Sunday, August 16, 2015

Koko the Gorilla Meets Mr. Rogers

Koko, a western lowland gorilla held in captivity, learned over 1,000 signs from American Sign Language, and achieved a "sophisticated understanding" of spoken English by the age of 44.[1] Research has uncovered, moreover, that "gorillas may be capable of complex vocal behavior that defies previous beliefs about their communicative abilities."[2] In other words, the species is able to have a spoken language. Even though humans branched off from chimpanzees rather than gorillas 7 million years ago (our own species, homo sapiens, began 1.8 million years ago), the findings are hardly surprising; after all, whales and dolphins communicate by making distinct sounds. Even so, the prospect of being able to carry on a "conversation" with a member of another species is astounding. Gorillas like Koko might one day be able to tell us what it is like to be a gorilla. Ironically, we might learn more about our own species in the process. 

Koko teaching Mr. Rogers, star of the children's learning show, "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood,"  the sign for love.

Koko can make the sign for love, but do her keepers know she means the same thing as we do? Do gorillas feel love as we do? It is possible that a gorilla using human sign language is merely manipulating symbols according to rules. If so, it could not be said that Koko understands love. Even if she intends to communicate love by its sign, she might have in mind the love that gorillas have, rather than what we experience as love. Watching her favorite film, she turned away when the parents were saying goodbye to their boy as he boarded a train. Koko signed that it was sad because the mother loves her son. It is possible that Koko was referring to the biological attachment that a mother gorilla has for her baby, rather than what we mean by love. Koko might have meant merely that the mother will miss her boy, rather that the mother feels a selfless love for her son. Of course, what we mean by love may turn out to be more biological and less godly than we conveniently suppose. 

Koko, a fan of the television show, "Mr. Roger's Neighborhood," expressing affection for the star. Mr. Rogers, on the other hand, seems weary of his fan, at least in his body language.

Moreover, the research being conducted on Koko and other gorillas in captivity may bring us one step closer to the realization that we are just one species among many others, rather than unique, as in being made in God's image. This is not to say that God does not exist, whether or not it coheres to the Western conceptions. Perhaps gorillas have a spiritual nature too; they may even have an idea roughly equivalent to ours for God (maybe Koko's god is similar to that of the Exodus). If not, theology may be a function of brain complexity. If gorillas could communicate to us a species-specific spirituality or idea of the divine, then we could put our own in perspective and thus see it in a refreshing light. Perhaps we might find that our religions are human, all too human.[3]

In short, learning more about how gorillas communicate, and teaching those like Koko more human language can potentially increase our knowledge of what it is like to be another species. Even though Koko has a sophisticated knowledge of English and the use of a thousand signs, language would have to be capable of transmitting what it is like to be a gorilla or human. 

1. Carolyn Gregoire, "Apes May Be Much Closer to Human Speech Than We Realized," The Huffington Post, August 15, 2015.
2. Ibid.
3. "Human, All Too Human" is the title of one of Friedrich Nietzsche's books, but I have in mind David Hume's theory of religion. See his "The Natural History of Religion" for his account of how the human brain "translates" religion into distinctly human terms. See also the last chapter of my book, "God's Gold."

Friday, August 14, 2015

Educating Kids in American Schools: Early-Morning Zombies Subject to the Status Quo

It is natural to assume that the people in the business of educating children are highly committed to the dissemination of knowledge. That many school-administrators would stand by, and even enable the continuance of practices that compromise learning is difficult to believe; that fallacious reasoning would be used could only be reckoned as highly bizarre, and oxymoronic. Yet all this applies to dragging kids to school before their bodies have woken up.

In 2014, the American Academy of Pediatrics advised middle and high school administrators to begin the school-day no earlier than 8:30 a.m. “to allow teens—who are biologically programmed to stay up later than adults—to get the recommended 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep nightly.”[1] In the 2011-2012 school-year, the average start-time for 39,700 public middle, high, and combined schools was 8:03 a.m.; 83 percent of the schools began before 8:30.[2]

To Safwan Badr, a past president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the early start-times make absolutely no sense. “You’re asking kids to learn math at a time their brains are not even awake.”[3] In fact, we have made a virtue out of it, as per the adage, the early bird gets the worm. Parents praise their kids for waking up early for school, wholly unaware that the virtue may actually be a vice. Nietzsche would hardly be surprised, as he wrote of modern morality as decadent—even a weapon. Hence, we should question our moral truths, rather than simply take them as a given.

Strangely, many school administrators readily accepted the compromised learning in order to make room for after-school sporting events—as if academics were secondary in a school.[4] “It’s a logistical nightmare,” said Daniel Domenech of the School Superintendents Association.[5] As if being the status quo could serve as a justification, he adds, “This has been going on forever, and kids have been graduating from school and going on to college.”[6] Just because a practice has longevity does not mean that improvement does not apply. Indeed, a long-standing practice, such as slavery, may be in fierce need of correction. That kids have been graduating from high school and going on to college does not mean that such kids couldn’t be better-equipped intellectually as they matriculate, and that still more kids could make it to college.

On a Saturday when I was in my hometown, I stopped by the library at the junior college. Arriving shortly after 1 p.m., I was bewildered to find the hours were 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. even during the school year. I approached an early-elderly woman working in the small coffee shop across the hall from the library’s entrance. I expressed my astonishment that anyone would think that students would wake up early on a Saturday morning to go to the library. Indeed, on another occasion I witnessed the library nearly empty on a Saturday morning. The woman dismissed my assertion that afternoon hours would be more optimal. “If that were better, the college would have tried it and kept it,” she claimed. She was positing the status quo as being a justification, and thus of value in itself. Additionally, she was assuming that people afraid of change would not only embrace improvement, but also with near omniscience. “It is also possible,” I replied, “that the obvious did not occur to the administrators.” Ironically, people clutching the status quo may be most likely to miss the obvious staring them in the face. That this would apply to school administrators, who are in the business of educating students, is especially damning.

[1] Liz Szabo, “Class Times Too Early For Teens,” USA Today, August 7, 2015.
[2] The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Szabo, “Class Times.”
[3] Szabo, “Class Times.”
[4] At Yale, I took a senior-level course on American schools. During a discussion on the purpose of schools, I was stunned that I was the only student defending the “antiquated” position that the learning of academic knowledge is and ought to be the primary purpose. Many of my fellow students seemed intent to remake schools into social-service agencies that happen to disseminate knowledge. Doubtlessly, those students had forgotten (or were taking for granted) what had gotten them to Yale.
[5] Szabo, “Class Times.”
[6] Ibid.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Analysis of Inferences and Assumptions: A Homework Assignment for “We the People”

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both strongly believed that the continued viability of a republic depends on an educated and virtuous citizenry. Public education and even the practice of some of the professional schools (e.g., medicine and law) since at least the early twentieth century to require a degree in another school (e.g. Liberal Arts and Sciences) before being admitted to the undergraduate program (i.e., the M.D. and J.D. or LLB, respectively). This lateral move is unique to the U.S.; entering medical and law students in the E.U. need not already have a college degree. I submit that the Founding Fathers’ firm political belief in the importance of an educated electorate concerns the value of not only having a broad array of knowledge, but also reason being able to assess its own inferences, or assumptions; for inferences, or leaps of reason, go into political judgments. Ultimately, voters make judgements, whether concerning the worthiness of candidates on a ballot, their policies, or proposals on a referendum. To the extent that subjecting assumptions to the “stress test” of reasoning is not a salient part of secondary education, an electorate is likely to make sub-optimal judgements, resulting in suboptimal elected officials, public policies, and laws.

The full essay is at “A Homework Assignment for ‘We the People’.”