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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WHAT HAPPENED TO WHAT HAPPENED


Saturday June 14, 2008

-EUGENE LINDEN Former colleagues and friends hint that Scott McClellan's White House tell-all book, What Happened, reflects the influence of liberals during the editing process. "Something changed," said Ari Fleischer on NPR on May 28, "...parts of the book just don't sound like Scott to me." Excerpts from Scott McClellan's Diary: Nov. 6, 2007 First trip to Public Affairs to discuss the manuscript with Peter Osnos! Exciting! POTUS is going to love this book! Need a title that conveys the majesty of W., something like "A Man in Full" (too bad it's taken). Nov. 7, 2007 Weird scene today. Came in to Public Affairs and saw George Soros in Osnos' office. The body language was all wrong; it looked like Osnos was dictating to the billionaire... Osnos was leaning back, completely in command, almost sinister. And Soros? Well Soros looked submissive, defeated. Don't know what was going on there, but no New York editor is going to tell Scott McClellan what to write! Nov. 8, 2007 OMG! I should have seen this coming! When Osnos was called out of the office I picked up my chapter on Iraq and WMD. I'd written that the WMD were there all along, camouflaged as crates of Halva. What I was reading, however, was entirely different. It was my book, but the words were saying that Bush was going to invade Iraq from the get-go, regardless of whether WMD were found. It wasn't even my tone (a cut-to-the-bone minimalist narrative style leavened with throwaway lines that are pure American authentic a la Will Rogers)! When Osnos got back I let him have it with both barrels. He airily brushed me off, saying, "oh we'll get that changed in copy edit." I'm not sure this is over. Dec.4, 2007 Osnos has been quiet -- too quiet. On the other hand, they're coming at me from a new angle. Last week it was Samantha, that long-legged editorial assistant fresh out of Sarah Lawrence. She offered to "fix" the section on Valerie Plame. She's driving me mad, constantly brushing by me as she saunters off to that conference room next to Peter Osnos' office, while hinting at all sorts of possibilities. Damn! I wish I could see what goes on in that room. When I asked Osnos, he simply said, "Oh that's just where we liberals go to 'de-stress.'" Something about the way he said it made me tingle. I can't see through the blackened windows, but sometimes when the door opens I hear laughter... and moans. Dec. 5, 2007 If only I had Cheney's will-power! This is driving me mad! Samantha walked by hand-in-hand with the dark-haired Rebecca, and they both gave me long looks over their shoulders before entering what I used to scorn as the "liberal room," but which is seeming more and more like paradise. I remember W talking about how during Vietnam, liberal co-eds wore T-Shirts reading, "Girls say yes to boys who say no." W joked about how he made that work for him. Damn, he's good! It's not that much of a change they want. I'd written, "Valerie Plame is a self-seeking publicity hound who was outed as a covert agent by her husband, Joseph Wilson IV." All they're asking is that I change that to read that I was set up to lie by Rove and Libby and also assert that Bush knew about the Plame outing all along. Christ, here they come out of that room. They're both breathing heavily and look flushed. God help me! Dec. 10, 2007 When you think about it, the changes they want are really more issues of tone and word flow rather than substance. Dec. 11, 2007 What have I done?!!! Dec. 17, 2007 I'm ruined. Osnos walked by my desk and slapped some photos down. "Hey Scotty boy," he said, "As of now, you're my bitch." Then he pulled out some notes. "Let's talk about WMDs," he said. I have no choice. Dec. 18, 2007 It's almost over. Osnos is now dictating the last chapter to me in his office. I look up from writing and see Andrew Card walk by. I can't warn him - Osnos is watching me like a hawk.

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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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