Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Thoughts on the Templeton Foundation

It’s no secret that many atheists don’t much like the John Templeton Foundation (hereafter just ‘Templeton’), and have a pretty low opinion of people who accept Templeton funding and financial support. This theme cropped up in two recent blog posts – one by Jerry Coyne, the other by PZ Myers – and I want to make a few comments about both.

Coyne’s post was a response to a new website to be launched by Templeton, Big Questions Online. Coyne starts in characteristic style:
“Are you one of those indigent freelance writers, scrabbling hard to earn a pittance? Sick of magazines and newspapers that pay you jack? Well, your troubles are over—at least if you’re willing to churn out accommodationist pap. The John Templeton Foundation, through its credential-bending director of publications Rod Dreher, has announced that, if you’re willing to toe the party line, Templeton has big simoleons for writers.”
The details of the ‘pap’ writers will have to produce are provided by Dreher:
“[T]he Web publication the John Templeton Foundation will soon launch, Big Questions Online, will be paying good money for essays. We're interested in smart, insightful pieces on science, religion, markets, morals, and any combination of the four.”
Myers’ post is a long response to an essay by Ron Rosenbaum, who was one of this year’s Templeton Science and Religion Journalism Fellows. At the end, Myers writes:
“I'm not going to try to take apart every word in Rosenbaum's disjointed agglomeration of poorly thought out nonsense. But I will leave you with one little phrase from the article that tells you everything you need to know: “Having recently spent two weeks in Cambridge (the one in the United Kingdom) on a Templeton-Cambridge Fellowship…” Goodnight, Ron Rosenbaum.”
I don’t think I’m misreading Myers’ comment when I say that the implication is that anyone who has anything to do with Templeton is inherently untrustworthy (intellectually) and their views can be dismissed simply by virtue of that association.

Coyne’s short post admits of two possible readings. On one, he could be taken to be saying that writing about science, religion, markets or morals is to inevitably churn out accommodationist pap (otherwise it doesn’t make sense to cite the scope of the articles Templeton are interested in as evidence that putative contributors will be required to do so). But that would be crazy talk. Joseph Henrich, for example, is one of the world’s leading anthropologists, and uses a combination of ethnographic observation, mathematical modelling and experimentation to tease apart the basic factors shaping human behaviour (I haven’t done justice to his research with this summary; check his website out for more details).

A recent paper of Henrich and colleagues, published in Science, was entitled, ‘Markets, religion, community size, and the evolution of fairness and punishment’. The abstract reads as follows:
Large-scale societies in which strangers regularly engage in mutually beneficial transactions are puzzling. The evolutionary mechanisms associated with kinship and reciprocity, which underpin much of primate sociality, do not readily extend to large unrelated groups. Theory suggests that the evolution of such societies may have required norms and institutions that sustain fairness in ephemeral exchanges. If that is true, then engagement in larger-scale institutions, such as markets and world religions, should be associated with greater fairness, and larger communities should punish unfairness more. Using three behavioral experiments administered across 15 diverse populations, we show that market integration (measured as the percentage of purchased calories) positively covaries with fairness while community size positively covaries with punishment. Participation in a world religion is associated with fairness, although not across all measures. These results suggest that modern prosociality is not solely the product of an innate psychology, but also reflects norms and institutions that have emerged over the course of human history.
Is this accommodationist pap, junk research that is of no interest to anyone but the devout wishing to reconcile science with religion? Of course not. Would I be producing worthless accommodationist garbage if I wrote a story about this sort of work for, say, Science or Nature? Again, of course not. So would it automatically become accommodationist pap if I wrote exactly the same thing for Big Questions Online? And what does writing about science, religion, markets and morals have to do with arguments about accommodationism? Indeed, Coyne seems to have moved away from principled arguments about accommodationism to simply smearing everything and anyone that has anything to do with Templeton (though as we’ll see below, his targeting of people is actually a bit selective). And if writing about science, religion, markets and morals – even for Templeton – is not intrinsically pap-worthy, then why does Coyne say, in response to calls for essays on these topics, that writers must be willing to “churn out accommodationist pap” or be “willing to toe the party line”? And finally, just what is the Templeton party line when it comes to science, religion, markets and morals? I’m genuinely interested to hear answers to these reasonable questions.

Of course, the real issue here is the Templeton Foundation – what it does, and what it’s about. The big sticking point, for writers such as Coyne and Myers, seems to be not merely the fact that many folk at Templeton hold religious beliefs, but that they argue for a compatibility between science and religion that Coyne, Myers and many others do not accept*. Richard Dawkins has criticised the organisation for trying to ride on the coat-tails of science, but I get the impression that the issue is really much deeper: that Templeton poses a threat to the conduct of science and the integrity of researchers who benefit from their funding. On the Edge website, Coyne wrote:
I absolutely agree ... that the Templeton Foundation corrupts science. It does this in two ways. First, it involves us in a dialogue that is designed to have a predetermined result: the reconciliation of science and religion. But when doing our own research, we are not committed to a specific outcome. Thus, if you're one of the many scientists who doesn't think that such a reconciliation is possible — at least not without mendacity, self-delusion, or cognitive dissonance — then it is unethical to take money from the Foundation. That is like taking money to attend a conference aimed at reconciling evolution with Intelligent Design, even if you do not think that they're compatible. (IDers think that they are.)

Second, it leads, as George Johnson has noted, to the appearance of a conflict of interest, even if the beneficiary is convinced that none exists. Even if a US Senator is predetermined by his own opinions to vote in favor of, say, drilling for oil in Alaska, it is nevertheless illegal and unethical for him to take personal money from the oil industry, and it looks bad to take campaign money from the oil industry. Scientists should be purer than Senators because it is our business to promulgate the truth, and all we have is our reputations as unsullied truth-seekers.

I am appalled at the Templeton Foundation dangling large sums of money in front of scientists. Why so much money? This can only serve, I think, to bend those people motivated by the prospect of gaining a million-plus dollars toward the will of the Foundation.
You’d have to be a bit of a moron to fail to see why someone might hold these concerns. But I think they may be a bit over-blown, and I’ll try to explain why. The first point, that anyone who doesn’t believe in a fundamental compatibility of scientific knowledge and religious belief is behaving unethically if they accept money from the Templeton, seems to go a bit far, for a number of reasons.

First, not everyone who receives Templeton funding does so in relation to work that is aimed at establishing this compatibility. Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia, for instance, is a leading social and cultural psychologist, and one of his research interests is in the long-neglected positive emotions. Hadit has received Templeton funding into positive psychology, but the published work that has arisen from this has nothing to do with reconciling science and religion, or even arguing for accommodationism.

Second, even if you disagree with Templeton about accommodationism or the fundamental harmony between science and religion, it does not strike me as unethical to work with Templeton. Here’s a parallel. Jerry Coyne, like me, has written for Science magazine – and the official line of its publisher, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, is accommodationist. Yet that didn’t prevent either Coyne or me for writing for them, and quite rightly. The purist attitude evident in refusing to accept money from someone with whom you do not entirely agree with is commendable to a degree, but I think it needs to be kept in perspective. I wouldn’t write for a racist publication or organisation, for instance – my ethical stance against racism would make me an unethical hypocrite if I did. Yet does it follow from that example that I shouldn’t write for anyone with whom I disagree on some point, whether it be foreign policy or domestic politics? Obviously not, otherwise I wouldn’t write for anybody. Similarly, if you only maintained friendships with people with whom you agreed 100%, you’d probably be pretty lonely.

