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Archive for November, 2016

In his recently published book, world renowned primatologist Frans de Waal, demolishes the idea that we humans are a special species because we possess mental abilities not present in lower animals.

The long list of these abilities includes:

  • Language

    ladder-of-nature-the-mirror-test

    Chimp recognizing itself in a mirror

  • Tool making and use
  • Self-recognition
  • Anticipating the future and planning for it
  • Empathy
  • Political awareness (of status and alliances in social groups)
  • A sense of fairness
  • Co-operative behaviour
  • Passing on useful and desirable ways of behaviour (“culture” in other words)

But de Waals shows that all of these so-called uniquely human abilities turn out to have equivalent forms or precursors in other animals!

ladder-of-nature-bA video he used in a TED talk shows a pair of capuchin monkeys in adjoining cages offering a human experimenter a token in return for a piece of fruit. One monkey gets a much desired grape in return for its “work” in earning the token in the first place; the other gets a piece of cucumber, which capuchins are not so impressed by. The monkey that gets the cucumber looks across at the other monkey and its grape, immediately displaying outrage by throwing the cucumber at the experimenter and shaking the bars of its cage with frustration.

The peeved monkey was showing the very human response to not being treated fairly. In all human societies, the fairness principle is valued and taught, even if it is not always applied. It is a key feature of human psychology and morality. What the experiment with the capuchins shows is that something like this basic feature of human psychology and morality also exists in members of a primate lineage that separated from our own more than 40 million years ago.

And the presence of “superior” human mental attributes is not confined to animals that are relatively close to us in the evolutionary scheme of things. Elephants, for example, can classify humans by age, gender and language. New Caledonian crows make elaborate tools, shaping branches into pointed, barbed termite-extraction devices. Western scrub jays hide caches of food for later use – anticipating what they will need in the future, rather than acting on what they need now. Even the seemingly lowly octopus uses coconut shells as tools.

The findings of de Waal and others have reported put paid to the age-old concept of the “ladder of ladder-of-naturenature”, which has God on the top rung, angels a step below followed in order by men, women and children. Then came animals ranked from the noble beasts to the lowliest insects.

As well as being a quasi-scientific picture, the ladder of nature was also a moral and political one. It was only natural that creatures higher up would assume dominion over those lower down.

The ladder also implies the superiority of human intelligence. But science is discovering that intelligence or cognition in the natural world is more like a bush than a ladder. There is not a single, hierarchically ordered intelligence but many different “intelligences” that are not necessarily comparable to ours and may even be superior for certain purposes. Do you think you could remember the location of hundreds of buried acorns in the way squirrels can, for example? Or can you match the perception of your surroundings with the same exquisite precision as an echo-locating bat?

De Waal opens our minds to the idea that animal minds are far more intricate and complex than we have assumed and challenges us to accept that our minds and the minds of animals have far more in common than we may realise.

The title de Waal has given his book is, Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are? Even if we are smart enough, there is another question we need to ask: Are we humble enough?

Humility is not having grovelling or debasing thoughts about oneself. Rather, it is being free of pride and inordinate self-love in its many forms – selfish ambition, conceit, intolerance and closed-mindedness, to name a few. A lack of humility is the handmaiden of arrogance and arrogance coupled with ignorance is a major stumbling block to human progress on every front.

The ideological and social divisions that are so alarmingly obvious in today’s world are all underpinned by ignorance and arrogance – the one fuelling and sustaining the other. Arrogance obstructs empathy and a desire to understand the other; the resulting ignorance then opens the way to misunderstanding, intolerance, contempt, fear and often hate.

That is why humility is so important for human well-being and survival. It is equally crucial for our relationship with the natural world.

The Ladder of nature and the arrogant perception of human superiority that it fosters have to be totally expunged from our thinking and replaced with both intellectual and moral humility. Intellectual humility opens our minds and moral humility opens our hearts.

A good starting point for this transformation is to approach nature as one might approach a great teacher. Indeed, the natural world is one of life’s greatest teachers, if we know how to learn from it.

