Friday, 19 March 2010

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Evolution of Fairness Driven by Culture, Not Genes

Posted: 18 Mar 2010 02:05 PM PDT


Human behaviors are often explained as hard-wired evolutionary leftovers of life on the savannah or during the Stone Age. But a study of one very modern behavior, fairness toward total strangers one will never meet again, suggests it evolved recently, and is rooted in culture rather than biology.

In a series of three behavioral tests given to 2,100 people in societies around the world, an innate sense of fairness dovetailed with participation in markets and major religions. Generally speaking, these use social norms and informal institutions to promote fairness, which allow societies to become larger and more complex.

Biologically speaking, people in the study weren't fundamentally different from their circa-200,000 B.C. ancestors, or from each other. What differed was their cultural DNA.

"You can't get the effects we're seeing from genes," said Joe Henrich, a University of British Columbia evolutionary psychologist and co-author of the study." These are things you learn as a consequence of growing up in a particular place." The study was published March 18 in Science.

Kindness towards strangers is a baffling human trait, given that strangers appear to have been treated with suspicion and violence for most of human history. Some analyses of mortality in the Stone Age — those 2.5 million years of living in small groups that ended just 200,000 years ago — estimate that one in seven people died in combat.

But something changed. Small, family-based groups came together, forming hunter-gatherer tribes. With the advent of agriculture, tribes gave way to city-states. After that, came nations. Anthropologists say all this was only possible because people were willing to treat total strangers in a manner once reserved for kin.

Some researchers say that shift was rooted in a glitch in humanity's primal circuitry, one that caused people to mistakenly treat strangers as relatives. Others think it's a holdover of Stone Age-style thinking — that deep in our brains we see everyone we meet as part of our tiny family, and can't imagine encountering someone who won't ever be seen again.

That's not what Henrich's team thinks. To them, fairness between strangers at the individual level is what allows social organisms to thrive, and to out-compete more selfish societies. From that perspective, fairness-promoting social norms and informal institutions — markets and religion — are an inevitable evolutionary step. Fortunately for us, they make life gentler.

"Once you get cultural evolution going with any strength, you get the enforcement of these norms." Behaviors interlock in a way that rewards fairness and punishes its violation, Henrichs said.

To study this dynamic, Henrichs' team had 2,100 people from 15 different societies — hunter-gatherers, marine foragers, pastoralists, horticulturalists and wage laborers — play three variations of a game designed to measure their innate sense of fairness.

In the first, a player is given a sum equivalent to a day's earnings, and told to share as much or as little as they want with a second player. Both are anonymous, so from a purely self-interested perspective, there's no reason to share at all.

In the second variation, the second player decides beforehand which offers they would accept and which they'd reject, but rejection means that neither player gets anything. Self-interest dictates that the second player accept any offer, even the lowest.

In the last variation, a third player receives a sum that can either be kept or spent on punishing an unfair offer from the first player to the second. Self-interest dictates that the third player keep their money, and spend nothing on punishment.

fairness2The trend in the responses was clear: When people lived in larger communities, and participated more in markets and religion, they were more willing to share, and more willing to punish selfishness.

In smaller communities, lacking the social norms and informal institutions embodied by markets and religion, people have narrow concepts of fairness, "but they're not for dealing with people outside your sphere. There are no default norms for that. There are norms for fairness, but not the kind that let you build a large, well-running culture," said Henrichs.

"These findings call into question the standard assumption in economics that preferences are innate and stable," wrote Karla Hoff, a World Bank economist who was not involved in the study, in an accompanying commentary in Science. "We cannot know for certain how fairly our ancestors in foraging bands behaved," but the findings "bring us a closer understanding," she wrote.

Henrichs suggests that culture evolved toward fairness for hundreds of thousands of years before the advent of agriculture, which in turn fostered stable, ever-larger community structures that further accelerated the cultural evolution of fairness. This could have biological effects, favoring the development of linguistic and cognitive abilities, but the fundamental driver was culture.

"We can't rule out the possibility that there was culture-gene interaction, but all the variation we see could be explained by plain cultural evolution," Henrich said.

Images: 1) Game playing in the village of Teci, on Yasawa Island, Fiji./Robert Boyd. 2) Graph showing the average offer in the Dictator Game, arranged by the degree of test subjects' participation in markets./Science.

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Citation: "Markets, Religion, Community Size, and the Evolution of Fairness and Punishment." By Joseph Henrich, Jean Ensminger, Richard McElreath, Abigail Barr, Clark Barrett, Alexander Bolyanatz, Juan Camilo Cardenas, Michael Gurven, Edwins Gwako, NatalieHenrich, Carolyn Lesorogol,Frank Marlowe, David Tracer, John Ziker. Science, Vol. 327 No. 5972, March 18, 2010.

