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"None of us, I think, in the mid-'70s, when The Selfish Gene was published, would have thought we'd be devoting so much mental space now to confront religion. We thought that matter had long been closed."— Ian McEwan, 'Science writing: Towards a literary tradition?', presented at The Selfish Gene: Thirty Years On, The Old Theatre, London, 2006 [...]

Edge 294—July 16, 2009
(8,200 words)


@ SCI FOO '09

Victoria Stodden, George Dyson, Lee Smolin, Daniel Kahneman, Linda Stone, Timo Hannay

By Vanessa Woods & Brian Hare


Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Stewart Brand, Scott Atran, Colin Tudge, Geoffrey Miller, PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, Steven Pinker, Clay Shirky, Daniel Dennett, Jonah Lehrer, J. Craig Venter, Colin Tundge, Douglas Rushkoff, Paul Davies, Leonard Susskind, John Horgan, Alan Guth, Lisa Randall, Marc D. Hauser, Brian Eno, AC Grayling

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@ Sci Foo*

San Francisco, Palo Alto, & Mountain View, California — July 6-12, 2009

(* Science Foo Camp: Google/Nature/O'Reilly Media)


THE REALITY CLUB: "Who and/or what was fresh and new at SciFoo '09"

Victoria Stodden, George Dyson

En route: San Francisco & Palo Alto, July 6-10

Click Here To Begin Slide Show
[or click on images to enlarge]

Alison Gopnik, UC Berkeley

Andre Linde, Stanford

Robert Sapolsky, Stanford

W. Brian Arthur, SantaFe Institute

Cameron Marlow, Facebook
George Dyson, Science Historian

Dave Morin, Facebook

Larry Brilliant,
Skoll Urgent Threats Fund

Dave Morin, Facebook
John Brockman, Edge


Sci Foo '09: The Googleplex, July 10-12

Elon Musk, Tesla, SpaceX

Geoffrey West, SantaFe Institute
Neri Oxman, MIT Media Lab

Maria Spiropulu, Caltech
Dean Kamen, Deka Research

Lucy Odling-Smee, Nature

Danny Kahneman, Princeton

Chris DiBona, Google

George Church, Harvard Medical School

Philip Campbell, Nature

Stewart Brand, Long Now Foundation

George Smoot, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Stefan von Holtzbrinck
Chairman, Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group

George Smoot, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Richard Thaler, U. Chicago Graduate School of Business

Janna Levin, Barnard

John Rennie, Scientific American

Timo Hannay Nature

Linda Stone, Consultant

Yossi Vardi, International Technologies

Victoria Stodden, Yale Law School
George Dyson, Science Historian

Victorio Bo, Genoa Science Festival

Stewart Brand, Long Now Foundation
Nathan Wolfe, GVFI
Stefan von Holtzbrinck

Tim O'Reilly, O'Reilly Media
Lee Smolin, Perimeter Institute

W. Brian Arthur, SantaFe Institute
Victoria Stodden, Yale Law School

Esther Dyson, EDVenture Holdings

Saul Griffith, Makani Power

Peter Diamandis, X-Prize

Anne Treisman, Princeton

Tim O'Reilly, O'Reilly Media

Steven Levy, Wired

Esther Wojcicki, Chair, Board of Directors, Creative Commons
Nathan Wolfe, Global Viral Forecasting Initiative

Sarah Winge, VP, O'Reilly Radar

Marvin Minsky, MIT Center for Bits and Atoms
George Church, Harvard Medical School
Esther Dyson, EDVenture Holdings
Victoria Stodden, Yale Law School

@ Sci Foo

Who and/or what was fresh and new at SciFoo '09?

Victoria Stodden, George Dyson, Lee Smolin, Daniel Kahneman, Linda Stone, Timo Hannay


Computational Legal Scholar, Yale Law School

In Pete Worden's discussion of modeling future climate change, I wondered about the reliability of simulation results. Worden conceded that there are several models doing the same predictions he showed, and they can give wildly opposing results. We need to develop the machinery to quantify error in simulation models just as we routinely do for conventional statistical modeling: simulation is often the only empirical tool we have for guiding policy responses to some of our most pressing issues.

But the newest I saw was Bob Metcalfe's call for us to imagine what to do with the coming overabundance of energy. Metcalfe likened solving energy scarcity to the early days of Internet development: because of the generative design of Internet technology, we now have things that were unimagined in the early discussions, such as YouTube and online video. According to Metcalfe, we need to envision our future as including a "squanderable abundance" of energy, and use Internet lessons such as standardization and distribution of power sources to get there, rather than
building for energy conservation.

Science Historian; Author, Darwin Among the Machines

What a difference a year makes! In July 2008 Edge was abuzz (not yet a-twitter) with responses to Chris Anderson's "The End of Theory" (a revision of his Wired cover story "The End of Science") — and SciFoo 2008 was preoccupied with examining how (and how freely) collaboration across extremely large data sets would change the landscape of science. We were kids with a new telescope. One year later, only a few sessions were concerned with the workings of the telescope, and most were back to good old-fashioned science: looking at the stars.

Highlights for me (among revelations at every turn): Nat Torkington's two consecutive hours of gong-enforced 5-minute lightning talks; Bob (Ethernet) Metcalfe modestly trying to clue us in as to how to do for the energy stream what he did for the bit stream; Pete Worden's understated talk on Paleoclimate that should have been titled: "Climate Change got you Worried? Try Chemistry Change!"

Physcist, Perimeter Institute; Author, The Trouble With Phyiscs

Janna Levin's songs pairs of black holes sing as they whirl around and onto each other, coming to us as waves in the geometry of spacetime.

