Racism, Humanism, and Speciesism: The Irony of the Censored “Huck Finn”

For reasons unrelated to the recent controversy surrounding the book, I’ve recently been rereading Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (the Norton Critical Edition, uncensored). Nonetheless, the controversy has been sharp in my mind as I’ve been reading, and it’s striking how deeply the change undermines some key passages from the book. Take this one, from the end of Chapter XIV:
“Why, Huck, doan de French people talk de same way we does?”
No, Jim; you couldn’t understand a word they said — not a single word.”
“Well, now, I be ding-busted! How do dat come?”
I don’t know; but it’s so. I got some of their jabber out of a book. Spose a man was to come to you and say Polly-voo-franzy — what would you think?”
“I wouldn’ think nuff’n; I’d take en bust him over de head — dat is, if he warn’t white. I wouldn’t ’low no nigger to call me dat.”
“Shucks, it ain’t calling you anything. It’s only saying, do you know how to talk French.”
“Well, den, why couldn’t he say it?”
“Why, he is a-saying it. That’s a Frenchman’s way of saying it.”
“Well, it’s a blame’ ridicklous way, en I doan’ want to hear no mo’ ’bout it. Dey ain’ no sense in it.”
“Looky here, Jim, does a cat talk like we do?”
“No, a cat don’t.”
“Well, does a cow?”
“No, a cow don’t, nuther.”
“Does a cat talk like a cow, or a cow talk like a cat?”
“No, dey don’t.”
“It’s natural and right for ’em to talk different from each other, ain’t it?”
“ ’Course.”
“And ain’t it natural and right for a cat and a cow to talk different from us?”
“Why, mos’ sholy it is.”
“Well, then, why ain’t it natural and right for a Frenchman to talk different from us? — you answer me that.”
“Is a cat a man, Huck?”
“Well, den, dey ain’t no sense in a cat talkin’ like a man. Is a cow a man? — er is a cow a cat?”
“No, she ain’t either of them.”
“Well, den, she ain’t got no business to talk like either one er the yuther of ’em. Is a Frenchman a man?”
Well, den! Dad blame it, why doan’ he talk like a man? — you answer me dat!”
I see it warn’t no use wasting words — you can’t learn a nigger to argue. So I quit.
Huck is right, of course, that Jim fails to grasp a basic piece of knowledge: the existence of multiple human languages. But the genius of this passage lies in how Jim, in refuting that it is “natural and right” to think that a Frenchman is different from an American in the same way a cow is, actually expresses a much deeper truth that Huck fails to grasp. Moreover, the passage conveys this truth not just in spite of Huck being our narrator, but through the way Huck reveals his ignorance and Jim does not. Huck dismisses Jim’s argument using an epithet that asserts that a black man is less than a man, when of course Jim, a black man, has just shown a truth deeper than differences of language or understanding: a man is a man. Jim’s point is both argument and — in showing Jim’s intellect — demonstration of what is wrong with the epithet. (This is true despite the fact that Jim himself continues to use the epithet, and appears on some level to believe it.)
The motivation behind replacing the “n-word” with the word “slave” is understandable: I feel uncomfortable even repeating it in the excerpt here. But the power of this passage, and other similar ones in the novel, would be completely lost if the word were changed to “slave.” Huck would seem to be dismissing Jim’s argument based on his terrible lot in life — which deprived him, perhaps, of Huck’s educational opportunities — rather than based on the idea that Jim’s race makes him subhuman.
This change has the advantage of appealing to our modern understanding of why Jim seems ignorant in many respects. But the central purposes of passages like this one are then lost: the meaning of Jim’s point itself, its significance in relationship to Huck’s dismissal of it, and the fact that Jim’s ability to even have such an insight is evidence itself of how wrong and cruel are Huck’s use of that term. Writing thirty years ago in the New York Times about efforts to ban the book, Russell Baker noted:

The people [whom Huck and Jim] encounter are drunkards, murderers, bullies, swindlers, lynchers, thieves, liars, frauds, child abusers, numbskulls, hypocrites, windbags and traders in human flesh. All are white. The one man of honor in this phantasmagoria is black Jim, the runaway slave. “Nigger Jim,” as Twain called him to emphasize the irony of a society in which the only true gentleman was held beneath contempt.

