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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Negotiating Over the Future

Yesterday my daughter and I went shopping in the afternoon, and Lawrence stayed with Bow, fed him dinner and put him to bed.

This morning, when Bow woke up, he had a single dark navy blue sock on. Hmm, where did that sock come from? Was it a belated Christmas gift from Lawrence?

Anyway, Bow seemed very happy with his new article of footwear, and he kept the sock on all through breakfast, and when I cleared away breakfast, and he still had it on when he took my hand and spelled:  אני רוצה לצאת  "I want to go outside."

"Okay," I answered. "Give me the sock, and you can go outside."

He took my hand and with a bit of savage anger spelled:     ! לא    "No!"

(He didn't actually spell the exclamation mark. We don't have punctuation on the glass, but his manner when he spelled "no" was such that it proclaimed: And I really mean this!)

No means no. If I had tried to take that sock away from him by force, I had every expectation of being scratched or bitten. Bow has an absolute right to everything on his person, and nobody, but nobody messes with him. So I waited.

A few minutes later, he took my hand and again spelled out that he wanted to go outside. Again, I told him he could go, but not with the sock on.  This time he did not reply verbally. He just extended the foot with the sock out to me, and he allowed me to gently remove the sock. I placed it in my pocket and started to unlock the door. As I was doing this, Bow reached into my pocket.


He withdrew his hand. With chimpanzees, possession is nine tenths of the law. Since I had the sock, he realized he would be violating my space if he took it by force. If he did that, I would be perfectly within my rights to lash out at him with my claws and my powerful jaw! (This would not, however, prevent him from taking it by stealth, if I did not notice, because Bow is not the most honest or upright person I know.)

After he was done playing outside, Bow asked to have the sock back, and I gave it to him. It is. after all. his sock! I just didn't want him to get it wet and dirty outside.

Bow and I are civilized enough to negotiate over the things we want. We are capable of  verbalizing our conflicting positions and coming to a compromise. In some ways, that is just as remarkable as the fact that Bow can spell out words. We don't have to physically fight over an object. We can talk about it.

But here's the thing: I desperately want to have proof of his literacy, because to me it would mean:

  • professional vindication
  • the possibility of getting funding
  • a way to contribute to the body of scientific knowledge accumulated by my species and culture
Now those might seem like greedy, selfish  motives on my part, but there you are. I'm being honest about it. That's what I want. The reason this would be a good thing for Bow, too, and why he ought to support my efforts is this:

  • He is dependent on my money for his food and shelter.
  • If we had funding, he could have a mate and friends of his own species.
  • His social status would be greatly improved if people knew how smart he is. It might even be a triumph of sorts for his entire species.
However, I am having trouble convincing Bow that he has something to gain from helping me prove it. It would not actually take Bow free-form spelling to make a dent in the resistance to my claims. Even a multiple choice computerized test where Bow was asked to match spoken words with their written equivalent would do it. But Bow is resistant to this idea, and I kind of understand how he feels.

I have always hated multiple choice tests, because they are not about expressing what I really think. It is more like validating the preconceived opinions of the test writer. It is a little like this conversation that I have actually  had with someone recently:

"Do you think my outfit is pretty?"

"I think it's charming."

"No, I didn't ask you that. Is it pretty? The only possible answers are: it's pretty or it's not pretty."

"Oh. Well, in that case, I think it's pretty."


The multiple choice test is not about self expression. It's not about providing the test giver with new information.  It's about showing that you know the right answer according to the person formulating the test. And Bow, so far, has been completely unwilling to play that game. 

Now, if only I could figure out a way to negotiate with him so that he will be willing to play the game for the sake of both our futures!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

To See and Be Seen

Everybody likes to be seen and perceived and understood. That is one of the great joys and delights of social interaction. But even when nobody sees you, you are still there. You still exist. You still are.

Even though I cannot see Bow, I'm pretty sure he is still there underneath the blanket
Object permanence is one of the first lessons babies learn about the nature of reality. They learn it by playing peek-a-boo. Much later, about the time of the first hide and go seek games, they also learn that if they can see someone else, that does not necessarily mean that this someone else can see them. Seeing isn't necessarily reciprocal.

Now I can see Bow. But can he see me?

Another lesson that is even more subtle is that seeing things affects what you know, but being seen does not necessarily affect what someone else knows. If he did not know you were seeing him, then he has no new knowledge.

Peekaboo! I see you!

Trying to gauge another person's state of mind involves guessing what they know and what they do not know, based on the sorts of information that are available to them, and also by trying to model their mental process. It can be very difficult, because not everybody perceives what he sees the same way. Someone can see you, but not notice. Someone can hear you, but not understand what you said. Even very intelligent adult human beings can make terrible miscalculations, just based on a false belief that to exist is to be perceived or that seeing necessarily means knowing.

Daniel J. Povinelli wrote a whole book about what young chimpanzees know about seeing. The problem is that what a researcher knows about what a chimpanzee knows is not necessarily a straightforward fact. The smart chimpanzee may not choose to let the researcher in on all its knowledge. Do you know what I know? How can you be sure?

