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All posts for the month December, 2006

Or, brain surgey with Bob Hoskins.

Wow, it’s another three week gap no blog. So much planned to do over the seasonal break, but little of that accomplished, other than reading of course.

Read the whole of Ian McEwan’s “Saturday“, pretty much during that one day following the sunrise on Saddam’s execution. Spookier though is the plot of fifty year old parents with two young adult children, so much to identify with even before we get to the blues guitar and the fascination with complex poetic consequences of ethical decisions beyond logical cause and effect. (I wonder if my Tom knew the plot when he bought it as a Christmas present ?) A book of its time set in London in 2003 after 9/11 and before 7/7 on the (satur)day of the London peace march against going to war in Iraq. Impressive in its scope of issues addressed; “ambitious” is the critic’s preferred term I believe. I won’t spoil with further plot detail, from the grandeur of Darwinian minds to (perhaps over researched ?) fascinating insider detail on neuro-surgery via all society’s issues of our “changed times”, save perhaps global warming. An excellent read too, kicking off in the style of his “Enduring Love“, with the breakneck pace and surreality of involvement in a freak accident.

On Friday; it took from the small hours of Friday morning UK time to the afternoon of Saturday US Central time for us to return, what’s that almost forty hours ? and another six for our baggage to materialise; did I mention the outward leg - changing terminals at Heathrow ? Soon air travel will be recognised for the torture it literally is. Anyway, Friday I finished Alex McCall-Smith’s “The Sunday Philosophy Club” at the third sitting over two days. McCall-Smith’s Edinburgh altogether gentler and more parochial alongside McEwan’s London. Despite the fact that the heroine Dalhousie is editor of “The Review of Applied Ethics” and the references to moral philosophers more explicit, in fact there is much less of it to deal with in McCall-Smith’s who-dunnit of misunderstood motives.

If Saturday reads like a blockbuster screenplay (I see Bob Hoskins co-starring), Sunday is more a book at bedtime script (I hear Barbara Flynn’s voice). Both very good, cleverly done with excellent results. Both recommended.

I posted about Wayne Booth previously , crossing paths with Pirsig and McKeon in Rhetoric at Chicago, and then again when he died last year.

Came across this excellent Wayne Booth article today, via Wilf Berendsen on Friends of Wisdom. Interestingly Wilf was picking up on the cross-discipline university approach mentioned by John Spencer at Liverpool Uni and mentioned his own involvement with Academia Vitae in Holland

The Booth article is 20 years old, and towards the end, has some “futuristic” predictions (already passed) about things that might happen in future education establishments. Some wonderful ironies, in a very interesting piece … just a sample here.

  • business school professors founding centers for “decision research” and “cognition and communication,” with the purpose of discovering just how minds are changed;
  • classicists studying the history of the goddess Peitho, the goddess of persuasion;
  • cognitive psychologists repudiating behavior modification models and studying ways in which the mind performs “constructionist” operations that escape full formalization;
  • “comparative religionists” studying how myths are made persuasive by embedding them in the factual;

[Post Note : the three rhetorics are :
Rhetoric-1 - what the author intends as objective facts and rational argument
Rhetoric-2 - more persuasive language added by the author
Rhetoric-3 - the approval of third-party experts in the author's field.
The point being that we (honestly) rely on all three, particularly when we do not share the same specialist field as the author, and that therefore a sound understanding of how to evaluate all three rhetorics, and the intentional behaviour of the parties involved, if knowledge is ever to be regarded as true beyond a specialist field. Thus the network of expert approval (not just critical analysis) is recursive but nevertheless essential to the process, and that rhetoric is therefore a cross-specialist subject, as important as any in its own right.]

A fantastic article from New Scientist, via Sam (via “Peak Oil” action network).

It is exactly my thinking …. not just in not ignoring non-human socio-cultural-intelligence … Sam brought it to my attention, because in MoQ circles, I am always warning that socio-cultural-intelligence (layers 3 and 4 of the MoQ) are not necessarily restricted to humans, just because we tend to see humans as the pinnacle of that from our perspective as “earthbound misfits”.

