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My Kids vs. the Monkey…Vayechi 5777

I had always considered sending my children to Duke University, but now I think I may just send them to the zoo instead. A study by Duke researchers indicates the monkeys perform just as well as college students at mental addition. I guess I can open that jar we’ve been keeping in the cupboard with our children’s college money and use it to buy the amateur telescope I’ve always wanted instead. (P.S. Mars is closer now that it will ever be again for dozens of years, check it out!)

Earlier studies have found that non-human primates can match numbers of objects, compare numbers, and choose the larger of two sets objects. One Japanese study even showed chimpanzees to perform better than human adults at memory games. The Duke study took the next step.

“This is the first study that looked at whether or not they could make explicit decisions that were based on mathematical types of calculations,” said Jessica Cantlon, a cognitive neuroscience researcher at Duke, whose work appeared in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Biology (www.plosbiology.org). “It shows when you take language away from a human, they end up looking just like monkeys in terms of their performance.”

The test procedure was as follows. Two female macaque monkeys named for U.S. senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein were pitted against 14 students from Duke (I’m not sure if naming the monkeys after US senators was an honor or a disgrace for the monkeys. While monkeys at the zoo seem to be pretty popular, Congress’ popularity hovers in the low teens!) The task set before them was to mentally add two sets of dots that were briefly flashed on a computer screen. The teams were asked to pick the correct answer from two choices on a different screen.

The humans were not allowed to count or verbalize as they worked, and they were told to answer as quickly as possible. Both monkeys and humans typically answered within 1 second. And both groups fared about the same. In the end both teams were rewarded, the Duke students with $10 a piece (not even enough for them to buy yet another brain stimulating video game) while Boxer and Feinstein got their favorite treat, a cup of Kool-Aid (yes, the entire Congress is sipping the Kool-Aid, just see the recent budget bill for proof of that)!

I don’t understand what all the commotion is all about. For years, we have known that animals have certain calculating abilities that are beyond ours. Let’s take the bee for a moment. James Gould, a prominent Princeton University ethnologist (animal behavior specialist), performed a study in which he placed some bee food next to a beehive. After a while he moved it 50 meters. It took a short while, but the bees found it and continued feasting. Then he moved it another 50 meters in the same direction. This time it only took the bees one minute to find it. The next time he moved it 50 meters they found it in less than a minute, and finally they actually preceded him to the next spot and were waiting for him exactly 50 meter from the previous spot!

In the next experiment, Gould placed a bowl of sugar water near a beehive, and then after it was discovered by the bees he moved it. However, each time he moved it, he moved four times the distance that he did the previous time. First he moved it one inch, then 4 inches, 16 inches, etc. Soon he was moving it more than 100 feet in a single jump. Surprisingly, in this experiment too the bees caught on and were able to calculate the proper distance for the next jump, and were soon waiting for him. I don’t think most humans would be able to calculate that fast or even recognize the exact pattern at all. We might notice that the difference is getting bigger, but we would not be able to realize that it was an exact 4:1 ratio.

Bats avoid obstacles and nab insects on the fly by emitting ultrasonic squeaks and interpreting the echo the sound waves make after bouncing off objects in the environment. This biological sonar, called “echolocation,” is also used by dolphins to navigate murky waters. This requires incredible computing skills, especially as these animals need to constantly re-evaluate the data as they move.

Besides for computing skills, animals seem to be far more advanced than humans in everything but the ability to talk. Moths can smell traces of pheremones from other moths over seven miles away! Sharks can pick up on the weak electrical signals emitted by the muscle twitching of fish buried in the deep in the sand. Cats have natural “night vision goggles” in which their eyes use a special membrane that allows them to use each photon of light more than once. Dogs have been known to be able to detect illnesses in people long before doctors. The fact that monkeys can do non-verbal math better than Duke students is not something that shocks me at all.

What I think is the most powerful idea in this study is something stated by the researcher, “It shows when you take language away from a human, they end up looking just like monkeys in terms of their performance.” Although this may be a new conclusion for science, it is actually described in the very beginning of Genesis (the genesis of Genesis) where the Torah describes the creation man. The key difference between man and every other species in the animal kingdom is that G-d blew into man a soul, a neshoma. “And Ha-shem, G-d formed the man of dust from the ground and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life and man became a living being” (Gen. 2:7). Interestingly, Onkelos (a translation/exposition of the Torah dating back to 110 CE written by Onkelos, a Roman nobleman who converted), translates “the soul of life” as “ruach mimalila,” which means a “talking spirit.”

Onkelos told us almost two thousand years ago that the defining character of mankind is our intelligent speech, which leads to the ability for rationality and our ability to map out complex issues. Everyone agrees that humans, even Duke students, can do much more complex mathematical operations that Boxer and Feinstein. The monkeys find a simple equation like Pythagorean’s Theory far out of their reach, because they can’t take the multi-step process inherent in language based process (first you do this and then that…). Human’s ability to speak was the soul that G-d blew into our bodies, and has defined mankind through history. It is what allowed us to learn how to make a sandwich (Something Boxer and Feinstein never do), build a house with heating and cooling, invent drones, and cure cancer!

What this means for us is that we have an incredible gift, one that I would take over the ability to smell scents from seven miles away, or sonar capabilities. It is the gift of intelligent speech, and the ability to make decisions based on rational processes. When we use them properly, we are more powerful than any creature. When we allow them to remain dormant or use them negatively, we are the weakest creatures around.

