Animal intelligence and ethics

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This is something that I’ve been thinking about for awhile now. There is now a mounting body of evidence that demonstrates that animals have more intelligence and self-awareness than we previously thought. And if this is true, I think that this has some ramifications regarding the behavior of human beings toward animals.

This philosophical journey started for me when I read a book called Alex and Me, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the science of animal cognition. The book was written by the researcher who worked with Alex, a parrot. Most people may know Alex from the soundbites in the news when he died–he’s the parrot that told the researcher studying him, “Be good, I love you,” right before he died. But perhaps, one may argue, this is just us anthropomorphizing the parrot. Maybe he was just mimicking what he heard other people say in situations where one person was leaving another, and he didn’t really have any concept of the meaning of what he was saying.

Perhaps, but did you also know that this parrot had a concept of what “nothing” was? That’s pretty astounding to me. But Alex the parrot demonstrated an understanding of “nothingness” as incredible as that may seem. Alex understood simple things, like color, and if presented with two objects of different color, could tell you what the difference was. However, if there were no differences, he would answer “none,” suggesting that he had an understanding of what “nothing” was.

Alex in the lab

Alex in the lab

There were numerous claims that Alex was exhibiting operant conditioning. However, the researcher that worked with Alex allowed anyone to work with him, and Alex’s responses and abilities could be demonstrated and repeated by people who had never had any association with him. If Alex was able to do all of these incredible things with total strangers, operant conditioning seems unlikely to me.

Perhaps there is another explanation for Alex’s abilities. As a scientist, I have to admit that no experiment is beyond unrealized influences. But at the very least, the idea that Alex would express agitation over experiments showed that he had some concept of what “anger” was. When the researchers became agitated with him, he would say “I’m sorry” which might have been a reaction stemming from his observation of similar situations, but at the very least shows that he was able to recognize when other creatures where emotionally upset, which seems to indicate guilt or regret.

Anyone who has owned a dog has probably seen this. Maybe your dog doesn’t realize that his reflection is not in point of fact another dog. But when you have a bad day and you’re depressed or sad or grumpy, doesn’t your dog behave in a way in accordance with those moods? Your dog might not understand what’s going on or his role in it, but he knows that something is different, and exhibits empathetic behavior.

We can go beyond dogs and parrots, though. Take the idea that elephants mourn their dead. From the article:

“When an elephant walks past a place that a loved one died he or she will stop and take a silent pause that can last several minutes. While standing over the remains, the elephant may touch the bones of the dead elephant (not the bones of any other species), smelling them, turning them over and caressing the bones with their trunk. Researchers don’t quite understand the reason for this behavior. They guess the elephants could be grieving. Or they could they be reliving memories. Or perhaps the elephant is trying to recognize the deceased. Whatever the reason, researchers suspect that the sheer interest in the dead elephant is evidence that elephants have a concept of death.”

Certainly, behaviors like these could have alternate explanations. Or, perhaps we humans are the ones who are biased. Perhaps the flaw is our anthropocentric views or egos. As research progresses and our understanding of how brains work continues to expand, perhaps we will have more concrete answers to the questions in animal cognition.

But let’s take stock of what we do know. Animals can learn. This suggests they have an ability to remember and to understand the world around them. And it seems apparent that animals can at least recognize emotions, even if we can’t say that they fully understand them–or more aptly, don’t experience them the same way we humans do. And we can also say that animals also seem to exhibit emotional behavior, although again, an animal emotion might not perfectly correlate to a human emotion. But then again, do human emotions even correlate to each other? The way I grieve is not the same as the way others grieve; I experience anger differently than others do. If you asked people to verbally describe emotional states they’d probably give different and varying responses. Perhaps all emotions, animal and human, are on the same continuum. Maybe animals don’t experience emotions the same ways that humans do, but perhaps the human way of experiencing something is not the only way of experiencing.

I began thinking about this more last night. My dog had a bad dream. I could hear it all the way down stairs. I went and observed it. There she was, fast asleep. She was exhibiting REM sleep; I could see the eyes moving back and forth even though her lids were closed. She was whimpering and crying. Her paws were twitching. I say that this was a “bad” dream because when I woke her up, she jumped into my lap and started nuzzling me–and she’s a 70 lb lab. And no, I am not anthropomorphizing my dog’s reactions. Studies have shown that dogs respond to touch the same way that humans respond to it–with a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure, and a release of Oxycontin, “the feel good” hormone. Science would suggest that my dog wanted to be comforted. Which indicates that my dog can experience distress or fear. And since this was generated by a dream, I can assume that my dog is capable of either some degree of abstract thought and imagination or reliving terrible events/memories.