But the whole evolution driver for making progress … nature vs nurture … engineering an environment that “breeds” constructive actions and discourages degenerative ones (with a self-evolving MoQ-like framework for the measure of good and bad). Of course for any eco-system / extended organism above level 3, the predominant mechanisms for evolution involve memes rather than genes – cultural communication.

The “engineering a crisis” approach – a “creative destruction” or a “common enemy” is a standard “management” or governance technique for encouraging constructive behaviour. My footnote has always mentioned the “high stakes” implicit in this game – and of course it is a “game” as Wittgenstein confirms – the problem with games is they are psychological, and if people suspect a crisis is engineered – authorities crying wolf – the crisis loses its constructive value – the destruction is self-inflicted and terminal. Sadly, you can’t beat a “real” crisis to encourage progress.

My whole agenda. Wow.

Whole article included, whilst I find an on-line copy to link to.

Why bonobos make love, not war

By Matt Kaplan>

( The New Scientist)
November 30, 2006

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the most volatile and hostile countries on the planet, yet its dark interior is home to a group of pacifists who look like refugees from the Summer of Love. Pygmy chimps or bonobos are both literally and metaphorically our kissing cousins. If you know them at all, it is probably as the most highly sexed of all the apes, but they are also considered by many to be our closest living relative – closer even than the common chimp. Bonobos seem to live by the principle “make love, not war”. They are very docile towards one another, never aggressive or murderous, and possess many of the psychological traits we value most, including altruism, compassion, empathy, kindness, patience and sensitivity.
How did they get to be so nice?

Think of it this way. Somewhere between 6 and 8 million years ago, our ancestors split from the line that would become today’s two species of chimps. Then around 2.5 million years ago, bonobos and common chimpanzees went their separate ways. Today our human world is characterised by war, oppression and terror. Common chimps also have a reputation for aggression and bloodshed. And then you have the bonobos. Which poses a few questions. How come they have taken such a different evolutionary path? Can they teach us to be more tolerant?
What would it take to turn on our inner bonobo?

The question of how bonobos got to be the way they are has long baffled primatologists. Nobody has been able to put their finger on exactly what makes this ape so different. What is becoming clear now though is that its behaviour is influenced less by its nature – the genes – and more by its environment, culture and learning. What bonobos eat, how they structure their social interactions, and their ability to pass on certain psychological attitudes from one generation to another all seem to play a part. That being so, there may indeed be lessons we can draw about how to make human society more peaceable.

At most, there are a few hundred thousand bonobos left in the wild. They live only in the rainforests of the central Congo basin in DRC. Although their exact distribution is still unknown, the northern extent of their territory is bounded by a loop in the Congo river that forms an impassable barrier. On the face of it, their habitat looks very similar to a chimpanzee’s, although the latter are much more widely distributed (see Map). The habits of the two species couldn’t be more different, though.

When communities of bonobos from different areas of a forest meet, the females of each tribe initiate sex with males from the other. When chimp tribes meet, the encounters are extremely violent and it isn’t unusual for at least a few individuals to end up mauled or even dead. Chimps create despotic male-controlled societies where males beat up females to display dominance. Bonobo society is egalitarian, until it is time to feed, at which point females tend to get preferential access. Tool use is another huge disparity between the two species. Chimps make use of varying tools in different regions to obtain and prepare food. To date, wild bonobos have never been observed using even a single tool.

Then there is the sex. Bonobos are famous for it. Aside from the typical male/female activity, they also engage in more “creative” behaviours: wet kissing, masturbation, oral sex, female/female and male/male couplings, group activities, the list goes on and on. The only restriction seems to be incest between mothers and their children. Chimps by contrast restrict themselves almost entirely to male/female sex and don’t have nearly as much of it as bonobos. What’s more, males are dominant, frequently use food to lure females into having sex with them, and sometimes beat uncooperative females.

