Thursday, December 21, 2006

I'm just a neigh-sayer, I guess.

Know for starters that I am a very sentimental person. I also love animals; just love 'em. And so, like millions of other Americans, I choked up when Barbaro went down at the Preakness, and again later when it appeared that he might finally succumb to his injuries after all. It follows that I could not be more thrilled at the progress he recently has shown. I'd love for him to be able to leave therapy behind and trot happily off to his new life in stud. All that said, I got brought up short this morning when I heard one of the co-anchors on GMA introduce a segment on Barbaro's recovery by saying the following: "He has shown he has the heart of a champion. His courage and never-say-die spirit serve as an inspiration...."*

Ummm...folks? This is A HORSE we're talking about. He does not have a life plan. He does not have well-thought-out goals. (And I'm pretty sure that if horses did have life plans, Step 1 would be, "OK, I'm gonna throw that little dude in his metrosexual get-up off my back and show him very specifically what to do with that whip thingie he keeps smacking me with....") Basically a horse eats, poops, runs around, and looks for other horses who are interested in hooking up. As for a horse's sense of self-determination, my Dad used to say that equines as a class "are so dumb that you have to prevent them from running back into a burning barn."

Now before I start getting hate mail from horse lovers, let me concede this: Maybe there are all sorts of trenchant thoughts running through any given horse's mind. We just have no evidence of it, is all. And horses certainly don't live their lives as if they spend much time in introspective deliberation. I've often said that I wrote SHAM with one overarching purpose: to separate what we assume from what we can prove. In our attempts to have an intelligent discourse, we need to stop talking about things for which we have no meaningful evidence as if we do have evidence. (And yes, while we're on the subject, that goes for religion as well. I'm with Bill Maher on this one: Unless you've been to heaven and back, please stop preaching to the rest of us about what God** wants for us and plans for us, etc. Recognize that your faith, even as potent a force as it is in your life, basically reduces to an opinion. And your opinion is no more inherently worthwhile than mine. Merry Christmas.)

According to the brilliant minds at GMA, we homo sapiens are supposed to take a lesson in "courage" and "inspiration" from a horse. This is why I sometimes think it's a lost cause. When it gets to the point where we'll anthropomorphize to this degree, holding up a freakin' horse as an inspirational role there much hope for clarity and reason?

P.S., 6:40 p.m. In a teaser for tonight's segment on Barbaro, ABC anchorman Charles Gibson, normally a voice of sobriety and restraint, says this: "...And a beloved race horse proves once again that he has the heart of a champion...." Then, after covering another story, he adds: "Still ahead: The injured race horse that refused to quit..." I give up.

* I can't claim that this is an exact quote, because I was doing something else as I was listening, and of course I didn't expect to hear something I'd want to transcribe. It's very close, though, and it's faithful to the spirit of what was said.
** assuming God or Allah or Buddha or whichever exists, which is also an opinion. And yes, I say that even though it's an opinion I happen to share. Believe it or not.


RevRon's Rants said...

Steve -
I think you're either overlooking or dismissing the power of metaphors in affecting the human psyche. While the horse might well have lacked the traits of bravery, even heroism, its instinctive drive to survive does serve as inspiration to some people, reminding them of their own strength of will. Merely being unable to objectively quantify the animal's emotional state doesn't eliminate the effect that anthropomorphizing his actions might have on the observer.

My personal belief is that some animals are far better at making an emotional connection than we might acknowledge (and perhaps even better than their human counterparts). To deny this due to a lack of "evidence" to support it may well be more a statement of our own cognitive limits than of the animal's limits. Keep in mind that a hundred or so years ago, such things as infrared light and x-rays did not exist in human consciousness, not because they were nonexistent, but because we lacked the technological sophistication to detect and measure them.

I have had a dog who was quite adept at reading - and responding appropriately to - my transient mental states. She would nuzzle me when I was depressed, get rambunctious when I was in a good mood, and guard over me when I was meditating, to the point of not allowing even my mother - who was very close to her - to enter the room. You can say that her actions were not genuine proof of sophisticated thought processes, but will never convince me. And I would counter by asking that you prove to me that your wife loves you. Anything you might offer as proof could also be attributed to her own selfish motivations, rather than a deep devotion to you. Naturally, I am not implying that this is the case; only that what you know might not be fully supportable by quantifiable evidence.

