A cultural shift or variation? Cowboys and the Confederate flag.

On today’s edition of cultural shifts in my lifetime I want to talk first about cowboys and then the Confederate flag as we ponder whether these have been progressive cultural shifts enlivening some value, e.g., historical truth, or simply a widening cultural pool more inclusive of realistic imagery.  (While I would hope humans are getting ‘better’, I am afraid the data do not support that thesis at this time).  And personal disclaimer:  I am not a cowboy; I have ridden a horse only twice in my life.  But I have been learning about them ever since I grew up in the 50s and watched TV.  In those early days cowboys, at least those who had starring roles, were upstanding, polite gentlemen mostly in white hats, e.g., Hopalong Cassidy (his was the first TV brand lunchbox), Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Cisco Kid, etc.  I personally always preferred their sidekick, Gabby Hayes, maybe not so conventionally upstanding but authentic and honest, a gentleman in all but speech and there he may have been a mite ‘cantankerous’, and whose hat was tolerably battered and dark.  However, he was a loyal friend to our hero and he could cook.  Yes, cook, and you never saw our hero stir a pot, much less wash it.

Roy Rogers was very popular.  Again I liked Gabby or his sidekick, Pat; they were a bit off kilter.  Roy was a force for orthodoxy; consider this code for his cowboy club:


  1. Be neat and clean.
  2. Be courteous and polite.
  3. Always obey your parents.
  4. Protect the weak and help them.
  5. Be brave but never take chances.
  6. Study hard and learn all you can.
  7. Be kind to animals and take care of them.
  8. Eat all your food and never waste any.
  9. Love God and go to Sunday school regularly.
  10. Always respect our flag and our country.


Well, let’s think about the reality of some of these. Cowboys were not neat and clean by the standards of many; they lived, after all, with cows on the trail, far from baths, etc.  And they had some reputation for, shall we say, rough behavior.  I remember an old show Rawhide (where Clint Eastwood first made his name as Rowdy Yates) where all the cowboys were clean shaven, wore clean clothes, etc., yet they lived out on the trail.  And they were all on their best behavior.

I particularly took exception to number 3: always obey your parents.  Always?  Sure, I think young children should obey their parents, but cultural progress requires disobedience, as does adulthood, come to think of it.  (Remember my recent post on beatniks and think about how we achieved civil rights, e.g., female suffrage and equality under the law for Afro-American, for all in this country, against the wishes of many parents).  Of course newer manifestation of the cowboy way has been their stubborn moral independence—think about Robert Redford’s role in Electric Horseman, his respect for his horse, and his revolt against corporate immorality.  Number 8 got me in trouble because I ate all my food and became fat kid.  Number 9 ignores the truth of skepticism and number 10 asked us to be willfully ignorant of our contemporaneous immoral actions abroad in the 50s and 60s under the Dulles brothers and then our corruption in waging the Viet Nam war in addition to the reactionary forces marshaled against civil rights.

So I deemed that Roy’s cowboy way was inadequate to dealing with the complexities of reality and growing up and neglected the reality that cowboys are gritty realists.  We have had many iterations over the years, thinking about TV shows, Gunsmoke and Bonanza, and movies, High Noon and 3:10 to Yuma (the original) but eventually producers and writers began to embrace a more realistic view, so that we have the spaghetti westerns leading to Clint Eastwood’s magnificent film, Unforgiven. Cowboys were dirty, both physically and morally; not bad, mind you, just messy.  I recently learned from Wikipedia that many of these films are considered ‘revisionist westerns’; they portrayed cowboys as the complex creatures they were and are (and as we all are).  Even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid showed our heroes as on the other side of the law, as lovable as they were.

It seems that more recently the image of cowboys has become even more realistic, even rebellious, gritty and dark.  Think about the Highwaymen with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson.  Consider the novels by Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men. Blood Meridianand All the Pretty Horses. Now real cowboys, not drugstore or suburban cowboys, have probably changed little over the years except as the culture in general has changed, e.g., mechanization, availability of information, etc.  They still treasure nature and life outdoors, they still prefer the solitude of wide-open spaces, and they chafe at constraints and interference.

In terms of our cultural representations, my question is whether the changes in this expansion from the sanitized visions of my childhood to the more realistic versions of today constitute a progressive shift or merely a more inclusive variation as the pool of images expands?  I tend to think the former because the naïve versions cannot be repeated, at least not without a heavy dose of irony or parody.  Consider the original TV series of The Lone Ranger and the recent movie The Lone Ranger (with Johnny Depp as a mystical jester in Tonto).  A show depicting a hero of yesteryear would be hopelessly naïve and laughable.

