June 9, 2012
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
Socrates famously averred that the unexamined life is not worth living. This was part of his ‘apology’ when, on trial for his life, he tried to explain what it means to be a philosopher. I myself have taken this definition to heart: that philosophy is the examination of fundamental assumptions. I have been examining with a vengeance of late – not intending to do so as a philosophical exercise, mind you, but quite spontaneously. So perhaps it will help you to understand what I have been about in these columns if I review my recent philosophical hobbyhorses in this light. As it happens, like ‘assumption’ (and, for that matter, ‘apology’), all of them begin with ‘a’: animals (Issues 62, 66, 67, 72, and 85), asteroids (Issues 79 and 86), and amorality (Issues 80, 81, 82, 84, and 87). I’ll now explain the common thread that links my discourses on the lot.
Animals. Human beings treat other animals abominably. (‘A’ is for ‘abominably’!) There are some exceptions, such as, in some cultures, pets; but even pets represent an offense against free-living animals in their natural habitats, who have been deliberately bred into dependency and as a result dumbed-down as well. Almost all pets are denied the freedom to roam, whether by foot, feather, or fin; instead they are confined to a building or the end of a leash, or kept on display in a cage or a bowl. The condition of the vast majority of nonhuman animals, however, is without even the compensations that may attach to being a pet. Animals in the wild are trapped for their skins or hunted down for pure sport. Animals in captivity (other than pets) are turned into egg or milk machines, or fattened for direct human consumption, or consigned to laboratories for testing and vivisection. All in all, it is not good to be a nonhuman animal in a world controlled by human animals.
However, many human beings are sensitive to one or another aspect of our ‘inhumanity’ to other animals and therefore strive to better their lot. Thus have arisen numerous societies for the prevention of cruelty to other animals and, more generally, for the promotion of their welfare. One would think, then, that all animal advocates would be ‘welfarists.’ But this is not the case. Why not? Because welfarism is based on an assumption which, if examined, proves untenable … or at least questionable. The assumption is that it is all right to use other animals so long as we do so with an eye to their welfare. Or to put it epigrammatically: It is okay to use animals so long as we do not abuse them.
But this assumption may be unwarranted. The reason is that use and abuse, while indeed distinct concepts, may only differ in reality under certain conditions, and those conditions may not obtain for other animals. One argument goes like this: So long as x is at an extreme power disadvantage to y, any use of x by y will inevitably deteriorate into abuse. Well, clearly, under present circumstances all other animals are virtually powerless relative to human beings; therefore just about any use we make of them leads inexorably to their abuse. And is this not precisely the situation we observe?
This is why among animal advocates there has arisen in opposition to welfarism the movement known as (‘a’ is for) abolitionism, which seeks to abolish all institutions of animal use. Thus, there would be no animal agriculture, no hunting (other than for real need), no animal circuses, no zoos, no pets. The breeding of domestic animals would end, and the preservation of wild habitats be maximized. Abolitionists further maintain that the emphasis on animal welfare actually serves to encourage animal use, since if people believe that the animals they use are being well taken care of, they will lose their main incentive for discontinuing that use; and hence, by the argument above, animal welfarism further entrenches animal abuse, and so is counterproductive even to welfare in the long run. Here again the evidence seems to be in plain sight: For all the growth of animal welfare organizations – and just about every major animal protection organization is a welfare, as opposed to an abolition, organization – the abuse of animals has only increased and shows no sign even of decelerating. For reasons such as these I have allied myself with abolitionists like Lee Hall and Gary Francione.
Asteroids. Here I have cheated a little bit because (‘c’ is for) comets are also a major concern, not only asteroids. But due to their overwhelming numbers in our vicinity at present, asteroids have taken the lead in the public imagination as a threat to humanity. The more one learns about their potential to do us grave harm should we ever again collide with one the size of Manhattan or larger, the more one finds oneself tossing and turning in bed at night. These rocks number in the thousands up to the trillions, depending on size and distance considered; and the inevitability of another big one eventually striking our planet – unless we prevent it – is denied by no one. Indeed, no one denies that an object the size of the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, and that would wipe out human civilization, will one day bear down upon us. Furthermore, it is now a common occurrence to discover asteroids that are large enough to wreak havoc if they hit us and that do in fact make a close approach to our planet, such as 2005 YU55, which came closer than the Moon last November 8 (2011), and 99942 Apophis, which will come even closer on April 13, 2029.
Thus have arisen Spaceguard and other programs, whose mission is to detect such hazards and devise and implement mitigating strategies. It is not easy, however, to deflect an incoming object of human-extinction size, which would be 10km in diameter or larger. Fortunately, as one regularly hears from the scientists who inform the public on this matter, objects of that size likely to come into Earth’s immediate vicinity are exceedingly rare. In fact there is a power law of size relative to quantity, such that the larger the object, the fewer there are. Therefore, given limited resources, the present de facto policy is to focus on detecting medium-sized NEOs (Near-Earth Objects) – ones that could, say, wipe out a city – and designing and testing means of deflecting them…
June 9, 2012
You are not a wise man, you tyrant,” raps the Iranian female singer Bahar. “Why do your clothes smell like blood? . . . Why do you crush this cry for justice? The people don’t deserve such disdain.” Her chiding words against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei go to the heart of the problem that the Islamic Republic faces: the growing illegitimacy of a cruel and inaccessible theocracy whose control over Iran might well be slipping.
