Yellow World / Prose Wyoming

THE YELLOW WORLD is the high desert of southwestern Wyoming

The Yellow World is a source of sediment, a high spot on the continent that will be leveled in good time.


In the depths of a snaky arroyo that debouches into the Green River, there stands a cut bank I call the cobble wall, after the ovoid bodies of quartzite packed into a deep layer at its base. The appearance of the polished stones within the vast monotony of mud and sand is like that of a Roman mosaic discovered in a far flung mud brick town. The smooth substantive cobbles, which began as rough bits of rock broken from distant mountain exposures, were reduced to ovoid volumes in the welter of distal floods. Relict cross-bedding of the original sandstone, and the distorted pebbles of former conglomerates, are magical metamorphic fabrics that yield details of their geologic heritage.

Time’s beauty can be held in my hand: midwifed by ice wedging and snowmelt, the cobbles provide pleasure in my garden.

Above the cobble layer, sagebrush that have been undermined when a portion of the mud wall caved onto the arroyo floor hang upside down anchored by a taproot the thickness of a hangman’s rope. This trick can extend a life span, but not forever.

It’s a forest service road in a forest without trees: the shallow shifting channel demanded by the low flow of the Blacks Fork is flanked by a wide alkali flat salted with bunch grass, as if an old-fashioned chenille bedspread grows there. The surrounding bluffs and ridges deepen to charcoal blue under passing clouds and those traveling shadows tease one into contemplation of a desert life: a period waits at the end of each sentence. Keep writing, then.


July sidelines the winter worrier, cold anxiety soothed by Nature’s reassurance that we deserve to live in the sagebrush fields of Paradise. The earth’s rotation is our refresh icon: the Yellow World is restored by the arrant light of daybreak, but High Noon finds the gray chaparral and yellow escarpments white hot; the countryside is overexposed and uninviting. The reward for our endurance is the transition into twilight, when nature’s products, and man’s efforts as well, benefit from the long wavelengths of the sun’s farewell.

Clouds shed answers somewhere tonight, but not on the Yellow World, not on the drought-destroyed vitality of flowers in my garden, but theirs is a simple fatigue and no match for the weariness of consciousness, for the question of what to do with oneself.

Chance, that ruthless overseer, has designated Wyoming as the land of my exile. Its wide spaces are a fence made of distance where the temptations of civilized life cannot cross its wastes to find me.

We climb a pale road to meet night descending on one of the earth’s most simple places: Puccini instructs the silent hills what it means to be caught between obligation and desire. The red girl, as red tonight as cousin fox, vaults the acid snakeweed and blushing winged dock, her tail a feather that falls among those delicate beauties. She is unaware that a dark wild horse is grazing in the faint pooling light, cut from the dark sky when the full moon shatters the plateau rim. The west wind comes on strong: we just make it back to the truck, the hot sky flowing like taffy. A summer avalanche of dust pushes us down canyon, down home.


Coarse red weeds tangle like dredlocks on a piece of ground disfigured by man, over which the truck rolls toward the river, toward willow and birch that move like kelp in a tidal flow, adding grace of movement to a static landscape.

The red dog barks sharply at a distant passing vehicle and the puppy echoes her mousetrap behavior, causing me to question the size and shape of my psychic territory, which under scrutiny proves to be huge and somewhat comical. I used to dodge intimacy because I believed that it came with a blade and a burden, but the yellow world has shown me that it is my character that is double-edged.

An inexplicable happiness spreads across the land, evidence of the correspondence between the land and the land inside me. My existence has to this date shown no practical application, but loving the land is sufficient when so many don’t. The source of this benevolent function is unknown, but perhaps the Art Director of Life, upon noticing a dull spot in the universe, lured me to the Yellow World. 


A touchy starter delays our departure, but once warmed by the sun, the red truck shudders without complaint along our uncomfortable bladed roads, over two-track hard pan and sharp rolling rock, asking no more than to enter the wilderness with enough gas to get us home.