I agree that many humans are far too accepting of "facts" that are beyond the realm of reason, but I don't think we need to discard the baby of instinctive knowledge just to get rid of the bath water of idiocy. As is my oft-repeated entreaty, there's plenty of room between the two extremes. We just need to find the balance.

Cosmic Connie said...

I see your point, Steve. More than anything, I'm annoyed by the fact that the talking heads can't seem to get past clich├ęs. (Now the old Dan Fogelberg song, "Run For The Roses" is going through my head. Thanks a lot, Steve. :-))

Given some of the homo sapiens types who are out there promoting their motivational crap, we could do worse than drawing our inspiration from an equine-American. I also think that most animals -- mammals and birds, anyway -- have a much more complex emotional life, and greater cognitive abilities, than they're often given credit for. (Sorry that was such a long, convoluted and ungrammatical sentence.)

Overall, the human race is very arrogant when it comes to the way we view the "lesser" animals. (The idea that humans are the only creatures with a soul is another conceit with which I take issue.)

But I hafta admit, I roll my eyes too when I hear self-help sports babble -- whether it's in reference to equine athletes or the human variety.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, this is a most elegantly constructed discourse, as always, but I worry when you say things like "Keep in mind that a hundred or so years ago, such things as infrared light and x-rays did not exist in human consciousness, not because they were nonexistent, but because we lacked the technological sophistication to detect and measure them..." That line of argument, which could be used to justify (or at least hypothesize) the existence of virtually anything (and often has, especially in snake-oil realms), cannot withstand logical scrutiny. It sets a very dangerous precedent, to take the fact that we have now certified the existence of things that were unknown a generation ago, and use that as "proof," of a sort, that we should be more accepting of other things whose verification still eludes us. I could turn right around and say, "Hey, how do you know the Easter Bunny doesn't exist? Maybe we don't yet have the technological means to detect him/her..."

As for proving that my wife loves me (and I assume you're using that example in a rather generic way, i.e. not with specific reference to MY wife), you are in effect making my point. There is the emotional--the belief component--and there is the rational. One ought not mix the two. If I say "I love you" and my partner replies "I love you too," one does not ordinarily demand evidence. Such things can be--and I suppose must be--left to faith. But when we enter the realm of intellectual rigor, the bar is set far higher. And when you then add money to the equation--i.e. when I ask you to invest significant sums based on your "faith" in my methodology--then, I think, the bar is set higher still.

We have all had pets that were exquisitely sensitive to our mental/emotional states. In particular, I had a German shepherd, Brutus, who I felt "knew me" better than anyone else; I spent a lot of time talking to Brutus, telling him my troubles. But if I needed an answer--or some specific action--I went and found a human being.

Cosmic Connie said...

The X-ray example aside...
Whether or not we will ever be able to scientifically measure animals' cognitive ability, they do seem to have an emotional intelligence, for lack of a better term, that we often dismiss. I think that overall, animals "understand" us a lot better than we "understand" them. One reason is that they really pay attention to us (yes, this is true even of cats, who seem to ignore us so often). Of course, that may be simply because their very survival depends upon figuring out what we're going to do to them.

I also think the Rev had a good point about the metaphorical value of the horse's strength of will, even if that was the result of a "primitive" survival instinct.

Even so, the talking heads have a tendency to carry this motivational stuff too far. But that is how they justify their huge paychecks. :-)

Steve Salerno said...

And Ron, not to--well--beat a dead horse, but even accepting your horse-as-metaphor paradigm, where is the transference, anyway, between the horse's actions--which you admit are almost surely instinctive--and commensurate human action, which requires, more likely, an act of will? And if it doesn't require an act of will--if certain humans act instinctively in ways that embody the same kind of "courage" Barbaro has shown--then why should they get kudos for it? If there's no choice involved, if you're just doing what you're programmed to do--e.g. if you just have a naturally bigger set of cojones than the next guy or gal--then where's the admirable quality in the equation?

As I see it--to the best of our knowledge--Barbaro didn't give a crap about whether he lived or died. He just went about his horsey life, and lo and behold, he managed not to die. Tell me how that is any more inspirational than the ridiculous exploits of one Beck Weathers, who got stuck up on Everest (where he probably had no business being), almost died, almost got several others killed in the course of his rescue...and now does motivational speaking! That's the part that frankly drives me nuts: this nonstop, seemingly gut-level need of ours to imbue meaingless random acts with deep emotional/spiritual import.

Rodger said...

