Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Bonobo and the Atheist : Frans de Waal

The Bonobo and the Atheist
By Frans de Waal

Enjoyable and interesting.   de Waal discusses research on how bonobos, chimps and other animals empathize and live by social behavior rules, which ensure smooth social relationships.  He posits that human ethics/morality developed in a bottom-up fashion, evolving from emotions and good day-to-day social interaction behaviors, rather than in a top-down approach of religion dictating good ethical behavior.  In this manner, he argues that ethical and moral behavior existed long before any organized religion and can therefore exist in a society without any central religion.

I found his description of the research on animal behavior to be the most interesting.  He particularly focuses on bonobos, since they are unusual for the ape family: the groups are led by females, and bonobos are comparatively peaceful (i.e. unlike chimps, who are highly territorial and will brutally kill others, it's possible for two separate groups of bonobos to merge or coexist with one another.)  However, he does describe experiments and anecdotes with a number of varying animals, which demonstrate psychology and social traits, which are very familiar to us.

For example, a story of how bonobos care about the social welfare of others:
Apes do seem to worry about the possible death of others... Upon hearing sudden screams in the swamp forest, fieldworkers found a male, Malusu, crouching with a metal snare around his hand... Other bonobos unfastened the snare from the lianas, and tried to remove it from Malusu's hand. He kept getting stuck, however, and was left behind while the others traveled to the dry forest where they usually slept. The next morning, these bonobos did something never observed before: they returned over a mile distance straight to the same spot where they had last seen Malusu. Once there, they slowed down and searched around. Given their knowledge of snares, the bonobos may have made the connection with the loss of a group member. They failed to find Malusu, but a month later he rejoined the community.  Despite a permanently mangled hand, he had survived his ordeal.
Some of their experiments demonstrate that apes have a psychological sense of fairness:
This became an immensely popular experiment in which one [capuchin] monkey received cucumber slices while another received grapes for the same task.  The monkeys had no trouble performing if both of them received identical rewards of whatever quality, but rejected unequal outcomes with such vehemence that there could be little doubt about their feelings... The monkey receiving a cucumber contentedly munches on her first slice, yet throws a tantrum after she notices that her companion is getting grapes. From then on, she ditches her measly cucumber slices and starts shaking the testing chamber with such agitation that it threatens to break apart.
He also gets into the environment of scientific testing and specifically, how scientist bias in believing that humans are unique, negatively influences research:
This bias was ignored not too long ago when humans were considered good at face recognition. Apes had done poorly on the same tests as applied to humans with the same stimuli, which meant that the apes had been tested on human faces. I call this the "anthropocentric bias" in ape research, which is responsible for much misinformation.  When one of my co-workers in Atlanta, Lisa Parr, used the hundreds of photographs I had shot in Arnhem to test chimpanzees on portraits of their own species, they excelled at it. Seeing the portraits on a computer screen, they were even able to tell which juveniles were offspring of which females, doing so without personally knowing the pictured chimps.
His intention in bringing up research into empathy, social behavior and fairness of bonobos and chimps is to make the link that humans may have similarly developed their sense of ethics and morals from being in a social communities, well before organized religion.  I found this linkage to be rather weak.  As de Waal's focus is in animal research, he does not go into any similar human psychology experiments, which would make this point more explicit.

With that being said, he does have some nuanced thoughts on the current atheist vs believer and science vs religion 'war' taking place in American media/society.  His thinking goes along the line that it's completely feasible for a society to be ethical and moral without organized religion.  He, however, disagrees with neo-atheists' view that 1) those who believe in religion should be mocked and 2) religion should be replaced with science and rationality:
Science isn't the answer to everything. As a student, I learned about the "naturalistic fallacy" and how it would be the zenith of arrogance for scientists to think that their work could illuminate the distinction between right and wrong. This was not long after World War II, mind you, which had brought us massive evil justified by a scientific theory of self-directed evolution. Scientists had been very much involved in the genocidal machine... Children had been sown together to create conjoined twins, live humans had been operated on without anesthesia... I have never forgotten this dark postwar period, during which every scientist who spoke with a German accent was suspect.  American and British scientists were not innocent, however, because they were the ones who earlier in the century had brought us eugenics...
  ...As a biologist myself, I am glad those acrimonious days are over, but at the same time I wonder how anyone could forget this past and hail science as our moral savior... While I do welcome a science of morality, I can't fathom calls for science to determine human values. Is pseudoscience something of the past? Are modern scientists free from moral biases? ... I am profoundly skeptical of the moral purity of science, and feel that its role should never exceed that of morality's handmaiden.
Lastly, I should mention that de Waal also refers to the works of the artist, Hieronymus Bosch, frequently throughout the book.  He mentions on the first page: "I was born in Den Bosch, the Dutch city after which Hieronymus Bosch named himself", so clearly the works of Bosch seem personally special to him.  However, his descriptions of the works and his attempts to link to the other topics were both weak and distracting to me, particularly without being able to see the works being described.

All in all, the research and points that de Waal does explore and discuss were interesting enough to make this a worthwhile read.

Monday, June 02, 2014

If White Kids Die : Dick J. Reavis

If White Kids Die
By Dick J. Reavis

I met an older Caucasian gentleman in a bar, who to my utter surprise told me that he had participated in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's.  He ended up recommending this short memoir, written by another Caucasian volunteer in the movement.

