Click on the cover to link to OUP's e-catalogue then turn to the biology section.

Interview Podcast with George Miller

Interview Podcast with George Miller
Click on the pic to link to the NOT A CHIMP podcast on Blackwell's Website

Preface to "Not A Chimp: The Hunt For The Genes That Make Us Human"

In many ways, this book is born out of frustration for a professional career in popular science television where ideas about comparative primate cognition, and the similarities and differences between us and our primate relatives, have continually circled me but constantly evaded my grasp in terms of the opportunity to transform them into science documentary. On the plus side, keeping a watching brief for over a quarter of a century on subjects like comparative animal cognition and evolution allows you to watch a great deal of water flow under the bridge. Fashions come and fashions go - specifically, perspectives on the similarity - or otherwise - of human and ape minds.

I remember the first Horizon science documentary about the chimpanzee Washoe, the great ape communicator, using American Sign Language to bridge the species barrier. And, later, Kanzi the bonobo jabbing his lexicon. These were the apes, as Sue Savage-Rumbaugh has put it, that were "on the brink of the human mind".

I remember when the pre-print of Machiavellian Intelligence, by Andrew Whiten and Dick Byrne, plopped onto the doormat of the BBC Antenna science series office in 1988. Suddenly primatology had become a great deal more exciting. Could primates, and especially higher primates like chimpanzees, really be as full of guile, as dastardly, as cunning, and as manipulative as the eponymous Florentine politician? Could they really reach deep into the minds of other individuals to see what they believed and what they wanted, and turn that information into deception?

I remember discussing primate cognition with a young Danny Povinelli, as we sat finger-feeding ourselves shrimp gumbo and new potatoes out of plastic Tupperware containers in a Lafayette restaurant surrounded by an alligator-infested moat, before returning to his kingdom - the New Iberia Research Centre - where the University of Louisiana had lured him back to his native deep South by turning a chimpanzee breeding centre for medical laboratory fodder into a primate cognition laboratory with one of the largest groups of captive chimpanzees in the country. He looked like a kid who had just been thrown the keys to the tuck shop.

In those days Povinelli shared the zeitgeist - spread by Whiten's and Byrne's work, and started by Nick Humphrey and Alison Jolly before them - that, since the most exacting and potentially treacherous environment faced by chimpanzees and other primates was not physical, but the social environment of their peers, they had evolved a form of social cognition very much like our own, in order to deal with it. This was further elaborated into a full-blown "social brain" hypothesis by Robin Dunbar, who related brain neocortex size to social group size throughout the primates and up to man. Povinelli's early work reflects this optimism for the mental life of apes, but both ape-language and ape-cognition research was subjected to a cold douche of searching criticism during the 1990s, and misgivings set in regarding the effectiveness of the experiments that had been constructed to guage ape cognition. Now the worm has turned again, with a number of research groups emerging with bolder and bolder claims for the Machiavellian machinations of primate minds, only to be powerfully countered by the curmudgeonly skepticism, chiefly by Povinelli, that these researchers are merely projecting their mental life onto that of their subjects; that, rather in the frustrating manner of Zeno's arrow that could never quite reach its target because it continually halved its distance to it, no experiment constructed thus far can actually get inside the mind of a chimp and show us exactly what it does and doesn't know, or how much, about the minds of others or the way the physical world works. One influential part of the world of comparative animal cognition talks of a continuum between ape and human minds and shrinks the cognitive distance between us and chimps to almost negligible proportions, while another returns us to the unfashionable idea that human cognition is unique, among the primates, after all.

When I began writing this book the working title was "The 1.6% that makes us human". My aim had always been to scrutinize the impression put about in the popular science media that humans and chimps differ by a mere 1.6% in our genetic code - or even less - and that it therefore makes complete sense that this minuscule genetic difference translates into equally small differences in cognition and behaviour between apes and man. However, contemporary genome science and technology, over the last few years, have dramatically advanced the power and resolution with which scientists can investigate genomes, eclipsing the earlier days of genomic investigation that gave rise to the "1.6% mantra".

As with comparative cognitive studies, conclusions on chimp-human similarity and difference in genome research depend crucially on perspective. To look at the complete set of human chromosomes, side by side with chimpanzee chromosomes, at the level of resolution of a powerful light microscope, for instance, is to be overwhelmed by the similarity between them. Overwhelmed with a sense of how close our kinship is with the other great apes. True, our chromosome 2 is a combination of two chimp chromosomes - giving humans a complement of 23 chromosome pairs to 24 in chimps, gorillas and orang-utans - but even here you can see exactly where the two chimp chromosomes have fused to produce one. The banding patterns you visualize by staining the chromosomes match up with astonishing similarity - and that banding similarity extends to many of the other chromosomes in the two genomes. However, look at a recent map of the chromosomes of chimps and humans, aligned side by side, produced by researchers who have mapped all inversions - end-on-end flips of large chunks of DNA - and the chromosomes are all but blotted out by a blizzard of red lines denoting inverted sequence. Now you become overwhelmed by how much structural change has occurred between the two genomes in just 6 million years. True, not all inversions result in changes in the working of genes - but many do - and inversions might even have been responsible for the initial divergence of chimp ancestor from human ancestor.

The extent to which you estimate the difference between chimp and human genomes depends entirely on where you look and how deeply. Modern genomics technology has led us deep into the mine that is the genome and has uncovered an extraordinary range of genetic mechanisms, many of which have one thing in common. They operate to promote variability - they amplify differences between individuals in one species. We now know, for instance, that each human is less genetically identical to anyone else than we thought only three years ago. When we compare human genomes to chimpanzee genomes these mechanisms magnify genetic distance still further. I have tried, in this book, to follow in the footsteps of these genome scientists as they dig deeper and deeper into the "Aladdin's Cave" of the genome. At times the going gets difficult. Scientists, like any explorers, are prone to taking wrong turnings, getting trapped in thickets, and covering hard ground, before breaking through into new insights. I hope that those of you who recoil from genetics with all the visceral horror with which many regard the sport of pot-holing will steel yourselves and follow me as far as I have dared to go into Aladdin's Cave. For only then will you see the riches within and begin to appreciate, as I have, just how limited popular accounts of human-chimpanzee genetic difference really are. Let me try and persuade you that this is a journey, if a little arduous at times, that is well worth taking.

There are a number of scientists around the world who have the breadth and the vision to have begun the task of rolling genetics, comparative animal cognition, and neuroscience into a comprehensive new approach to the study of human nature and this is part, at least, of their story. They strive to describe the nature of humans in terms of the extent to which we are genuinely different to chimpanzees and the other great apes. Somehow, over 6 million years, we humans evolved from something that probably resembled a chimpanzee (though we cannot yet be entirely sure) and the answer to our evolution has to lie in a growing number of structural changes in our genome, versus that of the chimpanzee, that have led to the evolution of a large number of genes that have, effectively, re-designed our brains and led to our advanced and peculiar human cognition.

If you don't believe me, hand this book to your nearest friendly chimpanzee and see what he makes of it!

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Seven-month-old babies can 'read minds'

Fascinating article about recent research suggesting that babies as young as 7 months have substantial understanding of beliefs - i.e. are far more advanced, far earlier, with respect to "theory of mind" than we thought they were. Because babies this young cannot verbalise, the experiments take advantage of a protocol that measures how long an individual looks at a scene portrayed on a screen. The more it violates some rule the more interesting they will find it and they will gaze longer. However, read the very important caveats at the end of the paper, including a very important constructive criticism by Alison Gopnik.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Structure deep within the brain may contribute to a rich, varied social life

In my chapter INSIDE THE BRAIN I point out the importance of the amygdala, alongside other brain structures, for social intelligence - or the processing of information and stimuli of a particularly social relevance. In this article, several Boston-based brain researchers have correlated amygdala size with the number and complexity of an individual's social networks. As the final paragraph says:

"A member of the the Martinos Center at MGH, Barrett also notes that the results of the study were consistent with the "social brain hypothesis," which suggests that the human amygdala might have evolved partially to deal with an increasingly complex social life. "Further research is in progress to try to understand more about how the amygdala and other brain regions are involved in social behavior in humans," she says. "We and other researchers are also trying to understand how abnormalities in these brain regions may impair social behavior in neurologic and psychiatric disorders.""

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Anne Pusey's Leakey Foundation Lecture


2010 marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Louis Leakey sending Jane Goodall to Gombe Stream, in Tanzania, to begin her groundbreaking study of chimpanzees in the wild. The chimpanzee behavioral research she pioneered there has produced a wealth of scientific discovery. This significant and vital part of scientific history will be celebrated by The Leakey Foundation, in partnership with the California Academy of Sciences. Anne Pusey, former Director of Jane Goodall Institute's Center for Primate Studies, will discuss this important project, which spans 50 years and is still running today.

Dr. Pusey reviews how the Gombe study has revealed the basic structure of chimpanzee society, the nature of social relationships within and between the sexes, life history patterns, and how these resemble and differ from those of humans.

Despite 50 years of study, chimpanzees are slow to give up their secrets and continue to surprise us. Pusey will discuss how long-term data, coupled with new technologies, have facilitated investigations of previously intractable questions and how new observations of unexpected behavior continually generate new questions.

The evening is illustrated with rarely seen archival photographs, video and recent stories of the Gombe chimpanzees.

Sticks appear as “dolls” in hands of chimps

Interesting short piece about a recent publication by Richard Wrangham and his research group in Uganda. It appears that young females - solely in this chimp community (it has never been noticed anywhere else) - carry sticks as young human females carry dolls. The practice ceases when they become pregnant for the first time. Here is the bounce, courtesy of Cell Press and World Science.

"Young chimpanzees, and most often females, at a national park in Uganda some times play with sticks in a way reminiscent of the way chil­dren play with dolls, scientists are reporting.

The practice might turn out to be the first case among animals “of a tradition maintained just among the young, like nursery rhymes and some games in human children,” said Harvard University researcher Rich ard Wrangham. “This would suggest that chimpanzee behavioral traditions are even more like those in humans than previously thought.”

But he added that the stick-playing is relatively rare, and undocumented in other chimp communities. The findings, by Wrangham and col­leagues, are published in the Dec. 21 issue of the research journal Current Biology.

This is “the first evidence of an animal species in the wild in which object play differs between males and females,” said Wrangham. The gender difference in chimps’ apparent “doll” play also fits the pattern seen across human cultures, he added—suggesting it stems from “bio­logical predilections” rather than socialization.

Although both young male and female chimps play with sticks, females do so more often, and they occasionally treat them like mother chimps tending their infants, the researchers said. Earlier studies of captive monkeys had also suggested a biological influence on toy choice, accord ing to Wrangham and colleagues: when young monkeys are offered sex-stereo typed human toys, females gravitate toward dolls, whereas males tend to go for “boys’ toys” such as trucks.

