Cuttlefish with Guns
The evolution of words gives insight into the evolution of the world formed of perceptions described by those terms. When Caesar was writing of his campaign in Gaul, he drew attention to identifying the unique character of the terrain. When he would send scouts to discover the “natura montis”†, the nature of a hill, he expected the scouts not to pigeonhole the hill into a small number of known types of hills, but to be alert to all details that might betray a unique advantage the hill might present. Attention to such details leads one to understand the nature of the entity. Caesar knew that inattention led to alienation from the nature of the battlefield, which led to disaster. This rigor in going after observational details to get at the inner principle of something was familiar to Caesar as that which Aristotle developed to get at the hidden “forms” or types of things that his mentor Plato described. Because awareness of this suchness of existence reveals so many unique essences where ordinary perception sees none, C.S. Lewis connects this awareness of natura to what eastern religions call the “ten thousand things”. Developed into modern empiricism, Aristotle’s style of observing thisness to infer suchness drove a wedge between the inward spirit or Natura of something from the empirically observed Nature we see around us. ‡
This sense of “nature” is familiar today in questions of every discipline:
- Law: “What is the nature of Florida’s ‘Stand your Ground’ statute?”
- Science: “What is the nature of smallpox immunity?”
- Literature: “What is the nature of Kenneth Branagh’s production of Hamlet?”
The intent of this sense has to do with getting at the character of the thing being examined. For everyday observers, a normal, familiar scene in a neighborhood is one where observed details conform to the “nature” of the neighborhood. This is the same sense that Shakespeare intends when the ghost of Hamlet’s father describes his murder as ‘strange and unnatural’. Unnatural here does not suggest the modern dominant sense of “immoral”, but rather “not following the normal pattern”. That is, a murder by a natural adversary like the King of Norway would not be described as unnatural. His murder was was “unnatural” because it was against the nature of the bond old Hamlet thought he had with his brother but who conspired to murder him. Any behavior that departs from its sort or kind would be described as unnatural in Shakespeare’s time. Importantly, a rigorous student of empirical observation like the fictional murder mystery hero Hercule Poirot have finely attuned instincts for identifying details of the crime scene or of the psychologies of the participants which are out of place- “unnatural”.
As for the modern moral sense as in “unnatural sexual acts”, the leap was not difficult to make. All it took was greater frequency of usage of the term “unnatural” to describe those departures from anticipated behavior that the speaker rejects. Here is the transformation from the empirical detective perceiving uniqueness everywhere to the moralist and or xenophobic bigot seeing the complexity of unique essences reduced to the sameness required for participating in one of two Manichean sets: Them or Us. This tribal sense also can be traced in the history of words.
The moralist meaning found support from the Anglo-Saxon term gecynd (cynd and later “kind”) which is the basis of the words kindred, kin, and your children- “kinder” as in kindergarten. This term fused individual and group identity, associating your nature, your gecynd, with those who share your nature- your kin, your “kinder”-children sharing your DNA, your “kind” sharing your cultural DNA, your tribe. Something that is “unnatural” for our kind is something that is alien and to be resisted.
When George Zimmerman observed Trayvon Martin (article), he felt there was something unnatural about his behavior remarking in his 911 call that Martin ““looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something“. But Zimmerman had no grasp of the Trayvon Martin’s true nature. He was a harmless kid.
Zimmerman was taking fragmentary information and completing his picture of Martin by providing missing information. This is something that is so basic to perception that we can see it happening in mollusks. Certain species of cuttlefish provide a unique opportunity to know what another animal is seeing because what they perceive is used to form camouflage patterns on their skin. When they are over a surface with square, they place squares on their back. What is interesting is that when they are placed over shapes with missing features such as a square with a corner missing, the cuttlefish will display the corrected shape. Like Zimmerman, they are able to connect the dots.
What is startling is that the neurology of the Cuttlefish enables it to take fragmentary sense data and frame fit it to an anticipated shape- a primitive Platonic form.
This behavior permeates the animal world, with adaptations specifically developed to trick the perceptions of other animals. The more successful animals are not as easily manipulated due to their more highly attuned observation. They are the ones not fooled into mistaken impressions like Iraq.
The trouble comes when society arms cuttlefish with guns.
One solution would be to not let citizens have guns because people like cuttlefish make mistakes in perception. But the Zimmerman problem pervades society. Police who are entitled to carry guns and use deadly force make the same errors, as do police chiefs and state prosecutors. Dehumanizing Zimmerman by comparing him to a mollusk is not the intent of this inquiry. As far making incorrect conclusions based on partial information, Zimmerman perceptions are common.
Our culture is technological and we celebrate the highly competent. We turn to the experts whose technique is best due to superior training tempered by years of practical experience. As we examine the nature of this tragedy, when we ask what Zimmerman lacked, the common response is better training. If only he had been through a proper neighborhood watch training program, and knew it was not permitted to carry a gun and that his job was only to observe and never pursue or intercede, then all this would never have happenned.
