Tuesday, October 06, 2015

We came from them and we are like them

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, animals, animal behavior, animal psychology

Consider the vivisection theater. Hundreds of years ago curious investigators began tying or nailing down animals such as dogs and cutting them open to see how their organs worked. But sometime in the 1700's such dissections began to be carried out in public theaters, as part of the scientific lecture circuit which had become popular as the "renaissance" and "enlightenment" eras unfolded. Some investigators, after a single such experience, forswore the practice, being horrified at the barbarities inflicted on animals whose suffering was so obvious to them. Others, claiming that only humans could truly feel pain, forged ahead. Their descendants are with us even today, still claiming that while the shot deer or elk may "feel" the arrow or bullet, it does not "suffer" because they have no existential feelings; still claiming that it is OK to put various noxious chemicals into the eyes of rabbits clamped in a frame, for the sake of learning which ones cause inflammation, all the while saying that of course the rabbit may flinch but that it is not "feeling pain", only "exhibiting a physiological response to nerve impulses"; claiming that catch-and-release does no harm to a fish, that fish can't possibly "suffer" from having a hook stabbed through a jaw or even caught in the lining of the stomach; and so it goes. I say beware of people who use "only" too frequently.

Of course, considering with what callous indifference so many humans are treated by other humans, it really seems that the ability to be "humane" is seldom to be found, and in many it is entirely lacking. Animals in general may be amoral, but humans seem to have a corner on evil and wickedness. When you think your housecat is playing with a mouse in some cruel way, think again. It is getting the mouse too tired to bite back when the cat's sensitive mouth goes in to bite the neck and kill it.

Among the "core curriculum" required of all Arts and Sciences students in the 1960's were courses in Anthropology and Archaeology and other Humanities, but nothing in a realm remotely like Animal Husbandry. Only in a Biology course was the matter of animal behavior brought up, and then primarily in a negative way. Only "observed actions" could be reported, and then in the most dry and objective of terms. To mention, even to whisper, that any animal might have any purpose, thoughts, emotions, or make decisions, was "anthropomorphism" and was a much more serious sin than mere robbery or adultery (unless it was with one of the professor's children).

I did not like this attitude from the beginning, but I didn't know what to do about it. A copy of Edward Tolman's 1932 classic, Purposive Behavior in Rats and Men, came into my hands after I graduated, in Geology not in a life science: I could hit rocks without "hurting" them. Dr. Tolman was reviled in his day. Now we know that he was nearly always right. His writing helped me grow a little more. Finally, in much more recent years, I concluded: We have been looking at this backward all along! Of course anthropomorphism is incorrect, but only because the animals we observe live in a different world than we. In those parts of our shared world, where our experiences and theirs can overlap, we and they are very similar. But it is not because "they are like us." No, no no no, it is because we are like them, because we came from them.

Take that in. Make it a motto:
We are like Them because We came from Them
Why do you have emotions? Because your ancestors had emotions. Not just your parents, but your hominid ancestors of 5 million years ago, your tiny primate ancestors of 25 million years ago, your pre-mammal ancestors of 300 million years ago, even the tiny chordates of millions of years before that had emotions.

Why can you plan? Because your ancestors could plan, all the way back to half a billion years ago. Because with careful observation, we can discern that not only to warm, fuzzy animals plan, but so do turtles, fish, worms, even insects. A tiny nematode with less than 1,000 cells in its entire body, only about one-fifth of them making up its nervous system, can plan. Nematode plans are simple, but they exist.

It has been demonstrated that noxious stimuli are just as painful for a spider as they are for you. Animals right up and down the "evolutionary scale" feel pain, fight for their lives, and either enjoy or suffer in accord with things that help or harm them. But don't take any comfort in the notion of the "evolutionary scale". It is a deceptive concept. Evolution began on Earth about four billion years ago. You are the product of four billion years of evolution. But so is a hamster, a bumblebee, a swallow, or a brook trout. There is an odd fish called a Coelacanth, the "poster child" of "living fossils." Specimens caught since they were re-discovered in 1938 look just like fossils of 65 million years ago. Prior to 1938, scientists thought they'd gone extinct at the same time as the dinosaurs. No fossils of Coelacanth bones younger than 65 million years had been found. But just because they look so much like their ancestors of so long ago, don't think evolution left them behind. Many aspects of their environment in the sorta-deep ocean have remained stable, but not all, and they have continued to evolve along with everything else. It just didn't change their skeleton very much.

