Friday, March 07, 2008

In the Penny Press!

It need hardly be said that we here at Stevereads smiled approvingly at the cover story of the latest issue of National Geographic "Minds of Their Own," written by Virginia Morell and including magnificent photographs by Vincent Musi. Natioal Geographic is of course the world's greatest magazine by such a wide margin that direct comparisons are embarrassing, but even so, this has been a significantly fantastic last roughly ten months, and this issue - and this marvellous, thought-provoking (no pun intended) article only continues the streak.

Morell's piece is refreshingly almost entirely free of humanocentricisms - which makes it incredibly rare when it comes to any writing on this particular subject. Oh, don't get us wrong - there's still quite a bit of making nonhuman animals learn new languages, decipher spatial problems in sequence, talk in English, etc. - in other words, equating particularly human intelligence for all kinds of intelligence - but mercifully, there's quite a bit of better thinking in the article too, thinking that tries to step outside the age-old paradigm of chimps wearing human clothes.

The story is structured to have stars, and there they all are, in Musi's amazing photos, set against calm white backgrounds, looking out at human readers with clear, inhuman beauty and directness. The minds behind those inscrutible faces remain a mystery, but the playfulness - and the ease - with which these stars bemusedly try to bridge the gap between their worlds and man's world is as obvious as it is shaming. They are entire alternate civilizations, and their kinds have been whipped, train-carted, butchered, food-processed, machine-gunned, castrated, mocked, tortured, and mass-executed by humans (who've been no gentler with their own kind as well) - and yet, looking at these miraculous pictures, we see no rage, no resentment ... only an elementary curiosity and perhaps an abiding desire that mankind's awakening awareness of their potentials maybe prevent mankind from wiping them out entirely.

We see Azy the orangutan (currently residing in Iowa, of all places), who can easily out-think most chimpanzees. We see Shanthi the Asian elephant, who's in captivity in a zoo and yet still manages to display some fraction of her species' vast capacities for sociability and gestalt thinking. We see Edward, a Black Leicester longwool sheep, who's as good at recognizing human faces as any human reading the article. We see JB, a giant Pacific octopus, currently held in captivity in a Baltimore aquarium, who, we're confidently told, has a "distinct personality" and enjoys squirting the scientists who study him every day. We see Maya, a bottlenose dolphin, currently in captivity in Baltimore aquarium, whose beautiful face shows all the grace and forebearance so characteristic of tursiops truncatus. We see Alex, the African Gray Parrot, who not only knew a large vocabulary but wasn't shy about advertising that fact to other birds in the lab where he lived, telling the younger ones, in English, to "Talk clearly!" when they made some mistake in their new language.

And there's our cover girl, Betsy the Border Collie, who has a vocabulary of 340 words and routinely out-performs all the higher primates when it comes to intuiting human behavior. Her owners are glowingly proud, of course, and she continues to add to her 'verbal' acquisitions.

In reality, none of those learned behaviors is technically verbal. at least not in Betsy's case. Betsy's exemplary performance has nothing to do with what humans call intelligence - dogs by and large are strangers to that function, as it's known to humans or any other species that legitimately retains it (manatees, needless to say, aren't mentioned in the article). Dogs are amazingly elastic observers of all moving things, and as for humankind - well, man has no more devoted spectator nor could have than this species, these creatures who've mapped their own genetic future to that of mankind. It's their business to intuit what humans want, and they do it better than anybody else - in reality, that's what Betsy's doing, not learning words and really knowing what they mean, or even what it means for them to mean anything.

But this is a small quibble; the article itself does a fantastic job of exploring the concepts of intellect and selfhood - exploring just how universal those concepts might be among the living creatures on this planet. We whole-heartedly recommend you rush right out and buy a copy, read this revelatory article, and then politely introduce yourself to the next non-human you meet, even if it's the Reichmarshall.

Of course, this being National Geographic, there's a lot more worth in the issue than this one story. There's a very good article on the modern ecological problems faced by Iceland, and the article on new attempts to bring democracy to the beautiful landlocked Asian nation of Bhutan has enough surrealism in it to satisfy your inner Joseph Heller. The country's revered monarch, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, recently abdicated in favor of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is introducing Western-style democracy to his land. One village woman is quoted as being confused by this: "We have a good and wise king," she says. "Why do we need democracy?"

To which we here at Stevereads would only add, "Amen," but the surrealism gets better:

Even Bhutan's chief election commissioner concedes that he would prefer not to have elections. "Given the choice, of course, we'd want to continue to be guided by the monarchy," he says. So why change? "It's a simple thing: The king wants it."


And if quandaries like that start to make you wonder if humans aren't the least rational beings on Earth, turn back to "Minds of Their Own" and read it again - it'll only get better the second time.

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