Jonah: I’m Jonah Chester.
Clay: I’m Clay Catlin, and you’re listening to Animal/Human.
Jonah: This show is a production of IU’s College of Arts and Sciences and a proud part of the 2018 Themester.
Clay: Each episode, we talk with a different IU researcher to examine where we, as humans, belong in the animal kingdom.
Jonah: We also examine the interactions of humans and animals in art, literature and science. In this episode, Clay talks with Dr. Professor Barker Barker. Dr. Barker is a professor in the folklore department here at IU.
Clay: He researches the myths and humanlike characteristics that evolve around animals in folk cultures. How do these characters and understandings influence our interaction with these animals?
Jonah: His class, The Science of Animal Folklore, this semester will discuss just that question. He also looks at what humans use to separate ourselves from animals, as well as how we make animals more human like. He’s managed to encapsulate his research, for the most part, into the question; “Would it be possible for animals to study humans scientifically?”
Clay: All right. So, today we’re joined with Professor Barker Barker whos a folklore professor here at IU. Thanks for coming on.
Professor Barker: Thanks for having me, excited to be here.
Clay: So my first question for you is: how is your work in the field of folklore related to this year’s Themester theme?
Professor Barker: Right, so the theme is Animal/Human and it turns out one of the really good ways to think about what folklore is, is folklore assists people in getting about in their day-to-day lives or it governs the way we get about in our day-to-day lives. I think I can elaborate on some of that. So, how do you dress when you get up in the morning, you know? Which clothes do you wear for which particular event that you're going to go to that day? What do you eat for breakfast? What do you eat for lunch? When do you eat breakfast? When do you eat lunch? How do you speak around certain people? How do you not speak around others?
All of these things are governed by cultural traditions. There are certain things that show up throughout the different, what we call, genres of folklore. So a lot of times, here's an ironic word, traditionally people will think of folklore as the stories that people tell. Well let's just consider the genres of stories that people tell. People tell myths, these are the stories that we tell that help us understand the way the world was created or what's going to happen to us after we die. People tell legends, this is how we understand our historical past, maybe how we understand certain supernatural phenomena. People tell folktales or fairy tales, these are stories that we known are fiction and we just tell those stories in order to create a fun, exciting, fictitious experience.
Okay, the interesting thing about animals is that animals is one of those topics not unlike food, not unlike god, not unlike clothes, that shows up in all the different genres of folklore. And it's probably because our lives are filled up with interacting with animals. And it's sort of like, this is almost a cliche to say in historical studies and social sciences, that animals are good to think with, famously attribute to this structuralist social scientist named Claude Levi-Strauss, but it's quite true. People do think a lot about animals and a lot of times we use animals to think about ourselves, to think about the people around us. So the two are like married together from the get go.
Clay: Great, so it's almost like people are able to use animals to reflect on themselves a little bit.
Professor Barker: Its absolutely like that, people are able to use animals to reflect upon themselves, but not just themselves individually but also themselves as where they stand in culture or themselves as maybe like what they would like to be. For example I might ask you, would you rather be a lion or an ant?
Clay: Right and the answer is… well this is actually a hard one. Definitely the lion, I got to do the generic answer.
Professor Barker: Okay, lion and what would maybe the generic reasons for that be?
Clay: The ant, it sounds pretty unpleasant like sort of the overcrowding of it, that's my main thing. That's my main concern. And you're also pretty low, well I guess with ants you'd be really high on the insect food chain but on the general food chain you're pretty low.
Professor Barker: Right, right and then the lion conversely is the king of the jungle! The lion is majestic, the lion is powerful. Ok, so already were getting right to one of the core topics that I’m sure we’ll be talking for the next hour and that is that we anthropomorphize almost everything that we look at. So we project our particular condition--that is the condition of being a part of the human species on this planet--onto almost everything we see and touch and feel and we measure everything we see and touch and feel and interact with in these very human ways. And wow, do we do that to animals. So, your answer, which by the way which I think is a very good answer and the correct answer.
Clay: Thank you.
Professor Barker: So imagine what just happened right there, you just said, “I don't think I’d want to be the ant because wow overcrowding.” I agree with that, but when we say overcrowding right there automatically we think of being overcrowded in this very human way.
Clay: As a human not as an ant.
Professor Barker: What would it feel like to be maybe in one of those smaller classrooms where you've got forty students shoved into a small classroom and you're shoulder to shoulder, that but even worse would be like what it would be like to be an ant. So were automatically, no matter what we do, starting from this position of anthropomorphism.
