On G. Olson’s Z-postings on Empathy

On G. Olson’s Z-postings on Empathy

It is with multiple reasons for multiple pleasant surprises that the present ZSpacer ran into Gary Olson’s fantastic Z-posting of October 13 titled “Age of Empathy”. One of those reasons was also the discovery of the existence of previous Z-articles by Gary Olson both on the same issue, of empathy, and on other issues (one of the most inspiring among them being his 2006 commencement speech  at Moravian college where he teaches political science). The present Z-Spacer can hardly say anything more conducive to reading G. Olson than just saying  “Open one article by him and you’ll just remain connected to the last word” but maybe he can help prompt this opening by mentioning other routes that also lead to G. Olson; actually one of the reasons the present posting is made is the one unpleasant surprise related to G. Olson’s Z-articles, namely the fact that most of them have no comments and discussions about them at their end. So:

1. Suppose somebody, decades ago, had listened to the interview given by Dave Grossman to California’s Jerry Brown in his Oakland  radio hour “We  the people”, or had read it, with the title “The Myth of a Killing Instinct”, included by Brown in his selection of 18 such interviews for  the book  titled “Dialogues” (all of these things are easily googlable); and suppose one was intrigued by one of the upshots there, e.g. the one used as abstract in the table of contents of the book which can be googled to be: “There is this natural safety mechanism–call it a violence immune system–that is present in human beings. The average human being is profoundly uninterested in killing others and the military has had to confront this for millennia.”; and suppose one was wondering about the follow up of this idea, in thinking&research or in activism&militarism, and also about the way this can be set in a wider context by philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, ethologists, biologists, neurophysiologists, neurophilosophers, political scientists; and suppose one heard that a political scientist is talking about something even called “neuropolitics” and that he was one of the few persons mentioning Dave Grossman in his articles. Then this person would go and read this political scientist’s articles, wouldn’t he? Do such  political scientists exist? I thought that either they didn’t or were so few that a non-specialist like me would not easily run into them. Now I know one exists: Gary Olson. And I’m grateful to ZSpace for my running into him, and to him for writing in ZSpace. 

2. Suppose a ZNet reader had read a few years ago (July05, 2005) Chomsky’s “What We Know On The Universals Of Language And Rights” ranging from linguistics to ethology and from philosophy to psychology and from history to political theory and from sociology to activism, and  wondered whether some loose links  that Chomsky noticed as existing in those chains have received some elucidation by the recent , possibly even  monumental, advances that, in popularized versions too, have been described  by Kandel and by Edelman; and also wondered whether implications of these links becoming more substantial for our understanding of human nature are already in sight, and not just skipped or commented naively/childishly, as in the Sperry versus Popper-Eccles controversy in the ’80s; and whether the insights on human nature are not anymore of the type that merely corroborates some insights by Jung that serve equally the politically aware&concerned parts of the population and the politically withdrawn-or-never-unfolded, but serve more the type of thinker/activists who knew how relevant the perspective and the analysis of public intellectuals of the Lewis Mumford type was ( and how relevant it is becoming more and more); then this reader too would not stop reading an article by Gary Olson if he opened one.

3. Suppose a citizen would go out of his way to hear a phrase Rachel Corrie had said when she was 10 and suppose then that he heard that a political scientist did have a phrase like that among his mottos in an article combining biology, ethology, sociology…Then he would soon be reading Gary Olson. 

4. Suppose a reader of Gary Olson did not see, or was not careful enough to see, the paragraphs of an ethologist like Konrad Lorenz in Olson’s wonderful descriptions of the state of the art in these issues. Then he would just ask him for a licence to just enter an upshot or summary of them as a small addendum to Olson’s presentations of Frans de Waal:

