Science headlines miss the mark (and some of the fun)

Here are two interesting stories about two bits of interesting research, both of which have headlines that miss the particular import of the science. The first headline is from the NYT: “Dolphins show self-recognition earlier than children” about some research that shows that dophins recognize themselves in a mirror, a cetacean version of the mirror test wherein a mark is put on the animal’s head where it can not be seen directly and then the animal is shown a mirror to see if they recognize themselves and the anomalous mark. Humans do so quite readily, dogs don’t, and elephants do as Frans de Waal showed quite creatively by using an elephant sized mirror (other researchers had found negative results using smaller mirrors but de Waal understood the animal well enough to try again with the appropriate set-up).

The NYT reports that finding that dolphins recognize themselves by age 7 months while humans do so by age 12 months. But here is my concern: direct comparison of developmental age between the two species is specious because humans have a longer altricial period, the time from birth to independence and reproduction, than dolphins. The NYT headline is thus misleading even as their story reports that the researchers were quite aware of the different maturational pace. Humans generally come to reproductive age between 11 and 16 years, females a year or two earlier than males. Dolphins evidently vary a good deal across species and locations, but seem to average out at females around 5-6 years and males 10-11. (Why? Maybe because evolutionary success benefits from younger and longer female reproduction and from older males who have demonstrated hardiness). Reproductive age is an important developmental milestone that marks the last spurt of bone growth, the strengthening of muscular systems, and a slowing but not by any means stopping brain development.

So the data show that dolphins recognize themselves in a mirror earlier than humans by calendar age but the data do not necessarily support an earlier maturational age. A fascinating aspect of this story though is what dolphins do when they recognize themselves in the mirror: they like to have some fun. Their antics include swimming and moving dramatically in front of the mirror; some look into their mouths and wiggle their tongues, but my favorite is the dolphin who repeatedly turned upside down and blew bubbles. I am sure we could be great friends, but back to my point—I think a better headline would have been “Dolphins have fun with their mirror images”. What do you think?

The second headline comes from the Duke Chronicle story on research done by Brian Hare and a graduate student name of Christopher Krupenye: “Our closest relatives prefer jerks”. I know some of Dr. Hare’s research and it is quite good and interesting (check out his work on dogs—very nice), so I am pretty confident that his methodology is worked out carefully, but here is my worry: the experimental manipulation involves showing bonobos videos and I find human-video interaction quite complicated as to what is understood, felt as import, mirrored, aversive/reinforcing or mindless drivel. I did not know that simians cared the least about TV and I hope this report signals a brief flirtation with the medium and that the bonobos much prefer actual life rather than virtual, unless of course it is decidedly artistic or at least intellectual. Anyway, here is the experimental set-up as reported.

They showed bonobos animated or live action videos of someone being helpful to another, e.g., helping them up a hill or helping them reach a toy, or hindering them, e.g., pushing them down a hill or taking a toy from them. Then they showed cut-outs of the two characters, each with an apple slice, to see whether the subject would take an apple from the helpful or the unhelpful. The bonobos preferred the unhelpful one because, the humans conjectured, they prefer relationships with the dominant one and the unhelpful one, being a bully, appeared dominant.

I don’t know about this one. Bonobos will help strangers for no reward; they form alliances with many non-dominant in their tribe; their social group is led by females and males who get too aggressive get attacked by the ladies. They are simians however, and Michael Tomasello, who is, I believe, a colleague of Hare’s at Duke, says the data show that simians are more competitive and humans more cooperative. But the reasoning here could be quite different or dissociated from dominance. Perhaps they took apples from the dominant ones as means of balancing the outcomes; simians do show a sense of fairness and will balk at cooperating when things are unfair and will act to balance things out. Perhaps they figure that the bully can always get more while the less dominant beast might have to struggle. I am sure Hare and colleagues will work further to clarify. In any event the headline saying bonobos prefer jerks is an anthropomorphic projection, and while I quite understand that anthropodenial is a problem because we do share many attrtibutes with our kin, anthropomorphism is still the more frequent problem with us. Different beasts, different Umvelts and different cultures—show some respect. Dominance and jerkiness are not the same thing.

Back to the issue of videos. We humans are so tuned into the electronic manifestations of cultural features that videos seem naturally to reflect some reality, even though as I said above our relationship with the virtual presentation with what we see is very complex. Simians do not have such a culture. I find it very interesting that they watch and understand to some degree what they see. My in-laws swear that their dog watches tv and prefers human action like sports to watching other dogs run around. Who knows? But how other beasts interpret the stories depicted virtually must be related to their Umvelt and the context they bring to it. I wonder what the result would be if analogous studies could be done in a more ecologically valid manner, like watching a video of their familiar being helped or hindered and then who they take the apple from or if given other options for action, how they might intervene. Complicated beasts, aren’t we all? Travel on.


Yes, we bonobos much prefer PBS. Those chimps and gorillas, I don’t know.

