Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2014/ Two Green Books

Two Green Books

I recently finished reading two books with green covers. Neither of them was explicitly environmental, although both dealt with the natural world. I do not think they have a huge amount in common other than green covers, but my pattern-seeking monkey mind tried to find relationships between them, so I guess I will write about them together.

The first book is titled Kindred Beings: What Seventy-Three Chimpanzees Taught Me About Life, Love, and Connection by Sheri Speede. I think of this book as a complement to The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, which I wrote about in an earlier entry. This book is also about a chimpanzee sanctuary (the Sanaya-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center), but this one is in Cameroon, not Quebec. Unlike the chimps of Fauna Sanctuary not all of the chimps have been traumatized as laboratory animals. None of them have had completely happy lives, however. Some of them were chained up for display, and others were orphaned as part of the bush meat trade. The population at the Cameroon sanctuary is also much higher, although Speede restricts her book to one tribe of about ten individuals.

Speede's story is interesting. She was an animal lover in the United States (she is/was vegan and everything) who trained as a veterinarian. Then she was invited to care for some chimpanzees in Cameroon. Her heart broke when she saw adult chimps in captivity, so she co-founded a sanctuary of her own. Part of the book documents all the associated culture shocks: different weather, different wildlife (some of which tries to kill her), different diseases, different language (she speaks English; most of Cameroon is French-speaking), and different cultures -- the kinds of experiences you read about in Engineers Without Borders blogs. Speede does describe some of the hardships and paradoxes she encounters, but I get the sense that she glosses over many of the trickier aspects of her experiences.

One thing she glosses over was why the locals accepted the sanctuary in its territory. Part of the reason is economic -- the sanctuary promised to hire local labour, and it purchased fruits and vegetables from local farmers. Speede also triumphantly writes about how she convinced local village elders to stop hunting chimpanzees for the bush meat trade. But I feel that one of the most interesting reasons for the sanctuary's acceptance is medical: although Speede is a vet and not a doctor, she (and her staff) would regularly perform simple medical care for sick villagers. So many environmentalist initiatives are sanctimonious, and carried out with contempt for the local people who live in the area. Reading between the lines, I sense that Speede was not immune from this sanctimony (she does come across as frustrated by local ways) but I think her role as a medic offset this. For example, when one of the chimps needed cataract surgery, the sanctuary brought an eye specialist from America. This specialist also performed surgeries on two local residents, and conducted eye exams for several more. In terms of outreach this is not a lot (and it could be argued that it is insultingly small), but maybe it made some difference.

The chimpanzees in this sanctuary do not live like wild chimps, but their lives seem more naturalized than those at Fauna Sanctuary. They have a much larger forested area (perimetered by electric fence) in which to roam. They can hear other wild chimp tribes in the forests. They have concrete sleeping quarters and are fed by the staff, and their diet seems much more natural -- raw fruits and vegetables, not muffins and smoothies. But in many ways the interactions of the chimps in the two books seems similar. Both groups establish social hierarchies and challenge each other for dominance, in ways that are sometimes violent and often remind me of human politics. Speede's book does not delve into the individual psychologies of the sanctuary residents, but it is clear that the chimps have different preferences and personalities. One aspect of chimp life that is documented clearly in Speede's book is how much her chimpanzees depend on touch. Many of the photos printed in the book depict chimpanzees hugging each other, grooming each other, or clutching human caregivers. I was surprised at how much contact the humans and the chimpanzees had with each other, even as the humans remained aware of how strong and potentially dangerous adult chimps can be.

In addition to discussing the chimpanzees and the construction of the Sanaya-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center, a third theme of the book is Sheri's personal journey from a naive United States veterinarian to the director of a large complicated sanctuary in Cameroon. There are insights to be gained here as well about the nature of human social organizations, and about the virtue of foolhardy ventures by naive animal-lovers, but again you often have to read between the lines to find them.

Overall I found Kindred Beings worthwhile to read and blog about, but I will admit that I perceive it in the context of The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, which shook me up.

The other green book bears some relationship to The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary as well, although the connection is much less direct. This book is titled Letters to a Young Scientist, by Edward O. Wilson, better known as E.O. Wilson, a famous biologist who has built his career studying ants. As the title indicates, this is a book of advice to young people considering careers in science. I found it easy to read and somewhat informative, but mostly it made me relieved that I did not become a scientist (a long long time ago I had thoughts of becoming a zoologist or an ecologist, because I thought I liked animals). That means I may have ended up getting exactly the opposite message that Wilson intended, which was that science needs young people to sacrifice themselves to its study, because they are all needed.

