Friday, October 28, 2016

Deadly metaphors - I

We usually think of metaphors as something imaginative poets come up with, a word play that expresses a thought by drawing surprising analogies, eg. 'Taj Mahal is a tear-drop on the cheek of time'. But it is a regular feature of our everyday lives. George Lakoff writes in Metaphors We Live By, 'If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience, and what we do everyday is very much a matter of metaphor.'

Lakoff presented a paper in 1991 in the midst of the Gulf War called Metaphor and War: The Metaphor System Used to Justify War in the Gulf which discusses the metaphor systems used to justify the war.  The first of these is the 'State-as-Person System'.
A state is conceptualized as a person, engaging in social relations within a world community. Its land-mass is its home. It lives in a neighborhood, and has neighbors, friends and enemies. States are seen as having inherent dispositions: they can be peaceful or aggressive, responsible or irresponsible, industrious or lazy. 
Well-being is wealth. The general well-being of a state is understood in economic terms: its economic health. A serious threat to economic health can thus be seen as a death threat. To the extent that a nation's economy depends on foreign oil, that oil supply becomes a 'lifeline' (reinforced by the image of an oil pipeline).
Strength for a state is military strength. Maturity for the person-state is industrialization. Unindustrialized nations are '`underdeveloped', with industrialization as a natural state to be reached. Third-world nations are thus immature children, to be taught how to develop properly or disciplined if they get out of line. Nations that fail to industrialize at a rate considered normal are seen as akin to retarded children and judged as "backward" nations. Rationality is the maximization of self-interest.
There is an implicit logic to the use of these metaphors: Since it is in the interest of every person to be as strong and healthy as possible, a rational state seeks to maximize wealth and military might.
Violence can further self-interest. It can be stopped in three ways: Either a balance of power, so that no one in a neighborhood is strong enough to threaten anyone else. Or the use of collective persuasion by the community to make violence counter to self-interest. Or a cop strong enough to deter violence or punish it. The cop should act morally, in the community's interest, and with the sanction of the community as a whole.
Morality is a matter of accounting, of keeping the moral books balanced. A wrongdoer incurs a debt, and he must be made to pay. The moral books can be balanced by a return to the situation prior to the wrongdoing, by giving back what has been taken, by recompense, or by punishment. Justice is the balancing of the moral books.
War in this metaphor is a fight between two people, a form of hand-to-hand combat. Thus, the US sought to "push Iraq back out of Kuwait" or "deal the enemy a heavy blow," or "deliver a knockout punch." A just war is thus a form of combat for the purpose of settling moral accounts.
This metaphor hides the class structure, ethnic composition, religious rivalry, political parties, the ecology, and the influence of the military and of corporations (especially multi-national corporations). The ‘national interest’ is defined by politicians and policy makers and portrayed commonly in terms of economic health and military strength. As Lakoff writes, ‘But what is in the "national interest" may or may not be in the interest of many ordinary citizens, groups, or institutions, who may become poorer as the GNP rises and weaker as the military gets stronger.’

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

'The people have spoken,'

I saw a satirical report about the US presidential election of 2000 that had been printed in the satirical magazine The Onion given in Critical Mass:
In one of the narrowest presidential votes in US history, either George W. Bush or Al Gore was elected the 43rd president of the United States Tuesday, proclaiming the win 'a victory for the American people and the dawn of a bold new era in this great nation.'
'My fellow Americans,' a triumphant Bush or Gore told throngs of jubilant, flag-waving supporters at his campaign headquarters, 'tonight, we as a nation stand on the brink of many new challenges. And I stand here before you to say that I am ready to meet those challenges.'
'The people have spoken,' Bush or Gore continued, 'and with their vote they have sent the message, loud and clear, that we are the true party of the people.'
With these words, the crowd of Republicans or Democrats erupted.
The presidential elections may not be so close this time but what are the odds that you will not hear a similar speech in a few days time?

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Animal violence

In the second book of The Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi,  The Secret Of The Nagas , it is stated that animals kill for only two reasons - hunger and self-defence. This is a belief that many people seem to believe but it is not true. Here are a few instances where non-human animals (I presume that's what the novel is referring to)  kill for reasons other than hunger and self-defense.
  1. Lions kill cheetah cubs left and right. Studies from Serengeti indicate that lions may be responsible for up to 57% of cheetah cub mortality! And  they don't eat them. It is shown a number of times on the nature channels.
  2. Infanticide is a powerful tool in ensuring the survival of a species, researchers are increasingly finding. For many animal infants, the greatest threat to their survival is from their own kind. It has been recorded in a number of species including mammals such as rodents and primates, and fish, insects and amphibians. Among lions, male interlopers attempt to overthrow the fathers of the cubs in a pride. If they succeed, by hurting, chasing off or even killing the dominant male, and taking over the leadership of their group, then infants are suddenly placed at great risk. The mothers will come into heat only if the cubs are dead and if the males wait, they may be overthrown by other males which will mean that their genes will not be passed on.
  3. About 20 percent of younger blue-footed booby siblings die because of their elders’ attentions. The nearby brown boobies kill their younger siblings every time. Being born a second child in a brown booby household is nearly a death sentence (unless the elder dies of a disease or something). Probably the only reason the parents have two chicks is to have an insurance in case the elder one doesn't survive.
  4. Some species of birds thrive not by carefully rearing their own young, but by pawning that task off on adults of other species. The European Cuckoo is the bird in which this habit has been most thoroughly studied. Female European Cuckoos lay their eggs only in the nests of other species of birds. A cuckoo egg usually closely mimics the eggs of the host (one of whose eggs is often removed by the cuckoo). The host incubates and hatches the cuckoo egg. Shortly after hatching, the young European Cuckoo instinctively shoves over the edge of the nest any solid object that it contacts. With the disappearance of their eggs and rightful young, the foster parents are free to devote all of their care to the young cuckoo. The cuckoo chick often grows much larger than the host adults long before it can care for itself but the host doesn't seem to notice it. Here is a video of what is called brood parasitism.
  5. I saw a program (narrated by David Attenborough) in which a group of killer whales chase a gray whale and its calf across a vast expanse of ocean. The long chase made the calf tired and the killer whales managed to isolate it from the mother. They then tore the calf to shreds and swam away without eating anything. The killing had been for fun.
Note: When language suggesting intentionality is used like 'the animals try to ensure the survival of the species by...', it shouldn't be take to mean that the animals know what they are doing. What actually happens is that because of the variation of individuals in a population, some individuals will have certain characters (morphological, anatomical, physiological or behavioral) that will give them an advantage over individuals that don't have them.Thus more of these individuals will survive and reproduce on average and leave copies of their genes to future generations. By this process, that particular character becomes more common in that species over many generations. Instead of saying all this every time, biologists use the language of intentionality as a short cut.

