Biology

"Nature vs. nurture" is a false dichotomy. Rather, it is in our nature to nurture and be nurtured by others

"Nature versus nurture" is a false dichotomy, just as "nature and nurture" is a false compromise. The real relationship is hierarchal: Nature made us nurturing and nurture-able. Nature made certain things difficult to mold, but it also gave us the willpower to overcome those difficulties.

At the very least, we can assume the same cognitive world as mammals, sensing ground as solid and bird-song as pleasant

Even though we can't ultimately know what is happening inside the heads of other animals—and there's some who argue we can't even really know what is going on inside the minds of fellow humans—we can at least make some probabilistic guesses as to the nature of animal cognition. Animals likely share our perception of physics. They must have a sense of solids. They must understand the Earth as "ground" that exists below their bodies. They must have a sense of cause and effect. Predators must at least share the same sense of time with us since they must anticipate the moves of prey. Deer react to the sight of predators by throwing their bodies towards safety, expecting relief. Animals see colors, they feel the brush of wind, and they hear birds sing. They might even know that those songs are coming from birds, and because birds are not harmful, the sound is somewhere between soothing to non-threatening.

By recognizing our shared cognitive world with animals, we can bypass difficult questions like whether animals feel. Since so much of human consciousness has to do with things outside of emotions and self-awareness, it may not be necessary to understand whether those things exist for other animals for us to extend the circle of empathy.

If captive animals display stereotypies—i.e. repetitive, but pointless movements—is it possible that modernity, with its incessant checking of Facebook and cell phones, is a form of captivity for humans?

Stereotypies are repetitive tasks or movements that are seemingly pointless. One way to assess animal welfare is to measure the frequency of stereotypies, such as how often a gerbil digs without making a tunnel. Animals in captivity tend to display stereotypies, the most common of which is pacing in figure eights, typical of lions held in cages.

Do modern humans exhibit stereotypies? OCD behavior, like incessant hand-washing, seems to fit the description of stereotypies. But what about more common ones, such as repeatedly checking your cell phone or Facebook? What about obsessive, repetitive thinking? If these are true stereotypies, then it's possible that modernity is a form of captivity. We are potentially so far removed from our natural habitat, that by nursing our anxieties, and by feeding the industries that depend on our behavioral patterns, we lock into loops with our consumer devices.

Instead of preparing for the zombie apocalypse by stocking up on bicycles or canned foods, we should look to modern, tenacious animals for inspiration

For example, rats are thriving in the Age of Man, which means dumpster-divers will have digestive systems most prepared for the human wasteland. Rabbits are an example of the enduring importance of breeding. As a result, sex-crazed subcultures will likely outlast the more timid breeders. Farm animals such as sheep and cattle are also thriving today. Since it is probable that a few warlords will consolidate what farms remain in the End Times, it might also help to be an obedient workhorse.

Our sense of shared humanity comes from perceiving any beige android with two arms, two legs, and language-processing as one of us

Every difference that matters is genetic. The angry driver who is raging out—that's genetic. The significant other who has incredible empathy—that's genetic. The best friend who is great at math, the aunt who has short fingers, the teacher who can run marathons at the age of 50, the co-worker who can't, etc.—all genetic. Picture a kindergarten school portrait. This group doesn't represent a bracket of "humans," but rather a garden of tulips, grasses, and pines, all from different periods, like the Jurassic or Cambrian. This bracket, when cross-pollinated with another equally strange bracket somewhere else will lead to an even richer, out-of-this-world, descendant garden.

Our passing perception of each other's differences is not one of wonder, though. Perhaps it's in our interest to be blasé. If each time we walked down the street, it felt like a giraffe crashing through the gates of a zoo, it would overwhelm us. We couldn't create social norms without a sense of shared humanity. And yet, if we were to appreciate our differences, connecting every trait not just to different notes on a piano as geneticists or anthropologists would have us believe, but rather to entirely different types of instruments, only after then hearing this cacophony would it click in our heads what it means to be human.

Teenagers are annoying in all species that separate growth years from child-raising years

Daniel Everett, who lived among the indigenous Pirahã for many years, observed that teenagers in their society were noisy and rambunctious too, which led him to conclude that they must be that way everywhere.

Animals have a notion of play too. Monkeys, for example, have been observed throwing themselves into bushes that bend and then fling them back at their friends, for no other purpose than that it gives them pleasure. (Evolutionary biologists, though, would say the purpose of play is to encourage skill acquisition).

Which brings up the question whether adult monkeys have the same attitude towards their teenagers as we do. Do they sit higher up in the trees, wringing their hands, looking down upon their "once-promising son or daughter" who is now spending their days making weird noises and jumping around like an idiot onto the bushes, having sex with whomever they please, with no consideration of anybody or anything else going on around them. With no respect for civil society.

We can label dogs wagging their tails as submissive all we want, but we still have no idea what "submission" means in doggy brains

When we say that animals have memories or that they communicate, we are anthropomorphizing on a basic level; we are essentially saying that animals have features like us. A more limited description of animal memory would say, "The animal returned to the location of its food after a separation of days." But instead, we say that animals have memories. It's simpler and more accurate. While we will ultimately never know what happens inside the black box of the brain, especially animal brains, the odds that animals have memories or that they communicate as humans do is high.

But anthropomorphizing has its limitations. If a dog wags its tail, an ethologist will describe it as a submissive gesture. She is confident in this description because she has studied hundreds or thousands of dogs and knows that when this gesture occurs, it is often in the presence of the powerful. And since the gesture commonly appears with other gestures, such as avoiding eye contact, it's safe to apply a label drawn from humans.

However, when a dog shows submission, it is in the context of the world of dogs. We are power hungry, so the word "submissive" means something special to us. For dogs, it could mean something trivial. For chimpanzees, who are arguably more power hungry than humans, it may mean something more profound. Maybe a submissive gesture for chimpanzees has as much a hold over them as being in love would be for humans.

The most accurate statement, then, is that the dog is making a submissive-x gesture, where -x is a modifier indicating that while it models a behavior found in humans, it may or may not have the same meaning to members of that species. This preserves the accuracy of behaviorist, black-box descriptors, without surrendering the descriptive power of applying terms that obviously link the human and animal worlds.

While a dog kneeling is a submissive gesture, submission means something completely different in the world of dogs to us, and so while it's useful to anthropomorphize, in order to group gestures together, and figure out what is being communicated, it's not useful in that we have no idea what that gesture means to the subject.

Anthropomorphic labels for gestures, such as submission in dogs, is only good enough from a formal perspective, but we have to keep in mind we have no idea what submission means to a dog, maybe it's just a ritual deference, or maybe it's a question, may I have.