Monday, November 30, 2009

Shared Intentionality

Yesterday, I wrote about being civilized - a process that involves rules of conduct in order for the individual to think of others as well as his- or herself. Tomorrow's NY Times (print edition) will feature this article about a study by Dr. Michael Tomasello. He has written a book called Why We Cooperate, which explores the roots of getting-along behavior. The article takes a look at how it arises in children. Tomasello believes that the willingness to help others comes about naturally (i.e., is innate). This is contrary to the beliefs of many scholars who believe that cultural influences (whose rules I mentioned below) shape a child's behavior, and basically minimize the likelihood that he'll be a two-year-old (=me-me-me) forever.
The essence of this helping behavior is what he calls "shared intentionality," or the development of group think ("me to we," as social activist Craig Keilburger has called it).
Interesting work - and let's hope more such findings emerge as further food for thought.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

How to be Civilized

What makes us human? That is an ongoing debate, though some people cite "language," "technology," and "culture." They are wrong, of course, because nonhuman animals have all three, albeit in very different forms. A better description of human uniqueness might be "civilization." Not just the formation of societies - ants do that far better - but cities and civilian rules of conduct. We have developed highly sophisticated rules of conduct that are, whether their inventors realized it or not, ways of balancing the innate need to survive ("selfishness") with the needs of the group (altruism or cooperation). This balance would have existed before we moved into cities (the origin of the term), but the intense crowding (relative to pastoral or hunting-and-gathering times) made externalized, recorded rules an absolute necessity to avoid anarchy. Other social animals have rules of conduct - otherwise chimpanzees and bonobos, for example, would not appease each other after a fight - but they are not Socratic, Confucian or Jeffersonian. Homo sapiens grapples with complex matters of psychology and sociology and comes up with ways of minimizing suffering and maximizing overall peace and prosperity. Since there is still plenty of suffering in the world, it would seem the efforts by the Great Minds over the millennia have been in vain. But try to imagine for a moment where our species would be now if not for their devotion to explaining human nature. We may have destroyed ourselves centuries ago.
One of the greatest personal dilemmas is to think beyond our own needs. A relatively easy one is concrete: e.g., giving a friend the last cookie. Many humans limit their "generosity" to the concrete - if only in the spirit of enlightened self-interest (e.g., reciprocal altruism, where the favor is expected to be returned one day). Social animals are incapable of any other kind.
Abstract selflessness is the truest test of character, of being civilized. Not many people are capable of denying or even hurting themselves in order to honor an ideal. Ideals don't say thank you. They don't return favors. Many organized religions recognize this psychological dilemma, and promise rewards in the hereafter. (They are still abstract, but at least your selflessness seems to involve cause and effect.) Community respect can also serve as reward for such things as patriotism and volunteerism. (Of course, the most generous of givers are anonymous.)
I heard Jonathan Safran Foer on the radio this morning talking about his book Eating Animals. (See earlier post below.) He repeated something from his book, an excerpt of which I read a few weeks ago. Hearing it, I was moved again. His beloved grandmother narrowly survived death by starvation in WWII Russia. One day, a local man offered her a piece of meat. She refused - because it was pork, and her principles (=Mosaic laws) forbid its consumption. As affecting as that image may be, that was not the moving part. It was how she responded to her grandson's flabbergasted question: you wouldn't eat it, even to save your life? She said, "If nothing matters, there's nothing to save."
By thinking beyond - sometimes way, way beyond - the skin of the Self, we create meaning. And that unites us a human beings, and makes life worth living.
I will think about that the next time I nearly buy something my research has taught me hurts another person or creature. In moments of weakness, I find myself saying "I am the only one doing this, so why bother?" That's why.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Only Balance

It's been a few days now since the headline-generating news about mammograms. (Another, similar, study on tests for cervical cancer went relatively unnoticed.) In a nutshell, the new study suggests that women have been misled (most likely with the best of intentions) about the efficacy of frequent mammography (radioactive photographs of the breast) and - perhaps most shocking - the self-examination that has been drummed into them for decades like a mantra. Predictably, Letters to the Editor, and interviews with professionals and advocates for women's health issues have responded angrily. The study advises less frequent screening, for a variety of reasons backed up by years of data. The angry individuals assert that screening can save lives, with minimal cost or bother. (Few people, I noticed, mention the radiation involved in frequent screening - regardless of its efficacy.)
I cannot be the only woman who reads both sides of this contentious issue and asks herself whom to believe? Even with my science training, I find it a huge muddle of pros and cons to weed through. No wonder there is so much disrespect for scientists in the general public!
I had not intention of trying to come to a conclusion here. I want to bring this up because it reminds me of one of the human mind's great weaknesses: the inability to achieve balance. It is far easier to dwell in one ideological extreme or the other than to strike a happy medium. We can all think of an example of someone who didn't just convert to a noble cause, but became an insufferable zealot. And I have met many people who either really love something or really hate it - no in between.
The Buddhists understood this tendency well. They advise the Middle Way. Neither abject poverty and hair-shirt self-deprivation, nor distracting self-indulgence should be your goal (differing quite signifcantly from many religions). Similarly, you should avoid either plunging into despair or soaring into exultation: both wreak havoc on the spirit. Simple lifestyle, serene demeanor ... how easy to prescribe and how difficult to attain in this modern world!
As for the conflicting schools of risk assessment: to our inherent human frailty, we have medical technology, statistics, and politics to add to the mix. How do we choose the right point on the spectrum from fear to reassurance?

