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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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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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A REPUBLIC OF BIRDS: THOUGHTS FROM MIDWAY ATOLL


Thursday January 24, 2008

EUGENE LINDEN
Iíve been to a number of places where wild animals are trusting of humans, but perhaps none so unlikely as Midway Atoll, smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. After more than a century of abuse at the hands of man -- first being slaughtered for their feathers by hunters, then being paved over by Seabees, then shelled by the Japanese during World War II, and finally Osterized by the engines of the planes of the U.S. Strategic Air Command during the Cold War -- the albatross and other birds donít seem to bear a grudge. Maybe thatís because theyíve won. Albatross have succeeded where the Japanese military failed and have successfully taken over the island. And, they did it in a way that Mahatma Ghandi would applaud Ė through passive resistance. Itís only fair since theyíve have ancestral rights to Midway (or whatever itís called in Albatross-speak), but itís still both eerie and wonderful to see how the birds been able to enforce an avian eminent domain and build their nests on every available open space, including the middle of the islandís paths. Even more moving is the gracious way in which we humans have surrendered control and allowed the establishment of a republic of birds. For the most part itís a peaceable nation, and the citizens are irresistible, albeit short. Iíve discovered that itís impossible not to talk to them as I make my way around the island on foot or on bike. For their part, the albatross make we humans feel like superstars as we pick our way among them. The combined effect of tens of thousands of birds clacking in the background makes it seem as though our every move is accompanied by polite applause from a very large crowd. Their curiosity and clumsiness on land make them endearing. Every day, our group trades stories of heart-stopping take-offs as birds flap their wings and run wildly down impromptu runways that open in the middle of the nesting area. More often than not they inadvertently step on a nesting bird at some point during take off, eliciting an indignant squawk. The concept of zoning doesnít seem to have taken hold in bird land, although there are a couple of paths to the beaches that the albatross use for a more official runway, and the albatross using these runways even line up and (mostly) take turns. Landings are even more dramatic. If youíre an albatross, every landing seems to be an emergency landing. Unless thereís a stiff wind to land into, they have to put on the brakes immediately on touch-down, and quite often this ends up in a face plant, if not a collision with another hapless bird. In the air, though, they are magnificent, even heroic, and their life style would appeal to both feminists and the most fire-breathing moralists. Feminists would have a hard time finding fault with males who pitch in and take over care of the baby immediately after hatching while the mom gets a chance to rest up. Albatross may be one of the few species where spouses are actually an asset, rather than a clumsy menace, around newborns. On the other hand the ďvaluesĒ crowd might find inspiration in their commitment to monogamy since the birds mate for life. All in all Midway today is a happy place. The few humans working here or visiting here all care deeply about restoring the atoll as the haven for wildlife. God knows the albatross need it. Between the plastics that get into their digestive systems when they feed, to the impacts of global warming, the albatross run a gauntlet of threats during their life on the high seas. Once back on the atoll, however, at least for the moment, they find a haven where humans have turned the infrastructure of war and conflict towards their betterment. Theyíve managed to get a superpower as a protector and they donít control a drop of oil -- no mean trick for a birdbrain. Thatís an auspicious augury at the dawn of the 21st century.

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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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