Yesterday, I reviewed the movie  Cloud Atlas. I took issue with the statement by the character Sonmi:

"To be is to be perceived, and so to know thyself is only possible through the eyes of the other."

Being is one thing. Being perceived is something else. To conflate them is to be a social metaphysician, a person who believes that social reality is the only reality. People may misperceive you. You may misperceive yourself. But who you are is a fact, not open to social mediation.

People perceive different things in the same situation. Sometimes I will reminisce with someone about something that happened long ago, and it will turn out that they never knew a fact that was obvious and significant to me. Then they will say, "I must not have been in the room when that happened." Well, maybe. Or maybe they were in the room, but they were not mentally present. Maybe they saw, but did not perceive, heard, but did not understand. Maybe their attention was centered on another sight which was significant to them, and not to me.

People do not remember what they see. They remember what they perceived and how they interpreted the data. This is one of the reasons that we don't tend to remember what happened in our early infancy. It is not because we did not see, but it was hard to come to many conclusions with so little data to go on. We cannot remember what we did not perceive. It takes time for someone's mind to turn a sight into a perception, an event into a memory.

That is why it can happen that you might meet someone on a particular day, but they will not meet you until much later, when they finally perceive you for the first time. That is the topic of my children's book, When Sword Met Bow

When we bring a baby home for the first time, whether he is a human or a chimpanzee, he does not know enough about life to know us or meet us in any meaningful way. We may meet him on that day, but it may take a while before his cognitive development is enough to meet us back. That is because seeing is not perceiving, and the relations between sentient beings are not necessarily reciprocal.

Seeing is not knowing. And just because you know somebody you must not assume that they know you. And before any seeing or knowing can even begin to happen, things have to actually exist.

Reality is primary. Social reality is secondary. And while psychological visibility -- the feeling you get when somebody really understands you -- is a great delight, people continue to exist even when no one sees them. It's that very basic concept of object permanence that you learned when you started playing peekaboo!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Bow's Christmas presents

Bow knows it is Christmas. As far as he was concerned yesterday was already Christmas, and he kept pointing toward the tree, without saying anything. In fact, he did not eat as much as he usually does yesterday, because he kept looking toward the tree and refused to ask for much to eat.

When the delivery person came yesterday afternoon with the box from Harry and David addressed to Mr. Bow Katz, Bow knew it was for him. He was upset that I did not give it to him at once, but only put it under the tree. In protest, he refused to eat ordinary fare. He only had one big red apple and some fried banana slices for dinner, and refused all else, pointing repeatedly toward the tree.

This morning, I greeted Bow with "happy holiday" and he spelled חג שמח before he asked for his breakfast. After breakfast, he spelled "תני לי שמיכה חדשה" --- "Give me a new blanket!"

As my kids get older, there is a lot less magic to the Christmas holiday, as they already know what they are getting. Bow was so eager to get to that blanket, that I had no time to prepare for the shot, and so the movie came out lopsided.

It is a large giraffe print blanket, but it might be hard to make out in the photos.

 Bow knows what to do with a blanket.

It is a royal plush 50" x 60" when opened up to its full size.

Later Bow asked for another present. I asked him what kind of other present. "אוכל" he spelled. Food.
So I got the box of pears out.

Bow was excited to have his first pear.

 I gave him the one wrapped in festive gold foil.

Bow took his time eating the pear.

It was crisp and fresh.

Bow savored it.

An additional gift that Bow received is a vegetable platter purchased with funds provided for him by his grandmother.

Bow loves dipping vegetables in salad dressing.

 It is one of his favorite things to do.

Bow did not receive any toys this year, because he is just not that interested in toys any longer. He is twelve going of thirteen, and he has long since outgrown his teddy bears and his pull toys, his medicine ball and his cars and wagon and trucks. He never showed any interest in building blocks, except to throw them. And so far he pretty much ignores his computer. He still has a paint set that Lawrence gave him last year, but so far he has not wanted to touch it.

We used to shower Bow with all sorts of gifts, but what happened was that most of the presents remained unopened for months after he was given them. It is hard to find an appropriate gift for such a mature fellow as Bow, who basically has everything he needs, and looks down on useless trinkets. He can only eat so much, so any gift of food really replaces other food he would have eaten -- his stomach is not a bottomless pit, and when he is full he won't eat any more. He always chooses the best morsels of food available, and he ignores lesser fare, when better fare can be had.  He can only use one blanket at a time, but that blanket does need to be replaced each year. He is a creature of simple needs, wants and desires. It would be hard to create a rising demand for complex consumer goods in Bow, and a growth-based economy could probably not work for a population of people who are just like Bow.

It would be nice to get universal recognition for Bow's ability to spell. But as far as he is concerned, all is right with the world, and he does not need any recognition. He is very humble that way.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Year in Pictures

It's Christmas Eve day, and Bow is restless. It has been sporadically snowing, but nothing sticks. Bow keeps pointing me toward the Christmas tree in the living room. He won't say anything, just keeps drawing my attention to the tree, but when I tell him he can't have his presents till tomorrow, this displeases him.

Google has made me a retrospective slide show called the Year in Photos.

It is pretty good, as such things go, at summing up our year. We have had a very nice year, pictorially speaking.

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.