Genomics Professor Katherine Pollard explored the genetic basis for being human in a video presentation titled “What Makes Us Human. Here a rather dramatic announcement from her talk:
Mouse and rat actually have a common ancestor longer ago than human and chimp, and some people will be surprised by that. They will say, “We are so much more different than a chimp . . . mouse and rat must be pretty similar.” Actually mouse and rat on average are much more different from each other than we are from a chimp, and that’s sort of a humbling fact to keep in mind.
We’re not exactly like chimpanzees, of course, but there are quite a few overlaps (as well as differences), which Pollard explores beginning at the 4-minute mark. Surprisingly, young chimpanzees have a better competency in counting and numbers than young humans. At the 11-minute mark, you can see that the human genome is 95% similar to that of a chimp (or 99%, depending on how you define similarity), and that it is 28% similar (or 89%, depending on definition of similarity) to the genome of a mouse.
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I was on a two-hour bus ride today, surrounded by people chattering loudly on their cell phones. From the large man with the goatee (in front of me, to my left), I leaned that he had bacon and eggs this morning at a little restaurant and that it was good. It took him five minutes to describe his meal to the person with whom he was conversing (I do wonder whether that person was really listening to the entire thing). The woman in front of me was getting angry at the person to whom she was talking–she insisted that there was a closer Wal-Mart, and that that person ought to turn her car back immediately and go there, not to the Wal-Mart down the road.
A man behind me was making a wide variety of calls, reassuring people that he would be visiting someday, and apparently trading much chit-chat. The woman behind me was discussing various movies with her conversant. Again, there were lots of details, and it seemed as though each of these conversations ended because the people got tired of talking, not because they traded any significant information.
All of this chattering was irritating to me, because I have a difficult time filtering out one-sided conversations. Every time the person near me stops talking, an internal warning kicks in and I automatically replay my buffer (as best I can) in order to jump in and respond. It’s all automated, and it turns out, time after time, that they are not talking with me at all. My little sub-routine, which works rather well in many situations where someone has paused for the purpose to allow me to respond, is merely an annoyance in these situations.
Now multiply this gossipy chatter by hundreds of millions, all across America, and you have an enormous amount of time and energy dedicated to gossip. Whenever you see so much energy going into an activity, red flags should go up: it is likely that such a ubiquitous activity is serving some important biological function. But what could possibly be important about gossiping?
Based upon much study, Robin Dunbar has proposed the answer that gossip is verbal grooming. I described his position in some detail here. His bottom line is that even though the content of the gossip seems relatively unimportant, the exchange is critically important. Engaging in gossip is social sonar. It is our way of determining the identities of our allies and foes, not simply by determining who is willing to gossip with us, but through many subtle clues dropped in the course of the gossip. We learn the identities of the people who talk about us and our friends, and bits and pieces about their attitudes toward us. We learn who has resources, social and material, and their willingness to share these resources, and with whom.
Gossip is a powerful use of language, but it is often not focused on the truth-content of the words used. In modern times, gossip is likely to be seen as a Gouldian spandrel. But just maybe, as Dunbar suggests, gossip is truly verbal grooming and thus arguably the original impetus for the development of all human languages.
As I see it, gossip but one of several non-prototypical uses of language. I suspect that we see another such use in most religions, where language can be critically important, even though ambiguous, untrue or even oxymoronic.
In the July 2010 edition of Nature (available online only to subscribers) Jane Goodall calls for urgent action to save chimpanzees “our closest living relatives,” from extinction in the wild.
It never ceases to amaze me that humans will go to great lengths to wonder about and investigate whether even the smallest life form exists on another planet, yet we allow a dwindling populations of amazing animals to perish on our own planet. We just can’t stop increasing the numbers of human animals on this planet, even as our water and soil are being depleted worldwide. We can’t even talk about this issue. We just can’t stop expanding into the last few patches of jungle in order to chop down the habitats of other animals in order to grow more food to feed more humans, all the while proclaiming that we “care” about preserving the environment and that the last thing we would do is to steal from our children. Nonetheless, we are stealing our children’s opportunity to live on a planet that includes natural populations of chimpanzees.
When I think about how we are killing off so many species of plants and animals, it distresses me; it even makes me feel sick. It’s hard for me to hide my frustration and to think positively, because the news is 95% bad. Everywhere, the news is the same: humans are expanding into new areas, forcing out and destroying native plants and animals. We are destroying a planet that we claim to treasure.
