Being humans when we are animals

March 25, 2015

Pär SegerdahlMost people know that humans are animals, a primate species. Still, it is difficult to apply that knowledge directly to oneself: “I’m an animal”; “My parents are apes.”

– Can you say it without feeling embarrassed and slightly dizzy?

In a recent paper I explore this difficulty of “bringing home” an easily cited scientific fact:

Why does the scientific “fact” crumble when we apply it directly to ourselves?

I approach this difficulty philosophically. We cannot run ahead of ourselves, but I believe that’s what we attempt if we approach the difficulty theoretically. Say, by theorizing the contrast between humans and animals as an absolute presupposition of human language that science cannot displace.

Such a theory would be as easy to cite as the “fact” and wouldn’t touch our difficulty, the dizziness we feel.

Instead, I explore a personal experience. When I visited a laboratory for ape language research, an ape named Panbanisha told me to be QUIET and later called me a MONSTER. Being reprimanded by an ape made me dizzy about my humanness and about her animality.

How did the dizziness arise? After spending some time with the apes, the vertigo disappeared. How did it disappear?

That’s investigated in the paper by asking further questions, and by recollecting aspects of the meeting with Panbanisha to which those questions drew my attention. The paper offers a philosophical alternative to theory.

Trust your uncertainty and follow your questions!

Pär Segerdahl

Understanding enculturated apes - the ethics blog


An ape genius, or just an ordinary talking ape?

June 12, 2013

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


Fruitful uncertainty

February 27, 2013

We tend to imagine the minds of great thinkers and scientists as fountains of knowledge, intelligence and certainty. That is what their brilliant works make us believe. The products are perfect; therefore, the minds that produced them must have been perfect.

Well, the opposite may also be true. Brilliant works can stem from an ability to endure ignorance, lack of clear-sightedness, and uncertainty – because such shortcomings motivate serious counter-attacks and hard work. Striving to overcome uncertainty and shortcomings can result in the most brilliant works.

These so-called “great minds” may have been people who loved their uncertainty because it alerted them to what requires more attention: “Here is a difficulty I must take more seriously!” But that is a moral quality rather than an intellectual one!  I just read some fascinating quotations from Linnaeus in Giorgio Agamben’s book, The Open, making me sense that moral quality in Linnaeus.

It must have been confusing for Linnaeus that he couldn’t find a given characteristic that clearly separates humans from apes. Still, he seemed to enjoy this uncertainty about our humanness and even teased those who couldn’t accept it by suggesting that the only difference he could find was a ridiculous dental detail without systematic significance:

  • “… just as the shoemaker sticks to his last, I must remain in my workshop and consider man and his body as a naturalist, who hardly knows a single distinguishing mark which separates man from the apes, save for the fact that the latter have an empty space between their canines and their other teeth.”

Linnaeus’ ability to stay with this uncertainty is further reflected in the name he gave our species: he didn’t add a given identifying characteristic to the generic name Homo.

I always believed that sapiens was meant as a given characteristic, just as Aristotle saw rationality as the distinguishing mark of the human. Agamben points out, however, that Linnaeus used the philosophical imperative nosce te ipsum, know yourself. The name Homo sapiens doesn’t appear until in the tenth edition of Systema naturae, and probably retains the sense of an imperative rather than a given characteristic.

In the absence of a given distinguishing mark, being human was for Linnaeus a task, Agamben suggests. The breathtaking name that Linnaeus originally gave our species, then, was:

  • Homo-know-yourself!

Only someone who is at home in uncertainty and is able to think in it would dare to “classify” our species as an imperative.

Although I’m sure that Descartes had the same moral character and derived nourishment from his own doubts, he was confident about what separates him as a human from the animals. He had mind, reason, while the animals were automata.

Linnaeus couldn’t share Descartes’ confidence and teasingly wrote:

  • “Surely, Descartes never saw an ape” (Cartesius certe non vidit simios.)

Don’t be ashamed of your uncertainty but value it as an asset!

Pär Segerdahl

The Ethics Blog - Thinking about thinking


Human and animal: where is the frontline?

January 7, 2013

Yesterday I read Lars Hertzberg’s thoughtful blog, Language is things we do. His latest post drew my attention to a militant humanist, Raymond Tallis (who resembles another militant humanist, Roger Scruton).