The statement from GMA is telling, precisely because how those words are used is exactly how that person perceives relationships with animals. The statement almost screams we should raise the horse and his recovery on a pedestal and worship it as an example.

Is there any hope for that person who uttered such thoughts – probably not? These people also idealize over a calamander growing a new tail as its will to keep its identity unchanged. These people are probably the same that celebrate self-love in the asexual reproduction of amebas, or the cannibalization of the male praymantis’ head by his female sex slave as a sign that women should not stand for being treated as sex objects.

Okay, I’m feeling a bit ornery today…forgive me.

RevRon's Rants said...

Perhaps you simply weren't asking the right questions! :-)

Seriously, though, I think we pretty much agree that one must use common sense in determining what "is," and what might be. I think we need to be just as judicious in deciding what "is not," and not be afraid to acknowledge our limitations and say "I don't know."

Your Easter Bunny analogy really doesn't work for me, as I see a vast difference between a literary myth and a physical artifact which can be measured (even if we lack the tools to do so). There were many who smugly dismissed the theories of every forward thinker throughout (and, I'm certain, before) recorded history, just as there have been those who clung to every newly postulated theory - no matter how far-fetched - as being examples of Universal Truth. Neither approach is particularly wise. My point is that we should endeavor to keep an open mind as we seek out new "truths," while at the same time, putting them to whatever tests are available. At the same time, it would be foolhardy to structure our lives around unquantifiable variables, especially if we ignore proven realities in the process. As the old Muslim adage says, "Trust in Allah, but tie up the camels." Especially when we are being asked to sacrifice what we have (money, time) to the belief that the camels will be fine on their own!

And yes, the reference to your wife was metaphorical, but does bear considering. If we can only accept that which we can immediately and incontrovertibly prove, we cripple our potential for growth, and deny ourselves much of the richness life has to offer. There can be no definite "proof" of love beyond that which is borne of our intuitive knowing. Yet that knowing is - and must be - enough. At least, until we have "proof" that the love is false. Then, we are faced with yet another choice: Wisdom or cynicism. Unfortunately, we are often thoroughly unqualified to correctly determine which path we have taken. C'est la Vie!

Steve Salerno said...

Rodg, where ya been! I was just thinking about you last night, as it happens, and wondering why you'd gone AWOL. Or maybe I just failed to keep the blog sufficiently interesting for ya. In any case, great to "see you" again, and have a wonderful holiday.

RevRon's Rants said...

"That's the part that frankly drives me nuts: this nonstop, seemingly gut-level need of ours to imbue meaingless random acts with deep emotional/spiritual import."

I think it is borne of our hope that "there is more to the Heavens and Earth than exists in our philosophy." At some level, even the most self-assured of us is aware of our own fallibility and mortality, and strives to find that magic pill that makes us stronger and more immortal. Such hunger is the most powerful of our Muses, and has given rise to most of our progress. That alone is, in my opinion, sufficient justification for its existence, not as the roadmap by which we guide our every step, but rather as the beacon that inspires us to seek new places. Again, it comes back to balance. Intuition and dreams, countered by logic and reason.

Cosmic Connie said...

Hi, Rodg! Good to see you back.

I still think we have a tendency to underestimate horses. What about the term "horse sense?" Where'd that come from? And what about Mr. Ed? So what if he only talked to Wilbur? He was a pretty smart Palomino.

Also, there's a woman in California who runs a place called Full House Farms. She supposedly uses horses to teach people about the Law Of Attraction. She works, according to her web site, "in cooperation with the unique perspective of horses, sharing similar information to that revealed in The Secret and What the Bleep Do We Know?."

She considers the horses to be the teachers, and she acts as their "interpreter."

People actually pay her for this crap.

Now, who's the stupid species here?

Anonymous said...

I think we underestimate the intelligence of animals and their similarities to ourselves routinely--after all, if we admitted them, how could we justify our own behavior? But it's worth bearing in mind that, as one eminent scientist pointed out, "though animals are not human, humans are animals." As love for one's pet and love for one's spouse are the same emotion at different parts of the continuum, so we are simply farther along the continuum from our fellow creatures (or so we hope), not separate from them.

Steve Salerno said...

I think Anon makes a good point, especially insofar as the continuum. Although, I've heard it argued--by some very thoughtful people--that the trek from animals to humans was actually a devolution, not an evolution...

Rodger said...

Unlike Anon and Steve, I think animals and humans are separate, unconnected beings coexisting together in a tension.

That animals are different and separate, makes our relationship with them more imporant than if we are just evolved (or devolved) from them.

