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Old 11-01-2006, 11:45 AM   #1
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Is the framework for morals innate?

I found this fascinating:

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An Evolutionary Theory of Right and Wrong
By NICHOLAS WADE NY Times
Who doesn't know the difference between right and wrong? Yet that essential knowledge, generally assumed to come from parental teaching or religious or legal instruction, could turn out to have a quite different origin.

Primatologists like Frans de Waal have long argued that the roots of human morality are evident in social animals like apes and monkeys. The animals' feelings of empathy and expectations of reciprocity are essential behaviors for mammalian group living and can be regarded as a counterpart of human morality.

Marc D. Hauser, a Harvard biologist, has built on this idea to propose that people are born with a moral grammar wired into their neural circuits by evolution. In a new book, "Moral Minds" (HarperCollins 2006), he argues that the grammar generates instant moral judgments which, in part because of the quick decisions that must be made in life-or-death situations, are
inaccessible to the conscious mind.

People are generally unaware of this process because the mind is adept at coming up with plausible rationalizations for why it arrived at a decision generated subconsciously.

Dr. Hauser presents his argument as a hypothesis to be proved, not as an established fact. But it is an idea that he roots in solid ground, including his own and others' work with primates and in empirical results derived by moral philosophers.

The proposal, if true, would have far-reaching consequences. It implies that parents and teachers are not teaching children the rules of correct behavior from scratch but are, at best, giving shape to an innate behavior. And it suggests that religions are not the source of moral codes but, rather, social enforcers of instinctive moral behavior.

Both atheists and people belonging to a wide range of faiths make the same moral judgments, Dr. Hauser writes, implying "that the system that unconsciously generates moral judgments is immune to religious doctrine." Dr. Hauser argues that the moral grammar operates in much the same way as the universal grammar proposed by the linguist Noam Chomsky as the innate neural machinery for language. The universal grammar is a system of rules for generating syntax and vocabulary but does not specify any particular language. That is supplied by the culture in which a child grows up.

The moral grammar too, in Dr. Hauser's view, is a system for generating moral behavior and not a list of specific rules. It constrains human behavior so tightly that many rules are in fact the same or very similar in every society - do as you would be done by; care for children and the weak; don't kill; avoid adultery and incest; don't cheat, steal or lie.

But it also allows for variations, since cultures can assign different weights to the elements of the grammar's calculations. Thus one society may ban abortion, another may see infanticide as a moral duty in certain circumstances. Or as Kipling observed, "The wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Katmandu, and the crimes of Clapham chaste in Martaban."

Matters of right and wrong have long been the province of moral philosophers and ethicists. Dr. Hauser's proposal is an attempt to claim the subject for science, in particular for evolutionary biology. The moral grammar evolved, he believes, because restraints on behavior are required for social living and have been favored by natural selection because of their survival value.

Much of the present evidence for the moral grammar is indirect. Some of it comes from psychological tests of children, showing that they have an innate sense of fairness that starts to unfold at age 4. Some comes from ingenious dilemmas devised to show a subconscious moral judgment generator at work. These are known by the moral philosophers who developed them as "trolley
problems."

Suppose you are standing by a railroad track. Ahead, in a deep cutting from which no escape is possible, five people are walking on the track. You hear a train approaching. Beside you is a lever with which you can switch the train to a sidetrack. One person is walking on the sidetrack. Is it O.K. to pull the lever and save the five people, though one will die?

Most people say it is.

Assume now you are on a bridge overlooking the track. Ahead, five people on the track are at risk. You can save them by throwing down a heavy object into the path of the approaching train. One is available beside you, in the form of a fat man. Is it O.K. to push him to save the five?

Most people say no, although lives saved and lost are the same as in the first problem.

Why does the moral grammar generate such different judgments in apparently similar situations? It makes a distinction, Dr. Hauser writes, between a foreseen harm (the train killing the person on the track) and an intended harm (throwing the person in front of the train), despite the fact that the consequences are the same in either case. It also rates killing an animal as more acceptable than killing a person.

Many people cannot articulate the foreseen/intended distinction, Dr. Hauser says, a sign that it is being made at inaccessible levels of the mind. This inability challenges the general belief that moral behavior is learned. For if people cannot articulate the foreseen/intended distinction, how can they teach it?
...
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/31/he...&e&oref=slogin


The researcher poses some interesting questions.

