Posts Tagged With: animals

Do Ants Have Selves?

I had a mental experience the other day that seemed, at the surface, completely inconsequential but upon further inspection revealed itself to be rather interesting. I was sitting around idly while my partner did something routine and uninteresting. The specific thing he was doing isn’t actually important at all. What matters is that the activity had nothing to do with me and there was no usefulness or benefit to my being there. Now, I am a very impatient person. In most situations like this I would be perturbed that there was nothing useful I could be doing or that I hadn’t brought a book. Or I would be thinking about all the different ways I could use my time off, or how I’d rather be spending “quality” time with my partner instead of just watching him do some mundane task. But this time, strangely, there was none of this mental chatter. I remember simply gazing at him passively and thinking, “It’s good for him to be getting this out of the way. So, it’s good for me.”

Now, this may seem unremarkable. When you’re in a relationship with someone, you’re supposed to want what’s best for him or her, right? What do I want, a pat on the back for being happy for my partner? We all like to see our partners happy, and we all should cheer at the thought of them accomplishing things or improving their lives in some way. But although we’d like to assume this comes from a place genuine care and concern for another person, it’s often a little less romantic than that. Evolutionary psychology suggests the overwhelming majority of our thoughts are about ourselves.

Even thoughts that seem to be about other people still tend to revolve around how those other people make you feel. Even in the case of your romantic partner or best friend. When you carefully examine your positive thoughts about this person’s accomplishments you may discover they carry a much more selfish hue than you’d be willing to admit up front. Perhaps seeing them happy directly imparts happiness on you, or their success clears obstacles from your relationship. Though these thoughts are not selfish in the sense that they prioritize you over your partner, they are selfish in that they still revolve around your personal experience or happiness. Though the ability to feel genuine happiness upon witnessing another’s happiness can easily be attributed to what we call love, it doesn’t necessarily equate to altruism when that person’s life and emotions directly impact your own.

Now let’s bring it back to my seemingly unremarkable thought. In this case, I was not cheering a personal success for my partner or witnessing a big smile on his face. I was watching him do an errand, and a boring one at that. Yet I was still able to simply and convincingly tell myself, “This is good.” Contrary to what you might be thinking, I am not using this occurrence to make some grand statement about the validity of my love for this person. Again, the thought I had was still completely hinged on my own personal experience with the world. What’s interesting about the thought is the dissolution of the individual self it suggests. The essence of the thought was almost exactly the same as one I’d have while completing an errand of my own: “This isn’t particularly fun but I’m glad I’m getting it out of the way and will appreciate it later.” It’s interesting to me that though I could, at the time, cite no direct reason why my partner’s completing this errand would benefit me in the foreseeable future, I still felt convinced by the thought and was not perturbed by any need to examine further why I was spending my time sitting idly.

To me, this is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of sharing your life with someone. Your lives become so entangled that you (hopefully) start to realize that your interests are aligned in ways you can’t even consciously perceive. The lines that separate the two of you may seem to blur a bit, and the chatter in your head begins to accommodate the needs of a person who was originally recognized as “other.” The concept of boundary dissolution and the questioning of the personal “self” have deep ties to Buddhism and modern psychology. Still, most people don’t experience a release from the concept of self in their daily lives, and might not even understand what that means. However, I think many people could attest to having thoughts such as mine. Thoughts that simultaneously encompassed the needs, intentions, or desires of another person as more or less “second nature.”

When I was in college I read an interesting book in my animal behavior class titled Baboon Metaphysics. It was a chronicle of a multi-year behavioral study of baboons that sought to determine how the primates handle their social lifestyles. Does their behavior stem from complex thought and concepts of identity or is it predominantly instinctual? The findings of the study were rather inconclusive, as metaphysical awareness is a pretty hard thing to judge; there are no philosophical pH strips. The researchers observed that the baboons seemed to fluctuate wildly between moments of near-human social awareness and primitive anarchy. But it’s the character of the question that interests me more than the answer. What are we seeking to prove when we want to find out how an animal views itself? Do we want to establish how similar they are to us? How “intelligent” they are? We often question whether animals (specifically mammals) view themselves as individuals but seemingly neglect the alternative. What would it mean, for instance, if many animals did not recognize the boundaries of the self like we do?

