Being Friendly May Help Monkeys Survive In Harsh Conditions
by Maia Brown-Jackson / June 27th 2013

That need most of us have to bond with others? The drive to maintain a semblance of social acceptability when we would rather hide under the blankets in ratty pajamas binge watching Netflix? Turns out, it’s not just good manners and a way to ensure regular showering — it may also be an evolutionary trait that helps us survive tough times. A study of Barbary macaques in Northern Morocco suggests that natural selection may favor the ability to make social connections.

The study was conducted following a particularly harsh winter during which snowfalls greatly reduced the food available to the monkeys. By the following spring, the harsh conditions found the population of 30 Barbary macaques reduced by nearly half. In an effort to learn what factors may have decided which macaques live and which died, scientists studying the endangered monkeys began examining data on the group from the six months prior. Their analysis, published this month in the journal Biology Letters, showed a correlation between social relationships and the ability to survive extreme conditions.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Lincoln, found that monkeys who had more positive relationships with other members of the group before the harsh winter were more likely than their less social peers to survive. Basically, being able to create and sustain relationships seems to be favored by natural selection, a fact demonstrated here by adorable monkeys. Don’t you love it when nature is so darn cute?

But the moral certitude of monkey survival may end there — exactly how having more friends increased survival rates remains unclear. One of the researchers involved in the study suggests that it was the number of relationships that were most important for survival (as opposed to their quality), as increased sociality could mean increased feeding tolerance and — adorably — their number of huddling partners on cold nights. That’s right — more friends means more cuddling, and more cuddling means a longer life.

Social scientists build case for ‘survival of the kindest’
by Yasmin Anwar, Media Relations | 08 December 2009

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are challenging long-held beliefs that human beings are wired to be selfish. In a wide range of studies, social scientists are amassing a growing body of evidence to show we are evolving to become more compassionate and collaborative in our quest to survive and thrive. In contrast to “every man for himself” interpretations of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley psychologist and author of “Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life,” and his fellow social scientists are building the case that humans are successful as a species precisely because of our nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits. They call it “survival of the kindest.”

“Because of our very vulnerable offspring, the fundamental task for human survival and gene replication is to take care of others,” said Keltner, co-director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. “Human beings have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacities to care for those in need and to cooperate. As Darwin long ago surmised, sympathy is our strongest instinct.”

Empathy in our genes
Keltner’s team is looking into how the human capacity to care and cooperate is wired into particular regions of the brain and nervous system. One recent study found compelling evidence that many of us are genetically predisposed to be empathetic. The study, led by UC Berkeley graduate student Laura Saslow and Sarina Rodrigues of Oregon State University, found that people with a particular variation of the oxytocin gene receptor are more adept at reading the emotional state of others, and get less stressed out under tense circumstances. Informally known as the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin is secreted into the bloodstream and the brain, where it promotes social interaction, nurturing and romantic love, among other functions. “The tendency to be more empathetic may be influenced by a single gene,” Rodrigues said.

The more you give, the more respect you get
While studies show that bonding and making social connections can make for a healthier, more meaningful life, the larger question some UC Berkeley researchers are asking is, “How do these traits ensure our survival and raise our status among our peers?” One answer, according to UC Berkeley social psychologist and sociologist Robb Willer is that the more generous we are, the more respect and influence we wield. In one recent study, Willer and his team gave participants each a modest amount of cash and directed them to play games of varying complexity that would benefit the “public good.” The results, published in the journal American Sociological Review, showed that participants who acted more generously received more gifts, respect and cooperation from their peers and wielded more influence over them. “The findings suggest that anyone who acts only in his or her narrow self-interest will be shunned, disrespected, even hated,” Willer said. “But those who behave generously with others are held in high esteem by their peers and thus rise in status. Given how much is to be gained through generosity, social scientists increasingly wonder less why people are ever generous and more why they are ever selfish,” he added.

Cultivating the greater good
Such results validate the findings of such “positive psychology” pioneers as Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania whose research in the early 1990s shifted away from mental illness and dysfunction, delving instead into the mysteries of human resilience and optimism. While much of the positive psychology being studied around the nation is focused on personal fulfillment and happiness, UC Berkeley researchers have narrowed their investigation into how it contributes to the greater societal good. One outcome is the campus’s Greater Good Science Center, a West Coast magnet for research on gratitude, compassion, altruism, awe and positive parenting, whose benefactors include the Metanexus Institute, Tom and Ruth Ann Hornaday and the Quality of Life Foundation.

Christine Carter, executive director of the Greater Good Science Center, is creator of the “Science for Raising Happy Kids” Web site, whose goal, among other things, is to assist in and promote the rearing of “emotionally literate” children. Carter translates rigorous research into practical parenting advice. She says many parents are turning away from materialistic or competitive activities, and rethinking what will bring their families true happiness and well-being. “I’ve found that parents who start consciously cultivating gratitude and generosity in their children quickly see how much happier and more resilient their children become,” said Carter, author of “Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents” which will be in bookstores in February 2010. “What is often surprising to parents is how much happier they themselves also become.”

The sympathetic touch
As for college-goers, UC Berkeley psychologist Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton has found that cross-racial and cross-ethnic friendships can improve the social and academic experience on campuses. In one set of findings, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he found that the cortisol levels of both white and Latino students dropped as they got to know each over a series of one-on-one get-togethers. Cortisol is a hormone triggered by stress and anxiety. Meanwhile, in their investigation of the neurobiological roots of positive emotions, Keltner and his team are zeroing in on the aforementioned oxytocin as well as the vagus nerve, a uniquely mammalian system that connects to all the body’s organs and regulates heart rate and breathing.

Both the vagus nerve and oxytocin play a role in communicating and calming. In one UC Berkeley study, for example, two people separated by a barrier took turns trying to communicate emotions to one another by touching one other through a hole in the barrier. For the most part, participants were able to successfully communicate sympathy, love and gratitude and even assuage major anxiety.

Researchers were able to see from activity in the threat response region of the brain that many of the female participants grew anxious as they waited to be touched. However, as soon as they felt a sympathetic touch, the vagus nerve was activated and oxytocin was released, calming them immediately. “Sympathy is indeed wired into our brains and bodies; and it spreads from one person to another through touch,” Keltner said. The same goes for smaller mammals. UC Berkeley psychologist Darlene Francis and Michael Meaney, a professor of biological psychiatry and neurology at McGill University, found that rat pups whose mothers licked, groomed and generally nurtured them showed reduced levels of stress hormones, including cortisol, and had generally more robust immune systems.

Overall, these and other findings at UC Berkeley challenge the assumption that nice guys finish last, and instead support the hypothesis that humans, if adequately nurtured and supported, tend to err on the side of compassion. “This new science of altruism and the physiological underpinnings of compassion is finally catching up with Darwin’s observations nearly 130 years ago, that sympathy is our strongest instinct,” Keltner said.

Darwin’s Touch: Survival of the Kindest
by Dacher Keltner / February 11, 2009

Two hundred years ago on February 12, Adam Gopnik writes in Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life, two pebbles — Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln — were dropped into the sea of life. Their ideas and forms of eloquence have redirected the currents of humanity. One current of Darwin’s thought is well-known. His theory of evolution by natural selection would require new genesis stories about the origins of life forms, less arrogant notions about man’s place in the great chain of being, and a rethinking of our species as one in flux—and with rather hairy relatives.

Less well-known is a second current of Darwin’s thought — his conception of human nature. Think of Darwin and “survival of the fittest” leaps to mind, as do images of competitive individuals — collections of selfish genes — going at one another bloody in tooth and claw. “Survival of the fittest” was not Darwin’s phrase, but Herbert Spencer’s and that of Social Darwinists who used Darwin to justify their wished-for superiority of different classes and races. “Survival of the kindest” better captures Darwin’s thinking about his own kind.