As for the train tracks dilemma, it could be argued that in the first case, the lever puller is not directly responsible for the death of the person, the person's death is the result of another action, whereas in the second scenario, the action does directly result in the person's death. It's a degrees of separation thing. What do you think?
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Old 11-01-2006, 11:52 AM   #2
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Interesting. I'll have to read it more carefully and think about it, but I've actually heard that train analogy a little differently: A man operates a train track switch. One day, he takes his young son to work so his son can pull the lever. As a large passenger train approaches the bridge, the man realizes his son ran off and is down on the track. He has to chose between not pulling the lever and derailing the train and all passengers off the bridge, or pulling the lever to spare the passengers, but kill his son....
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Old 11-01-2006, 07:36 PM   #3
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Thanks for the article. The old 5/1 ethical quandary exercise with dozens of scenarios. Brings back good times (college ethical philosophy). Like you can have a limited amount of a vaccine or antidote or something and 5 people need 1/5 of it each and your best friend needs all of it. Didn't have to think twice--my best friend was getting it all. (I forgot what that made me, but I know it wasn't a pragmatist, lol)

I found the references to the other primates more than interesting regarding a possible innate moral framework and a potential bolstering of evolution theory.
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Old 11-02-2006, 05:01 AM   #4
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Interesting.

Though as a religious person, I've never believed that morality--the sense of right and wrong-- is taught by religion. I've always thought it WAS innate.
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Old 11-02-2006, 05:30 AM   #5
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^ Yeah, actually that's the traditional Jewish interpretation of what being "made in God's image" means.

The foreseen/intended distinction seems false to me--if you pull the lever and cause the person on the sidetrack to die, then you did in fact intentionally cause their death; they weren't originally in the path of the train, any more than the guy on the bridge is.

Anyone else remember the classic "Somedays you just can't get rid of a bomb" Batman episode?

There's a lot of primatology research that's been done on the adaptive benefits of altruistic behavior--I'm not familiar with Hauser, but perhaps he's one of those researchers. Although aversion to inbreeding and collective protection of the young and infirm are characteristic of numerous species.
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Kipling observed, "The wildest dreams of Kew are the facts of Katmandu, and the crimes of Clapham chaste in Martaban."
Figures, that sounds just like Kipling.
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Old 11-02-2006, 06:18 AM   #6
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Quote:
Originally posted by yolland


The foreseen/intended distinction seems false to me--if you pull the lever and cause the person on the sidetrack to die, then you did in fact intentionally cause their death; they weren't originally in the path of the train, any more than the guy on the bridge is.
I agree. I think it is more that slight degree of separation--throw a switch instead of push a person--one degree of less personal.
A very slight tilt into our comfort zone. The intent and result is the same. The exercise is more about how we rationalize our moral decisions than any definitive of morality.

However, even in the human, I doubt that the innate part of morality (if this is the case) exists in a vacuum. The sense of empathy and reciprocity requires socialized creatures--much harder to separate the roles of innate and socialization and I'm inclined the give socialization the greatest edge...the behavior of the social elephant pitted against the rogue a case in point.

I think too the primate similarity possibly goes to the sense of right and wrong in higher thinking animals as opposed to being strictly a human innateness. Now we may be the only primates who rationalize our moral decisions. That would be interesting research.
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Old 11-02-2006, 09:55 AM   #7
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Quote:
Originally posted by BonosSaint


I agree. I think it is more that slight degree of separation--throw a switch instead of push a person--one degree of less personal.
A very slight tilt into our comfort zone. The intent and result is the same. The exercise is more about how we rationalize our moral decisions than any definitive of morality.

However, even in the human, I doubt that the innate part of morality (if this is the case) exists in a vacuum. The sense of empathy and reciprocity requires socialized creatures--much harder to separate the roles of innate and socialization and I'm inclined the give socialization the greatest edge...the behavior of the social elephant pitted against the rogue a case in point.

I think too the primate similarity possibly goes to the sense of right and wrong in higher thinking animals as opposed to being strictly a human innateness. Now we may be the only primates who rationalize our moral decisions. That would be interesting research.
I'm interested to see where this line of research goes, as well, and what they will do to make the distinction between what portion of morality is innate, and which is due to socialization. Unless they come across a feral child, they can't study people without socialization, and unfortunately, feral children are hard to come by, these days. Perhaps they'll start with non-humans, but even then, they can't generalize their results to a human population. I'm sure they'll find some ingenious way of studying this, though.

