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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Bow and Lawrence and Nonverbal Cues

Every Wednesday Lawrence comes in to sit with Bow so I can run some errands. Bow and Lawrence are very good friends. Bow eagerly waits for Lawrence to arrive. He knows that Lawrence is coming, and he looks forward to that. He even makes eager, impatient sounds of happiness when he sees Lawrence's car arrive in the driveway.

However, you would not know any of this if you saw how Bow behaves when Lawrence first comes in. Bow's hair stands on end. He makes himself look twice as big as he actually is. He makes threatening sounds and throws himself against the glass and the walls of the pens, in some cases even injuring himself through the violence of his own aggression.

Lawrence knows better than to go in while Bow is in the middle of such a display. If he did, he would stand a very good chance of being injured. But all Lawrence has to do is wait until the display peters out. Eventually, Bow settles down, and then he may even gesture to let Lawrence know it is safe to come in. Then, when Lawrence does come in, Bow greets him happily and starts to groom Lawrence.

This pattern repeats every single week, unless Lawrence has been here a day earlier. Bow does not feel the need to display if the two have just seen each other. But if a whole week has gone by, the display must take place. There is no way to get around it. We just have to go through it.

Some people tend to say things like: well, of course, he's a chimpanzee. What did you expect? But I don't think it's just a chimpanzee thing. The more I get to understand Bow's peculiar and inevitable behavior, the more I recognize that I have seen similar things in humans, but at the time, I did not understand what I was seeing.

For instance, when I was in law school, I was surprised during negotiations with another student, that he appeared to get very angry and hit his hand on the table so hard that he broke the wristband to his watch and may also have injured his hand. At the time, I thought this was a sign of the man's stupidity and lack of self-control. But I was woefully unaware of the power of non-verbal signals at the time, and I did not realize that disputes are often settled by non-verbal displays of strength and posturing and that you cannot reason your way out of what is essentially a power struggle.

In my real life experiences as a lawyer, I learned that I could not ignore non-verbal signals. People were communicating important things to each other without words -- and often the words they used belied the real messages they were sending. We ignore non-verbal signals at our peril.

Many repeated patterns of aggression and then submission appear in human relationships all around us. It does not necessarily have to be overtly violent, but it is there nonetheless. Naive do-gooders often try to teach people not to repeat those patterns over and over again, but the people who do really well in life are those who learn to go with the flow. Instead of preaching to others that they should break the pre-programmed pattern, they learn the pattern, and they find ways to come in without getting hurt.

By learning to live with a chimpanzee, and experiencing this first hand with him, I am able  to understand a lot of things now about human relationships that I was not able to see before. I have incorporated some of this understanding into my new book, Theodosia and the Pirates, which will be out next year.

Dominance displays and patterns of submission are a part of life. Instead of trying to reform everybody into behaving more like a robot and less like a primate, wouldn't it be better to understand and incorporate that understanding into our lives and our institutions?

When Lawrence came the day after Christmas, he brought with him a couple of belated presents for Bow: a sports shoe and a shirt. Bow was delighted with the gifts. Of course, he knows what we normally do with shoes and with shirts. He even briefly wore the shirt. But afterwards, he went back to enjoying his own natural pattern of behavior with shirts.

Literacy and education are all well and good. We each can benefit from those. But who we are, underneath the education and the clothing, is not going to change. This is one of the many things that I have learned from Bow.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Three Gifts: Christmas 2012

Bow got three gifts this year for Christmas.

Bow got to choose the order in which the gifts would be opened. The first gift he chose was in a gold bag.

 He could see what it was, as the bag was not sealed. He said he wanted the gift with the blanket. But it was not a blanket. It was a rug. Of course, what Bow loves best about rugs is unraveling them.

Here is a video of Bow playing with the rug:

The unraveling of the rug took some time, so it was not until much later that the second gift was opened.

The second gift was more fun to open than it was to play with. And the third gift was quite possibly the best gift of all: a fruit basket from Bow's uncle.

You can read more about Bow's enjoyment of his third gift on "The Feast Before Us."

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Bow Helps with the Cleaning

Somebody asked me recently how I "control" Bow. The answer, of course, is that I don't control Bow. I can't make him do anything

Would it be different if he were human? I don't think so. Contrary to what many people believe, we can't control other humans, either. We can tell someone what to do or not to do, but they decide whether to pay any attention.

While Bow does not seem to be interested in constructive behavior, he has some talents and impulses that can be quite positive. For instance, sometimes he likes to clean!

Today we were expecting a guest, and I noticed that the glass needed cleaning. Normally, I don't like to do this while Bow is in the inner pen with me, because when he was younger, he tried to drink the cleaning fluid and eat the paper towels. But today, an amazing thing happened. I dropped one of the paper towels that was soaked in Windex, and Bow picked it up and started cleaning the floor.

