Editorial

"Zen teaches nothing; it merely enables us to wake up and become aware. It does not teach, it points." ~D.T. Suzuki

Monday, September 10, 2012

Nature vs Nurture?

or Nature AND Nurture
Nature & Nurture
Changing the Nature
of How We View Nature

The Story Of
Christian The Lion

Somehow, in the those groovy
Austin Powers days of England 1969,
at Harrods of London,
Australians John Rendall & Anthony Bourke
 bought a lion cub they called Christian.
"Animals have intelligences different from ours; they are not just primitive models of our achievements."
Stephen Jay Gould

Yes, this will appear as attributing human qualities to a non-human animal. And yes to some, this will seem to be pandering to our own emotions... However, this appearance alone shouldn't be a reason to ignore it.

Because awareness and emotions are precisely the point.

Yes, I want scientific rigor but I don't think we need to lose science in the process of examining our presumptions. On the contrary, we may gain what we lost from a priori blocking or ruling certain things out. Or in other words eliminating our prejudice. I think the fear of anthropomorphism can be blinding or confounding too. Is it possible that some of the "human characteristics" we see in animals are not projections of ourselves after all? We share evolutionary conditions, history and ancestry with other creatures. Can we be blinding ourselves to characteristics we call uniquely human but that may be capacities shared by our ancestors and still today with our living relatives? Taking a big picture view, another point is that evolution also converges to certain useful adaptations. That too shouldn't be ignored. Perhaps even distantly relatived animals may have developed parallel systems. So... is it possible we have been guilty of evolutionary hubris? Are we really the only ones to be conscious and feel?

I don't think humans invented emotions but for the longest time we denied any other species this capacity. An arrogance that saw animals as no better than souless machines, automated by instinct alone. Animals were even denied feeling pain. The atrocities visited on them by this view really does whittle away at our claim to be human(e). It has also distorted our view of their nature, as well as our own.

The extremes on both sides of the issue have not been helpful. I find neither animal activists nor animal abusers, are right. It seems to me that both argue in the name of a human superiority, one moral, the other divine. A balanced, more empirical and less ideological perspective on our relationship with our fellow creatures may be called for. We interact and share the planet with other animals who share a common evolutionary origin, in an ecological whole. Humans are omnivores, we have evolved to eat some meat, we need to live with other animals either directly or indirectly. We are also social with them, have pets and have an emotional or psychological reliance on them. While engaging in these behaviors and interactions, it is not necessary for us to be overly guilty but it's also not necessary to deny that animals have feelings and to treat them with disrespect or cruelty. While we need to eat and live, we do not need to make animals suffer unnecessarily... We may find out that in treating them with compassion and respect they may just respect or even love us back.
Changing the Nature of How We View Nature

No one is advocating that you adopt a lion cub.
The point is the assumption that it will end in tears...  It did... but in tears of joy.


Humans — who enslave, castrate, experiment on,
and fillet other animals — 
have had an understandable penchant
for pretending animals do not feel pain.
A sharp distinction between humans and 'animals'
is essential if we are to bend them to our will,
make them work for us, wear them, eat them — without any disquieting tinges of guilt or regret.
It is unseemly of us,
who often behave so unfeelingly toward other animals,
to contend that only humans can suffer.
The behavior of other animals
renders such pretensions specious.
They are just too much like us.

(Carl Sagan co-written with Dr. Ann Druyan)

While I don't think anthropomorphizing is necessarily a good thing. What I'm saying is that the other extreme... a professional paranoia of recognizing and calling a spade a spade dates back at least to Descartes and his idea that since animals (viewed mechanically) don't think therefore they don't feel either. Ridiculous logic and not science. But a underlying metaphysics that has been guiding science perhaps for too long.


It is an illusion to believe that instinct, thought and emotion aren't intrinsically related. Both consciously and unconsciously they intimately interact. Separating them out may be a handy logical trick only in your head, with very little support from empirical reality outside of it.

While humans have a very high level of consciousness could it be that as far as awareness or capacity are concerned, things are little more shared and less exclusive? While nature provides capacity, does nurture (experience) provide the choices or alternatives? Nature and nurture interact. I think this is especially true of primates, perhaps all mammals and it may also apply to other animals. Evolutionary ancestry and convergence make it entirely possible.



"The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from experiencing affective states..."
From The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness


When studied closely unexpected creatures with radically different kinds of brains such as octopuses and cuttlefishes provide plenty of support to the idea of awareness in other species. But even they get eaten... The amazing Australian giant cuttlefish is eaten by Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins. The dolphins by the way have been observed (in Spencer Gulf, South Australia at least) to have developed a technique for removing the ink and cuttlebone from a cuttlefish before eating it.

The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness

"On this day of July 7, 2012, a prominent international group of cognitive neuroscientists, neuropharmacologists, neurophysiologists, neuroanatomists and computational neuroscientists gathered at The University of Cambridge to reassess the neurobiological substrates of conscious experience and related behaviors in human and non-human animals. While comparative research on this topic is naturally hampered by the inability of non-human animals, and often humans, to clearly and readily communicate about their internal states, the following observations can be stated unequivocally..."

From the opening passage
The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness
Click the link to read the entire script

Humans have the whole pre-frontal cortex thing over other mammals. We have executive function, however, there is still the seat of our emotions that everything is inevitably tinged with. Every thought has some value. We like or dislike. The limbic system in our brains is, evolutionarily speaking, one of the most ancestral (oldest) parts. It's also known as the paleomammalian brain. Emotions are sourced there, and so are many related functions, such as motivation.


The discovery of mirror neurons in primates raises possibilities for understanding empathy, and not only in humans. Of interest, especially in hominids is a region of the brain bridging the cortex and the limbic system like a belt over the corpus callosum and connecting both of them by spindle neuronsSpindle cells are also found in the brains of the humpback, finback, killer, sperm and beluga whales, bottlenose and Risso’s dolphins,  as well as African and Asian elephants. Studies of these spindle cells suggest a convergent evolution. This area is called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex. The ACC is area of the brain for decision making. That's right, decisions are a blend of reason and emotion. Perhaps it's time to accept that there is no value-free thought. Logic is not separate from value. Our experience is not separate from our thought. Our bicameral brain functions as one mind. 

Were we viewing animals the same way we humans view many other things? Namely, through the prism of our preconceived notions and biases? These "hidden" biases are bankrupt and not of much good use. There's a litany of archetypes. Lions are always ferocious, poisonous snakes will bite if given the chance (That's false, they are not hunting humans, they are defending themselves and bite humans only as a last resort). Animal references are often used in personality tests as well as in far too may insults and put downs. We might want to re-think some of that too.

The basic experience of life in most creatures and certainly those with close evolutionary ancestors to ourselves may be fundamentally the same.


"Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors."
The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness

Christian's Story

Here is the remarkable story of 2 friends buying a lion cub that Harrods of London acquired from a defunct zoo park. Raising the cub in the city and then releasing it as an adult into the wild,and returning for family reunions in African.

Amazing, yes. And calling into question the popular notion of nature "red in tooth and claw". Obviously things are not pre-determined to be that way. Animals can moderate instinct when given the right environment to develop innate capacities and of course, given the motivation to care. It seems they can actually know, and care. The question then becomes...
When will we know and care?
The Documentary of Christian the Lion

Nature and Nurture ... 
They have a relationship but its not versus. 
I Wonder Where The Lions Are - Bruce Cockburn

 ‘The brain itself is multidisciplinary, and should therefore be studied as such.’
Lorenza Colzato

Enjoy.
© 2012 MU-Peter Shimon

You might also enjoy: / Spontaneous DiscoveryMulti-colored Smarties / Cerebral Cephalopods /

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