These just in from the Animal Psychology Department; first up, rats are surprisingly good at the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma [via BoingBoing]:
It may not be entirely surprising that rats cooperated in the Prisoner’s Dilemma. After all, animals often cooperate in nature to altruistically serve the group, whether that means hunting in packs to get more meat, or a surrogate mother animal adopting an abandoned baby to boost the pack’s numbers. Still, there’s no direct evidence that shows rats grasp the concept of direct reciprocity. Given that the rats in this study changed their strategy based on the game their opponent was playing, and cooperation rates were only high when the rats played against a tit-for-tat opponent, the authors showed, perhaps for the first time, that rats directly reciprocate. But an even more surprising finding was how well the rats played the game. They plotted and schemed. They manipulated their opponents by taking calculated strategic risks for the high payout reward. In essence, these rodents challenged our perception of animal intelligence and proved that they, too, can master both the game, and the psychological component of competition.
Furthermore, apes have been discovered to have the capacity to doubt their own decisions [via George Dvorsky].
Josep Call […] put food in one of two opaque plastic pipes and had watching bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans pick the one with the food. If they were made to wait, the apes sometimes forgot where the food was, but by and large they did well on the task.
To test if the apes doubted their own decisions, Call gave them the option to peek into the end of the pipes before they chose one. He found that the apes were more likely to check the pipes if they had to wait before picking one. Call says this suggests that the apes had begun to doubt their memory.
That consensus definition of “human” is starting to look a lot less exclusive than it used to, no?
Is altruism a result of human societal values, or is it something innate that evolved biologically? Psychologist Dacher Keltner claims the latter may be the case:
Our research and that of other scientists suggests that the vagus nerve may be a physiological system that supports caretaking and altruism. We have found that activation of the vagus nerve is associated with feelings of compassion and the ethical intuition that humans from different social groups (even adversarial ones) share a common humanity. People who have high vagus nerve activation in a resting state, we have found, are prone to feeling emotions that promote altruism—compassion, gratitude, love, happiness. Arizona State University psychologist Nancy Eisenberg has found that children with elevated vagal tone (high baseline vagus nerve activity) are more cooperative and likely to give. This area of study is the beginning of a fascinating new argument about altruism—that a branch of our nervous system evolved to support such behavior.
If you want the opposite take (which, for what it’s worth, reads a lot less like the jacket copy for a spiritual self-help book), look no further than sf writer and biologist Peter Watts:
Men, like most male mammals, like to acquire resources. When they’re not especially horny, they’re as likely to go for furniture and big-screen TVs — i.e., major, nonportable items that remain in the home — as anything else. When they’re horny, however, they’d rather buy bling and fast cars — flashy stuff they can take on the road to attract mates. Also, when in a horny mood, they’re more likely to give publicly to panhandlers (also to indulge in risky/heroic behaviour). In other words, both conspicuous consumption and conspicuous generosity are just ways of attracting mates: hey baby, lookit me! I’ve got so much money I can just give it away!…
I wonder if we’ll ever be ale to answer this question definitively? Whether we’ll like the answer is another question entirely…
The planned launch in January 2008 of Tribler, a variation on the BitTorrent protocol, is being hailed by the software’s creators as a way of sharing the burden of peer-to-peer networks more fairly, by treating bandwidth as a commodity to be traded on a global market. Which sounds great to me, especially as it’s open source … but isn’t it somewhat inevitable that someone will make a hacked version with the altruism overridden?
But leeching is hardly a new phenomenon, and by and large the web’s development as a resource for the average user can be largely ascribed to altruistic behavior by participants – Victor Keegan at The Guardian thinks the gift economy of the web actually promotes overall economic welfare. I’m inclined to agree, but I can think of a few counter-examples – how about you? [Image by Peter Kaminski]
If you’ve read his fiction, you’ll probably be aware that Peter Watts doesn’t hold to the romantic notions that pervade around the idea of human altruism. He gets asked about it a lot, apparently, and so Watts decided to explain his reductionist position on human altruism publicly. Warning – unless you have a healthy cynicism about your own species, you’re not going to like what he has to say. Which leads me to believe he’s probably correct.