22 April 2011

Growing Older – It's Not For Girly Men!

I recently read an amusing interview with outgoing California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in which he bemoaned growing older. In his own words (add your own best Ah-nuld accent):

"I feel terrific about where I am in my life, when I look back at what I've accomplished, but I feel shitty when I look at myself in the mirror...I'm not competing, I'm not ripping off my shirt and trying to sell the body, but when I stand in front of the mirror and really look, I wonder: What the fuck happened here? Jesus Christ. What a beating!"

Now, you have to realize that although Der Arnold is 63, he still has a physique that most of us 40-somethings would envy. But that's not the relevant comparison. Arnold's not comparing himself to mere mortals like you and me, he's comparing himself to his own idealized self, which when you were a world bodybuilding champion for several years is a pretty high standard.

As we move through the season of Spring toward Easter, we encounter a panoply of themes related to new life, life being born out of death, or life overcoming death. In the Christian tradition, Easter has co-opted a bunch of pagan themes – not only fertility symbols like bunnies and eggs, but also even the name Easter, which derives from a ancient northern European goddess named Eostre or Ostara. The story of the resurrection of Jesus also parallels several contemporaneous Near Eastern myths of a dying and reborn god-man, including Attis, Dionysus/Bacchus, and Mithra.

Despite these pagan trappings, however, the Christian Easter celebration is clearly focused on the basic messages of life overcoming death, of our inherent mortality not being the final answer, and of the promise of eternal life in some hereafter existence.

None of us likes to contemplate his or her own mortality. Fortunately for practitioners of the Christian faith, there's a way out of the depressing awareness of mortality. Easter promises that all Christians (or possibly all persons, depending on your variety of Christianity – without digressing too far into Rob Bell's latest book) will gain a resurrection in the same manner that Jesus did, and thus will ultimately triumph over their own mortality.

And yet, is this a fully satisfying answer? Or is it just another in the long line of humanity's attempts to deny the ultimate truth of our mortality, the inevitability of our death and thus our non-existence, our non-being? If you're interested in pondering these questions in much greater depth than I could possibly go into here, I'd encourage you to pick up a copy of the 1973 classic The Denial of Death by the analytical psychology scholar Ernest Becker. The very short version of Becker's hypothesis is that nearly everything we humans do is an attempt to deny our mortality, either through denying our animal nature, or by creating “immortality projects” that allow us to live on vicariously, or by finding some scheme that grants us eternal life. I suppose the classic existential guidance akin to Becker would be to face our mortality courageously, acknowledging our eventual non-being and acting bravely in the face of it.

In this way, Western existentialism has something in common with Buddhism. The latter teaches an acceptance of human mortality rather than an ultimate triumph over it. Devout Buddhist practitioners will, on occasion, meditate in the presence of a corpse in order to remind themselves of the inevitability of death. For Buddhists, death is simply another aspect of life – but then again, some Buddhists also believe in reincarnation, in which your soul gets another chance at life, and another and another until you get it right.

Honestly, I don't find any of these alternatives particularly satisfying. And I say that with a measure of regret, especially in this season. Along with Spring and Easter, this is also the time of year of my birthday (in case you were wondering what got me musing about mortality in the first place). And it doesn't help matters that my high school class has just scheduled our 30th reunion (ouch!).

At the moment, I'm not at all confident in any sort of conscious existence in the hereafter, nor am I keen on the notion of repeating the cycle of birth, life, and death until I perfect my soul. My least objectionable option is to live as well as I can right now, take better care of my body and my mind (e.g., shedding nearly 20 pounds in the last three months), and try to hold out for technological breakthroughs that will allow me to upload my entire consciousness onto a supercomputer where, barring the destruction of the planet, I can continue to “live” for something approaching eternity.

And if that's too maudlin (or simply crazy) of a note to end on, let's try one other insight, this time from my favorite calypso-pirate-poet-philosopher Jimmy Buffett:

I'm growing older but not up
My metabolic rate is pleasantly stuck
So let the winds of change blow over my head
I'd rather die while I'm living than live while I'm dead

12 April 2011

Dolphins Are People, Too

The recent opening of the Georgia Aquarium's AT&T Dolphin Tales show has raised accompanying concerns about the captivity of dolphins and other cetaceans (marine mammals such as dolphins and whales). Defenders of the exhibit tout its educational benefits, while opponents cite studies demonstrating minimal educational results for attendees and argue that such exhibits are blatant exploitations of the captive dolphins for profit motives.

Research has shown the negative effects of captivity on dolphins, including higher incidents of many stress-related diseases, and there is at least one documented death of a captive dolphin while attempting to perform an aerial maneuver and colliding with another dolphin.

However, one critical element is missing from all of these arguments, that being the status of dolphins themselves. By “status” I'm referring to the concept of “personhood” in philosophy and law, a status that we previously reserved for human beings.

“But wait,” you object, “dolphins are just animals.” True enough, but so are we all animals by nature. What distinguishes us from other animals is not a distinction of kind, but of degree.

We consider our species to be “persons” because of our superior intelligence, our self-awareness, our ability to communicate using symbolic language, and our capacities for moral responsibility and empathy. “Mere” animals, we believe, don't meet these high standards for personhood. But let's take a minute to evaluate dolphins on these criteria.

·       Dolphins have an incredibly high encephalization quotient (EQ - a ratio of brain mass to overall body mass), roughly 4.0-4.5. This is twice as high as chimpanzees and is second only to humans (roughly 7.0).
·       Dolphins have shown the ability to understand symbolic language and syntax.
·       Dolphins have met many tests of self-awareness (including the classic “mirror self-recognition” test), and some research suggests that they even call each other by name (via “signature whistles”). They also have complex societal structures.
·       Dolphins have often assisted other marine mammals and humans in distress, even at peril to themselves, demonstrating the moral capacity for selfless and altruistic behavior.

In short, dolphins have shown almost all of the characteristics we ascribe to our own species to defend our uniqueness. If they lived on land and had arms and legs instead of fins (none of which is an essential element of personhood from either an ethical or a legal perspective), would we feel justified in locking them up in captive displays for our entertainment and education?

Or imagine this scenario: A race of extraterrestrial aliens visits Earth. We can't understand their language, but we know they're intelligent and have observable emotions and morality. They also happen to be very cute and have the ability to perform great feats of physical agility. Would it really be acceptable to lock them up in cages and say we're doing so for their own benefit?

Of course not. But that's what we do with dolphins, who in effect are non-terrestrial (living, as they do, in our planet's oceans rather than on land) alien intelligent beings among us.

The only remaining basis for the distinct personhood of humans over and above dolphins is an appeal to outdated, inaccurate, and indefensible theological claims that we humans are a special creation, separate and apart from the rest of the natural world and at the pinnacle of some preconceived scale of nature.

It is time to end this fallacy, time for we humans to evolve beyond those outmoded concepts, and time to end the ethical travesty of dolphin captivity.

To close with a lighter touch, consider these insightful words from the late science fiction writer Douglas Adams:

“[M]an had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much - the wheel, New York, wars and so on - whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man - for precisely the same reasons.”

© Dan Browning 2011. All rights reserved. Permission granted to link to this post.