Tallis published Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity. He summarizes his book in this presentation on YouTube.

Tallis gesticulates violently. As if he were a Knight of the Human Kingdom, he defends humanity against an invasion of foreign neuroscientific and biological terms. Such bio-barbarian discourses reduce us to the same level of organic life as that of the brutes, living far away from civilization, in the rainforest and on the savannah.

Tallis promises to restore our former glory. Courageously, he states what every sane person must admit: WE are not like THEM.

Tallis is right that there is an intellectual invasion of biological discourses, led by generals like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. There is a need to defend one. – But how? Who would I be defending? Who am I, as a human? And where do I find the front line?

The notions of human life that Tallis defends are the ordinary ones belonging to everyday language. I have the impression, though, that Tallis fails to see the material practices involved in language use. Instead, he abstracts and reifies these notions as if they denoted a sublime and self-contained sphere: a uniquely human subjectivity; one that hopefully will be explained in the future, when the proper civilized terms of human intentionality are discovered. – We just have not found them yet.

Only a future genius of human subjectivity can reveal the truth about consciousness. Peace in the Human Kingdom will be restored, after the wars of modernity and bio-barbarism.

Here are two examples of how Tallis reifies the human world as a nature-transcendent sphere:

  • “We have stepped out of our organic body.”
  • “The human world transcends the organism Homo sapiens as it was delivered by Darwinian evolution hundreds of thousands of years ago.”

Once upon a time we were just animals. Then we discovered how to make a human world out of mere animal lives. – Is this a fairy tale?

Let us leave this fantasy and return to the forms of language use that Tallis abstracts and reifies. A striking fact immediately appears: Tallis is happy to use bio-barbarian discourse to describe animal lives, as if such terms literally applied to animals. He uncritically accepts that animal eating can be reduced to “exhibiting feeding behavior,” while humans are said to “dine together.”

The fact, then, is that Tallis does not see any need to pay closer attention to the lives of animals, or to defend animals against the bio-barbarism that he fights as a Knight of the Human Kingdom.

This may make you think that Tallis at least succeeds to restore human glory; that he fails only on the animal front (being, after all, a humanist). But he fails to pay attention also to what is human. Since he abstracts and reifies the notions of human life, his dualistic vision combines bio-barbarian jargon about animals with phantasmagoric reifications of what is human.

The front line is in language. It arises in a failure to speak attentively.

When talking about animals is taken as seriously as talking about humans, we foster forms of sensitivity to hum-animal relations that are crushed in Raymond Tallis’ militant combination of bio-barbarian discourses for animals with fantasy-like elevations of a “uniquely human world.”

The human/animal dichotomy does not reflect how the human world transcends the animal organism. It reflects how humanism fails to speak responsibly.

Pär Segerdahl

Minding our language - the Ethics Blog


Panbanisha, 1986-2012

November 22, 2012

It saddens me to have to report that Panbanisha, the bonobo who understood more about humans than any other nonhuman – and more than most humans – died November 6, 2012, from respiratory illness.

Meeting her made it obvious to me that the world is more-than-human and that we have to rethink the inherited cosmology.

Pär Segerdahl


Project Nim: a tragedy that was interpreted as science?

October 12, 2012

Last week I wrote about the significance of negative results in science. This week I saw one of the saddest documentaries I’ve ever seen, featuring the tragic context of an often cited negative result in science.

The documentary, Project Nim (2011), was about the psychologist Herb Terrace’s attempt in the 1970:s to teach American sign language to a young chimpanzee, in a specially designed classroom at Columbia University in New York City. “Specially designed” here meant bare and small in order to avoid suggesting activities that are more exciting for a young ape than reproducing the teacher’s hand movements.

Terrace’s personal stance to the language project struck me as odd. Scientifically, he wanted to test the hypothesis that an ape can be taught to construct sentences. This would disprove Chomsky’s view that language is an innate and uniquely human trait. From a more “personal” point of view, what excited Terrace most was the prospect of experiencing a nonhuman animal communicate ape thoughts.

It would be like meeting an alien from outer space who miraculously communicated foreign thoughts to humankind. Treating young Nim as such an alien research subject strikes me opposed to the very idea of human language and communication.

The whole project was a mess, ill-planned and dysfunctional from the start. And yet there were happy moments where good relationships developed between Nim and responsible caretakers/teachers/surrogate parents outside the classroom.

