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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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Apes, Men, & Language
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Maybe American Sniper Really is Anti-war


Sunday February 01, 2015

I like a good action movie and I like Clint Eastwood movies and so I went to see American Sniper. I also had a personal interest: decades earlier in Vietnam, I'd interviewed America's top sniper -- a dead-eyed killer nicknamed Papa Leech -- when I was investigating fragging as a journalist. Mr. "Leech" wasn't the kind of guy who would be played by Bradley Cooper -- he told me that he was thinking of becoming a hitman for the Mafia after he left the military (a dream that was heartlessly snatched away as he was killed by his own men before he left Vietnam). Back then, the American military wouldn't publicly confirm that we had sniper units because they were in a grey area under the Geneva Convention. How times have changed!

My first reaction to the movie was similar to Matt Taibbi's recently published evisceration in Rolling Stone -- that the movie was an appallingly simple-minded embodiment of an obtuse, morally bankrupt mindset that has led the U.S. to perpetually look for the next Vietnam without absorbing the lessons of the last one. Then, as things go bad, we once again scratch our heads as to why our vast firepower and technological superiority couldn't win the day. In the movie,

Chris Kyle's motivation for putting his life on the line as a sniper in Iraq was to avenge 9/11, and to bring the fight there so that he wouldn't be fighting in San Diego. He's never presented as a brain surgeon, but I would have thought that at some point during his four tours of duty, he might have come across at least one of the credible reports documenting that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11; or, as he saw the countless civilians radicalized by the immense collateral damage of the war, wondered whether our actions in Iraq were creating recruits for Al Queda, and making it more likely that terrorism would some day come to San Diego. Apparently not.

That was my first reaction. Then, as I thought more about the movie, I wondered whether Mr. Eastwood was attempting something sly and subtle. By now, most people who will watch the film know that Bin Laden's crew were largely Saudi; they know that Saddam Hussein did not have the wherewithal to attack San Diego; and they are aware of the metastasis of ISIL, which could be described as the evil spawn of the wars in Iraq and Syria, and which does seem hell-bent on bringing the battle to the West. Eastwood certainly knows this; maybe he felt that viewers now know enough that they can draw their own conclusions if the story is simply told.

You can't watch the film, for instance, without noting that despite being overwhelmingly overmatched, the Iraqi irregulars are willing to die for their cause, whatever that is (you won't find out by watching this film). Yes, the Iraqi adversary in one city, "The Butcher," is presented as being almost cartoonishly cruel, but there is also a scene in which a kid contemplates picking up and launching a grenade launcher after its handler is killed by Kyle. The scene is meant to illustrate that Kyle has moral compunctions about shooting a kid, but it's hard to watch that scene and not wonder about the level of hatred against American troops that would prompt a kid to even consider picking up the weapon. There are many other scenes in the movie that make you wonder about the awesome idiocy of that war.

The film also allows us to make our own judgments about sniping. One scene shows Mustafa, Kyle's mirror image, leaving his beautiful wife to rush off to fight after getting a call that Americans are in the area. In the narrative of the film, Mustafa is a bad guy, but many viewers will wonder what makes him bad if Kyle is good? Several tearful scenes on the home front as Kyle signs up for yet another tour make it quite clear that the American sniper vastly prefers killing people in faraway places to being home with the wife and kids.

American Sniper also subtly suggests that even Kyle knew that there was something unsavory about shooting people from a concealed and relatively safe position. In one scene, he puts down his sniper rifle and picks up an automatic weapon to join a group of marines going house to house. When his spotter balks at leaving the safety of their hideout, he all but accuses him of cowardice if he does not join Kyle in this real fighting.

I'm probably giving Hollywood too much credit, but it's possible that the makers were attempting something similar to the send up of militarism in Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, which on one level is a very well made SciFi adventure about the defense of the planet from a race of giant alien insects, while on another, it deftly skewers the mindless jingoism, empty slogans and mass hysteria that incite the clean-cut, best and brightest of any society to rush off to war. For this interpretation of American Sniper to be believed, we have to assume that Hollywood embraces subtlety and that viewers have done some critical thinking about events of the past 15 years. Perhaps a stretch on both counts, but wouldn't it be nice if it were so?

 

 

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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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