So it clearly matters what the disagreement is about. A disagreement about whether some races are inherently superior to others is very deep moral disagreement, one that cannot be glossed over while conversation focuses on other things. But is a disagreement of whether science and religion can be reconciled a similarly profound moral issue, as opposed to an intellectual/epistemological issue? Is it the case that if someone believes in accommodationism, and you don’t, then that person’s is, like the racist, beyond the moral pale, and should therefore be avoided? This seems a little hard to swallow, but I’d be interested in arguments to show I’m wrong.

Coyne’s second point, that accepting Templeton funding creates the perception of conflict of interests, even where none really exists, also seems to be less significant in practice. In the case of the oil company and the senator, the oil company wants to pursue drilling and the senator is advocating drilling. But this one-to-one mapping of interests is not always, or perhaps even frequently, evident when it comes to Templeton funding: it’s not like Templeton has a single goal of arguing for accommodationism and only funds people who argue likewise. Haidt’s work on the positive emotions, for instance, is not a call for accommodationism, nor is it offered as proof of “spiritual realities” – it’s just basic psychological research.

The final point, about the temptations created by the prospect of large sums of money, calls into question the integrity of those who accept it. Yet I’m not really sure that Coyne or Myers want to go on the record and question the research and motivations of people such as Haidt, or Dacher Keltner (another researcher in positive psychology), or evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson who have received Templeton funding – or researchers such as Herb Gintis (a leading game theorist and behavioural economist) and Michael Gazzaniga (one of the world’s most famous neuroscientists), who have participated in Templeton projects. (I accept that the quality of their work and their fame is no guarantee that they do not bend their views to get Templeton money, or that they don’t hold bizarre views in other domains, but I’ve seen no evidence to support either assertion.) Of course, if Templeton was an inherently immoral organisation, then there would be cause for censure of these academics – but what evidence supports such an argument?

I want to return to the issue of the scope of Templeton’s funding interests, which I’ve already suggested go beyond simply giving people money to spout an accommodationist position. The organisation funds research into many areas that are part of standard academic research. For instance, the highly respected evolutionary biologist Gunter Wagner of Yale University was awarded a grant to study “genetics and the origins of organismal complexity” (a topic that should be right up Myers’ and Coyne’s street – and mine too, as you can see in this article). This sort of work is essential for understanding the topic of ‘evolvability’, a central issue in evolutionary-developmental biology. Wagner’s published work – which I heartily commend to you – has nothing to do with promoting a reconciliation between science and religion. It’s just good science, and we should be grateful that it’s being funded. Would Coyne be prepared to say that Wagner (or Haidt, or Keltner) has in some way acted unethically or been corrupted by accepting this grant? Has science lost out, or gained, by the availability of Templeton funding in this case? And if this case is beyond reproach, then why the blanket dismissal and ridicule of all Templeton-related activities? What about behavioural geneticist Robert Plomin of Kings College London receiving money to look into the genetics of high cognitive abilities? Or Paul Zak receiving funding to study the effects of oxytocin on social behaviour? Are all these researchers obligated to churn out accommodationist pap because they’ve received money from Templeton? And if not, then why does that logic apply to writers contributing to the Big Questions Online?

So I come back to the starting point. Why does Coyne suggest that doing anything related to the Templeton’s activities automatically imply that you have to write accommodationist pap, or toe a part line? Why does Myers think that the mere fact that someone has had something to do with Templeton mean that they can be written off? I understand that neither of these writers likes the idea of science and religion being compatible in a deep sense (i.e., not just that one mind can hold both scientific and religious beliefs), but I struggle to see how this translates into such vitriol against Templeton and its affiliates: remember, Coyne described the Templeton Fellowships as a "bribe" (Coyne did later say he didn’t really mean bribe – though it’s it not quite clear what he meant other than to smear the organisation), and Russell Blackford called Chris Mooney a "disgusting traitor" for accepting one such Fellowship.

I must be missing something. Perhaps Coyne and Myers will suggest I’m a mental defective who simply can’t see what’s really going on. Or perhaps they know things I don’t about how corrupting Templeton is on researchers, writers and science at large. I hope, however, that if they reply, they can refrain from the obvious temptation to attack me at my deepest integrity by suggesting that I’m simply auditioning for Templeton money. We need the debates to get beyond the ad hominems.

*I’m also an atheist who doesn’t believe that science and religion are fundamentally compatible: if you accept that the way we find out about the world is through observation and experiment, and that explanations must be couched in naturalistic terms that can be assessed empirically, then faith, revelation and authority seem to be off the cards. But it doesn’t follow from this position that I should be hostile to the work of Templeton, the researchers it funds, or the writers it supports.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Evolution of Biological Innovation

The theory evolution by natural selection, boiled down to its bare bones, is pretty simple. All it requires is that a few conditions be met among a population of animals or plants (or any other organism for that matter): competition for resources; variation in survival and reproductive success; and a system of heredity that ensures that some of this variation is passed on from generation to generation. We now know what Darwin didn’t, that genes underlie the transmission of much of the variation seen among organisms that affects how well they thrive, and whether they pass on their genes or not.

And so natural selection can be cast as an essentially algorithmic process: when there is genetic variation in a population of organisms, and some of this variation affects how well they get on in life, the population will evolve. As new genetic variants with beneficial effects arise, their bearers will do better, pass more copies of these genes on, and after a while most or all members of the population will carry the new genetic variant and its associated benefits.

So when thinking about if and when a population will evolve, genetic variation is a crucial issue. If there is none, then there is now raw material for natural selection to work on. Although there may be variation in the outward form or behaviour of the individuals in the population, and some of this may affect whether they stay alive and fecund, it won’t be passed on to future generations — thus short-circuiting the cumulative power of natural selection.

So the extent of genetic variation in a species or population is a crucial determinant of whether it will evolve, and how it will respond to new selective pressures. To capture this in a word, we might say that genetic variation drives the ‘evolvability’ of a species of population.

‘Evolvability’ was coined, perhaps surprisingly, as recently as 1987, by Richard Dawkins, the arch-phrasemaker who also brought us the ‘selfish gene’, ‘extended phenotypes’ and ‘memes’. And while it has sometimes been used to reflect the capacity for evolutionary change under the pressures of natural selection described above, it is nowadays more commonly used to mean something more subtle, perhaps more fundamental.

Evolvability, in its modern sense, generally refers to the capacity for genetic changes to produce adaptive changes in how organisms are built and behave — their phenotypes, in the biologists’ lexicon. The issue here is not the extent of genetic variation per se, but how this genetic variation maps onto phenotypic variation — that is, whether genetic variants produce phenotypic variants that are beneficial and can be passed on to offspring. This is the key to evolutionary innovation, and the emergence of new organismal designs. So rather than focusing on how much genetic variation is knocking around, researchers interested in understanding evolvability are increasingly looking to the factors that determine the ‘genotype–phenotype map’: for it is changes in the mapping functions that determine the relevance of whatever genetic variation is present.