The cultural differences between a shift or a variation in cowboy imagery are not really a serious matter, more a literary interest than anything else, but now consider the imagery of the Confederate flag.  In a recent conversation someone uttered the old phrase that history is written by the winners and I disagreed, saying look at our Civil War, then the racist flood that wiped out Reconstruction (watch Henry Louis Gates’ wonderful 2 part documentary on PBS if you want to cry over the possibility for an equitable and just society that America threw away with the birth of Jim Crow and the Klan), and the continuing narrative even to today that the Confederacy was an heroic society and morally correct cause.  (This is currently a big deal here in southwest Virginia after the Charlottesville neo-Nazi march and the ongoing effort to keep the Rebel flag in public displays like the annual Christmas parade.  Jeez.)  The defeated South re-wrote that history in order to reinstate white supremacy bolstered by the image of their flag representing the noble people and their cause.  And for a long time that has been orthodoxy written by amoral losers, not winners. To be clear, after watching Gates’ documentary, I understand that the winners buried their moral authority under political expediency and wrapped in their own racism.  And I understand from this development that the Confederate flag was not a big deal until the period from the 1890s to 1930s when Southern leaders promoted segregation and racial injustice by erecting many monuments and flying this flag, and then the flag was again rejuvenated to combat civil rights and more recently, cultural diversity and justice.

So consider the cultural evolution (manipulation?) of the Confederate flag, progressive shift or expanding variable pool? For a brief time recently I thought that the flag and its accouterments were being relegated to historical museums. The old argument that the Civil War was over states’ rights had finally been clearly debunked through excellent historical research and the morally repulsive reality of slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, etc. was finally being broadcast in the light of day (see my post about The Half Has Never Been Toldon 7/31/17 & 11/23/18). However, now with the resurgence of a racist nationalism here and in Europe, I have to wonder if we have only expanded the cultural pool to include more realistic narratives and the old distorted narratives continue to thrive albeit in mutated form.  Racism is like the measles; it lives on and will spread dangerously unless many of us are inoculated against it.

Earlier I said that we could not go back to the days of naïve cowboy imagery; The Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy can only ride again in satire.  I had trouble thinking of analogous renderings of Confederacy and white racism but my wife reminded me of Spike Lee’s excellent film, BlacKkKlansmanand then I remembered the treatment of the Klan in the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?   Read, if you haven’t already, the surreal satire by Paul Beatty, The Sellout.  A bit later I went further back in time to remember Mel Brooks’ wonderful and early satire, Blazing Saddles.

My final point here is that I will be certain we have made progress regarding the Confederate flag when fictional narratives about that facet of American life and history can only be carried forth in parody and satire, when we can no longer take seriously, only satirically, the claims embodied in the Confederate flag, and along with this, the violence by its proponents disappears under the heavy, heavy weight of moral condemnation.  You say I am a dreamer?  Well, I am not the only one, as my friend John used to say.  Or as Captain Picard said so well, “Make it so”. Travel on.

Post script to our wandering cousins (and their genetic streams)

Shortly after I posted about our wandering cousins, intrepid NYT science reporter Carl Zimmer posted story about a newly identified population called Ancient Paleo-Siberians:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/05/science/native-americans-genetics-siberia.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage&section=Science.  The story is a lengthy one and I do not have the time to render it clearly here, but the gist is that geneticists looking at different populations in Siberia and in North America have found a complex story of migration, populations mixing, populations disappearing, etc.  By and large the current Siberians have little genetics in common with Siberians of the long past or with native Americans today.  Geneticists have found a group from 40,000 to 10,000 years ago that seem to have played some role in peopling the Americas called the Ancient Paleo-Siberians.  Current native Americans derive about 75% of their DNA from this group who have largely disappeared.

The geneticists and anthropologists and paleontologists are working on different explanations and wondering how to gather more data to resolve their differences. Very difficult to find fossils in that area, especially since after the last ice age the land bridge between Asia and North American is underwater and the rest is frozen.  But given the recent news stories I began to ponder the facts of populations arising and subsiding through multiple migrations back and forth.

In prehistoric times we are talking about changes over thousands of years; in modern times we are talking about days, months and a year or two.  The prejudices against breeding between groups may have lessened in some places but continues on in others, and I suspect that much of the reaction against migrants and refugees is more about sexual mixing than economic realities.   Immigrants contribute to social and economic vitality in short order, even making important contributions on many levels, so the complaints about them using resources etc. must be a smokescreen for other concerns, e.g., group racial identity.

Only problem there is that group racial identity is more a political instrument for gaining and consolidating power than a valid concern over any genetic differences which are at most miniscule.  So I wonder if Ancient Paleo-Siberians, Neandertals, Denisovans, Ancient North Siberians, Inuits and Mayans back in the day before their cultures established political structures and functions showed concerns over the influx of a new group.  Siberia to us seems rather forbidding but back in prehistoric times was a resource rich environment.  Plus there were just not that many people back then; the overcrowding we experience as normal was not known.  So long as hunting grounds were separate or even shared like the Native Americans did in our own valley here in SW Virginia, I doubt that many problems erupted.

Another pondering:  The story of Romeo and Juliet is iconic for the triumph and tragedy of love between groups. As our species evolved, when did emotional bonds and attachment surmount sexual attraction to become a dominant force in which the love between two people erased their concerns about group differences?  I think that was a great day in our history, even if different problems then arose.

One of the tropes characterizing modern times is the speed with which cultural change takes place, and I think that also applies to group mixing, whether ethnic or racial or cultural.  Groups adhere together only so long, whether it is a decade or a millennium, and then boundaries begin to blur and break down as they mix with another group. That seems to me a basic fact of life on Gaia.  Only physical isolation stops this process and even then not for long.

