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


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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Now Let Us Praise Fat!

This article ran in Forbes FYI a few years ago. It seems timely again with the ongoing debate about wether fat is good or bad. Let Us Now Praise Fat Historically, there are some good reasons why humans crave a fatty diet by Eugene Linden It is possible to starve to death eating lean meat. I'm not making this up. The ancient tribes of the southwest knew this and would not eat female bison in the spring because nursing and pregnant bison cows burned off their fat reserves during the winter months leaving few calories in their flesh that might help the natives to digest the pure protein of the meat. Explorers like Randolph Marcy discovered this truth the hard way. Members of his expedition to Wyoming continued to weaken and lose weight even thought they consumed six pounds of horse and mule meat a day. The problem: the horses and mules were so starved that their meat had no fat. Such stories fire the imaginations of fat lovers. We constantly remind ourselves that most of human history has been a battle to find fat, not avoid it. We note that the scrawny rickshaw drivers of Bombay and Calcutta put away thousands of calories a day and yet never gain an ounce. And is it not true that the Japanese, an ethnic group perpetually trotted out by researchers as exemplars of sensible eating (they even call their parliament the Diet) spend fortunes to buy Matsusaka beef, which comes from Wagyu cattle that have been pampered, massaged, and beer-fed to the point that the animals resemble mounds of fat with hooves, horns, and contented expressions. It is no accident that fat adds taste to foods: evolution is reinforcing our urge to eat something that we need in order to survive. Knowledgeable explorers of the rain forest pork up before expeditions because the extra weight gives them reserves of energy should they fall ill while in the forest. At the beginning of one trip that took me into a remote area of northern Congo, the seasoned botanist leading the trip told me how pygmy trackers would pat his protruding stomach, and, nodding with approval, say, "money!" This piece of bush savvy was music to my ears, and in the forest I consumed every fattening food imaginable -- sausages, peanut butter, cheeses, chocolate -- confident that I was going to burn it off slogging down sweltering trails. (In fact I lost 17 pounds in 12 days.) At the end of the trip I nodded wisely when I heard that a Japanese researcher, emaciated from months in this same jungle, had nearly died from malaria. Of course she got sick, I reasoned -- she had little strength to fight the invading microbes. Unfortunately, I don't get to the forest quite as often as I should, though I have admirably built up my reserves of "energy" for the next adventure whenever it comes. Nor am I a rickshaw pusher. In fact, I spend most of my time sitting in front of a cathode ray tube, hardly the situation nature envisioned when evolution created our cravings. Come to think of it, my lifestyle has disturbing similarities to that of the cattle that become Matsusaka beef. And so, while I secretly pray for a credible study exonerating fat, I have been cutting back on rich foods. Unlike our hunting and gathering ancestors I may well live past 90 -- but I may also hate every minute of it.

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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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