Though the process of natural selection demands animals place their own needs above others’, social animals present a bit of a snag in the evolutionary machine. How can organisms compete to survive, yet simultaneously arrange themselves in a cooperative group? The science of animal behavior has generally assumed that supposed altruism comes in two flavors: kin selection and social bonding. Basically, animals do things for others out of instinctual concern for their own genes in relatives (kin selection) or to pay into a social bank to reap rewards from their comrades later (social bonding). While this description does a lot to explain apparent altruism from a functional standpoint, it doesn’t do much to explain how the animals themselves view the interactions. Does a baboon think, “I’m going to groom my friend so he will groom me next Tuesday” or does he simply feel some instinctual urge to comb through his neighbor’s hair?

I think it’s pretty obvious that certain forms of life do not have much in the way of metaphysical awareness. Ants likely do no “view” themselves as anything, let alone individual members of a group. Their “thoughts” are probably more like electrical impulses that give explicit instructions like “turn right” and “search for food.” Ants operate much like an interconnected network of individually operating but interdependent bodies. They are closer to neurons in a brain than individuals in a community. But what if the experience of an ant wasn’t all that different from that of a baboon? What if, like ants, baboons didn’t always recognize each other as independent “selves?” The neurological limitations that exist in ants may not exist in baboons. Baboons likely have the full mental capacity to recognize their individual bodies and distinguish their intentions from those of other baboons. But perhaps the conditions under which baboon social structure evolved formed a much more malleable version of self than we currently experience in human society. Perhaps baboons waffle back and forth in their metaphysical capacities not because of a lack of intelligence but as a symptom of their social evolution.

Though my proposal is completely exploratory and hypothetical (I am not an evolutionary psychologist or and animal behaviorist), it does have interesting implications as a thought experiment. If other social animals operate on a different understanding of the “self,” or even operate without one at all, couldn’t we feasibly will our minds to do something similar? Weren’t we forged by the same evolutionary fires that gave us ants, dolphins, chimps, and baboons? Perhaps our obsession with ourselves—our identity, our emotional lives, our aspirations, our appearance—is not so much an innate product of intelligent life but a vestigial mental module from a time when we weren’t so reliant on others. And maybe it’s our individualistic culture that has simply fanned the flames of this obsession, ever widening the gap we perceive between our interests and others’.

Though it’s common knowledge in Buddhist and meditation circles that the temporary dissolution of the self is achievable through practice, I do not believe the general populace recognizes the availability of this experience. From the first day we come into contact with the world outside our mother’s womb, we are treated as individuals and taught to perceive and categorize the boundaries of other people and objects. To go against this conditioning is not merely a difficult task, but a mythical one. Many might assume the experience comes only from the ingestion of psychedelic drugs or in the midst of a psychological “break.” We are limited by what we believe is possible and we will never try to dissolve a boundary that we do not inherently recognize as optional. But billions of people experience what they would define as love for others every day. They make choices that prioritize others’ needs with or even over their own, and the others don’t always share their genes or reciprocate favors. Though the content of their thoughts may still be inherently “selfish,” it is possible that their concept of self has been warped by their interconnectivity with another person. Could it be possible for people to use their own observation of love for others to open the door to an experience they didn’t know was possible: an experience of self that does not end with the boundary of their skin?

