Sunday, June 26, 2016


I've returned from Lopez Island and have enjoyed the trip. Besides visiting relatives whom I don't often see, I liked living in a marine environment for a change. The surrounding waters of the seas north of Puget Sound keep the island cool and moist, resulting in the spectacular growth of plants. Many parts are thickly forested with Douglas fir and Western red cedar, though much of the interior has been cleared for farming. Unfortunately, a lot of the land abutting the shoreline is privately owned and filled with vacation homes, but there is still public access to some choice sections of the coast. On a clear day you can see snow-capped mountains to the east and south, the Cascades and the Olympic Mountains. The water is teeming with life: we saw crabs, jellyfish, herons, otters, harbor seals, sea lions, golden eagles, bald eagles and an orca. Some portions of the island are overpopulated with deer and rabbits. We especially liked Shark Reef Sanctuary at tide change, when you can see strong currents of water stretching for miles. I have good associations with the smell of the sea from my early years.

The permanent population of Lopez Island is only about two thousand, and most of the natives are very friendly – friendlier than Vermonters. There isn't much to do there besides enjoy the outdoors, so it is easy to run out of things to do, especially if you are encumbered with a toddler, which makes traveling beyond the island a challenge. The only unpleasant moments of the trip sprang from heated arguments about the merits of attachment parenting.

I have been following the Brexit vote and will say a little about that. I agree with the consensus among educated people that the voters made a colossal mistake, but don't think the long-term consequences will necessarily be significant. In the short term there may be fewer jobs in the UK, but sooner or later the UK will become integrated with Europe one way or another. What I haven't seen so far in the discussion is emphasis on the kinds of themes that I write about here. For example, everyone is quick to say that trade will be impaired, but they say little about the fact that on a greater scale it is trade itself that has caused wealth inequality in the UK and elsewhere. The lessons of Thomas Piketty don't seem to be coming up much. In other words, free-market capitalism is actually the underlying cause of dismay among the British working class. I'm also not hearing that the viability of democracy has been brought into question once again, with citizens voting en masse against their own interests. Commentators remark that "the people have spoken" and stop there because they'd rather not talk about how stupid those people may have been. As you might expect, I'm hoping that AI will one day take such choices away from those who lack sufficient understanding of the issues to vote sensibly on them.

While I was in Washington I read a little of Stendhal's The Life of Henri Brulard, and I hope to comment on it soon.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

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

I finished the book and became increasingly bored with it toward the end. De Waal discusses many aspects of animal behavior, including social skills, cooperation during hunting, empathy, future-orientation and the recognition of individuals. He balks on consciousness, correctly, I think, because the concept is too poorly defined for scientific study. Though there is a heavy emphasis on apes, there is also discussion of birds, monkeys, cats, dogs, wolves, crocodiles, dolphins, elephants, fish, octopuses, rats, orcas, squirrels, whales, wasps and other animals. I suppose this is meant to be some sort of general survey of his field, but I felt that there was an overkill with minutia and couldn't see the point. The final paragraph is a little too New-Agey for me:

...Animals should be given a chance to express their natural behavior. We are developing a greater interest in their variable lifestyles. Our challenge is to think more like them, so that we open our minds to their specific circumstances and goals and observe and understand them on their own terms.... True empathy is not self-focused but other-oriented. Instead of making humanity the measure of all things, we need to evaluate other species by what they are. In doing so, I am sure we will discover many magic wells, including some as yet beyond our imagination.

I agree with de Waal regarding the necessity of transitioning from behaviorism to evolutionary cognition in the study of animals, but think that he tends to sentimentalize his field by infusing his text with emotion-laden terms that have nothing to do with science. I also agree with him that animals shouldn't be studied as if even the most cognitively advanced of them inhabits an order of magnitude that is so far below that of humans as to make any comparisons ludicrous. My main agreement with him is that hubris does not belong in scientific study.

I had hoped that he would say more about eusociality, particularly when I saw that E.O. Wilson provided a blurb for the back cover. All he has to say about Wilson is this:

Our best studies about the evolution of cooperation stem from the study of animal behavior. Summarizing these ideas in his 1975 book, Sociobiology, E.O. Wilson helped launch the evolutionary approach to human behavior.

Excitement about Wilson's grand synthesis seems to have faded, though. Perhaps it was too sweeping and inclusive for disciplines that consider humans in isolation.

De Waal then goes on to deflate claims that some scientists have made about human uniqueness, but he hardly offers a resounding endorsement of Wilson and soon strays off into other subjects.

The kind of work that de Waal does is of little appeal to me even though I like to observe animals myself. He seems to me to be stating the obvious repeatedly, which may be understandable if he is still in the process of rebuilding from the wreckage caused by the previous generation of ethologists. On the whole he is writing at a level of discussion far below what would have captured my interest. For example, already knowing that animals can have emotions, social skills and empathy, I didn't reach the conclusion that we are all part of one big family and should have a group hug; rather, I prefer to examine how behaviors that came into existence through evolutionary processes influence our conceptions about ourselves, with the ideal of seeing beyond our evolutionarily-induced prejudices as a species. This seems to be a tall order and lies beyond the scope of de Waal's book. In places he seems to be attempting to take on a serious tone by quoting various philosophers, but the philosophers he quotes are so far off track as to render the mention of their ideas unnecessary.