A lunch conversation with Heather Berlin, Brandyn Webb, Daniel Barcay, Christof Koch, Michael Freedman, Janna Levin and others, following up on Larry Page’s presentation on AI. I had the impression that over lunch the proponents and skeptics of AI were able to hear what each other was saying, rather than just talk past each other as is too often the case. We didn't solve the problem, but I felt we could at least agree on some useful definitions and criteria for further discussion.

The presentations of Brian Arthur and David Wolpert on the failings of neoclassical economic theory and the ensuing comments by Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler, Robin Hanson, and Hal Varian. What impressed me was that these distinguished economists did not dispute the critique of neoclassical economics given in the session, rather they offered advice as to how to get such critiques heard by the community of economists.

Neri Oxman’s presentation of her vision of an architecture with the design of materials integrated into the design of buildings. Physicists can talk, but her universe is genuinely elegant!

Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus, Princeton; Recipient, the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences (2002)

I didn't know what to expect and I was surprised at how interesting I found many of the talks. It was marvelous.

Writer, Consultant on "Continuous Partial Attention"

The Friday night introductions at SciFoo seemed to offer a concentration of words and phrases related to space travel, neuroscience, consciousness, global pandemics and climate.

Fun: Ani Patel and Vijay Iyer on music, rhythm and the brain. How are humans a musical species? What happens to our brains and our physiology on music?

Fear: Nathan Wolfe, Larry Brilliant and Derrick Smith on Swine Flu, Bird Flu, and antigenic mapping.

Fabulous: Nat Torkington's lightning rounds. Five minutes per participant on ideas. Concise, fast-paced, science smorgasbord.

Publisher, Nature Online

People talk of the sublime and the ridiculous as if they are opposites. But having attended Science Foo Camp these last few years (not because I'm especially worthy but merely because I'm one of the organisers), I have become ever more interested in the space between these two alleged extremes. For it seems to me that the best Sci Foo sessions are the ones where you can't quite decide whether what's being described is sublime or ridiculous — or perhaps some strange quantum superposition of the two.

The first discussion I joined at this year's event was proposed by science historian George Dyson. He described the work and collaborations of Stanis?aw Ulam, perhaps one of the laziest but undoubtedly one of the most brilliant contributors to the legendary period of American physics that gave us the atom bomb, digital computers and much else besides. Among many other ideas of Ulam's, George described Project Orion, a top-secret 1950s scheme to carry people to Mars in vast spaceships propelled by nuclear bombs. It sounded hare-brained, but the Project Orion conspirators were the greatest minds of their age, and they were completely serious. Welcome to the sublime and ridiculous world of Sci Foo.

Perhaps my favourite talk of all was Rob Cook's description of the creative process at Pixar. It was an enlightening and entertaining blend of physics, computer science and cartoonery that left me in awe of the people who achieve such enormous feats for our mere entertainment — as if the sublimity of the Apollo program had been devised to give us the ridiculousness (in a good sense) of the Flintstones. I particularly liked Rob's characterisation of the two-step creative cycle at Pixar: First, artists request the impossible (because, being artists, they cannot tell what is technically possible and what is not). Second, the techies agree (because, being techies, they are too proud to admit that there are limits to their skills). Thus are great technical and creative achievements delivered to a cinema near you.

Continuing with the theme of the sublime and ridiculous, Danny Kahneman gave a wonderful exposition on the ways in which the human mind, while capable of stupendous acts of logical reasoning, can also lead us astray on the simplest questions. (Example: "How many animals did Moses take into the ark?" Most respondents do not notice that the answer is 'none' because the traditional story concerns Noah, not Moses.) It turns out that our minds usually rely on a low-effort rough-and-ready process for making decisions ('System 1'). More logical and thorough, but also effortful processes ('System 2') only kick in under very specific circumstances. Our irrational mind, like our unconscious mind, is perhaps more influential than we'd care to admit.

A number of sessions and demos concerned music, an apparently ridiculous contrivance for organisms like us to find so sublime. Ani Patel presented evidence that music is neither purely for social or mating purposes, nor simply a by-product of other more evolutionary useful mental capacities. Rather, it is an invention, but one that our brains — equipped as they are to use language and respond to patterns — are especially prone to enjoy. In passing, he gave us an update on Snowball, the YouTube-famous cockatoo who dances in time to a rhythm considerably better than I do. Ani was joined by Vijay Iyer, formerly a physicist and now a professional jazz pianist, who on the previous evening had given a sublime practical demonstration of his art (the only ridiculous thing being Vijay's eye-popping dexterity at the keyboard).

There was a lot on science education too. Bill Nye ("The Science Guy") discussed teaching maths to kids using videos delivered to mobile phones. Simon Quellen Field's displayed his miscellaneous and ingenious science toys (every bit as entertaining to me, an alleged grown-up, as they might be to my children). Theo Gray conducted a series of whiz-bang demos from his "Mad Science" collection (tagline: "Experiments you can do at home — but probably shouldn't"). These involved vast quantities of liquid nitrogen, supersaturated sodium acetate solution, and only a very occasional illicit flame. ArtistTiffany Ard displayed her beautiful illustrations, designed to inspire children to engage with scientific subjects. Also on the artistic front, MIT researcher Neri Oxman showed her nature- and science-inspired sculptures (one of them on loan from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art), Jorge Cham created hilarious comic strips, and Christian Bök told of his plan to encode a poem in the genome of a bacterium. Sublime or ridiculous? I vote for both.

