on bonobos, capuchins, and chimps

the other primates always make me smile. (^_^) here are a couple of quotes from a nice interview of frans de waal over @the primate diaries:

“Johnson: How does the environment affect this? For example, you’ve written that there are distinct differences between bonobos and chimpanzees despite the fact that they are so close genetically. Bonobos live in a female dominated society even though the males are still somewhat larger. You have suggested, as has the bonobo field researcher Frances White (who was one of my advisers in graduate school) that the environment may hold the answer to why this is.

“De Waal: It is possible that bonobos live in a richer environment and have more food sources in their forest that are less dispersed than chimpanzees do. They also have access to ground vegetation, which chimpanzees have to compete with gorillas over. As a result, bonobo females can travel together and don’t need to disperse like chimpanzee females do. Chimp females largely forage alone and would only be competing with each other if they foraged in a large group since the food patches are small. Because bonobo females can travel together, this gives them power in the sense that they can form coalitions against males. They’re very cooperative with each other and that’s how they keep the males in check. The males individually are dominant, but as soon as you get two or three females together they dominate the male.

“Johnson: Chimpanzees have long been the model for human evolution and have been used to justify the story that Huxley advocated about our violent past. Chimps have been known to form all-male bands that patrol their territory, even attacking and killing males from rival groups. However, bonobos show very different behaviors and have even been observed grooming males from other groups. Would you say that these behaviors are purely genetic or, as Cristophe Boesch and Gottfried Hohmann have suggested, that the environment is key to understanding why chimpanzees and bonobos behave so differently? Could it be a behavioral flexibility that is learned or even cultural in origin?

“De Waal: It is true that most chimpanzees and bonobos are very flexible animals who under different circumstances behave differently. We’re in the process of documenting that in Africa and you can also see the same thing in zoo groups. But if you look at, say, a group of twenty chimpanzees or twenty bonobos on a large island, and we have that kind of situation today, the bonobos behave very differently than the chimpanzees. Many of these differences are not just environmentally induced because the zoo environments are pretty much identical….

“Johnson: Today we are faced with what has widely been termed a ‘culture of corruption.’ In your latest book you point to the abuses on Wall Street in which financiers have willfully defrauded the public and Washington politicians who operate through a revolving door of political favors and corporate kickbacks. Is there something in this research with our evolutionary relatives that can help us change our political culture? For example, you and your colleague Sarah Brosnan discovered something very interesting in your study with chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys concerning economic behavior.

“De Waal: Yes, the first experiment was with capuchin monkeys where we would put two monkeys side by side and we would give them rewards for a very simple task. If you give them the same reward, such as small pieces of cucumber, they’re perfectly happy to do this many times in a row. But if you give one of the two monkeys a grape and the second a cucumber then the second monkey gets mad and refuses to perform the task. We have repeated this with chimpanzees where Sarah found that the one who gets more is also affected and refuses the task unless the other one also gets a grape. With this we’re getting very close to the sense of fairness.

interesting! but, me being me (with my quirky interest) would want to know, of course, if the chimps were related to one another or not.

read the whole interview over @the primate diaries.

see also: Why do people and other primates share food?

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stanford prison experiment interviews

in stanford magazine:

“The Superintendent

“Phil Zimbardo – Zimbardo joined Stanford’s psychology department in 1968 and taught there until his retirement in 2007.

“The study was focused originally on how individuals adapt to being in a relatively powerless situation. I was interested in prisoners and was not really interested in the guards. It was really meant to be a single, dramatic demonstration of the power of the situation on human behavior. We expected that we would write some articles about it and move on.

“After the end of the first day, I said, ‘There’s nothing here. Nothing’s happening.’ The guards had this antiauthority mentality. They felt awkward in their uniforms. They didn’t get into the guard mentality until the prisoners started to revolt. Throughout the experiment, there was this conspiracy of denial — everyone involved was in effect denying that this was an experiment and agreeing that this is a prison run by psychologists.

“There was zero time for reflection. We had to feed the prisoners three meals a day, deal with the prisoner breakdowns, deal with their parents, run a parole board. By the third day I was sleeping in my office. I had become the superintendent of the Stanford county jail. That was who I was: I’m not the researcher at all. Even my posture changes — when I walk through the prison yard, I’m walking with my hands behind my back, which I never in my life do, the way generals walk when they’re inspecting troops….