So how did the professionally trained personnel do with their skills of observation in the Trayvon Martin case? While it is true that Zimmerman lacked the police skills of impartial observation, the additional training of the professional police who arrived at the crime scene did not inoculate them from the biases which led them not only to make a gross misreading of the nature of event, but led them to not even gather information which would contradict the “nature” of the event as described by Zimmerman. Was greater intellectual training the solution? In this particular crime, the decision whether to investigate was quickly passed by the Sanford police chief Bill Lee to the chief law enforcement authority of the county- Florida state prosecutor Norman Wolfinger. Though Wolfinger’s training in rules of observation and evidence are considerably more refined than those of neighborhood watch and police patrol personnel, he too did not have what was necessary to start along a road that would lead to understanding the nature of what happened that night.
Training in empiricism did not lead to the first discoveries of vaccination against disease. Although the scientist Edward Jenner is credited with discovery of the principle of vaccination in his creation of the smallpox vaccine, farmers had been doing this decades before Jenner’s work. What people in dairy farming regions knew was that milkmaids were immune from smallpox. The curious individuals in Denmark, Germany and England who investigated this “strange and unnatural” anomaly discovered that the milkmaids had earlier contracted cowpox. One of these was an English farmer, Benjamin Jesty, who had an intuition there was a connection between the two. Fearing for the lives of his family members during a smallpox outbreak, he deliberately infected them with cowpox.
Jesty did not have training in the rules of empiricism, yet he got at something about the nature of smallpox. Why? It was not the rules but the spirit of empiricism that was driving him. He was curious about the unusual, and investigated it to look for correlations with other observed phenomena to gain advantage over the underlying patterns.
Like the cuttlefish, Jesty perceived an underlying pattern and used it to his advantage. Edward Jenner’s achievement is usually celebrated as a triumph of the rules of empiricism and scientific method. These powers a a formidable asset, but what should not be missed is that Jesty’s spirit of observation and inquiry were sufficient to make his family immune. When science investigates the nature of Nature, what it discovers is mechanism§. What we discover are laws. Yet applying the laws of observation do not automatically yield revelation of the nature of that which is observed. What is the missing ingredient? What is it that Jesty had?
My hypothesis is a simple corollary of the juxtaposition of spirit versus letter of law. The laws of observation are important, but a person without the passion to use them to empathize with the uniqueness of what one sees in nature is blind.
Zimmerman didn’t require further vocational training in the letter of the criminal justice skills which he was studying. He needed a change of heart so that he could understand the spirit that animates those rules that law enforcement officers are trained in.
It turns out that there were members of the Sanford police who did have the necessary spirit that Zimmerman, the police chief and the state prosecutor all lacked. They had the spirit that drove them to understand the true nature of what happened. A spirit that considered the anomalies and contradictions. The spirit of the loving embrace of Natura.
† “qualis esset natura montis” in first book of the Gaul campaign (link)
‡ C.S. Lewis’s reference to the then thousand things may be found in the chapter referenced below. Lao Tsu’s famous reference to the phrase may be found in the first aphorism of his Tao Te Ching, “the named is the mother of the ten thousand things”. It is a common phrase in Chinese literature to refer to the manifold nature and myriad forms of existence. Suchness is a reference to the Buddhist concept of Tathata. The unity of Being, aka “Tao” is obscured by rational distinctions (naming), and this is why Hindu tradition associates the multiplicity with the notion of Maya (illusion). In his book “Saving the Appearances, a study in Idolatry”, Owen Barfield describes a style of consciousness where mankind turns away from the idolatry of this illusory separation between forms and existence. He refers to as “final participation” where one’s perceptions are in harmony with an objective idealist view of nature. There is a relationship between this sort of panentheism and the Paul Tillich‘s monist ontology.
§ There are examples which contradict the traditional intent of the “mechanism metaphor” which asserts utter absence of passion. Neuroscientists such as António Damásio have experimental data suggesting that the mechanism for consciousness is tied to emotion. His somatic marker hypothesis represents a rejection of Descartes’ dualism, representing a hypothesis for the emergence of subjectivity from neurological primitives in lower animal capacities for emotion. His book “Self Comes to Mind” is an elaboration of this concept.
- the etymology of Nature, Kind and Phusis may be found in C. S. Lewis’ “Studies in Words“, chapter 2, “Nature”.
- Alain Robbe-Grillet was a scientist who turned to fiction, pioneering the “new novel” with explorations of cognitive style oriented around pure description and refined attention to the phenomenology of observation. The Voyeur was an early work, with Repetition an example of his late work. Not for everyone. Could be considered a step towards the poetic style of observation Owen Barfield referred to as “Final Participation” in his book “Saving the Appearances: A study in Idolatry”
- Cuttlefish research paper by Sara Zylinski describing the edge completion behavior (PDF) here.
- Video of Cuttlefish behavior here.