Clay: Ok, that's really interesting! This next questions is going to get into more of the specifics of that. So your upcoming class The Science of Animal Folklore deals with animal folklore and the human characteristics that animals take on within folk stories and understandings. Of all the human personalities given to animals across cultures that you study, what are you most excited to talk about in this class?
Professor Barker: This is a really good question, I have a couple of answers but let me start with this one: one of my favorite things to think about I think in culture these are often referred to as shapeshifters. So animals that are part animal and part human. So, based upon what we were just saying about anthropomorphism, any time an animal shows up in human culture one of the things that this class suggests is that they are always already part animal and part human because we’re thinking about them. And when we start to think about them were going to, by our very intellectual instincts, start to anthropomorphize them.
So let's think about what are the famous shapeshifters of folklore. We might think of the werewolf, this is a very scary shapeshifter. What does it mean to be a human who can follow the rules of the conduct, dare I say the folkloric rules of conduct, during the day, one of the key folkloric rules being you don't eat the person sitting next to you, however by night suddenly the animal instinct or the animal inside of us, which is another key idea that I want to keep going back to it isn't just animals that are part humans it's always also humans that are partly animals especially maybe since Darwin in the 19th, 20th, and here into the 21st century. And that has a lot to do with the science part of the class which I’ll talk about in just a second. So, I’m super interested in shapeshifters. So of course humans are going to tell stories about, be interested in, have folklore about animals that are part animal or part human. And we’ll be reading one particular folktale which, I wont summarize the whole thing right here, but its a really famous fairytale called "Hans my Hedgehog," in which a family wants a child but is cursed and gives birth to a child that is part hedgehog and part human.
So then the issue, the central issue, of this tale is: what would parents do if they had a child that was literally part hedgehog, part human? We think of caring for our children as one of those core, universal human tendencies: we have a child and we love our child. There's an African proverb that says: the mother nevers feels the weight of her own child. No matter how hard it is to love our child, we don't feel how hard it is. Its instinctual for us to love our children.
Ahh, but now we have the animal question! What if our child were literally part hedgehog--which by the way creates all kinds of problems with the quills and the scary features--and part human. And in the end, the hedgehog in most versions of the tale does end up being loved by the parents but its after a long road and after many trials and tribulations and also after the hedgehog turning completely human. So it's almost needing to be more human than animal when we end up loving our own child. So shapeshifters, and we’ll talk in this class about werewolves, and well talk about "Hans my Hedgehog" and we’ll talk about the Frog Prince and other examples of shapeshifters and that's very, very interesting to me.
Clay: Right, and that's so interesting because the werewolf example it really shows our expectations or ourselves that we've put onto animals cause, you know, the werewolves are turning into wolves that's something that we consider to be very savage and predatory, you’re able to eat people and terrorize people. But the same couldn't be said about, there's no stories about turning into like a duck or something at night because the duck, you know, I guess in our folklore, would be a very serene animal that just floats around, so it's interesting because even then we’re seeing the expectation we’ve set for these animals.
Professor Barker: Absolutely, so and just to put a little bit of a finer point on what you just said, and it's a really good point, it’s that if the werewolf were anything other than a werewolf it wouldn't be this supernatural, legendary character that's meant to scare people. For example in South Louisiana the werewolf takes on a character thats, from French loup garou in South Louisiana they often pronounce it Rougaru. The Rougarou is punished and turned into a werewolf or Rougarou in South Louisiana because a catholic has misbehaved, maybe they've broken a lenten penance or maybe they've eaten meat on Friday during Lent or maybe they haven't been going to mass to take holy communion every sunday. So it's a kind of punishment to become this animal, not only a kind of punishment but an evil, malicious, scary, haunting sort of punishment.
Take another example of like the Frog Prince. So this is a prince that is shapeshifted and is disguided to the human, to the princess, as a frog. In this instance it isn't the horror of some macabre, horror-flick style gore that were worried about. The frog isn't going to eat you like the wolf will, but do you want to kiss a frog? Do we really want to be romantically attracted to a frog. So the two different animals serve very specific purposes those purposes make sense in very human ways
Clay: Ah, interesting, interesting. So that sort of goes into this next point which is: is there animal that you have studied that you feel gets a bad wrap within folklore like some animal that is undeserving of a bad reputation that we’ve given it.
