The Nature of Being

rethinking the facts of life



Man’s Evolution alongside Technology

The use of technology was a key turning point in the evolutionary history of man. Many define it as one of the key features that began our trek to the separation between us and other living beings. Around 2.5 million years ago man created his first primitive tool, and in doing so forced human kind down a very different path.( With these newfound machines, man rose above other animals. He gained the ability to control the world around him, not merely accepting what was thrown in his path. It was through these devices that man was able to create the newfound idea of culture and further the division between him and so call “non advanced” life.

These once primitive tools however, have evolved with us to an extraordinary level into what is now modern technology. With these advancements come many benefits to society. Man now has the ability to influence his surroundings. We no longer have to search for food but can instead make it ourselves. We now have independence from the Earth, and we don’t have to solely rely on luck for survival. We can now complete tasks that are beyond any amount of human strength or willpower. Technology allows us communicate world-wide and draw attention and help where it is needed. More than any of these however is the fact that each person has gained access to a vast amount of shared knowledge. With modern advancements such as book printing and the internet, information from both the past and the present can be transferred to anybody anywhere in the world.  It is through this shared knowledge that society is able to expand and build on itself.

With all these positives however come many fallbacks. Early on, man used basic tools to help control nature and the world around him, however in today’s society this is not the case. We no longer simply interact with our surroundings, we have become accustomed to dominating our environment. Tools are no longer used simply as a way to survive, but rather as a means of pleasure. We extract millions of gallons of petroleum from the ground each year so that our cars can burn it as fuel, polluting our air in the process. We destroy thousands of acres of forest every day in order to produce wooden building materials. We use construction equipment in order to shape the land to our needs, disrupting entire ecosystems as we go. All of this power has been given to us through the use and advancement of technology.

More concerning than any of these facts however, is man’s use of tools as weapons. We use guns, bombs, mines, tanks, and a vast number of other machines in order to kill, maim, and strike fear in one another. With the creation of nuclear weapons, man gained, for the first time in history, the ability to completely erase himself from the face of the Earth. Man can now be his own destroyer. It is clear to see the once basic tools that helped man divide from animal have become something very different. Whether they will serve us mainly for good or for bad is a question for future generations to decide.




The Intrigue of Artificial Intelligence

There are many defining human characteristics that set man apart from other organisms. Among these features is intelligence. We consider ourselves intelligent beings, and think of animals as the opposite. Much like the argument of human emotions we are left with a few questions. How do we define this word “intelligence”, and what has the ability to possess it? Does today’s technology have the means to be intelligent?

There is no doubt that there are a number of arguments for as well as a number in opposition of this fact. The book definition of intelligence is, “capacity for learning, reasoning, understanding, and similar forms of mental activity.”( What does this look like in humans? A very basic example would be recognizing the act of two people hugging as love. The ability to connect the physical gesture of a hug with the intangible idea of love is a process that requires an interpretation of the situation based past learned knowledge, or in other words intelligence. So what does this mean for modern computers and robots?

It is well known that computers have long since surpassed man in certain abilities. Even a simple laptop can store massive amounts of data and recall any individual file, photo, or document on the spot. But are these computers really thinking? While researching this topic, I came across a very interesting experiment done in the late 1970’s called “The Chinese Room Thought Experiment” made to disprove the possibility of artificial intelligence.


Very simply the experiment test whether a computer is actually thinking on its own, or whether it is simply repeating data. English speaking participants are given a number of cards on which a question written in Chinese is paired with an appropriate response in Chinese. Another participant on the outside of the room who does speak Chinese asks questions, and the participant inside the room responds with the paired answer on the card, without ever knowing a word of Chinese. To the person on the outside however, it appears as though the one on the inside can speak fluently. Relating this to computers, it can be said that no matter how well a device is programmed, it will always be simply relaying information that an intelligent being (its programmer) knew. For me there is a question however, of the point at which we say the person in the experiment knows Chinese. If he/she has enough info-cards to give a response to any possible question, can it then be said that he/she is fluent? On the same grounds is a computer then intelligent?