So when the nationalist cretins march to promote their own group’s solidarity (as they did in Charlottesville) and, by implication at least, superiority, I know that they are doomed to in-breeding catastrophes.  Indeed, they are already in-breeding catastrophes of the cultural sort.  Our hope is that humans continue as they have done since the dawn of our kind, wandering and meeting new people, learning and developing new ideas, and sharing the planet as best we can (which is better than we are doing now).  As always, travel on.

How we conceptualize thought and emotion matters

I have finished Mama’s Last Hug by Frans de Waal.  What a great read about animals’, including humans, emotions and feelings and about how we humans understand them.  I will guess that most people have thought that rationality and its epitome, logic, are ‘superior’ to emotions.   This assumption has been a bulwark of men presuming their superiority over women, western nations presuming their superiority over ‘less civilized’ nations, a logical argument wins over an emotional appeal, and humans are ‘superior’ to other animals because their minds are based upon emotions and we are ruled by rationality.  Over the course of history some few bright people have understood that our conceptualization here was out of balance and the brightest of those have understood that they are not separable—both rationality and emotionality depend upon the other, indeed flow one to another almost inseparably, to operate optimally.

One way to achieve ‘balance’ is to lower our notion of rationality’s importance and reliability.  One example here is the wonderful work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman who demonstrated that even trained logicians fail to follow their logical rules and rely on heuristics the same as all the rest of us (see my post on 10/12/17). Another way to achieve balance is to show that our cognitions are dependent upon our emotions—that is the motivation behind Antonio Damasio’s last few books (see my post s on 5/13/19 & 12/9/18).  Yet another way is to study as did Jaak Panksepp the enormous neural complexity of emotions and affect, neural structures that we share with many animals and virtually all mammals (see post 8/19/17 for example).  Of course Susanne Langer understood that art conveys the ideas of feelings, i.e., we abstract our feelings to reveal the vital import of life experience.  Art, in other words, is a high level intellectual operation using feelings. (An aside:  I am reading a biography of Picasso who famously refused to say what his paintings meant—his art was his statement, all of it and complete. The author there, Patrick O’Brian, cites Isabella Duncan, famous modern dancer, saying, “If I could explain it with words, I wouldn’t have to dance it”.  Exactly).

Another way to right our conceptualization of thought and feeling is, as Frans de Waal does so very well, to show that we humans share the same emotional life as do all other mammals, especially primates, cetaceans, and elephants.  In Mama’s Last Hug he examines various aspects of emotions and feelings; he dedicates chapters to empathy, humor, shame, guilt, disgust, desire for power, emotional intelligence, etc., showing in each one that other animals are quite human-like.  This is important because this distinction of thought and feeling is critical in our culture. I see two major ways we denigrate the mentalities of other animals.  One is the ancient bias that humans are special, you know, at the top of the divine tree of life, and so our abilities are god-like.  That bias has been transformed by science ever since we discovered that the earth was not the center of the solar system, but it still exists in muted forms.  The other way is to see animals as unthinking organisms bent only on survival.  Humans are special evolutionarily because we are civilized (oops!  Go see Auschwitz, read about the Inquisition, review the increasing destructiveness of wars and weapons, study the entrenchment of racism, the destruction of our environment as we subjugate nature to our profit, etc.).  Here we treat other animals as engaged in battle for survival of the fittest and we see nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’ to justify our violent quest for power.

The important thing here is that both these views are essentially propaganda (see a final aside below) for certain religious and political schools of thought. Rigorous study of animals shows that, as de Waal writes, they (we) “struggle far more against their environment or against hunger and disease than against each other.”  De Waal cites a naturalist, Pyotr Kropotkin, who asked in 1902, “Who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or those who support one another?” and decided it was the latter.  Kropotkin “was way ahead of his time.”

De Waal is especially astute when he explains the research showing that animals have a grounded sense of fairness, right and wrong, and even free will (as best we can know, but then do we have free will?  Consider his quotes:  Isaac Bashevis Singer “We have to believe in free will; we have no choice” and Roy Baumeister “Perhaps, ironically, free will is necessary to enable people to follow the rules”).

De Waal gives example after example of expert observations and experimental results that demonstrate the truth of his thesis.  A couple of favorites:  An American neuroscientist, Jim Coan, believes that emotions are interindividual so that testing a solitary individual does not reveal much.  When he studied an individual’s neural response to a signal announcing a mild electric shock, he saw areas of concern and worry (anxiety or fear) light up.  When, however, the individual was allowed to hold the hand of someone close, e.g., a spouse, the worry response dissipated—the upcoming shock was a minor stimulus.  Brilliant! Another:  When young elephants in southeast Asia are given a bell around the neck to help the humans keep up with them, the elephants stuff the bell with grasses so that they can wander undetected.

De Waal wants all of us, especially scientists, to understand the importance of emotions and feelings.  He cites Antonio Damasio as a fellow champion of emotions, as I have recently in a post on 5/13/19.  De Waal also gives a special mention of Jaak Panksepp and I very much appreciated this portion of the book.  As regular readers will know, I think Panksepp’s book is the best text I have ever read.  What? An astute and very intelligent reader wants to know why I think that.  Let me tell you why:

  • Affective Neuroscience: The Foundation of Human and Animal Emotionsis a textbook, not one written for the general reader. Look at the detail of research cited, etc.
  • Panksepp gives a comprehensive yet still detailed review of the research literature.
  • He has integrated this information so that he provides solid generalizations.
  • He is careful to distinguish between data based inferences and more speculative thinking.
  • He takes us on brief excursions into what might be true given this data, extending some ideas into the cultural realm.
  • He writes in marvelously clear prose, sometimes even inspired, about very complex issues.
  • His organization and perspective are enlightening. This is not stultified orthodox science but science pushing for greater understanding.

