Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? I

I've been working my way through this book slowly, because I haven't found it all that illuminating, though it does clear up some questions for me. Frans de Waal is a leading ethologist – a student of animal behavior – who specializes in primates. The book provides an up-to-date picture of research in animal cognition. He seems much like an old-school naturalist who prefers hands-on experience to grand theories and models, which makes him temperamentally akin to Charles Darwin, whose strength was also in close, unbiased observation. The problem I have with de Waal is that his writing style is almost chatty at times, and he inundates the reader with study after study, inserting personal anecdotes while remaining a little sketchy on the concepts. I don't know whether this is how he actually thinks or whether he has deliberately adopted the prevailing model of science journalism, which, like most current journalism, tends to turn every subject into a human interest story: the interactions with the animals, the personalities of the researchers, etc., seem to take precedence. As I've said, I would prefer a straightforward summary of the latest thinking among scientists and a concise statement of their research findings. A lot of nonfiction these days reminds me of television news coverage, in which the journalist walks toward the camera making irrelevant gestures while recounting how someone struggled against all odds and prevailed, leaving the impression that what counts is determination and the ability to overcome adversity, rather than the actual content of their ideas. Or on radio broadcasts the narration is commonly accompanied by background sounds which seem to serve no purpose other than to hold the listener's attention. Like ordinary journalists, authors of popular scientific books often seem to go out of their way to engage the reader by any means available.

Most of the points made by de Waal are so obvious to me that I don't find them particularly interesting. However, having a similar perspective myself, I find his critical references to ideology-driven science of the past instructive. For example, he says:

B.F. Skinner was more interested in experimental control over animals than spontaneous behavior. Stimulus-response contingencies were all that mattered. His behaviorism dominated animal studies for much of the last century. Releasing its theoretical grip was a prerequisite for the rise of evolutionary cognition.

De Waal also has serious disagreements with some philosophical theories, past and present. He mentions Norman Malcolm, who, interestingly, was part of the Philosophy Department at Cornell disparaged by Richard Feynman, regarding a speech titled "Thoughtless Brutes," in which Malcolm said that "the relationship between thought and language must be so close that it is really senseless to conjecture that people may not have thoughts, and also senseless to conjecture that animals may have thoughts." This concept has since been disproven by research on children which clearly shows that they are able to think before they are able to speak and by research on animals which shows their ability to evaluate situations and solve problems in an analytical manner without language. Similarly, de Waal is unimpressed by contemporary discussion of theory of mind and is skeptical about some aspects of cognitive science, which he thinks present faulty views of how thinking actually occurs in nature. Not many academics have the nerve to speak out against past academics who led their departments in the wrong direction for decades, setting back intellectual progress and, I might add, trampling the careers of those who might have done a better job.

Where de Waal shines is in his debunking of anthropocentrism and the idea that mankind is distinctly elevated above all other species in every important respect. Much of the first half of the book is devoted to explaining how other animals display reasoning not entirely unlike our own. One of his major points is that the ability to reason has evolved separately in species that aren't closely related. Not only are apes able to reason, but so are crows and other species that have learned how to use tools. This leads him to a rather important proposition: Every cognitive capacity that we discover is going to be older and more widespread than initially thought. While de Waal's exposition is a little sloppy for my taste, his ideas very much support many of the positions I've taken on this blog that take us down several notches from the level of importance that we've assigned ourselves.

The one skill where de Waal thinks we differ from other animals lies in our use of language. He has not found anything comparable in other species, which instead may communicate with body language and signals. The use of advanced symbolism seems to be exclusively human, but, as he explains, other species are able to engage in rational decision-making without it. De Waal shares my distaste for the idea of human uniqueness that descends, ultimately, from religious beliefs and remains unchallenged in contemporary humanities departments everywhere. Regarding language, he cites recent research indicating that the FoxP2 gene, common to both humans and songbirds, "affects both human articulated speech and the fine motor control of birdsong." "Science increasingly views human speech and birdsong as products of convergent evolution, given that songbirds and humans share at least fifty genes specifically related to vocal learning."

