Ecological Adaptation and Disability

While soaking my aching joints in a hot bath, it occurred to me that as an organism, I am not naturally suited for the environment where I am living. It’s below the freezing temperature outside, and I don’t hibernate or have enough fur or feathers to keep me warm, plus I would have extreme difficulty acquiring enough food to eat with just tooth and nail. Furthermore, human young are born at any season, and take years to rear. From a purely biological perspective, you would think that this hominid species would be limited to foraging family groups living in tropical areas. We are in high contrast to other intelligent, tool-using species that are well-adapted to their environments.

In biology, there are a lot of different means to achieve the same end. All living organisms need to acquire particular kinds of molecules and the energy to assemble them into useful materials so they can grow and reproduce, and also be able to get rid of the kinds of molecules they don’t need; if they reproduce sexually then they need to find another organism with compatible genetic material; and lastly they need to be able to fend off other organisms and to protect themselves from abiotic (environmental) forces that interfere with these activities. Organisms are “successful” by how well they adapt to the available ecological niches, or how well they can create or exploit new kinds of niches.

Cetaceans (whales, porpoises, dolphins) and proboscids (elephants) are nearly-furless, polyphagous mammalian species that are well-adapted to the ecological niches they inhabit (“polyphagous” means an animal eats a variety of foods, which increases the chances for successful foraging or hunting). They have relatively large brains for their body size, and are intelligent animals with long memories, good learning and problem-solving abilities, and forms of language. Hominids (chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans) are furred polyphagous mammalian species that are well-adapted to the ecological niches they inhabit. Hominids also have relatively large brains for their body size, and are intelligent animals with long memories, good learning and problem-solving abilities, and forms of language.

Ecologists refer to such species as being “K-selected” or “K-strategists”, because the numbers of these animals will (under natural conditions) come close to the “K value”, the carrying capacity of the local environment. That means that the population numbers remain fairly high and stable, and this is reflected in the animals’ ability to live a long time and be able to care for a limited number of slow-maturing offspring. The intelligence, knowledge and learning ability, and forms of language contribute to that ability to rear those offspring, and to pass on knowledge in forms of culture.

In some contrast, the fourth hominid, the human, is a nearly-furless, polyphagous, invasive mammalian species that is poorly adapted for most of the ecological environments that it inhabits. Humans are also K-strategists, although being an invasive species with high adaptive abilities, sometimes exceeds the local carrying capacity of its environments. Because of this, humans have the ability to change local and world-wide environments to a far greater degree, and in a shorter period of time, than any other organism.

The only reason why the species is not limited to foraging bands living in tropical areas (the primæval “Eden”) is because we can create so many tools that compensate for our various deficiencies. We have been able to expand our niche beyond that which is biologically natural by taking tool-making far beyond the immediate-problem-solving level that other animals employ. Social insects such as termites, ants and bees create structures, farm fungus or herd aphid livestock, transform raw materials into honey, structural waxes and papers, but the individual species are still limited by their requirements for specific ecotones.

When the “naked ape” is disabled by not being naturally-adapted to its current environment, it responds by creating long-term tools. We create clothing and shelter to cope with colder temperature ranges. We manipulate food resources by herding, farming, hoarding, drying, fermenting, and freezing, and also by selecting, breeding and displacing species far from their natural places of origin. We create machineries of transport to move ourselves and our things. We create tools to compensate for limitations of sensory perception, to increase our ability to get information about our environments. We create tools for the greater memory/storage and dissemination of cultural information.

The human is a terrestrial anomaly because it actively seeks to put itself into disabling environments, and creates tools that will allow it to live and thrive in those environments. Orcas and other dolphins don’t create tools that will allow them to live on land, and elephants don’t make tools that will allow them to colonise temperate zones. Meanwhile, there are millions of individual humans who would not be able to physically survive in their natural environments, and I don’t just mean the “extremophiles” in low earth orbit or Antarctica. Easily 99% of the humans alive today rely upon the accommodations of farmed food, shelter and clothing, plus things like corrective lenses, hearing aids, wheels, and health-maintaining pharmaceuticals.

There’s a reason why we have different connotations for the words “nude” and “naked”. A human is only nude when they feel safe and protected from the world. But a naked human hominid, stripped of its clothing and other tools, is fairly defenceless, and not easily a successful organism in most environments.

One of the benefits to being able to modify environments according to needs is that humans are able to create so many more niches. We can create different personal environments by using different materials to perform different jobs. We can compensate for different abilities in ways that other animals cannot, and thus succeed individually. Our ability to make long-term tools and create micro-environments for ourselves allows us to be successful to live out our natural lifespans, to rear children and care for each other at different life stages.

Given that humans must compensate for so many natural disabilities, it’s surprising that we will go out of our way to create additional disabilities for ourselves, those handicaps that are created by the social environments. The idea that people should be “independent” and not need things to enable us to function is wholly absurd. We all need other people and things to learn and to function; it’s the specifics that sometimes differ. These are artificial barriers to successful living, not natural barriers.

The human being as a species is simultaneously the most disabled and yet the most successful organism on the planet. We need to remember that, especially when we seek to pretend that disabled people are not “normal” people. Specific disabilities may not be average, but being disabled is inherently normal. You can’t get much more inherently disabled than being a naked ape outside of “Eden”.

The Four-Letter F-Word

They were staging a sit-in. All four of them, sitting there and staring intently at me, What is she going to do?

I looked at the other adult in the room and asked, “Did you say the four-letter F-word?”

