Two evolutionary episodes

Michael Tomasello in his book, The Natural History of Human Morality argues with good data that humans are more cooperative and the simians more competitive, so how might we have evolved just so?  Here are two possibilities.  First here’s a story from the NYT on a group of chimpanzees who have moved from the forests to the savannah, from shady, cool environs with lots of fruit to sunny, hot grasslands where food is harder to come by:  Why the move? Perhaps their leaders had a yen for new, less crowded surrounds, sort like Daniel Boone or, as I have posted here periodically, those who settled the Andes or the Himalayas or the Artic. Perhaps they were a small group threatened by a larger and more belligerent group and so sought out safety in a place the others did not want.  The researchers gathered the chimps’ urine, no small undertaking in a hot, dry environment.  Even to get close enough to see them micturate and then collect the samples took 4 years of gentle contact so that the chimps became more comfortable with human presence. This is good, patient research. The urine showed that they were getting enough food but that their lives were stressful enough so that stress hormones were consistently elevated.

Now this is important because elevated stress hormones over the long haul can lead to health problems—the body and mind sort of wear out and grow thin with that load of stress.  Burn out we call it.  A sustainable life style would demand measures taken to lessen the stress, e.g., moving on, or behavioral change to cope with the conditions more effectively.  These chimps have changed their foraging behaviors to do more at night, avoiding the heat, though their species specific pattern is more activity in the daytime.  These chimps take a siesta during the heat of the day.  Of course at night more big predators may be about, so group communication becomes more important, as does having an escape plan. Then I thought about how we cooperative creatures cope with stress through social means, providing emotional support, increased creature contact, sharing the good stuff, etc., and I wondered about the genes promoting such behaviors increasing as the savannah chimps reproduce over the generations.  That is one episodic way we could have become more cooperative creatures.

The second episode comes from a new book I am reading, The Encultured Brain. I will say more about it later but now I want to cite a study of a baboon population reported therein. Baboon society is notably harsh by our standards; social order is based upon coercive and aggressive actions by the alphas.  A longitudinal study of one group, however, showed that after most of the alphas died in a virulent epidemic, the group now led by the non-alphas (betas?) became more peaceful and cooperative:  less fights, more grooming and sharing.  Further, new baboons that joined the group adapted their behaviors to this new ‘habitus’ and these changes have persisted over some years now.  I presume that the alphas were more susceptible to the disease for some reason (the heightened stress of leading by force? Like our type A behavior people die more from heart attacks, etc.) and the betas liked their way of interacting, having developed increased empathy from their lower position and perspective on the social scale.   A stretch there, I know, but a viable hypothesis nonetheless.

I read somewhere that the meek shall inherit the earth, and despite much data contrary to that, when I ponder these studies, I think maybe so.  Maybe so.  Travel on.


A particularly interesting study

The NYT reports a great experiment originally published in Nature Communications:  The researchers started with an entire graduate school class of 279 students who now knew each other fairly well (none of those unstable and immature undergraduates used for this study, thank goodness) and asked them to fill out questionnaires about their social connections within this group.  They then asked them to undergo a further study using brain scans and 42 agreed (just 42? Come on, kiddoes, help us understand—you’re in graduate school for some reason, right?)  The scans were done while the subjects watched videos of relatively mundane events, e.g., an astronaut demonstrating the gelatinous behavior of water in low gravity, a Jewish wedding of gay men, some comedy clips, a music video (described as awful), etc.   They filtered the results for common features of identity, like ethnicity, religion, and family income, and then analyzed them for congruence among brain responses and closeness of social connections.  Brilliant, eh?

The results showed a significant correlation between neural responses to the videos and the how close the subjects were, i.e., the closer the friendship, the greater congruence in neural responses.  The researchers trained a computer program to analyze neural response patterns and predict degree of friendship and this was successful.  Now the researchers say they will use the imaging methodology on an incoming class before they get to know one another and see if they can predict who will develop closer friendships.  This is such a grounded and intelligent a research endeavor; I hope they get good funding during these perilous economic times for science.  (Oh, you didn’t understand that when Americans elect anti-science officials that funding for even basic research is reduced?  Look at the budget priorities of  this administration.)

The NYT article also gives some context.  Friendship is an increasingly important concept for us to understand as researchers study it in a variety of ways.  It protects against illness, stress reactions, bad habits, etc.  Many other animals form and maintain friendships; birds do it, even bats do it by regurgitating blood to feed a sick friend (but not that difficult bat hanging over there).  I have written here in the past that we have long known that the mammalian hippocampus keeps a spatial map to help move around in a reliable fashion and that more recently we have learned that the hippocampus keeps up with autobiographical experiences and time and with social objects, as intimates and familiars are called. Eric Kandel reports that the facial recognition system for primates is very well developed, including a large number visual processing cells dedicated to faces, both identifying and reading. Our relationships can range from familial and intimate through close friend and acquaintance to workplace relations to strangers, and now with our media engagement, many feel identification with people they have never met and can never meet because the personality is a fictional portrayal (Sorry, Outlander fans, Jamie and Clare are only married fictionally; Sam and Catriona each have their own lives, though I wonder how their neural responses to the experimental videos would match up).

