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.


ReReading Monod: part 2

In the current debate between the religious side and those arguing for science, at least as I see it generally represented in the media and at local events, the former stand on the need for divine guidance and validation of values, else we devolve into uncivilized and evil acting animals (I am still not sure how that would be different in many instances), while the latter argue for the evolutionary basis of values derived from our ancestral past (ancestry defined broadly). Jacques Monod had something intelligent to contribute to this debate in 1971.

Monod saw that with the advent of science human epistemology changed because science, with its axiom of objectivity, separated knowledge from values, i.e., science contributes knowledge about this objective reality but values must come from human decisions and actions because, looked at objectively, the universe is more machine-like than god-like with no absolute or divine values to be found. Before the 16th century both knowledge and values were generally from one domain labeled religion with perhaps a tad of secular philosophy thrown in by Plato and Aristotle. Since that time we have developed a powerful practical means of knowledge (I hope all would agree that science is eminently successful in solving problems and extending our capabilities) that indicates that our ethical values are “sociobiological” in origin and are an emergent feature of our extended and extending conspecific relationships.

Monod goes further with this analysis, saying that actually the distinction between values and knowledge derives from the Catholic distinction between the sacred and the profane. As human society shifts from animistic to scientific, an ethics of knowledge will develop that will include a knowledge of ethics. (Consider the current outcry against the American Trump administration for their desertion of the ethics of knowledge). To be authentic (and here is a modern civilized value), then, requires one to think and act clearly about value held/acted upon and judgments based on knowledge. Jumbling the two results in inauthentic action and thinking. (Now consider again our current politics in a more general sense whereby many elected officials assess reality according to their political and economic convenience in contrast with others, including bureaucratic data driven stalwarts, who assess reality in order to intervene on a factual basis and move society towards adaptive and democratic values).

Does this sound so arcane as to be trivial? Consider the ‘debate’ about whether substance abuse problems are a matter of character/spiritual flaws or an illness. Consider the incorporation by legal authorities of neuroscience findings indicating that the adolescent brain is not fully mature or functioning rationally for fully responsible action. Consider the issues raised in Simon Baron-Cohen’s book The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (see my posts on 5/11/14, 7/15/2014 & 7/28/2014).  Consider the changing approach to autism spectrum disorders, especially in how and what supports we fund for our fellow citizens over their lifetime. Finally, changing tack a bit, consider the remarkable economic data covering 300 years that Thomas Piketty gathered and analyzed for his book, Capital in the 21st Century, and the analysis and values he offers in contrast to so many others who talk about economic and tax policy based upon political dogma (see post 11/25/2016).

Monod argues for a society organized around an ethics of knowledge and a clearly asserted presumption of values. In this he leans left towards civic governance that ensures that the essential needs, including adequate wealth and medical care, of all citizens everywhere are met. He says he knows this will be seen by some as utopian but asserts that this is our choice, if ever we can rise to such a conscious choice, and in this he echoes his old comrade in the French resistance, proponent of clear social responsibility unsullied by claims to the divine, and fellow Nobel laureate, Albert Camus.

A final word about skepticism and existentialism vs god. (In our free country, you may believe in any god you wish; there are plenty to choose from, though quantity does not imply quality. What is not free at the moment is to require non-believers to think and act as you would like.) I recently heard again the old argument that without faith in god, humans would do whatever they want and that is not good, but it seems to me, again looking objectively around the world and through history, that even with faith in god, humans still do whatever they want, oftentimes not good, only now they feel righteous. Oh, and I have posted about righteous indignation before, see post on 5/16/2014. Well, time to travel on.

Re-reading Monod: WOW! edition

Along about Chapter 8 in Chance and Necessity Monod quotes Francois Mauriac’s comment on his (Monod) natural philosophy: “The professor’s ideas are more incredible than any we poor Christians believe”. Mauriac had won the Nobel for literature in the early 50s and was a staunch defender of the Catholic faith. To say Monod’s ideas were more incredible, i.e., unbelievable, than god coming to earth through a virgin birth, being killed for his upsetting views and then returning to life before ascending to the skies is pretty incredible in itself. What had Professor Jacques Monod been saying? I will try and give you the gist and flavor here now but again I urge you to read the book for yourself.

Monod gives a remarkably complete and beautifully articulated view of humans as biological and yes, that means without a supernatural immanence exerting its power through the material realm. After explicating through some details of protein synthesis the scientific basis of molecular biology and explaining how that provides fully for the evolution of life forms, he discusses the implications this has for natural philosophy. He understands that the challenge is to understand life without immanence, i.e., without the animating force of a god or gods. This begins with the basic understanding that nature is objective and that we can know it only through empirical effort; there is no revelation of absolutes and even through science our knowledge is conditional.

His book’s title captures a basic principle. Evolution proceeds through chance mutations to what is a necessarily conservative invariant process of reproduction that are then tested first by their coherence in the overall genetic structure and then by any effects on adaptability and reproductive success of the group. Having passed those tests chance happenings become necessary because they are now part of the invariant machinery. What propels evolution forward is not immanent design but a “vast reservoir of fortuitous variability.” Life is not predictable because of this random variability but proceeds to greater complexity because of this altogether remarkable ‘reservoir’ of chance events adding to the necessity of organismic structures and then the furthering of exploiting environmental opportunities. (He explains this so very well—read it).


Jacques Monod, Resistance hero and great scientist and philosopher.

This reservoir of variability sustaining evolution is one of the features Mauriac found incredible. I find it quite understandable though; consider my idea of evolutionary watersheds first for Solving World Problems and then for Conspecific Relations (see posts 7/25/15, 12/17/16 & soon to come) where genes spring up and flow down to the great confluences of the River Sentience and the River Empathy that then merge for the River Consciousness, which when it meets the ocean of Experience forms the somatic delta and there solving world problems becomes a social affair and conspecific relations becomes a world problem to solve. That is us. Whew!

The next thing Mauriac finds incredible (I think) is Monod’s statement that all that life is comes from experience, not a tabula rasa ala Aristotle and John Locke, but from the entire history of life, i.e., “the experiences accumulated by the entire ancestry of the species.” All that we are arises in a fortuitous bubbling of genes coming together over 4 billion years, or to borrow a phrase from James Joyce, “accidental music providentially arranged” by unknown happenstance beginning long, long ago. One facet of this evolutionary experience is our inborn fear of solitude and our need for a “need for a complete binding explanation,” of our existence, i.e., this the facet of spirit and religion.

And so at the end of chapter 8 Monod writes, “What doubt can there be of the presence of the spirit within us? To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ [god] is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.” To appreciate the soul, then, travel back upriver to the springs of our genetic watersheds. Now that is pretty incredible, and sorry to say, Monsieur Mauriac, quite scientific.

Rumor has it that when asked if he believed in god, Einstein replied, “I do if it is Spinoza’s god.”  I think Baruch Spinoza would be right there with Jacques Monod and his natural philosophy and would be delighted that somebody could write these notions openly without fear of being burned at the stake by the religious authorities. Travel on. I suggest heading upriver but it is all of a piece, river journey or a beachhead on the ocean of experience. Plash and eddy by the banks, wave and glisten on the shore.

Fierce Jacques Monod

I have finally after many years started re-reading Monod’s Chance and Necessity. The title is from a quote by Democritus that “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.” (Of late I have been thinking that any animate intelligence only mitigates contingency and exploits chance; that is really about all life does). I surprise myself that I can remember at least these early chapters fairly well and how carefully one must read to follow his chemical examples and to follow his line of reasoning. I do have a deeper appreciation now of his discussion of humanity’s alternatives to the postulate of objectivity as the basis of science, i.e., the universe is objective and can never be known and so can only be understood approximately through empirical efforts. Monod lists two alternatives, animism and vitalism. The latter is that life is separately energized by some projective animating spirit with teleonomic direction; the former is that all of the universe is so energized. Religions vary according to Monod by this distinction: spirits exist in all living things or spirits or one spirit gives motion to everything in the universe. His argument is that the teleonomy of life is inherent in the objective chemical workings governed by chance and necessity and is not a projection from outside of nature by say, a god guiding evolution to some end. Monod emphasizes that his use of ‘animist’ and ‘vitalist’ is idiosyncratic to himself, but his reasoning is clear enough that life operates and progresses by blindly objective chemical processes.

I did not remember a particular statement he makes at the end of chapter 2; I guess I am old enough now to appreciate how fierce a statement it is: “We would like to think ourselves necessary, inevitable, ordained from all eternity. All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its own contingency”. Here he strikes down any notion that we are the center of the universe or the crown of creation and replaces it with a deeper understanding and appreciation of molecular biology. Remember that he, Lwoff and Jacob won the Nobel Prize for discovering how genes control protein synthesis, and that has led to the remarkable explosion of molecular biology in our time.


Jacques Monod, French scientist and philosopher.

I am particularly struck by his use of the word ‘desperately.’ Monod is a careful writer and not given to hyperbole, so I take that word seriously enough I have to wonder: Why ‘desperately’? I understand that we tend to deny or ignore our mortality except at given times. Buddhist monks might consider it more; other religions think death only a transition to an eternal existence; skeptics and existentialists, like Monod’s good friend Camus (a quote from The Myth of Sisyphus also begins Chance and Necessity) hold that this life is all there is. I guess our desperation comes from the difficulty we experience apprehending our life span as a quick wink on a small planet in an ever growing universe, though I think today we have become more accustomed to that notion and so not as desperate to deny it.

In volume 3 of Mind Susanne Langer thought that we humans attained our current level of consciousness when we came to understand that from birth to death is one unitary act, that each life has these two boundaries beyond which it does not exist as an objective fact. I guess that having realized that and become fully conscious of being alive only for now, we then began to feel some need to go beyond that, i.e., to escape that contingency. And the ancients also believed, still in evidence today, in fate, another inescapable contingency. Skeptics, existentialists and some others understand that we create that need for ourselves out of our own imagination and so we can make up other pertinent needs and beliefs as well.

I will go back now and read some more Monod. I rarely see this book listed in bibliographies. I guess most consider it an historical work, but next to Darwin, and then Crick and Watson, Monod and colleagues led us to a greater understanding of ourselves. I hope I am clear that Chance and Necessity should be required reading for anyone hoping to understand how we came to understand the biological roots of our humanity.