Saturday, August 13, 2011

Kingdom Animalia

“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures.”
-Albert Einstein

We went to see the film Project Nim last night, a documentary about a chimpanzee raised with humans as a science experiment in the 1970s. Nim was taken away from his chimp mother when he was only a few days old, and initially raised in a human household basically as a human child. When that situation proved too chaotic, the lead researcher moved Nim to a house where he was cared for by young scientists who socialized with him and taught him sign language. It's a fascinating story, mostly of human selfishness.

It struck me that out of all the people who interacted with and cared for Nim over the years, the person who was closest to and most compassionate toward him was the one who respected his chimp-ness, rather than obsessed over his pseudo-humanness. Everyone else wanted so badly to mold Nim into a little human that they didn't appreciate or honor who and what he really was. It does beg the question of whether or not we can ever really understand another form of consciousness, an experience of reality that is so different from our own. In a recent New Yorker article, "Dog Story," Adam Gopnik cites the philosopher Thomas Nagel on this topic, in Nagel's essay, "What Does It Feel Like to Be a Bat?":

"It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one's arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one's mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one's feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task."

Most of the Project Nim researchers were fixated on the possibility of understanding Nim's inner world only if he communicated that world on purely human terms - through language. But this would not tell them, to borrow Nagel's phrase, what it was like for Nim to be Nim; only what it was like for the humans to interpret what it was like to be Nim. There's no doubt Nim could communicate with signs; even if what he did was, as many people claimed, only a sophisticated form of mimicry, he still used signs to get what he wanted - "food," "hug," "smoke."  In that sense, he played our game to the extent that it benefited him, but expecting him to be capable of or willing to reveal the experience of his inner life purely on our human terms, by using our specifically human tool of language, seems the height of arrogance.

We cannot help but anthropomorphize, because our personal experience of consciousness is the only one we know, and projecting that onto animals (and, as a friend we saw the movie with suggested, maybe even onto each other) is the only way we can empathize and relate. But it seems worthwhile to strive to appreciate animals on their own terms - to recognize their instincts as completely different from, yet equally astonishing as, our own ability to articulate abstract thoughts through language. We cannot know what it's like to move through the world as animals do, but does that make their experience less valuable, their instinctual understanding of us less impressive? Adam Gopnik writes:

"Yet, for all the seemingly unbridgeable distance between us and them, dogs have found a shortcut into our minds. They live... within our circle without belonging to it: they speak our language without actually speaking any, and share our concerns without really being able to understand them. The verbs tell some of the story: the dog shares, feels, engages, without being able to speak, plan, or (in some human sense) think. We may not be able to know what it's like to be a dog; but, over all those thousands of years, Butterscotch [the author's dog] has figured out, in some instrumental way, what it's like to be a person. Without language, concepts, long-term causal thinking, she can still enter into the large part of our mind made up of appetites, longings, and loyalties. She does a better impersonation of a person than we do an approximation of a dog. That it is, from the evolutionary and philosophical point of view, an impersonation, produced and improved on by generations of dogs, because it pays, doesn't alter its power. Dogs have little imagination about us and our inner lives but limitless intuition about them; we have false intuitions about their inner lives but limitless imagination about them. Our relationship meets in the middle" (The New Yorker, August 8, 2011).

We are, no doubt, a long way from understanding animals on their own terms, just as we are a long way from understanding each other with similar respect and compassion. But it is certainly an undertaking that is worth trying, not only for the animals, but for ourselves.  

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