When a song disrupted cultural transmission

Something in my recent experience, probably watching border troubles in Ireland grow with Brexit, listening to Celtic music and reading about Irish history, triggered an old song memory, ‘The Rising of the Moon’ by Peter, Paul and Mary about the 1898 Irish rebellion.  You know how that goes—the song comes into your mind and rings there for days.  It is still there.  I used to own every album they made before someone stole some out of my dorm room. I did not have many on my ipod so I ordered a CD collection to provide material for memory lane and this is what I remembered.

I was 11 or 12 years old living on Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota when Peter, Paul and Mary hit the radio waves with ‘Lemon Tree’ and ‘If I Had a Hammer’, and I liked this music a lot, especially the latter song.  The more I heard, the more I loved it.  One Sunday after church (my parents found a Southern Baptist church even in North Dakota) we had some younger airmen over for Sunday dinner. When I talked about PP&M, one of my favorite airmen spoke up with great disdain, saying they were ‘beatniks’. Now in my family, nuclear and extended, in the Air Force community in the early 60s, and in our church, calling someone a beatnik was a serious deal.  The only people lower than beatniks either resided in the Soviet Union (or behind the Iron Curtain), Cuba, or were agitating in this country for civil rights (which many in my orbit thought was a communist plot as well—is this oh too familiar these days).  I listened as everyone trashed beatniks and wondered how such horrible people could make such astounding, beautiful and moral music.  I seriously doubted that they were really beatniks.

Then a few weeks later I had saved up my paper route money and bought their first album.  Yes, there they were on the cover, clearly beatniks.  I did not doubt them or their music.  I did question the wisdom being transmitted to me by the adults in my life. Clearly they were wrong.  These beatniks were decent people and that implied that many of the ‘others’ were decent as well.  I began to pay attention to a wider reality and the local cultural transmission of orthodoxy failed.  I learned about cultural alternatives and you can guess what ensued after that.

Several months ago I posted about the role of art in cultural change using the musical ‘South Pacific’ as an example.  (See post 3/6/18: ‘art and cultural shifts’).  Recall that Rogers and Hammerstein included in their play the issue of interracial marriage between Asians and Europeans/Americans, and that was controversial in its day, especially the song about how youngsters are taught to hate.  That play and other artworks contributed to the cultural change to where interracial relationships were acceptable.  The movie of the musical came out in 1958; the Supreme Court ruled that laws forbidding miscegenation were unconstitutional in the 1967 Loving case.

Now I remember a time when my culture was teaching me to condemn others who were different in some ways but their music was both beautiful and morally upright. The songs triumphed again, an indecent cultural transmission was disrupted, and I started on a journey to understand and accept the ‘others’ and to advance with skepticism wherever I went.

Art for me is a buoy of illumination marking special places in the cultural landscape.  In our evolution our mental abilities grew from cogitating about the concrete and immediate through the ponderings about past and future events to imaginative creations that no one will ever see ‘for real’.  In a sense these are dream materials and art operates to help us to dream the same dream in time together.  When we dance and make music we join in riding the time wave rolling into the future.  When we view a painting, walk around a statue, or sit in an architecturally beautiful space, we experience art as time rolls on by us.  In both sorts of art (I will call them ‘performative’, i.e., we move in time, and ‘artifactual’, i.e., time moves as we are still) we share the subjective visions and motions that can bind us together as humans.  We do have to be careful about what cultural tropes we admit into our world if we want to improve ourselves and the human condition.  Remember and consider the difference between art and propaganda.  Oh, and be skeptical.   Well, time to travel on.

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.


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?

