I like a fresh banana in the morning with my breakfast. So do the Great Apes.
Our kids like to be cuddled in mother’s arms. So do Great Ape and other Primate kids.
When we take the time to provide our kids with early literacy training, they can learn the word-letter patterns of their “A-B-C’s” at an early age. Likewise, with a little intense education, the Great Apes also learn that word-letter patterns are not the same as garbled-letter patterns – an understanding that is the first step to literacy.
Biology teaches us we have a lot in common with the other Primates, particularly the Great Apes. Our DNA has a commonality of 98%-99% with the Chimpanzee-members of the Great Apes family. Jane Goodall, famous for her lifetime study of Chimpanzees, is still amazed by our similarities:
“Their biology, their behavior, the way their minds work, their emotions, their personalities — in all these ways, they resemble us so very closely. Even after 53 years that we’ve been studying chimps in Gombe, we’re still learning completely new things because they’re all individual and they all have their own individual life stories.”
Evolutionists tell us that the DNA similarity means Humans and the other Primates are evolution’s fruit, falling at different times from the same family tree. For Creationists, the DNA similarity doesn’t validate evolution at all; rather, it indicates that our Creator, like any good manufacturer, used the same sorts of tools and parts when the earth’s wide varieties of species were assembled. All cars have motors, windows, doors, wheels. So, what’s the big deal if the DNA in the Great Apes and Humans are similar?
Our goal is not to engage in a philosophic or religious debate, but to consider what the “commonality” and the “differentiation” between us and the Primates tells us about ourselves, about what’s important to us as Humans. These sorts of inquiries occupy a good deal of the work of evolutionary biologists and a host of other curious scientists.
Michael Tomasello, Co-Director, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, also a developmental psychologist and experimental primatologist, frames the question that concerns us quite well in his 2009 book, Why We Cooperate:
“One of the great debates in Western civilization is whether Humans are born cooperative and helpful and society later corrupts them, or whether they are born selfish and unhelpful and society teaches them better.”
The idea that we are born cooperative and get messed up by our culture was an idea held by the philosopher Rousseau. The idea we are born selfish and can be taught to be cooperative by culture’s norms and parents’ teachings was an idea held by the philosopher Hobbes.
Baseball’s Infield Fly Rule
To get a perspective on this, let’s take a side-step and start with America’s favorite sport, baseball. On Friday, October 5, 2012, in the 8th inning of a wildcard playoff game, the Atlanta Braves had the bases loaded with one out. The Braves batsman hit a high pop fly that plopped to the ground between the Cardinals’ shortstop and leftfielder. The umpire called baseball’s infield fly rule.
“The “infield fly rule“ is a baseball rule intended to prevent infielders from intentionally dropping pop-ups in order to turn double plays (or triple plays). The rule was introduced to baseball in 1895. Before then, it was common for an infielder to intentionally drop a pop-up so he could force out runners and get double plays. In the Braves game, the batter was called out. The runners couldn’t advance. The Cardinals won the game.
Let’s shift gears – back to 1513, the year Machiavelli published The Prince, his advice to Lorenzo II de’ Medici about how to run his kingdom, which was by consolidating his power and exploiting everyone in his way. According to Machiavelli, there’s a deep cleavage between personal morality and political conduct. When it comes to doing what it takes to be a political winner, dominance and deception are not a wrong; they’re a necessity for any serious prince:
“A prince who wishes to remain in power is often forced to do other than good. … Generally, men judge by eye rather than the hand, for all men can see a thing, but few come close enough to touch it. All men will see what you seem to be; only a few will know what you are.”
Among scientists who study human and non-human primates, Machiavellian Intelligence describes primates’ social intelligence – the “art of manipulation in which others are socially manipulated in a way that the user benefits from it.” Machiavellian Intelligence comes in many flavors, from scapegoating, blaming, lying, and breaking promises to dropping a pop infield fly on purpose.
But that’s why baseball has its infield-fly rule. And that’s why society has most of its laws. We now know Machiavellian Intelligence is built into our system, as part of our “Me” Genes. And if we are to live as a society the free use of our Me Genes needs to be restrained.
Dario Maestripieri, a University of Chicago behavioral biologist, well known for his research and writings about the biology of human and nonhuman primate behavior has written two profoundly illuminating books about Machiavellian Intelligence: “Machiavellian Intelligence: How Rhesus Macaques and Humans Have Conquered the World” and “Games Primates Play: An Undercover Investigation of the Evolution and Economics of Human Relationships”.
Machiavellian Intelligence, which Maestripieri politely calls “Social Opportunism,” is a modus operandi of Chimpanzees and Rhesus monkeys as well as us Humans in most all of the aspects of our social relationships, not just baseball.
