Terminology jumpstart

Epistemology: The study of knowledge and conditions required for a belief to constitute knowledge, such as truth and justification.
A priori knowledge: Knowledge independent of experience.
Posteriori knowledge: Knowledge by experience.
Science: The application of the principles of epistemology.

Thinking…thinking about thinking…thinking about: animalis (Latin for animals): having breath, having soul or living being.

How do animals see themselves?

I just recently finished an article in the New York Times on this topic by Ed Yong, staff writer at the Atlantic, and author of “An Immense World.” In this thoughtful work, Yong introduces the reader to the evolutionary changes media has gone through to present our animal relatives. Sophisticated technological camera systems have made it possible to “swoop alongside running cheetahs at ground level, zoom in on bears cavorting on inaccessible mountainsides, and capture close-ups of everything from wasps to whales. Nature documentaries can be cinematic.”

This technology, though, casts the lives of the animals in a human anthropomorphic narrative: they “must have stories, struggles, quests, conflicts, and character arcs.”

So how do we see them through their own eyes? The author introduces us to the biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864–1944), who said in 1909 that “animals exist in their own unique perceptual world,” which he called the Umwelt, an animal’s sense of reality. Honey bees, sharks, sea turtles, rays, homing pigeons, migratory birds, tuna, and salmon are believed to have magnetic senses. Many creatures rely on ultraviolet light for navigation and mating—bats use echolocation, mosquitoes score a blood feast by tracking CO2. We’re on a roll, let’s keep going: Elephants can hear and communicate, it is believed, by subsonic voicing that can travel for hundreds of miles, of which we are clueless. Elephants also, by the way, have some of the best smell receptors of any creatures, being able to identify water twelve miles away. Sharks smell blood in the water over great distances and use electrical fields to sense the conditions of their prey. The bloodhound has 300 million scent receptors, rabbits have 100 million, humans a mere 400. Chances are you have a stable of similar examples to add to this minor list.

The realization of the presence of the Umwelt breaks us away from our narrow perception of what is. We don’t need to create human drama to portray life around us. We have enough of our own to contend with. Young states, “…animals can be doing extraordinary things even when they seem to be doing nothing at all.” He describes how a mockingbird’s hearing differs from ours such that it is so fast that when it mimics the songs of other birds, it accurately captures notes that fly by too quickly for our human ears to comprehend.

Often, I try to mimic the call of birds I see to attract their attention, but though this does seem to have a positive effect at times, and gives me a sense of belonging, I suspect that those birds are probably curious about this creature that utters broken notes, jumbled tones, and a confusing concert of chaos. Do birds have a sense of humor?

As former caretakers of a border collie too smart for her and our own good, we have had conversations about her daily walk perception’s senses way more attuned to the sights, sounds, and smells around her. She and we lived in entirely different perceptual worlds, and it is amazing that we two species have been able to find such a symbiotic relationship, both interdependent on the other. So I again refer to the NY Times in an encompassing news-positive manner. Our dog had her own newspaper that informed her of the critters around her, their eating habits, lifestyle, adaptability to human presence, health and vitality, and much more. We never did figure out why at times she assumed a position of submission or dominance to other dogs with seemingly no provocation, clearly because of perceptual cues that our human senses are not attuned to. But then there was her genetically driven desire, circumscribed by extreme intelligence, that caused her to stare us down and bend us to her will like a disciplinary school marm. Hypnotism be damned!

Travel has awakened our senses to the presence of life outside our walls, and I have spoken often of the inherent power of migration. Many of earth’s creatures migrate vast distances using senses we, the “great” humanity, top of the food chain, are just now beginning to come to recognize. The Rufus hummingbird migrates 3,000 miles from its northern Alaska breeding grounds to Mexico’s mild winters. We know this is a genetic predisposition, but what was the origin of this deep learned behavior? And so many other birds and animals share this amazing evolutionary adaptation. Monarch butterflies, whales; there are bird species that essentially never touch ground such as the albatross, with a wingspan of close to 11 feet, that for at least the first 5–6 years of its life flies across the Earth’s oceans never landing. Swifts that never touch ground, have virtually nonexistent feet, and only perch on cliff sides using their tails and tiny clawed feet for support to grasp their nests.

The observation of human embryonic development from conception to birth reveals a fascinating look in hypertime of our evolution from single-celled creature, through aquatic life and mammalian manifestation. Our human perception, containing the trace patterning of thinking passed on from our ancestors, is naturally human-centric. Today we contemplate the curious questions of an ambitious, conflicted, and powerfully creative species. Epistemology today asks, “Who are we? How do we think? What is life? How do we live and survive in this multifaceted interconnected world?” We estimate that there are about 8.7 million species on earth, of which we are newcomers. Life has been discovered on earth dating back 3.7 billion years. If we believe that thinking is the byproduct of human evolution, what hidden amazing thinking specializations do our fellow creatures exhibit and that we can learn from? The future of life on earth depends on coming to terms with this question.