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Big Disconnect

I am not naive enough to think that a flurry of bestselling books on food ethics (such as those by Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, to name but two) has ushered in a New Age of environmental awareness - as wonderful as most of those books are. Still I found this disturbing to read this morning. It's even more disturbing because the writer is well respected, and undoubtedly read by millions.
Anticipating reader objections, Mr. Foer writes that people might say “social-justice movements” have “nothing to do with the situation of the factory farm,” that “human oppression is not animal abuse.” But he adds that in his view we interpret the legacies of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez “too narrowly if we assume in advance that they cannot speak against the oppression of the factory farm.”
It’s arguments like this that undermine the many more valid observations in this book, and make readers wonder how the author can expend so much energy and caring on the fate of pigs and chickens, when, say, malaria kills nearly a million people a year (most of them children), and conflict and disease in Congo since the mid-1990s have left an estimated five million dead and hundreds of thousands of women and girls raped and have driven more than a million people from their homes.
The writer of this tired argument is Michiko Kakutani, main book reviewer of the New York Times. The book in question (which I have yet to read, except in excerpt) is Eating Animals, by young wunderkind novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. It would be interesting to see a debate between two famous people like these, but I doubt it will happen anytime soon. So this sad disconnect between different kinds of suffering - that are, really, all of a piece - probably will go unchallenged outside of this space. I have heard this argument so many times, I am tempted to let it go and sigh in resignation. But suffering - and the humane person's responsibility towards it - must never be ignored or dismissed. It is one of the central questions of existence, the subject of countless, anguished philosophical discussions through the ages. The only way I can "understand" Ms. Kakutani's point of view is to consider the weight of this anguish: surely it is too great for most people (perhaps her included) and the only way to alleviate it is to draw lines around one kind of suffering and say it doesn't deserve attention until all other "more important" kinds of suffering vanish forever. (What kind of world would that be? Sounds like an alternate reality.)
The way I explain this fallacy - which is partially predicated on the assumption that compassion is a finite commodity, like the hours in a day, and must be divided up wisely - is to look at one subset of suffering, human disease. There are so many opinions about how to allocate time, energy and money to fighting this or that disease that I highly doubt that a single strategy exists. Some "deserving" diseases get hardly any attention, while "undeserving" ones are awash in funds. Yet, when asked, would a compassionate person dare compare the suffering of a Malawian child wracked with malarial chills and a NY poet with AIDS? How about different kinds of cancer? How about cancer versus starvation? You can twist yourself in knots trying to justify caring for one, while waving away the other for its lack of relative importance, and just end up looking coldhearted. They all matter, don't they?
Aye, but the beings who are suffering are all human! That's the rub. We climb onto an entirely new level of Us and Them when we cross the species divide.
That's the Big Disconnect: that human suffering trumps all other kinds. 
The problem with that is complex. But I do know that people who eat animals should buy more consciously and compassionately if only due to self-interest: the animal whose suffering they dismiss could be dinner. Hard to be truly disconnected from something that eventually becomes part of you!

Monday, November 16, 2009

More Brains

Just finished reading Jonah Lehrer's Proust Was a Neuroscientist. The all-important "hook" of the book is the way art can explain science. Lehrer demonstrates this by exploring a famous artist's uncannily prescient insight into the way the human brain functions, anticipating (often by decades) current neuropsychological research. Proust dealt with memory - perhaps obviously, given his most famous book. Gertrude Stein anticipated Noam Chomsky's language theories. Stravinsky, in the The Rite of Spring, not only caused a riot amongst an audience accustomed to symphonic music, but challenged the way we perceive beauty in sound. Virginia Woolf wrote about the self in ways that broke new ground. Paul Cezanne forced us to see differently. Walt Whitman dared to express his feelings in startling ways. George Eliot brought science to bear in her fiction, reflecting Darwin's growing influence. And French chef extraordinaire Auguste Escoffier, inventer of the menu, discovered the fifth flavour, which the Japanese call "umami," and understood how we can learn how to taste (and appreciate food covered in sauces, I imagine).
Lehrer's original premise is more than a crass book-marketing schtick. He rides what seems to be a wave of art-science reconciliation. C.P. Snow famously called art and science the "Two Cultures" (like east and west, destined never to meet), and there will be those who cling to this stark division to their last breath. But how refreshing it is to see thoughtful, insightful, and engagingly written portrayals of the overlaps - interdependencies or interconnections - that existed all along. Highly recommended.
"When we venture beyond the edge of our knowledge, all we have is art." (p.197)
How many of us have been moved by a fictional account (book or film) of a major historical event, after being unconcerned when it was just "facts"? Framing an event within a powerful narrative - with human emotions and human lives that appeal to our empathy - can be the best way to convince people that something significant happened, or that anything happened at all. Think "Schindler's List" versus all the true-life accounts of the Holocaust. My personal epiphany about this came about 20 years ago when I read Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits, which ends with a (fictionalized but all too real) account of the 1973 coup in Chile that led to her uncle Salvador Allende's assassination. Although I knew the story, the novelization hit me powerfully.
Although I write plenty of nonfiction, it is important to remember how we all love a good story, and are perhaps more likely to engage with an issue if it's contained in art (writing or anything else).

