Thursday, September 20, 2007


(image via anon in the comments)

Here's a fun little tidbit from a fun little interview with Frans de Waal for the Believer:

BLVR: I saw Yale biologist Laurie Santos give a talk on perspective-taking or “theory of mind” capacities in monkeys, and I was amazed by the question/answer period. Hands shot up—everyone tried to come up with alternate explanations for her findings, even ones that were ad hoc to a bizarre degree. There was such deep skepticism, which was surprising from an outsider’s perspective. From my point of view, I thought, Of course other animals can take the perspective of others; of course they can imagine what other monkeys or chimps are thinking or feeling. But obviously that’s not the common view among biologists.

FDW: It’s a recent bias. Previous experiments showed that chimpanzees had this ability, and in that period, this was in the ’70s, the findings didn’t get much attention. No one cared. Then a bunch of studies came along in the ’80s that cast doubt on those findings. And then everyone jumped on those studies and said: “There it is! Now we have the big difference between humans and animals—‘theory of mind,’ taking the perspective of others. That’s what distinguishes us.” I think that people are extremely eager to find that kind of difference. There’s a long history going back all the way to Darwin, before Darwin, where certain small items were found to be a uniquely human feature. At one time there was thought to be a small bone in our jaw that was only human, but then they found it in other species. The ability to use tools was a big one, until Jane Goodall discovered tool use by chimpanzees in the field. Then language. And recently theory of mind became the big thing. But now of course it’s crumbling. There are more and more findings coming out that perspective-taking is not even restricted to primates—probably dogs have it, some birds may have it.

BLVR: Dogs have it? I knew it!

FDW: Yes, there are good findings on dogs, ravens, goats. At some level or other, perspective-taking is present in many animals. It may reach its highest level in big-brained animals, dolphins, elephants, chimpanzees, and I’m sure humans go beyond this… but it’s a continuum. We’re farther along on the continuum, but it’s not completely absent in other animals. And that’s upsetting to a lot of people.

BLVR: Meanwhile, your most recent book, Primates and Philosophers, attacks the view that human beings aren’t really moral, never mind nonhumans. You argue against the view that human morality is a thin veneer, a kind of cultural overlay or hypocritical mask covering our deeply selfish animal nature. You see this as fundamentally misguided because of the connection between our morality and animal emotions.

FDW: The interesting thing about my position is that it’s really the old Darwinian position: human morality is an outflow of primate sociality. That’s how Darwin saw it—it’s an outgrowth of the social instincts. It’s also very close to a Humean position and to Adam Smith. It’s a moral sentimentalism—the view that emotions drive morality. In the last thirty years, people have abandoned that view. Richard Dawkins; Robert Wright in The Moral Animal; Michael Ghiselin; T. H. Huxley, a contemporary of Darwin’s. They all take this position that evolution could never have produced morality, because evolution produces only selfish, nasty, aggressive individuals. And obviously human morality is a way of going beyond that. So evolution could not have produced human morality—it is something we came up with. What annoys me is that this is being sold as a Darwinian position. As if the true Darwinian paradigm dictates that evolution cannot have produced morality. But if you read Darwin’s book The Descent of Man, it’s very obvious that Darwin himself did not agree with this view at all.

So we’ve been fed a bogus “Darwinian” position for thirty years, one that confuses the way evolution works with the things that evolution produces. Because the way evolution works, yes—it’s a nasty process. Evolution works by eliminating those who are not successful. Natural selection is a process that cares only about your own reproduction, or gene replication, and everything else is irrelevant. But then what natural selection produces is extremely variable. Natural selection can produce the social indifference you find in many solitary animals. But it can also produce extremely cooperative, friendly, and empathic characteristics. But this product of natural selection is ignored. And so, for example, human empathy is often presented as some sort of afterthought of evolution or something contrived—some people have argued that we are never truly empathic and kind. But if you look at the neuroscience literature on human empathy, it’s obvious that it’s an automated reaction. That’s a strong counterargument to the claim that empathy is a contrived, culturally influenced trait. Because people cannot even suppress empathy. So take for example people in a movie theater where something terrible is about to happen. What do people do?

And here are some amusing tidbits about monkeys, via Infinite Thought from a while back -- our saucy monkey ancestry, cultural representations of monkeys, and various monkey business.

Something to whet your appetite for a post on simian visual signalling, arriving shortly.