Another example of this thought process is an interesting website called This site allows users to type whatever text they would like, and an appropriate response is generated. Although skeptical at first after spending a few minutes typing into my computer, it wasn’t clear to me if I was indeed talking to a machine or a person. In the end it comes down to a matter of technicality as to whether we define intelligence as the ability to reproduce information, or at what point this reproduction of information matches that of humans.


Here is a link for cleverbot:




Robots and Emotion

Emotions have always been a defining feature of human existence. They separate us from other living organisms and help us relate to one another unlike any other human trait. The problem arises when we attempt to exactly define what an emotion is or what it feels like to experience one. This is further complicated when we question who or what is capable of experiencing emotions. Is it possible for complex machines (modern robots) to truly “feel” an emotion?

Before we ask ourselves this question we have to define what exactly an emotion is. From a biological standpoint it is simply a specific way in which our body interprets an “emotion-evoking event.” (Sincero) Many define this as a key argument as to why robots cannot experience feelings, however there still might be some ground to the opposition. Take for example the possibility that the newly designed self-driving cars can feel fear. When one of these vehicles is on a collision course with another object that may result in its own damage or destruction, sensors in the onboard CPU (central processing unit) make the car steer away from the hazard in an act of self-preservation. Fear, as defined by, is “the anticipation of the possibility that something unpleasant will occur.” In this example the car is anticipating the collision with another object in the future and takes action to avoid this outcome. Can it be said then, that on an extremely primitive level the machine “felt” fear?

robot (Murphey’s page)

Fairly recently a robotics company began the sale of a robot named Pepper that can supposedly feel a variety of emotions, as well as detect them in humans. Pepper is said to be able to react accordingly when faced with different emotional scenarios. But this still poses the question of whether it is actually feeling something as humans do.

My opinion on this topic is somewhat in the middle of both extremes. I believe that robots have the potential to, in a very basic sense of the word, feel an emotion. This emotion is however, simply a reproduction of the machine’s own creator. In the car example when engineers design the machine, they foresee and fear its destruction or the destruction of objects around it. For this reason they program the computer to respond in a manner that a fearful person might in the same situation. By doing so the engineers have programed their feelings of fear into the machine itself, without allowing it to actually “feel” on its own. Mike Murphey of eloquently sums up the problem by stating, “there’s also the issue of whether this robot has what would truly be considered emotions, or is just mimicking what humans would likely do in a given set of situations.”

For this reason it is not necessarily that a machine is “feeling” anything, rather it is that it is reacting through a programmed response in a manner similar to how a human with emotions would react. It can be said then, that with today’s current technology the idea of a machine possessing the ability to experience feelings is not quite yet a possibility.


Here is a link to a youtube video on Murphey’s page which talks about Pepper


Sarah Mae Sincero (May 27, 2012). Biology of Emotion. Retrieved Feb 16, 2016 from

Mike Murphey Robots in Japan now have Emotions. Retrieved Feb 17, 2016 from



The Heart of Jane

Although my last blog post was a little bit of a tangent on the subject of Jane Goodall, I still believe it shows just the impact she still has on young girls and on the field of science today. Not only has this woman positively impacted the field of science, but she also speaks about how females need to become more involved in STEM. STEM is an acronym that stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. All of those subjects that get a weird look if you tell people that’s what you’re studying (trust me, I study math, I know hands-down just that certain ‘look’). But why? Why do these esteemed and completely necessary fields of study create people to make a face as if they just smelled a baby’s diaper? In an interview, Jane Goodall addresses some of these issues.

To open, Jane says that this field had the “perception of it being a rather cold sort of discipline to go into, without heart. And I feel that women — really, we need to be involved with not just with our brain, but with our hearts as well.” These studies, to me, are full of heart. Would I choose to study math if I didn’t love it? I would be insane to just voluntarily study math. I think, for me, heart is where it all comes from. I think the same was true for 26 year old Jane when she decided to go deep into the forests of Tanzania.

