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Non-Fictional Prose and the Reality of All Creatures

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          Throughout this course, we have explored the difficulties of categorizing literature as fiction or non-fiction. Because all literature is bound to be biased and because categorization as “non-fiction” implies truthfulness and factuality, no work of literature can be categorized as “non-fiction” with any definitiveness. My understanding of this problem is that all literature falls on a spectrum ranging from an unattainable complete truth to completely false. However, even completely “fictional” tales may contain some form of truth in the form of a moral or feeling conveyed in the text. The goal of any writer seeking to produce an account with as much factuality as possible should therefore be to come as close as possible on this spectrum to complete truth and allow the reader to interpret the truthfulness of the text.


           We have also found that fictionalizing of works deemed non-fiction by the author may come in various forms. We read “Fun Home” and asked ourselves if we could really accept the author’s account of her childhood as factual—and perhaps if the factuality of her account really matters. We watched documentaries which attempt to convey the truth about an experience and asked ourselves how not only the fallible memory can skew documentary but also how filmmakers can misrepresent reality through editing footage. We evaluated a graphic representation of the 9/11 Commission Report as well as the ethnographic “Path to Paradise” and questioned the ethical implications of creating a representation of events in order to inform readers about an important subject. “Call of Stories” taught us that even fictional stories contain an element of truth and even utility in explaining human behavior and feeling. And to what degree should we trust an attempt at non-fiction? Carl Sagan taught us to be skeptical of all stories, both fiction and non-fiction. Though Sagan makes a case for the truthfulness of science, in reading “The Demon Haunted World” I came to the realization that even scientific writing is inevitably biased and thus must be subject to this same skepticism.

Through reading these texts, I realized the value of David Shields’ claims in “Reality Hunger.” He asks: “What is a fact? What is a lie, for that matter?” (Shields 45). Shields finds that all attempts at writing the complete truth are flawed because “reality takes shape in memory alone” and “anything processed by memory is fiction” (Shields 56-57). How well a piece of literature represents “reality,” rather than how factually accurate it is, became a new way for me to judge texts. David Shields attempts to pinpoint the separation between reality and its representation by explaining that any work “consists of double translation” which renders it less true; first an experience is translated into memory and then the memory is translated into a work of literature (Shields 61). Although Shields finds that no human account of an event can be completely true, a writer should still try to come as close as possible to representing reality. Why should this be the author’s goal? Because “all the best stories are true” and true stories inevitably represent shared human experience (Shields 52).


In my first webpaper “Act Naturally: Lessons on Reality from a German Shepherd,” I found that perhaps Shields’ analysis of reality is too narrow because it does not include the reality of shared non-human experience. I concluded my paper by stating that perhaps animals can access certain knowledge closer to the truth in the fiction/non-fiction spectrum. Because a different “double translation” exists in animal experience and memory, determining the process by which animals tell the truth might help to explain how humans do. In order to make this comparison, I must first explore how animals communicate with one another and perceive the world around them and themselves.  


I.                   Animal Communication: The Case of Kanzi

Kanzi is a 29-year-old Bonobo ape, a close cousin of the chimpanzee. He lives at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa with primatologist Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh who taught him how to “speak.”  Kanzi communicates with humans by touching hundreds of lexigrams on a keyboard in order to ask and respond to questions and share ideas and feelings. Though Kanzi’s keyboard is limited to hundreds of pictures, he is able to string these pictures together in order to form combinations representing thousands of words. When Kanzi’s home was hit with a flood, he could not explain what was occurring using a lexigram which means flood but rather used his keys for “big” and “water” to convey his idea. When asking for pizza, Kanzi must use the lexigrams for “cheese,” “tomato” and “bread” to communicate his request. Not only can Kanzi communicate simple ideas but he can conjugate verbs and use concepts like “before” and “from.”

Descartes wrote long ago that “the reason why animals do not speak as we do is not that they lack the organs but that they have no thoughts.” Kanzi could tell you himself that this is not so. Although Kanzi’s voice does not lend itself to producing words like humans can, he is certainly able to communicate thoughts even with this handicap. Despite the differences between verbal communication and that which Kanzi uses, both humans and Kanzi can “better understand an idea when they have a term to describe it.” Animals may therefore learn the labels humans have placed on concepts and thus benefit from them (Kluger 6).

