Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Quoting George Adamson

A few words from George ("Born Free") Adamson, the "father of lions", from his book A Lifetime with Lions...

On making the movie, Born Free:
"Most of the people of the [filming] unit were extremely nice and friendly, but their way of life was not mine. There were too many dramas and 'goings-on' for my peace of mind. I felt safer with the lions."

On "enrichment" for captive animals:
"I am firmly convinced that it is the boredom and frustration of captivity which makes [captive] lions dangerous. One of their strongest senses is that of smell. To deprive them of the chance to exercise it is tantamount to depriving a human being of all reading matter."

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Intelligence and Socialization

The Animal Planet channel is currently running a series called "Extraordinary Animals". This is a highly interesting series and coincidentally, it's about the exact opposite of that Human Spark series on PBS. While PBS is working with ancient notions and trying to prove the non-existence of animal intelligence, each episode of Extraordinary Animals focuses on one particular research study that shows just how intelligent animals really are.

AzyThis week, they showed an episode about Azy, an orangutan at the Great Ape Trust of Iowa. The researchers there have taught Azy a language based on abstract symbols (sort of like hieroglyphics), and also demonstrated that orangutans have long-term memories of companions (just as Christian the lion demonstrated) as well as self-recognition, all qualities that others have denied possible in animals.

The following describes some of what was shown on Extraordinary Animals, and is partially adapted from the Great Ape Trust web site:
Scientists at Great Ape Trust are exploring the abilities of orangutans to use symbols and syntax to express their thoughts. The orangutans are learning to use a symbol-based language that is presented on a computer monitor. The touch-screen monitor has large "buttons" that are big enough for orangutan fingers.

The symbol for apple.This symbolic language contains about 70 "words". All the symbols are abstract and have no visual relation to what they represent. There are seven categories, each containing ten individual symbols. The categories are: foods, non-food objects, proper names of people, proper names of orangutans, verbs, adjectives and numbers.

There is a logic to these symbols. Each category has its own unique exterior shape. For example, a rectangle means "food" and a circle means "non-food object." Individually, the interior components of each symbol are meaningless. It's the arrangement within the exterior shape that gives each symbol a specific meaning. In addition to the major categories, there are symbols that mean "send," "clear," "yes/good," and "no/wrong." The dictionary can be expanded as the orangutans learn more symbols.
Using this system, Azy is able to identify objects, ask questions, and even give commands.

The self-recognition test involves surreptitiously placing a mark on the subject's head, then seeing if he reaches for his own head when he sees the mark in a mirror. Sounds simple enough, but the test can disprove the old notion that animals have no idea of "self" and "other" (as they contend over on PBS).
Mirror self-recognition (MSR) has been a controversial topic in the field of comparative psychology since it was first reported by Gordon Gallup in 1970. He provided behavioral evidence that chimpanzees were able to understand the nature of their mirror image, meaning that they recognized themselves in the mirror. Consider the phenomenon. A mirror image is a representation of the world, like a picture or a photograph but unlike a still image, it is dynamic and mimics the behavior of the viewer. An ape who demonstrates MSR must understand that the mirror image is an actual representation of herself in both time and space, and that it is not simply another ape looking back at her.
Again, it sounds too simple, but children under 3 fail the test.

I have seen only 4 episodes of Extraordinary Animals so far, but there is a pattern emerging, that explains why on Animal Planet they are showing us that animals are smarter than they are generally given credit for, while on PBS they are mired in old and untrue notions.

The animal experiments shown in The Human Spark are very rigid, very lab-sterile, and (as I pointed out in my last article) do not take into account the socialization of the animal. A chimp living in a zoo environment with other chimps is not going to be attuned to human society and so is not going to act according to human society's ways--a requirement demanded by the way those experiments are set up.

The animals shown in Extraordinary Animals are treated as individuals and the ones I've seen so far have all been hand-raised from infancy. This means they are socialized in human ways and thus are more likely give reactions in ways that we recognize.

What I'm saying is that interpreting an animal's actions means understanding the way the animal has been taught to act--this is not a reflection on intelligence; it is social training. When an animal has been brought up with close contact with human society, it will react in ways that are more recognizable to humans, thus revealing the intelligence that is always there, even in an animal that reacts according to a different society's teachings.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Looking vs. Understanding

On last night's "The Human Spark", an experiment was set up to prove that chimpanzees can't think in terms of abstract concepts, like "heavy" vs. "light".

Alan Alda brought a box into a room by himself, tossing it around to demonstrate that it was light. Then, 5 people brought in another box, struggling with it to demonstrate that it was heavy. A piece of fruit was placed on top of each box, and a rope was fastened to each box and then positioned so that a chimp could reach through a partition, grab a rope, and pull the box closer to grab the fruit.

The chimpanzee had one chance. The film showed him grabbing the rope on the heavy box, which he could not move, so he got no fruit.

