The God Test

Humans don’t mean to be cruel, I’m pretty sure, when they test animals for intelligence.  We’re a curious lot, perhaps a bit too self-absorbed, but we want to know how other animals are like us.  Of course, we reserve actual thinking for ourselves, given how well we’ve managed to conserve our only environment, but we grant some special spark to our biological kin.  So we devise tests for them.  Since we can’t get beyond human experience, many of these tests are devised for creatures like us.  When animals fail our superiority is reconfirmed.  Then it’s back to the lab.  I’ve got to wonder how it feels to the subject of the experiment (or is it object?).  Some being that has mastered the art of capturing you, perhaps with the aid of alien technology, is trying to get you to understand something that’s only clear from its (the captor’s) viewpoint.  You need to suss out that viewpoint and solve the puzzle in the same way.

This makes me think of many forms of religion.  We’re born to a lower species (human) as the experimental subjects of gods, or a God, who watch(es) to see how we figure things out.  There’s a right answer, of course, but we’re only given hints as to what it is.  We’re given toys to play with—some of them dangerous—and we’re allowed to select clowns and buffoons to lead us.  We can kill off unthinkable numbers of our own kind and the only clue that we’ve succeeded is some tasty treat at the end.  Of course, we have to assume that the intelligence governing this whole farce is much greater than our own.  Doesn’t feel so good, does it?

Holism is the ability to see a continuity in all of nature.  And nature doesn’t just mean this warm globe on which we find ourselves.  It’s vast and mysterious and some parts of it are very cold and others very hot.  There are places we cannot go, and others that seem inevitable, given the choices.  Like the victims of bullies we don’t think about the larger system, but seek to impose our wills on those who see things differently than we do.  Some tote guns while others pack books.  All of us will shoo away insects that buzz too close.  Most of the animals “beneath” us will simply eat them.  Is this all a game?  Or is it some kind of experiment where we have to guess the answer, but with only a fraction of the information required?

Fly Away

Humans can be quite likable, but we have some nasty traits.  One is that we tend to think of ourselves as the only intelligent beings on the planet.  The funny thing about evolution is that it gave us both big brains and opposable thumbs—a winning combination to destroy the planet.  (Just look at Washington, DC and try to disagree.)  Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds is poignant in this context.  Page after page of nearly unbelievable displays of intelligence among birds demonstrates that we are hardly alone on the smarts scale.  Birds make and use tools, have better memories than most of us do, and can solve problems that I even have trouble following.  We tend to take birds for granted because they seem to flit everywhere, but the book ends soberly by noting how global warming is driving many species to extinction.

Homo sapiens (I’ll leave out the questionable and redundant second sapiens) like to think we’ve got it all figured out.  We tend to forget that we too evolved for our environment—we adapt well, which has allowed us to change our environment and adapt to it (again, opposable thumbs).  Many scientists therefore conclude that we are the most intelligent beings in existence.  Ironically they make such assertions when it’s clear that other species can perceive things we can’t.  Ackerman’s chapter on migration states what we well know—migrating birds can sense the earth’s magnetic field, something beyond the ability of humans.  We lack the correct organ or bulb or lobe to pick up that signal.  And yet we think we can rule out other forms of intelligence when we don’t even know all the forms of possible sensory input.  We could learn a lot from looking at birds, including a little humility.

The Genius of Birds explores several different kinds of intelligence.  What becomes clear is that birds, like people, have minds.  Like human beings they come on a scale of intellectual ability that doesn’t suggest only one kind is necessary.  For our large brains we can’t seem to get it through our thick skulls that we need biodiversity.  We need other species to fill other niches and our own remarkable ability to thrive has only been because we are part of a tremendous, interconnected net encompassing all of life.  Other species have contributed to our evolution as we clearly do to theirs.  When we end up thinking that we alone are smart and our own prosperity alone matters we are sawing away at the branch on which we sit.  Further up the birds look at us and wonder if we really know what we’re doing.

No Animals Harmed

Out for a walk after work the other day, I spied a black cat.  Not the superstitious sort, I didn’t let this deter me from continuing on.  Then I noticed that it was a mere three or four feet from a ground hog that was just as large as, if not larger than, the cat was.  They were staring at each other, weighing their options.  The ground hog didn’t appear too concerned.  Then a rabbit hopped up, on the other side of the cat.  A perfect syzygy of fauna that remained still for a moment in a tableau of nature.  About the same time as the cat noticed  the rabbit, the rabbit noticed it back and quickly hopped away.  The cat crouched and slunk after the bunny and the woodchuck ambled off at its own pace.

