Wednesday, August 08, 2007

λάθε βιώσας

The Beeb is reporting, although the news has been out for many months, that Lipotes vexillifer, commonly known as the baiji or the Yangtze river dolphin, is now extinct.

The baiji had a well developed sense of echolocation. As I was doing a bit of research on the topic, I learned that echolocation in dolphins may not be related to brain size. According to Paul R. Manger ("An examination of cetacean brain structure with a novel hypothesis correlating thermogenesis to the evolution of a big brain," Biological Reviews (2006), 81(2), pp. 293-­338), the large cetacean brain has nothing to do with intelligence but rather has to do with "a combination of an unusually high number of glial cells and unihemispheric sleep phenomenology," making the cetacean brain "an efficient thermogenetic organ, which is needed to counteract heat loss to the water." However, in Cetaceans Have Complex Brains for Complex Cognition, Marino et al. take issue with Manger's study. Barton ("Animal Communication: Do Dolphins Have Names," Current Biology (2006), 16 (15), pp. R598-R599) takes a more cautious position between the two extremes. Resolving the debate will require careful scrutiny of a wide body of evidence and evaluating conflicting interpretations of key pieces of evidence, a process I won't get into at the present. Nevertheless, the question of whether or not encephalization in cetaceans and primates represents a case of convergent evolution invites us to consider the problem of sympathy, for even if we reject Manger's accusations of anthropomorphism among the cetologists, that is, even if we don't believe that the science is affected by the sympathies of its practioners, we may still acknowledge that our sympathies are affected by the science.

In Empiricism and Subjectivity: An Essay on Hume's Theory of Human Nature (available here), Gilles Deleuze says that "[i]t is precisely because the essence of passion or the essence of the particular interest is partiality rather than egoism that sympathy, for its part, does not transcend the particular interest or passion" (p. 38). However, he also says that "[t]o integrate sympathies [in society] is to make sympathy transcend its contradiction and natural partiality. Such an integration implies a positive moral world, and is brought about by the positive invention of such a world" (pp. 39-40). And, finally, he says that "[t]o be in society is first to substitute possible conversation for violence" (p. 41). Thus we can see one way in which cetology affects our sympathies. Cetology informs our understanding of whether it is possible for dolphins to enter into conversation with humans, and this possibility, in turn, colors how we feel about extending our sympathies to dolphins. Even if we take a broad view of the meaning of "conversation" suggested by Deleuze's reading of Hume, cetology still informs our views in that it invites us to imagine the possible forms of interspecies conversation.

There is a thinking, often considered wise, that would hold the mosquito in the same esteem as the dolphin or the human being. Some thinkers who take this view would also claim to be impartial, to merely be informed by science and not be emotionally affected. Without intending to refute such a claim, I suggest that the alternative approach to the esteem of lifeforms, the one that would have us extend our sympathies beyond the boundary of our own species, and beyond species that appear similar to us in some way, presents a far more critical problem for the present day.

It must be admitted that human sympathy for the dolphin is rather feeble. The baiji is, after all, extinct. If we can say that we have invented a world that would esteem the dolphin, we must admit that such a world is not universally shared, at least not with the intensity required to prevent an extinction. The value of the river as a habitat for dolphins is weighed against the value of the river for human commerce, and, in the case of the Yangtze, commerce has won the day. It is not easy to live with such violence. In my previous post on Nancy's idea of the ecotechnological, I did not mean to imply that living through a late holocene wave of extinctions will be painless. And I don't mean to imply now that we couldn't avoid some pain by adopting a more stringent regime of global conservation. I am saying that we should be primarily concerned with the pain suffered not by Gaia but by human beings whose sympathies extend unstoppably towards other forms of life. Now I've talked myself into a contradiction, or a double whammy. Sympathy for the dolphin is unstoppable, yet it is feeble. Why then should we care about the sympathies of other human beings if they are so feeble? Perhaps we should look at the conditions of the enfeeblement of the sympathies.

There is a prejudice we must face. We like to believe that our sympathies are harmonious, while the sympathies of others are discordant, that our sympathies are widely extended while the sympathies of others are narrow. Confronting this prejudice is a first step towards substituting a possibility of conversation for violence. Inventing a moral universe that effectively places the dolphin in high esteem will require the participation of those whose interests conflict with the preservation of dolphin habitats. Truncating the possibiltiy of conversation will contribute to an enfeeblement of the sympathies. This I think is evident if one looks at the (hegemonic) class interests of the spotted owl (Strix occidentalis) debate. A critique of hegemony would be useful, but only to the extent that any initial prejudice that would devalue the sympathies of others is not on full display, because the goal should not be to engage the like-minded in conversation, but to engage all whose participation is necessary to construct a world we would want to inhabit.