As time for the final session approached I made my way to Elon Musk's gathering on space flight and the colonisation of Mars. Elon made his money selling PayPal to eBay and now splits his time between electric cars (Tesla Motors), solar energy (SolarCity) and space (SpaceX). With one successful orbital launch now behind them, SpaceX expect to be heading for the planets in a matter of years (and it sounds as if Elon intends to go himself sometime too). We discussed the very considerable challenges of shipping large numbers of people to Mars, what life there might be like, and why anyone should want to go in the first place. Yet more brilliant people with crazy ideas about travelling to Mars? We seemed to have come full circle, for this was nothing if not a latter day Project Orion — sublime, ridiculous and quintessentially Sci Foo.

In the 6 million years since hominids split from the evolutionary ancestor we share with chimpanzees and bonobos, something happened to our brains that allowed us to become master cooperators, accumulate knowledge at a rapid rate, and manipulate tools to colonize almost every corner of the planet.

By Vanessa Woods & Brian Hare


VANESSA WOODS, author of It's Every Monkey for Themselves, is an award-winning journalist who has a double degree in biology and English from the University of New South Wales. She is a researcher with the Hominoid Psychology Research Group and studies the psychology of bonobos and chimpanzees in Africa. Vanessa Woods's Edge Bio Page

BRIAN HARE is an anthropologist and an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Anthropology and Anatomy at Duke University. His research centers on human cognitive evolution, and his experience in the field includes work in Siberia, the jungle of Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Brian Hare's Edge Bio Page


Dispatches on the Future of Science
Edited By Max Brockman


[VANESSA WOODS & BRIAN HARE:] Mikeno sits with his chin resting on his right hand, in a startling imitation of Rodin's Thinker. His left arm is thrown over his knee, and his eyes are slightly out of focus, as though he's deep in thought. With his black hair parted carefully down the middle and his rosy pink lips, Mikeno looks human. But he isn't. Mikeno is a bonobo — an inhabitant of Lola ya Bonobo, one of a number of African sanctuaries for apes orphaned by the bushmeat trade, this one in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Bonobos share more DNA (98.7 percent) with us than they do with gorillas — enough so that under his glossy black hair Mikeno has the body of a young athlete, complete with chiseled biceps and a developing six-pack. The question is: where among the three billion nucleotides of his genome is the 1.3 percent that makes Mikeno a bonobo instead of a human?

We have been seeking to define our humanity for thousands of years. Plato described a human being as a featherless creature that walks on two legs; in response, Diogenes turned up at one of Plato's lectures holding a plucked chicken. Other
definitions have come and gone: Only humans use tools. Only humans intentionally murder one another. Only humans have souls. Like mirages in the desert, the definitions are always shifting.

In the six million years since hominids split from the evolutionary ancestor we share with chimpanzees and bonobos, something happened to our brains that allowed us to become master cooperators, accumulate knowledge at a rapid rate, and manipulate tools to colonize almost every corner of the planet. In evolutionary time, our progress has been swift and ruthless. What allowed us to come down from the trees, and why?

Are You Thinking What I'm Thinking?

When children turn four, they start to wonder what other people are thinking. For instance, if you show a four-year-old a packet of gum and ask what's inside, she'll say, "Gum." You open the packet and show her that inside there's a pencil instead of gum. If you ask her what her mother, who's waiting outside, will think is in the packet once it's been reclosed, she'll say, "Gum," because she knows her mother hasn't seen the pencil. But children under the age of four will generally say their mother will think there's a pencil inside — because children this young cannot yet escape the pull of the real world. They think everyone knows what they know,
because they cannot model someone else's mind and in this case realize that someone must see something in order to know it. This ability to think about what others are thinking about is called having a theory of mind.

Humans constantly want to know what others are thinking: Did he see me glance at him? Does that beautiful woman want to approach me? Does my boss know I was not at my desk? A theory of mind allows for complex social behaviors, such as military strategies, and the formation of institutions, such as governments.

Throughout the 1990s, scientists ran dozens of pioneering experiments in an attempt to determine whether chimpanzees — who, like bonobos, share 98.7 percent of our DNA — possess a theory of mind. An experiment conducted by Daniel
Povinelli of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette gave chimpanzees the choice of using a visual gesture to request food from someone who was blindfolded, someone with a bucket over his head, someone whose hands were over his eyes, or someone who could actually see them. The chimps didn't discriminate; they made the begging gesture at people who obviously couldn't see them just as often as they begged from people who were looking straight at them. If chimpanzees have no theory of mind, which this set of findings suggested, then that could be what distinguishes humans from other animals.

That was before Brian and two colleagues, Josep Call and Michael Tomasello, began working with Jahaga, a female chimpanzee at the Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Center of the Leipzig Zoo. The experiment went like this: In a room at the center, you sit behind a Perspex panel with a tray extending from it that holds a banana. Jahaga sees the banana. She can also see you watching, and knows that if you see her coming, you'll pull in the tray, because you've already kept food from her like that. Instead of simply rushing for the banana, Jahaga casually walks to the back of the room, as though she didn't want your measly banana and was bored by the whole game. She continues along the back wall, slinking around a partition until she's out of sight. Then, when she knows the partition is blocking your view of her, she walks low and fast behind it and swipes the banana off the tray.

This was the first experiment to investigate whether chimpanzees will actively deceive another individual based on what that individual can or cannot see. Deception can be one important test of whether or not you possess a theory of mind, because, in many cases, in order to deceive someone you have to know what they're likely to be thinking and then try to manipulate the situation such that their thinking changes in your favor.

Jahaga's behavior in this experiment — and later that of other chimpanzees — seemed deceptive, not just because she slinked to a place where she knew you couldn't see her (that is, she was sensitive to what you were thinking) but also because she seemed to be deceptive about being deceptive: she looked as though she were pretending not to be interested in the banana (that is, she may have been trying to manipulate what you thought about her intent).

