June 8, 2022

How I Became a Baboon

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Well, actually, I have deceived you. This is not really my story, but it is the story of someone who learned to become a baboon as a result of living for two years with a troop of baboons in Africa. I found in reading this remarkable document I was so moved, I became almost speechless with wonder. And I knew at once that I would want to share it with you.

The woman who wrote it,
Barbara Smuts, is currently an emerita professor of anthropology and psychology at the University of Michigan. She is famous for her studies of baboons, chimpanzees and dolphins. I will give you more information about her and about the article from which this excerpt is drawn at the end of this blog.

But for now, I invite you to become acquainted with this remarkable woman and learn how it was that she became a baboon and, more important, what she learned about herself in the process. I think by the time you get to the end of this blog, you, too, will be left, as I was, with a feeling of awe.

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“Resting in the shade of a tree, Alex, Daphne and I lazily contemplate the landscape, dotted here and there with herds of zebra and impala. A breeze rises, fluffing up the hair on Daphne’s head. I fiddle with a brightly colored stone and Alex leans over to peer at my find. Then he rests his head against the tree and dozes. I look past him at Daphne and our gazes meet. She makes a friendly face and moves a little bit closer. Daphne, too, begins to nap, and soon I’m drifting off as well, lulled to sleep by the sound of her gentle breathing and the birds flitting about in the tree above. My body relaxes completely, secure in the presence of my companions. 

“Many of us have shared such peaceful moments with dear friends. But my experience under the tree had an unusual twist because Alex and Daphne were baboons, members of a wild troop that for over two years daily welcomed me into their midst. Through this close association, I discerned in each baboon a distinct presence that seemed much like the kind of ‘self’ that dwells within me. Among scientists, applying concepts like ‘self’ or ‘consciousness’ to nonhuman animals is very controversial, both because no one agrees on how to define these terms, and because however we define them, they retain a subjective dimension that makes them resistant to investigation by scientific methods. Rather than enter this treacherous territory, I will just tell some stories to give a feeling for what it is like to encounter a ‘self’ in wild baboons and other animals. 

“During multiple forays to Kenya and Tanzania over the past 25 years, the baboons I came to know the best belonged to Eburru Cliffs troop (EC), named after a rocky outcropping in the Great Rift Valley near Lake Naivasha. EC’s 135 members moved as a cohesive unit in search of food throughout a huge area of roughly 70 km. For two years, I joined the baboons at dawn and travelled with them until they reached some sleeping cliffs at dusk, twelve hours later. With occasional days off, I repeated this routine seven days a week. For several months, I lived alone and went for days without seeing another human. Later, I lived with other researchers whom I saw in the evening, but I interacted with people infrequently while with the baboons. 

“I came to live with baboons as a result of my lifelong curiosity about animals. Although I entered their world as a scientist interested in primate social behaviour, many of the skills I used to get to know them were inherited from my ancestors rather than learned in graduate school. Until recent times, all humans possessed profound familiarity with other creatures. Paleolithic hunters learned about the giant bear the same way the bear learned about them: through the intense concentration and fully aroused senses of a wild animal whose life hangs in the balance. Our ancestors’ survival depended on exquisite sensitivity to the subtle movements and nuanced communication of predators, prey, competitors, and all the animals whose keener senses of vision, smell, or hearing enhanced human apprehension of the world. 

“Each of us has inherited this capacity to feel our way into the being of another, but our fast-paced, urban lifestyle rarely encourages us to do so. During my life with the baboons, I discovered that, plunged back into the wild world from which we emerged, ancient skills come alive, and once again human and animal minds meet on equal ground. 

“However, at the beginning of my study, the baboons and I definitely did not see eye to eye. I wanted to get as close to them as possible; they wanted to keep their distance. 

“Convincing them that I was not a threat was the first major challenge I faced.

“I began with the obvious first step: In open country I approached the wary troop from a great distance and halted whenever they began to move away. The baboons gradually allowed me to inch closer, but progress was slow. Then I began to notice more subtle responses to my presence. For example, baboons, ever vigilant for predators, look around a lot while foraging, and I realized that as I drew closer, more of their looks were directed at me. A little later I noticed that even before this happened, females began to issue calls and direct stern looks at their infants to signal them to return to mom, just in case the dangerous human moved any closer. By tuning in to these more subtle signals, I was able to stop approaching before most of the baboons got nervous. Soon they let me get much closer, and eventually I was allowed to move among them freely.

“When speaking about this process at professional gatherings, I’ve used the accepted scientific term, ‘habituation’. The word implies that the baboons adapted to me, that they changed, while I stayed essentially the same. But in reality, the reverse is closer to the truth. The baboons remained themselves, doing what they always did in the world they had always lived in. I, on the other hand, in the process of gaining their trust, changed almost everything about me, including the way I walked and sat, the way I held my body, and the way I used my eyes and voice. I was learning a whole new way of being in the world — the way of the baboon. I was not literally moving like a baboon — my very different morphology prevented that — but rather I was responding to the cues that baboons use to indicate their emotions, motivations and intentions to one another, and I was gradually learning to send such signals back to them. As a result, instead of avoiding me when I got too close, they started giving me very deliberate dirty looks, which made me move away. This may sound like a small shift, but in fact it signaled a profound change from being treated as an object that elicited a unilateral response (avoidance), to being recognized as a subject with whom they could communicate. Over time they treated me more and more as a social being like themselves, subject to the demands and rewards of relationship. This meant that I sometimes had to be willing to give more weight to their demands (e.g., a signal to ‘get lost!’) than to my desire to collect data. But it also meant that I was increasingly often welcomed into their midst, not as a barely-tolerated intruder but as a casual acquaintance or even, on occasion, a familiar friend. 

“Being treated like a fellow baboon proved immensely useful to my research, because I experienced directly critical aspects of baboon society. For example, I soon learned that the baboons’ most basic social conventions entail acknowledgement of relative status through respect for personal space. In general, each baboon has a small invisible circle around him or her that a lower-ranking animal will rarely invade without first signaling intent (usually by grunting) and receiving from the other an indication that it is safe to approach (usually a reciprocal grunt and/or the ‘come hither’ face). If the approaching animal is dominant, he or she may or may not respect the other’s personal space; it depends on the nature of their relationship and the current context. For example, when a higher-ranking female approaches a mother in order to greet her young infant, she often pauses to grunt and make appealing faces at the infant outside the boundaries of the mother’s personal space. This indicates that the female’s intentions are friendly, which reduces the chances that the mother will leave with her baby. In contrast, if a female is approaching a lower-ranking mother in order to take over her feeding site, she’ll usually enter the mother’s personal space without pausing, causing her to move away. 