One way of studying decision-making that is often used, and could potentially be used here, is to set up a condition whereby the individual has to make a decision very quickly, and while under a cognitive load (ie: performing some other task that requires thought, so that none or very little of their thought processes can go toward making the decision, it's more automatic. This method is believed to get at underlying, pre- or subconscious thoughts and behaviours).
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Old 11-02-2006, 10:07 AM   #8
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The basic rule is that we can't trust our feelings, they cloud our judgement and are the derivation of evolution. I will point out that saving two strangers is worse than saving a close blood relative in terms of preserving family genes.
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Old 03-22-2007, 04:18 PM   #9
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A couple recent articles got me to thinking about this topic again. The former appears to find neuroanatomical support for Hauser's take on the 'trolley car' dilemma, while the second revisits de Waal's ideas about certain nonhuman primates seeming to possess the 'building blocks' of morality.

New York Times, March 22
Quote:
Damage to an area of the brain behind the forehead, inches behind the eyes, transforms the way people make moral judgments in life-or-death situations, scientists reported yesterday. In a new study, people with this rare injury expressed increased willingness to kill or harm another person if doing so would save others’ lives. The findings are the most direct evidence that humans’ native revulsion to hurting others relies on a part of neural anatomy, one that evolved before the higher brain regions responsible for analysis and planning.

...The new study seals the case by demonstrating that a very specific kind of emotion-based judgment is altered when the region is offline. In extreme circumstances, people with the injury will even endorse suffocating an infant if that would save more lives. “I think it’s very convincing now that there are at least two systems working when we make moral judgments,” said Joshua Greene, a psychologist at Harvard who was not involved in the study. “There’s an emotional system that depends on this specific part of the brain, and another system that performs more utilitarian cost-benefit analyses which in these people is clearly intact.”

...People with this injury can be lucid, easygoing, talkative and intelligent, but socially awkward, seemingly numb to the ebb and flow of subtle social cues and emotions. They also have some of the same moral instincts that others do.

...The researchers, from the University of Iowa and other institutions, had people with the injury respond to moral challenges. In one, they had to decide whether to divert a runaway boxcar that was about to kill a group of five workmen. To save the workers they would have to flip a switch, sending the car hurtling into another man, who would be killed. They favored flipping the switch, just as the group without injuries did. A third group, with brain damage that did not affect the ventromedial cortex, made the same decision. All three groups also strongly rejected doing harm to others in situations that did not involve trading one certain death for another. They would not send a daughter to work in the pornography industry to fend off crushing poverty, or kill an infant they felt they could not care for. But a large difference in the participants’ decisions emerged when there was no switch to flip—when they had to choose between taking direct action to kill or harm someone (pushing him in front of the runaway boxcar, for example) and serving a greater good. Those with ventromedial injuries were about twice as likely as other participants to say they would push someone in front of the train (if that was the only option), or suffocate a baby whose crying would reveal to enemy soldiers where the subject and family and friends were hiding. The difference was very clear for all the ventromedial patients, said Dr. Michael Koenigs, a neuroscientist at the National Institutes of Health who led the study while at the University of Iowa.

The ventromedial area is a primitive part of the cortex that appears to have evolved to help humans navigate social interactions. The area has connections to deeper, unconscious regions like the brain stem, which transmit physical sensations of attraction or discomfort; and the amygdala, a gumdrop of neural tissue that registers threats, social and otherwise. The ventromedial area integrates those signals with others from the cortex, including emotional memories, to help generate familiar social reactions. “This area, when it’s working, will give rise to social emotions that we can feel, like embarrassment, guilt and compassion, that are critical to guiding our social behavior,” said Dr. Antonio Damasio, a co-author of the study and a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California. Those sensations put a finger on the brain’s conscious, cost-benefit scale weighing moral dilemmas, Dr. Damasio said, creating a tension that even trained snipers can feel when having to pull the trigger on an enemy.
^ Not mentioned in that particular article, but another one of the scenarios they presented to subjects was the 'Sophie's Choice' dilemma--choosing between surrendering one of your children to doctor-torturers, or seeing them both killed. Again the ventromedial injury patients overwhelmingly saw the choice to hand over one child as the obvious one.

