I’ve posted a couple of links lately to stories about humans, chimps, and violence. The New York Times recently ran a brief interview with two primatologists who study bonobos, the hippy cousin of chimps and humans. The title of the article is “Why Bonobos Don’t Kill Each Other,” and while that question isn’t really answered, it’s still an interesting look at bonobo research.
John Horgan at the Scientific American has written a follow-up to Nicholas Wade’s recent article on chimp violence. Horgan reviews the evidence for and against the theory that chimp violence is widespread and that our hominid ancestors inherited the tendency toward violence from our common ancestor with the chimps. Specifically, he explains why he has become skeptical of the theory. What kind of species are we really? Within the limits of our genome, we’re the kind of species we choose to be, but we may be going less against the grain than we sometimes think when we choose peace.
Here are some interesting items that have crossed my radar lately.
- Subjective information: This article from Seed Magazine may be relevant to a recent comment about the difficulty of answering personality test questions. The article examines the role of self-reported data of all kinds in science. People are asked about various aspects of their own behavior, but how accurate are their answers?
- Chimp warfare: Nicholas Wade reports on war-like behavior among chimps at Ngogo, in Kibale National Park in Uganda. A recent paper on ten years of observations concludes that a group of chimps engaged in aggression to expand its territory.
- A voluntary end to humans? Bioethicist Peter Singer has written an essay about the morality of bringing children into the world. Many people hesitate to have children whose lives they have reason to believe will be unusually painful or difficult. Singer points out that even a normal healthy life typically involves considerable pain as well as pleasure, and asks why we should go on reproducing at all. The reader responses are full of interesting takes on parenthood, the value of life, and the future of the planet.
- Atheist posthumans: This essay provides a completely different view of the (post)human future, suggesting that posthumans will probably be atheists and furthermore that this would be a desirable development. I’m not sure I see super-intelligent posthumans in the future any time soon, but the discussion of atheism is interesting.
A couple of weeks ago, Jane Goodall appeared on PBS on Bill Moyers Journal. You can watch the video online.
A new article in The Atlantic has rocked my world in a way that articles anywhere seldom do. David Dobbs explains a new hypothesis regarding genes, environment, and behavior, which he dubs the orchid hypothesis. I’ve written before about genes that appear to make a person vulnerable to things like depression or anxiety, but the vulnerability may be only half of the story. A growing amount of evidence indicates that those carrying such genes may not only be at risk of a particular disorder if they are raised in an unfavorable environment, but may also function at an above-average level if raised in a favorable environment. This could explain a lot about how supposedly detrimental genetic variants could have survived in the population.
As Dobbs points out, it also provides an amazingly different view of human strengths and weaknesses. While most of us, he says, are like dandelions that can thrive pretty much anywhere, the orchids among us respond especially poorly to a bad environment (with depression, anxiety, ADHD, or violence, for example, depending on their genes) but also respond better than the dandelions do to a good environment. Both dandelions and orchids are necessary to make our species what it is; the orchids are an asset rather than a liability.
What is particularly interesting is that Dobbs had himself tested to see which variant of the SERT gene (5-HTTLPR), which is involved in serotonin regulation, he had. There are three variants, or alleles, of this gene, two of which are believed to be linked to a greater vulnerability to depression. He suspected that he had one of these two, and indeed he did, but that news was less distressing to him than it would have been before he learned as much as he did about the orchid hypothesis. I’ve also wondered if I have one of the two higher-risk alleles of that gene, and one thing that has particularly bothered me about that is worries that I may have passed it along to my kids. I don’t usually like to put too much emotional stock into scientific results like this, but I have to say that after reading this article, I feel better about whatever genetic heritage I may have brought into and passed along in the world.
Natural History magazine has published an article by Frans de Waal that is excerpted from his recent book, The Age of Empathy. He discusses the bodily basis for feelings of empathy, from shared laughter, shared yawns, and other forms of physical synchrony across a variety of species. (The sequence of images of a yawning primate had me yawning too.) His focus is on the often instinctive and unconscious way that our bodies synch up with those of others, providing the basis for more conscious thoughts and feeling related to empathy.
The World Science Festival, held in New York earlier this summer, has produced a couple of enjoyable videos that illustrate the power of music.
Here, Bobby McFerrin illustrates how deeply embedded the pentatonic scale is in the human mind and harnesses an audience’s instinctive awareness of it to generate a bit of a capella music. His comment at the end about how audiences around the world seem to share this grasp of the pentatonic scale is particularly interesting.
But music reaches even further, occasionally binding disparate species. This video of a dancing cockatoo is a lot of fun, particularly the sight of a panel of distinguished neuroscientists getting up (or getting down) and dancing with the bird. One of the most touching parts of the movie The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill was a quiet moment when Mark Bittner was playing the blues and a bird called Mingus bobbed his head along with the music. This is similar, but bigger.
If you have time to view the entire “Avian Einsteins” panel discussion about avian and human brains and the links between language and movement, I highly recommend it.
Scientific American Mind has published an article on non-human intelligence. It discusses the brains and behavior of a variety of birds, cephalopod molluscs, bony fishes, and even reptiles, debunking the myth of linear brain evolution leading progressively to unique human cognitive abilities and showcasing some surprising findings. I’ve read a bit on this topic so I knew about some of this research, but I had no idea that octopuses can learn from watching another octopus be trained at a task. I also didn’t know reptiles can master some simple learning tasks if they’re offered the right reward (we warm-blooded mammals are suckers for food, but reptiles are more motivated by other things—the chance to get near a sun lamp, for example).