All posts by tanneraustin

Rats: The Shadow of the Collective Human Psyche

I am a big fan of Burt’s conceptual approach to the rat. While on occasion he appears overly wordy and attempts to put an overly abstract spin on rats and their relationship to humans, overall he shoes an uncommon psychological-mindedness and cunning perspective on the species.

I was very intrigued by Burt’s view of rats as a reflection of the negative qualities of human behavior: pervasive and endless consumption, disregard for consequences of behavior, and massive production of filth and waste. This draws a connection (that I will discuss below) that I appreciate as someone who is interested in psychoanalysis, and I’m sure Dr. Nelson found it interesting as well with her connection to a Jungian psychoanalyst.

We discussed dreams in a previous class and briefly discussed some of the conceptual developments that Carl Jung made in the field of analytical psychology. One of his major contributions was the concept of the “collective unconscious.” To start, each of us as individual has an unconscious part of our minds that makes up the majority of the activity in our brains. Most of our conscious thoughts are surface manifestations of underlying processes that occur without the conscious parts of our minds being aware. Sigmund Freud used an analogy of an iceberg, as an iceberg tends to have a small percentage above the water (conscious mind) with the majority being underwater (unconscious mind).

One of these aspects of the unconscious mind was called the shadow by Jung. In short, each person has a whole spectrum of qualities, behaviors, perceptions, emotions, etc. that makeup their personality and psyche. However, many of these qualities are either shameful, disgusting, frightening, or otherwise undesired by most people. We experience significant distress when confronted with these realities of our existence, but we ALL have them. These parts of ourselves are typically displaced from our minds in some way, sometimes by repressing them, sometimes by projecting them onto other people, sometimes by expressing them in socially acceptable ways, etc. But, no matter the mechanism, they are typically kept in the unconscious mind in order to protect ourselves and allow us to lead happy and, frankly, ignorant lives.

Carl Jung went beyond Freud and introduced the collective unconscious. Jung recognized that we are not merely individuals and that our minds connect and influence each other in various ways, and as a result a collection of “archived” unconscious information is “stored” collectively in human species. It could be said that a collective shadow exists in humans, and that, socially and culturally, we project, repress, or otherwise store the shadow parts of our existence in unconscious areas of our collective mind. Burt seems to suggest that rats have served this function in some ways for us.

As I mentioned above, the rat exhibits and symbolizes many qualities that humans either don’t like or ignore about themselves. I’m sure some of you have heard the common expression that the things we tend to not like in other people are the things we tend to dislike about ourselves but ignore. The reason this happens is because the negative things we observe in other people bring light to the qualities we deny about ourselves, and that makes us uncomfortable. It may be possible that the patented disgust associated with rats has similar roots. In other words, the behavior and associations with rats express qualities that all humans possess in one form or another.

We all exhibit fiery sexual urges, gluttony, wickedness and the like from time to time, and the reaction we have to these animals may be the unambiguous success they have in activating awareness of these negative associations when we see them, hear them, etc. By projecting these qualities onto rats (and, of course, many other things), we thereby mentally unload the negative parts of ourselves onto something that we consider outside ourselves. It loses its associates with ourselves, and therefore stops bringing to light the negative aspects of our own existence. In other words, the rat serves as an external container for the shadow parts of ourselves.

Of course I could be completely wrong about this, but it’s an interesting thought I think.

Darwin

Not surprising, Darwin’s writing is quite dense and syntactically complex. Why he felt the need to lump so many clauses in between commas instead of using a few more periods is beyond me. His editor should have slapped him, if he had an editor.

Darwin seems to firmly believe that domestication is a man-driven as opposed to an animal-driven or mutualistic process. He repeatedly refers to the whims and decisions of breeders in deciding which existing variations to exploit and which direction, either consciously or unconsciously, to take an animal during the domestication process. He doesn’t seem to acknowledge the potential for the animal to benefit from the process, and even if it does, Darwin implies this would be merely a side effect and not a direct effect. Ultimately, I agree with this logic, because man is ultimately deciding which variations to exploit and which animals to let reproduce. Any benefit to the domesticated animal may simply be a consequence of the necessity to have health animals in order to use them. Basically, the animals thrive because we need them to thrive for us to thrive. This doesn’t take away from our dependence on animals, such as the cow, for resources. The bond between man and domesticated animal may only be mutualistic in the sense that we need many of the resources they provide.

