This story from New Scientist describes the latest news about the intelligence of birds in the crow family, in this case rooks. Pairs of birds were able to figure out the cooperative behavior needed to get food. The setup involved a tray of food that was visible but inaccessible to the birds; a string ran behind the tray with a loose end extending on either side of the tray. If a bird pulled on one loose end, he simply pulled the string out from behind the tray; if he got a buddy to simultaneously pull on the other end, however, they could jointly pull the tray out and get the food. They figured it out without too much training when another bird was around, but they didn’t seem to get the hang of waiting for a partner to help. When another bird was on the way but delayed, a lone bird would generally pull on the string by itself and lose the chance to get the food. This differs from chimp behavior; chimpanzees can both solve problems like this and also understand that they need to wait for a partner to help them. It’s still too early to say why chimps get that aspect of it and the rooks don’t seem to. It may be linked to the fact that interactions between mature crows are fairly limited, so their social instincts are not as finely honed as those of animals that interact more. At any rate, it’s cool, as always, to see smart birds learning the ropes. The New Scientist article includes a video.
It’s a bit off-topic, but part of being a good human is taking care of the environment on which we rely, so here’s a link to Earth Hour, a worldwide movement for energy conservation. Tonight at 8pm local time people around the world will turn off their lights for an hour to signal their commitment to reducing their energy usage. (For information about further steps you can take, see the more than just an hour page.) I heard a very inspiring interview with Cory Booker, mayor of the struggling city of Newark, on Bill Moyers Journal last night and was impressed with his belief that social change comes from individual actions–the buck stops with each of us. Obviously the solution to problems like global warming and environmental degradation will require more than one hour of lights-out, and it will require government and corporate involvement as well. But individual action does matter, and this is a good start and a good tool for awareness of the problem. So please turn your lights out tonight and spread the word!
A recent fMRI study of depressed and non-depressed people indicates that anticipating a reward appears to be linked, in the depressed brain, to mental activity in areas associated with conflict. Both groups of people took part in an exercise that involved winning and losing money. The nucleus accumbens showed activity in both groups when they could look forward to winning money (no surprise, because the nucleus accumbens seems to be important for processing the anticipation of a reward), but the depressed people also showed activity in an area of the brain more commonly associated with conflict, the anterior cingulate.
It’s not entirely clear what this means, but it would suggests that depression, or at least some forms of depression, may be not only a dearth of pleasant feelings, but a problem with processing any pleasure that does come along. The feeling of having enjoyment of any kind overshadowed by a persistent fear or worry certainly is familiar to me. Personally, I’ve always put it down to certain features of my Catholic upbringing, which gave me a tendency to look out for the fearful consequences of too much happiness, but I’ve long wondered if I also have an inherent tendency to find something to worry about no matter what. (In Please Understand Me II, David Keirsey describes just such a tendency toward the end of his description of INFPs, my personality type.) There’s no telling whether the results of this fMRI study have anything to do with my particular experiences, but if they do, I wonder which came first, the pattern of brain activity or the social stimuli that fed it.
You can read more about the study in this article from Science Daily. Thanks to Mark for passing this one along.
An fMRI study at the University of Wisconsin examined activity in the brains of people who have significant amounts of experience with compassion meditation. Compared to controls, these people showed notable changes in brain areas associated with detecting emotion and responding to it physiologically, and with picking up on other people’s emotional and mental states. I assume that feeling greater compassion and empathy would result in behavioral differences, but that question was beyond the scope of this study. The details are available in this press release on EurekAlert.
This result suggests that we can use our neural plasticity to train ourselves in caring for others, a welcome message indeed. The press release about the meditators mentions groups of people that might particularly benefit from training in compassion meditation, including adolescents and depressed people. Coincidentally, I just read a story in the New Yorker about Abu Ghraib, and it sounds like conditions there encouraged military personnel to dull any empathy and fellow-feeling they may have felt, just to get through their time there, which is just the opposite of what compassion meditation aims to do. I wonder, would the soldiers themselves, or the leaders who put the soldiers in that position, have benefited from training in compassion meditation? Would we trust a political or military leader who was known to be deeply compassionate and to easily imagine himself or herself in other’s shoes?
To follow up on the post about the science of religion, here’s an article from Science & Spirit that describes the neurochemistry and brain activity that underlie mystical experiences. It’s a nice summary of various recent pieces of research, written by an atheist who looks at her own experience of transcendence in terms of what was happening in her brain and body at the time.
This article from The Economist describes a European project dedicated to the scientific study of religion. The Explaining Religion project is organized by the University of Oxford, with nine partner institutions taking part. The article focuses on two major areas of investigation: neurochemical and brain imaging studies to narrow down the brain activity linked to religious experience, and the possible adaptive features of religion. Plenty of good stuff here, although the last paragraph left a bad taste in my mouth:
Evolutionary biologists tend to be atheists, and most would be surprised if the scientific investigation of religion did not end up supporting their point of view. But if a propensity to religious behaviour really is an evolved trait, then they have talked themselves into a position where they cannot benefit from it, much as a sceptic cannot benefit from the placebo effect of homeopathy. Maybe, therefore, it is God who will have the last laugh after all—whether He actually exists or not.
