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Friday, October 03, 2014

Are humans "natural born killers"? If you believe that, they've got a war they want to sell you



You probably saw the headlines: "Chimps and humans are both 'natural born killers' with an almost psychopathic tendency towards violence and slaughter" (The Independent, 17 September). "Natural born killers: chimpanzees are inherently violent and wage war like their human 'cousins', study claims" (Daily Mail, 17 September). "Chimpanzees and humans have one trait in common – both are natural born killers, scientists have shown" (USA Today).

These newspaper articles were prompted by the publication of a meta-study (a survey of previous research) in the prestigious scientific journal Nature entitled "Lethal aggression in Pan is better explained by adaptive strategies than human impacts" written by 30 scientists who analysed the reports of all known killings by chimpanzees, 158 killings in 18 chimpanzee communities over 50 years in east, west and central Africa.

The meta-study, called Wilson et al. (and others) after its lead author, limits itself to chimpanzee behaviour and presents no evidence whatsoever about human behaviour. Nevertheless, several of its authors and the media stepped out of the framework of the facts it examines to weigh in on another question, the claim that chimpanzees can be "a model for understanding human violence," as Michael Wilson explained in a post-publication interview. Its senior author, Richard Wrangham, once wrote that "Chimpanzee-like violence preceded and paved the way for human war".

This is a very important and hotly debated topic among scientists in many fields and society in general. Proponents of the idea that a tendency towards aggression and even war is genetically rooted in human beings often argue that it is an adaptation, a trait that gives organisms an advantage in a given environment, that our distant primate ancestors passed along to us. They look for evidence in the behaviour of other modern primates such as gorillas and baboons, and lately our genetically closest cousins, chimpanzees, whose genetic structure is closer to ours than it is to other apes.

But the actual subject of Wilson et al., the facts it examined by reviewing fieldwork reports, was not whether or not human or even chimpanzee social behaviour could be explained by genetics, but under what circumstances chimpanzees kill each other. It was designed to answer the question of whether violence between groups of chimpanzees is occasioned by human impact on their environment, so that they act in a way that they would not have in the absence of human intervention, in what could loosely be called their natural state, as some researchers have concluded.

For instance, the pioneering primatologist Jane Goodall suggested that her own activities in providing bananas to encourage the chimpanzees she studied to stay put caused an unusual concentration of male chimps and provoked previously unseen kinds of behaviour. This human impact idea has been one line of reasoning against claims of genetically determined behaviour in other primates, let alone people.

Wilson et al. concluded that chimpanzees kill within their own communities and more often chimpanzees of other communities regardless of human presence. The paper does not actually address the question of why. Its summary carefully states that "our results are compatible with previously proposed adaptive explanations for killing by chimpanzees, whereas the human impact hypothesis is not supported." While it provides evidence in the debate about genetics and behaviour, it does not prove that chimpanzees are genetically disposed toward violence, but merely that they sometimes are violent.

Chimpanzee behaviour is not invariable. It can change dramatically in different circumstances. They are capable of learning and teaching each other, with some incipient degree of culture. Not everything they do is necessarily programmed in their genes, although their genetics set the stage for what is possible. There can be social as well as genetic "adaptive explanations", which are two very different things.

Further, what exactly is shown by the statistics about violent incidents they survey? In his blog on Scientific American, John Horgan argues that if one excludes the killings of infant chimps within a particular group, individual acts that have little analogy in human society, the number of directly observed or inferred killings (bodies found with bite marks, etc.) is low. There are well-known instances in which chimps in one group have killed chimps of another, usually in collective raids since it takes several adult chimps to kill another one. But this behaviour that is often cited as a precursor of human war is relatively rare. Using the cases listed in the Nature paper, Horgan calculates an average of one every fifteen years per community. But even Horgan fails to mention how greatly this violence seems to vary from one community to another and at different times, an important fact because it suggests the complex relationship between the biological makeup of individual chimps and their physical and social environment.
 
To be continued…..

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

the ABC of Communism
A is for Avakian
B is for Bob
C is for Charles, as in Robert Charles Avakian, the middle name of Bob Avakian.

Imagine BA everywhere!

Anonymous said...

Some people wear Mao shirts. Mao wears Bob Avakian shirts.

Bob Avakian is the reason why Waldo is hiding.

Bob Avakian can slam a revolving door.

Bob Avakian destroyed the periodic table, because Bob Avakian only recognizes the element of surprise.

Bob Avakian can win a game of Connect Four in only three moves.

Anonymous said...

but there's a New Synthesis
and books, speeches with deep analysis
but you don't read em, wont hear em, go near em,
like that, you remain in paralysis
like that, you're ALL PLAYED OUT!

Otto said...

To readers I should remind people that I don't normally delete comments regardless of their content. The above comments are probably from the same troll that has been stalking the Kasama Project. This is not about opinion or Bob Avakian--it is about trying to disrupt my blog. Be warned this troll is just a phony.