Kanzi’s caretaker has found that not only can Kanzi lie to manipulate others, he can also use creativity to manipulate the tools he is given as well as to come up with imaginary stories. If Kanzi is able to both create fictions by lying and imagine fictions in his form of storytelling, then can he also purposefully tell a truth? Is his “truth” subject to the same manipulation as humans’ accounts are because of his ability to create fake stories? With further analysis of animal honesty, these questions might be better answered.



II.                Honesty and Dishonesty in the Animal Kingdom


Not only is Kanzi able to tell lies to his caretaker using lexigrams, wild animals have been able to “lie” for the purpose of survival since early in evolutionary time. If animals did not use deception, then only the strongest animals, those that are able to follow through with their threats, would survive. Although the use of camouflage and mimicry to ward off predators, for example, may not be considered lying because these mechanisms have developed over evolutionary time rather than by an individual, new research has shown that animals can manipulate others using learned communication techniques.


In a 2006 study titled “Why Animals Lie: How Dishonest and Belief can Coexist in a Signaling System,” a group of mathematicians, ecologists, evolutionary biologists and neurobiologists sought understanding of animal manipulation strategies and how these strategies expand the realm of animal capabilities. Using empirical data and mathematical models, the authors develop a theory to predict the use of honesty and dishonesty between individuals of the same species and different species. Essentially, the honest and dishonest interactions between animals can be predicted based on the mathematical analysis of animal strategy in which the payoff of honesty is weighed against the cost of dishonesty in survival. While earlier studies assume that animals generally interact by communicating honest information, the authors found that animals strategize in choosing communication techniques, both honest and dishonest, in order to cause the best possible outcome in an interaction. These interactions are described specifically in the cases of raiding and ambushing due to a territorial threat, bluffing to prevent attack from another individual and attracting a mate.  


First, the authors perform experiments in which an animal gives a signal to a group of other animals which have interests either in support of the communicating animal or opposed to the communicating animal. They found that animals can gauge the intentions of a population in order to create a “mixed signal,” partially honest and partially dishonest, to maximize positive outcomes because of the population’s interpretation of the signal. For example, an animal attempting to attract a mate might use a signal which is partially dishonest in order to both successfully attract a mate and at the same time frighten competitors, taking into account that members of the listening animal population may behave as though the signal given by the communicating animal is false. In addition, the authors found that an animal’s behavior may vary over time should the behavior of the interacting animals change or the circumstances of the current situation change.  If responses from the population show that changing a signal to make it more or less honest would have a higher payoff for the communicating animal, the animal can use this learning to change signaling strategies.

The authors also find that animals’ ability to lie neither prevents them from using complete honesty in certain situations nor disrupts the ability of an animal to “believe” another animal. Scientists have yet to determine how honest communication persists in animal interactions when deceit is so common. It would seem that over time animals would learn to ignore all signals from competing individuals because assuming dishonesty when interpreting a signal is often more favorable. However, honest communication must remain stable within a population in order for a group of animals, particularly of the same species, to survive. Despite the advantages of both honesty and deception, the use of deception is clearly evolutionarily advantageous; in fact, the rate of deception rate among intelligent species has correlated with the size of the cerebral cortex which controls the use of language and conscious thought (Rowell 181). Humans may use deception much more often than their animal counterparts, both intentionally and unintentionally.

Therefore this study raises the question about human deceit: why has rampant deceit not destabilized belief in human interactions? To what degree does dishonesty jeopardize trust within a human population? For both humans and non-humans, evolutionary pressure has not yet selected against a listener’s “belief” in a communicator’s message. The authors state: “There may be a range of deception rates that are both honest enough and deceptive enough, so a mixed strategy teases out differences between the receivers in the way that is most beneficial to the signaler” (Rowell 182). Perhaps humans, too, weigh the costs of deception and honesty when communicating with each other. If honesty is too costly for the communicator, then a certain amount of dishonesty may be used. If dishonesty is too costly or does not give a large enough payoff in a certain case, a more honest communication might be advantageous. Because an author typically has a goal for communicating certain ideas to a reader, he or she might subconsciously (or even consciously) provide information that is only honest enough to convey truth but dishonest enough to attain the precise goal of communication. Specifically, an author of “non-fictional prose” might strategize to some degree in communicating the amount of fact necessary to classify the work as non-fiction while using a certain amount of deceit to mold the facts to portray a specific idea. Despite our evolutionary predisposition to lying, humans as well as non-humans have not evolved to become completely distrustful. After all, the genre of non-fiction could not exist if humans lost the ability to trust the work of another. “In the end everyone would be lying and no one would be listening” (Rowell 180).