“Once I became sensitive to the importance of personal space in baboon society, I realized that the boundaries of personal space could shrink or grow, depending on the individuals concerned and the situation. For example, when a male courts a female, her personal space tends to expand, and to woo her the male needs to be very sensitive to this shift. In a similar vein, if a subordinate, S, has recently been threatened or attacked by a more dominant animal, D, S’s personal space in relation to D will expand until they have reconciled (by touching or through vocal communication or until enough time has passed to neutralize S’s fear of D. Sometimes personal space shrinks to nothing. This occurs most often among very young animals, kin, or close friends. In such intimate relationships, no one worries too much about being polite. Thus, the way baboons construct and relate to personal space reflects, among other things, the intentions of each party; their age, gender, and relative statuses; their degree of familiarity; the trust a subordinate feels toward a dominant; recent histories of interaction; and the particular circumstances of the moment. 

Primatologists have long recognized the fundamental importance of personal space by considering ‘approach–retreat’ interactions a valid measure of relative status. But status is just one of many factors influencing how baboons relate to one another. Familiarity and trust — which allow two individuals to overlap their circles of personal space, regardless of gender, age, or relative status — are every bit as important. In my relations with baboons, these two elements proved more salient than status. 

“Every well-trained field worker knows that it is critical not to move too close to the animals one is studying, so as to minimize one’s influence on their emotions and behaviour. But less often do field workers acknowledge the subtle and complex issues that arise when the animals regard the scientist as a social subject. For example, as a graduate student I was told by more experienced primatologists that I should always ignore or slowly move away from any study animal who came near me or tried to interact with me (in other words, any animal who entered my personal space). The idea was that, by ignoring the animals, we would discourage them from paying attention to us. The baboons soon taught me otherwise. 

“One day, when I was sitting on the edge of the troop, a foraging female approached me. When she was about two feet away (an undeniable overlap of personal space), she grunted softly several times without looking up. I turned my head to see whom she was grunting at, and, spotting no other baboons within 15 yards, realized that she was talking to me. After that epiphany, I paid much more attention to what it meant to the baboons to ignore another’s approach. 


“When a baboon makes the come hither face, he or she flattens the ears back against the skull and raises the brows to reveal the white skin on the eyelids. This expression conveys friendly intent. 



“I soon learned that ignoring the proximity of another baboon is rarely a neutral act, something that should have been obvious to me from my experience among humans. Whether or not a baboon ignores another conveys a great deal about the relationship. At one end of the spectrum, as mentioned above, baboons who are closely related or good friends sometimes completely ignore each other’s proximity, especially during foraging, much as we might disregard a family member who approaches while we are absorbed in a task. At the other end of the spectrum, a female with a young infant will often flee when a male new to the troop merely glances her way. Most relationships fall somewhere between these extremes, and usually when two baboons meet, they acknowledge each other’s presence through conventions like grunting, the ‘come hither’ face, or brief greeting rituals involving body contact. Depending on the context and the animals involved, ignoring another can be a sign of trust (as among close kin), or an indication of great tension. For example, among adult males vying over status, the ability to ignore a rival’s approach signals a refusal to submit to him and often provokes even closer proximity as the other male attempts to force the rival to lose his composure. 

“Thus, although ignoring the approach of a baboon may at first sound like a good strategy, those who advised me to do so did not take into account the baboons’ insistence on regarding me as a social being. After a little while, I stopped reflexively ignoring baboons who approached me and instead varied my response depending on the baboon and the circumstances. Usually, I made brief eye contact or grunted. When I behaved in this baboon-appropriate fashion, the animals generally paid less attention to me than they did if I ignored them. It seemed that they read my signals much as they read each other’s. By acknowledging a baboon’s presence, I expressed respect, and by responding in ways I picked up from them, I let the baboons know that my intentions were benign and that I assumed they likewise meant me no harm. Once this was clearly communicated in both directions, we could relax in one another’s company. 

“Ignoring an animal in a neutral or mildly friendly situation is usually a low-cost mistake, but ignoring a hostile animal can have grave consequences. I learned this lesson not from a baboon but from a brash adolescent male chimpanzee named Goblin. Shortly after I arrived at Gombe National Park in Tanzania, Goblin began to stalk me. He would materialize before me, give me a hostile look, and then disappear into the vegetation, only to re-emerge minutes or hours later to glare at me again. After a few days of this, he began to attack me. Sometimes, he would charge, slapping me as he passed by. Sometimes he would sneak up behind me, punch me in the back, and then flee. At other times he would lurk in the bushes until he saw me adopt a vulnerable position, such as squatting on the edge of an incline. Then he would throw himself through the air, land on my back, and pummel me as we tumbled down the slope together. 

“This went on for a couple of weeks. Goblin had not hurt me seriously, but I was bruised, and more importantly, I was a nervous wreck. I spoke to the research director about my problem, who recommended that I just ignore him, confident that he would soon tire of his games. Then I found out that another researcher who was small like me had been so tormented by Goblin that she could no longer follow chimps out of camp. I became plagued by imaginary headlines (‘researcher foiled by chimpanzee stalker’) and feared an ignominious end to my studies. 

“I tolerated a few more of Goblin’s attacks. Then one day he snuck up behind me and stole my rain poncho, which I had looped around my belt. Getting hit was one thing, but losing precious and irreplaceable rain gear was too much. Without thinking, I spun around and grabbed an edge of the poncho just as Goblin twirled to run away with it. I pulled hard. Goblin stood bipedal and pulled at his end. Suddenly, he relinquished his grip, and as I leaned forward to maintain my balance, I swung a hard right. The blow, softened by the poncho covering my fist, rammed into Goblin’s nose. I had acted instinctively, without thought. Indeed, had I thought about it I never would have done it, because several of Goblin’s adult male allies were nearby. But I was lucky. After I punched him, Goblin crumpled into a whimpering child and went to Figan, the alpha male, for reassurance. Without glancing up, Figan reached out and patted Goblin several times on the top of the head. 

“I later realized that Goblin had been treating me just as he was treating some of the adult female chimpanzees. He was at the age when a young male chimp climbs up the female hierarchy as a prelude to taking on adult males. Goblin apparently viewed me (and the other chimp-sized woman he had so badly intimidated) as another female to dominate. He had already subdued every chimp female except Figan’s sister, Fifi, and the biggest and toughest female, Gigi. One day when Goblin was harassing Gigi, much as he’d harassed me, she turned and smacked him hard and I realized that my instincts had been on target. A female chimpanzee being harassed by an adolescent male will either submit (removing the reason for his attacks) or, like Gigi, fight back. By ignoring Goblin I had failed to send a clear signal either way, and so he persisted. After the poncho episode, he did not bother me again. 

“The baboons never attacked me, fortunately, since the males’ two-inch-long razor-sharp canines can inflict lethal wounds. People sometimes ask me, ‘Weren’t you scared?’ In fact, while studying chimps at Gombe, I was initially terrified of the baboons who shared the park, because they were so unfamiliar to me. However, by the time I got close to Eburru Cliffs, I felt confident that, if a baboon felt like attacking me, I would know it. The degree to which they accepted me among them suggests that they felt much the same about me. 

