Review: The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker 5/5 Stars

Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate was one of my top reads of 2018. Simultaneously  impassioned, philosophic, and rational, Pinker covers everything from art to parenting, morality to language. What makes us us? Where does human nature–and individual personality–come from? And what are the moral implications if blank slateist views of human nature are false?

Yes, Pinker writes from a liberal perspective, for a liberal audience–Pinker hails from a liberal culture and addresses the members of his own culture, just as a French writer addresses a French audience. But this is about as far as conventions like “left” and “right” can take you in this book, for it is clear that Pinker thinks breaking down political ideology and morality based on the seating patterns of an eighteenth-century French legislature is not terribly meaningful. 

Is the blank slate–the idea that humans are born essentially similar in personality, temperament, abilities, and potential, and that environmental plays a substantial role in determining whether we turn out to be Nobel Prize winners or drag queens, Jeff Bezos or homeless, criminals or lion tamers–moral? 

Its adherents claim that it is–indeed, some react to any suggestion that humans have any innate or biological nature with a vehemence normally reserved for rapists and murderers. 

Pinker responds that the denial of human nature causes unimaginable suffering. Humans cannot cast aside their natures simply because an ideology (or religion) tells them to. To attempt to remake man is to destroy him. 

Further, it is blatantly untrue, and the promotion of obvious lies in pursuit of ideological outcomes is bound to backfire–turning people away from the academics and fields that promote such lies. (Pinker may be overly optimistic on this point.) 

Chapter 1 is a bit slow if you are already familiar with the history of psychology and the blank slate in philosophy, but after that it picks up nicely. 

There is an unstated conclusion we may draw here that psychology as a discipline has been hampered by the kinds of people who go into the psychology. Perhaps this is my own theory I am imposing onto Pinker’s work, but it seems like people with a good, intuitive grasp of how people work don’t go into psychology–they go into sales. The folks in psychology (and psychiatry, perhaps) seem drawn to the field because they find people mysterious and fascinating and want to understand them better. 

But without an intuitive understanding of how people work, there are often big areas they miss. 

Since I listened to this in audio book format, quoting is tricky, but I have tried to transcribe this bit:

Until recently, psychology ignored the content of beliefs and emotions, and the possibility that the mind had evolved to treat biologically important categories in different ways. … Theories about memory and reasoning didn’t distinguish between thoughts about people and thoughts about rocks or houses. Theories of emotion didn’t distinguish fear from anger, jealousy, or love. Theories of social relation didn’t distinguish between family, friends, enemies, and strangers.

Indeed, the topics in psychology that most interest lay people–love, hate, work, play, food, sex, status, dominance, jealousy, friendship, religion, art–are almost completely absent from psychology textbooks.

It’s hard to see what you can’t see.

The field was also historically rather short on women, especially women with normal lives. Many of these blank slateist quotes from psychologists and philosophers about human nature and instincts seem like the kinds of ideas that raising a few children would quickly disabuse you of.  

Next he discusses Durkheim’s observation that people behave differently in groups than they do singly or would behave had they not been part of a group. From this I think Durkheim derives his idea that “human nature” and “human behavior” are not innate or instinctive, but culturally induced. 

Some years ago, I realized there is probably an important key to human behavior that is rarely explicitly discussed because if you have it, it is so obvious that you don’t even notice it, and if you don’t have it, it’s so non-obvious that you can’t figure it out: an imitation instinct.

People desire to be like the people around them, and for probably evolutionarily sound reasons. 

If everyone else in your tribe says, “Don’t drink that water, it’s bad,” you’re better off avoiding the water than taking your chances by doing an independent test on the water. If your tribe has a longstanding tradition of “don’t eat the red berries, no I don’t know why, grandpa just told me to never ever eat them,” it’s probably best to go along. As Chesterton says, don’t tear down a fence if you don’t know why it’s there. 

I think a compulsion to fit in, imitate, and go along with others is very deep. It’s probbly not something people are explicitly aware of most of the time. This results in people using arguments like “That’s weird,” to mean, “That’s bad,” without explaining why “weird” is bad. They just intuitively know, and expect that you understand and agree with the speaker’s intuition that weird and different are inherently bad things. 

This leads to 1. self-policing–people feel very out of place when they aren’t going along with the group and this can make them deeply unhappy; and 2. other-policing–people feel unhappy just looking at someone else who is out of place, and this makes them respond with anger, hostility, and sometimes even violence toward the other person. (Even when what that other person is doing is really quite inconsequential and harmless.)

Anyway, I think Durkheim has missed that step–that connection between group activity and individual activity.

Obviously people are shaped by their groups, since most hunter-gatherer babies grow up to be hunter-gatherers and most people in our society grow up and figure out how to use cell phones and computers and cars. But I think he has missed the importance of–and critically, the usefulness of–the underlying mental trait that lets us learn from our cultures.

So people don’t behave differently in groups than when they’re alone because they lack some inherent human nature, but because part of our nature compels us to act in concordance with our group. (Most of us, anyway.) 

(This is about where I stopped taking notes, so I’m working from memory.)

Pinker then discusses the neurology of learning–how do we learn language? How does the brain know that language is something we are supposed to learn? How do we figure out that the family pet is not named “No no bad dog, get off the sofa”? 

There are some interesting experiments done on mice and kittens where experimenters have done things like reverse the parts of the brain auditory or visual inputs go to, or raise the kittens in environments without vertical lines and then introduce them to vertical lines, etc. The brain shows a remarkable plasticity under very strange conditions–but as Pinker points out, these aren’t conditions humans normally encounter. 

Sure, you can teach people to be afraid of flowers or like snakes, but it is much, much easier to teach people to like flowers and be afraid of snakes. 

Pinker points to the ease with which we learn to fear some objects but not others; the ease with which we learn to talk (except for those of us with certain neurological disorders, like brain damage or autism) verses the difficulty we have learning other things, like calculus; the rapidity with which some behaviors emerge in infancy or childhood (like aggression) verses the time it takes to instill other behaviors (like sharing) in children. 