There must be a reason that we were given this gift, as every privilege comes with a responsibility. Our responsibility is to use our speech for inspiring, building, affirming, showing gratitude, and discerning right from wrong. When we do that, we lead infinitely rich lives, magnitudes of order greater than any animal.

That should put the score at Macaque monkeys 1, G-dly human beings 1,000,000,000,000,000,000…

Why do you think G-d gave you this amazing gift?

Enjoy responsibly!

 

Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s parsha, Vayechi, Yaakov blesses the two children of Yosef, Ephraim and Menasheh, and makes them equal to his children. They are the only grandchildren of Yaakov that merit a place among the Twelve Tribes. More than just that, when blessing them, Yaakov says that all Jews should bless their children that they should grow to become like Ephraim and Menasheh. “He blessed them on that day saying: “Through you shall the People of Israel bless saying; ‘May G-d make you as Ephraim and Menasheh’ “ (Gen. 48:19). What is so unique about Ephraim and Menasheh that Yaakov would say that for all of eternity Jews should bless their children using them?

One answer I heard is that there was a quality unique to Ephraim and Menasheh that Yaakov wanted to instill in his progeny. They grew up in a foreign country surrounded by people who didn’t have their faith, yet they remained true to their values and didn’t allow themselves to be swayed by the prevailing winds of their society. Yosef, their father had the advantage of being raised amongst a very close knit family led by the patriarch Yaakov, as did the rest of the Twelve Tribes. But these brothers grew up in Egypt, a land steeped in immorality, and they grew up as children of the viceroy to whom no pleasure or experience would be denied. Yet with all that, they held onto the values of their family and people, and that was what Yaakov saw in them.

Yaakov blessed them on his deathbed. He knew that this would be the beginning of a long and arduous exile, and that it would portend the many subsequent exiles. He therefore wanted to give them role models that they could look to for inspiration in trying times when assimilation would beckon and Jewish identity would wane. That is why we bless our children that they be like Ephraim and Menasheh, people who stood out, stood up, and did what was right for no other reason than that it was right!

 

Parsha Summary

This parsha begins at the end of the life of Yaakov. It discusses the last things that Yaakov did before passing from this world. First, Yaakov asked Yosef to ensure that he would be buried in Israel. He asked Yosef and not the other brothers because he understood that Yosef was the only one with the power to guarantee it, as Yosef was the viceroy of Egypt. Yosef readily agreed.

Soon after that encounter, Yosef got a message that his father was ill, so he immediately hurried to his father’s bedside with his two sons, Ephraim and Menasheh. When they arrived, Yaakov gave Yosef’s sons the status of tribes, thus equating them with their uncles, the rest of Yaakov’s children. This meant that they would each have a separate share in the distribution of Israel, would camp in the desert as two distinct tribes, and would have their own tribal flags. This was an enormous honor not accorded to any other of Yaakov’s grandchildren.

After that, Yosef brought his sons forward to be blessed by his father. Yosef purposely put Menasheh on the left which would be Yaakov’s right, because he was the older brother and the right hand is considered the choice hand. However, Yaakov switched his hands and placed his right on the head of Ephraim. When Yosef tried to switch them back, Yaakov told him that he did this purposely, because the younger brother Ephraim would produce greater people, most notably Joshua who would lead the Jews into Israel after Moses’ death.

Yaakov then blessed them with the following blessing, “Through you shall [the People of] Israel bless saying; ‘May El-him make you as Ephraim and Menasheh.’” (Gen. 48:20). To this day, when parents bless their children on Friday night, as is the custom in many homes, they say that exact formula: “May El-him make you as Ephraim and Menasheh.”

After that, Yaakov called in the rest of his children and blessed all of them, except three, whom he reprimanded. Those chastised were Reuven for moving his father’s bed to his mother’s tent without consulting his father, and Shimon and Levi for destroying the entire city of Shechem after their sister had been kidnapped and violated by the city’s prince. After blessing his sons, Yaakov them to bury him in Me’aras Hamachpela, the same place that Adam and Eve, Avraham and Sara, and Yitzchak and Rivka were buried. After his final request he pulled himself onto the bed and joined his people in heaven.

The entire Egypt mourned the passing of Yaakov, as the famine stopped when he moved there. Pharaoh gave Yosef permission to leave, and the twelve brothers all traveled to Israel to bury their father in the Me’aras Hamachpela. When they came back, the brothers were concerned that now that their father was not there Yosef might try to take revenge on them for the time they sold him. However, he reassured them that he bore them no ill will; rather he understood that G-d sent him down to Egypt to sustain his people through the years of famine.

Yosef was the first of the twelve tribes to die. However, even he lived to the ripe old age of 110 and was able to see three generations of progeny (that means he helped raise his great grandchildren). Before he died he asked the Jewish people that when G-d takes them out of Egypt they bring his bones with them to be buried in Israel. And with that the book of Genesis concludes!!

 

Quote of the Week: The miracle is this — the more we share, the more we have. –Leonard  Nimoy

Random Fact of the Week: Hibernating, a woodchuck breathes 10 times an hour, awake, 2,100 times an hour!

Funny Line of the Week: I would imagine if you could understand Morse Code, a tap dancer would drive you crazy.

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