in Geekiness

On Animals and Ego

Sparky called me tonight.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“I’m playing Civ4,” I said. “It’s great. I’m addicted.”

“Your iChat says you’re ‘writing about money’,” he said.

“Well, I’m not. I’m procrastinating writing about money. I’ll write about money later. Right now I’m conquering the world.”

“I need you to read something I’ve written,” said Sparky. “Hang up and go to iChat.”

And so I did.

I don’t know about you, but I find this story amusing on many, many levels.

Meanwhile, upstairs Kris was watching The Music Man on videotape. Since we connected the VCR to the television, she’s used it several times to watch films we don’t have on DVD. This time, though, she wasn’t just watching — she was singing along, sometimes loudly.

Meanwhile Sparky and I chatted. We discussed socially responsible investing. And then, after an hour, our conversation evolved into something more philosophical:

5:27:50 PM radiofreewog: I can’t let my ego control my behavior
5:28:05 PM jdroth: ?
5:28:07 PM jdroth: Ego is all there is.
5:28:13 PM jdroth: 🙂
5:28:27 PM radiofreewog: hmmm
5:28:42 PM radiofreewog: getting beyond ego is all there is
5:29:40 PM jdroth: “getting beyond ego” is just ego.
5:29:51 PM radiofreewog: no
5:30:01 PM radiofreewog: beyond ego is selflessness
5:30:27 PM jdroth: Selflessness is just another form of selfishness.
5:30:52 PM radiofreewog: i don’t agree
5:31:03 PM jdroth: (I don’t really agree, either. I’m just stirring the pot.)
5:31:25 PM radiofreewog: there is not pot to stir, JDsan
5:31:27 PM jdroth: (But I think it’s impossible to act without ego. Minimize, maybe. But impossible to “go beyond ego”.)
5:31:38 PM radiofreewog: not impossible
5:31:42 PM radiofreewog: difficult
5:31:49 PM radiofreewog: very difficult

This is an interesting concept, and one on which Paul and I are not likely ever to agree. He has spent the last several years looking inward, striving for a sort of spiritual realize through selflessness. He and Susan spent a week (ten days?) at a silent retreat as part of this quest. It’s an admirable thing on many levels, but I’m not ready to agree that it’s possible for any human being to achieve selflessness. I really do believe that selfishness is at the core of our interest. (Though perhaps I’m defining selfishness in a way that most people would classify as “self-interest”.) The conversation continued:

5:33:44 PM radiofreewog: it is your reaction to the entry of ego that defines selflessness
5:33:57 PM radiofreewog: complete slavery to ego is the American way
5:34:32 PM radiofreewog: there are those that do not react to the ego entering the mind and control their actions rationally
5:34:49 PM jdroth: But what is “rationally”?
5:34:50 PM radiofreewog: they experience nirvana
5:34:56 PM jdroth: How is that defined?
5:35:01 PM jdroth: Who is to say what is rational?
5:35:07 PM jdroth: And why is acting egotistically bad?
5:35:26 PM jdroth: If we didn’t act in our own self-interest, we’d still be living in the trees.
[Note to weblog readers: this is a subtle joke for my own sake. In a book group years ago, some of us were decrying the role of religion in society. Jeremy, in a typical Jeremy moment, threw up his arms and cried, “Fine! Get rid of the Bible! Get rid of religion! We’ll all be living in the trees again!” This is shorthand to myself that I think of “getting rid of ego” in the same way that Jeremy tought of “getting rid of religion”.]
5:35:35 PM jdroth: ALL animals act in their own self-interest.
5:35:38 PM radiofreewog: ego keeps you from being successful
5:35:47 PM jdroth: Come to think of it, all living things of any sort do.
5:35:52 PM radiofreewog: we are not “animals”
5:35:57 PM jdroth: I’d argue that ego is the only thing that makes you succesful.
5:36:01 PM jdroth: We most certainly are!
5:36:18 PM radiofreewog: biologically true
5:36:28 PM jdroth: And rationally. 🙂
5:36:30 PM radiofreewog: psychologically
5:36:38 PM radiofreewog: not true
5:36:53 PM jdroth: What do you mean by psychologically not true?
5:37:16 PM radiofreewog: i am a different psychological animal than the dog

And here, of course, we reach a topic near and dear to my heart: animal intelligence. I find it curious that so many people elevate humans so far beyond other animals. I can understand when this is argued from a religious perspective. There’s a logic behind that. (Whether I agree with the logic is another matter, but at least I recognize that the belief has a source.) But if, as in Paul’s case, you’re essentially an atheist and an evolutionist, then I believe it’s quite clear that from fish to dog to human is simply a matter of degrees. If we don’t perceive the emotional needs of chickens or moose, it’s simply because we’re approaching them from a human-centered universe. (If you want selflessness, move beyond that viewpoint!)

5:38:27 PM radiofreewog: dog = maslows lowest level of needs
5:38:41 PM radiofreewog: no higher
5:38:44 PM jdroth: You don’t think a dog needs to be self-actualized?
5:38:53 PM jdroth: (Maslow.)
5:39:42 PM jdroth: I guarantee that most animals need love/belonging (level 3)
5:39:43 PM radiofreewog: a dog does not self actualize
5:39:53 PM radiofreewog: only for DNA purposes
5:39:55 PM jdroth: I know that some animals need esteem (level 4)
5:40:10 PM radiofreewog: how?
5:40:26 PM jdroth: You’re being remarkably anthro-centric, especially for Paul! (Who I don’t think of in this regard.)
5:40:32 PM radiofreewog: love and belonging are correlated with food and protection
5:40:57 PM jdroth: ?
5:41:17 PM jdroth: If you’re going to say that particular level doesn’t apply to animals, then why does it apply to humans?
5:41:36 PM radiofreewog: because we are different
5:41:40 PM radiofreewog: HA!
5:41:42 PM radiofreewog: I win

I’ll grant that I don’t have any immediate specific examples of a cat expressing creativity or confidence or desiring respect. (All of these would be examples of Maslow’s fourth level.) Or do I? Who is to say what Simon thinks and feels. Yes, I believe it’s a mistake to project our own attitudes onto animals. But as I wrote elsewhere recently, I think that’s a mistake that’s less likely to be made than to ignore the possible mental states of animals completely. Just because we don’t understand them, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

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  1. desiring respect?

    What’s that hummmpfff sound my cat makes through her nose when we don’t do what she wants?

    The way I figure it might be worthwile utilizing some of the constructs we have for analyzing animal behavior on people. At the very least we can get all excited about it and encourage people to throw creme pies at E.O. Wilson.

  2. I don’t think Maslow was thinking about animals at all, and he also did stipulate that many humans don’t get beyond level 3 anyway: many never self-actualize nor even know that there is any life beyond level 3.

    That being said, a few of my friends are on the cover of Civ1 CD. (they got the gig to be photographed).

  3. J.D. Roth wrote:

    “It’s an admirable thing on many levels, but I’m not ready to agree that it’s possible for any human being to achieve selflessness.”

    Many people believe that it has been done and was best exemplified by people with names like, Ghandi, Buddha, Jesus, etc.