At the same time, Darwin may be a bit naive in this interpretation of domestication. We do depend on domesticated animals, and as time progresses and they become more intertwined with human populations, they often become integral to a civilization’s successful function. Darwin appears to have ignored this.

 

 

 

Reindeer People

Admittedly, I had some difficulty at first with the number of historical and geographical the Vitebsky uses. His consistent mentioning of location after location and culture after culture in the Arctic region were a bit difficult at times to follow because I have almost no familiarity with these areas. I’m sure Dr. Nelson has each of these ingrained in her DNA, but for me it was a slight challenge at least at first.

Reindeers are surprising animals. For one, I had no idea reindeer and caribou were the same species. For some reason I had assumed caribou were more similar to antelope, but I probably was working off memories from The Wild Thornberries or something.

I think many of us will be interested in picking Dr. Nelson’s brain this week on the history of Soviet Russia as it relates to reindeer. I’m a little weary of making  statements about the implications of what was going on during the time where native Russian cultures were being forced conform to the ways of the developed world. I will admit that, though the overt content of this week’s reading is very interesting, for the most part I didn’t feel a magnetic pull Vitebsky’s writing as I did with Goat Song and Part Wild. In this sense I’m having a bit of difficultly coming up with some original thought this week, but I’ll be excited to contribute to discussion and in class.  I do have a few thoughts regarding the chapter relating to dreams, but I’d rather keep on topic with reindeer than get into an abstract conversation about the nature of dreams.

Goat Song

Broadly, Goat Song reminds me of Part Wild, following a somewhat similar autobiographical pattern between seeking, purchasing, and caring for a domesticated animal. As others have expressed, my impressions of goats from afar were quite inaccurate, particularly in the area of goat intelligence and personality. Why I took comfort in my ignorant impression of goats as nothing more than a collection of nearly identical, stupid animals that do nothing but make obnoxious noises and make inferior cheese is beyond me at the moment, as I was clearly wrong, and I should have known it intuitively.

However, the component of my impression of goats that did not change, and was actually reinforced, was their humor. These are hilarious animals. From their noises, to their absurd sexual behaviors, to their (occasionally) inexhaustible resistance to milking, to their impulse to scramble for higher ground at the slightest hint of danger, is very entertaining to read about and imagine. Although, I could go without the excruciating detail about the sexual “rituals” of goats. I didn’t think there existed a goat counterpart to Fifty Shades of Grey, but this book, if it weren’t titled Goat Song, most certainly should have been titled Fifty Shades of Goats.  And I’m not sure if it was the imagery created in my mind that was more disturbing, or Kessler himself for being so d*mn observant to make sure he caught every detail of these goat “activities” and wrote them down before he could forget. I wouldn’t be surprised if he used binoculars while observing them, given the detail. And finally, I’m not surprised historical cultures have associated this animal with sin… This animal, while hilarious, is little more than a giant ball of seething id impulses that explodes from Kessler’s writing and into my  brain. Thanks.

Aside from that, most fascinating to me was the bit about the origins of letters A, C, H, L, and I. Honestly I hadn’t even thought of English letters as originating from more meaningful symbolism. I had assumed English and languages like Egyptian Hieroglyphics were mechanistically entirely different, and they may be to some extent, but it was fascinating to learn of the pastoral origins of some of our language. Even more interesting is thinking about these letters as “storing” or “containing” elements of past human civilizations, where these bits of history are present in all of our writing, albeit with 99% of us being completely oblivious to it. This only reinforces my support for an interdependent view of nature (and reality in general), as with a little bit of knowledge or observation it is pretty easy to notice the intricate interconnectedness of everything. This awareness has been especially important as it relates to a recurring theme in this class that humans, human creations, other animals, and “nature” are inseparable, despite the illusion we’ve constructed of it being otherwise.