My dog during a thunder storm. She clearly has some ability to reason that "thunder = bad"

My dog during a thunder storm. She clearly has some ability to reason that “thunder = bad”

I’ll never know what my dog dreams because she will never be able to tell me. But the mere fact that my dog can learn and dream indicates to me that she–and other dogs, of course–are more than instinct driven creatures who just desire eating and sleeping. Dolphins and chimps have exhibited self-awareness; they have a sense of “self” (see “the dot test” for more info on this). It just seemed clear to me, after all of the evidence, that animals are intelligent. I think it’s pretty clear that humans are the most intelligent creatures on the planet–but that doesn’t mean that we’re the only intelligent ones.

And to me that has serious ethical ramifications in how we treat animals. If an animal has a cognitive and emotional status equivalent to a two year old human, why should they be treated any different? Simply for the fact that they’re a different species? That seems like a pretty lame answer. We don’t base the rights of a two year old human on their intelligence and emotional maturity.

So then I think of things like medical experimentation. You would never give a two year old human child cancer or some other disease based on the fact that it isn’t as intelligent or emotionally mature as an adult. But it’s fine to do the same to an animal with equivalent intelligence–who can experience the same emotions as the two year old in a rudimentary way–by virtue of that fact that it happens to be a chimp and not a human being. Yes, I understand that medical trials on animals help human beings. I won’t deny that. I’ve even benefited from that. But given the fact that science seems to be showing that animals are far more intelligent and emotional than we originally thought, should we not re-evaluate these actions or our values?

And I’m not trying to advocate that we should all become vegans or whatever. Clearly nature designed us to consumer other animals. That’s fine. They certainly wouldn’t hesitate to eat us. But perhaps we can raise the animals we eat in a more humane way. Perhaps it’s not ethical to cram them in tiny, festering conditions and pump them full of hormones and drugs. If animals do have some degree–ANY degree!–of intelligence and emotion, then quality of life becomes an issue. If nothing else, animals can feel pain, and they can fear pain. That alone should amount to something. It’s never okay to use intellect as a justification for causing something pain.

I guess at the end of the day, I would invite everyone to look at the evidence and than take another look at their values, beliefs, and behaviors. Perhaps as the most intelligent species on the planet we have an inherent moral or ethical obligation to use that intelligence responsibly and fairly, no matter what forms of life are involved.

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All ideas are not created equally

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I’m lucky to live in a country where people have the freedom of speech. Certainly, if I lived in other parts of the world, I could be in serious trouble regarding some of the things I write about on this blog. But I live in a free society where people can believe whatever they want, think whatever they want, and express those ideas. This has a lot of advantages, to be certain. Allowing people the freedom to express their beliefs and ideas freely leads to some truly wonderful innovations and movements. But lately I’ve noticed a new trend.

People seem to be equating the ability to say whatever you want with the idea that every opinion or idea has equal merit. This extends to a lot of things in our society: religion, politics, philosophy–you name it. I don’t know how or when this began, but this seems to be the prevailing attitude in our society now. That somehow freedom of speech ensures that your voice must be taken seriously.

It doesn’t.

The US constitution may grant you the right to believe whatever you want and say whatever you want, but that’s just a guarantee that people will hear you–NOT that people will listen to you. Feel free to say or believe whatever you want–but if it’s stupid, don’t expect me to take it seriously. I don’t have to. There’s no legal mandate that says I have to take your ideas seriously or even consider them at all.

This country guarantees you a right to your opinion–but it also guarantees me a right to my opinion, and if my opinion is that your opinion is stupid, that’s perfectly acceptable. Of course the reverse of that is also true, and people are welcome to find my opinions stupid. I accept that that comes with living in a free society. That’s the price that comes with any free society–you get good ideas and you get bad ideas. But we don’t have to take the bad ones seriously.

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Is the end of net neutrality really a bad thing?

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The relative equality when it comes to the internet now seems to be in question. The idea of “net neutrality” relates to the fact that it costs the same amount of money to access any part of the internet. For the fee that you pay your ISP, you can access any site equally. But what if that neutrality was gone? What if people had to pay more to access more popular sites? What if you were charged a different premium every time you wanted to access Google, Netflix, or Amazon? Or you were charged more to view a site over a mobile device?

There is such a movement that stands before our congress now, and it looks to be gaining momentum. Of course this shouldn’t really come as a surprise. If businesses can find a way to increase profits, they’ll do it, and quite frankly I’m surprised companies have been letting people access their sites for free out the goodness of their hearts for as long as the internet has been around. Critics charge that this will unfairly skew how the average American accesses information. That’s a fair charge, to be certain.

But then I think about a world where people can’t really afford the internet, or can’t afford constant access to it, and I question whether or not that would actually be a bad thing. Think of how much complete and total bullshit and misinformation there is on the internet, and how much is added every day. Would it really be a bad thing if this new economic model for the internet made it so that people were less able or willing to access sites that contain erroneous bullshit?

And then I think about the media that we’re constantly inundated with. Would it really be a bad thing if people weren’t bombarded by talking heads and pundits and advertisements from their tablets, phones, TVs and other other devices 24/7? Seems like that might be a good thing to me.

I also think about the Google culture we now live in. Would it really be a bad thing if people couldn’t just Google the answer to something, and instead had to, I don’t know, figure something out by themselves? Before the internet existed, if you wanted to know the answer to something you had to educate yourself on the topic. But you don’t have to do that anymore thanks to Google. The internet instantly and blindly feeds people answers to their questions. Maybe it’s not a bad thing that instead of turning to Google to be told how to think, people regain some of their common sense and critical thinking skills.

Maybe I’m being too critical of the internet and technology. There certainly are a lot of good things about the internet. It puts us in touch with people and places we otherwise probably would never have made contact with. There certainly is something to be said for the access to what quality information does exist on the internet. But is the double edged sword worth it? Is it really worth being flooded with misinformation and opinion masquerading as fact? Is it really worth conditioning people to expect instant gratification? Is it really worth conditioning people to stop learning because they can just Google it? I don’t know that it is.

When I imagine a world where the internet is priced out of reach for a lot of people or where pricing makes people much more selective about where they go and what they do on the internet, I picture a place where people actually talk to each other, go outside, or read a book instead of binge watching some TV on netflix. I imagine a world where people read the newspaper again. I imagine a world where people visit public libraries again!

I just think that the world without net neutrality wouldn’t be such a bad place. I think there might be some upsides to it, actually. At the very least, perhaps it would force people to discriminate more when it comes to what they choose to access online. The loss of any convenience is always a hard transition to make. But people adapt and life goes on. And sometimes conveniences do take something away from us.

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Problems I have with a historical Jesus

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I suppose it should come as no shock to regular readers, but I have some major issues with the idea that Jesus of the bible was an actual person. Various scholars have at many points in history tried to authenticate that the Jesus of the bible was a physical person who really existed and thus could possibly have been the son of God and thus lending credibility to the bible. The problem with that, though, is that these scholars have yet to produce anything conclusive. You could pick five Christian scholars and each of them would come back to you with five different people who they claim were the real Jesus. I have my doubts, and they rest on two premises.

1. The missing years. There is a period of about 18 years in the New Testament where Jesus literally falls off the map. Presumably he was off doing normal guy stuff? Who knows, it’s not explicitly documented. Which I find completely incredible and utterly baffling. So this child is born of a virgin birth and is heralded as the son of god. Everyone watches him grow up for 12 years and then…people lose interest? I don’t know, it seems awfully bizarre to me that people would just kind of ignore the Messiah for the better part of two decades. Essentially, you have everyone abuzz with the knowledge that the son of God and literal savior of humanity has been born…then people go through a period of not giving a shit for 18 years for some reason…then suddenly they’re interested in Jesus again when he hits 30. If the Jesus of the bible really was an actual person his life and mere existence would have had staggering implications for mankind–you’d think someone would have been assigned to document his whole life. But you don’t see that. You don’t see anything remotely resembling the biography of literally the most important man to have ever lived. Call me a skeptic, but something about that seems a tad off to me. Just the idea that people would stop caring about a man who performed miracles and was born unto a virgin seems incomprehensible. Maybe some people would have been dubious or not given a shit…but surely SOME people would have. Which leads me to…

