The observable examined

Posts Tagged ‘chimpanzees

Are humans unique?

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We have all interacted with animals, seen them at zoos, marveled at them (watching Nat Geo documentaries). If you are like me, you may have wondered whether they are programmed automatons (“fixed action patterns”) or alternately have a “rich” inner life (don’t accuse me of anthropomorphism just yet). I have always held they view that while animals are well adapted to survive their niches, they are able to do more than execute programmed actions.  Also, along the way, I have tired of the notion that “man was made in the image of God”, in the sense that humans are unique and special, given our extraordinary “cognitive” capacities. But then we humans have succumbed to “confirmation bias” by only looking at evidence that confirms this view (as in the tremendous achievements ranging from agriculture to space research). But we also need to review our history of violence and catalog our behaviors collectively as a species (witness terrorism, territoriality, in group/out group, biases, etc.,) and it becomes quickly evident that our “mental” apparatus has a lot in common with other species.

Frans de Waal argues, that this is indeed in the case, in his essay “What I learned from tickling apes” that appears in the NYTimes. Well worth a read. As always, I find it informative to also peruse the reader comments .

Animal brains

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Over the weekend, I came across an interesting essay, on animal cognition. I loved the ending, where the author, Frans de Waal, an eminent primatologist, writes

“Aristotle’s ladder of nature is not just being flattened; it is being transformed into a bush with many branches. This is no insult to human superiority. It is long-overdue recognition that intelligent life is not something for us to seek in the outer reaches of space but is abundant right here on earth, under our noses.”

You can read the full article here  – The Brains of the Animal Kingdom . In this article, the author mainly showcases chimps, elephants, octopuses,etc., But recent research has shown birds can also hold their own. Here is a write up from Sir Richard Attenborough’s Life of Birds series – Bird brains. The lowly crow turns out to be really “smart”.

While there is sufficient food for thought in the article proper, I always visit the comments page. To me it is fascinating how the main purpose of the article is quickly lost and the conversation quickly degenerates into lame talk of political conspiracy, and other inane commentary. But then, we are the most intelligent species on the earth.



Written by asterix98

March 25, 2013 at 3:01 am

stress or stimulation

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Robert Sapolsky was on KQED’s Forum a couple of weeks ago. The actual interview is available here 

He is a pretty interesting guy. In the first part of the interview, he discussed stress a lot. Stress is not good for the brain. In the animal kingdom, in general, short term physical stress is the norm (as evidenced by flight or fight type of responses). But “smart” primates invented psychological stress (presumably by running what-if scenarios). The problem is these mental gyrations elicit the same physiological response. If they are transient in nature then we are ok, as in watching scary movies or a roller coaster ride. When the context is controlled or safe, it even elicits pleasure or is rewarding (dopamine at work). These situations then are not stressful but stimulating. It becomes pathological when prolonged over extended periods of time.

It gets even more interesting. Stress in baboons has the same physiological signature  as humans (elevated BP. Increased levels of cortisol). Baboons kill and so do chimps. They can do so “competitively, premeditatively, gratitiously…”.  Fascinating!  In fact, so do many others. Sapolsky observed that baboons engage in displacement aggression (which is really a fancy term for bullying) by beating up the weaker and smaller. (If we didn’t have culture or social norms, as Hobbes noted, we would have degnerated  into, I suppose, baboons. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that we still do behave like baboons) . Supposedly per Sapolsky, baboons only work hard for about three hours to obtain food, so they have plenty of leisure in which to generate psychological stress and relieve it through aggression – somewhat reminiscent of an idle mind is a devil’s workshop.

So why don’t Zebras get ulcers? (Sapolsky has a book by this title). Because, they are not smart enough to make themselves sick through anticipatory or psychological stress. Their stress is transient:  Run like hell when a predator is attacking. If that turns out ok, go back to grazing. Simple – no anxiety over the lion’s next move. Sort of out of sight, out of mind.

The deeper insight here is that our psychological smarts, the crowning glory of evolution, comes with many strings attached. Stress being one of them.

He also discussed human ranking systems. One study, of British civil servants, is remarkable, in that the lower you are in that hierarchy, the more unhealthy you are. Pfeffer, also from Stanford, who studies power, has noted the more powerful you are, the less stressed you feel, in essensce generalizing this idea.

Theory of mind is yet another of the subjects he touched upon. There is a fascinating study, of a high ranking and a low ranking chimp, both of whom are placed in a enclsoure with a banana that is either visible or not visible to the high ranking chimp. How the low ranker behaves in this situation is indicative of strategizing based on the anticipated behavior of the high ranker. Very clever study indeed. There is more where this comes from but you will have to listen to the interview……

After listerning to the interview, I was looking around for more and found this video put out by Stanford. Sapolsky addresses a graduating class. It is a very entertaining lecture but touches on more or less the same topics as the interview.Be warned that there is a fairly graphic image of an example of displaced aggression by the alpha male baboon…..

Written by asterix98

March 21, 2012 at 4:15 am

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