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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Why Segregate?

Is segregation ever good? Most people will agree that segregation by race is a bad idea. But how about by species?  What if somebody said to you: "Dogs belong with other dogs, not humans. It's inhumane to deprive a dog of the society of his own kind." Would you agree, disagree,  or partially agree and partially disagree?

We have two dogs in our household at the moment. I do think that Teyman, even though she was initially very hostile to Brownie, is much happier now that she has another dog to associate with in the back yard, when we humans and chimps are busy doing other things. But every time both dogs come into the house, they both want to cuddle with me and Sword. Sometimes they try to push one another aside, to get a better position with the humans.

What about segregation by age? Do the elderly prefer the companionship of other elderly people?Are they better off in an old folks' home rather than as part of a family with people of many different ages? The same issue presents itself with small children and adolescents. Are they better off when they are segregated by age and sent off to school with their same age peers? Is it better for them to model themselves after the behavior of other children or of adults?

Today I came across an essay by Paul Graham entitled "Why Nerds are Unpopular". There he argues that we segregate children by age in school because it makes it easier for a few adults to watch them, while all the other adults are busy doing something productive. Because of the specialization in our industrialized society, Graham argues, an adolescent who might have served as an apprentice in pre-industrial society is completely useless, and has to be watched in order to keep him from getting out of hand. Schools are merely prisons where children are kept, and because they are segregated by age, and the adults are mere wardens, they set up their own savage societies after the model of Lord of the Flies. This is why bullying is so prevalent among adolescents, and also why so many adolescents are seriously depressed and have thoughts about suicide. It's enforced idleness and segregation by age and not being allowed to make a meaningful contribution that accounts for teenaged behavior, not a surge of hormones.

So, what about chimpanzees? I once had a discussion  with an Israeli volunteer with the Jane Goodall  Foundation's Shoots and Roots who argued that Bow would better off in a society of chimpanzees. Yes, I should be allowed to visit him, but the other chimps should be the ones to make the rules under which he should live. I argued that as Bow's mother, I should be his primary caretaker, though he should  be allowed to play with other chimpanzees. Just as my daughter was socializing with other children her age, but still lived at home with  her family, I wanted the same thing for Bow.

"No," the Israeli Shoots & Roots volunteer insisted, "everyone is better off with their own kind. Even autistics should live with autistics in an institution, though they can visit with their family occasionally."

Do you think that autistics should live a segregated life? I don't. Do you think dogs should always be parts of wild dog packs? I don't. Do you think that adolescents are better off in a society of their own, without adult models for appropriate behavior? I don't.

Segregation is usually not a good thing. It is better to be part of a society where we interact with all kinds of people than to form a ghetto of people who superficially resemble us along one point of comparison. Even in the jungle, there are many animals living in an ecosystem. It's usually being too similar that makes us incompatible, not being too different. Two different groups of chimpanzees may fight over the same territory. But think of all the other animals that can occupy that territory, as long as they are not fighting over the same ecological niche. There may be only one alpha male to a group, but think of all the different ages, sexes and dispositions that are tolerated within the same group. Segregation by age, sex, or species is unnatural. It happens only in industrialized human societies. Everywhere else, coexistence of those not fighting over the same niche is the norm.


  1. "No," the Israeli Shoots & Roots volunteer insisted, "everyone is better off with their own kind. Even autistics should live with autistics in an institution, though they can visit with their family occasionally."

    What nonsense!

    My autistic foster son came to me instead of going to an institution. After 5 years of behavior work and searching for successful communication methods, he successfully returned to his biological family and attended school at his grade level with an assistant to help him communicate.

    If he had been institutionalized, he would have simply fallen into a pattern of perseveration and odd behavior and everyone would have thought it was perfectly normal.

    You are challenging Bow. That's how we have learned so much about chimpanzees. Curious, intelligent people have challenged them and striven to learn from them.

    A chimpanzee alone is no chimpanzee at all, but a chimpanzee in an enriched and challenging environment may very well be a super-chimpanzee!

  2. Thanks, Suzanne! I appreciate the support. The progress that you made with your foster son is a wonderful thing, and shows how much can be achieved.

    One of my concerns about Bow's progress right now is that he is not given enough of an opportunity to participate in our struggle for survival, so he is focusing too much of his energy into trying to one-up me in small matters.

    Graham indicated in his article that the reason the geeks in high school were not popular was because they were already focusing on the struggle in the outer world to make things and get results, so they couldn't be bothered with the the intragroup struggle for ascendancy. The popular kids spent all their energy (even unconsciously) on the struggle within the group-- as if the outer world with its bigger problems did not exist.

    I need to get Bow to be more cognizant of the outer world and of technical problems that can be solved, so that he can defocus his preoccupation of who's on top within the family group.

    It's the opposite problem of the one that autistics have, but it is definitely related.

  3. Perhaps he could mastermind the plans for his future home, his mate, and his use of resources. It may hold as true for him as it does for "kids" in general (able, disabled, developmentally delayed, advanced, etc...) that the plans and strategies he creates for himself are the ones he will follow.

  4. Suzanne, I think there are different types of people when it comes to planning for the future. Practical people are the ones who prepare for the future one step at a time, by mastering their current environment. Dreamers are the ones who ignore current frustrations by focusing on faraway goals.

    Geeks and autistics fall in the dreamer category. Bow's mode of operating is more like that of neurotypicals, where mastering his social environment today is the way he will learn how to deal with tomorrow's challenges.

    In a world full of external dangers, I am sure that Bow would understand that we have to help each other out, and he would cooperate with the family unit in fighting against predators and outsiders.

    But because he is insulated from all that, his aggressive tendencies have only one outlet. It's a problem that many neurotypical children face today. I think Shadesbreath's recent hub about over-protecting our children is very much on point.

  5. I wish I could observe him for awhile and interact with him to see exactly how he communicates and thinks. I could probably come up with a behavior plan for him that would help him to learn how to occasionally focus on the future and also to redirect some of his aggressive tendencies. It would be a very interesting challenge.

    When I say "mastermind" I mean it with quotes. I realize he would not be able to write out a plan or even focus on it from one day to the next with consistency, but adapting it to a daily exercise that becomes a habit and routine might give him a focus for some of his energies.

    When I work on behaviors, I specialize in using a variety of materials and techniques and observing the subject to determine motivators and identify possibly motivating alternatives to the problem behavior. Sometimes these are very surprising and seem to have nothing to do with the challenge at hand, yet they work.

    It's too complicated to speculate about without ever having seen him, but it would certainly be interesting to observe him and see exactly what it happening with him and why.