Friday, July 15, 2011

Descartes Among the Beasties

"Next to the ridicule of denying an evident truth, is that of taking much pains to defend it; and no truth appears to me more evident, than that beasts are endow'd with thought and reason as well as men. The arguments are in this case so obvious, that they never escape the most stupid and ignorant."
       - David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (Bk. I, Sect. xvi, "Of the reason of animals")

I have just now returned from a sojourn in the Colorado hinterlands, where I spent most of a week living in my camper truck . . . 

My camper

. . . and riding my bicycle in the mountains . . .

 My bicycle (and my pink cycling cap)

. . . taking a much-needed respite from the duties of a semi-professional blogister. But, as much of the cultural and anthropological elucidation, assorted lucubrations, exfoliations, verbal excrescences, imbroglios, farragoes, broadsides, bastinadoes and general high jinks in which I engage myself take their source from the foibles of my fellow humans, I was left pretty much with my own thoughts for dinner, and what company I could find among the woodland denizens. I generally avoid the unsuspecting people who happen to be camped at whatever campground I wander into, not wishing to drive over whatever sofas, gasoline powered recreational accoutrements, or semi-detached auto parts they may have brought from home . . . 

. . . not much interested in their attempts to ignite fireworks purchased with hard-won food stamps on their latest trip to Arkansas, wishing only to applaud from a tasteful distance their heartfelt attempts to either decapitate or abandon their offspring, and possessed as I am of an intense foreboding where more than two or three dogs are gathered together . . .

And so it was in a feeling of tribal affection, and as the animals I encountered were noticeably making a study of me, I decided to make a study of them. For my own part, at least, it proved a congenial and enlightening exchange. 

My first inkling that I was being observed with any interest came on my first bicycle outing. I had ridden one morning down the mountain to the nearest town and was on the return side of a loop, riding along a quiet dirt road that led back up the mountain. A few miles into the forest, I noticed movement in a small creek drainage running along a meadow beside the road, stopped to investigate, and noticed a full spread of antlers and the haunches of an elk retreating quietly into the trees. I watched, and a second set of antlers followed the first up the slope. After a moment, the first bull peeked out from behind the tree he had just circled, then the second one peered around, both intent on what I was doing. 

As we peered at one another, a third set of antlers, then a fourth and a fifth came up out of the creekbed, circled the tree and gathered behind the first pair to inspect me. After that, antlers kept rising from the undergrowth, circling the tree, filing up behind one another to stare. The various antlers were by now indistinguishable as belonging to separate animals - an indistinct tangle among the tree branches. In an instant the lead bull had seen enough and moved on up the slope into deep woods, followed in single file by seven others, each with a full spread of antler.

I realized then that they had all been riveted, as I was, the same helpless curiosity that killed the cat. The following night I camped at a solitary spot in the montane desert at a campsite which also, I discovered the next morning, was the favorite haunt of a little fringe-toed lizard who lived in the rocks around the fire ring. For the most part of a morning he was content to keep an eye on me and a safe distance, sunning himself on a rock and dodging a gaggle of insistent magpies whose lack of breeding and general want of discretion compensated for the absence of other campers. 

I generally do not pay much attention to lizards, figuring that any attachment on my part will be dashed by an errant roadrunner or the constitutionally dispassionate nature of the reptilian mind. As it was, the heat of the day made me content to sit in the shade of a nearby juniper and watch the lizard as the lizard watched for incautious flies and kept the occasionally back-turned eyesocket trained on me. As it turned out, the juniper as well as the fire ring was evidently his territory, for at some point, overcome by some tender emotion, the overflowing of a generous mind, a territorial yearning, the joy of discovery or the unaccountable wish for a frantic sortie across a lizard-esque no-man's-land, he made a mad dash for the juniper whose shade I was enjoying, stopped in his tracks and abruptly turned toward my nearby foot, made a cursory investigation, and dashed up the juniper trunk at the near approach of a magpie. 

Lizards, leaving aside for the moment those employed in the insurance industry, are neither particularly cute nor endearing . . .

. . . still, I couldn't help but feel a fleeting affection for having the acknowledgement of one living thing to another. 

The next day I moved up into the montane pine woods where the felonious golden mantled ground squirrel (better known as the chipmunk) holds fearsome sway. This species is the scourge of campsites, tents, and food supplies; undeserving of succor or quarter, the clear winner in any evolutionary contest, the eventual victor in the struggle for survival. They are unrelenting beggars, unwittingly encouraged by edible handouts from witless campers.  This picture should hang in every post office in the land:

Having just now cursed the race of them, there I was, sitting in my chair amongst the ponderosas, watching one of them at a distance, dreading the moment when it would decide to beg for a handout. No such moment came - the creature went about his business, which seemed to consist mainly of running from one rock to another, perching on it, studying me, rummaging in a brushpile, returning to the same two or three perches, sitting and studying me some more - a monotonous life, it seemed to me, although I felt no pity nor twinge of fellow feeling for the little varmint, knowing it would soon enough try something on me.

It dawned on me, however, that it was eyeing me in the same abstract and studying manner in which I was watching it. It seemed to have no ulterior motives, never made a bid for my potato chips, and seemed with its evident academic interest to be fundamentally pure of heart. I softened toward the little fellow, admitted to myself that I may have misjudged it, silently made my apologies, and that was the end of the matter. Until, that is, it made the same mad dash across no-man's-land that the lizard had made a day earlier, circled around behind my chair, inspected me from a closer vantage, and apparently either satisfied with new information or having formed an adverse judgment, scampered back to its brush pile for a good professional rummage. 

"We are conscious, continues Hume in the same chapter, "that we ourselves, in adapting means to ends, are guided by reason and design, and that 'tis not ignorantly nor casually we perform those actions, which tend to self-preservation, to the obtaining pleasure, and avoiding pain. When therefore we see other creatures, in millions of instances, perform like actions, and direct them to the ends, all our principles of reason and probability carry us with an invincible force to believe the existence of a like cause [i.e., reason]."

It was Descartes who, needing to prove for considerations of religion the exceptionalism of humans, gave animals a bad name by denying them the capacity for reason. If the mind, he reasoned, is the seat of cognitive faculties like thinking and judging and perceiving; and if it is the mind that makes humans human; then it follows that the mind is the immortal soul. (Apparently the brain in this scenario is, like a tourist on a space shuttle, only along for the ride.)

It also followed for Descartes' dualism that animals don't have immortal souls (only people do) and therefore can't reason, can't think, can't make judgments (even about what is good and bad for them, or what will cause pleasure or pain), and can't perceive - can't even feel pain or pleasure. In fact, generations of natural scientists who subscribed to this view performed gruesome experiments in animal vivisection, secure in the mistaken belief that they were causing no pain.  

But the animals who observed me this week were clearly exercising the basic intellectual functions that have enabled their survival for the last few million years (and in the lizard's case it's anyone's guess how old that biological genome might be). They gather information by way of experience (as do we) and accumulate it in a catalog of what is good or bad (for them), what is to be sought or avoided, what is useful or not. They are, in their way, as studious and as curious as are the best of us humans. 

For the rest, fireworks will have to do.

As good as it gets (probably).

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