New York Times, March 20
Quote:
Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others. Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion, rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days.

...Last year Marc Hauser, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, proposed in his book Moral Minds that the brain has a genetically shaped mechanism for acquiring moral rules, a universal moral grammar similar to the neural machinery for learning language. In another recent book, Primates and Philosophers, the primatologist Frans de Waal defends against philosopher critics his view that the roots of morality can be seen in the social behavior of monkeys and apes.

...Many philosophers find it hard to think of animals as moral beings, and indeed Dr. de Waal does not contend that even chimpanzees possess morality...de Waal’s views are based on years of observing nonhuman primates, starting with work on aggression in the 1960s. He noticed then that after fights between two combatants, other chimpanzees would console the loser...He found that consolation was universal among the great apes but generally absent from monkeys—among macaques, mothers will not even reassure an injured infant. To console another, Dr. de Waal argues, requires empathy and a level of self-awareness that only apes and humans seem to possess. And consideration of empathy quickly led him to explore the conditions for morality. Though human morality may end in notions of rights and justice and fine ethical distinctions, it begins, Dr. de Waal says, in concern for others and the understanding of social rules as to how they should be treated. At this lower level, primatologists have shown, there is what they consider to be a sizable overlap between the behavior of people and other social primates.

Social living requires empathy, which is especially evident in chimpanzees, as well as ways of bringing internal hostilities to an end. Every species of ape and monkey has its own protocol for reconciliation after fights, Dr. de Waal has found. If two males fail to make up, female chimpanzees will often bring the rivals together, as if sensing that discord makes their community worse off and more vulnerable to attack by neighbors. Or they will head off a fight by taking stones out of the males’ hands. Dr. de Waal believes that these actions are undertaken for the greater good of the community, as distinct from person-to-person relationships, and are a significant precursor of morality in human societies.

Macaques and chimpanzees have a sense of social order and rules of expected behavior, mostly to do with the hierarchical natures of their societies, in which each member knows its own place. Young rhesus monkeys learn quickly how to behave, and occasionally get a finger or toe bitten off as punishment. Other primates also have a sense of reciprocity and fairness. They remember who did them favors and who did them wrong. Chimps are more likely to share food with those who have groomed them. Capuchin monkeys show their displeasure if given a smaller reward than a partner receives for performing the same task, like a piece of cucumber instead of a grape. These four kinds of behavior—empathy, the ability to learn and follow social rules, reciprocity and peacemaking—are the basis of sociality. Dr. de Waal sees human morality as having grown out of primate sociality, but with two extra levels of sophistication. People enforce their society’s moral codes much more rigorously with rewards, punishments and reputation building. They also apply a degree of judgment and reason, for which there are no parallels in animals.

Religion can be seen as another special ingredient of human societies, though one that emerged thousands of years after morality, in Dr. de Waal’s view. There are clear precursors of morality in nonhuman primates, but no precursors of religion. So it seems reasonable to assume that as humans evolved away from chimps, morality emerged first, followed by religion. “I look at religions as recent additions,” he said. “Their function may have to do with social life, and enforcement of rules and giving a narrative to them, which is what religions really do.”

...Dr. de Waal has faced down many critics in evolutionary biology and psychology in developing his views. The evolutionary biologist George Williams dismissed morality as merely an accidental byproduct of evolution, and psychologists objected to attributing any emotional state to animals. Dr. de Waal convinced his colleagues over many years that the ban on inferring emotional states was an unreasonable restriction, given the expected evolutionary continuity between humans and other primates. His latest audience is moral philosophers, many of whom are interested in his work and that of other biologists. “In departments of philosophy, an increasing number of people are influenced by what they have to say,” said Gilbert Harman, a Princeton University philosopher.

...However much we may celebrate rationality, emotions are our compass, probably because they have been shaped by evolution, in Dr. de Waal’s view. For example, he says: “People object to moral solutions that involve hands-on harm to one another. This may be because hands-on violence has been subject to natural selection whereas utilitarian deliberations have not.”

Philosophers have another reason biologists cannot, in their view, reach to the heart of morality, and that is that biological analyses cannot cross the gap between “is” and “ought,” between the description of some behavior and the issue of why it is right or wrong. “You can identify some value we hold, and tell an evolutionary story about why we hold it, but there is always that radically different question of whether we ought to hold it,” said Sharon Street, a moral philosopher at New York University. “That’s not to discount the importance of what biologists are doing, but it does show why centuries of moral philosophy are incredibly relevant, too.”

