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.

no more anthropodenial

One week from today will be my self-proclaimed holiday “Mammalian Heritage Day” that I started last year. I will re-post from those posts next week but today I want to refer you to 2 news reports that illustrate the remarkable path the earliest mammals started us down on some 300 million years ago.


In this new tree of life mammals would be found in the green projections in lower right corner.

The first report is about the empirical support now in for the ‘cultural’ brain hypothesis’, i.e., essentially that our brains, especially as primates and before that as mammals, enlarged with our increasing sociability, meaning the rich domain of information our empathic and signal communication contributes to our lives and experience. Over the past several years researchers have documented deep similarities between human society and cetacean society. Check out this story from This list covers some remarkable evolutionary developments that have culminated with primate and cetacean species. Consider that we all are

– Working together for mutual benefit
– Teaching others how to hunt and cooperative hunting
– Using tools
– Complex vocalizations -‘talking’ to each other – including regional group dialects
– Signature whistles that are unique to individuals
– Name recognition
– Interspecific cooperation (working with humans and other species)
– Adult animals looking after youngsters that aren’t their own
– Social play

The second story comes from researchers who have documented that chimpanzees, both in human captivity and in the wild, show stable personality traits quite similar to ours, to which we now say, “of course”. Consider this NYT story: This report accompanies the release of a new documentary about Jane Goodall’s early research. What a brilliant human she is, first as a scientist with immense vision and courage developed through the most rigorous fieldwork imaginable and now as a wise and astute advocate for Gaia and especially its creatures under duress of extinction. When she began her studies back in 1960, her findings were belittled as anthropomorphic projection. Now we have Frans de Waal cautioning us against anthropodenial by which we deny and ignore the evolutionary continuities between ourselves and the rest of the animal kingdom (especially mammals like primates and cetaceans). Our similarities run deep from our shared genetic heritage up to, as research continues to demonstrate, our social selves and groups. Makes me glad to be alive, so I think I will travel on with a little swing to my step.


Review: The Natural History of Human Morality

Our gardens are taking much of my energy these days, but I sometimes reflect on my biological preoccupations while I am out there. For example, why am I currently focused on the biological roots of human values? Two main reasons. First, I live in an area where strong fundamentalist, even evangelical, religion fills people’s minds and our media. Associated with that comes a nostalgia for the Confederacy. I often read locally that god (take your pick of the many iterations out there) is the source of values, so our American separation of church and state is misguided. Oh, so wrong, even looking at the beliefs of our founding fathers (and mothers). Plus, I have just finished a magnificent book, The Half Has Never Been Told, about how our capitalist and wealthy society rose up on the backs of slaves, and that was a value preached from the white pulpit. Values are man-made, so to speak, and biological in origin even when they are perverse and distorted.

Second, for a rational source of values, go back a few posts (6/28/17 & 7/8/17) where I reveled in Monod’s exposition of spirit conceived of as inherent in our biology. I find his thinking a clear guide to true and humane values, so back to Monod’s ethic of knowledge and the knowledge of ethics. The basic biological value is to promote the generational advancement of a species, i.e., replication of genes and the evolutionary descent from life’s inception until now. All life is local and flows into the future as best it can. If you have followed my blog over the past year or so, you know my supposition that life’s basic task, then, is SWP (Solving World Problems), i.e., the job of gaining what is needed from the world to fulfill that basic biological value, and SWP engenders the ethic of knowledge. The better we know the world, the better we can SWP. You also know that early on in Gaia’s evolution sexual reproduction appeared and that increased the force with which life flows into the future because it increases the pace of new genetic combinations and most significantly for our humanity, it engendered a new set of values for CR (Conspecific Relations). CR transformed the biosphere with the advent of mammals and their remarkable evolution of family relations and empathy. Finally you know that very recently in Gaia’s past SWP embraced CR as a way of organizing the group for success and CR embraced SWP as a way of developing more powerful actions together. In more concrete terms conspecifics became adept at learning and cooperating with each other to mitigate exigencies and exploit opportunities, thereby increasing survival rates, and also turned their impulses to SWP to focus on group organization and governance. That, for me, is a decent summary of the evolutionary descent of humans as we developed a cultural world and an awareness of our humanity.

Many values develop from there, and I appreciate Michael Tomasello’s book, The Natural History of Human Morality, for illuminating this important phase of our evolution. His basic method is to compare empirical studies of moral actions between simians and toddlers, reasoning that any differences shown thereby through similar or analogous designs would highlight the evolution of human morality as distinct from that of apes and as independent of cultural entrainment, i.e., the toddlers would not show much effect of acculturation because of their age and development so any differences could be seen more surely as our evolutionary genetic heritage. Simple and brilliant. And he cites a good deal of research showing some distinct and important differences.

The basic difference is that apes are more competitive than cooperative while toddlers are more cooperative than competitive. Simians will cooperate in order to win a competition, perhaps against one stronger because their social order and interaction are based upon force to a large degree. (If I remember correctly I think Frans der Waal reports some simian relationships are also based upon age, history of interaction, family relations, what I might call simian social wiles and empathy so Tomasello may be overselling the simians’ lack of caring.)  Tomasello does look at some distinct differences to be seen between young humans and mature simians and these highlight the reliance on force used by the great apes in varying degrees, bonobos less than chimps, in contrast with the care and comfort offered by human infants, social behaviors not seen in the simians. For example, human infants as young as 14 months will help others, even strangers, when they perceive their frustration at a task by doing some action to solve the challenge to the goal. They will help spontaneously without incentive. Likewise, they will comfort others who are distressed; the higher the level of distress, the more likely the toddlers respond to soothe. They also show satisfaction when another person provides the soothing, and this seems to me clear indication of the mirroring system establishing a loop of a right brain leading with the warm social reaction to a vicariously experienced social situation. Whoa! These sorts of behaviors are by and large absent in the simian repertoire.

