Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Human Animal Rediscovers Its Kin

Carl Safina begins and ends his fascinating book Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel with this claim:

“….all life is one.”

Safina does not dwell on these statements.  He lays them out there as if referring to some ineffable truth; one that can only be comprehended by first shedding any illusions we have of human uniqueness in order to be able to recognize the wondrous variation in intelligent life on earth.  Before proceeding with Safina’s narrative, a slight diversion is appropriate to pick up a comment by Stephen J. Gould on our knowledge of evolutionary history.

Evidence of multi-celled structures does not appear until about 600 million years ago.  Then suddenly(?) about 500 million years ago the earth experienced what is referred to as “The Cambrian Explosion,” a brief period (in terms of millions of years) at the beginning of the Cambrian era when many forms of life developed, most of which died out.  This period of experimentation with multi-cellular life forms ended with the survival of a few anatomical forms that would form the basis for further evolution.  Development of new species from these fundamental forms would characterize further evolution rather than the development of new anatomies.  The fossil records contained in the Burgess Shale provide some understanding of what took place during this period.  From The Evolution of Life on Earth Gould provides this observation.

“Humans arose, rather, as a fortuitous and contingent outcome of thousands of linked events, any one of which could have occurred differently and sent history on an alternative pathway that would not have led to consciousness...only one member of our chordate phylum, the genus Pikaia, has been found among these earliest fossils.  This small and simple swimming creature , showing its allegiance to us by possessing a notochord, or dorsal stiffening rod, is among the rarest fossils of the Burgess Shale, our best preserved Cambrian fauna....Moreover, we do not know why most of the early experiments died, while a few survived to become our modern recognized traits unite the victors and the radical alternative must be entertained that each early experiment received little more than the equivalent of a ticket in the largest lottery ever played out on our planet—and that each surviving lineage, including our own phylum of vertebrates, inhabits the earth today more by the luck of the draw than by any predictable struggle for existence.”

What Gould is suggesting is that a single animal was the ancestor of all the vertebrates that were to follow.  Humans, as one of those vertebrates, share the same molecular machines, the same cell structures, and the same biochemistry as our vertebrate relatives.

Safina elaborates on that thought.

“If you imagine the very slow changes over millions of years that turned some mammals into apes and others into whales, we seem to have grown very distant indeed, almost estranged.  But is that really a long time, or a big difference?  Take the skin off, and the muscles are much the same, the skeletal construction nearly identical.  The brain cells, under a microscope, are impossible to distinguish.  If you imagine the process very much sped up, you see something real: dolphins and humans, both having already shared a long history as animals, vertebrates, and mammals—same bones and organs doing the same job, same placenta and that same warm milk—are basically the same, in merely shape-shifted proportions.  It’s a little like one person outfitted for hiking and another for scuba diving.”

“Whales are nearly identical to us in every way except their outer contours.  Even their hand bones are identical to ours, just shaped a little differently and hidden in mittens.  And dolphins still use those hidden hands for handlike gestures of touch and calming reassurance.  (In any group of spinner dolphins, at any given time one-third are usually caressing with flippers or making bodily contact, a bit like primates grooming.)”

Even our human brains, of which we are so proud, are quite similar in structure and function to that of other animals.

“If you look at side-by-side drawings of human, elephant, and dolphin brains, the similarities overwhelm the differences.  We are essentially the same, merely molded by long experience into different outer shapes for coping with different outer surroundings, and wired inside for special talents and abilities.  But beneath the skin, kin.”

There was a time in history when humans were just one more animal trying to survive and thrive in a dangerous environment.  Once, humans had a greater appreciation for the capabilities of other animals and found it useful to come to an “understanding” with them.  Here are a few of the anecdotes Safina provides to make his point.

“In the unciphered span of time that the San people (formerly called ‘Bushmen’) lived as hunters somewhere in the coordinates of the vast space and deep antiquity of the Kalahari Desert, they did not hunt lions.  Their courtesy was repaid.  Lions and the San had somehow forged a solid truce….No one had ever heard of a lion killing a human.  Leopards, yes, sometimes at night.  But lions, never.”

“The San never hunted lions, and lions never hunted the San.  Perhaps each side knew that the other was potentially dangerous….They chose not to tamper with one another, lived well without doing so, and passed the custom to their children.”

And then there were the Siberian tigers.

“Modernity’s self imposed exile from the world seems to have degraded an older human ability to recognize the minds in other animals.  Yet it can seem that other animals recognize human minds.  In The Tiger, John Vaillant describes how Amur (Siberian) tigers had a kind of ancient understanding with local peoples.  People long accustomed to living with Amur tigers, such as Udeghe and Nanai hunters, knew enough to stay out of a tiger’s way, but also left a cut of their hunted meat.  It was ebb and flow; human hunters sometimes scavenged from tiger kills.  The balance of powers and considerations in the deep northern taiga forests yielded a kind of mutual courtesy, an understanding of mutual nonviolence.”

This understanding would be damaged when Russian colonists arrived in the 1600s and began breaking the rules.