...Dr. de Waal does not accept the philosophers’ view that biologists cannot step from “is” to “ought.” “I’m not sure how realistic the distinction is,” he said. “Animals do have ‘oughts.’ If a juvenile is in a fight, the mother must get up and defend her. Or in food sharing, animals do put pressure on each other, which is the first kind of ‘ought’ situation.”

...“Morality is as firmly grounded in neurobiology as anything else we do or are,” Dr. de Waal wrote in his 1996 book Good Natured. Biologists ignored this possibility for many years, believing that because natural selection was cruel and pitiless it could only produce people with the same qualities. But this is a fallacy, in Dr. de Waal’s view. Natural selection favors organisms that survive and reproduce, by whatever means. And it has provided people, he writes in Primates and Philosophers, with “a compass for life’s choices that takes the interests of the entire community into account, which is the essence of human morality.”
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Old 03-22-2007, 04:53 PM   #10
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To be honest, I think a lot of this is a response to the law & economics folks which dominated choice theory back in the 80s and it has since fallen somewhat out of use. The Harvard study in particular still accepts this theory but then builds on it by saying there is a parallel model operating concurrently. It's not necessarily a new finding as much as it is vacillating between giving a different emphasis on competing theories of choice making.
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Old 03-22-2007, 05:06 PM   #11
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Quote:
Originally posted by maycocksean
Interesting.

Though as a religious person, I've never believed that morality--the sense of right and wrong-- is taught by religion.

I've always thought it WAS innate.
Hi Sean,

I really appreciate a self-professed religious person
that believes "morality" is not taught by religion.

This is so often the claim,
I also see no connection.
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Old 03-22-2007, 05:16 PM   #12
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Quote:
Originally posted by anitram
To be honest, I think a lot of this is a response to the law & economics folks which dominated choice theory back in the 80s and it has since fallen somewhat out of use. The Harvard study in particular still accepts this theory but then builds on it by saying there is a parallel model operating concurrently. It's not necessarily a new finding as much as it is vacillating between giving a different emphasis on competing theories of choice making.
The theoretical model is nothing really new, I agree with that. When you say 'fallen out of use', what sort of alternative models do you have in mind?
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Old 05-10-2008, 07:09 AM   #13
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Frans de Waal Answers Your Primate Questions
By Stephen J. Dubner