Professor Barker: Yeah, this is a really kind of fun question because you know I think this question comes up a lot and a lot of times when social scientists get this question some of their first, some of the obvious answers are: well serpents get a pretty bad wrap in Western culture. And of course we can maybe point towards some of the books of the early Judeo-Christian bible as the reason why serpents get a bad wrap. Another one is well spiders you know, spiders really get a bad wrap in mythology and folklore. But it's interesting because, for me personally, because I am a little skittish around snakes and spiders the actual creatures. So yeah, I can see how the snake, the serpent maybe shouldn't be to blame for all of humanity’s flaws in the context of sin however I don't really want to be around them. So that's a great question in that way.
So are any of the trickster figures getting a bad wrap? So we think of the fox, in many Native American traditions we think of the coyote, and we also think in African American and Southern, Southeastern Native traditions of the rabbit being a kind of trickster. So, ok first what is a trickster in this human sense? So this is one of the things this class is about. First we’re going to think about it just in the context of humans so as not to anthropomorphize, and one good way not to anthropomorphize is to be actually thinking about a human. So ok, what is a trickster? Well, a trickster is someone who is conniving, who sees two or three steps ahead of logical outcomes and then manipulates an individual so that the individual gets tricked or doesn't recognize what the outcome is going to be before the outcome actually happens.
Clay: Right, you're using a higher intellect for doing something malicious as opposed to something productive.
Professor Barker: So I have said that animals are good to think with. So you might think, okay the trickster, what do we get, humans, out of projecting the trickster onto particular animals, in given cultures they're different animals whether its a fox, whether its a coyote, whether its a rabbit. Well we get to project it onto something that isn't a human. So we can label the trickster as someone to worried about, but at the same time we don't have to label Clay or we don't have to label Professor Barker, which is much more high stakes in the context of human culture.
Clay: Oh so it's a sort of like, I mean to bring up another animal, a sort of a scapegoat?
Professor Barker: Absolutely, yes! It took me two seconds to catch that. Nice, absolutely. So why do we do this? Well, it's safe culturally but also these things are emergent. Remember, it's also true that the coyote will make it into the henhouse, the rabbit will get into your garden and eat your radishes. There are these negative outcomes that we can directly point to as really real things. So maybe the rabbit is tricky.
The other side to this class though, the science of animal folklore, gets into whether or not animals ever really think in those kinds of ways as we do when we’re thinking of a trickster. The poor little rabbit is just trying to find something to eat. He's working what he's got, you know what I mean? The bodily features he has, the mental structures and abilities he has, and he makes it into the garden and he eats the radishes. Whether or not he is thinking of the gardener and tricking the gardener, well that's less likely. And so, almost all tricksters get a bad wrap in that sense. You're kind of just doing what you are, you're being what you are, you’re existing as you are and humans exist as we are whenever we tell stories about animals. It is a part of who we are as a species, what our mental abilities are, and the way we behave in the world. The rabbit is just the rabbit and one of the things the rabbit is going to do is get in and steal your radishes.
Clay: Alright ok, so changing gears to another side of what you're doing for Themester, this fall as part of Themester 2018 you're presenting a public theatrical lecture Confessions of a Monkey MInd Doctor, that you co wrote with comparative psychologist Daniel Povinelli. Can you tell us a little bit about the show?
Professor Barker: Yeah absolutely, so we are very excited about the show and very thankful to Themester. We’ve recently partnered with Ivy Tech Community College and so the show is actually going to take place at the Waldron Center downtown in Bloomington. And it's going to be the last week of November and I’m going to say the 28th and the 29th I believe. And so yeah, so this is how this came together, so I said that animals are good to think with. Well, since the advent of modern psychology, scientists have been interested in studying animals as a way to do several things whenever it comes to understanding the world more generally but one of the things scientists have been interested in studying animals about is as a way to understand humans. So if we can understand what the difference between for example a chimpanzee and a human is that not only teaches us something about the chimpanzee but maybe it teaches us something about the uniqueness of what it means to be human.
This is a very interesting question to understand all these kinds of studies that were taken place in the context of evolution, in the context of evolutionary biology, in the context of evolutionary psychology. And so in this sort of drive to understand animals and humans alongside one another as a way to understand the way our mind works, human minds work, it turns out there's some really interesting things that have happened. So one of those things is that certain folkloric traditions from culture have made their way into the laboratory. And I’ll give you a couple of brief examples: there were some scientists recently who did some studies on particular gestural activities to test whether or not orangutans could play charades. Ok, well charades is a folk game, isn't that very interesting? We’re going to take this folk game in this objective scientific space and use that as our target to judge mentality of these orangutans.