She was criticized for almost everything. She was criticized for giving the chimpanzees names instead of just numbering them. She was criticized for claiming that these chimps could have (and did have) personalities. She was always, for some reason, having to justify the way she did things. How she did her work with a little extra ‘heart’. (Because apparently doing what you love with passion should be seen as a bad thing, right?)


(photo credit)

Later on in the interview, Jane is asked if she thinks females alone possess that little bit of heart that is needed to further STEM  areas. I assumed she would answer yes, but to my surprise she said “I think they do. But fortunately, a lot of men feel this way, too.” I can only commend and applaud Jane for the way she answered this question. She acknowledges that we all possess this little bit of ‘heart’ needed in STEM. She knows that we all have this ability, whether it is always used or not.

To make sort of a conclusion on my posts regarding Jane Goodall (only 4 posts total, sorry! I could write for days about this incredible woman), I would like to say what an inspiration she is in all walks of life. She is an inspiration for young girls wanting to get into the field of science, she inspires those who want to work with the animal kingdom, she inspires feminists that want to classify her as a ‘badass’, and she inspires the world daily to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. It all started with her crazy dream to want to explore the forests of Gombe and see what exactly chimpanzees were all about. Her perseverance and dedication is more than admirable and turning 82 this year, she shows us that every day is an opportunity to change the world, no matter what.



Jane ‘The Feminist’ Goodall

*warning*: this post uses the word ‘badass’ (more than) a few times to describe the true personality of Jane Goodall. This word was not chosen by me, but by the author of an article I am reflecting on.

At the end of my last post, I hinted that if Jane would have been a young scientist in today’s world, she would have been seen as a feminist. After some research, I came across the perfect article that describes just what I was talking about.


(photo credit)

This article, written by Bee Gray, was posted on under the ‘Feminism’ tab. It is titled “Ten Times Jane Goodall Was A Total Badass” and proceeds to explain ten things about Dr. Goodall that qualify her to be as defined. Although this is far from an academic article or an article that would be found on a site such as National Geographic, it is the perfect example of how Dr. Goodall is viewed in the minds of young people today.

The first time has a picture of Jane as a young girl with the caption “Hi, it’s me, Jane Goodall. As a child, and in my rare moments of leisure, I take extensive notes, draw sketches in my journal, and love reading about zoology and ethology. What are dolls?” According to the Gray, breaking the stereotype for a little girl classifies Jane as a ‘badass’ very early on. I find it comical for this to be the first reason, seeing as all it has to do with is the fact that she likes to do something other than play with dolls. Would that mean a little boy that doesn’t like to play with trucks or dinosaurs and play with dolls instead would also be classified as a ‘badass’?

The second and third times comment on the fact that Jane took the initiative and asked an anthropologist to go on an ‘anthropological dig’ and then he asked her how she felt about doing a long-term study of chimpanzees in the wild. She apparently wasn’t qualified to do such a thing, but her assertiveness qualifies her as a ‘badass’ and feminist.

The fourth time is probably the one that truly does make Jane Goodall the woman she is. It says that she spent 55 years in Tanzania studying chimpanzees. Regardless of the fact that she is a woman, she dedicated 55 years of her life to these animals and if you ask me, this article should be  “The One Time Jane Goodall Was A Total Badass” and should include this point and this point only.

The fifth, sixth, and seven times all deal with Jane’s work outside of the chimpanzee world. Not only did she work on awareness of the primate world, she also worked to help those in poverty in the areas she researched.

The eighth time was when Jane wrote a book and “climber a mountain alone” after the passing of her husband and the ninth time is when Jane was named a UN Messenger of Peace.

The tenth time Jane Goodall was a badass was when she said “Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don’t believe is right.” Jane is an activist for the less fortunate, for those without a voice, and for those who don’t know how to use the voice they have been given.