Stupid chimpanzee -- doesn't know what heavy and light are.

But... what if the chimpanzee has a different view of things? What if (and this is not unreasonable, based on chimpanzee society) he sees the fact that 5 people clustered around one box, all grabbing it and manipulating it, means that the box is better than the one that only one person handled? Five people were all interested in that heavy box at the same time; only one bothered with the light box. Why wouldn't the chimpanzee go for the more interesting box first?

In my opinion, the experiment proved more about preconceived notions, than learning how things really are.

Light vs. Heavy -- or is it?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Looking for Humans

I have, occasionally in the past, made disparaging remarks about SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence project. It's not that I contend there can't be intelligent life "out there", it's that the people are looking for other humans, communicating in human ways. Hoping to find that on a distant and completely separate planet is just ridiculous.

The same sort of thinking gets in the way of people's understanding of animals. "Why don't they act like humans?" is the repeated question. But why should they? They're not humans--but that doesn't mean they don't have equivalently rich lives.

One of the main aspects of the search for humanness in animals is language. Why don't animals speak like humans do?

Back in December, in the New York Times, there was an article describing how a Scottish group of scientists had managed to decipher words and syntax in the spoken language of Campbell's monkeys (that's one in the picture), thus giving them credit for at least a little human equivalency.

But a month later, the same writer in the NYT reports on some other, more pessimistic scientists, who contend that even these monkeys cannot have a rich language because they cannot conceive of the idea that another animal has a mind similar to their own; therefore they have no need to communicate.

I don't know why it is that so many scientists take a completely stupid course when it comes to their inability to understand animals. These pessimists will contend that an animal can't do this, or can't think that, or can't relate to another. They forget one fact that makes their arguments invalid:
You cannot prove the non-existence of something.
No one can prove that monkey x has no idea that monkey y has a mind. Each monkey may not perform exactly as expected or hoped, but that only shows that a human's preconception of how a situation must be handled did not hold true.

Careful observation always proves these pessimists wrong. Why would a cat, for example, have a way to say, "I'm sorry" --which they do-- if there was no inkling that another cat or person had a mind of its own? So why should anyone assume that a social animal like a monkey would not be able to realize that?

The gist of the latest NYT article is that animals can't communicate in anything resembling a human language, and this must mean they don't think or understand.
And so the conclusion is illogical.

Friday, January 08, 2010

The "Human" Spark?

PBS is out to set our collective understanding of the world back by at least 100 years with a miniseries that started this week, called The Human Spark.

The aim of the show is to find out why humans are different from all other life, a very old fashioned idea and one that does not need exploration, since there is much more to learn about how other life is similar to humans.

They're using Alan Alda's star power to bring people to the show, and it is supposed to present "science" to support such proven-false ideas as,
empathy and cooperation are "characteristically human qualities" (their words),
humans are the only species to possess language,
humans are the only species to make and use tools,
humans are the only species to be concerned with social status,
and other things that are supposed to make us superior to all the rest of the living world.

Our society has suffered for far too long under such erroneous ideas that separate us from all other life. Animals' languages exist are are being deciphered by open-minded scientists. Animals make and use tools, as reported by scientists willing to observe clearly. And on and on; pick almost any article I've written here. To the careful, open-minded observer, there is a greater unity between ourselves and other living beings than outmoded, established science is willing to admit.

And the real problem here is, as history has shown, separation leads to unfamiliarity with the other, which gets transformed into the other being seen as inferior, which leads to the destruction of it.

Thus, all life on earth would benefit by exploring that which makes us one with all life. Spreading the fallacious idea of separation will lead to more extinction.

Unfortunately for us all, Alan Alda is prepared to tell us that we must believe in the dark-age philosophies. And because he is Alan Alda, an awful lot of people will not question what he says.

Thanks a lot, PBS.

The first of the series aired this week, but it focused on just one topic: Why homo sapiens is superior to what scientists have speculated about neanderthals (homo neanderthalensis). That's what it comes down to, speculation, because no one has ever observed neanderthals. They even created a wax bust showing how a neanderthal man was supposed to look different from modern man. The funny thing is, it reminded me of an actor from a few years ago.

Joe E. Ross versus artist's conception of a neanderthal
Point not made, PBS.

The scenario they presented about how homo sapiens took over Europe from the neanderthals actually played out nearly exactly the same as how Europeans took over the Americas from the Native Americans. This suggests, then, it isn't genes, it isn't brain size, or any other physical attribute, but instead it's a societal thing. One society was better prepared to move in and take over from another society. There was no proof of any innate superiority or "human spark".

Future shows are scheduled to demonstrate why homo sapiens is superior to other species. I don't expect any proof there, either.
"Humans have always assumed that they are more intelligent than dolphins because they had achieved so much - the wheel, New York, wars, and so on -- whilst all dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But the dolphins have always believed that they were far more intelligent than man -- for precisely the same reasons."
--Douglas Adams