This is all pretty abstract and theoretical, but I put some flesh on these ideas in a piece for New Scientist this week. It’s currently available to read in all its glory here. Check it out.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Oh what a lovely molecule!

The continuing adventures with the astonishing hormone oxytocin

Oxytocin is small but remarkable molecule. It clocks in at just nine amino acids — compared to 524 for our blood’s oxygen carrier, haemoglobin — yet it packs a powerful punch. And where haemoglobin is tasked only with the relatively simple job of ferrying oxygen around the blood, the effects of oxytocin reach into some the deepest recesses of the human condition.

Oxytocin acts as both a hormone that circulates around the body and a neurotransmitter that regulates brain activity. Over the past 10 years, oxytocin has been implicated in some of the most fundamental aspects of social relationships, such as romantic love, trust and bonding: it helps create the strong bond between infants and mothers, reduces maternal stress, increases trust in economic games, and ameliorates anxiety.

Many studies have stressed the importance of tactile contact in regulating the effects of oxytocin. Touch is an important means of social communication for many mammals, and is frequently deployed to convey emotional states, such as friendliness and anxiety. And studies on rodents have suggested that direct tactile contact is indeed essential for activating the oxytocin system.
Yet along with physical contact, vocalisations — such as the squeaks of mice — are also an important means of social communication in a range of mammals. And oxytocin plays a key role here, too. Mice genetically engineered to lack the oxytocin gene produce fewer social vocalisations, show profound social deficits, and have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

This led Leslie Seltzer, Toni Ziegler and Seth Pollak from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to wonder whether such vocalisations could boost oxytocin levels. And while rats might be quite vocal, humans have taken this skill to an extreme. So the team looked at whether human speech alone could affect oxytocin levels.

Comforting words
Seltzer and colleagues enlisted more than 60 mother-daughter pairs for their study. All daughters were prepubescent but old enough to understand the experiment, and the experiment was limited to females to ensure the greatest degree of similarity and comparability between subjects, and also to connect their results to earlier work, most of which has focused on females. To test the hypothesis that the spoken word could cause the release of oxytocin, each poor kid had to speak and solve maths puzzles in front of an audience, a task well known to induce stress and the release of cortisol.

Then the kids were split up into three groups. One group was then reunited with their mothers for 15 minutes, who comforted them with hugs and soothing words; this comprised the ‘complete contact’ condition. Another group received a telephone call of the same length from their mothers (‘talk only’); the final third (the control group) watched an emotionally neutral film for 75 minutes (the other girls watched 60 minutes of the film after seeing or speaking with their moms, so that the effects of the film could be subtracted out of the analysis).

Their results — reported a few weeks back in Proceedings of the Royal Society B — support British Telecom’s slogan from the 1990s that “It’s good to talk”. In all the stressed-out kids, cortisol levels spiked, as to be expected. Yet in both the complete-contact and talk-only groups, cortisol levels returned to normal more rapidly than in controls. This was accompanied, in the experimental groups, with elevated urinary levels of oxytocin, whereas controls showed no rise in the hormone. And although the magnitude of these effects was greater with complete contact compared with a call alone, cortisol levels in both groups were statistically indistinguishable after an hour. In the absence of a comforting hug, a few words of support may do the trick in soothing a stressed-out soul.

To tend and defend
Another study on oxytocin, published in today’s issue of Science, explores its effects in males — and not as an anti-stress hormone but as the source of social solidarity. Humans are the social species par excellence. Yes, ants and bees and many other species in huge groups, but none cooperates with genetically unrelated individuals to the same extent as humans. This capacity for large-scale cooperation, and the altruism it is built on, is the key to the global success of humans over the past 50,000 years.

Yet altruism isn’t cast about indiscriminately. It is directed more towards members of variously defined in-groups (only a small percentage of whom will be relatives), and selectively withdrawn from perceived out-groups. This ‘parochial altruism’ may have emerged through the process of cultural group selection, in which groups fostering prosocial norms towards the rest of our group, and antagonism towards out-groups, led to greater success in inter-group competition.

Such cultural selection can also have effects on biology — a phenomenon biologists call gene–culture co-evolution. As famous example is dairy farming: among those populations that picked up the cultural habit of keeping cattle and using their milk, genes for digesting lactose beyond childhood became more valuable and spread, so we now see high levels of lactose tolerance in societies with a history of dairy farming, and low levels elsewhere. In the case of altruism, in-group amity and out-group enmity, a cultural milieu favouring in-group love could have placed a premium on biological mechanisms that promote this feeling.

So Cartsen De Dreu and colleagues decided to see whether oxytocin played any role in modulating parochial altruism. Their experiments, like so may that investigate altruism and inter-group cooperative dynamics, used simple economic games — and in this case, only males were included. The games they played went as follows. Each player was assigned to a three-person group (their in-group), which was paired up with another three-person group (the out-group). Each player was given 10 Euros, which they could either keep to themselves, or contribute to one of two common pools — a ‘within group’ pool and a ‘between group’ pool — after which the pooled money was to be split among members of each group.

These allocation options came with different economic payoffs for the parties involved. For every Euro contributed to the within-group pool, an additional 50 cents were given to each member of the player’s in-group, and so contributions to this pool measured ‘in-group love’ (a purely selfish player would keep all their money to themselves while hoping to free-ride on the contributions of their group members, of which they would get a share when the post was divvied up). Paying into the between-group pool also generated an extra 50 cents for each fellow in-group member, while also decreasing the money in the out-group by 50 cents per player, and so provided a measure of out-group hate.

Before playing this game, some participants received a shot of oxytocin, administered as a nasal spray. (This method has been used in previous studies, where it was shown to increase feelings of trust.) This hormonal boost had the effect of increasing in-group love, but had no consequences for out-group hate. 52% of players in the placebo condition behaved selfishly and did not contribute to the within-group pool, and only 20% showed in-group love. The single shot of oxytocin, however, switched this patter, and now only 17% of players acted selfishly, with 58% evincing in-group love. (Out-group haters comprised 28% of players in the placebo condition, and 25% in the oxytocin arm.) This warm glow of in-group love also moved those who scored more highly as selfish on questionnaires to contribute more to the in-group, so it’s the case that only those primed to cooperate respond to oxytocin in this way.

Other experiments suggest that the in-group love is driven less by hatred of the out-group and more by a desires to protect the in-group. Players played similar economic games, but this time the rules were manipulated so that in some conditions players could do particularly well by cooperating with their teammates, which is this case meant contributing a decent share of their endowment (this was the ‘greed’ situation). At the same time, the rules also allowed for the possibility that players would do particularly badly if they failed to work together cooperatively, while the out-group would gain a significant edge (the ‘fear’ condition). So some games were in greed and fear, other high in one and not the other, and some low in both. This enabled the effects of greed and fear on cooperation, and this interacted with oxytocin.

As expected, those given oxytocin showed more in-group love than those receiving placebo. But this effect was greatest when players were in a high fear situation — that is, when the possibility that their group would lose out heavily was salient. Meanwhile, no effect of greed was seen.

