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.

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