Maestripieri points out that Rhesus monkeys and Humans are “weed species.” Weeds are survivors in almost any environment. So are Rhesus monkeys and Humans. That takes special adaptability. And Machiavellian intelligence is one of those special adaptability tools that allows intruding weed species like Humans and Rhesus monkeys to be the survivors. In a Science News interview, Maestripieri said:
“After humans, rhesus macaques are one of the most successful primate species on our planet. … What rhesus macaques and humans may have in common is that many of their psychological and behavioral dispositions have been shaped by intense competition between individuals and groups during the evolutionary history of these species. Our Machiavellian intelligence is not something we can be proud of, but it may be the secret of our success.”
When Primates live by competition, like Humans who champion Darwinian economics and competitive, life-defining “climbs-to-the-top,” Machiavellian Intelligence is an important “survival of the fittest” skill. When it’s “all about me,” and my ability to produce offspring or wealth while I maintain dominance, being able to manipulate and deceive predators and competitors, even if the effort stresses me, provides a reasonable “cost-benefit” result from an evolutionary point of view – it saves time, resources, and the pain of a fight. Of course, concerned societies try to increase the cost of Machiavellian conduct through tough rules, jail-time and other legal penalties; but frequently, political lobbying gets in the way and the cost to Machiavellians remains low. Certainly, there is no indication that the use of Machiavellian Intelligence is about to disappear.
The “Me” and “We” Genes
Humans split off from our last common ancestor with the Chimpanzees about 6-8 million years ago, a moment on the calendar of infinite time. In the last 100,000 years or so we went from small family groups to hunter and gatherer groups, which included non-family members. Accepting strangers into the mix was a challenge, but this may have been a key turning point in Human evolution, moving us further from Chimps. All Primates, including the Great Apes and Humans, are nepotistic. Our first inclination is to take care of our own. We don’t trust outsiders. But, over time, the nepotism that bound families together was expanded to the group we were “in.” But we never found a way to love those “other guys.” It’s not only chimps that war on their neighbors, over recorded history Humans have been in perpetual war.
In 1968 Will Durant wrote in his Lessons of History:
“In the last 3,421 years of recorded history, only 268 have seen no war.”
Not much has changed for the better since 1968.
But what had changed is that about 10,000 years ago, hunters and gatherers discovered how to domesticate animals and plants. That led to agriculture, trade and the development of large communities that were not nepotistic. And this change began to solidify our “We Gene,” our young, cooperative, altruistic gene, to go along with the “Me Gene” with its Machiavellian footprint wired into our brains millions of years ago. Simply put, if we are to survive by living in communities of strangers, there has to be some consideration of others who are not family members. That’s the task of the We Gene.
The Chimpanzees and the other non-Human Primates also have the We and the Me Genes, but the Me Gene shapes their lives and social relationships more than the We Gene. Among non-Human Primates, the We Gene comes to the fore primarily for “kin,” but rarely for non-family members. For Humans, cooperation and altruism worked their way into our biological makeup. But for the We Gene to be the prime architect of our conduct, it has to prevail over the ever-present, much older Me Gene. And that’s tough.
The study of the Me Gene – We Gene conflict has received a lot of scientific attention in the past few decades. Its been the life work of Michael Tomasello, and I encourage you to download and read his Why We Cooperate [pdf]. A recent Tomasello talk about Chimpanzee and Human altruism and cooperation is posted at the end of this blog as part of our “Extra Credits.”
Points worthy of consideration
1. We may share 98%-99% of our DNA with Chimpanzees, but that provides a lot of room for difference. As Katie Pollard, PhD at the UCSF Department of Epidemiology puts it:
“Only one in 100 base pairs is different, which doesn’t sound like much. But when you consider that the genome is 3 billion base pairs long, that means there are 15 million human-specific letters of code that are not shared by the chimp.”
2. Altruism, the “Thee” component of the We Gene has been identified scientifically.
Altruism is a concern for the welfare of others. Altruism is the “Golden Rule” component of our We Gene. The altruism gene is a variant of the oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene. People with one version of this gene, the GG variant, experience high levels of empathy, positive emotions, and sociality. Plus, they exhibit more prosocial behavior. Individuals with an AA variant have lower levels of positive emotions, empathy and parental sensitivity.
The important point is that all of us have OXTR, but some of us have more of the GG variant and some of us have more of the AA variant, propensities that are “wired” within us, giving us different perspectives. The GG and the AA variants we inherit shape more than our inclination to make charitable contributions. They are forces shaping of our political views and openness to experiences.