(photo credit)

Although these ten ‘times’ seem trivial, they have truth behind them. I find it comical to make a post on a feminism website and to classify different actions of Jane Goodall as being ‘badass’, but the internet never ceases to amaze me in this way. Despite a few of these reason being comical, an article such as this one shows just what an impact Jane had and still has on our scientific world. She is gentle yet strong, humble yet accomplished, and a woman yet a scientist and researcher. She is all of these things and more. She was never one to make grand speeches about how women should be more recognized or how woman should pursue careers in science. She didn’t dedicate her career to pushing for women or for joining the feminist movement. She simply was herself. She set goals, achieved her dreams, and changed the world of science forever. She is a female, a doctor in her field, and according to Gray, a ‘badass’.



Jane Goodall: The ‘Girl’ Scientist

As most people notice, typing in certain keywords into Google can spark unusual results, depending on what you start with. Out of curiosity, I started with “Jane Goodall” to see what would follow this search. The first suggestions included “facts, biography, quotes, movie, quotes, institute” and so on. To no surprise, other suggestions also came up, such as death (Jane Goodall is still alive and will turn 82 this year), Canada (she was born in the UK), costume ideas, middle name, merchandise, and other interesting topics. Unfortunately, the words feminist or female scientist weren’t in the top searches.


(photo credit)

Jane Goodall, born on April 3rd, 1934 in London, England, is most noted for her work with chimpanzees in Tanzania (1). Her mission in life is to understand, educate others on, and protect the animal world, mostly concerning that of the chimpanzees. This raises a question, however. Was Jane successful because of the hard word she contributed to the animal world? Or was she successful because she was a female working in a male-dominated scientific field?

Jane explored the forests of Tanzania at the age of 26. This was an insanely huge leap of faith on her part, seeing as she was a female scientist embarking on such a journey in 1960. She was young, a woman, had little experience, and was going into the wild to document chimpanzees. All of the odds were against her. “But ‘Jane’ is even more determined. Goodall is called by the familiar first name constantly, marking her status as girl, even while she is engaged on a quest that will change the definition of man.” (2, pg. 180). This quote, taken from Haraway herself, struck me because it shows just how Dr. Goodall was perceived. All she was was a girl embarking on this journey to change man. It makes it sound like she was biting off more than she could chew because all she was was a girl. She wasn’t a scientist, a college graduate, a researcher, an explorer; simply a girl. Since when is being a girl such a bad thing anyways?

After her first film, “Goodall returns to National Geographic’s Gombe with a husband and a Ph.D. The double change in status to married women and a credentialed scientist was first announced in the National Geographic magazine, in ‘New Discoveries among Africa’s Chimpanzees.'” (2, pg. 183). I find it interesting, but at the same time frustrating, that her status as a woman had to be noted in National Geographic. I also noted that this quote used her last name instead of her first name, Jane. Did marrying and receiving her Ph.D change the fact that she was a ‘girl’? She got married, so what? People get married all the time. They were now called the “husband and wife team” (2, pg.183). It is frustrating that a woman, one as esteemed and successful as Jane Goodall, can’t be seen as successful on her own. Instead of being seen as an individual anymore, she was grouped with her husband as part of a team. Don’t get me wrong, marriage is a beautiful thing and it should be celebrated, but Jane was plenty successful on her own; she was successful without being seen as half of a team.

In my opinion, Dr. Goodall was doubted at first. From the eyes of the public, she was a naive ‘girl’ going into the wild and getting herself into a journey that was destined to fail. On the contrary, however, Jane, this outstanding ‘girl’ proved to be one of the most influential scientists and researchers the world has ever seen. If Jane would’ve done the same exact work in today’s world, she would have been noted as a feminist, as a woman standing up for women in the field of science, and she would have been applauded for her efforts. I think that no matter what time period a woman contributes to the world of science, she should be recognized accordingly. Her work is no less worthy because she is a woman. Her work should always viewed at the same level that a male’s would be. Since when did being a woman being a hindrance to your intelligence or worth?



