Sunday, September 19, 2010

Who We Are: Conclusion

This is the final installment in a series of postings in which I explore the growing mountain of scientific evidence that supports that human have, as a species, a cooperative nature.

Olivia Judson in an article titled "How Heroes Are Made" (USA News and World Report Special Edition: Mysteries of Science) explained that in nature benefit and costs are determined by one standard and one standard alone, which is the number of offspring that an organism has. The more children an organism has then the more successful that organism is. This standard poses a problem for those of us who claim that humans have a cooperative nature. It would seem that if we cooperate then we run the risk of helping others pass along their genes at the expense of ours. Altruism and cooperation would seem to contradict natural selection. If mutual cooperation is indeed what separated us from the other primates what might have been the evolutionary pressure that could have created a cooperative and altruistic ape?

The famed evolutionary biologist and game theory pioneer William Douglas Hamilton published several studies on what might cause altruism to evolve in the species. According to Hamilton a gene that promoted extreme altruism, which is a form of altruism that is so sacrificial that the organism leaves no descendants, could spread if it helped individuals who were closely related. Hamilton created a formula to predict whether an organism had a predisposition to altruism. Known as Hamilton’s Rule if the action’s benefit is large enough and if there is a close enough genetic relationship so as to outweigh the cost then the altruistic gene would be promoted.

One can expand this principle of "kin selection" beyond the immediate family. Many species live in large groups such as herds and flocks in which they interbreed. For example, the Common Chimpanzees mentioned in my last blog while intolerant aren’t loners but live in large communities with layers of sub-communities. While the females leave during adolescence the males stay and form gangs which roam across their territories guarding it from interlopers. These males can set up friendships across family lines and prefer to set up gangs with their maternal brothers and half brothers. If they run across a gang from another community there can be violence to the point that some smaller communities may be wiped out.

According to Judson in the 19th century Charles Darwin hypothesized that early humans warring in same fashion as the chimps might actually have created altruism. Darwin hypothesized that unified groups of caring early humans might have been more successful in competition with the rugged individualist humans. Over time the rugged individualists and non-cooperative humans were put under such evolutionary pressure that they were replaced by cooperative humans.

Darwin’s hypothesis is intriguing but is there any evidence to support it? In a paper published in the journal Nature, Judson reported that it was found that people tend to prefer to help strangers from their own ethnic group. Such studies as the one in Nature, along with others, have increased interest in Darwin’s idea. But some of the strongest evidence may have been found by the evolutionary biologist Sam Bowles. According to Bowles during the last 90,000 years of the Pleistocene era, which lasted from 100,000 to the 10,000 years ago, there was little growth in the numbers of humans. Certainly climatic volatility during this time was rather extreme and that could have kept numbers down. But Bowles reviewed the archeological records and various studies and estimated that a substantial numbers of the deaths could have resulted from wars. According Judson, "Bowles shows that supercooperative, altruistic humans could indeed have wiped out groups of less united folk." Judson wrote that for this to be a success the model would also require supportive groups based on monogamy, sharing of food, and little disparity between members. It’s interesting to note that Judson states that if Bowles was right then any group that failed to drive out or kill disruptive or non-cooperative members would have had a disadvantage in battles.

With these studies are taken together, along with many others that I haven’t covered, it turns out that natural selection can indeed lead to the development of an altruistic and cooperative ape.

Conclusion of Series
In conclusion, what can we draw from these studies reviewed over the past months? We are hardwired by millions of years of evolution to make cooperative behavior intrinsically reinforcing. Because of these studies we can now see that the very heart of capitalism, the idea of the rugged individual and looking out for Number One, is a myth. Economic democracy is built upon the reality of the cooperative nature of humans. It’s time for society to move beyond the unnatural system of capitalism and move on to its logical successor: economic democracy.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Who We Are: Part III

Animal Studies

This is the third installment in a series of postings in which I explore the growing mountain of scientific evidence that supports that human have, as a species, a cooperative nature.

Brian Hare, researcher for the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, has been studying cooperative behavior in various animals for years. As a teenager Hare started studying the behavior of dogs in his parent’s basement. In his childhood experiments, which were the first of their kind, he indicated that the dogs were very good at following human non-verbal instructions. Later studies by other researchers supported Hare’s results showing that such attributes are genetically predetermined. Wolves lack this capacity, so the dog's abilities have been artificially selected by humans over the centuries through breeding.

At one point in his career Hare ended up at the Institute for Psychology and Genetics in Akademgorodok, Russia in which the researchers had been studying foxes since 1959. They were selectively breeding the foxes based on their degree of fear exhibited of humans. A control group was allowed to breed as usual while in the experimental group only those less fearful of humans were allowed to breed. Over time the behavior of the foxes in the experimental group changed. Those foxes took on dog like behaviors of barking and wagging their tails in the presence of humans as well as dog like physical appearance such as floppy ears, coats with differing degrees of markings, their skeletons became weaker, and their hormone balance changed. Along with all of this their social intelligence had begun to resemble the dogs in that they developed the ability to intuitively understand the directions of humans.

This trait of co-habitation and tolerance in dogs and the specially bred foxes lead to a hypothesis by Hare. He hypothesized that similar behavioral changes were prerequisites for the evolution of intelligence in humans. In other words, he hypothesized that our intelligence could not have evolved if we had not developed a prior practice of tolerance and the ability to cooperate with each other. He then proceeded to test his tolerance hypothesis. This required studying our closest relatives: the chimpanzees.

The Common Chimpanzees are known to be highly competitive and intolerant. For example, if a chimp of a lower rank attempts to eat from a bowl of food first then the higher ranking chimp will beat him and horde the food. Hare decided to test how far he could push this intolerance and find out what it would take for the chimps to cooperate with each other.

He set up an experiment with a bowl of food that could only be acquired by two chimps pulling on a rope together. If any chimpanzee alone tried to pull the rope it would fail so the only way to succeed would be for at least two chimps to cooperate. Time and time again they tried it individually and failed. But occasionally a few chimps would cooperate and successfully pull the rope together. It turned out that it was those few chimps that had already exhibited tolerance, such as eating together, that would be the ones that would cooperate with each other and would therefore succeed in the exercise.

When Hare studied Bonobos, a sub-species of chimpanzee, he found a very different story. Rather than a few tolerant members working together the bonobos naturally worked together to solve the problem. But true to their nature the bonobos, in a hedonistic style that would have made the free love of the 1960's seem puritanical, they would first have sex and would then cooperate in acquiring the food.

Bonobo Chimpanzees are interesting for many reasons. Being a sub-species of the chimpanzees they share at least a 98% genetic similarity with humans. Plus, their physical appearance is intriguing. The Bonobo have long head hair, pink lips, small ears and wide nostrils. In comparison to the Common Chimpanzee they have long legs, slim upper torso, and human-like breasts that are more prominent.
Hare has hypothesized that the point of separation of our ancestor from the chimps resulted from our ancestors purging the dominating and power hungry members in favor of tolerant and mild temperament members, which contrasts against the now discredited, though still widely accepted in pop culture, “killer-ape” theory. Hare and the other animal researchers have presented evidence that supports that what started our species in becoming human was not due to struggle and violence but mutual aid and cooperation.

In the next entry I will conclude this series with research that supports how natural selection can encourage the rise of a cooperative species.