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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Misunderstanding Evolution

There is snow on the ground this morning, but school is still on today. Bow is napping, and I am taking it easy.

The snow on the ground early this morning

All is peaceful and I am reviewing. It's a time to take stock of everything, toward the end of the year, before looking forward to the next year. One thing that has struck me lately is how the concept of evolution is being misunderstood by "forward thinking" people. Take, for instance the expression "we are more evolved than that." What on earth does that mean?

Bow outside briefly yesterday -- too cold to stay long, but still fun

Evolution is about natural selection by environment. It implies nothing about one animal or plant being "better" than another in some general, absolute sense. Yet people with pretenses toward enlightenment are using the term as if evolution were about a scale of preference, from worse to better in a long line of improvements, like the great chain of being: with man at the top. The whole time that these people are singing "everything's beautiful in its own way" -- they don't believe it.

What is more, they don't seem to understand that no being can evolve to a place where it is exempt from the laws of the universe. I was trying to tackle this topic on my other blog in a post entitled Misremembering Robin Hood. On my Facebook page, I posted a picture of a rabbit from children's book In Case There's a Fox, and I wrote:

"What if rabbits tried to make a living out of eating foxes? If you understand why that could not work, then you understand why robbing the rich to feed the poor would also not work as a self-sustaining system."
Along came someone and accused me of being in favor of "dog-eat-dog".  She said we need to evolve beyond dog-eat-dog. Since dogs eating dogs would be cannibalism. and I had just explained that cannibalism does not work, clearly I wasn't in favor of dog-eat-dog. Nor do we need to evolve "beyond" that, as it was never possible in the first place. Yes. an occasional killing and ritual eating of a conspecific can happen, but as an ecosystem that could not work, because it would be like a perpetual motion machine. If you feed on someone else, then that someone else needs to feed on something else, not on you, or there will eventually be nothing for anyone to eat. It's also the same reason why two friendly neighbors cannot make a living by taking turns selling each other books they have written. And it's the same reason why our chickens could not live on the eggs they themselves laid.

But this person was so scandalized by the idea of comparing some people to rabbits and others to foxes that the next thing she wrote was something about Nazis. (And you know that when people start calling other people Nazis, a rational discussion is unlikely to ensue.)  And then she came up with this:
If you want to argue science and evolution...I suggest you check out the most recent information on chimpanzee behavior. Chimpanzees are our closest living relatives, sharing 98% of our DNA. So far from being the gentle vegetarians they were thought to be, it turns out that they are homicidal, genocidal, wage war, and commit sexual atrocities on each other (and on humans they think of as being like them). That is our genetic inheritance
I for one never thought chimpanzees were gentle vegetarians. Have you seen the canines on a chimpanzee? What would lead anyone to think that? Where people get these misconceptions, I don't know!

I gently told her that I happen to live and work with a chimpanzee twelve hours a day. And then she said, did I see what a chimpanzee at a sanctuary had done to a volunteer who worked there when she put her hand on a chain link fence?

I would not recommend putting chimpanzees behind chain linked fences, standing on the other side of the fence, and sticking your hand in -- or even getting anywhere near that fence. You know why? You just made it an us-versus-them situation. If you want to get that close to  a chimpanzee, then cultivate a face to face relationship over a long period of time, and go in without barriers.

Bow and I together
Notice the holes in the grid are so small that you can't stick a finger through
Some of those sanctuaries should call on me to help them design their enclosures. They should also hire me as a consultant for chimpanzee psychology. They should not recruit any people who think chimpanzees are "gentle vegetarians" or pacifists or beatniks or whatever other misconception about chimpanzees happens to be current.

We are different from chimpanzees, but I would not say ever that we are "more evolved." We did not evolve from chimpanzees nor they from us. We had a common ancestor somewhere down the line, and there may have been some interbreeding even once we split off. But by and large, we evolved under different conditions to specialize in somewhat different skills. We have a lot in common, and we can live and work together, but only if we are on the same side of the fence. Put up a fence between you and the chimpanzees, and you have just declared war.