The new findings are based on 14 years of studies of the Kanyawara chimpanzee community at Uganda’s Kibale National Park. Wrangham and co author Sonya Kahlenberg of Bates College in Maine found that chimpanzees use sticks in four main ways: as probes to investigate holes potentially containing water or honey, as props or weapons in aggressive encounters, during solitary or social play, and in a behavior the re searchers call stick-carrying.

Wrangham said they had seen stick-carrying from time to time over the years and suspected females were doing it the most. Detailed investi­gation has confirmed that, they added. “We thought that if the sticks are being treated like dolls, females would carry sticks more than males do and should stop carrying sticks when they have their own babies,” Wrangham said. “Both of these points are correct.”

Young females some times took their sticks into day-nests where they rested and some times played with them casually in a manner that evoked maternal play, the researchers reported.

It’s not yet clear whether this form of play is common in chimpanzees, the researchers say. In fact, no one has previously reported stick-car­rying as a form of play, despite consider ble interest among chimpanzee researchers in describing object use. “This makes us suspect that stick-carrying is a social tradition that has sprung up in our community and not others,” Wrangham said.

Because stick-carrying is uncommon even in the Kanyawara chimps that Wrang ham and Kahlenberg studied, they said, they won’t be sure until researchers study ing other communities report its absence. They note that chimp play is generally poorly documented because chimp communities are usually small with few youngsters at any one time."

Fearless Woman Lacks Key Part of Brain

The role of the amygdala in social intelligence is well known. It is very important in estimating the emotional valency of facial expressions, for instance - are they happy, angry or sad? It is also the low-level receptor area in the brain for sights of disgust like blood, faeces etc. which are eventually processed into moral emotions. It should be very active when a person is presented with animals to which we humans seem to have evolved phobias - like snakes and spiders. In this fascinating case study a woman who was apparently fearless when presented with these stimuli was found to not have functioning amygdalae. It would be interesting, to me at least, to know whether or not she suffered from any moral deficits.

Genetic and ‘cultural’ similarity in wild chimpanzees

Does chimpanzee behaviour, and does chimpanzee cultural variation track differences in the environment - ecological differences - or are they better explained by genetic heterogeneity? Or a combination of both? In this paper a celestial group of ape researchers including Bernhard Langer, Anne Pusey, Richard Wrangham, Christophe Boesch and John Mitani allow the possibility that genetic differences may be very important after all. Here's the abstract:


The question of whether animals possess ‘cultures’ or ‘traditions’ continues to generate widespread theoretical and empirical interest. Studies of wild chimpanzees have featured prominently in this discussion, as the dominant approach used to identify culture in wild animals was first applied to them. This procedure, the ‘method of exclusion,’ begins by documenting behavioural differences between groups and then infers the existence of culture by eliminating ecological explanations for their occurrence. The validity of this approach has been questioned because genetic differences between groups have not explicitly been ruled out as a factor contributing to between-group differences in behaviour. Here we investigate this issue directly by analysing genetic and behavioural data from nine groups of wild chimpanzees. We find that the overall levels of genetic and behavioural dissimilarity between groups are highly and statistically significantly correlated. Additional analyses show that only a very small number of behaviours vary between genetically similar groups, and that there is no obvious pattern as to which classes of behaviours (e.g. tool-use versus communicative) have a distribution that matches patterns of between-group genetic dissimilarity. These results indicate that genetic dissimilarity cannot be eliminated as playing a major role in generating group differences in chimpanzee behaviour.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Library Journal Votes "Not A Chimp" One Of The Top Science Books Of 2010

A nice fillip just before Christmas to know that "Library Journal" in the US has voted NOT A CHIMP one of the best science books of 2010.

Monday, 22 November 2010


I had a very enjoyable trip up to Leeds on Saturday to address the Leeds group of the debating organization Skeptics In The Pub. I drew a goodish crowd of well over 40 people and there was a lively Q and A after the talk. Stomping up and down the country to give numerous talks in aid of Not A Chimp over the last year or so has really opened my eyes to the quality and vigour of numerous skeptical debating societies up and down the country - and particularly in the north of England. Got to be healthy! The Leeds organiser, Chris Worfolk, has given the talk a very pleasing write-up. Here's his last para:

"It was a fascinating talk and one that I really enjoyed. I think the real gem of this month’s topic was that many people at the meeting probably didn’t subscribe to Jeremy’s side of the argument, at least beforehand. It is easy for us to preach to the converted on clearly nonsense topics such as homeopathy but I think there is far more to be gained from talks such as this which really challenge our thinking."

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Recently Read: Not A Chimp by Jeremy Taylor

A nice review for the genetics part of not a chimp from genomics scientist Norman Johnson, with comments on cognition and behaviour from the book to come in later posts:

"As the title suggests, Jeremy Taylor's main thesis in Not a Chimp is that humans are not chimps and chimps are not humans, despite the apparent genetic similarity of these two primates. Taylor, who has had a long career in producing science documentaries, supports this claim from studies in two broad areas: genetics and behavior. In this first post, I'll discuss some of the genetic data. Later, I will cover the behavioral/psychological studies.

Taylor begins with some of the genes that differ between humans and chimpanzees and that show the signature of positive selection operating as these genes changed along the positive lineage. This is much-travelled ground; many books, including my own, have covered what we have learned about these genes. Still, Taylor brings new insight. For instance, consider the much-discussed FOXP2 gene. This gene, which has been touted by some as "the language gene", plays some role in language, speech, motor control, and possibly other aspects of cognition in humans. We know this based on studies of the KE family from the U. K., in which a mutation affecting those phenotypes is transmitted as an autosomal dominant allele. This gene has become of interest to evolutionary biologists because the amino acid of the protein it encodes has evolved more since humans diverged from chimpanzees than it has since primates diverged from rodents. Such a pattern, along with other evidence, strongly supports the hypothesis that positive selection has acted on this gene. But what does the gene do? Here's where Taylor shines. He presents the backstory showing the debates linguists, cognitive scientists, and others had during the 1980s and 1990s (long before we knew about the gene!) regarding the nature of the phenotypes affected by the mutation in the KE family. Taylor also does an important service reminding us that the mutation in the KE family is not one of the changes that have occurred at FOXP2 between humans and chimps.

In addition to the structural genes that differ between humans and chimps, we also differ in regulatory sequences. These regulatory sequences affect the expression (the amount of protein produced) of genes, both in space and in time. As Taylor presents, it turns out that we and chimpanzees differ substantially in gene expression. Such differences are most pronounced in the brain. We also differ - to a surprising extent- in the number of copies of genes that we have. Such copy number variation (CNV) is one of the major findings in human genomics in the past five years. Exactly how CNV affects phenotypes is still being worked out, but some cases are already known. For instance, CNV in specific genes affects susceptibility to progressing to full-blown AIDS after HIV exposure. The regulatory differences and CNV between humans and chimps shows that we are not as genetically similar to the other apes as we once thought we were.


Taylor, J. Not a Chimp: The Hunt to Find the Genes that Make Us Human. Oxford University Press (2009)."

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Battle of Ideas Debate on "Should Apes Have Rights/"

I was an invited speaker yesterday at a debate at the annual Battle of Ideas, run at the Royal College of Art in central London. Speaking against the motion I was aligned with Spiked editor Helene Guldberg whose book "Just Another Ape? has just come out, and Tipu Aziz, professor of neurosurgery at Oxford, who uses a lot of monkeys in his research to patent methods of direct electrode stimulation of the brain to cure Parkinsons. For the motion were veteran rights campaigner Richard Ryder - the man who coined the term "painism", and lawyer David Thomas. The debate was chaired by Stuart Derbyshire - a researcher, ironically, on pain, at the University of Birmingham.

I argued that recent cognitive psychology research suggests very strongly that humans are, as many of us of course suspect, genuinely exceptional with regards to what our minds can do - and far less genetically close to chimps than apes' rights campaigners would like us to believe. Ryder did not dispute that, but did dispute the idea that this gave us any reason to value ourselves more than the rest of the animal kingdom. His "painism" idea is a level playing field that requires us to extend rights to all creatures that we believe can feel pain. Both he and Thomas seemed at pains to suggest that they were not talking about rights in the law court, international statute sense of the word - but in a wider and more general sense of having interests that we should be aware of and protect. They were thus dodging the issue that "rights" in the hard legal sense is exactly what their colleagues in the Great Ape Project have been pursuing for apes in three legislatures recently - the government of the Balearics, New Zealand, and in the International Court of Human Rights in the Hague. Both Thomas and Ryder punted the old Peter SInger argument that tiny children or the very old - with Alzheimers disease - have rights even though they are incapable of fully understanding what they are - like chimpanzees - so why make an exception for humans? I have always found this attempt to equilibrate normal chimps with human elderly and mentally frail as particularly repugnant - doing no justice to either species - and it is also irrelevant because we know that infants will eventually grow into the fully functional adults that elderly people with Alzheimers disease once were. It seems to me that if you are going to talk about rights - flawed and often un-workable concept that it may be in human society - you have to talk about them in a legislative statute-book sense otherwise the whole debate lacks focus and what you are really talking about is "being nice to nature". And if you are talking about rights in the hard sense then obviously this is a farce with regard to non-human primates and other animals because they can have no concept of what a right is, cannot fight for them or defend them, and have no concept of the obligations to society that attends them.

Friendships Moderate an Association between a Dopamine Gene Variant and Political Ideology

In my chapter the ape that domesticated itself I strive toward a bio-social theory for humans and invoke recent work on a number of variants of prominent neuro-transmitters. These cases are prime examples of the subtle ways in which we are discovering that genes and the cultural environment interact to produce a number of behavioural phenotypes in human populations. I mention the 4R and 7R variants of the dopamine receptor at great length and in this fascinating paper the authors take these dopamine receptor variants into the realm of politics - specifically pointing out that a combination of the long 7R allele of DRD4 and a strong and functional circle of friends will produce a person with liberal tendencies. Heres the abstract:

"Scholars in many fields have long noted the importance of social context in the development of political ideology. Recent work suggests that political ideology also has a heritable component, but no specific gene variant or combination of variants associated with political ideology have so far been identified. Here, we hypothesize that individuals with a genetic predisposition toward seeking out new experiences will tend to be more liberal, but only if they are embedded in a social context that provides them with multiple points of view. Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, we test this hypothesis by investigating an association between self-reported political ideology and the 7R variant of the dopamine receptor D4 gene (DRD4), which has previously been associated with novelty seeking. Among those with DRD4-7R, we find that the number of friendships a person has in adolescence is significantly associated with liberal political ideology. Among those without the gene variant, there is no association. This is the first study to elaborate a specific gene-environment interaction that contributes to ideological self-identification, and it highlights the importance of incorporating both nature and nurture into the study of political preferences."

