Category Archives: News

Some Are More Equal

Life may not be fair, but humans have a strong bias for fairness. In experiments humans will generally reject or punish a partner who offers noticeably less than half a shared reward, even if they wind up empty-handed. Chimps, it turns out, are not so picky and will (rationally, an economist might point out) take whatever they can get, according to an October 2007Science paper. So what could explain this difference between our closest living relatives and us?

The answer may lie in the social relationships that influence so many of our actions. Recent studies of primate fairness seem to contradict each other–unless you consider exactly who is cheating whom.

In 2003 a provocative study led by Sarah F. Brosnan, now at Georgia State University, concluded that capuchin monkeys were exhibiting humanlike social indignation when they turned down unfair deals. The monkeys refused to perform tasks if they saw companions getting better rewards for the same work. They threw tantrums, and their food rewards, to protest the unequal treatment.

In 2006, however, a group at American University reported the opposite result–their capuchins’ behavior was not affected by the food their partners got. In response, Brosnan’s group released an updated study, again showing the capuchins’ penchant for fairness. But some experts are still not convinced–Clive Wynne of the University of Florida warns that the different study designs make comparisons “messy.”

Brosnan argues that social relationships are more important than the other groups are accounting for. Her group found that chimpanzees were more likely to accept unfair deals from members of their social group than from outsiders. In another study, humans accepted unfair deals from a computer but not from people. These results imply that relationships matter when primates judge fairness, Brosnan says, and “may explain the failure to find a response in the [Science] study.” The chimps, in other words, may have been willing to accept unfair offers because they came from old pals.

Studying animal fairness could ultimately help us understand human cooperation and justice–but the jury is still out.

First published by Scientific American MIND: [html] [pdf].

Man With A One Wheel Mind

unicycleA retired unicycling dermatologist has gotten press, and a few laughs, by claiming a link between testosterone and humor.

Sam Shuster of Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K., rode around town on his unicycle for a year, recording the reactions of 400 passersby. Reporting in the 22 December 2007 issue of the British Medical Journal, Shuster relates that about 75% of male reactions were “attempts at comedy,” whereas 95% of the females “praised, encouraged, or expressed concern.” The most aggressive reactions came from youthful males, who shouted things such as “Fall off, granddad” and kicked soccer balls at him. Responses mellowed with time, Shuster observed, with older men joking about his having lost a wheel or his handlebars. Elderly men tended to comment on the difficulty, saying things such as “It’s quicker to walk.” Shuster’s interpretation is that as men age, “aggression is concealed by wit.” He speculates that humor eventually takes on a life of its own, persisting beyond high testosterone levels.

Sociologist Alan Booth of Pennsylvania State University in State College is skeptical of a testosterone-humor connection–except “to the extent humor means demeaning someone.” Aggression is “probably just one aspect” of humor, suggests psychologist Roy Baumeister of Florida State University in Tallahassee. He says that in his experience, men are often more likely than women to use self-deprecating humor, hardly an expression of aggression.

Originally appeared in Science Magazine as a Random Sample: [html] [pdf]

When Worlds Collide

collideOur solar system may have plenty of cosmic cousins. Scientists studying archived data have spotted an adolescent sunlike star with a dusty belt that shows evidence of the creation and violent destruction of baby planets. “There is no doubt that they are detecting the dusty debris of rocky [Earth-like] planet formation,” says Scott Kenyon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. A report of the find, by a team headed by Joseph Rhee of the University of California, Los Angeles, is in press at The Astrophysical Journal.

Until 2005, astronomers had observed only very young possible planet-forming systems. Then data from the retired Infrared Astronomy Satellite revealed a more mature system, bolstering predictions that collisions continue well after planets form. The latest observation, from a star called HD 23514 in the Pleiades cluster, should “help generalize the model of planetary formation,” says David Trilling of the University of Arizona in Tucson. Combined, the two discoveries allowed the team to estimate that about 1 in 1000 stellar systems share our system’s turbulent past–and could share its present architecture.

First published in Science Magazine as a Random Sample: [html] [pdf].