Saturday, November 15, 2008

Afternoon Thoughts

The morning session done after Oliver Sacks, it was time for a lunch break and being transported to the Biotechnology Center. The meal itself was a good experience since it gave me a chance to meet some new people, which provided engaging and scintillating conversation on a variety of topics that I, to my delight, was actually able to contribute to. I must confess that my greatest obstacle to overcome during this conference is my inexperience and lack of knowledge in much of the subject area discussed at this event. Though this is also a positive aspect since it gives me a a chance as a student to hear ideas that I was not previously well acquainted with and find new areas and questions that I wish to look further into after this conference. I can definitely say that there are several ideas that have been presented that I will be looking further into.

A unique twist in the first afternoon presentation was that the two speakers were not physically present at the conference, and instead presented their material and ideas by a video feed. This did not take away from their ideas any. If anything, I thought that it correlated with the topic of "What's So Human About Human Nature?" After all, what other species on Earth would think or care to implement a practice of technology like communicating in digital form? None come to my mind. Tallis and Sapolsky followed this line of thinking, even with several differing views, as they presented the differences between humans and non-human species. Quite possibly the most controversial statement was made by Tallis who called all non-human creatures "beasts." Tallis opened up his arguments by outlining his position so that there would be no confusion about his beliefs later on in the presentation. I felt that his main point was answering the question of what the consequences of "darwinitis" are. The most striking consequence was the forgetting of autonomy, creativity and singularity. He also stressed that it is important not to miss what is right in front of us when determining similarities and differences. Humans have a shared history and a narrative of ourselves. We also can use abstract principles to justify our own actions and that of others. This and the concept of a theory of hidden laws and the thought of consciousness in non-human animals are just not a part of chimps. Tallis' most humorous point concerning our abstract way of thinking and showing our difference from non-human animals is that we are the only animal that will manufacture toilet paper and then go further and argue the merits of one type over another. The audience was entertained by the comment. A final comment on missing out on what is right in front of us is comparing actions of humans to say chimps yet failing to see how the actions are fundamentally different from one another.

Sapolsky followed some of the same ideas with his presentation entitled "Are we just another type of primate?" he began by talking about a conference that he went to where a fly neuroscientist proceeded to tell the scientists there studying Alzheimer's that because there are so many similarities between humans and fruit flies, that in order to study Alzheimer's one must begin to study the fruit flies. Sapolsky said that this scientist proved the opposing point that we should not study the fruit fly to solve the human problem of Alzheimer's, but study humans. To prove the point further about how ridiculous it is to study animals to find out about humans he used and example of female hamsters being put together and synchronizing their ovulation based on smell and related this to human females synchronizing in the same way in a dorm setting. He referred to this humorously as the "Wellesley effect." He continued on to further prove how there are no other animals truly like us. A main point is that animals use sex for reproduction purposes only whereas humans do not restrain sex to simply reproductive purposes.

This goes into the idea that there are domains that look similar between humans and other animals, but only until you look closer at them. There is a basic design found in both, yet humans have an added novel use. For example, aggression. Other animals will kill their own and will gang up on another. Chimps have even been found to have a form of "border control" with their territories. They will effectively take out an entire other group of chimps. Therefore, we did not invent genocide. But in difference, we have the ability to be passive aggressive, look the other way in a situation or even simply pull a trigger with little thought. Furthermore, there is an Air Force base in Nevada where the soldiers come into work and sit in an air conditioned room while remotely controlling air craft thousands of miles away and effectively killing people. One can only imagine the psychological problems that stem from this. And for a final example, Sapolsky demonstrated the human version of the Golden rule: "tit for tat." Vampire bats actually do use this same principle that humans use in being kind and cooperating with others until they back stab us, and then if we are double-crosses we will double cross them. Though both humans and the vampire bats use it, we use it differently. Sapolsky then humored the audience with the following example: "'Beat me,' said the masochist. 'No,' said the sadist."

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