Comments on: Humans and the animals without history http://savageminds.org/2013/01/21/humans-and-the-animals-without-history/ Notes and Queries in Anthropology Sat, 01 Aug 2015 06:13:53 +0000 hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.3 By: Al West http://savageminds.org/2013/01/21/humans-and-the-animals-without-history/comment-page-1/#comment-793936 Mon, 11 Feb 2013 18:48:06 +0000 http://savageminds.org/?p=9184#comment-793936

For Al’s comparison to be fair to the slime mold his computer would need to be without a cpu or hard drive. Of course, this is absurd.

If you believe that, then you’re saying that there is nothing within a slime mold that is capable of receiving inputs and interpreting them (ie, it has no CPU or hard drive of its own) – which makes the idea of it using its own trails as external memory mysterious, not just scientifically, but metaphysically. But I assume you have no problem with this, given your second statement:

But, it is only absurd because applying the computational metaphor to living things is an absurdity. For example, I took the cpu and hard drive out of my old computer about a year ago and it has not seen fit to go anywhere since, and certainly not back to my desk. Or, maybe this is part of its larger plan to avoid work.

…which is, effectively, a statement of vitalism, another metaphysical absurdity. Not that you chaps will mind metaphysical absurdities, though, with the Derrida stuff. Bad philosophy abounds.

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By: Michael Scroggins http://savageminds.org/2013/01/21/humans-and-the-animals-without-history/comment-page-1/#comment-793924 Mon, 11 Feb 2013 17:42:37 +0000 http://savageminds.org/?p=9184#comment-793924 @Tim Thank you for dragging this thread back up. I had lost track of it in the Debt donnybrook.

The interesting point about slime mold is that they lack cognitive capacity. They have no brain, hence no “mind”, and therefore the ability of a slime mold to carry out the kind of cognitive task associated with rats is… a fun mystery, I think.

For Al’s comparison to be fair to the slime mold his computer would need to be without a cpu or hard drive. Of course, this is absurd. But, it is only absurd because applying the computational metaphor to living things is an absurdity. For example, I took the cpu and hard drive out of my old computer about a year ago and it has not seen fit to go anywhere since, and certainly not back to my desk. Or, maybe this is part of its larger plan to avoid work.

The more interesting question here is whether the difference between humans and animals is one of degree or one of kind. And we don’t need Derrida or evolutionary psychology to remember what Morgan wrote of the American Beaver (p. 83) “it is, in itself considered, a remarkable feat that he [the beaver] should have voluntarily transferred himself, by means of dams and ponds of his own construction, from a natural to an artificial mode of life.”

Following Morgan, Beavers not only have a history, but they are also designers. They actively make and remake their given circumstances into more preferred circumstances through their labor. They engage, to abuse Herbert Simon, in the science of the artificial.

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By: Tim Mason http://savageminds.org/2013/01/21/humans-and-the-animals-without-history/comment-page-1/#comment-793910 Mon, 11 Feb 2013 16:15:37 +0000 http://savageminds.org/?p=9184#comment-793910 Because I’m French. We remain impervious to evolutionary biology’s crossing the line into the human sciences, as I was once sternly instructed when I attempted to introduce lupine hierarchies into a discussion of social structure. And after all, my students’ pigeons were also Derrida’s. If our sociologists and anthropologists do embrace the animal, it may well be because of Derrida’s last lectures. Celebrating the slime mould might take us a little longer.

(My student is a geographer: right now, they’re taking over the social sciences).

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By: Al West http://savageminds.org/2013/01/21/humans-and-the-animals-without-history/comment-page-1/#comment-792768 Fri, 08 Feb 2013 22:06:31 +0000 http://savageminds.org/?p=9184#comment-792768

I’m no slime mold expert, but I think the emerging consensus is that slime mold use the slime they leave behind as a form of externalized memory.