As Twain wrote the book, Jim is a living refutation, through his evident sensitivity, intelligence, and honor, of that terrible term Huck uses to dismiss him. But in the reformulation, many of those qualities become less evident, so that ironically, “Slave Jim” seems much more like a minstrel-show caricature than does “Nigger Jim.” Worse still, the irony of Jim’s name is lost too, so that where Twain’s book shows how wrong it is to think of Jim as subhuman — and suggests why the source of our equality was still of pressing importance to the book’s readers in 1885 — the new version instead brings us to see Jim as merely an object of pity.
Transhumanists coopt civil rightsrhetoric, warping it in the process.Photo via flickr/ThinkVegan.

I hope the meaning of this passage, and others like it from Huck Finn — particularly the astonishing chapter after the one cited above, in which Huck plays a cruel trick on Jim — will survive. And I believe that transhumanist theorists and activists could learn a thing or two about rights, equality, persons, and (if they are interested) human beings by revisiting Twain’s great book. One transhumanist group, the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, recently announced a program to promote the idea of the “Non-Human Person.” I strongly support efforts to better our treatment of animals and the environment, and to reevaluate our historical attitude towards both as mere matter for manipulation, devoid of any moral status. But the IEET’s new program, in stating that “the general thrust of human history is toward the progressive inclusion of previously marginalized individuals and groups,” continues the transhumanist trope of claiming that the movement is carrying on the work that freed the slaves and brought civil rights to minorities — and so it would do well to acknowledge the historical facts about how civil rights advanced, and about where our equality has been understood to come from.

Memphis sanitation workers strike in 1968. Photo copyright Richard L. Copley.
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Watson reax from an AI researcher, Ken Jennings, and others

I’d like to point our readers to a couple articles of note about IBM’s Watson and its Jeopardy! win.
First, transhumanist and AI researcher Ben Goertzel, writing at, of all places, KurzweilAI.net, seems to agree with my overall assessment of the significance of Watson:
Ray Kurzweil has written glowingly of Watson as an important technology milestone
Indeed no human can do what a search engine does, but computers have still not shown an ability to deal with the subtlety and complexity of language. Humans, on the other hand, have been unique in our ability to think in a hierarchical fashion, to understand the elaborate nested structures in language, to put symbols together to form an idea, and then to use a symbol for that idea in yet another such structure. This is what sets humans apart.

That is, until now. Watson is a stunning example of the growing ability of computers to successfully invade this supposedly unique attribute of human intelligence.
I understand where Kurzweil is coming from, but nevertheless, this is a fair bit stronger statement than I’d make. As an AI researcher myself I’m quite aware of the all subtlety that goes into “thinking in a hierarchical fashion,” “forming ideas,” and so forth. What Watson does is simply to match question text against large masses of possible answer text — and this is very different than what an AI system will need to do to display human-level general intelligence. Human intelligence has to do with the synergetic combination of many things, including linguistic intelligence but also formal non-linguistic abstraction, non-linguistic learning of habits and procedures, visual and other sensory imagination, creativity of new ideas only indirectly related to anything heard or read before, etc. An architecture like Watson barely scratches the surface!
Next, the most witty and astute piece I’ve read on Watson comes from Ken Jennings himself. It turns out that the grace and good humor (in both senses of the word) Jennings displayed on Jeopardy! wasn’t a fluke:

Indeed, playing against Watson turned out to be a lot like any other Jeopardy! game, though out of the corner of my eye I could see that the middle player had a plasma screen for a face. Watson has lots in common with a top-ranked human Jeopardy! player: It’s very smart, very fast, speaks in an uneven monotone, and has never known the touch of a woman.

Jennings’s short article is well worth your time to read, as is his equally funny and insightful Q&A session at the Washington Post.
Finally, don’t miss Hijinks Ensue’s comic and Slate’s hilarious video about Watson. Part of the latter is factual, but the premise is about Watson’s quest trying to “make it” on other game shows, such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, The Newlywed Game, and Survivor. Good stuff (though a warning that both have PG-13 elements).

Watson, Can You Hear Me? (The Significance of the “Jeopardy” AI win)

Yesterday, on Jeopardy!, a computer handily beat its human competitors. Stephen Gordon asks, “Did the Singularity Just Happen on Jeopardy?” If so, then I think it’s time for me and my co-bloggers to pack up and go home, because the Singularity is damned underwhelming. This was one giant leap for robot publicity, but only a small step for robotkind.

Unlike Deep Blue, the IBM computer that in 1997 defeated the world chess champion Garry Kasparov, I saw no indication that the Jeopardy! victory constituted any remarkable innovation in artificial intelligence methods. IBM’s Watson computer is essentially search engine technology with some basic natural language processing (NLP) capability sprinkled on top. Most Jeopardy! clues contain definite, specific keywords associated with the correct response — such that you could probably Google those keywords, and the correct response would be contained somewhere in the first page of results. The game is already very amenable to what computers do well.
In fact, Stephen Wolfram shows that you can get a remarkable amount of the way to building a system like Watson just by putting Jeopardy! clues straight into Google:
Once you’ve got that, it only requires a little NLP to extract a list of candidate responses, some statistical training to weight those responses properly, and then a variety of purpose-built tricks to accommodate the various quirks of Jeopardy!-style categories and jokes. Watching Watson perform, it’s not too difficult to imagine the combination of algorithms used.
Compiling Watson’s Errors
On that large share of search-engine-amenable clues, Watson almost always did very well. What’s more interesting to note is the various types of clues on which Watson performed very poorly. Perhaps the best example was the Final Jeopardy clue from the first game (which was broadcast on the second of three nights). The category was “U.S. Cities,” and the clue was “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest, for a World War II battle.” Both of the human players correctly responded Chicago, but Watson incorrectly responded Toronto — and the audience audibly gasped when it did.
Watson performed poorly on this Final Jeopardy because there were no words in either the clue or the category that are strongly and specifically associated with Chicago — that is, you wouldn’t expect “Chicago” to come up if you were to stick something like this clue into Google (unless you included pages talking about this week’s tournament). But there was an even more glaring error here: anyone who knows enough about Toronto to know about its airports will know that it is not a U.S. city.
There were a variety of other instances like this of “dumb” behavior on Watson’s part. The partial list that follows gives a flavor of the kinds of mistakes the machine made, and can help us understand their causes.
  • With the category “Beatles People” and the clue “‘Bang bang’ his ‘silver hammer came down upon her head,’” Watson responded, “What is Maxwell’s silver hammer.” Surprisingly, Alex Trebek accepted this response as correct, even though the category and clue were clearly asking for the name of a person, not a thing.
  • With the category “Olympic Oddities” and the clue “It was the anatomical oddity of U.S. gymnast George Eyser, who won a gold medal on the parallel bars in 1904,” Watson responded, “What is leg.” The correct response was, “What is he was missing a leg.”
  • In the “Name the Decade” category, Watson at one point didn’t seem to know what the category was asking for. With the clue “Klaus Barbie is sentenced to life in prison & DNA is first used to convict a criminal,” none of its top three responses was a decade. (Correct response: “What is the 1980s?”)
  • Also in the category “Name the Decade,” there was the clue, “The first modern crossword puzzle is published & Oreo cookies are introduced.” Ken responded, “What are the twenties.” Trebek said no, and then Watson rang in and responded, “What is 1920s.” (Trebek came back with, “No, Ken said that.”)
  • With the category “Literary Character APB,” and the clue “His victims include Charity Burbage, Mad Eye Moody & Severus Snape; he’d be easier to catch if you’d just name him!” Watson didn’t ring in because his top option was Harry Potter, with only 37% confidence. His second option was Voldemort, with 20% confidence.
  • On one clue, Watson’s top option (which was correct) was “Steve Wynn.” Its second-ranked option was “Stephen A. Wynn” — the full name of the same person.
  • With the clue “In 2002, Eminem signed this rapper to a 7-figure deal, obviously worth a lot more than his name implies,” Watson’s top option was the correct one — 50 Cent — but its confidence was too low to ring in.
  • With the clue “The Schengen Agreement removes any controls at these between most EU neighbors,” Watson’s first choice was “passport” with 33% confidence. Its second choice was “Border” with 14%, which would have been correct. (Incidentally, it’s curious to note that one answer was capitalized and the other was not.)
