30 November 2007

Persepolis
You (yeah, you) gotta see this movie, a rare gem. Check out the the official website to get an idea later of its powerful "stylized realism", but of course don't read the details until you see it ;). Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, drawn from her graphic novel, is not to be confused with the ancient city, far away from Teheran (where most of the action takes place) or with the eponymous soccer club. But i digress: the movie describes Marjane's childhood in Iran during and after the "Islamic" revolution. I put quotes around Islamic here cuz I still need to be explained what growing beards and veils have to do with the essence of Islam. Anyway, the movie doesn't dwell on such trivial issues. It is just riotously funny and suffused with deep sadness (sometimes at the same instant.. it's a total shock). Both sad and happy parts end up touching something universal in the human condition. Even the scenes where she hits rock bottom depression are funny. I have never seen anything quite like that on a movie screen.

Strangely, i had to see it in German, even though it was part of Leipzig's French film festival (typisch Leipzig..). But past the initial surprise (and yes, a bit of grumbling) i actually enjoyed even the German voices, especially when Marjane goes to Vienna. The Austrian accents are just to die for, i am sure something gets lost in the original French version.

Now here is a question to all women; after a breakup, especially when young, do you really darken and destroy the memories of you former flame? He suddenly becomes a dumb, ugly and foul. I thought that was just another funny eccentricity of Marjane, but at least one female friends confirmed that this is just like that in all females of our species. Wow. That's a shock. I don't know about you guys, but I just can't see former flames in a dark way, there is always this longing.

Finally, one of the greatest thing about the film is to remind us of our "integrity". Sometimes we do stupid and/or bad things without thinking, hurting people in the process. But the grandmother is there to remind Marjane to be watchful for those tendencies. Remember where you come from, whether it be Iran, or just our own childhood which too often we forget as we evolve through life.



16 November 2007

On the theme "those guys are people too" (replace "those guys" by chimpanzees, bonobos, dolphins, lawyers, talibans, .. whatever point you feel like making) here is one of the many bonobo video found on youtube.com (including some bonobo porn)

I have already discussed some of that theme here and there.
Interesting that Danny concludes "couldn't' they be apes AND people, because after all isn't that what we are?". Right we are apes too, but are they people? Are they of our people? Can we just raise them as humans and integrate them into our society as some people suggest? So to make things clear what are "people", "persons" and "humans"? First, humans are us, the genetically defined Homo sapiens species (that's a narrow definition there are broader definitions based on cognitive and spiritual qualities). A person, to me, is just a legal term translating an individual's place in a human society. People are about the same thing but with a cultural flavor, in the sense of "our people", I think that's more or less what Danny is trying to say. The logical consequence is that bonobos and other non-human apes cannot be persons, they are too different, and they certainly are not of our people, our "human race". But they are apes like us (dogs are mammal like us, etc..), and thus share many common behavioral traits.

The idea, mentioned by Danny, to raise an ape as a human he is of course not new, it's been attempted before, and Sue Savage-Rumbaugh is doing it here with Bonobos. Others have tried with chimps and they became cool chimps, but still.. chimps. Same with Sue's bonobos as far as I can tell. Because, really, can a human-raised bonobo hold a job and function like a socially-fit individual in human society? A person? I don't think so. Just look at the sex scene in that video for instance. No comment. We certainly can't apply most human laws to any other species. In fact, just human social and moral laws can be incompatible among themselves; wanting to merge them all in one universal human law may not be the wisest endeavor (euphemism), so why would we want to do that with bonobos and make them persons of any human human country?
This doesn't make sense, but we ought to pay those non-human folks respect and give them space on this planet to at least live in harmony with their environment and avoid suffering. In fact we should be able to to that with any life form that doesn't make us suffer (i.e. exclude damn mosquitoes;-). Of course the temptation is great to impose our moral values to any other species, especially the ones closest to us genetically (just as it is done of fellow humans of different cultures). Still we cannot simply treat them as mice. In fact lab experiments that are done on mice are unthinkable on primates, even less apes. There exist already a hierarchy among species, a differential treatment. As we try not to be racist, we are "specists". Treating cute species or those that look more like us better than ugly or evolutionarily distant ones.. is so human (and maybe too.. so animal).

So, OK, we bonobos and us are in the same "ape tribe" and maybe we can look down on monkeys. They have a tail and we don't. Boo. And together with monkeys we can look down at other mammals. Boo. Etc.

And if we humans have a soul, who else does?

