Friday, February 25, 2011

Lucy the Chimpanzee

So, I was listening to This American Life the other night at work, and I heard a pretty depressing story.  So I of course have decided to share the sadness with all y'alls.

I don't want to get too into the story, if you are interested you can go to the Wikipedia article, or listen to episode This American Life #401 or Radiolab 702 - Lucy.

Basically the story was about the life of a female chimp named Lucy Temerlin.  She was adopted by psychologist Maurice Temerlin and his wife in 1964 as part of a psychological experiment.  Basically, he wanted to see how human Lucy would become if she was raised as a human.  The old "nature versus nurture" experiment.

Initially, I was a little wary about the idea of the project.  Lucy was taken from her mother immediately after her birth and was raised by a human couple.  However, the squick of the child-napping was overcome by my interest in the idea.  What would happen if she was raised as a human?  And considering that Lucy would be treated with kindness and love, I was able to reconcile the uncomfortableness of the way in which they got her.

The interesting thing is that the experiment worked.  Alarmingly well.  As Lucy grew, she seemed to become more and more human.  Of course, as anyone who has watched the discovery channel knows, many animals -- especially primates -- learn through imitation.  It's how we learn most of the skills we know: by watching our parents.  Lucy did the same thing.  She learned to eat using silverware, go to the bathroom, and even to make tea when there was company.  She wore clothes of her own volition (skirts, mostly).  Perhaps most interestingly (to me, at least), was that she became very good at understanding human emotion.  (Something that chimpanzees tend to be pretty bad at.  In fact, dogs tend to better at understanding human visual cues than chimps are.)  She would even comfort her foster mother when she could tell she was upset.  She was so human, in fact, that she was sexually aroused by copies of Playgirl magazine and reacted with fear when she was introduced to another chimp.

So, in creating Lucy, the Temerlins had created something that essentially didn't fit anywhere.  She wasn't human and couldn't ever truly be, but she also was not a chimpanzee an any social sense.  This is kind of a dark place to put a living thing just for scientific knowledge, but again, at least she lived a more or less happy life.  She was "loved like a daughter" by her foster parents.  So, as far as freaks of science that straddle two worlds while belonging in neither can, she lived a pretty good life.

That is, until she grew up.

Many people don't realize that chimpanzees are extremely strong.  They see the way they waddle around and act all cute in movies and zoos, without really realizing that they have incredible strength: far more than the average human.  An average chimpanzee could literally rip a person in half if it wanted to.

So, as Lucy grew, she started destroying things.  The Temerlins realized they couldn't keep her, despite the love they had for her.  I guess I can sympathize with this as well.  I can't imagine what it would have been like for them to try to keep a full-grown chimpanzee in their house, and they were probably correct in their assessment that she couldn't live with them anymore.  However, I cannot get behind what they decided to do next.

They decided to let her go in the wild.

Doesn't that seem like the worst possible idea in the history of bad ideas?  The experiment was over.  This wasn't an effort to see how she would respond to being confronted with the world of her species; this was just a way to get her off their backs.  She wasn't a chimp and shouldn't have been treated like one.  It seems to me that there wasn't a whole lot of meaningful difference between Lucy and a mentally handicapped human.  She might not have been physically or intellectually a human, but she was socially and mentally as human as any one of us.  She preferred the company of humans, even believed she was human.  So who's to say that she wasn't?

The Temerlin's may have made a mistake in choosing to raise Lucy in the first place, but I think the biggest injustice is in abandoning her later in life.  They taught her to trust them and to love them, and then abandoned her, by herself, in the wild.  Would you do that to a human child?  The transition from human life to life in the wild was extremely tough on Lucy.  She was helped along during the transition by a woman named Janis Carter, who stayed with her in the jungle for a time.  She starved herself and constantly begged (through sign language) Janis to "come to her," and whenever Janis said "no," she would respond with "hurt."

Ugh.  That's just horrible.  Lonely and abandoned by her loved ones, all Lucy wanted was human companionship.  Isn't that what we all want?  She was ultimately denied it.  For no good reason at all.  There was nothing stopping the Temerlins from taking Lucy to someplace where she could be happy.  They could have taken her to a number of shelters or even zoos, where she would have been able to live a happy life surrounded by people.  But instead they made the baffling decision to abandon her and force her away from the species she identified with.

Lucy was found dead several years later.  Her skeleton indicated that she had been killed by poachers whom -- due to her close association with humans -- she likely approached without fear.  A horrible story indeed.

I've done a lot of reading about this story since I heard about it, and haven't really been able to think about much else.  A lot of people over at the radiolab site have commented with various diatribes against science and experiments, etc. as a result of this story.  I think that saying science is bad or condemning all of humanity for doing something like this is a bit of a broad generalization.  Frankly, I do not object to the scientific question behind the story.  I don't think it was science or human curiosity that killed Lucy.  It was classic human lack of understanding.

I think that every tragedy should be learned from.  If we are to make Lucy's life mean anything, it should mean this:  we are not as special or important as we think we are.  We may have been granted greater intelligence than other creatures as a gift of natural selection, but it is pure arrogance to assume we are better than them.

The idea that we are better than the other inhabitants of this planet is a strong and pervasive one, especially in western culture.  In the book of Genesis, God grants Adam dominion over all plants and animals, and the power to name them.  This human-centric view of nature has been predominant ever since, and the view that certain organisms are somehow "better" than others has produced great evil even within our own species.