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Perceived Isolation

The things you run into on the web. I cannot remember what I searched last week that brought me to this title, and the excellent webcast lecture by social neuroscientist, John Cacioppo. "Connected Minds: Loneliness, Social Brains, and the Need for Community" is the title of his lecture, though dynamic relationship between health and loneliness was what caught my eye as a header.
Using a truly telescopic approach - going from micro to macro and back - Cacioppo explains how human brains evolved to feel loneliness when we perceive isolation, just as we evolved hunger pangs when our stomachs are empty. The key term was "perceived siolation" because, as we all know, you can be lonely in a crowd, maybe even lonelier than when you're actually physically alone. Perceived isolation causes the body (cued by the mind) to become hypervigilant. And no wonder. If you are either totally alone, or you feel you may as well be (because those around you don't bother with you, understand you, or show you sufficient caring), you had better watch your own back! Hypervigilance has many repercussions, among which is sleep disruption.
The loneliness-in-a-crowd feeling - of not belonging in the tribe in which you happen to find yourself - used to be something associated with travellers (think country boy arriving in the city), and free-thinking edge-dwellers ("no one understands me"). Some of these people manage to pour their angst into art or inventions or long-term projects that require solitude, and end up helping the world (not necessarily the human part of it). While others, feeling unjustly rejected by the pack, become lone wolves, loose cannons, social outcasts - dangers to others and themselves. I don't need to remind anyone how some of those stories play out.
We are social animals and need to feel connected in order to feel safe in our skins.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Review From Last Year

A little after the fact, perhaps, here's my review of Your Inner Fish, by paleontologist Neil Shubin. Quite naturally, I emphasized how his discovery of a fish ancestor (and ancestor to us all) supports Darwin's Tree of Life and the idea that every living being is connected to another somehow - through a surprisingly conservative genetic legacy. The web of life indeed.
(Click on image to read enlarged version.)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


Today I spent a few hours at the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI or "the Neuro"). There was a panel dicsussion in the morning, and, after lunch, a tour of some facilities. This year is the 75th anniversary of the world-renown centre, which excels in the study of the final frontier: the human brain.
I was struck anew by many things while there today: my love of neuroscience, which goes back to my undergraduate days at McGill; the intense curiosity of the average neuroscientist, quite unlike the curiosity one might expect from all scientists, but will not find to the same degree; the excitement that pervades the place, even though the adjoining hospital is full of very ill people who may not recover.
The Neuro began with Dr. Wilder Penfiled in 1934, and some of the young people who began with him are still alive, active (and curious) well into their 80s and 90s. Once again, we're reminded: if you don't use it, you lose it - and these remarkable students of the brain use it plenty.
The head of the Neuro, Dr. David Colman, impressed me by stating how many politicians seem to expect research funding to yield a pay-off of some kind - as if it's not enough to let smart people explore nature and see what they find. They have to have "results" and that means results that save or make money for society, including the politicans. It reminds me of the people (again, usually politicans) who don't want to save a forest unless you can prove that it's useful to do so (e.g., it yields cancer drugs or lumber). The instrumental-value mindset pervades all levels of human endeavor.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Autumn drear has crept up on us in this part of the world, bringing chilly foreshadows of winter and its associative symbols of dormancy, inactivity, and death. Poets have a long tradition of drawing their strongest tropes from natural phenomena, of course, and even the non-reading public is aware of pathetic fallacy - rain denoting sorrow, for example - whether or not it was taught in school. It just seems part of our nature to, well, turn to nature to explain how we feel.
Ecology, however (no matter what my blog title may suggest), differs from poetry in many respects. For one thing, it does not make value judgments on seasons, weather, or any other phenomena. Everything must die - otherwise there would not be life in the first place. Rain (and snow and sleet) must fall. In temperate zones, seasons are fairly sharply - sometimes very sharply - delineated. We cannot help but find our lives rise and fall in rhythm with them.
While snow and shorter days restrict growth, winter does not mean death. And even though is is hard to associate anything but "rebirth" with spring, in reality, life has been ongoing, neither dying nor coming back to life. (I sense religious imagery creeping in here - but leave that topic to another day perhaps.)
I find myself wandering into these realms this week, because health and mortality are very much on my mind. The timing of certain worrisome events is mere coincidence. Yet I cannot ignore it. The growing season is winding down. I am reminded of other lives winding down - loved ones. The connection is there if I choose to find it. And once I make that decision ("poetry or ecology," I suppose, is a little too facile) then I have to use it effectively.