Friday, July 16, 2010

Dacher Keltner, Born To Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life (2009)

When I first saw Born to Be Good at the store in a display of books, the title nearly turned me off. It sounded like a self-improvement book, a genre I generally avoid. But the subtitle caught my attention. It suggested that this was a scientific presentation, so I flipped the pages and saw references to Paul Ekman's work on facial expressions --- research that I had heard of, but never read --- along with references to Darwin, Frans DeWaal, and even the musician Steve Reich. And the author Dacher Keltner, a name that I was unfamiliar with, is a professor of psychology at my alma mater, the University of California, so I took a chance. I was not disappointed, notwithstanding the kitschy references to jen and the jen ratio, a Confucian measure of one's happiness.

Born to Be Good is in the genre of scientific literature about what it means to be human, so it fits with Michael Gazzaniga's Human (September 27, 2009 post), Marco Iacoboni's Mirroring People (September 18, 2009 post), and Marc Hauser's Moral Minds, all which document the social, cooperative, and even altruistic nature of the human species and the evolutionary origins of cooperation and altruism within our very social species. If there was a study in contrasts to read after Richard Wrangham's Demonic Males (July 1, 2010 post) about the dark, violent side of human nature, Born to Be Good is it. Keltner even stole a chapter title from Frans DeWaal's The Ape and The Sushi Master (June 17, 2010 post) and titled one of his chapters "Survival of the Kindest." Moreover, Born to Be Good fits in the lineage of research represented by Antonio Damassio's The Feeling of What Happens, which documents the fundamental role of emotion in human decision-making.

"Emotions are involuntary commitment devices that bind us to one another in long-term, mutually beneficial relationships," Keltner says. Emotions are communicated through several sensory means: visually through facial expressions, which Keltner documents based on his own research and that of his teacher and mentor, Paul Ekman, explaining how muscles in the face are linked to and controlled by neural pathways in the brain that make them reliable indicators of emotion. In facial expression, we recognize embarrassment, which signals our moral sense of wrongdoing and respect for the judgment of others. In facial expression, the smile signals friendly intent and affection among peers and movement toward cooperation and intimacy. In facial expression, laughter triggers mirror neurons in the brains of others that builds cooperative bonds between one who laughs and the other who hears the laugh. Keltner tells us that teasing is not the same as bullying, and is a type of playful communication designed to ferret out another's commitments that bolsters social life. Emotions are communicated through touch, and the skin, our largest sensory organ, evolved to be an important part of social communication among humans and their predecessors.

Keltner is at his best when he discussed the evolutionary origins of love (trust) and compassion and evolutionary development of the vagus nerve, which releases a hormone, oxytocin, that is linked to feelings of sympathy, concern over the vulnerability of others, and caregiving, and which can be stimulated by touch, and is linked to monogamy in certain species. "We have neuropeptides that enable trust and devotion, and a branch of nerves that connects the brain, the voice, and the heart that enables caretaking," says Keltner. "We are wired for good." The other books cited above bear this out, based on other research as well. But still, the dark side of human social behavior documented by Wrangham should not be forgotten as we experience awe for others and even nature writ large. Wrangham makes his case that violence might be important to survival in some primates, although he considers that it could be fatal to the survival of humans.

But Keltner makes the other case --- that love, compassion, are caregiving cooperation.

The big idea here is how information is communicated and the capabilities of the human mind. And again, as in the books discussed in several prior posts, it is information at a chemical level that is a key form of communication. "The profound vulnerability of our big-brained offspring wired us into an instinct to care. It created in us a biologically based capacity for sympathy. It produced a vagus nerve, loaded up with oxytocin receptors, the provenance of feelings of devotion, sacrifice, and trust. It yielded a rich set of signals --- empathetic sighs, oblique eyebrows, and soothing touch, which trigger vagus nerve response and oxytocin and opioid release in the recipient, giving rise to oceanic feelings of connection."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson, Demonic Males: Apes and The Origins of Human Violence (1996)

I purchased Demonic Males at the same time that I purchased The Ape and The Sushi Master (June 17, 2010 post), and as both books focus on and compare primate behavior with human behavior, they deserve to be read together. Richard Wrangham focuses on the darker side of human behavior: why do humans kill others in their own species and are humans unique in that respect? Why is this violence essentially a characteristic of the male of the species? The answer to the first question is no, humans are not entirely unique in seeking out others within their species to kill them, but there are very few species who share this type of behavior. And among the few species who commit violence against others within their species, the notables are evolutionarily close to humans: orangutangs, chimpanzees and gorillas. Male orangutangs are notable for rape; gorillas are notable for killing infant gorillas; and chimps are notable for battering other chimps as well as searching out other chimps and killing them. In exploring the world of organgutangs, chimps, gorillas, and another evolutionary offshoot of the chimp --- bonobos --- we can learn much about the origins of human violence and why violence is primarily associated with the male of the species.

Decades of research on chimpanzees in their African habitat reveals that they raid nearby chimp communities for the purpose of killing. Two conditions, explains Wrangham, account for the chimp's tendency to look for killing opportunities: party gangs and male bondedness. Party gangs evolve because of competition for a scarce food supply, and they need to defend the food supply of their existing territory or expand their existing territory. Males are selected for this aggression, says Wrangham, because males walk faster than females and do not carry infants with them; this results in bonding among chimps. And Wrangham finds similarities between chimpanzees and humans that are either not as strong or non-existent between chimps or humans on the one hand, and other primates on the other. In all cases, territorial control and domination is a common feature in explaining primate aggression, but only in the case of humans and their genetically closest primate, the chimp, is the common element a deliberate search for victims.

Social hierarchy is a characteristic of chimp communities, just as it is in human communities, and competition for dominance is particularly a characteristic of male chimps. Wrangham says that "we exaggerate only barely in saying that a male chimpanzee in his prime organizes his whole life around issues of rank" ---- attempting to attain alpha status. Female chimpanzees do not seem to care as much about rank. Wrangham asserts that the driver here is pride (and arrogance), not violence for its own sake. I don't know how he knows this, but it sounds like an example of what Frans DeWaal called in The Ape and The Sushi Master (June 17, 20101 post) "naive anthropomorphisim" --- asking, how would I feel in this situation? Wrangham notes, "Pride obviously serves as a stimulus for much interpersonal aggression in humans, and we can hypothesize confidently that this emotion evolved during countless generations in which males who achieved high status were able to turn their social success into extra reproduction."

I don't want to dwell on this book. If this was the only book one read on the subject of the origins of human behavior, you would conclude that male humans are born to kill, and empirical observation tells us that is not the only truism one can declare about male humans. Demonic Males is very interesting for what it documents: the apparent origins of human violence can be found in other primate species closest to humans, which indicates a genetic and evolutionary foundation for violent behavior among human males. But there is more to the story that primatologists are telling us about the commonalities among primate behaviors, including the origins of social cohesion, cooperation, and even morality and altrusim. Michael Gazzaniga's Human (September 27, 2009 post) contributes much to this broader understanding of human evolution. Wrangham barely mentions these other common attributes of primate social systems. Violence is only one behavioral aspect of our social nature. Importantly, however, Wrangham validates DeWaal's thesis in The Ape and The Sushi Master about the importance of recognizing continuity between humans and other animal species.