In Darwin’s first book about humans, The Descent of Man, and Selection In Relation to Sex from 1871, Darwin argued for “the greater strength of the social or maternal instincts than that of any other instinct or motive.” His reasoning was disarmingly intuitive: in our hominid predecessors, communities of more sympathetic individuals were more successful in raising healthier offspring to the age of viability and reproduction — the sine qua non of evolution. One year later, in The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, Darwin countered creationists’ claims that God had designed humans with special facial muscles to express uniquely human moral sentiments like sympathy. Instead, drawing upon observations of his children, animals at the London zoo, and his faithful dogs, Darwin showed how our moral sentiments are expressed in mammalian patterns of behavior. In his analysis of suffering, for example, Darwin builds from pure empirical observation to a radical conclusion: the oblique eyebrows, compressed lips, tears, and groans of human suffering have their parallels in the whining of monkeys and elephants’ tears. To be a mammal is to suffer. To be a mammal is to feel the strongest of Darwin’s instincts — sympathy.

The expression of sympathy, Darwin observed, was to be found in mammalian patterns of tactile contact. Inspired by this observation, Matthew Hertenstein and I conducted a recent study of emotion and touch that was as much a strange act of performance art as hardheaded science. Two participants, a toucher and touchee, sat on opposite sides of a barrier that we built in a laboratory room. They therefore could not see nor hear one another, and could only communicate via that five digit wonder, the hand, making contact on skin. The touchee bravely poked his or her arm through a curtain-covered opening in the barrier, and received 12 different touches to the forearm from the toucher, who in each instance was trying to communicate a different emotion. For each touch, the touchee guessed which emotion was being conveyed. With one second touches to the forearm, our participants could reliably communicate sympathy, love, and gratitude with rates of accuracy seven times as high as those produced by chance guessing.

Sympathetic touches are processed by receptors under the surface of the skin, and set in motion a cascade of beneficial physiological responses. In one recent study, female participants waiting anxiously for an electric shock showed activation in threat-related regions of the brain, a response quickly turned off when their hands were held by loved ones nearby. Friendly touch stimulates activation in the vagus nerve, a bundle of nerves in the chest that calms fight-or-flight cardiovascular response and triggers the release of oxytocin, which enables feelings of trust.

Research by Darlene Francis and Michael Meaney reveals that sympathetic environments — those filled with warm touch — create individuals better suited to survival and reproduction, as Darwin long ago surmised. Rat pups who receive high levels of tactile contact from their mothers — in the form of licking, grooming, and close bodily contact — later as mature rats show reduced levels of stress hormones in response to being restrained, explore novel environments with greater gusto, show fewer stress-related neurons in the brain, and have more robust immune systems. Were he alive today, Darwin would likely have found modest delight in seeing two of his hypotheses confirmed: sympathy is indeed wired into our brains and bodies; and it spreads from one person to another through touch. Darwin, the great fact amasser that he was, would no doubt have compiled these new findings on sympathy and touch in one of his many notebooks (now a folder on a laptop). He may have titled that folder “Survival of the kindest.”

Paul Ekman’s Taxonomy of Compassion
by Paul Ekman / June 21, 2010

Below is a guide to understanding what these varying forms of compassion are and why they’re so important.

Emotion Recognition is the easiest—the sine qua non. It’s knowing how another person is feeling. Most people don’t need to be taught it, though people with Asperger’s, autism, or schizoprenia do. Realize that the torturer needs emotion recognition: to know how you feel doesn’t imply whether I’m going to try to relieve your suffering or inflict it, or just have no concern. But if I don’t know how you’re feeling, everything else just falls by the wayside.

