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Selfish Apes Altruistic Humans

Selfish Apes Altruistic Humans

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Published by: stanscimag on Oct 24, 2009
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11/26/2012

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If someone asked you, “Whatdistinguishes humans fromtheir nearest primitive relatives--apes?”
you might be drawn to one of the following distinctions: in comparisonto humans, apes are quadrupedal, they arehairier, and they have shorter legs. Asidefrom these physical differences, recentresearch has found key differences in thebasic behaviors of the two species.Last October, Dr. Michael Tomasello,developmental psychologist and Co-Director of the Max Planck Institute forEvolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig,Germany, delivered a lecture entitled“Phylogenetic Origins of HumanCollaboration” at Stanford as part of the Tanner Lectures on Human Values, a multi-university lecture series in the humanities. Tomasello found that while humans arealtruistic and subscribe to institutionalizednorms that support cooperation, apes donot. Although apes appear to work in groups just as humans do, they are mutualisticrather than altruistic—individual apes willwork with others to benefit themselvesindividually rather than due to someinherent concern for the wellbeing of otherapes.At the intersection of evolutionaryanthropology, psychology, and biology,this groundbreaking research has largeimplications concerning what it means to behuman.
It’s Mine, It’s Mine
 Tomasello focused his research on threesets of processes involved in collaboration:coordination and communication, toleranceand trust, and norms and institutions.In humans he studied collaborativeactivities in which there were joint goals,mutual knowledge, and inter-dependent,coordinated roles. He and his colleaguesalso studied large amounts of video footagecomparing the behaviors of young childrenand apes in potentially collaborativeactivities in order to determine whetherapes cooperate in the same way as humansdo. Tomasello presented a video from a studyby Warneken et al. in which a ping-pongball was thrown down a tube from an adultto a young child. When the ping-pong ballwas dropped by the adult, the child wentout of the way to put the ball back in thehand of the adult. The child also displayedimmediate role reversal, leaving his side of 
ETHICS + POLICY
44www.stanordscientifc.org
by ELIZABETH BURSTEIN
Selfsh Apes,AltruisticHumans
The origins of human cooperation
Credit: sxc.huCredit: sxc.hu
 
the tube to become part of the process of pushing the ball down the tube instead of receiving it. The child took great joy in thecollaboration and recognized that there wasa joint goal in this activity: both the childand the adult were trying to play the game.When Warneken et al. conducted this sameexperiment on a human-raised ape namedAnnette, she would pick up the ball butthen would continue to play with it. She juststarted rolling around without the ball anddid not collaborate. Tomasello reasons that itwas not because the activity was cognitivelydifficult, but rather, because the chimpsimply regarded the activity as a game andwas not interested in the collaboration.Another study involved two individualsworking together to retrieve food froma chamber; to obtain the food, they hadto pull on two sticks supporting a baron which the food was placed inside thechamber. Children would help each otherretrieve the food even if it was placedcloser to one child, while chimps wouldnot help each other or share unless thefood was placed directly between them. Tomasello reasons that in order to explainthis difference evolutionarily, there had tohave been an initial divergence from thispattern of low food sharing and no foodoffering. These experiments suggest thathumans are tolerant of each other, considerothers trustworthy and engage in obligatecooperation.Other videos in the experiment focuson studying early child development toexamine the social norms that impacted thiscollaborative behavior.
Exploring CulturalIntelligence
“We believe that whereas apes understandthat what the other is doing as an individualagent, they have neither the intentionsnor motivations to form with others joint goals,” claims Tomasello. From hisresearch, Tomasello concludes that apesdo not possess “shared intentionality,”the motivation to participate with others.Part of this difference is explained by theidea that humans do not live in a solelyphysical world like apes, but rather, in aninstitutionalized world. Tomasello foundthat humans undergo distinct psychologicalprocesses, which have enabled us tobuild this institutionalized world, but healso acknowledges that these underlyingpsychological processes are “far fromunderstood.” Tomasello explains the division of laborwith joint goals by reasoning that humaninfants understand activities from a bird’seye view with the overarching goals in mind.In contrast, apes do not understand rolereversal as they do not cognitively take intoaccount the entire system of tasks beingdone. To explain this difference, one studycorrelated the size of the sclera, the whiteenvelope of the eye, to the joint nature of the activity. The human sclera is much largerthan that of apes. Whereas chimpanzeesfollow each other’s head directions to thedetermine the general directions in whichthey are gazing, human infants rely more oneye direction, suggesting that they may bemore specifically in tune with each other’s joint goals and the division of labor.In order to connect these suppositions oncollaboration with his generalized findingthat humans possess a special type of “cultural intelligence,” Tomasello studied theresponses of the two species in differentinteractive scenarios. By comparing theproportion of correct responses versusincorrect responses in each scenario, hecould determine those domains whereinapes and humans share the greatestcorrelation. His findings show thatchimpanzees have fewer correct responses
ETHICS + POLICY
volume VIII45
“We believe that whereas apes understandthat what the other is doing as an individualagent, they have neither the intentions normotivations to form with others joint goals”
Michael Tomasello
Credit: sxc.hu

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