In short, we appear to come into this world equipped to learn certain things, to respond to certain stimuli, and behave in particular ways. Without this basic wiring, we would not have any instinct for imitation–and thus babies would not coo in response to their mothers, would not start babbling in imitation of the adults around them, and would not learn to talk. We would not stand up and begin to walk–and it would be just as easy to train people to enjoy being victims of violence as to train people not to commit violence. 

Throughout the book, Pinker discusses the response of the more extreme left–people whom we today call SJWs or antifa–to the work and theories put out by academics who are undoubtedly also culturally liberal, like Napoleon Chagnon, the famous anthropologist who studied the Yanomamo tribesmen in the Amazon. For his meticulous work documenting Yanomamo family trees and showing that the Yanomamo men who killed more people wound up wound up with more children than the men who killed fewer people, he was accused by his fellow academics of all sorts of outlandish crimes.

In one absurd case, he was accused of intentionally infecting the Yanomamo with measles in order to test a theory that Yanomamo men had more “dominant genes,” which would give them a survival advantage over the measles. This is a serious accusation because exposure to Western diseases tends to kill off the majority of people in isolated, indigenous tribes, and absurd because “dominant genes” don’t confer any more or less immunity to disease. The accuser in this case has completely misunderstood the meaning of a term over in genetics. (It is rather like someone thinking the word “straight” implies that heterosexuals are supposed to have straighter bones than homosexuals, and then accusing scientists of going around measuring people’s bones to determine if they are gay or not.)

The term “dominant” does not mean that a gene gives a person any form of “dominance” in the real world. It just means that in a pair of genes, a “dominant” one gets expressed. The classic example is blue verses brown eyes. If you have one gene for blue eyes from one parent, and one for brown eyes from your other parent, anyone looking at you will just see brown eyes because only that gene gets used. However, you might still pass on that blue eye gene to your children, and if they receive another blue gene from your spouse, they could have blue eyes. Since blue eyes only show up if both of a person’s eye color genes are blue, we call blue eyes “recessive.” 

But having a “dominant” gene for eye color doesn’t make someone any more “dominant” in real life. It doesn’t make you better at beating people up or surviving the flu–and nothing about the Yanomamo lifestyle suggests that they would have more “dominant genes” than anyone else in the world. 

Side note: this strange misconception of how genes work made it into Metal Gear Solid: 

“I got all of the recessive genes! You took everything from me before I was even born!”

The fact that the far left often engages in outright lies to justify real violence against the people they dislike–people who aren’t even conservatives on the American scale–makes one wonder why Pinker identifies at all with the left’s goals, but I suppose one can’t help being a part of one’s own culture. If a Frenchman objects to something happening in France, that doesn’t turn him into a German; a Christian doesn’t stop believing in Jesus just because he objects to Fred Phelps. 

The book came out in 2002, before “antifa” became a household term. I think Pinker expected the evils of communism to become more widely known–not less. 

There is an interesting discussion of E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology and how a better understanding of human family dynamics (especially whether they become controlling and harmful) could improve women’s lives, not harm them. (Wilson’s work I would like to explore in more depth.) 

Pinker proceeds to a moving chapter parenting (I teared up at the end, though that might have just been the effects of several days of inadequate sleep.) How much effect do parents have on how their children turn out? At least within the normal range of parenting, not much–kids seem to turn out as they will, despite our best efforts. Sure, there’s plenty of evidence that you can damage kids by shaking them, dropping them on their heads, or locking them in the closet for years–but this is not normal parenting. Meanwhile, there’s very little evidence in favor of any interventions that can raise a child’s IQ (or any other trait) above what it would have been otherwise. It’s much easier to break a complicated system than enhance it. 

People often respond along the lines of “If I cannot shape my children like clay, determining how they turn out as adults, what’s the point of parenting at all?” 

It’s a terrible response, as Pinker points out. Children are human and deserve to be valued for the people they are (and will be,) not because you can change them. You are not kind to your spouse because you expect to change them, after all, but because you like them and value them. Likewise, be kind to your children because you love and value them, not because you can program them like tiny computers. 

In search of the reasons people turn out the way they do, Pinker (and other writers) turns to the random effects of “the environment”–things like “the friends you had in highschool.” Certainly environment explains a good deal, like what language you speak or what job options exist in your society, but I think he neglects an alternative possibility for some traits: random chance. There are aspects of us that are just “who we are” and aren’t obviously determined by anything external. One child loves dogs, another horses. One person enjoys swimming, another biking, a third Candy Crush. 

Here a religious person might posit a “soul” or some other inner essence. 

The difficulty with the theory that children take after their peers–they do what it takes to fit in with their friends–is it neglects the question of why a child becomes friends with a particular group of other children in the first place. I don’t know about you, but my friends aren’t chosen randomly from the people around me, but tend to be people I have something in common with or enjoy being around in the first place. 

At any rate, it is certainly possible for well-meaning parents to isolate a child from peers and friends in an attempt to alter personalty traits that are actually innate, or at least not caused by those other children.

The meat of the book wraps up with a discussion of “modern art” and why it is terrible. 

Overall, it was an excellent book that remains fresh despite its age. 

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Homeschooling Corner: Summer Fun

Hello, everyone. I hope you have had a lovely summer. We ended up scaling back a bit on our regular schedule, doing about half as much formal “schoolwork” as usual and twice as much riding bikes and going to the playground.

Here are some of the books we found particularly useful/enjoyable this summer:

String, Straightedge, and Shadow: The Story of Geometry, by Julia E Diggins

This is my favorite book we read this summer.

I was looking for a book to introduce simple geometry and shape construction. Instead, I found this delightful history of geometry. It is appropriate for children who understand simple fractions, ratios, and the Pythagorean theorem, but it is not a mathematics textbook and only contains a few equations. (I’m still looking for an introduction to geometry, if anyone has any recommendations.)