Primatologists Gottfried Hohmann and Barbara Fruth from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have been studying bonobos in their natural habitat since 1989. It hasn’t been easy. When they first arrived in DRC there were a thousand obstacles in their way and no infrastructure for them to work with. “We were lucky though,” Hohmann says. “In Congo money buys everything, and this made logistics easier because money was the one thing we had. But even with a lot of money you still need to meet and communicate with the right people.” Fortunately, Hohmann speaks Lingala (the native tongue) and knows the “right” people, allowing his team to establish a permanent presence in what he describes as the most incredible forest on Earth.

Over the years, Hohmann has become convinced that one of the keys to the differences between chimps and bonobos lies in their ecology, more specifically their diet. Jane Goodall revealed that chimps have a taste for meat. Capable predators, Goodall observed them hunting in groups for monkeys, wild pigs and even antelope. Their attacks were anything but swift and merciful. Chimps have been seen slamming monkeys into rocks and then feasting on their flesh. Bonobos, by contrast, were long thought to be entirely vegetarian.
In 1993, though, Hohmann and his colleagues published evidence that they do sometimes hunt, kill and feast communally on other forest mammals, shattering the image of the peaceful herbivore (Folia Primatologica, vol 60, p 225). In recent years it has become clear that the most carnivorous bonobos eat almost as much meat as some chimps. Unlike chimps, however, where males get the lion’s share, bonobo females always control the prey and share it primarily with other females and with youngsters.

Bonobo power bars

Meat is high in protein, and its fat content makes it a rich source of energy. So if bonobos are primarily plant eaters, what are they eating to fulfil their needs? It seems that their particular part of the rainforest is a very well-stocked larder for hungry vegetarians. Studies by Hohmann, Fruth and their group reveal that the plant species bonobos consume are particularly high in nutrients and low in the components that tend to make plants indigestible.

The herb Haumania liebrechtsiana, for example, is unusually rich in protein and unlike most high-protein plants it contains very little indigestible fibre. Hohmann describes it as the “bonobo power bar” and is amazed that a plant that is so regularly feasted upon is not yet extinct.

Chimps do not eat haumania, which is rare or absent in their habitats, and their diet also differs from the bonobo’s in another important way. Hohmann and Fruth have found that vegetation in chimp forests contains significantly higher levels of tannins – noxious chemicals plants often use as a first line of defence against predators, and found in particularly high concentrations in bark, seed coats and other tissues protecting the most nutritious parts.

Chimps expend much time and ingenuity preparing their food to avoid ingesting tannins and similar chemicals. Indeed, many experts including Hohmann believe this was a major driving force in the emergence of tool use in chimps. Bonobo forests do contain tannins, but at much lower levels. As a result, bonobos waste little time preparing food. Add to this the presence of haumania and other nutritious herbs, and their life looks relatively carefree. With no need to make tools or even think too carefully about what plants they eat, feeding time has become a social activity, allowing highly gregarious behaviour to emerge. What’s more, the abundant supply of nutritious vegetation means bonobos have little need to compete for food or to hunt for meat, which the researchers believe contributes greatly to their peaceful lifestyle. Put bluntly, …

“bonobos are nice because the environment they live in is nice”.

Could that really be all there is to it though? Frans de Waal from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, a pioneering researcher of captive chimps and bonobos, thinks not. “Bonobos and chimps under exactly the same captive conditions behave in totally different ways,” he says. Captive bonobos still have more sex and are ruled by females, while chimps maintain their male dominated society and are far more violent. Genetic differences control some of this variation, argues de Waal. For example, the difference in size between males and females is greater in chimps than bonobos. He suspects that this, combined with the fact that bonobo males are poor cooperators – they never work together as male chimps do – has made it possible for female bonobos to gain the upper hand.

De Waal also points to the important matter of advertising sexual readiness. Both bonobo and chimp females do this with genital swellings, but they do it in very different ways. The chimp display is “honest”, occurring only during the few days when females are likely to conceive – about 5 per cent of their lifetime. Bonobo females signal readiness around half of the time, despite the fact that for most of that they cannot conceive. As a result, levels of sexual competition between males of the two species are different.
Among chimps, where time is short and the males know it, there are aggressive fights over who gets to mate. Bonobo males always find plenty of receptive females, so there are few reasons to compete with each other. Hohmann doesn’t deny the physical differences between chimps and bonobos, but maintains that environment is the critical factor explaining their behaviour.