After Jahaga, a whole range of experiments have shown that in a number of contexts chimpanzees do think about what others are thinking about. Low-ranking chimpanzees will always go for the food that's hidden from a dominant chimpanzee's view, because they know the dominant has not seen it. If you suddenly look up, a chimpanzee will follow your gaze, wondering what you've seen. If you delay giving chimpanzees food, either by teasing them or accidentally dropping it, they know when you're being intentionally mean, and they act more frustrated than they do when you're just being clumsy.

But does this mean that chimpanzees have the same theory of mind that we do?

Point It Out

Even though Jahaga and other chimpanzees exhibit a sophisticated theory of mind on one level, on another level they're hopeless. If you hide a banana under one of two cups in such a way that Jahaga cannot see which cup you've chosen, and then you point to the cup where the banana is; Jahaga can't use your gesture to find it. You can tap on the cup, put a bright-colored block on it, maybe even dance around it, but Jahaga won't pick the correct cup any more often than she picks the wrong one.
Dozens of trials later, she might start guessing the pattern, but if you change the cue from pointing to, say, tapping, she doesn't realize that the new cue will help her find the food. She has to learn to make use of your new gesture all over again.

However, human children under the age of two can use your pointing to find food. Even if you just look at the correct cup, children will follow your gaze and use it to gain information about what you know. They understand that you're trying to help them by communicating the location of the hidden goodie.

From these types of experiments with chimpanzees, it seems reasonable to conclude that using communicative gestures is something that evolved in our species after our lineage split from the other apes. Perhaps sharing information in this way enabled early humans to develop a much more complex form of culture than that seen in other animals. But if that's so, then how might such an ability have evolved in the first place?

Go Fetch

Oreo was the best dog any kid could wish for. He would take you to your friend's house and sit outside until it was time to ride your bike home again. He would let you give him as many hugs as you wanted when you were at an age when it wasn't cool to hug anyone except your dog. Most important, Oreo loved to play fetch. He would play fetch until your arm fell off, because he could easily carry three tennis balls in his mouth at once. The problem was, he usually couldn't keep up with where all the balls were going; after collecting the first two, he wouldn't have a clue where the third one had landed.
After a few moments of frantic searching, he would race back to eye you, panting expectantly, waiting. If you pointed in the right direction, he would be back seconds later, with all three balls covered with slobber and ready for throwing again.

Anyone with a dog knows that when they want something and they know that you know where it is, they will watch your body language like a hawk for the slightest clue. Sure enough, when Brian and colleagues played the cup game with a myriad
of dogs, they could point to, gaze at, or tap with a toe on the hiding place and the dogs would immediately find the hidden treat (and not because of their powerful noses — in these experiments, dogs cannot determine which cup hides the food without a visual cue).

Why does an animal like a dog succeed where our closest living relative fails?

One idea is that dogs live with us, so over thousands of hours of interacting with us, they learn to read our body language. Another idea is that the pack lifestyle and cooperative hunting of wolves, the canids from which all dogs evolved, made all canids, dogs included, more in tune with social cues.

To test the first idea, you need to play with puppies. If nineweek-old puppies pass the cup test, then perhaps reading human gestures isn't something dogs learn as they grow older but something they're born with. Brian and colleagues found
that such puppies passed the test, but there was still the question of whether their first nine weeks had been enough to pick up human communicative gestures. So puppies reared in a kennel, with very little exposure to humans, were tested, too. The kennel puppies passed.

As for the second idea, you need to spend some time with the big bad wolves. When Brian and colleagues tested wolves at a wolf sanctuary and compared their accomplishments with those of a group of pet dogs, it became obvious that wolves were no better than chimpanzees at acting on human social cues. Thus it seems that dogs must have evolved to act on human social cues within the last forty thousand years — that is, since they split from their wolf ancestor through the process of being domesticated. The implications are exciting: a social skill that is an important developmental basis for human culture, cooperation, and language — a precursor and component of the human theory of mind — may have evolved in the dog as a result of interacting with us over many generations. Could it really be that domestication can lead to such a change in problem-solving abilities? So it would seem, but to test this idea you have to go to the middle of Siberia.

Clever Fox

The train ride from Moscow to Novosibirsk in summer is two days of green meadows filled with bright flowers. Once you get to Novosibirsk, you journey another half hour or so to Akademgorodok, the home of one of the greatest experiments in modern genetics.

Dmitri Belyaev was fired from a research laboratory in Moscow because his Mendelian view of genetics conflicted with that of Trofim Lysenko, the great Soviet scientist. Belyaev was lucky that his punishment ended with losing his Moscow job; under Stalin, dissent from Lysenko's theories of environmentally acquired inheritance was against the law, and many prominent scientists died in the Gulag. In 1958, Belyaev moved to Novosibirsk, where he became director of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics and, in the following year, began breeding 130 silver foxes in a kind of Mendelian experiment. He put one group under severe selection pressure using a simple method: those foxes that approached an experimenter lived to breed for another generation; those that snarled at humans or showed aggression toward them were turned into fur coats. The other group, a control, was bred randomly with regard to how they behaved toward humans.

After only forty generations, the selected foxes began to display changes you (and Darwin, too) might think would take millions of years to evolve. As expected, they became incredibly friendly toward humans. Whenever they saw people, they barked, wagged their tails, sniffed the people, and licked their faces. But even stranger were the physical changes, which occurred at a higher frequency than in the control group. The ears of the selected foxes became floppy. Their tails turned curly. Their coats lost their camouflage and became spotty, with a star pattern appearing on the forehead. Their skulls became smaller. In short, they looked and behaved remarkably like their close relative the domestic dog.