It needn’t have been this way. Parochial altruism could promote in-group love and, simultaneously, fuel aggression towards out-groups. But in these experiments at least, parochial altruism emerged as a ‘tend and defend’ philosophy: look after your own and protect them, but don’t go all out to get at out-groups. And as social philosophies go, it’s not the worst starting point in the world.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Torture, Inc.

The story of how torture became part of standard operating practice at Guantanamo Bay is by now widely known (Andrew Sullivan over at The Atlantic has written extensively, and with great sense, about all these issues; a good place to start is with this open letter to George Bush). Details of the abuses meteed out to detainees such as Mohamed al-Kahtani and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the self-described mastermind of 9/11, are now in the public domain, and they make for grim reading. For months on end, Al-Katani endured a daily regime of four hours interrupted sleep, blaring music, stress positions, extremes of hot and cold, and an imaginative variety of humiliations and degradations, including a puppet show put on for his birthday in which he was depicted engaging in sexual acts with Osama Bin Laden. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was, among other things, waterboarded more than 180 times in a single month.

In the case of al-Katani, some people have asked whether his treatment really amounts to torture — after all, he wasn’t electrocuted, he didn’t have his teeth pulled out or needles inserted under his finger nails. As one interrogator’s motto has it, “No blood, no foul”. Doubts have also been expressed as to whether waterboarding qualifies as a torture – though some of those who have voiced this doubt have revised their opinion after putting their money where their mouth is and voluntarily submitting to the procedure. What from a distance seems to be merely an unpleasant yet controlled experience is unbearably distressing when you’re strapped down with a towel over your face and water being poured onto that — as Christopher Hitchens will tell you.

Among all the moral and legal debates over the use of coercive interrogation techniques, and whether they add up to torture, the contribution of science has been overlooked. Yet psychologists and neuroscientists have much to say about the effect of various forms of ill-treatment, including those we recognise as obvious physical torture. I write about some of this work in a feature article in this week’s New Scientist magazine, which you can check here, along with an associated editorial.

The long and short of this research is that a variety of psychological manipulations and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (CIDT) have similar, or worse, long-term effects on mental health as physical torture. If the immorality of torture depends on the consequences is has for human well-being, then there’s little scientific support to distinguish between torture proper and more justifiable, and less morally abhorent, forms of ‘torture-lite’ or ‘no-touch torture’ captured under the CIDT rubric.

There has also been an historical lack of scientific input about how to go about interrogations. Like advertising, interrogation has been touted as more of an art than a science (though social psychology would reject both of these diagnoses). Interrogation techniques have often developed in light of anecdotal evidence and have not been subject to scientific scrutiny.

Take the roster of techniques listed in the Army Field Manual. These are supposed, when administered according the Army’s guidelines, to be practically, legally and morally sound ways to get information out of detainees (though Matthew Alexander, the pseudonym of a former interrogator in Iraq, suggest that there are in fact loopholes that would permit some inhumane treatments). Leaving aside the legal and moral issues for a moment, we can ask, “On what basis do we have reason to think that these techniques work?”.

Very little, it turns out. Colonel Steven Kleinman — an officer in the US Air Force Reserve, interrogation trainer and an outspoken advocate of interrogation reform — says that “the principles, strategies, and methods set forth in the Army Field Manual on interrogation have never been systematically and objectively reviewed for their efficacy” (personal communication). As such, Kleinman - who has served as an interrogator in three military campaigns (Operations Just Cause, Desert Storm, and Iraqi Freedom) - argues that there is “vital need for true science to fill the massive gaps and correct the enduring myths/misunderstandings that surround the art of interrogation”. To address this shortcoming, Kleinman, working with an experimental psychologist and a cognitive neuroscientist, has reviewed these techniques in a paper to be published in the Defense Intelligence Journal. In short, they argue that “much of the material in the field manual lacks scientific support and, in some cases, may actually be counterproductive”:
“An example of the former is the assertion that capture shock presents an ideal moment to question a prisoner, allegedly because the trauma of capture will cause them to be less security conscious. Science demonstrates that people experiencing such trauma have difficulty in attending to questions or directions and often provide thoughtless answers. In addition, their ability to recall events accurately is severely diminished. As for the latter, the use of the approach known as Pride and Ego-Down (essentially belittling the prisoner in the expectation that he will answer questions in order to defend himself and his ego) will likely increase resistance, especially among members of ethnic groups (where under such emotional challenges and humiliation the individual feels a stronger bond with other members of the in-group and more disconnected from — and defiant toward — members of the out-group.)”
Such approaches are not the only ones available for carrying out interrogations, as Kleinman argues:
“We have a rich history of conducting interrogation correctly. The MIS-Y program in World War II focused on high-level German and Japanese military officers and government officials. The individuals selected to serve in this program were college educated, talented linguists, and intimately familiar with the cultural background of the prisoners they encountered. Rather than employing force, these interrogators used a host of stratagems and gambits that involved a culturally relevant relationship-building approach augmented by meticulous research that often gave the interrogator the appearance of possessing far more knowledge about the enemy than he really did. The result was a prisoner who no longer viewed the interrogator as an enemy and who was convinced that there was no need to protect information that he believed was already known to the interrogator.”
These historical considerations, along with the near-total absence of scientific support for more coercive approaches to interrogation, have led Kleinman and others to argue for a new approach to gaining information from human sources. For instance, in a paper written with Randy Borum, a terrorism expert at the University of South Florida, and Michael Gelles, a military psychologist, Kleinman has sketched out a new paradigm for “educing information” from detainees, one that draws on insights from social psychology and negotiation theory — and which would mark a return to the kinds of historically successful interrogation techniques Kleinman alludes to, but this time based on real-world data of efficacy.

Finally, Kleinman raises a number of cost-effectiveness issues that result from poor techniques for gathering intelligence information:
“If there is a bottom line, it is this: the U.S. Intelligence Community has an annual budget that exceeds $65 billion, with a substantial portion of that funding invested in research to support new generations of technical intelligence collection. At the same time, the U.S. Government has not sponsored true research into the art of interrogation since 1956 (discounting the misguided research by the CIA in the 1960s and 1970s that involved drugs and hypnosis). The actual cost of a robust research agenda to develop a new generation of interrogation doctrine — one that is not only operationally effective, but also reflects the highest legal and moral traditions of the nation and is respectful of human rights —would be comparatively small (perhaps .001 percent of the annual Intelligence Community budget). The potential returns, however, could be nothing short of extraordinary. First, the small wars (e.g., counterterrorism and counterinsurgency) are intelligence-driven wars in which human intelligence — and especially interrogation — play an irreplaceable role. Research could facilitate much greater operational effectiveness and, as a result, higher quality and more timely intelligence information to drive policies and plans. Second, by refining methods toward the twin goals of both operational effectiveness AND respect for human rights, we may begin to 1) respond to the myriad challenges with far greater knowledge of the adversary and the nature of the conflict itself and 2) reverse the enduring strategic consequences of sponsoring a program that has involved the employment of coercive methods and instead begin to comport ourselves in a manner more consistent of our self image as a nation of laws and champion of human rights.”
All of which suggests that you don’t have to be a bleeding-heart liberal to oppose abusive treatment of terrorist suspects or insurgents, though a concern for basic moral standards will augment your case. A simple concern for national security, and a desire to spend money effectively in combating future terrorist attacks and, gets you to the same destination.