 

 

Werms

I’ve just realized I read more than I needed to in Wild Life of Our Bodies. Three days out of state for my interview threw off my schedule, so I apologize. I’ll keep this post here and write a new one for class.

 

I’ll stick to my usual theme and focus on one element of the reading and leave the rest for discussion in class.

Broadly, I agree with the proposition that a lack of worms in our guts may result in a disequilibrium and subsequently in disease. The interdependence of life on Earth is an indisputable but often overlooked reality because so much of that reality is not visible (e.g., the insides of our stomachs). I’ve been told there are ten times more bacterial cells in and on our bodies than there are eukaryotic cells that make up our bodies (Interestingly, there are also more viruses on Earth than there are cells.). If our bodies did in fact evolve with a multitude of worms and other organisms living and our guts, it is reasonable to assume that our bodies evolved with them and developed an equilibrium in their presence so long as they weren’t life threatening.

So, Dunn’s “math” seems correct. If human gut + worms = stability, then human gut – worms = instability. Unfortunately, he again seems to travel along these tracks of assumptions that don’t hold up, making too many logical leaps in the process. While Dr. Nelson was right that the theme of the chapter on snakes and vision was not “The evolution of human vision” or “How we got our large brains,” I can’t up but begin to recognize a pattern in Dunn’s thinking, where he draws premature connections between dots that are fuzzy. I do give him credit for admitting most of the time when his positions are plausible but not proven.

For instance, he writes on page 43: “…the broader reality is that our immune systems appear to have evolved in a such a way as to function ‘normally’ only when worms are present.” With this statement, Dunn is ignoring the absurd prevalence of disease prior to the invention of sanitation, antiseptics, and antibiotics (while he does admit to their usefulness in subsequent chapters). He ignores that, in developed countries, infectious diseases (I assume) are much less of a problem than in developing countries. Ever since I started taking zinc supplements and drinking green tea several times a day, I can’t remember the last time I had a cold. My immune system, and those of most of the developed world, seem fine–if not quite healthy–so I can’t help but be alarmed by the sentence I quoted. For Crohn’s disease, his argument seems quite sound, but a 1 in 500 prevalence of a single disease is not nearly enough to make such a claim. We also cannot ignore the possibility that these same worms were also frequent carriers of other agents that may have caused more disease than they prevented.

I like the ideas Dunn explores. The bit about the pronghorns was a very interesting digression to make a compelling argument (Though, I will say that I don’t agree it matters that pronghorn waste energy running from everything, so long as they are able to reproduce.) However, he does not seem to have enough of a complete picture of the science he is attempting to explore. Either he is translating complex processes into simple language for the average reader, or he is below the level of “expert” in some of these areas and is connecting dots on a map he does not know enough about.

Despite my complains, Dunn does recognize an important overarching theme in human development in the last century: we began with a “Kill them all now and ask questions later” approach to our problems. We had problems, and in response we produced blunt and excessive solutions that ignore the nuances and complexity of our biology and the world in general.

Part Wild

Here’s an interesting brief video on wolves and their impact on the Yellowstone ecosystem. It’s connection to Part Wild isn’t strong, other than that it reinforces Terrill’s implicit disagreement with stigmas about wolves, but it’s still a good watch: This Will Shatter Your View of Apex Predators: How Wolves Change Rivers

Part Wild has been by far my favorite read so far this semester. Her descriptions of Inyo, his behavior, and her thoughts with respect to him are pleasant to read and at times pretty humorous.

One feeling I had was surprise that Inyo exhibited such friendliness toward humans and other dogs. IIRC, Inyo is roughly 75% wolf. He seems more concerned with tearing apart Terrill’s property than other living things. My black lab is ferocious toward any dogs that come near my parents’ property in Maryland, while Inyo seemed to welcome the dogs Terrill and Ryan brought in.

I experienced a little bit of frustration with Terrill in how often she seemed to put off building proper mechanisms to keep Inyo from escaping her backyard. I’m sure she was a busy person like most, and obviously her finances weren’t in the best shape, but on multiple occasions she says something along the lines of she “hadn’t gotten around do it,” and as a result Inyo escapes on seemingly countless occasions.

Though wolves and dogs are genetically the same species, their differences are obvious in this book. Inyo may be 25% dog, but she clearly shows dispositions that favor her finding a niche in the wild. To me, she is a wolf who is comfortable with humans. From this standpoint, I don’t admire Terrill keeping Inyo in a human household.  Having substantial genetic similarity doesn’t seem terribly relevant when classifying dogs and wolves as the same or different species when the genes associated with behavior are so clearly different. In this sense I disagree in part with the heavy focus on reproductive capability in classifying species.

It is difficult to gain much insight from this book on the nature of domestication for obvious reasons. Terrill does make brief scientific explorations (most of which we’ve covered already — e.g., genetically tame foxes), this account is autobiographical and often personal (i.e., about her, not about wolf dogs). However, this doesn’t take away from the book being a genuinely enjoyable read.

 

 

Wild Life of Our Bodies 2

The focus of this post will be primarily on Chapter 11 of Wild Life of Our Bodies. Dr. Nelson expressed interest in my take on the connection between our past and anxiety disorders, which is something I’m definitely willing to talk about in class. However, Chapter 11 struck me as particularly problematic.

Dunn references a theory (apparently proposed by Isbell) of the acuity of primate vision and ultimately the emergence of our intelligence. In short, he points to an apparent relationship between the presence of venomous snakes and the ability of primate species to detect a wider range of colors.  In particular, Dunn points to the fact that primates in the Americas and Madagascar cannot detect oranges and reds while those in mainland Africa can. He seems to also suggest that venomous snakes are linked to better vision altogether (e.g. resolution, depth perception, etc.) without giving any specifics.

The theory predicts that venomous snakes will be less prevalent where primates have poorer vision. And that’s about it. Unfortunately, robust theories are ones that make an amalgam of precise predictions–ones without alternative explanations–that hold up to testing and observations. It seems Isbell has just a single broad prediction that turns out to be true; this is not enough for any serious scientist to take the idea seriously.

The statistics Dunn gives are compelling. Many thousands of people in Africa are bitten by snakes every year. It seems likely that primates encounter snakes quite frequently, enough that they may have exerted selective pressures on primates. But here’s where I have problems…

Acute vision is one of the most effective adaptations that exists in animals. Almost all of them have it, and many species have vision far more acute than ours. There are, quite literally, a million reasons to have good vision, and snakes are just one of them. Don’t forget our horrendous night vision, something that I imagine would be useful for detecting snakes at night. And finally, correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding is that there are very few snake species in African forests whose scales contain orange/red pigments. If the primary deficit of South American primate vision is their inability to see these colors, my intuition is that this would not pose a great disadvantage in Africa where the majority of snakes, I imagine, have evolved a degree of camouflage coloring in the form of browns, greens, blacks, etc.

The poorer vision of lemurs in Madagascar and other primates in South America may be simply attributable to various happenstances in their environments. Dunn admits Lemurs have much more acute sense of touch and smell. Given that humans have among the weakest senses of smell (correct me if I’m wrong), it is self-evident that having stronger versions of these senses provides advantages to many other species that may be comparable to the advantage added by better vision. In other words, lemurs may have developed their other senses in ways that negated the need to develop better vision. And again the correlation between snake prevalence (which is low in Madagascar and America) and vision is not strong enough evidence of anything.

Dunn goes further to suggest that snakes may be responsible for the emergence of our brains in general. Dunn seems to ignore two things about the power of brains:

1.) What advantage does an unarmed genius have over an unarmed idiot against a snake? Snakes are frightening and elusive animals, and my intuition tells me that intellect does very little to combat an angry snake until a species evolves sophisticated tools, something that was done long after the development of our vision and of the size of our brains.

2.) There are, just with a vision, a million reasons to develop large brains. In a competition for best natural invention ever, what wins? Our brains, hands down. We may have the most sophisticated thing in the universe sitting inside our skulls. So my point here is that snakes may have been just a single selective pressure to develop large brains and acute vision–maybe even a relatively strong one–but once our brains were put on the path of growing larger at the expense of other parts of our bodies, everything in our environments was selecting for higher intelligence, because our minds can bend and adapt in real time and sharp claws, for instance, can’t.

From Trust to Domination

Tim Ingold speaks several times to an important theme that seems to be rarely understood by most people. This theme is the divide between humans and animals that either illusory or ignored. That is, either the social reality that humans have constructed has created an apparent division between humans and animals (i.e., we live “up here” in our social and material world, while they live “down there” in nature), or in an effort to protect ourselves from the uncomfortable realities of our existence, we ignore the day-to-day evidence of our primal past (e.g., wisdom teeth, vestigial remnants of our plant-eating ancestry).

The human brain, structurally speaking, isn’t much more than a primitive brain with regulatory functions on top. In other words, the impulsive, emotional, primitive structures that rest directly on top of our spinal cords have a cortex on top of them that controls and inhibits them. Abstractly, the organization of the brain is not much different from the organization of human relationships with the natural world. That is, the impulsive, emotional, primitive species on earth are regulated by humans who are “above” them much like our neocortex (“neo” meaning “new”Smilie: ;) regulates–and is physically above–the primitive structures in our brains. The analogy kind of resembles a fractal if you think about it (i.e., the same pattern is found in two different levels of analysis — those levels being the brain and the ecosystem). This shouldn’t be surprising, as the brain and its environment evolve in parallel.

However, what makes us human is not our being “above” the rest of the world, but–as Ingold alludes to–the intermixing of our primitive, emotional selves and our “higher” selves (i.e., our reasoning, controlling, thinking, planning self). Continuing off the above fractal pattern, just as our individual personalities, behaviors, thoughts, etc. are a product of the interaction between our emotional brain structures and our “higher” ones like the frontal lobes (i.e., we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t have love and fear, but we also wouldn’t be if we didn’t have thinking and planning), the human species is a product of the interaction between itself and the animal world. Take away one, and I’ll say you don’t have the other.

Ingold refers to hunters and gatherers as being immersed in the natural world, such that they don’t perceive any grand distinctions between themselves and the animals they hunt. Hunter-gatherers are “correct” in that the distinction is most certainly an illusion or social construction, but I might argue that this separation, real or not, is part of what makes us human. We may also need to perceive this distinction to protect our fragile selves from existential anxiety.

Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers 1

In this post, I will focus primarily on content from Chapter 1 of Hunters, Herders, and Hamburgers, as the subsequent three chapters failed to provide the level of stimulation and insight that I was looking for.  I could be wrong, but I found that Bulliet’s style collapsed into a scattered summary of historical events, mythology, and processes that lacked easily detectable substance.

I extracted several overarching themes from the reading. I’ll discuss two.

OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND

Bulliet seems to suggest at times, and I too suggest, that the stunning lack of authentic concern for the treatment of animals in our society is in large part results from our tendency to be concerned with what is “right in front of us.” Psychologists use the term “salience.” For instance, in a hypothetical photo of a beach, a giraffe’s presence in the photo is more salient than a sandcastle — in this case because the inappropriateness (and size) of the giraffe makes it more salient than the sandcastle.

Many agree the rationale for vegetarianism is quite compelling, even non-vegetarians. More would agree that the systems in place for housing and slaughtering animals in the U.S. as depicted by films such as Food, Inc. are appalling. That begs the question, why are we so content eating so much meat given our knowledge of what’s going on?

I think the answer, at least in part, may be a product of salience (or lack thereof). The other answer may be desensitization, as Bulliet mentions. While the people of domesticity were numbed from overexposure to animal slaughter and sexuality, the indifference of the people of postdomesticity may be attributable to psychological distance from the processes that eventually delivery meat to our grocery stores. In other words, what’s going on in the background is not salient and is therefore mostly irrelevant. I might say there is an unconscious, but also partially deliberate, effort on the part of society to block thoughts that might lead to discomforting realizations about animals. Discomforting realities are interpreted as psychological threats and are usually rejected by our brains automatically.