In these more “distractive” real-life situations, where the point wasn’t about reproducing the teacher’s signs but about doing meaningful things together and communicating about them while doing them, it seemed Nim used signs to talk. The caretakers were optimistic, as was Terrace.

However, as Nim got bigger and stronger and approached adolescence, new problems appeared. He began to attack and bite his teachers, and Terrace feared being sued. These troublesome behaviors developed more rapidly than Nim’s signing abilities, and Terrace was worried.

One day, Terrace called his staff to a meeting and declared that the project was over. They had collected suffient data, and Nim could be sent back to the primate research center in Oklahoma where he was born.

The rest of Nim’s life was was awful, terrifying (although responsible caretakers did try to make a difference).

Simultaneously, Terrace started reporting the project; in a book as well as in an article published in Science. He sat down, watched videotaped interactions between Nim and his teachers, and came to the conclusion that Nim had not acquired the ability to use signs linguistically in genuine communication with humans. He was merely mirroring the teacher’s signs (or begging for things).

The negative result that Terrace published perhaps received more attention than any other scientifically published negative result. In spite of the fact that the project was dysfunctional from the start, Terrace’s publications were welcomed as presenting hard scientific evidence that apes cannot learn to communicate in language.

I’m not so sure what conclusions can be drawn from a research project that could just as well be described as a dysfunctional family history ending in tragedy. Moreover, as Peter Singer observed when he watched the documentary, Terrace could hardly end the project and send Nim away without reporting negative results.

Can we trust Terrace’s judgment when we watched the videotapes and decided that the ape he sent away did not speak with the fellow humans with whom he interacted?

Anyway, the book that Terrace wrote, Nim: a Chimpanzee Who Learned Sign Language (1979), is fascinating and well worth reading. It contains vivid descriptions of Nim’s life with humans; recollections that often seem to contradict the conclusions that Terrace finally reached.

Pär Segerdahl

Understanding enculturated apes - the ethics blog


Neither innate nor learned

July 11, 2012

A child begins to speak; to say that it is hungry, or does not want to sleep. Where was the child’s language hiding before it began to speak? Did the child invent it?

Certainly not, experts on language development would insist. A child cannot create language. Language exists before the child starts to speak. All that is happening during language development is that language is being transported to the child.

The big question is: transported from where? There seem to be only two alternatives:

  1. Language is innate. It is prepared in our neural structures. When the child hears its parents speak, these structures are stimulated and soon start supporting the child’s own speech.
  2. Language is learned. It exists in society. Children have social learning skills; through these skills, language is transported from the social environment to the young pupil, soon supporting the child’s own speech.

These are the alternatives, then. Language is either inside or outside the newborn. Language development is either a process of “externalization” or a process of “internalization” of language. There can be no third alternative.

I have written about the ape Kanzi, who was raised by a human mother. I’ve written about him both on The Ethics Blog and in the book, Kanzi’s Primal Language. This bonobo and his half-sister Panbanisha developed language in a manner that does not clearly correspond to any of these two alternatives.

Since it is hardly credible that human language is innate in apes, ape language researchers typically try to teach apes language. These attempts fail.

Kanzi’s human mother, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, avoided teaching Kanzi. Instead, she simply spoke to him, as parents do, in a shared Pan/Homo culture. As a result of this humanlike cultural rearing, he developed language as nativists believe only human children do: spontaneously, without the parent having to play the social role of a teacher.

The humble purpose of this blog post is to introduce the idea we have to think more carefully about human changeability than we have done so far. We tend to think that human changes are either lying dormant in our nature or are being taught to us by the society.

Kanzi entices us to think differently.

Spontaneous language development in a nonhuman suggests that being reared in culture is more than simply a matter of internalizing social norms. Being reared in culture means participating in the culture: a more creative and masterful role than that of a mere pupil.

I believe we are caught in an adult/child dichotomy. The creative role of the child becomes invisible because the dichotomy categorically portrays her as a novice, as a pupil, as a learner… as a vacuous not-yet-adult-human.

Perhaps, if we manage to liberate us from this dichotomy, we can see the possibility that language – together with much else in human life – is neither innate nor learned.

Pär Segerdahl

Understanding enculturated apes - the ethics blog


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