He shook his head no. He had in fact said neither Fish nor even Chicken. But there were all four cats gathered by their dishes and staring fixedly at me. They do that every now and then – instead or one or two cats reminding some random person that the kibble dishes are getting empty, all four of them will gather round and complain at me, specifically. The woman who can read enough feline body language to know that the congregation is requesting goodies from the pop-top cans. Manna from Mama. Apparently the usual dry kibble gets boring, and they want “chicken slices in gravy” or some such thing.

Except for tonight. Spot isn’t having any of it. He’s not swarming around my ankles and meowing, but rather sitting on a dining chair and staring at me with his great, golden eyes. The goody from the pop-top can doesn’t appeal. He probably smelled the bag of grilled salmon take-out that hubby had brought home and popped in the refrigerator. Spot prefers “real” fish to the processed glop from the tin; he used to catch his own meals at a lake. In fact, the past few times I’ve cooked fish he has waited for and requested the leftovers, which he’s welcome to because fish doesn’t reheat well.

It only took a few meals for Spot to learn what I meant when I asked him, “Hey, Spot! Fish?” Spot’s a smart cat; it took less than half a dozen repetitions (“trials” as they are known in training parlance) for him to associate hearing the human word “Fish” with the generalised concept of sushi tuna, grilled salmon or poached tilapia for him to eat. Those trials didn’t even happen in the same hour or the same day.

Now, teaching Spot to learn the word “fish” did not involve any rigorous training sessions. I merely caught his attention by saying his name, then set down a dish containing some various leftovers while saying, “Fish!” It’s simple associative learning. Granted, food is a good reinforcement, and he was already aware that some of the things people say are directed to him and are meant to inform him of something.

He also knows that when I say, “Water’s boiling,” this means that he needs to get off my lap so I can get up and make a cup of tea, and that I’ll return in a minute to make a lap for him again. That’s actually much more complex; for all he knows, the syllables “Water’s boiling,” really mean, “Get up”. But he’s also observed that when I say “Water’s boiling,” instead of something like, “Okay, I gotta get up now,” or “Time to make dinner,” that I am going to return to my chair shortly, and that if he hangs around he gets to curl up with me again. Sometimes he stands on the chair cushion, rather than laying down on it, because he knows I’m likely to come back and sit down. That’s a more complex chain of events; he’s not only associated a spoken word with an action for him to do, but he’s also observing my behavioural patterns so he can choose his next course of action.

But for all of his high level of feline intelligence, he’s still limited in what he can learn. Especially compared to a human child.

If you use food as a familiar, desireable food reinforcement, how many trials do you think it will take for a human child to learn to associate a word or two with an action? For example, “sit down” or “stand up”.

Six? Twelve? Maybe fifteen?

How about over 100? We’re talking about children who have grown up in a home where other people have been using language with the child for over two years. Presumably the child knows that some of the things people say are directed to him and are meant to inform him of something. Food is a good reinforcement, and the child’s favorite foods are even used. (We have to assume that the child’s hearing is fine, and that the adult has the child’s attention.)

Here’s a parent’s description of an Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA) training session with their child (

“Sit down,” I’d repeat, this time placing my hands on his shoulders to gently guide him into the chair. Eyes still averted, he allowed me to ease him down.

“Good boy!” I’d squeeze an M&M between his pursed lips for his efforts, recording a “P” to indicate that I ‘d had to manually prompt him for his second trial.

“Sit down,” I’d repeat 27 more times, alternating between M&M’s, chocolate chips, hugs and tickles, recording each discrete trial.

Then I’d begin with 30 trials of “stand up,” “turn around”, and other “one-step” commands before moving on to teaching Jake to “do this” as I manually prompted him 30 times to drop a block in a bucket.

After each of the 30 trials, we’d take a structured play break.

It took a total of 150 trials over three weeks to teach Jake to sit down, 180 trials over three weeks to teach Jake to stand up, and 2,100 trials over 10 weeks to teach Jake to look at us when we called his name.

The child was two years old. There were people doing this with him for forty hours a week, month after month.

Different children learn in different ways, and on their own different time schedules. Some skills take longer than others. I was eight years old before I learned to tie my shoelaces; I had to acquire the fine-motor dexterity to manipulate the laces and maintain the right tension, and be able to remember and follow the sequence of steps. I compensated for my lack of shoelace tying by wearing buckle shoes during my first three years of school. In the grand scheme of all things scholastic, it wasn’t a big deal. It was a big deal for my parents and I do remember spending a lot of frustrated days sitting around fighting with the laces on my sneakers (trainers). Every now and then some adult would sit down with me and show me how they tied shoelaces. Thankfully, my third-grade teacher’s method of direction was different enough that the process finally made sense.

But when an instructional method requires 150 or 180 repeated trials for the child to learn to associate a word with an activity they already know how to do … that really seems like it’s the wrong teaching approach for the child.

Maybe parents are too fearful of another four-letter F-word, Fail. They are afraid that without endless hours of intensive, repetitious work (and mounds of data sheets to show for it), that their children will fail to learn and grow. Amazingly, children do learn and grow. I’m not saying that additional instructional is not sometimes necessary, but rather than given these kinds of results, such an approach does not seem to be the best method.

Applied Behavioural Analysis is neither a good nor a bad thing unto itself. But any good teaching naturally uses behavioural observation and analysis. And if those observations show that someone has not learned something after a considerable number of tries, then the instructor needs to analyse where in the teaching process the breakdown is occurring, and to consider what other means might be more efficacious.