We recently solicited your questions for primatologist Frans de Waal. Of all his accomplishments, one of the greatest has been his ability to so well communicate his scholarly findings to a wide audience. Here is one compelling piece of advice he offered on that subject: “Keep the reader interested, whatever it takes, so long as you don’t violate the truth.”
His answers below, which openly discuss (inter alia) how polygamist sects mimic the mating systems of animals, why bonobos eat after sex, and his opinion of “God-questioning rants,” definitely stay true to his philosophy. He also shows a keen understanding of economics when discussing how monkeys, just like some people, exhibit “inequity aversion” — a sure sign of irrationality if profit-maximizing is the goal.
Thanks to Frans for his fascinating answers, and to all of you for your very good questions.
Q: Do primate species other than bonobo monkeys use sex as a form of communication/bonding/intimacy vs. purely procreational purposes?
A: Bonobos offer the best example of non-reproductive sex. They use sex at the drop of a hat for reasons that, most of the time, seem social — such as during a reconciliation after a fight, or when they anticipate food competition. They use sex to diffuse tension: after the sex they share the food. Bonobos are our closest animal relatives together with chimpanzees.*
How much bonobos differ from chimpanzees was highlighted by a recent experiment in which apes were presented with a platform that they could pull close by working together. When food was placed on the platform, the bonobos clearly outperformed the chimpanzees in getting a hold of it.
The presence of food normally induces rivalry, but the bonobos engaged in sexual contact, played together, and happily shared the food side by side. The chimpanzees, in contrast, were unable to overcome their competition.
Outside bonobos, there are many other animals that engage in sex even if reproduction is impossible, such as when the female is pregnant, or between members of the same sex. Also here, the sex serves a bonding function, or to signal dominance. So, the idea that sex is intended for reproduction and should therefore be used exclusively for reproduction (an argument used by the Catholic church against condom use) is incorrect for many animals, as it is for our own species.
* Bonobos and chimps are not monkeys, but apes. Apes are large primates with large brains, no tails, flat chests, and shoulders. Monkeys are smaller, have tails, and often a more protruding face (snout). Humans are obviously more like apes than like monkeys.
Q: Does religiously motivated rejection of evolution (e.g. creationism) ever get in your way when working?
A: I don’t experience this kind of resistance in science, in which evolutionary theory is obviously the dominant paradigm. Creationists sometimes try to create the impression that lots of scientists have their doubts about the theory, but I have yet to meet such scientists. I’d be surprised if more than 0.1 percent of active research biologists have such doubts.
When I came to this country, over twenty-five years ago, I was amazed that creationism was still taken seriously, and assumed that it would blow over. It never did, of course. I can’t help but look at it as a left-over of a medieval mind-set unresponsive to overwhelming counter-evidence.
At the same time, I must say that I don’t think the recent wave of God-questioning rants have helped much. They have polarized the issue, whereas in my mind it is eminently possible to look at religion as a collective value system and at science as telling us how the physical world operates. Even though I am not religious myself, I think the conflict between science and religion is unnecessary and overblown.
Q: Is yours the lab that did the grape vs. cucumber study? The monkeys got either a grape or a cucumber for doing a task …
A: Yes, together with Sarah Brosnan, we did a study in which capuchin monkeys received either a grape or a piece of cucumber for a simple task.
If both monkeys got the same reward, there never was a problem. Grapes are by far preferred (as real primates, like us, they go for sugar content), but even if both received cucumber, they’d perform the task many times in a row.
However, if they received different rewards, the one who got the short end of the stick would begin to waver in its responses, and very soon start a rebellion by either refusing to perform the task or refusing to eat the cucumber.
This is an “irrational” response in the sense that if profit-maximizing is what life (and economics) is about, one should always take what one can get. Monkeys will always accept and eat a piece of cucumber whenever we give it to them, but apparently not when their partner is getting a better deal. In humans, this reaction is known as “inequity aversion.”
I actually don’t think the response is irrational at all, but related to the fact that in a cooperative system, one needs to watch what kind of investment one makes and what one gets in return. If your partners always ends up getting a greater share, this means that you’re being taken advantage of. So, the rational thing to do is withhold cooperation until the reward division improves.
This holds an important message for American society which is becoming less fair by the day.
The Gini-index (which measures income inequality) keeps rising and is now more in line with that of third-world countries than of other industrialized nations. If monkeys already have trouble accepting income inequality, you can imagine what it does to us. It creates great tensions within a society, and we know that tensions affect psychological and physical well-being. Some attribute the dismal health statistics of Americans (now #42 in the world’s longevity ranking) to the social frictions of an unfair society (see Richard Wilkinson, 2005: The Impact of Inequality).
Q: Do promiscuous gay men and bonobos have anything in common?
