb. I never did that for Bow, so I am not his surrogate mother. I am just his adoptive mother. But this person was working so hard to make the point that chimpanzees and humans are different species, that he was willing to break the language to come up with a different word for the same relationship.

Don't get me wrong, Bow is a chimpanzee. He does belong to a different species from me. I am not in denial about that. When the mowers came yesterday to cut the grass, Bow went into a characteristically chimpanzee display.

When he does this, Bow is showing us the parts of being a chimpanzee that are hard-wired and not open to cultural mediation.

But then there are the other behaviors, which are very much like our own. I am not suggesting that Bow has become more human by living among humans. I think, instead, that humans and chimpanzees have more in common than many people are comfortable admitting, including many researchers and self-appointed chimpanzee spokesmen.

An experiment in cross-fostering has at its base the desire to learn which behaviors are due to enculturation, and which are hard-wired. A very large percentage of human behavior is learned rather than inborn. The same is true for chimpanzees, although it may not be exactly the same percentage or exactly the same behavior.

In German, they have two different words for eating, "essen" when a human does it, and "fressen" when a non-human does it. It is part of the identity politics of differentiating us from them. In Hebrew when a woman gives birth, she "יולדת". When a dog gives birth,  she "ממליטה". It's an understandable human move, to want to mark how special we think we are by creating a whole different vocabulary for those in the out-group. But it's not scientific or objective.

When Bow blows his nose using a Kleenex, it's the same as when I do it. It's not "natural", because it is culturally mediated, but the action is the same.

In order to be objective in our attempts to understand chimpanzees, it is important to use the same words for the same behaviors. It is important not to engage in identity politics and suggest that every action has a different meaning when performed by a non-human.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Staying Snug Where We Belong

Today it is dark and cloudy out, and Bow is staying safe and snug indoors.

It may not be all that exciting, but he is not in any distress. He is at home, where he grew up and with the family he knows. In the wilds of Africa, his life would be in danger. In my news feed today, I read about five gorillas who grew up near Canterbury who met their deaths when they went back to live in Africa.

Death of Five Canterbury Gorillas

I also know of what happened to Lucy Temerlin when she went to live in Africa after being raised as an American for sixteen years.

Sometimes apes can prosper under circumstances that are not the canonical environment in which they evolved and can be doomed under what seems the most "natural" way of life. We may think that there is a right place for everything, but sometimes the things that survive are precisely those that do not spring up in the "right"place.

There's a crack in the concrete behind my garage. Nothing is supposed to be growing there. And yet today, when I looked more closely, I saw that under the falling leaves of the tulip tree, some stunning flowers were flourishing.

The flowers don't "belong" here, and yet here they are!

Who is to say where anyone else belongs? Bow and I are staying snug and safe indoors this morning. When the weather changes, we will venture forth.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Cross-Fostering and the March of Time

This morning, Bow asked to go outside early and started his display on the swing.

For people who are not accustomed to chimpanzee displays, it can seem frightening or be interpreted as a sign of aggression. Bow makes it very clear that what he  means is: "I am big and strong" and that his display implies no menace towards anyone who is willing to concede that, yes, he is big and strong.

In the clip above, you can see Bow displaying, then gesturing to invite me over to the bench, once the display is done. He is happy and friendly, and one of the reasons we get along so well is that I don't try to hinder him in his natural behaviors. If Bow needs to tell the world that he is big and strong, that is fine with me. I do not have any desire to stop him or to edit his message to make it more politically correct.

One of the reasons I feel no desire to engage in a shouting match with Bow over our relative strengths is that I am perfectly at peace with who I am. I am a five foot two human female, and I don't need to be stronger than a post-pubescent male chimpanzee to feel good about myself. However, I do know other people who feel threatened by another's attributes, abilities and activities, even when they have nothing to do with them.

Lately, I have seen all sorts of displays by humans about their right to edit the free speech of others. One person, who I really felt should know better, suggested burning every copy of a book, because the book contained "false" information.Who decides what is false? By what authority?  If it is false, don't you trust other people to eventually figure it out?

The argument goes something like this: Are you a government certified expert on this subject? If not, how dare you write about it? What if somebody believes you, and they get hurt? How dare you publish this recipe for poppy seed cake? What if someone uses it and gets food poisoning? What if someone reads this false interpretation of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and relies on it to his detriment? Don't people need to be protected from false information?

I have no actual claim to being an expert in the culinary arts, but this does not keep me from occasionally publishing a recipe. Other people may dabble in linguistics, who are not linguists. Even though I am one, it does not bother me. That's what's great about living in a free country. One can try anything and learn from mistakes and get better at it and later publish one's findings.

What makes it okay to call something a lexigram when it looks like a word? I've written about that here:

While I do have a Ph.D in linguistics, any real claim to fame that I have as a linguist is not based on authority or certification, but on the things I have found out for myself and the information I have shared by writing about it and publishing.

We have some new readers for this blog, some of whom are unfamiliar with Project Bow and with the meaning of the term "cross-fostering", and who don't know our long history. Some of them seem to still think that Bow is a baby, and they warn me about what may happen when he turns three or five or six or seven. They don't realize that in February, he will turn thirteen. For those people, I am sharing these links, so that they may learn about our experiences at the ages they mentioned and beyond.

A Young Chimpanzee's Growth and Development

Chimpanzee Development Age Three through Five

Bow and Literacy

When I  published "When Sword Met Bow" as a book for children, the intent was not to scientifically explore the phenomenon of cross-fostering. Instead, the book was meant for anyone bringing home a new baby to help their older child with the transition. It was a lyrical picture book, intended for a young audience.

When Sword Met Bow
However, now there are people who are worried that it will encourage others to adopt chimpanzees, and one such person has seen fit to write a "review" of the book without having read it, warning about all the stages of chimpanzee development.

And here I am, wondering whether I should put on my expert hat or my libertarian hat. Should I explain that I do in fact know a great deal more about it than these people assume? Or should I simply remind them that this country was founded on the principle of live and let live?

I am a linguist and a primatologist, and I do have scholarly publications on this topic. 

But more important than any claim I might offer to expertise is this: we live in a country that was founded on the principle that all men are created equal and have the right to pursue happiness at their own expense. No expertise is required to pursue science or art, and no license is required for the publication of our results. 

Other people do not adopt chimpanzees primarily because they do not wish to do so. Chimpanzee owning citizens are a minority, but one that needs protecting.

I once sat at a restaurant with a group of scientists, among them a noted primatologist, and all of them were complaining about how hard it was to get funding. Then in the same breath, one of them said something about money being the root of all evil. 

Money is not evil. Trying to get it by force is. Respectable ape language researchers have been pushed under the bus. Their funding has run dry. They have been forced to try to escape to the private sector, but Federal regulations still leave them very much under the government oversight committees. The only hope is going totally private, and this means giving up the protections afforded by "expert" status. 

Bow is not a "pet". But it's only because private ownership is still allowed that Project Bow is possible. That  -- and the first amendment to the United States constitution -- is something I am very grateful for.

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