Jane Goodall is working harder than I am to keep an upbeat attitude, at least in public, even though she sees the decimation of chimpanzee communities up close and first-hand. She is also making real progress to encourage the world to change its ways in order to preserve chimpanzee habitats. Fifty years ago, she traveled to Gombe Stream National Park to observe its then-large populations of chimpanzees. In the 50 years since her arrival, she has ceaselessly engaged in research, education, advocacy and fundraising. What is so special about chimpanzees? Why should humans care more about chimpanzees?
As analytical methods have evolved, work with the chimpanzees of Gombe has provided a profound understanding of humans’ relationship with animals. From this and research elsewhere we now know, for example, of numerous similarities between human and chimpanzee brain structures and any insistence, and how alike the two species are genetically: there is about 1.5% difference between human and chimpanzee DNA. There are striking parallels between chimpanzee and human non-verbal communication: an embrace, holding hands and a pat on the back mean essentially the same thing in both species. We also understand much about the intellectual abilities of chimpanzees and the complexity of their motions, which seem remarkably like ours. . . . as our knowledge about chimpanzees has increased, their existence has come under increasing threat.
In 1900, there were more than 1 billion chimpanzees in Africa; today, despite all our achievements, fewer than 300,000 remain in the wild, many in fragmented and isolated populations. Some conservationists have suggested the species will be extinct in the wild in 30 years.
Goodall wrote this article in nature and to promote the work of TACARE, which has integrated traditional conservation approaches with a range of environmentally sustainable rural development strategies. Goodall notes that thanks to efforts of many organizations, including TACARE, “although population and the rate of deforestation nearly doubled between 1991 and 2003, more recent satellite images suggests that deforestation is finally beginning to slow.”
This is not good news, but it’s smaller amounts of bad news, which is a glimmer of hope.
Possibly the most salient feature of human beings is that they so often act contrary to the principles they publicly extol. People in the process of getting ever more obese sincerely acknowledge that they need to eat less and exercise more. Most Americans freely acknowledge that television is a “boob tube” that makes them stupid, yet they watch an average of 4.5 hours per day. Parents who sincerely claim that spending quality time with their young children is the most important thing they could do, work long hours at the office in order to afford pricey cars, houses and vacations. Most Americans who proclaim that we are in the midst of an energy crisis and global warming are doing next to nothing to change their energy-wasting personal lifestyles. Conservative American church-goers who claim that their highest religious duty is to love their enemies exuberantly support wars in which U.S. bombs shred and burn both enemies and innocent children.
How frustrating it is to try to explain this ubiquitous hypocrisy! This self-contradiction between our (oftentimes sincere) beliefs and our physical cravings defines us so well that we are often surprised when we find humans who are actually living according to the principles they declare to be sacred. Why is it that we such excellent hypocrites?
In The Happiness Hypothesis, psychologist Jonathan Haidt uses a simple metaphor to illustrate the extent to which human beings are profoundly conflicted beings. On pages 12 – 22, Haidt asks us to consider each human being as a tandem enterprise: a lawyer trying to ride an elephant. The part of us that is conscious, careful and calculating (the lawyer) is often outmatched by the huge lumbering bag of electro-chemical processes, appetites and cravings that characterizes the physical human body (the elephant). The good news is that our intellect is often quite reliable in telling us what we need to do. The bad news is that the intellect is often overwhelmed by the “elephant’s” unrelenting unconscious bodily impulses. What passes as human rationality is born of a conflict between these two aspects of who we are.
Human rationality depends critically on sophisticated emotionality. It is only because our emotional brain’s work so well that our reasoning can work at all. Plato’s image of reason as a charioteer controlling the dumb beasts of passion may overstate not only the wisdom but also the power of the charioteer. The metaphor of a rider on an elephant fits Damasio’s findings more closely: reason and emotion must both work together to create intelligent behavior, but emotion (a major part of the elephant) does most of the work. When the neocortex came along, it made a rider possible, but it may be elephant much smarter too.
As indicated above, Haidt explains that human animals each consist of two processing systems that are both constantly at work: A) controlled conscious processes and B) unconscious automatic processes. Most mental processes happen automatically, without any need for conscious attention or control. Our controlled conscious ability depend heavily on language, which is a recent arrival on the evolutionary time scale.
[When language evolved,] the human brain was not re-engineered to hand over the reins of power to the rider (conscious verbal thinking). Things were already working pretty well, and linguistic ability spread to the extent that it helps the elephant do something important in a better way. The rider involved to serve the elephant. But whatever its origin, once we had it, language was a powerful tool that could be used in new ways, and evolution then selected those individuals who got the best use out of it.
Haidt also notes that controlled processing is limited in scope–we can only think consciously about one thing at a time. Compare this limited conscious processing to our unconscious automatic processes which, because they run in parallel, can handle many tasks simultaneously.