If you don't like chimpanzees because they get violent and wage war, then you probably secretly don't like humans, either. You don't accept yourself or that aspect of your own being. And you probably don't understand the ecology that you purport to want to save.

In any ecology and in any economy, different participants contribute in different ways and serve different functions. Producers are very important, and they are always more numerous and at the bottom of the trophic pyramid, because no system can work that is top heavy. And no matter how they develop and change to fit the circumstances, no individual or species can evolve to be immune from the rules of reality. Which is why cannibalism is never going to work, and we can't make a living by taxing each other.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Surprise is Blown

Every time the delivery lady comes by, Bow hides in the corner, moving the potty aside to make room for himself.

"I can see you," she says. "I can see you there, you and your blanket. Do you want to come out and say hi to me?"

Bow has different routines with different people. He does not do this with everyone, but that is how he behaves with the delivery lady. Yesterday, after she had coaxed him to come out, he started moving toward her, with his blanket, almost in slow motion. For a chimpanzee who is usually so fast with every movement, it was remarkable how excruciatingly slow he was.

"You're moving like a sloth," she said. "Do you know what a sloth is?"

Bow did not answer, but he kept approaching the grid of the front door to the inner pen in slow motion. Then when he got there, he examined the lady's shoes, felt her fingers through the hole in the grid and looked as if he wanted to kiss her hand.

"Your blanket isn't in good shape, is it?" she asked. "But he's getting a new blanket, isn't he?" she said, turning to me.

"Yes, but it's a surprise."

"Is it under the tree?"

"No. I haven't put it there yet."

"Oh, can he see the tree from there?"


Then she and Bow went back to interacting together, but soon she had to leave.

I didn't really think much of this exchange until much later in the day when Bow took my had and spelled:           יש לי שמיכה חדשה
                     "I have a new blanket."

I answered: "Yes, how did you know?"     ? כן איך ידעת                    

He spelled:          הדודה אמרה
                          "The lady said."

When I told him he could not have his new blanket till Christmas, he got a little mad and tried to tear up what remained of his old blanket. But he soon calmed down and went back to appreciating the blanket that he's got.

Anyway, the surprise is blown. Bow knows exactly what he's getting for Christmas. I mean, he always gets a blanket for Christmas, so it's not really that much of a surprise. But now he knows I've already gotten it for him, and it is hidden somewhere in the house.

That's why I tell people: "Don't talk to me, talk to Bow." If they forget and start talking to me, they end up saying things  -- and I end up saying things --  that Bow wasn't intended to know, and we all tend to forget that even when it's not addressed to him, Bow is still listening. And he still understands.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Bow Listens to the Iliad

Bow and I have been listening to FL Light's English translation of the Iliad.

This is rather difficult English, and Bow is not finding it all that interesting, despite all the action scenes.

It's strange how a literary work can be full of violence, yet lull a chimpanzee to sleep. If I showed him a movie enacting this, he would have his hair standing on end and would feel forced to display his prowess. But when the word for killing someone is "disanimate",  the shear opacity of the vocabulary can make war seem very tame.

They say that there is now "scientific" evidence that reading literary fiction improves empathy.

For the experiment, participants either read a piece of literary fiction or popular fiction, followed by identifying facial emotions solely through the eyes. Those who read literary fiction scored consistently higher, by about 10%.
"We believe that one critical difference between lit and pop fiction is the extent to which the characters are complex, ambiguous, difficult to get to know, etc. (in other words, human) versus stereotyped, simple," Castano wrote to Mic. 

What exactly is the scientific definition of "literary" versus "popular" fiction? Is The Iliad  literary or popular fiction? Was the answer in the time it was composed the same as now? Was it literary or popular when it was current? Isn't it usually the case that what was popular fiction centuries ago becomes literary fiction today, in great part because of the inaccessibility of the language used to describe the same sorts of emotional stimulus?