Now came the big test. If dogs had acquired social skills in the process of domestication, then perhaps the selected silver foxes acquired those skills, too. And they did. Domesticated silver foxes could read human body language as well as any dog. The control lineage could not.

The skill of silver foxes at reading human social cues is a crucial piece of the puzzle. People (including the authors) had supposed that the unusual social skills found in dogs had probably evolved because smarter dogs had been more likely to survive and reproduce during domestication. But Belyaev's foxes weren't bred to be smarter than the average fox, just friendlier. It seems that the selected foxes are more skilled at reading human cues as a by-product of a loss of fear of humans, which was replaced by an intense interest in interacting with us. The social skills of dogs may have evolved through a similar process during their domestication. In order to avail themselves of garbage around human settlements, protodogs had to lose their fear of us. Subsequently, and by accident, while interacting with us they began deploying the social skills they were using to interact with one another — as if we were just part of the pack.

Most important (and controversial), something similar may have happened in human evolution. Instead of getting a jump start with the most intelligent hominids surviving to produce the next generation, as is often suggested, it may have been the more sociable hominids — because they were better at solving problems together — who achieved a higher level of fitness and allowed selection to favor more sophisticated problem-solving over time. Humans got their smarts only because we got friendlier first.

The Chimpanzee Deficit

Cooperation is a cornerstone of human achievement, in part dependent on our sophisticated theory of mind and use of social cues. But humans are not the only species to be skilled cooperators. What is it about humans that makes us such flexible cooperators? Or, put another way: what goes wrong with chimpanzee cooperation? They live in highly social groups, hunt food together, maintain political relationships.
What stops them from becoming as flexible as humans (or dogs, for that matter) at solving problems involving cooperation and communication?

Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary is a sprawling hundred acres of primary forest in the middle of Lake Victoria, in Uganda. On a clear day, you can hear the pant hoots of chimpanzees across the water. In the chimps' night enclosure, Kidogo and Connie are faced with a dilemma. A wooden plank just out of reach is piled high with food on either end. To bring it within reach, they each have to pull on a rope threaded through metal loops on the plank. If only one of them pulls, the rope comes unthreaded and the plank stays where it is. Kidogo, a dominant female, pushes Connie out of the way and pulls on Connie's end of the rope — which then whizzes out of the loops so that no one gets any food.

This behavior is puzzling, because chimpanzees in the wild are great cooperators, frequently hunting for food in what appears to be a complicated and organized fashion. But perhaps there is not much thinking going on behind this kind of cooperation; it could simply be that because each animal wants the same thing and all are at work at the same time, success happens by accident and just looks like a cooperative endeavor.

But if you watch Kidogo and Connie at feeding time, you will notice that they don't share food. If Connie has a piece of food and Kidogo is around, Kidogo will most likely steal it from her. On the other end of the spectrum, Sally and Becky have grown up together in the sanctuary and are like sisters. They share food peacefully, all the time. When you give them the rope test, they succeed on the first trial.

Clearly, if you allow for tolerance, chimpanzees can cooperate spontaneously. Not only do they know when they need someone, they also remember who's a good partner. Mawa, another dominant chimpanzee, is not a very good cooperator.
He doesn't wait for his partner to pick up the other end of the rope and instead pulls it free of the plank. Bwambale, on the other hand, is a great cooperator; he waits for his partner, and they are nearly always successful in getting the food. At first, the other Ngamba chimps chose Mawa and Bwambale equally, but after Mawa botches it, most chimps chose Bwambale on the next trial.

However, such cooperation in chimpanzees is highly constrained. Chimpanzees will cooperate only with familiar group members, with whom they normally share food. If they don't know or like a potential partner, they won't cooperate no matter how much food is at stake. Humans, however, make a living collaborating, even when it's with people they don't know and in many cases don't particularly like. (Do you have a boss?) This high level of social tolerance is likely one of the building blocks of the unique forms of cooperation seen in humans.

So perhaps a lack of tolerance is one of the main constraints on chimpanzees' developing more flexible cooperative skills. But humans have another closest relative, one who is usually forgotten and may be more like us than we know.

Long-Lost Cousins

In contrast to chimpanzees, who live in male-dominated societies with infanticidal tendencies and other forms of lethal aggression, bonobos live in societies that are highly tolerant and peaceful thanks to female dominance, which maintains group cohesion and regulates tensions through sexual behavior.

Since bonobos are more tolerant than chimpanzees, what does this mean for their cooperative abilities?

Further tests were done with the chimpanzees at Ngamba Island. As long as the food was in two separate piles on either end of the plank, most of the chimps could cooperate fine. But as soon as you put the food in one monopolizable pile in the
middle, chimpanzee cooperation fell apart. Even though chimpanzees participating in the test were relatively tolerant of each other and had passed the rope/plank test many times before, whenever the food could be monopolized by a dominant chimp, the other chimp generally refused to pull.

When we gave the same test to bonobos, they played and had sex to negotiate with each other — even though this was their first run-through. Bonobos are notorious for their sexuality. Females rub their clitorises together; males have sexual activity with males. Neither age nor gender seems to matter. Sex is a tension-relieving activity in the group, used to soothe ruffled tempers or form alliances. It also appears to be a negotiating activity, engendering a high level of tolerance in bonobos.

So what we have are chimps who cooperate but aren't very tolerant, and bonobos who are very tolerant but don't really cooperate in the wild. What probably happened six million years ago, when hominids split from the ancestor we share with chimpanzees and bonobos, is that we became very tolerant, and this allowed us to cooperate in entirely new ways. Without this heightened tolerance, we would not be the species we are today.