III.             Animal Consciousness


Not only must animals make decisions for survival by predicting outcomes of various situations, animals also have the ability to consider ideas or images consciously. These thoughts may be beneficial for survival as well, and they may be memories, anticipations of future events or literal imaginations of non-existent objects and events (Griffin 253). These “fictions” may be much simpler than what a human might imagine; however, we should still not deny the existence or the significance of this ability (Griffin 256).  By extending the idea of linguistic communication between humans to various forms of communication between animals, Griffin finds that animals’ thoughts must have a certain linguistic property. Their mental representations can bear a “natural relation to the object represented” or, in the case of nonexistent objects, use “linguistic events that go proxy for them” (Griffin 256).

In his address to the American Philosophical Association titled “Thoughtless Brutes”, philosopher Norman Malcolm famously asserted: “If thoughts are states or processes that linguistic utterances are supposed to match, then…the relationship between language and thought must be…so close that it is really senseless to conjecture that people may not have thoughts, and also really senseless to conjecture that animals may have thoughts.” (Malcolm 17).  If Kanzi’s thoughts have Griffin’s “linguistic property,” then according to Malcolm’s logic, they are capable of producing thoughts in the same way that humans do. Malcolm continues, “Thoughts cannot…be identified with the uttering of sentences. Nor can they be identified with behavioral propensities. Nor with physiological events. Nor can they be identified with a flow of bodily sensations and images. What are they then?” (Malcolm 17). Because neither the learning of nor the use of human language is necessary for conscious thinking to occur, perhaps some form of “pictorial thinking” may be required for conscious thought (Griffin 258). Certainly animals, as evident in the case of Kanzi, may learn to use this pictorial communication method to both prove that their thoughts exist and express them in the same way as humans do.

But can animal thoughts qualify as “beliefs”? In other words, can they base their reasoning on a previously held principle, or do they simply react to external cues as if on autopilot? As long as humans may deny conscious thought to animals because of the inability to prove that they can make conscious choices, we may also deny conscious thought to humans. After all, we have yet to determine a biological basis of “belief” unique to humans, and both humans and our animal ancestors can act only using the organs we are made with in order to produce conscious thought (and if this has to do with relative brain size then we are certainly not at the front of the pack). Though the actual state of consciousness in non-humans may never be known, and the criteria for consciousness and intelligence are constantly shifting, exploring the possibilities of the animal unconscious is useful. As Griffin so pertinently states, “the philosophical importance of animal consciousness lies in its relevance to the general question of other minds” (Griffin 252). Research on non-humans can therefore shed light on the qualities of cognitive thought and awareness that make humans unique.  It may also show us that our conscious thinking is much more similar to that of animals than we previously thought, and therefore we may be incapable of “truth-telling” because of how we evolved.



IV.             The Wild Imagination


Much of human thought, however, does not obey the rules of conscious thinking. We may have irrational beliefs or illogical fears. We can also consider abstract ideas that have no bearing on our everyday lives. Can animals also bend the rules of conscious thinking or do they only consider “practical” matters having to do with survival? (Griffin 282). Certainly any dog owner knows that domesticated animals can be fearful of things that do not actually exist. We therefore must consider the idea that “their thoughts, like some of ours, may be less than perfect replicas of reality” because animals “experience fantasies as well as realistic interpretations of their environments” (Griffin 283). Any dog owner also knows that dogs can have nightmares. Whether these dreams originate in recent trauma or completely in the imagination, we cannot be certain. However, study of the REM cycles of both birds and mammals has led researchers to hypothesize that animals are capable of dreaming about situations they have never experienced (Griffin 283).  Further study of certain components of the animal sleep cycle such as rapid eye movement patterns might allow scientists to predict exactly what animals are dreaming about and thus allow us to know for certain if the content of the dream is completely based on an imagined event.