When I saw this, I suggested to him that he might want to clean the glass, too. He did not immediately agree to do that, but eventually he decided that cleaning the glass would be fun. So he helped quite a bit with the glass cleaning.

If somebody asked me: how did you make Bow clean the glass? I would have to say: I didn't. It was just something he wanted to do.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Many Uses of a Drum

This week, we had a visitor at our house, Jill Dabney, who played and sang two of the songs from The Debt Collector. She came by on Wednesday, which is the day I have off to do things not involving Bow, and Lawrence reported to me that the whole time when Jill was recording the songs, Bow was listening intently to the music she was making.

On Thursday, I started work on getting the songs edited and uploaded, so Bow got a chance to hear them again. On Friday, as I was listening to one of the songs, Bow asked me to be allowed to play music. (תני לי לנגן). I went to look for a keyboard for him to use, but neither of our portable keyboards worked, so I asked him whether he might like to make music with his drum, instead.

Granted, drum music isn't all that melodic, but Bow agreed. So I brought in one of the drums he received as a present from his uncle years ago.

There is a reason that Bow doesn't have all his toys in with him all the time. Most toys require tight supervision, because once he destroys them, it's possible to create all kinds of havoc with the parts.

While he understands perfectly well what a drum is for, and he can he even demonstrate that he knows how to play the drum quite well -- he has an excellent sense of rhythm -- Bow is never content to use a toy or a tool only for the purpose intended. He gets very excited when he has an object to play with, and he explores every possible use, consuming, taking apart and re-purposing as he goes along.

By the time he was done with the drum, he had liberated the metal rods that were a part of its outer structure and set about finding novel uses for them.

Here is a video of the progression of Bow's activities using the drum and its remains.

How many different uses that Bow makes of the drum can you spot?  My interns used to try to convince me that this creative behavior by Bow with every single toy was not destructive: he was constructing new objects from the remains of the old ones. Much as I appreciate Bow's creativity, I beg to disagree. Bow consumes things. He enjoys the various stages of taking something apart, and he is clever at devising new uses. But he never puts two things together to make a new one, so his actions are not constructive. The goal of his activity is always to take apart.

For this reason, Bow gets to play with one toy at a time, and always under tight supervision. While his destructiveness is usually playful, imaginative and harmless, there is always the potential for Trouble with a capital T in all his music making!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Literacy and Book Reading Distinguished

I think people are very confused about literacy these days. They assume that literacy is the ability to read, and once you learn how to read, you can read anything and understand anything, so that literacy can open the entire store of human knowledge to any given person. As romantic as that may sound, and as much as I would like to believe that it's true, there is an element of magical thinking in that.

Literacy at its simplest is the ability to decode and encode writing so that symbols on the page or on the screen can be associated with pronounced words in a particular language. Being able to read can precede being able to have a conversation. It can even come before the meanings of some of the words one can read are understood. Little children can do this. Chimpanzees can do this. It is no big deal, and it does not imply a giant leap of intelligence.

I've had people ask me: "Since you say that Bow is literate, does he read books?" My honest answer has always been that I don't think he does. He has been exposed to books since infancy, and he likes to have them read to him, and he also likes to handle them, but so far, I have not seen any evidence that he reads books. He may read a few words here and there, but he does not sit down and sequentially read a book from cover to cover, taking it in the way the author intended.

Bow knows what books are. He has seen me use them in the canonical way, but it's not something he wants to do. So what does he actually do, when given a book to read? Here is a video clip that answers that question.

Notice that Bow holds the book right side up, not upside down. He is interested in getting to know the different parts of the book,and  he flips through finding small snippets that are of interest to him, whether pictorial or textual, but his attention span does not allow him to stop for too long on any given thing.

Admittedly, this is a book that is of interest to me because of the subject matter. Bow is not interested in the ideas and personages involved, but I have in the past given him books about other chimpanzees to read, and he treated them about the same way. He would sit for hours -- or at least twenty minute intervals with breaks -- to have me read to him about Nim, but he did not sit for hours reading about Nim himself.

To be honest, I don't read every book sequentially, either. When it's a book that I use for research purposes, I go through the index just like Bow, and I pick up particular passages that have something to do with my own purposes.

Many humans have trouble sitting down and reading a book cover to cover. Bow is not alone in this. If you would like to learn about the problems of other readers, I recommend this blog:

Literacy isn't everything. There are many other components to reading a book besides being able to decode a sequence of letters and make out which word it spells. It isn't magic. And Bow's achievements in literacy do not in any way imply that his intelligence is abnormally high. That claim was never made.

What I am hoping for, someday, is to find a way to prove what Bow really can do. It's not all that remarkable, once you realize what it is, but it would be nice to be able to share this knowledge with others. And maybe if people realized how modest an achievement literacy is for the average human, they might come to be less closed to the idea that a chimpanzee can do it, too.