2. Why didn’t anyone else write about Jesus? This is something else that I find troubling and puzzling. If the Jesus of the bible was a real person and he really was the son of God, why isn’t there any record of his miracles and deeds beyond the bible and the church? Seems only natural that if someone came into town and walked on water, turned it into wine, and then cured a bunch of lepers that the townspeople would have had their minds blown. Think of the equivalent of that today. If someone came to my town and performed a bunch of miracles, you could bet that people would be blogging and tweeting and Facebooking the ever-loving crap out of that shit. And yes, these social media obviously weren’t available in the time of Jesus. But we haven’t found the journal or diary of oooooone single person? Not one single instance of some merchant in some town writing,

“Dear diary,

Guess what?! Today some dude called Jesus came to town and magically cured all the lepers! And then he turned the water to wine! And when he was all done, he left town by WALKING OVER THE RIVER! Totes cray cray. Time to herd some goats.”

I just find it almost totally inconceivable that the multitudes of everyday people who allegedly witnessed these miracles had absolutely no desire to record them. It makes no sense whatsoever to me. All of the people who wrote about “Jesus” did so centuries after his death, meaning they never could have met an actual, historical Jesus.

It’s all just an awful lot to swallow. Of course, there’s a much more likely explanation. Perhaps Jesus really did exist but there was nothing at all divine about him. Perhaps he was just a philosopher. And maybe that’s why nobody really showed much interest while he was alive. It was only after his death that the founders of Christianity decided to use him as the central figure of their religion. It would certainly explain the missing years. Under this assumption, the only important parts about the life of Jesus are his birth and his death, because that’s central to the mythology. It also explains why normal people didn’t record his existence or meeting him–because he was just a regular dude walking down the street or some guy on the street corner begging people to love their neighbor. No miracles, no virgin birth. Just a street corner philosopher.

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The secular boogeyman

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Hide your bibles and lock up your crosses! Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye, and Neil deGrasse Tyson are comin’ for ‘em! They want to jam secular theories down your throat and force you and your children to deny your Christianity! And there’s a whole wing of militant atheists out there who stand by, waiting for the command, to bully Christians until their religion is stamped out from the face of the earth and everyone blindly pledges allegiance to evolution! At least that’s the narrative some Christian groups would have you believe.

Except that this is patently false. Nothing of the sort is happening. In point of fact, I would argue that even the most extreme atheists and scientists out there have done much less to impose their will upon society than the most fundamental of Christians.

A lot of the focus of this narrative rests upon Richard Dawkins, Bill Nye, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. They’re portrayed as radicals who want nothing more than to make everyone an atheist and to replace all Christian beliefs and values with science, and they’re the leaders of this radical wing of militant atheism. They’re all over the airwaves, the internet, and your local bookstore’s shelves trying to convert you and your children to Godless, evolution loving heathens.

But what’s the worst we can really say about them? Dawkins openly and publicly mocks people of faith. Nye and deGrasse Tyson travel the country promoting science and encouraging people to question religion. So? Why is Christianity above the reproach of skepticism? But more to the point, none of these men have actually done anything that even begins to diminish or take away your freedom to practice whatever religion you want to. I can’t emphasize that enough. Despite these ‘radical’ atheists and their secular views, not a single one of them is spearheading a movement to deny you religious freedom.

There isn’t a single piece of atheist legislation in existence. There isn’t a single atheist proposal on any government dockets. Atheists aren’t running around trying to mandate that Sunday schools teach evolution so that students “can hear both sides of the story.” Atheists aren’t proposing a constitutional amendment banning freedom of religion. Atheists haven’t proposed any laws limiting how many churches can be built. And atheists don’t go door to door distributing literature by Dawkins and Darwin.

Sadly, we cannot say the same thing about some Christian groups. Because some Christians ARE trying to mandate that their beliefs be taught in public school–because apparently it’s bad to ‘cram evolution’ down a Christian’s throat, but perfectly acceptable to cram Genesis down the throat of Hindu or a Muslim or a Native American student. Some Christians ARE trying to pass amendments to the constitution of the United States that defines marriage how they want it defined and banning abortion, which they morally oppose. If you don’t believe it, look up the “Human Life Amendment” and the “Federal Marriage Act.” All very clear examples of Christians trying to legally impose their will over others. There is no atheist equivalent to this.