"Fairness in Modern Society." By Karla Hoff. Science, Vol. 327 No. 5972, March 18, 2010.

Brandon Keim's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecological tipping points.

Op-Ed: Why the Internet Should Win the Nobel Peace Prize

Posted: 18 Mar 2010 10:45 AM PDT


This year, a Chinese dissident and a Russian human rights advocate — recent nominees for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize — are joined by an unlikely, nonhuman contender: the internet.

From the Fields is a periodic Wired Science op-ed series presenting leading scientists' reflections on their work, society and culture.jamil_zaki_mug
Jamil Zaki is finishing his PhD in psychology and neuroscience at Columbia University. His research focuses on empathy and altruism, and specifically how we (and our brains) come to understand, care for, and respond to other people. He has published several scientific articles on these subjects. He also writes about culture, social behavior and the brain at his blogs on the Huffington Post and Psychology Today.

A campaign to nominate the web, first put forth by the editors of Wired Italy, proclaims that the internet has "laid the foundations for a new kind of society," in which massive interpersonal contact fosters consensus and understanding.

Predictably, the internet's nomination was met with a wave of skepticism. After all, isn't it ridiculous to give one of the world's greatest honors to an inanimate technology? A friend of mine asked, "How about we give [the Nobel] to paper, since that's what all peace agreements have been written on?"

The nomination seems especially ill-advised when we consider how un-Nobel-like online life tends to be. The primary use of social networking sites is "meforming," or frequent updates about the minutia of people's lives that one research group duly categorized as "pointless babble." And if the internet's most common asset is keeping us posted on what old high school classmates are having for brunch, then its risks may be more important.

Following a tragic case in which a couple allowed their baby to starve while raising a virtual child online, William Saletan warned that the internet lures us away from the real, grassy, human-populated world, toward a Terminator-esque dystopia in which digital life "gains the upper hand," presumably leaving us all ignoring each other in favor of compulsive button pressing.

A lot of this bad press is misdirected. What it critically misses is that the internet is simply an enormous amplifier of human social behaviors, and that many of these behaviors are worth amplifying. Take the case of altruism. Countless demonstrations suggest that helping others comes naturally to us. Toddlers aid people in need without prompting, and even 6-month old infants prefer watching prosocial, as opposed to antisocial behavior.


Altruism is likely driven by empathy — our tendency to "resonate" with the emotional and physical states of other people. For example, if you've ever had a friend who's both clumsy and culinary, chances are you've seen that friend burn himself on a hot stove accidentally. Watching this, you likely felt a pang of discomfort, and maybe even pulled your hand back, as if you, and not your friend, had been burned. My research and that of others has demonstrated that when we watch others in pain, we activate some of the same brain regions that are also active when we experience pain ourselves, suggesting that we really do "feel their pain." I like to call this the Bill Clinton effect.

Empathy and altruism are powerful instincts that define our species, but they can also be shut off or amplified by a number of situational factors. A newly explored way to "turn up" altruism is especially relevant to the internet. People are much more likely to be generous when they are following the example set by others. Recent research has demonstrated that people can "catch" everything from happiness to obesity from each other. Moods and behaviors propagate through our social networks like strains of the flu.

In a paper published last week, researchers demonstrated that this contagion applies to altruism as well. After seeing others acting generously towards a "public good," individuals were more likely to follow suit, and these influences spread through several degrees of separation in a social network, forming "cascades of cooperative behavior."

The internet can spread positive cascades further than we could have previously imagined. Recently, the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile provided a dramatic example of this effectiveness. Following both tragedies, social media played a key role in creating an outpouring of private aid. Instead of updating about their own lives, people posted requests for text message donations to the Red Cross, a message that rippled through social networks quickly and broadly.

Similar altruistic cascades followed the South Asian Tsunami in 2004. Mathematically, altruism in response to these tragedies spreads in ways similar to epidemics. And like epidemics, contagion of altruistic behavior is most effective when it is distributed and fast-moving. The internet provides, by far, the most effective vehicle for us to "catch" positive social behaviors from each other.

When Marshall McLuhan first coined the phrase, "the medium is the message," he was describing how radio and television changed our lives by allowing us to share experiences on a grand scale. McLuhan believed that people were largely oblivious to the impact of media on culture, and that IBM was only then discovering "that it was not in the business of making office equipment or business machines, but that it was in the business of processing information."

Four decades later, it would be hard to accuse Google (or us) of similar ignorance. We are hyper-aware of the extent to which the internet has altered our world. But what is the result of this change? Has it rendered us a bunch of pale, empathy-drained automatons? I think this opinion is too easy and too reactionary. Internet culture can amplify and spread our best and most human characteristics: empathy, altruism and communication. If this is the case, there may be reasons to seriously consider giving this year's Nobel medal to an unlikely, interpersonal laureate.