 

 

Further reading on the subject of the self, Buddhism, animal behavior and evolutionary psychology:

Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright

Waking Up by Sam Harris

The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts

Baboon Metaphysics by Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth

Categories: Animals, Culture, Humanity, Philosophy, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

IN LOVING MEMORY OF LITA 2002-2018

It’s been two months since my world fell apart. Every time I’ve even thought about sitting down to write this my mind, and often even my body, has seized up. I suppose sitting in front of a blank page to write about the most horrible experience of your life is not exactly something most people would look forward to doing. But this was a special kind of despondent procrastination. Mixed in with the anguish was fear, even a terror, that I would somehow fail at this task. Just as the fear of failure stalks me in other aspects of my life, I was petrified by the idea of attempting something that could never be done well enough. In this case the lack of confidence stems not just from doubts about my abilities, but also from the sheer insurmountability of the mission.

To commemorate my beloved daughter is impossible. It is impossible in verbal, written, photographic, or any other form. It is impossible to convey the magic of her presence, the softness of her fur, or the intelligence of her gaze. It is impossible to say a damn thing about her that doesn’t pale in comparison to who she really was. But nevertheless I have to try. I cannot go on silently suffering when I have always turned to these blank pages to really feel. I need catharsis and the world needs a record of this miraculous creature.

I am aware that to a large portion of the human population, non-human deaths will never seem earth shattering. I acknowledge this fact and I do not expect those people to empathize or even sympathize with this outpouring of emotion. But, contrary to popular belief, telling someone their feelings are not valid does not actually invalidate them. My experience of grief has been sincere and excruciating. How I feel does not devalue human death, nor does it elevate every non-human death to tragedy status. Every loss is felt in its own way and with its own particular weight. And this loss has been heavy. So very heavy.

I don’t know that I’ll ever feel a love so pure, comforting, and uncomplicated as the love that emanated from Lita (or “The Floof” as we often called her). The greatest gift my parents ever gave me, the tiny grey cat entered my life just as I was falling off the cusp of childhood into adolescence. We bonded to one another with an intensity that can only come when two beings truly need each other. She was my first soul mate. Over the years Lita and I were nearly inseparable. In her kittenhood she would follow me around the house, meowing desperately should a door be closed between us. I wanted to take her everywhere with me, and brought pictures of her when I had to be away for more than a day or two.

Even in those bizarre and torrid teenage years, when many young people lose interest in their family pets, Lita remained a stable and reassuring force in my life. Her presence was invaluable in reminding me that I was not alone, and that I was needed. I will never forget the first time I began to struggle with depression and looked to her as a reason I had to be here. We were in this together. She would go on to serve as one of those reasons many more times in my life.

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Us, circa 2002 and 2015.

In our adult years we still remained tied to one another. Her absence was felt deeply in college, and I returned her to my life as soon as my post-college housing situation allowed it. One of the most exciting times of my adulthood was moving into my first studio apartment on my own with her in tow. I would come home from work and literally dance around the minute space with her in my arms, ecstatic in our simultaneous independence from outside forces but comfortable codependence on one another.

Even when that dream came crashing down as I discovered the apartment to be hopelessly infested with parasites, her reaction is one of the most memorable aspects. I recall sobbing on the phone with my partner while she walked in circles around me meowing incessantly, clearly disturbed that I was so upset. Later, as I sat feeling defeated in my partner’s condo, I held her close and thanked the cosmos that the little life-ruiners hadn’t gotten to her.

The next several years of my life would be marked by indecision, frustration, change, and more defeat. My partner and I decided to make a cross-country move that didn’t stick, and Lita happily accompanied us on multiple nine-hour car trips there and back without complaint. She supported me through the confusion of feeling utterly directionless in life and isolated in an unfamiliar city. Her soft body curled against me each night continued to remind me that I would be ok.

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Lita waiting for me to come home to our DC apartment.

