Sun bears are us

One of the reasons I like Frans der Waal books so much is that he leads us to consider how we animals, especially us mammals, are alike in our talents.  One of the great lessons taught by Einstein and Susan Oyama is that theory constrains what we look for empirically, so we had better pay attention to our theoretical lackings.  Most people today understand that humans and other primates are really quite similar in our makeup and functioning.  Some understand that we also share a good deal with cetaceans, elephants and dogs. Some scientists study social animals for critical behaviors.  And a couple of assiduous scientists studied hours of video of sun bears who are rarely social and found, lo and behold, mirroring where we might least expect it given current theoretical leanings.  Oh boy!

Sun bears live in southeast Asia and are known to prefer to live in solitude except for mating and parenting.  I am not sure how they find each other wandering the jungle all alone, but sometimes they do and mate, then go their own way again.  The females bear cubs and they stay together for a couple of years and then they also seek their sweet solitude.  In Malaysia they have a refuge for sun bears that have been injured or are somehow unable to survive in the wild.  They keep them in a large reserve but they still meet each other more in captivity than would otherwise be the case.  And they videotape their encounters.  Yes, they are not real sociable creatures and yes, they prefer solitude, but they still play around with each other and their play involves mimicking one another. Yes, that’s right, they mirror one another just like so many other more sociable animals do.

Remember that mirroring is an incredible social action (or if you don’t remember, read some past posts here like from 7/19/18 & 7/31/18).  I see the theoretical difference between imitation and mirroring this way:  imitation is a behavioral replication of an observed action with little mentation attached and mirroring is so much more because mirroring allows the empathic understanding of another’s mood and intent.  At some point I wrote that the difference between imitation and mirroring is the difference between Skinner and Freud (although I prefer William James’ approach myself) or between surface behavior and inner dynamics.

To illustrate the difference, I long ago worked with a young autistic child who had virtually no expressive language and understood very, very little, like his name, the word ‘mama’ and maybe some foods.  But he imitated all the time.  If you pointed to something for him to look at, he would mimic your pointing while looking at you.  Most amazingly, he could repeat any sentence you said with very good articulation but without any sense that it was meaningful.  Pure and skillful echolalia, but not mirroring.  This ability to process phonemes auditorially and translate those sounds into motor patterns indicated that key areas of his left auditory and motor cortex were functional along with, and this is important, his arcuate fasciculus, the long fiber tract that normally enables mirroring of speech and, probably along with other fiber tracts, gestures and emotional expressions (on the right side—see post 4/24/14 & 5/30/18).

So sun bears have some neuropsychological capabilities to mirror conspecifics and they use these in play and almost certainly, parenting. (Mating I am not so sure about—hormonally driven and how much courtship/bonding do they engage in?)  Again, our mammalian heritage (see posts 11/2/18, 11/2/16) runs deep.  Travel on and check out the NYT article here:  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/22/science/sun-bears-faces-mimicry.html.

Sitting_sun_bear

Aww, play time is over?  or  Aww, do I have to play with others?

An odd (?) and provocative (!) finding

Many members of my generation (born 1950) were the first in our families to go straight from high school to college and then to expect our children to do the same. Some of my friends quite wisely rejected college to pursue other career paths about which their parents were not keen. And some of my daughter’s generation also rejected higher education and some of them faced heightened pressure to continue on, such as hearing about the research on lifetime earnings between high school and college graduates to outright emotional rejection if they failed to carry on the college tradition. The reasons I heard then were primarily of two sorts, the preparation for a more lucrative career and the rite of passage into adulthood as college helps youth to engage with their peer group, develop a mature identity to carry them forth from the bosom of their family, etc. I rarely heard an argument for intellectual development and appreciation of the world of ideas, and then mostly when I listened to myself and other nerds.

