Friday, January 28, 2011

Flurry news revisited: It's one thing to dress baby girl chimps in pink, but ...

In the wake of the Marc Hauser "they talk to me" scandal around research into the inner lives of primates, a friend was asked to make agreeable noises about Frans de Waal's Our inner ape. Someone else commented,
This looks to be precisely the kind of thing Bolhuis and Wynne chided their colleagues for in an April 2009 issue of Nature. They point out that 20 years of research into purported chimp "empathy," "conflict resolution," "fairness" and sense of "equity," have lacked proper controls and amount to little more than "a flurry of anthropomorphic overinterpretation."

Here's British physicist David Tyler on the problem:
Bolhuis and Wynne provide a healthy check on these enthusiasms.

"For instance, capuchin monkeys were thought to have a sense of fairness because they reject a slice of cucumber if they see another monkey in an adjacent cage, performing the same task, rewarded with a more sought-after grape. Researchers interpreted a monkey's refusal to eat the cucumber as evidence of 'inequity aversion' prompted by seeing another monkey being more generously rewarded. Yet, closer analysis has revealed that a monkey will still refuse cucumber when a grape is placed in a nearby empty cage. This suggests that the monkeys simply reject lesser rewards when better ones are available."

Bolhuis and Wynne point out several behaviours and skills displayed by birds which have been interpreted in anthropomorphic ways when seen in apes and monkeys. They suggest that evolutionary convergence may be more important than ancestral relationships. They point out that many researchers have laboured hard at teaching apes some form of language, but "linguists generally agree that the resulting efforts made by chimps and bonobos don't qualify as language".
None of this is inconsistent with the idea that primates have some form of consciousness. The problem is the culture-driven project of mapping human aspirations attitudes, assumptions, and behaviour onto them. And theirs onto us. Think "Evolutionary Agony Aunt."