Saturday, October 1, 2016


In the first book of The Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi, The immortals of Meluha, a reason was given for the greatness of Meluha. Apparently, the greatest legacy of Lord Ram to the Meluhans was a system he created to make sure only merit determines a person's position and it has made Meluha the greatest nation in history. All children that are born in Meluha are compulsorily adopted by the empire. To ensure that this is done methodically, all pregnant women have to go to a great hospital city for delivery unaccompanied by anyone. Once the child is born, it is left behind and the mother travels back. The children are given common education and a comprehensive examination at 15 determines their trade. The children never learn the identity of their parents. Shiva says, 'The efficiency and fairness of this system is astounding.'

John Carey said, 'The aim of all utopias, to a greater or lesser extent, is to eliminate real people' and this 'astounding' system is another one in which humans don't figure.I will just look at one element of this 'greatest legacy of Lord Ram' - adoption of children by the empire. Is it a good idea to separate children from their parents? I read about a pediatric disease called hospitalism in Monkeyluv by Robert Sapolsky. It is now mostly a disease of the past but illustrates the problem involved in separating children from their parents.

In some parts of the US in the early part of the 20th century, a typical child hospitalized for more than 2 weeks would start to show signs of hospitalism which involved a listless wasting away despite adequate food intake. There was a weakening of muscles and loss of reflexes, and greatly increased risk of gastro-intestinal and lung infections. With the onset of hospitalism, mortality rates had gone up almost tenfold.

The guess was that with kids crammed in pediatric wards, something infectious would be contracted. But this explanation was at odds with a strange pattern in the statistics: kids seemed to be less likely to succumb to hospitalism in the poorer hospitals, the ones that couldn't afford the state-of-the-art mechanical isolation wards for the supposedly infected kids.

By 1942, enough research had been done on developmental psychology for the correct explanation to emerge. A New York University physician deemed it to have been caused by 'emotional deprivation'. It was caused by two ideas prevalent at the time - the belief that sterile, aseptic conditions have to be maintained at all costs and the belief among pediatricians that touching, holding and nurturing infants was sentimental maternal nonsense.

Parental guides at the time used to warn parents of the adverse effects of using a cradle, picking up a child that cried or handling the baby too often. If parents were being advised like this, one can imagine how a nurse or attendant will interact with a child in a ward full of them. By today's standards, this sort of child rearing would be considered cold and austere.

Sapolsky mentions some animal studies that have been done in this regard. When an infant rat is licked and groomed by its mother, the pup secretes growth hormones, which triggers cell division - mother's touch is essential for growth. Experiments have shown that when a mother rat does a lot of licking and grooming, many changes happen in the developing brain of the pup which have lifelong effects - fewer stress hormones secreted as an adult, better learning under duress, etc. He writes:
Similar themes have emerged from primate studies, beginning with the classic work of Harry Harlow, who showed that infant monkeys understood development better than did the average pediatrician battling hospitalism - given a choice, the monkeys preferred maternal touch to maternal nutrition. And it was not sheer tactile stimulation that was essential. Harlow dared to inject into the modern scientific literature the word love when discussing normal primate development and what was essential. And in humans, a disorder of dramatically, even fatally disrupted development due to emotional deprivation can be found in every endocrine textbook on growth. It is called psychosocial dwarfism.
During the first couple of years of life, that part of a baby's brain develops which allows it to maintain human relationships and regulate its emotions. These circuits are constantly reinforced by regular interaction with the mother. Children need to have these interactions many hundreds of times in their growing years for these areas to develop properly. In The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge writes:
During World War II, Rene Spitz studied infants reared by their own mothers in prison, comparing them with those reared in a foundling house, where one nurse was responsible for  seven infants. The foundling infants stopped developing intellectually, were unable to control their emotions, and instead rocked back and forth, or made strange hand movements. They also entered 'turned-off' states and were indifferent to the world, unresponsive to people who tried to hold and comfort them.