(Many thanks to Col. Kleinman for providing these illuminating comments, and, more importantly, for his continued role in trying to reform current interrogation practices.)

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Is belief all it’s cracked up to be?

The endless debates and arguments sparked off in recent years by the phenomenal success of books by the New Atheists — an irritating term to describe writers such as Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens — have a number of strands that are not always clearly disentangled. One thread of criticism, developed by writers such as Karen Armstrong, is that these authors have a childish, not to mention foolish, obsession with the beliefs of religious people. For Armstrong, this mistake finds a parallel in the obsessive defence of specific beliefs and doctrines by followers of religious traditions. The problem, in short, is that religion should not really be construed as a matter of belief, but should be seen as a form of practical knowledge, something you do rather than think. I’ve written a short piece for the Guardian’s Comment is Free section following up the implications of this recommendation.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The evolution of disgust

New reseaerch illuminates the path from "oral won't" to "moral don't".

Confronted with the worst excesses of human wickedness and moral depravity, we’re apt to respond not just with condemnation, but with deep and visceral revulsion. And the daily news provides all too many opportunities to observe the baseness of our fellow humans. When the horrendously brutal details of the short life of Baby P came to light last November, my mind struggled to understand not only how the child protection services at Haringey Council could have missed the abuse this poor child continuously suffered, despite 50 visits to his home over 2 years, but also how on earth anyone could possibly mete out such treatment to a defenceless baby (hardly an unusual thought, I appreciate). It’s incomprehensible, and revolting.

In such cases, our moral abhorrence or disgust is patently justified. Indeed, you’d suspect that anyone lacking such feelings on hearing this tragic story had a moral screw loose. More generally, moral revulsion has been advocated as a guide to moral judgment. On this view, there is wisdom in repugnance, which may express an intuitive understanding of actiosn, events and situations that the rational mind can’t fathom [1].

But moral disgust is a complex emotion. Perhaps more than any other, it is easily put to thoroughly immoral ends. Just as we physically push away disgusting food or objects in front of us, we emotionally and socially distance ourselves from those we view as disgusting. Research shows that people dehumanise extreme out-group members, such as vagrants, and are primarily driven by disgust when they do so [2]. Portraying social or ethnic groups in disgusting terms — as cockroaches or rats or even just as fat, greedy and greasy humans — is a frequent prelude to pogroms, ethnic cleansing, and genocide [3]. Disgust has driven attitudes to interracial sex, and today is a still a potent force in shaping attitudes to gay sex, with knock-on effects on views about gay rights, particularly the right to marry [4].

Far from being an infallible or even reliable moral light by which to find our way, moral disgust is frequently the source of bias, prejudice and hostility. The disgusting are seen as less than human, and treated accordingly (and as history reminds us, people are all too willing to make people appear disgusting by forcing them to live in filthy, squalid, humiliating conditions so as to justify the mistreatment they will subsequently face).

The complexity of disgust as a social and moral emotion is reflected in its development, both through evolution and in individual development. Historically and developmentally, moral disgust follows on the coat-tails of core disgust – the revulsion experienced when you seen bodily fluids, a rotting carcass or dog shit on your shoe (or on the tyres of your bike, as is more often the case for me). And core disgust is itself a cognitively complex emotion.

For a start, it is more than just distaste or a felling of aversion towards something. As Paul Rozin, one of the pioneers of research into disgust, points out, disgust is a much more cognitive and emotional reaction that simple distaste, and draws on an understanding what food is and where it comes from [5]. Animals dislike and avoid certain tastes, but don’t qualify as having a genuine disgust response. This claim needs a bit of unpacking. Imagine I show you a sterilised cock-roach, and then dip it in a glass of lemonade using clean tongs. Would you sip the drink? Probably not, even if you’re thirsty. The drink will seem contaminated, and disgusting.

The notion of contamination, which is a complex cognitive evaluation, is an important part of the human disgust reaction, and is clearly more than just distaste. The lemonade, after all, will taste exactly the same after the cockroach dipping (that is, delicious — at least for those who, like me, have a sweet tooth). It will even be safe. But the feeling of aversion directed at the cockroach gets transferred to the harmless drink (similarly, people are often reluctant to eat chocolates shaped like turds). This doesn’t happen among other animals, nor in children under 5 to 7 years of age.

Similar notions of contamination and transference as found in core disgust (indeed, are hallmarks of a genuine disgust response) have also been found in the moral domain. Just as we are repulsed by the prospect of consuming foods or drinks contaminated by elicitors of core disgust, we also fear moral contamination. Studies show that people feel a bit queasy about the idea of putting on a sweater worn by Hitler (even if carefully laundered). What’s more, being forced to recall our own moral misdemeanours produces an urge to physically cleanse ourselves in an attempt to wash away the moral stain on our character.

Some researchers have suggested that much talk of moral disgust is merely metaphorical. There is general agreement that moral judgments related to actions that involve elicitors of core disgust — faeces, bodily fluids and offices, and certain forms of bodily contact — have a strong disgust element driving them. (It’s little wonder that people get so vexed about sexual morality.) But when we say we’re disgusted by the venality and irresponsibility of investment bankers, are we really experiencing a visceral feeling of revulsion, or just using a verbal tag to show off our disapprobation of their actions?

There are clues that this isn’t so, at least in some cases. Studies such as those on Hitler’s sweater provide one reason to doubt the metaphor hypothesis. If disgust and the associated ideas of moral contamination are just metaphors, why do people object to donning Hilter’s now-clean sweater? There is also some evidence that core disgust and moral disgust elicit similar physiological responses. Whereas anger tends to cause the heart rate beat faster, disgust — prompted by looking at a gory image, say — makes it drop. So what happens when people view an extreme moral out group, like the Nazis? Does their bodily response suggest that they are getting mad, or feeling revolted?

Jonathan Haidt, who has worked with Rozin and built on his ideas, paired up with graduate student Gary Sherman to address this question, using a variety of nasty video clips, as well footage of Nazi rallies, which subjects viewed while their bodily reactions where monitored [6]. Haidt and Sherman found that not only did people report being disgusted by the Nazis, their heart rates also told the same story. Strikingly, those who heart rates dropped the most also reported greater clenching of the throat, another disgust-related muscular response. (Brain-imaging studies also suggest that similar brain regions subserve both core and moral disgust.)

All of which leads to the following evolutionary and developmental scenario for the emergence of moral disgust. Initially, animals evolved a distaste response that guided them away from poisonous or otherwise harmful foodstuffs. In humans, this distaste foundation was built upon to create the more complex and cognitively demanding ‘core disgust’ domain, whose primary elicitors are things that practically all of us find totally gross (shit, piss, puke, snot, puss – I use these decidedly non-euphemistic terms to fire up your disgust response!). Combine this with the notion of contamination and the transference of bad properties of one type of object or matter to another, and now history begins to count: in assessing whether to eat or drink something, it isn’t just a case of whether it looks nice or smells fresh; its provenance matters, as does its history of contact with other disgusting things (this, lamentably, can even include people).