What a wonderfully mathematical landscape is our desert; the precision of its forms seduces one into the search for non-living intelligence. Hints lie about the gentle hills, concealed in the harsh places, floating atop the river of flashing fish. Desert secrets are filed within the digs of a surly badger and demonstrated in the strict sanity of the anthill.


The F’d Up World of Parrots in Captivity / Entertainment

Nature: Parrots are simply wacky… and so are social humans, who love to “mess with” (tease and torture) other living things. A screeching baby AND a screaming parrot? What fun!

From the Archives / Essay on Social Petri Dish

One “fun” result of getting a new computer (with a CD drawer, no less) is being able to go back through all those CD back ups that I should have thrown away years ago, but kept. This dates to ca. 2006…


Early One Morning in the Universe

Humanity may be stuck on a wheel of incarnation (repeating the same mistakes, generation after generation), but the individual need not be

What if the form and content of human belief come down to a design preference, with the majority of people preferring a hierarchical plan, based on the family: a design fated to bog down in jealousy and unfair treatment: a system based on parental rage – life in a social petri dish that breeds implacable tragedy from which the individual cannot escape, even in death?

At the other end of the spectrum of ideas, and so far, a neglected alternative, is something clean and random and spontaneous: a scheme based on experience, which does not require supernatural affirmation of our collective and primeval family delusions. The fact that the body will die, permanently and forever, opens the imagination to that which lies beyond human control, and frees the individual from bondage to the group, because it is my body, not theirs.

Society tells its children that a glow worm, or some larval stage of development, was inserted into each of their bodies at conception, or at birth, or baptism, or when the sex hormones turn on, depending on the cultural context they were born into and that this ghostly thing was activated by the supernatural, thus causing the child to be alive. In actual practice, we proceed through life guided by infinitely more ancient and practical instructions called DNA. The results are not perfect, certainly. In Homo sapiens, it is apparent that the code results in a brain of dubious reliability. It is painful to admit, but necessary.

The claim is that this supernatural thing will leave my body when it perishes; a thing which is held by the majority of people in my culture to be my true identity, but which is alien to me – unknowable, in fact. A temporary resident that has no particular form or substance, but which is locked in combat with an inherently evil physical body – a body that for as long as I may live, never really belongs to me. This is put forth as a stupendous delusion: I am expected to believe that my real self is on loan from a supernatural source, and my individual abilities and pursuits discarded as worthless except in reference to this source: my status is that of a puppet activated by magic.

Creation stories, devised by primeval tribes and salvaged or scavenged or embroidered by civilizations of size and material sophistication, fail the pure design test, which requires consonance with Nature. These schemes begin by naming and claiming pieces of existence, an approach to conceptualizing the environment that is understandable in primitive circumstances, hatched by the need for power in the childhood of humankind. The leap our ancestors made to magical connections between objects and ideas is significant in animal evolution, but faulty. Our ancestors had to be satisfied with what their brains could do constructively, which is to make analogies.

Many of these early connections are elegant, while other myths are positively stupefying, perhaps because the original symbolism is lost to us. Many stories that have come down to us betray the weaknesses in human memory, just as each copy of an image is farther removed from the original and loses its distinction. What we have is a cultural junk drawer jammed by absurdities, which have been patented by repetition and fanciful interpretation, which served our species in their time, but we now hoard these errors at terrific cost; cultural ideas have not kept pace with technology. Mythology has become an end in itself. Reality is lost.

Like the genetic code itself, human culture is both repetitive and additive. Genetic information is not thrown away; unnecessary bits are instead stashed in great unused collections of instructions, which is why most of our DNA matches that of both extinct and existing species; why the human fetus recapitulates evolution, why each of us is a portable portion of an ancient sea. Nature is conservative, and yet favors the workable mutation and the turning on and off of old switches.

By means of language and technology, human beings also gather vast amounts of information. Certain knowledge remains active in a culture, some lies dormant: certainly, not all information is of equal value. The results are a mixed affair. An advance in technology may be valued because it can be used in war, while its peaceful uses are ignored, or eventually borrowed and put to a different use.  An idea may be valued because it sanctions the rights of ruthless rulers. A war may be fought because it appears to be motivated by moral good, but which in reality merely exploit greed. There is no way to judge cultures as a whole any more than we can judge DNA, or the results of evolution.  And yet, we do, because we can, because we have a brain built to contrast and compare; ideas are a product of human thought, but most ideas are  not at all helpful to survival.

Our peril to ourselves and to the life of the planet lies in obsessing over and hoarding bits of cramped opinion that will never produce a picture of existence that is new in any way. The picture that mankind persists in using as its model of the universe was created by ignorant and fearful minds that were driven by the necessity of wresting control from a powerful environment, but we are mature and ought to have learned something from the history of our species. Our current picture is as jumbled as those clots of discarded DNA; useful, not useful.

We are perfectly capable of accepting the totality of the universe in an attitude of respectful silence, in recognition of what we do not know, and with a comprehensive view that doesn’t require a beginning and ending point in us. We are the sole creature to arise on earth (as far as we know) to have the ability to view the many threads of existence. Throughout life, each of us will perceive these mysteries in changed ways, even if we are not aware of it. That is, we learn.

For our species, the universe of mind is whatever we make of it. Despite this creative attribute, physical reality does exist, and we are ultimately powerless when faced with this truth. From deep within us great fear arises, causing us to cast our theories, dreams, imaginings, fears, and limitations onto a sublime unknown. We write our own story, one that explains how it was all meant to be, but these ‘meant-to-be’ stories are wishes designed to soothe our nerves and explain our cruelty. Why do we need to deflect ownership of our perpetual violence, cruelty, and destruction when this is actual behavior?

We respond to beauty as strongly as to food or sex. Beauty is inherent in physical reality: contrary to what one might assume, mathematicians and physicists understand this best, since mathematics is the language of physical reality. What could be more beautiful and concise than E=mc2? We are a product of physical reality, therefore beauty is built into us. Beauty is the motivation for civilized and sane behavior, for kindness and for learning. Why paint animals in the deep recesses of a cave, why labor for decades to erect temples, why undertake near-fatal journeys just to collect fantastic and beautiful materials from around the earth, if not to participate in a beauty that is also within us? What we desire from beauty is fusion with the universe.

What has happened to mankind that our cultures are so out of balance with the physical world? Beauty and light did not leave our world, but are abandoned by the mass of human beings for various dreary versions of existence, in which every living thing is worthless when compared to profit. These plodding schemes are crowded and disorganized and not beautiful at all because they do away with possibility. Tangled loops of anti-knowledge go around and around in the minds of those who are stuck on limits within the brain. But the universe does not stop evolving in order to satisfy their need for a finite answer, and yet the mass of humans dwell on the tired details of texts and rituals that ignore common experience. We think that the universe will become whatever we want it to be, but whatever it may be, it exists ‘as is’ and we merely constrain our knowledge with beliefs, preferences, and delusions.

I feel more free as a body that will die, than believing that something unnatural will leave my body, to proceed onward and upward into a supernatural domain. Most of it seems a design preference. There is something clean and spontaneous in a design that is not required to house itself in levels of existence freed only for a time from the great overseeing One. I fear I am a renegade soul out to proceed on my way alone.





Types of Nonverbal Communication / Info for Aspies, Autistics    Click here for full article

Types of Nonverbal Communication

Key Takeaways

  • Kinesics refers to body movements and posture and includes the following components:

    • Gestures are arm and hand movements and include adaptors like clicking a pen or scratching your face, emblems like a thumbs-up to say “OK,” and illustrators like bouncing your hand along with the rhythm of your speaking.
    • Head movements and posture include the orientation of movements of our head and the orientation and positioning of our body and the various meanings they send. Head movements such as nodding can indicate agreement, disagreement, and interest, among other things. Posture can indicate assertiveness, defensiveness, interest, readiness, or intimidation, among other things.
    • Eye contact is studied under the category of oculesics and specifically refers to eye contact with another person’s face, head, and eyes and the patterns of looking away and back at the other person during interaction. Eye contact provides turn-taking signals, signals when we are engaged in cognitive activity, and helps establish rapport and connection, among other things.
    • Facial expressions refer to the use of the forehead, brow, and facial muscles around the nose and mouth to convey meaning. Facial expressions can convey happiness, sadness, fear, anger, and other emotions.
  • Haptics refers to touch behaviors that convey meaning during interactions. Touch operates at many levels, including functional-professional, social-polite, friendship-warmth, and love-intimacy.
  • Vocalics refers to the vocalized but not verbal aspects of nonverbal communication, including our speaking rate, pitch, volume, tone of voice, and vocal quality. These qualities, also known as paralanguage, reinforce the meaning of verbal communication, allow us to emphasize particular parts of a message, or can contradict verbal messages.
  • Proxemics refers to the use of space and distance within communication. US Americans, in general, have four zones that constitute our personal space: the public zone (12 or more feet from our body), social zone (4–12 feet from our body), the personal zone (1.5–4 feet from our body), and the intimate zone (from body contact to 1.5 feet away). Proxemics also studies territoriality, or how people take up and defend personal space.
  • Chronemics refers the study of how time affects communication and includes how different time cycles affect our communication, including the differences between people who are past or future oriented and cultural perspectives on time as fixed and measured (monochronic) or fluid and adaptable (polychronic).
  • Personal presentation and environment refers to how the objects we adorn ourselves and our surroundings with, referred to as artifacts, provide nonverbal cues that others make meaning from and how our physical environment—for example, the layout of a room and seating positions and arrangements—influences communication

There is only one human story

We are all travelers in this world.

From the sweet grass to the packing house, birth till death, we travel between the eternities.

Prentice Ritter / Broken Trail


I finished rereading the Odyssey; there is so much to say about the foundational story of Western Culture as opposed to the archaic and static world of Pyramid Cultures. The “short answer” is simple: the individual is paramount in the West. The individual does not exist in other cultures: not even pharaohs, great kings, or god despots were individuals. These were roles – place markers, keepers of the status quo; enforcers of rigid systems that organized labor into lesser classes of workers on a massive scale.

The shift in Ancient Greek culture was profound. A change in focus from “outer” surface man to the inner life of human beings. Pharaoh was his “things” – from a useless pile of limestone and granite, to the thousands of people who spent their lives piling up those useless pyramids and temples and performing magical formulas.

Odysseus remains “our hero” – a complex sophisticated human being; we can know him, because we are like him. This is true as well for females in the West, although “we” barely know it. The fact of female importance in the Odyssey is overlooked: these characters are actual women with personalities and destinies; good, bad, and powerful – prime movers of the story with histories of their own. Athena is the mentor, “the brains”, the stimulator of thought; a strategist in war and diplomacy; a female without parallel in literature. Men worshipped Athena: that fact cannot be avoided or denied. Becoming civilized was the result of “using your brain” as well as well as “brawn” and this revolution was attributed to “female” intelligence.

Being an individual is a painful and messy project, both for the individual and his or her culture. Resist the pyramid —-

The Odyssey, Irma and related thoughts

Still using library internet access…

Ordered new computer, but waiting for delivery – could be 10 more days. I’m beginning to FREAK OUT! WHY? Not because I have some “pathological” Asperger attachment to habit or objects – it’s the tool I need to communicate “what’s going on” in my “unconscious visual processing” in the primary language of “social reality” – words. 

I’m lucky to live in a time and place where this arrangement is possible: a reclusive existence in wild Wyoming, but with the ability to express my thoughts to a mysterious “global” world – unknown people from every part of the planet continue to “tune in” (maybe by accident?) It is “mind-boggling” from my point of view from the “Frontier” which lacks modern social development and material abundance.

I’m momentarily fed up with rereading JUNG: do psychologists actually “like” or approve of any human beings (even themselves?) It is quite revealing how with time and experience, one’s view of “standard ideas” is changed and reviewed.

I try to reread the Iliad and the Odyssey on alternate years, so have taken the opportunity to read the Odyssey – coincidentally, while half-listening to coverage of hurricane Irma… (many reactions and thoughts, which will have to wait) but having to do with how modern people see Nature, and how cultural values are shaped as a consequence; very “odd” feelings and ideas which in turn shape our behavior! 

My fascination with both books goes deep: the two are foundations for much of my “introverted” thinking about culture, history and admirable human codes of behavior and interaction that have fallen into forgetfulness: PLUS these are highly dense visual presentations that “speak to me” like few others. At times, the “visual” descriptions come so fast and furious, that I can’t keep up my brain processing speed to match, and I must linger over those descriptions, which “tell me” so much about the people of that time. And which, in a way, make me “homesick”.

AND – Once again (Irma event) I am utterly appalled by the ignorance (as in ignoring the entire subject) of Americans concerning the processes and reality of “geology” in its true scope – a study which reveals How the earth, oceans, atmosphere and “cosmic” location WORK!

American “education” is the “manmade”  disaster that cripples reasonable and effective behavior!

Hmmm. Someone has brought a screaming toddler, possibly named Irma, into the library… time to “evacuate”.




Extraverted – Introverted Thinking / Ask C.G. Jung

Hmmm.. back to the library after 3 days with no access to the Internet; interesting experience. Anyway – had to go old school – actual books, pen and paper. Very productive, if frustrating. I’ve been meaning to get back to a question on my mind: What did Jung actually mean by extraverted and introverted thinking?

My suspicion was that most of us are using these terms wrongly, and confusing related terms such as intuition, instinct, “gut feeling” “sense of” “hunch” – a quick inspection of The Portable Jung, Viking Press, 1972 (one of those reference books I keep close), confirmed that indeed, my “memory” of these ideas and others was somewhat confused.  Also, I had not reviewed the subject in light of what I now know about Asperger’s – and found that Jung’s ideas have new importance.

Remember: the following is extraversion and introversion applied to THINKING ONLY, not to the personality as a whole.

I will begin with one quote: (page 197, should you have a copy) regarding extraverted thinking:

“…but when the thinking depends primarily not on objective data but on some second- hand idea, the very poverty of this thinking is compensated by an all the more impressive accumulation of facts (or data) congregating round a narrow and sterile point of view, with the result that many valuable and meaningful aspects are completely lost sight of. Many of the allegedly scientific outpourings of our own day owe their existence to this wrong orientation.”

Pretty prescient warning for someone writing nearly a century ago, and including his own profession!

Jung is not condemning extraverted thinking here – far from it, but is warning against it’s mistaken or perverted use in areas that are properly the domain of introverted thinking.

A definition: The general attitude of extraverted thinking is oriented by the object and objective data.

A definition: Introverted thinking is neither directed at objective facts nor general ideas. He asks – “Is this even thinking?” This has significant application to the “Asperger” brain problem – Jung seems to have been peripherally aware of “visual thinking” in dream imagery and symbols in art and alchemy, and yet unable to “see” visual thinking as a distinct brain process, and its importance.

His admission is that both types of thinking are vital to each other, and that the failure of “our age” is that modern western culture “only acknowledges extraverted thinking” – the failure is to recognize that introverted thinking (basically, reflection on personal subjective experience) cannot be “removed” from human thought – nor should it be, because only this co-operative analysis can yield actionable meaning.

He rightly identifies the “problem” of modern “social – psychological” science as a not-really-scientific endeavor, because it does not deal with fact, but with traditional, common, banal ideas – as its “outside sources” – (Biblical Myth, Puritanical social order, etc) and inevitably, simply supports the status quo: it is “purely imitative”, an “afterthought”; repeating “sterile” ideas that cannot go beyond was was obvious to begin with. A “materialistic mentality stuck on the object” that produces a “mass of undigested material” that requires “some simple, general idea that gives coherence to a disordered whole.”

Is this not exactly, in post after post, what my repeated criticism of today’s “helping, caring, fixing” industry has been? YES!

Much more to come…..

How Animals Think / Review of Book by Frans de Waal

How Animals Think

A new look at what humans can learn from nonhuman minds

Alison Gopnik, The Atlantic 

Review of: Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

By Frans de Waal / Norton

For 2,000 years, there was an intuitive, elegant, compelling picture of how the world worked. It was called “the ladder of nature.” In the canonical version, God was at the top, followed by angels, who were followed by humans. Then came the animals, starting with noble wild beasts and descending to domestic animals and insects. Human animals followed the scheme, too. Women ranked lower than men, and children were beneath them. The ladder of nature was a scientific picture, but it was also a moral and political one. It was only natural that creatures higher up would have dominion over those lower down. (This view remains dominant in American thinking: “The Great Chain of Being” is still with us and underlies social reality)

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection delivered a serious blow to this conception. (Unless one denies evolution)  Natural selection is a blind historical process, stripped of moral hierarchy. A cockroach is just as well adapted to its environment as I am to mine. In fact, the bug may be better adapted—cockroaches have been around a lot longer than humans have, and may well survive after we are gone. But the very word evolution can imply a progression—New Agers talk about becoming “more evolved”—and in the 19th century, it was still common to translate evolutionary ideas into ladder-of-nature terms.


Modern biological science has in principle rejected the ladder of nature. But the intuitive picture is still powerful. In particular, the idea that children and nonhuman animals are lesser beings has been surprisingly persistent. Even scientists often act as if children and animals are defective adult humans, defined by the abilities we have and they don’t. Neuroscientists, for example, sometimes compare brain-damaged adults to children and animals.

We always should have been suspicious of this picture, but now we have no excuse for continuing with it. In the past 30 years, research has explored the distinctive ways in which children as well as animals think, and the discoveries deal the coup de grâce to the ladder of nature. (Not in psychology!)The primatologist Frans de Waal has been at the forefront of the animal research, and its most important public voice.

In Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, he makes a passionate and convincing case for the sophistication of nonhuman minds.

De Waal outlines both the exciting new results and the troubled history of the field. The study of animal minds was long divided between what are sometimes called “scoffers” and “boosters.” Scoffers refused to acknowledge that animals could think at all: Behaviorism—the idea that scientists shouldn’t talk about minds, only about stimuli and responses—stuck around in animal research long after it had been discredited in the rest of psychology. (Are you kidding? “Black Box” psychology is alive and well, especially in American education!) Boosters often relied on anecdotes and anthropomorphism instead of experiments. De Waal notes that there isn’t even a good general name for the new field of research. Animal cognition ignores the fact that humans are animals too. De Waal argues for evolutionary cognition instead.

Psychologists often assume that there is a special cognitive ability—a psychological secret sauce—that makes humans different from other animals. The list of candidates is long: tool use, cultural transmission, the ability to imagine the future or to understand other minds, and so on. But every one of these abilities shows up in at least some other species in at least some form. De Waal points out various examples, and there are many more. New Caledonian crows make elaborate tools, shaping branches into pointed, barbed termite-extraction devices. A few Japanese macaques learned to wash sweet potatoes and even to dip them in the sea to make them more salty, and passed that technique on to subsequent generations. Western scrub jays “cache”—they hide food for later use—and studies have shown that they anticipate what they will need in the future, rather than acting on what they need now.

From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that these human abilities also appear in other species. After all, the whole point of natural selection is that small variations among existing organisms can eventually give rise to new species. Our hands and hips and those of our primate relatives gradually diverged from the hands and hips of common ancestors. It’s not that we miraculously grew hands and hips and other animals didn’t. So why would we alone possess some distinctive cognitive skill that no other species has in any form?