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

"Almost A Chimpanzee" Coming Soon

Interesting US book review for Jon Cohen's "Almost A Chimpanzee" which we should see on our UK Amazon in early December. Cohen's take on chimps and humans is entirely complementary to my own and, although there is inevitably significant overlap, it sounds as if its going to be a lively read. The last para of the review is telling - and I approve!

"The impossibility of a humanzee pleases Cohen, of course, who would rather us view chimps as very distant cousins. He tellingly quotes an American zookeeper, who told him, "Chimps are not imperfect human beings. They are perfect chimps."

Monday, 18 October 2010

Trouble In The Monkey House

A readable, if slightly confusing, article in the NY Times by Jennifer Schuessler, in which she conflates the downfall of comparative psychologist Marc Hauser, amid accusations of data-rigging, with a review of Sara Gruen's new novel "Ape House", and, much more pertinent to readers of this blog, the new book "Almost A Chimpanzee" by science writer Jon Cohen. Part of it revolves around the contrast between Gruen's starry-eyed interpretation of her meeting with "language competent" bonobos, and Cohen's more realistic account of their limitations as human linguists. Cohen's book is due to be published in the UK in December and, well-written, should prove to be entirely complementary to NOT A CHIMP, and Helene Guldberg's JUST ANOTHER APE? That worm is turning fast!

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Serotonin selectively influences moral judgment and behavior through effects on harm aversion

In my chapter INSIDE THE BRAIN I look at the picture that is beginning to emerge of the way gene variants, the environment (particularly of childhood upbringing), and neurotransmitters affects our moral behaviour. I also deal with the way in which the moral decisions we make depend on the input of basic emotional signals like fear and disgust which are massaged into moral decisions by higher order parts of the brain's neo-cortex, especially the ventro-medial pre-frontal cortex (VMPC). An international team of scientists, lead author Molly Crockett from Cambridge, has just reported on the role of serotonin in these processes by its activity in these crucial components of the "social brain" - the amygdala, insula and VMPC. The abstract below tells you what you need to know and this paper is open access in PNAS.

"Aversive emotional reactions to real or imagined social harms infuse moral judgment and motivate prosocial behavior. Here, we show that the neurotransmitter serotonin directly alters both moral judgment and behavior through increasing subjects’ aversion to personally harming others. We enhanced serotonin in healthy volunteers with citalopram (a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) and contrasted its effects with both a pharmacological control treatment and a placebo on tests of moral judgment and behavior. We measured the drugs' effects on moral judgment in a set of moral 'dilemmas' pitting utilitarian outcomes (e.g., saving five lives) against highly aversive harmful actions (e.g., killing an innocent person). Enhancing serotonin made subjects more likely to judge harmful actions as forbidden, but only in cases where harms were emotionally salient. This harm-avoidant bias after citalopram was also evident in behavior during the ultimatum game, in which subjects decide to accept or reject fair or unfair monetary offers from another player. Rejecting unfair offers enforces a fairness norm but also harms the other player financially. Enhancing serotonin made subjects less likely to reject unfair offers. Furthermore, the prosocial effects of citalopram varied as a function of trait empathy. Individuals high in trait empathy showed stronger effects of citalopram on moral judgment and behavior than individuals low in trait empathy. Together, these findings provide unique evidence that serotonin could promote prosocial behavior by enhancing harm aversion, a prosocial sentiment that directly affects both moral judgment and moral behavior."

Monday, 4 October 2010

Can Rhesus Macaques Pass The Mirror Test?

Some 40 or more years ago, American psychologist Gordon Gallup came up with a mirror test for self-awareness that could be applied across a whole range of species. In the classic versions of the experiment, primates, say, were anaethetised before a small dab of red dye was placed on their forehead. Measurements were then taken, on recovery, to compare their behaviour with their reflections in a mirror. A greater incidence of movements of hands to forehead to investigate the area around the spot suggested to researchers that the animals concerned had some concept of self-awareness - "Look that's me!" Higher primates like chimps could pass the test, as has one elephant to date. But, so far, no monkeys have ever demonstrated they can pass the mirror test. If the test really did test for self-awareness, any animal which passed it would have dissolved one major cognitive barrier between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom, however, the test has always been criticized because not all researchers are convinced that body awareness is the same as self-awareness. That there is a difference between examination of one's body and a deeper sense of knowledge of oneself as a psychological entity with inner mental states. This "The Scientist" piece comments on some recent work reported in PLoS 1 where rhesus monkeys are held to have passed the mirror test for the first time. Instead of having red blobs of paint on their heads, these monkeys had already been implanted with electronic terminals for experimentation. Would they react to the sight of the terminals in a mirror? Although they did indeed react as if to satisfy the test, the experiment has drawn criticism, including some from the originator of the original test - Gordon Gallup. Gallup says this experiment is un-interpretable because the monkeys could feel the implant as well as see it - whereas , in his test, this was controlled for because the only way the monkeys could be aware of the paint mark was by seeing it. SO, for the time being, for several reasons the question of whether or not monkeys have any self-awareness remains open.

Since PLoS is a free journal here is the url for the original paper - in case anyone wants to follow it up.

Gene flaw causes small brain

In my chapter BRAIN-BUILDERS I detail the discovery of a number of genes that are implicated in causing microcephaly (small heads). Chief among them, are two genes that have an interesting evolutionary story to tell - Microcephalin and ASPM. Now the same team that did the spadework on those genes, Geoff Woods, now at Cambridge University, and Christopher Walsh at Harvard University Med. School, have identified another microcephaly gene - called WDR62. This gene, like the two mentioned above, is involved in the development of neurons. It will be interesting to see whether chimp-human comparison follows and whether any evidence points to recent positive selection for variants of WDR62.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Could brain abnormalities cause antisocial behavior and drug abuse in boys?

In my chapter INSIDE THE BRAIN I describe the important brain components for social intelligence - the so-called social brain. They include the anterior cingulate cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, amygdaa and insula.Not surprisingly, these very areas are seen to be under-active during decision-making tasks in teenage boys with a history of anti-social behaviour and substance abuse.

"The scientists, including collaborators at the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Maryland, studied 20 adolescent boys. On average they had been on probation 139 of the last 180 days; 19 of the 20 had the psychiatric diagnosis of conduct disorder, and all had diagnoses of substance use disorder. They had been abstinent, however, an average of about five weeks when studied. They were compared with 20 other boys who did not have serious antisocial or drug problems, but who were of similar age, ethnicity, and home neighborhoods.

All played a computerized risk-taking game that repeatedly presented a choice between a cautious and a risky behavior: press the left button and always win one cent, or press the right button and either win five cents or lose ten cents. The scientists examined brain activation with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as the boys decided to press right or left, and then as they experienced wins or losses after right presses.

Brain activation differed dramatically in the two groups. The anterior cingulate cortex monitors changing rewards and punishments, and then sends that information to another brain region (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex), which regulates one's choices among possible behaviors. During decision-making, antisocial boys had significantly less brain activity than normals in both of those regions, and also in other decision-making areas (orbitofrontal cortex, amygdala, insula)."

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The Day-Dreaming Brain

In side my chapter INSIDE THE BRAIN I detail recent work that has looked at the parts of the brain that are surprisingly active when we are in a resting state - day-dreaming - as opposed to being actively engaged in thought or upon some task. Key areas appear to be the medial parietal cortex, including a little-known area called the precuneous - and the medial prefrontal cortex. The latter area is known to become active when you are being reflective, particularly in the social sense of thinking about yourself in relation to others. This PHYSORG article details relevant work by Marcus Raichle on what he calls this default network. As he is reported:

"Raichle suspects that during these moments of errant thought, the brain is forming a set of mental rules about our world, particularly our social world, that help us navigate human interactions and quickly make sense of and react to information -- about a stranger's intentions, a child's next move, a choice before us -- without having to run a complex and conscious calculation of all our values, expectations and beliefs.

Raichle says such mental shortcuts are necessary because the brain cannot possibly take in all the detail available to our senses at any given moment. The default mode network, he proposes, keeps a template handy that lets us assume a lot about ourselves and the people and environment we interact with."

Interestingly these brain areas are very greedy - they have a high metabolic rate; they are disproportionately prone to the tangles of Alzheimers disease - which robs you of memory and a sense of self - while being overly protected in other ways - against stroke damage - by having two discreet sources of blood supply.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Why Hauser Did It

I have posted recently about the sad denouement of Marc Hauser, the Harvard psychology professor mentioned for his work on the evolution of morality in NOT A CHIMP, who has been found guilty by his university of mishandling data in his laboratory. Here is a fascinating essay by Derek Bickerton - famous for his work on language and the evolution of language - and his take on the sorry affair which chimes in perfectly with the sentiments and facts expressed both in NOT A CHIMP and in the complementary recent publication JUST ANOTHER APE? by Helene Guldberg.

Strange Tongue

Starting from language you can get to anywhere.
by Derek Bickerton


Scientific dogma, not Hauser is to blame for misconduct
Published on August 19, 2010

Derek Bickerton is emeritus professor of linguistics at the University of Hawaii; his most recent book is Adam's Tongue: How humans made language, how language made humans (2009).

By now everyone's heard that Marc Hauser, Harvard Professor of Psychology, known for his work on cognition in monkeys and on the evolution of morality, has been under investigation by Harvard for scientific misconduct. And despite Harvard's stonewalling, an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reveals that his misconduct went far beyond mere sloppy record-keeping.

At first, the whole affair seems baffling. You can understand why some over-ambitious post-doc or some aging and so-far-unsuccessful researcher might try to tweak Nature in order to achieve their dreams, But Hauser is a still relatively young yet already world-famous scientist who appeared to be at the top of his game. Why on earth would he do it?

The answer to that question turns out to be key in understanding the last half-century of the behavioral sciences and the forces that drove it. Hauser was simply a victim of those forces. And here's why.

For half a century, a major goal of the behavioral sciences has been to show that the differences between humans and other animals are in reality much less than they had seemed to previous generations. Two powerful forces combined to support that effort, one biological, one ideological. The biological force was the gradualness of evolution, which changed imperceptibly from a reasonable general rule into a dogma. If evolution happened always through a series of tiny steps, then there should not be any significant gaps between the abilities of related species. In light of this belief, the huge apparent gaps in language and cognition between humans and any other species constituted an acute embarrassment. If one could show that those gaps were only apparent, that embarrassment would go away.