“Because I wanted to minimize the ways in which my presence might change their behaviour, I did not cultivate personal relationships with the baboons or encourage them to cultivate such relationships with me. I turned away from juveniles who invited me to play, and when a baboon touched me, I waited for a moment and then slowly moved away. Over time, such overtures became less rather than more common, suggesting that my low-key responses reduced the baboon’s curiosity. The mutually respectful but somewhat distant relationships we developed provided ideal circumstances for my research. 

“Although I didn’t relate to the baboons one-on-one (aside from the nuanced responses described above), I did develop a feeling of intimacy with the troop as a whole. I spent most of my waking hours with them. I ate my own food and drank my own water, but otherwise my routine was identical to theirs. I walked wherever they did, and I rested when and where they rested. Often, during siesta time, there were only a few big trees in sight, and it seemed natural to for us to share the shade. 

“After doing much of what they did for some time, I felt like I was turning into a baboon. A simple example involves my reactions to the weather. On the savanna during the rainy season, we could see storms approaching from a great distance. The baboons became restless, anticipating a heavy downpour. At the same time, because they wanted to keep eating, they preferred to stay out in the open as long as possible. The baboons had perfected the art of balancing hunger with the need for shelter. Just when it seemed inevitable to me that we would all get drenched, the troop would rise as one and race for the cliffs, reaching protection exactly as big drops began to fall. For many months, I wanted to run well before they did. Then something shifted, and I knew without thinking when it was time to move. I could not attribute this awareness to anything I saw, or heard or smelled; I just knew. Surely it was the same for the baboons. To me, this was a small but significant triumph. I had gone from thinking about the world analytically to experiencing the world directly and intuitively. It was then that something long slumbering awoke inside me, a yearning to be in the world as my ancestors had done, as all creatures were designed to do by aeons of evolution. Lucky me. I was surrounded by experts who could show the way. 

“Learning to be more of an animal came easily as I let go of layers of thinking and doing that sometimes served me back home but were only hindrances here. All I had to do was stick with the baboons and attend to what they did and notice how they responded. After a while, being with them felt more like ‘the real world’ than life back home. 

“Baboons are nothing if not highly idiosyncratic individuals, as distinct from each other as we humans are). But they also exist as selves-in-community. This aspect of their being is particularly salient in certain contexts. For example, when baboons respond to a neighbouring troop’s intrusion into their home range, they move together toward the enemy. They most vividly convey a sense of group spirit when they share a highly pleasurable experience. Once, after few days of heavy rain, we stumbled upon a plethora of newly emerged mushrooms — a baboon delicacy that normally evokes competition. This day, however, there were enough mushrooms for everyone. To my amazement, before anyone dug in, they all paused to join in a troop-wide chorus of food-grunts, their bodies literally shaking with excitement. In that moment, I realized that collective rejoicing in celebration of sustenance must have begun long ago. 

“The baboon’s thorough acceptance of me, combined with my immersion in their daily lives, deeply affected my identity. The shift I experienced is well described by 4 millennia of mystics but rarely acknowledged by scientists. Increasingly, my subjective consciousness seemed to merge with the group-mind of the baboons. Although ‘I’ was still present, much of my experience overlapped with this larger feeling entity. Increasingly, the troop felt like ‘us’ rather than ‘them’. The baboons’ satisfactions became my satisfactions, their frustrations my frustrations. When I spotted a gazelle fawn in the distance, I apprehended it as prey, and if the baboons succeeded in catching one, my mouth watered while they tore flesh from the bones, even though I don’t eat meat. When on the cliffs after dark, the baboons warned each other of a predator drawing near, my body tensed up as if I, too, were in danger, even though my rational mind knew that there were no predators large enough to attack me within many miles.

“I sensed the mood of the troop as soon as I arrived in the morning. I could usually tell whether we were going to travel a short or long distance that day. Often, I anticipated exactly where we would go, without knowing how I did it. Even though no one had yet changed direction, I knew when we were about to head for the sleeping cliffs. When we got there and the baboons lay around in soft green grass in the glow of the setting sun, I lay around with them. They had eaten their full, and I had gathered my day’s observations. With nothing more to do, we shared the timeless contentment of all social animals relaxing in the company of their friends. After I left them each night, I felt strangely empty, eager to join them again the next morning. 

“I had never before felt a part of something larger, which is not surprising, since I had never so intensely coordinated my activities with others. With great satisfaction, I relinquished my separate self and slid into the ancient experience of belonging to a mobile community of fellow primates. 

“There were special occasions when the experience of community intensified. Once, when I was travelling with baboons at Gombe, I lost the troop during a terrific downpour. Far from camp, I ran to the lakeshore and crawled into an abandoned fisherman’s shelter for protection. The inside of the hut was pitch dark, but I soon realized I was not alone. About thirty baboons were crowded into a space the size of an average American kitchen. When I entered, some baboons must have moved slightly to make room for me, just as they would do for one of their own. But they didn’t move far. Baboons surrounded me and some of them brushed against me as they shifted their positions. The rain continued. The hut filled with the clover-like smell of their breath, and our body heat transformed the hut into a sauna. I felt as if I’d been sitting this way, in the heart of a baboon circle, my whole life, and as if I could go on doing this forever. When the rain stopped, no one stirred for a little while. Maybe they felt the same contentment that I did. 

“Another time, when I had a bad cold, I fell asleep in the middle of the day, while baboons fed all around me. When I awoke at least an hour later, the troop had disappeared, all but one adolescent male who had decided to take a nap next to me. Plato (we gave the baboons Greek names) stirred when I sat up, and we blinked at each other in the bright light. I greeted him and asked him if he knew where the others were. He headed off in a confident manner and I walked by his side. This was the first time I had ever been alone with one of the baboons, and his comfort with my presence touched me. I felt as if we were friends, out together for an afternoon stroll. He took me right to the other baboons, over a mile away. After that, I always felt a special affinity for Plato. 

“One experience I especially treasure. The Gombe baboons were travelling to their sleeping trees late in the day, moving slowly down a stream with many small, still pools, a route they often traversed. Without any signal perceptible to me, each baboon sat at the edge of a pool on one of the many smooth rocks that lined the edges of the stream. They sat alone or in small clusters, completely quiet, gazing at the water. Even the perpetually noisy juveniles fell into silent contemplation. I joined them. Half an hour later, again with no perceptible signal, they resumed their journey in what felt like an almost sacramental procession. I was stunned by this mysterious expression of what I have come to think of as baboon sangha. Although I’ve spent years with baboons, I witnessed this only twice, both times at Gombe. I have never heard another primatologist recount such an experience. I sometimes wonder if, on those two occasions, I was granted a glimpse of a dimension of baboon life they do not normally expose to people. These moments reminded me how little we really know about the ‘more-than-human world.’”