“I cannot believe for a moment that the cultures we see in the wild are hard-wired in their brains,” he says. “Behaviour is the most flexible aspect of these animals.” Bonobos and chimps show tremendous learning abilities, he points out, rapidly adapting to just about any situation. Tool use is a case in point. Cultural learning has led to distinct cultural traditions of tool use in different populations of common chimps. Although bonobos do not use tools in the wild they can easily learn to use them in captivity when the need arises.

“The question to ask is what would happen if bonobos were placed in chimp forests and chimps were placed in bonobo forests?” says Hohmann. There is no doubt that life would become a lot harder for the bonobos. The female alliances would probably crumble as competition for food increased, paving the way for the males to exploit their physical superiority. Necessity might even force them to work together as male chimps do. How the chimps would respond is even more intriguing. If they had access to haumania and food low in tannins would a culture of cooperation emerge, or would a violent male dominated culture endure? Unfortunately, there is no way to answer these questions, but studies at zoos do indicate that chimpanzees flexibly adjust to new environments and are capable of holding their aggression in check.

Studies of other primates also show they can quickly learn to be more or less aggressive as their environment changes. One classic example of this was observed by Robert Sapolsky, now at Stanford University.

Sapolsky was studying a troop of forest dwelling baboons that slept in trees near a tourist lodge in Kenya. In 1981, the lodge’s rubbish dump greatly expanded, and another baboon troop came to live and forage there. By 1982, many males from his forest dwelling troop had started visiting the dump for food. They were no different in age or dominance rank from the other males in their troop, but they were more aggressive – a prerequisite, Sapolsky surmised, to compete with the dump dwelling baboons for food. The following year brought an outbreak of tuberculosis, originating from infected meat in the dump. Over the next few years most garbage-eating baboons died, including all the aggressive forest dwellers. By 1986, troop behaviour had become much more peaceful.

In 1993, Sapolsky revisited the troop and marvelled at the lack of aggression, despite the fact that all the original passive males had died and new males from other troops had moved in to take their place. Remarkably, although these had been raised in distant, typically aggressive baboon troops, they adopted the troop’s passive culture. “My best guess is that having only passive resident males was the key to the appearance of this new culture,” Sapolsky says.

“I think what all of this shows is that if aggression works, any animal will use it. It isn’t an inherited characteristic, ” Hohmann says. The converse is also true. “With the bonobos, team work currently pays off, violence does not. If their environment were to change, so too would their behaviours.”

Where does this leave humans? As primates ourselves are we slaves to our environment or can we rise above it? “Our environment does shape our inner ape,” argues de Waal. “We can cooperate like the bonobos and be competitive like the chimps, but the conditions around us determine which side is seen.” De Waal thinks we tend to judge ourselves too harshly, though. We regularly comment on our chimp-like aggression. “Yet if you look at our hunter-gatherer histories, warfare is actually very uncommon. Even now, war is a rare thing,” he says. “It has been calculated that over the long haul the number of people killed in warfare is actually going down.” In contrast, we never compare ourselves to bonobos. Yet we have a remarkable capacity for peaceful cooperation not just in our daily dealings with each other but also in international organisations – consider, for instance, the ideas upon which the United Nations was founded.

Still, perhaps we can learn from bonobos. If Hohmann is right and they live peaceful and cooperative lives because they can feed without worries, shouldn’t we strive to create environments for humanity that bring out our best traits? After all, we tend to be at our most pugilistic when resources are scarce or unfairly distributed. As for the circumstances that bring out the best in us, if history is any judge, this happens when there is a common threat. “A lot of people suggest that if we had an extraterrestrial enemy that we would all stop fighting each other and work together,” quips de Waal. Aliens notwithstanding, there is already a common threat. Global warming is universal, imminent and life-threatening to millions of people. Perhaps it will be the environmental condition that awakens the bonobo in all of us.