The ideological force came from a vital front in the culture wars. After centuries of paying at least lip-service to religion, science started feeling its muscles. Science and religion moved ponderously into full combat mode. And the most crucial height to capture was that of human origins. Religion, or at least the Christian version, claimed that humans were the unique product of an all-powerful deity, and equipped (unlike animals) with immortal souls. The more science could show that humans were just another animal, the more religion's influence would be weakened.

All this was taking place during the heyday of genetic determinism, of Richard Dawkins's "selfish gene". Many saw genes as ruthless dictators, enforcing their irreversible wills on all forms of behavior as well as on physiology. And this was what led to behavioral scientists' big mistake.

Genes operate on behavior and physiology quite differently. On physiology, genes are indeed potent, determining how many limbs an organism will have, what kind they'll be, how big it will get, with relatively slight and slow-acting influence from the environment. Behavior is different. True, it's underpinned by genes, but genes don't determine it, except perhaps in the very simplest of organisms. Rather they make potentially available a wide range of behaviors (the more complex the species, the wider the range) from which the environment will select the most adaptive. It follows from this that while physiology is cumulative, behavior isn't.

The following will show you what I mean. Take a physiological organ like the eye, which started life as a cell that merely distinguished light from darkness, and then progressively acquired improvements such as depth perception and color discrimination (which also grew stepwise) until it achieved the sophistication of the human eye. In physiology, there's a cumulative effect as new bits and pieces are incorporated , and a ratchet effect that stops them from getting lost.

In behavior, there's neither. Take a behavior like communication. If behavior was like physiology, communication would have been like the eye. Relatively simple organisms would have had only a handful of signals. Signals would have increased in number as organisms grew more complex. Communication systems would have developed means for combining signals to give more complex messages, until they achieved the sophistication of human language. But the real picture is very different. Some fish have systems with as many signals as some primates. No system has even as many as a hundred signals. And in no system is any kind of meaningful combination possible. No cumulative effect, no ratchet.

But Hauser and most other behavioral scientists overlooked this difference. They saw language, like the eye, as resulting from the combination of many components, and in this they were right. But they thought that all or practically all of those components must, like the various stages of the eye, have pre-existed humans--that things like pattern recognition (indispensible for children acquiring the patterns of language) that Hauser claimed to find among cotton-top tamarins could not have originated anywhere but in the genomes of antecedent species. In other words, since every--or almost every--aspect of language had to have "precursors" of some kind in other species, biology's task was to go look for them.

But the assumptions on which this program was based weren't necessarily true, as recent developments in biology show. Evo-devo, the marriage of evolutionary and developmental biology, is revealing that genes are far from arbitrary dictators, that many are pluripotential and that interactions between genes, along with changes in the timing of regulatory genes and countless other factors (many of them epigenetic), can yield widely differing results. Niche construction theory is showing that animals can play a role in their own evolution. They can begin to practice new behaviors that go beyond what the animals were specifically programmed to do, and that become themselves selective pressures, altering genetic make-up to support the new behavior.

In light of this knowledge, a quite different explanation for the origins of human behavior becomes possible. Many of the things for which Hauser and his kind demand and seek "precursors" could have been produced practically from ground zero in a common-or-garden ape species whose lifestyle happened to demand something just a little extra. And this "little extra" could in turn have led to language, and language in turn could have triggered the cascade of changes leading to the cognitive and behavioral explosion that characterizes our species (for one account of such a process, see my latest book, Adam's Tongue).

In other words, Hauser fell victim to a soon-to-be-outdated view of evolution. He believed in that view, and, as the old adage has it, believing is seeing. When you're sure something must be there, you're liable to see it, whether it's really there or not, and at whatever the cost to your career.

He should have realized that "If it be maintained that certain powers, such as self-consciousness, abstraction etc., are peculiar to man, it may well be that these are the incidental results of other highly advanced intellectual faculties, and these again are mainly the result of the continued use of a highly developed language." No, I didn't say that. Darwin did--in 1871. It would take the science of the twenty-first century to show how and why he was right.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

Just Another Ape?

Tim Black's review in heralds the arrival of Helene Guldberg's much awaited (by me!!) book "Just Another Ape?" Guldberg's book is entirely comlementary to NOT A CHIMP because, while I dwell mainly in the world of human chimpanzee comparison at the level of genes, neurology and cognition, Guldberg spends most of her book looking at cognition and culture through the lens of infant and young primate development.

According to Black, Guldberg rails against philosophical voices like Richard Ryder and Peter SInger, who argue that seeing humans as a special case is arrogant species-ism. She believes current fashions for ape rights are part of a wide and growing disillusionment with humanity - a misanthropy. As Black says"

"While this mood of misanthropy is most definitely abroad, Guldberg is quick to point out that intuitively, experientially, most of us do value humans above animals. We may like pets, but we prefer people. For all the gee-whiz, aren’t animals amazing wildlife documentaries, we know that a cat’s ability to paw a door open, or even a chimpanzee’s dexterity with a stick when digging for termites, is far inferior to what humans have done with the microchip. We also tacitly accept that an animal’s life, in the interests of medical research for instance, is worth less than the human lives that the research might save. This ability to elevate our interests above animals does not make us sadists: it makes us human. However, as Guldberg points out, ‘the problem is that it is considered outrageously arrogant to assert this superiority’.

And that is why this sparkling, erudite polemic is so welcome. Just Another Ape? draws out, not our similarities with our closest animal relative, the ape, but our differences to it. It dwells not on the affinity between a vervet monkey’s set of alarm calls and human language, but on the near-fathomless chasm that divides them. It is what separates us from the animals that is important to Guldberg, not what binds us. Yes, we may share 98 per cent of DNA with chimpanzees, but we also share 70 per cent with yeast. Clearly biology does not exhaust our humanity. We are a bit more than our DNA. As Guldberg argues: ‘Our biology is the precondition for our humanity, but our instincts are transformed into something very different as a result of human consciousness and culture.’ Or as she puts it later in the book: ‘We need to look to cultural evolution, rather than genetic evolution, to explain the vast gulf that exists between the capabilities and achievements of humans and those of apes.’

The fact that Guldberg singles out Richard Ryder for treatment augurs well, because she and I will be debating the question "Should apes have rights?" with him at the Battle of Ideas" at the end of October at the RCA.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Are Some Chimp 'Cultural' Behaviors Actually in the Genes?

Very interesting piece about the possible role genetics plays in determining chimpanzee culture. It reports on the work of lead author Kevin Langergraber, a molecular ecologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. His team looked at mitochondrial DNA from 9 different chimpanzee groups (mtDNA can only be checked in females - and it is females that leave natal colonies, taking their genes with them) and linked it to over 30 cultural variants. Although their research cannot show that chimp culture is gene based it points to the fact that in order to prove that chimp culture arises as de novo product of chimp brains one now has to exclude both environmental and genetic forces. As the article says:

"The study does not link behaviors to specific genes or even conclude that there is a genetic explanation. Rather, it assesses whether genetic differences can be excluded as an explanation for each behavior; it finds that they cannot more than half the time.

This distinction may seem subtle, but the idea of animal culture turns on the requirement of first excluding ecological forces as an explanation for behaviors. The study now adds yet another hurdle to clear before making bold claims about culture. "I have no horse in this race," says lead author Kevin Langergraber, a molecular ecologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. "I saw some studies that claimed they were settling this question, and I had gathered data that spoke to quite a different explanation."

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

The Great Debate - Are We Masters Of Our Own Destiny?

On Friday, 20th August, I joined the panel for a Great Debate entitled “Are We Masters Of Our Own Destiny?” at the University of Newcastle, organized as part of the Green Phoenix Festival, 2010. My fellow panelists were science writer Rita Carter, most famous for her books on neuroscience: “The Brain Book” and “Mapping The Mind”, and local philosopher David Large. The debate was chaired by Caspar Hewett. As we suspected, this pitted two biology-oriented commentators against a more conventional philosopher who answered the question in the affirmative because he believed we can control our own destiny in the sense that Joyce could write his masterpiece “Ulysses” and Wittgenstein formulate his idiosyncratic theories. The nature of Joyce-ness, Ulysses-ness, Wittgenstein-ness, and the product of the mind and skill of great artists - Rembrandt-ness if you like - transcended “mere” functional explanations of what the mind is. He took umbrage with psychology which, he claimed, pretends its functional explanation of how the mind works is the explanation. It isn’t.

Rita Carter saw things very much from the bottom up rather than the top down. The mind is made up (literally!) by myriads of tiny, unconscious neuro-chemical events in our brains. She therefore believed free will is an illusion deeply wired into the brain as a set of mechanisms which automatically create the sense of self and agency to make it feel as though we decide what our acts will be - that we are responsible for them - rather than merely responding to stimuli.

I agreed strongly with Rita by suggesting that - like the illusion of free will - a large school of modern neuroscientists believe that our moral behaviour is produced not by moral reasoning but by input of extremely simple neuro-chemical data from our sense organs and receptors which is turned into moral intuitions in our brains by processes of which we are oblivious - the intuition simply pops into our heads. We then apply moral reasoning to our intuitions in a post-hoc sense in order to justify these instinctive beliefs. I agreed with one prominent such neuroscientist who claims that the conscious mind is like the mahout on an elephant. The elephant is the other 99% of what is going on in our minds - things that are unconscious and automatic.

If free will and morality are the unconscious products of the way our brains work, thought a number of members of the audience, what, then, is the advantage to us of the illusion that we are in control? Carter argued that without the illusion that we are responsible for our own actions, and that we are therefore accountable for them, no society could possibly function; while I argued that the illusion of moral responsibility is a social phenomenon which evolved as a sort of social glue holding human groups together by commonly agreed norms and principles “outsiders” do not share. In that sense it is similar to the evolution of theory of mind - by which we explain other peoples’ actions by inferring to ourselves the hidden states of mind - their wants, beliefs and knowledge - that must be guiding them. If a teacher could have no inkling that he owned a state of knowledge his pupil lacked, and could not learn unless that knowledge was efficiently transferred from one brain to another, no culture could thrive and be built upon.

How can unconscious process explain the more spiritual side of our nature, thought others. What is the nature of love - affairs of the heart? Near-death experiences? Phantom limbs? The experience of strong emotions like love, I argued, are similar to the experience we have of the presence of a hand after amputation. Both are registered and processed unconsciously in the brain. We do not physically feel love in our hearts though our hearts may send raw autonomic data to our brains, along with data from our eyes, ears, nose and gut, to form the basis of our feelings. Large was not convinced. “I cannot approach the love of my life”, he exclaimed, “And tell her ‘I love you with all my.....brain!’, it just wouldn’t work!”