“The Guards

“Dave Eshelman – The son of a Stanford engineering professor, Eshelman was a student at Chapman University at the time of the experiment. He was the prison’s most abusive guard, patterning himself after the sadistic prison warden (portrayed by Strother Martin) in the movie Cool Hand Luke. Today he owns a mortgage business in Saratoga….

“What came over me was not an accident. It was planned. I set out with a definite plan in mind, to try to force the action, force something to happen, so that the researchers would have something to work with. After all, what could they possibly learn from guys sitting around like it was a country club? So I consciously created this persona. I was in all kinds of drama productions in high school and college. It was something I was very familiar with: to take on another personality before you step out on the stage. I was kind of running my own experiment in there, by saying, ‘How far can I push these things and how much abuse will these people take before they say, “knock it off?”‘ But the other guards didn’t stop me. They seemed to join in. They were taking my lead. Not a single guard said, ‘I don’t think we should do this….'”

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reductionism works (pretty good) — again

some biogeographers came awful close (278 miles close, to be precise) to pinpointing osama bin laden’s location a couple of years ago by using biogeographical theories:

“They fingered the spots based on two theories on the distribution of biological species. One of them, the so-called distance-decay theory, states that the similarity and correlation between species at two locations decreases as the distance between them increases. As such, the geographers figure bin Laden can’t have gone far—he is believed to have fled Afghanistan’s Tora Bora region at the end of 2001—if he wished to remain on similar terrain in a familiar cultural environment.

Island biogeography, the other tool in the team’s theoretical analysis, posits that large, closely spaced pockets of life (islands) support more species and are less ravaged by extinction than small, isolated islands. With cities standing in for islands, the researchers speculate that bin Laden would most likely hide out in a large town with minimal isolation, because even though there’s more risk of being spotted he would also have access to resources needed to stay alive as well as under cover.

“These theories, they say, point to Parachinar in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas.”

“a” for abbottabad, “b” for parachinar:

reductionism works (on a certain level) ’cause we are just busy little biological creatures running around like all the other busy little biological creatures.

previously: reductionism works and more reductionism working

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more reductionism working

i like reductionism. reductionism works (on a certain level).

from the economist:

Cry havoc! And let slip the maths of war

“Warfare seems to obey mathematical rules. Whether soldiers can make use of that fact remains to be seen….

“[T]he link between the severity and frequency of conflicts follows a smooth curve, known as a power law. One consequence is that extreme events such as the world wars do not appear to be anomalies. They are simply what should be expected to occur occasionally, given the frequency with which conflicts take place….

“In a paper currently under review at Science, however, Neil Johnson of the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, and his colleagues hint at what that something useful might be. Dr Johnson’s team is one of several groups who, in previous papers, have shown that Richardson’s power law also applies to attacks by terrorists and insurgents. They and others have broadened Richardson’s scope of inquiry to include the timing of attacks, as well as the severity. This prepared the ground for the new paper, which outlines a method for forecasting the evolution of conflicts.

“Dr Johnson’s proposal rests on a pattern he and his team found in data on insurgent attacks against American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. After the initial attacks in any given province, subsequent fatal incidents become more and more frequent. The intriguing point is that it is possible, using a formula Dr Johnson has derived, to predict the details of this pattern from the interval between the first two attacks….

“Though the fit between the data and the prediction is not perfect (an example is illustrated right), the match is close enough that Dr Johnson thinks he is onto something. Progress curves are a consequence of people adapting to circumstances and learning to do things better. And warfare is just as capable of productivity improvements as any other activity….”


neat mathematical patterns like this (and this) — patterns that look just like those found in the behaviors of other species — are found when we look at human behaviors ’cause human behavior is just a product of our biological natures, just like ant behavior is a product of their biological natures.

it may seem to each and every one of us like we are acting rationally, or religiously, or whatever, but we’re really just acting biologically:

“Call it the physics of terrorism….

“‘When you start averaging over the differences, you see there are patterns in the way terrorists’ campaigns progress and the frequency and severity of the attacks,’ he says. ‘This gives you hope that terrorism is understandable from a scientific perspective….’

“It is weird when you step back and say, ‘There are thinking, social beings in these organizations, they have families and causes and ideals and so on.’ And I’m thinking about them as being a little bit like particles.

“‘But,’ he says, ‘the patterns speak for themselves.'”

previously: reductionism works

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