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Prestigious Chimps and the Emergence of Cultural Innovation

May 27, 2010

     New research finds chimpanzees follow
 prestigious models when learning new tasks.
        Monika Thorpe / Creative Commons

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgIf one were to play psychiatrist to the natural world, most human beings would be committed for our certifiable obsession with other peoples’ behavior. We compulsively examine, study, appraise, size up, and scope out what those around us are doing and then gossip with others about what we’ve seen or heard. New ideas or behaviors are especially compelling and will often have cultural critics discussing them at length, whether they’re tribal elders or the United States Congress.
Given this equal opportunity scrutiny, why is it then that only some individuals and not others become cultural innovators, serving as models for our own behavior? For example, when Benjamin Franklin adorned his rustic fur cap in France or when Tupac Shakur wore his baggy jeans on stage, they inspired widespread cultural trends that made their mark on history (by contrast, notice how few people copied Henry David Thoreau’s fetching neckbeard or the, let’s call it unique, style of Vanilla Ice). In societies around the globe certain influential figures, to use the concept of anthropologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu, benefit from “cultural capital” because of their social prestige in a given society. This results in others being more likely to adopt any unique cultural traits that they invent. After all, if someone who is widely admired and successful adopts a new way of doing things, perhaps following their lead could make you admired and successful too?
Now, a new study in PLoS ONE by Victoria Horner, Darby Proctor, Kristin E. Bonnie, Andrew Whiten, and Frans de Waal suggests that prestige is an important factor in other primates as well. By employing a simple behavioral experiment these researchers demonstrated that chimpanzees, when given a choice between two nearly identical tasks, will choose the one they previously witnessed a high-ranking member of the troop perform.

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Punishing Cheaters Promotes the Evolution of Cooperation

May 18, 2010

Author’s Note: This post was selected as the topic for the ResearchBlogCast as part of Listen to the discussion here.
   Could punishing bad behavior be the origin
                 of human cooperation?

ResearchBlogging.orgHumans are one of the most cooperative species on the planet. Our ability to coordinate behavior and work collaboratively with others has allowed us to create the natural world’s largest and most densely populated societies, outside of deep sea microbial mats and a few Hymenoptera mega-colonies.
A key problem when trying to understand the evolution of cooperation has been the issue of cheaters. Individuals in a social group, whether that group is composed of bacteria, cichlids, chimpanzees, or people, often benefit when cooperating with others who reciprocate the favor. But what about those individuals who take advantage of the generosity of others and provide nothing in return? These individuals could well thrive thanks to the group as a whole and end up with greater fitness than everyone else because they didn’t have to pay the costs associated with cooperating. For decades the idea that cheaters may in fact prosper has been the greatest difficulty in understanding cooperation as an evolved trait.
However, new research suggests that cooperation is a viable evolutionary strategy when individuals within the group collectively punish cheaters who don’t pull their weight. Robert Boyd, Herbert Gintis, and Samuel Bowles have just published a paper in the journal Science with a model showing how, so long as enough individuals work together to punish violators, each cooperative individual in the group can experience enhanced fitness as a result.

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Chimpanzees Prefer Fair Play To Reaping An Unjust Reward

April 22, 2010

A new study shows that chimps sacrifice their own advantage if they earned it unfairly.
Image: Owen Booth / Creative Commons

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgFairness is the basis of the social contract. As citizens we expect that when we contribute our fair share we should receive our just reward. When social benefits are handed out unequally or when prior agreements are not honored it represents a breach of trust. Based on this, Americans were justifiably outraged when, not just one, but two administrations bailed out the wealthiest institutions in the country while tens of thousands of homeowners (many of whom were victims of these same institutions) were evicted and left stranded. It smacked of favoritism, the corruption of politics by corporate money, and it was also just plain unfair. But isn’t that the way the world works? Isn’t it true, as we were so often told as children, that life is unfair?
The American financial tycoon Andrew Carnegie certainly thought so and today’s economic elite have followed his example. In 1889 he used a perverted form of Darwinism to argue for a “law of competition” that became the cornerstone of his economic vision. His was a world in which might made right and where being too big to fail wasn’t a liability, it was the key to success. In his Gospel of Wealth, Carnegie wrote that this natural law might be hard for the least among us but “it ensures the survival of the fittest in every department.”

We accept and welcome therefore, as conditions to which we must accommodate ourselves, great inequality of environment, the concentration of business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of a few, and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential for the future progress of the race.