Now that’s a big human sacrifice

I am working mostly on longer posts about linguistic change and about cultural devolution (sort of) but I keep seeing some news reports that are well worth mentioning.  Today comes a PLOS article I found about archeologists studying a mass sacrifice of children in ancient Mesoamerica.  The orthodox narrative for why some of these cultures disappeared, or at least became less prominent in the social organization of the peoples there, relates to weather, drought, internecine warfare, etc.  You know, the usual stuff, but let us not forget we are talking about humans, so existential challenges from climate, weather and geological events can be met with adaptation or with maladaptation.  We currently seem bent on reducing glacial melt that future generations will need and submerging low lying islands and coastal areas from Bangladesh to Venice.  The Dutch have a long history of mitigating against this threat but who knows what the future will bring, or at least, how bad it will be.  Farmers are already scrambling to adapt to new drought/flood conditions and heat.  Our farmer friends in North Carolina report that tomatoes, for example, are getting hard to grow because they will not set fruit when the temperature is too high. Also, ranchers are watching to see what breeds can prosper in these new conditions.  Finally, a consideration dear to my heart, the great wine growers of France (and California, etc.) are working to accommodate their methods of growing and making wine as their weather patterns shift ominously.

My point here is that humans work to manage challenges sometimes better than at other times.  Cultural beliefs play a large role in whether our efforts are successful or not.  Currently our culture seems intransigent in the face of the change needed to cope more directly with climate change for several reasons, especially due to financial powers holding on to maladaptive profit making and our own attachment to modern conveniences.  We have the scientific and technological know-how to do better but the cultural terrain is slow to shift.

In ancient times humans developed irrigation systems, terracing, and ways to keep crops warm, and they also took some magical approaches.  I think my ancestral Celts sacrificed a king or some other royal personage during sustained periods of crop failure.  Part of the Arthurian legend includes the notion that the land and king exist in synchrony—if the king is wise and just, the land will prosper and if the land is not prosperous, something must be wrong with the king, so better get a new one.  Oh well.  “To whom much is given, much is expected,” I think is a relevant phrase.

Somehow in ancient Mesoamerica they hit upon using human sacrifice as a way to meet natural exigencies.  Indeed, some peoples, like the Mayans and Incas, seem to have sacrificed so many young people that their population declined in vitality.  So the orthodox narrative that their society retreated in the face of natural challenges is only part of the answer; the other part is how they chose to meet the challenge.  Check out this PLOS article for some interesting findings about the sacrifice of 140 children and 200 assorted camelids, e.g., llamas, in pre-Columbian (around 1450 CE) South America: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0211691.

The article is fairly technical but for someone like me what is fascinating is how much science they can muster to glean information about the subjects, methods and other features of the sacrifices, e.g., genetics, careful and detailed archeological excavation, analysis of bones, dirt, burial artifacts, isotope analysis for diet, etc.  Here are some highlights.

An Inca tribe in Peru sacrificed these children, gathered from several populations from coast to mountains, and camelids at one time.  The researchers believe the most likely hypothesis for why is a natural disaster; some evidence points to heavy rains and flooding.  The children and camelids were marched to the burial site and then killed.  Most (both humans and llamas) had their chest cut open and spread to suggest that their hearts were removed.  The clean cuts and lack of false starts indicate that some skill was involved (yeah, I know, ugh!).  The llamas were also young and immature.  Some of the children had been painted with various pigments, e.g., different ochres, or dressed in special cloth.  Analysis of their diets suggested that these were not just children from lower social strata.  The victims were grouped and oriented in various ways, children to the sea and camelids to the mountains.  Finally, the researchers compared this sacrificial site to other sites in Mesoamerica and found some differences but again, many societies here sacrificed humans, especially children, to propitiate their gods.  Early Spanish invaders wrote about this.  Camelid sacrifice was evidently practiced into modern times.  Hoo boy.