Image: Dia™/flickr

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Cosmic Dust Gives Millky Way a Fiery Mane

Posted: 18 Mar 2010 10:30 AM PDT


The Planck space telescope, which is surveying the entire sky in four massive sweeps, has nearly finished its first scan.

Rotating in orbit, Planck takes data of the sky in strips, almost the reverse of a chef peeling an apple in one long, thin strip.

This image, taken from the scan, shows the structure and form of dust clouds within about 500 light-years of the sun. The bright band in this far-infrared image is the Milky Way's spiral disk. Above that, you can see the cold dust arching upwards. The color palette here is a bit unusual: Reddish tones are colder, while white tones are warmer.

The Planck mission, launched in May 2009 by the European Space Agency, is creating the best-ever map of the cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.

Image: ESA and the HFI Consortium, IRAS

See Also:

WiSci 2.0: Alexis Madrigal's Twitter, Tumblr, and green tech history research site; Wired Science on Twitter and Facebook.

Controversy Erupts Over Captive Endangered Bat Colony

Posted: 18 Mar 2010 08:41 AM PDT


A bitter controversy is brewing over a captive colony of endangered Virginia big-eared bats, founded in November as a hedge against disease driving the species to extinction in the wild.

Of 40 bats put in the colony, only 10 have survived. According to environmental activists and a consultant to the project, their demise wasn't just an unfortunate consequence of the animals' sensitivity, but a result of avoidable human negligence.

If the colony's keepers had not "ignored the advice of experts, these bats would still be alive today," said Christine Erickson, a staff attorney Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a government watchdog group.

On March 9, PEER filed a complaint (.pdf) with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the project's overseers. The complaint was based on a critique of the bats' care (.pdf) at the Smithsonian National Zoo written by Missy Singleton, a bat care consultant retained by the Zoo during the colony's first few weeks.

USFWS officials decided to start the colony after white nose syndrome, a highly virulent disease that threatens many cave-dwelling eastern bat species with extinction, was found in one of the few caves where Virginia big-eared bats live.

The responsibility for keeping the bats was given to the Smithsonian National Zoo. Federal and zoo officials described the colony as an ark, a hedge against the suddenly realistic possibility of the species' demise.

According to PEER and Singleton, the zoo disregarded the advice of experts in setting up the colony. Among the allegations are improper feeding, exposure to fluctuating temperatures and careless handling, leading to the fatal infections that have killed most of the bats. In a letter to the USFWS, Singleton described "a repeated and ongoing disregard for the welfare of the bats."

"Even under the most challenging conditions, no more than a 20 percent death rate is considered acceptable for insectivorous bats," wrote Singleton.

In a public statement, the National Zoo said (.pdf) that many of Singleton's claims, "which form the bulk of the complaint, are unsubstantiated and untrue."

"The care plan was based on existing bat protocols, but they had to very quickly adapt and change some of those protocols," said Pamela Baker Masson, a communications officer at the National Zoo. "Nobody has ever worked with this subspecies of bat."

Baker Masson said that Singleton was only present during the first few weeks of the colony's founding, and was not familiar with the full story. Some of her advice was followed but proved ineffective, said Baker Masson.

"She said the bats needed to be fed juicier mealworms, but we found that when the bats ate them, liquid dripped off their chins, matted their fur, and created skin ulcers that led to infections. So we had to reverse that," said Baker Masson.

According to Barbara Douglas, a USFWS biologist who oversaw the project, the department is now reviewing the colony's care. Some of the allegations are untrue, "and some I don't have enough information on yet. Obviously, we take any of those allegations very seriously," she said.

As to charges that expert advice was ignored, Douglas said that "before any bats were brought into captivity, they consulted with a number of experts." The full plan is available (.pdf) from the USFWS.

The USFWS has not decided what will be done with the remaining captive bats, which PEER wants transferred to professional bat rehabilitators. According to Jeremy Douglas, the USFWS's white nose syndrome coordinator, captive colonies remain an option for bat species threatened by the disease.

Peter Youngbaer, the White Nose Syndrome liaison for the National Speleological Society, said he only recently became aware of PEER's allegations, but does consider them troubling. The goal of raising Virginia big eared bats in captivity, however, he considers noble.

With just a few thousand bats left, "and a fatal, highly infectious disease knocking at the door, I can't fault the idea as illegitimate. The particulars of the project, however, are another story," said Youngbaer.

Image: Jeff Hajenja, West Virginia Department of Natural Resources/Flickr

See Also:

Brandon Keim's Twitter stream and reportorial outtakes; Wired Science on Twitter. Brandon is currently working on a book about ecological tipping points.