Throughout Iran’s history, political power has clustered around strongmen—often shahs or kings until the Islamic revolution of 1979—rather than institutions. So not surprisingly, the most serious challenge to Iran’s post-revolutionary system of theocratic government, known as velayat-e faqih, or guardianship of the jurist, has also arisen from a politician at the center of the executive branch of national politics. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is best known to the world as a Holocaust-denying anti-Semite given to apocalyptic threats and bombast, but despite this somewhat grotesque international image, he still is viewed internally as an astute, successfully manipulative politician with a sure populist touch. His reelection to a second term in office was engineered by his appointees in the Interior Ministry, then endorsed by the theocratic Guardian Council and confirmed by Supreme Leader Khamenei after the clergy recognized the fait accompli. As attention among protesters shifted away from the fraud involved with his reelection to the far more central issues of why Iran needs a supreme leader and other clergymen running the state, Ahmadinejad and his appointees have capitalized on the public challenge to the theocratic center by wresting away more power and independence.
As the executive center’s authority has grown, the president and his supporters have come to believe that the “period of religious politics will soon be over” (in the words of Ahmadinejad’s controversial and secularist chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei), leading them to hazard acts of increasing independence from the theocrats in both domestic and foreign affairs. In August 2011, Ahmadinejad even got his way with reorganizing government ministries and appointing allies to key ministerial posts after the theocrats, finding their “edicts unheeded,” and parliamentarians, finding their “debate stifled,” abandoned opposition to those actions. The president also named Brigadier General Rostam Ghasemi—target of international sanctions yet still head of the influential economic wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—as minister of petroleum, laying the groundwork for his confidant’s appointment shortly thereafter as the head of OPEC.
Members of the executive branch are remarkably candid about the widening rift between themselves as nationalist reformers and the religious fundamentalists they seek to displace. They are increasingly confident of long-term success because they know the extent to which the public seeks large-scale change. The president’s followers even question, as does the public, why Iran needs a theocratic system of government. Not surprisingly, as these signs of independence multiply, the fundamentalist mullahs have fought back, denouncing their onetime political operatives in the executive branch as “deviants” and a “perverted current” who seek to dismiss the supreme leader and end the Islamic Republic through bureaucratic maneuvers and legislative changes.
Thus, the theocrats moved to prevent the election of the president’s supporters in the recent parliamentary elections of March 2012. Only seven hundred reformists and regime opponents were permitted to register among the fifty-two hundred candidates for two hundred and ninety seats in the Iranian Parliament, or Majles. Subsequently, the Guardian Council, which oversees all elections, began to systematically cull those registrants by annulling the candidacies of anyone harboring notions of sociopolitical reform. Several dozen parliamentarians, too, were not allowed back onto the ballot for having not followed the supreme leader’s wishes in lockstep. Grounds for disqualification included allegations of “not believing in Islam,” “not being a practitioner of Islam,” “not being loyal to the Constitution,” and most importantly from the fundamentalists’ perspective, “not being loyal to the velayat-e faqih.”
When the official results were announced, the ayatollahs’ supporters held on to the largest bloc (though not a majority) of parliamentary seats—and will now try to use that legislative center of power to thwart the executive branch’s reforms. This outcome sits well with hard-liners in the Majles who, like Khamenei, seek to amend Iran’s Constitution so the executive branch can be eliminated. President Ahmadinejad responded quickly by setting up a council charged with ensuring the Constitution is followed closely. When summoned for questioning by parliamentarians, Ahmadinejad even ridiculed his legislative foes and their questions during the televised proceedings: “Those who designed these questions were from among those who got a master’s degree by just pushing a button.”…
June 9, 2012
WHEN ALISON KENDALL’Sboss told her in 2007 that her civil service job was being transferred to a different building in another part of Vancouver, she panicked. Commuting to a new office would be no big deal for most people, she knew. But Kendall might well have the worst sense of direction in the world. For as long as she can remember, she has been unable to perform even the simplest navigational tasks. She needed a family member to escort her to and from school right through the end of grade twelve, and is still able to produce only a highly distorted, detail-free sketch map of her own house. After five years of careful training, she had mastered the bus trip to and from her office, but the slightest deviation left her hopelessly lost. When that happened, the forty-three-year-old had to phone her father to come and pick her up, even if she was just a few blocks from home, in the neighbourhood where she had lived most of her life.
Kendall (not her real name) decided to ask a neuropsychologist if she had medical grounds for turning down the transfer. He referred her to a neuro-ophthalmology clinic at the University of British Columbia, where a young post-doc from Italy named Giuseppe Iaria was studying the neuroscience of orientation and navigation. After a battery of tests, Iaria concluded that Kendall was perfectly normal. She had average intelligence, memory, and mental imaging abilities, and her brain was completely undamaged. She was simply unable to form a “cognitive map,” the mind’s way of representing spatial relationships. When he put her in a brain scanner and asked her to explore the streets of a computer-generated virtual town, her hippocampus — the brain region responsible for cognitive maps — remained inactive, even though basic memory tests had shown that it was functional. Earlier this year, a paper by Iaria, neuro-ophthalmologist Jason Barton, and their colleagues appeared in the journal Neuropsychologia, describing a new disorder called “developmental topographical disorientation,” or DTD. Kendall was “Patient 1.”
Like any other human trait, navigational skill varies widely — some people crow about their abilities, while others lament their ineptitude. So in a way, Kendall’s condition came as no surprise. (“I was expecting to find someone like that eventually,” Iaria says.) But the brain’s navigational wiring doesn’t just reflect our talent at getting from A to B; it also reflects the ways in which we perceive and interact with the world around us. As our surroundings have evolved over the centuries, so too have our navigational strategies and conceptions, shaped most recently by urbanization and the advent of high-speed travel.
We’re now on the cusp of an even more dramatic change, as we enter the age of the global positioning system, which is well on its way to being a standard feature in every car and on every cellphone. At the same time, neuroscientists are starting to uncover a two-way street: our brains determine how we navigate, but our navigational efforts also shape our brains. The experts are picking up some worrying signs about the changes that will occur as we grow accustomed to the brain-free navigation of the GPSera. Once we lose the habit of forming cognitive maps, we may find ourselves becoming more and more like Patient 1.
IT WAS the flower shop that messed me up. I was navigating through the virtual town Iaria had built within a video game platform, trying to learn the locations of four landmarks: a Wendy’s, a Days Inn, a flower shop, and a movie theatre showing Hugh Grant’s Love Actually. It took me three tries to place all of them in the correct positions on a map; typical scores range from two to five. “You’re average,” Iaria (who has since taken a faculty position at the University of Calgary) said cheerfully, crushing my hopes of being a super-outlier. That morning, as I’d walked the three kilometres from my downtown hotel to Vancouver General Hospital, I’d oriented myself by marking the cues provided by an unfamiliar city: glancing at a few key street names I’d jotted on a piece of paper; keeping the mountains on my left once I’d crossed the Granville Street Bridge; and more or less ignoring the shorelines, which seemed to point in different directions every time I looked at the water.
Iaria and McGill University researcher Véronique Bohbot demonstrated in a widely cited 2003 study that our mapping strategies fall into two basic categories. One is a spatial strategy that involves learning the relationships between various landmarks — creating a cognitive map in your head, in other words, that shows where the flower shop and other destinations sit on the street grid. The other is a stimulus-response approach that encodes specific routes by memorizing a series of cues, as in: get off the bus when you see the glass skyscraper, then walk toward the big park. For their study, Iaria and Bohbot created a virtual maze that tested both methods; they found that about half of us prefer spatial strategies, while the other half prefer stimulus-response.
Most of us can use both, depending on the circumstances, but we have a bias toward one or the other. (Kendall was relying solely on cues, in the absence of cognitive mapping skills.) Stimulus-response navigators tend to complete the task more quickly and make fewer errors. “Cognitive mapping is difficult, it’s complicated, it’s tedious,” Bohbot says. The spatial approach does have one major advantage, though: versatility. If I memorize the routes from the flower shop to the movie theatre, and from the movie theatre to the Wendy’s, I can whip back and forth along those routes very quickly. But what if I want to go from the flower shop straight to the Wendy’s? Without a cognitive map, I have no way of figuring out shortcuts or exploring new routes to different destinations. I can only go where my stimulus-driven mind has already left a trail of bread crumbs.
The idea that we carry maps in our heads is relatively new. An experimental psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, Edward C. Tolman, coined the term “cognitive map” in a 1948 paper showing that rats in certain types of mazes were able to figure out shortcuts to a destination — a clear sign that they weren’t simply learning a sequence of left and right turns. Amazingly, a series of experiments in the 1970s suggested that cognitive maps are more than metaphorical. Certain neurons in the hippocampus, called “place cells,” were observed activating only when the rat was in a specific place. Let the animal wander through a maze, and you could watch a chain of neurons fire in a spatial pattern that exactly matched its path, at a smaller scale.
Whether the same picture can be extended to humans remains a matter of considerable controversy. We don’t know whether the firing patterns of neurons in our hippocampus would trace out the patterns of our neighbourhood, because researchers aren’t allowed to implant arrays of electrodes in our brains. We do know, though, that the human hippocampus stores the same kind of information as the rat hippocampus does, thanks in part to a remarkable series of experiments on a group of truly gifted navigators.
For those of us who have grown up in the reassuring embrace of grid-patterned streets that run straight and don’t change names every two blocks, Old World cities like London — recently declared the most confusing city in the world by a 12,500-person Nokia Maps survey — present huge challenges. So pity the cabbies. Before getting behind the wheel of a black cab, would-be drivers have to pass a test called the Knowledge, which requires them to memorize some 25,000 streets and thousands of landmarks, a task that takes two to four years…