Enough said?  Now when I previously read his book, and re-read portions, I thought that Panksepp’s ideas were obvious and well accepted.  Oh, no, they were not, I learned from de Waal.

De Waal relates an exchange he had with Panksepp shortly before he passed away. Panksepp encouraged de Waal to be more specific and explicit about animals’ feelings and de Waal says he was right to do so.  Further, he says that Panksepp had to fight for his views all his life, resisting ‘establishment forces’ while placing “human and animal emotions on a continuum” and he was “the first to develop a neuroscience covering all of it” as he himself founded the field of affective neuroscience.  He was ridiculed and had trouble obtaining funding and still he managed to “make animal emotions a respectable topic.”  So Wow!  Now I cherish that book even more.

I could go on for a long while about how much I appreciated finding reinforcement for some of my ideas, e.g., the distinction between sentience and consciousness, the basic properties of all organisms, etc., but I want to move on to emphasize the cultural importance of all this.  We humans seek authority for our beliefs and especially our values. De Waal shows clearly that such authority can be found in our biological heritage.  (As does Michael Tomasello in his book, The Natural History of Human Morality).

My culture, western culture, has valued rationality and logic at the expense of a fuller understanding of the roles emotions and thought play in our intellectual operations.  Rationality and logic are not all that we thought they were and emotions and feelings are much more important than most give them credit for.  This constrains our science, our philosophy and our cultural worldview.  Consider, for example, how females are ignored because some (males?) think they are more emotional.  Ugh!

In my former life as a speech-language pathologist, I gave a popular parent workshop entitled “How to argue with your child”.  Catchy idea, huh?  I had found that much of the standard parenting advice was anemic and while parents might use these tips to help their children behave compliantly, they did little to foster a proper sense of discussion and sharing of ideas.  So I explained that parents should not argue over the inarguable, e.g., limits for safety and health, but should argue appropriately when the topic was arguable.  A good argument happens when both present thoughtful reasons and are passionate about their perspective.  We all need to learn how to argue based on reasons, beliefs and data, and how to maintain our composure when differences become divisive.  I even suggested having silly arguments about the color of the sky, for example, because children love and learn from silliness and they need to win an argument once in a while.  (Don’t we all?)  I still think this advice applies, though when I look at our political discourse, I know some powerful forces are working to derail ‘good arguments’.  My point is that our over-valuing logic and under-valuing emotions is counter-productive; both are needed and important.

Here is my final aside as mentioned above that is relevant in today’s world. Consider propaganda and pornography, both of which manipulate our feelings (and thoughts/behavior) but how? I do not think that they do so simply by virtue of their emotional appeal, but because their emotional appeal is based upon corrupted rationality, e.g. propaganda uses selected distorted and errant facts, pornography uses fictional accounts laundered of critical elements like intimacy or the feelings engendered in a relationship.  James Joyce considered any art pornographic that ended by moving the emotions because true and fine art is achieves stasis, an epiphany from the insight generated through artistic import.  And Hannah Arendt has shown us the pathogenic properties of propaganda and totalitarianism.  Some understand these distinctions and cherish the authenticity of fine art and real political discourse, but all too many have fallen down through the media hole to a world where curiosity focuses on sports and celebrity and the only perspective that matters is the one through personal tunnels. And the sequelae of poor art?—I don’t have the time to go there right now.  Ah, well, the world has gone a different direction, much to my dismay, and there is no way to go but forward.  Travel on and find a better path, one where the intellect based upon respect for both rationality and feelings is the grounded (and orthodox) assumption.  Better pack for a long journey and be sure to follow reliable guides such as de Waal, Damasio, Panksepp and Langer.  See you on the Way.

Damasio’s Strange Order of Things

I actually finished reading Antonio Damasio’s book, The Strange Order of Things:  Life, Feeling and the Making of Cultures, a few weeks back.  While reading I thought of several things about which to blog but I was very busy on the farm.  Now I have gone back over my highlights and will write a review about it, but I seem to have lost several of my ideas from before.  Let that be a lesson to me—write down thoughts even if not enough time to work up a proper post.

If you have read any of Damasio’s other books or any of my posts about them here, you already know that he thinks that we conceptually slight feelings and emotions, that these are really the foundation of our mental life and that thinking follows feelings’ lead.  This is quite in line with Susanne Langer’s notion that our minds are based upon feeling, thus the title of her magnum opus, Mind:  An Essay on Human Feeling, so I really appreciate Damasio’s conceptualization.  (He does not cite Langer; very, very few do and I find that regrettable). And in Strange Order he makes an even stronger statement, oh boy!