By thinking that humans are connected to animals, have anything in common with them other than a relationship, requires us to share a planets with them, domesticate some of them for our purpose of work, is to misunderstand our relationship to them.

My last post until Dec. 27

Cosmic Connie said...

Rodg, are you saying that nonhuman animals are here on this planet just to suit human purposes? I know many people believe this, either because of their religion or for other reasons, though I don't happen to share that belief. For all I know, though, it could be true...but then again, it could be that intestinal parasites are actually the crown of creation, and we are here to serve *their* purpose. :-)

RevRon's Rants said...

I cannot help but be amused at the notion that we are completely separate from the rest of the animal kingdom, especially given the fact that we share similar behaviors and skeletal structures, and nearly identical DNA structures with some animals. Perhaps such a contention is based in the need to feel superior, chosen if you will.

Humankind has historically relegated members of other cultures who do not share a common language/perspective to subhuman status, only to be ultimately shown that the only element which is substandard is our lack of ability to comprehend what the other is saying. It follows that the same arrogance would be extended even more aggressively toward members of other species. Perhaps the categorization of specific behaviors as being anthropomorphic frequently represents the same arrogance - a need to deem something inferior by implying that its behavior couldn't possibly be borne of the same degree of sophistication which we humans possess. I can't say that other species are superior, even though the social behaviors of some do seem more logical than our own. Like the rest of the human race, I lack the necessary evidence to know with any certainty what I cannot effectively measure and translate, and am unwilling to make sweeping assumptions based solely upon my own ignorance. By the same token, I think it foolish to base my own actions and beliefs upon the assumption that anything I cannot understand must be true, as is the modus operandi of the worst of the self-help movement. But I've been known to be foolish before... :-)

Anonymous said...

"He has shown he has the heart of a champion. His courage and never-say-die spirit serve as an inspiration...."*

No offense, but don't you think you might be reading a little too much into this statement. Some might say that statement is a little too anthropomorphizing for reality, but I'm not sure why you think he meant the horse actually thought out goals or had a "life plan."

Apparently the horse had a strong instinct and will to survive (this doesn't imply human-like qualities); some animals might have become depressed and inactive (I'm not saying they actually think this through cognitively, but of course animals can feel emotion and react to pain and injury). Again, the statement might be a little too fuzzy, but he was obviously being poetic, and calling a strong will to survive a never-say-die spirit doesn't seem to be completely insane to me.

Matt said...

Hey all, this is probably coming in too late for anyone to be reading it, but I'll pipe in anyway.

First of all, "evolution" is not synonymous with "progress". It's just speciation in reaction to environmental pressure. "Higher" and "Lower" are meaningless. We are more fit than some species that died out, and less fit than others that will survive after our extinction. What we can say about horses is that there is evidence that we are each equally fit to have evolved to our present state sometime in the last 100,000 years or so (50K for humans, and some number of years I don't recall for horses).

That having been said, the way in which we are superior to animals is that we can avoid, kill, eat, domesticate and wear them at our whim now. That's a kind of dominance, but some would argue that perhaps the best survivial characteristic on planet Earth is to be fat and taste good to humans. Can you imagine the lengths to which humans would go to protect chickens from natural disasters, disease, etc? And we're pretty good at protecting things. Who could argue that chickens are "lower" from the perspective of being less adapted for survival? Are they way, way, way stupider than we are? Heck yes. Can we reasonably surmise that they do not lead as rich an emotional life as do we? I would think so. But to the extent that they are now as likely to survive as long as our race does, I would argue that they are exactly as adapted for survival. "more" and "less" as modifers to evolution are nonsensical terms.

Now it's equally clear to me that my cats do indeed lead emptional lives. It clearly feels like something to be them, they clearly care for me on some level, and they experience comfort, joy, fear, sadness, etc. Again, how rich those emotions are is up to debate for me, but I think seeing a cat or dog come to comfort you when you're sad is reasonable evidence that they exist in some emotional state akin to love -- how could you argue otherwise (if it walks, flies, swims and quacks like an emotion...)?

I would also agree with whomever argued that Babaro's survival might serve some metaphoric purpose, but it seems pathetic. What I hated was the autopsy performed on Secretariat, the Triple Crown winner found out that it had an enlarged heart. This revelation led to a million -- "see, it confirmed what we already knew, his heart was the size of a champion's" -- a terrible mix of bad metaphor and positivie thinking garbage.