Three types of animal were chosen by Carl Safina, to study and to learn from, in his quest to see just how similar we and they might be: Elephants, Wolves, and Killer Whales. He has written Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. Fortunately, very early in his research, he met Cynthia Moss, who works with elephants. When he asked her what the elephants might teach us about humanity, he got a gentle answer that turned his question on its head. In part, she said, "Comparing elephants to people—I don't find it helpful. I find it much more interesting trying to understand an animal as itself." (p 12).

When we look at an elephant as an elephant, what do we see? Firstly, observing a single elephant is like observing a goblet and trying to infer what the rest of the place setting might be like with its plates, flatware, and so forth. Cynthia Moss and others observe elephant families and groups of families. An elephant has a social life as rich as yours (ignoring the 478 Facebook "friends" you've never met and who have no measurable impact on your life). Elephants don't rank themselves the way most primates do. But each family group has a Matriarch, a "Mom", whose accumulated wisdom earns her immense respect from the rest. Elephants together are a lot like big cows. But life is about more than eating and drinking. They play at times, even adults, and can be quite silly. When one member has been away for some reason, they enjoy very emotional reunions.

What do they experience differently from humans? They have two voices. We are familiar with the trumpeting calls they make, at frequencies humans can hear. Those are usually for sounding some kind of alarm, or for loud greetings when another is nearby. We are not familiar with their other voice, which is pitched too low for our ears. But if you happen to stand close to an elephant who is talking to another who happens to be 100 yards away, you might feel the voice. It'll make your chest shake. Most of their communication goes on in infrasound, and without special equipment, we can't even discover what elephant "words" sound like! They have worse eyesight than we, but a better sense of smell. Their thick hides prevent them from feeling quite as keenly as we do over most of their bodies, but the tip of the trunk is as sensitive as your tongue. It is also dexterous as a thumb and finger; I've seen an elephant peel and eat a tangerine, in less than a second. That's faster than I can do it!

A lot of things "everyone knows" about elephants was learned from elephants in captivity, or in family groups devastated by the loss of all the older family members because they were poached for their large tusks. A lot of what "everyone knows" about elephants comes from anecdotes about elephants who were mourning such losses, or driven almost mindless from boredom. Mr. Safina defines consciousness as the thing that feels like something. (p 21, his emphasis) The evident feelings of elephants and other animals must cause us to move the boundary of "consciousness" way, way back into the past. Consciousness isn't a unitary item, that you have or you don't. It is a scale, a spectrum, like fainter or brighter light. An elephant or killer whale has a larger brain than any human. Perhaps there's just as much, or more, "extra gray matter" in there, and their consciousness shines brighter than ours. Until we learn their languages, we'll probably never know.

Spending a good part of a winter watching wolves in Yellowstone, Safina learned more about consciousness. Seeing how wolves cooperate to hunt elk, on one hand communicating clearly with their fellow hunters while working equally hard to deceive their prey, it is easy to see how they plan and coordinate, solving problems on the fly (unless, of course, you are an anti-anthropomorphistic professor of animal behavior). He writes again about consciousness: "People who play with a dog—or a squirrel or a rat—and then believe that the animal lacks consciousness, themselves lack a certain consciousness." (p 288)

Just because other animals don't talk in human languages, doesn't mean they can't communicate. It is interesting, how many tame and domestic animals learn some human words, sometimes dozens of hundreds!, yet we never learn any of their words, and they must resort to the crudest pantomime to communicate with us. Who is the smarter one? D'you have a pet dog? He or she can make several dozen distinct sounds. Why not learn what some of them mean? About all most of us can learn is the sound of an angry growl (but we usually confuse it with an offended growl or a play-growl) and maybe the begging whine (and there are a few kinds we don't bother to distinguish).