“Violations of that pact carried consequences, suggesting that it had been a true two-way understanding.  Commenting on what he calls ‘the Amur tiger’s capacity for sustained vengeance,’ Valliant relates a story told by a modern hunter about what happened after they scared a tiger off its kill and took some of the meat.  ‘The tiger destroyed our traps, and he scared off the animals that came to our bait.  If any animal got close, he would roar and everyone would run away.  We learned the hard way.  That tiger wouldn’t let us hunt for an entire year….Very smart and very vengeful.’  It’s as if the tiger was not just a hunter but the manager of its hunting territory.”

Let someone try to explain how that tiger was acting out of “instinct” rather than making intelligent and emotional decisions.

Of course the accommodation between humans and wolves has been the most significant for our civilization.  Some might think that dogs arose when humans raised captured wolf pups and bred them for the desired characteristics.  However, those who have actually tried to domesticate a wolf pup are dubious.  Most believe that it is a case of wolves deciding that humans provided an easy source of food and humans deciding having wolves around was useful as a security perimeter.  Only after that mutual conclusion was reached could domestication of both species occur.

Perhaps the most astonishing example of humans forming a collaboration with another species involves the killer whales of Eden, Australia.  Some species of killer whale target mammals as their food source.  A pod may not be able to subdue a mature whale but it often will attack young whales.  At some point, the killer whales noticed the humans harpooning and subduing the adult whales and concluded that they would profit from collaborating with them.  Wikipedia provides a description of what ensued.

“The killer whales of Eden, Australia were a group of killer whales (Orcinus orca) known for their co-operation with human hunters of cetacean species. They were seen near the port of Eden in southeastern Australia between 1840 and 1930. A pod of killer whales, which included amongst its members a distinctive male called Old Tom, would assist whalers in hunting baleen whales.  The killer whales would find target whales, shepherd them into Twofold Bay, and then alert the whalers to their presence and often help to kill the whales.”

“Old Tom's role was commonly to alert the human whalers to the presence of a baleen whale in the bay by breaching or tailslapping at the mouth of the Kiah River….This role endeared him to the whalers and led to the idea that he was ‘leader of the pack,’ although such a role was more likely taken by a female (as is typical among killer whales), probably the whale known as Stranger. After the harpooning, some of the killer whales would even grab the ropes in their teeth and aid the whalers in hauling. The skeleton of Old Tom is on display at the Eden Killer Whale Museum, and significant wear marks still exist on his teeth from repeatedly grabbing fast-moving ropes.  In return for their help, the whalers allowed the killer whales to eat the tongue and lips of the whale before hauling it ashore, providing a rare example of mutualism between humans and killer whales.”

 As humans became more powerful and more plentiful they lost contact with their animal relatives—and lost their respect for them.  We became so proud of our cleverness that we began to assume that we were not like those other animals.  We are humans and we think; they are merely animals so they can’t think.  Safina rises up periodically throughout his narrative to smite the pompous ones who harbor such thoughts.

“Once I was watching elephants with another scientist in another African reserve.  Several adult elephants were resting with their young in the shade of a palm, fanning their ears in the heat.  The scientist opined that the elephants we were watching ‘might simply be moving to and away from heat gradients, without experiencing anything at all.’  He declared, ‘I have no way of knowing whether that elephant is any more conscious than this bush’.”

“No way of knowing?  For starters, a bush behaves quite differently from an elephant.  The bush shows no sign of having a mental experience, of showing emotions, of making decisions, of protecting its offspring.  On the other hand, humans and elephants have nearly identical nervous and hormonal systems, senses, milk for our babies; we both show fear and aggression appropriate to the moment.  Insisting that an elephant might be no more conscious than a bush isn’t a better explanation for the elephant’s behavior than concluding that an elephant is aware of what’s going on around it.  My colleague thought he was being an objective scientist.  Quite the opposite; he was forcing himself to ignore the evidence.  That’s not scientific—at all.”

Similarly, scientists have constructed methods by which they can conclude that humans are supreme when it comes to intelligence.

“Because we’re human, we tend to study non-humans’ human-like intelligence.  Are they intelligent like we are?  No, and therefore—we win!  Are we intelligent like they are?  We don’t care.  We insist that they play our game; we won’t play theirs.”

“What other animals must learn, the problems they must solve, and how they must solve them differs greatly.  A human must make a spear; an albatross must travel four thousand miles from her nest to find a meal and then return across open ocean to an island half a mile wide and pick out her own chick from among thousands.  A dolphin or sperm whale or bat might pity us for staring dumbly into the night while their brains virtually ‘image’ a high definition sonic world at great speed, allowing them to hunt, identify others, and catch fast moving food in darkness.  We might seem to them as utterly bereft of crucial abilities as they seem to us disabled by lack of language—although actually they are extremely enabled, in some ways we cannot match.”