23 October 2007

Now here is a question about the previous video; which side did YOU take? were you pro-lion or pro-buffalo? (or pro-crocodile..) One of the spectators clearly made emotional pro-buffalo comments. Well nobody likes to see an infant eaten alive, in any species. And we like felines, only on the condition that they eat crunchy fish croquettes in little heart shapes (seriously, they do exist, i've seen them in Germany). I surprisingly found myself thinking sometimes pro-buffalo too as I was watching the plot unfold. We also think lions, being the hunters, usually are successful and dominant over the poor preys. Well, now i am wondering if this video was such an exception. Buffalos don't eat lions, but they do kick their ass, and the interaction resembles a war. See for instance this one (not as cool as the previous video, and quite gruesome: lion cubs are being chased and killed by bulls). Now which side do you take there? Don't you wish the oh-so-cute baby lions survive the attacks? That's what the commentator seems to be thinking. Interesting how the human mind takes the side of the weak.. at least when we have nothing at stake. If we are the ones threatened our human ancestors would probably not hesitate killing baby predators (one less that will reach adulthood), or if we are the ones hunting with a hungry stomach we think different (kill the buffalo, yumm!). In either case we probably think of ourselves (and in particular our ancestors) as the weak guys in nature, because physically we are. Is that the reason we tend to side for the weak?

17 October 2007

You HAVE to see this video, the action is slow to start but, wow... see it before reading the rest.

One reason this is so spectacular is that it is so rare in nature. As i understand, lions usually attack the weak elements of the herd, and they may only get horned if they are not careful in choosing their prey (or if themselves are weak/old/young). But it seems they were pretty wise in this case, picking a young one. So they couldn't imagine the buffaloes coming back and being so persistent. From a human perspective on may wonder, what could prevent the bulls to kick lions's asses all the time with such a strategy? One interesting thing i saw is that the bulls were, well, bullying, but direct attacks were rare (though efficient) and only by very few individuals. With such mass and horns, they could have really torn the lions to shred even more than they did. But i am thinking as a human, and my ancestors are the one who applied consistent group strategies (and fire) with the consequences we know. They had the communication skills to transmit strategies and the big brains to remember elaborate better and better ones, and adapt to new situations. But are our communications skills so unique? How did the first buffalos communicate to their fellows something like, "hey guys, they got young charlie, we weren't enough to protect him, let's all go back all together and we can kick their ass, quick he might still be alive, quick!" Really, how do you say that in buffalean? (especially noteworthy if it's a rare event)
Now for the ultimate question; did the young buffalo really survive after all this??

01 July 2007

More on our ape bro.. cousins

Before i begin to report my first Leipzig zoo visit.
1) Apes are not monkeys; in short apes are our closest cousins. Apes, just like us, have no tail, apart from a vestigial one at the base of the spine (from a taxonomic viewpoint it can be argued that humans are also apes).
2) Apes are not our ancestors! Living apes and us are as remote in time from our common ancestors. And these common ancestors were not Chimps, not Gorillas, etc... they were just "another species". (Primatologists sometimes use apes as a window in the "pre-human" human past, but they do it with great caution because only the traits we have in common are likely to be also those of our common ancestors. More on that later..)

Anyway, I just paid my first visit to the Leipzig zoo (there will be many more). This was a private visit to a select group of 30 German retirees + me + occasional rain. Ha! So I saw:
- Gorillas: from too far, in the mist.. i'll see you guys later.
- Chimps, group A: the main group was indoors, pretty chill folks, lazy adults and jumpy clumsy infants. They seemed relaxed, like at a chimp version of the Club Med, aka Chimp Med.
- Orang-Utans ("Man of the forest" in Malay, nothing to do with the color "orange" although they coincidentally do have orange hair!): wow that dominant male is quite a riot! long hair like a cloak, impressive frame... unlike in nature (where male OU are solitary), he lives with the others but seems ok with it. It's an unconventional group anyway, since it includes one female Gibbon (too old to be mated with a male of her own kind--the only strictly monogamous ape species). She grooms and gets groomed, totally accepted by the colorful Orang folks! You can imagine what other question i asked about her, well, the answer is no.
- Bonobos: only 3 males, 2 females.. and one local newborn! We only saw the 3 males who came on call, un-shy about their gigantic testicles. Now, even though I had seen pictures, it was a shock how different they are from chimps, not so much physically but those guys feel so human it's eery. The way they look at you, the way they stroll around.. the way they seem so bored and lonely. They clearly miss company, well, at least that day I saw them. More on bonobos and their potential here.
- Chimps, group B: a few females related to the dominant males of group A, were kept separately to avoid inbreeding. This group also includes a male who almost got killed in a fight with males of the main group. Godly zookeepers saved him from a grim death. This group was not in Chimp Med, but in a (large) cage and definitely more interested by our visit.

I also discovered that Chimps, Orangs and the Gibbon chick regularly walk on the ropes. Right they don't just hang and swing around (masterfully) on branches and ropes. They sometimes actually walk on rope, and stand (not squat) on branches for a while. Long arms are a perfect for balancing there. I wonder if anyone has studied that, but it seems they walk more on branches & ropes than they do on the ground. All too logic considering the environment their species adapted to..

In the end, like any zoo it's a bit depressing, though these guys have it easier than other zoos i have seen. And they are stimulated by props and toys, including primate psychology experiments. I think for their well being and development, it's very important for apes to have social interactions,.. even if with human cousins by default. As exemplified by the Gibbonette among the Orangs, there may be more room for inter-ape-species friendship than we would think.