In that case, it is clearly possible to develop a computer ‘with history’, because it could be programmed to leave items of some kind behind and use them as inputs for producing further actions. That would render the idea of ‘history’ moot, and we end up back where we started, without any meaningful differentiation of human capabilities for the purpose of academic analysis.

but – as Derrida reminds us – we’re always given to special pleading when it comes to drawing a line between this one favoured animal and all the others.

Derrida, of all people? Why not any evolutionary biologist ever?

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By: Michael Scroggins http://savageminds.org/2013/01/21/humans-and-the-animals-without-history/comment-page-1/#comment-792767 Fri, 08 Feb 2013 21:57:47 +0000 http://savageminds.org/?p=9184#comment-792767 @Tim

There has been a bit of work recently on slime mold and memory. It seems that despite lacking a brain the slime mold is a very efficient navigator of complex environments such that they are able to solve difficult mazes without a problem.

I’m no slime mold expert, but I think the emerging consensus is that slime mold use the slime they leave behind as a form of externalized memory. In this way slime molds make their own history.

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By: Tim Mason http://savageminds.org/2013/01/21/humans-and-the-animals-without-history/comment-page-1/#comment-792657 Fri, 08 Feb 2013 16:37:18 +0000 http://savageminds.org/?p=9184#comment-792657 One of the post-grad students I teach is writing a thesis on pigeons. She told me that one of the questions she’s interested in approaching an answer to is whether pigeons ‘have history.’ We didn’t have time to go into this during class, but I have since been wondering about it myself. Would pigeons excrete their historeographical records on the gargoyles of Notre Dame, peck their way patiently through the multiple folders full of guano?

Even historians are now letting go of the idea that history is only possible if there is a written record. The deep historian such as Daniel Lord Smail will gladly reach out to the rocks and bones that have until recently been the province of the archaeologist. If these mute leavings can be grist to the human historian’s mill, could the pigeon have the same interest in the doings of her own species that our historians have in ours?

From what S told me, pigeon history, or collective memory, or whatever it is, is, much as our own has been, highly territorial. There are buildings and squares in Paris that have had their winged communities for a century or more, and there are others that have little attraction. You will, I am sure, be able to think of a handful or so of alternative hypotheses to that of the avian Thucydides, but – as Derrida reminds us – we’re always given to special pleading when it comes to drawing a line between this one favoured animal and all the others.

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By: Al West http://savageminds.org/2013/01/21/humans-and-the-animals-without-history/comment-page-1/#comment-785794 Fri, 25 Jan 2013 22:49:42 +0000 http://savageminds.org/?p=9184#comment-785794 The classification of Animalia isn’t folk ontology/taxonomy, but a standard scientific taxon with real validity and a reasonably clear origin in the Cambrian. Humans are clearly included within this kingdom. Of course folk taxonomy is incorrect in positing that humans are different from animals absolutely, and clearly the idea of a human/animal opposition is incorrect.

It’s still pretty reasonable to differentiate humans from other animals based on common traits, or to talk about humans in terms of the traits they possess. This doesn’t imply either essentialism or an absolute difference from other animals.

Humans have two eyes; saying this does not mean that one-eyed people are no longer humans (and this is also a trait shared by most animals, going right back to the Cambrian). Humans have two legs; again, saying this does not mean that amputees are no longer humans. Humans have the capacity to process multiple orders of recursion; saying this does not mean that other animals are totally incapable of recursive procedures (although the evidence is reasonably clear that most of them are incapable of anything beyond two orders, and only a tiny minority, mostly corvids, are capable of even that), nor that non-recursively-thinking humans are no longer humans.

Of course the category of ‘human’ is arbitrary – it’s a biological classification, not a metaphysical one. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t shared features among most humans, and it is certainly meaningful to talk about the differences between humans and other animals. And this is definitely a good starting point for anthropological inquiry as well. The folk category may not be real or all that useful, but, carefully navigated, the differences between Homo sapiens sapiens and, say, Australopithecus afarensis are a worthwhile topic.

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By: DIscuss White Privilege http://savageminds.org/2013/01/21/humans-and-the-animals-without-history/comment-page-1/#comment-785781 Fri, 25 Jan 2013 22:14:38 +0000 http://savageminds.org/?p=9184#comment-785781 Hugo, agreed on your point of the double impoverishment. Thanks for the clarification and the reference. Much appreciated.

