Monday, November 20, 2006

Darwin At The Zoo:
The latest edition of Scientific American (Dec., 2006) has an interesting review of Frans de Waal's latest book 'Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved' by science writer Jonathan Weiner. The title of the review comes from an experience that Darwin had in March, 1838, a year and a half after the voyage of the Beagle had ended. Darwin was an observer of what Darwin could only see as a "temper tantrum" that an orangutan took because of the "unfairness" of her keeper. Darwin speculated about the emotions and their possible connections with morality throughout his life. The culmination of this was his 1872 book 'The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals' (see Darwin-Online in the links section of this blog for the complete text). Therein he gives the key to human morality, empathy, in the following quote,
"The movements of expression in the face and body, whatever their origin may have been, are in themselves of much importance in our welfare. They serve as the first means of communication between the mother and her infant; she smiles approval, and thus encourages her child on the right path, or frowns disapproval. We readily perceive sympathy in others by their expression, our sufferings are thus mitigated and our pleasures increased; and mutual good feeling is thus strengthened."

The reviewer states De Waal' position in the following paraphrase'
"In his scientific papers and popular books (including 'Chimpanzee Politics', 'Our Inner Ape' and 'Good Natured') he argues that Darwin was correct from his first view of Jenny at the zoo. Sympathy, empathy, right and wrong are feelings that we share with other animals; even the best part of human nature, the part that cares about ethics and justice, is also part of nature."

The reviewer states that in this book de Waals "tries to refute a popular caricature of Darwinism...people assume that to be good, be nice, behave, play well with others we have to rise above our animal nature."

The truth is the exact opposite. Weiner says,
"In reality, as de Waal reminds us, dogs are social, wolves are social, chimps and macaques are social, and we, ourselves, are "social to the core". Goodness, generosity and genuine kindness come just as naturally to us as meaner feelings."

The reviewer quotes de Waal,
"Instead of empathy being an endpoint it may have been the starting point".
Weiner goes into the case of one of de Waal's most famous experiments in which he demonstrated that capuchin monkeys appreciate fairness and unfairness. The second half of de Waal's book consists of a critique of his theories by several commentators and de Waal's replies to them. The reviewer concludes that "it seems clear that we can no longer look at morality as a sort of civilized veneer on a cold and selfish animal, even though that view goes back long before Darwin went to the zoo. Its origins lie in the Western concept of original sin"

Frans de Waal has had a long and distinguished career in primatology. He was born in 1948 in Utrecht, the Netherlands and received his doctorate in Biology from the University of Utrecht in 1977. His dissertation was on aggressive behavior and alliance formation in macaques. At this time he had been 2 years into a 6 year project studying the world's largest chimpanzee colony at Arnhem Zoo. This resulted in a number of scientific papers and his first book 'Chimpanzee Politics'. In 1981 he moved to the USA, and in 1991 he took up his present position at Emory University and the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. For a brief introduction to de Waal see the Wikipedia article at . For a more in depth profile see the 'Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (August 1,2005) at . For a complete bibliography see his profile at the Emory University site at .
De Waal was one of those originally broke a long standing taboo in ethology, that one couldn't ascribe human like emotions to anaimals. Since the time of 'Chimpanzee Politics' the view has changed dramatically due to the work of people like De Waal, Jane Goodall and Donald Griffen. De Waal remarked,
"The time was ripe. If I had written that book ten years earlier, probably I would have been burned at the stake. Ten years later and it would have been after the revolution."
There's another interesting quotation from the PNAS article mentioned above (which also has a link to de Waal's "inaugural article" 'The Monkey in the Mirror:Hardly a Stranger',
"In this book I'm arguing that we have two sides. We're really a bipolar ape. We have a very nasty side to us, and we are nastier than almost any other animal that you can imagine. But we also have a very nice, altruistic side to us. And when we're nice, we're actually much nicer than almost any animal you can imagine."

'Primates and Philosophers'(ISBN 0-691-12447-7) is published by Princeton University Press. Ordering information can be seen online at their website where you can also view a fairly lengthy extract from the book at . The book contains a rather interesting quote on Kropotkin and other Russian naturalists in Chapter 1 that pup provides on their site. It runs as follows'
"It should be pointed out, though, that in Huxley's time there was already fierce opposition to his ideas (Desmond 1994), some of which came from Russian biologists such as Petr Kropotkin. Given the harsh climate of Siberia, Russian scientists traditionally were far more impressed by the battle of animals against the elements than against each other, resulting in an emphasis on cooperation and solidarity as against Huxley's dog-eat-dog perspective (Todes, 1989).'Mutual Aid' was an attack on Huxley, but written with great deference for Darwin.
Although Kropotkin never formulated his theory with the precision and evolutionary logic available to Trivers (1971)(Molly Note 1) in his seminal paper on reciprocal altruism, both pondered the origins of a cooperative and moral society without invoking false pretense, Freudian denial schemes or cultural indoctrination and both proved the true followers of Darwin. (Molly Note 2)."

If the reader is at all interested in primatology in general I can do no better than to refer them to 'Primate Info Net' at . This site contains numerous links to factsheets on individual primate species, on taxonomy, on the sociobiology of primates, to other primate related sites, conservation,etc.,etc, etc.. There is even a continuously updated listing of 'Primates in the News'.

Molly Notes
1) Triver's 1971 paper, 'The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism' (Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35-57) actually examined a "special case" of altruism ie between non-kin. The ground for his work had been thoroughly prepared by others such as J.B.S. Haldane and W.D. Hamilton who worked on kin selection and inclusive fitness. The ground had also been prepared by the development of game theory in mathematics.
2) De Waal refers-a little- to difficulties with the data that Kropotkin accumulated in his researches in Siberia but even more so to Kropotkin's attempts to theorize about same. Those unfamiliar with the field may find it startling that pretty well any legitimate sociobiological line of research takes observations by people such as Kropotkin (and Darwin and Kropotkin's Russian colleagues,etc.) as an historical "starting point" for what the perhaps the central question of sociobiology---how do you explain the obvious occurrence of altruistic behavior?.
The problems with Kropotkin are a)he was writing in a time when the modern science of genetics simply didn't exist. Kropotkin's genetics were Lamarkian to the core, a mistake that he actually shared with Darwin himself. b) Kropotkin was something of an extreme group selectionist. Kropotkin actually usually took the position that the "level of selection" was the species. This is extreme even by the standards of modern group selectionists who represent a distinct minority amongst present day evolutionary biologists. I tend to hold a rather a conservative position on this matter. I don't believe that "group selection" never happens, just that it is an uncommon and slight influence in most evolutionary situations. Conversely I have a hard time accepted a "genocentric" view of the unit of selection. Genes are always in "tight combinations" with tens of thousands of other genes in any individual so it is hard to see how selective pressure can operate at anything but the most demonstrable of genetic advantages. In most situations a "slight advantage" of a given gene will be drowned out by the "noise" of the random genes that it is combined with. and c) the mathamatical techniques of game theory were not developed at the time when Kropotkin wrote. While he was not a basic mathematical illiterate, such as Marx was, the mathematics of his time were simply not up to the demands of describing the social interactions involved.
3)The reader who consults the original review in SA will notice that this blog has wandered off the subject more than a little. Sorry...but some things seem to grow on their own.

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