What were the limits to science in a full explanation of human agency, wondered others. Reductionism can never provide the answer. Large agreed. The creation of a great work of art on canvas is invulnerable to dissection by the scientific method. Science, in attempting a reductionist explanation, was forever throwing babies out with bath-water. There must be explanations at other levels. For Carter, however, science was the only game in town. What else could any other form of enquiry be based on, if not science and the scientific method, she asked. Neither is science pathologically reductionist, I argued. We no longer have to explain how the machine works by examining one single cog. Psychologists are Skinnerians no longer. Modern technologies like brain-scanning allow them to view phenomena like the mind-brain in multi-dimensional, dynamic terms.

Perhaps, said Large, tongue firmly in cheek, it is scientists who are the masters of our destiny, after all? I responded that we might have an invidious choice in trying to master our destiny: Reduce our civilization to the level which corresponds to the complexity faced by our stone-age intuitive moral minds scores of thousands of years ago - as some primitive philosophers have argued - or behave more like scientists (and philosophers!) by training our pre-frontal cortices - the most recent evolved additions to our brains - to squeeze out as much moral reasoning as possible - over-riding our intuitive inclinations. Only then can we stand a chance of a rational, unbiased approach to facing the extremely complex problems standing between us and any secure future. Hunter-gatherers or geeks?

Carter shuddered at either possibility. Ultimately, she said, there is great humility to be gained from the understanding that much of what we take for granted in terms of will and reasoning is actually the invisible and un-knowable activity of trillions of molecules in our brains responding to the laws of nature in much the same way as rain-drops falling through the atmosphere.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Nature Sums Up Hauser Scandal So Far

Evolutionary psychologist Marc Hauser is mentioned quite a lot in NOT A CHIMP - mainly because of his research into morality. For those interested in the scandal regarding his previous publications, the Harvard University investigation into him, and his having to take one year's leave, here is a succinct sum up today in NATURE.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Boston Globe Scoop On Marc Hauser

Here's a link to the Boston Globe article on the Harvard University internal inquiry into goings on in Marc Hauser's laboratory at Harvard. It notes a number of amendments to and retractions of, papers coming out of Hauser's lab since 1995. Mike Tomasello, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, is quoted as being increasingly concerned because other papers, he says, are also currently under investigation. It is not clear whether he implicates other authors - or more woe for Hauser.

This is all very worrying stuff for comparative psychologists because Hauser's work has always gone to the heart of human cognitive evolution and, as John Hawks says in his blog (see side-bar), may have very worrying implications for the whole house of cards of comparative cognitive psychology and its experimental protocols, which, while often being fiendishly inventive, still require an amount of subjective interpretation of data.

Two Great Reviews By Bookreaders On

John Hawk's referred to NOT A CHIMP in his brief comment on accusations of irregularities in data interpretation in Marc Hauser's lab at Harvard, that have required Hauser to take one year's leave. This prompted me to re-visit Amazon's US website, following John's link, to find two really positive and thoughtful reviews I had not seen before - both disagreeing with the Publisher's Weekly review in the States last year that accused me of "bitter sentiments".

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding overview of what makes humans different from chimps, October 11, 2009
By Jeri Nevermind "loves to read" (Idaho) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Not a Chimp: The Hunt to Find the Genes that Make Us Human (Hardcover)
In 2005 Moe, a chimpanzee, turned 19. The couple who had raised him when he was young brought him a sheet cake with raspberry filling. As the couple stood outside his cage, two other nearby chimpanzees attacked the man. "He sustained severe facial injuries and his testicles and a foot were also severed" (p 7).

Taylor was interested enough to investigate just how close the ape family is to humans. He thought the story of man who had been attacked "graphically demonstrates the ambivalent world of chimpanzee-human relationships: huge emotional attachment of human to chimp; bizarre levels of anthropomorphizing; an animal species capable of thrilling us with its human-like behavior on the one hand and horrifying us with its brutal aggression on the other" (P 8).

This is a very timely book. Many people have proposed that since we are so close genetically to the great apes, they should be granted full human rights. Spain recently voted down such a law; New Zealand passed one.

Taylor wanted to learn the truth. And the result is this very thorough book. He appears to have included every single study over the last 20 years on the subject. And, while he leans slightly against the chimpanzees as being the equal of humans, even from the start, he gives a thorough, and apparently unbiased, investigation.

I found his chapter on "Clever Corvids" especially interesting. Corvids, which includes such birds as ravens and crows, perform quite well on tests designed to reveal their ability to use tools--and yes, they do use tools. Animal lovers will enjoy anecdotes and research that shows humor, cooperating at tasks, and planning.

Dog lovers will also be captured by his history of a "backwater Russian research institute (which) has not only succeeded in producing foxes so tame they behave just like dogs, they have also bred Norwegian rats, otters, and mink" (p 262). The domesticated foxes respond, like dogs, to the way people gaze at them, and they notice what people are pointing at. Wild foxes don't.

Taylor makes an exhaustive investigation of all aspects of human and chimp cognition. He talks about everything, from how variations in serotonin transporters and MAO-A activity affect behavior, from brain size ( humans have a brain about "four times larger than you would expect for a typical anthropoid primate of our body size" (p 221), to research by Povinelli that casts doubt on ape intelligence.

Then there are the television documentaries on apes like Washoe and Koko who 'learned' language. And in the end he concludes most of these documentaries show a "long and sorry history--almost a pathology of science--ridden with wishful thing, over-exaggeration, and even downright fantasy" (p 295)

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
5.0 out of 5 stars Rich overview, fascinating read, not particularly bitter., February 8, 2010
By D. Watson (Washington, DC) - See all my reviews
Amazon Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: Not a Chimp: The Hunt to Find the Genes that Make Us Human (Hardcover)
"Not a Chimp" is a polemic of sorts, but the Publisher's Weekly critique (posted on this Amazon page) of its "bitter sentiments" is an exaggeration. I suggest the prospective reader take it with a grain of salt. It is fair to say that Taylor disagrees strongly with the anthropomorphizing scholarship and is mildly contemptuous of the political efforts to elevate chimpanzees, and perhaps other apes, to human status. Less than ideal, maybe, but I didn't find any of this "hard to swallow." I am not as interested in the uniqueness of humans as Taylor is - I take that as obvious and am more interested in the "animalness" of humans - but I do share his suspicion of anthropomorphizing and even more of the application of international human rights law to non-human primates. Since he is critical of such renowned and somewhat romantically venerated figures as Jane Goodall and Franz de Waal in this respect, it is perhaps not surprising that some might find his tone somewhat harsh.

Aside from the polemic, though, there are many more concrete pleasures here for the layman interested in human/primate evolution. Most of the book describes the methodology and results of a wide range of experiments attempting to test the similarities/differences between humans and chimps (or sometimes other animals) with respect to genetics, brain size, language, social behavior, etc. For those who have seen "The Human Spark" on PBS, you will find a lot of the same issues and experiments discussed here, although in greater detail and with more context of course. In fact, if that program appealed to you, I would strongly recommend you pick up this book for its broader and deeper treatment of the issues. The results of these experiments are fascinating, but other armchair students of human evolution like me might also be impressed with the ingenuity and limits of the types of experiments designed by scientists in this field. Taylor himself is careful to note that this work is still in its early stages, and while impressed with many of the experiments, I also often felt that many of these findings may be nuanced (perhaps in some cases overturned) in the near future as more, and more sophisticated, experiments are developed. That said, the work presented by Taylor in this book is compelling. As another reviewer noted, the chapter on corvids is quite good and rather surprising to the general reader who has heard so much about the experiments with chimps and other primates in the press. For me, the final discussion of the evolution of the genes implicated in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (and their possible beneficial contributions to those not stricken with mental illness) was an extra treat I was not expecting, and I'm anxious to read more on that subject.

If you are a fan of science books for the general public, you will find that Taylor does a good job of periodically summing up complicated information to allow you to synthesize what you've read. However, there are a few discussions of genetics that left me flailing a bit - no one's fault but my own, of course. Also, many of the experiments described in the book involve gadgets of various sorts. Written descriptions of these are sometimes tedious when a chart would have provided the necessary insight immediately.

All in all, I recommend this book highly. I certainly have a different view the genetic/evolutionary relationship between humans and other primates/animals after reading it. It has the additional benefit of introducing the reader to some of the political issues related to animal rights activism, albeit from a critical perspective.

A Dog's Eye View Of Morphological Diversity

Interesting article from science writer Liza Gross on the reflections in the dog genome of one major genetic bottleneck during initial domestication, and further bottle-necking due to intense selection and inbreeding for breeds with particular traits.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Social Rejection Linked With Inflammatory Responses To Social Stress

In NOT A CHIMP I explain the crucial role of areas of the social brain like the anterior cingulate cortex and insula in registering pain or fear in others and feeding this important social data to the frontal cortex so that higher order appropriate responses can be generated. In this paper a group of psychologists have taken this idea a step further. Knowing that acute social stress is often linked to inflammatory conditions like cardiovascular disease and depression they subjected over 100 normal volunteers to lab-based social stressors and noticed that this increased two biochemical markers for inflammation - a tumour necrosis factor and interleukin-6. Using fMRI they then noticed a tie-up between the TNF levels and activation of insula and anterior cingulate, both of which process rejection-related stress and negative affect, suggesting a neurocognitive pathway that generates these diseases as a response to stress.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

Carol Jahme Goes Ape

Agony aunt and comedienne Carl Jahme has taken a monkey suit to the Edinburgh Festival, where, describing herself as a humanzee, or chimp human hybrid, she intends to regale festival-goers with a comic look at human evolution and origins. In this article she trots out the depressingly familiar list of half-truths about the chimpanzee human relationship - no longer are we unique in making tools, fire, having language etc. etc. She allies herself with Richard Dawkins' bizarre wish for a humanzee hybrid to exist because "it would change everything" and will exhort her audiences to get in touch with their "inner ape". Humour it may provide - accurate portrayal of human origins it certainly will not. More of the "chimps 'r us" brigade!

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Cur cognition: Do stray dogs have qualitatively different kinds of canine minds?

Another Sciam post from the ever amusing Jesse Bering. Here he takes a long look at dog social cognition - particularly the extraordinary ability of pet dogs to interpret cues like pointing from humans. Stray dogs, he muses, who have been stray, clearly, for generations, display different social cognition to beloved pets. So what is the default condition for dog social cognition? He refers to a series of experiments using human pointing cues with stray dogs on the one hand, and pet dogs on the other and comments that the former category could only reliably correctly interpret less ambiguous cues like a finger pointing to a source of food barely centimetres from its tip. Is the acute social cognition of pet dogs a developmental attribute after all, rather than some evolutionary quirk of the dog brain arrived at through thousands of years of domestication? Although Jesse mentions Brian Hare's research he neglects what might be an important finding of Hares' - that dogs in New Guinea, which had been domesticated but then had returned to a feral condition, appeared to have lost a great deal of the sharpness of social cognition displayed by human commensal dogs. In other words, evolution had rapidly acted to reverse the functional analogue of human social cognition that tamer ancestors had shown.