In other words, his answer was yes. Life is unfair and we’d better get used to it, social contract or no social contract.
While this perspective may be common among those primates who live in the concrete jungle of Wall Street, it doesn’t hold true for the natural world more generally. Darwin understood that competition was an important factor in evolution, but it wasn’t the only factor. Cooperation, sympathy, and fairness were equally important features in his vision for the evolution of life. In The Descent of Man he wrote that “Those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” By working cooperatively, by sharing resources fairly, and by ensuring that all members of society benefited, Darwin argued that early human societies would be more “fit” than those societies where members only cared about themselves. The Russian naturalist Peter Kropotkin championed this aspect of Darwin’s work and argued that mutual aid was essential for understanding the evolution of social mammals as a whole. In the time of Darwin and Kropotkin the research needed to verify these claims was in its infancy, but recent work has supported this vision of the natural world. Now, a new study has added one more plank to this growing edifice of knowledge, and the view from on top suggests that life, in contrast to what Carnegie believed, may not be so unfair after all.

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Oppositional Defiant Disorder is Alive and Well

April 15, 2010

But which one should be diagnosed?

Diagnostic criteria for 313.81 Oppositional Defiant Disorder
A. A pattern of negativistic, hostile, and defiant behavior lasting at least 6 months, during which four (or more) of the following are present:
(1) often loses temper
(2) often argues with adults
(3) often actively defies or refuses to comply with adults’ requests or rules
(4) often deliberately annoys people
(5) often blames others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior
(6) is often touchy or easily annoyed by others
(7) is often angry and resentful
(8) is often spiteful or vindictive
Note: Consider a criterion met only if the behavior occurs more frequently than is typically observed in individuals of comparable age and developmental level.
B. The disturbance in behavior causes clinically significant impairment in social, academic, or occupational functioning.
C. The behaviors do not occur exclusively during the course of a Psychotic or Mood Disorder.
D. Criteria are not met for Conduct Disorder, and, if the individual is age 18 years or older, criteria are not met for Antisocial Personality Disorder.

Neurotoxin in Veggie Burgers, Infant Formula? Yes and No.

April 13, 2010

Yesterday Kiera Butler, associate editor at Mother Jones, posted an article claiming that soy-based veggie burgers and infant formula are “made with the chemical hexane, an EPA-registered air pollutant and neurotoxin.” She based her conclusions on a report put out by The Cornucopia Institute, an organization committed to “ecological principles and economic wisdom underlying sustainable and organic agriculture.”

If you’ve heard about hexane before, it was likely in the context of gasoline–the air pollutant is also a byproduct of gas refining. But in 2007, grain processors were responsible for two-thirds of our national hexane emissions. Hexane is hazardous in the factory, too: Workers who have been exposed to it have developed both skin and nervous system disorders. Troubling, then, that the FDA does not monitor or regulate hexane residue in foods. More worrisome still: According to the report, “Nearly every major ingredient in conventional soy-based infant formula is hexane extracted.”

I’ve used hexane before (technically known as n-hexane) in various laboratories I’ve worked in as a powerful cleaning agent. It’s highly toxic and the Department of Health and Human Services states that “Inhaling n-hexane causes nerve damage and paralysis of the arms and legs.” Most of my life I’ve been largely unconcerned about what I eat (we’re all going to get cancer one way or another), but since I’ve become a new parent I try to be conscious of what I’m feeding my baby. So this report naturally caught my eye. But is it true?

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Sam Harris: Science Can Answer Moral Questions

April 11, 2010

In his recent TED Talk Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter To A Christian Nation argues that science can and should be used to address moral issues. His newest book, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, will be published in October, 2010.
For more see Sam Harris, Franics Collins, and the NIH, The Feeling of What Happens, and the debate with Michael Shermer, Deepak Chopra, and Jean Houston Does God Have A Future?

The Father of Proliferation: Edward Teller’s Nuclear Legacy

April 9, 2010

With yesterday’s announcement of the historic nuclear arms treaty signed by Russia and the United States (that would reduce existing stockpiles by as much as 30%) I thought I would repost my piece on Edward Teller’s nuclear legacy from September, 2003 that was originally commissioned by The Nation magazine (though ultimately went unpublished). Also see my piece The Population Bomb, Nuclear Winter and the Role of Science in Public Advocacy. This treaty is the first step in dismantling the nuclear policies that this would-be Dr. Strangelove spent his lifetime building up.

Many credit Edward Teller for being the inspiration behind Peter Sellers’ classic character in Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

“Edward Teller helped to shape the course of human history,” said George W. Bush as he presented the nuclear scientist with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in July. “He has been a strong advocate for national defense and the cause of human freedom.” Considering that Bush was opposed to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, pulled out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and is funding a program to build “mini-nukes,” this is apt praise indeed. Teller’s death on September 9, at the age of 95, signals the end to the first chapter in an ongoing saga of nuclear proliferation.

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