Of course, there are also cultural shifts to account for. "Your mind is ravaged by the gods." How often do you hear religious people say such things today? Even neo-pagans seem to picture their deities as bearing universal love.

But life is structured by conflict of interest, and minor conflicts are part of every day . Every time we eat, we kill something -- or someone else does the killing for us. The sacrifice of one life for another is not the exception, but the rule. How much empathy do any of us have? How much empathy could we stand to have and still be able to live?

Literature, since ancient times, was made to bring about catharsis. Selective empathy is conducive to that end. But every time we feel for one being, we must harden our heart against another. That is because what is good for the Greeks is not so good for the Trojans and vice versa. And that is why, in ancient times, each side had specific gods and goddesses to intercede on their behalf.

Friday, December 5, 2014

If you want to set men free...

Bow asked to go outside this morning, after breakfast, and I complied and led him down the hall to the airlock and opened the door to the outer pen, but Bow did not go out. He sat there for a moment, surveying the wet, wet concrete, the wet bench, and the slight drizzle that later became a flood, and he decided that he wanted to stay indoors. So we went back in, and he asked for his blanket, and now he is lazing around.

Sometimes, I get comments from people on my videos of Bow displaying that go something like this: "Set him free. He doesn't deserve to live in a cage. He belongs in the wild!" Can you imagine how a chimpanzee who doesn't want to ever get his feet wet, even just a little, would fare in the wild?

I would no more set him free than I would set free my fifteen year old daughter to become a hunter gatherer in Africa or South America or even in the nearest national forest. We have another name for this kind of "setting free". It is called abandonment.

This is a truth that applies as much to humans as to chimpanzees. Take a human out of the hunter gatherer state, transplant him where he has no chance to learn how to survive on his own, and then set him free.  See how happy he will be about it. I described something similar that happened in Cartagena, Colombia  in Theodosia and the Pirates: The War Against Spain after Pablo Morillo sacked and burned the city, killing everyone for their rebellion against Spain, and leaving only a few destitute slaves alive. Life did not get better for those slaves because they were now "free".

The world is full of do-gooders who haven't got a clue about the unintended consequences of their acts of doing good. The first rule of decency is: do no harm. Leave what is not yours alone.

Friday, November 28, 2014

A Fine Feast

Bow loves Thanksgiving, and he knows when it is coming. He sees the guests arriving, and he sees the culinary preparations, and he knows. This year we had Grandma and Bow's cousin, as well as my daughter and myself and Bow, which is plenty of a crowd for the inner pen.

While my mother worked in the kitchen, and the cousins played video games, Bow watched me set up the long serving table and pile it with the desserts and the extra stuffing.

Though Bow and I like pumpkin pie, by popular demand we only had cheesecake and poppy seed cake this year.

Though Bow was interested in the table and the food already on it, he was aware that all the important action was going on in the house, and he often gestured at the door to the living room to draw my attention.

My mother did a great job with the turkey and all the fixings. In no time at all, Bow was enjoying a drumstick of his own.

And he really enjoyed the sparkling cranberry juice!

 Down to the last drop!

These days, Bow is not as endearing to the guests, in terms of polite chit-chat. He is just concerned with keeping things on schedule, including each course of the meal, and even the cleanup. He enforces his own bedtime, too!

It was a very fine feast and a happy Thanksgiving Day for all.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Communicating about Crumbs

This morning, we ran out of the cereal that Bow and I usually have for breakfast. When I went to pour Bow out a bowl of Oatmeal Squares,after he asked for cereal, there were none left. So I went for the Special K that came in a variety pack, one of those small personal-sized boxes.