Nevertheless, Bering is never boring and I strongly suggest everyone interested in a breezy look at contemporary evolutionary science to subscribe to his RSS feed.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Monkey Generosity: No Strings Attached

In my final chapter I point out that altruism need not simply be a product of evolutionary proximity to humans, but that its emergence may depend on the social structure of any species. Primate species that practice allo-parenting, for instance, like marmosets - where the adults cooperate in the raising and care of the kids irrespective of genetic relationship - demonstrate a greater willingness to facilitate access to food for each other than non allo-parenting species which are more likely to be selfish hoarders. This article, based on he research of Charles Snowden's group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, shows the propensity for forgiveness, or rather perhaps, the erosion of mistrust between cotton-top tamarin pairs, over time, when one of them has been perceived by the other of selfish behaviour. In experiments where one member of the pair can elect to withhold or dole out food to the other member who has wronged them in the recent past, altruistic sharing soon reasserts itself.

New Hypothesis For Human Evolution And Human Nature

Well, of course, nothing under the sun is truly new, but Pat Shipman has come up with a thesis about the evolution of human behaviour which hangs on our growing understanding of animals that came about through our domestication of them.

"Domestication, she explained, is a process that takes generations and puts selective pressure on abilities to observe, empathize, and communicate across species barriers. Once accomplished, the domestication of animals offers numerous advantages to those with these attributes. "The animal connection is an ancient and fundamentally human characteristic that has brought our lineage huge benefits over time," Shipman said. "Our connection with animals has been intimately involved with the evolution of two key human attributes -- tool making and language -- and with constructing the powerful ecological niche now held by modern humans."

It looks as if Shipman buys into the disputed view that humans domesticated wild wolves by importing pups into their camps - an implausible thesis in itself. As the article quotes her:

Shipman concludes that detailed information about animals became so advantageous that our ancestors began to nurture wild animals -- a practice that led to the domestication of the dog about 32,000 years ago. She argues that, if insuring a steady supply of meat was the point of domesticating animals, as traditionally has been assumed, then dogs would be a very poor choice as an early domesticated species. "Why would you take a ferocious animal like a wolf, bring it into your family and home, and think this was advantageous?" Shipman asks. "Wolves eat so much meat themselves that raising them for food would be a losing proposition."

Well you wouldn't. But wild wolves and dog-like canids might become commensal with humans by inhibiting their fight-flight reactions the better to scavenge around the perimeter of human encampments. More ethologically-minded early humans might then have begun to perceive the potential value of these self-taming animals as guards and hunting allies etc. etc.

Nevertheless her "animal connection" deserves a close look at. As the article says-

"Establishing an intimate connection to other animals is unique and universal to our species," said Shipman, a professor of biological anthropology. Her paper describing the new hypothesis for human evolution based on the tendency to nurture members of other species will be published in the August 2010 issue of the journal Current Anthropology.

Oxytocin Gene Variants, Prosocial Behaviour And Associated Brain Structure

In my chapter THE APE THAT DOMESTICATED ITSELF I detail a geat deal of research, some of it featuring Andreas Meyer-Lindenburg, which linked variants in serotonin transporter gene and MAO-A to hyper-vigilant or anti-social behaviour in which there were correlated differences between carriers of long variants and short variants of these genes and the strength of coupling, and therefore feedback, between the amygdala and frontal cortex structures in the brain. Here, Meyer-Lindenburg and colleagues continue the tie-up between gene variants, pro-social behaviour and brain structure by looking at oxytocin. Interesting stuff. Here's the abstract:


The evolutionarily highly conserved neuropeptide oxytocin is a key mediator of social and emotional behavior in mammals, including humans. A common variant (rs53576) in the oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) has been implicated in social-behavioral phenotypes, such as maternal sensitivity and empathy, and with neuropsychiatric disorders associated with social impairment, but the intermediate neural mechanisms are unknown. Here, we used multimodal neuroimaging in a large sample of healthy human subjects to identify structural and functional alterations in OXTR risk allele carriers and their link to temperament. Activation and interregional coupling of the amygdala during the processing of emotionally salient social cues was significantly affected by genotype. In addition, evidence for structural alterations in key oxytocinergic regions emerged, particularly in the hypothalamus. These neural characteristics predicted lower levels of reward dependence, specifically in male risk allele carriers. Our findings identify sex-dependent mechanisms impacting the structure and function of hypothalamic-limbic circuits that are of potential clinical and translational significance.

The Evolution Of Gene Regulation

Really interesting article by Miranda Robertson about the need to look outside gene number and small changes to DNA sequence for the explanation for organismal diversity and complexity. The article pays due homage to the path-breaking work in the 1970s of Allan Wilson and Mary-Claire King and others - well before the day of modern genomics technology - in pointing the finger at gene regulation, rather than sequence evolution in genes. Robertson then up-dates this picture by looking at RNA regulation.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010


Nice piece for NPR from Barbara Bradley Hagerty about the deficits in orbito-frontal cortex (see my stuff on the social brain in Not A Chimp) in psychopaths - by neuroscientist James Fallon. Really interesting spooky story because Fallon used his own family to look for abnormalities in o-r cortex and variants of the gene MAO-A - which are known to predispose to violence - because lurking in his family's history were a number of known murderers! His extant family turned out to be abnormal with the excerption of himself. Fallon discovered, to his discomfort, that his orbito-frontal cortex bore all the signs of psychopathy, while he also proved positive for the presence of the notorious short variant of MAO-A! However the vital gene-environment interaction - a violent and abused childhood - was the final ingredient missing from Fallon's mix. He had experienced a blissful childhood - which is why he turned into a loving husband and prominent scientist - and not a violent murderer!

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Our Brains Are More Like Birds Than We Thought

In my chapter CLEVER CORVIDS I begin by pointing out that recent research reveals that the parts of the embryonic mammalian brain that eventually form the cortex arise from similar regions in birds. Birds are not so bird-brained after all. Not surprisingly, certain birds - like corvids and parrots - turn out to be exceptionally clever - rather than the robotic automata all birds were recently thought to be. This article supports this revisionist view of bird brains. It reports the work of Harvey Karten, and his group, at UC San Diego - long champions of bird brain-power - who compared a part of the chicken telencephalon which has the same duties as the mammalian auditory cortex and found it has the same laminar and columnar arrangement of neurons.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Some Men React To Competition Like Bonobos, Others Like Chimpanzees

Fatuous article describing the findings of research by Andrea Wobber, of Harvard, and Brian Hare, of Duke, on hormonal changes in men, bonobos and chimpanzees, in anticipation of male-male competition and conflict.

"They found that males of both species who were intolerant and could not share with their partners showed hormonal changes in anticipation of competing for the food, but bonobos and chimpanzees were completely different in which hormones increased.

Male chimpanzees showed an increase in testosterone, which is thought to prepare animals for competition or aggressive interactions. By contrast, male bonobos showed an increase in cortisol, which is associated with stress and more passive social strategies in other animals.

"Chimpanzee males reacted to the competition as if it was a threat to their status, while bonobos reacted as if a potential competition is stressful by showing changes in their cortisol levels," said Victoria Wobber, a Harvard graduate student and first author of the study.

Human males usually experience an increase in cortisol before many types of competition in a similar way as seen in the bonobos. However, if men have what is called a "high power motive," or a strong desire to achieve high status, they experience an increase in testosterone before a competition.

"These results suggest that the steroid hormone shifts that are correlated with the competitive drive of men are shared through descent with other apes," Wobber said."

I'll bet they are also shared with a whole variety of species that engage in male-male competition from time to time. Again, the inference is that both chimps and bonobos act as yard-sticks for human behaviour and the hormonal changes that are associated with it. Yet cortisol and testosterone are hardly the exclusive province of the higher primates.

"While some men may seem more bonobo-like before competition and others more chimpanzee-like, something unique about human males is that after competition they experience an increase in testosterone if they win or a decrease in testosterone if they lose. This variation in hormones post-competition was not observed in either chimpanzees or bonobos.

"It's exciting because we can see that in some ways we're similar to bonobos, in others we're similar to chimpanzees," said Duke anthropologist Brian Hare, co-author. "But then there's also a part of our biology that seems to be entirely unique."

What, pray, is exciting about that? Again, the sense portrayed is that we have "essence of chimp" and "essence of bonobo" in our make-up, which is plainly ridiculous. See the little bit of fun I have at Frans de Waal's expense at the beginning of the chapter "Povinellis Gauntlet".

What Makes us Human? Compare Chimp And Human DNA.

Round up article mainly about the work of Katie Pollard of UCSF to compare, piece-meal, the genomes of chimps and humans to discover any differences in nucleotide sequence - be they inside known genes, or in areas of the genomes previously regarded as "junk" or non-coding DNA. Nothing new - her research on highly accelerated regions of non-coding DNA is reported on in the book.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Warlike, Territorializing Chimps

Nice article by Nick Wade about the longitudinal research of John Mitani, from the University of Michigan, and colleagues, on a large chimp colony in the Kibale National Park in Uganda. Mitani et al have watched this colony grow, and watched the periodic patrolling of male chimps into adjoining territory - often attacking and killing the neighbouring males. This is a much better researched surveillance of chimp territorial aggression than has ever been previously reported. Eventually the Ngogo chimp colony annexed the neighbouring territory altogether - adding a valuable new resource of fruiting trees to their territory - important because good food supply correlates with more babies for chimp females.

The article goes on to debate the old saw about the origins of such aggression, whether or not it was shared by a common ancestor of chimps and humans, and, therefore, about whether or not chimp aggression and territoriality can tell us anything interesting about human aggression and territoriality. Richard Wrangham is cited opining that it is very unlikely that chimps could marshal enough future strategising to link current aggression with the future ceding of territory and suggests that such aggression is simply hard-wired into chimps. He believes the ability to wage war against one's own species goes back to the common ancestor of chimps and gorillas some 7 million years ago, as well as the human-chimp common ancestor some 5 million years ago. Mitani stresses the high level of cooperation between chimps of one colony - that allows cohesive war-like behaviour. He raises the controversial idea that group selection of such behaviour, involving a degree of altruism, might be part of the explanation. That sets him at odds with the vast majority of the evolution community.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Scientists Criticize Habitat Claims For "Ardi"

In a number of posts since NOT A CHIMP was published I have detailed the findings and claims of the paleo group headed by Tim White with respect to their discovery and investigation of "Ardi" - Ardipithecus ramidus - dating back some 4.4 million years. We now had another likely human ancestor who existed shortly after the split of chimpanzees and humans from the common ancestor. Anatomically, Ardi was not very chimp-like, having an upright gait. But her feet suggested she was, nevertheless, adapted for a heavily forested habitat in which "branch-walking" in trees was as much a part of her repertoire as walking in the surrounding grassland. All this suggested to White that Ardi makes a much better model for the common ancestor than today's chimps. It also meant, to White, that this substantial evolution of muscles and skeleton was not precipitated, as conventional wisdom has it, by the rapid replacement of dense sub-tropical forest by drier savanna vegetation.