Lita’s health was also a large factor in our intense bond. Her biological brother died suddenly of kidney failure around the same time I moved her back in with me after college. Though his death was shocking and sad, it allowed me to move quickly to get Lita the treatment she undoubtedly needed ahead of the disease’s progression. The extra care I provided for Lita helped me feel even more needed, and I felt in some unexplainable way she knew I was doing a lot for her. Luckily, Lita’s demure nature made her a perfect candidate for the semi-invasive administration of subcutaneous fluids and oral medication, which kept her kidneys functioning for years. It wasn’t until she also developed symptoms of colon cancer that her health truly started to decline.

It would be disrespectful to her character to imply that Lita’s value and impact on my life was tied solely to her service as a de facto emotional support animal. She was so much more than just a comforting presence. She was a brilliant and unique force of life unlike any I ever expect to see again. She weighed all of nine pounds at her heaviest and yet she commanded the respect of all other animals in a room. Never interested in making quadrupedal friends, she generally preferred to boss other cats and dogs around and stick to charming only the humans in the room. But when it came to charming humans, she was a star. She always greeted guests in a matter of minutes from their arrival. She loved the company of her humans and lamented being alone. Lita’s charm came through both in her behavior and her appearance. “Your cat is a person!” proclaimed one of my animal-inclined friends upon first meeting her and looking down at her contented face as she sat swaddled in her arms. There was just something in her eyes that seemed to say, “I may be a cat, but I understand you.”

Lita’s death has been the most painful and destabilizing experience of my life. I’m aware this communicates an embarrassing level of privilege, but I can only say that I wish more people could assign their greatest woes to the loss of a loved one. I’m lucky not to have experienced trauma or neglect in my life, but that doesn’t mean I am impervious to emotional pain. In fact, it is probably part of the reason I feel this so deeply. Her physical decline and eventual loss pulled an existential rug from my feet; making me question whether anything is worth the pain we endure when we continue to open our eyes each morning.

As I held her lifeless body after her euthanasia and wailed into her fur, I thought things could never get any worse than that moment. But the weeks that followed didn’t offer much reprieve. I’ve struggled with hopelessness, desperation, dissociation, sleeplessness, nightmares, and lethargy in rapid succession. I have collapsed into a chair after work and not moved or done anything for hours at a time. I have googled suicide helplines and then deleted my browser history. I have considered trying to convince myself in the existence of an afterlife in order to cling to some shred of hope I might see her again. I have sobbed so deeply I’ve worried my body might collapse in on itself with one final heave.

I wish there was something else I could say. I wish there was some magic word I could use or perfect poem I could write that would instantly communicate the importance of the relationship I had with Lita. The knowledge that my memories of her will fade over time terrifies me. As I pass her ashes each day, sitting atop an altar among our favorite pictures and her favorite toys, I beg the universe to allow me to always remember her the way I do now, even if it continues to hurt this much.

If you or someone you know has lost someone, please remember that the species of that person does not matter. We are all made of the same complicated, bizarre, goopy stuff and our capacity to build relationships does not recognize the boundaries of phylogenetic trees. Love is love.

I love you so much Lita and I will never stop missing you. Thank you.

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Categories: About me, Animals | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Instinct

Do you sense it?

The pervasive vibration that makes your insides cringe and reject all the love you think you’ve put in.

The putrid smell of failure, of crying, of trying but never holding on to all that you win.

The foul taste from the cup that you’d sworn was pristine.

The demons that hide, safe and quiet in your dreams, their shadows remaining though your mind is wiped clean.

The creeping sensation that there’s something you’ve missed.

That your life may not best be made with a clenched fist.