  • In the category “Computer Keys” with the clue “A loose-fitting dress hanging from the shoulders to below the waist,” Watson incorrectly responded “Chemise.” (Ken then incorrectly responded “A,” thinking of an A-line skirt. The correct response was a “shift.”)
  • Also in “Computer Keys,” with the clue “Proverbially, it’s ‘where the heart is,’” Watson’s top option (though it did not ring in) was “Home Is Where the Heart Is.”
  • With the clue “It was 103 degrees in July 2010 & Con Ed’s command center in this N.Y. borough showed 12,963 megawatts consumed at 1 time,” Watson’s first choice (though it did have enough confidence to ring in) was “New York City.”
  • In the category “Nonfiction,” with the clue “The New Yorker’s 1959 review of this said in its brevity & clarity it is ‘unlike most such manuals, a book as well as a tool.’” Watson incorrectly responded “Dorothy Parker.” The correct response was “The Elements of Style.”
  • For the clue “One definition of this is entering a private place with the intent of listening secretly to private conversations,” Watson’s first choice was “eavesdropper,” with 79% confidence. Second was “eavesdropping,” with 49% confidence.
  • For the clue “In May 2010 5 paintings worth $125 million by Braque, Matisse & 3 others left Paris’ museum of this art period,” Watson responded, “Picasso.”
We can group these errors into a few broad, somewhat overlapping categories:
  • Failure to understand what type of thing the clue was pointing to, e.g. “Maxwell’s silver hammer” instead of “Maxwell”; “leg” instead of “he was missing a leg”; “eavesdropper” instead of “eavesdropping.”
  • Failure to understand what type of thing the category was pointing to, e.g.,“Home Is Where the Heart Is” for “Computer Keys”; “Toronto” for “U.S. cities.”
  • Basic errors in worldly logic, e.g. repeating Ken’s wrong response; considering “Steve Wynn” and “Stephen A. Wynn” to be different responses.
  • Inability to understand jokes or puns in clues, e.g. 50 Cent being “worth” “more than his name implies”; “he’d be easier to catch if you’d just name him!” about Voldemort.
  • Inability to respond to clues lacking keywords specifically associated with the correct respone, e.g. the Voldemort clue; “Dorothy Parker” instead of “The Elements of Style.”
  • Inability to correctly respond to complicated clues that involve inference and combining facts in subsequent stages, rather than combining independent associated clues; e.g. the Chicago airport clue.
What these errors add up to is that Watson really cannot process natural language in a very sophisticated way — if it did, it would not suffer from the category errors that marked so many of its wrong responses. Nor does it have much ability to perform the inference required to integrate several discrete pieces of knowledge, as required for understanding puns, jokes, wordplay, and allusions. On clues involving these skills and lacking search-engine-friendly keywords, Watson stumbled. And when it stumbled, it often seemed not just ignorant, but completely thoughtless.
I expect you could create an unbeatable Jeopardy! champion by allowing a human player to look at Watson’s weighted list of possible responses, even without the weights being nearly as accurate as Watson has them. While Watson assigns percentage-based confidence levels, any moderately educated human will be immediately be able to discriminate potential responses into the three relatively discrete categories “makes no sense,” “yes, that sounds right,” and “don’t know, but maybe.” Watson hasn’t come close to touching this.
The Significance of Watson’s Jeopardy! Win
In short, Watson is not anywhere close to possessing true understanding of its knowledge — neither conscious understanding of the sort humans experience, nor unconscious, rule-based syntactic and semantic understanding sufficient to imitate the conscious variety. (Stephen Wolfram’s post accessibly explains his effort to achieve the latter.) Watson does not bring us any closer, in other words, to building a Mr. Data, even if such a thing is possible. Nor does it put us much closer to an Enterprise ship’s computer, as many have suggested.
In the meantime, of course, there were some singularly human characteristics on display in the Jeopardy! tournament, and evident only in the human participants. Particularly notable was the affability, charm, and grace of Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. But the best part was the touches of genuine, often self-deprecating humor by the two contestants as they tried their best against the computer. This culminated in Ken Jennings’s joke on his last Final Jeopardy response:
Nicely done, sir. The closing credits, which usually show the contestants chatting with Trebek onstage, instead showed Jennings and Rutter attempting to “high-five” Watson and show it other gestures of goodwill:
I’m not saying it couldn’t ever be done by a computer, but it seems like joking around will have to be just about the last thing A.I. will achieve. There’s a reason Mr. Data couldn’t crack jokes. Because, well, humor — it is a difficult concept. It is not logical. All the more reason, though, why I can’t wait for Saturday Night Live’s inevitable “Celebrity Jeopardy” segment where Watson joins in with Sean Connery to torment Alex Trebek.

Are humanists the new racists?

Our last post, simply a picture of a joyous Audrey Hepburn leaping in the air with the title “Does Anybody Seriously Think We Can Do Better than This?,” provoked a long comment thread. Michael Anissimov posted a comment (and then reposted it on his own blog with a short response to it):

Our evaluations of “goodness” are not objective truths, just subjective facts about the structure of our own minds. The opportunity to modify and enhance those minds will vastly increase the space of things we can understand and appreciate. This will allow us to create new forms of attractiveness and wonder that we lack the facilities to appreciate now.

Commenter Brendan Foht notes that Mr. Anissimov’s line of argument “is at the crux of the most radical aspects of transhumanism,” and neatly explains its contradiction:

When ‘goodness’ is made completely contingent on the structure of our historically/biologically conditioned minds, we make room for the possibility of new kinds of goodness, if we alter the historical or biological conditions that structure our minds…. [But] if our concepts of goodness are structured by our current situation, what reasons could we… have for choosing new kinds of goodness?

The paradox Foht points out is a fundamental one for transhumanists. They face the necessary task of destroying existing value systems, but they always seem to attempt this task by neutralizing values as such, declaring them arbitrary, contingent, publicly unsettleable, a matter of personal choice, etc. The problem is that the value systems they are attempting to set forth as higher alternatives are then necessarily also undercut. As I’ve noted before (here and here), if transhumanists succeed in removing the reasons we shouldn’t embrace some modification, they then leave us without any reasons why we should. In short, the inherent problem with arguing for relativism is that you can’t convince anyone it’s better.
Oh, yeah, he went there
Transhumanists are not truly relativists, however; they just have a warped value system, the deep incoherence of which often leads them to fall back on relativistic arguments in place of direct arguments for why their goods ought to replace normal human ones. If they were truly relativists, their writing would not betray the high-minded moral posturing that it does. Take this part of the same comment from Mr. Anissimov (as continued in his re-posting of it):
[E]ven though I’m favor of morphological freedom (rather than the morphological fascism that I have to look and think a certain specific way, the way it’s been for over 200K years) [that] doesn’t mean that I discourage people from rejecting transhumanism entirely and living only among other humans…. Today, for instance, there are some people that only choose to live among their own race, for fear that race-mixing leads to irrevocable societal chaos. It is only natural to fear that species-mixing in a society could lead to problems, but I’ll bet that some combinations of species could lead to a harmonious equilibrium.
Yes, I went there…. Conservatives seem to often believe in the hypothesis that [the] more we’re alike, the better we can get along. Liberals argue that we can get along despite our diversity.
I guess that makes us “morphological fascists.” Which one of the Futurisms bloggers do you suppose is morphological Mussolini? Or is it that we’re the morphological equivalent of racists, and Mr. Anissimov is the morphological Martin Luther King?
It’s hard to know where to begin with this sort of uninformed and unserious argument, teeming with straw men. You might start by wondering who are the people that Mr. Anissimov claims fear living among other species — even though we have always lived among other species. (The problem, of course, is that transhumanists want to create new species of such higher intelligence than ours that they might relate to us in ways akin to how we relate to dogs, cows, or mosquitoes.) You might also wonder what his comment has to do with Charles Rubin’s original question of whether “we can do better” than that image of Audrey Hepburn, a picture that Rubin says shows us “not the peak of human history or existence, but…does show us a peak of human experience.”