A book that left its mark on my young curious self was T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, in which we are introduced to the young Wart—soon to become King Arthur—who, while lost in the forest, encounters the magician Merlyn (who lived through time backwards!) that announced that he would become Wart’s tutor. Over the next six years Merlyn tries to instill some of his wisdom into Wart, teaching him about virtue and wisdom in the world by turning him into various animals.

The badger teaches him that humans are the only species to make war. From geese Wart learns their music, traditions, and migratory rituals. Hawks teach him of a military-like life and he passes a test of courage into flock acceptance (known as a “kettle” of hawks). The owl teaches him the physics of flight and discovering night vision. Ants teach him about collectivism, totalitarianism, and the effects of creature decentralization. An older me now marshals the forces of epistemology to challenge the fictional lessons that were put to young Wart in 21st century context. Isn’t that what science is all about, being a self-correcting system?

It is scientifically recognized that birds are direct descendants of dinosaurs, a bit challenging to comprehend when we think about chickens that we raise in such vast quantities. Chickens outnumber people with a population of 25.9 billion in contrast to humanity’s 7 billion. Do the math ratio! Contrary to popular belief, chickens are not stupid: they’re curious, manipulative/deceptive, mathematically and self aware, empathetic, protective, and able to recognize and remember hundreds of faces and objects. The key here for humans to bear in mind is that evolution can “flip” in seemingly mysterious ways and perhaps some day the chicken’s “epistemology” could severely conflict with any potential remaining former human caretakers. The eaten become the eaters…and/or disappear from the earth.

I’ve called out our beloved chicken as a paragon of animal intelligence but much has been written on the subject. See several media references below.

An afternoon with a rare survivor of the Pleistocene

Pleistocene: 2,580,000–11,700 years ago

Ruth and I set out for the Muskox Farm in Palmer, Alaska to visit one of two remaining survivors of the Pleistocene: the muskox. (Caribou being the other, which we would have liked to see in their vast Arctic Circle migrations, but saved for a future excursion.)

The Muskox Farm is dedicated to researching this rare Ice Age survivor which was driven to extinction in Alaska in the 1860s by the same clowns that killed millions of American bison in a shooting frenzy. It was reintroduced to Alaska in the 1930s, and now there just over 5,000 living here. The muskox is known to the First Nation tribes as the Oomingmak, which means “the bearded one,” and produces some of the most luxurious wool, called qiviut, in the world. Qiviut is the soft underwool beneath the longer outer wool, and is eight times warmer than sheep’s wool—it’s also 30 percent finer than the finest cashmere, with the added advantage of not being itchy or scratchy. At the Muskox Farm, in summer, the wool that is shed naturally by these animals is laboriously combed from their coats and carded into wool that can then be knitted.

As we carefully ran our hands and fingers through the super thick coat of hide hair (on a pelt, not the live animal!) we couldn’t find the point of origin between the skin and hairline, which goes a long way to explain how these creatures can survive the worst of blizzard arctic cold. Before our docent-led tour out into their extensive pastures, we wandered through the small museum with real, taxidermied, muskox “floor models,” then around several standing skeletons. In their skulls, the bone structure is folded in on itself like a horizontal danish pastry to allow winter’s freezing cold air to warm up, and summer’s warm air to cool—evolution in action.

Muskox skull cavity

One cannot miss the massive bony hump that graces their foreheads and downward-twisting horns used for protection and rutting. These muskoxen, who surprisingly are not derived from bison but sheep, use head butting and a sound much like a lion’s roar to communicate. That’s about all I can say at this time as we are just beginning to learn about the lives of these old timers—and humans thankfully have stopped killing them for fun and fur.

See media references for a fascinating video produced by one the world’s foremost muskox research professors.

Here’s a fun factoid non sequitur: I’ve been referring to extant ancient land-based creatures. Here’s one water-based animal that’s hanging onto its place in this world by a thread. Of all the mega amphibians, only one species remains on earth. Weighing in at 40 kilograms and stretching up to 1.8 meters, the Chinese Giant Salamander (Andrias davidianas) is sometimes called a living fossil, one of the few survivors in a family that dates back 170 million years!

I didn’t come into contact with the term, definition, and deeper analysis of epistemology until grad school in the field of education, but attempting to fathom and “grok” the meaning and contact with the call of the natural world blew my mind open from lengthy scholarly discourse into a rich world of conscious creatures of which we are just one. What a wonderful awakening this presents to all of us to learn of the richness of life, and maybe, just maybe, open the doors to greater communication and preservation of all our living family.

Media references: