Monday, October 10, 2005

"Former friends now drank each other's blood"

Temple Grandin’s thoughtful review suggests that Frans de Waal’s “Our Inner Ape” is worth careful study. And De Waal’s own comment We’re all Machiavellians is also instructive.

The more you look, the more similarities between humans and other apes there are.

But even – perhaps especially – ethologists and comparative psychologists should be cautious about making normative judgements about humanity.

The idea De Waal champions that humanity has “two inner apes” – the aggressive chimp and the peaceful bonobo – may well help us think about what’s going on, but only to a limited extent. Humans are neither chimps nor bonobos.

Similarly, Grandin’s conclusion that “De Waal's most hopeful message is that peaceful behavior can be learned” looks just great; but – strictly from the evidence cited – that conclusion can only be applied to juvenile rhesus and stumptail monkeys in the study.

There may well be evidence from historical, political, cultural and other studies of humans that peaceful behaviour can be learned, but one should be cautious about a “message” from even the most careful study of other animals.

1 comment:

Caspar Henderson said...

Chimps fall down on friendship
BBC News
27 Oct 2005

Captive chimpanzees fail to help others in their social group, even when it causes no inconvenience, a behavioural study in Nature journal has found.

Helpfulness is prevalent in humans, even when it may harm the helper's own interests to aid another.

Humanlike attributes shown by chimps include tool use and maybe rudimentary language skills, but this study suggests altruism is not among them.

But other researchers said that captive chimps may be less socially inclined.

A team led by Joan Silk of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), set captive chimpanzees tests in which they obtained a food reward.

The chimps were presented with two reward options. One option allowed a chimp only to serve itself with food. The other secured the same reward, but also delivered food to another chimpanzee in an enclosure next door.

Dr Silk's team found the 29 chimps tested in the study were no more likely to pick the second option than the first, even though it allowed them to do a "good deed" at no cost to themselves.

The result was surprising because the chimps had been living together in the same group for 15 years. They were not related, but might have been expected to be very close.

Food sharing has been demonstrated in groups of wild chimpanzees. So the Nature study raises questions about how this behaviour arises.

Other researchers suggest that the result could be down to the unnatural situation or to differences in behaviour brought on by captivity.