I should be aware of what happens next. I’ve seen it in movies often enough. Man gets bitten by a wolf, and he turns into a werewolf at the full moon. That gives me two days. And it wasn’t a wolf, but a pit bull. I fear what I might become. You have to understand that after a long commute—they’re doing construction along a stretch of a major artery where my route passes—and having been awake since 3:30 (a.m.) when I get off the bus I’m not always thinking clearly. I’ve done some calculating and it turns out that apart from work, commute, and sleep (or at least trying to sleep) I’m left with three and a half hours per day to do my own stuff, like write these blog posts, eat breakfast and supper, and pay bills. So when I get off the bus for my short walk home, my main concern is getting across a busy street where New Jersey drivers routinely ignore the state law that they must stop for pedestrians in a cross walk. But last night the dogs were out.
The sidewalks in my town are narrow. Nine days out of ten I meet no one on my way home. There’s one guy with a tiny dog that’s feisty and it is amusing how the little guy—just a puppy—growls and barks its tiny barks and strains to get at me. Dog owners around here pull their dogs off the sidewalk to let walkers pass. It’s a friendly town that way. Last night the young woman was no match for the two pit bulls she was walking. The street was unusually busy since two guys had just walked past me, one, commenting on the dogs, said “I don’t take my beasts out any more.” The woman pulled the dogs off the walk and they barked and snapped and as I walked past one lunged and bit me. Tore a good pair of pants. The woman they owned was aghast and offered to pay. I didn’t want her to know how cheap my clothes were. Besides, I couldn’t hear her over all the barking.
It’s been years since I’ve been bitten by a dog. This was really just a scratch and the frantic woman assured me the dogs had had their shots. But I’ve seen the movies. I know what happens next. Two nights from now I’ll be roaming the streets after dark, half human, half dog. The Hunter Moon (the official name for October’s full moon) comes on Sunday. I can’t blame the dog—it was only doing what aggressive dogs are bred to do. My commute, however, has a new hazard. Not only do we deal with construction zones, I now have to arouse myself to watch out for werewolves on the way home. It must be October.
Me, in two days.
Do you remember that tragic sinking of a Staten Island ferry when a giant octopus pulled it under? Sounds vaguely familiar, but I wasn’t living near New York at the time. A story in The Guardian tells how Joseph Reginella, a sculptor, made his commemorative piece of art for Battery Park for a fictional incident. Like the memorial for War of the Worlds in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, this is something we remember that never really transpired. We remember what never happened. It’s easy to forget that memory evolved for specific purposes. Mainly we remember for survival. Our brains evolved to keep us alive. If we don’t recall where we found water, or where that hidden cliff edge is, we don’t last for long. But we remember other things as well. The time that Oog borrowed your stone axe and didn’t give it back. Our social memory made us human, so we’re told.
No doubt it is possible to develop a keen memory. Precise recollection of events just as they happened, in sequence. It’s also possible, even collectively, to misremember things. We tell stories. We make myths. There was no giant octopus incident. Maybe we saw such a thing in a movie one time. That movie, paired with the plausible evidence of a public monument commemorating the event becomes a modified reality. I’m just sure I can remember it happening, can’t you?
Studies of such phenomena tell us that memories aren’t what they seem to be. To make distant recollections Holy Writ, for example, we have to rely on divine inspiration. Without it we might just be remembering a story somebody told once upon a time. And where did I put the car keys? Yes, our memories are open to manipulation. Things that never happened become real this way. George Washington did not chop down a cherry tree and confess to his father because he could not lie. And yet we believe. We make myths because they give our lives meaning. Face it, evolution is a pretty boring explanation for why we’re here. Natural selection has no goals in mind. Things that work best tend to survive in the gene pool. And in some people’s memory there may be a giant octopus in that pool as well. Did the the Cornelius G. Kolff get pulled under or not? Would a ship with such a name ever be made up? Myths are still born every day, even as the octopuses cower in their caves, awaiting the next naive ferry to transcend reality.
Posted in Animals, Art, Consciousness, Current Events, Evolution, Posts
Tagged Cornelius G. Kolff, George Washington, Grover's Mill, Joseph Reginella, memory, New Jersey, octopus, Staten Island ferry, The Guardian, War of the Worlds
Perhaps the most pervasive trait of religion is its ability to construct worldviews. Even when the religion is eventually abandoned, the worldview remains. Most scientists would deny that religion lies behind their perspectives, but in the case of human exceptionalism it remains the most logical cause. I always eagerly await new books by Frans de Waal. Ever since I read his book on empathy and apes, I couldn’t wait for the next one. His latest book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, although the title is a mouthful, does not disappoint. As I’ve noted before about his works, de Waal is perhaps the most sensible person writing in science today. He considers the evidence and takes his own biases into account. In a competitive world where science money is often doled out to those who can exclude others, de Waal is willing to leave the door open when the evidence demands it.
What is really ironic is that evolution has become the line in the sand between biblical literalists and science. As de Waal points out, the idea that people are different from the animals from which they evolved—in some qualitative way—is an idea based on religion. Many scientists still hold to it in a way that can only be described as, well, religious. This is very strange when evolution works by gradual changes over long periods of time. When did humans gain whatever trait that separates them from “the animals”? When I was a child it was tool use. When that was disproved, it became language. When that was disproved it became consciousness. The latter is the safest since nobody really knows what it is. As de Waal amply demonstrates the Behaviorist school was clearly wrong about animals (including humans). What no Behaviorist wants to admit is that the idea that we alone are conscious comes from the cultural interpretation of the Bible.
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? is, like many of de Waal’s books, full of wonderful observations of the ways animals actually behave. They solve problems. They learn from experience. They anticipate the future. In some cases they have been shown to outperform humans on cognitive tasks. And yet we still insist that people are somehow different. Better. Interestingly this is one area where religions and science tend to agree. People are just more important than animals. I wonder if one of the underlying reasons—not addressed by de Waal—is that we have come to depend on a lifestyle that unfairly exploits animals. After all, we eat them, use them for work, and even experiment on them. If we admit that they are intelligent we would need to, yes, rethink all of this. Given what’s happening in the world today, it is perhaps time to admit what we don’t really know.
Posted in Animals, Bible, Books, Consciousness, Posts, Religious Origins, Science
Tagged Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, Behaviorism, Consciousness, Evolution, Frans de Waal, science and religion