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Barbara Smuts received her Ph.D. in bio-behavioral sciences from Stanford Medical School, and is now a professor emerita in the psychology department at the University of Michigan. She has studied social relationships in chimpanzees and savanna baboons in East Africa and wild bottlenose dolphins in Western Australia. For the last few years she has been studying social behavior in canines. Her publications include Sex and Friendship in Baboons (2nd ed., 1999), Primate Societies (co-edited, 1983), and numerous articles and book chapters

For the full article from which this excerpt was taken, please go to this link:

https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/iatl/study/ugmodules/ugmodules/humananimalstudies/lectures/32/smuts.pdf

June 1, 2022

The Film That Changed My Life

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

A few years ago when I was in touch with one of my elderly friends – almost an exact contemporary as we were born nine days apart in 1935 – he happened to mention that his son, Ben, was a fledgling film director who also was something of a film critic. This interested me since during those years I was in the midst of conducting a kind of film tutorial for my girlfriend, Lauren, to help fill a deplorable lacuna in her movie-going life. Like an insufferable Henry Higgins, in the role of a film maven, I considered it my task to educate my girlfriend about what she had missed during the course of her life.

Ben turned out to be a very savvy and astute film critic, and no mere “movie lover,” as I was. He turned me on to a number of films I had never heard of. I learned a lot from reading his film commentaries and from his letters. Still, we often disagreed about films we had both seen. Mostly that didn’t bother me. I enjoyed our sometimes feisty exchanges, but one of our quarrels really irked me since it dealt with the most important film I had ever seen, one that had changed my life.

On my recommendation, Ben had seen this film with his father. They both found fault with it and were not impressed. I couldn’t believe that someone as knowledgeable about films as Ben clearly was did not appreciate this film in the way I did. Moreover, he didn’t appear to understand what this film was really about, much less its significance.

I therefore took it upon myself, in my arrogant Henry Higgins manner, to educate Ben, so I sent him the following commentary, which I have slightly edited here, and which is also the story of how this film came into my life so serendipitously and how it came to have a life-altering impact on me.  

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In 1958, I had just arrived in Minneapolis to begin my life as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. I was 22 years old, and this was the first time, other than when I was a kid when I had spent a couple of summers in Brooklyn with my family, I had ever been on my own.  After a few weeks I had met a few students, but I was still finding my way about. One Saturday, I happened to be free, so I went to the movies to see a film I had never heard of.

Ordet.

I was at the time, if not an atheist, then certainly an unbeliever. In high school and then into my first year of college, I had a girlfriend who had been an ardent member of the Presbyterian Church and aspired to become the first female minister in that denomination. We argued passionately all the time about religion. Basically, I thought it was bunk. I couldn’t understand how any thinking person could believe in God. I hadn’t from a young age — no one in my family was religious and all of my mother’s sibship was hostile to it. My intellectual hero at the time was Bertrand Russell.

I found Ordet to be mesmerizing, however. Each of the shots seemed to be like a tableau — a beautiful painting. I remember the father climbing up the hill to look for the wayward Johannes, who, as you now know, plays a Christ figure in the film. The latter, clearly demented (later in the film there is a joke of sorts — he had read too much Kierkegaard), a literal voice crying out in the wilderness. There are two other brothers and the wife, Inge, of the middle brother, who is the heart of the family, the heart of the film. All slow moving. I was deeply absorbed, almost from the beginning.

Of course, it is a film about faith — or the lack of it. I don’t need to summarize the story and the various plot lines since you have seen the film itself. [For that, I suggest you may want to consult Roger Ebert’s excellent plot summary, which you can find on the Internet.] Each character is interesting, and outside the family, too — the good, earnest minister, the cocksure, arrogant doctor, the man of science. And of course Johannes, the mad Christ. Yes, he whines — no one will listen to him. He is speaking Christ’s truths but no one will hear him. He dresses in that shabby robe, and can never look anyone in the eye. You wonder where this film is going or at least I did. Spellbound by the mystery.

Inge gets pregnant. And Johannes again disappears, but this time they can’t find him. The younger brother, Anders. has been rejected by the tailor’s family in his suit for Anne’s hand; he is not of the right religion. The screws are tightening.

Inge goes into labor. Problems arise. It’s touch and go — there is anguish all around. The doctor eventually says Inge will survive. The doctor has a drink, very self-satisfied, with the family.

But as you know, Inge doesn’t survive. Her husband, Mikkel, who has — like me — never been a believer like his wife, is in the most wrenching despair and grief. It was almost unbearable for me to watch him.

There is the service for Inge as she lies on the bier. The tailor’s family comes and they are reconciled with Inge’s family; the young brother will have his Anne. But Inge’s husband will have no one! His anger and grief mount. The minister does his thing.

And then — shatteringly — Johannes appears. He is now wearing a sweater instead of his robe. His presence is powerful. He can now look people in the eye. He now speaks in a strong voice. Mysteriously, he has become transformed. His presence causes consternation all around. Inge’s husband is beside himself.

The little girl, Inge and Mikkel’s young daughter, who has always believed in Johannes (she is the only one with true faith) now comes into play. He asks her if she believes he can raise Inge from the dead. She nods. People want to stop this madness, but the new Johannes has become the dominant figure in the scene.

He gives his invocation over Inge’s body. She does not move or stir. For the longest time — at the time it seemed like minutes to me, though I know now it was only some seconds — she remains still. And then, the barest fluttering her eyelids. A miracle is about to take place, as if it is right out of the Bible. Johannes (Christ) is going to raise someone from the dead.

The little girl smiles. The faith of a child….

Inge stirs into life. Her husband, completely overcome, rushes to embrace her. He now believes.

I was that husband.

I couldn’t believe my response to that film. I was completely overcome. Heaving with emotion! What had happened to me?!

Afterward, I could only think that this was really the first true religious experience I ever had — of the truth of religion and of God.

Yes, it was “just a movie,” but not for me.

Roger Ebert, too, on first seeing this film, was similarly shaken, as he admitted in his own review of the film:

When the film was over, I had plans. I could not carry them out. I went to bed. Not to sleep. To feel. To puzzle about what had happened to me. I had started by viewing a film that initially bored me. It had found its way into my soul. Even after the first half hour, I had little idea what power awaited me, but now I could see how those opening minutes had to be as they were.

Many years later, when I was a professor at UCONN, I knew the people who ran the Friday night film series there. One day they asked me to suggest a film for the next season. Naturally, I recommended Ordet. It played to a pretty packed house. I had exactly the same reaction to it as I did the first time. Later, it turned out, about half the audience also had a similarly strong response to it. As for the rest, it just didn’t affect them deeply or perhaps they didn’t really get it, who knows?

I’ve seen it a couple of times in still later years, including showing it to my girlfriend a few years ago, who did “get it.” I teared up at the end again! Each time. I guess that film was made for me, that’s all I can say. That was the beginning of my knowing that my girlfriend in high school was right.

I did after all go over some elements in the plot in giving this account which I’ve never done before because I wanted you to try to see this film with my eyes, through the lens, as it were, of my psyche, as it was when I was 22 years old and had come into the theater with pretty much the same views as the doctor in the film. I left the theater a different person….

