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A Nobel Prize in Economics a Climate Change Denier Might Love

It has been a scary month in climate science. Hurricane Michael and a frightening report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underlined the potential costs of human-caused global warming. Then to add insult to injury, William Nordhaus won the economics Nobel Prize. Nordhaus wa...

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The Ragged Edge of the World
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Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.


The Octopus and the Orangutan
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The Future In Plain Sight
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The Parrot's Lament
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Silent Partners
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Affluence and Discontent
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The Alms Race
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Apes, Men, & Language
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America's Game


Monday February 03, 2014

Note: I published the following some years back, but every Super Bowl I can't help but wonder what a Martian anthropologist might make of our annual ritual of ceremonial warfare.

   As we make fateful decisions during the coming weeks (no, I'm not talking about the Democratic Primaries, but whether to mute the ads or the game during the Super Bowl), we might take a moment to ponder the ways in which football really is America's game. With apologies to Bronislaw Malinowski --whose pioneering treatise on the Trobriand Islands off New Guinea led to studies of the ways in which the islanders appropriated cricket and turned it into a native ritual -- let's explore how we Americans took over the primitive sports of soccer and rugby and adapted them to our belief system.     

Where both antecedent sports offer nearly continuous action, American football amounts to brief periods of furious motion squeezed in between meetings (or huddles as they are called by initiates). This innovation is both comforting and familiar for legions of middle managers across this great land for whom meetings have ritual significance (in the sense that they represent something you have to do that produces no discernible results). During these meetings the CEO -- the coach -- delivers his instructions to his chief operating officer -- the quarterback -- who is expected to deliver quarterly results. A football quarter is calculated in minutes rather than days, or course; it only seems as though each period takes months. As in the markets that are the soul of this nation, analysts pour over the team's performance in real time, comparing the results to the "whisper number" that represents a consensus of some of the best minds in the country. While company earnings may be scrutinized in financial centers, the best analysts in this business are in Las Vegas. It's a safe bet that the expected numbers produced by bookies are far more reliable as a guide to future performance than the estimates that come from Wall Street.     

Football also reflects our American fondness for litigation. Teams of referees roam the field, sometimes interfering with the play in progress. When eight or ten official eyes are not enough to rule beyond a reasonable doubt, a plaintiff can appeal a decision. In such cases, the officials turn to another American icon -- technology.     

When reviewing plays, the technology is the television camera, but the average pro football team uses more computing power than the Apollo rockets that put a man on the moon. Apart from simulations and other analytical tools, players wear padding that is the result of thousands of man-years of ergonomic studies, while field generals communicate with their coaches through helmets with telecommunications links that have fidelity and security better than that used by Iraqi commanders during their recent loss to team America. The way things are going, future quarterbacks will have heads-up, intelligent displays that give them real-time interpretation of defensive sets, much like fighter pilots have today.     

While the naïve fans of soccer and rugby expect players to be generalists who can play both offense and defense, we Americans have done what we've always done when we want results: we turn to specialists. Zoologists who argue that dogs have the greatest variation in size of any species have obviously never seen a pro football team where you can fit three placekickers into the pants of one defensive tackle.  Fortunately, territorial boundaries on the playing field are so rigorously enforced that the two almost never encounter each other.     

If we Americans have "optimized" rugby according to our notions of progress, there are still things many team owners might like to import from Trobriand cricket. While in football, the home team wins most of the time, in the Trobriand Island sport the home team always wins. There is still consolation for the visitors though, since the home team throws a feast in their honor. Huge differences remain, however. While football, with its fighter plane flyovers and other militaristic trappings often seems to celebrate war, cricket was introduced to the Trobriands in 1903 to replace war. How primitive!

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Short Take

In Memorium: Koko the Gorilla

Koko the gorilla died on June 19. She and a female chimpanzee named Washoe (who died in 2007) played an outsized role in changing how we view animal intelligence. Their accomplishments inaugurated deep soul-searching among us humans about the moral basis of our relationship with nature. Koko and Washoe have made it much more difficult for us to treat animals as commodities, in any way we wish.