 

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Loon Lacrimosa: North Manitou Island

Although seemingly irrelevant, the title of my blog actually has meaning to me beyond just an oh-so clever play on the common name for a Michigan bird. When I was about four years old, my parents purchased a small cottage in Mecosta, Michigan. Mecosta is a city most would consider within the catchall distinction of podunk nowhere. The “city” consisted of two bars, a gas station, and a combination laundromat and video rental store. Yes they were attached. Yes we used both of them. Anyway, the cottage was on a tiny but pristine body of water appropriately named “Pretty Lake”. My family had this cottage until they made the difficult decision to sell it during my freshman year of college, so about fourteen years. Thus the majority of my childhood summers were spent swimming, playing outside, getting bit by mosquitoes, and most importantly, pestering wildlife in every possible way. I am under the impression my career pathway (if you can even call it that at this point…maybe “life focus” would be a better choice) was hugely influenced by the amount of time I spent outdoors looking at, listening to, and wrangling wildlife during my youth. One of the more illusive creatures that could be found intermittently on Pretty Lake was the common loon (Gavia immer). The loon’s unmistakable, haunting call is as much as part of Michigan lore as drowsy mother bears and cryptozoological dog men. If you haven’t heard a loon’s call, take a second to Youtube that shit right now. I’ll wait here.

Perhaps this bizarre, eerie sound is the origin of the second dictionary definition for the word loon: a crazy or simple-minded person.

In addition to their unique vocalizations, loons are also just gorgeous birds. Breeding adults boast striking plumage of black and white and fiery red eyes. I wouldn’t go as far as to say loons are my spirit animal, especially since I’m not generally a bird person, but I’m a pretty big fan of these guys. Unfortunately loons, like many other threatened species, are dying in droves at the indirect hand of man. The mechanism is complicated, so much so that it requires an entire DNR poster in state parks and national lakeshores to explain it. The simplified version is this: humans introduced two non-native species to the Great Lakes and inland lakes of Michigan, zebra mussels and round gobies. Zebra mussels are filter feeders, meaning they eat by filtering tiny organisms out of the water they live in. Zebra mussels are so good at being zebra mussels that they have actually begun over-filtering Michigan waters, creating clarity levels that are not natural for these ecosystems. The clear waters allow for increased light penetration, which allows for increased algal growth. The algae grows at such a rate that it creates mats in which algae becomes smothered, dies, and begins to decompose within the mat. The rotting algae is a prime breeding ground for the Botulism toxin, a bacterium that causes a dangerous disease by the same name. This is where the second exotic, the round goby, comes in. Gobies swim among the algae beds, eating worms and other small organisms that have consumed the rotting algae, and they thus contract the Botulism bacteria. When loons and other shorebirds eat gobies containing the toxin, they contract Botulism and die.*

Recently I went on a short backpacking trip on North Manitou Island, one of the two “cubs” off the shore of the Sleeping Bear Dunes (if you don’t know the Native American tale about Sleeping Bear, it’s worth checking out). I had a fantastic time exploring the island and was met with breathtaking beauty at every turn. That is, until I encountered at least seven dead or dying loons in a row along the southwestern shore. I say dead or dying because two of the loons I encountered were still alive, suffering from what appeared to be paralysis and “limberneck”**. This was extremely difficult for me to see, especially since I knew there was nothing I could do to help the suffering birds. The enthrallment of backpacking in rustic, backwoods beauty became painful, lingering guilt for the damage our species is causing to the others we share this planet with. My boyfriend and I hiked back to our camp feeling sad, angry, and defeated. Even here, what felt like a million miles away from civilization, we could not escape blatant signs of ecological degradation. I was having flashbacks to Playa Llorona in Costa Rica.

Although this may seem like a downer of a post (probably because it is) I feel it’s important to talk about these experiences. If every person was forced to walk pass a suffering animal on a beautiful beach, knowing full well its suffering was caused by the actions of man, the world might look a little different. In the words of Gretchen Wyler, “we must not refuse to see with our eyes what they must endure with their bodies.” I want people, especially those who spend time enjoying natural resources, to understand our actions do cause real, observable consequences. It may seem a hopeless plight for loons and other species affected by invasives (such as ash trees, a species I work with every day). After all, the invaders are already here. What can we possibly do at this point? Yet it is always advisable to educate yourself. It amazes me how often people come upon our research in state and metro parks and have no knowledge of emerald ash borer or have even noticed ubiquitous death of ash trees across the state. These are people who have chosen to spend their day hiking, fishing, or otherwise enjoying a natural area, yet they are completely out of touch with forest health.