Now a group of scientists led by Thure Cerling, from the University of Utah, question White's conclusions, saying they "explained away" the presence of prairie-adapted rodents in the surrounding substrate to Ardi's fossilised skeleton, and that there are the remains of several tropical grassland species in soil taken from the site. They suggest Ardi's habitat consisted of 25% or less forest and approx. 75% grassland, rather than the 60% tree cover that can normally be termed forest. Neither do they like White's interpretation of the tooth enamel of herbivores removed from the same stratum, saying that they betray browsing in more open grassland than White maintains. So, according to Cerling, the "savanna" hypothesis - that the arrival of open grassland prompted early hominids down from the trees and into a more efficient bipedal gait - still stands as a reasonable version of events. White, of course, disagrees, and it will be interesting to see how this argument plays out.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Travis's Owner Dies

At the top of the NOTACHIMP blog I recount the tragic case of Travis the chimp, killed by police after he went on the rampage and horribly disfigured his helper. This very unhappy tale has now concluded with another tragic event, the premature death of Travis's owner, Sandra Herold. Herold had endured the death of her only child in 2000, the death of her husband in 2004, and the death of her pet chimp and company mascot, Travis, in 2009. She suffered a fatal aortic aneurysm.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Somatosensation In Social Perception

Meanwhile, in the same number of the same journal - Nature Reviews Neuroscience - one of the doyens of human mirror neurons - Christian Keysers - reports finding evidence for the firing of mirror neurons in the somatosensory cortices - those parts of the brain that receive and process incoming information from our sense organs - ears, eyes, touch sensors etc. etc. "Studies that measure brain activity while participants witness the sensations, actions and somatic pain of others consistently show vicarious activation in the somatosensory cortices", they say, in the abstract.

Mirrors, Mirrors Everywhere?

The debate over whether or not mirror neurons really exist, and whether or not they have been satisfyingly proved to exist in humans rumbles on. One bug-bear is the lack of direct observations of neurons firing in humans due to the inability of investigators to push probes into human brains except in very rare cases where brains are already being investigated for things like Parkinsons Disease. However, in this breezy piece in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Leonie Walberg reports on some work where recordings of single-cell activity have been made, from several areas of human brain, that behave with mirror neuron properties.

The authors, she says, report activity in patients with implanted electrodes when they observed or executed grasping actions and facial expressions. Recordings were made from medial frontal cortex (which includes the anterior cingulate cortex, an important component of the 'social brain'), medial temporal cortex (which includes the amygdala - another important 'social brain'structure, and the hippocampus).

"Of the 68 'matching cells' detected, 33 showed increased firing during both the observation and execution of a particular action and 21 cells showed decreased firing in both conditions. Interestingly, in the remaining 14 neurons, the firing rate increased in one condition but decreased in the other."

The authors speculate that the decreased firing in some cells, which is not the classical mirror neuron condition, may have a role in suppressing execution of observed actions to ensure that we do not imitate every action we see. However this observation seems destined to further fuel the rather rancorous debate over mirror neurons being all things to all people. After all, mirror neurons were first reported in monkeys - a species that is very poor at imitation, whereas humans, if anything, over-imitate.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Two More "Brain-builder" Proteins

In my chapter BRAIN-BUILDERS I recount the tale of how the discovery of two genes responsible for microcephaly - ASPM and Microcephalin - has an evolutionary dimension in that both genes have accumulated substantial sequence evolution since the split from the common ancestor. Both genes affect the plane of the spindle in mitotic cell division of neuron progenitor cells such that cells can be kept in the totipotent state for longer - squeezing proliferation power out of the neuro-epithelium. Now a group of scientists at the Picower Institute at MIT have discovered two more proteins - Cdk5rap2 and pericentrin - that work together to regulate neural growth in the developing brain. Loss of function of these proteins, they report, causes microcephaly and osteodysplastic primordial dwarfism. Their normal action takes place in the developing neocortex and their mode of action was discovered using "knock out' mice.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Birds And Mammals Share A Common Brain Circuit For Learning

In my chapter CLEVER CORVIDS I point out that recent research comparing avian and mammalian brains has demonstrated that parts of both are derived from the same embryonic structures, which suggests that bird brains are not "bird-brains" after all. Here research on neurons in a part of the basal ganglia of the zebra finch - so-called area X which is involved in the learning of song - bear strong comparison to neural structures in the corresponding part of mammalian brains - the striatum and globus pallidus. As the scientists concerned are quoted saying: "Our results strongly suggest that the same brain circuits underlie learning in birds and mammals, despite the superficial differences in anatomy".

Creativity Linked To Mental Health

In the final chapter of NOT A CHIMP I talk about fresh research that has breathed life into much older ideas about the link between mania and creativity. Here a group of Scandinavian scientists carry the story still further with the discovery that highly creative people and schizophrenics have similar profiles of dopamine D2 receptors in the brain - particularly the thalamus (which acts as a filter for incoming material from the senses which is then passed on to neo-cortical structures for advanced processing). Schizophrenics and creatives have a lower density of D2 receptors in the thalamus, suggesting that this causes the thalamus to be less strict in its signal filtering. There is therefore a higher flow of signals from the thalamus which might, says the article, "be a possible mechanism behind the ability of healthy highly creative people to see numerous uncommon connections in a problem-solving situation and the bizarre associations found in the mentally ill".

As lead scientist Fredrik Ullen, explains: "Thinking outside the box might be facilitated by having a somewhat less intact box (the thalamus)".

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Anthropocentrism - Born Or Made?

In the book, and in many of my recent posts, I have ground on about our innate human propensity for attributing human cognition to animals - anthropomorphism - and the way it bedevils comparative cognitive research. But where does such an ingrained cognitive bias come from? Are we born with it, or do we acquire it during child development? Most psychologists have assumed that anthropocentrism - favouring a human vantage point when it comes to comparing us to the animals and them to us - is a default position hardwired into babies and thence young children, but recent research, reported here, by a team of scientists from Northwestern University, challenges that view. They maintain that 3 year- olds do not have this anthropocentric bias, but, that by the time URBAN children are 5+, they do. The conclusion is that anthropocentrism is thrust upon developing children by the attitudes they are surrounded by as they grow up, and the biased way animal behaviour is represented in the media - tv programmes and kiddies books etc.

Friday, 14 May 2010

And Now - Empathic Ravens!

Over the last couple of weeks we have been besieged by a number of articles trying to persuade us that chimps show enormous empathy and signs of distress over the dead. Always, such displays of emotion are held to be further proof - if proof were needed - that chimps are incredibly closely related to us, and share much, if not all, cognition with us. Now comes this paper by raven-enthusiast Thomas Bugnyar and his colleague, Orliath Fraser, suggesting that ravens who are uninvolved bystanders to an act of aggression are capable of displays of "post-conflict affiliation" to the victim or loser. The victim invariably shares a more rewarding relationship with the bystander than the bystander does with the aggressor. The researchers rule out the interpretation that bystanders acted thus to reduce the chance that they would also be attacked - the victims of re-directed aggression. They point out that, in the many cases where such behaviour has been noted in chimps, there has never been any mention of the victim soliciting bystander affiliation and that the victim raven invariably directs such solicitation toward those bystanders with which it shares a strong relationship - perhaps to reduce the chance that it will be attacked again.

But is it "consolation" which implies a degree of emotional concern - empathy? The authors believe so because the affiliation is more likely to occur after a severe "dust up" where the victim appears to be in some clear distress. Furthermore, at the risk of contradicting some earlier statements, they maintain that, in some cases, consolers, or would-be consolers, were attacked by the former aggressor - implying that "consolation" is not without risk and therefore is a case of altruism. Ravens, unlike rooks which have a long-lasting pair-bond social structure, live for much of their lives in more loosely related non-breeding communities, and therefore form patterns of valuable relationships with a number of individuals.

All very interesting stuff but I cannot help feeling queasy about the use of such loaded terms as "consolation", "empathy" and "altruism" to describe these behaviours. They are no more acceptable in descriptions of raven social behaviour than they are in, for instance, Frans de Waal's descriptions of post-conflict affiliation and "concern" in chimps. However, the important thing to note is that such behaviour is not the exclusive province of a near-related primate. It is shared by a bird and, as such, cannot be used, tiresomely, to underscore the evolutionary proximity between us and chimps. The behaviour has its roots in similarities between the social complexity of ravens and chimps not their cognitive or genetic proximity to humans.

Do Chimpazees Learn By Imitation Or Emulation?

How best to explain the ability of chimps to learn simple technologies from each other? It is clear that such social learning occurs and is very powerful but do the same processes hold for both humans and chimpanzees? A number of important experiments over recent years suggest that humans actually over-imitate, even at the risk of copying irrelevant detail, and that this is extremely important the more complex, and therefore opaque, the task being demonstrated is. Here Claudio Tennie, Josep Call and Mike Tomasello, of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, present results of a so-called "floating peanut" task which showed that chimps learned with the same amount of success whether they were shown the correct solution to the task in a literal sense, or another method which achieved the same result. Emulation, they conclude, may be enough to explain the social transfer of skills. Here is the abstract. PLoS is free, so anyone interested can download the entire paper:


It is still unclear which observational learning mechanisms underlie the transmission of difficult problem-solving skills in chimpanzees. In particular, two different mechanisms have been proposed: imitation and emulation. Previous studies have largely failed to control for social factors when these mechanisms were targeted.

In an attempt to resolve the existing discrepancies, we adopted the ‘floating peanut task’, in which subjects need to spit water into a tube until it is sufficiently full for floating peanuts to be grasped. In a previous study only a few chimpanzees were able to invent the necessary solution (and they either did so in their first trials or never). Here we compared success levels in baseline tests with two experimental conditions that followed: 1) A full model condition to test whether social demonstrations would be effective, and 2) A social emulation control condition, in which a human experimenter poured water from a bottle into the tube, to test whether results information alone (present in both experimental conditions) would also induce successes. Crucially, we controlled for social factors in both experimental conditions. Both types of demonstrations significantly increased successful spitting, with no differences between demonstration types. We also found that younger subjects were more likely to succeed than older ones. Our analysis showed that mere order effects could not explain our results.