The scientists note that the areas of greatest convergence were in the nucleus accumbens, a very old center important for reward, and the superior parietal lobe, a relatively new center important for attentional focus.  So the people with similar interests attend to similar patterns and tend to like each other.  This report does not give any differences in lateralization, nor were personality factors included, but clearly much delightful work can follow from this pioneering study.  Oh, and what about married people, do our patterns at the beginning of a relationship predict any success?  Do our patterns after being together a good while move towards more congruence?  And if people have a personal profile of aesthetic responses, say as measured by Aesthemos, do their neural patterns match? And the list goes on.

The NYT article ends with a quotes that I really like from Alexander Nehamas, a philosopher at Princeton; the short version is: “the aesthetic choices we make [are] an indication of who we are” and we live “immersed in art.”  I have been pondering how Homo sapiens’ penchant for art is critical for our humanity for a good while now; this blog is one general result, the posting on Aesthemos is a specific example.  Recently I have reflected on the deep aesthetic inherent in life and mind and how this deep aesthetic is a manifestation of a general principle of biological beings from the fit between proteins that forward organic processes to the pattern finding talents so evident in ourselves.  So it makes very good sense to me that we will find some form of aesthetic governing the formation of friendships once we figure out how to look for this, and of course, more people need to understand that aesthetics, in all of its manifestations, is important enough to appreciate and understand.   Travel on.

Travelogue: Ireland and humanity’s progress

Here is something a little different.  On our recent trip to Ireland I visited two sites important to us all.  The first was the University College Cork (UCC) where George Boole studied and taught mathematics, developing what came to be called Boolean logic or algebra, the mathematical basis for information processing.  Boole was born in England to a mostly unsuccessful shoemaker, who, too poor to send his children for much schooling, taught them at home, but he taught them a great deal like the mathematics for making lenses and telescopes.  George learned many languages on his own, especially those needed to read the classics, e.g., Greek, Latin, French, and German.  He went to work as a teacher at age 14 to help support his family, at one point starting his own school and then taking over another where he was a great success.  In 1841 he invented a branch of mathematics called Invariant Theory that influenced the development of 20thcentury physics.  In 1849 at the age of 34 he became a professor of mathematics at UCC despite having never attended college himself.  He was regarded as a great and thoughtful educator with a human touch and a mathematical genius.  Here is the main quadrangle where he walked to class.


UCC quadrangle

In 1854 George Boole published his most important book, An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, where he demonstrated that mathematics could be applied to any orderly structure, data, or information. Bertrand Russell said that Boole’s book was “the work in which pure mathematics was discovered”. His logic used just 3 operators:  and, or, not. Claude Shannon was to develop Boole’s logic into machine language in his 1948 book, The Mathematical Theory of Communication,which set the stage for information theory, computers, etc., etc., etc.

I did not learn about Boole until a few years ago, and talking with acquaintances I find few enough have heard of him. When we planned our trip to include Cork, I knew I had to visit UCC.  He and his wife raised 5 daughters, all of whom achieved in various fields.  Boole himself championed the integration of science and art.  Here we see the self-educated man as one of the best men.  He died in 1864 after catching pneumonia walking to class in the rain where he taught all day in wet clothes and then was treated according to a medical theory of the day by reproducing what had made him ill, i.e., they soaked him down more with cold water.  Oh well.  Here is a lovely river scene bordering the UCC campus where I imagine Boole leisurely poling his punt enjoying a lovely day.


Next we have the manor house of Derrynane, country home of Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847), Irish politician and statesman called “The Liberator” for his successful advocacy for the emancipation of Catholics in Ireland and his work for Ireland’s independence, women’s suffrage and to end slavery.


Derrynane House

O’Connell was actually born into lesser circumstances and was fostered out to a shepherd’s family for a few years at an early age.  Here he worked on the farm and spoke Gaelic exclusively.  He later went to school and became a lawyer, though as a Catholic he had limited opportunities to practice.  Eventually he inherited Derrynane House from his uncle who had amassed a sizable estate from smuggling.  O’Connell enlarged it for his family and developed the lovely gardens.  He loved to come here for respite from the political battles in Dublin and London.  He worked for change through peaceful means, especially organizing at the ballot box and not paying land rents to absentee English landlords.  When the English imprisoned him, he directed his many ardent followers to maintain peaceful activities and resist violent means.  His arguments for civil disobedience later inspired Gandhi and then Martin Luther King, Jr.  O’Connell died from a brain tumor shortly after making his last speech to the parliament at Westminster pleading for relief for the starving Irish.

In reading about Irish history over the last several months I have learned that some modern historians have eschewed the term “Irish  famine” for “Irish starvation”, the argument being that there was plenty of food in Ireland to feed the people but the English landlords and business men took it all and sent it to England.  O’Connell gave his last speech in vain and Ireland’s independence and subsequent land reform giving ownership to the Irish farmers would come over 70 years later after much bloodshed.

Derrynane House is a good visit with a movie about the Liberator and incredible gardens and beach walks.  Here are a few pictures before we travel on, remembering two Irishmen who advanced Humanity’s cause considerably, even if they are not widely known today.


Derrynane Gardens


Derrynane Beach

And from this beach you can see the Skellig Islands, home to the reclusive monks around the 8th century.


Skellig Michael is on the right where you-know-who retreated from battling the evil empire.