Jane Goodall, another world-renowned primatologist, helps us to understand what that means. She Wounda farewelling Jane Goodalltestifies that her research into chimpanzees, spanning 30 years, would not have succeeded had she not abandoned the aloof posture of the dispassionate scientist in favour of drawing as close to her subjects as possible. She loved the chimps, named them, and cultivated their trust and only then, she insists, was she able to learn from them and about them. Jane Goodall succeeded because she submitted herself humbly to world she sought to understand.

Few of us are seeking to relate to the natural world as scientists. But all of us, scientists and non-scientists alike, stand to be enriched by approaching nature with humility. As Frans de Waal’s work demonstrates, such an approach keeps us alive to the possibility that our expectations about nature may be wrong and that we should look forward to being surprised.

More than this, it can also leave the way open for nature to teach us a great deal not only about itself but also about who and what we are.

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On a field trip surveying gorges in the Northern Flinders ranges of South Australia, consultant what-is-it-about-caves-a-warratji-cavearchaeologist, Giles Hamm, wandered up a creek bed seeking a private spot for a “comfort stop”. He noticed an “amazing spring” surrounded by rock art and then 20 metres above the creek bed a rock shelter (now with the name of Warratyi Rock Shelter).

The smoke-blackened roof of the shelter indicated to him that it had once been used by Aboriginal people. Subsequent investigation of the shelter has produced bone tools and other cultural artefacts from 49,000 years ago. These finds put the Aboriginal presence in the area 10,000 years further back in time than had previously been thought.

Even without the evidence of cooking fires, the shelter would have sparked Giles’ professional interest. He would no doubt be aware that rock shelters and caves have been magnets for human beings for almost as long as our species has been around.

The Warratyi shelter combines two key features that humans find attractive – prospect, a partially framed view or outlook and refuge, protection from attack (especially from behind) and from the elements.

In 1975, the English geographer, Jay Appleton, advanced the theory that prospect and refuge satisfy two desires that shape what we find attractive and interesting in both art and the landscape. The first of these is the desire to know what is present and what is happening in our surrounding environment. The second is the desire for physical security. According to the theory, both desires are inborn legacies of survival needs that shaped the genome of our species.

The theory says basically that we humans are attracted to situations and art that present to us vistas and places, such as copses of trees and caves as well as rock shelters, where refuge could be found.

prospect-and-refuge-vista-imageprospect-and-refuge-art-image

The scientific testing of Appleton’s theory is incomplete but it is easy to find “everyday evidence” of the pull of prospect and refuge on our minds, even in infancy and childhood. Witness the delight of children in cubbies and treehouses, for example. And what about the millions of dollars people are prepared to pay to own a house in an elevated position that commands a panoramic view of some kind? Think too of the many tourist meccas whose appeal lies in the spectacular views they offer. Talk to people like me who love walking in nature and you will soon learn that high on our list of favourite places will be vantage points and caves or rock shelters suitable for resting and camping. whitecollarwalker

More enclosed places seem to add further dimensions to the prospect-refuge experience – especially feelings of awe and a sense of mystery.

For many years, I took people regularly to Spider Canyon in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Though short in length, this canyon has several very confined, cave-like what-is-it-about-caves-spider-canyonstretches that are easily walked through. I always liked to reach the deepest and darkest of these sections moments ahead of the rest of my party just to watch and hear people’s reactions to the place.

I expected to hear and see expressions of delight, wonder and excitement, and I was never disappointed. As you can see from the photo, there is an “other world” look about the depths of Spider Canyon, an impression that is much stronger when you are actually in it.

It is a place that fosters an understanding of why caves have the power to capture the human imagination, being as they often are places of weirdness, wonder, gloominess, mystery and fear.

It is not accidental that dark zones of caves have so often been important sacred or mythological spaces in the ritual, artistic and ideological lives of humans. Traditions of ritual cave use have originated at different times in widely separated geographic areas and may be traced back to the earliest of our ancestors.

In my bushwalking, I have visited several caves, mostly of the rock shelter variety, where Aboriginal people have left their mark in the form of hand stencils and animal paintings. I also know of at least three caves where white Australians chose to live for weeks at a time. One was the retreat of Dr Eric Dark and his wife, the renowned author Eleanor Dark. The photos shows the kitchen section of their cave along with utensils, some of which they may have used during their stays there in the 1930s.

There is certainly something about caves.

what-is-it-about-caves-kitchen-in-darks-cavekitchen-in-darks-cave

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