Tag Archives: empathy

How we Relate to Animals

So…last month I explored progress with stem cells. I plan to return to the futuristic medicine topic again soon, but this month I decided to talk about animals.

We have three dogs: a golden retriever and two border collies. The border collies are wicked smart. I’m pretty sure that across some narrow bands they are smarter than we are. For example, they can manipulate us into behaving the way they want pretty effectively – they’re herding dogs, after all. Sometimes they’ll get us all gathered together before we even realize it. Other times we know, but they still manipulate us into doing what they want. They have to vary their techniques regularly to keep succeeding. I am a hundred percent confident that smarts, feelings, and sometimes a big chunk of creativity goes into their behaviors. Continue reading How we Relate to Animals

Genre and gender

One of the things that interests me most about the genre fiction community is its politics of race, sex and gender. While only a fool would call it a utopia of enlightened equality (far from it), I’ve long suspected that the frequent flarings-up around these sorts of issues are actually a sign of subcultural health; to make a brief comparison with one of my other favourite cultural spheres, to even attempt to discuss the objectification of women or the undercurrents of homophobia in rock and metal music is an exercise in futility that does little more than remind you of the sheer extent of the problems you’re trying to address*.

I suspect that genre’s status as a comparatively safe harbour for alternative politics is due at least in part to the fact that it’s always been a group that identified as non-mainstream (which brings certain counter-compensatory problems with it, but that’s a discussion for another time). Another important component is that genre fiction itself provides a toolkit for creating thought experiments where alternative politics can be played out, and Kyle Munkittrick of Discover‘s Science Not Fiction blog has come to a similar conclusion with respect to sex, gender and sexuality:

Sci-fi sex is fun to talk about, of course, but how can all of that help us understand the actual future of humanity? Simply put: we imagine what we hope to see. So the question is: what is it we imagine and hope for? An utter free-for-all of alien-cyborg-A.I. bacchanalia? I don’t think so. Instead, sci-fi is teaching the diversity of our own human sexuality back to us.

It’s an interesting piece, though I think it could be accused of taking the most optimistic reading possible of the genre as a whole, and of individual texts. Munkittrick sees The Fifth Element‘s Ruby Rhod as “perfectly and outrageously androgynous”, for example, while the same character crops up at io9 in a top ten list of embarrassingly terrible racial stereotypes; the reader’s perspective holds primacy in their own world, and for every player who finds playing a female character in a computer game enlightening for its ability to let them empathise with an unfamiliar sexuality, I suspect there’s rather more than one that does it because they simply like watching a pixellated female form more than a male one.

But Munkittrick’s underlying point is very valid, I think; by setting itself in worlds different to the one of our daily experience, non-mimetic media – especially science fiction, but by no means exclusively – gives artists a chance to sneak issues of gender and sexuality “under the wire” to an audience that might well baulk at the same ideas presented in a more everyday context. The battle for understanding and empathy is far from won – in the genre community and the wider world alike – but genre remains an important theatre for it, and that’s something to be proud of, I think.

[ * The persistent misogyny, homophobia and playground-grade discourse of mainstream metal may well explain my continued drift toward its fringes. That, and the fact that I get bored easily. ]

Neuroscience soldiers

modern soldiersNothing says “futuristic” quite like new tools and techniques of warfare, which probably says something rather sad about our socio-cultural mindsets. Nonetheless, there’s no ignoring the fact that technological advances are changing the state (and nature) of the battlefield more quickly than ever before, meaning that military organisations the world over are looking for any possible way to get a jump on the other side.

Enter the US National Academies of Science, who were hired by the US military to assess the neuroscientific investment paths that would provide the best bang for their buck. It’s not about bigger guns and better armour any more, though; the soldiers themselves are the latest subject for improvement, be it by careful recruitment selection or wetware upgrades, or both.

Genetic testing might also enable recruitment officers to determine which soldiers are best for specialist jobs. For example, by combining psychological testing with genetic tests for levels of brain chemicals, a clearer picture of a soldier’s competencies might shine through. “We might say that given this person’s high levels of brain serotonin, they’re going to be calmer under pressure, so they might make a good sniper,” says Paul Zak of Claremont Graduate University in California, who was on the NAS panel. Alternatively, someone with low dopamine might be less likely to take risks, he says, and therefore be better suited as a commanding officer in a civilian area.


Zak emphasises that the panel was not asked how to turn soldiers into better “killing machines”, although “the whole purpose of maximising and sustaining battlefield capacity is to gain superiority over opponents”, admits Floyd Bloom of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, who chaired the panel.

That’s not to say someone won’t try it, though. Zak’s own work focuses on the role of the hormone oxytocin in trust and empathy. If drugs were developed to block oxytocin, the effect might be to reduce a soldier’s ability to empathise with enemy combatants or civilians.

“There are lots of stories of soldiers who refuse to shoot other soldiers,” says Zak. “If you could get rid of that empathy response you might create a soldier that’s more prepared to engage in battle and risk their life.”

Um… OK. The practical benefits are obvious enough, I suppose, and if you can justify war itself I dare say you’ll not struggle to justify chemically adjusting your soldiers to be less bothered about the risk of bleeding their life out on some sand dune somewhere.

But research into easy ways to suppress empathy has worrying implications beyond the military sphere. After all, haven’t we just seen first hand what happens when people with a low empathy quotient are given control of the financial instruments that span the globe? Sure, they’re efficient and ruthless – but that’s a double-edged sword, right there. [via Scumlord Warren Ellis; image by Soldiers Media Center]

To be honest, I’d blame our erratic sense of empathy for most of the problems the world suffers currently… and while I suppose that research into oxytocin levels would inevitably throw up ways to boost empathy, that’s never going to be as financially or militarily appealing as the opposite. And of course, one must remember that the street always finds its own use for things…