De Waal cites Ayumu the chimpanzee as an example of how research showing that an animal can have human competencies arouses outrage and criticism:

Ayumu is a young male who, in 2007, put human memory to shame. Trained on a touchscreen, he can recall a series of numbers from 1 through 9 and tap them in the right order, even though the numbers appear randomly on the screen and are replaced by white squares as soon as he starts tapping. Having memorized the numbers, Ayumu touches the squares in the correct order. Reducing the amount of time the numbers flash on the screen doesn't seem to matter to Ayumu, even though humans become less accurate the shorter the time interval.... One follow-up study managed to train humans up to Ayumu's level with five numbers, but the ape remembers up to nine with 80 percent accuracy, something no human has managed so far. Taking on a British memory champion known for his ability to memorize an entire stack of cards, Ayumu emerged the "chimpion."

The distress Ayumu's photographic memory caused in the scientific community was of the same order as when, half a century ago, DNA studies revealed that humans barely differ enough from bonobos and chimpanzees to deserve their own genus. It is only for historical reasons that taxonomists have let us keep the Homo genus all to ourselves.

Sifting through the book, I'm finding a few interesting ideas and examples such as these, which I think corroborate some of my views. I'm a little more than halfway through and will make a second post when I've finished.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016


I'm officially out of winter mode and into spring mode. The transition is so abrupt here that it's almost startling, with the plants suddenly erupting from the ground and the colors changing from browns and grays to greens in a matter of days. At a distance the mountains briefly turn yellow and then become green, as they are named. Right on schedule, the hummingbirds show up on May 8 or 9. This summer should be a good one for tomatoes, because it is expected to be hot.

When I live in the same place for several years I gradually address various issues and eventually have nothing left to do. The first few years here were a little arduous, because I painted the house, garage and shed, mouse-proofed the basement and removed several elms that had died from Dutch elm disease. The yardwork has become considerably less of a strain with the purchase of a lawn tractor last year. This spring I'm down to repairing a damaged screen door and attending to carpenter ants. Now all I'm left with are trivial consumer decisions such as how to replace a fifteen-year-old tube TV with a large flat screen TV. If I'm not careful I'll become a fat, torpid couch potato.

For some reason I seem to reevaluate this blog at this time each year, perhaps with an awareness of change induced by the outdoors. As part of that I wonder who is reading this blog and why. With so few readers it is possible to know a lot about some of them, but I know nothing about others. I'm still at four readers whom I've actually met. Two of those are regular readers and two are occasional readers. One reader whom I know but haven't met, iteres from Alberta, seems to have dropped out, or at least she rarely reads this anymore. I have a couple of unknown regular readers and a few unknown irregular readers. With the tools available, it isn't easy to decipher the unknowns with any certainty. Because of Tor, other identity-protection techniques and an assortment of technical glitches, it is hard to have much confidence in the data provided by Google on pageviews. I think I may have a few unknown readers who have followed me from 3 Quarks Daily, and possibly from elsewhere. I've had pageviews from Oxford and Cambridge, UK, Cambridge, Massachusetts and Caltech. The Russian government, Russian criminals or someone in Russia – or someone anywhere using Tor – seems to like the blog sporadically. Also, because I have accumulated so many posts now, I've started to get pageviews from people who find the blog by chance on Google searches; they tend to be non-repeats: probably this is a blog that most people would rather not stumble across.

For the time being I've settled on the format of alternately reviewing books and blabbing, which seems to work well enough for me. I prefer the in-depth thought processes of books to typical online content. For example, I enjoyed delving into the thoughts of Czeslaw Milosz on my last two posts, and I subsequently came across a thread on the same topic at World Literature Forum, which, as is typical of Internet discussion, provided no detailed examination of Milosz's ideas. To me, most of the discussion on the Internet is discussion about what someone thinks might be interesting, but without any articulation of exactly what would be interesting about it. Thus, though you may agree or disagree with me on my posts, you do find out what someone actually thinks about something, and if I were to come across a blog like this I would find it more substantive than most Internet content. It is possible that there are many interesting blogs out there that remain undiscovered.