(2): Haraway, Donna J. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York: Routledge, 1989.


Who am I?

My name is Monique Shifflet and I am 21 years old. I was born and raise in Southern California in the US. I am studying for a year in Germany and normally I study math, but a sociology class never hurt, right?

Upon signing up for this course, I wasn’t sure what I was going to get myself into. It was hard for me to get into some of the readings, but I was particularly interested in a certain one. I took an Anthropology class while I was studying in California and had learned about Jane Goodall. When she appeared in our readings, I was overjoyed to read about her again. I find her perseverance fascinating and admirable. She started from the bottom as a woman scientist and worked to the point where her name is known worldwide. Therefore, my favorite quote from Donna Haraway’s Primate Visions is:

But “Jane” is even more determined. Goodall is called by the familiar first name constantly, marking her status as girl, even while she is engaged on a quest that will change the definition of man.

To me, this quote says a great deal about Goodall, Haraway as a writer, and science in general. I will be basing my next 4 blog posts off of this quote and off of Goodall herself. I will be researching and writing about how women, especially Goodall, have truly impacted the fields of anthropology, sociology, and science as a whole. Women should be recognized for their achievements, even if it is on a blog post written by an exchange student.

A History of Difference – The Dissociation of Human and Animal in the History of Ideas

In my last post I introduced some contemporary approaches to conceptualizing human-animal relations. However, the established dichotomy between nature and culture that is manifested in the prevailing concept of human-animal relations goes back a long way in the history of ideas. Today I want to outline some of the main strands of philosophical history that helped reinforce and reproduce human and animal as conflicting parties, so that we can gain a better understanding of how we came to view our relationship to non-human animals as a binary one and the latter as inferior.[1]

Among philosophers throughout the history of ideas the differences between human and non-human beings have been emphasized, rather than their commonalities[2]. As early as for Aristotle, rationality was regarded the unique characteristic of man, making him almost god-like and all other organisms hierarchically subordinated. The stoics then radicalised the proposition that animals existed in favour of man and that the latter didn´t have any obligations toward the former due to their lack of rationality. [3] In the medieval age the rise of Christianity reproduced that narrative by adding the lack of an immortal soul in nonhuman animals (and therefore no chance for redemption) as the crucial criteria for their moral inferiority[4]. With the rise of Western modern philosophy and sciences, the tone got even more biting. René Descartes denoted nonhuman animals as insentient machines which act but randomly[5]. This is rather significant, as for the first time the alleged moral insignificancy of nonhuman animals was being used to legitimise not only killing and eating them, but also for the rising practice of animal testing.

All these narratives have a strongly anthropocentric disposition [6]. It was only in the early Modern Era that more moderate views slowly evolved. Utilitarians like Hobbes, Locke and Hume questioned the Cartesian Dualism and, for the first time, emphasize a common feature of human and animal – the ability to suffer[7]. This was elaborated by Bentham and Mill, who first stated that the capacity to suffer implied some sort of responsibility towards nonhuman animals[8]. And while Darwin finally did make a significant discovery by revealing the common origin of humans and other animals, he was all too often misinterpreted in a way that implies a teleological origin story in which man again surpasses the animal[9].

The othering undertaken by the founding fathers of Western philosophy can be seen as a strategy of constructing the human  identity. Referring to Sune Jensen, identity-construction can be understood as a dichotomous relationship between the “self” and the “discursive outside” or “other”[10]. These differences are being reproduced by referring to the other as inferior and subordinate. The philosophical narratives outlined are being used to reproduce the discursive identities of “human” and “animal” and with the ones holding the power to define these identities, being humans, they frame “man” in clear demarcation towards the – presented as morally inferior – “animal”, i.e. the other or discursive outside. A more fundamental, systematic critic about the exploitation of nonhuman animals has not emerged until the rise of critical theory with authors like Marx, Adorno and Horkheimer[11] or approaches to animal rights like Regan´s [12] or DeGrazias´[13].