A: Bonobos often engage in sex with same-sex partners, but they’re not gay in that they also have sex with the opposite sex. They’re “bi.” They seek sex often for social reasons, to reduce tensions, and to form friendships. I am not sure that this also applies to human gay promiscuity, or whether the latter is purely pleasure-oriented.
Q: Do you think that many of the results you and your collaborators have found would be similar if the experiments were done in the wild?
A: The relation between fieldwork and captive work on primates is an important one.
True, our grape-versus-cucumber test cannot be conducted with wild monkeys for the simple reason that they’re not used to receiving food from humans. It is unlikely, however, that the striking psychological mechanism that we observed, leading to great agitation in the monkeys, comes out of the blue.
As said, I look at it as evolved in the context of cooperation, mainly to ensure commensurate rewards for efforts. So, I expect the same inequity aversion in dogs and wolves, but not cats (which are solitary hunters, and shouldn’t care much about what others get).
Cooperation has been observed among wild capuchins. They sometimes work together to capture (and eat) giant squirrels or coati pups. After the hunt, they enjoy the spoils — which is where reward division comes in.
The fact that capuchins are capable of cooperation hints at the right evolutionary impetus for inequity aversion.
I know, in fact, of no untrained skills discovered in captivity that have never been found in the same species in the wild. Tool-use, for example, was first known of zoo apes, and everyone said that this doesn’t count — until of course wild apes also were shown to use tools.
Or, take reconciliation behavior, which I discovered in a zoo colony of chimpanzees — and everyone said that obviously wild primates wouldn’t do such a thing. But we now have data on close to thirty different primates that reconcile after fights (and also non-primates, such as dolphins and hyenas), and the evidence includes wild monkeys and apes.
I do believe, however, that captive studies can never replace studies in the field. They just have different insights to offer, such as with the studies of chimpanzee cultures.
Many chimpanzee groups in Africa have their own unique traditions, such as nut-cracking or social customs. The field workers speculate they learn these behaviors from each other through imitation. They can’t prove this, however. This is where captive studies come in, as we are capable of testing what apes can learn. Our studies strongly support the field work in that we have shown apes capable of picking up new skills from each other.
Q: Are baby monkeys as helpless and dependent on their mothers (or other adults) as human babies?
A: All primates are characterized by a long dependency — in monkeys, such as macaques and baboons, usually the first two years. But even after this, the bond is maintained, and the mother provides support and grooming.
In the apes, the period of dependence is quite a bit longer. Nursing lasts for four, sometimes five years, and the mother carries her young first on her belly, then on her back. Given the load this represents, she can’t have too many offspring. So, she has one baby at a time, and the inter-birth interval in the wild is five or six years. Young chimpanzees become relatively independent by eight, but aren’t considered adult until they are over twelve years old.
Q: Possibly the dumbest question: have you observed primates engaged in incestuous sexual behavior? if so, is it ignored, rewarded, or punished by the social group?
A: Very timely question. Whereas I look at the polygamist sect in Texas with intrigue, as they seem to mimic the mating system of quite a few animals (sending out young males so that the dominant males can freely reproduce with lots of females), the incestuous man in Austria doesn’t fit anything I know about primates, because all animals have ways of avoiding inbreeding. There is, in fact, very little inbreeding even at zoos, where sometimes daughters grow up with males who could be their fathers.
The general rule in primates is that one sex or the other leaves the group at puberty. In many monkeys, the males leave and seek another group. With apes (and overwhelmingly in human societies, too), it are the females who leave. You can imagine that this takes care of a lot of inbreeding opportunities, as the migrants go find groups where they meet unrelated members of the opposite sex.
On top of this, animals follow the so-called Westermarck effect, which is also thought to apply to humans. The rule is that individuals who grow up together develop sexual aversion for each other. Siblings or mother-son combinations just don’t have a great desire to have sex. Westermarck formulated this idea long ago, and it has been tested with many animals, and generally holds up. There is also evidence of Kibbutz and Chinese marriage data that in humans, too, individuals who grow up together, even if they’re unrelated, avoid sexual relations.
Q: How much does culture vary between chimp troops? If a chimp moves from one troop to another, will it teach the new troop anything of its old culture?
A: There are instances in the wild of female chimpanzees entering a new community from the outside, and bringing new knowledge with them. They don’t bring radical change, but usually small steps, such as the female knowing a certain nut that can be eaten and that her host community doesn’t touch.
Q: Can any primate can be taught any sustained, rhythmic, gravitationally constrained movement behavior lasting for 10 seconds to 1 minute without missing a beat? (The speed must be at the rate of 450 to 550 milliseconds per step.)
For example: jumping up and down in place, marching in place, stepping 2 steps up onto then 2 steps down off of a stool.
Do any primates show the “stepping reflex” present in neonates?
A: This question is a bit too precise for me to answer, but of course many animals have an excellent sense of rhythm, since this is part of their locomotion.
Look at the regular wing-beat of many birds (or butterflies, for that matter). A large animal, like an elephant, could never move as elegantly as it does if it didn’t coordinate the rhythm of its four legs carefully, which requires rhythm.
