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Murdered: Cecil the Lion, Blaze the Yellowstone Grizzly
The shooting of two charismatic animals stirred international outrage. But a more important event to the developing world concern with animal welfare was publication of Carl Safina's Beyond Words, What Animals Think and Feel.
It's been an interesting summer for animal-welfare issues. Cecil the lion's murder by an American hunter who paid local trackers to lure the popular animal out of the protection of a Zimbabwe national park so he could be killed and beheaded as a trophy fueled international outrage. So did the killing of Blaze the grizzly bear in Yellowstone Park after the mother and her cubs were surprised by an off-trail hiker, who Blaze instinctively attacked and then ate. (Actually, like a good mom, she buried part of the hiker's remains so her family would have food later.)
Prompting far less attention, but way more important to the evolving issue of how humans should treat non-humans, was the publication of Beyond Words, What Animals Think and Feel, by Carl Safina, a thoughtful, moving, and important book about animal cognition and emotion. Safina writes with respect, affection, admiration, even awe about the remarkable cognitive abilities of many animals, and argues that we should treat non-human creatures with more respect. But he is a scientist, and he bases his case not on emotion alone, but on the firm and ever-mounting body of evidence that non-human beings, with whom we have far more in common biologically and behaviorally than what separates us, are significantly more sentient, intelligent, and rational than we give them credit for.
Safina focuses on elephants, wolves, dolphins, and killer whales, but his examples range from apes to fish to birds to insects. The stories Safina tells are remarkable. They provide powerful evidence of animal intelligence, learning, and self-awareness (defined not by whether the animal can recognize itself in a mirror — Safina ridicules this as too narrow a measure of self-awareness — but whether the animal is aware of itself as a unique being separate from others).
There is stunning and ample evidence — at least among the social animals — of what only can be described in human emotional terms; the family warmth and affection among elephants, the mourning of killer whales at the loss of a child (descriptions of the wailing and frenzy of parent killer whales when their juveniles are abducted for display in marine amusement parks are heartbreaking), or the excitement and happiness dolphins demonstrate when re-uniting with human researchers they see only occasionally.
And there are numerous instances of animals displaying what, in human terms, we'd describe as personality; individual animals within each species that are more playful, aggressive, docile, or curious — or animals with better or worse skills as family leaders.
In case after case non-human animals consistently demonstrate the ability to intelligently figure things out, to make the right choices, to actively interpret all sorts of cues — sounds, smells, gestures — in order to find food, identify mates, ensure safety, and interact successfully with their environments.
All sorts of animals have social skills. Many demonstrate what can only be described as emotions. They think. They feel. Safina argues that we have to stop thinking about animals by asking, “What are you?" and start also considering, “Who are you?"
(Blaze and cub at Yellowstone Park, photo courtesy YellowstoneGate)
Buried inside Safina's moving and evidence-based argument that non-human animals are worthy of respect and moral treatment is an even more profound message. If rationality is defined as basing one's judgments and behaviors on an objective analysis of the evidence, our non-human partners on the Tree of Life have it all over us. Safina writes:
"There is in nature an overriding sanity and often, in humankind, an undermining insanity. We among all animals are most frequently irrational, distortional, delusional, worried.
It's not rationality that's uniquely human; it's irrationality."
We are the only species known to deny overwhelming evidence — about vaccines, about climate change, about the dangers of smoking — in ways that actually put us in greater danger. The emotional nature of human risk perception can sometimes produce a literally self-destructive irrationality. Non-human animals don't make such mistakes.
With our unique ability to foresee the future, we are the only species known to invent phantom beliefs, complete with detailed rules of behavior and morality, to give ourselves the illusion of control over our uncertain fates. Non-human animals don't have religions. They don't need them. As Safina observes:
"Other animals are great and consummate realists. Only humans cling unshakably to dogmas and ideologies that enjoy complete freedom from evidence, despite all the evidence to the contrary."
And as Safina notes, it is patently irrational for humans to deny the voluminous evidence that animals think and feel. Is that just anthropomorphic arrogance? Or is it necessary to absolve ourselves for the callousness (and outright cruelty) with which we treat non-humans? He asks:
"Why do human egos seem so threatened by the thought that other animals think and feel. Is it because acknowledging the mind of another makes it harder to abuse them?"
Or, as Safina quotes Charles Darwin:
"Animals, whom we have made our slaves, we do not like to consider our equal."
Beyond Words joins Virginia Morell's Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures and other writing on animal cognition as the equivalent for non-humans to Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow and Daniel Ariely's Predictably Irrational and lots of other literature on human cognition; works that pull together remarkable recent discoveries about how living beings think. These popular works are bringing into focus, and wider awareness, what research has discovered in the past 30-40 years; that non-human animals are more sentient, intelligent, and rational than we have assumed, and that humans are far less rational than we have pretended.
Now if only we can use this knowledge, about human and non-human intelligence, more intelligently.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.