Eugene Linden
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Lastest Musing

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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Featured Book

The Ragged Edge of the World
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endangered animals
rapid climate change
global deforestation
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Books

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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Don't Bother Me Honey, I'm Working!


Don't Bother Me Honey, I'm Working! by Eugene Linden It used to be so easy for a husband to justify his working life. He went off in the morning and then returned that evening. What he did during the day constituted "work." While wives, who took care of the house and family, might fairly ask who had the harder job, most arguments remained low in intensity so long as "work" paid the bills. The potential for conflict has risen in recent decades since many wives now work at jobs during the week and still do most of the housework. When the working wife is a lawyer, however, and the husband is a writer, the potential for conflict rises to infinity. To begin with lawyers are not known for shying from an argument, and then with a New York lawyer for a wife there is always the issue of how much money a writer's "work" brings in. As for the balance of power? In an argument about what constitutes a hard days work, a lawyer wife is the U.S. nuclear arsenal, and the writer is Costa Rica, which gave up its armed forces decades ago. Or so it would appear. May I humbly submit, however, that perception is not always reality. An outsider (or wife) observes a writer at work and sees a guy slumped in front of a screen for a few hours a day between long breaks for lunch, golf/tennis/windsurfing, and other activities more suited to the leisure class. This is an understandable misunderstanding, but the great preponderance of those activities that the lawyer wife sees as procrastination or outright laziness are actually vital parts of the writer's work. For instance: Lying in bed in the morning. To the lawyer wife the snoozing writer-husband appears to be nothing more than the embodiment of sloth, but for the writer this period between sleep and waking is the most precious part of the day and should be prolonged as much as possible. The virtues of the so-called "alpha state" between waking and consciousness have been well documented. During this period the barriers between the unconscious and conscious mind are porous, and the brain, which has been working throughout the writer's vital nine hours of sleep, presents metaphors, solutions to writing problems and other ideas as a gift to the new day. Try and use this valuable work time, however, when you have two babies and three cats marauding on the bed and the only other creature in the room who speaks English is your wife exhorting you to get up! The two hour lunch. Writing is a solitary profession, but it is critically dependent that the writer be in touch with mercurial shifts in the zeitgeist as well as be aware of the constant reshuffling of editors at publishing houses and magazines. The lawyer, grabbing a sandwich at her desk, might dismiss a writer's lunch as little more than gossip, griping, backbiting, and complaints about money, but initiates to the ritualized dialogue of publishing, recognize a rich tapestry of New Business Development, Forward Planning, Strategic Positioning, Marketing, and a host of other productive activities. No wonder the lunch takes a chunk out of the day! In a corporation, any one of these functions would require an entire department to fulfill, but the writer can adeptly dispense with all of them during the course of one meal. The break for tennis. Just because lawyers cannot bill time spent on the courts, they tend to look down upon those who take a couple of hours in the afternoon to clear their heads and restore their hearts. The British, a group who understand the vital importance of non-traditional work activities, have long recognized that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Exercise stimulates blood flow to the brain, invigorating renewed creative activity, and, it bears mentioning, it also helps reduce the lingering effects of drinks imbibed during the earlier sessions of New Business Development, Forward Planning, and Marketing. The weekly poker game. Admittedly, the work aspects of poker are not intuitively obvious, but keep in mind that poker is as much as about wit and badinage as it is about winning (or perhaps losing) money. Poker thus serves to condition the writer's most important "muscle." I could go on but let me instead confront head-on the billable hours mentality that has so stigmatized writers and others who opt off the treadmill. Leisure, not necessity, is the mother of invention. Christophe Boesch, a Swiss field biologist who has studied chimpanzees in the Tai forest in the Ivory Coast, has argued that the most innovative groups of chimpanzees are the ones with the richest diet, and hence, the most free time. Freed from the constant search for food, they have the leisure to test new ape ideas, and the well-nourished Tai chimps have shown ingenuity in developing nut cracking and monkey hunting techniques. Applied to humans, this suggests a solution to the impasse over what constitutes work: lawyers should keep writers well-nourished so they can explore new directions, an arrangement that in essence leverages the optimum skills of both writer/husband and lawyer/wife.

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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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