This sacrifice would seem to have been a massive undertaking.  140 children and 200 camelids killed and partially dissected, arranged, and buried is no small offering, so the people clearly believed some event and god needed serious propitiation.  Even the gathering of the victims took some effort and organization. Why children?  The researchers suggest that children are an in-between group and so more pleasing to gods.  My cynical self says okay, plus they are easier to manage.  I also have to wonder if anyone had an empirical bone in his (why do I assume male priests?) body and wondered about the actual efficacy.  And while we modern humans have moved on from such rituals, somehow I think our humanity includes still a dark side whereby we mistreat the young and weak, less brutally to be sure and now with civilized reasoning.  Better travel from here.

Another from Frans de Waal coming soon

Frans de Waal has a new book coming out next week, Mama’s Last Hug:  Animal Emotions and What They Tell us About Ourselves.  I have pre-ordered it and will review once I have read it.  He is a great champion of science and animals everywhere, coining the term anthropodenial for those who deny other animals have minds and emotions like ours to oppose the old saw and accusation, ‘anthropomorphism’ that humans have hurled at those who see human traits in other animals.  Frans de Waal sees animal traits in humans because, yes, the secret is out and can be said aloud, we are animals.  He has a brief op-ed in the NYT previewing his new book you can check out:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/08/opinion/sunday/emotions-animals-humans.html.

I have posted before in response to some of his other books (see posts on 4/8/16, 8/26/17, 12/3/18).  He is the epitome of a good scientist as his conceptual integrity insists on seeing us as we are, animals with some cognitive talents, e.g., symbolification, but otherwise unremarkable (except, perhaps, for our destructiveness).  Yes, we cannot know directly what another animal is feeling, but I think that includes us. Best to observe the kinesic communications of empathy for such information.  Yes, we tell each other with words what we are feeling, but I have to wonder how reliable that information is, just like I have to wonder (actually I don’t–I already know–it is obvious) how well our intelligence is working these days.

The title, Mama’s Last Hug, refers to an aging chimp whose life is fading away quickly.  A researcher who worked with her (worked ‘with’, not ‘on’, understand?) came to pay his last respects, as it were.  When Mama saw him, she smiled and patted him on the head and neck, the way chimps do.  An appreciation of mortality by recognizing that our living connections are what matter.  Anyway travel on now to your next read.

Film review: Jane (+commentary on objectivity)

I finally got around to seeing Jane, a documentary film about the great Jane Goodall using film made by her first husband back in the day and more recent interviews with her about her life and work. What a dedicated lady and what a life! This film leaves out her second marriage once she divorced her first husband and also does not cover any of the scientific controversies her methods instigated.  Both of these omissions are probably just as well.

Her first husband was Hugo van Lawick whom National Geographic sent to film her earliest work; they were something of soulmates in cherishing Africa, its animals and landscapes.  They married and eventually had one son.  Hugo’s film project lost funding so he had to find other work and Jane supported him in that as much as she could, given her deep commitment to her own research. They filmed extensively in the Serengeti and Hugo became one of the world’s most renowned wildlife video- and photo-graphers.  Eventually their work pulled them apart and they divorced.  She then married Derek Bryceson, who worked to protect her Gombe project from tourism and other encroachments through his positions in the Tanzanian government.  He died of cancer 5 years later.

Jane Goodall was sent out by Louis Leakey to study chimpanzees in the wild, something that had not been done before.  She had no formal education, training or experience in this area, but she had always loved animals and especially animals in Africa, so off she went to the Gombe forest on a shoestring operation.  The chimps there were naturally wary of her and she was worried she would not be able to gather enough data to justify her project’s continuance, but she did by being a keen and very patient, quiet observer, eventually identifying a dominant male who was confident enough of his prowess not to run away from her.

This contact started a 50 year project following this group with whom she became quite engaged as they became ever more comfortable with her and other humans, even visiting their camp and stealing food and clothes, etc.  Now this is where some scientific controversy started that the film does not really address and that I think is an academic dispute that borders quibbling in this specific instance, thought the issues here are important.  The main issue is how to be objective or what objectivity means here and how does a researcher protect their stance as an observer and not a participant.  One complaint is that Dr. Goodall named her subjects rather than assigning numbers—not that much of a problem I should think.  Goodall and company successfully gained enough trust with the apes that they would come into camp and steal clothes and food and destroy things.  The apes also fought amongst themselves for goods. Goodall’s solution was to set up feeding stations outside the camp and so redirect their energy there.

