Dec 19, 2023
“On a deeper level than you know, your neighbor is yourself…and you are your neighbor.”
Do I know who I am? Only if I know who you are! And so a new ‘mouse test’ solves a three millennia-old conundrum: How do I even know that I am?
Bet you haven’t thought much about that since college! Fortunately, others have. René Descartes (d. 1650 CE) claimed to have discovered being in the process of thinking: cogito ergo sum. As self-absorbed adolescents, most of us found Descartes’ naval gazing attractive and convincing for a time.
But Descartes had his critics—some before he was born. The grandfather of Western philosophy, Anaximander (c. 550 BCE), believed that each of us comes to be only by relating (‘granting reck’) to an ontological equal, e.g., another person. 2500 years later, a Jewish existentialist, Martin Buber, picked up the baton: “In the beginning is the relation.”
In between, there was a guy named Jesus (c. 30 CE), aka the Christ, who picked out one of the 613 mitzvahs found in Torah and made it the cornerstone of his philosophy: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is not the standard Sunday School ‘do unto others’ – this is radical ontology: Regard your neighbor as yourself because, on a deeper level than you know, your neighbor is yourself…and you are your neighbor.
This Jesus inspired a cadre of followers that included two of the world’s greatest philosophers, Paul of Tarsus and John of Ephesus. Together, the three created a stir that lasted a few hundred years. Then Jesus went out of fashion, and we had to ‘make do’ with the acrid ideas of Machiavelli and his heirs. So began the real Dark Ages (1500 – 1900 CE).
But now we know, Jesus was right after all (along with Buber, Anaximander, et al.). “And how do I know? A mouse test tells me so!” Here’s how:
At birth, a ‘mischief of mice’ is divided into two teams; call them Team Jesus and Team Descartes. Cartesian mice are raised in a mouse-free, mirror-free environment, aka isolation. Christian mice grow up in the company of other members of their species and in the vicinity of mirrors.
It’s Game Day! Experimenters first select a Cartesian mouse. They put a dollop of white ink on the mouse’s black fur, and then they place that mouse in front of a mirror. Nothing happens. (What’d you expect, fireworks?)
But then they repeat the experiment, this time selecting a good, church-going Christian mouse. As soon as the Christian mouse catches sight of itself in the mirror, it begins to engage in heightened grooming activity, apparently attempting to wipe off the white ink.
Our Christian mouse (1) knows what she is supposed to look like (through experience with other mice), (2) realizes that the mouse-in-the-mirror is she, (3) recognizes that she does not look as she should, and (4) initiates remediation, aka self-grooming, to correct the problem. This is an intellectual tour de force. But it may come with a dark side!
Jun Yokose, study author, University of Texas, writes: “Using gene expression mapping, the researchers identified a subset of neurons in the ventral hippocampus that were activated when the mice ‘recognized’ themselves in the mirror. When the researchers selectively rendered these neurons non-functional, the mice no longer displayed the mirror-and-ink-induced grooming behavior.
“A subset of these self-responding neurons also became activated when the mice observed other mice of the same strain (and therefore similar physical appearance and fur color), but not when they observed a different strain of mouse that had white fur.”
“The gene expression analysis also showed that socially isolated mice did not develop self-responding neuron activity in the hippocampus, and neither did the black-furred mice that were reared by white-furred mice, suggesting that mice need to have social experiences alongside other similar-looking mice in order to develop the neural circuits required for self-recognition.”
Does this mean that incipient racism is hard-wired into the mammalian genome? Or, much worse, that it is inherent in the process of thinking itself? In that dire case, do we need to be concerned that racism will be an emergent property of AI? How would you recognize a racist bot? Are we about to unleash a new generation of Klansmen?
Moving beyond ‘race’, if that were even possible, the research suggests that self-awareness (aka consciousness) may require us to see ourselves from outside-in, reflected either in other, similar-looking members of our community or in an external image (e.g., reflection in a mirror) of ourselves. Would art, e.g. a cave painting, serve the same function?
Writing this in December 2023, I am struck by how quickly Hamas’ recent invasion of Israel triggered an eruption of antisemitism across the globe. With little apparent thought, folks’ opposition to the specific policies of the current government of Israel turned into violence against anyone of Jewish descent, anywhere, without provocation of any sort.
Many Jews oppose both the objectives and the tactics of Israel’s military offensive, but that reality seems lost on the knee-jerk antisemites. You can hardly escape the feeling that this was simmering just below the surface, waiting for the slightest crack in the crust of civilization to erupt geyser-like into the air.
You will not be surprised to hear that the 21st century may be when we finally learn that we’re not alone. You’ve been expecting little green men on your front lawn for years now. But I’m not talking about extraterrestrials; I’m talking about the myriad of species with whom we share our planet, most of whom were here long before we were. Who’s the alien now?
The fact is, we live surrounded by sentient, self-aware organisms that we have shamelessly treated as if they were pet rocks. Now, as we push back the fog of anthropo-exclusivity, perhaps we will also discover our own common humanity.