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Use of chimps in Yasha’s paper

In Uncategorized on April 19, 2010 by bcnjake

I had a thought regarding Yasha’s paper – what’s the basis for using chimps as our standard for observational data?

Yasha seems to be arguing that chimps are closest to humans, evolutionarily speaking, but if this is a general PhilSci paper, does that matter? Other species surely form coalitions, and there’s no reason to suspect one way or the other that their coalitions (don’t) form like chimps. Obviously, this comment belies an unfamiliarity with experimental data, and if such data exists, I withdraw that part of the question. But if such data exists, wouldn’t it be to Yasha’s advantage to cite it?

On the other hand, if Yasha’s making a point about human behavior, why not study humans? To make an analogy, if you wanted to know about me, you would get further studying me than you would studying my cousins. Same with chimps and humans. Saying you want to study chimps because they’re so evolutionarily close to us sounds dangerously close to the “we are descended from chimps” misconception. What’s the scientific basis for accepting chimps as a proto-human substitute?

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5 Responses to “Use of chimps in Yasha’s paper”

  1. The point is, I guess, to try and show that evolution sans rational thought can still produce altruism. Rational thought can produce altruism as well, but through different mechanisms and for different reasons. Just a guess.

  2. I think the answer to your question depends on the purpose of Yasha’s study. He wants to study the evolution of coalitions, so studying the champanzees will shed light on coalitions of human beings. His goal is not to study why human beings form and maintain coalitions, but how such behaviors orignate in the evolutionary process. If he wants to get a full account of the evolution of coalitions, presumbly he needs to study close species of champanzees as well, if that species exhibit coalitions.

  3. Hi Jake. Good questions. I am focusing on the evolutionary origins of human behavior. And clearly we are not descended from chimpanzees. But they are our closest living ancestors. And as such, they are plausibly a good approximation of the proto-human in which these interesting behaviors evolved. So certain aspects of chimpanzee societies, such as their social structure, should be able to inform us about the social environment where these behaviors evolved.
    So why not focus on modern humans? The idea is that modern humans are probably much more different from our ancestors in which these behaviors first started to evolve than chimps. Hence, modern human society would not be a fruitful model. Now you might ask, why think they are more different? Well human evolutionary history has been accelerated in profound ways. Feedback loops accelerated our evolution and changed us drastically (think niche construction, arms races and cultural evolution). For example, did you know “Hominin brain size increased more than 250% in less than 3 million years. Much of this increase occurred in the past 500 thousand years” (Flinn et al. 2005). Wow! I don’t know about you but that blows me away. Given that human evolution was so accelerated and that we have changed so much, it is reasonable to assume that chimpanzee societies are a better approximation to our ancestors’ than ours is now.
    One important thing to note is that, like all empirical assumptions, I could very well be wrong. That is just the danger of making arguments that rely on empirical assumptions. But, also, I am not alone in making this assumption–see Kitcher and de Waal. And if Kitcher and de Waal are wrong, I don’t want to be right! ;-).

  4. Comparative investigations of the similarities and dissimilarities amongst close species often sheds light on the origin of both. I’m curious whether Yasha would expand his studies to comparing the social structure of the other well-known great ape–the bonobo? They exhibit a relatively non-hierarchical social structure based on strong female bondage. Males survive not because they have the strength to fight to the top, but because they are less aggressive and are thus accepted into the community. The peace of the society relies on a large part the sexual intercourses between any two individuals.

    If three-person games (I presume Odd-mad-out game serves as an example, but Yasha would accept other three-person models as long as they satisfy the formation-maintenance criteria?) can explain BOTH hierarchical and non-hierarchical social structures of the chimp/human and the bonobo, would that be a stronger argument for the origin of human-like social structures?

    • The same reply to my reply in the other article concerning the Odd Man Out game.
      Hierarchy in this case is presented as an incentive for coalition formation and maintenance, nothing more.
      The end.

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