This blog is somewhat amorphous, i.e., the format and subject matter aren't fixed. I am always open to feedback, and if you have any but don't know my personal e-mail address, I can also be reached at doubttheexperts@gmail.com.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Native Realm II

I've finished the book and will continue where I left off. Milosz's high school was Catholic, and his Roman Catholic background was reinforced there, particularly by one teacher who taught his pupils that sex was repugnant. Milosz had strong heterosexual drives and did manage to find sexual partners later on, but as far as I am able to ascertain he did not have a serious relationship with a woman until he was in his thirties. After high school he studied law in Vilnius and began to associate with intellectuals. He joined the Vagabonds, a group that disdained snobbery and fraternities, and they arranged wilderness outings for themselves. In June of 1931 they traveled to Prague and bought a used Canadian canoe, transported it by train to Lake Constance in Bavaria, and set off down the Rhine, hoping to follow its tributaries to get as close as possible to Paris. However, they didn't consult their map carefully enough, and their canoe capsized and sank when they unexpectedly passed through rapids and struck a rock. They were thrown out of the canoe along with their knapsacks and were able to recover two of them and the canoe, but the one containing their passports and money was lost. Nevertheless, they did manage, after many delays and the help of others, to make it to Paris by other means.

After college, in 1934, Milosz got a scholarship to study literature in Paris for a year. He spent time with a distant uncle there, Oskar Milosz, an eccentric poet who became a Roman Catholic mystic late in life, whom he had met on his first trip. This may have reinforced Czeslaw's fledgling self-image as a Catholic poet, and throughout the book Milosz's inner conflicts seem to contain a religious element that, while not a straightforward presentation of church doctrine, represents how he sees the good part of himself. When he returned to Vilnius he became a bureaucrat, a job that he didn't like at all:

...it was not long, however, before I had made up my mind (later my conclusions were verified) that bureaucrats are parasites, paid not for what they do but for being in this or that room, behind this or that desk, from morning to evening. Every month they receive salaries that have nothing to do with any completed achievement but depend on their place in the hierarchy.  

In 1940, when the Soviets controlled Lithuania, life in Vilnius had become miserable and, with the help of a woman he knew, he devised a complex, risky and perhaps foolish plan to escape to Nazi-occupied Warsaw. At the last minute Sophia said that they would have to take along a third person, a pharmacist, in order to pay the guides at each stage of the journey. The pharmacist was completely inept, unkempt and terrified during the trip, and Milosz nicknamed him "Slob." One of the most harrowing events of the book, but also one of the funniest, occurs when they cross a large swamp between Lithuania and Prussia on foot in the middle of the night:

I felt at home in such swamps, and I have always been affected by their somewhat melancholy beauty. The smooth sheet of water shone with an oily gleam between clumps of vegetation, and here and there on it a motionless piece of dry leaf floated. We broke into it and sank up to our knees, then up to our thighs. Slob still strained our tempers because he splashed, caught himself in bushes, and fell behind, forcing us to go back and pull him out of the brambles. When the water reached our waists, he managed to go under, calling out in a hoarse gurgle for help. In the moonlight I caught a glimpse of his exhausted, inhumanly mud-smeared face. Sophia preserved her sense of humor. In a mutual effort we rescued her from a treacherous quagmire where she had sunk up to her shoulders and was afraid to move for fear the mud would suck her in. Almost naked in her clinging dress, she smiled, "I lost my panties."  

He eventually made it to Warsaw, where he stayed for most of the remainder of the war and met his first wife. As fate would have it, after the war Milosz became the Second Secretary at the Embassy of People's Poland in New York and Washington, D.C., where he lived with his family for several years (though he doesn't mention them here). I was fascinated to read his description of the area where I moved with my family a few years later:

...I liked New York, I liked to melt into her crowds. Most of all I got to know the American countryside, which restored me, after a prolonged interval, to my boyhood. Like all Europeans I had painted for myself a false picture of technology's reign in America, imagining that nothing was left to nature. In reality her nature was more luxuriant even than the wooded regions where I grew up, where the farmer, plowing with a wooden plow, had for centuries been wreaking effective destruction. Outside of New York City, the asphalt highways were like swords thrown into the thickets to signify that man belonged to a different order, that he was fundamentally a stranger to the snakes, turtles, chipmunks, and skunks who perished under the wheels of cars trying to cross the unnatural band; the place where their line of march intersected the line of the driver's will somehow resembled the encounter of human destinies with the intentions of the godhead. I plunged into books on American flora and fauna, made diplomatic contracts with porcupines and beavers in Pennsylvania, but I was most drawn to the Northern states: Vermont and Maine.