This raised my hackles. First, religious behavior could be an adaptation (something selected for over the course of our evolutionary history) without being adaptive under current circumstances. Second, even if it is adaptive now, it seems to me that one of the points of learning more about our repertoire of inherited propensities, religious or otherwise, is that we might be able to figure out how to reap the benefits while avoiding the nastier side (e.g., learning to use the ways that religion fosters group cohesion while balancing that with efforts to avoid the xenophobia and persecution of outsiders that often accompanies it–perhaps by continuing to expand the size of the group that we perceive as meriting ethical treatment). None of this requires adherence to a particular religion or a belief in God–in fact, it requires an open-mindedness about our religious experiences that is often lacking in traditional religions. Furthermore, you don’t need a deity or a church to behave in a moral manner, to have a close community of friends and family to support you, or to be seen and valued as a trustworthy member of your community, much less to take up healthful practices like not smoking and not drinking to excess.
It’s sort of like sex; nature made sex pleasurable for us for the very good reason that it’s essential for the continuation of the species. But we figured out how the whole process works and found ways to get the pleasure of sex while choosing for ourselves whether reproduction should result, and we’ve added a whole lot of meaning and depth to the experience (when it’s done right, anyway) that often have little or nothing to do with its original purpose. We’ve also figured out ways to bring children into the world with less risk to the health of mother and child, and methods of avoiding the spread of STDs, although getting people to reliably put those methods into practice could probably still use some work. Hey, speaking of religion, persuading churches to take a more realistic attitude toward sexual activity in young people would be a great start! But I digress. My point is that understanding what nature gave us is helping us figure out how to handle it.
It looks to me like the article mentions the Explaining Religion project but focuses more on the state of research in the area in general rather than the specifics of the project. For more about that, see the Explaining Religion project home page and this PDF, which describes the data gathering and data mining that will be used to categorize and understand human religious behavior all over the world and across time. The PDF contains the following intriguing paragraph:
“From this knowledge base, modern computer modelling techniques will permit the simulation of future trajectories of transformation in various religious systems.”
Hari Seldon, maybe your time has come.
Several news items have appeared lately about human evolution. This article from the New York Times examines some new evidence in the debate over the disputed new species, Homo floresiensis. Small hominin fossils discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores are believed by some to represent a newly discovered species of humans, and by others to be the bones of modern humans, perhaps adapted for island life (which often reduces the size of a species over time) or perhaps suffering from congenital disorders. Now another set of fossils from small humans has been discovered, this batch on a Micronesian island. The new fossils share some facial traits with the Flores fossils, but had bigger brains and are believed to be smaller versions of modern humans, suggesting that perhaps the Flores bones are not a new species either. There’s no end in sight yet for the debate, which the article summarizes.
This article from Live Science covers a new study into skeletal differences between humans and Neanderthals, our fellow hominins who likely shared the planet with us before dying out around 30,000 years ago. After examining human and Neanderthal skulls, a research team concluded that the differences between them are random individual characteristics and not evidence of any evolutionary adaptations that gave humans the edge over Neanderthals. One possible conclusion is that it was not a physiological or anatomical difference that made us better equipped to thrive on the planet, but some kind of social or cultural edge. On the other hand, Erik Trinkaus, Neanderthal researcher at Washington University in St. Louis and unconnected with the recent skull study, sees very little meaningful difference of any sort between the two species, and argues that perhaps it was just luck that led to the success of humans and the death of Neanderthals.
And finally, going much further back in time, recent research suggests that bipedalism did not arise relatively recently in the hominin lineage but goes clear back to a species called Orrorin tugenensis. This very early hominin lived in Africa around six million years ago, somewhere around the time that the chimpanzee and human branches diverged from each other. Measurements of fossil thigh bones indicate that it walked upright on two legs some of the time and also spent some time climbing trees on all fours; biomechanically its gait differed from that of modern humans. Walking upright evidently has a longer and more complicated story than we knew before. This story from US News & World Report has the details.
This article from Discover Magazine gives an overview of the wide range of opinions on humans and warfare. Optimists like neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, anthropologist Douglas Fry, and primatologist Frans de Waal believe that humans have a capacity for peaceful behavior, perhaps underexercised but still a part of who we are. Even the pessimists who think that violence and aggression are innate to our species have some thoughts on how to avoid violent and aggressive behavior in human life today. Maybe it would be more accurate to characterize the disagreement as one about the degree to which gentleness or aggression characterize human nature; it seems to me that we have the capacity for both, and we can’t really say that human nature is either violent or peaceable in any general sense.
The more we understand ourselves and the conditions that foster violent or peaceful behavior, the better equipped we are to figure out ways to shape societies in favor of one or the other. I was interested to see the role of women mentioned several times. Douglas Fry believes that there’s a link between women’s greater economic or political importance in a society, the greater respect that men feel for them under those circumstances, and a reduction in the amount of violent behavior a society perpetrates against its own inhabitants and against outsiders. Richard Wrangham, who takes a dimmer view of human nature, still suggests that greater opportunities for women are linked to reduced population levels, which in turn reduce pressure on natural resources, lessening one of the forces that motivates war.
It’s not mentioned explicitly in the article, but preserving the environment is also crucial if we want to see peace in our species’ future. Global warming could create huge struggles over resources, and limiting population growth is an essential element in curbing carbon emissions. I’m also reminded of the bumper sticker that says “If you want peace, work for justice.” On the one hand, it sounds like a wicked problem, where everything is connected to everything else and it’s hard to know where to start. On the other hand, it’s bound to be helpful to pick up any one of the threads and try to untangle the little bit of it that’s in your hands, whether that’s by protecting the environment, limiting population, working for women’s rights, or taking other measures to improve human living conditions and the long-term viability of the species.
If you’d like to read more about human societies that appear to be markedly more peaceful in their interactions, check out the Peaceful Societies site, which focuses on societies for which there is significant scholarly evidence of their peaceful nature.