Wolves have social lives more like elephants than like the Akela-Alpha-led wolves that sprang from the mind (certainly not the experience) of Rudyard Kipling. You know the drill. When the Alpha misses his first kill, the other wolves kill him and a new Alpha takes his place. Actually, the Alpha female has more status than her mate. He can't have pups; she can. And when food is abundant, other females are allowed to breed, and not always with the Alpha male only. Wolves do have some habits that prevent excessive inbreeding. And a wolf misses about 80% or more of its attempted kills. It takes persistence and continual practice and exercise to bring down deer or elk frequently enough to avoid starvation. Every wolf in a pack is equivalent to an Olympic athlete. But some hunt better than others. So they take the lead in a hunt, and they share their kills. Wolves care for each other. The notion of "dog eat dog" is a human concept, not a canine or lupine one.

Before going on to the killer whales, Mr. Safina dives into seven chapters that make up a section titled "Whines and Pet Peeves", in which he eloquently and convincingly takes on seven myths about the supposed lack of consciousness and so forth among nonhuman animals. This is the most powerful section of the book. Put extra-simply: if animals didn't have a "theory of mind", if they didn't have powerful social emotions (even the so-called solitary ones like tigers), if they didn't have a way to distinguish "me" from "not me" in their own thoughts, if they couldn't plan, and several other skills we tend to think we have in a monopoly, they would quickly become extinct. Every one of them.

We can plan because trilobites and worms and clams figured that out half a billion years ago, and animals ever since have been refining it. We just have the brain power to make extra-detailed plans. One thing after another. We came from them. Thus we are like them.

Killer whales. Makes you shiver, does it? All most of us ever knew of them was that they kill baleen whales, eat the tongue and let the rest sink. Steely-eyed, remorseless killers, these killer whales, even if they have been called the more fashionable term Orcas in recent years. Now we find there isn't only one worldwide species of killer whales. There are at least five and maybe 12 to 20. Some do indeed prey on non-toothed whales. Some prey only on fish. Members of one population, currently numbering 81 (more or less; it may have changed in the past year), feed only on salmon. Some prey only on sea lions or large seals. Some live in a home range of a few dozen or a few hundred square miles. Some range much more widely, and when they pass through the home range of another group with its different diet, they ignore them, and the home group ignores the passers-by.

They are matriarchal, like elephants. It's interesting, that all the really social animal species are matriarchal, except humans. Maybe patriarchy is why we have wars. Has any country on Earth that has a female leader (President or Prime Minister), caused a war? Of course a couple have fought defensive warfare, including Margaret Thatcher. Another side thought: I've had both male and female supervisors and managers, and the females generally were better leaders.

So back to the whales. People remember the few times (probably only twice) that a killer whale in captivity has killed a human. No wild killer whale, of any of the known groups (species?) has ever killed a human, nor deliberately threatened one. Maybe when our Prince of Peace returns, Jesus will come as a whale. Just like elephants, just like wolves, just like animals in general, killer whales are gentle with everything they don't intend to eat. They are playful, They love sex. They clearly love each other. They are emotional, they have personalities: some are more shy and some more outgoing; some are more playful and some seem rather monkish or contemplative.

But whales are whales. They are not "like us". They are descended from thinking, emoting, planning, playful animals just as we are. There is no justification for granting them "human rights", because they are not human. Suppose we found ourselves needing to be granted "wolf rights" or "whale rights" in order to get along with them?

Many folks are deathly afraid of "space aliens", who "abduct" some humans, perform "experiments" on them, perhaps with a reproductive intent, and even plant mysterious machines in their bodies. Isn't that what we do throughout nature? We have done this to almost every kind of animal out there, and there is a tiny radio transmitter that can be pasted on the back of a honeybee! I think all the fear of space aliens is a form of guilty displacement: we are afraid of ourselves, not because of what we might do, but because of what we have done and are doing. Including to people. The quintessential space alien of the early Twentieth Century was Josef Mengele, who abducted people, mostly Jews and homosexuals, and did all kinds of barbaric experiments on them. Do we need to destroy in order to learn? One would hope not. But tens of thousands of scientists would say, more or less reluctantly, that we must. Sad but true.

The author's point is not some anti-human, liberal rant. Even in the "rant chapters", section three, he is hopeful that we will figure out how to preserve and conserve and live with the biosphere before we heedlessly eliminate it. But drawing his book to a close, he wrote, "For every ballerina there are thousands of soldiers." The more I learn about it, the more I think hope is all we have.

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