Not only was this conjunction an odd combination of three species of mammal—four if you count me—but it was such a conscious interaction that I had to think of it as almost human.  Three very different individuals, probably all with eating on their minds, had to assess how to interact, wordlessly.  As far as I could tell the drama ended amicably.  The cat looked well fed, in any case, and the rabbit far outdistanced it from the start.  Chuck was unconcerned.  Although the hard line still exists in science, drawn between ourselves and our fellow animals, I’m convinced that they have a share of consciousness.  We’re told that they’re mere “machines” following instinct.  These three “machines” along the trail were sure acting like they were thinking.

What are they thinking?

As the situation played out, no violence ensued.  Three individuals out enjoying the spring happened to find themselves in a scenario that called for negotiation.  The cat, like Republicans, felt compelled toward aggression, I should imagine.  It had a choice: take on a larger, more worthy foe, or turn its attention to the weaker, more vulnerable prey.  Naturally, it turned toward the weaker of the two.  There were differing agendas at play here, and with a dose of consciousness added in, these critters behaved so like human beings that I felt compelled to share it.   The ground hog and rabbit looked on the situation with some wariness.  They thought about it, and each took the prudent route to safety, for the time being.  Nature, it seems, will find its balance if we let it.  And we, if we would acknowledge it, still have something to learn from nature.

Mastering Ravens

One of the most difficult things in modern life is to keep up with all the new jobs available.  That’s not to suggest that unemployment isn’t a real problem—it is—but that the game has changed since the days I went to the guidance counselors’ office and thumbed through the box of microfiche to learn about potential colleges.  (And what strange people the guidance counselors were!)  Since 1981, when I graduated from Oil City High School, the Internet has been invented and has changed employment forever.  I understand that making YouTube videos can now be a full-time job, with benefits.  Who knew?  So when I was kindly presented with a copy of Christopher Skaife’s The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London I wasn’t too surprised to learn that there is such a job.

Delightfully written, The Ravenmaster goes into the ins and outs of life in what is a ceremonial job.  That the Brits are fond of tradition is no secret, and this little book is so full of them that it becomes a delightful gallimaufry that includes, I kid you not, dog biscuits marinated in blood.  Although Skaife takes you on a few detours through his own life, the book is mainly about ravens.  We’re so used to materialists telling us that everything is simply cause and effect of neurons firing that I wonder how they might react to the obvious intelligence and personalities of ravens.  Reading about their antics as well as their wisdom it’s difficult not to surmise that consciousness isn’t a purely human preserve.  With the ravens and the wolves we are a piece.

Intelligence is more common in the animal world than in the White House these days, and this book may help to show why.  Ravens can plot, plan, and be cruel.  They can also be kind, compassionate, and friends.  I’ve long had a fascination with corvids, and I tried to befriend some before moving out of New Jersey.  It was a bit tricky with the strictures of my own Tower of London—the commute, the bus, the job—and so my friendship with the local crows in the back yard of our apartment remained strictly casual.  We lose so much by not paying attention to the natural world of which we are, increasingly, so unnatural a part.  When humanity disappoints and the ridiculousness of human behavior haunts, I recommend reaching for The Ravenmaster.  It’s comforting to know that real minds exist out there in the wild.

Animal Rains

We may have been to the moon—if not personally, collectively—but we still don’t control the weather down here.  It’s probably not news that the eastern part of the country has been getting a lot of rain lately.  One of the factors that led me to write Weathering the Psalms was the overwhelming tendency for humans to attribute weather to the divine.  It used to be that we couldn’t reach the sky, so placing deities there seemed a safe bet.  Now that we’ve shot through the thin membrane of atmosphere that swaddles our planet, we’ve discovered beyond a cold, dark space liberally sprinkled with stars and planets but mostly full of dark matter.  The deity we thought lived beyond the sky somehow wasn’t anywhere our probes flew and recorded.

Still, down here on the surface, we live with the realities of weather and still think of it in terms of punishment and pleasure.  When we don’t get enough rain, God is destroying us with drought.  Too much rain, and the Almighty is washing us away with flood.  The true variable in all of this is, obviously, human perception.  Sure, animals experience the weather too, and they sometimes look to be as disgusted as humans when it snows too early or too late, or when the rain just won’t stop.  I have to wonder if somewhere in their animals brains there’s the seed of an idea that the bird, or squirrel, or woodchuck in the sky is angry at them for some unspecified faunal sin.

