Friday, June 4, 2010

Monkey Business

This is a summary of a pair of articles titled "How Selfish an Animal?" by Frans de Waal and "Fairness and Other-Regarding Preferences in Nonhuman Primates" by Susan Brosnan in the book Moral Markets. Both articles are from evolutionary biologists studying chimpanzees and other species and how they respond in social situations. The article by Frans de Waal is concerned with the exchange of favors by chimpanzees while Brosnan is concerned with how chimpanzees divide the distribution of rewards. Both of these authors believe that the study of animals have implications for human biological foundations which they believe have implications for how we establish social/legal rules.

The main contribution of Frans de Waal from this article is to separate selfish from other-regarding behavior by saying that they are two levels of explanations. There are ultimate causes and proximate causes of behavior. For example, he believes that we likely developed other regarding behaviors ranging from reciprocity to altruism because the earliest animals lived and hunted in community. Because these behaviors were necessary for survival we could say their ultimate cause was selfishness via self preservation. However, behavior could be more proximate which means that the motivation may not stem from selfish long run tendencies, but, a desire to do good for others. (Side Note: Perhaps I inflate the importance of this distinction, but, in economics many people distill all behavior down to self-serving tendencies. I believe self-interest is a strong tendency but I also believe that there are many times that other motivations are the source of action

After that distinction de Waal is primarily concerned with cooperation among chimpanzees with a whole host of reciprocal behaviors dubbed “the marketplace for services” that includes grooming, sex, support in fights and baby sitting. Though these are reciprocal acts (where favors are given with the expectation of return) de Waal advises the reader not to see them as self-serving (a la the previous paragraph). The key findings from de Waal surrounding these reciprocal behaviors rests in the group dynamics. When chimpanzees operate in groups they are successful to the extent they are able to reciprocate. If reciprocal acts do not occur revenge may be taken upon free-riders in the group. More commonly the disenchanted group members form new groups with whom they can cooperate.

Below is a video of de Waal explaining his interests in studying chimpanzees.

Susan Brosnan shares a similar interest with de Waal since she studies chimpanzees in community, but, focuses more on how the chimpanzees distribute rewards. Her central finding is that there are multiple levels in why some division is considered fair by chimpanzees. The distribution matters BUT it matters less if attainment of the initial prize is considered fair by the other participants. Wow! That sounds a lot like why people dislike the market economy sometimes. If you believe success is based more on luck that skill you will want a more fair distribution. However, if you believe someone obtained a prize based on skill the distribution will matter less. Brosnan also talks at length about studies that have found aversion to inequalitiy or inequity as well as the propensity of people to engage in social comparison.

They say there are at least two benefits to studying chimpanzees ---the study is purely positive and they are free of formal institutions. What do I mean by positive? One problem with studying how humans make cooperative decisions is the moral component. Essentially we cooperate because we believe we should cooperate. Chimps don’t have this moral component hence we are not getting moral obligation when we see their behavior. Secondly, they do not have formal court systems, contracts, etc. Of course, they do have other arrangements that involve revolt and protection in fights. But, both of these “benefits” arise because chimps do not have the same higher cognitive ability. Finally, I will close with my feeling about the article.

In the introduction to her chapter Brosnan states that, “Studying these mirrors of ourselves and our evolutionary past can tell us a great deal about what to expect from ourselves in various situations.” This statement is a perfect touchstone to discuss my overall feeling about the articles. Can we learn a lot from these animals? Yes and No. Animal behavior can offer insights into human beings (for example my previous post), but, research had already been conducted with humans as subjects and showed the same kinds of findings. I think Brosnan and de Waal do an excellent job of discussing some of the rewards of engaging this study but much of the research has already been conducted with humans. Perhaps they think their studies are well formed because chimps don't have the cognitive ability to distinguish right and wrong hence they believe they are studying the biological foundations of humans. But, that rests on the following question, are we “mirrors” of chimpanzees? I do not believe we are descended from these animals. Admittedly there is some shock to reading the seeming common wisdom of science that says humans are descended directly from an offshoot of chimpanzees. It is also creepy when these evolutionary ideas are bandied about stating that we exist now because of our incredible abilities of self-preservation ---that is our current existence is erected upon a monument of selfishness. But, overall I found this reading to be beneficial.

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