This is a new edition of a book originally published in 1965, but its age isn’t really important because geometry hasn’t changed much in the intervening years.

The story begins with geometry in nature–the shapes of trees and flowers, spiderwebs and honeycombs–then develops a speculative account of how early stoneage humans might have become increasingly aware of and attuned to these shapes. Men saw the shapes of the sun and moon in the sky, and might have observed that an ox tied to a pole traced out a similar shape in the dirt.

Then Egyptian surveyors developed right triangles, used for measuring the corner of fields and pyramids. The Mesopotamians developed astronomy, and divided the circle into 360 degrees. Then came the Greeks–clever Thales, mystical Pythagoras, and practical Archimedes. And finally, at the end, Eratosthenes (who used geometry–literally, earth measuring–to measure the circumference of the Earth,) and a few paragraphs about Euclid.

Writing with Ease, by Susan Wise Bauer

There are many books and workbooks in this series, so you can pick the ones that best suit your child’s ability level. (The “look inside the book” feature is great for judging which level of textbook you want.)

I am sure these books are not everyone’s cup of tea. They may not be yours. But they were what we needed.

My eldest children are fairly different in writing needs, but I do not have time for separate curricula. One is a good speller, the other bad. One has acceptable handwriting, the other awful. One will write independently, the other hates writing and plays dead if I try to get them to write. These books have worked well for everyone. Spelling, handwriting, and general willingness to write have all improved.

Even if you aren’t homeschooling, this book might make a good supplement to your kids’ regular curriculum.

In science, we have been growing bacteria in petri dishes and looking at them under the microscope, with the help of Usborne Science and Experiments: The World of the Microscope (I think this is the same book, but cheaper.)

Petri dishes are cheap, agar is easy to make at home (it’s just like making jello,) and kids can learn things like “doorknobs are dirty” and “that’s why mom makes me wash my hands before dinner.”

Just be careful when handling large quantities of bacteria. Even if it’s normal household bacteria that you’re exposed to regularly, you’re not used to it in these quantities. The instructions recommend wearing gloves and safety goggles while handling bacteria and making slides out of them–and besides, kids like dressing up “like scientists” anyway.

The Super Source: Pattern Blocks and Geoboards

Our pattern blocks have been in the family for decades–passed down to me by my grandmother–but the geoboards are a new acquisition. I remember geoboards in elementary school–they sat behind the teacher’s desk and we never actually used them. I didn’t know what, exactly, geoboards were for, so I went ahead and got new workbooks for both them and the pattern blocks.

We are only a few lessons in, but so far I am very pleased with these. We have been talking about angles and measuring the degrees in different shapes with the pattern blocks–360 in a circle, 180 in a triangle, 720 in a hexagon, etc–which dovetails nicely with the geometry reading. The geoboards let us construct and examine a variety of different shapes, like right and equilateral triangles. The lesson plans are easy to use and the kids really enjoy them. Just watch out for rubber bands flying across the room.

Super Source makes workbooks for different grade levels, from K through 6th.

Learn to Program with Minecraft, by Craig Richardson

This book introduces Python, and is a nice step up from the Scratch workbooks. You may have to install a couple of programs, like Python and the API spigot, but the book walks you through this and it is not bad at all. There are then step-by-step instructions for making simple programs, along with bonus challenges to work out on your (or your kid’s) own.

The book covers strings, booleans, if statements, loops, etc, in kid-friendly ways. Best for people who already love Minecraft and can type.

Book Club: The Code Economy ch. 1

Greetings! Grab a cup of coffee and pull up a chair. Tea is also good. Today we’re diving into chapter one of Philip Auerswald’s The Code Economy, “Jobs: Divide and Coordinate.”

I wish this chapter had been much longer; we speed through almost 2.5 million years of cognitive evolution in a couple of pages.

The earliest hominins had about the same short-term memory as a modern-day chimpanzee, which is to say they could keep track of only two operations at a time. … Our methods for creating tools gradually became more sophisticated, until we were using the tools we created to produce other tools in a repetitive and predictable manner. These processes for creating stone tools were among humanity’s first production algorithms-that is, the earliest code. They appeared almost simultaneously in human communities in most part of the world around 40,000 BC.

Footnote:

…[E.O.] Wilson refers to this phenomenon more broadly as the discovery of eusocial behavior… Wilson situates the date far earlier in human history than I do here. I chose 50,000 years [ago] because my focus is on the economy. it is clear that an epochal change in society occurred roughly 10,000 years BCE, when humans invented agriculture in six parts of the world simultaneously. The fact of this simultaneity directly suggests the advance of code represented by the invention of agriculture was part of a forward movement of code that started much earlier.

What do you think? Does the simultaneous advent of behavioral modernity–or eusociality–in far-flung human groups roughly 50,000 years ago, followed by the simultaneous advent of agriculture in several far-flung groups about 10,000 years ago speak to the existence of some universal, underlying process? Why did so many different groups of people develop similar patterns of life and technology around the same time, despite some of them being highly isolated? Was society simply inevitable?

The caption on the photo is similarly interesting:

Demand on Short-Term Working Memory in the Production of an Obsidian Axe [from Read and van der Leeuw, 2015] … We can relate the concepts invoked in the prodcution of stone tools to the number of dimensions involved and thereby to the size of short-term workign memory (STWM) required for the prodction of the kind of stone tools that exemplify each stage in hominin evolution. …

Just hitting the end of a pebble once to create one edge, as in the simplest tools, they calculate requires holding three items in the working memory. Removing several flakes to create a longer edge (a line), takes STWM 4; working an entire side takes STWM 5; and working both sides of the stone in preparation for knapping flakes from the third requires both an ability to think about the pebble’s shape in three dimensions and STWM 7.