Now I would like, with your indulgence, to say just a few more words about Ordet in order to clear up what might not have been explicit in my own commentary. But it only really relates to the end of the film, which put you off. I’m hesitant even to suggest that someone as knowledgeable about films as you are might not have fully grasped Dreyer’s intention here, but I think I can at least offer another perspective on that ending that perhaps you hadn’t considered.

I don’t really know that much about Dreyer — just have read various bits about him over the years, but no biography and I typically don’t read the literature on film, directors, etc. — so I don’t really know what his religious views were. But apparently he was not a religious man himself. I do know, however, that he made a couple of other films that dealt with religious intolerance, including one of the widely acknowledged greatest silent films of all time about Joan of Arc. Ordet, too, is about religious intolerance, though that’s not the main theme of the film, which is, of course, faith. True faith, not merely the conventionally professed kind that the Borgen père represents. 

So what do we have here from this perspective? We have a Christ figure who returns to earth in the form of a demented religious zealot. He is pathetic and insufferable. Your dad was put off by his whining. Of course, that’s just the point. People encountering him feel sorry for him or embarrassed or impatient (except for Inge, the one who represents true faith in the film). No one wants to listen to his religious ravings — which are the teachings of Christ, right out of the Bible. No one has true faith.

So let’s fast forward to the end of the film. Johannes has returned, but now he is intact. Yet people still do not believe that he represents the power of Christ in his being, which of course, drawing on the Bible, includes the power to raise the dead. 

But the little girl believes, and that’s enough. 

Inge has to be raised from the dead at the end — this is absolutely ordained by the logic of the story, which is a miracle story. Sorry to disagree with you, Ben, but this was in no way a “cheap shot.” Nor was it unrealistic even if it confounds reason. Without that ending, there would have been no point to the film. Everything was building to that climax, which was why, for me, it was so overwhelming. Imagine seeing a miracle with one’s own eyes! If you are drawn into the film — forgetting that it is a film — you are there, 2000 years ago, watching Christ raise Lazarus from the dead.

For me, that film represented the first crack in my up to then solid wall of religious skepticism, even hostility to religious sentiment. No more. It was also the first awakening in what was to become my spiritual development that ultimately led to my interest in near-death experiences. Inge, on her death bed, comes back from the dead. Need I say more about how that film was to prefigure my life? Would I ever have come to research NDEs if I hadn’t seen that film when I was 22 years old?

May 19, 2022

Blogging Toward Infinity

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D. 

These days when I write an e-mail to one of my few remaining elderly friends after a long hiatus in our correspondence, I usually begin with a question: “Still there?” I ask. I did so recently, with some trepidation, when I wrote my best longtime male friend, a Norwegian author and playwright, who will soon be 96. I was relieved to find out that he still was (“there,” I mean), and not only that, he astonished me by telling me that he had just published his latest novel! He claims that it will be his last, but I’ve heard that from him before. He will probably still be writing on his deathbed after completing his century. 

And when I get the same kind of inquiry from one of my old chums, I usually tell them that, yes, having been influenced by Yeats at an early age, I am still blogging toward infinity, or death, whichever comes sooner. Since I am incorrigibly addicted to bad puns, the kind that makes you groan, I usually sign off with my latest sobriquet, “The Ancient Mariner” (since I have lived in Marin County for the last twenty-five years). 

Although my venerable Norwegian friend has ten years on me, I’m both amazed and appalled that I am still here, taking up space. And I fear the worst. Possibly you remember that in one of my blogs of a few years back, when I was a mere 83, I realized with a shock of unadulterated terror that I didn’t fear death, but living too long. I seem to suffer from a sort of phobia of senescence. And the other day I learned that I have good reason to worry. I took the trouble look up the average life expectancy for men who are 86 years old. Five and a half years! Horrors! Good Lord, though I have my doubts about the adjective, do you mean to tell me that if I am merely “average,” I might still be here, blogging my way toward infinity when I’m in my nineties? Say it ain’t so, Cecilia! 

Some of you may remember that a few years ago, I wrote a series of blogs about the perils and sometimes unexpected pleasures of aging that I eventually collected into a little book I called, with a bit of my tongue still wedged firmly into my cheek, Waiting to Die. If so, you may recall that in those days, it was my hope to live to be 1000 – months old. That would have got me out of here at a little past 83. I even listed a bunch of famous men who had exited when they were about a third of the way through their eighties. I will never be famous, of course, but I still hoped to join their illustrious octogenarian company. But that hooded man with the scythe simply turned a deaf ear to my plea. 

Now I am well past that death wish milestone and working on my second thousand month cycle. At least I can retain a modest hope that this time I won’t make it to the end, but so far there is just no end in sight for me. I have therefore become resigned to keep on blogging until I reach infinity – or bust! Perhaps I should entitle my next book, Still Waiting to Die.

But as I wait for my seemingly interminable demise, I actually find myself in a Proustian mood these days in search of my own lost time. In my case, however, I don’t need to dip a madeleine into my tea in order to evoke memories of my first years. No, as you will see, my madeleine is actually a stick of Wrigley gum. However, before we get to that, let me revert to an even earlier time when I made my debut at 8 pounds, 7 ounces, on a Friday the 13th, in the year that Babe Ruth hit his last home run. Any guesses, baseball fans?

I will not keep you in suspense. It was 1935. The Babe, after too many years of hard drinking, late nights and frolicking with the ladies, was on his last famously spindly legs. The Yankees, sensing that his luck had run out, had cast him off to the lowly Boston Braves (yes, it would take many years until they made their southern pilgrimage to Atlanta), where he became a pitiable sight at the plate. For the few months he played during the year of my birth, he hit a pathetic .181. But there was one day in May when he was again the Babe of old. He smacked three home runs that day, and never hit another. By the next month, he was gone. It was time for him retire and become a legend. 

But of course the Sultan of Swat, as the Babe was often called, was not exactly on my radar when I was still in diapers. It would be some years before I would become, at least for a time, an ardent Yankee fan and crazy for baseball. Meanwhile, I needed to figure out who I was and who were these big people who were feeding me my baby food?

According to my mother, I was a sunny and happy child, if somewhat chubby, as you can see from this photograph of me in my mother’s arms.

As she later told me, even before I was a year old, I was already singing along to breakfast commercials on the radio. I couldn’t see well (another story), but I could always sing. (And even at 86, I can still croon the songs of my youth.)

My mother years later also told me an amusing story about why she had named me Ken, rather than Irving or Hyman or Ben, or some other traditionally Jewish first name. It turned out that both my mother and her sister, Miriam, were ardent fans of a then popular radio program called “One Man’s Family.” Her favorite character on that show was someone named Ken, so I was named after my mother’s fictional heartthrob. This program was actually set in Sea Cliff, which is a ritzy area in San Francisco, near the Palace of the Legion of Honor. Guess why Miriam named her son Cliff?