Konrad Lorenz… was one of the biologist who co-founded ethology, the study of  animals not in captivity but in freedom, thinking that like the study of a man living for year in a cage would  not be a study of exactly a human being but of  a distorted  human being , similarly the study of a monkey or lion or bird or fish etc living for years in a cage or bowl  would not be a study of a monkey or a lion or bird or fish etc. He coexisted with animals in a large farm, since he was born, (his father having been a zoologist with similar orientations) to his nineties. He lived with them,  talked with them and wrote a book about how one, in a sense,  talks with ducks, geese, crows, etc; he and his wife  raised their  children along with the animals sharing their farm and raising their  own children there,  he reached conclusions on  what social life happens during , for instance, the walking back and forth of geese in groups all day long, which means what betrothals, marriages, adulteries, duels, pecking orders, showoffs of bravado and displays of chivalry or  care and protection etc happen in ways illuminating corresponding human patterns, and from these he reached  insights and implications ranging from the nature of  archetypes to the nature of  language , from  the nature of  evolutionary ideas to the  nature of spatial sense (he even held the Kant chair in the philosopher’s birthplace for a while), and from the nature of aggression to the nature of  religion; and also wrote simple and concise books ranging from accounts of talking and jesting with animals, as if wearing “King Solomon’s ring” (as is called the mythical magic ring which allowed talk with animals) to efforts of intervention in the course of civilization spelling out what he called civilization’s mortal sins. Chips from such a master’s bench, as the expression goes, were made whole books or films by people whom he inspired, for instance that film with that teenage girl who taught geese how to fly because they had mistaken her for their mother was  related to a discovery and to a life event of Lorenz: he was kneeling over some goose eggs ready to burst open to observe the process and then he noticed that the fledglings were crying  even when their goose  mom was around but stopped crying when he approached, thus he realized that with  geese, but not with other birds as  it turned out,  mother  is the being they see when coming out of the egg. He also realized by their crying that they only recognized him when they saw him on all fours , not when he stood up, and thus he also realized that in order to not leave orphans , in the name of experimental science, some poor gooselings, he would have, for quite some time,  to spend a good deal of his day and to make a good deal of his other activities while walking on all fours in front to them. Which he did; and while promenading them in the yard like that, he in front and on fours, mimicking their goose cackle and looking over his shoulder to check if  some of them were not lost from the group, was seen by passers by and was considered  a rather questionable personality   and when he raised a fence for such things not to happen and make him lose his poise and whatever good name he had in the village , there came a necessity of checking something in the language  of crows without being recognized by them as the same  person that  they were seeing  when younger, and he wore a Mephistopheles carnival costume and  climbed  to the crows’ high branches of  a tree  reaching  over the fence and visible to  his  fellow villagers who saw the savant dressed in a devil  costume crowing to crows on a tree; anyway there are  even funnier stories in the at book, in particular an event in his relation to a not very clever  vulture which terrified his wife’s tea guests in their living room and a young monkey …OK, or a friend monkey of his children …, OK, which I can hardly stop myself from recounting, but his relation to humor I’ m driving at  is not this but something else, so let’s go to see  what  all this, apart from funny parts of a CV,  has to do  with laughter:  We know that one way in which male animals try to attract a particular female animal they have chosen –many times what they do  is not an indiscriminate call to any female–is by dedicating to them, as erotic  address,  a  dance also containing symbolic fight movements, as if to say to the female “this is the way I will fight to protect you if need be”; even homosexual geese, or rather  ganders,  dance like this to each other; and , by the way, if a goose  happens to have  fallen in love with one of them she follows them all day long, and when they make love to each other she tries to put herself  between them and then both  of the homosexual lovers make love to her, in turns; also ganders build a nest for their beloved goose, but if they have a parallel  adulterous relation they don’t build a nest for their mistress too; finally,  also according to Lorenz, the way male animals say to a female animal “I love you” is by making an as-if-attacking movement  to  their beloved but then diverting it, at the last moment, to hit a nearby object or even another animal passing by;  the,  so to speak , word-like movements  for “I love you”  being “these are the movements I’ll never do against you”. It is also known that most animals become edgy if you smile to them, because baring  your teeth as if in smile, is for them as a alarming as baring your teeth to attack and bite them. Combining the two ideas Lorenz conjectures that human smile was, for the pre-verbal period of humanity,   the speech-like  movement corresponding to the “I love you” that animals say by the  as-if-attacking movement animals do.  “I bare my teeth but don’t bite you so you know my mood”  became the way to communicate in visual terms  the sweet mood  one felt for the other before movement speech  gave its place to speech through word-sounds, possibly passing from or coexisting with or preceded by,  phases where other sounds, not words,  were speech enough like in animals or like melodies are still with us humans even without lyrics. This baring of teeth without biting may have been the origin of smile and laughter. But to go to Lorenz’s  final point we need one more remark of his: he considers as very misleading and egocentric on the part of man the impression that his touch with his animal nature would make him very aggressive and that his rational faculties, performed through his brain’s cortex , a  recent development of evolution and much more perfected in man than in other animals and differentiating him from them in many very central features, OK, he also considers that man’s impression that rationality makes him less aggressive is wrong: animals do wait for a population  they use for food to grow before eating it, man as is often repeated is the species which could use its rationality to kill the last whale to make money from  whalebone. He considers the touch with elements of our unconscious that are animal-like makes more civilized and not the other way around,  and also considers that one of the things through which religion makes us less aggressive is to bring us in touch with such pre-rational elements of our unconscious that make us as pacifist as animals; and he considers that many of the presumptuous notions we have for our differences from animals, especially  with  respect   to our rationality and our freedom of will, are , ironically, the places exactly where we do follow patterns like those animals follow: for instance, out betrothal periods for free trial and selection of our future marriage partners, are also patterns of  the life of many animals. Let alone how different from animal behavior is the behavior  of husbands who beat their wives because they can’t beat their boss while animals can hit  a passerby to remind  their wife they love her and would never do that to her. And also leaders of nations  contemplating war and peace in endless conferences, like also  Indian chiefs deciding while smoking  the peace pipe and thinking  whether  not attacking exposes their country or tribe in the eyes of the opponent country tribe, or them themselves in the eyes of their own country or tribe, as cowards, have their counterparts in animal duels, where fish entangle their jaws and goats   entangle their horns  pushing almost immobile for hours , to check realistically if their strength can afford fight with their particular opponent, and whether they are exposed as cowards in front of  the onlookers. Usually retreat in front  of stronger opponent does not expose them as cowards, what does expose them as cowards is not daring to even reach the stage of entangling jaws or  horns to check, in arm-wrestling  way,  whether they could afford it. The body language of dignified  retreat is that the one who does acknowledge superiority of opponent, retreating , usually offers uncovered  his body’s most sensitive spot where a bite or beak blow could even be lethal and usually, the stronger opponent is chivalrous enough not to use the opportunity. Not only does all this seem , in many aspects, more dignified and free,  and even more rational, than many situations with humans, who often do reach near distance entanglement only if they have, or think they have,  so much more developed guns that there is no risk, but also all this  seems very similar, Lorenz remarks, with human behavior in myth or history about chivalrous behavior either in Homeric or knighthood times: the one of the dueling fighters removing his helmet and kneeling and  bowing in front of the stronger or more experienced fighter to receive or be spared the lethal blow. Also Lorenz conjectures that one of the reasons humans are more and more lethal is that their arms  kill from a distance, bigger and bigger progressively,  and that if to kill they had to come to skin to skin touch with their opponent  and feel his pain and agony dying they would identify enough to have more inhibitions about it; but colleagues of him, using game theory models they say, have disputed that and claim they have proved that the reason  animals come less often than man to the point of  killing  other animals of the same species, that is to the point of  killing animals that they don’t sees as food, is not identification with their victim but fear of its nails and teeth on their own body. With the animals they use for food this element does not exist, nobody bases his diets on animals of equal or bigger strength. Now let’s see a point at  which Lorenz drives when he takes   his insights or conjectures on love and smile as non biting baring of teeth  and combines them with these  additional elements, on the relation of animals to peace and aggression and to the relation of religion to peace and to the animal-like  substratum  of man. It is a point that he considers  so hopeful that he puts in what  he calls an “epilogue of optimism” and he also considers it as so crucial in case it is true, that he even feels the need to apologize to the reader for claiming his very careful attention just in case the reader considers him as too presumptuous and unwise, at the moment a whole Goethe had a maxim going like, or just about like, “somebody’s silence on some matters may not be due to indifference or to ignorance of their importance , but only to knowing that he doesn’t have anything to offer to make man’s condition less painful”, oh: I remembered: Goethe says:  “I don’t show up because I have nothing to say which would  help humanity improve itself” and Lorenz says “The reason I’m not arrogant when I show up when Goethe didn’t,  is that is that I believe that the conclusions I have reached watching animals , when they are understood will appear so trivial and so self evident as  they really are”. Let’s see some more details: Lorenz says, or quotes someone as saying ,  that  man is the tragic animal that finds itself in an  untenable position consisting in the fact that : 1.freeing its creativity also unleashes its aggression 2. repressing its aggression also makes it lose the cutting edge of its creativity 3.The aggression it is capable of unleashing is  capable of destroying completely both it and all life on earth. Then he says that humor is a function that brings into touch man’s rationality and irrationality and unconscious and also is a  venting  of his aggression in non destructive ways like the smile’s teeth-baring is non biting; and so it doesn’t eradicate creativity since touch with his aggression too is not eradicated.   And thus, in a faithless age , maybe man through humor is progressing to direction of pacifism, in the same way that in other times he was progressing towards there through religion. In a sense humor is becoming a religion in a way that may both save  man’s creativity from becoming extinct and save life on the planet from man’s aggression . In that context he analyzes some ideas of  Chesterton on humor as taking the place of religion too but let’s not go any further into that now.  OK…possible misgivings or objections about the overall  perspective of Lorenz one can very well  have;  after reading Mumford  one can  acquire one more objection;  and before reading Mumford  one can have  several other type of objections which one runs into e.g. while  one discusses Lorenz with friends from other walks of life than studies in spatial sense etc; let’s  see some of the most expected ones: The objection one acquires after Mumford is that the image of man in the tragic untenable position Lorenz diagnoses may be  very conditioned by man’s, and Lorenz’s,  lack of insight in the roots of war. The aphorism that   man is unlike  other animals by tragically  having creativity too connected with aggression may be itself ,too,  subject to the same criticism  Mumford has expressed on Lorenz’s book on aggression: Good zoology, bad sociology, since it doesn’t explain what happened a few thousand years before our days and changed the concept of war. So maybe the aphorism of Lorenz on  the  connection of creativity with aggression on man is too conditioned by man’s picture  in these few thousand years which Lorenz didn’t analyze at all anyway. Let’s  go to the other objections: There are other  human possibilities besides laughter that may have equally deep and relevant undertones; only if we have  focused very much  on the possibility that creativity and aggression are very deeply  connected   will we focus so much on the saving role of laughter as a peaceful baring of one’s teeth. Let’s see other functions or faculties with  deep undertones  and examine their possible relevance for war and peace. Lorenz’s focusing on laughter shouldn’t mislead us  into thinking that laughter is unique and not part of a more well rounded whole set of attitudes to the world that do have equally deep undertones. Isn’t dance something similar?: touching on both conscious and unconscious, and on both our human an our animal part, and able to express both peaces vibes and aggression vibes with the war dances, and as able as laughter to detonate aggression in non violent ways of peace vibes? Even football detonates warlike needs and , anyway, don’t street gangs sometimes do break-dance competitions instead of street fights? Besides dance, isn’t sex something like that even despite the aggression due to rivalry it often arouses? Isn’t tenderness, even in the most asexual and non-orgasm oriented  marriage, equally capable of undertones as deep and primal as those of  primitives around a fire etc , if primitiveness is the criterion of depth of state of mind? Isn’t love for cooking and giving one’s children and husband delicacies with which  to experience pleasure,  equally primal and primitive and conducive to peace in marriage partners of  mentalities compatible in this issue? Isn’t love for music or dance or even for science and for even technocratic invention,  equally conducive to such vibes? Even if only art and  music and  Einstein-like theoretical physics  are sufficiently pre-word and pre-rational  to give obvious vibes of primitiveness,  and even if   more nut and bolts science, are based on rationality and cortex  etc, the love for these rational cortex subjects does happen through pre-rational and not just cortex based functions. If  all  those faculties were irrelevant the Greeks would not have tried to well-round their pantheon with gods for twelve kinds of primal vibes. Why, by the way,  didn’t they have a god or goddess for laughs too but only for music, eros, war, knowledge, crafts, home etc etc?  Probably because all gods could laugh, like all men could laugh, while only some men could  compose or play music or base their possibility for fun too heavily on the possibility of sexual  adventure or being thinkers etc and thus only one god or goddess existed who specialized in one particular of these functions. Maybe same goes for dance, there was no god of dance because all gods danced like all men did dance, at least in the times where speech was being created with the help of dancing; to have a god of dance would be like having a god of speech or of vision or hearing; people would say “Why have a whole patron god just for the specialty of speaking? People who speak are not specially talented. Big deal! There is no child in the class without the ability to symbolically manipulate and comprehend messages in sound-made symbols! This ability is just a long name for the word “speak” and it was a possibility in every human’s nervous system, it just took time to be discovered and to be cultivated and evolved a little, but most of it was there waiting to just be discovered, it did not have to be invented and added to us. If people who could speak existed at those times they could have taught speech to all infants of that time as easily as to the infants of our present times, it just took time because all humanity was still discovering this possibility. Let alone a god of seeing or hearing etc . These things did not even have to wait to be discovered and were not exclusive privileges of humans.  They had grown concurrently with all life, yet from the point of view of pinpointing how they work in order to teach them to a computer they are equally god-like. Anyway…so: laughing is not unique in the peace vibes. But obviously none  of the above objections would make  Lorenz for me, or for anyone,   a smaller figure than I considered him before encountering or thinking any of these objections. And OK, something did affect my impression of him, but I cannot say why it only affected it very slightly except through  also giving  a detailed explanation without which one has every right to say that I use double standards and that my Anti Americanism blinds me to similarities of an Austrian savant  in Nazi days  with  some American intellectuals in Patriot Act days: OK: In case one hasn’t heard of any of all the marvels we saw about  Lorenz  it is not because of any error in Sweden or Norway,  like it was in the case of Mumford not ever receiving a Nobel in something (Lorenz and the one or two friends  who co-founded  ethology  did receive a Nobel prize) maybe it’s more due to an error of his which  he did recognize, at least I saw  a paragraph of his book on aggression passingly referring to that, in the context of mob psychology if I remember well,  where he acknowledged that even a specialist as he himself was with  such insights on aggression and on human nature, did become , even transiently, a Hitler’s idiot or something like that, I couldn’t figure out exactly what,   through just   his book on aggression, I only found out after the advent  of google-like things,…