       V.          Animal Subjectivity


           "We are not the only conscious beings on earth,” writes Bernard Baars, co-founder of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (Baars 33). Scientific evidence is pointing more and more toward increased capability of the animal mind. Though these capabilities may not be nearly as advanced as those of humans, scientific research has proven that the thought processes of both humans and animals are very much the same. Above a certain threshold of animal intelligence, one of these similarities is subjectivity of thoughts.


          Of course Kanzi’s thoughts are subjective. He has lived like a human for most of his life and thus is influenced by the same subjective notions that humans create. Kanzi makes judgments about others. His likes, dislikes and biases are influenced by those of his human caretaker. He is influenced by cultural norms, accepting courtesies such as offering guests a cup of coffee using his lexigrams. He becomes excited when his caretaker tell him that a guest is coming— his predictions about future events can only be described as influenced by his personal notions. However, subjectivity is not only found in the few species which have been raised by humans. Certain wild animal species are capable of analyzing the social relationships between others in which they are not involved and using this information to make behavioral choices. For example, some species of baboons are capable of assessing the relationships between mates in order to determine if takeover of a female would be possible. Males may “assess the strength of an attraction” between a male and a female in order to avoid aggression should they interfere with a tightly bonded pair (Cheney 73). By making these relationship assessments, they are essentially able to predict what actions an opponent might take in response to their actions. These perceptions about a relationship may be based only on one interaction between mates, thus many of these assessments are inevitably flawed. Unlike Kanzi, the animal is not necessarily using any type of pictorial language to communicate its thought, nor is it “lying” to itself when incorrectly assessing a situation. The animal is not necessarily relying on previous communication with others, nor is it creating an imaginary situation. The wild animal is simply making judgments just as we do. These judgments may be based on a past imagined or learned experience held within the conscious mind. They exist for humans and wild animals, both unique to the individual to which they belong and somewhat inaccessible to others.


           Subjectivity, bias and skewing of the facts are therefore not “products[s] of human vanity” but rather primitive behaviors which evolved in our ancestors as a means for survival (Griffin 240). Even if the human memory was infallible and a person was completely devoted to providing the truth about something that occurred, making a completely accurate representation would be impossible because humans have evolved to create subjective representations of truth as a means for a certain purpose.  When David Shields writes that we must “act naturally,” he underestimates the presence of subjectivity in the natural world (Shields 47). And according to Carl Sagan, science is a tool that humans can use to determine what is real and what is not. What could be less subjective than a primate’s analysis of a mating call or a predator’s analysis of its prey? By attempting to determine the process by which animals “tell the truth,” we find that they cannot. If even the most scientifically predictable animal behaviors are subjective in themselves, even without human interpretation, then what are we reality-seekers left with?




            Reality itself is subjective. Reality allows the lens by which we view our world to take effect. A biographical work of literature can be accurate because of how well it explains another person’s reality— but even then, the reality behind the literature is subjective. An autobiography can be more or less true because of how it attempts to explain one’s own reality—but the facts necessary to tell the story of one’s own reality are influenced by subjectivity. Therefore, we can still “face the facts” of non-fictional prose by using all of the data that we are given to determine how fictional a work of literature is, meaning how well it subscribes to the facts as best as we may judge. Though we may not always correctly assess the data that we are given, we can only use as many accounts as are available in order to sort fact from fiction.  By using the data available, we may classify literature on a scale from least to most factual, truthful, and accurate, assuming that this classification is inevitably flawed.


But reality is much different than factuality, truthfulness and accuracy. Something is “real” if it is perceived as part of one’s own subjective reality. Reality is all that is thought, remembered, imagined by a person or an animal and is only real until it is interpreted by another. Therefore reality does not need to be nor can it be completely factual, truthful or accurate. Shields writes: “There is no objective world beyond our capacity to comprehend it…the individual must still deny this subjectivity in order to be, to exist” (Shields 179). While there is no objective reality, we do not need to deny our subjectivity in order to experience reality. The subjectivity of reality is what makes it “real,” thus we do not need to necessarily acknowledge that our perceived reality is subjective but rather require that it is. We can classify written material, documentaries, even a story told, based on accuracy, truthfulness and factuality because of prior data. We cannot classify based on reality because we have no data to judge one’s subjective thoughts. Our subjectivity may be animalistic but our realization of this subjectivity is uniquely human. We are conscious like our pets, we are subjective like Kanzi, but in realizing these processes by which we think, we are uniquely human.





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