But, actually, my memories of my mother during my first years on the planet are quite vague and indistinct, but I seem always to have felt her love and that of Miriam who would become a kind of second mother to me, as mine often suffered from depression owing to an unhappy marriage.

So perhaps it is time now to talk about the man who was the cause of so much of my mother’s unhappiness, my father, Phil…. 

He was holding my left hand when I spotted it. A clean, unopened stick of chewing gum illuminated in a shaft of brilliant sunlight. With my right hand, I bent over and picked it up. Life was good. I was three years old, and I was with my father.

Later I learned that this incident must have occurred at the World’s Fair in San Francisco in 1939. It is my very first memory, and, significantly, it involved my father. In fact, all my earliest memories are of my father, and they are golden memories. They took place in the paradise of my childhood before my father left me.

He was an artist, or at least that’s how he identified himself. A pen-and-ink man, mostly, though I know in later life, he became a well-known illustrator for a New York newspaper. His special talent was for drawing ballet dancers, and, for a short time, he was known as “the American Degas.” But during my early years, to get by he had to take what jobs he could. I know he worked in advertising for a while, and I also believe that for a time he held a job in an architect’s office as a draftsman (for years afterward, I used a draftsman’s board he had left with me). He was a sometimes journalist as well. I know he had some musical talent as well because, as I later learned, for a while he earned his keep playing the piano in bars. He must have had an interest in classical music, too, since the only possession of my father’s that was passed down to me was an annotated copy of the sheet music he had purchased in New York of a Beethoven rondo (Op. 51. No. 2).      

When I was still very young, I can remember my father taking me on his rounds—just him and me. I can remember his taking me to his office, I can remember the radio he had there and his desk, though not much else.      

After the United States went to war, my father began to work in the shipyards in Richmond. On his days off, he would take me there to see the ships he had been working on. Once we saw the launching of one—the Nancy Hanks. I can still see the bottle of champagne breaking against the ship’s hull. I can never remember being with my mother on any of these occasions. And though I cannot recall anything of what my father said to me when we were together, I can remember the feeling of being with him. He made me feel as if he were taking me to the secret places only a father knew from which my mother would somehow always be excluded, and drew me to him by the sweet bond of unspoken conspiracy between father and son.

Case in point: I also vividly recall that one day he took me to the home of a woman with platinum blonde hair and left me in the foyer to play with that woman’s Scottie. It was only years later, when I was an adult, that I realized that my father must have been conducting an affair with this woman, and that I was probably serving as his cover. I believe my father had many affairs in his life, though a lot of this is speculation on my part. Indeed, as you will see, my father is mostly my invention since he left so few traces and nobody in my family was much inclined to talk about him after he left. He did leave his mark on me, though, all the same.      

His name was Philip May Kurman, and he had emigrated from Russia with his parents when he was two, which would have been in 1913. He and his family lived in New York where in the early ‘30s he met and courted my mother, Rose, whose family had emigrated from Lithuania, though my mother was born in Mount Kisco, New York, in 1912. My mother was very beautiful (she had been pushed to enter and had won at least one beauty contest as a teenager), but very shy and insecure. Before meeting my father, she had been in love with a man who turned out to be a homosexual, which fact, from the way she spoke about it afterward, both shocked and devastated her. She married my father on the rebound, but told me after he had left that she had never loved him. Indeed, it appeared to me that she didn’t even like him very much, but he had apparently charmed her, and she did want very much to get out from under her own father’s tyrannical hand and escape into marriage. From what I have been able to piece together, my father was, at least at first, deeply enamored of my mother, but she seems to have rebuffed him and kept him at a distance, especially sexually. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that my father was driven to carry on with other women to satisfy his needs for sex and affection. Only many years ago did I learn from my uncle George something that seems to be an independent confirmation of my sense of my father’s extramarital life. George knew my father well and even lived with him for a time told me that Phil was often absent from the marriage even before he departed permanently during World War II.

I was nearly six when the attack at Pearl Harbor occurred, and it wasn’t long after that—sometime in 1942—that my father, knowing he would be drafted, anyway, decided to enlist in the Merchant Marines. It was at that point that my father disappeared from my life as an active, if still only occasional, presence. Strangely, I do not consciously remember missing him that much after he left, but in another way, I know I have missed him all my life.      

The little I know about my father’s character and his life while he was overseas during the war comes mostly from my aunt Mariam, who, as I’ve said, was effectively my real mother during those years and who was just about the only relative in my family who, years later, was willing to try to answer some of my questions about my father. Among other things, she told me that without the slightest knowledge of drugs, he managed to bluff his way into becoming a pharmacist’s mate while in the Merchant Marines. Apparently, my father was used to conning people. For example, my aunt also told me that my father had boasted about being able to pass off and sell some of his artwork by pretending he was an Australian painter whose name happened to be similar to his but who enjoyed a much better contemporary reputation. In other words, Phil was something of an imposter. He also apparently loved to tease or just straight out lie to people. Once, my aunt said, a barber had asked him how many children he had, to which my father had answered “eight.” According to my aunt, he never let on that I was his only offspring, and bragged about his trivial but telling deceit afterward. 

I also had some direct evidence of my father’s somewhat mildly psychopathic ways myself because I remember that during the war he would write me letters about some of his activities and methods of operation. I still recall one of his letters, where he offered this advice: “Kenny,” he wrote, “make sure whenever you go somewhere new to tell the people that it is your birthday. They will then make a big fuss over you and give you a party.” Later, I could not help wondering whether my remembering this particular passage from my father’s letters revealed more about him or me —since I remember very little else from his wartime correspondence. (I do recall, however, that he also sent me some yellow wooden clogs from Holland and other presents from time to time.) My father may have left me, but he hadn’t forgotten me. Somehow, I always felt his love for me; I knew he cared about me. His letters seemed to be proof of that.

The war years passed, and apart from an occasional letter from him, my father pretty much passed out of my life as an active presence. But suddenly, during the spring of 1945, as the war in Europe was drawing to a close, I learned that we — my entire family — would be moving to Brooklyn, New York, for the summer. I had actually been taken to New York once before, in 1941, for a short time, but living there for an entire summer would be another matter altogether, especially now that I was nine years old. Ostensibly, the reason for this trip was that my uncle George’s sister had just died and he needed to be there to support her family. Only years later did I come to learn that there was another reason for us to travel there at that time.

Unbeknownst to me, my father was about to be discharged and had arranged to have a surreptitious meeting with my mother in July of that year—at least it was a meeting that was kept secret from me. It was only from my aunt Mariam many years later that I learned about it and more about what my father had been up to during the war. From what my mother had disclosed to her sister at that time, Phil had apparently been something of an “operator,” rather like the character Milo in Joseph Heller’s classic novel, Catch-22. He was, my mother said, always “making deals,” and seemingly had managed to enjoy his time while in Europe as millions were dying — and where at the time, with the war there over, millions of survivors and refugees were starving and fighting among themselves.