The teaching of evolution in a science classroom has no tacit moral or philosophical statement in it. Creationism is not scientifically testable, and therefore has no place in a science class. You CAN, however, scientifically test and observe the fossil record, DNA mutation, adaptation, and natural selection–the central pillars of evolutionary theory. The idea that there is no God is NOT a part of evolutionary theory. You can look in any textbook on evolutionary biology you can get your hands on and nowhere will you find a statement about whether or not a God exists. Christians are injecting philosophy where it doesn’t belong.

Because there are plenty of people out there who believe in evolution AND a God. There are multitudes of people who find no contradiction between a deity that created the universe and Darwinian evolution. For crying out loud, that’s even the official position of the Vatican! I know that I’ve blogged about this in the past, but it bears repeating that several Popes have publicly stated that evolution is a perfectly valid explanation for the biological processes of life, while the Christian God is a valid explanation for the human soul. So how on earth could evolution be pushing a Godless agenda? If you choose to interpret the issue that way, I guess that’s your right. But it doesn’t mean that your interpretation is correct.

And what about the vitriol? You hear that a lot in this narrative. That atheists are bullies, and they mock and ridicule Christians. That may very well be in some cases. It certainly is the truth when it comes to Dawkins. And that’s why I don’t like the man. I hate Dawkins. He’s abrasive and shows people little or no empathy. Luckily, Richard Dawkins doesn’t speak for me. And he doesn’t speak for anyone else but himself. Atheists of the world didn’t hold a secret meeting and elect him to be our spokesman. Just like I know that Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh do not represent the entirety of the republican party, so too should Christians realize that Dawkins does not represent atheists. And, just like those political talking heads, Dawkins is a squeaky wheel in the public conversation trying to peddle his books.

Besides, there is plenty of vitriol to go around, and a lot of it comes from Christians. Take, for instance, the Louisiana schoolteacher who mocked a Buddhist student in class and told them they were “stupid if they didn’t believe in God.” Now, I might be willing to chalk this up to one lone nut of a teacher…if it wasn’t for the fact that the superintendent of the school district backed up the teacher. When the family complained, they were told that since they live in the south they should just expect this kind of thing and if they don’t like it to move somewhere with more Asians. Say what you want about Bill Nye, at least he’s never been racist to someone’s face.

And that’s the difference here. Perhaps Dawkins is a jerk who mocks people of faith. But nobody is forcing you to read his books, tweets, or watch his interviews. You can tune him out of your life if you wish. That wasn’t the case of the student in Louisiana, who had no idea that they would be mocked in front of the whole class by a teacher. That student didn’t have a choice in that instance, unlike every Christian who hates Dawkins. And say what you will about how hateful Dawkins is, his words and his beliefs are not institutionalized, unlike the Christian beliefs in that Louisiana school district are apparently.

Encouraging people to be skeptical of religious claims is NOT the equivalent of an all-out assault on God. There is no atheist Gestapo coming to force evolution on you and wipe all traces of Christianity from our society. Encouraging people to learn more about science is NOT the same thing as religious persecution.

And certain groups of Christians should know a thing or two about persecuting people for their beliefs. They’re quite good at it. Did you know that in seven states it’s illegal for atheists to hold a public office? Who’s really persecuting who in this country?

In the end, this narrative has nothing to do with Dawkins or Nye or a secular boogeyman. This is about the demonization of science. That’s what this narrative seeks to accomplish. The more we can explain the universe and life through science, the more unnecessary religion becomes. And the numbers reflect that as we move through history, people are becoming increasingly less religious. I’ll freely admit that there are a lot of atheists out there who straight up do not like religion and think that the world would be better off without it. But even the very worst of those people aren’t trying to pass laws enforcing their beliefs. I wish I could say the same thing for Christians.

Sure sounds like he's coming to cram evolution down your throat...

Sure sounds like he’s coming to cram evolution down your throat…

Well, this was welcome news!

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Well, I have to say that I am pleasantly surprised to read just a day after my rant about politics and voting that the senate has moved forward–through a bipartisan effort!–with a proposed constitutional amendment that would render Citizens United null and void. Striking down this ruling would do a lot in restoring the power of the average voter, making the political process less biased, and restoring the principles of our democracy in general. Could it be that our lawmakers actually have come to their senses and realized that corporations aren’t people? Could they–be still my beating heart–actually be doing something in the interest of the American people?! Perhaps there is hope for this country after all…

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