What Mr. Anissimov seems to be getting at is that to affirm the unsurpassable beauty of the Hepburn photo is to commit a sort of discrimination, or species-racism. He wants to turn Rubin’s question on its head: To say that we couldn’t do better is to say that a member of any other species would be less beautiful, which is the same as saying that a member of any other race would be less beautiful.
But the actual history of the fight against racism reveals a picture very different from the one he implies, in which people somehow came to appreciate that race is contingent and so we should not begrudge each race for appreciating its own as best. On the contrary, Martin Luther King and others fought for equality by illustrating our commonality rather than our differences — by demonstrating that all races are equally human, possessing of equal human dignity, and so ought to be treated with equal respect. We can “get along despite our diversity” because we are human, in a way that, say, we should not expect humans and insects to get along despite their diversity.
Finally, I can’t resist noting Mr. Anissimov’s goofily self-congratulatory depiction of transhumanism as the sort of thing that kids will experiment with, perhaps when they go off to college: “I do, however, think that children should be able to do what they want with themselves after a certain age, and I doubt that Christian conservative parents will be able to stop their curious and neophilic children from embracing transhumanist technologies.” This brings to mind the following comic, which he would seem to have to think should be taken seriously (click to enlarge):

The Significance of Man

Over at Gizmodo, Jesus Diaz has called attention to a genuinely lovely animation of Earth’s weather from August 17-26, 2009. He notes in passing, “It also shows how beautiful this planet is, and how insignificant we are.”

Scene from '2001: A Space Odyssey'There is something about pictures of Earth from space that seems to call forth this judgment all the time; it is equivalent, I suppose, to the “those people look like ants” wonderment that used to be so common when viewing a city from the top of its tallest building. That humans are insignificant is a particularly common idea among those environmentalists and atheists who consider that their opinions are founded in a scientific worldview. It is also widely shared by transhumanists, who use it all the time, if only implicitly, when they debunk such pretensions as might make us satisfied with not making the leap to posthumanity.

But in fact, just as those people were not really ants, so it is not clear that we are so insignificant, even from the point of view of a science that teaches us that we are a vanishingly small part of what Michael Frayn, in his classic novel Sweet Dreams, called “a universe of zeros.” Let’s leave aside all the amazing human accomplishments in science and technology (let alone literature and the arts) that are required for Mr. Diaz to be able to call our attention to the video, and the amazing human accomplishments likewise necessary to produce the video. The bottom line is, we are the only beings out there observing what Earth’s weather looks like from space. Until we find alien intelligence, there is arguably no “observing” at all without us, and certainly no observations that would culminate in a judgment about how beautiful something is. At the moment, so far as we know (that is, leaving aside faith in God or aliens) we are the way in which the universe is coming to know itself, whether through the lens of science or aesthetics. That hardly seems like small potatoes.

Sometimes transhumanists play this side of the field, too. Perhaps we are the enlivening intelligence of a universe of otherwise dead matter, and it is the great task of humanity to spread intelligence throughout the cosmos, a task for which we are plainly unsuited in our present form. So onward, posthuman soldiers, following your self-willed evolutionary imperative! Those of us left behind may at least come to find some satisfaction that we were of the race that gave birth to you dancing stars.

It is interesting how quickly we come back to human insignificance; in this case, it is transhumanism’s belief in our vast potential to become what we are not, which makes what we are look so small.