Therefore, my mother must have listened with complete stupefaction to the shocking proposal my father had come to New York to make to her. He had so loved being in Europe, he told her, that he wanted to return after the war to make his home and his living there—and he wanted my mother and me to join him as soon as possible!

Of course, I have no idea how my mother actually responded to this preposterous proposition, but I like to imagine it was something along the lines of — “You want me to take my only begotten son and myself to Europe while it is still on fire and people are starving and in rags there? Are you completely daft, Phil?”

In any event, my mother, for once, made a definitive decision for herself. She would of course have none of it. That didn’t stop my father, whose penchant for Bohemian adventurism had obviously only been enhanced by whatever opportunistic contacts he had made during the war. Enamored of Europe, he was bent on returning there to study and practice the art of painting. Thus it was, even without my knowing it then, that my father left me for the second time, this time for good.

I would never see him again. He died young, at 41.

Many years later, after learning a good deal about my father in the most astonishing and serendipitous way, and even acquiring some of his artwork, I wrote a memoir about him that I called, My Father Once Removed. A copy of that book now sits a few feet away from me, on my desk, next to the only photograph I have of my father (see above). Despite his rapscallion ways, I remain very fond of my father, and these days, I often find myself talking to him. I tell him it won’t be long now before we are together again. So I’m not just waiting to die; I’m also waiting to meet my father again. Meanwhile, I guess all I can do is to continue to blog my way toward infinity until I get there, where I know he’ll be waiting for me.

May 3, 2022

A New Voice for Animal Justice: The Formidable Martha Nussbaum

By Kenneth Ring, Ph.D.

Unless you read contemporary philosophers, you may never have heard of Martha Nussbaum, but in the world of modern American philosophers, she pretty much towers over her academic colleagues. In the pantheon of her fellow philosophic scholars, she is generally regarded as the queen who sits kingless on her throne.

She herself is such a formidable scholar, she sometimes simply scares her colleagues with the brilliance of her coruscating intellect. Now at the University of Chicago, she seems to have been denied tenure at Harvard because she intimidated many of her colleagues. Besides, some of them, mostly women no doubt, probably also resented her because she could then wear mini-skirts to great effect. Intellectually and physically, Martha Nussbaum, is a beaut. And even now, in her mid-seventies, she cuts an attractive figure. See for yourself.


But why, you ask, or should, am I talking about a scholar the fecundity of whose work is legendary? What does she have to do with the question of animal justice? Plenty, as you will learn. Among other things, Martha (if I can presume first name privileges, which she would probably regard as an inexcusable affront – look at those steely eyes!) is the author of the forthcoming book, Justice for Animals: Our Collective Responsibility, which will be published in December of this year. If I should live that long and still retain my wits and what’s left of my vision, I plan to read it. And maybe you might wish to do so as well when you learn more about her. In any case, owing to her reputation, it is sure to become an influential book.

Before exploring her views about justice for animals, and why I give them such importance, let’s enjoy getting to know more about this remarkable woman. Fortunately, a few years ago there was a wonderfully intimate profile of her in The New Yorker, which was written by Rachel Aviv. And since I am lazy and have had many obstacles to overcome before writing this blog, I am going to indulge one of my worst vices and simply quote a few paragraphs from Aviv’s article. Ready? Meet Martha Nussbaum.

A sixty-nine-year-old professor [at time his of this profile] of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago (with appointments in classics, political science, Southern Asian studies, and the divinity school), Nussbaum has published twenty-four books and five hundred and nine papers and received fifty-seven honorary degrees. In 2014, she became the second woman to give the John Locke Lectures, at Oxford, the most eminent lecture series in philosophy. Last year, she received the Inamori Ethics Prize, an award for ethical leaders who improve the condition of mankind. A few weeks ago, she won five hundred thousand dollars as the recipient of the Kyoto Prize, the most prestigious award offered in fields not eligible for a Nobel, joining a small group of philosophers that includes Karl Popper and Jürgen Habermas. Honors and prizes remind her of potato chips; she enjoys them but is wary of becoming sated, like one of Aristotle’s “dumb grazing animals.” Her conception of a good life requires striving for a difficult goal, and, if she notices herself feeling too satisfied, she begins to feel discontent.

Nussbaum is monumentally confident, intellectually and physically. She is beautiful, in a taut, flinty way, and carries herself like a queen. Her voice is high-pitched and dramatic, and she often seems delighted by the performance of being herself. Her work, which draws on her training in classics but also on anthropology, psychoanalysis, sociology, and a number of other fields, searches for the conditions for eudaimonia, a Greek word that describes a complete and flourishing life.

She divides her day into a series of productive, life-affirming activities, beginning with a ninety-minute run or workout, during which, for years, she “played” operas in her head, usually works by Mozart. She memorized the operas and ran to each one for three to four months, shifting the tempo to match her speed and her mood. For two decades, she has kept a chart that documents her daily exercises. After her workout, she stands beside her piano and sings for an hour; she told me that her voice has never been better.

Formidable, as the French say, n’est-ce-pas?

Now, at last, we must turn our attention back to our main concern, justice for animals, and explore how Nussbaum treats this issue. At one point in her career, the famous American philosopher, John Rawls, became one of her mentors. Rawls, one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, was chiefly noted for his writings about justice -- and fairness. Nussbaum, too, has long been interested in matters of justice, and has recently begun to devote her considerable energy to developing a framework for creating a just world for non-human animals.

In a recent article, “What We Owe Our Fellow Animals,” which surely anticipates the argument she will enlarge upon in her forthcoming book, Nussbaum begins by reviewing many of the findings in recent animal research that demonstrate the remarkably complex cognitive and emotional lives exhibited by our fellow creatures. (In a number of my previous blogs I have explored much of this literature, so I need only allude to that here.) After her extensive introduction, she then pivots to her main theme, which she announces with her characteristic vigor:

The new learning about animal lives and their complexity has large ethical implications. At the most general level we must face up to the fact that many, if not most, animals are not automata or “brute beasts” but creatures with a point of view on the world and diverse ends toward which they strive—and that we interfere with these forms of life in countless ways, even when we do not directly cause pain. We deplete and reduce habitats, we fill the seas with plastic trash that often becomes lethal food for whales (once ingested it remains undigested, filling up their stomachs until the whales can no longer eat nutritious food), we disrupt marine mammal life by noise pollution (military sonar, air guns used by oil drillers to chart the ocean floor), we build brightly lit skyscrapers into which small birds crash—and the list goes on and on. If injustice involves wrongfully thwarted striving—and I think that’s a pretty good summary of the basic intuitive idea of injustice—we cause immense injustice every day, and injustice cries out for accountability and remediation.

She then begins her deliberations by recapitulating some of the findings I have already discussed when considering the unhappy case of Happy, the elephant, namely, the damage we do animals in captivity when we deprive them of the space they need to flourish and particularly the familial and social networks without which their nature can never be fulfilled. As Nussbaum puts it succinctly, “The test for whether captivity is ethical should always be to ask whether creatures can exercise their characteristic activities in attractive and typical surroundings.”

