What?!

20 09 2007

I rarely listen to the radio, but when I do, I always turn on NPR (usually WHYY from Philadelphia). While I much prefer their news coverage and features to that of the “major” news outlets, every once in a while I hear something really crazy come over my computer speakers, as I just did moments ago. As I’m writing, author Diane Ackerman is being interviewed on Radio Times about her book The Zookeeper’s Wife, focusing on the true story of Warsaw Zoo keeper Jan Zabinski during WWII. On the air, Ackerman described how Jan had an uncanny ability of calming animals that were said to be vicious or overly aggressive. In explaining why Jan may have been able to do this, Ackerman suggested that at one time in our evolutionary history it would have been advantageous for mother and child to have a telepathic link, some kind of natural “Fall” degrading that ability in most people. According to Ackerman, Jan may have retained such an ability, intimating that she somehow telepathically soothed the beasts. The discussion on such a topic did not go further, but this is very strange coming from a woman who (even as I speak, oddly enough) prides herself on her understanding of natural history. Telepathy between mother and child has even less support for it than another idea of evolution that is heavily based upon woo, the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, and it seems like a continuation of the popular mythology that humans were once “in harmony” with nature and have since fallen from grace, losing any number of senses or sensitivities along the way. Indeed, it’d be best to leave telepathic hominids to trashy summer novels, and although The Zookeeper’s Wife sounds like an extraordinary story, Ackerman’s interview definitely turned me off. I know it’s not rational, judging a book I haven’t read by a kooky idea on a different subject, but I would be lying if I said I was going to go out and read it straight away.


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7 responses

20 09 2007
Jason

humans were once “in harmony” with nature and have since fallen from grace, losing any number of senses or sensitivities along the way

I’ve seen that conceit repeated too. And in those instance, the authors always fail to mention what senses are superior in primates.

20 09 2007
RedMolly

Diane Ackerman has authored some beautifully written “science” books–and all, unfortunately, carry this slight taint of the mystical woo-woo that keeps them from being the unalloyed pleasure they might otherwise have been. (I’ve read “A Natural History of the Senses” and “An Alchemy of Mind.”

Natalie Angier totally kicks her butt…

Also, I don’t think the ideas of telepathic connection between mother and child or the Aquatic Ape hypothesis should be considered “feminist”–they’re just loony. Adrienne Zihlman at UCSC has a much more rational feminist theory of evolution, one based on kinship and social bonds between females and cooperative/intergenerational child-rearing. She points out how unusual it is for a species to have a large number of female individuals surviving well past childbearing age and how relatively frequent this is among humans; she suggests there was a strong evolutionary advantage in having Grandma around to help tend the little ones while Mom foraged or worked on other tasks.

20 09 2007
laelaps

Molly; thanks for the comment and the insight. I label the AAH (at least Elaine Morgan’s form) “feminist” because it seemed to be a direct reaction to focusing too much on males in human evolution, so rather than saying “both are important” it switched to “only females are important,” males being making the process slower than necessary. In purely scientific terms it’s just plain woo, but the origins, at least from what I can tell, are rooted in a desire to make females more important in the evolutionary narrative. I will be more careful with my words, however, as I know such terms are charged and may have different meanings for different people.

20 09 2007
Julia

In science, social sciences and indeed law (I didn’t realise there was such a thing as feminist jurisprudence until Paul told me about it), there is feminism, and there is feminism. As you’ve said, Brian, there’s “hey, women have played an important equal part in shaping our biology and culture”, and there’s the more militant quite disturbing “men are insignificant” way of thinking. As Jack Nicholson said, “Why can’t we all just get along?”.

20 09 2007
Anne-Marie

I recently read one of Ackerman’s books, A Natural History of the Senses. It was fascinating, but she definitely struck me as kind of a flighty literary type (please forgive me for using a stereotype, I don’t know how better to describe her) as opposed to a scientist, after reading her work it doesn’t surprise me to hear that she could believe in something kind of “out there” like the mother-child telepathic link.

24 09 2007
DDeden

I haven’t read these, but I’d suggest that any hominid that wasn’t in harmony with nature soon became lunch for something that was very much in harmony with nature. A dog owner feeds a dog, the dog tunes into the feeder’s habits. Experience, not telepathy. AAH woo? Ah-choo! Have you heard of a more sensible story?

24 09 2007
laelaps

Thank you for the comment, DD, although I still disagree. There is no such thing as “harmony” with nature, being that nature is ever-changing. Take your predation example; the hominids that would be more likely to survive faced with predators may have been the ones in “dis-harmony” with life, potentially killing predators in their area to protect themselves, as has been the tradition for many people in areas where large predators abound. We have always been interacting with our surrounding ecology, just like any other animal, and sometimes there are shifts that prove to be extremely disadvantageous (i.e. a large meteor striking the earth). The idea of “harmony” is really a sort of tautology, whatever it is that survives being deemed “in harmony” and what does not deemed not in harmony, and it’s purely a subjective viewpoint.

As I said in the post, the AAH and telepathic mother-child links seem to be a more cultural reaction to the “man the conqueror” idea, where the more “gentle” female influence is played up to appeal to notions of harmony, paradise, and Eden. Such ideas might be pleasant or pretty, but they do not reflect reality.

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