Language allows us to think about long-term goals, “and thereby escape the tyranny of the here and now.” On the other hand, our controlled system of conscious thinking “has relatively little power to cause behavior,” because it is overwhelmed by the vast automatic system that evolved to “trigger quick and reliable action.” Haidt thus sees our conscious control system as a mere advisor:
It’s a rider placed on the elephant’s back to help the elephant make better choices. The rider can see farther into the future, and the writer can learn valuable information by talking to other writers or by reading maps, but the writer cannot order the elephant around against his will. I often believe the Scottish philosopher David Hume was closer to the truth than Plato when he said, “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” In sum, the writer is an advisor or servant; not a king, president, or charioteer with a firm grip on the reins. . . . the elephant, in contrast, is everything else. The elephant includes the gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions and intuitions that comprise much of the automatic system.
What Haidt articulates so well is known understood by each of us, even at a gut level. We are constantly at war with ourselves. How else can it possibly be that so many people act in ways that are contrary to their cherished principles? How else could it be that so many sincere humans act absolutely contrary to their self-defined best interests?
All is not lost, however. Skilled riders cleverly shift attention away from the elephant. Skilled riders cause the elephant to think about things other than those things that will tempt the elephant. When I absolutely need to be working late at the office, I try to distract myself from thinking about being at home with my family because those sorts of thoughts will sorely tempt me to abandon my work at the office. Instead, I constantly remind myself to keep my attention on the project at hand. Riders must be content to distract the elephant rather than directly confronting the elephant because it’s too hard for the conscious control system to maintain any control over the automatic system of the elephant through will power alone. Haidt writes that sustained attempts by the rider to control the elephant through brute strength inevitably fail. “Just say no” campaigns and virginity pledges usually fail. The small rider eventually wears down like “a tired muscle.”
What kind of rider is most successful at controlling the elephant? “An emotionally intelligent person has a skilled rider who knows how to distract and coax the elephant without having to engage in a direct contest of wills.” To illustrate this principle, Haidt discusses a classic experiment involving marshmallows, in which children who grew up to be successful were able (well young children) to distract themselves from eating a marshmallow in order to be rewarded with a second marshmallow.
The same conflict of rider versus elephant plays out in the moral arena. Haidt describes moral judgment is much like aesthetic judgment. We know what we like and don’t like immediately and a gut feeling. Our explanations usually amount to confabulation. “It is the elephant who decides what is good or bad, beautiful or ugly.” (See here for Haidt’s elegant theory of moral psychology)
But again, all is not lost. Not for all of us all of the time, anyway. There are many clever riders out there who can distract their elephants for sustained periods. Not all people overeat. Many people consistently choose to shut down their televisions and choose to live challenging lives in the real world. Further, when those of use with good self-control act collectively, we can assist those without as much self-control (e.g., by enacting laws to force food manufacturers to put food’s nutritional information on a label)
A good rider can assist an elephant to do incredible things, such as the ability to collaborate. “Only the rider can string sentences together and create arguments to give to other people. In moral arguments, the writer goes beyond being just an advisor to the elephant; he becomes a lawyer, fighting in the court of public opinion to persuade others of the elephant’s point of view.”
If feels good to swing your arms while walking, and now we know that there is a good biomechanical reason too: it saves energy. This, according to a study by the University of Michigan.
Darwin was a polymath. In addition to his many other interests, he was an experimental psychologist studying the ability of people to recognize particular emotions in others, based on photographs. You can read more about this at Scientific American.
I read another article about why not to have public debates on socially contended scientific issues. This time, it was about Global Warming: Climate Science on Trial.
It brings up an issue that gets little press. There is a qualitative difference between science (as a type of investigation) and other philosophical filters such as law, religion, and so forth. Science was developed because we cannot trust our senses, our feelings, or our memories outside of now-known ranges of perception. That is, too big, too small, too fast, too slow, or too complex.Even within normal ranges, much of what we think we perceive is colored by habit and expectations.
The democratic ideal is that everyone is equal. But methods of understanding are not equal. Without the methods of science, we still would be living on a flat, stationary, unchanging world under a moving canopy of the heavens just beyond our reach, where the smallest thing is a mustard seed, and the widest realm is a few weeks walk. Where the universe was created during the era of early Sumerian urbanization, and will end some lesser time in the future. The Bible says so. The best minds in the world agreed, until Galileo and his ilk
The problem of public debate is that it takes some training to understand why science is the best filter for making judgments on big issues. It doesn’t care about the personalities, preferences, and prejudices of scientists. The method weeds out false answers, however many people believe them or how authoritatively they are stated. If a scientist turns out to be wrong, because he (as a human) has the limitations listed above, those who disagree with his position herald his failure as proof that the method is flawed. Those who agreed with him claim conspiracy among those who proved him wrong. Pick a position; everyone is equal.