The book contains a good overview of how science works, and a lesser overview of how an academic career works. Wilson's main advice concerning academics is to avoid teaching and administration and focus on research instead. That irritated me to some degree because it highlighted the tension between research and teaching at universities (which is not even supposed to be a tension). Wilson clearly has little use for religion, either, although he does concede that religious believers can be scientists as long as they split their worldviews and never let science be infected by religion. He has a lot of use for science; his view is that science alone can answer questions about reality, and that the best possible outcome would be for the social sciences and humanities to be subsumed by science.

Wilson clearly loves science, and he is clearly a great scientist. He is also living evidence that the study of esoteric "impractical" subjects can bear dividends: by studying ant societies Wilson helped develop theories of sociobiology and eusocial animals, which apply to human societies as well as insect ones. But overall this book made me feel left out of science's tribe I like to think of myself as valuing science highly, and applying methods similar to the scientific method in my daily work. Wilson loves science. He loves studying ants. But he does not love (or even like) ants very much. He reveals no compassion for them in this book, and it is clear that a lot of ants die in order for him to learn things about them. He describes experiments that involve ants getting ripped apart by rival colonies, that involve him digging up colonies of ants which he can crush in order to determine their chemical makeup, that involve him removing ant organs to see how ant behaviour changes. I have no moral standing in condemning these practices; I have killed ants too, and derived much less knowledge from their deaths than Wilson does. Certainly, Wilson's experiments have revealed a lot about how ants work, so it is easy to argue that such treatment of ants is necessary and useful to advance human knowledge. It is even easier to argue that ants do not live comfortable lives in the wild: they face predation and starvation and cruelty and death, so a few cruel experiments carried out by humans is par for the course. All the same, something about Wilson's approach to life makes me understand that I could never be a true scientist. Take the following experiment, which Wilson recommends to those of us interested in smelling alarm pheremones (p. 193-194):

Let me pause here to describe an easy way for you to smell an alarm pheremone yourself. Catch a honeybee from a flower in a handkerchief or other soft cloth. Squeeze the crumpled cloth gently. The bee will sting the cloth, and as it draws away it will leave the sting (which has reverse barbs) stuck in the cloth. When that happens, the immobile sting pulls out part of the bee's internal organs. Let the bee move to one side, then crush the sting and the organs between two fingers. You will smell an odor that resembles the essence of banana. Its source is a mixture of acetates and alcohols in a tiny gland located along the shaft of the sting. These substances function as an alarm signal, and they are the reason other bees rush to the sams site and add their own stings. Nex, if the eviscerated bee hasn't flown away, crush its head and smell that. The acrid odor you detect is from a second alarm substance, 2-heptanone, emitted by glands at the base of the mandibles. (Don't feel bad about killing a worker bee. Each has an adult life span of only about a month, and it is only one of tens of thousands that make up a colony. The colony in turn is potentially immortal, since new mother queens replace the old ones at regular intervals.)

Note the justification for the bee's death. Maybe we are soft-hearted and feel sad about killing the bee so we can smell its alarm pheremones. But there is no need, because individual bees are not that important.

The natural question is whether this reasoning applies to other living beings. The answer is yes, which is what brings this book right back to The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: when learning about animal subjects, there is no room for compassion. Living beings are useful because they contain information, and if retrieving that information requires harming the animals then there is no great damage done. Science is more important. Such reasoning used when studying ants and bees, and it applies to chimpanzees as well. It even applies to people, provided that those people are not sufficiently important.

The problem is with me, not with science. Reality is cruel, and my wish that the processes of science should be less cruel are idiotic. Already the ethical restrictions we place on human experimentation hamper our understanding of how human biology works, which means that lots of (important) humans suffer unnecessarily. The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary argues that chimpanzee experimentation is cruel because it has been mostly ineffective, especially in studying HIV. But if chimps were an excellent "model species" for humans, then the argument would be weaker, and I guess experimenting on chimps would be okay.

Wilson has the perspective of a scientist. I am squeamish. Therefore in some sense I am an enemy of science. That realization disturbs me a great deal, because I largely agree with Wilson about the usefulness of science in learning facts about the world.

These two green books illustrate two very different (and possibly incompatible) ways of dealing with the world. Sheri Speede was motivated by compassion for the suffering of chimpanzees, and established a sanctuary so that they could lead happier lives. E.O. Wilson is fascinated by how nature works, and he conducts science to help understand it better. Which approach should take precedence? It is easy to proclaim that "we need both!"; it is more difficult to determine which approach should prevail when they come into conflict. I am guessing Wilson's answer is the right one, but it is not an answer I like.