A blog from the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB)

Month: June 2013

HandsOn: Biobanks 2013

The interactive conference, HandsOn: Biobanks, organized for the first time in Uppsala last year, attracted participants from 27 countries. The “movie version” of the event can be viewed on BBMRI.se.

This stimulating interactive concept will be repeated on 21-22 November 2013, in The Hague.

HandsOn: Biobanks focuses this year on the interaction between disciplines, and on questions like (quoting from the website):

  • “How to deal with issues that evolve from the connections with other disciplines? How do we strengthen and optimize these connections, so all communities will benefit?”

For information about the program and registration, visit HandsOn: Biobanks 2013.

Early bird registration is open!

Pär Segerdahl

We recommend conferences - the ethics blog

An ape genius, or just an ordinary talking ape?

In 2001 I travelled to Atlanta, where Sue Savage-Rumbaugh then worked with the language-competent bonobos Kanzi and Panbanisha. A question I travelled with concerned the linguistic tests that I had seen in a TV-documentary, Kanzi, an ape of genius.

In these tests, the ape responds to requests in spoken English, uttered by an experimenter who – to avoid cueing Kanzi through extra-linguistic assists like gestures and gazes – stands behind his back, or sits in an adjacent room speaking through a microphone, or covers her face with a welder’s mask. The aim of this experimental design is to distill Kanzi’s comprehension of vocabulary and syntax, the essence of language.

What I wondered was this: how did the experimenters get the ape into the test situation?

In the documentary, Kanzi appears miraculously as if he were nothing but a brilliant subject of scientific experimentation, an ape genius. Sitting on a chair wearing headphones, he picks up photos of grapes, keys, potatoes, people… He responds perfectly reliably, hearing the verbal requests, “Kanzi, give Sue the picture of grapes,” and so on.

How did Kanzi become that brilliant research subject? What happened before the camera was turned on? Does Kanzi spend his days on a chair wearing headphones, just waiting for an experimenter? Probably not, but then what is the relation between his ordinary life and the test situation? Is it irrelevant, since the conditioning anyhow took place in the same kind of scientific situation?

My first question to William M. Fields, who invited me to Atlanta, was: How do you get Kanzi into the experiment? The simplicity of his answer stunned me:

  • “We ask Kanzi if he wants to work.”

In contrast to his half-sister, Panbanisha, who typically refused to play the research subject role, Kanzi usually is willing to work. Then follows negotiations about the food he will have access to during work and which activities and meetings he’ll be granted later because he admits to work.

The filmed tests have a context, but the context isn’t more science. It is Kanzi’s life with other bonobos and with the speaking humans who co-reared young bonobos together with their bonobo mothers. Kanzi is an adult, but a point can be made by comparing him with children who participate in controlled psychological experiments. These children are not raised in a lab. They have a home. Only occasionally are they taken into the lab to participate in science. This often requires quite a bit of negotiation and instruction.

Child participation in psychological experimentation exhibits home/lab duality. The child’s language develops at home and is only tested in the lab. The science that charts the child’s linguistic development doesn’t reflect the more significant context outside of the lab, where the child becomes the speaking being that is being tested.

The child’s life at home is primal. Science plays the second fiddle and doesn’t recreate the vitality that made what is scientifically tested possible.

Animal science rarely exhibits home/lab duality. The animals are conditioned in the same type of controlled situations as those in which they are tested. If an animal picks up laminated photos of keys, it is because it was trained to pick up laminated photos of keys. It doesn’t have a life with doors, cabinets and keys, independently of its scientific disciplining. But Kanzi does.

Like a child whose parents decided to contribute to psychological science, Kanzi is not disciplined as a pure research subject. He became a speaking being at home, in ordinary ape-human ways of life (in an ape-human culture). Only occasionally is he talked and instructed into the lab, to participate in activities that don’t reflect the vibrant home situations in which he became who he is.

Kanzi is no aberrant ape genius. He is just an ordinary talking ape. Home/lab duality enabled him to become one.

(Want to read more? Here are some books.)

Pär Segerdahl

Understanding enculturated apes - the ethics blog

Standing up speaking, sitting down thinking

Intellectual life overflows with regulated forms of discourse about all kinds of urgent matters. Sometimes they are called schools of thought; sometimes theories; sometimes ideologies or positions.

Philosophy could be viewed as the originator of the most prestigious and fundamental discourses about life, like

  • idealism
  • materialism
  • pragmatism
  • existentialism
  • structuralism
  • post-structuralism.

Although this to some extent is historically correct, such a view of philosophy stands in stark contrast to Socrates’ difficulties with speaking and acting publically. His inner voice, his daemon, caused him to hesitate and instead examine himself and his relation to such forms of discourse.

I can imagine Socrates suddenly pausing, torturing himself with questions like

  • why do I want to speak in this way?
  • couldn’t one say the opposite as well?
  • what led me to hold this view?
  • is this merely something I’ve learned to repeat, as a lesson learnt by heart?
  • am I wise, or do I only pretend I am?

My aim here is to draw attention to philosophy as engagement with the latter, self-examining questions. The importance of being sensitive to such questions derives from the fact that intellectual life resembles a marketplace for the former kinds of regulated discourse. Competing schools fight for dominance and accuse each other for neglecting the most decisive aspect of whatever is under discussion.

I want to highlight the importance of somtimes attacking oneself instead; the significance of asking if one is (perhaps) unjust, exaggerating… unwise.

Pursuing the latter questions, we as it were parenthesize our normal obedience to the rules of discourse and examine the extent to which we honestly can abide by them.

– But wouldn’t such questioning of oneself presuppose a discourse of pure self-examination within which the truth finally can be grounded – a discourse that, if it existed, immediately would achieve absolute dominance on the intellectual market?

The marketplace of ideas is attractive. It is the place where we can stand up, speak publically and influence the direction of the world (and achieve reputation). Not surprisingly, philosophers found it difficult to avoid presenting their self-examinations, especially if they found them successful, as being if not truth itself, then at least the right path to truth: as the the discourse that almost guarantees honesty!

To me, these temptations and pitfalls make it all the more important to emphasize the latter list of actually rather simple questions, by which any person can be haunted. Discourse that never is interrupted by pangs of intellectual conscience and consequent self-examinations soon runs amok.

Sometimes, one must sit down and think. Thinking in this sense is not a (silent) form of discourse. But we always compare it with one, and thus we constantly misunderstand philosophy as if it were the purest and most prestigious form of discourse.

Pär Segerdahl

The Ethics Blog - Thinking about thinking