It is easy to make a convincing argument that persuades the majority who don’t actually have the grounding to really understand the issue. It is harder to make people understand that what so obviously feels right is actually wrong, and to understand the proof and its validity. It feels right to say that Man is unique and superior and is the purpose of the universe. But examination by the scientific method that shows that there really are few things that distinguish our kind in any way, and that we are a tiny part of the ecosystem, much less the universe. We have risen (thanks to technology and industrialism) to a level of might wherein we have the ability to make the planet uninhabitable for ourselves. But we don’t have the ability to deflect or escape the next extinction event, whether a nearby quasar, nova, asteroid collision, or massive ice age of yet-undetermined cause.
The current hot issue is whether we need to act fast to reverse the current unprecedented rise in global temperatures. It is easier to ignore the issue. Much like the proverbial frog in a pot who entered comfortable water, and doesn’t notice it slowly warming till he dies of the heat. We’re in the pot, and the temperature is rising. But denialists (supported by the fossil fuel trade) use tried and true methods of persuasion to keep the public from acting on it.
All the climate scientists agree: It is happening, it is partially (if not entirely) our doing, and we can do something about it. By now, the warming cannot be completely stopped or reversed. But slowing it down may be the difference between the collapse of our civilization, and a unifying cause to move world civilization forward.
But most people still don’t see that science, as a practice, is actually a distinct and more reliable way of figuring out what is going on. Public debate primarily publicizes the anti-science position. How can this be fixed?
I suggest that, in this age of ubiquitous information, that primary and secondary education lean less on packing facts into kids, and spend more time teaching how to deal with information: How we know what we know, how to judge fact from fallacy, information from disinformation, and knowledge from counterknowledge.
David Sloan Wilson is an evolutionary biologist who teaches in the Department of Anthropology at Biology Binghamton University. He has long been a champion of multi-level selection theory, and he boldly applied his research and findings to human conduct, boldly going where many biologists hesitate to go, based upon a well-documented history of derision aimed at scientists who dare to study human beings as though they were animals subject to natural selection. This, despite the fact that humans clearly are animals that are subject to the forces of natural selection.
Today, I spotted an excellent video of an October 30, 2009 talk that David Sloan Wilson gave following the publication of his book, “Evolution for Everyone.” The video lasts almost one hour. I previously posted extensively on his book here. I’ve posted on other aspects of his work here and here .
Wilson opens his clear, insightful, sometimes blunt and oftentimes humorous talk by announcing that higher education has an “evolution problem.” The problem is that many in academia resist applying modern scientific biological findings to their own disciplines, even though these biological findings would be highly relevant. Wilson thus refers to the Ivory Tower as the “Ivory Archipelago.” Darwin anticipated the broad scope of his theory, but many teachers in the humanities refuse to have anything to do with well-substantiated principles of biology, even modern findings would be highly informative to their fields of study.
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In the Wall Street Journal, Matt Ridley argues that human beings haven’t flourished because of anything we do individually. Rather, it is our ability to share and to building upon previous ideas of others–it is our “collective intelligence”:
The notion that exchange stimulated innovation by bringing together different ideas has a close parallel in biological evolution. The Darwinian process by which creatures change depends crucially on sexual reproduction, which brings together mutations from different lineages. Without sex, the best mutations defeat the second best, which then get lost to posterity. With sex, they come together and join the same team. So sex makes evolution a collective and cumulative process in which any individual can draw on the gene pool of the whole species. And when it comes to gene pools, the species with gene lakes generally do better than the ones with gene ponds—hence the vulnerability of island species to competition with continental ones.
It is precisely the same in cultural evolution. Trade is to culture as sex is to biology. Exchange makes cultural change collective and cumulative. It becomes possible to draw upon inventions made throughout society, not just in your neighborhood. The rate of cultural and economic progress depends on the rate at which ideas are having sex. . . . So here is the answer to the puzzle of human takeoff. It was caused by the invention of a collective brain itself made possible by the invention of exchange. . . . Prosperity consists of getting more and more narrow in what you make and more and more diverse in what you buy. Self-sufficiency—subsistence—is poverty.
Ridley concludes that this inexorable building upon prior ideas by sharing them is ultimately a “cheery” one (he points to reduced child mortality and increased per capita income worldwide), despite the occasional setbacks.