(The Wikipedia article on Lithic Reduction has a lovely animation of the technique.)

It took about 2 million years to proceed from the simplest tools (working memory: 3) to the most complex (working memory: 7.) Since the Neolithic, our working memory hasn’t improved–most of us are still limited to a mere 7 items in our working memory, just enough to remember a phone number if you already know the area code.

All of our advances since the Neolithic, Auerswald argues, haven’t been due to an increase in STWM, but our ability to build complexity externally: through code. And it was this invention of code that really made society take off.

By about 10,000 BCE, humans had formed the first villages… Villages were the precursors of modern-day business firms in that they were durable association built around routines. … the advance of code at the village level through the creation of new technological combinations set into motion the evolution from simplicity to complexity that has resulted in the modern economy.

It was in the village, then, that code began to evolve.

What do you think? Are Read and van der Leeuw just retroactively fitting numbers 3-7 to the tools, or do they really show an advance in working memory? Is the village really the source of most code evolution? And who do you think is more correct, Herbert Spencer or Thomas Malthus?

Auerswald then forward to 1557, with the first use of the word “job” (spelled “jobbe,” most likely from “gobbe,” or lump.)

The advent of the “jobbe” a a lump of work was to the evolution of modern society something like what the first single-celled organism was to the evolution of life.

!

The “jobbe” contrasted with the obligation to perform labor continuously and without clearly defined roles–slavery, serfdom, indentured servitude, or even apprenticeship–as had been the norm throughout human history.

Did the Black Death help create the modern “job market” by inspiring Parliament to pass the Statute of Laborers?

I am reminded here of a passage from Gulick’s Evolution of the Japanese, Social and Psychic, (published in 1903):

The idea of making a bargain when two persons entered upon some particular piece of work, the one as employer, the other as employed, was entirely repugnant to the older generation, since it was assumed that their relations as inferior and superior should determine their financial relations; the superior would do what was right, and the inferior should accept what the superior might give without a question or a murmur. Among the samurai, where the arrangement is between equals, bargaining or making fixed and fast terms which will hold to the end, and which may be carried to the courts in case of differences, was a thing practically unknown in the older civilization. Everything of a business nature was left to honor, and was carried on in mutual confidence.

“A few illustrations of this spirit of confidence from my own experience may not be without interest. On first coming to Japan, I found it usual for a Japanese who wished to take a jinrikisha to call the runner and take the ride without making any bargain, giving him at the end what seemed right. And the men generally accepted the payment without question. I have found that recently, unless there is some definite understanding arrived at before the ride, there is apt to be some disagreement, the runner presuming on the hold he has, by virtue of work done, to get more than is customary. This is especially true in case the rider is a foreigner. Another set of examples in which astonishing simplicity and confidence were manifested was in the employment of evangelists. I have known several instances in which a full correspondence with an evangelist with regard to his employment was carried on, and the settlement finally concluded, and the man set to work without a word said about money matters. It need hardly be said that no foreigner took part in that correspondence. …

“This confidence and trustfulness were the product of a civilization resting on communalistic feudalism; the people were kept as children in dependence on their feudal lord; they had to accept what he said and did; they were accustomed to that order of things from the beginning and had no other thought; on the whole too, without doubt, they received regular and kindly treatment. Furthermore, there was no redress for the peasant in case of harshness; it was always the wise policy, therefore, for him to accept whatever was given without even the appearance of dissatisfaction. This spirit was connected with the dominance of the military class. Simple trustfulness was, therefore, chiefly that of the non-military classes.

“Since the overthrow of communal feudalism and the establishment of an individualistic social order, necessitating personal ownership of property, and the universal use of money, trustful confidence is rapidly passing away.

We still identify ourselves with our profession–“I am a doctor” or “I am a paleontologist”–but much less so than in the days when “Smith” wasn’t a name.

Auerswald progresses to the modern day:

In the past two hundred years, the complexity of human economic organization has  increased by orders of magnitude. Death rates began to fall rapidly in the middle of the nineteenth century, due to a combination of increased agricultural output, improved hygiene, and the beginning of better medical practices–all different dimensions of the advance of code…. Greater numbers of people living in greater density than ever before accelerated the advance of code.

Sounds great, but:

By the twentieth century, the continued advance of code necessitated the creation of government bureaucracies and large corporations that employed vast numbers of people. These organizations executed code of sufficient complexity that it was beyond the capacity of any single individual to master.

I’ve often wondered if the explosion of communist disasters at the beginning of the 20th century occurred because we could imagine a kind of nation-wide code for production and consumption and we had the power to implement it, but we didn’t actually have the capabilities and tools necessary to make it work.

We can imagine Utopia, but we cannot reach it.

Auerswald delineates two broad categories of “epochal change” as a result of the code-explosion of the past two centuries: First, our capabilities grew. Second:

“we have, to an increasing degree, ceded to other people–and to code itself–authority and autonomy, which for millennia we had kept unto ourselves and our immediate tribal groups as uncodified cultural norms.”

Before the “job”, before even the “trade,” people lived and worked far more at their own discretion. Hoeing fields or gathering yams might be long and tedious work, but at least you didn’t have to pee in a bottle because Amazon didn’t give you time for bathroom breaks.

Every time voters demand that politicians “bring back the jobs” or politicians promise to create them, we are implicitly stating that the vast majority of people are no longer capable of making their own jobs. (At least, not jobs that afford a modern lifestyle.) The Appalachians lived in utter poverty (the vast majority of people before 1900 lived in what we would now call utter poverty), but they did not depend on anyone else to create “jobs” for them; they cleared their own land, planted their own corn, hunted their own hogs, and provided for their own needs.

Today’s humans are (probably not less intelligent nor innately capable than the average Appalachian of 1900, but the economy (and our standards of living) are much more complex. The average person no longer has the capacity to drive job growth in such a complicated system, but the solution isn’t necessarily for everyone to become smarter. After all, large, complicated organizations need hundreds of employees who are not out founding their own companies.