Emotional Resonance is what Bill Clinton does: “I feel your pain.” I distinguish between two types of resonance: Identical Resonance is when you realize that someone is in pain and you actually physically experience that same feeling yourself. But when you say, “Oh, you poor baby! I’m so sorry you’re feeling that way. What can I do to help you?”—that’s Reactive Resonance. Everybody loves people who resonate; resonance is crucial to our relationships with our loved ones. But if you’re like my daughter, an emergency room worker in San Francisco’s only trauma center, if you feel other people’s pain for 8 or 12 hours a day, you’ll burn out. The Dalai Lama says he feels others’ pain, but just very slightly and just for a few seconds, then it passes.
Not everyone resonates: There’s reason to believe that people with anti-social personalities don’t resonate, but they’re able to act as if they resonate, because they know other people like it, and that allows them to manipulate others.

Familial Compassion is the seed of compassion, planted through the caregiver-offspring bond. It raises very interesting questions about people who were brought up without a single caregiver, or were brought up with a parent who had a very distant attachment. What is their capacity for compassion? Both the Dalai Lama and Darwin would say that they’re going to have problems—without the seed, the flower won’t grow.

Global Compassion was exemplified by the response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. People around the world extended assistance to strangers, of different races and skin colors. Now, we know that not everybody has it—a lot of people acted, and a lot of people didn’t. How do we cultivate global compassion? I consider this one of the most crucial questions for the survival of our children and grandchildren, because the planet won’t survive without global compassion. We’ve got to try to see what we can learn from those who have it without training.

Sentient Compassion is when you extend feelings of compassion toward cockroaches, toward any living being. We don’t know whether people who have global compassion have sentient compassion. But my hunch is that if you’ve got sentient, you’ve got global. The Dalai Lama and Darwin agree that sentient is the highest moral virtue.

Heroic Compassion is like altruism with a risk. It has two forms: Immediate Heroic Compassion is when, without thought, you jump onto the subway tracks to rescue someone. It’s impulsive. Considered Heroic Compassion isn’t done impulsively; it’s done with thought, and it can be maintained for many years. Kristen Monroe, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine, has done a study of people with heroic compassion, and here are her criteria for it: 1) you must act—not just think about how good it would be to act; 2) your goal is the welfare of the other person; 3) your action has consequences for that person; 4) there’s a good possibility your actions will diminish your own welfare—you’re putting yourself at risk; 5) and you have no anticipation of reward or recognition.

The mathematics of being nice
by Michael Marshall / 21 March 2011

Using mathematics to tackle some of biology’s biggest questions, Martin Nowak has concluded that an ability to cooperate is the secret of humanity’s success. He talks to Michael Marshallabout drawing fire from Richard Dawkins, the perils of punishment, and devising the mathematical equivalent of the rules of religion

Q. Why are you so fascinated by our ability to help each other out?
A. Cooperation is interesting because it essentially means that you help someone else, someone who is a potential competitor. You reduce your own success in order to increase the success of somebody else. Why should you do that? Why should natural selection favour such behaviour? To answer these questions I use evolutionary dynamics, evolutionary game theory and experimental tests of human behaviour.

Q. You say there are five different ways in which we cooperate that give us an edge, in terms of natural selection. Tell me about them.
A. The first one is called direct reciprocity. This is when individuals have repeated interactions, so if I help you now, you may help me later. There is also indirect reciprocity, which takes place in groups. If I help you, somebody else might see our interaction and conclude that I’m a helpful person, and help me later. That’s a reciprocal process relying on reputation. The third mechanism is when neighbours help each other – cooperators survive in clusters. This is called spatial selection, and it plays an important role, not only for people but for bacteria, animals and plants. Then there is group selection: it may be that our group of cooperators is better off than another group of defectors: here selection acts on two levels, because in our group there is more cooperation.

Q. Group selection has had a tricky reputation, and has been attacked by evolutionary biologists. Do you think it has now been rehabilitated?
A. The introduction of the concept of group selection, some 40 years ago, was imprecise. But recent mathematical models explain very clearly when group selection can promote the evolution of cooperation. There must be competition between groups and migration rates should be low.

Q. Unless I’ve lost count, there should be one mechanism left.
A. The last one is kin selection, which can occur when you help a close relative.

