LI has been so pressed this week that our ambition – to advance a little along the line of the theme of the social animal – has been totally fucked. Fortunately, we’ve spent the last two days attending lectures at the Bob-fest – the conference commemorating Robert Solomon. The academic custom of reading papers at conferences, as anybody knows who has actually gone to a conference and had papers read to him or her, is not exactly the most exciting activity in the world. It ranks somewhere around TV coverage of the Tour de France – long stretches of time go by without anything seeming to happen, and then everybody gets briefly excited, and then ennui stretches out again. This conference was a bit more personal, a bit more eccentric, and instead of the standard way of asking questions, those with questions and comments would go down, at the end of the panel, to the panel table and sit around and speak. I did not hear all sessions, but of the four I heard, the highlight was surely the paper read by my friend, Janet McCracken, entitled " Grief and the Mnemonics of Places: A Thank You Note", which ranged over the funeral games in the Iliad to the place of the dog at Zoroastrian funeral rituals to connect a number of seemingly disparate topics – the dead as companions, the need to mark the earth for the dead, the relation of the human and the animal (and, especially, that subclass of domesticated animal, pets) from the perspective of death. I’m merely flying over the paper giving its grosser features, but McCracken’s paper was just the kind of Shandian essay I wrote about last week, re Ian Hacking’s paper on cyborgs.
Afterwards, I was in a group around McCracken, talking about animals, and of course animal intelligence, and we all sort of marveled that animal intelligence is always measured by seeing how close animals can come to human intelligence. That is surely wrong. An ant or dog or whale born with a human brain would quickly die. Intelligence, if it has any meaning at all, is connected to animal existence, and so one would want to produce a number of intelligence models fitting different animals. As a counterpart on tests of, say, the human intelligence achievable by parrots, it would be interesting to see how close humans can approach to parrot intelligence. Of course, it is pretty difficult to probe into parrot intelligence, but surely we can devise models for parrot seeing, hearing and flight such that they could be fed into a virtual environment, in which we could insert a human subject.
So, LI was not wholly negligent of the social animal theme we so abruptly aborted.
Later, thinking of animals, humans and intelligence, it struck me that one of the reasons I have problems with the machine model of humans and animals is that, in my experience, those who are best with machines – engineers, for instance – are really piss poor at human relationships. My old man, for instance, became pretty well known in the HVAC field. He had a certain diagnostic genius for what was wrong with, say, a 13,500 BTU roof unit that had been underperforming. He could track a ductwork problem down to its malign root. And yet, he couldn’t read the face of a man who was obviously trying to con him out of ten thousand dollars – a situation that my old man faced, alas, all too frequently, as he seemed to be on some list of gulls passed around in the confidence game. As for women, well, forget it. This is, of course, an absurdly limited sample – but I have met a lot of engineers in my life, and a lot of people who make their money repairing machines. It seems to me that generally an inverse relationship held between psychological insightfulness and mechanical ability. Although I wouldn’t say this is a hard and fast rule – my brothers, for instance, are both engineer/repair men, and both of them are fairly interested in what makes human beings tick (which already distinguishes them from most IBM engineers I’ve met). One has adopted an attitude of therapeutic nihilism – since it is impossible to rely on rule based behavior, here, it is foolish to judge – while the other is more inclined to a sympathy theory, and is very good at empathizing and advising – as I well know.
Obviously, this is touch and go evidence, a set of ordinary superstitions. But it does perhaps point to a nuance in the relationship between biology and positivism in the 19th century – given a certain notion of social engineering that went with utilitarianism and was carried into the scientific ideology of the late nineteenth century, biology was often the science from whence sprang the dissenters. Scientific psychology, in order to gain credibility, often veered closer to engineering than to biology. And this made a lot of difference.