A couple of quotes will frame his view for us.  Damasio sees “the roots of human cultures in nonhuman biology” and he finds that “the conventional contrast between affect and reason comes from a narrow conception of emotions and feelings”.  His understanding rests upon the central importance of homeostasis, that function wherein life maintains itself within healthy parameters.  Our emotions and their mental derivatives, feelings, are in his view our response to changes in homeostasis.  For example, consider how our impulse to be sociable varies with our homeostatic status.  When we are sociable, our homeostasis becomes more stable, and when we feel unsociable, our homeostasis grows more vulnerable.  Thus, a key factor in the health and continued longevity of elders is their social contact.  Remember as well that married people (really those in a close, stable relationship) generally enjoy greater health.  Damasio even makes the argument that  religious beliefs and practices function to ensure that humans are sociable and thus enjoy more stable vitality.  That is what feelings and culture do for us.

Damasio sees such phenomena as basic to life, i.e., evident throughout different evolutionary complexity.  Bacteria in a resource rich environment that enables easy homeostasis go their own individual ways, but in a resource poor one they clump together for support. Some use chemical signaling to monitor how many conspecifics are around just in case.  Likewise, human “cultural instruments first developed in response to the homeostatic needs of individuals and of groups”.  Damasio understands that “feeling and subjectivity are old abilities” and not dependent upon the evolution of brains with cortex.

He gives a complex and sophisticated explanation of how our mental subjectivity developed.  He says that the basic unit of the mind is the image and that our particular (I want to say ‘special’ but this is fraught with anthropocentric connotations.  I would mean ‘special’ in the sense that it denotes a feature specific to a species.  Thus I could also write about the special feelings and subjectivity of planaria) subjectivity comes from our talent for imaging our own internal workings, e.g. our gut has an enteric 2ndbrain with many neurons and more dopamine, and our external world, and then integrating the two into one mental image of our experience as we incidentally form a narrative with our feelings as our life unfolds.  I must say this is a rich and concise formulation of our mentality.

I see life functioning to mitigate exigencies and exploit chance; that is what we animate beings do (this following Heraclitus and Monod).  Damasio formulates it slightly differently, that life sustains itself by countering, i.e., he says ‘resisting’, entropy and continuing the life stream into the future.  And he emphasizes that our humanity is yet another iteration of this. “In the end human creativity is rooted in life and in the breath taking fact that life comes equipped with a breathtaking mandate:  resist and project itself into the future”.

This book covers a great deal of scientific and philosophical ground and that gives me plenty to ponder and learn.  Damasio is a big fan of Spinoza (see his earlier book on this) and he also cites Nietzsche saying that humans are “hybrids of plants and ghosts”.  That is a lovely and funny metaphor.  Damasio discusses our evolution and appreciates our control of fire not just to cook food and so support our homeostasis that way but also to provide the hearth environment for socializing and so support our vitality thusly.  One more point: he discusses anger as a negative emotion that has functioned quite well and adaptively over the course of our evolution but asserts that it now poses diminishing returns for our species, i.e., our anger is more destructive of our ability to live together than constructive in maintaining our lives.

An interesting and richly rewarding read. Keeping with my tradition, I will mention a small quibble about how he verbalizes sometimes about the relation our brains have with our somas, e.g., our brains as independent units. Ugh!  Never will I succumb to that view, nor does Damasio, I think, as he discusses the embodiment of our minds.  Why use that phrasing? I do not know.  Apart from that I found myself extending his analyses by formulating what he wrote into how I see our individual minds as a function of our social and cultural group. That, however, suits my purposes, not his, which was to enrich our impoverished understanding of emotions and feelings.  Wonderful.


animal attachment and grief

I have started Frans de Waal’s book Mama’s Last Hugabout animal feelings and making the case that we, humans and other animals, experience many of these in common.  The story of Mama is quite interesting.  She was a remarkable chimpanzee who was the organizing force in her group for many years, not because she was physically formidable, though for a female she was, but because of her personality and social IQ.  Her human researchers came to respect her a great deal and were quite attached, so that when her death was immanent, one of her old human friends came to say good-bye.  Their reunion was heartfelt on both sides and she died some few days later. De Waal uses this story to introduce several facts about chimpanzees, their humans and how research is conducted/interpreted.

Then De Waal goes where few have gone before—he discusses how other animals view death.  What a scientist, doing the research and communicating it to us.   He first recounts what the humans did after Mama’s death.  Breaking with protocol the humans let her body lie in state, as it were, for the other chimps to view.  The males hit and tossed the body as if to wake her up; the females were gentler, lifting an arm or leg and letting it drop, looking into her mouth, etc. When one female tried to move her body, a foster daughter, whom Mama had raised after her friend had died leaving her infant behind, protested and prevented the body being moved.

De Waal recounts another observation wherein a younger chimp came up to an elder female who had been quite sick for some time, looked into her eyes and gave a scream of alarm.  Another chimp, too far removed to have observed this interaction, took up the cry of alarm and others followed.  A few minutes later the sick chimp fell to the floor and passed away.

De Waal gives many more anecdotes about how animals experience the death of another and he cites Barbara King’s 2013 book How Animals Grievein establishing observational guidelines for determining if an animal is grieving, e.g., a marked change in behavior.  Many species, including most mammals and some birds, show such changes.  Animals show awareness that the other is dead and if they were attached, they grieve.  Chimpanzee and cetacean mothers have been known to carry/support their dead offspring around for days.  Elephants visit the site of another’s death and pick up and hold a remnant, e.g., a bone or a tusk, of the deceased (remember this happens repeatedly over a long passage of time) and even pass it around to others in the herd.  And of course, we have many stories of dogs waiting for their dead humans’ return in the spot where their reunion used to occur, e.g., Greyfriar’s Bobby.

Working from a human’s sense of mortality, i.e., our awareness of our own demise, that we cannot confirm in other species, de Waal suggests perspicaciously that these others have at least a sense of finality—that a life is irrevocably over.  Consider how such a sense of finality works when an animal loses someone to whom they are attached.  Jaak Panksepp discusses the biological basis of attachment and loss in a chapter of his wonderful book, Affective Neuroscience.   Two systems operate in an oppositional tandem, one he calls the PANIC system that deals with separation from caregivers and another that inhibits that system in response to renewed social comfort.  The two systems depend upon different neurotransmitters yet still interact quite a bit.

Panksepp makes several interesting points.  The social comfort system is based upon one of the opiate receptor systems and the oxytocin system.  When the PANIC system is aroused, that motivates seeking social contact and comfort, i.e., gregariousness.  When social comfort is obtained, the opiate system inhibits the PANIC system. (Consider the important factor of joblessness and depressed communities in our current opiod epidemic).  Mammals become attached to a home location, so that just being ‘home’ reduces separation distress. (Our mostly warm feelings upon returning to the old home place may be another manifestation of this). Different species and different individuals within a species have different sensitivities to social distress. The famous example of the two voles, one monogamous and one not, show different sensitivities here.  Also, in general males are less sensitive to separation distress, presumably mediated by testosterone, than females (this in most species) and we are all less affected by separation as we age.  All of these phenomena reflect the neurochemical balances in our brains and body.

Panksepp cites research showing that chicks give a distinctive peep when distressed and that putting a mirror in their enclosure or petting them reduces the frequency of those peeps because the chicks ‘see’ or feel that they are not alone.  Most interestingly, listening to music also calms the PANIC system and so represents a form of social comfort.  Panksepp and others have studied how some music gives us ‘chills’, a sign of distress, and also warms us up, a sign of social comfort.  That music operates at such a basic level in our neurological systems is of profound interest.  Remember that Alzheimers’ patients often keep musical memories better than other sorts of memories—our brains preserve this form of social connectedness even as other functions deteriorate.

I always learn something new when I review sections of Panksepp’s book.  In this instance, the social regulation systems, i.e., PANIC and social connection/comfort, are anciently tied to the thermoregulation system that promotes homeostasis (thus all mammals share something of this).  Music, as it interacts with these systems, chills or warms us; it motivates small variations around the homeostatic range, and this feels good (or lovely or beautiful or aesthetically pleasing, etc.).  He finishes his chapter 14 with this, that some music generates “a wistful sense of loss and the possibility of reunion”.  (Hmmm, did he love listening to Americana and Celtic tunes like I do now?)  But also, we animals grieve with loss, knowing the other is finally gone yet still yearning for more contact, and that helps us maintain our homeostatic balance set in place over the years of social comfort with our intimates.  So Greyfriar’s Bobby, that wonderful dog who waited for his human to return from work for years after the human’s death, was listening to the neural music of attachment and grief and keeping it steady as she goes.

I will conclude this post with an observation by Susanne Langer (of course) who said that humans’ distinctive minds began when we realized that our lives are but single acts with a beginning and an end.  Knowing this began a cascade of insight into our existence and understanding of our ownmortality.  And reflecting on this illuminates how this sense/knowledge of our ownmortality lies at the heart of much cultural development, including our religion and philosophy, as we share our feelings about cope with the loss of others and ourselves.  And our science helps us to understand this more deeply.  Travel on.


large and small news about language

What is the most ubiquitous human social activity?  I vote for conversation (see my post from 3/30/14).  The ease with which we carry on conversing belies the complexity of the matter:  listening and understanding is complex, formulating and uttering our next contribution is complex, taking conversational turns is not simple,  and keeping it all on topic and relevant seems more than some can manage.  We rely on social formulas, e.g., how’s the weather & how’s the family, to facilitate quick exchanges and we give more thought to our serious discussions.   Highlighting the skill needed to participate is the rapidity of our exchanges; a conversational turn may take less than a second and even long-winded turns generally take only a few seconds.  Yes, some people go on for sometime, but their listeners generally remember something else they have to do and move on.  Conversational turn-taking is so natural we have to learn to inhibit it in order to become listeners.  I learned this watching preschool story time where the initiates kept speaking up in response, that is only natural to them, but they eventually with the help of good teacher learn to just listen and save their participation for later, a very interesting process to observe.

To lose the ability to participate is really difficult and frustrating, as I learned working with stroke patients.  Many others lose the ability due to nervous diseases that impair motor control.  They listen and think of responding but the words won’t come, so it is a large report that scientists have developed a way to translate the brain’s motor speech impulses that are blocked from enactment directly into computerized speech.  I marvel at the complexity of translating the specific nerve impulses for the speech organs, i.e., lips, tongue, jaw, pharynx, larynx, etc., into the phonemes and then assembling those phonemes into coherent speech.  This study shows that this can be accomplished in principle and now the hard slog to make this augmentative communication practical begins.  I saw this large story at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/24/health/artificial-speech-brain-injury.html.