Another one is, recently we realized that crows could be trained in order to drop stones into a beaker filled with water and a reward, usually a worm I think, floating on top of the water and once the stones are dropped in the water, the worm comes closer and eventually the crow gets to eat the worm. Well, you may recognize this as Aesop’s "The Crow and the Pitcher" in which a thirsty crow comes to the pitcher, can't knock the pitcher over, his beak isn't long enough to get down to the pitcher, so the thirsty crow picks up rocks and drops them in the water, therefore displacing the water, and drinks the water and is no longer thirsty. This is in the fable. But this scientists have taken the fable to the laboratory and in a sense proved it true? And i’m doing air quotes here but whatever we mean by true in that sense.
Ok, so without getting into the waters of the technicalities of whether or not the crow has insight to understand water displacement, I’ll leave that to, you know, the scientists. As someone who studies culture, wow, here's two different cultural arenas: a folkloric arena and also a literary arena. So it was folkloric in the time of Aesop, who really wasn't one individual, this is just folklore around the time of Aesop and then it has a long literary tradition of course these Aesop’s fables do. And then also now in 21st century science, the exact same idea, which is very clearly starting in human’s minds, has made its way onto how we think with, through, and about crows. That's fascinating to me.
My colleague, Daniel Povinelli, first told me about this and Danny has spent thirty years studying chimpanzees and one of the things that's happened in the last several decades is that there's been kind of a turn in which it seems as though much work in comparative psychology is pointing towards the idea that humans are more like animals, or animals are more like humans you might say, than different. And this is the type of thing I was talking about with the headlines. So, did you know crows are smarter than your 5 year old daughter because of some these experiments? And did you know elephants worship their dead? OK, these are fascinating topics in this cultural context for me. I’m like wow, why has the pendulum swung?
Danny is interesting in that his work in science has really worked to prove something quite different than maybe, of course animals have cognition, cognitive processes that are complex, they think, they communicate, they get about in the world, however Danny wants to maintain that we don’t have any hard proof that they get about in the world or that their cognitive processes work in the same ways that humans do. Let me give you a specific example of an experiment of his, you can take two towels and the chimpanzee loves the apple. You take the towels and you lay them on the other side of a plexiglass wall and of course they love the apple because its sweet, its fruit, its sugar, all those kinds of reasons that the chimpanzee would want to eat the apple. So, seeing the reward on the other side of the plexiglass the only thing that is within reach is it the tip of the towel. The tip of the towel that’s laying on the floor, and on the opposite end of the tip of the towel that the chimpanzee can reach are two apples. One apple is resting on top of the towel, one apple is resting beside but not touching the towel. In this instance, the chimpanzee will, much greater than chance, pull the towel that has the apple resting on top of it. However, if you change the situation just a little bit and you take one apple and set it on top of the towel and one apple besides the towel but also touching the towel the chimpanzee will pull at almost chance. So, Danny Povinelli takes this as a suggestion to say that: yes the chimpanzee wants the apple, yes the chimpanzee knows that in certain conditions it should pull this one or that one. What’s absent here he suggest in this case, what's absent is this higher order understanding of weight. And if you think about this we do have a very complex and higher order understanding of weight and by higher order I mean across different perceptual experiences. So, when you hold a cup, a glass, a heavy glass mug, or a light plastic cup. You have a sensation of feeling the weight and they're different. And then, if those two things were flying at your face you would know to dodge?
Clay: The mug?
Professor Barker: The mug! And get hit with the plastic cup. Ok, so exactly and the reason you passed is because well you're human and humans are really good at that. It's unclear whether or not chimpanzees have that kind of robust understanding of weight. Ok, so then we take all these questions and we put them together into Confessions of a Former Monkey Mind Doctor and this is a story that is very, very, very loosely based upon Danny’s thirty years in comparative psychology and it makes us ask this question: what would happen if you spent your entire life scientifically, rigorously trying to answer what is the difference between humans and animals? And what you found when you got there, when you spent thirty years studying this, what you found what you think you found is ambiguity, we just can't know. No chimpanzee, I’m sorry I can't tell you that you are like humans because we don’t have proof you are like humans. Humans, you are very complex you have some things that were quite certain the chimpanzee doesn't have but you're also animallike in some very interesting ways too. On top of that, it's hard for us to know when were acting because of our animal side or our human side, kind of brings us back to Hans the Hedgehog and the Werewolf, doesn't it?
And so the play itself is, its a theatrical lecture we called it, and what it really is is a former chimpanzee psychologist and a chimpanzee. So, Doctor Fomomindo and the chimpanzee is Mojo and it just turns out that the chimpanzee you know talks and dances. So what if this chimpanzee could have ranging conversations with its former monkey mind doctor?