A cultural question about our biology

So after watching, crying and flying with Oprah’s speech accepting the Cecil B. Demille award at the 2018 Golden Globes, I pulled out my check book to write a check to her presidential campaign. After a night’s sleep and more reflection, I pushed my check book to the side, still in reach mind you, and considered the scope of change she most powerfully and eloquently envisioned for us. A world where sexual behavior by mostly males is not used to violate the social mores of intimacy in order to instrumentally boost the perpetrators’ sense of power, their own power, not the female’s nor society’s. The current debate focuses on the sexual violence of the already powerful, but I am reminded of a video, last year I think, by a woman walking the streets of New York City, documenting more than one catcall and gratuitous sexual reference per minute of time travelled. These workmen were not the powerful and still they reveled in glorifying their sexual verbiage used to degrade the lady’s personhood walking by.

The scope of change here would (will) be remarkable even in this country, and then I consider the status of females in other countries and cultures around the world. Scandinavia looks more equitable and respectful; Iceland even enacted a law making it illegal to pay women less than men for equal work and demanding that employers with more than 25 workers prove that they remunerate equitably. Many French and Italian women also endorsed this movement and many men there complained that their seductive behaviors are not abusive but in the service of love. Many activists in the Arab world, in Africa, Asia and South America carry on the struggle for women’s rights, from the right not to be killed at birth and the right not to be sold or mutilated for marriage and the right to drive and work to the right of full citizenship in voting and holding office.

If you want a metric to assess the progress of humanity, measuring the rise of female civil and cultural rights and justice would be a fair one. When in a cynical mood (hard not to be these days), I wonder about the learning curve of a just equality. I think about the evolution and development of our humanity over the past 50 to 100,000 years, of the paucity of matriarchal systems surviving into the recent history of humans, say around 15,000 years ago, and how biological roles determined by child-rearing have morphed into subservient social status in so many cultures. I just re-read the Iliad and the Greeks, credited with conceiving democratic governance so long as you discount slaves, non-property owners and of course, females, treated women as chattel. Agamemnon gives favored warriors women they have captured as slaves. Trojan women, including Queen Hecuba, know that their fate is to be enslaved by the Greeks after the men are slaughtered. The narrative shows that some women adapted to their enslavement by becoming treasured concubines, thus Achilles is greatly attached to his captured slave, Briseis, and refused to fight when Agamemnon takes her. Once returned she becomes a comforting bedmate for Achilles.

My point here is that male usurpation of female personhood is long standing and that, I imagine, a case can be made for its entrenched place in our human habitus (that’s culture, if you are new here to the blog) based upon the biologically driven male aggression. Bonobos are wonderfully amazing because their female dominated society stands in stark contrast to that of chimpanzees and other simians, indeed of many other species. What about cetaceans? I don’t know. Elephants? I think females are pretty central but still run when the bull is mad or aroused.

I have written before on my blog about differentiating what is cultural from our biological predispositions (see post 5/23/15: “gender, culture and biology” ), and I think our current arrangement is not an outgrowth of our biology but for the social biological convenience of males wanting to control paternity and property. With some developments in the modern world that contribute to the loss of social coherence based upon authentic relationships, this ‘convenience’ has grown uglier and uglier. And I will not even begin to consider here the interplay between classes, rich or poor, educated or not, advanced or primitive.

When I voice my cynicism about deep change aloud, my wife likes to remind me about the success of tobacco cessation programs instigated by many researchers and non-profits standing together with the Surgeon General to lobby Congress to enact laws curtailing tobacco sales while still helping the farmers and others dependent upon that income and push the CDC to act to reduce highly addictive behaviors. (Don’t you grow angry that our Congress has forbidden the CDC from studying gun violence with a focus on harm reduction? American culture is a special case here, folks). And of course the struggles for civil rights and suffrage have changed our society much for the better. (Again, our ‘special’ American culture now allows reactionary moves against people of color). In all of this, I must cherish the thought that deep change is possible albeit not easy or linear by standing together.

Oprah’s promising vision of a world where girls and women meet respect and justice is one beautiful flower of this moment in time and cultural egress leaving a stultified domain of male privilege and entering one refreshed by the inclusion of females in a new and refreshing view of their humanity, the acknowledgment of their personhood and the refusal by everyone to abide by any violation of this inalienable right. I have several other associations to finish this piece off. First I remember my readings of Celtic society where women were accorded many rights, including control over their own sexual relations. Consider the fierce Queen Medb’s requirements for a mate: not jealous of her other lovers, brave enough to fight and win against any of their challenges, and generous. Another one is of James Hilton’s 1933 book Lost Horizon (and a pretty good movie as well) wherein Shangri-La exists as an isolated utopian community hidden away in the high Himalayas. The change we seek is utopian, not in a secluded and protected environment but in the wider world. Of course, some would call this a dream, but others would call this awakening from a nightmare. Then we have John Lennon’s song “Imagine”: “You may say I am a dreamer, but I am not the only one”, and that is a not so secret weapon we dreamers have, standing together. So I will now travel on. And Oprah, I still have my checkbook beside me on the table.