Bow didn't like it. He played with his cereal, but most of it remained uneaten. When something like that happens, there's nothing to do about it, but just clear away the full bowl. I can't force Bow to eat it. I don't encourage discarding uneaten food, and had he asked for something else, after wasting the cereal, he would not have gotten it, but Bow did not seem hungry, so he just let me clear without making further demands.

Later on, he asked to go outside. It is still cold out, but not as cold as before, so I agreed. I unlocked the door that leads to the hall that leads to the airlock that leads to the outer pen. Bow went into the hall, and I was following, when I felt something with my bare foot. I looked down, and I noticed there were a few flakes of Special K Cereal on the floor.

"What's this here?" I asked, in a kind of annoyed tone of voice.

Bow came back in from the hall, saw the flakes, picked them one by one off the floor and discarded them in the empty potty. I didn't tell him to do that, and I was a little surprised.

"Okay, then." I said, and we proceeded down the hall to the outside.

The trash can on my side of the inner pen this morning after breakfast

We don't have a trash can on Bow's side of the inner pen, because  he's likely to knock it over during a display. We only have the potty, and it took years of work to get him not to knock that over. But Bow understands what trash is, where it goes, and that I get annoyed by crumbs on the floor. So while I didn't tell him to help clean up, he figured out on his own what would make me pleased enough to proceed with our journey to the outside.

Bow did not stay outside long because it is cold
Is that language use? Yes and no. Bow didn't just understand what I said, which was a question about what it was that I felt with my foot on the floor. He also understood how I felt about it, that it was  very likely to ruin the possibility of my cooperating with him about going outside, and he understood what he needed to do to fix it. That's more than many an autistic human child would be able to get out of what little I said.

Bow has great insight into human nature, but he still is not trustworthy

Please, don't misunderstand. I am proud of Bow, of his obvious intelligence and his great ability to cooperate creatively with me, but this does not mean that I would trust him enough to leave the door to the outer world unlocked. Bow is Bow. He's cunning, crafty and has his own ideas, that do not always coincide with mine. There's a reason the door from the inner pen does not lead directly to the outer pen. Bow can dance circles around me and around Project Bow volunteers, and I designed it this way to prevent him from doing just that. People get very disoriented by how fast chimpanzees can be. We are slow pokes compared to them, and communicating and cooperating requires them to slow themselves down to our level.

Bow can outsmart me, so I have to stay on my toes

Many people treat chimpanzees as if they were disadvantaged and slightly backward human beings. Sometimes well meaning friends post a meme attributed to Jane Goodall that says chimpanzees are just like us except they don't have language, so we should be nice to them. I don't know if she really said that, but it's wrong. Chimpanzees do have language. Observers so far have not been able to decode it in the wild, because they are so much faster than we are. Just because a fieldworker does not understand the grammar the natives use does not prove that they have no grammar.

But I also disagree with the other part of the meme: that we should be "nice" to chimpanzees. I mean, I disagree with the condescending tone of that statement. Chimpanzees are not underprivileged minorities that we should make charitable donations to and pat on the head and give special privileged status to on account of their supposed disabilities. We should study them, get to know them, respect them and find ways to work cooperatively with them. But we should never underestimate their intelligence, their agility or their strength. Because just like us, they have ideas of their own, and not all their ideas are nicey-nice.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Watching the Snow Melt

It snowed on Sunday. Not a very big snow, but enough to give the ground a bit of white cover.

In the outer pen, the bench was covered with snow.

The next day, there was still snow on the ground, but people went about their business. The school bus came by for my daughter. The sun came out from the clouds.

All this while, Bow did not ask to go outside. He was content in the warmth of the inner pen.

Today as I went for my walk in the pasture, I noticed that most of the snow had already melted.

There was more of it left in the shade and less in the sunlight. When I got back from my walk, Bow asked to go outside.

It was still pretty cold out, and Brownie complained, but Bow was undaunted. He laid himself down on the rim of the bench and surveyed the yard.

He stayed there a good twenty minutes before he asked to go back in.