Finding Our Minds in Africa

Spontaneous cooperation is not the only way in which bonobos are more like humans than chimpanzees are. As with humans, gender differences in bonobos are less pronounced. The males are not physically very different from the females. Female bonobos, like human females, develop strong bonds, whereas female chimps generally don't. Humans and bonobos have similar temperaments, in that we are both risk averse and wary of the new.

Understanding bonobos is crucial to understanding what makes us human. Unfortunately, their numbers are dwindling fast. The only country where they're indigenous is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the various wars that periodically break out there have made studying them difficult. Africa's ape sanctuaries, including Lola Ya Bonobo, Ngamba Island, and the Tchimpounga Sanctuary for chimpanzees in the Republic of the Congo, offer an exciting opportunity to probe the minds of our closest relatives. Unlike lab animals, who are likely to suffer chronic psychological and physical problems in captivity, sanctuary apes live in large social groups in vast areas of tropical rain forest. The semicaptive apes can be tested in indoor enclosures, similar to conventional laboratories but much less costly. Sanctuary animals show no aberrant behavior (e.g., rocking or feces eating), and preliminary data suggest they may outperform captive apes in a variety of physical tasks, presumably because of the richness of their everyday environment.

Mikeno, the bonobo who sat like a Rodin sculpture, died in September 2006. An autopsy revealed a contusion on his brain, which suggests he died of a concussion after falling from a tree.

Mikeno's close friend Isiro sat by him and refused to leave the body. Did she understand death? Did she feel a humanlike grief?

We're still a long way from discovering exactly what makes us human, but even if we do, there will still undoubtedly be a thousand more questions to answer about what makes a chimpanzee a chimpanzee and a bonobo a bonobo.


Inspired by them 2009 Edge Annual Question "What Will Change Everything?", Esquire Russia has dedicated their June issue to "the future", more specifically, to ideas about the future and those things that will "change everything." The issue features translations of fifteen essays from Edge.

Contributions included in the magazine are:

David Berreby - Post-Rational Economic Man
Leo Chalupa - Controlling Brain Plasticity
Austin Dacey - Carniculture
Freeman Dyson - "Radiotelepathy";
Brian Eno - The Feeling That Things Are Inevitably Going To Get Worse
Juan Enriquez - Homo Evolutis
Alison Gopnik - Never-Ending Childhood
Sam Harris - True Lie Detection
Robert Shapiro - A Separate Origin For Life
Rupert Sheldrake - The Credit Crunch For Materialism
Kevin Slavin - The Ebb Of Memory
Nassim Nicholas Taleb - The Idea Of Negative And Iatrogenic Science
Sherry Turkle - The Robotic Moment
Frank Wilczek - Homesteading In Hilbert Space
Anton Zeilinger - The Breakdown Of All Computers

There is no online version, but copies are available at newstands everywhere...in Russia, that is, and at international newsstand as well.

July 9, 2009

By Philip Gerrans

The humanities are in the same state financial markets were in before they crashed. Assessing the growing mountain of toxic intellectual debt, Philip Gerrans considers going short on some overvalued research.. ...

...The academic market is also like the financial market in another way. Stocks trade above their value, which leads to bubbles and crashes. Brain- imaging studies, for example, are a current bubble, not because they don't tell us anything about the brain, but because the claims made for them so vastly exceed the information they actually provide. As with a leveraged investment in mortgage bonds hedged by a foreign-exchange credit swap, most customers have no idea how a brain-imaging result is produced and what it is really worth. Those who do - the ones in labs using complicated statistical algorithms to map impossibly messy signals to artificial 3D models of brains - are usually very circumspect about the results. But every week we read in the science pages that brain-imaging studies prove X, where X is what the readers or columnists already believe. Women can't read maps! Men like sex! Childhood trauma affects brain development! There is an Angelina Jolie neuron! The bosses of big labs that employ hundreds of people use these studies, along with artfully placed articles about them, to get funding for future research. In a similar way, directors of mining companies raise funds on the basis of prospecting reports "leaked" to the financial press.

Consider, as an unrivalled piece of hyperbole, this statement from the website Edge.org, which aims "to arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge" by seeking out "the most complex and sophisticated minds". It is by Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, a brilliant experimental neuroscientist as well as a master publicist: "The discovery of mirror neurons in the frontal lobes of monkeys, and their potential relevance to human brain evolution ... is the single most important 'unreported' (or at least, unpublicised) story of the decade. I predict that mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology: they will provide a unifying framework and help explain a host of mental abilities that have hitherto remained mysterious and inaccessible to experiments."
That's not very likely. Mirror neurons are neurons in the monkey premotor cortex that are active both when a monkey produces an action such as grasping, and when it observes the action. No one yet knows quite why there is an overlap in patterns of neural activity. Ramachandran would like to find out, so he has made his pitch to investors. They know he has done some beautiful experiments and he is a charismatic public performer and Edge.org regular, so we can expect the mirror neuron boom to continue for a while. ...

[ED. NOTE: Philip Gerrans writes: "So we can expect the mirror neuron boom to continue for a while". He is correct. It's nine years since Edge published Ramachandran's essay ... and people are still writing about it. (See "Mirror Neurons and imitation learning as the driving force behind 'the great leap forward' in human evolution", June 1, 2000). —JB]

Beyond Edge

...In fact, I'll  end with a consideration of religion, because a very important part of Richard's work has been to address it. He has refused to gloss over the innate contradictions of reason and faith. None of us, I think, in the mid-'70s, when The Selfish Gene was published, would have thought we'd be devoting so much mental space now to confront religion. We thought that matter had long been closed.  Here is another bit of prose that I would want carved into my library — perhaps over the door as you go in. This is a man who's just been threatened with indefinite imprisonment and torture, unless he signs on the dotted line.