Chimpanzees drum, and they can do so in a very nice and steady rhythm. They usually don’t do so for long, but occasionally they get really into it and keep hitting a hollow object for minutes on end until it drives everybody crazy.
Perhaps the best video of a bird with a great sense of rhythm is the one of Snowball, the cockatoo, who seems to have an extraordinary sense of rhythm. Pronking or stotting Thompson gazelles also come to mind: they jump up and down in a display that is believed to signal their health to potential predators, who will go look for easier prey.
Q: What did you learn from Desmond Morris?
A: Great question. Desmond Morris is the most underrated behavioral biologist (ethologist) of his generation. His books have shaped the view of many, because he openly discussed, with great humor and flair, the human-animal connection before we had sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and the like.
He also formulated ideas that others have adopted (stolen?) without any reference to him, such as that human talking is a bit like primate grooming, or that the human family arose so as to reduce competition among males, allowing them to go hunt together in the knowledge that each one would have a mate to return to.
These are very interesting ideas, albeit a bit untestable, but the main point is that Morris opened up the discussion about human origins and how they relate to animal behavior. He did all of this in a way that people understood and wanted to read.
But being such a popular “vulgarizer,” real scientists sometimes look down upon him.
The history of his popularity is interesting. I heard from his publisher that Morris had written many books before The Naked Ape, his giant 1960’s best seller (with a for-those-days very provocative title and cover). But those previous books hadn’t done too well.
He would entertain visitors at the London Zoo with a popular overview of comparisons between human and animal behavior. Everyone thought it was funny and deep and informative, and after his publisher had heard him speak, he said, “There’s your book!”
He wrote it in three months, I believe, because it was already all in his head.
I admire the guy, because it took guts to write what he wrote. As a student, I learned about his book because my professors kept warning us not to read Desmond Morris. The result was, of course, that we felt we had to.
What I learned: Keep the reader interested, whatever it takes, so long as you don’t violate the truth.
Q: I recently learned that there is a simple, funny test that helps to find out whether a toddler is self-conscious or not; simply put a red dot on his or her nose in front of a mirror and see whether or not the child tries to wipe it off. Now of course, that’s only self-consciousness; it doesn’t tell you how aware the child is of others and of the differences between those others and itself. This made me wonder, how self-conscious are primates?
A: Mirror self-recognition is tested this way. Children pass this test between 18 to 24 months, and the only animals thus far which have passed are the four great ape species (including chimpanzees), dolphins, and elephants. We conducted the elephant test at the Bronx zoo with a jumbo-sized mirror, and put some of the videos of this experiment on the web.
Q: Do you have any thoughts, personal or professional, on the so-called aquatic ape hypothesis of human evolution? (Posted by Sir Alister Hardy.)
A: It’s an honor to receive this question from you, who developed the hypothesis. I find that the idea has many intriguing elements to it, such as the subcutaneous fat layer and diving reflex that marks us humans. But until I see overwhelming evidence of human ancestors who lived near the water edge and survived mainly on aquatic plants and animals, it remains a hypothesis.
Finding one or two such settlements would in fact be insufficient, because for water to have been a major evolutionary force in the origin of humans, I’d guess we would need to find that during a certain time period this was the only way our ancestors survived.
Thus far, the evidence isn’t there. But perhaps you feel that the paleontologists haven’t been looking in the right places?
Long ago (in Peacemaking among Primates, 1989), I made some tongue-in-cheek speculations about bonobos as aquatic apes. They are the only apes to enter water voluntarily, seemingly enjoying it. There were rumors at the time that they’d walk bipedally into shallow rivers, which is a logical thing to do if you want to keep your head above the surface.
In recent years, I have heard few such stories, so perhaps they were exaggerated. But there is in fact footage of such behavior at a Belgian zoo.
For me the aquatic ape theory is not dead, but in great need of further evidence.
Q: Can an animal be “immoral” or are they “amoral”?
A: That’s a BIG question, which I can’t answer in a brief note. An organism can only be immoral if it is part, and adheres to, an agreed-upon system of morality, as we do. I don’t believe that chimpanzees, or other nonhuman animals, are moral beings in the sense that we are.
But to call them amoral isn’t correct either. Amoral means a total absence of morality, and it is obvious that the building blocks of morality (empathy, sympathy, cooperation, social rules) can be found in animals other than us.
The view that the natural world is “amoral” comes from Charles Darwin’s contemporary, T. H. Huxley, who felt that nature could never have produced human morality. He saw nature as inherently nasty.
I strongly disagree with this bleak view, as did Darwin himself (in The Descent of Man), but Huxley’s views are unfortunately still very much with us. I wrote an entire book to counter them: Primates & Philosophers
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Old 05-10-2008, 08:01 AM   #14
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I admire T.H. Huxley, much more relatable than Darwin.

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