This core disgust system took a long while to evolve, and takes time to emerge through child development. But once in place, it has been co-opted by our social and moral psychology to serve new ends — principally to distance ourselves from the morally odious. Whereas core disgust originally protected the body against oral incorporation of dangerous things, the expanded concept of moral disgust enables us to protect our moral selves, at the levels of individuals and communities, from moral contamination and corruption. As Haidt frames it, the guardian of the body has taken on a new role as a guardian of the purity of our souls.

The link between the two domains, the oral and the moral, is captured in colloquialisms expressing condemnation of moral transgressions, like “His behaviour left a bad taste in my mouth”. Of course, this isn’t a literal claim, but what underlies it? The idea of an evolutionary and developmental trajectory from “oral won’t” to “moral don’t” has recently been tested by psychologist Hannah Chapman and colleagues at the University of Toronto, who argue that disgust related to oral incorporation is indeed similar to that experienced during moral judgement [7].

In a paper just published in Science, Chapman et al. report on experiments in which they had subjects look at images designed to elicit disgust (they depicted dirtiness, faeces, and insects, for example) and also to taste some salty, bitter and sour liquids [7]. They then compared the facial expressions associated with these actions with those elicited by being treated unfairly. The focus on facial expressions of emotion derives from the Darwin-inspired research on the cross-cultural and universal expression of certain basic emotions, which includes disgust. For disgust, the canonical facial response involves wrinkling the nose and raising the lips.

They found that all three conditions (images, clips and unfairness in the economic game) caused subjects to raise their lips and wrinkle their nose in a disgust-type manner (associated with activation of the levator labii muscle region of the face). These responses were related to self-reported disgust, but less so for self-reported anger or sadness.

These are intriguing findings, and I agree with the authors’ conclusion that they are “consistent with the idea that in humans, the rejection impulse characteristic of distaste may have been co-opted and expanded to reject offensive stimuli in the social domain.” But interpreting their findings is not entirely straightforward.

In an accompanying commentary, Paul Rozin, Jonathan Haidt and Katrina Fincher highlight some of the problems. They describe a three-tiered model of disgust psychology (shown below). In this model, there are, going from top to bottom, stimuli (potential disgust elicitors), a disgust-evaluation system, and a disgust output response (which in turn has nonverbal, behavioural and physiological elements). Some stimuli, such as bitter-tasting drinks, feed straight into the disgust output response. They use the direct distaste pathway common to many animals — and just as animals do not engage a disgust-evaluation system, neither to these basic stimuli in humans. Other elicitors of core disgust, such as cockroaches and certain sexual acts, are processed by the disgust-evaluation system (lacking in animals and young children), which then activates a disgust response.

Domains of disgust. The schematic represents routes by which eliciting situations may trigger the disgust output program. Those that run through the disgust evaluation system--which includes appraisal of the elicitor, feelings, and contamination ideation--trigger the full disgust emotion. Solid lines represent routes through which an elicitor can activate the disgust evaluation-output program. Dashed lines (green) represent direct elicitation of the disgust output program. The dotted line (brown) represents a metaphoric, indirect route. (Image copyright of AAAS)

It is when we move beyond moral transgressions involving aversive substances to more purely moral issues that things get a bit more complicated. As shown in the figure for the case of unfairness, such abstract issues could, in principle, drive the disgust response by various routes. First, they could feed into the disgust-evaluation system, like many other elicitors of core disgust, and trigger a response. Alternatively, they could directly activate the disgust response, in the way bitters tastes do. Finally, moral transgressions related to fairness rather than bodily functions could be associated with concepts or verbal tags that in turn directly activate the disgust response. (We should also ask whether, in any of these cases, the disgust response is really just a metaphor — although they might represent different types of disgust, are they not all a species of genuine disgust? I leave you to ponder that puzzler.)

Chapman and colleagues suggest that the disgust experienced when on the receiving end of unfair treatment is in some sense “the same” as that arising from classical elicitors of core disgust (e.g., cockroaches). If the Rozin–Haidt–Fincher model is on track, then this claim would only be true if unfairness is processed through a disgust-evaluation system. And that question isn’t settled by the current study. What is needed, according to Rozin and colleagues, are experiments that “examine the effects of a variety of elicitors on a variety of dependent measures (e.g., contamination, appraisals, and feelings)”.

There are some other issues that also need to be ironed out. Previous research has suggested that different sorts of moral violations are linked to different sorts of moral emotions. The anthropologist Richard Shweder has suggested that moral concepts broadly cluster into three families [8]. The ethic of autonomy deals with individual rights, and issues of justice and fairness. The ethic of community is more focused on adherence of group norms related to social stability. And the ethic of divinity draws on notions of bodily and spiritual purity, and the sacred and profane (an ethical domain that has atrophied in Western societies — whether this is a cause for celebration of lamentation is up for debate).

Haidt and Rozin have previously argued that violations of the domains of community, autonomy and divinity typically lead to the moral emotions of contempt, anger and disgust, respectively (they call it, rather neatly, the CAD Triad Hypothesis) [9]. According to this scheme, the unfairness in this study should have produced subjects who were more angry than disgusted, but possibly a mix of the two. This is plausibly what happened: raising of the upper lip, which Chapman and colleagues used as a principal measure of disgust, is also activated by anger. And so perhaps it is simply that elements shared with the disgust response were activated, rather than a full-blown disgust response prodded in action by a disgust evaluation of unfairness.

In any case, these ongoing explorations and debates continue to reveal the complexity of our emotional and moral lives. What is so strange is how unaware we typically are of all that’s going on when we’re making evaluations about the good or bad, the awe-inspiring or abhorrent, the commendable or condemnable. From the outside, moral disgust can look very simple (not to mention simple-minded): you look, you go ‘Yuk!”, and you say it’s wrong. But this simplicity hides the machinations of an evolutionarily and developmentally complex, and quintessentially human, moral emotion.

1. Kass, L. R. (1997). The wisdom of repugnance. The New Republic 216, 17–26.
2. Harris, L. T. & Fiske, S. T. (2006). Dehumanizing the lowest of the low — neuroimaging responses to extreme out-groups. Psychol. Sci. 17, 847–853.
3. Glover, J. (1999). Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (Random House, London).
4. Nussbaum, M. (2004). Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ).
5. Jones, D. The depths of disgust. Nature 447, 768 (2007).
6. Haidt, J. & Graham, J. (in press). Social Justice Res.
7. Chapman, H. A., Kim, D. A., Susskind, J. M. & Anderson, A. K. (2009). In bad taste: evidence for the oral origins of moral disgust. Science 323, 1222-1226.
8. Shweder, R. A., Much, N. C, Mahapatra, M., & Park, L. (1997). The "Big Three" of morality (autonomy, community, divinity) and the "Big Three" explanations of suffering. In Morality and Health (Brandt, A. & Rozin, P. (eds.) 119–169 (Routledge, New York).
9. Rozin, P., Lowery, L., Imada, S. & Haidt, J. (1999). The CAD triad hypothesis: a mapping between three moral emotions (contempt, anger, disgust) and three moral codes (community, autonomy, divinity). J. Personality Social Psychol. 76, 574–586.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy 200th, Darwin!

Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave in the Tora Bora Mountains or somewhere similarly remote you’ll have heard that this is a big Darwin year. Not only is it the great man’s 200th birthday (today, February 12th), but November will also see the 150th anniversary of The Origin of Species. (So now you have a reason to use the delightful word sesquicentennial).

There will, no doubt, be a deluge of Darwin-related retrospectives and Darwin-inspired speculation today as we celebrate the history of the greatest idea ever, and the man behind it. Science journals and magazines will naturally make the biggest noise. Nature, for its part, has put together a stellar issue around this anniversary, and I’m delighted to be able to say that I’m a part of it with a feature article on human nature, human universals and cultural diversity (see also the issue's editorial).

Trying to understand human beings in light of Darwin’s ideas of natural selection and descent with modification have been controversial from the get go. This approach fell out of academic favour for much of the 20th century (as an understandable reaction to excesses of biologically based theories of human behaviour and identity, from eugenics to the gas chambers of Nazi Germany), but started re-emerging in the 1970s and 80s under the guise of socio-biology, and then really hit the big time with the emergence of evolutionary psychology in the 1990s.

Evolutionary psychology has been misread, misunderstood, misrepresented and caricatured in a variety of ways. It has been denigrated as ‘just so’ story telling (after Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories in which he spins yarns about, for instance, why elephants got long trunks and leopards got spots). It has been lambasted as sexist, racist, right wing, genetically determinist, greedily reductionist, and flat out wrong.

Needless to say, I think much of this is massively misguided (see Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate for a thorough rebuttal of these charges). But that doesn’t mean I think that evolutionary psychology is flawless in all respects (and it’s an increasingly broad church, with its own internal disagreements). I fully accept the core message of evolutionary psychology: that we need to think about the innate, evolved structure of the human mind (human nature, in other words) in understanding human behaviour. The idea that we’re born as blank slate, which is one of the worst ideas in the history of psychology, has rightfully been slain, and I think evolutionary psychology has been an important aid to this (though the work of linguist Noam Chomsky and various developmental psychologists have also been crucial in this regard – indeed, the ideas and findings coming from these people have been enthusiastically picked up by evolutionary psychologists, who have drawn much inspiration from them).

At the same, the particular interests of evolutionary psychologists, and the intellectual climate that the field was initially a response to, has at times lead to a neglect of cultural variation, and processes of cultural transmission and evolution, in human behaviour. This is not, as I read it, the result of dogmatism on any side, but a genuine disagreement about how best to understand human behaviour, human nature and cultural variation.

Arguing against the ‘mainstream’ evolutionary psychologists (typically taken to be John Tooby, Leda Cosmides, Martin Daly, Margo Wilson, David Buss, Steven Pinker, and various of their students) are a cadre of anthropologists, psychologists and philosophers. While most of them accept some of the core tenets of evolutionary psychology, and are not afraid to talk about an evolved human nature, they also want to get a much more detailed account of how culture interacts with this given nature to produce manifest behaviour. And it is these sorts of accounts that I run through in my Nature piece. It’s an exciting time to be thinking about human behaviour, human nature and culture, and I hope this little feature will convince you of that too.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Gracious giving and helping hands

Two new papers on prosocial behaviour in monkeys suggest that giving to others can be self-rewarding, and also sensitive to situations.

Primates are particularly social species. Not only do they frequently live in large groups, but many also behave altruistically to members of their groups. Yet the factors that drive altruism and other-regarding behaviour remain unclear. One idea is that a feeling of empathy drives prosocial behaviour: a feeling of connectedness provides the motivational fuel to help others, which is in turn rewarded with a warm glow produced by activation of reward circuits in the brain (when humans do goof they tend to feel good, and show activation of reward-related brain areas).

Aside from exploring the subjective feelings produced by other-regarding actions, or the effects these have in the brain, another way to explore this empathic hypothesis is to look at how people or indeed non-human primates behave. If a systematic bias towards acting in ways that benefits others can be demonstrated, this would suggest that it is intrinsically rewarding or gratifying.

Research into the altruistic tendencies of chimpanzees has thrown up a number of conflicting findings. Early studies suggested that chimpanzees are indifferent to the welfare of others. Joan Silk and colleagues reported that chimpanzees were no more likely to choose an option that benefitted themselves as well as another familiar individual at no extra cost than they were to choose an option that benefitted just themselves (1). Similar results were found by Keith Jensen and colleagues, suggesting that chimpanzees are motivated solely by personal gain (2).

Later studies have complicated the picture. Chimpanzees, like young children, will help a human get hold of an object that is out of reach of the human but which the chimpanzee can move into a better position, particularly when this can be achieved with not too much effort (3 – described here). Chimpanzees will also help another chimpanzee get into a room to access food, even if the helper cannot benefit from the fruits (literally) of this act — that is, they help regardless of reward prospects (4). This suggests a motive for helping beyond concerns about personal gain, or a selfish cost/benefit analysis.

In a paper published in PNAS, Frans de Waal and colleagues have looked at giving behaviour in brown capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella), to see whether there are any signs that empathy for others factors into social behaviour (5). It should be noted that these New World monkeys are much more distantly related to humans that chimpanzees, other African apes, and Old World monkeys. Nonetheless, they can provide insights in the motivational factors involved in altruistic behaviour, which may also apply to more closely related species, and indeed us.

In their experiments, de Waal et al. presented capuchins with a choice of two colour-coded tokens. Selecting one led to a reward solely for the subject (the selfish option) and nothing for a partner visible in a separate room, while choosing the other token produced a prosocial equal rewards for both the subject and partner. (The monkeys had previously been made familiar with such token choices related to different outcomes.)

If the monkeys were indifferent to benefitting their partners, then they would be just as likely to pick the selfish option as the prosocial – they choices would look 50/50, or random (there’s little reason to suppose that they would consistently pick the selfish option, unless they were particularly nasty, and observations in the wild do not suggest this). A bias towards the prosical option would, by contrast, suggest a concern with others. And this is just what de Waal et al. found. When capuchins were paired with known but unrelated individuals, they chose the prosocial option significantly more often than chance, and the effect was even stronger when the partner was a relative. The prosocial effect only disappeared when the partner was an unknown member of a different group.

In general, prosociality increased with the closeness of the relationship between subject and partner. From an empathy-based perspective, this makes sense, as we feel closer, and therefore more empathetic, towards family members, friends, acquaintances and strangers in that order. The capuchins were also more likely to look towards their partners when they were being prosocial, and to exchange more gestures of affiliation.

The kindness demonstrated in these studies was also shown to have limits. In a variant of this set up, the rewards we asymmetric, such that in choosing the prosocial option generated a reward for the subject (an apple) inferior to that given to the partner (a grape – capuchins are apparently particularly fond of this fruit!). Previous studies (again using grape rewards) have shown that capuchins are sensitive to unfairness in rewards for comparable efforts, and inequity was shown to be a factor in modulating giving behaviour in the current study. Preference for the prosocial option in the face of inequity in rewards failed to exceed chance, although came closest to doing so between relatives (so although inequity made the capuchins less kind overall, they were still kinder to kin).