But this, in turn, means all of those employees–and even the companies themselves–are dependent on forces far outside their control, like Chinese monetary policy or the American electoral cycle. And this, in turn, raises demand for some kind of centralized, planned system to protect the workers from economic hardship and ensure that everyone enjoys a minimum standard of living.

Microstates suggest themselves as a way to speed the evolution of economic code by increasing the total number of organisms in the ecosystem.

With eusociality, man already became a political (that is, polis) animal around 10,000 or 40,000 or perhaps 100,000 years ago, largely unable to subsist on his own, absent the tribe. We do not seem to regret this ill-remembered transition very much, but what about the current one? Is the job-man somehow less human, less complete than the tradesman? Do we feel that something essential to the human spirit has been lost in defining and routinizing our daily tasks down to the minute, forcing men to bend to the timetables of factories and international corporations? Or have we, through the benefits of civilization (mostly health improvements) gained something far richer?

Anthropology Friday: In the Shadow of Man (3/5)

Chimpanzee family from the Gombe
Chimpanzee family from the Gombe

(Do you know what’s frustrating? When you discover that you can type about three times faster than the words actually show up on your computer screen.)

Anyway, today we are continuing with our discussion of Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, featuring the adventures of chimpanzees from The Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania. The book contains many interesting vignettes of chimpanzee life and descriptions of their social order. I wish I could share more of them, but my fingers are tired of typing, so here we go. (As usual, for readability I’m just using “” for the quotes instead of block quotes, and they’re organized around several themes.) I’ve tried to bold the names of the chimps the first time they appear.

Hunting and the sharing of meat:

“One day I arrived on the Peak and found a small group of chimps just below me in the upper branches of a thick tree. As I watched I saw that one of them was holding a pink-looking object from which he was from time to time pulling pieces with his teeth. There was a female and a youngster and they were both reaching out toward the male, their hands actually touching his mouth. Presently the female picked up a piece of the pink thing and put it to her mouth: it was at this moment that I realized the chimps were eating meat.

“After each bite of meat the male picked off some leaves with his lips and chewed them with the flesh. Often, when he had chewed for several minutes on this leafy wad, eh spat out the remains into the waiting hands of the female. Suddenly he dropped a small piece of meat, and like a flash the youngster sung after it to the ground. Even as he reached dot pick it up the undergrowth exploded and an adult bushpig charged toward him. … Soon I made out the shapes of three small striped piglets. Obviously the chimps were eating a baby pig. The size was right and later, when I realized that the male was David Graybeard, I moved closer and saw that he was indeed eating piglet.

“For three hours I watched the chimps feeding. David occasionally let the female bite pieces from the carcass and once he actually detached a small piece of flesh and placed it in her outstretched hand. When he finally climbed down there was still meat on the carcass; he carried it away in one hand, followed by the others.”

EvX: it is much easier to dismember carcases when you have tools at your disposal, like stone knives.

“I had taken Hugo [animal photographer and Jane’s future husband] up to show him the peak and we were watching four red colobus monkeys that were evidently separated from their troop. Suddenly an adolescent male chimpanzee climbed cautiously up the tree next to the monkeys and slowly along a branch. Then he sat down. After a moment, three of the monkeys jumped away–quite calmly, it appeared. The fourth remained, his head turned toward the chimp. A second later another adolescent male chimp climbed out of the thick vegetation surrounding the tree, rushed along the branch along which the last monkey was sitting, and grabbed it. Instantly several other chimps climbed up into the tree, and, screaming and barking in excitement, tore their victim into several pieces. It was all over within a minute from the time of capture. …

“During the ten years that have passed since I began work at the Gombe Stream we have recorded chimpanzees feeding on the young of bushbucks, bushpigs, and baboons, as well as both young and small adult colobus monkeys, redtail monkeys, and blue monkeys. And there are two cases on record of chimpanzees in the area actually taking off African babies–presumably as prey, since when recovered from an adult male chimpanzee one infant had had its limbs partially eaten. …

“On other occasions, the hunting seems to be a much more deliberate, purposeful activity, and often at such times the different individuals of a chimpanzee group show quite remarkable cooperation–as when different chimpanzees station themselves at the bases of trees offering escape routes to a cornered victim.

After Rodolf kills a baboon:
“Presently the four chimpanzees emerged from the undergrowth and climbed into the higher branches of a tall tree, whee Rodolf settled down and began to feed…

“Other chimpanzees in the valley, attracted by the loud screaming and calling that typifies a hunt and kill, soon appeared in the tree, and a group of high-ranking males clustered around Rodolf, begging for a share of his kill. Often I have watched chimpanzees begging for meat, and usually a male who has a reasonably large portion permits at least some of the group to share with him. Rodolf, on the contrary, protected his kill jealously that day. …

“Rodolf kept almost the entire carcass to himself for nine hours that day, although from time to time he spat a wad of meat and leaves into a into a begging hand, or one of the other males managed to grab a piece from the carcass and make off with it. …

“At this time, the third year of Mike‘s supremacy, Rodolf was no longer the high-ranking male he had once been. How was it, then, that he dared push away Mike’s hand, he who normally went into a frenzy of submission when Mike approached him? … I had seen this sort of apparent inconsistency before during meat-eating episodes and I often wondered whether the chimps were showing the crude beginnings of a sot of moral values. Rodolf killed the baboon, therefore, the meat was Rodolf’s. More serious consideration of the behavior has led me to that something rather different maybe involved.

“Mike would have attacked Rodolf without hesitation had the prize been a pile of Bananas, yet if Rodolf had gathered the fruits from a box for himself they would have been his property quite as legitimately as as was the meat. I wonder, then, if the principle involved may be similar to the one governing a territorial animal within his own territory, when he is more aggressive, more likely to fight off an intruder, than if he met the same animal outside his territorial boundary. Meat is much liked, much prized food item. An adult male in possession of such a prize may become more willing to fight for it, and therefore, be less apprehensive of his superiors than if he has a pile of everyday fruits like bananas. In support of this theory, I should mention that in the early days, when bananas were something of a novelty, the chimps very seldom did fight over the fruits.”

EvX: The lack of sharing makes the normally dominant males very frustrated and aggressive toward everyone else in the vicinity during these meat-eating episodes. Often, though, quite a bit of sharing of meat occurs.]

On baboons:

“The baboons very soon made themselves at home around our camp, too, and Vanne [Jane’s mother] quickly learned never to leave the tents unguarded. About two weeks after our arrival she went for a short walk; when she returned it was to find our belongings strewn in all directions, and one blase male baboon sitting by the overturned table polishing off the loaf that Dominic had baked that morning. …

“It was far worse when one morning Vanne, who had been dozing after my early departure, suddenly heard a small sound in the tent. She opened her eyes and there, silhouetted in the entrance, she saw a huge male baboon. He and she remained motionless fr a few moments and then he opened his mouth in a tremendous yawn of threat. In the gray light Vanne could just see the gleam of his teeth and she thought her last hour had come. With a sudden yell she sat bolt upright in bed, waving her arms, and her unwelcome visitor fled. He was a horrible baboon, that one, an old male who took to hanging around our camp at all hours of the day, lurking in the undergrowth and dashing out whenever opportunity presented to steal a loaf of bread.”

The Rain Dance:

“At about noon the first heavy drops of rain began to fall. … At that moment the storm broke. The rain was torrential, and the sudden clap of thunder, right overhead, made me jump. As if this were a signal, one of the big males stood upright and as he swayed and swaggered rhythmically from foot to foot I could hear the rising crescendo of his pant-hoots above the beating of the rain. Then he charged, flat-out down the slope toward the trees he had just left. He ran some thirty yards, and then, swinging round the trunk of a small tree to break his headlong rush, leaped into the low branches and sat motionless.

“Almost at once two other males charged after him. One broke off a low branch from a tree as he ran and brandished it in the air before hurling it ahead of him. The other, as he reached the end of his run, stood upright and rhythmically swayed the branches of a tree back and forth before seizing a huge branch and dragging it farther down the slope. A fourth male, as he too charged, leaped into a tree and, almost without breaking speed, tore off a large branch, leaped with it to the ground, and continued down the slope. As the last two males called and charged down, so the one who had started the whole performance climbed from his tree and began plodding up the slope again. The others, who had also climbed into trees near the bottom of the slope, followed suit. When they reached the ridge, they began charging down all over again, one after the other, with equal vigor. …

“As the males charged down and plodded back up, so the rain fell harder, jagged forks or brilliant flares of lightning lit up the leaden sky, and the crashing of thunder seemed to shake the very mountains. …

“I would only see such a display twice more in the next ten years.”

EvX: the chimps do not build nor take any kind of shelter from the rain, but just sit hunched up in it, looking pretty miserable for much of the rainy season.

Getting to know the chimps:

[Jane, upon hearing some chimps nearby, lies down flat on the ground to avoid disturbing them/being seen]

“Suddenly I saw a large male chimpanzee climbing a tree only a couple of yards away. He moved over into the branches over my head and began screaming at me, short, loud, high-pitched sounds, with his mouth open. … He began climbing down toward me until he was no more than ten feet above me and I could see his yellow teeth… He shook a branch, showering me with twigs. Then he hit the trunk and shook more branches, and continued to scream and scream and work himself into a frenzy of rage. All at once he climbed down and went out of sight behind me.

“It was then that I saw a female with a tiny baby and an older child sitting in another tree and staring at me with wide eyes. They were quite silent and quite still. I could hear the old male moving about behind me and then his footsteps stopped. He was so close by that I could hear his breathing.

“Without warning there was a loud bark, a stamping in the leaves, and my head was hit, hard. At this I had to move, had to sit up. The male was standing looking at me, and for a moment I believed he would charge; but he turned and moved off, stopping often to turn and stare at me. The female with her baby and the youngster climbed down silently and moved after him. There was a sense of triumph: I had made contact with a wild chimpanzee–or perhaps it should be the other way around.

“When I looked back some years later at my description of that male, I was certain it was the bad-tempered, irascible, paunchy J.B. … I suppose he was puzzled by my immobility and the plastic sheet that was protecting me from the light rain. He simply had to find out exactly what I was and make me move–he must have known, from my eyes, that I was alive. …

“One evening I returned to camp and found Dominic and Hassan very excited. A large male chimpanzee, they told me, had walked right into camp and spent an hour feeding in the palm tree that shaded my tent. …

David Greybeard and Jane Goodall hold hands, from Jane's blog
David Greybeard and Jane Goodall hold hands, from Jane’s blog

“One day as I sat on the veranda of the tent, David climbed down from his tree and then, in his deliberate way, walked straight toward me. When he was about five feet from me he stopped, and slowly his hair began to stand on end, until he looked enormous and very fierce. A chimpanzee may erect his hair when he is angry, frustrated, or nervous. Why had David now put his hair out? All at once he ran straight at me, snatched up a banana from my table, and hurried off to eat it farther away. Gradually his hair returned to its normal sleeked position.

“After that incident I asked Dominic to leave bananas out whenever he saw David, and so, even when there were no ripe palm nuts, the chimp still wandered into camp sometimes, looking for bananas. …”

EvX: This marks the beginning of the feeding stations, which took several years to perfect (you can’t just hand out bananas all day; eventually the chimps stop doing normal chimp things and just sit there all day waiting for more bananas,) but were critical in getting the chimps to regularly appear in the same places so that Jane and other researchers could actually gather data on them. So the researchers have had to balance between “ability to gather data” and “behavior changes due to free bananas.”

To be continued.

Review: Pete’s Dragon (the jr. novel) 2/5 stars

Warning: this post contains spoilers. Lots of spoilers.

I needed a break from politics, so I decided to read a book about a kid and his dragon. What better than the junior novelization of a Disney Movie?

Pete’s Dragon is a remake of the 1970s Disney live-action/animation mix of the same name. I saw the preview before finding Dory, thought it looked awesome, and so picked up the book-version. I assume that the book follows the movie’s plot accurately, though I do not expect it to capture the full cinematic experience.

Within the first chapter, that “awesome” feeling had diminished and I had the sinking feeling that the story was going to end with a generic, “kid goes to live among humans again” ending. And it did.

But let’s run through from the beginning:

5 year old Pete is on adventure with his parents in the woods when his dad crashes the car into a tree. His parents die. Pete emerges from the wreck, gets chased by wolves, and is saved by a big, shaggy dragon.

6 years later, Pete and the dragon (named Elliot) are best friends and run around the woods having fun, in a scene that I assume is spectacular in the movie.

The story then switches to the perspective of a bunch of grownups, each with their own plot and character arc. Mr. Meacham (IIRC) is an old guy who tells dragon stories to the local kids. His (grown) daughter, a forest ranger, doesn’t believe him. The forest ranger’s boyfriend has a brother who is a bumbling, vaguely evil logger who is illegally logging trees in the forest. The forest ranger, instead of arresting him for illegal logging, (which is what I assume happens when a forest ranger catches you illegally chopping down trees,) complains to her boyfriend that he’s not stopping his brother. He fails to stop his brother because he’s also useless.

To this cast of 6 (Pete, Elliot, Meacham, Forest Ranger, Boyfriend, and Brother,) we now add another eleven-year-old kid, Natalie. The Boyfriend is Natalie’s dad and he has for some reason brought her to the logging site in the woods, where she wanders around unsupervised while people chop down trees because that isn’t dangerous or anything.

Natalie notices Pete and the grown-ups catch him. Pete wakes up in the hospital, freaks out, and escapes in what I assume is another fun sequence in the movie. The grown-ups recapture him and the forest ranger and her boyfriend take him home, where they tame him with PBJ sandwiches and cookies.

Pete draws pictures of Elliot and promises to take his new friends to meet Elliot in the morning.

Meanwhile, Elliot has been looking everywhere for Pete. He follows Pete’s scent to the house where he’s staying, looks in the window, and decides that Pete has found a new family and doesn’t need him anymore. Elliot goes home.

Meanwhile, Forest Ranger lady is conflicted because she promised Pete she’d take him back to the woods to Elliot, who might be a dragon and might prove that her dad was right all along, but legally she’s required to take him to Child Protective Services. Finally she decides to take him to Elliot.

The Bumbling Brother shows up and shoots the dragon. With a gun. (With tranquilizer darts.) While Forest Ranger lady, Pete, Natalie, and Mr. Meacham are standing next to it. After the dragon collapses, the brother dances around proclaiming his success and no one punches him in the face, even though he could have killed them all (tranquilizers darts intended to bring down massive animals are potentially really bad if they hit children.)

The Bumbling Brother abducts the unconscious dragon, the grownups are useless, and Pete and Natalie (and Mr. Meacham) save the dragon. There’s a dramatic chase scene, at the end of which the Brother redeems himself by saving the Boyfriend and Forest Ranger’s lives.

Pete and the dragon escape back to the woods, where Pete suddenly decides that he doesn’t want to live with a dragon anymore and returns to the Forest Ranger’s house. You know, the lady who would have turned him over to CPS so he could go live in foster care without blinking an eye if he hadn’t claimed to have been living with a dragon.

In the final chapter, Pete and his new family (Forest Ranger, Boyfriend, and Natalie) drive to the mountains, where they visit the dragon, who (after Pete abandoned him) wandered off and randomly found his family of dragons.

So what’s wrong with this story?

For starters, it suffers from Too Many Characters. This is a kid’s book (movie.) Kids are interested in the antics of other kids; kids aren’t interested in adults trying to manage their adult relationships. With so many adult characters working through their own issues and character arcs, there is very little room in the story (it’s a short book) for Pete to have an arc of his own. In fact, Pete does not have a character arc. He does not debate whether or not he should join the humans, just spontaneously decides it for no particular reason at the end of the story.

Look, dragons are awesome. Living with a dragon is awesome. Most kids also think their own parents are pretty awesome. Random grownups you don’t know are not awesome. A life of wearing clothes, going to school, and doing homework is way less awesome than living in the woods with your dragon. Pete abandoning his dragon makes as much sense as a child spontaneously abandoning a beloved pet.

In short, the ending is completely unmotivated and makes no sense.

It still might be a fun movie (the special effects looked nice in the preview,) so long as the “gun-toting, ginger ale-swigging, bumbling logger” as bad guy doesn’t annoy you too much. But I was genuinely disappointed by the book.

Book Review: Strawberry Girl, by Lois Lenski (1945)

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From the back cover:

Set in the little-known backwoods region of Florida, [Strawberry Girl] is Birdie Boyer’s story; of how she and her fierce Cracker pride battled nature, animals, and feuding neighbors to become the best “strawberry girl” the backwoods ever knew.

I confess: I picked this one out of the used books bin for the obvious reason.

The newly-released, 60th anniversary edition has a different back blurb, which doesn’t mention “Crackers.” I don’t know if they censored the text, too.

Strawberry Girl is a middle grade novel–about right for a fourth or fifth grader, depending on their tolerance for dialect–along the lines of the Little House Series.

From the Forward:

Few people realize how new Florida is, or that, aside from the early Indian and Spanish settlements, Florida has grown up in the course of a single man’s lifetime. In the early 1900’s, the date of my story, Florida was still frontier country, with vast stretches of unexplored wilderness, woodland and swamp, and her towns were frontier towns thirty and forty years later than the same frontier period in the Middle West.