In these early years, before he had defected from Poland, his view of Americans was mixed, to put it mildly:

Americans accepted their society as if it had arisen from the very order of nature; so saturated with it were they that they tended to pity the rest of humanity for having strayed from the norm. If I at least understood that all was not well with me, they did not realize that the opposite disablement affected them: a loss of the sense of history and, therefore, of a sense of the tragic, which is only born of historical experience.

All their aggressiveness had been channeled into the struggle for money, and that struggle made them forget the bloody lessons of the Civil War. Later on every one of them had so trained himself to forget, that during the depression he regarded unemployment as shameful proof of his own personal inability. I esteemed these men; I was an admirer of their America. At least no one here could justify his laziness by sighing: "If only nations were not predestined, if it weren't for the Czar, if it weren't for the government, if it weren't for the bourgeoisie..." But, paradoxically, that triumph of the individual had wrought an inner sterility; they had inner souls of shiny plastic.

This book is a good companion to his better-known work, The Captive Mind, which was written a few years earlier. In that context, Milosz describes himself as a practitioner of Ketman, i.e., the presentation of conformity outwardly while holding entirely different thoughts privately when living in a totalitarian regime. In the years described in this book he lived under Soviet ideology, Nazi ideology and then communist Polish ideology before escaping to the West. He doesn't specifically describe his feelings in terms of survivor's guilt, with so many of his friends and acquaintances having perished, but it is difficult to think of his personal conflicts outside that context. He at least recognizes that his innate survival skills served him well, but at a cost to his integrity as an intellectual. He tended to look at Eastern Europe in historical terms, with the Lithuanians, Poles, Russians and Germans each having their own cultures and distinct views of the others. Where he sees himself falling short is in his inability to adopt any of the prevailing ideologies while failing to come up with a coherent substitute of his own. This makes him seem to lack real character when compared to those around him who were willing to take more definite stands at the risk of their lives in some instances.

I don't at this point feel that I have enough information about Milosz to draw much of a conclusion about him as a person. The book, he states, is not a diary. It is difficult to disentangle his inborn characteristics from his cultural background and the horrendous times that he lived through. I suspect that he was always introverted and had developed escapist habits before his trials started. While it is hard for me to understand someone who selects poetry as a career, in this instance it allowed him to maintain a healthy distance from the widely-accepted dogma favoring Marxism that was mindlessly lapped up by other intellectuals well after its tenability as a desirable system of governance had been discredited. Milosz may have been in over his head philosophically, but the only criticism I have of him is that the Roman Catholic Church seems to have been his most important resource. If he could see through Marxism, why couldn't he see through religion? That would perhaps be too much to ask of him, and in any case nothing can diminish his stature as one of the finest chroniclers of the great crises of the twentieth century. I might add that A Book of Luminous Things, a much later work, is the only decent poetry anthology I've been able to find; it contains an excellent collection of world poems and inspired me to take a second look at poetry after I had given up on it. His comment about plastic American souls rings true today, and I don't know of any of our current crop of American writers who have the insight or courage to say as much.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Native Realm I

For a number of reasons my reading has been curtailed a little over the last few days, but I am making progress in Native Realm, by Czeslaw Milosz, and finding it quite worthwhile. I'm a third of the way through the book, which is a memoir about his life and development from his childhood to the 1950's and includes a lot of history as a result of the time and place. Milosz's background was Lithuanian, from a landowning family that had seen better days. This put him in a class that is almost nonexistent in the U.S., because he was aware that he came from a better family than most, and in his culture the lack of money did not diminish his self-conception; like some Europeans, he considered the pursuit of wealth vulgar and lower-class:

My "place" did not correspond in the least to what is known as the "bourgeois way of life." Along with my feeling that one should know who one is went a pinched pocketbook and enforced curtailment of my personal needs. My material existence was so primitive that it would have startled proletarians in Western countries....If the urge to earn and spend money testifies to the acquisitive spirit, it was the opposite attitude that took root in me – a passive vitality. When I was down to my last penny, I preferred to go to bed. That way the organism consumes less, and one can go without dinner and supper. This may have been largely a question of personal pride, but it was surely not unrelated to the scale of values considered proper for my social group, which had inherited, if not privileges, at least the strong persuasion that wage-earning was somehow below a man's dignity....