When you see something strange, like thousands of dead trees in an otherwise healthy stand or several dead birds along a pristine shore, ask yourself why and then go find the information. In my opinion, the most important thing we can do for our ecosystems at this point is just to give a damn. To have a sense of stewardship for the lands we inhabit. And not to turn a blind eye to the environment five days out of the week only to enjoy the fruits of nature, conversationalists and wildlife managers on the weekends. The Internet is a powerful tool and no one needs a degree in environmental science to be a steward. If you’re interested in learning more about the species I mentioned or how the average person can prevent or inhibit the spread of invasive species, check out the links I’ve shared below.

* http://www.annarbor.com/passions-pursuits/great-lakes-loons-dying-in-record-numbers-from-botulism-outbreak-spurred-by-ecological-disturbance/

** http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,1607,7-153-10370_12150_12220-26493–,00.html

Learn about invasive species:

Zebra mussels: http://www.protectyourwaters.net/hitchhikers/mollusks_zebra_mussel.php

Round goby: http://www.protectyourwaters.net/hitchhikers/fish_round_goby.php

Emerald ash borer: http://na.fs.fed.us/fhp/eab/

Stopping invasives: http://www.fws.gov/invasives/what-you-can-do.html

On a brighter note, here are some nice shots from the trip:

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Categories: Animals, Environment, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On Not Being a Dick

A post with this title could easily be one sentence or an entire book to rival the page count of Atlas Shrugged.

The fact that there’s so much debate surrounding how not to be a dick is pretty amazing, considering most people are pretty apt at discerning who is a dick in a crowded bar.

I’d like to believe most people strive not to be dicks, so with that in mind lets take a look at some simple ways to avoid it.

Personally, I believe not being a dick can be broken down into a handful of categories:

1. Don’t be a dick to other people.

The golden rule, right? This one is pretty straightforward yet people mess it up all the time. I’m not going to go very far into this here but how about if something you do physically or emotionally hurts someone else, try your hardest no to do that thing because it’s dickish, ok? Ok.

2. Don’t be a dick to other beings.

I think we’re far past the point in history where we think animals don’t feel pain, suffering, fear, etc. I’m aware of the circle of life and that some animals eat other animals or use them for beneficial purposes that may not be so beneficial to the later animal. But how about we just try to minimize the degree to which we make other beings suffer? Perhaps by not cramming them in cages roughly the size of their bodies for their entire lives or chaining them to a tree in our backyard and never feeding them. Just a thought.

3. Don’t be a dick to the environment.

I honestly kind of hate the phrase “the environment” because it gives the impression it is something existing outside the context of human civilization. I use it however because it’s easy, useful, and recognizable. “The environment” however would be better served if we all just admitted that the entire planet is “the environment” and it happens to be the only one we live on. It also so happens that the earth does not care whether we as a species live or die, so although I do love trees, birds, and other nice things like that I mostly care about our prolonged existence on this planet. I like this one and Mars looks kind of shitty to be honest.

4. Don’t be a dick to yourself.

This one can get dicey because when you start telling someone never to be hard on his or herself you start leading them to believe they shit gold. I think people need to judge their own actions and change where appropriate and no I do not believe everyone is a unique, beautiful, and special butterfly. I do however believe that judging yourself based on the ridiculous standards society outlines and generally hating yourself can lead to unhappiness not just for you but for those around you. So stop being unnecessarily dickish to yourself.

I tend to stick to these principles when I’m trying to decide what to do with my obnoxiously self-aware being and also when people ask me why I do something the way I do.

For example,

“why are you mostly vegetarian?”

“Well inquisitive someone, I’m fairly certain eating conventionally-produced meat is being a pretty big dick to both the environment and sentient beings!”

Nifty, right?

Categories: Humanity, Philosophy, Thoughts | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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