Other scientists later criticized this move, saying that this affected how the chimps foraged and that this then affected social behaviors.  And indeed, some years later, the film shows how the ‘tribe’ split into two factions and eventually one group killed the others over resources. I guess the critics say this kind of lethal warfare is not usually seen in the wild and that the humans’ interventions contributed to this.  Maybe. I have seen other documentaries done less intrusively where intergroup violence was quite pronounced, so maybe not. And while I am sure that the chimps’ foraging practices were affected, I wonder how much.  Feeding birds at a feeder only adds another stop in the daily foraging routine. I would think that the chimps’ were adapted and engaged with their ecological niche to such an extent that they continued to exploit the natural resources thereabouts.

This is actually, I guess, a complex issue.  I have in my head the saying that the act of measuring changes what is measured. This is true in quantum physics where you can measure the velocity or position but not both.  In my clinical psychology practice, I understood that my assessment and initial interactions with my patient were part of the patient’s experience and so they might very well respond differently to other assays and situations (that’s life, as Frank sang it.)  I put great stock in the fact that Jane Goodall was a pioneer and her findings have helped shape further research and advocacy.  She had no model to follow so she made up her own based upon her curiosity and love of the animals.  She was, perhaps, less of an ethologist and more of an anthropologist, who also struggle with their own effect on their subjects but still engage with them, necessarily so, sometimes living with them and certainly forming relationships.  And all the while she took meticulous notes and gathered objective data.   Dr. Goodall followed this group through several generations for over 50 years; some of her knowledge was gained through a precious intimacy and that I think is oh so very important.

Yes, others who came later took precautions to minimize their impact but read about Washoe and Kiki and scientists’ like Frans de Waal research and you will see that they understand how closely related we and chimpanzees are. When the Gombe chimpanzees suffered a polio epidemic, Goodall’s team did what they could to mitigate its effects even as they watched and mourned the deaths of those too debilitated by the disease to survive in the wild.  And they changed their protocol to curb any physical contact so that they would not spread any more contagion.

This reminds me of the related issue of journalists’ objectivity that crops up once in a great while (and maybe should be discussed more openly besides). Consider a journalist covering a war where the people they are engaged with are killed or injured or they are covering people suffering from famine or drought.  Do they do nothing except witness and report?  No calls to medics, no offering bottles of water or a sandwich? Like a psychologist they must maintain the mental boundaries needed for objective work and avoid the ‘entanglements’ of a personal and no longer a professional relationship, but this is not a black and white issue and certainly not one where such distinctions are absolute. To constrain one’s humanity in the effort to strike an objective pose seems altogether pretentious, and in some cases, immoral.

Jane Goodall entangled herself with the Gombe chimps and her research has produced important findings and led to advocacy and inspiration to protect and cherish these fellow creatures.  She documented chimpanzee tool use in the wild, and of course many (mostly male?) disbelieved her at first—good thing a videographer came along for the ride.  The early footage of Dr. Goodall (and her mother who came along for a while to help manage the many tasks) is precious.  It evidently went missing for a while and was only recently found, so this documentary could then be made.  And the interviews with Dr. Goodall show clearly what a wonderful, spirited human she is.  We are lucky to have her on our side and fortunate to watch this film.  Travel on.


Jane? I miss her. She is my friend.


Aloha, Opportunity

We are all saying a fond farewell to the martian rover, Opportunity.  Designed to function for 3 months, it explored for 15 years, traveling many miles.  Here is one of the last pictures it took, looking back where it had come from, its tracks leading down to a valley that stretches out far away.  Sometimes we humans get it right, eh?