Q. You published a paper on kin selection last year that caused a bit of controversy.
A. I have no problem with kin selection when it is properly formulated. My criticism is directed against the current use of inclusive fitness theory, which is the dominant mathematical approach used to study aspects of kin selection.

Q. Can you explain?
A. Inclusive fitness theory assumes that the personal fitness of an individual can be partitioned into components caused by individual actions. This restrictive assumption implies that inclusive fitness theory is a limited approach that cannot be used to describe typical situations that arise in social evolution. The standard theory of natural selection does not make such a limiting assumption. In that recent paper we showed that inclusive fitness theory is a subset of the standard theory.

Q. Inclusive fitness is a key concept of evolutionary biology. No wonder that many biologists, including Richard Dawkins, reacted negatively when you attacked it (New Scientist, 2 October 2010, p 8). Do you think people are now coming around to it?
A. I feel that it is beginning to be appreciated. I would say the negative response rests on a misinterpretation of the paper. People think that we are saying relatedness is unimportant, but this is not at all what we said. People who are open-minded are beginning to realise that the results of our paper are beautiful: simple mathematical models based on standard natural selection are sufficient to explain the evolution of eusociality or other phenomena in social evolution. The strange mathematical contortions of inclusive fitness theory are unnecessary. In other words if you are interested in a mathematical description of evolution, a situation can never arise in which you would need an inclusive fitness approach.

Q. You have also been involved in some other big debates. Can you tell me about your work on punishment?
A. Many people feel that punishment is a good thing, that it leads to human cooperation. So their idea is that unless you cooperate with me, I punish you. It might even cost me something to punish you, but I do it because I want to teach you a lesson. One cannot deny that punishment is an important component of human behaviour, but I am sceptical about the idea that it’s a positive component. I have analysed the role of punishment using mathematics and experiments. I think that most uses of punishment are very much for selfish interests, such as defending your position in the group. Punishment leads to retaliation and vendettas. It’s very rare that punishment is used nobly.

Q. Over the years you’ve applied mathematics to a lot of different areas of biology. Is it your aim to put the whole field on a mathematical footing?
A. Yes. It has happened in many disciplines of science. It’s a kind of maturation process. Without a mathematical description, we can get a rough handle on a phenomenon but we can’t fully understand it. In physics, that’s completely clear. You don’t just talk about gravity, you quantify your description of it. The beautiful thing about mathematics is that it can decide an argument. Some things are fiercely debated for years, but with mathematics the issues become clear.

Q. Unlike most evolutionary biologists, you are religious. Do you think it is a problem for the public perception of evolution that it is seen as supporting atheism?
A. In my opinion, a purely scientific interpretation of evolution does not generate an argument in favour of atheism. Science does not disprove God or replace religion. Evolution is not an argument against God, any more than gravity is. Evolution explains the unfolding of life on Earth. The God of Christianity is “that without which there would be no evolution at all”.

Q. So how do you see religion?
A. I see the teachings of world religions as an analysis of human life and an attempt to help. They intend to promote unselfish behaviour, love and forgiveness. When you look at mathematical models for the evolution of cooperation you also find that winning strategies must be generous, hopeful and forgiving. In a sense, the world’s religions hit on these ideas first, thousands of years ago. Now, for the first time, we can see these ideas in terms of mathematics. Who would have thought that you could prove mathematically that, in a world where everybody is out for himself, the winning strategy is to be forgiving, and that those who cannot forgive can never win?

Q. Do you feel isolated from other evolutionary biologists because of your religious beliefs?
A. No, I don’t think it’s an issue. I once had a great discussion with another biologist about science and religion. He was deeply religious. Two weeks later I read that he had been made head of the US National Institutes of Health. He is Francis Collins.

{Martin Nowak is professor of mathematics and biology at Harvard University. He has a PhD from the University of Vienna, Austria, became professor of theoretical biology at the University of Oxford aged 32, then moved to Princeton University and later to Harvard. His book SuperCooperators: Altruism, evolution, and why we need each other to succeed, co-authored with Roger HighfieldNew Scientist‘s editor, is out this month.}

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