After the Seminole War, 1835-1842, Anglo-Saxons from the Carolinas, Georgia, and West Florida drifted south and took up land in the lake region of Florida. … Their descendants, in the second and third generation, were, in 1900 and the following decade, just prior to the coming of the automobile, living in a frontier community, with all its crudities, brutalities, and cruelties. The “Crackers” lived a primitive life, an endless battle went on–a conflict with nature, with wild life, and with their fellow man. …

Like their antecedents in the Carolina mountains, the Florida Crackers have preserved a flavorsome speech, rich in fine old English idiom–word, phrase and rhythm. Many old customs, folk songs, and superstitions have been handed down along with Anglo-Saxon purity of type, shown in their unusual beauty of physical feature, and along with their staunch integrity of character. …

My material has been gathered personally from the Crackers themselves, and from other Floridians who know and understand them. I have visited in Cracker homes. … All the characters in my book are imaginary, but practically all incidents used were told to me by people who had experienced them.

Assuming Mrs. Lenski is accurate, there’s a great deal of interesting material here. For starters, yes, apparently “Florida Crackers” are a real thing and not just a slur, and even have their own (small) Wikipedia page. (So do the “Georgia Crackers.”) According to Wikipedia:

Florida cracker refers to colonial-era English and American pioneer settlers and their descendants in what is now the U.S. state of Florida. The first of these arrived in 1763 after Spain traded Florida to Great Britain following the latter’s victory over France in the Seven Years’ War.

Georgia Cracker refers to the original American pioneer settlers of the Province of Georgia (later, the State of Georgia), and their descendants. …

By the 1760s the English, both at home and in the American colonies, applied the term “Cracker” to Scotch-Irish and English settlers of the remote southern back country, as noted in a passage from a letter to the Earl of Dartmouth: “I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by Crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, who often change their places of abode.” The word was later associated with the cowboys of Georgia and Florida, many of them descendants of those early frontiersmen.[1]

There is some debate, it appears, over the word’s origin, whether from Shakespearean usage, “to crack a joke, to boast,” ie, people who were loud-mouth boasters, or from the sound of a whip cracking as the cowboys drove their cattle to market.

Today, of course, the term is much more likely to be used as a slur, eg, “creepy cracker.”

The Scotch-Irish are more commonly known as Appalachians. Lenski’s characterization of her informants as “Anglo-Saxons” is therefore perhaps not entirely true; indeed, her main character’s last name, Boyer, is most commonly French. (This is not an insurmountable issue–plenty of French Huguenots settled in the American South after getting kicked out of France, and had long intermarried with everyone else.)

“Purity of type” is a phrase one doesn’t hear much anymore.

My main regret about this novel is that it is told from the POV of the Boyers instead of the Slaters. The Boyers have just arrived in Florida from “Caroliny,” and their goal is to start a commercially viable farm growing oranges and strawberries, which they send by train to markets in other states. The Slaters have been in the state for 4 generations (since grandpa Slater fought in the Seminole Indian Wars,) and are subsistence ranchers. While the Boyers’ experiences are interesting, I understand the motivations of commercial farmers pretty well. I’d rather learn more about the Slaters’ POV–their lifestyle is far less common. Since the Slaters are the antagonists, they just come across as dumb/lazy/mean (though not all of them.)

The book’s principle dram revolves around conflict between the Boyers’ lifestyle–which requires fencing off the land, hard labor, and long-term planning–or the Slaters’ lifestyle–which involves hunting and occasionally rounding up freely-ranging hogs and cattle. The Boyers’ fences interfere with the Slaters’ hogs and cattle getting to food and water, and the Slaters’ hogs and cattle ate and trampled the Boyers’ crops. Before the Boyers showed up, the Slaters had few neighbors, and free-ranging livestock weren’t really a problem. So from the Slaters’ POV, they had a perfectly good system going before the Boyers had to go move in next door. (Or did they? What was the TFR for folks like the Slaters?)

I’d really like to know how common this pattern was–did many places get settled by, shall we say, wilder, more impulsive, violent folks (mostly Borderlands Scots and Scots-Irish?) who were willing to take their chances fighting Indians in untamed frontier areas and favored hunting, fishing, and ranching, and then once they’d done the hard work of “taming” these areas, did more English and German settlers fence everything off, start commercially profitable farms, and displace them? (A kind of gentrification of the frontier?)

You may have noticed Birdie’s bare feet on the cover; Lenski mentions bare feet often in the narrative, and the manure spread on the fields for fertilizer. This, as you know, is a recipe for hookworm infection–which 40% of Southern children suffered from.

Hookworm infections cause anemia, malnutrition, malnourishment, lethargy, and death. In fact, the Southern stereotype of lazy, pale, gaunt, and impoverished people–personified in the book by the Slaters–is due, in large part, to the effects of mass hookworm infection.

The book takes place around 1900 and the few years after. The first public hookworm eradication campaigns started in 1910, and there was another big campaign going on in Florida at the time the book was published. So I suspect hookworms were on the informants’ and author’s minds when describing their old lifestyles, in a “we didn’t know!” kind of way.

The book also depicts two older boys (teenagers) getting in a fight with the school master and beating the tar out of him. Interestingly, in the first chapter of Farmer Boy (in the Little House series,) Almanzo Wilder is worried about the older boys at his school beating the tar out of his teacher. (Farmer Boy is set in Upstate New York.) Was beating up the teacher some kind of regular thing?

As is typical for the time, there’s a Prohibition theme (technically, Prohibition never fully ended in parts of Appalachia,) with the grown ups clucking moralistically over the antagonist’s habit of spending all of his family’s money on alcohol and then going into alcohol-fueled rages.

Unfortunately, the ending is not very good–it basically feels like the author decided she was done writing and so the main antagonist spontaneously found Christ and decided to stop being lazy and mean, but this is an overlookable flaw in an otherwise good book.