Eugene Linden
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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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MORE EVIDENCE OF CAT GENIUS


Monday March 17, 2014

Sunday night was very cold in my neighborhood north of New York City, maybe about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. I’d let out our adopted stray, Noodles, during the evening, and after dealing with a bunch of minor chores, had gone to bed. I woke up just before seven AM this morning after a decent night’s sleep, and I was lying in bed thinking it strange that I hadn’t heard Noodles scratching at my bedroom door as he is wont to do for several irritating hours at a stretch each night. I thought back over the previous evening and couldn’t remember letting Noodles in. No sooner had this thought entered my mind than I heard a very loud “Meow!!!” from outside my bedroom window. Aha, one mystery solved – I let in through the window a very angry cat, who proceeded to give me a piece of his mind -- but another mystery presented. Outside my bedroom window is the roof of the porch, which stands a good 20 feet above the ground atop vertical posts.

Somehow Noodles, who is a complete couch potato and must have endured a miserable night, realized that his best chance to be let in would be to get someplace where I could hear or see him, and he figured out that I would be in the bedroom early in the morning. To do this though, he also had to figure out where the bedroom was when viewed from the outside, and then somehow climb the posts and get past the gutters -- in difficulty a task that must rank with climbing Half Dome in Yosemite. This is perhaps the most unambiguous instance of something I’ve been observing for decades: cats wanting to get let in will size up the situation and will figure out how to get noticed.

In my book, The Parrot’s Lament, I tell the story of my Maine coon cat Zephyr, who, on an absolutely frigid and windy night in New Hampshire resorted to jumping up and down outside the kitchen window to get my attention. He seemed to realize that I could not hear meows given the wind and that the best way to get me to notice him was  by moving in my field of vision. The story is striking, but it wouldn’t prove anything to a skeptic about animal intelligence. More recently, Oliver, another of our adopted (better word might be kidnapped) strays, has taken to standing outside the French doors of the TV room when I am watching television to get my attention, and Noodles regularly will find a window where we can see him to get our attention, rather than sitting by the door. A reductionist would dismiss these examples too as ambiguous. Noodles' roof gambit, however, is a lot harder to dismiss.

Now cats don’t rank that high in the metrics -- e.g. encephalization quotient – that we use to rank potential for intelligence. Still, they continually exceed expecations. In truth,I suspect that cats don’t really care much about how we measure intelligence. And who was the dummy in this story?

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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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