De Waal explicitly rejects the idea that there is some hierarchy of cognitive abilities. (Thank-you!) Nevertheless, an implicit tension in his book shows just how seductive the ladder-of-nature view remains. Simply saying that the “lower” creatures share abilities with creatures once considered more advanced still suggests something like a ladder—it’s just that chimps or crows or children are higher up than we thought. So the summary of the research ends up being: We used to think that only adult humans could use tools/participate in culture/imagine the future/understand other minds, but actually chimpanzees/crows/toddlers can too. Much of de Waal’s book has this flavor, though I can’t really blame him, since developmental psychologists like me have been guilty of the same rhetoric.

As de Waal recognizes, a better way to think about other creatures would be to ask ourselves how different species have developed different kinds of minds to solve different adaptive problems. (And – How “different humans” have done, and continue to do, the same!) Surely the important question is not whether an octopus or a crow can do the same things a human can, but how those animals solve the cognitive problems they face, like how to imitate the sea floor or make a tool with their beak. Children and chimps and crows and octopuses are ultimately so interesting not because they are mini-mes, but because they are aliens—not because they are smart like us, but because they are smart in ways we haven’t even considered. All children, for example, pretend with a zeal that seems positively crazy; if we saw a grown-up act like every 3-year-old does, we would get him to check his meds. (WOW! Nasty comment!)

Sometimes studying those alien ways of knowing can illuminate adult-human cognition. Children’s pretend play may help us understand our adult taste for fiction. De Waal’s research provides another compelling example. We human beings tend to think that our social relationships are rooted in our perceptions, beliefs, and desires, and our understanding of the perceptions, beliefs, and desires of others—what psychologists call our “theory of mind.” (And yet horrible behavior toward other humans and animals demonstrates that AT BEST, this “mind-reading” simply makes humans better social manipulators and predators) human behavior our In the ’80s and ’90s, developmental psychologists, including me, showed that preschoolers and even infants understand minds apart from their own. But it was hard to show that other animals did the same. “Theory of mind” became a candidate for the special, uniquely human trick. (A social conceit)

Yet de Waal’s studies show that chimps possess a remarkably developed political intelligence—they are profoundly interested in figuring out social relationships such as status and alliances. (A primatologist friend told me that even before they could stand, the baby chimps he studied would use dominance displays to try to intimidate one another.) It turns out, as de Waal describes, that chimps do infer something about what other chimps see. But experimental studies also suggest that this happens only in a competitive political context. The evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare and his colleagues gave a subordinate chimp a choice between pieces of food that a dominant chimp had seen hidden and other pieces it had not seen hidden. The subordinate chimp, who watched all the hiding, stayed away from the food the dominant chimp had seen, but took the food it hadn’t seen. (A typical anecdotal factoid that proves nothing)

Anyone who has gone to an academic conference will recognize that we, too, are profoundly political creatures. We may say that we sign up because we’re eager to find out what our fellow Homo sapiens think, but we’re just as interested in who’s on top and where the alliances lie. Many of the political judgments we make there don’t have much to do with our theory of mind. We may defer to a celebrity-academic silverback even if we have no respect for his ideas. In Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bennet cares how people think, while Lady Catherine cares only about how powerful they are, but both characters are equally smart and equally human.

The challenge of studying creatures that are so different from us is to get into their heads.

Of course, we know that humans are political, but we still often assume that our political actions come from thinking about beliefs and desires. Even in election season we assume that voters figure out who will enact the policies they want, and we’re surprised when it turns out that they care more about who belongs to their group or who is the top dog. The chimps may give us an insight into a kind of sophisticated and abstract social cognition that is very different from theory of mind—an intuitive sociology rather than an intuitive psychology.

Until recently, however, there wasn’t much research into how humans develop and deploy this kind of political knowledge—a domain where other animals may be more cognitively attuned than we are. It may be that we understand the social world in terms of dominance and alliance, like chimps, but we’re just not usually as politically motivated as they are. (Obsession with social status is so pervasive, that it DISRUPTS neurotypical ability to function!) Instead of asking whether we have a better everyday theory of mind, we might wonder whether they have a better everyday theory of politics.

