Sunday, January 24, 2010

What Was Alan Alda Thinking?

My wife and I just finished watching Alan Alda's PBS thing on the "human spark."  He's a smart guy and funny but what was he thinking when he endorsed the notion that there is a "human spark?"  And what were these Harvard and Oxford and other scientists thinking?

I have had some experience with media sorts and they are very fond of "hooks" that one can use to snag an audience and keep it.  The hook this time is the notion of a "human spark" -- something we have but that chimps and no other species (on this planet) have.  This is a terrible metaphor.  We know that it takes a spark to ignite gasoline fumes in an automobile cylinder and that this is the most proximate cause of the piston's moving downward thereby assisting the engine in its effort to ...  I don't want to get into automobile stuff.  I would be way out of my depth.  However, I am inclined to think that the evolution of those human qualities that distinguish us from chimps and other life forms might be just a bit more complicated than this metaphor makes it out to be.

The terrible thing about this metaphor is that it works better for "sophisticated" intelligent design people than for Darwinists.  If intelligent design people are willing to concede that we and the chimps have a common origin, they need only then say, "Aha, Alda is with us.  We are the life forms god sparked into humanhood by causing us to be capable of forming complex intentions, recognizing complex intentions in others, and imagining future actions."  Unsophisticated intelligent design people need only say that God dropped us on the planet pre-sparked.

The show actually admitted that chimps are capable of forming intentions and recognizing intentions in others (but not as well as we do).  About the future, they don't seem to think too much but to suppose they can't think about the immediate future is absurd.  Indeed the show proved otherwise as when it was argued that alpha males may choose to share with females based on attempting to curry favor with them.  Back in the day when I followed research on chimp linguistic development, I formed the view that the researchers who did this work were not always the sharpest academic tacks.  In my view, they tended to be so empathetic with their research subjects that they were willing to think things that just might not be true.

In the show, the human spark seemed to be whatever "sparked" the conjoint abilities to "read other's minds and travel in time," as Alda put it.  Let me show you a picture they showed of the areas of the brain that light up when these two abilities are activated.  Notice that these two parts of the brain are not adjacent.  Two questions arise in my mind: how did a single spark ignite abilities requiring two different parts of the brain to be be realized and how is it that so much of one part of the brain manage to be recruited for this realization.

Perhaps I am being a bit too simplistic here but I am not at all sure that these two abilities are so different.  If a crucial feature of humans, one shared by chimps, is our socialization then thinking about the future -- making plans for the future -- must crucially have involved making plans in connection with others.  And making plans in connection with others would seem to require an ability to form views as to others' intentions.  A Harvard professor did note that both abilities involve escaping one's present point of view.  I can imagine that being able to escape one's present point of view could have been a precursor to the gradual evolving of these abilities over a very long time.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Is Avatar Racist?

Spoiler Alert -- Do not read if you haven't seen but plan to see Avatar.

I was directed by a tweet to an story in the Japan Times on line saying that a small but vocal minority of people believe that Avatar is racist. First, the phrase "small but vocal" wants to be looked at. What it may mean is that there are two or three people who are extremely talkative who believe this. This article begins
Near the end of the hit film "Avatar," the villain snarls at the hero, Both men are white — although the hero is inhabiting a blue-skinned, 2.75-meter-tall, long-tailed alien. "How does it feel to betray your own race?"
This is funny.  The avatar is no longer an avatar whose brain is being controlled by a white man lying in a device that facilitates this control, but is instead a Na’vi man if someone in a manufactured Na’vi body whose human brain has been transferred into this body can be said to be a Na’vi person. The insulter should have said, "How does it feel to betray your former race?"

One idiot promoting this thesis says
"The ethnic Na'vi," he writes, "need the White man to save them because, as a less developed race, they lack the intelligence and fortitude to overcome their adversaries by themselves."
This is so inaccurate I have to believe the author did not see the movie or is incapable of seeing what is in front of his face. The Na'vi defeated the white devils thanks to Jake's knowledge of the white devil's military hardware and tactics and the intelligence and fortitude of the Na'vi and the assistance of other inhabitants of Pandora. Far from lacking fortitude, the Na'vi threw themselves into battle without regard for their personal safety. Jake's growing understanding of the Pandoran ecosystem played a critical role as well in that he (quite literally) plugged into the ecosystem seeking it to intercede on behalf of the planet. Had he not become an authentic Na'vi in spirit, that intercession would not have worked.

James Cameron set himself up for this criticism by using a white actor to play Jake and a person of color to play the Na'vi princess he fell in love with. Had he simply used an African American or English speaking African our critics would be in a hell of a position. It would no longer be a white man saving the blue-colored people but a person of color saving a person of a different color, but it would still be a human rescuing the people of Avatar. So, at the worst, Cameron's mistake was he cast a White man in the role of Jake.  Casting a white man made economic sense, I suppose, but it isn't just white people who save others in movies.  Will Smith saved the planet in one movie and I understand that Denzel Washington saves the planet in a new movie I haven't yet seen.

I am so tired of people playing the "race card" I want to vomit all over this blog. I got into the civil rights movement back in 1960 when it was a serious business because African Americans were denied most basic human rights in the South, including Texas and Oklahoma, as well as other places. The change over these 50 years has been stunning. And guess what? A lot of white people worked alongside African Americans to make the civil rights revolution happen. The lesson from that time is that when there is injustice everyone is obligated to do his or her part. That is the lesson of Pandora. The three white people who controlled the Avatars as spies all "got religion" and did what they could to help the Na'vi defeat the occupying army.  It is a good thing when people of any color assist people of any color.  The Haitian relief effort is a prime case.  Is that relief effort racist because white people are helping persons of color?

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