We have seen in this post that, by dislocating “science” from its historical and cultural contexts, it becomes possible to make it seem “objective”, “neutral” or “natural. Through such narrative practices it becomes possible to reinforce the legitimacy of established binaries, such as the human-animal dichotomy. Donna Haraway amphasizes this, when she analyses the performative power of scientific narratives:

“[the natural scientific] narrative about progress is a method of tidying up politics by making some things exist inside and others outside a kind of “nature reserve” called science. The ideology about progress makes the sciences seem like wilderness preservation areas of the mind, free from the ravages of human culture and history”[14]. 

[1] Cf. e.g. Haraway 1989: 373 about binarisms between antagonistic vs. complementary difference.
[2] Cf. e.g. Schmitz 2014 : 31.
[3] Schmitz 2014: 32.
[4] Schmitz 2014: 33.
[5] Schmitz 2014: 34f.
[6] Schmitz 2014: 43.
[7] Schmitz 2014: 38.
[8] Schmitz 2014: 38f.
[9] Schmitz 2014: 41f.
[10] Jensen 2011: 65.
[11] Schmitz 2014: 48.
[12] Bossert 2015: 26ff.
[13] Bossert 2015: 33ff.
[14] Haraway 1989: 125.

Bossert, Leonie (2015): “Wildtierethik. Verpflichtungen gegenüber wildlebenden Tieren.”, Nomos: Baden-Baden.

Haraway, Donna (1990): “Primate Visions. Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science”, Routledge.

Jensen, Sune Qvotrup (2010): „Masculinity at the margins – othering marginality and resistance among young marginalized ethnic majority men“ NORMA 5(1): 7-26.

Schmitz, Friederike, Ed. (2014): “Tierethik – Eine Einführung” in Schmitz, Friederike (Ed.): Tierethik. Grundlagentexte. Suhrkamp: Berlin.

Welcome to questioning the nature of being

“By history I mean a corrosive sense of the contradictions and multiple material-semiotic processes at the heart of scientific knowledge. History is not a completed past simply waiting to be applied to deepen a time probe or to give perspective. It is a discipline reworked by postmodern insights about always split, fragmented, and multiple subjects, identities, and collectivities. All units and actors cohere partially and provisionally, held together by complex material-semiotic-social practices. In the space opened up by such contradictions and multiplicities lies the possibility for reflexive responsibility for the shape of narrative fields.”

Donna Haraway, Primate Visions, p. 172

In Western common sense, nature appears as the ultimate truth, and science is there to reveal this truth and transfer it into applicable knowledge for political decision making, technological progress, and therapy. Yet, what ‘nature’ is, where it starts and ends, what it ‘tells us’, and especially what we can ‘learn’ from it, is not a natural matter but very much a process of human perception, exclusion, interpretation, and rationalization.

Thus the ideas about nature are embedded in how humans shape their environment, how they are themselves embedded in a sphere of ‘true’ knowledge, what they believe to be morally right, how they pose questions, and the horizon in which they search for answers. Limits in human understanding of the truth can be easily illustrated when looking back in history e.g. the idea that the earth is flat. Still, there is a wide spread believe that the ‘wrong’ knowledge which people had back then is corrected now, and although we might not know everything by now, we know it better. Thus, in modern common sense, our knowledge is not only seen as the truth of our time, but as timeless in its validity.

This insight into the construction of knowledge leads us to the perspective that there is no such thing as the ahistorical, ultimate truth. In consequence, it questions the basis of our living together, of how we ‘do’ things, of what we consider to be right or wrong. Does that mean we can’t do research anymore? It does not of course! It rather asks for a different way to approach things. It asks for doing research – likewise in social or natural sciences – that questions our judgements, that reflects their premises, and that rather asks: What is it we think we have found out? What is our interpretation of it? How did we get there? And what is the consequence of seeing things this way or another?

This blog poses those questions and more alike. And we invite everyone to join us questioning the most ‘natural facts’ that you and we are convinced of.

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