SEPARATION FROM THE ENVIRONMENT

Bulliet discuss the progression from a kind of fusion with animals in predomesticity to a separation in domesticity and postdomesticity. I will take it a step further: our separation from animals is a signal of a larger separation from the environment altogether. One could argue that the humans of predomesticity were immersed in the environment, were a part of it. With domesticity, we began to “stomp on top of” the environment. We increasingly manipulated the Earth’s species and resources and came to consider ourselves as “above” nature.

Postdomesticity goes a step further. Rather than sitting on top of the environment, there is reason to believe we are removing ourselves from it altogether, physically or psychologically. Our cell phones, movies, computers, and the like seem to being tearing us from the physical world that increasingly makes us uneasy and placing us in a cyberspatial vacuum that leaves us completely unconnected to our roots in the predomestic and domestic world. Bulliet notes that our conceptions of carnal reality today are a product of images and teachings without any concrete experience. Our knowledge of the “real world” is “installed” into us instead of developed from experience. I can elaborate more in class if needed.

 

The Wild Life of Our Bodies

It is certainly true that enormous changes in human ecology have occurred in a very short time—ones that sharply contradict our evolutionary and environmental history. Cities, infrastructure, fast food, digitalization, and light pollution have produced a world that is purely a human creation and devoid of naturalistic elements. Various functional systems in the human body, such as digestion and immunity, are, in part, products of specific threats in the environment (e.g., predators or microorganisms) that challenged our existence millennia ago but were successfully negated in enough cases for us to continue living today. As result, these systems may find their niche not in today’s developed world but in the world of prehistory.

While one cannot deny the potential for serious consequences caused by an increasingly artificial world, Rob Dunn’s—as he puts it—idyllic portrayal of human ancestry in the introductory portions of The Wild Life of Our Bodies seems to speak more to the author’s own sentimental and nostalgic image for prehistory than to an accurate display of a period that he admits was ridden with predation, disease, suffering, and mercilessness unseen by most of today’s people. I will not deny the benefits of frequent exposure to the natural elements of our planet. However, an important characteristic of humans may negate Dunn’s assertions about the need for a re-infusion of naturalistic elements into metropolitan life. This characteristic is adaptability, both neurologically and genetically.

Advances in neuroscience, biological psychology, and genetics reveal a high level of adaptability in human behavior and physiology through neural plasticity (“plastic” meaning “easily shaped or molded”) and variability in gene expression. While classical evolutionary processes occur over millions of years, the human brain—and consequently the physiological functions controlled by it—updates its structure in real-time in response to environmental input. One might even say this is a main function of a nervous system: to actively adapt to the environment without the waiting period of reproduction, mutation, etc. Moreover, research in epigenetics (“epi-” meaning “above” or “around,” implying a form of genetic control exterior to DNA) has revealed that gene expression is not a fixed phenomenon determined at conception, but instead—though to a much lesser extent than the brain—is responsive to environmental conditions. Therefore, our bodies and brains may have a surprising ability to adapt to the seemingly inorganic aspects of developed civilizations—perhaps without facing the dire consequences foreshadowed by Dunn.

Furthermore, while the genome of a developing embryo “expects” a child to be born into a world similar to the one of prehistory, one must not forget the degree to which the brains of newborn infants are “blank slates,” uncontaminated by experience and learning. The initial experiences of an infant—whether they are those of a dense forest or a McDonald’s—become, for all intents, his or her “natural” environment. Environmental stimuli, working in an interdependent relationship with one’s genome, carve the early architecture of an infant’s brain. In other words, physiological response tendencies (i.e., how one’s brain or body responds to various environmental stimuli) and gene expression are in a perpetual feedback loop with the environment (via the sensory systems and the brain) that allow it to adjust accordingly to the world the infant occupies. The result is a developed adult who has, at least in part, adapted to the world of today – possibly mitigating the risks alluded to by Dunn.

Finally, while the incidences of certain problems, like autism, are on the rise in today’s culture, it is important to realize that any system is going to have its problems—but the ones that arise will be specific to that system. Human systems in prehistory had problems such as predation and dysentery; today’s systems have autism and diabetes. Pick your poison.