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By: hugo http://savageminds.org/2013/01/21/humans-and-the-animals-without-history/comment-page-1/#comment-785589 Fri, 25 Jan 2013 13:53:10 +0000 http://savageminds.org/?p=9184#comment-785589 DWP: My own 2p would be that the “animalization” of humans entails a double impoverishment or objectification – immediately and most obviously, of the human victim, but less proximately also of the supposed “animal” that sustains the metaphor. Neither party is well served by having the term applied to them.

I’m quite influenced by Carol Adams on this, The Sexual Politics of Meat (1990).

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By: hugo http://savageminds.org/2013/01/21/humans-and-the-animals-without-history/comment-page-1/#comment-785587 Fri, 25 Jan 2013 13:44:50 +0000 http://savageminds.org/?p=9184#comment-785587 Heh. Complex and volatile territory this is.

Al, my argument isn’t with difference, not at all – my truck is with the term “animal”, as an impoverished folk ontology that groups all forms of nonhuman life under one heading, then assigns them all some sort of imagined commonality based on lack, then defines “human” as the positive converse of that lack.

This isn’t a very productive construct: it’s aprioristic, fairly baseless, and it obscures a lot of really interesting things. Personally, say, I’m pretty happy with the idea that dolphins might have a holographic language, or that birds might hold funerals for their dead.

To me at least it looks like the age-old “human” / “animal” couplet is becoming an increasingly coarse tool for thinking about the world, and about the beings that inhabit it.

In the light of this, it might not be a bad idea for us – as anthropologists, ostensibly in the business of studying anthropos – to take this construct as an anthropological object, and to properly question the deep-seated binaries that continue to structure our own thinking (and practice). And, perhaps, to come up with other ways of thinking these matters.

‘sall I’m saying :)

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By: John McCreery http://savageminds.org/2013/01/21/humans-and-the-animals-without-history/comment-page-1/#comment-785165 Thu, 24 Jan 2013 23:07:00 +0000 http://savageminds.org/?p=9184#comment-785165 Surely, Matt, your mascot is the butterfly.[grin]

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By: DIscuss White Privilege http://savageminds.org/2013/01/21/humans-and-the-animals-without-history/comment-page-1/#comment-785117 Thu, 24 Jan 2013 21:36:38 +0000 http://savageminds.org/?p=9184#comment-785117 Just to clarify, again: the things I found ‘funny’ and ‘hilarious’ about the post and comments in the context of criminal justice and dominion were in no way a personal comment on you, Matt. Just thought that these facts made the post and comments on it even more thought-provoking.

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By: Matt Thompson http://savageminds.org/2013/01/21/humans-and-the-animals-without-history/comment-page-1/#comment-785104 Thu, 24 Jan 2013 21:23:28 +0000 http://savageminds.org/?p=9184#comment-785104 The real irony is that for our school mascot we are “The Monarchs” when the Virginia state motto is Sic Semper Tyrannis.

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By: DIscuss White Privilege http://savageminds.org/2013/01/21/humans-and-the-animals-without-history/comment-page-1/#comment-785061 Thu, 24 Jan 2013 19:45:47 +0000 http://savageminds.org/?p=9184#comment-785061 I should hope it is obvious that I am not insulting Matt. Just pointing out the coincidences and how ‘funny’ it is that this discussion is in relation to a post from an anthropologist teaching in a criminal justice program at OD.

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By: DIscuss White Privilege http://savageminds.org/2013/01/21/humans-and-the-animals-without-history/comment-page-1/#comment-785053 Thu, 24 Jan 2013 19:16:06 +0000 http://savageminds.org/?p=9184#comment-785053 Correction: meant to write it relates back to Hugo’s comment on ‘post-Adamic’ genealogy. Got distracted by thinking about how this genealogy also has racial entailments both because of dominion and the story of Cain to which it leads.

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