April 4, 2014

"[I]f Amoeba were a large animal, so as to come in the everyday experience of human beings, its behaviour would at once call forth the attribution to it of states of pleasure and pain..."

"... of hunger, desire, and the like, on precisely the same basis as we attribute these things to the dog," wrote Herbert Spencer Jennings in "Behavior of the Lower Organisms," quoted by Oliver Sacks, in an article titled "The Mental Life of Plants and Worms, Among Others," where I learned, that the last book Charles Darwin ever wrote was about worms, "The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms: with Observations on Their Habits."

Sacks says:
Jennings’s vision of a highly sensitive, dog-size Amoeba is almost cartoonishly the opposite of Descartes’s notion of dogs as so devoid of feelings that one could vivisect them without compunction, taking their cries as purely “reflex” reactions of a quasi-mechanical kind.

10 comments:

The Godfather said...

I think I'd like to vivisect Descartes: I'm sure I'd regard his "cries as purely 'reflex' reactions of a quasi-mechanical kind."

St. George said...

So, listen, this could be important, if you are en route to Starbase Six and encounter a humungous space amoeba....IT MIGHT BE READY TO REPRODUCE AND DEVOUR THE UNIVERSE. You must not fly into the amoeba, unless you are trained country doctor. Instead, fire an antimatter bomb into the squishy thing. Give it a seven minute delay, so you can book the hell out of there at warp speed. Got that?

El Camino Real said...

How about a really huge ? Space Amoeba

khesanh0802 said...

I would love to know how you got to this article. It had to be intellectual curiosity to the Nth degree - or Meade was studying up on composting!

YoungHegelian said...

Jennings’s vision of a highly sensitive, dog-size Amoeba is almost cartoonishly the opposite of Descartes’s notion of dogs as so devoid of feelings that one could vivisect them without compunction, taking their cries as purely “reflex” reactions of a quasi-mechanical kind.

I'm afraid it's not just the poor dogs getting the knife here. Go read Descartes' The Passions of the Soul. I'm not so sure that Descartes didn't see human cries as "'reflex' reactions of a quasi-mechanical kind" as well. However Descartes saw Mind as somehow outside the chain of physical causes, he was, at least in his later thought, a fairly thorough determinist when it came to bodies, including biological ones.

averagejoe said...

Putin looked through the microscope, made a dismissive sound through his teeth, turned to Bush and said, "You call that an amoeba?"

Ann Althouse said...

"I would love to know how you got to this article. It had to be intellectual curiosity to the Nth degree - or Meade was studying up on composting!"

Nope. It was email from the NYRB and a love for Oliver Sacks that goes back to the 1980s.

Richard Dolan said...

Articles like this are why I have kept up the subscription to NYRB. It would be difficult to give a political twist to a Sacksian meander through the world of neurons, from worms to humans and back again. Fortunately, it's unlikely that anyone at NYRB has tried.

The title of his piece, The Mental Life of Plants and Worms, Among Others, is intriguing. But it suggests that he is going to end up in the same place as Damasio and so many others, with some version of the mereological fallacy, looking at neurons and the relative complexity of their organization from species to species in an effort to explain 'mental life.' That's a reductive exercise that inevitably ends up with a version of the 'little man' (little worm?) hidden away somewhere in the brain. Those reductive explanations are useful in simplifing complex matters but, in the process of simplification, often leave often essential aspects of what they're trying to explain.

But perhaps when I get around to reading his article, it will turn out differently.

rhhardin said...

Dogs have an edge in that they talk.

St. George said...

I think some of them giant amoebas were at the 1967 Dead show filmed for the movie Petulia.