Now I gather from a NYT story that scientists are searching for a genetic influence (of course) in who goes for further education: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/25/science/children-parents-genes-education.html. This began evidently a decade or so ago and the results have not been very elucidating, but recently a group of researchers looked at the genomes of parents to see if some clue could be found there as to whose children pursued more education, and voila, there was. I really like this research effort with its odd and provocative results, and I also have to wonder about the relative contributions of class, wealth and other family traditions that are, of course, also genetically influenced. I still remember my first team meeting at an internship in clinical psychology at a teaching hospital and learning that 6 of the 7 psychiatry residents were the children of physicians, a couple of them 3rd or 4th generation. Almost a caste or hereditary guild system there.

So the genes in their families helped impel these scions to further education? Maybe. The theoretical basis for this, I think, comes from Richard Dawkins and his concept of the extended phenotype. (I hope I have understood this correctly and can explain it properly). Basically idea of the extended phenotype is that genes act beyond their synthesis of proteins, etc. in their own soma, i.e., body, to affect other somas and the environment and that this extended action also promotes the continuation of select genes. Dawkins marshals considerable evidence for this hypothesis, so it is quite natural to think that parental genes affect offspring’s behaviors not just through the progeny’s genetic inheritance, say for intelligence, but also through parental behaviors that influence the next generation’s adaptation. Indeed, to me this is exactly the genius of our mammalian heritage; attachment and bonding, mirroring and social learning, cultural transmission, etc. are all biological actions carried from soma to soma (you know, our humanity’s biological roots in empathy and symbolization).

I have a younger friend here in the mountains of SW Virginia who comes from an eminently practical and mechanical family; they can build and fix almost everything. The uncles and cousins all live in houses they built together by pooling their talents. My generation in this family all finished high school reluctantly and went on to successful careers in industry, rising through the ranks because of their mechanical intelligence, good sense and work ethic. My younger friend recently shared that his 5 yo son does not want to start school because he would rather accompany his father on his job working with machines. The father is proud of that and don’t most fathers want sons to follow somehow in their footsteps; I think this might be a fairly invariant feature of human culture, at least in recent civilized history where trades and professions have become more clearly specialized and defined. My own father insisted futilely that I follow him in the military.

But is there some genetic basis for not insisting that your child follow after you in a trade but rather pursues more education? Is part of genetic ‘success’ and human evolution the tendency of some parents to promote their children’s going further or in a different direction? I would think that the human path from prehistoric to ancient to modern intellectual culture, progressing from animism and magic to science and engineering, over the long slog of history would have required such a genetic flow and current, even if it is a result of chaotic, random mutations building upon the genetic roots of our beings. And now this research may provide an entry into exploring how such progress was served by the extended phenotype in which parents promote greater intellectual understanding in their children through further education and not just following along with traditional ways, content with the orthodoxy of old.

Consider the past half million years or so as our ancestors developed a human habitus and conserved the old ways by resisting much of the new. I have read much history and fiction which show historically that children used to follow almost religiously their family tradition in work, class, etc.; indeed in many cultures and periods they had (& have) little choice. This notion may seem alien today, at least in the USA and western world where the ‘dream’ is of a better, richer, more technologically advanced way of life (and this, by the bye, is being challenged with the rise of other countries from the ashes of our imperialism), as we think progress is inevitable because of the increasing power of our science and technology. I believe that is, oh, so wrong. Balance is important in all matters, especially between material gains and social justice, and devolution waits just around the corner. Ask the survivors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima; watch as our democracy now faces a severe test because of anti-scientific bias, impoverished critical thinking, and neglect of fairness in economic rewards. (I will not bring up a catastrophic loss of electricity due to meteors or other calamities). Consider our own (American) falling rankings on measures of happiness, health, education (especially STEM subjects), gap between rich and poor, etc. We may indeed have genes for helping our children to appreciate further education, even ones for promoting their curiosity and progress in discovering new and better ways that have helped power our evolution for thousands of years or genes that led to greater intellectual progress. These genes would seem to help us accept, even insist that our children cherish an ethic of knowledge and the new understanding it brings and question our knowledge of ethics to seek a more just world. At least I hope later generations feel this benefit.

A good study, then, with odd and provocative results; such findings are sometimes our best hope for knowing ourselves in a changing world. Travel on.