Clay: Interesting, interesting. Great, and with this theatrical lecture you briefly mentioned, first of all could you explain a little bit more what a theatrical lecture is and what are the advantages that made you think this is how we should format this thing that we’re trying to say?
Professor Barker: So, Confessions of a Former Monkey Mind Doctor was an idea that Danny had been playing with a long time because, as he said he sort of works differently than some of his colleagues in comparative psychology and cognitive science in that he often works to find those things, the space, the activities, in which the animal cant succeed in the way a human can. So he's looking for difference as much as he's looking at similarity. Well it turns out that's sometimes not a very popular stance to take, you can imagine trying to tell someone who loves their dog that their dog maybe isn't as human as you think your dog is. By the way, just as an aside this doesn’t mean that there aren't great reasons to love the dog, this doesn't mean that the dogs isn't really, really, smart which dogs or course are.
Clay: Yeah cause it's kind of like the whole thing that if this thing doesn't love me it's not worth it, you know I mean like.
Professor Barker: Very good, can the dog ever love you in the way that a human loves you? Thats where… its very tough… we dont have… maybe not. Can the dog love you in the way that dogs love? Absolutely! And that's great and I think that enriches human life and the dog’s life too. But once you really get down to some philosophical core, its very difficult to say whether or not the dog loves us in the way our fellow humans love us.
Ok! So, because that's such a difficult idea to communicate we began to say maybe the old fashioned lecture, maybe the old fashioned article in a journal isn't the right venue for trying to communicate what we’re trying to say here. So we came up with the idea what if we have a scientist who is speaking outside of these normal, discursive spaces, spaces of conversation; a textbook, a lecture, a journal article and it was more of a confession. So, imagine what happens once a human starts confessing to another and of course there's all kind of religious implications and legal implications and those things do play a role in this particular lecture. So, we wanted to change the venue so that we could talk to people in a different kind of space because being radical, for example about the ideas we have about the difference or the similarities between animal and humans, is much safer in this theatrical space. So we intend it to be a lecture in that the audience coming away from it we hope will think more rigorously and also maybe more excitingly about the similarities and differences between humans and animals but we also intend it to be theatrical in that it's going to be in a theatre, it’s going to have a full lighting plot, it's going to have all the accoutrements of theatre but at times it's going to at times become quite lecture-like. So it's almost this intersection of education and entertainment
Clay: Right, and that totally brings me back to what you were saying earlier, like the whole thing about, “does my dog love me like I love it.” Where, in that case, and as much as this might make dog lovers mad which I’m not trying obviously dogs are great, but even thinking, “does this dog love me the same way I do”, is this same way of probably unrealistically putting our feelings our personalities onto other animals when it should be enough for our dog to see us however it sees us.
Professor Barker: Right, exactly it should be enough just be enough for that. But then its an open ended question whether or not that's enough. It's really difficult to know if that was it, if we all went around thinking that our cats and dogs, by the way I love cats and dogs too. I hope it doesn't sound like I’m standing above the fray, I anthropomorphize my animals, including my betta fish, all the time, “aww he's coming towards me because he loves me,” and that's just the way we operate with animals. But objective, expository science should do its best to not fall into those sorts of anthropomorphic pitfalls. So the question is, if you pushed yourself to the edge of expository science, the point at which you were never going to allow in any kind of fuzzy distinction, never going to allow in any kind of anthropomorphic tendency, then could the animal and human still love each other in ways that are appropriate, in ways that are fulfilling, in ways that are beneficial for both. That's a much different question, that's a much different question. That's sort of what the Confession gets into, what the show gets into
Clay: Alright, yeah I’m looking forward to seeing that definitely. Well thank you so much for joining us today, this has been a super fascinating time.
Professor Barker: Thank you! I appreciate it, this was a lot of fun
Jonah: This show is a project of the Indiana University College of Arts and Sciences Themester.
Clay: Our thanks to Dr. Barker for providing his insight for this episode. His class for the semester is The Science of Animal Folklore. His theatrical lecture--“Confessions of a Former Monkey Mind Doctor” will be put on this November at the Waldron Center, November 28th and 29th at 7:30. Admission is free.Listeners interested in knowing more about that program can visit the Themester website for more information.
Jonah: Editing, hosting, and mixing for this episode was done by Clay.
Clay: Next time, Jonah talks with professor Ivan Kreilkamp, who looks at the portrayal of animals in Victorian literature and how said portrayal helped shape our modern impressions of animals.
Jonah: He also discusses how the earliest roots of the animal rights movement are reflected in this literature.
Clay: Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next time.