… let’s just  go to some  other facts rather agreeing with  Lorenz’s insights on aggression:


Concerning D. Grossman,  a  psychologist who  resigned from his position as officer in the American army: Interviewed by Jerry Brown in “We the people” he mentioned the all too Lorenzian insight, coming not through zoology however but through statistics during the two World Wars, that soldiers in trenches don’t shoot to kill but to only contribute to the war noise, and only try to kill if they feel threatened by the enemy having reached face to face or by an officer looking over their shoulder to see what they are doing. Well, Americans considered this not as an interesting clue on human nature but as a defect  of the soldiers’ training and changed the content of this training to dramatically reverse the statistics towards a majority that tries to kill (other interesting parts of that interview concerned the fact that the heroic return  ritual or ceremony is the only thing that helps as catharsis  of the guilt inherent in killing, even if one is a soldier; and the Vietnam veterans’  exclusion from  that contributed to the well known syndromes (the ones we also have witnessed in Rambo 1, although in, at least, retrospect, it seems  the only reason the issue was rekindled by Hollywood, at the same time as the Rocky 2 movie, was not to sensitize people  to the veterans’ problems (=these people were pushed both  to extreme risk (and at a time awareness of government’s non-ideal motives were not so lucid) and, then, to full  rejection by society)  but to use that sensitivity as a pretext  in order to start  a little later a preemptive removal of guilt for the people who in their army age  would be the bombardiers in the humanitarian  bombings of 1999 and later would go to Iraq, after having received a training correcting the defects of human nature which has animal-like  inhibitions in front of killing).

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