To help the animals we care for, Nussbaum says, we not only need good science and courageous activism, but in order to form a legal policy to ensure their welfare, we need an ethical theory. Unfortunately, however, according to Nussbaum, the theories that have been articulated so far are in her words, “pretty crude and unhelpful.”

Clearly, she is on her way to developing one that remedies the flaws and deficiencies she sees in the ethical theories of others, but first she wants to show us the weaknesses that must be overcome. So what are the theories that she seeks to replace?

She begins her brief survey by picking bones with the approach of Steven Wise and his NnRP colleagues. Although she was one of the persons who filed an amicus brief in the case of Happy, the elephant (in vain, as we now know), she has had serious disagreements with Wise. She says, flatly and without qualification, that Wise’s theory, which she mocks by calling it a “So like Us” approach, is “surely a mistaken theory.”

She has two principal objections to it. First, it slights the sheer complexity and strangeness of animal lives, focusing on superficial similarities to humans while ignoring issues of animal sentience and sociality. Second, she says that mere similarity to humans cannot be the basis for sound ethical theory. Why privilege chimps, for example, and disregard creatures like octopuses, which seem so alien to us?

Instead, Nussbaum writes, “If we search for a more adequate theoretical basis, what the new learning immediately suggests is that we might begin by looking at what matters to each animal.” Her final objection to this theory hints at where her thinking will take us: The So Like Us theory “short-circuits curiosity, when the question we ought to ask is what each creature strives for and needs, and how various arrangements made by humans foster or impede that striving.”

A more promising theory, Nussbaum contends, would seem to be that of Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher, who famously promoted the idea of “animal liberation” almost a half century ago. Singer’s theory is really rooted in the concept of Utilitarianism, which was originally articulated by Jeremy Bentham in the eighteenth century. Its basic idea is simple: the goal is to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.  Sounds good (who could object to that?), but Nussbaum is quick to point out its flaws and shortcomings.

First, it fails to address the diversity of goals each animal life pursues. Happy, for example, might not suffer pain if well cared for, but she would still lack space for free movement and the company of other elephants. Second, Utilitarian theories tend to ignore the individual creature in order to focus on the pleasure/pain balance in the aggregate, e.g., elephants in general. Finally, Nussbaum writes that “the theory neglects agency, treating animals as [passive] vessels of experience rather than active beings who move toward what they want and need.”

This brings us at last to where Nussbaum wants to take us, namely, to the theory propounded by her and one of her lovers, the Nobel Laureate (in economics), Amartya Sen (Nussbaum, in her amatory life, by her own admission, always seems to go for very distinguished professional men). They have called their theory the Capabilities Approach (or CA, for short). Nussbaum’s exposition of this theory takes several pages and essentially concludes her article, but its basic idea is simple: Do whatever is necessary to enable the animal to flourish in its environment. Provide it with the food it needs, the space that it requires, the social contacts that are essential to its well being and in accord with its nature. This is how to put ethical theory into practice. 

After all, if you think about it, isn’t this what we humans would all crave, at least at a minimum? Why should animals be treated any differently? Best, of course, is not to hold any animal in captivity, but if it we do, we have an ethical obligation to ensure its well being in every possible way we can.

Nussbaum then goes on to say “With valuable input from a group of younger members of the international Human Development and Capability Association, I have recently been developing my theory into a theory of justice for nonhuman animals.” And then spends several pages giving examples on how animal activists have begun to put her theory into practice. Apparently, it has already begun to affect how animals are being treated and no doubt she will elaborate on this in her forthcoming book.

Her article concludes with this passionate plea and promise:

Achieving even minimal justice for animals seems a distant dream in our world of casual slaughter and ubiquitous habitat destruction. One might think that Utilitarianism presents a somewhat more manageable goal: Let’s just not torture them so much. [This, you will recall, is the position of Steven Pinker.] But we humans are not satisfied with non-torture. We seek flourishing: free movement, free communication, rich interactions with others of our species (and other species too). Why should we suppose that whales, dolphins, apes, elephants, parrots, and so many other animals seek anything less? If we do suppose that, it is either culpable ignorance, given the knowledge now so readily available, or a self-serving refusal to take responsibility, in a world where we hold all the power.

****************************

A personal afterword

In the course of writing this blog, which took an uncommonly long time owing to various interruptions and other annoying vicissitudes, I kept hearing about animal rights activists whose work and writings are in accord with Nussbaum’s ethical approach to the treatment of animals. For example, a law professor named Jessica Rubin at the University of Connecticut, where I taught for many years, has become an influential advocate for animal rights. The article I read about her work begins: 

In 2016, a new statute known as Desmond’s Law took effect in Connecticut. Named for an abused shelter dog, Desmond’s Law allows courts to appoint legal advocates in animal cruelty cases. It was the first law of its kind in the country, and allows supervised law students to serve in this capacity. The law also allows lawyers working pro bono to act as advocates.  Soon after Desmond’s Law took effect, UConn School of Law Professor Jessica Rubin established the Animal Law Clinic.

And then, by the merest chance, when browsing through the last issue of The New York Review of Books, I happened to notice an advertisement for a book by an anthropologist named Barbara J. King, whose work on animal welfare I had already come across and was impressed with. Already the author of two books on the lives and minds of animals, her latest one, which I immediately purchased and have just started to read, is entitled Animals’ Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity and in the Wild.

In addition, there were about a half dozen books about the lives of animals that Nussbaum herself reviewed in the article I drew on for this blog, “What We Owe Our Fellow Animals,” which was published in The New York Review of Books on March 10th of this year (but you can find it online, and it is very much worth reading).

There are other such books, of course, and I already have some in my own library. I particularly love the books of the primatologist, Frans de Waal. My favorite is one called Mama’s Last Hug, about the emotional life of animals, which my girlfriend, Lauren, read aloud to me. And before that, I had read his wonderfully engaging book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (Unfortunately, I lent both books to a couple of friends of mine, and am still waiting to get them back!)

The reason I mention these books is simply to say that in writing my many blogs over the past few years on the lives of animals and this new series on animal justice, I have barely scratched the surface of the work that is currently going on in the fields of animal cognition and the advocacy for the rights of animals. As for the latter endeavor, my impression is that Nussbaum is not just prepared to lead the charge; it is already happening. The movement for animal justice seems to be gathering force already, and we have reason to hope that it will continue to grow.

I’m sure many of you already love animals, as I do, and perhaps some of you are yourselves animal activists. It is my hope that my blogs will lead others to become involved in this movement.

Humans have done so much in the past to cause many animals to become extinct. At present, the remaining terrestrial megafauna, elephants and rhinoceroses, are imperiled as are our large aquatic mammals. Surely, to act to preserve and protect these remaining species and others, and to accord them the rights they deserve, is long overdue. So to make amends for our past transgressions, that would only be just, wouldn’t it?