So I suppose what I am trying to say is that when looking at life around us, we should think more about our similarities and not our differences.  I'm not saying that we shouldn't eat animals; I enjoy a burger as much as the next guy.  I'm saying that we should treat them with respect.  As Lucy showed, there isn't as great a difference between Us and Them as we would like to think.

Friday, February 18, 2011

U.S.A? Really?

Now, I have about as much respect for our founding fathers as the next guy.  That is, a respectable amount.  Sure, it would have been nice if they had worked out that whole slavery issue, but, for the most part, I don't have too much beef with them, except one issue that I feel oddly passionate about.

They chose a crappy name for our country.

I get it.  The United States of America.  Back then, there was a lot more focus on state's rights.  Essentially, individual states were mostly independent bodies that would have been connected by a small federal government, but otherwise largely autonomous.  This is even revealed by the fact that they are called "states," as opposed to "provinces."  So really, the name United States of America makes sense in that context.  But it is still a really crappy name.

First of all, what were they thinking?  I mean, they were facing of against Britain.  Britain is a nice name.  Two syllables, easy to say, and evokes a strong feeling of tea and fops.  What does USA invoke?  The fact is that you aren't going to get a whole lot of feeling from a simple acronym (or initialism for you pedants.)

Another thing.  What do we call ourselves?  Americans?  Except, no, wait.  People in this entire hemisphere could call themselves Americans.  South America and North America are the friggin' continents we live on!  If not Americans, then what?  USAns?  Uniteds?  Statians?  All of these sound really horrible.  Look at Turkey.  Cool name, even cooler people identifier: Turks.  That's AWESOME.  Way cooler than Statians.  (Would that be pronounced the same as stations?)  In spanish, people from the US are termed estadounidenses  (basically, united-states-ians).  That works for them because they talk really fast, but it's not a viable name in English.

So, in light of this, I propose that we officially change our name to something that's actually good.  Something that I would be proud to call myself.  I have a few suggestions:

  • Metropia (metropians)
  • Apocolypta (apocolyptans)
  • HarrisonLand (harrisonians)
  • Chocolate (chocolatians)
  • Dagobah (yodas)
  • Atlantis (atlanteans)
  • New Old Awesomestan (awesomestandians)
  • Canada (canadians)
  • Mushroom Kingdom (marios)
  • Latveria (doombots)
  • Yashmoshin (yashmans)
Well... okay.  Maybe none of those were any good.  But at least I'm out there trying new things.  Come on, people.  Do you really want to live in a place called the United States of America?  Wouldn't you much rather live in a place called Apocolypta?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

What if this IS the flash sideways?

Warning: Spoilers for an awesome twist in Season 6 of LOST follow.

I was talking to my roommate the other night about life, the universe, and everything.  Specifically, the afterlife.  The funny thing is that we are both atheists.

I said that if I were going to believe in an afterlife, I would believe in the one from LOST.  For those of you who thought "I'm never going to watch that show, I don't care about some stupid spoiler," here is a brief description:  Basically, when the characters in LOST died, they went to place that was very similar to our world.  They had no memory of their lives and instead seemed to be living in a kind of alternate universe where the plane never crashed on the island, the island was sunk under the ocean, etc.

It was slowly revealed over the course of the season that these people were living in different circumstances from how they lived in their lives.  For example, Sawyer, a con-artist in life, was a cop in the flash sideways.  Jack had a son in the flash sideways that he never had in the original timeline.

The flash sideways also allowed these people to overcome problems or issues they were never able to in life.  For example, by having a kid of his own, Jack was able to finally deal with his father issues.  The flash sideways also allowed some characters to have a second chance at choices they made in life.  In the original timeline, Ben chose his own power on the island over the life of his daughter Alex, a decision he regretted for the rest of his life.  In the flash sideways, he is presented with a similar choice.  In this instance, he is a teacher making a power grab against the corrupt principle.  However, the principle says that if Ben goes through with his plan, he will write a bad letter of recommendation for Alex and she will not get into Yale.  This time, though, Ben chooses Alex over his own power and resigns.

Eventually, the characters in the flash sideways are "awakened" to the realization that they have had an entire other life and have died.  This awakening happens usually as the result of meeting a loved one from their life.  When Sawyer meets Juliet, they start to remember and kiss, after having been separated when she died.  Before they were awakened, though, they had no idea that the flash sideways world wasn't "real."

Once they were awakened, they all met up at a church together to "move on."  The flash sideways was "a place that they had all made together," in order to meet up and move on.  They all died at different times, but all came to the flash sideways together, as there was no "now" there.

I really like that idea, and if I was to believe in an afterlife, it would be that one.  No being "judged" and sent to either heaven or hell.  Just being with loved ones and examining your life.  When I die, it would cool to be reunited with all of the people that mattered most to me and live in a cool alternate reality for a while before remembering my life and choosing to let go and move on.

The question my roommate posed when I explained all this to me was, "How do you know this isn't your flash sideways?"

I thought about that for a while.  I suppose I don't know.  I could very well be dead right now and living in my flash sideways, not having become aware yet.  It's an interesting idea.  I think this could be true for all of us.

I guess this would mean that I'm not getting any more second chances.  Even if I would get to retry my bad decisions in a hypothetical afterlife, who's to say that this ISN'T that afterlife?  So, I suppose my message is: treat every choice like it matters.  Every time you have a tough decision to make, you don't know if this is your last chance to get it right.

Anyway, still gotta say that I'm an atheist and this is all highly improbably to me.  Nevertheless, it's fun to think about.

And if this IS the flash sideways, then I hope that when the time comes to move on, I can find it in myself to finally let go.