The full demonstration condition (which potentially offers additional information to observers, in the form of actions), induced no more successes than the emulation condition. Hence, emulation learning could explain the success in both conditions. This finding has broad implications for the interpretation of chimpanzee traditions, for which emulation learning may perhaps suffice.

Disagreement Over Role Of Mirror Neurons In Autism

Marco Iacoboni and Mirella Dapretta have long held that a defective mirror neuron system in the brains of autistics explains their relative inability to register social cues like emotional expressions. Their measurements have backed that up. However, Ilan Dinstein, of the Weizmann Institute in Israel, as Ewen Callaway reports in this New Scientist piece, begs to differ. He compared autistics and normal individuals in an fMRI scanner while they viewed either repetitive hand movements or a variety of hand movements. Excitation of the mirror neuron system declined with exposure to the repetitive stimulus in both autistics and controls. Perhaps general brain "noise" is the answer to autistic disability, he argues. Iacoboni and Dapretta apparently are worried about the small sample size in Dinstein's experiment and claim the jury is still out.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Researchers Crack "Splicing Code".

In my chapter ALADDIN'S CAVE I detail a number of genomic mechanisms that potentially can add up to greater genetic distance than that represented by DNA base substitution (point mutation) in the genetic code. One such mechanism is called "splice variation" where a gene can produce a whole range of mRNA intermediates between DNA and protein by selective splicing out of exonic and intronic DNA. In this way one gene can produce up to several thousand different, but related, proteins. It is becoming obvious that this is a potent way in which a limited number of genes can produce the complexity of structure and function of the brain, and, already, a number of differences between chimps and humans have been noted in splice variants. This article reports on a recent Nature paper by Brendan Frey and Benjamin Blencowe, of the University of Toronto, explaining how they have managed to decipher this splicing code.

Bonobos Shake Heads To Say "No".

Is this report from the BBC on some recent research at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig yet another piece of anthropomorphic licence - or not? Bonobo mothers have been recorded shaking their heads as if to say "no" when their infants ignore previous and other methods to reprove them. The researchers add this gesture to a list of communicative head movements which, in bonobos, is richer than in any other of the great ape species. The report comes from a research group headed by Josep Call and I am therefore prepared to take it more seriously than most reports of this nature - and the researchers are more cautious in their interpretation than the story's headline. As one of them, Christel Schneider, told the BBC, horizontal shaking of the head is not a human universal for "no", so it is a perilously long jump to see some evolutionary antecedent to human "preventative head shaking" in bonobo behaviour!

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

When It Comes To Sex, Chimps Need Help, Too!

Continuing the torrent of anthropomorphic rubbish currently being talked about chimpanzees, here is an amusing little piece from John Tierney in the New York Times - commenting on a recent article in Science from Bill McGrew, a world expert on chimpanzee technology, currently at the University of Cambridge. Tierney was fascinated that McGrew included "sex" as one of the daily life functions for which chimps had evolved tool use. It turns out that McGrew was referring to the practice of male chimps in one Tanzanian colony, augmenting their full view erections with the harsh sound of leaf-ripping - repeated until the, presumably visually-challenged, female showed some interest in what he had to offer. Tool use and manufacture? Rather stretching a point, methinks! McGrew is easily impressed!! You only have to compare a few ripped leaves with the multi-billion dollar internet porn industry, with the fact that there are computers, cameras and internet, together with world-wide prostitution, a plethora of sex toys, and several billion vivid imaginations to realise that, right down to the act of "getting it on", the gulf between humans and chimps is ENORMOUS.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Why Chimps Are Not Us...BBC Focus Magazine

The paperback version of NOT A CHIMP is due out in late June so it is nice to see this advertisement feature for OUP in the BBC's Focus magazine, featuring a short article penned by me and a "Sneaky Preview" link to the paperback.

Can You Hurt A Chimp's Feelings?

I've posted twice already about a recent spate of anthropomorphism in the popular and scientific press concerning "grieving" chimps. The spate seems to be turning into a major outbreak! Reports of chimps grieving over the death of an elderly female, Pansy, at a Scottish safari park, and female chimps carrying around dead infants, seemingly reluctant to let them go, from Africa, have now been conflated with the idiotic assertions on animal behaviour by a lecturer in film and television studies, from the University of East Anglia, Brett Mills, concerning our infringement of animals' privacy through the act of natural history film-making! When we poke a specialised camera into an animal's den or nest to film, for instance, rearing behaviour, we do it, says Mills, without the animal's consent. We are invading its privacy - its very behaviour, sequestering itself away, suggests it does not want to be seen. Here again, Mills operates from the assumption that other animal species feel the same emotions, often to the same intensity and cognitive depth, as humans. His suggestion that, in the absence of informed consent, we resist such activities, in rather the same manner that we might delicately avert our gaze while our dog relieves himself in the park, is yet another example of the misguided and scientifically unjustifiable basis for according rights to animals. In this Guardian piece, the "epidemic" gets a gentle put down from Ros Coward. It deserves a much ruder repudiation!

Friday, 30 April 2010

Chimps Mourning - Don't Make Me Laugh!

The other day I posted one of the better stories concerning the "grief laden" chimps at a Scottish safari park, pointing out that, even if this WAS grief (which I seriously doubt) and not merely evidence of social attachment, such behaviour is not the sole province of our nearest primate relatives but is shown by a number of species, including elephants and dogs. Another commentator has added corvid birds to the list. As such it is wrong to use evidence of such behaviour to justify claims of near evolutionary relatedness when such inflated claims are questionable and the behaviour at issue more likely to be a product of the SOCIAL INTELLIGENCE of the species concerned, rather than their evolutionary proximity to humans.

I might have known that a suitably dismissive blast was forthcoming from a reliable source - Helene Guldberg, deputy editor of Spiked Online. Her book, soon to be published, JUST ANOTHER APE?, will join NOT A CHIMP to form a two-pronged attack on anthropomorphism in the science and journalism that deals with comparisons between humans and chimpanzees. Here are a couple of excerpts:

"....these two studies – describing the behaviour of a handful of chimps – have been widely reported as suggesting that apes are more like humans than we might previously have thought. James Anderson, who led the University of Stirling research team, said: ‘Several phenomena have at one time or another been considered as setting humans apart from other species: reasoning ability, language ability, tool use, cultural variation and self-awareness, for example. But science has provided strong evidence that the boundaries between us and other species are nowhere near to being as clearly defined as many people used to think.’

In my opinion, the opposite is in fact the case. As I argue in my forthcoming book Just Another Ape?, science has provided strong evidence that the boundaries between us and other species are in fact vast.

The problem is that not only journalism but increasingly science writing as well is littered with anthropomorphism – the attribution of human characteristics to animals. This can be very deceptive. Admittedly it is difficult for human beings not to ascribe human emotions and human motivations to animal behaviour, because it is the only way we make sense of the actions of our fellow humans. But it is precisely for this reason that we need to ensure that our presumptions are properly tested.

It is sloppy thinking simply to apply human characteristics and motives to animals. Take the question of grief and mourning. There is no evidence that chimpanzees have an understanding of death. They have no rituals surrounding death. The evidence of human burials not long after the birth of Homo sapiens around 100,000 years ago is the first indication of any species having an awareness of death."

Guldberg sums up her argument by quoting Derek Penn, a research colleague of arch-skeptic cognitive scientist Daniel Povinelli, thus:

"As Derek Penn and his colleagues at the Cognitive Evolution Group at the University of Louisiana and the UCLA Reasoning Lab argue: ‘Human animals – and no other – build fires and wheels, diagnose each other’s illnesses, communicate using symbols, navigate with maps, risk their lives for ideals, collaborate with each other, explain the world in terms of hypothetical causes, punish strangers for breaking rules, imagine impossible scenarios, and teach each other how to do all of the above.’

Unless we hold on to the belief in our exceptional abilities we will never be able to envision or build a better future – in which case, we might as well be monkeys."

Hear, hear!!

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Chimps Feel Death Like Humans

Here's one version of a story that has been out wide and far on the blogosphere over the last 48 hours (see also Ian Sample's account in the Guardian yesterday) about observations from the chimp colony at the Blair Drummond Safari Park in Stirlingshire, Scotland, where they appear to demonstrate collective interest/concern/grief over the approaching and eventual death of an elderly female.

The assumption is that the chimps share our faculty of awareness of the approach of death, and significant empathy for the dying.

Chimps are conspicuously social and intelligent animals and it is not surprising to find that they are capable of empathising with the terminal predicament of an important female member of the troupe. Are they, as the scientific authors of the paper on which these articles are based, state, therefore nearer to humans than many of us like to think? Possibly, but it is worth pointing out that displays such as this have been shown by elephants and even dogs. So this empathy may be more a product of sociality than genetic relatedness.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Complex Cognition And Behavioural Innovation In New Caledonian Crows

In my chapter CLEVER CORVIDS I review a great deal of work that suggests (but does not satisfactorily prove - any more than the chimp research) that corvids - crow family birds - can operate abstract causal rules in tool manufacture, selection and use - and not just rely on lower-level cognition such as that provided by reinforcement. In this paper the New Zealand scientists who work with New Caledonian crows significantly up the ante in trying to convince us that something high-level is going on. Here, as the abstract below spells out - they asked the crows to perform a complex 3-stage metatool problem (the use of a tool upon a tool...). Truly amazing. See GENE EXPRESSION's link from my blog side-bar section for an article with a piece of video of the task. The experiment has proved so eye-catching that it merits a section on the editorial page of today's Guardian newspaper!! Fame assured!

"Apes, corvids and parrots all show high rates of behavioural innovation in the wild. However, it is unclear whether this innovative behaviour is underpinned by cognition more complex than simple learning mechanisms. To investigate this question we presented New Caledonian crows with a novel three-stage metatool problem. The task involved three distinct stages: (i) obtaining a short stick by pulling up a string, (ii) using the short stick as a metatool to extract a long stick from a toolbox, and finally (iii) using the long stick to extract food from a hole. Crows with previous experience of the behaviours in stages 1–3 linked them into a novel sequence to solve the problem on the first trial. Crows with experience of only using string and tools to access food also successfully solved the problem. This innovative use of established behaviours in novel contexts was not based on resurgence, chaining and conditional reinforcement. Instead, the performance was consistent with the transfer of an abstract, causal rule: ‘out-of-reach objects can be accessed using a tool’. This suggests that high innovation rates in the wild may reflect complex cognitive abilities that supplement basic learning mechanisms."