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Heisenberg was a Human – Pass it On!

By (June 1, 2008) No Comment

Beautiful Minds: The Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins

By Maddalena Bearzi and Craig B. Stanford
Harvard University Press, 2008

There’s an old story about Jacques Cousteau, probably apocryphal (the best true stories always are): he’s visiting an oceanographic laboratory in San Diego and chatting with the researchers there about the captive octopus they have in their lab (the species varies with the storyteller, but the smart money’s on Octopus vulgaris). This octopus is housed in a series of tanks and tubes that stretch the entire length of the lab, but even so, he frequently manages to slurp out of his contained run altogether and slowly, sloshingly investigate the rest of the room. This actually happens while Cousteau is visiting, and the octopus’ wayward tentacles overturn the chessboard two of the researchers had been using for a private game. One of them turns to Cousteau and says, “I guess he’s not that good at chess!” Cousteau smiles and says, “He has eight arms to my two, and his brain is half his body; I would be much worse at his games.”

Apocryphal or no, the story does the old salt credit and sounds a lot like his kind of observation – vaguely serene, and not all that invested in the primacy of mankind. As the field of animal cognition studies broadens and deepens, as the escalation of worldwide climate change prompts more of even the most conservative scientists and public thinkers to start thinking of nonhuman animal life with a greater sense of camaraderie (it is, after all, just the one planet, and nothing living here can go live anyplace else), a similar strain of inclusivity is finding its way into fields where once the gates were firmly shut against non-homo sapiens. Increasingly, researchers are seeking to broaden the understanding of what it means to be intelligent, which goes hand-in-extremity with broadening who then gets to be called intelligent by humans.

That ‘by humans’ is the rub, however: the gates may be open, but the seats at the table still accommodate only human posteriors.

New from Harvard University Press is Beautiful Minds: The Parallel Lives of Great Apes and Dolphins by Maddelena Bearzi, President and co-founder of the Ocean Conservation Society, and Craig Stanford, co-director of the Jane Goodall Research Center at the University of Southern California. Both have spent many years in the field and on the water, observing their chosen subject species (dolphins and chimpanzees, respectively), and they have collaborated to produce a slim little book (literally little, hardly larger along its edges than a mass market paperback, which is an odd design choice for a new hardcover, and sporting a plain off-white dust jacket, which is an even odder choice for a book about two such photogenic species as apes and dolphins) that is part field-observed natural history in the grand old tradition, part scientific inquiry into the nature of intelligence, learning, society, and culture, and part conservationist plea. The book fits nicely in the hand and is bursting with casual erudition and genuinely heartfelt impressions of some magnificent creatures observed in the wild. It is a feast for the open-minded, a gentle awakening for the close-minded, and a perfect gift for somebody who’s trying to decide which to be.

Bearzi and Stanford adopt a personal tone right from the outset of their book, where each narrates bringing their respective children to see in captivity the creatures to which our authors have devoted their professional lives. While Stanford is showing his son the chimpanzees at the zoo, he disarmingly reflects on their wild counterparts he’s studied for years:

Despite their smaller size, in the wild, chimpanzees are altogether different animals. They are sinewy and immensely powerful. I have seen males break off saplings to drag about in their macho charging displays at other males. Once a particularly bellicose male broke a tree on top of me in an apparent attempt to bully me. It was highly successful.

Although they are both trained specialists, they hasten to strike an appealingly personal note for the tone of their book, a joint study of the intelligences of great apes and dolphins:

We have each spent large parts of our lives watching the animals we write about; Stanford studying great apes and Bearzi studying dolphins. We are utterly fascinated by them, we feel passionately about them as fellow creatures, and we hope to convince you that understanding the unlikely parallels between these creatures gives us a rare glimpse into the origins of that most human of all qualities, our intellect.

Certainly this is a laudable goal, and yet the thing is maddening. Not the book, not really the book, although the book is maddening too, but more the whole snail-like pace of animal cognition studies, the stinginess of funding for its research, the predictability of that funding (one gapes to discover that the U.S. military still likes the idea of training dolphins to attach bombs to the hulls of enemy vessels) – none of which Bearzi and Stanford can do anything about. But there’s one further maddening detail, and it’s all over their book like crabvine, and it’s the prejudices of animal cognition studies. You’d think just once in all this increased chatter, somebody involved would manage to think around all of their human presuppositions, not just a baker’s dozen of them. Animal cognition studies will continue to hobble along piecemeal as long as every other clever species on the planet is required to sit in human chairs.

The problem is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, dammit. In the magical fairy realm of quantum physics, this principle asserts that a particle’s momentum may be measured, but only at the cost of knowing its position – and that it’s position may be determined, but only by forsaking the knowledge of its momentum. It’s important to bear in mind that the particle roaming around in the subatomic chaparral has both position and momentum. It’s the scientific (that is, the human) act of looking to measure that stymies the result. Applied to the layman’s universe, it translates similarly: humans change what they study.

Nowhere is this more visible than in the field of animal cognition, because it’s virtually impossible to construct a meaningful test of another animal’s intelligence in that animal’s natural habitat. The standard human response to this has been to box up the animals in question, cart them to your lab, and try to get them to learn human sign language.

Not an optimal situation, resolutely Victorian. Bearzi and Standford are genteel, gracefully caring individuals, the very best sort of Victorians, but still, they can drive you to distraction. Just listen to this:

Of all the 5 billion or more species, only a handful have possessed a high degree of intellect; apes and humans (including many extinct forms of both), dolphins and whales, and perhaps elephants. That is the brain-power short list, and it is very short indeed.

Such pronouncements could make a soul weep, if that weren’t an exclusively human thing to do. Leaving aside the typical human moral blindness of the parenthetical (first, there’s no way for anybody to know with any scientific accuracy the intelligences of forms long gone, and second, where do you suppose those extinct forms of humans went, that they’re no longer around to be measured? It would almost be funny, if the caked blood weren’t so thick), there’s the absoluteness of the thing: a very short list, yes, but despite our authors’ staked-out territory, it’s just possible it’s longer than they say. And they do say it, often:

Intelligence is perhaps the rarest commodity in all living things. It is very hard to define, and even harder to find in the animal world. Many people will make a valiant argument for their pet dog or cat, citing anecdotes in which the pet seems to show it was almost human in intellect. Certainly the cognitive line between ourselves and other animals has grown fuzzier with increased research. But for the most part, we anthropomorphize when we attribute humanlike smarts to any creatures other than dolphins and great apes.

So just them? Just them and no others? Captive cephalopods like the one who may or may not have played chess with Monsieur Cousteau have been demonstrated to show observational learning, even some abstract learning. Virtually all species of bird score higher on such Heisenberg tests than anybody previously guessed they would, and that doesn’t even include their superstars: owls in human captivity show a plasticity of learning that often outstrips human children twice their age. And as for crows and ravens? In human captivity – and even out in the natural world – they more often than not solve knotty little problems faster than their human observers.

Elephants get a ‘perhaps’ despite their vast spatial and social memory, despite their recently-documented ability to recognize themselves in a mirror as themselves, despite the patently obvious sophistication of their familial groups. But then again, familial groups may be our authors’ weak spot. They observe a pod of killer whales, observe how matrilinear their societies are (exactly like elephants but not at all like most great apes, incidentally), and then, after all that glorious, priceless time in the field, first-hand experiences thousands of nature-fans would give a finger to share, this is all they have to say:

They [killer whales] avoid inbreeding simply by mating with other clans, outside the matrilines. Resident killer whales, in fact, always choose partners with a different “language” or “dialect.” In other words, they seek out animals that don’t sound at all like themselves. In the killer whale world, the more similar the dialect, the more closely two individuals are related.

In the normal course of human investigations, this would be eye-openingly fascinating. But if you take a Heisenbergian step back, you see right away how … well, how condescending it is. For starters, what the devil is the meaning of those quotes over language and dialect? Either these ‘animals’ are talking with each other or they’re not. If they’re not, if in your scientific opinion the sounds you’re hearing are just random squeaks and squawls, then you needn’t belabor the subject any further, right? And if they are using language (and even dialect! Fancy that such creatures might have regions and even neighborhoods! ), why the dismissive quotes, why the suggestion that it’s somehow miraculous that a species who’s been on Earth for seventy million years might, just might, have developed a sophisticated means of not repeatedly inbreeding? The implication ought to insult a whole Noah’s ark, and yet our two authors proceed from one observation like this to another. Take a further incident. Bearzi encounters a pod of dolphins gorging on sardines about seven miles off the coast of Los Angeles. Her team is busy recording the high-pitched free-flowing squeals emanating from the pod. Suddenly the squeals change to harsh whistles, and the pod flees. When Bearzi looks around, she spots the fin of a great white shark, and this is what she draws from the whole thing:

I don’t know what the dolphins were “talking” about just before we spotted the shark but it was probably not just about how great the meal was at this particular feeding spot. Their language, or whatever we decide to call it, probably enabled them to advise each other of an imminent danger and keep track of where the other group members were at that moment.

With all due respect for Bearzi, and with all due reverence for the scientific method (which tries never to assume facts not in evidence, nor to make deductive leaps without a chain of causality), isn’t this a little slow? Not just the quotes over talking, although they’re no more helpful here than above, but the inductive process here is one step away from being silly: a group of dolphins are feasting on sardines and making one kind of noise while they do it, a shark shows up, the noises they’re making change radically, and they swiftly depart. And yet Bearzi can only manage a “probably” about whether or not the change – and the departure – had something to do with the shark? We don’t want to make wild suppositions, right – but if we start out as basic as this, we’ll never get much of anywhere. Of course the dolphins were communicating about the shark. Is that so hard to simply say, and let further suppositions flow from it?