Tomasello goes further and argues that human morality is thus shown to be distinctive very early on, and that argues for a strong genetic influence. He then incorporates more observations as he explicates how our morality changes from our early empathy guided behaviors to the more sophisticated mores established through acculturation. This early empathy (my term, not his) provides the substrate upon which self-other equivalence is developed, and from there the next step to self-other morality, i.e., the same rules apply to each, is tangibly realized. Here, if you will, is the biological origin of the golden rule: do to others as you want done to you.

Part of this shift in human development involves the widening of the empathic circle to include non-kin and even strangers and this comes along with our cooperating with just about anyone really to do necessary tasks, tasks that cannot be performed without competent cooperation and that are important to the selves and their group(s). Herein grows the expectation and obligation that everyone is expected to perform competently in attaining their goal and the same rewards and penalties apply to everyone. These social mores develop incidentally, more or less, until their codification and increasing social complexity demand conscious consideration. Tomasello explains this in some detail and brings up an idea from his earlier work, that these new ways of interacting brought about new ways of thinking. I am still considering how to understand what he means there and so will post on that later, I hope, and I have purchased his earlier book, The Natural History of Human Thinking.

I find much support in this book for my notion that the evolution of empathy and symbolization form the roots of our humanity. I especially appreciate the good science in demonstrating how our empathy is different from that of other animals and how that has led to a moral dimension of culture. Our empathy is indeed very powerful and pervades all of our mental development. Our special sense or intuition of another’s intent and mental states/processes allow a grand expansion of cooperation, especially as this also leads to symbolic communication about our subjective experience, thoughts and feelings. (Remember, sometimes empathy+symbolization=art.)

I also find some clues about how to understand phenomena like slavery or its modern incarnations in the ways the rich steal the fruits of working people’s labors. The enslavers and the powerful wealthy elite operate with a morality more akin to the simian’s reliance on force: if I can gain resources from the community for myself by force and manipulation of law (and values), ignoring the empathic connection so strong in humanity, I am successful and dominant. The next time you see an ‘alpha’ male gloating over power and wealth, picture a simple ape standing over his pile of bananas while others look on empty-handed and wonder how some can depreciate our distinctive values arising from our biology. Finally, consider how the cultural mind-set of power, e.g., colonial imperialism, is so prominent in some nations and classes and resistant to change (talk to a Scotsman about the English, talk to the 99%ers about the 1%, read Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, listen to Noam Chomsky).

I learned a good deal from this book and will learn more by re-reading some passages and maybe one day soon (like winter time when the garden lies mostly fallow) I will re-read the entirety. That said, I want to recommend this book with a quibble: the prose is academic and at times oh so tedious. I understand the academic culture and social styles; I struggled with writing in accordance through two graduate degrees. I got better with the help of my excellent advisers, who, I am sure, found my natural style very un-academic and prone to ambiguity, obtuseness and metaphorical extension. Kind of like here. So read this book patiently, being forewarned of potential difficulty, and consider what this means about us humans in the grand scheme of life.

November 2: Mammalian Heritage Day

Finally a fake holiday I can get behind. We humans in our evolution find ourselves benefitting fully from our mammalian heritage. Mammals appeared on the scene around 500 million years ago and have diversified into many different forms since. Consider their (our) primary characteristics. Being warm blooded confers a crucial independence from ambient conditions, an independence humans have taken to an ultimate degree. It is not just that mammals have adapted to many different environments around Gaia, including returning to the ocean, but we have further enhanced our independence by controlling and changing these ambient conditions, perhaps to own detriment but then no species continues forever.

Consider another characteristic: live births. This is especially important for three reasons. First, infants born viably but immaturely permit an incredible amount of post-partum growth. The benefits of this are astounding: increased brain growth and size and critical periods of maturation where experience affects brain development in deep ways. Second, parenting becomes a lot more than regurgitating food into infant mouths and then kicking them out of the nest. Oxytocin, a most important hormone for parenting energy and prosocial behaviors, has been around, according to some estimates, for over 530 million years. Over the course of evolution mammalian brains developed the capacity to respond more powerfully to this hormone—parenting and family life became more prominent in any adaptive success, and that leads us to the third reason: If you want to raise more intelligent children and pass on to them the benefits of prior generations’ experience, birth them live and immature, maintain a nurturing family structure, and extend their juvenile period so that they do not begin to reproduce until they are a decade or so old. The discovery of controlling fire was not really that big of a deal; the passing on of this technique, however, was; just ask Prometheus.

Our immediate (relatively speaking) ancestors who showed the culmination of these characteristics are the primates who appeared around 53 million years ago. That means mammals evolved for 450 million years before our large brained, visually oriented, socially engaged, and quick intelligence kinfolk appeared and then simians appeared a few million years after that. Our line split off from the great apes around 8 million years ago and our partners, the dogs, appeared around 3 million years ago. Fire was important because it furthered this trend. Cooking food releases more calories, making digestion more efficient, and more energy from food powers increased brain capacity. Fire warms us and draws the family group to the hearth. Civilization began at the hearth (and it looks like it will die in committee).

So this November 2 take a moment to reflect on our genetic heritage and thank a mammal, any mammal, all mammals for continuing this genetic stream and tend to your hearth.


We sing a song of mammals today . . .