Duke Professor Mark Leary provides a provocative insight in his “Great Courses” lectures, Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior:
“One of the biggest surprises in behavioral genetics was the discovery that attitudes and values also have genetic underpinnings. Traditionally, psychologists have assumed that values and character traits – such as integrity and compassion -are instilled by parents, teachers, and religions. In part, they are, but there is also genetic influences. … About 60% of the variability that we see in basic political attitudes has a genetic component.”
That’s the basis underlying Bill Moyers’ program How do Conservatives and Liberals See the World?
Our genes also appear to be a defining factor in career selection. Why else are only 6% of scientists politically conservative? Our wiring may also explain why our beliefs trump reality, and why we have such difficulty accepting facts that conflict with our beliefs.
Bruce G. Charlton, MD, summarized our political plight in the Journal of Psychology when he wrote in his article, Injustice, inequality and Evolutionary Psychology:
“[E]ach side of the political spectrum has grasped some part of the truth about human nature in relation to the social instincts. However, both also deny the fundamental nature of those elements of human nature which conflict with their overall moral scheme.”
We will return to this later.
3. Children collaborators have a keen sense of fairness and sharing at a very young age that Chimps do not have. In a University of Washington study, babies as young as 15 months were able to perceive the difference between equal and unequal distributions and the perception was linked to their willingness to share toys.
From the studies, it’s clear that although babies and children have a strong and demanding Me Gene, they also have a strong and willing We Gene. Babies are born to be helpful.
Professor Colwyn Trevarthen’s work has explored just how early babies demonstrate their cooperativeness and desire to become accepted community members. Her conclusion a baby’s quest begins at birth, if not before. At six months the baby is a proud performer. By nine months, the baby is a keen imitator.
Babies want to become part of their culture early on. Babies can’t have companionship with objects; they want community and people. A baby’s curiosity is beyond what parents can teach. The real teaching comes from company – siblings, parents and other children of different ages. What the human brain is looking for are engagements, relationships and companionships.
4. The importance of community and the impossibility of “going it alone” were stressed by Tomasello in Human Culture in Evolutionary Perspective:
“It is also clear that no human could do any of the complex things he or she does with a biological predisposition alone; that is to say, no human could invent any of the complex cognitive practices and products of the species without a preexisting cultural world within which to grow and learn. A biologically intact human child born outside of any human culture — with no one to imitate, no one to teach him or her things, no language, no preexisting tools and practices, no symbol systems, no institutions, and so forth — also would not develop normal social-cognitive skills. Both biology and culture are necessary parts of the process.”
We may be born prepared for cooperation and altruism, but, as Stanford’s Carol Dweck cautions in Tomasello’s Why We Cooperate, whether or not those characteristics flourish is dependent on experience and experience comes from community. Children who have been helped respond with empathy to distressed peers; abused children respond with anger, threats and physical assault, overriding the helpfulness wired into the child’s We Genes.
Patricia Churchland, a neurophilosopher, has researched and written extensively on the biological basis for morality. Her most recent book is Brain Trust, where she advises us: Our genes are the biological platform for the development of Human values, and without that platform our culture would not be able to play its role in shaping our morality. Morality is not the sole product of reason, or of emotion, or of society. Morality is founded in our genes, guiding us as to how to take care of ourselves and to live successfully in society.
Yes, it’s clear our abilities and our choices are shaped by our genes. The fact that we have We Genes and Me Genes, and some of us are influenced more by our We Genes than the Me Genes and some of us are influenced more by our Me Genes than our We Genes, should be a clear harbinger that we are armed with Me Genes and We Genes because each is essential for our survival and success.
Dr. Charlton‘s conclusion about politics, “[E]ach side of the political spectrum has grasped some part of the truth about human nature in relation to the social instincts. However, both also deny the fundamental nature of those elements of human nature which conflict with their overall moral scheme,” extends to all aspects of life.
Machiavelli’s conclusion in The Prince points the way:
“If fortune is the arbiter of half our actions, she still allows us to control the other half.”
It‘s the balance we achieve through our control of the “other half” that will ultimately determine our success, individually and as a society.
To achieve that balance, there must be dialogue, thoughtful and considerate discussion, between those of us shaped more by our Me Genes with those of us shaped more by our We Genes. Each must listen, carefully consider, understand the value offered by the other and work toward cooperative solutions – in politics and the rest of life.
Who was right? Rousseau or Hobbes? Or were they both a little bit right?
Michael Tomasello: Why We Cooperate
Colwyn Trevarthen: Human Nature and Early Experience
Patricia Churchland on Neurophilosophy and What Neurophilosophy tells us about Morality
Maestripieri: Games Primates Play:
The video is a summary of an hour discussion found at:
Orangutan Cools Off Like a Human: