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.
The Ragged Edge of the World
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rapid climate change
Winds of Change
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Afterword to the softbound edition.
The Octopus and the Orangutan
The Future In Plain Sight
The Parrot's Lament
Affluence and Discontent
The Alms Race
Apes, Men, & Language
HE WAS LOST AND NOW HE IS FOUND.
Friday September 15, 2006
HE WAS LOST AND NOW HE IS FOUND.
On Saturday, August 12, we were having a family barbecue in Pelham New York, having just moved up from Washington, DC a week earlier. It was just my wife and our two kids and her brother, his wife and their twins. The evening was thoroughly pleasant. We'd let Murghatroyd, our 11 year-old Bengal, out of the house for the first time that day, and he was overjoyed. Murghy was an outdoor cat in the extreme, and he'd made our life a living hell while he was cooped up during the week as we tried to habituate him to the new surroundings. Now outside, he rolled luxuriantly in the grass and repeatedly showed up during dinner to hop on the lap of various guests, and play the role of host. Midway through the evening we heard a scuffle off in the bushes, and then the smell of skunk spray wafted our way. Murghy didn't return to the party, but we didn't think much of it. He was our smartest cat by far, and we trusted him (Lucy, another Bengal was definitely more suburban in her inclinations, and, after a Oliver Twist kittenhood, our two other adopted strays were never going to venture far from the food bowl). But then Murghy didn't show up the next day, the next, nor the next, and with each passing day, a pall deepened over the remainder of the summer and an ache took hold somewhere deep.
I've always considered myself level headed about animals. Nothing is more elegant and interesting than the genius of evolution, and I have spent many years investigating evidence that the evolutionary forces that produced consciousness and other higher mental abilities in humans also produced those abilities in other species. But, I've always shied from some of the more radical ideas about alternative intelligences in other animals, e.g. the notion that cats communicate with us by planting images directly in our subconscious - “mind bombs” as one woman wrote when explaining how her cat had alerted her that the house was on fire. That is, I tended to discount these ideas until my wife and I began receiving missives very much like what the woman had described.
While I've been accused of being apocalyptic in some of my writing, on a daily basis I tend to be optimistic. Mary, by contrast, likes to prepare herself for bad news. Our rented house in Pelham was not far off a golf course. I tried to take comfort when one of my neighbors described the course as “cat heaven,” with vast troves of small animals for a cat to feast on. I envisioned Murghy's walkabout as something like a Tahitian vacation. Besides, Murghy had a collar with our phone number on it. There was always a chance that a Good Samaritan would give us a call.
Mary spoke to another neighbor, however, who told of a surge of pet disappearances in the neighborhood, and mentioned rumors of a pet-killing coyote in the vicinity. We got a call about the body of a cat that someone had found near the golf course, and Mary reported that the much worked-over corpse bore some resemblance to Murghy. There was a resemblance, but I convinced myself that the color was a bit too light.
We put up posters and followed up leads when people called in. Every time our hopes were dashed. In some ways news was worse than no news. One ostensibly sighting placed him near the deadly confluence of two parkways. Reconnoitering following one phone call revealed that a very cute kitten was making a go of it as a stray (her welfare was being monitored by solicitous neighbors), and we were never able to run down the sightings of a larger cat that fit Murghy's description.
After about ten days, the dreams began. I had them, Mary had them, even the kids had them. They were intense and good dreams: Murghy coming home, Murghy curled up in my lap. Ever the optimist, I thought of them as postcards - Murghy was telling us that he was alright; the Tahitian vacation was going well. I tried to send return messages as well, helpfully beaming out an image the landmarks in our neighborhood. Overcoming her instinct to protect herself against bad news, Mary put a positive spin on the dreams as well: Murghy was telling us that he was alive.
Still, at eleven Murghy was no spring chicken, and beyond the golf course lay a rough world if you were a lost cat. Moreover, there was always the chance he'd set off with some hare-brained plan to get back to DC. I was outwardly optimistic, but deep down I started preparing myself for life without Murghy.
August turned into September, and although there were pleasant moments, at some level I was holding my breath as my subconscious tried to figure out how to resolve my feelings about Murghy, who played a far larger role in my thoughts than you might expect of an animal that weighed 10 pounds and slept most of the day. Mary and I replayed every heartbreaking missed opportunity. None was more anguished than the discovery on Sept. 10 of a message from just the Good Samaritan we had been hoping for. The woman caller said that she had encountered a very friendly cat on the grounds of a hospital and that he let her see his collar and read the phone number.
The problem was that the message was ten days old. We'd set up voice mail on our new phone, but, unbeknownst to us, some of our missed calls were recorded by the phone itself rather than voice mail. Mary discovered the message at one in the morning. I was long asleep since I had to get up at 6:45 in the morning. She woke me up however, and I felt a surge of hope and adrenaline, which, unfortunately, kept me up most of the short remainder of the night. Murghy was alive, but the idea that we might have missed our opportunity to find him was too painful to contemplate.
The sighting placed Murghy about 15 miles north of Pelham. I was there by 7:30 on Sept 11, the next morning, calling for Murghy, handing out posters, and badgering everyone I could. Settling down I decided to think like a cat, and that led me to the back of the sprawling main building where the garbage was stored. I did a walk through and it looked promising, but I had handed out all my posters by this point, and I was also very late for work. Dejectedly, I left to get my car. On the floor of the car, I saw one last poster and so I drove back to the garbage area to leave it with one of the workers. I found someone who looked like he worked there and showed him the poster. He glanced at it, and then did a double-take. He said that a cat that looked like this had been hanging around for a week. He'd seen it as recently as the previous Friday. Other workmen came by and confirmed the sighting, pointing to a fenced-off area where the cat had been seen.
Before leaving, I decided to walk over to the spot and try calling one more time. I saw movement on the other side of the fence. Then I saw a tail, and then I saw Murghy's beautiful face. I said, “Murghy,” and he, being a cat, said, “meow.” Then he said, “meow' about 25 times. There ensued a farcical series of maneuvers as I got inside the fence even as Murghy got out, but only a minute later we were re-united. He was skin and bone (putting paid to my reassuring delusion that he was off on a cat's version of a Tahitian vacation), but still very much Murghy. As I drove home, I called Mary and said, “somebody wants to talk to you.”
In the days since we've tried to figure out how he got there. I know he's tried to tell me, but despite years of effort I still don't understand cat beyond a few rudimentary phrases. My best guess is that he somehow got to the Hutchison River Parkway and wandered north in the sward of wood and grass that borders the road. As for those messages, who knows? It would have been helpful had they have conveyed more information, but the sender was a cat (if in fact they were sent), and not Jack Bauer, and he was lost to boot. The key thing though is that they convinced us to retain hope, and perhaps our messages kept Murghy's hopes up as well. What matters most is that against all odds he's back, and our world was set right on again on, of all days, Sept. 11.
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.