From the get-go, Reavis gives a disclaimer that he was simply a foot-soldier in the movement, so while he has some interactions with the more well-known people of the movement, he solely had limited view into what was going on locally.  I actually found this view really refreshing and much more accessible. 

I loved his a first-person perspective on the atmosphere...
On two or three streets, in blocks just east of Strawberry [street], an oddly interracial pattern had evolved. Blacks lived on one side of these blocks, north or south, and whites lived on the other. Late in the afternoons, they'd gaze at each other from their front porches, never crossing the pavements to exchange neighborly news. Those blocks were, I always thought, slices from divided Berlin: wary encampments, living cheek by jowl.
... and the context he's able to provide:
 In the South from Reconstruction until 1964 - and in some places, afterwards - all social arrangements reflected a caste system based on color. Under penalty of law, whites and blacks used separate bathrooms, eateries, water fountains, etc. Blacks weren't permitted to try on clothing at department stores, nor to be on the streets of white residential districts after sundown. The regime was so thorough that the Southern Building Code called for racially separate waiting rooms in bus stations, hospital offices, and the like. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 supposedly removed these barriers, but it couldn't always reach into behaviors governed by custom: blacks weren't customarily permitted to enter the front doors of white people's houses, for example, and no law could give them entry there.
From how other documentaries and history books are written, I don't think one would ever get the sense of how loosely structured the movement was and that were tensions between local and national efforts:

  Then he explained.
  "You see, SCLC has a strategy. SNCC and sometimes some of us call it, 'Local failure, national success.' What that means is that SCLC goes into a place, gets the existing leadership to back its plan, and then creates a crisis that will bring in TV and the press. When they do that, see it puts pressure on the politicians up in Washington to pass the kind of bills that we need."
  I was at last learning the basics, but I didn't like what I heard.
  "Dr. King comes in," he said, "at the point of the crisis, to bring it to a head or to dramatize it. He doesn't stay there afterwards, he doesn't go beforehand. That's not his role."
  "Now, the trouble with the strategy," he continued, "is that it's just what it says, 'local failure, national success.'  People lose their jobs, get evicted, things like that.
  "If you go back there [to Selma] now, you'll find that a lot of people are disgusted with the Movement. They'll feel like that they've been left holding the bag. They'll say, 'Where is Dr. King now? He's run out on us,' because they don't understand.
I think with all the accusations of racism today over people publicly saying inappropriate words, folks may have forgotten that racism isn't solely words.  As described in this memoir, it's a truly awful sense of powerlessness, simply because of your race.
A few days later, Charlie, still a prisoner, was brought to a Linden courtroom for trial. The sheriff, the judge, and his assistants began furtively paging through law books, apparently perplexed. This went on for twenty minutes before Charlie was called to the bench. "Charlie," the judge said, following  the Southern custom of addressing blacks by first names only. "You were brought here on a charge of Peeping Tom. But we can't find any law against being a Peeping Tom. So we're going to change the charge to Public Disturbance. We'll bring you back for trial in two weeks." The bailiffs took Charlie away.
Lastly, there are subtleties and shades of racism (that still exist today). That they had to split hairs when it comes to terrible conditions is pretty gut-wrenching.  
These incidents showed me Cooper's understanding of his role. He saw himself as being the man in charge of stopping or slowing the Movement. That's why he'd ordered the arressts on the driver's license charges, and that's why he had bent the truth in his testimony at my vagrancy trial. He felt that persecuting us was the duty of lawmen - but that it was not a job for uncertified racists, for Klansmen and the like. He was a by-the-book racist. Not all Southern police chiefs were so restrained and the Marengo sheriff's office was not so restrained. I concluded that under the prevailing political conditions, we were lucky to have Cooper as Chief.
All in all, this was really eye-opening to read and I whole-hardheartedly recommend it.

Martin Dressler : Steven Millhauser

Martin Dressler
By Steven Millhauser

An odd one this. 

The novel follows the eponynmous Martin Dressler, from when he's a boy, helping out his father at a cigar shop to when he's a young man, pursuing an ambitious entrepreneurial path.

The story starts off fairly straightforwardly and with a direct, forward movement.  After Martin is recruited to work as a nearby hotel, due to his dedication and hard-working nature, he soon finds himself moving up the career ladder.  He also gets his first taste for entrepreneurial success, opening up a cigar shop in the hotel lobby.  As he accrues success after success, there is a sense that this will be a story like Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and in some ways, there are similarities between the two stories.

However, unlike the protagonist in The Fountainhead, Martin does go through spells of cluelessness and indecisiveness, particularly when dealing with women.  Millhauser details these experiences in an off-kilter dreamlike way.  For example, a sick hotel guest seduces Martin:
And Martin entered her fever-dream, at first awkwardly, then easily: it was all very easy, easy and mysterious, for he barely knew what was happening there in the dusk of the parlor, in a world at the edge of the world - Mrs. Hamilton's dream. The silk-smoothness of her skin surprised him, and under the skin was bone, lots of bone, skin stretched over bone, and then a sudden warm wet sinking and sinking, and somehow he was standing his uniform with an empty pitcher in his hand and Mrs. Hamilton was looking at him with wide-open eyes over which the lids came slowly down halfway. And she said, "Mind you don't catch a fever, Martin," and raised a forefinger that she waggled lightly. Then her eyelids closed decisively.
Also, unlike The Fountainhead's simple unimpeded success story, this one ends with a more ambiguous tone, when it comes to unabashed ambition, both from a career standpoint and a personal life one.