29 June 2007

Of course the yahoo link of the previous post is now broken..
here is the story from a (hopefully) more permanent site:

http://forums.spacebattles.com/archive/index.php/t-117788.html

Scroll down to read many dumb or superficial comments but this here is a cool and deep one:
A. Bettik -- May 5th 2007, 8:42am
This actually is a difficult question: Some chimps have been shown to have the cognitive ability of a young child... some have even learned sign language. Why should they have fewer rights than children matter?
I'm not really sure at all. This could end up turning us into some race of hippy-indian-treehuggers who get annihilated by the first passing alien race, or it could be a step in the direction of the enlightened, superior Xel-Naga who soon rule the galaxy in benevolence. I'm not sure which.

11 May 2007

what's new in the human species? might we include other animals in our own species?

Activists want chimp declared a 'person' - Yahoo! News
http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/chimp_challenge (broken link, see new post above)

- what is a "person"? if we are talking in law terms, it's different in every country, and yeah maybe the law needs to be tweaked a bit now that we (re)discover that animals are damn smart and have emotions too. But really, how much rights can you have without having responsibilities? Chimps or any other animals cannot share the same responsibilities as human persons, therefore they cannot function as such in the society. How different are they from non-autonomous mentally-impaired humans? Well, even though I cringe writing this, I have to admit that some great apes do have higher emotional and cognitive abilities than some mentally-impaired humans. Having said that, does that mean they ought to have similar rights? No. Something just feels "wrong" about the idea, but what? Well, it's about the potential; we think that ANY human, even the deepest autistic or advanced alzheimer patient have the "potential" to be human. Same issue at stake when we debate on euthanasia. So the question becomes; does a chimp have the potential to be human like me?

- More practically; why don't they just put abandoned chimps in animal shelters? dogs and cats also have personalities but that doesn't make them "persons"! (btw, some cats paint and i have seen dogs eat pastry, hm.) Can't the activist just adopt Hiasl as a pet? Maybe the best would be a zoo, they know how to take care of chimps, and they may even have chimp friends for Hiasl and Rosi.

- aren't the activists contradicting themselves when they say they want Hiasl to have "basic legal rights" but no right to vote? They want to give him the "right to own property"; but is it moral to just give that to someone who doesn't understand what that means? If these are not plain contradictions they at least send a very confusing message.

- what is an "animal rights activist"? are these the same breed as the ones who said you gotta kill Knut the baby polar bear abandoned by its mother? at least one activist mentioned in the article disagrees with the present cause and rightly fears animal rights will loose credibility with such foolish claims (though it's not a foolish debate).

- apes such as chimps do have high cognitive abilities (and human-like physiques) that makes us think twice before treating them as.. "just animals". Another way to think about this is that we are animals ourselves, highly self-domesticated, and with a propensity to domesticate other species. There is no "Us v. The Animals", but "We The Animals". And "We Humans" have the most sophisticated societies and have the power to make all animals (including ourselves) either miserable or comfortable. And as far as we can tell, we are the only ones to strive towards morality. But morality itself is a relative concept under active scientific investigation because it really is not so straightforward; would we kill (and possibly induce suffering) in a few chimp to find a cure that will save millions of humans over time? how about killing a few gorillas? macaques? dogs? cats? rabb.. bunnies? mice? rats? roaches?.. What determines our double standards on which animal can get which treatment? Is that moral?

02 April 2007

Those damn borders... the geographical ones and the ones in our tribal minds. Let's talk about the geographical ones for a moment; it's messy but it must be simpler than the human mind. In fact borders are probably in such chaos as a result of our damn restless minds.

The fact that they are constantly changing can be a good or a bad news. The bad news is that, with a few notable exceptions (German reunification or neighboring Czecho-Slovakian split) it usually goes with a war. The good news is that this war hopefully has something just to it and it will end in peace, in situation more stable than before (e.g. Yu-go-sla-via). Not quite sure anymore if there was a "just war" component in the current Iraq mess, but it may well be best ended with a country split. Of course many hate the idea, like Turkey or Iran who would have to finally accept the existence of a Kurdish culture. But even that can be a good news for them if they know how to go with the flow. One can always dream.. of a world where we would come back to such values as "La liberte des peuples a disposer d'eux memes". What happened to that? If people aren't asked the right questions in such critical moments as in Iraq right now there can only be violence. Don't ask them who to elect, there is barely a political class or any political debate, and people are still new to democracy. Ask them real questions about their future, such as which country do you want to live in? (Iraq, Kurdistan, Shiiteland, Sunniland, Iran, etc.. start a debate!) Which political system? Get an idea what people want; once this is known, every terrorist or foreign power looses all legitimacy if they go against the will of the people. Easier said, I know.. I know..

Will borders in the US disappear or appear. Will the red-state blue-state divide increase? Right now, no good reason to see it happen, everybody would loose, but wait until some real tough issue or crisis divides them. Or it could be just very slow. And if at some point some states accept gay marriage, or ban abortion altogether, and some clearly never will do either, people will move around accordingly... toward a peaceful national split?