Finally, then, I will ask whether the concern for the sympathies of other humans that I advocate isn't ecotechnologically outmoded, whether it is based on a prejudice for the auto that also needs to be confronted. And I will ask what lathe biosas (λάθε βιώσας) means in an ecotechnological age.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 11:25 AM.


Blogger jacky said...

These tensions are very provocative, the notion of 'rights', and perhaps the Lipotes as a kind of litotes ... in terms of the inversion of thinking. Reminds me of a passage from Terry Eagleton, from 'Human, all too human' in The Nation April 2004: "Some humanists believe there is a yawning chasm between humanity and the rest of nature, without necessarily claiming that humanity should reign sovreign over the world around it. Harder-nosed humanists, by contrast, believe that badgers and centipedes were provided for our use and enjoyment, rahter like fluffy dressing gowns in posh hotels, and that the phrase 'animal rights' is a logical absurdity." ...

August 09, 2007 2:12 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

I'm not the sharpest knife drawer,Jacky, because I had to look up litotes (for the umpteenth time). Just can't get it to stick.

Interesting thought, though. How much barbarism is due to people simply being none too sympathetic?

August 09, 2007 2:41 PM  
Blogger jacky said...

'Sympathy' is a notion which challenges the very notion of humanity. And then, there is that wonderful term 'compassion fatigue' ... that people tire of caring. This may be partly attributable to the point you make about our conception of the sympathies of others, and our perception of ourselves. The speculation on what compassion fatigue means beyond the human species raises the stakes ... plus one could plot the various investments of the self in such demeanours as sympathy, compassion, empathy, selflessness, and so on?

August 09, 2007 2:52 PM  
Blogger Fido the Yak said...

Alternatively, could we plot the investment of selflessness in the demeanor of self, or is that just wishful thinking?

(I have a libidinal investment in wishful thinking, yet I want to tear it down. Hmm.)

I think of compassion fatigue as being media driven. Would a less sensationalist public discourse open a space for more compassion. I don't know what to do to avoid being run over by the spectacle, except to step out of the way as best as I can. I don't believe lathe biosas can be compelled in public discourse. Even this little bit of advertising for lathe biosas I've done seems contradictory. Would I be far from Epicurus if I said communication should be based on friendship? If we turn that around and say friendship is based on commucation, friendship easily become epiphenomenal.

I was thinking of people who play with dolphins, how they are probably closer to their dolphin friends than they are to many of the people they come in contact with in daily life. Like I'm close to my cat, or people are to dogs. Domestication is often thought of as a technological achievement, but we rarely think of friendship as technological. Interspecies friendship is an interesting fact of domestic existence. It might be tempting to think of friendship as a mere affectation that was added onto a symbiotic relationship, but I don't think that really explains things since we have the power to make species extinct. Friendship, enmity, indifference: these are what we have to work with, ecotechnologically.

Ach. I've rambled.

August 09, 2007 4:04 PM  
Blogger jacky said...

Rambling is good for the soul! You raise many, many points, sublimly chasmic chiasmas ... where points cross and part ways. Friendship and communication sounds an ideal mix, something which draws me. In my current frame of mind, due to a recent rather awful experience, I am however very suspect of what this actually entails ... perhaps how genuine communication can be believed to be. Your reference to friendship with animals is perhaps a useful pointer on this. What we believe to be communication and friendship is so vulnerable, fragile. (One might think of Werner Herzog's film Grizzly Man, that story of Timothy Treadwell, who perhaps believed he was communicating - and friends - with the bears. Yet, his end was, well, grizzly. So the thing of a certain, perhaps inevitable, horizon in communication is always present. Such that the line is crossed with extinction (i.e. human 'friendship' with animals is surpassed by other 'needs' or simple carelessness), or with creatures which appear domesticated or friendly (the grizzly bear which isn't a buddy after all...) Unlikely that one's cat would turn on one in that way, although I often realise that mine couldn't really care a less about whether I am there or not, although I like to think they do! Yes, compassion fatigue is a product of the media spectacle. It is difficult not be cynical in the face of such things.
And now I am rambling ...

August 09, 2007 4:33 PM  

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