The study of animals in their natural environment is not an old field.  Research requires time and patience.  Much of what Safina presents is provided by researchers who have spent decades studying animals as they progressed through life: birth, infancy, adolescence, reproduction, family life, social life, dealing with conflicts, dealing with natural disasters, dealing with humans, and dealing with death.  He has focused mostly on elephants, wolves, chimpanzees, dolphins, whales, and killer whales.  Given what has been learned of these creatures, he insists that these animals no longer merit being referred to as “its.”  We should think of them as distinct individuals with distinct personalities and distinct lives.  They are not “its,” they are “whos.”

“’Who’ animals know who they are; they know who their family and friends are.  They make strategic alliances and cope with chronic rivalries.  They aspire to higher rank and wait for their chance to challenge the existing order.  Their status affects their offspring’s prospects.  Their life follows the arc of a career.  Personal relationships define them.  Sound familiar?  Of course.  ‘They’ includes us.  But a vivid, familiar life is not the domain of humans alone.”

Safina continually questions the tolerance these animals show for humans.  If we show too little respect for them, perhaps they show too much respect for us.  One thing we animals all have in common is a brain that is capable of more than just doing whatever is necessary to survive.  We have brains that create leisure time and the need to do something interesting in those periods.  Socializing is important.  Physical contact among animals is desirable.  Think of the handshaking and hugging that takes place when adult humans congregate.  A desire to play, even for adults, seems common.  One could argue that these other animals see humans as animals interesting to hang around with.

Dolphins and killer whales seem to tolerate captivity surprisingly well—at least for a while.  Perhaps their new environment and activities provide them some stimulation, if not entertainment.  Safina tells the story of some entrepreneurial dolphins.

There was a dolphin named Kelly at the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Mississippi who noted that dolphins were rewarded with a fish whenever they brought a piece of trash to the staff that had floated into their pool.  Kelly also noted that a small piece of paper received the same reward as a large piece of paper.

“So under a weight at the bottom of the pool she hid any paper that blew in.  When a trainer passed, she tore of a piece of paper to trade for a fish.  Then she tore off another piece, got another fish.  Into the economy of litter, she’d rigged a kind of trash inflation rate that kept the food coming.”

“One day a gull flew into Kelly’s pool, and she grabbed it and waited for the trainers.  The humans seemed to really like birds; they traded her several fish for it.  This gave Kelly a new insight and a plan.  During her next meal she took the last fish and hid it.  When the humans left, she brought the fish up and baited more gulls to get even more fish.  After all, why wait to scrounge an occasional piece of accidental paper when you could become a wealthy commercial bird-fishing dolphin?  She taught this to her youngster, who taught other youngsters, and so the dolphins there became professional gull baiters.”

And then there is the playful whale calf and the tolerant mother.

“Photographer Bryant Austin had been photographing humpback whale mothers and babies for several weeks when a five-week-old infant left his mother and swam up to him.  Austin wrote, ‘The newborn maneuvered his five-foot-wide fluke precisely by my mask less than a foot away.’  While transfixed, Austin suddenly felt a firm tap on his shoulder.  ‘As I turned to look, I was suddenly eye to eye with the calf’s mother.  She had extended the tip of her two-ton, fifteen-foot-long pectoral fin and positioned it in such a way as to gently touch my shoulder.’  Realizing that he was now between the mother and her baby, he was frightened by the thought that she could easily break his back.  Instead, Austin described her actions as ‘delicate restraint.’  Meanwhile the baby swam over to biologist Libby Eyre.  ‘Time slowed down as I observed the calf roll underneath Libby and then gently lift her out of the water on his belly.  She was on her hands and knees looking down at his throat.’  As Bryant’s mind scrambled through a list of things that could go wrong, ‘the young whale placed his pectoral fin on her back, then gently rolled her back in the water’.”

And finally, there are the fun-loving killer whales.

“Argentina is one of those places where killer whales sometimes burst through the surf to drag sea lions right off the beaches.  You see a video of this and you think it would be insanity to stroll near the shoreline.  Yet when park ranger Roberto Bubas stepped into the water and played his harmonica, the same individual killer whales would form a ring around him like puppies.  They’d rally playfully around his kayak and come as, by names he gave them, he called to them.”

One day Ken was watching several killer whales who were focused on getting some salmon.  All except J6, a teenage male. ‘He went from boat to boat and burst his head out right alongside and just looked at everyone just—showing off.’  When [killer] whales pass certain land points where people line up, clapping and shouting, Ken claims, ‘the whales get much more excited and acrobatic and really put on a show.’  People will be running along the shoreline and the whales will flap their tails and slap their fins and jump.  Same if they are near whale-watching boats with people cheering.’  Why?  ‘Because,’ he says, ‘I think we’re as entertaining to them as they are to us’.”

Elizabeth Kolbert reviewed Safina’s book and produced a comment that captures the sentiments of this reader.  It appeared on the book cover.

“Carl Safina shows there is indeed intelligent life in the universe, and it’s all around us.  At once moving and surprising, Beyond Words asks us to reexamine our relationship to other species—and to ourselves.”

The interested reader might appreciate these additional articles based on Safina’s book:

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