I knew the two great apes when I was young and they were young, and I”ve closely followed the scientific, philosophical and moral upheavals they precipitated over the last five decades. In the 1960s and ’70s, they learned to use American sign language, and they came to understand that words could be combined to convey new meanings. It threw the scientific world into a tizzy, implying that sentience and languagewere not ours alone, that there was a continuum in higher mental abilities that linked animals and humans.

The problem for science remains unresolved: 3,000 years into the investigation of signal human attributes and we still don’t have rigorous ways to define language and intelligence that are agreed on and can be empirically tested. There remain a number of scientists who don’t think Koko and Washoe accomplished anything at all. Even if a scientist accepts one of the definitions of language that do exist, it’s nearly impossible to test it in animals because what is being examined is inherently subjective, and science demands objective, verifiable results.

Consider how hard it is to prove a lie beyond a reasonable doubt in court. Then consider trying to prove lying in an animal in accord with the much stricter standards of science.

As difficult as proving it may be, examples of apes lying abound. When Koko was 5, I was playing a chase game with her. When I caught her, she gave me a small bite. Penny Patterson, Koko’s lifelong foster parent and teacher, was there, and, in sign language, demanded, “What did you do?”

Koko signed, “Not teeth.”

Penny wasn’t buying it: “Koko, you lied.”

“Bad again Koko bad again,” Koko admitted.

“Koko, you lied.” But what was Koko’s intent — a central issue when it comes to proving a lie. What was actually going on in her head when she made the gestures for “not teeth?” As if that weren’t inscrutable enough, one of the guiding principles of scientific investigations of animal intelligence is what’s known as Morgan’s Canon: Scientists must not impute a higher mental ability if a behavior can be explained by something more primitive, for example, simple error.

Analogously, about 50 years ago, on a pond in Oklahoma, Washoe saw a swan and made the signs for “water” and “bird.” Was she simply noting a bird and water, or was she combining two of the signs she knew to describe an animal for which she had no specific word? The debate continued for decades and was unresolved when she died.

Since Washoe made those signs, there have been many more instances of apes combining words to describe something, but these examples still don’t prove they can combine words to arrive at a novel term, even if it seems obvious that they can. Faced with these ambiguities, many scientists have moved to studying whether animals can accomplish specific cognitive tasks, and a welter of credible findings show sophisticated abilities in animals ranging from crows to elephants.

Although science struggles with questions of general intelligence, language and intent, the public is in the “it’s obvious” camp, readily accepting evidence of animal sentience. The latest objects of fascination are the octopus — a relative of the clam! — and fish. Stories of cephalopod escape and problem-solving regularly go viral, and to the consternation of sushi lovers , John Balcomb’s book, “What a Fish Knows,” provides copious evidence that fish know a lot.

We tend to see animals as either personalities or commodities, or sometimes, both. When I wrote about octopus intelligence, I was amused by one octopus-oriented website that divided its space between stories of smart octopuses and recipes for cooking them. Perhaps the most extraordinary example of our schizophrenic view of animals occurred some years back when a chimp colony that included sign-language-using apes was disbanded and many of these onetime celebrities were shipped to a medical research lab to be used in Hepatitis B and AIDS drug testing.

I knew these chimps too, and visited them in their new environment. They were desperate to communicate with their human captors, but the staff didn’t know sign language. So insistent were Booee and Bruno with their signing that one handler put up a poster outside the cages showing some basic signs to help the humans respond. When I was there, three days after Booee had arrived, he was signing agitatedly for food and drink. But what I think he really wanted was reassurance: If the humans would respond to “gimme drink,” things were going to be OK.

Teaching Koko, Washoe and other animals some level of human and invented languages promised experimenters insight into the animal mind. But the animals seemed to seize on these languages as a way to make their wishes — and thoughts — known to their strange, bipedal wardens, who had no ability or interest in learning the animals’ communication system. For Koko, I believe, sign language was a way to make the best of a truly unnatural situation, and so she signed.

Science doesn’t know if great apes can invent terms or if they tell lies. And the tension between whether we view and treat animals as personalities or as commodities lives on. The truth is, Koko, Washoe and many other animals who have had two-way conversations with the people around them shatter the moral justification for the latter.



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