Thinking seriously about evolutionary cognition may also help us stop looking for a single magic ingredient that explains how human intelligence emerged. De Waal’s book inevitably raises a puzzling question. After all, I’m a modern adult human being, writing this essay surrounded by furniture, books, computers, art, and music—I really do live in a world that is profoundly different from the world of the most brilliant of bonobos. If primates have the same cognitive capacities we do, where do those differences come from?

The old evolutionary-psychology movement argued that we had very specific “modules,” special mental devices, that other primates didn’t have. But it’s far likelier that humans and other primates started out with relatively minor variations in more-general endowments and that those variations have been amplified over the millennia by feedback processes. For example, small initial differences in what biologists call “life history” can have big cumulative effects. Humans have a much longer childhood than other primates do. Young chimps gather as much food as they consume by the time they’re 5. Even in forager societies, human kids don’t do that until they’re 15. This makes being a human parent especially demanding. But it also gives human children much more time to learn—in particular, to learn from the previous generation. (If that generation is “messed up” to the point of incompetence, the advantage disappears and disaster results – which is what we see in the U.S. today). Other animals can absorb culture from their forebears too, like those macaques with their proto-Pringle salty potatoes. But they may have less opportunity and motivation to exercise these abilities than we do.

Even if the differences between us and our nearest animal relatives are quantitative rather than qualitative—a matter of dialing up some cognitive capacities and downplaying others—they can have a dramatic impact overall. A small variation in how much you rely on theory of mind to understand others as opposed to relying on a theory of status and alliances can exert a large influence in the long run of biological and cultural evolution.

Finally, de Waal’s book prompts some interesting questions about how emotion and reason mix in the scientific enterprise. The quest to understand the minds of animals and children has been a remarkable scientific success story. It inevitably has a moral, and even political, dimension as well. The challenge of studying creatures that are so different from us is to get into their heads, to imagine what it is like to be a bat or a bonobo or a baby. A tremendous amount of sheer scientific ingenuity is required to figure out how to ask animals or children what they think in their language instead of in ours.

At the same time, it also helps to have a sympathy for the creatures you study, a feeling that is not far removed from love. And this sympathy is bound to lead to indignation when those creatures are dismissed or diminished. That response certainly seems justified when you consider the havoc that the ladder-of-nature picture has wrought on the “lower” creatures. (Just ask ASD and Asperger children how devastating this lack of “empathy” on the part of the “helping, caring fixing” industry is.)

But does love lead us to the most-profound insights about another being, or the most-profound illusions? Elizabeth Bennet and Lady Catherine would have differed on that too, and despite all our theory-of-mind brilliance, (sorry – that’s ridiculous optimism) we humans have yet to figure out when love enlightens and when it leads us astray. So we keep these emotions under wraps in our scientific papers, for good reason. Still, popular books are different, and both sympathy and indignation are in abundant supply in de Waal’s.

Perhaps the combination of scientific research and moral sentiment can point us to a different metaphor for our place in nature. Instead of a ladder, we could invoke the 19th-century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt’s web of life. We humans aren’t precariously balanced on the top rung looking down at the rest. (Tell that to all those EuroAmerican males who dictate socio-economic-scientific terms of “humans who count”) It’s more scientifically accurate, and more morally appealing, to say that we are just one strand in an intricate network of living things.

About the Author

Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and an affiliate professor of philosophy at UC Berkeley.

gONE fREE gONE wILD / New Blog

It was a chore, but I finally have a new blog for my travel journal in a new format that’s actually accessible and readable! The old version was Some People are Lost, which will disappear once I check for anything I’ve missed.)

And the journal has a new – old name. I had changed it because I thought that the first title – courtesy of a Texan who appears in a couple chapters – over-promised on what the content was like, but after so many years with the wrong title, I realized that he was not talking about the content, of which he had no knowledge, but he was referring to me. I think it’s an old Texas saying, but he applied it rightly, as only a Texan can.

It’s good to remember that I was thoroughly Asperger at the time, but utterly unaware of that situation.

Miss America Gone Wrong

“There She Goes”

It’s all there, but needs tweaking and illustrations.