Then again, suppositions may be at the heart of the problem. Bearzi and Stanford are, as noted, smart and perceptive writers, keen to empathize with the other denizens of the natural world, but empathy without a certain quality of perspective is a limited thing even with the best of intentions, and Bearzi and Stanford from time to time betray the confines of their perspective – sometimes explicitly, as when they disclaim the role that culture plays in defining them:

Although we, the authors of this book, are both biological organisms – primates, in fact – we define ourselves by our cultures. The two of us speak English (one accented in Italian), wear western clothes, eat mostly western food. We are not part of a caste system, we do not live in mud huts, nor do we have animistic religious beliefs.

This kind of gesture at big-picture neutrality (both authors trying to show how broadly they understand their own cultural similarities, etc.) belies as much as it confirms. Yes, the two wear ‘western’ clothes, but how would they define such, especially since wearing any clothes is already an ironclad cultural distinction between them and all other animals on Earth. The same thing applies to ‘mostly’ western food: all the food is dead when they eat it, yes? Most of it is processed somehow, and none of it is screaming while consumed? All other animal life on Earth would draw the cultural line there, rather than scrupling about the percentage of tabouli on the menu. And they’re part of no formalized caste system, true, but women are discriminated against in every corner of the globe, and it’s a safe bet both Bearzi and Stanford have access to less of life’s pleasures than people with fifty times their money. And although ‘mud huts’ are neither here nor there as a feature of culture, religious beliefs – animistic or otherwise – are almost certainly yet another exclusively human concern (no jackrabbit carrying around a ‘lucky human foot’ and so on). The over-nicety of the specifications betrays the one besetting fault of Beautiful Minds: its authors aren’t willing to think hard enough about what it really means not to be human. What it really means to think in terms completely different from human terms.

Hence the dilatory pace of animal cognition studies, that unwillingness to step entirely outside of human preconceptions and recast the whole shape of the investigations to follow on the terms of those being studied. It’s amazing, awe-inducing stuff to read of parrots, chimps, dogs, orangutans, dolphins, and even sheep in various laboratories performing what seem like miracles in mirroring human cognition and mimicking human speech, but it’s important to remember that such accomplishments are them reaching out to us, trying to do what they perceive we want, either for shelter or their daily bread or for sake of the fellow-feeling they share with their caretakers. It’s impressive, but it’s insular, since it doesn’t pertain to anything any of them would ever do in their own worlds, any way they’d ever display their undoubted intelligence when no humans are around to watch them do it (and thereby, thanks to Heisenberg, change what they see). No chess is played in the vast bat-colonies of east Texas; no sign languages exist in the squabbling rookeries of Wales – and yet things of great interest to animal cognition specialists might be happening there every day. If human consonance is to remain our yardstick, only dogs, of all the animals on Earth, may be studied without fear of prejudice.

For dogs need not fear loss of habitat, since they’ve made us their habitat – but the worlds of most other animals are in grave danger, and Bearzi and Stanford end their book on this caretaking note. They’ve spent all their previous chapters extolling the beauty and virtues of great apes and dolphins; they spend their final one outlining in the starkest terms the threats both groups face in the 21st century, and the placement works. Readers who’ve been shown the marvels in their midst – marvels they may have taken for granted – are sent away from Beautiful Minds with the latest stark statistics on dolphin-netting and gorilla-butchering, both atrocities heavily increased in recent years by the encroachment of the human world on the worlds of the gorilla and dolphin.

The human world, by some estimates, increases by almost 10 million newborn individuals every year – needing all that much more in space, material, and wastage in the process … this process puts every other living thing on Earth (except dogs, who’ve made their smart alliance, cockroaches, who’ll get along anyway, and of course cats, who, after all, can’t be expected to care) in hazard of their very existence. Animal cognition studies, groping to understand these things even as they vanish from our midst, need books like Beautiful Minds, putting forth such an elegant and persuasive case that all the great species of the Earth have much to teach each other. Bearzi and Stanford have believed this for their entire careers, and their book, despite any fleeting purblindness here or there, is ultimately a beautiful and persuasive reminder that we are but one nation on this planet, surrounded by other nations who don’t seek our understanding but who could hugely benefit from it nonetheless.

They have beautiful minds – not just great apes and dolphins but all the greater peoples of the planet – and Bearzi and Stanford have done their part in showing that. Their efforts are to be commended, although they’ll never be noticed by those who don’t play chess.

Becka Podlertz, graduate of Washington and Lee University and freelancer to the ‘house and garden set,’ grew up with four brothers, is married to a Jets fan, and is the mother of two teenaged boys – making her something of an expert in non-human forms of intelligence (or lack thereof).