The other paper by Jennifer Barnes and colleagues, published in Biology Letters, looked at helping from another perspective (6). These authors take the previous conflicting data on chimpanzee sociality and altruism to indicate that the cognitive operations underlying altruistic behaviour are context-dependent and sensitive to the particular details of a given situation. And it was these details they set out to explore.

The team ran two experiments. In the first, a capuchin monkey sat in a room connected to a small annex; in the annex, which was separated from the main room by a grid, sat a toy that an experimenter was trying to reach (see (a) in figure). While it was beyond the grasp on the human, the monkey could reach through the grid and pass the toy to the experiment. In one condition, the experimenter held a reward in their non-grasping hand, and in another they held up an empty hand (these were also subdivided such that half the time the experimenter flapped a hand around trying to reach the toy, while at other times they just held it limply in the annex). In all cases, the experimenter stared intently at the toy, and glanced up to the monkey from time to time. These conditions didn’t make much of a difference, and very few capuchins could be bothered to extend an arm through the grid and manoeuvre the toy into a suitable position for the experimenter, reward or not and irrespective of reaching behaviour by the experimenter.

In the second experiment, the set us was changed slightly: the grid separating the annex from the main room was removed, so the monkeys could easily walk into the annex to get hold of the toy (see (b) in figure). The conditions (reward/no reward, combined with reaching/no reaching behaviour) were repeated as in experiment 1.

Now things were different. In these trials, which were run repeatedly, all six monkeys in the study repeatedly handed the toy to the experimenter. This provided data that enabled the effects of reaching and reward to be analysed. Regardless of whether or not the experimenter was actively trying to reach the toy (over and above staring at it, and then the monkey), a reward made the monkeys help more than 95% of the time. By contrast, when there was no reward and the experimenter tried to reach the toy, monkeys helped a little over 50% of the time (and when there was no reward and no reaching this dropped to just over 30%).

These results suggest, in the words of the authors, that capuchins are “somewhat stuck on their own personal pay-offs”. In other words, capuchins seem to care more about what’s in it for them than the potential benefits their behaviour could bring someone (admittedly a human in the case). This contrasts with chimpanzees, whose helping behaviour (even when it comes to helping humans) seems to be based more on the desires and needs of their partner.

Barnes et al. propose that their findings point to a difference between the lineage leading to New World monkeys and that leading to the apes in the ability to incorporate the perspective of another in overcoming a self-centred bias.

1. Silk, J. B., Brosnan, S. F., Vonk, J., Henrich, J., Povinelli, D. J., Richardson, A. S., Lambeth, S. P., Mascaro, J. & Schapiro, S. J. Chimpanzees are indifferent to the welfare of unrelated group members. Nature 437, 1357–1359 (2005). doi:10.1038/nature04243

2. Jensen, K., Hare, B., Call, J. & Tomasello, M. What’s in it for me? Self-regard precludes altruism and spite in chimpanzees. Proc. Royal Soc. B 273, 1013–1021 (2006).

3. Warneken, F. & Tomasello, M. Altruistic helping in human infants and young chimpanzees. Science 311, 1301–1303 (2006). doi:10.1126/science.1121448)

4. Warneken, F., Hare, B., Melis, A. P., Hanus, D. & Tomasello, M. Spontaneous altruism by chimpanzees and young children. PLoS Biol 5, e184 (2007).

5. de Waal, F. B. M., Leimgruber, K. & Greenberg, A. R. Giving is self-rewarding for monkeys. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 105, 13685–13689 (2008).

6. Barnes, J. L., Hill, T., Langer, M., Martinez, M. & Santos, L. R. Helping behaviour and regard for others in capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella). Biology Letters 23 September 2008 [Epub ahead of print]

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Two feet good...

Along with a big brain, walking upright on two feet has often been taken to be a defining feature of the human line. In this week’s New Scientist I have a feature article on some recent ideas about why, and where, bipedality first arose. The ‘where’ question relates not to which part of the globe walking on two feet got going, but whether it was on the ground or in the trees.

What? Walking in the trees? It might sound counter-intuitive, but some researchers have recently been arguing for just this possibility, based on observations of the locomotor behaviour of orangutans. In the wild, orangutans not only move through the branches suspended by their hands, but occasionally ‘walk’ along branches while stabilising themselves by holding onto braches overhead. This ‘hand-assisted bipedalism’, the suggestion goes, could have been the precursor to bipedality in the human line.

It’s a controversial theory. Many other experts in human evolution argue that the fossil record clearly shows that the earliest humans show features of knuckle-walking ancestry. This, the counter-argument goes, points to a knuckle-walking ancestor of humans, chimps and gorillas: while the latter species retained this trait, the human line evolved a commitment to bipedalism as it increasingly abandoned life in, and among, the trees.

As is so often the case in debates about the course of human evolution, more fossils are needed. It would also be good if researchers could arrive at some sort of consensus about what the existing fossils tell us. I suspect that academic rivalries, and prior theoretical commitments, make this prospect unlikely in the short term. But keep your eyes open.

There is an idea even more provocative than ‘tree-walking’ that I was unable to cover in my New Scientist piece because of space constraints. Aaron Filler, a spinal expert at Harvard University with a fascination with human evolution, has recently proposed that the evolution of bipedality has a much older, and much simpler, origin than previous account allow.

By studying the spines of many living and extinct mammals, including apes, Filer claims to have documented a series of changes leading to the upright spine typical of humans. And some of these are astonishingly old. Filler argues that the lumbar vertebrae of Morotopithecus bishopi, an ancient ape that lived more than 20 million years ago (some 7 million years before the split between orangutans and the other great apes), shows tell-tale signs that its owner was an upright biped.

And for Filler, this has little to do with trees or savannahs. Rather, changes to the spine might have arisen by mutations in ‘homeotic’ genes that orchestrate developmental processes. Small changes to such genes can produce big changes by affecting entire developmental cascades. Filler speculates that an ancient mutation may have produced an individual in a single generation with a lumbar region causing an upright posture – the first bipedal ape. And so orangutan tree-walking is derivative, not innovative. “Bipedalism in the arboreal orangutans is a vestige of their ancestry and not so much a harbinger of the human locomotor style,” says Filler. (Filler has a website based on his book expounding this theory at www.uprightape.net. Filler also has a video describing various forms of primate locomotion online here).

While I’m at it, here’s a cool video of gibbons showing off their arboreal parkour antics (this really needs to be watched with sound, as the mixed in music (Welcome To The Jungle, by Guns'n'Roses) really adds to the film).

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Scientific Happenings on the South Coast

Brighton, UK, is playing host to fourth annual science festival between 23 February and 2 March, and there is lots on offer for anyone living in the region and interested in a bit of brain food. You can browse the programme highlights here, and there are more detailed pages for the various events on the left-hand side of the page this links to.

You can catch Rita Carter on multiple personalities, Chris Frith on free will, Oliver Morton on how plants ‘eat the Sun’, Phillip Ball on nature’s patterns, Richard Fortey on life at the Natural History Museum and Marcus du Sautoy on the ubiquity and importance of symmetry, among many other talks and events. All in all, well worth checking out.