Besides, I was a poet; that is, a so-called intellectual. Although such a profession depends on strictly personal factors, my choice was not made, or so I think, without some social motivation. A society that clearly distinguishes an individual's social status from the amount of money he is worth – i.e., when the one does not determine the other – is applying a scale of values that is, in one sense or another, aristocratic. Thus, for the Eastern European the drive to gain recognition in the sphere of literature, science, or art has all the earmarks of a search for identity formerly conferred by a coat of arms. Nowhere outside of this part of Europe does the artist, writer, or scholar enjoy such exceptional privileges, and this is not the result of transformations brought about by the Communist Party, which understood just enough to make use of such a setup. Exceptional privileges and a high income do not always have to go together, because money can be replaced by fame; nor must they necessarily go with freedom, for the state, even as it tames and subjugates an artist or scientist, by this very effort pays homage to his role and his importance. It is interesting that only in France is there a similar respect for the intellectual – but, as has often been remarked, the ways of the cultural milieu of Paris resemble the behavior at a royal court. In the bourgeois world one islet has survived where poverty is not a disgrace: when it is decorated with a title; that is, publicity.

Although the era described is receding into ancient history – much of the book covers the period between the World Wars – some of the same cultural phenomena exist today, but not noticeably in the U.S. To find an American intellectual who accords with Milosz's description you would probably have to go back to the nineteenth century: Henry David Thoreau comes to mind. Milosz did not move to the U.S. until 1960, after this book was written, and it would be interesting to know what impression he had of intellectual life here. Notably he was at best a minor contributor to the New York Review of Books, which inclines me to think that his worldview had little in common with their editor's. From my vantage point the NYRB looks like a cut-and-dried bourgeois publication, though I suppose it is possible that Milosz himself became more bourgeois in his later years. Perhaps he did his best work – essays – before arriving here: I can't say that his poems impress me.

Milosz doesn't devote much space in the book to his parents. His father was a civil engineer who worked for Czarist Russia before the revolution, and sometimes he took the entire family with him in a covered wagon or an army railroad car while he worked on construction projects in the Russian hinterlands. He was energetic and loved the outdoors, hunting, etc. His mother seems to have influenced him more deeply:

The tangle of contradictions I see in myself becomes clearer when I try to understand the principles that guided her up to her calmly accepted death in the typhus epidemic during the mass migrations of 1945. Seemingly weak and frivolous, she used superficiality as a mask and delighted in playing a role because it led the people off the track. Her relationships were formed at the least cost to herself, and showed her not as she really was but as others expected her to be. Doubtless this mimicry was the result of a disbelief in her own worth and a complete inability to take command, or, possibly, of pride: "What I know is not for others." Under the surface there was stubbornness, gravity, and the strong conviction that suffering is sent by God and that it should be borne cheerfully. Still another trait of hers was patriotism, but not toward the nation or the state – she responded rather coolly to that brand. Instead, she taught me a patriotism of "home"; i.e., of my native province.

Milosz spent his high school and college years in Vilnius, which was under Russian control before World War I, under German control during the war and then intermittently controlled by Poland, the Soviet Union and Lithuania. In 1922 Poland annexed Vilnius, and it remained Polish until the Soviets returned it to Lithuania in 1939. Later on, in the years of the Holocaust, nearly the entire Jewish population of Lithuania was killed by Nazis and Nazi collaborators. The variety of cultures and languages present in Vilnius influenced Milosz's development:

