66 On Multi-Species Community: A Critical Conversation with Patricia Alvarez Astacio (Gina T, John P)

Octopus month has morphed seamlessly into Multispecies month here at RtB, bringing with it not only last week’s piece on chimpanzees, but also this sparkling conversation about all sorts of multi-species communities. Recorded live in front of an audience of writing students and introduced by Brandeis physicist Matthew Headrick, it features Patricia Alvarez Astacio, an anthropologist and filmmaker. She has made a film about her work in the Peruvian highlands, where people live with, respect, shear and sometimes eat alpacas. Gina Turrigiano, RtB guest-host of long standing, wears her biological hat in this conversation, bringing to bear insights about avian intelligence and the other sorts of animal community that silently surround our species (think microbiome…). John tries to steer the conversation towards SF as usual.

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Another Perspective on Non-Human Minds

While listening to Peter Godfrey-Smith discuss octopuses on this month’s Recall This Book podcast, I thought of my time with orphaned chimpanzees in Cameroon from 2013 to 2019. For Other Minds, Godfrey-Smith went in search of encounters with nonhuman minds that were “as different as…we can find on Earth” and landed on cephalopods. In my anthropological research, I have been focused on encounters with nonhumans that are shockingly similar to us—chimpanzees.

My work in primate sanctuaries in Cameroon explores interspecies care and what happens when humans try to help orphaned chimps become chimps. In a 2018 post for Sapiens, reposted below, I wrote about how our overwhelming similarities make it difficult for humans to know how to care for chimpanzees. As I reread my essay, I ask myself if there is anything to be gained by thinking of chimps as aliens. By likening octopuses to intelligent aliens, Peter Godfrey-Smith gave readers an opening to the magnitude of interspecies difference that lay between us. He brought octopuses, in all their difference, closer. Could I use the same idea to hold chimps and humans apart? Would thinking of chimps as aliens have helped me see more of our interspecies difference? What might doing so show us about them and their lives?

At a sanctuary in Cameroon, caregiver Henriette holds Gnala, a 2-year-old chimpanzee who had previously lived in a human household as a pet. Amy Hanes/Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue

For Chimps, Human Touch Can Hurt

By Amy Hanes

The bruise on my bicep was starting to purple. Small, teeth-shaped scabs crusted over its center. While typing field notes, I stopped midsentence to poke the bruise and see if it still hurt. It did.

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65 Octopus World: Other Minds with Peter Godfrey-Smith (EF, JP)

Peter Godfrey-Smith knows his cephalopods. Once of CUNY and now a professor of history and philosophy of science at University of Sydney, his truly capacious career includes books such as Theory and Reality (2003; 2nd edition in 2020), Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection (2009) and most recently Metazoa. RtB–including two Brandeis undergraduates as guest hosts, Izzy Dupré and Miriam Fisch– loves his astonishing book on the fundamental alterity of octopus intelligence and experience of the world, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. Another equally descriptive title for that book, and for the discussion we share with you here (after Thomas Nagel’s “What is it like to be a Bat?“) might be What is it Like to be an Octopus?

As always, below you will find helpful links for the works referenced in the episode, and a transcript for those who prefer or require a print version of the conversation. Please visit us at Recallthisbook.org (or even subscribe there) if you are interested in helpful bonus items like related short original articles, reading lists, visual supplements and past episodes grouped into categories for easy browsing.

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41 RTB Books in Dark Times 13: Lorraine Daston, Historian of Science (JP)

In this final episode of Books in Dark Times, John chews the bibliographic fat with Lorraine Daston of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. Her list of publications outstrips our capacity to mention here; John particularly admires her analysis of “epistemic virtues” such as truth to nature and objectivity in her 2007 Objectivity (coauthored with Peter Galison).

Although she “came of age in an era of extreme contextualism” Daston is anything but time-bound. She starts things off in John’s wheelhouse with Henry James, before moving on to Pliny the Younger–no, not the scientist, the administrator! Then she makes a startling flanking maneuver to finish with contemporary Polish poetry. John puffs to keep up…

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37 RTB Books In Dark Times 11: Elizabeth Bradfield (JP)

Elizabeth Bradfied is editor of Broadsided Press, professor of creative writing at Brandeis, naturalist, photographer–and most of all an amazing poet (“Touchy” for example just appeared in The Atlantic). Her books include Interpretive Work, Approaching Ice, Once Removed, and Toward Antarctica. She lives on Cape Cod, travels north every summer to guide people into Arctic climes, birdwatches. She is in and of and for our whole natural world.

So, is it poetry sustaining her now? Or does she (she does!) have other sources of inspiration?

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Pandemic in the Pacific: Kurt Vonnegut’s COVID novel

Just about every adult human being back then had a brain weighing about three kilograms! There was no end to the evil schemes that a thought machine that oversized couldn’t imagine and execute. … This was a very innocent planet, except for those great big brains.

There is a volcanic archipelago in the Pacific that Polynesian settlers on their canoes never reached. In 1854, Herman Melville saw “The Encantadas” through a dark lens, darkly:

Take five-and-twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot, imagine some of them magnified into mountains, and the vacant lot the sea, and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect of the Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles. A group rather of extinct volcanoes than of isles, looking much as the world at large might after a penal conflagration. It is to be doubted whether any spot on earth can, in desolateness, furnish a parallel to this group.

Darwin, though,  saw the Galapagos islands quite differently when he arrived in September of 1835 He may not have wasted much time praising the landscape in the ways he praised the mind-bending sublimity of Patagonian steppes. But in The Voyage of the Beagle includes this teaser about those soon-to-be-famous Galapagos finches:

Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.

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30 In Focus: Nir Eyal on (the deontology of) “Challenge Testing” a Covid Vaccine

On April 27, David D. Kirkpatrick reported in the N. Y. Times that Oxford’s Jenner Center is close to starting human trials on a potential Covid-19 vaccine. According to Kirkpatrick, “ethics rules, as a general principle, forbid seeking to infect human test participants with a serious disease. That means the only way to prove that a vaccine works is to inoculate people in a place where the virus spreading naturally around them.”

It ain’t necessarily so, says Nir Eyal, Henry Rutgers Professor of Ethics and Director of  Center for Population-Level Bioethics, Rutgers University.

Eyal is lead author (along with Harvard’s Marc Lipsitch and Peter Smith) of a striking March article in the Journal of Infectious Diseases, “Human Challenge Studies to Accelerate Coronavirus Vaccine Licensure.” A recent interview with Nir in Nature has a more revealing title: “Should scientists infect healthy people with the coronavirus to test vaccines?”

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19 Scientists, collaboration, and groupthink with Albion Lawrence (EF, JP)

In this episode John and Elizabeth sit down with Brandeis string theorist Albion Lawrence to discuss cooperation versus solitary study across disciplines. They sink their teeth into the question, “Why do scientists seem to do collaboration and teamwork better than other kinds of scholars and academics?” 

The conversation ranges from the merits of collective biography to the influence of place and geographic location in scientific collaboration to mountaineering traditions in the sciences.  As a Recallable Book, Elizabeth champions The People of Puerto Rico, an experiment in ethnography of a nation (in this case under colonial rule) from 1956, including a chapter by Robert Manners, founding chair of the Brandeis Department of Anthropology. Albion sings the praises of a collective biography of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, A Message to Our Folks. But John stays true to his Victorianist roots by praising the contrasting images of the withered humanist Casaubon and the dashing young scientist Lydgate in George Eliot’s own take on collective biography, Middlemarch.

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