'...having before my eyes and touching with my hands the Holy Gospels, swear that I have always believed, do believe, and with God's help will in the future believe all that is held, preached and taught by the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church... I must altogether abandon the false opinion that the sun is the centre of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the centre of the world and moves and that I must not hold, defend or teach in any way whatsoever, verbally and in writing the said false doctrine…'

Now, in 1632 Galileo may or may not have whispered as he signed, "but it moves",  but his confession serves to remind us that open-minded rational enquiry will always have its enemies. We can take nothing for granted, for totalitarian thinking, religious or political is always with us in some form or other. For this reason alone, a scientific literary tradition has its uses. I would also like to think that the spirit of, "but it moves" lives on in Richard's work.

Ian McEwan, 'Science writing: Towards a literary tradition?', presented at The Selfish Gene: Thirty Years On, The Old Theatre, London, 2006 [...]

God vs. Science — The 2006 TIME Magazine debate between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins [...]

Robert Wright: "When it comes to foreign policy, a right-wing bias afflicts not just Hitchens's world view, but the whole ideology of "new atheism," especially as seen in the work of Hitchens allies Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins." [...]

Stewart Brand's TED Talk proclaims 4 environmental 'heresies'; rethinks his positions on cities, nuclear power, genetic modification and geo-engineering [...]

Scott Atran on "The Moral Failure of Our Intelligence" [...]

Colin Tudge on Geoffrey Miller [...]

Jerry Coyne: Steven Pinker on Francis Collins [...]

Jerry Coyne: Science and religion are compatible but only in the trivial sense that someone can be a scientist and be religious at the same time." [...]; Shirky's refutation on Edge of what he calls "The Doctrine of Joint Belief." [...]

P.Z. Myers on Collins appointment to the NIMH [...]

Daniel Dennett at the Darwin celebration at Cambridge University [...]

Steven Pinker asks "Why is There Peace?" [...]

Jonah Lehrer on Richard Dawkins's Greatest Show on Earth [...]

Exxon & Craig Venter: $600 Million investment to make fuel from algae [...]

Jerry Coyne: Unscientific Unscientific America. Part 1. — "In the end, Unscientific America is a frame around a big fat empty space" [...]

Charlie Rose: A conversation with Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran [...]

"Farming must compete actively and vigorously with other potential employers to attract the best people". In Colin Tudge's new blog: Campaign For New Farming [...]

Douglas Rushkoff discusses the downfalls of operating the world like a corporation with Colbert [...]

Paul Davies: The idea that quantum mechanics can explain many fundamental aspects of life is resurging [...]

Leonard Susskind on Darwin's impact on physics and cosmology [...]

John Horgan tells us how humans could end war [...]

Alan Guth wins 2009 Newton Award: For his invention of the inflationary universe model, his recognition that inflation would solve major problems confronting then-standard cosmology, and his calculation, with others, of the spectrum of density fluctuations that gave rise to structure in the universe. [...]

Steven Pinker: "Collins is an advocate of profoundly anti-science beliefs, and it is reasonable for the scientific community to ask him how these beliefs will affect his administration of the NIH and his efforts on behalf of the scientific enterprise." [...]

Lisa Randall: "An opera about string theory and five-dimensional space is hard to imagine. But one premiered recently in Paris. " [...]

Chris Anderson's free unpacks a paradox of the online market-place—people making money charging nothing. What was once just a marketing gimmick has morphed into the basis of a trillion-dollar economy. [...]

Marc D. Hauser on "The possibility of impossible cultures" [...]

Daniel Dennett on "the folly of pretense": "I am confident that those who believe in belief are wrong. That is, we no more need to preserve the myth of God in order to preserve a just and stable society than we needed to cling to the Gold Standard to keep our currency sound. It was a useful crutch, but we've outgrown it." [...]

"It's an ambitious, some might say foolhardy, enterprise to write a comprehensive account of the life and work of Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno" [...]

Needless to say, Richard Dawkins, the secular fundamentalist Oxford don, and AC Grayling, the philosopher who is reliably wrong-headed, got in on the act. [...]

The engrossing essay collection which offers a youthful spin on some of the most pressing scientific issues of today—and tomorrow...Kinda scary? Yes! Super smart and interesting? Definitely. The Observer's Very Short List

"A captivating collection of essays ... a medley of big ideas." — Amanda Gefter, New Scientist

"The perfect collection for people who like to stay up on recent scientific research but haven't the time or expertise to go to the original sources." — Playback.stl.com

Dispatches on the Future of Science
Edited By Max Brockman

If these authors are the future of science, then the science of the future will be one exciting ride! Find out what the best minds of the new generation are thinking before the Nobel Committee does. A fascinating chronicle of the big, new ideas that are keeping young scientists up at night. Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness

"A preview of the ideas you're going to be reading about in ten years." — Steven Pinker, author of The Stuff of Thought

"Brockman has a nose for talent." — Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author The Black Swan

"Capaciously accessible, these writings project a curiosity to which followers of science news will gravitate." — Booklist

"For those seeking substance over sheen, the occasional videos released at Edge.org hit the mark. The Edge Foundation community is a circle, mainly scientists but also other academics, entrepreneurs, and cultural figures. ... Edge's long-form interview videos are a deep-dive into the daily lives and passions of its subjects, and their passions are presented without primers or apologies. The decidedly noncommercial nature of Edge's offerings, and the egghead imprimatur of the Edge community, lend its videos a refreshing air, making one wonder if broadcast television will ever offer half the off-kilter sparkle of their salon chatter." — Boston Globe