The small story is from the 3/30/19 Science News about singing mice and duets. Who knew?  (Well, maybe Frans de Waal did—I just read in his new book about how mice communicate through high-pitched squeaks outside of our hearing range.  They ‘laugh’ when their tummies are tickled. That Frans de Waal is a tickling fanatic, see my post 4/8/16). Scientists found out that a species in Central America sing to each other and then they studied their brains as they did so.  They found that one neural area produces the song and another controls it for turn taking (hmm.  Sort of like our left hemisphere controls speech and the right manages the pragmatics of turn taking?)  They discovered this by using either cold or drugs to inhibit one area or the other. These ‘duets’ are better termed conversations, I think, and they are “carried out with split-second precision”. Oh, and if the turn-taking area is numbed, the songs grow longer.  Tell me about it.  Anyway, a small report of a finding that contributes to our understanding of the brains, the mice’s and ours, on the way to helping with communication difficulties.

With a large and small news report now posted, I will travel on.

I think I see the problem here

It has come to my attention yet again that my society and culture are operating with less than optimal intelligence.  This would be a meta-level of analysis derived from several different data domains, including our dysfunctional government (as measured by the pragmatic goals of caring for social needs, maintaining our infrastructure, and proper stewardship of our planet), a loss of civility, what is called the polarization of politics and other issues of divisiveness such as dishonest efforts to win elections and accrue wealth/power, fair and equal justice for all, worsening inequality of wealth, falling science IQs, and rabid rise of conspiracy theories.  Some blame this on our electronic mediums, and surely, I think, these accentuate our faults more than our virtues, but are not the actual source of the problem. Some blame human nature and its legacy of aggression and greed, but, as it turns out, our nature is much more cooperative, egalitarian, curious and honest.  It seems more apt to say that our cultural and social developments have gone down a road into a future now where our intelligence has become polluted, i.e., compromised.  We have wandered into some perverse La Brea tar pits of our own inept creation.  Will we escape them?  I personally doubt it, but in the spirit of spitting into the wind joyfully, let explicate my vision.

My complaint is not that we have become simpletons; simple people actually display a good deal of common sense, honesty, humility, compassion and humor. Nor is that we have become shallow, though many more today seem hardly able to get their feet wet in the intellectual pool. My complaint is more that our intelligence suffers from several depressing Ds: dilapidated, derelict, delusional and decrepit.  While we are not simpletons, we have great difficulty dealing with the slightest complexity, i.e., we talk and think in simple sound bites and think we have covered the topic.  Oops! We have a thought, which is really a cognitive figure emerging into consciousness from a subconscious ground, and forget that the figure-ground relationship is definitive.  This deficit degrades much of the due diligence required for clear thinking.  We accept statements and stories without considering their wider context, a context which can amplify or reduce their importance and which can provide much fodder for further cogitation necessary for critical thinking.  Yes, we have lost some ability to think critically but that, I assert, is due to more primary deficits.

I have recently run across several instances where someone asserted that one’s perception is what matters.  Well, perception does matter.  I only wish that they had been talking about perception at the time, but what they really expounded upon was someone’s narrative.  Now this is tricky, in the sense that it requires some patience with complexity.  Let me use a fairly simple and neutral example (as opposed to one involving racial or gender issues), science theory and practice.

In recent posts I have mentioned how many scientists, including Einstein and Susan Oyama especially in detail, understand that theory, i.e., narrative, largely determines how facts are interpreted and what facts are looked for/found empirically.  The usual example here is from Thomas Kuhn’s idea on scientific paradigms; the observations of the sky was ‘explained’ by Ptolemaic ideas.  We perceive the sun arcing across the sky.  The ancient narrative was that the sun went round the earth; now we moderns have a more accurate narrative.  Einstein conducted only thought experiments, yet his theories have led to practical findings of light bending around galaxies and time dilation affecting GPS satellites that require mathematical accommodations to stay accurate.

The point here is that our minds perceive according to our accepted narratives, and changing narratives is not simple or easy, nor do narratives extend into the future with failsafe adequacy.  Even though many of us now carry forward with narratives recognizing the pervasive racism and gender discrimination of our culture, contrary to what might have been the orthodox views taught us growing up, perceiving actual incidents is not straightforward—we sometimes see racism and discrimination where a fuller narrative would reveal other factors. For example, a person might be fired for discriminatory reasons or for performance ones.  Sometimes our narratives are prejudicial against such facts and subtleties.

How do our electronic mediums affect this?  In the 1950s/1960s thinkers like Norbert Weiner and Gregory Bateson developed cybernetics and that theoretical framework allowed us to study how systems function.  One key construct was the notion of positive and negative feedback controls.  Negative feedback works to keep the system functioning around a mean; think about your house’s thermostat working to keep your house at a certain temperature.  Positive feedback, however, works to amplify.  Sometimes this serves to elevate helpful concepts and messages, e.g., the pay it forward movement, but at other times it produces a vicious circle wherein some crank idea goes viral, e.g., conspiracy theories like pizzagate or Obama born in Africa.  In my youth I heard a good deal about the Golden Mean and the value of keeping steady, not too high or low.  Is that still taught, and if so, what does it mean in our electronic age?  Cultural waves rise and subside, some grow appropriately, ecologically through reasoned considerations but others become tsunamis, all too destructive of coherent, rational discourse.  I think our electronics usage exacerbates the latter phenomena.