While heading to the store yesterday, after weather reports assured us the rain was finally over for the day, the skies told a different story.  The vistas around here are never what they were in the midwest—or what they are in Big Sky country—but the approaching storm was pretty obvious.  An opaque drapery of precipitation was coming our way and although a rainbow would cheekily show up afterward, knowing that we’d been caught away from home with our windows open felt like punishment for something.  Perhaps the hubris of buying a house when all I really require is a corner in which to write.  Somewhere in my reptilian brain I translated a natural event into a supernatural one.  When we got home to discover the storm had gone north of us, it felt like redemption.  I spied the birds sheltering in shadows from the sun’s heat.  Were they thinking it was some kind of divine avian displeasure, and hoping for some rain to cool things off for a bit?  If so, was our religion correct, or was theirs?

Inventing Breaks

Breaks are good for many things. Time with family and friends. Hours of non-bus time for reading. Watching movies. So it was that we went to see The Man Who Invented Christmas. It really is a bit early for my taste, to think about Christmas, but the movie was quite welcome. Being a writer—I wouldn’t dare to call myself an author—one of my favorite things to do is talk about writing. Watching a movie about it, I learned, works well also. The conceit of the characters following Dickens around, and refusing to do what he wants them to should be familiar to anyone who’s tried their hand at fiction. My experience of writing is often that of being a receiver of signals. It is a transcendent exercise.

Not only that, but in this era of government hatred of all things creative and intellectual, it is wonderful to see a film about writing and books. The reminder about the importance of literacy and thought is one we constantly have to push. If we let it slip, as we’ve discovered, it may well take considerable time to recover. Getting lost in my fiction is one of my favorite avocations. Solutions to intractable problems come at most improbable times. Although publishers tend to disagree with me, I find the stories compelling. In the end, I suppose, that’s what really matters.

On an unrelated note, this is the second movie I’ve seen recently that attributes non-human actors their real names in the cast listing. What a welcome break from the blatant speciesism that pervades life! Animals have personalities and identities. Humans have often considered the privilege of being named to be theirs alone. True, animals can’t read and wouldn’t comprehend a human art form such as cinema. But when they communicate with each other, they may well have names for us. The beauty of a story such as A Christmas Carol is that it reminds of the importance of generosity. We should be generous to those who take advantage of our kindness. Our time. Our energy. We should also be generous to those who aren’t human but are nevertheless important parts of our lives. The movie may have come too early for my liking, but the holiday spirit should never be out of season. If we’ve made a world that only appreciates kindness because much of the rest of the year is misery, it means we’ve gone too far. Films can be learning experiences too, no matter the time of year.

De-programming

I’m no foodie. That’s not a trendy thing to admit, I know. I’ve never been a good consumer. I think it’s because I don’t like being programmed. One area of life where we are most open to programming is in what we eat. Raised to masticate animal flesh, we’re told that it’s healthy for us, and besides, where on earth are you going to get protein if you don’t eat animals? Without thinking too much about it, we step in line. I remember asking my mother, as a child, what part of the animal “the meat” is. I was kind of hoping, I guess, that it was some part that might be kind of painless to lop off, because I didn’t like to think of the implications otherwise. Even when the answer wasn’t satisfactory, I didn’t change my diet.

Once, when eating with a friend, my host commented that you shouldn’t be allowed to eat meat unless you were willing to kill the animal yourself. He wasn’t advocating vegetarianism—he was serving meat—but he was thinking through the process logically. I became a vegetarian, because of that logical thought process, about 18 years ago. I continued to be programmed, however. Yesterday I attended a vegan lunch. I always thought of vegans as spare, acsetical types, emaciated and gaunt. I learned that they are often people who think through the consequences of our love affair with meat. And other animal “products.” The problem is industrial farming. In a word, the commodification of animal suffering. Those who don’t work in the agri-business—to which most looming environmental disasters can be directly traced—are prevented from seeing the conditions in which their “food” is being kept. Animal cruelty on a scale that is, well, industrial. Decisions are made based on one metric—profits.

I don’t think about food a lot. It has become clear to me that my friend’s logic works. One of the things our vegan presenter pointed out is that pigs are considered the fourth most intelligent animal species. Our love of bacon has them kept in conditions where they literally lose their minds. We don’t see it, so we continue to be programmed. Go to the grocery store. The healthy foods are more expensive—“consumers” are punished for refusing to play the “no thinking” game. I don’t know much, but I do know that it’s often the things I do without thinking that ultimately lead to trouble. Capitalism rewards the greedy only. The rest of us, including our animals, pay the price. Think it through and consider the conclusions. I don’t like being programmed.