Mahzarin Banaji, Samuel Barondes, Yochai Benkler, Paul Bloom, Rodney Brooks, Hubert Burda, George Church, Nicholas Christakis, Brian Cox, Iain Couzin, Helena Cronin, Paul Davies, Daniel C. Dennett, David Deutsch,Dennis Dutton, Jared Diamond, Freeman Dyson, Drew Endy, Peter Galison, Murray Gell-Mann, David Gelernter, Neil Gershenfeld, Anthony Giddens, Gerd Gigerenzer, Daniel Gilbert, Rebecca Goldstein, John Gottman, Brian Greene, Anthony Greenwald, Alan Guth, David Haig, Marc D. Hauser, Walter Isaacson, Steve Jones, Daniel Kahneman, Stuart Kauffman, Ken Kesey, Stephen Kosslyn, Lawrence Krauss, Ray Kurzweil, Jaron Lanier, Armand Leroi, Seth Lloyd, Gary Marcus, John Markoff, Ernst Mayr, Marvin Minsky, Sendhil Mullainathan, Dennis Overbye, Dean Ornish, Elaine Pagels, Steven Pinker, Jordan Pollack, Lisa Randall, Martin Rees, Matt Ridley, Lee Smolin, Elisabeth Spelke, Scott Sampson, Robert Sapolsky, Dimitar Sasselov, Stephen Schneider, Martin Seligman, Robert Shapiro, Clay Shirky, Lee Smolin, Dan Sperber, Paul Steinhardt, Steven Strogatz, Seirian Sumner, Leonard Susskind, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Timothy Taylor, Richard Thaler, Robert Trivers, Neil Turok, J.Craig Venter, Edward O. Wilson, Lewis Wolpert, Richard Wrangham, Philip Zimbardo

[Continue to Edge Video]

Edited by John Brockman
With An Introduction By BRIAN ENO

The world's finest minds have responded with some of the most insightful, humbling, fascinating confessions and anecdotes, an intellectual treasure trove. ... Best three or four hours of intense, enlightening reading you can do for the new year. Read it now."
San Francisco Chronicle

"A great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture."
El Mundo

Praise for the online publication of
What Have You Change Your Mind About?

"The splendidly enlightened Edge website (www.edge.org) has rounded off each year of inter-disciplinary debate by asking its heavy-hitting contributors to answer one question. I strongly recommend a visit." The Independent

"A great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture." El Mundo

"As fascinating and weighty as one would imagine." The Independent

"They are the intellectual elite, the brains the rest of us rely on to make sense of the universe and answer the big questions. But in a refreshing show of new year humility, the world's best thinkers have admitted that from time to time even they are forced to change their minds." The Guardian

"Even the world's best brains have to admit to being wrong sometimes: here, leading scientists respond to a new year challenge." The Times

"Provocative ideas put forward today by leading figures."The Telegraph

The world's finest minds have responded with some of the most insightful, humbling, fascinating confessions and anecdotes, an intellectual treasure trove. ... Best three or four hours of intense, enlightening reading you can do for the new year. Read it now." San Francisco Chronicle

"As in the past, these world-class thinkers have responded to impossibly open-ended questions with erudition, imagination and clarity." The News & Observer

"A jolt of fresh thinking...The answers address a fabulous array of issues. This is the intellectual equivalent of a New Year's dip in the lake—bracing, possibly shriek-inducing, and bound to wake you up." The Globe and Mail

"Answers ring like scientific odes to uncertainty, humility and doubt; passionate pleas for critical thought in a world threatened by blind convictions." The Toronto Star

"For an exceptionally high quotient of interesting ideas to words, this is hard to beat. ...What a feast of egg-head opinionating!" National Review Online

Today's Leading Thinkers on Why Things Are Good and Getting Better
Edited by John Brockman
Introduction by DANIEL C. DENNETT


"The optimistic visions seem not just wonderful but plausible." Wall Street Journal

"Persuasively upbeat." O, The Oprah Magazine

"Our greatest minds provide nutshell insights on how science will help forge a better world ahead." Seed

"Uplifting...an enthralling book." The Mail on Sunday

Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable
Edited by John Brockman
Introduction by STEVEN PINKER


"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant bok: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)

"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald

"Provocative" The Independent

"Challenging notions put forward by some of the world's sharpest minds" Sunday Times

"A titillating compilation" The Guardian

"Reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science" Discover

Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty
Edited by John Brockman
Introduction by IAN MCEWAN


"Whether or not we believe proof or prove belief, understanding belief itself becomes essential in a time when so many people in the world are ardent believers." LA Times

"Belief appears to motivate even the most rigorously scientific minds. It stimulates and challenges, it tricks us into holding things to be true against our better judgment, and, like scepticism -its opposite -it serves a function in science that is playful as well as thought-provoking. not we believe proof or prove belief, understanding belief itself becomes essential in a time when so many people in the world are ardent believers." The Times

"John Brockman is the PT Barnum of popular science. He has always been a great huckster of ideas." The Observer

"An unprecedented roster of brilliant minds, the sum of which is nothing short of an oracle—a book ro be dog-eared and debated." Seed

"Scientific pipedreams at their very best." The Guardian

"Makes for some astounding reading." Boston Globe

"Fantastically stimulating...It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.... Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." BBC Radio 4

"Intellectual and creative magnificence" The Skeptical Inquirer






"deeply passionate"









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