A further point comes to mind here.  Many media types, e.g., news and sports publicists, play on a burgeoning cultural tendency to amplify whatever they are talking about.  I hear this in many musical performances, e.g., compare the strained emotionality of country pop to the more authentic classical country or Americana.  I watch sporting events and news shows that frame everything by hype.  Every sporting event is a gladiatorial thunder dome (“two teams enter, one team leaves”) and every political debate is a “circular firing squad”.  I would mention how every news story is, no matter how stale or moldy, “breaking” (and yes, we all know the news is broken) or how they hype a single story for hours without providing anything new or, the horror of it, more context, but I think this is not just a lost cause, but a leading cause of our intellectual decrepitude.  To be clear, it is not fake news, just news very poorly done and quite incomplete.

Again I think all of this highlights our failure to appreciate the importance of the story-context relationships.  We construct reality through a figure-ground process.  We rely on orthodox narratives and other heuristics to facilitate this process.  Still we should understand by now (indeed, since Aristotle and Plato) that the figures we resolve are not final and are un-interpretable absent contextual considerations.  This prevents us from responding in measured ways.  An old colleague who was an expert in treating sex offenders worked mightily to train judges, attorneys, law enforcement, legislators and the public that “one size does not fit all”.  Some sex offenders are more, indeed some few much more, dangerous than others, and some pose little (but not zero) threat at all to re-offend.  Differentiating legal consequences and treatment options is only rational.  The ‘one size does not fit all’ applies to many all too common incidents of racism and sexual harassment and abuse.  Marching in Charlottesville, chanting white supremacist slogans and instigating violence is different (though still racist) from the governor having a black face person in his yearbook from over 30 years ago.  How may we deal with the differences?  Consider the contexts of the actions.  Similarly, Al Franken was hounded from the Senate because of a puerile photograph from some years back despite having no history of abusive behavior and plenty of history otherwise, while others (and you know who they are) with an extended history of abuse/harassment are excused to carry on. We currently have very limited options, e.g., courts for legal matters, for understanding the differences and implementing measured actions.  Why? Because we don’t even understand that these are in some serious sense false equivalencies, that there is at least a continuum of egregiousness, and that we need a reasoned method for their evaluation.  One size does not fit all.

My list of our intellectual derelictions goes on to cloudier areas. We moderns often lose sight of the complexity of life, of how Gaia is a whole organism that provides a nurturant ecology for life’s continuance.  Yes, many of us hold this narrative close to our hearts, but how is it that Americans, who once led the scientific community and whose educational system was exemplary, now have the highest percentage of climate change deniers?  How is it that diseases that were once well managed are re-emerging now due to the anti-vaccine delusion which itself seems contagious?  How is it that fewer Americans seek STEM careers while other peoples sacrifice much to order to gain them?  (Oh, let me not forget how many of us denigrate scientists and others as nerds.)  How can we tolerate the political appointments of people who are woefully ignorant and anti-science to head up agencies that demand a high level of scientific and technical expertise?  Because we think a thought about a scientific finding and then think that the complexity behind such findings is irrelevant to our firmly held figure of belief.

But wait, there’s more:  We seem uninterested in discriminating between actual/authentic and virtual/façade. We seem unconcerned about the effects of population growth on obvious matters like water and land usage and unaware of the understanding that population density leads to increased anonymity and that anonymity permits egregious behaviors, e.g., political and economic malfeasance, to flourish.  When humans lived together in a community where individual contact happened more widely and readily, many social constraints acted to mitigate selfishness.  Make the one per-centers live with those they exploit on a daily basis (take the kings out of their castles) and watch their shame rise just like in other primate societies, or have their asses handed to them in a sling.  (Thanks to Frans de Waal in his interview with Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air for this keen observation of us primates).

Finally and what I have mentioned here many times over the years, we fail to appreciate our ignorance.  Our addiction to simplification and hyperbole, our tunnel vision focused on one figure exclusive of contextual ground, and our impatience with complexity really only hide our failure to appreciate our ignorance.  That scientists deal constructively with ignorance as a matter of course many choose to forget (Choose, you may ask?  Why yes, all of this is willful albeit cultural ignorance). When at their best both science and religion appreciate our ignorance before the mystery of the universe and understand the consequent necessity of cherishing the fragility of knowing and the importance of a process for establishing a consensual and adequate basis of fact for action.  (Science is better than religion at this because, as I have again written about many times before, science sees mistakes as opportunities for learning and not sins).

In a recent post I said that the sine qua non of intelligence is appreciation of one’s ignorance.  We only understand so far and so well at any one moment.  That we do not move through life more mindful of the issues inherent in our search for understanding and the shaping of our actions self-creates our own intellectual tar pits wherein our minds are trapped and stultified so that death comes to our culture.  Can we escape?  Sure. Will we here in America? Doubtful.  Hopefully some other people will rise to the challenge we seem to have abdicated and nurture healthy intellectual and social traditions.  What people and what culture will understand anew what true intellect requires and instigate a renaissance for the information age?  ?  ? ?  I hope they step up soon.

And so having spit once again into the wind, I happily travel on.


I have considered your idea and found it lacks contextual ties to reality. What now?