In a certain sense I consider myself a typical Eastern European. It seems to be true that his differentia specifica can be boiled down to a lack of form – both inner and outer. His good qualities – intellectual avidity, fervor in discussion, a sense of irony, freshness of feeling, spatial (or geographical) fantasy – derive from a basic weakness: he always remains an adolescent, governed by a sudden ebb or flow of inner chaos. Form is achieved in stable societies. My own case is to verify how much of an effort it takes to absorb contradictory traditions, norms, and an overabundance of impressions, and to put them in some kind of order. The things that surround us in childhood need no justification, they are self-evident. If, however, they whirl about like particles in a kaleidoscope, ceaselessly changing position, it takes no small amount of energy simply to plant one's feet on solid ground without falling....Where I grew up, there was no uniform gesture, no social code, no clear rules of behavior at table. Practically every person I met was different, not because of his own special self, but as a representative of some group, class, or nation. One lived in the twentieth century, another in the nineteenth, a third in the fourteenth....Modern civilization, it is said, creates uniform boredom and destroys individuality. If so, then this is one sickness I've been spared.

As you can see, Milosz was an excellent writer and thinker, at least before he moved to the U.S. I'll continue later when I've read more of the book.

Thursday, May 5, 2016


I've begun to read Native Realm, by Czeslaw Milosz, and though I like Richard Feynman the transition from his memoir is a little jarring. Milosz can't write about himself without including Lithuanian history, whereas Feynman is barely aware of his own. Milosz represents the Old World, with an appreciation of literature and the catastrophes of Europe, while Feynman seems like a kid in a candy store, having the time of his life and omitting reference to the consequences of the development of thermonuclear weapons. This contrast mirrors my disappointment with American literature, which leans toward the lighthearted and generally lacks seriousness. It is easier to find gravitas in Europe, which provides fertile soil for meditation on the meaning of life, than it is in America, where the lack of history seems to generate pointless, trivial narcissism in the arts. The thought occurred to me that Americans delude themselves about why they seem to be admired throughout the world. The admiration is probably real, but it isn't based on, say, the sagacity of the Founding Fathers, the wisdom of the Constitution or the liberty of the individual. Really most of the admirers around the world would just like to be equally attractive and have all that cool stuff, and they don't care at all about our system of government, our economic model or our beliefs. To them the "shining city upon a hill" represents little more than material excess. It is simply attractive to those who don't know any better.

Speaking of Feynman, I was looking into the intelligence of Ashkenazi Jews and came across this amazing research paper. The paper was published in 2005 and speculates that high intelligence in Ashkenazi Jews is the result of natural selection and is associated with certain diseases in much the same way that sickle cell anemia is associated with survival from malaria at the cost of other health risks. As of the time of writing, there was insufficient study of the Ashkenazi population to confirm or deny the hypothesis, but, not being a scientist myself, I am inclined to think it is correct. It is a long and technical paper, but you can get the gist of it by reading the Introduction and Conclusion. I had not read much on intelligence for many years, and although it is a murky topic progress seems to have been made. As a measure of intelligence IQ can hardly be considered precise. What I didn't realize is that Ashkenazi IQ's are well documented to be the highest of any ethnic group. The paper explains in detail how this situation may have developed as the result of natural selection for high ability in mathematics and language in the Ashkenazi population over several centuries. Interestingly, the same IQ phenomenon does not exist among Sephardic or Oriental Jews.

I had read previously that IQ is thought to be mostly inherited, and this paper supports that view. One of the examples provided is that programs such as Head Start tend not to work because even when children get a boost in cognitive performance at an early age they tend to revert to whatever their innate intelligence was, and in adulthood no benefit is detectable. The authors say "The phenomenon of heritability increasing with age is characteristic of many quantitative traits in mammals." In other words, the IQ of a child is likely to end up similar to that of its parents regardless of early stimulation and enrichment. This whole paper sounds so politically incorrect that at first I found it hard to believe that it was legitimate. However, the authors seem to have done due diligence, their argument has merit and presumably they still have jobs. Particularly intriguing to me is the idea that one group is inherently more intelligent than others. This contradicts current thinking in public policy, which proclaims that social inequality can be rectified by providing educational opportunities to all groups, giving everyone access to high-paying jobs. If the hypothesis of the paper is correct – and I think it is – some people will never be able to get high-paying jobs because of their inherently lower cognitive abilities. Ashkenazi Jews and others will continue to hold the most intellectually demanding jobs, which are usually the ones that pay well, meaning that it is a dereliction of duty for the government to present education as a panacea for economic inequality.